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My Musical History Part 10

July 1, 2021

Royalty and the new Crown Prince of cricket

The summer of 1981 was chiefly memorable for two things. If you were a monarchist, the big event was the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. It’s easy to be cynical about it now, knowing how it turned out, but at the time it genuinely was a fairy tale wedding, perhaps the last royal marriage that will ever be seen that way. Lady Diana was a gorgeous, shy young bride who seemed to be perfect for Charles, although we only thought that because of the way it was reported at the time. The wedding itself was very much the height of pomp and ceremony with huge crowds camping out for days beforehand to watch the ceremony in London and many of the rest of us watching on television. When Diana got out of the coach with the almost comically enormous train, the overwhelming response of the British public was, ‘Look how creased the dress is’! The ceremony itself was marked by Diana getting two of Prince Charles’ four Christian names the wrong way round. Funny the things that stick in your mind isn’t it? There were parties around the country, although not to the extent of the Silver Jubilee, and those who were well disposed to the institution of monarchy, and even some of those who weren’t, were happy in the knowledge that the future king had found the love of his life. As it turned out he had, but that’s another story!

The event I remember most clearly from that year was the Ashes series, with a fairly strong Australian team coming over to face a beleaguered England team who had the completely unsuitable Ian Botham as captain. Despite being a better bowler than Tony Greig and, on the odd occasion he came off, a destructive batsman, the one thing he could not match his predecessor as the great English all-rounder on was his captaincy. Greig was a brilliant, unorthodox, instinctive captain who was superb at man management and tactically inspired. Botham could only try to lead by example, and he looked like as a man completely out of his depth when it came to coaxing the best performance from his side. He started the campaign as captain with a low scoring loss to Australia and the Second Test at Lords, the home of English cricket, saw him bowl badly and fail to score in either innings with the bat. His silent reception from the massed ranks of MCC members in the pavilion after his second innings duck left him with an anger towards the MCC and a broken relationship that wasn’t healed until many years later. He resigned the captaincy straight after the match, leaving Mike Brearley to be called back into the England side as the new captain. This led to three of the most amazing test matches ever played. If anyone tells you 2005 was the greatest Ashes series ever, they were too young to have a clear memory of 1981!

At Headingley, England were in huge trouble by the end of Day 3. Although Botham had shown a welcome return to form with 6 for 95 and a dashing 50, England were following on 227 runs behind on first innings. When wicketkeeper Bob Taylor was out, mid-afternoon on Day 4, England were 135 for 7 and facing total humiliation. They were quoted at 500/1 to win the test match, odds that two of their Australian opponents, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, found too tempting to ignore! In those less suspicious times, it was taken for what it was, two Australians having a bit of fun at the expense of their opponents. Certainly, anyone who saw the match at the time could have no suspicion that either were trying anything less than 100%. Graham Dilley came in to join Ian Botham and they just decided to swing at anything and go down fighting. Their shared instinct to attack led to the most amazing turnaround I have ever seen in a game and a series. In 80 minutes of carnage the two added 117 runs with Dilley the senior partner in terms of runs scored with a brilliant 56. The next 85 minutes saw Botham unleash his full range of shots as he added 104 for the last two wickets with bowlers Chris Old, who hit a useful 29, and Bob Willis whose greatest moment was yet to come. This left Australia with a mere 129 to get, to find themselves 2-0 up in the series with 2 tests to go. At 56 for 1 it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Within 30 minutes, Bob Willis, with 6 wickets, had laid waste to the middle order and Australia had lost a further 7 wickets for 19 runs! I was at school at the time, and it was getting close to registration, but transistor radios were on everywhere and the bulk of the staff were still in the teachers’ room following the game to its conclusion. Lillee and Ray Bright gave the England fans a huge scare with 25 quick runs to bring them within 20 runs of their target, but Willis and England were not to be denied. He picked up the final two wickets to give him the historic figures of 8/43 and England won by 18 runs! There were huge cheers throughout the school and the afternoon lessons were definitely secondary to the huge excitement caused by that once in a lifetime test. For Botham, with 50 and 149 plus 6 wickets in the first innings, that 3rd Test was the start of the most incredible 31 days of his cricketing life. He won the 4th Test for England with a spell of 5 wickets for 1 run in 28 balls! Finally, in the 5th Test, he produced an inning that was even better than his 149 with 118 at better than a run a ball to leave a shellshocked Australia chasing over 500 to win. To give them their due, they only fell 103 runs short as Allan Border, in particular, demonstrated the skill and determination that were to epitomise his batting over the next decade. The 6th Test saw Botham take 10 wickets in a draw that saw England win the series 3 – 1. At the end of a series that started so disastrously, Botham was back at the top with 399 runs and 34 wickets in 6 matches and Mike Brearley had cemented his status as England’s finest ever captain.   

