‘Tangerine Dream: The Blue Years’ (1985-1987) reviewed

❉ Neil Perryman takes a trip down memory lane to see if Tangerine Dream’s “Blue Years” stand the test of time.

As Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings re-release a box set containing four studio albums released by Tangerine Dream between 1985 and 1987, self-confessed fan Neil Perryman takes a trip down memory lane to see if they’ve stood the test of time.

I fell in love with Tangerine Dream in 1985. It began when one of the older boys at school handed me a C90 cassette tape filled with some of their best bits, and ended with me devouring everything the band had ever recorded thanks to Coventry’s extensive and eclectic Record Library. Then, after I’d finished listening to everything they had ever recorded and a lot more besides (the library also stocked all the solo albums, which no one seemed to borrow), I was thrilled to discover that they hadn’t hung up their Mellotrons and were in fact still going.

And that’s how I ended up working part-time job in a supermarket as a shelf-stacker, so I could earn enough money to purchase Tangerine Dream’s latest album before the singular copy in Coventry’s branch of HMV disappeared forever (somehow I instinctively knew it would take the library several years to request one). And that’s why this review comes with a massive disclaimer: it is practically impossible for me to remain objective about this box set, because if the first record included within it turned out to be complete and utter rubbish, then I’d have to admit that I’d stacked all those shelves after school for nothing.

The album in question was Le Parc and it was a big departure for Tangerine Dream at the time. Not only was it their first studio album on the Jive Electro label after Virgin Records dropped them, it was also the album that unashamedly eschewed one of the things I truly loved about the band, which was their propensity for filling whole sides of vinyl with single tracks which had room to breathe and develop, and yes, meander a bit, but which took you on a journey. And while it’s true they had flirted with compositions below the 5-minute mark before, this was the exception rather than the rule. Until Le Parc came along.

It’s basically a concept album about nine famous parks, from Bois de Boulogne in Paris to Central Park in New York, and it’s… pleasant enough. But I still find it impossible to get lost in the music. Just as a theme begins to develop, it peters out. And while I’m sure Le Parc must have sounded fresh, and possibly even experimental in 1985, today it sounds almost quaint, like a Garth Merenghi pastiche. I do still have a soft spot for the track ‘Hyde Park’, though, which is gloriously optimistic in a way that London simply isn’t, and if you like your Tangerine Dream more jaunty than haunty, then this could be the album for you.

Le Parc also includes a track you may recognise even if you aren’t familiar with Tangerine Dream, although whenever I point this to people they always seem to leave with a lower opinion of the band than if I’d kept my mouth shut. Yes, it’s true, Tangerine Dream were responsible for the theme to Streethawk (and if you’ve never seen Streethawk, it was basically Knight Rider on a bike):

Next up is Green Desert, and it’s an odd one. Described as a lost album from 1973, it’s actually a re-recording of an old demo using modern instruments and techniques, and as a result it sounds nothing like the sort of thing Tangerine Dream were doing in 1973 but – and this is the important part – it doesn’t sound anything like the sort of thing were doing in 1986 either, which, let’s be brutally honest here, is a massive plus. If pushed, I’d say it sounds more like the sort of thing they were doing in 1979, what with all the electric guitar, doom-laden synths and what sounds suspiciously like live drumming, but whenever the damn thing was recorded, it’s easily the best album in this set, especially the 20-minute title-track which is both epic and hypnotic in its brooding simplicity, and while its heritage is undeniably questionable, I would put it up there as one of the best things Tangerine Dream have ever done. Hey, even the shorter tracks are great.

Their next studio album, Underwater Sunlight, signalled a return to form of sorts, although once again it’s difficult for me to be objective about this because the very first gig I ever went to (without my mum, so The Kids From Fame Live! doesn’t count) was the tour they did to support this album, which means I probably listened to it more times than they did.

Side One (in old parlance) features two themed tracks called ‘Song of the Whale Parts One and Two’ which is the next best thing to having an single meandering track of old. The fact that the song is about whales should give you an idea where the band were heading at this point, because what says New Age more than a whale? I remember thinking this was a mistake at the time because I always regarded Tangerine Dream as a progressive band that you listened to when you were off your head on the sort of drugs I had up to that point only fantasised about; they certainly weren’t the sort of thing you’d put on the stereo after attending an antenatal class. They even try to replicate – via the medium of music – the noise a whale makes when it surfaces for air, which is adorable, frankly.

Side Two, on the other hand, is filled with shorter, more uplifting fare, like dance music for people who wouldn’t be seen dead dancing.

The final album in this set is 1987’s Tyger. I knew something was up when I arrived at Our Price to buy it on the day of release. The dismal artwork was my first clue – Tangerine Dream had produced some beautiful album covers during their hay day, but the cover to Tyger was just their logo plastered all over the sleeve. A logo, I ask you! There wasn’t even a bloody tiger on the front! But the cover was immediately forgotten as soon I got home and put the needle on the record because… and it still irks me to write this… somebody was singing on it. That’s right, somebody was singing on a Tangerine Dream album! Oh, the humanity!

This wasn’t the first time somebody had been caught singing on a Tangerine Dream album (and it wouldn’t be the last, sadly). In 1978 they released an album called Cyclone which featured a couple of songs on it (I use the term ‘songs’ loosely), but it was regarded by most of the people who heard it – as well as the band itself – as a terrible mistake which nobody likes to talk about, so doing it again smacked of incompetence. This is the part of the review where I’d love to tell you that Tyger‘s songs are an absolute triumph, and that Tangerine Dream proved the naysayers wrong, but I can’t. Because it’s shit. Don’t believe me? Then listen to this:

The songs were written by the poet William Blake (who has only just stopped spinning in his grave) and sung by Jocelyn Bernadette Smith, but you can’t really blame her for this. Thankfully, there are a couple of instrumental tracks too (and since this is the CD version of the album, you even get some extra instrumentals that were denied to me at the time), but they are instantly forgettable and emblematic of the middle-of-the-road rut the band found themselves in as the 1980s drew to a close. If you can imagine John Carpenter on a harpsichord while Phil Collins hammers away on a drum pad to a mid-tempo beat, you can probably imagine the best parts of this album. In fact, the only positive thing I can say about Tyger is that I was so determined to like it in 1987, I could eventually recite William Blake’s poetry to my English teacher at the drop of a hat, and that made me a genius in his eyes, so thanks for that.

And then the short-lived Blue Years were over. I think they were called The Blue Years because the colour of Jive Electro’s label was blue, and not because it made Tangerine Dream’s fans feel a little sad. Because it’s difficult not to feel melancholic listening to these albums, not only because it truly was the end of an era (two of the band’s most talented members, Johannes Schmoelling and Chris Franke, had both departed by its end, although Franke would go on to score Babylon 5 so it wasn’t all bad news), but because it almost feels like an epitaph. At least it did at the time. Which is of course laughable given that they still had at least another 100 albums left in them.

The CDs in this nicely packaged re-release come in a sturdy clamshell box card and are packaged in cardboard sleeves which faithfully replicate the original album covers (although they’ve gone with Green Desert‘s boring cover instead of the nice one with the hot air balloon). The music itself has been remastered, which means the theme to Streethawk has never sounded better or clearer. And that, I think, is part of the problem. I don’t want Tangerine Dream to sound pristine  – I miss the old days when the synths drifted out of tune thanks to the ambient temperature of the recording studio, and you had this nagging feeling the band were consistently wrestling with their instruments, and yet, despite all these flaws, I still love these four albums to bits. I have to, otherwise I could have spent all that money I earned stacking shelves on a pair of trainers, and that would be tragic.

❉ ‘Tangerine Dream: The Blue Years Studio Albums 1985-1987’ (4CD Remastered Clamshell Boxset) released February 22, 2019 by Esoteric Recordings’ Reactive label, part of the Cherry Red Records group. RRP £24.99.

❉ Neil Perryman has been responsible for a number of popular websites over the last 10 years, including ‘Tachyon TV’, ‘Behind the Sofa’ and ‘Adventures with the Wife in Space’, in which he watched every episode of the classic series of Doctor Who with his wife, Sue Perryman. The final volume of ‘The Wife in Space’ paperback series will be published in late March. Neil currently hosts Perfect Night In, a new podcast and video show which hopes to do for television what Desert Island Discs does for music (but with less sand).

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