100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You

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A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)

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Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

philspector2Phil and Ronnie Spector

In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.

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But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

philspector4Darlene Love

It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

philspector5The Ronettes out looking for Frosty The Snowman

Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

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The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 

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The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.

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Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show.  Here is Darlene back in 1998.

 

A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,

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100 Essential CDs – Number 62 – Jimmy Somerville – The Singles Collection 1984-90

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The Singles Collection 1984-1990 (London 1990)

UK Chart Position – 4

 

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This 17 track album was released six years into the hit making career of Jimmy Somerville by which time he had scored hits as lead singer in two groups, Bronski Beat and The Communards and had success as a solo singer.  It brought Jimmy’s single releases up to date from 1984’s “Smalltown Boy” to his version of “To Love Somebody” which climbed the charts alongside this album.  Sales of this release were strong across Europe and it also stalled at the number 4 position in Germany, France (where it was awarded a Platinum Disc) and Switzerland and hovered just outside the Top 5 in the Netherlands. 

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Jimmy is a unique performer.  Blessed with an angelic falsetto and a no-nonsene attitude which sometimes set him apart in the music industry.  He’s been quick to move onto new ventures in the past which could have been of some detriment to his career.  He’s an under-rated artist, who got a lot of stick from the media, not ready to embrace an out-gay man with a scorching falsetto voice.  Now thirty-three years on from that first hit Britain’s biggest selling artist world- wide is an out gay man with a falsetto voice.  It’s been a long journey from Somerville to Sam Smith and this album shows how good this inspirational performer, Jimmy Somerville is.

From Somerville to Smith – a natural progression?

The debut hit kicks off this CD and although back in 1984 it sounded on the surface very much like typical electro-disco a listen to the lyrics told a very different story.  “Smalltown Boy”, written by the band,  told the largely autobiographical tale of Jimmy’s escape from Scotland to London because he wasn’t able to live the life he wanted, the “run away/turn away” hook of the chorus got under the skin but it was the verses that packed the most punch.  “Mother will never understand/why you had to leave/for the love that you need”.  The whole thing is tinged with sadness and loneliness as although the only option has been to escape you are left with the feeling that issues raised have not been resolved. 

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The video which showed a “queerbashing” (as it would have been termed then) at a swimming pool further hit the message home.  This was all quite revolutionary back in 1984, we had never heard such sentiments in a hit song (the closest being perhaps Rod Stewart’s “The Killing Of Georgie” which was from a third person point of view and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, with its short stories of those who needed to escape).  Here was a first-person account from an openly gay group at the time when homosexuality remained very much in the closet in the music business.  Just a few months before we had Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s brashly sexual “Relax”, a song which most listeners would have not had much of an idea as to what was being implied (before the BBC ban which gave it endless publicity), which had been pretty much an evolution of the sexual freedom which the Village People had suggested but were never really able to deliver upon.  Both these acts might have veered towards being cartoonish to the average listener yet Bronksi Beat’s first offering felt very real and more than a little chilling. 

Paul Flynn’s recent impressive survey of gay Britain “Good As You” took as its starting point an episode of “Top Of The Pops” where Frankie and Bronksi both appeared which changed the direction of the twelve year old viewers life as he was sat in front of the television in his living room in Wythenshawe.  “Smalltown Boy” is perhaps one of the most significant songs of the 80’s.  It certainly caught the public attention reaching number 3 in the UK, it topped the charts in Netherlands, and Belgium, was a Top 10 hit in amongst other territories Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and even made the US Top 50. 

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Any doubts that Bronski Beat were a novelty act were dispelled by the big selling album “The Age Of Consent” and three further hits with Somerville as lead singer, all of which are included on this album.  “Why?” got to number 6 in the UK which also aired the injustice of inequality in gay relationships and the impossibility of being able to show affection in public.  This was a stridently political song at a time when AIDS was causing widespread panic and vilification of gay men.  The song builds to an almost hysterical vocal which chills the blood.

jimmy7Bronski Beat – Larry Steinbachek, Jimmy, Steve Bronski

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was a much calmer track, a cover of a fifty year old Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess”.  Cover versions would feature quite frequently in Somerville’s career in all its incarnations and this early example shows him off as a real song stylist.  The song itself is a lesson in not believing everything that we are taught.  It reached number 16 in the charts and the video featured young Londoners who I was familiar with at the time, a couple who I knew quite well.  I completely lost touch and I have always wondered if they escaped the decimation of London’s gay youth during the early days of the AIDS crisis.  Because of this I’ve always found this song overly melancholy. 

jimmy8Jimmy with Marc Almond

The fourth hit saw Bronski Beat paired up with Soft Cell’ s Marc Almond for the odd idea of putting two Donna Summer songs “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love”, two of the greatest disco numbers of all time with the old John Leyton hit “Johnny Remember Me”.  I’m sure they know what’s going on here, but I was never sure.  This dynamic pairing became a Top 3 UK hit in 1985 and came from Bronski Beat’s second album “Hundreds And Thousands”.  This might sound like a criticism, but the vast majority of Somerville’s hit covers do not live up to the originals but really that’s because he chose to cover such iconic songs which are peerless in their own right.  In a number of cases these covers did better than the original versions.

goodasyou2Richard and Jimmy – The Communards

In 1985 Jimmy Somerville quit Bronski Beat over what was no doubt musical differences and teamed up with classically trained Richard Coles to form The Communards.  His original group had another very good Top 3 hit without him with “Hit That Perfect Beat” and should have made the Top 3 at least when they paired up with Eartha Kitt for “Cha Cha Heels”, perhaps one of the gayest Top 40 hits of all time (#32 in 1989)  which would only have made any sense to those who had seen John Waters’ cult movie “Female Trouble” which starred Divine. 

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It was the pairing with Coles which saw Somerville reach his creative peak, even though they are best known for cover versions.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was the third Communards hit and is the second track on this CD after “Smalltown Boy”.  The song had been part of a chart battle in the UK nine years earlier when the original Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes track did battle with a blistering disco version by Thelma Houston, which had topped the US charts.  Both versions are great and the song is an absolute classic which had seen Thelma’s version adopted as an unofficial theme song for the AIDS epidemic in the US. The Communards version takes the best of both versions and teams Jimmy up vocally with Sarah Jane Morris, whose rich jazzy voice proved an effective blend with the male falsetto.  They looked an unlikely pairing on TV performances but the British public took this new version to heart and it reached number 1 for four weeks in September 1986, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.  It also topped the charts in the Netherlands and became Jimmy’s first and only US Top 40 hit, scraping in at number 40. 

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The following year the Communards were raiding the golden oldie box again with another song which had already had at least two superb versions.  Originally written for the Supremes by Motown writer Clifton Davis it was handed over to the big money-makers the Jackson Five and took them to number 2 in the US Billboard charts.  The UK had a more muted response to this track but within three years it became one of the early classics of the disco era with the glorious version by Gloria Gaynor who reached number 2 in the UK and 9 in her homeland.  The Communards version is very much in the spirit of Gloria’s with its hi-hat drum beats and reached number 4 in 1987.

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The Communards were far more than a covers band, however.  When their debut album was released I bought it on vinyl and felt it was one of the greatest UK albums of all time (although it was recorded in the legendary Sigma Studios in Philadelphia).  The timing pretty much matched with my own personal coming out and this seemed like a soundtrack to my new life and provided hope, reassurance as well as an understanding that things would be challenging.  The sublimely joyous love song “You Are My World” (showing off Coles’ classical credentials) became a hit twice (#30 in 1985 and #21 as a remix in 1987). “Disenchanted” got one place higher than the Communards debut and the excellent “So Cold The Night” combines a feel of real eastern promise with one of the only hit songs about voyeurism.  The album also contained a couple of non-single gems in “Reprise” and the Billie Holliday standard “Loverman” sung as a duet with Sarah-Jane Morris.

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The second Communards studio album “Red” was almost as good.  The biggest hit was “Never Can Say Goodbye” but hit singles were scored with “Tomorrow” (UK#23) and the elegiac beautiful “For A Friend” (UK#28), with its lovely piano work,  a personal response to the AIDS crisis written in tribute to Richard and Jimmy’s friend Mark who had another marvellous tribute in 2014 when he became the central character of the movie “Pride”.

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The Communards final top 20 hit “There’s More To Love” was released at the time when Margaret Thatcher’s Clause 28 of the Local Government Act had been enshrined by law.  This clause made it illegal to for local authorities to “promote homosexuality” a ridiculous piece of legislation that had the effect of bringing together gay and lesbians as a community and a force to be reckoned with for the first time.  “Lovers And Friends” and “C Minor” were two great tracks from “Red” which do not appear on this CD as they were not released as singles.

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The Communards split up in 1988 with Richard going on to become the Reverend Richard Coles, a well known face on British television as a presenter of programmes both religious and non-religious.  He most recently made a short-lived attempt to lift the glitterball prize on “Strictly Come Dancing”.

