The Smiths: The World Won’t Listen (1987)
We’re looking here at one of the most consistent musical acts of the decade – you could literally throw a dart at a set of their albums and have it hit a collection of songs you can confidently recommend. But by the same token, there isn’t a Smiths album that really stands out either. Many would give the nod to The Queen is Dead, but for mine you’re better off with a big fat set of curated tracks like this. It’s true that much of this album is duplicated on Louder Than Bombs, the US release that more or less coincided with this one; it’s also true that Louder Than Bombs is longer and thus better value for money; and it’s true that there are tracks here you can find on The Smiths’ non-compilation releases. On the other hand, at 18 tracks it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and – something most reviews of it don’t pick up on – there’s been a lot of care taken with the track listing, which means the listener is carried from song to song quite smoothly. Opening with blasts of beat-heavy pop (“Panic”, “Ask”, “London”) it segues nicely to big-ticket numbers from “Bigmouth Strikes Again” through to “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”, a quieter entry that provides an apt lead-in to the more introspective pieces that follow. It means that “The World Won’t Listen” plays more like a studio album than a mere compilation. The title, incidentally, has a bit of background. At this point in their career, Morrissey was frustrated that the band weren’t breaking through to the mainstream charts, despite the very pop sheen of their work. He has a point, though I suspect his combination of feyness and smart-arsery works against him. Mass audiences don’t mind fey, but they prefer it dumb and sincere, like Boy George. And they’ll take smart-arse, as long as it’s a bit macho, or at least highly sexual. Conceptually, the idea of the Smiths is a bit high-brow to truly cross over. But that’s all right, it means their fans get to love it without the fear of over-exposure.
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Judas Priest: British Steel (1980)
Judas Priest are one of those bands that, if you’re into heavy metal, you’re going to love without reservation. They owned British metal in the late Seventies, and they set the template for both the sound and the look of the genre for years to come – the leather and chains that became the metal standard were their innovation, and their distinctive hyperactive guitar attack planted seeds that would later become the rampant power-driving of bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica. Rob Halford’s leather-stripping vocals were just as genre-setting, inspiring dozens of emulators. It’s best heard on 1978’s Stained Class, the album that broke them after eight years of tough slog. Oddly though, despite chart success and sold out stadiums in the early Eighties, Judas Priest never became a household name in the way those other bands (or predecessors Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin) did. British Steel is as close as they got, and it really does sound like a stab at superstardom on a broader scale. You can hear it best on “Breaking the Law”, “Living After Midnight” and “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise”, big riff-heavy numbers backed with galumphing beats. Those songs are closer to hard rock than metal; you can hear the dawn not only of hair metal but also some of the Brian Johnson era AC/DC. It’s one of the particular joys of British Steel that you start by thinking how familiar and derivative the sound is, and then realising that you’re being reminded of bands who came after this album. Judas Priest’s heyday lasted only about four years, two of them screaming metal trailblazing and two more of crossover metal/rock arena godhood, before they were overtaken by the new breed. But everything they released from 1978-82 is indispensable to the average music listener, and fans of the band would argue it stretches way longer than that, right up to 1989’s Painkiller.
Breaking the Law
Living After Midnight
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (1982)
It took them four or five years to get their shit together and a year or so later it all fell apart, but it was worth it. All of rap’s vocabulary, mystique and mythology is contained within Grandmaster Flash’s early contributions. In 1980/81 he established its good-time party credentials (despite being beaten to the punch by the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) with tracks like “Birthday Party” and especially “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”. He also took sampling to new levels by letting the samples underpin the sound and drive the songs. And in 1982, political and social issue rap was born with “The Message” – a development that would totally revolutionise the genre and reverberate through rap and hip hop for years. This album could be mistaken as an attempt to capitalise on the breakthrough, but in fact it’s a little more complex than that. Some of these songs don’t even seem to belong on the same album. “I Wish” for instance, a meandering ballad that sounds like an outtake from a mid-Seventies soul album. And “Scorpio”, five minutes of Herbie Hancock style synthesised vocals. So it’s hardly rap-hit plus sub-rap filler. It’s a showcase of styles; there really was no such thing as an agreed-upon sound for a rap album in 1982 – or even a recognised style for the genre for that matter – so there’s an ‘anything goes’ feel to this album. Who knows, maybe techno-funk rap or a soul-singing hybrid rap might have taken off? We were still pre-Run DMC and Eric B and Rakim here. Heterogenous and eclectic was probably a wise approach at the time. As it happens, “The Message” and “It’s Nasty” represented the future of rap the best. But the Furious Five clearly had a great time exploring the options, and that’s what comes across on The Message.
