The dB’s: Stands For Decibels (1981)
I suppose the dB’s must have modelled themselves somewhat on Big Star, because I keep reading it everywhere, but I can’t hear it. ‘She’s Not Worried” for instance, seemed to be sourced from British pop psychedelia, or even Pet Sounds era Beach Boys. To me Stands for Decibels, for all its nostalgia for bygone pop eras, is firmly rooted in late-Seventies production. Perhaps it’s the overall tightness and nerviness of the instrumentation that give it a post-punky flavour. The vocals of both Chris Stamey (plaintive teen angst) and Peter Holsapple (exuberant harmless confidence) express more post-pop knowingness than sincere sentiment. Neither of them let go at any stage (maybe just a little on closing track “Moving in Your Sleep”, a lovely ballad). But that’s the appeal of the dB’s music. It’s designed to entertain, and it’s tightly focused without ever going very deep. It sounds like chart music would sound if chart music wasn’t so shackled to branding, image and personality. And that’s what allows the dB’s to stand alongside acts such as Pere Ubu, the Feelies, Brian Eno and, say, Guided by Voices, acts who influenced more than they sold. “Dynamite”, with its stretched vowels arching over traintrack rhythms and sporadic organ fills, is probably the catchiest track on the album, but it has a few challengers – the rolling guitars on “Black and White”, the rat-a-tat of “The Fight”… really, they’re all contenders. There really is no point asking why this album didn’t sell better, the music industry is fickle and audiences are capricious. It’s certainly hard to argue that they weren’t hook-laden enough to break through, the hooks are all there. You just feel maybe a tiny lack of forcefulness in their personalities. But really, this should have been a big hit. It’s a worthy addition to any record collection of this era.
She’s Not Worried
Faith No More – The Real Thing (1989)
I may have to go back and find a place for Angel Dust in my Nineties recommendations, having just re-listened to it after quite a while. I’m loving it. It’s where Mike Patton took full flight and the band tore out a gonzo masterpiece. But not only for that reason; it also makes clearer the evolution that took place with the recruitment of Patton, and why The Real Thing was a unique, unreplicatable release. Because on this album, the sound Faith No More had created from their inception was still intact; in fact it sounded better than ever, chunky and grandiose and wide-screen. Patton wrote the lyrics and of course handled vocal duties with the departure of Chuck Mosely. But when he arrived the backing tracks had already been recorded. His was a big personality and there’s no doubt he put his stamp on the sound. But at this point it was definitely Faith No More with Mike Patton, whereas come 1992 and Angel Dust it had clearly mutated into Mike Patton and His Band Faith No More. This wasn’t like Bruce Dickinson elevating the Iron Maiden sound with a much more distinctive vocal approach; Patton recast his band in his own image. But that was later on. At this point it was simply music and lyrics coming from different worlds to create something shiny and new. And what an introduction The Real Thing gave us. Music fans occasionally discuss which album has the best opening three tracks (it always seems to be three for some reason). This would have to be a contender. “From Out of Nowhere”, “Epic”, “Falling to Pieces”; all of them hooky, hard and just a little bombastic. And it’s not like it lets up after that. “Surprise! You’re Dead!” is a short, sharp, nasty little slice of hard rock. “Zombie Eaters” lures you in with some delicate guitar before beating you over the head. The title track sits easily with the first three tracks for commercial potential (though it wasn’t released as a single). And then there’s “War Pigs”, a joke inclusion at a time when Black Sabbath were a lot less respected than they were subsequently. The Real Thing stands alone in Faith No More’s discography, the dividing line between eras, while identifying with both.
