Home Taping is Killing Music
That’s what they told us in the 80s. They were, of course, so very wrong. What they meant to say was: “Unfeasibly one-sided and punitive contracts designed to line the pockets of record company executives are killing music”. Or perhaps, “Indie label heads: their hearts are in the right place but they have less than no business sense, and they’re killing music”.
One, possibly two, but not all three of the above statements explain how The Stone Roses went from creating a series of singles and a debut album that took the indie guitar template, and funked with it, creating an unlikely but entrancing crossover that allowed scruffy indie urchins to feel like dancing (if you can call the “left foot forward, right foot forward, left foot back, right foot back” swagger dancing), to spending their days thumb-twiddling in the offices of record company lawyers, and gradually losing their madchester muse.
Regular poll-topping debut album (until Radiohead crashed the party) The Stone Roses still sounds fantastic, follow-up Second Coming still sounds, with the exception of one or two tracks, crushingly disappointing. Ian Brown still cannot sing (his miming might have improved over the years, though), but that was never really the point, was it?
Finish on a high. I’m not saying this was the best song of the 80s. (It wasn’t even the best REM song of the 80s). I’m definitely not offering it up as the best video of the 80s. But when it comes to the ultimate festival, the ultimate gig, the ultimate setlist, after the fake encore, when the band comes out for a third time, this is who they are, and this is what they play. It doesn’t matter that Michael Stipe forgot the words fifteen years, five albums, two breakups and five hundred performances ago: the crowd remembers – Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs are all singing along – and it’s just a heady torrent of consciousness in any case.
And I feel fine.
From Peter, Paul and Mary to Nirvana in a few simple hops and skips? Easier than you think. Early in 1986, Kim Deal answered the following ad placed by singer Black Francis:
‘Looking for female bassist, high harmony, must like Hüsker Dü, Peter Paul & Mary, no chops.’
Deal didn’t own a bass, she wasn’t a bassist, but she was the only person to respond, and so got the gig, joining Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, and later drummer Dave Loveridge, the four forming the Pixies.
Two albums later, the Pixies had all but perfected their quiet-loud-quiet style, built on a rock-steady rhythm section, guitarist Joey Santiago’s surf explosions, and Black’s fragile/terrifying vocal shifts.
In 1991, Kurt Cobain took this blueprint, and ripped it off (by his own admission) while writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
It would be unfair to call the Pixies a band’s band, but they are one of that set of groups whose influence over successive generations of artists far outstrips their own commercial success. Oh, and if you don’t like the Pixies, then we need to talk.
Not a title that makes much sense, until you opt for the less common meaning of “party”, where the party in question is Billy MacKenzie, the lead singer with the extraordinary vocals, and friend of Morrissey (it was rumoured that Morrissey’s lyric for “William it was Really Nothing” was about MacKenzie).
A retrospective 80s favourite, this. Although I couldn’t quite place it, as soon as I heard The Divine Comedy’s version on their 2006 album “Victory for the Comic Muse” I knew that I had heard it somewhere before, in a far off life. The earworm keyboard riff, reworked for strings, can’t quite compensate for the unfortunate truth that, as wonderful a vocalist as Neil Hannon undeniably is, even he can’t match Mackenzie’s vocal dervish. Not that Billy would agree with this, having described his own performance on Party Fears Two as “hysterical Banshee screeching”.
Here the former stage Elvis and biggest selling singles artist of the decade shows a darker (not to mention hammier) side, a-breaking and entering in a coat he borrowed from Kirsty MacColl, and does that thing with his legs that I’m sure used to seem a lot cooler back in the day. He looks at a few pictures, nearly faints on the stairs, has a quick frame of snooker, as you do if you’re sneaking around your stalkee’s mansion, and you need to make a clickey-clack sound, and magically finds himself wearing the shiny jacket from the “Shaky” album cover, before beating a hasty retreat when the lord and lady return.
These were bountiful times for Shaky’s fans – in May 1981, “You Drive Me Crazy” hit the top 5 before his previous single “This Ole House” had said goodbye to the top 20. The week after “…Crazy” dropped out of the chart follow-up single “Green Door” was number one. The song “Green Door” ousted from the number one spot? “Ghost Town”. Stand aside, misery and social commentary, good time rock “n” roll is back.
As much as subsequent single “Rio” has come to symbolise the excess of the music industry, the extravagance of expensive video shoots and the empty show of wealth that was the calling card of the 80s riche, its predecessor “Save a Prayer” should be held no less guilty. In an Apprentice style folly, the group split in two; Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes stayed in London to finish mixing the album “Rio”, while the rest of the group set off to film in Sri Lanka on what might sound like the better part of the task, until you factor in elephants on heat, the heat all around, and the hospitalising virus that Andy Taylor picked up.
Such high jinks and jet-setting are at odds with the song’s lyrical images of the “corner of the main street” and lights “flashing on your window sill”, but a good match for the evocative synth sound, and the guitar flourishes in the chorus demand to be accompanied by a panning aerial shot, so that’s exactly what director Russell Mulcahy gave them.
“Save a Prayer” ended up another glorious #2 hit, and just like “Private Investigations” it was kept off the top spot by “Eye of the Tiger”.
And now to a section that I was going to call “I love 1982”, before I remembered that one of the cuts was from a whole year earlier. So here’s a section called ‘I love 1982 even though I don’t remember it quite as well as I thought I did’.
“Our House” was a Christmas number five in 1982, just nudging up behind Culture Club, David Bowie and Bing Crosby, and the magnificent Shakin’ Stevens, with the “which is which?” croony combo Renee and Renato at number 1, topping a triumphant few months for all things Italian and not quite so Italian, following World Cup glory and the launch of the Viennetta that year as a festive delicacy.
