Friday 28 June 2013

1976: the calm before the storm

When the Top Of The Pops re-runs began in 2011, a lot of people saw them as evidence that 1976 was pop's worst ever year. This could only have been said by people who hadn't lived through the cheap thrills of the Glam era only to be left high and dry by the tame, tawdry charts of 1975. To put 1976 in context, let me explain the desperation of pop music a year earlier. Only twice in my life have I left the charts alone - for a few months in 1987 when I was an indie puritan, and in early 1975 when I simply lost interest. I bought and devoured Shoot! and football took up all my headspace. Only for a few months, but for pop to have fallen off the radar of the ten-year old me so completely that I didn't know who was number one, still shocks the adult me.

So there were gaps in my musical knowledge of 1975 (fully revealed when the first Guinness Book Of Hit Singles was published in '77) that I'd happily fill in years later - a no.3 hit by the intriguingly named Moments And Whatnauts turned out to be the priceless Girls, with its bright yellow string-machine chords and daffy sexist lyric. But much of it was a desert. My ignorance suggests the kids at school weren't paying much attention either. Clearly there was a pop deficit*. I'd occasionally hear something high in the charts and remain unimpressed - Bobby Goldsboro's lonely housewife murder ballad** Honey made it all the way to no.2 just seven years after it had oozed its way to the same position in 1968; Mud tied a lead weight around Buddy Holly's Oh Boy and somehow scored a number one.

Even the Bay City Rollers' simplistic mix of Spector and Glam, like a dessicated Wizzard, had seemed much more appealing, much brighter in '74 (Shang A Lang, Summerlove Sensation) than it did in 1975 (Bye Bye Baby, Give A Little Love) when they owned the chart as completely as the Beatles in '63 or Frankie in '84. Just a year before, Mud scored a streak of Glam classics - Tiger Feet, The Cat Crept In and (maybe best of the lot) Rocket. 1975 felt like pop's oxygen supply was low, for Mud*** and for everyone else.

Pop analyst Tony Jasper once posited that 1976 felt like a carefree, bubbly year for pop because most of us were blissfully unaware of the punk holocaust about to condemn the likes of Steve Harley, the Rollers and even dear old Mud to chart oblivion. Well, having lived through '75 and '76 I'll vouch for it being a breezy year, but maybe because something, anything would be an improvement on the year before.

So how did things improve?

There was one sparkling trend that stands out for me. Though it continues to split the jury clean down the middle, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody - number one for nine weeks, straddling the end of '75 and the start of '76 - was unquestionably ambitious. It harked backed to a lost world when pop singles were complex structures, not just for kids, aiming to break the three minute barrier and smash the bluff blues base of R'n'R. Good Vibrations had set the bar unfeasibly high in 1966. Richard Harris's Macarthur Park and Barry Ryan's Eloise would stretch the blueprint thrillingly in '68, just as the new blues boom rendered this ornate style unfashionable.

10CC were first to revive it (Rubber Bullets, The Dean And I) but it was probably the influence of the Bo Rhap behemoth that made the extended, multipart single a feature of the 1976 charts. The Four Seasons had been brought in from the cold with a disco hit (Who Loves You) and a Northern Soul re-issue (The Night) in 1975; 1976 brought us their epic Silver Star (no.3 in May). A working man dreams, like Scott Walker's Humphrey Plugg, of being surrounded by beautiful women, "ecstasy on their faces". The bulk of the song is a galloping fantasy, but its middle section thumps out his "nine to five" job, seemingly sought out for him by a domineering wife. "Ain't living but I'm alive" he sobs.

Who else tried this lark? John Miles' Music (no.3) showed that, in the wrong hands, it could sound ungainly and pompous (though the first instrumental sections sounds like a dynamite TV theme); David Essex's urban psychodrama City Lights (no.24) was so long it became one of the first 12" singles, and a startpoint for Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds; Simon May's Summer Of My Life (no.7) sounded like Terry Scott concocting a Home Counties version of Macarthur Park; Showaddywaddy's Trocadero (no.32) minced up a '58/'68/'76 pop lineage, though not quite so thrillingly as that may suggest. Away from the chart, David Gates' Suite: Clouds, Rain picked up Capital Radio airplay. If for no other reason, this odd trend nullifies the idea that 1976 was a pop nadir.

