Whistle Test: Best Of The 1980s?

What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night (UK readers can watch it again here until 23rd March). The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.

The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.

Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen. The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):

8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)

Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.

7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)

One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.

6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)

Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.

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

One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.

4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)

The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong.

3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)

Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.

2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)

One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.

1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)

Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.

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Propaganda’s A Secret Wish: 30 Years Old Today

propagandaZTT Records, released 2nd July 1985

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1994?

8/10

A Secret Wish represents the peak of ’80s pop music. The glamorous though mysterious project was a flawed masterpiece but also the beginning of the end for big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over ‘concept’ albums. You might even say that ’80s pop was all downhill from here.

I was 12 when A Secret Wish came out, and, though I liked ‘Duel’ at the time, it took me another ten years or so to finally get hold of the album. If anything, it has only gained in mystique in the years since, quite possibly because it’s such a singular project. It doesn’t really sound much like much else around in mid-’85 (though Pet Shop Boys and a-Ha were definitely listening), nor is it particularly similar to other ZTT releases or Propaganda’s subsequent albums.

A large part of the mystique is provided by Stephen Lipson’s pristine, widescreen production (Trevor Horn only produced ‘Dr Mabuse’), as well as his formidable mixing and guitar work (check out the extended mix of ‘Duel’). Claudia Brucken’s lead vocals are original and Suzanne Freytag’s spoken-word interludes carry unmistakable echoes of Nico (emphasised by their seriously weird ‘Femme Fatale‘ cover from the album sessions).

Yes guitarist Steve Howe contributes a nifty solo to ‘The Murder Of Love’ and David Sylvian has a hand in writing the gripping ‘p:Machinery’. But man of the match is ZTT house keyboardist Peter-John Vettese, purveyor of doomy soundscapes and intriguing chord voicings. Josef K’s post-punk classic ‘Sorry For Laughing’ is reinvented as a Wagnerian synth-pop anthem and there aren’t many more epic album openers in pop than the majestic ‘Dream Within A Dream’.

Paul Morley, ZTT marketing/content man and former husband of Claudia Brucken, has talked about Trevor Horn and David Sylvian’s involvement in A Secret Wish:

Propaganda

‘When Trevor pulled out of producing them, I actually asked David Sylvian. While he was thinking about it, he came up with the ghostly top line of ‘P:Machinery’ – the music, if you like – and a gorgeous watery slowed down version of ‘Duel’, but he decided against producing them, and it stayed within the Sarm (London recording studio owned by ZTT label owners Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair) pop factory. Actually, another sign of the split between sensibilities at the label: I asked David Sylvian to produce Propaganda and Jill approached Stock Aitken and Waterman!’

A Secret Wish wasn’t a huge hit and surely didn’t make back its sizeable recording costs, reaching just 16 in the UK album chart, but the singles ‘Duel’ and ‘p:Machinery’ both made the top 30. The band picked up the first-class rhythm section of ex-Simple Minds pair Derek Forbes on bass and Brian McGee on drums (as well as Bowie/Dolby guitarist Kevin Armstrong) and toured the album extensively. I very clearly remember this performance on the BBC music show ‘Whistle Test’ in late 1985. Happy days:

Claudia Brucken: Bush Hall, London, 12th March 2015

where_else_acpsc1Ex-Propaganda/Act vocalist (and, dare we say, ’80s icon?) Claudia Brucken has enjoyed a real career renaissance in the last decade. Her recent studio albums have featured collaborations with members of Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Erasure and OMD, and new release Where Else is a very strong record of torch songs which foregrounds fine melodies and an unexpected ’60s pop influence.

The Bush Hall was the perfect venue for this classy, deceptively low-key return to the London stage. With a minimalist red-curtain backdrop and versatile two-man backing band, Claudia began the gig seated but moved through the gears with consummate ease.

downloadHer vocals sounded rich and rounded, a big improvement on the last London gigs in 2013, and it was also great that she kept audience banter to an absolute minimum, a lesson to some younger artists who seem desperate to pass the time of day with audiences given half a chance.

Where Else was played pretty much in sequence as is the current way, and what’s clear is that the new songs are stark and slight but very catchy, with attractive, slow-burning melodies. To go along with the string synths, piano and digital beats, there was generally an unmistakable Zombies/Colin Bluntstone influence on the new material too, with some distinctly Doors-style keyboards thrown in for good measure.

The resplendent, still striking ‘Duel’ (which my companion very adroitly pegged as the sound a-Ha had vainly aimed for throughout their career) and ‘P-Machinery’ were saved for the rapturously-received encores, and a rousing cover of Bowie’s ‘Everyone Says Hi’ was perfectly judged. The gig was crying out for a real drummer though (paging Neil Conti…) to add more of the human element, but budgets are budgets.

If all her stars are aligned, Brucken might yet enjoy an Everything-But-The-Girl-style sleeper hit. What seems unlikely is any kind of Secret Wish 30th anniversary tour; she seems very happy and musically fulfilled where she is right now.