Where ’80s Pop Went Wrong (In Five Songs)

screaming-man-with-headphonesAt some point in the ’80s pop parade, the subtle became bloated, the charmingly-naive became coarse and the modest became overblown. As the decade’s greats and not-so-greats limbered up for Live Aid, artistic judgement started getting skewed, recording budgets sky-rocketed and egos rampaged out of control. And the blueprints were drawn up for pop travesties of the future. 

We present, in chronological order, the five singles which illustrate exactly where things went wrong in ’80s pop. (How the hell could Nile Rodgers have produced two of these?! Ed.)

duran_duran_15. Duran Duran: Wild Boys

Released 26 October 1984

The sound of money. And not in a good way. Aiming for a Frankie Goes To Hollywood-style sex-groove, the dandy Brummies contrive to create a ramshackle piece of over-produced, under-performed pub-funk. Nick Rhodes plays like he’s just been taught a few minor chords and Le Bon’s vocal is consistently just out of tune (why didn’t they change the song’s key before recording?). And we haven’t even got to the drummer’s ‘solo’ yet… Even Nile’s production can’t save this one.

thompson_twins4. Thompson Twins: Revolution

Released 29th November 1985

This was the worst song performed during Live Aid. And that’s really saying something. It’s murder, sacrilege, an aural travesty. It’s even worse than Paul Young’s version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Tom Bailey delivers the lyrics like a sozzled Stoke middle manager on karaoke night. Guitars are ladled on willy-nilly and multiple percussion effects merely serve to drive one to distraction. A triumph of vapid tastelessness.

The+Police3. The Police: Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86

Released October 1986

A weary exercise in career suicide and musical emasculation. Copeland phones in his drum pattern (he broke a collarbone just before the recording), barely touching the kit save for a few desultory taps on the ride cymbal. Summers’ once-vibrant, nuanced sound has become a post-Edge blur. Sting’s considerable bass skills are booted into touch in favour of a crude, mushy-sounding sample. Depressing synths chart the chord changes like clouds eclipsing the sun while Mr Sumner succeeds in removing all emotion from his vocal. ‘Dark’ doesn’t begin to cover it. Why why why?

u22. U2: With Or Without You

Released 21st March 1987

The barely-scanning, bet-hedging lyric (‘You give yourself away’? How? With your eyes, your body? Something you said? What, what?!) aims for a kind of Bowie/Ferry mystique but is basically meaningless and the precursor to all those Snow Patrol/Coldplay list songs that crowbar in increasingly-inane words to fit a flimsy melody. Adam Clayton’s remedial bassline, badly played at that, slavishly outlines a dull chord sequence which should never have left the rehearsal room. Bono attempts the first verse in a sub-Bowie croon, but you can tell he’s just itching to hike it up an octave. And when he does it’s no better than Tony Hadley. The song runs out of steam at around the three-minute mark but then aimlessly drags on for another two minutes in the vain search for ‘dynamics’.

MICHAEL-JACKSON-michael-jackson-10317030-1082-12631. Michael Jackson: Bad

Released 7th September 1987

Where to begin? The crude, obviously looped bass vamp (close listening reveals the ‘joins’ at the beginning of every two bars); poor Michael’s adolescent lyrics displaying a wronged teenager’s obsession with point-scoring and fisticuffs, a videogamer’s take on violence; a poor verse melody which never engages followed by the endless repetition of a weirdly unmemorable chorus; Quincy Jones trying to throw a ‘Beat It’-style curveball by getting jazz legend Jimmy Smith in for a Hammond organ solo which barely registers… Michael’s vocals are beautiful and powerful but comparing this track to almost anything on Thriller reveals a sad indictment of late-’80s pop.

Disagree? Thought so. Over to you…

Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair: 30 Years Old Today

tears-for-fears-songs-from-the-big-chairPhonogram/Mercury Records, released 25th February 1985

Recorded at The Wool Hall, Beckington, Somerset, and the Hammersmith Odeon, London

Produced by Chris Hughes

Peaked at #2 in the UK album chart

Remained in the UK Top 10 for over six months and the Top 40 for over a year

Reached #1 in the US album charts

Bassist/singer/co-writer Curt Smith explained the album’s title in a 1985 interview:

“The title was my idea. It’s a bit perverse but then you’ve got to understand our sense of humour. The ‘Big Chair’ idea is from this brilliant film called Sybil about a girl with 16 different personalities. She’d been tortured incredibly by her mother as a child and the only place she felt safe, the only time she could really be herself was when she was sitting in her analyst’s chair. She felt safe, comfortable and wasn’t using her different faces as a defence. It’s kind of an ‘up yours’ to the English music press who really fucked us up for a while. This is us now – and they can’t get at us anymore…”

NYC Odyssey: Nile Rodgers’ Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove

nile rodgers

Mirage/Atlantic Records, released March 1983

9/10

New York City, autumn 1982. The Big Apple music scene is in a period of transition. New Wave and No Wave have been replaced by Mutant Disco and Punk/Funk, Madonna is planning her assault on the charts in dance studios and rehearsal rooms around Manhattan, major record labels are flirting with the harmolodic jazz/rock/funk of James Blood Ulmer, Miles Davis’s comeback is getting into its stride despite his continuing ill health and Hip-Hop is flourishing into a fully-fledged movement.

Meanwhile, Nile Rodgers is reaching a crossroads. Confidence is low; his band Chic have seemingly become passé (a very Chic word) with recent albums Tongue In Chic and Take It Off failing to set the charts alight. They are still seen as a disco act even though their music increasingly embraces jazz, funk, R’n’B and even early hip-hop.

