Words & selections by Balearic Mike.
“And just when you least expect it, just what you least expect …”
Pet Shop Boys – Please / Disco – Parlophone Records 1986
Released 35 years ago this month, Please is one of my favourite LPs ever. Although you could say that about any of the first 4 Pet Shop Boys albums, or first 5, if you also include the completely bloody brilliant mini-LP DISCO. And you know what, I think I’m going to!
I find it hard to separate the two in my head actually – see what I did there? Although released a good distance apart – Please came out in March 1986, Disco not until November – I often played them back-to-back, and still do. I think of them like 2 parts of a double LP. A bit like Soft Cell with Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret / Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing – they belong together.
I don’t really need to say much about how wonderful the songs here are, as everyone should know the singles West End Girls, Love Comes Quickly, Opportunities, and Suburbia. They’re joined by songs full of the excitement of youth, about the possibilities of finding love, the thrill of going out dancing and meeting someone. The tone is set brilliantly with the opening track Two Divided By Zero, with its teenage dreams of running away to a big city and beginning to live a life less ordinary. That’s certainly how I felt as a teenager, temporarily shipwrecked in Warrington and dreaming of a city full of glamorous people and adventure. It would be two years before I would “catch the late train” as Neil sings.
And then Disco upped the excitement! The Italian only remix of Paninaro – only released in Italy – FFS! – The Shep Pettibone remix of Love Comes Quickly – only on the US 12” – and West End Girls, and that track from The Clothes show, which you knew was the Pet Shop Boys, but couldn’t find anywhere as it was on the original 1985 – flop – release of Opportunities! I think this might also be the first record I owned that listed the BPM of each track? I must try and check that.
I love both these LPs so much that I have 2 copies of each. My originals are well played, and while Please still plays fine, the sleeves a little grubby, so I picked up a pristine US copy from a $ bin on one of my visits to the USA. It has a slightly different sleeve design, as the type is more prominent. The spare of Disco – which I REALLY needed – the record is as worn as the sleeve – came from the £ bin in King Bee Records, Chorlton. Still, I’m sure, one of the finest record shops in the country.
Is March when all the good records get released then?
Tears For Fears – The Hurting – Mercury Records 1983
Another of my all-time favourite LPs, and it was also released in March, and also has an all-white cover! Weird eh! Thirty-eight years old though! Blimey!
This is the debut album from Curt and Roland, and while it didn’t become the global smash of their follow up LP, Songs From The Big Chair, which I do also really like, I much prefer this. It’s much gentler “art-pop” as opposed to the slightly more anthemic sound they got on the second record. They both obviously really like the last couple of Japan LPs – as do all right-thinking humans! – and they’re using early synths and drum machines – probably because it was cheaper? – which means they come up with some really interesting sounds and rhythms. The songs themselves are brilliant. Mad World has rightly become a pop classic, but the other tracks are right up there as well, with the other singles, Change and Pale Shelter, easily just as good, and LP tracks, Memories Fade, Watch Me Bleed, and Start Of The Breakdown, all being exceptional as well. In fact, the only track I really have to be ‘in the mood’ for is The Prisoner, but it’s not a bad track, just a bit challenging at times.
The thing I love most is the very percussive, rhythmic qualities they manage to bring to the LP – very influenced as I said by Steve Jansen’s drumming on the final 2 Japan albums – and a beautiful sense of space. The rhythms and drum / percussion sounds on Mad World were sampled on an excellent Murk production if I recall – Bobby Pruit`s Tried So Hard (LSD Mix) – and the highly rhythmic lead refrain from, Change, was the basis for an early Limbo / 23rd Precinct progressive house tune that I liked back in the early 90s.
Experimental synth / electro-pop from New York!
Soma Holiday – Shake Your Molecules – Cachalot Records 1984 / Minimal Wave 2014
A record I discovered through an excellent reissue a few years ago on Veronica Vasicka’s Minimal Wave label out of New York. In 1984, this originally got a limited release in the US and France. I can imagine it being a cult track at Danceteria or Area, and it might have fit into sets by Belgian DJs like Fat Ronny on the AB music scene. Soma Holiday – cool name eh kids! – were Jane Honicker and Jean Marc Vallod, and the music’s a fierce mix of 808 beats, gurgling TB 303 synths, vocoder treated backing vocals and a great post-punk style vocal which encourages us to “Shake your molecules, shake your particles”. It’s really fucking brilliant, as is the dub and other 2 tracks on this 12”, particularly Art Dimension, which also has some excellent lyric. Sadly this is the only record they ever made. The closest thing I can compare it to is the wonderful Six Sed Red 12” from Cindy Ecstasy and Rick Holliday of B-Movie. The reissue is on translucent Oxblood vinyl and has a nice insert with some info about the release. Apparently, the band decided that when they sent promotional copies out, they’d stick a “Soma” pill to the sleeve – actually a red and white Tylenol capsule. There must have been some really disappointed recipients. Brilliant!
