Sunday, 16 June 2013
(#258: 19 December 1981, 3 weeks)
Track listing: The Visitors/Head Over Heels/When All Is Said And Done/Soldiers/I Let The Music Speak/One Of Us/Two For The Price Of One/Slipping Through My Fingers/Like An Angel Passing Through My Room
(Author’s Note: Some editions of this album give the title track a subtitle: “(Crackin’ Up).”)
“Unlike English, the Scandinavian languages are word poor. With William the Conqueror in 1066 and the infusion of Latinate French into Anglo-Saxon, what we now know as English evolved. And yet, it’s exactly their poverty of vocabulary that gives writers possibilities in the Scandinavian languages that English writers don’t have. A word like lys in Norwegian – which means both light and candle – allows repetitions, ambiguities, and depths that aren’t possible in English. Lys is a word heavy with the knowledge of darkness, of summer and winter, of precious long days of light opposed to long days of murk and clouds…Perhaps the darkness lies behind the omnipresent candles in Scandinavian households, too, lit even during the day and shining in rooms at night. The northern experience of darkness and light is untranslatable. The contrast between them has to be lived in the body.”
(Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Sceptre, 2012. From the essay “Some Musings On The Word Scandinavia")
There have been occasions previously in this tale when I have asked you to go and read, or do, something else, before carrying on with the next chapter, in order that you might understand it better. This is another such occasion, but where do I stop? I could ask you to go and watch a wide selection of the films, both for large and small screen, by Ingmar Bergman, or to go and listen to a lot of other records, but either could take a lifetime. With Bergman I would suggest that for now you have another look at 1978’s Autumn Sonata, where cinema’s other Bergman of note, Ingrid, plays a recently widowed concert pianist who pays a visit to her partly estranged daughter Eva (played by Liv Ullmann), and in the course of which we gradually discover what drove a wedge between the two, realising that it was Bergman’s Charlotte who did most of the driving. As she pitilessly points out the mistakes in her daughter’s essays at Chopin, the feelings of the mother in “Slipping Through My Fingers” may well be borne in mind, as may the fact that the film drew heavily on Bergman’s own recent life, and the knowledge that one of her real-life daughters will within a decade be discovering Kyle MacLachlan in a wardrobe.
But I would really be grateful if, before reading the rest of this essay at Abba, you could read James Joyce’s Dubliners collection of linked short stories. Linked because they all take place in or around middle-class turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin, and also because the fifteen tales systematically progress from a very childish and superficial view of death (“The Sisters”) to a coldly mature view (“The Dead”), Joyce, until the last three or so paragraphs of “The Dead,” steadily avoids flourish and poetry, preferring matter-of-fact, quasi-dispassionate descriptions of people and events. To be acknowledged is the cumulative realisation that Dublin, as a city or a state of largely familial mind, can never be escaped; the woman who turns round at the end of “Eveline” and doesn’t get on the boat with Frank, the boy who only gets to the Araby bazaar when the market is closing up and there is nothing left, the over-careful bank clerk in “A Painful Case” whose refusal to embrace love leads to someone else’s physical death, as well as his own spiritual one. There is also the over-pushy mother of the perhaps under-talented pianist daughter in “A Mother” who again recalls the protagonist of “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
Largely, though, and selfishly, I want you to read Dubliners, perhaps somewhere by the North Sea, or in the middle of Christ Church Meadow at high autumn, because it was on my first year English Literature reading list, and it left the sort of impression you might expect the book to have made on a highly impressionable seventeen-year-old first-year English student. But also because I want to try to recreate what life was like for me back in the last three months of 1981, and hence the milieu from which this and so many other records sprang.
What you have to understand – and it is perhaps a very superficial and certainly a very commonplace thing – is that being away from home, and at university, turned the world a different way for me. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Everything and everybody looked, sounded and felt somewhat different; even the golden brown shades of mid-autumn sun beaming down upon the ancient college stonework. It was rather like being in the middle of a waking dream; nothing seemed quite real, all came across as slightly more fantastical than what I had come to expect from life thus far.
I don’t know that I was homesick, but I did feel unexpectedly disorientated. My father’s death a few months beforehand had me realise, far too early, that a person I had expected to be there for ever no longer existed. I was abruptly on my own, and if I’d been substantially older I’d probably have lived with it a lot better.
Hence that autumn and early winter of 1981 proved to be all about darkness and notions – and maybe idealisations – of death, impermanence. The music of the period mostly seemed to be pointing in this direction, too; Ian Curtis had been gone nearly eighteen months, but nearly all of what I heard and absorbed appeared to form part of an extended funeral rite, or memorial. New Order’s own Movement, for a start; disjointed, dissolute, oblique, patient, evidently painful, and a commemoration of a past which the group themselves knew they had left behind them. The astounding second side of Wilder by the Teardrop Explodes, with its triptych of slow, mourning epics (“Tiny Children,” “…And The Fighting Takes Over,” “The Great Dominions”) and its nightmare cover of erupting flowers. Anything with a solemn synthesiser on it (Jon and Vangelis’ “I’ll Find My Way Home”). Even things like Cope’s Scott Walker retrospective, Fire Escape In The Sky, which essentially reopened that neglected man’s book (and at Christmas I discovered, via a still in-print copy of Nite Flights, that this was indeed only the tip of a huge and potentially ruinous iceberg), or the Pretenders’ reading of “I Go To Sleep,” with its “Decades”-echoing harpsichord arpeggios (see also “Spirits In The Material World”). “Under Pressure,” which sounded like the final cry of the world prior to irreversible apocalypse. Or “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” an unexpected Top 20 hit that season for the Fureys and Davey Arthur (remembering the Michael Furey who is the ghost at the centre of “The Dead”’s labyrinth). Or Japan’s Tin Drum, with the irreducible, pop music-altering “Ghosts” and “Sons Of Pioneers” which repeatedly, if gently, comes at us like Weather Report opening an early morning Christmas present of changed human behaviour. Or Robert Wyatt’s contributions to Epic Soundtracks’ “Jelly Babies” or Scritti Politti’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”or…I could go on.
Or the way in which even the records themselves looked different under the low-lit red lights of the typical late 1981 record shop (in and out of which I seemed to wander into eternal darkness; even something like Julio Iglesias’ re-imagining of “Begin The Beguine” sounded dreamlike, as in, was this genuinely, in 1981, happening?), the magnified importance of red and black on covers like The Flowers Of Romance or Ghost In The Machine or Queen’s Greatest Hits - they all looked other. As did the album currently under consideration.
There was, for me, the main record event of immediate pre-Christmas 1981 – a particularly snowy one, as I recall – which was ECM’s long overdue original format reissue of – you guessed it - Escalator Over The Hill, complete with gold leaf box and full booklet with pictures of musicians and so forth. A snip at the £13.49 which I paid for it (in 1981, fittingly, that was otherwise enough to buy you three single albums).
But, above all, for me, there were the Associates, Dundee’s finest (since, and perhaps including, the Average White Band), who throughout 1981 had been quietly issuing a rapid-fire series of singles which altered the way pop looked and sounded. These were in part collected on the Fourth Drawer Down compilation which appeared at the end of 1981 (as did Buzzcocks’ peerless Singles Going Steady collection) – although are fully collected on the CD reissue (with stray things like “Blue Soap” etc.) – and for me represented a startling standard to which the rest of pop really had to live up to, or try to surpass.
I still don’t know how Billy and Alan did it. I have been to the house in which they conceived these songs, up on Carlton Hill, five minutes’ walk from the Abbey Road Studios, with an unexpected downhill view of the Trellick Tower at the bottom of the street, and looking at its unprepossessing air it is a wonder that so much extraordinary art was conceived within it. “Kitchen Person” combined Barry Ryan hysteria with Michael Mantler doom in ways that have not yet been exceeded. “Q Quarters” stands as alone and scared as it did thirty-two years ago. But “White Car In Germany” was the one; there is a YouTube clip of the group, including Martha Ladly (did I mention Martha and the Muffins’ This Is The Ice Age, on which the younger Daniel Lanois cut his production chops?), miming to the song on German television, and they look as though they already have it made – this was the last song before 1982’s historic mainstream breakthrough, and what a song; so slow, so patient, so pained, and eventually Billy’s voice vanishes into the higher heavens as vibraphone and synthesised choir lead us out of the soaring dream of ideals, and perhaps out of Ian Curtis mourning – and immediately trip us up with a dream-interrupted false ending.
I don’t know whether I would feel the same way about approaching this piece if I hadn’t recently heard the Glenn Gregory/B.E.F. version of “Party Fears Two” which appears on Dark, a.k.a. Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 3 - and note how the title Dark is only one letter away from Dare. The instrumentation is nearly minimal – just Gregory’s voice, Keith Lowndes’ piano and discreet electronics from Martyn Ware – but it stands as a deeply moving tribute to a man who, had he lived, would beyond question have appeared on all three volumes. The song is a tricky one to tackle at the best of times, but Gregory doesn’t try to copy Billy; he simply brings something of himself, and I suspect his own grief, to the song. The arrangement recasts the melody as a 6/8 Bacharach ballad, but listening to it, the listener gradually becomes aware that Gregory – in my opinion now singing better than he has ever done – is turning into, or is being slowly taken over by, Billy, and that had Billy done the song this way, this is the way he would have done it.
This version was first performed in 2007, at a memorial concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Billy’s passing, and it is possibly naïve of me to expect others to be moved by it as I have been; this is the song which brought New Pop to the boil, this is the song which, a generation later, brought Lena and me together, this is a song containing many ghosts but also multiple futures. So it endures, I believe, as a very belated postscript to the end of 1981, a calmly devastated performance of a song whose construction had largely been influenced by the work of Abba.
(and I note how the climactic mention of “Abba” there marked the 1,981st word in this piece)
With all of this in mind, it is time to bring ourselves to what is, as far as this tale is concerned, the actual end of 1981.
“Where have they been?”
“Pushed to the limit, we drag ourselves in.”
I don’t know what, or if, Björn or Benny would have thought about the death of Ian Curtis, and therefore of Joy Division. It is extremely possible that, out there in Stockholm, they heard nothing. But so much of The Visitors is drenched with a dread of death that comparisons cannot be avoided, whether it’s the title track as “Atrocity Exhibition” or “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” as “Decades.”
And this is to say nothing of the intentionally overbearing cover of the album, its brown-red hues so fitting and unreal under late 1981 record shop lights. They are in a room lit by only two light sources, a red table lamp to the left, and a bright, golden, unidentifiable light to the right, and it is to the latter that they mostly appear to be looking (except for Benny, who, slightly amused, stares back at the red light). The relative absence of light turns them into their own, huge shadows; the room is bisected by a huge painting which looks ready almost to swallow everyone and everything else in it. The painting itself, flanked by rows of other, smaller paintings, is Julius Kronberg’s Eros. The top of the painting is not quite visible, and its positioning and structure are such that it threatens to engulf or drown what it looks down upon. They therefore cannot, or will not, acknowledge love. The redness itself could be a volcano, or the blood of a vampire. The floor is photographed such that they might be drowning.
