THE NEW BRITISH DANCE ROMANTICS: ABC, THOMPSON TWINS, YAZ, CULTURE CLUB
BLAME IT on the Beatles, Bowie and the bossa nova. The latest British invasion to storm American dance floors features a typically eccentric cast of characters: an androgynous cross between a white Rasta and a Hasidic Talmud student named Boy George (Culture Club), a blues-belting earth mother fronting a two-person synth outfit (Yaz), a straw-haired young crooner in gold lamé who takes ‘Young Americans’ to heart (ABC) and a multinational dance band that boasts a front line linking England’s industrial Northland to the South Pacific and the heart of Africa (the Thompson Twins).
“We keep getting lumped in with all these other up-and-coming British groups, and I keep saying the only thing we have in common is we’re English,” complains the Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey, whose ‘In The Name Of Love’ is one of the songs storming stateside disco charts. Nonetheless, these Anglo bands share many similarities. ABC, Culture Club, Yaz and the Thompson Twins have all arrived on our shores via the new wave/dance club route, which includes striking images, 12-inch disco remixes and the obligatory videos. They are products of the marriage between punk and high tech, melding the extreme sensibility of the Sex Pistols to the disco-flash of Giorgio Moroder. Love and romance are inflated to the point where the beautiful meets the grotesque, with all the passion saved for technique rather than vulgar lust.
Musically, the bands make no attempts to hide their debts to American R&B, Caribbean rhythms and Third World thrust. Yaz and the Thompson Twins favor the minimal modernism of the synth and rhythm machine, while ABC and Culture Club use more conventional instrumentation to create lush, confident melodies on top of skilled human drummers. Despite these variations, though, all four bands avoid the pitfalls of aimless ethnic riffing by writing tuneful, well-constructed songs, many of which are presently infesting more creative American radio formats. And they all sing about finding true romance, but with a cheeky knowingness that borders on cynicism.
1. ABC SUBVERTS THE PREMISE
“I’m not a cynical person, but I’m often painted that way,” says ABC’s Martin Fry, a tall, thin, awkward twenty-four-year-old from Sheffield, an industrial town north of London. ABC hit big with ‘The Look Of Love’ and ‘Poison Arrow’, both glitzy, lush, over-the-top odes to the thrill of romance, complete with swelling strings, soaring vocal flights and a wide-screen gloss. The band is currently on tour in the States with a sixteen-piece orchestra, including a six-person string section, red velvet curtains and a pair of costume changes. Even the roadies are in tuxedos.
Of all these groups, ABC is the most ambitious. Their over-dubbed layers of sound create a larger than life pop tableau that puts Fry’s lovelorn barker into Brechtian comic relief. The dense string arrangements saw away over the top while the rhythm section punches in with a variety of infectious signatures; disparate influences, from Motown and Tin Pan Alley to punk and Africa, clash, crash and reconcile. ABC’s plan is audacious even if its cunning tends to short circuit any potential emotion.
“It’s a mixture of spontaneous combustion and plan,” explains Fry, whose parted wheat-colored hair hanging over his forehead makes him look like Bowie in his “Thin White Duke” days. “The formal and the informal. Even though we wear jackets and trousers onstage, we can still dance around like we’re the J. Geils Band. We’re fully aware that people look at our stage set and think ‘Vegas’ or ‘Tom Jones’. But that’s the gag. We take the basic premise and subvert it.”
But for all ABC’s hyper-romanticism and throwaway irony, there is an earnestness about Martin Fry that has to do more with the idea of love than the thing itself.
“It’s not parody,” he insists. “It’s not burlesque or camp. There’s a mixture of fiction and fact in our songs? It’s like having private emotional incidents in your life and making them public. As far as intimacy goes, anybody standing on a stage in front of 2,000 people knows it’s an unnatural situation. Dwelling on the artifice is too journalistic. At the heart of it is the songs. When we started out, the idea of a love song was out of synch. So was having a polished, sophisticated sound. We wanted to go against the prevailing climate.”
2. CULTURE CLUB’S GENDER GAMES
Like Martin Fry, Culture Club’s Boy George, with his long, plaited dreads, plucked eyebrows, lipstick and sweet Smokey Robinson falsetto, has always found himself on the fringe.
