Further to my recent observations on the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ in music, something has reminded me of another episode of foolishness that probably stopped me getting as much enjoyment from music as I should have.
Nik Kershaw’s recent UK tour, in addition to promoting his new album ‘Ei8ht’, featured a complete run-through of his platinum-selling ‘Human Racing’ album from 1984. I was particularly happy to attend a couple of these shows because I had more or less missed out on the ‘Human Racing’ album first time around, not because I was unaware of its existence, but because I was daft enough to have felt guilty about liking a certain kind of pop music.
I recall that when he first appeared on Top of the Pops, my girlfriend described him as looking like a cross between Gary Numan and someone from Buck’s Fizz; I don’t think it was meant as a compliment. He had obviously had some kind of fashion makeover and looked like what I would have pejoratively described as a ‘manufactured’ pop star (as if other more ‘authentic’ pop stars just appeared out of the ether, fully formed and bursting with talent and integrity). On the final night of 1984, the BBC showed a live transmission of one of his gigs. In spite of the fact that I quite fancied watching it, I kept only half an eye on proceedings and eventually consented to the TV being tuned to something else. I knew deep down that I found his music quirky and tuneful, but I couldn’t give myself wholeheartedly to it, because, well … it just wasn’t ‘cool’ to admit to liking someone who featured in Smash Hits and who was screamed at by teenage girls. I mean, come on. That kind of stuff, surely, was just not culturally significant? It didn’t have, to use Woody Allen’s phrase, ‘total heaviosity’.
Some would argue that 1984 was a great year for British pop music. Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club all topped the charts, but they made little impact on me. Haughtily and ostentatiously snubbing the charts, I would have been too busy with other stuff. When, for instance, I bought my 12 inch copy of ‘What difference does it make?’ by The Smiths, I was convinced that I was witnessing the rise of the coolest and most culturally significant band on the planet. There is no doubt that they made a cultural impact, but –to my ears- much of their work now seems bereft of melody, with many of the songs failing to cash the cheques written by Morrissey’s witty titles.
I was a big fan of the introspective singer-songwriter David Sylvian. His ‘Brilliant Trees’ album was one of my favourites of 1984, but nowadays I can’t abide his constipated vocal stylings and humourless existential angst (and any songwriter that references Picasso and Sartre in his work is surely trying a wee bit too hard). I also admired the dreamy post-punk soundscapes of Cocteau Twins, but find now that I tire rather quickly of their ethereal, meandering, effects-driven epics. Although Liz Fraser’s melodies are sometimes pretty, the lyrical gibberish I once thought charming (or even mysterious) now seems merely annoying.
Another act that I would definitely have name-checked in any conversation in which I would have felt the need to appear cool (namely: any conversation that would have taken place between ‘waking up’ and ‘going to sleep’) was Echo and the Bunnymen. But whenever I hear their stuff now, I find it difficult to like; much of it appears plodding and pedestrian, drearily anchored by what sounds like a very limited range of keys and tempos. Most of the time, Ian McCulloch is not so much singing as posturing, sounding like a lippy social studies student who wished he had studied at the Sorbonne. His lyrics somehow manage to sound vacuous, gauche, pretentious and glib at the same time. The Bunnymen’s 1984 album ‘Ocean Rain’ was launched with a PR campaign that proclaimed it to be the greatest album ever made. It wasn’t. It had a few decent tunes, but the tasteful orchestration helped disguise the fact that most of the songs were little more than average.
So, off the top of my head, those are four acts I would have enjoyed in 1984, but am quite indifferent to now, along with one act that I pretended not to like in 1984, but am very keen on now.
Hamstrung by silly student snobberies, I let Nik Kershaw’s chart-busting glory days pass me and only deigned to catch his act once his commercial star had started to wane. During the nineties, he took a long sabbatical from performing before returning with the sublime ‘15 minutes’ album in 1998. Mature, reflective, tuneful and adult in its lyrical concerns, it was all that good middle-of-the-road pop should be. His albums now sell in modest amounts, but the recent tour gave his fans the chance to relive the halcyon days of 1984 and, of course, presented a fool like me with a belated opportunity to see those big hit songs performed live.
The enjoyment I got from these concerts has led me to reflect once more upon how we experience, perceive and enjoy music. How do we judge musical quality? What makes folk imagine that some music is ‘cool’, while other music isn’t? What gives a piece of music longevity? Does age bring greater clarity about what we like, or does it merely make us more conservative in our tastes? Why do some songs remain in our hearts while others lose their lustre?
I have the feeling I might return to this topic.
In the meantime, here is Nik Kershaw bringing in the New Year at the Hammersmith Odeon on 31st December 1984, complete with balloons, eighties-style dancing and screaming girls.