We know about time: The best of R.E.M.

In 1995 the only band bigger than R.E.M. was U2. In 2005, the only band less relevant than R.E.M. was Reel Big Fish. When the fingers of time ripped the calendar page from January 2015 I was asking my students at the radio station if they listened to R.E.M. It was like asking a student in 1995 about the Stones’ sixties achievements — indeed, ladies and gents who mourn the circles around their eyes, we had reached equidistant spans of time. I would date the start of the Athens band’s obsolescence from the moment it signed a record contract when its drummer and most crucial member’s health were dictating different terms. But 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi was excellent anyway. Two albums and a millennium later, their interviews consisted of a caffeinated Peter Buck praising the liberties that drum loops afforded them when goddamn Rickie Lee Jones had gotten there first. What’s poignant about the 2001 comedown was how R.E.M. released Up to indifferent American sales at the peak of teen pop acts when a decade and career trajectory ago Green was competing with New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Tiffany.

Call it burnout. Familiarity. Blame rewiring of pleasure centers. It’s impossible for me to find the motivation to pull out an R.E.M. record. Untroubled by how swiftly I compiled the following list of songs, I opted to listen to Fantasia and Parquet Courts — I’m sure she’s heard of R.E.M., the latter probably claim their elders as influences. Memory keeps 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant at the top of the heap, with Don Gehman treating Bill Berry as if he were Kenny Aronoff and a newly articulate Michael Stipe as client John Cougar Mellencamp. Stipe always wrote mush, but his mates’ Wire-y force animates cornball material like “I Believe” and “Fall On Me.” In college I wrote a short story called “Not Everyone Can Carry the Weight of the World,” which should tell my readers something about Murmur‘s hypnotic power on young men of a pretty persuasion. I love Monster more than the list indicates; during its twentieth anniversary a revisit made me hug it close. You can’t imagine how loudly I growled when a newly bald Stipe growled “Am I straight or queer or bi?” a year after the American public still needed fables of the reconstruction like Philadelphia to assuage its guilt about not giving a shit about gays with AIDS. Speaking of, Fables of the Reconstruction has muddled Southern tropes caught in Stipe’s throat and swamp mud coating the rhythm section. Out of Time remains a deserved Soundscan-era breakthrough, not only because it boasted songs like “Texarkana” and “Low” on a #1 record but it granted retrospective validation to Green‘s “You Are the Everything,” the lullaby that soundtracked Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay’s fetal position misery as he thought of the dad he never knew in an awesome Beverly Hills, 90210 episode from summer 1991.

I should give’em another shot. “Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up” is a banality I can recite ten times around a “Hail, Mary” before bed as November approaches.

1. I Believe
2. Shaking Through
3. Wolves, Lower
4. Laughing
5. Perfect Circle
6. Pretty Persuasion
7. Flowers of Guatemala
8. Fall on Me
9. Half a World Away
10. Driver 8
11. Harborcoat
12. Talk About the Passion
13. King of Comedy
14. Catapult
15. Begin the Begin
16. Stand
17. Finest Worksong
18. Superman
19. New Test Leper
20. Low
21. Bittersweet Me
22. Find the River
23. Gardening at Night
24. Monty Got a Raw Deal
25. Losing My Religion
26. Circus Envy
27. Second Guessing
28. Leave
29. E-Bow the Letter
30. Cuyahoga
31. So. Central Rain
32. Star 69
33. Get Up
34. Let Me In
35. Departure
36. Sitting Still
37. Green Grow the Rushes
38. 7 Chinese Brothers
39. Shiny Happy People
40. The Lifting

I was waiting for him: The career of George Michael

It could have been the pinstriped jacket. But credit the combination of thick generous hair and stubble. When George Michael, then and forever of Wham!, faced the camera in “Careless Whisper” (what a title!) and shared the story of how his character had acted like a cad, I felt the first stirrings of the homosexual lust I wouldn’t acknowledge for at least another decade. Before this look he’d tried tennis shorts — or wasit badminton attire? At any rate he and amiable non-equal Andrew Ridgeley had no use for clothes. From the young men imitating Duran Duran convincingly in “Club Tropicana,” pink cocktails and all (and free!), to the mulleted High Eighties cavorting in “The Edge of Heaven,” Wham! excelled at portraying guys on the make, eyes roving for the next pretty face and good party.