“People constantly think I’ve carefully planned what I’m doing,” says the former George O’Dowd, a twenty-one-year-old who originally made a name for himself as Mad George in London pop circles by dressing outrageously. “I used to wear six-inch stiletto heels and straw hats covered with birds and fruit. I looked like Carmen Miranda. I had my picture in every magazine. Every day on the train I’d come from suburbia like that.”
Originally tapped by Malcolm McLaren to replace Annabella in Bow Wow Wow, Boy George eventually formed his own group to serve as a vehicle for a plaintive voice that has stormed the charts in such light calypso-flavored pop as ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ and ‘White Boy’. Surprisingly, George is not just another pop-exploited freak; his love of sweet soul music apparently comes naturally and his music is similarly easy to take, with a relaxed breezy feel that melts in your ears. Onstage, a three-piece horn section carries Culture Club’s melodies like an island wind gently rustling through the palms, with Boy George’s guileless vocals fitting like a grass skirt.
“I always wanted to be a singer,” explains George, “but when I started with this band, it was dreadful. I sounded like Siouxsie & the Banshees. I didn’t realize I could sing. At first, I imitated Lou Reed and Bowie, everyone but myself. But that’s one of the great things about this band — although we steal other people’s ideas, we’re quite honest about it. We don’t try to deny it.”
The band’s appropriation of Caribbean and reggae rhythms has also spurred criticism, but George shrugs it off. “As long as you make it into a popular sort of sound, then you’re succeeding. People think that being successful is a cop out. But it’s much harder to write a pop song for millions of people than it is for a roomful of kids in miniskirts and stilettos. I wanted people to look at me in mock horror. I love the challenge of winning the public over. I like things being not what they seem.”
But Boy George’s gender games ultimately empty his romance of all passion. He comes across less like David Bowie than like a sexless, but witty, Quentin Crisp. His love is so idealized, it has no substance, even with a voice that can evoke classic crooners like Smokey, Clyde McPhatter or Junior Murvin.
“My image is like, ‘Is it a boy or is it a girl?'” acknowledges George. “It’s like making a joke out of the whole sex thing, taking the piss out of the situation. When people don’t know what to call you, they can’t really slag you. I’m not a transvestite, I’m an extrovert. People live by their own standards, so why inflict those standards on me? I don’t like to sing to either a boy or a girl. I prefer songs where anyone can listen — a man, a queer, a lesbian. Anyone can get into what I’m singing about. I don’t believe in the generation gap, which is why a lot of housewives in England buy our records. I’d rather have Frank Sinatra’s fans than Siouxie Banshee’s.”
By poking fun at his own sexual identity, Boy George points out the tyranny of beauty, something ABC’s Martin Fry also tried to tackle in ‘The Look Of Love’. “It’s like observing people walking down the street hand in hand,” Fry says about his hit, “and opening these magazines and seeing all those images of love and pictorial tableaux about love. It’s thrown at you constantly day by day. The song deals with how love looks. From a distance.”
3. YAZ’S GIRL IN THE MACHINE
Alison Moyet is one-half of the synthesizer duo Yaz, along with ex-Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke. Moyet’s husky vocals add surprising warmth and humanity to Yaz’s crisp electropop dance beat, shown to best effect in the stateside disco smashes, ‘Situation’ and ‘Don’t Go’. Unlike Human League’s miniskirted ingenues, “Alf,” as she’s known, is from the Janis Joplin or Maggie Bell school; her attraction stems directly from her abilities, and her sensuous, bloozey voice grounds Yaz’s modern sound with unexpected roots.
Boy George respects Moyet for that. “She’s not up there as a sex symbol. Those pop stereotypes are really ugly. There are a lot of girls out there, who, if they’re going to believe in that ideal of beauty, are going to be disappointed. It’s superficial. If you stay on your own level and understand yourself, you’ll always be happy.”
“I’m just the girl-next-door, just like a million other girls-next-door,” is how Moyet describes her appeal.
Yaz was formed when Vince Clarke answered Alf’s ad in a national paper for a London-based blues band along the lines of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The result turned out to be a band which offers a dynamic contrast between Clark’s synth ice sculptures and Moyet’s smoldering humanity. Unlike the deathless futurism of most Eurosynth bands, Yaz cuts through to the soul inside the machine because Alf puts flesh on the group’s bones.
“I hated synthesizer music,” she says. “I still haven’t completely changed my mind about computers, though I have more respect for them now. I used to regard them as little more than fad gadgets. But as a musician, the most important thing is to get work,” sighs Moyet. “I’d rather be a working singer with synthesizers than a non-working blues singer.”
