1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening.

Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

36. Lee Thompson’s sax in the second verse of Madness’s ‘My Girl’

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!‘ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

Madness: Five Reasons To Be Cheerful

madnessThese days, brands (and possibly bands) spend thousands – if not millions – of pounds on copywriters who half-inch bargain-basement slogans from popular psychology and self-help books. You know the kind of thing: ‘Find Your Happy’, ‘Believe In Better’ (I’m compiling a list of the worst ad slogans of all time, by the way, if you have any to hand, but I digress…), and all that other absolute twaddle.

Anyway, I’ve needed a cheer-up recently and know a much better way to ‘find my happy’: watching a few Madness videos. It’s easy to forget how great a lot of their stuff is if you’re an English pop fan. They’re so much part of the furniture. According to the stats, no other band spent more time on the UK singles chart during the 1980s.

One of the keys to their longevity seems to be that they are essentially a songwriters’ collective; at one point or another, all the members have had a hand in penning a hit (they famously shared the publishing royalties seven ways – 50% for the writer/writers, and the remainder divided up equally among everyone else).

There’s definitely method in their madness: intelligent, often socially-conscious lyrics that are actually about something, subtly-effective major/minor chord changes, hooks galore, spooky textures (no doubt very influenced by The Specials/Jerry Dammers), a superb rhythm section and the ever-reliable Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley producing/engineering team (the former apparently had lots of good songwriting and arranging input too). And in terms of music videos, surely their body of work is the most consistent of the decade, alongside Talking Heads and maybe a few others.

So here, in chronological order, are my favourite Madness vids – and some pretty damn good songs to boot.

5. Baggy Trousers (1980)

The Ian Dury-influenced classic, written by singer Suggs and guitarist Chris Foreman. I can remember first seeing this video on ‘Top Of The Pops’ like it was yesterday.

4. Shut Up (1981)

Written by Suggs and Chris Foreman from the point of view of a very deluded house burglar, this is a worthy entry into that select group of hits whose titles don’t feature in the lyrics. Blur were definitely listening – compare it with their ‘Sunday Sunday‘.

3. Driving In My Car (1982)

Written by pianist Mike Barson, the video features the lads driving down Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, and there’s even a brief cameo from Fun Boy Three.

2. Our House (1982)

Written by Chris Foreman and saxophonist Cathal Smyth AKA Chas Smash, apparently the one-line chorus was added at the last minute at producer Clive Langer’s insistence.

1. House Of Fun (1982)

Written by Lee Thompson and Mike Barson, this time the chorus was apparently demanded by Stiff Records boss Dave Robinson.

Red Wedge 30 Years On

red wedge

The Red Wedge gang including Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Glenn Gregory meet Ken Livingstone and Labour leader Neil Kinnock, 1987

Some might say that music and politics should never mix. But it’s less than two weeks to the General Election here in England. Looking at the music press or listening to music radio, you’d never know it.

Is politics just terminally uncool? Do today’s musicians not give a damn about who gets into power? It seems to be a mixture of both, though I was intrigued to see Paloma Faith hand-picking the writer Owen Jones to open some of her recent gigs.

The deafening silence (apart from a recent Jazz For Labour event at the Barbican) can’t help but beg comparison to the state of play 30 years ago when the movement known as Red Wedge got underway. Formed in 1985 initially as a Labour-supporting group to encourage young people to vote and get Margaret Thatcher out of office, it arguably politicised a second generation of music fans a decade after Rock Against Racism and punk. Though I was too young to fully understand Red Wedge’s aims (and too young to vote), I certainly took notice.

Red Wedge officially started on 21st November 1985 when Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Strawberry Switchblade were invited to a reception at the Palace of Westminster by Labour MP Robin Cook. Major tours followed in the next few years leading up to the 1987 General Election featuring additional artists such as The Communards, The Style Council, Junior, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The The, Bananarama, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello, Sade, The Beat, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and The Smiths. In short, this was no Mickey Mouse setup.

Unfortunately, their efforts amounted to diddly squat; the 1987 election resulted in a third consecutive Conservative victory. But at least they tried and their message didn’t fall on deaf ears. And where is the new batch of protest songs and protest singers? Unfortunately the current crop of musicians are just like most of the politicians: bland, middle-of-the-road, lacking in ideas and desperate not to offend.