The light at which they are staring is as imprecise and unascribable as that in the attaché case of Kiss Me Deadly or Pulp Fiction.
If Super Trouper represented their passing out of this world, does The Visitors find Abba in hell?
They never completed another studio album, even though The Visitors had not been particularly designed to be their last. Listening to it even then, it was difficult to see how or where they could have gone from here, except to nothing. But it was also one of the very first albums to be recorded digitally, as well as one of the first albums to make the transition to compact disc, in 1982, that year of restless change.
Like Abbey Road, one gets the feeling that the group are getting out of the way of the future. Alternatively, they may have realised that they have made the mistake of going backwards; for if any meaningful comparisons are going to be made between Abba and Ingmar Bergman, it is that Abba’s progression, as such, appears to have been the exact reverse of Bergman’s. If the later Bergman pictures – by which I mean everything from Persona onwards – have anything in common with the younger Abba it is the knowledge that he could now loosen up on his methodical and slightly mechanical solemnity, find a greater gravity with a lighter, or more knowing, approach, realise that by becoming his own subject – in conjecture with his “family” of performers – he could give us a clearer and more profound picture about how and why acting interfaces with life, suggesting at times that acting could almost be the life. Affectation is absent, and life and reality are more soundly handled in films such as Shame, Cries And Whispers and Fanny And Alexander.
Substitute music for acting, and the same could be said of Abba, but the older and further away from each other they became, they reverted to the old, gruelling Bergman of Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring (that having been said, the song “The Visitors” is to Hour Of The Wolf what Scott Walker’s “The Seventh Seal” is to the film which inspired it); over-exacting and determinedly miserable portraits of decay and loss, seemingly carved with a scalpel. The misguided “Two For The Price Of One” – even at this late stage, there was still a track available for Björn
and Benny to sing – can be reasonably compared with Bergman’s early attempts at comedy (especially Waiting Women); the cringe-inducing payoff does not conceal the subject matter of this song, which appears to be about call girls, troilism and incest.
It is perhaps this sense of walking death, the suspicion of cod liver oil bludgeoning, which meant that The Visitors only lasted three weeks at the top, over Christmas, following which the number one slot was reclaimed by the partially Abba-inspired Human League, displaying the sure handling and balancing of light and darkness of which Abba had once been capable. Moreover, the songs are clumsier, did not, by the composers’ own admission, come so easily. Relations in the studio were frosty; there was the high probability that the four musicians were getting bored of each other’s company. Whether an intention to bow out ever reared its head is not entirely clear, but most of the record plays as though any way back has been ruthlessly fenced off.
The smokescreen on the title track was that it was about Soviet dissidents – and the song was duly banned in that country, with its mentions of secret meetings and quiet voices – but in truth Frida is singing about paranoia and steady mental degeneration, the kind perhaps only known to the fear-filled rich, worried about what had recently happened with Lennon. The chilly glockenspiel-like keyboard figure that descends from “I hear the doorbell ring” represents arteries frozen to the heart, and it is clear that any noises and movement “ominously tearing through the silence” are happening only in the singer’s head. She stands amidst what she thought constituted her life – “The books, the paintings and the furniture/Help me” – but which has only proven to be a substitute for living; nobody she knows comes to see her any more, and it may therefore be a relief (“I have been waiting for these visitors/Help me”) when she thinks deliverance is coming. If there are any Beatles comparisons to be made, the song’s verses are far closer to “Within You, Without You” than “Tomorrow Never Knows” although Frida’s ululations over the drone are occasionally predicative of Elizabeth Frazer, while the chorus jerks along like an unwilling “Mamma Mia,” never resting or convincing even itself that it lives within reason.
And who are these “visitors” anyway?
The lead single “One Of Us” might be the strangest song on the record. Their last major hit, it briefly recalls the “Fernando”s of old with its wordless lost shepherdess chorus before dropping into a reggae-pop beat which Culture Club had not yet popularised. Why is Agnetha singing “one of us is lonely” rather than “I am lonely”? She blames herself (“You were, I felt/Robbing me/Of my rightful chances”) and is now regretting her loneness, but it is hardly a credible sequel to “The Winner Takes It All.” Is the “you” even a spurned lover, or does the plurality of “us” suggest a larger listenership?
One answer is that it could be a sequel to “Head Over Heels,” released as a single in Britain without fanfare and their first single to fall short of the Top 20 since 1975. It does its best to reach back to the purposeful, single-minded Abba of even four years previously, but can’t reach those waters any more; there is a theatrical tango, but its propulsion is tangled up in a mesh of qualifying minor chords. It attempts to be happy but fundamentally is unhappy. Perhaps the protagonist of “One Of Us” is the ambitious, overachieving subject of “Head Over Heels” with her (as she sees it) slow and dimwit husband whom she is clearly impatient to leave behind (“She’s extreme/If you know/What I mean”). She pushes through unknown jungles, runs the gauntlet in a whirl of lace, and wants everything but doesn’t seem too happy when she gets it. Is the song about Mrs Thatcher, or Princess Diana? The not really resolving series of solemn minor chords which ends the song does nothing to dispel the sense of artificial disturbance.
On “When All Is Said And Done,” lead singer Frida gets commendably to the point. Gone is even the residue of sixties idealism on “Our Last Summer”; here she simply states, we’re finished, it’s nobody’s fault, we changed or the world changed and we didn’t notice, or couldn’t keep up. Despite the self-mocking but partly defiant couplet which includes the only mention of the word “sex” in any Abba song, the surface ennui conceals a profounder tragedy – they are in a café (“One more toast/And then we’ll/Pay the bill”) and they are parting. No more dancing to the old music; they have seen too much, too much has happened to them, for that to work now. And yet we leave the pair at the crossroads (“No desire to run/There’s no hurry/Any more”); they cannot quite make the final cut, cannot tell themselves that they do not still love each other.
“Soldiers” was the subject of much criticism in 1981, being interpreted as a straightforward salute to allegedly brave freedom-fighters, but I think it is a lot more complex and unsettling than that; both bass and keyboards point the way to the autumnal second side of New Gold Dream, while the song and lyric themselves are strongly reminiscent of 1980’s “This Fear Of Gods” (“Someone singing in the shower”). The song’s gait is subtly ungainly, and we are told that soldiers sing the songs that “you and I” don’t; the line “You’d think that nothing in the world was wrong” recalls Joy Division’s “Transmission” (“We could go on as though nothing was wrong”) and there seems little in the way of joy or celebration at work here; more a resigned sense of dread – “If the bugler/Starts to play/We too must dance.” References to the “beast” “stirring” remind us that Abba, like true Swedes, had to maintain political neutrality, but clearly this was harder to achieve with every year and every new hint of oppression that bled through. A thunderstorm drawing near in a cold December (“in the grip of this cold December,” no less, and that “grip” is crucial)? “Let’s not look the other way” – for fear of the “blinding light”? Remember that this was still 1981, and the nuclear threat had certainly not gone away; thus “Soldiers” is by no means a reassuring song.
“I Let The Music Speak” is an obvious advance from its predecessor’s “Andante, Andante,” an elaborate song about the mechanics of writing music and the effect that it can have on a composer or a performer. Although Frida sings (and somehow possesses) the song, it was Björn’s concept and perhaps shows him beginning to move away from the notion of “Abba”; an earnest orchestration and successive trapdoors of unexpected chord changes suggest that the group was no longer enough for its writers – the song is clearly a halfway house between The Girl With The Golden Hair and Chess, but note the continued cries, the constant need to surrender to the music, as one might surrender to an army.
“Slipping Through My Fingers” was sung by Agnetha, and was about her and Björn’s daughter Linda – then aged seven – starting school. As an adult song it is heartbreaking, not the less for being a million miles away from “Waterloo” and that song’s own jejeune notions of surrender; the child is leaving, departing, changing, and not too bothered about it (“Waving goodbye/With an absent-minded smile”). The mother looks on and knows that something in herself has begun to die. The child is growing up, always slightly beyond her mother’s grasp or understanding, such that the mother has begun to pine and maybe even to mourn; she views sleepy breakfasts as a squandering of precious time, and she knows that, little by little, the girl she sends out to school every morning is not quite the same girl who will return in the afternoon; she will have learned a little more, grown a little more, changed a little more. And, rather than enjoy the here and now, her mother wants to freeze these moments, and perhaps freeze life. She begins to mourn: “What happened to the wonderful adventures?/The places I had planned for us to go?/Well, some of that we did…but most, we didn’t.”
Perhaps – so many “perhaps”es when it comes to Abba – the child is the same girl who will leave home forever in “I Wonder (Departure)” with her own optimistic sadness. But there is no mention of children in “When All Is Said And Done,” just as there is no mention of any father or husband in “Slipping Through My Fingers.” It is the awful, sober realisation that the shallow promises of even six or seven years earlier couldn’t be followed through – that there is nothing to look forward to, except nothingness.
And so we arrive at Frida, uniquely alone – the only Abba song to be as such – on “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” – does she even have a house any more? – old, maybe prematurely so, and everybody and everything has gone, outlived, or lost, by her. “Long awaited darkness falls” – as long awaited as those visitors, if they themselves do not represent Death – and she is sitting by the embers of her fireplace, which die out as the song progresses. Comparisons with Richard Strauss’ “Im Abendrot” may not be fanciful (“O vast, tranquil peace,/So deep in the evening’s glow!/How weary we are of wandering - /Is this perhaps a hint of death?”) since there is a definite kinship in terms of finality of purpose and thought. “Love was one prolonged good-bye,” Frida muses, to the accompaniment of nothing much save celeste, minimalist synthesiser and drum machine. She sees images float by her closed eyes and wonders: was that all there was? As she stops singing, as if to go to sleep, and the song ends, the clock which has been ticking all the way throughout continues ticking for a short while, then stops.
I am not sure that we have experienced such a phenomenon before in this tale – an album which ends with its protagonist dying (and that includes things like Carousel and West Side Story, where the last voice is not that of the deceased person, although an argument could be made for My Fair Lady - does Eliza return to Higgins only in his afterlife?). It is a terrible dwindling down even from the half-dissatisfied Abba of the Greatest Hits days, though some might argue that the germination of their decline was already there, clear for anyone with eyes to see. And we know that, at the time of writing, none of these people has actually died; they are all still active in their own individual ways. We know that shortly after completing her work on The Visitors Frida will record a solo album with Phil Collins producing – Collins, whose Face Value ended with a cover of…”Tomorrow Never Knows.” You may also be aware that this will not be the last Abba entry on Then Play Long, not even within the group’s own lifetime. There is still a summary and an important postscript to come in a year which will owe much of its goodness to Abba. But The Visitors feels like an ending, even to an afterlife; look at the back cover of the record, where all we see is a wall of paintings, including many angels and cherubs – and isn’t that Eros again, and isn’t it much smaller on the front? But what’s that at bottom centre, next to a source of light we haven’t seen before? It’s the front cover, and they are just subjects of another painting, another closing book in a procession of reproductions. And we try looking closer and wondering if it shows nothing except shadows.