Distinguishing them from their New Pop peers was Michael’s songcraft, as much on the make as everything else about them. He understood saxophones. He understood Synclaviers. He understood Motown. He could belt and whisper. Like Bowie and Madonna, he realized that he could sell any image if his muse was forever on the move, driving like a demon from station to station. And, boy, did he understand The Career Move. First: record an embalmed duet with Aretha Franklin that stayed at #1 for two weeks in the spring of 1987, to date the Queen’s only British chart topper, which should tell you something about Michael’s persuasive powers (I can’t top Tom Ewing’s dismissal: “Simon Climie appears to have written the track using a set of gospel magnetic fridge poetry. Low valleys, high mountains, deep rivers, faith, destiny, spirit”). Next: release a single, several months before his first in-name solo album, tied to the forgotten Beverly Hills Cop sequel, that was as much an ambiguous come-on as “Papa Don’t Preach.” A bait and switch, actually: if she’s made up her mind and is keeping the baby, then George reminds listeners that sex is natural and sex is good when it’s one on one. That “I Want Your Sex” coincided with the phony heterosexual AIDS panic didn’t take away from its subtle endorsement of any kind of diddling so long as it was monogamous and safe. Best, he sang with the detached pep of an enthusiastic PE teacher giving his first sex ed lecture; no one would think he had ever done the missionary.

The album it heralded was the first that dominated my pop imagination. Promising a different look on every single, Faith was the apotheosis of the ’80s obsession with the crossmarket crossover. Unlike Tina Turner, though, Michael produced the record himself and played almost every note. Its most gratifying success? A rare #1 place on the American R&B chart. Those who weren’t there can’t fathom how big Faith was; only Thriller and Born in the U.S.A. were this omnipresent, plus those who freaked to Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The two singles I adored came late in the release cycle: Miami’s Y-100 blasted the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remix of “Monkey” through August 1988, as relentless, as conversant in hip-hop idioms as anything coming out of Def Jam (scratches, “Planet Rock” synth, Michael’s interjected “SNARE!”); and the ravaged “One More Try,” a Casio keyboard demo over which Michael lamented a doomed romance with a teacher who promised worse things that young George didn’t have to learn.

A confused youth learning to read signs and symbols, I heard something discordant about the depths of Michael’s yearning. Sure, Rod Stewart had written his own elegy for an educational tryst with an older woman, but he sounded merely pained. The hysteria expended by Michael seemed disproportionate to the scenario. Straight guys don’t yearn like this; if anything, the pop world has way too many “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”s in its repertoire. The first overt clue came years later in Michael’s last American top ten “Fastlove,” in which he tries to coax an available yum-yum into his BMW because he saw “lovin’ in his eyes.” By 1996, however, no one in the Western world had illusions about George Michael’s heterosexuality. The fact that Older and its singles struggled for American airplay and sales affirmed it; in the year of The Birdcage and the Defense of Marriage Act he could enjoy Soundscan-era catalog sales for “Careless Whisper” and Faith while few gave a damn about the queen’s new music. The rest of the world told a different story about Older, as I learned when I visited London the following summer and heard “Star People ’97” everywhere. Like the Pet Shop Boys’ “Can You Forgive Her,” 1998’s “Outside” was a belated acknowledgment of received knowledge, enlivened by Michael’s obvious relief, not to mention his kinky joy in dressing like the Village Person who wore a cop outfit.

When his personal life turned careless, he didn’t lose his ability with a whisper, but after 2004’s ironically named Patience he lost interest in a mass audience that had grown up with him. He put more energy into getting arrested than recording songs. As perverse as this sounds — I wish George the best — I can think of no better rebuke to contemporary notions of homosexual maturity. Yet “Fastlove,” “Outside,” and tracks like Patience‘s “Precious Box” suggest the kind of thump-thump a randy gay man in his fifties could record should he remember that this same mass audience is ready for these stories and beats in 2016. Unlike Scissor Sisters he can sing them. think of how the writer of “Freedom ’90” and “Too Funky” would flourish in this nu-house environment. And he can look the part: during the Blair/Clinton era former mentor Elton John was old and toupeed and as sexless as a spinster aunt in a Saki short story while Michael looked like George Clooney playing Tom Cruise’s vampire.

