Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth (1984)

 Capitol Records ■ ST-12309

Released February, 1984

Produced by Thomas Dolby
Engineered by Dan Lacksman
Mixed by Mike Shipley (“Hyperactive!” mixed by Alan Douglas)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  1. White City
  2. Mulu the Rain Forest
  3. I Scare Myself
  4. Hyperactive!

Oddly, I’d never really heard “She Blinded Me with Science”, nor have I (really) even now, though it was a big hit in the decade I’ve spent my life unabashedly enjoying the resulting pop music from. I bought this LP as well as the Blinded by Science 12″ EP/mini-album simply because I saw them for a low enough price. I’m honestly not sure at this point if they pre-dated or followed my father stuffing a copy of 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics on CD into my hand while visiting a used music store. It’s entirely possible they followed it–“I Love You Goodbye” is a stupendous song, on a really great album. I’d still only heard the clips of that biggest of singles though, on the commercials for 80s compilations, or on any show that was referencing it as indicative of the decade.

When I had the poll up (due to the absence of votes, I simply removed it), a single vote appeared and then disappeared, for the Blinded by Science mini-album, which I decided to sit down and listen to first. While I naturally couldn’t recognize the original, I strongly suspected the version of “She Blinded Me with Science” was a 12″ extended mix, and I later confirmed it was just that. Those things are difficult to pull off and it rarely happened with much success. The hooks are either beaten into the ground or so severely cropped or inverted as to become thoroughly un-catchy. This wasn’t much an exception, so I didn’t feel much like trying to write about not only a mini-album that was an attempt to capitalize on the now rather confused release history Dolby had built up (in his native U.K., The Golden Age of Wireless did not contain that enormous single, though the original U.S. did not either–it was initially released, instead, with tracks omitted and replaced with b-sides, in typical U.S. fashion for U.K. releases–though I still don’t much understand a lot of the reasons this was and is done) but one that contained one of those mixes.

So, instead, I took out The Flat Earth and decided to let a complete album (his second, left alone for its U.S. release) represent him here as I attempt to translate the disparate elements of my record collection to all souls brave enough to tromp through them.

While I truly cannot remember whether his later album or these two records entered my hands first, I can state unequivocally that I heard Astronauts and Heretics many times, and listened to neither of these more than a handful of times after purchasing them. While I wanted to hear more of this artist I’d heard good things about, the notion that this sample-heavy semi-novelty hit was what he was known for and no album names, singles, or anything else seemed to get mentioned, I didn’t have much of a hook to dive in any deeper, and guessed there was both a more “flamboyant” and a more brazenly pop bent to his earlier work that didn’t immediately encourage my explorations with any great urgency.

“Dissidents” quickly erased this notion–or at least tempered it. A semi-funky bassline from Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman and sharply ringing guitars from Kevin Armstrong back a pseudo-paranoid, bizarre and confused set of lyrics. Dolby’s voice is sliding and smooth in the verse, but as he sings “Hold it, wait a minute…” and backing singer Adele Bertei joins him, a tense edge and sharper, shorter syllables chop the song down rhythmically to match the interwoven sound of a mechanical typewriter. Twanging synth noises sound like coiled springs and keep the song wound itself, the computerized drums of Cliff Bridgen openly synthesized. It’s all weird angles and pointy bits, curious and interesting, and rather catchy (indeed, later a single!).

The title track begins the run of tracks Dolby wrote alone, which continues for almost the entirety of the album, stopped only for a single track. “The Flat Earth” was actually a solid bridge to the album that would come after follow up Aliens Ate My Buick–that second follower being Astronauts and Heretics. A number of tracks on the album marry texture and atmosphere to more clear pop song backings, and “The Flat Earth” really sets that tone. Anticipatory percussion, bass-y keys and scatters of synthetic noise propose the backdrop for the thick bass tones Seligman begins to build with Bridgen’s percussive tracks, Armstrong’s guitar coming out through a strangled single stroke, Dolby’s own keys (an acoustic piano) are free and light, though firm and clear by comparison to the others. It’s a full minute and a half of introduction before Bertei returns with the added voice of Lesley Fairbairn, singing “Hold me, baby, love me, darling, believe me, honey…” in loops behind Dolby’s passionate lead vocal, which clings less firmly to the rhythm of the track, spreading across it as the words and performance dictate instead. The song takes off down its own organic path, determined largely by the contrast between Seligman’s rubbery bassline and Dolby’s sadness-tinged piano, coming out something like a successful melding of soul ballad and dance track in a very strange way–perfectly realized by the way Dolby’s voice progresses down through the line “And maybe why for me the earth is flat…” which drops downward on the latter half, but plateaus and rescues the line from being maudlin. Honestly, this may easily be my favourite track on the album. The underlying vibraphone-style percussion rounds and smooths it all out in a wonderful way that expands the whole thing past even that bass-y nudge toward movement and the piano and vocal movement toward melancholy.

“Screen Kiss”, appropriate to its lyrical content, does not attempt to “rescue” itself from the tone “Flat Earth” seems to pull up from at the last moment. There’s a nostalgic sort of sense to it, but it all leads somewhat inexorably toward sadness, dreams and plans dashed and lost, but not at any great speed so much as slowly leeched away. Seligman hits those piercingly bright, high notes on bass that seem to elicit the sense of a film “jazz club”–the vocal kind, and the kind not overly familiar with jazz. Guitar and synths wax and wane over the track, all acting as a sort of smooth but internally marbled surface over which Dolby lays his ever-intense vocalization–never so much melodramatic as intent. The song fades on a fuzz of overlapping recordings of women speaking and a heartbeat, dissipating as it does so fade.

Having left the first side with a mere three tracks, the second opens with the dramatic burblings of “White City” which rapidly turn to the pounding rhythms and sharp tones indicative of much of the new wave’s more popular and familiar segments, layered with a sort of sci-fi synth line. An interesting fade carries off briefly before Dolby opens the verse, thick bottom end moving the song forward at a pace that feels fast after the first half, but is also noticeably deliberate. Seligman manages some great touches here and there, little fills from the bass. Dolby is less commanding of attention with his voice, the implied drug-fueled fantasy and personal isolation matched by that lockstep marching of coke-fueled energy the song conveys. Seligman’s former bandmate Robyn Hitchcock appears, though, and begins to ramble madly, though in his inimitable style, quietly rumbling along beneath the track, left as the only thing to accompany a sustained note from synthesized strings.

Unusual and unique for the album–if not in general–“Mulu the Rain Forest” elicits the tone it aims to immediately. A synthesized melody is backed by insects chirping and joined by hand-drumming and the kind of woodwinds so readily associated with rainforests (accurately or not). It’s lush though it is spare, carrying a sort of jungle-esque mugginess in its lethargy, thick with only quiet noises and the silent spaces somehow. It’s all atmosphere, a track added up from a clear lead vocal and backing music that never seems interested into building itself into a distinctly recognizable tune or melody, nor even establishing a clear rhythm–in the sense that ambient music does, I mean. It’s fascinating, and starts to dig itself in more thoroughly toward the end, when a synthesizer begins to contribute more concrete melodic lines to back the spasms of Seligman’s bass playing warps.

