Tuesday, 24 July 2012
86 Radioactive - Various Artists
Purchased : 30 April 1988
Tracks : D.I.S.C.O ( Ottawan) / Amigo ( Black Slate) / Johnny And Mary ( Robert Palmer) / Trouble (Gillan) / I Die You Die ( Gary Numan ) / Misunderstanding ( Genesis) / If It's Alright With You Baby ( Korgis) / The Whisper ( The Selecter) / Dancin ' On A Wire ( Surface Noise ) / Metropolis ( Gibson Brothers) / Feels Like I'm In Love ( Kelly Marie) / You're Lying ( Linx) / Use It Up Wear It Out ( Odyssey) / Enola Gay ( Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark ) / Lies ( Manfred Mann's Earth Band ) / Generals And Majors ( XTC ) / Paranoid ( Black Sabbath) / Unlock The Funk ( Locksmith) / You Gotta Be A Hustler ( Sue Wilkinson) / I Think It's Gonna Rain ( UB40)
After the 4 arrivals from Britannia it was back to the cassette sale at Save Records in Rochdale for what was very much a follow-up purchase to the LP covered in post 81. Again it was bought on my way up to Spotland for a coach to Scarborough for a meaningless end of season fixture which only appealed because it was our first visit there , Scarborough having become the first club to be automatically promoted from the Vauxhall Conference the previous May. Coincidentally I had acquired a giveaway "Walkman" from my mum's catalogue during the week so I didn't have to wait till getting home to play the tape much to my seating companion's silent but obvious irritation. There are no good memories of the day, the ground was nowhere near the beach and it was a wet day anyway, we lost 2-1 to an average side and the machine was such a shoddy pile of crud the batteries were exhausted after one play. I never used it again although got some mileage out of the headphones.
There was another problem in expecting to get the same Proustian rush from this one as "Night Moves". This was a Ronco compilation ( I remembered the ads for it on TV) of songs - not all hits despite the promise on the cover - from the second half of 1980. Now 1980 did ( and does ) hold some treasured memories but they're interpolated with much less happy events that cloud the picture unlike the overwhelmingly positive 1979 - the final disintegration of a valued but unsaveable friendship, being physically attacked after attending a "gig" by the school punk band, two family traumas that marred my relationship with my father for the rest of his life, the twin pressures of a burgeoning libido and the looming spectre of O Level exams the next year and a stupid practical joke that undid the good work of the previous three years among my adult friends.
In addition to that there were, as we'll see, some tracks on "Radioactive" that I absolutely loathed, nostalgia notwithstanding. 1980 was actually a great year in music which started with the 2-Tone scene at its zenith and ended with the New Romantics breaking big but you wouldn't necessarily pick that up from the eclectic selection here. Despite the cover and the "20 Electric Hits" tagline there's actually very little synthy stuff here. It's actually skewed towards dance music and there is a good reason for that. In June 1980 a Musician's Union strike took Top Of The Pops off the air for ten weeks. As a by-product the charts filled up with dance records which were less reliant on TV exposure ( The Modettes, Janis Ian and Bill Nelson were the most notable victims of the blackout ).
The LP gets off to a wretched start with Ottawan's excrutiating Euro-pap "D.I.S.C.O." , the year's Y Viva Espana bought by the chavs getting off the planes from Majorca. Only The Police and then Barbara Streisand kept it off the top spot. Ottawan were a French Boney M, a black male/female duo fronting the work of two white thirtysomething producers ( one of them the father of one of Daft Punk ) attended by the usual accusations that the young performers weren't actually on the record. The nationality of the writers is the only possible excuse for the terrible back of a fag packet lyrics but given that the number one spot had only recently been vacated by Bjorn Ulvaes's crowning glory The Winner Takes It All it's a pretty feeble one. The panpipes added to presumably give it a touch of class make it worse. Ottawan returned the following year with the near-identical "Hands Up" making number 3 then mercifully left us alone.
