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Perfect Pop – Vol. 4

April 10th, 2008 5 comments

And on to the fourth part in our quest for Perfect Pop. I am very grateful for the many comments; I really appreciate the views, ideas, nominations and feedback (and feel greatly encouraged by the many kind words). So, here are ten more perfect pop songs, presented with the usual caveat that this exercise is entirely subjective.

The Monkees – Daydream Believer.mp3
It took me four posts in this series to decide which of three Monkees songs was the most perfect. To be truthful, I still don’t really know. But after discounting Last Train To Clarksville (which is on my Teen Dreams mix), it was between Daydream Believer and I’m A Believer. The attentive reader will have picked up which one I have gone for. It’s Davy Jones’ slightly nasal vocals, the joyous chorus and all the unexpected little touches in the arrangement — especially the ringing alarm clock before the first chorus and the piccolo before the fade out. John Stewart, who wrote this song, died of a stroke in January this year. A fascinating character in his own right, the former member of the Kingston Trio and early collaborator with John Denver was the US Democratic Party’s official songwriter during the Robert Kennedy campaign. He continued making music right up to his death.
Best bit: “…what can it mean-eh…” (0:51)

Donna Summer – Last Dance.mp3
Among the comments to the last Perfect Pop post was a nomination for Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. With its brain-poking synth line and Donna’s sexually charged vocals, it is indeed a contender. But my preference would be for the similar Love To Love You Baby or to the rather different Last Dance. I’ll opt for the latter on strength of its more complete pop sensibility. It starts off as a ballad as Donna announces sadly that this might be the end. It may well be so, but, you know, screw this, if this should really be the last dance, let’s party. 1:20 minutes into the song, the song picks up its glorious vibe. A fantastic track written for the 1978 disco film Thank God It’s Friday, we must forgive its reception of an Oscar for Best Song, often an accolade for crap.
Best bit: “So let’s dance that last dance…” (4:32)

Take That – Back For Good.mp3
The critics agree, Back For Good flies the flag for pop perfection. They are right, of course, though I wonder whether they would still rate the song so highly if the unjustly vilified Wet Wet Wet has released it. Listen to it, Back For Good sounds like it comes straight off Popped In, Souled Out, right down to Gary Barlow doing a perfect simulation of Marti Pellow’s phrasing. Within a year of this reaching number 1 in Britain, Take That took off, with Robbie Williams becoming an international icon of gurning (except in the US), while Barlow released at least one other song that pisses over anything Williams has ever done, titled Wondering.
Best bit: You can’t hear Robbie Williams. Oh, OK, Barlow and the other guys harmonise (2:36)

Wet Wet Wet – Angel Eyes.mp3
If the critics can have Back For Good, then I’ll have Angel Eyes. Listen to Popped In, Souled Out, the Clydebank foursome’s 1987 debut album. It’s two sides of excellent pop music, borrowing from soul without the conceit of actually them actually being soul men (that came with their release of a Memphis sessions album soon after, which was not really bad but entirely redundant). Popped In had a few tracks nearing perfection. I really like Temptation, a very underrated song. But the highpoint comes towards the end of the first side. Angel Eyes makes some of the best use of strings in pop, while Marti Pellow’s vocal gymnastics underscore the utter joyousness of the song (here’s a link to the lyrics, you might need it).
Best bit: Marti Pellow burps (0:23)

Amii Stewart – Knock On Wood.mp3*
If disco ever created anything like Phil Spector’s fabled Wall of Sound, then it reached its defining moment with Amii Stewart’s explosive cover of Eddie Floyd’s 1966 hit (covered also by David Bowie during his mid-70s soul period). The sleeve of the single hinted at this version’s gay disco influence — remember that disco was a broad church which brought together the dance music of gay clubs, Euro synth and the funk, with the former two in particular often coalescing. Released in late 1978, at the peak of disco fever, Knock On Wood dispensed with the customary 4/4 disco beat. The brief HiNRG craze set in five years later, but Knock On Wood set the template. Action-packed with sound effects such as thunder and lightning, plus old-style soul horns, an insistent synth line, brutal drumming and Amii’s aerobatic vocals, Knock On Wood leaves you exhausted.
Best bit: Amii hits a high note to the backdrop of thundering drums and the backing vocals contemplating DIY (2:04)

Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger.mp3
It is fashionable to take a diminishing view of Oasis (not for too much longer, however: the ’90s revival is about to go into full swing); when it comes critical acceptance, it seems Blur and Pulp have won the Britpop war agaginst the monobrowed oafs. But, my goodness, neither Blur nor Pulp ever created so persuasive a trio of pop masterpieces as Don’t Look Back In Anger, Champagne Supernova and Wonderwall. I’ve often wondered why the rousing chorus for the former has never been used on English football terraces. It seems perfect.
Best bit: The drum bit (3:36)

