Thursday, 30 June 2011

Owen Paul 'My Favourite Waste Of Time'

Chart Peak: 3

Owen Paul - real name Owen McGee - is from Glasgow. This is his first hit. Charted at No. 65 on 27th May and had reached No. 3 by 8th July.

Sometimes when I'm working on this blog I worry that I might be going a bit native and losing my faculties as I find myself writing a glowing report about a record by somebody I always thought I hated. It's reassuring to report that such a thing won't happen this time. This is a truly terrible example of 80s pop at its worst. Of course, bad music has always been with us and there have always been awful records that have been successful: this isn't the worst of them but it feels like a temporally-specific kind of rubbish - some sort of power-pop without the power. Paul apparently trained as a footballer and much as I'm sure he's a lovely bloke, he sings like one; perhaps the most annoying thing about the track is the atmosphere of "will-this-do" as nobody involved in the performance or production really seems to be giving their best here. They weren't as willing to waste their own time as ours.

Surprising fact I learnt when reading the label: this song was written by cult US singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw. And Owen Paul McGee (as he now styles himself) toured recently as lead singer for Ex-Simple Minds, a group formed by the original pre-stadium rock rhythm section. This remains his only Top 75

Available on: Essential 80s - Classic Eighties Pop And Rock Hits

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Wham! 'The Edge Of Heaven'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)


Their final single and their fourth No. 1 following 'Wake Me Up', 'Freedom' and 'I'm Your Man', 'The Edge Of Heaven' reached the top on 24th June for 2 weeks.

The funny thing is, I don't remember Wham! splitting up being that big a deal at the time. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was a boy, but I suspect fans were somewhat reassured by the fact that George Michael had already proved himself as a solo artist: even more so than Midge Ure, as he'd scored two massive Number One hits with his first two solo efforts. He was evidently still contractually obliged to supply new Wham! material though, and so they became one of the few acts to release an intentional farewell single, and of even fewer to top the charts with one; the only others I could think of offhand were The Jam.

The difference is of course that where 'Beat Surrender' is obviously the product of weeks if not months of deliberation and planning as Paul Weller tried to create the most fitting epitaph for his band, 'The Edge Of Heaven' has rather an air of "better get that Wham! single finished before Coronation Street comes on," which might be how we end up with a chorus lyric that consists entirely of "Yeah yeah yeah, na na na na na na" and verses that sort of semi-make sense. It's not all bad news though, as George isn't exactly immune to overdoing things and this less thought-out track is actually OK musically, in a slick undemanding way. As something of a fan of a good pre-chorus section I quite like the one here (which is where the title is hidden). The video is almost a premonition of his solo career - the half-decent idea of inserting clips from earlier vids is totally undermined by the pretentious decision to put everything in moody black-and-white. That's George Michael in a nutshell for me.

Also appearing on: Now 3
Available on: If You Were There/The Best Of Wham

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Midge Ure 'Call Of The Wild'

Chart Peak: 27

Charted at No. 46 on 10th June 1986 - had reached No. 27 by 8th July. It is his fourth solo Top 30 hit in Britain.

Anyone who's been following the 1976 Top Of The Pops re-runs will have noticed that 1986 also marked the tenth anniversary of Ure's first chart appearances as a member of Slik. At this point he was still a member of Ultravox, although they were only a few months away from splitting, and he already had one solo album under his belt but the really big singles were already starting to elude him and this non-album 45 seems pretty much forgotten now; I don't know whether he'd have been more inclined to use it for the next album had it been a bigger hit.

It may not have been intentional, but 'Call Of The Wild' seems now a bit like an attempt to blend the Central European sensibility of Ultravox with some traces of Ure's Scottishness - it didn't occur to me to wonder until today, but the rest of the band weren't actually from Scotland. The video director certainly seems to have picked up on the Celtic element, even if it leaves Ure looking slightly embarassed at the cliché. I've warmed to the man somewhat over the years but this is still a song that seems to huff and puff a lot without really saying anything much. Perhaps I'm not Scottish enough.

