Split Enz: True Colours (1980)
It’s not that often you come across an album in which every song could legitimately be released as a single. True Colours comes very close, the only thing preventing it being the two instrumental numbers, which are both excellent in their own ways regardless. The other nine tracks are superior hook-laden pop that would fit in anywhere on commercial radio, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that Split Enz started out as a kind of prog rock outfit. My memory of their early days was via the songs “My Mistake” and “Late Last Night”, which were oddball though still recognisably pop songs. But I’ve just had a listen to their first album, Mental Notes, from 1975; there’s no doubt that is art rock with grandiose ambitions. It’s actually pretty good, but the path from there to True Colours saw them forsaking the art for a kind of edgy pop, and by 1980 they were masters of their craft. It’s often claimed that this album is where Neil Finn staked his claim as a songwriter, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that he’s only credited with three of the songs, and two of them don’t really jump out at the listener. But then again, the other one was “I Got You”, the song that not only cemented the band’s reputation but is the one that even now is most closely identified with them. Tim Finn’s contributions set the tone for True Colours, and they’re overwhelming. He has a way of nailing an emotion hard, whereas Neil buries it in the feel of the song. “I Hope I Never”, “Nobody Takes Me Seriously Anyway” and “Poor Boy” all take a direct route to the nerve centre, no fluff, no restraint, leaning more on the lyrics than Neil’s contributions. Production-wise, the songs here are tethered to the New Wave early Eighties, but the songwriting is so strong that they could translate easily to any other era. It’s an excellent album.
I Got You
Joy Division: Closer (1980)
My first copy of this album was a tape given to me by a friend in high school. For years after the CD version was released I thought he’d mistakenly recorded the B side before the A side, but I’ve since discovered that the original album had no designated A and B sides. As it transpires, Closer is a less depressing listen with the sides reversed, because the most exhausted and resigned tracks arrive earlier, and the path tracks upwards from there, ending on the relatively jaunty “A Means to an End”. Not to mention “Heart and Soul” being perfect as an opener. As sequenced on the CD however, it ends offering no hope at all, just a steady gaze into the abyss. It’s almost impossible to separate Closer from Ian Curtis’ suicide, simply because the album was released after his death; everything you hear is coloured by it, and it sure does sound like a suicide note in places. It’s obvious also that producer Martin Hannett was way more interested in the beat than the guitar work, and his production (or interference, as Hook and Sumner would have it) relegates the guitar work to scratchy background noise as the percussion attacks you upfront. It’s what gives Closer its claustrophobic feel, as if you’re being hemmed in by the blackness. Of course, it’s very likely that Curtis wasn’t really channelling his thoughts of death into the work (there’d have to be some crossover, but I mean they weren’t inextricably linked) and it’s certain none of the other band members were; if you can separate the album from the event it does present as a leap forward sonically from Unknown Pleasures and it would have been fascinating to see where they took the band from here. Not ever being able to know provides Closer with a mystique that can never be shaken from it.
Heart and Soul
Kate Bush: The Dreaming (1982)
Hounds of Love gets the plaudits, and so it should; it’s Bush at her most immersive and thus most herself, and it is her best album. But The Dreaming, which often gets overlooked, goes very close, and it’s a lot more fun. If one of her albums needs recommending, it’s definitely this one. On first listen, it sounds abrasive and pushy; on a lot of the songs Bush resorts to a vocal approach something between a howl and a shriek, and she’s constantly at you. But wait until you’ve heard it a couple more times, and the beauty comes into full-flower. The second half of the album in particular contains some gorgeous music. But what’s so special about it – and much of her work – is that she’s a storyteller, an inhabiter of the lives of others or of personae she has created, such that you as a listener are caught up in narrative, whether you can follow it or not. And mostly you can’t, though the ideas are clear enough. “Sat In Your Lap” for instance, about the impossibility of intellectual satisfaction; it’s a series of impressions, but you walk away knowing what she’s on about. You’ll have less luck with “Suspended in Gaffa”, which I think is about the frustration of being close to spiritual union without ever actually getting there. The way it trips so deftly across its melody is lovely, though. In other places, she’s a Japanese fighter, a thief in the midst of a heist, Houdini’s partner, something out of The Shining. And on the title track, I believe she’s a miner barging into the Dreamtime; it’s probably the song least representative of the album as a whole, which makes me wonder why it was chosen as the title. It gives a misleading impression of what the album’s about; the cover photo of her with Houdini hiding a key in her mouth is closer to the mark. But then I think misdirection and alienation were central ideas here, so maybe the title is fitting after all.
