1983: The Last Great Year of Pop

From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club to the propuls­ive syn­thpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spec­tac­u­lar time for music?


(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)

IN 1983, THE YEAR that McDonald’s intro­duced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exer­cises were mis­taken by an extremely jit­tery USSR for pre­par­a­tions for a new Barbarossa.

More omin­ously, com­pact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first com­mer­cial mobile tele­phone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into exist­ence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the neces­sary means were inven­ted for bring­ing about some­thing much worse: the end of pop music.

Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bit­ter­sweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unques­tion­ably the finest year for pop music ever.

1983 was also — per­haps not so coin­cid­ent­ally my final year at high school, and instead of study­ing for my exams and think­ing about what I wanted to actu­ally do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hyp­not­ized by the LED and LCD equal­izer dis­plays on the latest sound sys­tems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were vari­ous reas­ons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total sur­face area was no big­ger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool lin­ear arm track­ing inside the lid that was auto­mat­ic­ally oper­ated with but­tons at the front. It was very futur­istic; like a giant, clunky, ana­log CD player, before any­one I knew had a CD player.

But the real reason for my infatu­ation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s “Love Is a Stranger” that its cun­ning sales­man slapped on at full volume. Not only did the oth­er­worldly, driv­ingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s oper­atic range superbly show­case the sound dynam­ics of the product, the lyr­ics Lennox breathed, seem­ingly in the back of your mind, were the ulti­mate hard sell:

And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”

Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glam­or­ous, sleekly designed car, tempt­ing you in and driv­ing you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, fea­tured that same car-driving stranger offer­ing Morrissey a ride. This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and any­thing seemed pos­sible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid devel­op­ments in music-making tech­no­logy meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actu­ally done it. Every record was a rev­el­a­tion. A mir­acle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.

Eurythmics recor­ded their sopho­more album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fix­tures of a pro­fes­sional stu­dio. The title song was recor­ded in a single take, with Lennox impro­vising most of the lyr­ics on the spot and David Stewart tap­ping on half-filled milk bottles to pro­duce that chim­ing sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new land­scape, record com­pan­ies had little choice but to indulge their prodi­gies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air dur­ing an early trans­mis­sion on MTV by exec­ut­ives who con­fused Lennox for a transvestite.)

This was also the era of the wiz­ard pro­du­cer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fash­ioned the sound of the Human League, and most fam­ously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who pro­duced ABC’s stun­ningly beau­ti­ful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pound­ing 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the fam­ous Fairlight sampling syn­thes­izer, was noth­ing less than a cre­ator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the chan­nel launched in 1981.)

Early ’80s British syn­thpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambi­tious and uto­pian, offer­ing an ana­log dream of a digital future. And it soun­ded gor­geous. In fact, it soun­ded much bet­ter than the prop­erly digital future did when it actu­ally arrived, with greater pro­cessing power, a few years later. It was also much bet­ter than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor sub­sti­tutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the dec­ade in jeans at an acid house rave some­where in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journ­al­ist Paul Morley at the time — was the glor­i­ous cul­min­a­tion of the 1970s’ aes­thetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most dance­able, its most pre­ten­tious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.

The 12-inch single was a main­stay of syn­thpop, which in many ways car­ried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was inven­ted) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demon­strated the new record­ing, mix­ing, and lav­ish pro­duc­tion tech­niques all the bet­ter — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to exten­ded mixes from that era, espe­cially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum play­ing for sev­eral minutes, you often won­der where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indul­gence. They were a way of mak­ing the bliss­ful per­fec­tion of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.

Our sixth-form com­mon room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a cal­cu­latedly haughty ges­ture, only avail­able as a 12-inch single and infam­ously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a trans­port­ing track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t com­plain­ing about the album). It became the best­selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s dif­fi­cult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to under­stand the seis­mic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled glor­i­ously through Manchester mel­an­choly. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.

Other 1983 syn­thpop singles that got played to death either in the com­mon room or in my bed­room included the deli­ciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the sur­pris­ingly polit­ical “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sub­limely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fant­ast­ic­ally pre­ten­tious and pom­pous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tan­trummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hur­rah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaint­ive but insist­ent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the rev­ving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beat­ing beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delight­fully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhil­ar­at­ingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lip­sticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that man­ages some­how to be both crim­in­ally dance­able and strangely aus­tere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.

