(#377: 24 December 1988, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Some People/Wired For Sound/All I Ask Of You/Carrie/True Love Ways/Dreamin’/She Means Nothing To Me/A Little In Love/Daddy’s Home/We Don’t Talk Anymore/Never Say Die (Give A Little Bit More)/The Only Way Out/Suddenly/Please Don’t Fall In Love/Little Town/My Pretty One/Ocean Deep/She’s So Beautiful/Mistletoe And Wine
(Author’s Note: The above represents the track listing of the CD edition. For reasons of space, and I suspect economics, five other tracks included in the original double LP package were omitted from the CD; see below for discussion of these.)
Yes, I know, I know. To paraphrase Justin Lewis, now is a lousy time to be a pop historian. I am aware of the substantial cloud that now hovers over Cliff Richard but, as the Pet Shop Boys will shortly have Dusty say, nothing has been proved, and until or unless that happens we can only continue chronicling his multiple appearances in this tale.
Private Collection was the second best-selling album of 1988, and “Mistletoe And Wine” the year’s best-selling single. Much of this can be ascribed to simple nostalgic sentimentality, as 1988 marked the singer’s thirtieth anniversary in showbusiness. But its songs are, overall, as baffling as any Cliff collection. Yesterday I spoke of how people approaching middle age dealt with the matter of listening to and appreciating pop music, but what does that say in terms of an artist who was still making music well into his forties?
No, it isn’t a question which readily arises with any other genre of music that you can think of, not even rock. But I continue not to grasp the methodology behind being Cliff Richard. Here – on the CD, at any rate – are nineteen songs, essentially an update on, or appendix to, 40 Golden Greats. Some are atrocious, others reasonable but unexciting AoR, and yet others inspired; he always seems to spring into an extra life whenever Alan Tarney is involved.
Of the collaborations, “Suddenly” (with Olivia Newton-John), from the soundtrack of Xanadu, is a fine song wonderfully delivered. He has great fun playing emotional table tennis with Phil Everly on “She Means Nothing To Me.” Stevie Wonder provides a warm and ample cushion for “She’s So Beautiful.” The Phantom duet with Sarah Brightman is reasonable, but you can never take him seriously as a Raoul. Perhaps the most cutting duet is the one omitted from the CD, 1986’s grimly determined Elton John team-up “Slow Rivers,” in which both old hands sing gravely about their sodden, Beckettian fate (“I thought I’d drown and you’d never know,” “You’re a sinking ship with no place to go”).
Of the live cuts, “Daddy’s Home” – nearly 1981’s Christmas number one – is a decent cover of the singer’s favourite song, an old doowop ballad repackaged in a cosy Christmas-coming-home-to-you fashion. But 1983’s “True Love Ways,” complete with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, is terribly square in a Friday Night Is Music Night sense and to me does not appear to understand Buddy Holly one jot.
As I say, whenever Tarney is involved, as songwriter and/or producer, Cliff sounds rejuvenated, interested again. “We Don’t Talk Anymore” never ceases to fascinate, no matter how many times you listen to it; on this occasion Lena noted how the lead guitar (Tarney again) played as though mimicking, or ridiculing, the singer’s voice. 1981’s Walkman ode “Wired For Sound” was a worthy mainstream companion to Penthouse And Pavement. Other early eighties songs I have spoken about previously.
Generally the imperial phase of the returning Cliff can be dated from 1976-81. After “Daddy’s Home,” things begin incrementally to go off the boil. 1982’s “The Only Way Out” has plenty of commitment in its performance but its dynamics are a little wan compared with “Carrie” two years earlier. As for the same year’s “Little Town,” this marks the point when the Christian Cliff entered a new era of unwelcome bombast (1972’s Primal Scream-anticipating “Jesus” was much more convincing). From 1983, “Never Say Die” sees him unsuccessfully trying to play cut and thrust with the decade (the strange PacMan whirligig background noises notwithstanding), while Mike Batt’s “Please Don’t Fall In Love,” that year’s Christmas offering, was maudlin and inexplicable – she’s with him as you write. No use “begging” her not to fall in love; it’s like David Brent telling Dawn that the staff can do their own post this evening.
