January 30 – New Order Didn’t Need To Change Hit-making Technique Much

Can a dance-oriented, singles band find happiness on the album charts? Turns out it could, at least if that band was Britain’s most successful “indie” band of the ’80s, New Order. They put out their fifth full album, Technique, on this day in 1989.

The band which sprung from the ashes of the gloomy Joy Division almost a decade earlier had become immensely popular, especially at home in the UK, with a string of dancey, yet strangely listenable, ear-worm ready singles through the decade and had in fact put out 14 singles which topped Britain’s Indie Chart before this album. They included ’80s staples like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Thieves Like Us” and of course “Blue Monday”, a song which hit the overall top 10 twice during the decade and is by many counts still the biggest-selling 12” single ever. Their albums had sold modestly though, until they put out a greatest hits package, Substance 1987, which did rise up the charts and breakthrough into the North American market, going platinum in the U.S. and Canada. That album, and its new single “True Faith” (yet another Indie #1) had gotten the band – and its struggling Factory Records label – thinking of bigger things, Unfortunately, they weren’t all that sure how to do so.

Lead singer and main synthesizer guy Bernard Sumner didn’t want to tour and had just formed a side project band, Electronic, with Johnny Marr. Peter Hook was also doing side projects while the remaining pair, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and her husband, drummer Stephen Morris were working on movie scores on the side. And there wasn’t quite a unanimous opinion as to what the sound of their next, possibly “make or break” record should be. Sumner correctly noted “we were in the position of being known for this dance, electronic sound and it would have been daft to have just stopped it.” But the highly-skilled bassist Peter Hook was tiring of all the synths and sequencers and said “I still wanted us to be a rock band.”

Generally the former won out, and they headed out to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza to work on Technique, undoubtedly a “Fine Time” for the quartet who were well known for partying and liking certain pills. They got entranced by the so-called Balearic Beat, the dance/house sound of the island, and incorporated it into their music, which ended up a bit lighter and more “chirpy, upbeat” (in the words of Uncut) than much of their earlier work. Morris thought it had a “last day of school” vibe to it. They came back to Britain to finish up, at Peter Gabriel’s studio, which they termed a “more sober” experience than Ibiza!

The result was a nine song, 40-minute piece made for the dance floor. It anyone missed that point, the fact that one song is called “Mr. Disco” might drive it home! But as usual for New Order, the standouts were the singles, three of which were launched from Technique“Round & Round”, “Fine Time” and “Run” . For the latter, they brought in R.E.M. sidekick Scott Litt to remix it as a single, with Scott editing a few solos and cutting back on the echos and effects, with it being released as “Run 2”. Another thing that stood out about that one, if you looked at the liner notes that unlike all the other songs, collectively written by the band, it had John Denver co-credited as a writer. They didn’t fly the Country Boy to Ibiza for a jam session; his publishing company felt “Run” sounded too much like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” so they wisely added his name to the credits and cut him in on it without going to court.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the album met with good critical approval, something not always true of their ’80s work. Melody Maker called it a “rare, ravishing triumph”; the NME gave it 9 out of 10 and shortly after, Q ranked it as the 21st best album of the decade. Even on this side of the ocean, reviews were decent. The oft-snarky Village Voice compared them to the other big British new wave act of the ’80s, saying they were “a lot franker and happier than Depeche Mode.” Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars but said it was a “solid blast of sonic presence with immaculate playing.”

The fans certainly agreed. Both “Fine Time” and “Run 2” added to their impressive list of Indie chart-toppers , the former being a top 10 hit in Ireland as well, while “Round & Round” went to the top of U.S. dance charts. And that helped the album itself become their first #1 in Britain and get to #11 in New Zealand and #32 in the States, with it being gold in those countries and Canada – their best showing to that point (with the exception of the greatest hits package) in all those lands.

Oh, and if you notice there’s a sheep bleeting on the single “Fine Time” – one of the rare instances of farm animals doing guest vocals on an ’80s hit – and laughed a little, turns out they were laughing at you. They said it was put in there to represent how the way fans were just “following the flock.”


