1980s ‘Classics’ I Never Need To Hear Again (AKA The Bland Files)

Noel Coward famously noted the strange potency of ‘cheap’ music. There was certainly a lot of cheap, potent music around in the 1980s.

But as the nostalgia industry has grown, so has the dossier of seemingly ‘untouchable’ ’80s pop songs, tracks that are staples of daytime radio but, to many ears, lack distinctive grooves, beguiling melodies or interesting hooks.

If you were being cruel, you might say it’s music for people who don’t really like music. And, weirdly, it mostly comes from established, experienced campaigners who have a lot of other strings to their bow. But we only ever seem to hear one or two of their songs.

Here are those overplayed tracks that always have me reaching for the ‘off’ switch but have retained a weird grip on radio programmers for over 30 years. We consign them to Room 101, here and now, never to be heard again…

Dire Straits: ‘Walk Of Life’, ‘Money For Nothing’

Yazz: ‘The Only Way Is Up’

King: ‘Love And Pride’

Whitney Houston: ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

Tina Turner: ‘Simply The Best’

The Beautiful South: ‘Song For Whoever’

Spandau Ballet: ‘Through The Barricades’

Sade: ‘Your Love Is King’/’Smooth Operator’

Steve Winwood: ‘Higher Love’

Mike And The Mechanics: ‘The Living Years’

Anything by Fleetwood Mac

The Cars: ‘Drive’

Mental As Anything: ‘Live It Up’

Soul 2 Soul: ‘Back To Life’

Anything by U2 apart from ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love’)’ or ‘The Unforgettable Fire’

Cyndi Lauper: ‘Time After Time’

Depeche Mode: ‘Personal Jesus’

Talking Heads: ‘Road To Nowhere’

Tracy Chapman: ‘Fast Car’

Anything by Tom Petty

Simply Red: ‘Holding Back The Years’

Prince: ‘When Doves Cry’

Womack & Womack: ‘Teardrops’

Anything by Duran Duran except ‘Notorious’ or ‘Skin Trade’

Anything by Bon Jovi

Culture Club: ‘Karma Chameleon’

Anything by Pet Shop Boys except ‘Suburbia’

Story Of A Song: Iggy Pop’s ‘Play It Safe’

Soldier, released 40 years ago this month, was seen by Iggy’s paymasters Arista as a great opportunity for mainstream acceptance.

The Idiot and Lust For Life were now distant memories, and the label’s new head of A&R Tarquin Gotch and big boss Clive Davis were ‘taking an interest’, in Coen Brothers-speak a la ‘Barton Fink’.

As band (including ex-Pistol Glen Matlock and ex-XTC keyboard man Barry Andrews) and crew assembled at the legendary/infamous Rockfield Studios in south Wales, producer and fellow ex-Stooge James Williamson was feeling the pressure, apparently at times brandishing a bottle of vodka in one hand and loaded pistol in the other.

The Soldier sessions were long and laborious. No-one seemed to be steering the ship. Iggy was bored, brooding in deepest Monmouthshire. Then, one night, the proverbial saloon doors swung open and David Bowie swanned in with trusty assistant Coco Schwab. The mood changed instantly. Iggy lightened up and the old megawatt smile returned.

Around the dinner table, Bowie told the story of John Bindon, friend of the Krays, one-time Led Zeppelin bodyguard, part-time actor, alleged lover of Princess Margaret and possessor – also allegedly – of an unnaturally large appendage.

Iggy was fired up. Next morning, he and Bowie jumped into the studio and cooked up an ironic rumination on the lure of the criminal world, with some choice quotes lifted almost verbatim from Bowie’s monologue. Originally titled ‘I Wanna Be A Criminal’, it featured a classic Bowie descending chord sequence, icy synths and a superb vocal from Iggy.

Fellow Arista signings Simple Minds, hard at work recording their album Reel To Reel Cacophony in the studio next door, were enlisted to provide amusing faux-Cockney backing vocals (you can also hear Bowie over the talkback mic at the song’s outset).

Some of the more libellous words about Bindon and Princess Margaret were later excised (Bowie apparently sidled up to Iggy at New York’s Mudd Club in early 1980 and begged him not to include them) and the song was finally released as ‘Play It Safe’, possibly Iggy’s self-conscious comment on his loss of nerve. But he still mustered a brilliantly insane ad-lib towards the end:

Rockin’ and reelin’ like Al Capone
Slippin’ and slidin’ like Joey Gallo
Movin’ and groovin’ with the Son Of Sam
Splish splash, I was Jim Jones!

Bowie had once again inspired his friend to create some of his best – if hardly commercial – work, and the best track on Soldier (though I also have a real soft spot for ‘I’m A Conservative’). The album stalled at #62 in the UK chart and made a one-week appearance at #126 in the US, hardly a success in terms of making Iggy a mainstream concern. He stuck around on Arista for one more record, the forgettable Party.

Predictably, it was Bowie who would again inspire Iggy four years later to create his most effective album of the 1980s: Blah-Blah-Blah.

ECM to Electro: New ’80s Playlists

Check out some brand new, specially-curated movingtheriver.com playlists on Spotify.

Nothing if not ambitious (and eclectic), the ultimate aim is to create a near-complete guide to 1980s music, genre by genre… And we’ll need your assistance from time to time too.

The first batch of five playlists showcases some great singles of the 1980s, classic new age and ambient sounds, a selection of electro/breakdance bangers and choice ’80s cuts from iconic jazz label ECM.

