The next album to be featured by AFDPJ in our ongoing series is the second LP from Paul Young. Issued in the UK on March 25th 1985, it was the eagerly anticipated follow-up to No Parlez….
PAUL YOUNG: “The Secret Of Association” (CBS)
- Bite The Hand That Feeds
- Every Time You Go Away
- I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
- Standing On The Edge
- Soldier’s Things
- Everything Must Change
- Tomb Of Memories
- One Step Forward
- Hot Fun
- This Means Anything
- I Was In Chains
- Man In The Iron Mask
It’s early 1985. More than 18 months have passed since Paul Young broke through with his inspired deconstruction of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home), very quickly establishing himself as one of the most popular voices (and faces) of the British pop scene. By the close of 1983, his debut solo set No Parlez was swapping places with Thriller at the top of the album chart, and a third smash in quick succession – Love Of The Common People – almost made it to #1 at Christmas. But now, as the follow-up to No Parlez finally emerges, things have inevitably moved on. And quickly.
Most of the big acts of 1983 had a difficult 1984. Culture Club, arguably the biggest (globally) of them all as 1983 concluded, rushed the successor to their imperious, perfect pop of Colour By Numbers and Waking Up With The House On Fire became an embarrassing flop, remembered for a terrible sleeve, dreadful videos and even worse music. As for Duran Duran, they wobbled briefly before discovering a tough new funky streak courtesy of Nile Rodgers. Even so, the Wild Boys single felt a little too try-hard and a stopgap live album Arena hardly set the charts alight in late 1984. Spandau Ballet, too, seemed to be treading water, refining the smooth white soul/pop of True on the Parade album without making any real artistic or commercial progress; come the year’s end their singles were struggling to reach the Top 20, let alone challenge for #1.
The new class of 1984 included Sade, Alison Moyet, Nik Kershaw and of course the omnipotent Frankie Goes To Hollywood; it’s fair to say that had Paul Young not been sidelined with vocal cord problems for most of the year, he would have been up against all of these, as well as rejuvenated older artists such as Lionel Richie and Billy Joel, whose Can’t Slow Down and An Innocent Man albums continued to dominate the best-selling lists despite dating from shortly after No Parlez‘s release.
Eventually, the first taste of what the next Paul Young album might sound like was released in October 1984, a barnstorming, no-holds-barred cover of Ann Peebles’ 70s soul tune I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Producer Laurie Latham threw the kitchen sink of studio effects at it, constructing an almost brutalist, cut-up contemporary style that was fast becoming fashionable (think Hall & Oates’ Big Bam Boom set, Kim Wilde’s The Second Time (Go For It) single).
Crucially, it didn’t sound forced, and neither did Young’s vocal. Bombastic pop was in vogue (thanks, mainly, to Frankie) and the long gap since Love Of The Common People hardly seemed to matter. A #9 peak was a little down on what might have been expected, but in a competitive market, perfectly acceptable nonetheless.
Momentum is a precious commodity in pop, although it’s sometimes overrated and overplayed; fail to take advantage while the iron is hot and you could miss your best chance of sustained success, but push too hard and the public can quickly develop fatigue and indifference from over-exposure.
Or, be forced back into the studio too swiftly, before enough quality material has been written, and you emerge with a steaming turkey.
Just ask Culture Club.
So, through circumstances beyond his control, Paul Young’s second long-player would find itself competing with the best that 1985 had offered up in its first quarter. Nothing major, just No Jacket Required, Songs From The Big Chair, a reactivated Born In The U.S.A, and Howard Jones’ own second album Dream Into Action.
The Secret Of Association‘s delay had, in CBS’s mind, necessitated further singles prior to its release, creating the (even then) unusual situation of a major album arriving after a trio of hits had already been lifted from it. This, while securing a strong start, effectively curtailed its lifespan as any more than 4 singles from the one album wasn’t the done thing (unless you were Michael Jackson).
I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down had barely exited the UK chart, when Everything Must Change was put out in time for the lucrative Christmas market. In a break from the old ways, the song was self-penned (with longtime writing partner Ian “Rev” Kewley) rather than a cover, and the distinctive backing vocals of the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts had been replaced by the gorgeous gospel-tinged harmonies of future hitmakers Londonbeat.
The single peaked at the same position as Playhouse, #9, but made a far bigger impression on the general public as it remained near the top of the charts for much longer (in fact, ironically for a song called Everything Must Change, it got stuck at #9 for 5 consecutive weeks). It also brought extra kudos to Young, showcasing his talents as a writer as well as an already celebrated and unique singer and interpreter of other people’s work.
Time then, surely, to allow The Secret Of Association out into the wild, on the back of two contrasting but well-received hit singles? January was always a quiet period for brand new albums, particularly those by high-profile acts, but the perception within the industry was that immediately after New Year there was a lull in sales, despite the proliferation of record tokens (a.k.a music vouchers) needing to be spent by those given them as Christmas gifts. CBS decided to hold fire.
Thus we got Everytime You Go Away as the third and final taster single, in February 1985. It proved to be the defining hit from the album, as well as its biggest – even reaching the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. Once again it’s an expertly crafted and immaculately performed take on a fairly obscure track (this time originally by Hall & Oates, from their 1980 set Voices), and Londonbeat add extra power to proceedings. A deserved smash.