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Jimmy the solo artist actually kicked things off in 1989 with a duet with June Miles-Kingston.  Not sure what the thinking was behind “Comment Te Dire Adieu” but it is was one of the few French language hits by British artists.  The song had previously been recorded by Francoise Hardy and had started off life as a song in English which had been released by Vera Lynn! Somerville’s version got to number 14 in the UK charts and, unsurprisingly became a Top 3 hit in France. 

jimmy16Sylvester – originally (Mighty Real)

It was back to the cover versions again to pay tribute once again to an out-gay man with an incredible falsetto voice from earlier years.  Sylvester had lost his own battle against AIDS in 1988 and in early 1990 Jimmy was back in the UK Top 5 with his biggest solo hit to date.  “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is another cover which didn’t eclipse the original but it was great to have this tribute to another great under-rated star.  “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)” (UK#26) is  a great Disco-orientated track with a message about funding for AIDS treatments.  His version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” reached number 8 in the UK and saw him back in the Top 5 in Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands and was released alongside this album.  The other new track “Run From Love” was less successful as a single.

These seventeen tracks are joyous, thought-provoking and moving, pretty much in equal measures.  Jimmy has continued to periodically put out solid albums over the years.  His last “Homage” released in 2015 was a gem of a disco recording and should have seen him back in the upper reaches of the charts.  His peak, commercially and creatively may have been with his association with Richard Coles in the Communards but this album proves there is a lot more to enjoy.

The Single Collection 1984-90 is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £19.99 and used from £1.00.  In the US it is available  from $0.82.  Other Jimmy Somerville/Communards/Bronski Beat compilations are available to buy and stram on Spotify in the UK. 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 67 – Silver Convention- The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie

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The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)

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It’s to Germany we go for this slab of unadulterated guilty disco pleasure and  these under-rated early stars of the Euro-Disco music canon.  Silver Convention were the brainchild of two producers Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay whose use of synthesized disco predates what came out of Munich by the more famous pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. 

In the 1970’s we liked  to put faces to our acts, anonymous production teams were never going to cut it so a trio of singers were put together to represent the vocals of Silver Convention. Over time, the girls evolved from background singers to much more of a girl group, even representing Germany in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, but the vocals continued to take a less important role than the production and were often little more than a chant.   There was world-wide success for a short period of time, mainly three albums out of a five studio album career .  I am sure they are the only act ever to take part in the annual Eurovision extravaganza having previously scored an American number 1 pop hit.  (In the event they didn’t win Eurovision coming a middle of the table 8th in a year when France took the prize).  This fifteen track CD represents many of their finest moments.

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Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years

In the mid 90’s Hot Productions re-released for the mainly American market Best Of compilations from artists many of whom were making their first appearance in CD format.  I bought this CD in Miami which is where the label originated from.  Disco stars such as The Ritchie Family, D C LaRue, Carol Douglas, George McCrae, Divine and a number of artists produced in the UK by Ian Levine were recognised and many of these CDs have become quite collectable.  Amazon has this CD listed new for £78.99.  In the UK a vinyl compilation from 1977 reached the Top 40 album charts.  More readily available currently is a double CD from the Dutch Smith & Co label from 2003 called “The Very Best Of..” which does have more tracks but opts for the shorter single releases rather than the full-length versions of the disco classics we have here.

Silver Conention 3 Sylvester Levay, from former Yugoslavia, arrived in Munich in 1972 and teamed up with Michael Kunze, Czech born, who had grown up in Southern Germany and studied in Munich.  The two formed a song-writing team and scored their first German chart-topper in 1970 with a song called “Du” by Peter Maffray, the biggest German language song of that year.  International success came about when they made a record initially as Silver Bird Convention.

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That track, a delightful piece of Euro-Disco entitled “Save Me” was recorded using backing vocalists including Roberta Kelly, who would go on to work with the German productions of Donna Summer and have a Giorgio Moroder produced career of her own including the great Euro-hit single “Zodiacs” in 1978 and even put out a Disco gospel album.  At a music convention, one Pete Waterman, then working in promotion at Magnet Records picked up on the track and the shortened name act was signed to the label in the UK.  This resulted in a Top 30 UK hit in mid-1975 some months before Donna Summer put Munich on the musical map with “Love To Love You Baby”.  It also scored well in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.

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Considering Levay and Kunze were primarily songwriters they were not going to win any awards with the lyrics of this song which are basically “Baby save me, save me I am falling in love”.  Maybe to protect his song-writing reputation (?) Kunze used the pseudonym Stephan Prager for the first two albums. “Save Me” was distinctly wordy compared to the next hit which blew the whole Silver Convention concept sky-high.  “Fly Robin Fly” kicks off this album in its full length 7 minutes and 44 seconds glory.

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A bass line which I have always found a little chilling moves into soaring strings and the lyrics which contains a total of six words repeated in various combinations “Fly/Robin/Right/Up/To/ The/Sky.  It’s the string arrangement that has it though as it rises and descends with the speed and accuracy of the robin onto the worm.  The echoey vocals with the slight Germanic accent combine brilliantly and form the blueprint of Silver Convention.   In New York, the Disco scene was kicking off and this became one of its early huge hits crossing over to the American pop charts where it topped the charts for three weeks towards the end of 1975 and won the Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance.  They were the first German act to top the American charts and Euro-Disco was born.  It was a huge international hit and topped the charts in Norway and made the Top 3 in, amongst other markets, their homeland, Belgium and Canada.  In the UK it went a couple of places higher than their debut reaching #28.

Silver Convention 7That earlier track, “Save Me” is up next and is less electronic sounding and features a sprightly saxophone solo.  My seven-inch single of “Fly Robin Fly” morphed in its last few seconds into “I Like It” which was the B-Side in the UK to that single although on their first album this track preceded it.  Here it follows “Save Me”.  By the release of these tracks Silver Convention had become Penny Maclean, Linda G Thompson and Jackie Carter, the latter being the only remaining vocalist from the “Save Me” sessions.  The quality is maintained with another track from that debut album “Another Girl” which is richer in melody and features the lovely German “V” sound when they sing “Woman”.  This is Euro-Disco combined with the sound Barry White perfected for Love Unlimited with just a hint of Abba.  Once again the strings vie for dominance over the girl’s harmonies and spoken interludes and this is one of my favourites from the group.  I think with hindsight and the explosion of Euro-Disco music which came afterwards from the likes of Boney M, Cerrone, Baccara etc it’s easy to forget how different this all sounded.  The album topped the Billboard R&B Charts (certainly the first German act to do so) and reached number 10 in the US pop charts.  The “All Music Guide To Soul” rates the album five stars and describes it as  having “a uniquely European take on American soul-pop and disco.  Arguably the group’s most essential release.  “Save Me” is a dance classic.”

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They had some reputation to maintain for its follow-up.  Lead track from the second album “Get Up And Boogie” is just a tad irritating.  It does work better in its full length version included here as you get electric piano solos and good bass work.  In the single version the beat is a bit lumbering, the girls’ vocals sound a bit whiney and the “That’s Right” male voice sample makes the whole thing a bit stop-start.  The record-buying public gave it a thumbs up and any fears that the group might have  one-hit-wonder European novelty status in the US were allayed when it just missed out on being their second chart-topper, getting to number 2.  It became their biggest hit in the UK reaching number 7, topped the charts in Canada and made the top 10 worldwide including The Netherlands and Spain. 

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There were a couple of better tracks from the second album included on this CD.  “San Francisco Hustle” is their entry into the geographical hustle stakes which, a year on from Van McCoy introducing us to the dance had hit variations of “The Latin Hustle” “The Spanish Hustle” and was still with us in 1978 when Hi-Tension gave us “The British Hustle”.  The San Francisco version provided a very attractive track, although maybe too slow to dance the hustle?  It’s a melody-rich track which could have provided another hit, as could “You Got What It Takes”, which once again has that “Voman” pronunciation which always appeals to me.

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Their record labels went for “No No Joe” as the next single.  It’s a nod towards the sexualisation of disco that had gone mainstream following the huge success of “Love To Love You Baby”.  It was probably the same decision making that led to their UK label putting out the album (and a repackaged first album) with handcuffed naked female cover art.  For some reason handcuffs had been an image associated with the band since the first album.  This caused much publicity with Woolworths refusing to stock the album.  The solution was to overlay the cover with splashes of white to cover up anything deemed offensive but actually to make the whole thing more tantalising for those interested.  I think it could have been possible to pick off the overlaid white, but I’m not sure.  It’s not even easy to find the artwork for these covers nowadays, even on the internet as they were soon phased out, but I had a vinyl copy. In the UK “No No Joe” wasn’t going to attract much radio-play and so was double A-sided with earlier track “Tiger Baby” but it underachieved in most markets.