December 18 – EE’s Guitar Drove The Cars To Success

A Rock & Roll Hall of Fame career…that still perhaps didn’t quite amount to what it should have. Happy birthday to a guitarist allmusic call “gifted and totally under-rated.” Elliot Easton turns 69 years old today.

Easton is of course generally known as the lead guitarist of The Cars, which indeed was his shining moment, but he’s done more than just that. Keeping busy seems to be “just what (Easton) needed.”

Elliot was born as Elliot Shapiro, in New York City. Happily for all involved, he went to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music, where he not only honed his talents but met the lads who’d form The Cars. His stage presence was unusual because he’s a lefty, playing it “backwards” compared to most guitarists, and his sound made The Cars stand out from a lot of other American new wave acts that were coming up around the late-’70s who focused more on keyboards and subdued guitar riffs if any at all. Although he didn’t take part in the writing of their material, there’s no doubt he helped shape their hits like “Touch and Go”, “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” and “Moving in Stereo.” Allmusic note “his talents were not utilized to the fullest” by the band…although his talents indeed lay mostly in the six-string, as people found out in 1985.

With The Cars on hiatus basically, he put out a solo album, Change No Change. It barely scraped onto the American top 100, and perhaps with good reason. Allmusic scored it just 1.5-stars, saying it “disappoints on many levels” and adding “Easton is a terrible vocalist!” He went from there to helping fellow-Car Benjamin Orr on his own solo record, then joined Creedence Clearwater Revisited, CCR less John Fogerty essentially. He joined his old bandmates when they reformed, with Todd Rundgren replacing Rik Ocasek, as the New Cars, which didn’t really excite the public as much as expected. More recently he joined a band called Empty Hearts, with drummer Clem Burke and former Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagen, but they too failed to make it big.

However, there’s no denying his guitar prowess. Slash calls him one of his personal main influences and perhaps there’s good reason. Easton knows his stuff.

Not only did he go to the school for music, he is a student of the art. He calls Meet the Beatles the top album in importance for him. “Combined with the Ed Sullivan appearance on 2-9-64,” he told Goldmine, “this was the moment in the Wizard of Oz where the world went from black and white to technicolor!” He listed the Beatles Revolver and the Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo as other faves. On the latter he notes “I loved country music already- my dad played Marty Robbins all the time.” But when asked about important recordings for guitarists, he references Jimi Hendrix (“he didn’t ‘invent’ what he was playing but he turned it upside down”) and obscure artists like Eddie Lang, who put out a jazz record in 1929; “it showed what the guitar could do as a lead instrument.”

And today guitarists can do that using an Elliot Easton model Gibson guitar. They put out a signature Firebird guitar made to his specs.

December14 – Turntable Talk, Round 9 : Wrapping Up The Event

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! As this is the ninth instalment, regular readers know what it is. Every month, I have several interesting guest writers sound off on one topic related to the music that we look at here daily. Earlier this year we’ve looked at some topics that sparked lively debates, including if the Beatles were still relevant and people’s takes on how videos changed music. This time around though, in recognition of the calendar we have a simpler topic : Songs of the Season. We’ve just asked the guests to talk about a Christmas/holiday song that they love and why it has meaning to them.

Today we wrap up the feature for this round, with one from me here at A Sound Day. We hope you’ve liked the selections in the past week and will be back for the next round, when we’ll be looking at another music topic.

I want to thank our guest contributors who took part in Turntable Talk this month and brought a range of great Christmas music to us, ranging from the traditional “Silent Night” to the irreverently rocking “Mistress for Christmas.” 

Although I find we’re bombarded by too much Christmas music for too long each year – one local “rock” radio station switched to an all-Christmas format in the second week of November – I do appreciate the music and the feelings it evokes. And much like my personal feelings for the day are varied, it being both a religious day and time for reflection and a time to have fun and spend time with family and friends, my holiday musical tastes vary too. I very much like some of the traditional, often centuries old carols, like “Silent Night” (chosen by Christian) and “We Three Kings”, I like the modern pop/rock ones too, from the happy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to the more downbeat “Please Come Home For Christmas.” I thought of picking any number of songs from either “category” but decided to go for one that just makes me happy and isn’t played to death – “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses.

