For The Record #5 – Hitsville U.K. / Watching The Detectives / The Head On The Door LP

Strangely, my Dad has bought another old stereo stack (as he did in my first For The Record article) which my Mum rightly declared his ‘new toy’ having played, after only owning the stack for a few hours, half of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope and introducing me to Basement 5, who weren’t too shabby at all…

This is, of course, another opportunity for me to annex the living room and play my records. As I write this introduction, ‘New Big Prinz’ by The Fall is being thumped out the speakers, killing all Christmas sterility and calm that is always lovingly embraced by my parents.

This article features three bands I have only ever made passing references to. I consider myself (in no particular order) to adore one, very much like another and have an appreciation for the third.

Hitsville U.K. B/W Radio One – The Clash & Mikey Dread

I love The Clash immensely; they were my favourite band until I got into The Fall and offer just about every genre you could possibly ask for across their existence. ‘Straight To Hell’ is one of my favourite songs of all time, and there is never a time when they’re excluded from regular listening.

However, I’ve refrained from writing about The Clash for the entirety of the blog for a number of reasons. One being that talking too much about traditional punk left me stumbling over myself in terms of vocabulary, another is the fact that I own very little Clash vinyl, but the main one being that it’s so easy to write about The Clash.

By this, I mean that I think just about everything that needs to be said has been said about them by practically everyone. The only way I could write about them was to write about (probably) their least mentioned and least favoured single by both their fan base and the generic media tributes that come their way, which usually feature ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ or ‘Rock The Casbah’, both of which do very little for me in terms of enjoyment.

What gives this single a twist is that the B-side is by reggae artist Mikey Dread, a longtime friend of The Clash who magnificently produced the album which ‘Hitsville’ features on, Sandinista!, which is perhaps my favourite Clash album, though this title does change on an hourly basis.

‘Hitsville’ has always been a song that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, both as an album track and a single. At a Strummerville benefit (previously mentioned in my Joe Strummer article) it seemed to me that I was the only one who enjoyed its showing, so much so that my singing-along earned a look of positive acknowledgment from the singer Catherine Popper.

On the album, it follows classic opener ‘The Magnificent Seven’, and offsets the intensity of its predecessor very nicely, led by a jaunty bassline combined with soft, female vocals, sang by Mick Jones’ then-girlfriend Ellen Foley.

The song is about the growing indie scene in the UK as the 1980s commenced – I’m not sure if it’s a criticism of it, or just an observation, but I’m fairly convinced it’s probably a satirical response to the disapproval they received after controversially signing with CBS.

It’s got a comfortable soul-pop-rock vibe, and runs its course very gently while backed by the piss-taking lyrics about using ‘stolen guitars’ or releasing records ‘without the slightest hope of one thousand sales’.

To me, it seems a little hypocritical of the left-leaning Clash to brag about the number of sales they make with their records, though this doesn’t bother me enough to spit out my tea and shout ‘Champagne London socialists!’, buy the latest issue of The Morning Star and start growing an unfashionably large beard.

The song doesn’t offer much in terms of variation, but, for what it is, is a solid offering of experimentation from The Clash. I understand why the punk purists wouldn’t like it – it’s a little bit clean and soft, but to depart from the critical acclaim of London Calling into an abyss of improvisation in Sandinista!, and for it to receive the praise it did, is remarkable in itself.

The B-side is interesting. I had a mini phase with Mikey Dread about a year ago, which coincided with a rediscovery of Junior Murvin. As I recall, I listened to one album of Dread’s, which I’m pretty sure I enjoyed.

His number ‘Radio One’ kicks off with some radio static before a soft, ascending riff and into a simple but effective reggae beat. The lyrics appear to centre around the idea that reggae doesn’t get the airtime it deserves as DJs ‘have no idea, not even a clue/Of how reggae was created by me and by you’.

In truth, it’s nothing special. It’s quite a tinny production as reggae goes – there’s a severe lack of heavy bass, though this judgement may be due to my preference for dub.