With records like that as the soundtrack to our teen­ager­dom, is it any won­der that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?

Bowie had, in many ways, made the glam­our and swish of syn­thpop pos­sible; he was cer­tainly the styl­istic inspir­a­tion for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, how­ever, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), fam­ously bestow­ing his bene­dic­tion on Steve Strange and assor­ted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot cos­tume, being fol­lowed by a bull­dozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside suc­cess he had longed for through­out the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becom­ing part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.

The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost cer­tainly the last — was more suc­cess­ful than the first, chan­ging the American aes­thetic as well as musical land­scapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were mas­ter­ful at draw­ing atten­tion to them­selves onscreen and got sat­ur­a­tion expos­ure on the newly foun­ded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day ver­sion” was reis­sued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the chan­nel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”

The syn­thpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hall­mark of ’80s MTV, and even­tu­ally made its way into the clas­sic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was espe­cially pop­u­lar on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ sta­tion — and con­tin­ued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I vis­ited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British syn­thpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)

It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit syn­thpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very hand­some, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet cer­tainly were, with the pos­sible excep­tion of their lead sing­ers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seem­ingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.

For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy cry­ing in his bed­room with the win­dow left delib­er­ately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was pre­pos­ter­ously pretty, even with those mini pig­tails. There was some­thing about the boy­ish vul­ner­ab­il­ity and sen­su­al­ity of syn­thpop that went with their kind of looks — there was def­in­itely a sexual ambi­gu­ity in the sequenced air.

Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hope­lessly in love with. It was a requited but uncon­sum­mated affair — which meant, of course, that it was end­lessly orgas­mic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, par­tic­u­larly the heart­felt yearn­ings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thank­ing them for dar­ing to write such openly homo­erotic lyr­ics — and received a dip­lo­matic let­ter of acknow­ledge­ment back from a PR agent inform­ing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”

But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was per­haps the pret­ti­est. A star of new romantic stomp­ing ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was work­ing in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, fam­ously describ­ing him­self as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”

But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high sum­mer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian val­ues” were to include a ban on gay pro­pa­ganda, was reelec­ted by a land­slide in June 1983, thanks largely to the vic­tory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colo­nial out­post. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had mean­while essen­tially put the West on a war foot­ing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isol­ated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.

The deli­cious “art fag” dec­ad­ence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was some­times known — was clearly doomed in the mil­it­ar­istic, mater­i­al­istic, AIDS-terror cli­mate of the mid-1980s. Male vul­ner­ab­il­ity and sexual ambi­gu­ity were now fatal weaknesses.

Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a bal­lad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pout­ing, on Top of the Pops in a glit­tery off-the-shoulder num­ber. There was a vis­ceral reac­tion as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the iron­ic­ally pres­ci­ent “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at num­ber 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beau­ti­ful boy in British pop was over.

And so, essen­tially, was new wave, ban­ished by a mid-’80s coun­ter­re­volu­tion of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunk­tacu­lar dance track “Relax” finally hit num­ber 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., includ­ing, most fam­ously, ‘Two Tribes,” which sat­ir­ized the threat of the Cold War turn­ing hot, and cer­tainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they def­in­itely peaked with “Relax.”

My school days ended in the sum­mer of 1983, and with them my exquis­itely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, con­trary to what the his­tory books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.

I ended up play­ing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponym­ous first album, released in January 1984, com­plete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very def­in­itely the homo­erotic bon­anza I’d mis­taken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a cel­ib­ate one.

In a sense, the Smiths were the ulti­mate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed syn­thes­izers for gui­tars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of glam and punk, pro­fessed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in busi­ness until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I sus­pect the Smiths were only allowed to hap­pen at all because, des­pite their enorm­ous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troub­ling the British top 10 and effect­ively banned from day­time radio airplay.

The Smiths were semi-underground new wave, oth­er­wise known as indie.

Dear Hero in Prison — Quotes From Morrissey’s Autobiography

Well, I’ve read that book. You know, the fastest-selling music bio­graphy ever.

And while it would be hideously indec­or­ous of me to review it – espe­cially since Morrissey was kind enough not to men­tion my bio­graphy of him – I will say this:

It cer­tainly didn’t dis­ap­point.

