Listen to this track by Sheffieldian dance-pop purveyors ABC. It’s “Poison Arrow” their international 1982 hit from their smash debut The Lexicon of Love, a pop concept album about losing, and pining for lost love. That sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a record that sounds as buoyant, and as musically effervescent as this one. This song was one of a number of hit singles from this era-defining record; “The Look of Love”, “All of My Heart” were two others, with “Tears Are Not Enough.” being a hit in the UK.
This is an ambitious tune, as was the making of the album in an era when pop smarts and a touch of indulgence without crossing the line where production sheen was concerned was a hard balance to strike. Yet, ABC were able to do so with seeming ease, particularly with this song where (extremely) funky bass, drum machines, synths, and sparkling horns meet with singer and lyricist Martin Fry’s appealingly dramatic vocals.
Despite being an embodiment of a sort of post-disco New Romantic outfit very much of its time in many ways, ABC managed to create a sound that distinguished them well beyond their initial foray into the pop charts of the early ’80s, and continues to do so even now.
But, where does this sound actually come from? Read more
Listen to this track by pre-fab four once-upon-a-time television rock band turned the real thing, The Monkees. It’s their summer of 1967 single, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin no less, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, a tune that would feature on their TV show, and on their fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltdin November of that same year. The song is built around a riff that echoes the sound of the Beatles circa the Revolver album, with a decidedly suburban thematic bent; the “status symbol land” of the Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, his family, and his neighbours.
But, an important thing to note is that, although the Beatles are a clear musical reference point by the time this song was laid down, the Monkees were an able studio band by this point.They had honed their skills during down time as their TV show was being shot using instruments that were left lying around the lot, and had become a real band. All four Monkees play on this; Mike Nesmith on guitar, Peter Tork on keyboards, and both Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz singing.
The sound was tinny and coming from the bathroom through a black, transistor radio about the size of an ice cream sandwich. From it, flowed forth so many types of music, all of it sort of murky, but the soundtrack to my early life nonetheless. I remember thinking that the radio stations must have had huge waiting rooms, while each band took their turns to play. I didn’t really have a steady grasp of the recording process, needless to say. But the sound was everywhere around our house, mostly in the mornings when my parents were readying themselves for work. I would wake up with the sun streaming through the filmy curtain to my bedroom window and cast spots of daylight on the motorcycle wallpaper. The sound of the shower, the hair dryer, the voices of my parents, the DJ telling me what had just been played – it was all the music of getting ready, of starting a new day. Sometimes when I am engrossed in a memory of my childhood, it is much like a musical dream sequence featuring the Guess Who, Queen, Elton John, ELO, The Average White Band, and so many others playing in the background, there to hold up the backdrop of the time. Music is a two edged sword that way – it ties you to a time, but it can often date easily too. When you get old enough, the dating can be another source of amusement – you remember where you were and what you thought of it all. Like so many things, in its small way, it adds a sense of continuity to things, a sense of personal history even as those songs raise a smile when you hear them years later. I complain a lot about radio these days and there is a lot to complain about. The same songs get played over and over again only unlike in years past there are fewer of them, and they are all of the same style. There are no songs played which risk breaking the format, the uninterrupted flow of advertising time. The people who play the records have no relationship to them, either. As for listeners, I hope the songs on the radio today still have the power to tie this generation of radio listeners to their times the way that Gary Numan’s “Cars” reminds me of the time I first met my childhood sweetheart on a rare occasion outside of school. As disposable as pop music is thought to be, I wonder how things will advance given that everything has become disposable, and that everything is meant only for one red hot moment before something else replaces it.
I can only hope that the spirit of what can be found in simple things, like a tinny radio playing a song which ties a listener to the track of their lives in some way, both then and years later when the song is heard again, will never be lost. That out of a world where everything changes so quickly, something will remain for everyone which will make them realize that there is treasure to be found there. There is something which isn’t meant to burn out and be forgotten, and that the best part of it is that it can’t be named, or put into a category. This sense of transcendence, this meaning in our experiences embodied in something as simple as a song heard one morning when you were a child points to something beyond the surface, which we can only glimpse at. It reaches beyond the world and yet is rooted in the most humbling elements that make it up. This is not mere history, or fashion. It is our experience. It can’t be sold like airtime.