Jan 09


FT + Popular70 comments • 6,061 views

#487, 17th October 1981

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.



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  1. 31
    peter goodlaws on 28 Jan 2009 #

    I think that this was not so much “an awkward little record” as a complete cut and paste train wreck. Lesley Gore’s original is so much better and more approriate, as it simply features a petulant teen whining about being dumped at her own party. As if THAT’S never happened before or since! Barbara Gaskin, meanwhile, whoever she is, attempts to cast her net for fish which simply weren’t there. I think that it’s annoying that this was praised as a “concept record” and that it did so well, especially since it thwarted “Oh Superman”, a bolder much more deserving project, which I loved even if I never understood it.

  2. 32
    Magic Fly on 28 Jan 2009 #

    I have a vivid memory of O Superman coming on the radio in the early hours of a morning in early ’91. As I lay there in the dark, reaquainting myself with its strangeness (I hadn’t heard it in a decade) it seemed eerily prescient of the Gulf War that was unsettling me on a daily basis back then (I had a tiny but niggling feeling I was going to be drafted). All those lines about petrochemical arms and justice and force and “American planes, made in America.” I was even convinced she said “George” at one point. And I remember listening to it ending, hearing those urgent, mechanical breaths, and suddenly thinking how much they reminded me of a life support machine, and how much I didn’t want them to stop…

  3. 33
    will on 29 Jan 2009 #

    I’ve always thought she sings “George” as well!

    O Superman is one of the few pop records that can honestly reduce me to tears. I remember hearing it on Peel for the first time circa Spring ’81 and just being utterly astounded that a single so long and so audacious even existed. Initially it scared the living daylights out of me and yet its beauty would eventually seduce me to the point that I parted hard earned pocket money for the 7 inch when it reached the charts six months later.

  4. 34
    mike on 29 Jan 2009 #

    I remember hearing “O Superman” being played at a Radio One roadshow – after which the DJ asked everyone in the crowd who liked it to raise their hands. Few did. “That’s very interesting”, said the DJ.

  5. 35
    rosie on 29 Jan 2009 #

    O Superman is wonderful but it’s hardly “pop” though, is it? Come on – it’s a chart aberration!

  6. 36
    Tom on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Anything at #2 in the charts is – at the very least – asking to be considered as pop! It might be that the answer is “NO”, but if that’s the case with “O Superman” it’s interesting to me that the system designed to reward pop records can also reward a record like that.

  7. 37
    thevisitor on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Vivid memory from the Christmas school disco, 1981: me and my friends dancing to this and all aware that if we sang, “Nobody knows where my JOHNNY!!! has gone,” en masse, with extreme, loud, puerile emphasis (as indicated) we probably wouldn’t get into trouble. Because we were “just singing along, sir.”

    Re 15, 22, 25: It’s heartwarming to see some love for The Tourists. So Good To Be Back Home and Loneliest Man In The World were both great – and Blind Among The Flowers and Don’t Say I Told You So confirm them in my mind (alongside Skids) as one of the great underrated singles bands of the era. Of course, back then Dave and Annie were an untapped songwriting force, as Peet Coombes (no longer with us) wrote all The Tourists stuff. His Wikipedia page suggests that his post-Tourists years were a little luckless and tragic.

    Re 3: Surely the ultimate case of downgrading the singer has to be Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow? It seems very harsh not to credit Maggie Reilly at all – although, might I add, I think she learned a few lessons from the whole episode. A couple of years ago, I found myself at some fairly dull publishing awards bash (v. smug-looking Gary Kemp at my table) and Maggie Reilly picked up an award for some huge Euro-dance hit she had helped pen. Ker-ching!

    Back to It’s My Party. This version seems strangely arbitrary to me, the sort of thing they might have been commissioned put together at an Music Expo in Utrecht to exhibit the benefits of some new electronic hardware. UNLIKE… DS and BG’s version of Thomas Dolby’s Leipzig! Which takes TD’s moderately pleasant Kraftwerk pastiche and makes it sound both futuristic and beatifically maternal! You’d almost consider moving to Leipzig if you heard it.

  8. 38
    will on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Re: 35. Like many others here I’ve always regarded pop as a broad church and as O Superman is catchy, instantly memorable and for a short while was extremely popular I reckon it qualifies, doesn’t it?

  9. 39
    Tim on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Thanks to thevisitor at #37 for pointing me to Peet Coombes’s wiki page. Sounds like a sad story, but also my mind is boggling at the news that veteran, sometimes amazing, feral UKHH dudes Task Force are the sons of Pete Coombes.

  10. 40
    SteveM on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Either ‘O Superman’ is pop (if not Pop) or it’s beyond any kind of meaningful classification.

