Sunday, 19 July 2009

1986 The Communards: Don't Leave Me This Way

In viewing this through the telescope of time, it's very hard to convey just how threatening a figure the diminutive Jimmy Somerville actually cut in certain sectors of mid eighties Britain. Openly gay, actively political and fiercely left wing - in the Conservative ruled, Clause 28 landscape of 1986 Jimmy Somerville was making a statement just by being Jimmy Somerville. And just in case anyone was in any doubt as to where their political sympathies lay, naming his post Bronski Beat band 'The Communards' marked a statement of intent as sure as Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. It's the past again, that foreign country.

Times change, and it all this seems like so much small beer in these more enlightened days, but my own memory can testify to the fact that there were plenty of people who were not comfortable with seeing him sat at number one, a feeling probably intensified by the fact he wasn't the spitting, snarling, easy to hate bogey man of a Johnny Rotten or Marilyn Manson but instead came across as a genuine chap who sang like a choirboy.

And therein lies the rub with anything Somerville turned or turns his hand to - that voice is very much an acquired taste. It's something you either love or hate and I'm afraid for my own part I've never much cared for his helium warble no matter what he's singing. I have the same problem to a lesser extent with Neil Young and with Rush to a greater one, and it's a dislike that's only amplified when such a vocal is covering a Philly soul classic that happens to be a favourite of mine.

Originally sung by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (with Teddy Pendergrass on vocals), The Communard's take the later Thelma Houston hit version as its template,
but the passing of the baton from the soul giants of Pendergrass and Houston to the not soul giant of Somerville represents a very bad fumble.

It needn't have been calamitous - had The Communards re-tooled and tailored to suit their own means and ends the way, for example, Soft Cell did with 'Tainted Love' then they could have pulled something special out of the fire. But they didn't. True, they may have grafted on a backing of speedy Hi NRG electronica (as was their wont with all their output), but it still apes Houston's version to the letter, albeit in the way that a Cylon apes a human. When they appear, the token background brass interjections emphasise only too well a package of pasteurised soul that bypasses all attempts to truly present the song as it was written and instead tries to emulate the white boy sound of Wham! at their most danceable.

It's a matter of common observation that Wham! themselves were never averse to wheeling out standard funk and soul moulds as the basis of their tunes in a way that let you pick out their influences in a 'Ah, that's what they've been listening to today' kind of way. George Michael though was far too savvy to push his vision through branding it directly onto somebody else's song, but Somerville and co simply don't have his songwriting talents.

'Don't Leave Me This Way' is bright and lively but it's an egg blown clean of it's contents, leaving behind just the shell to identify what it once was. All heart has been removed and I honestly cannot listen to more than a minute of this without itching to dig out one of the other versions. A tart and clich├ęd viewpoint maybe, but an honest one nevertheless. 'Don't Leave Me This Way' was the best selling single of 1986. Ironically, it was also one of its most superfluous.



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