Songs I Love: ‘The Story of a Young Heart’ by A Flock of Seagulls (1984)

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for Mike Score’s fucking stupid hair, A Flock of Seagulls might not have been so famous. At the same time, if it wasn’t for Mike Score’s fucking stupid hair, maybe they’d have been taken so much more seriously. Although they boasted no real classic album to speak of, despite the virtues of the first two LPs, the ‘Gulls regularly scored more than a few brilliant singles in their favour, two of which (‘I Ran’ and ‘Wishing’) are deserved mainstays in any self-respecting 80’s compilation playlist. Yet there was also the cosmic excitement of ‘Space Age Love Song’, the utterly dreamy ‘Transfer Affection’, the dark, exciting ‘Nightmares’ among others. Then there were great album tracks like the dystopian ‘Man-Made’ and the slap-bass your face fantastic ‘What Am I Supposed to Do?’

Yet above and beyond all of that, the obscurity of ‘The Story of a Young Heart’, the opening track of their so-so third album, definitely makes me sad a little. If you’re willing to exclude the excellence of those two ubiquitous singles, then ‘Young Heart’ is definitely the band’s all-time high. It wasn’t even selected as a single, which baffles me to the point of madness, for you can just imagine it doing the rounds with a vengeance on MTV, accompanied by a video where Mike rides his space-age motorcycle through the deserted memory towns of his youth, pining for lost loves and lost times through sunset-dappled late summer evenings. A video to go up there with ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Summer of ‘69’ and all that. It really could have been a beautiful thing, were it not for Mike’s fucking stupid hair.

Anyway, forget the hair, because the music… man, the music is so sad. I mean, it’s strident, punchy, chrome-plated and very, very radio-friendly, but there’s melancholy running through every second. Mike isn’t exactly rated as an excellent singer, but his admittedly limited range works so well here – melancholic, yearning, yet glossed with that perfect MTV sheen that somehow makes it all the sadder, like a robot crying or something. The lyrics are so simple, yet they cut me good;

“This is the story of the young heart/It only seems like yesterday/That we were walking in the rain/It only seems an hour or so/Since I looked into your soul/It’s tearing me apart/To tell the story of the young heart/It only seems a week I’d say/Maybe it’s slipped into years/Since we were burning down the days/And there was happiness, not tears/The story in your eyes/Is the story of the young heart”

Okay, that doesn’t read so well, but they really do me over when sung. And it all works in perfect conjunction with Paul Reynolds’ always-brilliant, super-sleek future guitars. Reynolds’ sound is one of the most reassuringly great things about early-eighties pop, and he knew how to quicken the pulse as well as send shivers down your spine. Again, it was a samey sound – and the Gulls only had so much longer to journey before it all broke down, but there were at least a dozen remarkable Reynolds hooks over the course of their legacy. Together and with the bright, sparkling electronics and the impact of the drums (which kick off the song with a real oomph), everyone delivers the steely resolve to barely keep all of this misery in check.

Then there’s the solo, which sounds exactly as you’d expect given it follows the course of the chorus, but my god it burns my soul every time. It’s so beautiful, one of the real heart-stoppers in 80’s pop music – it tears up the skies in that searing, scorching, yet admirably restrained, understated way Reynolds’ solos do so well, and this is the bit when in the imaginary video Score gets off the bike and stares out on the peak of the hill overlooking the town and it’s all there, flooding back, poor guy. You can weep to it, or you air guitar to it, it works either way. The finale brings it all back home, though Score’s singing gets more pained, his delivery more foreboding  given that ‘you know they’re going to break your young heart’ directs the pain right at us, the listener, or at the very least whoever the singer’s passing his wisdom on to – could be a younger sibling, a good friend, his protégé, whoever. The song dies out with a simple keyboard elegy, love dies a death, so do the ‘Gulls after this song, frankly, but what a send-off. Truly one of the most gorgeous, underrated songs of the decade.

Mansun: Six (1998)

One of the greatest things created by anyone, ever. 

