THE BLOG

Frank vs the 80s

05/01/2016 22:58 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Sharp suits, orchestras and horn-sections on hand, an excess of music industry cash, much crooning and vocal stylistics, singles selling in their hundreds of thousands, even millions. To compare the 50s and 60s heyday of Frank Sinatra, and the world of 80's pop (in which era my brother and I's group Hue and Cry was forged), could seem like an easy exercise.

It's somewhat more complicated than that. Though it's worth remembering just how much Sinatra created the templates for pop music in the 80s, 90s and right up to the present. He started out as the most outrageously manipulated and planned boy singer in the 40s. While most American men were conscripted to the war, Sinatra was playing the ultimate sensitive male to many millions of lovelorn American women - even manipulating the crowd through planting paid teenyboppers that would scream, on cue, to his particular vocal frailties. Malcolm McLaren in the 80's (or Simon Cowell in the 90s) couldn't have been more devious or taste-making.

Another continuity between Sinatra, the 80s and now: Sinatra created the first concept album. 1953's In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning was the first record to have a consistent mood and arrangement style across all of its tracks (for this one, yearning urban love). This is something we all naturally and artistically aspired to in the 80s, but whose origins we dimly understood.

One way that Sinatra was way ahead of us in the 80s - well, most of us anyway - was his complete awareness of himself as an "artist-entrepreneur". I don't know any of our musical peers from the Hue and Cry era, particularly on major labels, who doesn't lament the woolly-headed naivety we had about the financial mechanics of the business. Six figure pop videos, lush experiences in studios and on tours... All of it being paid for by our royalties in advance. A high time (indeed a ring-a-ding time) was had - but a reasonable return on profit was not.

Sinatra was utterly on the case, money-wise - perhaps because he knew, given his jet-me-to-Vegas lifestyle, and his "il padrone" style of largesse to his entourage, needed a huge cash flow. He realised what musicians now completely understand - that playing live, and doing it a lot, is the only guarantee of any kind of consistent revenue in the music business.

And if the shackles of old record contracts were too binding, he would just break them - forming his own record company - Reprise. It became one of the most respected labels in the 60s and 70s counterculture, with a reputation for supporting artists well. But Sinatra also used Reprise to release re-recorded albums he'd made with previous labels, to ensure he'd displace their back catalogue and cannibalise some of their revenue - tactics still used today.

Of course, this being the 80s, there was a lot of air-quotes and arty irony about citing Sinatra in your music. But not that much. Indeed, in retrospect, the 50s/60s and the 80s were both eras in which money and power were in the ascendant. Even if, like Sinatra, you had left-progressive sentiments - and he did, all the way through, until very late on - you used the tools of a go-go commercial pop sector as your means of expression. Folk, or punk, Sinatra was not.

We had many reasons for recording our Sinatra tribute record, September Songs - some sentimental and traditional, as well as artistic. And once you do his songs, the incredible artistry of the man (and his chosen musical contexts) becomes obvious. But I feel there is as much continuity between Sinatra, the 80's and now, than there is difference, at least in terms of the overall model and structure he was in. The more you know about him - and I would recommend the two recent James Kaplan biographies on Sinatra unreservedly - the more you have to reckon with his power, and his precedent.