In lieu of a review, here are some espe­cially cher­ished lines. Because of course, everything that he says rings true-oh-oh-oh.

Morrissey Reading

On his hometown

…we live in for­got­ten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hun­dred years ago.

On his big head

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, but soon it is I, and not my mother, on the crit­ical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital.

On being Irish Catholic

…we Irish Catholics know very well how rauc­ous hap­pi­ness dis­pleases God, so there is much evid­ence of guilt in all we say and do, but non­ethe­less it is said and done.

On school punishment

You touch me and my mum’ll be down,’ I warn Miss Dudley. I am nine years old.

On Myra Hindley

Tormentedly, every­one appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehu­man­ized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.

On George Best

My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apo­ca­lyptic dis­turber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remem­ber my father’s rasp as he dragged my twis­ted body through the crowd and out into the street, caus­ing him to miss the rest of the match.

On Lost in Space

Dr Smith’s voice is the caustic cat­ti­ness of a tetchy dow­ager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intol­er­ance. Major West, on the other hand, will kick to kill. My note­pad rest­ing on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effem­in­ate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.

On being caught by a teacher with a New York Dolls album sleeve

LOOK AT THIS!’ she deman­ded of every­one, ‘LOOK AT THIS!’ and every­one looked at this. ‘THIS is sick­ness. These are MEN mak­ing them­selves sexual for OTHER MEN.’

On del­ic­ate boys and rough girls

In King’s Lane a sporty Welsh girl lands me such a power­ful clenched-fist blow that I fall to the ground deafened. ‘What was THAT for?’ I said, sight­less with sore­ness. ‘Because I like you and you won’t look at me,’ she said – as if what she had done might improve the situ­ation. It didn’t.

On 1970s teen­age sex

Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their own­ers doing noth­ing at all other than let­ting you. The call of duty is all yours – to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; as the own­ers of such Bermuda Triangles do … noth­ing.

On 1970s porn

Female nud­ity is gen­er­ally easy to find – if not actu­ally unavoid­able – but male nud­ity is still a glimpse of some­thing that one is not meant to see. In mid-70s Manchester there must be obsess­ive love of vagina, oth­er­wise your life dooms itself forever.

On Top of The Pops

All human activ­ity is fruit­less when pit­ted against the girls and boys singing on pop tele­vi­sion, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the ques­tion. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.

On AE Housman

Housman was always alone – think­ing him­self to death, with no mat­ronly wife to sig­nal to the watch­ing world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scor­ing a part­ner: to trum­pet the men­tal all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more import­ant than how things are?

On Patti Smith

In a dream state I watch her explode as she takes on the les­bian con­tin­gent at the front who are call­ing to Patti to ‘come out’ (where to? from what?), and they heckle her in almost every song.

On Sparks

Ron Mael sat at the key­board like an aban­doned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French ital­ics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.

On being banned by his best mate’s mum

I pon­der on how I could pos­sibly be con­sidered a bad influ­ence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influ­en­tial. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dan­cing, or read jokes aloud at funer­als. I had never even once been drunk. My main con­cern in life was to find some­where that could make spec­tacles in less than an hour.

On Sandie Shaw

I had col­lec­ted all of Sandie’s slap-bang singles of the 1960s, and thought that they per­fectly tra­versed the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.

On the North

…the north is a sep­ar­ate coun­try – one of wild night land­scapes of affec­tion­ate affliction.

On Success

…there is Paul Newman, sit­ting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smil­ing at La Luna res­taur­ant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sit­ting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unem­ploy­able Stretford canal-bank cleaner is intro­duced. This all could be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.

On Rough Trade Records

These are the days when almost any unsigned artist that I favor instantly awakes to find Geoff Travis sit­ting at the foot of their bed, a short-form agree­ment between his teeth. It’s a com­pli­ment, of sorts.

On David Bowie

David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.’

On life with the boxer Jake Walters

…every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhil­ar­at­ing, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.

On Jake’s belly

I am pho­to­graphed for Creem magazine with my head rest­ing on Jake’s exposed belly. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ asks new man­ager Arnold Stiefel. ‘No?’ I say in a small voice. ‘Well, that’s a very intim­ate shot.’ ‘Oh?’ I say, baffled. ‘A man doesn’t rest his head on another man’s stom­ach,’ Arnold goes on. ‘No?’ I answer, all adrift on the cruel sea.

