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45 at 33: Red Box’s Lean On Me (ah-li-ayo)

You didn’t confuse them with Simply Red’s Open Up The Red Box, did you? And they weren’t that besuited yuppie trio Living In A Box either. No, a year or two before those oh-so-eighties offerings scaled the charts there was a distinctive duo with a highly individual sound, comprising of the slightly posh Harrow educated singer-songwriter Simon Toulson-Clarke and Bristolian musician foil Julian Close. They’re called Red Box and this is Lean On Me.

Originally active from 1983 through to 1990, the pop pairing first came to prominence in the autumn of 1985 with the hybridisation of English new wave sensibilities with a world music vibe that echoed David Bowie’s Lodger and especially the occasionally earnest message songs of Peter Gabriel.

The song in question was Lean On Me (ah-li-ayo), a chanty, galvanising call to arms that doctor diary records my having nipped out from my first week at college in Bletchley Park to the local music emporium, B&A Records in Queensway, to buy the single in my lunch break. I‘d do the same for another new middle class duo a few weeks later. Something about Pet Shop Boys and West End Girls.

On its way to be something of a mammoth airwaves staple for the year, the 45 was at No. 6 in the charts that week, jostling for position with Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, Amii Stewart’s Knock On Wood/Light My Fire, and two hits that owed Live Aid just about everything: The Cars’ Drive, and sitting not always pretty at No. 1, that Dancing In The Street campathon by David Bowie and Mick Jagger.

As September mutated into October, Lean On Me peaked at creditable No. 3 a fortnight later. It became, so they say, the “most played track on UK “ in 1985, even beating Madonna’s ubiquitous Into The Groove.

Mother Earth working the other side, perhaps.

Whatever the stats, Lean On Me is still an unusual song, but a likeable, uplifting one with a strong hook. Produced with Chris ‘Merrick‘ Hughes of Adam And The Ants and Tears For Fears fame, it’s that dare I say spiritual, mystical marriage of quirky, ethnic rhythms (indigenous North American, we’d say now) — just before Paul Simon’s Graceland mined some South African gems — with eighties synthpop and a clutch of thought-provoking lyrics. 

The promo film for Lean On Me was nominated in the Best Video category at the 1986 Brit Awards. In it, we see Toulson-Clarke in the foreground with Close sat impassively on a bench. Employing heavy metamorphic imagery, the two band members swap places. Emphasising the world music aspect, a gaggle of humans from various countries make an appearance. 

At one point, all that’s visible are the head and hands of Close while he is doing sign language, while a BSL interpreter provides a translation of the song’s lyrics.

Mixing traditional musical styles with brass ensembles, choral music and even future Buffy The Vampire Slayer Watcher Anthony Head, the duo’s debut album, The Circle & The Square followed in 1986. Among the racks was a worthy rework of Qu’Appele Valley, Saskatchewan, the exquisite seventies set-piece by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, and whose multi-layered, indigenous-style was the most obvious influence on the duo.

Despite positive reviews and a second Top Ten hit in the shape of the soppy yet sardonic For America, the LP barely troubled the charts. Motive, Red Box’s second, fared equally well critically but was another commercial flop, and the pair parted company shortly after. 

Since the mid-noughties however, reissues of those previous albums via — what else? — Cherry Red Records prompted a renewed cult status interest in the band, and twice led to the inevitable reformation circuit, though without founder member Julian Close, who seems to have been replaced with a lot of Coldplay-lite bedwetting balladeering.

Still, Red Box returned. Are we happy? 

From the very very young to the very very old, everybody now say Aye.


Steve Pafford

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