Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?

Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.

His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.

Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves. There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.

There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.

In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.

Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping. There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.

This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.

 

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21 Great One-Hit Wonders Of The 1980s

Nobody knows anything: the late screenwriter William Goldman’s famous maxim for determining the likely commercial viability of a movie.

But it could also apply to the pop landscape of the 1980s. While the essential ingredients for a chart smash – great melodies, interesting sounds, emotional material – were probably intact, there were also novelty hits by the dozen. Soap-opera actors, kids and comedians were all over the shop.

But then there were the really striking, original one-time deals. Indeed the question hanging over most of the following is: why only the one hit? Yet maybe there is something singular about these songs. Even this writer, a big It Bites fan, can – almost grudgingly – hear only too well why ‘Calling All The Heroes’ was a hit when all of their other perfectly-worthy singles stalled just outside the top 40.

But hey – if one hit single doesn’t make for a lasting career, with a bit of luck it can still be a cash cow. So join us now for a trawl through some of the best one-hit wonders of the 1980s, starting with a bona fide pop classic…

21. Champaign: ‘How ‘Bout Us’ (1981)

20. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (1983)

It’s mystifying why Edwyn Collins and the gang only managed one hit, but they did. And what a beauty. Reached #8 in February 1983.

19. Joe Dolce Music Theatre: ‘Shaddap You Face’ (1981)

It’s just the audacity of it, I guess – an American/Australian comes over ‘ere and makes a random, totally un-PC, comedy record. Kept Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ off #1 in February 1981.

18. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)

Clive Temperley’s gorgeous Echoplex-laden guitar, a great blanked-out vocal from Barbara Gogan and the early-’80s penchant for all things European ushered this into the top 30.

17. Re-Flex: ‘The Politics Of Dancing’ (1984)

Included mainly for a great vocal by lead singer John Baxter.

16. Yarbrough & Peoples: ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ (1981)

15. Fern Kinney: ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ (1980)

14. Breathe: ‘Hands To Heaven’ (1988)

A love or hate song depending on your proclivity for soppy tearjerkers, but a pretty damn committed piece of work either way.

13. Fiction Factory: ‘(Feels Like) Heaven’ (1984)

Produced by Police-helmer Nigel Gray, this Perth band produced a memorable piece of sophisti-pop with a great vocal by Kevin Patterson.

12. Ashford & Simpson: ‘Solid’ (1984)

They had of course written dozens of hits for others, and Valerie Simpson had sung back-up with everyone from Steely Dan to Quincy Jones, but this was the couple’s only UK hit.

11. Furniture: ‘Brilliant Mind’ (1986)

Fronted by future MOJO music writer Jim Irvin, this was a smart, intriguing single. Will also be familiar to fans of ‘Trigger Happy TV’. And Pulp may have checked it out too…

10. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)

9. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

Apparently originally written as a loping country and western tune, it was given an icy synth-rock makeover and great John Bettis lyric, and eventually reached the top 10 and earned Carnes a Grammy.

8. Martha And The Muffins: ‘Echo Beach’ (1980)

7. Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’ (1986)

6. The Icicle Works: ‘Love Is A Wonderful Colour’ (1984)

How did this end up being the only top 40 hit for Ian McNabb’s talented Merseysiders? When the likes of contemporaries Pete Wylie and Pete Burns were raking in the hits?

5. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)

Co-written by Steve Winwood, Todd Rundgren, Nile Rodgers and Jacob Brackman and featuring an uncredited Carly Simon on vocals and some brilliant stacked backups by…who? Of course Will Powers was a pseudonym for star-snapper Lynn Goldsmith.

4. Hipsway: ‘The Honeythief’ (1986)

The Glaswegians’ funky pop gem showed the way forward for Curiosity and Love & Money, but sadly they failed to follow it up.

3. Nena: ’99 Red Balloons’ (1984)

A rather excellent lyric and musically rich #1 single. The closing 30 seconds can still send a shiver down the spine.

2. Boy Meets Girl: ‘Waiting For A Star To Fall’ (1989)

Yes yes yes, it’s shiny and toothless, but anyone who loves ’80s pop surely has to like this.

1. The Lotus Eaters: ‘The First Picture Of You’ (1983)

Another Merseyside pop gem, this slow-building classic can immediately send one into the reverie of a sun-kissed, first-love British summer.