The Singles Chart

January to March – Novelty records return!

Back in 1981, the chart was nothing if not eclectic in nature. The melting pot of punk and new wave was still producing incredible songs, synth pop music was making waves and artists started finding success with novelty records that were a throwback to the mid-70s.

First out of the traps in January were Chas and Dave with the sexist but tongue in cheek Rabbit which bemoaned the fact that one of them had a girlfriend who wouldn’t stop talking! Now don’t run away with the idea that these two middle aged blokes just got lucky in the music industry with some novelty songs, they were far more respected than that. Both Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock had been working in a variety of musical genres for over two decades before Chas and Dave hit the big time. They played with artists like Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Chas Hodges was a session musician for early rock n roll legends Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bill Haley. Their records as Chas and Dave may have sounded rough and ready, although in truth they were brilliantly crafted pieces of music, but they had the musical background to really make them connect with the public. Later in the year they were in the Top 10 again with Ossie’s Dream, their cup final song for Tottenham Hotspur!

Next was the most controversial novelty song of the 1980s. It wasn’t obscene or unpleasant, nor was it, of itself, particularly memorable. However Shaddup You Face by Joe Dolce Music Theatre became notorious for having kept Vienna by Ultravox off the Number 1 spot that it merited! The music papers and indeed the national papers had a field day with this cod Italian song that, in the words of the song, ‘Gotta no respect’ for the musical prowess of the synth pop legends led by the marvellous Midge Ure. Confession time. I bought Joe Dolce not Ultravox thereby contributing to one of the worst miscarriages of justice in chart history and I hope Midge and the guys can forgive me!

The final novelty was far less controversial and also much funnier. Fred Wedlock, a Northern comedian proved to be an enduring one hit wonder with his ode to the sad middle aged man trying to recapture his youth in the hilarious Oldest Swinger in Town. Unlike Rabbit, this song had male vanity firmly in its sights and ran through the enormous number of artificial aids that this pathetic specimen had to use to try to pass for someone younger at the nightclubs. It made me laugh 40 years ago when I was a teenager, and it makes me laugh now when I am the age of the Oldest Swinger but having hung up my dancing shoes for good!

The previous year, Adam and the Ants started to come on my radar as a group I enjoyed listening to. Adam and the Ants were the brainchild of Stuart Goddard, whose stage name was Adam Ant. He was a former student at Hornsey College of Art, but he dropped out to become a musician. However, his design and art background gave the band its incredible aesthetic appeal. Running the gamut from Native American warpaint to pirates, highwaymen and fairy tale characters, the only guarantee with each new track was that Adam and the Ants would have a look unlike any other group. You know that moment when you hear an introduction, and your mouth just drops open when you realise you are hooked? Well I had that moment the first time that Kings of the Wild Frontier appeared on Top of the Pops. It started off with the now familiar call and response style opening that they would have got from listening to glam rock. So far, so commonplace I thought. Then, the song started in earnest with the tribal style double drumming, and I was absolutely hooked from then on. Kings of the Wild Frontier is still one of my favourite songs of the 80s and every time I hear that drumming it just reaches something deep inside me that is almost primitive. It is an outstanding piece of music.

The middle of March saw the first Top 10 hits for two 80s icons, Kim Wilde with Kids in America and Shakin’ Stevens with This Old House, but more of both of them later in this journey through my musical memories. The second record that just made my jaw drop with an incredible opening was the outstanding Reward by The Teardrop Explodes. The brass opening just blows you away every time you listen to it and the song itself almost epitomises early new wave music in its musicality and its attitude. This was a song for teenagers, not for the oldies and you could listen to it and know that you were hearing something in it that your parents would never get. Julian Cope’s chart success was fleeting, although he continued to produce challenging and interesting music, but in Reward he and his band produced a truly great song that stands the test of time.         

April to June – Eurovision, Punk, all time favourites, and a couple of all time classics

Back in the 70s and 80s, the UK were usually found near the top of the leader board when it came to the Eurovision Song Contest. The entry for 1981, however, was probably one of the best songs the UK ever sent to compete with the rest of Europe. Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz was an insanely catchy song that would have done well anyway, but one piece of choreography arguably turned it from a contender to a winner in an incredibly close contest. The group made up of Bobby G, Mike Nolan, Jay Aston, and Cheryl Baker kept their moves simple as the song built up a head of steam. Then, as they reached the line, ‘If you want to see some more’, Bobby and Mike grabbed hold of Jay and Cheryl’s long skirts and whipped them off to reveal much shorter skirts beneath! It brought the house down in Dublin where the contest was held and the voters around Europe queued up to give the song high marks as it swapped the lead with Germany, Switzerland, France and Ireland. Norway got ‘nul points’ for the third time, a state of affairs the UK would become all too familiar with in later years.