Anyway, it's the end of a second side that's been slightly rocky - certainly more so than might have been expected when it started with Chris De Burgh.

Also appearing on: Now 6
Available on: No Regrets

Monday, 27 June 2011

Furniture 'Brilliant Mind'

Chart Peak: 21

Although they've been around since the end of 1982, 'Brilliant Mind' is the first Top 30 hit for Furniture. It had reached No. 21 by 15th July.

And as it proved this was the only chart appearance ever from the famously ill-fated indie act. It's also the last track on a Now album from Stiff Records, who were nearing the end of their glory period: they'd already lost Madness by this point and were soon to go bankrupt (the label was revived a few years ago, releasing singles by The Enemy and albums by Chris Difford among others).

'Brilliant Mind' has some claim to be the label's last classic and whilst only a moderate hit, it's become a staple of eighties compilation albums and it was until recently the only Furniture song I'd ever heard: I recently listened to their album The Wrong People as part of the research for this post. Whilst there are decent tracks on there, none of them made the same impression on me as this masterful record, which sounds very eighties and yet oddly contemporary, presumably because the doomy side of the decade has been revived in recent years by many a modern-day act and even the saxophone that decorates this track has suddenly reappeared as the sound of several hits in the summer of 2011. And of course there are parts of it that already sounded familiar, most notably the arpeggiated guitar figure that resembles the Beatles' 'And I Love Her'. Still, I find myself warming to this rather more than to most songs that come over so self-consciously serious; perhaps it's the aftertaste of disappointment that overhangs this song so heavily - it's easier to take the protagonist coming over as a bit self-confident and knowing when you know he's putting on a bit of a front.

Of course that disappointment looks a bit prescient when we know what happened to the band after this: they stumbled on for another five years and even did an album for a major label but finally split after filing to manage further success. Singer "big" Jim Irvin became a music journalist and has cropped up a few times in the series as a songwriter: this year he co-wrote a Number 60 hit for boy-band-with-guitars Twenty Twenty. Perhaps it's better to remember him for this.

Available on: The Wrong People

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Big Country 'Look Away'

Chart Peak: 7

'Look Away' became Big Country's biggest UK hit to date when it reached No. 7 in late April 1986

And their highest-charting single it remained, though it's possibly not their best-remembered. It got to Number One in Ireland too. Like the Housemartins, they were always a band who seemed like they had something to say: but they always seemed to be very to let everyone know they were Saying Something. In this case the bombast rather seems to overshadow whatever it is they actually are singing about, but at least the chorus is OK.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 4, 8
Available on: Fields Of Fire: The Ultimate Collection

The Housemartins 'Happy Hour'

Chart Peak: 3

'Happy Hour' charted at No. 58 on 3rd June 1986 and had raced to No.3 by the end of that same month to give "the fourth best band in Hull" their first hit.

That's more like it! Although this was already their third single, it's the first time I (and many others) became aware of them, and the semi-claymation video alone had my attention instantly. And the song sounded like I thought a pop song should sound when I was eight, all bouncy and jangly. Only gradually did it dawn on me that the song is actually a rather caustic satire on power relationships in employment and sexism, but then that's probably for the best at that age; I don't even think I'd heard of a happy hour outside this song.

Of course, drinking culture has proved to be a regular motif in PD Heaton's songwriting (and indeed in his life)
so with hindsight this is just one chapter in the story. But from a 1986 perspective this remains a classic example of why the Housemartins seemed the ideal pop group during their brief existence: they had something to say, but more to the point they made you want to hear it because they had enough swing and soul, and they weren't afraid of the mainstream. Most of all, they get through the whole song, even the bells solo, in a sprightly 2-and-a-half minutes. That's a lesson many others on this album could do with learning. 

