If you care to watch the 1984 Band Aid video, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (I advise you think carefully before doing so), you will see some of the worst haircuts ever sported by humankind – or rather, by mankind, as all the worst offenders are men. Simon Le Bon, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael: it’s a roll-call of hirsute horror. Only three women – the ladies of Bananarama – featured in the original Band Aid ensemble, and none of them get a prominent vocal spot. In their rush to feed Africa, songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure left gender equity by the wayside.
Blow-dried mullets are not the only aspect of Band Aid, and the attendant rise in rock n’ roll charity fundraising that it spawned, which retrospectively appear in bad taste. Band Aid is at once overblown as a spectacle and, as a response to the famines ravaging Ethiopia during the 1980s, manifestly inadequate. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ brought together a bunch of wealthy rock stars, and the British public bought the song in droves, making it the highest-selling UK single of all time until Elton John’s similarly mawkish ‘Candle In The Wind’ (in memory of Princess Diana) eclipsed that sales record. No doubt everyone’s desire to help was genuine. But lyrically, the song creates an insurmountable barrier between the rich (participating musicians, the listening public) and the poor (those other people, over in Africa), whose suffering becomes an object of pitiable contemplation. Bono even sings at one point ‘Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you’. Someone’s gotta starve, eh? Glad it’s not me!
So how did a severe famine in an impoverished African country, created by a complex array of political, environmental, and economic factors, become a cause celebré in affluent Western countries? In one word: television. The horrific conditions of the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine were brought home to British audiences via news broadcast – the BBC were the first foreign television network to report on the famine, in October 1984 – much in the way that the Vietnam War had been, for American audiences in the 1970s, their first televised glimpse of a battlefield. The response, naturally, was more television. The video clip for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was put together, like the song, in little more than 24 hours and rushed into high rotation, while Band Aid’s accompanying 1985 concert Live Aid was watched globally by an estimated 2 billion people.
Bob Geldof was one, very well connected viewer prompted to action by the news reports. His Irish band The Boomtown Rats, who rode the crest of New Wave into number one with ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978 and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in 1979, had pushed him into the milieu of jet-setting rock stars, and he called upon all of them (using a Rolodex, perhaps?) for his hastily-conceived Band Aid plan. The song was co-written with Midge Ure, of Ultravox, and utilised the combined talents of – well, if you really need to know, watch the video. David Bowie was drafted to contribute but couldn’t make it. Boy George was flown by Concorde from New York to London in order to record his lines, at which point the unintended irony metre had to be sent away for repairs.
Celebrity was Geldof’s main criteria for Band Aid: he wanted huge stars to ensure huge sales. On that level, no one can deny the success of his formula, which was swiftly repeated in the US with ‘We Are The World’ (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, et al). The air of 19th century philanthropy that clung to Band Aid – See these generous rich people! Doing things for free! – showed up the fact that by the mid-1980s, popular music was not just big business, it was respectable business. Rock stars were no longer a tacit threat to the social order: bigger than Jesus they might have been, to use John Lennon’s phrase, but that was just fine. Celebrity musicians became substitute politicians, which says as much about the reduction of politics to populism as it does about the fuzzy ‘inclusiveness’ of stadium rock. At political rallies and arena concerts, the idea was the same: raise your hands in the air and sing along.
Live Aid certainly managed that: held on 13th July, 1985, it brought over 70,000 people to London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. An Australian version, Oz for Africa, was held at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on the same day. In the UK, the concert cemented U2’s live reputation and gave glam rock titans Queen the opportunity to lead the crowd in fervent self-congratulation with ‘We Are The Champions’. INXS, then at the height of their fame, headlined Oz for Africa with Countdown’s Molly Meldrum as host.
Live Aid has been used as a template ever since for large-scale charity concerts that combine live music, television and radio broadcasts, and an element of home-viewer fundraising, generally a telethon. The most recent local examples have been Australia Unites, held on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in early 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and Sound Relief, in March 2009, for those affected by the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods that year. Like Live Aid, Sound Relief was held at two venues simultaneously – the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds – and featured a line-up of contemporary, early 00s favourites (Wolfmother, Eskimo Joe), reunited oldies (Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors), and Jet, who literalised their name by flying cross-country between both venues. Also, Kings of Leon had the tact not to perform ‘Sex On Fire’.
The million-dollar question – literally – pertaining to Band Aid, Live Aid, and its many subsequent imitators, is where does the money go? The BBC was forced to apologise to Bob Geldof in November 2010 after airing a series of reports which suggested that money raised by Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had instead been diverted to armed rebel groups. The fact that some aid money had been used for such a purpose was not in dispute, but whether or not any of this money had originated from Band Aid. Geldof insisted no, and after initially standing by its reports, the BBC apologised without reservation.
But the difficult issue remains of how humanitarian fundraising, particularly in massive amounts, is distributed in a way that ensures it helps, rather than hinders, the people it was intended for. Aid expert David Rieff has raised detailed concerns that a good proportion of the roughly 50 million pounds raised by Geldof’s musical charity went to NGOs who colluded in the forced resettlement of more than half a million Ethiopians. “There is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent,” wrote Rieff in British newspaper The Guardian, “… there is ample reason to conclude that it [Live Aid] did harm as well as good.” (June 24, 2005). Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people died in the resettlements – likely as many as were saved from famine by fundraising efforts. As most rock stars know from experience, a lot of money can be a dangerous thing.
Music was transformed by digital technology in the 1980s, in ways that are still reverberating today. The compact disc promised ‘perfect sound forever’, and led to later formats such as DVD and Blu-Ray. Digital synthesizers and signal processors, and the MIDI protocol through which they communicate, made for increasingly compact, sophisticated and affordable production environments, as well as the proliferation of home studios, which can now be powered by just a laptop. And the sampler opened up radical new sonic possibilities, changing audiences’ ideas about music, and leading to new genres such as mash-up.
The sampler is a a type of electronic musical instrument that is a close relative of the synthesizer. Whereas synths typically generate particular kinds of sounds, such as square waves or sawtooth waves, a sampler can record and play back any sounds.
My first encounter with sampling was as a 13 year old boy soprano, on tour with my school’s choir and orchestra. While watching the TV in a hotel lobby, a striking music video appeared, in which a punk child and her accomplices took to orchestral instruments, including a grand piano, with a chainsaw and other power tools, with the music seemingly incorporating the sounds of those tools (it was actually a sampled car engine – a Volkswagen Golf to be precise). The artists had captured the attitude of punk’s year zero, of destroying the past to create the future, but at the same time the work was incredibly catchy. I couldn’t get the sounds or images out of my head. My musical world had changed forever.
The band was Art of Noise and the song was “Close (To the Edit)”:
Art of Noise was an initially faceless group of technicians, producers, composers and writers. The team had been assembled in 1981 by super-producer Trevor Horn, to work on ABC’s classic The Lexicon of Love album. Team members Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik specialised in programming the then new Fairlight sampler (about which more later). It was while experimenting with sampled drum out-takes from one of Horn’s previous bands, Yes, and combining them with ‘non-musical’ sounds, that the idea for Art of Noise was born. With the addition of classically trained composer Anne Dudley, and NME music journalist Paul Morley, the team was complete.
Morley named the group Art of Noise as a reference to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises.
Futurism was an Italian art movement of the early 20th Century that celebrated technology, speed, violence and noise. It was the punk of its era, with founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti declaring that “we want no part of it, the past”.
Marinetti was also a pioneer of sound poetry. His 1912 sound poem Zang Tumb Tumb (also the name of Art of Noise’s record label) inspired Russolo to write his Art of Noises manifesto, which proposed a new form of music: “Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound”.
Russolo invented machines, called Intonarumori, to realise his musical ideas. These devices simulated industrial sounds, and could be considered a precursor to the sampler.
Futurist ideas would have a profound influence on art and music in the 20th Century.
The Dada movement which followed on from Futurism, and was considered by some to be anti-art, brought in the use of found objects such as the urinal of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), and expanded the use of collage through the cutup poems of Tristan Tzara.
American avant-gardists picked up on these ideas, with composer John Cage predicting in 1937 that the music of the future would include “all sounds”, and suggesting the use of optical film as a medium for composition. This was before magnetic tape, which only became available after World War II.