Sat in Your Lap
Suspended in Gaffa
The Triffids: The Black Swan (1989)
I’m very, I guess, protective of this album. I was onto the Triffids quite early – somewhere among my old tapes I have a couple of songs from their pre-record-deal cassette releases, and Love in Bright Landscapes was a big thing for me in the mid-Eighties. But, despite Born Sandy Devotional and In the Pines being the choice of hardcore Triffids fans, and Calenture sweeping up the rest, this is the one that’s really stuck with me. It’s David McComb at his most ambitious, and he was talented enough to pull off almost anything. I think the reason I love it so much has a lot to do with McComb’s style of songwriting. The closer to perfection it came the less verve it had – or maybe it’s risk I’m talking about. The early singles and releases up to Raining Pleasure were flawed and incomplete, but all the more endearing for it. He hit a patch of rough brilliance with Born Sandy Devotional, but even then the songs were sounding professional. In truth, he could have stayed with the style he perfected there forever if he’d wanted to, and cranked out incredible songs in that genre; it wouldn’t have mattered. He did for a couple of albums, and the rough brilliance became simply brilliance. But with The Black Swan he threw everything up in the air, and it was as if he was starting from scratch; that was wild and exciting and engaging. It’s funny, I’ve come across maybe half a dozen critiques of The Black Swan; all of them said the same thing – some great tracks, some it could do without. But the tracks were different for each critique, and between them they covered the whole album. That’s how this album works; everyone’s going to love some of it, and it will be different parts for different people. Among the little surprises, incidentally, is a verse in “Bottle of Love” that quotes one of their earliest singles, “Spanish Blue”. Just a subtle in-joke to make sure that we fans are paying attention.
Goodbye Little Boy
Falling Over You
UB40: Signing Off (1980)
UB40 were legitimately good once, you know; before they decided soft-pop reggae was a viable direction to fame and wealth, they made some first-class music. Ok, that’s not doing justice to their later work. They were pretty good and reasonably authentic until maybe 1986 – it’s just that their commercial end strayed to the cheesy side, and that’s what sticks in the memory. There are no concessions to the radio audience on their first couple of albums, and this one has a depth of feeling you won’t find anywhere else in their catalogue. What UB40 strongly conveyed early on was their sense of political outrage; it was communicated quietly, almost conversationally, with Ali Campbell’s voice never rising beyond a discursive mid-range, but it was uncompromising, as you only needed to hear in album-opener “Tyler”, their re-telling of a racially sensitive murder case in Louisiana. It’s economically narrated, but you can hear the hurt and anger behind it. Other songs covered similar territory, from “King”, a lament for the legacy of Martin Luther King, to “Burden of Shame” and “Madame Medusa”, both lacerations of Thatcher’s Britain. Their trouble was that they came in on the end of Ska/Reggae protest-Britain, and the mood changed in the early Eighties, which would have left them stranded and outdated. However, there are a couple of clues as to their forward progression on Signing Off. They covered Randy Newman on “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and borrowed from Van Morrison for “Burden of Shame” – an indication that their future lay closer to pop/MOR stylings. It’s good that they had somewhere to go, and admirable that they stuck with authentic dub/reggae for as long as they did. Still, those who only took notice of UB40 around “Red, Red Wine” are in for a pleasant surprise when they put this one on.
