My Top 10 Live Bands – 10

The Mission

When viewed from the comfortable vantage point of middle age, I can now say with confidence that the past is indeed another country. Looking back, 1986 was a very different and many would say a better, more hopeful and freer world than the paranoid, obsessively introspective and neurotic landscape we tiptoe through today. There was no internet to spy on us, everyone’s overcoats were way cooler and we were still allowed to smoke indoors. Those simple freedoms we took for granted are viewed with a kind of incredulous horror by the risk assessed youth of today, and I often reflect on just how lucky I was to have come of age before the end of live music’s golden era. At that time there was still plenty big gig game to be hunted by a kid with a sense of adventure and a school leaver’s salary.

I recall a stifling perfume of Spiritual Sky patchouli, poppers, cider fumes and dry ice filling the air when first I saw Wayne and the guys take to the stage at Friars*, Aylesbury. 1986 was probably the year of peak gothic rock in the UK, and I found myself right in the middle of it one dark November night. Wayne looked like an off-duty glam rock star kidnapped from some alternate universe where Marc Bolan had lived on as he stood to deliver The Mission’s good word.

It was real, it was raw, it was most definitely live…and I was hooked. One of my most enduring memories of the night was of that trademark jingle jangle riding a thumping rock baseline with all the polished finesse of a professional surfer.

From that high point where I first found them, The Mission continued to grow until our next meeting in 1989. That year I was fortunate enough to witness their legendary headline performance at Reading Festival. The one with the windmills. Everyone always talks about the windmills.

Nearly three decades later and the band (or brand) is still going strong, although I for one won’t be going to see them anytime soon. Nothing stays the same, and like a beloved but fading friend, I want to remember them as a dying echo of all those lost venues and frozen stations from my Thunderbird-blurred and nicotine-stained yesterdays. Some things can never be re-created, and the centrally heated, LED illuminated, Uber app immediacy of our modern world has stripped the live gig of perhaps its most valuable and enduring aspects. The rituals, camaraderie, and yes dammit, downright recklessness of that smoke-smudged world are fondly remembered with good cause. I don’t envy the kids today.

Alas, there are no really good quality recordings of those near-forgotten glory gigs, but there is a last remnant from that Friars gig still haunting cyberspace, along with a glimpse of those famous windmills, or spider webs, or whatever the hell they really were. Nobody who was there at the time really cared. All they remember is just how awesome the whole damn thing was.

* In fact this was not actually a Friars gig, but big gigs in Aylesbury around that time are still referred to as “Friars” gigs, in the same way that vacuum cleaners are often called Hoovers regardless of their true manufacturer.

Somebody’s fibbing…but who?

“Like a Child.” “They say he’s a moron.” “An idiot.” “This man does not read, does not listen.” “He cannot do this job.”

Those are just a few soundbites from a recent Today interview with man of the moment Michael Wolff, discussing his sensational new book, Fire & Fury: Inside the Whitehouse.

Unsurprisingly, the dirt is flying and virtually the entire commentariat is wondering whether this book will actually bring down the presidency as Wolff has publicly claimed.

The media aristocracy have never forgiven Trump for making them look so foolish during the 2016 general election, and so they’re busier than ever repeating the mantra that the President may be mentally unstable, and therefore unfit to hold office. This is clearly just the latest attempt to dislodge a democratically elected head of state from office, now that the whole Russia collusion narrative has blown up in their faces.

Alas, for them anyway, this latest co-ordinated attempt to unseat Trump will end in much the same way.

Let’s assume for a moment that every last word of Wolff’s salacious new gossipfest is completely true. Then, how is it that a “moron” has managed to outsmart both the Republican and Democrat parties, while simultaneously blindsiding almost the entire mainstream media machine, entrenched business interests and the almost omnipotent US donor class?

Call this wild speculation if you like, but I’m willing to bet that morons and idiots who can’t do their jobs will never out-manoeuvre the entire establishment of the world’s richest and most powerful nation. If Trump’s an idiot, what does that make them? If you got thrashed at chess by Forrest Gump, would you really spend the next year whining about your opponent’s alleged stupidity? Well, maybe, if you were desperately trying to hide your own epoch-making incompetence.

