Divinyls: What a Life (1985)
In an era when Australian music was starting to impact internationally, and was generally gaining more critical acceptance, the Divinyls found themselves left behind. One of the major contributing factors was that, after an extremely promising beginning – shanghaied onto the soundtrack of the film Monkey Grip on the back of a few live performances, a strong debut album in Desperate, a worldwide recording deal – the production of What a Life got bogged down, and the group suffered a lot of line-up instability. The US market also proved somewhat difficult to break into. Maybe their image had a little to do with it as well. Chrissy Amphlett in a schoolgirl outfit with fishnets may be a great selling point, but it does impact on credibility. It’s a pity, because the Amphlett-McEntee partnership is one the finest rock collaborations in Australia, producing a sound both authentic and a little dangerous. And this album – despite a few rather sniffy reviews – is the real deal, with its sharp edges undulled by smooth production and a couple of more compassionate tracks. The whole point of the band is to create a landscape for Amphlett’s wild child to roam around in; tight enough to set boundaries, but with plenty of scope for self-expression within that structure. There needs to be that sense that she could break free and wreak havoc at any moment. Their live performances always portray her as a caged animal or some variation of that. It’s best presented here on “Pleasure and Pain”, “Good Die Young” and the title track, all of which hint at places Amphlett could have gone with her performance. But even on the sweet ballad “Sleeping Beauty”, Amphlett gives you a little taste of that animal side. What a Life is a great, underrated album, a high point of mid-Eighties Australian rock.
Pleasure and Pain
Good Die Young
Shonen Knife: Burning Farm (1983)
The mere fact that they wrote a song called “Parallel Woman”, given the way Japanese pronunciation mangles it in English, shows that Shonen Knife were in on their own joke right from the start. And a cover version of Delta 5’s “You” on their previous (and rare) cassette-only release proves that they were much, much more than a joke band. They knew their stuff, and they knew how to strut it in a way both affectionate and authoritative. There was never any doubt that they were proficient (if rudimentary at first) musicians, and they had a knack for tight arrangements and catchy melodies. There’s no doubt either that they were highly derivative – most of the songs on Burning Farm poach a riff or a style from somewhere, whether it be wholesale theft from the Ramones on the wonderful “Twist Barbie” or the ska template on “Parallel Woman”. Or the naked reworking of “Land of a Thousand Dances” on the title track. (Or indeed their name – ‘Shonen’ translates as ‘Boy”, and it’s not hard to see a connection between boy-knife and sex-pistol) It’s also easy to see why so many US indie bands were drawn to Shonen Knife – these Japanese girls had everything those guys would kill for; mystique, simplicity, lack of pretension, the ability to evocate seminal underground styles without replication, and above all else lack of self-consciousness, the ability to revel in the ordinary without any sense of mockery. It was still years before Let’s Knife, where their (cleaned up and filled out) sound was made accessible to international audiences. But Shonen Knife’s first few releases remain their best, the ones where you can best hear their poppy connection to primal punk and rock music in its unadulterated form.
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Rap was definitely already something when Public Enemy turned up. It had evolved from a good-time party variant to a vehicle for social comment and self-aggrandisement, to a certain extent. And it had been given a voice in the mid-Eighties. But even so, I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the way it exploded in the late-Eighties. NWA were one face of it, the incendiary, violent progenitors of Gangsta rap. Societally, Gangsta rap is a dead-end, a rejection of the mainstream, replacing it with a world of kingpins, feuds and the cult of self. Public Enemy took rap the other way entirely, positing it as a revolutionary force with the potential to upend social strata and reset the hierarchy. And this album sounds like a revolution too. You can start with the sound – the Bomb Squad compiled a dense conglomeration of noise intended to create a kind of disorienting chaos for the listener to succumb to. Then there’s Chuck D’s authoritative boom, providing just about the only anchor for you to hold on to. In this context, Flavor Flav comes across as light relief – but if you know your Shakespeare, you’ll know that the clown is usually the most street-smart of the lot. Those three elements touch sparks off each other right throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions… But it’s clear that Chuck D’s the one who makes it matter. Rap as message-music is one thing, and there were a number of acts taking that path; but Chuck D didn’t just give it to you straight, he made you listen. His vocal approach was undeniable, reassuring in its self-belief, uncompromising in its sense of vitality, the unquestionable tone and force of the preacher. No matter what message you receive from Public Enemy, you’re under no illusions as to its contemporaneity, its urgency and its overpowering importance. Not a bad achievement for a popular artist.
