Kraftwerk, The Model (1981)

kraftwerkTheModel

Artist: Kraftwerk
Title: The Model
Description: single; track, The Man-Machine
Label: EMI Capitol
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1981

She has been checking nearly all the men …

Any documentary about the music scene of the 1980s is good news for Rochdale’s Kieran Prendiville, whose your-favourite-teacher bulletins from the wild frontier of electronica on BBC’s cutting-edge crystal-ball science fair Tomorrow’s World gave elbow-patch life to the brave new world of computer love.

In a piece to camera from 1980 about the bleeding-edge Fairlight synthesiser, Prendiville admitted, “We’ve never been very good at electronically creating sounds that sound real.” Until now, that is. He bangs a timpani for real – bom! – then asks us to “cock an ear” to the sampled sound of a timpani triggered by his finger on the key of a keyboard. “That’s almost perfect isn’t it?” It had better be: a computer has “mathematicaly worked out the incredible complexity of the soundwave a timpani makes” – bom! And that, he vouches, is just the beginning. It’s played for laughs, but it’s popular science.

Talking of which, Kraftwerk, the avant-boffin synthesis pioneers from Dusseldorf, emerged from the indelicately categorised Krautrock wave of the late 60s and early 70s, and embraced the circuit board with all of their hearts, with founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider actually filing the patent for an early, electronic drum machine that you hit with metal sticks in 1975. They got their big break in 1975 not on The Old Grey Whistle Test, or Cheggers Plays Pop, but Tomorrow’s World.

In the witty words of Andrew Harrison in the Guardian, looking back from the advantage of 30-odd years, Tomorrow’s World showcased “four young Germans dressed like geography teachers, apparently playing camping stoves with wired-up knitting needles,” performing (a verb suddenly in need of an upgrade) a song (another one) called Autobahn. Whereas rock and roll sang of cars, Kraftwerk genuflected towards the motorway itself. The clip nudged the world off it axis. Drummers ran for their lives.

In 1991, Kraftwerk were back on Tomorrow’s World, this time in robot form before their tour. But their innovation was part of the furniture by then. It’s not the law to appreciate Kraftwerk only for their Vorsprung durch Technik, but it’s tricky to separate the scientific advance from the artistic endeavour. What I find myself constantly knocked out by is how popular they were from such fundamentally radical roots. Autobahn was a hit in 1974, Top 10 in West Germany and New Zealand, Top 20 in Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, the parent LP likewise, which was Top 5 in the United States. But The Model, a jauntily fizzing if deadpan pop single from 1978’s rather severe-looking The Man-Machine, topped the UK charts when belatedly issued as a single in 1981. It was the b-side to the more melodic Computer Love, which was mercenarily flipped by EMI after it stalled at 36 and it went to the top of the shop. Sometimes there’s a reason to like being beside the b-side.

Chips with everything! To file The Model (or Das Model) under “disarmingly simple” is not to denigrate but to admire. The beat, created by either man (Wolfgang Flür), machine or a fusion of the two (it doesn’t matter), is as formal as a click-track and its double snare-snap is as close as it gets to abandon; Hütter’s vocal and the foreground riff almost rhyme with each other; but the pulsing bass beat is actually rather athletic if you tune into it, the song’s secret ingredient. There’s not much room for analysis, but that just reflects the machine-tooled surfaces of the music. It’s hard not to admire the sustained drone that announces the run-out at the end of its three-and-a-half minutes. A little dose of psychological warfare not usually applied to perfect pop (unless you count the “neighing stallion” keyboard sound in Crazy Horses by the Osmonds).

Check the lyrics, delivered with neither irony nor public display of affection by Hütter. They are enough to make you wonder if he’s talking about a flesh-and-blood human mannequin, or a robot with a model number:

She’s a model and she’s looking good
I’d like to take her home, that’s understood

That she “plays hard to get” and “smiles from time to time” is a direct hit, as descriptive as a magazine profile of many hundreds of words. “It only takes a camera to change her mind,” has a dystopian ring, shades of the robotic machinemensch in the German silent Metropolis, who leads a revolution, driving men to distraction. Our synthetic femme fatale “goes out to nightclubs, drinking just champagne,” but when she’s said to be “checking nearly all the men,” is she actually ogling them, or more methodically checking them off a list? She is, after all, “playing her game.” The line, “for beauty we will pay” doesn’t accidentally bespeak pimps and johns. For all its brushed-steel precision and antiseptic sheen, The Model is as wayward and fatalistic as any Weimar cross-dresser pushing a wheelbarrow of hard currency before the youth start singing about tomorrow belonging to them.

