Tuesday
Feb082005

« Nik Kershaw »

nik kershaw head shotNik KershawI don't think I ever heard of Nik in the 80s when he was famous. Though when I heard his song Wouldn't It Be Good, I recognized it right away and seemed to know half the words, despite probably a decade and a half passing since I would have heard it last. In the same hearing, I was also introduced to Nik's then-new CD (I was having this experience in fall of 2000 with my buddy Thax), and told it had some qualities that I liked in Kevin Gilbert's music. Well, it was solo songwriter work with a personal stamp in the lyrics. Other than that, I don't remember much else similar to KG's music. I didn't have any artist mythology to surround it, so I just listened. Within a couple days or weeks, Nik's CD 15 Minutes became one of the five disks in my changer that defined a several month period in my life. Radiohead's Kid A, Kevin Gilbert's Thud and/or The Shaming of the True, Mike Keneally's Dancing, and Jeff Buckley's Grace all spun around and around for months during some extreme times for me in late 2000 and early 2001.

So the stage was set to get into Nik Kershaw. The one CD I had a lot of songs about missing out on life, while seemingly living it by going through the motions every day.

He had of course been a big figure in the 80s, but aside from WIBG, I had never heard a scrap of his 80's output, and periodically did p2p searches for the stuff, asked my musical guide Thax to see if he had any. Nothing. Nik was sort of a specialty item in the 80s, among the new wave likes of Howard Jones and those folks that I never really followed anyway. Of course, part of the 80s pop scene was that it was very synthesized and plastic sounding. I had been of the mind that he was just some bubblegum guy in the 80s and by the late 90s he had matured into the thoughtful songwriter I heard on 15 Minutes, using basically a guitar-dense live band for his recording. (I heard he didn't use much of a band, doing a lot but for the drums himself.) 15 Minutes was his tentative return to recording, done mostly in his home studio, not ever expecting to see the light of day. So it has a certain freedom from market values, despite being ready to take to market. But his day is over—he put out another CD and wanted to tour, but he kept getting branded as an 80s artist, which he hated, so he beat everyone. He stopped performing altogether a few years ago. I had both the newer CDs now and some singles that Thax rounded up, but now the only direction was to go backwards...

A couple weeks ago I did a search and found a site where a musicologist was dissecting popular songs in search of gender roles in music and production. One of Nik's songs from his 80s era was in there and well, fuck me, I got an education that day in how brilliant he is, and even in the 80s, he was running a smart show. This musicologist guy was tearing apart a song called Life Goes On in pretty formal analysis and looking at how the chords and lyrics had a brilliant way of working to enhance each other. I never thought about how detailed a pop song could get, but with this analytical approach to even one four minute song, I've gone and hunted down at least one greatest hits CD of Nik songs, and have been listening to the other CDs I have too.

It takes a bit to listen past the almost painful and embarrassing 80s production on the older stuff (not all is too bad—some are clearly meant to be "rock" band tracks with more concise arrangements). Some are quantized to death but are melodic and sometimes almost dancey. The musicologist guy did go into this—he noted that for Nik and his generation, male roles were in doubt and consumer culture ran strong. The advent of the drum machine and sequencer pretty much robbed the macho dinosaur rock band of its primacy in pop music, while use of these new sounds made tidy and slick music that became the sound track of the ME decade. The cock strutting sounds of heavy metal lost general popularity to new wave and people like Nik Kershaw emerged to be the stars of the new sound. But Nik at least was acutely aware of the new softer side of men that was allowed to show its face in the more polite and PC world in a period of strong feminism. And most of his songs had a theme of the internal confusion that resulted from wanting to be a big man but having to sublimate that energy to other pursuits. His music vocabulary was different as a result, not being able to "rock out with his cock out" like maybe Led Zeppelin was doing a few years before.

So Nik's 80s content had an uncanny aspect of soul searching and baring despite being wrapped in the glossy sheen of the 80s production values of digital drums, gated reverb, and goopy chorus effects on everything. His harmonic sense was keen—interesting slash chords, key changes in the middle of a lyric, phrasing, mixed use of major and minor keys, sometimes revolving around the same root note, so as to add conflict to what it means to be in the key of A or D or whatever, sort of like what it means to be a man in reality but to be pretty much caved in to societal pressures—Notice the 80s were a time of clean cut and natty dressers, unlike the hairy, chest baring, package-bulging dress of the 70s.

A lot of people write off the 80s as being a empty period for music. And I do know what they're talking about. It was vacuous in some senses, but not all of it was. There were some really good song writers and musicians then who just happened to be caught using some gimmicky production. My exercise of hearing through lame and sterile 80s production helped me before. Early on in my Jethro Tull listening, as I was beginning to learn the mythology of the band (with not much in the way of outside reference points), I was intrigued by the "electronic" records they made in the early 80s (or Ian Anderson's solo record that tested the waters in 1983, using sampled drums, lots of keyboards, and little sign his acoustic instruments). Under Wraps from 1984 was pretty well dismissed, and even hated by some Tull fans. It was sonically a little richer than the previous year's Anderson solo album Walk Into Light which had paved the way for it. Sure, on both, there is an overwhelming change in sound toward keyboard sounds, solid state amplified and direct guitar sounds, sampled drums, and the quirky samples that got dropped in for effects. They ARE different, no doubt about it. But I don't think the production on these records, or Kershaw's earlier work for that matter, masks the talent of the songwriter. Listening to Under Wraps is a treat for me. What it sounds like to me is that when they didn't have to occupy a third of a reel of tape tracks on drum kit with 8-10 tracks, they put that track space into lusher vocals and more arrangement fun. There are exciting little arrangement bits that keep revealing themselves upon more listenings. But then again, the same is true for older Tull material, but instead of all the arrangement being made up of keyboards and digital sounds, they used to have flutes, guitars, keyboards, and percussion trading places in the arrangement. Really all that changed was the sounds, so some patient and persistent listening to these black sheep albums will still show a keen songwriting and arranging sense, with a good song being draped in some somewhat unfortunate clothes that don't age too well. When I listen to Under Wraps or Walk Into Light, I hear some very detailed and energetic songs with interesting parts, melodies, interesting harmonic twists, rhythmic variety, and lyrical themes that sound at home in lots of other Tull and Anderson recordings. All I find I need to do is imagine a live band playing it, maybe six pieces strong or so, and those sonic details come to life. Listening to Nik Kershaw's stuff is sort of like that for me. The underlying art and mastery and passion is there, but sonically it's dated. Some of his songs are so hooky, and would be even if they didn't have quantized drums and too clean digital samples. His lyrical content is interesting to me now as it ever was, but some of his imagery is a little different in his older stuff.

I don't write off the 80s as quickly as a lot of people do. I think it was the last great decade of music with something new to offer. As of late, I don't think there has been much new under the sun in pop music or production since the advent of the synthesizer in the 70s and its popularity in the decade or so that followed. The synthesizer did not remove the need for musicality and passion, but I think the modern trend toward prefab music (zillions of presets, sample libraries—sometimes of 80s sounds!), auto tune, and hyper compression has done a lot to ensure the mediocre a place in music, whereas the true artists who have lofty ideas of composition and maybe even risk making genuine mistakes in the name of developing as artists are sidelined. In a more perfect world, people of Mike Keneally's talent would not be relegated to their peripheral status as they are. Kershaw would shed the 80s tag because even though he is still handsome, he probably isn't dressed in skinny ties and suits. The flood of music made by all the practitioners out there is great, and it's a shame that the worst of it gets to decide how history is marked off into periods.

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