INXS: The Swing (1984)
The early to mid Eighties were full of moments where an artist you were aware of would come out and surprise you by ramping up in quality or taking a left turn. I’ve mentioned the king of the transformations, Tom Waits, already. But there were others – Dire Straits with “Private Investigations” for instance, or New Order in the wake of Joy Division. Lindsay Buckingham, the Eurythmics with Be Yourself Tonight, Tina Turner. Transformations or redefinitions were happening all over the place. It’s the ‘step up’ effect, where a superannuated artist finds new relevance or an up-and-coming act makes a dramatic leap. INXS, on a local level, did the same thing too with “Original Sin”. In 1984 INXS were still a localised phenomenon, but their eyes were firmly on international success and they were searching for the key. The key, apparently, was Bigger – they were manifestly an arena band in waiting – but at this stage they were still striving for Better. Which made The Swing a relative disappointment on a commercial level internationally (though it was the first time they made the Billboard charts), but a major breakthrough in consistent songwriting and style. “Original Sin” was the first indication of that leap. It was the track they went to New York to record with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. It’s got the thumping Eighties beat and keyboard lines, but beneath that it’s sinewy and aimed at the hips. They brought it back to Nick Launay in Australia, and it was the starting point for the rest of the album, a collection of funked-up New Wave songs whose subject matter kept circling around themes of ambition, motion, progress. The Swing is INXS’s most consistent album, and probably their most ambitious too. It’s the sound of a band finding its range, and a singer in Michael Hutchence testing out the extent of his personal magnetism. All the glory of discovery is here.
I Send a Message
Hüsker Dü: Flip Your Wig (1985)
Boy, Hüsker Dü fans can be fussy. None of them seem to be able to agree on which of their albums are good and which are bad. They never like all of them, but their preferences are all over the place. The trouble is that Hüsker Dü evolved so quickly and pumped out so much product that you can take any one phase, call it ‘definitive’ and compare and contrast within a narrow scale that outsiders may not even differentiate. Hüsker Dü segued from good noise to good power punk to good pop/punk to good miserablist alternative. But the progression of complaints go from “ugh! noise” to “get a proper producer!” to “they’re going soft!” to “major label – sellouts!” to “they’re not even trying now!” In the end you just have to choose the era/sound you like and defend it – you won’t be wrong wherever you land, because there’s something to recommend each of their albums. Flip Your Wig is where I settled. I like my artists transitional, and this is about as transitional as Hüsker Dü got. Their intention was to move from SST to Warners for this album; they delayed the move, but they did get to self-produce for the first time and it makes it clear how they perceived themselves as a band. They obviously wanted their noise to communicate and the rest to project as well rather than just providing context. These songs are much shinier and cleaner than those on previous release New Day Rising. Not necessarily better, but a lot more accessible. Blistering tracks like “Every Everything” and “Divide and Conquer” nestle alongside the power pop of “Makes No Sense at All” and “Hate Paper Doll”. And Grant Hart gets to add in a fuzzy ballad with “Green Eyes” and go almost alt-rock with “Flexible Flyer”. The instrumental tracks at the end are two separate takes on Sixties psychedelia. Hüsker Dü delivered a series of essential releases from 1984’s Zen Arcade to Warehouse: Songs and Stories in 1987. Depending on your tastes, any one of them could serve as a gateway album to the rest. This was mine.
