Aural Fixations


THE NOVEITY OF British band with something to say started to wear of about the time (1979) punks and wavers appeared in my hometown. Seattle Once you have caught the fancy of the moneyed suburbs, the price on your integrity becomes too big to resist: I knew that if Seattle had discovered British protest bands, their days were numbered. Three years later, Paul, Welfer--the prototypical Angry Young Man--cashed in the Jam's inarticulate outrage for the smooth sounds of cabaret Jazz at the same time that Boy George--the painted mockery of preening masculinity--snared the attention of transatlantic audiences. The dire warnings about the System co-opting integrity bands like the Clash was only rock-press pablum. Even if Joe Strummer had held on to his elitist-bashing ethics in the face of record label take-over attempts of the sort T. Boone Pickens would admire, the great unwashed masses of record buyers would have written out his doom. Fashion sells, quality endures--but a band has to sell to quality endures--but a band has to sell to endure, an ugly truth for musicians with a mission.

Although it's fronted by a Frenchman, the Stranglers used to thrash harder and scream louder than almost any other band. But Jean-Jacques Burnel, the vocal power behind the band, anticipated the swing of the gustatory pendulum on their album, IV, alienating some of their hardcore spikes-n-nails support. Aural Sculpture, the Strangler's latest, completes their metamorphosis from outraged punk outcasts to ingratiating pop insiders.

But even the middle-roader melodies like "Skin Deep" can't conceal the hard edges of old; a slight snarl lurks under Burnel's voice, even at its most unctuous. The eardrum-bursting sarcasm of songs like "Bring on the Nubiles" still lingers in the earlobe-singeing insinuations of bourgeois S&M; in Punch & Judy:

Judy's always been his bright flag

Shows the audience a smile

Cause she knows when they've all gone home

She can tick him clean in style

The Stranglers have never made a completely successful album. There are always one or two songs on each album, like "Northwinds Blowing," that take their current style one step beyond (in this case into the realm of semi-psychedelic wimpshit) but holes like these can be ignored for the push-pull sophistication of tracks like "The Ice Queen."

The Stranglers, to their credit, won't give in to the requisite dance-floor demands of public success; even the grandes artistes Talking Heads couldn't reach the really big time--permanent Top--40 success--until they meshed funk rhythm with their native melodies.

DANCE ABILITY MANY believe, is the only virtue of British synth-band Depeche Mode. An auspicious pioneer in the synth-pop wavelet of Human League, ex-Human Leaguers Heaven 17, and Soft Cell, "The Mode" looked passe after synthesizer genius Vince Clarke departed for Yaz. The remaining foursome haven't quite thrived, but they haven't died either; and their latest release. Some Great Reward compares well to the brilliant post-Clarke collection. A Broken Frame.

Depeche Mode, whether they realize it or not, are astride the twilight zone of sentiment, sentimentality, and naked-nipple camp. With a synthesizer beat that commands the dance floor, tender melodies that call for industrial-sized Dramamine, and pretty-boy vocals that would do credit to the Krokodiloes. Depeche Mode somehow manages to subvert the teen-age romantic schlock slot they ought to fit so well.

Depeche Mode rips the guts out of Modern Love, and the Modern Love Ballad, by distilling it into its purest form. With a voice oozing tenderness, Alan Wilder sings:

I wan; somebody who cares

For me passionately

With every thought and with every breath