Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Peter Gabriel masterpiece that divided critics and record labels

Peter Gabriel : Intruder

On May 30, 1980 Peter Gabriel released his third self-titled album. The NME's Nick Kent wrote of the album known as Melt by fans, "I don't expect to hear a better record all year". 

“I think that the third album was quite important for me in terms of really having a defining sound and the band coming through,"Gabriel says on his website. " It was the first record where I was clearly doing something different from what other people were doing."

Among the contributors: Peter Weller, Kate Bush, David Rhodes and drummers Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins who were prohibited from using cymbals. Listen to the huge reverb sound of the opening track "Intruder" that Collins and engineer Hugh Padgham worked out.

"I was certain it was a landmark drum sound," Gabriel told Mojo. "Now I get annoyed when people say I have copied Phil's sound."

He explains further on his website:

It was a very big and aggressive sound. So I then thought I’d build a track around it, which was the track Intruder. Phil Collins who I got in for that, then went on to take Hugh and work on his own record using a lot of those sounds, but there was a real sense of discovery when that first arrived.

The album wasn't released in America until months later on a new label Mercury Records. Gabriel tells writer Mark Blake Atlantic Records didn't believe the album was commercial.

"Ahmet Ertegun said, 'What do people in America care about this guy in South Africa?' and 'Has Peter been in a mental hospital?' because there was this very weird track called 'Lead a Normal Life'. They thought I'd had a breakdown and recorded a piece of crap ... I thought I'd really found myself on that record, and then someone just squashes it. I went through some primordial rejection issues. 

Robert Christgau gave the album a grade of B-, writing 

Either he doesn't know his own strengths or he underestimates his audience--or both.

And although he gave the album a 4 star review, Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh dismissed both "Games Without Frontiers" and "Biko"

His tribute to poet and black nationalist Steven Biko, who was apparently murdered by South African police, is a muddle. The melody and dynamics of “Biko” are irresistible, yet what Gabriel has to say is mainly sentimental.

UK critics were bigger fans. Ian Birch of Melody Maker called Melt " an album that will grow and resonate with every spin."

This review is from Smash Hits:

Here's Peter Gabriel on the anti-apartheid anthem ‘Biko’, which Gabriel hoped would have been a hit.

"Biko"became a very important song for me. I’d not written an overtly political song before and was wondering if it would be accepted… I had various doubts and Tom Robinson, who I’d got to know at the time, who was championing various causes, but the gay cause is what he was most identified with at the time, was really telling me that I should just steam ahead and do it anyway and put it out and that it didn’t matter really what people thought of my motives; if it got attention and money in the right direction. That, I think, put my mind at rest and later on I think it lead me towards some of the human rights stuff, which I’m still very much involved with today. So it was as much a thing that helped shape me as the other way round.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The bizarre mental illness that inspired Siouxsie and The Banshees' "Christine"

Siouxsie and the Banshees : Christine

On May 30, 1980 Siouxsie and the Banshees released their UK#23 hit "Christine" b/w "Eve White, Eve Black", based on the life of Christine Sizemore whose experiences with multiple personality disorder ( now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder)   also inspired The Three Faces of Eve

The Banshees consisted of an almost entirely new line-up after John McKay and Kenny Morris ditched the band during the Join Hands tour. In came drummer Budgie and guitarist John McGeoch who gave the band, in Siouxsie's words, " a new lease on life". 

The forth coming album Kaleidoscope would be the best selling of the band's effort so far, peaking at UK#5.

"Christine" even goes so far to name drop The Strawberry Girl and the Banana Split Lady, two of Sizemore's personalities. Bassist Steve Severin had read Sizemore's book I'm Eve detailing her battle with personalities competing to take over.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The album that should have made Graham Parker a household name

Graham Parker : No Holding Back

In May of 1980 Graham Parker released The Up Escalator,  his follow-up to the critical smash Squeezing Out Sparks.  With Jimmy Iovine producing, shortly after helming Tom Petty's Damn The Torpedoes and a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen, this should have been the album that made Parker a household name.  That's not what happened. The album peaked in the US at #40 and Parker ended his relationship with The Rumour, reportedly claiming that the band members were butchering his songs.