I can’t claim to know about reggae as a whole, and I’m probably one of those reviewers who doesn’t ‘get’ reggae, but I can imagine it got very little coverage in the British music media around 1981, so Dread probably has a point. However, this isn’t one his strongest moments, nor is it a particularly bad one. I see it as The Clash helping out a mate, more than anything.

As a whole, a mostly positive showing from the grooves, though The Clash ultimately triumph over their producer.

A-Side: 4/5   B-Side: 2.5/5   Sleeve: 3/5

Watching The Detectives B/W Blame It On Cain + Mystery Dance – Elvis Costello

‘Watching The Detectives’ was my introduction to Elvis Costello via my Spotify discover playlist. I generally approve of Costello, some of the 1980s stuff is a bit too 80s, but his first three albums are absolutely stunning. ‘Shipbuilding’, known more for its Robert Wyatt cover than anything else, is an absolute masterpiece in my eyes.

And so is ‘WTD’. It doesn’t get much better than this, does it? It probably doesn’t get much more misleading to an artist’s sound – as far as I’m aware, he doesn’t really play around with reggae at all after this release.

It’s a very moody, intense song, complimented by Costello’s almost scathing vocals. Every instrumental part is simply perfect. They’re all very sparse, the quiet scratchy guitar, the slow, nearly solitary drums, but it’s a showcase of expertise in musical texture and production.

I think what is great about this song is the way the angry, powerful parts feature in the first half of the song – the reluctant rage comes close to all-out anger, but is never fully recognised. The final minute and a half or so, meanwhile, becomes an instrumental conversation; it’s a gentle simmering of emotion compared to the brashness of the previous minutes.

‘Blame It On The Cain’ is a very pleasant song, fronted by a bluesy chord sequence and a swinging drum groove before entering a fairly powerful chorus. As a whole, you can definitely nod your head to it, and Costello’s vocals are very strong. It’s very easy listening that offers a nice introduction to the usual Costello offering without the burden of generic commercialism. One of the stronger B-sides I’ve reviewed so far.

‘Mystery Dance’ is much more blatant in its taking of the blues formula, and sounds a bit plastic-50s, in my opinion. It’s certainly strong, but perhaps veering away from blues on the B-sides would’ve been somewhat more satisfying. In fairness, it certainly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, clocking in at one minute thirty-six seconds. It’s decent, but nothing to shout about.

Overall, a very listenable single indeed.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side 1: 3.5/5   B-Side 2: 2/5   Sleeve: 3/5

The Head On The Door LP – The Cure 

For me, The Cure are one of those artists that can be so utterly fantastic yet, at times, so difficult. The ‘difficult’ bits for me are 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and post-Wish 1990s output, which I’ve found so forgettable and throwaway.

However, they still remain true innovators of their time, and also one of my favourite artists. I think they’re similar to the likes of The Fall, New Order or Public Image Ltd in continuously changing their sound and toying around with all ideas of genre and difference to generally high levels of success.

The Head On The Door, I feel, is a materialisation of a mostly consistent sound after the hit-and-miss experimentation seen in 1983’s Japanese Whispers and 1984’s somewhat forgettable The Top (which, incidentally, holds one of my favourite Cure songs of all time, ‘Dressing Up’). It also saw Smith become a much more romantically-driven lyricist, which is backed up by the more than melancholic instrumental accompaniments to the mournful croons and cries.

The most obvious feature of THOTD, however, is the singles. Never had The Cure been so accessible and commercial in their existence.

And it’s the lead single which gloriously kicks off the album with one of the most iconic drum fills and introductions of the 1980s. ‘Inbetween Days’ is an objective piece of total brilliance. The main hook, the pacey acoustic guitar and the longing lyrics are simply magnificent. It’s a thumping, timeless classic.

