.......after all that excitement.....FINALLY.....it's Chriiiiistmas!! Hope you enjoyed the Advent Calendar - have a great day and stay tuned for my best of 2012 picks which will be posted shortly. I'll leave you with my favourite Xmas anthem - I'm an old-fashioned man at heart so I'm gonna go for an obvious one, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a bit of stonking glam rock goonery from the Wizards of Wolverhampton. GET YER BOOTS ON!!
Monday, December 24, 2012
Judy Garland - Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Let me just clarify that there is absolutely nothing gay about a thirtysomething single bloke sitting alone in his flat listening to Judy Garland, OK? I love me some Judy as much as the next bloke, even if the next bloke just so happens to shave his butt crack and get pissed up on gin with his mother. There have been numerous shitty revamps of this tune by the sort of corporate dick piglets that fill out the music section as Tescos (Katie Melua, I'm looking right at you!) but none of them come anywhere close to matching the squeaky clean Hollywood silk of the original - Judy's voice is the lady's equivalent of Frank Sinatra for the boys, crystal clear to the point of utter perfection and almost impossible to imitate without sounding like a piss-weak karaoke shyster in comparison. This tune is culled from the equally indispensable festive flick 'Meet me in St Louis', one to take in whilst you're chillin' somewhere nice and cosy with the Xmas lights a twinklin'. Garland radiates the kind of doe-eyed Hollywood innocence that you just knew was belied by a personal life addled by truckloads of diet pills, valium and lakes of vodka but you can put all that aside and still enjoy the rosy-cheeked cuteness of her performance in the film which is epitomised by this gazing-into-the-distance cornball delivery of a song that would go on to become a genuine Xmas staple. I could go in for a proper bit of festive snuggling with a young lady on the couch whilst watching some Judy (a young LADY I repeat) and this is the ideal Xmas nugget to lead you into the embers of Xmas Eve as the big day looms just round the corner......
Tim Wheeler and Emmy the Great - Zombie Christmas
Tim Wheeler seems to have made a calculated business decision to move into novelty music over the last couple of years, Ash having long since run its course, and he's teamed up with the equally awesome Emmy the Great for a festive full-length aimed at this year's Xmas charts. Truth be told the single isn't quite the kick in the festive chestnuts that I'd been hoping for (this dude wrote 'Kung Fu' and 'Lose Control' remember!) but it's a pleasant enough stroll through the chaos wrought upon the end of year festivities by an unwarranted zombie invasion (compared to that a bit of unwarranted rainfall is hardly the end of the world is it?). Plus the promo video is pretty bitchin', throwing in some decent George Romero style undead shopping mall violence complete with festive disembowelment and spurting jets of fake blood decorating the walls. Back in the mid 90s you need some pretty solid major label money to finance a cinematic promo clip like this but these days anyone with a record deal seems to have top special effects at their disposal to promote records that nobody's ever conceivably going to pay money for - I suppose we should be grateful that Tim's not had to ditch music completely and get a proper job now that he's in his mid 30s (yeah that's right folks, 'Jack names the Planets' was a looooooong time ago! Naming your debut album after your year of birth doesn't seem like such a good idea now does it?). This is all very nice and all but both sides can do better - Emmy can do the twee stuff better alone and Tim needs to rope in some younger dudes and get back on the road bustin' heads with some proper punk rock. It worked for Melvins and the Ramones, what are you waiting for?
August Burns Red - Frosty the Snowman
This was a late addition to the list as it's only just been released but the lack of festive metalcore on this list was enough to warrant its last minute inclusion - the concept of a bunch of humourless Yank chug-metal nerds throwing out a Xmas record is not a particularly palatable one but I have to confess that August Burns Red have succeeded with considerable aplomb! 'Sleddin Hill' is worth a listen in its entirety if you're partial to widdly guitar solos, pugilistic breakdowns and thunderous tempos and the band manage to inject a dozen festive staples with enough manic energy to turn them into perfect moshpit fodder - you could line up their version of 'Frosty the Snowman' against classic Hatebreed or Shadows Fall and nobody would bat an eyelid. I've been playing the album with such regularity in the run up to Xmas that my neighbours are probably sick to the back teeth of it - well fuck 'em I say, it's Christmas fer Chrissakes!! You don't get the chance to bust out the festive metalcore more than once a year so I'm all for taking full advantage while I can. Their manic romp through 'Sleigh Ride' is worth a listen too, as is their pinch harmonic take on 'Jingle Bells' (trust me, it sounds better than you might imagine) and you wonder whether there's enough mileage in all this for them to set up a tour this time next year to bring it to the masses. In the meantime I will take my Santa hat off to these guys for producing one of the most enjoyable Xmas records I've heard in a long time - the Twisted Sister record was basically one good idea stretched thin over an entire album but these dudes have gone the whole hog and made a record you can bang your head to from start to finish. Treat someone you love to this feast of X(mas)core and watch their little face light up as they hear 'Frosty' for the first time.
Whigfield - Last Christmas
You have to be very careful when covering an established festive classic lest you succeed only in ruining it for the legions of fans who fell in love with the original. Wham's 'Last Christmas' is one of few records in this elite category (along with 'Fairytale of New York' and any non-humanitarian versions of 'Do they know it's Xmas?') which perhaps explains the predictably hostile reaction that greeted Whigfield's opportunistic rehash of the song when it was released for Xmas 1995. I personally feel that the backlash was unduly harsh - it's no more offensive to the ear than much of the mid 90s Europop that was doing the rounds at the time - but many fans took umbrage with a relic of their childhood innocence being put through the wringer by some Danish Euroslut over a tinny drum machine. Whiggy also timed her run badly as Wham's 'If you were there...' best of compilation would emerge soon afterwards as arguably the first acceptable slice of 80s nostalgia and go on to sell by the truckload which only exacerbated tensions surrounding her own version of the band's festive favourite. This obviously overlooked the not inconsiderable argument that any opportunity to film another promo video of the delectable Dane was a valid one regardless of the circumstances - George Michael and whathisface from Wham looked lovely in their festive knitwear but I know who I'd rather spend Xmas with. And this is coming from an established Wham fan - my mum informed me earlier today that my Monster Munch 'All About Me' book from the mid 1980s listed them as my favourite band. The original 'Last Christmas' obviously had a profound effect on me too, but did it prevent me from tolerating alternate versions of it further down the line? No sir, it did not.
Big Star - Jesus Christ
I'd heard this song covered by various early 90s indie bands before ever realising it was a cover, but that itself is perhaps testament to the longstanding influence of Big Star, the late 60s/early 70s US Power Pop outfit that, along with the Byrds, laid the foundations for much of modern indie rock as we know it. The Beatles and the Stones have been aped on numerous occasions by younger bands but Big Star have seen their melodic jangly rock repackaged and reproduced by almost as many latter day bands from the US college rock scene in the 80s (Throwing Muses, Violet Femmes) to the outward-looking Scottish indie output of the same period (Teenage Fanclub, Vaselines) along with 90s metal-edged pop rockers like Therapy and the Wildhearts. 'Jesus Christ' is from their oft overlooked third record and taps up the magical energy of your average Christmas Carol to craft a gorgeous slice of sugary indie rock from back in the days before the term 'indie' even existed. This track would fit right into your average primary school carol concert yet it doesn't suffer from the icky sicky tweeness that such a context would suggest - someone's sprinkled sparky tinkerbell dust all over this track and turned it into something truly special. 90s indie nerks The Family Cat, Kristen Hersh and the aforementioned Teenage Fanclub have all covered it for festive releases and I'd be willing to bet that many other 4AD/Creation types have too, such is its indie pedigree. This is the ideal soundtrack to smooching cute chicks under the indie mistletoe.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Band Aid 2 - Do they know it's Christmas?
Band Aid. AGAIN. Yeah I know, this tune does tend to suffer from a spot of over-exposure at this time of year but it's still a pretty well-crafted piece of pop and the original version is one of the only charity records that most listeners can sit through without projectile vomiting all over the Xmas tree. The track has been Xmas number one on no less than three occasions since its release, the original fighting off stiff competition from Wham's 'Last Christmas' in 1984 to top the charts on Xmas day and also finish as the year's best selling single whilst a 20th Anniversary rehash featuring a new generation of big-hearted pop stars such as Chris Martin and Dizzee Rascal impressively managed to repeat both feats in 2004. The version between the two tends to get lost down the back of the sofa, and for good reason - back in 1989 the demon overlords of Stock, Aitken and Waterman were running pop music and a tasteless phoned-in version was hastily bundled together for the Xmas market to celebrate five years since the original's release. The period charm of the '84 vintage is lost completely as a gaggle of production line S.A.W puppets line up to trot out an uninspiring run-through the original over the sort of cheap synthetic production that graced most mainstream pop records at the time. Bananarama are the only artists to remain from the first version (good pop quiz question there!) but even they look to be edging closer to the knackers' yard and the new breed of garish pop laboratory experiments like Sonia, Big Fun and Bros manage to totally drain the original of all its magic in the same way modern-day X Factor contestants regularly butcher established classics. As if that lot weren't bad enough, even Sir Cliff pops up to put in a seasonal cameo and in doing so managed to set himself up for a festive hat-trick of Xmas chart-toppers that he had begun the previous year with 'Mistletoe and Wine' and would complete in 1990 with the equally emetic 'Saviour's Day'. Revivalist pop historians will point to 1989 as a landmark year for the crossover success of acid house, baggy and homegrown indie rock but one look at the upper reaches of the singles charts back then tells a different story - pop sucked in '89 and the year's rehash of 'Do they know it's Xmas?' manages to bring together everything that was wrong with pop at the time over one charmless track. The only positive thing about this version of the song is that fucking Bono isn't on it.
Ska-P - Villancico
OK, I may have been a little too scathing about ska punk in the last entry so here's a spot of festive Iberian pogo punk to level things out. Spain's Ska-P were one of my favourite bands in the early noughties, reading from the same rulebook as many of their North American peers but adding a touch of comic theatrics and tinto-chugging Iberian craziness to the mix to concoct their own devilishly addictive formula. 'Villancico' is their festive themed offering from 1998's 'Eurosis' LP which wasn't their best effort (check out 2000's `Planeta Eskoria` or their rollicking debut 'El Vals del Obrero' for their strongest setlists) but still packed in a few pleasant surprises. This live version begins with their second vocalist Pipi galumphing onstage dressed as Jesus before the band launch into what I assume is some sort of socialist re-appraisal of the modern Xmas experience (my Spanish isn't up to much so I may be way off the mark). Their live shows were pretty insane back in the day but they took the bold step of quitting while they were ahead and hung up their boots in the mid noughties before reforming later in the decade to considerable acclaim in their native land. This is a pretty good tune to stick on if you're getting a bit sick of the icky sentimental fare generally served up at Xmas and provides a nice moment of subversive punk pop to break up the monotony of endless rehashes of 'Santa Baby' and 'All I want for Xmas if you'. Bueno!
