26. REPRODUCTION – THE HUMAN LEAGUE (1979)

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REPRODUCTION – THE HUMAN LEAGUE (1979)
I’ve never quite understood it when people dismiss little-known music out of hand. Equally, I’ve never understood them dismissing well-known music out of hand either. Both equally poxed houses butt heads when the Human League are up for discussion.
 Some, perhaps sincerely but perhaps through sheer wilful posturing, will countenance only The Early Stuff, made before the sundering which produced Heaven 17 and led to the arrival of The Girls, massive hits and, presumably eventually, a fair bit of cash. Others, armed with sometimes justified but often fatuous allegations of snobbery and misogyny, will maintain, with breathtaking snobbery themselves, that only geeky losers are into The Early Stuff and only The Hits matter. Most, though, are oblivious to the existence of a first incarnation and just want to hear Don’t You Want Me once again, sandwiched between Rio and Gold.
If that sounds snobbish itself, let me just say that the only distinctions I draw between the lesser-known and the well-known are that there’s far more of the former, meaning it’s a far deeper seam to mine and that, if a song gets played too often, people WILL get sick of it. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a certain regard for Don’t You Want Me but after more than 30 years of merciless overplay on radio and in public places, I could quite happily never hear it again and would now choose most of the other  songs from Dare – still as smart and scintillating as the day they were minted – or from Reproduction over it every time.
And what of those songs on Reproduction? By the time of its release, the League were already being indicted for selling out after moving to Virgin (by then rapidly morphing from hippy magnet to abode of the synth) from Edinburgh-based independent Fast, where they had released the appallingly recorded but captivating Being Boiled/Circus of Death (the former’s eventual appearance on Top of the Pops was like Colombo showing up at a royal banquet) and the hypnotic, entirely instrumental Dignity of Labour EP, which not only foreshadowed the marvels of fellow Sheffielders Warp Records by a good decade and a half but also showcased the unaffected sense of magic and wonder which shaped the Human League’s universeview, as they debate, among other matters, the record’s cover star, first man in space Yuri Gagarin. As children of the 1960s, they were entranced by space travel, science fiction and spies through genuine affection and a sense of the future as a frontier to be explored, not something to be feared or, just as perniciously, taken for granted, all illustrated by Adrian Wright’s inventive slideshows at their gigs and quite unlike the puny, tiresome humour of those fixated on Back to the Future and Star Wars (if Jedi is a religion, a Jedi prayer would conclude not with Amen or even May the force be with you but with: See what I did there?). Before any of this, they’d begun by covering the Dr Who theme – an astonishing piece of music even eithout recourse to the programme, which had already been sparking youthful imaginations for nearly 20 years.
On Reproduction itself, despite Kalahari-dry production, the songs are deftly executed and often eerie, deploying space and occasional silence as an instrument – from the first sound you hear, of metronomic ticking leading into the Tudor stomp of Almost Medieval to the spoken bookends of the cryptic tale of breakdown in The World Before Last, beginning with what sounds like Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, recently ousted in the 1979 General Election amid industrial unrest, quipping “you will notice- you wil notice that, very appropriately, I’m left handed” and closing with an early assessment of his Downing Street successor, Margaret Thatcher, as “disastrous.” Slowing the classic Spector beat to cortege pace, with synths panning in equally slow motion, the song may not be directly about Callaghan but does tell of someone whose time has come and gone. As for that verdict on Thatcher – she hadn’t even got started.
Even bleaker is Morale, as subdued and closeted a song as pop has ever produced. The aged narrator reluctantly admits a visitor and ponders his trap, cursing not only his own failings but those of others – “I’ve never met anyone who used their knowledge to avoid those mistakes made again and again.” Even Samuel Beckett sometimes hinted at some kind of redemption or resolution.
 Then the synths float and drift and I’ve always imagined we’re being carried across the road to another house, to hear a couple reach the end to the accompaniment of the League’s account of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. They play it straight but here the wall of sound is anaglypta-papered, the symphony has been taken out of the pocket, leaving only crumpled hankies, and where Bill Medley sounded wounded and bewildered, Phil Oakey sounds so resentful that there seems no hope of reconciliation.
Lyrics in other League songs have been mocked to the point of tedium for their crassness but Oakey could just as often be poetic and insightful. In the medley Austerity/Girl One, he may offer us “You thought you’d be a nurse/Just like your mother had/ But you make the patients worse/And the doctors know you’re bad” but more than compensates for it with the brilliantly robotic “you brush away a flake of zinc,” then adds: “You push into the bleak/Where all the women walk in fear,” capturing the very real terror that gripped their native county during the Yorkshire Ripper murders of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
There’s also a deadpan narration of a car crash on the closing Zero As A Limit but Reproduction does include songs as bouyant and upful as anything on Dare, just as Dare’s Kennedy documentary Seconds would fit perfectly on to Reproduction. Blind Youth leaps and somersaults as it quizzes punk on its nihilism, while single Empire State Human shares the same Low/Man Machine/Suicide genes as its companions – but could work faultlessly as a song for children. “Fetch more water, fetch more sand/Biggest person in the land” -try it with your kids/nieces/nephews.
They would become huge, in a manner which uncannily paralleled that of Adam and the Ants – both, in turn, uncannily paralleling the rise of T.Rex a decade earlier. In all three cases, seemingly insurmountable splits were overcome with significant switches in direction which still retained  plenty of the original spirit. But all this lay ahead – at this stage, the Human League were throwing Roxy Music, Cabaret Voltaire and Illya Kuryakin into a steel foundry to see what they could manufacture. The result was funny, heartbreaking, thrilling, disturbing, warm and, naturally, Human (PG).

23. CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Uncategorized
CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)
Any record which features sandpaper, coat rack and shoes among its instrumental credits has emphatically earned the right to be called Crazy Rhythms. The rhythms, and the songs they inhabit, aren’t ostentatiously barmy – for which thanks – so much as markedly unorthodox, squatting in a territory somewhere on the road from skiffle to funk without remotely resembling either.
Taking their name from an undemanding, multi-sensory form of film in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  the Feelies appeared most likely to side with the Gamma, Delta and Epsilon classes of the book, with their unassuming – for want of a better word – preppy image and palpably un-rock ‘n’ roll demeanour, fitting with the most superficially obvious comparison of Jonathan Richman.
 A crude precis of Crazy Rhythms could be that it outlines how the Modern Lovers might have developed if Richman had continued to expand the Velvet Underground template of their first album, instead of proceeding to draw more heavily on rockabilly and doo-wop influences. This also puts them in proximity with the commotion of Josef K and even the early Go-Betweens, while on the Bolt-worthy sprint of Fa Ce La, they provide a blueprint for the sound of the Woodentops.
Repeatedly on Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies prove themselves to be masters of the slow build and slower burn. Many of the songs are one or two minutes down the line before vocals or hooks arrive, meaning that many self-proclaimed cutting edge radio stations
would play them – not that this would ever actually happen – in a severely truncated form, but this would be like skipping all that business with the apes  in 2001: A Space Odyssey and going straight to HAL’s breakdown. The full picture is needed for full power. Funny how this doesn’t seem to apply when the song in question is Stairway To Heaven or Champagne Supernova.
All of this is most explicit on opener The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, where hesitant-sounding claves and/or woodblock are spied on by a ticking guitar, which finally springs upon them when goaded by the tom-tom roll of future avant-garde voyager Anton Fier. What follows is a sketch of a silent recluse who either has depths too hidden to be traceable or is just completely withdrawn – a Boo Radley who’s never been allowed anywhere near scissors or a Sheldon Cooper plotting his world domination? Unclear – the Feelies put as little flesh on the bones of their lyrics as their music.
But don’t let this sparsity underestimate their capacity to scorch, particularly with Glenn Mercer and Bill Million proving to be the most quietly potent guitar duo of their era, Verlaine and Lloyd with silencers attached . The solo midway through the similarly elongated intro to Loveless Love – which they’re seen performing in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild – would have the jocks meekly handing THEIR dinner money over, while another on Forces At Work – seven minutes, practically all one chord – is a proud descendant of Run, Run, run and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The abum’s sweetest melody is on Raised Eyebrows, where it almost feels like a copout for them to introduce lyrics, particularly when they’re so terse, and you feel that they should have had the courage of their convictions and gone for an instrumental. But it ends up structured like a 1930s dance band tune, which gives it a charm of its own.
There’s even a Beatles cover. Their interpretation of Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey is less drastic an overhaul than Devo’s version of Satisfaction but is conceived in a similar spirit – seemingly ambivalent towards its weighty source material but plainly a product of an utterly different time and culture.
It’s apt that ‘rhythms’ is close to being the longest vowelless word in the English language, as Crazy Rhythms withdraws what might be essential elements to some – big production, deep bass, bravado – and is vastly inventive with what’s left. French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles once likened the record to a UFO – it may come in peace but has little interest in being taken to your leader, as it would much rather take you on a path of its own (PG).

