In May of 1981 Sparks released Whomp That Sucker, a return to the sound that made the band so popular in the UK in the mid 70's. Record Mirror's Mark Total gave the album its highest possible rating, writing "Sparks score a knockout in the first round." Even so, the album failed to chart in the UK and only peaked at #182 in the US. The Sparks Brothers documentary, while making great use of the pugilistic music video for "Tips for Teens", does not spend much time on the album.
Robyn Hitchcock : Acid Bird
In May of 1981 Robyn Hitchcock released his debut solo album Black Snake Diamond Role, kicking off one of the most enjoyable solo careers of the decade. Those who had already been following The Soft Boys will often cite this release as their favorite. Assisting Hitchcock in the studio are members of The Soft Boys, Vince Ely of the Psychedelic Furs and an almost unknown Thomas Dolby.
On May 29, 1981 The Jam released the UK#4 hit "Funeral Pyre" b/w a cover of The Who's "Disguises". It's one final burst of punk anger from Weller who would soon start fancying the 70's soul of Curtis Mayfield, forever changing the course of the band and leading to the formation of The Style Council.
Wire : Our Swimmer
A new one-chord single from Wire ( actually recorded in 1979) is released to further provoke interest in Document and Eyewitness, a live album coming soon.
Toni Basil : Mickey
37-year old Toni Basil re-recorded Racey's "Kitty" as "Mickey" and eventually scored a worldwide smash, topping the charts in Australia, Canada and the United States. Basil has sued Razor & Tie Direct, Forever 21, Disney, Viacom, VH1, and South Park for using the song without permission. Hope I fall under her radar.
Dead Kennedys : Too Drunk To Fuck
"Too Drunk To Fuck" snuck into the UK Top 40 without any help from radio or advertisement. They sold 20,000 copies in one week reports Cherry Red Records. In the US, the IRS promo man Michael Plen tried to convince rock stations to play the song, telling them "Remember, it's not against the FCC law to play a song with the word 'fuck ' in it , It's just against the law to say it. " That may not be true. And in any case no station gambled their license on the single from Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables.
Ultravox : All Stood Still
Another single from Vienna, this is the Ultravox tune I played most on my college radio show. "All Stood Still" breezed into the UK Top 10 on a wave of synthesizers and a catchy chorus. Nobody could stand still listening to this one!
E.S.G. : You're No Good
The Bronx sisters who made up Emerald Sapphire & Gold released their debut single, "You're No Good", in May of 1981. Restricted by their budget to just drums, congas and a bass they make up for it by inventing a new sound that sounds as fresh as it did 40 years ago.
On May 30, 1981 Echo and the Bunnymen released Heaven Up Here, a UK#10 hit that won best album from the readers at the 1981 NME Awards and is currently ranked 463 in Rolling Stone's list of the greatest rock albums of all time. NME critics ranked the album the #22 best of the year, while it came in #2 in the Sounds poll and topped the Rockerilla list.
The album cover tells you exactly what's in store, a more atmospheric, moody and melancholic album than the debut, and requires repeated listens to "get". But the reputation of Heaven Up Here has grown over the years. The label didn't hear a single and instructed the band to write one. The result is "A Promise".
Recorded in Wales with Hugh Jones producing, the album re-creates the dry ice atmosphere of the Bunnymen's stage show. In a recent Tim' sTwitter Listening Party guitarist Will Sergeant says Jones sent his instrument through reverbs, echo "and a new thing called the Eventide Harmoniser... The slightest scrape, scratch, flick, squeak or pop of the guitar could be used and transformed."
Some of the influences cited by various Bunnymen include Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam", The Velvet's "What Goes On" and James Brown's Sex Machine.
The NME's Barney Hoskyns described the album as "one of the most superior articulations of 'rock' form in living memory. The Village Voice's Robert Christgau was not so taken by the album, giving it a grade of C and writing:
Word was these erstwhile-and-futurist popsters had transcended songform, so I gritted my teeth and tried to dig the texture, flow, etc. Took the enamel clean off. I hold no brief against tuneless caterwaul, but tuneless psychedelic caterwaul has always been another matter. Ditto for existential sophomores. And, need I add, Jim Morrison worship
The album cover was shot by Brian Griffin in Porthcawl, Wales, with a bucket of fish used to entice the seagulls. The album earned the "Best Dressed LP" award from the NME. Outtakes can be found on the photographer's website.
