This section includes some of the main protagonists in the strange "new romantic" sub-genre of the early eighties. They are, in order - Adam & The Ants; Duran Duran; Spandau Ballet; Culture Club; The Human League; ABC; The Teardrop Explodes; Japan; Soft Cell; A-Ha; Yazoo and The Pet Shop Boys....
Adam & The Ants - Kings Of The Wild Frontier (1980)
Adam's big period of chart domination came in 1981, with two stratospheric hits in Stand And Deliver and Prince Charming, both of which were outrageously commercial and were born out of the initial impetus created with this album, from 1980. Forget punk, new wave, post punk or two tone - "antmusic" was here to blow away all that boring old stuff. Yeah right. I have to say, though, that taking this album in isolation, away from the pure pop fluff of the two subsequent big hits, it did actually have a brief effect, and was quite unique.
Blending 70s glam with a new wave instinct for a hooky melody, the album kicked off very strongly with the pounding drums and post punk riffs of the shuffling, mysterious and captivating Dog Eat Dog. The be fair to Adam, this was a song and a sound that defintely had something. I remember being convinced at the time and I duly went out and bought this as a single, along with the next track, the follow up single , the wonderful Antmusic. "Unplug the jukebox and do yourself a favour - that music's lost its taste so try another favour..." beseeched Adam, telling us that antmusic was the future. Ludicrous, of course, but it was a truly great single, I simply cannot deny. "Don't tread on an ant - he's done nothing to you.....". I recall watching the group performing this on Top Of The Pops and considering them completely credible. Within a matter of months they would be the exact opposite.
Feed Me To The Lions is a song that blends glammy drums , Duane Eddy-style guitar and punky sub-riffs to great effect. It is another fine, perfectly credible track. Equally enjoyable is the lively Los Rancheros. Ants Invasion is a delightfully heavy and riffy piece of mid-pace punk with a glammy sheen. This is all good stuff., surprisingly. I can also detect a slight influence from Blondie's first album in here too, not just because they did a song called Attack Of The Giant Ants, either. Just as impressive is the insistent grind of Killer In The Home. Listen to Ant's haughty vocal delivery on this and you can hear Jim Kerr and Simple Minds in their stadium rock phase from 1983-89, can't you? Old Adam was far more influential than he has ever been remembered for. "A new royal family, a wild nobility - we are family..." proclaimed, pretentiously, the vocal introduction to the drum-driven anthem Kings Of The Wild Frontier. I can't help but love it, though, it has the same effect of Gary Glitter's Rock And Roll Part One. Totally odd, but irresistible. The track goes nowhere, but, importantly, it went everywhere.
The Magnificent Five is a bit silly, as Ant details his path to fame and how he decided to re-create himself as an Ant. It is now, for the first time, that some of the surprising credibility is being lost. That was re-gained, however with what was quite a ground-breaking stab at disco-punk in Don't Be Square (Be There), full of frantically-strummed disco guitars, rumbling funky bass and a vocal refrain of "sex music for ant people". A lot of eighties dance-influenced new romantic music was seriously influenced by this. It has a great bit of guitar near the end from Adam's sidekick Marco Pirroni. Jolly Roger was a silly song about pirates that stood as a precursor to Stand And Deliver with its "its your money that we want" line. By the time we get to Making History the sound was starting to sound a bit wearing, to be honest. The same applies to the native American-inspired The Human Beings. Although the album's charms fade away a little, it still stands as a now almost-forgotten but highly intriguing period piece.
Adam & The Ants - Prince Charming (1981)
This commercial success but critical flop of an album reminds me of The Specials’ second “lounge bar music” album, More Specials, in its dabbling in pseudo jazz, Western-movie inspired material, Latinesque rhythms and rap. It is also a bit like The Clash’s Sandinista! in that it is a veritable cornucopia of styles and oddities, seemingly lacking in direction. Heaven knows how it was created. The fact is, though, at the time, Adam and his Ants were the biggest-selling pop act in the UK. Ant-inspired costumed fans suddenly started springing up everywhere. He could briefly do no wrong, but this album gave the lie to that theory pretty quickly and their stock fell like a stone. I shall attempt to analyse this decidedly weird album as best I can, however.
