The early Eighties - what went wrong?

Published September 11, 2013

One of my hobbies is putting together my own compilations or even multi-disc “box sets” of a certain artist/band or along a certain theme. It might be everything from a single-disc compilation of the songs of Brill Building era song writers Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (which turned out to be my favourite CD of 2006) or my 21-disc (whew!) box set of vintage disco tracks.

Lately I’ve devoted some time to putting together the perfect (for me) multi-disc compilation of early Eighties tracks. It’s been quite an emotional project. If you follow my admittedly intermittent blog posts, you already know that the Eighties is not my favourite decade in popular music, but that mostly applies to the mid-to-late Eighties. When the decade started I was 15 years old and really excited about all the new music that was coming out. It all seemed so futuristic and forward-looking, not to mention fun after a decade (the Seventies) that was often a bit drab – or at least seemed to be less colourful than the decade ahead of us.

But as the decade wore on, it turned out to be a disappointment, in so many ways. Not the least of my disappointments were all the bands that promised so much when the decade started and then just failed to live up to all that. Remember, I grew up in the Seventies, when most of the acts released an album EVERY year (a minor distraction such as a world tour sometimes got in the way, forcing them to skip a year). My favourite band, Wings, were among them as, indeed, were ABBA

But look at some of my favourite acts that broke through in the early Eighties. The Human League took three years to follow up their amazing Dare album, and by then much of the momentum was gone. Soft Cell had hardly achieved a breakthrough before they split up. ABC released their fantastic The Lexicon Of Love album – and then destroyed their career by deciding to go “rock” on their next album. Yawn. I could go on. The point is: most of these acts failed to follow up on their initial excitement. Then, of course, as 1984 rolled around, it was all over. Everyone grew a mullet. Everyone started wearing looong coats. Everyone became histrionic, if not always in sound then at least in attitude. Production values (if values is even an applicable concept) turned to (avert your gaze, sensitive readers) overblown shit.

But those first few years of the decade were magic. Which brings me back to my Early Eighties box set. Compiling this thing got me thinking about some of the artist featured heavily in it, and I ended up researching their fates on the Internet. Many of the results made me kind of sad. Take Midge Ure, for instance. Although I loved ‘Vienna’ and liked several other Ultravox hits, I always felt they were, well, a little pretentious, what with Mr Ure’s silly moustache, his somewhat affected/mannered singing style, and the slightly over-blown lyrics. But now, 30 years later, I find myself obsessing on the career of Midge Ure. The sheer ambition of the man, the wanting-to-try-all-kinds-of-things, just impresses me so much. Consider this, from just the first few years of the Eighties: he co-wrote Yellow Pearl for Phil Lynott, joined Ultravox and sang on ‘Vienna’ and all their other hits, was a driving force in Visage, recorded a single with Mick Karn of Japan – and I’m sure several other things I’m forgetting now. And what was his fate? Because of financial mismanagement and a bit of bad luck, he ended up bankrupt. He is also a recovering alcoholic. How unfair is that?

It seems to be the fate of few acts from that era, at least the ones I cared about, to have ended up wealthy and content. None of the acts mentioned in this blog so far are particularly well off financially, as far as I’m aware. And what about bands such as The Thompson Twins? Never a critics favourite, and not exactly my favourite either, I do quite like some of their songs. I looked up this clip on Youtube in which their leader Tom Bailey says that, “We didn’t really deserve to be that successful.” Can you imagine any other star with a string of hit singles and platinum album sales to his credit saying that? It made me feel kind of sad.

But back to Midge Ure and Ultravox (I said I was obsessed, didn’t I?). I never bought their albums back in the day, nor most of their singles, and so this track somehow passed me by. Now it’s something I keep returning to on what seems like a daily basis. Why? I don’t know. I'm not even sure it's such a good song, but for some reason it hits a nerve in me. Probably something about being a teenager in the early Eighties. I’ll save that analysis for another blog. (Note: The video is kind of crap, so ignore the visuals, and just listen to the music.)


The Word is no more

Published June 30, 2012

Sad news yesterday: David Hepworth of The Word announced that the magazine will fold after the next issue. Reading news stories about its demise, I was shocked to learn that there were only 25,000 of us reading The Word. I’m not ashamed to admit that I experienced a moment of genuine grief when I heard the news: for me, it was a highlight when this mix of music, literature, film and cultural and media commentary arrived in my mailbox each month.

As Hepworth has written elsewhere, the future of music magazines looks very bleak indeed: too many music consumers these days feel that they can get all the information they need on the Internet, and with diminishing advertising budgets at record companies, meaning that an important chunk of financing has been taken away from these monthlies, it seems to be a negative spiral that can only have one final result. For me personally, the death of The Word means that the world just became a little less like I want it to be, something, admittedly, that middle-aged people probably have experienced since time immemorial.