Monday, December 17, 2012
No Doubt - Oi to the World
Aaaaah the late 90s, remember that eh? Back when you couldn't walk into a rock club without being bombarded with shitty ska punk from every angle and every singer had the same irritating Sesame Street accent. Now that this shit is fifteen years old it sounds pretty ridiculous but back in '97 No Doubt were on top of the world, 'No Speak' and 'Just a Girl' having transformed them into global megastars and made Gwen Stefani's blond hair 'n' lipstick chic the look to imitate if you were a teenage girl (no bad thing I admit). Their music blew goats for the most part but this little festive ditty is pleasant enough, cranking up the pace for what sounds like some sort of punk culture rallying call for all the subsections to lay down their arms and get along with each other. I think the mark of true success in the States back then was if MTV persuaded you to do a Xmas single for their video rotation programme in December, cementing your position at the top of the Billboard food chain and providing the suburban brats across America with another single to shell out for. To their credit Gwen and the boys have managed to drop in and out of fashion with alarming regularity since their heyday, popping up with the odd hit from time to time when you thought they'd been locked in the 90s attic along with Hootie and the Blowfish and Four Non-Blondes. I think they even have a record out now in fact, although true to form I have no idea what it's called and no intention of ever listening to it.
Jethro Tull - Ring out Solstice Bells
If you were tripping balls and wearing a kaftan back in the mid 70s then you were probably hot for Jethro Tull, Britain's most lovably eccentric prog outfit who dropped this bizarre festive nugget back in 1976. Tull were less about twenty minute guitar solos and humourless philosophising, these dudes were into their cider 'n' mushrooms folk rock in a big way and succeeded in notching a few extremely unlikely hit singles back in the 70s alongside fellow hirsute nutbags Hawkwind and King Crimson - they managed to eke things out for longer than you might think too, hanging around in the background to famously deny Metallica the 'Best Rock Performace' Grammy award in 1989 back when they could still rock your balls off and Hetfield hadn't cut his hair or gone to rehab. 'Solstice Bells' is a pleasant hey-nonny-nonny slice of festive folk and it clearly brightened up what I presume was a fairly dull Top of the Pops back in what was possibly pop's worst year of all time (just look at that fartknocker presenting the show - he looks about 90!!). This was the atmosphere from which the Pistols emerged in late '76 don't forget, they had a lot of ground to cover back then. Tull still rules though, these guys put the freak in folk like nobody else - now that the genre's back in, where are all our googly-eyed flute playing frontmen to pick up where Ian Anderson left off? Come on kids, look lively!
The Wedding Present - No Christmas
Just in case all these festive favourites were getting a little too jovial for you, here's some miserable British indie to sour the mood and remind us all how much like sucks. The Wedding Present emerged from the late 80s indie schmindie scene alongside House of Love and late-period The Fall to notch some degree of crossover success, most noticeably in 1992 when a campaign of one-a-month limited edition singles gave them a record-breaking 12 top 30 singles in the space of one calendar year. 'No Christmas' was the final release of the bunch and manages to deflate any festive cheer you might have managed to summon up prior to listening, pitching David Gedge's grim vocals against a slab of lurching indie rock that sounded completely out of place in the singles charts which made their commercial success all the more flattering. But that was back when the charts actually meant something wasn't it? These days all you need to do is kick the bucket and your entire back catalogue races back up the download charts without so much as a casual prompt. Back in the day bands had to go out and convince a nation of raincoat-clad students and miserable indie dorks to leave their bedrooms long enough to walk to Our Price and shell out for a piece of black plastic - it's a miracle these gumbies ever bothered the charts at all, let alone setting records to stick them up alongside Cliff Richard and fucking Westlife. I suppose there's a strain of misery and futility running through all of their peers that makes them somehow feel at home.
The Three Tenors - Jingle Bells
In what is perhaps the ultimate waste of good voices on crappy material, here's Carreras, Domingo and Big Daddy Pav' busting out 'Yingle Bells' as a light-hearted excerpt from one of their massive concerts in the 90s. I'm not really into my opera but I can kinda see why people like this stuff - there's enough lung capacity on that front stage to blow a Volvo up a fire escape. I think my favourite is José Carreras, the wee guy in the middle - he's got a kind of gangster aura about him, like Joe Pesci in the Scorcese films, the small ball of fiery energy that'll bust your skull for looking at him the wrong way. I mean, voices like that can only command respect can't they? If these dudes turned up on your doorstep for a spot of carol singing (even without the symphony orchestra and castrato kiddie choir to back them up) I think I'd bust out my chequebook to make sure they didn't take offence and blow my fucking house down. Placido Domingo was good humoured enough to let Sesame Street immortalise him as a pink flamingo back in the day though and Pavarotti even managed to bag himself an opera crossover hit with 'Nessum Dorma' back in the heady days of Italia '90. These guys have such pedigree that they can even make a pony Xmas tune sound bombastic. Reeeeespect!
Blümchen - Unter'm Weihnachtsbaum
Turning away from rock for a moment, here's a pleasant spot of festive Europop for you from the delectable Jasmin Wagner, AKA 90s Euro Techno hit-machine Blümchen. Miss Wagner managed to notch an admirable run of hit singles in her native Germany over the mid to late 90s in the same musical vein as her fellow countrymen Scooter, matching squeaky vocals with stonking piano riffs and high BPM clubland rhythm to craft some pretty solid Happy Hardcore. The fact that she generally sang in German meant that much of the material failed to notch any noticeable success outside of her homeland and its Germanophone neighbours and even a couple of English-language revamps failed to promote her to widespread audiences. All in all it's a bit of a shame as I reckon she's got some cracking tunes under her belt - 'Unter'm Weihnachtsbaum' is one of her last releases, tapping the 1999 Xmas market with a festive blend of bell-ringing, thunking bass and rollercoaster rhythms backed by a pleasant video showcasing Wagner frolicking with some 'Night at the Museum' style pixie people. She called time on hitmaking shortly afterwards in the early noughties but has resurfaced a couple of times since then, most notably when German fans attempted to download-bomb her single 'Boomerang' back into the local charts some years after its initial release in a 'Killing in the Name' style campaign against the latest X Factor showpony. This probably speaks volumes about Germanic taste in music but as far as I'm concerned they had the better idea - instead of trying to smash the system, why not just out cheese 'em instead?
Thursday, December 13, 2012
AC/DC - Mistress for Christmas
Following on neatly from the Ramones, here's another band who've managed to carve out a long and illustrious career despite all their records sounding EXACTLY the same. AC/DC famously never strayed too far from their blueprint of big ass riffs, fist in your face percussion and raunchy lyrics and 'Mistress for Christmas' is no different, displaying no ostensibly festive characteristics aside from the punning title and a few lyrical references to 'riding your reindeer' etc. But then I don't think sleigh bells and festive ho-ho-ho's would go very well with Brian Johnson's Domestos-gargling vocals and music that would make most kids run and hide in the attic. The track was released on 1990's 'The Razor's Edge' (home of 'Thunderstruck', 'Moneytalks' etc) which came as a stonking return to form after a string of slightly lacklustre 80s releases and would be their last new material for five years until they staged another comeback in the mid 90s with the similarly subtle 'Ballbreaker' LP. There's not much point waxing lyrical about the track, it sounds pretty much like every other AC/DC song but any excuse to stick on a bit of Acca Dacca is a valid one in my book and 'Mistress for Christmas' is the ideal soundtrack to playing festive air guitar at three in the morning whilst spilling lager all over the carpet and waking up your neighbours. Surely an indispensable inclusion on any Xmas playlist!
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The Ramones - Merry Christmas (I don't wanna fight tonight)
Everyone loves Christmas - FACT. Everyone loves the Ramones - FACT. So the Ramones doing a Christmas song can only be a good thing. 'Merry Christmas....' was tagged on the end of 1989's 'Brain Drain' album, the last full lengther Dee Dee would participate in as a full time member of the band and it's a predictably stellar listen. The Ramones were always big pop fans and this only became more obvious during their flawless run of 80s albums (which I will happily defend as equal to their much-lauded 70s output) so a Xmas tune was well within their remit, especially as they'd already laid down a non-festive full length with the King of Xmas records himself, Phil Spector (his Wall of Sound-tastic 'A Xmas Gift for you' album is possibly the best Xmas record ever and a regular festive hit in our house). The song sounds pretty much like any other Ramones record with a bit of sleigh bells thrown in for good measure but these guys could run through the S Club 7 back catalogue and make it sound cool and they play a blinder here, bringing a much needed bit of punk love to the party and giving you a genuine DJ request option for that office party in the midst of all the Wham, Slade and Shakin' Stevens. Time to lay down your arms, put your differences aside and engage in a festive circle pit around your Xmas tree.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Elmo and Patsy - Grandma got run over by a reindeer
The festive season can be a somewhat hazardous time of year, what with drunk drivers, black ice and internecine family arguments descending into murderous violence at the drop of a hat. We should pay special attention to our loved ones at times like these and make sure that they come to no harm, a point well made by old school comedy singer Elmo Shropshire on his splendidly dark festive anthem 'Grandma got run over a reindeer' in the early 1980s. The track recounts an unfortunate Yuletide incident at the family home where Grandma forgets to take her medication, gets ripped to the tits on eggnog and blunders off into the snow to meet an untimely death - it later emerges that her late husband may have been involved in her passing and he settles back into a soothing lifestyle of drinking, gambling and trying to boff some younger relative. This is some pretty scalding black humour, don't let the jovial festive accompaniment fool you. Elmo apparently made himself millions off the success of this one track that has remained a bit of a longstanding favourite amongst country fans - those folks certainly know how to do cruel humour like nobody else. But it's good to have someone to balance things out against saccharine crap like 'There's no-one quite like Grandma' so hats off to old Elmo for giving us a bit of a giggle to smooth our passage through the festive season.