There were plenty of women on the chart, but girls were nowhere to be seen. Tina Charles, though short and busty and cute as a button, was too mumsy to be a pre-teen dream; Dana's Fairytale (no.13) and Twiggy's Here I Go Again (no.17) provided late period hits for one-time teenage cuties, now definitely out of range from the realistic fantasies of sweaty 14-year olds. Kiki Dee, whose first single had come out in 1963, finally scored a brace of Top 20 hits. The 1976 'girl group' was an odd strain - none of them had members who looked under 25: the Chanter Sisters, the Surprise Sisters, Glamourpuss. Who were these acts aimed at? And how much thought went into their Top Of The Pops performances? The industry wasn't short of money, but very little of it was spent on a stylist for the poor Chanter Sisters whose excellent single Sideshow was sunk by a godawful TOTP must-see performance. None of them scored a Top 20 hit.

The 1976 charts behaved as if we had outgrown cute boy or girl-led pop. Stranger than the half-assed girl group revival was the lack of poster boys. David Essex and the Bay City Rollers had been the pin-ups of '75, but both had sharp drop-offs in '76 (Essex failed to reach the Top 20 at all). Flintlock scraped into the Top 30, just, with Dawn ("is breaking my heart"), even though they were on TV every single week on You Must Be Joking and Pauline's Quirkes. The Wurzels? JJ Barrie? Maybe they just primed a nation's pre-pubescents for the pin-up star of '77, the decidedly-not-young David Soul, whose appeal (I'm wildly presuming here) was that he could be your best friend's handsome dad. Whatever, 1976 produced no new teen sensations. Agnetha was the only true pin-up, but she'd first wiggled her blue satin pants on TOTP in spring '74, and again she was closer to Legs & Co's territory than Mary Weiss or Clare Grogan.

Disco 1976-style was a very varied beast and none the worse for it. The BPM count varied from Isaac Hayes' hyper, whip-cracking Disco Connection (no.10) to Andrea True's slo-mo porn'n'cowbell classic More More More (no.5). Neither used the patented Philly hi-hat, soon to be ubiquitous. Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music (no.7) trounced any funk-rock hybrid before or since, while UK acts the Average White Band (Pick Up The Pieces) and the Climax Blues Band (Couldn't Get It Right) created genuinely timeless club hits, the latter with a neatly sinister feel - just what was it that they couldn't get right?****.

The hot hot heat defined another sound of '76, with the blazing summer surely affecting chart positions. Wings' Let 'Em In (no.2) was an exhausted sprawl on a day bed; Steve Harley's Here Comes The Sun (no.10) flounced; Dr Hook's prolonged sexual antics on the grisly A Little Bit More (no.2) left them "flat out on the floor" in temperatures consistently in the eighties; David Dundas' Jeans On (no.3) was another lazy mooch in the shade; and Elton and Kiki's Don't Go Breaking My Heart was as summery and all-conquering (six weeks at the top) as 45s get.

The aforementioned Surprise Sisters turned in one of the worst singles of '76 with their trashing of Got To Get You Into My Life. What on earth were they doing? Without any context, their crazed supper-jazz with forties burps made no sense. But there was a pre-war swing revival in the air - Essex DJ Chris Hill would pepper his soul sets with blasts of Glenn Miller, and his set was influential enough to push Miller's In The Mood into the chart; the swing legend's Tuxedo Junction gave Manhattan Transfer their first hit (no.24) in March); Maureen McGovern recorded a new version of Ginger Rogers' The Continental (no.16) which, chirruping from an Alba transistor radio, sounded like it was from 1935; Winifred Shaw's lovely minor hit Lullaby Of Broadway WAS recorded in 1935. The Chi Lites' You Don't Have To Go (no.3) had one of the year's strangest productions, with a trippy echo-drenched chorus and unexpected female squeaks on its extended coda, but also made room for a silent screen-era brass section. Beyond Chris Hill's contribution, and possibly the influence of Bugsy Malone, I can offer no explanation to this trend. It peaked and died when Manhattan Transfer went mainstream (to the point of being used as a Terry & June punchline) a year later.