11. THE CHILLS – SUBMARINE BELLS (1990)

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martin phillippsIn another world, the Chills might have been the subject of one of those single-frame Viz cartoons in which a band name is depicted literally. They’d have been stood in a circle, chanting “one times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six”. Stood in front of them would have been John Travolta, his thumb jerked over his shoulder, declaring solemnly: “I got Chills. They’re multiplyin'”.
It never happened. The fair measure of success they enjoyed in their native New Zealand did not travel, despite at least a dozen songs which could have, very conceivably, lodged themselves firmly in the public consciousness, around half of them on Submarine Bells, their second album proper and their first since their departure from NZ’s immortal Flying Nun to Slash, a subsidiary of London and one of a rash of pseudo-indies established by majors in the late ’80s.
The single from the album, Heavenly Pop Hit, fulfilled the two-thirds of the title’s promise that the Chills had control over. It formed part of a tradition of absurdly tuneful songs by acts not necessarily renowned for such things, like Oliver’s Army before it and Friday I’m In Love and – yes – Shiny Happy People afterwards. Martin Phillips and his compatriot, Donna Savage of the also unjustly forgotten Dead Famous People, exult wordlessly on a chorus which produces grins as surely as rain produces puddles- usually. Once, when called upon to help dislodge an unwelcome earworm, I offered Heavenly Pop Hit as an antidote. “Aw, that’s awful – cheeseorama!”, was the response, to my dismay, and the play of the song didn’t even last 30 seconds.
Maybe it needed to be heard in the context of some of their earlier colossal songs, like Pink Frost or Night Of Chill Blue, or of Submarine Bells’ close to perfect first side. Part Past Part Fiction offers vice-like drama and a solo as breathless as it is deft, all undimmed by Phillipps’ clodhopping pronunciation of ‘cacophony’ to rhyme with ‘lonely’. The Oncoming Day is even more frenetic and as anxious as its title suggests, a return to the runaway runway they visited on Brave Words’ Look For The Good In Others And They’ll See The Good In You. I Soar tells of a flight in the southern hemisphere but its cantering rhythm and synthesised woodwind sumptuously evoke the British autmn in which it was recorded.

Side two is patchier but clutches two real treasures. With its high-stepping upright piano, Don’t Be-Memory has always sounded to me like it was recorded in a living room, suitably enough for such an intimate and heartfelt account of missed opportunities, a “desperate deal” conducted with “this greenhouse on,” a nod to the environmental anxiety of the times which produced a spike in the Green vote at the 1989 European elections and which is eloquently expanded upon in the liner notes of Submarine Bells. The song’s odd structure – not one, not two but three bridges – means its poignancy doesn’t let up for a second.
Submarine Bells itself takes the complexity of a Day In The Life, adds the langour of Good Night and creates the proper ending the Beatles’ career never had thanks to their insistence on finishing with the sheer bathos of Her Majesty. It sounds like an orchestra; it might merely be a mellotron or similar. All that matters is that it has a beauty that can barely be described – rarely has ‘rock’ sounded so majestic, so utterly aloof from the common imbecility of rog an’ roll, but without a scintilla of pomposity. It concludes with a glissando that almost certainly tips a deliberate wink to My Way – but again they’re set on something far finer than that karaoke warhorse’s daft bravado.
Like so many bands of the period, The Chills had all the conditions for a breakthrough. The fact that it never came means they’re still there to be discovered by many, all of whom I promise a lifelong treat. (PG)

8. IT’S TIME FOR JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS (1986)

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jonathanIn appreciation of the long-playing record It’s Time for Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, 1986

‘Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?” Lou Reed 1966.

When Lou was writing ‘I’m Waiting’ For The Man’, he would have had a precise picture in his head of the dope dealing character in the song. That’s because Lou would certainly have known him personally, aspiring young hustler that he was. For some reason however, when I hear the song today I think of Jonathan Richman as the naive fresh-faced ‘white boy’, with Lou himself conversely, the cool hipster of the Lower East Side, overseeing young Jonathan’s induction to the dark stuff. Lou fitted that NY boho smackhead chic pretty well, but what about Jonathan? Unlike Lou, he was never really suited to hanging out with druggies and sexual deviants. There was always something incongruous about this Velvets’ disciple, sleeping on Steve Sesnick’s couch and affecting that proto-punk attitude. It just didn’t add up.

Something happened to Jonathan Richman. Something changed in him. This vicious world of adulthood, where everyone smoked, took drugs and cheated one another over record deals or in the bedroom. This new world was not for him. What about the old world?

