Seeing Howard Jones on Top of the Pops performing New Song with a semi-naked man in chains standing beside him is one of my earliest memories, and for some reason it has always stuck with me. Listening to the song now in adulthood it seems a very peculiar juxtaposition between a rather twee and naive-sounding primitive synth-driven muzak sound with very grown-up lyrics exhorting us to be all post-modern and open-minded, so 'don't crack up, bend your brain, see both sides, throw off your mental chains' which has subconsciously become a kind of mantra. It is a shame that after writing such lyrics as 'challenging preconceived ideas' HJ went and blandly called it 'New Song', which, along with the dated soundtrack, unfortunately detracts from what I think is still a strong and important message especially when in the depths of a 'I have no reason to be here' existential crisis.
Two videos from the 80s which both happen to revolve around the act of watching the television in an otherwise deserted room - Independence Day by The Comsat Angels and Visions of China by Japan. Both want to convey an important message. With respect to both songs being fantastic, the production values of the videos are pretty terrible and suspiciously similar.
Poor Comsat Angels' singer Steven Fellows is agitated because instead of the usual Saturday night entertainment he is being subjected to continual images of people in uniform marching through New York and rockets being launched. Like him I would be pretty frustrated if that happened. So he gets together with his band-mates to sing about it.
Poor David Sylvian looks pretty bored too, trapped in a room with only a TV and jigsaw to occupy him. Occasionally he puts the TV on but like the Comsat Angels' TV this one is faulty and keeps showing only static and unreal images of China. Oh look there's some people marching in uniform! Even worse the only clothes he has left to wear are a check shirt and some dungarees. Bravely he struggles on and even manages to complete his jigsaw before being rescued by his bandmates and taken to a fancy dress Communist party.
The shops are awash with hearts and flowers and chocolates and all the trappings of a commercially insipid and putrid Valentine's Day. Call me bitter but in the spirit of being perverse I have concocted my own Anti-Valentines compilation, selecting the most twisted, miserable and bleak songs which bring either unsympathetic thoughts of love or present an alternative to being trapped in the nightmare of what constitutes the perfect ideal vision of a romantic relationship (as in the fantasies of advertising companies). Hey so they're not all totally connected to love but the title alone should convey enough:
Touchy! - A-ha
Tears Are Not Enough - ABC
Dog Eat Dog - Adam and the Ants
I could be Happy - Altered Images
Hope there's someone - Anthony and the Johnsons
It's Better this Way - Associates
What's A Girl To Do? - Bat for Lashes
Small Talk Stinks - Bauhaus
I don't love anyone - Belle and Sebastian
Blue it is - Billy Mackenzie
Declare Independence - Bjork
Love Burns - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
No Need to Cry - British Sea Power
Why Should I Settle for You - Candie Payne
Maybe Someday - The Cinematics
Love + Pain - Clor
Men's Needs - The Cribs
Music is My Hot Hot Sex - CSS
How Beautiful You Are - The Cure
We're So Happy - Danse Society
Some Kind of Fool - David Sylvian
The Trial - Dead Can Dance
I Luv U - Dizzee Rascal
I Love You Cause I Have To - Dogs Die in Hot Cars
Darling, You're Mean - The Duke Spirit
Is There Something I Should Know? - Duran Duran
Getting Away With It - Electronic
There's A Ghost In My House - The Fall
Get Up and Use Me - Fire Engines
Bandages - Hot Hot Heat
Leif Erikson - Interpol
Fall in Love With Me - Japan
Don't Let Him Waste Your Time - Jarvis Cocker
Heart and Soul - Joy Division
Everyday I love you Less and Less - Kaiser Chiefs
Destroy Everything You Touch - Ladytron
Can't Stand Me Now - The Libertines
I Want to Burn Again - Magazine
Going Missing - Maximo Park
Jealousy - Octopus
She's a Rejector - Of Montreal
Rip It Up - Orange Juice
XOYO - The Passage
Chained - Paul Haig
The Murder of Love - Propaganda
Lipgloss - Pulp
You and I - Mass
Love is the Drug - Roxy Music