It was a rare chart-topper recorded in the 70s that referred to “consumer products” but Kraftwerk were part of the future and they did things differently there. The model is “a big success,” which is why the song’s protagonist wants to meet her again. The 80s apparently came early to Dusseldorf. To keep things corporeal and human, let us pay tribute to the song’s writers, as, contrary to the national panic, hit tunes didn’t write themselves: take a stiff bow, Hütter, Karl Bartos and Emil Schult.

Back on a more conventional kind of screen from before the dawning of a new era, Kieran Prendiville boasts in 1980 of his hard drive having “barks, cannons, creaks, footsteps, miaows, oinks, quacks …” For Kraftwerk, true pioneers, such fripperies seemed much smaller in the rear view mirror.

Bom!

Advertisements

The Supremes, Stoned Love (1970)

 

Stoned-love-supremes

Artist: The Supremes
Title: Stoned Love
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 2003

Ever the dedicated archaeologist of recorded popular music, I rather fear that the first time I knowingly fell under the spell of this late Supremes single was in the early part of this century, some 40 years, in fact, after its release. It passed into my home under cover of the 3-disc Capital Gold Motown Classics compilation, purchased for the following good, sound, practical reason: to top up the soul content of my iPod. Where had this song been all my life? Seemingly just lurking, halfway down CD2 between The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back and I Don’t Blame You At All by Smokey Robinson, waiting to pounce, pin me to the floor and pour honey into my ears.

Diana Ross is already placed in The 143, with her key solo hit Upside Down. She’d flown the girl group nest in 1970, after Berry Gordy had “run in” her Mississippi-born replacement Jean Terrell, so that the Supremes brandwagon could roll on as if nothing had happened. Terrell, signed as a Motown solo artist, was formally introduced at Miss Ross’s final appearance as a Supreme in Las Vegas. Thus, the band played on, and scored hits without their first-name-terms taliswoman with the likes of Nathan Jones and Floy Joy. Only Mary Wilson survived from the stone age; Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong back in 1967. One might regard the Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong formation as the group’s second classic line-up. I certainly do. The Funk Brothers remain on infrastructure, so nothing’s falling over.

If there’s a change of lyrical direction, it comes wrapped in candy floss. The number begins* with Miss Terrell cooing the provocative title over a gently tickled row of ivory: “Sto-o-oned Lo-huh-uh-uhh-huh-ove …”, then, a soft parp, a rattle on the snare … and when the piano line plinks into action, the song does the opposite of explode into stoned life. It sort of tumbles. Like the teeth-sucking sound of a hi-hat, or a reversed tape, or the inhalation that precedes a pyrotechnic event, we’re off, but without much warning. Suitably and subtly lulled, you took your ear off the ball. Stop, children, what’s that sound? It’s the sound of the 60s turning into the 70s.

A love for each other will bring fighting to an end

This is the Supremes with placards, protesting the indignity, cruelty and human deforestation of the Vietnam war, now in its fifth official year, although imprinted with US boots since Eisenhower sent in his 900 “advisers”, and Kennedy tacitly endorsed the CIA’s covert involvement. The lyrics are by Kenny Thomas and producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), and take the “girl group” into waters being swum by The Temptations, the actually stoned Family Stone and other beatniks. Come 1970, the National Guard were killing American students on their own campus and something had to be done about it. Equally, something had to be sung about it, if the peaceniks really were going to overcome.

Forgiving one another, time after time, doubt creeps in
But like the sun lights up the sky with a message from above
Oh, yeah, I find no other greater symbol of this love

It may seem naive to our cynical eyes, but this rather amorphous hippy sentiment of thoughts-and-prayers should not be dismissed from this distance, just because it sounds lilting and sweet. (So, for instance, does For What It’s Worth.) Asking its young audience to “put the present time to hand”, Stoned Love becomes in fact an urgent call to arms, disguised as a come-on: “If you’re young at heart, rise up and take your stand.”

If a war ’tween our nations passed, oh, yeah
Will the love ‘tween our brothers and sisters last?

Terrell, Wilson and Birdsong think it will: “On and on and on and on.”

Like all classic Motown tunes, it fades too soon, and too quickly. I think that’s why we’re all still so besotted by the hits of Detroit 1959-72, which never sought to outstay their welcome, however warm that welcome be.

I don’t care where this song has been all my life. It’s where it is now that matters, filling me with love supreme.

 

*Postscript: a connoisseur going by the Twittername of @daysofspeed has just recommended the four-minute version that appears on The Supremes: Box Set, released in 2000. “The opening,” he accurately states, “is like a state ceremony.”

