Friday, September 25, 2009

FOR THOSE ABOUT TO POP, WE SALUTE YOU! Part 2 - The Diasopric Gem Clusters (appeared in THE DEVIL ON 45 issue 4)

In recent times, ( or if you're under 25, in this lifetime ), there has been a justified vilification of poptones to the point where there'll be extensive queues, lynch mobs, tar, feathers and paperwork to beat the Mahon tribunal when the Nuremberg trials of pop drag Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman, Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and others through the streets of Europe where they can be prodded, punctured and smeared with excrement for the audio diarrhoea they have nurtured in the name of a quick buck.

And to set a tone old crones always meander off on, there actually WAS a time of wonderful popular music.. sometimes cheesy, sometimes heavily sugar frosted, even downright weird, but definitely not ushered into the realms of success solely by business projections or slimy marketing ( at least not to the point where product was downright tertiary ). And it wasn't age dependent either, a fact that was proven beyond doubt with “ A Tower Of Strength” - Frankie Vaughan ( Phillips 1961 ). A weird and wonderful little single right at the birth of soul this side of the planet, it crops up from time to time on the lower budget end of shabby dog-eared Burt Bacharach compilations that you'll find hamsters living in at the back of any CASA shop. Although this was also a hit in the US for Gene McDaniels ( Bacharach's publishing people had a real bad habit over subsequent years of allowing the running of what were tantamount to illegal dog fights with two artists versions of the same song at the same time ), this outlandish, hyperventilating and altogether lovably eccentric performance belies the stiff era in which it existed. What should still be a dancefloor stomper all these years later was seen as a slightly novelty R'n'B cut when Bacharach finally discovered that his songwriting pen was leaking gold. This version was his first number 1 (of many) in England. As for Vaughan, an old variety performer who popularised canes and top hats a decade previously was never going to remain marketable to spotty teens once the 60's kicked in!!! But good old Frankie was true to his word as a "tower of strength" and became a mediator between Glasgow youth gangs in the late 60's after being shocked at the blinding level of violence during a visit there. Strangely, Mr Bungle of all people were most recent to dig up and revitalise this song. And of course the Mission did a completely different song in the '80s but I can't help thinking it borrows ever so slightly from hooks and ideas in this. Still, nothing beats the splutter, skip and crackle of something pulled from the open cast soil of Oxfam if you happen to strike gold!!!

Of course, when pop music did go haywire ( across some sort of sea thing ) in the states at the turn of the 60's, the roots were some genuine guitar bandits - Richie Valens, Dick Dale and Link Wray - fused with the multi-vocal harmonising Four Freshmen, one crazed hit-spewing genius named Phil Spector and subsequently the Beach Boys, who's commercial success ultimately kickstarted the craze of surf music. Out of this monster came the mediocre, the brilliant and the ridiculous.

Whilst attempting to create an original composition to back the inane SURFER JOE, a high school dance band called the Surfaris reworked a 12-bar Dick Dale/Duane Eddy thing they were calling STILETTO and accidentally composed WIPEOUT, one of the genre's enduring instrumentals. It was significant for Ron Wilson's signature drum breaks, which were direct lifts from his high school marching band drum cadence. And while WIPEOUT put their name on the surf route forever, the flipside for a later single, ( the hot-rodding SCATTER SHIELD ) was to provide their finest moment. I Wanna Take A Trip To The Islands - The Surfaris ( Decca 1964 ) with a singing, drum rolling Ron Wilson and featuring the fabulous backing vocals of The Honeys is a perfect 1 minute and 35 seconds of surf pop. Thin production ( a classic trick to ensure that the tracks sounded good when broadcast on a small beach radio ) along with an 9 second guitar break and some of the best drum fills you're ever likely to hear in pop made this a huge hit in Australia and New Zealand in 1964. Whilst on tour there backing Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys, Ron Wilson was to end up at loggerheads with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys over the heavy butt ends of his sticks being used to slowly destroy the expensive Rogers kit and hand picked Buddy Rich cymbals Dennis owned.
With a huge glut of bands ever expanding and diluting, and most contributing one ( if they were lucky ) memorable track to the genre, the Surfaris went the way of the surf music trend..... but try telling that to zimmerframed guitarists Bob Berryhill and Jim Fuller who persist in dragging separate versions of the Surfaris around sad old audiences who can't leave the beach for some reason or other. And adhesive to the formula of rock'n'roll bucket-kicking of the member who mattered, Ron Wilson died penniless in 1989 at age 44 of a brain aneurysm.