On that November Spawned a Monster video

Tim had asked me to do the entire November spawned a mon­ster video naked. I explained to him that this would be impossible since my entire lower body had been des­troyed by fire in 1965. His expres­sion remained wide-eyed with belief as he replied, ‘Oh.’

On his fans

As I watch and study, I am mirrored by a hand­some legion of the tough and the flash, and with this vis­ion all of my efforts succeed.

Will Morrissey Have The Last Laugh — Again?

 ‘Has any book in recent memory not actu­ally about wiz­ards pro­voked so much interest?’

Mark Simpson on the most eagerly-anticipated music bio­graphy ever.

C4 News, 14 October, 2013

MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pom­pa­doured front man of The Smiths – and loudly reject­ing everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that suc­cess was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on every­body,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night — when Minder is fin­ished — and just chuckle, deafeningly.”

Right now he must be chuck­ling so deaf­en­ingly the neigh­bours are com­plain­ing to the coun­cil. Wherever it is he lives these days.

His much anti­cip­ated, much delayed, much-discussed eponym­ously titled auto­bi­o­graphy is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actu­ally about wiz­ards pro­voked so much interest? Before even its exist­ence was cer­tain? Before any­one seems to have read the thing?

Whatever its con­tents — and your guess is as good as mine — Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trade­mark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pic­tured), offer­ing the world his not insub­stan­tial chin. The appar­ent absence of review cop­ies, ensur­ing his crit­ics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth — and every­one and my mother has an opin­ion on Morrissey.

But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t mat­ter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s writ­ten: Morrissey has suc­ceeded in get­ting Penguin to put his mem­oirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is some­where between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turn­ing him­self into a “liv­ing sign” (and the Amazon blurb men­tions the word “icon” twice) – is now offi­cially an instant clas­sic. Penguin say so. So there.

A flab­ber­gas­ted lit­er­ary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual his­tor­ical fact he already has.

Before he found some­thing much more reward­ing to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted noth­ing so much as to be a writer. From his box bed­room in his mother’s coun­cil house in sub­urban Manchester this auto­di­dact who left school at six­teen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamph­lets about his twin obses­sions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a lib­rar­ian, and he fam­ously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”

But Johnny Marr came call­ing and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most lit­er­ary of pop­sters — using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insist­ing that his lyr­ics, which often “bor­rowed” from the writers he admired, be prin­ted on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely sur­prised if — and part of me hopes — his mem­oir turns out to be just his col­lec­ted lyr­ics, with some hand-drawn tit­iv­a­tion in the margins.

And what lyr­ics! Morrissey is unques­tion­ably the greatest lyr­i­cist of desire — and thus of frus­tra­tion — who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writ­ing plays. He’d have formed a band.

But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that pro­vokes such curi­os­ity from all sides, is that des­pite turn­ing it into great art, and becom­ing a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained res­ol­utely private. Which is a shock­ing, almost inde­cent achieve­ment in a cul­ture as sure of its enti­tle­ment to know everything as ours is today.

Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but hav­ing cre­ated this mys­tique, this cher­ished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obses­sion with old skool star­dom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I won­der, sur­vive con­fes­sion? Can prose com­pare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?

But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for steal­ing away the hearts of a generation?

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a doc­u­ment­ary about ‘Directioners’, feb­rile fans of the glob­ally – some would say crim­in­ally – suc­cess­ful real­ity TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typ­ing with your thumbs.

Larry StylinsonLarry 2

They were all teen­age girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an inter­est­ing doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teen­agers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite lik­ing ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and think­ing the blond one would make a cute car dash­board gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite lik­ing’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remark­ably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fan­dom, with beat­ing hearts hov­er­ing sweetly, expect­antly, men­acingly over ‘i’s. About extra­vag­ant pro­fes­sions of undy­ing, breath­less, piti­less devo­tion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely ser­i­ous threats to top your­self or lop off limbs if they don’t acknow­ledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of con­cert sta­dia for hours and hours on the off-chance of scream­ing at a blacked out minivan which may or may not con­tain a mem­ber of 1D accel­er­at­ing away from you.

