Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.

Albums of my Years – 1989

1989 saw two events that would have a massive impact on my future, though I didn’t know it at the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Romanian Revolution in December. At the time, as an 8 then 9 year old, I wouldn’t have known about the importance of these events – or David Hasselhoff’s involvement*.

But the arrival of glasnost had an impact on the music news of 1989. In January, Paul McCartney Снова в СССР (Back in the USSR) – an album of covers – exclusively for release in the Soviet Union with no exports. Copies that did make their way into ‘the West’ fetched daft money for a Macca album until Paul decided to release it universally in ’91.  August’s Moscow Music Peace Festival was held in Moscow, showing the Russians exactly why Western music should be banned with acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, The Scorpions and Bon Jovi doing their bit to undo decades of international politics and create a hole in the ozone layer over Russia with hairspray use.

1989 marked goodbye for The Bangles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips, grunge and Seattle scene forerunners The U-Men and both a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ again to The Who – who had reformed for a heavily criticised The Kids Are Alright anniversary tour and promptly called it quits again until 1996. 1989 was the year Bruce Springsteen made a few calls and told the E Street Band he would not be using their services for the foreseeable future. It was hello to The Black Crowes, The Breeders, The Cranberries, Hole, Mazzy Star, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, Neutral Milk Hotel, Morphine, Pavement, Red House Painters, Slowdive,  The Stone Temple Pilots…  oh; and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who all formed in 1989 and were (mostly) poised for some heavy action in the 90’s and presence in my music collection.

In terms of album releases, 1989 has plenty to offer. Five years on from the ‘Boys of Summer’ featuring Building The Perfect Beast, Don Henley and his ponytail released The End of the Innocence with help from Bruce Hornsby and Heartbrakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, I still quite enjoy the title track. 1989 saw a massive return to form for The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels saw Jagger and Richards healing the rift between them and crafting an album packed with great Stones songs though was the last for both their label Columbia and to feature Bill Wyman who would leave the group at the end of the tour behind the album (though it wouldn’t be announced until ’93).

I’ll also go a little away from the expected here and say that 1989 also saw the release of an absolutely great pop album – Madonna’s Like A Prayer which mixed just under a dozen cracking songs (including one written and produced by Prince) with a classic, lush sound courtesy of Patrick Leonard’s production. Stepping back into this blog’s wheelhouse, Tom Petty released his first ‘solo’ album Full Moon Fever which went onto sell a crazy amount of records and would become his commercial peak. We all know this one – it’s packed from head to toe with pure gold: ‘Free Fallin’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, ‘Yer So Bad’, ‘Alright for Now’… they’re all on here.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth album In Step arrived in June of ’89, Billy Joel released Storm Front and let the world know that while he didn’t start the fire, he could create one hell of an earworm alongside the stately ‘Leningrad’ and personal favourite ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” and Mother Love Bone released their debut EP, Shine which featured pretty much their only decent songs**:

Anything else released in 1989? Fuck… how about The Cure’s Disintegration – one of the best albums ever?

Or Nirvana’s debut album Bleach? Yes – both of these were released in 1989 along with Soundgarden’s second album and major label debut Louder Than Love which matched them with metal producer Terry Date and then lumped into the ‘heavy metal’ genre for some time much to the complete bemusement of their Seattle contemporaries and fans who knew how different they sounded usually. I think it was Mudhoney’s Mark Arm who pointed out that, pre-Nirvana, when an ‘alternative’ band signed to a major there were only two ways to go: the metal Guns ‘N’ Roses route or the REM route. Soundgarden were heavy and went the metal route.. they’d not really shake it off until 94’s Superunkown.

