It is week 9 of our latest book club! The focus is Mad World and this week, we are reading and discussing the chapters on A Flock of Seagulls, Modern English and Soft Cell. We would love to have you all read along and join in the discussion!
A Flock of Seagulls:
The introduction to this chapter is right on. A Flock of Seagulls is a band that seems almost a caricature of the genre and that time period, especially with that hair. As the introduction pointed out, though, we all remember the look! Isn’t that what image was all about? Trying to stick out from the crowd? Getting attention and then staying in people’s minds long after hearing the song or seeing the video? If so, this band had that part down, for sure!!
I absolutely had to laugh that they were aiming to follow the path that Duran went down but they weren’t as electronic as they wanted to be. First, it doesn’t surprise me that Duran was influencing bands even then. Second, I wonder what specifically made they want to follow Duran. If they wanted to be more electronic, why didn’t they follow Depeche Mode, for example? Did they like the fame and attention Duran was getting? Was that it?
“When things are right, they line up,” said Mike Score, in reference to writing the song, “I Ran.” He had seen a poster at a record company of people running from a flying saucer. From there, he said that the song wrote itself. What caught my attention there wasn’t the story behind the song as much as the line about when things are “right”. As I read each and every story in this book, I keep thinking about what really made the song or the band successful. Is it that it is just “right” so it is meant to be? Is that the artist worked really, really hard? Is it luck? Is it meeting the right person? It seems to me that most of the stories have a combination between all of these. Is that the same with other professions/careers?
Mike Score emphasizes that they wanted the band, the song to be “sci-fi”. It seems to me that there were a lot of New Wave artists out there who also had a focus of sorts on space and/or science fiction. Obviously, Duran did. While I could point out David Bowie as this chapter does, it seems to me that there has to be more to it than just David Bowie. Why then? People landed on the moon in the 1960s. Science fiction was an established genre then. So what was the deal? Could the increased tension of the Cold War do it? Could it be that people were looking for that positive future? Could it be that they were looking for an escape from a world that seemed doomed?
So I liked the hair. It was so completely different from what I was allowed to do with my own (no seriously, I wasn’t even allowed to wear skirts that fell above my knee, and no, I didn’t go to parochial school – that was my dad’s rule!). As I read Jonathan’s little editorial on how he felt about Flock of Seagulls, I have to say – I’m glad I didn’t live in England (probably the first time I’ve ever said that). I would have been just as out of place there as I was at Sunflower Intermediate in Covina, California. (Go ahead, look it up, but it’s no longer a public intermediate school – I think my “graduating class” busted the system or something). I liked their music, and not in a “I secretly listen to One Direction when no one else is around” sort of way. I danced to “I Ran”, and I liked it. So, I’m sure it’s not a surprise that I side with Lori on this one. I loved them, the song, the video AND their hair, and yes – they were cool.
I didn’t think it was such a surprise that they wanted to be like Duran Duran. They were really the first band from the UK that had really made a big splash in America in a very long time – I mean let’s be completely honest, for a while, Duran Duran was the biggest band in the world. I think a lot of bands wanted to be on the road that Duran Duran had already paved, and probably kick Duran Duran out of their way as they went cruising by.
I tend to agree with Mike Score – that when things are right, they do seem to just line up naturally. I hear that a lot, and even in my own life – sometimes the things that just happen naturally turn out to be the best. He makes a similar statement about “I Ran”, that it wrote itself – “as all good songs do.” (200) Over and over again throughout this book, artists make comparable comments about their biggest songs – that they came easily or wrote themselves. I don’t really know what that says, because there are moments when we all struggle with our best work, but as I read I have to notice that it seems to be a very common thread.
Mike’s very last comment in the book is one that I will take with me. “As the band gets bigger, you tend to lose that camaraderie. I think that led to the downfall.” I think this to be very true. It’s as though the band becomes larger than the people within, and everyone wants a piece to control – until the machine – the industry itself – makes the band uncontrollable, never mind the egos within.
I love this song and always have. That said, I never placed it into a soon to be destroyed by nuclear war context. As I read the lyrics and think about it, I can definitely see that. As a historian and social scientist, I find it fascinating when I am able to put songs and musical genres into societal and/or historical context. I understand a society and a time period more and I understand the song more. I now get to do that with this song, too. Very cool.
Of course, Robbie Grey of Modern English, expanded on this idea. I love that the song was also trying to show the good and the bad with people. Even the lyric about “mesh and lace” was to show this. Once again, I am reminded that song lyrics can seem straightforward on the surface and be much more when you dig a little deeper.
He also tells a story about how the band went from playing to 200 people in England to playing to 5000 people in Florida. What struck me wasn’t the idea of a very quick rise in fame that so many from this era experienced, but how Robbie saw the audiences in Europe compared to the audiences in America. European audiences he described as “thoughtful” whereas American audiences just wanted to have fun. I wonder if he would say the same now. Do others agree?
