Apr 10

T’PAU – “China In Your Hand”

Popular66 comments • 5,799 views

#600, 14th November 1987, video

When I was small we had one of those boxy Minis with a wood-framed chassis. It was a fine car I’m sure – my Aunt took it from us in the late 70s and gave it a good run before it finally died. But there was always something ungainly about it, and looking back it’s odd to remember these machines which mixed metal and timber in a way that seems now quite un-car-like.

And “China In Your Hand” gives me the same feeling. This is a power ballad which hasn’t come out sleek and thunderous, it’s come out lumpy and awkward and lashed together with incongruous bits of wood. There’s a wrecking-ball chorus, Carol Decker’s billowing voice, enjoyably scrambled lyrics – but there’s also that sax solo where you’re expecting a guitar one, and those precise scene-setting pizzicatos which make the intro so tempting and the rest of the tune so draggy. The mix of sounds should make the song more interesting, expand on the sturdy, denim-clad virtues at its core, but it just seems messy. Especially if you play it next to a full-on hormone exocet like Heart’s “Alone” – a fairly obvious marker for what this version of “China” was aiming for and missing.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 15 Apr 2010 #

    And with that I’m off on holiday for a while – 10 days or so. Sorry for keeping you waiting for T’Pau, I’d really hoped to get to the end of ’87 but it wasn’t happening. Some big records to look forward to, at least. And also when I come back there will be a SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT of interest to most Popular readers (I’d hope) about a new (to FT) thing I’m all excited about.

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    MBI on 15 Apr 2010 #

    The UK #1’s list is really such an alternate dimension for someone looking through American eyes. So far, we’ve seen a #1 for A-Ha that WASN’T “Take On Me,” a #1 for the Troggs which wasn’t “Wild Thing”, a #1 for Paul Young which wasn’t “Everytime You Go Away,” and now, a T’Pau song which isn’t “Heart and Soul.”

    Now, that’s a good song, “Heart and Soul.” That’s a style and sound which fit T’Pau much better than power-ballad, as Tom so astutely points out.

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    Matt DC on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Wasn’t this on one of the legendary mid-00s FT-kru Glastonbury tapes? I have a vague memory of bellowing along to it around a tape player in a field somewhere. Expected it to get a higher mark for that alone.

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    Tom on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Was it? I associate the song with Alan somehow so maybe you’re right :)

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    wichita lineman on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Dame Edna called those Mini estates ‘half timbered cars’. As for T’Pau, this is how I remember mainstream ’87 without recourse to historical data. Desperate. And yes, Alone is the AOR ballad bomb! Have a great break, yous lot.

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    AndyPandy on 15 Apr 2010 #

    A kind of very average pub-type band who unbelievably got very lucky…? Extremely annoying – I give more 3s than anything but very rarely give less but this is a definite 2.

    From the birth of the charts up to this song only “I Don’t Like Mondays”, “Mull of Kintyre”,”Matchstalk Men”, “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool”, “The Chicken Song” and “No-one Quite Like Grandma” can challenge it IMO

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    AndyPandy on 15 Apr 2010 #

    @2- they had 2 hits! unbelievable I thought they’d only managed this because for some of the dire Radio 1 djs at the time this combined (an albeit even shite-er)version of the type of rock they were into with a singer who I imagine they really went for.

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    Alan not logged in on 15 Apr 2010 #

    ‘ I associate the song with Alan somehow’

    i might conceivably have bunged this on a tape. It’s not a great favourite but it has a bitter-sweet place in my memory cos this was number one for aages right – if not it felt like it – and in my first term at uni. It’s a third rate nonsense ‘belter’. Nothing I’d feel guilty about bellowing out four sheets to the brothers bar wind, but it’s far from great. A 5 I’d say

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    thefatgit on 15 Apr 2010 #

    “Heart And Soul” was the superior song of their 2 hits, reaching #4 as a reissue. It starts as a white soul/new pop workout with Carol Decker laying down a lullaby rap (best way I can describe it really). However as the song builds after the first chorus, we’re into power ballad territory. It’s a nice idea, and deserved to be the more memorable hit. T’Pau were never destined to be cutting edge, but H&S sounded almost fresh within the rock-pop sphere. It’s a shame they were up against the much stronger and toothsome Heart, who were the gold standard power balladeers of the late ’80s.