We receive the final ‘Without you’ from Smith, before being welcomed by one of the less iconic drum fills and introductions of the 1980s. ‘Kyoto Song’ is certainly creepy, but not particularly listenable or likeable. It really doesn’t do much for me at all, and I feel this effort was probably the result of a very odd jam-session. ‘The Blood’ is also quite weak, taking a leaf out of the opening track’s book with the speedy acoustic guitar , but it isn’t one of those songs that would ever be championed by any Cure fan, I imagine.

‘Six Different Ways’ is a dreamy, child-like song, the main hook sounding like a theme from a children’s TV show, but it’s very strangely gratifying – odd, but also very innocent, complimented fittingly by Smith’s angsty vocals. Very strong.

Side one closes with ‘Push’ which is a much more emphatic and effective hit of sorrow than its predecessors. The guitar line is strong, and the introduction develops nicely, but I don’t feel it merits the near two-and-a-half-minute showcasing it gets, though I think I’m just being a bit pedantic. Again, Smith’s vocals are performed brilliantly, which resurrects the song from the labouring introduction and gives it an extra edge. Not a bad finish to the first side at all.

Side two kicks off with ‘The Baby Screams’ which just isn’t for me. I’m usually more than welcoming to 80s electronic hand-claps, but not here, I’m afraid. There’s a little too much going on in the outro, and it all fades out quite limply.

No worry, however. It’s the second stunning single, ‘Close To Me’, that comes next. The album version is minus the saxophone solos, but this is of little concern. How anyone can deny the strength of this song is beyond me – from the bassline to the overall structure and infectious vocals, it’s another masterpiece from an era which saw The Cure release unbelievable single after single.

Following track ‘A Night Like This’ is also very sturdy. A very powerful hook with just a touch of distortion offers the motif of the song, and the backing as a whole is extremely satisfying. This, to me, with a tiny bit of gothic configuration, could slot seamlessly in 1989’s classic Disintegration, both in terms of sound and quality – it’s masterful.

‘Screw’ is nothing to shout about again – it’s quite discordant, which appeals to me, though the overall sound doesn’t sound very complete or sure in itself. There’s random additions of either edited vocals or dreamy rattling sounds which further pushes the dysfunction.

And then we come to the closer, ‘Sinking’. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I am a huge, huge fan of a good bassline with a gothic twang. This pretty much epitomises it for me.

Starting with a crash of untuneful piano, we are greeted by this absolutely wonderful, dancing bassline and dragged into a dreamy, dark and delirious Cure world. The discord in this song offers so much more than ‘Screw’ – every part is where it should be and always has something to offer to the ears. The best part for me are the drawn out notes on the keyboard, adding an extra atmospheric edge to the composition.

Smith’s previously romantic vocals become this eerily spoken admission of failure, ‘I am slowing down/As the years go by/I am sinking’, with ‘sinking’ darkly reverberated over and over. It’s a serious stab in the heart for those who’d got use to hopeless romantic Cure; it’s almost a final, deathly goodbye to the traditional goth sound they pioneered.

Suddenly, striking guitar chords fly in, and the song is given an extra hit of anxiety and intensity, Smith briefly moving into falsetto to combat the powerful hits, before all returns to an even more unsettling norm.

It continues on its usual course, with a new chilling and cutting guitar line overseeing the slow demise of the song, before crashing out with a final hit of the keyboard and a brief visit of an unnerving two-note riff.

‘Sinking’ is, with the singles, the realisation of the sound that was trying to be achieved on THOTD, and is simply marvellous. What a closer. 

All in all, it’s a consistently strong album. Where it suffers is in trying to hard to attain a certain sound. With a bit of tinkering and stripping back, ‘Screw’ and ‘Push’ could be greatly improved without compromising the overall sound of the album, and could subsequently improve the overall enjoyment of the record.

Nonetheless, it has many merits. Both sides offer some absolute scorchers, but also a couple of songs which let the respective parts down. I think I’m still being a little pedantic, though. It shows The Cure opening the door to the commercial adoration they rightly deserved with an album of immense quality and offering.

Side One: 3.5/5   Side Two: 4/5   Sleeve: 4/5

 

 

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