Sunday, January 31, 2021

The NME cassette release that changed everything


On January 31, 1981, NME joined Rough Trade in releasing  C-81, a cassette made up of songs by a variety of artists... from well known at the time ( The Specials, Buzzcocks, The Beat, Ian Dury) to well known within a year or two ( Scritti Politti, Aztec Camera ). Only two songs from the 24 track collection had been previously available ( Orange Juice's "Blue Boy" and James Blood Ulmer's "Jazz Is The Teacher, Funk Is The Preacher"). An inexpensive way to discover new bands, all you had to do was clip this week's coupon and the one from next week's NME and send them with one pound fifty. More than 25,000 were sold.

In May of 1981 C-81 went on general sale but some labels refused to re-license the tracks.

Who could possible complain? British music writer Simon Reynolds could. He called it "post punk's swan song", noting the appearance of three acts from Scottish independent label Postcard Records (Aztec Camera, Josef K and Orange Juice),  the emerging new pop tendency of bands such as Linx and Scritti Politti,  and that NME stopped publishing the Garageland column in the very same month that C81 went on general sale, an acknowledgement that the DIY cassette culture movement was on the wane.

In the years that followed many music mags gave away cassettes or CDs as incentives to buy the magazines. Some still do. 

Looking at you, MOJO.

Track listing
A1 Scritti Politti - The "Sweetest Girl"6:09 
A2 The Beat - Twist and Crawl Dub4:58 
A3 Pere Ubu - Misery Goats2:26 
A4 Wah! Heat - 7,000 Names of Wah!3:57 
A5 Orange Juice - Blue Boy2:52 
A6 Cabaret Voltaire - Raising the Count3:32 
A7 D.A.F. - Kebabträume [Live]3:50 
A8 Furious Pig - Bare Pork1:28 
A9 The Specials - Raquel1:56 
A10 Buzzcocks - I Look Alone3:00 
A11 Essential Logic - Fanfare in the Garden3:00 
A12 Robert Wyatt - Born Again Cretin3:07 

B1 The Raincoats - Shouting Out Loud3:19 
B2 Josef K - Endless Soul2:27 
B3 Blue Orchids - Low Profile3:47 
B4 Virgin Prunes - Red Nettle2:13 
B5 Aztec Camera - We Could Send Letters4:57 
B6 Red Crayola - Milkmaid2:01 
B7 Linx - Don't Get in My Way5:15 
B8 The Massed Carnaby St. John Cooper Clarkes - The Day My Pad Went Mad1:46 
B9 James Blood Ulmer - Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher4:03 
B10 Ian Dury - Close to Home4:13 
B11 The Gist - Greener Grass2:32 
B12 Vic Godard & Subway Sect - Parallel Lines2:38 
B13 John Cooper Clarke - 81 Minutes0:13

Friday, January 29, 2021

These Ohio pirates take a fantastic voyage to number one

Lakeside : Fantastic Voyage

At the end of January, 1981, Lakeside, a Dayton, Ohio band made of up of funk music veterans who had just taken to dressing up like pirates onstage, hit #1 on the Billboard R&B charts with "Fantastic Voyage". 

Tailormade for the dance floor, the song combines elements of Parliament, The Gap Band and  disco rapping. The song would peak at US#55 on the pop charts before Coolio heavily sampled the song in 1994, taking his version to US#3.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

XTC's Colin Moulding : My All Time Top 10

XTC : Love At First Sight

XTC's Colin Moulding reveals some of his own psychedelic ( and glittery) influences in the top 10 list he provided Smash Hits for the January 22, 1981 issue. At the time "Sgt Rock" was leaping up the UK charts from #54 to #34 where it would soon meet a pack of posthumous John Lennon singles. (There were four in the UK Top 40).



Monday, January 25, 2021

The Passions Are In Love With A German Film Star

The Passions : I'm In Love With A German Film Star

In January 1981, The Passions released their only hit, "I'm in Love With a German Film Star". which peaked at UK #25.According to Polydor Records producer Peter Wilson, "It was a song that almost seemed to write itself". The music weeklies declared the song "Single of the Week", and it was named "Peoples Choice" on Capital Radio. This led to the Feb 5 appearance on Top of The Pops. Next came a tour supporting Roxy Music.

