In a nice bit of blog synergy, it seems everyone
is talking about blue-eyed soul…which leads me to one of the sadder stories of the also-rans (at least in the States) in this genre – Dr. Robert and the Blow Monkeys.
First off, that name. Is it a coke reference? A funny, random lark? Whichever, it certainly didn’t help their chances with radio programmers. Secondly, the Blow Monkeys had the misfortune of being signed to RCA Records in the United States, a fate I wouldn’t wish on my most hated enemy. RCA were notorious for being unable to break a fucking egg, much less a hit single.
But now, I must turn the table over to my good buddy RBM in London, who I consider the world’s foremost authority on the Blow Monkeys, not to mention the biggest Dr. Robert fan ever:dr robert was (and is) the lisping anglo soul-singer wannabe of indeterminate sexuality who fronted the blow monkeys. their first record (1984) was a folky indie-pop bore, but “animal magic” and “she was only a grocer’s daughter” are two of the best british albums of the 80s. the blow monkeys had only one minor hit in the states, with “digging your scene” but may also be known for their cover of “you don’t own me” on the “dirty dancing” soundtrack (dreadful, just dreadful, but the lisping makes for amusement). dr robert sang about sex and love and sadomasochism and politics, and very strangely, collaborated with curtis mayfield. having been a feature of the UK pop and dance charts for some time, the blow monkeys finally called it quits around 1990, with a string of nearly identical “best of” albums following. unfortunately, dr robert went back to being being a folky indie-pop bore,and somehow managed to pick up paul weller as an even more surprising collaborator. his 7th solo studio album is imminent, as well as a 2-disc retrospective of his solo and blow monkeys material.
I might argue with “Digging Your Scene” being a minor hit…it actually charted at #14, so that’s Top 20. The follow-up, however…
“It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” was the lead-off single from “She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter”, and a song I thought was going to be the one to drive the band to the top of the charts in the States. Wrong. I loved the guitar strum riff, the horns, the cheesy backing vocals. No one else did. After embracing the cute video for “Digging,” MTV shunned this single, and radio programmers followed suit. I actually think it’s a superior song to “Digging”. But hey, I can pick the losers every time. I’m curious as to what you think of it.
Download “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way”
by the Blow Monkeys.”It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” did not chart.Believe it or not, this stuff is still in print!
if you want.
Talk about DIY – when club promoter and all-around Paris-Hilton-famous-for-merely-being-famous trailblazer Steven Strange didn’t like that there weren’t enough good songs to play on his club night, he grabbed some friends, some synths and made his own.
Under the name Visage, Strange, alongside a few former Magazine members and a couple of future Ultravox members including Midge Ure, created the template for the New Romantic movement of the early ‘80s – moody chords, high-hat heavy automated percussion and lyrics about fashion, clubbing and nightlife. They scored a club hit with their first few singles, “Tar”, a remake of “In The Year 2525” and of course, “Fade to Grey”, which ended up going to the Top Ten of the pop charts in the U.K.
Then came follow up time.
Luckily, Visage’s debut album was pretty strong from front to back, so culling a few more singles wasn’t a problem. In fact, “Mind of a Toy” is one of the better songs on the album, an ode from the point of view of a discarded toy, campy to the extreme, especially when Steven spits out “spiteful girl, hateful boy” during the chorus. I still laugh every time, 25 years later. A nouveaux classique, to turn a phrase.
When it came time for album #2, dubbed “The Anvil” after the notorious NYC leather bar, things started to fall apart. There are still some great tunes, but the album as a whole was nowhere as strong as their first. Standouts were the title track, “We Move” and the first single, “The Damned Don’t Cry”, which instead of merely emulating “Fade to Grey’s” sound and success, built upon it. There’s a little less humor, a little more struggle for depth, unfortunately, the boys just weren’t good enough to pull it off completely. Reviews were scathing…I can’t find it anywhere online, but I remember Rolling Stone eviscerating “The Anvil”, awarding it a measly one star and proclaiming it “fashion over music.” That’s when I knew I had to own it.
After “The Anvil”, Ure and most of the musical braintrust left, leaving Strange to wobble on with new backing for one final album until giving up. Strange later went on to a smack habit, culminating in an arrest in London for attempting to shoplift a Teletubbie. He’s apparently clean now and fronting a new version of Visage that was on tap to remix Kelly Osbourne’s last single “One Word”, a song that more than liberally borrows from “Fade to Grey”. That remix has yet to surface.
Listening to both albums today, I find they both hold up a lot better than works by Visage’s contemporaries, including Spandau Ballet and Gary Numan. Visage sort of became the bridge between Morodor-era Donna Summer and more commercial new wave that came after Visage’s time in the spotlight, sort of an über-disco.