“I Scare Myself” is the lone exception on the album to Dolby’s writing credits–Armstrong and Seligman co-wrote the music to “Dissdents” with him, but the rest of the album was his. Dan Hicks’ song, though, is pure cover. Like “Dissidents” and closer “Hyperactive!” it did see a single release. Something like a Central or South American flavour (toward the salsa end of things) composes the backing track’s guitar flourishes and thrumming bass, a drumstick against a snare rim acting as much of the rhythmic accent. There’s a shot of tension running through Dolby’s piano that contradicts the clean and comfortable instruments around him. Appropriate, perhaps, in that he scares himself, I suppose! Armstrong also throws in a muted trumpet that crests the track as it builds into a more rapid pace and a more full composition that is left to fade off, never released from its underlying tensions.

I often confused myself reading the title of Dolby’s major single from the album (major in his homeland, anyway), “Hyperactive!” I often find myself thinking, instead, of Robert Palmer’s shockingly non-single track from 1985’s Riptide of the same name (sans punctuation), which has been a long time favourite anyway. This one, though, is built on a trombone lick from Peter Thoms, which drones out bemusedly behind Dolby’s duet with the returned Adele Bertei. It nudges back more toward the sensibilities of “Dissidents” than anything else, rhythmic and energetic after the relaxed tones of the tracks that come between (barring “White City”, anyway). It’s catchy and somewhat peculiar, paranoid and kinetic. It’s a strange sort of song, yet understable as a single. Bertei carries the song on to its outro describing the rather complete set of circumstances under which Dolby is “hyperactive”.

Finding that some of the album reminded me of the (admittedly later) Astronauts and Heretics and particularly the parts about it I enjoyed, as well as the discovery that the more uptempo songs were rather off-kilter was a pleasant surprise. I’m inclined to look further into the man’s work for certain, and will need to track down a more reasonably tracklisted version of his debut–one that doesn’t jam itself up with all those U.S. label modifications.

Dolby’s a fascinating character outside his music, as a sidebar–he’s involved in plenty of synthetic music creation, up to and including a rendering of Nokia’s cell ringtone, as well as the tech side and creations therein, even giving TED talks, sometimes. His name, of course, is not indicative of a connection to the audio company responsible for many audio standards, though it did result in some minor legal knots between them–it’s not even his real name, which is Robertson.

In any case, so long as you don’t have that immediate allergy some do to electronic-based pop music, this is a really great record, I’ve found. Interesting as a curious exception to a lot of standing rules of the sounds that surround it, rather than being just a strong example of them.


Day Forty-Five: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

Columbia Records ■ JC 35709

Released January 5, 1979

Produced by Nick Lowe
Engineered by Roger Bechirian

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Accidents Will Happen
  2. Senior Service
  3. Oliver’s Army
  4. Big Boys
  5. Green Shirt
  6. Party Girl
  1. Goon Squad
  2. Busy Bodies
  3. Moods for Moderns
  4. Chemistry Class
  5. Two Little Hitlers
  6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

While I’ve managed to cover bands from ItalyCornwallSwedenIrelandAustralia, and, of course various other parts of the UK (“other parts” references back to Cornwall, not Australia), I’m most definitely a U.S. citizen. I have always lived here, and indeed have never left here. As a result, many of my used records reflect the peculiarities of the U.S. market, and the alterations¹ thereof. While Mondo Bongo managed to squeak into my Boomtown Rats poll without warning, I decided, in the future, to notate these issues as they arise, in case anyone is voting on standing preference or favourites. Armed Forces is more distinctly transformed from its original U.K. counterpart, going so far as to be effectively unrecognizable even on sight. The tracklist is altered only slightly, though: “Sunday’s Best” is dropped from the middle of the early half of side two in favour of the closing inclusion of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” E.C.’s cover of Nick Lowe’s song, which was originally released as the B-side to Lowe’s “American Squirm”, and credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound”, though the cover does manage to hint at the artist’s true identity if you look (just a bit) carefully.

