Thursday, 22 July 2021

This is planet Earth - New Romantic groups 1980-1985




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)

A new royal family - a wild nobility - we are family....It is impossible to overstate just how, for a few months in 1981, Adam And The Ants were massive in the UK. Monster massive. What was once a cult group whose name I was always seeing written on walls in tube stations back in 1977 morphed from being purveyors of camp, art-punk into a preposterous double-drum Gary Glitter-Glitter Band technicolor caricature of a band. From appealing to the punk demi-monde with effete, difficult to categorise songs like Deutscher Girls the group now courted the teen market with a 1980-81 version of 1973-74 glam rock that tried to retain credibility by claiming that their music was tapping into the contemporary trend for African and "tribal" sounds. Any real ideas about garnering critical kudos were lost, really, by the new image created by singer Adam Ant, who went for the pirate-eighteenth century dandy-native American look that soon turned into a parody of itself. What cannot be denied though, is Adam's stylistic influence on countless subsequent new romantic peacocks. Both boys and girls were putting on face paint and strutting around in garish costumes like extras from Peter Pan in no time. Was Ant the first "new romantic" without ever being properly credited for it. I think he was. Would there have been a Boy George without Ant? Maybe not. He definitely sparked the move from post punk navel-gazing, misery and fear of nuclear attack to partying, dressing up and getting off with each other. Adam Ant, in many ways, was the very first catalyst of what became the self-obsessed hedonism of the mid-eighties.


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 BeingsAlthough 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-quaMile 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.


Duran Duran - Duran Duran (1981)
            
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.                        

The two hit singles, Girls On Film and Planet Earth kick things off and excellent they are too - impossibly catchy. Funny how all the New Romantic vocalist sang in that haughty, sonorous voice. Simon Le Bon was no different, although it sounds convincing on the almost as instantly appealing Anyone Out ThereTo The Shore is a mournful, almost post punk bleak number with Le Bon attempting to sound more intense and sombre. Careless Memories is an upbeat, well-known track. It was also a single, but, for some reason not a hit. Night Boat has some interesting sounds and percussion in its extended intro. It is quite a beguiling, interesting song. Sound Of Thunder is ok, but a bit too synthesised for my liking and Le Bon's vocals are a bit flat. Friend Of Mine was strangely about released prisoner George Davis, supposedly. Or the chorus was. It has a good hook to it, though. Tel Aviv is a vibrant enough instrumental to end what was a reasonable debut 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 ChauffeurLonely 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 ReligionInterestingly, 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 DiceOf 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. 


Gold: The Best Of Spandau Ballet

Spandau Ballet were originally a punk-ish band clapped The Makers, apparently, gigging around their native North London area. Their name was changed after “Spandau Ballet” was seen as graffiti on a Berlin toilet cubicle wall. They seemed to embrace the pretentiousness that certain groups emerging from the post-punk movement adhered to. They suddenly converted themselves from North London “lads’ to foppish dandies, swanning around in billowing blouses wearing eyeliner and the singer, Tony Hadley, adopted that sonorous, haughty voice that so many “New Romantic” singers seemed to do. All of this never seemed to sit too comfortably with them, to be honest. While in the seventies, some members of Sweet and Mud never seemed happy in their glam get-up, I always felt that the somewhat oik-ish members of “the Ballet” were trying, unsuccessfully and laughably, to gentrify themselves. Either way, the image seemed to go down well at the time, and they were stuck with it. As for the music, their punk roots were forgotten and they caught on to the electronic-funky rhythms of the era for their first few singles. Their first, 1980’s To Cut A Long Story Short, was a classic New Romantic single - that deep, pompously delivered vocal and a lively funky backing with some killer riffs. Muscle Bound was more thumping and industrial, but again it had a catchy chorus. They had hit on a skill of writing songs with very memorable hooks. Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On) was a supreme piece of New Romantic disco funk and really caught the zeitgeist. It was very rhythmic and again had, as the title suggested, a chantable chorus. Instinction and the very poppy, singalong Lifeline provided some mid-range hits before they struck it really big, just at the point when the whole New Romantic thing was beginning to fade away. They did so with a copper-bottomed end of the evening disco smoocher in True, with its lyric about “listening to Marvin (Gaye) all night long…”. It had a real loved-up feel and some great saxophone in it too. 