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Third long player “Madhouse” was promoted as a disco concept album, with tracks loosely linked around a “world is a madhouse” theme.  It had a poem on the back cover which attempted to link the tracks and was a funkier effort.  The 7 minute title track (not included here) felt similar to what Norman Whitfield was doing with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth but with the Munich strings and German accented vocals.  The best track  on show was actually the mid-tempo “Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout Love” which brought back the lushness of a Love Unlimited type track and was far more of a song than we’d had from them before.  In the UK it reached number 25.

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By this time the group’s personnel had changed.  Levay and Kunze were still pulling the strings but by now Penny McLean had been joined by Ramona Wulf and Rhonda Heath.  Linda G. Thompson had a shot at solo fame with a turntable hit “Oh What A Night”.   Ramona also got plenty of club play with a solo cover version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” More successfully, in 1975 Penny had scored a big international hit with a solo track, the  histrionic “Lady Bump” which had topped charts in her Austrian homeland and Germany.  (Check out the YouTube video of her doing her best to sing it live in front of a European gyrating audience- it’s a kitsch classic) She also released a solo album. 

 

 Levay and Kunze were still very much behind the group and attempted to boost waning sales by entering the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest. “Telegram” is a good piece of girl-group pop, which has morse code punctuating the song and a singalong chorus (a chorus in a Silver Convention song, that’s almost a first!) The trio arrived in London the on-paper favourites but as ever the vagaries of the Eurovision voting system saw them off. (That year UK came second with Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran’s “Rock Bottom”- a prediction of future Eurovision attempts perhaps?)  “Telegram”, although now meaningless in our time of instant e-mails, remains a Eurovision fan favourite and often appears on compilations.

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The last hurrah for the group came with “Blame It On The Music” from the fourth album called either “Summer Nights” or “Golden Girls” depending on where you live.  This is a great Abba-esque track with flurries of strings which shows the direction the girls could have taken.  Soon after the release of this album Penny left the group, and was replaced to concentrate on her solo career and was replaced by Zenda Jacks.

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The last two tracks on the compilation come from 1978 album “Love In A Sleeper” which brought them some success in Europe.  Here arrangement duties were taken by American disco producer John Davis with some tracks being recorded for the first time outside Munich at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia. Long-term the writing was on the wall and the group slipped away back into obscurity.

 The producers Levay and Kunze, however, continued to thrive.  Michael Kunze worked on translations of hit musicals and adapted many of the big Broadway shows for German audiences including Evita, Cats, Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line and Into The Woods.  He has developed his own musicals including one based on Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and with Sylvester Levay again a hit German language musical based on the life of Mozart.  Levay himself spent much of the 90s in the US composing TV and film scores before reuniting with Kunze for the theatrical productions.  Both have gone on to much respectability in the music business but I hold out a hankering for their early work of swirling synthesized strings, repetitive lyrics and the lushness of the German EuroDisco sound of Silver Convention. Below is the video for the US #1 hit single.

And because looking at these videos have given me so much pleasure the last couple of days here is that Eurovision song entry featuring much of what the Strictly Come Dancing judges refer to as arm-ography.

 

The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £78.99 and used from £12.99.  In the US it is available  from $17.35.  Other Silver Convention compilations are available.  The majority of the studio albums are available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 74 – Lionel Richie – Back To Front

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Back To Front – Lionel Richie (Motown 1992)

UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position –19

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The Commodores were signed to the Motown label in 1972 and built up a following as a support act for the Jackson 5. Pretty much a funk band in the early days the group member initially playing the saxophone was one Lionel Richie from Tuskagee, Alabama. The group’s first hit “Machine Gun” (1974 UK#20 US# 22) was actually an instrumental where Lionel’s sax work can be heard. As the group diversified into ballads alongside the funk Lionel’s vocals began to be heard in hits such as “Sweet Love” (1976 UK#32, US#5) and the all-time classic “Easy” (1977 UK#9, US#4) and a song penned for his wife “Three Times A Lady” became the group’s first chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic and opened doors for Richie. Asked to write and produce a hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, “Lady” saw Richie crossing into new markets and scored his biggest hit to date, his first US #1 in 1980. The following year saw Richie pen a song from the throwaway Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love” and record it as a duet with Diana Ross. In the US that became Motown’s biggest selling single to date with a nine week run at number 1. (In the UK it stalled at number 7). A solo career inevitably beckoned.

From “Machine Gun” to “Natural High” the Commodores became one of Motown’s biggest groups.

By 1992, after three huge selling albums Richie had experienced a five year career hiatus and to remove the pressure of having to come up with a whole new album Motown green-lighted “Back To Front” which would feature three new recordings alongside 13 of his biggest hits, predominantly from the solo career. The title explains the format- the new material was not tucked in at the end but led the recording. It brought Richie back into the limelight and topped the charts in the UK. It’s a great one- album introduction to what Richie was all about.

The format, does mean, however that the CD opens with the weakest track on display. “Do It To Me” like the rest of the new material was written by Richie and produced by Stewart Levine. All three were released as singles in the UK. This came out about a month before the album was released and is a pleasant enough early 90’s laid-back ballad with plenty of saxophone. It is a long way from the classic Richie songs and feels the most like album filler of the three tracks. It gave Richie his first UK Top 40 hit for over five years when it reached number 33. In the US it did better and became the highest placed track of the new material, scoring him his fifth solo R&B chart-topper and making 21 in the pop charts. In the UK we favoured the second release, “My Destiny” which is, as far as I am concerned, his last great single release. Its number 7 placing was his highest since 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling”. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands. It feels the most contemporary of the three, a slinky mid-tempo number which felt like just what Richie should have been releasing in 1992. It’s a great little sing along track

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Major anthem status was sought out for the third of the three tracks, “Love Oh Love” which has the feel of “We Are The World” the all-star USA for Africa song written by Richie with Michael Jackson as part of Live Aid. This tracks hovers very close to the cheesy with its chorus of children, “Little Drummer Boy” rhythm and big themes of world peace and eradicating sorrow but rather like Mr Jackson’s “Earth Song” I personally think Richie gets away with it and it’s all rather charming. At the end of 1992 I thought this could garner the Xmas single market and be a big hit but it didn’t happen, falling short of the Top 40. Once again it had its strongest approval in the Netherlands where it was a Top 20 hit.

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I don’t feel that these new tracks let the album down in any way but it is more likely that people purchased it for the remaining thirteen tracks, probably to replace on CD what was already owned on vinyl. There’s no chronological approach as suggested by the title, we just get a mixture of tracks from the back catalogue. As a solo artist Richie released three solo albums on Motown and here we get the cream of those tracks – just one from the first album, five of the original eight tracks from the second and two from the third. As well as this there is the non-album duet and four of his biggest Commodores hits to make up the 16 tracks. It made better sense to buy this on CD to replace a vinyl copy of “Can’t Slow Down”, that second Motown album, as you got the best tracks from that and much more besides. I don’t think it totally encompasses the cream of the Commodores output – for that I would recommend the 2005 double CD “Gold”.

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The thing that slightly overshadows Richie’s career as far as I am concerned is that with both his solo hits and works with the Commodores, the biggest hits, the ones that have come to define the artist are some distance from his best. “Three Times A Lady” with its quite traditional waltz feel and ever so cheesy lyrics sounded alright at the time of release and certainly broadened the group’s appeal with an older generation above their usual market falling for this schmalty track and it gave the group their first Pop #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Solo Richie’s pretty-enough ballad from his second album “Hello” was the third single release off a very big release so something was needed to bring it to record buyers who had not gone for the album. A cheesy video, which at the time seemed more like a movie with a blind girl fashioning the head of Richie out of clay was fine for the first few viewings but then its out and out cheesiness became indelibly linked with the song in my head and is often the first thing people remember about Richie. This track also topped the Charts in the USA and became his only solo number one in the UK. I tolerate both these tracks on the CD but don’t exactly look forward to either of them, but probably for many people, these may have been what decided them to part with their cash for “Back To Front”.

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So, that’s the negatives done with. Let’s look at what is really special about this album. Firstly, that’s all the rest of the Commodores tracks, particularly “Easy”. How great a track is this? Penned by Richie and produced alongside James Anthony Carmichael, it is real laid-back sophisticated soul, stopped being totally as “easy as a Sunday morning” by one of the great guitar solos in a pop hit. There’s a great echoey feel to the whole thing. It’s one of the best not-out-of-Detroit Motown singles of all time. “Still” is also excellent and became their second US chart-topper in 1979 (in the UK#4) a real piece of calm amidst all the Disco that was released that year and sounding pretty much like a deep soul ballad with an orchestral backing. “Sail On” (1979 US#4 UK#8) perhaps underlines more than any of the others how close this group could go towards country music, and may have been behind the idea to have Richie work with country legend Kenny Rogers, this kind of musical boundary blurring quite unusual in the days of genre-specific radio play in the US. There’s a lovely build to this track.

