SUBJECT: Hitmen, "Torn Together" (1981)
PLACE OF PURCHASE: PreAtomic Records, Corvallis
BY CORY FRYE
There was something wonderfully sinister about early-’80s new wave: contoured coifs atop immaculate suits, insidious shells over malicious intent. The Hitmen served, briefly, as a perfect agent for this juxtaposition.
Vocalist Ben Watkins met guitarist Pete Glenister to launch the group in 1979, just as the genre emerged from the bellicose ruins of punk. As a quintet with bassist Neil Brockbank, drummer Mike Gaffey, and keyboardist Stan Shaw, they plattered Aim for the Feet for CBS Records the following year. Undone by the schlocky production of Bill House (the sugar-beast behind such twerpy trifles as “Bad Luck Into Good Times” and “Heaven Stay in My Arms”), it’s too toothless — with Watkins hiccoughing Graham Parker through a Tom Petty growl over support scrubbed clean of heft — to warrant multiple spins today. If you find a copy, turn the volume down and keep it to yourself.
Torn Together is the vastly superior 1981 follow-up. They’ve jettisoned House for the marqueed Rhett Davies, Bryan Ferry’s trusted helmsman from Boys and Girls (1985) to Avonmore (2014) (not to mention Roxy Music’s exemplary Avalon) and a Brian Eno confidante. Davies deep-freezes the Hitmen’s sluice to a frosty chill. Shaw’s gone, though keyboards remain to augment more sinewy, stripped-down textures. They’re no longer your uncle’s embarrassing pub-ruffian band after too many pints but a sophisticated agent of near-impeccable intrigue.
The album opens on the band’s likely best-known number, “Bates Motel,” an early MTV favorite that shared airtime with its distant Hitchcockian cousin, Landscape’s spartan “Norman Bates” (from 1981’s From the Tea-Rooms of Mars ... to the Hell-Holes of Uranus, an early-decade curio reminiscent of the Sparks’ period work). At the time, Psycho (1960) was regarded as a standalone cinematic touchstone from a faded Golden Age, its Bates Motel iconic but trapped in amber. That would change in this music’s wake, when Robert Bloch revived his storied antagonist in the novel Psycho 2 (1982), only to kill him at the halfway point and shift his malevolence to Bates’ twisted psychiatrist, Adam Claiborne. Anthony Perkins would reprise Bates onscreen in 1983’s Psycho II, which had nothing to do with its literary forebear, and terrorize sin-laden travelers into the early 1990s.
Written by Mike Gaffey, “Bates Motel” splatters into existence on a synth-pop gush of eeriness then stalks into its ice-flecked horrorshow on Gaffey’s frenzied drums (he typically leads on his compositions just as Pete Glenister’s guitars construct and propel his tracks). Ben Watkins wraps his vocals in desperation to match the late Brockbank’s quivering pulse; he’s Torn’s stalwart champion, his foundations strong and true. The frantically repeated chorus, “Check in, check out,” bounds upstairs, knife in fist, as Watkins wails threateningly, “I’ll turn my home into Bates Motel.”
This tone haunts the album’s first side. Glenister’s “What Would the Neighbours Say?” mixes tasty work with the astonishing perversion of a man trysting inappropriately with a schoolgirl. Watkins slinks slick and sleazy, his delivery an attempt to lock this secret tight. The track represents new wave’s dual nature, posh trappings harboring an ugliness bordering on abnormality, a sick, twisted mind. Gaffey evokes realms favored by Raymond Chandler and Damon Runyon on “Score It Blue,” ruled by a fatale with a deliberately poisonous appeal, its sensuous nectar fueled by a Max Steiner score (and Brockbank’s threading sashay). Glenister’s “Picking Up the Pulse” buries its untoward intentions under peppy hooks; Watkins proclaims, “I’m picking up the pace, but I feel so, so,” never completing the thought, never admitting to motives.
Unfortunately, the album’s second side attenuates its initial promise, floundering in largely forgettable trifles. Watkins dons his best Bowie on “Don’t Speak with the Enemy,” a piffling grotesquerie where such chameleons wouldn’t be caught dead. “Shade in Fade Out” is notable primarily for Glenister’s parting plucks and its description of “mackerelled eyes” — I may steal that. Watkins’ “Changing Faces” marks a momentary return to form, a love song with a sinister price. The vocalist creeps past such hair-raising sentiments as “I watch you laughing / making noises / I watch you choking / making faces,” then washes his final declaration, ”All work and no play / make Jack such a dull boy” in barely discernible distortions. Allusions to Kubrick’s The Shining: intentional.
Sadly, Torn Together signals the end of the Hitmen. They managed a final single that year, the Martin Rushent (The Stranglers’ No More Heroes; Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen)-produced “Ouija,” an extended patchwork of John Carpenter-esque explosions through juicily frigid pop, its refrain “Bring it back / bring it on back to me” pleading futilely to the fade.
Following its release, Brockbank bailed; in his stead arrived Alan Wilder, later of Depeche Mode, but only for a minute. The Hitmen’s CBS contract ran out and so, alas, did they. Watkins and Glenister would soon resurface in New Asia, a brief noise-laden project fronted by future producer Ian Little.
Watkins is now primary flame-keeper for Juno Reactor, an ever-evolving firm best known for its contributions to the Matrix series and the landmark trance album, Transmissions (1993). Gaffey’s kept a steady schedule backing Gladys Knight, Alison Moyet, and others. Glenister proved a stabilizing force for Moyet, Kirsty MacColl, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Bryan Ferry. Moyet and Ferry recruited Brockbank to oversee their various endeavors, but he enjoyed a most fruitful partnership with Nick Lowe, producing the latter’s work for a quarter-century until Brockbank’s untimely death in 2017 at the age of 66.
As far as I can determine, the Hitmen’s output never made it to CD, much less cassettes, and Torn Together remains unavailable in any format past the LP. Their All Music Guide entry is bereft of biography, verbiage-free beyond song titles and bareboned credits. Whatever legacy they once enjoyed, time has erased all but the vaguest memory, clinging strips of fragmented sounds. I was thrilled to find this album again and reassemble a fading portrait of a band’s recovery from a youthful misstep into a respectable (if inadvertent) final stand.