Makes No Sense at All
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions: Rattlesnakes (1984)
Most of the complaints this album attracted – and there weren’t all that many of them – centred not so much around Cole’s wordiness but his attitude. Literary and cultural references overload Rattlesnakes, but they’re balanced so well against Cole’s natural self-deprecation and wryness that they just seem like part of the decor. Plenty of critics forgave him for them, which really isn’t the point. They’re integral to his character, and you can see he’s reaching for them to explain his state of mind rather than trying to show off his smarts. I understand the insinuations, I just think they’re a misreading of his character. But it’s the other criticism I reject outright, the one about him communicating cynicism in place of romaticism. That’s way off. Martin Fry from ABC, sure, but not Cole – Cole is a hopeless romantic, weighed under by the bulk of his emotions, and he’s fighting his way out of it via language. When Bob Dylan’s really bruised by love, his words will buzz around you but they’ll still zero in on your emotional weak spot. Cole does a bit of that here. He later disavowed the line from the title track, ‘She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On the Waterfront’ as being a bit hokey, but for mine that’s the charm of the album, the aspect that makes it ring true – arty young men idealise their women via popular culture, it’s how they build up the mystique. The line tells you more about him than it does about her. He wasn’t just busy ransacking cultural references either; the music borrows from all sorts of Sixties styles, from folk to soul to blues to pop. It’s about as un-Eighties as an early Eighties album can get, which gives it a sense of romance and nostalgia. The reason it’s his best album is likely because it managed to unload all his preoccupations in one hit – he didn’t have anywhere to go after that.
The Replacements: Let it Be (1984)
This album and 1985’s Tim together constitute the high points of the Replacements’ career. Both are definitive representations of the band’s style, but nevertheless they are very different beasts. Throughout their early years the band were championed as about as loose, wild and unpredictable as good rock could get. Their gigs were legendarily chaotic, and their fans loved them for it. Rock and roll is a kind of anarchy, right? And if they could get away with it, great. But after showing signs of maturation with Hootenanny in 1983, they stormed out of the blocks with Let it Be a year later. It ties in all the threads they’d been following – introspective subject matter, satirical takes, expansion into a wider range of genres, rave-ups, emotional honesty – and tethers them all to the messy balls-out rocking that got them where they were. The lack of compromise they allowed while they were reaching out is really amazing; it’s their sound but a whole new world has opened up. From here they went to major label Sire, and while Tim boasts songwriting and commitment just as fully-realised as on Let It Be, you can feel a bit of the spark missing. The production tamed them just a little, and it does make a difference. It’s clear listening to it that the Replacements thrive on danger and when that’s not there they just don’t seem as crucial any more. Opinions are divided on that point, I should add. There are plenty of respected critics who see Tim as an inevitable maturation and the only way forward; others who believe that the crossover achieved with it is the biggest achievement Paul Westerberg ever managed. And they may be right. But I hear a vitality in Let it Be that’s not there in Tim. You should own both, they’re both touchstone mid-Eighties recordings. But this one just has the edge.
I Will Dare
Camper Van Beethoven: Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985)
Alternative music started to become a thing in the late-Seventies. It was always there, but avenues opened up for it when people started searching for new places to access bands. It took off when discos began bypassing radio stations and driving sales purely through dancefloor hits. It wasn’t much later that pubs and clubs were generating bands with cachet, resulting in a sudden explosion of niche musical genres and reflected in alternative charts which ran parallel to the mainstream sales charts. Staying with a minor label was a serious option for a lot of artists in the early Eighties, and the decision to ‘cross over’ to a major label sent tremors through their fanbase, who liked the exclusivity of ‘their’ band and resented the idea of a watered-down version of it pandering to the mainstream. This all resolved itself somewhat later on when major labels learnt to take a few risks here and there and cede creative control to the artists to some extent. But in 1985 there was still a very proud set of independent labels sporting oddball bands who could make a name for themselves without actually reaping the financial rewards. Among them was this set of loons. Camper Van Beethoven’s debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, was actually quite an uncompromising set. On the one hand, instrumentals that meshed styles (for instance, “Border Ska”, the opening track, which is actually Tex-Mex ska), and on the other proto-slacker songs. They did a wicked, cynical take on Black Flag’s “Wasted”. They mocked teenage angst with “Club Med Sucks”. They took on country-slacker with “Where the Hell is Bill?” And they even had a minor hit with the terrific “Take the Skinheads Bowling”. All the ideas presented here are as simple and straight-up as possible, which makes it a fun, unpretentious listen. They integrated styles more on subsequent albums – all worth a listen. Here they dished them up discrete and straight.
