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Pissing off the Taste Police with Wet Wet Wet

October 7th, 2009 6 comments

wetwetwetThey never really stood much of a chance of being taken seriously. Having chosen a, well, wet name (inspired by a Scritti Politti lyric), they were fronted by a Tom Cruisean grinmeister backed by a trio of sidekicks who looked more like journeymen footballers for Clydebank than the craftsmen of infectious blue eyed soul which they were. The early hype as their debut single hit the charts painted them as the successors to Wham! in the teenybopper hierarchy, at a time when the Taste Police was already rounding up those still in possession of Nik Kershaw albums (with exception of the dedoubtable Giles Smith, who used to be friends with Lil’ Nik).

All this did not prejudice sales. The barely pubescent girls bought Wet Wet Wet’s records, as did the occasional connoisseur of pop whose critical appraisal was not influenced by the demographic the music as marketed at (though that segment may well have been turned off by the Wets’ poor but chart-topping cover of With A Little Help From My Friends). A few years after Wet Wet Wet arrived on the scene, they managed the cross-over, from schoolgirls to the mainstream that bought albums by Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston and MFB, thanks to their massive hit Love Is All Around, a cover of the Troggs’ song. The progression from one despised market demographic to another was seamless.

I think their version of Love Is All Around is quite lovely, though I know I’ll find myself in a pitiful minority here. I think more people would share my view that it is quite lovely had it not been played to absolute death. Love Is All Around may have financed singer Marti Pellow’s tragic drug addiction, but its overexposure removed whatever shade of musical credibility Wet Wet Wet might have aspired to. And even as I set out to defend the group, I can do so only on basis of their first three albums, being almost entirely ignorant of their subsequent output.

Popped_In_Souled_OutThe debut, Popped In, Souled Out (1987), however is a pop gem (groanworthy punnery in the title notwithstanding). Pellow, let there be no doubt, was a very good singer, even if he was given to overemoting at times. The musical and vocal highlight of the LP is Temptation, in which Pellow pleads gently, then angrily, then with the desperation of an Al Green seeking a repair kit for his broken heart. On the LP version, he even swears as he exclaims “don’t waste my fucking’ spirit”. The lyric on the gatefold cover excises the expletive. On the best-of compilation Part One (1994), the word “fucking” has been overdubbed with what sounds like “angry”. Unaccountably, it then fades out before the climactic “peace, love and understanding” bridge and Pellow’s ad libbed “mwah!”

For all its merits, Popped In‘s sleek production was not a reflection of the way the band saw itself. The foursome considered themselves serious soul aficionados, influenced by the ’60s and ’70s sounds of Stax, Hi and Vee Jay, Atlantic and Chess, of Memphis, Philly and Motown. The real sound of Wet Wet Wet, unfettered by the dictate of A&R people, was captured on The Memphis Sessions, recorded before Popped In but released only in 1988.

Wet Wet Wet Memphis SessionsThe eight-song set was produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell, who at Hi Records produced Al Green in his pomp. The group had the self-confidence to cover Mitchell’s song This Time — it does take courage to record a song by one’s hero as he sits in the studio — and did so beautifully. The difference in sound is most obvious when the Memphis version of Sweet Little Mystery is played against the poppy hit version. The Memphis Sessions is not a soul classic — they just hadn’t earned their stripes yet — but the album presents Wet Wet Wet as a group of serious, talented musicians who understood and respected the genre for which they had such an affection.

The follow-up, 1989’s Holding Back The River, sought to incorporate that soul sensibility into the pop sound. It worked only incompletely. The title track tries to combine soul, blues and gospel, coming across entirely self-conscious in the process. The album’s best songs are the mid-tempo pop songs, Sweet Surrender and Broke Away.

One day in early 1990, a dance remix of Sweet Surrender was playing in a Cape Town disco I regularly frequented when the DJ interrupted the song to announce that the following day, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. Whatever demerit one might want to attach to the song, to me it will always be beautiful as a symbol of the sound of the final nail being banged into apartheid’s coffin.

Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (LP version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Single version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – This Time
(Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Broke Away.mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Surrender (remix).mp3

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Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police

Albums of the Year: 1987

June 11th, 2008 No comments
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Some time ago I started a series of my favourite albums of the year, starting with round-ups of the ’50s and the years 1960-65. It was a good idea, but the prospect of choosing ten albums from 1966 and writing about them somehow put me off. So I procrastinated in continuing the series. Then, this morning, it hit me: why the compulsion to follow the years in a rigorously tidy chronology? Surely I won’t receive a flood of complaints if I focus on random years. So we’ll continue the long dormant series with a random year, inspired by the album I was playing in the car as I had my brainwave, and which tops the list. A few caveats: these lists represent my top 10 of albums in terms of my own enjoyment and/or the nostalgic bonds they represent. Greatest hits type compilations are not considered (else New Order’s Substance album would have featured). And, no, I never liked The Joshua Tree much, by 1987 I was past my Depeche Mode phase, and never owned Actually.

