Here’s a quandary. If you had to choose one 1980s song to get people on the dancefloor – maybe you’re the last-minute guest DJ at a wedding disco – what would you go for?
The track probably needs a few things going for it:
1. A great intro – a ‘call to arms’.
2. Cross-generational appeal, one for the kiddies and grandparents alike.
3. It has to be a total hit – no cult favourites.
4. Loudness and ‘impact’.
5. It’s probably ‘pop’ and pretty genre-less – no heavy metal or R’n’B.
6. A soundtrack hit might be good – something from a John Hughes joint or ‘Dirty Dancing’?
7. A flavour of the ‘novelty’ hit/one-hit wonder might help.
In his (great) book ‘Nothing Is Real’, David Hepworth comes up with five ultimate floorfiller contenders including two from the 1980s: Brucie’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart’. Both choices strike this correspondent as a little odd. Rather I’d posit the following (feel free to chime in with any omissions):
Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’
Dexys Midnight Runners: ‘Come On Eileen’
Simple Minds: ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’
Toni Basil: ‘Mickey’
Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’
Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’
Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’
Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes: ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’
De La Soul: ‘Say No Go’
Young MC: ‘Know How’
Wham!: ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’
Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’
ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’
Madonna: ‘Into The Groove’
But the one 1980s track I’d choose to get people onto the dancefloor is…
David Bowie: ‘Let’s Dance’
I’ve rounded up most of these and some others into a playlist. Happy groovin’.
Couldn’t let 2020 squeak by without celebrating 40 years of Flesh + Blood.
As a young whippersnapper, along with Sgt. Pepper’s, it was probably the first LP I enjoyed all the way through. But these days it’s often mentioned as an afterthought to Avalon and the early albums (maybe Peter Saville’s cover rankles?).
It featured not one but three classic singles (‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Same Old Scene’, ‘Over You’), two distinctive cover versions, and was arguably one of the most influential collections of the 1980s.
It also perfectly compliments such contemporary new-wave/disco work from Blondie, Duran Duran and Japan (also sharing with those acts a reliance on the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, heard prominently in the intro of the below).
Flesh + Blood is the last Roxy studio album where Andy Mackay (sax) and Phil Manzanera (guitar) were major players if not songwriters (all tracks were written by Ferry apart from the covers, though Manzanera had a hand in ‘Over You’, ‘No Strange Delight’ and ‘Running Wild’). Both add memorable solos and nice ensemble work throughout.
It’s also a classic early-’80s bass album: reliably excellent Alan Spenner and Neil Jason joined new boy Gary Tibbs, fresh from his acting role in Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Breaking Glass’ movie and about to become one of Adam’s Ants.
The great Andy Newmark piled in on drums, having just completed work on Lennon/Ono’s Double Fantasy, alongside fellow NYC sessionman Allan Schwartzberg (who plays a blinder on ‘Same Old Scene’).
Londoner Rhett Davies was on board as co-producer, fresh from groundbreaking work with Brian Eno (both are apparent influences on the psychedelic/ambient outros to ‘My Only Love’ and ‘Eight Miles High’, and atmospheric overdubbing throughout), working with the band at his favourite Basing Street Studios (later Sarm West) in London’s Notting Hill. There were also occasional sessions at Manzanera’s Gallery Studios in Chertsey, Surrey.
Burgeoning star NYC mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain took time off his work with Chic to add some hefty bottom-end and fat drums at the fabled Power Station studios. Bob Ludwig’s ‘definitive’ 1999 CD remaster is one of the loudest, bassiest re-releases of the last few decades (but not a patch on the original cassette!).
But basically Flesh + Blood is very much Ferry’s show, layering Yamaha CP-80 piano (in his trademark ‘no thirds’ style) and synths to great effect, and even adding some amusingly sleazy guitar on the title track. He also sings superbly, delivering a particularly impassioned performance on ‘Running Wild’.
Even when he veers slightly out of tune, as on ‘Rain Rain Rain’, it’s an artful, conscious move (unlike these days…), a la Dylan or Bowie. His lyrics are generally fascinating – dreamlike, elliptical, odes to unrequited love and possibly one or two illicit substances.
Flesh + Blood was a big hit in the UK, reaching #1 on two separate occasions between May and September 1980. But surprisingly it didn’t quite work in the States, just scraping into the top 40, possibly not helped by a stinking review in Rolling Stone (‘…such a shockingly bad Roxy record that it provokes a certain fascination…’!).
But Ferry could see a path ahead, and would repeat the winning formula (drum machine + painstaking overdubs + much-pondered-over lyrics/melody lines) for the rest of the decade.
Rhett Davies had his work cut out – he moved on to work with Robert Fripp on the classic King Crimson reunion album Discipline.
And what with all this talk of Q’s sad demise, movingtheriver has been ruminating on the magazine’s great articles past, including an interview with Brett Anderson in which the Suede head honcho posited his theory that track seven of an album is always the best track.
This was red rag to a bull for movingtheriver. But was Brett on to something? Or does he just have some kind of weird, ritualistic interest in the number seven? In a world exclusive, we investigate some movingtheriver-approved, ‘critic-proof’ albums of the 1980s to test his theory.
In the words of Ian Dury, this is what we find…
1980: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light
Track seven: ‘Listening Wind’
1981: Human League’s Dare
Track seven: ‘I Am The Law’
1982: Roxy Music’s Avalon
Track seven: ‘Take A Chance With Me’
1983: Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Track seven: ‘Human Nature’
1984: Prince’s Purple Rain
Track seven: ‘I Would Die 4 U’
1985: Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love
Track seven: ‘Under Ice’
1986: Paul Simon’s Graceland
Track seven: ‘Under African Skies’
1987: David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive
Track seven: ‘Mother And Child’
1988: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis
Track seven: ‘Knock On Wood’
1989: The Blue Nile: Hats
Track seven: ‘Saturday Night’
So how do the track sevens stack up? It has to be said, most do seem to have something ‘Suede-like’ about them, something wistful, melancholic, or, in the case of the Talking Heads, Human League and Kate Bush tracks, positively menacing. Brett would probably approve.