Stephen Cummings: A New Kind of Blue (1988)
This album affects me in ways I can’t fully communicate. It has a lot do with the relationship I was in at the time, and a little to do with the subject matter. The two don’t fully intersect; my girlfriend at the time was so affected by some of these songs she’d get quite emotional, but we weren’t suffering the confused and overwhelming torment Cummings was obviously going through. Her reactions stuck with me though, and I’ve been searching for that depth of identification with music ever since. Something clearly happened to Cummings after he released This Wonderful Life in 1986. His post-Sports career had fizzed and spluttered, with some good but depthless songs holding up a couple of so-so albums. He was searching for a persona, and had kind of settled on jaded but hardboiled lounge artist by his second solo album. But 1987’s Lovetown revealed a much more naked and honest Cummings, singing straight from the heart and sounding vulnerable and unsure. It suited him perfectly, and it’s a direction he’s stuck to ever since. This album sees him approach perfection in that style. Cummings likes his references, often related to movies. I assumed that this one was a call-back to Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. But I can’t see the connection, and it did occur to me recently that it could be more closely associated with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, another set of intensely confessional songs. At any rate, there’s some quiet heartrending going on in “Screwed Up State of Affairs”, “Running Away” and “Melancholy Hour”. And even upbeat numbers such as “A Life is a Life” and “Your House is Falling” tell sad tales of dysfunctional affairs. Cummings has never sounded as lush and romantic as he does here; it’s like a counselling session with pop orchestral backing. It’s one of the very few albums I can turn to when I want to believe in love’s triumph over tribulation.
When Day is Done
When Love Comes Back to Haunt You
The Cure: Faith (1981)
Attempting to categorise the Cure’s output into ‘eras’ seems like a good idea, but it ends up being quite frustrating. A strain of self-absorption and melancholy flows through all their work, such that describing any one stretch of releases as ‘brighter’ or ‘more commercial’ – or by contrast, ‘gloomier’ or ‘more goth-like’ – tends toward meaninglessness the more you look into it. There’s brightness and gloominess and catchiness in all their work. Robert Smith also bounces from one mood to another over albums without any ‘direction’ as such. Still, you can at least characterise the stretch of albums from 1980’s Seventeen Seconds to 1982’s Pornography as ‘abstract’. The subject matter is diffuse, the vocals tend to non-identification, the feel is vaguely ominous. Faith, for me, conveys it best. There’s a general consensus that this is their darkest, gloomiest, most melancholy period; I don’t see it that way. This holds your attention not so much by its intensity as by its rhythms. The sound is relentless without being overpowering, it has a hypnotic quality that keeps you mentally active. If much of goth music can be compared to being surrounded by water, submerged in the washes of sound and suspended in noise, Faith is more like walking into a cave, focused on the sound of your own footsteps but alert to all that’s going on around you as well. Your senses are heightened, your apprehension of unknown objects in the middle distance is constantly needled. It’s odd to hear Robert Smith’s voice, so often a drawcard, pushed back into the mix. It’s probably what keeps the Joy Division comparisons muted, because otherwise there’s a lot of common ground between the two bands. The lyrics themselves don’t amount to much more than atmosphere setting. There’s much musing on religion and belief, and some inspiration drawn from Mervyn Peake’s ‘Ghormenghast’ – but it’s the bass-heavy instrumentation that’ll really draw you in.
