Hits 5 Revisited: Side Four

We're now onto the fourth and final side of Hits 5, and if ever we were going to tear through the fabric and unleash a cosmic refracted blast of pure undiluted 1986, culminating an unending fountain of Citrus Spring, then that moment is now...

Red Box - 'For America'

So, after eight whole tracks (well, seven whole tracks if we don’t count True Colors, which we definitely shouldn’t) of musical and lyrical blandness with too much post-Berlin warbly synth bass, we’re finally clear of the ‘ballads’ side of Hits 5; and good thing too, as the overall uninterestingness of the music on offer has led to a corresponding lack of interest in the ensuing writeups. Try as you might, you just can’t get people to read an entry on a Lionel Richie song that probably even Lionel Richie himself has forgotten about, no matter how many ludicrously obscure references to 1986-specific catchphrases you contextlessly crowbar into it. Thankfully, we’re now onto the fourth and final side of this hit-compiling double album, and indeed onto a selection of much more interesting artists who came and went in a whirlwind of none-more-1986-ness. Not least the ones that have the honour of opening side four…

Better known to their friends and family as Simon Toulson-Clarke and Julian Close, Red Box formed in the early eighties with the intention of fusing synthpop with influences from Native American folk music and globo-politically-conscious lyrics to match. Initially signed to infamously eccentric indie label Cherry Red, they were soon snapped up by WEA, whose apparent sanity-defying belief that the wordy musos with their tin can drum sounds could become a sound commercial prospect was proved not to be quite such a defiance of sanity after all when Lean On Me (Ah-Li-Ayo) barged its way through the post-Live Aid chart clamour for dreary stadium rock to become one of the biggest hit singles of 1985.

By the end of the year they had an entire album pretty much in the can, but oddly, the label chose that exact moment to get cold feet about the angular uncommerciality of the whole enterprise, seemingly having completely forgotten their chart-hogging antics of about five minutes previously and darkly muttering that they were contractually bound to deliver something ‘for America’. Upon which Toulson-Clarke and Close duly wrote and recorded For America, a song that piled on the ethnic chanting and percussion even more heavily whilst also taking Uncle Sam to task for his less than enlightened military track record and national obsession with style over content. And, to the surprise of all concerned, it was an even bigger hit, bagging the duo an appearance on Wogan where they played with cardboard instruments to make a satirical point about something or other. Parent album The Circle And The Square was admittedly a flop, barely scraping the top seventy five in the UK on original release, though it stands up as one of the best releases of the decade and has recently been reissued on CD with tons of bonus tracks, including one which is possibly the only known record ever to sample Michael Parkinson.

Other than the fact that its pointedly Reagan-baiting lyrics are troublingly just as topical and pertinent now as they were in late 1986 (well, apart from the “urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-ay urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-urelei-USA” bit, but then nobody could understand that even at the time), one of the most interesting features of For America is that – production aside – it doesn’t really sound like a pop record from late 1986. It’s all violins and accordians and ethnic drums and it shovels on the World Music thing to an extent that even Hollywood Beyond would have considered a bit much, and then probably done an advert for The News On Sunday with Boys Wonder while scoffing Cheese Dips in protest. Similarly, the vocals are delivered in a soft non-commital style quite at odds with the aggressive barking favoured by other chartbound critics of US foreign policy at the time (reinforced by a video that combines the band being comically attacked by flying examples of American iconography intercut with shots of foxy chicks in ‘Uncle Sam-antha poses for FHM’ getup), and yet which one had unsuspecting pop loving youngsters joining in with the sarcastic “every house should have its hat on”? And yet it remains by far the best song on the whole of Hits 5, and arguably one of the best songs of the eighties full stop. And there you were dismissing it as mock-indie for the Roland Rat – The Series demographic. See? It’s better than that Rod Stewart song already. And there’s plenty more long-forgotten offbeat interestingness to come…

The Psychedelic Furs - 'Heartbreak Beat'