As a further result of my age, Costello was introduced to me primarily through Spike, and from there largely because of his hit collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica”. I began to gather his work simply because it was available briefly on eMusic when I was in high school and I quite liked what I’d heard (a brief predilection for recorded chunks of various sets of music television, not all of it MTV, that my dad had tucked away on VHS meant I’d also heard, for example, “Oliver’s Army”). Indicative of why I do this blog in the fashion that I do, downloading a complete discography–especially one with the loads of bonus material that comes from digital releases of these albums, or did at the time–was overwhelming and meant I barely gave any of it a listen over time. Because I often played an artist’s work in chronological order, it did mean that what I did hear was mostly his earlier material. My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model were early physical purchases (on CD, in 2-disc expanded form), and this was the first, and for a long time only, album of his I purchased on vinyl.
While I’ve come to love albums like Trust more (“Clubland” deserves a lot of credit for this, but by no means all of it), it being a very deliberate purchase on vinyl in relatively recent years, the earliest of his² albums remain the strongest in my mind, possibly because of the sensibilities and production of Nick Lowe that they are imbued with. An excess of plays for My Aim Is True and the sense that one is “supposed” to pick This Year’s Model to prove some kind of taste (the closest I come to responding to those positions), Armed Forces may be my favourite of that first trio, though it’s neither easy (nor especially useful) to do so. When my parents and I went to see him about a year ago, though, I took no issue with the career-wide selection of material he played (though I continue to regret that the wheel never fell on “Clubland”).
Costello opens the album with his distinctive voice, singing, “Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”, but softens the creaking, nasal tenor that defines it by lowering it for the verses of “Accidents Will Happen”, Steve Nieve’s keyboards, as is often the case with the Attractions, take the melodic lead, though Bruce Thomas’s bass has its run of the lower end, and doesn’t seem content with rhythmic accent. Elvis’s guitar is nowhere to be heard, Pete Thomas (no relation) accenting the off beat in a rather standard backbeat, but clears away its snares and Nieve takes the rhythm for the chorus, giving a kind of jarring clarity to Costello’s voice, which emphasizes the first syllable of the song’s title sharply before relaxing for the rest. The wall of keyboard sound and Costello’s subdued vocal gives the song the feeling of his own lyric: “Oh I don’t wanna hear it/Cause I know what I’ve done”. The song is edged with the feeling of “Yes, yes, I know already,” but as a speaker, not an impatient listener. The fading repetition and tilted piano riff carry off as echos of a conversation had endlessly.
A wonderfully rubbery bass from Bruce hits all four beats, Pete joining him with some great, solid snare hits on the last three acts as the perfect balance to the delightfully escalating keyboard melody from Nieve as “Senior Service” begins, the brevity and power of Pete’s hits giving the entire song a bit of a stop-start feeling. Pete moves to the off-beats again, and Costello starts the song with the chorus: “Senior service”, answering himself with the rising pitch of his own “backing” vocal: “Junior dissatisfaction”. A lowered voice as on the verses of “Accidents” continues, bobbing to the halting rhythm: “It’s a breath you took too late/It’s a death that’s worse than fate.” The verses come without vocal restraint, but it’s all about that chorus. Even the “oohs” and sustained keyboard chords of a brief reprieve are short-lived, working us back regularly to the constant motion of the song’s brilliant chorus. That the chorus manages to include that evocative pair of lines and that clever inversion only makes it that much more wonderful. All too soon, it ends, at only two minutes, eighteen seconds.
“Oliver’s Army” has been Elvis’s best selling single to this day, and is focused primarily on the piano of Steve Nieve, the initial melody of which is distinct and sudden in its place after “Senior Service”: it’s dramatic and “big”, but falls back to organ-esque keys which hop around behind Bruce’s restless and very mobile bassline,  Pete half-stuck to the hi-hat for the whole song. Elvis sings the verses over this, but are joined by Nieve’s piano flourishes for the chorus, his voice here seeming to be trying to get out all the words before he runs out of breath, but without the exertion that normally marks that sound. It’s a stupendously catchy chorus, especially matched with the piano as it is. The subject matter is (unsurprisingly for Mr. MacManus–Costello’s real name, I should probably clarify) cynical and dark despite the cheery sound of the song, inspired, he has said, by seeing the extremely young soldiers in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons in Belfast. 
Crouched low, a quiet hum keeps “Big Boys” low to the ground as Costello starts the song off, effectively a cappella. “Everything’s so provocative/Very very temporary”, he sings, but as he goes on to the next line, “I shall walk,” the Thomases drop in a cool steady beat, backing vocals that bear the signature sound of E.C. himself repeat his words, as he gains in energy, before he reaches the chorus, where the escalation is unwound with a single drawn out, downward-winding word–“so”: “You tried, so-oh-oh hard/To be like the big boys”. Keyboard textures flash around the sides of the verse, the Thomases pushing insistently at the song. As the verse continues, Pete’s beat stays rocksteady, Costello’s voice starts to speed up but remain regular and steady. He answers each of his own lines with a simple phrase–“She’ll be the one”–but comes back around to the descending emphasis of effort, each repetition raising the pitch of “So”‘s descent before he finally ends with that calm “to be like the big boys”. 
A brief faux-harpsichord starts the knowingly paranoid wonderings of “Green Shirt”, steady 4/4 bass kicks back a monotone repetition of muted guitar strings. Every 12 beats, Pete adds four snare hits to his regular kicks, Nieve’s keys slowly fading in with the telltale synthetic sustain of electronic keys, Costello singing in quiet confidence, a hand palm out in front of his mouth to whisper aside to the listener “discreetly”. “Buy you tease/And you flirt/And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it”, he sings at the chorus, still close to the vest. The next verse has more of his clever lyricism: “‘Cause somewhere in the “Quisling Clinic”/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes/She’s listening in to the Venus line/She’s picking out names/I hope none of them are mine”. After the chorus comes back around, Pete’s snare becomes a steady fixture, growing with a burping of Nieve’s electric keys, though the song builds on Pete’s drums only to drop anticlimactically to nothing but Nieve’s synthesizer. The sound on a synth often used to represent horns (poorly!) rises over the fading measures of the song’s end, never really leaving the conspiratorial, private “conversation” it begins with.
The low, beleaguered swing of “Party Girl” is like a party wound down, in its death throes but not yet devoid of the humour and good mood that previously defined it–drunkenness is fading, hangovers are still a ways off, but everyone has calmed and quieted, though the signs of a party remain. Guitar plays a short, easy lead, but drops away as Costello launches into the vocal portion of the song, bass and a steady beat that somehow drags despite being tight and on-beat–as it should, in context–is all there is behind him. “I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They’d settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look me over/Seen ’em leavin’ when the party’s over”, he sings over a suddenly strengthened, intense, pounding piano line, but with the end of those lines it subsides. It’s sweet and romantic, but utterly jaded, bolstered most thoroughly by the melody and force of the music behind those lines which only makes one more appearance, but is a wonderful hook for the song, which gradually falls to wild strings of piano and the repeated pleas Costello fades out on.
The ominous chime of guitars and keys in “Goon Squad” calls to mind sounds of the late 60s in a way, though the rumbling burble of Bruce’s bass is more like that of the muscled basslines of 70s cop movies, even those scored by Goblin (yes, more obscure references, which neither prove my esoteric knowledge nor help anyone!), but the ride cymbal swing of Pete’s drumming seems to marry the two–perhaps it’s a 70s production of a 60s cop show? Costello’s voice cries out with a kind of desperation with guitars playing more blended chords, a push from the accelerated ride gives us a different voice, that of considered options, no longer desperate, but ended with an exit from thoughts of possible future to the inevitability of the present: “but I never thought they’d put me in the…Goon Squad!” A low, spoken version of the same last two words comes with the cry from Elvis’s voice as naturally led into by the preceding lines, and gives it a punch (apparently, this was at the suggestion of Mr. Lowe). Left to only the rhythm section, Costello spews out a confessional instead of a cry, the crispness of the drums and the roiling warmth of the bass accentuating the earlier sense of soundtracking. The way it floats off is the way it jumped in: seemingly part of a greater fabric, but displaced to some strange fit into this album.

Almost a sort of ballad at first, “Busy Bodies” goes slightly herky-jerky, Nieve tapping out a neat little organ lick that responds to each of Costello’s lines. Interestingly, this flows nicely into a return to the balladesque format of the song proper, though the automatic drive riff that follows the bridge’s repetition of the word “Nowhere” again pulls the song away from that vibe. That organ lick, though, is a fantastic hook, though Bruce’s slowly descending bassline that follows it is almost like a rudimentary form of the one that flows through “Clubland”, for which I can only cheer.

There’s a certain subset of E.C./Attractions material that has the most nervy, wiry “new wave” feelings–at least in my endlessly pattern-seeking mind–and “Moods for Moderns” is a prime example. While Pete is laying down a nice but simple feel at an even 4/4, Bruce is muscling into a melody, but Nieve is playing organ-y keyboards with the feel of a guitar played only with upstrokes, giving me the desire to move upward with each note, in a sort of light “pogoing” sense. This dance-y feeling is made worse (actually, better) by the repetition of the title in a “backing vocal” style, all four syllables crammed into about two beats. Elvis’s “sensual” voice marks the actual verses, an escalating bassline subtly raising the tension, but it’s responded to with the quirky pop of a questioning keyboard bit from Nieve. As if the song weren’t loaded with enough hook-y moments, the sudden downard slope of Costello’s rapid vocals–“Soon you’ll belong to someone else/And I will be your stranger just pretending”–knocks this one out of the park. This and “Senior Service” often vie for the throne of this album, I feel.

Maybe it’s following “Moods for Moderns” that does it, but “Chemistry Class” has often felt like, not so much a disappointment, but just a “standard” song for Costello–which is still an extreme positive, but not one on par with the rest. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to note, as the lines “They chopped you up in butcher’s school/Threw you out of the academy of garbage/You’ll be a joker all your life/A student at the comedy college/People pleasing people pleasing people like you,” and the strange choice to take the word “accidents” in the lines “Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned/If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn” and repeat it as if edited in is fascinating, as are the hovering e-bow-y vibrations the song exits on.