Any mention of pop would be pointless in any context without a look at the madness of Phil Spector and the brief period of wonderful music that flowered from his "Wall Of Sound" layering approach. Under all the eccentricity, he had a point when he explained his preference of singles, describing albums as " Two Hits and 10 pieces of junk " - A chunk of wisdom which is painfully obvious from many early soul albums, full length releases by the 4 Tops being prime examples. The diamond of the Spector oeuvre was undoubtedly He's A Rebel - Crystals ( Philles 1962 ), although the Gene Pitney penned track wasn't actually sung by the Crystals at all. Spector, typically paranoid that someone else would release a version ( it had already been stupidly rejected for the Shirelles for lyrically being a tad controversial ) figured that the New York based Crystals couldn't get out to LA in time to record and used another girl group, the Blossoms, featuring the vastly superior vocal talents of Darlene Love. The track is faultless 60's R'N'B ( and just think of the fucking bilge that stakes a claim to that genre now!!! ) and is an oddity for Spector in that he didn't flood it with layered orchestral strings... in fact it could be the only one of his major works that this applies to. And with regard to the identity crisis.... A failed attempt to graft Love onto the real Crystals as a new lead vocalist meant that they either had to lip-sync or deliver inferior versions OF HE'S A REBEL live, doing themselves no favours. Meanwhile Darlene Love fought for recognition before retiring from music and eventually resurfacing as Danny "I'm Gett'n too old for this shit" Glover's wife in the LETHAL WEAPON films.

Over at Motown, the concept of girl group complications was pretty much defined forever in the rivalry between Diana Ross and Martha Reeves, both personally and professionally. The ceaseless cat scrap had it's source in a relationship between Ross and Motown honcho Berry Gordy. This meant favouritism with the Supremes being given prime material and although Reeves had an astute business mind and was forever on the back of the publicity people at Motown, the lighter poppy Supremes always seemed to overshadow the sassy Vandellas ( it is alleged "Jimmy Mack" by the Vandellas was held back because it's quality would damage Supremes record sales ). To illustrate a point, the early mega-hit The Supremes - Can't Hurry Love ( Motown 1964 ) is up there with the pulse of anything that claims to be a dancefloor classic whether you're a Northern Soul snob or someone who accidentally knows this because of crimes against humanity Phil Collins perpetuated. However, if it's bubblegum versus gourmet soul, Martha Reeves And the Vandellas - Bless You ( Motown 1971 ) didn't sell worth a shit, is a fairly unknown track ( strangely for a composition by The Corporation, who were responsible for I WANT YOU BACK by the Jackson 5 - which was also huge ), yet for my money is pretty much one of the best singles ever to come from the Motown stable, and that's a risky and aggrandising representation. However, the Motown issue in depth is the subject of volumes of books, not scruffy fanzines, so some distance from the topic is necessary......

.....And what the hell was it with Sandie Shaw - Girl Don't Come ( Pye 1964 ) that the old hags who like to ban songs with "double entendre" titles overlooked? Was it Ms. Shaw's bare feet?... Was it those killer cheek bones and stunning 60's everygirl mod looks??? ... or simply that alluring melancholy that seemed to enshroud much of what she recorded until her shithead manager decided that she was past it and threw her into the eurovision with a petty song by that awful cunt Phil Coulter? I'm kind of astounded that this hasn't been mentioned much over the years. It has been argued that the likes of Petula Clark and Lulu were the best of British, and technically they were probably stronger vocalists, but until PP Arnold came along and made a complete joke out of the lot of them with that soul powerhouse dwelling within her vocal chords, Sandie Shaw mesmerised in a strangely understated sort of way ( and at least she could lip-sync unlike many of the artists of the time!! ). GIRL DON'T COME is the high point of a run of hits from '62-'66 which made her the most successful female artist of the decade, although to return to the initial point, I can't see a record label allowing any innocent female artist ( apart from Missy Elliot ) to release a song with a title like that!!