 

The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

SweetBlockbuster.jpeg

Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

Tubeway Army, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? (1979)

AreFriendsElectric?TubewayArmy

Artist: Tubeway Army
Title: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Description: single; album track, Replicas
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

It’s cold outside
And the paint’s peeling off of my walls

But not the face. I never painted my face. I never wore rouge or eyeliner, not even during my peacock Goth phase in the early 80s, when my genuflections to androgeny happened strictly above the forehead and below the neck. Hence the high esteem in which I held those gentlemen who did turn it up to No.7 during that first flush of male empowerment in the first decade of gender realignment. I was called a “poof” by rugby players on a number of occasions for my effete style choices (neckerchief, cavalry shirt, velveteen boots, even a bow tie), but the only time I wore actual makeup was for a sixth form production of Macbeth.

Gary Numan rocked the full slap. In line with his bid to appear alien, remote and “other”, he did what a number of prominent public men did during what, in 1979, had not yet emerged as New Romanticism, and that was to colour himself in. Or, in actual fact, rub the colour out. He claims it was to mask his acne, but it masked more than that. (It’s important to remember that Tubeway Army preceded the Blitz kid movement and never felt a part of it, or any sect, although whiteface was worn by plenty of rockers before Numan, not least Japan and Kiss and all those Glam Rock fops.) To mangle a line, What a piece of work was this man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? seemed to beam down, fully formed (“Please sit down”). Just as we provincials were getting comfortable with our binary system for identifying which records were and weren’t “punk”, here came some new jets, with their Philip K Dicks out and their Minimoog synthesisers in flight cases. It was a revolution, nothing short of. In the wake of Kraftwerk and Roxy and Moroder and Jarre, Tubeway Army took the discordant spirit of punk and remodelled it to look like an Auton. On this demonstration disc for what machines could do, the music pulsed and klaxoned, but it was driven by a skin-and-stick beat courtesy of Numan’s uncle. An important human factor. Rather, an important Numan factor. For it was Gary’s dispassionate, prosaic, borderline-frigid vocal that drew you into the noir. Part serial-killer, part sentient onboard computer, this pale, paranoid, panda-eyed android was sure fine looking, man, he was something else.

I was too ill-versed aged 14 to join the dots to his musical ancestors and felt instead as if something illegal had landed: contraband from another planet, smuggled onto Top Of The Pops and to the top of the pops – for four weeks, bean counters. Once deconstructed in Smash Hits – and willingly – Numan was more of a pop star than he at first seemed, playing Ziggy left-handed and constantly threatening retirement to spend more time with his pilot’s licence. It took the edge off his 2000AD horror-show style (Down In The Park, I Nearly Married A Human, The Machman, “There’s a man outside … a candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed”) and made him somewhat approachable, for all the trussed-up jumpsuit stylings.

Most sci-fi ages badly. Even Blade Runner, which was still in the future in 1979. But this single, like the faster Cars, still sounds ahead of the curve. If Numan became a figure of fun, it was because he put himself out there without fear of dying: flying his plane, making Groundhog Day comebacks, advertising hair transplants, marrying his biggest fan. When I finally met and interviewed him on 6 Music in the early 2000s, he told me he’d been only recently diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s. This may go some way to explaining his direct manner, his remote stance, his perceived arrogance, the speechmarks around ‘friends’ and his utter focus.

You see this means everything to me …

Chic, Le Freak (1978)

chic-le-freak

Artist: Chic
Title: Le Freak
Description: single; album track, C’est Chic
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed …

Though my formative dancing years were complicated by hormones and punk rock, I was no wallflower, as romantic as that may autobiographically be. Once the school disco had established itself as a pre-sexual playground where manoeuvres could be rehearsed in the dark in civilian clothes, to not dance was to not participate in the social whirl. You couldn’t haltingly approach a girl you fancied for a slow dance at the end if you’d spent the previous couple of Fanta-sipping hours glued to a plastic seat. You had to spin it to be in it, and you had to be in it to win it.

I consulted my childhood diaries in order to assess the vivacity of the discotheque culture at Abington Vale Middle School, and am able to confirm that there were two discos on the French trip in 1978 (although I didn’t go to the second one, which I decreed to be “chronic”), and another which I called a disco but was actually a house party at Nina Thadani’s. I hadn’t really started dancing yet. After graduating to Weston Favell Upper School in September, things hotted up. There was a disco that Christmas, held in the sixth form common room but for third years only, at which, I chronicled, “everyone freaked out.” This was the year of Le Freak, aptly French-inflected in the cross-channel circumstances. At this milestone social event, I smooched with Liz Carr. I also did a pogo with John Lewis and a “footsie” with John, Bill, Lee, Si and George, who were the cool kids. (Even though a footsie would be imminently besmirched by Shakin’ Stevens.)