Is Trump eccentric? Probably. Is Trump semi-literate? I sincerely doubt it. Is Wolff’s new book some smoking-gun evidence of Trump’s mental instability? Well, it’s a pile of steaming something all right, but anyone waiting for this orgy of anonymous source sensationalism to trigger the 25th Amendment will be sadly disappointed, no matter how many tame “experts” are wheeled out to pontificate on primetime TV.

Think what you will of Trump, it’s not my job to convince you he’s a great guy, but one thing I can say with confidence is that someone’s about to be exposed as unbelievably short-sighted and slow-witted…I’m just not sure it’s going to be the guy sitting in the Oval Office.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

A Jolly ‘Oliday with Auntie

As the sparkling madness of the festive season fades to January grey, many of us are already beginning to think of summer escapes to warmer climes as we gaze across the British new year’s bleak concrete vista.

Just like buying a car or perhaps even renting one, the ritual sun-pilgrimage bristles with fiendish legal and financial traps, forever eager to ensnare the unwary. Luckily the BBC is poised to help all of us paella-munching mortals with a brand-new series of Rip-Off Britain: Holidays. Naturally, this valuable public service necessitates not just one, but three highly paid presenters jetting off to Tenerife so they might capture the welcoming warmth of this desirable destination as a backdrop for each short segment introduction.

I’ve no doubt that the idea of a more modest, studio based consumer show was discussed in depth, but eventually abandoned. After all, creative integrity is the lifeblood of these selfless angels of the small screen, who work tirelessly to ensure we don’t squander our hard-earned during our flight from the factory and the call-centre for two warm and blessed weeks of the year.

It’s a shame that the Rip Off budget didn’t extend to flying, oh I don’t know, an actual, real life consumer expert out to the sun-drenched Canaries; but in the final equation, those short introductory monologues are so much more important than any expert’s sound, dependable, and hard-earned knowledge.

It’s good to know that the BBC has its priorities straight. By ring-fencing the frivolous jollies of overpaid presenters in these increasingly turbulent and uncertain times, the beeb reminds us of what’s really important…to the BBC.

Thanks, Auntie. Just how would we manage without your wise guidance?

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Brexit Blue is now a Thing

Symbols matter.

We all know they do, despite the fact we often pretend they don’t. This enduring truth was never more sharply defined than during the recent spat over the UK’s intention to revert to blue passports after leaving the European Union.

Hailed as a step forward by some and derided as a regressive irrelevance by others, it’s been instructive to observe not only the varying reactions to this announcement, but also the surprising depth of passion and feeling it’s evoked on both sides of the Brexit divide. It’s interesting to note that the change of colour will in no way affect the passport’s function (except perhaps within the EU itself), but that’s done nothing to cool tempers on either side of this increasingly bad-tempered debate.

That’s the trouble with symbols. They wrap so many deep-rooted ideas together that they become stronger and more enduring than the multitudes whose lives they touch. Just think of an iconic brand like Coca-Cola, which has become much more than just a fizzy drink and is now an essential part of America’s cultural DNA. It’s become a proxy symbol for the very idea of America and American culture worldwide.

Like countless conquerors before them, the EU Commissioners understand this only too well. They know that to destroy an idea, identity or culture, you must first destroy its most readily recognised symbols. Why else would they have invested so much time, money and treasure to chip away at passport design? The passport is the most universal, yet also personalised symbol of both national and individual identity. If (as has so often been claimed) trade and security cooperation were really the benign end goals of the European Project, there would simply be no need to waste time and treasure harmonising national identity documents. Yet still they went at it with a passion and drive bordering on the obsessive, and they’ve never let up. It’s surely no coincidence that the words European Union appear first, and above all other national symbols, signs, crests and stamps. This is no accident, and those two words are there for the sole purpose of signifying the EU’s supreme legal authority over member states. There is no other logical explanation for those words’ primary and prominent positioning on every citizen’s most valued identity document.

