Let’s climb into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and travel back to my review of Denim on Ice:
. . . I ran into all kinds of availability problems with Denim. The reader who suggested Denim recommended their maiden effort, Back in Denim. Well, I guess I could have spent NINETY FUCKING EURO for a Japanese import copy of Back in Denim on Amazon, but alas, it’s “currently unavailable.” Only one of Denim’s albums is available on iTunes . . . but not in France. I had to get an American friend to buy it and send it to me in a series of emails.
If there’s one quality that the people who know me best consider an essential part of my personality, it’s perseverance. I was goddamned determined to get a copy of Back in Denim and would not rest until I accomplished my mission. As things turned out, I accidentally stumbled upon a copy, but I would argue that the waves of energy I transmitted throughout the universe finally came through for me.
What happened was Apple sent me an email invitation to try out Apple Music for six months. I’d always avoided streaming platforms because of Spotify’s well-documented record of screwing artists, so I checked Tom’s Guide and learned that Apple actually pays artists more than any other platform.
And it was free, so what the hell.
I’d been using Apple Music primarily as my background soundtrack for a couple of weeks when I developed an overwhelming urge to hear Denim on Ice. Since I knew that Denim on Ice was the only Denim album on iTunes—and having learned to keep things short-and-sweet with Siri because she gets discombobulated if you alternate between English and French—I instructed her to “Joue Denim,” fully expecting to hear “The Great Pub Rock Revival.”
Now it was my turn to experience discombobulation, for what came out of the speakers was “The Osmonds.” I quickly recovered and ordered Siri to “Joue Back in Denim,” but the bitch told me it wasn’t in my Apple library. So I went to my iMac, opened the Music app, navigated to Apple Music and performed a manual search for Back in Denim.
And there it was. The whole fucking album.
I still can’t figure out why Back in Denim is on Apple Music but not for sale on iTunes, but I’ve learned that music licensing procedures and economics are as goofy as the procedures and economics of the American health care system.
No matter—my perseverance paid off. Hooray for me!
Denim on Ice was my first encounter with Lawrence, never having heard Felt or Go-Kart Mozart. Going backward in time from an album you loved can be tricky because your expectations of what you’re going to hear can be skewed if the later album demonstrated a major shift or significant improvement. While I’d heard Radiohead on occasion, my first real encounter with their music was Kid A—and when I first heard OK Computer in its entirety, it was like, what the fuck? I finally learned to deeply appreciate OK Computer, but it did take some time.
Except for one song, I had a similar reaction to Back in Denim. Denim on Ice is playful, funny, full of surprises and witty lyrics. The Lawrence I heard on Back in Denim sounded rather arrogant and I got the feeling he was taking himself too seriously.
Then I remembered that Lawrence spent so much time fussing with Back in Denim that the producer banned him from the studio. I went back through my earlier research and found this nugget on Wikipedia: “The album was received well by critics but was commercially poor. In retrospect, Lawrence commented ‘The tills were closed . . . This was my masterpiece and I would fight to the death to get it right. If that meant it was going to end up selling 25 copies, then that was the way it had to be.'”
So Back in Denim was Lawrence’s baby. Parents are programmed to preserve, protect and defend their babies against all enemies, real or imaginary. Parents also tend to get defensive when other people tell them how to raise their child when that advice conflicts with their values and instincts. That orientation explains why Lawrence and producer John Leckie were constantly at loggerheads—nobody was going to tell him how to raise his baby! It also explains the arrogance I heard in some of the songs where Lawrence comes off as insufferably certain that he has all the answers. On the other hand, his gift for creating shock value—either through his outrageously opinionated views on music and culture or his penchant for jarring lyrical juxtapositions—does result in some compelling moments on Back in Denim.
Unfortunately, those compelling moments appear in only two of the ten songs on the album. While there are a couple of other songs that rank as tolerable, most are pure filler—seriously overproduced filler. The lyrics on those songs range from boring to unintelligible and the arrangements aren’t particularly well-thought-out. There are lots of “ta-da!” moments on Back in Denim but the ta-da-ing doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s an album that tries very hard to sound important but when you get past the glitz, there ain’t a whole lot of there there.