Scorpios is a brassy number that sounds like Kid Creole & The Coconuts doing a seventies thriller movie soundtrack. It is a most odd track and even weirder is the baffling, Latinesque new wave of Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios, which tells us of Picasso visiting the planet of the apes. It has a strange appeal to it, but it really is most bizarre. Prince Charming gained the very ridicule it claimed it was not scared of, but, despite its farcical concept, sparse melody and accompanying outrageously choreographed and subsequently much-parodied video it was a huge number one, its release being anticipated like the second coming. I still love it, so there you go. Ridicule is indeed nothing to be scared of. 5 Guns West is one of those afore-mentioned spaghetti western style numbers, featuring jangly guitar, yee-hahs and a country-style drumbeat. That Voodoo! had some chunky, punky riffs but it is blighted by a decidedly muffled sound. Indeed, this is something that affects the whole album, there is a sort of lo-fi production to it.
Stand And Deliver was Ant’s first truly big hit, and it also had a video that has since become cheesily iconic. Ant and the group are dressed up as eighteenth-century highwaymen as they act out the song. All very strange but the song is enormous fun. Da diddley qua-qua. Mile High Club sounds like PIL Gone Wrong. It is a bit of a mess, to be honest. The third of the album’s three hit single cornerstones is the white rap of Ant Rap. Adam gets in the Blondie groove, taking rapture as his inspiration. Although it is immensely derivative, it is also very catchy and has a great driving drum sound to it. Mowhok sees Adam continuing his native American fascination that he had begun on the previous album. Once more, it has a beguiling intrigue to it. Although this album has been universally panned there are some fascinating parts to it. S.E.X. is a difficult to categorise closer, so I won’t try to. Needless to say, The Ants split up soon after this. Adam went in to release some moderately successful solo work. Nothing came close to these unexpected glory days, though.
I was never a "New Romantic" (a phrase coined from the lyrics of Planet Earth from this album, incidentally), but as the crowd of groups from that genre went, Duran Duran were not too bad. I was not a fan of too much synthesiser in my music, so I was on a loser here, to be honest! I prefer "real" drums too, as opposed to synthesised ones, or semi-synthesised ones. However, there is enough choppy guitar, rumbling bass and real-ish drums on here to keep me happy. They were supposed influenced by early Roxy Music. As a huge Roxy fan, I don't really see it myself. Duran Duran were far more electronic, their lyrics nowhere near as interesting. I have read a few people say that they are not happy with the remastering on this album. Not me. It sounds full, warm and bassy, just as I like it. In fact, it has made me enjoy this album more than I ever did when played it by girlfriends in the early 1980s. It actually isn't a bad album.
Duran Duran - Rio (1982)
This was Duran Duran's second album and was by far their most successful. A formula had been hit upon here - big, resonant synth drums pounding all over the place, frantically-strummed semi-funky guitars, chopping lead guitar riffs, elastic bass lines, tinny keyboards and Simon Le Bon's typically melodramatic, haughty new romantic vocals.
Nearly all the tracks adhere to the same blueprint and the album plays as one generic-sounding whole, exemplified by its two biggest hits, Rio and Hungry Like The Wolf. Two exceptions (slightly) were found on the third hit, the slower, more understated and atmospheric Save A Prayer and the mysterious Ultravox-ish The Chauffeur. Lonely In Your Nightmare features "proper drums" and a nice deep, rubbery bass line (played by John Taylor on a fretless bass) and a vocal that brings to mind John Lennon on Run Your Your Life from Rubber Soul. Another great bass line and infectious percussion, along with brooding keyboards and that typical slightly funky guitar sound can be found on the excellent New Religion. Interestingly, there were remixes of several of the tracks made for the US release of the album, and they are bassier, riffier and more "rock". I prefer them.
It's also intriguing for me to remember that this sort of album was being released only three or four years after stuff like The Jam's All Mod Cons or The Clash's London Calling. How things changed so very, very quickly. Anyway, I digress. Back to this one. I'm not a huge new romantic fan, not at all, but as albums from this period (one of my least favourites) go, it is a very good one. There is not a bad track on here, but, importantly, there is no stand-out work of genius either.