Mansun’s Six was probably one of the only albums that really mattered to me back in the late nineties. I couldn’t believe how fucking spectacular it was. It made so much other music sound so ordinary, so…well, so-so. There were other LPs of the time that I went nuts for, albums like Supergrass’ In it for the Money (an album described as retro-Britpop at its absolute best by Uncut’s David Stubbs, and I must agree), the inevitable OK Computer by Radiohead (one of the rare exceptions where unanimous critical/commercial acceptance and how I feel about it myself were one and the same), but Six felt extra, extra special to me, because Mansun, in the grand scheme of things, weren’t that popular. Oh yes, ‘Legacy’ hit the top ten, and this album reached….you won’t believe it, number 6 in the charts, but in my social circle, they were not a big deal at all. One or two other people expressed a liking for the album, but for the most part, Mansun were my own band, and Six felt like my album, my own special secret. Some of the reviews were pretty hostile – self-indulgent, needed an editor, whiny vocals, the spectre of prog-rock (!!!) over the whole thing…nah, Mansun were a joke, right? Well, yes and no. They were ridiculous, but fuck me, they took it over the edge, past the edge, fearlessly embracing their ambition and going for nothing less than a behemoth of guitar pop/rock.

Yes, pop and rock. For this album not only swoons you over with some of the most gorgeous melodies and harmonies to bless your ears, it also blisters them with some of the most sensational, white-hot guitar playing I’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly. It’s a seventy-minute plus epic that lasts twelve tracks but comes closer to totalling quadruple that, as many songs switch tack so strikingly it’s like four-songs-in-one. Not that you’d guess that from the singles. The relatively streamlined ‘Legacy’ and ‘Negative’, the single-edit of ‘Being a Girl’ that kept the punk thrash but cut out all the wild stuff afterwards and an Arthur Baker mix of the title track that turned an eight-minute long multi-song rollercoaster into something far more palatable. Imagine the shock of sticking Six on and sliding downwards through a helter skelter of musical madness, where the ground opened up as you reached the bottom and took you to hell and back. Well, I say hell. I mean, this album is thrilling, but it’s also messed-up. Paul Draper’s lyrics cover depression, paranoia, hypochondria, regrets, compromise, being emotionally raped by Jesus – wait, what? Yep, the preposterously jaunty chorus of the stunning ‘Cancer’ treats everybody to that unforgettable line, which would be exploitative if it didn’t sound so damn right on this album. Yeah, ‘Cancer’ – which could have been the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the nineties if it had been released as a single (though Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ is a worthy winner), a remarkable journey that takes you through utter darkness and finally up and out into some kind of liquid ecstasy thanks to Dominic Chad’s guitars. Chad is up there with the all-time greats here. He’s excellent on the band’s first and third LPs, but he is absolutely ingenious on Six. He blows your mind. There are at least a dozen or two moments on Six where Chad makes the guitar sound more alive than on any other album of the decade. He plays the thing as though no one else had touched it before. The guy was a hero. His solos on ‘Fall Out’ (moon-landing conspiracy song among other things), ‘Being a Girl’ (Paul wants to experience what it feels like), ‘Shotgun’ (fucking hell, what is this one about?) are extraordinary. They were the teenage kicks I craved, this was the album I’d been waiting for. Draper’s voice is so over-the-top, so wounded, so slinky, so melodramatic, so delightfully intense that you’ll either love it or hate it.

Six is broken-up into two parts, the second slightly less fragmented, made up of fewer songs but scoring higher on the colossal front, although side one does end with ‘Cancer’, which is one of the most epic things ever. In-between acts we get a spoken-word confession from the Tom Baker, spoken over a delicate chamber-music pastiche where he goes on about ‘minutes bleeding into hours, bleeding into days’ or suspecting that ‘all my life, what I mistook for friendly pats on the back, were really the hands that were pushing me further and further down’. It’s so, so, so, so far beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. Being a wounded soul at the time definitely helped one to appreciate Six a lot. Being able to make fun of one’s self and not take it all too seriously was also a vital factor, if hilarious interludes like this were anything to go by. Six is the kind of album you can really devote yourself to, to utterly believe in, and yet it’s no po-faced solemn text we should be listing alongside all those other established classic albums. It’s too ridiculous for that. You can cry to Six, you can rock out like a nutter to it. You can laugh to it. You can love the fact that not everyone will get it, that some will hate it, and that those who love it really, really love it. I really, really, really love this album.

