Sunday, 3 June 2012

The STYLISTICS: The Best Of The Stylistics Volume II


(#172: 2 October 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)/Hey Girl, Come And Get It/Sixteen Bars/The Miracle/Love Is The Answer/You Are Beautiful/Can’t Help Falling In Love/Sing Baby Sing/Star On A T.V. Show/Na Na Is The Saddest Word/Thank You Baby/Funky Weekend

(Author’s Note: both the front cover and spine of the vinyl edition of this album – it has never appeared on CD – identify the subtitle Weekend but for reasons which should prove fairly obvious I have opted not to use it in this piece)


I suppose what really attracted me to Laurence was that he looked, acted and felt like a man. A proper grown-up, you might say. I don’t know how many lads fancied their chances with me, all those Friday nights at the Tottenham Royal. People would come over there on a Friday night from all over the place back in the late fifties – Stamford Hill, Edmonton, Hackney, even as far out as Ilford or Romford, like myself. I like to think of myself as sophisticated but also someone who recognises and values the importance of home.

We’d dance to all the latest rock and roll sounds, and quite a few of the ballads, too – that is, if we were lucky enough to get the chance. I danced with so many boys, I can’t remember all of their names. I remember they hung out in little groups, or cliques if you will, just like us girls, and if one came over and tried the chat with me then the rest of them would come over too, or stand at a distance, earnestly watching and sometimes laughing. Some became really good friends, though. I remember a young boy who called himself Don, came over from the bus garage at Leyton – he was a mechanic who worked on buses and he always brought his mates. Strange names, they had; Sandy, Steve, Edwin. I mean, what nineteen-year-old in 1959 was called Edwin? Don was lovely; he looked a little like a young Elvis and he had this helpless grin on his face which immediately endeared him to me. I could never have gone with him, though; he looked so young and needy I thought if I took him out on a date, I’d have to tuck him up in his cot and give him a hot drink! To his credit, though, he recognised this and respected this. He was always full of plans, though, was Don. Buses themselves were just a starting point for him, he’d tell me; one of these days, he said smilingly with unbelievable confidence, he’d love to drive me in a Routemaster bus all the way out to Greece! In your dreams, I thought to myself, but like I say, he had so much confidence about himself that you momentarily thought he might just pull it off. Better wild ideas than no ideas, if you ask me.

But in truth I preferred the slightly more grown-up group of men I’d see hovering in smart suits at the back of the dance hall. Laurence was part of this group, but probably the least forthcoming of them. Not something you could say about his friends, though, Tom and Jerry. No, I’m not making that up; those were their names – Tom Good and Jerry Leadbetter. They’d been to university and everything, and already making careers for themselves; they were in their mid-twenties or thereabouts and to be honest I sometimes wondered what they were doing somewhere like the Royal. Weren’t they a bit too old for this scene? A bit like your dad or your teacher turning up, trying to be trendy and embarrassing themselves in the process?

Actually, Laurence reminded me a lot of my father, and that was definitely one of his main attractions to me. He was quiet, a bit reserved; I could see he was rather shy. But I found this endearing – he didn’t try it on like some people I could have mentioned, and so I wanted him to come closer to me, feeling, knowing that he could reassure me, protect me, maybe even take care of me.

But it took a lot of egging-on from Tom and Jerry – both of whom were perfect gentlemen and still close friends; I won’t hear a word said against them – before Laurence would pluck up the courage to come and ask me for a dance. Of course I would; I played hard to get for a moment or two but Laurence gave me a slow smile which suggested that he knew that I was playing, and I guess that’s when I just relented and said yes.

