Swing Out Sister: Live at the Jazz Cafe

Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.

Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.

There was a time in the eighties when suddenly having a jazzy, retro feel to the records was perfectly fine. Sade was channeling Astrud Gilberto, both The Style Council and Matt Bianco had a go at Samba and Working Week sounded like they could be from Rio (even though they were Londoners). The over all term was ‘SophistiPop’, and Swing out Sister (SoS) with their Bacharach/seventies big string sound fitted right in there. Their first album ‘It’s Better To Travel‘ sold reasonably well on the back of “Breakout’ but the SophistiPop thing was over after a year or two, and the representatives of the genre soon decamped to Japan where they like that sort of thing (many a SophistiPop band that you thought hadn’t existed for thirty years is still around making new albums on the back of their popularity in Indonesia. No, really).


Some stimulating prose right there

So in 1992, with 3 albums under their belt, SoS decided to release a live album for the Japanese market, recorded at the Jazz Cafe in Camden (ironically still Matt Bianco’s London live home in 2014) with a ten piece band. With their original arrangements being rather string heavy this feels quite stripped back (although there’s still quite a bit of midi background synth fill: the keyboarder has after all only 2 hands), but the vocal arrangements are spot on, the brass sounds crisp and the rhythm section is excellent.

So, these guys are obviously good musicians, but what about the music? Well, there’s the rub. In the humble opinion of this crtitic, their material doesn’t really lend itself to live performances: most of their material is midtempo and really benefits from large orchestration and elaborate arrangements.  On this album they even reduce the tempo on some of their normally livelier songs even more, so the whole thing sounds rather treacleish (technical term). I don’t think much dancing was going on at the Jazz Cafe during the recording. Probably more gentle nodding of heads.

Which really defeats the purpose of a live album. You really want to hear your favourite songs in a feverish, exciting atmosphere, but this sounds more like the recital of Virginia Woolf at the Women’s Institute in Torquay.

Which probably explains why I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years.


The international week of the Popper

Hello good people,

inspired by all sorts of brouhaha about punk and the counter culture of the seventies and eighties, let me celebrate this week the German counter-counter culture phenomenon that was the ‘Popper’. No, I don’t mean the ‘attractive but risky’ recreational drug amyl nitrite but the short lived youth culture of the German middle- to upper class that haunted (ok, bored) society in the early eighties. Apart from some selfcongratulatory bullshit in some German qualities there is few material out in the webosphere, so let me enlighten you a bit. According to the lore, the Popper scene spread via osmosis from the affluent suburbs of Hamburg through the rest of the affluent suburbs of the bored German ‘comfortable’ ones. In generously designed detached houses with well-manicured gardens  a new breed of adolescent was being socialised: bored by the general political upheaval within the Republic, driven by long haired, slightly smelly political activists who would march on the weekend, eat muesli and fight the system, some kids chose to spend the evenings and weekends in a sort of civilised cafe society with a strictly enforced dress code. Instead of the knitted jumpers and silly jeans of their more politicised peers they would wear kashmir jumpers, polos shirts and colourful Benetton trousers. Necessary accessories were a Vespa Ciao, Dunhill or Davidoff cigarettes and a if at all possible access to a big wallet (daddy’s would do).

...Dutch can be so uncool.

So after investing numerous hundreds of Marks into the outfit, the aspiring popper was allowed to join his or her peers. Likely to be found in fashionable cafes during the day or in the wine cellar of somebody elses parents, the whole Popper (btw, the name likely to root in ‘Pop Music’. Remember, the leather jacket, motorcycle touting brutes of that area were called ‘Rockers’. Likely due to their affinity to Rock music) thing was mainly about being seen, flaunting dad’s wealth and listening to the right music. Matt Bianco, Sade, The Style Council, early Italo Pop, New Romantics and early synth pop a la Yazoo were very much the music to listen to and on the weekend some poor parent would have to put up with dozens of the little darlings in their houses, moderately but very politely drunk and generally very civilised.

That’s exactly what riled the rest of society: without any typical adolescent intent to rile against the system and quite content to roll with it, Poppers were ridiculed by adults and the rest of their peers for their enforced conformity and lack of interest in anything political. Most wanted to be lawyers or doctors.

These days I am happy to acknowledge to have been one of those precious few Poppers in my little town. Happy to enjoy each others company, happy to ignore the rest of a very angry world around me. I knew life was bound to be getting more complicated very soon, so for a few years I was content to be an apolitical bloke with funny clothes, expensive cigarettes, an underpowered moped and a string of girlfriends with Benetton jumpers.  It could have been much worse. So, to celebrate these few years, I will feature a little piece of Popper world for one week only.

And with ABC’s ‘Poison Arrow’ I hereby declare the international week of the Popper  inaugurated.

The Soundtracks accompanying our lives


Mark R and Mark F of Matt Bianco inspecting a handsome ruin.

A long time ago, in my teen and twens, I used to look down on the sort of adult who would go to see sixties and seventees revival concerts. Why would you want to see artists whose prime was obviously over and their live appearances only motivated by the need to make a couple of quick bucks, I asked myself. Why would you go and see these codgers when contemporary music offers you so many thrills?

Ah, the arrogance of youth.

By the time I turned thirty I had already been to my first eighties revival concert (ABC/Human League/Culture Club {brr}). So much for contemporary music. The next month I will be buying my 12th Matt Bianco album (no wanker jokes, please!) and tonight I will be seeing Incognito for the, er, eighth (?) time live on stage. I have caught myself listening to Radio 2 and even cheerfully chuckle to Terry Wogan’s jokes (sometimes) and have been seen violently raging against the humourless, misogynistic shite that is modern R&B. My Ipod is full of Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Mezzoforte, The James Taylor Quartet, The Style Council, Jazzanova and other acts that are way past their prime (or have just vanished into the ether).  If I ever would have to pick a song that has accompanied as long as I can remember it would be MB’s ‘Summer Song’. Sad? I don’t know.

There must be an explanation the humans get more set in their ways musically and prefer the comforts of the music that shaped them when they whippersnappers. I try to keep us as mucyh as I can with contemporary music, but apart from Hot Chip and the Klaxons I haven’t really discovered anything that suits my elevator music taste.  Is there are neurobiological explanation, or is this purely behavioural. It’s not that we can’t enjoy new things once we have hit thirty: books, movies, theatre, people, all these can be interesting and new and be added to the list of things we like and follow, but somehow music seems to be except from that list.

If anybody is aware of any qualitative or quantitative work on this, the sclerotic attitude of men > 30 on contemporary music, please pass them on to me.

I might just find out what is wrong with me.