Only Love Can Break Your Heart - Saint Etienne
Dirty Disco - Section 25
Overrated - Siobhan Donaghy
Typical Girls - The Slits
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before - The Smiths
Say Hello, Say Goodbye - Soft Cell
I'm Free - Soup Dragons
I Think I'm in Love - Spiritualized
Still in Love Song - The Stills
Beautiful Alone - Strangelove
Walk on By - The Stranglers
Is This It - The Strokes
Life's What you Make It - Talk Talk
Watch me Bleed - Tears for Fears
That Move - Teddy Thompson
Infected - The The
United - Throbbing Gristle
Suffocated Love - Tricky
Rockwrock - Ultravox
You've got my number (why don't you use it) - The Undertones
On the subject of Sheffield bands, ABC are another ubiquitous 80s band but once which I feel were right to be lauded, particularly for their 1982 album Lexicon of Love (I am working on the theory that 1982 was one of the best years for music in the world ever). It's totally a concept album - Martin Fry gets dumped and writes a whole album's worth of material about it, poor man must have suffered- however it is a concept that works brilliantly. It's got some of the symbols that stand for some of worst excesses of 80s music to boot like saxophones, orchestras, irony and that kind of histrionic texture that can swathe the music in syrupy gloop if its not carefully applied by someone like Trevor Horn. Yet this is when pop was at its finest and this is one of pops finest attempts at capturing the headiness of a time when the UK was crawling out of the despair of the late 70s and men could wear make-up and have bouffant hair and sing in gold lame suits on Top of the Pops and nobody would bat an eyelid (although it was supposed to be the dark ages then in comparison to our supposedly more tolerant present). Songs like Poison Arrow are stupidly catchy at the same time as being gently nasty - 'who broke my heart, you did' cannot be more direct and seething - and anyone who is not a sobbing wreck by the end of All of my Heart blatantly has not got one. Even the less well known songs like Tears are not enough and Valentine's Day keep pace, Date stamp beginning with the sound of cash machines and exposing the business of love for the fraud it is (ironically it is almost a dead cert that some of these songs will be doing the rounds on those cheesy Valentine's Day compilations). I also love the trivia that the girl who inspired this album was invited in for a cameo - she is the girl saying 'goodbye' on The Look of Love, part one.
I always mightily disliked Simple Minds, mostly because they are one of those bands like Coldplay and U2 who have that overbearing sense of bluster and swagger which suggests that, wrongly or rightly, the limelight is more important to them than the music. They were part of Live Aid. Like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran they are always trotted out as an example of an archetypal 80s band like there is nobody else to choose from. Their most popular songs are dull bland and pompous like Don't you (forget about me). Bizarrely enough however I was inspired though (by listening to Spandau Ballet of all things) to investigate as to whether their earlier incarnations would yield any interesting surprises. And it did. (This is clearly a dangerous challenge to set myself, after all what if I started liking early stuff by Bon Jovi or something???) I was drawn towards the shimmering, tangential pop of Promised you a miracle delighting in its attempt to eschew the usual verse chorus set-up for leaping straight into the chorus, Jim Kerr's posturing vocals interwoven with a pleasant jangle reminiscent of fellow Scots Orange Juice (although the echo stops there) and delicate synths. It's pretty funky compared to their leaden attempts at rock that came later. Notable mentions to fellow companions from New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84), the dreamy stylings of Glittering Prize and the title song, with its incredibly familiar synth-led melody which I recognise from some crappy dance tune of a couple of years back, Open Your Mind byUsura. It's amazing what dance music has cannibalised. Perhaps there IS something in my nascent theory that 2 Unlimited were inspired by John Foxx...
A performance of said song on the much-missed Top of the Pops.
