Saturday 19 February 2022

Human League - Dare

 All this pandemic malarkey has got in the way of some landmark anniveraries.
Not least this one - the 40th Anniversary of Human League's 'Dare'.

At the start of 1981, the Human League were basically on their arse.  Half the band had left, the remaining members had a microphone stand and a slide projector between them, and they were seriously in debt.  Despite high hopes, the early Human League singles - much to Phil Oakey's confusion - had failed to garner commercial success.

Working on the principle that a great pop band has 2 female singers, 2 dancers were recruited from a Sheffield nightclub, and the Tour was fulfilled (maybe not as intended, but fulfilled nonetheless).

Now the re-birth began - the avant-garde stylings of the past were stripped back (although maybe not removed completely), and a pure pop sheen added in the pursuit of commercial success.

Virgin Records kept the faith (and continued financial support) and the breakthrough came with the single "The Sound Of The Crowd".  This was followed by the Top 10 "Love Action".  Off the back of his production work on those couple of singles, The Human League hunkered down with Martin Rushent to create, assemble, and record the album.

What came out was an almost perfect mix of synth-pop, nightclub, and a little bit of avant-garde/Kraftwerk-y brooding from the immediate past.
Oh, and another hit single - "Open Your Heart" to add to the mix

"The Things That Dreams Are Made Of" opens the album pointing clearly to a new start, and what is to come over the next 40 minutes.  "Open Your Heart" jacks up the pop quotient, with Phil Oakey's almost anguished vocals at the top of his range.
Much of the accessibility of 'Dare' is the detailed song construction, lyrics veering to the almost wordy and arty, and the relatively simple memorable tunes.  It's a synthesiser album played by pop folk who are not synth geeks (in perhaps the way original members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh were).
An album tooled for the night-club, and as the say in "Sound Of The Crowd" - "dance around!", but also with a touch of menace about it (maybe it's the way Phil intones the lyrics, but there are at times a feeling of confrontation).
There is one cover version - the theme to the film "Get Carter" fits the tone of the album as showing the different facets and moods of the band.  Singles were given a Red or Blue deignation identifying if they were dancefloor ready (Red) or straight pop songs (Blue).  There are elements of 'Dare' ("Get Carter" being one of them, but also "Darkness", "I Am The Law" and "Seconds" which should probably have a Black (or Dark Grey) marker.

It's another of those "witness the 80s being born" moments - and the production from Martin Rushent is a big factor here - his studio was one of the most tooled up at the time.
It says a lot about Virgin Records support of the band to give them a chance to come back from the brink of implosion, and their support to pair them with a producer and studio of some renown.

And the return on Virgin's investment was handsomely rewarded when a single lifted from the album (which originally had no place on the album, and under compromise was tacked on the end of Side 2) sold in droves to become the Christmas Number One.

That single - "Don't You Want Me" - became Human League's signature (and probably millstone around their neck).  It would eventually sell over a million copies, and that success gave new life to Human League's old work (the album 'Reproduction' and 'Travelogue' started to actually sell, and their first single ('Being Boiled' (from 1979)) crept into the Top 10 in early 1982.

Not content with the continuing sales of 'Dare', producer Martin Rushent took the tapes back into the studio.  Tapes were cut and re-spliced, echo and other effects added, vocals stripped, and one of the first re-mix albums was thrown to a ravenous market.
'Love And Dancing' was released under the name The League Unlimited Orchestra, and was retailed at a lower price to ensure fans were not ripped off by buying (nearly) the same songs twice.

If 'Dare' is an essential album (which I think it is), then 'Love And Dancing' is the perfect compliment. 

The Human League stayed on a high with the release of their next single "Mirror Man". and nearly scored a second Christmas Number One.  "Keep Feeling Fascination" followed it to the higher reaches of the chart, but a new album had to wait until Spring 1984.  It sold well, but the departure of Martin Rushent was noticeable in sound presentation, and the sheer time between album releases (despite continuing sales of 'Dare'), did seem to damage their popularity.
Phil Oakey scored a solo success with "Together In Electric Dreams" in late 1984, and the Human League looked to be in hiatus (either chosen or enforced?).
They did return in 1986 with 'Human' and scored a US Number one, but despite a couple of further albums the bands trajectory was turning downwards towards the 80s nostalgia circuit.