I’m left to wonder how on earth Nick Lowe could release “Little Hitler” only to have compatriot Costello release “Two Little Hitlers” the following year (indeed, not even a whole year later!) and even produce the record! I won’t complain though–the jerky, pseudo-reggae stylings of the Costello song are enjoyable enough, with the fun of a rather quick bassline from Bruce and a bit of “upstroke” organ from Nieve gets us to the aesthetically appealing collection of phonemes that precedes the chorus: “Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one’s will,” he sings, the cruel descriptions of a two-tyrant relationship dripping with cynicism, but sung with a certain amusement. But the semi-disco drumbeat and bass that follow it are the perfect counterpoint to mild vocal acrobatics to expand simple words: “I will return/I will not burn”, a vocal hook that redeems the track from, “Hey, not bad” to “Yesss!” in one fell swoop.

While “Two Little Hitlers” is a great closer, in the U.S. they simply could not resist the possible sales uptick and dropped “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” there. The song has often struck me as similar to “Accidents Will Happen” with respect to Costello’s recording of it, being one of the bigger songs (“Oliver’s Army” is the third) on the album, not so much in the single sales sense as the sound of large flourishes and drama. It doesn’t dissuade me from the notion to hear the furious snare introduction from Pete,   cavernous piano riffs pounded out from Nieve, and the ringing guitars that blend with those keys to create great sheafs of sound. While the original Brinsley Schwarz version (which Nick performed on and sang) does have the same chord structure, the looming riffs are guitar rather than keys, and Nick’s vocal choices are more subdued, somewhat sad (apparently his intention). With Costello freed to add a minor underscore to the song’s melody and force on guitar, the song is actually amplified even further, and his vocal reading is rhetorical, cynical and has no interest in answers to its questions–doesn’t believe there are any to be had, really. It’s amusing to know that most of us had no idea there was a certain sincerity to the original version, if nothing else, in the mind of the character Nick was singing as. Of course, with Nick, that adds a wry and very subtle element of humour, knowing his own tendency toward dark humour and certain humanistic cynicism. That the song fades out on the same parts still crashing is perfect; this isn’t a resolved matter, even if Costello sees no forthcoming or useful answers–just a possible reality to “this wicked world” and “all hope lost”.

I was thinking, and, in truth, my real introduction to Elvis Costello was this image, looming and large on a wall in a room in the house I grew up in. He looks somber, intense, and vaguely like a person unaware of how his leaning and staring comes off as far, far too interested in the person on the other side. Innocently curious, but intrusively acting upon it. It coloured a perception that might have been better served by images like the awkward, self-aware and droll cover of My Aim Is True, which seems to be almost ironic in its callback to old record covers. The intense expression and sharp, long cheekbones of that first image lacked the humourt most images on album covers carried, and gave him an alien appearance of a kind, rather than the semi-nerdy, gap-toothed, punk-inflected sneer that marked many of his late 70s appearances.

I’m not sure what it made me think, really. But it gave me an entirely different impression of what he was, or what he would sound like–maybe someone so far gone into a persona (or a real personality so pronounced it seems like a persona), a Klaus Nomi or a Thin White Duke, some kind of eccentric, unusual and clearly defined aesthetic. I suppose this is interesting in light of the fact that Costello has mentioned that this album actually bears a few influences from the Berlin-era of Bowie, which immediately followed his Duke persona. Maybe more interesting is that Costello said the band had a short list of commonly agreed upon music, and it involved two Beatles albums alongside other artists (like Bowie via the aforementioned Berlin trilogy)–Abbey Road and the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, particularly, he has noted, “It’s All Too Much”, which happens to be my absolute favourite Beatles track of all. Curious, indeed.

While the sounds of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces are distinct, they feel of a kind, which one might be inclined to lay at the feet of a producer–but one would be mistaken, as Lowe stuck with Mr. MacManus for another two albums. While the R&B influences are the automatic point of reference for Get Happy!!, even Trust feels stylistically different, and the two remain separate in feeling from their predecessors. Perhaps Armed Forces is the apex of that initial slew of albums, being more refined than Aim and less (a bit) snarky than This Year’s Model–a tiny bit more personal maybe.

I can’t leave this without mentioning the track that was omitted: “Sunday’s Best”. It’s a shame–this is a great song, with a carnival atmosphere and a great vocal from Costello, particularly on the title, but also on the circus swing of his verses. Considering “(What’s So Funny)” was actually intentionally left off the album, relegating “Sunday’s Best” to the compilation Taking Liberties seems unfair. Oh well–it was not abandoned as a practice by this time, and certainly wasn’t abandoned for some time after (and may only now approach actual abandonment), so I suppose that is just life.

  • Next Up: Cream – Wheels of Fire

¹While some of these alterations may occur for other reasons, even some of the U.S. bands (such as Codeine) with that tag were altered for their U.S. release. It’s a bit mind-boggling, really.
²I should say “their” as I am loathe to avoid recognition of the work of any musicians involved in a work, but, like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I’m inclined to be lax in specificity because they all drew vague lines (if any at all) between solo credits, “actual” solo albums, and “actual” band albums, often overlapping significantly between them.

Day Thirty-Five: The Cars – Shake It Up

Elektra Records ■ 5E-567
Released November 6, 1981
Produced by Roy Thomas Baker
Engineered by Ian Taylor (with Walter Turbitt and Thom Moore)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Since You’re Gone
  2. Shake It Up
  3. I’m Not the One
  4. Victim of Love
  5. Cruiser
  1. A Dream Away
  2. This Could Be Love
  3. Think It Over
  4. Maybe Baby

The reasons for this particular purchase might be, in their way, kind of stupid. There was a period of time in high school where I began to raid my father’s rather extensive poster collection, which was largely made up of the theatrical ones from his time managing a theater in the early 80s (I’ve got some real doozies, actually, like the ones for Blade Runner, Life of Brian, Poltergeist, Escape from New York and Wrath of Khan), but had a tiny smattering of music-oriented ones. One somewhat wrinkled, partly ripped but extraordinarily large one was the cover art for Shake It Up. While I originally began to put whatever posters I liked up (in some cases the link being semi-tenuous, as I’m not huge on Halloween II, but the poster is good, and I do like Halloween), I started to decide I should own the works in question before advertising them, as if it were disingenuous to say, “Look at my Shake It Up poster, what a good album!” and then not even own it.

That’s, in large part, why this is the only Cars album I own (on vinyl, mind you). It was oddly unusual to run across the album in stores on CD, despite the fact that their self-titled debut, Heartbeat City and Candy-O still made regular appearances. I’m not sure why that is–“Since You’re Gone” and “Shake It Up” were big hits, the latter even being their first top 10. Still, it meant that stumbling into a copy on LP was a “necessary” buy–after all, I couldn’t justify that poster to myself without it. Silly, I guess–but somewhat indicative of the strange elements of my psychology.

