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…

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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…

Gary Clark talks ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and classic debut ‘Meet Danny Wilson’

danny wilson

Ah, yes, summer 1987. I remember it well. I came across a review of Meet Danny Wilson in Q magazine which drew comparisons between Gary Clark’s voice and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan’s (spot-on). That was enough incentive for a massive Steely fan like me to check it out.

I wasn’t disappointed. Meet Danny is one of the most arresting, original debut albums of the ’80s, and it stands up extremely well today. I would annoy my school friends bigging up the album and trying to get it played during art lessons – to no avail. U2, Simple Minds, The The, Fleetwood Mac and INXS couldn’t be usurped.

But my enthusiasm was slightly justified when the gorgeous ‘Mary’s Prayer’ was finally a big hit at the third attempt (UK number 3, US number 23).

Danny Wilson shared a love of jazz, the Great American Songbook and Steely Dan with contemporaries Hue and Cry, Swing Out Sister, Sade and various other late-’80s acts, but (fortunately?) Meet Danny Wilson doesn’t sound remotely like any of them.

Gary graciously answered my questions in the middle of a very busy period of travelling, writing and recording. We talked about the inspiration behind the timeless ‘Mary’s Prayer’ single, hanging out with Billy Mackenzie, the golden age of Virgin Records and busking on transatlantic flights…

MP: Could you give a quick summary of how you started making music as Danny Wilson with your brother Kit (keyboards) and Ged Grimes (bass)?

GC: Ged was at school with me and clearly one of the most talented kids so we naturally gravitated towards each other and stayed together from the school band stage all the way through to Danny Wilson. Kit is my younger brother. When Ged and I returned from London we wanted to re-think the band and Kit, in our absence, had grown into a formidable musician, writer and singer so he was a natural choice to bring onboard.

What were the musical influences that went into the pot for Meet Danny Wilson? Any contemporary mid-’80s artists?

Well, I really found my voice as a writer when I stopped trying to sound contemporary. Ged and I spent three years in London living in a squat, gigging and trying to get a record deal and it seemed like the labels wanted us to sound like what was already on the radio at that time. If you can remember radio in 1984/85, everything was super- polished, super-quantised and very synthesised. Even guitars all tended to be layered in multi-effects. I very consciously decided to go in the opposite direction and return to my musical roots; all the music I loved was devastatingly unfashionable at the time. Off the top of my head, the main influences for that album were not contemporary at all: Sinatra, Bacharach and David, Jimmy Webb, Becker and Fagen, Tom Waits, a little bit of Hall and Oates, heavy dollops of the Great American Songbook and a ton of soundtrack records.

Danny Wilson Mary's Prayer vinyl

How did Danny write songs? Were all the tracks co-written or did you provide the blueprints?

I wrote all of the songs on that album and they were all written and mostly demoed prior to recording. The only exception I recall is finishing ‘Five Friendly Aliens’ at the piano in Puk studios after we’d started recording the rest of the album.

How did you come to be signed to Virgin? Were you fans of the label beforehand?

We played a gig in a bar in Edinburgh and a music journalist called Bob Flynn was there. He wrote a review in NME that literally changed our lives. The review was so good and the band were so unknown that the record labels who had systematically rejected us only months before were calling Bob asking how they could get in touch with the band. We had really served our time in the trenches live and in the studio so we were really ready for it when it came. The next gig we did in Edinburgh was packed and half of the audience were A&R and publishers from London. We literally had the choice of every major label and almost signed to Warners. In the end, a mixture of Virgin’s reputation as an artistic label, their sheer passion for the music and their willingness to give us complete artistic control won the day.

Can you remember your inspiration for ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and where you wrote it?

Yes, I wrote it in the squat in London quite a few years before it was released. My friend, the songwriter Ali Thomson, loaned me a Roland Juno 60 synth and I just switched on the first preset and immediately played the verse chords without thinking (they’re all white notes!). The melody and a large chunk of the first verse lyric came to me instantly. I liked it but couldn’t get a chorus that did the verse justice and it took about another year of me coming back to it until I finally hit on the chorus.

How did you come to include Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy on the album? Definitely not an obvious choice of special guests! Weren’t they signed to Virgin at the time?

They were signed to ECM. The Virgin connection came later through us. Howard Gray (later of Apollo 440) was producing the first half of our album at Puk. They had an incredible system in there and we liked to blast records on the big speakers at the start of the day and at the end of the night with some fine Elephant beers for refreshment. Digital was in its infancy and ECM were making some of the first records that could be legally labelled ‘DDD’ which meant ‘recorded, mixed and mastered without leaving the digital domain’. Howard played us Lester’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You‘ one of those nights as an example of how great this process could sound and we all fell instantly head over heels in love. By sheer mind-bending coincidence, we saw that Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy were playing Copenhagen when we were still in Denmark. We went to the gig, one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen, and accosted Lester afterwards. It’s a little-known fact that because of budget restrictions, Ged, Kit and I busked our fare on a very early Virgin Atlantic flight to New York so we could be there for the sessions! Pre-9/11, of course… But we actually got free flights for entertaining the passengers in mid-air.

Your amazing vocal on ‘You Remain An Angel’ always reminded me of Billy Mackenzie – were you a fan and did you know him at all?

