Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Ballad of Black Lace

Bloody hell, I can’t get Agadoo out of my head, and it's all my own fault.

What’s more, Black Lace are releasing a new version of it, with a video directed by Les Battersby off Corrie. Classy. The BBC announces this portentous news by referring to Agadoo as “the worst song of all time”. This description is based on a Q magazine poll a few years ago, but it is plainly wrong. Agadoo is a naff disco song that succeeded in being exceptionally catchy and ubiquitous. To call it the “worst song of all time” is to ignore all the naff disco songs that tried to be exceptionally catchy and ubiquitous but failed and are, therefore, worse than Agadoo. Why, Black Lace themselves must have produced reams of songs that are worse than Agadoo. Agadoo is their best song.

Even though this comeback has a heavy tang of the Professional Wurzel about it (remember that? That was one of my greatest hits on Appleyard’s blog. Glory days, those. Perhaps Professional Wurzel is my Agadoo), it’s heartening to see the Lace back in the Big Time. Their story is as fascinating and turbulent as that of any of the great rock acts of our times…

...Vocalist Dean Smedley (‘Black’) and guitarist Terry Tickle (‘Lace’) met at school in Wolverhampton in the early 1960s. Sharing a love of skiffle and late-period baroque, they became fast friends and performed their first gig as Black Lace in 1972. The nascent incarnation of the band was at the forefront of the prog rock and heavy metal movements, and quickly garnered a reputation for an uncompromisingly loud guitar sound and lyrics influenced by the modernist poets of the early 20th Century. But despite having a small but loyal fanbase, their first three albums Burnt Norton (1974), Homage to Homage to Sextus Propertius (1975) and In for a Penny, in for Ezra Pound (1978) all flopped.

Disillusioned and on the verge of being dropped by Columbia Records, Smedley persuaded Tickle that the band needed to move in a radical new direction if it was to survive at all.

“It was a watershed moment in our careers,” recalled Smedley in his frank 1996 autobiography Push Pineapples? You Bet Your Ass I Agadoo. “We stayed up all night drinking merlot and had it out; real heart-to-heart, balls-on-the-table stuff. It was tough for Terry who really loved his TS Eliot, but he knew I was right. The modernist poet thing was played out. I told him that the future for British music was the Butlins Nightclub/Office Christmas Party/Wedding Disco route. After a few spliffs, some hugs and a lot of crying, he relented. The very next day we went into the studio and recorded Do The Conga. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

The effect was instantaneous. Hits such as Superman and The Music Man propelled Black Lace to national and then international stardom, but it was the seminal 1984 smash Agadoo that really put the Wolverhampton boys on the world musical map. At last, record moguls on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to sit up and take notice. The public worshipped them, and the critics heaped lavish praise on Smedley’s lyrics.

“Agadoo, with its hard-hitting and thinly-veiled references to the narcotics industry, combines the best elements of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On with the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” gushed the NME’s Tony Parsons, in a five star review. “‘Pushing pineapples’ is LA street slang for selling cocaine, while ‘grinding the coffee’ refers to the act of preparing heroin for injection. Of course, the kids bopping their hearts out on the dance floor are blissfully unaware of this, but their parents can exchange a wry glance over their rum cocktails. Talk about multi-layered… Black Lace have pulled off the trick of appealing to every strata of British society, and for that they deserve all the plaudits that are sure to come their way. 10 out of 10.”

Black Lace’s zenith came on 15 August 1986, when a triumphant performance at Wembley Stadium climaxed with an epic, 45-minute encore of Agadoo, with the chorus repeated no less than 112 times. The standing ovation that followed was over twice that length.

But this golden period was not to last. Smedley was taking full advantage of the easy access to alcohol, drugs and groupies, and while he was preoccupied with living the rock star lifestyle, Tickle – widely acknowledged as the musical genius in the band, but possessing little commercial instinct – took the Black Lace sound down increasingly avant garde paths. The 1987 album Black Lace In Your Face! spawned several top 5 hits, but the long, gloomy spoken-word passages on the second half of the record baffled fans.

Sales plummeted, and the nadir came with Tickle’s triple-album tribute to Muggsy Spanier, The Cornet Players’ Cornet Player (1989), which failed to sell a single copy. The record was even boycotted by the Muggsy Spanier Appreciation Society, who objected to the explicit lyrics and the cover art’s frank sexual imagery.

For almost two decades the Lace lads have been away from the limelight. Smedley spent the 1990s in and out of rehab, while Tickle has reinvented himself as a producer and talent-spotter. Jack White of The White Stripes was amongst the first of the hip new acts to acknowledge their musical debt to Black Lace, and Tickle has produced critically-acclaimed albums for bands including Kings Of Leon, the Arctic Monkeys and Busted.

But those who know Tickle and Smedley know that where they really belong is on the stage, wagging their peroxide mullets and having a blast. The 2009 re-release of Agadoo (complete with Mambo remix and video directed by the acclaimed film-maker Les Battersby) and subsequent reunuion tour will be emotional, and sure to gain them millions of new fans across the globe.

But for the true Lace-heads, Dean and Terry never really went away. Because from the bars of Marbella to the school discos of the West Midlands, whenever that hula melody starts to play, then around calypso sarong, we’ll all, always, be singing this song...


jonathan law said...

Unaccountably, you fail to mention the celebrated dyptich Black and Lace -- the stark, harrowing all-accoustic comeback albums masterminded by cult producer Rick Rubin in the late 1990s.

I don't usually believe people when they do that "LOL!!" thing -- who really laughs out loud sitting in front of a computer? But I most certainly did.

Can't you smuggle this onto Wikipedia??

Anonymous said...


will said...

ooh yes please please please sneak this on wikipedia! I just LOL'ed a lot!! ( and subsequently looked an idiot in my office)

brilliant stuff! I salute you!

Brit said...

I wouldn't know how to go about putting it on wikipedia really, but if anyone else wants to, knock yourself out.

will said...

I've just knocked myself out

Brit said...

Dear me, what larks, Will. Let's see how long it lasts.

Of course it's people like us that ruin Wikipedia for everyone.

Kev said...

The article has been edited a couple of other times recently so somebody will probably notice and it won't last, pity. Have you never vandalised wikipedia Brit? You're missing out, feels great when you get away with it. I think in some ways it's a public service that makes people aware of how unreliable it is.

Inspired stuff in this post. said...

Wow, there is a great deal of effective material above!