The Worst Album Covers Of The 1980s

Is there some sort of secret visual formula for the album cover that almost forces people to part with their moolah, encouraging buyers of all generations, all social demographics?

Can a terrible album have brilliant artwork? Can a brilliant album have terrible artwork? So many questions, so little time. Someone somewhere must have researched which colours and designs have proved the most successful in terms of sales.

But hell, it’s hard to believe that any of the below would have been cooked up in any kind of corporate brainstorming or focus-group session. Here’s a motley selection of the 1980s’ most ill-advised album covers, in no particular order. Some are crushingly sexist, some boring, some ugly, some shocking, some just plain weird. And OK, a few are so bad they’re almost good…

17. Ratt: Out Of The Cellar (1984)

16. Poison: Open Up And Say…Ahh! (1984)

15. Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983)

14. Paul McCartney: McCartney II (1980)

13. Millie Jackson: Back To The S**t! (1985)

12. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane (1988)

11. Ted Nugent: Scream Dream (1980)

10. Everything But The Girl: Eden (1984)

9. Loverboy: Get Lucky (1981)

8. OMD: Architecture & Morality (1981)

7. Snatch: If The Party’s In Your Mouth, We’re Comin’ (1985)

6. Jeff Beck: There And Back (1980)

5. Scorpions: Animal Magnetism (1980)

4. David Hasselhoff: Night Rocker (1985)

3. Love And Money: Strange Kind Of Love (1988)

2. The The: Infected (1985)

1. Dexys Midnight Runners: Don’t Stand Me Down (1985)

Can’t see your worst album cover of the ’80s? If so, pile in below…

Talking Heads Part One (1980/1981): Reagan, Ghosts & Listening Winds

For many Americans, 1980 hoped to offer a break from the recent past: the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, a major recession. Disco.

A Presidential Election was also pending in November. At the beginning of the year, Jimmy Carter stood at 62% in the polls, Ronald Reagan at 33.

Reagan promised to return America to a pre-countercultural era, prioritising family values and social order. He courted the Fundamentalist vote; evangelists and motivational speakers suddenly popped up all over the radio.

Something pinged in David Byrne’s head, and he later outlined the febrile atmosphere of early 1980 in Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Totally Wired’: ‘The text was saying “Thou shalt not” but the preacher’s performance was this completely sensual, sexual thing. I thought, “This is great – the whole conflict is embodied right there…”’

Byrne and Brian Eno explored some of these themes on their groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (named after the 1954 book by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola) with a particular emphasis on Islam and its contrasts with Christianity.

The project was originally supposed to be a three-way collaboration between Jon Hassell, Eno and Byrne, a fake ‘field work’ complete with ethnography, liner notes and photos, but Hassell dropped out at the eleventh hour. The album is strikingly original, still relevant and sometimes terrifying.

A month before the Presidential Election, on 8 October 1980, Talking Heads released their masterpiece Remain In Light, also a collaboration with Eno. The album’s key tracks, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Listening Wind’, went even further than Bush Of Ghosts: the former showed that Byrne had completely assimilated the ‘sensual preacher’ persona, while the latter outlined a young Arab’s act of terror.

Mojique resents the rich ‘foreigners in fancy houses’ turning up in his country, makes a bomb ‘with quivering hands’ and dispatches it to his American enemy. It’s a unique, powerful piece of work, and one wonders whether its inclusion on Remain In Light contributed to the album being their worst-ever seller in the USA.

Reagan was elected on 4 November 1980 with 50.7% of the national vote. His famous Election Eve speech mentioned ‘that shining city on the hill’, invoking both Jesus’s Sermon On The Mount and noted Puritan John Winthrop. But Byrne’s New York had been under the cosh: more murders, robberies, burglaries and subway breakdowns were reported in 1980 than in any other year since records began 49 years earlier.

Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was finally released – after several postponements – almost exactly a month later.

Further reading: ‘Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor’ by Tim Lawrence

The Yacht Rock Revolution (1980-1983)

Say ‘fusion’ to most music fans and it’s the classic early-‘70s jazz/rock of Miles or The Mahavishnu Orchestra that would probably come to mind.

But a decade later another kind of fusion was taking place, a mainly-American sound that drew on influences from R’n’B, jazz, pop, funk, AOR and MOR.