Things get off to a less-than-promising start with the title track. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been turned off to a song after a single measure that didn’t involve Robert Plant’s voice. That one measure consists of a beat clearly lifted from the intro to Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” different only because Denim’s pow-pow-POW is drums-only while Queen uses handclaps on the third beat. If you’re going to rip off a drum pattern, it’s kind of stupid to steal one of the most famous and overplayed drum patterns in human history. Two years to make this record and all you can come up with for a grand opening was a retread drum part? I tried giving Lawrence the benefit of the doubt, hoping that the song might turn into a satiric dig at Queen, but no such luck—the song opens as a product launch ditty designed to excite fans about how Denim is going to “put the soul in your rock ‘n’ roll,” but Lawrence being Lawrence, he immediately alienates his target audience:
Here I am back again with a plan
I made it up, New York City scam
In print on CD and video
I’ll make a mint, my generation’s slow
They throw away cash
On new 45’s, they’re trash
Who’s selling pure gold? (Denim!)
Tell ’em I’m coming
I suppose “Back in Denim” does effectively announce his stylistic shift from “jangle pop” to glam rock, so there’s that. I also noticed that he finally gave up on trying to channel Tom Verlaine on his vocals (a good thing) and that the “aging glitter rockers” he hired for the sessions acquit themselves with due professionalism, but as an opening number, “Back in Denim” doesn’t cut it.
I’m not sure if “Fish and Chips” puts the soul in your rock ‘n’ roll but it’s a tight power-pop tune with glittery synth, strong forward movement and nice harmonies. The lyrics are something of a nothingburger with the usual references to Lawrence’s odd duck status, but at least he avoids the temptation to insult anyone. He doesn’t go anywhere near a chippy in the song, so I have no idea why it’s called “Fish and Chips,” but maybe I’m missing something along the lines of “fish and finger pie.”
Once you get past the irritating synth-heavy intro to “Bubblehead,” it becomes a jaunty number with tight rhythm guitar and steady drumming until the synth returns with its boing-boing sounds serving as a major distraction. The song is about a relationship that fell apart and while at first Lawrence owns up to his part in making a mess of things (“It was me, it was me”), he gets rather nasty at the end and tells the chick, “You’re nothing without me.” I’m hoping that the lady in question laughed her ass off and threw her drink in his face.
Okay, we’re three songs in and I don’t hear anything approaching masterpiece-level quality . . . let’s see what Lawrence pulls out of his hat next.
I hate the Stones and I hate blues
Eddie Cochran and Blue Suede Shoes
I hate the King, I hate Chuck Berry
I hate Hooker, I hate Leadbelly
I hate funk and I hate soul
Rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll
I hate riffs and guitar licks
I hate coke and I hate spiffs
I hate Otis and Marvin Gaye
Early Dylan, Aretha, hey
Spector’s wall, knock it down
Jerry Lee, run him out of town
Makes you kinda wonder how Denim is going to put the soul back in rock ‘n’ roll when Lawrence knocks R&B and the great soul singers. For all I know, he may well despise all of those artists and/or possess bitter envy towards those who hit the big time while he toiled in obscurity. His apparently extremist views lie in stark contrast to the song’s title: “Middle of the Road.” What the hell is going on here?
For the first time on this album, Lawrence connects the dots and shares a long-held view about the music scene that he would reiterate in “The Great Pub Rock Revival”: “Everybody believes what they’re told to/Everybody believes what they read in the NME/Everybody but me.” What he really hates is the power of the music business to shape tastes:
There ain’t a lot I can do about it though
I’m force-fed your so-called heroes
Don’t be told who to like
It’s your choice
It’s your right to choose who you listen to
It’s your rock ‘n’ roll
It’s also true when an artist has a string of hit records and enters the pantheon of heroes that fans continue to insist that everything they’ve ever done is great and everything they will do in the future will be great. If you dare to challenge that moronic thinking, get ready for some serious blowback by fans who will be aching to burn you at the stake. And because there’s only so much music the consumer can consume, unthinking fidelity to artists who have clearly shot their wad tends to crowd out new artists who are actually making higher quality music. When the big music media companies produce their all-time greatest lists, they’re only partially attempting to recognize excellence. What they’re really doing is using their power to define the music you should buy based on the personal tastes of alleged experts—and for some reason, we tend to believe that the “authorities” know more than we do. “I’m supposed to like this music. Rolling Stone says it’s the greatest thing ever. It won a Grammy. What’s the matter with me?”