Amidst these short-lived fashions, there were a few TOTP clues on what was to come. Heavy Metal Kids were proto punk, and had no obvious connection to the Pub Rock scene that birthed Eddie & The Hot Rods. I remember seeing She's No Angel at the time and thinking it really stuck out like a sore thumb, quite scary (too scary to crack the Top 50, as it turned out). The backing group looked like a fat Strokes, and singer Gary Holton was some kind of Clockwork Orange/New York Dolls hybrid. Not altogether GOOD, but still they had something that almost everything else on the show lacked - here was a bit of bleedin’ energy at last. And how much did Thin Lizzy's performances jumped out of the screen? Everyone was actually dancing, not just doing that sad TOTP shuffle, to The Boys Are Back in Town (no.8). Likewise, Status Quo's propulsive Mystery Song (no.11) was a hard diamond in the midst of smug piano-led ballads by John Christie and Randy Edelman.

Of course "what was to come"***** was a bunch of low-level chart positions for a mixed bag of acts, some of whom (Graham Parker & The Rumour? The Tubes?) would barely be tagged New Wave these days, let alone Punk. But the Top 30 countdown would have at least one representative of the new order most weeks from April '77 onwards. 1976 was a very light year, in all senses of the word, and things were about to get considerably heavier.

* there were good records released in 1975, but most were albums: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Blood On The Tracks, Gene Clark's No Other, Neil Young's Zuma, Dion's Born To Be With You. Even then, these were hardly heralds of a musical future.

** the singer has killed her, hasn't he? Listen to it again and tell me how's she died of natural causes.

*** Mud managed the rare feat of scoring six hit singles in 1975, none of which were much cop. 1976's sleek Shake It Down was a great improvement, and is a clear forefather of the later Rob Davis-penned hit Groovejet.

**** the intro was possibly pinched for Pink Floyd's much less oblique Another Brick In The Wall.

***** Noel Edmonds predicted it would be slimy singer-songwriter John Christie, and Tony Palmer's All You Need Is Love documentary saw great things ahead for Black Oak Arkansas and Stomu Yamashta.

Sunday 23 June 2013

There's nothing on telly

Like most kids my age I wouldn't have missed Scooby Doo for the world. But a couple of times a week - during what, in the 1970s, was called Childrens Hour - I would sit my portable cassette recorder on a stool next to the TV speaker and record the incidental music being played on BBC2. It wound up my sister - who, rather more conventionally for an eight year old, wanted to watch Black Beauty on ITV - but no one seemed worried about my sanity.

This might need a little more explanation in 2013. In the mid-seventies, there were still only three TV channels and very few programmes, even given this limited choice, during the day. For long periods there was nothing on the screen but trade test transmissions, largely there to enable TV shops to get the best possible picture on their display sets. These transmissions were made up of the testcard, with its instrumental soundtrack, and the occasional test film - like The Home Made Car, a 1963 Academy Award-nominated short which was shown no less than 182 times between 1962 and 1973. During the school holidays, or on Saturday mornings before your parents were up, there was little else for bored kids to do but watch the testcard and transmitter information - the music and the images became as embedded in the minds of a generation as The Monkees and the Robinson Crusoe theme.

I ended up with a collection of C60s containing things like (though I had no idea what they were at the time) Norrie Paramor's version of the Theme from MASH and Andre Brasseur's The Kid, probably the only record played both on the testcard and at Wigan Casino. The liberal use of European synth instrumentals, vocalese jazz, even bits of Bach, informed my tastes - the testcard may not have primed me for punk, but I really understood where the Pale Fountains and Portishead were coming from. Come the nineties and the lounge music boom, I was fairly sure I wasn't the only kid who'd been watching the testcard.