 Bassist David Agar remembers it like this: ‘Clive (Timperley, guitarist)  and I were jamming a three chord idea, more out of boredom than anything. Richard (Williams)  was sitting at his drums smoking, probably worrying about something. Clive and I got bored of playing but Barbara (Gogan, vocalist)  said she liked the chords and to keep on playing. Barbara wrote some words. “I’m in love with a German film star” she said. Richard stopped smoking and looked very excited. “That’s a hit single” he said. That observation gave us the confidence to persevere. The rest of it took about 20 minutes and then we went and had a cup of tea’.

 However Barbara remembers that the words to the first verse came into her head while talking to Budgie at the Moonlight Club the previous night, writing them on a scrap of paper in the club’s toilet and then producing it at the rehearsal. The band recorded a John Peel session shortly afterwards, slipping his name into the chorus of the song.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Elvis Costello has Trust issues

Elvis Costello : Strict Time

"Four Eyes. One Vision," says the full page Billboard Magazine ad for Trust, Elvis Costello's new album released January 23, 1981. 

Costello has called Trust “easily the most drug-influenced record of my career.” As he writes in the liner notes, “It was completed close to a self-induced nervous collapse on a diet of rough ‘scrumpy’ cider, gin and tonic, various powders, only one of which was ‘Andrews’ Liver Salts,’ and in the final hours, Seconal and Johnny Walker Black Label.”

I find Trust to be a difficult album in which to immerse myself. There are some instant classics here, surrounded by much lesser fare than we're used to. Costello is more confident, but that's less interesting to me. And I can do without the vibrato he's so keen on displaying.

Earlier working titles were "Cats and Dogs" and "More Songs About Fucking and Fighting". There are some violent images in the album, as Costello notes in his memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink:

“I collected most of the other images for “Clubland,” “Pretty Words,” and “White Knuckles” during the Get Happy tour of England, where the offer of violence never seemed very far away. 
The “carnival desires” in “Watch Your Step” were just a picturesque way of saying that you might have to choose between chasing the wrong girl and avoiding gangs of lads shouting abuse and spewing into the gutters. 

Kicking in the car chrome 
Drinking down the eau de cologne 
Spitting out the Kodachrome”.

Costello experiments with different styles of music, from country to rockabilly, from soul to tin pan alley.  At the time critics thought the album featuring "Watch Your Step" might have been a misstep,  now it is considered Costello's "White Album", an overlooked masterpiece. 

Recording began in the Fall of 1980 with Nick Lowe returning to the console board. Here, for the first time, the album is filled out with a few throwaways. Songs that seem to go nowhere. "Big Sister's Clothes", "Luxembourg", and "Shot With His Own Gun" do nothing for me. I feel like we've heard "Fish N Chip Paper" before. At the time, I never would have guess Costello's flirtation with country on "Different Finger" would be followed by Almost Blue, an abysmal album of country songs.

Most albums peak right at the top, but Trust saves its best songs for the middle of the album, when "Watch Your Step" is followed by "New Lace Sleeves" and "From A Whisper To a Scream", featuring a guest vocal from Squeeze frontman and songwriter Glenn Tilbrook as well as a guitar part from ex-Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont. In return, Costello agreed to produces Squeeze's next album ,1981's East Side Story

Regarding Trust Costello has said “That’s a good record. I think it has one of the greatest Attractions performances, ‘New Lace Sleeves.’” Fans will agree, but if you already have the Girls Girls Girls compilation, you've already got the best songs on the album. 

Trust did surprisingly well in the 1981 album-of-the-year polls; in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll, it finished a close third, right behind the Clash’s Sandinista! and X’s Wild Gift. The album finished #1 on the Trouser Press list #2 on Melody Maker's list and #7 on NME's list.

Clearly 1981 is no 1980.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Phil Seymour steps out of Dwight Twilley's shadow with a power pop gem

Phil Seymour : Precious To Me

After spending years as the other guy in the Dwight Twilley Band ("I'm On Fire", "Looking For The Magic") bass player and drummer Phil Seymour released his first solo album on a label he shared with the likes of Harry Chapin and Carole Bayer Sager.

"I don't fit in," Seymour told Trouser Press," and that's good. It makes me feel special, and I'm secure that I'm not going to get shelved. This company (Neil Bogart's Boardwalk Records) needs and wants the kind of new wave reputation I bring.

"I don't want them to put Dwight Twilley after my name anymore. When I wasn't getting the recognition  I should have, I knew the karma was going to work for me sooner or later. And you know what? I like seeing my name in there finally"

"Precious to Me", the first single from the album, written by Seymour, reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending March 28, 1981. It also went to #3 in Australia, where it was certified gold.

