New Order – “Blue Monday”

Unusually topical for 80s45s; today is supposedly Blue Monday, the bleakest day of the year. It was invented to give newspapers something to report at this time (as opposed to actual news) either by identifying non-existent trends (The Nation’s Favourite what? Day to Top Itself?) or debunking tales of their own creation, and preferably both in alternate years. The nonsense idea behind it being that the third Monday in January is a perfect storm of Bad Things; too many days without sunshine, extreme depletion of funds and the comedown from Christmas excess.

new-order-blue-monday

New Order – Blue Monday

The song by New Order, on the other hand, is a confluence of wondrous things: the chilly futuristic power of electronica versus the glittering retro warmth of disco. Put them together (with a bit of deadpan Mancunian swagger) and… the ice melts.

I’d love to say that I first heard it in some ill-reputed club, that it soundtracked the drug-fuelled adventures of my youth, but the reality of our tinytown existence meant my friend Eve borrowed a copy from an older guy in the village. (No longer with us, he was a gentle, music-loving soul who worked on the golf course, and used to get into bother with the greenkeeper for stopping the lawnmower to move earthworms out of the way.) Blue Monday sounded vastly superior to anything even remotely like it and we just listened to it over and over again for a few weeks until we had to return it. Given the saturation of the Joy Division/New Order/Factory myths in our shared consciousness, it hardly matters. Those implanted impressions are quite as potent as the actual memories of just sitting around in my bedroom, burning violet incense and listening to music.

Even if I heard it for the first time today though, it would sound every bit as arresting as it did over thirty years ago. All the best dance music is (of course) a bit melancholic: Happy Blue Monday.

Wendy

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U2 – “The Unforgettable Fire”

Picture the scene: you have had a hard day at work; you have come home late; it is cold; you are hungry. You open the fridge. Alas! There is nothing to eat, save for a Weight Watchers lasagne. You think how much you like lasagne – meaty, cheesy, rich, heavy, flavoursome; perhaps to be enjoyed with a strong red in front of a roaring fire. You contemplate the Weight Watchers faux-lasagne resignedly. Even the picture on the packet is not appetising. You decide to eat it anyway.

You finish some 10 minutes later. It was not a rewarding experience. The food was saccharine sweet; gloopy; lacking in substance. You are still hungry. You resort to filling up on toast.

U2 - The Unforgettable Fire

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

U2 are the Weight Watchers lasagne of rock and roll.

I have always found U2’s music to be an ersatz approximation of the real thing; occasionally superficially appealing but always strangely unfulfilling and unconvincing, even at its most passionate.

Mostly, of course, this is to do with Bono. He is maybe not a glassy-eyed, avaricious, self-aggrandising, heartless, pseudo-intellectual, hypocritical, shape-shifting lizard, but I strongly suspect that he bullies The Edge.

This much is obvious when one looks at promo pictures of U2:

U2

Figure 1: Witness The Edge’s bullied demeanour

SCENE: A recording studio outside Dublin in 1984. THE EDGE has arrived early and is diligently practising his riff, the one that BONO nicked for him off the first Associates album.

Enter ADAM.

ADAM: Alright there, The Edge? How’s tricks? I’ve just been shagging Naomi Campbell.

THE EDGE (embarrassed): Gosh Adam, that’s nice (blushes). Are you joining us for the recording session?

ADAM (surprised): Fuck no, you won’t be needing me – you can just fill in my bass parts, right?

THE EDGE: Of course, Adam. No problem.

ADAM (relieved): Righto. Righto. (Looks around; taps foot). Well, I’m off to the pub. See you later.

Exit ADAM

THE EDGE practices some more. Enter BONO with LACKEYS. BONO is dressed in a pork pie hat, checked trousers, a short-sleeved white shirt, Cuban heels and a leather waistcoat with pens in the breast pocket.

BONO (loudly): Alright der, da Edge! Edgie boy! Da Edgemeister!

LACKEY 1: Hur, hur, hur

THE EDGE (quietly): Good morning Bono

BONO (mimicking): Good morning Bono! Good morning Bono! Good morning Bono WHAT?

THE EDGE (avoiding eye contact): Good morning Bono, sir

BONO (to LACKEYS): Dat’s better isn’t it eh? Isn’t dat better lads?

BONO grabs THE EDGE in a headlock and drags him around the studio.

LACKEY 1: Hur, hur, hur

BONO (dragging THE EDGE back and forth): Are you me best pal, eh? Are ye?

LACKEY 2: Rub his head, Paul! Rub his head!