Not to for­get play­ing all this up for the cam­eras – some­thing teen girl pop fans have been wise to for gen­er­a­tions: e.g. that immor­tal, always-recycled clip of a girl out­side a David Bowie con­cert in the 1970s sob­bing gently and com­pletely uncon­vin­cingly to cam­era about not get­ting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s atten­tion wan­der­ing towards other fans, sud­denly cry­ing MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very famil­iar trope seemed to be that thanks to social net­work­ing fans can now mon­itor their idols con­stantly on Twitter, search­ing end­lessly for clues as to their where­abouts and feed­ing their ima­gin­ary rela­tion­ship with them. But watch­ing teen girls watch­ing their idols’ Twitter feed wait­ing impa­tiently for the next status update which may or may not be pos­ted by a mem­ber of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fan­dom may seem in its main pro­fessed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t per­haps quite as irra­tional as it seems. After all, this unreal­ity really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls inter­viewed don’t have boy­friends. But it didn’t bother men­tion­ing the fact that they do have girl­friends. Lots and lots of girl­friends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boy­friend. Or at least, enjoy think­ing they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains end­lessly, exquis­itely uncon­sum­mated. It’s the per­fect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job descrip­tion to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) avail­able for the fans’ end­less yearn­ing – and pur­suit. 1D are elec­tric hares at a musical grey­hound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in com­mon with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excite­ment yes, but most espe­cially deli­cious dis­ap­point­ment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly show­ing off phone pics of her smugly beam­ing face next to vari­ous indul­gent over-moussed 1D chaps accos­ted in some hotel recep­tion was not exactly what you’d call sis­terly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girl­friends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run inter­views with the band they dis­ap­prove of, def­in­itely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together assert­ing an act­ive, quite pos­sibly aggress­ive sexual interest in pretty, pout­ing, pack­aged, pass­ive boys is some­thing I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That play­ing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feed­ing frenzy sur­round­ing the grin­ning Manc lads in leather har­nesses. I spoke to a group of ram­bunc­tious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favour­ite was:

HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do any­thing you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, help­fully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expec­ted them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fan­dom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too del­ic­ate…. It’s a sober­ing thought that the women hav­ing the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and bay­ing for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the moth­ers and grand­moth­ers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bum­ming. By far the most mem­or­able sec­tion of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most con­tro­versy examined the phe­nomenon of ‘Larry ship­pers’, 1D fans who fan­tas­ise about a rela­tionship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writ­ing pas­sion­ately romantic or out­right erotic stor­ies, com­plete with eye-popping illus­tra­tions. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very poly­morph­ously per­verse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slash­ing’ – the long-established fanfic tra­di­tion of women writ­ing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fic­tional char­ac­ters together for their enjoy­ment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally glor­i­ously con­sum­mat­ing, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hid­den sub­text. And yet this was the part of the doc­u­ment­ary that was gen­er­ally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voi­ceover that intro­duced ship­ping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of show­ing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that man­love for ladies, the female ver­sion of men’s enjoy­ment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girl­ish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pock­ets, usu­ally super­vised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were expli­citly told by their man­ager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step fur­ther and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads rest­ing on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dan­cing around and slap­ping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not neces­sary to test mar­ket a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the for­mula. How to do ‘gay­ness’. Including of course the boys them­selves, whose ten­der­ness and phys­ical affec­tion for one another is much more ‘nor­mal’ and ‘nat­ural’ for their met­ro­sexu­al­ised gen­er­a­tion than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry ship­pers are only join­ing the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s man­age­ment and the whole his­tory of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the man­age­ment secretly love Larry.”

Though admit­tedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insist­ing that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shag­ging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girl­friends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jeal­ous if they had a boy­friend instead of a girl­friend.” Or per­haps it’s bet­ter to find a way of believ­ing that the doll-like boys are, des­pite plenty of evid­ence to the con­trary, stick­ing to your storyline – rather than fol­low­ing their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the lit­er­ally scream­ing evid­ence of the grav­it­a­tional pull of man­love for ladies and the voyeur­istic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ power­ing it.

A few years ago a UK TV pro­du­cer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a doc­u­ment­ary pro­posal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shap­ing a lot of pop cul­ture. Apparently the response was always the same: baffle­ment. Followed by a cer­tain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reas­sur­ing scep­ti­cism that such a phe­nomenon exis­ted at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

Stretch Jeans & Synthpop: The Human League’s ‘Dare’

By Mark Simpson

IN THE EARLY YEARS of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolu­tion­ary but prac­tical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invincible.