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To launch his solo career Richie took producer James Anthony Carmichael with him and with him now penning much of the Commodres material it was really the smoothest of transitions to solo stardom as first solo hit “Truly” fits in perfectly with The Commodores ballad sound. Another calm ballad very much in the feel of “Still” with the build of “Sail On”. It was an unsurprising US Pop #1 and reached 6 in the UK in 1982.

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The album “Can’t Slow Down” was a clear statement at propelling Richie towards super-stardom. It fused musical styles ending up really as one of the early classic black pop albums and won the Grammy for the Album of The Year in 1985 and topped charts all around the world. The infectious “All Night Long (All Night)” proved that Richie wasn’t just a ballad singer but was also no longer the funk singer who snarled his way through “Brick House”. This was bright and breezy and intended for the masses and they loved it as it topped the US chats and got to number 2 in the UK. Its carnival feel ensured its worldwide success. Less showy but successful tracks from the album here included are “Penny Lover” (1984 US#8, UK#18), Stuck On You (US#3,UK#12) and the rock-lite of “Running With The Night” (US#7, UK#9) where a rock guitar which made “Easy” holds this track back .

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The third Richie solo album, “Dancing On The Ceiling” didn’t impress me nearly as much. The tracks included here, the title track, (1986 US#2, US#7) and “Say You Say Me” (US#1, UK#8) actually sound better now than they did at the time of release when I found one cheesy and one a little dull. Other single releases from the album, especially “Ballerina Girl” and “Sela” seemed to suggest Richie had lost his way somewhat as far as this record buyer was concerned. They are not included on “Back To Front” and led to a burnt out Richie beginning his extended break from recording and the public arena.

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Lionel Richie was not able to build on the success of this album and it was not until 1996, four years after this compilation and ten years after his last studio album that he re-emerged on the Mercury label with “Louder Than Words”. Over the years his subsequent albums have seen him toying with R&B and hip-hop influenced tracks with varying success. Nothing he has recorded since I would consider essential, although there was a triumphant return to form in 2012 when a back-to-his-country roots album “Tuskagee” topped the US charts marking his first Number 1 hit in 26 years. This revisited his hits alongside collaborations with country music stars including Shania Twain, Willie Nelson and with Kenny Rogers on a new version of “Lady” which helped catapult him into solo fame. This was too much country for me, but it was great to have him back in the limelight.

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Richie has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and features on lists of the biggest selling stars of all time. This album reminds us why.

 

Back To Front is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.85 and used from £0.05.  It can be downloaded for $7.89 .In the US it is available new from $12.11, Used from $0.08 and can be downloaded for $6.99.used for $3.00.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

100 Essential CDs – Number 44 – Pet Shop Boys – Bilingual

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Bilingual- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1996) 

   UK Chart Position – 4

      US Chart Position –39

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Studio album number 6 from the Pet Shop Boys missed out on a UK Top 3 chart position, something which the other five had achieved.  It’s an extraordinary fact because it was, as far as I was concerned, their fifth essential studio release in a row, and may just very well be my all-time favourite of their albums.

It had been three years since the release of the chart-topping “Very”.  In the meantime we had the second album of club dance remixes of tracks in “Disco 2” which reached number 6 and the fairly splendid if a little patchy double album of B-sides “Alternative” which reached number 2.  A tour of South America after the release of “Very” provided inspiration for this new release as many of the tracks are infused with a heavy measure of Latin flavour which gives them an extra joyfulness which always makes this CD a pleasure to listen to.  In 1996 its early autumn release brought back a little bit of fiesta sunshine into our lives.  Unusually, for the album’s original release all of the songs are written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.  The reinvention of a song not associated with them had been around since they hit chart pay-dirt with “Always On My Mind”.  (A deluxe edition of the CD was released the following year which contained the boys’ take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” which had given them a Top 10 hit single. I don’t think Tennant doing battle with Bernstein’s melody and Sondheim’s lyrics really fits into the concept of the album so we will stick with the original twelve tracks).  The album is produced by the Boys with assistance on some of the tracks from Chris Porter, US DJ Danny Tenaglia, and Paul Roberts and Andy Williams who better known as K-Klass had scored a Top 3 hit of their own in 1993 with club classic “Rhythm Is A Mystery.”

Danny Tenaglia & K-Klass

Much of this South-American influence can be found in opening track “Discoteca” in its Spanish chant “Hay una discoteca por aqui?” and complexity of multi-layered rhythms which with its keyboard refrain gives it a real richness of sound.  Neil is in questioning self-analytical mode which comes back to the repeated chant and which makes for a haunting, impressive opener.  The “Hawaii-5-O” type drums thunder their way straight into the next track which is one of the finest of all PSB singles and my favourite track on the album, the exciting “Single” which begins with its “I’m Single/Bilingual” refrain and eases its way into a song about the lone traveller on international business.  A tale of expense accounts, lonely hotel rooms and fax messages waiting at reception – “I come to the community from UK PLC “.  It has a great depth of sound to it, and with its musical references to the previous track provides a kind of flow which is unusual for a PSB album.  As a single the appropriately titled “Single” was the third released from the album and reached number 14 in the UK.  Neil’s still looking for that disco as the track ends and moves into the house-influenced  “Metamorphosis” which features sterling vocal work from Sylvia Mason-James.  It’s feels like an old style track as Neil delivers one of his impassive raps, which echoes tracks from the previous decade such as “Left To My Own Devices”, his “all about love/it’s a metamorphosis” does give me the same feeling of delight I had when he heard the distant feet of Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. This is the track that had production duties shared between Pet Shop Boys and K-Klass.

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“Electricity” is a slinkier track with its sampled female voice “What does it mean/What are you doing in San Francisco”.  It delightfully refers to one of the great neglected acts of the disco era “the greatest show with the best effects since Disco Tex and the Sex O Lettes”.  Flamboyant DJ Monti Rock III became Disco Tex in 1974 and scored with two odd-ball extravaganzas of Top 10 singles “Get Dancin’ “ (UK#8,US#10) and the even campier “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo (Doo Dat Dance) (UK#6, US#23).  The whole enterprise was a knowing nod towards self-aggrandisement, there was a lot of style (of a fashion) and not much real substance to the act.  I can’t imagine they had the greatest show and best effects so I’ve always taken that line ironically, although I’m sure that Disco Tex would have thought that he had the greatest show and best effects.  It’s a great line, but to be honest, like the best of the Sex O Lettes there’s not a great deal behind this track other than that repeated refrain.

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More joy follows and whoever says the Pet Shop Boys are just miserable needs a dose of “Se Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)” which continues the feel of the first two tracks, a Mardi Gras of a track, yet always more mid-tempo than I remember.  Single wise it was a top 10 hit (UK#8) released in August 1996 a month or so before the album.  It certainly gave us an appropriate taste for the album and who can’t warm to lyrics such as;

“Why do you want to sit alone in gothic gloom surrounded by the ghosts of love that haunt your room? Somewhere there’s a different door to open wide.  You gotta throw those skeletons out of your closet and come outside.”

Pass me those maracas, Neil!  It’s no surprise it was a Top 5 hit in Spain and also got the thumbs up in Finland, where the Boys were used to scoring high chart positions.  Things cool down for “It Always Comes As A Surprise” which starts off a little sounding like early Jamiroquai before turning into a pretty love song.  There’s none of the conflict of relationships in the previous albums.  It’s the sound of contentment in the early days of relationship “You smile and I am rubbing me eyes at a dream come true”.  Reading between the lines this may not be the most balanced of  partnerships.  There’s evidence that the other half is questioning and unwilling to be rushed into “love all night in your bedroom”, but at the moment things are all good for Neil.  Nice cool sax solo and the sophisticated Latin elegance is enhanced by a subtle sample from Brazilian bossa nova legend  Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado”.

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“Red Letter Day” is another of the anthemic “Go West” PSB tracks with a drum intro into the male choral voices.  I always like these sort of tracks from the Boys and this is up there with the best of them.  It was released as the fourth single from the album and it caused its own red letter day making chart history.  It probably isn’t the record they would have been hoping to break as it scored the biggest fall of a chart single on its second week in the chart to that date.  It came in at a respectable number 9 but the next week suffered a 33 place drop to fall outside the Top 40.  Bigger drops have been recorded since then but it seems that this single release was perhaps  of real interest to the fans who bought it in the week it came out.  Despite this unfortunate occurrence it is still a great track and fits in well on the album.

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“Up Against It” combines clever lyrics with a danceable tune, with once again the Latin feel percolating underneath.  “The Survivors” feels like it is taking us back to a wintry London in an unshowy ballad.  This leads into the track that was the biggest hit from the album “Before”.  Released over 4 months before the album it was good to hear it again in this new context.  It reached number 7 in the UK charts and made the Top 10 in Finland (again) and Sweden, amongst others.  It also scored the duo a Billboard Number 1 as it topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts.  Major commercial US hits had eluded the duo for over 8 years since the heady days of “Domino Dancing” (US#18 1988) their last big hit there to date. This is the first of the two tracks that had been worked on alongside Danny Tenaglia, the other being the disco joy of “Saturday Night Forever” which closes the album in magnificent style.  Before this there’s “To Step Aside” which benefits from a sample of what sounds a little like Native American singing, speeded up.  Another track which still sounds good twenty-one years later.

