The Blow Monkeys
She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter | 1987
[…continued from last post]
Following their dalliance with a hit on both sides of The Atlantic and a period that saw their second album [unlike their first] released in the North American market to as much success as they had at home in the UK, The Blow Monkeys were striking while the iron was hot. But that didn’t mean that songwriter Dr. Robert was going to aim for the middle of the road completely on his songwriting. With Margaret Thatcher a tempting target for his lyrical barbs, the title alone of “She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter” left no doubts as to where his political loyalties lay.
A scan of the song titles revealed what appeared to be subtext for miles whether overt [“How Long Can A Bad Thing Last?”] to surprisingly subtle as with “Out With Her;” a song actually not about Thatcher at all, though the title prepared us for that. The political subtext of the music picked up from the foundations laid on “Limping For A Generation” but the oblique lyrical conceits of that album were banished for a more direct confrontation in what was shaping up to be a British election year. But the band’s biggest changes were not lyrical, but musical.
When 1987 blew into town the transformation of The Blow Monkeys from the “Punk Jazz” band into something completely different was complete. Where once the music was resolute in its lack of interest in contemporary technology, the seductive machines of the mid-80s now ran rampant. The tentative excursions into programmed rhythm that typified their breakthrough single “Digging Your Scene” [which was still their only hit, really] became the law of the land.
This was immediately apparent on the first single, “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way.” I first heard it on its 12″ single remix and the results showed that the New Jack Swing of Janet Jackson was definitely turning Dr. Robert’s head at the time. The remix liberally quoted from the vibe and rhythm track of Ms. Jackson’s smash “Nasty.” The more staid album and hit single track, leaned very heavily on the backing vocalists to flesh out Dr. Robert’s contemporary R+B aspirations. The hip-hop drum machine breakdown in the middle eight was the only aspect of the more extreme 12″ mix that made it down to the album version. Even though the results lacked the character of earlier singles, this didn’t stop the single from going Top five in Britain; the band’s best showing there.
The first side of the album was top loaded with the singles. “Some Kind Of Wonderful” was the rare single of 1987 that didn’t appear as an extended remix on 12″ format. As the first track had telegraphed, the backing vocals were going to be right in the spotlight for this album, with the strong male BVs almost dominant in the mix. It sounded like this track was one where the live Borneo Horns featured, as there was more of a live band feel here; more suggestive of “Animal Magic” than much of this program. That said, this would have been a weak cut on “Animal Magic.” The lyric was a piece of fluff given a little dignity by the performances here.
When “Out With Her” appeared as the second single, I really expected it to be an anti-Thatcher screed. I was shocked when upon dropping the needle on the 12″ as it was something completely different; a Quiet Storm R+B slow jam with Dr. Roberts giving Luther Vandross a breathy run for his money. The lyric was referencing how smitten the protagonist was when he was “out with her.” Meaning his paramour. The Good Doctor has since referred to this single as his “George Michael moment” with perhaps a tinge of regret. He shouldn’t be so hard on himself. This was the best song yet on the album, which admittedly, was not shaping up to be a contender with the first two, just yet. But the song was a successful stab at contemporary R+B from this former Glam/Jazz/Soul devotee who was obviously seeking to broaden his horizons.
The preponderance of Jazzy guitar syncopating with the programmed bass on “How Long Can A Bad Thing Last” pointed to a definite appearance of guest guitarist Ira Siegel. The fruity glissando at the song’s midpoint was certainly not at the hands of the Good Doctor, who was capable, but not that masterful. The lyric was the first one thus far that lived up to the Thatcher Smackdown® that the album title promised, but the high shoulderpad production served to undermine the tune’s effectiveness. Where before The Blow Monkeys had stood apart from their peers to strong effect, going all in on a contemporary R+B sound was serving to bland out the results here.
“A Man At the End Of His Tether” began with the most bald-faced swipe of Kool + The Gang’s “Celebrate” imaginable! Anyone who heard the intro would be excused for expecting “celllllll-e-brate good times c’mon” to come erupting from the speakers. After such a strong bolt from the starting gate, even second-hand, the milquetoast song could only be regarded as a missed opportunity. Much the same could be said of “Rise Above,” the tepid closer to “side one” of the album. It felt like The Blow Monkeys had squandered their considerable momentum thus far on album three with a selection of half-baked tracks that lacked the poise and bite of their previous work. Would they be able to pull their fat from the fire in the second half?
Next: …Shaking The Stupor
“It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” featured a really luscious delivery from Mr. Howard, and was a favourite of mine off the album, though I did also have a soft spot for “Man at the End of His Tether.” As for the anti-Thatcher parts, well that was being echoed by every UK artist of note right around then, so perhaps they didn’t make the impact on me they should have.