BONO (pausing, with THE EDGE still in a headlock):  Now why would Oi rub his head now lads? Why would Oi do a ting loike dat?

BONO grabs THE EDGE’S woolly hat and rubs it viciously across his head.

THE EDGE: Ow! Ow!

BONO: Aw, Edgie – does dat hurt? Let’s have a look and see, eh lads?

THE EDGE: No Bono sir, please!

BONO (removing THE EDGE’S woolly hat with a flourish to reveal THE EDGE’s bald pate): Ta da!

LACKEYS (applauding): Hur, hur, hur! Hur, hur, hur! Hur, hur, hur!

Enter bald ROBED FIGURE.

ROBED FIGURE (shrieking): SILENCE! What is the meaning of this IMPUDENCE! (To BONO) Explain yourself!

BONO (cowering): Please sur it was da Edge sur, I didn’t do nothing, Mr Eno, sur.

ENO (for it is he): SILENCE! A likely story. I will punish you later. For now we must commence recording and you must do exactly what I say! EXACTLY WHAT I SAY! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?

BONO (craven): Yes sur, Mr Eno sur!

ENO: SILENCE! I despise you. I despise you all.

And so on.

For me The Unforgettable Fire LP is the acme of U2’s career: delicate and dark, sparse and rich. With the exception of the clattering Pride, Bono’s usual bombast is absent; instead his lyrics are impressionistic: stream-of-consciousness sketches.  The title track is both understated and dramatic. Phrases cascade and career off chiming guitars and sonorous strings, conjuring a multitude of perspectives and a feast of senses and colours – cold and heat, light and dark, pain and sensuality;  the red wine that punctures the skin.

I hear its echo in the bruised beauty of The National’s Alligator.

And I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Mike

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The Lotus Eaters – “The First Picture of You”

This post is a bit out of synch, and should have appeared no later than July. I’m blaming the season; high summer is the lowest point of the year for me, and if I could hibernate through sweaty August and awake to the clean crispness of September, I would.

The Lotus Eaters - The First Picture Of You

The Lotus Eaters – The First Picture Of You

Over-hot weather hasn’t troubled me much growing up in rural Scotland, (apart from the famous Scorcher of ’76!) but living in the city, there is an atmosphere of things being on the turn, over-ripe and unhealthy. Even if there’s no sun, there is a close, unpleasant swampiness that saps the energy, making it impossible to do anything.

I suppose I view summer holidays the way some people do Christmas, the enforced leisure, the commodification of the experience, and the imperative to have scheduled fun. Stay-cations are nothing new to me; I’ve always preferred just being off work, pottering about, to undertaking a big trip with the attendant stress of travel and arriving home, skint and sunburnt, with a giant case of laundry.

Certain old songs will always make me feel “summery” if that implies carefree and light-hearted, because when I first heard them that meant no school, clothes in pastel colours and long evenings full of freedom and possibility. (Drinking outside!) Nowadays, a couple of weeks off work is merely time enough to dread returning. I always like to think that this year I’ll embrace summer; I like the idea of it, imagining some sun-kissed idyll of wine and laughter, when in reality, I’ll be struggling with the commute, red-faced, irritable and lethargic. By the time I’ve assembled the summer wardrobe and thought of somewhere to go, it’s nearly September.

’83 seems to have been a good year, as Aztec Camera’s “Oblivious” and Jimmy the Hoover’s “Tantalise” both remind me of being young in the sunshine. This one is a little darker. I didn’t like it immediately, not until I heard it late at night, too hot to sleep, listening on a funny little mono radio under my pillow, and it seemed full of the intensity and disorienting colours, scents and sounds of summer. I had a powerful feeling of synaesthesia, in itself a magical midsummer thing, that returns every time I hear the record.

The dreamlike, swirling melodies and chiming guitars evoke the charged atmosphere of a hot summer night and the heightened emotion of being young as well as the inherent sadness in the transience of both.

So, here I am at the fag-end of the season; shorter nights, falling leaves and back to school, the moment has passed again. This is the sound of the idea of the ideal summer that never was, and honestly is better than the real thing.

Wendy

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Foreigner – “I Want To Know What Love Is”

Adult Oriented Rock. No part of this phrase is pleasing to me.

Foreigner - I Want To Know What Love Is

Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is

Adult – not childlike; sensible; mature; responsible; old.

Oriented – aligned to a market; tilted, as a man might position a lamp to illuminate a spreadsheet.

Rock – without its complementary, feminising roll, a thrusting, blokeish yang that makes me think of Jeremy Clarkson’s hair. Rock is the kind of music one finds on petrol station CDs entitled ‘100 Drivetime Classix’.