In the last week of May, 1981, UB40 released its second album Present Arms. Despite the fact that they've been playing their instruments for fewer than three years, and looked less than trendy, the band was selling more albums in Britain than any other living reggae act.
"I think we've been really lucky," singer Ali Campbell told Smash Hits," in that we were around when The Specials were just taking off, and we were nothing to do with the 2-Tone thing, but the media aligned us with them --you know, black and white act--and we got to play gigs with them, and as far as England was concerned that really helped.
"And then we're much more accessible than most reggae bands. There's a lot of people who find it strange listening to Jamaican reggae.There's nothing to identify with when you've got a black band singing about Jah. It's definitely easier for white people if some of the group are white too."
The single "One In Ten" is an attack on Thatcherism :
“I’m a starving third world mother, a refugee without a home/
I’m a housewife hooked on Valium, I’m a pensioner alone”
The album would peak at UK#2, and like the debut, stick around for months and months, eventually going Platinum. An amazing accomplishment for an indie release. UB40 earned 65% of every record sale, as opposed to 10% for most artists. Every member is involved in writing the lyrics and music so everyone was earning good, if not an outrageous amount of money. Saxophone player Brian Travers bought a new house in 1981. He said everyone in the band is at the same level musically, and they like it that way:
"If someone came in from the outside who was either better than us at his instrument or worse than us, that's really throw us. We're happy as we are. "
Critics had mostly kind things to say about the sophomore album. The Village Voice's Robert Christgau gave Present Arms an A-, writing:
They're not about to revolutionize JA--not by carpentering the bass lines, horn charts, and dub effects of the reggae of yesteryear (1975, say) into an indigenous pop r&b. And though they have their own DIY label, they're not about to revolutionize their native U.K. either. But their conscience is catching--I know, because I fell for "One in Ten" on Radio Luxembourg despite my objections to its merely liberal message. Their toasting is pretty infectious too. And they relegate the instrumentals to a bonus twelve-inch. Still, I doubt they'll break the DOR barrier here--what passes for mild protest in England these days might sound dangerous Stateside. It might even be dangerous
Record Mirror's Mike Gardner gave the album 4.5 stars out of 5 , calling UB40 "the hardest dance band in the country and you can't complain about that".
On May 22, Siouxsie and the Banshees released the UK#22 "Spellbound", eliciting this review from Barney Hoskyns of NME who described "Spellbound" as a "glorious electric storm", further adding, "Siouxsie and the Banshees are one of the great British bands of all time" . The single, a preview of the upcoming album Juju, suggested "When your elders forget to say their prayers, take them by the legs and throw them down the stairs".
In May of 1981 Black Uhuru released Red, produced flawlessly by Sly and Robbie. The album finished #3 on the NME year end chart, behind Grace Jones's Nightclubbing and Kraftwerk's Computer World, all released within days of each other. The album also ranked #14 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics poll. Dean Robert Christgau gave the album a grade of A-, writing :
Forget Sinsemilla--this one'll getcha. Believe me, Michael Rose isn't trying to fill anybody's shoes--he'd probably rather not wear shoes. The ululation and ragged sense of line are pure country, like Jamaican field hollers; lots of times the songs don't even rhyme. But "Youth of Eglington" lets you know right off that this is a country boy who reads the papers, and with Rose pouring forth and Sly and Robbie rolling that rockers riddim, who needs such niceties?
On May 18, 1981 The Psychedelic Furs released Talk Talk Talk, a torrent of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite that peaked at UK#30 and US#89. Richard Butler sounds fed up with socializing, not that you can make out the lyrics without some help from a lyric sheet. In "Pretty In Pink", he aims his poison pen at a series of Caroline's sexist boyfriends
The idea of the song was, 'Pretty In Pink' as a metaphor for being naked. The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she's wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back. That was the idea of the song. And John Hughes, bless his late heart, took it completely literally and completely overrode the metaphor altogether! I still like the song.
Columbia Records made a valiant effort to get FM radio to play the Furs, taking out this full page ad in FM Music Quarterly, a tip sheet for radio programmers. One of the things they should know: The Furs debut was the #4 most played album on college radio in 1980.