Also appearing on: Now 8, 9, 10
Available on: Dad's Jukebox

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Simple Minds 'All The Things She Said'

Chart Peak:

When 'All The Things She Said' reached No. 9 in April 1986, it became Simple Minds's 4th consecutive UK Top 10 single following 'Don't You' [sic] 'Alive And Kicking' and 'Sanctify Yourself'.

Another act noted for making a similar drive towards the mainstream, Simple Minds hadn't been around as long as Genesis but had made up for lost time and by 1986 their singles were largely indistingushable from other soft-rock acts. We catch them here at their absolute commercial peak, in both senses of the word, pulling this and two of those other Top Tens from their biggest-selling studio album.

As a pop song, though, I don't think this is any better than 'Invisible Touch', its greatest strength being that it's marginally less pompous than some of their worst stuff around this time. It's catchy but no more than that. And I can't really tell whether Jim Kerr is doing an impression of Bono in the video on purpose or not. Either way it's nice of Father Dougal to help out on guitar though. Can we have somebody working to the best of their ability next please?

Also appearing on: Now 1, 5, 6, 14, 15, 23, 30
Available on: Once Upon A Time

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Genesis 'Invisible Touch'

Chart Peak: 15

Their 8th Top 20 single, 'Invisible Touch' made No. 15 in June 1986.

Not the most fascinating sleeve note ever, but again notable for what it doesn't mention: though far from their biggest UK hit, this was their only Number One in the US, spending one week at the top in July 1986 before it was deposed by, of all things, 'Sledgehammer'. It kicked off a run of five US Top Five singles from the album of the same name, none of which made the Top Ten here, surprisingly. A pedant will note that this song finally went Top 10 in a live version in 1992, but that's another story which we'll tell if I ever do Now 24.

The song also went Top 5 in Canada, which I mention because it's the one song I associate most closely with our summer holiday over there that year. I'm not entirely sure why that is, as I must have heard the song back hom as well and it can't have been the only one I heard over there, but such is a child's memory. I also recall trying to work out what an "invisible toucher" was - only years later did I realise Phil Collins was actually singing "invisible touch-yeah". I think I did make the connection with his hit 'Easy Lover' of the previous year which covers similar lyrical ground; with hindsight I have to wonder whether Collins had a particular person in mind or whether he was just a lazy writer, didn't realise both songs were going to be singles or whatever.

Anyway, this is one track that tests even my preference for pop-oriented Genesis. The lyrics are OK, but the music and production are just too far into the direction of 80s American radio even for my taste. There's an especially cringeworthy moment from about 1:43 where Tony Banks - who'd been a professional keyboard player for a good twenty years by this point - suddenly turns into a twelve-year old who's been allowed to touch a synthesiser for the first time. Invisible Touch is the only Genesis album I've ever tried to listen to in full, but I started at track 2.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 8, 9, 21, 23, 24
Available on: Turn It On Again - The Hits

Monday, 20 June 2011

David Bowie 'Absolute Beginners'

Chart Peak: 2

Bowie not only had a No. 2 hit in March 1986 with 'Absolute Beginners' but also played the part of Vendice Partners in the film.
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. OK, I admit I've never actually seen the film of Absolute Beginners, but nobody seems to have a good word for it; not even Paul Weller who was such a big fan of the book he named one of his own songs after it and crops up on the film soundtrack as a member of the Style Council. Nonetheless the title song gig went to Bowie, who makes his last Now! appearance towards the end of his eighties commercial revival. As it turns out he only had one more Top 10 single to come (1993's 'Jump They Say') but this followed his chart-topping charity duet with Mick Jagger - indeed both tracks come from the same session, but this had to be held back to match the film release date.

