Thursday, 14 October 2010
32 Pan - O - Rama - Flash and the Pan
Tracks : Down Among the Dead Men / Walking In The Rain / Captain Beware / Hole In The Middle / Hey St Peter / Atlantis Calling / Lights In The Night / Where Were You / California / Waiting For A Train
In the summer of 1984 W H Smiths had a cassette sale, mainly consisting of LPs from the previous year. The first I bought was The The's Soul Mining which I was so disappointed with that I sold it on within a year. This was the second, bought from the Lancaster store on my way back from a short break in Grasmere staying at Thorney How Youth Hostel on my own. I got some good walking in but the evenings were a desert of loneliness and boredom and it would be another three years before I went away again, this time to somewhere with a TV.
Anyhow on to Flash and the Pan. This album is a compilation of their first three LPs and briefly charted in the wake of the surprise Top 10 success of "Waiting For A Train" in June 1983. Their only other UK hit albeit a minor one was "And The Band Played On" which got a lot of plays from Simon Bates in the horrendously wet summer of 1978 but still couldn't crack the Top 40. Other than that they were known for being one of those English language acts like Fischer-Z and Chris De Burgh (pre-Lady In Red ) who were more popular in Europe than their natural markets.
Flash And The Pan were essentially a part-time studio project formed by two ex-members of 60s beat group The Easybeats, George Young and Harry Vanda. They were already successful producers (notably of AC/DC as George is the older brother of Malcolm and Angus) and writers (notably of John Paul Young's Love Is In The Air) before the first eponymous LP came out. Prior to 2008 I'd always assumed they were completely faceless but acquiring broadband and therefore youtube I discovered a series of jokey videos where the duo (with Vanda looking remarkably youthful) clown around for the camera.
Besides never playing live the project seemed to have two rules (at least up to this point; I haven't explored their three subsequent albums yet) . One, the lead instrument would always be a keyboard with minimal electric guitar on the records and two, at least the verses would always be drawled by Young in a cod-American accent and usually distorted by filtering, this despite Vanda being a competent singer. This renders their songs instantly recognisable and virtually uncoverable; it also made them an acquired taste, at least in the three main markets. This compilation is made up of five tracks from their debut Flash And The Pan (1978), three from Lights In The Night (1980) , and two from Headlines (1982).
The album begins with "Down Among The Dead Men" ("And The Band Played On" back under its original title) with its unforgettable earworm of a piano/organ riff that got the song to the cusp of the Top 40 despite a lyric about the sinking of the Titanic delivered in the style of Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. There's no better track for illustrating the compelling tension between their dizzyingly melodic arrangements and the driest of vocals to deliver the lyric. The only sung line is the title just after a brass line that briefly shifts the mood in a very complex song structure. The last minute of the song is just stupendous with that riff played ever faster amid screeching strings and frantic drumming perhaps echoing the original musicians as they started to slide towards the Atlantic. Full marks to the commenters on youtube who spotted how much Jim Steinman's Holding Out For A Hero owes to this song.
"Walking In The Rain" follows , a sharp contrast in its apparent simplicity. Based on a constantly repeating six note bass line and sparse echoey fingerclicks for percussion with the synths washing in and out like passing cars this song is all insinuation (Grace Jones's hammy cover misses the point). At first Young's heavily-treated musings seem just the urban ennui of an ignored, middle-aged man but from the second verse there's purpose - "Feeling like a woman", "making when I can" and the third verse is downright sinister - "button up your lips!" . At the risk of upsetting Mr Tennant I'd say the road to West End Girls begins here.
"Captain Beware" is the most synth-heavy track the galloping acoustic-led rhythm emerging from a synth intro that sounds like a plane coming into land. The faster tempo means that Young has to proto-rap his warning of a dog about to turn on its master before the staccato bridge leads into a sung chorus with harmonies that recall The Sweet ;it may be no coincidence that there are klaxons on the track as well.