NileRodgers-AdventuresInTheLandLPba

The good news is that Rodgers has been given the green light to make his first solo album. But Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is not the record Chic fans are expecting from him. No female singers are featured (apart from a brief appearance by ex-Supremes/Labelle vocalist Sarah Dash) and the Chic rhythm section Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson only appear on three tracks out of eight.

The album sounds far more stripped down than Chic, relying heavily on early drum machines, Rodgers’ guitar playing and his surprisingly effective, relatively downbeat vocals. Lyrically, the album focuses on debauched NYC nightlife rather than the faded glamour of the Chic aesthetic.

But there are many treats inside. I loved this album from the day my dad played it to me in the mid-’80s. I came to it completely fresh; I’d never heard Chic before. But I possibly recognised something of Nile’s soundworld from Bowie’s Let’s Dance album which everyone dug.

I think of Rodgers as something akin to the Thelonious Monk of funk – he’s almost gregarious in his desire to entertain (to quote Gary Giddins). He took the James Brown rhythm method and added jazz harmony and contemporary technology to create some of the great music of the ’80s.

‘Rock Bottom’ puts dark lyrics to a burning funk/rock groove complete with one of Edwards’ finest basslines and a raucous Rodgers guitar solo that gives Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money (and pre-empts Vaughan’s playing on Let’s Dance).

‘My Love Song For You’ is the aforementioned duet with Sarah Dash, a classic Rodgers slow-burn ballad with jazzy chord changes, some almost Ellingtonian piano by Raymond Jones and a tantalising middle eight. The title track, ‘Yum Yum’, ‘Most Down’ and ‘Get Her Crazy’ are glorious Afro-funk chants with inventive back-up vocals by the Simms brothers and some typically slamming Rodgers guitar.

Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is a fascinating companion piece to Let’s Dance, though Rodgers claims in his book ‘Le Freak’ that on completion he immediately knew it was a ‘flop’, neither commercial nor innovative enough to make an impact. Bowie disagreed. Smash Hits magazine did too; they gave it a 10/10 review!

Certainly it may seem uncommercial compared to Chic smashes like ‘Good Times’ and ‘Le Freak’ but tracks like ‘Yum Yum’ and ‘Most Down’ surely wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Black stations of the early ’80s that were playing Prince, The Time or Zapp.

Nile released one more solo album in the ’80s, the intermittently effective B-Movie Matinee, but it lacked the minimalist power of the underrated AITLOTGG. It’s long overdue a reassessment.

Genesis On Speed: It Bites’ The Big Lad In The Windmill

 

It+Bites+The+Big+Lad+In+The+Windmill+452664Virgin Records, released March 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988?

8/10

In the slipstream of Live Aid, when Stock, Aitken and Waterman ruled the charts, house and techno were warming up and ‘indie’ (Housemartins, Smiths, Cure) was thriving, this gifted pop/prog four-piece from Cumbria crept under the radar and even managed to secure a big hit with their second single ‘Calling All The Heroes’.

It Bites wore their deeply unfashionable (in the mid-‘80s) influences right on their sleeve – Gabriel-era Genesis, Led Zep, Weather Report, Yes, Japan – but somehow mixed them all up to create an excellent debut and minor hit album.

My mate Nige and I loved The Big Lad. The soundtrack to our after-school games of pool would either be Sting’s Bring On The Night or this, and I quickly grew to love its pristine production, challenging song structures, brilliant guitar playing and cool chord sequences. As a teenager, I’d listen to it on my Walkman very loudly while studying the enigmatic cover art or reading Stephen King’s Christine… What larks.

it-bites-the-big-lad-in-the-windmill-1986

Singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery once labelled The Big Lad ‘nutter’s music’, an apt description when you listen to songs like ‘Turn Me Loose’ and ‘I Got You’ which are almost pop but then pull the carpet from under your feet with bizarre, brilliant, extravagant middle sections and Dunnery’s off-mic vocal histrionics.

It Bites’ early career as a souped-up pop covers band has served them well – melody and groove are their priorities, and they were always a superb live act.

Dunnery was (and is) also a very underrated Brit guitar hero whose playing could consistently deliver the sound of surprise with fluid legato, furious speed picking, dissonant intervals and whammy-bar abandon. His solo on ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ is a thrilling marriage of Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin and one of the great bits of over-the-top playing in Brit Rock, and he also delivered marvellously insane breaks on the Michael Jackson-meets-Duran Duran ‘Wanna Shout’ and barmy soft-rock ballad ‘Cold, Tired and Hungry’. Also worth checking out is B-side ‘Strange But True’ which, in its full version, becomes a vehicle for Dunnery’s increasingly demented solos.

‘Calling All The Heroes’ is actually a pretty good distillation of It Bites’ sound with Bob Dalton’s huge gated drums and ingenious ‘reverse’ tom fills, Dunnery’s yelping vocals and excellent melodies, John Beck’s intricate keyboards and Dick Nolan’s super-tight bass playing. It was their only big hit though; other singles ‘All In Red’ and ‘Whole New World’ were catchy pop tunes with interesting instrumental flourishes and inventive vocal harmonies but neither troubled the charts.

itbites

The NME and Melody Maker virtually ignored It Bites at the time, as did Kerrang!, Q and Sounds. If they did get a mention, it was generally to mock their unfashionably-superb musicianship or lack of London street-cred. I remember Dunnery making an emotional pre-song announcement onstage at a London Astoria gig in 1988 which went something like: ‘This is dedicated to all of you critics out there who slagged me off and kicked a young lad when he was down – I was only 23 when our debut came out and you knocked my confidence!’ I paraphrase, of course…

The Big Lad wasn’t a huge hit but did just well enough, peaking at number 35 in the UK album charts. But It Bites were up and running and their best was yet to come. Watch this space for the next exciting chapter…