I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it con­firmed all the psychoses of teen­ager­dom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrog­ant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fuck­ing clever. So fuck­ing fuck­able. And we were so fuck­ing right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.

Dare had the effrontery to stretch the sparse, avant-garde, elec­tronic dreams of the early, pre-1980 split, art skool Human League around pop music, disco and every­day desire. It was a per­fect, thrill­ing, highly sexy fit. There’s a simple, time­less test of whether pop music is any good or not: can it be played really loudly at a fair­ground while you’re being spun around by a tat­tooed lad on the Waltzers?

To this day, whenever I hear the open­ing bars of ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love)’, the bit which sounds like fly­ing sau­cers talk­ing to one another before the hip-wiggling bass line kicks in, the hairs still obed­i­ently rise on the back of my neck and I’m all giddy and spotty and about to spew up my Merrydown again.

Dare is one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and quite pos­sibly the greatest UK dance album. It changed what pop music could be. It changed what the world was going to be. This thrice-platinum album was wildly suc­cess­ful and influ­en­tial, cool and high street, arty and com­mer­cial, on a scale that has never really been repeated and can never be, now that pop music is essen­tially a spent force. And this cul­tural colos­sus (with a little help from Virgin Records) came out of the post-industrial wreck­age of ‘Steel City’ aka Sheffield. Not London, not Manchester, but the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Tyke pop.

The Vogue–styled album gate fold cover, with The League’s dev­ast­at­ingly pretty and pro­voc­at­ively made-up lead singer – and now unchal­lenged cre­at­ive director/dictator – Phil Oakey as front-cover girl, with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the pretty school­girl dancers/backing vocal­ists fam­ously recruited by Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub called Crazy Daisy’s, barely man­aging to com­pete on the inside. (Philip Adrian Wright, the only sur­viv­ing non-Oakey mem­ber of the pre-split Human League, was not given the Vogue treat­ment.) It was a work of pop art that Factory Records, just over the Pennines, might have envied – if they weren’t so post-punk puritanical.

Listening today, over thirty years on, almost noth­ing has aged about this album, recor­ded at the very apo­gee of syn­thpop and its ana­logue day­dreams of a digital world – this, after all, is what ‘syn­thpop’ was before digital tech­no­logy actu­ally finally arrived years later, and ruined everything. Those Korgs and Rolands were ana­logue. It is much, much easier to make syn­thpop music now, and almost every­one does. But none of it has any heart.

The first track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, an anthemic invoc­a­tion of desire, exhorts the listener to ‘do all the things you ever dared’. The stir­ring foot­ball chant chorus—‘These are the things! These are the things! The things that dreams are made of!’—is under­cut by the almost banal mod­esty of the detail of those dreams: ‘New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times’. But that’s the intox­ic­at­ing drama of Dare: a uto­pian soundtrack with a down-to-earth, sub­urban ‘good time’ vibe. ‘Everybody needs love and affec­tion. Everybody needs two or three friends.’ By the aus­tere, highly polit­ical post-punk stand­ards of a Thatcher-ravaged, deeply recessed 1981, Dare deman­ded the impossible.

The new, purged Human League’s first off­spring was very much Oakey’s baby. It really was Phil talk­ing, hav­ing rid him­self of dis­sent­ing voices of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who went on to form Heaven 17 (and take on that fas­cist groove thang). Phil’s inim­it­able bari­tone suf­fuses the album – a voice as dis­tinct­ive as the sound and the look. A voice so dis­tinct­ive, in fact, that like many from that era, it’s impossible to ima­gine it suc­ceed­ing today. Except per­haps as a nov­elty act to be voted off before the semi finals.

Martin Rushent, the synth-pop pro­du­cer brought in to make good the loss of the tech­nical skills of Ware and Marsh, should almost be cred­ited as a fifth band mem­ber on Dare. His vir­tu­oso deploy­ment of synths and sequen­cers effect­ively adds another lead vocal to the tracks, while the intro­duct­ory bars are micro over­tures that instantly announce the irres­ist­ible genius of each song. Is there an album any­where that has bet­ter, hook­ier, more out­rageously sash­ay­ing intros? ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘The Sound of the Crowd’, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Love Action’, and the Sheffield nites­pot oper­etta of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ – da da da-da dum da da da DUM! You know exactly what’s com­ing and you can’t wait. Much like love itself.

