Saturday, 17 July 2010

21 Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms Some People Think It's Fun To Entertain - China Crisis

Purchased : 13 April 1983

Tracks : Seven Sports For All / No More Blue Horizons / Feel To Be Driven Away / Some People I Know To Lead Fantastic Lives / Christian / Are We A Worker / Red Sails / You Never See It / Temptation's Big Blue Eyes / Jean Walks In Fresh Fields

I recorded the date of purchase of my albums in a little red book throughout the 80s and am somewhat puzzled to find this was bought on a Wednesday in term time. I have no recollection of the exact circumstances.

When the LP first came out in autumn 1982 I remember remarking to Helen how ridiculous the title was and, not having liked their near]hit "African And White" had no intention of purchasing it. It was the subsequent singles "No More Blue Horizons" and "Christian" plus "Are We A Worker" heard on a David Jensen session that changed my mind.

For a band that pulled at least one Top 4o single from each of their first four LPs China Crisis were, and remain, remarkably anonymous. When was the last time you heard anything from them on the radio ? I must have read a number of interviews with them in the eighties and all that sticks with me is a vague Scouse bolshyness which was rarely reflected in the music.

This album was a troubled debut. After gaining a lot of plaudits for their debut single "African And White" on indie label Inevitable they were snapped up by Virgin. However their first single for the label "Scream Down At Me" bombed completely and a re-release of "African And White" didn't make the Top 40 either. This underwhelming start to their tenure led to considerable conflict between band and label over how the forthcoming LP should sound, eventually resolved by having five tracks produced by Virgin's men (Steve Levine and Peter Walsh) on Side One and five of the band's co-productions with Gil Norton on Side Two bridged by the inclusion of "African And White" at the start of the second side. It has to be said that nearly 30 years later the differences are not glaringly obvious although Side Two is melodically stronger.

The opener "Seven Sports For All" has all the trademarks of their sound in place, airy keyboard work, unusual rhythm, Gary Daly's blunt adenoidal vocals and determinedly unfocused lyrics. It seems to be a hymn to non-commitment - "I'm never making gestures , I haven't got the time" and drifts by in vaguely pleasant fashion with Levine achieving a jangly guitar sound very similar to Roy Hay from his main clients, Culture Club. The middle eight cuts out the keyboards and there's a brief bass solo redolent (as were their first wo singles) of post-punk white funk acts like Gang of Four although normal melodic service is quickly restored.

"No More Blue Horizons" their third failed single from October 1982 is more easily understood. Daly is a hapless cuckold allowing himself to be repeatedly deceived - "I close my eyes to everything I can" . Ironically despite Daly singing "can't hide this pain " the music does effectively disguise the neurotic subject matter with a breezy brass refrain and buoyant bass and percussion. Only on the chorus do Hammond-esque chords hint at sympathy with the singer's plight.

"Feel To Be Driven Away" is a slice of icy post-punk sweetened by a vaguely Oriental keyboard melody and OMD-like mellotron chords. Intoned rather than sung , I'm guessing that the song is about reistance to torture with its reference to "passing through electrical fences" and could be South Africa-related. It's probably the least commercial track on the LP so it's perhaps surprising to find it on the label's side.

"Some People I Know To Lead Fantastic Lives" could be seen as an early critique of yuppiedom with Daly determined to remain a slacker "I've reasons in my head for keeping myself down". The busy keyboard melodies on synth and xylophone vaguely recall the theme to "Are You Being Served" and seem to serve the same purpose of conveying the pulse of busy lives. The line "They're praying that something happens to me" captures nicely the embarassment of having friends or family that haven't kept pace with you.

The side closes with an extended version of their breakthrough hit "Christian". A very elliptical song made up of self -contained pregnant phrases, the chorus line of "I could lose myself in this honesty" comes across as a gentle joke at the listener's expense. It's success is down to the arrangement, Daly singing softly to an acoustic strum, de rigeur fretless bass and a very attractive keyboard melody.

"African And White" comes next, a song I still don't hold in much regard. This was the way they could have gone, pallid vaguely funky agit-pop , a sort of lightweight Gang of Four without the passion to pull it off. The references to Israel are perplexing - perhaps they're protesting Israel's dealings with the apartheid regime but there were targets closer to home which makes singling Israel out very questionable. I do like the intro though , the way the real drums emerge from behind the electronics and then the percussion fills; it's a shame the song as a whole is disappointing.

"Are We A Worker " is the first offering from the "band side", a creditable attempt to write an international worker's anthem without resorting to cliche. Built around an ascent/descent eight note bass run it adds furiously busy percussion, spindly acoustic guitar and a violin-like synth playing a poignant folk melody. Daly adopts a stern tone in the verses but the choruses are sweetened by the addition of an uncredited female vocal.

"Red Sails" (neither the Bowie song nor the Nat King Cole classic) is mellow and languid and like "Christian" the lyrics are just a string of non-sequiteurs though there's an air of mild regret in the chorus "If I had a soul, would I realise ". The buzzing fretless bassline keeps the song moving as the synths waft by.

There's more energy to my favourite track "You Never See It " which kicks straight into an anxious vaguely Oriental keyboard riff and vaguely castigatory lyrics about not noticing political upheaval in other countries although the second verse seems a more general warning about ageing. The middle eight drops the rhythm and introduces a new keyboard sound before the main riff reasserts itself in a blaze of melody.

"Temptation's Big Blue Eyes" has a relatively direct and coherent lyric warning against Tory seduction "They're disbelievers in a thin disguise". Although Daly asserts his flag is red in the second verse , he's assailed by doubts in the third wondering if he's "Too stupid to understand my politics are a one night stand". I can understand why some found their self-doubt and obfuscation infuriating but it's a good song with bouncing percussion a nagging guitar and another infectious keyboard melody. An echoey fairground organ takes centre stage in the middle eight before subsiding , the sound of momentary passions choked off by doubt.

That leaves just "Jean Walks In Fresh Fields" a pretty synth instrumental which annoyingly fades out at 1.30 just as it's got going.

China Crisis frustrate, sometimes mildly annoy, with their refusal to come into focus lyrically. Some very attractive melodies and innovative arrangements are wasted on anaemic songs and certainly the choice of singles from this LP could have been much better. However I did like it , the second side in particular and we will be meeting them again.

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