His debut doesn't deserve its obscurity. It is one of the great power pop gems of the 1980's.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Ultravox's atmospheric "Vienna" is one of 1981's most surprising UK hits

Ultravox : Vienna

In January of 1981, Ultravox released the UK#2 single "Vienna", produced by krautrock pioneer Conny Plank . The band had been looking to Europe for inspiration and discovered their signature song. Rip It Up And Start Again author Simon Reynolds describes the song in this way: 

 Ultravox...plunged into full-blown Teutonica with the quasi-classical "Vienna". Wreathed in the sonic equivalent of dry ice, this ludicrously portentous ballad --inspired by a vague notion of a past-its-prime Hapsburg Empire sliding into decadence--reached number two in the U.K. charts in the first weeks of 1981 and hovered there for what seemed like an eternity.

"We weren't trying to write a successful song," Midge Ure told the boys at Sodajerker On Songwriting recently. "We were trying to write a piece of music. So three minute limitations and pop sensibilities had kinda gone out the window. And it sounds like a stupid thing to say after the success that "Vienna" was, but at the time it was so remote, so obscure and such a bizarre thing to even contemplate putting out as a single. Who the hell would play it on the radio? But they did! I think the timing was right. People needed to hear something that was released straight after Christmas and New Year when everyone's fed up hearing Wizzard and Slade and later Band Aid. So they were desperate for something new when it got its chance to be played on the radio , it resonated with people ."

Classically trained Billy Currie was responsible for the music. Chris Cross came up with the bass line and Warren Cann with the drum sound that bring the song into this century. Ure walked into the rehearsal room with the lines "the feeling is gone, only you and I, this means nothing to me". 

Though the single may come across as bombastic and bigger than life, it was recorded with a drum machine, a synthesizer bass, a piano, a couple of synth lines and a violin. The listener fills in the atmosphere.

Sadly, the song that blocked Vienna from topping the charts was Joe Dolce's "Shaddup Your Face". Criminal!


Saturday, January 16, 2021

The dB's release their joyous debut Stands For Decibels

The dB's : Bad Reputation

On January 16, 1981 The dB's released their debut album Stands For Decibels . Despite being favorites of the New York club scene and rock press, the band, made up of four power popsters with North Carolina roots, signed up with the U.K. label Albion. Stands for Decibels and its follow-up Repercussion were originally released only in Britain.

The songs are divided between songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple. Among the many standout tracks on the debut is Holsapple's "Bad Reputation".

Stands For Decibels finished #26 on the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop Critic's 1981 poll, run by Robert Christgau who gave the album a grade of A-, writing :

This is pop at its tensest--the precise harmonies, broken rhythms, and Byrdsy zoom effects are drawn so tight they make the expertly rendered romantic ups and downs of the songs sound intense and earned.

Trouser Press's Dave Schulps  heard "echoes of psychedelia from the likes of the Move, Tomorrow, the Nazz, Moby Grape and Beau Brummels" and wrapped up his review by writing:

Without singling out any of the 11 concise masterpieces here, it should suffice to say anyone that was touched by the music of a decade and a half ago should hear this record. Anyone wondering if that music is valid today will find it alive and kicking in the form of the dB's.

In his memoir A Spy in the House of Loud, Chris Stamey is less kind about his band's debut. He writes there are moments of pride but that the band was in the midst of "an overly fussy fussy period production for which I have the lion's share of blame."

The only track on Stands for Decibels that I now return to with unqualified pleasure is Peter Holsapple's wistful ballad "Moving In Your Sleep".


Friday, January 15, 2021

That guy who was in love with the girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore check-out desk

The Freshies : I'm in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk

In January of 1981 The Freshies managed to get their latest single played on the radio, but only after changing the name of the song. Frontman Chris Sievey had been standing outside the Manchester Virgin Megastore with a sandwich board reading "I'm in Love With  The Girl On a "Certain" Manchester Megastore Check Out Desk".  The "Certain" is because the radio wouldn't play a song with an obvious promotional plug. Sievey is also handing letters to customers asking them to pass them on the check-out girl because he wasn't allowed inside. The single peaked at UK#54.

The Freshies broke up in 1982 but the story of Chris Sievey was just beginning. With the help of a paper-mache head he made and a swimmer's nose clip, Sievey became Frank, a nasally comedian, musician and Saturday morning TV host. His story has inspired both documentaries and a film starring Michael Fassbinder. 