From Out of Nowhere
X – Wild Gift (1981)
Not the X formed by Ian Rilen in Sydney in the late Seventies, though they’re also highly recommended for fans of Australian punk (and why wouldn’t you be?) This is the X that sprung from the Los Angeles punk scene around the same time, fronted by married couple John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Just thought I’d get that straight from the get-go. X were the critical darlings of LA punk, and really were the band who put it on the map. They also managed in a way to transcend their own scene, bringing a professional attitude and openness to incorporating other styles in their work. But what really set them off was the vocal interplay of Doe and Cervenka, his cool tenor bouncing off her plaintive yowling in exciting and unpredictable ways. There are distinctions between their first four albums, and fans of the band tend to obsess over which is the definitive X album. But it doesn’t really matter all that much, all of them have their own appeal. Los Angeles, their first, is quite clearly the rawest – in some ways their purest, even with the organ fills of producer Ray Manzarek (of the Doors) intruding – and may well be their most exciting. But Wild Gift makes up for a lack of immediacy with a complexity and heartfeltness that makes it the more intriguing of the two. Also – and you hear it all over this album – there’s a sexual complexity between Doe and Cervenka that at times edges toward the masochistic. For instance in “White Girl” where Doe sings about his lust for Lorna Doom of the Germs, or in the opening track “The Once Over Twice”, which has Cervenka coming on to another musician and getting the brush-off. It sounds as if they’re forcing each other into a sexual honesty that’s borderline destructive. The lyrics in general are rock-poetry (Cervenka was previously a poet), more evocative than explicit, but lean and brutal for all that.
Laurie Anderson – Big Science (1982)
It might seem a little odd to say it at this distance, but when “O Superman” hit mainstream radio in 1982, it had a similar impact to the Sex Pistols with “God Save the Queen” in 1977. Not the same shock value of course – and unlike those pioneers of Punk, Anderson didn’t inspire hordes of teenagers to form Art bands and challenge the hegemony of New Wave – but nevertheless its sheer strangeness and lack of reference points to anything else were a jolt to the ears of listeners and a challenge to assimilate. Nobody knew what it was doing there or what to make of it; the relentless and insistent vocal percussion, and the synthesized intonation over it, cast a hypnotic spell over the airwaves for the eight or so minutes it lasted. I know that when I first heard it I had to get the album as soon as possible; whatever it was, I wanted to know more. It’s the reason both why I revere Big Science and why I’m left relatively cold by the rest of Laurie Anderson’s studio albums. Big Science is all about spaces and minimalism. The sounds are stripped back to only what has an impact, everything else is left out, and all the tracks feel naked and sharp. Subsequently, Anderson filled her sound out and brought some warmth to her presentation. It’s closer to what you’d call popular music, but it did take away some of the essence of her art, for mine. Like most other listeners, I was drawn by “O Superman”, the title track, and the ghoulishly humourous opening number “From the Air”. But everything works, even the jarring clatter of “Sweaters” and the scattershot approach of “Example #22”. Big Science was in effect a dry-run for the release of the enormous release of United States Live in 1984, which in itself was a reduction of an eight hour aural/visual performance piece to four and a half hours of audio-friendly material. It works on its own though – and is in fact disturbingly prescient about the direction the US and the western world was headed.
From the Air
O Superman (for Massenet)
Squeeze – East Side Story (1981)
The recording of this album was a lot more chaotic and fluid than the final product suggests. Squeeze had some grand plans: double album, with a producer revered by the band for each side, a big statement of intent and identity. What resulted, however, was all Elvis Costello; it almost sounds like one of his lost albums, even the sole track he didn’t produce (opener “In Quintessence”, helmed by Dave Edmunds) a dead ringer for something off Get Happy! It’s also Squeeze at their creative peak, the songwriting mature and complex, and the musical backing tight and soulful. On East Side Story, Difford and Tilbrook finally achieve what they were born to do, create a pop music testament that doesn’t come with any caveats; from start to finish, the album glows with professional ease and confidence. They take on a number of styles and have them all coming off as uniquely Squeeze. Perhaps the most significant change was the replacement of Jools Holland with Paul Carrack. Holland’s a marvel, and has gone on to a whole host of other projects, but the band had probably gone about as far as they could with him aboard, and the more relaxed and integrated piano/organ of Carrack does fit better. Plus we get his smooth vocals on “Tempted”, a real highlight of the album. The thing I really love about East Side Story is that, once you get beyond the front-line numbers (“In Quintessence”, “Tempted”, “Is That Love”. “Labelled With Love”), you’re left with album tracks that are all a bit quirky and a bit adventurous, whether it’s backwards-tracking, off key piano runs, psychedelia, Middle Eastern instrumentation, a touch of doo-wop or just straight up Sixties arrangements. East Side Story was the band’s peak, they never reached this height again. This one, 1980’s Argybargy and the previous year’s Cool For Cats constitute everything you need to own from the band, apart from the odd song or two.
