Sunday, 11 October 2009

1989 Band Aid 2: Do They Know It's Christmas?

Well you know what's coming don't you? It's the 1984 Band Aid single re-recorded to the same ends by the cream of the 1989's crop of 'pop stars' along with Chris Rea, Cliff Richard and Rolf Harris. Strewth indeed.

Or almost to the same ends - in 1984, there was a risk that the whole project could have failed to capture public imagination and fallen flat on its face, but this time around it was known to be a sure-fire CV booster, and some of the folk involved truly needed all the boosting they could get. The song is as it ever was so I'm not going to plough an old furrow there, but what this follow up does usefully do is provide a 'now' snapshot to 1984's 'then' line-up to show the wilderness that was the 1989 UK popular music scene.

The old guard from the first single had long since been wiped clean off the slate of relevance and the world of frilly shirts and big hair seemed a lot further away than five years. The only link with the original single are two members of Bananarama, whose presence must surely be down to more luck than their innate longevity. The pop landscape was now dominated by the likes of Big Fun, Sonia, Lisa Stansfield, Bros etc, all of whom play their part in this and all of whom, like some Looney Tunes telling of 'Ozymandias' would in turn shortly disappear the way Spandau Ballet and Culture Club before them had.

Although the former two never really went away did they? They came to define the decade in the way that football violence, the Falklands war, the miner's strike, the three minute warning etc never could and they live on in the good natured world of nostalgia, retro bars, reunion tours, club theme nights, ironic parties endless 'Best Of's. And blogs like this. But who remembers The Pasadena's with any fondness anymore? Or indeed remembers them at all? As the eighties wore on, the sense of fun and individuality seemed to wear out, bleached by a diet of tunes of workaday electronica until it all blended into one mass of bland. I mean look - even the sleeve couldn't be arsed this time round.

What does it sound like? Well if you've been paying attention then you'll already know. Suffice it to say that Kylie gives one of the worst vocal performances on any recording to reach number one and the famous 'Bono line' is shared between renowned humanitarian Matt Goss and Saint Jason Donovan. If you haven't been paying attention, then shame on you. Your penance shall be to spend all Christmas Day listening to it on auto repeat while 'The Best Of Noel Edmonds At Christmas' plays on the telly in an endless loop. That will learn you.

1989 Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers: Let's Party

Third number one on the trot for Jive Bunny, and no wonder - their postmodern take on the juxtaposition of sounds from the past with the music of the future necessarily created a package that defined, defied and ultimately transcended the zeitgeist. Not least at Christmastime when this skilful collage of the best of popular contemporary Christmas songs are overlaid with the strident beat of Joe Loss's 'March Of The Mods' with the effect of highlighting the relentless commercialisation of the festive season and seeking to thus reclaim its true meaning by rooting it in a golden age (real or perceived? - the question itself illuminates the genius of Jive Bunny) of a Christmas past that even Charles Dickens would have tapped his feet in approval to.

Or maybe the mass delusion and whispered voices are getting to me now too. 'Let's Party' is none of the above, but it does go to show that all music journalism (sic) boils down to intellectualising an emotional response and that it's possible to spin gold out of any old shit if you put your mind to it. Which kind of begs the question as to whose time is being wasted the most with all this - mine for writing it or yours for reading it?

Ah, but apologies. Cynicism is getting the better of me. And why shouldn't it? Compared to some of the classic songs that have held the number one spot, 'Let's Party' is the laziest of the lazy, the crappest of the crap; three chunks of festive Slade, Wizzard and Gary Glitter are dumped in between snatches of the Loss tune with the skill and imagination of a four year old's potato prints. That's literally all there is to it.....

Except that there's even less to it than that - the Slade etc songs aren't the original recordings, they're just vague soundalike cousins of the ones on the Hallmark 'Top Of The Pops' albums that needed a dolly bird on the cover to help inject some excitement and mitigate the inevitable disappointment of not getting such a bargain after all. Probably the best thing you can say about this is that by using the pre fall from grace Gary Glitter tune, they inadvertently ensured that 'Let's Party' has been consigned to a shallow grave of guilt by association and it's rarely revived anymore.

1989 New Kids On The Block: You Got It (The Right Stuff)

Having learned from his exploits with New Edition as to just how much money could be made from a bunch of pretty boys, it came as no surprise to find Maurice Starr once again throwing his hat into the ring by assembling another teen band creation. Except maybe there's a surprise in that it took him so long to get them off the ground.

An all white affair this time round, the very name 'New Kids On The Block' suggests a year zero, the definitive word on the sound of the streets. But alas, it's very apt that 'You Got It' opens with the sound of a car skidding off the road - these new kids were wearing some very old hats. How old? Well the beats that follow could be carbon dated to....oooooh, 1981, with the clockwork rote of the tune very reminiscent of 'Computer World' Kraftwerk (an album that the early hip hop pioneers pillaged mercilessly), albeit with every third note removed.

If New Edition were viewed as a family friendly (i.e. 'white') version of black street culture, then the block these new kids were from and their bleached white sound was further removed from the genuine article than even Vanilla Ice managed, itself no mean feat. Jordan Knight does his very best impersonation of Prince to atone, but mimicry is all it is and even at his most lazy, a Prince B side would contain more style and verve than any part of this.

Because to rub a fistful of salt into an already very deep wound, 'You Got It' sounds like the fragments of three different fragments clamped together with some chanting 'oh, oh, oh, oh' glue, the idea being that five choreographed boys in vests would wash away the sin of not actually having a song to dance to. But it doesn't. The song is very much a secondary consideration and it shows, because as songwriter Mr Starr himself once proudly stated: "My whole thing is promotion, strategy, marketing and management". Quite.

'You Got It' is the distasteful and cynical sound of corporate rock at it's most hollow, soulless and value free. It's food already chewed and chewed in someone else's mouth before being spat out onto a plate and presented as some kind of a rare treat. The most depressing thing is that there were no end of people eager to lap it up.

1989 Lisa Stansfield: All Around The World

A former child star who'd previously charted with dance guru's Coldcut, 'All Around the World' was and remains Lisa Stansfield's biggest solo hit, the one song everybody knows her for. Lisa's man has done a bunk after a quarrel and now she intends searching to the ends of the earth to find him. Well ok, but I'm afraid I find it impossible to listen to 'All Around the World' anymore without remembering Caroline Aherne's clueless teenage mum 'Janine Carr' analysing the lyrics extremely literally on The Fast Show: 'She's like, lost her little baby yeah? And now she's looking for him'.

'All Around the World' is a slab of smooth latter day wine bar R&B which rocks no boats and would have worked far better at half it's length. From the skipping hopscotch beat of the sequenced drums and the drenching of Fisher Price strings, it's too little spread too thinly and the headshot to the air of sophistication (look at that cover picture) it's striving for is the distinct lack of anything going on or, dammit, any sort of tune beyond the chorus that's returned to as constantly as an learner swimmer breaking surface to get air. It's a strong hook on first hearing, but even that's too bland to hold the interest over almost five minutes.

Stansfield can sing, of that there's no doubt, and her voice is the star turn here, but her continuous repetition of the title's refrain
"Been around the world and I, I, I I can't find my baby" bores a little more with each telling, like the ramblings of a freshly dumped, pissed mate up crying on your shoulder to the point where empathy and sympathy curdles to 'snap out of it' annoyance. At 3:50 Stansfield changes key to forcefully re-state "I've been around the world, lookin' from my baby. Been around the world, and I'm gonna, I'm gonna find him" and each separate word is enunciated like someone poking their finger in your chest just in case you weren't clear what her intentions are. But Christ, we've got the message by now girl. And as you've already been around the world once, maybe he doesn't want to be found and it's time to ease up on the obsession, what do you say? One of her friends really should have a word.

1989 Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers: That's What I Like

More Jive Bunny. And more of the same. Almost everything I said about 'Swing The Mood' holds good for this too, except the linking tune is the 'Hawaii 5-0' theme and the likes of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Dion get the remix treatment. I said 'Swing The Mood' was pure novelty, and so it is but when you get the same thing done twice over then it ceases to be a novelty and leads me to wonder there were subliminal messaages in these grooves, a secret message that generated mass hysteria by whispering 'BUY THIS SINGLE' into the collective minds of the populace. How else can you explain it?

1989 Black Box: Ride On Time

There are two things that everyone knows about Black Box and 'Ride On Time':

1. They were fronted by a very tall, very striking, black female vocalist (Catherine Quinol), who

2. Was outed as not actually singing a note on the song.

Yes, the vocal for 'Ride On Time' was sampled wholesale from Loleatta Holloway's 'Love Sensation' (who herself is actually singing 'Right On Time', though her rough Chicago accent flattened the 't' to a 'd'). In the cold light of day, it's hard to believe that anybody could have been suckered into believing that someone as stick thin as Quinol could have produced those primal, guttural sounds - hell, she couldn't even mime to them properly, especially that artificially savage and impossible key change stutter that falls in the middle of the recurring war cry.

But believe they did, and there was a genuine sense of outrage when the truth was discovered, which was so much grist to those over at the 'keep music real' mill (though they weren't tarred and feathered the way those Milli Vanilli boys were when they tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the public a few years hence. The way the folk over in America carried on you'd think they'd been exposed as faking the moon landings).

As for me, I couldn't give a toss. I've got no beef with sampling just as long as it's done with a bit of verve and imagination and not merely used as a crutch for those too talentless to come up with anything of merit by themselves (I'm looking at you here Mr Bunny). Oh, and make sure your sources are credited too.

And verve and imagination are qualities 'Ride On Time' has by the yard. Typical of the Italian House genre it sprang from, a strident electronic piano picks out a barrelhouse motif from an amplified New Orleans gin joint over a seventies bass driven disco thump that softens the blows to give the vocal space to beat it all into submission by grabbing your ears and yelling right in your face all the while. It's loud, brash, scary, exciting as hell and, when it's played at volume, will shake your windows and rattle your walls.

It's this force that carries 'Ride On Time' as surely as it carried that other essay in style over substance 'Relax', a headwind that blows over even the most reluctant in it's slipstream. Everytime I hear it's gallop, I picture that animated ball device bouncing over visually displayed lyrics to the rhythm of a song, landing on each syllable as it's stressed (something
Quinol could have done with to help her out). Except displaying the nonsensical cut and paste lyrics here would reveal 'Ride On Time' as offering nothing tangible at heart aside from loudly trumpeting it's own existence, and that loud trumpeting of squally vocal can be loosely translated as a scream of 'dance you fuckers!'.

But dance shmance - 'Ride On Time' proves that regardless of all those darned new fangled housey beats and stuff, there's nothing like a primal blues holler to get the juices of excitement flowing. And it's this mix of future and past that elevates ''Ride On Time' above the common herd.

1989 Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers: Swing The Mood

Ah. Jive Bunny. The curious thing with this is that despite it being a UK phenomenon that I actually lived through first hand, I'd completely forgotten about Jive Bunny until called on to write this. And yet in this fond remembering, the depths of disdain I felt for this project in 1989 are readily summoned as if the fires of ire were freshly lit this morning.

Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers were the public face of Les Hemstock and his pet pony of one trick, the trick being to splice together a bunch of 1950's rock & roll recordings over a strident, non stop backbeat that changed neither pace nor pitch for the duration. Though the vocals were lifted straight from the original recordings of Bill Haley et al, Jive Bunny had more in common with the awful medley singles that Starsound made popular in 1981 than the work of a cutting edge dance DJ. Because whatever else 'Swing The Mood' may be, cutting edge it was not.

Crude would be a better word - 'Swing The Mood' could now be easily created by any PC literate schoolboy on a cheap laptop during his lunchbreak, but even in 1989 there was nothing especially big or clever in linking a clutch of songs in more or less the same time signature to form a continuous whole and using Glenn Miller's 'In The Mood' as a recurring theme. If they'd been splicing 4/4 with 5/24 then I'd take my hat off to them, but they weren't, and the sole concession to imagination is to either stretch or slow the original vocal eversoslightly so that it gelled more smoothly or else to introduce a vocal stutter so beloved of early eighties 12 inch remixes that might have sounded fine on Phil Oakey or Simon Le Bon, but just sounds bizarre when applied to the Everly Brothers.

'Swing The Mood' is pure novelty and should be regarded as such, but the purist in me is mightily pissed that the music of Glenn Miller, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley are lumped together seconds apart as if they are 'all the same thing innit'? Well no, it's bloody not the same thing and on that front
'Swing The Mood' is the equivalent of a mass market compilation or 'reader' that contains the 'best bits' from, say, Shakespeare or Beethoven for lazy people lacking the inclination to read and digest the whole play or symphony to put them in context. It's a simplistic dance piece forever fated to be a hardy perennial for any wedding DJ who wants to 'play a bit of rock & roll for the mums and dads' but who can't be arsed to dig out the full originals for an audience he knows can't be arsed to listen anyway. Accordingly, the lazy purist in me is happy enough to tartly dismiss this as a sop for people with more money than sense or taste. Which in 1989 would have been about £1.49, so maybe I'm overvaluing them.

1989 Sonia: You'll Never Stop Me Loving You

Sonia Evans was a Lancashire lass with the chirpy persona of Bonnie Langford's annoying kid sister and a voice like Langford's own take on Violet Elizabeth Bott. The tin doesn't exactly scream 'Star Quality' and it's proof positive that anybody could be famous once they'd signed on for a shift at the 'Hit Factory', even if it did often last less than the alloted fifteen minutes.

Another Stock, Aitken and Waterman offering, 'You'll Never Stop Me Loving You' can be taken as either more of the same or, if you look not all that closely, something quite different. It's in the lyrics. On face value they can be read with a dual meaning, neither of which are particularly wholesome in that they essentially chart a one sided, self deluded relationship that borders on the psychotic.

On one hand, it's an uber stalker anthem of unrequited obsession that sounds very, very wrong frothing all bubble and squeak out of Sonia's mouth:
"When I know that you're alone I wander to your home and catch a glimpse or two. It seems that all the time the thought is on my mind of being with you".
It's all the more disturbing when you couple it with Sonia's schoolgirl innocent yet slightly demented grin on the sleeve that suggests her right arm is reaching for a knife from her back pocket. It's creepy and it's sinister and it gives a definite aura of the unhealthy underneath the familiar rolling electronic beat.

And yet on the other hand, the lines
"But you'll never stop me from loving you. It doesn't really matter what you put me through. You'll never stop me from loving you" are a close enough cousin to The Crystal's infamous "He hit me and it felt like a kiss. He hit me and I knew he loved me, cause if he didn't care for me I could have never made him mad. He hit me and I was glad". And that's not good, is it?

Did she even pause to think what she was singing every time she pursed those lips to form all those hideous, almost yodelling 'Yooooooooo's I wonder? I doubt it. Sonia sang what was put in front of her because there were plenty of other stage school rejects to take her place if she started getting all temperamental and t
o that end it would be nice to believe that SAW presented this as an act of subversion to see exactly how far they could stretch the patience and gullibility of the population in getting a song to number one. A masterly post-modern spectacle of the ironic akin to the infamous 'Our Wedding' track that Crass managed to get given away free with 'Loving' magazine in 1981. But I doubt it. More likely the words were thrown together from SAW's 'Book Of Rhyme' to fit the tune which is itself cribbed from two previous Kylie songs ('I Should Be So Lucky' and 'Hand On You Heart') and also SAW/Sinitta's own version of "Right Back Where We Started From".

It makes 'You'll Never Stop Me Loving You' a curious hybrid that clumps along with the good grace and humour of concentration camp inmates being forced to run laps of the yard to prove their fitness when really they were only fit to drop. SAW weren't really trying anymore were they? Unless it that was all part of the subversion too. But I doubt that even less.

1989 Soul II Soul: Back To Life

By the time 1989 rolled around, I still wasn't much of a dance music fan. I'd mellowed a bit since my hardcore days of hating the genre, but any dance music that tickled my fancy was still the exception rather than the rule and I was always sure to keep such a tickled fancy to myself.

'Back To Life' was one such exception - I don't know if it was because the almost standard rock verse-chorus-verse set up felt unthreatening to my conservative ears, or if it was due to the fact that the piped in radio station that the factory I was working in at the time seemed to play this on auto repeat, but it caught those same ears the way that the standard jack and break beat rhythms of most of the tunes that fell under the House umbrella could never hope to.

Remixed from the pure acapella vocal that Caron Wheeler provided for the version on the 'Club Classics Volume One' album, 'Back To Life' holds something of a Sly Stone vibe that always seems to bring the sun as soon as the needle hits the groove. Certainly the clipped bass on this is typical enough of House music and has enough thump to crack plaster, but Jazzy B and Nellee Hooper's sumptuous production ensures it doesn't lazily dominate the landscape or the barrelhouse piano motif that darts in between the spaces of Wheeler's gospel tinged vocal praying to the god of good times.

Live string interjections add a rare groove flavour to the pot, but there's no muddiness here - 'Back To Life''s tracks sound like they were carved out with a razor and provide a clear path for Wheeler's persistent questioning 'How ever do you want me, How ever do you need me' hook, itself responded to by a swooping violin and Greek chorus that repeats rather than providing the answer.

The answer, of course, is provided by the feet that will still pack a dancefloor as soon as this starts up - a lot of eighties dance music now sounds more chintzy and brash like cheap bling than down to earth, honest to goodness funky, but by keeping one foot in the past instead of sacrificing all to career headlong into the dead end of the supposed 'future', 'Back To Life' has kept its vitality intact.

1989 Jason Donovan: Sealed With A Kiss

Very much the junior partner in Minogue & Donovan Ltd in that when they weren't recycling their own songs for him, Stock, Aitken and Waterman were happy enough to serve Donovan up with a warmed over cover version.

Though not the original, "Sealed with a Kiss" is most closely associated with Brian Hyland's 1962 cover. It's a straight teen tear jerker all about how the school summer holidays will drive a wedge between the singer and his girl until September rolled round with a new term to bring them together. Sweet. I remember the feeling. Carol King did a similar thing with 'It Might As Well Rain Until September' too.

As you could probably guess, Donovan adds no personal stamp that makes it a 'Jason Donovan song' instead of a cover version. In fact, his version takes more away than it adds; the song is what it is, and there's something amusingly cynical about releasing it just as the schools were breaking up for the hols, but this time it comes with the musty smell of mothballs, as if Donovan has bought someone else's demob suit from Oxfam and it doesn't quite fit and isn't quite clean.

"Sealed with a Kiss" is very much a song of it's time, and the UK in 1989 was not America in 1962. I know I never went to school with anybody who lived further than five miles away - certainly close enough to declare my love over the summer by catching a bus or taking a brisk walk anyway. And in the age of the telephone, it must have seemed a bit anachronistic to want write a letter every single day when you could have at least chatted with not really that much effort. Maybe catchment areas are different in America, or that Jason wasn't really that lovestruck at all. Maybe. And maybe I'm over analysing a bit too much. Definitely!

But whatever, nobody seemed to query it and Donovan sounds happy enough to let it lie by just getting on with things in his usual strained and breathless way without dragging it out too long. You've got to love that cover picture though, it looks like the designers were in two minds about whether to have a shot of him puckering up or not. In their indecision, they've gone for a halfway house moment which is no doubt meant to portray Jase as a smouldering lovegod but instead looks like they've caught the very first signs of shock and surprise as somebody out of shot below plants a kiss on his seal. Oh well.

1989 The Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden and Stock, Aitken & Waterman: Ferry Cross The Mersey

'Ferry Cross The Mersey' was a 1964 hit for Gerry And The Pacemakers. This re-recording was done in aid of those caught up in the Hillsborough football disaster where 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. Though the song remains the same tune wise (though it's now twice as long), George Martin's original earthy production is jettisoned in favour of a robotic Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced electronic backing that's more murky beat than Mersey beat. But come on - what else did you expect from them?

My views on this sort of carry on have been well rehearsed elsewhere on this site and repeating them again would bore both you and me. So I'll just say that if you want a copy of the original 'Ferry Cross The Mersey' (and you should, because it's a good song), then by all means go and buy one. It's hardly a rarity. Similarly, if you wanted to donate some money to this cause then I am sure there are/were myriad ways to go about it, none of which involve having to exchange it for a rather boring recording of some professional scouser's (and Stock, Aitken & Waterman's) karaoke party.

1989 Kylie Minogue: Hand On Your Heart

On Nick Cave's spoken word recording 'The Secret Life Of The Love Song', he valiantly attempts to debunk the notion that Stock, Aitken and Waterman only plied a series of self build, MFI songs by solemnly reciting the lyrics to Minogue's 'Better The Devil You Know' single in the manner of one reading an eulogy in order to show their true artistic value. "I'll forgive and forget if you say you'll never go. 'Cos its true what they say, it's better the devil you know" he furrows, and it is a nice idea but Cave's methods did nothing for me I'm afraid - after all, an interpretive spin can be put onto anything depending on whether you approach it from a glass half full or a glass half empty perspective, yet it's all for nothing when there isn't a glass there in the first place.

'Better The Devil You Know' is a trite bagatellebuilt around the
cliché of its title that serves the basic function of giving Minogue something to sing, whilst conveying a simplistic message that all can understand by virtue of the fact that it is a cliché. Why am I banging on about Nick Cave and a Kylie song that was never a number one? Good question. And up until a few days ago I wouldn't have thought to make any reference to either of these and this particular review would have been a whole lot shorter (I don't like 'Hand On Your Heart' much, as you'll find out). But while browsing on YouTube the other day I came across a recording of 'Hand On Your Heart' by Jose Gonzales.

Again, as long as you know the song and you know Gonzales' style (basically
David Gray's wimpier brother), then you'll have a fair idea of what this sounds like - a minor key acoustic strum with embellishments, over which Gonzales intones the lyrics with a quivering lower lip. Sincere in his angst he may well be, but his interpretation convinces about as well as Cave's does. And that's not so much through any fault of their own, but because the source material lacks sufficient backbone to actually allow it to work. They can both sound as desolate and mournful as they like, but if you're mournfully and desolately reading the back of a Corn Flakes packet then the overall impression is one of self delusion on the singer's part rather than any kind of shared experience for the listener.

"Well it's one thing to fall in love, but another to make it last. I thought that we were just beginning, and now you say we're in the past": to call that sixth form poetry is an insult to sixth formers, and I'd suggest all those who do find such recitations emotionally touching will also find (at the other end of the spectrum) something uplifting and life affirming in a Whitney Houston power ballad. I have a view on people like that too, but I've got too much class than to openly criticise someone else's musical tastes in a negatively broadbrush way (after all, I once had Chris De Burgh obsession lest we forget.).

So what of the present Minogue version? Well even though there's evidence of a few sessions with a voice coach since her debut, the vocal is still as thin as Oliver Twist's gruel (yet like Master Twist, the record buying public still wanted more of it), and that's ok because the song itself is even thinner, being yet another 'pop and crisps disco' blare that pushes its one line of melody to the fore at the expense of anything and everything else. The verses are thrown off in a perfunctory manner in the haste to get to the hook of the chorus
that's repeated again and again with the irritating regularity of a roadworker's jack hammer, battering home the message of questioning the devotion of another with a simplicity that does not lend itself to the sort of close inspection Gonzales subjected it to. SAW wrote 'Hand On Your Heart' as a major key bouncer for Minogue to honk along to. The 'ooh's are as much a part of the song as the words around it and to strip it down into a minor key dirge reveals that not only does the Emperor have no clothes, he wasn't even a proper Emperor in the first place.

'Hand On Your Heart' is one of the weaker songs to emerge from the 'Hit Factory', and it's one of the runts of the litter that was handed to Minogue. The fact it got to number one is doubtless more to do with the fact that it was the lead-off single from her (then) forthcoming album that it's own inherent quality. Because quality is one thing in short supply with this effort. A fact that, to my mind, is no better illustrated by the failure of Gonzales to wring anything out of it, and I'm afraid no amount of window dressing (or undressing) is ever going to change that.

1989 Bangles: Eternal Flame

Something of a break from the norm for Bangles (no 'The') 'Eternal Flame' jettisoned the soft rock power pop that was their former stock in trade and in favour of a ballad that left the guitars unplugged and them emerging from their garage, blinking into the sunlight all the while; yes, 'Eternal Flame' has a definite vibe of sunshine, but the first thing to notice about this is its metronomic quality. Each note chimes with the precise timekeeping tone of a plucked jewellery box comb. Instead of flowing seamlessly, they shift from A to B in a series of definite steps with gaps of nothing in-between.

It's something that lends itself well to the lyrics, sung here by Susanna Hoffs as more or less a series of short, individual statements - i
n the course of the whole song there are only eleven words of more than one syllable, and even these are broken down into their individual components and dictated like learning English by rote:'Close. Your. Eyes. Give. Me. Your. Hand. Dar. Ling. Can. You. Feel. My. Heart. Beat. Ing? Do. You. Un. Der. Stand? - each syllable arrives with it's own stilting anti-tank barrier full stop, a robotic litany that works to prevent any true emotion from breaking through.

Not only that, what also doesn't help on the emotion front is that very same vocal by Hoffs - the thinking of the younger me went 'four women in Bangles and she has the best voice to sing this'?, but looking at it afresh, the song simply wouldn't allow anyone more accomplished to interpret it as they saw fit; it's tied down by its own straitjacket for that. Anyone trying to present the lyric as anything other than clipped statements of intent would soon find themselves lagging behind the hard taskmaster of that mechanical melody; even when the strings swoop down on the middle eight to try to swamp proceedings it's still there, ticking away in the background
(the later cover by Atomic Kitten sidestepped this problem by setting it to a more conventional beat and playing it straight). The only time Hoffs does break ranks to let rip is on the closing 'Flaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmme', but she aims for a note she wouldn't have reached with a fireman's ladder and instead of an arms aloft cry of ecstasy, it's the cracked and broken tones of someone trying to stretch a pane of glass and it sabotages the big climax that 'Eternal Flame' had been quietly building to.

Reading through the above, I'm conscious that I sound far more mean minded about this than I mean to, especially toward a band trying to break their usual mould. 'Eternal Flame' is a pretty enough song to be sure, as pretty as a music box in fact, but that's about where it ends. There's precious little depth to either music or lyrics to keep you coming back for more. Once you've heard one plink plonk cycle of the verse and chorus then you've generally heard enough and it's time to close the lid.

1989 Madonna: Like A Prayer

Madonna's output is forever characterised by one step forward, six steps back. For every memorable or inventive release, the mediocrity she puts out around it dilutes it like a spoonful of cordial in a gallon jug of water, making it as effective as a homeopathic remedy. After a series of particularly weak singles from the 'Whos That Girl' soundtrack, Madonna found herself staring thirty in the rear view mirror and so it was time to take stock and re-assert herself as a major force instead of a Cyndi Lauper also ran. And with 'Like A Prayer', she had the means to do just that.

'Like A Prayer' is a song of many parts. Opening with a hymnal, church like backing and almost acapella vocal of "Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone', it lurches into a stuttering groove in an awkward time signature that sets out the main musical theme before breaking back down into the quiet of the opening then repeating again from scratch. The straightforward dance beats of old are gone - this is not Studio 52 fodder and there's no groove to get into; even Ginger Rogers would struggle to bust a move to any of this. And yet....and yet, it fair drips with the anticipation that something is coming, just over the horizon.

It's not until 2:45 that this slow burning fuse reaches the charges and 'Like A Prayer' explodes into a swinging gospel led groove that cycles like a whirlwind, sucking in all in its path and levitating them into the ecstasy of a revivalist meeting as Madonna loses herself in her devotion to her lover - "Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there". It's a barnstorming coda, unfussy and direct, something that Mahalia Jackson, ignoring Madonna's sly duality of meaning, could have sung straight and directly to her maker.

Stirring Catholicism and sex into one big pot would become common currency to Ms Ciccone over the years, but it never again would it sound as effective as it does here. There's a maturity to 'Like A Prayer' that puts it light years away from the trampy waif who sang 'Like A Virgin', and yet it has an edge that cuts through any attempts to wrap it up as bland AOR.

Typically, she couldn't just let the song do the talking and it had to come complete with a 'controversial' video of religious iconography culminating in the crucifixion of a black Christ like figure. It's a cheap shot at the church though aimed more at generating maximum publicity, but the song didn't need it and while it was more of a hindrance than a help in 1989, the whole nonsense has thankfully fallen by the wayside through the application of time's eraser.

It's a shame too that this more grown up and considered approach would also fall away. It's not a road that Madonna would go down to any extent again until 1997's 'Ray Of Light', and the tacky disco slut would soon return to sell her wares on the back of the promise of some dirty sex, albeit to ever decreasing returns as the years piled on. 'Like A Prayer' is an 'Into The Groove' shy of being Madonna's best single, but it's close, and in getting so close Madonna threw down a benchmark that she would never better and would struggle to even get close to again.

1989 Jason Donovan: Too Many Broken Hearts

In terms of Stock, Aitken and Waterman's eighties output, I have to confess a soft spot for Bananarama's 1987 hit 'Love In The First Degree'. The light touch and sparkling ascending chorus has always appealed in the way the best pop always does, and the girl's vocals stay on the right side of playful. I guess it must have appealed to SAW too because 'Too Many Broken Hearts' is more or less the same song recycled, albeit with some minor tinkering.

Sure, the vocal is scored in a lower key and some of the bars have been re-arranged back to front, giving it a more downbeat feel, but it's all there in essence and it had the curious effect of making the song sound out of date almost as soon as it was recorded. Donovan is concerned about the prolificy of broken hearts and dreams that have been 'broken in two' (which makes a change from them being shattered I guess), but he gives no insight into this observation nor makes any suggestion as to what he or the listener are meant to feel or do about it. For all the emotion he injects, Donovan may as well be singing 'Tch, raining again'.

But as he doesn't sound all that fretful, I'll not fret too much over it either. Suffice it to say that 'Too Many Broken Hearts' is a most tedious pot of well stewed tea that does not sparkle in any way whatsoever and only really exists to give the vest wearing Donovan something to prance about to in the video. But the little girls seemed to understand, and that's all that matters with stuff like this.

1989 Simple Minds: Belfast Child

By this stage in their career, Simple Minds had come a long way; from their early punk and new wave origins via Krautrock to frilly shirt new romantics and finally stadium rock, Jim Kerr and the band had tried on and discarded a good many slippers in their quest to find one that fitted.

Following 1985's 'Once Upon A Time' album, Kerr and the gang now seemed ever keen to marry their increased popularity and newly found stadium sound with a social and political conscience. Hence, the very name of this EP 'The Ballad Of The Streets' tries to portray the band as streetwise roughneck renegades with a message from the people straight to 'the man'. Though promoted at the time as an artefact of value in that it contained three new songs, the lead track that got the radio play was 'Belfast Child', a commentary on the Northern Ireland 'troubles' inspired by the 1987 Enniskillen bombing.

As if to emphasise it's Irish origins, 'Belfast Child'' opens with a spare theme based on the melody to the traditional 'She Moves Through The Fair' played on a lone flute. It's the sort of identikit Oirish sound that could be piped into O'Neils on a quiet midweek afternoon to go with the Oirish bicycles in the window. Far from evoking genuine images of the old country, the impression garnered is of someone digging out their '100 Great Irish Tunes' karaoke disc.

With a song pushing seven minutes long, this simplistic start isn't going to hold it together for long, and sure enough some mighty drums and guitars appear on cue, amped to the max by Trevor Horn on a post Frankie comedown and they build up to a climax of textbook stadium angst for Kerr to bellow over. This particular karaoke disc came with no words though, or if it did, Kerr chose to sing his own and 'Belfast Child' has him mumbling his take on 'the troubles' and longing for the day when the titular lad sings again to make everything alright - 'One day we'll return here, when the Belfast child sings again'.

It's blatantly obvious that all concerned had their eyes on U2's post Live Aid success both at home and in the USA and thought 'we'll have a bit of that'. But whereas Bono at even his most excruciating always strove to sing about what he at least thought he knew something about, Kerr's pontificating on Northern Ireland sounded little more than lazy bandwagon jumping, of hitching his cart to a whole load of worthiness and dragging it off down the road in a welter of clichéd imagery. It's a surprise the single didn't come as a shamrock shaped picture disc.

But such subject matter is nothing to take lightly, it demands a serious approach and while Kerr can do 'serious' very, very well, 'Belfast Child' rings with the informed honesty of a junior school pupil writing a poem about the horrors of World War 2. It's a creative writing exercise on how terrible it must have been rather than anything born from personal experience.

'Come back people, you've been gone a while
, and the war is raging, in the emerald isle. That's flesh and blood man, that's flesh and blood. All the girls are crying but all's not lost' - it's an idealistic imagination of 'what it must have been like', and in that regard, 'Belfast Child' is hateful in it's exploitative naivety , it's sentimentally cloying use of the 'Billy' and 'Mary' children imagery and it's hackneyed use of 'emerald isle'. It's unimaginative, simplistic and hollow to the extreme, one long anthemic chorus designed to wave lighters to at concerts but with the actual content having a depth that ranks it alongside the Flowerpot Men's 'Let's Go To San Francisco', a paean to the hippy ideal from a band who never left Birmingham.

The other tracks on the EP were 'Mandela Day' and a cover of Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' - with that load on board, it's a wonder that the entire project didn't crack under the weight of it's own worthiness. All that's missing was it to open out with a pop up wagging finger and an electronic greetings card voice sombrely telling us how tough other people had it. Again, in trying to better their masters, Simple Minds end up falling wide of the mark - one thing U2 never forgot was that first and foremost they were in the entertainment business and that a good pop single should be something other than a summary of the nine o'clock news.

And as for the 'value' of the EP - all three of the songs here appeared on the parent 'Street Fighting Years' (roughneck vagabonds again see?) album, meaning that the vast majority of the fans ended up owning them all twice. Joy.

1989 Marc Almond & Gene Pitney: Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart

Two duets on the trot at number one - how rare is that? 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart' is a Greenway-Cook song that was a number 5 hit for Gene Pitney in 1967. It was covered as a solo effort by Marc Almond in 1989, but a new Pitney vocal was added to Almond's original cut for the single version, although the two never met during the recording process.

A good duet should feature vocal styles that compliment and enhance each other. Unfortunately, the twin vocals of Messer's Pitney and Almond collide with the good grace of a head on car crash, with the 'odd couple' persona stretching further than Pitney's white tux and Almond's tight black leather garb.

Pitney's high anxiety yelp runs in stark contrast to the flat and strained tones of Almond, and the tension is not eased by Almond trying to raise his game to match Pitney rather than the elder statesman ratcheting it down a notch or two to compensate. Almond is game enough, and the faster take on the tune and overblown orchestration should be to his benefit, but he's hopelessly outclassed at every turn by a master who doesn't need the crash of descending strings to generate the drama; Pitney had over twenty years experience of singing the song and he sounds intent on giving a pretender a lesson in how it should be done.

Still, the song is a good one and it's quality ensures that this version is always 'interesting' even if listening to it doesn't generate quite the same levels of excitement as the pair obviously had in reviving it. Almond was happy to be singing with one of his idols while Pitney was happy to be reliving past glories with a new audience. Good luck to them both I say.

1989 Kylie Minogue & Jason Donovan: Especially For You

On November 8 1998, UK fans of Aussie soap 'Neighbours' who tuned in to episode 523 were treated to the spectacle of the on-screen wedding of Kylie 'Charlene' Minogue and Jason 'Scott' Donovan. And over nineteen million people did just that. With their popularity at fever pitch, the prospect of a duet between the pair was fearfully in its inevitability in the way a pensioner fears the oncoming of winter, and it duly arrived in the shape of 'Especially For You'.

To their credit, Stock, Aitken and Waterman (who else?) didn't simply pull an old duet out of the someone else's vaults to cover (which would have been oh so easy to do), and neither did they knock up one of their usual robopop creations and have each singing alternate lines (another easy option). Such was the standing of the pair in popular culture that either of these soft options would have sold by the cartload. Hell, even hoary old Angry Anderson managed to get a slice of chart action off the back of one of his songs being used to soundtrack the wedding, something he couldn't manage in thirty years of leading Rose Tattoo.

No, 'Especially For You' was written as a duet proper with call and response verses that both take lead on. Donovan ensures he doesn't disgrace himself by wisely ignoring the music and making sure he sings flat and in probably the only key he's comfortable with. Minogue, on the other hand, was still under the illusion that her talent lay as an interpretive vocalist, but her nasally whine would not have got her past the first heats of any regional X Factor contest were it not coming out of any mouth other than hers. Luckily, it's tempered by the backing 'wooos' that add a touch of otherworldly class to the finished product, tacking on an extra layer of dimension that's not normally found in the SAW canon.

At heart, 'Especially For You' is a surprisingly solid effort, an attempt to write an actual song rather than just a catchy tune. It's sugary and sweet, but at least it's new sugar rather than the sickly dregs from someone else's mug. And I honestly think it would be interesting to hear it tightened up and given to a more competent couple to have a crack at - even Denise van Outen and Johnny Vaughan found a depth to it that the present twosome wouldn't have found with a map and torch. In the hands of Donovan and Minogue, it's merely passable, but it came as something of a relief that the much dreaded, incoming winter turned out to be a mild affair after all.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

1988 Cliff Richard: Mistletoe And Wine

Cliff's Christmas singles have become something of a comic cause celebre of late with many viewing them as little more than seven inch clay pigeons targets that appear once a year and exist only to take pot shots at. And again, from the outset, I'll hold my hands up and confess that I absolutely loathe this song, so don't expect too much objectivity here. Why do I loathe it? Well I think my hatred can be broadly split into three separate headings, starting with the lyrics.

"Christmas time, mistletoe and wine"

Mistletoe and wine? What kind of odd pairing is that? I've answered my own question really because that's what it is, an odd, meaningless pairing that exists solely to throw together some Christmas clichés in order to make the internal rhyme meter fit. 'Mistletoe' is needed because there aren't too many other festive three syllable words to make the line scan properly (go on, try and think of one), and the 'wine' is needed to link to the next line.

And even after crowbarring that lot together, the best they can come up with to follow is "Children singing Christian rhyme". You can almost see the stress fractures as Cliff tries to force 'rhyme' and 'wine' to rhyme when they clearly don't - if you mean 'carols' then frikking say it. One hopes that whatever 'rhymes' the children are singing do a better job.

I doubt they could do a worse one in terms of music in any case (my second heading of hatred) - 'Mistletoe And Wine' minces along on a sing song, nursery rhyme of a tune with a single line of one key melody idiocy that Richard and his backing follow with no deviation (hence creating the need for the strait jacket rhyming). Simplistic and childish, it makes Slade's 'Merry Christmas Everybody' sound like the 'Brandenburg Concerto' and it bores where it should uplift.

But I think what I hate most about this is the faux ideal, almost Dickensian imagery of 'Christmas' that Cliff forces upon us. 'Mistletoe', 'wine', 'logs on the fire', 'Christian rhymes' - this may well be what goes down in chez Richards in late December, but it's not the norm among the general populace and it's the preachy, over earnest tone of the humourless, joyless vocal that presents all this as an ideal to aspire to that grates. One look at the picture on the cover shows Cliff is not larking around here.

And more than that, the usual 'goodwill to all men' message that's usually enough to make any Christmas song work isn't enough here it seems. There are material factors to consider too with it being 'A time for giving, a time for getting'. So, by getting a five year old to knock together the lyrics for him, Cliff manages to somehow subvert the very message he's meant to be preaching. And he's so wrapped up in it all that he doesn't even notice. Incredible.

So, there are three things I hate about this song then - music, lyrics and message. Not bad. I would have sworn before I started I'd have at least hit double figures. But it's an apt end to a year of number ones that have been mostly number twos. God bless them, one and all.

Monday, 14 September 2009

1988 Robin Beck: The First Time

That Coca Cola logo on the sleeve gives the game away early doors - 'The First Time' is an extended version of a jingle written for one of the late eighties coke adverts given a new lease of life as a single. It's the same way that the New Seekers' 1971 number one 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing' was a modified version of the famous 'I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke' ditty.

I remember the advert well, and watching it again on YouTube not only brings back a warm glow of nostalgia, but also reveals how well the tune worked in the context of a one minute TV ad. Cutting the Coke apron strings to let it stand on it's own two feet away from the fast cut, feel good imagery presents rather a different proposition.

Gone is the short, punchy soft rock vibe and in comes a slowed down, chug-a-lug interpretation that lands somewhere between the Scylla of a power ballad and the Charybdis of straight up glam metal. Beck wails and moans like Pat Benatar on a bad hair day whilst drums crash and guitars squeal around her, but all involved mistake volume for substance and the end product is rather hollow at heart.

"First time first love oh what feeling is this

Electricity flows with the very first kiss
Like a break in the clouds and the first ray of sun

I can feel it inside something new has begun"

Ostensibly a song about falling in love, 'The First Time' sorely lacks any genuine feeling of excitement and, compared to Belinda Carlisle's exhilaration back on 'Heaven Is A Place On Earth', Beck sounds like she's reading the words off a crib sheet with one eye on the pay cheque.

But how else could it have turned out? That picture on the cover is a still from the ad itself and it hammers home the fact that this is not so much a Robin Beck single as an extended marketing campaign for a fizzy drink. In that sense it meets its ends admirably, but it leaves 'The First Time' with as much inherent goodness as the product it's advertising. And how much goodness can a product that seems to be using a blowjob as an advertising tool
have? I mean, look closely at that cover, you can just imagine the bloke saying 'Go on love, it won't bite'. 'The First Time' indeed!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

1988 Enya: Orinoco Flow

There's something about 'new age' music that seriously raises my hackles, something to do with the way such 'not proper' music is taken everso seriously by the sort of worthy people who treat it as a religious experience and listen to it with one hand pressed tightly over their eyes. I often see multi CD boxsets of 'soothing' and 'relaxing' Andean pan pipes or whale songs stacked up by the till in pound shops and, rather than soothing the savage beast in me, the sight sets it running at full pelt. Factor in any trace of a flute and I reach for the bottle.

Though it's from the 'new age' stable, 'Orinoco Flow' has nary a flute in sight. Rather than the usual ambient wash of naturally found sound, it's heart beats to the same plucked staccato string motif that T'Pau and George Michael before it borrowed from Andy Williams. Lyrically too, 'Orinoco Flow' doesn't rely on cheapjack gimmicks of fairy rings, pixies and distant castles with lights in the far tower to generate it's atmosphere. Rather, it's an earthbound checklist of foreign places most of us will only ever visit in our heads.

In place of the usual lazy series of multilayered 'oohs' and 'aahs', Enya provides a lyrical travelogue that namechecks far flung places where waves crash on distant shores in a way that could be regarded as meaning nothing or everything in equal measure. For example, you can take the title to refer to a wistful boat ride down that Venezuelan river, or you can take it as simply the name of the studio where it was recorded. Depth is there if you want to lose yourself in the exotic itinerary, but if you're above that sort of thing then the song alone can provide enjoyment in spades.

It certainly stands out when set against the Kylies and the Glens around it, but that's not to say that it's anything startlingly original - the likes of Elizabeth Fraser, Lisa Gerrard and Caroline Crawley (to name but three) were producing similar sounds based on almost phonetic singing over in indieland throughout the eighties, but Enya broadened the palette from their insular worldview and provided a broader, escapist landscape for a less specific audience to wallow in and pretend that one day they themselves will tag along for the ride.

Evocative and atmospheric, there's not too much to dislike about 'Orinoco Flow' and it provides one bright light in what turned out to be a dismal year for number ones.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

1988 Whitney Houston: One Moment In Time

If ever over the top wailing and emoting were to become an Olympic sport, Whitney Houston would be bent double by the weight of the gold medals around her neck. So who better to sing an over emotive song written specifically for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics? Especially a song structured both musically and lyrically to invite wailing emotion the way shit invites flies on a hot day. Who indeed?

"You're a winner for a lifetime if you seize that one moment in time
Make it shine

Give me one moment in time

When I'm more than I thought I could be

When all of my dreams are a heart beat away

And the answers are all up to me

Give me one moment in time

When I'm racing with destiny

Then in that one moment of time

I will be, I will be, I will be free"

Ah yes, 'winner', 'dreams', 'hearts', 'seize', 'free', 'destiny'. And 'me'. All the usual suspect inspirational buzz words are here, freshly dripping with naked, raw aspiration in a style that could have been copied directly from some corporate team building literature. In fact, her fellow Americans could probably rip up their constitution and replace it with this fun size summation of the 'American Dream' for every "little engine that could" to sing each morning with a clenched fist over their heart.

'One Moment In Time' is a fairly grisly experience all told, an empty vessel that makes a hell of a lot of noise. It's the musical equivalent of having an Army drill instructor screaming in your ear to 'drop and give him ten' over and over again, with the experience getting ever more draining the longer it goes on. But for once, you can't blame Houston. She was cherry picked to go all air raid siren over it and by god she does - you can almost hear all involved pause and take a deep breath at 1:50 before she lets rip with a final ball busting blast of the chorus that could have lit the Olympic flame all by itself. Whoa dude.

Friday, 11 September 2009

1988 U2: Desire

By this stage of their career U2 had embraced the 'rock & roll' mythos to the extent that they appeared to genuinely believe a few trips southside were enough to qualify them as black American bluesmen from the bad side of Memphis. They weren't of course, and the sheer absurdity of the proposition fell apart double time when the notion was stretched across four sides of the bloated folly that was 'Rattle And Hum', though it fared slightly better when taken in bite size chunks like 'Desire'.

Although it broke a run of four consecutive cover versions at number one, it's no small irony that 'Desire' itself is an amalgamated car crash of garage band, Stooges and Seeds (et al) borrowed scuzz and cliche built around a Bo Diddley 'shave and a haircut' rhythm; 'Desire' clumps along in a welter of fuzzy guitar, harmonica riffs and handclaps that would have led directly into a brick wall paralysis were it not for Bono's vocal.

With a lyric that's all sawn off Jim Morrison metaphor and semi-mystical bluster ("She's a candle burning in my room. Yeah I'm like the needle, needle and spoon"), Bono does just about enough to convince that he knows and cares about what he's on about. It's a decent performance, but it's not enough and the main failing of 'Desire' is that although it's short and direct, any sense of spontaneity is absent to the point that it sounds more like the song U2 thought they ought to be recording rather than anything that was knocked up on the hoof during a studio jam. More designer stubble than tramp's beard, it's a conscious attempt to tap into a dirty rock & roll tradition by a band who to all intents and purposes have diligently read their copies of 'Mystery Train' and 'Psychotic Reaction' to tatters but haven't bothered to listen to any of the actual music. The gimmick of recording tracks at Sun Studios was never going to summon up enough atmosphere to paper over the cracks to an extent that convinces; if this stuff isn't going to come naturally, then it isn't going to come at all. In U2's case it only very rarely does, and certainly not here.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

1988 The Hollies: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

And still the cover versions a-keep-on-a-coming. And now not just a plain old cover version, but one that's a straight re-release of a song with almost twenty candles on its cake; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' was originally a number three hit for The Hollies in 1969.

Though he didn't write it, Neil Diamond provided the first recorded version though to be fair, it's become as closely associated with The Hollies as robins are to Christmas. This re-release wasn't part of yet another jeans campaign, but instead arrived on the back of a television advert for lite beer ('He Ain't Heavy'.... Geddit? I'll let you take a few moments while you zip up your ribs).

The origins of the title may be disputed, but there's no doubt as to meaning of the metaphor; the selfless act of looking out for someone else to your own detriment, a sixth form version of 'Two Little Boys' if you like. This chimed well with the message of love and peace that was prevalent in the late sixties and, as 'Two Little Boys' is a favourite of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it sits as comfortably in the 1988 chart as a case of irony piles too.

But as Ian Hunter once sang, 'Old Records Never Die' and the quality of the track and the performance spans the twenty years in an eyeblink. In 1969, the string led backing and floating, minor key harmonica riff could have been cribbed directly from the 'How To Do West Coast Hippie' manual, but the epic feel of the song and the sense that it had something to say for itself raises it well above the merely derivative and now sounds timeless rather than of its time.

It's certainly a departure from the snappy pop that used to be The Hollies stock in trade and the impassioned lead vocal from Allan Clarke can perhaps be seen as a two fingers to former member Graham Nash, recently departed to ply his trade on that same West Coast, to show that The Hollies could do hippy idealism along with the best of them.

And that's why I commented on the 'sixth form' nature of the song; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' is as idealistic a song as they come, a dewy eyed plea for getting along beamed direct from an era where such messages were ten a penny. Which isn't necessarily cause to damn it in modern eyes, but I think it speaks volumes that the song's own internal message was enough to carry it in 1969, though by the time the self obsessed individualistic society of 1988 rolled around it needed a quirky advert for piss weak lager to set it on its way.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

1988 Phil Collins: A Groovy Kind Of Love

Another number one, and wouldn't you know it, another cover version. 'A Groovy Kind Of Love' was written by Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager. Although much covered, it had only appeared in the UK charts twice before with versions by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders (1965), and Les Gray, formerly of Mud (1977).

The Fontana version is probably the closest to definitive, with a reading that suggests the carefree manner of someone wistfully counting their blessings in love. It's over in less than two minutes, and fair play too; being less of a song and more of a throwaway rhyming exercise, there isn't enough of a backbone support anything longer.

Collins's version slows the whole thing down to an echo drenched dirge, doubling the running time in the process and delivering the lyrics with the mock solemnity of someone reading an Agnus Dei. In trying to wring some heartbreak from a source that never had it in the first place, Collins and his whiny vocal do not give the impression that this particular love has any groove in it whatsoever. In fact, it sounds dead and buried. Then again, I think it's fair to say that Collins is not, never has been and never will be my idea of 'groovy'

Monday, 7 September 2009

1988 Yazz & The Plastic Population: The Only Way Is Up

There's something quite, quite disheartening about the relentless parade of cover versions to make it to number one this late in the decade - this is the fifth this year alone, not counting the ones based on samples that are essentially other people's songs anyway, and there will be more to come. Was there really such a paucity of ambition and expectation amongst the record buying public back then? Apparently there was. Thankfully, 'The Only Way Is Up' represents more a re-imagining that a straight cover, a blowing off of the cobwebs on the bonnet to reveal a shiny new engine underneath.

The original by Otis Clay is a surprisingly muted and minor key slice of string led faux Philli soul. I say 'faux' because though Clay tries his best to get on his good foot, it's a strangely subdued affair. Clay's lead vocal constantly stays behind and beneath the melody and the singing duties on the all important chorus are shared in a call and response split between the lead and a rather flat female backing crew that makes the whole thing slouch where it should be running.

There's no such worries with Yazz's version. The hyper production courtesy of Coldcut licks its finger and shoves it directly into the national grid with a bright, techno thump of a backing track that rattles along at a tempo a good double time of that which Clay managed. Yazz too blares out the lyrics with a different mindset than Clay, meaning her approach puts a whole fresh spin on the song that makes it a different proposition altogether.

Gone are the quiet nights in whispering soulful sweet nothings to her boyfriend and planning a cosy future together vibe; Yazz isn't much interested in any of that. By pitching her delivery in a far higher key and a directness that makes every line sound like a question, she is out to grab the present by the throat and squeeze it till it bends to her will.

The build up to the chorus generates an excited anticipation before it erupts into the delirious shout of 'The only way is UP.....BABY!!!', a shout that demands three exclamation marks whereas Clay didn't manage to generate one. It's a sky scraping yell of confidence, of youth and of confidence in youth. An aspirational war cry that demands a clenched fist pump of the air as it's delivered or listened to and it's effect is such that it can momentarily strip away ten mental years from anyone listening.

'The Only Way Is Up' is a rare example of a pop/dance crossover that retains enough of the identity of both genres to satisfy both sets of fans. It's energy personified, a gallon of Red Bull in four minutes and it manages to forge an identity of its own in such a way that I bet that most people believed that Yazz/Coldcut wrote it themselves. Then again, this is such a radical re-working of the base material that they may as well have.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

1988 Glen Medeiros: Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You

If history tells us anything it's that the UK charts will always have room in its bosom for a pretty boy singer with a bright white smile on his face and a soppy ballad on his lips. So far the eighties have given us Johnny Logan and Nick Berry - they came, they saw, they conquered and, job done, they drifted off into obscurity.

Unlike Johnny and Nick, Glen actually had a half decent song to sing courtesy of Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin. Or rather, it was a half decent enough song when George Benson sang it in 1984; just about the best and worst thing you can say about the melody to 'Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You' is that it's pretty. Prettiness alone won't carry it far though and it needs a thick coat of paint from either the vocalist or the arrangement to give it a dimension other than twee. The way George did in fact.

Medeiros's version, however, dispenses with Benson's light and soulful touch in favour of (the by now grating) Linn drums and an abrasive plink plonk electric piano, two instruments guaranteed to suck the soul out of anything the way a naked flame burns oxygen, even more so when they are drenched in reverb and echo the way they are here.

His self production creates solemn cathedrals of dead space that his flat voice just can't fill by itself, and despite being mixed well to the fore, his breathless delivery`floats beneath the backing music in a key of its own. It gives the sound a nervy, edgy feel, almost as if something is perpetually on the point of collapsing and it creates a tension that doesn't make for a relaxing soundtrack for life's more passionate moments.

But despite these shortcomings, the song's inherent sweetness saves it from disaster. Predictable though it may be, it is a pretty enough ditty that, although not everybody's cup of tea, does provides the kind of mawkish sentimentality that will always find it's own level with a correspondingly willing audience. And in this case, the overdose of saccharine will forever be tempered by knowing that the cheesy grin he wears on the cover to this would soon be wiped off by a scathing Juke Box Jury panel who would reduce him to tears on air. Schadenfreude the Germans call it, but I just thought it served him right.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

1988 Bros: I Owe You Nothing

And on the eighth day, the lord said 'Let there be Bros'. Because to my memory, that's how they came about; one minute they weren't while the next there they were, an overnight teen sensation at number one. Nice work if you can get it. Whether this is what actually happened or not I can't say (or be bothered to find out to be honest - why spoil a good memory?), but it seemed that way at the time, and I'll happily bet the farm that they didn't pay too many dues slogging around the pub circuit.

Hindsight has shown that Bros were forerunners of the boy band epidemic of the nineties. Sure, there had been teen boy bands designed to appeal to the pre pubescents in the past, but where acts like The Monkees or Jackson 5 (to take two extremes) had the talent and the songs to back them up, Bros were sold entirely on hype, the image on the cover of their records rather than what was in the grooves. Talent was in short supply within the set up and 'I Owe You Nothing' does precious little to convince otherwise.

Rather than go to the trouble of writing an actual song, the folk behind
this seemed happy enough to let Matt Goss improvise a tune of his own around the "I owe you nothing, nothing, nothing at all" refrain which he repeats until the cows are home, milked, calved and slaughtered. Goss gives it his best shot, but despite his enthusiasm any group of words with the same number of syllables would fit and work just as well in this setting (try it......see what I mean)? Like some Butlins Redcoat on a drizzly Saturday night, 'I Owe You Nothing' does it's darndest to get everyone in a party mood with blaring keyboards, a busy busy bassline and copious 'Wooooo, Oooh yeahhh!'s, but the sound is an anaemic thin slice of Lo Cost funk that tries to cover up it's failings with a typically thin, bright and brash eighties production.

It's a production that does not gel with the generally poisonous tone of the whole affair; "I'll watch you suffer with no feelings, no feelings at all" - is this something that pre-teens can relate to in any way I wonder? Probably not, but they probably didn't listen that closely
anyway, not when they had Matt's mug to swoon over and they'd be the last to recognise this for the abject failure that it is.

And that it fails, and fails badly, is down to the fact that it's lazy, it
simply does not try hard enough to do anything other than to provide some sounds for Messer's Goss and the other one to prance about and cut shapes to. At least SAW put in a modicum of effort on their stuff, 'I Owe You Nothing' sounds more like a rough demo than the finished article.

So lazy then, but I think that no matter what anyone else may or may not have been able to bring to the table to improve it, nothing would dispel the empty, sinking feeling a few seconds in when Goss does his best Poundstretcher Michael Jackson on the opening "I'll watch you crumble like a very old wall". Oh dear. Bros had their time in the sun, but it didn't last long because on the ninth day the lord grew displeased with his creation and said 'Let there be no more Bros'. And lo, Bros were no more. It's just a shame the door wasn't locked and barred behind them. There would be far worse to come through it in the future.