New York picks up the house music baton from Chicago …
Backroom Music Productions – Back To Basics EP – New York Underground Records 1988
A seminal early New York house E.P. crammed to bursting with talented people, and tracks! Cassio Ware, Derek-A-Jenkins, Dwayne “Spen” Richardson, The Black Rascals – aka Blaze, Kenya Travitt, the trio of Cheri Williams, Renee Washington and Joanne Thomas – aka Jomanda, all involved in this stellar 6 track E.P., culled from which came 3 massive ’88 house anthems, released on the Big Beat label during 1988 and 1989:
Jomanda / Make My Body Rock (Feel It)
Listed here as by Cheri Williams – you will have forgotten just how good this record sounds!
Precious / The Definition Of A Track
Listed here as Backroom Productions, and in its superior instrumental form, although who doesn’t like the hip house version.
Kenya Travitt / Come Into My Heart
Listed here as First Station, and a gorgeous piece of vocal house, especially in the short, almost accappella version at the end.
This is a really nice record and a little slice of house music history. I can’t remember where I picked my copy up but I decided to keep the £0.49p price sticker on it. Some people obviously just don’t appreciate good music.
An overshadowed French house masterpiece …
Pepe Bradock – 6 Million Pintades E.P. – Atavisme 2000
Everyone knows, quite rightly, the epic slice of house music that is Deep Burnt, but this is sadly a little overlooked because of that. Pepe`s next release chronologically, it includes the beautiful yet minimal house gem Life. So simple, yet effective, with superb use of the strings from the end of the LP version of Prince And The Revolution’s Purple Rain. Doves also used this sample while under their previous Sub Sub identity, but where they kept its original slow tempo and feeling, Pepe has upped the BPMs to produce a contemporary club classic. I still think of this as a ‘new’ house record. It’s 21 years old. I work with people younger than this record now! Vive la France!
Prince released his masterpiece 34 years ago, yesterday …
Prince – Sign “O” The Times – Paisley Park 1987
A year and one day before, Prince released what is still after all these years my favourite LP, Parade, but I think it’s Sign “O” The Times that is – probably – rightly regarded as his magnus opus. Odd really, considering the very ‘home-made’ and rough quality of a lot of the LP. A friend referred to it as a “posh demo”. It will have to settle for being my second favourite LP of all time – I’m sure Prince won’t be too disappointed seeing as he occupies the top two spots.
Sign “O” The Times came out in the spring of 1987, just as I was preparing – hahaha – for my O levels, and my mind musically had wandered away from pop to the joint joys of hip hop, house, go-go and rare groove. After buying the singles I listened to the album on tape for the early part of the year, and it wasn’t until late summer that my best friend Pete bought me a copy as an early birthday present, not long before I started college. A double LP was a big investment back then. I then bought another copy in the early `90s as that first gift was looking a little worse for wear. I’ve since also bought it on CD, and then last year my wonderful wife bought me the 13 LP super deluxe edition for my 50th.
Since that reissue last year, a lot has been written about Sign “O” The Times, so you probably don’t need me to regurgitate all that, or to muse on about all the bonus tracks which got released for the first time – I’m sticking to the original LP. Some personal thoughts are that the remastering of the LP was long overdue. Prince recorded most of the tracks at his new home studio on Galpin Boulevard, Chanhassen, in the house he shared with Susanne Melvoin – Wendy’s sister – with the incredible Susan Rogers engineering for him. He’s besotted by the Fairlight CMI and the Linn LM-1 drum machine – rather than the Roland 808 and 909 which would become so prevalent in hip hop and house music – and both are all over this LP, with the result that it has a thin, slightly tinny sound in some places. The remaster goes some way to addressing this.