As we saw a couple of tracks ago, bagging the title theme to a big-budget film was a surefire way of scoring a massive transatlantic – and often even worldwide – hit in the mid eighties. The rarely mentioned dark side of this phenomenon, though, was that it was really all just about the song, or maybe even all just about the film, and nobody much cared who was singing it. There was never much chance of a substantial follow up hit, and for every million copies of Take My Breath Away sold, there were a million copies of Like Flames that remained resolutely unsold. Survivor, Kenny Loggins and a certain other individual we’ll be hearing a lot more from very soon hardly exactly found themselves in a position where ‘the charts’ had to take out a restraining order on them, and let’s just say the designer-clad vox-popped pop fan who confidently told BBC2′s Juice that Hip To Be Square by Huey Lewis & The News was “headed for Christmas Number One” is probably glad the show has never quite achieved cult status.

In this context, you have to feel some sympathy for The Psychedelic Furs. For the first half of the eighties, they’d been the nearly men of the post-punk scene, continually pushing their Berlin Bowie-inspired take on guitar pop close but not close enough to the top forty whilst Smash Hits continually touted them as a ‘weird’ band it was OK to like. Then in 1986, out of the blue, film director of the moment John Hughes decided to name his The Breakfast Club-following opus after the band’s ignored-yet-influential 1981 single Pretty In Pink, and stumped up the cash for them to record a brand new spruced up version for the soundtrack. Thus is was that The Psychedelic Furs ended up accompanying the ill-fated tug-of-love between Andie, Blane and Duckie alongside The Smiths, New Order, Suzanne Vega and, but of course, ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’, and as any feature presentation deemed to constitute a ‘Bratpack film’ was seriously big business with easily Americana-impressed teens at the time – to the extent that ordinarily perfectly sane schoolchildren began wearing letterman jackets and high-fiving each other in the corridors – it was a foregone conclusion that a song that had previously never troubled any charts outside of John Peel’s Festive Fifty would become a huge international hit. Not that the tame guitar sounds, twinkly synth bits and truly lamentable infiltration by the hated American Saxophone were in any way any kind of improvement on a record that was perfectly good to begin with, but it’s since led to the original version becoming a heavily-rotated staple of oldies radio, and that can only be a very good thing indeed.

While follow-up to a hit film Pretty In Pink went on to do very well indeed, follow-up to a hit single Heartbreak Beat didn’t fare quite so well, only proving a moderate hit in America and not even charting in the UK at all. In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see why – cut from very similar musical cloth to the remade Pretty In Pink, it probably offered too much of what fans of the film were expecting, including more of that sodding saxophone, and not enough of what fans of the band were expecting. This is something of a pity as it’s actually a pretty good song, just swamped by the not particularly sympathetic production and further shoved into the background by yet another of those ‘arty’ black and white videos that were ten a penny in 1986, although they do win points for using sixties iconography rather than its tiresome ‘fifties’ counterpart. Actually, perhaps this was the main cause of its lack of chart prowess, as even certain megastars with a fondness for all things paisley sometimes had difficulty getting their latest waxing into the top ten…

Prince - 'Anotherloverholenyohead'

With the obvious exception of David Bowie, Prince is quite possibly the closest thing that the million-selling mainstream megastar pop industry has ever had to a true auteur. Throughout his career, he’s pretty much done whatever he wanted both musically and visually, making no end of artistic about turns that have left fans, critics and nervous record company executives alike bewildered, with albums, singles, films and tours flopping or even being cancelled full stop, only for him to be back on top months later seemingly without having batted an eyelid. For no matter how far away from the beaten track he might have got at times, the fact remains that the overwheming majority of his output has highly commercial without ever straying into sell-out territory, and that’s more than enough to balance out his occasional diversions into his own creative universe. Anyway, when you’ve got a workrate as prodigious Prince, that sort of thing is bound to happen occasionally. Not for nothing did his record label, some seven years after Hits 5 was released, attempt to sue him for flooding them with too much releasable material.

