1988 – Sign Your Name, Terence Trent D’Arby

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Throughout the 80’s we have been tracking the development of the video as an essential tool in any artist’s repertoire to help shift units. From simple stand-and-play live shows through to complex stories or flashy special effects the video stands as a crucial development in how music is consumed. But there is also something of a split happening. For every glorious four-minute epic there are hundreds which are completely disposable – the concentration on image leans towards accusations of superficiality if the song accompanying the video wasn’t good enough.

This trend – showing off in preference to decent music – was being mocked as early as 1982 by satirical British comedy series Not The Nine O’Clock News, who did a faux-music video called “Nice Video, Shame About The Song”, with the title telling you all you need to know about how the cast regarded developments in the visual field. The sketch is notable these days for two things – it holds up well and is genuinely funny, but it’s also a bit “old man yells at clouds” given what a spectacularly good job they do capturing early 80’s music, lyrics and styles in the video. But the point of the skit is clear – style over substance, visual images over music. Still, in many ways the superficiality is kind of the point – a majority of 80’s videos look pretty but exist largely to shift units rather than as additional forms of artistic expression for musicians to grapple with. Obviously, that’s not true for all artists but there’s no doubt a great video can help shift an otherwise unimpressive song, if it’s the right video in the right place at the right time.

Which brings us neatly to Mr Trent D’Arby. If the theory is that a good video can help shift a mediocre song then it stands to reason that it can also help shift a poor song. And “Sign Your Name” is, by any measure, a poor song. It’s absolutely rubbish, in fact, a tacky, cheap and slight number that’s so unbelievably featherweight it makes Rick Astley look like Bob Dylan. But the song isn’t the point. Not really. The video is. Because, it is fair to say, Terence Trent D’Arby is a stunningly good-looking man. Devastatingly handsome, deep pools for eyes, amazing hair, great body. That’s what the video is selling. The music, insofar as it goes, is practically irrelevant. That video could be trying to persuade punters to buy “Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)” by the Worzels and it would still work.* It’s all about how he looks.

Everything is glossy and slightly soft-focus in a way that absolutely screams “80’s!!” and then proceeds to beat the viewer about the head with it. The video was directed by Vaughan Arnell, whose background was mostly in advertising (though he had done a few videos by this point, including Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Right Round”) and you can tell. The opening quarter of the video shows Our Hero, the shirt-averse Mr D’Arby, in bed as images of a girl are projected onto the bedsheets and the walls of the room. It looks like it a commercial for an aspirational brand of instant coffee. During this section it appears that Terence Trent D’Arrby is apparently suffering from a condition that renders him biologically incapable of making eye contact with the camera. The video is trying to sell him as a sultry temptation yet the viewer is never drawn into it – it’s purely between him and whatever it is that needs such intense gazing.

It looks ridiculous at the start of the video and becomes increasingly funny as it wears on – even when he’s snogging the face off his paramour she doesn’t manage to get any eye contact with him, not before, during or after locking lips. Either there’s a lot of mirrors around the set and he just can’t help but gaze at his own beauty or he forgot to put contact lenses in and is trying to cover for it. It’s got to be one of those two things. Regardless, it’s clear how he’s being presented – he’s a sex object, pure and simple. It’s actually incredibly rare in the 80’s for a man to be presented that way. Plenty of men project themselves as sexual in music, it’s pretty much default operating procedure, but that’s active. Here, Trent D’Arby is being practically being  pouted over by the camera in the same way a Page Three model in The Sun might be (and Samantha Fox – actual Page Three model turned, let’s be kind, singer – had a hit the previous year with the quite impressively dreadful “Touch Me (I Want To Feel Your Body)”). It’s about how he looks, yes, but also about how that look is being presented. In among all that lingering camerawork, half-naked bed shots and soulful gazing what chance did the song have? What chance would any song have?

Not much, but since the song is so crap that’s maybe for the best. At least if you’re gazing at a dreamy model shot of Terence Trent D’Arby it might distract you from the Casio-keyboard level production. Really, the percussion here sounds like someone just pressed Start on a cheap pre-set, let it run for about four minutes then everything else got scrawled on top of it. And the someone pressing Start on the Casio is Mr Trent D’Arby himself – he’s responsible for playing everything on this song, as well as writing it. To be honest, a little help might have been a good idea because the end results … well, they’re not exactly Prince are they? Prince is a polyglot multi-instrumentalist who can pull off this kind of “one person on the track” approach. Sadly “Sign Your Name” falls someway short of those kind of heights.