In Paris, Pierre Schaeffer developed Musique Concrète (“real music”) using recorded sounds and the technology of the radio studio, such as turntables and later, magnetic tape. This electroacoustic approach would inspire other avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Stockhausen fans The Beatles brought sound collage to the masses with their infamous “Revolution No. 9”, and used the Mellotron, a keyboard tape loop instrument that was a precursor to the sampler, on songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
Inspired by Tzara, Beat writer William S. Burroughs and Brian Gysin did their own tape cutup experiments, concluding “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out”. These experiments went on to influence many artists, from David Bowie to industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle.
Tape became more accessible through the medium of cassettes, allowing a new generation of DIY artists, inspired by punk and industrial to experiment with cutups and found sounds. This was the background from which sampling emerged.
Sydney company Fairlight, founded by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, created the first commercially available sampler, the Fairlight CMI (Computer Music Instrument) in 1979. Way ahead of its time and featuring a light pen interface and three dimensional waveform display, it was also expensive at about £18,000, putting it out of reach of the average musician. Pop stars, however, became enthusiastic users, enabling them to feed an audience hungry for new sounds.
The musical aesthetic of sampling was largely determined by the available technology. The tiny (by today’s standards) memory meant that only short sounds could be used. This staccato approach was exemplified by the Fairlight’s ORCH5 orchestra sample – one of the defining sounds of the ‘80s. One way of overcoming this limitation was to loop sounds, creating drum loops, or atmospheric ‘pads’, often extended through the use of another great 80s sound: digital reverb.
Here’s a cute video of Peter Vogel demonstrating the Fairlight CMI on ABC TV:
Kate Bush’s Never for Ever (1980) was the first commercially released album to include the Fairlight. She had been introduced to the instrument by Peter Gabriel who was a Fairlight enthusiast and whose brother in law became the UK distributor. For artists such as Gabriel and Bush, the Fairlight provided unprecedented control over the sound of their music. As Bush said:
“I took one look at it and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.’ I couldn’t believe the Fairlight. It’s called a synthesizer, but many of its sounds are of natural source. To be able to play with strings, waterfalls, anything you want, it’s wonderful.”
Kate Bush with Fairlight. Source.
The Fairlight was soon embraced by other pop stars, such as Thomas Dolby (“Hyperactive”) Jean Michel Jarre (especially the underrated masterpiece Zoolook) and Yello (“Oh Yeah”), making it one of the most important contributors to the ‘80s pop sound.
By the mid-‘80s sampling had become ubiquitous with the emergence of electro and house music, and a range of more affordable samplers being produced by companies such as Akai, Roland, E-mu, and Ensoniq.
M/A/R/R/S “Pump Up the Volume” is one of the defining tracks of that era.
Synthetic TV presenter Max Headroom represented this new aesthetic with his stuttering, glitchy approach to presentation. He even featured in the Art of Noise song and video clip, “Paranoimia”.
Meanwhile back in Australia, post-punk experimentalists such as the now legendary Severed Heads had long been incorporating found sounds into their music using DIY techniques involving turntables, tapes, and samplers.
In 1986 Severed Heads’ Tom Ellard demonstrated sampling on national television:
Pioneers of multimedia, Severed Heads went on to use another Fairlight invention, the CVI (Computer Video Instrument).
Hip hop, founded on the concept of two turntables and a microphone, was a natural home for the sampler. Instead of laboriously looping beats by juggling records, producers could create loops with the sampler, and layer multiple loops and other samples together. This explosion in creative possibilities led to the golden age of hip hop.
On albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy sampled iconoclastic black artists including Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix, to create a rhythmic noise that was some of the most radical pop music ever made, both politically and sonically. As well as using samples in their music, hip hop artists such as Eric B & Rakim found themselves being sampled heavily by other artists.
Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav famously rapped “you can’t copyright no beats”. Unfortunately for the golden age of hip hop, he was wrong. De La Soul got into trouble for the use of uncleared samples. At around the same time, experimental sample-based artists such as John Oswald (“Plunderphonic”) and Negativland (“U2”) also fell afoul of copyright law, driving such music underground until the eventual emergence of Napster and mash-ups.
However samples continued to be a feature of ‘90s pop. Art of Noise were themselves sampled by many others, perhaps most notably on the Prodigy’s hit “Firestarter” which included the famous ‘hey’ from “Close (To the Edit)”.
Digital audio, as pioneered by sampling, fed into the rise of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as ProTools, forever changing music production, along with more experimental techniques such as glitch and granular synthesis. These all paved the way for the mash-up culture in which we now live. For this we have the 80s to thank, with its visionaries such as Fairlight, who are currently bringing the 80s back with a retro-looking sampler and an iPad app based on the CMI.
Triggered somewhat by our ’80s Are Back’ exhibition, Mark Murphy discusses his memories of the Club Hordern Parties in the 80s, with Richard Weiss, one of the ‘Sweatbox’ party organisers.
I had heard about the Hordern parties from a neighbour when I was living in The Cross in 1989. He was into rock music and I overheard him talking about the Hordern as if it was another planet – thousands of people dancing, this new drug called ecstasy, crazy music pumping out from massive wall-to-wall speakers. He had never seen anything like it.
In my mind, I was already there.
The party I decided on was called Sweatbox ‘Meltdown’. I got my ticket, and not really knowing anyone in Sydney, ventured to the venue on my own. I will never forget the entrance. It was like going through a silver vortex. They had al-foiled the entrance as a tunnel and when you came out to the dance-floor there were three cherry-pickers with lights in the tops sitting in the middle of the dance floor. Thousands of people were wildly dancing to a pounding beat. I walked out of there feeling like I had discovered a new world.
House music was starting to froth and Sydney was becoming one of the house music capitals of the world. Acid was the sound of the UK Summer and it was also swamping Sydney. The Hordern became known as ‘Club Hordern’ by the underground.
Richard Weiss was one of the people behind the ‘Sweatbox’ parties. I have gotten to know him over the past few years (we travel in the same circles) and I have fondly recalled to him how he changed my life.
With the ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum displaying some posters and creating a space for the house music culture which was as much about the 80s in Sydney as leg warmers and fluoro, I thought I’d sit down and have a chat to Weiss to see if he remembers anything of the era and what it meant to him.
Tell us about your early days in Sydney in the 80s as a clubber? What were the clubs you frequented/the music/the drugs? What was your first promoting event and tell us how that came about? Who were the DJs and where?
I returned from a couple of years away living in London and Barcelona with a head full of ideas. ‘Stranded’, the archetypal Sydney nightclub, was on its way out and Sydney needed something fresh. My first club was ‘Adrenalin’ at the Hip Hop club in Oxford Street. It was moderately successful, but ultimately didn’t last. It did however lead me to my first successful club, ‘Meltdown’, which opened on the first night of the newly renovated ‘SITE’ in Victoria Street, Potts Point. Designed by the brilliant Ian Hartley, it was just what Sydney needed. Suddenly, I was in the right place at the right time. House music was nascent, ecstasy was novel, and I was on the ball. ‘Meltdown’, with its hard edge aesthetic, elitist door policy, and mixed crowd (sexuality was not the issue) took off. The music was a combination of house and acid beats, hip hop, go-go, early electro and funk. The original Meltdown DJs were Pee Wee Ferris and Stephen Allkins. From memory, Allkins went overseas and a young Ben Drayton took his place.
When did house music start filtering through here. Can you remember hearing it for the first time and your thoughts on it?
I was a dedicated reader of the NME (New Musical Express) and had read about this new style of dance music coming out of Chicago, in particular, called ‘house music’. But, as Elvis Costello once said, “reading about music is like dancing about architecture”. Yet one night, at the Midnight Shift in 1986 I guess, I heard ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk and thought, “That’s house music – and I love it!!” I tracked down a ‘sampler’ album of Chicago House and David Milton (owner of the Hip Hop Club and later SITE) returned from a trip to the UK bearing gifts, including ‘Acid Beats’ – a sampler album of acid house, and a ‘Summer Of Love’ graffiti style T-shirt with a big fluoro smiley face on it (this shirt – a little worse for wear – is now in the Powerhouse Museum collection).
RAT parties started getting a name in the underground. Were they the first to do the big parties?