By March 1979, I had thrown my lot in with punk and would only dance – or effect the Doc Martened version of a violent can-can – to approved tunes, which remained in the minority. It is recorded that a disco in March 1980 boasted tunes by the Sex Pistols and the Skids; come December, we high-kicked to the Undertones, Sham 69 and, generously, the Tourists. But as my circle approached full adolescence, we occasioned to go to organised discos in clubs or booked rooms, and, post-enlightenment and keener to move closer to the other gender, we’d dance to a wider range of music: the Whispers, say, followed by the Jam, followed by Diana Ross. Which takes us back to Chic.

There remains no limited company as likely to make me dance than the Chic Organisation, especially in my older bones. Any one of their five consecutive UK Top 10 hits from 1977 to 1978 will do the trick, but there’s something alchemical about Le Freak’s siren call – that “one-two aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” – which yanks you onto the dancefloor. I’m right, aren’t I? You simply do not want to miss another second of its one-two-three-and-a-half-minutes of aerobic bliss. This song is like a form of conscription. Resistance is futile. (I hate being urged by others to get up on the dancefloor, and petulantly pull back, but when Chic are asking, I’m dancing.)

Sometimes it’s best not to lift the bonnet on perfection, although producer Steve Levine did just that with the mastertapes on his Radio 2 show The Record Producers and to hear the individual engine parts of Le Freak did not rob it of its mystery. So efficiently are Nile Rodgers’ forensic guitar, Bernard Edwards’ intricate bass and Tony Thompson’s surgical drums entwined in that intro, you wonder why Mount Rushmore wasn’t re-chiselled as a result and all those dead presidents replaced. As with a lot of monumental music, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in, and in the case of the intro, it’s a bass drum beat where that beat ought to go. Listen to it now. That’s mostly just Rodgers, a hi-hat and a snare. It’s the feeling you get when you ride a bike without holding the handlebars.

Had I owned the parent album – and who realistically owned disco albums? – I would have had the five-and-a-half-minute 12-inch mix, but there’s something pure about doing what has to be done to the seven-inch. There’s no fat on the record, and there can be no fat on your bodily expression. I don’t know if it’s Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson who sings the line, “Le Freak, c’est Chic,” – it could be both – but its a clarion to anyone yet to fully appreciate the international sexiness of this musical form, rooted in the warmth and sorrow of soul, schooled in the double-jointedness of funk, and smoothed of all rough edges in the studio by, in Chic’s case, the sages who wrote and played it (and engineer Bob Clearmountain). Songs like Le Freak were such staples of the disco, and remain so, you didn’t need to own them. They were being-out records, not staying-in records. They were in fact “being out, out” records.

I may have fancied myself a 14-year-old punk, but even at the height of my commitment to anarchy, I knew that disco didn’t suck. (What kind of a philistine would think that, even for a pose?) There was only so much jumping up and down you could do before your head hurt. I was never the greatest dancer, but I knew the primal power of fancy footwork’s release, even before I boast bum-fluff.

Chic wrote, produced and sometimes played some of the most significant dance music of my teens. I have hymned Diana Ross’s Diana album elsewhere. The canon of Sister Sledge twirls for itself. I even have room for Let’s Dance, which Rodgers underpinned like a master craftsman. In 2013, with Edwards and Thompson gone but never forgotten, Get Lucky reinstated Rodgers in the firmament.

Though for many of us there will always a hint of the Proustian about hearing Le Freak, this is a rush that never loses its momentum.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –

The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

SpecialsGangsters

Artist: The Specials
Title: Gangsters
Description: single
Label: 2 Tone
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

There follow two fairly faithfully transcribed entries from my 1980 diary.

Sunday, 10 February
Did my Smash Hits Specials album competition entry. Rather hopeful. Only six winners. Had to design 2 Tone man for record of choice. I did Smash It Up. You never know …

Friday, 7 March
Craig bought Smash Hits for me because I have come in the top six in the 2 Tone competition. My entry’s bin printed. It’s really good to see my name in the mag in print. I’ll be getting a Specials album. Goodo.