Low - Little Drummer Boy
Christmas albums needn't be nauseating white bread acts of rampant commercialism fit only for invasive airings in your local shopping centre, there's a sprinkle of magic to a lot of Xmas music that can be harnessed and brought to the forefront by the discerning musician. Greg Lake managed it on his festive favourite 'I believe in Father Christmas', the Pogues' seemingly indestructible 'Fairytale of New York' has (almost) survived 25 years of being played to death without losing its mid-winter romance and Yank slowcore nerds Low managed to pump a whole album full of fairy dust with their stellar Xmas release back in 1999. 'Little Drummer Boy' is the highlight of the set, setting a distant marching drum beat against a hum of low reverb and some gorgeously understated vocals - this is real stop you in your tracks stuff, I remember hearing it on John Peel at the time and being totally spellbound. Even the most hardened Scrooge out there secretly longs for fairies and snowflakes at this time of year and this is exactly the sort of record to bring it out of them - you might be heartily sick of the likes of Mariah Carey and Cliff Richard by now and already looking forward to January but a subtle sip of this should bring you back to the wide-eyed enchantment of Xmas back when you were a kiddie. Lovely stuff.
King Diamond - No Presents for Christmas
Ok, first a brief apology for the notable lack of entries over the past couple of days - as you may have guessed I've been having computer problems to which the solution may have to be a late bid to Santa for a new laptop. Fortunately I've been very good this year. The concept of festive gifts also brings me rather neatly onto my next Xmas anthem from King Diamond, high-pitched warbler with hugely influential 80s metal tykes Mercyful Fate who kicked off his solo career in the mid 80s with this rather curious standalone single. 'No Presents for Christmas' is for the most part not massively different to his later solo material, all galloping riffs and demonic cackling with a lyrical focus on paperback horror themes. The track lumps together a series of festive musical snippets to lighten the mood from the rollicking metal on show and veers off into the sort of comic self-parody that you'd expect to hear on an Iron Maiden B-side from the same era rather than the genuinely spooky output of King's later releases. I'm not sure what his gameplan was when he released this, it was perhaps a spot of comic relief aimed at those who viewed him as a genuinely dangerous devil-worshipper or alternatively a defiant gesture to musical cynics who deemed the genre of heavy metal to be incompatible with Xmas music. Either way, for a guy who's spent much of his career denying Christ and singing into a bone crucifix you have to admit that 'No Presents' is quite the stylistic curveball.
Friday, December 07, 2012
DJ Lycan - Christmas Techno
Christmas, much like anything else in life, is infinitely better if you put a donk on it, a point neatly proven by the hitherto unknown 'DJ Lycan' in this rather endearing mix of festive favourites in a goonish Euro Techno mash-up. Not exactly rocket science by any stretch but then Happy Hardcore doesn't really do subtlety and I imagine this sounds pretty brilliant in a warehouse full of shirtless Dutch guys jacked to the eyeballs on steroids and brick dust pumping their fists and sweating profusely. In fact I'm surprised that nobody has come up with a club night exclusively dedicated to festive donk, there's surely a gap in the market there - imagine what fun you could have dancing to stuff like this all evening! Alternatively, if they ever get sick of waterboarding prisoners then I reckon a looped recording of 'Xmas favourites reproduced in the style of DJ Otzi' would surely be a hit in the political detention centres of the world. Either way there's a thirst out there that's just waiting to be quenched.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Fear - Fuck Christmas
Hardcore bands are way too tough to bother with Xmas songs, right? Wrong! LA knuckleheads Fear included this 45-second blast of humbuggery on their bitchin' début LP back in 1982, eschewing the festive cheer typical of many seasonal releases for a ripsnorting rampage through some brutal moshpit powerviolence. But then again these guys hated pretty much everything apart from beer and punk rock and that included their own audiences most of the time - check out their crowd-pleasing turn at the end of Penelope Spheeris' 'Decline of Western Civilisation' documentary if you need to see some proof. 'Fuck Christmas' is unlikely to appear on any 'Most Awesome Xmas Music!' playlists but it does have its place in the canon of festive favourites, if only as the soundtrack to your drunken uncle blundering home after half a bottle of whisky and smashing up the kids' toys in a frenzy of existential despair à la Billy Bob Thornton in 'Bad Santa'. Aaah Christmas, it brings out the best in all of us.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012
Jon Bon Jovi - Please come home for Christmas
I would normally make every effort to avoiding anything involving Jon Bon Jovi but it's not an easy task - the guy has managed to pilot his shitty poodle rock troupe through three decades of audio pollution without ever going away and his perfect teeth and hairy chest seem destined to pop up wherever you look. Although Bon Jovi are typically regarded as an 80s band, they actually enjoyed their biggest sales year in 1994 when their 'Crossroad' best of compilation was the year's biggest seller and the fuck-awful ballad 'Always' provided them with the their biggest ever hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Just to rub it in, JBJ elected to release his cover version of 60s festive hit 'Please come home for Christmas' (the Eagles had released their own cover of it in the late 70s which is way better) which followed 'Always' into the top ten in December 1994 on the back of a lurid promo video featuring the vocalist rolling around half naked with Cindy Crawford. It somehow wasn't enough that his band could wallpaper their spare room with platinum albums or that they'd been the only hair metal band to survive the grunge explosion, the guy still has to make sure we all know how awesome he is by bumping uglies with a supermodel? Thanks a lot Jon, you smug, smug fucker.
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
Saint Etienne/Tim Burgess - I was born on Xmas Day
If you were a red-blooded heterosexual into your indie back in the early 1990s then chances are you lusted after one of the two vocalists involved here, Saint Etienne's delectable Sarah Cracknell and the Charlatans' floppy-fringed frontman Tim Burgess. So it came as an added bonus when both of them decided to team up for this oft-overlooked festive frolic from Xmas 1993. Saint Etienne were in the middle of a faultless run of kitsch-pop hit singles ('You're in a bad way', 'Only love can break your heart', 'Who do you think you are?' etc) whilst the Charlies were in a bit of a lull that they'd emerge from a couple of years later with their 1995 eponymous LP (featuring 'Just when you're thinking things over', 'Feelin' Holy' et al). This tune is very much in the style of the former than the latter, Sarah maintaining the retro sex kitten rush whilst Tim potters around in the background and it's more likely to be fondly remembered by St Etienne's long term fans than by the raucous lager monkeys that turn out for Charlatans shows these days. Not a bad little number though and one that deserves more airtime than it gets, if only as a reminder of how sexy Sarah Cracknell looks in that mini dress. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Monday, December 03, 2012
Run DMC - Christmas in Hollis
Xmas time can often lead to overindulgence, so what better way to work off some of that weight than by shaking your booty to a spot of festive hip hop? Run DMC were at the height of their fame when they dropped 'Christmas in Hollis' back in 1987 on the back of the stonking 'Raising Hell' LP from the previous year (home of 'It's Tricky', 'Walk this Way', 'My Adidas' etc) and the track indulges in a bit of good-spirited self-parody and seasonal cheer with plenty of sleigh bells, eggnog and 'ill reindeers'. Santa reciprocates with a generous shower of gifts of rope gold and tracksuits in the video clip as the band play along with some goofy humour that you suspect might be beyond many of their thuggish modern-day successors - remember folks, Xmas is the time for good will to all men and that includes the squares, suckas and punk-ass beeeeyatches out there that you've spent the previous 11 months engaged in an ongoing feud with. We're surely overdue another 'lay down your arms and have some turkey' anthem from today's rap community - come on folks, who's gonna take up the mantle?
Sunday, December 02, 2012
Twisted Sister - Oh Come All Ye Faithful
The glam metal boom of the 1980s has seen a resurgence over recent years as every second tier poodle rock outfit got back together for a reunion tour to pay for their rehab bills and divorce settlements - Twister Sister managed to gone one better though and recorded their very own Xmas record 'A Twisted Christmas' in 2006, replete with metal versions of several established festive favourites. The lead single was their reworking of 'Oh come all ye faithful' which, as many listeners had doubtless pointed out, bore more than a passing resemblance to their signature tune 'We're not gonna take it' - instead of dodging the issue the band embraced it and busted out a rollicking version of the festive classic that merged the two songs and taped a promo video very much in the same vein as their prime-era 80s MTV classics (the chick in the clip looks strangely similar to the tyrannical parent/teacher in their old school videos too - is she his daughter I wonder?). This wins because the song rocks but also because Dee Snider has come to resemble the grizzly gin-soaked maiden Auntie that showed up at Xmas when you were a kid and demanded you came over and gave her a BIG KISS (mentally blocking out the whiff of mothballs and three-day lumberjack stubble). Xmas pantomimes across the UK are full of dudes that look like this right now, although the Sister don't just trowel on the make-up for the festive season - these guys are still glamming it up every night on tour all year round (even though they're all about 18 stone and slightly scary looking). God Bless the Widow Twankies of hair metal, long may they continue to get their rock on.
Saturday, December 01, 2012
Elvis Presley - White Christmas
What better way to start than with a little something from the King? Aside from laying the foundations for modern pop music as we know it, Elvis also set the standard for the lucrative Xmas album format and his festive 1957 collection remains the best selling Xmas record of all time. It wasn't the first time a popular artist had capitalised on their popularity by flinging out a Xmas record at the height of their fame but Elvis' status as the first genuine pop star of his time gave him the opportunity to mix things up a little bit style-wise and the album married straight-faced spiritual numbers with some more upbeat cuts delivered in the pelvic-thrusting hornmonster persona he had adopted back then, resulting in the first example of a mainstream pop artist repackaging Xmas tunes in their own inimitable style. Bizarrely the song that caused the most trouble wasn't one of the raunchy rock 'n' roll numbers but his revamp of Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas', itself an established festive standard of 15 years' pedigree by that point - Elvis' slow, seductive version of the song enraged composer Irving Berlin enough to prompt him to phone radio stations across North America insisting that they remove the 'profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard' from their playlists. These days it's hard to see what the fella was so upset about but then again that was 55 years ago so we can probably assume that the modern-day impact would be something along the lines of LMFAO recording a bosh-pop reworking of Cliff Richard's 'Mistletoe and Wine' over a video montage of elf on elf bondage and reindeer fellatio. Such are the times we live in I suppose....
