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My Musical History Part 9

June 12, 2021

New broom, the same mess to sweep up

Despite the wave of optimism that greeted the election of the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher the previous year, it turned out to be a very grim year for the UK economy. Inflation reached almost 20% by the end of the year whilst unemployment was rising inexorably as the industrial heartlands of the UK were allowed to collapse. Indeed, by December 1980 the new leaderof the Labour Party, Michael Foot, later derided as a no hoper from the start, saw his party with an opinion poll lead of 24% over the Conservatives. To say that the new government and especially its new leader were unpopular was something of an understatement!

In a gloomy year, even the weather was turning against us, with a washout of a summer that saw the England cricket team beaten 1-0 by a very strong West Indies side thanks to rain badly affecting four of the Test matches. This wasn’t the series and it had none of the incredible performances that thrilled everyone in 1976, but in that year the weather and the crowds made every match an occasion whereas in 1980 they were packing umbrellas rather than suntan oil when going to matches. To give you an idea, the semi-final of the 55 over a side one day competition, the Benson and Hedges cup saw the match between Worcestershire and Essex become a three day game!    

Football in 1980 saw the era of English teams as all conquering heroes in Europe at its zenith. The Nottingham Forest team of Brian Clough had won its second consecutive European Cup in an era where actual Champions took part, not everyone in the league from first to fifth! It was also a straight knockout tournament so you couldn’t really afford to put a foot wrong in any tie. It was the fourth year in a row where an English club had won the trophy following Liverpool’s victories in 1977 and 1978. As an interesting side note, Forest are still the only club to win the European Cup or Champions League more time than their domestic league. Domestically, the Division 1 title went once again to Liverpool, but the biggest story was the FA Cup. West Ham from Division 2 were playing cup holders Arsenal in a final that most observers expected to go one way. Instead, the Hammers went ahead thanks to a very rare header by the perennially popular Trevor Brooking. Despite Arsenal’s increasingly desperate attacks they held on to their lead, and should have doubled their advantage late on with 17 year old Paul Allen through on goal with only the keeper to beat. Sadly for him, Arsenal defender Willie Young cynically tackled him from behind to deny Allen a fairy tale finish. In fact, it was after Young’s tackle that the Professional Foul rule was brought in, which meant the yellow card that he got that day would from then on be a well-merited sending off. Over 40 years later, West Ham are still the last club from outside the top division to win the FA Cup.

Politics on the television from two very different viewpoints

In 1980, two programmes that were absolute must sees from the first episode arrived on BBC2. In February, Yes Minister starring Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, new minister at the Department of Administrative Affairs with Nigel Hawthorne as his head civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby and Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, Sir Humphrey’s assistant who often found himself caught in the middle of their disagreements. The writing by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn was some of the finest comedy writing ever seen and the three stars were a once in a lifetime team who were able to do justice to the material with a seemingly telepathic understanding of each other’s timing. Over 40 years later, some of the scenes still trend on Twitter as the perfect explanation of a political issue that seems to have been unerringly predicted by the writers. For example, the Euro sausage which seemed too implausible to be taken seriously at the time is actually being enacted as I put this blog post together! For 3 series, Yes, Minister was quite simply perfect. Then, Jim Hacker got the top job and there were two series of Yes, Prime Minister which was quite simply perfect! Sir Humphrey’s convoluted speeches became legendary, but Jim and Bernard were just as clever with their own less wordy material. My Dad and I, who rarely agreed about anything TV wise, would sit in front of this and M*A*S*H* at the time and laugh together and talk about the shows. Later on, we would do the same, even more avidly, while watching The Wonder Years which was our favourite shared programme. With these programmes as our basis we found a shared enthusiasm that helped to keep the relationship going during those sometimes rocky teenage years.

