This is the story of a time when I had poor taste. (In music, I mean. Clothing, I’ve never had much taste in.) But I wasn’t alone. It was the Eighties. And my poor taste wasn’t as poor as everyone else’s poor taste.
The British music scene in the Eighties: what do you think of? New Romantic (Duran, Spandau). Indie (Smiths, Cure, those dodgy acts in the middle of The Chart Show). Pop (Stock/Aitken/Waterman, Kylie, Mel & Kim, Rick Astley, Nik Kershaw, Haircut 100, aiy-aiy-aiy …). A few of the more cultish subgenres perhaps (Metal, Goth, Curiosity Killed The Cat).
There was another type of music, one that was never considered big in the UK even though it was actually fairly pervasive because it was big somewhere else - American Rock. Not just ‘rock music made by American acts’ but ‘rock music that Americans like’. This included a lot of formerly British acts that had found their reputations, if not careers, rapidly heading south after punk: Genesis, Yes and all the surviving 70s prog groups; some of the British metal bands of the latter part of the same decade (chiefly Whitesnake); and Robert Plant’s entire solo career. We - the British public and particularly the British media - may not have spared loose change for them, but the Americans still had a strong attachment to the supergroups of the 70s, as if this was a scene that they thought they’d missed out on originally but suddenly found they could pay to have rerun for their own pleasure. And if you were a struggling dinosaur disconcerted to see that the limos and NME poll awards were drying up, it didn’t take much to persuade you to relocate to Los Angeles where the good times continued to roll. Over here: derision. Over there: respect (and an income). Example: “Love Will Find A Way”, a reasonably tuneful pop song released by Yes in 1987 reached no.30 in the Billboard chart and spent three weeks at the top of the US rock chart. In the British charts, it made it all the way to … 73.
Well fine. British audiences didn’t want that kind of thing anyway. Except, apparently, they did. You want to hear American musics like they have in ‘Murica? Well, you could go see the latest John Hughes film, which was bound to have it all over the soundtrack. And it was on Radio 1 all afternoon during the ‘Saturday Sequence’, after Adrian Juste handed over to Johnnie Walker: about four hours of interviews, features and songs that opened with jaunty guitar riffs and had titles containing the word “ain’t”. (TV Cream’s entry for DJ Roger Scott sums up the popular regard of it well.) Or how about primetime BBC2, hosted by that talentspotting svengali of handsome youths, Jonathan King? “Entertainment USA”, bringing you all the stateside gossip and celebrity interviews, interspersed with videos from the top of the American charts? (There are clips on Youtube if you’re curious - I won’t link to them because, you know, King…)
Digression: Around 1983, my mother, along with just about everyone else, bought “Thriller”. Within a month I was the world’s biggest thirteen year old Michael Jackson fan (an impressionable age where Jackson was concerned). I was even buying Jacksons albums. Even “Victory”, their dodgy reunion/comeback release. Which I even thought was good. Sometime in ‘85, more or less on a Sussudio-inspired whim, I changed course slightly and bought “No Jacket Required” by Phil Collins, and then I became the world’s biggest Collins fan. (I’m not proud, I’m just relating, although I will still defend his first three solo albums if challenged.) I wore that album out (except “One More Night”, bleah). At the time, ITV used to show music programmes late on Fridays, generally pre-punk 70s stuff like concert films - I first saw “Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii” there, although it took a few years before I appreciated its bizarre genius. One night, they showed “Genesis In America”, an edited version of the “Three Sides Live” concert film from ‘81 and that was it - the catalyst. I bought “Abacab”, and then the venerable “Foxtrot” and my descent into unfashionable hippy shit that apparently only America still liked was complete. And if America liked it, then I was set on finding out what else America liked, because the media that was supposed to be aimed at my demographic clearly didn’t cater for such perverse tastes.
So back to Entertainment USA. I confess: I loved a lot of the tracks they played on that show. Like “Obsession” by Animotion, which they seemed to show every week:
(Orchestral synth stabs, synth bass and squally guitar solo all present and correct. In the States, even their pop hits were vaguely ‘rock’.)
They even ran videos by British acts that did well in the States. “All I Need Is A Miracle” by Mike & The Mechanics did nothing in the UK being as it was, well, a solo project by a member of the much-despised Genesis, but I thought it was a decent tune and yes, I first heard it on E-USA:
Here’s the archetypal example of a Brit band hotfooting it to the States and going native, to the extent of retooling one of their previous hits with some LA glam:
It wasn’t just on E-USA. Here’s “Paper In Fire” by John Mellencamp, which I remember seeing on The Chart Show:
(Yee, and indeed, haw. And wasn’t Lisa Germano great?)
Billy Squier? Sign me up. Mr Mister? Bought that album too. Pat Benatar? Still got the single (“Love Is A Battlefield” - awesome synth bass on that). Tiffany? Whoa, steady on (OK, I did tape it off the radio though). Here’s one of my mixtapes from that period: No. 6 Lately, you can get away with professing such terrible inclinations if you make a faux-apology for enjoying “pure cheese”.
Entertainment USA was apparently such a flop in pop-obsessed Britain that it spawned a British version, “No Limits”, in which Tony Baker and Jenny Powell wandered around novelty corners of the UK, interspersed with…yes, videos from the American charts.
Even The Old Grey Whistle Test was still resurrected occasionally for day-long specials. An extended documentary on ZZ Top featuring all their videos and presented by Andy Kershaw? Still have that on VHS somewhere. (Kershaw asking Dusty Hill about their beards in thick northern accent: “Are they insewered?” Hill: “I’m sorry?”) How about a brief feature on Genesis making their thirteenth album, and miming in an annoying way to a rough mix in the studio? Yes…sorry, but yes. Lapped it up.
It seems incredible now to recall that, for all the ephemeral dross being thrown up by TOTP each week, you could still find music like this on mainstream media. Mark Ellen on a BBC show, burbling on about Springsteen and interviewing David Gilmour about Pink Floyd’s return before going on to help launch Q magazine (for ‘the discerning listener’)? Booooring, who’d want to sit through that?? “Golden oldies, Rolling Stones, we don’t want them back, I’d rather jack than Fleetwood Mac” trilled Stock, Aitken, Waterman via their dancing puppets, the Reynold Girls. Well fair enough, pre-teens probably shouldn’t be nodding their heads to The Wall. (Thankfully though, while I’ve often enjoyed hearing Fleetwood Mac’s comeback hit “Big Love” throughout the succeeding years, I’ve only ever heard “I’d Rather Jack” once.) But it was a fallacy to think there was no audience in the UK for ‘rawk’, even if those catering to the hipster indie kids and teenyboppers wanted to make you think so. The problem was, that audience tended to consist mainly of white, middle class, older males - much like BBC executives, in fact. Yet the punk attitude, that modern music was purely for the young - and vice-versa - still held sway culturally. Hence the disconnect, and a subsequent narrative handed down to us by the usual suspects rather than the actual participants of that era.
Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n’ Roses had a fair amount of success in Britain, but outside that there was an Atlantic-sized gap between the popular tastes of the two nations. American rock didn’t make a significant impact on mainstream perception here until Nirvana overthrew or finished off most of the Eighties US acts, providing an incision point for grunge. Ironically, that stuff left me cold on the whole: too rowdy, too much punk influence. Nor was I ever keen on the rootsier, ‘authentic’ American sound: singer-songwriters like Randy Newman or Jackson Browne, heartland acts like Dylan or Springsteen, or the wide swathe of country-rock bands championed by the likes of Bob Harris. (Hence I was never taken with Word magazine, which seemed to consist entirely of acts that only iPod poseurs could earnestly enjoy, although clearly it was where the Whistle Test/Saturday Sequence presenters and audience disappeared to.) As American acts briefly enjoyed a surge among the young rock audience, I was at uni with my preferences heading back towards the British acts I’d been overlooking from the last decade - mainly goths. Yep, always ahead of the trend, me.
Last night, I was midway through swapping CDs in the car on the way home when I discovered that “Sweet Home Alabama” was playing on Nation Radio. It sounded fantastic.
- My other mixtapes. Yeah, I know it’s a shame I never made one for you.
- The Lost Legends of American Soft Rock covers all the main suspects but writer Ben Walsh emanates a clear “I can’t believe I’m doing this” vibe about the whole thing, and inevitably has to work a Smiths mention into it as apologia.
- The rehabilitation of Collins gathers pace.
- I know you’re only here for the music, baby.