OMD – If You Leave.mp3*
A couple of years ago my nephews became enthused by Nada Surf’s creditable cover version of If You Leave, which appeared on The O.C. (during one of the series’ best scenes: Seth and the gorgeous Anna at the airport). I don’t think it is possible to mess this song up. Andrew McCluskey might not have been a great singer (and certainly not a good dancer!), but his performance here is quite lovely, gently manic. By the time If You Leave came out in early 1986, OMD’s stock in Britain was very low, and the single flopped (my purchase of the 12″ single notwithstanding). In the US, however, it was a big hit, largely on strength of its appearance in Pretty In Pink.
Best bit: “Don’t look baaaack” (4:06)

Hues Corporation – Rock The Boat.mp3*
One of the proto-disco hits, Rock The Boat was a chart topper in the US in 1974. It is an infectiously joyous song, and a tune which can turn your low mood when you hear. Alone for that, it qualifies for the perfect pop label. If that fantastic piano does not do so anyway. The story behind the group’s name should make you want to champion the Hues Corporation. The band originally wanted to be called The Children of Howard Hughes, with a strong dose of irony since Howard was not known for his enlightened views on race relations. The record company, mindful of the billionaire’s ire, vetoed the name but could not rightfully object to the group’s alternative: the punning Hues Corporation. Reportedly old Howard was rather pissed off at that, though his absence from New York City’s disco nightlife has been attributed to alternative reasons.
Best bit: “We’ll be sailing with a cargo full of…love and devotion” (0:55)

Slade – Cum On Feel The Noize.mp3
A good argument can be made that the richest mine of perfection in pop can be located in glam rock and its non-identical twin, bubblegum pop (glam is really amplified bubblegum, with louder guitars and faster drums. And funnier clothes). If that is so — and I’m not inclined to demolish a theory which I have just constructed myself — then Cum On Feel The Noize is in close proximity of pop’s absolute peak by dint of it being one of the best glam rock tunes. This track makes you want to shout along, punch the air and, indeed, feel the noize, no matter how old you are. And isn’t that ability to engage the listener a sign of pop perfection?
Best bit: Obviously, “Baby, baby, baybeah” (0:01)

The Foundations – Baby Now That I’ve Found You.mp3
This Motown-ish track by the interracial and intergenerational British soul outfit just shades the more famous Build Me Up Buttercup. Great vocals by Clem Curtis (which are reminiscent of the Temptations’ David Ruffin), great backing vocals, fine drumming, and a melancholy in the tune which complements beautifully the anxiety of the lyrics. Note how, after the intro, the song launches straight into the anxious chorus: the mood lifts when the singer remembers their first meeting, but soon we feel the fear brought on by his realisation that she doesn’t need him. In sound, delivery, mood and structure, this is the greatest Temptations song the Temps never sang.
Best bit: The “ba-da-ba-da” backing vocals (0:26)

More Perfect Pop

1986

July 24th, 2007 4 comments

Another good year, with fewer concerts and more clubbing. Most memorably I got into Stringfellows wearing my Manchester United t-shirt I slept in (sad, I know) under my jacket after my friend Paul dragged me out of bed to try the supposedly impossible. Telling the bouncer that you are there to meet a fictional diplomat helps; it adds to the amusement if said bouncer calls out to the head security dude if Mr Diplomat had already arrived. Seems like bouncer and I shared fictional friends. Added bonus to a year with a great summer: no unrequited crushes (alas, no requited crushes either).

Fine Young Cannibals – Suspicious Minds.mp3
In 1985 I was a bit of a FYC fan, having obtained a signed copy of the debut album and seen them live in concert (supported by a comic whose shtick was to get heckled for his non-punchlines, and then make slap down the hecklers with some hilarious one-liners. If anyone has his name, I’d be grateful to know it). “Suspicious Minds” featured on the album, but became a hit in this re-recorded version, with Bronski Beat/Communards singer Jimmy Summerville on backing vocals.

Hipsway – The Honethief.mp3
I discovered Scottish outfit by chance in 1985 when I bought the flopped single “Ask The Lord” from Woolworth’s bargain bin. A very good song, so when “The Honethief” came out, I excitedly bought the 12″ the same week. It became one of my songs of 1986, and still like it a lot (the ’80s synth notwithstanding). The vocals are quite outstanding, I find. It’s a shame Hipsway didn’t make it big, when the poseurs Curosity Killed The Cat did (for a while).

