A note to our readers: Former Popdose contributor John Hughes’ departure for bigger and better things has left a rather big hole where his “Lost in the ’70s/’80s/’90s” columns used to be. Fortunately, John gave his blessing for the rest of us to take up his fallen standard, and we’ve pledged to do our best to live up to the brilliance of his work. So without further ado…
When is a rave review also a kiss of death? Perhaps when it’s 1987, and the “critic” is Margaret Thatcher.
It’s pretty well established by now that politics and pop music are uncomfortable bedfellows, at best. Particularly in the three decades since both Great Britain and the United States fell to their respective conservative parties, most attempts to link politicians with pop have been ham-fisted embarrassments – no matter the party or the pop star. As a columnist for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper put it a few years ago, “Thinking about a politician listening to rock music is like imagining your parents having sex: you not only lose all respect for them, it puts you off the whole concept.”
In that same 2004 article the columnist, Alexis Petridus, bemoaned the attempts of leading Tory politicians to boost their hip factor by variously proclaiming their admiration for the Scissor Sisters, Dido, Jarvis Cocker and even Meat Loaf. Petridus suggested that if history were any guide, those acts might be doomed to suffer what he called “the Curse of the Thrashing Doves.”
The story goes like this: A London-based modern rock outfit, Thrashing Doves emerged from the city’s thriving modern-rock scene in 1986 with a series of chart-ready singles and then an album, Bedrock Vice, that briefly made them the darlings of the New Musical Express/Smash Hits/Melody Maker hype machine. (Even before they got signed to A&M, Melody Maker was singing their praises thusly: “Tonight, the Thrashing Doves played with the assured youthful cockiness of a band that knows every major [label] in town is sniffing round its Cuban heels … [They’ve] already mastered the basic rule of popdom: Get the look right, and the music can catch up later.”) Propelled by the quirky vocals of Ken Foreman and an oversaturated, postmodern video for their debut hit “Matchstick Flotilla,” Thrashing Doves seemed set for major stardom – or at least a good run as Flavors of the Month – by the time they released their third single in early ’87.
“Beautiful Imbalance” had all the earmarks of a mid-’80s U.K. chart-topper: an irresistible hook (brightly rendered with help from producer Jimmy Iovine), vaguely snotty lyrics, and a candy-colored video featuring a literal room of clouds. The single gathered chart momentum through the winter, then earned a featured spot on one of those patently English music programs, Saturday Superstore. The weekend-morning show frequently featured celebrity guests rating the latest singles and videoclips, and for this particular broadcast the show had scored the biggest “get” in its history – Thatcher, who was then leading her party’s re-election efforts. The prime minister watched a series of clips and then gave Thrashing Doves her highest rating – over Pepsi & Shirley, among other competitors. Later in the program, she stumbled a bit during a Q&A section when a girl asked her, “Where will you be if a nuclear war breaks out?”
That sort of accusatory query, grounded in a widespread fear of the ’80s arms race as well as a growing distaste for Thatcher’s perceived let-them-eat-cake elitism, reflected the disconnect between the conservative government and the nation’s popular culture by 1987 – a gulf about as broad as the chasm that separated George W. Bush from the U.S. culture during the 2004 campaign. Thatcher, like Bush, was popular enough to hold off the depleted Labour Party in that year’s election, but her endorsement was hardly the boost Thrashing Doves were looking for at the time – particularly when the chorus of their Maggie-approved single went, “I know the world is flat / Don’t try to tell me that it’s round,” and that candy-colored video happened to feature group members holding what looked like nuclear missiles.
Indeed, the connection between Thatcher and “Beautiful Imbalance” became indelible in the U.K. – and that link ended any chance Thrashing Doves had of achieving massive success on either side of the Atlantic. The single stalled at #50 on the British singles chart, and failed to make much of an impact in America despite being given a decent shot by A&M. It probably didn’t help that Rolling Stone’s (generally positive) review of Bedrock Vice led off with a Thatcher reference and even mentioned those cruise missiles. Despite the quick disappearance of “Beautiful Imbalance,” Thrashing Doves did get a Top 20 single on the U.S. dance chart later in ’87 with “Jesus on the Payroll” – and two years later the band scored a Top 15 hit on the Billboard modern rock chart with “Angel Visit,” from their follow-up album Trouble in the Home.
Still, that album did little business in the U.S. and hardly more back home in the U.K., where the pop scene had been swamped by Madchester acts like the Happy Mondays and the Charlatans. When the Doves returned for one last album in 1991, they were no longer Thrashing – and the album, Affinity, predictably laid an egg. The band’s MySpace page notes that the original lineup reunited in 2006 to play a few songs during guitarist Ian Button’s birthday party. The mini-bio says it all: “It was the first time they had all been on stage together in 15 years. There are currently no plans to do it again.”
“Beautiful Imbalance” did not chart.