Rock is the Top Gear team driving a new BMW at 180mph up a mountain whilst ‘Layla’ plays in the background.  Rock ‘n’ Roll, conversely, is Thelma and Louise driving a ’66 Thunderbird off a cliff. If you can’t tell the difference, I can’t help you.

Tonight’s 80s45 is one of many, many AOR records that caused me great distress in my youth. Everything about it is displeasing. So bilious is this song that whilst researching this piece I had to watch the video in 30 second bursts, as anything more catalysed such profound nausea I feared I might vomit on my keyboard.

I also read that this song frequently appears on the disturbingly-entitled ‘US Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Recurrents’, whatever that might be.

In addition to the song being turgid, dismal, enervating, tedious and devoid of all beauty, there are many things I dislike about the video. A few include:

  • The singer’s hair
  • The singer’s face
  • The singer’s age
  • The singer’s clothes
  • The singer identifying with the hard-working ethnic types in the video
  • The singer ‘getting down’ with the fucking gospel choir
  • The height at which the band wear their instruments
  • The constipated looks of suffering on the faces of the band

Constipation plays a big part in AOR. The pained, slightly grumpy looks on the faces of AOR protagonists might be mitigated if they were to have a nice big shit. Every time I see Peter Cetera’s face, I think he probably needs the toilet.

At school, 93% of people in my year liked this song. No, they LOVED this song. They went on about how wonderful it was, the incredible musicality of the composition, the precision with which the band played their highly-strung instruments, the profound spirituality of the gospel choir. These people were 15 years old. They told me that Foreigner were better than the UK Subs. They told me I was a philistine. They wanted to know what love was. I couldn’t show them. I got very upset. I drank hallucinogenic cider in the park and set fire to things. I wanted to destroy the world.

At this point I should conclude that in later life I have learned tolerance, or that indeed I have reached a sufficient level of maturity that the song now speaks to me, but neither of those statements would be true.

I imagine my former peers from school in their comfortable homes, browsing catalogues of light furnishings, whilst Chicago, Mister Mister, John Parr, Journey, Toto, Cutting Crew and Foreigner play lightly (but not too loudly) in the background.

Meanwhile down in the park a lonely figure in stained pants staggers around in the dark, clutching his bottle of Olde English Cider and howling at the moon.

Mike

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Billy Bragg – “Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy”

Apparently we are (politically and culturally) in the new 1980s so it seems appropriate to mention an overtly political artist from the time.

Billy Bragg – Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy

Billy Bragg – Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy

I am mightily pleased to have found a getaround that enabled me to include this 1983 mini-album. I would happily have written about the later stuff, but have more to say about his early records, and I had forgotten that the original issue was played at 45 rpm.

I first came across Billy Bragg when a boy in my class wrote out the lyrics of Saturday Boy for me, changing double history to double biology to suit our timetable. The boy was a sixteen-year-old Tory and an idiot, but I will always remember fondly our chats about music.

In the mid-eighties, Billy Bragg fronted Red Wedge, and was at the height of his party-political activism. These days, he is approaching national treasure status; in the past year, he has had to live down favourable press in the Mail and, on Question Time recently, even Baroness Warsi appeared to be flirting with him.

He comes in for some stick for his financial success, but as many anecdotes paint him a diamond geezer as a total arsehole; I don’t know the guy, and am not much for heroes, so I’ll just say that I feel his politics make him an easy target.

I’ve always thought him extremely canny, with a bloke-ish image that is deceptively natural, but astutely put together: Fred Perry, home-knitted-looking jerseys, jeans, DMs and donkey jackets. All these say working-class, earnest, manly, but it is celebratory rather than cynically contrived, of a piece with the cheery “economy” branding of his earlier records with “pay no more than…” stamped on the sleeves.

I could have written about any of the tracks, but chose a love song rather than a political one. I know there are those who find him unbearably worthy. I don’t, but The Man in the Iron Mask embodies everything I like about Billy Bragg. I have a weakness for the slightly awkward romance (my all-time favourite Billy song is A Lover Sings) and on this his sepulchral tones sound masculine and vulnerable at the same time; the image of an isolated everyman, heartbroken yet stoic.

I am always a fan of kitchen sink production, but this track packs the power of simplicity. The punk-ish brevity and lone guitar combine to emotive effect with the wistful lyrics, and the song is economically built round the metaphor of the man in the iron mask, referring to both the impossibility of escaping the relationship and the masculine impassivity he affects. At a little over two minutes, it is a concise, neat little song, as functional and as pleasing as the Utility Records brand itself.

