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.

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