David Sylvian: Pop Song 30 Years Old Today

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single 30 years ago today.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is completely out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at the Townhouse Studios, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out, and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

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21 Great 12″ Singles Of The 1980s

To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was the end of music; but to many others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.

The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, the rise of club culture, sampling/dub techniques/electronic music moving into the mainstream, and the prevailing post-punk/ ‘anything goes’ ethos.

Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were also in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.

So to celebrate this long Bank Holiday weekend, let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals. Play ’em loud… And get in touch if your favourite is missing.

21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)

Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?

20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)

A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.

19. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (Slipstream mix) (1982)

This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.

 

18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)

Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see in this list. But remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with here – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s gorgeous rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.

16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.

15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)

I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller stems/mastertracks and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.

14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)

Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s insanely exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.

13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)

John Potoker came of age working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. Well, Potoker’s nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…

12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)

Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.

11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)

Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.

10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)

If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever submitted to vinyl.

 

9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)

Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano and background vocals and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this arrangement of the song…

8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)

Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.

7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)

Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.

6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:50.

5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)

You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and I love the way various sections are repeated and amplified.

4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)

Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and tantalizingly delaying the reveal of Robbie Shakespeare’s bass for as long as possible.

3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)

Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…

2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)

A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening those funky drum breakdowns.

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)

Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style! Only ZTT can do this. (It seems like sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out of this list, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).

Propaganda: Wishful Thinking

ZTT Records – under the auspices of Trevor Horn – really used the remix format. No throwaway, rush-released projects for them. Their remixes were petri dishes for sonic experiments and situationist pranks, many worthwhile and innovative.

And of course several remix albums were released on ZTT – Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm was essentially one song done eight different ways, and there was also a whole Frankie Goes To Hollywood LP dedicated to ‘Two Tribes’ remixes.

But maybe a lesser-known example is Propaganda’s Wishful Thinking, a reworking of the Düsseldorf unit’s seminal 1985 album A Secret Wish, originally produced by Stephen Lipson (with one track – ‘Dr Mabuse’ –  helmed by Horn).

A Secret Wish’s stock seems to keep rising year after year, gaining more fans and sounding better than ever. But Wishful Thinking is a weird project, to say the least. Co-remixer (alongside former tape op Bob Kraushaar) Paul Morley’s absurd liner notes quote Goethe and boast that the album is the result of ’39 studio hours’, which, by ZTT’s painstaking standards, doesn’t actually sound like much.

But it’s a thrilling, epic collection just the same, regurgitating many of the original album’s sonic motifs but in a different order and in a different place on the stereo spectrum. ‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo piece of minimalism, featuring mainly Claudia Brucken’s vocals and gentle drums.

‘Jewelled’ fuses the two versions of ‘Duel’ from the original album, mixing her ‘angry’ vocals with the backing from the ‘pop’ version. It’s pretty funny and genuinely surreal.

Hidden elements embedded in the original mix are subtly revealed, like Lipson’s chiming guitars on ‘Laughing’. ‘Loving’ exposes and amplifies Andy Richards’ gorgeous piano and synth from ‘The Murder Of Love’, finally revealing it as the fantastic pop song it is.

The two versions of ‘Dr Mabuse’ bring out Horn’s genius and natural flair for the dynamic, showcasing not one but two brilliant bass vamps and a whole host of other sonic delights (thrillingly, one version is used in the absurd opening credits of John Hughes’s 1987 movie ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’).

But possibly the best track on Wishful Thinking is the closing ‘Thought’, an excerpt of the band’s version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’. It’s nothing less than a brutalist, industrial masterpiece.

All in all, it’s an epic, exciting hour of music, and a real one-off. For anyone still fascinated by A Secret Wish, as this writer is, it’s required listening. The band probably hated it, though Brucken did donate one of her paintings for use on the cover (but then she was married to Morley at the time…).