“To listen to music is a rare and rewarding pleasure, one that transforms the everyday just by pressing the play button. What are you listening to?” Richard King
Music critic and pop afficiando Pete Paphides delves into his questionable 80’s 12” collection in the third of our new blog series, What are you listening to?
For the first few seconds, it starts exactly as you remember. It’s 1983 again and an electro-pop beat du jour urges you to head for the dancefloor or – if you’ve seen the video – in pursuit of a handsome pied piper character and his two friends. One of them appears to be the Timotei girl’s deranged sister and the other is a dwarf dressed as a jester. This, of course, is The Safety Dance – the hit enjoyed by Canadian synth-pop aspirants Men Without Hats. You know this song. Everyone of a certain age knows this song. Nothing surprising here. But hang on a minute! What’s this? Why is the intro suddenly twice as long? And why is someone spelling out the song’s title in a manner more akin to a filler item on Sesame Street? And the first verse?! Why is he speaking the lyric? WHAT’S GOING ON?
You are, of course, listening to the extended version of the only British hit enjoyed by “ver” Hats in their collective lifespan. All the bits you remember from the original Safety Dance are there too. They just happened to have about two extra minutes worth of Safety Dance spliced in with them. With more than thirty years of hindsight at our disposal, it’s easy to see such follies for what they were: a chance to sell a more expensive version of a well-loved hit record. But why would someone want to spend more money on a not-as-good version of a song they like? Well, I can tell you, because that record belongs to me. In fact, The Safety Dance was the first 12-inch single I ever bought.
All I can say is that it made perfect sense to me at the time. If there was a record in the chart that I liked, then why wouldn’t I want more of it? Why order tall Men Without Hats when you can have a grande? This was very much how I viewed music at the time and I started applying it to all the records I bought. If I loved The Last Film by Kissing The Pink more than anything else in the chart at that time (I did), then the course of action available to me was a no-brainer. Frequently, my first reaction when I got home and placed my spoils on the turntable was bewilderment. The Kissing The Pink song was a case in point. This stirring paean to a soldier who goes to war and realises that he has been misled by propaganda didn’t really work – especially on a mid-song breakdown which sounded like insurrection in a saucepan factory. And yet, I kept making the same mistake. I saw my 12-inch habit as a test of loyalty. It was my way of showing that I liked, say, Eurythmics’ Who’s That Girl more than anyone else. Five inches more, to be precise.
But, of course, this was the worst era to be buying 12-inch singles. Much like Camp chicory “coffee” and Peter Andre, the format had outlasted the circumstances that brought it into being. Disco was all but dead and acid house was little more than a gleam in Frankie Knuckles’ eye. In this curious limbo period, there was no great reason for the format to remain popular, but of course, it was in the interest of record companies to keep the 12-inch popular. With willing accomplices like me, their job wasn’t difficult. Admittedly, some songs from the era really did deserve that extra space to breathe. The extended version of Shannon’s Let The Music Play doesn’t outstay its welcome by a second. But then, this wasn’t so surprising: electro was disco for the space invaders generation. It’s hard to imagine Mantronix’s Who Is It and Soulsonic Force’s Planet Rock on any other format. Similarly, Miami Sound Machine’s Dr Beat is, at heart, a disco record, building up and breaking itself down, without once relinquishing its physical hold on you.
Outside of electro though, the 12-inch didn’t really seem to know what to do with itself. This was the era of the pop remix. Instead of handing it over to DJ, a record producer would be enlisted to do something – anything – with the song which would fill up the extra plastic. Some went for the most direct approach. Tony Mansfield’s extended version of Aztec Camera’s Walk Out To Winter was typical of many. It consisted of the instrumental of the song tacked onto the beginning of it, thus creating an intro that last as long as the song itself. Frankie Goes To Hollywood may have described their politics as left-leaning, but Margaret Thatcher would surely have been proud of the way their label seized the moneymaking opportunities opened up by ruthless multi-formatting. Part of the reason Relax and Two Tribes enjoyed extended stays at number one was that every week would see the release of a new remix of the songs. It seemed odd at the time, but actually it was incredibly prescient. In 2014, when I go to the supermarket to buy toothpaste and I see 16 different kinds of Colgate toothpaste staring back at me, I realise how far ahead of the curve ZTT were.
Let’s not forget, of course, that there *were* ways to provide “value” on a twelve-inch without ruining the very thing for which you bought it. The Smiths held admirably firm on the issue of remixes, offering otherwise unavailable songs instead. The quality of these extra songs was often so high that they overshadowed the A-side. After it emerged victorious in John Peel’s Festive 50, How Soon Is Now (originally the b-side of the 12-inch of William It Was Really Nothing) earned its own single release. By the time it landed in the Top 20, the 12-inch’s pointless years were almost at an end. In Chicago and Detroit, the likes of Marshall Jefferson and Kevin Saunderson were ushering in period of popularity for the format which has yet to end. Vinyl fetishists of all tastes owe them a debt of gratitude. In the years when the music industry attempted to shepherd music lovers into embracing the CD, it was the 12-inch single – the favoured format of any aspiring DJ – that kept vinyl alive.
Speaking as one of those vinyl fetishists, I’m far too sentimental too relinquish my collection of 80s 12-inches. And besides, as someone who believes that your mistakes are no less a part of you than your successes, I feel I have a symbolic duty to devote shelf space to them. It might be a folly – but, like many follies, my 12-inch collection is also a monument. Admittedly, it’s monument whose intrinsic worth is inversely proportionate to its contents. A monument to a time I loved The Reflex so much that I was prepared to pay more just so that I could own a far inferior version. But do you know what? You can’t put a price on that.
Except, of course, you can. It was an extra £1.30.
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