Cherelle & Alexander O’Neal – Saturday Love.mp3
The hints were in the air in 1984 and ’85 with acts like the SOS Band, but 1986 was the breakthrough for the Timbalands of the day, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Alexander O’Neal, Atlantic Starr and Janet Jackson were among their clients who had a big impact on soul music at the time. This was a particularly charming upbeat duet, which I bought on strength of Cherelle’s previous album. I had yet to discover O’Neal, whose follow-up single “If You Were Here Tonight” was one of the best moments in ’80s soul.

O.M.D. – If You Leave.mp3
The O.C. generation will know this as a Nada Surf song. Fulfilling my contractual obligation as an old fart, I feel compelled to point out that while the Nada Surf version is good, the original is far superior. The chorus is another perennial earworm.

Depeche Mode – But Not Tonight.mp3
Depeche Mode didn’t rate this song. They recorded it in one day and chucked it on the b-side of “Stripped”. Except in the US, where this was the A-side (in a bid to cash in on its inclusion on the soundtrack of Modern Girls, which flopped). This is by a fair length my favourite Mode track, a straight-forward love song with a pretty melody enhanced by Dave Gahan’s slightly flat voice.

It’s Immaterial – Driving Away From Home.mp3
One of the great songs of 1986. In fact, posting this song a few weeks ago inspired the idea for this series. At the time I speculated that I bought the single at the same time as “Camouflage”, but that can’t be. I bought “Camouflage” the day I also acquired Hollywood Beyond’s crap “What’s The Colour Of Money”. I don’t remember if I bought any other records when I got “Driving Away From Home”. I cannot promise that my memory will solve this mystery, so prepare for a few sleepless nights wondering about Any Major Dude Without A Heart’s 1980s purchasing record. (previously uploaded)

Stan Ridgway – Camouflage.mp3
Is this song considered a classic? It should be. It has a great driving melody, and it has a narrative that holds the interest; who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Ridgway’s theatrical, half-sung drawl — “And here take his dog tag son” — is very entertaining. I haven’t heard anything else by him (I don’t think I ever played the b-side of the single). Should I?

Jermaine Stewart – We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.mp3
The late-summer hit of 1986 by a Michael Jackson soundalike. Poor dude should have heeded his own advice: in 1997 he died of AIDS-related causes (wikipedia says liver cancer caused by AIDS. Really?).

Cameo – Word Up.mp3
That codpiece Larry Blackmon wore aroused no suspicion at the time, did it? Cameo were the funk band of the ’80s. They had a great line in soul as well (check out “I’ll Never Look For Love” and “A Goodbye”). I played “Word Up” to death at the time, as I did with the even better “Single Life” the year before. Even Korn’s piss-poor paint-by-numbers cover version a couple of years ago could not undermine my deep affection for the song.

The Housemartins – Think For A Minute.mp3
New Years Eve ’85/86 I saw Madness at the Hammersmith Odeon. The supporting act was an outfit I’d never heard of before, but whose performance I liked better than that of Madness. I bought their existing singles, “Flag Day” and “Sheep”. Then “Happy Hour”, with its clay animation video, became a hit. I was pleased, even though I didn’t really like the song much. The follow-up single was “Think For A Minute”, a pleasant mid-tempo number with a nice horn solo, featuring one of my favourite lines: “I can’t help saying told you so and have a nice final day”. By Christmas, the Housemartins were huge with their acappella cover of Isley Jasper Isley’s superior “Caravan Of Love”. The 12″ single of the Housemartins version featured a great clutch of faux-gospel songs, with Paul Heaton, a Christian, referring in evangelist preaching-style to “the great pilot in the sky”, which I found very funny indeed. Right click and open in new tab for the Funeral Pudding blog which has MP3s of the Housemartins live at Glastonbury in ’86 and other rare material.

Bruce Hornsby & the Range – The Way It Is.mp3
Not a song I liked at the time, but my brother played it in his car when I travelled to South Africa (at this point I’d like to say hello to the lovely Caroline Cave, in the unlikely event she is reading this), so this track evokes a time and place. Which was the point of this series in first place (still is). I started enjoying Hornsby’s music later. The Maybe We Ain’t That Young Anymore blog had a great 10-minute live version up not so long ago. I don’t know if it’s still up (lots of good stuff there anyway).

Erasure – Sometimes.mp3
The breakthrough single for Erasure, with Andy Bell doing his best Alison Moyet impression. I bought this single while it was slowly climbing up the charts. As an obsessive student of the UK charts I was worried about missing it’s progress while I flew off on a holiday to South Africa. It peaked at #2.

Swing Out Sister – Breakout.mp3
Just joyous! It may not please the taste gestapo, but I really like Swing Out Sister. And singer Corrinne Drewery looked very sexy with her flapper’s bob.

