Following an extended sabbatical, I recently found myself returning to the comments boxes of Freaky Trigger’s Popular, in which Tom Ewing is reviewing every UK Number One single in chronological order. I rejoined Tom and his comments crew in the summer of 1984, and hung around for the rest of the year. (I’m currently struggling for something relevant and instructive to say about Foreigner’s ghastly “I Want To Know What Love Is”.)
For those of you who don’t read the site regularly – and if not, then why not? – here’s a selection of my recent comments. They’re best read in context with the general discussion, but hopefully I’ve snipped out anything too self-referential.
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD – “Two Tribes”
While “Two Tribes” was at Number One, I left West Berlin – where I had been living since August 1983 – and returned to Nottingham for one final year at university. My year in Berlin had been a period of absolute freedom, which I knew could never quite be repeated – and so I left the city with a heavy heart and a vague sense of retreat (back to the old campus, the old stamping grounds, the old life).
My final weeks in Berlin had chiefly been soundtracked by “Two Tribes” and Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” (a massive and ubiquitous hit in West Germany, which I think was 1984’s best-selling single over there). Along with “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” by The Dominatrix, the Top Three in my weekly personal chart (lovingly hand-written, and retained to this day) had remained static for a few weeks – and since I more or less abandoned the personal chart upon returning to Nottingham, there’s a part of me which still thinks they’re sitting there.
So it’s not just that “Two Tribes” marked the final peak of New Pop – it’s also that it soundtracked the final peak of my carefree, irresponsible, naively bubble-dwelling youth.
GEORGE MICHAEL – “Careless Whisper”
Blimey, so much love for this? I’m considerably less fond. The verses drag tunelessly, the sax break grates, and the preening faux-sincerity fails to convince. So, yup, I was another disillusioned former Wham fan who thought they’d lost the plot in the quest to Make It Big. (And this isn’t a patch on “Nothing Looks The Same In The Light”, the sole ballad on the debut album Fantastic and a spot-on depiction of the aftermath of an ill-advised one-night stand, which I also took as an instant signifier of George Michael’s sexuality.) A grudging five from me.
STEVIE WONDER – “I Just Called To Say I Love You”
Has there ever been a worse ending to any song than that perfunctory CHA-CHA-CHA? (To say nothing of that maddening bass line, which sounds like one of several machine-installed presets.) As others have said, this is an efficient – if corny – melody, clobbered by a deadening arrangement. It’s almost as if the whole tenor of the record is to bludgeon the listener with a particular aesthetic, over and over again, e.g. those hymn-like resolutions at the end of each chorus, which always get my back up. As such, it reminds me of awkward slow dances at family occasions, and of bored cabaret bands with bills to pay.
Come to think of it, that’s the main problem: that this already sounds like it’s being played for the thousandth time, by a bored cabaret covers band.
WHAM! – “Freedom”
Inhabiting similar stereotype-inverting lyrical ground to Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different For Girls” – she’s the flighty player, he’s the one seeking commitment (but note that this would also read well from a gay male standpoint) – this is a hefty improvement on “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Careless Whisper” (being more substantial than the former and less irritating than the latter) – but I still struggle to care much about it. 6 sounds about right to me.
CHAKA KHAN – “I Feel For You”
I taped this off the radio before it hit the shops – most likely from Robbie Vincent’s Radio One soul show – and played it over and over again, adoring it without reservation. In a way, it does sound like Chaka is merely guesting on her own record; there are so many competing, equally fore-grounded elements at work that it almost feels like a Chaka Khan tribute record, with Chaka herself being borne aloft above the clattering fray, slightly at one remove from it all. Which is cool in my book, but perhaps less cool if you approach this record expecting to hear a traditional artist-led “performance”… and evidently much less cool if you’re Chaka herself! (Compare and contrast with the struggles which Diana Ross had with the Chic boys four years earlier…)
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD – “The Power Of Love”
At the time, this felt to me like a fractional step down from “Relax” and “Two Tribes” – a 9 rather than a 10 – but I’d now rank this as my favourite FGTH single.