Now that December is upon us and the festive season is in full force you can probably expect to be assailed by the same Xmas playlists that you've heard a zillion times before every time you set foot in a shop, bar or other area of public loitering until you're so sick of hearing them that you end up praying that the Mayans were right and that we'll all be mercifully released a few days earlier than scheduled this year.
Well fear not dear reader, for salvation is at hand! I've taken it upon myself to provide an alternative list of Xmas classics this year and shall be revealing them at the rate of one a day in an advent calendar styleee, stepping away from overplayed standards like 'Fairytale of New York', 'All I want for Xmas is you' and anything involving Cliff Richard to bring you some alternative yuletide anthems that habitually fly under the radar at this time of year.
Keep checking this page for your daily dose of festive audio frolics as we count down to
total extinction of mankind another fabulous Xmas celebration and I hope you enjoy the tunes :)
Sunday, November 11, 2012
1984 wasn't quite the dystopic police state predicted by George Orwell (in the UK at least, he wasn't that far off the mark elsewhere in the world) but the musical output of the year did represent an underground growing increasingly disenfranchised with the celebratory commercialism of mainstream culture set against a backdrop of miners' strikes, welfare state misery and the grinning figureheads of Thatcher and Reagan crushing all before them. The Smiths emerged as the antidote to the cosy triumphalism of the times and numerous other indie bands laid down foundations upon which they would build later in the decade as début releases from New Model Army, Dead Can Dance, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skinny Puppy and The Cult forged inroads into underground independent art. Elsewhere the charts saw career peaks from more established indie staples as Echo and the Bunnymen and Billy Bragg followed the Smiths into the mainstream and the NME and John Peel's radio show became reference points for an underground music scene going from strength to strength. Indie was destined to remain in the bedsits and student unions of the nation though and elsewhere rampant commercialism continued to thrive as arena rock took over with massive releases like Springsteen's 'Born in the USA' and Van Halen's synth conversion '1984' becoming the soundtrack to faceless world tours awash with sweatbands, sleeveless T-shirts and mind-numbing guitar solos. Well-meaning socially-conscious groups like Simple Minds, Midnight Oil, Big Country and a mainstream-permeating U2 used a similar format to bring worthy topics to arena rock audiences over plodding, pedestrian radio rock and gacky soul ballads like Lionel Ritchie's 'Hello' and Stevie Wonder's career low 'I just called to say I love you' dominated the charts. 1984 would also prove to be pop's last creative peak of the decade as the denizens of the earlier synth pop and New Romantic movements had their last substantial hits and the era-encompassing charity ensemble 'Do they know it's Xmas?' neatly closed a chapter in British pop as gender-bending creativity gave way to inoffensive chart soul like Sade and Simply Red. The year would also be the first time pop music was recognised as a genuine threat by the mainstream media as Prince, Madonna and Frankie goes to Hollywood all fell foul of censors with adult-themed chart material that suggested that pop had finally hit puberty after years of innocent fun. Numerous ham-fisted attempts to clean up the charts ensued and mainstream pop would find itself stuck in a sexless limbo soundtracked by Persil-washed chart crud like Whitney Houston and Phil Collins until the acid house movement breathed new life into the genre at the end of the decade. 1984 effectively marks the mid-point of the decade with the birth of some movements and the death of others - for better or worse things would never be quite the same again. Let's look back fondly over some of the year's more positive memories.
Albums of the year
|1. The Smiths - s/t|
It took me a while to get into the Smiths. My first exposure to their music was the re-release of 'This Charming Man' to promote a pair of 'Best of' compilations that where set for release in the early 1990s - I was buzzed off the track's catchy indie jangle and went out and bought the cassette single but was put off by the rest of the band's music which appeared drab and grey in comparison with the lurid rave-era pop like the Shamen and the Prodigy that soundtracked my pre-teen existence at the time. But therein lies the secret - like the blues, like Nina Simone, like Joy Division, some music just doesn't connect until you've lived through a bit of misery and those halcyon days of kicking a football around and bouncing on your bed to 'On a Ragga Tip' were perhaps a little early to get my Morrissey on. However, the pop edge to their music was what propelled them into the singles charts and brought them to national attention so they were always in the background for radio-addicted noobs like myself who got to know their music in retrospect via revivalist promotional campaigns and numerous references in the music press, making them the equivalent of books like 'Brave New World', '1984' and 'L'étranger' that lurk on the shelves for years until you finally decide that you're ready to take them on for real. Their début would go on to become the most influential record since 'Never mind the Bollocks', perhaps not instigating the same revolutionary sea change in musical culture that the Pistols prompted when they gatecrashed the stale hinterland of mid 1970s Britain but acting as a barometer of the national mindset nearly a decade later against a grim backdrop of unemployment, strikes and alienation from the Reagan/Thatcher axis of yuppiedom. Punk's initial burst of energy empowered disenfranchised youth across the country into believing they could form their own band and take over the world but 'The Smiths' went one step deeper in accurately describing the life and mindset of your average spud dying of boredom in some rain-sodden provincial hellhole - their music wasn't a statement of intent, it was a snapshot of how things really were and a brutally honest, tragically funny one at that.
The band's début was initially not the first of their albums that grabbed my attention - the all-conquering masterpiece of misery that is 'The Queen is dead' was the one to reel me in and the snappier cuts on 'Meat is Murder' made it onto my headphones more frequently than the less immediate delivery of the album tracks on their first LP. But repeated listens have left 'The Smiths' as my favourite record of theirs, the one to best encapsulate the different forces at work within the band. Morrissey typically hogs the limelight in retrospective appreciation of the band and not without reason, his lyrics both celebrating and lamenting his existence as a skint, shy misfit stuck in a dreary, lonely dead-end life, a hopeless romantic constantly seeking beauty in the mundane and miserable. Their civic cousins Joy Division may have captured the repressive drizzle of greater Manchester in their music but Moz was the first to use the city as an integral part of his lyrics, grumbling about eking out a living in 'a rented room in Whalley Range' on 'Miserable Lie' and dreaming that romance can still flourish against an industrial backdrop on 'Still Ill', 'Under the iron bridge we kissed/and although I ended up with sore lips....'. Best/worst of all depending on your viewpoint is the relentlessly dour closing track 'Suffer little children', revisiting the city's grim legacy of the Moors murders over an elegiac spiral of downbeat guitar whilst Moz gently rubs the listener's nose into an episode the local public had done their best to forget. The tagline 'Manchester, so much to answer for' would remain in popular culture as an antidote to the city's puffy-chested bravado exemplified by the Stone Roses and Oasis years later, though they're all part of the same rich musical heritage attached to the area. The calculated androgyny of opener 'Reel around the Fountain' was an equally effective mission statement, eschewing the quick fix head-on approach of riff-heavy indie rock in favour of five minutes of flouncing around moaning fey lyrics that made you wonder whether Moz was being entirely serious; '15 minutes with you, Oooh I wouldn't stay no.....slap me on the patio, I'll take it now'. I thought the track was crap first time I heard it but repeated listens have allowed me to see it within the Smiths' canon as a declaration of their worldview - instead of 'Let's rock/let's go out and take over the world' it was more 'No thanks, I'd rather drink tea and read poetry in my bedroom'. Introverted rather than anti-commercial, the band's music was a deft depiction of the reclusive indie headspace that has always existed in provincial Britain and its continued influence over upcoming generations of indie bands goes to show how universal their themes were. Moz was always a sucker for chart pop though and could pen a hit when he felt like it, and the fact that he had arguably indie's finest axeman in his band meant that the Smiths could lock-in and crank out massive crossover singles when they hit their stride : 'Hand in Glove', 'This Charming Man' and breakthrough sensation 'What difference does it make?' all breached the UK charts, the latter acting as a clarion call for disenfranchised youth in the same way as the Pistols' 'No Future' tagline, although Morrissey's delivery didn't inspire you to smash the system, it merely encapsulated the feeling at the time that anything you did would amount to nothing faced with such an unforgiving world. The Smiths' music succeeds in evoking the everyday life of young men struggling through a miserable existence but transcends fact and setting to paint a picture of how they actually felt waking up in the morning in rain-sodden Manchester - the urge to over-dramatise their situation played into Morrissey's hands as a theatrical sort and his lyrics often veer into ridiculous overstatement safe in the knowledge that his position as a pop singer grants him a certain amount of dramatic licence. Marr's riffs would live on in indie folklore and soundtrack daily life for years to come and the band's relatively brief spell at the top ensured that they didn't wear out their punchcard - their début kickstarted a relentless promo campaign of stand-alone singles augmented with era-defining cover art and every-track-a-killer B-sides and one cracking album a year until they eventually split in 1987 to immediately gain legendary status and lay down a marker for every other indie guitar band of the mid 1980s. It's impossible to imagine the 1980s without the Smiths, their music evokes the drab underbelly of the decade's vulgar excess like nothing else and their ongoing legacy across the spectrum of guitar music is testament to their position as a truly zeitgeist-nailing phenomenon. If by some weird twist of fate you haven't heard all their albums then earmark a rainy afternoon for the pleasure and start with this one - your world may never be quite the same again.
Check out : the promo for 'What difference....' - they're miming but it's all about the poses.
|2. Prince and the Revolution - Purple Rain|
'You remember those arguments you had in the 80s about who was cooler, Prince or Michael Jackson? Prince won!'. Such was the view of Chris Rock after the latter of MJ's two kiddie fiddling scandals, but in truth Prince was always the winner even without media furore coming into the equation. Whilst Jackson was the undisputed male icon of 80s pop (alongside Madonna for the ladies), Prince was a creative force operating on another level entirely - musically adept, fearlessly provocative and able to channel decades of black music into the vanilla landscape of mainstream 80s American pop music, he was (and still is) a pioneer without being elitist, capable of crafting mass appeal without softening his delivery and pissing off the right people at the heart of Reaganite America. The rate at which he cranked out great albums in the 1980s is such that he's one of the artists I had to try hard not to include in every list in this feature, but for me his glory days are still those backed by The Revolution in the mid-80s and nowhere was their strength encompassed better than on the soundtrack album to 'Purple Rain', his celluloid vanity project from 1984.
