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Random Jukebox: Ladyhawke’s Paris is Burning

Cast your mind back to 2008/09; 80s synth pop revivalism was at its height and it seemed every act (new or established) was trying on a shiny synth style in an increasingly desperate attempt to hit big on the chart.

It’s instructive to remember that at the time, the female synthy acts gaining large amounts of press coverage in the UK were La Roux and Little Boots. La Roux hit big, and quickly, although the problems recording a follow-up album led to far less commercial success second time round. As for Little Boots, she can hardly be described as having set the charts alight, but she remains in the public consciousness, crafting a series of great songs.

Against this background, the chances of a new act, who themselves fully embraced the 80s pop aesthetic, was either going to be a huge success or greeted with a collective shrug of indifference by the record buying public. Sadly, the latter fate befell New Zealand’s Phillipa Margaret “Pip” Brown, aka Ladyhawke.

The moniker Ladyhawke comes, as the more mature amongst you will know, from the 1985 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer as star-crossed lovers with animal alter egos (a hawk and a wolf, respectively). Whilst a great name, there is no doubt it confused many, suggesting a rock rather than pop act, and this probably had some bearing on the singles failure on the charts.

That this was undeserved becomes obvious with just one listen to the hook-laden eerily prescient Paris Is Burning. A song that distils the 1980s into a glorious 3 minutes 51 seconds, it’s equal parts Blondie, the Go-Go’s and Kim Wilde. What’s not to love?

Driven by a Gary Numan Cars-influenced verse, the song bursts into one of those indelible pop choruses that will have you singing for days (or in my case, years) afterwards. Later on in the song we get a Girls Aloud-esque shout along, before the chiming synths rise to the front of the mix at around the 2.28 mark, and then that chorus — gloriously — kicks in again. It’s spin-and-jump around-on-the-dance-floor perfect.


And like lots of great pop, the meaning of the song is not immediately obvious. It could just be about a crazy weekend in Paris, but the line where she asks ’is it love or just Paris?’ is probably the clue. Paris, the city of love, is ‘screaming’ so Paris may well represent her being in love and the war being waged in her mind over it. Or of course, it could be about Paris Hilton.

But as we know, the British public do not always reward lyrically interesting, perfect pop songs with decent chart placings. In fact, Paris is Burning has the somewhat dubious honour of failing to make the UK top 40 on two separate occasions. It reached number 61 in 2008 and number 47 on re-release a year later. Shame on you all.

In my mind, what sets Ladyhawke apart from other courted solo singers seemingly incapable of actually selling any records, is that she genuinely writes huge pop hooks and should by all rights have had massive success with her singles. She draws on a far larger range of 80s influences, than her Human League/Eurythmics indebted contemporaries and the fact that Paris Is Burning is but one of twelve perfectly crafted pop tunes on her self-titled debut album, makes the relative commercial failure even harder to understand.

And Paris Is Burning also got a pretty decent video. Ladyhawke, rocking Stevie Nicks hair, a Snoopy tee and a leather jacket, wanders through what I imagine is supposed to be Paris (but looks to me more like Hackney on a Thursday night). None of it makes much sense, but the wolf is wonderful and she is a mesmerising presence.

Whilst the album‘s fourth single (the brilliant My Delirium) just cracked the UK top 40, sadly everything else fared poorly. A follow-up album, the more 90s influenced Anxiety, was released in 2012. A far less poppy, immediate affair, it also failed to perform and whilst a new album is apparently complete — as of 2015 – no release date is set.

But let’s hope a triumphant return is imminent. We need more great pop singer songwriters, and I for one would be sorry not to hear from Ladyhawke again.

Derek Crook

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