Don’t let these observations fool you. George Michael has been an indissoluble part of my life since the fifth grade without disturbing my canon. But as I creep towards the age when in the absence of security I make my way into the night I’m realizing how much I’ve underestimated him. Anticipating the ILM poll whose results were posted today, I went on a binge. I’m still discovering songs. “Precious Box” I’ve mentioned, but what about 1990’s “Heal the Pain”? The acoustic hook and multitracked harmonies are so delectable that Paul McCartney dueted with him in a live cover. What about the bossa nova lilt of “Cowboys and Angels”? (Everyone, it seems, was wrong about Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. except Michael.) For such a former megastar his catalog is approachable and un-vast. Spotify eases the experience of dipping. For men and women who watched him jump holding the shuttlecocks, reacquainting oneself with him will yield surprising rewards; for my younger readers who get Prince and Madonna, here was the other weirdo, the most human of him all. Look at that stubble: it was begging to be fluffed by human hands.


1. Everything She Wants
2. One More Try
3. Monkey
4. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
5. Too Funky
6. Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone
7. Freedom ’90
8. A Different Corner
9. Freedom
10. Father Figure
11. Precious Box
12. Cars and Trains
13. Waiting For The Day
14. Heaven Help Me (Deon Estes)
15. Fastlove
16. Last Christmas
17. Heal the Pain
18. The Strangest Thing
19. Cowboys and Angels
20. Amazing

Something happens and I’m head over heels: Best of 1985

Often dismissed as the hangover after two years of consecutive partying, 1985 does indeed have explaining to do on both the British and American charts. But I still had no trouble finding plenty of R&B and dance tracks I adore, and quite a few pop songs that didn’t hit number one.


1. Madonna – Angel/Into the Groove
2. Tears For Fears – Head Over Heels
3. Scritti Politti – Perfect Way
4. Freddie Jackson – Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake)
5. Jamie Principle – Waiting for My Angel
6. a-ha – The Sun Always Shines on TV
7. Rosanne Cash – I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me
8. Alison Moyet – Invisible
9. Chaka Khan – Through The Fire
10. The Jesus and Mary Chain – You Trip Me Up
11. Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
12. Teena Marie – Lovergirl
13. New Order – Perfect Kiss (12″)
14. Nolan Thomas – Yo Little Brother
15. Whitney Houston – You Give Good Love
16. Baltimora – Tarzan Boy
17. Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill
18. George Clinton – Double Oh-Oh
19. Ready For the World – Oh Sheila
20. Wham! – Freedom
21. Jellybean – Sidewalk Talk
22. ABC – Be Near Me
23. Pat Benatar – Invincible
24. Exposé – Point of No Return
25. Hüsker Dü – Makes No Sense at All
26. Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm
27. Pointer Sisters – Dare Me
28. Talking Heads – And She Was
29. Shannon – Do You Wanna Get Away
30. Rene & Angela – I’ll Be Good
31. Bryan Ferry – Slave to Love
32. Philip Bailey and Phil Collins – Easy Lover
33. Bruce Springsteen – I’m On Fire
34. The Time – Jungle Love
35. The Cure – Inbetween Days
36. Paul Young – Every Time You Go Away
37. Loose Ends – Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)
38. Stevie Wonder – Part-Time Lover
39. Luther Vandross – It’s Over Now
40. Sade – Smooth Operator
41. Daryl Hall & John Oates – Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid
42. Prince and the Revolution – Raspberry Beret/She’s Always in My Hair
43. Eurythmics – Would I Lie To You
44. Kool and the Gang – Misled
45. Pat Metheny Group and David Bowie – This is Not America
46. Billy Ocean – Loverboy
47. Don Henley – All She Wants To Do is Dance
48. The Commodores – Nightshift
49. Marvin Gaye – Sanctified Lady
50. Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is
51. Colonel Abrams – Trapped
52. George Strait – Does Ft. Worth Cross Your Mind
53. Fine Young Cannibals – Johnny Come Home
54. Steve Arrington – Dancin’ in the Key of Life
55. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Rebels
56. Go West – We Close Our Eyes
57. Isley Jasper Isley – Caravan of Love
58. Maze ft. Frank Beverly – Too Many Games
59. Lone Justice – Ways To Be Wicked
60. Alexander O’Neal – Innocent
61. Reba McEntire – Somebody Should Leave
62. Debarge – Rhythm of the Night
63. Debbie Deb – When I Hear Music