Meanwhile, riding high again without being high, Aerosmith decided to up the ante with their next ‘comeback’ album and knocked it clean out of the park with the best album of the second-half of their career: Pump. As strong and gleaming as Perry’s torso on the cover, Pump is an album of back-to-back GOLD, with Aerosmith’s raunchy, hard-edged riffing married to a great-sounding production. Less cheesy than Permanent Vacation and less over-worked than Get A GripPump is Aerosmith at their peak and revelling in it, better songs, more power and clearly here to kick arse:

There was also Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements in 1989. Much-maligned, the album was royally buggered up by the mix that Chris Lord-Alge decided to apply what, according to Wikipedia, he and his brother were famous for “abundant use of dynamic compression[5] for molding mixes that play well on small speakers and FM radio, thus somewhat contributing to the loudness war” to some of Paul Westerberg’s finest compositions to date. It killed the album at a time when the band were probably at the only point in their career when they coulda shoulda woulda broken through. Instead it’s one for the faithful only to really love and wouldn’t be heard as intended until last years’ Dead Man’s Pop box allowed producer Matt Wallace to release his original mix.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that Bob Dylan decided 1989 was the right time to return to his power and prominence by teaming with Daniel Lanois (who was recommended to him by someone called Bono. You may not have heard of him, he’s the singer with an obscure, little-known Irish band called U2) with the phenomenal Oh Mercy which features more than enough classic Bob Dylan songs to rank it as a vital addition to any fan’s collection:

I’m sure I’ve probably missed a few key albums from 1989 but there were so many. But if none of the above great, classic releases make it as my featured album for the month then it must be Boston’s other famous act….

Pixies – Doolittle

Album number 2 from Pixies is an out and out classic. I still hold by my statement that the band have never released a bad song, but Doolittle contains out and out classics from start to finish – ‘Debaser’, ‘Tame’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’… it’s just perfect.

I got into Pixies long after they called it a day, I can’t and won’t pretend I was into them when they were originally a going concern. But by the time they got back together and playing shows again in 2004 I was already way up to speed and in love with their back catalogue. When they did eventually get around to making new music (minus Kim Deal who didn’t want to be involved), I was straight on the pre-order link for EP1.

Doolittle was my, and I’m sure loads of other fans’, first Pixies albums and remains an absolute favourite – I got into them on the back of references in interviews of artists who count them as influences (amongst the many, Cobain would consistently cite them as vital) and having heard ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. I didn’t look back and within a few weeks had quickly added their then compete works to my collection.

The band’s second album, Doolittle was the Pixies’ first international release and has continued to sell well since release (let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Pixies don’t exactly shift mega numbers) and is often placed in lists of greatest albums be it alternative, 80s or just great albums.

Doolittle marked the band’s first album with producer Gil Norton, they’d work with him on their next three albums (including Indie Cindy) but it wasn’t an instantly harmonious relationship. I’ve often read that Norton isn’t the easiest producer to work with and on Doolittle sessions he’d suggest adding to songs and changing their structure in ways that would often piss Frank Black off especially as he’d try and lengthen their songs. Apparently it got to the point that Black took Norton to a record shop and gave him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits as a kind of “if short songs are good enough for Buddy Holly..” point making exercise. Black would say of Doolittle “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”.

Whatever the process and arguments (and I’m not even gonna touch on the whole bickering between Deal and Black), the result is unarguably a classic that was critically and (for the band) commercially well received with sales up to a million units and it remains both one of the best alternative albums of the 80s and a big favourite of mine.

 

*I don’t know what’s gone wrong in the Hoff’s head or when it went wrong but the man remains convinced he played a, if not the, pivotal role in the reunification of Germany.

**Sorry, as important as the group is to Pearl Jam history they’re a little too glam / Poison cover band for the most part in my ears.

Albums of my Years -1985

1985…. I started school in ’85 and have some vague memories that break through the dust. Not many, mind. I know the year’s big film releases that would wind their way into heavy rotation in my VHS / DVD collections in years to come – Back to the Future, Fletch, The Goonies, Spies Like Us, Fletch and the amazing Subway – were fighting what was the year of Stallone at the Box Office as he flexed his way through Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II (doesn’t that make it Second Blood, or Still Bleeding?) just as Arnie’s biceps dominated Commando and Red Sonja and Bruce Springsteen’s guns were shown off across stadiums as Bossmania took hold and the tour promoting Born In The USA moved from arenas to stadiums as it went on to becoming the year’s biggest selling album.