1. The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands
Somewhere I read the Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1985 aptly named debut Psychocandy described as the Beach Boys being played by vacuum cleaners, or a notion to that effect. The description is spot on: the rather lovely tunes struggled to be heard above the feedback. It sounded great, but somehow one wondered how great JAMC might be with a cleaner sound. Two years later the Reid brothers switched off the vacuum cleaner and, Hoover be praised, produced that clean sound. Listen to Cherry Came Too: you can imagine it being sung by the Beach Boys back in the day. Indeed, the Reid boys wore their influences with ease. The dark Nine Million Rainy Days pays homage, wittingly or not, to the Stones’ Sympathy To The Devil. Closing track About You could have been sung by Nico and the Velvet Underground. The title track channels Berlin-era Bowie (but is much better than that). Yet, they could not be accused of plagiarism, as Oasis would be later. The whole thing incorporates earlier sounds without compromising the JAMC’s originality. Two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and exciting. A forgotten classic.
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands.mp3
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Nine Million Rainy Days.mp3

2. Prince – Sign O’ The Times
There probably is a critical consensus that Sign O’ The Times is the best album of 1987. There is indeed much to be admired. The music is great, of course. Provided one is in the mood for it, because it can be a bit tedious. Let it play on a non-Prince day — and surely everybody but the most devoted Prince fan has these — and the whole thing has the capacity to irritate. It is not a pop masterpiece like Purple Rain; SOTT demands that you to listen it, and forgive its trespasses, especially the flab (oh, but if you condensed it down to a single album, which tracks would you cut?). SOTT is to Prince what the White Album was to the Beatles: despite the flaws that tend to be a by product of innovation, a masterpiece.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times.mp3
Prince – Starfish And Coffee.mp3

3. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
A year earlier, the Smiths had released their ageless opus, The Queen Is Dead. Now Morrissey, Marr and chums themselves delivered their swansong. It was not necessarily their finest hour: lead single Girlfriend In A Coma is a lightweight novelty number, presaging Morrissey’s solo career that is riddled with similar witless doggerels. It was a bizarre choice for a single. I submit that Unhappy Birthday might have become a big cult hit on the back of its wonderfully vicious lyrics. A Rush And A Push… and the oppressive Death Of A Disco Dancer are excellent, and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is one of the most affecting songs in a canon jam-packed with such things. The line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is emotionally exhausting. It is a great piece of sequencing that this track, a throw-back to the self-pity years, is preceded — at least on the CD, for Last Night… opens side 2 — by a song called Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me.mp3

4. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
When ’80s soul became unfashionable, O’Neal became something of a reject emblem for the out-of-favour genre. It was rather unfair on the man. He made some classy soul music in his time, thanks to his effortlessly expressive voice and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ sparkling funk-soul-pop arrangements. Hearsay is a concept album, with dialogue intros preceding each song (they tend to grate once the novelty has worn off). The first side is the going-to-a-party section with great funk tracks such as Fake and Criticise, on the flip side things mellow down a bit, though the thing continues to groove, as on the gorgeous duet with the frequent collaborator Cherelle, Never Knew Love Like This. This is one of the great soul albums of the ’80s. Why would anyone want to dismiss Alexander O’Neal? Little known fact: O’Neal was the singer of a group called the Flyte Tyme (with Jam and Lewis). The group was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, but after a dispute with His Tiny Highness, O’Neal left the group, which hired one Morris Day and renamed itself The Time, providing the baddy foil to Prince’s flawed hero in Purple Rain.
Alexander O’Neal – Criticise.mp3

5. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Mainstream
In a comment to a post in which I featured Lloyd Cole’s best song, Rattlesnakes, Rol from the fine Sunset Over Slawit blog wrote that he “could live inside” that song. I know exactly what he means. Likewise, I could spend a lost weekend (with or without a brand-new friend) in Cole’s Mainstream album. Lloyd’s final album with the Commotions, it did less well than its two predecessors. This is a pity, because — and this may be fighting talk — it is in some ways even better than the debut, Rattlesnakes, and most certainly superior to the sophomore album, Easy Pieces. On Mainstream, Cole and his increasingly distant friends returned to the guitar-based sound of the debut. Lyrically, Cole seemed to be at war with himself, his band and the world. On the side two opener he prnounced himself Mr Malcontent, and on the excellent From The Hip, he declared that he doesn’t care anymore. Oh, but he did. There are a couple of commitment songs, notably Jennifer She Said. That line “her name on you…Jennifer in blue” is a regular earworm, sometimes supplanted by the repetitious “that’s forever she said…”.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip.mp3

