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Red Box – Heart of the Sun

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You know how irritating it is when you’re out and about and a couple holding hands in front of you is taking up all the space on the pavement, making it difficult for you to get ahead? Welcome to the charts for much of the 1980s: clogged up by duos, including Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Go West, Wham!, Dollar, Soft CellEverything But the Girl, Tears for Fears, Pepsi and ShirlieRoxette, Communards, Eurythmics, Mel & Kim, er…Pat & Mick and, for a very brief period, Red Box. Two was certainly a magic number back then but it really isn’t now – I struggle to think of any consistent hit-making pop pairs these days, unless you count endless ‘feat.Drake/Sean Paul‘ credits (which clearly you shouldn’t).

Things got off to a fairly good – if slow – start for Red Box (Simon Toulson-Clarke and Julian Close) with a pair of top ten hits that both managed to enthral school playgrounds up and down the land with their almost nursery rhyme-ish singalong chants while also making grown ups stroke their chins and feel a bit clever for liking them. Both Lean on Me (Ah-li-ayo) and For America were absolutely brilliant, but somehow they did a really effective job of disappearing almost completely from the public consciousness in a way that the hits of their contemporaries (not Pat & Mick, obviously) haven’t. Neither seems to turn up on 80s compilations very often, but every time I play one of them people develop a stupid dizzy grin and invariably say “Oh! I loved this!”

Part of the reason for Red Box’s erasure from pop history might have been their rather fractious dealings with their label, WEA/Sire. It would appear that, despite the world music tinges that made Lean on Me so popular, the bigwigs would rather they toned it down a bit for America – which explains the fourteen months it took to follow up that first hit, and of course For America itself – (although ironically it was a hit just about everywhere except the US). The relationship seems to have soured further after that, and when The Circle and the Square album came out at the end of 1986 it peaked at a hugely disappointing no.73 on the UK chart. For some (spiteful?) reason the album was only deemed worthy of release on cassette and vinyl in the UK – you had to go to Germany or Japan to get your hands on a CD version – and because of this there was a period during the 1990s when its value absolutely skyrocketed. I seem to remember it going for well over £100 on eBay at one point and personally, I spent years touring second hand and charity shops with hopes of finding a CD copy that someone had carelessly discarded, not realising its worth. It was always fruitless but always fun, and I’d still be playing that game today had Cherry Red not “helpfully” reissued the album in 2008, an occurrence which was both thrilling and slightly disappointing at the same time. I actually discovered all this in a second hand record shop in Lewes, and for a brief moment I thought I’d hit the jackpot after all these years. But I hadn’t.

So, to recap: Red Box, possessed of a clear artistic vision and highly individual sound but possibly a little difficult to work with, have ace album issued just before Christmas but not on the new fangled format everyone’s going crazy for, and have to watch it flop terribly. All hopes therefore rest upon the third single, which would have to be something truly brilliant to reverse the downward trajectory. The annoying thing is, it was.

Heart of the Sun – although let’s be honest, we all want to call it The Circle and the Square – is a completely gorgeous tune that really ought to have been the track that kicked everything into high gear. It’s the song sets out the Red Box manifesto better than any other – brave and inventive production (any pop tune that’s led by an accordion is certainly that), thought provoking lyrics (even if the thought is “what was that about, then?”) combined with chants and a distinct choral sound (one of the voices belongs to Buffy’s Anthony Head, fact fans) to create some of the sweetest, most uplifting pop of the decade. Quite why Sire had so many jitters about its mainstream potential is beyond me – especially because it was abundantly clear from the chart positions of the first two singles that we really, really liked it. Their global, positive sound worked very effectively in a post-Live Aid world where we were all feeling quite upbeat about ourselves, and maybe that stopped playing so well once the ‘greed is good’ credo took over – but it ought to have worked for the duration of at least a whole album campaign, and the fact that it didn’t remains one of my biggest pop disappointments of all time. Heart of the Sun – despite a limited edition version that got you the single of For America for precisely nought pence into the bargain – was only able to crawl to no.71, and this in January, traditionally the easiest time of the year to breach the top 40.

One further flop single – a re-working of Chenko – effectively put an end to this incarnation of Red Box, with Close leaving and Coulson-Clarke taking the reins. A shift to another WEA subsidiary, EastWest, resulted in a second album – Motive – in 1990. Apparently a condition of the deal was that the ‘tribal’ elements that had made Red Box so distinctive in the first place would have to be toned down, which they duly were. But once again things didn’t go to plan, with the clever-but-frankly-not-that-good lead single Train apparently being yanked out of the shops just after it was released and the album slipping out without anyone realising – I, an avid pop enthusiast, had no idea of its existence until I started writing this piece.

It does rather make you wonder why anyone even bothers trying to be a pop star, doesn’t it? Thank goodness they do, though. I’d hate to imagine a world without Heart of the Sun.

redbox2Entered chart: 31/01/87

Chart peak: 71

Weeks on chart: 3

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Seeing as they’re in a perpetual good mood these days, Coldplay.

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