It’s worth noting that the burgundy passport was mooted by some as a stepping stone to the eventual removal of national symbols from all EU passports. Such a move proved to be universally unpopular, but still the EU Commissioners thought it important enough to risk the ire of both citizenry and national governments alike by sending up a test balloon.

Whether you believe that nation states are a barrier to human progress or the essential driving force behind it, there is no longer any credible argument that the EU has not been a decades-long attempt to create a pan-European identity at political, legal, cultural and individual levels.

This is the problem that unreformed remainers and referendum deniers will face long into the future. They betray their true intentions, attitudes and beliefs with every casual insult and untruth they knowingly fling at those whom they clearly believe to be their inferiors. After all, if passport design is just a distraction from the real issues of jobs, prosperity and trade…why are they so upset by the change? I know the answer, so do you…and so do they.

As for me, I’m just happy the words “European Union” will vanish from my passport in due course. That’s because I’m not far from fifty years of age, and 2016 was the first and only time I’ve ever been offered a real choice on these important issues of sovereignty and identity. There’s something to be said for returning to the “original” blue design, as that was the colour of UK passports before this nation was ordered to change it…just let that thought sink in for a minute. In time, the design will doubtless change again, but have a care, because a passport is a symbol, not just a little piece of paper.

We’ve all known it all along, and that’s why people care.

Image courtesy of Photostock at

Carry On…and on…and on…

It’s that time of year again, when the nights grow dark, the lights grow bright and our favourite old movies are dragged out of the attic for their ritual parade across the Christmas schedules. We might never actually watch Die Hard,
Mary Poppins or the Guns of Navarone, but we gain a sense of comfort and continuity from knowing that they’re still around…somewhere. These tried and tested staples are a lot like that quaint old village church we never visit, yet fight tooth and nail to protect from all manner of modern encroachments.

If current reports are even remotely accurate, then 2017 will be remembered as the year that big media and big politics were finally exposed as hotbeds of the very misogyny and predation they’ve often railed against with a screeching self-righteousness that was bound to raise suspicions sooner or later. I’d often thought they protested too much.

In light of this ruthless, career ending hunt for sexual misconduct both real and alleged, it’s kind of strange to see our socially awkward friends from the Carry On team gracing our screens day after day during the holiday season. How can we explain this contradiction? How is it that a bunch of bawdy farces from the sixties and seventies are still airing as family viewing long after most of their contemporaries have been demoted to obscure footnotes in feminist literature?

The answer is that although we may not watch them, we collectively give the Carry Ons a cultural pardon with a kind of affectionate indulgence not granted to other comedians, movies and franchises hailing from that admittedly controversial era. Somehow the good ship Carry On just carries on, despite the ill winds of revisionism doing their best to blow it off course. The reason for the Carry Ons’ seemingly inexplicable appeal has actually been staring us in the face these many years, with all the subtlety of Barbara Windsor’s bosom.

The truth is that while men may sit on the throne, a woman’s word is law in the kingdom of Carry On.

Sexually, institutionally, socially and even financially, the ladies are nearly always on top. From teenage temptresses, through senior nurses, saucily strict governesses and ending with screeching, hen-pecking harridans; the female of the species is most definitely smarter, more deadly and more astute than her underachieving Carry On competitors.

By contrast, the Carry On men are not quite the collection of unapologetic, misogynist barflys they’ve often been made out to be. They’re much more a bunch of hapless, balding, wannabe lotharios or comically uptight, neurotic misfits. They’re constantly outwitted by the younger women they’ve still not learned to leave well alone, while stumbling from one misadventure to the next. They’re forever looking over their shoulders, always fearful of Matron’s institutional power, or even worse, the wife’s marital and emotional muscle.

This is why the Carry On films have admittedly aged but yet still lasted, while a franchise like On the Buses has faded into almost total oblivion. Whilst it’s tempting to lump them both together, there’s a very good reason why one elicits a wry, grudging affection and the other commands only a kind of cringing and embarrassed contempt.