Before the days of the superproducer, pop still lay in the hands of live musicians - even Jacko's 'Thriller' record was padded out by some of the most highly regarded session players in the biz. Problem is, session players are never cool (Toto, I'm looking at you here) but Prince knew that padding out his band with ugly dorks with pony tails was never gonna work - instead, The Revolution brought a brutally tight funk rhythm section, keyboardist-cum-surgeon Dr Fink who perfomed in medical smocks and fabulous twin vocalists Wendy and Lisa. Getting girls involved made a big difference, and the right girls at that - Prince wisely filtered his potential female vocalists by giving them gems like 'Head' and 'Erotic City' to sing, thus warding off shrinking violets and bringing in ladies who didn't blush at lyrics about fucking. Or, indeed, about female masturbation as was the case on 'Darling Nikki', an album track here that arguably became one of the most significant songs of the 1980s after it kickstarted the PMRC's 'Explicit Lyrics' sticker campaign stemming from Tipper Gore's discovery that she'd unwittingly bought her daughter the album as a present. What made the situation even more ridiculous was that 'Nikki' was hardly anything new for Prince, he'd been penning that kind of lyric since day one and unlike the shock rock showboaters like WASP and Motley Crue who also became targets of Gore's public morality campaign, he wasn't really trying that hard to piss people off. Cue insipid media campaigns, stickering that resulted in Wallmart pulling any record bearing the explicit label and nationwide conservative frothing at the mouth over 'porn rock' like it was Satan defecating into the ears of innocent children. Had Mrs Gore pulled her head out of her own vagina long enough to listen to the rest of the album and appreciate its other qualities, she'd have found plenty to enjoy - the flourescent disco rush of 'I would die 4 U', the stadium-sized title track and the twin US #1 hits 'When doves cry' and 'Let's go crazy'. Up against a backdrop of Lionel Ritchie, an emergent Whitney Houston and 'I just called to say I love you', 'Purple Rain' stands alone as the pinnacle of US pop for the mid 80s. It may also be a the gateway to a world of sin, I'll let you be the judge.
Check out : 'Darling Nikki', preferably wearing your 'Masturbation is not a crime' T-shirt.
|3. Billy Bragg - Brewing up with....|
Indie's status as the antidote to the vulgar excesses of the 1980s was cemented as bookish miserablists like the Smiths spearheaded a musical scene firmly rooted in the cultural context of everyday Britain as opposed to the starry-eyed stadium rock of the era's megastars. As your Springsteens and Meatloafs churned out massive anthems to entertain the masses there was a swell of activity in the nation's bedsits as raincoat clad introverts hastened to put pen to paper and give their own romantic fantasies an outlet, wallowing in mundane everyday detail to root the music in the grim reality of 80s Britain. Some looked further than mere observational detail though - the likes of Morrissey, Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith rarely proposed solutions to the grimness captured in their music and preferred to retreat into romance and poetry as an escape route but in pockets across the UK there were artists picking up on the anger and social unrest so well channelled by the earlier punk and ska movements whose momentum had somehow begun to slow as the decade progressed. Elvis Costello and the Pogues' Shane Magowan would take well-aimed pops at establishment politics as they reverted into folk songwriting (more of that in 1985's list!) but it was left to others to pick up the political baton and stride into the landscape of GB84 to hold a mirror up to the times. Heavily politicised squat-pop artists like Chumbawamba and Billy Bragg were only too happy to do so and took no prisoners in their radical assessment of Tory-dominated Britain and both carved out long and illustrious careers sticking the boot in where in mattered whilst nailing themselves a hit or two in the process - though they will doubtless always be remained (and in many cases reviled) for their unashamedly left-wing protest anthems, both have major hit singles on their rosters to prove their songwriting talents and perhaps more importantly both have proved that they can channel the personal as well as the political with some genuinely touching moments amidst all the system smashing. Chumbawamba's tender side is perhaps less obvious to the naked eye, their musical (and sometimes physical) attacks on injustice and hypocrisy packing enough Yorkshire grit and venom to scare off most neutrals and back in 1984 they were still in their formative phase as a ragtag troupe of hostile anarchists - Billy Bragg on the other hand was a self-sufficient busking legend by this point and had already penned a killer début the previous year with the seven-track 'Life's a riot with Spy vs Spy' (featuring his first classic in 'A New England' that Kirsty MacColl would later take into the top ten along with future Rancid favourite 'To Have and to Have Not'). His follow-up 'Brewing up with Billy Bragg' isn't significantly better than his début, it just has more songs and gives his stripped down delivery a proper run at creating a cast-iron classic album.
Billy's on fine form here from the outset, kicking off with a brutally accurate savaging of the tabloid press on 'It says here', itself a statement of intent and a warning that those of us willing to believe what we read in moronic newspapers wouldn't be spared any criticism over the coming tracks. The song packs in as much vitriol as anything by Crass or Discharge but Billy's decision to channel his anger into an articulate, composed boot in the gonads of the UK gutter press is arguably much more effective and rings just as true today as it presumably did back then - I can think of a paper or two who 'offer you pictures of stockings and suspenders next to calls for stiffer penalties for sex offenders'. The less acerbic yet equally effective 'Island of No Return' picks apart the futility of the Falklands conflict and Bragg would pen his greatest political track of all in the slipstream of the LP with 'Between the Wars', a crushingly honest depiction of the misery foisted on thousands during the miners' strike which brought him into the UK charts in his own right - true to form Billy busted it out acoustic on Top of the Pops in contrast to the lip-synching trend of the time and played numerous benefit concerts in support of the miners' protests as the bitter feud raged on. Even if you don't completely agree with his politics, it's hard to remain untouched by Billy's unwavering focus on human dignity and he never wallows in sentiment in his depiction of the grass roots impact of Thatcherite cruelty. The self-styled 'Mr Love and Justice' can tug the heartstrings like no other songwriter I know and his approach is no less potent when he's writing ballads, touching nerves with the skills of a novelist over four minute love songs like teenage crush anthem 'The Saturday Boy' and mesmeric tearjerker 'St Swithin's Day' (Dubstar covered the latter on their début 'Disgraceful' ten years later and I can't listen to either version without blubbering like a fool). Whether he's writing about politics or romance Billy never misses the nerve and the basic ingredients on show here are so potent that anything beyond the electric guitar and vocals that make up most of the tracks would just soften the blow and Billy's decision to sing in his own accent only adds to the sincerity of proceedings rather than reducing his voice to a gimmick in the manner most British indie bands employed in the mid-noughties. The various cover versions of his early material by less stylistically frugal artists just go to show his strength as a songwriter and you wonder whether there aren't more to come, the tightly-wrought riffs of 'Love Gets Dangerous' and 'Strange Things Happen' seeming ideally-suited to a modern stadium-sized rock revival. You can take the material out of the man but Billy has remained steadfastly faithful to his roots throughout his long and illustrious career, staying focussed on the things that truly matter in this life and chronicling our sharpest ups and downs with the care and attention of a true poet rather than that of the ham-fisted lefty busker he's frequently depicted as in less-forgiving sections of the press. Bearing in mind that you may well only know his name for his politics it's worth giving Billy Bragg a second chance and getting to know the man behind the protest anthems - not only is he a thoroughly decent bloke, he's also a responsible for some of the most devastatingly tender love songs I've ever heard and a master of heart-wrenchingly honest tributes to the things that are important to us as human beings. Mr Love and Justice, I can only salute you.
Check out : 'St Swithin's Day'......sniff!
|4. Frankie goes to Hollywood - Welcome to the Pleasuredome|
Pop soundtracks our times perhaps better than any other musical style as it seeps into every facet of everyday life and provides the background noise to even the most mundane of activities - when we look back at our past and attempt to recreate a sense of place we remember the clothes people were wearing, the adverts on the TV and the music playing on the radio, and if you record happened to be in heavy rotation during any particular era then you can lay a reasonable claim to providing its incidental soundtrack and going some way to define it. The late 1980s saw the SAW-stable pop of Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue dominate the singles charts and pop music media whilst the global success of boy/girlbands like Take That and the Spice Girls in the 90s turned them into omnipresent celebrities whose music and image were practically inescapable - the meteoric rise of Geri Halliwel and co in 1996 in particular saw them smash sales records and turn their every release into a major media event, laying down a marker on the times which can never be truly removed. What's all the more impressive about Frankie goes to Hollywood's out-and-out domination of 1984 was that they achieved it flying straight in the face of media support as opposed to the molly-coddled teenypop stars that emerged in their wake, launching a calculated promotional campaign revolving around lurid promo videos, provocative lyrics, performances pushing the unabashed homosexuality of their vocalists to the fore and an artistic celebration of a city the conservative government of the time had pretty much written off as a tax loss. That Frankie sold any records at all is nothing short of a miracle, that they began 1984 by getting their record banned by the BBC and ended it with three massive #1 hits and sales vastly outstripping all their rivals bar the charity ensemble Band Aid is surely testament to one of the most successful promotional campaigns in pop music history.
The band's assault on popular culture rivals that of the Sex Pistols but these were different times to the sterile conservatism of mid 70s Britain - punk had come and gone and the freeform creativity of numerous British bands had changed the musical landscape completely in the early 1980s as the record industry saw a boomtime with sales figures reaching previously unimaginable highs. The knowing entrepreneur could launch a band onto the market with a slick promo campaign of memorable music videos, stellar production sounds and flashy performances and see a massive return on their investment, and it was this boomtime marketplace that Frankie crashed with 'Relax' in early 1984. The single had been released to no great furore in late 1983 backed by a jaw-droppingly sleazy promo video that pretty much ensured it wasn't going to get shown anywhere outside a porn parlour but the infectious clubland throb of the track ensnared listeners and saw it break the top 40 in January 1984, providing the band with a much-coveted appeared on Top of the Pops. What happened next has gone down into pop folklore - stiff-backed Radio 1 DJ Mike Read spat his dummy over the 'obscene' lyrical content and cover art and pulled the record off his turntable midway through the song, prompting Radio 1 to ban it altogether from their playlists and any future editions of TOTP - as it always the case with knee-jerk censorship attempts, it backfired spectacularly as the single shot up the charts and nabbed five weeks at #1 despite the lack of promotion. Things got even worse for the BBC a few months later as follow-up 'Two Tribes' fared even better, nailing a nine-week stretch at the top that wouldn't be bettered for the rest of the decade and reigniting interest in 'Relax' which duly rose back up the charts until the singles occupied both the top two positions in the singles chart in July 1984 (Mike Read must have REALLY hated these guys by then). They'd complete the perfect hat-trick in December when lush ballad 'The Power of Love' made a decent attempt at Xmas #1 but was ultimately dislodged by Band Aid and Wham's 'Last Christmas' in a particularly competitive race, leaving the a heavily-edited version of the title track to be classed as a relative flop when it only reached #2 in early 1985.