I still remember the song – “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin, the new teenage idol of the time. Laurence looked slightly rougher than Tom or Jerry – I was reminded of a more civil Gene Vincent – but he was gentle and courteous and soon we began to exchange small talk. He was just out of university and was working as an estate agent, but he was also taking night classes because he wanted to qualify as a solicitor. He read English rather than Law at University; he told me that he had had to make the choice at sixteen, a terrible age to have to make your mind up about anything, and English just seemed more interesting to him than slogging away for five years learning law books by rote. He was ambitious, wasn’t satisfied to be twelfth best, and that also attracted me. We continued to meet regularly at the Royal on Fridays, and then he asked me out on dates with him. It all seemed very natural.

I have to outline what I was doing to make a living at the time, which is that I was working on the perfume counter at Selfridge’s. I hadn’t gone to university myself because I wanted to get straight out of school into the adult world and start earning money. My mother certainly approved of that way of thinking. I didn’t want just to stay there for the rest of my life either; I found I was good with customers, had a way of persuading them to buy such-and-such a scent, and on the quiet, whenever they asked me, I’d give them some tips on how to improve their bodies. I suppose this helped set me on the road to becoming what I like to call a “quondam beautician” but for the time being I knew I had to get some hard experience behind me before I could even think of such a career.

Being in Selfridge’s, you got used to dealing with some distinguished customers, some really famous ones. One afternoon Tommy Steele came in; he was wearing jodhpurs and a monocle but I was on to him straightaway. He explained that he was rehearsing for a movie where he had to play two parts, a working-class boy and a posh duke, and the idea was that one could stand in for the other. So he was testing out his appearance, his accent, his behaviour, as best he could. He was only about twenty-two. So cute.

But some of the reps you’d get in from the perfume companies, oh my God, or, worse still, the freelancers, the travelling salesmen. One particularly bothered man rushed in one morning, flushed of face and somewhat breathless. His name was John Cummings; I’d seen him in the store before. To be fair he was never the world’s greatest perfume salesman, but his pitches were so earnest and secretly pleading that I’d end up buying or ordering stuff from his case just because I felt sorry for him. He explained that he’d be able to give me a better pitch but his car got stolen, so he has to use buses and tubes, which don’t always get him to the store on time.

“What kind of car was it?” I asked.
“It was a Ford Anglia. Brand new. Bought it from this showroom near Paddington. Meadows, the chap’s name was, Lionel Meadows.”
“Ford Anglia, eh? Couldn’t you save up and buy a Jaguar?”
“Ha, ha, I wish!” he laughed in reply. “If only I could afford one!”

I explained that my American friend Peggy had quite a liking for Jaguars. “You must introduce us sometime!” he chuckled before rushing off to his next appointment. I never saw him again, though; maybe he opened up a store of his own.

Peggy was an American penpal of mine over from Brooklyn for a year’s work experience. She had secretarial skills but what she really wanted to do was break into the advertising industry. We had many laughs together – she used to tell me about the incredible things Americans had in their homes; refrigerators, huge televisions, coffee makers. They loved their cars over there in America, that’s for sure, and Peggy had a notion about Jaguars in particular. Once she told me: “If you were a man, I’d say you should look at the Jaguar as your mistress. Expensive, but glamorous. And keep another car – what do you call them here, the Ford Anglia? – as your wife, for everyday business. The Jaguar is for when you want to break out of yourself, momentarily stop being yourself.”

All this talk was a bit too deep for me, but I smiled in mute agreement. She sounded as though she’d go far, although at times she might resent the actions which such progress might require.

Anyway, Laurence was very tickled by what I did for a living, and although he never came into Selfridge’s, he’d more often than not stand outside the entrance at the end of work, waiting for me to come out.

And he was marvellous. He’d take me to restaurants, to the pictures, even to museums, though to be truthful I sometimes struggled to stay awake in those places. Sometimes he’d drive me out into the countryside, or to another town, say Brighton, or Reading. You always had a sense of variety and unpredictability with Laurence, so unlike some of these boys at the Royal.

