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An album isn’t just for Christmas…

22 Dec

My favourite Christmas album. Try it, it’ll get you right in the mood.

Christmas is coming, so I hope you’re all prepared and making merry in whatever way you most like, whatever your beliefs or proclivities. It’s been a fraught month of hard work and hard luck over here, but the tinsel covered juggernaut that is Christmas is thundering my way, so best to cheer up and get on with it I think. What better activity then, than debating some choice music? No festive tunes though, I have to say.

So, I’ve just read NME’s top albums of the year and as usual decided that either I’m slightly out of touch or the NME just like promoting bands that most of us wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. To be honest though, there’s some good stuff in there (The Arctic Monkey’s AM was their top choice, incidentally, although that’s more my nephew’s sort of thing these days). I’m personally hoping for Daft Punk and Laura Marling for Christmas (their albums, not a personal appearance).

Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and love ABBA.

30 Jul


As a child, although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, music was a contentious subject in my family. At an age where I didn’t think of such things, my parents had already pitched their flag in the cultural landscape of conservative (in a political as well as musical sense). In this middle of the road, anything from the mid ‘60s onwards was often viewed with an element of suspicion. If a music artist was male and had a good classic voice, they were acceptable to my mother’s ears (Tom Jones was about as radical as she got). The Beatles, incidentally, where shunned, and still are, no matter how many accolades they get. My Dad’s taste was broader, but his nostalgic affinity with the ‘40s Big Band sound eclipsed any possible awareness of then current sounds. The counter cultural revolution of the late ‘60s was the epitome of everything wrong with the younger crowd. Older than the average parents for my generation, Mum and Dad’s entertainment tastes were firmly rooted in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

There was an exception, however; a contemporary music act who my parents happily tolerated, even if they rarely bought their music. I speak of a band with a name I could remember mainly as it was a simple and potentially meaningless moniker:  ABBA. Through some act of immunity, this artist’s music escaped the culture filter that parents often unknowingly surround their young children with. So this band came to my attention at a very young age, and became my first musical love. In honesty, their place in my affections has not dimmed in over thirty years, no matter how seriously or fervently I’ve pursued other musical attractions. They also rose above any other sounds I was hearing at that time, by pure virtue of their unique qualities; qualities that at such an impressionable age are likely to cause a second listen. They sounded harmonious, catchy and oddly different. I didn’t really know what the female voices were singing about either, except it sounded vaguely glamorous and grown up, sometimes slightly forbidden. Only now, do I appreciate how adult ABBA are. They didn’t concern themselves much with the usual deviant topics of rock n’ roll, but rather the more mature themes of marriage, divorce and sometimes (let’s be frank) sex. However, by ‘sex’ I mean the grown up responsible kind, not usually the kind the likes of AC/DC may have been screaming enthusiastically about. Still, ABBA could do frisky. ABBA aren’t obviously the most sexual group out there, but listen to the Glam rock stomp of “Rock me”. They’re not singing about ordering pizza. Elsewhere, the group could actually be downright silly. Whereas “Summer Night City” positively reeks of beer and sex, the likes of “Bang-A-Boomerang” tread a bold lyrical path on the edge of the ludicrous. Continue reading

The generation who had a new explanation. Remembering the decade I never knew…Destination Sixties.

24 Feb


I didn’t live through the 1960s; I wasn’t even born during that decade and yet that era has had such a big impact on me that I feel I should share some thoughts on the subject. Of course this is where I should define exactly what the subject is. One decade is a fairly big subject; and just what aspect of a ten year period am I considering and is it really ten years. Is it really so clear cut?

To be precise, I’m talking about the Sixties as a creative influence, a constant reference for what has come afterwards in the Arts. It’s an odd thing, since nobody ever taught me that there was something ‘special’ about the 1960s in the context of the 20th century, although that would appear to be the latter day suggestion- I kind of taught myself that truth. If indeed it is one. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s involved lots of good cultural reference points for one to reminisce about in later yeas, but the ‘70s seemed grimmer and more about ‘making do’. Like the morning after a great party. Or is that just the way I chose to see it? Continue reading

You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you look awful…you’ll go a long way! (Childhood memories of early ’80s pop).

18 Oct

The early 1980s were an odd time for pop music. There’s a common train of thought that it normally chugs its way through the station marked “Craptown”. But, I have to argue, it isn’t all true. Now, before I continue, I have to say nothing with regard to music winds me up more than ‘80s revisionists. What was embarrassing and without worth in 1981 is going to be pretty much the same thirty years later, perhaps more so. Then again, some things have a kind of period charm (as they often do), like Toyah’s haircuts and dress sense, for example. Alright, so you’re not with me on that one, but you get the idea.