Sign “O” The Times is Prince’s “White Album” if you like, as at times you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of several different bands. Strange then, that he would attempt to follow it with an LP which would also go on to be known by its nickname – The Black Album. The twin juggernauts of the first 2 singles get your attentions: Sign “O” The Times with its minimal, machine led funk – dragging the twin influences of hip hop and house into the mainstream and giving us a glimpse of the effect that these two genres would have on the pop music of the future: If I Was Your Girlfriend – so ground-breaking in lyrical content and technological construction that when TLC do a brilliant cover version almost a decade later, theirs is the one that sounds older, more conventional. After that, it’s odd how it’s the tracks that at first seemed slight or a little throw away that really begin to take hold of you…and also, how happy mistakes are embraced, adding to the incredible originality of the tracks. Two of my favourites from this LP, and indeed from Prince’s entire back catalogue, combine these features: The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker and Forever In My Life.
The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker is such a strange little number. It has a wonderful surreal quality, with some of the track sounding like it was recorded underwater, some of the chords simply sounding as if the songs gone out of tune. It’s a beautifully sung kitchen sink drama – an urban adventure of the ordinary kind. This all adds up to a beautiful, dream-like song, which has become a massive fan and critics favourite, but this was the result of a happy accident, and wasn’t the case at time of release. That wonderful, murky sound is the result of Prince’s impatience to record in his new home studio. His new custom mixing desk was still just being installed and hadn’t been fully de-bugged. The next day Susan Rogers would fix the problem, but the song was in the can. It’s lofty status amongst fans now is in sharp contrast to this review from the NME, 4th April 1987: “Weak Steely Dannish (really?!) soft funk that goes absolutely nowhere. One has to wonder about a mind that would want anyone to hear this”.
Forever In My Life is another song which benefits from both a happy accident and hindsight. I have always marveled at the idea that Prince would pitch up his lead vocals, so that he sounds female, and slow down his backing vocals to make them sound deeper. But not content with that, he then runs the backing vocals first, so that the lead vocal is echoing the refrain already sung by the chorus of Prince’s own backing vocals – amazing! But an accident. The vocals at different pitches are obviously intentional, it’s a motif he uses a lot on this LP, but the backing vocals coming in first? They just miss-cued the tape and he liked what came out, so kept it. Again, although it’s a big fan and critics favourite now – and was a big live favourite – this is from the same NME review: “… but the minimal music neither keeps the pace or lodges in the memory. End of demos.”
I could write pages on If I Was Your Girlfriend, Housequake, and others from this LP, but I think I’ve rambled on enough. Its’s simply a masterpiece and everyone should own it.
An LP that for some reason, I seem to love more than is appropriate…
Arcadia – So Red The Rose – Parlophone / Capitol / EMI 1985
I’m quite obsessed with this Duran Duran spin-off LP. I have 3 different vinyl copies – my original UK copy from 1985, a US copy with a promo stamp, bought on a visit to Amoeba Records in San Francisco from the $ bins, and a really nice Japanese pressing with an OBI and nice inserts. I also own the deluxe 2xCD+DVD reissue from 2010. So Red The Rose has attained a reputation as the epitome of `80s excess: overblown, self-indulgent, pretentious, AND expensive. Indeed, it’s often remembered as “the most pretentious album of all time”. But that’s largely because Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes keep telling people it is. If you look beyond the shoulder pads, diamante brooches, and eye watering video budgets – there was actually a video album made! – then this is actually a really good `80s pop album. There’s plenty of room to be pretentious in pop music for me, and I actually really like it when pop acts try and get a bit ‘arty’. Some of my favourite Duran moments are when they’re trying to be more like Japan – The Chauffeur from the Rio LP is a case in point. That said, this is to me easily as good as the previous Duran studio LP, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, which is admittedly a bit of a step down from Rio, but they were setting the bar quite high with that one. And it`s a fuck sight better than The Power Station!
The opening single, Election Day, is a great slice of funk-pop, and very reminiscent of their Bond theme, View To A Kill, which is ace, and features a cameo from Bond-baddy Miss Grace Jones. The Promise is a great single and features backing vocals from Sting – remember I’m a not so secret Sting fan. The highlight for me, though, is the Spanish only single, El Diablo, which I was surprised to find on an Italian Cosmic bootleg some years later. There are also guest performances from Herbie Hancock, Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, Dave Gilmour, Mark Egan and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay. It’s a great LP, I’m standing by it, and my need to own 4 different copies of it.