Hooks ‘N’ You: Blue Mercedes, “Blue Mercedes”

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music, Popdose Interviews

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Have you ever found yourself sucked into an episode of “Behind the Music” or “Bands Reunited” and, even though you didn’t necessarily like the artist in question (or maybe didn’t even know who they were), you still found yourself enthralled just because the story itself was interesting? If so, then believe me when I tell you that, whether you’re familiar with the dance-pop duo known as Blue Mercedes or not, you owe it to yourself to read this week’s column.

I have to be honest: by the time I became familiar with Blue Mercedes, their brief flirtation with the American charts had come, gone, and made precious little impact on me. Despite my ignorance, however, the duo of David Titlow and Duncan Millar proudly sat atop Billboard Dance Charts from February 20 through March 12 of 1988 with their hit single, “I Want To Be Your Property.” The song also found its way to #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well, which wasn’t half bad for a first crossover attempt. Too bad it was the pair’s first and last placing…which might explain why, some two years later, I came upon the band’s lone studio album, Rich and Famous, in a cut-out bin in a Camelot Music in Danville, VA.

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Listening to the album now, I’ll be the first to admit that it hasn’t all aged well…but, really, the same could be said of rather a few albums from the ’80s. It’s all about approaching the material from the mindset of the time in which it was recorded and released, and when one does that, several instant classics emerge.

It’s obvious why the aforementioned “I Want To Be Your Property” was both the opening track and the album’s first single, with its infectious chorus and the instantly memorable line, “I want to live like Cyd Charisse.” (More on that later.) Titlow’s voice sounds like an amalgam of Martin Fry of ABC, Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, and…I dunno, maybe 10% Rick Astley? Nah, I’m probably mistaken about that one. In fact, it’s probably only the influence of Pete Waterman on the music – it was produced by Phil Harding and Ian Curnow for PWL – that even makes such a ludicrous comparison come to mind.

“Your Secret Is Safe With Me” is another strong number, sounding vaguely like Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo” as it progresses along with its jazz-pop groove, asking the rather odd (at least in this musical context) but definitely unforgettable question, “Would you like a knuckle sandwich?” The single best song on the album, however, is “Crunchy Love Affaire“…and, yes, the spelling of “affaire” is correct. As I told both Titlow and Millar themselves, it sounds like the best single Spandau Ballet never released, with a sweeping string arrangement that’s downright gorgeous, and even if you don’t buy into the metaphor within the title, which suggests that the love affair in question comes “with a soft inside,” there’s one simple line in the song which is delivered with melancholy that no less a mope than Morrissey himself would be proud to have written it:

Forever to be
Inevitably
Alone

Whoa.

Okay, let’s cheer things back up. If you’re of a mind to hit the dance floor, there’s plenty of good stuff to be found here, including four bonus mixes attached to the CD. The best of the bunch is actually an instrumental, but the so-called Miami Mix of “Love Is The Gun” doesn’t need the song’s lyrics to inspire your feet to hit the ground dancing. The album version of “See Want Must Have” is one of those aforementioned tracks that hasn’t necessarily aged as well as others, but a few spins will find the hook stuck in your brain nonetheless; the same goes for “Run For Your Love,” which declares itself to be “not really art, not really life.” (The Pop Art Mix of the song is somewhat soundbite-heavy, but it’s rather fun as well.)

So there you go: that’s Blue Mercedes’ Rich and Famous in a nutshell. I’m not entirely sure if I’ve defended it enough for your appreciation of it to match my own, but if you’ll keep reading, I think you’ll at least find that you quite like the gentlemen responsible to creating it.

I first dropped a line to David Titlow, asking if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the album and his work with Duncan Millar…but when the good Mr. Titlow responded with such enjoyable answers, I thought, “Say, why not see if Duncan wants to chime in as well?” As it turned out, he provided equally illuminating responses, as you’ll see below. I’m not sure that the world was necessarily clamoring for an oral history of Blue Mercedes, but they’ve gotten one nonetheless, and if you’re a music geek like me, I think you’ll find it a remarkably enjoyable read, no matter what you might think of the above songs. (I’m also secretly pleased that, although the two hadn’t talked in some years prior to this, both now have each others’ E-mail addresses as a result of the piece…which is to say, gents, that if a Blue Mercedes reunion show comes about as a result, I want tickets!!!)

So here’s the inevitable lead-off question: how did you two first come together as Blue Mercedes?

David: Duncan and I first met when he played session keyboards on two singles for the first band I was in called Duck You Sucker. A single was released on Magnet Records in 1984 called “Love Is Criminal,” produced by Andy Hill, of Bucks Fizz fame; the follow-up track, “Romance On A Shoestring” (one of my personal faves), was never released. When DYS disbanded, I looked Duncan up in London with a view to collaborating on writing a great pop album and forming a new band.

Duncan: We used to work every day writing and recording songs in my high-rise apartment in South London. I would then go out in the evenings to play piano in an Italian restaurant to pay for the studio-gear and support myself. That was how we met our manager. Those were the days!

Wikipedia makes the claim that you two dubbed your musical style “Street Latin Wolff.” Is this accurate, and, if so, then, uh, what the hell does that mean?