One of the Rolling Stone Record Guides gave the album 5 stars, its highest rating and Spin's Alternative Record Guide gave the album a 9/10. The immediate review wasn't also do high in praise. This is a 3 star review from Record World.
Most record reviewers didn't pick up on the Furs own sexism at the time. Songs like " Into You Like A Train" and " I Wanna Sleep With You" are lusty and perhaps lacking in respect. But enough did for Richard Butler to respond:
That was a little surprising. I didn't find there were any attitudes on there written as a male that couldn't also be felt as a female. If I were to posit the idea that I didn't want to have a romance with somebody, I just wanted to sleep with them, I was accused of sexism? I think that's a fairly commonplace way of thinking for males and females. Not every time a girl has sex does she want to get married and have babies with the person – you know? It seemed a curiously old-fashioned way of looking at it all, and in a way, reverse sexism.
In May of 1981 The English Beat followed up their exhilarating debut with Wha'ppen, significantly slowing down the songs, making them more atmospheric and at times more political.
"I hate lies," Dave Wakeling told Record Mirror. "Most of all, institutional lies. If they didn't fill up the news with the Ripper and Prince Charles perhaps they'd have to admit that yes, well, there are actually four million unemployed people in the country. As things get tougher the government are forced to show their cards, to get more obvious in showing that they are the capitalist, racist, sexist types that you always suspected they were"
Saxa, the 51 year old saxophone player, continues to play a big role in The Beat.
"Saxa's the most articulate musician in the band by far," says Wakeling. "When he's playing his solo, he's not aware of the instrument being there at all., he's just telling you how he feels at that particular moment, about that particular song. He teaches you what the song is about".
Released on May 8, in one of the great all time months for album releases, Wha'ppen peaked at UK#3 and US#126. The singles were the UK#22 double A side "Drowining/ All Out To Get You" and "Hit It ( Auto Erotic)". The album finished No 4 in the NME critics poll, No 5 in Robert Christgau's year end list and No 23 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll.
Rock critic dean Robert Christgau gave the album a grade of A writing:
David Wakeling shows more character (and timbre) than Terry Hall, Ranking Roger could rub his dub in a pedigreed reggae band, and the rhythms aren't solely riddims. So as two-tone grays out, the Beat follow their chops into the world-beat sweepstakes, where snaky grooves are worth their weight in yen. The Afrobeats and studio spaces and steel drums are as seamlessly colloquial as the depression politics and depressed romances, so it would be a shame if its sinuous midtempos dismay fans of its predecessor's hectic pace. I hear not resignation or compromise but a stubborn, animated adaptability. Unity rocker: "Doors of Your Heart," in which love means eros and agape simultaneously, and Wakeling finds that dread blocks the way to both, and Roger advises him to stop his fighting,
On May 15, 1981 Squeeze released East Side Story, an album that expanded the band's sound and appeal, finally getting the band airplay on commercial radio stations in America. The album begins with a classic Squeeze song, "In Quintessence". Produced by Dave Edmunds, the single, says Glen Tilbrook, is about a bloke who "is now a very responsible teacher working just outside Liverpool. I saw him a couple of months ago and he said how perfectly this described his life at the time. Chris (Difford) was spot on in analysing him as someone who liked smoking joints and shagging birds, but what's wrong with that?" Amazing guitar solo from Glen.
East Side Story is the follow-up to Argybargy. To replace the departed Jools Holland, Squeeze hired Paul Carrack of Ace's "How Long" fame. The band had now added a touch of blue eyed soul to their repertoire, as well as the song "How Long", which they would play in concert.
In the UK, the Beatlesque "Is That Love" was the first single, a UK#35 hit, previously discussed here.
In America, "Tempted" was the first single. It peaked at US#49 but has become the band's best known song as well as a favorite of both Difford and Tilbrook.
Producer Elvis Costello was the one who suggested Paul Carrack sing lead, and helped come up with arrangements based on The Temptations hits of the 60's.
The critics were elated with East Side Story. Rolling Stone famously wrote “In songwriters Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the British New Wave has finally found its own John Lennon and Paul McCartney.”
“I was just confused,” said Difford in 2019, “because these Lennon/McCartney people had loads of money in the bank and we didn’t have any of those kinds of things, so I couldn’t see the comparison!”