This was followed up with another impossibly catchy number in the grandiose Gold, featuring yet another mannered vocal from Hadley. The soulful, melodic Only When You Leave was also a big hit, but then the times began to change. Music went into a period of nothingness and dance music beats began to take over. For whatever reason, there was no desire for whatever it was Spandau Ballet had, there was one final big hit in the credible Through The Barricades. That was pretty much that. In later years, there have been some unfortunate legal wranglings between members of the group and brothers Martin and Gary Kemp went into acting. Tony Hadley is still recording in his own right. This is a fine reminder, however, of when their light shone really brightly and, along with Duran Duran, they were the biggest chart act around.

Culture Club - Greatest Moments

Culture Club’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops, in 1982, caused as much of a sensation as David Bowie’s over a decade earlier. I remember it well. Everyone, literally everyone was saying “did you see him?” the next morning and “it was a bloke dressed as a girl” and so on....

They were referring, of course, to Boy George (George O’Dowd) who, inspired by Siouxsie Sioux of punk band Siouxsie & The Banshees went the whole hog and dressed up in a bizarre get-up of long dresses, pigtails, full-on dramatic make up and an odd little hat. He had a suitably angelic voice and the group (all good-looking men in regular gear) had a knack for a rhythm and they had a certain pop sensibility.
The hits were many over the next few years and, for a while, they were the biggest commercial band around. The singles were quite credible efforts, as it happened - the reggae-tinged and soulful Do You Really Want To Hurt Me was a debut single number one, while Time (Clock Of The Heart) had a grandiose, slow-paced romantic appeal. 

I’ll Tumble 4 Ya was danceable and funky, but it was the next two that were real corkers. Firstly, Church Of The Poison Mind, featuring strong voiced backing singer Helen Terry, was a bluesy, upbeat rocker with a thumping beat and, secondly, Karma Chameleon, with its distinct harmonica riff and an instantly singable chorus became their most popular song. It is now a permanent fixture at any eighties night or on any eighties playlist. Just a few bars of it and I feel it is 1984 again. It never got much better than that, really, although Victims was a soulful, sombre hit, as was The War Song, while It’s A Miracle was a last truly poppy hit for the group. This is a good compilation, all you need from Culture Club, really, and is a fun reminder of when they were the group on everyone’s lips. Just for a short while.

The Human League - Dare (1981)

This was the album, from 1981, that really broke it big for The Human League, finally moving from obscure, cult-ish a somewhat dour, avant-garde and “electro” synthesiser band, they added a couple of girl singers, who were actually still at school, and became commercially far more viable. They merged their sonorous synthesiser sound and Phil Oakey’s haughty “new Romantic” styled vocals with a new-found pop nous. This album sold millions. It never got much better than this. 
Newly remastered, the sound is booming, warm and clear. The bassy power of the recordings is highlighted wonderfully. 

The first track, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of is a slow-burning, gradually captivating introduction to the group’s “new” sound. It even namechecks The Ramones at one point. This upbeat vibe is continued into the first big hit on the album, Open Your Heart, with its distinctive synth bleeps and Oakey’s unique, soaring deep baritone voice. Joanne and Susan’s backing vocals enhance this marvellous piece of early eighties pop perfection. Beguiling lyrics, a slightly overbearing, pompous ambience and swirling synths. This was what this genre was all about. Not my favourite of genres, but The Human League were one he best exponents of it. In many ways, this was a genre-defining album.

The Sound of The Crowd
 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.

ABC - The Lexicon Of Love (1982)
                           
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 hoorayYippy-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.

The Teardrop Explodes - Kilimanjaro (1981)

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. 