The most iconic image, introduced in 1967 with the advent of colour TV,  was called Test Card F. Its designer was a BBC engineer called George Hersee and, for a dummy run, he had included a picture of his eight year old daughter, Carole, at the centre of it. The BBC decided that replacing Carole's picture with an adult model was too risky - they needed something timeless, and 1967 fashions weren't exactly built to last. So Carole went into a photographer's studio: the result was the familiar image of a girl with an Alice band, playing noughts and crosses with a rather terrifying toy clown, surrounded by mysterious test graphics. Miss Hersee was unsurprisingly teased at school and, to her discomfort, the image was used on a daily basis until 1998. Now living in the New Forest with two daughters, she can claim to have had more screen time - around 70,000 hours - than anyone else in British TV history.

As a child the image seemed incredibly important. For girls, the Mona Lisa-like image of Carole Hersee was a role model - I know a DJ in Wales who dressed like her as a child, even carrying a cuddly clown around; someone else I know thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world (no, it wasn't me). Later on in life, the image of Carole Hersee became more associated with waking up on the settee at three in the morning with the telly still on and empty beer cans on the floor. Her face never changed; the game of noughts and crosses never ended. It was once compared to a Home Counties version of The Seventh Seal.

But it was the testcard music that hooked me. The BBC regularly received letters from the public asking where they could buy the music; the short answer was, they couldn't. The man tasked with choosing the testcard music in the seventies was John Ross-Barnard, who worked in the BBC's Foreign Recordings Department: "People wrote in - can I have a copy? But it wasn't ours. It came from music libraries, and a huge exchange of material between European broadcasters. The public would receive a photocopied letter saying the music wasn't for sale. It was an embarrassment, in a way."

As is often the case, the BBC hasn't kept an archive of Ross-Barnard's tapes, but a group of enthusiasts called The Testcard Circle have spent years piecing them back together and occasionally issuing them on CD. They meet in Leominster every year and swap tapes and obscure scraps of information - Ceefax music from the eighties and nineties, apparently, is creeping up in popularity among younger members. People may have thought testcard music died out years ago, but it only went in October 2012 with the demise of Ceefax. What will replace Ceefax after the digital switchover, and how will the BBC fill those empty hours created by cutbacks? It's obvious, says Flannery: "They'll have to bring back the testcard."

Wednesday 19 June 2013

The Teardrop Explodes' Wilder revisited

Julian Cope’s unlikely, uneven career over the last three decades - eco-warrior, psych rock savant, sire of the standing stone - has almost entirely overshadowed the music of his first band, the Teardrop Explodes. If Reward wasn’t such a “hits of the Eighties” compilation/pub jukebox regular, they might be as overlooked as other early-Eighties Liverpool acts such as Pink Military or Dalek I Love You.

Reward was a Top 10 hit in early ‘81, pushing motor-mouthed psych fan Cope, and his moptop, onto the cover of Smash Hits. The Teardrops’ debut album, Kilimanjaro, was re-issued with Reward added, and stayed in the chart for most of the year. Issued in November ‘81, their second album was going to be called The Great Dominions until a last-minute change of heart saw it switched to Wilder; blurred flowers on the sleeve, like an imprecise Power Corruption and Lies (New Order’s second album, released a few months later), also indicated a sense of indecision. And then there was the opening track.

Bent out of Shape is a decent enough recording, with a strong, melodic chorus and Kilimanjaro brass married to a clunk-funk backing. The problem was that it had been recorded a few weeks earlier for a Radio 1 Richard Skinner session - switch to that version on the second disc of the 2013 reissue and you get an idea of how things going wrong in the Teardrops’ camp.

The verse on the Radio 1 version is just Cope (“Oh my love I’ve been bent out shape, can’t you see it’s killing me?”) and a two-note church organ, while the chorus reaches for The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore grandure. There’s also a musically subtle alteration I can’t put my finger on - a ninth, maybe? - which makes it a very different proposition to the album version. This version is a masterpiece, while the Wilder version is OK. Who on earth couldn’t have spotted that, either in the band, their management, or at the record company? It’s day and night.

The rest of Wilder’s first side is patchy; Colours Fly Away has brass reminiscent of the end credits to Thunderbirds, a fine, high verse and a weak chorus; Seven Views of Jerusalem is a horrible, arid Talking Heads-alike; while Pure Joy is Cope indulging his love of garage punk, over inside of 90 seconds.