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you, honey,” Lawrence might respond. “It’s your right to choose who you listen to.” While you can’t ignore the likelihood that part of Lawrence’s motivation here is that he really, really wants you to listen to his records, the point he makes is still perfectly valid. As far as Lawrence describing himself as “middle of the road,” all I can say is there are relatively few people on earth as far from “middle of the road” as Lawrence.
Best of all, “Middle of the Road” is a doldrum-snapping musical delight, a solid, ass-shaking rocker that never lets up. The synth is finally used tastefully and appropriately in fill-mode, never interfering with the no-holds-barred rock rhythms. And the bright, harmonic scat-style vocals that appear in between verses two and three are an unexpected flash of sheer delight. Despite the initial shock of vitriol, “Middle of the Road” is one of the better songs on the album and would have served as a much stronger opener than “Back in Denim.”
The album’s opus comes in the form of “The Osmonds,” where Lawrence builds a brilliant collage of impressionistic socio-cultural imagery to form a mural-in-music of one of the more bizarre decades in human history. The 70s coincided with his pre-teen to teen years, a period when we are oriented towards absorbing large amounts of information in our quest for identity—so when Lawrence tells us, “I was there,” he’s engaging in a rare fit of understatement. Henry Kissinger was there, too, but like most adults, his worldview was comparatively hardened and his mind fixed in a static pattern that limited his perceptual field. Lawrence was not encumbered by such rigidity. What he is encumbered with is the warm glow most of us attach to our formative years, but he conjures up enough self-discipline to avoid wrapping the decade in gauzy nostalgia.
After a brief and somewhat wistful guitar introduction, the first images Lawrence puts to canvas are images of the hangers-on from the previous decade: “In the ’70s there was long hair/There were left-over hippies everywhere.” He pictures them on “prayer mats” (you can still get a “Bohemian prayer mat” on E-Bay) with “stringy beards and floppy hats,” looking like “Jesus in crushed velvet flares.” By this time, The Haight had collapsed into a hard drug horror show (my dad grew up there) and after the farewell concerts at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, the sub-culture turned inward and out of mainstream consciousness—a quaint memory from yesteryear.
The first rendition of the chorus comes next, and though it seems out of place at this early point in the narrative, it will take on greater meaning as we journey through the decade:
And in the ’70s there were Osmonds
There were lots of Osmonds
There were lots of little Osmonds
Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere
The second verse is uniquely British and Lawrence uses several terms familiar to those from the West Midlands to describe some of the subcultures that emerged to replace the hippies, mods and rockers:
In the ’70s there were skinheads
There were bovver boys and brummie reds and
Greasers, grebos, Judge and Natty Dread
In the ’70s there were chopper bikes
Oxford bags and kung fu fights
Trojan sounds, Lee Perry dub
Y’all know skinheads; bovver boys is a variation of the same. It’s no accident that Lawrence mentioned them first, as they’re about as far from hippies as you can get—the times they were a-changin’. “Brummie reds” are Birmingham supporters of Manchester United. “Oxford bags” is a reference to one of the worst-designed articles of apparel ever. Immediately following the verse we hear police sirens and a voice crying out, “But it’s Kojak!”
Yeah, he was there, too—and there were lots of little Osmonds . . .
The hints of a shift to a more violent culture in the second verse are fully realized in the third, for the 70s were the decade when The Troubles expanded to encompass the green and pleasant land next door:
In the ’70s there were lots of bombs
They blew my hometown up
And lots of people were killed
On the news the relatives cried
Everyone knew someone who’d died
They’ll never forget it for the rest of their lives
And all around the people say
“We hate the IRA and we asked for justice but it never came”
“They blew my hometown up” refers to the Birmingham pub bombings (Lawrence was born in Birmingham and grew up in the West Midlands). According to Wikipedia, “The Birmingham pub bombings were one of the deadliest acts of the Troubles, and the deadliest act of terrorism to occur in England between the Second World War and the 2005 London bombings.” The IRA set off bombs in two pubs, killing twenty-three and injuring one-hundred-eighty-two, many of whom lost limbs. The last line refers to the fact that those responsible were never brought to justice; the convictions of the alleged perpetrators were overturned in 1991.