It’s not the happiest of endings, is it?
I read Dubliners. Good Lord, “The Dead”!
That’s one way of putting it.
And Huston tried to film that?
It wasn’t very good. We were sympathetic because we knew it would be his last film. But, right at the end, with those paragraphs, he gives up, lets Gabriel Byrne’s voiceover just read the unfilmable.
And those words resonated with you in 1981?
I’m not sure they stopped resonating. It’s hard. To look at a whole culture and see that it possesses a dead centre. Existing only because Michael Furey wouldn’t stay in bed and Ian Curtis…well…
What did you make of 1981?
In terms of number one albums? It’s hard to draw a straight line. Adam and the Ants to the Human League? Cliff Richard and Charles and Diana? Star Sound to Shakin’ Stevens? It does strike me that a lot of these records don’t know what love is, or even what newness was. To put it plain, the ones which stayed in their safe past were doomed, while the ones unafraid to look forward were the ones which are going to be remembered. That’s all I can glean from it. What can I say? It was a year of singles. So was 1982.
That doesn’t sound promising.
The album chart likes to maintain business as usual; so much so that a future entry will be named after that tendency. Anybody expecting an avalanche of New Pop is going to be severely disappointed…
With one violent exception.
I know. It’s getting closer and closer.
Nervous about it?
Not as nervous as I would have been if I’d known nothing about the record.
No call for darkness or slow, agonising daylight, then?
Don’t be impertinent. Everyone who comes to a record with the purpose of writing about it should have their own story. That’s a key thing about music writing; if the record is telling a story, then any writer of worth should also be able to tell a story, even if the two stories are not the same.
What story are you telling, exactly?
Mine, to some extent. But only up to a point. Some of the 1982 entries may clarify what some people persist in referring to as “the bigger picture.”
There is a bigger picture, then?
Oh, yes. I was never in doubt about that. The whole tale is working towards that picture.
That ending, though. So sad. So terminal. And yet they didn’t die.
They are stronger than their characters. How else could Alasdair Gray have otherwise killed off Duncan Thaw?
Oh yes, THAT other book that came out in 1981.
There is no better book. Or books.
You and your big claims.
If you’re dealing with number one albums, you have to acknowledge a world of bigness.
The biggest one is yet to come.
Let’s just think about Billy, and “Party Fears Two,” and the way in which New Pop has developed its own tradition, complete with remembrance. And the promise of “White Car In Germany” and everything that was to flow from it. And I’m happy that Abba can still, in 2013, be happy.
One not-too-slight matter. Who were “the visitors”?
It was obvious, really. Look at that cover. Notice anything apart from the fact that they’re studiously not looking at each other?
They’re not looking at us either. You would think they were trying not to catch our eye, or pretend that we didn’t exist.
Exactly. The “visitors” are Abba’s audience.
Like Billy Connolly used to say at the end of his concerts: “I’m the one who’s going to hell, you were only watching.”
Quite. Look and listen, but never pry.
Time for a quotation?
And a picture, I think. Something that Billy Mac would have appreciated, and probably saw many times. A reminder that people’s lives are wider, deeper and more important than any record.
“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
(Venerable Bede, History of the English People)
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 19:03
Sunday, 9 June 2013
(#257: 12 December 1981, 1 week)
Volume 1: It’s My Party (Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin)/Open Your Heart (Human League)/Lay All Your Love On Me (Abba)/You’ll Never Know (Hi-Gloss)/Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star (Bill Wyman)/Kids In America (Kim Wilde)/Prisoner (Sheila B. Devotion)/Everlasting Love (Rachel Sweet & Rex Smith)/Birdie Song (The Tweets)/Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart) (Ottawan)/In And Out Of Love (Imagination)/Just Can’t Get Enough (Depeche Mode)/Vienna (Ultravox)/Heart And Soul (Exile)/Lock Up Your Daughters (Slade)/Piece Of The Action (Bucks Fizz)/Can Can (Bad Manners)/Hooked On Classics (Louis Clark conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
Volume 2: One Day In Your Life (Michael Jackson)/Being With You (Smokey Robinson)/Labelled With Love (Squeeze)/Back To The Sixties (Part II) (Tight Fit)/Outlaw (Gerard Kenny)/You Should Hear (Charlie Dore)/Hanging Around (Hazel O’Connor)/In Your Letter (REO Speedwagon)/Shut Up (Madness)/Under Your Thumb (Godley and Crème)/Souvenir (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark)/One In Ten (UB40)/Thunder In The Mountains (Toyah)/Mule (Chant No 2) (Beggar & Co.)/Chemistry (Nolans)/Qwaka Song (Waders)/Panic (The Scoop)/Stars On 45 (Vol. 2) (Starsound); This Ole House (Shakin’ Stevens)
Sometimes I wonder whether I am the Dr David Huxley of music writing. For those whose memories of cinema reach back no further than Star Wars Chapter 4: A New Hope, Dr Huxley is the palaeontologist played by Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, dutifully and joylessly filling up his years piecing together the skeleton of a brontosaurus before Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance intervenes to demonstrate to him that all the ticked-off history of the world may mean nothing next to the basic human need to have fun, that one warm. living bone is worth a thousand old, ossified ones (with the attendant underlying, if unspoken, question: what will you do once the skeleton is complete?). If I thought Then Play Long were about nothing save the careful piling-up of a load of old bones then it wouldn’t be worth writing. The tale would be nothing if it were mere archaeology; its purpose – one of many, if not quite the main one – is to bring old bones back to new life.
I have to be frank with you. At the beginning of this year there was some talk about turning Then Play Long into a regular weekly feature in a leading broadsheet newspaper (respecting the journalistic credo of confidentiality as I do, I won’t tell you which one, so don’t bother submitting guesses in your comments because they won’t get published). This felt like an attractive option; having worked on the tale for just over four years – roughly, the period of time Huxley has spent putting his skeleton together – without earning a penny from it, I thought it would be nice to at least get paid for writing it, and also TPL itself would benefit from the publicity. Remembering the experience of The Blue In The Air, I also knew that each entry would have to be entirely new; no one is going to pay to read something that they can see on the internet for free.
After the initial flurry of interest, I heard nothing further, and therefore assume that nothing came of the proposal. But I gave the matter some thought, and it drew my attention back to how this tale was structured in the first place, and raised the question of whether such a tale would really work in a newspaper environment.
One very recent deciding factor was as recent as yesterday, when I discovered that one of the years to be featured on next week’s edition of BBC Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops show was 1959. We dutifully looked up the NME chart for the requisite week, and it was something of a shock. A chart which I have known for nearly forty years, having been unexamined for so long, suddenly looked as distant and remote as the Anti-Corn Law League. The list was an antique; I wondered whether anybody under sixty, let alone fifty, could be expected to remember any of the records in it. More of a startlement, however, was that so many of the artists in that chart have now passed into history; there is already one dead person in the list (Buddy Holly) and so few of the others, at the time of writing, survive still; Cliff, Chris Barber, Craig Douglas, Lloyd Price, Marty Wilde (the latter the most pertinent in relation to this piece), maybe some (or all?) of the Kaye Sisters and/or the Fleetwoods, precious few others besides. The chart itself would qualify for a skeleton at the entry hall of the Natural History Museum.
Connected with this was the original plan that I had for Then Play Long - and even that took some thought. Where to begin? My initial idea was to write about all the number one albums within Lena’s lifetime. I could have started with the first Monkees album – a good enough start, but one which would have arrived without explanation or background story. Strictly speaking, I should have started with The Sound Of Music, but that would have produced instant bafflement.
What about my own lifetime? The number one album when I was born was With The Beatles, one of that class of records now routinely referred to as “a solid sophomore effort”; again, not a bad beginning, but a prematurely consolidatory beginning (and therefore a contradictory one), and it would have missed the forget-the-war/turn-monochrome-to-colour spark of Please Please Me.
So I finally took the decision to go right back to the beginning, to 1956, and do the lot. This was not done out of mere perversity. A lot of these early records are in imminent danger – perhaps more so than in 2008 - of slipping out of history; many have not returned to the CD format, either in or out of copyright, and I did not feel it was right to let them pass unmentioned, or try to revive them, whichever ones were worth reviving. Furthermore, when listening to the early number ones, it struck me that they were indispensable chapters in the wider story that this tale is trying to tell; a central idea of Then Play Long is that all the albums connect with each other, in ways osmotic or disparate, as the thigh bone connects to the hip bone (but where to put that intercostal clavicle; which record will shoulder the burden?).
Knitted in with this was the dawning knowledge that this approach may in part have been suicidal. Remember that Please Please Me was the 33rd album to make number one in Britain, and at the rate of one album per week, this meant that readers hardy enough to stay the course were made to wait eight months before any sign of Beatles. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers? A terrific start, and one which was warmly received – but in my heart of hearts I already knew that the following prospect of three consecutive Rodgers and Hammerstein musical soundtracks could not but have depressed the most open of hearts, and would have put them off even waiting for the fifth and sixth entries (Bill Haley and Elvis respectively). Would any broadsheet reader be prepared to sit through eight months of 101 Strings, Kenny Ball and the George Mitchell Minstrels? I doubt whether the feature would even have lasted as far as South Pacific, and indeed my decision to write about all the albums – including the early ones – would prove a blow from which the blog has not really recovered.
The idea was also to try to mimic the bland, suffocating impatience of the British teenage audience of the fifties, waiting and waiting for something, or somebody, to happen – hence the much stronger sense of catharsis when the Beatles finally did appear. But in truth most potential readers got bored and wandered off elsewhere to read about Everything Everything and Ke$ha. Even now I am not sure that people are approaching this tale in the spirit with which it was devised; I suspect, from looking at the number of hits each piece gets, that most readers are merely pausing to read about their favourites and bypassing the less immediately attractive entries, not realising that each is a chapter of the same story that must be read in full, and in sequence, to make sense. It’s rather a lot to ask of an audience, and would have been thus even in 1956.
