The 80’s were a great period for the pop song. ‘Since Yesterday’ by Strawberry Switchblade. ‘Happy Birthday’ by Altered Images. Jane Wiedlin’s ‘Rush Hour’ is just the track to make an old, cynical blogger’s heart melt; a more perfect pop record you really couldn’t wish for. Oh, and not forgetting the lush and lamé of ‘When Smokey Sings’ by ABC – which just happened to be at #14 this week in ’87 (unfortunately on its tumble down the charts; it didn’t break the Top 10, peaking only at #11, which feels like some sort of slap to our collective face when you consider the guff that outsold it). As a song it’s perfectly proportioned. A clever mix of sugar and drama born of genuine fandom, and the backing singers coo, the strings add subtle depth, the sax parts sparkle, and all is right with the world.
The rest of the Top 40? Putting aside ‘Catch’ by The Cure (cute but hardly definitive) and Prince’s ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (ditto), it’s the usual depressing dross. Listening to much of this stuff would be enough to trigger misanthropy, if we weren’t there already. And don’t even get me started on U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ – not so much the aural equivalent of drinking bleach than employing righteousness itself to do the pouring.
Usual format of post; introduction, followed by ill-informed comments as we travel down the Top 10. I’ve even been all lovely and linked to each track for your listening “pleasure”. Although I wouldn’t actually advise any listening beyond the ABC track at the bottom of the page, of course.
Pretty early on in the Cats’ career the music press rechristened lead singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot as Ben Vol-au-vent. Which if anything is on the kind side; I’d start throwing around far more suitable epithets – tasteless ones, borderline libellous – only this being a family blog…
‘Misfit’ is a slice of heavily-diluted white boy suburban soul sprayed across a slick, generic 80’s template. It’s basically anti-music, unchallenging by deed and design, and decorated by rhythm guitar and synth statements you can hear in a hundred other tracks from the era. Playing this doesn’t make you want to scream “make it stop”; rather, it fails to make an impression at all, which is inordinately worse.
What is it with the 80’s and ridiculously over-earnest power ballads dredged up from the cheese vats by middle-aged men doused in hairspray and leather trousers (‘Is This Love?’ by Whitesnake was this week’s #11, popkids – be thankful I’m not reviewing that). “We’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son”, croons our John, with what sounds like about forty session musicians going through the motions behind him. “How long can we look at each other down the barrel of an gun?” – because the trite and the sanctimonious work so well together as a lyrical theme. Also, the middle eight contains bagpipes. Fucking bagpipes. Here in Scotland we’re far more embarrassed by bagpipes than we are of our predilections for heroin and Buckfast-flavoured violence, which probably tells you something.
There’s zero point even considering discussing early period Whitney; Patrick Bateman does it so much better, the music-themed interludes of American Psycho definitive (see also: Genesis; Huey Lewis & The News).
The opening couplet – “Girl you are to me all that a woman should be, and I dedicate my life to you, always”, dribbled out into the open above a mawkish electronic piano motif – lets us know straight away what we’re up against here. Proclamations of mutual devotion aren’t exactly uncommon, but rarely can they be as sexless, lifeless, and devoid of passion as this forgotten Atlantic Starr hit; I’m guessing that before entering the vocal booth this couple didn’t lock themselves in the stationery cupboard with ‘Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus’ blaring from the stereo speakers, then proceed to bang each other senseless. A song sorely lacking genitals.
This isn’t ‘Wired For Sound’, is it? If we have to have Cliff Richard, he could at least be down the roller disco, skating about the rink with rickets posture, his Sony Walkman feeding Einstürzende Neubauten tracks into his dark, troubled soul. ‘My Pretty One’ is far from the worst or most offensive record Cliff has ever cut – there’s a synth-pop angularity to the backing track that’s counter-balanced by acoustic guitar on the off-beat – but it does emphasise the weakness of his voice; that decaffeinated quality, making the listener question his longevity. He even struggles to hit a high note late on, as if it’s way past his bedtime, and he needs to climb into his closet for a sleep.
