Culture Club – “Colour By Numbers” (1983) (Sh*t I Play On My Crosley #2)

Karma karma karma karma chameleon…

Colour By Numbers was released in 1983, right when I started getting into music and when MTV was replacing radio as the way you experienced music. But it wasn’t cool for a boy to like Culture Club, at least not in my circle, so like many of my male classmates I pretended not to like them or Duran Duran or Wham!, when secretly I’d turn up the sound on the TV when their videos came on.

This slightly warped copy came to us courtesy of the $3 bin at Easy Street Records. It seems like in many paces the “dollar bin” has become the “three dollar bin,” or at the very least the “two-for-five bin,” but that’s OK, because it means we can still sit on the back patio and listen to “Karma Chameleon” and “It’s a Miracle” while we sip cocktails on a warm summer night. And I suspect Boy George himself would be perfectly fine with that.

The Sugarcubes – “Stick Around for Joy” (1991)

I have 170 records by Icelandic artists. And that’s just on vinyl… it doesn’t even include tapes and CDs I’ve picked up. And I’ve only been at it for maybe four years. And yet, until last week, I had never purchased anything by The Sugarcubes.

How is this possible? People joke that Björk is Iceland’s biggest export, yet there’s an element of truth to that, certainly from an American perspective. Outside the Bobby Fischer / Boris Spassky match-up for the 1972 World Chess Championship and the 1986 Reagan / Gorbachev summit, which both took place in Reykjavik, most Americans were (and mostly still are) basically ignorant of Iceland. And then The Sugarcubes happened. And Björk happened. And now there are so many tourists going to Iceland that there are legitimate fears that all those people are actually damaging a surprisingly fragile ecosystem, one that Icelanders feel very connected to.

I like to think we fell in love with Iceland before there was a bandwagon. It was more like a little shuttle bus with bald tires at that point. But any time I mentioned the country, Björk and/or The Sugarcubes were invariably brought into the conversation. So how did I manage to go this long without sitting down to listen to The Sugarcubes? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s an unconscious rebellion… sort of feeling like I couldn’t “discover” music that was already so well known? After all, I’ve never listened to Sigur Rós either (no joke), and they’re probably the most popular Icelandic group among American music fans. Hell, I haven’t even listened to either of Björk’s last two albums.

I suspect there is some truth to this. I’m not intentionally ignoring these bands or albums, I just haven’t made even the remotest effort to listen to them. And it’s not like we don’t have their music in the house, since Holly has had CDs by all of them for some time. Simon Reynolds touches on these topics a bit in his fun book Retromania, and while it’s uncomfortable to feel like some type of ridiculous unconscious weaknesses and/or needs shapes my choices of what music to listen to, I have to be man enough to admit that it could be true.

Anyway… I found this nice copy of The Sugarcubes’ last LP, 1991s Stick Around for Joy, the other day stuck in the 12″ singles section at a local store. Given the price, my guess is someone mistook it for a 12″, and to be fair it kind of looks like one, including the jacket opening at the top instead of the right side. And you know what? It’s good. It’s really good. The musical sound is like an evolved version of new wave, sort of a “free” new wave, much like free jazz, a poppy new wave sound that wanders around in a very loosely structured way. Of course, we add to that Björk, with her oh so recognizable voice and vocal style that flows like water and won’t allow itself to be constrained by the music. Thrown in a dash of Einar Örn weirdness, and you have a pop band that still sounds fresh today. The only band I can compare them to is the B-52s, and I do hear a some similarities especially on “Vitamin.”

I’m glad I picked up Stick Around for Joy. There’s some enjoyable, fun pop music here, and I can’t believe I wanted this long to check it out. And since there’s still a little bit more space on my Icelandic vinyl shelf…

This Year’s Blonde – “Who’s That Mix” (1987)

I’ve written before about my love of classic Madonna songs, something I felt compelled to hide from the world for a very long time lest I somehow lose my “rock cred,” whatever the hell that is. I’m simply too old to give a crap about that now. So when I found this 12″ mash-up of eight different Madonna classics done by This Year’s Blonde, there was exactly zero question as to whether or not I was buying it. And I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest to bring it up to the counter (along with The Sugarcubes, Heart, and Stray Cats).

Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane wasn’t too impressed with he transitions on this mix… but they sound pretty good to me, good enough to have me bopping around the living room like a fool. Because Madonna. Duh.