When The Word first appeared on newsstands back in 2003, I will admit that I ignored it, feeling that I didn’t have the time for yet another music monthly. It was only when I bought an issue in...whatever year it was and read this opinion piece by David Hepworth that I realised that I had to buy every issue of this magazine (I soon started subscribing). I urge you to read it (it has a tiny ABBA reference in it as well). It's the kind of thing you will seldom read elsewhere.


What films do you watch when you've already seen everything?

Published May 24, 2012

Music and movies being my two main passions in life, I’ve watched a lot of films over the years. It started in childhood, when old classics were broadcast as prime-time entertainment on Swedish television (these days they’re usually shown on weekday afternoons or close to midnight, if they’re on at all). In the mid-Eighties I studied film for a year; afterwards I calculated that I had seen on average one film per day during that year. Having access to the cinematheque here in Stockholm, and then first the VHS and later the DVD market, only my wallet has stood between me and most of the films that have piqued my curiosity.

But for a few years now, I feel like I’ve reached some kind of saturation. There are very few cinema classics that I haven’t seen (at least from British and American film history), and most of the present-day repertoire fails to engage me: the films that are supposed to be purely entertaining do not entertain me, and the supposedly serious films are dull and pretentious.

Gone, also, are the days when I had the patience to sit through boring films a) in the hope that they would get better or b) because they were considered important in film history. I guess it has to do with age, but these days, after watching a movie that fails to satisfy, I often feel like crying: “I’ll never get those 102 minutes back again!”

Still, I haven’t given up the hunt for hidden gems from film history that I haven’t seen before. Recently, I entered The BFI Movie List Challenge on Facebook, and was surprised to find that I’d seen 77 out of the 100 British films chosen by critics and film industry people at the turn of the millennium. Naturally, I scoured the list for unseen films that might interest me among the remaining 23. Genevieve (1953) and The Belles Of St. Trinians (1954) seemed to be right up my alley, so I ordered them from Amazon. Unfortunately, before clicking the “buy” button I failed to consult my Time Out Film Guide, which would have informed me that Genevieve “just isn’t very funny anymore”, an opinion I concur with wholeheartedly after having watched it. Similarly, The Belles Of St. Trinians turned out to be a disappointment. Alastair Sim does a wonderful acting job in his double-part as the headmistress of a girls’ school, and her brother. But if you don’t find the film’s one joke – that the schoolgirls, who we expect to be sweet and mild, are in fact unruly and up to all sorts of mischief – particularly amusing, there really isn’t much to enjoy. Joyce Grenfell, an actress whose name I’m only familiar with because she appears as herself in Helene Hanff’s book The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street, is in both movies, and it was interesting to finally see what she was like. And one of my favourite character actresses, Edie Martin, appears for about 30 seconds in Genevieve. Yes, I am clutching at straws here.

I guess it’s inevitable: after you’ve spent almost 50 years on this planet and devoted a fair amount of that time to watching movies, the opportunities to discover true classics get fewer and farther between. Still, I do have a few more films in the BFI Top 100 to check out – only last night some friends recommended that I watch Brighton Rock – and another friend of mine, who has a fine collection of non-British/American movies, has lent me Ballad Of A Soldier, Les Diaboliques and The Shop On Main Street. Cross your fingers that I will like them, won’t you?


U2 - a band that's immune to de-mythologising?

Published January 13, 2012

I've just watched the U2 documentary From The Sky Down, ostensibly telling the story of the creation of their 1991 album Achtung Baby. According to U2 lore, this album was when they broke free from their full-of-themselves arena-rock existence and reinvented themselves as ironic and whatever blah blah blah. And certainly, Achtung Baby does contain some excellent tracks and was a breath of fresh air upon its release (it's the only U2 album I own). But this documentary... I almost laughed out loud. Although we get some insight into the band's creative process, and that's always interesting, I can't see that the film does anything than build on the mythology of the band - and I'm talking about clichéd old arena rock band mythology. The only thing missing was the hand of God reaching down from the sky and touching the shoulders of the four U2 members to guide them on the path leading to their preordained destiny.

I guess there's just something so humour-less and so unambiguous about U2, that if you're a documentary-maker and this band is your subject, this is where you end up. For all the archive shots of the band dressing up in drag - wow, they're so, like, alternative - there were tons more of The Edge in that horrible bandana-and-long-hair look, and Bono in mullets, mullets and more mullets. Even his re-invented 1991-1992 hair-style looked like mullet-lite to me. The presumably unintended message of the documentary seems to be that the reinvention was mainly cosmetic.

