If the Number Ones of 1981 had been scripted, this is where the editors would have stepped in. “Sorry, darling, you’ve gone too far. War Canoe? Great twist. The leather boys doing that old soul tune – brilliant stuff, really edgy. But two prog refugees with an experimental version of a girl group era classic? Nobody will believe it! You’ll lose our credibility. One of them used to be in Gong, for pity’s sake!”
I’m not honestly sure I believe it myself. You see, until a very short time ago I believed – like many others, I’m sure – that the Dave Stewart responsible for this record was, you know, Dave Stewart. Beard. Sweet dreams. Candy Dulfer. Bit of a plonker. And therefore the way I parsed this record was, well, Dave Stewart pissing about and getting lucky. It sounded to me like someone listening to some Flying Lizards records and thinking “yeah, why not?” and doing a self-consciously cracked cover version for a bit of a giggle.
But of course it wasn’t like that at all – it was a pair of progressive musicians with top Canterbury Scene pedigree who’ve continued making “pop music for grown-ups” until this day, and as such it’s in quite a different lineage, to be bracketed with Robert Wyatt’s remarkable series of 1980-81 EPs, perhaps. Hmmmmm. Already I’m backing down from my dislike of the track, see? Reassessing it, according it due respect. Pernicious stuff, context.
At any rate, whichever version of history I believed I thought it was interesting that the public had gone for this awkward little record. But the question I have to ask is, does it work? Do Stewart’s twisted treatment and Gaskin’s lost-girl vocals enhance “It’s My Party” or get in its way? To me the track still sounds like a mess, an update that’s trying to drag the Lesley Gore original into spookier, darker places but also can’t resist adding a dose of mockery – those simpering “ooh woo woo” faux-sobs behind the chorus, for instance, though the none-more-’81 video suggests that the synthpop scene is just as much an object of satire here as innocent pop is. The distortions, drumbeats and time dilations don’t dramatise the song’s abjection at all for me, and the note of emotional violence they introduce just distracts me.
Here’s another bit of context, though: at the time, I liked this. It wasn’t a massive favourite like Adam, but I’d been to enough fraught birthday parties to dig the sentiment at least, and the tune stuck with me. It didn’t sound weird at all – having only just started paying attention, I expected pop records to have odd noises on them; why wouldn’t they? It was only going back and hearing it again that made me think, hold on, what was all that about? My self-consciousness, my accreted understanding of pop’s limits, infected the song. So “It’s My Party” should rightly stand as a testimony to what a kaleidoscopic, fabulously arbitrary year 1981 was for pop music. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a great record.