The album sounds like a watered down version of Squeezing Out Sparks. More like Squeezing Out the Last Cinders. Rolling Stone's Debra Rae Cohen was among the critics who voiced their disappointment with the muddy mix, the lack of spontaneity and cliched playing by studio musicians like Nicky Hopkins.

In addition to sabotaging songs. The Up Escalator‘s lackluster sound brutally exposes failures of performance, composition and nerve. This LP has an odd, slapdash feel. It’s as if, in belatedly attempting to reconstruct (rather than capture) Parker’s rough attack, Jimmy Iovine mistook sloppiness for soul and recorded an album of reference vocals.

Cohen says the Springsteen duet, "Endless Night", is one of the few things that works:

Springsteen enters the track — basically an uninteresting throwaway — in the middle of the second verse as though he’d suddenly wandered into the studio. But that demystifying haphazardness — and the just-singing-along irrelevance of Springsteen’s harmonies — give the song a heady vulgarity and spontaneous exuberance that the rest of the record totally lacks.

Some critics like the album, including David Hepworth of Smash Hits:

The Up Escalator, which finished #26 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll a year after Sparks at topped the list, wouldn't be Parker's only release of 1980. He also published his first novel, The Great Trouser Mystery

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Young Marble Giants recorded the last song you need to hear before the world ends

Young Marble Giants : Final Day

Released in May of 1980, Young Marble Giant's "Final Day" didn't make my list of 1980's most anxious songs about nuclear warfare, only because I'm still learning here. I spent the better part of 1980 trying to survive life in a boarding school in an area where only one FM rock station signal could be dialed in and they certainly weren't playing Young Marble Giants. 

It may be the year's most haunting single, in large part because of Alison Statton's matter-of-fact delivery.

When the rich die last
Like the rabbits
Running from a lucky past
Full of shadow cunning
And the world lights up
For the final day
We will all be poor
Having had our say
 Put a blanket up on the window pane
When the baby cries lullaby again
As the light goes out on the final day
For the people who never had a say
There is so much noise
There is too much heat
And the living floor
Throws you off your feet
As the final day falls into the night
There is peace outside In the narrow light

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Roxy Music hits #1 with Flesh + Blood

Roxy Music : Oh Yeah

On May 23, 1980 Roxy Music released Flesh + Blood, another collection of stylish dance songs and trance-inducing grooves that give Ferry room to croon about a lost love as tears drip down his cheeks and drop-PLIP!-into his champagne glass.

At the start of the tour for the preceding album, Manifesto, drummer Paul Thompson broke his thumb in a motorcycle accident and,  just like that, he was out of the band. Only the trio of Ferry, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay remained. Here they are supplemented by session men for an album that would be Roxy's second to top the UK charts. ( Siren was the first.)

The chart success happened despite critics who found Flesh + Blood, and its two covers, a bit thin on substance.

"Flesh + Blood is such a shockingly bad Roxy Music record that it provokes a certain fascination," wrote Rolling Stone's Ken Tucker, who saved his most biting criticism for the singer:

 Perhaps he’s just being defensive, because if the rest of Roxy Music is as bored as they seem, Bryan Ferry sounds positively bound and gagged. The best he can do is add a little tension by muttering the lyrics through clenched teeth and a constricted throat. He seems to be trying to get his messages out to us without the other musicians hearing him.