Now, there was some very innovative stuff going on in the post-punk era, no doubt about that. However, that’s not to say a lot of commercial pop music in the early ‘80s was bloody awful; synthetic, irony free and badly written. Oddly these are some of the reasons why some of it is actually quite good, almost deserving respect due to its brash sense of the audacious. Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” couldn’t be anymore crap if it called itself “Kids in Milton Keynes”, but somehow it works. But some producers knew how to take cheese and add it to a really good omelette, so to speak. Giorgio Moroder springs to mind straight away. When he produced Blondie’s “Call me” he had a good group and a good song to work with, so perhaps he was usually just lucky. It’s also telling that there was something of a ‘60s revival in the early ‘80s, as well as this era being the aftermath of Punk. So what you got, quite often, was a bizarre combination of classic pop sensibility, to get clichéd, with often shockingly inappropriate and experimental electronics. Continue reading

Same Old New Musical Express? Happy 60th birthday to a pop cultural print legend.

26 Sep

The NME is 60 years old. Having recently experienced further dips in readership numbers and increasingly concentrating on ‘heritage’ acts as much as new talent (Lennon, Bowie, Blondie  The Ramones and The Sex Pistols have all featured on the cover in the last 12 months), the magazine has been struggling to remain relevant and vital and also to support the ‘New’ of the title.

As the new issue reveals, with a host of old faces talking about their experience of the magazine, it is a seminal British music paper (and has survived, where its old rival Melody Maker has not). With the glossy music magazines like Q also losing sales, it will be interesting how the NME continues to evolve. Written in 2003 for another web site, here are my views from those nine years ago on the magazine’s then state of affairs (in my humble opinion). Has much changed?. Continue reading

The 1988 Top Forty- Girls on Top.

14 Apr

Girls on Top!

Best NOW ever. Maybe.

There are few summers as hot and as fuelled by Pop as those very few, special ones from years gone by. One such summer I remember was 1995, the other was 1988.

I’ll come back to 1995 another day as discussion of 1988 complements my current penchant for ‘80s memories very nicely, thank you very much. The hits of the late ‘80s had a refreshingly sunny disposition about them. On further thought, I have to admit some of them seem more vacant and uncreative than anything released in the early part of that decade. Most of them seemed to feature horrible tinny drum machines. Not to mention plenty of film samples of people shouting “Aye-Yeahhh!!!” and “This is a journey into sound…S-s-s-s-terophonic sound!”

After 18 months certain trends can really get on your wick, I can tell you.

The late 80s TOTP logo- an assault on the eyes.

I always think of 1988 being the year when the single started to die. By the end of 1989 New Kids on the block managed a number one hit on the least copies since the chart began. In 1991 Iron Maiden made another dubious record by spending the last weeks on the chart with a number one single. But then again, that was due to Maiden’s  loyal (but finite) fan base pushing them up there in the first place, creating the 5 week chart wonder that was Bring your daughter (to the slaughter).

But in 1988 the single still ruled, but the signs were there that big changes were afoot. The bands that had held the charts in their grip had let go by then. The boys were struggling. Duran Duran did have a top twenty album and single later that year, but it felt like an anomaly that already had the feeling of a first revival. A-ha, who had been massive from ’85-‘87, were producing sub-standard cheese like Touchy. Wham! had disbanded in 1986 and by ’88 George Michael was making records that were probably more worthy but generally not as fun. Speaking of Iron Maiden, they scored one of their biggest hits in 1988 (Can I play with madness), followed by two more top ten hits. They were like a ridiculous Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack, and that’s no insult. They were loud, bombastic fun, and its brilliant that a piece of heavy metal brilliance could share chart space with Brother Beyond…if you don’t remember them, for your own good, don’t try too hard. Please, don’t!

If you remember 88, youll remember being sick of the sight of these two.

