Monday 9 February 2009

Cliff RICHARD: 21 Today

(#24: 4 November 1961, 1 week)

Track listing: Happy Birthday To You/Forty Days/Catch Me/How Wonderful To Know/Tough Enough/50 Tears For Every Kiss/The Night Is So Lonely/Poor Boy/Y’arriva/Outsider/Tea For Two/To Prove My Love For You/Without You/A Mighty Lonely Man/My Blue Heaven/Shame On You

“But don’t forget, there’s more than one of you” (“Poor Boy”)

Look at the size of those candles. In my two score plus five years I have never seen candles that big on any birthday cake, not even on dodgy corporate ones concealing strippers. More than anything, they remind me of altar candles, and in a very Cliff Richard way that might make perfect sense. The cake is real and the picture appears by all accounts to have been taken at a genuine party, and yet there is an unavoidable uneasy feeling about the whole scenario, as if something here isn’t quite right, that the picture’s constituent pieces do not seamlessly fit together.

But then Cliff is separate and distinct from most of what we recognise as British pop music even as he is simultaneously British pop music personified. 21 Today was his fifth album and his first to make the top (the first peaked at four and the next three in second place), and perhaps there were stern meetings where the Shadows were reprimanded for beating their mentor to number one. Or perhaps not, since the overriding impression from listening to the record is just how much fun he is having in the company of Hank and the boys, and how little he seems to be enjoying himself when compelled to do other things. The record begins with “Happy Birthday To You” – no, this is not the admittedly intriguing prospect of Cliff singing to himself, but a perky instrumental reading by the Shadows. This proceeds harmlessly for a minute or so before voices and clinking glasses are faded into the picture; we are eavesdropping at the man’s birthday party – and Derek Johnson’s sleevenote, which brings new meaning to the term “egregious,” is adamantly keen on emphasising that Cliff was now A Man – and we hear the lad himself calling for gin and orange while indulging in curiously Flann O’Brien-esque anecdotes (“Remember the time I landed on the shores?” “What shores?”), the scenario intruded upon by the occasional, startling hyena-like cackle.

It is moderately unsettling but does set the scene, although it’s a pity that the album didn’t run with the full concept (as per Beach Boys Party or Recorded Live At A Sloan Party) and keep coming back to the chatter. Here’s Cliff with his mates, celebrating, reminiscing, taking it easy and performing the odd song – and you would be hard pushed to find something odder than his reading of Chuck Berry’s “Forty Days.” When he storms abruptly from the pregnant intro into the furiously paced rocker that is the song proper, complete with surprisingly febrile growls, he does help to dismantle some kneejerk wisdom, namely that Cliff “lost it” or “sold out” after “Living Doll.” On the pronounced contrary, in the Shadows’ company he was still eager to rock in late 1961 – hear his “call of the gypsy woman” (and remember what he and Bruce Welch would do with that cry fifteen years later) or his throbbing “voodoo/do do” couplets, backed by requisite handclaps and whoops, and it’s evident that he’s trying, really and still trying, to cut into the throb of Elvis.

But then other hands who think they know better start interfering. In his sleevenote – as occurs with so many album sleevenotes of this era – Johnson inevitably speaks of Cliff’s gradual transformation into an All-Round (Family) Entertainer and in 1961 you couldn’t really blame Cliff, or anyone else, for going along with this; by then most of the original rockers had burned themselves out, died, got religion, been excommunicated or been neutered and the Beatles were still a bunch of Toxteth scruffs hustling for coins and nights of modest passion in Liverpool and Hamburg. But as soon as the deliberately and infuriatingly coy backing singers simper their way into “Catch Me” the effect is instantly deadening and you can hear Cliff’s interest reducing from top to second gear. Although Hank does his best to make the track interesting – his writhing, descending crescendos after “tumble” and “all over the place” for example – it’s a losing battle; when a song’s central lyrical conceit is “take my tipsy heart,” there is realistically little that anyone could do to improve it.

Yet “Catch Me” is the essence of vivid vitality when set next to “How Wonderful To Know,” the first of several identikit 6/8 ballads which finds Cliff backed by Norrie Paramor and his glutinous orchestra and chorus. Now it’s Cliff’s turn to attempt to turn this leaden dirge into something resembling gold (more fool him) with his idly descending “Share-this-love-with-you” incline and his Hertfordshire ski slope of “How-ow-ow-ooh woo-oooo-onderful” but again his endeavour fails; with ration book homilies such as “now and hereafter” to hand, it is what Lena describes as a starched white tablecloth of a song, something even Donny Osmond might have bridled at recording.

Worse is to come on “50 Tears For Every Kiss” where Paramor decorates/obscures Cliff’s remorse (“I bought so many kisses” – Lena terms this as “the accountant’s drinking song”) with that depressingly and eerily familiar 101 Strings anaesthesia of cascading streams of dog-pitched fluid. “To Prove My Love For You” is so deferentially mild that we might as well be listening to Dickie Valentine, and in 1951 rather than 1961; like one of those pink-topped cakes from Greggs The Bakers, it is wholly a case of icing without character obscuring the song’s taste. “Outsider” features a Cliff as glum as I’ve ever heard him, dutifully clocking in for another day of joyless labouring because it’s the right thing to do rather than something that he wants to do; as with many of these songs, we could be listening to bargain basement Elvis soundtrack rejects (and given that many of these songs were composed by Col Parker publishing contract hacks Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett it’s little surprise); Cliff sings disinterestedly about “our favourite melodies” (is this 1861?) and is regularly interrupted by a ghastly sub-Stargazers choir (“SO MUCH!”) so by the time he gloomily concludes “Outsider – that’s me” his misery is manifest. “A Mighty Lonely Man” does, as a song, give Cliff a little bit more to chew on (or into), but again, lines such as “a foolish, foolish fool” give limited scope for meaningful interpretation; to his credit, the singer does loosen up, stretching out his vowels, keeping the song within his seldom heard bass range, but once more the abominable Home Service backing stingers scupper any attempt at poignancy or depth; we are left with the impression (as Lena puts it) of a diet Elvis, a low sodium Billy Fury.