Frankie's massive popularity was down to some deft promotional work (the 'Frankie Says' T-shirts, self-congratulatory single release campaigns that celebrated their chart-topping feats before they happened) but their success boils down to a perfect balance of the band's in-your-face performance style and producer Trevor Horn's stellar production job - legend has it 'Relax' is predominantly his work with only peripheral contribution from the band and his success in repackaging the pulsating whomp of hi-NRG club music into a four minute pop track is responsible for its infectious charm, although the somewhat lurid vocal delivery and X-rated subject matter certainly didn't do any harm either (much like the Shamen with 'Eberneezer Goode' several years later, the band denied the track's lyrics bore any link with unseemly behaviour whilst it was in the charts before later coming clean once the fuss had died down). 'Two Tribes' is even better in retrospect and would have stood as one of the best singles of the 80s had its predecessor not grabbed all the headlines - the track's rampaging energy rush was perfect for the singles charts but also provided rich pickings for remixers who threw down several storming versions of their own (like this for example). The rest of the record devotes its time to creating a piece of pop art as opposed to a classic album - outside the singles and their B-sides the rest of the disc is devoted to provocative vocal interludes such as the imitation 'Prince Charles talking about orgasms' shtick on '(TAG)', a series of obbdall cover versions (Burt Bacharach's 'Do you know the way to San Jose' and a rollicking version of Springsteen's 'Born to Run' that drains the E-Street machismo of the original and replaces it with camp vaudeville pomp and circumstance) and a late rush of tweaked reworkings of their earlier material that sounds somewhat out of place with the studio shine of the singles. This was more than just another cassette to play in your car though - the finished product presented the album as a piece of conceptual art, a massively ambitious fresque taking in politics, sexuality and several cultural nods towards their hometown (drummer Pete Gill's scouse afro remains an unconfirmed inspiration for Harry Enfield's tracksuit-clad comedy trio years later). It was so vast in scope compared to most of the other stuff coming out at the time that it would either tank catastrophically or go off into commercial orbit and history will reflect that the gamble paid off, the album provided a bold artistic statement of the band's worldview and providing a landmark achievement in pop that has yet to be truly surpassed. The singles will remain in heavy rotation for years to come but 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome' is worth experiencing in its entirety for a glimpse of what's possible in pop - these guys managed in a year what most bands struggle to achieve over the course of their entire careers, planting themselves solidly at the vanguard of British music from which no end of industry potshots could dislodge them and ensuring that their brief reign at the top was avidly followed by even the most casual of listeners. They'd ultimately disappear as quickly as they'd arrived, dropping off the radar in mid 1985 until lacklustre follow-up 'Liverpool' emerged the following year to general indifference but by then they'd made their point and could afford to hit the bricks. 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome' should be held up as a guide on how to conquer the charts in twelve months, a manual for total cultural domination for aspiring dictators everywhere who want it all, right now and on their own terms. The industry will tell you it can't be done, Frankie say otherwise. We know who's right.
Check out : the full version of the title track, an intoxicating ride to pop's forbidden zone.
|5. W.A.S.P - s/t|
Heavy metal has always had a capacity to shock and offend, sometimes via a wilful misunderstanding of the genre but in other cases as a result of bands going out of their way to piss off the mainstream. The beginning of the 1980s had seen the amenable bud-chugging arena rock of Van Halen sweep America whilst the more visceral sounds of the New Wave of British Metal tested boundaries more noticeably across the Atlantic and eventually captured the US market, resulting in UK-bred metal acts like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne notching massive hits in the early MTV era whilst simultaneously unsettling a nation of priests, parents and music censors. The Yanks weren't to be outdone in their own backyard mind you and soon the LA metal scene had spewed forth several flagship groups of its own intent on conquering the charts with their obnoxious twist on the formula. Ozzy protégés Mötley Crüe were the first and arguably the best of the new breed but others followed; poodle-permed posers Ratt, glam-revivalists Quiet Riot and the relentlessly crass W.A.S.P who, along with fellow shock rock staples Twisted Sister, managed to bring metal right to the top of Tipper Gore's hitlist when she launched the conservative mother's censorship board PMRC the following year. Unlike Twisted Sister's Dee Snider who was brainy enough to fend off the attacks of the blue rinse brigade and whose music had been largely misunderstood, W.A.S.P were guilty as charged - they'd made no attempt to intellectualise their music and set out with the gameplan of making the most gratuitous, explicit rock 'n' roll imaginable. I was tempted to include Twisted's 'Stay Hungry' on this year's list but I plumped for W.A.S.P instead precisely because their idiotic approach is all the more endearing for its lack of defensible qualities (plus they have better songs) - the debate over whether music should carry any particular message behind the sex and violence is one that bypasses the value of being crass and graphic purely for the sake of it. I like W.A.S.P for the same reason I like Cannibal Corpse and Roy Chubby Brown, fellow masters of the fine art of vulgarity who've managed to refine the thrill of puerile, gratuitously explicit entertainment with the same creative flair and attention to detail you'd encounter in any other art form. W.A.S.P were violent, misogynist and thoroughly unseemly but ultimately all the more loveable for it - their early stage shows featured vocalist Blackie Lawless mock-torturing nude models and chucking raw meat into the audience and they cemented their reputation as rock's sleaziest outfit when their inimitable début single 'Animal (Fuck like a Beast)' landed in early 1984 coupled with a record sleeve featuring Blackie's crotch sporting a circular saw blade (classy!). The song was perhaps wisely omitted from their début LP in order for it to even make the record racks but the remaining material is no less lurid - macho crotch rock like 'On your knees' and 'L.O.V.E Machine' rub shoulders with pervy S'n'M numbers like 'Tormentor' and 'The torture never stops' (possibly a reference to Blackie's concept album twin-sets a few years down the line) and there's still time for a darkly seductive ballad in the shape of 'Sleeping in the Fire'. The subject matter may be fairly nasty for the most part but musically the boys are all about massive choruses, chunky riffs and thunderous rhythms making 'W.A.S.P' a devastating statement of intent and one which saw their anthemic shock rock rise to national prominence in the mid 80s for it to be publicly lambasted by the PMRC alongside several less deserving peers. W.A.S.P lapped up the attention the censorship hearings gave them and made no attempt to tone down their act, only coming unstuck when Blackie Lawless succumbed to the deadly rock star malady of attempting to get your work taken seriously, prompting a descent into pretentious story albums that nevertheless yielded them considerable success in the pre-grunge era but ultimately saw them fade soon after. Their bratty début remains the jewel in their crown, a relentless assault of catchy tributes to violence, the occult, sex as conquest and senseless rebellion which hit every nerve of middle America's moral majority and emerged all the more powerful afterwards. It might lack the coherent social comment on sex and violence that you'll find in Paul Verhoeven films or the more cerebral metal of Carcass and Napalm Death but utlimately 'W.A.S.P' is all the more enjoyable for its snotty, brainless take on lurid themes in the same way white cider, jawbreaker gobstoppers and cheap tacky horror films provide an uncushioned hit of euphoric energy. Not exactly a work of art by any stretch but 'W.A.S.P' stands as a museum piece for mid 80s metal and a masterclass is playing it loud, crude and very, very NASTY.
Check out : 'On your knees' live in '84....with no underwear!
|6. Cocteau Twins - Treasure|
1980s indie has been the subject of much revisionist historical praise over recent years, underlining the importance of various bands in shaping the sound of today's sceneleaders via careers that often consisted of several years' hard graft playing toilet venues to handfuls of students whilst the general public remained oblivious to the fact they even had a record out. In today's age of the YouTube sensation and the internet-enabled rise of the post-Arctic Monkeys teenage sensation it's hard to imagine the patience and dedication required by both fans and bands in the primitive realms of the provincial indie scene in the UK (or indeed anywhere else for that matter) back in the 1980s when the most you could hope for was to scrape the lower reaches of the top 40 with a limited edition flexidisc. And to be honest there's no reason for today's punter to romanticise the period - there may have been a surfeit of decent bands constantly touring the smaller, more accessible venues across the UK and progressive, genre-shaping groups were popping up all over the place but would you trade in Spotify and the smorgasbord of European festivals around today for spending hours rummaging around in some smelly record shop and watching bands soundcheck above your local pub? I'll take today's alternative hands down thank you very much. However, present day credit is due to the bands of yesteryear who did it all the hard way and slowly consolidated a fanbase of jumper and glasses sporting, tea-drinking bedroom indie nerds across the UK who laboured fruitlessly across much of the 80s for their favourite bands to gain some sort of recognition - though the Smiths embody the British indie scene for many, their runaway success was the exception rather than the rule for homegrown acts toiling away on independent labels. If indie represented a genuine alternative to the mainstream then the best example of how things looked and sounded at the time would probably be ethereal navel-gazers Cocteau Twins, their litany of EPs and albums across the 1980s summing up the student bedsit introversion of the decade's indie zeitgeist like no other. They'd achieve moderate mainstream recognition in the early 1990s and would cire numerous musical offspring along the way who would go on to far outstrip their own achievements as a band, cementing their position as leaders rather than followers and leaving their back catalogue ripe for re-appraisal. If you're on that journey then 'Treasure' is a pretty good place to start.
