The 17 Weirdest Record Company Freebies Of The 1980s

Pity the poor marketing manager of a 1980s major record label.

Everyone was telling you the future was in PR. The musicians were no longer running the music industry – the suits were. Millions of pounds were sloshing around but a dodgy decision could risk thousands. Label MDs had read their Dale Carnegies or at least their Peter Yorks. Everyone wanted to hobnob with Branson. And for every proverbial ‘fifth member of the band’ manager like Paul McGuinness or Ed Bicknell, there was a PR like Magenta Devine.

And, as James Grant of Love And Money (more from them below) once told movingtheriver.com, people had breakdowns over this stuff. But is it any wonder when staffers were sending radio programmers and promoters gifts like the following? (All are 100% authentic, and based on extensive research*.)

17. Doobie Brothers dope kit
It included a Doobies logo’d stash pouch, rolling machine and ‘skins’…

16. INXS pyjamas
These sartorial delights were embroidered with the time-honoured phrase ‘I Need You Tonight’. Groan…

15. Prefab Sprout snow globe
This cute little number featured some mini skyscrapers and bore the legend ‘Hey Manhattan!’ Unfortunately it couldn’t hype this Paddy classic into the top 40…

14. 10,000 Maniacs ceramic elephant teapot
A useful mammalian kitchen implement that was sent around to promote the Blind Man’s Zoo album.

13. Simply Red dressing gown
A his’n’hers, terry-towelling dressing gown to promote the Men And Women album. See what they did there?

12. Bob Seger windcheater
It was sleevless, quilted and defiantly macho, as befitting the proletarian singer/songwriter. And it was sent to promote…you guessed it… ‘Against The Wind’!

11. Brothers Johnson zippo cigarette lighter
The funk legends’ PR machine came up with this curio for fans to hoist aloft during ‘Light Up The Night’.

10. WASP bottle of ‘house red’
This disgusting blood-coloured beverage was sent around to promote the Live…In The Raw live album.

9. Billy Bragg teabag
As befitting the socialist icon, a marvellously utilitarian artefact to celebrate the release of the Brewing Up With… album.

8. Kirsty MacColl kite
Yeah?

7. Love And Money road atlas
This hand-bound tome failed to hype ‘Jocelyn Square’ into the top 40, though it remains a great single.

6. Madness pacamac
It was advertising their downbeat single ‘The Sun And The Rain’. And why not?

5. Eurythmics umbrella
To promote…you guessed it…’Here Comes The Rain Again’. Obviously did a pretty good job, to be fair – the single reached #8 in the UK charts.

4. ZZ Top frozen meal
Those naughty boys from Texas sent this around to promote – of course – ‘TV Dinners’.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood condom
One of Paul Morley’s better ideas, actually…

2. PiL jigsaw puzzle
A very strange object sent around to promote Johnny and the boys’ 9 album.

1. Kane Gang walkman
No, me neither…

Do you have any weird band freebies lying around from the era? Let us know below.

*Copied from a Q magazine listicle circa 1989

The Pop Group: Where There’s A Will…

pop groupPunk’s tributaries reached far and wide post-1976. Save country and classical, there was barely a music genre that wasn’t affected by it (someone should write a book about the number of early Pistols, Ramones, Clash and Damned fans who went on to form bands).

But one of the most singular and unclassifiable collectives to emerge from the punk boom was Bristol’s The Pop Group, who just for a few years fused all their passions – reggae, dub, free jazz, funk, Erik Satie, Beat poetry, Dadaism, Situationism – into a gloriously chaotic unit.

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I don’t know a better band for annoying the neighbours. At their best, The Pop Group sound a bit like an avant-garde jazz band trying and somehow failing to play like Chic with a psychotic politician screaming over the top, all passed through Adrian Sherwood’s dub effects. But they are pretty damn exciting in small doses and offer textures that are genuinely surprising. I usually turn to them as an antidote to the Ed Sheerans and Ellie Gouldings of this world. They also came up with some of the best cover artwork of their era.

The Pop Group emerged from a gang of West Country teenage music fans called The Bristol Funk Army who apparently would wear zoot suits and brothel creepers and listen to heavy ’70s funk. Meanwhile, vocalist/lyricist and Last Poets fan Mark Stewart was getting a serious political awakening, hellbent on documenting his research into consumerism, nuclear power and US foreign policy.

The band’s lifespan was pretty brief, limited to two albums (the debut Y was produced by UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell) and three classic singles – ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil‘ (not about Thatcher, according to Stewart), ‘We Are All Prostitutes‘ and ‘Where There’s A Will’, which was released as a double A-side with The Slits’ ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’ in March 1980.

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They apparently lost thousands of pounds of revenue by mainly playing benefit gigs for Cambodia and Scrap The Sus (stop and search law). It was a very volatile time and they definitely put their money where their mouth was – they once even had to do a benefit for themselves to raise some cash! Their last gig before an amicable parting of the ways was the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament benefit in Trafalgar Square on 26th October 1980 in front of 250,000 people.

Mark Stewart spent the rest of the ’80s pursuing a fascinating solo career, of which much more later, while Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith formed Rip Rig & Panic (later featuring Neneh Cherry on vocals), and Smith has also been PiL’s drummer since the mid-’80s. The Pop Group’s sound has also been massively influential on a host of punk/funk bands over the last 20 years or so including Radio 4, Primal Scream and LCD Soundsystem.

And guess what – they are back among us again. They released a superb comeback album in 2015 – Citizen Zombie, produced by Adele helmer Paul Epworth – and have played live fairly regularly since 2011. It’s a pleasure to report that the rage and weirdness are very much still there.

But back to ‘Where There’s A Will’. This recently unearthed clip has become a favourite of mine (I love the studious Belgian host attempting to make some sense of this insanity), an antidote for anaemic, safe music everywhere. Not even Chris Morris could have come up with anything more grippingly bizarre.

For much more about The Pop Group and early ’80s music, check out Simon Reynolds’ excellent ‘Rip It Up And Start Again‘.

Six Great ’80s Album Openers

vinyl-goldSequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business. One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.

Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman’? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car’? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’? Unthinkable.

So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:

6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)

Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder‘ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.

5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)

A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit‘) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.

4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.

3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.

2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)

‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!

1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.