Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Lucy Show - Mania

Well, here we are at the end of another year. So long, 2013! And thanks a bunch to the 62,000+ of you who visited this funny little site for the first time over the past year. I greatly appreciate all of the new visitors, along with those of you who have returned time and again, who all have taken the time to check out my blog. I hope that this site has entertained and possibly enlightened you over the past year, exposing you to new bands you may not have heard of and obscure albums you may not have been aware of or may have forgotten about over the years. I have responded to over 2,500 download requests during 2013, so it appears that many of you found something here of interest! For that I am grateful.

With the year coming to a close, I'd like to include you all in on a little tradition I observe every New Year's Day.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, after my graduation from USNA in the summer of 1987, I spent the rest of that year and the early part of 1988 living in Athens, Georgia, where I attended the Navy Supply Corps School (NSCS), a small base/installation located in the northwestern part of the city. After being an inmate of the Academy's military dorm, Bancroft Hall, for the previous four years, I had no remote intention of living under that yoke again, in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) on the school grounds. I searched around a bit, and found a small two-bedroom duplex on the far end of town, south of the University of Georgia, on an extension of Milledge Avenue (Athens' main north/south drag). The place was a shitbox - tatty carpeting, peeling paint, poor water pressure and inadequate heating. But it was cheap and furnished, and the doors locked securely, which was all I wanted and needed. Plus it was close to UGA's Sorority Row, and a short drive from the downtown music clubs like the 40 Watt and the Uptown Lounge. So I was happy. Besides, I wasn't going to be living there for that long.

A few of my old Annapolis classmates attending NSCS with me did decide to live in the BOQ, including my old friend Pat. Pat was a native Californian and a fellow New Wave fan like myself, although his tastes skewed more towards European synthpop bands like Talk Talk, OMD and Alphaville. We hung out a lot during our time in Athens, heading out to local shows there (we saw X and The Beat Farmers at the Uptown that year) and in Atlanta (U2's Unforgettable Fire tour at the Omni that spring, at the time the best show I'd ever attended in my life), chasing college girls at the GA Bar downtown, or just chilling out and listening to one another's large music collections. I wasn't into a lot of the stuff that he owned and liked, but a couple of things caught my fancy, including an album called Mania by an obscure English New Wave band called The Lucy Show. I liked it so much that that fall, Pat hooked me up with a cassette copy. I didn't know much about these guys at the time; much of their history I learned years later . . .

The Lucy Show was formed in early 1983 by two Canadian musicians transplanted to England, bassist Rob Vandeven and guitarist Mark Bandola, along with two of their friends, drummer Bryan Hudspeth and keyboardist Pete Barraclough. Bandola and Vendeven collaborated on the band's songwriting and shared vocal duties. The group wasted no time in getting noticed, later that year releasing the single "Leonardo Da Vinci" b/w "Kill The
Beast" on independent Shout Records, a record that received both attention and airplay from influential British DJ John Peel. This in turn generated some major label interest; by early 1984, The Lucy Show was signed by A&M Records. During that year, A&M (through its Piggy Bank Records offshoot) released two more of the band's singles ("See It Goes" b/w "Resistance" and "Electric Dreams" b/w "History Part 1") and a four-song EP, Extended Play.

In 1985, A&M released the band's first album, ...Undone. The band's sound at the time was darker and more brooding than their future releases, but still quite melodic. I've heard other critics express similarities between some album cuts (like "Better On The Hard Side" and the title track) to music that The Cure was putting out at the time - yes, there are some parallels there. But after I purchased and listened to this album years later, I found that there was more to The Lucy Show than just being a Cure rip-off band. In their music, I also found a significant strain of European post-punk present. And in the ringing guitars and bass rhythms on songs like "Wipe Out" and "Ephemeral (This Is No Heaven)", I hear a lot of Australian influences (whether intentional or not), from bands like Radio Birdman and Hunters & Collectors.