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

"Rapture" introduces a new art form to White America

Blondie : Rapture

On January 12, 1981 Blondie released the US#1/UK#5 hit "Rapture", the first number one song in the United States to feature rap vocals. You'd be forgiven for cringing while Debbie Harry raps about meeting a man from Mars, but at the time rapping was much more playful than it would become.

And you try to run but he's got a gun 
And he shoots you dead and he eats your head 
And then you're in the man from Mars 
You go out at night eatin' cars 
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too 
Mercurys and Subaru 
And you don't stop, you keep on eatin' cars

The music video is a work of its art on its own. There's a nod to its disco sound when Harry dances with each member of Blondie. There's also a one-take scene where she raps in a street scene featuring cameos by Fab Five Freddy, graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Jean-Michel Basquiat, choreographer William Barnes ( as the Man from Mars) and a goat. Why was there a goat on the set? 

I asked Chris Stein on Twitter. No response. But I'm told the goat's name is Mona and belonged to the woman seen walking her.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Fall's Mark E Smith on Lennon, Teardrop Explodes and the new wave of fashionable bands

The Fall : The North Will Rise Again

On January 10, 1981 NME published an Andy Gill interview entitled "The Fall: The Wit And Wisdom Of Mark Smith".  In the interview, Smith disparages bands whose fans dress up like them ("Bands smaller than us have got these sort of clone people walking about") and he doesn't have a kind word about groups from Liverpool ( It's a northern thing. Like The Beatles; you go to Liverpool, and everybody clams up when you mention The Beatles, 'cos they fuckin 'hate'em. They're fuckin' jealous!) That even includes some current Liverpool bands.(I mean, like, Teardrop Explodes – escapist fuckin' rubbish! I'm not knockin' it, I never have; I've always loved that type of stuff. But, y'know, when you start getting' knocked for trying 'to fuckin' say somethin'..."). Finally, Smith claims Manchester is more dangerous than New York City.( "I know it's violent, and that Lennon was shot dead there, and that – but it was fucking safer than Manchester or anywhere in Yorkshire's ever been at half eleven! When the pubs shut in Manchester and Yorkshire, it's fuckin' deadly.").  

Smith says when he first heard Lennon had been murdered he was shocked.

"The first thing I thought was it would have happened in Liverpool...but...I don't know, I sometimes think things like 'May be he had it coming to him', y'know. Like, life is like that – if you sort of lead a whole generation of people on to do something like leave home, freak out, and become revolutionaries, and then you turn round and say, 'Well, I've just met this woman, Yoko, who's fuckin 'great'– she is, like, I think that – but she broke his balls. It's not a sexist thing to say, y'know...(Ha ha – Ed) but it's like everything came back on him. He released an album about how great it was to be straight, and there's hundreds of people – well, there must be millions of people whose lives he affected. 

 "I mean, he even got through to me – I mean, like 'Working Class Hero'...I don't think of myself as one, but I think that from his situation, it's so fuckin' good that he actually gleaned that from one song. I think that's one of the few good things he did, y'know, where he actually says, like, 'I was screwed for what I did'. That's why he became an American citizen, I think. 

 "But you can't do that. Life is very cruel like that: you can't lead people on for ten years, and just turn round and say 'I'm a father now'."

Finally he sets the record straight on the meaning of N.W.R.A. , a track from his most recent album Grotesque:

"Actually, the message in it is that if the north did rise again, they would fuck it up. Not that they ever rose before... It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen – like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain. It's the same concept as that. Not a lot of people have gleaned that, probably because it's the last track on the LP. 

 "I was very disappointed with the reviews we got – well, they don't really affect me, but – 'The North Will Rise Again' was, like, the fuckin' centrepiece of the album, for me. I really worked on that. And I thought people would take it a bit more..."

 He leaves the sentence hanging, but the implication is clear: a bit more carefully, a bit less on face-value. Try a little harder!


Saturday, January 9, 2021

One of 1981's catchiest one hit wonders was inspired by a Monty Python sketch

Department S : Is Vic There?

Halfway between the release of 1979's Life Of Brian and 1983's The Meaning of Life , Monty Python inspired one of 1981's sharpest single when Demon Records released "Is Vic There?" by Department S. It's a punchy guitar driven number produced by former Mott The Hoople members Overend Watts and Buffin. When RCA Records picked up the distribution deal in May and David (Split Enz) Tickle did a dance remix, the single began climbing the charts to UK#22.