The Drowning Man
They Might Be Giants: They Might Be Giants (1986)
They Might Be Giants open their debut album with two referential jokes and a further in-joke. Track One, “Everything Right is Wrong Again” gives us Lucille Ball and ‘The Long, Long Trailer’. Track Two, “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” borrows a line from Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man”. And Track Three, “Number Three”, tells us they only have three songs before delivering us their first hit, “Don’t Let’s Start” in the next track. The whole album is a bit like that. The songs are part-genuine, part-joke, and usually include something to throw you off-balance. “Hide Away Folk Family” includes in its mid-section a supremely pessimistic horoscope. “32 Footsteps” breaks into a series of phonetic exercises mid-song. Chess Piece Face, referenced in “Rabid Child”, gets his own song a bit later on (and it’s just as strange too). The tone is upbeat to the point of incipient hysteria, the subject matter is philosophical veering on pessimism; you get the feeling that if you’re not careful they’ll drive the existential bus off the existential cliff. Unlike most other bands or albums you’ll come across, They Might Be Giants don’t establish a particular mood and let you settle into it. Each song demands to be listened to, like a five year old showing off his toy collection. Some might find that annoying, but there are some real rewards here. “She’s an Angel” for instance, which is sweet and kooky but ends up affecting you almost in spite of itself. Or “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”, which points an accusing finger at new arty trends from a very odd angle. The path the two Johns – Flansburgh and Linnell – eventually took saw them reconciling their output into children’s and ‘adult’ music. Early on though, it was all thrown into the blender, and despite the mid-Eighties being somewhat of a breeding ground for jokey satirical music, they managed to stake out their own bizarre territory. Music wouldn’t seem this unhinged and limitless until Ween turned up
Don’t Let’s Start
(She Was A) Hotel Detective
The Mekons: Fear and Whiskey (1985)
I still haven’t decided whether to go with Fear and Whiskey or The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll from 1989. They’re both great, and they have very different feels to them. So I’ll just say get them both, and I’ll concentrate on this one. The Mekons are an odd little bunch. They first appeared in Leeds, alongside Gang of Four and Delta 5, in the late Seventies, plying an anarchic-sounding punk variant. But after around 1980 they seemed to disappear, only to re-emerge in 1985 with a bit of alternative country infusion. I guess you need to be a little careful applying labels, though. No matter how much they’ve appropriated fiddles and country-waltz and that down-South feel on Fear and Whiskey, this is still closer to punk than anything else. And it’s more about the miners’ strike – which was the inspiration for their reformation – than love or drinking or any other topic they’ve addressed. As noted in a few reviews, the strength of the album is in the unkempt gusto with which it’s performed. It’s close to chaotic without ever crossing over entirely. Side One grinds into gear with “Chivalry” – you could be forgiven for thinking that sweet melodic fiddle is the Go-Betweens until the vocals kick in. Then they kick you around for a while – the moody spoken-word “Trouble Down South”, neo-punk “Hard to be Human Again” with its false harmonica opening, twangy ballad “Darkness and Doubt” and moody spoken harangue “Psycho Cupid – Danceband on the Edge of Time”. It’s a compelling, unnerving set of songs. Side Two’s like a cavalry charge, with the band fully into its stride and the rhythm section coming right at you – almost a perfect side of punk/folk. I wouldn’t describe Fear and Whiskey as commercial by any means, but it’s certainly catchy; one of the very best of the lesser known albums of the entire decade.