The first Specials LP duly arrived in the post, slightly bent but free of charge. I was excited about winning this prize, but perhaps more so about having my own drawing of Walt Jabsco, the 2 Tone mascot, “smashing up” some vinyl records to echo the Damned hit Smash It Up, printed in my favourite magazine. It was a victorious time for all of us, as 2 Tone – the name of a Coventry indie label which also stood for the ska revival movement itself – was a win-win. In repackaging a Jamaican form not previously known to most of us, but refracted through the prism of punk energy, related multiracial detente and Midlands stoicism, it slotted perfectly into the tribal landscape of Thatcher’s Britain, and gave even the most provincial among us something to think about.

The broader mod revival was easy to dress for (my younger brother took to wearing his school blazer down town at weekends, matched with a thin tie and some suitable target badges from the market) and if you preferred, as I did, to fashion yourself after punk, you didn’t have to be against ska. Into my already strictly coded “punk” singles collection went 2 Tone seven-inches in their distinctive paper sleeves, and we all got along famously. My friend Craig even invested in Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, and we all danced to it, even though none of us had a skinhead. But the Specials, aka The Special AKA, had been the first to convert us, and for that they remained supreme.

Too Much Too Young, A Message To You Rudy, Concrete Jungle, Rat Race, Nite Club, there wasn’t a selection on The Specials that we didn’t rate, or stomp to. Some of us aped Chas Smash’s bendy shapes, too. We welcomed The Selector, The Beat (initially on Go Feet) and even Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers into our bedrooms. But Gangsters is where it all started and Gangsters is where we went back to. As with The Prince by Madness, released a month afterwards, Gangsters had history built in. It was a reworking of Al Capone by the Prince himself, Buster. But much was gained in translation.

The screeching of tyres and the in-joke rewording of “Al Capone knows, don’t argue” to “Bernie Rhodes” (the much-maligned Clash manager who briefly handled the Specials) announce a record that would change lives in the UK. Where our beloved punk and new wave records kicked and elbowed, this new, worldly record bounced and syncopated, its hiccuping rhythm seemingly sung as well as wristed by guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation. I hadn’t been there to witness the actual birth of punk, but 2 Tone burst from its sac before our very ears. The skies were blackened with pork pie hats. (I never had the hat. Nor did anybody in Northampton that I knew.)

It was all about the black and white, the two skin tones of the Specials, the Beat and the Selector (although not Madness), the contrast – literally – between the two. Northampton was a predominantly white bread town, but this seemed a wider, national move toward racial coalition, and there was clearly only one side to be on, that of both sides. If West Indian culture could be so sincerely and idiosyncratically filtered through Coventry and Birmingham to create this thrilling new hybrid, then mixed was the only colour in town. It’s quite a thing, looking back from my privileged position of over 30 years living in melting-pot London from the vantage point of so much enlightenment, that some seven-inch singles in 1979 and 1980 must have cast such a liberating, liberal spell over us.

The lyrics of Gangsters, a Jerry Dammers composition, touch on Cagney, Raft and Muni (“Don’t call me Scarface”), but paint a modern urban picture of distrust, paranoia and threat.

Why must you record my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?

He knows what he’s doing when he gets Terry Hall to repeat the word “dread” in the line, “I dread – dread – to think what the future will bring”, recalling as it does fear and loathing, but also the street poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood, all grist to our duotonal mill. The idea that the police state might “confiscate all your guitars” is an inspired rock’n’roll recontextualisation of Orwellian angst. “And Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.”

It was Hall who became the overnight star, with his eyeliner, his nasal sneer and his close crop. That slight lean and the blank-eyed gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance (far beyond the kids in v-necks chickening away in the audience at Top Of The Pops) made him an instant rock’n’roll model and if anything updated ska for our concrete jungle, it was his faraway deadpan. Flanked by the hyperactive Golding and Neville Staples, his was the true punk presence in amid the night moves.

It’s rare for music to summon up the anxiety of a lyric in the instrumentation, but Gangsters does just that during the passage, “Don’t offer us legal protection, they use the law to commit crime”, where, spiced only by an Egyptian sounding keyboard doodle from Dammers, John Bradbury’s almost militarily precise snarework creates a modern malaise which may well have had roots in amphetamines of which we had no working knowledge. Then it’s back into the dancehall groove to end. Though it’s fast and furious, you can hear Ghost Town prefigured here – the howling wind, the desolation, the ironic pre-apocalyptic party mood – but for now, we’re living in gangster time.

I finally saw the Specials live in 2009, at Glastonbury, in the afternoon. Terry was still doing that lean and gaze, Lynval and Neville were still leaping around, Brad was still lock-tight, only Jerry Dammers – was he pushed? did he jump? – was absent from this viable nostalgia band. They were among the very best acts I saw over that lost weekend, even if the pies were a little porkier.

Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

SparksNo1

Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.