“Bilingual” was the last PSB album I would consider to be essential.  It’s not that they went off the boil from this point but this unprecedented run of five classic albums came to an end for me with their next release “Nightlife” (1999) which despite the storming “New York City Boy” and great titles such as “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” and “You Only Tell Me  You Love Me When You’re Drunk” didn’t feel quite as relevant as everything that had gone on before.  Albums such as “Fundamental”(2006)  and “Elysium” (2012) were solid rather than inspirational but they did notch up another first-class release with their 2009 CD “Yes”.  Their last album to date has been 2016’s hopefully titled “Super”.  As far as I am concerned any one of the albums I have featured as essential would have cemented the PSB’s place in pop music history but the twelve tracks they put out in 1996 might just inch ahead of  the greater commercial success of “Very” as their best.

Bilingual  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.14 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. In the US it is currently $10.38 new and used from $3.08 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 45 – Pet Shop Boys – Very

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Very- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1993) 

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position –45

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It felt like quite a long wait between 1990’s “Behaviour” and the release of this, the Pet Shop Boys fifth studio album.  In the meantime they had released a Singles Collection, “Discography” which had been a Top 3 album but there was still the feeling that they were getting a little disgruntled by things, including the sales of their last release which had a slightly different feel about it and which they considered to be up there with the best.

So this album when it arrived was perhaps more what you would expect, in fact, as suggested by the clever title it was “very” Pet Shop Boys and absence had made the heart grow fonder as it became their one and only UK number 1 album.  In the US it saw them back in the top 20 for the first time since their debut over seven years earlier and what is more, by giving the fans what they wanted the Boys came up with their fourth essential studio album in a row and their best album up to this point.

From here the boys start their retreat a little back from the limelight and let the music rather than images do the work for them.  The cover has no photos of the band but is wonderfully tactile, the chunk of orange plastic with raised bobbles on it, which seemed really quite daring at the time.  It’s sometimes referred to as “The Lego Cover” but not when the makers of that particular trademarked toy are around.  I’ve read somewhere that at the time they were thinking themselves too old to have the cover shots they might have wanted when they were younger so and came up with something that was a little surprising, a little tacky, a little arty but certainly “very” Pet Shop Boys. When the boys do appear in the artwork for this, they are somewhat disguised, for this is the era of PSB silly hats, half globes and pointy dunce caps which never really worked for them but probably entertained them at the time.

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The whole of Europe was won over once again.  Less subdued than its predecessor, the fans in 1993 wanted danceable tunes, sophisticated arrangements, tongue in cheek lyrics and probably some references to Neil’s coming out as gay which had also been confirmed in the gap between “Behaviour” and “Very”.  The album also topped the charts in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland and was a big seller in many other territories.  It was produced by the Pet Shop Boys with some help from old collaborator Stephen Hague.  All the songs were written by Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, apart from one cover version which also has a Brothers In Rhythm mix to help it up the singles charts.

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It kicks off with “Can You Forgive Her?” which had led the way as a single prior to the album release and reached number 7 in the UK charts.  The title was apparently spawned from the Trollope novel of the same name.  It’s a tale of humiliation, of waking from dreams in a cold sweat recalling an incident in a relationship where the male addressed to is made a fool of by his partner.  This man needs to get out of this relationship quick as he is being emasculated by her taunts;

“She’s made you some kind of laughing stock because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock. 

She made fun of you and even in bed said she was gonna go and get herself a real man instead.”

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Is it forgiveness or revenge that is on the cards?  It’s a good start but I like even more the second track “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing”.  Released as single number three, the first after the album’s release it reached number 13.  It’s a great stomping pop tune, joyful in its abandonment and contains the great lines;

I feel like taking all my clothes off dancing to The Rite of Spring and I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

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“Liberation” is a cool piece of mid-tempo with Love Unlimited rhythms and has a feel of the Style Council meets Barry White all imbued with a great Pet Shop Boysness.  It followed the previous track as a single and reached number 14 in the UK.  It builds beautifully and is a track I always love to hear, often forgetting how good it actually sounds.

The first of the tracks not to be released as a single is next and “A Different Point Of View” is a much more frantic affair from its brassy, electro intro.  The song is quite simple, this is a PSB track where the strength is in the production rather than the lyrics.  “Dreaming Of The Queen” sees the lyrics back into stronger focus and is a quirky tale of;

Dreaming of the Queen visiting for tea You and her and I and Lady Di  

It beautifully captures the surrealism of the dream, the unlikely protagonists, the sage words, the realisation of being naked in such esteemed company.  It’s a mid-tempo piece of fun, not the strongest on the album, but then this is a strong album.  The gears crank up again for “Yesterday When I Was Mad” which became the fifth and final single from the album and got to number 13 in the UK.  Neil “raps” the verse and sweeps it into a singalong chorus. It addresses the criticisms that seemed to hang around the group and is a glorious swipe at the music industry with strong lyrics such as ;

‘You have a certain quality which really is unique Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak It doesn’t really matter cause the music is so loud Of course it’s all on tape but no one will find out’

And;

Then we posed for pictures with the competition winners and argued about the hotel rooms and where to go for dinner and someone said: ‘It’s fabulous you’re still around today You’ve both made such a little go a very long way’

very7Top grade PSB track. The album moves nicely into the West End grandeur of “The Theatre” which features a choir.  I have no real idea what’s going on here but I like it and its very much in the mould of tracks such as “Suburbia” and “I’m Not Scared”.  It’s a tale of the haves and have nots, the juxtaposition of wealthy theatre-goers turning a blind eye to the homeless in the streets.  A more traditional house dance track follows with “One And One Make Five”.  It’s back to the lush, sophisticated midtempos for “To Speak Is A Sin”, a really attractive song which has the feel of the Minellis and the type of track they came up with when working with Liza.

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“Young Offender” has the feel of an arcade game in its lengthy intro, which smacks of dodgy amusement arcades playing Space Invaders.  Perhaps the track I’m the least excited about this album.  It is certainly a nod to Neil’s recently confirmed sexuality with its lyrics about an older man and the disaffected scally lad youth.

Will I get in your way or open your eyes? Who will give whom the bigger surprise?

“One In A Million” returns to the Europop feel in a song which really moves and builds well to a singalong chorus paving the way to the big hit from this album, another inspired cover version of the Village People’s number 15 hit from fourteen years earlier, “Go West”.

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I always thought the original was under-rated ,  a great example of call and response over a disco beat which the Village People could do so well.  On Neil and Chris’ version there’s seagulls squawking, an electronic voiced choir which manages to sound both Russian and like a Welsh male voice choir and the whole thing is resplendent in its over the top Pet Shop Boys feel.  Neil’s vocal is certainly impassive compared to the original and it actually gives the song a whole new level.  It’s camp, yes, but totally splendid and probably eclipses the original.  It certainly did sales-wise when as it reached number 2 in the UK charts, their highest chart position for five years.  It became a number 1 single in Finland, which certainly was a good market for the Boys at this time and also topped the charts in Ireland and Germany and saw Top 5 placings in countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden  and Switzerland.  The Pet Shop Boys were back.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by “hidden tracks” which were quite prevelant at this time and when we began burning our CDs onto MP3 players caused minutes of emptiness.  You have to wait a good few minutes for the one minute fifteen “I Believe In Ecstasy” an attractive enough soundscape of a track but I really wish they hadn’t bothered because “Go West” is in itself the perfect way to end “Very”.   They first performed the song live  at an AIDS benefit set up by film-maker and PSB collaborator Derek Jarman at The Hacienda in Manchester and was originally intended for a non-album release single which didn’t happen as the Brothers In Rhythm mix fitted perfectly into the concept for this CD.

This was a return to form commercially for the Pet Shop Boys and a great album which still sounds so today.

 

Behaviour  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99and used from £3.47. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $8.99 new and used from $1.98 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 91 – Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour

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Behaviour- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1990) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position –45

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With the release of “Behaviour” in late October 1990 the Pet Shop Boys found themselves with a healthy dose of critical approval.  Contemporary reviewers were keen to point out a move away from the club-dance of “Introspective” to a more subtle use of wider pop music references and high quality lyric writing.  Despite its early 1990’s issue it was still considered relevant enough to appear on a number of Best Albums of the Decade list at the turn of the century and is featured in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die publication.  Commercially it became the third PSB album in a row to peak at number 2 in the album charts although it disappeared off the sales charts in a fraction of the time of the previous two (14 weeks).  Its US Top 50 placing pales against the number 7 platinum release of their debut.