David: The term comes from an actual dream Duncan had one night in which we were performing in a weird club somewhere, and this was written on the posters outside the venue to describe our “sound.” I think Duncan was referred to as “Miguel Millar” and I as “Puig Titlow” in the same dream.

Duncan: Yes, this is true. It’s funny how a dream you have one night can still be being discussed twenty years later! The idea took on a life of its own after I related it to David. He was always very good at graphics and drawing cartoons and so on, and invented a Street Latin Woolf character that found its way onto turntable mats and so on, plus a lot of our re-mixes were given that name.

Do you have any anecdotes from the recording sessions?

David: I used to take Pete Waterman’s dog Shelly out for walks on a regular basis and became quite fond of her until she bit me on the hand one evening suspecting that I was trying to remove a discarded pie on the floor from her reach. Pete also kicked Duncan and I out of the control room one night for half an hour so that he could “knock out a B-side for Latoya (Jackson),” who was standing behind him looking quite bemused. I was called up to to do backing vocals on a Bananarama album track (“Mr. Sleaze“) one night, which was good fun apart from one of the band having a puppy in the vocal booth that kept farting.

Duncan: Mostly I have memories of the buzz and late eighties vibe of the PWL building where we worked, where Pete Waterman had a racing-car in the entrance lobby. I remember the white-board on their office wall showing how many tracks they had in the top 20 that week. It was all quite exciting and glamorous in a way, but at the end of the day everyone – including Stock Aitken and Waterman, engineers, tape-ops, and some artists – would go to the local pub and drink pints.

What was it like working with the legendary Cyd Charisse on the video for “I Want To Be Your Property”?

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David: We actually met and had dinner with Cyd Charisse in Claridge’s way before we shot the video with her in L.A.. She was totally charming and very friendly. I was rather in awe; she was old school Hollywood royalty to me. Also in attendance was Elisabeth Welch (who sang a great song at the piano after dinner) and Benny Goodman’s wife. I got dreadfully drunk and ended up on Mrs. Goodman’s lap in the suite’s vast fireplace. I am pretty sure Tony Martin was there as well. He was certainly in attendance at the video shoot which was very surreal. I remember him strolling about, cracking jokes in a tux whilst Cyd was in make-up. It was shot over two days on the Strip behind the now long-gone Woolworths department store. Duncan and I couldn’t really dance for toffee, so we were replaced by two very camp professional dancers, who hoofed their way through a fairly safe routine with Cyd, who was an amazingly youthful-looking sixty-eight years old at this point. We joined her in the open top Blue Merc at the end for the final shot, in which we ride off into the distance. I remember hamming it up with her as we drove off. It was all great fun. I think Duncan and I were a bit bemused by the whole Hollywood-ness of it; we never dreamt that from a name check in the song we would actually end up with Cyd appearing in the video. Crazy, but…well, it was the 1980’s!

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I have said to many of my friends that “Crunchy Love Affaire” is one of the great lost tracks of the ’80s, with a particular lyric that no less a mope than Morrissey himself would be proud to have written (“Forever to be / Inevitably / Alone”). What are your thoughts on that particular song?

David: That track was mainly written because I wanted to use the spelling of affair with an ‘e’ on the end as John Fowles always did in his books: very posh, fifties-style English nonsense. I totally loved the Smiths, of course, so I take that Morrissey remark as a huge compliment. I love bittersweet, lovelorn tragi-lyrics with a hint of violence, etcetera, as in “Your Secret Is Safe With Me,” with its lyric, “Would you like a knuckle sandwich?” I fear that “Crunchy Love Affaire” was one step too far in the ABC-inspired direction; it was meant to be a very tongue-in-cheek ballad but was often misconstrued as being a bit pompous.

Duncan: “Crunchy Love Affaire” was the first song that David and I collaborated on, actually, starting in the live-room of the Swiss recording studio where I played keyboards on the Duck You Sucker tracks, with me on the grand piano and David singing. Quite a lot later, when we got together, we revisited it and I got my hands on one of the early Ensoniq sampling keyboards. I was amazed you could get orchestral sounds out of such a keyboard, and did a rather over-the-top string arrangement for the song, which we later had played live. I hadn’t realized “Affaire” was from a John Fowles book; I had always encountered that spelling previously in a kind of camp English hairdressing context.

Are there any tracks that weren’t released as singles that you felt should have been?

David: I think poor old MCA released every track they could off that album in an effort to obtain the elusive second hit! Maybe “Your Secret Is Safe With Me” would have been a good one.

Duncan: I liked “Welcome to Lovesville,” which I thought had a great groove, modeled on a Commodores track, and I liked the humor of the title. It reminded us of “The Flintstones,” for some reason I am trying to remember, and when we performed this track, a friend had made some life-size Betty and Wilma cut-outs that were our “backing singers.”

Since I presume you made the TV rounds at the time of the album’s release, were there any experiences that you recall as particularly surreal?

David: Catching live goldfish in a hotel room out of a paddling pool on Japanese TV with disintegrating fishing nets. Quite cruel, but amusing viewing.