Always about the sounds rather than the songs, Cocteau Twins built their tracks around trippy guitar effects, drum machine blips and Liz Fraser's 'vocals', eschewing recognisable words most of the time in favour of blissed-out mouth noises and amorphous la-la-la sounds. Their approach embodied twee indie-pop for many but it did succeed in taking guitar music into a different realm and making the listener relinquish typical pointers and lose themselves in the woozy soundscape the band produced - the references to mainstream music are there but they're echoing from several rooms away through clouds of pink fog. Frazer's vocals on 'Persephone' are like listening like Lisa Stansfield from the bottom of a swimming pool and the earthy guitar and bass on cuts like 'Cicely' sound like the most pedestrian likes of Echo and the Bunnymen if they were pumping out from a pixie house at the bottom of your garden. There are enough reference points to make their music accessible but you suspect that any attempt to grab hold of those references would simply result in them dissolving into a cloud of bubbles and floating away. Whilst many of their indie peers were crafting close lyrical examinations of the grim reality that surrounded them at the time, the Twins' music references moods rather than events, floating off into lovestruck fantasy or blissed-out disconnection instead of wallowing in the nuts and bolts of everyday life. The slightly twee nature of their music and its entrenched camp in blissed-out fairyland (most track titles are girls' names, perhaps intentionally) left the band open to the accusation of being detached from everyday life but I think the opposite is true - like most great dance music the Twins' output represents an escape from the mundane reality of the daily grind and against the drizzly backdrop of Thatcherite Britain 'Treasure' must have provided period fans with an invaluable portal into indie Narnia to take them away from bedsit reality. The band proceeded to build up a head of steam over the course of the mid 1980s as 'Treasure' kick-started a string of tripped-out releases that forged their reputation as one of the UK's brightest hopes and they'd eventually achieve moderate mainstream success as the 1990s dawned and the dream-pop sound they pioneered was reproduced by numerous bands as shoegaze and 4AD indie broke into the mainstream. The loved-up wordless exaltations of Frazer would also resurface as baggy took off with vocalists imitating the chemically-induced rave state with open-mouthed 'aaaahs' and 'oooohs' (Shaun Ryder on 'W.F.L.' for example) and the dreamlike guitar swathes that became the band's trademark would be lifted wholesale by everyone from House of Love to My Bloody Valentine as indie finally realised its true commercial potential. The Twins were never going to be the band at the forefront of any movement though, they were much better suited to the indie hinterland they never truly left and carried on labouring just under the radar until they split in the late 1990s, leaving a legacy of amorphous sonic blobs to be discovered by generations of new indie fans like hidden gems in the attic. 'Treasure' is perhaps aptly titled then - it's not a record to leap out at you but it'll prove a pleasant surprise at the end of an afternoon spent rooting around in the annals of UK indie.
Check out : 'Lorelei', like the vapour rising from a freshly-brewed love potion.
|7. Madonna - Like a Virgin|
Let's be frank from the outset, 'Like a Virgin' isn't a great album. Madonna is probably the most important artist of my lifetime in single format but she's never put out a great LP - 1989's sex 'n' religion showpiece 'Like a Prayer' isn't far off and 1998's slick career reinvention 'Ray of Light' comes close but she's never really succeeded in draining off the fluff and filler to fully justify the asking price of a full length album. But to leave her out of these lists would be to succumb to the failings of every guitar-obsessed whiteboy rock critic out there - retrospective 'best album' pieces are virtually always written by the guys and inevitably favour navel-gazing tributes to Sonic Youth and Radiohead whilst bypassing the visceral love-at-first-sight thrills of mainstream pop, the field Madonna came to conquer in the mid 1980s, cementing her position as probably the most influential female performer of the last three decades. Listening to yet another clique of nerdy journalists fiercely debate what their favourite Bob Dylan album is will lead to a tedious stream of lyrical dissections, fanboy bravado and musing over guitar tone but ask any group of adult women what their favourite Madonna moment is and you're guaranteed a much more stimulating conversation - ladies worldwide have grown up with Madge in the backdrop of their existence and you'll be hard pressed to find a woman out there who hasn't been affected by her music in one way or another. Hence her inclusion here - it's impossible to imagine modern music without Madonna, her imprint is there for all to see and unlike her male counterpart Michael Jackson she wasn't afraid to put noses out of joint along the way. Many of my female friends frequently bemoan the concessionary stance of women in today's pop music scene compared to the taboo-crunching trajectory charted by Madonna over the course of the 1980s and if you trace that journey back to its beginnings then you'll find 'Like a Virgin'.
Whilst her first album had introduced her onto pop's landscape the previous year with the effervescent twinstrike of 'Lucky Star' and 'Holiday', it lacked the transgressive edge that would come to characterise her later releases and these days comes across as a slab of endearing yet disposable 80s chart pop. 'Like a Virgin' didn't break the mould overnight and contains plenty of fluff of its own ('Angel', 'Over and Over', 'Pretender') but the lead singles established Madge as a performer that would leave no listener indifferent - now she had everyone's attention, Madonna wasn't scared to hold a mirror up to the public perception of various themes in sexuality and society and the omnipresence of her music in the mid 1980s made it very difficult to ignore the debates she started. Prince may have led the way in terms of challenging the censors but Madonna ultimately had more scope to use her sexuality to provoke discussion, something the album's title track takes fully advantage of as she infuses a slab of radio-friendly aerobic pop with a crafty suggestion that her mind is on altogether more adult matters. Set against the ham-fisted shock tactics of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, 'Like a Virgin' is a masterclass in subtle transgression, packing an infectious chart hit with enough second-degree lyrical suggestion to prompt numerous debates ranging from Tarantino's X-rated dissection of the track in 'Reservoir Dogs' a decade later to the myriad talk-board face-offs amongst third wave feminists over whether Madge's use of her own sexuality empowers her or reduces her to another brainless fuck puppet. Second single 'Material Girl' repeated the trick, raising the yuppie-era question of whether or not you let him pay for everything on the back of a Monroe-aping video clip that Madge later claimed to regret (she felt the straight up Marilyn comparison only belittled her own achievements and it's difficult to argue - to present Madonna as a modern revamp of a previous era's icon is to undermine her status as pop's female ringmaster in her own right). Perhaps ironically it was the comparably inoffensive 'Dress you up' that most put the cat amongst the pigeons, earning Madonna her only entry on the PMRC's notorious 'Filthy Fifteen' list for perceived sexual metaphors in its lyrics - whilst it's not hard to imagine frigid Republican housewives like Tipper Gore reacting badly to the sight of their pre-pubescent daughters aping Madge's stage moves whilst singing the into a hairbrush, you do wonder how high their shock threshold was when you compare 'Dress you up' to the Christ-humping and dog-spanking that she'd indulge in over later releases. Aside from the comparably stark cover of 'Love don't live here anymore' that recalls the straight-faced cabaret shtick she'd pursue on the 'Evita' soundtrack in the late 90s, the rest of the album is slick radio pop with a touch of funk added by producer Nile Rodgers, all pleasantly forgettable and devoid of any deeper meaning. Revisionist pop historians may find this slightly disappointing but it's testament to her position at the forefront of pop that we're even looking for significance in toe-curling fluff like 'Shoo-Bee-Doo' - her singles catalogue is enough to establish her as pop's Wizard of Oz and peering behind the curtain to see the cogs and valves is only going to spoil the fun. Don't waste your cash on 'Like a Virgin', get 'The Immaculate Collection' instead (if for some reason you don't have it already) and devote the evening to a white wine-fuelled session of tuneless kareoke and fevered debate over how things were much better in the 80s. Then shake off your hangover the following morning and go looking for reasons why things are as good now as they've ever been. Madonna's role in pop is just that, to open the discussion rather than to provide its conclusion - she may have gone on to become no more than a crinkle-cut shadow of her former self plying shoe store synth pop to squealing gay crowds and nostalgic mothers prepared to shell out a hundred quid a ticket but even the most unforgiving reappraisal of her meteoric career path through the 80s and beyond can't alter the fact that she changed everything, forever.
Check out : that promo clip for the title track, the moment 80s pop started to grow up.
|8. Whitesnake - Slide it in|
A post-modern appreciation of 80s rock affords the listener the opportunity to take in the era's sonic thrills and spills whilst dealing with none of the inherent fallout. Though Whitesnake's high octane crotch rock is undeniably appealing set against the open-minded backdrop of modern music, you have to feel that listening to 'Slide it in' when it landed in 1984 would have placed you in an audience akin to a crowd of builders slavering over a Sam Fox calender. David Coverdale protested somewhat unconvincingly that his tongue was in his cheek throughout the band's priapic heyday but in many ways I'm more comfortable in the belief that he meant every word of it and that the ten odes to amorous conquest herein were delivered without even the slightest hint of irony. For Coverdale is one of an elite group of entertainers who can play the Don Juan role convincingly through a combination of sheer bloody-minded dedication and brazen showmanship. Like Johnny Borrell, R. Kelly and Jersey Shore's 'The Situation', Coverdale's lothario performance is so unflinchingly focussed, so blissfully unaware of his own preposterousness that we can only applaud his steadfast belief that his music is fantastic and that every woman in the world secretly wants to jump his bones. His career as the dramatic force behind Whitesnake is that of an unhinged despot rather than a creative genius, waging all-out war with a hostile music press, staging regular purges of his line-up and apparently even naming the band after his own willy. He's perhaps deservedly topped many critics' 'biggest tool in music' lists for many a year for his dedication to the virile, hirsute trappings of hard rock long after it ceased to be fashionable as well as his unpalatable showbiz habits such as parading his string of model girlfriends in his band's promo clips and coming out with witty song titles like 'Tits' but I for one will defend Dave's dedication to the righteous cause of penile hard rock over the years and the marvellously-titled 'Slide it in' catches the king at the zenith of his Spinal Tap-esque grasp of the fine line between sexy and sexist.
Having emerged from the remains of Deep Purple's disintegration in the mid 70s, Dave thrashed out a couple of unremarkable solo albums before founding the Snake and building up a commercial head of steam over the late 70s and early 80s with a series of blues-trained session guys (including pretty much all his Purple bandmates bar Richie Blackmore) and some chunky meat and potatoes hard rock that managed to bypass the energy of the NWOBHM explosion whilst still selling a fair few records. By 1982's 'Saints and Sinners' he'd managed to alienate the rest of the line-up and oversaw on one of his many personnel changes in the vein of a Real Madrid boss, drafting in seasoned drum nut Cozy Powell and NWOBHM pin-up John Sykes on guitar (it's a rock 'n' roll name, you can't deny it) to front a new version of Whitesnake despite the fact that the aesthetically unappealing pub rockers in the previous incarnation had already recorded a new album. 'Slide it in' thus fell between two stools initially but a new studio mix for the album's US release saw it skyrocket on the back of some stellar singles catering to an MTV rock scene newly aware of the commercial potential of 'heavy metal' like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot and the glut of newly-formed glam bands from LA's Sunset Strip. The band's seasoned brand of hard rock made adolescent poodle rockers like Ratt and Dokken sound flimsy by comparison and beefy cuts like 'Guilty of Love' and the smouldering 'Gambler' have enough hair on their chest to dwarf the period competition - better still is old-school gem 'Slow and Easy', a six-minute slab of raunchy slow release blues rock that uncoils in a stew of aftershave, testosterone and Coverdale's mid-Atlantic yowl. Less subtle but not less appealing are radio hit 'Love ain't no Stranger' (a brawnier cousin to 'Pyromania' era Def Leppard) and the outrageous title track, itself a staggering triumph of poor taste over common sense resulting in a hilariously crass anthem to amorous conquest that only someone like Coverdale could possibly sing with a straight face (he plumbs even seedier depths on the less appealing 'Spit it out' later on). 'Slide it in' is so far off target to become essential listening in this post-PC age, its blundering crotch rock so totally out of synch with reality that it flies off the map entirely and comes back in the other side to become unintentionally charming. Coverdale may act like he was in on the joke the whole time but history says otherwise - almost all his former bandmates went on to bitch him out after he'd sacked them - and he carried on in much the same vein for the rest of the decade, again jettisoning his bandmates after they'd recorded 1987's multi-platinum self-titled LP in favour of a cast of poodle-haired Galacticos to pad out the promo clips whilst big Dave straddled supermodels on the bonnet of a pink sports car. His sheer dedication to a lifetime of tasteless musical skirt-chasing has to be admired despite the man's unquestionable arrogance and ruthless business sense - Whitesnake's legacy is as solid as ever and 'Slide it in' showcases rock's swashbuckling pork swordsman at his inimitable best.