Later in the decade when people started guzzling psychedelics, the pop mod thing progressed with chart hit contenders like PP Arnold and Chris Farlowe now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Humble Pie, The Small Faces and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It made for some interesting, scatty and short-lived genius, before spawning a huge glut of pretentious anal art shit. One overlooked intermediary were Atomic Rooster, formed by a scruffy organ pumping catweasel fresh from The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown called Vincent Crane. The Rooster were schizoid at the best of times, but had 2 or 3 hits, the best and least successful of which, Atomic Rooster - Stand By Me ( Dawn 1972 ) was a weird soul metal hybrid... it wasn't Black Sabbath and it wasn't Sly and The Family Stone but incorporated the finest elements of both. Even weirder, with Immediate Records soul crooner Chris Farlowe singing, it made for one unlikely marriage, but it worked in so many ways with the pumping piano, wakka wakka guitar, big brass and powerful vocals. This crossover from soul to hard rock existed in very few bands of the era as the standards being set by Black Sabbath and Deep Purple kept the stragglers on their toes!!

Later in the 70's, the popularisation of punk and it's morphosis from incompetent garage rock into incompetent pop produced some wonderful results. Although the vogue of the era dictated that it was forbidden to admit predating the Pistols, some bands simply didn't want or need badly enough to be part of the youthful nonsense of it all. One such example was the Stranglers and if it wasn't bad enough having keyboard player who looked like ( and played as well as ) Deep Purple's John Lord, and a drummer who was quite obviously 120 years old, their lovingly non-ironic Stranglers - Walk On By ( United Artists 1978 ) was an utterly unique and peerless prog punk rendition of Burt Bacharach & Hal David's classic. With the addition of JJ Burnell's trademark growling bass, Hugh Cornwell's deadpan vocals and Dave Greenfield's keyboard noodlings, they made it their own, losing none of the pop hook of the Dionne Warwick version despite NEARLY going on as long as the Issac Hayes version. In the process the Stranglers created one of the all time great cover versions. Burt Bacharach hated this but seemingly Dionne Warwick loved it! Not to get complacent, they went on to pull the evocative harpsichord driven Golden Brown ( United Artists 1981 ) out of nowhere, delivering to the world of pop one of it's greatest songs. PERIOD!

On the subject of incompetents learning in public under the guise of punk, particularly in relation to small insignificant singles that were never going to set the world ablaze, Belfast's Good Vibrations promoted such bands with no ambition other than to release a couple of 7"s locally, but where Rudi were firm favourites, it was the chirpy Undertones that eventually made the label the globally renowned incubator it is now considered by trainspotters of the perfect pop punk single. And although huge wads of attention are now directed towards The Outcasts, Ruefrex, Protex, the Xdreamysts etc, a little band from Dundalk just south of the border had within them one of the most grossly overlooked jewels of all. Static Routines - Rock'n'roll Clones / Sheet Music ( Good Vibrations 1979 ) showcased an unpretentious punk philosophy that only ever needed 2 tracks to lay down. Driven by tin pot drumming, rudimentary fuzzy choppy guitar, plonky piano and a couple of great pop hooks, it captures the threads of innocence that weave through many of the Good Vibrations platters. Bassist Conor O'Mahony eventually managed Something Happens & Keyboardist Declan Lynch became a Hot Press writer. This is a masterpiece that sadly ( along with DANCING IN THE GHETTO/AMUSE YOURSELF ('79) by the Greystones based Strange Movements ) does not to date exist on any of the label anthologies.