Duran Duran - Seven And The Ragged Tiger (1983)
This album, released at the height of Duran Duran "mania" was basically more of the same (as described in the review of Rio) but with the addition of a few contemporary dance-ish sounds - programmed rhythmic breaks, scratching sound effects and the like.
It was best showcased on the huge number one, The Reflex and the non-album single Is There Something I Should Know? - both of which had "scratchy", extended 12" mixes, all the rage in those days - and the group were praised at the time for being musically adventurous. In retrospect, that was something of an overstatement, wasn't it? They just incorporated a few dance sounds into their well-used existing sound, that was all. It was an effort to go "sexy" and "cool dancefloor" and opposed to just new romantic pop. Duran Duran wanted to portray themselves as dancefloor sophisticates but they still retained much of their trademark sound.
The album's other big hit, New Moon On Monday, featured a more archetypal, hooky Duran sound. The same applies to the also extremely catchy single, the vaguely Bowie-esque Union Of The Snake.
(I'm Looking For) Cracks In The Pavement showed a desire to produce a poppy, romantic ballady, synthy sort of sound, a bit Human League while hints of that group can also be found on the jaunty, tinny synth pop of I Take The Dice. Of Crime And Passion has an upbeat vibrancy to it and more depth of sound and I really like the once more Bowie-inspired instrumental, Tiger Tiger.
is more of the same - thumping bass, pounding synth drums, comprised cymbals and those trademark synth riffs. Add to that an addictive refrain. Glam rock met new romantic in these singles. The energy and continual stream of hit singles that had characterised glam in the seventies was reborn again in groups like The Human League. Everyone waited for the next giant single.
Darkness had stately, classical, Ultravox-style airs In its dignified backing and Oakey’s vocal. Not as catchy as the singles, but mysteriously appealing in an electronic, Kraftwerk sort of way. There is a great synth and drums together part near the end. It is a bit of a throwback to the group’s original late seventies material. Do Or Die has hints of Talking Heads in its electronically funky intro, irresistibly rhythmic Latin/African percussion parts and its oblique lyrics. Apparently, Oakey’s intention was to write deliberately obscure lyrics to “get people thinking”.
Get Carter is a short, keyboard passage that neatly segues into the grandiose synthesiser notes of the enigmatic, mysterious I Am The Law where Oakey is supposedly singing about being a policeman, which is not too convincing. He sounds more like a futuristic cartoon character. The relatively sombre mood continues with the impressive, solidly rumbling Seconds. This is probably the most credible and atmospheric of the non-single tracks on the album.
The album finishes with two classics of their day - the thumping beat and intoxicating synth riff of Love Action with its memorable “but this is Phil talking…” line. This just takes me back to the dance floors of 1981 and their occupants trying desperately to look bored, fashionably disdainful and detached. Very evocative and nostalgic, even for a punk like me who found the whole scene pretty incomprehensible. Then there is the iconic Don't You Want Me - one of The Human League’s finest moments, if not the finest moment. Semi-autobiographical lyrics and one hell of an infectious chorus, not forgetting the instantly recognisable synth intro and Susan’s slightly deadpan vocals. A true early eighties classic from an album bearing the same qualities.
This album, from 1982, was more than just a bandwagon-jumping “New Romantic” album. It really had something about it. Yes, singer Martin Fry had that affected, deliberately haughty voice that singers in the genre adopted at the time. The music was synthesiser dominated, to an extent, but not in the way that say, The Human League were. ABC used a lot more orchestrated string backing and employed a throbbing Level 42-style bass.
Show Me is a dramatic, instantly attractive opener, setting the scene for a grandiose album. The massive hit single, Poison Arrow was next and, of course, it had an irresistible hook and chorus. Fry’s vocal dominates it but the backing is sumptuous too. Lovely background saxophone and that rubber-band bass line is intoxicating. As a punk/new wave and ska man back in 1982, I dismissed ABC as something I pretended were ok for my then girlfriend’s sake. Deep down I had no time for them. I have changed my attitude to them over the years and now listen to this album every now and again, really enjoying it when I do. Those huge synth drums - wow. Great single, no argument there. The bassy-funky melody continues with the sort of Soft Cell-ish Many Happy Returns, with its slightly cynical lyrics. There are some seriously great hooks in these songs. “I know democracy, but I know what’s fascist..” sings Fry, albeit somewhat pretentiously, but I’ll forgive him. Some huge sweeping instrumental bits in here too.
