Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When Pop Stars Stop Dissing Each Other and Start Slamming Themselves

I've long lived to debate the finer points of music with people who don't necessarily share my taste in it. Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of the Scottish band Texas, once told me that was how she met her then-boyfriend (and future father of her daughter), and I suppose I've always hoped to get lucky like that. But it's hard to argue in favor of the merit of a song or an album when the one who hates it is the one who made it?

David Bowie once told me that every album he did in the '80s -- from 1983's Let's Dance until his end-of-the-decade creatively rejuvenating Tin Machine collaboration -- he did for the money. Would that include such '80s-Bowie highlights as "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (from Let's Dance) and "Day-In Day-Out" (from 1987's Never Let Me Down)? I'm afraid so, '80s-Bowie fans.

During the second of my three sit-downs with Mary J. Blige (quite possibly my second all-time favorite interview subject, after Bowie) in 2003, shortly before the release of Love & Life, she, too, disparaged her own work. When I asked her to critique her output up to that point, she stunned me by declaring her 1997 Share My World album the low light.

"What are you talking about?" I asked, incredulous and floored. "That album includes some of your strongest material: 'Round and Round,' 'Seven Days...' Those are incredible songs."

"Well, I'm glad you like them, but that doesn't mean I do, too." She was touched my generosity, but she was prepared to fight for what she didn't really believe in.

Olivia Newton-John was similarly unimpressed by herself when I interviewed her by phone in 1996, and the subject turned to "Soul Kiss," her 1985 Top 20 single and final U.S. Top 40 hit. It remains one of my favorite Olivia Newton-John singles, as much for the red-hot sultry song itself as for its red-hot sultry video, which featured Olivia, red-hot sultry in red, writhing around on a bed of red-hot sultry red. It was sexy in a way that "Physical" was too perky to be, more full-on scandalous than "A Little More Love," womanly in ways "Make a Move on Me" could only dream of. It was "Landslide" after several cocktails, "Tied Up" without any underwear on. More than a decade later, ONJ was still gasping.


"Today when I look at that video, I have no idea who that woman is," she said.

You can dismiss most negative reviews as the mad ramblings of frustrated artists-turned-critics, clueless civilian listeners or bitter fellow performers angling for publicity, but when musicians slam their own material, it carries a certain critical weight. Who was I to contradict Olivia, or argue with Mary (though I tried)? If anyone should know why he made 1984's dreadful (with the exception of "Blue Jean") Tonight album, it would be Bowie. So it wasn't my place to tell him that Let's Dance exists for any reason other than that it made him richer quick.

Unfortunately, I couldn't fight with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Andy McCluskey either over what he had to say about The Pacific Age, his group's 1986 album, in Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s (told by the artists themselves!), a new page-turner of a book co-authored by my former Teen People and Us Weekly colleague Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein that comes out today. His comments so infuriated me that I went to bed angry the night I read the OMD chapter and almost vowed never to listen to the group's music again.

To be honest and considerably less dramatic, what he said pales in comparison to what Ian McCulloch had to say about Bono, what Morrissey had to say about at least one of his former bandmates in The Smiths, what the members of New Order and Kajagoogoo had to say about each other, and what seemingly everyone had to say about A Flock of Seagulls. Those '80s stars are one catty bunch! Their rampant cut downs are a huge part of what makes Mad World such an engaging must-read.

But what the various artists have to say about their own work is the cornerstone of the book, and I couldn't believe that McCluskey had the nerve to call The Pacific Age OMD's "musical nadir." His subtle dig at Americans for loving it anyway did nothing to ease my rage.

OMD's '80s can be divided into two distinct halves (or as Bernstein suggests in the book, "phases"): the band's output between 1980 and 1984, spanning its eponymous debut to Junk Culture (though Bernstein's "Phase 1" ends with 1983's Dazzle Ships), and the band's output between 1985 and 1988, encompassing Crush to The Best of OMD and including "If You Leave," the 1986 Top 5 U.S. single from Pretty in Pink.

During the first half, OMD were chart stars in their native UK but not in the U.S., and during the second half, U.S. pop fans sent five OMD singles up Billboard's Hot 100 while former fans in the UK pretty much moved on until 1991's Sugar Tax. If you consider how black-or-white-and-not-afraid-to-be-vocal-about-it Brits can be when it comes to pop (Do the stars of any other country more freely dis each other in public and in books like Mad World?), it's hardly surprising that McCluskey would so loudly and un-proudly tag The Pacific Age his least-favorite OMD album, an unmitigated aural disaster.

For me, it has too much sentimental value to dismiss. Nicholle, my best friend in high school and college, bought it for me on cassette for Christmas in 1986, so every time I played it, I thought of her. Every time I listen to it now, I still think of her. But even without the Nicholle connection, I would have connected to The Pacific Age.

I can't speak for all of my fellow Americans, but the very things that McCluskey criticizes it for in Mad World -- "no concepts, no weird ideas, no 'Enola Gay' and oil refinery songs and Catholic saints" -- are the reasons why I love Pacific tracks like "Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel)," "Watch Us Fall," and the Top 20 U.S. single "(Forever) Live and Die." They're melodic and memorable without lapsing into jejunity, artful without the whiff of the pretentious and the arcane. Those are the things I love most about OMD's '80s, Part 2.

"(Forever) Live and Die" OMD


Those Crush singles -- "So in Love" and "Secret" -- were my introduction to OMD, required listening, along with INXS's Listen Like Thieves album (which was on side two of the Memorex cassette that contained Crush), during the second half of 1985 and early 1986, and the direct precursors to both bands' greatest U.S. hits (in OMD's case, "If You Leave," in INXS's, "Need You Tonight"). Without Crush, I might never have bothered to discover the best of OMD's '80s, Part 1: "Tesla Girls," "Talking Loud and Clear" and Architecture and Morality's trio of brilliant singles ("Souvenir," "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans").

All that said, as much as I appreciate the Crush singles and The Pacific Age (and the fact that OMD took the trouble to secure the rights to sample Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream..." speech on The Pacific Age's "Southern," the fact the OMD sampled MLK at all, suggests that the album was much more than the afterthought McCluskey implies it was), I can't argue with him for appreciating OMD's 80s, Part 1 more. I love OMD in 2014 mostly for the UK hits that I missed when they were flopping in the U.S.

"Southern" OMD


If I only knew OMD for the group's two biggest U.S. chart hits, "If You Leave" (No. 4, 1986) and "Dreaming" (No. 16, 1988), I'd probably mention the group today in the same breath as Breathe (Remember "Hands to Heaven"?). On the other hand, if the band had done nothing else after Junk Culture, there might be no OMD chapter in Mad World, but I'd nonetheless still consider them to be one of the best bands to come out of the '80s. I'm just glad they didn't quit while they were ahead in the UK, for reasons that have nothing to do with Pretty in Pink and everything to do with The Pacific Age.

"Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel)" OMD

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