A big hit then, and given the response to the film presumably on its own merits, but I have to admit I've never been a huge fans of this track. It's full of good ideas and romantic intent but somehow between producers Langer & Winstanley (a few years on from their best work with Madness et al) and the group of session musicians assembled, all the life seems to have been sucked out and it's a ponderous thing; even the 7" edit featured here clocks in at 5:37 and the full-length version will take up more than eight minutes of your time. It's all well done and not as bad as I believe the film is, but far from his best work of even the decade.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 5 (with Pat Metheney Group)
Available on: The Best Of 1980/1987

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Chris De Burgh 'The Lady In Red'

Chart Peak: 1 (3 weeks)

Unbelievably this is Chris De Burgh's first Top 40 single in Britain. It had raced to No. 10 by 15th July 1986.

Of course, it doesn't seem so surprising now because this has gone on to become by far his most famous song (and only of only two Top 20 hits for him) but at the time I can understand the confusion. He only had a couple of minor (UK) chart singles to his name by 1986, and yet he'd charted several albums including two best-of sets so I have to presume his records were getting played on the radio somewhere, but not anywhere I'd have heard them.

It all changed with this track. Now, when I write on this blog I try to avoid following received opinion - but I can't deny that I've long disliked this and even when I was timing the record I took my headphones off for the duration. I did of course make myself listen to it once for the purposes of this post, and I can, if generous, see what people liked about it. There aren't many songs about appreciating the partner you've been with for a long time, and in theory there really ought to be more: if somebody you knew had written this for his wife, it'd be quite a touching gesture. But in reality, this song seems to prove how difficult it is to actually express that kind of emotion in words - and the words are probably the best of this record, which suffers from a dull melody and awful leaden production, complete with Pino Palladino on that fretless bass that easily dates this to within a decade. Of course it feels tailor-made for the last song at a disco and it must have been one countless times. Like I said, I'm not surprised this was successful, just disappointed.

The Guinness Book of hits always used to point out that De Burgh was the first act ever to enter the Swiss album chart at 1, but they didn't mention hismystical healing powers.

Available on: Notes From Planet Earth - The Ultimate Collection

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Art Of Noise with Max Headroom 'Paranoimia'

Chart Peak: 12

Charted at No. 46 on 17th June 1986 - had sped to No. 12 by 15th July... with Max Headroom taking over the guest role from Duane Eddy

Another one I didn't hear back then, although of course I do remember the phenomenon of Max Headroom.I found him a bit creepy to be honest, possibly because he wasn't quite human. I mean, I knew he was just a bloke with a mask on really but there was still something a bit disturbing to my childish self.

Like a lot of Art Of Noise records, this feels like a better idea on paper than on disc. I can imagine that making a record with a comedy character from a TV commercial seemed very clever and subversive at the time, but what it amounts to in reality is just another rehash of 'Close To The Edit' with some boring dialogue over the top of it. "How can I get to sleep?" asks Max. Try listening to your own record, I'm tempted to reply.

To be generous, it may be that this makes more sense as a soundtrack to the video than as a record in its own right. I wouldn't know, I was a bit too creeped out to watch the whole thing: but in any case that's a pretty poor excuse for including it on a Now! album in sound only. Admittedly this track shows up on the VHS version of this title, but that includes other songs not on the LP or cassette. While on the subject of Max Headroom and videos, anybody who wants to be really scared might want to see the legendary TV interruption from the USA.

Art Of Noise also appear on: Now 13 [with Tom Jones]
Available on: The Best Of The Art Of Noise

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Stan Ridgway 'Camouflage'

Chart Peak: 4


Now here's one I really don't remember hearing at all at the time. Maybe it was too scary to be played when young children might be listening.

When I did hear it, I thought it was odd. And when I found out it had been a Top 10 hit I thought that was even odder. American readers might know Ridgway as the former lead singer of Wall Of Voodoo, but I've never knowingly heard their music so I have no idea whether it would shed any light on this gruff-voiced novelty which reminds me oddly of 'Big Bad John'. I doubt it would explain why a song about serving in the US Marines should prove to be such a big hit over Europe, and not in America itself.

As novelty hits go, it's not that annoying but I don't really think it's much cop either. Experience suggests that this is the sort of track that gets a lot of search-engine hits on this blog so if you've come here for that reason, hello. Sorry I'm not more positive.