The Carry On men were most often the helpless victims of a world they only imagined they controlled, while the protagonists of On the Buses were a pair of workshy schemers who constantly badmouthed their wives while chasing ever more deluded dreams of extra marital affairs. While one franchise gave us a cast of outrageously camped-up caricatures, the other left us with only a pair of conniving, lying manipulators for company. Who would you want to hang out with?

History has now delivered its verdict.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Carry On world lives within us all; finding validation with every fumbled chat up line and every free drink accepted from a stranger. We indulge, if not outright embrace these ageing sexual comedies because we know deep down that they reflect some enduring, unchanging and fundamental truths about our own social and sexual worlds. We recognise these often tongue tied, always awkward men within ourselves and also in others, because we know that a caricature begins its life in reality.

Long may they carry on…and on…and on.


Is Populism Really a Problem?

We’re supposed to think it is.

Just look at the havoc populism has wrought on our once stable, orderly and deeply contented Western societies. The seismic shock of Brexit, the Trumpocalypse, the rise of Front National and Germany’s current coalition woes are just a few examples of populism’s pernicious and harmful effects.

At every turn we see populism on the rise, more often than not defined as an entirely negative cultural and political force. We can be certain in our analysis because our moral, intellectual and social betters inside the commentariat bubble have declared it to be so. You know the people I’m talking about; those highly educated, highly paid and infallible analysts who told us Britain would sink into the ocean the day after a Brexit vote. The ones who were certain Donald Trump had a less than 2% chance of becoming president. The ones who wrote off Jeremy Corbyn as a joke.

Whilst it’s abundantly clear that the populist appeal of Corbyn’s Labour Party is very different from that of Germany’s AFD, the measureable rise of both groups is clear, present and tangible evidence that the populists are firmly in the ascendancy and the establishment doesn’t really know what to do. This lack of political, cultural and economic imagination shouldn’t really be a huge surprise when we consider how the Oxford English Dictionary defines populism as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

In other words, ordinary voters from across the political spectrum are united by an underlying belief that their societies have been usurped by a self-serving, narrow clique of political, media and business interests who actually despise the very people upon whom they rely for either money or votes…and often both at the same time. Whether the prescribed cure is civic nationalism or Soviet style socialism, the diagnosis of a self-serving and sneering elite is pretty much uniform across the Western world at this point.

Millions of elite media words have been expended in the examination of populism’s rise, offering both explanation and solution to this dangerous and unpredictable social force. Naturally most of them are completely wrong because they’re looking out from within the very same media bubble which has fuelled populism’s rebirth and inexorable rise. From their vantage point, they cannot see the simplest and neatest explanation for this mystifying and troubling trend.

The populists are right.

For more than three decades now, the ruling political, financial and media class has controlled Western societies very successfully through their complete domination of the Overton window. For those who don’t know, the Overton window is the range of views that any society considers to be within acceptable political discourse. Any idea outside the Overton window is considered extreme or fringe, and therefore not worthy of serious discussion.

Here in the UK, the most obvious example of Overton control has been a pathological reluctance to seriously question the benefits of continued EU membership. For decades, that subject was summarily declared off-limits by all mainstream political parties, and ruthlessly suppressed by their media enablers.

The result? Growing frustration, anger, and eventually Brexit.

Naturally this political, social, and cultural strategy of Overton control is dependent upon the policies inside the acceptable space being largely successful. However the Iraq war, terrorism, the banking crisis, growing inequality and borderless nations have exposed a con trick by a cynical cartel rather than ushering in the comfortable, centrist utopia we were implicitly promised. As the number and magnitude of problems has grown, the establishment’s response has been to shrink the Overton window still further, allowing fewer and fewer possible remedies to be discussed within polite society. This has naturally and inevitably led to an unsustainable tension between an increasingly embattled elite and an increasingly alienated population.

Something had to snap, and those once unthinkable ideas like enforcing immigration law and famous people paying the same tax as everyone else have poured into the public consciousness and gained significant mass appeal. After all, that’s all we ever really wanted in the first place. If only they’d asked us.