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By this time they had proved themselves as a viable live act and an account of their tour in Japan and the UK had been documented by writer Chris Heath and published earlier in 1990 as “Pet Shop Boys, Literally” which is one of the greatest books about British pop music of all time and which features as one of my 100 Essential Books.  The album’s lack of chart longevity compared to previous releases rankled with the duo who felt it to be one of their best releases.  Neil Tennant has claimed that the extended 12” mixes of tracks on “Introspective” had lost them some of the fans who would have bought “Behaviour” if it had been the follow-up album to “Actually”.  I personally have always had a bigger soft spot for “Introspective”, but this release was their third essential recording in a row- a feat I think unprecedented on my 100 CD’s list up to this point.

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The album is produced by the boys alongside Munch’s Harold Faltermeyer, a man well known on the Disco scene since the mid 70’s when he was involved with arrangements and productions alongside Giorgio Moroder for artists such as Donna Summer.  From the early 80s he had become involved in movie soundtracks, giving him his own UK/US Top 3 single in 1985 with “Axel F” from the big selling “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack.  Given the producer it is a little surprising that for probably the first time on a Pet Shop Boys album the biggest and best tracks are not the out and out dance tracks.  Maybe the experience of working with Broadway Legend Liza Minelli the previous year on tracks such as the slowed down “Rent” inspired a more theatrical less frenetic feel.

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The album kicks off with the dance-orientated “Being Boring” which has a lengthy introduction with what sounds like one of those tubes children used to whirl around to make a sound.  “Being Boring” was something the PSB were unfairly accused of in the music press and this track might have fuelled that.  As the second single off the album it became their least successful single in their five years of hits when it stalled at number 20 in the UK.  It’s actually really a cleverly written song using that of looking back to those “bright young things” moments of our youth.  Coming across “a cache of old photos/and invitations to teenage parties” gets the mature Neil recalling the past.  The song moves through times from leaving home in the 70s, to the present day when “All the people I was kissing/Some are here and some are missing/ in the 1990s.  Neil’s rather deadpan delivery recalling times when “we were never being boring” suggests there’s a touch of ennui in the present with some significant other not being present or having become less significant.  Neil has said it is a song about a friend who moved to London with him when they were teenagers and who died from AIDS.  That sense of loss comes across well.

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Neil and Chris with the bright young things of the “Being Boring” video

 

“This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave” sounds like it would have been a great track for the Boys to do with Liza Minelli had a second album happened.  I would love to hear how she would have dealt with the first line of the verse “Each morning/After Sunblest”.  Can’t see her as a sliced white bread girl myself.  There’s also “kneeling on the parquet” which would have been fabulous laden with Minelli-type drama.  Fitting “Behaviour” into the context of the times there would have been two occurrences that could only have influenced this album – the spread of AIDS and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  A  threat of a return to tyranny is used here both in a public school setting and with its Russian background voices, the escape from repressive communism.   “To Face The Truth” is a tale of unrequited love which brings into sharper focus the sense of melancholy that simmers throughout the album.

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“How Can You Expect To Be Seriously” sees the Pet Shop Boys taking New Jack Swing elements and using it to attack the established rock music industry.  Slightly heavier guitar riffs seem to indicate the direction the lyrics are meant to apply to.  The rock and roll lifestyle has become big business and “you live within the headlines and everyone can see/ you’re supporting every new cause and meeting royalty.”  Maintaining credibility amongst all this seems to be the point there and I’ve always felt it was Neil and Chris taking a swipe at bands such as U2, a point further taken on when they combined the group’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for a cheesily effective medley and got to number 4 in the singles charts in 1991.  The fact that it was a double A sided single with this very track from “Behaviour” shows the point the boys wished to make.

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This would be the last Pet Shop Boys album that I would buy on vinyl and the closing track on Side 1 “Only The Wind” rounds things off nicely.  It’s a calm song which hides an inner turmoil of violent anger. So far, this has been a solidly but not classic Pet Shop Boys album.  The second side ups the quality considerably with a couple of tracks that rank with their best.

“My October Symphony” is a gem of a track and one of those which marks the duo’s passage from pop artists to having lasting potential.  It’s full of class and sophistication.  We’re on political territory here again reflecting the changes in Russian society since the loosening of the repressive regime all filtered through a classy, swirling melody with some lovely string work arranged by Alex Balanescu and played by his Quartet.

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From the “So Hard” video

The lead single from the album “So Hard” feels most like it is a natural successor from the “Introspective” and “Actually” albums with its driving intro, wry lyrics and sing-along feel over club beats.  We can also hear here the lessons the boys taught Liza Minelli with Losing My Mind.  In interviews she was always keen to say that Neil taught her to enunciate the “d” sound in Mind as a “t”, but it sounded like it and here it does sound as if Neil is singing “you make it so heart” which actually brings back memories of their  chart-topping “Heart” track, which it also resembles it a little.  It’s a song about lack of trust and suspicion which is making a relationship impossible;

“You lock your letters in a box

And hide the key.

I go one better- I’m indebted

To a contact magazine”

Great lyrics here.  Released around a month before the album “So Hard” got to number 4 in the UK charts.  It became another big international hit reaching number 1 in Finland,  number 2 in Italy, Spain and Switzerland and a top 10 hit in, amongst other markets, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Norway and Poland.  Their big hit US days were behind them as they were no longer attracting much US radio airplay.

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Another great track follows “Nervously” feels like a highlight track from “Pet Shop Boys- the Broadway Musical”. It’s a tale of a sensitive male finding a like-minded soul.  Nothing is made explicit but this is perhaps the boldest attempt yet to open the closet door, at a time when being gay was not good for careers in public eye and media hysteria over AIDS was rampant.  This gentle, beautiful song feels like perhaps their most radical statement to date.  Both this track and “My October Symphony” have been on my I-Pod since I first loaded songs onto it.  “The End Of The World” is good PSB electro-pop which saves another great track to round things off- and it’s another ballad.

“Jealousy” was the fourth single taken from the album and reached number 12 in the UK and made the Top 10 in Ireland and Finland.  In many ways it is the other side of the coin from the club track “So Hard” where the indiscretions are half-hidden, almost for the other to discover, but here the jealousy of one partner becomes all-consuming in the mantra “Where’ve you been? Who you’ve been? You didn’t phone when you said you would?”  Such neurosis flows through the calm-sounding song which then explodes into a brass band ending which is just terrific and feels like a fitting finale as harps swoop.  This was apparently the first song that Chris and Neil wrote together and they held back from recording it because they wanted Ennio Morricone to arrange it for release.  That didn’t happen and now on the fourth album of their career it appears with Harold Faltermeyer at the helm.  It fits in well with all that has gone before and is an ideal closer.

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With “Behaviour” the duo had left the club scene behind a little and produced perhaps their most rounded pop album.  The fact that it didn’t sell as well as expected caused them to redress the balance a little the next time out.  Although I like other Pet Shop Boys albums better there is enough here for me to consider it another one of their essential releases.

 

Behaviour  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.48 and used from £0.45. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $29.98 new and used from $0.38 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 51 – Pet Shop Boys – Introspective

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Introspective- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1988) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -34

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Just over a year after their essential “Actually” Pet Shop Boys released their third studio album.  It featured just six tracks giving them a chance to explore more extended dance-orientated material.  It was a bit of a risk, commercially, with buyers probably looking for value for money and with fans being likely to own at least one of the tracks already released as a single, but it paid off with another double platinum album in the UK, becoming worldwide not just their biggest selling album up to this time but their best.

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“Introspective’s ” concept  was to put out what were in essence 12” mixes on one album.  The tracks that were released as singles were put out in shorter formats.  The title refers to the lyrics as in reality musically, these were certainly not introspective as they were out and out dance tracks.  On paper it might have seem rather hastily put together, and was hot on the heels of “Actually” which was still selling at the time of this follow-up’s release.  Three of the tracks had been recorded by other artists, one had been a B side of a previous PSB single and only two were produced specifically for the album.  It does, however, work magnificently and bringing in Trevor Horn for production duties lead to an over-the-topness which lays beautifully alongside the occasionally quite sombre lyrics.

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Trevor Horn (a little earlier than his work with PSB)

The opening track sets the tempo and feel of the album magnificently.  “Left To My Own Devices is grandiose from its first notes- a violin sweep to a full orchestra with an operatic female voice singing what sounds remarkably like the word “arse” before the club beat kicks in.  This was the first time the PSB worked with a full orchestra. Both musically and lyrically this is superb.  The full-to-the-gills production cuts into Neil’s impassive rap and lyrics such as;

I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy

In a world of my own at the back of the garden

I didn’t want to compete, or play out on the street

For in a secret life I was a Roundhead general.

The song is perhaps best remembered for its mid section when after  a particularly lively orchestral flourish it empties out for Neil’s spoken;

I was faced with a choice at a difficult age

Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?