Available on: The Big Heat

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pete Wylie 'Sinful!'

Chart Peak: 13

Pete's third Top 20 single, following 'The Story of The Blues' (Wah!) and 'Come Back' (The Mighty Wah!), 'Sinful!' made No. 13 in early June 1986.

I do remember hearing this at the time but couldn't identify it until much later, not least because I thought he was singing "It's simple, it's tragic". I'm aware that Wylie in his various guises has a loyal following, hence his ability to sustain a now three-decade career from only four hits (the other one was a 1991 remix of this with The Farm) and that John Peel was a particular fan: it was he who suggested that Wah! should become Mighty. And yet I get a certain sense that you had to be in the right place at the right time to really appreciate it.

'Sinful!' (exclamation mark and all) does have a big punchy chorus that attracted my eight-year-old ears, although for my 33-year-old ones it has to fight against the now rather stale-sounding production. It also comes with a sense of self-righteousness that feel rather of its time now, at least in the context of such a big hit. He doesn't completely sweep me up in it, though I do enjoy the song - it's just that every time I hear it, it makes me think I'd rather be hearing 'Story Of The Blues' instead.

Available on: Top Of The Pops - One Hit Wonders

Friday, 10 June 2011

Pet Shop Boys 'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)'

Chart Peak: 11

Following 'West End Girls' and 'Love Comes Quickly', 'Opportunities' became the Pet Shop Boys' 3rd U.K. hit single when it reached No.11 in June 1986.

It seems slightly odd now that as big a hit as 'West End Girls' managed to elude the Now albums, but it was a victim of timing - it became a hit too late for Now 6 and must have seemed too much like old news for this album. So instead they make their first appearance with this single which, like their first hit, failed to chart in its original form and finally succeded in a re-recorded version. It's also their only single to chart higher in the US than in the UK, though a couple of others have matched positions exactly.

It's a track I remember from the time (unlike 'Love Comes Quickly) and one that seems of its time in more ways than one. The lyric is a very obvious satire on Thatcherism (I think I even grasped the general idea when I was eight) and the production is a typically busy dancefloor-inspired one of the era that sounds a bit desperate now; although of course there's a possibility that this was the intention all along. If so, it merely strengthens the impression that this, like a lot of PSB material, merits a nod of recognition rather than genuine enjoyment.

Also appearing on: Now 8, 10, 11, 15, 18, 20, 26, 28 [as Absolutely Fabulous], 35, 72
Available on: Discography - Complete Singles Collection

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Level 42 'Lessons In Love'

Chart Peak: 3


'Lessons In Love' became Level 42's biggest UK hit to date when it reached No.3 for three weeks in May 1986.

And indeed it was to remain their biggest British hit, and one of their biggest in the US. A work colleague of mine was a big fan of the band in their heyday, and we have a sort of running gag every time one of their songs comes on the radio while he's away from his desk.

"Guess which Level 42 song you just missed?"
"Was it 'Lessons In Love'?"

OK, occasionally it's 'Something About You', but it is almost always this one. And it's a song I know well anyway, having heard a lot of the Running In The Family album where it ultimately appeared the following year.

It's obviously one of their most pop-oriented songs from the times when they sought (and got) major mainstream success but I don't object to that on principle, especially as I'd only have a limited interest in funk jams. If anything, this isn't quite pop enough for my adult self; there's still a bit too much showiness which fails to gel somehow with the slightly daft lyric and the vaguely contrived way Mike Lindup has to get a little solo singing spot. In fact the phrase that springs most readily to mind is "watered down", with co-producer and -writer Wally Badorou trying to replicate a less dramatic version of the squelchy sounds he contributed to Talking Heards records earlier in the decade. I don't want to be too negative about this record when I don't actually dislike it, but it's somehow a bit too half-hearted to inspire enthusiasm.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 7, 10, 13, 14
Available on: Lessons In Love: The Collection