Helped along by Mute Records’ Daniel Miller (of Normal and Silicon Teens fame), Yaz came from nowhere to break through on the U.S. club scene, their percolating synth sound and smoke-filled vocals crossing over to become popular on black radio.
“We don’t have that sort of segregation in England,” says Alf. “To me, an audience is an audience, no matter where they come from. I never listen to a group because they’re black or white. I listen to a group because I like their music,” she adds, even though her own influences are people such as Al Green, Willie Mae Thornton and Muddy Waters.
“It’s strange, but the grass is always greener on the other side,” she says. “There are lots of Americans who are really impressed with the English music scene, yet most of the British bands I know are influenced by American acts, specifically black American acts. But I don’t analyze music that much. Taste is so personal, who can explain it?”
Indeed, all these groups look to American music — from Stephen Foster, to Scott Joplin, to John Lee Hooker, to Jackie Wilson, to Sly Stone to Kid Creole — which makes for an ironic and frustrating situation. Why does it take the British to turn us on to musical forms which are right under our noses? Are Americans so hung up about the racial origin of their music that they’ll take R&B only when filtered through the European experience?
4. THOMPSON TWINS’ CONTEXT
The Thompson Twins may have come together in the same Sheffield melting pot that produced ABC and Human League, but their three main members boast an international background. Leader Tom Bailey is from northern England, percussionist Alannah Currie hails from New Zealand, and Joe Leeway’s roots are in Nigeria. This goes a long way toward explaining the group’s eclectic ethnicity, which started out as Anglo art-rock until it was stripped down to its current rhythm-machine-and-percussion dub-beat.
Live, Bailey, Currie and Leeway, along with a shifting coterie of synth players and percussionists, create an electronic brew of overlapping, contrapuntal rhythms with metallic sound effects and industrial musique concrete, making them the most overtly progressive of the bands mentioned here. They are enamored of the possibilities of machines, maybe too much so, though they steadfastly maintain a grounding in Third World communalism.
“Where we lived in the south of London, in Brixton, all the groups play reggae,” explains Currie, her frizzy blond hair piled on top of her head in Rasta fashion. “We didn’t move in a white society any more.”
“We were right on the wall where we could see both sides at once,” continues Tom Bailey, whose two-tone rust-colored coif is characterized by a long thin red strand of hair that hangs in the back like a Chinaman’s queue. “On one side there’d be a reggae group; on the other, a punk group. It was a very natural thing. In America, because of the black and South American cultures here, the situation is very similar.”
Tom offers one theory as to why so much new music seems to be coming to America from the English: “There’s still a big gap here between having a record deal and having nothing at all. In England, there’s an independent label thing happening, with zillions of groups having a couple of singles out. It’s sort of a midway opportunity, which you can’t get over here.”
“People start playing music in England because there’s nothing else to do,” adds Alannah.
All the bands credit the late 70s British punk explosion with encouraging them to enter the pop field. Yaz’s Alf admits that listening to Poly Styrene gave her the inspiration to sing, while Tom Bailey calls it a “negative revolution, which kicked out all the old stuff, though it didn’t really replace it with anything of lasting value. There was a yawning gap to be filled.”
ABC’s Martin Fry says, “The idea of punk rock was to take something and make it your own. To take the freedom to express yourself. That whole Sex Pistols/Clash doctrine was to do what you believed in. Words like spontaneity, commitment and honesty are words people use time and time again to cover up their sins. I’m just trying to express the idea that a great deal of rock ‘n’ roll is cabaret.”
For the Thompson Twins’ Alannah Currie, punk meant a trip to her native upbringing in the South Seas. “It wasn’t until punk, when anybody could play anything, that all that stuff started to come back to me. I grew up with those traditional Maori songs, chants and stick-clicking. It was always there and I think it’s in everybody. You have to be prepared to get rid of your ego and be five years old again so you can regurgitate it all.”
The Thompson Twins have taken that spirit of communal participation and created a synthetic, yet seductive backdrop to go with it. “Our next album deals with illusion and deception, lyrically and emotionally,” says Alannah. “Everyone thought ‘In The Name Of Love’ was just a love song, when it was really about all the horrible things we do under its sway. We want people to actively join in the creative process. At some of our earlier gigs, we handed out percussion instruments and invited people onstage.”