LL Cool J – Walking With a Panther (1989)
I like LL Cool J. He was pretty much the prototype for all the big-ego rap artists of the Nineties, and he wore that burden well despite copping a lot of shit from the hip hop community. This album in particular got a lot of people off-side because it moved so far out of step with the burgeoning political direction of NWA and Public Enemy. LL just wanted to rap about what a great guy he was and how much the ladies loved him. Not good enough, apparently. However, most of the specific concerns people had with it – the long running time, the ballads, the out-of-stepness with the age, the feeling he was treading water – all fade into irrelevance when looked at from this distance. It’s easier to judge Walking With a Panther on its own terms now, rather than worrying about what direction it was supposedly taking Rap. The guy had been there at Rap’s inception (he first picked up a mic in the late Seventies at the age of 9) and his first album release was in 1985, when the genre was still finding its feet. He knew what he was about, and he studded this thing with some top-shelf tracks – “Going Back to Cali”, “I’m That Kind of Guy”, “Jingling Baby” – while spending the rest of the time either cockstrutting about what a great rapper he was or playing angel/devil with his women. The beats are hard – harder than you might think at first, they really pump – and the sampling is designed to mainline your nerve centre. And I think the ballads are just fine; it would be different album without them, much harder to latch on to. He was right a year later when he said “don’t call it a comeback” of Mama Said Knock You Out. He hadn’t gone anywhere, he’d just fallen out of favour for a moment. He knew he’d always been the shit, and he didn’t want you to forget it either. Walking With a Panther fully justifies that claim, and is definitely worth a re-listen.
Going Back to Cali
I’m That Kind of Guy
Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Tropical Gangsters (1983)
Well, there you go. A touch of research into one of the zazziest feel-good albums of the Eighties, and I discover that it was a big disappointment to its creator, it isn’t anything like he intended, and it generated a whole lot of ill-feeling amongst the band. How disappointing. And as if that’s not bad enough, I’ve also just found out the Coconuts aren’t even singing ‘Ona, ona, onomatopoeia’ in the middle of “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” (which would have been great). Nevertheless, I’ll press on… Tropical Gangsters started life as an August Darnell R&B solo project titled Wise Guy, and he’d already started on a few tracks when the label stepped in, directing him to divert it into a Kid Creole and the Coconuts release and make it more commercial, in order to revive some financial difficulties. That’s why certain tracks – especially “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby” and “Stool Pigeon”, barely have any Coconuts on them. Now, this presented another difficulty, because the previous two Kid Creole albums were narrative-driven, supposedly about their adventures on an island called B’Dilly Day. So some nonsense was hastily cobbled together for this one as well; a flashback or something, if you can figure it out from the songs themselves you’re doing well. All of that aside, the songs are great, from the hard lessons of “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” and “No Fish Today” and the cautionary “Stool Pigeon” to the pleasant lilt of “The Love We Have” and the jam-out of Coati Mundi’s contribution “I’m Corrupt” (perhaps my favourite song on the album). “I’m not overly thrilled with “Imitation” because it sounds like songwriting by numbers, but even it’s no worse than harmless fun. I guess it’s one of those albums that, despite no-one involved with it coming out happy, the result sounds like magic anyway.
Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy
The Jam – Sound Affects (1980)
Here’s where The Jam hit their peak. I carried a tape of this around with me in the early Eighties, and hardly even got beyond opening tracks “Pretty Green” and “Monday” most of the time, because I just wanted to dwell on them. Even now, they’re the two songs that hit me the hardest. ‘Pretty Green” sounds like punk grown up (I don’t know why it would want to, but it seems to work), and “Monday” has that Sixties pastoral feel down pat. There’s a lot of talk around regarding what the album’s influences might have been, what Paul Weller was into at the time, and the attempts to make this a more soulful release than anything the Jam had done previously. It’s an interesting discussion, but in the end it’s tangential to what you actually hear. Sound Affects still sounds Mod in the way the Jam always had; what’s evolved is their ear for a hook, and the smoothness with which they integrate their anger into their craft. “Set the House Ablaze” is a great example of that; it just motors along on its own confidence somewhere between the Who and the Clash, its tension subsumed into its hooks. “That’s Entertainment” has it too – the subject matter is gritty, perverse and downbeat, but it’s all sold on that sparkling guitar and the cooing backing vocals. It even has some backward guitar tracking later on. And then there’s “Start!”, a gleeful Beatles rip-off that nevertheless takes on a life of its own as it reflects the uncertainty and tentativeness of modern relationships between broken people. You can’t help but sing along. It would be inapt to describe Sound Affects as ‘fun’, but it has something shiny and infectious about its instrumentation. Paul Weller openly discussed his ambitions in the soul direction, but for all his talk of it in 1980, we had to wait for the Style Council to see it bear fruit. This album is all about the mod rock.
Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen (1985)
My first exposure to Prefab Sprout was via the single release of “Don’t Sing” in 1984. It has that great mixture of musical talent, lyrical pretension and commercial unsophistication that I love; so wordy, so confident, so utterly unique in a way only bands just starting out can sound. The rest of Swoon, the album it was lifted from, doesn’t live up to that promise but it’s a worthy listen. Steve McQueen, on the other hand, is an instant classic, and Paddy McAloon knew it. He was so sure of the quality of “When Love Breaks Down” that he had it released three times, and the third time it nearly made it too, peaking at 25 on the singles chart in October 1985. The songwriting had improved for their second album, but what really sells it is the sure-handed production of Thomas Dolby. The poor bugger had to sift through something like 50 of McAloon’s songs to come up with a track-listing. The final 11 tracks it reduced to are just terrific, and share a communality with each other that gives the album its distinct flavour; modestly stylish, with continual nods to the sophisticated Hollywood songwriters of the Forties. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Steve McQueen passed many people by, or that “When Love Breaks Down” took so long to catch on with listeners. It seems out of place in the mid-Eighties, and it requires a few listens, not so much to catch on to the style but to let its charms sink in. We’re talking about an era where pop songs had sacrificed inventiveness to technique and ostentation; the writing was subservient to the selling. Less showy artists weren’t getting much of a look in. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-constructed song than “Appetite” or “Bonny” in 1985, or a more satisfying collection of songs from that year either.
When Love Breaks Down
Richard and Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
It’s one of those little oddities that an album widely characterised as a chronicle of a marriage falling apart mostly consists of songs written two years earlier, before all the trouble started. But given that, there’s still a powerful sense of two people communicating through song, in the absence of any other way of reaching each other. It could more aptly be described as a final explosion, in performance, of frustrations that had built up over time, starting with the disappointing sales of their previous album, Sunnyvista, in 1979. A connection with Gerry Rafferty allowed them to sign a new contract and get started on their next project. But Rafferty was too finicky and controlling for Richard’s tastes, and the results were disappointing. It wasn’t until late 1981 that they were able to record it in a more spontaneous fashion, and, whether the frustrations of recent disappointments and thwarted opportunities impacted on the relationship, or other factors contributed, Richard and Linda were at the end of their patience with each other as well. That’s what you hear in these songs – heartbreak, hopelessness, naked anger and sadness, a sense of the void gaping before them. And some of Linda’s best singing (despite her voice being so ravaged she had trouble holding it for more than a couple of lines at a time) and guitar work from Richard that he’s rarely ever surpassed. The final result is just so brilliantly intense, you can almost feeling it shaking with passion. Just listen to Linda on “Walking on a Wire” (with imagery reminiscent of her earlier “The Great Valerio”) or the incandescent guitar on the title track. Overall, I still think I prefer 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, but it’s a very near thing.
Don’t Renege on Our Love
Walking on a Wire