Guilty feet and tribal rhythms at Popular.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes”, 16 June 1984

“Two Tribes” peaked at number 4 in Australia, one place higher than “Relax”, but in my memory it had always been the lesser track, a retread of elements of its predecessor without a proper song at the heart of it. The video held more interest, given that we had never been allowed to see the banned video of its predecessor, although the amazingly unlifelike Reagan impersonator was a bit distracting. But there wasn’t enough in it to make me go out and buy the single.

When I play the video today I can see the potential for greatness, but also suspect that the greatness lies elsewhere, in all of the extended mixes that turn it into an ever-shifting long-form monster of a track. The short version seems to stop just as it gets going, as if Frankie have fast-forwarded to the big finish and passed over the actual substance. At first I wondered if this was down to having only two lines to play with, but “I Feel Love” used a similar number of words to hypnotic effect, so no; it’s more that problem of trying to compress the entire “Two Tribes” musical landscape into four minutes.

And this is where I suspect its Australian chart potential was reduced. We didn’t get the UK’s seven different single incarnations; Festival deigned only to release one 7”, two 12”s, and a cassingle. Not only did this reduce the potential for repeat purchases to keep the song in the charts, but it reduced its breadth. That sense of there being more to Frankie’s songs than the 7” version was a big part of their appeal, I remember; the idea that your infatuation with a song didn’t have to end when you’d tired of the 7” version, but could be reinvigorated mix by mix. We knew from the music press that Frankie were a phenomenon over here, and that you had been getting all these extra 12” versions, but in those days there was no easy way to hear them; getting your local store to import a record was a long and laborious business. You might do it for an album, but only the truly obsessed would do it for a single.

But all of that assumes that we’d decided to part with our dollars. Until we did, our exposure to the song was limited to radio and TV, and the sound-quality of either was pretty average. Television in those two-channel days (in my state) meant one or two screenings of the video on Countdown. Radio still meant AM, on the whole; superior-sounding FM radio was starting to take off around this time, but roll-out was slow in my hilly area, and the signal was much less reliable. Unless you had a friend who could play you the track on a Walkman, your chances of hearing Trevor Horn’s production to its best effect were limited.

So we were in something of a catch-22 situation. If we owned the single, we could hear it at its best and be convinced of its qualities; but until we owned the single we couldn’t. If we owned all the many 12” mixes, we could be convinced that this wasn’t just a song but something so much bigger, a suite of different versions all meshing into something huge; but we couldn’t buy all the different mixes that you could. (A skeptic might view all those different UK releases as a gaming of the charts, but while they must have extended its number one reign, they can’t have been the reason it got there—except in this intangible sense of the song being so much bigger in music-buyers’ imaginations than a four-minute single, which is impossible to quantify.)

Given that this was the sound of the future, of the wave of electronic dance music that has been washing over us ever since, it’s a shame that the Australian charts couldn’t make more room for it; we were too busy waking up before we went-went. But that’s history, and we can’t rewrite what “Two Tribes” meant to us any more than I can rewrite what it meant to me. Hearing it again now, I want to love it more for everything it represents, but I’ll have to call it 7.

On its capturing of the apocalyptic mood in 1984: I distinctly remember a long conversation with my parents around this time where I expressed exactly the imminent-armageddon fears this song invokes. Fortunately, by sharing their own memories of the Bay of Pigs era, they persuaded me that it might not happen this time either. Fortunately, too, none of us knew that it almost had happened by accident at least twice in 1983 alone.

Don’t forget the impact of nuclear winter on the teenage psyche at this time, either. The concept entered the popular consciousness just before 1984—see this 1983 Carl Sagan piece, for example—and it shook up beliefs such as being able to sit it out in a bunker, some parts of the globe being less affected than others, and so on. In my corner of the world we might previously have kidded ourselves that we were out-of-the-way enough to avoid the worst; now we were being told we would end up envying the ones taken out by the bombs themselves. (See Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel The Road, a harrowing recreation of such early-’80s nightmares.)

As Sagan wrote, “But what if nuclear wars can be contained, and much less than 5000 megatons is detonated? Perhaps the greatest surprise in our work was that even small nuclear wars can have devastating climatic effects.... The threshold for what Richard Turco has called The Nuclear Winter is very low.”

This was new, and it did change the debate. For people in my age group, it changed our outlook, if not forever, then for a long time to come.

George Michael, “Careless Whisper”, 18 August 1984

My brother helped send this to number one for four weeks in Australia; as a lapsed Wham! fan, I probably thought it was another sign of George Michael selling out, although I suspect my main objection would have been the production rather than the tune or lyrics. At this remove, my respect for the latter quashes any lingering problems I might have with the former; I’ve heard enough melodies and lyrics by now to know a killer combination when I hear one. The production may be a “True” re-hash, but George’s vocals hold more appeal for me than Tony Hadley’s, and there are none of those overt soul-singer references in the lyrics—just that unforgettable line, which so perfectly evokes the shuffling gait of the hangdog. I wonder if people love it because it suggests that intriguing emotional explanations could lie behind their bad dancing. “I’m never gonna dance again... jilted feet do the disco hustle...”

Once again I’m caught by the Marks Out of Ten guidelines: going on ownership this would get no higher than 7, and on my desire for repeat listens it might be a 6 or even a 5. But that’s because the song has been so ubiquitous that I’ve never felt the need to own a copy and can bring it to mind whenever I want. Replaying it in memory strips away half the ’80s production and makes it even better, and the recording itself deserves marks for that, because so few recordings achieve that so effectively. (I have no desire, by comparison, to replay in my head the same tune and lyrics recorded in sub-Nickelback style.) This has to be an 8, and I could even be nudged to a 9.

21 August 2009 · Music