The Waitresses were a short-lived northern Ohio band who drew heavily from British new wave sounds and a few American influences like The Cars. Making their sound a little bit different was the jazzy sax of Mars Williams (also of the Psychedelic Furs) to accompany the singer, Patty Donahue. The main guitarist and writer was Chris Butler, something of an avant garde artist who had the misfortune of unwittingly buying the house used before by killer Jeffrey Dahlmer.

Formed haphazardly in Akron in 1978, they put out an Indie single in 1980 and played their first show on New Year’s Eve that year. Their first (of only two full length, studio) album generated a minor college radio hit in “I Know What Boys Like”. Their two lucky breaks happened fairly quickly together around the end of 1981 and early 1982. They were asked to do the theme for the TV show Square Pegs (remembered, if at all, mostly for being the first regular TV role for Sarah Jessica Parker) and did a cameo on one episode. And they were asked by their small label – ZE Records, a division of Polydor – to contribute a Christmas song to a holiday compilation.

Butler was in the words of some, “notoriously Scrooge-like.” At the time, he’d relocated to the Big Apple and remembers “everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends. It wasn’t about joy. It was something to cope with.” Like writing a song on short notice. So he decided to do what was asked and create a Christmas song. He says “I think my subconscious wanted something to cure me of my Grinch-hood.”

What cured him was a little four-minute romcom movie set to upbeat music. “Christmas Wrapping” is to the canon of Christmas music what The Holiday is to the body of Christmas film – lightweight but eminently enjoyable. Happy. The song about the girl who starts with “Bah humbug!” details her aborted efforts to get to know one guy all year long, and her indifference to the crowds and forced festivity at Christmas, resigned to spend it alone with the “world’s smallest turkey” from A&P…until she goes out to get cranberry sauce and runs into, you guessed it, that guy! Cheesy perhaps, but like the best Hollywood offerings of the ilk, upbeat, humorous and by the end has you rooting for the star-crossed but unlucky couple! And perhaps dancing.

The tune wasn’t initially found under many trees. It did get to #45 on the British charts, not bad for a Christmas song but no Band Aid or “Last Christmas”. In their homeland, it went almost unnoticed until the producers of a compilation called A Very Special Christmas, featuring various holiday tunes, both classic and new, by popular artist needed to add a bit more filler and put it in. The 1987 album took off and The Waitresses, by then defunct, gained sudden radio popularity and soon had one of the most popular- and fun – Christmas songs year in, year out. Helping them out in that was its’ use on TV in Glee and Gilmore Girls this century. In recent years, it’s gotten as high as #12 on the Holiday sales and streaming charts.

Allmusic describe it as “one of the best holiday pop tunes ever recorded.” I agree. It’s lightweight to be sure, but it makes me happy when I hear it. That over-the-top sax solo, the ridiculous “oh damn, guess what I forgot?” (it was the cranberry sauce)… it makes me smile. And, perhaps there’s a lesson in it too for any of us bordering on Grinch-hood this season. Writer Butler didn’t want to have to do “Christmas” but he did and ended up having a great success and making others happy. To paraphrase Dickens, may that truly be said of us all.

December 7 – Forgotten Gems : The Nails

If you think it’s hard to remember all the lyrics to that old chestnut “The 12 Days of Christmas” after you’ve had a festive eggnog or two, try this month’s Forgotten Gem. It has 88 lines to it! It says so right in the title – “88 Lines About 44 Women” by the Nails which came approximately this time in 1984.

The Nails, not to be confused with the Nine Inch Nails, came out of Colorado around 1976. Then they were known as the Ravers, but when they moved to New York City to take part in the punk revolution, they found another band already using that name. Thus they became The Nails and soon shared the CBGB’s stage with the likes of the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Falling somewhere between punk and new wave, the Nails fit the times and scene well but didn’t attract a lot of attention. This song was written by singer Marc Campbell and keyboardist David Kaufman around 1981; Kaufman putting the tune together mostly on a portable Casio. The minimalist tune was put out as an indie EP or maxi-single called Hotel For Women. That didn’t attract much attention either, but eventually someone at RCA noticed it and signed them. They re-recorded “88 Lines About 44 Women” with a bit fuller sound and included it on their debut album, Mood Swing.