Japan: The Collection

I was never a particular fan of Japan, a (supposedly*) New Romantic group fronted by blonde, floppy wedge-haired David Sylvian (named after the "crashing out with Sylvian" lyric from David Bowie's Drive In Saturday), but I have this one collection of their work. Sylvian's music was very influenced by Eastern culture and sounds, as well as the afore-mentioned Bowie, The New York Dolls and Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry. It was very atmospheric and haunting but also attracted accusations of pretention. Musically, though, the group always had an inventive, well-delivered sound and Sylvian had a certain amount of mysterious charisma. They were not commercial enough to storm the charts as other New Romantics did, but their output was thoughtful and adventurous. *To be fair to the group, who disassociated themselves totally with the New Romantic movement, they had been putting out albums since 1978 (five in total) and split up in late 1982, when many New Romantic groups were only just starting. Quiet Life is a sonorous, thumping sort of New Romantic meets David Bowie number. It has echoes of Bowie's Boys Keep Swinging in its "Boys" refrain and the beat-guitar chops-keyboard swirls are straight out of the Duran Duran-Ultravox songbook. Both of those groups must surely have listened to this in 1979 when it was released. Its influence on both of them is clear to hear. 

The stuttering, staccato beat of Visions Of China is very addictive in that early eighties sort of way and the shrill saxophone is very much influenced by Andy Mackay's early Roxy Music work. Sylvian's mannered vocal is very Bryan Ferry too. The drum sound is very tribal in that Adam And The Ants way. The vocal on Ghosts is so Ferry it could almost be him. The song was one of the group's most successful, but it is totally uncommercial, with a sombre, mournful "Heroes" type sound and some strange sound effects. A surprise hit for the group was a cover of Smokey Robinson's I Second That Emotion. The version is full of metallic-sounding saxophone and contemporary keyboard noises. It doesn't match the original but as a period piece from the early eighties, it works fine. 

Another popular track of theirs was the pounding eighties strains of Life In Tokyo, which makes it on to several New Romantic playlists. It has some excellent synthesiser breaks and a solid bass line. Sylvian again sounds like Bryan Ferry, let's take that for granted now, shall we? The lively European Son fits the musical zeitgeist perfectly - grand synthesisers and robbery, vibrating bass runs. Sylvian's vocal is more punky in a whiny sort of way on this one. A wonderful song for Japan to cover was The Velvet Underground & Nico's beguiling All Tomorrow's Parties. They do it justice - full of early Roxy Music saxophones and Bowie-esque instrumentation and a mysterious vocal. Once more, the bass line is delicious. Adolescent Sex is a typical piece of early eighties New Romantic disco fare. It has an infectious riff and that punky vocal again. A strange cover is Don't Rain On My Parade from the Barbra Streisand's 1964 musical, Funny Girl. It is given a full-on punky attack, both musically and vocally, taking all possible camp intonations from it. In Vogue returns to the deep, captivating moods of some of the earlier material. It is a most sexual, entrancing track. It has a great keyboard backing on it and is one of the album's best cuts. 

The Unconventional has an impressive funky guitar riff, a muscular beat and Sylvian delivering a Parliament-Funkadelic-style vocal. The group could funk out if they wanted to and proceed danceable stuff like this. Communist China has a great riff to it too and another punky vocal in a sort of New York Dolls style. Suburban Berlin also has a bit of a punk noir ambience to it, with some great guitar interjections throughout. The bass solo half way through is simply sumptuous. Halloween has an archetypal early eighties feel to it. Whether the group considered themselves New Romantic or not, tracks like this certainly sound like it. In many ways, the genre was started by Japan, many others were basically imitators.

Soft Cell - Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)

This was 
Soft Cell’s debut and best known album, from late 1981. Dismissed by many as the work of a posturing, effeminate New Romantic throwaway band, it actually is an impressive piece of work that functions as a biting criticism of the music industry and the seedy demi-monde of urban clubland. Rather than a “new romantic” record, it is more of a post-punk electronic type of thing.

Frustration has singer Marc Almond ranting frenetically over an electronic beat about all sorts of things - mortgages, kids, going bald and people - John Wayne, Elvis, Bo Derek. It is wry and amusing but sets the tone of dissatisfaction that pervades this underrated album. Tainted Love was obviously a cover of Gloria Jones’ Northern Soul “handclap” classic, but it suits the ambience and theme of the album perfectly. It is remastered excellently here - great pumping bass sound. Considering it was recored on an apparently low budget, the sound is rally impressive. 