What this is all leading to is the question, in the late 1981 in which this tale now finds itself, of what people want from music, and specifically what they want from albums, and how that want relates in turn to what an audience wanted from singles (I hope you are following all of this). As I have said before, 1981 was the year of the single; it is in that format that the great leaps and innovations were made, whereas in terms of its number one albums it looks as mollifying and directionless a year as any since…well, 1977. I would guess that, for anyone who lived through 1981, compiling a list of that year’s great singles would involve a run into the hundreds, and perhaps even the thousands. There were, very literally, half-a-dozen or so new ideas flooding into pop every week.
With this in mind, if a thirty-eight track double compilation album of the year’s singles were to be made, it would ideally have to be unbeatable, definitive. And I am not sure that K-tel, as 1981 crept to its crepuscular close, had it in them to paint the picture that the year needed. Let’s put it all into context. Here is a list of the top twenty singles of the year as voted for by the writers of the NME:
1. Ghost Town – The Specials
2. Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel – Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
3. Me No Pop I – Kid Creole & the Coconuts Present Coati Mundi
4. (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang – Heaven 17
5. Love Action (I Believe In Love) – Human League
6. Mama Used To Say – Junior Giscombe
7. Tears Are Not Enough – ABC
8. Pull Up To The Bumper – Grace Jones
9. O Superman (For Massenet) – Laurie Anderson
10. Walking On Thin Ice (For John) – Yoko Ono
11. Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me) – Gap Band
12. Tainted Love – Soft Cell
13. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag – Pigbag
14. Rapp Payback – James Brown
15. Wordy Rappinghood – Tom Tom Club
16. Let’s Groove – Earth, Wind & Fire
17. The Razor’s Edge – Defunkt
18. Being With You – Smokey Robinson
19. Four Movements (E.P.) – Thomas Leer
20. Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
Now that is not the least reasonable list you could find for that year. The list is somewhat pious and pleased with itself, perhaps more concerned with pleasing the DJs at the Wag Club than changing shapes and minds, and as with all such lists there are still too many things missing, but I bought all of these records, and most of them would have formed the cornerstone of many a student or young person’s mixtape (in the days when mixtapes were, mixtapes, recorded onto both sides of a blank C90 cassette). Of these twenty singles, seventeen made the Top 40, sooner or later (Pigbag and Junior Giscombe not until 1982, Grace Jones in 1986, “Fascist Groove Thang” as late as 1993) – but only two of them appear on Chart Hits ‘81.
What is most interesting about the above list is how the records on it appeared to be radically reshaping expectations about what a pop single could offer, most importantly in the differing ways in which most of them embraced the 12-inch format, and what the latter could do to change the way that a “single” was perceived. Indeed, three of the twenty – Grandmaster Flash, Defunkt and Thomas Leer – were only available on 12-inch, although the Laurie Anderson and Pigbag singles were, at the time, only available on 7-inch (the eight-and-a-half minute “O Superman,” which in itself was enough to dispel received notions about the capabilities of what was possible on a single, was pressed to be played at 33⅓ rpm).
But enjoyment of most of the others was enhanced by their 12-inch status. “Ghost Town” is unimaginable without the extended space for Rico’s desolate trombone solo, terminated by what sounds like a sarcophagus being slammed on top of it. “Me No Pop I” really needs its “Que Pasa” prelude to contextualise its own louche lushness. The “Hard Times”/”Love Action” segue is beyond sublime. “Tainted Love,” a fragment of a pop record in its basic form, sold most of its million copies on 12-inch, featuring the slowly patient but emotionally satisfying progression, or recovery, from Gloria Jones to “Where Did Our Love Go?” “The Razor’s Edge” is a furious nine-minute free jazz/funk workout which crashes into the point of epilepsy (“I gave up a lot BUT I WON’T GIVE IN!” yells Joseph Bowie, in between trombone blasts from himself and ragged brass from brothers Lester and Byron). The four-track Four Movements, from Port Glasgow’s Thomas Leer – the Howard Jones “we” should have had – is utterly charming and on occasion (“Tight As A Drum”) makes Leer sound like a kindly uncle to Calvin Harris. The 12-inch of “Just Can’t Get Enough” takes the song in a quite drastically different direction, towards an unfolding minor-key elegy worthy of 1977 Kraftwerk.
Little of this revolution is really evident on Chart Hits ‘81, except by implication. Of its thirty-eight tracks, six – and even by these standards, that is quite a lot – did not even make the UK Top 75, let alone the Top 40, and I suspect none of them would have made anybody’s end-of-year list. The trend was to sell half an album extra by stealth; buy one, get the other free – but the retail price was substantially higher than that for a standard single album, and neither album could be purchased separately; see the visual sleight-of-hand Peter Powell pulls on the accompanying television commercial (as well as the verbal one: note how the advertisement concentrates on the compilation’s good tracks. Furthermore, both albums shared the same catalogue number – NE 1142).
The Now era is still two years away, but already there were signs that this particular decade-long bandwagon was running out of fuel (although it should be noted that the success of these late-period BOGOF compilations was a major factor in persuading EMI and Virgin to go with a double album format for the Now series). There is the sense that the K-tel one-size-fits-all approach simply isn’t working any more. One has to feel some sympathy for stalwart compilers Nigel Mason and Don Reedman (although on Volume 1 there is an amusing Freudian slip in their credit, where the album is “Complied by…”) who presumably had to make the best of a bad job with the material that they had available. Several major labels contributed tracks, but there is nothing from EMI, WEA or Phonogram, and only one from Chrysalis (hence no Blondie, Spandau Ballet, Linx or Specials) and two from Virgin/Dindisc (Human League and OMD; if filler tracks had been required, then things like Martha and the Muffins’ “Women Around The World At Work” or even Rip Rig & Panic’s “Bob Hope Takes Risks” would have been far preferable to the Waders or The Scoop). One has to take into account the possibility that many eligible tracks had already been cherry-picked for previous 1981 K-tel/Ronco albums, or sidetracked to hipper compilations (e.g. Virgin’s excellent Methods Of Dance), or simply that many big-selling acts just didn’t want or need to have their work on TV-advertised compilations – hence, despite the many appearances of artists from the CBS/Epic stable, there is nothing from Adam and the Ants.
What, therefore, is left? In some ways the record could be interpreted as a heartfelt argument against nostalgia, in the sense that its contents and their sequencing suggest that the old ways of the Radio 1-approved pop single were simply spent, and concomitantly that new angles were making their way into the picture. Make no mistake; the majority of Chart Hits ‘81 is dreck, and when it’s good, many of the tracks are edited so badly as to disguise their quality and attraction. I cannot imagine anyone seriously interested in Madness or Squeeze who would have gone for this above 7 or East Side Story (then again, “Labelled With Love” is here in its entirety, and “Shut Up” only has a mildly premature early fade. But I think the argument still stands).
The nature of this album’s central dilemma can be found in its varying examples of cover versions; indeed the whole compilation begins and ends with cover versions done in a markedly different fashion from the originals, such that their own innate originality casts a dim light on the workaday boom-CLAP medleys (which are here represented thrice), not to mention lacklustre attempts like Rachel Sweet and Rex Smith’s misreading of “Everlasting Love” (half the chord changes are missed or messed up, the song should NEVER be sung as a duet, and Sweet is more than all right but Smith is a permed hunk in search of a voice – strangely enough, Smith did a lot better a few years later as part of Joseph Papp’s pop production of The Pirates Of Penzance) or Hazel O’Connor’s overstrained, overacted Stranglers cover, which I remember booming endlessly from my local Students’ Union bar at the time; credit is due to saxophonist Wesley Magoogan, who does his best to get the song to more interesting places. “Back To The Sixties (Part II)” makes me want to jump from a twentieth-floor window, especially when it dawns on me that the haven’t-we-heard-that-falsetto-somewhere-before impersonating Frankie Valli and Graham Nash is Paul da Vinci.
But there is the chart-topping Canterbury Rock subversion of Lesley Gore (which in its original form, if you know anything about Gore’s life, is quite subversive in itself) where two former members of Hatfield and the North, one of whom wears a balaclava and totes a chainsaw on the 45 cover, turn teen angst into Gothic apocalypse, with the added subtext (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) of Mrs Thatcher in mind. Its appearance at the beginning of Chart Hits ‘81 effectively throws down a gauntlet to the rest of the record. Adapt the old for the new, or just embrace the new, or else you’re going to get left behind.
The question of oldness is thrown into sharper perspective by the presence of two veteran British rockers, and their differing approaches to what pop in 1981 ought to, or simply could, mean. The rockabilly revival was up and running, Shaky was at the top of the charts, and what do you know, Alvin Stardust, absent from the singles chart for nearly six-and-a-half years, strolls right back into the top five – on the Stiff label, no less (and the same label as “It’s My Party”) – with a jaunty, Stevens-esque reading of a song he’d probably been singing and playing since the days of skiffle (and hence a subtle nod to Shaky in the “yes, but I was here and doing this first” sense); a song all about pretending you’re something that you’re not, keeping one’s countenance, making do and mending.
Marty Wilde had other ideas. If in 1976 somebody had told you that Ricky Wilde and Slik’s Midge Ure were the names to watch in the early eighties you’d have laughed them out of the pub. But although Ricky himself never had a hit in his home country as a performer, he got into writing and production, and both father and son joined forces to create a hip eighties career for daughter/sister Kim. She was more than up for it; “Kids In America” was a spectacular start, from its opening atonal synth car horn blasts and the singer “looking out a dirty old window” – but then making the break, and her escape. As snarling punk backing vocals make themselves known over shimmering sequencers, one is startled to recall that one of these men was once a serious rival to Cliff Richard, yet by 1981 was significantly hipper than Cliff. Unlike the daughters Slade advise to be locked up, Kim is never going to stay where she was.
“Vienna” too is present in its unedited form; as both were number two singles I won’t say too much about either here, except to note that Midge Ure’s Vienna and Kim Wilde’s America are both, essentially, mental constructs, fantasies (how else to explain “East California”?). But how many Ultravox fans or lovers of “Vienna” would settle for this rather than the original album, or the 12-inch single in its sleeve’s green-on-white placidity (it is almost an exact colour scheme reversal of the 12-inch cover of New Order’s “Ceremony”) or think that the record’s quality would embarrass most of what surrounded it? An induced fantasy “Vienna” is, though; the violins and piano are dusty, being recalled from a received memory (hence the song is the classical counterpart to the haywire romanticism of its sister song, Simple Minds’ “Thirty Frames A Second”) and Ure, who at times (especially when double-tracked) sounds like Cliff Richard, sounds righteously agonised when he cries “The image is gone, only you and I,” and you realise what he gleaned from the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician” (which was “Vienna”’s primary inspiration); a dream of a better world set against the harshly grey reality in which its protagonist is stuck (hence Billy Currie’s multi-instrumentation serves the same role as Big Jim Sullivan’s Spanish guitar and Dave MacRae’s strings on “The Electrician”).
