Monday, August 11, 2008

The Sound Of The Suburbs

I seem to often go back to the year 1982 on this blog, and there is a reason for that - it was my favourite year in popular music history. Maybe in terms of raw musical quality, and/or setting influential and lasting trends, it didn’t achieve anything special. But I guess there is a lot of nostalgia attached to that particular period in my life, and a lot of songs evoke very strong memories and feelings of youth. It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone has a favourite year in music for similar reasons.

There was a compilation album that came out here in Australia in mid 1982 called ‘1982: Out Of The Blue’. As with pretty much every other various artists album released that year, there really wasn’t a bad track on it. One of the stand out songs, and it copped a real workout on my old cassette player, was ‘Radio’ by the Members. It seemed to take the best elements of early Dexys (and Dexys spin-off the Bureau - see earlier posts) in terms of its big ballsy brass sound, and added the rawness of the Jam’s or the Clash’s post-punk sound to the mix, with a splash of Madness for good measure.

The Members came together in the summer of 1977, born of the unfashionable suburbs of Bagshot and Camberley. Though they wouldn’t carry the big issues banner of the Clash, the Members would address the sounds and matters that they could relate to, the everyday, the trivial, but the no less relevant to the masses. The early line-up was built around vocalist Nicky Tesco, guitarist/vocalist ’JC’ Carroll, guitarist Nigel Bennett (who replaced Gary Baker early on), bassist Chris Payne and drummer Adrian Lillywhite. By day all the members held down regular jobs as bank clerks, sales reps, engineers and the like. By night they aspired to connect with audiences through their music.

Their first gig came at London’s Roxy Club in September ‘77, playing a set of punk edged numbers, laced with elements of a reggae style that would become a key subtext of the band’s sound. When you added into the mix Tesco’s gritty vocals that spoke, often satirically, of the plight of the everyday, it made for an appealing formula that soon gained the band a solid live rep. Whilst still solidifying their live fan base, the Members were afforded a chance to record a song for the independent label Beggars Banquet. Thanks in part to up and coming producer Steve Lillywhite (brother of Member’s drummer Adrian), the band recorded ‘Fear On The Streets’ in late ‘77, which was included on the seminal Beggars Banquet compilation album ‘Streets’.

The independent single release ‘Solitary Confinement’ followed on the Stiff Records label in 1978, before the big labels came knocking on the Members suburban door. They signed with Virgin Records in late ’78, and it was Steve Lillywhite (soon to oversee U2’s early career) who would be at the production helm. The single ‘The Sound Of The Suburbs’ would in many respects become the signature song for the Members. It spoke to the masses as well, climbing to #12 on the British charts in early 1979. The band meanwhile had finished work on their debut album ‘At The Chelsea Nightclub’ (UK#45), released in April ‘79.

Having brought a reggae infused sound more to the fore on their album, the Members next released a stand alone single, which was one of the earlier examples of the burgeoning new wave white reggae sound (think Specials, UB40). ‘Offshore Banking Business’ (UK#31) featured a classic reggae style riff (increasingly evident in Carroll‘s playing), brass section and singer Nicky Tesco even flirted with a Jamaican style spoken word section. The song was written by Carroll, and was a seething indictment of the subject matter, drawing on his experiences as a trainee merchant banker.

For their second album, the Members turned to producer Rupert Hine (see earlier post). 1980’s ‘The Choice Is Yours’ featured a less frenetic sound, and saw the band flirting with a moodier style of music. The single releases ‘Flying Again’ and ‘Romance’ both missed the charts though, and the Members found themselves flirting with anonymous suburban life again. They decided that a mild re-invention was in order, so upon leaving the Virgin label in 1981, they recruited the fulltime horn section of Steve ‘Rudi’ Thompson and Simon Lloyd, looking to introduce a funk/soul sound to the mix.

They released the one off single ‘Radio’ on the Island label in mid 1982. The song went unnoticed in most markets, but not here in Australia. It became a radio favourite, naturally enough, but also got quite a work out on a lot of stereo’s, going on to peak at #5. It was the Members only chart success in Australia. Coinciding with ‘Radio’s popularity here, the Members also released the single ‘Working Girl’ in the U.S. The song had a more straight up pop element to it, and it became a fan favourite on the burgeoning MTV network, though it missed the Hot 100 charts (#34 Mainstream Rock Chart). It’s a mystery to me why both singles weren’t hits in Britain.

On the back of ‘Working Girl’s airplay popularity, the band released their third album entitled ‘Uprhythm, Downbeat’ in late 1982. Produced by Martin Rushent, who was fresh from overseeing Human League’s ‘Dare’, the album was initially released in the U.S. only, before later being released in the U.K. under the name ‘Going West’. Neither the album nor title track single bothered the chart statisticians, which is too bad given that the Members seemed to really be finding their feet musically. Following their 1983 U.S. tour, singer Nicky Tesco left the band, and within months the group called it quits.

Tesco went on to appear in a number of films before turning to a career as a music journalist. Carroll went on to form his own band JC & The Disciples, which on occasion includes other Members’ alumni. Though never having officially reformed, the Members have on a number of special occasions played together live.

It was perhaps indicative of the Members history overall, that they seemed to be just a whisker away from that big commercial breakthrough, and only on reflection is it clear how innovative and exciting their music actually was, perhaps too much so. But then that’s true of many artist’s careers.

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