I believe so. Up until then, only Mardi Gras & Sleaze Ball had attempted parties on such a vast scale. I think RAT was the first private enterprise party group to tackle the Hordern and ultimately the Royal Hall of Industries. They had outgrown their previous venues, including the old Balmain Bijou, Bondi Pavilion and Paddington Town Hall.
The Hordern is a massive space. When did you decide on putting Sweatbox there? How did that come about?
I was standing in the Hordern at a RAT party, looking up at the vast ceiling and rigging and thought, “how does anyone even begin to know how to put something of this scale together?” My confidence was sky-high as the result of the success of Meltdown…and I was young and reckless, I guess. All I know now is that within 12 months of that moment, I had decided to take a float in the Mardi Gras parade, promoting ‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ – trusting that the Meltdown brand would springboard into this new, much larger environment. One week after the Mardi Gras Parade and Party in 1989, Meltdown Sweatbox was held at the Hordern. A crowd of 4000 (close to a sell-out) attended.
Tell us about the costs of the first one and the what you wanted from it?
I certainly didn’t have the sort of funds necessary to put on a party at the Hordern. I was backed by the owners of SITE – they took the risk, but also 50% of the profits. This remained the case for the first 3 or 4 parties, until we could afford to back the parties ourselves (by this time I had gone into partnership with Victor Li). Ultimately, Sweatbox was an opportunity to express ourselves creatively, on a vast scale. The satisfaction of seeing something grow from the seed of an idea to a huge event, enjoyed by thousands, is incomparable…for me anyhow. Sure we wanted to make money – we needed to in order to put on the next party – but we never sacrificed that creative satisfaction in order to make a few extra bucks.
How many people went to your parties? Did you always sell out?
I guess tens of thousands of people attended at least one Sweatbox party – many experienced most of them and some were at them all. Sometimes we had sell-outs and made a lot of money. Once or twice we lost money. In the end, after a couple of parties which just broke even, after so much work, we decided to call it quits.
How many Sweatboxes were there? Tell us a little about some of the best ones?
I’m not exactly sure….about ten I guess, maybe more.
‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ had an industrial theme, with three earth movers operating throughout the party, hovering over the dance floor. One had a lighting rig attached (including a massive strobe) that moved across the floor. We built a ‘mineshaft’ tunnel out of scaffolding and industrial strength aluminium foil, from the front foyer which brought you out on the dancefloor. We had swing-foggers that are sometimes used on film sets to create fog, and cement mixers spewing out dry ice. There were no coloured lights at all….only white light cutting through the blackness.
We contrasted that with our second party ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ which which was pure opulence…a rococo palace with multi-leveled chequerboard dance floor which formed a pit in the middle of the room. Above this hung a giant chandelier, with a fabric canopy creating a false ceiling. We hired in classical pillars and statues and painted everything gold. The lighting was jewel-like. It was a challenge to make this big black box of a room feel soft and elegant.
‘Royal Command’ was a performance-based surrealist event with hourly ‘happenings’ that included a bagpipe band that marched through the crowd playing along to an acid house track; a vast Chinese dragon snaking its way through the dance floor and a live ‘mix’ of Voodoo Ray where Pee Wee mixed from the record to a live percussion ensemble with vocalist and then back into the record.
These were just a few of our parties which became known for strong design elements and themes. A big shout out to Paul Hinderer, our designer for the first 3 or 4 parties, who was instrumental in taking our design ideas and realizing them so beautifully.
Tell us about the music. Did you want anything special or did you know the DJs and trust them?
We booked our favourite djs who understood what we were trying to achieve. We always held DJ meetings and briefed them thoroughly on the theme and discussed time slots, but with the exception of the occasional track (sometimes for a ‘moment’ during the night, or the last song of the night) they had full creative freedom. Back then, the music would ‘wind down’ during the last hour or so – for me, the last part of the night was invariably the best. On occasion, I would DJ the final hour of the night myself.
Why do you think the Hordern finished. Combination of media/popularity/cops?
In the exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, the actual letter (which I had in my possession…go figure), calling a halt to all-night parties, is on display.
Basically the Moore Park Residents Group, or whatever they were called, lobbied so relentlessly, that they won the battle. Once the Hordern was no longer available for all-night parties (apart from Mardi Gras, Sleaze and Pride New Year), we were forced to find other venues but none had such a great location, history, and such decadent grandeur. I also remember 2 or 3 times, paying a lawyer to be present all night (expensive!) to protect the rights of the punters once sniffer dogs arrived on the scene. I wonder if anyone does this anymore?
Did you do stuff in the 90s?
Yes the last parties we did, mostly at Alexandria Basketball Stadium, were in the early 90s. We put on some great parties and some sold out but they lacked the scale of the original Hordern parties. Victor and I were also invited to co-produce Sleaze Ball in ’91, I think the theme was ‘Fetish’ and it was amazing! I was then asked to co-produce ‘Hand in Hand’ for ACON on the June long weekend, which I did with David Wilkins, for 5 years. By the mid 90s I was getting a lot of work as a DJ – my first big gig was playing the Dome at Sleaze Ball in ’94.
It was really a special time in Sydney. Are you glad it’s all over? What are your memories
I just feel really privileged to have lived through that era and to have played a small part in a special time. Now it’s just a blur of 3-day weekends, dancing to great music, hard work, and serious fun.
Funny Sweatbox stories?
Too many… the collapse of a raised bridge full of people during ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ (not so funny at the time – amazingly no one was hurt); watching a now famous Hollywood director swallow a pill, chuck it up, swallow it again, chuck it up…over and over; having a massive projector (well it was the 80s) stolen from the the ceiling of the Hordern during a party and whilst projecting onto a vast screen on the stage (also funnier in retrospect than at the time).
How do you feel about being included in an exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum?
Like a contented dinosaur.
This article was first published on the Spank Records blog. Thanks to Mark Murphy for sharing.
The first album to sell one million copies on compact disc alone was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, a fact that does nothing to boost this writer’s faith in the collective good taste of humankind. Brothers In Arms knocked Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required off No.1 to become best-selling album on the Australian charts during 1985, and was beaten in 1986 only by Whitney Houston.
The first album to be manufactured on compact disc by the Phillips-owned PolyGram pressing factory was ABBA’s The Visitors, in 1981, and the first album commercially released on compact disc came the following year, with Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. This roll call of pop’s biggest stars indicates just how advantageous the compact disc (CD) format was to major artists, and to the record labels that owned their work. Like no other format before or since, the CD became a financial bonanza for major labels – labels that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly became subsidiaries of enormous multinational corporations.
Credit for the development of compact disc technology is generally given to the consumer electronics companies Philips and Sony, who joined forces in 1979 in order to speed up the research and development of a digital audio disc, which both companies had been working on independently. In his book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, writer Steve Knopper points further back – all the way to 1965, and the height of the vinyl era – in locating the origin of CD technology. American physicist and inventor James T. Russell, who worked for Battelle Laboratories, worked throughout that year in building a prototype “mechanical-optical structure” that used binary-encoded glass plates, read by an optical laser, to play recorded sound. Patents filed in 1966 by Russell would be used, decades later, in court cases brought against Philips and Sony for royalty payments owed. Both companies agreed to pay US $10 million, but the money didn’t go to Russell. It went to the Optical Recording Corporation, who had bought the inventor’s patents in 1985 – the same year that Dire Straits became the first recording act to sell one million CDs worldwide.
The specifications of CD technology make for dull reading, but it’s worth knowing the basics. A CD is a polycarbonate plastic disc, with a thin reflective layer of either aluminium or gold applied to it. Binary data (the zeroes and ones that form the basis of digital files) is encoded as a series of microscopic ‘pits’, read by a laser and converted to audible sound. Sony launched the first commercially available CD player in Japan during 1982, and the CD format was aggressively marketed as a solution to the characteristic ‘crackle’ of vinyl, caused by the accumulation of dust in the record’s grooves. Thirty years on, we know that CDs are just as susceptible to scratches and damage as vinyl – not to mention ‘disc rot’, bronzing and other defects that render them unplayable – but upon first appearance, many people believed the CD represented an infinitely stable format that would perfectly reproduce recorded sound. Classical music was – and still is – a huge sector of the CD market, with audiophile listeners taken by the crisp, crackle-free playback of their favourite symphonies.
