The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 3 – Human League to ABC

The early 80’s saw an explosion in electronic pop music from the UK. All around the UK, bands were messing around with primitive synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. With a good ear for a tune and the ability to fiddle around with these new bits of technology, you could create something unique. These bands, along with others like Duran Duran and The Eurythmics, are often called “New Pop” for their marriage of pop sensibilites to the new sounds being made available through technology. The next four songs are:

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Associates – Party Fears Two
ABC – All of My Heart

The Human League were at the forefront of the New Pop explosion, and their 1981 album “Dare” was the first huge release. “Don’t You Want Me” was a huge international hit, though funnily enough the band considered it one of the weaker songs off Dare. Which, in some ways, was right – it didn’t have the same depth musically, or the same pioneering attitude, as other songs such as “Love Action” or “The Sound Of The Crowd”. But what it had in spades was emotion. Love, jealously, ambition, revenge, laid open for everyone to see.

And as the British bands showed, image was as important as the song itself:

Hilarious now to look at this video, using a Rover and a Volvo to demonstrate how chic and rich the characters are meant to be. Ah, early ’80’s England. Still, it’s got it’s glamour and Trauffaut references.

The song, with its classic major verse/minor chorus motif, looks both to the future with its use of technology (trying playing this on a guitar, it just doesn’t work), yet it also harks back to old-style duets. Make something old and classic sound brand spanking new, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Thankfully Pitchfork didn’t try to be all clever (like they did with Adam Ant) and pick another song. This one is just perfect.

Unlike the next one. Now I’ve got nothing against “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. It’s a fine record, if rather over-exposed. But it’s a cover version, which is something I’ve complained about before – why list a cover when the same band have an original, much better composition? This is a time that Pitchfork should have been clever, and gone for “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Now that’s a song. See if you agree1:

Soft Cell – Tainted Love from ddeubel on Vimeo.

Go on, tell me from the depths of your soul, you know I’m right. “Tainted Love”, for all its slinky eroticism, just isn’t in the same league.

When I was reading through the list, The Associates song “Party Fears Two” made me think “Now, I’m sure I know that song, but I can’t quite place it”. Then I heard the first minute and thought “Hey, I remember trying to play that on my parents piano!”. Then Billy McKenzie started singing. By jove, I’d forgotten how bonkers he was. And what a mover:

(sorry, that’s the best quality version I could find).

Billy McKenzie was a famously dramatic fellow, hailing from Dundee, a city not famed for its welcoming attitude toward theatrical gentleman with multi-octave voices and a huge thirst for drugs and glamour. Teaming up with Alan Rankine, the pair of them formed The Associates, who (and this is a very brief history, you understand) managed to get a £60,000 advance to record their first album and spent it on:

1x 1962 Mercedes convertible
2x chocolate guitars for a ToTP performance
Board and lodging at the Swiss Cottage Holiday Inn (including an additional room for Billy’s pet whippets
Smoked salmon for Billy’s pet whippets
16 cashmere jumpers
Huge quantities of cocaine and speed (who’da thought it?)

Needless to say, they also worked very hard on their album, but it all went quite horribly wrong and Rankine left the band at the end of 1982. The days of being able to be completely bonkers and extort piles of cash out of gullible record labels were coming to an end.

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Oh, the song? Great piano line, mad vocal histrionics, and quite unique. You wonder what else they could have come up with if they’d had a decent manager to rein them in. And laid off the drugs a bit.

And last of all, ABC. Now I must say I’ve never really got into ABC. They always seemed too cold and calculating, wearing their ambition on their sleeves. Can’t say that Trevor Horn’s clinical production helps their case either. So forgive me if I don’t really talk much about “All of My Heart”, with its Fairlight stabs and huge strings, as it just doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart.

Next up, the final part of The Brits Are Coming, featuring New Order, The Jam and some more New Pop.

1 Sorry, but Soft Cell are one of the bands who have had their videos removed by YouTube, and Vimeo doesn’t embed properly in WordPress.

MP3: 96-dont-you-want-me

MP3: 98-party-fears-two

The whole list is available here.

Buy Human League’s “Dare!” (MP3) (Essential Purchase)

Buy Soft Cell’s “The Very Best Of” (MP3/CD)

Buy The Associates “Singles” (CD)

Buy “The Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC” (CD)

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