Imagine you were an ardent Christian who discovered, late in life, you had learned one of the Ten Commandments incorrectly. For years, you held the firm belief that “Thou Shalt Not Wear Fabrics Spun From Petroleum Products,” when in fact you were supposed to be refraining from taking the Lord’s name in vain. But having seen an early draft of the Commandments, before the final edits, you strutted around exclaiming “God damn!” — in joy, fear, anger, or surprise — all your life, while never once wearing polyester.
Well, that happened to me. Only substitute British Bands from the ’80s for Ten Commandments.
In late 1983, Rolling Stone dedicated its November 10 issue to a “London Swings” package. Boy George was on the cover, and there was a survey piece by Kurt Loder (who really was a swell scribe in the day; go read his anthology Bat Chain Puller, youngster) where he yakked with George and Marilyn and the ubiquitous Malcolm McLaren, and toured assorted nightclubs. And a photo essay called “Dressed For Success,” featuring then-trendy bands like Ultravox, Haysi Fantayzee, and Belle Stars, who knew how to take a good picture but didn’t pass rank and muster for real Stone editorial coverage. And another photo spread, with modest supporting text, entitled “Super Starts,” subtitled “You haven’t heard of these ten new acts? You will.”
This was my Rosetta Stone. The UK indie scene cracked open to me, and I promptly began buying albums and singles by the Specimen, Aztec Camera, the Smiths, Virginia Astley, the Cult, and Prefab Sprout.
This weekend, with some time to kill at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library, I pulled up that issue of Rolling Stone on microfiche. Only to discover that, yes, once again my memory had betrayed me. I had gotten one wrong. Here was the true list of newcomers, circa 1983, that the editors of RS advised “were all making important music — music you should demand to hear”: The Chameleons; the Specimen; the Smiths; Big Country; the Alarm; the Bluebells; Aztec Camera; Virginia Astley; the Death Cult; and, Jimmy The Hoover.
Jimmy The… who? Where was Prefab Sprout? And what the hell was Jimmy The Hoover?
In the summer of 1983, the multi-racial quintet, fronted by Derek Dunbar, scored a Top 20 UK hit with its debut single, “Tantalise (wo wo ee yeh yeh),” which “combines Caribbean rhythms, steel drums, African guitar and a children’s singalong chorus.” They enjoyed a tangential relationship to the aforementioned McLaren (Dunbar had worked in one of his boutiques), who gave them their curious moniker; some internet sites allege that he also managed them, but I find that doubtful. At that point, McLaren — already on the outs with Bow Wow Wow — was far too busy with his own Duck Rock album to bother with anything as trivial as management.
Jimmy The Hoover was, quite bluntly, a one trick pony. Now, you could level similar criticisms at some of the other acts in this “Super Starts” spread. And I would fight you to the death. Virginia Astley never scored a chart hit, but she made what is possibly the world’s only mean-spirited New Age record (Hope In A Darkened Heart, 1984). The Specimen were the house band at the Batcave, a name which should ring a bell with anyone in mascara and torn fishnets who has danced the Taffy Pull or Clear The Cobwebs. The Bluebells worked with Elvis Costello and Bananarama, and that says plenty about a band’s mettle.
Jimmy The Hoover? Well, they appear nowhere in the 1989 biography The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren. Because nowhere is where they headed to, fast. Two follow-up singles flopped, and that was the end of that. Listening to “Tantalise” today, it boasts a modest charm — due in no small part, one suspects, to the production of Steve Levine (Culture Club) — but South African act Juluka was already doing something similar, and in 1983 had the muscle of Warner Bros. behind its album Scatterlings. No wonder JTH went MIA. One member is now a successful sculptor in Zambia. Another hosts an incredibly ugly web page. A third is presumed drowned. Seriously. Nothing terribly auspicious.
But what of the Sprout? I can only assume they supplanted JTH in my memory of that article in some kind of psychic feat of musical Darwinism. Although their debut album, Swoon, was still a few months away, in late 1983 Paddy McAloon and company had already issued two singles, “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Somewhere)” and “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes.” And a quarter century later, they continue to soldier along; the expanded reissue of their album Steve McQueen (issued as Two Wheels Good in the US) landed on plenty of year-end critic’s lists last year. Sure, they take seemingly endless breaks between albums, but so does Kate Bush. I’d rather hitch my wagon — and my rusty memories — to that kind of star, rather than the musical equivalent of a leisure suit, any day. God damn!