Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
One of the things I’ve always loved about listening to music is the experience of diving deep into an entire album. From the first song to the last, at least in the case of most of my favorites, there is a journey in store. The songs follow one from another taking sonic and emotional turns, all according to the creation and direction of the artist. That has always made greatest hits albums while sometimes enjoyable, not necessarily as relevant since they seem to be missing some part of the story or intention. There are definitely collections that defy this loosely-held attitude of mine; in fact, there are some greatest hits collections that made it onto my favorite listening experience list. Joan Armatrading’s Track Record is one of those.
Released in November 1983, Track Record gives us the best of Joan Armatrading from 1976 to 1983, with songs from albums The Key, Walk Under Ladders, Me Myself I, Show Some Emotion, and the self-titled Joan Armatrading. Also included are songs from a double-sided single, “Frustration” and “Heaven.” The compilation starts out rocking with the then-latest material, moves backward in time into a few earlier, more folk-influenced songs, gives us the beautiful, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”-like anthem, “Willow,” then makes a perfect landing with the upbeat, pop-reggae tune about a teasing, crossdressing “Rosie” from the How Cruel EP.
Track Record begins by putting me in my happy place right away with the great pop tune, “Drop the Pilot.” Its sound is a fun mix of pop rock and New Wave, and reveals something I especially love about Armatrading’s work – offbeat, unexpected lyrics to a poppy backbeat that a lesser writer might easily match with something much more mundane. As the protagonist in this song entices a love interest to look her way, she makes the age-old call unique and fun:
Drop the pilot, try my balloon
Drop the monkey, smell my perfume
Drop the mahout, I’m the easy rider
Don’t use your army to fight a losing battle
Animal, mineral, physical, spiritual
I’m the one you need, I’m the one you need
This is a great, rockin’ live version of “Drop the Pilot:”
The second track is another definite rocker, “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names.” Though reportedly inspired by two guys in a band who had a penchant for fighting, it comes out more like a raucous ode to kinky fun. “Frustration” is a bit more laid-back, and at times feels like a schoolyard chant to a danceable rock beat.
If you happen to be an XTC fan, you may notice that “When I Get it Right” has a musical sensibility very much like said band. There is a good reason for that – That’s Andy Partridge on guitar. The song comes from the Walk Under Ladders album (as do “I’m Lucky” and “The Weakness in Me”). Produced by Steve Lilywhite, it also features Thomas Dolby on synth, Tony Levin on bass, and a host of other fantastic players.
“I’m Lucky” has a keyboard-heavy production and the feel of a New Wave anthem. Its chorus may be the bit from this album I am most likely to find myself singing randomly: “I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky; I can walk under ladders.” “Me Myself I” speaks of an introvert nature combined with a carefree love of fun and exploration, traits I recognize and try to honor and balance in my own life. The Ronettes style breakdown in the song is a bonus.
“The Weakness in Me” evokes true love, desperation, and a poignancy rarely captured. The breadth and complexity of Armatrading’s voice – a contralto born on the Caribbean Island of Saint Kitts, moved to Antigua when she was young, then to Birmingham, England – is most apparent here, and is forged with the stark power of her words:
Feeling guilty worried
Waking from tormented sleep
This old love has me bound
But the new love cuts deep
If I choose now
I’ll lose out
One of you has to fall
And I need you and you
Whenever I hear it, I wish the characters could find their way in these great loves without heartbreak, but it is in the capturing of this very human pain of confusion and unbearable loss that makes this song one of my absolute favorites.
“Down to Zero” followed by her highest charting tune “Love and Affection” command riveted attention. “Love and Affection” inspires, and its musical arc alone takes the listener on a journey that other songwriters might take an album to accomplish.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that my love of Joan Armatrading is not only musical, but cultural and in a broad sense, political. Especially in a moment when racial tensions are at an impossible-to-ignore pitch in the United States, I am acutely aware of the need to address urgent issues today. I also think about the seemingly little ways we have been, and are shaped and molded, augmented or diminished by racial bias. It is often the small things that have huge impact for better or for worse, and one of the things I remember about growing up into a fan of music and a musician myself is the “rock against disco” era. It was by no means the first time that “white music” and “black music” were divided and music fans were expected to choose sides or “stick with their kind,” but it was my coming-of-age time, and a particularly painful part of it for me. I know the devastating social ramifications of being out of step with expectations in the school years when belonging somewhere really starts to matter. Joan Armatrading’s cultural statement – being black, British, rock, pop, soul, folk, and seemingly, seamlessly creating and being herself on her own terms – is profound for me.
Though she has tended to shield her personal life from the spotlight, she is an out lesbian. As a queer-identified person myself, I also appreciate that aspect of Joan Armatrading as another way she has always been willing to live fully and to present her experiences and observations in music in whatever way is real. Joan Armatrading became a symbol that going against the grain was not only possible, but important. Her music is all the better for its blended, sometimes quirky approach. From Joan, I began to absorb the idea that being all I am, and creating from that place could lead to something great and beautiful.
The 13 tunes on Track Record hang together wonderfully and bring out so much of what is wonderful about Armatrading. It may have for long periods of time fallen out of the arena of my daily playlist, but Track Record is an experience to which I love to return. Sometimes no other sound will do.
Listen to Joan Armatrading’s Track Record here at Spotify.
A freelance writer and performing songwriter, Robin Renee‘s work has appeared in many publications including PanGaia, Blessed Bi Spirit, Big Hammer #12, The New York Quarterly, Songwriter’s Market, and That Takes Ovaries – Bold Females and their Brazen Acts (Random House). Her recordings include In Progress, All Six Senses, Live Devotion, spirit.rocks.sexy, and This.