All in all, the music on ...Undone was a very compelling mix, and in its day it got the band noticed, at home and abroad. The album received favorable critical reviews, and sold briskly in the US, eventually reaching #1 on the influential College Music Journal (CMJ) charts. It looked like The Lucy Show had it made . . . but shockingly and inexplicably, A&M decided to drop the band from its roster. On New Year's Eve, 1985, The Lucy Show found itself without a label.

Scrambling now, in early 1986 the band signed with the American arm of Australian independent label Big Time Records (the home of both Air Supply and The Hoodoo Gurus). Later that year, they released their follow-up, Mania. On this disc, The Lucy Show radically changed its sound from that of their debut album. The moody, atmospheric nature of their early songs was almost totally dispensed with; in its place were bouncy, poppy, upbeat tunes, augmented with a heavy dose of shimmering synthesizers.

In many ways, the band's new sound was textbook mid-80s New Wave music, and could be viewed as a blatant ploy for immediate commercial success and radio play - which, after present-day reflection, I find that being somewhat of an odd move on their part. With their first album, the group already proved that they could find financial and critical success with their darker sound; in my opinion, there was no need to make such a radical shift.

Then I thought a little further, and put myself in the band's shoes. By late 1985, The Lucy Show had built upon almost three solid years of steady sales and upward momentum - momentum that was suddenly terminated when they lost their major-label contract. The shock of A&M's seemingly arbitrary asshole-ery undoubtedly weighed heavily on the band members' minds, perhaps causing them to adjust their musical focus in order to quickly regain that momentum.

Whatever the reason, what was done was done. And fortunately for the band, the move initially paid off. Reviews of Mania were even more laudatory than for ...Undone, and the album enjoyed good sales, once again topping the American CMJ charts. Even MTV began playing the video to the first album single, "A Million Times". It looked as though The Lucy Show was moving forward once more.

Then the bottom dropped out once again. Big Time Records' financial fortunes suddenly declined precipitously in late 1986/early 1987, and by the spring of 1987, the label had filed for bankruptcy and released its stable of artists. The Lucy Show, seemingly snakebit, was out in the cold once again. With the band's finances also in dire straits, the two Canadians politely asked Hudspeth and Barraclough to leave, and continued on as a duo. Bandola and Vendeven tried to make one final go at it on a new label, uber-indie Redhead Records, but the single they released in 1988, "Wherever Your Heart Will Go", sank like a stone. Game over. The Lucy Show broke up later that year.

. . . But all of that was in the future. In the late fall of 1987, all I knew was that I liked Mania. During a Christmas break in classes, I drove home to Virginia to spend the holidays with my folks. I spent New Year's Eve that year as I had for the past couple of years, partying with friends at various clubs in Washington D.C. After a long night of fun ringing in the New Year, I drove back down I-66 to my parents' house in Northern Virginia in the wee hours, and decided to pop one of the various cassettes I brought along into the car's tape player. Of course, I selected The Lucy Show, and the first song that cued up was "New Message":

I didn't get much out of the lyrics to this song. But for me, the music itself gave off such a positive vibe and uplifting, happy energy, that it made me feel that much more optimistic about the upcoming year. "New Message", "New Year" . . . I played the tune several more times on the way home, further linking the song and the day firmly together in my head (and yeah, I know that "New Message" has nothing whatsoever to do with the holiday - but still . . .).

That was over twenty-five years ago . . . But every New Year's Day since then, I make a point of playing "New Message" at least once during the day, in honor of the occasion. Of course occasionally in the past, the optimism and happiness I hoped to engender for the upcoming year with the playing of this song hasn't quite panned out. But like eating black-eyed peas, touching ashes or wearing red underwear, this song is one of my New Years good luck traditions, and as such I prefer to play it in the off chance that it brings me good fortune during the coming year than not do it and suffer the consequences!