20 Songs Played Too Often On Absolute 80s

We love it, but Absolute 80s possibly needs a bit of an update on the playlist front…

20. The Police: ‘So Lonely’

19. Pet Shop Boys: ‘It’s A Sin’

18. Survivor: ‘Eye Of The Tiger’

17. Yazz: ‘The Only Way Is Up’

16. The Communards: ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’

15. The Bluebells: ‘Young At Heart’

14. The Jam: ‘A Town Called Malice’

13. Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

12. Feargal Sharkey: ‘A Good Heart’

11. The Cure: ‘Close To Me’

10. Eurythmics: ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’

9. Belinda Carlisle: ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’

8. Fleetwood Mac: ‘Everywhere’/’Big Love’

7. The Proclaimers: ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’

6. Kate Bush: ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’

5. Madness: ‘It Must Be Love’

4. Blondie: ‘Call Me’

3. Duran Duran: ‘Wild Boys’/’Rio’

2. Tears For Fears: ‘Mad World’

1. Blow Monkeys: ‘Digging Your Scene’

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

The 15 Worst Cover Versions Of The 1980s

We’ve looked at some of the good covers of the 1980s before – but how about the stinkers?

Reader: I’m pleased to report that finding them was not an easy task. A quick Google survey of ‘worst covers of all time’ will not reveal many from the ’80s (and no, Rockwell’s version of ‘Taxman’ really isn’t that bad…).

But the variety of crap covers is worth noting. In the ’80s, anyone was liable to produce a shocker, from the ageing chart regular to the littlest indie. Some took them to the toppermost of the poppermost – indeed most of the below were big hits. But of course familiarity breeds contempt…

Most of these efforts, though, smack of both desperation and a dearth of material. The net result is usually a kind of audio shrug. And hey, there’s also that other reliable, recurring theme – the overproduction of post-1985 offerings…

So let the countdown of dodgy ’80s cover versions commence, with this curio:

15. Simple Minds: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1989)

Desperately tries to be hip but just comes across as a bit desperate. Jim’s hysterical vocal doesn’t help.

14. Aztec Camera: ‘Jump’ (1984)

Why oh why, Roddy? Some grotty Linn drum programming and an insipid vocal on a pointless Van Halen cover which takes away all the fun of the original. Maybe that’s the point.

13. The Communards: ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (1986)

I’m reluctant to diss the brilliant Jimmy Somerville but this cover of a Philly classic just drove one to distraction, not helped by the desperately upbeat video.

12. Yazz: ‘The Only Way Is Up’ (1988)

A ghastly version of Otis Clay’s 1980 post-disco classic which seemed to stay at #1 for an eternity…

11. The Housemartins: ‘Caravan Of Love’ (1986)

The concept is a good one – Isley Jasper Isley’s brilliant original was an electro/gospel mashup crying out for an a cappella – but Paul Heaton’s lead vocals and a very unadventurous arrangement scupper this UK #1 from the start.

10. The Flying Pickets: ‘Only You’ (1983)

Yes, it’s the other a cappella song to hit UK #1, but where to start? How about: out-of-tune vocal stacks (and a very unsubtle use of Fairlight vocals) and a chronically unhip bunch of guys? Oh, and it also came out too soon after the Yazoo original.

9. Pet Shop Boys: ‘Always On My Mind’ (1988)

Effective but gross cover, and of course another UK #1 single. Like gorging on cream cake, there’s a brief rush but then a lingering nausea. It’s also arguably the point where the Boys became an ’80s brand rather than a unique songwriting force.

8. Dave Grusin: ‘Thankful ‘N Thoughtful’ (1984)

Sly & The Family Stone’s gospel/funk classic becomes a robotic downer in the hands of the smooth jazz keyboard maestro. Even Marcus Miller’s bass playing can’t save this.

7. Bomb The Bass: ‘Say A Little Prayer’ (1988)

An on-the-nose, in-your-face curio which never convinces. The vocals just set my teeth on edge right from the off. But it still got to #10 in the UK.

6. Bananarama: ‘Venus’ (1987)

See 9.

5. Rick Astley: ‘When I Fall In Love’ (1987)

This was the 1987 Christmas #2 and, to be fair, it was only Rick’s third single. But it was asking a lot of the lad to take on Nat ‘King’ Cole. And whose idea were the horrible fake strings?

4. Kim Wilde: ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (1986)

See 6 and 9.

3. Gary Numan/Leo Sayer: ‘On Broadway’ (1984)

This is so bad it’s almost good. But only almost. You can’t help but feel sorry for these two gents whose careers had gone properly arse-over-teacup by this point. Numan fans in particular must have been hiding behind the sofa.

2. Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ (1989)

Stock Aitken & Waterman were tasked with updating this one, coming up with a pointlessly-reformatted, boil-in-the-bag cover without any of the original’s musical grace notes, though singer Matt Goss gives a good account of himself.

And…badly-played drum roll…the worst cover of the ’80s is…

1. Thompson Twins: ‘Revolution’ (1985)

The Twins go rawk, with disastrous results. It was also the point where they started to believe the hype – always a bad move. Tom Bailey’s lead vocal is a travesty and it’s also a bum note in Nile Rodgers’ production career.

Any more crap 1980s covers? Drop us a line below.