2020 Music Essays

Formative: Love and Rockets ‘Express’ (1986)

Express by Love and Rockets

“Formative” is a Vague Visages column about music albums that influenced the writer’s teenage experience. 

The time: 1985. The place: New Orleans, Louisiana. The person: me, a wanna-be Goth teen chafing against the restrictions of my Catholic family (no black hair dye, no heavy eyeliner and definitely no rosaries worn as jewelry). It was a major drag to discover the dark delights of Bauhaus only to find out they’d disbanded in 1983. Thank heaven, then, for my subsequent infatuation with Love and Rockets, the trio that rose from that band’s ashes.

Singer/guitarist Daniel Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins had worked together outside of Bauhaus in Tones on Tail, another trio that included bassist Glen Campling. Love and Rockets was less experimental than Tones on Tail; instead of Campling, Bauhaus bassist David J. (Kevin’s brother) was brought into the fold.

Like many of the bands that enjoyed heavy rotation on my Walkman in the early to mid-1980s, I I heard tracks from Love and Rockets’ first album, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, via WTUL New Orleans, Tulane University’s radio station. Yet, their music was only part of the appeal.

I knew what Bauhaus looked like; I’d spent hours trying to sketch Peter Murphy’s vampiric face from the photos included in the 1979 – 1983 compilation I’d purchased from Sound Warehouse. In a pre-internet world where access to cool bands was limited to college radio and MTV (and the aforementioned Sound Warehouse), being able to watch a band’s videos was of major significance.

Two of the three singles from Love and Rockets’ second album Express had videos, “All in My Mind” and “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man),” which aired on MTV’s Sunday night alt music showcase 120 Minutes. I taped them both, which only underscores how important VCRs were before YouTube existed.

For example, take “It’s All in My Mind. The title a clever pun referencing not only the album’s theme of psychedelic journeys but also Ash’s love of tuning up his motorcycle: turning it on and dropping out, driving away on open roads. The video opens with a close-up of lipsticked lips — first red, then black, then back to red — before pulling back to reveal Ash’s androgynous face, complete with giant silver hoop earrings. That face — supported by high cheekbones and framed by spiky hair — is utilized to magnificent effect in the video, providing visual inspiration for lyrical double entendres like “give me an hour, I’ll show you how you feel.” My massive crush on Ash grew every time I watched the video (which was essentially every day after school and more on weekends).

As dazzling as it was (and is), the video for “All In My Mind” did not prepare me for “Ying and Yang (The Flowerpot Man),” which continued the black/white/red aesthetic from the previous video but amped things up considerably with more of everything (strobe lights, black and white clothes/instruments, Ash’s artwork) and threw in Haskins clowning around with a folding fan. My continuous rewatching of this video focused mostly on Haskins’ dimples and a shirtless Ash, but the fact that they included snippets of M.C. Escher’s Angels and Bats print did not go unnoticed either, as I’d been obsessed with Escher since the age of eight.

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Yes, yes, it’s all about the music, though. Express more than delivers on that front, with nine killer tracks (the U.S. release also includes their excellent 1985 cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”). From start to finish, the album is as mesmerizing now as it was 34 years ago — oh my god, when did I get so old?

While Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven felt like a bit of a Bauhaus hangover, particularly in menacing tracks like “The Game,” Express was a massive leap forward for the band. It opens with Ash’s seductive saxophone on “It Could Be Sunshine” and David J. on vocals, and introduces the themes of duality and contrast that are found throughout the album: “Are you riding a train to heaven or hell?” The song itself is a study in contrasts; after this sexy opening, it shifts gears into a second act of fierce hooks, loud guitars, and Ash on lead vocals. The song closes out with a cheeky nod to The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”: “My love for you won’t last for one day / my love for you will last for two.”

An abrupt ending leads directly into the sound of a train leaving a station and the dirty grind of Ash’s guitar In “Kundalini Express.” He and David J. switch vocals in the first verse, the effect of which is made more disorienting because their voices also switch from speaker to speaker. The song is cheeky in the vein of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” but instead of schadenfreude, it celebrates the power of orgasm traveling up the spine: ”Each carriage is connected / as is every single train / the rails all form a track / which is a link within a chain.”

“Life in Laralay” is a love/hate relationship with the decadent delights of Los Angeles, “where film stars leave their footprints and failed stars join the queue.” Heavy on guitars and drums, it also features contrasting vocals between Ash and David J. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would move to southern California within a year of hearing this song; in retrospect, it feels eerily prescient. 

Next up is “Yin and Yang,” which is worth talking about some more because the song is easily Love and Rockets’ finest achievement, despite the fact that it was “So Alive” which would reach #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1989. Opening with frenetic acoustic guitar, a shuffling drumbeat and incredible harmonies, “Yin and Yang” never lets up, completely entrancing the listener for every second of its nearly six-minute run time. “Kundalini Express” may be a metaphor for sexual release, but this is the track that attains absolute ecstasy, from the chants of “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty! Beautiful!” to the sinuous groove of David J.’s bass lines after the comedown of the bridge. Teenaged me didn’t grasp the erotic innuendo of these lyrics but adult me understands: “Alcohol is your yoga, baby / Gonna call out my name / Then I’m gonna rain / All over you.”

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Following this up with the slow seduction of “Love Me” is a stroke of genius (pun intended). Ash’s guitar is absolutely cavernous; he plays like he’s “walking through your heavens / walking with your devils.” It’s also a beautiful segue to the acoustic version of “All in My Mind,” which is so gorgeous that it’s not hard to understand why it was included on the album instead of being relegated to a B-side. The fact that it’s a teaser for the outstanding album closer “An American Dream” is further testament to the impeccable production of this album (courtesy of John A. Rivers and the band itself). 

It may be corny to describe an album as “a journey,” but that cliche certainly applies to Express. “An American Dream” evokes the melancholy guitar that Ash introduced to fans via “Slice of Life” on Bauhaus’ final album and continued to develop on Seventh Dream’s “Saudade,” a Portuguese word whose closest English translation is “bittersweet.”

Even at the naive and sheltered age of 15, I recognized the insight and brilliance of this tune, rich with longing and disdain, its beauty perfectly matched by its anguish: “Feeling so high and low / it’s the American Dream” was as profound then as it is now. 

Ever since I first heard The Beatles as an infant, I have been besotted with music that’s both catchy and calamitous; it’s not an accident that The Sound of Music and Jesus Christ Superstar were albums I demanded that my parents play on repeat. Love and Rockets’ Express is one more chapter in the saga of my love affair with music that uplifts even as it evokes sadness. 

More importantly, however, Express felt like music that was made FOR ME — not my parents, and certainly not the other teenagers I knew who liked music that seemed boring and soulless. It’s an album that’s perfect from start to finish, with not one bit of music or lyrics squandered, the kind that you want to hear from the beginning as soon as it ends.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.