If there’s one song I really bought the album for personally, it’s “Since You’re Gone”. Unsurprisingly, prior to buying and listening to the whole album, I knew only the two biggest singles. I liked them, as I do all of the Cars’ singles, but tended not to have favourites when it came to them. I didn’t, that is, until “Since You’re Gone” came along at the right moment in my overwhelmingly disappointing love life (disappointing, should a few people who know me, be a former part of that life, and even remotely likely to see this read that, as an average of the time spent alone, not with anyone). The sort of clipped almost echo-less handclaps that open the song are kind of deliberately sterile and processed, in a way that makes them sort of stand out in their isolation, setting the ground for the faded in guitars, and the plodding bassline. When the basic and seemingly morose drumbeat from David Robinson starts and Benjamin Orr’s bass actually finds its full rhythm, Elliott Easton and Ric Ocasek turn guitars to a riff that seems to climb hopefully only to turn itself back downward–as if they’re seeing the object of the song, only to realize it’s someone else. Greg Hawkes’ keyboards are hiding in the mix, adding a high pitch that’s almost indiscernible. But ooh, it’s those two notes he plays when answering Ric’s chorus, “Since you’re gone/Nothing’s making sense…” It’s catchy, crafted, poppy and enjoyable, but with Easton’s lower-end guitar solo that slides around, finally hitting a few high notes that just drop right back into the deep–it just fits a rather calm sense of loss.

Possibly the antithesis of “Since You’re Gone”, “Shake It Up” is the title track, and the words are obviously the inspiration for the rather silly cover. It’s based primarily around Hawkes’ largely monotonic keyboard line, that only occasionally slips up and then down, with Easton and Ric playing dry, palm-muted guitars that function more as rhythm and leave Hawkes in control of the song. When the chorus hits, a random scatter of midrange and pleasant notes render themselves from his keys, before a higher variant on his original line emanates. The heavily harmonized backing vocals that answer Ric’s thin, wobbly voice have a lot of weight to counter his lead vocal. Easton’s solo is probably his best on the album, following a nice fill from Robinson, that burns and bends with the right flare of energy for a song that is ostensibly just a fun “party” song about having fun on a dancefloor.

The thin electronic melody from Hawkes that opens “I’m Not the One”, followed by Easton’s sad, sliding lead tells us that, as the title suggests, this is more in the “Since You’re Gone” range emotionally, and so it is. The song itself carries the tone of resignation and acceptance that matches the lyrical content–with the rest of the band quietly but more confidently singing “You know why…” to bring in lines from Ric that could be telling the object of the song that she knows why this is all the case, or maybe echoing in his own mind as reminder of why he himself knows all of this. The song is very downtempo, still catchy, but focused again on the electronic elements primarily, including some wonderfully fake pseudo-horns toward the end.

“Victim of Love”–ah, I’d say should’ve been a single, but it was. Really, it just should have been bigger. While Ben Orr sang a fair number of Cars hits, he still has yet to see a lead vocal on this album. “Victim of Love” does not actually change that. As if trying to make as little noise as possible without making none, the guitars are muted but firm, and it’s Orr’s bass that (almost secretly) carries the melody, another insistent and near-monotonic Hawkes keyboard line driving the song. The guitars open up as they move toward the chorus, ringing and single-picked, while Hawkes’ pulsing keys turn to a higher, whistle-like variation on the same key riff. In the next verse, they drop back down, but not all the way, and continue to establish that sound as the defining aspect of the song. And I can’t fault them for a minute–that thing is brilliant. It’s mostly rhythm–two beats, a rest, two more and then three in rapid succession. Simple but catchy as all hell, and cleverly modified into two different sounds as the song goes along, caught in just the right place in the mix, so that the earliest version worms its way into your head and only becomes obvious when it shifts to a different pitch (though occasionally the middle note of the last triplet is dropped).

There are two semi-weak songs on the album, and they’re paired as the closer for Side One and the opener for Side Two. “Cruiser” is the first, though it has a great key-to-guitar hook. Unfortunately for Orr, this is his first lead vocal on the album. There’s an emphasis on beat over melody in the basic framework, Hawkes playing three of the same note with a brief pause over and over, the guitars playing open, distorted chords that just ring for a moment, Robinson holding it all together with a steady beat. Each of Orr’s lyric lines, though, is answered with a sudden gnarled lick from the previously simplistic guitar, each accentuated by just two piano-esque beats from Hawkes. The chorus is marked by the muting of the guitars and a more varied keyboard line, which, at the end of the chorus, turns to a slow descent on the keyboards for a few measures. That gnarly lick and that descending keyboard–those keep the song interesting, but the thumping beat makes the song feel a bit long in totality–it feels a bit like the sound of someone who keeps explaining past the point, possibly due to internal difficulties in stopping at the proper point. I realize this may be a bit hypocritical for me to criticize as a notion, of course.

“A Dream Away” is drum-machine driven at open, and its lyrics read and sound like a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness laundry list. The oblong rolling wheel of Hawkes’s rising and falling bassy keyboard riff does keep it from thudding too steadily. The echoes on Ric’s voice and the intermittent approach to the guitars do give it an appropriately dream-like quality, and it’s interesting the way the song seems to respond to Ric’s claim that “We’d better take it on the run”, seemingly beginning to pull away from him at this moment.

The only song with a co-writer (Hawkes) alongside Ocasek, “This Could Be Love” is ominous and pounding as it starts, all drum and bass. The muted guitars, played as if trying to move their hands or arms as little as possible. Hawkes plays a keyboard riff that manages to be innocent and catchy, but also off-kilter and contextually appropriate. “You were slinked and dressed in pink”, Orr sings, and then one guitar becomes clean and open as he goes on, “There with someone you wouldn’t think”, his voice rising at the end of the line in a vaguely aching way. “Is this the kill/Is this the thrill” he sings questioningly, and the song returns to its subtle threat. There’s a great, glitchy solo from Hawkes about halfway through, too, but the song rides on the feeling of obsession, the defining tone of the album as a whole.

“Think It Over”, Orr’s final vocal lead on the album, is the closest to “Shake It Up”, hopping around on the insistent keys of Hawkes and the absolutely rumbling bassy keyboard line Orr played live, until the loud snap of Robinson introducing the backing vocal, bouncy chorus, which Easton pushes the band into as he slides a delightful lead up the neck of his guitar. It may actually be more cheerful than “Shake It Up”, though there is a weird kind of arrogance or overconfidence in the lyrics, again bordering on obsession.

Roiling drums from Robinson keep “Maybe Baby” in perpetual motion, though a tightly wound hook from Greg easily catches the ear during the chorus. While Robinson’s drumming doesn’t stop for anything throughout–most distinctly in motion because it focuses almost exclusively on toms–the rest of the band moves at an easier tempo for the verses, only accelerating with the tense hope of the chorus, Ric’s voice layered with an echo that is both powerful and almost impotent, calling out to a response that is only his own voice. Despite Robinson’s pace, the song fits very well as a closer, for the same reason that Ric’s echo-laden voice makes sense in context.