Allmusic would years later give the record a solid 4.5-stars, comparing them to Wall of Voodoo and Jim Carroll, a “remarkably consistent” entry with “powerful musicianship, dark and occasionally shocking lyrics leavened with a sense of humor.” They figured this “deadpan” song was a fun “portrait of the counter-culture of the late-’70s and early-’80s” but cautioned it was by “no means typical” of the band.

Typical or not, it was all most people ever heard by them…if they heard anything at all by the Nails. But it was a song that left an impression – Campbell scrolls through a list of 44 women he’s known in a droll near-monotone. “Some of the women are real, some of them made up,” he’s said coyly. So we’ll never know for sure if there was a real Pauline (“thought love was simple – turn it on, turn it off”) or Jean Marie (“complicated like some French filmmakers plot.”) Nor if he knew one who sang songs about whales and cops or one whose “strange obsession was for vegetables and certain types of fruit!” All in all though, one gets the idea the band had some fun as young guys in the ’80s even if they weren’t as famous as their CBGB colleagues!

88 Lines About 44 Women” charted, barely, on Billboard‘s dance chart early in ’85 and the album scraped briefly into the top 200 but it was a stretch to call it a “hit.” Yet, it’s fans were so ardent about it, it’s lived on, showing up in a number of ’80s music compilations and in a Mazda ad in the ’90s. Also in ads for the show Dexter, which wasn’t authorized and ended in the band winning a lawsuit. Campbell says the only money he’s made off the song is from lawsuits and use in commercials in fact.

An artist named Luke Ski parodied it in the ’90s with “88 Lines About 44 Simpsons”, a fun take on 44 of Springfield’s favorite residents.

So there you go. Memorize this one and you should be well capable of reciting that ditty about leaping lords and swans at the Christmas party.

November 15 – The ’80s Didn’t Sound Like 1978 Suddenly

This decade wasn’t going to be your daddy’s rock and roll kind of decade. this became clear, if it wasn’t already, by this day in 1980 when two of the quirkier bands of the decade made themselves known to the American masses. Granted Springsteen and the Stones were still around and on the charts, but so too were the new sounds – like Devo, and The Vapors.

Northern Ohio’s Devo were hardly newbies. By this time, they’d already been around for seven years and had a couple of albums out, but they remained unknown to all but a select group of “underground” music afficionados until their strangely alluring “Whip It” came out. They had their signature tune up to #14 on the Billboard charts at the time 42 years ago, the highest it – or anything else by them- would make itin the U.S. They came close to matching the success of it elsewwhere (Canada and New Zealand especially) the following year with their industrial dance take on the ’60s Lee Dorsey hit “Working in a Coalmine” the following year, but the home crowds had already moved on by then. Although they’ve only put out one new album since 1990, the quirky “one hit wonders” are still going. And yes, still wearing those “energy dome hats” (red flower pots to the rest of us) 45 years after they were founded and still have founding singer Gerald Casale, and guitarist Mark Mothersbaugh. Mike’s brother Bob, another guitarist, also is part of the lineup, joining them about two years in.  Devo have been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times but have yet to get in, although the Hall does say of them, they earn recognition for being “equal parts art project, rock & roll satire and punk band- (they) produced a sound that was fresh.”

Another quirky new wave band debuted in the Top 40 that day – The Vapors. Their “Turning Japanese” was a top 10 hit in Canada, Britain and Australia but not quite as big in the US, where it only crawled up to #36. The band out of The Stranglers hometown of Guildford, England owed a lot to The Jam. They were “discovered” by Bruce Foxton of the band who helped them get a record deal and got singer Paul Weller’s dad to manage them. Their first live shows after signing a record deal were, yep, opening for The Jam. The fun and possibly politically incorrect single is not about masturbation, says Dave Fenton who wrote it, but rather about “cliches about angst and youth.” Whatever it was about, it was funny and danceable. The Vapors were never able to find a similar level of public interest again, and quickly disbanded after one more year and album (although they’ve done a handful of “reunion” shows in the last two years.) They put their short-term windfall to use though. Drummer Howard Smith owns and operates a record store and Fenton went to law school and became a lawyer, who mostly works for the Musicians’ Union representing other artists.