Food for Thought
XTC: Skylarking (1986)
The term ‘Beatlesque’ is terribly overused, attached to any moderately successful artist with pretensions to melodic pop/rock. I don’t even like using it in reference to this album, which is as close to McCartney’s vision of the Beatles as you can get (nothing out there is really all that Lennon-esque, he was out on his own musically). But what else describes it? It’s probably not even down to Partridge and Moulding anyway. It’s part directive from the label to get more commercial and shift units, and part Todd Rundgren in the producer’s chair working his magic. We know how much influence Rundgren had because Andy Partridge – always protective of his output – absolutely hated and resented the intrusion. At any rate this, the most ‘pastoral’ and smooth of XTC’s output, sounds every bit the definitive statement it was designed to be, an evocation of a summer’s day and the languid intimacy it can engender. This idea of a loose song-cycle on a parochial and receptive theme reminds me of some those late-Sixties Kinks records, and XTC are a bit Kinks-like in the way their massive talent lay underappreciated and overshadowed. Everything here works, and the sequencing is really admirable, allowing particular tracks that might otherwise get buried (“1000 Umbrellas” and “The Meeting Place” for example) to share the spotlight in amongst other, catchier songs. Instead of fixating on particular tracks – “Grass”, “Dear God”, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” – you find yourself being swept up in the ambitious scope of the whole. XTC’s entire Eighties output (even Mummer, which tends to be talked down) is highly recommended. And you’ll find most of their other albums are more idiosyncratic and representative of their style. But this one simply demands to be acknowledged. It’s a classic.
The Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (1981)
The band have fallen by the wayside a bit, and if it wasn’t for the movie Pretty In Pink, maybe they’d be forgotten completely. The movie’s been both a blessing and a curse, actually; it helped the song enter the musical vernacular, but it did it by misconstruing its intent entirely. If you listen to the lyrics, what we’re looking at here is a naked woman, hoping to validate herself through sexual encounters but finding herself objectified instead. I don’t recall Molly Ringwald doing anything like that in the movie. In fact, this whole album is quite highly charged sexually, and complicated in its attitude to women. We’ve got tracks such as “Into You Like a Train” and “I Wanna Sleep With You”, coming on strong but refusing commitment, but then “All of This and Nothing” hangs around devastated at the emptiness of post-relationship ephemera. And “She is Mine” – lyrically quite close to the Bob Dylan of Bringing it All Back Home – details the craziness of even being involved with a woman. All the songs involve a woman either a prey to something or portending something. So, you know, Richard Butler is going through a confused time emotionally it seems, but the music… the music is tough and hooky and hard-edged, it’s really compelling. The nearest comparison I can think of, in terms of what it does to you, is In It for the Money by Supergrass. You hear it once and think ‘Oh yeah, a bit samey but not bad’; but the brilliance is so densely packed that the more familiar you become with it the more it offers you. Their debut album contained some gems, and Forever Now worked a smoother, more streamlined furrow; both are highly listenable. But neither are as vital and forceful as Talk Talk Talk, which doesn’t flag for a single moment, much less a whole song.