As for the charge that their initial flash of inspiration had long since hardened into mannered product, the Thompsons’ Bailey makes no apologies. “It’s like the movie Blade Runner,”he says. “The lasting effect of that film was not the plot or the content, it was the director’s vision of the future. The context he created for the action was as important as anything that actually happened. And that’s the way I feel about my music. There’s a greater context within which things happen. We’ve found what I guess you can call a formula.”
“We’ve changed so many bleeding times that we’re happy to have one that works,” sighs Alannah.
5. ROCK N’ ROLL BANANA PEEL
Of course, ABC, Culture Club, Yaz and the Thompson Twins have all hit on successful approaches which have proved perfectly translatable into universal experience. But there’s still the nagging afterthought that these groups are triumphs of style over substance — and they’re only too willing to admit it.
“Just like concerts or videos, fashion is a way of communication,” says Bailey. “It makes a statement the record alone doesn’t, it’s part of the context, and if that context works, then what happens inside it works more efficiently, too.”
“If you want three minutes of music to reflect what happens every day, you’re going to get three minutes going by with nothing happening,” says ABC’s Martin Fry. “There has to be an element of stylizing, focusing and projecting. I don’t think we’re guilty of writing love songs without any feeling of love. The music we do is a mixture of ancient and modern, acoustic instruments and technology, physical dance beat and cerebral… it goes from one extreme to the other. But it’s not like Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Our sound is not the result of going into the supermarket and putting in a little of this and a little of that.
“Part of it is seeing if we can pull it off, if we can play a cowboy club in Texas with a six-piece string section and get a reaction. It’s just audacity and cheek and ambition. We want to see how far we can push our ideas. It’s great to win over an audience of kids wearing Led Zeppelin and Van Halen T-shirts.
“Sometimes I may be chilly, but it’s 1982, y’know. I don’t think you can pretend it’s an age of innocence. We’ve had twenty years of rock music. I hold to the same values you do, but I believe most rock groups know nothing about spontaneity. They’ve just been repeating the same idea since 1962. I mean, Bob Dylan has existed, Elvis Presley has existed, Bill Haley has existed… so many people come on like they want to re-create rock n’ roll. New things are happening all the time. It’s like humor. Just when you think all the jokes in the world have been told, someone will slip on a banana peel, fall on his ass and everybody’ll laugh. The primary elements are always there and always will be. But there will always be new jokes. And I see music in the same way.”
6. IS IT REEL OR IS IT MEMOREX?
ABC, Culture Club, Yaz and the Thompson Twins, for all their talents, cannot hope to approach the cultural impact of the original British Invasion. Yet there are moments of pop epiphany in each of their songs. It’s Martin Fry yodeling “Yip-ee-ay-yay” breathlessly against his Spectoresque wash of sound. It’s Boy George tugging at your heartstrings and purse strings with his impish query, “Do you really want to hurt me?” It’s Yaz’s Alf Moyet stolidly holding on to her lover over the pulsating tug of ‘Don’t Go’. And it’s the Thompson Twins listing our foibles to the nonstop punk-salsa beat of ‘In The Name Of Love’. Whether these groups will be more than one-hit wonders, only time will tell. Is their lust for life real or just another way for us to get fooled again?
“Most people never get the chance to work at something they enjoy,” says Boy George. “Money’s important, but it’s only as important as you make it. Jewels and diamonds can make you ugly as well as beautiful. Do what you want, but do it naturally. As far as I’m concerned, I just want to get across to people. You can call me what you want, let people take what they want from me. I just want to write good songs.”
Okay, but the lingering feeling is it’s all been done before. Elegant in his gold lamé suit and glittering under the hot spotlights, ABC’s Martin Fry leads his big band through its paces like Lily Tomlin’s imitation Teddy Pendergrass as the horns punch up his stiff nonchalance and turn his gangliness into something resembling personal style. Haven’t I seen this all another time, another place? Isn’t this elegant, larger-than-life pop dream merely a hazy deja vu, a Xerox copy for kids who are only faintly aware of Roxy Music and David Bowie? I posed that very question to Martin Fry and he didn’t hesitate.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” he grinned.
Or, as Bowie himself once put it, “There’s a taste in my mouth, and it’s no taste at all.”
© Roy Trakin, Musician, March 1983