'Dare' remains their high watermark, a synth-pop album that ranks alongside other greats, both in terms of sales and influence.

The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

Open You Heart

Don't You Want Me (from 'Love And Dancing')

Monday 14 February 2022

Paolo Hewitt: Paul Weller - The Changingman

The story of The Jam is probably best told by Paolo Hewitt's 1983 book A Beat Concerto.
The book that appeared 9 months after 23 year old Paul Weller decided to break-up the biggest band in Britain, after 5 years, 18 Top 40 singles, and 5 albums.
And the book is a real "access all areas" affair - Paolo's relationship with Paul Weller ensured he was there for the major events, and had Paul's ear if any gaps needed filling whilst penning the tome.

However, if I'm being critical (which I am at the moment) the story of The Jam told here is really the story of Paul Weller whilst he was in The Jam.
Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler are mentioned, but were not interviewed during the writing, and I'm not sure actually had sight of the draft, or final sign-off of the book.

This fact is mentioned in Alex Ogg's Foxton & Buckler: Our Story book, which also has little time for Paolo Hewitt - who effectively excluded them from A Beat Concerto, the 'Snap!' compilation, and the 'Extras' compilation - and finishes with the line: "There were 3 people in The Jam, and 2 of them weren't Paul Weller (or Paolo Hewitt)"

Bruce Foxton has not published an autobiography, but is busy delivering his life story from a stage near you in From The Jam (even if it is something of an oddity to have an original member appearing in his own tribute band.  Then again, it just adds weight to the performance).
Rick Buckler has published his autobiography a couple of years ago - That's Entertainment.  It's not a bad book by any means, giving some pre-Jam background for Rick, but doesn't really add anything to the known story, relying on well told anecdotes and stories, plus one can detect a little bitterness sneaking through.

There is no official Paul Weller biography or autobiography - the nearest I think you can get is the Into Tomorrow DVD (which is not easily available), The Style Council: Long Hut Summers, and About The Young Idea (the film from the 2015 archive exhibition, which now supplants A Beat Concerto as the definitive telling of the story).
Paul Weller is not one for opening up and sharing his life (and why should he?) so Paolo Hewitt's biog is as close as we can get.

The book opens with the line: "Paul Weller and I were friends for over 30 years.  We're not anymore."
Now I have no doubt about his past relationship with Paul Weller, the access granted, the moments shared, and the mutual respect and tolerance of mood that exists between friends.
But opening a biography with that phrase does seem a bit odd.
As I understand it (specific details are scant), it was the decision to write and publish this book - including some perhaps guarded details and/or embellishments - that drove the wedge between the two.
That opening line also gives the concern that the book is a "kiss and tell" or a running down of the subject in a fit of revenge (or something).

I'm pleased to report it's neither of those things, but I do feel Paolo Hewitt has overplayed his part in the story.  And rather than a factual(ish) biography, it comes over like Hewitt's memoir titled "My Life With Paul Weller"

Two particular passages inspire this belief:

1.  When he is called to Paul Weller's room on the last Jam tour.  Weller is having doubts about The Jam's future and Paolo puts it into perspective:
"I told him I didn't think The Jam would last.  My reasoning was clear: 'The Gift' had proved that he would need an urgent overhaul if he was to follow his dream of making The Jam a soulful agit-prop band.  Something had to give."
2. When The Style Council have disbanded, and in the middle of his first solo outings, Weller expresses concern about his own abilities as a songwriter.  Again, Paolo gives him a pep talk and together they map out his immediate solo future.
"Paul was going through a crisis.  One afternoon he sat in my hotel room and said "I don't think I'm an artist".  I said: "how can you not be an artist.  Look at the musical journey you've been on, the songs you've written, how much you've changed.  You can't do that if you're not an artist"

It was at this point I was half-expecting him to say: "... and then I picked up Paul's acoustic guitar and played him the descending arpeggio chord pattern of "Sunflower" and "The Changingman" riff"

These conversations may have happened (well, not the last one), but I doubt in the detail given, and I also doubt a man of singular vision and belief such as Paul Weller would've needed his career to date summarized and forward planned by anybody but himself (and maybe his old man and manager, John Weller)

That said, it ain't a bad canter through Paul Weller's life story - all early touchstones visited, the rise Of The Jam, the (unwanted) title of Spokesman For A Generation, the decision to start The Style Council, the politically charged Red Wedge days, the opportunity to explore/experiment as much as he could (Polydor were tolerant for a while, but as sales dwindled, the freedoms reined in and the relationship eventually severed), and then onto his ever-changing solo career (up to 'As Is Now' when their ways parted).