One thing led to another, I suppose, and we became engaged and finally married, Valentine’s Day, 1962. It was the proudest and happiest day of my life, and I’ll never forget the song played for our first wedding dance – it was “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis. Oh, what a star he was, and still is – I feel he’s grown up with us, and yes, he’s had his painful moments, but we went out to see him in concert in Las Vegas in 1972 and he was magical – he wasn’t completely together; at one point he loudly called for the pink light to be turned off, at another point he asked one of his backing singers for a towel, but the aura of the man. He could sing a song as though it were a page from your diary, and he had a way of looking right at you and making you think you were the only person in the world for him, the only one he was singing for. It’s something very few singers pull off – in fact, the only other singer I can remember with the same skill and ability on stage is Neil Diamond; that man is truly something – but say what you will about him, Elvis has it.

And so we were married, and we moved into this bungalow in Romford, not far from my parents. We were blissfully happy, knowing that our lives were spreading out in front of us. Oh, Laurence was still an estate agent, still doing his night classes – some nights I’d hardly see him, he’d come back so late – but we both knew there was better to come.

I made sure of it, from my point of view at least. I did a beauty course at a small college in South Woodford and got a certificate entitling me to work as a qualified beautician anywhere. That was my ambition, to set up my own beauty parlour, attract the very best customers and give them the best hands-on treatment. Until I saved up enough to do that, I would continue at Selfridge’s, but I was going up the career ladder anyway; I was put in charge of the whole perfume section in June 1963 and quickly established myself as a firm but fair manager. Not that I really needed to be firm; I was friends with all the girls there, we’d go out together at lunch to the local Lyons Cornerhouse, and they were thrilled to be working with me, not a square old crow from the Boer War days! I was decidedly modern in my style and approach, and always, but always, optimistic.

More optimistic than Laurence, perhaps. Gradually it became evident to me that he wasn’t getting anywhere. He was still earning his keep, but it was still an estate agent, and even in the early sixties an estate agent’s salary wasn’t going to pay for a compact, bijou penthouse-style bungalow in leafy Romford. We remained in regular touch with Tom and Jerry but it looked as though they were racing ahead on the career motorway; they were now professional draughtsmen, designing engines for aircraft, furnishings for converted attics, and gaining a fair reputation in their trade. Jerry had met this very hoity-toity woman, if you ask me, called Margo, and married her. Tom was already married to a girl named Barbara he had met down the Royal. Now they lived next door to each other, in Surbiton of all places, I’ll have you know, and they were as happy as anybody could be.

But I couldn’t work Laurence out sometimes. I’d come home from work and there he’d be, listening intently to Beethoven or Stravinsky. I don’t mind a bit of classical myself from time to time, but come on, when you’re young, life’s for living, not sitting around and brooding to 200-year-old music without drums! It all got a bit oppressive. He’d talk about upcoming exhibitions at the Tate or the National Gallery, and he’d be really excited by them, but me, I just glassed over. What was he hiding from?

Eventually we had to face the truth. There was something missing. Laurence admitted it. It wasn’t as though we hadn’t tried – goodness knows we tried our best, and sometimes our best was very excellent indeed – but something was wrong; we couldn’t conceive. We saw the local gynaecologists but all they did was outline the condition they thought I had, using big words that I nodded at but didn’t really understand. All I knew was that Laurence and I couldn’t be parents; we couldn’t have kids. A big blow to both our sets of parents, not to mention to us. We thought about adoption, and one day I even went to our local adoption service to find out more, but it was no use; for obscure reasons we didn’t meet the criteria, and anyway some of the people I saw down there were perfectly dreadful; this woman about my age called Cathy, for instance, screaming and crying all the time about “the authorities” trying to take her baby away. Well, I thought to myself, if you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby! There’s a song for someone to sing.

Meanwhile, the music slowly changed. It was no longer the fifties and rock and roll; oh, Elvis and what's-his-name were still around, we knew they’d always be around, and the Beatles were lovely when they didn’t scream too loudly, but most of the young groups coming up were alien to us. The Stones? The Animals? The Who? I’m afraid I didn’t understand any of them. Noise and shouting and to what end? At least Little Richard had tunes. The girl singers – they were good, though. Dusty, Cilla, Sandie, Lulu – the “Big Four” we used to call them – they had a way of getting through to me that reminded me of old times.

I think I didn’t listen to anything except Dusty and Cilla when Laurence abruptly disappeared in the autumn of 1966. It was a huge shock, I can tell you, and I cried for nights on end. I asked my mother, what had I done? Was it because we couldn’t have children? Then Margo rang me in a panic and said: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Jerry’s gone too.” Now the hurt turned into a mystery. Vanished into thin air – nobody at their work knew anything about this, and if Tom knew something he was keeping schtumm.

Not long afterwards, both Margo and I were visited by distinguished-looking middle-aged gentleman in smart suits – very posh. Mine introduced himself as a “Colonel” and he told me not to worry; Laurence and Jerry had not vanished off the face of the earth, but they were up in Wales (Wales, I exclaimed to myself) doing what he described as “top secret work.” He was terribly apologetic that he couldn’t tell me anything more, but asked me to be patient – when they had done their work, they would be back. Maybe six months, perhaps a year – who knows?

“Top secret work?” I wondered aloud.
“Ah, yes, well – the jobs that your husband and Mr Leadbetter were doing – they were covers. For other, higher work, you know.”
I’d had no idea of any of this.
“I’ve already told you more than I strictly should do, but suffice it to say it’s to do with matters of national security.” He saw my incipient tears. “Oh, don’t be sad, my dear – they’re thinking of you all the time; I know this for a fact. It’s just that they have this vitally important work to do. Carry on with your life for now, that’s the best policy. Trust me.”

Well, I did my best to trust what the “Colonel” said – and Margo told me she had a nearly identical conversation with another “Colonel” – but really, to run out on his domestic responsibilities now, and for how long, and for what reason? All my “Colonel” would confirm was that they hadn’t run off together. I would have hoped not. It was still illegal then for a start, and, goodness, the embarrassment it would have caused me in the face of our neighbours!

I carried on as best I could, right through 1967. By now the Beatles might as well have been addressing me from the planet Jupiter, they seemed so far away and so incomprehensible. Peppers? Strawberries? Pennies? I didn’t understand any of it, and they didn’t appear to be singing for people like me any more in any case. Far more approachable were the new singers who had come up, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. Oh, I loved those two and still do – they both had greatest hits records out last year, and of course I went straight to Woolworth’s to buy them – they reminded me so much of Elvis, very manly but very sympathetic too; unlike the hairy pop groups they seemed to be singing of simple things that everyone could understand, like love and loss and hopelessness. Where all the pop groups came across like children, these two were unmistakably men.

And then, in the spring of 1968, both Laurence and Jerry reappeared. They looked and sounded very tired and were almost in tears about the fact they hadn’t been able to say goodbye to us properly. I still had my doubts but what could I do – he was my Laurence, and he was back, and I’d been totally faithful to him all the time he’d been away, although mind you I did have my chances, I wasn’t bereft of offers, but just like in 1959 I had my morals and my principles. Laurence would never talk about it, though, acted like he didn’t want to talk about it or be reminded of it, and, though still mystified, I had to respect that.

Then all of a sudden it was the seventies, even though there was nothing sudden about the way we lived; we just kept on going as we had done, even if we knew it was now all simply routine, a matter of habit, that we were more or less stuck in our lives and unable to escape them. But I’ve never been sentimental about things like that; I was raised to get on with things no matter what, and if we were stuck, wasn’t everybody else? You made the best of a less than ideal situation. I was still in Selfridge’s, he was back in the estate agency, like nothing had happened. And perhaps nothing really did.

The music was something I was a little more able to connect with than in the sixties. I knew all of these “glam” groups weren’t for me as such – perhaps if we had managed to have a child, they might have been able to tell us more about T Rex and Slade – and people like David Bowie were just too disturbing for me. However, I did enjoy Elton John; a true showman and a very sensitive songwriter. Paul McCartney and Wings – he proved again and again with his hits who the real talent was in the Beatles. And I loved, and still love, Rod Stewart; again, very manly, which has always appealed to me, and he does give the impression that he doesn’t take anything too seriously, which is surely the only way to deal with life sometimes.

But, just last year, we got this call from Jerry, down in Surbiton. Ostensibly it was an invitation to dinner, which Laurence and I are very grateful for but don’t usually take up – I mean, Surbiton is practically on the other side of the universe from Romford! – but really he wanted us to come down because he was worried. Tom had chucked in his job, just like that, as Tommy Cooper (another of our great favourites) would say. Apparently this had all been coming to a head for some years. Both Tom and Jerry were equally skilled and inspired draughtsmen, but Jerry was always better with people than Tom was; he was very outgoing and welcoming, able to make connections and establish lines of communication, whereas Tom just absorbed himself into his work as though the rest of the world didn’t exist.

As a result of this, Jerry had been promoted above Tom at work, and indeed was now Tom’s line manager. Jerry found this problematic; he couldn’t exactly boss around his closest friend, yet he felt very frustrated, and one afternoon expressed his frustration at Tom. He told Tom that he had idolised his work, and yet he had climbed the ladder in his company while Tom had remained exactly the same. Where was his ambition, Jerry wondered aloud. Tom laughed, shrugged and told Jerry not to worry; he had been planning to leave anyway.

Leave? How will you make a living?”
“Why, I’m going to live a life of self-sufficiency!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Grow our own food, raise our own livestock – we’ll do it in our garden, Jerry, it’s all right, you needn’t worry!”

Jerry couldn’t help but worry, and Margo was outraged when he told her the news. But it quickly became clear that the Goods couldn’t be stopped, and so the Leadbetters slipped into the equally frustrating roles of the Goods’ protectors. Anyhow, Laurence and I went down there – a two-hour drive; believe me, it was unbelievable – and it was great to see everyone again; we did get a little tipsy and started reminiscing about our old lives. And it was then, in an unguarded moment, that Jerry told us that he and Laurence had been recruited as secret agents while at university, and that their jobs and extracurricular activities were indeed covers for this “top secret work.” Who’d’ve known? They had been called, in 1966, to go to this resettlement, or possibly retirement, camp in Wales to deal with a particularly difficult old friend of theirs. Even when tipsy, they protested they had already divulged too much, but swore us all to silence. All they were prepared to admit was that, while in Wales, they had worked under the aliases of “Chambers” and “Cobb.” Sounds like a dodgy firm of solicitors, I laughed semi-mirthfully, while thinking: well, where can we possibly go from here?

Normal life, or as normal a life as can be expected, resumed and carries on to this day. Laurence still sends me wild with his enthusing over piles of bricks in the Tate and somebody called Steve Rice, who apparently is an American musician of some kind who uses lots of repeating marimbas? All beyond me, I fear. For my part, I do my best to keep up with modern music today – I love Barry Manilow, he is like a new, younger and handsomer Humperdinck. Demis Roussos is wonderful, too; he reminds me of this guy I met on holiday in Greece back in ’67, when I was still trying to get over Laurence’s disappearance, who promised to “make my dreams come true,” as if he could know what my dreams truly are. I listen to him sing “Forever And Ever” and he sounds so sunny, so light (even though he is a large guy), so full of promise and everything I’ve wanted in my life but never quite managed to have. I even bought that saucy record “Love To Love You Baby,” the one they wouldn’t play on the radio, like “Je T’Aime” all those years ago, because I thought it might get Laurence and me…well, going again. It’s not that we can’t do it – believe me, despite everything that’s happened, we can – but the child thing, it’s still there, and the only way I can get rid of the pain is to dislodge it, sideline it, push it onto poor Laurence, but to be fair he’s so much like a child at the best of times that I sometimes wonder whether I should tuck him up in his cot and bring him up a hot drink. I wouldn’t trust him to look after himself, I must admit.

But I do like the Stylistics. When we were at that get together with the Goods and Leadbetters last year, they played us a greatest hits thing - The Best Of The Stylistics - which was really lovely. I knew them as a Motown-y sort of soul group who appeared on The Two Ronnies a lot but they had such beautiful songs, so beautifully sung they could make you melt. “You Make Me Feel Brand New” – how often I’ve wanted a man to tell me that throughout my life.

Well, now they have a second volume of Best Of out, and it’s packaged like a weekend diary planner – the one on the cover looks just like mine, in fact, so obviously I bonded with it straightaway! Many of the songs here are well-known from the charts – “Can’t Give You Anything” went all the way to number one – but these performances are just as spellbinding and gorgeous as on their first record. When you don’t drive yourself mad dancing to “Funky Weekend,” there are also plenty of smoochers.

I played it to Jerry, in fact, just recently, and he wasn’t so sure. He told me that the songs on the first record had been arranged and produced by a “Tom Bell” (not the actor?) and that the group were now under the direction of two Italians, Hugo and Luigi, who go back to the fifties, and that some magic had been lost; the new songs weren’t as good as the old ones, there was a bit of formula coming in, some laziness, perhaps.

Me, though, I can’t really see the difference. “Can’t Give You Anything” is a super disco dancer, great for cruises, and about such a common and understandable subject; it doesn’t matter how much money you don’t have, if you have love, you’re the richest man in the world! “Hey Girl, Come And Get It” is a bit Carry On, a little blue (“Come and get it, while I’ve still got it” – I don’t think they’re singing about a pint of milk!) and rather like that “Rock Your Baby” disco hit from quite recently. In truth there are not a lot of words in this song; they chant “umba, umba” a lot. “Sixteen Bars” has that loud but charming trumpet which reminds me of Eddie Calvert (it’s on “Star On A T.V Show” as well) and has some really up-to-date lyrics (“I’m really gone on you”) and a great moment when a guitar starts chunking away after they sing about “The sound of sweet guitar.”

“The Miracle,” like “You Are Beautiful,” both seek to recreate the magic of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” with two sets of lead vocals, and while neither song is as good as “Brand New” – but then, what song is? – they are very beautiful indeed. In “The Miracle” there are not one, but two key changes, so awe-inspiring that the group is shocked into silence and stop singing. “Love Is The Answer” is the same song as “Can’t Give You Anything” but with some social comment. Indeed, this song sounds like the one at the end of the new Rod Stewart LP, the one where he sings “Love is the answer/But nobody’s buying” – it’s a sad, mad old world out there in 1976, and no mistake. “You Are Beautiful” really hits me hard, but not in a violent way; it’s a terrific ballad which culminates in them singing that “You are beautiful… because of what you are inside,” and I’m moved to tears because I’ve waited all my life for someone to say this to me, and nobody ever has, not even fucking Laurence, who thinks he can flounce off and be James Bond for 18 months without so much as a by-your-leave, and I understand this song even if you don’t.

I gasped when I heard the opening track of side two. It’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” our wedding song from fourteen years ago, now done up for the modern disco era, all uptempo and Pied Piper flutes and fast, purposeful singing. Then there’s “Sing Baby Sing,” a chirpy, cheerful song about falling in love and getting married. “Star On A T.V. Show” is a beautiful ballad, or would have been had I not caught the line where the singer compares the woman to a Jaguar….

…which reminds me. Halfway through 1967, while Laurence was still away, I got a transatlantic call from my old friend Peggy in New York! Well, she worked her way up the advertising ladder for sure, and even became a junior partner in her agency. But there was a problem. The agency was approached by Jaguar, of all people, wanting a campaign. Peggy trotted out her old line about how you should treat your Jaguar as a mistress and so forth. It was an inspired idea and was adopted, although relationships between Peggy and the other partners remained frosty. Frustrated that she wasn’t getting enough respect for her input, Peggy left the agency, and the contract was passed on to her colleague, a woman called Joan. The trouble was that the man from Jaguar took the “mistress” analogy a little too seriously and informed Joan that the only way to secure their contract was if she slept with him. She didn’t want to, but she was a single mother and needed the money so shut her eyes and complied. As a result she has been made a junior partner. Peggy’s old boss, a guy named Don (no, not the same one who worked on the buses in Leyton – at least, I don’t think it’s him…but wouldn’t it be something if it were him?), heard of this and rushed to stop Joan, but by the time he got there, the deal was done.

“Na Na Is The Saddest Word” is pretty and sad, though I’ve never heard anyone using the expression “na na.” “Thank You Baby” is another beautiful ballad, this time in the line of “You Are Everything,” and says “You, my love, are the meaning of my life” and that their love makes the world “a better place.” No one has ever said that to me either. But it’s a marvellous record and I play it all the time, especially when I have neighbours around and I want to throw a little dinner party. Jerry says he is not convinced by any of these songs, that no real emotions are ever expressed in them, and that the arrangements are generally so corny and overblown that they squeeze out of the songs whatever little life they have. But I think he’s being rather petty, you know. No one understands the Stylistics like me, I don’t think, and Laurence can roll his eyes all he likes, but I go to his bloody museums, so he can listen to my Stylistics. He’ll still be rolling in eyes in twenty-five years’ time, God bless him, and I’ll still have to look after him. After all, I still like to recognise and value the importance of home, especially ours, and the absolute importance of showing everybody else around us how important it is.

I am not saying that Beverly is wrong here – it’s interesting, if predictable, that in her whole story she never once tells you her name – but I listen to this record and I just cannot hear or feel what she does, or like she does. All I hear is a grotesque, toothy travesty of everything Thom Bell’s Stylistics stood for. Hugo and Luigi might have had a pedigree, but it was a severely dated one – all those vaguely promising songs ruined by elephantine trumpets and French horns, but then that’s more down to Van McCoy’s hamfisted arrangements. Unlike Bell, who knew the exact diameter between voices and musicians so that his arrangements could complement and enhance the emotion of the songs and performances, McCoy just overloads every song to breaking point; frequently the orchestra are too harsh and two-dimensional, getting in the way of the music.

Not that this is great music. “Can’t Give You Anything”’s otiose propulsion obscures the realisation that the “I’m Stone In Love With You” lyrical mindset is now exhausted; so he hasn’t got any money, so what now? The question is not resolved by the thunderstorms raging behind “I’m just an ordinary guy” and McCoy’s desire to quote “The Hustle” throughout the later choruses. Lena describes “Hey Girl” as a “big hunk of cheese with a Best Before date stamped on it. It’s just one of the most pointless songs I’ve ever heard." The hapless attempts to recreate the old magic of “Brand New” on two tracks push Airrion Love to his limits – and one wonders how Russell Thompkins Jr manages to keep a straight face throughout all twelve songs and not want to strangle or shoot the producers. In “The Miracle” we are informed that “God was just another word to say” and that, moreover, “the sun belongs to the sky.” The key changes and general air of airless slush point the way to Westlife and their ilk. “You Are Beautiful” likewise plods rather than floats. That “Love Is The Answer” mentions “the Devil’s wine” and trampled-on flowers perhaps goes without needing to be said (or do they still think it’s 1968?). The word is “clunky.”

“Can’t Help Falling In Love” is grotesque, the cattle-prod falsetto “you”s (not helped by the crappy flute) making love sound like a big mud puddle into which the Stylistics keep falling (Lena’s analogy). “Sing Baby Sing” starts out wanting to be “Daydream Believer” and deteriorates from there; am I the only listener who finds something scary and creepy about the couplet “So cry baby cry/The wedding bells are ringing”? Also, the rest of the song sounds like the far superior theme from
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (apart from the fadeout where the electric piano begins to improvise on “This Guy’s In Love With You”). “T.V. Show” is positively icky, from its tick-tock drum intro (a long way from the let-me-out-of-this-box hammering bass drum introducing “Hey Girl”) to its lame metaphors (rhyming “latest” with “greatest”). “Na Na” proves that not every record featuring a harpsichord is great, and this treacly ballad is interminable. As for “Funky Weekend,” it takes something from everything surrounding it – a bassline from “Inner City Blues,” a clavinet from Stevie Wonder, strings from Norman Whitfield, the general cut-price air of the Top Of The Pops Orchestra, a song which in 1976 still uses the word “discotheque” and an outro which has the group sounding like a herd of maiden aunts sitting around and howling. “Thank You Baby” is so clunky it could be 1984-period Spandau Ballet with its impenetrable metaphors (“A lullaby you never knew”). Also, on “Sixteen Bars,” “a thousand violins” do not make you “Misty.”

My impression is that this record is entirely artificial, and not in a charming way. The songs are, if anything, creepy, in the Peter Wyngarde sense, betraying a clown-like scariness. And yet this was a group once responsible for things like “People Make The World Go Round” and…oh, what’s the point, you’ve read what I had to say about that already. The record – which I’m not sure ever found a release in the States, where their stock had dramatically declined following the onset of Hugo and Luigi – did markedly less well than its predecessor, just one week on top and only 21 weeks on the chart in total (compared with 63 weeks for the original
Best Of). Set against such contemporaneous records as I Want You and Songs In The Key Of Life, this really is miniscule bread in comparison.

One week, however, is enough to get it in here, so after asking myself (and Lena) who would have bought this, I think it has to have been Beverly and Laurence, and the many less-than-happy couples like them all over Britain, to give some air of sophistication to their dinner parties and bridge nights. And poor old Beverly doesn’t know what’s coming, and she should be grateful for that; in less than a year from now she will be a widow, and she’ll wonder what she did wrong. Maybe she’s still wondering now, out there in Romford, if she didn’t turn around and make that move to Madison Avenue.

But that doesn’t make it easier for me. I look at all these records, and can’t imagine this is simply a random agglomeration of things thrown together by virtue of relative popularity and the times in which they prospered. I believe that this order is not random, that every one of these number one records (and the hundreds of other records which lie behind each) is connected, and that somehow they all connect to something beyond music; what would this picture of society tell us when, or if, it is completed? I like to think of a world not entirely governed by happenstance, where the most minute details can set off eruptions elsewhere; after all, had some young German men not heard and be captivated by the “throwaway” “Barbara-Ann,” they would not have transmogrified it into “Autobahn” eight years later. Everything, if not everyone, finds its home.

It is now very late at night, however, and I must go on contemplating this picture, this universal jigsaw puzzle where every piece, no matter how awkwardly, fits into another. But I have to ask: why? The reason – one reason, anyway - is that I am trying to find out about my own life, and whether these records, all this music, tells me more about it, how it fits me and where I fit in with it – or whether I have to acknowledge that at the stage when I saw these records topping the charts in real time, there were people who were waiting for me to stop absorbing myself in the tale they had to tell and do something for, or with, them in reality?

That was the thing with Chambers, or Laurence. He couldn’t stop talking, couldn’t desist from proclaiming to others why he was right and they weren’t. I know – I was due to meet with him when it all happened, and he never turned up.

How was I to know he had been recruited ahead of, or because of, me?


1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

Incredible writing (why are there no comments, even just of sheer appreciation?).

Towards the end of 2011, BBC Four filled time with the Temptations' TOTP performance of "I Can't Get Next to You" and it was blatantly obvious - simply from what it and they had - what most of the black American music on TOTP in 1976, especially the singles on this album, didn't have. If it had all been on this level in the first place nobody's lives, and sense of themselves, would ever have been changed at all.