Seedy Films is just great. Observant, risqué lyrics that are also, like before, amusing in a strange way. It has a throbbing underpinning beat and some winsome clarinet breaks on it from David Tofani, a top-notch American session musician. Love it. One of the best tracks on the album. Far more than just simply New Romantic preening. Youth is dark and brooding. Marc moans and gripes about times gone by and lost youth over an industrial synthesiser backing. All very sombre and “Krautrock”Sex Dwarf has an upbeat rhythm but some seriously some cynical lyrics about vice and perversion. There is a real dark, depressing milieu to this album the contrasts with the dandy, peacock finery that the genre was supposed to be all about. This is anything but. It is about feelings of revulsion, temptation and disillusion. “Sex dwarf, isn’t it nice, luring disco dollies to a life of vice…”. There is an underlying obsession with deviance on the album, though, and this is continued into Entertain Me. You got the impression Marc Almond was up for anything, but then loathed himself afterwards. His bandmate, keyboardist Dave Ball, looked quite incongruous in comparison, a sort of Ron Mael to Almond’s RussellEntertain Me segues into the lively Chips On My Shoulder, with one of those Ultravox-Human League synthesiser riffs. Again, some amusing lyrics about fish and chip suppers, getting older and ranting about perceived injustice.

Bedsitter was a single but not a particularly big hit. It has a sonorous, deep synthesiser backing and a killer hook of a refrain. This really paved the way for groups like The Pet Shop Boys. There is a punk cynicism to this track. It deserves to be on any post-punk playlist. Secret Life has a semi-spoken vocal and more morose, guilty lyrics about someone living a, by now, predictable seedy after-dark secret life. There really are some dark messages on this album though, it certainly has far more depth than Adam & The Ants, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet’s more commercial output. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is my favourite, and the other big hit from the album. (The 12” version with the extended clarinet intro is the best, however). In its single form, it is still a great, hooky song, full of addictive synth riffs, a plaintive vocal from Marc and a grandiose haughty kiss-off chorus. "Take your hands off me, I don’t belong to you…”. Glorious and grandiose. One of “New Romantic”’s finest moments. As indeed was this album.

** The extras on the "deluxe edition" include the excellent Talking Heads-inspired Memorabilia (dance version) and their cover of The SupremesWhere Did Our Love Go? (dance version). Also their cover of Judy Street's Northern Soul classic What?. All of which are enjoyable.

A-ha - Hunting High And Low (1985)

Now, I am not the biggest fan of synth pop or indeed much of the keyboard-driven, programmed drum fare that emerged around 1981-82, initially under the generic genre name of "new romantic", it all sounded cold, soulless and homogenous to me. Well quite a bit of it did, anyway. That was down to me, I'm just not that big a keyboard-electronica sort of guy. This, the 1985 debut album from 
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.

The remarkable Take On Me is definitely a song that sticks out from the rest, from its infectious synthesiser riff opening, through its clever verses and reaching a peak with Harket's captivating falsetto howl. It was obvious why it was such a big hit, it is thoroughly unique. Incidentally, the song was originally released in a slightly different, quirkier form. It was the second release version that was the more successful and the one that everyone knows. Then there is the extended version that appears on the album here. This is my favourite one of the three. So many eighties songs seemed to have several versions, it seemed, like Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax. The album contained another big hit in the also appealing and catchy, but more subtle, vaguely ABBA-esque The Sun Always Shines On TV. It sounds so very 1985 to me, I actually find it quite nostalgic, despite my clear preferences for other eras of music. Other highlights are the atmospheric and late seventies-early eighties Bowie-esque Train Of Thought, the Ultravox-influenced The Blue Sky and the beguiling Hunting High And Low.

Living A Boy's Adventure Tale
 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.