1986 was no exception to this rule, as he took the unusual step of following two massively successful years’ worth of hit singles, albums, and even films (well, film singular, namely Purple Rain), and indeed a time in which he actually seemed to become more popular for turning his nose up at Live Aid, with the highly personal and wilfully uncommercial homage to Film Noir and silent comedy Under The Cherry Moon, and its accompanying understated-jazz-funk-filled soundtrack album Parade. Although extracted single Kiss would become a huge hit and ultimately one of his signature numbers, neither film nor album were particularly rapturously recieved by audiences or critics, selling and box-office-ticket-shifting only respectably (albeit by Prince’s extremely lucrative standards) but treasured by the devoted minority who ‘got’ them, and awaiting rediscovery at a later date. In many ways, Parade was Prince’s Dog Man Star, complete with the Brit Award-disrespecting antics, and the remainder of the singles culled from the album were about as successful as We Are The Pigs. The last of these, late in 1986, was the awkwardly titled Anotherloverholenyohead, though by that time the Sign O’ The Times album was more or less in the can so Prince probably couldn’t have cared less.

As you’d expect from Prince, Anotherloverholenyohead is a mighty good song, but lacks an obvious catchy hook, and also seems to have had random bits of about six other abandoned compositions (and even ’jams’) shoehorned into something that may once have been possibly distantly related to a conventional song structure, and as such while it works brilliantly on the album, and indeed in Under The Cherry Moon, the decision to release it as a single is entirely baffling even by his standards. Unsurprisingly it bombed as a single on both sides of the Atlantic – stalling just inside the top forty over here – though in fairness this may have had as much to do with its status as the umpteenth single from an album that anyone even halfway interested had already bought anyway, which came accompanied by ripoff-friendly well-known widely-available former-singles-themselves tracks as b-sides, as it did with the uncommercial nature of the song itself.

Unfortunately, due to Prince’s entirely predictably paranoid views on ‘the internet’, you won’t find Anotherloverholenyohead, or indeed any of his music, on YouTube (though you’re not really missing anything as the video was just some unexciting studio-based miming in a Cat-from-Red-Dwarf-anticipating suit). How that tallies exactly with him giving away an entire album free with a newspaper against the wishes of his record label twenty years later is anyone’s guess. The video for the next track on Hits 5 really better had be on YouTube, though…

The The - 'Infected'

With every compilation like Hits 5, you always got one song that felt like it shouldn’t have been on there at all. True, there was always a healthy quotient of unlikely hitmakers like, well, Red Box and The Psychedelic Furs, but beyond even these there was always one artist whom even those who liked The Jesus & Mary Chain considered to be a bit ‘out there’, whose record sleeves and interviews scared hapless fans of ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’, and whose presence on an otherwise happy clappy all singing all dancing collection of your favourite best recent hits was surely verging on contravention of the Trading Standards Act. And while Now That’s What I Call Music! 8 infamously boasted Billy Bragg, Hits 5 had The The.

“Hang on”, you’re probably thinking, “isn’t that the The The that later had loads of big-selling albums and recorded with Johnny Marr and all that?”. Yes indeed it is – but that elevation to stadium-filling status would come later. Back in 1986, Matt Johnson’s one-man-band had only recently moved to major label Epic from the near-performance art environs of legendary indie Some Bizarre, and despite gaining a more commercial sound still retained a fascination with macabre lyrical themes and bizarre imagery. This was reflected in the title, lyrics and indeed video (which saw Johnson catapulted around the globe in an ejector seat thingy whilst ‘satirical’ consumerism-related images were projected onto his sunglasses) for title-track-from-the-album Infected, but nonetheless it was a furious and catchy song that really did stand a good change of becoming a hit. Perhaps hoping for a touch of post-Frankie Goes To Hollywood notoriety-instigated exposure, Epic and Johnson really pulled out all the stops for Infected and scored a rare triple-whammy of banned-ness; Radio 1 wouldn’t play the single on account of the explicit – if unerotically graphic – last verse, the IBA banned the video on account of female semi-nudity and burning-at-the-stake antics, and many shops refused to even stock the single on account of the sleeve art showing what can only be described as Satan taking matters into his own hands. All of this combined to counteract any interest that any of the individual bits of controversy may have generated – not many people would really want to buy a record they’ve not even heard in passing – and it stalled just inside the top fifty; though, that said, perhaps late 1986 wasn’t exactly the most sensible time to be releasing a single with the hookline “infect me with your love”.