You can find them all on the new Playlists page, and I’ll be updating it regularly. Happy listening…

 

 

18 Memorable TV Ads Of The 1980s

The British film industry struggled during the ’80s. But at least we made good ads…

Brands were forking out big money for TV spots. ‘Celebrities’ frequently appeared and esteemed directors (Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson, Roland Joffe) were occasionally at the helm. Even Ken Loach, down on his uppers, got in on the act (see below).

To some, the proliferation of well-made TV ads was a sure sign of a nation in fine health. To others, it was just another ugly symbol of the Thatcherite dream, corporate capitalism running riot in the most divisive of decades (yes, including the one just gone…). Bruce Robinson, for one, was in the latter camp – he spent the entire length of his 1988 movie ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’ decrying the industry.

But here are some ads that remain totally fresh in the mind. On viewing them for the first time in 30 years, almost all raised a titter of familiarity – pure comfort viewing. Maybe it’s the soft-focus tint of nostalgia, but don’t they seem warmer, more imaginative, less desperate for your attention than the current crop? Or did they bring to bear all the evils of corporate ‘storytelling’ for the first time? Over to you…

18. The Guardian: ‘Points Of View’ (1986, directed by Ken Loach)

17. Clorets: ‘Security Guards’ (1989)

16. Maxell: ‘Break The Sound Barrier’ (1984)

15. Ready Brek: ‘Central Heating’ (1982)

14. BT: ‘Ology’ (1988)

13. The Milk Board: ‘Accrington Stanley’ (1988)

12. Tunes: ‘Return To Nottingham’ (1985)

11. Yellow Pages: ‘Bike’ (1985)

10. Yellow Pages: ‘JR Hartley’ (1983)

9. Yellow Pages: ‘Train Set’ (1985)

8. Shake ‘n’ Vac (1980)

7. BA: Club World (1987)

6. Toshiba: ‘Hello Tosh’ (1985)

5. Big Track (1980)

4. Hamlet: ‘Photo Booth’ (1987)

3. Heineken: ‘Water In Majorca’ (1988)

2. R Whites Lemonade (1980)

1. Quatro (1985)

Prince: Dirty Mind/Controversy

Picture the scene: It’s August 1980 at Warner Bros Records’ Los Angeles HQ. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli is playing the suits his charge’s new demos.

Both the artist and his manager want to release these rough recordings as the next album.

Fargnoli hits the play button, and these lyrics crawl out over a peppy – but distinctly lo-fi – new-wave groove:

I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse
My sister was thirty-two, lovely and loose
She don’t wear no underwear
She says it only gets in her hair…

Major labels often – quite rightly – take a lot of flak, but Warner Bros deserves credit for taking on Dirty Mind (released 8th October 1980) and Controversy (released 14th October 1981). It was a brave move by Prince too, an incredible volte face after it looked like he might be going down a big-budget, soft-rock/disco rabbit hole. Just compare the Prince and Dirty Mind covers: it was definitely one in the eye for Reagan’s new, ultra-conservative regime.

I first heard these albums circa 1988 via a compilation tape made by my schoolfriend Seb. I already knew and loved Parade and Sign O’ The Times but these older songs sounded like they’d been sent down from a different planet. I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics in those days but sensed something very odd going on.

In the Dirty Mind/Controversy era, Prince’s main modus operandi seems to be: shock at all costs. It’s a novel approach, because if he can express himself completely freely, and then deliver such a classic, ‘throwaway’ rock song like ‘When You Were Mine’, you never know what’s going to come next. Cue a long, great career.

Recorded very quickly during summer 1980 at his rather ramshackle home studio in Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis (the drum kit apparently sat in a puddle of water surrounded by sand bags), Dirty Mind has more in common with the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Cars than it does Earth, Wind & Fire or REO Speedwagon.

It’s nasty, brutish and short. And of course what struck me listening to it again after five or six years, it’s remarkably stripped down compared to a great deal of modern music – hardly surprising when nearly all the noises are made by Prince. Only ‘Head’, ‘Partyup’ and ‘Uptown’ outstay their welcome, underwhelming grooves with slight vocal performances (though the former became a great live track).

Vinyl is back in vogue big-time, and my old LP version of Controversy sounds absolutely great. Of course it helps that the album’s only 37 minutes long, and also there’s a lot more bottom-end this time.

On a decent turntable, various details emerge like the scuzzy synth bass escaping from the left channel during the Lord’s Prayer on the title track (can you guess it’s a Prince album yet?!) and some low-octave backing vocals throughout.

It’s also a totally schizophrenic album again, with the title track and ‘Sexuality’ laying down a kind of free-love/free-speech manifesto, two rockabilly tunes (one a message to Reagan), a graphic seduction ballad and synthetic funk tune (‘Private Joy’) which marks Prince’s first use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

Weirdly, none of these songs made the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. But they still sound totally fresh, especially the unclassifiable stuff like ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Annie Christian’, ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’.

Prince toured Dirty Mind and Controversy extensively, and there were three particularly infamous gigs during the period: his London debut at The Lyceum on 2nd June 1981 and the two shows supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on 9th and 11th October 1981.  Were you at any of them? Let us know your memories.

Bireli Lagrene on Blue Note: Inferno/Foreign Affairs

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.

He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.

The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing. Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.

But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement. I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…

There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’). And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.

Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor. Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.

Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’). The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.

Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album. It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.