Saturday, December 7, 2019


My Sony Walkman holds my CD collection of over twenty years, spanning hundreds of discs, and thousands of songs, with a few downloads squeezed in too... and yet, why do the same ten tracks swirl around in my mind? It’s time to look at what the algorithm is currently suggesting to me – not YouTube or Spotify’s algorithm, but the one in my head. Warning: contains Eighties and synthesisers.

1) HIP TO BE SQUARE – Huey Lewis and the News

Far from needing Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” to recommend it to you, the tight rock guitars, organ, brass and saxophone hides an often-missed ironic statement: Huey Lewis is not saying it’s hip to be square, he’s saying, “I can tell what’s going on” – the slick, professional, business-suited bands of the time were just another trend. Punchier than “The Power of Love,” “Hip to Be Square” has no quiet moments, and never lets up its pace – both its sound and message are timeless.

2) GOOD STUFF – The B52s

The Netflix special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” reminded me that the original series’ theme (from the second series onwards) was performed by the B52s, while the incidental music was by then-current band member Pat Irwin, just as “Rugrats” was scored by members of Devo. “Good Stuff” has the energy of “Love Shack,” but with raunchier lyrics: “So let the people say we’re downright nasty / I just say we’re down right.” I nearly downloaded it, then realised it was on my B52s compilation CD, originally bought just for “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” – greatest hits radio stations take note, play more songs per artist.


A significant brain fart in the Elton John & Bernie Taupin songbook, especially the line, “Girls, girls, girls, have pity on me,” Elton John considers this “pretty insubstantial” song to be the worst he ever recorded. The lead single from his 1986 album “Leather Jackets,” which has never been remastered, “Heartache All Over The World” is... better than I was led to believe. Despite lyrics that make it sound like an incel’s anthem – if the subject can’t get a girl, the whole world must be suffering – it is proof that Elton John on a bad day (he was “not a well budgie” at the time) is still more entertaining and interesting than most artists can hope to reach. As I listen to it, I like to work out how the synthesised Eighties production could be amped up to make the lyrics more ironic, especially the wah-wah-wah of the guitar in the middle-eight.

4) THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – Prefab Sprout

A one-hit wonder of a song, about a singer only remembered for, and only called upon to sing, a one-hit wonder – “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” Deliberately written by Paddy McAloon to be as catchy and commercial as possible, as much of a non-sequitur to Prefab Sprout’s discography as its chorus is to everyone else, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a calculated risk, sounding like few other pop songs, and it paid off. Having just found out it was produced by Thomas Dolby, the bullfrog-sounding bass now makes a lot more sense.

5) OH YEAH - Yello

Like “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” only briefer, riskier, and funnier. Bom bom. Chika-chika.


The success of “Whip It” meant people just hearing about Devo missed the social commentary inherent in a song about using violence to solve your problems, so their follow-up album, 1981’s “New Traditionalists,” used a gritter, more serious sound, with fewer guitars. “Through Being Cool” answered their new-found popularity by saying, “time to clean some house / be a man or a mouse,” and “eliminate the ninnies and the twits.” That said, they do it with a smile on their face, even if it might still hurt.

7) STEPPIN’ OUT – Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson is from Portsmouth, and I was born there, which is where our similarities end, but “Steppin’ Out” is based on Jackson’s time in New York City, a city of wonder, energy and creativity that Portsmouth can only attempt to match with its history. It’s like taking a sideways step into another dimension, making yourself anew, with the glide of a synthesised celeste – I’m sorry, but you just can’t do that in Albert Road.

8) LOVE TO HATE YOU – Erasure

A forceful cross between “I Will Survive” and a Pet Shop Boys song, “Love To Hate You,” with another soaring vocal by Andy Bell, was originally written for that “Dick Tracy” film Warren Beatty made, where it presumably would have been given a different treatment, except another Erasure song, “Looking Glass Sea,” was used instead.


I originally heard this song in a YouTube video that tested an automatic record player – pausing to read the label on the coloured vinyl, I stumbled into the chaotic satire of Paul D. Millar, trading as Slugbug – what starts as wanting to get off a planet full of crappy things, full of too many people who don’t want to do anything, it swerves into: “I never thought that I would ever meet a man like Bee Caves / I never thought that I would need a jar of bee skulls / ba ba da, ba da, ba da ba...” Other Slugbug tracks touch on relationships with technology, work, and the truth – a Slugbug love song may only come once those problems are resolved. Also featured on the “Stupid Rock” EP is “Feelings”: “I’m gonna tell you where I parked using my feelings / withholding all locations based in empirical evidence / My feelings, my feelings, my feelings are important...”

10) WE ARE THE WORLD – U.S.A. for Africa

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is known today as a charming, naff charity pop song, which Midge Ure admits sounds a bit like the theme from “Z-Cars.” Meanwhile, the song it inspired, written by Lionel Richie & Michael Jackson, is arrogantly bombastic from the moment you first hear its farty synthesised brass. The lyric “there’s a choice we’re making / we’re saving our own lives” sounds off when equating yourself with people for whom “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” as Band Aid puts it. However, the relentless, overwrought unfolding of “We Are the World” over seven very long minutes makes its own satirical joke – stars upon stars, solo upon solo, capped by whenever Bruce Springsteen sings like he is in pain. 

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