Meanwhile as I was starting my reading journey with a book called ‘Look’ (I vividly remember this one; ‘look’ repeated throughout and with increasing frequency) I was no doubt singing along to whatever was playing on my Dad’s car radio – if my own son’s behaviour is a guide – which, in 1985 England meant Tears for Fears’ ‘Head Over Heals’, Paul Young’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’, maybe Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ and, undoubtedly, Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Walk of Life’* as they dropped their game-changer Brothers In Arms in 1985. Aside from catapulting the band to a new level, it was the first album to sell more copies on CD than vinyl, its high sound quality suiting the format having been recording entirely digitally.

Pretty sure that Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’ must have featured heavily on the radio that year, or ‘Top of the Pops’ as it’s stuck in my head like a MAGA hat on a redneck and I’m confident I wouldn’t have looked it out for myself:

‘Diamond’ or, as I like to call him, ‘Dickhead’ David Lee Roth decided his vaudeville style twattery and ego were best suited to a solo career and quit Van Halen in April of `85. Another ego to decide he was better off without a phenomenal guitarist was Roger ‘don’t call me easy-going’ Waters, who announced that Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively” and would, upon realising that when driven by Gilmour it was anything but, spend many a year in legal battles for control of the band’s name (turns out it wasn’t his after all) and whatever else he felt he could bitch about.

After 1984’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ single questioned meteorological facts, Band Aid expanded into the massive Live Aid concerts in July 1985 with concerts at Wembley – for which, somehow, U2 managed to sneak their way onto the performer list – and Philadelphia. Presumably because if one crowd had been forced to suffer, it was only fair for the Yanks to endure too,  Phil Collins decided he needed to be at both, carbon emissions and jet fuel be damned, and used Concorde to get across the pond to help Led Zeppelin play their first show since Bonham’s death in what Page would later call a  “pretty shambolic” performance marred by more than a slap-head drummer.

Zeppelin were sued in 1985 by American blues singer Willie Dixon – he believed their ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was a little too similar to his ‘You Need Love’. It was settled out of court and the credits for that song on my copy of Led Zeppelin II are for Page, Plant, Bonham, Jones, Dixon.

On one side of the Atlantic, a bloke called Axl Rose and his mate Izzy Stradlin formed a new band called Guns ‘n’ Roses and found a guy from Hampstead, London in a top hat shop and decided he should play too. On the other side of the Atlantic – at a school in Abingdon, Oxford to be precise – five friends formed a band called On A Friday. The band was named after the day they got together to rehearse each week in their school’s music room. A few years later, still together and now with label interest, they decided to take a new name from a song ‘Radio Head’ on a Talking Heads album. I think it’s clear which of 1985’s new bands would make the better contribution to music.

Aside from the aforementioned Brothers In Arms – and I can’t give Dire Straits a third feature, 1985 gave birth to a number of sterling albums that would sit right in this blog’s wheelhouse. Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs dropped toward the end of the year and threw about every style Tom Waits could muster at the listener, continuing the direction he’d moved to with Swordfishtrombones.

The tail end of 1985 saw Aerosmith release their first album since the previous  year’s return of Perry and Whitford and their first for Geffen, the much overlooked Done With Mirrors. In hindsight this one gets a bum deal. It’s real strong album, perhaps their best since Rocks and their first since then – and their last – written without any outside songwriters. It’s got the same wise-cracking lyrics and riff-heavy tuneage as Permanent Vacation but without the Bruce Fairbairn polish that buffed that album into a mega-seller. Instead, Aerosmith turned to Ted Templeman to produce Done With Mirrors as the Van Halen producer wanted to capture the band’s  “out of control freight train” sound. He didn’t quite succeed though and poor packaging, interest and commercial returns meant many thought the writing was on the wall for the band…  rehab and a massive comeback lay head instead but there’s still a lot of good on Done With Mirrors.

Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut Psychocandy also appeared in November, with the absolute classic ‘Just Like Honey’ destined to be a heavy player on future playlists. Hüsker Dü managed to pop out two gems in 1985 which meant New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig gave us 29 cracking tunes like ‘New Day Rising’, ‘Celebrated Summer’ and ‘Makes No Sense at All’ – of the two I still spin New Day Rising more.

Another rising album from ’85 that could easily sit as the featured album for the year -Sonic Youth released their second album Bad Moon Rising in 1985. Still more noise than tune oriented, it’s a huge leap forward from Confusion Is Sex and it’s hear you can find, in the segues between songs and in the structures, the sound and style that would be (de)tuned to perfection across their next three albums onward. The Replacements Tim could so easily sit at the top of this list too. It’s a HUGE leap for the band and a fucking great album, easily a 4 1/2 out of 5 for me. The only duff moments for me are ‘Lay It Down Clown’ and I really don’t like ‘Dose Of Thunder’ but these are but fleeting, easily skipped down points on an album otherwise choking with gold like ‘Bastards of Young’ ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’ and ‘Left of the Dial’ to name but a few.

So where do we go from here for my ‘featured’ album of 1985, the one I’ve listened to most and associate so strongly with that mid-point of the decade? It might be a surprise, a bit of a curve ball from left field (is that the right phrase?) given the above but it’s…

Hounds of Love – Kate Bush

Kate Bush’s fifth album is, to me, the album of the year. It’s the one I’ve listened to most over the years and one I continually revisit.

I also get a kick out of the fact that, as it had been a good three years since her last album The Dreaming, which itself had failed to produce anything resembling a ‘hit’ single, Ms Bush had found herself subject to a ‘where are they now?’ style column just a week or two before she debuted the amazing ‘Running Up That Hill’:

Hounds of Love is an album of two halves. Side One is ‘Hounds of Love’ – a near-perfect ‘pop’ record (I use the ” because in ’85 pop veered from the sounds captured on Side One of this album to utter tosh, perhaps ‘grown up pop’ would b more accurate) while Side Two is ‘The Ninth Wave’ – a concept-piece  Ms Bush described as being about ” a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.”

Now take a moment to consider just how perfect a collection of soon-to-be hits Side One is: ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Big Sky’ and ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ would all be released as singles, all charting in the Top 40, three of them Top 20 and ‘Running…’ becoming her highest-charting single of the decade.

These were big, unabashed songs of drama and heart with the most sublime sound and production that, while very much of its time still sounds as evocative as it did 34 years ago. This is the wide-open panoramic sound that would be so wonderfully applied during this decade; pop sensibilities and sheen tied to songs of substance.

As for the second side… Just put the needle down and get absorbed. “The Ninth Wave was a film, that’s how I thought of it,” Kate would later tell BBC Radio 1 in 1992. Seven great tunes tied together by this concept that both work as a piece and individually:

The sound of Kate Bush loomed large in the 80’s. I know my Dad had a copy of The Whole Story – the compilation released in ’86 – which featured three songs from The Hounds of Love and it would get a lot of play, so these are sounds I absorbed and have stayed with me.

I got my copy of The Hounds of Love some years later. It’s an original pressing bought for less than a tenner somewhere before both the recent reissues and jump in record prices and I’ve spun the arse off it.

The now defunct Sounds magazine ran a review that summed it up: “dramatic, moving and wildly, unashamedly, beautifully romantic… If I were allowed to swear, I’d say that Hounds of Love is f***ing brilliant, but me mum won’t let me.”

It’s my blog and I can so I’ll say Hounds of Love is fucking brilliant – just pure bliss to listen to from start to finish. Yes, she may well have been (and could still well be) off her nut but that touch of crazy, wild abandon adds greatness to an album lush in sound and layers that just begs to have the needle dropped on it at each opportunity.