This week’s theme was indirectly suggested to us by Mr. Michael Des Barres. When we appeared on his TV/ radio hybrid show, the snowy-thatched survivor suggested we do a prequel to Mad World: The Book spotlighting the artists whose influence played a part in constructing the movement we currently celebrate. There very well may be a book in what he suggests. But for now, here’s a blog:
“Wild Is The Wind,” David Bowie
Of all the songs i could have chosen, why in the name of all that’s holy would I go for one that wasn’t even written by David Bowie, that was originally recorded by Johnny Mathis and definitively interpreted by Nina Simone? Why? Here’s my answer: the Bowie vocal affectation was as prevalent in the eighties as the Eddie Vedder lumberjack growl was in the nineties. Every male singer attempted to channel that mixture of alien and emotion. The quality that Billy Mackenzie. Tony Hadley, Midge Ure, Ian McCulloch, Jim Kerr, even Bono, even Morrissey attempted to emulate in their vocals is displayed to it’s fullest on “Wild Is The Wind”. Yes, Bowie’s influence on the career trajectories and the visual vocabulary of the decade is undeniable. But he also taught a generation how to sing and the lesson was never more illuminating than on this song.
“Nightclubbing,” Iggy Pop
Meanwhile, here’s the David Bowie song that is eerily prescient in predicting the shape of the world to come.
“Virginia Plain,” Roxy Music
As we mentioned in Mad World:The Book, when David Bowie performed “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, it caused a seismic cultural shift. But “Starman”, though it caused an instant generation gap and a national sexual identity crisis, was a singalong kind of song. Your parents and your older siblings might have hated the way Bowie looked and how he performed but they couldn’t deny his mastery of traditional melodic songcraft. “Virginia Plain”, also from 1972, was way more unsettling. Bear in mind that the beds of British pre-teens from this period were already sopping wet from being scared by cardboard monsters on Dr. Who. The sight of Bryan Ferry’s slit-eyed sneer and the malicious drone of “Virginia Plain” was the stuff of nightmares.
“The Model,” Kraftwerk
All of new wave’s intimacy issues can be attributed to this one song. “The Model” spares no one. The object of the obsession (“She plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time,It only takes a camera to change her mind”), the men who objectify her (“”She’s looking good, for beauty we will pay”), the emptiness of her profession (“She’s posing for consumer products now and then”) and the desperation of the narrator (“I saw her on the cover of a magazine, now she’s a big success I want to see her again”) Giving voice to such sentiments in a dry emotionless German accent makes it all that much creepier.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us,” Sparks
Let;s take a moment to acknowledge the surreal longevity of Sparks. This is their debut hit from 1974 but they’d released two albums before it. The clip below embodies the atomic-impact a decent Top Of The Pops showing could have. The Friday morning after this performance, every schoolyard in seventies Britain was buzzing with frantic discussion about Sparks. I’m not saying every one of the many many synth-pop acts that populated the eighties were formed as a direct result of seeing that show, But I am saying that seeds were planted and sides were chosen. Subconsciously, some people decided they were Russells and others accepted that they were Rons.
“From Here To Eternity,” Giorgio Moroder
The towering importance of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” to new wave has been mentioned many times. But let’s not give the records Giorgio Moroder released under his own name short shrift. His Midnight Express soundtrack, his ”Nights In White Satin” cover, and this, his exhilarating debut hit, opened up a new world to formative keyboard geeks. You didn’t have to look like a star, you didn’t have to move, you didn’t need someone else to sing your songs: all ou had to do was stand there and let the machines take over.
“I Want More,” Can
Has a nation whose first language is not English ever had more of an influence over a musical movement than Germany had over new wave? The cool kids in my school–ie: not me– were all down with Krautrock. I’d see them saunter into class with their clear vinyl Faust albums and their Neu! imports and I’d wonder what that stuff sounded like. It wasn’t until Can had a small but legitimate hit with this record that I found a window into that world. “I Want More” turned out to be a total anomaly and Krautrock held little further appeal for me. But all over Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and London, bands would form made up of cool kids who loved that stuff when they were at school.
“I’m Not In Love,” 10cc
Okay, I’m aware 10cc as a band are in no way an eighties influence.(Although ex-members Godley & Creme’s video output during that decade is a whole other story) But this one record is a total harbinger of things to come. You can hear the beginnings of OMD’s “Souvenir” in this song. You can hear where Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” came from. You can hear where Spandau Ballet’s “True” started out. Or at least I can. Also lyrically, “I’m Not In Love” is up there with “The Model” as the most uncomfortable song in this list. (That “Be quiet, big boys don’t cry” breakdown? Scarier than early-seventies Dr. Who!)
“Only After Dark,” Mick Ronson
From David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars sideman’s solo album, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”. Awesomely sleazy subterranean nightlife song covered bit by The Human League and Def Leppard, to varying degrees of success.
“Good Times,” Chic
If every singer in the eighties wanted to emote like David Bowie, every band wanted to sound like Chic. They didn’t have the longest run of hits but these songs are preserved in amber.