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Sly Fox 'Let's Go All The Way'

Chart Peak: 3


Originally charted back in May, climbed steadily at first and then raced to No 3 by 15th July

I'm not sure whether the big crashing sythesised drums and the weirdly disembodied semi-human voice chanting "zhum zhum zinny zinny" are supposed to represent the soul-crushing daily urban life that this song is supposed to be about escaping from, or whether they just thought you had to sound like that to get played on the radio in the mid-eighties. Either way, the production (complete with wacky stereo effects) is probably the most interesting element of this record, which fails to live up to its title: somehow it never quite seems to get into gear once it's started.

The chorus is catchy enough that it's not surprising that this became a major hit:  I thought I remembered the song but like a lot of songs from this time, it's blander than I thought. Evidently, for all its success it didn't seem to build up much of an audience for their other singles or the album, all of which sank without trace. I've never been to New York City, by the way, but I don't think it really resembles an applecore.

Available on: This Is... 1986

Thursday, 2 June 2011

UB40 'Sing Our Own Song'

Chart Peak:

The follow-up to 'Don't Break My Heart' had sped to No. 6 by 15th July after just two weeks on release.
The title seems almost like a joke given the band's success with cover versions, but this is a self-composed song which sounds like an attempt to return to the socially-conscious roots of their earliest material. I'd forgotten the song until I played it and then it sounded vaguely familiar but it's not one that seems to have been played much in the last 25 years or so.

I'm not that surprised it's not more remembered though, as it does seem to run out of steam very early on and plods for most of the 3:53 that this single edit lasts: apparently the album cut runs more than seven minutes but I decided that would be beyond the call of duty.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 4, 6, 9, 13, 17, 18, 26, 41, 56
Available on: The Very Best Of

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Peter Gabriel 'Sledgehammer'

Chart Peak: 4


Hi-ho, it's back to the 1980s we go for the first time in what seems like ages. I've got quite a few eighties albums queued up here, but for now let's wind the clock back a quarter of a century (less a couple of months) with an album that's unique in the entire series for one reason that I shall reveal in due course.

Sleevenotes aren't quite as exciting here as they are the later albums of the 1990s, but let's plunge in to get a flavour of the style, and justify my 99p.
Peter's biggest hit since 'Games Without Frontiers' in March 1980, 'Sledgehammer' made No. 4 for 4 weeks in May/June 1986

Curiously, the notes don't mention the other notable achievement of this single: it was Gabriel's first (and so far only) US Number One single, which of course is one more than he's managed in his home country. Admittedly, this isn't really a qualification for inclusion on a UK compilation, but it'd seem like a point of interest to buyers. The other thing they don't mention is the video that's surely the first thing many of us think of when this song is mentioned: so much so that I contemplated looking for a YouTube link that didn't include it.
As this blog isn't about videos I don't intend to say much about it except that I do remember seeing a lot of it at the time, exceptionally so for the days when we only had four TV channels. I even remember seeing that bit at the start with the sperms, not that I knew that was what they were when I was eight.

By the same token, I didn't recognise what Gabriel was singing about - the song is a parade of more or less subtle sexual innuendos. Of course, the other effect of being the age I was is that I didn't know who he was, so I didn't expect him to be singing about hobbits or whatever early Genesis songs were supposed to be about. Nor did I know until much more recently that he was initially a reluctant singer who took to songwriting before performance: his vocal on this particular track is impressively direct, and though confident it's more like a soul singer than a rock frontman which makes the lyric rather more palatable. The music beneath it combines elements of jazz, African music and old-fashioned RnB in a way that is, with hindsight, not entirely unlike the sort of thing Talking Heads were doing around the same time. I went through a long phase of not liking this record, even giving away the copy of the single I bought by mistake, but I rather enjoy it now.

Also appearing on: Now 8, 23, 24
Available on: Shaking The Tree - Sixteen Golden Greats