CDs and their associated technology – pressing plants for manufacture, digital tape recorders and mixing desks for use in the studio – were expensive, which is why the technology benefited large companies. Philips and Sony both owned major record labels in the early 1980s (PolyGram and CBS, respectively), which in turn incorporated dozens of smaller ‘imprints’, or subsidiary labels. Both companies also had enough money to build and operate CD pressing plants. A company able to manufacture CDs with music recorded on one of its own labels, and with the enormous marketing budget to promote that music via press, MTV and radio, stood to make a lot of money.
Because CDs were more expensive to produce than vinyl records, they were also more expensive for listeners to buy. A key factor in the resistance of major labels to the rise of MP3 and web-based music distribution in the late 1990s and 2000s was the dramatic – and rather literal – reversal of fortunes from the hugely profitable 1980s. As Knopper points out in his book, labels used the advent of the CD to restructure the contracts they signed with musicians, deducting as much as 25% of royalty payments earned in order to cover the cost of packaging and manufacture. Musicians were paying for their label’s overheads, while fans were paying steadily increasing prices for CDs – buying new music, but just as often replacing their vinyl collection with CD reissues.
While vinyl never disappeared entirely as a format – and has in fact undergone a noticeable revival this decade – during the 1980s it increasingly became the preserve of second-hand collectors, DJs, and independent bands. The ‘DIY’ aura of a self-pressed record, or the outré finds of a dedicated crate-digger, did nothing to dent CD sales which made the US record industry $103.3 million in 1984 alone, just two years after the format became commercially available. As record stores dispensed with their vinyl ‘bins’ – large racks in which to display 12” vinyl records – the main alternative format to CD in the 1980s remained the cassette, which, being significantly cheaper than CD, was especially popular with teenagers. The Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player available in Japan from 1979 and in the US from 1980, was the listening device du jour for surly adolescents, bored commuters and perspiring joggers alike. Though Sony portable CD players were released as early as 1984, they did not achieve global popularity until the early 1990s. For Sony, the money rolled in any which way: from their record labels, and from the company’s market dominance in the manufacture of CDs, CD players, and Walkmans.
One format that the CD did away with almost entirely – except in the genres of punk, reggae and indie rock – was the 7” single. CD singles were certainly pressed and sold, but unlike their vinyl counterpart they never represented value-for-money. Individual songs were increasingly promoted by video, especially on dedicated music television channels like MTV, and the onus was on fans to buy the accompanying album. Gone were the days of stand-alone singles (unless the song in question was a real one-hit wonder) and a carefully chosen B-side. The very idea of the B-side as a repository of an artist’s interesting failures or non-album gems gave way to cheaply produced remixes, essentially aural padding for CD singles. Only in dance music and hip-hop, where producers knew their craft and catered to vinyl-loving audiences, was the single remix – generally on 12” format – taken seriously.
A CD’s capacity for 74 minutes of data (later stretched to 80), as opposed to an average of 40 minutes (20 each side) for vinyl, encouraged artists to record longer and longer albums – or alternatively, for labels to stuff CD album releases with remixes, ‘bonus’ tracks, demos and other filler, particularly in the lucrative market of CD reissues. The Beatles hit number one in Australia for 30 weeks with their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which at 39 minutes, 42 seconds was very close to the absolute length for a vinyl album. Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, by contrast, was 55 minutes long, while thirty years after Sgt Pepper’s, Celine Dion ruled the Australian charts in 1997 with Let’s Talk About Love, which clocked in at a bloated 74 minutes and 35 seconds, the outer limit of the CD format. (No prizes either for guessing which company profited from Dion’s excess: Sony, who owned the Epic label that the Canadian star was signed to).
So if the CD format put paid to the single, made overlong albums technologically viable, sidelined vinyl and brought in billions for multinational companies, then what were the benefits for listeners? Debate still rages as to whether CD or vinyl is the better format for audio storage and reproduction, with many musicians, engineers, producers and fans arguing for the ‘warmth’ of analogue over digital sound. But there’s no denying that for the average music buyer, the convenience of hitting ‘play’ on a CD player, without the careful handling, dusting, and flipping of sides necessary to vinyl, was key to the CD’s commercial success. If stored properly – away from heat and light, in plastic cases – CDs do last a long time, and are certainly superior to cassettes for long-term storage. Their durability and relative compactness compared to vinyl (it’s the compact disc, remember) has been the basis of CD ubiquity in the computer industry, at least until recent years, with CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW and CDPhoto formats all proving massively popular for data storage. And without the optical technology that brought CDs into being, we wouldn’t have DVDs or BluRay. In fact, we’d probably still be watching VHS, which beat out Sony’s Betamax to become the reigning video format of the 1980s. It’s one of the few times Sony has ever lost a lot of money, or launched an electronic technology that it didn’t then dominate – until Apple’s iPod changed the music industry all over again.
The Smiths, regarded by many critics as the finest guitar band of the 1980s, have always ignited contrary passions. Ferociously snobbish punks, who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to anything less bellicose than Black Flag, will weep at ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. Morrissey’s Los Angeles fanbase of gay Latinos is legendary. The Smiths unite punks and skinheads, cardigan-clad indie kids and ageing rockers, shy girls and shyer boys, as few other bands can. On the other hand, their musical classicism and cultural nostalgia, mixed in with their singer’s occasionally dubious pronouncements on race, have long provoked ire.
The British music press, so pivotal to the group’s rise, were divided from the start. Certain writers at the NME and its rival Melody Maker threw their lot in early with The Smiths, championing the group as British guitar music’s brightest hope for the 1980s. The Smiths, signed to the independent label Rough Trade, were seen as an alternative – musically and ethically – to the noveau riche froth of synth-pop bands like Duran Duran and Tears For Fears. Morrissey once quipped that he would rather “talk about athlete’s foot or death than about synthesisers”. To other critics however, it was Morrissey’s unashamed musical conservatism that was the problem. The Smiths positioned themselves explicitly against the emergent genres of hip-hop and dance music. “Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ”, Morrissey sang on ‘Panic’, and for some, this hostility appeared at least in part to be racially motivated. Morrissey’s declaration that “All reggae is vile” – he later claimed it was a deliberate wind-up to the NME – certainly didn’t help to win over his detractors.
And this is before we get to the tabloid controversies. From vegetarianism (‘Meat is Murder’), to republicanism (‘The Queen is Dead’), to the Moors Murders (‘Suffer Little Children’), it is easy to forget how inflammatory The Smiths were in their time. They look benign from a distance of several decades, with their baggy sweaters and upright hair, but they wrote about subjects that had barely been touched before in popular music. Morrissey’s coy, ambiguous sexual persona – he publicly declared himself a celibate, yet his lyrics and The Smiths’ carefully chosen sleeve art were brimming with gay signifiers – was intriguing to some and infuriating to others. ‘Handsome Devil’, a B-side to The Smiths’ first single ‘Hand In Glove’, was targeted by tabloid newspaper The Sun for its supposed paedophiliac sympathies, which Morrissey wittily – perhaps too wittily – denied. “I don’t even like children,” he lamented. The furore over ‘Handsome Devil’ was entirely homophobic: a resistance to the song’s exploration of youthful, gay sex.
The topic was central to several early Smiths songs (‘Reel Around the Fountain’, ‘This Charming Man’), while Morrissey’s short-lived affair with singer Billy McKenzie, of The Associates, resulted in one of The Smiths’ most wistful tunes, ‘William, It Was Really
Nothing’. (McKenzie replied with ‘Steven, You Were Really Something’). A feminist sympathiser, Morrissey’s lyrics also took a mordant perspective on heterosexual relationships: “Loud, loutish lover/Treat her kindly/Though she needs you more than she loves you”, he sang on ‘I Know It’s Over’, perhaps The Smiths’ saddest song. This doesn’t quite explain ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, which threw away one of Johnny Marr’s most ethereal, melancholy guitar riffs on a lyric better fit for a saucy seaside postcard, circa 1945. Still, it was memorable.