This was released in 1987, so the two “newest” singles sampled are “Who’s That Girl” and “La Isla Bonita,” the latter of which was taking France by storm when I was there that very same summer; you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that song. To give you a sense of how insanely popular it was, according to Wikipedia the “La Isla Bonita” single sold 545,000 copies in the US. In France it sold 771,000 copies. And the US has roughly five times the population of France. Do the math. France loves them some Madonna. “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” are the two earliest cuts used.

There are two different versions of the Madonna mash-up, followed by an original composition called “No Big Deal.” It’s a good little dance number, but the real treat is being able to have your own little old-school Madonna DJ set in your own home. I may need to spend more time digging through the 12″ singles section in the future…

Richard Termini Project – “Dangerous Games” (1983)

I won’t lie. The cover caught my attention on this one. Because there’s nothing cuter than a baby playing with pistols.

I figured it was going to be some kind of punk or metal record, but it’s pretty far from that. Dangerous Games is pure, unadulterated 80s (1983) synth pop. It’s like Blondie meets Lou Champagne System, at least on the songs featuring Vicki Zollo on the microphone. This is classic early synth music – sometimes weird (“Bensonhurst”), sometimes sterile (“Television Generation”), sometimes poppy as hell (“Come To Me”). Pretty much any song on here would be at home in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Richard Termini might be best known for his work with Patti Smyth and Cyndi Lauper. In fact, I thought there was some odd mistake when I realized the inner sleeve holding the record was actually for Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, but now I’m not so sure. Termini played synths on that album (his name’s right here on the sleeve!), and both records came out in 1983. Coincidence that my copy just happens to have an inner sleeve for a Cyndi Lauper album that Termini just happened to play on? I don’t know.

But back to Dangerous Games. This is a pretty cool record if you’re down with that early 80s sort of very deliberate synthesizers – playing as either short, distinct, sharp notes or very long held notes, sounding more like an electronic machine than an instrument. Side B does kick it up a notch and it feels like there’s more guitar work and traditional song structure on songs like “Modern Science.” Termini is at his best when he has Zollo along for the ride – she’s got that classic, urgent pop style of voice that fits perfectly with the sometimes almost sterile sound of the synths, like she’s trapped inside the music and desperately trying to get out.

Dangerous Games is certainly a bit dated, and perhaps a little uneven, but I chalk that up as much to the experimental nature of what Termini is doing as opposed to something else. His talent is obvious. If you’re down with the whole 80s synth scene, it’s definitely worth a listen.

UPDATE (Feb. 19, 2015) -> So I got an email today… from Richard Termini! Which is, of course, incredibly cool. Richard also let me in on a little something that puts Dangerous Games into perspective – while the album came out in 1983, some of it was actually stuff Termini wrote in the 1970s. So while it sort of sounded a bit retro, even taking into account it was from 1983, really it was probably ahead of its time. And the guitar player on the record was John Campos, later of Fallout… who were produced by who else but Richard Termini!

“Tvær Í Takinu” Compilation (1984)

The Reykjavik flea market, like flea markets everywhere, is a hit-or-miss affair. There are a couple of regular full time used music sellers, but there are also random boxes of CD and vinyl scattered among the stalls. I’ve done well there in the past, but this year only came away with a few mediocre odds and ends. One of which was a $3 copy of Tvær Í Takinu, a 1984 comp of various well known Icelandic performers. Sure it wasn’t in great shape. But hey, I’d heard of most of the artists, so why not.

Turns out this is actually the second record of a two record set. Volume 1 was all non-Icelandic acts like UB-40 and Culture Club, while Volume 2 was all the Icelandic stuff. I’m not sure if the lady had Volume 1 somewhere in that box too… though if she did, I probably wouldn’t have assumed it was part of this and would have passed it by. Doh! Such is life.

Now supposedly this set is kind of rare, something to do with it being pulled due to the failure to secure rights to the Megas song “Fatlað Fól.” I of course have no idea how true this is, or how someone online arrived at the estimate that maybe 500 copies of this exist. But whatever. Still an interesting story.

A lot of bands and artists I’ve previously written about here are among the 12 performers on Tvær Í Takinu:

Bubbi Morthens, Megas, Björk,  Baraflokkurinn, Egó, Grýlurnar, Þú Og Ég… they’re all here, making this a pretty solid compilation. The songs are pretty poppy overall, much of it in that 80s schmaultzy way, but it’s still decent. If nothing else, it’s a nice cross section of the most important popular musicians in Iceland during the period, so if you can find a cheap copy, pick it up. And hey, if you find a copy of Volume 1, let me know!