The best of the rest of Chart Hits ‘81 aspires to this half-dreamed better world. There is a particularly sublime segue sequence at the beginning of side two of Volume 2: “Under Your Thumb” (a Stones subversion, to be placed as an argument against the repulsive “Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star” – it is hard to listen to the latter and join it up with the notion that the same man, in the same year, played on “Start Me Up” and “Waiting On A Friend”) by the returning Godley and Crème (10cc do not really appear in this tale, but are unarguable friendly forebears of New Pop; Joy Division and New Order would record in their studios, Trevor Horn listened to “I’m Not In Love” however many thousand times, and learned, and even “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds as though it cocked at least quarter of an ear to their 1975 operatic three-part epic “Une Nuit Á Paris,” composed by Godley and Crème), on TOTP looking like OMD’s parents, telling a disorientating ghost story set in an abandoned train carriage, which may or may not have been influenced by whatever sort of cigarette Godley rolled for himself (and, come to think of it, what the hell is he doing skulking around a bunch of disused trains in the middle of a thunderstorm? How did he get there?). This is Manchester, and it is 1981; the implications are inescapable.
But the segue into “Souvenir” is a knockout. Knocked out into an altered consciousness, that is, and sets my memory working in another direction:
Paul Morley was given both Architecture And Morality and Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell to review for the NME, and he wrote up both as a joint review. He was suspicious of OMD, sniffed pretension and ponderousness, and much preferred the Basildon boys with their daft and sneakily perverse bubblegum songs. I bought both records, seeing them as complementary experiences, like life and death, or tragedy and rebirth.
As ex-Factory recording artists (albeit from Liverpool rather than Manchester) OMD knew as well as anyone the importance of what had happened about 18 months previously in catalysing/causing New Pop. Architecture And Morality is flooded by rememberances of that group. Even the first lines of the first track "The New Stone Age" refer directly to "Decades" - "This is the room/This is the wall/This is the body/I've been hoping for" - a heavily ironic paean to triumph set against a chorus of "Oh my God what have we done this time?" (i.e. pressed the button) by a perpetrator similar in nature to that of R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend" seven years thereafter, hammering at the walls of his bunker. Musically quite unlike anything else OMD ever did - a ukulele-timbered multi-guitar thrash vs. electrobeat, reminiscent of nothing so much as The Fall. Back to basics after the ruination?
As they salute "Closer" so must they salute "Atmosphere" in the second track - and the number one single which never was - "She's Leaving," one of the great faux-JD/New Order songs, though lyrically a sequel to, and refutation of, McCartney's "She's Leaving Home" with the protagonist disillusioned with the proverbial man-from-the-motor-trade ("A cheap affair/A sordid truth") and returning to home, having abandoned even hope.
Then came "Souvenir," here edited not very helpfully, but incorporating the extra verse absent from the album. Guided by a hovering choral drone which periodically crops up throughout the album in various guises (Greek chorus?) this plaintive cousin of a manifesto to Kevin Rowland's "Let's Make This Precious" is sung by co-author Paul Humphreys, sounding very much like David Van Day. Unsettling enough to stop school disco participants in their thoughts, if not their tracks; yet still a top three hit. In the context of Chart Hits ‘81 it flashes like a siren of hope amidst so many unpromising swamps.
"Sealand" summarises and completes side one and is the axis of the album. A slight return to the ambience of "Stanlow" which concluded their previous album Organisation but reaching much further out and with a far less assured destination. Long, percussive drifts with occasional melodica inserts (JD/NO again) and an elementary minor-key synth theme, this anticipates Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 by some 13 years. The solemnly intoned lyrics are a sort of haiku: "Sealand/She forgets/Her friends/She'll not/Leave them/Again/Mother/Sister/And home/These arms/Fail you/So." So. The next chapter on from "She's Leaving" but with a home which cannot quite be articulated. "These arms." War again? A piece which, like the rest of the album, needs to be ideally heard on Cromer beach on a windy November night.
But on side two this woman now turns out to be Joan of Arc, or a convenient metaphor for her rootlessness and purposeless sacrifices, which will happen time and time again. "Joan of Arc" the song (#5 in winter 1981 as a single; so near to Christmas) tells the story of the break-up from the male protagonist - "Baby Please Don't Go" for Carl Dreyer fans. An immaculate electropop ballad with an impassioned vocal from McCluskey - almost a Barry McGuire-type growl ("Listen to us gooohud and-a listen well-ah!") - and even more impressive overacting on TOTP, as I recall. Note the sunrise synthesisers which flood into the song from verse two onwards – direct from “Atmosphere.”
Next "Maid Of Orleans" which seems to be about Joan of Arc proper, and incredibly a bigger hit than its predecessor (#4 in January 82) with some uncompromising Cabaret Voltaire-type atonality for an intro (cue confused Radio 1 DJs at the time - "They're just tuning up - heh heh - here's the proper song!” The word you are searching for is “payback”). Possibly, along with Japan's "Nightporter" (which isn't really) the only electropop waltz ever to make the UK charts.
The title track is a quasi-industrial instrumental - sort of Throbbing Gristle's "Six Six Sixties" as scored by Vangelis. Lots of heavy machinery sound-effects and a fearlessly discordant choral bass drone set against a Village-type wakey-wakey set of ice-cream chimes (false security?).
"Georgia" was briefly mooted as a fourth single but not released as one. A fairly palpable WWIII scenario song "Well! Here we are again! Too good to be friends!" with some great samples of whirligig noises and staunch Red Army choir, and a predictably glum payoff: "Dancing in the ruins of the Western World/Blindfolds on and we don't care." Cue a final solemn synth swirl, from whose bowels emerge a chanteuse from the previous war "Keep the home fires warm - but none survive." Again, bear in mind this was 1981 and therefore this was actually pretty scary at the time. It still is, really.
A wistful ballad (a new beginning?) to end - "The Beginning and the End" with an almost Mike Oldfield-esque guitar (synth?) motif. He and she (Architecture and Morality?) are reunited but now both hearts have to be sacrificed - "And here you and I/Parting due to me only/And now . . ." And now to Radiohead, and the Depeche Mode of Songs Of Love And Devotion, and probably even unto Boards of Canada and These New Puritans (and not even bringing James Joyce into it. Not yet, anyway).
Back to Chart Hits ‘81, and “Souvenir” flows, entirely logically, into “One In Ten,” a less showy “Ghost Town” which (passionately, disguised as impassive) lists people 1981 society (and 2013 society) would prefer not to think existed, fogs of saxophone, guitar and rhythm passing by as slowly as clouds over the decaying Birmingham. ELO’s “Hello, My Old Friend” was written about the same place at the same time, and what else is Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” about? The whole “New Romantic” stuff was smoke and mirrors; “Look down, look all around/There’s no sign of life.” Oh, it’s 1981 Birmingham, all right. The water in the bucket is cold, and it will be poured over such pretence of merriment. Or things like “Thunder In The Mountains” which may well also be about the degradation of the Second City, with its reference to the motorway being a monument and its odd mid-song predication of “It’s Grim Up North” but is scuppered by tuneless (and endless) wailing over what sounds like rehashed seventies prog-rock. It’s like an actress acting the part of a punk.
Because I’m not sure there’s much in the way of actual fun or humour on this record. It’s still the old ways versus the incoming ways. A case in point: “You’ll Never Know” was done by a New York group of session players for Prelude Records – if you listen carefully you’ll hear Luther Vandross among the backing singers – and its chief interest now is as a predicant of “Don’t Look Any Further.” The song and performance are overblown; it is like an especially bad Eurovision entry, thrice-translated, clunky and ploddy, the sort of thing which occasioned a trip to the bathroom on Sunday afternoons, waiting for something more interesting to appear on the Radio 1 Top 40 show (the irony now being that, on Pick Of The Pops, which currently has the same presenter as the Radio 1 Top 40 show did in 1981, the aim appears to be, as someone once said on the Digital Spy message board, to “skim past all the good records and play all the slow, boring ones.” Chart Hits ‘81 appears to have been constructed on a similar premise. For Prelude Records, D-Train’s “You’re The One For Me,” by the end of 1981 already tearing up dancefloors on import, evidently couldn’t come too soon.
Whereas Britain’s Imagination sound, as I once wrote, as liquid and evanescent as 1986 Cocteau Twins. “In And Out Of Love” was pretty much a mirror image of their debut hit, the great “Body Talk,” but its blood flows deeper (“You chained me with hostility,” “You know the nightmares I’ve been having”), Leee John’s very patient androgynous vocal lending nothing beyond the sustained tearfulness of his high notes. Writers and producers Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, knowing side two of Barry White’s Stone Gon’ very well, construct a libidinous rainbow of jilted pianos, distant string synthesisers and wobbling beats, directly anticipating “Moments In Love” and indirectly laying the path for Massive Attack. The old is dying in front of our ears.
On which topic, “Labelled With Love,” rather than “Is That Love?” or “Tempted,” was the big hit single from East Side Story, and it too quietly demonstrates the horrors of growing old and remaining wilfully stuck in the past (it is like “Up The Junction” for a previous generation who haven’t yet, in 1981, died off, with its references to television sets and soldiers). Its subtitle here could be “We Can’t Go On Like This.”
Represented here is the only time in UK chart history when Motown succeeded Motown at number one, and yet again old ways lose out.
The wailing sax, placid electric piano and general '80s sonic opulence of "Being With You" indicate just how important the grain of the voice is to the greater pop. Had Lionel Richie or Jeffrey Osborne crooned the song it would have come across as unlistenably bland as their own runs of hits. But right from the opening, extended, playful "Oooooooh," which he extends over eight bars before launching into the song, Smokey Robinson's grain makes all of the necessary difference.
Although he already had a distinguished stream of gorgeous, slow-burning soul ballads in the course of his post-Miracles career - "Cruisin'" and "A Quiet Storm" being perhaps the best known - "Being With You" was the only one which hit big in Britain. A song about decisive love in the face of all opposition ("I don't care if they start to avoid me," "Don't let them say we told you so"), Smokey manages to address it to his potential Other, not just as a seal of unilateral defiance, but also as a plea for her actually to persevere with the relationship, since he's "heard about your heartbreak reputation" and is not entirely unconvinced that this isn't the truth - why else would he beg her to stay? So he is cautious in his expression of love, only abandoning rationality in his inimitable vibrati between lines, his wordless scale-ascending incantations, all of which indicate that this isn't quite the picture of serene love the song might initially seem to be painting.
"I don't care about anything else but being with you," he sighs in the chorus; the question is whether his cares are echoed and reciprocated. With those fantastic swelling harmonies in the verses, including a heavenly octave see-saw reminiscent of Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" (check out the version on Bley’s 1976 Dinner Music album if you're sceptical), all does feel lushly secure; but it's the doubt, the sweat which seeps through those "ooohs" which make Smokey, and this record, truly special.