I’ve always thought of the Cars as sort of the “true” new wave sound, in the sense that new wave was originally used primarily as an alternate term for punk, first in the U.K. naturally, then later in the U.S. to try to “sneak” punk onto the radio. The Boomtown Rats are a solid example of straddling that line: their first single, “Lookin After No. 1” is very nearly pure punk, while the varied instrumentation and more complex, fully-realized pop structures of their later work placed them more squarely and comfortably into the currently understood definition of “new wave”. The Cars, though, for all that they had some of the energy, the independence, and wiriness of punk (never more apparent than in the awkward look of Ric Ocasek, who sometimes appears less like he’s emulating or originating the look for David Byrne’s infamous giant suit, and more like regular suits just make him look tiny–and let’s not forget his fitting voice!), were always too electronically-based, too happy to craft from their very first album (the 1978 self-titled one), too willing to use handclaps in such a distinct way–despite the age of that first album, they seemed to have already developed the essence of what the U.S. public, at least, eventually decided was the definition of “new wave”, the sort of sense used most often these days: heavily synthesized, with roots in punk. Certainly, others followed them, and most likely some were developing in at least the background somewhat contemporaneously, but right out of the gate they had this sound.

It’s often interesting, then, to see the variance in response to the Cars. Breaking down their work musically tends to be rewarding: carefully constructed and constrived pop songs with a healthy dose of quirk and some measure of experimentation. Their lyrics, though (largely the work of Ocasek), left them pretty squarely in the pop side of things. Despite the immediate impression that most “serious” folks would relegate them immediately to the pile marked utterly disposable and uninteresting, they’ve maintained a sense of respectability despite the sheen on their music and the simple themes they stuck to.

This album in particular is, despite my silly reasons for making it the one I pursued most adamantly, probably my favourite Cars album. It’s not that the material is that much stronger than, say, the self-titled album (that one is forever a whopper, as quality of material goes), it’s that it’s four albums in and a steady hand on the wheel of style, but a weird tone, intentional or not, that marries deeper depressions to rejection, and more unsettling levels of devotion–again, bordering on obsession–to the romantically hopeful tunes. When Orr sings, “There’s nothing you could do to make me want to stop”, you don’t get the feeling he’s necessarily doing anything that would concern the person he’s singing to, but are still left thinking, “Well, that’s sort of a creepy sentiment, even if the manifestation is innnocent…” Or when Ric sings “Since you’re gone/I’m throwing it all away […] Since you’re gone/I took the big vacation”, there’s a hint of such intense response to this loss that you wonder how far he’s carrying this reaction. The songs, in both cases, keep their tones from being truly unpleasant–or unpleasant at all, for that matter–but may make you look a bit to the side, see if maybe anyone else just heard what you did, or if it is as innocent as you would think from the reputation of the band.

  • Next Up: Caustic Window – Compilation

Day Twenty-Six: The Boomtown Rats – Mondo Bongo

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released January 24, 1981¹
Produced by Tony Visconti and the Boomtown Rats
Engineered by Chris Porter and Tom Winter
¹Original tracklisting; UK release

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Mood Mambo
  2. Straight Up
  3. This Is My Room
  4. Another Piece of Red
  5. Go Man Go
  6. Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb
  1. Please Don’t Go
  2. The Elephant’s Graveyard
  3. Banana Republic
  4. Don’t Talk to Me
  5. Hurt Hurts
  6. Up All Night

Anyone who knows this album (and let’s be honest, that’s probably zero people I know, and thus zero people reading this) might see something a bit peculiar above. And there is something peculiar. Anyone who has done much research into British music in the 1960s–and it doesn’t take much–will start to see a large volume peculiarities. There was no Yesterday and Today, no Beatles VI, no Who album titled Happy Jack–and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even AC/DC (who were only British by birth, and even then only 3/5 of them) suffered this with the weird melding of the albums T.N.T. and High Voltage, with some tracks from these scattered around, and others lost until the release of the ’74 Jailbreak EP in 1984, four years after the death of Bon Scott in 1980–to say nothing of the more minor fiddlings with the other albums cannibalized to encompass that release. Bewildering re-arrangements and tossed-in-a-blender releases are a hallmark of U.S. releases of artists from other countries, and often done in fashions more like High Voltage, where the title stays the same and nothing else does–the tracklisting, the cover art, even the placement in the chronology of release. This is actually another tiny part of my frustration with blogs setting out to cover 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: if you are unaware, you may not actually be listening to the recordings you are being directed toward. If you are told to listen to Raw Power in the modern age, chances are you aren’t going to hear David Bowie’s mix, unless you know to seek it out. If you are told to listen to a number of Frank Zappa’s albums with the Mothers of Invention, censoring, strange mixes and other alterations will occur (though you can be forgiven, in that case, for thinking perhaps they are intended in some cases).

The original UK release of Mondo Bongo had a matching first side, but the second varied significantly, as “Don’t Talk to Me” was instead later released as the B-side to “Never in a Million Years” (a single from follow-up album V Deep), “Up All Night” was from V Deep and released as a single, and both “Fall Down” and “Whitehall 1212” appeared on the album instead. In the US, these tracks were released on V Deep (“Whitehall 1212”), and, well, not at all (“Fall Down”). I was aware of these changes by the time I picked this up, but I didn’t really expect to run into the original UK tracklisting at any point. Bob Geldof (writer/vocalist) and Pete Briquette (bassist and occasional co-writer) rearranged the tracks again for the 2005 remaster series, wherein everything went absolutely bonkers, “Straight Up” opening the album and being followed by “The Elephant’s Graveyard”–and more shuffling all the way through². If I didn’t give you any of that background and you decided to listen to this record, you’d have a good chance of finding yourself mightily confused–especially if you were to download or purchase it on CD. If you find something interesting here, keep all that in mind: this listing isn’t hanging around except on used vinyl!

“Mood Mambo” is a peculiar choice for an opener: jittery bongos, a thumping bass kick, and Geldof in his story-telling mode, the beat rapid enough that you aren’t going to mistake that arrangement for a beat poetry session. “I’m in the mood to–” he says, and the band comes in with just backing vocals, singing “Crazy bongo!” as Pete Briquette’s bass enters, with a line that seems vaguely detached from the frenetic bongo playing. The band’s backing vocals continue, as does Geldof telling his story. Short blurts of electronic noise (likely at the hands of the band’s keyboardist, Johnny Fingers) and an echo on Geldof’s lines on occasion keep us floating entirely outside the punk/new wave sound the Rats originated in, or even the less punk realms they’d begun exploring most thoroughly on The Fine Art of Surfacing the year prior. Eventually everything hushes and Geldof whispers, too, but as he says, “You see, they’re in the mood to…” his voice returns to its normal volume, as does the rest of the band. Repetition of the backing lines with Geldof improvising elaborations and nothing but bongos behind them fades the song out.