From Smash Hits:

And from the Dean, who gave the album a grade of B:

Except maybe on "My Only Love"--imagine a song of that title written for (no, rejected by) Perry Como--this never sinks to their Liebschmerz-drenched nadir. But the secondhand funk is getting too easy to take. Much as I enjoy the languorous "Midnight Hour" and above-it-all "Eight Miles High," I always get suspicious when covers overwhelm originals.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Written in 15 minutes, this Korgis hit charted in 37 countries

The Korgis: Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime

On May 25, 1980 The Korgis' runaway hit  "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" debuted on the UK pop charts at #61. The single would chart in 37 countries peaking at UK#5 and #18 in the US.
Veterans of the 1970's eclectic art rock band Stackridge, songwriters Andy Davis and James Warren had teamed up again to try to write radio friendly pop songs. Their first hit was a year earlier with "If I Had You". 

In an interview with Songwriting Magazine, Warren says the song was written in fifteen minutes:

It was a Sunday morning and I had a piano in the flat that I lived in at the time. Every day I would try and come up with an idea for a song. I couldn’t really play the piano, I can find a note and there were certain chord shapes that I grew to like – I knew what they were from my guitar playing. So with that song, I started with a C#m7 shape and immediately started singing ‘Change your heart…’ and thought that sounded good.

The song was covered by all kinds of artists including Beck who covered a morose version for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The forgotten 1980 tune that shaped the Hip-Hop sound

Billy Squier : The Big Beat

In May of 1980, a year before he'd hit paydirt with "The Stroke", Billy Squier released "The Big Beat", the first single from his debut album, The Tale of the Tape. It didn't sell much but it's one of the most sampled songs in the history of hip hop. 

Big Daddy Kane told The New York Post :

 He’s definitely someone who helped mold and shape hip-hop with his music. I would put him in the category of James Brown, the Honeydrippers and Chic. He gave the B-boys and B-girls a track to dance to, but it would only be a DJ or an MC who knows who Billy Squier is.

Among the songs sampling "The Big Beat":

Beck - "Soul Suckin' Jerk"
Jay-Z – “99 Problems”
Kanye West and Pusha T – “Looking for Trouble”
Dizzee Rascal – “Fix Up, Look Sharp”

Nas featuring – “Hip Hop is Dead”
Puff Daddy – “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”
A Tribe Called Quest – “We Can Get Down”
Big Daddy Kane – “Put Your Weight On It,” “Get Down,” “Ain’t No Half Steppin,” “The Beef Is On” and “3 Forties and a Bottle of Moet”
Ice Cube – “Jackin’ for Beats”
Alicia Keys – “Girl on Fire”

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “Magic Carpet Ride”
Whistle - I Am (1992)
Run-D.M.C – “Here We Go”
Unkle – “The Knock”
UTFO – "Roxanne, Roxanne"
Red Hot Chili Peppers – "Higher Ground (X-Ecutioners Remix)"

Billy Squier in 2019

Friday, May 22, 2020

"Over You" gives Roxy Music another UK Top 5 hit

 Roxy Music : Over You

On May 19, 1980 Roxy Music's new single "Over You" made its UK chart debut at #18, on its way to peaking at UK#5. The song, from the forthcoming Flesh and Blood, emerged from a two man jam, according to guitarist Phil Manzanera:

In 1979, I had just built my first recording studio and I rang up Bryan and asked if he’d like to check it out. We decided to have a jam together, Bryan on bass and me on guitar with a rhythm box. Within five minutes we had written this track and it reached number three in the charts.

The song begins a bit like something by The Cars, with a bass and handclaps, but then becomes another of Ferry's songs of lost romance. Ferry admitted to Smash Hits that it was a favorite theme of his:

It's always a great theme, that, but I have written a lot of non-love songs compared with many people, so I don't feel guilty about it, as long as they're not too corny or banal.

Ever since I was a kid I listened to a lot of blues. If that's my role in life, to be a singer of sad songs, I don't really mind, because most of the things I write are emotional pieces of music that require emotional themes.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"We Are Glass" provides Gary Numan with another UK #5 hit

Gary Numan : We Are Glass

In May of 1980 Gary Numan released the UK#5 single "We Are Glass", a song that marks the return of electric guitars to his sound. Numan plays the crunchy guitar himself. What's the song about? Numan said in a 1981 radio interview

"Somebody once told me, a man from (the science magazine) Omni, said that he thought I'd been put here by ... something ... aliens or something, to carry out a cause ... which I thought was very flattering but a little silly. ... 'We Are Glass' I wrote because of that, y'know, like all pop stars are put here for reasons."