In contrast, “One Day In Your Life” was a completely unexpected first British number one single for Jacko. Off The Wall bore four revolutionary top ten single smashes, but this hitherto rejected 1975 master was hastily retrieved from the bottom of the Motown archives and rushed out to capitalise on renewed public interest.
1975? You'd be hard pressed to date the record beyond 1965; if nothing else, "One Day In Your Life" demonstrates how right the Jacksons were to jump the Gordy ship - if this kind of MoR slop was the best Michael was being offered, no wonder he leapt so easily into the care of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. Clearly with an eye set on the already near moribund Donny Osmond market, "One Day In Your Life" incorporates all the MoR pop clichés of a decade earlier; the air-conditioned hotel bathroom sonics of Jack Jones, the stop-start structure of "Strangers In The Night," the vocal performance of a fairly disinterested Petula Clark, a lonesome harmonica (I don't think Stevie Wonder was playing it) which is nowhere near Bacharach, the sickly puce of the Ray Conniff backing vocals. It sets itself up as a wistful farewell ("You'll remember me somehow") but unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion, the mechanical, Pavlovian pulling of strings, prettiness instead of true beauty, plastic signifiers instead of the real tears which flood through the end of "She's Out Of My Life." I suspect Michael forgot all about the song approximately three minutes after recording it. And yet Britain took it to number one; who was more scared in 1981, Michael Jackson or the people of Britain?
There are a few more New Pop jewels to celebrate here. Speak And Spell was and is a divinely daft album, that is if you ignore the bitonalities and assorted threats of songs like “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead,” “Puppets” and “Photographic” (the latter far darker than the original Some Bizzare Album version). “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the crowning moment, however, and as befits their name it sounds singularly like French bubblegum; racing by, what the hell, tuxedos and toy trumpets, enough of the dinosaur, let’s have some fun. “Just like a rainbow/You know you set me free” means nothing and therefore everything, and could have been the last line of Bringing Up Baby. Bucks Fizz, on their follow-up to “Making Your Mind Up,” also prove – or at least their writer/producer Andy Hill does – that they are looking to more adventurous waters than the Brotherhood of Man (not that they know that yet, but never mind) with proto-Horn cascading drums, disjointed rhythms and so forth. “My Camera Never Lies,” one of the most extreme of all number one singles, was less than a year away.
And yet Madness’ “Shut Up” still has the power truly to shock, and more so in these surroundings. Rudely terminating REO Speedwagon’s timid fifties pastiche with a piano crashing to earth like a stray Cecil Taylor meteor, “Shut Up” – significantly the ambiguous title (is it a request, or an order, or is the verb non-transitive?) is never sung – careers between vaudeville singalong, Rawhide Western twang and dark, dark Carla Bley chord changes (in which the bass regularly lifts into silence, like dread being surgically removed from a patient). The protagonist is a petty criminal, and a pretty useless one at that, but Suggs has him turn quickly from apologetic patsy to accuser – it is as though the world, or at least 1981 Britain, is being blamed for what has happened, both to him and those whose windows he breaks (and the theme of windows being broken, or just stared out of, recurs throughout Chart Hits ‘81; there is a “broken windowpane” in “Under Your Thumb”). The moment near the end where Suggs snarlingly paraphrases Paul Weller from a year earlier (“…And I’ll forget/That what you give is what you get”) still has the ability to chill the blood.
Then there are the not-quite-also rans, including Beggar & Co., who deserve a much better tribute than that. “Mule (Chant No. 2),” as the title suggests, was a sequel to “Chant No 1,” with “Instinction” probably Spandau Ballet’s finest single, and indeed some of the Islingtonians are on audible hand here. A terrific song with incredible drive (its juxtapositions of “fool” with “mule” could act as a missing link between Family and Tricky), its parent album Monument should not be passed over if you find it sitting somewhere. Flute solos are usually a guarantor of good quality pop.
But there were also the Nolans, the poor, benighted Nolans who on “Chemistry” were trying very hard indeed. The tragedy here is that it almost works; the introduction and verses are convincingly funky and the vocal interplay anticipates Girls Aloud by a generation. But then somebody remembered the grannies in Arbroath, suffered a failure of nerve and so the song degenerates into a horrid, tacky, 1975 Two Ronnies-friendly chorus. The tragedy now, of course, is that (again at the time of writing) Bernie Nolan, who if the sisters had had a 1981 Xenomania available might have had the opportunity to be a great white soul singer, appears to be losing her long and fraught battle with cancer. They do not appear to have had a particularly happy time of things, even when their light entertainment careers were at their peak; the misery, depending on which sister is telling the story, seems to have come at them from all direction. Only the B.E.F. saw the potential in Bernie when they hired her to do “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” for Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 1; otherwise the Nolans never seem to have been given the room and the permission to speak.
Slade were back, but what a comedown from their seventies peak – like several other tracks on this collection which endeavour to be “rock” (“Everlasting Love” among them), they sound like a dry run for eighties Reaganrock. “Lock Up Your Daughters” is confused and spiritless, as though the group had been forced into a square not of their own making, as if neutered (it follows in the wake of “Smoke On The Water.” Happily, they would make a proper comeback slightly later in the eighties, but the same cannot be said of Kentucky’s Exile, who not long after “Heart And Soul” opted to concentrate on the country music market (with a degree of success). It is the same “Heart And Soul” with which Huey Lewis hit a couple of years later, but suffice to say Lewis puts an awful lot more character into his reading.
Likewise Pinner’s Charlie Dore has had a varied career as singer/songwriter, actress and comedienne. In case you’re wondering, “You Should Hear” is the same song as “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” a US top five hit for Melissa Manchester in July 1982, and Dore was actually first to the song (it was recorded in the States, with Toto as her backing band) but again, compared to Ms Manchester, Dore’s reading lacks individuality. Her big moment had been in 1979 with “Pilot Of The Airwaves,” one of those songs about radio which DJs love, although it was actually a far bigger hit in the USA (#13) than here (#66). I saw her once in the early nineties as part of a comedy/music troupe called Dogs On Holiday. She wasn’t bad at all, actually.
Still, it is fair to say that nobody, asked for their most cherished memories of 1981 pop, would quote “You Should Hear” or “Outlaw” (another awful and clumsy attempt at Hard Rock from a singer/songwriter who really ought to have known much, much better) or, for that matter, “Prisoner,” the Sheila B. Devotion single which nobody remembers. Worlds away from “Spacer” or even “Singin’ In The Rain,” this is a truly bad attempt to be Blondie, unconvincing Hard Rock with obligatory Soft Reggae break. “In Your Letter” is nothing like the two atrocious, ponderous ballads with which REO Speedwagon sent our charts to sleep in 1981, but neither is it any better; the kind of fifties pastiche which really ought to be left to Fleetwood Mac – singer Kevin Cronin sounds like Lindsey Buckingham accidentally sitting on a bed of nails, coated with treacle.
You might get the idea that Chart Hits ‘81 is a largely avoidable affair, but I do think that it has a few relevant points to make, not the least of which is the suggestion that all these disparate trends somehow converge on Abba; we get the Human League’s “Abba record,” we get the Xeroxed fake Abba of “Stars On 45 (Vol. 2)” (so why still the “Remember Twist And Shout” business?), and then we get the real Abba; the listener is left to draw their own conclusions. There is also the unlikeliest pointer to the future, or the present as we now know it, with Ottawan. “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)” is as intelligently daft, and as intrinsically French, as “D.I.S.C.O.,” but the interest here lies in what co-writer/producer Daniel Vangarde does in the spaces in between the beats; the four gavel-like bass notes which emerge from each chorus, the interlude where synthesisers randomly whoosh around the speakers and sound-effects come out of nowhere, with percussion rattling around electronic whirlpools. The song could have come out of something Vangarde might have sung to his seven-year-old son, Thomas Bangalter, but the influence lingered – this is the road which leads directly (along with so many other roads, some of which we have already traced) to “Get Lucky.”
But “Panic” by The Scoop?
Did this single even ever exist?
It did, and it is pretty lousy; a horrendous attempt to “do” Stranglers menace, nail it to Weller urgency and sub-sub-Mick Ronson guitar solos, and add a bad Iron Maiden impersonation on top, with place names belched at random, and a mysterious “they” who are “here” to “get you.” It is like a corporate version of “punk rock” and drowns in bad horns and pointlessly active drumming before coming to a commendably abrupt end. And yet this group did exist; they were from Chichester, and two of them would go on to appear on the front page and centrespread of the following summer’s Melody Maker as two-fifths of King Trigger, briefly 1982’s Next Big Thing, with one very minor hit single (“The River”) and if they ever did anything else, I was probably in a meeting.
But this is really making do and mending, in the fatal British way of doing these things. Ah well; nothing for it now but to go for the pub party market. Hence the awful “Birdie Song” and the even worse “Qwaka Song” which is the same tune as “Birdie Song” but with duck noises (it was enough to make me go and look for some Eugene Chadbourne/John Zorn freakouts to clear my head). I actually don’t mind Bad Manners ska-ing their way through “Can Can”; it is what it is. “Hooked On Classics” is as ghastly as ever; and yes, I dug out my ancient 7-inch of the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s “Classical Muddley” for an immediate antidote – still, the thought of the RPO grimacing their way through this mess in order to make enough money to keep going so that they can do their Webern and Feldman is a sufficiently tragic one.
About the only place on either of these albums where the performer sounds like they are having fun is right at the end. Shakin’ Stevens was unaware of the Rosemary Clooney original of “This Ole House” and knew the song from the NRBQ version, and he surely kicks out all ghosts with great gusto, arguing in his own way (note that angel appearing through his “broken windowpane”) for life after death, and life being superior to death. But only if the old songs can renew themselves, or be persuaded to be renewed. Chart Hits ‘81 describes with some acuity the passing of the old world and the necessity for a newer one. One of my aims is to try to show that the two can be concomitant, or how concomitance could come about. But given the involvement of Gavin Bryars in the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and the Scratch Orchestra from which it originally involved, I dedicate this piece to the shade of Cornelius Cardew, who died the week Chart Hits ‘81 went to number one, with the observation that the people’s music often reveals itself in strange and unexpected clothing.
(Author’s Note: some of the observations on Architecture And Morality have previously been published, though have been subtly revised.)