And there were lots of little Osmonds . . .
Verse four combines images related to pop culture (television and music) with two highly-publicized crimes. The first shout-out goes to Hughie Green, a rather famous British television presenter who hosted quiz shows and the wildly popular talent search programme Opportunity Knocks (more like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts where Patsy Cline made her debut than American Idol). Many of the artists Lawrence mentions were discovered on Opportunity Knocks; all are uniformly awful purveyors of novelty songs or the insipid pop music of the 70s. It’s also important to note that Hughie Green was a right-wing nutcase who in the 70s exploited the opportunity of a popular weekly show to rail against Labour and promote the Tories to twenty million viewers in the end-of-year episodes of Opportunity Knocks.
In the ’70s there was Hughie Green
Lieutenant Pigeon hit the scene
Paper Lace and Candlewick Green
Mouldy Old Dough, Chicory Tip
Gilbert O and Hurricane Smith
Billy Don’t Be a Hero, hey David rock on!
In the ’70s Lesley Whittle died
The Black Panther went inside
And Jeremy Thorpe, oh he resigned
And at school the girls would bring
A thousand volts of Holt and sing
Hey There Lonely Girl, Impossible Love
The Jeremy Thorpe story was recently covered in the three-part series A Very English Scandal with Hugh Grant in the starring role as a politician who resigned when rumors of a homosexual affair and a few fuck-ups led to poor election results (he later stood trial for hiring someone to off his former lover but was acquitted). Lesley Whittle was a 17-year-old woman who was kidnapped and murdered by a psychopath labeled the Black Panther by the British press. Lesley’s murder was front-page news for almost a year; the Black Panther confessed to three other murders and was put away for four lifetimes.
But yes, there were lots of little Osmonds . . .
The truncated fifth verse mentions the retirement of legendary footballer George Best and the advent of The Bay City Rollers (yet another teeny-bopper group hailed as the biggest since The Beatles, but who only made a small dent in the US market). The final go-round of the chorus adds references to Marie Osmond’s Paper Roses album (#1 on the country charts) and The Osmonds’ Crazy Horses (where The Osmonds went metal, believe it or not). And if you haven’t had enough of the decade by the end of the song, Lawrence loads the extended fade with plenty of 70s references.
Why The Osmonds? Well, according to Wikipedia, “With their clean-cut image, talent, and energetic pop-rock sound, the Osmonds toured to crowds of screaming fans in the US. They even had their own 1972–1973 Saturday-morning cartoon series, The Osmonds, on ABC-TV. By this time, the Osmonds had broken through in the UK as well: counting group and solo recordings, members of the Osmond family charted 13 singles on the UK charts during 1973. Some observers coined a new word, “Osmondmania”, to describe the phenomenon, by analogy with the similar “Beatlemania” of the previous decade.”
In other words, The Osmonds were the ultimate alternative reality show, a means of escape from the darker reality of the 70s. The Osmonds were culturally relevant at a time when they had no business being culturally relevant. They obviously “fit” into the decade if you measure “fitness” in terms of financial success or the ability to charm teenagers and conservative parents, but they also represented a trend towards denial that rendered them a very bad fit indeed—the juxtaposition of their “clean-cut image” with terrorist bombings and a gruesome murder makes for a very bizarre collage. Paul Scott of Stylus Magazine identified a more personal but equally jarring juxtaposition: “Lawrence delights in the innocence and optimism of his formative years on the epic eight minutes of ‘The Osmonds,’ but the harrowing, confusing realities of the IRA’s bombing of his hometown lurks just beneath the surface.” Lawrence’s vocal on the IRA verse clearly packs a lot of undisguised outrage—the event would have been all the more outrageous to a young boy who had yet to learn about the dark side of humanity.