So, is populism really a problem? No…it’s the only civilised solution.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Goodbye Hollywood

That’s it. I just can’t take any more!

I’m done with Hollywood.

As an avid movie fan, I thought that statement would be a painful one to write, but to be honest I’m glad to have finally gotten it out of my system. I feel free, cleansed, liberated. Already I can feel my mind repairing itself, my critical faculties renewed and reinvigorated.

The break has been coming for a long time, and it’s not the latest round of revelations, accusations and denials swirling around Los Angeles that have hardened my resolve. Instead it’s the increasingly shrill, haughty, condescending and downright hypocritical finger wagging from an embattled and self-regarding gated community. Who the hell told a bunch of pampered actors that they have a duty to harangue the unwashed masses about exactly what they should think on any given social, moral or political issue?

The uncomfortable truth is that Tinseltown has been sick for some years now, becoming psychologically isolated, increasingly embittered and disdainful of the very audience on whom it ultimately relies. We’ve all noticed it, even though we politely pretend that we haven’t. The dizzying blur of remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels and spin-offs has had us all a little worried for a quite a while now. Like an increasingly forgetful relative, we pretend that the mounting evidence of creative constipation is nothing serious, hoping it’s a phase…although deep down we know it isn’t.

Hollywood is done, diminishing fast as a cultural force. Nobody wants to hear yet another multi-millionaire railing at this or that supposed injustice while the guy driving his limo sweats on minimum wage. The Oscars audience steadily shrinks as more and more moviegoers have come to see the A-list glitterati as they really are; a decaying, out of touch and increasingly parasitical class who have no right to lecture anybody about anything.

For me though, the final straw came when I discovered I couldn’t simply rent Rogue One from Amazon. I had a choice of either buying it outright or taking a hike. Talk about service with a sneer.

That was the moment I realised I am no longer viewed as a consumer with choice and agency, I am merely a cash cow to be herded and farmed by both the big studios and tech giants at will. In short, Hollywood thinks nothing of me, yet still believes it has some kind of divine right to pocket my hard earned cash while I give thanks for whatever overly loud, formulaic schlock they condescend to dollop in front of me.

Screw you, Hollywood. You’ve treated me like crap for the last time.

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The Music of my Life 1990-1994

If the late 1980s can be identified as a period of cultural and musical fracturing, then the early 1990s is surely defined by a marked and probably permanent acceleration of that divergence. With the mainstream on corporate life support and the homogenized march of nu metal through the alternative scene, the nineties are seldom remembered as a cultural or musical high point by anyone who wasn’t actually young during that period.

Nonetheless, there were some glimmers of hope in the dark, and here are my favourite albums from the first half of that difficult decade.

1990 – Elizium by Fields of the Nephilim

At the risk of committing gothic rock heresy, I’ve often thought that Fields of the Nephilim were seriously overrated. However, they proved more than capable with this absolute beauty, and what I believe is by far their strongest release. For a start they seriously dialled back on Carl McCoy’s voice effects, resulting in very pleasant surprise for many listeners. McCoy’s much improved vocals are seamlessly blended with a much more creative use of guitar, bass and keyboards to produce a languid and often haunting audio experience.

Musically speaking, Elizium takes its time, perhaps reflecting a personal and musical maturity that was wanting in the promising but not-quite-there Nephilim album. Elizium is best played loud, especially during the slower, more sweeping sections of this often ignored and unjustly forgotten album.

1991 – Hey Stoopid by Alice Cooper

Confirmed alcoholic Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) finally stopped drinking in 1983, and that personal journey partly explains Cooper’s creative rebirth and undoubtedly contributed to the two best written, arranged and engineered albums he’s ever released. Once you’ve gotten past the admittedly questionable cover, Hey Stoopid is an unapologetic orgy of rock production gorgeousness. With a really, really big sound and plenty of Cooper’s old theatrical flair, this album is like a connoisseur’s wine cellar, where all the mediocre stuff has been served to guests and the quality stock is kept safely hidden away. Tracks like Might as well be on Mars and Love’s a Loaded Gun remain true to the time honoured Cooperesque ethos, while dishing out newer and hitherto untasted dollops of bitter anger and lasting regret.