The two Punk tracks that really stood out were D-Days by the ever brilliant Hazel O’Connor whose follow-up to the previous year’s Eighth Day really hit the spot for me. The other one was by a band called Tenpole Tudor whose anthemic ‘Olde English’ song Swords of a Thousand Men melded Oi Punk with medieval imagery and a nod to Henry V by Shakespeare. It was joyous, infectious, and led me to Punk which I had really been too young for when it first came out. It’s a song that has definitely stood the test of time, being used in adverts and sports events, and rekindling great memories for those of us who were around at the time.

Whenever I think about Madness, song after song comes to mind, testament to their stream of brilliant tracks throughout the first few years of the 80s in particular. For my favourite original song of theirs, however, I have to choose their release in May of 1981 of the doomy but brilliant Grey Day. It is an atypical song that reflects the day to day drudgery of a job you can’t stand but need to have to pay the bills. I loved the song as soon as I first heard it, and I was off to my favourite record shop the Saturday after it was released to buy it. Like many of my favourite singles it was barely off of my record player in the first week after I bought it, and it still mesmerises me even now.

Hazel O’ Connor hit the charts again in June with Will You, a song that became her signature tune thanks to one of the finest saxophone solos ever put on record. I have mentioned my weakness for saxophone solos before, and this is very close to being the top of the pile at a time before it was a regular feature of songs. This was the tune that demonstrated, perhaps more than any other, how much emotion it could convey.

In May, Adam and the Ants released their follow up to Kings of the Wild Frontier. It became their signature song, introducing the Dandy Highwayman to the list of characters in Adam Ant’s dressing up box. Stand and Deliver is just the epitome of their sound, a coachman’s horn that starts the song followed by the cry of ‘Stand and Deliver’! It is the start of a song that grabs you from that first note and never lets up for three minutes. The video is funny, self-aware and brilliantly put together. It is probably the best example of the song and the video playing off of each other from the early 80s and showed Adam Ant’s design aesthetic in all its glory. Even the picture sleeve of the original single was an incredibly exciting thing to pick up and look at. Stand and Deliver was the high water mark for one of pop’s most original bands.

Kim Wilde’s first hit had been Kids in America, but for me her second single was the best one she released that year. I am aware that I am in a minority, but I felt that Chequered Love was the better record and it’s the one that still has the place in my affections. The driving synth of Chequered Love seemed to borrow riffs from Gary Numan which were then channelled through the rock n roll sensibility of Kim’s dad, Marty Wilde. What resulted was an exciting track that proved you could pretty much go anywhere with electronic music if you had the right ideas.

Similarly, This Old House by Shakin’ Stevens was, to my mind, bettered by his second, slightly less successful single. Mind you, a Number 2 record is not a disappointment in any way! In fact You Drive Me Crazy, written by Ronnie Harwood won an Ivor Novello award for the year’s best song in its genre. The track updates the rock n roll sound that he was famous for and has a great vocal performance from the Welsh singer.  

In June, the record that got everyone talking, whether they listened to music or not, was one of the most socially aware and incisive pieces of music of the 80s. The Specials were a multi-talented, multi-cultural band from Coventry who had set up their own label, 2-Tone, which introduced acts like Madness, Selecter and The Beat to UK music audiences. Their tracks like Too Much, Too Young, which looked at the trap of teenage pregnancy, and Rat Race, which looked at a lifetime in a job you hated, had a sardonic edge of humour to them that slightly softened their effect. There was no such softening in the track they released in June of 1981. Ghost Town was a frankly astonishing piece of music which reflected on the social unrest in their hometown. It took on a wider resonance just after it was released with a wave of riots that reflected the hard edged and angry song, and, in that occasional synergy you get when a record reflects the time, became the theme tune of Thatcher’s Britain in 1981, a time when many young people saw little hope, and nothing being done to make things better. If it had been released when the UK was at ease with itself it would still have reached the top of the charts, but it would not have been so iconic nor so emblematic of an era.

July to September – Summer hits and electronic beauty

In 1981, the latest James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only was released and, to my delight the theme tune was sung by one of my favourite singers, Sheena Easton. If you’ve read my previous blog about 1980 you will know how much of a fan I am of hers. The song itself was classic Bond with the hint of that famous tune, lush strings and a beautiful vocal that moved away from the torch song approach of Shirley Bassey and reflected the more subtle style of Carly Simon. The film wasn’t quite as good as the Spy Who Loved Me, although it was a great example of a Roger Moore Bond with chases, wordplay and explosions galore, but the song was right up there with the best Bond songs of all time.