November 14 – Eurythmics Found Another ‘Touch’ Of Success With Third Album

Male/female, cold/warm… the Eurythmics were a study in contrasts. We found that out clearly this day in 1983, with the release of their third album, Touch. It had been an eventful year for the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, whose second album only months earlier, Sweet Dreams had rocketed them to international stardom. Touch took their success up a notch with more of their mix of melodic synthesizer tunes, mysterious, often erotically-charged lyrics and great, warm vocals.

As always, it was a largely in-house effort for the pair, with both playing a variety of keyboards and synthesizers, Annie singing and adding flute in places and Dave playing guitars and producing the record in their own studio they dubbed “The Church.” Even the best synthesizers can’t quite duplicate every sound though, so they did bring in well-known movie music-maker Michael Kamen to arrange the string section of the British Philharmonic on a few of the tunes. Wanting to strike while the iron was hot, they put the album together in “a frantic three week burst of inspiration.” While such hurried work can sometimes lead to rather shoddy or unfinished-sounding results, in their case it worked.

The album came out to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Smash Hits graded it 9 out of 10 and Mojo figured it showed them “raising their game significantly” and gave it 4-stars. Over here, Rolling Stone also gave it 4-stars, calling it “brilliant if erratic” and complimenting Dave Stewart’s synth work which is “thankfully free of the blowsy, ersatz-Motown touches that dominate other British technopop.” Years later, they’d squeeze the album into their list of 500 Greatest Albums of all-time at #500, saying Lennox “looked like a gender-bending robot zombie but she sang with soul.” Likewise, allmusic would later give it 4.5-stars, tied for their best, saying it was “superior” to Sweet Dreams and that by “mixing cold, hard, synthesized riffs with warm luscious vocals, the duo crafted some of the most unique and trend-setting music the 1980s had to offer.”

The public seemingly agreed. The striking sounds (and images, the band was one of the first British ones to really take advantage of MTV’s market in America) helped generate three hit singles, “Right By Your Side”, “”Who’s that Girl?” (which Rolling Stone singled out along with the 7-and-a-half minute “Paint A Rumour” as highlights) and “Here Comes The Rain Again”. All three were top 10s in their native UK while “Here Comes The Rain Again” got to #4 in the U.S., second highest of any of their singles, and earned them their first of three gold singles in Canada. The album itself did very well there, going double-platinum, while it got them platinum awards in both the U.S. and UK. It was their first #1 album in both Britain and New Zealand. It goes to show what adding a little human “touch” to an electronic work can do!

October 20 – Nile Helped Notorious Teen Idols Sound Grow Up

It was Sheryl Crow who sang “a change will do you good”…but perhaps she was thinking about a multi-million selling act from the previous decade when she did. The public got their first taste of a changed, slimmed down and more serious Duran Duran this day in 1986. That was when they reformed after a hiatus and put out “Notorious”, the first single and title track off their fourth album which followed along later in the fall.

By falling into “the stereotype of a teen idol group,” Simon LeBon said, “we were spending more time worrying about clothes, makeup and photo sessions than we were about writing songs.” That and tensions between the five led them to take about three years off as a unit (the exception being their one-off James Bond theme, “A View to a Kill” which was a #1 hit in ’85) and work on two different side-projects : the rocky Power Station with John and Andy Taylor (plus Robert Palmer and Tony Thompson) and the artsy Arcadia with Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor.

When they decided to begin working together in early-’86, they’d changed their focus – to more serious sounds and a “bass and brass” emphasis – and look, both literally and lineup wise. Drummer Roger Taylor was done with the music biz and declined to return and guitarist Andy Taylor (no relation to the other two Taylors remarkably) soon got tired of being back and quit midway through the recording of the album, leaving a trio…plus some studio talent.

