Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Radio Radio
The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry
XTC – Making Plans for Nigel
Blondie – Atomic
Talking Heads – Memories Can’t Wait
Here we are at the final five songs of the first chapter of the Pitchfork 500, 1977-1979. Three bands from England and two from the US; both US bands are from the edgy, glamorous, centre-of-the-universe city that was New York in the late ’70’s, and the English bands are from Crawley, Twickenham and Swindon. Swindon, I ask you.
But they had lots in common; they could look back at the past, taking disparate influences and turn them into something new but still familiar. All had great pop nous and the ability to make chart-topping tunes that sound great now, thirty years later.
Elvis Costello was a scrawny, geeky, angry type from west London with a history in music long before punk came along. His father wrote, sang and starred in this classic advert from the early ’70’s, with Elvis singing the backing vocals:
You can see the similarity, can’t you?
After forming a number of bands, he finally settled on The Attractions and with them, he cracked the mix of New Wave with Soul that would characterise his music for years to come (just think of the covers of “Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”). “Radio Radio” wasn’t as well known to me as some of his bigger hits, but it’s a spiky little slice of pure EC, down to the sardonic lyrics: “And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools\Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel”. Yep, that’ll get your song played on the radio. And that was in the late ’70’s; imagine how he’d feel now, in this Clear Channeled world, where every radio station in the whole of the US plays the same songs day in, day out?
The Cure have two types of songs. The miserable, hair-covering-your-eyes-boo-hoo-hoo-I’m-so-unhappy-even-though-I’m-a-really-rich-rock-star songs1, and the chirpy, happy songs with a dark undertow. This is one of the latter, and indeed, probably the first sighting. The song reeks of the student disco and fey skinny types jumping around with their arms in the air, bless ’em.
What makes the song, if not quite great, then at least interesting, is the air of ambiguity. You’re not sure what exactly he’s done to deserve it, other than “But I know that this time\I have said too much\Been too unkind” and that he’s “misjudged your limit”. Oh dear, Robert, you nasty fellow. Still, could be worse, eh? You could be living in Swindon.
Swindon, for those who don’t know it, is a little like post-Apocalyptic Washington in Fallout 3, except the locals have a West Country accent and there’s slightly less shooting (the Super Mutants are firmly in place, though admittedly drinking cider and wearing short skirts). And from there hail XTC, some sensible cars, Mark Lamarr, and a not very good football team. Of them, XTC are probably the most remarkable. This song, “Making Plans For Nigel”, was one of their biggest hits. It tells the tale of a young man being forced into taking a menial job at British Steel, and his lack of resistance to a life of drudgery. Foreshadowing the destruction of working class ambition to come during the Thatcher years, it’s a tale of inertia and tedium. Andy Partridge would later be crippled by epic stage fright, and after his girlfriend threw away the Valium he took to overcome anxiety, wouldn’t perform live again. Studio-bound, XTC never got the critical mass of a fanbase behind them to really push onto the success their talents could have got them.
Unlike Blondie. Ah, Debbie Harry. Men of a certain age will remember her appearance on ToTP in the last ’70’s wistfully well into their dotage. She was classy, droll and so, so, cool. Men wanted to be with her and women wanted to be her. Injecting glamour and sex appeal into New Wave was her game, and boy, did she succeed. So utterly confident she’d dance round in a swimsuit and a jacket for the video to Denis:
That’s not to say that Debbie was the only thing that made Blondie special. Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri were excellent songwriters, and the band had a superb magpie element, taking songs from other bands, such as power-pop band The Nerves’ “Hanging On The Telephone” and The Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” and making them their own2. They could mix the dance and hip-hop they heard on the streets and clubs of Manhattan, with power-pop and pure, balls out rock-and-roll learned from years of playing alongside Television and The Ramones at CBGB’s, with such finesse and style that at their best, they are gobsmacking. Give Parallel Lines, or better still The Best Of Blondie, to your nearest teenager and bet them to find anything released in the last year or so that comes even close to it. Or find me someone in their 30’s or 40’s who doesn’t like them, and I’ll show you a liar.
Saying that, I really don’t think “Atomic” is their best number. Whilst it’s got the futuristic sheen to it, and the sheer nerve of the lyrics (only 11 words used, fact fans!), to me it’s just not got the out-and-out pop brilliance of “Picture This”, “Denis”3 or “Sunday Girl”, or the proto-hip-hop of “Rapture”, or the sheen of “Heart Of Glass”. Still, Blondie beat up many of the bands on this list.
After that, “Memories Can’t Wait” comes as something of a shock. One of Talking Heads’ more paranoid moments, it sounds like the party that’s going on in David Byrne’s head is a particularly unpleasant one. Listening to this is a reasonable approximation of being in a noisy bar after someone’s spiked your drink with Ketamine. Uneasy listening, I suppose you could call it. It’s rather addictive.
66 down, 434 to go. We’ve had everything from the dark noise of This Heat and Throbbing Gristle to the pop nous of Blondie and The Buzzcocks, via Disco, Funk, Reggae, Power-Pop, the first beginnings of Electronica, Punk, Post-Punk, Punk-Funk, Funky-Punk, Clanky-Drummy-Shouty-Punk and Pop-Punk. I’ve rather enjoyed it so far. Hope you have too. There’s loads more to come, you know.
1 Ok, so he wasn’t a rich rock star when he started writing those songs, but doing it when you’re 50 and rich enough to buy a small African countries is stretching the bounds of credibility.
2 So much so I didn’t even realise “Hanging On The Telephone” was a cover until I researched this article.
3 Yep, I know “Denis” is a cover too, but they messed around with it enough to call it their own, French-singing and all.
The whole list is available here.