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 20:31
Tuesday, 4 June 2013
(#256: 14th November 1981, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Bohemian Rhapsody/Another One Bites The Dust/Killer Queen/Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race/You're My Best Friend/Don't Stop Me Now/Save Me/Crazy Little Thing Called Love/Somebody To Love/Now I'm Here/Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy/Play The Game/Flash/Seven Seas of Rhye/We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions
"Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?"- Public Enemy, "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic"
At some point in the spring of 1982 - most likely when I started to buy the irreverent US rock magazine Creem - I became aware of Lester Bangs. They had a full page tribute/obit to him in the first (or nearly as makes no difference) copy I bought. I knew his writing only from the Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll that my mom had given me for a present; I liked his writing the best in the book and knowing he'd written for Creem in the 70s I attempted to find some older issues - not easy in a small town like Oakville. I eventually went to Toronto, to Queen St. West, and found a used magazine shop that had some, and I got a couple, but sadly they were from the late 70s when he'd already moved to NYC to work on the now-lamented Village Voice. The shop itself was as non-descript as possible - one of the quietest shops I've ever been in - and seeing the men in beige raincoats looking very studiously indeed at other kinds of magazines put me off going in more than twice.
In any case, on the cover of one of the older issues was a picture of Freddie Mercury, peacockish as usual, the headline being something about how he had told those punk rockers what for (this must have been an issue from 1977). At this time I was just beginning to understand what punk rock was, period, let alone understand there were those who were unimpressed by it. Even at this point I didn't think Queen actually cared about punks that much, because Queen seemed to inhabit their own universe, adjacent to ours but not really caring, darling, about anyone else. Punks were mere gadflies to their own magnificent being.
Only much later would I learn just how Queen happened to meet any of those punks in the first place. And that they didn't actually mind each other, in fact. (In the book Bangs talks about Queen in the Heavy Metal chapter: "With the coming of the Seventies, however, there was a certain feeling that one might as well slouch toward Bethlehem with lace cuffs and powdered nose, so the Aristocratic wing of Anglo-metal was born...") I can't accept Queen as a metal group, but look who has claimed them for an influence and it's invariably folks who play loud, aggressive rock, from the Foo Fighters to Guns 'n' Roses - Queen may have had lace cuffs, sure, but to the kids who loved all these songs growing up in the USA, they kicked ass, as well.
Greatest Hits is the biggest album of all time in the UK. It has sold about a kajillion copies worldwide and the version I am writing about here is the UK version; there are different versions depending on which hits were, well, hits. Other places, including Canada, have "Under Pressure" as one of those hits, but it's not here - it's on the next one. In case you were wondering "Where is it?"
At this point, Queen were at their peak; or rather, one of their peaks. A greatest hits collection (advertised, by the way, on tv) was bound to do well, but why has this one eclipsed all others? Is there something about it that is peculiarly/particularly British? Is this an album that holds a mirror up to the UK, and the UK says "Oh yes, I'll buy that" literally? Is this an album that all immigrants to the UK should be given once they successfully make it through customs? (In the USA immigrants would get The Eagles' Greatest Hits 1971-1975, of course. In either case I wonder how much either album would help any given newcomer adjust to their circumstances.)
First I will tackle the idea of greatest hits compilations. On the one hand they are terrific for the record company (esp. back in the 70s/80s, before "new" songs had to be done & tacked on to attract customers) as they were money for old rope - all the work done already, the hits easy to figure out - they're hits, anyone can look 'em up in the charts - and all you have to do is get a cover, a track listing, and away you go. Which is fine, but I can hear die hard fans of Queen (and any other artist) saying, yeah, but...the hits aren't always the best songs. The ones that get stuck in fans' heads; the ones that mean something to fans, to those who (instead of singles buyers) are albums buyers, like one T. Reznor, who will eventually cover "Get Down Make Love" (from News Of The World) for instance. Anyone looking for "Tie Your Mother Down" (hello Scissor Sisters and hair metal) or "Keep Yourself Alive" here will also be disappointed. Hits are singles; hits get in the chart; Queen were nothing but businesslike in their ways and left their fans-of-that-type to make their own Best of Queen mixes. It's obvious to say this, but some bands just lend themselves to this kind of compilation, and Queen are one of them. (ABBA, equally obviously, are another.)
Though it would be mean to say Queen didn't work hard to make each song they did great - once they were up & going as a band they were competitive not just with other bands but themselves - their natural medium was the single, not the album. If you're more or less led by a man who calls himself Freddie Mercury, this is practically inevitable.
On the cover, there is the blackness of nothingness, of space; a dark void. And there is Queen, beaming in (or out?) in their own dimension, again part of the world but separate from it, a blood red edge around them, marking a sharp distinction, while the band themselves are all dressed up and tough-looking, as if to say - well, who is better than us?
This otherness is there in the coat-of-arms that Mercury designed for the band - the members all there as their astrological animals - Deacon and Taylor as lions, May as the crab on top, and Mercury...as the demure young woman, back turned to us, faceless, looking at his/her own creation. For all his bluster and diva qualities, Mercury drew himself as part of the band, not as a glamorous figure fronting a band.
Yes, Mercury as the diva - what is "Bohemian Rhapsody" but a short opera? When the gong sounds I can hear the cheers and see the bouquets thrown; and how strange is it that the biggest, most popular song of theirs (the first on Greatest Hits) is a song about...accepting yourself. (Suddenly I think of the rather confused lyrics of "The Greatest Love of All" - what is all that about children?) It is a song about killing your "false" self so your "real" self can live; this isn't easy to do - in Mercury's case I think it must be about his sexuality, about his coming to terms with himself and being able to just be who he is. Now that he's in Queen and has success he can do this, though there are mentions of being in prison all over this album, of being trapped, and also of being heroic, of being free. (Even Flash Gordon is just an ordinary man, called upon to do nothing less than save the universe - maybe Mercury saw himself like this. Who knows?) And of course every teenager wants to be this figure, one who can rebel and feign indifference while really, underneath, going through some heavy changes. "Nothing really matters to me" sings Mercury, though, and that is the sting here, the niggling thing - if so, then what was all that about? Is this song (which ends the Glam era and also, effectively, the Classic Rock era) actually nihilistic? Is it inadvertently pointing to something about to happen that can't really be imagined just yet?
Well, yes. That it is such a beloved song in the UK may point to the fact that what comes after it still has the power, when faced directly, to shock.
I can't help but notice that Queen do best in countries that have a rather masculine edge; ones that I tend to think of as more "male" than "female" - such as Australia and the UK. This lends some credence to my feelings that Mercury's ambiguity almost makes him a female lead singer here - how much did he learn from listening to Aretha as well as Hendrix, I wonder - and that camp is a male thing, and of course Queen were camp - it was the leaven in their loaf, so to speak. Everything here is big and dramatic, even in "Save Me" the one song where all the bravado breaks down and there's Mercury, admitting he's far away from home. (Zanzibar? Kensington? Or at being "at home" in his own skin?)
There's a reason you don't hear "Fat Bottomed Girls" on the radio very much - maybe since Spinal Tap's fame, so to speak. It's not because of the subject matter (see AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie") but the fact that I can't believe Mercury for one minute. It's also just embarrassing (the preference for a "heap big woman" being traced back to a "big fat Fanny" who was his "naughty" nanny makes me wonder about things, and proves again that the UK is a masculine place, essentially). This might work better as a country song, and is that The Eagles' "Life In The Fast Lane" lurking there in the future? I can only wonder...
"Bicycle Race" though - that is the real joy in this album, where all the pomp of Queen is harnessed to two-wheel good times. This is exactly the sort of knowing silliness that made housewives (some of them the famous Housewives of Valium Court, previously) fall for Queen in a big way. Freddie's noble untrained tenor is, along with the music, doing a stage of the Tour de France for you, pausing and climbing and then climbing and racing down; exalting the act of cycling over such passive entertainments as Jaws ("never my scene" Mercury confesses) and Star Wars. There's even a time for the neglected percussion instrument the bicycle bells, not heard in UK pop since Pink Floyd.
Since several of these songs are #2 hits, I can't say too much about them here; but I will try.
"Killer Queen" is fantastical - Mercury said as much - but I can't help feeling this confection is in The Fog, a concept I will explore further in my own blog; suffice it to say that there is a period in UK pop when there is an itchy sense of unreality to music, to the charts, that there is something vital missing and the uncomfortable lurking sense that there is something else out there, something wrong, which is so pervasive that it is like a fog, with no edges or distinctions. Queen became famous as The Fog was descending and while I don't blame them for it, everything from the time from the UK has a certain quality that is hard to shake off. As fine as the band are here - exalting this rather grand woman of the night - it's in retrospect a little too grand for me. That said, Mercury sings it beautifully and I can imagine a young Jeff Buckley, when he wasn't busy singing along to Robert Plant, singing along to some of this.
"Somebody To Love" on the other hand, is for me Queen's greatest song. Perhaps that's because (as an American) I can understand its gospel/blues roots and simplicity - the song has that odd quality of being there already, with Queen just coming along to pick it up and sing it. Mercury sings it, with the chorus singing with him in sympathy ("I'm all right, I'm all right" Mercury insists near the end of the song, and the chorus relays this to the concerned listener - "He's all right, he's all right!") Again there is the hard work, the prison cell, the call-and-response - and the very real sense (unlike the previous song's fantasy) that this is really coming from the heart. But it's not just Mercury singing to himself, but a song for everyone who is dog-tired at the end of the day, who has tried and tried and tried but still has found nobody, and is desperate enough to ask someone, anywhere, everywhere, for help. The band play as straight as possible here, and the building crescendo of voices at the end - with Mercury's solo like a pastor with his choir - is moving. And then the last "find me, find me, find..." and ending piano note, to put the whole matter into perspective. This is just a song after all, darlings.
"We Will Rock You" is a controversial song - Lester Bangs' good friend and fellow music writer Dave Marsh mistakenly called it "fascist" - and unlike the anthemic cheer of "Somebody To Love" this may as well be called "Somebody to Look Down On, From A Great Height." I feel rather mean pointing this out, but who is the "we" in this song? Who are the boy, the young man, the old man? Why are they all described as being bloody or dirty, not to mention disgraceful? Are Queen trying to bridge the "You'll Never Walk Alone" uplift (sung to them in Stafford by the audience after they left the stage, which inspired them to write this) and this new-fangled thing called punk rock? There is no question amidst the boom-boom-clap as to who is rockin' and who is being rocked...maybe all this is just a kind of slangy fondness. I don't know. What I do know is at the end Brian May's guitar solo was no doubt practiced by every guitarist who wanted to rock out, and this is a supremely male song; it might even be the ultimate song, period, for Queen anyway. (Sadly I cannot remember the name of the indie band that did a deadpan version of this with lyrics such as "We are about to rock you. You are now being rocked.")
"We Are The Champions" - always and forever played after the previous song on any decent station when I was growing up - is even more ambiguous to me. Again, who is "we"? Is it the band, the band and the audience, someone else? Or is Mercury using the royal we? After all, he's only being challenged by the entire human race to be the best - and here he is, rich and famous and winning, my friends. Winning and nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyahing it in your face, whoever you are that begrudges whoever "we" is from being the best. I will give him credit for saying he's made mistakes, but what about "I've done my sentence - but committed no crimes" - even at this triumphant stage, there is the painful incarceration. I think it is safe to say that while all of Queen were ambitious, Mercury was the most ambitious, because he was born a star, and playing in so-so bands was for him like being in jail. Or maybe there is something else in here, an outsider's being more British-than-British success. There is an inner drama blown up to operatic proportions by Queen, generic enough to suit any sporting event and yet, when I think about it, actually kind of sad. Do these songs have to be so mean? "No time for losers" the group sings. Hmmm...