This symptomatically British nostalgia was, of course, largely the point. The Smiths looked backwards for their musical and aesthetic influences to a degree that was unusual amongst their peers. In our current decade, when almost every popular indie band is a dull tribute-show retread of past innovations, such overpowering nostalgia can pass without comment. But during the 1980s there still existed an active sense amongst artists, critics and fans that ‘newness’ was the key to musical achievement. Morrissey had lived through the year-zero of punk, after all, in which anything was possible. Synthesisers, sampling, DJs and MCs were on the rise: stylistic and technological innovations that would, combined, result in hip-hop, which changed popular music forever. The Smiths turned their backs on all of it, constructing for themselves a duotone universe of French film stars (Jean Marais, Alain Delon), Warholian icons (Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling) and northern British actresses (Pat Phoenix, Billie Whitelaw). Their music married the jangling guitar tones of The Byrds to the pop melodrama of Dusty Springfield. The Smiths were firmly and stubbornly stuck in the 1960s, but it was not a ‘swinging sixties’ of psychedelic drugs and London fashion; it was northern, and working-class, centred on the terrace houses, boxing clubs and wild moors of Manchester. The Smiths’ aesthetic touchstone was the British ‘New Wave’ cinema of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, and especially A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking depiction of interracial romance, teenage pregnancy, and gay life in Salford, Manchester. Delaney herself, nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey as a stage play, appears on the cover of The Smith’ singles collection Louder Than Bombs.
On the one side a working class, female playwright and on the other an aristocratic, defiantly gay Irish dilettante: Oscar Wilde, Morrissey’s great literary idol. Wilde’s sharp wit and taste for camp aphorisms goes a long way to explaining The Smiths’ own humour – and they were funny, a fact which even their fans can sometimes overlook. It’s hard to pin down The Smiths’ intentions: they can be spectacularly self-pitying and make fun of self-pity, often within the same song. Johnny Marr’s minor-key melodies are moving and quite straightforwardly beautiful, but when they get mixed up with Morrissey’s indulgent wail and comedic figures – vicars in tutus, fat bald Buddhists, buck-toothed girls from Luxembourg – the effect is rather complicated. Are we meant to cry or laugh? Both, is probably the answer, but the mixture of tones is one of The Smiths’ divisive qualities, and comedy is a notoriously subjective field: if you don’t find The Smiths funny then you probably won’t care for them at all. I’m not the only fan who has discovered that The Smiths’ humour is a quality that lets you grow older with them, and vice versa. What seems like desperate, lovelorn tragedy to a fourteen year old – ‘How Soon Is Now’, for instance – becomes more and more amusing as you age; what’s best is that the knowingness is built into the song. “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”. Now that is deftly, flamboyantly funny. And Morrissey remains one of the only songwriters to have anticipated his own redundancy at the very height of his fame, with the brilliant ‘Rubber Ring’: “But don’t forget the songs that made you cry/And the songs that saved your life/Yes you’re older now/And you’re a clever swine/But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.”
The Smiths were certainly famous in their time, with each of their four albums reaching either No. 1 or 2 on the British album charts, but they were not superstars in the way that U2 were, and their singles often failed to make the top thirty. They fell out with Rough Trade over the delayed release of their third album, The Queen Is Dead, and signed to EMI for what became their final record, Strangeways Here We Come, in 1987. Their switch from an independent to a major label provoked criticism among fans and the press – this was when the difference between the two types of company actually meant something; before most purportedly ‘independent’ labels became imprints of large corporations – but it was growing, eventually irresolvable tensions between Morrissey and Johnny Marr that split the band up. They remain one of the few high-profile groups of the 1980s to have not – so far – reunited, having turned down rumoured offers of as much as $40 million to play again. Their legacy is, I would argue, all the more potent for having never been compromised: so attuned to nostalgia and the melancholy glamour of passing youth when they were actually young, it makes perfect sense that The Smiths would refuse to countenance a vision of themselves as ageing stars, gathered onstage for one last reel around the fountain.
Even without a global reunion tour or a Don’t Look Back concert, The Smiths’ influence is pervasive. It began when they were still together, with British indie also-rans like James copying their gentle melancholy, and continued shortly thereafter with The Stone Roses, fellow Mancunians who were equally as fond of a jangly pop tune but not nearly so hostile to dance music. Like The Smiths, The Stone Roses were powered by a song-writing partnership of peculiar intensity: this very British tradition runs from Paul McCartney and John Lennon through The Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), The Stone Roses (Ian Brown and John Squire), Suede (Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson), to The Libertines (Carl Barat and Pete Doherty), each duo touched, to a greater or lesser degree, by a latent homoeroticism that eventually – perhaps inevitably – gave way to acrimony and estrangement.
During the 1990s, Suede best capitalised upon The Smiths’ combination of lyric realism and bohemian flamboyancy; their first album very consciously echoes The Smiths’ first in being self-titled, using a sexually ambiguous image on its cover, and opening with precisely the same drumbeat that introduces The Smiths. Suede also revived the art of 12-inch singles and accompanying B-sides that The Smiths had done so well: far from being throwaways, The Smiths’ B-sides were among their best work and featured heavily on compilations like Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen. Britpop peers Pulp also inherited something of The Smiths’ legacy: Jarvis Cocker’s wit, his fondness for writing about awkward sexual encounters, and his working-class, northern British pride (Pulp were from Sheffield) all found their antecedent in Morrissey. Radiohead have periodically gone in for the intricate guitar melodies that were Johnny Marr’s musical signature, and Thom Yorke’s high tenor voice treads a fine line between miserable self-indulgence and conscious self-parody in a way that Morrissey’s once did. Colin Greenwood, too, is the most quietly inventive bass player in a British rock band since Andy Rourke.
Though their female fans are legion, it is more difficult to pick female artists who have been influenced by The Smiths. 1980s duo Shakespeare’s Sister named themselves after a Smiths song (which was in turn a reference to Virginia Woolf’s influential feminist essay A Room Of One’s Own), and Russian lesbian teenagers Tatu scored a Eurovision hit with their cover of ‘How Soon is Now’ in 2002, but beyond this the trail is harder to follow. Morrissey’s feminist sympathies co-existed with an uneasiness towards women that is apparent on Smiths songs like ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ and ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (“How can you stay with a fat girl who says/’Would you like to marry me’?”). It’s no surprise that the sexual universe of The Smiths has made itself most felt amid male songwriters, whether flirtatiously androgynous (Placebo) or openly gay (The Magnetic Fields).
Beyond – and sometimes in spite – of their taboo-breaking sexual mores, The Smiths’ legacy can be seen and heard in countless fey indie bands who flaunt prescription glasses, charity shop clothes and paperback novels as signifiers of entirely un-rock-n-roll (and therefore hip) rebellion. Thin, pale Morrissey with a bunch of flowers in his hand is the antithesis to a bare-chested rock god like Iggy Pop. It’s worth remembering though that The Smiths’ air of underfed, over-read intellectualism was on par with their peers The Fall: working-class northerners who loathed the very idea of employment; autodidacts and aesthetes whose class resentment never wavered. Every member of The Smiths left school at 16, and their eccentric pantheon of literary, cinematic and pop music idols, so beautifully displayed across their cover art and through their lyrics, was an exercise in self-education that they shared with fans just like themselves. It is their best legacy.
The Triple J Radiophonic Workshop presents a time-travelling adventure in sound, featuring music from TZU, Peaches, Prince, Kanye West, Cut Copy, Kraftwerk, The Human League, Daft Punk, Justice, Giorgio Moroder, Salt and Pepa, The Presets, Run DMC, Royksopp, Ladyhawke, La Roux, LL Cool J, Steinski, Yello, Hall and Oates, The Art of Noise, Calvin Harris, Kurtis Blow and many, many more. Imagine Girl Talk with a copy of Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride in one hand and a key to the Triple J vinyl library in the other. Okay, now stop imagining, hit ‘play’, and find out why Zan Rowe is calling this “cultural theory you can dance to”.
Download from Triple J (41mb).