Back, without much or any regret, to the Shadows-backed tracks; “Tough Enough” is lyrically terrible – night rhymes with moonlight, and marvel at “Hey good people, gonna make her my wife!” – but Cliff has great fun working with seven different varieties of “oooo-wee!” and palpably comes alive again. “The Night Is So Lonely” revisits the 6/8 ballad formula but the Shadows lend a naturally livelier approach than Paramor and at least sound more committed musically, even if they nullify the track with some dreadful echt-Jordanaires harmonies. A far more interesting track is “Poor Boy”; although broadly uptempo and acoustic (in the “Apache”/”Wonderful Land” sense), Cliff, echoing at an odd off-mike angle (and thus sounding like proto-dub), treats it as a study in blue melancholia in his then slightly strained upper register, and the cumulative effect is unsettling; rather than commiserating with the hapless victim of love, Cliff at times sounds as though he’s offering himself as an alternative.

Then, however, we reach the album’s nadir, “Y’arriva,” an active equivalent to the drawling, sated passivity of Sinatra’s “South Of The Border” – but that’s as far as I’m taking that particular comparison. From the opening “Way down in the land of sunny Mexico” we know we are set for a journey into light entertainment hell, and so it proves to be the case; here Cliff is the hapless tourist chatting up the local ladies and being railroaded out of town by stock local heavies and he has audible difficulty keeping a straight face; the chorus, as such, is drowned out by proto-Tremeloes yelps of “arriva” (rather than the actual “ariba”) and “andale,” and with a rhyming schemata which allows “In Spanish this means I’m hee-ya!” we are less in the land of Malcolm Lowry and more in the land of Peter Glaze on Crackerjack. The comparison Lena extemporised here was one of what Mexican food might have been like in the London of 1961 (if anyone is old enough to remember what it was like, then please add your comments at the bottom) – nice try but nowhere near (or, indeed, the tourist London of 2009 and specifically “Mexican” restaurants in Greenwich; who the hell thought that tortillas and pasta went together?).

Remember, however, that Cliff was now A Man, Old Enough To Vote, Put Away Those Childish Things Yes Mr Paramor Sir, and thus had to Broaden His Appeal. Thus the execrable novelty numbers; but also more interesting excursions like his lounge/cocktail reading of “Tea For Two” with a gently swinging Shadows (although they unaccountably swing into full blown cha-cha in the bridge, perhaps in misguided tribute to the “Tea For Two Cha-Cha” top three hit achieved by the posthumous Tommy Dorsey Orchestra three years earlier), although the active serenity is briefly broken up by a demented five-second Tony Meehan drum solo and marred by a missed dive by Cliff in the song’s first climax where he aims for a high final syllable on “telephone” but his subsequent “yeah” completely misses the key change. His vaguely sensual purr of “onnnn” in the song’s final furlong is quite something, however. His “My Blue Heaven” is similarly but even more minimally structured; apart from some discreet piano chords by Hank (and his rather bizarre piano introduction), a quickfire guitar solo midsong and the straight faced quick march middle eights, Cliff is largely accompanied by bass and drums alone and curiously sounds twice his age – in fact, there’s a sudden richness and bottoming out of his voice which sounds remarkably like the Cliff of 1982, but more about the latter when we get there (or thereabouts).

“Without You” is one of those rare things, a song with a Cliff composer credit (together with Marvin and Welch), and churns along as an agreeable rocker, albeit broken apart by a furiously echoed Marvin solo halfway through and ultimately ruined by the unsolicited return of that stupid backing choir (the Mike Sammes Singers?) at the end. Still, one has to wonder about Cliff’s world; he declares that without his Other, he does not wish to “go on a kissing spree.” Quite apart from having to find something to rhyme with “me,” this is surely unique (or as unique as makes no difference) in British or indeed any pop; a kissing “spree”? And whom would he be proposing to kiss if not his other half? Would he perchance venture out with a shopping list of potential targets (see also the King Brothers’ somewhat creepy “Standing On The Corner” from the spring of 1960)? It’s truly baffling.

Proceedings, and the party, are wound up, however, by “Shame On You,” another Shadows-penned rocker with another bemusing central refrain – “Oh, naughty girl” – with a bamboozling mass cascade of “WHYYYYY” and “WAAAAAAAH” following Cliff’s phrase “pretend to cry.” Still, the Cliff of 1961 sounds eminently happier, infinitely more relaxed and far more convincing when rocking with the Shadows than he does when being – well, told what to do, what is right and proper for a Man of His Age. On the rear of the album sleeve he is pictured in a dark suit and tie, proferring bilateral thumbs-up, but not quite smiling. And on his actual 21st birthday, he was dutifully boarding a ‘plane to embark upon his first tour of Australia . Notice that prominent “key to the door” (though Johnson seems to prefer “key of the door”) superimposed on the cover. What if the key led to another cell? Actually, it would lead to a renovated barn, and then to a number nine Routemaster bus (revolution?) but these are tales for other times. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to consider that cake, and the candles which are almost crushing it, in the light of the cake we’ll see at the other end of this decade.