Films I Love: Vamp (1986)

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I’m so generous towards the 1980’s that I think I should start making actual cash donations to it. I don’t know exactly how I’d do that, but until that day, I’ll continue to overpraise silly B-movies like Vamp. I guess it is a guilty pleasure, because I can’t ignore that some of the humour is pretty broad and unsuccessful, and it’s all very, very silly, but there’s so much that I love about it that it’ll always have a place in my heart. You know, the place in my heart that loves garish pink and green lighting. Blimey, this film has a lot of that. I’m guessing director Richard Wenk may have seen Dario Argento’s Suspiria and/or Inferno, where the lighting was completely unrealistic but so damned cool-looking that anyone who was complaining about it was just simply in the wrong screening room at the wrong time. Yeah, it’s contrived and stylised, but it looks great. And for a film as low-budget as Vamp, those colours give a touch of sleazy class to the proceedings. Anyway, this is the one where three college students (the cool one, the baby-faced one, the dork) drive downtown to hire a stripper for their fraternity’s upcoming festivities. So far, so Porky’s, but all of a sudden their car spins out of control in the middle of the big city and literally emerges from it in a completely different part of town where all the establishments close up just as The After Dark Club is opening its doors. It turns out the guys’ selected stripper is a mute Grace Jones. It also turns out she’s a vampire. Personally I’d have run a mile after her frankly terrifying dance sequence, which crosses the line past titillation and into outright experimental performance art territory. The guys however, go for it. Cue a night’s worth of horrors, including bad toupees, killer lift doors, an albino Billy Drago (yes, yes, yes!), bug eating and a grisly shock heart-rip that out-nasties the one in Temple of Doom. Plot-wise it’s a by-the-numbers affair, despite the clever switch from frat-comedy to camp-horror – but the joy lies in the approach. The afore-mentioned colour-scheme really gives everything a pleasingly gaudy personality, the cast look like they’re having huge fun and Grace Jones makes the most of her limited screen time by delivering a purely physical performance, resulting in one of the most frightening screen vampires. True, her last few moments are dismally jokey, but her earlier seduction of Robert Rusler’s unwitting victim is pretty scary and surprisingly full-on. Not one of the better vampire films of the 80’s, and you’ll have difficulty convincing those who think it’s shit to consider otherwise, but this is definitely my kind of cheap and cheerful horror. By the way, when I first watched this as a child, I had absolutely no idea what Formica was and therefore did not get the final twist at all.

Echo and the Bunnymen: Heaven up Here (1981)

Probably the peakiest of the many peaks the Bunnymen scaled back in the Eighties…

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I pity the Bunnymen’s debut album Crocodiles. I mean, it’s a really good debut. It’s got the swagger, it’s got the atmosphere, the tunes, the everything. And yet it cowers in the looming shadow of the follow-up.

Heaven up Here is where Ian (voice), Will (guitar), Les (bass) and Pete (drums) hit that magical stride where they are more mere band and something closer to gods. Seriously, the rhythms on this album are disgustingly brilliant.  In fact, for most of the time, the rhythms are the songs. No wonder only one single was selected off this album, the astonishingly beautiful ‘A Promise’ as it’s the only one that would make sense on the radio.  A lot of the other songs are grooves – I don’t mean endless jams or anything like that, but I mean tight, chemistry-drenched, undeniably funky things that barely pause for breath before moving on. They occasionally spiral deliriously out of control like on the title track. Sometimes they delve deep, deep into the dark (‘The Disease’). One time, everything, and I mean everything, stops in its tracks for the behemoth that is ‘Over the Wall’, a totally euphoric colossus that will push you ‘to the logical limit’. But in the end it’s all about the grooves, you know – the sound of guitar, bass and drums riffing off each other to absolutely gleeful territory. Ian’s lyrics are pure chemically-assisted poetry. When I say chemicals, I mostly mean booze.  His voice is never self-indulgent but at the same time totally unshackled. The album is dark, but like Ian says, it’s the kind of darkness where you’re beckoned to ‘celebrate this misery’. Songs like ‘Show of Strength’ and ‘All I Want’ are kinetic, elastic masterpieces, hitting rhythmic strides most bands would kill and kill again for. ‘With a Hip’ is the funkiest fucking thing ever to come out of Liverpool, and ‘No Dark Things’ a Will Sergeant masterpiece of guitars that start off duelling like swordsmen but fly up into the ether for the exhilarating finale.

This album is heavy. And light. Dark yet strident. Serious stuff, but funny with it. Find a beach. Listen to this album.