Quite what the sappier pop kids who considered Rain Or Shine by Five Star a tad harsh on the ears made of Infected is anyone’s guess. Viewed from this distance, however, it’s a remarkable song combining industrial influences with wailing soul diva technopop, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t more of a hit; the strength of the song alone should have been enough to overcome all the promotional hiccups. It’s almost – almost – the best song on Hits 5, coming a very very close second to For America. And, what do you know, there’s one almost as good again right after it…

Frankie Goes To Hollywood - 'Rage Hard'

There was a time when the tabloid press would have had us believe that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were planning to murder us all in our beds, brandishing copies of Zombie Creeping Flesh and humming the theme from Hardwicke House as they went. And that was just the image; the music was, if anything, even more thrilling, a massive apocalyptic electropop riot with incendiary guitars and provocative lyrics about right-on issues, like The Sex Pistols had wandered into an Isaac Asimov novel, threatening and terrifying Thatcherism from right inside its bloated capital-obsessed heart. Quite simply, they were the most exciting to happen to mainstream pop music in a long time. Yet as the old adage goes, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and by 1986 they were already starting to look like a washed-up relic from another age, sidelined by the musical after-effects of Live Aid, weighed down by their increasingly embarassing-looking publicity overload, and swamped by their own ubiquity; after all, they even had a totally unplayable ZX Spectrum game based on them. When word filtered out that they were working quietly away on a self-produced and more ‘mellow’ second album, the writing really was on the wall. With ‘FRANKIE SAYS’ in big letters in front of it.

In fairness, their admittedly apallingly titled second album Liverpool has always recieved slightly more stick than it actually deserved. True, it’s not a great album, it’s a massive comedown after Welcome To The Pleasuredome, it lacks any sense of coherency and there’s a couple of tuneless wastes of everyone’s time on there, but the majority of halfway decent tracks don’t deserve to be ignored by association, and occasionally – as on eventual third single Watching The Wildlife – it’s very good indeed. But nobody wanted the album back in 1986, and no small part of that was due to the anticlimactic impact of lead single Rage Hard.

Part of the secret behind Frankie’s success had always been the multiple epic 12″ mixes that were available for each single, turning the familiar radio version into something between a synthpop symphony and a big-budget film soundtrack and introducing all manner of previously unheard song segments and musical effects. Rage Hard feels a little too much like an attempt to do one of these widescreen productions within the confines of a 7″ edit, which kind of misses the point. There’s far too much packed into it for anything approaching radio-friendlyness, and though the extended intro makes for exciting listening in its own right, it takes far too long to get to the point and as a result lost some of the casual fans who’d liked the straight-in-there dynamism of Relax and Two Tribes. It made an impressive debut at number four in the charts, but dropped out again pretty quickly, suggesting that a great many had bought it on the strength of the band’s reputation without actually having heard it. After all this, you’ll probably be astonished to hear Rage Hard described as a great song. Well, it is – it’s just that it didn’t really work as a single in the way that anyone involved hoped it would, and probably did more to hasten Frankie's demise than any tensions with the record label or between band members, and its presence amongst a whole side’s worth of inexplicable chart misses and stray successes by obscurity-bound artists on Hits 5 only serves to underline this. And even if you don’t like Rage Hard, you’ll be begging to hear it again when you find out what’s coming up next…

Meat Loaf And John Parr - Rock'n'Roll Mercenaries

Meat Loaf. He’s one of those people that you automatically think you hate, and then a bit later realise you actually quite like some records by. For all of his endless attempts to remake Bohemian Rhapsody only with different hair, for all of his literally endless songs (well, nobody’s ever actually made it to the end to check), and for all of his lyrics about how with mom and pop we lived in Maine/and my brother Jeff who stole a plane/he crashed it in the pouring rain/we were never the same again/now the years have gone by between now and then/I think about Jeff every now and again et sodding cetera, the fact remains that when his rarely-amended formula works, it really works, and when everything clicks into place the energetic mix of metal, post-prog, rock’n'roll revival stage musical and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink production has resulted in some of the most exciting records in the history of popular music. And this wasn’t solely confined to his earliest efforts, as over the years he’s periodically hit the nail on the musical head again and again. The mid-eighties, it has to be said, was not one of these nail/head moments.

