Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can You Tell Me What A Wang Chung Is?

For mine, one of the signature moments in 80s pop music was the promotional video to Wang Chung’s 1986 hit ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’. It was one of those rare occasions when an already great song was enhanced to the point of sheer pop brilliance when accompanied by the music video. Epileptics may have been advised to view with caution, but I was experiencing fits of joy when I finally scored a remastered DVD copy of the music video for ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ (with first rate audio quality) via its inclusion on the DVD compilation ‘Chartbusting 80s: Volume 3’ (if you live in Australia you should still be able to get your hands on this one). The only thing restricting my access to 80s pop-junky heaven was the absence of a 5.1 DTS remix on the audio - yeah I know that’s just being greedy. The coursing vibrant energy of the song, is matched perfectly by the frenetic chaos of the music video. But there was far more to Wang Chung than met the eyes or ears through ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’.

Rising from the ashes of a six piece band called 57 Men, the London based outfit formed ranks during 1979, calling themselves Huang Chung, and featuring the line-up of Jack Hues (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Nick Feldman (bass/keyboards), Darren Costin (drums) and ‘Hogg’ Robinson (saxophone/percussion). Huang Chung is a literal Chinese translation for ‘perfect pitch’. Within a year this new wave styled pop-rock group had laid down four tracks for the independent label 101 Records. The songs were included on a pair of various artist compilations released by the label. In 1980 Huang Chung issued their debut single ‘Isn’t It About Time We Were On Television?’ (subtle hint there). The single impressed the suits at Arista Records, who signed the group up to an album deal. In 1982 Huang Chung released their eponymous debut album (co-produced by Rhett Davies), which didn’t benefit from the inclusion of any stand out pop-rock singles (‘Hold Back The Tears’ and ‘China’ both missed the charts). Overall ‘Huang Chung’ sounded like an album from a band still searching for their sound, and in lieu of that, relying on formulaic new wave pop in an attempt to fit in somewhere, even if that somewhere wasn’t true to the band’s underlying identity. Interestingly the individual band members seemed to also be searching for an identity, as on the album notes Nick Feldman was credited as Nick De Spig, and Darren Costin was credited as Darren Darwin.

The band had a ponder over the next couple of years about their style, their sound, their image, even their name. When they resurfaced in early 1984 with their sophomore album ‘Points On The Curve’ (US#30/UK#34/OZ#56), Huang Chung had become Wang Chung. The band had been whittled down to a trio, following the departure of saxophonist ‘Hogg’ Robinson (in 1982), and would soon abandon trying to conquer their home market and set sight on the U.S. The band’s primary songwriters Jack Hues (born Jeremy Ryder) and Nick Feldman must have been listening to pioneering new wave synth-outfit Japan for a hint of inspiration, with several songs effectively melding elements of Eastern and Western musical elements. If you lived in Britain or Australia the first single released was the infectious ‘Dance Hall Days’ which danced on to the U.K. charts in January 1984 (#21), and later became a top ten hit (#7) in Australia. In the U.S. the single ‘Don’t Let Go’ (#38/OZ#94) actually hit the Hot 100 first in February, but was quickly followed by ‘Dance Hall Days’ when it debuted in April ‘84. ‘Dance Hall Days’ peaked at #16 on the Hot 100, but slew them on the dance floors when it shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music chart. Tracks like ‘Don’t Be My Enemy’ (US#86) and ‘Devoted Friends’ reflected a band that had dared to find their own identity.

So impressive were the cinematic qualities behind several of the songs on ‘Points On The Curve’ (co-produced by Chris Hughes) that Wang Chung were commissioned to record a nine song soundtrack for the William Friedken directed thriller ‘To Live And Die In L.A.’, starring Willem Dafoe. The brooding, at times ethereal, soundtrack was well received in the U.S. (#85), as was the title track single (#41). Wang Chung also contributed the song ‘Fire In The Twilight’ for the soundtrack to the John Hughes film ‘The Breakfast Club’. 1985 also saw Wang Chung leave their American label Geffen for A&M Records, whilst drummer Darren Costin departed, leaving Hues and Feldman to carry on as a duo.

In 1986 Wang Chung hit the high point on the curve of their career with the phenomenal pop-rock song ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ (written/produced by Peter Wolf - formerly with Frank Zappa band). If ever a song was a metaphor for the concept of partying, then Wang Chung had nailed it. ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ hit the U.S. charts in October 1986 and before year’s end had peaked at #2, held off from the top spot by the Bangles’ ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ (see future post). The fun continued in Australia where the song celebrated at #8 early in 1987. The song was indicative of a change of style on Wang Chung’s latest album ‘Mosaic’ (US#45/OZ#94), which saw the band move away from the edgier synth driven work of earlier albums, and embrace good old fashioned danceable pop-rock, with a myriad of musical influences thrown into the mix. The reviews were that the consistency of quality on ‘Mosaic’ suffered because of the change in style, but the album also produced another quality pop-rock song with ‘Let’s Go!’. The follow up single hit the U.S. charts in early ‘87 and became Wang Chung’s second consecutive top 10 effort (#9), and also performed well in Australia (#14). A third single was lifted from the album in mid ‘87 when the song ‘Hypnotize Me’ (US#36) was used in the Joe Dante/Steven Spielberg film ‘Innerspace’ (see Sep post for Rod Stewart’s ‘Twisting The Night Away’).

But by 1989 the party had started to wind down for Wang Chung. Their fourth album ‘The Warmer Side Of Cool’ (US#123) proved to be on the cooler side of warm in respect of sales, and the first single ‘Praying To A New God’ (US#63 - #22 Modern Rock Tracks) hinted that Wang Chung may have been worshipping at the wrong pop alter. That alter may have been the U.S. commercial radio networks, for whom the album seemed to be aimed at. In the process Wang Chung did come up with a handful of well constructed songs, including the catchy melodic rock of the title track, but took one step too far from the formula that had won so many fans over the previous decade (or maybe it was the just plain weird album cover that put people off). Whatever the factors behind Wang Chung’s decline in commercial fortunes, the duo of Jack Hues and Nick Feldman had lost most of their momentum. The tours wound down, the recording projects stalled, and by 1991 Wang Chung had gone the way of the 80s - a wonderful thing to celebrate, but essentially a thing of the past.

Jack Hues went on to work with a variety of artists over the next decade or so, including The Definition Of Sound, Tony Banks (of Genesis) and Kiki Dee. He then formed the band Strictly Inc. with ex-Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, releasing the album ‘Only Seventeen’ in 1995. Hues is currently a key member of the band The-Quartet alongside key collaborator Sam Bailey, with Rutledge Turnlund and Michael Porter. They have recorded an album titled ‘Illuminated’, which was produced by Chris Hughes (co-producer of Wang Chung’s album ‘Points On The Curve’, in addition to Tears For Fears/Adam & The Ants).

Nick Feldman teamed up with former Culture Club drummer Jon Moss in a short lived act called Promised Land (released one album in 1992). In 1997 Feldman joined Hues again to support the release of a greatest hits package for Wang Chung. Some promotional and live performance touring followed during 97/98. Hues kickstarted a revamped Wang Chung line-up for a 2000 live tour, playing on the same bill as fellow 80s alumnus A Flock Of Seagulls and Missing Persons (see previous posts) on the nostalgia circuit. Meanwhile Feldman had moved into an A&R role with Warner, and later Sony. In 2005 Hues and Feldman performed together once more as Wang Chung on the TV show ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. The duo have reportedly recorded some new material together since and as of 2007 they were in negotiations for a new record deal as Wang Chung.

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