The final track ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ became of course the Human League’s best-selling single and 1981’s Xmas Number One, selling over 2 mil­lion cop­ies world­wide. It is also the most per­fect pop song ever made, run­ning the sub­lime gamut from epic to trashy and back again, with a sing-along chorus that is the purest dis­til­la­tion of all pop lyr­ics ever: ‘Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, OHHHHH!’

After that there really is noth­ing more to be said on the subject.

DYWM’ brings per­fect ‘clos­ure’ to Dare’s theme of pur­su­ing dreams. Oakey plays a Svengali fig­ure spurned by his cre­ation, voiced pitch-perfect by Susan Anne Sully, and threatens: ‘Don’t for­get it’s me who put you where you are now and I can put you down too.’

She’s ‘dared’ – and doesn’t need him any more. But the biggest Dare of all was Oakey’s. Everyone thought boffins and band founders Ware and Marsh were the brains of the out­fit and Oakey would fall flat on his pretty-boy face after the 1980 split. Phil was work­ing not as a cock­tail wait­ress but as a hos­pital porter when Ware found him in 1978, and turned him into someone new.

But his worst turned out to be bet­ter than their best.

(Originally appeared on Culture Kicks, June 5 2013)

The Dame Edna Experience Goes West

The intox­ic­at­ingly tal­en­ted DEE, alias Jonathan Paul Hellyer, is per­form­ing his last ever Sunday show at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern this Easter week­end. Fame has finally found him, pos­sums, and he’s mov­ing to America. To salute him, his new life and the end of an era for London’s gay scene, I thought I’d post this appre­ci­ation from the early Noughties


(Independent on Sunday, 23 September, 2001)

By Mark Simpson

I have a con­fes­sion to make. I’ve been hav­ing an affair. For some time now I’ve been sneak­ing off to a slightly smelly Victorian drag pub in South London every Sunday after­noon to see a per­former called ‘The Dame Edna Experience’. And every Sunday I’ve exper­i­enced… well, this is very embar­rass­ing. True Love.

What does the Dame Edna Experience, aka Jonathan Paul Hellyer, do? Well, he tells a few dirty jokes, and then he sings some cheesy love songs, which he often makes fun of as he’s singing. In a black Basque, stock­ings horn-rimmed glasses and a blue-rinse wig. But some­how, he takes you from the base to the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous and back again leav­ing you bewitched, bothered and bewildered and won­der­ing what Barry Humphries did to deserve the accolade.

Everyone in the place – and it is sold out every week – is trans­fixed by him. Even the shirt­less gay club­bers com­ing down from their weekend’s rav­ing stop chew­ing their gum and stare, slack-jawed.

To say he’s merely ‘funny’ or ‘has a great voice’ would be a libel­lous mis­rep­res­ent­a­tion. Hellyer has a tal­ent that seems to encom­pass the entire range of human emo­tion – and gender. He doesn’t just sing songs such as ‘Angels’ and ‘Think Twice’ note per­fect, and in a voice uncan­nily like Celine Dion or Robbie Williams. He breathes some­thing into these pon­der­ous dit­ties that trans­forms their cheapness into some­thing dan­ger­ously potent in a way that Baz Luhrmann would envy. Distilling Robbie-ness and Dion-ness into some­thing intox­ic­at­ing that the artists them­selves could never quite be bothered to do.

So when he per­forms the irk­some char­ity ver­sion of ‘Perfect Day’, ren­der­ing every­one from Lou Reed to Tammy Wynette, Bono to Ronan, Elton to Heather Small so intensely the ori­gin­als seem coun­ter­feit, you find your­self absurdly moved and amused – as much by the power of your own response as any­thing else. And when he finally pulls off that blue wig and those glasses and lets us look into his eyes you notice that this divine trick­ster is young and attract­ive too, those legs rather shapely in those stockings.

Such a per­fect Sunday. I’m so glad I spent it with you. You made me for­get myself – I thought I was someone else. Someone good.

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