When it comes to the musical packaging commissioned to fold around the Bond title sequences – all those silhouettes of naked ladies swimming about in sperm-filled lava lamps – this is no ‘You Only Live Twice’. It’s not even ‘A View To A Kill’, possibly the only 007-related theme from the 1980’s that still translates in a modern setting. In fact, ‘The Living Daylights’ commits one of pop’s cardinal sins by being dull and undramatic – about as exciting as waiting in line in a post office queue. It’s also unbalanced; the John Barry orchestration sitting uneasily with the synth/guitar direction that the band wanted to pull towards (they detested the finished version of the song, and re-recorded it for their next album as they wanted it in their ears). Finally, Morten Harket’s vocal has a washed-out, unenthusiastic quality; it doesn’t encourage expectations of spies with a raised eyebrow. Or camp villains, dumb explosions, those aforementioned mermaids in semen… a shame.
I actually enjoyed playing this far more than I thought I would. Well, enjoyed might be pushing things a little, but it does sound far closer to a Prince track than my memory suggested. It lacks chorus or complete bass line. The verses are stylishly stripped back – drumbeat and vox, with only occasional stabs of guitar and synth and backing vocal, whilst each bridge features funk bass and electronic, light-touch chirps that frame the vocal far cuter than a rounded sound would. Even the lyrics – just another twist on the old “I want to get inside your pants” oeuvre – have a depth, a poetic foundation, even if they didn’t flow from the pen of Philip Larkin. What doesn’t work – and I should emphasise that this is purely a subjective view – is Mr D’Arby’s voice, which has a gravelly, America’s Got Talent thing about it. It’s all mono-faceted emotion, rather than the subtlety the song calls out for. The spins and tricks are all there but not the nuance – I might need something more before I let you into my pants, Terence.
In which the most excruciating element of the novelty single – the lame joke, unremittingly bludgeoned to a bloody pulp via the joy of repetition – implores anyone unlucky enough to listen to take up homicide. And not the good sort of homicide, where victim and perpetrator can have a good chuckle about it afterwards – oh no.
Because they’re made for children, not sneering audiophiles wildly screaming towards middle age, there’s a pointlessness to appraising records such as these. Also: I hate children.
All these flying visits to the Hit Parade are not an excuse for me to bitch and whine and generally act like a mealy-mouthed shit-heel who spends his time devising awkward similes; it just feels that way. Because this is a fucking dog of a cover version; a goofy, charmless cash-in made all the worse by the existence of an entire album of similar shit (’87’s The Return Of Bruno – released on the Motown label – and featuring both The Temptations and Booker T, further despoiling their respective legacies). Yup; when all is said and done, this record makes me fancy self-immolation. I’ll then blow the ashes up my arse with a trumpet.
The opening chords: portentous, ecclesiastical. The clap of thunder: apocalyptic. The Chris Lowe hook (which I think is being played on a double-tracked Yamaha DX1, although someone who knows about these things will correct me if I’m wrong): archetypal, layered on thickly – ‘It’s A Sin’ shouldn’t work. It oversteps its own footprint, the melodrama rich and portly even without the leading sentiment of Tennant’s lyrics.
Yet this does work. Earlier PSB singles – and their importance in a pop music context – is a topic previously covered in these parts; the all-out successes (‘Rent’; ‘Left To My Own Devices’; ‘So Hard’) have in common a playfulness in delivery that’s wry, and sharp, and knowing. I’m not sure that this week’s #1 hits those particular heights, but there’s enough in the libretto to elevate this track way beyond the one-dimensional synth-pop confessional. It’s liturgical; the famous opening (‘When I look back upon my life it’s always with a sense of shame / I’ve always been the one to blame’) all Catholic guilt transposed across a duality of meaning (as well as another late night amongst clubland’s human detritus). I asked a Pet Shop Boys scholar – familiar with sacrament – if you had to be Catholic to truly get ‘It’s A Sin’; her answer:
Hmm, interesting. I’m inclined to think so – when you’re bought up in a Catholic environment (home/school/church) the concept of ‘sin’ is so intrinsically linked to the cornerstones of the faith you’re being told. To be sinless is an alien concept in Catholicism.
Original sin is not your usual chart fodder subject matter. Neither is it convention to build the outro upon a Latin chant. And the best bit? The NASA countdown sample used in the intro (“Twenty seconds and counting / T-minus fifteen seconds, guidance is okay”) is mirrored at the close by a subtle, easy to miss ‘Zero’; it’s detail such as this that fires my interest. The second finest track in this week’s Top 40, then.
ABC / When Smokey Sings