They’d brought in Nile Rodgers to help produce the record, and he took over a lot of the guitar duties, while Steve Ferrone was brought in to drum. Ferrone would end up becoming the Heartbreakers’ drummer in the ’90s after Stan Lynch had quit and Dave Grohl had declined to join Tom Petty’s backing band.

For this song, written by the three members, Rodgers played guitar and brought in the Borneo Horns to add some brass and pizazz to it, and played around with the vocals, creating a bit of a stutter effect at the opening… much like he had done on the first song he’d worked on with them, years earlier, “The Reflex.” Le Bon says the title may have come about from a fascination with Alfred Hitchcock movies but the sound came about hearing Rodgers playing around on his six-string. “I remember his playing some notes up the neck of his guitar, and it was the riff (that became) ‘Notorious’…we just said, ‘man! We’ve got to have that!’”

Newfound “seriousness” or not, the band (and EMI Records) went back to some familiar tricks for the video which was another MTV hit for the lads. They looked picturesque as ever and were backed by several female dancers, choreographed by Paula Abdul and in some scenes, a then little-known Christy Turlington, years before she became a “super model.”

Overall, the song worked but the album didn’t capture the public’s attention quite as much. “Notorious” hit #2 in the U.S. – their sixth to get into the top 3 there – #7 in the UK, #10 in Canada and #1 in Italy. It was a big hit throughout most of Europe in fact. The album though, while selling decently, was their first not to make the top 10 in Britain or the States. And as with many other teen idol groups, once those teens had grown out of their high school years, pickings were slim, although Duran Duran did manage an impressive comeback seven years later with the hit “Come Undone” and are still making music. They’re due to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next month.

October 15 – Public Consented To Bronski’s Dance Beats

Take the Pet Shop Boys playbook and add a bit more “gayness”, a bit more dance and a bit more reverence for old school disco and you would approximate Bronski Beat. They put out their defining work, The Age of Consent this day in 1984.

Bronski Beat were named for Steve Bronski, a keyboardist, who formed the trio in Brixton in 1983. The standout however, was vocalist Jimmy Somerville, whom allmusic describe as a “soaring tenor capable of exploding into falsetto” at any time. The group signed to London Records in ’84 after just nine live performances, and would put out three albums. Only this one really got noticed however; not coincidentally at all it was the only one Somerville took part in.

The Age of Consent stood out stood out that year despite all their new wave contemporaries who were hot by way of Somerville’s soaring high-pitched, almost operatic voice, its high-energy dance beats … and (as the BBC noted) in an age of the likes of fairly conventional musicians with outlandish looks, ala A Flock of Seagulls, these guys were radical and “looked so normal.” No bird-winged, bleached hairdos or shiny jackets for Somerville and the others. In their place, short, neat hair and Gap shirts. But while Seagulls sang of space visitors and Howard Jones preached compassion behind his synthesizers, Bronski Beat were largely focused on how tough it was being gay in Britain at the time.

The very title alone refers to the legal age of consent to have sex, which they pointed out was 21 for gays and only 16 for straight kids in their country. In fact, it was only recently that homosexuality came off the criminal code and police still routinely charged gays with offences like “gross indecency.” The band had the album liner notes include info on gay laws and ages of consent in various countries; American copies lacked this due to the label’s concerns over boycotts and protests.

The lead single, “Smalltown Boy” dealt with a gay youth leaving home after being rejected by his family. Not typical top 40 fare (although, who can forget the ’70s gave us tracks like “Lonely Boy” and “The Killing of Georgie”?) but with its rivoting video and dance-worthy beat, it became a major international hit. It got to #3 in their homeland, and was top 10 in Canada, New Zealand, Italy and several other lands. It wasn’t a major hit on mainstream American charts but if you were in the clubs, it was inescapable, being a major #1 dance hit. The follow-up, “Why” also made the top 10 in the UK and was a hit on alternative rock stations in North America – it was the 4th biggest song of the year on L.A.’s KROQ for example. Their version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” also found its way onto many a dance floor.