Tears Are Not Enough is a Kid Creole-fashioned funker and some trendy lyrics about “boy meets girl”. Valentine's Day is a little bit overblown, lyrically, but has some jazzy piano parts in the middle. Another wonderful hit single is next, the infuriatingly catchy The Look Of Love (Pt. 1), full of chunky guitars bits and Fry’s soaring voice. You just can’t argue with this one. “Hip hip hooray, Yippy-I-ay” sings Fry at the end. You know, it doesn’t even sound ludicrous. Date Stamp is a delicious, mid-pace romantic one with more superb vocals from both Fry and the backing vocalists. “I get sales talk from sales assistants”. There were some quirkily clever lyrics on this album. All Of My Heart was another single and boy, what an intro it had. All tinkling keyboards, strings and a convincing vocal. Just simply a great song. It has an exhilarating refrain. Just joyful. Best track on the album.4 Ever 2 Gether has a teenage-derived chorus and title but it is a quite dark-ish number, with more Soft Cell overtones. The Look Of Love (Pt. 4) is a brief, orchestral fade out of the classic song, while Theme From Mantrap is a classically-influenced piano-driven ballad the evicts the lyrics of Poison Arrow in a torch-song style to end what was a vibrant album full of early eighties joie de vivre. I was wrong back in 1982. This is/was a wonderful, credible album.
Formed in Liverpool in 1978, The Teardrop Explodes were at the vanguard of the UK post punk scene. They are best known for their lively and brassy hit, Reward. Here I will look at what many consider their best album - and it was their first one. Bless my cotton socks - I'm in the news....This was a most impressive debut album - an unusual hybrid of Dexy's-style brass, new romantic musicality and post punk bleakness. The group never quite made it, however, and neither did this album, save with the cognoscenti, who, to this day rate it both as one of the greatest albums of the eighties and as one of the best ever debuts.
There was also an arch, pretentiousness to singer Julian Cope that was guaranteed to grate with some, a bit like with Dexys' Kevin Rowland. Despite that, though, I have to say that this is a vibrant album that passed me by at the time, apart from the singles, which was a shame because its great. Silly name for a group, though, and typical of the time and sub-genre.
Ha Ha I'm Drowning kicks things off with a huger, thumping, brassy and bassy stonker of a track. The drums on it are great too, particularly the rolling bits near the end. Sleeping Gas is also extremely upbeat and catchy, keeping the lively start going. Treason has one of those typically new romantic bass lines and vocal delivery. It was the group's second most successful track, featuring a chorus straight out of 1981. Many a new romantic group would follow its lead. Second Head is also just so early eighties - listen to that throbbing bass line and pounding stereo effect rolling drum sound. It is another really good track. There are hints of early U2 on many of these songs too. The longer, grinding Poppies In The Field ploughs more of a sombre post punk furrow with Joy Division, early Ultravox and Siouxsie And The Banshees echoes in the backing. It has a haunting sonorousness to it and I love the rumbling mid-song bass-drum solo. Then we get some unexpected piano. Nice one.
The short, sharp and punchy Went Crazy has a brassy, funky and energetic sound that early Spandau Ballet were surely influenced by. Cope's vocals are suitably haughty, as befitted the sound of the time. He could insert a bit of a punky sneer into his delivery at times, however. Brave Boys Keep Their Promises is cut from the same cloth with a bit of a hint of The Cure about it.