1987’s largely electronic Always Guaranteed, masterminded by Tarney, was a genuine new departure; “Some People” is a lovely, hurt song which sounds as though sung by OMD’s sadder and wiser uncle. The trick of “My Pretty One” is to sound ultra-modern even though, in structure and delivery, Cliff could have recorded the song in 1960. Two more tracks are featured on the original double LP; “Two Hearts” is relatively harmless, but “Remember Me” sees the singer at his most defiant yet generous, loudly announcing his readiness to be leaned on.
As for "Mistletoe And Wine," it’s a simple enough, workaday 3/4 singalong about the "time to rejoice in the good that we see" taking in everything from singing "carolers" to "logs on the fire and gifts on the tree" and not forgetting the syntactically awkward "a time for forgiving and for forgetting" and the inevitable "silent night, holy night."
But the line "Ours for the taking - just follow The Master" signals the pulling out of stops as symphony orchestras, tubular bells, tympani and choirboys all join in as though climaxing a substandard West End musical. In approach and execution, though its production is firmly "modern," the record is rooted in the pre-rock age, and perhaps for that reason it was an easy Christmas number one. Not my cup of chimera ("Chrissss-tmas tieeemme/Mistletoe and wieeennne/Chilllll-dren siiii-nging Chrissss-tian rhy-ieeeemes"), and not the most representative record in a chart which also included "Buffalo Stance," "Good Life," "Fine Time" and "Humanoid" - i.e. the nineties started here. But to discover the secret of its success, you only have to go as far as my mum, watching the Christmas Day TOTP as, over the big tympani roll before the final climax, Cliff called out "Merry Christmas everyone!" and my mum instinctively and immediately beamed back "Merry Christmas Cliff!" Bless her – even though my idea of spiritual reassurance at the end of 1988 was Arvo Part’s magnificent Passio, done after St John (rather than St Matthew for Bach) and recorded for ECM with the Hilliard Ensemble and an instrumental chamber group at the St Jude’s-on-the-Hill church in Hampstead Garden Suburb; the shaking reed in the desert, rather than the finery of a well-dressed man.
But in the midst of all of this is a concealed jewel; 1983’s “Ocean Deep,” an album track then thrown away as the B-side (and then very belated double A-side) to 1984’s forgettable “Baby You’re Dynamite.” Here we return to the isolationist Cliff that we know only too well from “Miss You Nights” and “When Two Worlds Drift Apart”; the worried man who only knows his perception of the idea of love to be indistinguishable from the reality of love, and who has consequently ended up alone. “Love, can’t you see I’m alone?” he begins, slightly irritated as though love is interrupting allegedly more important work. But then he softens, praying for love to find him; the bridge immediately recalls Scott Walker’s “Rosemary” (“I wanna spread my wings/But I just can’t fly”) and the chorus finds him, at long last, confronting his own failures. “I’m so afraid to show my feelings/I have sailed a million ceilings/Solitary room.” He wonders whether the mythic “she” has found another and cries himself to sleep, possibly for the millionth time. Forever his love has to stay buried – and why does he keep it so (a parallel question or response to his “Why am I still alone?”)? Look at that face on the cover – half afraid, half threatening – and wonder about the darkness in which he chooses to continue to dwell, as the song plays out with his plaintive cries of “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely…” – is this where keeping your collection of feelings private gets you?
(Of the remaining extra tracks, “Green Light” actually dates from 1978, and is a fairly muscular rocker, while 1984’s “Heart User” plays like a decaffeinated and below par “Devil Woman.”)
Next: 1989 – but haven’t we passed this way before, or is it that somebody has just passed away?