The album itself made #4 in the UK, and #7 in Canada and went platinum in both lands. CMJ listed it as the 12th most-played album of 1985 on college radio in the States. Allmusic give it a 4.5-star rating, saying “you can have substantive content and wrap it up in a compelling, dance-oriented package”.

Perhaps not that often though; Somerville soon left the band to form the Communards who likewise had a brief run of success with similar dance music in the ’80s. Sadly however, Bronski himself died last year in a housefire.

October 4 – Meninblack Endured Skin Deep Folks & Thin Walls

Today we remember a song released this day in 1984. Is it dark new wave or punk sunny-side up or merely a very cool pop song? Whatever the definition, The Stranglers “Skin Deep” was one of the best examples of Brit keyboard-based music of the ’80s.

The Stranglers had by that time been around for a decade, and put out six studio albums which had shifted steadily from aggressive yet melodic rock that was labeled “punk” (the subject of many a music debate; the band themselves never classified themselves as that and many diehard punkers hated them for being considerably older than most punk bands and rather good talents on their instruments) through driving post-punk new wave to rather synthesizer-heavy, almost dreamy new wave on their previous album, Feline. “Skin Deep” was the lead single off their seventh album, Aural Sculpture.

The title to that eluded to a “manifesto” they’d read at the tail end of the previous album, which should have put to pay any arguments about how earnestly serious they were about being angry punkers. Should have, although some might have missed tongue in cheek nature of a “manifesto” which declared “the musicians of our times are harlots and charlatans who use science without being scientists and abuse art without being artists… the world must prepare itself to herald the advent of aural sculpture, whose presence can now be shared with the fortunate few who have ears to hear…”

While the quartet had been a democracy of sorts, with all four sharing the spotlight musically at times and sharing writing credits, by this time cracks were starting to appear in the bonds, chiefly between guitarist and main vocalist Hugh Cornwell and bassist and occasional lead singer JJ Burnel. Looking back, JJ remembers they were “being dominated by Hugh” and that “everyone seemed to think I was the pretty boy and Hugh was the talent…Hugh was playing about with American models and moving in different circles. He started to look down on our fans.” After one show the guitarist got mad over a botched move on stage and threw a glass of champagne in JJ’s face. Not a good thing to do with a guy whose one of the top karate practicioners in the country. “the backstage had paper-thin walls and I put him through it, leaving a Hugh-shaped silhouette like on Tom & Jerry,” the bassist recalls. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cornwell quit the band not that long after (he went on to have a solo career and is currently promoting a sci-fi novel he wrote.)

The Stranglers had gone through quite a few labels in their day and for Aural Sculpture were signed to CBS. The label saw untapped potential – the group had been very successful in the UK and France, but Columbia sensed the time was right for a major breakthrough in North America. They brought in Laurie Latham to produce. Latham was fresh off working on a Paul Young album. The result was as Burnel puts it, “really ’80s production…it’s no one’s fault, certainly not Laurie’s. (all things considered) I think it worked out well,” he says. Latham introduced a horn section for a couple of songs, which worked not badly, but the one thing Burnel regrets that Latham turned his bass down low in the mix “a more conventional position,” but very different than many of their early tunes where his forceful bass arguably dominates the whole song. CBS not only brought in a well-respected producer, they also commissioned a big sculpture of an ear for the cover photo…and made it attention-grabbing. “The monumental ear was transported on an unnecessarily large low loader truck around central London in an attempt to cause traffic chaos and maximize publicity,” the band’s website reports.

Skin Deep” was the lead single and perhaps the catchiest tune on a pretty solid album, with lyrics that make a certain amount of sense… “many people tell you they’re your friend, you need them, you believe them…” but “brother, you’d better watch out for the skin deep.” The song is credited to all four of them but given the state of affairs between Burnel and Cornwell, one might imagine it was JJ singing about his one-time best friend and bandmate, even though Hugh got to do the vocals. The song showcased the late Dave Greenfield‘s keyboard skills more than anything else, and it certainly ranks among the better songs of its type from the mid-’80s. Critics seemed to like it, and the album in general, none more so than allmusic. They rate it 4.5-stars and say “the Stranglers have gone sensual, sounding sincere, serene and sensitive. And it’s perfect..you never thought they could transition to this.”