“I Melt with You” is as 80s iconic as anything else I can think of – I know that when the words “New Wave” are uttered amongst friends, this is always one of the first songs they mention. (I know this because I tested my theory at a neighborhood block party last week!) They also mention things like “Madonna”…and that’s when I openly cringe and tell them that it’s time to re-educate themselves on proper New Wave. I’m not invited to many neighborhood parties…
I never knew what the song was about, to be honest – but of course the line “Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace” sticks in my head as easily as “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war”. I really think I spent most of the 80s dancing to the music and not really listening to the words. That came much later.
I don’t know a lot of Modern English’s catalog. Like Jonathan, I was always very satisfied with just hearing “I Melt With You” and never felt like I needed more. So I was genuinely surprised to read that Robbie Grey used to shout rather than sing and that this song was the first he actually sang that way. I always liked the rawness of his voice – it added texture to the song.
Like Amanda, I was surprised to read that there was such a difference between American and European audiences. I mean, Duran has said similar things (I will never forget reading a blog from Roger Taylor that called American’s “raucous”. He didn’t mean it harshly, only that we’re apparently really loud and crazy. That stung, because I don’t see us quite that way. I don’t really understand the difference between the screaming “hard-core loyalty” they talk about from fans in Italy and the roar of the crowd they find here in America, but I have to think there really must be a difference.), but I just don’t really know what it means. I went to the UK for several shows a few years back, and to be completely honest I found the UK audiences to be very subdued to what goes on here at home. I mean yes they cheer, but it’s different. Would I call it thoughtful? I’m not quite sure that’s the right word.
Who doesn’t love this song? I have loved versions by other artists as well as the Soft Cell version, but I have to admit that this is my favorite out of them all. Is it that I know this one the best? Is it that I fell in love with this one first? Is it simply that this version really is the best? I suppose it doesn’t matter why I love it. I just do.
I love the fact that, according to the band’s Marc Almond, they went with this song to cover because doing a “soul song” was the most “un-electronic” thing to do. I suppose that is a little like Duran covering Public Enemy’s 911 Is a Joke. It just seems so out of character and, for Soft Cell, it truly was as so much of the rest of their material was shocking in many ways. Yet, Marc goes on to say how they put their sound to the song, which included, “cold, electronic sound with a passionate vocal.” That description could fit so much of the music I love. Truly.
Marc Almond continues to say that the success surrounding “Tainted Love” made them uncomfortable because of their new young fans and the controversial nature of the rest of the work. I would feel the same way, if I were them. That said, I’m not sure a lot of other artists would have given that two thoughts. A lot of artists would have just seen dollar signs and dollar signs only. I never heard Duran, for example, say that they had any concern about the Girls on Film video after attracting a lot of young fans. Perhaps, it isn’t because they weren’t concerned about their young fans but because they didn’t think the video would be harmful. Still, it is nice to see that Soft Cell did give some consideration to their young fans.
Without any disrespect intended, this is one of those songs that I could go without ever hearing again and not feel the least bit slighted. Once upon a time, I loved “Tainted Love” in the same way I loved “Hungry Like the Wolf”, but time (and radio) has ruined both for me. That said, I have always liked Soft Cell. I loved that their videos were meant to shock, and that they did. I like the avant-garde “art school” nature they had, and I think their videos are superbly odd. I would characterize Soft Cell as the really strange contemporary art that a lot of people rush past in a museum because they don’t get it – and yet you’ll find me standing there staring at a rotting piece of cheese boxed in clear acrylic because I’m trying to understand what the artist is saying. I love that stuff!
I think the real reason I liked Soft Cell and Marc Almond so much was because of something Marc says so eloquently, “Living in sleazy eighties Britain, repressed people leading secret lives, frustrated living in bedsits – it was the total antithesis of what Duran Duran were doing, which was singing about this glamorous life, and living in Rio, and sailing in ships on beautiful seas.” I love an escape. Duran Duran were living a life I had absolutely zero chance of ever experiencing myself – so that attracted me as much as John Taylor’s cheekbones or Roger Taylor’s quiet and brooding eyes ever did. On the other hand, I liked the darkness and obscurity that Soft Cell had to offer. It was the opposite of Duran Duran, and I liked that.
I respect Marc’s feelings for “Tainted Love” in the same way that I completely respect what “Hungry Like the Wolf” is for Duran Duran – you can’t (and shouldn’t) deny what those songs have done, and he’s right, they have to be embraced because people associate you with those songs. I think the problem with a band that has MANY of those songs is that they end up having to play a greatest hits show every night along with a few newbies – and for those of us who don’t need the reward of the hits in order to still support the band, we always end up wishing for the stuff no one else knows anything about. It’s probably a very good problem for a band to have.
Don’t forget to check in with us next week as we chat about A-Ha, Joy Division, and The Smiths!
-A & R