"Hole In The Middle" is probably the weakest song on the LP with its lazy stoner lyric but is interesting for the way it invents the classic Inxs sound with its strutting funk rock bassline , each run ending with a sharp synth chord in exactly the same way as Need You Tonight. The niggling synth on the verses also resembles Tim Farriss's choppy guitar style; someone was taking notes.
"Hey St Peter" was their debut single in 1977, a minor hit in the USA and a big one in Australia but not over here except when it was re-written by their Ensign labelmate Bob Geldof and reached number one as "Rat Trap" a year later. The original has Billy in New York chasing a comeback dream and one assumes living on borrowed time given his concern about the afterlife. The song is based around simple piano chords and acoustic strumming with the synths adding extra urgency and a background to the sung chorus. The middle eight is a classic with string synths swooping around a lengthy boogie woogie piano solo before everything slows down to Young and the piano (sounding very like The Buggles) for the punchline.
"Atlantis Calling" (not to be confused with a similarly-titled song by Eurobeat wallies Modern Talking which is unspeakable) begins with a harp chord like a lullaby then goes straight into a very bizarre song, nay anthropological lecture, about the influence of the Atlantis myth around the world, the list of examples putting me in mind of Alan Whicker. From their second LP Lights In The Night , it showcases the increasing influence of disco on their music with their drummer Johnny Dick sounding very like Chic's Tony Thompson . The propulsive piano playing which moves the track along anticipates house. A full decade before The Orb and their ilk these guys were setting quotes from Plato to a dance beat.
Then follows the title track from the same LP. A song of late night despair - "if the bottle doesn't get me, the thinking will" - set to funereal synthesisers and quietly swishing hi-hat work , one goes immediately to check the release date - May 1980. It's not therefore inspired by events in Macclesfield but an eerily contemporary echo from the other side of the world. On this one Young's morose mumble is absolutely right for the subject matter. The chorus has him speculating on extra-terrestrial life and it's easy to think this influenced Abba's The Visitors the following year with Frida alone in her home in a similar cocoon of synths.
"Where Were You" comes from their 82 LP Headlines and betrays the influence of Kid Creole and (gulp) Modern Romance in its Latin flavourings though it also throws in the only electric guitar solo on the LP. It's also very similar to their biggest hit as writers , John Paul Young's Love Is In The Air. And yet despite the upbeat trappings it's the most sinister song on the LP. Young is a guest at a party but the host is a former criminal associate who has thus far evaded the fall-out but now the chickens have come home to roost and Young is his gleeful nemesis -"we're all gonna help you on your way down !" Young can't get away with just talking on this one so adopts the half-yelling style soon to be exemplified by Mike Scott of the Waterboys.
Next up is the grim Cold War fable "California" whereby a worse for wear American captain mistakes a red balloon for a missile and starts World War Three as a consequence. Hang on a minute - haven't we heard this story somewhere before ? Well yes except the song we're hearing is from 1978 originally. I don't know if Nena's songwriter Carlo Karges was ever challenged about this but it's a strange coincidence if he hadn't heard this track. Musically there's no similarity this being a smouldering synth track with a brooding bassline that only briefly rouses itself for a chorus of sorts then falls back into its slow groove.
Finally we have the big hit "Waiting For A Train". This isn't quite the same as the single version which stripped out a fair chunk of the lyrics and added a whispered "cha-cha" vocal track over the rhythm. Young (like Paul Weller's protagonist five years earlier) is a man waiting at a staion and thinking of the meal that awaits at home. In this instance though he is not attacked but spots (in the omitted verses) a man he met in a bar and goes over a conversation they had about marital difficulties though it's not clear whether Young is the listener or the speaker. If the latter it sheds a new light on the chorus's emphasis on the train as agent of escape "heading for a bright time" underlined by a breezy Kraftwerkian synth line. Musically it's like a sped-up version of Timmy Thomas's Why Can't We Live Together, the world continuing to dance while the Pan's train whisks Young to an unknown destination amid overlapping counter-melodies.
And that's it for the duo as far as this tale goes, at least at the time of writing. Time to consult Spotify on their later releases I think.