May 8, 2010

Hear Again: Happiness.

The Beloved's commercial breakthrough album, released twenty years ago, opens with a massive shout-out that ostensibly doubles as the band's manifesto. In his pleasant, relaxed tenor, vocalist and main composer Jonathan Marsh namechecks some of his influences, contrasting them with somewhat dubious characters according to a loosely defined classification of "saints and sinners" — starting from the top with saints Peter and Paul.

There's the average, acceptable face of British comedy, duo Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, contrasted with the far more extravagant Barry Humphries — best known for his alter ego Dame Edna Everage. (Despite their differences both acts could be described as contrarian conservatives, and perhaps therefore beloved of Middle England in particular.) There's television characters ranging from Rainbow's Zippy and Bungle, Fred Flintstone, Peanuts' Charlie Brown, to Mork & Mindy, Billy Corkhill (Marsh's favourite on Brookside), and comedian Leslie Crowther — best known for hosting the British version of The Price Is Right (hence Marsh's invitation to "come on down!").

There's also fellow musicians and musical idols: Little Richard, Charlie Parker (one of Beloved guitarist Steven Waddington's musical heroes), The Supremes ("Mary Wilson, Di, and Flo"), André Previn and the London Symphonic Orchestra, Inner City's Paris Grey, as well as Kym Mazelle — who also provides a quite unusual backing vocal cameo. There's renowned writers Salman Rushdie and Jean-Paul Sartre, contrasted with wannabe writer (and friend of the aforementioned Barry Humphries) Jeffrey Archer.

Fictional characters too: Private Eye's mythical MP Sir Bufton Tufton, Dicken's Little Nell, Dahl's Willy Wonka, and William Tell (the last two brought together as chocolate invariably evoked Switzerland in Marsh's mind). There's LBC Radio's phone-in host Brian Hayes (whom Marsh once called on air), Desmond Tutu, and Vince Hilaire, one of the first established black footballers in Britian, whom Marsh idolised during his tenure with Crystal Palace FC. There's also props to friends of the band ("Little Neepsie, Chris, and Do"), and Marsh's bandmate Waddington and his girlfriend ("Steve and Claire") — the latter providing a suitable rhyme for the inclusion of Fred Astaire.

Hello also contains musical references to some of The Beloved's influences, most evidently The Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, with flippant sounds thrown in à la George Martin's antics with The Beatles (and prior to them, The Goon Show), including an alleged sample of Marsh breaking wind. Clearly, this lighthearted breakdown of "good and bad" — without actually clarifying which the band considers which — wasn't intended to be taken more seriously than a regular "Cheers, mate! We're The Beloved."

Originally a trio named The Journey Through, consisting of drummer and synth popper Jon Marsh on guitar, bassist Tim Havard, and drummer Guy Gausden, The Beloved became a quartet when Cambridge math grad and guitarist Steve Waddington joined in the fall of 1984, allowing Marsh to step up as lead vocalist. Legendary DJ John Peel was sufficiently taken with their demos to record two sessions with the band (broadcast on January 8 and October 13, 1985) but even such illustrious endorsement didn't guarantee immediate success.

One of two bands signed to independent label Flim Flam in their home borough Camberwell, The Beloved supported New Order (a band whom they were highly influenced by) and released a string of singles to moderate success in the UK alternative chart, all of which failed to dent its mainstream equivalent. From these recordings, (largely) compiled on the band's first album, Where It Is, released in October 1987, Forever Dancing brought The Beloved further notoriety by being included on the soundtrack to director Stephen Frears' (of My Beautiful Launderette fame) social realist drama Sammy and Rosie Get Laid — for which the band received the princely sum of £30.

Despite sounding as if forever unfinished, the sparse Forever Dancing caught on in US clubs, prompting Marsh to visit New York City in search of a major label deal. While failing to secure the dreamt-of contract, he was exposed to the burgeoning house music scene, and arrived back in the UK just in time to experience the Second Summer of Love in its cradle. By the time The Beloved emerged from the psychedelics infused parties (particularly Jenni and Danny Rampling's Shoom) in the fall of 1988, they were a duo — with Havard and Gausden basically replaced by machines.