‘If my heart could do the thinking, will my head begin to feel?’ — Van Morrison remastered

It can’t have escaped the grouch’s notice that his seventieth birthday lands three days after his catalog gets digitized. I’m not much of a Van Morrison fan — I prefer Saint Dominic’s Preview and Tupelo Honey to the earlier classics when I remember I own them — but it took this kind of availability for me to immerse. The serenity of the eighties albums has a cumulative power; “Did Ye Get Healed,” the title track of A Sense of Wonder, and “Into the Garden” boast synth patches that shimmer like puddles on a forest floor (Brad Nelson, author of a beautiful reconsideration published a few months ago, came up with the sentence, “Synths and reverb are applied gently to these albums, on songs that are intended to have the gauzy depth of a pool, or a memory”). Roxy Music’s Avalon, particularly “Tara,” sounds like an inspiration: New Age without wind chimes.

The nineties stuff after Enlightenment is grittier, with Back On Top a delight years after its prominent placement in Barnes & Noble music sections fascinated me (i.e. who was buying new Van Morrison records in 1999?). I’m fond of “When The Leaves Come Falling Down” and the title track — has Morrison ever sung or written a poor title track? A Spotify playlist would include these tracks, plus “Hymns to the Silence,” “Ivory Tower,” “Days Like This,” a wee ingratiating thing called “Coney Island,” and the forgotten “I Forgot That Love Existed,” which asks the eternal question: “If my heart could do the thinking, will my head begin to feel?”

Butterflies in me arise

Before streaming and the Internet, used CD stores stocked a dozen copies of one of the nineties best and least heralded albums, priced at pennies. But Symphony or Damn is available for a couple bucks on Amazon. Buy it. I didn’t hear Introducing the Hardline… in its entirety until a couple years ago. In 1988 I preferred “Sign Your Name” to “Wishing Well,” a battle of the presets: bossa nova versus calliope. Still do. “If You Let Me Stay” was loud eighties soul overstatement, if fun. “Seven Days” and “Let’s Go Forward” and the awesome Smokey Robinson cover are the standouts: religio-mystic bullshit with strong erotic overtones and synth bass as good as any on a Prince track. Marcello’s retrospective suggests these comparisons could stand reevaluating. After all, British Electric Foundation founder Martyn Ware produced the album, and holding fast to this fact makes the bloodline of this project, Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement, and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer more obvious. “Seven Days” and “If You All Get to Heaven.” The other influence?

Given the startling job the latter had done with “Who’s Loving You” some years before, you would have thought somebody might have picked up on that, but there are times when high innocence and low gruffness combine to give a preview of the less cuddly Jackson whom we will be seeing in the nineties. The opening “If You All Get To Heaven” – one of the record’s more adventurous songs – plays with time and perspective, its (relatively) quiet and distant verses suddenly veering into a loud foreground with a doomy chant (featuring an instantly recognisable Glenn Gregory), and its hoped-for global fury (“Old men’s cigars puff up the wars/To protect their fuck-ups again/Young men must die/To keep the old ones alive/And to prove they’re studs once again”) is an uncanny ancestor of “Earth Song”’s multiple “what abouts?”

For further notes, here’s the Jackson 5 version.

“No coward soul is mine – “

After completing a round of triumphant returns to the UK stage, Kate Bush deserves to bask. Audience responses validated her decision to limit set lists to albums recorded after 1985. Before Stylus Magazine folded, the editorial board on which I sat chose her as the third member of our artist hall of fame. A round of appraisals followed: Marcello Carlin’s shrewd overview, Ian Mathers and Mike Orme’s re-examinations of The Whole Story and Hounds of Love, respectively; and my second look at The Red Shoes, which I listened to this weekend and still love, gaucheries and all. Read Katherine’s One Week One Band entry. I stand behind this paragraph:

The standard line by journalists is that The Red Shoes collected the debris of a failed concept album based on the Archers film to which I alluded earlier. The ballet is a rather ponderous hunk of kitsch, its sexuality less brazen than Bush’s. Still, I can see the parallels. Bush has never been leery of kitsch: it’s her muse, the starting point of genuine emotion and ideas few of her art-rock contemporaries have taken seriously. The rhythm of ballet—alternately graceful and plodding—informs the most uneven of her studio albums. 2005’s Aerial would mitigate the enforced maturity of marriage and motherhood with the third-person narrative of one disc and the Woolfian rapture of the other. In 1993, however, Bush was unwilling to separate these tendencies; she needed to risk kitsch. This makes her braver than most.