But in the back of my head I heard distant feet

Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat

 These four lines seem to sum up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys to me.  The questioning outsider keeping their options open with the urge to be just fabulous.  For those of us who hear Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, I salute you!

From this point in the track the orchestral arrangement builds further in this stunning Trevor Horn/Stewart Lipson production which sounds all at the same time like classical music, movie theme and a great disco track.  It’s eight minutes and sixteens seconds of unadulterated pleasure.  Harps and handclaps compete before the opera voice returns.  It all builds to a rousing climax and can only be really finished off with a thunderstorm.   This track reputedly took months to produce and listening to it you can tell why.  As an edited single it reached number 4 in the UK charts, but you really need to hear the whole thing.  It did slightly better in Ireland where it reached the top 3 and made the top 10, in amongst other markets, Finland, Germany, Poland and Spain.

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“I Want A Dog” had seen life as the B-side to the single “Rent” but here is extended to six minutes and fifteen seconds in a Frankie Knuckles remix.  It’s a song about someone, who, basically, wants a dog.  There’s a yearning for company throughout which always pulls at the heart-strings perhaps exemplified by the line “When I get back to my small flat/I want to hear somebody bark”. It could be trite if it wasn’t a kicking house track set up by its lengthy instrumental introduction. In fact the first line almost seems like an anti-climax after what has been building up, but you’re soon sucked into the song.  “Don’t want a cat/scratching its claws all over my Habitat”. I’ve always taken that last word to refer to furniture bought at the shop of the same name, hence the capital letter. It’s not my favourite track on the album but it always brings about a poignant smile.

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“Domino Dancing” is the second of the two tracks recorded specifically for the album and was also the second single released prior to the album’s release.  There’s a great Latin flavour in this track from the keyboard work.  Once again this is the longer 7 mins 40 version of the song which as a single reached number 7 in the UK charts.  That Latin flavour got the thumbs up from Spain where it topped the charts as it did in Finland and made the Top 5 in amongst other regions, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland and became their last Top 20 US hit reaching number 18.  An autumn release may explain its slightly muted response in the UK as it feels like a heat of the summer track, released a month or so earlier this could have captured the feel of the holiday season.  Mixed with Wham’s “Club Tropicana” you’d taste the Pina Colada and smell the Ambre Solaire.

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It’s off to the parade for a marching band intro to “I’m Not Scared” which had already done the business earlier in 1988 when the version by Patsy Kensit led Eighth Wonder became their biggest hit reaching number 7 in the UK.  Lyrically, I have no idea. there’s actors on the street and that dog Neil wanted two tracks ago seem to be about to attack. There’s an unreal urban sense of menace to this track which is just a little scary and on the PSB version the sound of jackboots marching in the street is pervasive and a little chilling.

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Eighth Wonder

 Cover version next and it’s a great one.  Released as a single this became the Christmas number one of 1987 released in the midst of the tracks from their previous album and taken from the PSB movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” which I’ve covered in my review of “Actually”. “Always On My Mind” is a slightly cheesy song which is perfect fare anyway for the boys but here it’s toughened by slipping into “In My House” an extended house workout.  Another track which is really sublime in its full length version- here its comes in just over nine minutes.  The edited single also topped the charts in Canada, Finland, Gemany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  It is one of the duo’s biggest ever singles worldwide and in 2014 in a BBC poll was voted the best cover version of all time.

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Album closer “It’s Alright” is at nine minutes 24 the PSB’s longest ever album track, and truth be told, it does go on a bit.  It’s another cover version this time of a Chicago House track recorded by Sterling Void which the boys heard on a compilation album.  The original, produced by legendary House producer Marshall Jefferson did become a small hit once “Introspective” was released (#53 teamed as a double A Side with “Runaway Girl”).  The Trevor Horn production on the CD is impressive but by this time this listener is beginning to feel that he has over-indulged slightly on the club sounds (not that bad a thing to happen, but slight rhythm fatigue is setting in by this point).  As a UK single it reached number 5 and made the Top 3 in Germany and Ireland.  It’s an optimistic, reassuring end to what have been some quite sombre moments lyrically on the album but it lacks the magic of some PSB lyrics to put it amongst their greatest tracks.

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I think the reason I love this album so much is its combination of PSB disaffection with a more strident production sense than we had ever heard before.  The group are morphing from a bedroom based recording duo to a pair who can take all musical forms in their stride and give it the Pet Shop Boys feel.  It really is “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, but it is also a lot more and from this release you can appreciate that these boys would be able to go on to score movies and write operas.  It’s arty, accessible, exhausting and great fun.  This would be their second but not their last essential release.

The chosen video is for the single mix of “Left To My Own Devices”.  You’ll have to dig out the album version to hear the opera woman sing “arse”!

 

Introspective  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99 and used from £0.72. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $16.99 new and used from $1.99 and as a download for $11.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

My 400th Blog Post – A What You’ve Been Reading Special

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Today reviewsrevues hits the big 400 (thank you wordpress for letting me know, I wasn’t keeping count!).  Since my 300th celebration I’ve moved house and changed jobs but thankfully I’ve still been able to find the time for the reading and reviewing.  I am probably increasingly reading more new books, certainly far more than I was when I started the site.  Thank you to the publishers that have supported me and please keep those book parcels coming! I like to celebrate these big milestones by having a look at what you have been reading.  I did my last retrospective at the end of 2016  and then set the dials back to zero. So, what has been attracting the most attention in the last six months? 400 posts so top 3’s in 4 sections –  Books- Recent publications ;  Books-Back catalogue; CDs and TV. Here goes … (clink on the titles for the full reviews)

Books- Recent Publications

3. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (2016)

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Posted in my 100 Essential Books thread at the end of January, I am delighted to see people want to read about this book as it is still going to be one of the strong challengers for my Book Of The Year.  I’ve been recommending it like mad at the libraries where I work and the feedback from those who have followed my advice has all been positive, both from Jodi Picoult fans and those, like me, who have chosen to start their Picoult experience with this book.  Just yesterday a lady told me it would be a book she would “remember for a long, long time”.  Great praise.

2. When We Rise – Cleve Jones (2017)

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American gay activist’s account of life in San Francisco in the 1970’s/80’s. I posted this review in March.  I was told that Cleve appeared on “Newsnight” this week and had been surprised that his book was attracting a good general readership.  The six part TV series made of this book written by Dustin Lance Black has not yet appeared in the UK.  (I took out a Netflix subscription thinking it was on there but it isn’t.  There are rumours that Channel 4 have bought it).  When that is shown sales of this book will continue to soar.

1.A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (2016)

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Posted in April.  Masters’ non-fiction work is about a discovery of a large number of diaries found dumped in a skip.  Part biography, part detective work, I am going to continue to say nothing about the subject of this book and urge you to read it- a lot of you seem to want to know about it, making it the most read review in the recent publications category.

Books – The Back Catalogue (Older publication dates)

3. The Noel Coward Diaries – Edited by Graham Payn & Sheridan Morley (1982)

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I posted this back in May 2015 and yet it is really only this year that it has been attracting this much attention, showing that perhaps Sir Noel is coming back into vogue.  This is one of my 100 Essential Reads and if you fancy spending close to thirty years in the company of this fascinating man this is a must-read.

2. Motown: The History – Sharon Davis (1988)

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I’d read Sharon Davis’ Motown based column in “Blues and Soul” magazine for years and this book is a thorough study of the label from a British point of view.  I posted this back in November 2015 and once again it has been a slow burner which has taken off this year.  I have Davis’ biography of disco pioneer Sylvester on my To Be Read list.  Seeing the popularity of this makes me think I should get that read.

1.SS-GB- Len Deighton (1978)

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Posted in February this year there has been significantly more interest in my review of this, the book, than the BBC 1 Sunday night adaptation.  To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced by either.  I think the book has dated rather and doesn’t live up to the premise of an alternative history of  London just after the Nazis won the war,  but this is my most read review in the older books category.

CDs

3. Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (2000)

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Posted in May this is Kylie’s finest hour, a culmination of the pop princess, the disco queen and consummate entertainer.  Rated number 34 in my Essential CD list.

2. Very Best Of Kathy Kirby (1997)

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Posted in October 2016 is number 79 in my Essential CDs. I claimed in my review that this was one of my guilty pleasures, but now so many of you have read the review I don’t need to feel guilty about one of the great under-rated artists in 60’s pop.

1.Let’s Groove – The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (1996)

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Since it was posted in October 2015 this has consistently been the most read CD review and things have been no different this year.  It just shows how loved this group was around the world.  Number 30 in my 100 Essential CD list.

TV

3. Roots – BBC4 (2017)

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The high standard was maintained throughout this re-make of the classic TV series.  It feels valid to question why it was re-made but if it brought home the issues raised to a new generation then it was very important that it was.  It lacked the impact of the original which had everybody talking about it when it was first shown but it had good performances, high production values and was equally compulsive viewing. I posted this review in February.