Actually a clever choice for an opener on the remastered CD, “Straight Up” starts with yo-yoing drums from Simon Crowe and riffs from Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts. Fingers enters in the background on an organ, but after the initial sting of those riffs, the bassline tries to drag the song through a descending spiral, eventually succeeding and taking over the song with a propulsive line that acts as a more distinct backing for Geldof’s vocal. Fingers moves to piano and adds only intermittent force to the rhythm, catching more of the melody as they run into the chorus, where the organ holds and wails, but turns back to a piano that now follows the speeding bassline of Briquette to enforce its rhythm. Synth-inflected keys and varied drum fills mark a brief interlude, before the original bright, strong riff comes back. After the final verse, the song fades on the sounds of the interlude, which runs over Pete’s downward spiraling bass.

Almost absent of any lyrics at all, barring the title, “This Is My Room” is practically an instrumental song. A slow, bell-jingling introduction gives way to a harp-like cascade of electric keys from Fingers that slowly shuffles, gathering its force into a steady beat moved more by bass than melody. On piano again, Fingers drops the odd fluttering melodic line, the song running through a rise a few times with non-verbal vocals from Bob and the rest joining it. A solid chord from the piano is answered by thunder and the song changes, allowing a synthetic line to define it. “This is my room/Oh yeah/This is my room”, Bob sings, over dramatic rolls and rhythmic strumming of guitar. “I can sleep alone/I know how/I stay here on my own/And now/I wake from sleep with little rest/It’s 10 by 9 and in a mess/A window shut but facing west/A worn out rug, an old address/And…/This is my room”. Rolling timpani and emphatic guitar riffs give a huge weight to a simple, descriptive song.

Though I’ve seen it maligned on occasion, I’ve always liked “Another Piece of Red”. Fingers uses a pretty piano intro that morphs briefly into a musical quote that I couldn’t name if I tried (and I tried) but that is often used to “announce” a scene is set in Britain. I’d be quite grateful if anyone can in fact give me a title! [Update: It’s “Rule Britannia”, which I was convinced was the piece in question, but was deflected from when I heard how it starts. Probably should have listened to more of it! Thanks to Liam for this clarification] Anyway: Geldof begins singing about watching Zimbabwe fall from British control in the 1980 elections there that removed Ian Smith. Over nothing but Johnny’s piano, Geldof sings of the slow descent of British imperialism, pausing before the chorus for a rising drum roll from Crowe, and the addition of Briquette on bass for the following verses that list the countries falling away from the British Empire, Crowe contributing a light rhythm.  At the next chorus, the song is returned to just Geldof and Fingers, with the briefest addition of whistling and martial drumming, ending the song with a drum roll crescendo.

Huge drums–timpani in part–and Pete’s bass open “Go Man Go!” with a steady pace, but a very big sound. Fingers adds synthetic keys in a more bright melody that gradually pulls Crowe into a more rock-ish drumbeat. A very up-front-mixed vocal from Geldof (who answers himself in backing vocals) runs the vocals over a rhythm section almost alone, though a whirling organ line from Fingers brings the song to its chorus, which is primarily call-and-answer where the answer is always the title of the song, punctuated by the rhythm section. Synthesizer lines and Geldof’s back-and-forth with himself are expanded a bit in the following verse, later leading to a repetition of the chorus briefly delayed by a saxophone solo from Dr. David Machale (later immortalized in “Dave” on In the Long Grass, though the song was changed to “Rain” in the US, allegedly because some radio executives were concerned a man singing to another might be a bit “too gay”–always good to know the reasons behind those decisions are not irrational so much as stupid). The song ends with a long outro, then a squawk from Machale that Geldof responds to by saying “One more time”, but he earns instead a synthetic sting from Fingers.

Geldof re-arranges and re-works the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” into “Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb”, a thumping beat and a reggae rhythm matched to a great beat from Crowe. An echo on intermittent drum hits and Geldof’s own voice echoes (ahem) the production techniques of the greats of dub. The pace and the peculiar key solo from Fingers keep the song firmly grounded in the Rats’ musical aesthetic though.

A peculiar percussive solo opens “Please Don’t Go” before turning into a more frantic and clear but difficult to separate rhythm motion added to by upward slides from Briquette, though the song breaks into more comfortable territory when Machale’s sax joins and Geldof begins telling another story, backing himself with the title of the song for a second time. While his story-telling is casual, and even his more distinctly sung backing, as well as Machale’s sax are relatively easygoing, Crowe and Briquette thunder onward underneath him, though Crowe’s drumming remains wild and varied, too, further emphasizing its difference from the rest of the song. There’s a momentary relent that allows Briquette to take control, giving Bob the opportunity to sing scat (!) for a few measures. An overlay of electronic keys from Johnny is allowed to shine over it all for just a moment, but the drums regain control, eventually crossfaded into another mechanical and rhythmic sound, which is eventually left in isolation: the tapping of a typewriter.

The biggest single from the album in the U.S. (I believe, at least–this band is not loaded with information around the net, and what’s there is often conflicting, at least in part, and they were never near as big in the U.S. as anywhere else) is “The Elephant’s Graveyard”, which is perhaps the most normally Rats song, with hints of Steve Nieve-y-circa-This Year’s Model³ organ from Fingers, which is followed by a more grand line on piano for a moment. Ever energetic Pete and Simon keep the song moving through either as Geldof sings about Miami, Florida, and Florida’s nature as “retirement state”, balanced against the riots that were incited by the death of Arthur McDuffie there. “Guilty, ’til proven guilty/Isn’t that the law?/Guilty, ’til proven guilty/That’s what we all saw”, goes the chorus–seemingly speaking for the jury that acquitted the accused police officers, but ending by turning it on them for a moment, exiting on calls of “Shame, shame, shame-y shame”.

On the other hand, the more definitive biggest single in the U.K. was “Banana Republic”, Geldof’s acerbic and acidic, but relatively casual description of Ireland, the band’s home country, from which they were banned from performing. A reggae-style bassline, the scratching, palm-muted guitar and the basic drumbeat adding up to the same give the song a rather odd opening, a drum roll seeming to announce the song proper, but instead leading to a repetition, over which Fingers vamps in a more organ-like keyboard line. When the song does begin, it speeds its pace and shifts entirely, to a  more full sound, with even faux accordion moments. The burbling, bubbling Briquette’s bass keeps the sound of the introduction, though, and the near-falsetto backing of the chorus and Bob’s own subdued reading of it–especially contrasted with his emphatic though seemingly jaded and unemotional (in tone, though not word) delivery of the verses. Partway through, Bob’s voice repeats the description of who he thinks controls it all–“The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests” and then echoes into the distance. We come back to the introductory reggae style, which continues of a lengthy outro, slowly breaking down until Briquette is left repeating his part alone at the end.

A very rough guitar and Geldof give a completely different impression of “Hurt Hurts” than the song itself bears out. Crowe’s huge drum sound announce the song’s title with handclaps and more volume and emphasis than the opening of the song. The movement in the pseudo-chorus is full and rhythmic, with an unusually low piano riff defining much of it. The crash and thump of Crowe’s drums, though, is the signature of the song, pounding out under the lightly echoed calls of “Hurt hurts” from Geldof, interestingly outshining the chorus proper as a hook.