As I argue, the album suffered from poor timing. Its insistence that adult contemporary moves like “Moments of Pleasure” could sit next to the avid likes of “Big Stripey Lie” is redolent of a braver age in college rock; a spring ’91 release would have been best. Speculation, of course — the album wasn’t getting a release without Bush’s say so.

So long ago — it’s a certain time, a certain place

Almost a year old but worth posting is this story about the recording of Tango in the Night, Fleetwood Mac’s second best-selling album. Press around the album centered on Lindsey Buckingham’s exit after the band announced its world tour, replaced by competent and hapless hacks Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. Stevie Nicks’ stint in Betty Ford and decided non-presence on the album were also mentioned. Before the recovery that probably saved her life, she had partying to finish in late 1985 and 1986:

Fleetwood says that he and Nicks were doing more cocaine during the making of Tango than when they were recording Rumours — an album on which they seriously considered thanking their drug dealer in the credits. “Actually” he admits, “it was way worse on Tango In The Night. For sure.”

Buckingham in essence assembled the album out of solo tracks (Fleetwood replaced the programming with his own drums, although the likes of “Caroline” and “Family Man” still sound like no human sat behind a kit) and a couple of incoherent and unfinished Nicks track; when Buckingham takes over in “When I See You Again” it’s both a touching gesture of solidarity to his former lover and an unsubtle acknowledgment: look, asshole, you didn’t give me much to work with. Even the best tracks betray no sign of five people playing together.

But who gives a damn? It’s taken years for Tango’s influence to assert itself. Remember when everyone rediscovered Tusk in the late nineties? Tango‘s getting the same treatment. In 2013 Classixx released “Hanging Gardens,” an elegant dance romp through motifs in “Seven Wonders” (if you haven’t heard the original extended mix, sit down). The billowing synthetic arabesques of “Everywhere” and “Little Lies,” written and co-written by album MVP Christine McVie, pop up in Balearic comps. I’m waiting for someone to reproduce the queasy hybrid called “Isn’t It Midnight”: metal shredding meets midtempo synth ripples. Skeptics wary of boomer experiments in eighties technology, rejoice: chimes, voice oscillations, and guitar pizzicatos substitute for big drums and Fairlight sampling. Tango in the Night is a 1987 that never existed. The British seemed to have thought so; the album went to #1 three different times. In the States it looked like a bomb after its #7 peak in early summer, but four singles later it lingered well into 1988 and is certified triple platinum. I hear “Little Lies” on recurrent eighties radio more than Mirage‘s “Hold Me.”

On the Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

A synth pop act covering a Giorgio Moroder-helmed electronic piece was one thing; keeping the spirit of Thelma Houston’s biggest hit with falsetto was another. It’s to Richard Cole and Jimmy Somerville’s credit that they wanted “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to sound as huge and campy as possible. In the era of Parting Glances and My Beautiful Laundrette —films whose virtues centered on unlisping gay men situated in working class homes and businesses, shot in unwavering democratizing medium shot—Somerville dared to sing as if he were waving a mauve feather boa.

The video teases out some of the ironies: an ideal of twentysomething community trudging in trenchcoats and geometric haircuts under grey English skies to a factory party, the star a bloke who could have stepped out of that Stephen Frears film (Somerville’s buzz cut is formidable enough to cut steel). The positing of a counter-canon—the musicians are women—compensates for the thorough whitewashing administered to this Gamble-Huff chestnut. Interwoven into the revels are scenes in which the blond hunk Jimmy’s been winking at is chased and confronted by unsmiling apparatchiks. When it cuts back to the pneumatic dancing the track stops cold, although it had already come close: belting the killer “Set me free!” bit Somerville sounds like the straitjacket squeezed a bit tighter. But every star needs a scene-stealing supporting player, here played by Sarah Jane Morris, harmonizing with the gusto that Cole’s synth horn blasts can’t manage. An odd, abashed moment; like Culture Club and Helen Terry, Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet, the singer lets a woman run away with his song. This was “uncomplicated, manipulative party music,” in Tom Ewing’s words: 1986’s biggest selling single, a number one dance record and Top Forty hit in America. I hope this didn’t lead to Pseudo Echo’s galumphing American top ten cover of “Funkytown.”