The summer saw two records that could not have been more different worm their way inside my head. Japanese Boy by Aneka was a simple, throwaway song sung beautifully by the Scottish singer Mary Sandeman. Due to her performances on Top of the Pops dressed up in a kimono, the song shot up the charts, reaching Number 1 in its second week of release. It took over from the second of Shakin’ Stevens Number 1s of the year, the catchy Green Door, which had been Number 1 throughout August. However, neither song would come to represent the summer of 1981 in my memory, so it came as something of a surprise to find out that Tainted Love by Soft Cell wasn’t released until August 22 and didn’t reach Number 1 until the first week of September! Amazing the way that occasionally your memory plays tricks on you isn’t it? Whatever the timing though, Tainted Love is by any standards a total classic with an incredible vocal performance from Marc Almond who inhabits the song in a way that no one else could have done. It was a song that everyone was singing when I got back to school to start my A Levels. After 5 years of constant bullying I just about rescued 4 O Level passes from the wreckage and was fortunate indeed that the rugby team’s best player had a similarly bad set of results. They let him in to the Sixth Form, so they had no choice but to let me in! If anything was tainted for me it was the education I had got in how to just about survive bullying, so the angry and occasionally bitter lyrics really spoke to me.

The final record I want to reflect on led to a decades’ long affection for the brilliant Liverpool based electronic band, OMD. Souvenir is, without doubt, the most beautiful synth based tune ever recorded. I’m stating that as an objective fact because nothing else has made me stop in my tracks as quickly as that did, and I am not prepared to hear any argument! It is 3 minutes of beauty and mystery, and it just gets inside your soul. I had heard them and enjoyed their music before then, but this was the track that turned me into a lifelong fan. Many years later I saw them live for the first time and when they played Souvenir I got very emotional as that beauty hit me once again.

October to December – Classic artists reappear and there’s a Christmas Number 1 for the ages

The charts at the start of October saw a huge variety of styles from the sublime to the ridiculous. Invisible Sun by The Police, about the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland, just missed out on the Number 1 spot to the unsettling, off-kilter, and brilliant remake of 60s hit It’s My Party by Dave Stewart (not the one with the Eurythmics) and Barbara Gaskin. 70s Glam icon Alvin Stardust was back in the charts with the rock n roll number Pretend, which launched a new wave of success over the next few years. Then, just to prove that the UK record buying public could buy complete rubbish even in the name of comedy records, in the Top 10 was the Birdie Song by The Tweets, an irritating earworm that is running round my head as I think of the song! As with every other horrible record it still isn’t as bad as the trio of sausage roll related crimes against music that the UK public inflicted on the rest of us as Christmas Number 1s in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Here’s hoping he doesn’t release another in 2021!! Anyway, back to 1981.

Dave Godley and Lol Crème were half of the classic 70s group 10cc, whose hits included the brilliant trio of Number 1 hits, the anti-love song I’m Not in Love, the prison drama Rubber Bullets and the cod reggae of Dreadlock Holiday. When Godley and Crème went solo you just knew that whatever they released would be interesting. Under your Thumb was a psychological drama and supernatural thriller rolled into one. Set on a train with a suitably percussive backing it was a really classy and unnerving track that sent a shiver down your spine. In December they picked up a second Top 5 hit with the sarcastic and catchy Wedding Bells about a man trying to escape the inevitable walk down the aisle with his marriage obsessed girlfriend!

New Wave stalwarts Squeeze had been making funny, slice of life records since 1978 and having a good measure of chart success in the late 70s. In November 1981 they released a single that remains amongst my favourite story songs. Labelled with Love tells the story of an old woman, shuffling around in a decaying house, who has been abandoned by her family and the rest of the world. As the song fills in the background you realise that this woman could easily have found herself in much better circumstances, but through chance and a couple of bad decisions she is condemned to living out her life in poverty, shunned by everyone else. It is a deeply sad song that seems to borrow from the country and western tradition whilst still remaining unmistakably English at its core.

In November, The Police reached the top of the charts again with the infectiously catchy Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, a blast of sunshine in a dark and dreary winter in the UK. They only stayed there for a week as the once in a lifetime collaboration of Queen and David Bowie took over top spot with Under Pressure, an instantly recognisable tune that was used in another Number 1, the far less appealing Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, proving that you can ruin any tune however good! Both of those great groups had to give a nod of acknowledgement to the year’s biggest selling single, the defiantly UnChristmassy Christmas Number 1, the frankly brilliant Don’t You Want Me by The Human League. The Sheffield based synth pop legends had been building up a head of steam that year before breaking through with the instantly recognisable tune and a song about a Svengali figure who has lost control of his protégé. Despite his threats that he can put her back in the obscurity where he found her she knows that she has enough talent and determination to make it on her own, so she walks away from him with her head held high.

From → Musical History

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