As things rolled over into the dirty 80's, pop was not just pop, but packaging too... it always had been in a way but this was a first generation of Chameleonic Bowie fan entering the music world via punk and broadening into all manner of musical arena - Electronic, new wave, salsa, goth etc... Some of the heavy hitters of punk went underground while others courted this need for image with a lustre for the potential fruits of pop success. If Richard Branson, still clinging onto his post-Pistols trophy frontman like he was hot property, allowed John Lydon the benefit of the doubt with PUBLIC IMAGE and the doubt of the benefit with METAL BOX, then clearly ( at least in commercial terms, even for an old prog gimp ) he considered him to be severely ripping the piss with what came next. Public Image Limited - Flowers Of Romance ( Virgin 1981 ) and the album of the same name were with in the genre of popular music, but were not POP music as such. The largely drum loop based spearhead single, layered with keyboard noodlings, a cello tune-up and Lydon's catterwalling made for a legendary Top Of The Pops appearance and shot the single into the top 30 ( Not to mention making the album their biggest seller to date despite attempts by the label to limit the pressing ). This was a triumph of the will for anti-pop which has certainly never been repeated and is unlikely to happen again with such severity. Even watching the TOTP footage now, it's hard to believe that it was a hit single! And in terms of legacy, FLOWERS OF ROMANCE was the first major love/hate watershed for PIL fans and remains to this day the perfect pop song with which to empty a party!

Not quite as strange in musical content, but an unlikely portal to the pop world nevertheless, Laurie Anderson - Oh Superman ( One Ten 1981 / Warner Brothers 1981 ) was originally a small run of 1000 of a recording made by the New York performance artist with a NEA grant. The minimalist track consisted mainly of a (sub-Steve Reich ) looped phrase with a vocoded semi-spoken vocal. Lyrical content pointed ambiguously at the LE CID opera by Massenet and the Iran hostage crisis of '79/'80. Somehow this sat comfortably in a middle ground with all of the experimental post punk music coming out of Europe and John Peel ( the most important fan to have on your side in these circumstances ) took to it's inarguable elegance and charm. With this came a call from an English distributor mistaking it for a commercial release, requesting 40,000 copies within a week. Quite by accident Anderson, who was more famous for her violin contraptions and performance art, was suddenly signed to Warner Brothers for 8 albums, some great, some not so good. In 2002 she became NASA's first artist in residence. She married Lou Reed in April 2008. OH SUPERMAN and the BIG SCIENCE album ('82) unsurprisingly remain her finest musical moments.

In dealing with the devil, we finally arrive back at those whores of 80's pop, the hellish vermin who ruined it all forever - Stock, Aitken & Waterman. It almost pains me to have to include one of their productions, which is unfortunately tangled with a much more interesting tale of a Baltimore hairdresser turned shit eating drag queen, born Harris Glenn Milstead, who cut his teeth in various off Broadway stage productions, and was a major player in John Waters films before embarking on a hard edged disco pop career in the wake of the first wave of New York mutant disco ( Suicide, Kid Creole, Was Not Was etc ). The big hit, Divine - You Think You're A Man ( Proto 1984 ) was a nasty, nasty dancefloor anthem from a 300 pound man with a very gruff singing voice who had the phones hopping with complaints from irate mothers after a Top Of The Pops performance to promote the single. Further Divine appearances were subsequently out of the question and none of the follow up records ever scaled such lofty heights!! Interestingly, the track itself was written by Geoff Deane, former Leyton Buzzards and Modern Romance vocalist. Divine died of heart failure in 1988 age 42, shortly after being cast in the mainstream sitcom MARRIED.... WITH CHILDREN. There's a horrible pointless 2005 dance mix of this which sort of scrapes the 80's dirt from under it's fingernails, sanitises it and kind of misses the point.

And as the music industry in general reaches another corner with uncertainty over formats, the allure of a pop record has long been killed off as anything but an exercise in business and finance. Is it any wonder that the most inspirational slice of unadulterated ( albeit slightly "remixed" ) pop for as long as most people can remember is the glorious youtube pisstake Shakira featuring Danzig - Hips Don't Lie ( Source unknown Youtube 2006 ). But pop WAS once upon a time a genre of reputable and thoughtfully crafted soundbites - a sugar fix that would never kickstart a revolution and made no such claims for itself - Why it became a dirty word is down to a few dirty old men who stole the soul and replaced it with backing tracks, bimboys, bints and ledgers! - BOZ


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