Complete Track Listing
- TZU – Computer Love
- Kanye West – Stronger
- ELO – Twilight (Intro)
- Art of Noise – Beat Box
- Gil Scott-Heron – Re-Ron
- MC Miker G and DJ Sven – Holiday Rap
- LL Cool J – Radio
- Shango – Zulu Groove
- MARRS – Pump Up The Volume
- Calvin Harris feat. Dizzee Rascal – Dance Wiv Me
- Kraftwerk – Musique Non-Stop
- Passion Pit – The Reeling
- Daft Punk – Robot Rock (Rockapella)
- DST – Mean Machine
- Grandmaster Flash – Beat St
- Art of Noise – Close to the Edit
- The Juan McLean – The Future Will Come
- ELO – Ticket to the Moon
- Hall and Oates – I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)
- Steinski and the Mass Media – We’ll be Right Back
- Public Image Limited – The Order of Death
- Mark Stewart and the Mafia – Anger is Holy
- NWA – Quiet on the Set
- Queen – Radio Gaga (Instrumental)
- John Cage – Radio Music
- Public Enemy – Terminator X To The Edge of Panic
- Kurtis Blow – The Breaks
- Beastie Boys – Shake Your Rump
- Beastie Boys – It’s the New Style
- West St Mob – Let’s Dance
- Justice – DANCE
- David Bowie – Let’s Dance
- Eric B and Rakim – I Know You Got Soul
- Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
- Mylo – In My Arms
- MC Miker G and DJ Sven – Holiday Rap
- Midnight Juggernauts – Into the Galaxy
- INXS – What You Need
- Roxanne Shante – Go On Girl
- Salt and Pepa – Spinderella’s Not a Fella
- Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance
- Was not Was – Walk the Dinosaur
- Aston Shuffle – Do You Want More
- Shango – Zulu Groove
- Young MC – Pick up the Pace
- Daft Punk – Harder Better Faster Stronger
- Art of Noise – Close to the Edit
- Big Daddy Kane – Raw
- West St Mob – I Can’t Stop
- Flying Lizards – Sex Machine
- Chromeo – Needy Girl
- Madonna – Hung Up
- Hot Streak – Bodywork
- Prince – Housequake
- Prince – Gonna be a Beautiful Night
- Prince – Controversy
- Tangerine Dream – Love on a Real Train
- New Order – The Perfect Kiss
- Peaches – Lovertits
- Adam Ant – Ant Rap
- Quando Quango – Atom Rock
- Madonna – Holiday
- Run DMC – It’s Like That
- Coldplay – Clocks (Royksopp Remix)
- Van Halen – 1984
- Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock
- Cut Copy – Future
- New Order – Confusion
- Royksopp – The Girl and the Robot
- Tears for Fears – Head over Heels
- Huey Lewis and the News – The Poer of Love
- The Pet Shop Boys – Opportunites
- Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
- Flying Lizards – Money
- Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
- Ladyhawke – Professional Suicide
- Dire Straits – Money for Nothing
- Salt and Pepa – Push It
- The Human League – The Things That Dreams Are Made Of
- Midnight Juggernauts – Tombstone
- Flying Lizards – Sex Machine
- Mylo – Destroy Rock and Roll
- Presets – Kicking and Screaming
- Kraftwerk – The Telephone Call
- Adam Ant – Ant Rap
- Tiga – Far From Home (DFA Remix)
- Franz Ferdinand – Do You Wanna?
- The Flying Lizards – Money (b)
- La Roux – Bulletproof
- Depeche Mode – Get the Balance Right
- Simian Mobile Disco – Audacity of Huge
- Giorgio Moroder – Night Drive
- Yello – Bostich
- William S. Burroughs – The President
- Justice – Tttthhheee PPPaaarrrttyyy
- PIL – This is Not a Love Song
- Calvin Harris – Acceptable in the 80s
- Prince – Gonna be a beautiful night
- Jonzun Crew – Pac Jam
- Mstrkrft – Work on You
- Crystal Castles – Air War
- Frankie Goes to Hollywood – 2 Tribes
- Bonzo Goes to Washington – 5 Minutes
- Infusion – 2 Player Game
- Kraftwerk – Home Computer
- Dukes of Windsor – It’s a War
- Hot Streak – Bodywork
- Presets – My People
- Def Leppard – Armageddon It
- Vangelis – Blade Runner
- The Juan Mclean – The Future Will Come
- Kanye West – Stronger
- Gil Scott-Heron – Re Ron
- Art of Noise – Beat Box
- Hall and Oates – I Can’t Go For That
If Standing on the Beach – their first and best singles collection – is included, The Cure released one album for every year of the 1980s, except for 1983 and 1988 – the latter, of course, the year of Acid House, and of Sub Pop 200, a compilation featuring Mudhoney, Green River, and a song called ‘Spank Thru’ by a little-known bunch of Aberdeen hicks called Nirvana, originally recorded under the sumptuously unpromising moniker Fecal Matter.
1988, then. The Cure stopped to draw breath – after Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography [pause to punch each other up, disintegrate, go camping, write 'The Lovecats', 'The Walk' and 'Let's Go to Bed', meet Tim Pope, make videos, become unlikely pop stars, release the not-quite-album Japanese Whispers and for Robert Smith, additionally, to record with the Banshees and with Steve Severin as The Glove, The Top, The Head On the Door, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me: that's a discography not to be sniffed at, though getting it onto tape may, by several accounts did, involve a lot of sniffing of certain contraband substances; "Cocaine phase"? The Cure had a cocaine decade – and the tectonic plates of popular music did a little dance beneath them. Rave on one side of the Atlantic and grunge on the other: on one side Ecstasy; on the other Misery of a discordant, raw-throated kind, utterly alien(ated) in spirit from The Cure, for all their expertise in emotional shades of grey through to black.
But there was one more year of the decade left, and one more album to see out the decade (with legitimate claim to being an Album of the Decade) for The Cure, which they spent 1988 preparing for; little knowing, then, that their time as a band of their time was nearly up. (Odd, really, for an artist as obsessed with the passing of time as Robert Smith that he demonstrates so little awareness, as the years tick by, of ever being, once and for all, out of time). There was 1989, and there was Disintegration, the most adult album The Cure ever made, before teenagers with fresh moves and fresh misery displaced them.
Why not start with ‘Love Song’, which happens to be on my headphones as I type this sentence? Why not indeed, seeing as how The Cure’s entire oeuvre from beginning to (as yet undesignated) end has been the love song? ‘This Is Not a Love Song’: Robert Smith never acted upon John Lydon’s memo, though I like to imagine that he listened to it, back in 1983, his “holiday” from The Cure, when he managed to chart off the back of Pornography (love songs of the most obsessive, crippling, misanthropically interdependent kind) by writing ‘Let’s Go to Bed’, which was in its own self-amused and prettily cynical way also Not a Love Song. Perhaps he had it on his headphones while camping in rural Wales, which was, according to reports, where he vanished to after Pornography had very nearly sent everyone involved with The Cure to a place bearing some resemblance to Syd Barret’s rocking chair. Perhaps Smith realised then that it didn’t all have to be so serious, that the punk spirit he’d first discerned as a teenager in the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could admit of a little humour, now and again.
But back to ‘Lovesong’, which is a love song, generically named as such, with a refrain that runs I will always love you, surely the Ur-text of love songs. It could have been written for anybody, to anybody, as if the writer had sipped Pure Essence of Love Song, and if there’s any lyricist drunk on the anonymous second-person pronoun it’s Robert Smith, who can barely go a song without an unnamed ‘you’ making itself (un)known. ‘Lovesong’, however, was written for a somebody, a very special somebody: Robert Smith’s long-time partner Mary Poole; not only that, it was Smith’s wedding present to his new wife when, after nearly fifteen years together, they chose 1988 in which to marry. Now there’s a humdinger of an occasion for a love song, and I restate these well-known biographical facts if only to underline how little headway can be made once having fallen into the treacherous waters of the Biographical Fallacy. For you see, ‘Lovesong’ neither grows nor diminishes as a song with this knowledge added to it; it’s still nothing more or less than a love song which could have been written to anybody, for anybody, as if, having spent the decade of the 1980s and nearly half a one before that at work upon love songs written to an unidentified second-person pronoun – the sort of love song that the pop world turns on – Robert Smith couldn’t quite switch back from his Public Image Ltd to the personal, and so wrote what one might ostensibly view as his most personally significant love song, which, perversely or predictably, depending on which end of the telescope you’re inclined to look through, turned into the biggest hit The Cure ever had, charting at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and making The Cure the kind of stadium-touring American superstars that British bands often dream of being, and very rarely become.
[Unless, of course, every love song that Robert Smith ever did and ever will write was addressed to the same somebody as 'Lovesong', which would make Smith something like the musical equivalent of Michael Apted, a documentarian in it for the long-haul, obsessively revisiting his subject: a big question, that, but not in the last a particularly interesting one, pop music being at its least compelling when considered as a transparent window onto living.]
