The Blow Monkeys – It Pays to Belong
For a few short years in the mid 80s — post the new romantics and prior to the ubiquitous presence of house music — a wave of acts emerged who looked back to classic soul and jazz as their primary influence. With a slick, groomed image and a sound informed by blue-eyed soul, their music was characterised by strong melodies, funky bass lines, synths, LOTS of saxophone, and at least one band member wearing a beret. These were heady times; this my friends, was the era of sophisti-pop.
While late era Roxy Music and ABC were the precursors to this sound, later acts like Curiosity Killed The Cat, Danny Wilson and Johnny Hates Jazz – for better or worse — became its standard bearers. Interestingly, for a genre seen by some to epitomise the slick and soulless nature of 80s pop, many of these songs have endured, even if the bands have not.
Forming back in 1981, The Blow Monkeys adapted to the sophisti-pop image and sound, subverting it to include not only relationship themes, but also social and political issues — particularly Margaret Thatcher era British politics. Always the edgiest of the sophisti-pop bands, they took the best from their contemporaries, combining the wordplay and knack for melody of Aztec Camera, the soul boy socialism of The Style Council, and the jazz-pop overtones of Swing Out Sister.
Led by singer / songwriter Dr. Robert (aka Robert Howard), they are best known for their cover of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and three undeniably classic singles: The sumptuous Digging Your Scene (US no. 14, UK no. 12 in 1986; one of the decades defining singles, most people were unaware it was, in part, about AIDS), the exuberant It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way (their biggest hit, no. 5 in 1987) and the proto-house tune Wait Ft Kym Mazelle (no. 7 in 1989). This track was originally planned as a Robert Howard solo release, but it was rebranded as a Blow Monkeys song and added to the tracklist of their fifth album, Whoops! There Goes The Neighbourhood.
To have not one, but three big hits in a decade full of brilliant singles was no mean feat, and it set The Blow Monkeys apart from their one-hit wonder contemporaries. It very nearly made Dr. Robert a major star. However, it seemed that for every song that hit big, they had at least as many releases which unaccountably failed to reach the UK top 40. This remains something of a mystery, as their run of singles during what Dr. Robert has himself called their ‘Smash Hits years’, is one of the finest of the 80s.
Released in late autumn 1988, the Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys) produced It Pays To Belong struggled to a disappointing No. 76 in the UK charts. An excellent, mid-tempo synth pop song with a melancholic undercurrent, it gradually builds in momentum and emotional heft throughout its generous run time (5.36 in its full length version, although edited down for single release). Dr. Robert sings in a resigned voice about what could possibly be a doomed relationship, but is rather more obviously about the ills of 80s consumerism. As lyrically relevant today as it was back then, it just about stays on the right side of becoming preachy, aided by a killer melody and as usual a great vocal from Dr. Robert.
The rather prophetic video was directed by Julien Temple, updating the rock musical stylings of Absolute Beginners to the modern day (well, 1988 modern anyway). Set in the then new Docklands development, it’s not only great fun, but also a thrilling catalogue of obsolete 80s electronic equipment.
The Blow Monkeys final top 40 hit was Choice? (No. 22, 1989), after which they went on to embrace house music and the burgeoning Balearic beat scene on their Springtime For The World album. However, with diminishing chart returns, and Dr. Robert about to launch a successful solo career, the band called it a day in 1990. Unexpectedly, The Blow Monkeys reformed in 2007 and are now on album number ten of their long career. While their later releases are shorn of the 80s period production, the pop writing sensibilities of Dr. Robert remain undimmed.
The mid to late 80s UK charts will always be remembered for the chart imperium of Stock/Aitken/Waterman, but I say it is to sophisti-pop we should turn for some of the era’s loveliest and most abiding pop moments. Now, where’s my beret?
Entered chart: 22/10/1988
Chart peak: 76
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Let’s be honest, no one is going to have a UK hit with a political pop song today.