The song also took on another dimension when I saw Holly Johnson perform it at London Gay Pride in 1997. It was the last performance of the day (following three-song sets from Erasure and Pet Shop Boys), and halfway through it, the end-of-day fireworks display started up at the other end of Clapham Common. This all seemed to trigger off a mass hugging and smooching session amongst the crowd: everywhere I looked, pairs of men and women were locked in embraces. We’d just had a change of government, many promises had been made, and optimism was in the air as we sensed a sea change in public attitudes. It felt like a vindication, after years of struggle. With all this in mind, the song took on a newly anthemic quality – a perfect soundtrack for that particular moment, of that particular month, in that particular year. I duly bawled my eyes out – not for the first time, since the Erasure and PSB songs had been equally well-picked: A Little Respect, It’s A Sin/I Will Survive (medley), Go West and Somewhere (from West Side Story).
So when I hear “The Power Of Love” now, I link it to the new dawn of 1997 rather than the bleak chill of 1984. Yes, the lyrics are somewhat stylised and overblown, but they suit Holly Johnson’s performance style down to the ground. He delivers the song like some sort of benevolent deity, blending Olympian detachment with more touchingly earthbound qualities, and for me the strategy pays dividends. It’s the one Frankie song which lets you in emotionally, and as such it’s the perfect conclusion to the trilogy. Sex, death and love: where on earth do you go after that?
(Answer: the dumper. And yes, the album was a total damp squib. But you can’t have everything…)
BAND AID – “Do They Know It’s Christmas”
There’s almost too much that I want to say at this juncture, and most of it is barely about the actual song under consideration. Firstly, this record marks one of the most sudden and profound sea changes in pop history. As others have said, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” dealt a fatal blow to New Pop – along with the conclusion of the Frankie Goes To Hollywood trilogy, which took its concepts to their ultimate conclusion. Where, indeed, could we go from here?
To my (probably quite biased) mind, this represented the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk. For any lingering notions of a culture of new breed/old school opposition within British chart pop were sent packing, as Good Old Phil Collins and Good Old Status Quo were called back in from the cold, to jam along with the (comparatively) cool kids.
And if you were of a weekly-inkie-music-press mindset, then you might have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing parallels with the closing pages of Animal Farm. Did we fight the punk wars for this? Or as Biba Kopf put it, in his briefly notorious single-sentence dismissal on the NME’s singles review page (paraphrased from memory): “Millions of dead pop stars make rubbish record for the right reasons.”
For what Band Aid brought back, and Live Aid later confirmed, was the notion that Big Equalled Good. It re-introduced the pecking order, and re-affirmed the primacy of the superstar elite. Good old Queen! Good old Tina Turner! And with that re-alignment of public perceptions (and with the caveat that I’m obviously over-generalising to make a point), there was a sudden and marked swing towards a renewed notion of authenticity (”proper” songs, signalling substance over style), and a hurried distancing from artificiality (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts).
In chart pop turns, the effect felt immediate. The charts of the first couple of months of 1985 were widely praised for containing a sudden influx of “quality” material – and indeed, a lot of great singles did chart during that period, before (as I saw it) the rot properly set in.
To begin with, I welcomed this New Authenticity – possibly because it felt like the only logical next step. Playing catch-up during 1984 – and certainly this was influenced by the clubs I was hanging out in – I’d fallen in love with the back catalogues of artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and consequently I had started to prize, and to seek out, new music which espoused overt notions of soulfulness and sincerity, and “classic” song-writing and performance values.
For me, this was a unprecedented step to take, as the notion that had underpinned all of my fiercest musical passions since childhood had been one of messing with the rule book, and of pushing back the boundaries. From the nonsense bubblegum lyrics and novelty songs of my childhood, through the experimentation of prog, the culture shock of punk, the self-consciously conceptual manoeuvres of New Pop and the modernistic thrills of electro-funk and hip hop, I had always valued the breaking of new ground. So perhaps in this context, the New Authenticity also offered the promise of expanding my horizons? In retrospect, I see it as a major mis-step – and so I’m looking forward to putting these assumptions to the test, as we step through the pop-cultural desert of the mid-Eighties.
Meanwhile, back in December 1984, we have one of the great chapter-closing Christmas charts – just as we did in 1973, with glam rock’s grand finale. And don’t get me wrong here: rather than aligning myself with the Biba Kopfs of this world, I was thrilled at the way that Band Aid seemed, albeit temporarily, to expand the possibilities of what pop music could do.