His tonal structures are often highly complex, straining the boundaries of harmonic logic to the extreme, as if working out a tricky argument. Consider the opening of the song ‘Human Racing’:
Similarly, the middle eight of ‘The Riddle’ deceives the ear in that
it starts in one key and finishes in another, shifting the whole song up
a degree without the listeners really noticing it. Such sophistication
is common in many of the songs of the LP’s ‘Human Racing’, ‘The
Riddle’ and ‘Radio Musicola’, all of which received enormous success in
the mid eighties. Nik Kershaw’s harmonic logic was intelligent and sophisticated,
and it needed to be. If the tonal simplicity of blues and three chord rock
represented some of the certainties of an earlier era, in the eighties
everything seemed up for grabs. Masculine certainties were under attack,
and femininity was being redefined. In some senses, men were afraid to
be men, and learned to suppress and sublimate attitudes which no longer
met with feminine approval. This was the New Man’s condition; endlessly
to square the circle of masculinity within the context of feminist rage.
It required enormous skills simply to get out of the fix of being a man
when women occupied the moral high ground. Kershaw marketed insecurity,
and in his songs, his personae are always male. In ‘Bogart’, he freely
admits he cannot match up to his girlfriend’s hero, man-to-man:
|‘... why do I play her game
When she can’t even remember my name?
I wish I could whistle like the ‘Big Sleep’s’ famous lover.
Hey there, Bogart
Could you help me out?
Hey there Bogart
What is it all about?
‘Bogart’ - Human Racing
Similar references elsewhere to old movie culture re-inforce the same
idea of masculine insecurity.
|‘Talk tougher than James Cagney
Act smarter than Charlie Chan
Love longer than Valentino
Or you never will be a man’
‘James Cagney’ - Radio Musicola
In fact, sometimes this insecurity becomes pathology, and Nik himself
longs for the point when:
|[...] paranoias cease and an everlasting peace is not a gun.
‘Running Scared’ - Radio Musicola
His favourite paranoid device, as far as the composition of the music is concerned, is the superimposition of disembodied schizoid voices which, when speeded up, sound like demonic chipmunks. In ‘Roses’ ( - The Riddle), the punch line ‘Everything’s coming up roses’ is shared between Nik’s natural voice and a slow sample, to the odd accompaniment of a speeded up vocal chorus. The effect is alienating, and frankly weird. On Human Racing, he devotes one song entirely to the business of going crazy (‘Gone to Pieces’).
For the gender war, the eighties were a thoroughly bad time. Strident
feminism reduced everybody that would listen to it. Women learned that
they had always been victims, and men became victims as a result of the
fervent rantings of Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller and others. In British
society in general, Thatcherism made commercial exploitation respectable,
and it seemed inevitable that the mass of the people would feel that their
very lives were an expendable resource of an economic elite. For the first
time since the war, ordinary people felt increasingly powerless over their
destinies, and the vagaries of the stock exchanges affected everybody apparently
randomly. The cold war hadn’t quite ended, and the late posturings of Reagan
were potentially the most dangerous of all. Through the thirty songs on
Racing , The Riddle and Radio Musicola, all of these
themes are explored, but always from the viewpoint of the victim, the person
on the end of the beating, or the person deceived by the media.
|‘I got political inclinations to announce
But no way, if it doesn’t scan with your accounts
I got some spiritual ideology for you
I know it’s gotta correspond with your point of view’
‘Radio Musicola’ - Radio Musicola
The music is highly accomplished, largely quantised and sequenced, and unsparing in the use of electronic and technical wizardry. Here is an interesting contradiction. In post war pop, all those bands which have adopted the voice of the political underdog have ‘sounded’ acoustic. There is, after all, a direct association of hi-tech paraphernalia with capitalism which sits uneasily with lyrics which, song after song, protest against those forms of depersonalisation which are seen to be the result of modern living. Nik’s songs are held together by a peculiar tension between the lyrics and the music. The lyrics are concerned with life as a victim of eighties lifestyles and ideologies, and the music is the very celebration of consumer buoyancy. In its technological brilliance it was, de facto, an advertisement for the industry.
Whether it was a mistake on the part of his promoters or simply a marketing inevitability, Nik Kershaw arrived on a pop scene alongside Nick Heyward, Howard Jones and others, from whom he did not seem particularly distinguished. He did not attract critical attention at the time and was viewed as a ephemeral good-looking boy. His 1989 album The Works passed almost unnoticed. In the early 1990s, the advent of fashionable dance culture prompted the release of a number of re-mixes of material drawn from the first three LP’s. Nik’s ideological integrity may have been an element in his demise. The move towards political correctness infiltrated all areas of culture as the eighties progressed. The Guardian felt confident enough to refer to motor racing as ‘grand pricks’, and Benny Hill was taken off the air - even the great machismo of rock itself seemed like something from the unenlightened past. But the postmodern climate of the nineties was altogether less concerned with giving offence, and distanced itself from serious comment by means of humour and irony. Nik, one suspects, actually meant what he was singing about, and such commitment seemed uncomfortable and vaguely threatening to an audience that really didn’t want to know.
The song ‘Life Goes On’ on Radio Musicola, is a compact masterpiece of composition. The tension between technology and humanity is absolutely resolved in this song of lost love. Again, Nik is the victim, but this time not of society but of a woman. It is about dealing with the day-to-day business of living whilst nursing a private , aching grief. In this song, his predisposition to change key is not mere mannerism, but is built into the logic of the song as it reflects and underpins the meaning of the lyric. The hook line ‘ ... life goes on’, is always in Bflat minor, and this key centre comes to represent the dull reality which is the prison that his life has become. When he allows himself the luxury of daydreams about his love, his mind soars, and different, more creative, exciting and human possibilities are suggested by the various means by which he escapes from the prison of B flat minor.