It isn’t until the last two tracks on side one that we start to understand what Wilder, née The Great Dominions, was meant to be - a psychedelic divorce album. Squelchy funk moves almost kill the lovely Falling Down Around Me, but Cope’s mournful ba-ba-ba’s save it, while The Culture Bunker is a highpoint, detailing the fallout between Cope and former bandmates Ian McCullough and Pete Wylie. “I feel cold when it turns to gold for you” he sulks, over a bit of Gatsby trumpet, a Byrdsian guitar motif and a solid, largely synth-free groove. It’s the only Wilder track that could have slotted neatly onto Kilimanjaro.

Side two keeps up the momentum, opening with their third hit, the very Happy Together-influenced Passionate Friend, before the mood dips again for the hushed and exquisite Tiny Children. As Wilder came out, Cope was also working on a Scott Walker compilation called Fire Escape in the Sky. It seems hard to believe now, but Walker’s classic solo albums had been out of print for a decade, for the whole of the Seventies, and he had been entirely overlooked by the music press. When Fire Escape... was released it was a revelation to many.

Putting the Scott compilation together unsurprisingly rubbed off on Cope’s songwriting for Wilder. Tiny Children is good enough that it could have been on Scott 4: “I could make a meal of that wonderful despair I feel, but waking up I turn and face the wall”. With gentle Christmas bells on the end, it would have been a brave but timely single. A few weeks after Wilder was released, Soft Cell’s Say Hello Wave Goodbye was at No 3 in the chart - there was a definite appetite for this kind of autumnal epic in 1981 - but the middling Colours Fly Away became the album’s second single instead, and stuck miserably at No 54. Tiny Children wasn’t released as a single until the following summer when it felt decidedly unseasonal. It hung around the chart for a couple of months, with support from Radio 1’s breakfast show DJ Mike Read, but couldn’t get any higher than No 44, and the group split soon after.

The rest of Wilder’s second side is similarly moody. Just Like Lela Khaled Said featured some of Cope’s battiest lyrics - “I showed an empty crisp packet and said ‘Christo was here’” - as well as one of the catchiest choruses on the album; And The Fighting Takes Over revisits the “wonderful despair” of Tiny Children; and the would-be title track The Great Dominions is another kettle drum and synth wash neo-psych gem. Cope parodies himself lyrically, and the 1981 music press had little time for lines like “I’m just stuck in this pickle jar on a paper carpet.” Me? I think he meant it.

Frustratingly, the second disc on the new reissue includes a few tracks from the third Teardrop Explodes album, which was never completed. On the strength of the eerie Ouch Monkeys, with its delicately terrifying choral samples and dubby drops, it would have been their best. Soft Enough for You is a discomfiting sea shanty; The In-Psychlopedia sounds like Blue Monday on 78; and Suffocate is a superior, string quartet version of a track that originally appeared on the US edition of Kilimanjaro. What we don’t get here are Log Cabin or Buchanan, both recorded in ‘82 for a Peel session, which should have made the cut.

So this new edition falls between two stools. The complete sessions for the lost third album would be a proper archival treat, though this release effectively kills the chances of that happening. The sessions were produced by Dave Balfe, Cope’s nemesis in his autobiography Head On, but a severely maligned character if Ouch Monkeys is anything to go by.

Cope’s subsequent solo album World Shut Your Mouth was no slouch, yet was garage band, one-take stuff compared to the dark riches of b-side Window Shopping for a New Crown of Thorns or Soft Enough for You. It’s such a shame Balfe and Cope couldn’t hold the band together for another year.
If only Cope’s personal life hadn’t been such a mess (his consumption of LSD was notorious), if only he’d grasped the nettle and included the Scott-like take of Bent Out of Shape. At least now we can assemble our own preferred version of Wilder (add Screaming Secrets, delete Seven Views of Jerusalem, switch Bent out of Shape) from these two discs.

