Smiths Complete - Available at Rhino.coma-ha "Hunting High & Low" and "Scoundrel Days" Deluxe Editions Rhino Handmade raids the vault!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"And I've just about had enough of the sunshine, hey!"

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.

”It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” did not chart.

Believe it or not, this stuff is still in print!

Visit if you want.


posted by John, 8:23 AM | link |

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Curling smoke climbs upward slowly past my troubling face..."

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.

Mind Of A Toy

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.

Damned Don't Cry 12

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.

Neither single charted in the U.S.


posted by John, 11:46 AM | link |

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Superman had come to town to see who he could rock /He blew away every crew he faced until he reached the block"

Newcleus had been bouncing around the early hip-hop/breakdancing scene since 1977 when they were part of a DJ crew calling itself Jam On Productions, but it wasn’t until 1983 and a chance encounter with a sped-up tape machine that they stumbled upon a hit.

While many members came and went, the, uh, center of Newcleus (sorry) was Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac, who had some extra time to fill on a mixtape. Together with some family members, he recorded a favorite rap from their block parties, only this time with some of the vocals sped up, a la the Chipmunks. “Jam On’s Revenge” was born, blazing up cardboard breakin’ squares all over New York. Pop radio wasn’t having it, however. That would change with the release of the follow up, “Jam On It”.


Hard to believe now, but yes, Virginia, there was a time when Top 40 radio was scared shitless of rap. Mainstream radio programmers weren’t coming anywhere near this emerging musical force out of fear of offending listeners and advertisers. Besides, there was no side money from independent promoters coming in to justify adding rap singles to a Top 40 format. Why add Grandmaster Flash's “The Message” or “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow when you were getting hookers and another kind of blow from labels pushing Journey’s latest piece of crap? But who could hate a song about Superman coming to the block to get served by Cozmo D and his crew of funky sounding aliens? Despite the near-total embargo of rap on Top 40 radio in 1983, “Jam On It” broke thru, garnering significant sales and airplay, but not enough to crack the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100.

This song should have been at least a Top Ten pop hit – it was everywhere in my high school, and I was stuck in bumfuck Elyria, Ohio, so I can only imagine how popular it was elsewhere. But alas, Newcleus were destined to release a few fallow follow-ups, another full-length LP, and then get pushed aside by more aggressively commercial rap stars such as Run DMC, Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J, who were just waiting in the wings for unprecedented mainstream acceptance.

But do we still get to say “Wikki, wikki, wikki, wikki?” Hell, yeah.

”Jam On It” peaked at #56 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Buy Newcleus' "Jam On This" at Amazon.

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posted by John, 2:43 PM | link |

Monday, May 05, 2008

"there's a future here, there's a future there / just pick it up right out of the air"

1986...small town Ohio Elyria West High School's Senior Prom! A date with my "best girlfriend" (uh huh)! And the song that reminds me most of this occassion?

"Say you, Say Me?"
"I Miss You" by Klymaxx?
"Broken Wings?"
"Greatest Love of All?"

Nope. Try the Woodentops' "Give It Time."


Let me explain...our senior prom was awful and hideous. We didn't even have a live band like Midview High's prom (Me & the Boys, a local new wave-ish cover band with a hot chick singer that would do Berlin and Missing Persons tunes). We had OUR ENGLISH TEACHER as our DJ playing just the worst Top 40 shit. The only solid memory I have is of our after prom at some rec center where the dancing and prize giveaways continued. I won a prize package that included a free month's membership at a new local gym (ah, if only I'd then instead of six years later...) and a bunch of promotional 45s.

One of these was The Woodentops' "Give It Time".


I was immediately drawn to this tune's laconic, lazy mood, complete with a James-ish trumpet solo. It just reminds me of summer days on a hammock, lemonade in hand (has anyone really done that? Ever? No?). On the strength of this song, I ended up getting both Woodentops albums on CD when they were re-released in the late '80s. I have to admit, I don't think I've ever listened to either one all the way thru. Woodentops fans? Am I missing out?

Did I just write about my effin' senior prom? Oh, God. I'm horrible.

"Give It Time" did not chart.


posted by John, 2:58 PM | link |