Tuesday, 14 June 2011
57 The Circle And The Square - Red Box
Purchased : 29th December 1996
Tracks : For America / Heart Of The Sun / Billy's Line / Bantu / Living In Domes / Lean On Me (Reprise) / Chenko / Lean On Me / Sasktachewan / Leaders In Seventh Heaven / Walk Walk / Amen
This was bought in Manchester ; I didn't think anyone could object to my spending Christmas gift money on records.
Red Box were pretty much the last group I heard pre-fame who then went on to "make it" (albeit temporarily). I first heard them in session for Radio One (I can't recall whose show) in late 1984 and was grabbed straight away by their strong melodies. I listened out for them after that and they duly scored a massive hit the following year with their third single "Lean on Me" which made number 3 and could have gone all the way if not up against Take On Me and The Power of Love. They then took over a year to come up with a follow-up "For America" which also made the Top 10. However they came back down to earth with a bump soon after when this album peaked at 73 despite containing all the singles. Reluctant to go on the road and not having a great visual identity (the duo could easily be confused with the rapidly fading Blancmange) the band found that the hits hadn't built up any significant fanbase and struggled from thereon in.
It's a shame because this is a really good album, not perfect but certainly deserving much more attention than it got. While the duo's deep interest in Native American culture permeates nearly every song the LP knits together influences from around the globe with their two great strengths, instantly hummable tunes and the "Box vox" ensemble of vocalists ( including rather bizarrely Anthony "Gold Blend" Head ) . I've never understood why (apart from elitist snobbery ) it's thought of as uncool or "cheesy" to write memorable tunes but that attitude is pervasive and Red Box did suffer as a result.
The opening track is a case in point. "For America" is a serious song about American insularity hardly less topical now than it was then but it's packaged with such an attractive melodic feast of phonetic harmonies, violin break and taut rhythmic bounce that no one was willing to engage with them on the politics. Record Mirror contented itself with a derogatory reference to The Spinners. The message is there in Simon Toulson Clarke's scathing delivery of "title fights and human rights, we're satellites you're parasites" and stinging guitar but it was largely missed.
"Heart Of The Sun" was its less successful follow-up in early 1987. It's central to the album's theme of culture clash, the album title coming from a line in the chorus and referring to the Native American distinction between them and the Europeans. The music juxtaposes semi-Burundi drumming with Viktor Sebek's accordion but it's a little too laid back with its saccharin girlie chorus and celestial keyboards.
The lyrical focus switches to Britain for "Billy's Line". The lyric is an opaque narrative but I think the gist is that teenager Billy comes south from Scotland, contracts AIDS then returns home to die. In this interpretation the stentorian "Hey you - God On My Side" chorus refers to the outspoken comments of James Anderton the militantly Christian Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. After a couple of odd false starts the music aims for high drama with grand piano chords , piledriver drums , a wailing guitar solo ( from Tears For Fears sideman Neil Taylor) and even a sardonic snatch of Land Of Hope And Glory on the Fairlight. It's just let down slightly by David Motion's sueaky-clean production.
Another change of continent ensues with "Bantu" sardonically illustrated on the inner sleeve by a blacked-up P W Botha. The word is charged by its association with the definition of blacks and creation of "homelands" by the white South African government from the 1960s onwards. Although the words are a bit woolly the song is a rollicking hybrid of Paul Simon ( who Toulson Clarke is pretty close to vocally anyway ) and Adam and the Ants (in particular Kings of the Wild Frontier ) with a xylophone riff and Burundi drumming laying the foundation for the most impressive massed harmonies on the LP.
"Living In Domes " is a big dramatic song about ( I think ) the building of American cities on Native American ground ( illustrated by an architectural plan for the Capitol building ) which thunders in on parallel drum patterns and Indian war cries before settling down into a more conventional rock track with wailing guitar work from Neil Taylor. It's episodic in structure without having a strong chorus to really tie it all together.
The side then closes with a brief snatch of "Lean On Me" as a taster for the next.
The second side opens disappointingly with an inferior version of 1984's debut single "Chenko" which drops Close's abrasive but arresting sax and flute riff and drains the energy out of the song. From what I can gather Chenko was a Native American settlement in Peru so we have another continent's story of culture clash borne out by this version's extra lines "What can we do - live our lives like you ? "
Then comes "Lean On Me" my favourite single from the summer of 1985 that helped get me through a bad time. I'm not normally susceptible to universalist anthems but this song just generates a tremendous warmth with its melodic richness and the full on power of the Box Vox on the harmonies. The middle eight where the music slows to repeat the introductory xylophone motif then erupts in a riot of military drums and synth blares before a power chord- assisted final chorus is pure pop perfection.
"Saskatchewan" is another re-worked early single this time a cover of a Buffy-St Marie track ( actually titled "Qu'appelle Valley Saskatchewan" ) . Their original version was much more faithful to her simple song of homesickness with its hymnal melody and gentle but insistent percussion. Here they're trying too hard to be epic with funereal organ and shouted phrases and while it's still an attractive tune they've lost the heart-tugging modesty of both earlier versions.
"Leaders In Seventh Heaven" is an ambitious oddity, an obtuse political fable set to a Stop The Cavalry brass and drums arrangement by ZTT also-ran Andrew Poppy. Toulson Clarke delivers a honey-toned vocal, trading lines with the female element of the Box Vox before another rousing chorus with the pay-off line "You can find a new leader almost any old where". Again Motion's production leaves it sounding slightly thin.
"Walk Walk" another celebration of Native American defiance sees the Box Vox turning a relatively weak song into a tour de force with the power and complexity of their chant of "Alleluia" over a rock beat. The a capella break in the middle is breathtaking ; Toulson Clarke is the backing vocalist here.
After that drama there's just the comedown chant of "Amen" to close out the album.
Commercial failure did for Red Box. Close left the project in 1987 for a career in A & R at EMI while Toulson Clarke opted to sail round the world before getting down to a follow-up. When eventually released in 1990 with some of the original players still on board, "Motive" sank without trace and there wasn't a third album until 2010 although Toulson Clarke had some sporadic success as a songwriter in between.
As we'll see this wasn't the only unaccountable flop from this period as the tide seemed to go out commercially for my taste in intelligent British pop music sometime in the mid-80s. We'll meet some other victims in due course.