The second programme we definitely did NOT agree about. Although I am writing about this programme as a new show, there had been a first series that pretty much failed completely, but rather like Black Adder three years later most people weren’t watching the first series so it was able to return to the drawing board, throw out the bits that didn’t work and succeed in its aim to shake up middle class, middle aged convention and not bother whose feathers it ruffled. The programme was Not The Nine O’ Clock News and as teens it was our programme. Our parents hated it which was a good start, but on top of that it was always funny and often hilarious to the point where I couldn’t catch what they were saying next over the sound of my laughter. The format was that of a sketch show with the four brilliant stars, Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson, satirising politics, royalty, Thatcher, Reagan, African leaders, European leaders, footballers, darts players, the police, religion. The list was endless and the targets were chosen with no fear or favour. At the end of each show there would be a musical number, sometimes silly, like the punk tune ‘Gob on You’ and the 2 Tone ‘I Like Bouncing’ but sometimes angry like ‘Baronet Oswald Ernald Mosley’ which drew attention to the fawning obituaries for the leader of the British Union of Fascists who was an avowed supporter of the Nazis in Germany. Dressed up as punks, the four stars read out the ridiculous outpourings of praise from that week’s newspapers. That topicality where a certain proportion of the sketches were recorded a couple of days before transmission kept it bang up to date. The influence of the show could clearly be seen in Spitting Image a few years later and nowadays in satirical programmes such as Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week. None of those shows, even at their best, could hold a candle to the quality of Not the Nine O’ Clock News. 1980 saw two series, one starting in March and one in starting in October followed by an album that reached the Top 10 and was definitely my favourite Christmas present of that year! Just as well that my Dad had brought me my own record player the year before as my main present! I certainly wouldn’t have been able to play it day after day until I was word perfect, as I did that Christmas, without my parents blowing a fuse!!

A year of contrasts and a growing record collection     

That record player meant that I no longer had to worry about the opportunity to play my new records so my single buying clicked into top gear. I was helped in this by two things. First, I had stopped buying Panini football stickers having completed the Football 79 album in the days when you had to buy the packs and swap them at school rather than purchase the whole lot on ebay! Second, I lived just outside the boundary for free bus travel, and I mean JUST outside. If I lived next door I would have been three miles away from the school, but as it was I had to pay, or rather my parents had to pay for my bus fares! It was that boundary decision that was the basis for my record collection and my lifelong obsession with music because the bus drivers just assumed that everyone on the bus was entitled to free travel so no one got asked to show their passes and I almost never got asked for my fare. My parents gave me £5 a week for my bus fares so that was, as far as I was concerned, my money! On top of my pocket money it enabled me to start buying pretty much whatever singles I liked without having to think too carefully about it. Every Saturday morning, if I wasn’t on a scout camp or hike, I went down to the record shop in town looking for new singles by my favourite artists or the songs I’d really enjoyed on Top of the Pops that week. In 1980 I started buying records in large numbers and looking through the collection I have I can pretty much track my swap from football stickers to singles. I am not going to go through an exhaustive list, but I am going to pick out the highlights of each month for me.

January to March  

In January, my favourite record was a disco classic sung by five Irish sisters, at least two of whom, Bernadette (Bernie) and Coleen, were major crushes of mine! Mind you, the song itself not only stood up on its own merits, but 40 years later is one that my children are instantly familiar with, such is its longevity. I’m in the Mood for Dancing is one of the most joyous dance records ever. In terms of capturing that euphoria when you get up on to the dancefloor and nothing else matters it is pretty much up there with Dancing Queen for me. A powerhouse vocal from Bernie just sent this record shooting up the charts to Number 3. It was unlucky not to make it all the way to the top, but the fact that it is remembered so fondly 40 years later is probably a pretty good consolation prize.

February saw two very different records top the charts. The Specials took the first two weeks at the top with Too Much, Too Young and country singer Kenny Rogers took the second two weeks with Coward of the County! I bet you can guess which one I got can’t you? Yes, it was the absolutely uncool bearded American that made me shell out my money! What can I say? I like what I like – and by the way I absolutely love The Specials – and at 14 the story song that Terry Wogan continuously played on his breakfast show won the day. It’s a great example of a crossover hit, and it was popular because it was sung with absolute conviction. The story of a young man who spent his life being bullied struck a chord with me and I cheered when he finally turned round and beat up his tormentors after they had attacked his wife. Yes, it was a typically cheery country and western song!  