Well, thank you. I’m a huge fan of Billy’s work but I can honestly say that The Associates were nowhere near my mind when we did that song. There is a B-side called ‘Living To Learn‘ that has a huge Associates influence. Billy and I are from the same home town, Dundee in Scotland, and I got to know him a little. We would all hang out at a place called Fat Sam’s cocktail bar where they played great music and had great live acts passing through. We saw some amazing bands in their infancy back then. Billy was always so wonderful, charming and encouraging to me.

Meet Danny Wilson has a really pleasing mix of acoustic instrumentation and late-’80s technology – was there any pressure to be ‘produced’ and make a very modern-sounding record? I have a B-side version of ‘Aberdeen’ that was subtitled something like ‘The Way It Should Have Been‘…

No. Virgin were great like that. I think they understood that we had just as much chance commercially by being true to ourselves as we would have had conforming to some blueprint of what radio sounds like. I wish that vision was more prevalent in the music business today. I will say that although we used the most up-to-date technology available at the time, we didn’t use it to sound modern but to get what was in our heads onto the recording. On ‘Aberdeen’, for instance, we used a Fairlight to get the trumpet and string sounds but the production is probably more ’60s in tone than ’80s. That B-side was an interesting one; we had made a very early stripped back Portastudio demo of that song before the album and it had a certain beatboxy charm that we all kind of harked back to. The tape was lost so that B-side was our attempt to recreate that vibe. Never a great idea!

How do you feel about Meet Danny Wilson and its place in the 1980s musical landscape now?

I feel pretty much the same as at the time. It’s very me, very honest, very heartfelt and, just like me, doesn’t fit in anywhere. Exactly what we were going for, I suppose.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m always writing and recording with other artists. That’s what I do these days and have a whole heap of stuff in the pipeline but aside from that I’ve just written the music with John Carney (Once, Begin Again) for his next movie (‘Sing Street’) which I’m very, very excited about. As it happens, he got in touch with me because Meet Danny Wilson was a record his brother had turned him onto as a young kid growing up in Dublin in the ’80s. That neatly brings this interview to a lovely, rounded conclusion so I’d better shut up now!

Many thanks for your time, Gary.

 

New Decade, New Sound: Stanley Clarke’s Rocks, Pebbles and Sand

Stanley-Clarke-Rocks-Pebbles-And-543879Epic Records, released August 1980

Bought: Virgin Oxford Street 1988?

8/10

Stanley was and is one of my all-time musical heroes. As a teenager, I loved his fiery bass playing, dramatic compositions and dynamic hook-up with drummers. I first heard about him from my dad who bought his classic 1974 debut album on cassette in the mid-‘80s. As a burgeoning young drummer, I was immediately blown away by Tony Williams’ playing and also Stanley’s wide-reaching musical vision which took in funk, prog, post-Hendrix rock, flamenco, modal jazz and Third Stream.

stanley clarke

In 1979, Stanley recorded the sprawling, slightly directionless I Wanna Play For You double which veered uncomfortably towards disco on a few tracks. But it also featured some outrageous live recordings which suggested he was going in a more ‘rock’ direction, mainly thanks to the sonic possibilities opened up by putting his Piccolo bass (tuned a fifth higher than a standard bass, A to C rather than E to G) through various effects pedals.

But how would Stanley start off the ’80s?  on Rocks, Pebbles and Sand, he thankfully pushed the rock and prog-fusion rather than disco. It also really helps that it sounds very much like a ‘band’ project, apart from funk curio ‘We Supply’ which belongs on a different album altogether. And what a band it is – Simon Phillips on drums, Charles Icarus Johnson on guitars and Steve Bach on keys.

Phillips in particular is a perfect foil for Clarke with his meaty grooves and superchops. Though he was obviously coming from Billy Cobham with his prodigious double-bass playing, expansive tom fills and open-handed style (see below), his grooving on ‘Story of a Man and a Woman Part 2‘ is just perfect.

Rocks, Pebbles and Sand‘s opener ‘Danger Street’ sounds like Stanley has been listening to The Who and Van Halen with its big drums, raucous guitar and gargantuan riff. Subtle it ain’t (and one can take or leave Stanley’s vocals), but it really works, mainly due to the mastering and mix – Rocks is one of the best-sounding albums of the era alongside Steely’s Gaucho, Lee Ritenour’s Rit and Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti.

Marcy Levy circa 1980

Marcy Levy circa 1980

The duet vocals on ‘Underestimation’, ‘You/Me Together’ and ‘A Story of a Man and a Woman’ might put some people off, but isn’t that female voice familiar? A glance at the liner notes reveals a credit for one ‘Marcy Levy’ on vocals. It turns out to be none other than Marcella Detroit of Shakespeare’s Sister fame, an LA session singer in another life who had recorded and toured extensively with Eric Clapton (co-writing ‘Lay Down Sally’) before working with Stanley.

The funk/disco track ‘We Supply‘ sticks out like a sore thumb but features a superb bassline from Louis Johnson and a hilarious spoken word intro from album engineer Dennis MacKay, proclaiming, ‘We supply all your funky needs!’ in the poshest voice you’ve ever heard. Git down and boogie with Dennis…

Stanley had a mixed ’80s to say the least, with a fair few misses but some big hits as well – watch this space for more of the latter.