Bring the Noise
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
David Bowie: Scary Monsters (1980)
Bowie’s last great album. It is possible to compile a quality collection of Bowie’s post-Scary Monsters material, but in terms of long-play releases not even 1983’s Let’s Dance works completely, as packed with good material as it is. There’s a clear line between Bowie as artistic innovator and Bowie as unit-shifter, and once the creative juices thickened and curdled, his moves toward trend-setting seemed laboured and he just found it easier to lean back on his commercial instincts. I’m glad he kept trying to push things from time to time; he just wasn’t getting the return for his effort the way he used to. Scary Monsters was a last gasp in that regard, the final outpouring of what was an incredibly fertile few years for him. I’m not comfortable with the idea that this is an encapsulation of his last decade’s work. It doesn’t sound like that to me, and I recall with great clarity how fresh and strange “Ashes to Ashes” seemed on its release. Bowie was certainly building on what he’d discovered in the late Seventies, but he was still striking out into new territory, with a confidence and accessibility he’d never shown before. You could describe all of his career to that point – at least post-Hunky Dory – as self-conscious, careful and deliberate posing that served to hide his character behind artifice and abstraction. He started to tear the disguises away with Lodger, and here for the first time he was out on his own, his role-playing coming across more as extensions of himself than alter-egos. The austerity of Low and Heroes was gone, and on side one – in tracks such as “Fashion”, “Up the Hill Backwards” and the title track – it felt as if he wanted to take you places with him. On side two he even gets a little bombastic. This was the Bowie we were to live with from then on.
Ashes to Ashes
Midnight Oil: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1983)
It’s a peculiarly Australian album, this one. It doesn’t seem to translate well outside of the country. Midnight Oil did a lot better internationally later in their career. Yet this is their definitive statement, and for mine their most satisfying album. It’s art rock, which is a significant enough aspect considering the band’s reputation at this point for straight up rock with few frills. But what’s more noteworthy is that they haven’t just taken their musical style and overlaid a studio sheen on it; the conceptual nature goes right back to the base-level of the songs themselves. It’s ditched when deemed unnecessary, and when utilised it’s integrated totally into the performance. The hit songs – “Power and the Passion”, “US Forces”, “Read About It” – are full and deep but largely uncomplicated. Elsewhere, the structures themselves are varied, the mood established through studio trickery, and songs such as “Outside World” and “Maralinga” are given plenty of space to breathe. The outgroove of “Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something” at the end of the album, which on vinyl extends out endlessly, has been compared to the Beatles with Abbey Road. But there may be something similar going on with “Scream in Blue” as well. It’s split into two sections, the first a chaotic noise collage, the second a moody, nihilistic ballad. It has echoes of the the tracks that end the Beatles’ White Album, where “Revolution #9” gives way to Ringo’s vocals on “Good Night”. Of course, all of this artiness was used to further Midnight Oil’s political messaging, to create something apocalyptic and compelling in order to make the listener pay attention. In that it has succeeded, and its otherworldliness enabled the album to seem timeless. It’s aged very well, with messages so universal they’re just as relevant now as they were in 1983.
Power and the Passion
The The: Soul Mining (1983)
Matt Johnson can come across as a bit pretentious, maybe a little more pretentious than his songs can live up to. He often strives for significance only to reveal that the significance isn’t really there, that self-absorption is all he has to offer. That tendency took full flight on 1986’s Infected, an album of big statements that didn’t lead anywhere. It’s a pity, because he’s a highly gifted songwriter with the capability of truly nailing a melody. Soul Mining captures him still operating within his boundaries; and when he unleashes a song as neat and beautiful as “Uncertain Smile” (by this stage in its 3rd or 4th incarnation) or as overwhelming as “Giant”, with its polyrhythms hammering away until they finally take over the entire track, you definitely feel the slog through his sophomoric lyrics has been worth it. If the musical backing comes across as highly developed, clean and sharp, it’s not surprising because Johnson worked incessantly at it, and went out of his way to bring quality musicians into the fold. Take a listen to the album that preceded this, Burning Blue Soul, and you’ll probably be taken aback by the spirit of experimentation. That surprised me; I was expecting it to go the other way, conventional music with overblown lyrics developing into experimental music with overblown lyrics. Knowing it all started with the spirit of adventure makes Soul Mining a much more intriguing listen. And you can really feel the cleanness of the production; it’s not overwhelming at all, and songs such as “This is the Day” and “Perfect” (a later addition to the tracklisting, tacked on at the end) actually sparkle. That’s Jools Holland on the piano at the end of “Uncertain Smile” by the way – most people know that, but what’s not as well known is that it’s actually two separate bridges tacked together to create a longer piece.
This is the Day
Afrika Bambaataa: Planet Rock – The Album (1986)
I’m not an advocate of recommending albums purely for their historical value. There are a number of them that have helped shape or define a genre, and they ought to be revered for that reason. But that doesn’t necessarily make them good listening – at least not unless you’re already a fan of that genre. Afrika Bambaataa, on the face of it, comes across as one of those artists. “Planet Rock”, a definitive track from the early days of rap that utilises Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” among other samples, establishes Bambaataa as a towering name with extensive influence on the sound, and his Zulu Nation Collective forged a massive path through rap for years to come. But does the music hold up now? Planet Rock – the Album sounds… elemental is probably the best way to describe it. This one only includes his work with the Soulsonic Force (you really should hear “World Destruction” as well if you want a complete view of Bambaataa’s output of the time). The beats stand out, hard and insistent, with the rest of it less filled out than we’ve been used to since. You’ve got that heavy electronic drum beat, with only rapping over it for much of the track, and when the samples are introduced they’re discrete, unconnected to each other. So that slightly dates it. But it doesn’t work against it at all, and you’ll soon find yourself swept up in its primal power. It’s wildly exuberant and there’s a real party atmosphere in “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Flight of the Conchords fans might recognise the vocal hook) and “Renegades of Funk”. The first four tracks were all released as singles between 1982 and 1986, with the last three recorded for the album. I’d recommend seeking out any of Bambaataa’s early singles, incidentally. They’re all great.
