In terms of my ultimate pop obsessions, post-ABBA and pre-Kate Bush there was Culture Club. Anyone alive in the early 80s could not have failed to notice the arrival of Boy George: few stars have been born in such a storm of sensation, hysteria and controversy. As a young gay boy I immediately latched on to George as a kindred spirit. It wasn't his androgyny or dressing up that attracted me, it was his bravery and willingness to stand out, to live his life on his own terms. I also connected to the music and his confessional lyrics, now known to detail his tempestuous love affair with Culture Club's drummer Jon Moss, and it became the soundtrack to my life. The song that made me a true disciple was the storming Church Of The Poison Mind and the element that grabbed my attention most acutely was the soaring vocal of backing singer Helen Terry. I had simply not heard anything like it before and such was the impact Helen made on that track that she became the unofficial fifth member of the band, increasingly sharing centre stage with George.
Helen Terry undoubtedly falls into the category of "belter", one of those powerhouse vocalists who can almost literally raise the roof with the sheer strength of her voice. However, to label her such is a massive disservice, as she is also the possessor of an instrument of unique tone and resonance and able to deliver delicateness as well as power. After sharing in the high noon of Culture Club's success, Helen attempted a solo career, which produced one of my all-time favourite albums, Blue Notes. Although Helen's solo material struggled to reach a wide audience, she undoubtedly made a lasting impact on those who were lucky enough to hear her work. Here then are my highlights of Helen's all too brief, but sparkling solo career.
Love Lies Lost (1984)
After stealing the show on Church Of The Poison Mind, Helen was given greater prominence on Culture Club's second album, the international smash hit Colour By Numbers. She proved her worth by illuminating George's soulful voice on the dramatic Black Money and by adding a searing response to George's call on That's The Way (I'm Only Trying To Help You). However, George was not overly keen on sharing his limelight, so with Helen's star on the rise he helped her to launch her own solo career by co-writing her first single, the poppy Love Lies Lost. The song could easily have been a Culture Club single, it shares the same joy of rhythm and blasts of brass and bass. Helen's vocal is confident and showcases the lovely woodiness of her mid-range. The lyrics are sassy and Helen has no trouble adding the required attitude, along with a wonderful scat section in the bridge. The single scraped in to the UK Top 40, but inexplicably failed to catch fully alight. Along with the great piano ballad on the B-Side, the gorgeous Laughter On My Mind (which in a nice reverse features George on backing vocals), it absolutely deserves a place as one of the best pop singles of the 80s.
Helen pressed on with preparation on her album and a follow-up single was released. Stuttering was a definite departure from the Culture Club sound, with a very polished production by the legendary Don Was. The song deals with the visceral impact of attraction, causing Helen to come over all unnecessary, bringing on the shakes and, yes, making her stutter. The song has a great hook and is instantly memorable and Helen does a brilliant job on the tricky, jittery vocal. The Club Mix is a great example of how the 12" single really was central to pop music in the 80s. It completely reinvents the song, breaking down and rebuilding the complex instrumentation and allowing multiple opportunities for Helen's vocals to shine. I fail to understand how this only limped to 84 in the charts, it has hit written all over it. Still one of my all-time favourite songs. Genius.
Act Of Mercy (1986)
Most of Blue Notes was recorded with Don Was in Detroit in the summer of 1985, but the final sessions for the album took place in London in April 1986 under another American producer, Stewart Levine. From that final session came the dramatic Act Of Mercy, which became Helen's fourth single just ahead of the album's release. The act of mercy in question is Helen pleading with her lover to set her free, and she captures the desperation and resignation of the situation in a mature and controlled vocal that is one of her best. This signalled that Blue Notes was going to be an adult affair and not simply play to the pop mainstream. The single was released as Culture Club's star was in rapid descent, with George in full self-destruct mode, providing a less than fruitful environment for Helen to launch her opus. The single and album did not chart, which considering the quality of the material is a major loss to music history.
Close Watch (1986)
A prime example of why Blue Notes deserves to be rediscovered is a splendid cover from the album of John Cale's Close Watch. It is a stripped back affair, with Helen's voice allowed full and free reign. She sounds smoky and sensuous on the verses before letting rip on the chorus, where she shows just how to use a powerful voice without letting it overwhelm the song. It is a spine-tingly, sensational performance and proves without doubt that Helen possesses one of the finest voices of her generation. It was one of my earliest memories of really appreciating a vocal performance for it's technical perfection, while also feeling a deep, emotional jolt. Helen taught me something about singing with this number that I have never forgotten. Awesome.
Fortunate Fool (1989)
Blue Notes was given a much-deserved re-release in 2009 and I was saddened to read Helen's notes for the album. It was clear that what should have been a joyful time in her life was instead marred by tragedy and the pitfalls of fame. A true lady, she is coy on the details, but George's autobiography paints a grim picture of the reality behind the huge success Culture Club enjoyed. Helen had a second shot at making it on her own when she was signed to Parlophone in the late 80s. A couple of excellent singles were released, including Fortunate Fool a catchy tale of "better to have loved and lost...". Helen's voice had lost none of it's sheen and she captured the joyful spirit of the song in her spirited vocal. I remember getting the press pack for the single, which promised much of the forthcoming album and even suggested Helen would be going out on tour to promote it. Sadly, a falling out with the label meant neither came to pass, and I genuinely mourn for that second album. Helen suggested the parting of the ways was because her A&R man wanted her to make a dance album and "I cannot dance. So I walked, which I can do". Helen would continue to contribute backing vocals to her friends' records for a while, but had clearly had her fill of the music industry. She has since become a successful film-maker and producer and has been responsible for the annual Brit Awards show for a number of years. She did pop up on the Scissor Sister's album Night Work, but that was probably more about having fun than seriously considering a comeback.
If you've never experienced Helen's voice, or you remember her from Culture Club but missed out on the solo stuff, then I urge you to invest in Blue Notes. Helen should be thought of as one of the great British divas, easily the equal of your Adele's and your Moyet's, but sadly the fickle finger of fame failed to point in her direction. Don't let that stop you discovering one of the truly great voices and one of the great lost albums of all time.
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