But are they the ‘best’ tracks from their respective albums? No. You could possibly make a case for ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Saturday Night’* but you’d certainly be going out on a limb.
So there you have it. Obviously Mr A was talking out of his a*se. Next time: Peter Andrex’s ‘track four’ theory. B*llshit or not? YOU be the judge…
*Er… Wait. Wasn’t one of Suede’s best singles also entitled ‘Saturday Night’? Whoa, daddy…
We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?
It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions.
There wasn’t a great deal of looking back in this golden period for pop.
But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.
Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.
Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…
33. Bow Wow Wow: ‘I Want Candy’ (1982)
32. David Bowie: ‘Criminal World’ (1983)
31. Ry Cooder: ’13 Question Method’ (1987)
Ry’s brilliant solo take on Chuck Berry from the Get Rhythm album.
30. Propaganda: ‘Sorry For Laughing’ (1985)
The Dusseldorf pop mavericks take on Josef K’s post-punk curio (apparently at Paul Morley’s urging) to produce a sweeping, majestic synth-pop classic.
29. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1981)
28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)
27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)
26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)
Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.
25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)
Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.
24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)
23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)
Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.
22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)
Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.
21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)
The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.
20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)
19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)
From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.
18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)
17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)
16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)
Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.
15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)
‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.
14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)
A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.
13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)
Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.
12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)
Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.
11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)
David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.
10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)
It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.
9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)
Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.
8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)
The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.
7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)
No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.
6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)
Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.
5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)
Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.
4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)
3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)
First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.
2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)
It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.
1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)
Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.
‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week.
He was fresh from a UK #1 album Boys And Girls and had pretty much cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.
But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’.
Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.
So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths.
And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface.
His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves.
The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Marcus Miller, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.
The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, an irresistible post-Cupid & Psyche groove and cool rhythm guitar from David Williams.
‘New Town’ is a witty, late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour.
‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.
But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire.
‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.
‘Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows?
The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.
Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.
How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered, it maintains its mood throughout.
Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop.
Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.
Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’
Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)
Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.
The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’
Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).
Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’).
And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.
Avalon was a hit, reaching #1 in the UK (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.
So the evenings draw in, Christmas clogs up the telly and hygge is all over the Sunday supplements. You contemplate your navel and your age and comment on how quickly the year has gone by…again.
And if you listen to music a lot, chances are you’ll probably notice how your tastes change as the season eases from autumn to winter. This may have happened when winter turned to spring too, but something a bit more introspective might be called for when your football team starts sliding and the heavy stuff comes out of storage and into your wardrobe.
Here are nine ’80s tracks that instantly say winter to me, calling at Ambient, Eerie and Lovelorn:
9. Pat Metheny Group: ‘Distance’ (1987)
This is the only track from the Still Life (Talking) album I can listen to these days. Lyle Mays’ composition sticks out like a sore thumb on that 1987 collection, a challenging, spooky piece with a touch of serialism that suggests Very Bad Things… A soundtrack for a movie that never was.
8. Roxy Music: ‘To Turn You On’ (1982)
Ferry’s tale of long-distance love for someone very unsuitable. He’s in London, she’s in New York. She possibly has some kind of ‘ailment’ – drug addiction? Mental health problem? (You may be reading too much into this… Ed). He is hopelessly and rather tragically smitten. One of Ferry’s finest ballads with a crackerjack band (Paul Carrack, Rick Marotta, Alan Spenner, Neil Hubbard) bringing it to life.
7. David Sylvian: ‘Pop Song’ (1989)
I could have chosen any amount of Sylvo tracks but have settled on this stand-alone 12” single, his cheeky response to Virgin Records’ request for one more solo hit (which never materialised). It paints a fairly bleak portrait of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music, featuring microtonal synths, Steve Jansen’s clever drum layering and close-interval piano work from the late John Taylor.
6. U2: ‘4th Of July’ (1984)
Ostensibly a duet for bass (though surely that’s not Adam Clayton?) and ‘infinite guitar’ (The Edge put through Eno’s processing systems), U2’s first bash at pure ambience was a minor masterpiece. To say one doesn’t miss Bono’s voice would be an understatement. As far as I know, the band have never attempted anything similar since – more’s the pity.
5. The Sundays: ‘Skin & Bones’ (1990, recorded in 1989)
The unforgettable lead-off track from the classic Reading, Writing & Arithmetic album. The Cocteau Twins meets The Smiths? You betcha.
4. Mark Isham: ‘In The Blue Distance’ (1983)
Isham’s plaintive trumpet and atmospheric keyboard playing create a sombre yet uplifting winter masterpiece.
I first heard this nostalgic classic in late 1983 and it was my first exposure to Joni’s music. I’ve never forgotten it and will forever associate it with this time of year.
2. Love & Money: ‘Inflammable’ (1988)
One of many great torch songs penned by James Grant, featuring on the late-’80s classic Strange Kind Of Love. ‘I go looking for what I want in the wrong places’ – there’s a winter mantra for urban singletons right there…
1. Lloyd Cole: ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (1985)
Let’s face it, winter can also be haunted by ghosts of failed romances, stolen moments and disastrous Christmas flings. This classic covers all that stuff very efficiently with a nice line in black humour.
Check out the playlist on Spotify (a few tracks not currently available).