We had an even briefer acquaintance with Black Slate, a mainly British reggae outfit who normally made a living as a backing band for hire to visting Jamaican stars such as Ken Boothe and Dennis Brown. In 1980 they were signed up in their own right by Ensign Records and reached number 9 with the amicable "Amigo" ( clearly pronounced as Ohmigo by the singer ). It's a very simple statement of Rastafarian faith , that Jah will right the wrongs one has suffered on earth set to a lilting tune, totally in thrall to Marley but impossible to dislike. As with so many reggae artists who had a hit in the 70s and 80s, the follow-up ( the possibly superior "Boom Boom" ) failed to make the Top 40 and their association with Ensign lasted barely a year.
Then we have an all-time classic. "Johnny And Mary" poses two questions immediately. How could this stall at number 44 despite considerable radio support ( which continues to this day) ? And how could its writer churn out such unloveable dross in the second half of the decade ? It was the lead off single from Palmer's sixth album "Clues" and its electronic sound was influenced by the recent success of Gary Numan. Numan however could never have written the gorgeous aching melody or gradually built the song up from the brutalist sequencer at the beginning to the glorious over-lapping keyboard melodies at the end. The lyric is a startlingly mature look at a relationship where the woman has started to realise she's hooked up to a man who'll never achieve his unrealistic dreams sung by Palmer with amazing worldweary restraint, none of the gimmicky ocatave-leaping of the likes of "Some Guys Have All The Luck" ( an extremely poor cousin which nevertheless cracked the Top 20 for him 18 months later ). I seem to recall reading a suggestion that it was inspired by Hitler's relationship with Eva Braun of all things. It has been the victim of numerous pisspoor covers over the years but Palmer's version remains inviolate.
One of the less well-remembered features of the 1980 charts is how many heavy rock/metal acts started having hit singles whether from the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (c/o Sounds magazine ) such as Saxon and Iron Maiden or older troopers like Judas Priest and the Deep Purple diaspora. From the latter came Gillan, less than modestly named after their ex-Purple frontman. He hadn't enjoyed much success for a number of years after quitting Purple either in music or business but things started looking up in 1979 when his new band signed for Virgin and their second album "Glory Road" yielded a number 14 hit with a cover of the Elvis Presley song "Trouble". I'm not sure what additions Gillan made in order to add his name to those of Leiber and Stoller as a co-composer. It's a raucous version with Bernie Torme's guitar channelling something of the spirit of punk to go with the song's Brando-esque anti-social swagger and future soundtrack ace Colin Towns making his presence felt on the keys. It was the first and biggest of a modest string of hits for Gillan over the next two years while the singer picked up some media work through being well-spoken and articulate. The band came to a sudden end in 1983 when Gillan accepted an invitation to join Black Sabbath as lead singer, still a running sore to his ex-band mates ( two of whom , Torme and gargantuan bald bassist John McCoy , played the pub across the road from me last year ).
Having already mentioned him above Gary Numan pops up next with his fifth Top 10 hit, "I Die You Die" , a less interesting song than its nihilistic title would suggest. It's actually a whiney protest at his treatment by the music press (shades of Stereophonics's Mr Writer ) with hints at retribution - "Now I have your names". The extended intro sets it up well with Dennis Haines's florid piano contrasting with Numan's abrasive guitar but the song proper is dull , the music sounding suspiciously like "Cars" speeded up a bit with a very pedestrian drum machine. In chart terms it's significant for setting the pattern that persisted for the rest of his career, of coming in high then dropping quickly out of sight, and would extend to virtually every established artist by the end of the decade. The days of kids going into Woolworth's and spending their pocket money on a semi-random selection of what was in the charts ( so that once you were in the Top 40 you generally stayed there for a few weeks ) were numbered.
Genesis follow with "Misunderstanding ", the third single from their "Duke" album which stalled at 42 so I was actually hearing it for the first time in '88. It's a Phil Collins solo composition and pretty recognisable as such. Originally destined for "Face Value" it covers the same territory of infidelity and betrayal with the added twist that the girl is so wrapped up with the other guy she stands poor Phil up without bothering to excuse herself. Based around a simple repeating five note piano riff the song is punchy, plaintive and economical , one of their best in fact so its relative failure is puzzling. It gets a sarky thumbs-up from Patrick Bateman in American Psycho but Ellis is being a bit harsh on this one.
