- Mark Radbourne
I'm a former hospital radio/club/mobile DJ, avid record collector and amateur musician (playing guitar, keyboards, recorder, harmonica and percussion.) I've even filled in on bass guitar for a couple of local bands as well (although that was quite a few years ago). Also interested in Motorsports, Wrestling/Mixed Martial Arts and Classic Television and Radio from the 1960s - 1980s.
Why am I on here? Well, I'm just trying to make some sense of life before it's too late...but who cares anyway?
Tuesday, 8 December 2015
That’s what they said when Andy McCluskey & Paul Humphreys, armed with the most rudimentary of electronic instruments (including a cheap synth bought from a mail order catalogue) started out as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, initially to do the one gig at Eric’s club in Liverpool. Fast forward to February 1980 – the duo by then had signed with Carol Wilson’s Dindisc label, and their self-titled debut LP was in the nation’s record stores. Was Factory Records boss Tony Wilson’s proclamation that Andy and Paul were the future of pop music justified?
The album opens with “Bunker Soldiers”, a mid-tempo, purely electronic number (featuring a drum machine which sounds like one of those rhythm boxes found on those cheap home electronic organs you could get in the 70s) which to me conjures up images of soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War One. The chorus is an interesting effect, merely consisting of the title spelt out as random letters, translated into numbers. It’s best to hear this one on headphones to get the full effect, with the letters on one channel, and the numbers on the other. All in all, a nice way to kick of the LP.
“Almost” is a bit of a low key affair, with a simple backing from bass and organ with a few electronic embellishments. Hard to make out what this one’s about really, but it’s a pleasant enough track. For “Mystereality” it’s time to call in a favour or two as Martin Cooper joins the duo on saxophone for this one. (Cooper would go on to become a full-time member in late 1980.) It’s a bright and breezy affair if I were to be honest about it, as is “Electricity”. The story I often hear about the latter track is that Tony Wilson wasn’t too impressed when he heard it. However, it was his wife who persuaded him to take a chance on the duo which led to the single being released on Factory before Dindisc took them on.
“The Messerschmitt Twins” is another low-key number, the title being inspired by a nickname for McCluskey & Humphreys. It was while Andy was doing research for the track that he came across a reference to the “Enola Gay” aircraft, which gave him the inspiration for their first top ten hit (but more about that in a future instalment…)
Flip over and side 2 begins with “Messages”. This isn’t the single version produced by Mike Howlett, but it sounds as though the bare bones of what would eventually become their first top 20 hit are more or less in place, albeit with a few rough edges. As for that repeating synth pattern? That was basically one key held down, the synthesiser set to arpeggio and Andy sitting there switching octaves on the machine for around 5 minutes. (and everyone thought it was done on sequencers. How wrong they were!)
A lot of the tracks dated back to the duo’s days in The Id. “Julia’s Song” was co-written by Julia Kneale, who was also in The Id at that time, while “Red Frame/White Light paid homage to (of all things) a telephone box near the Railway Inn in Meols, which doubled up as the contact point for the band in the early days. Even now there are stories going round about OMD fans ringing the number quoted on the track (632 3003) hoping to speak to one of the band!
“Dancing” is, to put it bluntly, a weird one. Starting out with brief snatches of an unknown orchestral piece mixed in with a bit from Glenn Miller’s “Sunrise Serenade” – How they got away with that I’ll never know – it’s just a mish-mash of bass, drum machine, a weird synth noise playing a tune I can hardly make out and some electronically treated voices. And to be honest, it’s probably the only duff track on the entire LP.
The LP closes with “Pretending To See The Future”, written about being in the music business in general and specifically about signing a record contract. It’s a bit of a slow burner to start with, but builds up towards the end with the promise that “we’ll see you the same time, same place, next year round, with the same kind of product and a similar sound”, as McCluskey & Humphreys take separate vocal lines which get tangled together so you can’t quite make out what’s happening.
On the whole it’s a pretty solid effort for a debut album. Granted, there are some tracks which seem a bit rough around the edges, and could be better had more time been spent on them, but that’s the beauty of an album like this – it’s the start of a learning curve which would lead them to greater success in the future. As for those who thought that two guys and a synthesiser would never work? They’re probably having second thoughts now!
Friday, 13 November 2015
So what do you do when you have a number one single, followed by a top 30 album? Well, If you're Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, you break off work on the next album to join one of the archetypal prog-rock bands of the 70s, after which you go back to your original outfit to continue work on the second album. Simple? Well not quite, as Downes would move on to form Asia with former Yes bandmate Steve Howe, leaving Horn to soldier on under the Buggles name and finish the album with new musicians and songwriting partners. So how did the album turn out?
The title track is probably a great choice for an opening number, with the lyrics almost reading like a summary of an X-Factor episode - the main character plucked from obscurity and touted as the "next big thing", as the promotional machine goes into overdrive. The story, such as it is, isn't resolved fully, leaving you asking yourself "whatever happened to him?"
"Beatnik" sees Horn in a bit of a playful mindset - to me the track sounds like he'd been given all this new gear to mess around with - with the results sounding rather appealing.
"Vermillion Sands" on the other hand, was a much more complex proposition. Starting out in a low key fashion with just bass,electric piano and a rudimentary rhythm box (similar to those you'd have got in one of those home organs you'd see in a mail order catalogue) it chops and changes, with passages including some Level 42-esque bass, and those brass stabs which Horn would turn into one of his trademark production effects, an atmospheric synth line played over what sounds like a scene from a fillm noir production and climaxes with a big band finale which even Glenn Miller would have been proud of!
As for "I Am A Camera", that song has its roots in "Into The Lens" which featured on Yes' "Drama" LP in 1980. While the Yes version was very much full-on prog, the version we have here is almost like a demo with minimal instrumentation. And to be honest, it works better in this format.