Cope tells us that he was an energetic new-born on Bouncing Babies, a further song that very much summed up 1981-82. "Now I'm a bouncing bomb, won't you come and diffuse me, before I kill someone..." he proceeds to proclaim, somewhat bizarrely. Books was co-written with Echo And The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and they went on to record it as Read It In Books, appearing on their debut album, Crocodiles. Thief Of Baghdad is beguiling and mysterious in that synthy, new romantic sort of way. The lengthy original album closer, When I Dream, begins with a great rolling drum sound and proceeds to sound like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Then we get Reward, tagged on to the end of later releases of the album due to its popularity. It was an effervescent, brassily magnificent pop single and has deservedly remained the group's most famous track. That is a high point on which to end my brief look at this idiosyncratic group.
* The non-album track Kilimanjaro has its Adam & The Ants-ish big drum sound appeal too.
** The extras on the "deluxe edition" include the excellent Talking Heads-inspired Memorabilia (dance version) and their cover of The Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go? (dance version). Also their cover of Judy Street's Northern Soul classic What?. All of which are enjoyable.
Norway's only really successful band, a-ha, fits into that category although it undoubtedly carries something about it that makes me give it more than just cursory attention. I have to admit that, within its genre, it is a good album. Although it is all synth pop material, making it difficult for me to detail each song as I normally do - I simply find it difficult to differentiate between many of them - there is a grandiose, sonorous haughtiness to it that renders it an enjoyable enough listen for half an hour or so.
The group were two blonde, somewhat geeky looking blokes and the exceptionally good-looking singer Morten Harket, who had the look of a prettier, heavily accessorised David Bowie (sorry David). He definitely had a charismatic look about him. They are often written off as a one-hit wonder group in that their first single, the lead-off track here, Take On Me, was a massive number one. They are a bit more than that, however, as this album proves. Even though the music is not my absolute favourite in style, there is an intelligence to the lyrics and a creativity to the general nature of the sound that makes it completely credible.
reminds me of ABC, and Harket had mastered that new romantic haughty sound to his vocal. There is even a Morrissey-like sadness to his voice in places, as well as the obligatory high-pitched bits. And You Tell Me is a short, plaintive sub-two minute number while Love Is Reason goes full-on upbeat synth pop and is probably Take On Me's closest relation on the album. Dream Myself Alive is a quirky piece of synth pop that is so typical of its era, with Harket delivering a very new romantic-style vocal and Here I Stand And Face The Rain is a slightly incongruous, low-key acoustic-enhanced closer. Well, there you go, I have actually differentiated between the songs and mentioned them all. I have surprised myself. I have thoroughly enjoyed this album, but it's back to the sixties and seventies now, for some blues rock, punk, soul or reggae - some of my comfort zones.
Thankfully, sanity is restored on the gospelly soul-influenced Midnight which is a beautifully powerful piece of electronic soul, if indeed there could be such a thing. If there was, Yazoo had produced it here. The synth riffs and Moyet's voice are both outstanding. In My Room is not The Beach Boys' song but another piece of Vince Clarke experimentation. It works better than the previous one, despite the layered spoken vocals appearing again. Alison Moyet sings on this one and gives it an oddball appeal. Only You was massive. A huge number one. Rightly so, it is blessed with great hooks, a bucketful of soul, killer synth riffs and Moyet's voice riding high above it all. One of the great hits of the era. No question.
Love Comes Quickly has another rubbery bass sound and some ethereal vocals-synths. It is full of atmosphere. Madonna would produce a whole album like this eight years later with Bedtime Stories, so there was considerable influence here. Maybe my favourite Pet Shop Boys number is the extremely evocative Suburbia, with its wonderful chorus hook and Tennant's bored-sounding but deeply cutting voice. A brief reprise of Opportunities leads into the beguiling groove of Tonight Is Forever. It is a rhythmic, attractive number with yet more impressive, convincing semi-spoken quietly-dominant vocals. Violence is similarly brooding with a nice deep bassy sound.
I Want A Lover is a more upbeat piece of electro disco pop. Even on a more throwaway song like this, though, the lyrics are sharp and acerbic. "I don't want another drink or fight, I want a lover...". Indeed. Can't argue with that. Later Tonight is the album's only plaintive, piano-driven ballad and Why Don't We Live Together? returns to Madonna-style dance pop vibes. As I said, not essentially my thing, but a worthy and credible album all the same, overflowing with the feel of 1986.