In the final analysis, Hey Stoopid just sounds so freakin’ good that it can get away with just about anything.

1992 – 1992: The Love Album by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

Carter USM were the back row dwelling, bogey flicking, teacher taunting bad boys of an increasingly whiney, sanctimoniously self-referential and horribly bourgeois indie scene that was bubbling up during that decade. With a great big ballsy sound and playfully insightful lyrics, The Love Album is a long overdue swipe at the establishment from the parts of Britain that were scorned and left behind during the previous decade.

Even the album’s cover is eerily prescient of the cultural and economic divide which has now been laid bare within British society, despite an increasingly discredited media class’s efforts to pretend it had never existed before 2016.

With several Sinatra gags and parodies thrown in for fun, the chart topping Love Album is possibly the biggest poke in the establishment’s eye since Never Mind the Bollocks went and gobbed on the mayor’s car back in ’77.

In fact, the unstoppable Carter stopped after only a decade, and many of us still lament the departure of those very gifted and unashamedly rowdy street poets.

1993 – Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode

Following on from the massive success of Violator, Songs of Faith & Devotion was produced by a band who were at the peak of their powers and charting an exciting new creative direction. Gone are the last vestiges of the eighties pop band, shoved aside by something with a much harder edge and a far more subversive sound.

Accompanied by a massive tour, Songs of Faith and Devotion is arguably the first album by the “new” Depeche Mode of the nineties and beyond. Not afraid to experiment and seemingly less interested in the fickle tastes of pop fans, it’s almost as though these guys had decided to keep the fans they themselves had grown up and matured with.

This is not an album that fits easily into any category, and although the newer influences of the growing grunge movement can clearly be heard, SOFAD stubbornly refuses to be tied down creatively. Some have decried this as a creative identity crisis, while I believe Depeche Mode were blazing a trail for others to follow with this album.

1994 – Brave by Marillion

Brave is Marillion’s third studio album fronted by the hugely talented Steve Hogarth, marking yet another course adjustment on their seemingly endless musical voyage. Much smaller of stature than Fish, Hogarth nonetheless more than manages to fill the big man’s shoes as Marillion return to the prog rock roots that were, and remain the cornerstone of their continued success.

Based on a report of a young amnesiac girl, Brave charts her fictional, troubled and invisible life within an insular society that found her easier to ignore than to protect. Another prescient piece of work given the seemingly endless procession of disturbing cases of conscious institutional neglect we’ve uncovered in recent years.

Showcasing all of their musical flexibility and creativity, Brave also marks Marillion’s departure from an increasingly insular mainstream music scene as they set out to build a much more independent operation. Their years of hard work and forward thinking have been amply rewarded with a corporate-proof fan base and enviable creative freedom.

The nineties can be thought of as the first skirmishes of the often cited “culture war” which is raging across most of the West. During the decade of Brit Pop and the Spice Girls, it was difficult to shake the feeling that doubters and thinkers were being deliberately driven out of mainstream culture, to be replaced by safely sanitised short skirt rebellions. The unpalatable truth is that Girl Power was merely the creation of middle aged men in tall buildings, who were smart enough to make a ton of money by selling an insurrection deliberately designed to go nowhere.

However, the culturally cleansed did not simply disappear. They retreated to the internet and patiently waited for their time to strike.

The Music of my Life 1985-1989

If the music scene of the mid to late eighties could be summed up in a single word it would be “fragmentation.” With new genres and sub-cultures spurning mainstream success in search of something authentic, the stranglehold of the big labels began to loosen on parts of the public consciousness. As the charts stagnated into sugary electro mush, the musically minded struck out on their own in ever increasing numbers. What they found was some of the best and perhaps some of the most unjustly sidelined music ever produced. Here are my favourites from this period.

