[…continued from previous post]
The program was largely pop/rock coming down on the pop side of the fence. To the point that the ballad “Friends” dared to have the band bust out acoustic guitars; a daring move in 1980 Post-Punk Britain. The resulting song had more than a touch of Shadow Morton to it and the arrangement grew in power until the electric guitars joined the folky harmonies of the band midway through. Of course any British New Wave acts needed the touch of reggae that was in the water supply at the time. “Loss of Contact” was built on a spare guitar skank for the verses while the chorus once again brought out the strings for a soaring effect. The juxtaposition of reggae with baroque pop was certainly daring.
Where there’s reggae, in ’79-’80, there was also ska. “She’s Artistic” had a swinging blue beat enhanced with some striking percussion by Olly Harrison. The middle eight featured a lilting guitar solo by Steve Eagles while Dave Sparrow’s bass bent the rhythm downward with some great counterpoint. Probably the one tune here that reflected the Ramones besotted origins of the band was the zippy “All I Want.” In fact, this sounds like a track that Ramones might have left off of “Rocket To Russia.”
“Aunt Maybelline said it was a shame,
Mummy and daddy said they weren’t to blame.
Why did it happen to our little flower,
They think there’s something wrong with my brain.” – “All I Want”
“Maxine” was another of several portraits of young women that this album proffered, this time examining the fallout of the punk explosion was the flashpoint of a thousand bands, including this one. The middle eight here had another brief dip into reggae before resolving with some tough riffs that recalled The Pretenders. It was followed by “Evelyn 2” another sharp spiky, pop number with a good bass solo in the middle eight from Dave Sparrow.
The album wrapped up with a stab at a Dusty Springfield classic that was making the rounds back in the day. Steve Eagles admitted that his head was enshrouded by girl group sounds during the period where he was writing many of these numbers. When recruiting Wendy Wu, the band thought that with a female vocalist, they might move in a Dusty Springfield direction – “but with a raw edge, of course” quipped Eagles in the liner notes, and the writing followed that premise, leaving this one cover version as their tip of the hat to the original 60s thrush. Once again, the strings got a day pass to do what they do best.
The UK version of the album came with a bonus record, “The Blackmail Tapes,” featuring eight live in the studio recordings of the then two month old band, so there are some old standards punked up here as well as their first stabs at a foundation for the band. I’m assuming that the originals here may have been left over Satan’s Rats numbers from the year before they found Wendy Wu. Certainly numbers like “Last Time,” [not the Rolling Stones song] “With Honours,” or especially “Sex Object” only served to point out how much development the nascent band had packed into the last 12 months. These were pretty undistinguished punk numbers past their sell-by date. I’m guessing that the inclusion of these with the miles ahead debut album might have been a sop to assuage the band, who upon listening to the finished mixes, felt that they had a few too many rough edges planed off in the final mix courtesy of producer Bechirian while they were busy touring.
The two covers that followed on “The Blackmail tapes” fared a lot better, to these ears. “Lady is A Tramp” might not have been the first time a Sinatra standard got the punk once-over, and while Sid Vicious owns the crown in such matters, the mixture of material and the band’s level of talent at that point was a marked improvement to the first three songs. “Do You Wanna Dance” went so far as to drink from the same well as Ramones and the band managed to come up with a different spin on the arrangement that worked well enough.
Speaking of Ramones, the one killer song here sounded for all the world like one that The Forest Hills Four would have been proud to have called their own. “Skateboard” was the one shining moment on “The Blackmail Tapes” to have justified the whole affair. Lots of people were inspired by Ramones to form a band and play. Many have tried to cop their vibe with mostly failed results. [hint: it isn’t as easy as it looked] The works of The Riverdales and this song, I have to admit, actually came close to the mark. As if to emphasize the triumph of “Skateboard,” the album ended with a terrible version [is there any other kind, really?] of The Beatles “I Saw her Standing There.”
This CD then ended with the band’s debut single as produced by Colin Thurston. While the production style was clearly differing from the warm gloss that Bechirian brought to the album proper, that never stopped US CBS from grafting the witty and charming single onto the US edition of the album, which I had bought back in 1980. “I’m So Attractive” probably came the closest to the ironic Blondie quality that the band were shooting for. Olly Harrison’s drums stay motorik with tight little fills to move it all along at a crisp pace. Wu’s deadpan pronouncements are the stuff that New Wave dreams are made of.
The B-side, “Guitar Hero” was the B-side of “Attractive” and while in no danger of eclipsing the A-side, it still indicated the vast gulf between the band that had recorded “The Blackmail Tapes” and their first single, all within the same year. The final track, “J’Taime,” was the B-side to “Now That You Tell Me That We’re Through” and the notion that such an ace song was consigned to B-side status showed just how much solid growth the band had made int heir first year or so. It’s relegation to B-side status indicated just what an embarrassment of riches the band brought to the table for their debut album.
“The Photos” was not a classic album, by any means, but no one could deny that it was a rock solid endeavor. The songwriting and playing was accomplished and clearly the peer of similar New Wave contemporaries like The Vapors. Roger Bechirian’s production wisely shunted off all of the guitar distortion present on “The Blackmail Tapes” to allow the songs some punchiness through without forgetting to ultimately seduce the ear with sweetness. He obviously picked up on the girl group sound that the guitarist Steve Eagles had been considering and had ran with the notion. The only real weakness here was Wendy Wu’s relatively untrained voice, but she had plenty of character to get the songs across, and she could realistically inhabit the songs. Bechirian wisely doubled her vocals from time to time [an old “girl singer” producer’s trick] and relied on the band for [rather good] backing vocal harmonies to support her throughout the album.
This was an album that I enjoyed in 1980, though it was competing with OMD and Ultravox records for my listening time. You know – synth rock. Thirty seven years later, its many strong attributes paint it as an album rich with the sort of merits that don’t come easy these days. While I can take or leave “The Blackmail Tapes” the album proper and its attendant singles show a band that should not have disintegrated so quickly in the marketplace. They probably wouldn’t have, had it not been for a plastic camera promo stunt picked up by the NME as evidence of chart-fixing. After that promo mishap got trumped up in the press, CBS had an arms length relationship with promoting the band, and tabled their sophomore album, as produced by Tony Visconti. Fortunately, Cherry Red eventually released “Crystal Tips And Mighty Mice” in the year following this DLX RM and… I need to get a copy into the Record Cell!
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