So, the last part of The Brits Are Coming starts with the 100th song on the list, and the most important band of the Brits series. Who they? New Order, of course.
New Order – Temptation
The Jam – Town Called Malice
Duran Duran – The Chauffeur
The English Beat – Save It for Later
What do you do when, on the eve of your first American tour that might well propel you to stardom1, your talismanic, troubled lead singer commits suicide? As the remaining members of Joy Division learned, you dust yourself off, change your name to New Order, take turns singing, bring in the drummer’s girlfriend on keyboards, and get on with merging rock and dance music like no-one has before (and arguably haven’t done as well since). A combination of visits to clubs in New York and Europe, a love of Kraftwerk, Barney Sumner and Steven Morris’s experiments with drum machines and sequencers, and an open-minded attitude saw them create a whole new sound. It’s a sound that would influence everyone from The Cure and U2 to Broken Social Scene.
“Temptation” was the first real fruit of this questing spirit (“Everything’s Gone Green”, released the previous year, certainly had the dancing beats but still sounded a bit like a Joy Division song that had taken speed and wasn’t sure what all this dancing thing was about). From this momentous single they would go on to the dizzy heights of “Blue Monday”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith”2.
This is a personal favourite version, from a BBC Radio 1 recording filmed in 1984. I strongly advise you to watch the whole concert, too:
Loving those shorts, Barney.
As the song starts, the pulsing keyboards mesh with the mix of live drums and drum machine, and then the guitar kicks in. Suddenly, all the cares and troubles of New Order’s first couple of years disappear, like the sun bursting through the clouds after a thunderstorm. The effect is electrifying. And the lyrics offer something different to the gloom of Ian Curtis: “Heaven, a gateway, a hope”. Like many of Barney’s words, they can be impossible to decipher – “Oh, you’ve got green eyes\Oh, you’ve got blue eyes\Oh, you’ve got gray eyes”, yes, thanks for that Barney – but they work so beautifully in the song you just can’t help but forgive him.
So, redemption and hope after suffering and despair. What more can you ask for? It goes without saying that this isn’t the last of New Order on this list; and that even Pitchfork devote more than half a page to talking about them – more than any other band so far.
The Jam, hailing from Woking in Surrey, were formed by Paul Weller, a serious young chap with a huge thirst for the mod records of the sixties, along with soul, R&B, new wave and power-pop. This earnest fellow wanted to merge all those influences, mixing in the new punk sensibilities by telling stories of real life. “A Town Called Malice” is the fruit of that idea, and one of their best songs. Late 1970’s Britain being a grim kind of place was manna from heaven for a talent like Weller, and this song tells of “a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts” and “stop apologising for the things you’ve never done\Cos time is short and life is cruel”. The reality of unemployment hits the people hard: “To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear\It’s a big decision in a town called Malice”.
Stern stuff. Sung in his tense, angry voice, and pitted against Foxton and Buckler’s expert bass and drumming, with tinges of 60’s R&B, the song nearly explodes with tension and rage at the situation people were in. And like “Temptation”, it still sounds fresh nearly 30 years later. Two very different songs then; New Order’s looking solely to the future to try and forget the past, and The Jam’s using the music of the past to tell a tale of the present.
Next comes one of those periodic mis-steps on the list. Now it is safe to say that Duran Duran aren’t exactly the trendiest band from the early 80’s, though bands like The Killers are doing a job in reprising their sound. So to pick a song of theirs was quite brave. But a dodgy album track that sounds like The Cure with Simon Le Bon wailing over the top? Nah. Come on, it should have been “Rio”. Maybe “Save A Prayer”, at a push. Nah, listen to both “The Chauffeur” and “Rio” and tell me what you think:
Come on, if you’re going to do this English Invasion/New Pop thing, at least do it properly. As a bit of an aside, listen to how much is going on in “Rio”; the sequencers, the bass line, the guitar, the multi-tracked vocals, it takes a while to take it all in. There’s a richness and texture you just don’t get in modern pop music (with the exception of Girls Aloud).
Lastly, one of the pleasure of doing this list is hearing songs that have been so obviously influenced by ones that came a few years before. This one, The Beat’s “Save It For Later”, is like an unholy mix of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, with some ska thrown in for good measure (and indeed, you can hear this song influencing bands like The Go-Betweens):
The Beat (or The English Beat for the Americans amongst you) were one of the Two-Tone Ska bands, who along with The Specials, Madness and The Selecter, turned the Sixties Ska sound into a particularly English phenomenon. More famous for “Mirror In The Bathroom” and their later cover of “Can’t Get Used To Losing You”, this song is more poppy and even has a string section poking into the song about halfway through. I was wondering why this didn’t seem at all familiar; it only got to number 47 in the UK charts (this is when any song in the Top 20 of any given week you’d be able to hum). I even doubt it was anything to do with the double entendre in the title, as Radio 1 didn’t even pick up on “Relax” for about a month. Anyway, I must say I rather enjoyed its power pop energy.
So that’s that; 12 songs that would come storming out of small towns and the largest cities of the UK, some fantastic, others less so. Some of these songs would change the world by showing what could be done with new technology, including making use of videos before any band in the US caught on; others would link back to the past of soul, R&B and Rock and Roll and twist them for the early ’80’s; and some were so shocking to US audiences that they would fuel the boom in guitar driven rock like Bruce Springsteen in response. And some would just quietly go about their own way, waiting for the world to catch up with them.
1 Or at least get you out of Macclesfield.
2 Funnily enough, “True Faith”, probably their best song, isn’t on the Pitchfork list but the other two are. I can kind of see why, but won’t go into it now.
The whole list is available here.