Numan would soon tire of his Numanoid look, complaining that he felt like an extra in Star Wars, ( in 2017 that no longer seemed to bother him) and reading  reviews like this one in Smash Hits:

The surprising B-side of "We Are Glass" is the first movement of Erik Satie's "Trois Gymnopedies,"originally composed in 1888,  in an arrangement that added guitar, bass and synthesizer to the original's solo piano part. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

"Whip It" cracks Devo's Freedom of Choice into the US Top 30

Devo : Whip It

On May 14 1980, Devo released its third album, Freedom of Choice, which featured their biggest hit, at US#14, "Whip It".  The album marks Devo's transformation into a nearly all electronic outfit, with the help of co-producer Robert Margouleff, famous for his synthesizer work in Tonto's Expanding Head Band and with Stevie Wonder. 

The band also introduced a new look featuring its red plastic energy domes, which are apparently making a comeback during the pandemic as is the notion of freedom of choice. As Mark Mothersbaugh recalls:

 "We were influenced both by German Bauhaus movement and geometric fashion, and Aztec temples. We just liked the look. It looked good, and it didn't look like any other bands out there. We weren't interested in wearing groovy hats or groovy clothing. We kind of looked like Lego toys or something by the time we got those on our heads, and that was a positive thing."


Some critics seemed to appreciate the music more than on he sophomore album New Traditionalists Here's Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who graded the album a B+ :

Hey now, don't blame me--I insulted them every chance I got back when your roommate still thought they might be Important. But now that that's taken care of itself we can all afford to giggle. Robot satire indeed--if they ever teach a rhythm box to get funky, a Mothersbaugh will be there to plug it in.

But others didn't care for the smug joke that Devo had been telling for so many years:

 Rolling Stone's Laura Fissinger said the band was "creepy" and "uncomfortable":

And we’re supposed to take this stuff straight? C’mon! The adenoidal lead vocals sound like they’re being delivered while held at arm’s length, as Devo’s mechanically pitched rhythms click in coldly all around them. When the band heats up or the singer sounds like someone’s actually inhabiting his vocal chords or a thick, loud guitar forces its way to the forefront, there’s a momentary ring of truth. It just doesn’t happen often enough to eradicate the record’s suspicious emptiness. 

Doesn’t everyone feel dumb enough about love without encouragement from a bunch of guys with red flowerpots on their heads?

On May 23, Devo performed two songs on ABC's Fridays, "Gates of Steel" and "Girl U Want", which was the first single from the album.  Revisiting the album and Devo websites have led me to my favorite of the face masks so far,:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The English Beat releases a debut that ranks among the best ever

The English Beat : Best Friend

In May of 1980 The English Beat released I Just Can't Stop It, their critically acclaimed debut album and a UK#3 hit. The album still thrills decades later with four memorable singles, Tears Of a Clown ( UK#6) , Hands Off...She's Mine ( UK#9) Mirror In The Bathroom (UK#4), and Best Friend (UK#22).

Shocking to think they had only been together a little more than a year. The band was smart enough to found their own label, Go-Feet, which served as a buffer between The Beat and the major labels and gave the band the right to choose not just what singles they'd be releasing but the artwork. The  dancing girl is a nod to the young women who had come to see their shows.

The album thrilled critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone's Frank Rose wrote:

"They may be primitive, but they certainly aren't simple. I Just Can't Stop It is the most exhilarating surprise from Britain since Marianne Faithfull's Broken English."