The opening moment of the song is utterly ambiguous. The first two bars suggest the key of C, and for the briefest of moments, a cadence in the key of C is expected at the beginning of bar 4, but this is the first hearing of a neat transitional device which, rather peremptorily, establishes the B flat minor key as the ‘prison’ key. expressing a kind of dread reality of ‘life go[ing] on’.
The first chorus, ‘... sometimes your face is in everything I see ...’ is the first excursion out of the prison. Essentially, the harmonic logic of this song is dictated by the meaning of the lyric. The process of daydreaming is graphically illustrated by the successive attempts to escape from the reality represented by B flat minor, and, just as the bubble of daydreaming can be punctured suddenly, cruelly and without preparation, the means by which B flat minor re-asserts itself can be equally sudden. The actual means by which these transitions happen shows a mastery of harmony of sorts:
By this means, Nik manages to slide from a verse in B flat minor to a chorus in A major, which, in harmonic terms, is about as distantly related as two key centres can be. The style of the harmony changes too, along with the new key centre. The use of 6.3 chords (with the third of the chord in the bass) at bar 34 and 35 suggest baroque style, coupled with the string pad that surges in at that moment, signifies classical taste and lends prestige and dignity to the idea of the excursion into daydream. The ‘classical’ sounding harmonic vocabulary is repeated in bars 38, 39 and 40. When, at bar 41, the bubble of the imagination is burst, there is another cute side-stepping of harmonic orthodoxy that dumps us suddenly back into the prison of B flat minor.
These unusual harmonic sequences are typical of Nik Kershaw at his very best. Although, as explained, the procedures are unorthodox, and bend all the rules of Kitson or Prout, there is just enough logic in what he does to make sense. Our senses are not jarred when he becomes progressively more flat, so that a chord of C flat starts to function as B. The effect is that we slip, fairly effortlessly in and out of unrelated tonal regions without really understanding what is happening, and this is not mere style for style’s sake, because in the context of the song it is entirely appropriate. This harmonic freedom is facilitated by the use of digitally generated tones.
The third excursion out of B flat minor is a kind of middle 8, and it’s much more impressive than the first two. There is an immediate ray of hope and optimism as the ‘prison’ key of B flat minor gives way to B flat major. Not only that, but energy is injected by an animated classical sounding string accompaniment.
The beginning of this excursion is marked by an energetic string accompaniment, which incorporates raised (lydian) fourths, signifying a quality of innocence and hope.
In the middle eight section, there are two shortened (2/4) bars, 47 and 51.
The first one (b47), by way of simple syncopation, underlines the lyric
‘[re-]mind me of you ...’. At this point there’s an odd harmonic trick, a sort of interrupted cadence, but with an unexpected outcome. As a consequence of this ‘trick’ , E flat becomes a new local tonic - in effect the music steps up a fourth. At 51, the ‘trick’ is played again, but with different consequences. This time, the bubble of imagination bursts and we are surprised to find ourselves back in the stultifying prison of B flat minor again. The second trick was a set-up: like a stand-up comedian’s let down. The drum fill and the crescendo fool us into thinking that the optimism and energy of the section will prevail ... but to no avail. We realise where we are once more. After briefly revisiting the first chorus, the music fades out on the treadmill of the sequence ...
The idea that a key centre can represent a human condition, an idea or an ideology is appealing, and works well in this particular song which is concerned with the dichotomy between the pain of life without the beloved, and the luxury of excursions into fantasy. The ‘prison’ of life going on without remorse is suggested by an endless cycle of chords around B flat minor. The fade-out at the end, as opposed to a final cadence, reinforces the idea of perpetuity. Since we never hear the music actually cease, there is always the possibility that it is still going on somewhere, but out of our hearing. Even within this four chord sequence a ray of hope is offered: the E flat 9 chord, being a richer, and crucially, a major version of the earlier E flat min 7 chord seems, for a moment, to suggest a way out of the prison. But the door is slammed shut with each successive reiteration of B flat min.
Most of this song is sung in the first person: it is Nik who is singing to us about a love he once had. But viewed in terms of dramatis personae, he is not alone on the stage. Occasionally there are small hints of backing vocals which, like ghosts, hover around his voice, and, in the sense of the song might reinforce the idea of a ‘ghost’ of a love. The love is dead, yet it is powerfully present. At the end of the song, the crucial and compelling lyric ‘life goes on’, sung right on the beat (no syncopation here) and apparently without any feeling whatever, is taken over by the backing vocals. These disembodied voices become an external agency that articulates this absolute and all-time truth: life goes on. It’s not just Nik’s truth, it’s the truth of the world, a fact of life. Thus freed from the drudgery of chanting the universal mantra, Nik goes off at a distance (which is evident from the stereo-placing and positioning in the mix), and plays the blues. His solo comprises aching unresolved suspensions and is played on a muted overdriven guitar. Although in other circumstances, overdriven guitars might signify the outrageous machismo of heavy metal, in this context it is sublimed, contained and introverted. Which is, after all, what quintessentially New Men do with grief and anger.
Sting’s ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ - Police (A&M AMS 7564, 1980,
and AMS 354, 1986) was similarly prompted by heightened gender awareness
of the late 70s and early 80s. Dealing, unusually sympathetically, with
the unspoken sexual tensions of the schoolteacher - pupil relationship,
the tonal structure of the song reflects two perspectives on the romance.
The verse section, in G minor, develops the story in the third person,
whilst the chorus, with its hook line ‘Don’t stand so close to me’, is
in the first person and in D major. The lydian mode, as in ‘Life Goes On’,
suggest an innocence which is an essential part of the story as well as
being integrated into the musical fabric.