Cope has since said reforming the Teardrop Explodes would be like “having your mother wipe your asshole”. He has also said he never liked Scott Walker all that much. I’m inclined not to believe him, but I can’t blame him - who’d want to revisit a time when their marriage was falling apart and their freshly acquired pop-star status, the dream of a lifetime, was similarly out of control and disintegrating?

Sunday 16 June 2013

Now That's What I Call Music! 30 years on

With HMV and Woolworths having gone the way of listening booths and shellac, no one piece of public space could be said to represent modern pop. If you had to locate each of the primary colours of pop music you could look in student unions, or school playgrounds, or Cheeko's night club in Archway, but none would give the full picture.

The heart of pop, from the outset, has been found in the single and, in turn, the compilation album. An entirely commercial enterprise, the 'comp' is designed to sell as many copies as possible by including the greatest number of hit singles from the shortest amount of recent history, genres be damned. Thirty years old - and 84 compilations down the line - 21st century pop is defined by Now That's What I Call Music.

"I used to do a paper round" says pop obsessive, compilation collector and Universal Music employee Mark Wood, "and after two weeks I'd have enough money to buy Chart Explosion or Mounting Excitement, one of the K-Tel comps. When you're a kid, they're fantastic value - you could either buy three singles, or a comp with 20 hits on it."

Wood says that the market for compilations has never been stronger. "In a market that went down last year, comps held up. In 2008 Now 69 set a record first-week compilation sale - that’s ANY comp ever - of 382,000 in one week in March. And then in August Now 70 broke that record with 383,000 in week one. Now 71 ended up with 2008 sales of 964,000 in about six weeks. Unbelievable!"

The decline of the CD single has helped to keep comps in rude health - they are now the easiest way to find a physical, hard copy of many hits. In time, Now 85 will become a snapshot of early 2013; comps are social history time capsules. Another hugely successful series is the  British Hit Parade on the Future Noise label. These cd sets include every hit single from a particular year starting with the first chart in 1952 - the 1962 set came out in February. While the likes of Finders Keepers and Soul Jazz can re-shape and chisel the past, these comps give you a true and resonant idea of Britain in the early sixties. With every hit chronologically sequenced, Lonnie Donegan and Max Bygraves brush cheeks with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Totally inclusive, they are, in their own way, pop perfection.

Ashley Abram would have loved the option that public domain affords Future Noise - he has lost count of how many times he's been asked why Madonna hasn't appeared on a Now, the vagaries of artist consent and inter-label politics being beyond most people. Abram compiled the Now series from 1983 to 2012, leaving when EMI was sold off and split up. He was originally poached by Richard Branson from Ronco after his Raiders Of The Pop Charts comp had "knocked John Lennon off the top of the album chart." Not everyone is as sniffy as Madge about appearing on a comp: "U2 have gone on about the 'iconic' Now series" says Abram. "One of them, I think it's Larry Mullen, is really mad keen - some people just like the charts, I suppose. And Pride (In The Name Of Love) was on Now 4 so they've appeared on a lot of Nows."

He finds the collectors' market for early Now CDs "quite bizarre. Now 4 is the scarcest; even though it's a multi-million selling series, it sells for hundreds of pounds. And there's a mythical Now 5 CD but I've never seen it." The very first Now - Paul Young, Kajagoogoo, Men Without Hats et al - was issued on CD for the first time in 2008 to appeal to this lunatic fringe. The plan was for the other non_CD Nows, volumes two to seven, to follow but they never materialised.

Ashley Abram says there are "no hard and fast criteria" for a track to be included on a Now, but he liked to "keep the process a bit mysterious. We don't have a final track listing until three weeks before they hit the shops. All I do is go in for a day at Abbey Road, a long working day, and sequence it there. I usually make a few notes beforehand. Occasionally bands demand where they'd like to be on the CD. Queen used to."
Track one, by any chance?
"Yes! But we always agreed, and it always worked."

Now 85 is out on July 22nd.

*my favourite unlikely opening sequence is on Ronco's 20 Star Tracks from 1972: Procol Harum - Conquistador; Joan Baez - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Royal Scots Dragoon Guards - Amazing Grace; Free - Little Bit Of Love.
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