Take the Skinheads Bowling
Where the Hell is Bill?
Hoodoo Gurus: Stoneage Romeos (1984)
If you take a look through the Hoodoo Gurus’ history, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that they were aiming to transform their retro music smarts into big bucks. By ‘they’, I’m not necessarily referring to the band, as the drive to cross over looks to have come from the label; as soon as Elektra dropped them, they reverted back to the loud riffy rock sound they’d started with. In the interim, the perception was that there was a US market waiting to be tapped into, and streamlining the sound for wider acceptance was their best idea of achieving that. It could have worked, but I suspect it was the offbeat nature of the Hoodoo Gurus’ songs (and subject matter) that was their strength. Second release Mars Needs Guitars, for mine, was already a step down, despite some of their best individual songs appearing on it. It didn’t quite make it all the way through side two. Which leaves the debut, Stoneage Romeos, as the only undisputed great Hoodoos album. And it is a ripper. The pop culture references, the Sixties riffs and the exuberant retro garage feel of the whole album helped it stand out in the largely synthesised or post-punk/new wave early Eighties. There are plenty of catchy hooks too. But what really puts it across is that all these songs are narrative-driven, they’re all about something, even if (as is the case with “In the Echo Chamber”) the plot is lifted wholesale from a TV show. The two ‘love’ songs convey it best. “My Girl” tells a tale of infidelity and heartbreak economically from the third person. “I Want You Back” kisses off an ex from a distance, and slams her for dissing his mates. Dave Faulkner needs a little narrative distance to bring his songs to life; later on, his more direct songs seemed to lack texture. They were a great band no matter what, but Stoneage Romeos saw them at their loose, hooky best.
I Want You Back
The Sugarcubes: Life’s Too Good (1988)
This was the debut album for the Sugarcubes, but that doesn’t mean the band members lacked for experience. They’d all been kicking around in various bands in Iceland for a number of years, mostly punk and post-punk outfits, and Björk had actually been active since the age of 11. As a band, the Sugarcubes were an accidental success, and indications are the band members themselves were reluctant to embrace the rapid escalation of their fame. They really intended the band as a bit of joke, a reaction against the dourness and intensity of the punk/postpunk scene. They were looking to create something more accessible, but not necessarily lasting. The immediate spike in interest on the release of single “Birthday” in 1987 put paid to that. It’s a brilliant song, lyrically opaque but with portentous instrumentation which hints at something sinister. It’s apparent on listening to Life’s Too Good that two separate things are happening. The Sugarcubes are functioning as a band, with vocals divided between Björk and Einar Örn. But on the other hand Björk is clearly demonstrating star quality, and the listener’s focus instinctively gravitates to her. Her vocals are all-encomapassing, both in their intensity and their scope. She literally careers around the notes, stretching and squeezing and bending them to her will. Even at this early stage, she was too big for her band, so they were never going to survive as a democratic unit. Tensions began to surface as soon as it became obvious media attention was focusing on Björk, ie. immediately. That they stuck it out for two more albums is to their credit. But only on this one do they sound joyous and mischievous and thrilled with their creation. It’s a blast of off-kilter Icelandic power pop.
Nina Hagen: Nunsexmonkrock (1982)
Ok, get set, this is going to be quite a wild ride. Every now and then you’ll hear of an album that ‘takes a few listens’ to really appreciate. This one is going to take four or five listens just to wrap your head around it. Hagen has a singing style best described as a marriage between operatic ostentation and demonic possession. And the songs themselves can’t be rightly described as having a style at all. None of her other albums sound anything like this one; 1983’s Fearless, her best known release apart from this, was produced by Giorgio Moroder, so it’s heavily disco-inflected. Her earlier albums were grounded in punk and postpunk. Nunsexmonkrock is like a bombastic rock opera, except that every one of the songs is vying to be the showstopper. The kicker is that every one of them deserves to be. They’re incredible. A lot of fans would point you toward “Born in Xixax” as a good introduction to the album; I say jump right in with “Smack Jack”. It’s the best of them, and its hooks are killers. When I first heard this album – it must have been not long after it was released, and I have no idea how any of my friends at the time would have been aware of it – only “Smack Jack” and “Cosma Shiva” stuck out from the cacophony. But now that I’ve sourced it again, I’m gravitating to “Iki Maska”, with vocals laid over a repetitive and insistent riff straight from the B52s’ “Planet Claire”. Hagen utilised seasoned professionals – among them Paul Shaffer and Chris Spedding – to ground the instrumentation while she and her cohorts drove the songs to the edge. So they’re coherently structured, with dense production but ultimately quite accessible. There simply isn’t an album like this one, not even among her own releases. It’s unique.
