Released today in 1988: Tell Me

WEA YZ184

WEA YZ184

Madonna’s opinion of Nick Kamen in 1986? “I said, ‘wow, this guy’s got everything’,” she told Simon Bates in December that year, interviewed for his Radio 1 show. She wasn’t wrong: a recognizable face from several years modelling, Kamen sang, wrote his own songs and had a star presence that was captured most famously in a television commercial for Levi jeans that still features in lists of the best adverts of all-time. Fortunate enough to be brought up in an artistic environment surrounded by his talented brothers (including Chester, a professional guitarist who worked closely with Bryan Ferry for much of the 80s, appearing with him at Live Aid; and Barry, a fellow model, artist and fashion designer), he now also had the good luck to be signed to the same record company as arguably the biggest star in pop music at the time. And label boss Seymour Stein had asked her if she wanted to work with him.

“He [Stein] sent me a tape of four of his songs and the Levi commercial and a demo video that he [Kamen] had done,” Madonna told Bates. “You know, he’s got so much charm and charisma and there’s something there in the eyes and that inspired me to write for him.” The song she wrote was Kamen’s debut single, Each Time You Break My Heart, on which she also performed backing vocals – an international hit in the autumn of ’86. “I called Seymour up and said ‘how about if I produce the record… and he said, ‘I would have asked you but, I mean, I didn’t think you’d have the time’, but I figured it was only one song so it can only take about a week if we really organize ourselves.”

It turned out it wasn’t just the one song though: although this was Madonna’s only contribution to Kamen’s self-titled 1987 debut album, the following year she was providing backing vocals again on Tell Me, the lead single from his second album. Enthusiasm for his records in his home country had waned by then unfortunately: it peaked at a very disappointing #40 , and parent album Us flopped. He enjoyed much greater success in continental Europe, particularly in Italy where Tell Me went to #1. (A number of young British pop stars who had limited success in the UK became big stars in Italy at around this time: another was Patsy Kensit, who like Kamen had only one Top 10 single here but was a chart-topper there.)

But in the UK, Kamen wasn’t taken seriously as a musician. He was terribly mindful of his past as a model and somewhat uptight about talking about the charisma that Madonna had identified or the looks that had got him on to magazine covers, seemingly fearing that he would be bracketed with other models-turned-singers such as Samantha Fox. To an extent, he shouldn’t have worried: she was a former glamour model and much derided for it, while his previous modelling assignments had been impeccably credible: he was associated with Ray Petri’s ultra-cool Buffalo team of artistes; one of his first magazine covers had been for trendy The Face in January 1984; and the Levi’s commercial had boosted sales of the 501 jeans and boxer shorts he was seen wearing in it – and caused a mini-revival in the charts for respected 60s soul hits. But there was one similarity with Fox: like her debut, the Nick Kamen album comprised cover versions or material that had been written for him that were hardly enhanced by his rather thin and reedy voice, and so what success he had had they put down to the association with Madonna rather than anything he brought to the record himself. But Kamen was a realist who recognized he hadn’t stockpiled enough material of his own for a long-player yet. Chosen as the cover star for the very first issue of the new fortnightly British magazine SKY (23 April – 6 May 1987), he explained inside how he had chosen the songs he did: “Some songs are sacred – and it’s pointless doing a cover version of an old hit to get a new hit, whereas people aren’t going to have heard most of the songs I’ve chosen.”

Unfortunately, the material he wrote for Us (even when his co-writers were luminaries such as Patrick Leonard, who had co-written extensively with Madonna on her True Blue album) simply wasn’t commercial enough to give him a hit. But he was an artist who was gradually developing with every album: as his voice grew stronger, so too did his song writing. The Eighties were effectively his musical apprenticeship, and in 1990 he released the self-penned I Promised Myself, an excellent single that should have been a major hit. It peaked at #50 (his last chart entry in Britain) and the album it was taken from, Move Until We Fly, was largely ignored. Again, his work fared better in Europe. His fourth and final studio album, the solid Whatever, Whenever, was his most accomplished effort. He co-wrote and co-produced every track, played bass, guitar, keyboard and percussion, and performed lead and backing vocals. Single We’ll Never Lose What We Have Found again ought to have been a hit, but the promotion of both it and the album was so low-key that this was hardly likely, despite the strength of the song. His deal with WEA at an end, Kamen’s recording career came to an abrupt end.

NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 16
1980
GRADUATE (Tears For Fears) Ever Met A Day (Precision PAR104)
Gary NUMAN We Are Glass (Beggars Banquet BEG35)
The SPECIALS (Terry Hall) Rat Race (2-Tone CHSTT11)
1988
Nick KAMEN Tell Me (WEA YZ184)
The STYLE COUNCIL Life At A Top People’s Health Farm (Polydor TSC15)

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