    “China In Your Hand” was ungainly and cumbersome. Forever linked with an unpleasant memory.
    Autumn 1987 represented change. My parents had divorced, the previous year and had formed new relationships. Both would marry around this time and I was to gain new stepbrothers and stepsisters on both sides. Me being an only child, this was as profound a change as any I had experienced. My mother married into a family with 4 stepsiblings: 3 boys and 1 girl. The girl and the eldest brother were adults looking to settle down with families of their own. The 2 younger boys were still at school, one soon to leave. I was introduced into a wider circle, unprepared and soon these new relationships would become abrasive. I didn’t have my own place, so I moved in with mum and stepdad, occupying the eldest stepbrother’s room. He had moved in with his girlfriend, and left his expensive stereo behind. Being unfamiliar with family protocol, I used his stereo as if it were my own. Big mistake. He would visit often, and he found out I had changed the settings on his graphic equaliser. I might as well have taken a dump on his turntable, and found myself being set upon by an irate and punchy stepbrother. My fault. Lesson learned. He retuned his equaliser to the strains of “China In Your Hand”. It sounded horrible. He packed up the stereo and took it away with him, but not before I asked him why he had set his equaliser so the vocals the song he played were tuned almost out, echoey, in the background behind loud bass, sax and plucked strings.
    “That’s the way I like to hear it!” he replied. And with that, the stereo and the stepbrother moved out. I couldn’t comprehend his reasoning. To this day, that song reminds me of being a fish out of water, not knowing the rules, being the outsider.

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    Conrad on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Graphic equalisers were a terrible idea though weren’t they? Bass and treble, that’s all you need – bass at around 2 o’clock, treble at 4.30

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    lonepilgrim on 15 Apr 2010 #

    It’s pretty dire. As well as the power ballad connection it also has a lot of the sententious that crept in with Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones. Thank heavens for House.
    Thanks ♯9 for sharing that – and for reminding me of graphic equalisers – which I had completely forgotten about. I remember being quite excited when I inherited a ‘music centre’ which featured one – only to lose interest within about 5 minutes when I realised how insignificant a difference it made.

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    Steve Mannion on 15 Apr 2010 #

    funny that no-one remembers their THIRD top 10 hit (the somewhat cynical ‘Valentine’).

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    Tom Lawrence on 15 Apr 2010 #

    I really like those little strings, though – has anyone ever sampled them on anything? Chorus is fun too, but the rest of it is indeed a bit unnecessary and somewhat interminable. I’ll give it 5, I think.

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    taDOW on 15 Apr 2010 #

    “heart and soul” sounds like pet shop boys crossed w/ desmond child – FANTASTIC. i have lived my life to this point w/ no knowledge of nor curiosity towards what any other t’pau might sound like and i’m not about to change that now.

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    Izzy on 15 Apr 2010 #

    This was the 600th number one, which I remember as quite a big event for some reason, the possibility being trailed for weeks beforehand. It gave it a sense of importance and bombast that it hasn’t really retained.

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    Paulito on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Not a bad tune, really, though the lyrics are hilariously awful. However, it got to #1 on the strength of the (as everyone else has pointed out) far superior “Heart of Soul”. They actually notched up a further six top 40 hits after this one, all of which were unmitigated shite (anyone remember “Sex Talk”? Ugh.)

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    lockedintheattic on 15 Apr 2010 #

    yep, Izzy, I remember that too. Radio 1 DJS made a real fuss of it at the time, does anyone else care to remind us what the other contenders where?

    Heart & soul was much better than this, even just for the novelty of the singing over the spoken bits. And neither are a patch on Heart, who I adored at the time, even as the rest of my musical listening tastes were heading in a distinctly housey direction.

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    TomLane on 15 Apr 2010 #

    This was a non-charter in the U.S., while “Heart and Soul” peaked at #4.

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    swanstep on 15 Apr 2010 #

    File under ‘How the hell did this get to #1’. For 5 ridiculous weeks no less. I actually don’t remember the song from the time so it must have done little down under. I guess everyone from Enya to Tori A. to (even) Milla J. sort of took this sound to the bank a few years later, but CIMH itself is pretty ugly. 3 or 4.

    Oh, and great post/anecdote #9,thefatgit!

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    swanstep on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Oops, one more time: a Milla link that works.

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    LondonLee on 16 Apr 2010 #

    iTunes has a graphic equalizer, they haven’t gone away.

    I sort of wanted this to be a hated-it-then/like-it-now track but it’s still bloody awful unfortunately. I always got the impression that T’Pau came along at the wrong end of the decade and would have been better off with that look and sound (and name!) around 1984.

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    punctum on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Just as Kate Bush watched a documentary on Emily Bronte and had an idea for a song, so did T’Pau singer Carol Decker watch a documentary on Mary Shelley. Although it doesn’t particularly advertise its plot, “China In Your Hand” is actually a meditation on the subject of Frankenstein – “To take life on Earth/To the second birth/And the man was in command.” Cleverly the lines “It was a flight on the wings/Of a young girl’s dreams/That flew too far away” acknowledge the enormous influence of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner on Shelley’s novel, while the single version’s second verse turns accusatorily to the “monster” himself: “Come from greed/Never born of seed/Took life from a barren land…/A prophecy for a fantasy/A castle in his mind.” The chorus with its reproachful “Don’t push too far/Your dreams are china in your hand” frames the song as a warning not to abuse or misuse the gifts with which we are bestowed – “You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself.”