Madness were in the midst of a run of 15 hits in four years, starting with “My Girl” in January 1980 and ending with “The Sun and The Rain” in November 1983, only one of which (“Cardiac Arrest”) failed to break into the Top 10. In “Our House”, the nutty boys continued their nutty traditions, nuttying around in a simple domestic tale. Don’t let that and the brief passer-by-perplexing scene at the start distract from what is a perfectly crafted three-minute pop song. And whatever you do, try not to let the two or three second clip of a passing British Rail train send you into a thirty-year nostalgic reverie: you’ll miss a sumptuously layered intro.
Eco protest time, with Greenpeace favourite “Ship of Fools”, taken from World Party’s debut album “Private Revolution”. Its a bouncy number, the jollity of the melody and backing vocals starkly at odd with the warning verses:
Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
Drowning in the oceans of history
Travellin’ the world, you’re in search of no good
But I’m sure you’ll build your Sodom like I knew you would
Like most of World Party’s singles it dribbled around the edges of the UK top 40 – only “Is it Like Today?” broke the top 20, in 1993 – without making much impact. Lead singer and songwriter Karl Wallinger’s biggest success came with when Robbie Williams took an album track from 1997’s Egyptology and parlayed his considerable popularity at the time with the ballad’s previously overlooked hit potential, in the process creating a number one single. Wallinger, having originally not been best pleased at the thought of his record label letting Williams loose on one of his precious creations, soon cheered up at the prospect of a few more years of recording time.
Bragg’s not a fan of nostalgia, by the way, so I hope you enjoyed that on a historical level, and not with misty-eyed thoughts of Thatcher et al.
Here’s a song from the same EP that perhaps resonates more strongly today, in the week that the report of the Leveson enquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press will be published:
It says here that the unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud
That we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy
Here’s Billy infiltrating an unwitting suburbia distracted by Shredded Wheat, introduced splendidly by Selina Scott (“This is the new one – new Billy Bragg”), and outroduced by Mike Smith, not yet in his anti Jesus & Mary Chain period.
Here’s a man who knows a thing or two about protest songs, and mixing music with politics. Released just before the end of the 84-85 Miner’s strike, the proceeds from Billy Bragg’s “Between The Wars EP” were donated to the miner’s fund. During the strike Bragg had played at the coalfields and been given a lesson in the folk protest ethic by his then more radical co-performers: it was fellow performer Leon Rosselson’s song “World Turned Upside Down” – Bragg’s version of which ended up on the EP – that gave Bragg the inspiration to dig further into history, beyond punk’s year zero for his own anti-war, pro welfare state song “Between The Wars”. It takes in imagery from as far and wide as the Spanish Civil War, the Beveridge Report, and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.
The miner’s strike was a catalyst for the formation later that year of Red Wedge, a confused and many-headed collective, with musicians such as Bragg and Paul Weller acting as a vocal spearhead. The main aim was straightforward: Thatcher out, Kinnock in. And it might have been more successful if it hadn’t also waded into other areas such as gay rights and the legalisation of cannabis. Although independent from Labour, Red Wedge kept an office at Labour Party HQ, just down the corridor from Peter Mandelson, who seemed keen to share his thoughts with the Wedge. A decade later, symptomatic perhaps of New Labour’s glossier approach to mixing politics and music, when the party started to work its way into the music rolodexes once more, Blur were approached first, on the basis that they were pretty popular and probably could be relied upon for left-leaning views. On that occasion, Mandelson vetoed a meeting between Tony Blair and Blur’s Damon Albarn because, thinking he was “soft focus”, some Tory MPs had already started to referring to Blair as “Blur”.
Having started out with the new romantics, by the end of the 1980s Talk Talk had grown into something startlingly different. Gradually self-deconstructing, the band completed their transition from synth and new wave to jazz-influenced minimalism, while practically inventing post-rock in the process.
The success of The Colour Of Spring in 1986 persuaded EMI to give up any control over Talk Talk’s next album. With time and money no object, singer Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene indulged their inspirational and creative muse, spending the best part of a year in the studio working on sketches, fragments, and moods. The result was the moody and atmospheric Spirit of Eden, an album far removed from early Talk Talk singles like “Mirror Man” and “Today”. Out of step with anything else at the time, the album was not a great success, which only served to send Holliss deeper into the recording abyss for the follow-up, and Talk Talk’s final album, Laughing Stock, the studio sessions for which have passed into rock myth, driven by Holliss’ ever more demanding perfectionism.
Seen through the lens of nearly a quarter century, both albums stand out as widely ranging influencers: of post-rock/ambient bands like Sigur Ros, the dynamic studio range of Elbow, and shoegazers Slowdive, whose own album trajectory followed a similar path towards their gentle goodbye album Pygmalion, most notably on the ten-minute opening track “Rutti”.
“Golden Brown” works on two levels. It’s about heroin and also about a girl
– Hugh Cornwell
A candidate for the best number two hit of all time, “Golden Brown” was kept off the top spot by “Town Called Malice” in February 1982. Over time it has gone from being an album track to something that got a bit of radio play, to a hit single, to the kind of track familiar to fans and non-fans of The Stranglers alike, and a cookie-cutter radio staple.
As a kid, listening to it, you find yourself drawn in by something you instinctively grasp as different from the rest, without truly knowing what’s going on. These are not the instruments of a punk band, or a chart band, and there’s something intriguing but not quite right about the time signature (it’s the additional beat that switches it from 6/8 to 7/8 every other measure…)