Born in Xixax
Elvis Costello: Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Imperial Bedroom is an album that feels lived-in. It’s off-kilter, for sure, and ambitious – both in a musical and lyrical sense – in places, but there’s also a reassuring familiarity about it. I think the familiarity comes from the sense that you’re in the hands of someone who’s stretching himself but knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Costello as sure of himself as he is here. In a song with as many twists and turns in it as “Beyond Belief”, or as eccentrically put together as “And in Every Home…”, Costello’s vocal delivery acts as a guide, navigating you safely to the end. Back on This Year’s Model and Armed Forces he wasn’t doing that; he was hurling you about and roughing you up. Here the steady process of expansion and softening the edges that began around 1980 finds completion; Costello is out from under Nick Lowe’s wing, and he’s searching for some of the symphonic grandeur of Sgt Pepper. Side one is where most of the experimentalism takes place, the tracks that bookend it the most ambitious, and the squall that links “The Long Honeymoon”, “Man Out of Time” and “Almost Blue” its hallmark. Side two contains some of the loveliest and brightest songs in Costello’s catalogue – particularly “Human Hands”, “Kid About It” and “You Little Fool”. Imperial Bedroom marked the high point of Costello’s long second phase, which I have running from 1980’s Get Happy! to Blood and Chocolate in 1986. He aimed high in that period, and incorporated pretty much any style he could think of, from psychedelic pomp to Nashville twang. Almost all his work in those years is a must-own (maybe not Goodbye Cruel World). Afterwards, he still liked to explore new areas – and he’s always interesting – but whatever it was that drove him to impose himself on listeners was no longer there.
You Little Fool
Motörhead: Ace of Spades (1980)
Well, I don’t know exactly how reptiles make love, but if it’s anything like the way Lemmy describes it in “Love Me Like a Reptile” (‘I’m gonna sink my fangs in you’ or ‘murder in disguise’), I’m not sure it’s all that appealing. In fact, there’s a strain running through Ace of Spades – you couldn’t call it a theme, but perhaps a nagging preoccupation – of failed relationships and casual, emotionless sex. I wouldn’t even know if it’s intentional. Maybe it’s just that that’s the subject matter he has to hand. Tie it in with the macho poses in other songs (particularly the title track) and the shiftless anonymity of place in the tour diary that is “(We Are) the Road Crew” and it does start to create a picture of emptiness of purpose that machismo strives to fill. But to concentrate too closely on the messaging is to miss the point of Motörhead entirely. Which is the unreconstructed male of the early Eighties in full flight. Anything in full flight is going to be exhilarating, and Ace of Spades is no exception. Lemmy doesn’t even have to try to make his hoarse bellow connect, and the sped-up metal piledrives into your cerebral cortex like a hammer into a watermelon. Ace of Spades was the culmination of the sound Lemmy Kilmister started chasing soon after Hawkwind dumped him; a long way from the space rock he’d been plying with his previous band, a boiling down of the basic elements of rock into a brutal, dense chunk of musical energy. It’s much the same reduction Black Sabbath did a few years earlier, but instead of portentous sluggishness Motörhead handed down an amphetamine-fuelled onslaught, a bunch of fists on the back of a motorbike. And in the title track they had an anthem to power it, a siren call to metalheads everywhere.
Ace of Spades
(We Are) the Road Crew