Yazoo - Upstairs At Eric's (1982)

Yazoo appeared from nowhere in the midst of the new romantic explosion. They were a sort of amalgam of new romantic keyboard pop and experimental post punk. They consisted of keyboardist 
Vince Clarke (who was also involved with Depeche Mode) and vocalist Alison Moyet (known then as "Alf"). Clarke deals with all the instrumentation - keyboards and drum programming. It is more than just a cold synth-dominated piece of work though, Moyet's voice carries considerable emotion, being big and soulful as opposed to typically new romantic in that detached haughty or cold and soulless style favoured by so many. It sort of exposes the pre-conception that all keyboard-driven music has to be Kraftwerk-esque in its cool detachment. This, to me, is a warm, sensitive and evocative album. There is a distinct lack of post-punk misery about it too. Just a bit near the end. It was 1982 after all.         

Don't Go was a huge hit single and also a dance success. It begins with an absolute killer, catchy synth riff and Moyet's raspy soulful voice has strength and attack. It is a classic of its type. Clarke contributes an excellent, quirky keyboard solo bit in the middle. It has been released in many formats over the years - 12", dance, extended mixes and the like. Too Pieces is another solid but infectious and moving song. The voice is again superb as indeed are the keyboards. This is not just futuristic keyboard doodling and bleeping, it is used as the dominant instrument and carries all the songs. It has vague echoes of Marianne Faithfull's The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan. For me anyway. Bad Connection has a quirky, poppy lively beat. Once more, it is a relief to hear an expressive, dynamic voice on this sort of material. Moyet brings a soul and a rock sensibility to the music. I Before E Except After C is, unfortunately, a pretty pointless, unlistenable tape loop mix of multiple spoke voices muttering on over each about "feeling the difference". After a couple of minutes, though, a bit of sombre synthesiser comes in, giving it a bit of industrial atmosphere. It is out of kilter with the rest of the album, however, and would have been better being replaced by excellent the non-album single, Situation, for me. It goes on far too long and is a waste of time, let's be honest.

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. 

Goodbye 70s
 was a dense, deep synthy ushering in of this new era. It is so evocative of the time. Personally, I am not a huge electronic fan, preferring my guitars, but I can dig this, man. 
Tuesday is addictively sonorous. Very dark and European-sounding, so there was a bit of Kraftwerk in there after all, hidden away. That feeling continues on the doom-laden Winter Kills, which is like something Siouxsie And The Banshees would be doing a few years later. The upbeat energy is back, though, with the funky Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I), compete with soul-esque bracketed title. This was definitely one of the better albums from the early eighties period, which was one for music that certainly wasn't one of my favourites. This does the business though, with its clear differences and creative vitality.

The Pet Shop Boys - Please (1986)

I will be totally honest here, I was never really into The Pet Shop Boys, finding that their somewhat contrived, narcissistic image just wasn't my thing. Neither was their electro-dance-pop music, particularly, either. However, from 1986 onwards, for a few years, their music was everywhere, so it sort of has a nostalgic feel for me in a perverse sort of way. There was definitely a character and an atmosphere to their creations and ex-music journalist Neil Tennant had a knack for a killer lyric, that was for sure. There is no way I will dismiss their music. Incidentally, the tiny images on the cover was, I am sure, a deliberate ploy to say "don't notice us - now make damn sure you notice us...". Clever move.

Two Divided By Zero kicks things off with masses of programmed drums and synthesisers (not a favourite thing of mine) but is has an oomph to it and Tennant's laconic, drawlingly gay-sounding voice gives it something special. He was Marc Almond with bags more deliberate ennui. West End Girls was the group's first big hit and remains the song they are known for best, with its mysterious ambience, semi-rap vocal (the style would be used by Madonna on Vogue several years later), sweeping synthesised strings and throbbing bass. It represented the hedonistic, carefree, city-loving self-obsessed mid eighties culture as much as any other song. This is not a criticism. It is a truly great song. 

Also latching on to the "loadsamoney" acquisitive zeitgeist is the tongue-in-cheek, cynical Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money). "I've got the brains, you've got the looks - let's make lots of money..." - how very 1986. Clever dance pop was The Pet Shop Boys' bag. It built on the foundations laid by Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret but in a more world-weary, less sexual fashion.

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.

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