"On TV" has one of those insistent synth lines which tends to stick in your mind as you're warned about the perils of watching those late night shows on the box, while "Inner City" could work well as a soundtrack to one of those late night film scenes where the traffic whizzes by leaving trails of light in its wake.
"Lenny" has a bit of an interesting story to go along with it. When the track was released as a single in Holland and Horn was asked to appear on Dutch TV to promote the single, the backing group he recruited for the night was an up and coming outfit called ABC! (There is footage of the performance doing the rounds on YouTube should you want to take a look for yourselves)
"Rainbow Warrior" is something of a slow burner which doesn't really get going until halfway through, although it does end the LP on a relatively high note.
The LP came out in late '81, but did absolutely nothing chart wise in the UK. However, it was the ideal opportunity for Horn to experiment with some of the production tricks which would become his trademarks in later years. It's a solid effort on the whole, but it's best seen as just a taste of what Horn was truly capable of achieving as he embarked on a new adventure in modern recording.
Sunday, 10 May 2015
May 1985 - two years into the Conservatives’ second successive spell in power, two months after the UK miners’ strike had finished, and a time when the unemployment rate had been hovering around the 11.6% mark. It was this grim backdrop which was reflected in the Style Council’s second LP “Our Favourite Shop” . The title came about as Paul Weller’s answer to critics who claimed that the group were using too many music styles in one album, or in extreme cases in one song. As for the material, Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot had come up with their most overtly political songs to date - with subject matter including racism, excessive consumerism, self-serving governments, the death of one of Weller’s friends, and a lack of opposition to the status quo. All this pessimism countered with glimmers of hope that alternatives were out there - if only people could see them. And as for the styles of music used, they were as wide ranging as their first LP (that is if you don’t count the “Introducing” mini-album.)
We start with “Homebreakers”, telling the story of a family forced to split up - the sons moving out in an effort to find work, while the father finds himself made redundant. Bear in mind that this was around four years after then-Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit made that infamous speech about “getting on your bikes and looking for work”, in the wake of the 1981 riots, but it was still relevant in’85. One of several Weller/Talbot co-compositions (and featuring Talbot on lead vocal) this set the tone for what was to come.
Things didn’t get any more optimistic with “All Gone Away” - bemoaning the decimation of communities reliant on major industries set against a light, Latin style backing. The contrast doesn’t really work until you’ve heard the track several times, but could be judged as a fair assessment of what was happening in mid 80s Britain. The same could also be said about “Come To Milton Keynes”, a lyrical dig at the culture of “new towns” which were springing up around the country every so often, where the reality of violence, drugs, and a lack of direction was hidden by houses where the curtains were drawn, and the Americanisation of British culture in general.
“Internationalists” gives the first hint of hope with its militant call-to-arms set against a funk groove, the message here basically being “stand up and be counted”. Contrast that with “A Stone’s Throw Away”, with Weller reflecting on a world where the power of protest is crushed by the iron fist of authority - set to the backing of a string quartet. The contrast is stark, but the images painted by the lyrics are powerful to say the least. Even more powerful is the insistence that this is all happening closer to us than we realise.
We do get a bit of light relief next in the form of “The Stand-Up Comic’s Instructions”. The song plays more like a comedy sketch, with Lenny Henry joining in as a concert secretary at a typical working men’s club, giving his star turn advice on which jokes to use to get the most laughs. But there’s a serious side to the track too, as it exposes the racism inherent in such characters. (a theme which harkens back to a more politically incorrect time). “Boy Who Cried Wolf” , which rounds out side 1, is probably the closest you’ll get to a love song on the LP, and with additional vocals by Weller protégé Tracie Young, is more or less your standard pop number. The biblical reference might be lost on some listeners though.
Flip over to side two, and a recording of church bells heralds “A Man Of Great Promise”, which Weller dedicated to a friend who committed suicide. The lyrics generally reflect chances not taken or potential unfulfilled. “But who am I to say”.
“Down In The Seine” takes a completely different path. Taking on a distinctly French feel, (even down to some of the lyrics being in French) it’s one of those songs which is difficult to fathom out. No such problems with “The Lodgers” however. Especially as it’s an indirect reference to a certain property. The implication here being that it’s the lodgers in the property who make the rules, not the owners. Weller shares vocals on this one with Dee C. Lee, and the combination works quite well.
“Luck” breezes on next, full of joy and optimism (and that’s probably the only time you’ll see this phrase during this piece!) and throwing in a gospel feel certainly adds to the mix as well. It soon became a live favourite, especially when given to Dee as a solo spot. (Check out the version on her “See The Day” 12 inch single and you’ll see what I mean.)
The big revelation comes in the form of “With Everything To Lose”, which has its roots in another song, “Have You Ever Had It Blue”. For this track, drummer Steve White wrote new lyrics which reflected what was happening with the Youth Training Scheme which had recently been introduced. It was his first crack at writing lyrics, and personally, I thought they were spot on - especially as I had been on something similar a few years previously. Using more of a bossa nova type feel for the music, the contrast was particularly effective. As for the original song, that was eventually released on the “Absolute Beginners” film soundtrack in 1986.
The title track was one of those Hammond organ instrumentals that Talbot made a speciality of in the group’s early days, and a chance for some light relief before the final assault of “Walls Come Tumbling Down”. Defiantly optimistic in its approach, the message was simple - “this is your chance to change things for the better. It’s down to you now“. (Well, that’s how I thought about it).
On the whole, it’s a pretty good collection of songs which neatly sums up the mood of the mid 80s, and probably the strongest album The Style Council ever recorded. However, sadly, a lot of the songs remain relevant even today.