On Christmas Day I was lucky enough to find a free ebook in my virtual stocking. The inventive folk at Essential Works (who have created all of my books in the past five years) sent me and a few thousand others a link where we could download a copy of Rocket 88: Classic Singles. It's a quirky thing, being an appreciation of the single record release, a now pretty much redundant physical format, but which, between 1949 and 1999 (the book argues) helped to shape the musical tastes, youth cults and experiences of generations of people who grew up in an era when you had to go looking for new, different forms of music because they didn't come looking for you.
Some of the choices of singles of 'the year' are wilfully perverse—"My Boy Lollipop" beats out "Hard Day's Night" in 1964, for instance—but the inclusion of records which were not considered mainstream and didn't trouble the official charts compilers of the day adds to the depth and breadth of the revisionist view of pop music history. Such a view is often, increasingly, missing when pop show 'researchers' put together simplistic programmes detailing at how quaint the 20th century was. I once spent more than an hour trying to explain to a 'researcher' that, while I had been a punk in 1976, like all punks of the first wave, I didn't have a mohican, didn't wear Westwood and still danced my ass off at discos to great dance music. She just couldn't get it that different musical and social cults co-existed and didn't neatly simply follow on from one another. I didn't even try to explain why Teddy Boys razored Rotten or why soul boys with wedge haircuts and shoes like dead pigs' noses stood side-by-side with punks during physical confrontations with moronic leather-jacketed rockers.
Reading the entries in R88: Classic Singles reminded me of how diverse, enterprising and inventive the music scene was all those years ago. This being the first blog of a new year, I thought I'd begin in a manner that befits the world in 2012; by looking backwards. Sitting in an England currently suffering under the yoke of a repressive, divisive, right-wing-dominated, public-school-educated political elite with as much understanding of, and care for, any class other than their own, naturally had me casting my mind back thirty years. How could it not? Hearing a prominent US senator quoting Thatcher recently in his dismissal of our NHS as being the reason that she couldn't make Britain as 'great' as Reagan had the US, had me spluttering with rage just as I used to, constantly, in the days when she sacrificed thousands of lives in the Falklands in order to get re-elected.
So, inspired by R88, I'd like to guide you through some of my personal favourite singles of random years past, beginning with 1982, because it was thirty years ago today that I said goodbye to the Morgan family home for good, and lit out for the territory. Having learned to drive as soon as I was able, I promptly lost my license for six months because of the unroadworthy state of my beloved 1967-registered Triumph Spitfire MkII. That had been in 1981. A year later I was busy compiling cassette tapes for the in-car stereo of a slightly more road-worthy Opel Kadett and bombing around with sounds blasting out of a permanently wound-down window (it was broken). While my tapes consisted of a lot of old material, from the'60s on, I also added a lot of newly released singles to them.
Having been a fan since day one, The Clash's "Rock The Casbah" was a natural tape opener, particularly in it's dance mix version ("Mustapha Dance"). Alone among their peers, The Clash had experimented with soul and dance music as well as reggae, and had given support slots on their many tours to a lot of musicians from different backgrounds, including Country singer Joe Ely, proto-rocker Bo Diddley and in 1981, the then emerging hip-hopper Grandmaster Flash (and the Treacherous Three) at Bond's Casino in New York.
With the Furious Five, Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" was a game-changing release in 1982. It was an enormous dance hit, brought rapping into the mainstream for the first time proper and while it's arrest-section mimicked Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City", the return of a political message to urban music was quickly taken up by a new wave of emerging artists—Public Enemy got together in 1982.
Similarly political and just as funky, The Gang Of Four's "I Love A Man In Uniform" saw the agit-prop punk-funkers get as close to sounding like Chic as guitarist Andy Gill could get them. They never troubled the pop charts with any single releases although this and 1979's "At Home He's A Tourist" came close. "I Love A Man" did make #27 on the US Dance charts. In the wake of the UK punk movement, a number of Northern bands emerged from former industrial powerhouse cities that had become socially deprived wastelands, making funky dance music. One of the best was Manchester's A Certain Ratio, whose "Knife Slits Water" provided a fabulous slice of scratchy funk to incite the kind of dislocated, alienated dance moves favoured by the 1980-departed Ian Curtis of Joy Division. ACR's use of horns where other bands preferred guitars was a trend then becoming a rule of dance.
Pigbag's James Brown-tribute, "Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag" would become an enormous hit when re-released (and speeded up) in 1985, but the original release of 1982 was a slight hit on the pop charts and an enormous one in clubs. Pigbag looked much like their pop peers who appeared on TV music shows of 1982, even if they sounded unlike anything else. Their embracing the pop ethic was something frowned upon by 'serious' music fans, writers and even some bands who, like the pompous prog rock acts so ruffled by punk a few years earlier, eschewed pop single stardom. Although they did like the recently invented 'indie' single stardom, whereby their records appeared in charts created by and for supposedly 'independent' record labels and the stores who sold their releases. Scritti Politti first found indie fame on the daddy of the punk indie labels, Rough Trade. Their gorgeous funky-pop single of 1982, "Asylums In Jerusalem" made it into the official pop charts though (#43), and the next year Green Gartside (who was Scritti) signed to Virgin records.
Like Gartside, The Associates' Billy Mackenzie had a unique voice and vocal style. After beginning their recording career with an indie label (Fiction, home of The Cure), and releasing critically acclaimed but unsuccessful singles, The Associates signed to WEA and in 1982 scored a huge hit with the sublime synth-dance hit, "Party Fears Two". The same year a former founder member of Duran Duran, Stephen Duffy released the first version of what would become—in 1985—his biggest hit single, "Kiss Me". Duffy, one of the UK's greatest living songwriters, ingeniously uses sections of The Song of Songs set against a dance floor-filling electronic backing. The original sneer in the vocals perhaps belies the irony of his pure-pop approach to the music biz, which is why the re-recorded version is more 'up' in tone. Or perhaps his voice simply matured.
Lacking Duffy's irony, wholly embracing a pure-pop approach to music, Haircut 100's "Love Plus One" simply sails along on the warmth of a hook-laden chorus, funky backing and laid-back vocals. The band at least had the wit to look dumb in the accompanying video. In contrast, one of the bet live acts I saw in 1982 (or since, in fact) Kid Creole And The Coconuts look smart, funny and sassy in the video for their "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy" single. The extended mix is a great dance record, and rivalled only by the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" that year for wit and funk. You gotta love the Coconuts' backing vocal of 'Onna-onna-onomatopoeia'.
Finally, two records which made it on to no charts anywhere, but which were staples of my 1982 mix tape. You couldn't exactly dance to "The Fire Of Love" by The Gun Club in the same way that you simply had to dance to the other singles here, but I still find Jeffrey Lee Pierce's Elvis-inflected delivery over Ward Dotson's trashy guitar and Terry Graham's splashing drums compelling and thrilling. In 1982 The Gun Club sort of made sense of Goth.
James 'Blood' Ulmer's "Jazz Is The Teacher Funk Is The Preacher" was originally released in 1980, but it was never far from my turntable for most of the following decade. A thrilling, driving mess of a mix of horns, way-wah guitar, Calvin Weston's brilliant paradiddling drums and Ulmer's strangled raw vocal, it remains one of the greatest unsung dance records of all time. It's tempting to include it on any subsequent list of great records from any year post-1980, although I might just slip "Are You Glad To Be In America" onto one or two instead.