Another surprising failure ( and a new listen for me ) was The Korgis's "If It's Alright With You Baby" which couldn't get any further than 56 despite following on from the Top 5 hit "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometimes" a stonewall classic that might have gone all the way with Top Of The Pops exposure. Ironically The Korgis were a duo arising from the demise of prog-rockers Stackridge who were often compared to Gabriel-era Genesis in their day. As The Korgis they specialised in lushly-textured synth ballads with ultra-saccharin vocals by James Warren ( anticipating Scritti Politti ) and the song here sticks to the template. Warren is pleading to be taken on by a girl who's been hurt by her ex amid rich harmonies and all the melody you could ask for but to no avail. A short, weaselly-looking thirtysomething, Warren was never going to be a star in the eighties but they remain an under-rated band.
The end of the halcyon days for Two Tone is marked by the inclusion of "The Whisper" the fourth and final hit for the much-maligned The Selecter which stalled at 36 . In the nineties it seemed like every time someone wanted to knock No Doubt they'd mention The Selecter as a by-word for second-rate ska. The group were the brainchild of Neol Davies a friend of Jerry Dammers who wanted his own band rather than join The Specials but they were doomed never to escape from the shadow of the latter band. The idea of Pauline Black , a black female lead vocalist who wouldn't allow her sexuality to be exploited was great but foundered on the fact she was a useless singer. Nor was Davies much cop as a songwriter and both failings are evident on "The Whisper" . Like its three predecessors it's a choppy ska romp held together by the organ of Desmond Brown with a chanted chorus affecting nonchalance at the prospect of being dumped on which Black approaches Toyah-esque distance from any recognisable key. It's not surprising the public lost interest and Brown and bass player Charley Anderson quit after this single becalming the band. Black made a better fist of things as an actress for a time but for the last 20 years has been mainly reliant on performing as The Selecter sometimes in conjunction with Davies but latterly in competition with him.
I can't think of too much to write about "Dancing On A Wire" , a mainly instrumental jazz-funk romp that got to number 59 from an act that don't currently have a wikipedia entry. Surface Noise seems to have been a nom de plume for Chris Palmer who ran a specialist record shop in Soho. I've no idea who made up the band but he gives them all a chance to shine with solos for the saxophonist , percussionist and synth player. It would have been better as a 100% instrumental because the lyrics of the periodically repeated verse rhyming wire with -you guessed it- desire and fire are terrible.
The first side ends with a non-hit from a band who seem to have been completely erased from history. "Metropolis" brought a sudden end to a run of four top 20 hits from Martinique's The Gibson Brothers. Being on Chris Blackwell's Island should have ensured them some kudos but they were also attached to the Vangarde-Klucher partnership responsible for Ottawan and that was fatal to their credibility. There was however no doubt about Alex Gibson's ownership of the remarkable bone-shaking bass voice on all their records and he's in fine form here warning of technological dystopia ( presumably inspired by the Fritz Lang film of the same name ). Musically the Latin-tinged disco of their hits is swapped for a piano-based glam rock stomp with echoes of Lieutenant Pigeon. That it didn't work commercially is stating the obvious and save for a minor hit in 83 the group fell right off the radar but it's still worth a listen.
The second side also gets off to a downer with the dismal "Feels Like I'm In Love" which got all the way to the top in September. Its singer Kelly Marie had achieved some success on the Continent after a winning run on Opportunity Knocks earned her a recording contract in 1976. This discofied cover of a Mungo Jerry B-side was a sleeper hit getting a toehold on the charts through strong sales in her native Scotland and then taking off. Everything about it is ugly from the dated Moroder-esque synth track, repeating the Anita Ward trick of using electronic percussion noises as a hook to Marie's piercing holler of a voice. Her own appearances, big of bone and nose in a variety of horrible jumpsuits and trying not to bump into the prancing gaylords beside her added to the pain. We can only be grateful that her days in the sun were brief and though she was clearly spiritual godmother to Sonia and The Reynolds Girls, SAW didn't try to revive her fortunes.