The song got to #15 in Britain, and was a top 10 in Ireland and Poland. It marked the tenth top 20 single for them in the UK – the Sex Pistols had seven in their career for comparison’s sake. Over here though, it didn’t break through like CBS expected. The album hit the Canadian top 40, and the video for “Skin Deep” was shown on MuchMusic quite regularly in 1985, after the domestic release here, but the single didn’t make much of a mark outside of Toronto. Aural Sculpture was the fifth top album of the year in ’84 on CFNY in that city, and made the top 30 the next year as well, and “Skin Deep” actually ended up getting played not only on that alt rock station but the hard rock and the easy-listening one as well!

Cornwell might have fallen out of favor with the others, but the remaining trio remained close and The Stranglers still operate, although sadly Dave Greenfield passed away in 2020 and drummer Jet Black, now in his 80s, had to retire. However, Burnel, Baz Warne (their lead guitarist for over 20 years now) and the Meninblack are winding down a European tour, with a stop tonight in Amsterdam.

September 27 – Big In Japan? Bigger In Europe

The album that, according to allmusic could “almost serve as (the) pure definition of the synth pop genre” arrived this day in 1984…all the way from Munster, Germany. Forever Young may or may not sound “young” to your ears, but either way the Alphaville hit album is 38 years old today.

Alphaville were an electronics-heavy trio who’d formed about two years earlier, led by singer and lyricist Marian Gold, who happens to be the only continuous member of the group to this day. Accompanying him were Frank Mertens, a keyboardist and Bernhart Lloyd, a multi-instrumentalist who added more keyboards plus guitars and percussion.

One of the very first songs they did was the lead single, “Big in Japan”, out a little before the album itself. It was in fact, big in Europe, hitting #4 in their homeland and being the first of three-straight #1s in Sweden. With it catching on across the continent (as well as Toronto and a handful of American cities) their life quickly changed. The record company, Warner’s international division WEA, pressured them to hasten up the pace and rush the album out, which Gold said was only half-done at the time. They wanted more upbeat hits, and he said of that “the whole affair felt like an insult, writing music exclusively for commercial success. (It) seemed like a sell-out,” although he adds “on the other hand, did this not open up possibilities?” As evidence of how much a single hit can change a band’s trajectory (or could in the era when people bought records and CDs) , and the sometimes forgotten power of the European market , the singer also admitted “once we (wore) tattered jeans and sweaty leather jackets. Now we were homeless millionaires, living in hotel suites.”

The title track, about Cold War anxiety, was their pick for the next single, but WEA wanted the hastily-written “Sounds like A Melody” out before it; it sounded like a melody to Italians and Swedes, topping charts in those two lands. Then “Forever Young” came out, getting to #4 at home, and making the top 10 in much of Europe and the lower ends of the charts in Canada. Eventually it got to #66 in the States…but not for four years. They released it three separate times before it “clicked” in the U.S.; the second time might have been ill-advised as it was essentially in hopes of having their version become a hit instead of Laura Branigan’s. She did a cover version of the song in ’85, but didn’t release it as a single, possibly owing to the Alphaville re-release at the same time.

Other songs on the album pointed to their origins musically (they were big fans of Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and early OMD) and at times lyrically, as in ”Summer in Berlin” and “To Germany with Love.”

Allmusic found Gold to sound a bit like Bryan Ferry and the album itself 4.5-stars worth of “impossibly catchy tunes” with “crystalline Teutonic textures and massive beats.”

The album eventually hit #1 in Norway and #3 in Germany itself. There it went triple platinum and it sold well across Europe and helped them win the Golden Europa Award for Best Group that year. In North America, sales were middling at best, but the singles became dancefloor hits and the album was among the year’s 30 biggest on the two usual suspects, alt rock pioneering stations KROQ in L.A. and CFNY in Toronto.

Forever Young was all we heard from them over here, but they’ve put out six albums since with a seventh due within a week or so, and have had three more top 20 hits in their native land.