Welcome back to 1001 Albums here on BANK HOLIDAY WEEKEND. This week we’ll be dusting off the Polymoog and the Linn drum machine as we’ll be looking at some of the synth-pop and New Romantic stuff from the 80s. In this week’s experiment, I’ll be adding the Spotify links so you can check the albums out yourself.
Culture Club, ‘Colour By Numbers’ (link)
With his flamboyant appearance and tart personality, Boy George was always going to be a star, whatever medium he chose to operate in. While he doesn’t stretch himself vocally here, he’s got a likeable, unthreatening, vaguely George Michael-ish voice, coupled with soft, chart-friendly music. George’s coquettish sexuality drew all the attention from the media; the band’s output was never especially controversial. In fact, if you listened to this without knowing the context, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about: soft blue-eyed soul with tinges of New Romantic, reggae and schmaltzy ballads, with unshowy musicianship from the band. The most dramatic contributions are Judd Lander’s harmonica and Helen Terry’s backing vocals: neither are even members of the band, and their appearances are more in the negative column. I wasn’t desperately interested in this: pretty tame fare.
Depeche Mode, ‘Music For The Masses’ (link)
The Mode were already five albums and one significant line-up change into their career before they released this, their first (but not final) appearance on the 1001. Named for purely ironic reasons, ‘Music For The Masses’ is a dark, macabre album filled with gloomy minor-key synths and sadomasochistic lyrics. You can imagine Anne Rice writing to this music; you can certainly see Nine Inch Nails and VNV Nation taking notes. The monochromatic mood is emphatic enough to overpower the occasional cheesy synth setting. Good album.
Duran Duran, ‘Rio’ (link)
The New Romantics’ best-known album, this is objectively well-written and performed, with the highlight being ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’. However, there’s something about this album that sounds nasty to my ears. Maybe it’s the slap-bass, maybe the guitar settings, maybe the harmonies, but perhaps it’s a combination of the lot. They were still a few years away from my favourite track of theirs, ‘Ordinary World’, but thankfully they were also a few years away from doing bad Public Enemy covers, so perhaps it evens out.
Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ (link)
Annie Lennox is the difference-maker here: while Dave Stewart keeps things ticking over on the accompaniment, it’s Lennox who stands out with her vocal range and ability to handle Aretha-esque soul and Liz Fraser-ish stratospheric cloudbursting. At their best, such as on ‘Jennifer’ and ‘Love is a Stranger’, they kind of sound like Goldfrapp arranged by Soft Cell. On ‘Walk’, they sound like The Cure with a brass section combining colliery marching band and smoky Motown sound. I only knew the title track going in, but this was probably my favourite of the week.
Haircut One Hundred, ‘Pelican West’ (link)
Nick Heyward seems to be a good songwriter and talented rhythm guitarist (he’s particularly good at the Nile Rodgers scratchy sound) who, on this album, allows himself to get waylaid by his (or his band’s) keenness to add rambling instrumental funk or jazz sections to pretty much every song. Unsurprisingly, the best song is the single, ‘Love Plus One’, with its vibraphone and oboe putting me in mind of My Life Story. As with many new wave artists, Haircut One Hundred throw in a kitchen sink’s worth of influences but while it’s usually likeable, it’s rarely loveable.
Gary Numan, ‘The Pleasure Principle’ (link)
Ostensibly his first solo album, the line-up is business as usual, as the rest of Tubeway Army are on this album too. ‘The Pleasure Principle’ combines Berlin Trilogy synths with an aggressive live rhythm section who give the album some added live dynamics not seen in, say, Kraftwerk. It’s the Moogs that give the album its distinctive sound, of course, but the non-electronic instruments that give it some warmth and humanity (‘Complex’ is mainly built around piano and viola), particularly given the album’s lyrical concerns: robots, insularity etc. This is Numan’s only appearance on the list, but he continues to make industrial-tinged albums (his next one, ‘Savage (Songs From A Broken World)’, is out in a few weeks).
Tears for Fears, ‘Music from the Big Chair’ (link)
There’s something kind of charming about Tears For Fears’ brooding, because there’s a kind of naivety about it. The album cover, for example, has them looking glum in black and white, but they’re also wearing nice jumpers:
The album is the same: making clumsy mistakes and choosing bad sounds (a lot of the synth settings and guitar lines have dated badly, Roland’s baritone is unlovely), but strangely endearing in spite of that. Highlights are ‘Shout’, which goes on for six minutes but whose constantly evolving arrangement could have extended the song beyond the 10-minute mark, and my favourite song of the week ‘Head Over Heels’, a swooning ballad about rejection anxiety which sounds like Mansun (although it then awkwardly segues into a live version of the previous song, ‘Broken’, in a characteristic move). Not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s some pretty interesting stuff going on.
Next week: polish off your platform boots and silver guitars because it’s GLAM WEEK, with some of the finest cuts in glam-rock and glam-metal.
Status update: 609 listened to (61%), 392 remain.