I really really really really really zig-a-zig-ahh: Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”

Tom Ewing arrives at Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” a single whose impact in America paled beside what the British experienced. Spicemania wasn’t an American phenomenon; we could barely tell the Spices apart. A couple of facts: we got “Wannabe” almost six months after its UK release; and unlike many of the mid-nineties’ biggest hits (No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” the Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You,” Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”) “Wannabe” got a single release and was thus eligible for Billboard Hot 100 placement (it hit #1 in early spring ’97).

What charmed me about “Wannabe” was its anachronism. The keyboard hook? Stock-Aitken-Waterman. The vocals didn’t say “Bananarama” though. At their best Bananarama vocals blurred into a shimmer of regret and loss. On “Wannabe” each Spice Girl gets her moment, as if to show the power of their gang. This remains its most striking — its most lasting — virtue. “The point is that you only know if you’re one of the gang, and the rest of the song is laying that out: prove you’re part of the friendship circle, and maybe we’ll let you in on i,” Tom writes. “But you won’t find out just by asking.” Unlike many songs in the pop canon written by and for women it excludes boys. The Spices aren’t even joined by a collective wish to go boy hunting. This is a self-sufficient unit, impervious to catfighting and the worst behavior men attribute to women. That’s why I could never understand why quite a few liberals at the time bemoaned The Death of Feminism. Well, actually, I did: these liberals were all men.

As for the rest of their catalog, I liked the ballad “2 Become 1” and thought they were closer to Bananarama on the compu-soul of SpiceWorld‘s “Stop.” Many detractors cried “Uncle!” upon the release of the rather frantic “Spice Up Your Life”; the male performers at of those loathsome piano bars I frequented in the late nineties covered it, unironically. My friends — straight men — liked them unironically too. On its opening weekend we saw Spiceworld.

U2’s War: “It…felt like being hit on the head with a rolled-up copy of the Christian Science Monitor for forty-two minutes.”

I don’t care much for War, and Marcello explains why:

So U2 felt moved to prove they were Men. The cover star of War – Peter Rowen, who had also been the cover star of Boy some twenty-nine months earlier – was still youthful but now scowled, looked both angry and afraid, hands up behind his head as though a gun were being pointed at him. Listening to the record itself was not a dissimilar experience. It gave me a headache and felt like being hit on the head with a rolled-up copy of the Christian Science Monitor for forty-two minutes. All credit to the group for wanting to essay convincing and powerful Christian rock music without the Anita Bryant trappings in an age where it was felt smart to believe in nothing, but I felt that I was trapped in a lecture.

It also convinced me that I really didn’t like Bono very much, and he remains the chief obstacle to my appreciating U2. On nine of the ten songs of War he is perpetually in your face, frantically waving and shrieking (“Wipe your tears away,” “Take my hand,” “Hold on tightly,” “I sing it for you”). He never shuts up and never seems to listen. He is like Chris Evans or The Fast Show’s Colin Hunt, forever sandbagging the hapless listener. But then take Bono out of the equation – as occurs on “Seconds” which is largely sung by The Edge – and you have little more than a proficient Comsat Angels B-side with a few Full Metal Jacket effects sprinkled on (the military drill sample comes from a gruelling [sic] 1981 Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill documentary entitled Soldier Girls, about US Army women training in Augusta). So with U2 it’s Bono or nothing, bigness or next week’s Kid Jensen tip for the top.