Another two unsuccessful singles followed, Loving Feeling in October 1988, and Your Love Takes Me Higher in January 1989 — the latter barely scraping into the UK top 100. Essentially the first single from Happiness (the band's second album to be released, though their third to be recorded), Your Love Takes Me Higher fared better upon reissue, breaking into the UK top 40 in March 1990, while a considerably reworked and extended version (the almost eleven minutes long "Calyx of Isis Mix", likely deriving its name from a Pat Califia story) reached #9 in the US dance chart.

But it was the husky, trippy, ambient house-inflected The Sun Rising, released in October 1989, landing in the UK top 30 (the first of several dance recordings utilising a sample of Gothic Voices's performing Hildegard of Bingen's O Euchari), followed by Hello in January 1990, reaching #19 in the UK and #4 in the US dance charts, that finally brought The Beloved mainstream success — propelling Happiness to #14 into the UK album chart (#154 in the US), selling some 100,000 copies in the first four weeks of release.

Though brimming with the prerequisite electronic piano chords, and the various Roland gadgets (the TR-808 and TR-909 Rhythm Composers, the TB-303 Bass Line) that lent house its unmistakable sound, The Beloved hadn't completely abandoned their indie rock roots on Happiness. Its closing track, Found, wouldn't have been entirely out of place on albums by contemporaries like Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, The Stone Roses, or even Flowered Up, successfully combining rock with dance culture, while Don't You Worry and the particularly buoyant I Love You More could quite easily fit in the New Order or Pet Shop Boys catalogues. (The particularly persistent comparison to New Order furthered by that band's manager, Rob Gretton, being mentioned in Happiness' sleeve credits.)

Though reconstituted as a studio-based duo, The Beloved nevertheless relied on the contributions of several seasoned session musicians to complete the album: strings by Gavyn Wright (who appeared on the The's Mind Bomb the previous year) and former Electric Light Orchestra member Wilfred Gibson (who'd go on to perform with, among others, Hothouse Flowers, Oasis, and Goldfrapp); percussion by former Haircut One Hundred drummer (and The Beloved's A&R man at the time) Marc Fox; backing vocal by among others Dee Lewis, and former Amazulu guitarist Margo Sagov. With the exception of a couple of tracks, Happiness was the first album produced by Martyn Phillips, who'd later produce recordings by — among others — Erasure and Cause & Effect.

Despite striving to straddle the divide between working class dance culture and the more esoteric alternative rock of middle class college kids, The Beloved's intellectual bent shone through in their lyrics. Few working class ballads lament the inability to "unfathom" a beloved (as does Time After Time), and while none of the album's tracks matches the band's 1986 anti-tory single This Means War, there's still allusions to being "strong collectively" (in Don't You Worry) as well as hints at the rigid nature of reactionaries in the seemingly flippant Hello ("Blue is blue / and always will be").

Ironically, for an album that more than lives up to it's title, Happiness represented the end of Marsh's and Waddington's creative partnership. By the time the non-album single It's Alright Now languished in the UK top 50 during November 1990, the two had all but gone their separate ways; Waddington recording sessions with Steve Hillage's System 7, Marsh adding his particular brand of joy to remixes for Boy George's E-Zee Possee, Depeche Mode, and Erasure. Yet, It's Alright Now also hinted at The Beloved's future trademark sound, once Marsh had convinced his wife Helena to join, and the band truly became a duo of the beloved.

The album's surprisingly dull outer sleeve contains an inner that can barely contain its explosion of colours — both designed by the inimitable graphic artist Bob Linney, who'd provide The Beloved with a visual identity far removed from the inauspicious sleeves of their previous album and singles. However, despite the dismal first impression one may garner from the sleeve, Happiness is an album bursting with joy, love, hope, and bliss; an unbridled record of how exactly The Beloved felt at the time.

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