“She studied sculpture at Saint Martins College.”
Jarvis Cocker, Common People
By the law of averages, 1979 was a pretty challenging year in British life. Sex Pistols guitarist Sid Vicious was found dead in New York of a heroin overdose, Airey Neave MP and the Queen‘s cousin Lord Mountbatten were assassinated by the IRA, The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was on a terrifying serial killer spree and Margaret Thatcher became the first female leader in the West.
Some light relief was definitely in order then. In September, the new prime minister opened the shiny Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre, the largest indoor mall in Britain. And at the beginning of the year I started going to a youth club for the first time, at Sycamore Hall in Bletchley, the codebreaker town that had been incorporated into the new ‘city’ of Milton Keynes in 1967.
There are several singles that are incredibly evocative of those New Wave times, and forever etched in my memory of learning how to dance (still not very successfully to this day) on the Friday night disco at Sycamore: B.A. Robertson’s Bang Bang, Blondie’s Heart of Glass, M’s Pop Musik… and Lucky Number by Lene Lovich.
Originally released as a B-side for Lovich’s version of that bubblegum apotheosis I Think We’re Alone Now (yup, the same Sixties cornfest later covered by Tiffany and Girls Aloud), the song was reissued on 26 January 1979 as an A-side and became the lead single of her debut album Stateless. Her Lucky Number is 40.
Back in the autumn of 1978, when Stiff Records mounted its second major assault on the British music biz, Lovich stood out (even from Jake Riviera and the rest of the somewhat bizarre Stiff crew) with her outlandish dress, colourful coiffure and mannered, theatrical delivery, using her voice no differently than the sax she occasionally tooted.
Of Yugoslavian and English descent, an expatriate native of Detroit and one time sculpture student at London’s Central School of Art* where she met up with Les Chappell, Lovich came to Stiff stardom via DJ Charlie Gillett and his Oval Exiles scheme of 1977. Gillett sponsored her first demo (I Think We’re Alone Now), then handed it on to Stiff’s Dave Robinson.
Lene’s leftfield output was at the perfect foundational example of the burgeoning New Wave. An amalgam of baroque and Euro-cabaret, her slightly pixilated pop arrangements laced with splashes of synthesizer and organ, and often powered by an R&B dance beat.
Released in July 1978, I Think We’re Alone Now received little fanfare but when a remix of its Lucky Number flipside was released five months later, her quirkiness gradually crept all the way up to third place on a wave of intensive radio play. Her lucky number was three, and sadly never troubled the Top 10 again, though 1981’s New Toy, written by Thomas Dolby, was certainly unworthy of its lowly No. 53 status.
Lucky Number is composed in D major at 120 beats per minute. The chorus, perhaps unpredictably, consists of four dissonant notes sung in rapid succession. According to Lovich, she “didn’t know anything about writing a song, so (producer) Les Chappell just threw together a vocal line that sounded like a synthesizer.”
That refrain, coupled with the memorable guitar ostinato and rapid vocal shouts from backup singers gave the song and Lovich her distinctive sound that would define her next several records and many acts that followed. Hi Hazel!
Before signing to Stiff, Lene had worked as an Oriental dancer, took small parts in movies, dubbed screams for low-budget horror films, and wrote the lyrics (uncredited) for Supernature, 1977‘s science-fiction spectacular by French disco producer Cerrone, later covered by Erasure.
Rolling Stone described her appearance as “A touch of the Victorian governess here, a spicing of Eastern European gothic, garage-sale chic there, Lovich can go round in circles in the morning before settling on a wardrobe that meets the required criteria of high style and medium temperature.”
What at the time seemed a bit outre, even gauche was, by the early Eighties, adopted whole or in part by rafts of aspiring bands. Where once Lovich was likened to Patti Smith for lack of even vaguely comparable new wave female singers, she now had her own ‘school’ of followers – although many people have no idea she was there first. With chart success now behind her, Lene drew attention to the fact in 1982 with bittersweet relish:
“It’s always been very spiritually uplifting when other people mention me because it makes me feel I do exist in this music business which, as far as I can see, is often totally anti-music. Girls are still not expected to do anything — except maybe dress up — and they’re always suspected of ulterior motives. Plus there is always a tendency to remove the ones who are ‘different’. Yet — that’s the only way to progress, and it’s not an aim on your part to be ‘different’… you can’t do otherwise.”
In 1979, the Stiff team sent her to see Brian Gibson when his embryonic Breaking Glass punk movie scenario still starred a boy; Lene auditioned for the secondary role of the girlfriend. And Gibson was so impressed he re-wrote his entire film to feature a female lead.
“I figured ‘OK, I could probably do it’. But I was just beginning to get involved in music and I thought it would confuse everything. I thought I’d confuse myself. They did try everything to get me in that film.”
Lene, however, conceded she thought it was ‘right’ for Hazel O’Connor to play the role of Kate. “I would have taken the film a whole different way; it wouldn’t have worked.” It certainly worked for Hazel, who, let’s not beat around Kate Bush, based her entire career on a more nasal version of Lovich’s trademark delivery.
Four decades later, and Lene Lovich is now well within the savage jaw of 74, and with a bittersweet irony, Lee and her band played the Electric Ladies of the 80s tour with Toyah and Saffron from Republica, replacing Hazel O’Connor, who was taken ill at her home in South West France.
Altogether now, Ah! Ooh! Ah! Ooh! Get well soon Hazel.
The story of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive is here
*Central School of Art merged in 1989 to become Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, hence the Pulp lyrical quotation. Yup