6. Basia – Time And Tide
There is a very good reason why this jazz-pop singer goes by her Christian name. Basia Trzetrzelewska (try saying that after a few pints of finest Hevelius) provided the splendid three-octave female voice on Matt Bianco’s first LP. While I rather enjoyed Matt Bianco, their Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed song used to irritate me when I was still a notorious morning grump. There was nothing aggravating about her 1987 solo debut, a finely judged collection of Latin-tinged jazz-pop which could with ease move the twinkletoed to the dancefloor to do the samba (or its Capetonian cousin, the jazz). The title track and Promises received fairly wide exposure, and are indeed the strongest numbers on the album. But the entire set is strong, with the possible exception of Prime Time TV and How Dare You. Check out songs such as New Day For You or Astrud.
Basia – New Day For You.mp3

7. The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
Like an Indie-pop supernova, the Housemartins burnt out after two albums. It probably was just as well: the überanorak shtick was going to get them only so far. So bassplayer Norman Cook became a DJ and then Fat Boy Slim; singer Paul Heaton and replacement drummer Dave Hemingway formed the Beautiful South. Before going their own way, our Marxist-Christian pals left us with a maddeningly uneven yet rather enjoyable album, the title of which was a reference to the royal family. By now the political consciousness started to mingle uneasily with the wackiness. What at first was endearing started to irritate. The single Five Get Overexcited, catchy jangly guitar pop with a message about superficiality though it was, had annoying lrics (“I am mad from Scandinavia, I want a guy in the London area. He must be crazy and Sagittaurus, ’cause I am Leo and I’m hilarious”). Conversely, a serious song about the rotten class-system like Me And The Farmer fails to convey its message thanks to a happy melody (and a very silly video). The People Who… is at its strongest when things are allowed to calm down a bit. And so the stand-out tracks are the quieter Build and The Light Is Always Green. As an opponent of apartheid, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Johannesburg, although the Housemartins deviation towards jazz was less welcome.
The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.mp3

8. Wet Wet Wet – Popped In Souled Out
This may be one of the most unjustly disrespected albums of the ’80s. I cannot understand why Wet Wet Wet have such a poor reputation. Is it because they were initially marketed as the teenybopper group they never could be (I mean, Marti Pellow was good looking, but the drummer and the little one are hardly dreamy heartthtrobs)? Is it because that song from a Hugh Grant movie was so ubiquitous? Was it the name? The answer is beyond me, but it surely cannot have been the music on the Scottish band’s debut album. This is high-quality blue-eyed soul, made by people who clearly understand the genre. The sound draws from ’60s pop and ’70s soul, and Pellow’s vocals settle for a fine balance between soul technique and pop delivery. The songs are very catchy. Strings swell, but never in a corny way. The lyrics aren’t Tom Waits or Patti Smith, but they remain on the right side of pop banality (and sometimes they are pretty good). What, I beg you, is there not to like here?
Wet Wet Wet – Wishing I Was Lucky.mp3

9. INXS – Kick
Let the record reflect that I had no time for INXS before Kick, and none after. And yet, I love this album. It is the most accessible INXS album; the slew of hits that emanated from it testifies to that. It is also their least self-conscious album; Hutchence lets it hang out like Jagger and actually seems to be enjoying himself. On Need You Tonight, Hutchence is sex personified. When he sings “Your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know…I’ve got to let you know: you’re one of my kind”, he is having hot ‘n sweaty sex. With you (well, if you happen to be listening to it). I can happily live without a few tracks from Kick, such as opener Guns In The Sky or Calling All Nations, but for all their exposure, I am never unhappy to hear Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart, Mediate, New Sensation, Mystify or the song on which Hutchence is having sex with us.
INXS – Need You Tonight.mp3

10. Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Third World Child
I like Johnny Clegg. I like it that an English-born Jewish boy would defy apartheid, which was predicated not only on the separation of races but also of cultures, and assimilate with Zulu culture but not lose the awareness that he could never be a fully-fledged Zulu. His affinity with the Zulu culture is sincere, as was evident in his previous group, Juluka. When Juluka colleague Sipho Mchunu left the group, Clegg founded Savuka. His new group continued in the Juluka tradition; in concerts the setlist included most Juluka classics and the old dance routines with the highkicks. Third World Child was more commercial and polished than Juluka, possibly consciously so as to appeal to the fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was a better album for it, I think. One has the direct comparison of Scatterlings Of Africa, a Juluka single in 1982 and re-recorded by Savuka for this album. The latter version is marginally better. At times Third World Child, like everything Clegg does, is a little too earnest, and sometimes it seems Clegg got bored with an idea before completing its development. But, goodness, when it’s good, it really is great. Apart from Scatterlings, the stand-out tracks are Great Heart and the great anti-apartheid song dedicated to the then still jailed Nelson Mandela, Asimbonanga, with its moving litany of activists who were murdered by the regime.
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65

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)

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