If a love song could climb over mountains: Bowie’s “Absolute Beginners”

ab3David Bowie essaying a straightforward love song is usually cause to head for the hills (rather like learning that Paul McCartney will record one of those I’m-gonna-play-all-the-instruments-cuz-I’m-a-pop-genius albums he does from time to time). Generally the poseur is most moving when he reminds us that he is one, albeit one blessed with a preternatural gift for wicked guitarists, and versatile rhythm sections that can top or bottom as the occasion demands. Think of “Word on a Wing,” “Be My Wife,” or “Soul Love,” in which love and narcissism are inseparable. Or the obscure “Win” from Young Americans: he learns the Bryan Ferry trick of digging so deeply into parody that he achieves an addled kind of pathos (if background vocalist Luther Vandross had recorded it himself the lyric’s ironies would have exposed his questionable sexuality). Something similar occurs in 1995’s “Strangers When We Meet,” in which a full-throated Bowie performance imbues the lyrical decoupage.

“Absolute Beginners” has never held sway; in my Bowie canon it’s in the upper thirties, somewhere between “African Nite Flight” on the high end and “Lady Grinning Soul” on the low. This #2 British hit from the film of the same name (it peaked in the high fifties here) has a predictable chord structure, a pinched Bowie vocal as an unwelcome reminder of his deficiencies, and lyrics whose rather hamhanded insertion of the film title (like “Against All Odds,” right?) adduced the song’s boilerplate nature. Take a look at the single sleeve. Note the wide grin. When Bowie attempts “normality” he’s truly frightening — even scarier than the emaciated splendor he displayed here.

So why is it a minor triumph? Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley — responsible for nearly killing Elvis Costello’s early career with Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World — surround Bowie with a yearning string section (as expressive as Bowie is blank), a non-clichéd saxophone solo that may or may not be played by Bowie himself, and a glorious percussion breakdown at the 6:30 mark in which congas, timbales, cowbells herald the recapitulation of the song’s vocal and musical hook. It’s the only post-Let’s Dance moment Bowie in which sympathetic production reminds the poseur of his limitations so that he can transcend them.

For another take, read Bowie Blog’s excellent review.

Look but don’t touch in paradise

I’ve recorded how I came to Ferry/Bowie-inspired British music at the nadir of its popularity: the early nineties. In the summer of 1996, I swallowed a beer and performed ABC’s “The Look of Love” at karaoke. Every mirror move I’d rehearsed in three years came on cue. The crowd loved it, I must admit. I loved it. For the next three months I lived ABC: The Lexicon of Love, of course, but also How to Be a…Zillionnaire!, whose garish title and cover attempt an update of Hall & Oates’ Big Bam Boom in summer ’85, complete with the latest Emulator technology, hip-hop-drenched beats, and lyrics decrying eighties materialism even as the beats were testaments to record company dough. I mourned the disappearance of 1987’s Alphabet City from America record store shelves (I bought it in a HMV in Tottenham the following summer).

But I spent the most time with a European import bought in Best Buy, at the crazed peak of the mid nineties box store craze, that was the best sort of mishmash: half of Lexicon and 1983’s Beauty Stab, and two Zillionaire and Alphabet City cuts apiece (album tracks; no “Be Near Me”). “Garish” is a word I want to revisit; it’s a compliment that Martin Fry and keyboardist-guitarist Mark White deserve like tinsel bows on a Christmas tree. The compilation was all of a piece, outlining lurid fantasies buttressed with synth bass, Mantovanni strings, and power chords, but garnished with what Robert Christgau called ad man’s copy. Who needed Elvis Costello and Morrissey when Fry shouted/sang/barked lines like “Look but don’t touch in paradise/Don’t let them catch you damaging the merchandise” and “Everything is temporary, written on the sand/looking for the girl who meets supply with demand.” If the voice of Bryan Ferry prepared me for Fry, it was the latter who taught me how to concoct gay fantasies in Douglas Sirk Technicolor. On Lexicon’s “All of My Heart” the fantasy curdles into an elegy: a straightforward lyric that codes as a valentine to a man in love with a friend. “Once upon a time when we were friends/I gave you my heart/the story ends,” Fry sings as Ann Dudley’s string arrangement responds on cue, mocking him.

Marcello revisits one of the greatest albums of the last thirty years. I want to believe they were Americans for whom The Lexicon of Love represented a way of looking at the world, a prism, a sensibility, as much as it was for the English for whom “no other record seemed to matter; everybody owned it, and played it, and kept playing it.”