“The Anvil” is currently out of print, having its most recent reissue in 1997 by One Way Records, but you can still get Visage's first album
fairly cheaply on Amazon as a import.
Download "Mind of a Toy"
Download "The Damned Don't Cry (Dance Mix)".Neither single charted in the U.S.
The music business can be cruel and unforgiving – clichéd, sure, but as I found out years ago, very true.
In 1985, William “Boogie Knight” Stroman was in the Top Ten of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and on airwaves everywhere with the Boogie Boys’ smash, “Fly Girl”.
A little more than three years later, he was a fellow E-1 buck Private in my Army Basic Training Unit, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
I was 20, going on 21 years old when I joined the Army, so that made me one of the older men in our unit, since most guys join fresh out of high school. Stroman was even older than me, probably 24 or 25 at the time, so we sort of gravitated to each other since we were a little more patient and laid back than more of our younger, hyperactive and loud unit members. As it often happens when people talk to me, the conversation turned to music and we were surprised to find out each of us had an impressive depth of knowledge and taste. Anytime we had a lull in training (which wasn’t often, obviously), we’d talk music.
A few weeks into training, during a Sunday morning “free time” break, Stroman told me to follow him to his locker – he had something he wanted to share with me. I sat on his bunk as he ruffled through his things and he asked me “Have you ever heard of the Boogie Boys?” I perked up and started singing “A FLY GIRL. A FLY GIRL. A FLYYYYY GIRRRRRRL.” He laughed and tossed a cassette of the Boogie Boys’ second album, “Survival of the Freshest,” at me. “Oh, cool,” I said, “you brought it with you.”
“Look closer,” he said. There he was on the cover, dressed in yellow threads and a gold chain. Private William Stroman aka “Boogie Knight”. Holy crap.
Now, I’m a very cynical person, so, of course I started peppering him with questions; Is that really you, what happened to all the money, why are you in the friggin’ Army?? He patiently answered each one, seemingly used to being questioned about his authenticity. I would later come to learn several guys out there used to claim membership in the Boogie Boys, but there was no doubt in my mind Stroman was the real deal – first off, you can’t fake your name in the Army – he was William Stroman, from New York. And shit, that was him, right there on the cover. Another thing in that made him very believable was that he didn’t tell anyone about his past – he even seemed to downplay it a bit and swore me to secrecy. I got the impression he was burned hard by both his record company and his management. Things got tight, he had people to support, so here comes the Army. He told me that not only did he not make anything off the albums and singles, he was actually in debt to the record company, a fairly common practice in those days of hefty recoupable advances. Stroman trusted me with this info since we were both older and he respected my love of music. I kept his secret.
Unfortunately, someone else in the unit did not.
Stroman must have told someone else his hip-hop past, because word got out and the entire barracks was buzzing with the news. Someone even goaded Stroman into an impromtu performance of “A Fly Girl”…our drill sergeant, Sergeant George. Once our drill found out, it was all over. He made Stroman toe the line and perform his rap. Now I realized why he wanted it kept a secret. Luckily, he knew who blabbed, so our friendship survived.
William Stroman was razor sharp, smart, witty as hell and loved music more than just about anything. He was also the calmest, most rational and mature man in our unit, a tough thing to pull off while you’re spending eight weeks running through the woods with drills screaming at you. I’d like to think that since he already went through record company hell, Army Basic Training was a breeze. Plus, he had already served a stint in the Air Force, which was a relatively strange thing to do...go from the Air Force to the Army. But hey, the Army offered more money and bonuses - that's why I picked it. After graduation, everyone said they’d keep in touch, but as often happens in these situations, none of us really did. I never saw or heard from Stroman again.
If this sounds like a eulogy, that’s because, sadly, it is. In a fit of nostalgia a few years ago, I set out to try to find William via the Internet, only to discover he was killed in October, 2001.
I haven’t been able to find a decent obituary or biography for him online, especially one that deals with his life from the disillusion of the Boogie Boys until his untimely death, including his time in the Army.
As for the track itself, c’mon. A classic. Retroactively considered a pioneering “electro” track, at the time we just thought it was the fucking jam. And yes, during one of our talks I brought up Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All the Way”, which used the same exact beat. Which was first? Stroman told me Sly Fox was actually released first, but flopped. He took the beat, created “A Fly Girl,” had a hit, then the Sly Fox joint was re-released to Top Ten Pop success. So who helped who? Both acts were label-mates on Capitol, so there didn’t seem to be any animosity.
I just hope Sly Fox fared better financially. RIP, Stroman – you are missed.
Download “A Fly Girl”
by the Boogie Boys.”A Fly Girl” peaked at #6 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart in 1985.