In March, I got the Regatta De Blanc album by The Police from my Dad along with a poster that went straight up on my wall. Single wise I got So Lonely, the re-released single from Outlandos D’Amour, their debut album. It was never, ‘So Lonely’ to anyone around at that time though. A bit like Madonna’s Erotic a decade later, it was very easy to mishear the lyrics. Erotic became ‘Bill Oddie, Bill Oddie. Put your hands all over my body’! Go on, take a listen! By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the cultural reference, Bill Oddie is a comedian and naturalist who, most famously, was one third of the 70s comedy legends The Goodies who had had chart success of their own with the marvellous ‘Funky Gibbon’! So Lonely’s chorus consisted of Sting proclaiming, ‘I feel Sue Lawley’ on repeat! Sue Lawley was a BBC newsreader at the time and to this day it is always the Sue Lawley song to me and many others! Also in March I rediscovered a favourite singer who had briefly come onto my radar a few years earlier. The incredible voice of Scottish songstress Barbara Dickson was a staple of shows like The Two Ronnies, but she had never quite had the success she deserved. In January 1980 she released one of the finest vocal performances ever, which didn’t even reach the Top 40 due to a completely botched publicity drive by the record company and the baffling decision to withdraw it from sale when someone decided that the follow-up would be a more likely hit. The follow-up in March 1980, January, February, a rather brilliant ballad in its own right stalled just outside the Top 10, which didn’t reflect it’s quality. However, it was Mike Batt’s sublime Caravan Song that was really robbed. One of the finest tunes ever written, Barbara Dickson’s great vocals and a public who were starting to catch on to its brilliance was stopped in its tracks by record company Epic’s complete incompetence. On such decisions are great records thrown into ill-deserved obscurity!

April to June   

April saw the stirrings of a fairly short lived Mod revival which produced a few top notch singles, none better than Poison Ivy by The Lambrettas. It was a remake of a 60s song, but I hadn’t heard the original, so I was just blown away by it. With a great tune, cheeky lyrics and a superb vocal it had everything. I didn’t buy the single though, but most of my week’s bus money, later that year, went on one of the best compilation cassettes in the days before Now That’s What I Call Music. Hot Wax was released in June and contained Poison Ivy, Living after Midnight by Judas Priest, one of my favourite Heavy Rock records to this day, My World by Secret Affair, another of the Mod revival movement and the frankly gorgeous, Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime by The Korgis. There were 20 tracks of which perhaps three were disappointing and it was on pretty constantly for the three or four months after I bought it!

May saw Noel Edmonds once again pick up on a very unusual single and propel it to the upper reaches of the charts. Having been the main presenter of Swap Shop, it was natural that for most of us Noel Edmonds radio show on Radio 1 was pretty much required listening. In February of 1980 he had sent the spoken word poem, Captain Beaky to Number 5 in the charts entirely due to his championing of the record on his show. In May he did the same again when he plucked the theme from the film and TV series M*A*S*H*, which had first been recorded about a decade earlier, from total obscurity and sent it to Number 1. Basically, like Terry Wogan, he could take any track and make it a hit purely by playing it on every show. The title, Suicide is Painless, along with the incredibly downbeat lyrics made it one of the most unexpected Number 1 records ever and it was entirely down to Noel Edmonds, still one of the greatest radio presenters I have ever heard.

June was chiefly memorable for a punk single by a band called Splodgenessabounds that captured the imagination of just about everyone at the time. It was the deceptively simple idea of a man at a pub trying to get his order taken set to a crunching distorted guitar. I mean, how could that ever be a hit? Well, when the record in question is Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps please, the answer is quite easily! The song was pretty much the lead singer, quietly at first, then increasingly frantically trying to get the attention of the barman. By the end of the song he is screaming out his order only to be greeted by the bell and the barman saying ‘Time, gentlemen please’ at which point he dissolves into tears! It was hilariously funny and even now it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

July to September

In July, the first single release from a new favourite singer started to make its way up the charts. It was called 9 to 5 in the UK, although it was retitled Morning Train in the US to avoid confusion with the song of the same name by Dolly Parton. The UK version was by the brilliant Scottish singer Sheena Easton. Yes, another singer from the Celtic nations! What can I say? There is something about the sound, and looks, of female singers, from Scotland and Ireland in particular that just captivates me to this day! Sheena Easton was discovered on a show called The Big Time and 9 to 5, a romantic song about a commuter, just hit the spot! Later in the year it received the accolade of a Not the Nine O’ Clock News parody which I absolutely loved! Sheena herself went from strength to strength with a career that included a Bond theme and the incredible contrast of duets with Kenny Rogers and Prince! She was far more successful in the US, and it was that market that her record company concentrated on after her initial flurry of success over in the UK.

In August, one of the finest songs of all time was released. Yes, that’s quite a statement, but I stand by it. The Winner Takes It All by ABBA is quite simply the most perfect ballad ever written with Agnetha’s most incredible and emotional performance. Mind you, you would expect the emotions to come flooding out when you are singing about your own recent divorce from the man who wrote the lyrics! When you listen to it, the most amazing thing about Agnetha’s singing is the sheer control. She never overplays the lyrics or succumbs to the histrionics of certain other singers when faced with a deeply emotional song. (I have certain singers in mind and perhaps you will have others!) That makes the sudden break in her voice on the last verse one of the most affecting moments in any song. It proved once and for all that no one could touch the Swedish quartet for sheer music perfection.