    Am intrigued by this ‘Lepizig’ thing now tho!

  11. 41
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 29 Jan 2009 #

    it’s superpop

  12. 42
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Great Quotes Coined While This Was Number One:
    “My father didn’t riot – he got on his bike and looked for work”
    – Norman Tebbit at the Conservative Party conference reminding us why we all loved him so much.

  13. 43
    Billy Smart on 29 Jan 2009 #

    TOTP Watch: Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin twice performed ‘It’s My Party on Top of the Pops;

    24 September 1981. Also in the studio that tremendous week were; Slade, Depeche Mode, Japan, Heaven 17 and Imagination, plus a unique Legs & Co interpretation of ‘Endless Love’ with guest male dancer. Simon Bates was the host.

    15 October 1981. Also in the studio that remarkable week were; Gary Glitter, BA Robertson & Maggie Bell, The Exploited, Squeeze, The Creatures and Bad Manners, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘The Birdie Dance’. David ‘Kid’ Jensen was the host.

  14. 44
    AndyPandy on 29 Jan 2009 #

    Rosie at No2 as someone has since touched on there’s a history of the musician/musicians taking the main credit on recordings going back at least as far as the 30s/early 40s. For instance the very first American No1 in 1940 gave Frank Sinatra a far smaller credit than the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and this was standard practice in the big band era.

    At least in this case Barbara Gaskin gets more or less equal billing.
    Far more glaring in its complete and utter lack of crediting, of who to the vast majority of record buyers would have been the primary reason for buying the record was ‘Street Life’ by the Crusaders where Randy Crawford isn’t credited at all. And without wanting to break the rules there was a No 1 in 1989/90 where again only the producer/keyboardist got any billing at all. AS it turned out in both these cases however their presence on the discs helped launch the respective singers’ subsequently much bigger solo careers.

    This practice happened as a matter of routine on many disco/funk tracks with just the producer, saxophonist or trumpeter being credited (eg Tom Browne on ‘Funkin for Jamaica (NY)’).

    And obviously post 1987 onwards although often there is a ‘featuring’ it it was generally accepted (see the unnamed No1 above) that the producer/dj was the ‘important’ one and the singers were often interchangeable (often literally, with them just being paid for the session and a model or someone doing the PA’s and Top of the Pops appearances etc)

  15. 45
    Malice Cooper on 29 Jan 2009 #

    I loved the original and was just pleased that a version of the song got to number one. Barbara deserved a hit after her fantastic ventures in the 70s with “ecstasy passion and pain”.
    This seemed good at the time but not so good now. I love their version of “Johnny Rocco” which followed this.

  16. 46
    wichita lineman on 29 Jan 2009 #

    I was rather surprised when I finally heard mod club hit Hear Me A Drummer Man by Phil Wainman. I’d always assumed it was an instrumental. You can hear Phil loud and clear on drums, but time appears to have completely erased the identity of the female singer (unless anyone knows different?).

    Maybe it was a young Maggie Reilly.

    Good disco/funk spots Andy. I’m assuming Quincy Jones didn’t sing Ai No Corrida, either.

  17. 47
    thevisitor on 30 Jan 2009 #

    I don’t believe Quincy Jones did sing Ai No Corrida (I think it was James Ingram and Patti Austin). Funnily enough, he didn’t write it either!

  18. 48
    Pete Baran on 30 Jan 2009 #

    But he saw the film!

    @43: It seems a bit of a cheat that Legs & Co. interpreted the Birdie Song, choreographer on holiday then? I tried to find a youtube of it, with no joy, but did discover that (bar dancing behind Haircut 100) it was their last performance on Top Of The Pops. One wonders if the BBC thought they were being as lazy as I do.

  19. 49
    Billy Smart on 30 Jan 2009 #

    In celebration of Legs & Co, this is my very favourite performance: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=BhpCfl6pfPg

  20. 50
    Malice Cooper on 31 Jan 2009 #

    Charles May sung the vocal for “Ai no corrida” though Chas Jankel wrote it and recorded it himself on the same label a bit earlier.

  21. 51
    David Belbin on 1 Feb 2009 #

    An awful lot of us bought ‘O Superman’ on import (an expensive, badly pressed copy) otherwise it would have been a number one on UK release I suspect. And it was all over some radio one shows long before UK release – not sure which now, but I wasn’t an avid Peel listener at the time. Only thing of hers I’ve ever liked.

    Dave Stewart had a very respectable prog career before he sold out, first with Egg and then with the still highly credible (thanks partly to Jonathan Coe) Hatfield and the North, then he formed the less interesting National Health before selling out with this shit. Don’t think he was involved in the H and the N reunion but there’s a full biog at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Stewart_(musician).