Hard to be Human Again
George Clinton: Computer Games (1982)
Clinton wound Parliament and Funkadelic up around 1981, due to various financial and contractual difficulties. But his career carried on regardless – he simply shifted a few P-Funk members over to his new solo release. At the time, P-Funk fans assumed this was a side-project marking time until Parliament and Funkadelic got back on their feet, and Computer Games was treated as such, despite the runaway success of “Atomic Dog”. In reality, this was as good as it was going to get. The financial and label issues never resolved themselves, and Clinton’s music got less and less relevant – at least until Dr Dre and co started ransacking it in the early Nineties, and everyone took notice again. At his very best, Clinton’s sole focus is on getting you to dance. The subject matter is merely wordplay, and the songs don’t so much develop as extend. The entire seven or so minutes of “Loopzilla” – tacked on to the end of “Man’s Best Friend” – goes nowhere at all. It’s just a subtle shift of beat and a sort of ‘Funk on 45’ jam, name-checking a whole bunch of songs. But it’ll have you listening anyway, because the jamming is so tight and they’re having a whale of a time with it. You’d notice the stretching out a lot more if it was the last track, so placing it second was a piece of genius, forcing it to fit with the rest. Clinton also incorporated the new sounds of the Eighties with lots of synthesizers and drum machines throughout. There’s not much point discussing individual tracks – they all stand out in their own way, each of them draws on something different, and they all sound a lot better loud than soft, so you can really hear that thumping beat or moody swoosh or fat bass. I’d also recommend 1983’s You Shouldn’t-Nuf Bit Fish as a terrific follow-up. And if you love both of them, then get your hands on anything Clinton’s released. Even at his worst he’s a hoot.
Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth (1980)
There seem to be a lot of claims that this album blew people away on first listen. Maybe it did for some, but I’d be surprised if that was the reaction of many people. It wasn’t for me. My first thought was that it sounded underproduced, like a set of first demos cobbled together and sent out. It took time for me to realise that sparseness was the point. The songs are not only economically constructed, with bare-bones instrumentation (including a drum machine) and vocals bordering on the functional, but they’re also quite short, exhausting themselves before they get a chance to repeat or reinforce their ideas. There are echoes there of Wire’s Pink Flag, and not a little foreshadowing of Stereolab’s thematic and musical preoccupations – particularly those rinky organ fills on some of the songs. Everything is modestly offered (if that’s the right way to put it), and you have to come and meet it yourself. I’m particularly struck by Alison Statton’s vocals, which don’t supply anything more than is necessary, such that you don’t even realise at first how much responsibility lies with her to carry the melody lines. The sparseness of the instrumentation makes more sense once you glance through the lyrics, which dwell on the themes of isolation and determination; there’s a very ‘indoors, away from everybody’ feel to it. Colossal Youth was the band’s only long-form release; their lifespan was very brief, which was officially put down to their having nowhere to go artistically after such a succinct and complete statement. It probably had a lot more to do with Stuart Moxham’s desire to take control of his output, along with the collapse of his relationship with Statton. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was the case, given the amount of time the songs spend on the shortcomings of men and the sufficiency of self. Young Marble Giants were really out there on their own, living amongst the post-punks and new wavers, but never belonging to either. This is a unique statement, one that demands relistens.
Credit in the Straight World
Was (Not Was): Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983)
I have a 12″ version of “(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks” that runs the full 8.45. The album version of it is only 4.21, and that’s the only quibble I have with Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. It’s a terrific song, the slow version brings out not only the creepiness but also the humanity of these freaks and misfits, and at its full length it approaches epic status. They become as believable as they are strange, and it’s achieved in six-line grabs. Once you’ve heard the extended mix, the shorter version feels like a gyp. That aside, this is a wonderful album. In an age of novelty songs and offbeat artists, Don and David Was went the whole hog, carefully matching guest singers to their material and constructing real songs around their semi-parodic conceits. The switching-up of musical styles is fun, but I tend to think this is more an album of ideas. “Shake Your Head”, for instance, balances absurd impossibilities against more universal ones such as feeding the hungry, influencing the masses and rewriting the Bible. “Man vs the Empire Brain Building” meditates on man’s innate destructiveness. And Doug Feiger in “Betrayal” appears quite sincere, bitter even, about the ways in which we sell each other out. None of the songs forget for a second that their primary motive is to entertain; it’s just that they run a little deeper than your usual funky pop numbers. There’s even some true pathos in Mel Torme’s reading of “Zaz Turned Blue”, about a guy choking in the park. And that’s what makes Was (Not Was) such an interesting and vital outfit. They commit as fully to their lyrical content as they do to the authenticity of their sound. They hit it big an album later with “Walk the Dinosaur”, but this is the album where they fully hit their stride. All the songs here are not only indispensable, but they’ll keep you meditating on them long after you’ve heard them.
Shake Your Head
Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like a Rubber Ball)