    The song is best heard, if heard it need be, in its original, full-length album version, with its additional verse referring explicitly to Mary Shelley’s own difficulties with childbirth (only one of her children survived infancy) and its significantly less polite sax solo. But it was re-recorded for single release, and while it clearly remains a significant cut above “Let ’em say we’re cra-ZAY!” with a more interesting musical structure, more challenging lyrics and an evidently more heartfelt performance, most of the song’s subtleties are excised in favour of regrettable bombast. Whereas Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” was radical in form and delivery as well as inspiration, “China In Your Hand” is essentially superior provincial AoR power balladry – complete with a new sax solo which produces at its climax the kind of “expression of emotion” which in Derek Bailey’s memorable phrase “immediately freezes the balls” – and as such tied with Rick Astley as the longest number one run of 1987 (five weeks). A nice try, then, but it lacks the directness of something like Heart’s “Alone” or the truly epic heraldry of a “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.”

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    Alan not logged in on 16 Apr 2010 #

    on, i imagine, most people’s behalf – thanks for pointing out the Frankenstein/Shelley theme. good lord.

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    Erithian on 16 Apr 2010 #

    I have to say I was and remain very fond of this one, a cut above most power ballads for its stateliness (those strings definitely work for me) and what sounds a genuine rather than forced passion. Perhaps, in Tom’s phrase, the wood-framed chassis is an asset – there’s a feeling that they’re not *too* smooth, and learning from Marcello’s post that it’s clearly “about” something emphasizes that the lyrics are superior to most of the genre as well. “Heart and Soul” was a cracker too, but it’s good that something of this stature, with such original subject matter, was a number one.

    T’Pau were victims of what I saw as a depressing trend towards misogyny in Q magazine some years back – in a “where-are-they-now” type piece someone wrote that Carol Decker “looked and sounded like a barmaid”, while elsewhere Louise Wener was virtually ridiculed throughout Sleeper’s career and Wendy James wasn’t treated much better. Obviously their bands weren’t to everyone’s tastes, but it did seem the criticism of these women came from somewhere darker. Did anyone else see the same sort of attitudes in the music press?

    Number 2 Watch – for the first four weeks of T’Pau’s reign the number 2 was George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” which would have meant an impressive 16-year gap between number ones. In its fifth week Rick Astley’s version of “When I Fall In Love” crashed in at 2 but was doomed to go no higher, stymied by the Nat King Cole re-release; so that the Christmas number one would be that act we’ve discussed before in their magisterial phase. More on that, of course, when Mr Ewing gets back from holiday (volcanic ash permitting, Tom? And congratulations on completing another century, btw.)

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    FC Ljubljana but logged out innit on 16 Apr 2010 #

    This song is great! Although I always forget that it isn’t by Heart. 7 for me.

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    swanstep on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Utterly unrelatedly (except for the fact that it sounds line the manifest destiny of ’80s New Pop, hence of inherent interest to current Populist commenters), the forthcoming LCD Soundsystem record sounds completely ace (but I *loved* their last record): it’s streaming here. I reckon ‘Dance yrself clean’ has the best change-up since Take Me Out. Strongly recommended. Woo frickin’ hoo. I’m currently four songs in and there’s no duff track yet, and lots of building on ‘Get Innocuous’ from the last album is going on. Yay! :)

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    pink champale on 16 Apr 2010 #

    oh yes, graphic equalizers. i was very jealous of my mate who got the matsui (dixons ‘japanese’ own brand) mini system one step up from mine at xmas 1987. It not only had five rather than three equalizers to slide up and down, but astoundingly had an LED display of his carefully calibrated settings. we were both slightly crushed to later realise that the LED display was in fact bits of yellow cardboard under perspex that were physically attached to the sliders.

    and i think it was at this time that my entire social circle was for some reason firmly of the opinion that the quality of a hi fi system was best measured by the speed at which the cassette slot opened (specifically that it should be glacially slow) and that we should spend hours in high street electrical stores testing this out, while quoting the “well, it equalizes your graphic dunnit” smith and jones sketch. none of us had girlfriends.

    and if i’d had a sufficiently dampened system, i’d certainly have been blasting out ‘china in your hand’. at the time i loved it, thinking it beautiful and mysterious and classy (saxophones, a video in soft focus AND slow mo!) though i could never see it in quite the same way after my french exchange (favourite band, le ‘ipsway) brought the full weight of his scorn (which as he was fifteen and french, was pretty weighty) down on it, and by implication me, the next spring. in retrospect, he was probably right on both counts.

    blimey, just read djp’s post. i nearly said something about ‘kate bush gone wrong’ and it looks like i would have been on the right lines – excellent spot punctum.

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    Martin Skidmore on 16 Apr 2010 #

    I like it more than Tom (I gave it 6), for the chorus and for Carol Decker’s voice reminding me a bit of the glorious David Surkamp of Pavlov’s Dog obscurity.

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    Steve Mannion on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Yeah 6 for me too – although not quite as powerful I don’t think of it as really any worse than Total Eclipse…

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    thefatgit on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Redhead scouse singers:

    Cilla Black > Carol Decker > Sonia

    Any more?

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