Duncan: Yes, the Japanese ones were probably the strangest, but there were some pretty mad ones too in Italy, Belgium and Australia, usually involving something to do with a Mercedes car, inevitably.

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“I Want To Be Your Property” was your only real hit single here in the States; although it only hit #66 on the singles charts, it topped the dance charts. When two further singles made inroads on the dance charts without hitting the singles charts at all, were you disappointed about the lack of crossover, or did you anticipate it? (I ask because there are plenty of artists who never manage to conquer both.)

David: Yes, I was pretty disappointed, but everyone said cracking the US top 75 at the time was a big achievement; I just assumed we would do better next time.

Duncan: Well, I think being involved with some very hot dance producers was both a great blessing and a bit of the reverse, since we would probably never have got the profile and success so quickly, but then a lot of what we were actually about never really came across. We seemed to frequently get masked by things that weren’t much to do with us, such as our manager’s reputation, our producer’s reputation, the “Pump Up the Volume” debacle, and being mistaken for Wham! I think were quite naive a lot of the time, maybe. Of course, hindsight is a great thing!

Blue Mercedes evolved into Nixon, who soon devolved into nothingness, but you did manage to release a few singles in that incarnation. They’re incredibly hard to find, though. In your mind, are they worth finding? And what caused the name change, anyway?

David: We changed the name because everyone hated us! It worked, because we got single of the week in Sounds with our first release; no-one suspected a thing, and we were even asked to re-mix Blur! The Nixon album was re-recorded twice at great expense and sounds very different to Rich and Famous; I have a cassette, but it was never mastered, which was very annoying after two years of work. The Nixon stuff is great, especially the remixes of “Crazy Love.” There is a mega-rare version with Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull jamming flute all over it; I asked him to play on it, which he did, and then when we were dropped. I never got back to him, and he was bit pissed off; I always felt really bad about it, because his part was brilliant. I have a white label 12″, which I will put on MySpace as a download at some point. Also, the unreleased cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Submission” is quite cool, very 90’s baggy but spirited; there are great blue vinyl 12″ remixes of that, loads of weird versions. I was very happy at last doing this kind of stuff, as I was an old punk and I felt we were finally doing something truer to ourselves.

Duncan: Looking back, changing not only your name but also completely changing your style seems a quite astonishing thing to have done, and I can only say that the record company must have had some quite touching faith in us personally for them to think it was worth continuing like that! These later efforts were much more our own productions, and they received some nice reviews but little success. Quite the reverse of earlier releases, but that’s the music business for you! Many tracks we worked on at great expense and time were re-worked more than once and then never saw the light of day. Quite recently, however, in response to a fan’s request, I made mp3s of them (off a digital tape, I think) and put them on my website as “the unreleased second album.” It’s at www.duncanmillar.com, though you’ll have to dig deep to find them! What David says about being an “old Punk” and being truer to ourselves is quite revealing, really, as I wasn’t. I was really a jazz-funk musician, if anything! However, the groovy, baggy thing in the 90’s did suit that combination. After Nixon, David and I went on to produce Italo-House records under the “moniker” Monica De Luxe, which was really out-and-out club music, although an up-tempo, chopped-up remix of “Submission” was one of the releases, which went down very well at Trade club in London. I then went on to produce lots of dance stuff, such as the first release on Positiva, and then later some acid-jazz, some jazz albums, which I am still doing. So, in a way, the Nixon music marked our diverging interests. By the way, I have loads of Nixon singles I don’t know what to do with!

David, after Nixon, you formed Heave, but since then you’ve made more inroads as a photographer than a musician. Why did Heave come to a conclusion, and do you find photography more rewarding?

David: Heave was my fave band; all my mates and girlfriend were in it. We had a brilliant time, released an album and some singles, but never really gelled with our label (Radar), and when Mew (my ex) joined Elastica as keyboardist, it all went tits up and we disbanded. But photography is very satisfying and far more lucrative! I mainly shoot fashion and advertising stuff, lots of travel, etcetera. It’s a bit like being in a band, but without all the stress!

Do you two still have any sort of communication?

David: I haven’t spoken to Duncan for years! It’s really bad, because we never fell out or anything; we just lost contact with each other, which kind of happens very easily in London. It’s a shame, really, because he has one of the best and most wicked senses of humour.

Duncan: No, I haven’t heard from David for a very long time…though I haven’t moved! We used to get on very well, although we were completely different. I think it must have been the similar sense of humor. In fact, our ex-manager used to say that was one of our problems: there wasn’t enough tension, and we never argued! But you have to get on if you find yourself spending a weekend together in Grimsby for the pleasure of doing a 20 minute live appearance.

And, lastly, David, can I presume that your famous “Funk Ass” shorts – which, for those who are unaware, were a pair of shorts with the words “Funk Ass” imprinted on the buttocks – are currently residing in the British Museum, as is only appropriate?

David: Ha- ha! I think the original very tattered pair that were made by a company called Bazooka that I bought in Hyper Hyper in London a million years ago are residing in a box somewhere in the attic…and they won’t be coming out!

Duncan: I hope not!