This Smash Hits review mentions the album's surprising country song which, as a single, peaked at UK#4.
Argybargy will always be my favorite Squeeze album, but this is my second favorite. I appreciate the band's desire to experiment. They deserved to. I didn't really care for "Labelled With Love", "Vanity Fair" or "There's No Tomorrow", but I have 11 other songs I can play with gusto.
East Side Story ranked #6 on the Village Voice critic's poll, #19 in the NME poll and #4 on Melody Maker's year end poll.
Robert Christgau gave the album a grade of B+ writing:
They're finally beginning to show the consistency that's the only excuse for obsessive popcraft. The songs are imaginative, compassionate, and of course hooky--the warped organ on "Heaven" bespeaks divine intervention. And with Elvis Costello coproducing, the music is quite punchy, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it rocks.
The band's success and the Lennon/McCartney comparisons would put a lot of pressure on the songwriters when it came to following up the album. Aside from "Black Coffee In Bed", Sweets From a Stranger was a disappointment. The band soon fell apart.
On May 13, 1981 Birmingham's Au Pairs released their debut album, Playing With a Different Sex, highlighted by the recent single "Come Again", a song about faked orgasms. Most of the songs center around the things men and women do to hurt each other. The LP received a five star review form Sounds, their highest rating. Dave McCullough wrote "This is a truly sensuous didactic record...What the Au Pairs have to say, never mind the fact, is wonderful in itself, and that they manage to say it successively, strikes a magic modern chord of common sense".
On May 11, 1981 Grace Jones released Nightclubbing, voted Album of the Year by England's New Musical Express. Produced by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the music pulsates around Jones' near monotone vocals. Nothing before Grace Jones ever suggested this would work. So much music that followed her example proved it did, from Beck to Bjork, from Massive Attack to even Madonna.
Nightclubbing included Jones's covers of songs by Flash and the Pan ("Walking in the Rain"), Bill Withers ("Use Me"), Iggy Pop/David Bowie ("Nightclubbing") and Ástor Piazzolla ("I've Seen That Face Before"). Three songs were co-written by Jones: "Feel Up", "Art Groupie" and "Pull Up to the Bumper". Sting wrote "Demolition Man"; he later recorded it with The Police on the album Ghost in the Machine. "I've Done It Again" was written by Marianne Faithfull.
Upon the album's release, the critics were all on board.In the UK Adrian Thrills of NME said, "I spent an otherwise-miserable weekend afternoon with the sound of Grace swirling around my little earphones, grooving on songs effortlessly sung but put together with a jeweller's eye for detail", and stated that the musicians "combine to etch out a shifting, soulful surface, an exotic ice-water backdrop for Grace's vocal veneer", noting that "the only times Grace seems ill-at-ease are as she swops Trenchtown patois with, presumably, the sharp-lipped Sly and then tries to rock out on Sting's 'Demolition Man'". Roz Reines of Melody Maker called it "an album with something for everyone: reggae, electronics, disco, blues – even a snatch of salsa funk. The incredible thing is that it all gels together so well – the common denominator is the danceability, which lasts all the way through: changes in tempo and pace only help to sustain the energy level." Deanne Pearson of Smash Hits said that Jones' voice has "neither range nor power", but "the arrangements and production almost make up for this." Record Mirror critic Simon Ludgate found that Jones transcends her vocal limitations through "her character and sense of the surreal"
On May 11, 1981, at half past noon, Bob Marley died in Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Miami. He'd been secretly battling cancer for nearly a year when he was first admitted to New York hospital, supposedly suffering from exhaustion. In truth, he had a form of skin cancer that had spread from under the nail of a toe. His faith would not allow him to amputate the toe, which might have saved his life. Instead, he tried some experimental treatments in Germany, never chemotherapy, hoping to fight off what was now lung and brain cancer.
"He could hardly walk and the brain problem affected the coordinated movement of his legs, " his wife Rita had said a month earlier.
In a cover story, Record World wrote:
"Almost by himself, he brought reggae out of the ghetto, from a simple form of R&B to a true international force, backed by the power of the Rastafarian faith...He was the black prince, a bearer of peace and love and unity, and his tragically early death at the age of 36 has robbed the world whose life work was far from complete."