Another thought: In Sweden, this was broadcast by our public service company, SVT. The production bears a copyright of Mercury Records, U2's record company. Now, I'm wondering: Where are all those TV reviewers who threw a hissy-fit when Agnetha Fältskog's self-produced and -financed 2004 documentary was aired on SVT, because they felt it was "promotion"? Come to think of it, where have they been when SVT has broadcast other programmes produced and financed by the record companies and/or artists involved? Oh, I forgot. Agnetha's documentary was about a sad old member of that ultra-commercial pop group ABBA ("pop", not "rock"), a member so crassly commercial and self-promoting that she had done everything in her power to stay out of the limelight for 17 years, so of course that had to be pounced upon.

One more thought: The U2 documentary used an interesting device to discuss the dangers of a band falling apart, by showing several examples of other famous bands losing one or more members. It would have been an excellent segment if there hadn't been something seriously lacking in the research department. Guys, it wasn't Carl Wilson who left The Beach Boys - it was his brother Brian, the original driving-force behind the band.


Rock's Backpages 10th Anniversary

Published December 01, 2011

November 2011 saw the 10th Anniversary of a fantastic website that currently hosts almost 20,000 articles and reviews from the rich history of rock journalism. Rock’s Backpages was launched a decade ago by veteran music journalist and author, Barney Hoskyns, who is also the author of two of my favourite books on the Los Angeles music scene, Waiting For The Sun and Hotel California.

Today, Rock’s Backpages is a thriving, constantly growing archive, covering every aspect of the history of rock and pop. “Any band or genre/movement that proves to have legs or impact/influence is grist to RBP’s mill,” Hoskyns says. “We don’t jump on every Next Big Thing or new trend but wait to see whether it has some staying power. We believe it’s as important to include pieces on the X-Factor as it is to feature stuff on John Cage.”

Rock’s Backpages was born in 2000, when Hoskyns was asked to recommend someone who could write the liner notes for a CD by British musician Roy Harper. This then led to another idea. “[I thought] it would be great to aggregate online at least 10 great Harper pieces – from all walks of the music press – that would span his career.  A little over a decade later, that vision has come true. Maybe in another decade we’ll have twenty Roy Harper pieces.” It certainly doesn’t sound like an impossible achievement – with 10 pieces available for a non-household name such as Harper, you can just imagine the multitude of stories relating to big names such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and so on. Many who read this particular blog will be interested to learn that there are, at the time of writing, 23 articles and reviews about ABBA, including the previously unpublished full transcript of the Björn Ulvaeus interview that formed the basis of Jim Irvin’s insightful ABBA story, published in Mojo in 1999.

Rock’s Backpages does not simply represent the writings of a select few rock journalists, but does include pieces by almost every well-known and lesser-known British and American writer you can think of. According to Barney Hoskyns, the archive boasts contributions from “over 500 writers from all eras and on all genres of popular music”, with 30 or 40 new pieces being added every week. The archive also features over 300 audio interviews with icons from Hendrix to Cobain. “Almost all the writers have embraced RBP from the get-go,” says Hoskyns. “One or two American curmudgeons demurred. Now it’s a club that most rock writers want to join. We never like to turn anyone away but it’s difficult to manage the sheer amount of content flooding in.”

With so many articles and reviews covering so many different aspects now collected in one database, Hoskyns is in a perfect place to make an informed observation about how rock journalism has evolved over the years. “Broadly speaking,” he says, “rock writing has turned from freeform countercultural commentary – passionate and often iconoclastic – to service-industry compliance: blandly deferential profiles and soundbite consumer-guide reviewing. With most outbreaks of rebellion now instantly commodified by the marketplace, rock and roll has been subsumed into the general entertainment culture and lost its tribal, lightning-rod shock value.”

The mere existence of an “archive” of rock writing does indeed seem to suggest that rock and pop as a subversive force, capable of truly surprising its audience and having the function as a life-or-death cultural identifier for young people, is now a thing of the past. Barney Hoskyns would agree. “Without wishing to be an Old Fart for the sake of it, I do think rock culture has reached the end of its first major cycle – and that it will never impact on society in the way it did with Elvis or Dylan or Hendrix or the Pistols or hip hop or even Cobain (arguably the last rock star who really ‘meant it, man’). People will say, ‘It’s still new and radical to a 14-year-old’ but I think even 14-year-olds are aware of the weight of history (of Elvis and Dylan and the Beatles and the Clash) bearing down on contemporary pop. Rock and roll will survive and mutate but I’m not sure it can ever ‘change the world’ again.”

Whether this prognosis proves to be true or not, the fact remains that rock and roll turned 60 this very year (if you’re willing to accept the 1951 recording ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston as the first rock record, as many historians do), and a lot of great writing has been done on the subject over the decades. Much of that writing is now available at Rock’s Backpages and I urge you to become a subscriber. You will be lost for hours reading story upon interesting story reflecting the rich history of modern pop and rock music. As far as I’m concerned, that could never be a bad thing.