  22. 52
    lonepilgrim on 1 Feb 2009 #

    …and it came as some comfort for me to realise that Laurie Anderson was to participate in a Number 1 success a good few years later….

  23. 53
    Mike Todd on 2 Feb 2009 #

    I remember buying O Superman from an Ex-Jukebox display stand in our Newsagents (the only place to buy records in our town) for either 39p or 49p. The surprising fact about this was it was still at Number 2 at the time. It must have lasted one play in a pub before some landlord prised it out of the machine and put it on the pile to go to the second hand carousel. I was delighted with my bargain which I still have.

  24. 54
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Feb 2009 #

    i just realised “o superman” = invention of techno!

  25. 55
    mike on 3 Feb 2009 #

    Well, I liked this a lot at the time. Admittedly, some of this was down to the sheer “ha ha WTF” factor of a Canterbury progger getting to Number One – but I think in those days I was a lot less snotty about cover versions in general, particularly covers of great songs that had been hits before my time. If the song was strong and the performance enjoyable, then I couldn’t have cared less about the attribution.

    This particularly holds true of Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone’s cover of “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” from earlier in the year. I was already familiar with the Ruffin original, but it was the DS/CB cover which first connected with me emotionally (probably a case of right time, right place – I can vaguely remember the emotional context, but let’s not go there).

    But in both cases, the synthy reworkings sounded fresh, clean, modern, relevant, clever, inventive, cool. Even though they were done by Old People. And come to think of it, Gaskin’s arch, knowing age-inappropriateness in the face of the lyric’s original teenage petulance was all part of the charm.

    Oh lawks, we’ve entered The Age Of Post-Modern Irony, haven’t we? Well, I might as well say it now: the 19-year old me lapped all of that stuff up. I hadn’t yet divested myself of that teenage know-it-all cynicism, and on one level I was hyper-sensitive to, and hence hyper-critical of, anything resembling stock sentiment, unless it was approached through a prism of kitsch (I *loved* the Nolans, for instance). Predictability was the enemy, and conceptual innovation – mucking around with the very forms of pop itself – was highly prized. This was a time when practically my every spoken utterance came wrapped in implicit inverted commas and ironic mid-sentence capitalisations… so with that in mind, “It’s My Party” was well nigh perfect for my purposes.

    Hope this all makes sense. I was thinking aloud…

  26. 56
    Conrad on 3 Feb 2009 #

    I originally intended to comment on this on the day of Tom’s posting – which aptly enough was my birthday (impeccable timing as usual, Tom)…

    However my vast abriged history of the Canterbury scene disappeared into a void after I pressed “submit comment” so you are all spared!

    Always liked this very much – it does sound a bit disjointed now, but it is very evocative of a time and place for me. It reminds me of a wet football pitch, watery sunlight and muddy football boots clip-clopping to the changing room at Fields (our school sports pitches), indulging in general pop-related banter with some of my (pop-appreciating) team mates.

    Oh, and Dave Stewart struck me as a thoroughly likeable chap who played his keyboard standing up on TOTP, with a broad grin on his face. Nothing remotely pompous or po-faced, just a grizzled old progger enjoying himself in a series of collaborations/covers of his favourite songs.

    I had no idea who he was at the time, of course, but have since come to love his work on “Fish Rising”.

  27. 57
    Conrad on 3 Feb 2009 #

    #43 – Billy, that was David ‘Kid’ Jensen’s first TOTP since returning to radio 1 from his stint in the States.

    He also started his weekday Evening programme at around this time, which became the central part of a compulsive listening triumvirate for me – Peter Powell, Jensen and John Peel, the latter two linked by John Walters, who regularly guested on Jensen’s show, doing some thing called “Walters Week”.

  28. 58
    mike on 3 Feb 2009 #

    Ah, Fish Rising. Now we’re talking! There’s a 1975 interview with Steve Hillage on Rock’s Back Pages, in which he burbles on at length about the whole cosmology of angling:

    “The fish really get off on it, man. It’s their whole trip…But playing a fish is like some archetypal cosmic joust…”

  29. 59
    Conrad on 3 Feb 2009 #

    It’s my favourite Hillage album Mike. I loved some of the more trance-like grooves on Gong’s “You”, which Hillage really dominated, and then he just took it all a stage further on “Fish Rising”.

    None-more-hippy but still thoroughly enjoyable.

  30. 60
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    57 – Conrad, I remember at the time that a lot of people were upset that Richard Skinner was unceremoniously axed to make way for Jensen (and spent the rest of his R1 career as an understudy). Although Jensen played pretty much the same stuff it left a bad taste in the mouth and it served them right when Jensen walked out on them 4 years later.

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