Because once upon a time Queen were a band eager to become well-known and even signed a contract they shouldn't have just to get a deal. "Seven Seas of Rhye" was their first hit in '74, mainly a hit because David Bowie was late getting his video for "Rebel Rebel" done and someone had to go on Top of the Pops. Queen came in and did this song, an amalgam of Sweet, Elton John and Yes; the band had yet to really figure out just who they were, though Mercury's "I do like to be beside the seaside" confidence was leading the way.
Of all the songs on this album, "Now I'm Here" is the one that gets played on the radio the least, if at all; a song that is the key for the whole album, which is about...ambition. Who else could have a hit about being on tour, mentioning Mott The Hoople along the way? People forget that Queen were, by today's standards, fairly old when they finally got to go on tour in a big way - Mercury was 27, the same age as Kurt Cobain (who lamented he couldn't be more like Mercury onstage) was when he died. Unlike Cobain, Mercury was a born star, and according to rock legend Queen stole the show from Mott; they had wanted to be a success for so long they even sang about it, about how happy they were to just be out, here and there. "Go go go little Queenie" says T. Rex indeed... (Please note: there are those who went to see Mott The Hoople on this tour - I've heard 'em on Radio London - who didn't think much of Queen and maybe that's because they found them too....girly?)
That girly power is what made the housewives love Queen in the first place; one minute they could be mean and bitchy, and the next they could do something as cheery and light as "You're My Best Friend" - a song with no side (i.e. no double meanings). It is Beach Boys sunshine and harmonies filtered through the filigreed melodies of Queen. This is in fact as 'normal' a song as Queen would ever do, in that it reminds me of other songs of gratefulness and love at the time, including (speaking of best friends) Elton John & Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"; but this is happy and as easy-going as Queen ever were.
On the other hand, I am not sure just what "Don't Stop Me Now" is about besides the baby boomers' collective "We want to have as much fun as is humanly possible" or perhaps Freddie Mercury's own sense that he has waited so long to be a star that now he is one, he wants to experience everything to the full. Again, there's ambition - in this case, to "have a good time" and also to somehow transfer this feeling of supreme freedom to his audience as well - "I wanna make a supersonic (wo)man of you!" A question I can't help but feel is what, if anything, could stop Mercury at this time? Would Byron, Keats or Shelley understand his need to be "burning through the skies" - travelling at the speed of light itself? It may be a staple of tv ads, movies, etc. now but strip all that away and this is a song about wanting to be so free you don't even have a body anymore - just a ball of burning energy, an atomic bomb, a satellite, a sex machine...but do real bombs like this say "don't stop me now"? Something here is all about wanting as opposed to being; about possibility as opposed to actually doing. This is a song of someone who is free and can't believe he is free; it tentatively starts before leaping in and speeding up, and ends more confidently, like a kid doing his first lap of the pool, aided by nothing.
If the Radio London bloke club didn't like Queen at the start they certainly wouldn't like "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy" - a song Mercury called "ragtime" and (aside from its charms, which may be artificial but are still winning) this is as good a time as any to recall that Queen never did originate anything, but merely took this and that from the musical spectrum as they pleased, as if the whole history of popular music leads up to...them. Or maybe it's that they are indebted to it all and are just reflecting it back, paying respects. Nothing Queen ever did was done unknowingly; the attention to detail and getting things right was an obsession with them, even if this song sounds casual and nostalgic. It is just such attention to detail that made them a success, but also lends a kind of superior polish, a polish that was starting to grate on some in '76, of course.
It should also be noted that in late '76 Queen were due to make an appearance on the Bill Grundy show but were forced to cancel at the last minute; I suspect that one Tommy Boyd, a school friend of Deacon, May and Taylor, were able to persuade them (in his own, ahem, friendly way) to let a new band on the same label, EMI, get some valuable tv exposure, just as they had years before when they got their break on Top of the Pops. Thus The Sex Pistols were introduced to the masses, and Queen were no longer the most talked about group around. A few months later the "Freddie Mercury sees tells them punks what for" incident happened at Wessex studios, where both groups were recording - Sid Vicious walked into Queen's studio by mistake and asked Mercury (who he called "Freddie Platinum") if he'd succeeded yet in bringing ballet to the masses; Mercury answered "Ah, Mr. Ferocious, we're trying our best, dear."
As punk and new wave and disco all but took over the radio, I can imagine Queen feeling a little lost. The days of extravagance and multi-layered harmonies and fantastical subjects were over. Time to wipe the board clear, dears, and take inspiration from things that are simple, direct, timeless. I can just hear Mercury insisting on stripping back, on just doing songs without fuss, without operatic tendencies. "We've done that dear," I can hear him say; "we've done stadium chants and boom-boom-clap and oh alright Brian we can still do your songs your way, if you like, dear. We can even use those synthesizers now, within reason."
And so appears "Another One Bites The Dust" - inspired by Chic, a band that (for all anyone knew in 1979) would go away and disappear in a few years, never to inspire anyone again. Like any sane people Queen heard "Good Times" and immediately wanted in; Queen lost the irony but kept the sharpness, increased it, even. This is a mean matte black object of a song, and May does his best to keep his guitar, for once, to a minimum; Mercury gets to get down with his bad self, for once and for all. To those who like to forecast elections by the success of songs would have known that this tough western of a song would herald the success of Ronald Reagan (it was #1 in the US weeks before that happened). After so many songs where the narrator is in prison or alone or in pain, this is a song of revenge; the narrator suffers no more. Michael Jackson (a Queen fan) suggested to the band they release this as a single, and for the first time they got played on black as well as white stations in the US. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Queen had continued on this route; if they had done their next album with Grandmaster Flash, for instance (who sampled this on his legendary "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" single in '81.
That Queen didn't is understandable, especially when you remember there's four songwriters here, not just two; and Mercury is going back to his childhood here, days of listening to fellow Anglo-Indian Cliff Richard, for "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Yes, I know it's supposed to be Elvis, with Brian May as Scotty Moore, but Queen were British to their core, and I hear more than a little Cliff (mainly in the lightness of his singing) and Brian May doing as much Hank Marvin as anyone else. Americans didn't know any better and this went to #1 there in '80, the kind of song that rock fans of two generations could love. And it's charming too ("ready, Freddie") - again Queen are tuning in on the times, as Shakin' Stevens is about to take over from the Darts and Showaddywaddy as the 50s rockin' dude du jour. This is also about the only time Mercury ever bothered to play guitar, and his play-in-a-day plainness works here, proves that his push for simplicity was indeed the right thing.
And here we are, back to the obsessive themes of love and freedom; and isn't Mercury (it's his song) being a little...pushy here? If it's my life, then do I have to play the game, as they say? If it is a free world, then can't I ignore it? But here the narrator sings to the weary heart, as an encourager as much as a boss - "don't play hard to get." In this song it is as if Mercury wants to seduce the world. The idea of deciding to play a game, though, is far away from actually falling in love; it is the head, not the heart, being in charge. I suppose this is where the problem with Queen and me lies - Queen are so British that while I can appreciate them and comprehend them, I, a mere American, don't have the suave authority they do, they who only half-ironically called themselves royal. If someone at UK customs had given me this years ago, what could the real message be? What would I have learned? I am not sure, but I do know that the massive sales of this album means that these songs matter to millions of people, whose hearts are touched by these songs. I can only admire them, while being touched or stirred by other music of the time in more profound ways, because I find them less stoical, less polished, less we-will-rock-you and more we-will-rock-together. (Please note that I never got to see Queen live and that some of these differences may have been bridged onstage; though I find the idea of playing to massive crowds, as they certainly did, alienating as well.)
I am guessing that my reaction is why Queen, though popular in the US, didn't do nearly so well there* - the sensibilities are so different, and the camp and irony can only be translated so far. And (to put a political angle in here) once Reagan was elected, the boring monolithic thing known as Reaganrock began to emerge, in stark contrast to the UK, where New Pop - its complete opposite - was starting to take over the charts. But that is for the next Greatest Hits.
One happy consequence of Queen's 1980 US #1s is that one Dino de Laurentiis heard them and got them to do the music for Flash Gordon. "Flash" (I always wish it was called "Flash - AAAHHHAAAHH" but no) was recorded as the band were watching the movie, picking up on the moods, colors, action; hence the actual clips of dialogue from the movie. (Sadly this is the single version and thus misses out on Brian Blessed's supremely disdainful "EUUURRTH.") Queen were ideal here - fantastical, as they were at the start; blissfully controlled and tough and operatic at the same time; and able to be piano-solo-vulnerable too. Recently I was on the train and a guy who organizes comedy boxing matches for charity (you never know some things exist until you hear about them) has this has his ringtone. It is (intentionally?) hilarious as such and points to the humor of the band, the lovable hyperbole that is perhaps the one UK trait that Americans can understand.
And years later, in an album I will be discussing, along comes Public Enemy to sample Queen (I can only imagine what they thought) for their own purposes, namely that their DJ Terminator X is indeed the savior of the universe, and like Flash he's just an ordinary man doing extraordinary things ("just a man, with a man's courage"). And then I wonder how popular Queen were in places like the Bronx or Long Island as well as the Midwest, and how different people took different...or maybe the same, after all...things from them. That you can do things your way, darlings, and be successful. You can mix sincerity with camp and make it work. You have every right to take to the stage, as long as you are entertaining. That being an outsider in rock 'n' roll makes you part of it, that builds up tradition. The music is all there for the taking. This is the promise of Queen - not a supercilious superiority but a redefining role, a king-for-a-day feeling. This album is simply a record of Queen's ambition to be the best and most successful band ever, masquerading cleverly as just another compilation advertised on tv.
It is something I can admire, enjoy, but it doesn't fasten itself to my heart; but then I wasn't raised on it. When this was released I was just beginning to understand the New Pop phenomenon (not that I knew it was called that) and Queen were a band I barely heard, that got dutiful short reviews in Creem, and had no huge hits after 1980. Queen themselves were not given to looking backwards and likely were happy this did so well, but were eager to get on with new things; I daresay they took about as much time thinking about Greatest Hits at the time as I did, and maybe they were absorbing the same sounds, though on the other side of the Atlantic.
Queen never won any Grammys.
Next up: did someone say New Pop?
*Greatest Hits did very well for Queen in the US, but not enough to make the Top 100 best-selling albums list.