1985 – Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

Kate Bush’s fifth studio album is arguably her most polished and accomplished offering, balancing a step change in production quality with retaining much of the innate quirkiness which has made her such a cult figure over the years.

She was 27 years old when this album was released and she’s never sounded better, having lost a lot of the adolescent squeak which had been a detriment to some of her earlier work. Here she is at the peak of her vocal powers, which are at last unleashed upon a hitherto unsuspecting world through tracks like And Dream of Sheep, and the hugely underrated Hello Earth. Hounds of Love finally reveals the darkness hiding behind Bush’s idiosyncratic exterior, and this oblique and melancholy style accounts in large part for Hounds of Love’s enduring appeal.

Not exactly an album for family celebrations, this is an album that captures a timeless and out of focus longing that sleeps somewhere inside us all.

1986 – Medusa by Clan of Xymox

If this isn’t the greatest gothic album ever released, it’s surely got to be in the top three! A bona fide alternative classic, hailing from a bygone era before subculture identities were available off the peg. Like good alternative clothing stores of the time, the joy of going underground was the discovery of a forbidden world, effortlessly surpassing the mainstream in its cold, creative beauty.

Like any true alternative album, Medusa makes no compromises and does not seek peer approval. That creative integrity has been vindicated by the birth of an age-defying and beautifully balanced album. Indeed, classic tracks like Back Door and Louise can still sometimes be heard in the more discerning underground clubs as new generations continue to defy the spoon-feeding corporate music machine.

Pass me a Gauloises immediately!

1987 – Within the Realm of a Dying Sun by Dead Can Dance

Light the candles, singe an incense stick and pop the cork on that good bottle of red because Dead Can Dance are here! No other band could possibly support such galactic levels of pretentiousness without imploding under the weight of their own gravitas, but then no other band revolves around the ludicrously talented fulcrum of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Perry’s wonderful, chocolaty smooth voice conjures the shadow of Sinatra, while Lisa Gerrard is easily the most famous vocalist you’ve never heard of. Her numerous movie credits are a testament to her most unusual talent.

Almost defying musical description, Dead can Dance are beloved by world music aficionados and goth shufflers alike for their sweeping, epic and ludicrously large symphonic sound. No other band could arrange tracks entitled Dawn of the Iconoclast and Summoning of the Muse on an album and expect to be taken seriously, but that’s just another day at the office for Dead can Dance.

Anyone for chess?

1988 – Operation Mindcrime by Queensryche

When Queensryche released their epic third studio album in May 1988, it soon became apparent that they’d created a serious problem for themselves. Having set the bar so ridiculously high with such a stupendous musical assault on the senses, Operation Mindcrime seems destined to hound them like a ghost for the rest of their careers. Indeed, although they’ve achieved commercial success since then, nothing has come close to the conceptual brilliance, stunning execution and sheer overpowering energy of this legendary album.

It was one hell of a gamble to release a concept album in the late eighties, but Queensryche pulled off a masterstroke with this dark tale of an idealistic yet troubled young man, exploited by political forces he naively thinks he understands. Only when he’s used up and discarded does he learn the bitter truth that he was always an expendable foot soldier and never the respected field commander. A cautionary tale which has attained a new and urgent relevance in recent years.

The stunning rock arrangements and relentless energy of Mindcrime are lifted higher still by Geoff Tate’s crystal pure, glass shattering vocals. Tate surely has a shot at the title of greatest rock singer ever, and his relative obscurity shouldn’t disqualify him for consideration.

Set headphones to stun, and learn something useful they’ll never teach you at school.

1989 – Sonic Temple by The Cult

What better way to round off a dazzling musical decade than with a rip roaring, scotch slugging, straight shooting hard rock extravaganza from one of the art’s legendary lineups. Sonic Temple isn’t grand, or highbrow, and it’s certainly not a concept album. It doesn’t need any of those whistles and bells as it blasts right into the listener’s life. It is what it is, an unapologetic orgy of sheer, unadulterated rock n roll brilliance!