Each chapter is framed against a particular song.  This gives a flow and point of reference showing the man in question at a given point - his feelings at the time, concerns, influences, relationships, and at times offering pointers to what came next.
Sometimes the song choice is relevant.  Other times it just seems to be a device to introduce another "Me and Paul ..." anecdote.
As said above, I have no reason to doubt the events shared and it's not a hatchet job (as it could've been after the severing of relations).  But I do think it paints Paul Weller as possibly more difficult and grumpy than he actually is.  Certainly in many interviews that can be apparent, and the book also mentions his great humorous streak ("Are you happy still being called the spokesman for a generation?"  "Don't do it so much now - Weekends only"), but there must've been at least the equal good mood vs bad mood moments in their time together?  It seems not, Paul Weller was mostly in a bad mood.

In summary, as a biography goes I just wish there was more factual detail, but this book serves as an insight to the character and artistry of Paul Weller (albeit from a potentially myopic source).
I don't doubt it's assembly and publication was easy for Paolo Hewitt, particularly as it happened whilst one of his oldest friendships was coming to and end.  And despite all my (apparent) criticisms, I thank him for sharing his story and relationship.
It's doubtful Paul Weller will have a desire to publish an autobiography - he has never felt the need to explain his actions or court publicity and examination of his private life.  And until / if there is ever an Authorised biography, this book is as close to understanding Paul Weller as we're likely to get.
But it does do that "thing" that all good biographies do - make you go back and listen to the music again.  I'm still not totally convinced, but I have been enjoyed digging into The Style Council stuff which remained an unfloated boat for a long long time.
(Bonus Recommendation: the documentary Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council is worth a look too - it was another 90 minutes that re-piqued my interest in things Style Council-y)

The Jam - That's Entertainment

Style Council - Walls Come Tumbling Down

Paul Weller - Uh Huh Oh Yeh

Saturday 5 February 2022

Charmed Life - The Best Of The Divine Comedy

If someone were to ask (and it might happen) "where does one start with The Divine Comedy?".
My answer would be: start with 'Absent Friends', then jump back to 'Casanova', and then get the rest in any order.

But now the release of this compilation short-circuits that (a bit) - 23 Neil Hannon curated tracks, plus (as is usual with Best Of compos these days) one new track ("The Best Mistakes").

My answer would now be: start with this compilation ... and then get 'Absent Friends', jump back 'Casanova', and then get the rest in any order.

I only have 2 minor quibbles with the set:

  1. it's not in chronological order (but as it was chosen, and no doubt sequenced, by Neil Hannon who am I to complain)
  2. the absence of "The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count" (but I'm sure there are others who will bemoan their own favourite not being here)

But the content here far outweighs any minor quibbles (or the non-appearance of "My Lovely Horse").
From the breakthrough single "Something For The Weekend", through the never over-played or unwelcome "National Express" to the latter day masterpiece "Norman and Norma" this set drips with some of the finest baroque-pop with intelligent lyrics, wry observations, knowing references, no little humour, and character songs that are introduced, inhabited, and resolved inside 3 minutes.

Charmed Life?  Possibly.  According to Neil Hannon himself:

“I’ve been luckier than most.  I get to sing songs to people for a living, and they almost always applaud! So when asked what to call this collection, I thought of ‘Charmed Life’. I like the song and it rather sums up how I feel about my life.”

If you know the world of The Divine Comedy, then this album satisfies allowing access to the best stuff without changing several CDs.
If you're new to the world of The Divine Comedy - here's your chance to jump in.  What are you waiting for?

"The Best Mistakes"

"Absent Friends"

"National Express"