Pretending To See The Future #12
by Oliver Rose
Temporary Secretary – Paul McCartney (1980) Single from the album, McCartney II
It’s arguably the oddest thing that Macca’s ever committed to tape; right down to its misguided live debut at the O2 last year, Temporary Secretary is anomalous to say the very least. Opening in a scatter-brained flurry of randomised synthesiser arpeggios, the track is spellbindingly bizarre, its verses taking on a repetetive chord structure featuring scratchy electric guitar stabs and a drunken stagger of a bassline. Stranger than the music perhaps, are the lyrics: McCartney seems to be reading out a mundane recruitment letter, only for the topic to darken during the vaugely-bridge-like sections, where dissonant diversions from the song’s already shaky scaffold are accompanied by details of the compromises the narrator is willing to make in order to end his desperate serarch (“She can be a belly dancer […] she can be a neurosurgeon, if she’s doing nothing urgent”). Unlike anything on the rest of the LP, this track is a very strange affair indeed – stranger still was the decision to release it as a single, and one whose extremely limited edition pressing makes it a pricey Paul McCartney collectible.
Homosapien – Pete Shelley (1981) Single from the album, Homosapien
Continuing this week’s trend of bizarrely sexualised dark synthpop numbers, we have the lead single from Pete Shelly’s debut post-Buzzcocks offering. Produced with Human League-mainstay Martin Rushent, Homosapien is by far and away the strongest track from the eponymous record, retaining the growl of Spiral Scrath and reappropriating it in the context of new wave. Shelley’s transition from punk to pop is made seamless by expert combination of untamed vocal melodies with the fat violence of analog bass synthesisers. Equally punk, perhaps, is the ban this record received from the BBC upon release for its apparently hypersexual intonation, “homo-superior in my interior”.
To be entirely fair to punk, Shelley does lose his edge a bit here; his anarchic cyncism and, by extension, his cultural relevance are a little damaged by the camp superfluousness of this little ditty. However, even if it’s a little throwaway lyrically, Homosapien certainly earns its keep in terms of production; with the late great Mr. Rushent at the controls, this is just about the best early-80s syth production you’re likely to hear.
The Chauffeur – Duran Duran (1982) Track from the album, Rio
The Chauffeur is a hauntingly perfect slice of New Romantic poetry. It is, for me at least, the brief movement’s finest offering – an exquisitely pretentious and yet entirely danceable synthpop masterpiece, as gorgeous as it is utterly wonky. Rio’s liner notes claim that the track was written as early as 1978, by frontman Simon Le Bon – certainly that would go some way to explaining why it sounds almost nothing like the LP’s other tracks, including the hit-singles Hungry Like The Wolf and Save A Prayer. Exhibiting all the whimsical nonsense of new wave lyricisim, the instrumentation on this track, the album’s closer, is brooding and misty; the lead synth-line and modulated, reverb-laden piano are hauntingly discordant and Le Bon’s vocal wades characteriscally in and out of depth. The video for this track is also exceptionally arsty; shot in black and white, it follows the trajectories of two sheerly-clad women, whose final meeting brings with it an uncomfortably sinister sexuality, leaving the viewer about as clued-up as they might feel watching Eraserhead. For both the extremity of its queerness and indeed its traversal of both visual and auditory mediums, The Chauffeur has endured as one of New Romanticism’s most fondly remembered oddities. Don’t be put off by Duran Duran’s name on the tin; it’s the truest thing they ever did.
You Owe Me One – ABBA (1982) B-side to the standalone single, Under Attack
It’s sad to wonder what further heights ABBA might have scaled had they not dissolved at the height of their powers in December 1982. Their final offering before breaking-up was Under Attack, a track from the band’s aborted ninth album, and whose flipside is just as excellent as the main event. You Owe Me One is a truly exemplary slice of Swedish pop. Anni-Frid Lyngstad takes the main vocal duties on this track, which is full, as-ever, of banal rhymes (“Bahamas” and “dramas”) and poor attempts at English phrasology (“Yes, I really do”), perhaps the most perversely enjoyable mainstays of Nordic pop. These bits aside though, You Owe Me One is pure bubblegum, brimming with slap-bass synths and popcorn lead-lines, with a genius layering of vocal melodies throughout the chorus, designed to send shivers down your spine. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson also lend their expert ears to production on these two tracks, and, as you’d have come to expect from ABBA, the finish is shimmering, start to end. I’ve always made a point to champion ABBA, who garnered from both historic and contemporary audiences, an undeserved criticism for their supposed lack of artistic integrity. If your’s is one such stance, take a moment to soak up the seemingly-simple hooks in any of their tracks and examine the complexity of the often multi-layered compositions. It’s just about the catchiest music _ever_ recorded. But don’t be fooled – there’s a fantastic science to it.
The Great Outdoors! – Depeche Mode (1983) B-side to the standalone single, Get the Balance Right!
In 1981, Basildon synthpop group Depeche Mode released Speak & Spell, their debut LP – most of the tracks were written, or at least co-written by Vince Clarke, a pioneer of British electropop and later, the main songwriter for Yazoo and Erasure, bands whose chart successes would define them. In 1982, upon his leaving the group, Martin Gore took over songwriting duties – the new sound was immeasurably darker. This transitional period however, yielded some of the band’s most melancholic work, a large amount of it utilising the droning, bell-like tones of the Roland System-100 synthesiser and, later, on 1983’s Construction Time Again LP sampled field-recordings for percussion. Get the Balance Right!, the single issued between albums number two and three, is a perfect snapshot of the evolving, darkwave aesthetic pioneered by the group. Featuring a finally-acredited Alan Wilder (who joined in ‘82 and played on most of the band’s second album without creditation), the single’s grave tone was complimented excellently by the five-minute instrumental on its flipside, a funeral-march-like sonic miasma, similar in tone to The Human League’s Dignity Of Labour and entirely sorrowful in its ghostly melodies. Gore borrows from krautrock in his composition, cleverly juxtaposing spritely German folksiness with New Romanrtic angst, the result of which is a transfixingly beautiful soundscape, mired though it is by the pretentious pessimism of its time.