The Village Voice's Robert Chrtistgau gave the album a grade of A-, writing:

Known simply as the Beat in England, and rightly so--their ska is deep and driven. Thank drummer Everett Martin, born St. Kitt's 1951, with roots from reggae to Armatrading, and bassist David Steele, born Isle of Wight 1960, who's parlayed the usual classical training into a rhythm kid's twist and crawl. That's a title, of course, naming a bass line that moved more feet than anything Bernard Edwards came up with in 1980. Riding atop the full frontal velocity are two lean, warm, modest voices, almost indistinguishable until Ranking Roger turns up the accent. Hidden below it are songs, most of them by covocalist David Wakeling. Lyric of the electoral year: "Stand Down Margaret."

And this from Smash Hits:

Monday, May 18, 2020

Remembering Ian Curtis

Joy Division : Twenty Four Hours

On May 18, 1980 Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis took his own life at the age of 23, leaving behind a wife, a child and a musical legacy that has only grown over time. Curtis had been suffering from depression and epilepsy.

This post is hardly the only remembrance of this sad day. Peter Hook is marking the anniversary by streaming a 2015 gig in which he played every Joy Division song with his band The Light. The show will debut online across both Joy Division’s and The Light’s Youtube and Facebook channels. Although it will be free, fans are asked to make a donation to The Epilepsy Society.

Hook’s fellow surviving Joy Division bandmates Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris will also be hosting an event to celebrate Curtis. The  free online event, ‘Moving Through the Silence: Celebrating The Life and Legacy of Ian Curtis’, will raise money for the Manchester mental health charity Manchester Mind and help mark the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week.

As Hook relates in his memoir Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division was getting ready to tour America, home to Curtis' favorite bands The Doors, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. (Pop's The Idiot is apparently the last album Curtis ever heard.)

So, yes, I drove him home that Friday night and he was cock-a-hoop, full of it. We’d had a great practice and I was dropping him off. We were laughing and joking and every now and then one of us would go, ‘I can’t believe we’re fucking going to America!’ We were screaming in the car, jumping up and down on the seats, properly shouting, whooping, hollering: ‘Yeah! America!’
No ‘rather die’ about it.
This was on the Friday night. We were due to leave after the weekend. If the silly bugger hadn’t killed himself we would have been on a plane to America on Monday. If he’d known all along that he planned to kill himself, as some say he did, was he just putting it on, all that excitement? Was he that good an actor?

A last second addition to a Smash Hits issue in May of 1980

As it has been pointed out many times, the lyrics of the forthcoming album, Closer, read like suicide notes to bandmates.  In "Twenty-Four Hours", Curtis sings

Just for one moment, thought I'd found my way. 
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.

Looked beyond the day in hand, there's nothing there at all. 
Now that I've realized how it's all gone wrong, 
Gottas find some therapy, this treatment takes too long. 
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway, 
Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late.


Sunday, May 17, 2020

The near death experience that rejuvenated John Lennon

On May 11, 1980 John Lennon performed "Oh Yoko" from Cold Spring Harbor where he had taken up residence at his beach house, Cannon Hill, with Sean and two assistants while Yoko was secretly going cold turkey and coping with heroin withdrawal symptoms. It looks just like a hundred in-home performances by artists staying isolated from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In any case, it was here on Long Island, where Lennon would buy a yacht and set about learning to sail.

In early June he would set off on a harrowing 630-mile sailing adventure. He would tell Playboy about the storm in which he had to take the wheel while the crew dealt with sea sickness.

“I was there driving the boat for six hours, keeping it on course. I was buried under water . . . smashed in the face by waves for six solid hours. It won’t go away. You can’t change your mind. It’s like being on stage; once you’re on, there’s no getting off. A couple of the waves had me on my knees. I was just hanging on with my hands on the wheel . . . and I was having the time of my life. I was screaming sea shanties and shouting at the gods! I felt like a Viking . . . or Jason and the Golden Fleece.”