Next we're reminded that before his makeover into a Michael Jackson wannabe responsible for some of the most boring singles of the eighties and long before his ghastly wife appeared on our TV screens, David Grant was once part of a decent group. Linx seemed to be on a mission to prove that British funk and intelligent songwriting could go together and though "You're Lying" isn't their best song it got the ball rolling for them by reaching number 15. Musically it doesn't stray too far from Chic particularly Peter "Sketch" Martin's nimble bassline but the stinging lyric about deception and betrayal ( which could be in a romantic or business context ) and complex call-and-response vocal arrangement make it interesting.
The other number one on the LP is Odyssey's "Use It Up Wear It Out" which displaced ELO's (with Olivia Newton-John) "Xanadu" in July , a strange coincidence since both singles are a case of the artist's only chart topper coming with their worst record. Odyssey were a U.S. vocal trio comprising the Lopez sisters and a regularly substituted male accomplice. They were dependent on external songwriters but usually made good choices so I don't know what went wrong here. The lyric is a compilation of all the worst disco cliches - "shake your body down" "do it all night long" etc ( the very stuff Linx were trying to get away from ) set to a bubbling salsa percussion track with annoying whistles and even more aggravating weedy synth solo. I hated it then and still do now.
"Enola Gay" of course we've covered before right back in post 2, in fact it was the first song I wrote about on this blog so we move straight on to the non-hit "Lies" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band. Despite three big hits in the seventies the band couldn't get arrested in the following decade with TV, radio and the music press completely ignoring them. The song , unsubtly subtitled "Through The Eighties", came from thunderingly obscure ( then as now ) British bluesman Denny Newman and is a rather clumsy future shock warning along the lines of In The Year 2525 with direct quotes from Big Yellow Taxi and My Generation. The music is full on prog-rock with multiple mazy synth lines going off in all directions. Despite a good vocal from Chris Thompson it's not a comfortable listen.
"Generals And Majors" is another song we covered way back so it's on to "Paranoid" re-released on its tenth anniversary and a hit all over again although peaking ten places lower at number 14. Although often regarded as the ultimate headbangers anthem it's thoroughly untypical of metal, as ferocious and economical as any any punk single and sporting a lyric as dark and desperate as Joy Division albeit couched in the terms of a working class Brummie rather than an arty Mancunian desk jockey. I wouldn't imagine it was the cheapest track to licence so its appearance here is doubly odd.
A stylistic swerve takes us to the heavy funk of Locksmith's "Unlock The Funk" which just missed out on the Top 40 . Locksmith were a US outfit under the wings of jazz drummer Harvey Mason who'd worked with Herbie Hancock and was similarly interested in branching out into funk. Both the music and lyrics are heavily influenced by Parliament and with little melody in the track it's not of much interest to me.
The penultimate track is a curiosity. Sue Wilkinson's "You Gotta Be A Hustler" was performed, written and published by the young lady and sounds like it was recorded at home. Any admiration for her apparent self-sufficiency is tempered by the fact that Slade were heavily involved. It was released on Chas Chandler's Cheapskate label and Don Powell played the minimal percussion on the track. The song is best described as an anti-feminist anthem advising women to sleep around to advance delivered in appropriately breathy tones. It reached number 25 on the back of considerable support from Radio One's neanderthals Travis and Burnett. I actually bought it as a Christmas present for my friend Michael, the hint of naughtiness ( it was originally titled "You Gotta Be A Scrubber" ) being enough to interest 15-year old boys but it sounds pretty terrible now. Sue of course joined her soulmates Joy Sarney and Mer Wilson in One Hit Wonderdom. I recall a news story not long after where she had to fly over to Spain following her brother's untimely death there but can't recall any further details. She went on to work in TV production and apparently died of cancer in 2005.
The closing track is UB40's dreary version of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" a double A-side with "My Way Of Thinking" ( which got the radio play ) for their second single which peaked at number 6. You could say it's a song that suits a doleful treatment but it's still uninspired and Brian Travers's sax seems anxious to return to "Food For Thought". It's most significant for being the harbinger of what was to come from one of 1980's most exciting new bands.
The album's variable quality was reflected in its disappointing chart performance , peaking at number 13 and quickly disappearing. It's a compilation of highs and lows which sort of sums up 1980 itself for me.