Freddie McGregor – Push Comes The Shove.mp3

McGregor had a nice line in light reggae, lovely stuff for the beach, and the perfect soundtrack to getting high from everybody else’s fumes at Sunsplash (in South Africa, you watch a Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates for the same effect). McGregor found hits in 1987 with reggaefied covers of old soul hits which were a bit better than UB40s karaoke records, but did the man no justice. I have no idea whether this track was an original, but it is very lovely indeed.

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1981

July 16th, 2007 2 comments

And so on to 1981. Again, these are tunes that evoke that year — a year of some fun, several foreign trips, a temporarily close friend named Epstein, shit teachers at a shit school, an idiot of a younger brother (who turned out to be very cool), and the teenage depression most 15-year-olds experience. These are not necessarily favourites songs, then or now.

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels.mp3
The murder of John Lennon ushered in my obsessive Beatles period. I had been a fan since I was 11 (and I listened to the Blue album the night before Lennon was shot), but now I bought every Beatles LP I didn’t yet have, including the unlistenable Live At The Hollywood Bowl and the US releases (Japanese and Greek pressings. Are there collectors for Greek Beatles LPs?). “Watching The Wheels” was my favourite track from Double Fantasy, and remains my favourite Lennon track. I’m still fascinated by Lennon, though he was by no means the saint after whom airports should be named. And “Imagine” is one dreadful anthem to hypocrisy.

Billy Joel – Summer, Highland Falls (live).mp3
My Beatles period was followed by a few weeks of intense Billy Joel obsession. For a while, in my deep teenage depression, I listened to Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street and especially the magnificent Songs In The Attic ad nauseam. I think Billy Joel is often underrated by the Good Taste Police, but these four albums are quite excellent. After 1983 at the latest Joel became an objectionable hack. But he also was my companion through unhappy times. So thanks, Bill.

Ideal – Blaue Augen.mp3
Those of my generation growing up in West-Germany will recall the impact of Die Neue Deutsche Welle, the new wave of German new wave. Before German music consisted of the ubiquitous Schlager herberts (usually with English stage names like Roy Black or Chris Roberts), hoary Kraut rockers doing their thing in English (the bloody Scorpions), chanson merchants (Konstantin Wecker) and the very occasional cool-ish acts (Udo Lindenberg, Marius Müller-Westernhagen, and obviously Kraftwerk). Suddenly there appeared a new sound for a young generation. Looking back, some of them were awful (Markus, Hubert Kah), but at the time even the rubbish acts spearheaded a revolution, with Berlin band Ideal at the vanguard. “Blaue Augen”, one of the first Neue Deutsche Welle hits, has an important place in music history. Without it, there might not have been “99 Luftballons”. Whether or not that was a welcome consequence, you decide.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Joan Of Arc.mp3
OMD were on the forefront of the post-punk New Wave. First there was “Enola Gay”, then came this song, with its synthethizered martial beat, and it was all quite wondrous. It was great seeing OMD singer Andy McCluskey doing his crazy flaying arms dance to this when I saw them in concert in London four years later.

Soft Cell – Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.mp3
To be honest, this might actually belong in early 1982; I’m not quite certain. It’s a song that, with the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film”, reminds me of the first club I frequented: the notorious Kaisersaal, where no nice parents wanted their nice children to go. Of course, my friend Mike and I and other pals used to go there, starting in late 1981. We U18s had to be out by 10pm; but from 7-10pm the club was cooking already, playing new wave, heavy metal and old rock (“Starman”, “Black Betty” etc). We felt all grown up, which leads me to…

Hazel O’Connor – Will You.mp3
Hazel O’Connor produced a shedload of terrible music, and a couple of decent ones: “All Grown Up”, “Eighth Day” and “Will You” is one. The latter in particular is an excellent song; the saxophone solo is quite lovely. It really needs to be covered by somebody more talented than Ms O’Connor. The song featured in Breaking Glass, a mess of a film.

Ricchi é Povere – Sara Perche Ti Amo.mp3
Italian hits were always big in Germany. Umberto Tozzi, Adriano Celentano, I Santo California, Giana Nannini, this lot… you couldn’t escape them. This song tastes of 1981. I’d like to say it reminds me of pizza places, but I might be making up an association here. The song does smell of pizza and beer and sunshine though. And of fun fairs

Earth, Wind & Fire – Let’s Groove.mp3
EWF were classified as disco back then, and disco was not really considered cool. Stuff like this was a “guilty pleasure”. Where I grew up, you wouldn’t admit to liking this stuff to your friends unless you fancied a bloody nose for being a bit of a Popper. Likewise, you wouldn’t admit to liking Roxy Music if you knew anyone with a leather jacket. Alas, my school was full of assholes with leather jackets.

And my favourite item of clothes at the time (oh, hell, EVER!), the FC Nantes jersey:

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