September featured two contrasting songs that have always been favourites of mine and both singles featured incredibly brilliant B sides. Tom Hark by The Piranhas has had a very unexpected afterlife thanks to T20 cricket around the world where its instantly recognisable opening sees it played at various points of the game like a 6 being hit or a wicket falling. I hate the music interrupting the cricket, but if it’s going to interrupt it then you might as well have a tune that you never tire of hearing in other contexts. The B Side of Tom Hark featured two songs, the second of which was Boyfriend, the story of a man trying to chat up a girl who is already taken. The final few lines of the song are definitely non PC these days and frankly quite brilliant anyway! The second song of September that has never left my affections was the debut single from a one of a kind punk artist who had starred in a film called Breaking Glass. The artist was the amazing Hazel O’ Connor and the single was the breath taking Eighth Day, a song about a robot uprising that finishes off humanity! The power of the vocal performance just took me aback the very first time I heard it, and it still does to this day. Part protest song, part dystopian fantasy, part modern hymn it is as unique as Hazel O’ Connor herself. The B side, Monsters in Disguise is a brilliant piece of social commentary identifying those in positions of power as the evil doers of society whose only aim is to make society work for them and against the powerless. I will only suggest you look at countries around the world to see how relevant it still is. It spoke to my increasing disquiet about the ‘great and the good’ and told me that those at the top cared nothing for those below them and it’s a good lesson for any teenager.

October to December

From the last three months of the year I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from, and quite frankly I could have gone for a dozen tracks. The Police cemented their status as my favourite group of the time with Don’t Stand Too Close To Me, a controversial song about a teenagers infatuation with her teacher which was anything but a one way street and which included a reference to a book that was even more controversial. The superb tune and the racy video made it a cultural touchstone and it is, when all is said and done, rather brilliant in every way. Blondie reminded everyone of their class when they returned to Number 1 with The Tide is High, a remake of a 60s reggae song that was impossibly catchy. ABBA’s second chart topper of the year, their ninth and final UK Number 1, was the beautiful Super Trouper which would have been the lead single on any other album that didn’t feature The Winner Takes It All. At Christmas Jona Lewie got into the Top 3 with the perennial Stop the Cavalry. It’s one of those songs without which the festive season is not complete and it never gets old or tired.

I can’t leave 1980 behind without mentioning the murder of John Lennon. It was one of those moments where you know exactly where you were when you heard it. I was listening to the Terry Wogan breakfast show, and I just couldn’t take it in. The tragedy propelled a whole slew of John Lennon records to the top of the charts. His first posthumous Number 1 was Starting Over from his final album which had already made the Top 10 before his death. Then came Imagine and Happy Xmas War is Over which seemed guaranteed to fight it out for the Christmas Number 1 spot. This reckoned with the perverse nature of the British public who saw the choice before them and made the frankly appalling There’s No One Quite Like Grandma by St Winifred’s School Choir the festive chart topper! It was a travesty and was pretty much unchallenged for the worst ever Christmas Number 1 in the UK until the public decided to outdo themselves three years in a row by putting three sausage roll related records at the top. Even St Winifred’s School Choir was preferable to those offences against good taste.

So what were my favourite tracks from that incredible burst of singles? I will pick two London based artists with songs that could only have come from that city. Dennis Waterman, fresh from his success in The Sweeney as John Thaw’s sidekick had graduated to leading actor in the marvellous comedy drama, Minder, where he acted alongside comedy legend George Cole. His character Terry McCann found himself constantly battling, sometimes against and sometimes for, his boss, the crooked Arthur Daley. The programme had one of the great theme tunes, a song called I Could Be So Good For You, sung with brio by Waterman himself. The other track was a song about the good and bad side of schools by a group of 7 Londoners who styled themselves as ‘the nutty boys’. Madness were accomplished musicians who backed up their ear for a tune with catchy, funny and relatable lyrics on a whole range of subjects. Baggy Trousers was the first single of theirs that I bought but it would definitely not be the last. For about three or four years they hit the Top 10 with pretty much every release and the quality never dipped. Baggy Trousers talked about ‘Naughty Boys from Nasty Schools’ and attending a nasty school myself I knew exactly where they were coming from!

From → Musical History

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