You don't have to be as superstitious about it as I am . . . but still, here it is for you to enjoy: The Lucy Show's Mania, released by Big Time Records (America) in 1986. Enjoy, and I look forward to hearing from you all in 2014! Again, Happy New Year!

[BTW - this is the original 1986 release, not the expanded 2005 rerelease.]

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Various Artists - Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas

Another one from the great multi-album Just Can't Get Enough New Wave compilation series put out by Rhino Records in the mid-1990s (I posted New Wave Halloween here a couple of years ago).  This is one of the final entries from that run, a holiday-themed set featuring some real modern classics.  They sort of stretch both the concept of "New Wave" and the specific period covered (ostensibly the Eighties) with this album, which includes a couple of songs from both the 1970s and 1990s, along with "Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth", sung by those two post-punk giants Bing Crosby and David Bowie (heh) . . .  But despite this uncharacteristic drift of Rhino's focus, all in all, it's still an enjoyable disc.

Personal favorites include "Thanks For Christmas" by XTC (disguised here as "The Three Wise Men"), "Santa's Beard" by They Might Be Giants, and one of the greatest holiday-themed songs of the past thirty years, The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York".  Pretty much everything on this album is a winner, or at the very least will make you smile with the various bands' off-kilter thoughts on Christmas.

I meant to post way more Christmas stuff this year . . . but I just got distracted.  Plus, I'm nursing a recent sports injury that's kept me from spending extended periods in front of the computer.  A thousand pardons, please.  I hope that this entry somewhat makes up for my dearth of holiday posts - although I'm well aware that putting out Christmas music on Christmas Eve is a little like trying to sell pumpkins on November 1st . . .  But no matter - at least it will be here for next year!

So, for your holiday pleasure, here's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas, released by the good people at Rhino Records on October 15, 1996.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  And Happy Holidays to you all!

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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Special A.K.A. - In The Studio

Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

A great man died yesterday, after a long and eventful life.  There will be tributes aplenty to Nelson Mandela over the next few days and weeks, all of them well-deserved; the man was a significant figure in world history, and the memory of him will live on after most of us are long forgotten.  His is a sad, but not unexpected, loss.  However, rather than mourn for what we have lost with his passing, we should celebrate his accomplishments and be glad for the fact that we had him here on Earth with us for so long, and at such a crucial point in his country's and the world's history.

And in my opinion, the best way to celebrate Mandela's life is with that most celebratory of songs about him, the classic protest anthem "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special A.K.A.

This is arguably the most effective protest song of all time, bringing the plight of Mandela's long suffering and imprisonment at the hands of the racist South African government to more widespread and worldwide attention.  It even made it into the British Top Ten in the spring of 1984, and thrust songwriter and Specials co-founder Jerry Dammers into the forefront of the international anti-apartheid struggle.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the release and popularity of this song was one of most significant events, if not THE most significant, that led to Mandela's freedom six years later.

"Free Nelson Mandela" was the highlight of a tumultuous two-year recording session by the remaining Specials (crippled by the 1981 departure of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple to form The Fun Boy Three), renamed The Special A.K.A. for legal reasons and augmented by replacement musicians of varying quality (including volatile new lead vocalist Stan Campbell, who was reputedly a major head case even back then - eventually in 2002, he was indefinitely committed to a psychiatric hospital following attacks on two Coventry schoolgirls).  On the whole, the lone album this band produced, In The Studio, was a disappointment - but it did include this one great song, so there you go. 

The story behind the recording of this album and song has already been superbly covered by my friend and fellow blogger Marco On The Bass, so I won't belabor it here; here's the link to his article.  The album link on his site has long been down - so here's one that works:

In honor and in celebration of the life of the great statesman and peacemaker Nelson Mandela, I proudly offer to you In The Studio, recorded by The Special A.K.A. and released by 2 Tone Records on June 23rd, 1984.  Enjoy, remember, and as always, let me know what you think.

Rest long and well, Mr. Mandela.  And thank you.

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