“The Osmonds” is a stunning piece of work, but what’s even more stunning is that it’s completely free of Lawrence’s opinions. Here he plays the role of projectionist and lets the story unfold without much in the way of editorial comment (except for the understandable emotions expressed in the IRA verse). Musically, it’s the strongest piece on the album, featuring appropriate changes in dynamics and a good balance of varied guitar parts, piano and synth.
Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t come close to “Middle of the Road” or “The Osmonds.” The arrangements are uneven, the engineering borders on terrible with uneven mixes aggravated by unbalanced EQ manipulation and way, way, way too many layers and overdubs. Some of the songs seem to go on FOREVER for no discernible purpose. Here’s a brief recap of each track:
“I Saw the Glitter in Your Face”: Lawrence’s attempt at a break-up song features elementary school poetry (“Now it’s all gone bad/And I’m truly sad”), a sappy 70s pop song arrangement with synthetic orchestration and an incredibly annoying guitar counterpoint marked by terrible tone selection. Fortunately for posterity, Lawrence would write a far better break-up song in the form of “Don’t Bite Too Much Out of the Apple” on Denim on Ice.
“American Rock”: Lawrence escaped to New York City for a brief period in the early 90s, and while taking in the vibes he bought the guitar he would use to compose the songs on Back in Denim at a pawn shop. “American Rock” is allegedly set in Manhattan, but the tale he spins about life in New York is convoluted in the extreme and any relevant connection to American Rock tenuous at best. If I give Lawrence the benefit of the doubt and imbue this pointless mess with a point, I think he’s trying to tell us that Americans are a violent people. Duh. This is one of the songs that goes on FOREVER.
“Livin’ on the Streets”: It starts with a synthesizer sound suitable for The Outer Limits, devolves into a veritable racket of rowdy British boys threatening each other and goes further downhill from there. It’s unclear whether or not Lawrence is playing the role of uncompassionate asshole or really believes that the best way to get rid of the homeless is to “hose down these dirty streets and wash ’em all away now,” and therein lies the problem. Horrid piece of work.
“Here Is My Song for Europe”: I hope he was kidding about the title. To get this song you’d have to know that Lawrence used to pay a guy fifty pounds to roll joints; in the song, the guy quits this lucrative occupation. Good luck trying to connect that with having a drink in a bar with Leo Sayer.
“I’m Against the Eighties”: The grand finale is not at all grand but it is a finale, and we can be thankful for that. This is another song that goes on FOREVER, in a vain attempt at album-closing grandiosity. We learn that Lawrence liked the 70s and 90s but hated the 80s—and since he devotes two couplets to his experience with Felt, we can assume that Lawrence hated the 80s because the 80s didn’t like him all that much. Get over it, dude!
Well, shoot and gosh darn! I worked my ass off trying to find this album because I really thought I’d like it. Instead, I wound up with a shitload of disappointment. Two keepers out of ten is a pretty lousy batting average.
Well, it was free, so what the hell.
Be glad you didn’t buy the expensive Japanese vinyl at least, I have a basement full of boxes of disappointment 😉
Here is a video of a young English band, The Struts. They are a flashback to when Rock was adrenaline and fun. And this boy can really sing!
Could Have Been Me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARhk9K_mviE
PS. You are without a doubt my favourite music reviewer, don’t ever stop!
Some interesting reading there. Although Back in Denim is fantastic, in my opinion. It’s a messy album – no doubt, but I love it. I’m surprised you don’t like it yourself after obviously listening to it in detail (and liking Denim on Ice). Lawrence is full of contradictions. American Rock is a masterpiece – I don’t know if there is a better ending of a song (I’m baffled by your synopsis of the song to be honest). Middle of the Road and The Osmonds are both incredibly good too. Song for Europe: another gem. I’m as fussy as it gets with music so trust me, give it another listen. His vocal style is an acquired taste and may come across as pompous. The album doesn’t crystallize until at least 3 full listens.
Stumbled on this after being reintroduced to “The Osmonds” and getting as obsessed with it as I was 25 years ago. Christgau never wrote anything about it as far as I can tell, but it’s a stellar track, one for the ages. Your piece was spot-on, too. Thanks!