And what does ‘Lovesong’ sound like? It sounds like The Cure, who quite early on got very good at sounding like an amalgam of half-memories of different artists but most especially like themselves. It has a very simple keyboard refrain that can be played with one hand, a steady heartbeat of a rhythm that never once threatens to accelerate – no Acid House party would ever invade The Cure’s front lawn – and a bass line played high up on the fretboard as a contrapuntal melody to the keyboards and vocals: a style of bass line which Peter Hook lays trademark to and claims The Cure stole from him one day in 1983 shortly after the release of ‘Blue Monday’ when he wasn’t sufficiently on guard, though at this point I think he really should just let it rest, imitation being the best form of flattery and all that and anyway, Simon Gallup is still better looking.
Robert Smith’s vocal on ‘Lovesong’ finds him in “sweetly pensive” mode, or rather mood – for a man with such limited natural vocal ability, because of it, Smith changes emotional tone like the Horse of a Different Colour changes coats as it trots around the byways of the Emerald City: abruptly and often, from one monochrome to the next – the pensiveness helped, one might say created, by a chord change in the middle of that generically sincere refrain, I will always love you, from A minor to C major; when measured against the scale a tiny adjustment from G# to A for the fingers and the voice, the increment of a semitone, the smallest measurable interval in Western music. This relative insubstantiality of distance between one note and the next never quite detracts – as anyone who’s spent time playing a instrument can attest – from the uncanny magic of hearing a raised seventh, the note that gives a minor key what we call melancholy, its Essence of Minor, resolve itself into the sun-blessed dawn of a tonic note shared with the major key. It’s the harmonic equivalent of drying one’s tears, and the fact that a love song so unabashedly straightforward as ‘Lovesong’ should be written around the elementary switch from the simplest harmonic minor key to its equally simple relative major is, in its own humble way, quite brilliant, the sort of musical elegance that the pop world turns on.
Robert Smith is passingly good at many things – wearing eyeliner, sacking band members, sniping about Morrissey – but he is surpassingly good at crafting a particular kind of pop song, a particular kind of love song, one that trembles on an edge between togetherness and separation; in which the love object is always threatening to be lost or to make themselves lost; and where small but simultaneously cosmic miscommunications between lovers happen at the chord change from minor to major and back again.
Consider ‘Plainsong’, which puts us back at the beginning of Disintegration with another generic title, this one not so much an essence as an eau de Catholicism. It opens with synthesised bells – they sound a little cheap, to be honest – and continues to like a ship letting out sail with billowing, organ-toned keyboards. (The Cure being a band of their time, and this being the 1980s, it’s almost a guarantee that every instrument that sounds as if it falls outside of the drums/bass/guitar parameter is a Roland keyboard factory preset). ‘Plainsong’ is more likely wedding music than ‘Lovesong’, only waiting for a slow-motion waltz up the aisle to consummate its grandeur. But then Robert Smith begins to sing, and the words he sings are the only Cure lyric I ever feel the urge to quote in full, as evidence that, for all his writerly faults – and Smith has a few – he is eminently capable of crafting a lyric as tight and graceful as the best short story:
“I think it’s dark, and it looks like rain,” you said.
“And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world,” you said.
“And it’s so cold it’s like the cold if you were dead.”
Then you smiled for a second.
“I think I’m old, and I’m feeling pain,” you said.
“And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world,” you said.
“And it’s so cold it’s like the cold if you were dead.”
Then you smiled for a second.
Sometimes you make me feel like I’m living at the edge of the world.
Like I’m living at the edge of the world.
“It’s just the way I smile,” you said.
It’s that last move which moves me every time, in which miscommunicating lovers (mis)read each other’s thoughts; where the unspoken edge of all things is replied to, and turns out to be the twist of a face. And Smith sings the whole lyric so gently, choosing not to compete with the instrumentation in a way that so often gives his voice a panicked yelp; here, buoyed along by generous reverb, he’s melodic and tender and almost preternaturally calm, the calm before the dark and long storm of Disintegration, which I declared at the top to be the most adult album The Cure ever made, because every song on it sounds like the creation of a mind that has given long thought to the difficulties and bewilderment, the joy and the fear, of commitment.
Are we back at the Biographical Fallacy? Smith has gone on record many times to say that Disintegration came about in large part out of his own dissatisfaction at turning thirty years old, the decisive tick of the clock over into adult time, and I believe it, especially as I edge towards thirty myself. But a successful creative work is more than the sum of its creator’s conscious intent, and Disintegration succeeds because its emotional reach goes beyond mere birthday angst or post-wedding nerves; because Smith is a surpassingly good writer of pop and also not-very-pop songs with incredibly wide appeal, and because Disintegration distills every melancholy Cure moment into a potent elixir, adds one drop per song, and makes of its concentrated, committed intensity a luxuriantly aqueous world of sadness.
In early 1982 I was just out of my teens, staying with a houseful of revivalist mods in the Brisbane suburb of Greenslopes and en route to the UK. My high school and early work years had been spent in Tauranga, a provincial city in Aotearoa/New Zealand where I’d been a little Pakeha reggae nut since the mid ’70s, captured by this inside-out version of rhythm and blues with its skanking guitar, incredibly weighty, sinuous drum and bass and whole other worlds of lyrical concerns. I grabbed whatever Island, Trojan or Virgin label (sometimes even Jamaican-pressed) records made it so far south and was starting to order imports from the UK. Reggae had a considerable impact on New Zealand and by the early ’80s I had already seen local bands like Chaos and the dynamic and original Herbs rocking mostly Maori and Pacific Island crowds with their homegrown roots reggae.
Herbs had released their excellent debut, ‘What’s Be Happen?’ in 1981 and toured Aotearoa with the fine London band, Black Slate. The main influence on reggae tastes in Aotearoa, like so many parts of the world, was Bob Marley & The Wailers whose style was to have a lasting impact on local music. Bands like Unity, Dread Beat and Blood, Sticks and Shanty and Aotearoa presented songs driven by social concerns (often about Maori political and cultural justice) and steady, so-called ‘One Drop’ rhythms created by the Wailers. As a student journalist I’d managed to bag an interview with Uncle Bob when he’d visited Auckland in 1979 and the experience had given me the incentive to head for a place where reggae was well established. Kingston was the dream, but London seemed more possible.
In Brisbane my notions of Australia as a ‘rock dungeon’ were dealt a sound blow by two great bands, No Fixed Address and Un Tabu. Un Tabu led by seasoned singer Ronnie ‘Ras Roni’ Jemmott was the ’80s expression of the destruction of the White Australia policy in 1973. A band comprising members from Barbados (Roni), Trinidad, Fiji and Puerto Rico by way of New York, Un Tabu was a terrific live act, tight and danceable and obviously satisfying a growing hunger in Australia for real reggae. I don’t recall the venue I saw them in, but I remember a nice conversation with Roni before the show and then the energy of a confident band successfully vibing a big crowd with an authentic take on reggae, far from the music’s birthplace.
I was just as fortunate to attend a gig at the University of Queensland and witness the legendary No Fixed Address led by drummer/vocalist, Bart Willoughby. Bart is really one of the most important pioneers of reggae in Australia. As a Pitjinjatjara youth of 17 growing up in Adelaide he had caught Bob Marley and the Wailers playing ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ on TV and his mind had been blown. He was especially amazed by the drummer, Carlton Barrett and his brother Aston aka ‘Family Man’ on bass. Bart told me a few years ago that at that moment it was confirmed for him that this was “the coolest black band in the world.” No Fixed Address were cool too – stars of a newly released film, Wrong Side of the Road, performers of anthems like ‘We Have Survived’, with a rugged, road-tested mix of reggae and rock propelled by Bart’s drumming and distinctive raspy voice. My memory of that gig was one of a sudden introduction to the anger and pride of Indigenous Australia, wildly dancing Murri people singing at the top of their lungs, “We have survived the white man’s world…and the hate and the torment of it all…and you know, you can’t change that!” I was witnessing the foundation of a great tradition of Indigenous Australian reggae which continues all over this continent. For living proof check out the Zennith Boyz from Kuranda or the Bush Bands Bash in Alice Springs.