It’s a song that has the temerity to repeatedly rhyme “baby” and “lady” which, you know, don’t actually rhyme properly. Or more accurately “laaaaydeeee” – along with the inability to look directly into a camera, Terence Trent D’Arby also lacks the ability to pronounce “lady” as a two-syllable word, instead either sort of smearing it into one long syllable or singing each syllable as separate words, “lay” and “dee”. It’s not the only lyrical sin though. The opening line is the strangely casual, “fortunately you have got someone who relies on you”. Are we joining this conversation in media res? There’s the odd gnomic statement – what does, “birds never look into the sun / before the day is done” actually mean? Cold War code to activate a sleeper agent, maybe? And so it rambles on, in the faint hopes that a breathy vocal will distract from the actual words. Reader, it does not. And that’s the song all over – no matter how distracting all the other bits are the end result is that, simply, this isn’t a very good song and no amount of soft-porn-aesthetic video or simpering vocals are going to be able to do anything about that.

Still, while it’s easy to go after the actual song this approach obviously worked to an extent because, well, the single got to Number 2 while being that bad. And he wasn’t a one-hit wonder either – the album, Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby, spawned three Top Twenty singles, including “Wishing Well” which got to Number 1 in the US, and it shifted 1.5 million copies worldwide. That’s certified five times platinum! Of course, he then made the fatal mistake of saying that the album was the most important release since Sgt Pepper and promptly vanished without trace (see also Babylon Zoo for a similar hubris-to-talent ratio and the public’s similar response).

Well actually no – not quite without trace, though not far off it either. The follow-up didn’t sell nearly as well, and it would be 1994 before D’Arby had any kind of chart success again. It wasn’t enough though. Already something of a punchline in the 80’s, the 90’s wouldn’t prove to be his decade, and the name and career were eventually retired as the erstwhile Mr D’Arby became Sananda Maitreya. He’s still making music now, and Sananda Maitreya has released more albums with his new name than he ever did as Terence Trent D’Arby. Sure, they haven’t gone platinum but hey – he’s still out there performing, writing and recording. Good for him. “Sign Your Name” doesn’t show off the best of Terence Trent D’Arby, but it’s not exactly an unfair encapsulation either. It’s a bit pretentious, a bit ludicrous, dreadfully self-important, slightly self-deluded and its sincerity – and it is sincere, which honestly is part of the problem – doesn’t manage to overcome all those deficiencies. Or any of them. Still, if this single is all fur coat and no knickers then… at least it’s a nice fur coat?

* Not that they needed help. “Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)” got to Number 1 in 1976, thus out-performing “Sign Your Name”. It’s also terrifically good fun and a better song.

What Else Happened In 1988?

Supergroup The Travelling Wilburys release their first album, Vol 1, featuring George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Sadly, it would be Orbison’s swansong – he died in December from a heart attack. Morrissey releases his debut solo album, Viva Hate, and Talking Heads release their final album, the so-so Naked. Hip-hop goes (exceedingly) mainstream with the arrival of Salt-n-Pepa and the marvellously-named A Salt With A Deadly Pepa. They Might Be Giants release Lincoln, Prince gives us Lovesexy, and The Waterboys have Fisherman’s Blues. The biggest song of the year belongs to Phil Collins with his execrable cover of “A Groovy Kind Of Love”, with Pet Shop Boys occupying the third most popular slot with “Always On My Mind”. House music is becoming A Big Thing with Bomb The Bass and S-Express, and Belinda Carlyle tops the singles charts in the UK and US with “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, while Enya wafts insubstantially into view with “Orinoco Flow”. The Proclaimers release the indelible “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” from the terrific Sunshine On Leith* and both Sammy Davis Jr and Chet Baker die. Public Enemy release the seminal It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and lip-synching disaster area Milli Vanilli “croon” their way to infamy with “Girl You Know It’s True”, though the actual scandal won’t break until 1989.

* As a resident of Leith I can tell you – that’s not a thing.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?

Unlikely as it seems, Bros, one of the most worthless boy-bands of all time, had three (three!) Number 2 hits in 1988 alongside their two Number 1’s, but you know – they’re all dreadful. Not far behind them in chart terms, Kylie Minogue had two Number 2 singles in the UK but while Kylie seems like the very definition of a delightful and lovely person neither song is worth anything either. Both the UK and the US furnish us with the chance to talk about INXS’s “Need You Tonight” getting to Number 2 on both sides of the Atlantic. The aforementioned Milli Vanilli got to Number 2 in America with “Girl You Know It’s True”.  Anyone want to talk about Richard Marx or Johnny Hates Jazz? Yeah, didn’t think so…

Rankings:

1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
12. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
13. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
14. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
15. Queen, “Killer Queen”
16. Blondie, “Denis”
17. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
18. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
19. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
20. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
21. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
22. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
23. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
24. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
25. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
26. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
27. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
28. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
29. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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