Yacht Rock was upwardly-mobile, multi-layered, widescreen, moneyed, beautifully-produced music, usually involving a string section and/or horns, generally West Coast-originated, driven by the lush production style of the time and effortless brilliance of the musicians involved.

The Yacht House Band generally centred around a few key members of the band Toto: Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on keyboards and Steve Lukather on guitar. You’d also have to factor in guitarists Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, keyboard players David Foster, Michael Omartian, Robbie Buchanan and Greg Phillinganes, drummers John ‘JR’ Robinson and Steve Gadd, bassists Louis Johnson and Abe Laboriel, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, horn arranger Jerry Hey, string arranger Johnny Mandel and a whole host more.

These were the greatest ‘rock’ musicians in the world, brought up on The Beatles, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Miles, McLaughlin and James Brown, making up their parts on the spot with the studio meter running, embellishing the basic chord changes with their own unique feel and voicings and bringing to life jazz-influenced compositions by some of the great songwriters of that or any other era: Kenny Loggins, Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager, Rod Temperton, Fagen and Becker, David Foster, Jay Graydon et al.

All kinds of singers got sucked in to this vibe, dialling down the operatics and dialling up the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing: George Benson, Patti Labelle, Michael Franks, Randy Crawford, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, Leon Ware, Lionel Richie. Even a few Brits got onboard – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Carrie’ are great stabs at the sound.

With a few notable exceptions, it was all over by 1984. The technology started running the show. Everyone was looking for the right drum machine, budgets were slashed and the great session musicians moved into production and songwriting. Stanley Clarke/George Duke’s heroic ‘Atlanta’ was somewhat of a finale for this kind of music; it’s quite affecting in a way.

Of course this stuff is way too laidback for some, the sound of clock-watching session musicians producing aural cotton candy, too close to muzak for comfort. It would be totally understandable to reach for the Throbbing Gristle after a while. But if it’s your bag you can really get lost in it – it’s pure comfort music, and brilliant for headphones.

Here’s a selection of the finest 1980s Yacht Rock artefacts for your listening pleasure. Ahoy there mateys, and wishing you a smooth sail.

Dedicated to James Broad.

Harold Pinter @ 90, The Caretaker @ 60

Playwright, actor, activist and poet Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve 2008, would have been 90 years old today. I couldn’t let 2020 pass without marking that fact and celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Caretaker’.

When I started my English Literature ‘A’ Level at the very end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Ayckbourn, mostly on school trips. Nothing really hit home. But then my excellent teacher Hugh Epstein introduced us to ‘The Caretaker’.

Needless to say, it was like no other play I’d read before. This was the language of the West London streets that I knew. It covered very familiar territory in terms of its themes too. Pinter’s legendary, hilarious piss-taking was evident from early on – mainly courtesy of the Mick character – but there was something else coming through loud and clear, something heroic, empathetic, charitable, even noble. I was gripped and it began a love affair with Pinter’s work that has lasted almost 30 years.

‘The Caretaker’ premiered on 27 April 1960 at The Arts Theatre in London, and starred Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe. It was a big hit, Pinter’s breakthrough play after a difficult experience with ‘The Birthday Party’. An excellent movie, starring Pleasence, Bates and Robert Shaw, was made in 1963, shot in Hackney and adapted by Pinter himself.

There are so many other great London Pinter memories, many involving his acting performances in his own plays: ‘No Man’s Land’ at The Almeida, ‘The Collection’ and ‘The Hothouse’ at the Richmond Theatre. Also Ian Holm in ‘Moonlight’ at The Comedy Theatre and Michael Gambon’s turn as Davies in ‘The Caretaker’ at the same venue.

Of course he wasn’t only a playwright, actor and poet. A cursory look at his public appearances now – especially those in the last 20 years of his life, when he received the Nobel Prize In Literature and spoke passionately at various rallies – suggests that there are very few public figures around these days with his kind of gravitas. He was known to be prickly – aren’t we all – but also exceptionally generous, as he was to this writer.

He’s much missed. Happy birthday Harold. And enormous thanks to Hugh Epstein who brought ‘The Caretaker’ to life.

Further reading: George Cole’s Betrayed: The Story Of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

Mark Batty’s About Pinter

Michael Billington’s The Life And Work Of Harold Pinter

Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies. But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big. Or to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story – firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Stones in Los Angeles. There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t even mentioned. It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often interesting and original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Ulrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.