Now there was no doubt at all that a new Paul Young LP could debut at #1, even with the aforementioned competition from hugely popular albums from Phil Collins and Tears For Fears still fresh themselves. And so it did.
Separating an album from all the things that surround it – memories of your purchase (Boots in Kingston-Upon-Thames…groovier back then than it might sound!), the weather, what else was going on in your life, what music was in the charts and among your personal favourites – can be difficult, and The Secret Of Association has always felt like a winter album to me. A lot of the tracks are drenched in atmosphere and emotional tension, the sleeve itself is appropriately moody, and it feels like a record made during long dark days and nights hunkered down in some studio or other.
Laurie Latham’s trademark production, all woozy synths, exaggerated bass and compressed drums, is at its very apex here, perfectly aligned with material that suits his heavy-handed and singular approach (not everyone felt the same about his work on Squeeze’s Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti LP shortly after, although I loved it).
Though he was understandably aimed at the Smash Hits audience (he, Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones were all around the 28-29 years-old mark when they broke through), it was clear straight away that there was more to Paul Young than the great cheekbones and likeable personality. Looking back at his catalogue, it’s obvious that he has more in common with someone such as Rod Stewart than any of the acts who were considered his peers in the mid-80s.
The Secret Of Association itself offers plenty of evidence; four years before Sir Rod took Downtown Train into the charts, Young picks out a then-recent album cut from Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones album – Soldier’s Things – and doesn’t make a fool of himself. It’s a stunning track, one which I’m sure made a lot of teenage music kids like me first aware of Tom Waits’ music. It was a standout then, and continues to be one of my favourites on a record which, nearly 35 years on, really doesn’t have one weak moment.
The take on Billy Bragg’s Man In The Iron Mask is starker, but utterly haunting and, again, gave me a new perspective on the original artist – who at the time was seen as a bit of an indie novelty act by the mainstream pop press (though Kirsty MacColl’s sublime cover of A New England, not long of the Top 10 itself at the time, had already made a difference in that regard).
The album strikes a perfect balance between the ballads and uptempo workouts; opener Bite The Hand That Feeds sets the tone, with a similar vibe to Playhouse, and could have reasonably been a single (an extended remix was used to help prolong the album campaign towards the end of 1985). Hot Fun does stray into functionality but the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts make an appearance and perk things up a little.
That leaves Tomb Of Memories, which turned out to be a key track on the album, but not for the right reasons. Another original composition, like Everything Must Change, it showcased Young’s growing confidence in the direction his music was taking. Londonbeat’s harmonies are given their biggest role on the entire album, and it rattles along impressively. Strong hooks, dynamic arrangement, everyone sounding as though they’re on top of their game. It was one of my highlights from the very first listen.
And yet….when chosen as the 4th and final UK single, Tomb Of Memories could only reach #16. It brought his run of Top 10 hits, dating back some half-dozen releases and the best part of two years, to a sudden halt. Duets in the 1990s notwithstanding, he would never manage to get back there again. Moreover, the shunning of cover versions would be the theme of his next album, Between Two Fires, whose poor sales suggested that however magnificent a singer he was, the public wanted Paul Young to perform stronger material than he was offering via his own writing partnerships.
Tomb Of Memories was already on its way down the Top 40 when Live Aid took place on July 13th, 1985. Young, a natural and vibrant performer whose concerts were attracting praise from all quarters, was far more at ease on the day than many of the poppier acts on the bill and sales of The Secret Of Association did get a significant (albeit only temporary) boost in the aftermath of the event.
Unable, or unwilling, to take advantage of this CBS saw the album slowly slip down the charts, and disappear completely after just 38 weeks on the UK Top 100. By contrast, No Parlez clocked up 119…three times as many.
Perhaps they should have copied Tears For Fears, who risked a lower chart placing for Songs From The Big Chair‘s fifth 45, a re-recorded I Believe, in return for keeping the parent album in people’s minds and on the chart. Soldier’s Things, maybe. It wouldn’t have sounded too out of place…..but that’s another Sliding Doors, what-if moment….
Great piece Eric, a fantastic album and one I still play today. The decision to delay its release was an odd one and as you say, momentum is vital.
Glad you liked it! The album used to be a mainstay of my All-Time Top 100, and it’ll be going back in there next time I update the list. The singles are great but a little overplayed/overfamiliar and I was always drawn to the album tracks, especially the moody ones. At the time I wasn’t aware that One Step Forward and This Means Anything had already appeared (albeit in different form) as B-sides. I Was In Chains could have made a great single too, it had elements of Phil Collins’ Take Me Home (at least to these ears!).
Terrific album but unlike your assessment I think PY should have stuck to the direction on Between Two Fires. Although Wonderland (wonderfull in itself) was not self penned , Why Does A Man .. has to be one of his strongest tunes.
Wonderland is sublime, probably too subtle for the British public. Betsy Cook, its writer, is a marvellous talent and her own solo album from 1992 is well worth checking out.
[…] By far the most-read of all these “featured album” posts is the one for Paul Young’s 1985 follow-up to No Parlez, The Secret Of Association. […]