2. Jamestown – Sky 1 (2017)

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the first episode of this (too) glossy historical drama “from the makers of Downton Abbey” when it appeared on Sky 1 in May.  The tale of “maids to make wives” in Seventeenth century Virginia wasn’t without promise.  Here’s a post-review confession, I only ever watched the first episode.  The rest were series-linked in my planner but when it came down to it I didn’t feel the need to watch any more.

1.The Level – ITV1 (2016)

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I posted this review in October after the first episode.  By the third episode this was my most read review ever, something which has continued ever since.  It actually kept me watching the series.  This Brighton-based series had finished before the start of 2017 and yet this year it is over 500 reads ahead of its nearest rival.  In 2016 it finished 1300 away from the number 2 read.  This seems to be the review that is bringing new visitors onto reviewsrevues.com.  Long may it last.

Just writing about these 12 most read out of the 400 reviews has got me recognising that you readers out there like a bit of variety.  There’s quite a range in these twelve reviews alone. It’s part of the fun that keeps me guessing as I’m never sure when I’m posting what will attract the biggest audiences and the continuing readership of “The Level” from countries around the globe has me a little bewildered as the series did not seem to make that much of an impression when it was on TV- but it’s clearly the reviewsrevues readers’ favourite.  Right, it’s heads down now and onwards to the 500.

Many thanks to all of you who take the time to read my ramblings and those of you who feel motivated enough to comment on what you read.  That’s a huge thank-you to my Big 5 commenters who have stimulated thought and conversation on here – that’s Kay Carter, Monika, Fiction Fan, Geoffrey Valentine and Cleopatra Loves Books.  Keep on reading……………..

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 71 – Pet Shop Boys – Actually

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Actually- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1987) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -25

British National Treasures Pet Shop Boys found them ascending, after a couple of false starts, to the top of both the UK and US singles charts with their debut hit single “West End Girls”.  This was a 1985 re-recording of a track that had been out the previous year which had attracted attention in the clubs.  Their second release “Opportunites (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” also had to wait for a 1986 remix to make number 11 in the UK and 10 in the US.  A debut album aimed to install politeness to the record-buying generation, ensuring that they asked for “Pet Shop Boys Please” reached number 3 in the UK and 7 in the US.  It was a solid release, the best track for me being the third single “Suburbia”- a delightful piece of PSB nonsense which got to number 8 in the UK  (and went Top 3 in, amongst other territories,  Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and Switzerland).

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My real love affair with PSB started with this, their second studio album. I’d bought both “Please” and “Disco” their first collection of remixes which was released in 1986 and reached 15 in the UK album charts but with this album they upped a gear into the Essential Releases category.  It would be their first top class release but by no means their last nor their very best.  I may be going Pet Shop Boys for quite a little while with these reviews so let’s see what makes this particular album so good.

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The CD contains ten tracks, four of these were released as singles with two reaching UK number 1, one reached number 2 and one number 8.  In the US one single reached number 2 another number 9. There were also chart-topping singles for them in amongst other markets, Austria, Germany, Finland, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  The tracks are all written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, three in collaboration with other writers and they took production credits for three of the ten tracks alongside other producers, here still learning their craft.

The opening track “One More Chance” was written alongside Bobby Orlando, who had already had a part to play with their career.  The Boys hero worshipped this American producer who as Bobby O was a leading light in the Hi NRG dance music scene, which was by the mid 80’s a staple in gay clubs.  He recorded on a number of different dance labels, under a range of names, although quite often the tracks featured just Orlando himself.  He also produced for artists like drag superstar Divine and girl group The Flirts whose 1982 club hit “Passion” was a huge favourite of Chris and Neil’s.  A trip to interview Orlando when Neil was working with “Smash Hits” led to a request for the duo to record with him- the result being the original (non-hit) version of “West End Girls”.  Bobby O is back with the song-writing credits with “One More Chance” which had originally been the group’s second single three years before this album’s release and had appeared without success on a number of labels around the world.  For “Actually” it was re-recorded with additional lyrics by Chris and produced by Julian Mendelsohn.

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Bobby Orlando

A mood-setting introduction of screeching brakes leads into a street-bound paranoid love song.  A tale of one who is “chained/framed” and is begging for a chance to continue what seems like an unhealthy, obsessive relationship, all of this over crashing club beats.  It’s a good opener.

The most talked about track on the album follows next.  By 1987 arguably the greatest British female singer of all time had been in the musical wilderness and not featured on a top 40 hit for 19 years.  However the Dusty Springfield, PSB collaboration came about it was a stroke of genius.  Neil has often spoken of the painstaking way Dusty liked to record- the ultimate perfectionist, often to the detriment of her career and certainly her peace of mind.  “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” reached number 2 in both the UK and US just before the release of the album.  The crowning moment is when Dusty, initially a little lost in the mix with Neil in the verse comes in with her  “Since you went away/I’ve been hanging around” section.  It makes me breathe out and think “Dusty’s back!”.  And she was back as they collaborated again on “Nothing Has Been Proved” a track appropriately from the 60’s set movie “Scandal” as well as tracks on her number 18 1990 album “Reputation”, a recording which saw Dusty’s first Top 20 studio album for 25 years.  It also paved the way for other collaborations including one of my other Essential CD’s “Results” by Liza Minelli.

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“Shopping” is a bit of fun fluff examining the consumerism of the 80’s, “I heard it in the House Of Commons/Everything’s For Sale”.  It’s very much the “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” of this album.  I don’t know how seriously you can take songs with spellings (“D.I.V.O.R.C.E”& “D.I.S.C.O” being further evidence of this.)  Classic track “Rent” is up next and this is one that features on two of my Essential albums (Liza Minelli’s version on “Results” turns it into a Broadway ballad).  Here it’s faster and gentler than Liza’s and may very well be the first hit single to imply male prostitution or sugar daddy-ism,  but whatever it is Neil is quite happy with the arrangement; “We never ever argue/We never calculate the currency we spent/ I love you/ You pay my rent”.  Great lyrics.  The song reached number 8 as the third single from the album.

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“Hit Music” is a dance track, with nothing deeper in the lyrics than to have a good time.  Music as escapism and works well enough as that.  I’ve always had a big soft spot for the ballad which follows next.  “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and is written by the Boys alongside movie score supremo Ennio Morricone.  It comes from another surprising venture for the boys, a now pretty much forgotten feature film of the same name released in 1988.  The film starred Chris and Neil alongside Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt and joined the vast pile of British film starring pop stars which are just plain odd.  The surrealness of the movie didn’t really work.  The resume of it on IMD goes “A young boy’s holiday at a seaside resort includes a crazy blind priest, nuns in suspenders and a whole bunch of fat ladies”.  Enough said.   The song on “Actually” is actually quite lovely, a big sweeping ballad which certainly extended PSB beyond the dance music boundaries.  Another track taken from the soundtrack following the release of the film, the Boys’ version of the Elvis Presley hit “Always On My Mind” eased its way to the top of the UK charts between singles number 2 and 3 from “Actually” and was the 1987 Christmas Number 1.

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It’s to “Actually’s” big hit next, a number 1 single which preceded the release of the album.  “It’s A Sin” is amongst the best of PSB tracks of all time and was their first really great single.  Full of Catholic guilt, the single was helped by a memorable video directed by radical film-making genius Derek Jarman, the first of a number of collaborations with the boys.  The whole theme of the song resonated with the world’s record buying public as it topped the chart in at least 10 countries, ascending to the top in both Catholic and Protestant nations.  In the US it was their third top 10 hit reaching number 9.

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Sandwiched between credible but not totally memorable dance track “I Want To Wake Up” produced by PSB with Shep Pettibone and the under-rated album closer slowie “King’s Cross” with its somewhat obscure, strangely poignant lyrics is “Heart” a track which, when released as single number 4 from the album some seven months after “Actually’s” arrival somewhat surprisingly topped the UK charts – becoming their fourth and to this date final chart-topping UK single.  It was accompanied by a video featuring Ian McKellan as a vampire.  Less showy than their previous number 1’s, it is a great Hi-NRG track, although in interviews the duo have tended to dismiss it on occasions.  The feelings I get from “King’s Cross” may still have something to do with the shocking fire at the tube station just a couple of months after the album was released which killed 31 people- Neil sings of “the dead and wounded on either side”, which can have nothing to do with the fire and yet, because this album was still pretty much on  constant rotation at the time of the tragedy it is still linked in my mind.

“Heart” Record sleeve and on set with Ian McEwan

With sales of over 4 million and appearances in books such as “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” “Actually” cemented the global reputation of Pet Shop Boys.  Its variety, the quality of the songwriting, the big hit singles and Dusty Springfield makes this an essential CD.

Actually  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.50 and used from £0.74. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $11.36 new and used from $4.17 and as a download for $9.99.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.