The adventure rejuvenated Lennon and his creative spirit. He would soon begin writing songs again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The great American composer who inspired a UK Top 40 hit by Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel : No Self Control

On May 11, 1980 Peter Gabriel's new single "No Self Control" entered the UK charts at #58. The song, released weeks before Gabriel's third album Melt, would peak at UK#33. Inspired by the sounds of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, and recorded with Robert Fripp, Phil Collins and Kate Bush, the song has been described as "a compelling construct of synths and riffs, of hooks and descent, echoes and loops, beautifully structured and subtly aggressive," by Quietus writer Chris Roberts 

As for the Reich influence, Gabriel cops to it on his website:

One of the other influences at that time was some of the ‘Systems Music’ that was beginning to evolve. Steve Reich had done this wonderful record called ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians’, which involved marimbas and I think, of all the ‘systems’ composers, his work had a lot of textures and colours and grooves to them that I really responded to. So I tried to involve elements of that in the work. I also worked with a wonderful percussionist Morris Pert and ‘No Self Control’ would be one track, which integrated some of those things and a band sound as well.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Reinvention of Grace Jones leads to a UK Top 20 hit

Grace Jones : Private Life

On May 9, 1980 the six-foot tall Jamaican fashion model turned disco queen Grace Jones released her breakthrough album, the decidedly reggae-flavored new wave Warm Leatherette, featuring covers of songs by The Pretenders ("Private Life") , The Normal ("Warm Leatherette") , Roxy Music ("Love Is The Drug") , and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ("Breakdown"). 

Jones told Mary Harmon of Smash Hits:

I think people were waiting for me to do something different. I knew that I liked reggae and I wanted to mix it in, using a more aggressive sound. I like things to be either very aggressive or very hypnotic. I like the intensity that comes from being very controlled.

Here's what Chrissie Hynde wrote about this version of "Private Life", which peaked at UK#17.

Like all the other London punks, I wanted to do reggae, and I wrote "Private Life". When I first heard Grace's version I thought 'Now that's how it's supposed to sound!' In fact it was one of the high points of my career - what with Sly and Robbie being the masters, and Grace Jones with her scorching delivery. Someone told me it was Chris Blackwell's idea - thanks Chris!

The B-side: a cover of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control"

The album was recorded at Compass Point Studios in The Bahamas with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

 What makes it work? The juxtaposition of Jones' alien look and voice against the deeply felt reggae vibe.  She would repeat the formula to greater effect with 1981's Nightclubbing, selected as NME's Album of the Year.

Fun fact: Tom Petty wrote a third stanza for Grace Jones' version of "Breakdown". 

"It's OK if you must go / I'll understand if you don't / You say goodbye right now / I'll still survive somehow / Why should we let this drag on?"

Friday, May 8, 2020

Pulling Mussels: Another Sexually Obsessed Hit by Squeeze

Squeeze : Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)

  On May 9, 1980 Squeeze released its classic Argybargy single "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)" b/w "What The Butler Saw", a UK#44 that recalls lyricist Chris Difford's youth at a seaside resort in Margate. 

Difford tells Songfacts

 "We stayed in the caravan at a holiday camp. There was a club there where bands played and the song reflects that atmosphere of the traditional working class 'get away from it all' weekend. It was the first time I had really looked up into the sky to see what it was like. It was a beautiful dark sky and it felt amazing to be away from London." 

The phrase "pulling mussels" is British slang for sexual intercourse, mainly used in England, bringing more attention to the line "I feel like William Tell /Maid Marian on her tiptoed feet. Even so, both Glenn Tilbrook and Jools Holland could have pulled muscles with those dynamite solos.

Here's what Smash Hits had to say:

Thursday, May 7, 2020

John Peel breaks The Thompson Twins by playing a song you've probably never heard

Thompson Twins : Squares and Triangles

On May 5 1980, John Peel played the debut single of a promising new band called Thompson Twins.  "Squares and Triangles" was the work of a five-piece band led by Tom Bailey.

With the addition of Joe Leeway and Alannah Curie, Bailey's band, now a trio, would score a string of major US and UK hits beginning in 1982 with songs like "Hold Me Now", "Lies", "Doctor! Doctor!" and "You Take Me Up".

Thompson Twins in 1980, with Tom Bailey second from the left.

And in 1983: