Friday, 7 May 2021

TAKE THAT: Nobody Else


(#525: 13 May 1995, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Sure/Back For Good/Every Guy/Sunday To Saturday/Nobody Else/Never Forget/Hanging Onto Your Love/Holding Back The Tears/Hate It/Lady Tonight/The Day After Tomorrow


One of the remarkable trends of the pre-rock singles chart in the UK was the manner in which polite British crooners were fashioned to sound as American as possible, manfully (or womanfully) trying to emulate the effortless sophistication of their counterparts on a ration coupon budget with the intent of sounding "international," even though the States were never likely to embrace a Dickie Valentine or a Michael Holliday when Frank and Bing were still active, hale and - in High Society - distinctly gay in a non-1956 sense.


Some commentators have taken as an indication of coming full circle the equivalent tendency over the last quarter-century or so of British groups and performers to endeavour to appeal to an assumed international market, and in doing so jettison every facet of them which made them British, and appealing, and therefore different. Which brings us to the late period of early Take That.


The third Take That album is a textbook case of lost punctum. Its unnerving cover promises far more than the record delivers. Its opening song, "Sure,” outlines the album’s superficially earnest attempt to appeal to the post-New Jack Swing demographic - Gary Barlow co-produced with the Brothers In Rhythm team, and the song bears a rare Barlow/Owen/Williams co-writing credit – but it simply doesn't work. The group's natural charm and modest determination to be themselves are eroded against bland international hotel lobbies of “sophisticated” chord changes, and Barlow's voice simply isn't built to curve with the indentures and turnarounds of 1994 R&B patterns; references in the lyric to "positive reactions" and "compatible" sound awkward in both construction and delivery (in contrast, something like East 17's "Deep," though in most ways patently, if admirably, absurd, actually does work in terms of Walthamstow roughage roughing it up with a track which very wisely kicks back to preserve both pop and would-be hip hop tendencies; it succeeds precisely because it isn't in your face). But "Sure" sounded like a shoehorned Take That and unsurprisingly became not only their lowest-selling chart-topper but also the lowest-selling number one of 1994.


In this shrivelled company, it is little surprise that “Back For Good” was the only actual hit they enjoyed in North America. When the group premiered "Back For Good" at the 1995 BRITS ceremony, Laura and I, watching the self-same ceremony on television, immediately exchanged glances and said "Barlow's trying to do an Oasis"; it was the "Whatever I said, whatever I did" which did it, as well as its having the the same general key and tempo as the other "Whatever," and Gary Barlow has subsequently admitted as much in terms of inspiration.


But that was as far as the influence went - and in any case, where would Oasis' "Whatever" have been without the precedent of Neil Innes' "How Sweet To Be An Idiot"? More pressing perhaps was the song's overall feeling of something coming to an end; indeed it begins with a melancholy Barlow, over acoustic guitar and drum machine, singing "I guess now it's time for me to give up," and later, and slightly more loudly, "Gotta leave it, gotta leave it all behind now."


"Back For Good" remains Take That's most famous song; as I said, it was their only major American hit, and a standard almost before Barlow had finished writing it. The song itself is a curious lyrical mix of cliché ("a picture of you," "lipstick mark still on your coffee cup") and wordplay which doesn't quite attain Elvis Costello levels of dextrous verbal ambiguity ("Unaware but underlined," "In the twist of separation you excelled at being free") and efficiently-crafted, but still distinctly British, AoR pop considerably influenced by Cliff Richard's late seventies work, especially in the continuous interplay between solo voice and harmony chorus; so much so in fact that one almost regrets that Barlow didn't give it to Cliff to sing since his own voice doesn't possess the necessary technical or emotional range to make, for instance, the climactic line "We will never be uncovered again" (whatever that means; does he propose a clandestine mock-relationship of coded signs and make-do-and-mend mute acceptance?) carry the weight he puts on it as a songwriter (again, contrast with the seventeen different flavours of hurt Cliff finds in his voice to apply to "We Don't Talk Anymore").


The song was Barlow's - very much Barlow's, rather than Take That's - attempt to do a one-step George Michael, to cross the demographic boundaries and appeal to anybody (as opposed to everybody). But there is something which doesn't really gel in its construction; that there is a craft at work here is undeniable, that the song moved millions even less so (depending on how you view the art, if art be there any, of moving millions), but there is little sense of artistic or emotional boundaries being breached; its earnest politeness prevents it from being touched, as though "Back For Good" were an audition tape to become the spectre which by 1995 was beginning to make a stealthy comeback - the All-Round Entertainer. But all round what, or whom? No wonder that Robbie Williams, who on record and video alike already seemed like a ghost in this group, would a few years later shake the song to pieces by turning it into a punk thrash, and place a live recording on the B-side of "Angels"...although really it ought to have been on the flipside of "Let Me Entertain You."


The rest of Nobody Else is mostly depressing. What is the point of trying to fit in with this mid-Atlantic nowhere land of benign wallpaper? Everything Changes was imaginative, lively, sometimes startling and genuinely original – it sounded like the product of human beings. But this could be anybody; not so much Boyz II Men as Ladz II Blokes. Yes, “Sunday To Saturday” is a decent facsimile of Jam and Lewis (“Saturday Love” in particular), but, apart from the occasional frisson in its arrangements (that triple vocal hiccup just before the first chorus), no more than that, and who needs a photocopy when the real thing was readily available? The exasperated gasp of “We’ll just start again” midway through the title song (which commendably also attempts the love song from the perspective of an elderly couple trope, but Barlow is no Paul Heaton – and the lyric’s reference to “senior high” meant nothing in Britain) indicated that they knew the game was already up.


And “Never Forget” confirmed it. Boy bands and teen idols tend not to be much good at saying goodbye. There is a marked reluctance to put away those childish things and start thinking about what’s going to put food on their table for the next half century or so. More often than not they simply and ingloriously fizzle out as their chart positions proportionally diminish, as they make futile too-late stabs at credibility, or end up spending their accumulated royalties, if there be any, on protracted court battles with elusive managers. The Monkees of course were a case apart, as in the end were the Beatles, but by 1995 only Wham! had approached getting it right, going out in a self-constructed blaze of euphoria with the Edge Of Heaven double E.P. and the double greatest hits collection The Final (a double album covering just four years of work! How did they manage that?).


Alas, it would seem that Take That weren’t terribly good at it either. The coded messages annotating “Never Forget” in the liner note to entry #546 speak in codes of self-denial: “…it marked a farewell to the past and embraced a new era…”; but in terms of what it represents, not to mention the fact that it gave its title to a 2005 repackaging of their hits (which just missed out on inclusion in this tale), it is hard to believe that everybody involved in “Never Forget” wasn’t fully aware that they were approaching the end.


The cover of the “Never Forget” single featured a Photoshop montage of childhood photos of the five members holding up a portrait of the group as they were in 1995. "Never Forget” isn’t just about saying goodbye to one’s childhood, and although it was not the last number one single by this particular incarnation of Take That – an extremely peculiar epilogue was to follow in 1996 – it sounds, from its introduction of Royal Household trumpets, crashing tympani and ghostly choir onwards, like their Last Trump (actually it is from Verdi’s Requiem, as sung by the Henllan Boys Choir with the featured voice of Alistair Stubbs).


The involvement of those last three elements mark the involvement of Jim Steinman. Over a sombre drone of voices, a children’s choir sings “We’ve come so far and we’ve reached so high” before an electro setting, not far removed from Primal Scream’s “Higher Than The Sun,” enters and Gary Barlow intones his doubts: “We’ve come a long way/But we’re not too sure where we’ve been.”


And then, for the first time on a Take That single, the lead vocal is divided five equal ways; everyone gets to have their say, their lines, their verse. They sing of the path they have travelled, with its faces in the moonlight, arms of disappointment and roads going down the other side of the hill (“I understand the meaning of ‘I can’t explain this feeling’” exclaims Mark Owen at one surprisingly Derridean point) before they all join hands and turn towards us for the mass chorus: “Never forget where you’re coming from/Never pretend that it’s all real/Someday soon, this will be someone else’s dream.”


It is an extremely moving eulogy, with a grace and generosity bestowed on few teen idols, past or present; a dignified farewell, a realisation of their imminent, natural expiry date. It is not morose; the rhythm bounces along at a purposeful mid-tempo, gradually increasing in intensity with each approaching chorus, and there is a delightful moment towards the end when the song temporarily stops for rounds of applause and cheers in the studio before scything sharply back into focus.


The Robbie question, however, will not go away. By the time of “Never Forget”’s single release Robbie had gone, jumped or been pushed depending on whose manager’s account you believe, being pictured bleached, stoned and reeling with sundry members of Oasis at Glastonbury, and one briefly wonders whether there is going to be some Stalinist revisionism at work here to expunge his contribution.


But no; two-thirds of the way through the song, there he is, advising “We’re not invincible”…and then, exactly one minute later, as the drums magnify into monstrous Tackhead beats and Steinman’s full-throated choir make their entry, he’s seized and claimed the song for himself – “EVERYBODY SING!” he yells, entreats, over and over, “EVERYBODY!,” already mapping out his own plans, making no bones of who he thinks is going to come out best out of this lot. Finally, the group take over again as a unit for the final choruses, the waves to the balcony as they reluctantly retreat from the stage; they fade to leave the original children’s choir, now alone – “And we’re still so young, and we hope for more.” Or was that “hope” already in the past tense, as in “we hoped for more”? But “Never Forget,” in its unhurried five-and-a-half minutes or so, signifies the passing of the teen idol candle, to the next bunch of still-dreaming hopefuls; I incidentally note that the motif “we’re only people” would reappear a decade later in Momus’ not-that-far-removed “Hang Low”…and that would not be alone in its surprising reappearance.


Arranger Richard Niles tries for some “Left To My Own Devices” magic with his string introduction to “Holding Back The Tears,” but the song is no “Miss You Nights.” The experiment with Beach Boys harmonies on “Hate It” necessitates the existence of a strong song to encase it. Robbie’s rapping, seemingly done at bayonet point, on “Lady Tonight,” does not rock anyone’s mike.


Yet the album closes, as did its predecessor, with a strange ballad sung by Mark Owen. “The Day After Tomorrow” is a lot less strange than the ghost story of “Babe,” but despite still sounding far too smooth for its own pain, it declares an uncertainty as inconclusive as that expressed on “I’ll Be Back.” Owen sings the lament like a humiliated Marti Pellow (lyrically the song is about guilt secondary to adultery) and the music perhaps ventures too close to the Moody Blues, whereas it should have gone more in the P.M. Dawn direction, or for that matter the route which George Michael would shortly pursue. The song is enough to engender questions (nobody else? Are you sure?) which set this a little way above standard steel cube pop balladry. But its implication that there will be no tomorrow makes one wonder why, at the Hard Day’s Night stage of their existence, Take That had already opted for the long and winding road.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

WET WET WET: Picture This


(#524: 22 April 1995, 3 weeks)


Track listing: Julia Says/After The Love Goes/Somewhere Somehow/Gypsy Girl/Don’t Want To Forgive Me Now/She Might Never Know/Someone Like You/Love Is My Shepherd/She’s All On My Mind/Morning/Home Tonight/Love Is All Around


In March 1995, The Boo Radleys and Wet Wet Wet happened to have been booked in to appear on the same edition of Top Of The Pops. Seeing Marti Pellow emerge from his dressing room, the Radleys screamed “Marti! Marti!,” etc., at him, in the teenybopper style. A thoroughly baffled Pellow took one look at these miscreants who were clearly and fully unknown to him, frowned sternly and retreated into the dressing room post-haste.


I find myself baffled in a similar fashion by Picture This, in which the Wets appear to have erected their white flag and surrendered to becoming the cabaret turn that they probably all wanted to have been in the first place. These songs aren’t quite Michael Bolton schlock but they are pretty uniform in nature (and most of them sound to be in the same key). Yes, they presumably have things to say but obfuscate them with so many misty mixed metaphors that young Conservatives would treat them as nothing more than a benign background soundtrack to dinner parties.


There are touches of country for secret Sydney Devine fans, hints of harmonic and vocal menace in “Someone Like You” (Pellow’s prematurely-exhausted grunt of “Hell, yeah!”) and a potentially very strong ballad (“Love Is My Shepherd”) which really requires Mary J Blige to light its torch. But all of it drifts by so harmlessly that it causes the brain harm. The subtext might be a break-up, although the rather patronising “Julia Says” is not exactly worthy of Lou Reed at his unworthiest.


In any event, the rest of the album is more or less rendered redundant by its final track. How many times did people want their “Love Is All Around”? The nearly two million copies that the single sold? The 900,000 copies that their greatest hits album, which ends with the same track, sold? The 750,000 copies that the Four Weddings and a Funeral soundtrack sold? Picture This likewise went triple platinum, anyway.


This relentless urge of people to purchase and listen to the same piece of music over and over again renders me disappointed in humanity. I’m surprised the group didn’t do “The Twelfth Of Never.” Or perhaps Anthony Bourdain offered the definitive diagnosis of this politely determinist mindset: “And weekend diners are universally viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by both cooks and waiters alike; they're the slackjaws, the rubes, the out-of-towners, the well-done-eating, undertipping, bridge-and-tunnel pre-theater hordes, in to see Cats or Les Mz and never to return” (from Kitchen Confidential).


It’s those “weekend rubes” who dominate the universe of number one albums, wanting nothing more than minute variations on the same comforting pillow of pabulum. After all, they pay extra for the privilege; does anyone else remember how much compact discs cost in the nineties, and the scant change which you received in exchange for a twenty-pound note? They want value for their hard-earned cash. It’s not our fault that their concept of value is so transitory and shallow. A pity. Wet Wet Wet, who vanish from this tale after today, indicate how little compromise endures. What you do now recall more immediately; “Wake Up Boo!” or anything on Picture This that isn’t “Love Is All Around”?


A salutary lesson for today.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021



(#523: 8 April 1995, 1 week)


Track listing: Wake Up Boo!/Fairfax Scene/It’s Lulu/Joel/Find The Answer Within/Reaching Out From Here/Martin, Doom! It’s Seven O’Clock/Stuck On Amber/Charles Bukowski Is Dead/4am Conversation/Twinside/Wilder


It really struck us while listening to the second half of “Charles Bukowski Is Dead.” In truth the suspicion had already germinated with the acapella introduction to “Wake Up Boo!” – this is not really “Our Prayer” – and the vocal chorales are probably multitracked Sices with a dash of Martin Carr, but Lena said: I know which Liverpool band they remind me of most. Think of purity of spirit, intensity of emotional commitment and that ineradicable Merseyness – and you have, with The Boo Radleys, the natural successor to The Christians.


Certainly there is a lot of Garry Christian about the man who I hope will not mind if I no longer call him “Sice,” since he is now Dr Simon Rowbottom, a very well-respected psychotherapist. Note the first paragraph of his “About me” section, and how it fully sums up the emotional turmoil expressed here, and expressed for the most part by a second party, since the music and words were, and indeed still are, those of Martin Carr, as implicitly angry a guitarist as Graham Coxon (flashback to the penultimate episode of The Prisoner – sometimes the patient and the therapist change places).


He does not have the weighty authority of Garry Christian; his is more of a persuasive and perhaps vulnerable voice. A lot of the time (“Reaching Out From Here,” “Stuck On Amber,” “Wilder”) I’m reminded more of Glenn Tilbrook, though his falsetto quivers on the choruses of “Twinside” are decidedly Bowie-esque. He articulates what Mr Carr can only express through his guitar; the noise, the playfulness, the pain.


Wake Up! is a really important album to me – indeed, the opportunity to write about the record (and at least two others to follow in 1995) was one of the main reasons I wanted to start Then Play Long. I played it yesterday on cassette, the very same cassette I bought from Hammersmith Our Price the Monday it came out. This means that, unlike the next two entries, I liked it at the time.


I liked The Boo Radleys generally. I was one of the twelve people who bought their 1991 debut Ichabod and I – hey, if Teenage Fanclub wanted to do Dinosaur Jr (which, on A Catholic Education, they most assuredly did), then why not a Wirral variant? – and the following year’s marginally bigger-budget sequel, Everything’s Alright Forever, which suffered from being at the toe-end of the shoegazing boom but is a lot better than you might remember.


Then, in 1993, came Giant Steps, a phenomenal record which emerged at the “wrong” time and in the “wrong” cultural context. I was initially (i.e., before I actually bothered to listen to the record) sceptical – if you’re going to have the nerve to name your record Giant Steps, it had better be nothing less than phenomenal – but it is totally where Primal Scream should have gone after Screamadelica, the irruptions of an enticing record library being shamelessly emphasised and enlarged (because too much British pop and rock music suffers from the self-induced curse of “shame”). It perhaps only skirts the inner suburbs of its intended destination in its sixty-four minutes, but it’s one heck of a journey.


Wake Up! brought the implications of its predecessor to fruition. Giant Steps hadn’t done too badly, commercially – 60,000 sales are not to be sneezed at – but there was some pressure from Creation for the band to come up with A Hit. This they, beyond certainty, did; and “Wake Up Boo!” also proved their curse.


I wonder to this day how many of the 140,000 people who bought the album bothered to listen beyond its first track, and how many of them really understood that song in the first place. In a spring-of-1995 sense, those questions were kind of irrelevant, because the aura at the time was one of emerging out of winter into spring, a new beginning – we knew Major’s Government was finished and that Blair was patiently waiting to take over (yes, I know, but at the time it seemed like hope) – and so the sound of those Jimmy Young Show horns blasting through speakers and headphones provided us with the theme for a new and better world. I had just moved to Chiswick about two weeks before the single of “Wake Up Boo!” came out and cannot satisfactorily replicate the amber thrills of walking down a sunny King Street to work with this song in my head.


All of the required (but required by whom?) elements were present; Rowbottom’s knowingly jejune vocal, the snappy beat (yup, I thought then “who’s been listening to ‘A Solid Bond In Your Heart, then?” and was right to do so), the wake up/beautiful morning fanfare, the twenty-five/alive rhyme which made me think of how even Herman’s Hermits would have seemed exciting in 1965. For better, and mostly for worse, “Wake Up Boo!” became that rarest of musical phenomena, an actual anthem, a song whose emotions permeated the souls of those who didn’t really buy records or particularly keep up with music.


And few of the people who loved that song were really listening to it. A summer anthem which begins with the words “Summer’s gone” but niftily swerves expected autumnal melancholy; the transition doesn’t bother Rowbottom at all (“To pretend I do seems really done”). Nonetheless, the song is full of anticipatory dread; wake up “for what could be the very last time,” the sarcastic guitar twittering behind “You can’t blame me…for the death of summer”), the abrupt punk thrash and possible Oasis trolling of the bridge from that section back to the chorus.


Carr apparently wrote the song in his girlfriend’s flat in Preston while watching Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast (whose former co-presenter, Chris Evans, was by then on national radio and swiftly adopted the song as a Radio 1 jingle) following a sleepless night tripping on magic mushrooms. He’s still momentarily up for it – at least before he inevitably collapses back into bed – but the song is actually a dialogue between the protagonist and his weary and bored partner (hence “You have to put the death in everything,” which could emanate from either voice). “Wake Up Boo!” runs “Born In The U.S.A.” a very close second as the most endemically misunderstood of all pop songs.


In some ways, “Wake Up Boo!” is a red herring, or simply a misleadingly bright introduction to what is, summarily, quite a dark album. There are some quiet acoustic musings on “Fairfax Scene” – there’s more than a touch of Saint Etienne about song titles like that – which lay the groundwork for the album’s recurring and escalating themes of boredom, frustration and painful escape. The Johnny Arthey at the 100 Club punk rush of “It’s Lulu” – a song about somebody else impatient to get away – provides a temporary diversion (though bears a drifting prelude of My Bloody Valentine-derived glide ambience).


“Joel” develops the innovations of Giant Steps most profitably. It is drenched in White Album (and specifically John’s White Album influences – given that the song’s subject matter is the newborn son of a friend of Carr’s, this could pass as the band’s “Hey Jude”) but is careful to anticipate its own nuevo-retro anatomy (“All I want is harmony/Like some outmoded sixties throwback”). It moves through the four main stages of White Album dynamics splendidly – the harsh, Leslie cabinet-soaked voice/aggressive beats duologue midway through is rather akin to Liam Gallagher being recruited as a guest singer by Liam Howlett – and finds its peace at the other end of its determinedly noisome tunnel.


“Find The Answer Within,” which would not have disgraced the 1968 Herd, is a superb pop song which systematically detours and detonates its bounce with increasing levels of white-out noise – Carr’s guitars, backwards vocals etc. – and represents the steps which fair weather fans of “Wake Up Boo!” politely refused to take (when issued as a single, Radio 1 did put the song on their A-list, but did not take “Wake Up Boo!” off the same list – hence the latter cancelled out the former). “Reaching Out From Here” is heartbreaking; he is not happy, he knows that leaving is intrinsically the wrong thing to do, but what can he do? He’s stuck in Preston, wants to be with his mates in London, the place where, in 1995, it was all still happening (as hard as it is to imagine that now – the solution for me at the time was to keep a foot in both camps, in London and Oxford, but Oxford is a hell of a lot closer to London than Preston). It’s all right for – whom?


Side two opens with a harsher variant of the “wake up” trope – trumpet (possibly synthesised) reveilles, military snap-to-attention/stand-by-your-beds barks which immediately make me think of the importance of their near-neighbours on the Wirral, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (just how key was Dazzle Ships? Together with Songs From The Big Chair and A Secret Wish, it’s probably the most quietly, incrementally influential pop album of the eighties) – before the singer is reluctantly forced out of bed by the total absence of self-esteem.


As with several other songs on this side – “Stuck On Amber,” “4am Conversation,” “Twinside” – “Martin, Doom!” concludes with an extended, climactic passage for trumpets and band; and the fact that the side’s final song is called “Wilder” very strongly suggests, not simply a huge Teardrop Explodes influence, but also a determined effort to reproduce and evolve the dishevelled magic of Wilder’s second side – think of “4am Conversation” as the band’s “Tiny Children,” “Wilder” as their “The Great Dominions,” and so forth.


“Charles Bukowski Is Dead,” which serves the same purpose as Carla Bley’s “Drinking Music” halfway through the second side of Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, and which, thematically, also in part foreshadows Saint Etienne’s song “Popular,” forms a chimerical dream in which Carr imagines himself down at the Good Mixer, chatting and getting drunk with people who are on his wavelength, or he on theirs. But when we reach the vaguely hellish, repeated chant of a climax of “You'll never touch the magic if you don't reach out far enough,” we sense that the Worried Man – for this is the real voice of Wake Up!, just as it was on the first two Band albums – is demanding his own damnation.


As with the Mark King of Running In The Family, the Worried Man realises, as the album winds towards its conclusion, that he needs to make his mind up, one way or the other. The repeated sobs of “Don’t stay here for me” in “4am Conversation” expose a nerve which even Alex Chilton would have preferred to keep hidden. On “Twinside,” the Worried Man wonders aloud what to do about the two fighters stuck inside him.


Finally, on “Wilder” itself - after all these John songs, comes a Paul one - he decides to leave. He is aware that he may be leaving heaven for hell (“It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with”) but the magnet is drawing him away. The song is slow and painfully patient. After the singer ceases to sing, there is a long and winding road of an instrumental coda, spacious and delicate like “Mandolin Wind,” as the Worried Man walks slowly into darkness.


Perhaps, in Liverpudlian musical terms, the melancholy of The Boo Radleys is a logical development from A Flock Of Seagulls – the latter’s 1984 album The Story Of A Young Heart is a more-or-less direct forebear of Wake Up!; I will not ruin its potential impact by telling you how it ends. Yet, just at the horizon of exit, there comes distended commentary, and then there comes a nautical bell which clang, clang, CLANGS louder and louder into a locked groove, demanding that you WAKE UP


“Sealand”? “Mother…sister…at home…these I’d value so.”


He goes to London, and nearly destroys himself doing so. The band will record two more albums, and these are the two albums they would have recorded anyway. They sell 40,000 and 10,000 copies respectively. They are both quite stunningly good. The band ends. Its members go on to do different, and perhaps more emotionally beneficial things. The Worried Man now, I think, lives peacefully in Cardiff. The psychotherapist studied in part at Oxford Brookes University, where Laura worked as a librarian. Their moment may have been fatally misunderstood. But it was a moment, and its reasonably central appearance in this tale helps to preserve that moment for posterity.


Oh, and…”Wilder.”


And…”High And Dry” (not the same song, and neither was influenced by the other, but they are nevertheless parallel songs)




Wake Up! is a hell of a lot more influential record than you’ve been trained to think.