Surprisingly, there appears to be no slick promotional video, so we will have to make do with this live footage from 1985 that captures his rather lovely stage presence. I particularly enjoy the way he ends sweetly, with a flourish, as if he were Jimmy Page finishing some intricate hour-long display of virtuosity.

Wendy

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2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 50 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Band Aid – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Wendy: In the spirit of the season, I was keen to do a joint post. Obviously Another Rock n Roll Christmas is off limits, I’m not sure we could adequately honour Shaky’s contribution to our collective Christmas tradition and nothing seemed more apt than this bumper selection box of eighties confections; I certainly couldn’t tackle it all by myself.

Band Aid – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Whenever I hear Do They Know It’s Christmas?, I am reminded of the 1984 end of term Christmas service at the church near our school, when the minister gave a quintessentially eighties address, using the lyrics as a jumping-off point. If I could only remember the sermon, I’m sure it would have made the perfect Christmas guest post; alas, all I can recall is his disapproval of the line Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you. And the giant home-made Rubik’s Cube he used as a prop, of course.

In the absence of the esteemed Rev McKenzie, I turned to another eminent spiritual beacon for his thoughts:

Mike: There is much to dislike about Christmas – the cost; the waste; Roy Wood’s face, clothes and hair; one’s grudging, half-hearted attempts at exercise; the hot-water-bottle consistency of one’s belly and arse; the sullen bitterness arising from one’s holiday time being consumed by the enforced society of neighbours, colleagues, friends and family; long empty days of gloomy self-reflection through a wine-glass, darkly; the dawning realisation that work, much as you hate it, is preferable; Christmas cards that won’t stand up properly.

I could go on. I will.

I was in John Lewis last Christmas, on a last minute dash to buy something utterly irrelevant but absolutely essential to the success of Christmas, something without which the entire holiday would be a total, unmitigated disaster, and that would result in me becoming a veritable pariah. I can’t remember what it was, other than that I couldn’t find it and I was extremely exercised about it and in a slightly unstable mental state. It was probably ribbon in a particular shade of taupe, or frosting to add to every third glass bauble on our tree.

As I stood there with my pulse racing and my hands clenching, from the tannoy came the ‘Feed the wo-orld’ refrain. It was that bit were the ‘Let them know it’s Christmas…’ descant comes in. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Tears rolled down my face. A punk rock warrior weeping to Band Aid in John Lewis.

Much has been written whether Band Aid was a good thing or whether charity obscures the true reasons for world poverty. I am ambivalent about it. By which I mean I am unsure. Things that I think about it are as follows:

  • As it was the original charity record, I just cannot believe that the participants were completely cynical in their motivations if only because they had no idea of the consequences
  • Undoubtedly it has increased Bob Geldof’s personal profile and wealth
  • And all of the artists that played at Live Aid
  • I think people are poor, because other people, like Bono, are rich
  • It does not invite people to think about the bigger picture, but
  • Perhaps some were encouraged to learn more as a consequence
  • And, after all, it’s ‘only’ a pop record. Lighten up! The masses aren’t gonna listen to Crass.

But what a record it is. Things that I think about the record/video are as follows:

  • That Paul Young, Boy George and George Michael can really sing, man
  • That it is pleasing that Sting sings the line with ‘sting’ in it
  • That Bananarama never looked more gorgeous with their (literally) just-out-of-bed look
  • That it is right that Bono gets to sing the bombastic line with ‘God’ in it. On his own
  • That Weller looks like he has learning difficulties
  • That the preposterous lyrics are perfect
  • That the oafs from Status Quo are despicable buffoons
  • That the song structure is a stroke of genius – from the death knell first half to the joyous, spring-like refrain
  • That the success of the song is primarily due to Midge ‘Wee Jim’ Ure’s composition and production

Wendy: I have to agree. Never a fan of the grand gesture and with typical (affected) cynicism, at the time I could not see past the self-promoting aspect of the enterprise. Funny how things change; the world has waxed snarky since then, and I must have mellowed enough to take a more nuanced view; watching the video, there is a sweetness about it that cannot all be artifice. The ordinariness of the location, the fact that the artists (so young!) look as if they really have rolled out of bed, but above all, Midge Ure, working away in the background; his quiet industry easily outclassing the bombastic Geldof.

As 2011 gets its coat and makes for the door, and 2012 approaches, I don’t remember looking towards a new year with such a mixture of weariness and trepidation. (I suppose this is middle age.) This song and video remind me of when I was young and relatively carefree (although I didn’t think so at the time) and when the world seemed a little more compassionate (although I didn’t think so at the time).

And with that, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year from 80s45s.

Mike & Wendy

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