The big difference about the charts in 1988 was that they were overrun with teenage girls. Remember them? In the absence of Madonna (in her first full year of chart sabattical) the kids took over- Neighbours era Kylie, Vanessa Paradis, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, to be followed by Sonia the next year. Also, Bananarama were having a reversal of fortune, Patsy Kensit was in the top ten with her ‘band’ Eighth Wonder, and Sinitta was still around. This was the time of contrived, conveyer belt pop. You always have that to a degree, but The X-Factor has nothing on these guys. The main ingredients were pretty girls and catchy tunes, with the difference in ’88 being that few of the girls were over the age of 20. There were exceptions of course. Belinda Carlisle was a lot older, and a lot sexier, had better tunes than most, and in the absence of Madonna had very little competition in the woman stakes (even Carol Decker’s band T’pau struggled chartwise in ’88). Also, Tracey and Melissa from Voice of the Beehive were both in their 20s, and fronting a real band with real intruments and  displaying influences that suggested they might actually have a record collection at home. Infact being blonde and in front of several blokes with guitars was a sure fire way to get into the charts in ’88, if you were not a teenage pop puppet. Think of the Blondie template and you get the idea. Enter Transvision Vamp (with the gobby Wendy James), The Primitives and The Darling Buds (probably in that order of chart success). At any other time they would have struggled to have made a dent anywhere but the Indie charts and the NME, so this was a welcome change. Wendy James’ very public spats with Kylie Minogue livened up many a page of the teen music press that year. What was a bonus is that the three bands actually made good jingly jangly indie pop, with the exception of Transvision Vamp, who had pretentions of being a bit punk. They couldn’t pull it off though; they were as in it for the chart positions as anyone else and this wasn’t 1977, so saying you loved The Sex Pistols and The Clash meant little to the average 14 year old. But a year after The Smiths disbanded, the charts still needed some creative substance. Thankfully, Morrissey’s first few solo hits kept the fans from lamenting the band’s loss too much. NME said Suedehead was the best No.1 of 1988 that never was (in the event it made No.5, higher than any Smiths single). Eitherway, it found its way onto the playlist of discos at universities and polytechnics across the land.

Pop masquarading as punk, but it was great.

Morrissey gets used to being a bona fide top ten pop star.

Also, as far as discussion of girls was concerned, we can count Bros and Big Fun in there as well, as they certainly sang like girls. Rick Astley, on the other hand, had a deep voice, so I suppose we be sure he was all Man, even if his material was still sugary pap. The factory producing this sweet, aural toffee was that of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who produced much of the hit quotient that year. From 1987-89 it was like SAW were the milk chocolate covering the nougat filling of the top 40. Something over sweet like that, anyway.

Rick Astley and Derek B (remember him?!)

But niave looking pretty girls and boys were not the only thing going on at the time. There was also Sabrina, who certainly wasn’t niave and had a huge gravity defeying bosum that put the Smash Hits centrefold in danger of looking like underage porn. But I digress! 1988 is also often referred to as “The second Summer of Love”. For those completely ignorant of pop culture, this is a reference to 1967 when certain people took to wearing flowers in their hair, getting into Indian music and wearing kaftans. Some of them actually enjoyed doing this. I read that somewhere.

Those bring back memories.

Anyway, the connection between the two years was illicit drugs, albeit two notably different substances. To a then 14 year old, none of this would impact (personally) for another two or three years. But the seeds of the early ‘90s dance music scene were sown in the late ‘80s; and the drug known as ‘E’ became as synonymous with it as LSD had been with the hippies of the ‘60s.

In some ways the late ‘80s seem more synthetic than anything from the first half of the decade, and no drug ever seemed so synthetic than “E”. Yet for all this talk of drugs and the club scene, the change in the charts was more subtle. Foam parties may have been going on in Manchester but for most the city was the same as ever. But underground, beneath the SAW chocolate factory, a new revolution was starting and the heat of “Acid house” slowly began to melt their chart domination. By 1991 dance music normally heard in the clubs was rife in the charts, and SAW’s grip on the top ten had ended. Things had come a long way since the emergence of House music in the mid ‘80s.

Fac 51 Hacienda- a good night out in 88, but not if you were 14. I might have got in otherwise.

In the charts, during the summer of 1988, there were several hints of this sun soaked hedonism going on in Ibiza. Mark Moore’s S-Express scored a no.1 with The theme from… which was full of retrospective leanings. This marked the first sign that the 1970s were going to be troubling us again, but was quite welcome for my generation. Nostalgia sells. Bill Drummond’s outfit, which would soon become The KLF, materialised (pun intended) as The Timelords, who blatantly sampled the Doctor Who theme tune and got it to No.1. Ironic, as at the time the actual TV series couldn’t even get arrested. D-Mob and Salt n’ Pepa also were making ridiculous noises in a slightly fashionable way, but by the autumn even the rappers were back to being fairly uncontrovertial, for a while at least. The Wee papa girl rappers were certainly not Public Enemy. A new mainstream hope did appear though, in the shape of the wonderful Neneh Cherry.


I don’t really have a point to reminising about 1988, apart from to say the memories are fairly vivid and so was the music. Most of the chart fodder was so cheesy, I’m surprised the NOW compilation covers don’t have holes in them.

Yet most of it is quite charming and always cheery. But most of it would drive you insane if you had to endure it, Chinese water torture style. Still, it’s a time when pop had found a magic formula and felt no reason to cast any other spell. So what if they all sounded the same? When the boys had been relugated to second place, it was the girls that were on top.

I think a lot of people quite liked that.

Before Liam, before "Holby City" and "Emmerdale"...she was on my wall.