Check out : 'Slow and Easy'. Get your coat love, you've pulled.
|9. Ramones - Too tough to die|
Admitting to punk purists that you prefer the Ramones when they started using synthesizers is akin to a presidential candidate avowing a penchant for sex with underage squirrels - it's just not the done thing. But I suspect I'm far from alone in this caprice - the boys' 80s output was produced against a totally different musical and cultural backdrop to their inaugural late 70s releases and there's no reason why you can't love them both in their respective contexts. Whilst their frequently-cited peak period of the first four albums captured them in the fertile creative throws that most great bands experience early on in their careers, their equally solid releases as an established punk rock battleship throughout the 1980s showcase their talent for retuning punk's quick fix bloodrush to the global subculture of the Reagan-era indie underground. Whilst their younger contemporaries were getting in the van, going straightedge or tuning left of the dial, the Ramones acted as the older brother whose record collection you inherited in your early teens, a carry-over from a previous generation that inspired universal respect rather than reactionary disdain from the emerging scene leaders of the 1980s. With newer bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat providing the frantic soundtrack for the venue-wrecking, rib-crunching catharsis of a rising generation of punkoid brats, the Ramones indulged their passion for classic pop and rock 'n' roll whilst stabilising their musical delivery as a crafted balance of their melodic pop influences and the relentless frontal assault of their live show. 'Too tough to die' captures them at their most brazen and defiant, firmly planting their flag at the top of punk's foodchain in the face of an ever-evolving musical underground in the USA - representing the quickest turnaround since their late 70s beginnings, the band reacted to a perceived lapse into complacency by cutting loose booze-addled drummer Marky and relegating conservative guitarist Johnny to the sidelines to allow Joey's passion for melodic pop music and Dee Dee's devotion to slobbering smash 'n' grab punk rock to fight for stage time over a refreshingly immediate run of thirteen blasts of infectious sweat 'n' sugar bombast.
One of the Ramones' strongest qualities has always been their perception of pop as something to embrace rather than reject, a universally-accessible artform from which they could cherry-pick the elements they liked in order to give their material that extra spark of high-end energy to take their rollercoaster punk rush to a new level. Joey brought old school R'n'R and Spector-era 60s pop to the table for their earlier releases but 'Too tough to die' sees them take up the Halen/Springsteen endorsed mantle of stadium synthesizer rock for the grin-inducing mid-album run of 'Chasing the Night', 'Howling at the Moon' and 'Daytime Dilemma', each time hitting a balance that sounded equally at home bumping shoulders with Cyndi Lauper and Twister Sister on MTV as it did blasted out on stage at another celebratory club show. That their material failed to provide a genuine crossover hit is both a tragedy and a lucky escape - though the band always coveted commercial success, it's perhaps a fortunate accident they never fully achieved it and remained a reliable staple for the underground right through to their eventual demise in the mid 1990s. But don't dismiss 'Too tough to die' and their pop album - whilst Joey was dreaming of hearing his songs on daytime radio, Dee Dee was busy regressing to the ADD-addled snotling of his younger days and the album sees him team up with the reliable dynamo of new drummer Richie to crank out some of the band's most furious material with blistering cuts like 'Wart Hog' and 'Endless Vacation' flung out at breakneck speed fronted with Dee Dee's own vocal contribution that proved the band had more than one decent singer in its ranks. Lyrically the band adapts to the Cold War paranoia and socially divisive Republicanism of 80s America on cuts like 'Danger Zone', 'Planet Earth 1988' and the defiant Dee Dee-penned 'I'm not afraid of life' and they'd go on to provide a soundtrack that was just as relevant to the nationwide conservative repression of Reagan and Bush as the slobbering urban bloodrush of their débuts had been to late 70s NYC. This was the Ramones moving into the director's office on punk rock - they weren't selling out, they were simply unafraid to take on the responsibility of becoming the genre's reference point and the standard for newer bands to measure themselves against. Their run of releases throughout the 80s and early 90s showcases the strengths of each member to arguably better effect than their earlier material - Dee Dee would pen at least a couple of potential hits on every album they recorded even after he'd left the band whilst Joey and Johnny would resolutely soldier on with a relentless touring and recording schedule despite the fact that they'd pretty much stopped speaking to each other in the early 80s. They'd even take Marky back into their ranks in for 1989's 'Brain Drain' and then adopt twenty-something former marine CJ in the early 90s to inject a dose of youthful energy into their post Dee Dee final years. Every good memory you have of the 1980s has a great Ramones album not far away from it and anybody who saw the band live during that period (including their enormous South American following) speaks just as fondly of them as those who witnessed their early CBGBs outings - check out the documentary 'End of the Century' to see the period in the context of their career as a whole marked out by the triumph of their underground pedigree as well as the disappointment of their failure to ever truly break into the mainstream. You've got time to take in everything from 'Pleasant Dreams' through to 'Adios Amigos' somewhere in your life but if time's at a premium then get your hands on 'Too tough to die' and bounce yourself around the room to the Ramones at their most thrilling and immediate.
Check out : 'Howling at the Moon', surely their best shot at writing a #1 chart hit.
|10. Manowar - Hail to England|
You have to hand it to Manowar, they've managed to eke out a career of about three decades in total denial of the widely held view that their music is a load of ludicrous, unintentionally homoerotic trog metal popular solely amongst Games Workshop dwelling dorks and Third World dictatorships. The further down their chosen path they travel, the less likely they seem to ever turn back - when drummer Scott Colombus bit the big one a couple of years back I was kinda disappointed that they didn't send his corpse off to Valhalla on a burning longship and then rape some peasant wenches to celebrate. I think they just cremated him or something. Surely there was a song in there somewhere?
Anyway, I digress. Fact is, Manowar didn't stick out that much in the early 80s flanked by Thor and a pre-coming out Judas Priest in a mailstrom of leather, testosterone and hackneyed mythological references. Their first few albums, of which 'Hail to England' is the strongest, beefed up the punchy, anthemic sound of the NWOBHM groups from the start of the decade with none of the wit and ten times the enthusiasm - it's often been said that Yanks don't do irony, although Manowar's shrieking defiance of the 'false metal' surrounding them, hilariously macho lyrics and tryhard displays of deft musicianship actually contribute to their appeal as the real-life Spinal Tap, blissfully unaware of their own preposterousness. They do have a few tunes under their belt though - opener 'Blood of my Enemies' matches rousing metal bombast with lurid cartoon mythology, the rollicking 'Kill with power' features some of the most evil cackling in heavy metal and the side-splitting title track is the finest tribute to our fair nation that one could hope for. They'd later get bogged down in their mighty quest to make everything louder, widdlier and supersized in every possible way, but 'Hail to England' catches them at a point where their ambitions were still saddled with some grasp on reality - ex-Dictators guitarist Ross the Boss, having successfully graduated from punk to metal, provides crunchy fist in the face riffs to match lyrical flights of fancy from operatic vocalist Eric Adams and dorktastic bassist Joey Demaio, whose mind-numbing solo piece 'Black Arrows' will either make you grin with delight or wail with despair depending on your mood. Which sums up Manowar's car crash appeal really - whilst their music is so undeniably awful, it nevertheless retains a charm unique to their loincloth-clad route one approach to heavy metal. There's no clever bugger Darkness-style posing here, these guys REALLY mean it and for that you have to salute them. Aside from the fact that you'd never get away calling an album 'Hail to England' these days, this record stands as a snapshot of heavy metal culture before it had to grow up - it's endearingly crass, lurid and pompous, cringeworthy and cackhanded and mercifully bereft of any form of self awareness. This was mid 80s culture in a nutshell and looking back it's what holds the most attraction in hindsight. You might not have liked to have been around Manowar when they were making it, but 'Hail to England' stands as a period piece that could never be reproduced in today's post-modern society. For that alone, I can only salute them.
Check out : 'Kill with Power'. Bwa ha ha ha haa!
Tune of the Year
Chaka Khan - 'I feel for you'
'Chaka Khan-d'yawantme-d'yawantme-Chaka Khan'. Best opening line ever. 'I feel for you' brought Chaka back up to date for the 80s but in reality it was a team effort, revamping a lost gem from Prince's first album with some funky beats 'n' breaks, harmonica from Stevie Wonder and a guest rapping slot from Melle Mel on that sample at the start. Chaka Khan had been one of the biggest soul divas of the 70s with Rufus ('Tell me something good') before going solo ('I'm every woman', 'Ain't Nobody') but this would be her biggest tune of all, topping the UK chart in 84 and matching her career peak Stateside. In commercial terms it was probably the biggest dance crossover hit of the mid 80s and would be the last cut from the US club scene to top the charts until House music took over later in the decade - on top of all that it proved that Prince's ability to write hits was second to none, becoming the first of two female reworkings of his own tracks to top the charts (the second being Sinead O'Connor's maudlin cover of 'Nothing compares 2 U') before he finally managed it in his own right with 'The most beautiful girl in the world' a decade later. The promo clip boasts all the period reference points (sleeveless gloves, mesh fences, bodypopping) and the track's enduring appeal as a nightclub stomper saw it rise head and shoulders above the competition as four of the funkiest minutes of the 1980s.