I imagine this metamorphosis to have occurred in 1973. [A dream: Jonathan is in attendance at a family gathering in late summer in a New Hampshire coastal village. He is experiencing a creative nadir, and finds himself out of the city at a nephew’s birthday party. It’s early evening. There are kids eating ice cream, they’re falling over one another on the porch and there is much laughter around the place. He watches a boy chase a kite along the beach. Some old uncle recalls a few anecdotes. Drinks are spilled and memories shared. ‘Come on Jonathan, play us a tune!’ comes the inevitable invitation. It’s been a while. Jonathan looks over at the old battered acoustic guitar leaning against the family Steinway. He picks up the instrument and knocks out a couple of old Chuck Berry numbers. Everyone cheers. Boy, does this feel good. Jonathan loves an audience. He wanders off into the kitchen. Maybe he hears an old doo-wop track by the 5 Royales or the Flamingoes on the little transistor radio sitting there. He goes upstairs and sitting by the bedroom window, writes the first version of ‘It’s You’, what will become the opening track on It’s Time For Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. It will be 12 years before he records it for posterity but something has clicked. Jonathan recalls the first time he heard music like this on the radio and fondly remembers his carefree childhood. He’s battered and bruised from his walk on the wild side and disillusioned with the excesses of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Change of plan.

Of course the first fruits of Jonathan’s new approach came long before the release of It’s Time For…. By 1986 he’d recorded a number of Modern Lovers albums, all filled with his own brand of gentle romantic rock’n’roll and all presumably filed nervously in the ‘new-wave’ sections of confused record stores. He had built his reputation on the classic first punk blast of The Modern Lovers: ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘She Cracked’, all moody black-clad Velvets sneer, and then proceeded to confound everyone’s expectations of him with his bizarre Top 10 novelty hit’Egyptian Reggae’.

Fast forward a decade or so and he has cultivated a small but loyal audience for his charming old world vision. This album was my first encounter with Jonathan, and to be honest, looking at the sleeve and seeing this thirty five year old man, looking (most impressively) no more than 21, but clad in an unbuttoned pink linen shirt, was certainly unpromising and frankly, a bit unsettling. I too was a Velvets disciple and well, the image was just…well, so wrong! But what to make of the music inside the sleeve? I could not believe the album had just been released. It sounded at least twenty five years older than that. And yet, there was a freshness, an innocence and a joy in this music which encapsulated the very essence of rock’n’roll. The album veers from the delightfully moronic ‘Let’s Take A Trip’ (‘I got my jeans and things and I’m ready to go!’) to Jonathan’s ridiculous hymn to his favourite milkshake of all (‘Double Chocolate Malted’ – OK Jonathan, no nuts!), and a playful retelling of the classic Persian love story ‘Shirin and Fahrad’. But amidst the somewhat contrived innocence and playfulness are a small bunch of timeless gems.

The opener the aforementioned ‘It’s You’ is a singalong classic – how could one fail to smile listening to it? ‘Neon Sign’ and ‘When I Dance’ sway along beautifully – the latter exuding an ironic sexual confidence, the former conveying a neurotic and nostalgic displacement in the adult world. But it is the triumvirate of ‘This Love of Mine’, ‘Just About Seventeen’ and the closer ‘Ancient Long Ago’, which really set this apart from other sterling Jonathan albums – such as Jonathan Sings!

‘This Love of Mine’ has all the smooth assurance of Sam Cooke, with the honeyed harmonising the perfect counterpoint to Jonathan’s stuttering adolescent awkwardness. He’s in character for sure, but he’s comfortable here. Jonathan and the boys enjoy themselves so much on ‘Just About Seventeen’ that, lost in the moment, they cannot refrain from a chorus of ‘dangdangdoodang wangdangdoodang’ to further accentuate the good vibe. “I’m about seventeen…I guess, well that’s what the calendar says…what do numbers mean? I’m about seventeen”. Pure gold.

It has been well documented that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” Hearing the angelic ‘Ancient Long Ago’ one might be tempted to disagree. It reveals Jonathan to be the real deal. Listening to it again, I am transported through time, people and places appear and disappear from my mind’s eye, in particular, some very special evenings being charmed by Jonathan’s songs aboard the Renfrew Ferry in the early 1990s. It is a shimmering invocation with an extraordinary musical arrangement which should evoke a heartfelt response from even the most sceptical listener. ‘I am not bound by space or time right now’ he says. Neither am I Jonathan. Not now.

We may be in the late autumn of Jonathan’s recording career, but these songs have been criminally under appreciated for far too long. I listen to them today in the first stirrings of spring, and I embrace summer in full bloom. Go on, as the man himself says, surrender to Jonathan! (JJ)