Contractually estranged from his regular songwriting accomplice Jim Steinman, by 1986 Meat Loaf was left scrabbling around for other suitable collaborators, ending up recording the album Blind Before I Stop with former Boney M head honcho Frank Farian. Reputedly, the sessions didn’t work out to either’s satisfaction, but parlous financial arrangements meant that the album had to be released regardless, and despite containing a couple of later live favourites and being plugged with a guest spot on Miami Vice, it failed to do much in the way of substantial business anywhere, and is said to be Meat Loaf’s least favourite of his own releases. All in all, then, it’s quite fitting that the lead single should have been the spectacularly lustre-free Rock’n'Roll Mercenaries. Performed in cahoots with briefly megastar-ish mullet-pioneering singer-songwriter John Parr – whose movie theme-generated hit single St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion) was pretty much a call to arms for the homegrown Bratpack-obsessed crowd quaffing ‘sodas’ (in other words, Yellow Price Cola) in their letterman jackets and ‘sneakers’ – the song appears to have been intended as a blistering attack on music industry fatcats who put profit above art – indeed, it was more than likely influenced in no small part by Meat Loaf’s recent Steinman-injuncting legal headaches – with a stern ‘military fatigues’ video to match, but the somewhat vague lyrics make it sound more like a furious berating of session musicians. Well, they’d been getting away with it for too long.

Rock‘n’Roll Mercenaries, which stalled just outside the top thirty in the UK, is by no means a great song, but it is at least entertainingly silly, with its military two-step chanting backing and ludicrous vocal histrionics over something that, well, doesn’t really matter that much in the scheme of things. It is let down somewhat by the tepid production, which seems to have been tailor-made for hooking a slot on The Chart Show Rock Album or Soft Metal (“it ain’t heavy…”), but it’s still got a verve and sense of absurdity that has been sorely lacking in too many Hits 5 inclusions, especially those by Meat Loaf-level veterans. It’s also pleasingly unlike anything that anyone that famous should have been doing in the immediate aftermath of Live Aid. Hmmm, it’s almost like we’re building up towards giving somebody an almighty hammering…

Spandau Ballet 'Fight For Ourselves'

Over the course of this track-by-track look back at Hits 5, you may well have noticed some low-key animosity towards Live Aid. Without wishing to keep going on about it, let alone devote an entire first paragraph of an entry to it, the fact remains that Live Aid’s fundamental seismic effect on the entire pop industry is key to the story of this most curious of Various Artists compilations. For that one day in July 1985 changed things temporarily, and arguably even changed some things forever, and those who refused to play ball either musically, ideologically, or by not getting involved in the first place, found plenty of metaphorical and literal post-event doors being slammed in their faces. A pop chart that only months earlier had been awash with the likes of Japan, Talk Talk, The Smiths and Propaganda on the one hand, and the at least enoyably silly likes of Modern Romance on the other, was suddenly given over almost entirely to earnest, straight-ahead MOR rock bores – whether pre-existing or born again – and anything slightly left-of-field that did get through, such as For America or What’s The Colour Of Money?, was hardly exactly the foundation stone of a long and successful career. No more would the Top Forty reverberate to the sound of Break Machine.

The one small consolation was that not everyone who joined in the party got to enjoy such commercial benefits. Spandau Ballet – who, pre-Live Aid, were massive in a way that their latterday reputation weirdly seems to suggest that they weren’t, and who managed to just about toe a wobbly line of credibility to boot with their scene-pioneering New Romantic roots, occasional right-on pronouncements, and unstinting support for the charity-driven foundations of the original Band Aid, not to mention their general likeability as people - had been moving towards a slicker and more polished sound and indeed image for several years anyway, but their again-weirdly-underplayed-by-history prominent slot on the bill at Live Aid seemed to be the catalyst for a move into full-on stadium tedium, with saxophonist Steve Norman finally crossing the floor and fully embracing the dreaded ‘American Saxophone’. Unfortunately for them, their existing fanbase just weren’t buying it, either metaphorically or literally, and by the end of the decade they’d all moved on to for once rather successful ‘other projects’. They would in fact enjoy one last gigantic hit single late in 1986 – the to put it mildly not-universally-celebrated riposte to The Troubles Through The Barricades – but the actual single chosen to unleash the parent album Through The Barricades on an unsuspecting public was actually Fight For Ourselves.