Inserted from a b-side for the U.S. release, “Don’t Talk to Me” is perhaps the most “normal” song on the entire album, with Bob doing his best Buddy Holly impersonation (think “oh-ho-ho”), with a nicely backed chorus performed by him with the rest of the band, a load of handclaps and a bit of semi-standard guitar. There’s even a hint of some 60s (surfish) guitar sound, and an actual guitar solo.

“Up All Night” is on loan from another album entirely, though thankfully at least one produced by the same people. It’s also not too far off in sound from the rest of Mondo Bongo, so its appearance isn’t entirely unwelcome. Bass-dominated, the song is almost nothing else, though bongo-based percussion is also present. Guitars are all texture and often not present. Johnny’s fingers are also intermittent at best. The echo on Bob’s answering lines in the chorus are also reminiscent of the peculiar production choices on Mondo Bongo that set it so distinctly apart from its predecessor, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Fingers does get a solo, and the “Say it ain’t so, Joe/Say it ain’t so, Joe-woah-woah-woah/Oh-woah-woah-woah” bridge actually make for a solid ending to the album, even if the changes inherently raise my hackles.

Of course, hiding after this is the “hidden track” “Cheerio”: a very rough, live acoustic guitar backs Geldof through a very short song. “You’d better hurry up and say something/Or else I’m gonna go”, he sings, and the album ends. Ah, wait, no: “Okay./That’s fine by me./Cheerio!” Geldof sings with an angelic chorus of the rest of the band behind him, repeating it to the end of the album.

The Rats are one of my favourite bands. To many, that goes without saying. It shouldn’t be too much a surprise–even in the future, looking at past polls you can see what a volume of their stuff I have as compared to effectively any other artist (and it doesn’t include my double 7″ for “Charmed Lives”, either). I own all six albums on vinyl and CD, and scattered bits and pieces outside of that. They hit my sweet spot, really: a professional, unusual, but pop-oriented band. There’s a sensibility to Geldof’s songwriting that is easily seen in the choice to label a Rats-plus-Geldof-solo compilation Loudmouth, and in songs like his “Great Song of Indifference”, a live take of a first world occupant talking about their callous disinterest in suffering around the world. As with many things Geldof sings and does, there’s no sense that he’s preaching with a fuzzy head or cynicism about the cause: he never pulls punches (though he occasionally plays politics) about what he thinks is important–when he wrote a song about the man who took his wife away from him and later killed himself, it’s neither devoid of sympathy nor maudlin: “What the fuck’s goin’ on inside your head?” Frustrated, angry, but not dismissive, it’s the nature of Bob’s approach to things. He’s jaded and arrogant, but not without awareness of the fact that he’s limited. Matched to his musical sensibilities (steeped in punk, but later let dry out in other genres, most clearly starting with this album), it’s a great mix.

I’ve always thought of Mondo Bongo as “the experimental album”, with their self-titled debut being the most “punk”, A Tonic for the Troops building that sound into their own–often the moment I like most in bands–and The Fine Art of Surfacing putting a finish on it. I’m not left with that opinion changed, but as with every time I listen to one of the last three Rats albums, I’m reminded that I often sell them short. I’d still recommend a few of the others (Tonic, Fine Art) first, but this isn’t the failure some make it out to be.

²If you want specifics:

  1. “Straight Up” – 3:15
  2. “The Elephants Graveyard” – 3:43
  3. “This Is My Room” – 3:35
  4. “Another Piece of Red” – 2:35
  5. “Hurt Hurts” – 3:05
  6. “Please Don’t Go” – 3:34
  7. “Fall Down” – 2:26
  8. “Go Man Go!” – 3:52
  9. “Under Their Thumb” – 2:41
  10. “Banana Republic” – 4:55
  11. “Whitehall 1212” – 3:43
  12. “Mood Mambo” – 4:06
  13. “Cheerio”

³Steve Nieve is and was the keyboardist for Elvis Costello, first with the Attractions and now with whatever the heck he’s calling his band.

Day Eight Point Bonus Track(s): Barry Andrews – "Rossmore Road" b/w "Win a Night Out with a Well-Known Paranoiac"

Virgin Records ■ VS 378

Released: September, 1980

Produced by Barry Andews and John Strudwick


  • Rossmore Road

  • Win a Night Out with a Well-Known Paranoiac

NOTE: I don’t normally review singles (or most EPs, live albums, etc) but I’m going to use smaller releases to take up time when I feel like it.

I found this single when I was out hunting around on Record Store Day last year, and grabbed it only because Barry Andrews was originally keyboard player for XTC.
I’ve found that 7″s in general have their own kind of community (45cat is a database exclusively of 45rpm 7″ releases, primarily going only through the 1980s or 1990s in terms of what it contains) and tend to have cult followings–especially for artists who lack full album releases, and Mr. Andrews didn’t release an album with exclusively his name on it for another 23 years after this single came out. There are some cool songs out there that never got released in any other fashion (I do have one of my dad’s copies of Chris Hodge’s “We’re on Our Way” b/w “Supersoul” that was released on the Beatles’ Apple Records), so it always makes this kind of thing a bit fun.
Anyway, Barry left XTC after the release of Go 2, their second full length, and possessor of one of my favourite album covers ever, unsurprisingly designed by Hipgnosis, who designed many a classic album cover. The album was a bit peculiar in that it marks the only occasion that the band ever released an album with songs explicitly written by someone other than frontman Andy Partridge or co-conspirator, bassist Colin Moulding. Those songs–“Super Tuff” and “My Weapon” were written by Barry Andrews, who was trying to find his voice as a songwriter, but was somewhat wrestled out of the band by the paranoid Partridge (who feared he might lose control). They were odd songs, not sounding like most of the band’s output even to that point, and not the greatest by any stretch. I grabbed this single because I thought Barry might turn out differently without the strictures or expectations of an XTC record to constrain his songwriting.
It turns out I was right. “Rossmore Road” and “Win a Night Out with a Well-Known Paranoiac” are both interesting songs, with a sound a bit like a slightly over-“hip” band in a club, with a walking bassline in the A-side behind woodwinds–but also strange electronic noises. Barry describes Rossmore Road (apparently in Marylebone, London) in a sing-song fashion, joined in chorus by others when he sings the name of the road, until the song builds and explodes into a heavily punctuated and more full sounding chorus, which repeats “All humming now” to describe the amenities located in and around the road itself. 
“Win a Night Out” apparently got actual radio play, and is a much stranger song, though it sounds much like another band in a small club in the way I envision (perhaps inaccurately, but based primarily on television and movies in the 1980s and 1990s, usually in semi-period settings from earlier decades, like 1990’s Dick Tracy), but is dominated by Barry Andrews speaking out his notion of nights out with the theoretical winner, each of which goes off in strange and dark, awful directions. They’re all punctuated by a group of voices singing “Win a night out!” which Barry finishes for them, adding a bit more singing for those moments, but continuing primarily to operate his voice by rhythm.
This isn’t a release you’re going to stumble into, so give it a listen here: