Japan 2Whenever I put a CD compilation together, they tend to be themed affairs, and today I stumbled upon an old one I figured might provide a defiantly untopical diversion; it intrigued me because I realised its title, ‘Early ‘82’, meant its nineteen snapshots of a moment in time were the soundtrack to exactly 40 years ago (yes, 40 f***ing years ago), when the nation was in the deep-freeze of a notoriously severe winter. The opening track is one whose title I recently modified for a post, ‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates. Not the first act on this compilation whose initial credentials were unquestionably left-field, Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine had emerged from the DIY Indie scene spawned by post-punk and highlighted how grafting earworm melodies onto all kinds of strange dissonant sounds could result in the easy infiltration of a singles chart receptive to an ‘anything goes’ approach, turning the least likely contenders into bona fide pop stars. The band’s biggest hit (#9) remains a uniquely addictive experience, dominated by Mackenzie’s soaring, beyond-Bowie vocals and Rankine’s irresistible keyboard hook that separates the verses. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear it my imagination always summons some obscure 60s movie featuring the jet-set on an Alpine ski slope.

Tracks two and three come from two survivors of 1977’s contentious bridge between Punk and New Wave, ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers (#2) and The Jam’s third chart-topper, ‘Town Called Malice’. Both in possession of a flexibility that enabled them to prosper in a pop landscape in a constant state of change, the two acts first hit the charts within months of each other five years before and underlined their shared strength-in-depth by scaling even greater commercial heights in 1982. The Stranglers’ cleverly-disguised ode to heroin was soaked in the seductive textures of the harpsichord whereas The Jam’s celebration of lost working-class lives was a tribute to old-school Motown and pointed the way to Paul Weller’s absorption in Soul that came with The Style Council. Track four is the biggest hit (#10) for a band who’d appeared in the shadow of Punk/New Wave and had carved an idiosyncratic career by ploughing their own stubborn furrow, XTC. ‘Senses Working Overtime’ has a catchy, barnstorming chorus but its verses are undoubtedly rooted in a pastoral English tradition emphasised by the crack-of-dawn crows cackling at the song’s conclusion.

Next up is one of the most Ray Davies-like social documents in the Madness canon, ‘Cardiac Arrest’; this ditty of a City worker suffering a heart attack during a commute to the office was accompanied by one of the band’s pioneering promo videos and, like many of their hits, is hard to hear without seeing the visuals they provided. Curiously, its subject matter hit a nerve at Radio 1; a top DJ’s father had recently died of a cardiac arrest and the song was temporarily left off a playlist that the Madness hit CV ordinarily entitled them to an instant place on. The brief ‘ban’ affected sales and broke the band’s run of top tenners, only peaking at #14. By 1982, Madness had long since shed their associations with the 2 Tone movement of 1979/’80, as had most who’d been pivotal to it, none more so than The Specials, splitting in the wake of the seminal summer ’81 anthem, ‘Ghost Town’. The Fun Boy Three were the most successful Specials spin-off, and with their take on the old Jazz standard, ‘It Ain’t What You Do’ (#4), they introduced Bananarama to the world. Fresh from their brush with Malcolm McLaren, the all-girl trio still had a delightfully shambolic Slits vibe to them at this stage, yet to morph into ‘proper’ pop stars.

Although Bananarama had wisely avoided committing themselves to the curly Svengali’s latest scheme for world domination, McLaren’s influence is evident in the seventh track, ‘Go Wild in the Country’ by Bow Wow Wow, on account of him writing the raucous song’s lyrics. He’d assembled the backing band for teenage singer Annabella Lwin by nicking the original line-up of Adam and the Ants, sans Adam. It was probably a blessing in disguise for Adam, however; the loss of his Ants to Bow Wow Wow forced him to forge a new and far more successful sound, though track eight is one of his earlier obscurities, ‘Deutscher Girls’; lifted from the soundtrack of the 1978 Derek Jarman movie, ‘Jubilee’, the #13 chart placing for a four-year-old record that bore little resemblance to Adam’s current oeuvre showed how great the appetite for any Ant output remained in 1982. Next up is ‘I Could Be Happy’ by Altered Images; another example of a left-field act with a highly individual take on mainstream pop, this #7 follow-up to ‘Happy Birthday’ expands the joyously infantile sentiments of that unexpected smash as Clare Grogan reels off a list of charmingly naive things she’d like to do given half the chance. As with the Bananarama of this period, Altered Images still sound fresh because their rough edges haven’t been ironed out in the way they would be today.

A far slicker offering comes via the light college-boy funk of Haircut 100 and their biggest hit (#3), ‘Love Plus One’; yet even then, Nick Heyward’s men were not manufactured in a boy band lab by a jaded middle-aged cynic, and it shows. There was a knowing archness to even the most seemingly ‘safe’ early 80s chart regulars, a factor present in the romantically grandiose hits of ABC. The Sheffield band enjoyed the first in a trio of top tenners lifted from their landmark ‘Lexicon of Love’ album in 1982, ‘Poison Arrow’ (#6), though this was a song boasting a far sharper edge than anything Haircut 100 could manage. There’s a brief concession to the early 80s US hits that crossed the Atlantic courtesy of Jonathan King’s fortnightly profile of the Billboard Hot 100 on ‘Top of the Pops’ with track twelve, ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ by Hall and Oates. However, the presence of synthesizers and a drum machine on the song give it a contemporary 1982 feel, even though the next track sounds even more 1982, belying the fact it was originally released in 1978.

Godfathers of ‘Synth Pop’ (amongst many other claims to fame), Kraftwerk scored the sole #1 hit of their lengthy career with a timely reissue of ‘The Model’, and the remaining half-dozen tracks on the CD reflect the increasing popularity of synth-based sounds in 1982. ‘Damned Don’t Cry’ (#11) sees Steve Strange’s Visage doing Berlin Bowie; ‘See You’ (#6) finds Depeche Mode struggling to shake off the upbeat poppiness of their Vince Clarke period, though the chilly backing has an underlying uneasiness to it that suggests a darker direction to come; ‘Maid of Orleans’ (#4) by OMD opens with a jarring burst of avant-garde electronica before eventually settling into a more accessible sing-along. As with the exhumation of Adam Ant’s back catalogue, the huge success of The Human League is shown with the band’s former record company re-releasing their first single, 1978’s ‘Being Boiled’; characteristic of the original line-up’s bleaker tendencies, it has little in common with the classy Synth Pop of ‘Dare’, but nevertheless peaked as high as #6.

One final example of how the unconventional and experimental could produce a top ten hit in 1982 comes with the penultimate track, ‘Ghosts’ by Japan. Remarkably, this eerie and unnerving electronic ballad was the band’s biggest hit (#5) and still sounds unlike anything before or since, let alone anything to make the top five. David Sylvian and his similarly exotic sidemen scored endless hits that year, mainly thanks to a string of re-releases from an ex-label competing with their current output. The CD concludes with Soft Cell’s melodramatic albeit undeniably effective ballad, ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ (#3), a song that demonstrates just how well the self-made pop stars of the early 80s simultaneously wore their hearts on the sleeves and their tongues in their cheeks. At the time, they were often accused of prioritising style over substance, yet my ears hear an awful lot of substance in these brilliantly-crafted mini-masterpieces by young men and women motivated by more than merely a desire to be famous. And even if they were only allocated fifteen minutes, they didn’t squander one second.

© The Editor



6 thoughts on “SONIC POLAROIDS

    1. It only struck me when I gave it a listen that I was hearing the chart sounds of exactly 40 years ago…and then I saw myself shovelling snow from neighbours’ driveways to pay for the brand new, borrowed sledge I and a couple of others had broken in pursuit of death-defying thrills on death-defying hills.


  1. There was so much more variety (and quality) on offer in the charts then. Not that there wasn’t fluff in the top 40 as well. It’s ironic that in an era where the rhetoric centres around ‘diversity’, mainstream music has become incredibly uniform-sounding.

    It would be hard to imagine acts such as The Associates and Japan doing so well in today’s charts, in fact that’s true of most of the artists cited.

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    1. Couldn’t agree more – the variety was what struck me when I gave the CD a listen. It really was quite a uniquely (and genuinely) diverse era whereby the one-time left-field acts could fly high in the charts without compromising their originality. Listeners accustomed to the likes of Shakin’ Stevens or Bucks Fizz were given an alternative and realised pop music could be just as good, if not better, in the hands of musicians coming to it from a different and more interesting angle. The formulaic, Auto-tuned ‘processed cheese’ shoved down the throat of today’s pop-pickers is short-changing them on a grand scale and they don’t even realise too much fast food can lead to a lifetime’s indigestion.

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