Renegades of Funk
Dire Straits: Love Over Gold (1982)
Considering the way Dire Straits are perceived these days, and the smashing commercial success of Brothers in Arms a couple of years after this album, it might seem irrelevant and even uncool to go about recommending their work. They’re as mainstream as can be, a permanent fixture in the shared consciousness of popular music. That said, I am including Love Over Gold for a few reasons. One is that, although I think most of Dire Straits’ output is pretty good, this is the only album of theirs I enjoy right through. Another is that this album, despite good sales at the time, tends to be overlooked as its lengthy tracks are not all that radio-friendly. The last, and most important, is that Love Over Gold is the only time the band truly reflected Mark Knopfler’s sensibilities, and it’s probably Knopfler at his most sincere as well. There’s a strange contradiction in his work; over three or four minutes he can be quite boring, but given time to stretch out he can create mini masterpieces. “Telegraph Road” is the most striking example of it here, all 14 widescreen minutes of it; but in my opinion “Private Investigations” demonstrates it even better. Given its length, it’s quite restrained both musically and lyrically. Listening to the way Knopfler shifts moods throughout the song, from delicate and classical to thunderingly portentous, shows how much care he’s taken with it. A similar thing happens with “It Never Rains”, which starts off conversational, Dylan filtered through Zevon, then starts toughening up somewhere in the middle, climaxing in a long heads-down jam to see the album out. Popular music in 1983 was starting to flatten out, bands had an eye on saleability and image, and were tending to market research their output. It’s nice to see a band on the brink of megastardom determined to go the other way for an album, and attempt an artistic statement over a commercial one.
Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
I was initially going to go with 1985’s 3 Way Tie (For Last), which was a fairly big leap forward for the Minutemen in songwriting, vocals and accessibility. It may have confounded their fans, who recoiled from the lurch toward more conventional presentation, but it also opened up a whole range of new pathways for the band (tragically curtailed with the shocking death of D Boon near the end of the year). It’s an album highly worthy of recommendation… but, really, who was I kidding? This thing is undeniable, a relentless and overpowering set, the perfect culmination of the riffs-and-rants style they’d been developing since their inception. You can find all the stories about how the track-listings came together, the reason why it’s a double album (“Take that, Huskers!”) and the significance of the album title elsewhere – it’s a major part of the Minutemen mythology, and easy to source. What really matters is the sound. These songs have bite, their economy working off their punk/jazzy inflections and their political commitment to produce something brutal and compelling. It’s barely worth singling tracks out, as each side works as a kind of suite, a stream of consciousness musically adapted; you tend to associate each song with the one preceding and following it. Easily distinguishable tracks – “Corona”, “Jesus and Tequila” “History Lesson – Part II”, “This Ain’t No Picnic” – find themselves caught up by less apparent gems like “Toadies” (riff via PIL’s “Annalisa”), “Two Beads at the End” “The Big Foist” and others. As a whole, Double Nickels on the Dime just keeps unrolling something new each time you hear it. It stands tall as perhaps the best non-commercial album of the Eighties, and keeps good company with the best of the commercial ones as well. A must-own.
This Ain’t No Picnic
ABC: The Lexicon of Love (1982)
The pulsating centre of this album, the gravitational node around which all the rest orbits, is “All of My Heart”. Without its earnest sincerity and swooning romanticism, The Lexicon of Love would sound a much more cynical exercise. “Poison Arrow” is one-upmanship, an attempt to scramble to the higher moral ground. “The Look of Love” soft-pedals the idea of relationships as a source of fond amusement. “Tears Are Not Enough” toughs it out, viewing break-ups as a battle to keep your nerve. But “All of My Heart” lays it on the line, letting the desolation and sadness and the hope that some love can be preserved when it’s all over just hang out there. It provides that third dimension the album was searching for through side one. And it’s also the perfect showcase for the production values the band and Trevor Horn were so keen to show off. The production was state-of-the-art for 1982, sweeping strings and synth runs and the full barrage of noise. It was an era when bands were halfway between making music and making statements; they had the technology available to craft whatever musical message they wanted, but they were at this point still putting it in the service of elevating traditional pop songwriting. Soon the musical world would be a dense jungle, but at this stage it was simply tropical plants running riot in an English garden. ABC were one of the more ornate giant orchids out there, flowering sweatily over the charts in florid colours. It was great, cinemascope stuff, and if it sounds slightly bombastic today, who cares? The songwriting is strong, the sound is clean and the singing by Martin Fry is committed and confident. It’s so quintessentially Eighties it is, by some paradox, timeless.
All of My Heart