Charitable misfires and jungle warfare at Popular.

USA for Africa, “We Are the World”, 20 April 1985

Australia sent this to number one almost two weeks before the UK and kept it there for nine, so I’ve been itching to lay the boot into this particular blot on my musical memories. Apart from the charitable intentions, this was the opposite of everything I liked about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: overworked instead of spontaneous, overlong instead of brisk, overacted instead of enthusiastic, and as overegged as a pudding of plum pop stars can get. Thriller’s success had clearly gone to Michael Jackson’s head, erasing any lingering sense of perspective, and Springsteen’s strained croak guaranteed that I never became a fan.

What was worse was that, as the more recent and bigger hit on our charts, this became the radio soundtrack of the lead-up to Live Aid; and worse than that, I have only spotty memories of Live Aid itself to overwrite it, because my mid-year exams started on the Monday and I had to spend most of the Live Aid weekend studying. (Well, I didn’t have to—plenty of my mates didn’t—but doing well in those exams seemed important at the time. But which are the crucial memories I wish I had today, eh, Tasmanian Higher School Certificate Board?) My family didn’t have a VCR back then, so that was that. On the plus side, it meant I didn’t have to watch this lumbering star vehicle get wheeled onstage yet again. 2.

Phyllis Nelson, “Move Closer”, 4 May 1985

I only knew this from snippets in UK adverts, so was intrigued to hear the whole thing; it starts off a little too ’80s smooth, but soon becomes something pretty special, thanks to Nelson’s delivery and the underlying song. I can think of a lot worse one-hit wonders to be remembered for. On first impressions I’ll give it 7, but I’m tempted to go to 8, just because it feels so much warmer than other ’80s diva tracks that come to mind. (Perhaps because of her nice jumper.)

Paul Hardcastle, “19”, 11 May 1985

Someone has posted a video of this on YouTube with the tagline “Produced by Mike Oldfield”, which made me slap my virtual forehead... this track was notorious among Oldfield fans (cough) for its fairly blatant rip-off of Tubular Bells in its main melody. Oldfield ended up with a co-writer credit, which is as close as he’ll ever get to bothering Popular. Ironically, some of Oldfield’s later work harks back to this kind of ’80s electronica when he isn’t snoozing in the bath of chill-out.

Hardcastle’s track hasn’t been served well by its own imitators; a lot of amateur and minor chart performers glommed onto those keyboard sounds and wore them out in the following decade. But in 1985 it certainly did sound new. I’m not sure whether to mark it for its initial impact or how it sounds to me now; I think I’ll have to go with now and call it 5.

There was definitely a surge of interest in Vietnam in the mid-80s, at least in popular culture. As well as this we had Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and of course Rambo: First Blood Part II, released 30 August 1985 in Britain (but perhaps already making waves from its 22 May 1985 release in the US?): all surely tied up with the Reagan years, with movie-makers either re-fighting the war as winners (Rambo) or critiquing 1980s U.S. sabre-rattling by proxy. In Australia this all found a ready audience, as we had sent a generation of young men to Vietnam too, and so “19” resonated strongly; what’s curious to me is that “19” was made by an Englishman. So how much of it was driven by a desire to make a political statement, and how much by a desire to show off some new musical tricks? And if the former was significant, why Vietnam? No handy soundbites where BBC newsreaders mentioned the average age of soldiers sent to the Falklands? (Charts-of-countries-that-sent-soldiers-to-Vietnam-watch: this peaked at number 1 in New Zealand, Germany and Italy, number 10 in Australia and number 15 in the US and France.)

The mid-’80s weren’t the beginning of pop-culture Vietnam references, because nobody compiling a list of relevant movies could omit The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now from the late ’70s, but there was definitely an early-’80s lull. I guess that was because the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, followed by Reagan’s election and ensuing US-USSR brinkmanship, temporarily diverted everyone’s attention. By the mid-’80s, though, we were all watching Central American politics (Grenada, Nicaragua), which had clearer (jungly) echoes of Vietnam. It’s noteworthy here that the Oliver Stone film preceding Platoon was Salvador, which I preferred at the time, thanks to James Woods’s stand-out performance; and for the Rambo-esque action-movie equivalent, there was Schwarzenegger’s Commando from 1985. At the time it felt like a logical progession from a cynical teenage point of view: 1984 was the year of Russian commies, 1985 was Central American commies, and 1985-6 was timely reminders of Vietnam commies to ensure we were sufficiently focussed on the aforementioned 1980s commies.

So, jungle commies were very much in the news in 1985 and had been creeping back onto movie screens in camouflage and/or black pyjamas, and so “19” made sense even without the movies that came after it. (Another mid-’80s jungle-commies reference point: the David Puttnam-produced The Killing Fields from 1984, with soundtrack by... Mike Oldfield. Two separate mentions in one Popular thread! We shall never see the like again.)

The Crowd, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, 15 June 1985

News of the Bradford fire made it to Australia, but this related charity song didn’t. It took a bit of finding on YouTube, but there’s a fan-made video here. Considered as a recording (which doesn’t seem fair when I couldn’t evaluate “Do They Know” apart from its circumstances, but there it is) it sounds out of place in 1985, and a surprisingly thin crowd; mixing it with some actual recordings of crowds singing the song might have helped. 3.

Wikipedia says that “the music publishers of the record refused to waive their royalties, resulting in a much-reduced donation of £132,000”. Nice.

Sister Sledge, “Frankie”, 29 June 1985

Did I remember “Frankie”? Afraid not, until I watched the video again. It reached only number 10 in Australia, so must never have seemed that big a deal, and doesn’t make much of an impact on me now. 4.

2 October 2009 · Music