ABC & Tears For Fears: Compilations

Tears For Fears: between two stools. ABC: cool disco sheen. That was then. Early Eighties pop revisited

Hello! — An Introduction To ABC

The Working Hour — An Introduction To Tears For Fears

Various Artists: Music Of The Year 1980/1981/1982/1983/1984

APART FROM too many shots of deely-boppers, and of micro-celebs wittering on about snogging, there wasn’t too much wrong with the recent barrage of pop-nostalgia telly programmes. I can’t be alone in realising, with a mixture of delight and guilt, that a blast of, say. Visage or Hot Chocolate, doesn’t bring back memories of The Falklands War or Chas’n’Di’s wedding. It brings back memories of Visage or Hot Chocolate. And the Hear’say generation think they’re shallow?

Such a retro-fest not only reminds you where you lived and with whom, it proves that the potency of cheap music is such that, 20 years from now, a Westlife record will mean much to many. No, it will. They’ll be “ironic” about it, of course, but that old Proustian rush, groove will send them all silly. No matter how j-j-jaded we might become, the popular songs of our formative years will always be irresistible to some tacky, tabloid part of our psyche. Spectrum’s frolicsome set of eclectic Eighties compilations contains countless tracks which I love, but cannot defend on any aesthetic criteria whatsoever. The Passions (where are they now?) really move me, Godley & Creme do Smokey Robinson as well as he does, Yarbrough & Peoples and Teena Marie make me dance, but we’re fucked if you’re expecting Susan Sontag hereabouts.

Thankfully, some chart music of this era (pre-Prince, pre-Madonna, pre-Live Aid, pre-go-straight-in-at-Number-One-or-you’re-dropped) does stand up to examination, which is where ABC come in. The An Introduction To series is based on a bold, flawed premise. The notion isn’t to provide a greatest hits service, but to tickle the fancy of anyone whose appetite was whet by those better-known numbers. The selections are highly subjective. Intimate and well-meant as these are, no two obsessive fans of a band will agree on what that band’s best, most underrated “obscure” track is. That’s why they’re obsessive: it’s about being perverser-than-thou.

Still, as ABC’s “flop” albums, in the wake of the epochal Lexicon Of Love, were heinously maligned, this set does a decent job of redirecting opinion. It gives a few choice hints of that glorious debut (‘Valentine’s Day’, the ‘Overture’ B-side of ‘All Of My Heart’ that offers a precis of ABC’s debut album) before elegantly excavating the Beauty Stab opus. With their cool New Wave disco sheen, Martin Fry and his allies could’ve done anything and stayed atop the charts. Anything except turn into a freaky, fractious rock band. The brilliant ‘Love’s A Dangerous Language’ and addictive ‘Unzip’ transcend that startling choice of genre, however, with Fry’s lyrical wit keen and bracing. Subsequent albums How To Be A Millionaire and Alphabet City, hungrily raided here, relit the big beat. Their pop moment was gone, but much guile survives.

If Tears For Fears fell between two stools as teen pin-ups wanting to be serious art-musos, they still pulled off phenomenal commercial success with records that remain unembarrassing. This set peaks with the lush ‘Pale Shelter’. The Hurting and Songs From The Big Chair hold up as fine albums, curiously pained and poignant given their “pop” status. Their late-decade comeback as Beatles-esque visionaries with Seeds Of Love also flaunted invention aplenty, though Roland Orzabal’s solo efforts end this on a low. But then, a time capsule such as this fistful of albums bears an added eeriness: we know now what became later of the bright young things who made, by accident or design, these demi-classics. The Spectrum comps have you marvelling at Paul Weller’s energy one minute, remembering his latter-day plodding the next. Admiring svelte singles by Robert Palmer, Joe Jackson, Spandau Ballet or The Specials, then accepting that they clotted. Mind you, Cameo, they rocked. Soft Cell, timeless. Dexys, always filled with flame. Swansway, how cool were they? Rainbow, um, they sang, “Don’t know ’bout your brain, but you look awlright.”

Like I said, sometimes indefensible, often a joy. When the world was full of strange arrangements.

© Chris RobertsUncut, June 2001

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