So what's the deep inner meaning of this song? Vocalist Vaughn Toulouse told Smash Hits the song was inspired by a phone call. 

"A friend of mine, Ginge, who was roadying for Spizz at the time , picked up the phone and this voice at the other end said "Is Vic there?" And Ginge knew about the Monty Python sketch and he said, "Nah, this is Norman. Has he been round again?" and it sounded really funny 'cause I'd never heard the Monty Python.  So I just jotted down the lyrics. They're nothing really, just a joke. "


Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Bongos release "In The Congo" and critics go wild.

The Bongos : In The Congo

In January of 1981 The Bongos released a new critically acclaimed three song EP featuring "In The Congo", "Hunting" and a cover of the T.Rex classic, "Mambo Sun". It was produced by fellow Hobokan resident Mark Abel who had produced The Feelies debut in 1980. To  promote the EP, featuring a cover based on one of frontman Richard Barone's vintage shirts, The Bongos made a music video directed by Ed Steinberg. 

Here's a rough version I found on YouTube:

In his memoir Frontman, Barone says the lyrics were about his fear of working with major labels:

Natural Enemies/Natural predators
In the Congo, In The Congo
I wanna go back home. I wanna row back home

At the time of its recording Barone was working as an extra on the soap opera As The World Turns. In February he would join The Bush Tetras, The dB's, The Raybeats and The Fleshtones at the Rainbow Theatre in London for a showcase that became the live Stiff Records compilation Start Swimming


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Phil Collins and the greatest drum fill in rock history

Phil Collins : In The Air Tonight


On January 5, 1981 Genesis drummer and vocalist Phil Collins released his debut single, the UK#2 hit "In The Air Tonight". Contrary to all the urban myths surrounding the song, its lyrics --like all of the upcoming album Face Value--are about his bitter feelings amidst the impending divorce from his wife Andrea Bertorelli.

 "The lyrics you hear are what I wrote spontaneously," Collins said, who came up with lines like "Well if you told me you were drowning/ I would not lend a hand" while playing ominous chords on a synthesizer. "That frightens me a bit, but I'm quite proud of the fact that I sang 99.9 percent of those lyrics spontaneously". 


Collins and engineer Hugh Padgham had discovered the signature drum sound by accident while recording "Intruder" on Peter Gabriel's third album. It involved heavily compressing the sound from the reverse talkback mic in the studio. The studio version of the song has no drums until the infamous fill but the single version above has drums throughout.

About that fill: it remains one of the great moments in rock. If you can keep yourself from air drumming  you have greater restraint than I.

And as you can see below it still has the power to create awe.


Monday, January 4, 2021

Hugh Cornwell's All Time Top Ten

The Stranglers : Thrown Away

Hugh Cornwell, the newly published author of Inside Information, an account of his short stint in Pentonville Prison, realized his band had lost some momentum in 1980 and needed to return to the charts. So The Stranglers performed a new euro-disco single, the UK#42 "Thrown Away", on Top of the Pops and Cornwell provided Smash Hits with a list of his all time top 10.


Friday, January 1, 2021

Welcome To 1981!

Squeeze : Tempted

Happy New Year and welcome to 1981! We're going to have to go a full year without David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, The Clash and many more. We do get what may be the last excellent album by The Rolling Stones and some very good albums from Grace Jones, Squeeze, Psychedelic Furs and Elvis Costello. 1981 was one of the hardest years of my life, but it was also the year I picked up a copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide and began my journey as a music snob. 

This may come across as a big revelation but I enter each of these years not as an expert but as someone beginning a journey. To illustrate here are my 25 favorite albums of 1981 as we begin. Of these I own 12 or 13. I bought maybe 4 in 1981 because I was spending my money on Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and David Bowie.

 So let's see what 1981 reveals...

25 fave albums from 1981

Squeeze: East Side Story

Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk

The dB's: Repercussion

David Lindley: El Rayo-X

Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust 

Black Uhuru: Red 

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

Echo & The Bunnymen: Heaven Up Here 

Joan Armatrading:  Walk Under Ladders

King Crimson : Discipline

Brian Eno & David Byrne : My life in the bush of ghosts 

Kraftwerk : Computer World

The Kinks : Give The People What They Want

The Blasters

Garland Jeffreys : Escape Artist

Tom Tom Club

The Police: Ghost in the Machine 

Plastics : Welcome Back

Black Flag : Damaged

Dance Craze

Tom Petty : Hard Promises

David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel"

Jerry Harrison: The Red and the Black

Cars : Shake It Up