Billy Duffy leads this guitar charged assault on the senses, ably abetted by Ian Astbury on vocals, one of the few men cool enough to wear flares in the eighties and get away with it. By the time they’re done, it’s obvious the guys have assembled The Cult’s tightest and most energetic album, and that’s saying something. Reeking of bourbon and Marlboro smoke, Sonic Temple bursts into the atmosphere with joyous, wanton abandon, defying even the squarest of critics not to tap their feet as a seemingly endless list of hard rock anthems escapes into the atmosphere.

More than anything, this is an album that was born when everything was just going right. You can hear the guys were having a blast laying down these tracks, and that enthusiasm was captured and bottled for us all to share.

As the eighties faded and the nineties dawned, many music fans felt an ill-defined uneasiness. Corporate pop was all but dead and the Nu Metal assault was just getting under way. What would this new and as yet unknown decade have in store for the music scene?

That’s for the next post in this series.

The Music of my Life 1980-1984

The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who’d finally broken into the City’s sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today’s paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.

1980 – Vienna by Ultravox

It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That’s a rather short sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album’s title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.

1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox

That’s right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn’t give a damn whether the “inkies” deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener’s consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band’s creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in this story.

1982 – A Broken Frame by Depeche Mode

If Ultravox were dark synth with a poppy undertone, then Depeche Mode were their mirror image of poppy synth with a dark undertone. The early eighties marked a distinct societal as well as musical shift, where the groans of that wounded industrial world were processed, digitised and remade in the imagined likeness of the coming computer age. Many bands attempted to balance these opposing cultural currents, more often than not falling off the beam and into day-glo derision or respected obscurity. Somehow Depeche Mode managed to harness these two opposing forces to create something that is both easily accessible yet just a little off key. The video for the popular single See You is a brilliant example of that gravity-defying juggling act. Anyone old enough to remember those dark, frosty and atmospheric BR stations will immediately smell dust, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke in those wonderful opening frames. An album made by young men who were themselves shaped by the greater forces at work during those important years.

1983 – The Golden Section by John Foxx

The third of John Foxx’s post Ultravox projects is less well known than Metamatic or The Garden, and that’s a great shame. The master of the discordant dream and the fleeting shadow finds his strongest abstractionist voice in this glowing, warm and yet distantly chilling production. Perhaps finally trapping the phantom he’d been chasing for over a decade, The Golden Section is a triumph of musical arrangement that takes the listener on a journey to a quiet, melancholy place. This collection of beautifully crafted musical tracks brilliantly succeeds in triggering introspection and a longing for something once known but now forgotten, distilling ideas of shuttered shops and overgrown ruins into a vague longing for past freedoms. The greatest trick this album plays is that it achieves its ends by deception and subterfuge, forswearing any pretentious teen dirge in favour of a far more mature and nuanced musical expression. This album demonstrates an advanced and intuitive understanding of both music and the human condition, where discord somehow gives birth to beauty. An unrivalled triumph of the era.

1984 – Fugazi by Marillion

The second album by the last of the prog rock children is a veritable feast of musicianship and poetic prowess. Fish’s peerless lyrical agility finds a new confidence in this virtuoso display of song-writing and studio production. Steve Rothery shines as the most underrated guitarist of his generation, ably matched by Mark Kelly’s dazzling keyboard skills. Indeed, Steve’s soaring, weeping solo on Jigsaw is my personal favourite.
With major chart success still elusive, Fugazi makes little attempt to chase the then lucrative singles market, as the butchery of Assassing into a short seven inches makes all too plain. Who would buy a single like that?
It’s also worth noting that this is an album that arrived at exactly the right time for music fans like me, providing a vital escape route for those of us who’d spotted the scouts for the Stock, Aitken & Waterman invasion. It’s both an end and a new beginning as the musical mainstream begins its steady and seemingly irreversible decline.

Yes, the eighties are remembered with great fondness, but they also mark an irreparable fracturing of the music scene. By mid-decade the music charts had become increasingly homogenised and predictable, so there was only one thing for it. To misquote a very famous British singer, it’s time to go underground.