In an unexpected case of history repeating itself I found the third, and last, Delicatessen (who formed in Leicester no less) album from 1998 by accident in the secondhand racks in Record Collectors in Broomhill, Sheffield, the same place I found hustle into bed (1996). It was only two pounds, cheaper than a pint of beer, so how could I leave it there? (I wondered at the same time if I was flicking through CDs which had been there since I had left University (getting on for over 10 years) which gave me some comfort that one part of Sheffield had not disappeared under a shiny new, ultimately soulless, tower block). Anyway the album itself is remarkably pleasant after hustle, not so filthy and violent and repugnant which admittedly, for me, gave that album its charm. Singer Neil Carlill's voice is as rough and ready as ever, the songs tend to ramble a bit, but there is a brightness and a wistfulness about the music which did not exist before, although the lyrics seem to me as oblique, Lightbulbs and Moths takes its title literally for instance. The sun is beginning to shine through the cracks in the boarded-up windows, alas it was perhaps too late for chart glory (if that was the aim), although it still outshines a lot of the trash churned out in the 90s, recall for instance (in whispers) Sleeper, Powder, theaudience, Menswear and their ilk.
Hailing from Sheffield, Comsat Angels appear to one of those 'What if...' bands, bands that should have been / should be more famous than they were/are (I am finding that a similar dirge can be sung for many bands found upon my late 70s/early 80s journey of discovery). Founded in the years of hopelessness that gripped the country, Comsat Angels released three albums of consistent magnificence (according to the reviews) and then started to disintegrate under pressure from lack of success and found their sound compromised and diluted (it is telling that a future reconciliation concert will feature songs only from the first three albums). At the moment this is conjecture to me as I have only experienced the second album, however what I have found there has encouraged me to seek out more in my own immutable way via a CD binge and whilst awaiting those I am availing myself of Sleep no more (1981) the second. And what a bleak album it seems at first listen. Along with Cabaret Voltaire churning out the grim-ness, Pulp (about to) relish in the narrative detail of the baser elements of human behaviour, ABC cataloguing the wreckage of relationships and Human League ignoring the dour past for future sparkle, it is a wonder that Sheffield did not collapse under the weight of its despair at this time. However there is miserable bleak and stately bleak and this falls into the latter category. At first listen it seems musically quite minimalist however there are hidden depths here; Dark Parade is majestic, a slow simmering anger of a song, building in tension until singer Simon Fellows cries out 'No release' in a way to make the nerves in your body tingle all over. The title track Sleep No More creates an eerie atmosphere in its attempt to go nowhere except into the realms of insomnia. Eye of the Lens was not on the original release however it is a joyful inclusion here, its searing tempo and buoyant rhythm underlying a creepy tale which seems to owe a debt to Kafka. Revelling in uncheery paranoia it may be, Sleep No More somehow elevates itself above the turgid introspection that mires bands like Radiohead.
In different places into wrong categories / Familiar problems cross the wires
Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals recently proclaimed somewhere that the saxophone would not appear on their next album; to all intents and purposes this is cool, after all the saxophone is associated largely with the cheesy blandness of airport lounges, elevator shuffles and that horrid excuse for improvisation called 'jazz' (bebop bedobop bedeedeoolbop in the best Howard Moon impression) as well as the worst excesses of the 80s like the godawful Baker Street. Yet the saxophone can appear in some strange contexts. Like, for instance, who would ever dream that Siouxsie and the Banshees would ever allow a saxophone even ten foot near them? The Banshees are associated for me with gothic spikiness, spitting in the face of established taste and grubby glamour, into which the bright shiny saxophone with its myriad buttons and fussy detailing would NEVER figure. Yet there, in their debut The Scream (1978), is definitely the sound of the sax. It would seem to be the fault of guitarist John McKay. It is exhilarating the juxtaposition between the two; the sax here is not optimistic, shiny nor bland, it is a dread beast filled with the anxiety and despair for (of) the age, transplanted into a keening riff that rattles the nerves and silences the sneer of punk. Such a doomy (mis) use of an instrument serves well the dark lyrics and dramatic vocal stylings of Siouxsie.