Pretty In Pink
She is Mine
R.E.M.: Document (1987)
It’s funny, when this album was released I just naturally assumed it would be recognised critically as their best album, and that it would take something extraordinary to displace it. It seems critical commentary doesn’t agree with me – most of them place it in there, but behind Murmur and sometimes even further back than that. For mine, it casually wipes away everything that came before it, and doesn’t give Green the faintest chance of following it up successfully. To give it a little context: If R.E.M. had disbanded after Life’s Rich Pageant, Murmur would have mythic status, the mysterious perfect album R.E.M. could never quite replicate. It’s astonishing (a word I have hitherto overused, and hold back for special occasions these days). I don’t want to underplay its importance. But look what they did with Document. They’ve got tracks that recontexualise and sharpen their earlier work (“Disturbance at the Heron House”, “Welcome to the Occupation”). Others point the way forward for them (“Exhuming McCarthy”, “Finest Worksong”, “King of Birds”). The sound is sharper and more confident while sacrificing nothing of the Southern Gothic feel they brought with them. And then, right in the middle, are seven and a half minutes that literally come from nowhere. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” has been replicated since, but at the time it was like nothing on earth, and certainly nothing we could have expected from R.E.M. And then “The One I Love” – a love song, of sorts, a born hit (first time the band could say that), and yet as strange as all get-out, spooky in both its sound and the ambivalence of its message. Make no mistake, Document is a high water mark for the band in both their progression and on its own terms. It points backwards and forwards with complete confidence and assurance.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
The One I Love
Honeymoonkillers: Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel (1982)
You may have a little trouble sourcing this one. I bought it on a whim from an independent record store around 1983, knowing nothing of what it sounded like. I fell in love with it on first listen, and it’s an album I always come back to. These guys were truly subversive. Yvon Vromann put the band together in 1974, and the legend goes that they were a bunch of petty crims and the like whose disregard for authority gave them a common link. They released an anarchic sounding album called Special Manubre in 1977. I’ve heard a bit of it, it’s not much good. The line-up was quite volatile and fluid until they joined forces with Vincent Kenis and Marc Hollander from Aksak Maboul, and then brought in singer/model Veronique Vincent. This line-up finally established an approach and a sound that worked for them – it’s post-punky but it feeds in all sorts of other stuff, from freeform jazz to a kind of futuristic sound. What comes through most forcefully, even if you can’t follow the French lyrics (translate them if you get the chance, they’re fun in a very offbeat way), is the manic playfulness, the hyperactive velocity with which they fling their music together. Playing live – at least from what I’ve seen on YouTube – they come across as less a musical group than a gang, a bunch of misfits out of a comedy heist movie, having a whale of a time. They cover – if that’s the word, it’s more like aggressive deconstruction – three well-known French songs, the most hyper of which is “Laisse Tomber les Filles”, the lounge standard presented as a breakneck-speed gleeful harangue by Vincent. Everything’s great here, no two songs are even close to alike, there are special effects and hilarious vocal tics supplied by Vromann all over it. And their own songs – seven of the ten on the album – are just as high in quality as the covers, “Histoire a Suivre”, “Decollage” and “J4” especially. Some versions of this have English-language equivalents of their originals, added on at the request of their label. I don’t think they add anything, and you can do without them.
Histoire a Suivre
Fonce a Mort
The Fall: Grotesque (1980)
The Eighties is the decade Fall fans recall the most fondly. The band went through a lot of stylistic changes with a relatively settled line-up, they skirted the edges of commercial acceptability, and they released their most memorable and lasting music. From 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall to 1988’s The Frenz Experiment they were riding high. If I was to recommend a starting point for new listeners, that era would be it. But that’s their commercial peak; creatively, they were smashing it from 1980 to 1983, and that’s where your hardcore Fall acolytes gravitate. Starting with this gem from 1980. Grotesque is about the first time you realise that Mark E Smith hates everything – he even admits as much on “C’C-s Mithering”, which alternates between bile spat at groups/ producers, and just random things he can’t stand. It, along with the rest of the album, is mostly about his ongoing struggle to make the music and live the life he wants in the face of idiots, mercenaries, obstacles and other irritations; the irony being that it’s those very things that provide him with all of his material. He’ll never escape it so he’ll always be angry, and therefore always fecund musically. The songs themselves fall into three broad thematic categories; straight up, often repetitive harangues (“Pay Your Rates”, “Container Drivers” “In The Park”), narrative pieces with subversive subject matter (“New Face in Hell”, “Impression of J Temperance”), and long, loose freeform lectures (“C’C-s Mithering”, “The N.W.R.A.”). Now, this stuff works not because it’s intense but rather because it’s fun. Smith’s response to everything around him is to poke fun at it, ridicule it, tear it down, and he’s happy to let you in in the joke. And not just one but two of these songs have a kazoo in them! He’s never happier than when everything is pissing him off, and the music itself is always simple, bright, hooky and rhythmically grounded. It’s what makes Grotesque, and all Fall music, so listenable.
New Face in Hell