There’s not much to say about Fight For Ourselves other than that it’s a transparent attempt by Spandau Ballet to reposition themselves as radio-conquering stadium rockers, and a ropey song without much in the way of a discernible melody; so much so, in fact, that the promo video went out of its way to obscure as much of the actual song as possible with ‘comedy bit’ dialogue about two fans trying to blag their way backstage (and even they probably fucked off pretty sharpish when they heard the song being performed). When the band went to court a couple of years later in an attempt to iron out their much-disputed composer credits, it’s doubtful that any of them were in any particular hurry to have their name slapped onto Fight For Ourselves. In some ways, it was a sad conclusion for a band who had been very much a part of the pre-Live Aid chart-openmindedness, but in other more satisfying ways it’s a metaphorical and literal two fingers to everyone who hopped aboard the post-Live Aid mediocrity bandwagon. And now, we’re on to the final track… but what could it be??

Robert Palmer - 'Addicted To Love'

Well, it’s been quite some journey through the tracklisting of Hits 5. Along the way we’ve reminisced about the mercurial television career of Felix Howard, likened Bruce Hornsby & The Range to burnt toast in audio form, attempted to form a religion based around Nick Kamen, stuck several boots into Live Aid, and been a bit sarky about Roses by Haywoode. We’ve even mentioned ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’ once or twice. No doubt, then, you’re not unreasonably expecting the last track on the album to be some era-defining uber-of-its-time forgotten left-field cerebral pop marvel that will have even Red Box turning in their ’1986′ pass at reception, and finish this epic series of articles with all the spectacle of a post-Bratpack imagined-fifties-Americana-riffing advert recreating one of those big budget gaudy technicolor Hollywood synchronised swimming setpieces, only performed by the Yes Of Course Christmas On 4 robots with Phil Cool emerging from the middle in a fountain of Citrus Spring. And then go on to finally make that third series of The Tripods.

Well, you might indeed be expecting that, but you’d be wrong. The final track on a double album collecting the hits of the closing weeks of 1986 is a song that was a hit back in January 1986. For that was when Robert Palmer, longtime resident of the lower reaches of the top forty and more recently featured vocalist on bizarre rock-and-disco combining Duran Duran offshoot The Power Station, finally broke through to megastar status with Power Station album in all but name Riptide, pioneering designer-clad Madeley-aped ‘smoothie’ image, and – most importantly – catchy radio-dominating single Addicted To Love, decidedly unhindered in its chart prowess by a feminist-and-Musician’s-Union-enraging video featuring Palmer miming in front of a ‘band’ of android-ish Vogue cover-esque lovelies, once perplexingly rumoured to have been Duran Duran in drag, but since revealed to have been genuine models, including ludicrously-knockered future Big Brother housemate Susie Verrico. As you all know the song already, and it doesn’t really belong on Hits 5, there’s not much point in saying much else about it, other than to speculate that the compilers had been holding out for Palmer’s more recent model-assisted hit I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On, only to find that it had been snapped up by rival compilation Now That’s What I Call Music! 8 at the last minute. Like Michael Palin being refused entry to The Reform Club at the conclusion of Around The World In 80 Days, we’ve been left waiting for a bus while 1986 parties on behind closed doors. But that, of course, was in 1989. Anyone got a spare copy of Monster Hits ..?

And, well, that’s Hits 5. Ahead for the listener would lie Bomb The Bass, GCSEs, Alison Lee’s Pants and, yes, Hardwicke House. Of course, there was a Hits 5 video with some exclusive non-album tracks on it,… but that’s another story.

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find more about eighties pop compilations in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.