After a year or so in post-riots Brixton, grimy council estates in Kentish Town, vibrant Notting Hill Carnival, blues parties in Kennington, Lloydie Coxsone’s sound system in Peckham, gigs with golden-period reggae royalty like Culture, Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Prince Far I, Aswad, Misty In Roots, Mikey Dread, Brigadier Jerry, David Rodigan and record shops like Daddy Kool and Dub Vendor I returned, penniless, to New Zealand and soon thereafter fled to the bright lights of Sydney.
I was drawn to Sydney by reports from a friend of hugely well-attended sound system nights where Jamaicans and Aboriginal people were running things. I later discovered this to be the pioneer sound system in Australia, Soulmaker, owned and operated by Jamaican ex-pat, JJ Roberts who had arrived in Sydney in 1972 and begun his musical activities not long after. I spent quite a few evenings in the 1980s enjoying JJ’s selection; these days I select records alongside him. JJ has maintained the Jamaican musical tradition which is not based on bands but monster PA systems with customised amps, records (or maybe Serato these days) and live mic entertainment. If you didn’t know already, it’s the foundation of hip hop, trip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and half a dozen other styles, but only in recent years has reggae ‘sound’ been properly appreciated in Australia, a country where bands have traditionally ruled. JJ’s son, Danny Ranking was the able MC or ‘toaster’ as they were called back in the day. Soulmaker was especially active in Redfern and spent a lot of time playing at the Black Theatre in Cope Street (right near Radio Redfern) and at a squat in Cleveland Street, but the crew also regularly played suburban pubs and private parties and kept successful dances at the Graphic Arts Club in Regent Street, near Railway Square.
Also putting on ‘dance parties’ were a group of South African exiles and their supporters united under the banner of the anti-apartheid, Black consciousness party, the Pan African Congress. Their regular fund-raiser Afrika Nite dances turned into one of the biggest social events for music-loving migrants, activists and fellow travellers in the ’80s, starting out in St. Peter’s Church hall in Surry Hills and finding a home at the Paddington Town Hall. Mixing reggae and African music on the turntables and featuring local reggae bands like Mataqali Music, Randy and Jah Roots, Na-Whom, and Kalabash, as well as Aboriginal performers like Bobby McLeod, the PAC group combined politics and partying like nobody else. In March 1983 they even pulled together an Australian tour by the militantly anti-apartheid reggae superstar and one time Wailer, Peter Tosh. Although a financial disaster (with well-founded suspicions the tour was partially sabotaged by the established music industry, aggrieved that political activists had scored such a coup), Tosh’s Aussie tour gave “reggae a boost and our [anti-apartheid] work a boost as well,” according to one of the main organisers, Neville Legg.
Following the success of Afrika Nite, Jamaican DJ and entrepreneur, Ted Vassell established his own Jamaica Nite which also utilised the Paddington Town Hall and other venues. Vassell went on to establish the long-running Powercuts reggae night in the 1990s. The aforementioned bands along with others like Shango and T-Vibes (featuring two other stalwarts of the reggae and Caribbean music scene, Jamaican, Patou Powell and Errol Renaud from Trinidad and Tobago) played at venues around town, often pubs but sometimes club venues including the popular Palms in Oxford Street, Paddington, which was known as a reggae-centric nightspot in the early ’80s. Mataqali Music featured musicians with Maori (Cappy Cowen on drums and Norman Jacobs on bass) and Fijian heritage (keyboardist Joel Knight) as well as Ras Roni Jemmott on vocals for a period. Mataqali was a fairly high profile reggae-style band in Sydney in the 1980s. Despite having a substantial live following and even building their own recording studio they did not release any records. However, they did manage to win the 1985 Star Search national talent competition on the Ten network, maybe the only official accolade Australian reggae has ever achieved. They even got to shake hands with Greg Evans.
As well as Mataqali Music, the other well known reggae band in Sydney in the 1980s was Kalabash lead by Yaw Glymin, a bassist and drummer originally from Ghana. Kalabash continued the mix of African music and reggae and offered up the ever-requested Bob Marley tunes Australian audiences never seem to tire of. Few international reggae artists made it to Australia and in the early part of the decade only UB40, Peter Tosh and Toots and the Maytals made the journey after The Wailers initial incursion in 1979.
I became involved in radio in 1985 when I took over from Errol Renaud’s tenureship as host of a Caribbean music show on 2 SER-FM. I limited my focus to reggae and called the show Splashdown, it ran for nearly 20 years. An earlier and vital reggae radio programme was Dogs of Babylon presented by long-time reggae aficionado, Tom Zelinka on the ABC youth network, Double Jay. Other programmes I recall being impressed by were Pounding System on 2MBS-FM, presented by Clay Caplice and Mark Ottignon and Rebel Music presented by the self-effacing and much-loved Janice Chisnall on Radio Skidrow. African Connections DJs on Radio Skidrow would also play reggae tunes amongst their African selection, following the pattern of their Afrika Nite dances. Records of course were the main way to keep connected to the well-spring of music production from Jamaica. I would buy a certain number of singles and LPs by mail order from Dub Vendor in London, but most of my purchases were from Anthem Records which, when I first went there, was located in the prime urban setting of Town Hall subway station. My memory is clear of listening to a 12 inch cut of a powerful 1984 UK track, ‘Mi God, Mi King’ by the Saxon Sound MC, Papa Levi and wondering about the extra bass patterns until I realised it was trains far below us rattling the shop.
Didgeridoo Records in Kings Cross also had a comprehensive selection of reggae albums, though a limited range of 7 inch 45 singles which is where the real action is for Jamaican music. Record dealers, Joe and Alan who had been associated with Anthem set up their own lower George Street shop Floppy Disk which later became Unsound. Joe and Al are fondly remembered as the purveyors of reggae to many enthusiasts in the 1980s and 90s.
In terms of Australian takes on reggae, only a few bands had produced any records which took the form seriously, despite obvious reggae-influenced pieces like ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work and ‘Boys Light Up’ by Australian Crawl. Un Tabu and No Fixed Address had both issued good records, with Un Tabu’s 12 inch disc ‘Open Your Eyes’ (1981) on the Larrikin label still standing up as a fine track many decades on. The instrumental reggae of The Igniters made up of experienced Sydney session musos also made it on to disc with a bit of help from Triple J radio.
Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons did perhaps the most creditable attempt to develop a pop reggae approach that respected the integrity of the music with tracks like ‘I’m in a Dancing Mood’, ‘Hit and Run’ and ‘Shape I’m In’ – Joe Camilleri being one of the few Australian vocalists who could sing in a keening reggae voice without embarrassing faux-Jamaican mannerisms. Honourable mention must be made of the first Australian dub reggae LP (dub being the studio producer’s deconstruction of instrumental reggae invented by the likes of King Tubby and Lee Perry in Jamaica). Ten Dubs That Shook the World was released in 1988 and credited to Sherrif Lindo and the Hammer (actually Sydney producer, Anthony Maher.) The record matched the creativeness of many international dub innovations and paved the way for many similar electronic experiments in the ’90s and beyond.
Unfortunately, at the end of the decade the level of Australian reggae musicianship had perhaps degenerated somewhat and was not up to backing a Jamaican artist. Popular singer/songwriter Bob Andy best known for his work on the legendary Studio One label spent several months in 1989 trying to hone a local band to play his songs, culminating in a very ordinary gig in an Oxford Street nightclub in which he publically castigated both audience and band.
For me, perhaps the highlight of reggae in Sydney in the 1980s was creating and successfully running a sound system dance called Massive Reggae in 1988 with a group of broadcaster/DJs including Mark Ottignon, Clay Caplice and Andrew Thomas. In a collaboration with JJ Roberts and the Soulmaker sound system we converted a Tae Kwon Do practice space above a service station in Cleveland Street, Redfern into an authentic reggae dancehall. It was a hugely successful night and proved reggae had a solid following in Sydney. Hearing and more importantly feeling reggae pumping on a big system in a smoke-drenched hall, packed to the rafters with people of all backgrounds remains my musical and social utopia, a place to return to again and again.
“It’s not a retro record” said TZU of 2008’s Computer Love. “It’s not even an 80s record. It’s just that we all grew up in the 80s”. Find out what the difference is in the Culture Club’s pocket history of nostalgia in art – from Marcel Proust to Mylo (via Morrissey).
Life is tough. Listening to music can make us feel better about it, but if you think it’s going to bring about any real improvement in the conditions of everyday life, you’re kidding yourself. Pop music is part of the problem. It’s like this…