Tuesday 4 January 2011

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Fantastic Hits


(#114: 12 August 1972, 5 weeks; 30 September 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Maggie May (Rod Stewart)/One Bad Apple (The Osmonds)/Pushbike Song (The Mixtures)/Brand New Key (Melanie)/Early In The Morning (Vanity Fare)/Coz I Luv You (Slade)/Johnny Reggae (The Piglets)/(Blame It) On The Pony Express (Johnny Johnson & his Bandwagon)/My World (The Bee Gees)/Candida (Dawn)/Beg, Steal Or Borrow (The New Seekers)/La La Means I Love You (The Delfonics)/The Baby (The Hollies)/Puppy Love (Donny Osmond)/Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) (Edison Lighthouse)/I’m Gonna Make You Mine (Lou Christie)/Can’t Let You Go (Barry Ryan)/Beautiful Sunday (Daniel Boone)/What Have They Done To My Song Ma? (Melanie)/Blue Is The Colour (Chelsea Football Team)

Following the success of 20 Dynamic Hits, K-Tel’s would-be rivals were quick to offer competition, and the American-based Arcade company was first off the mark. On the face of it, 20 Fantastic Hits offers overall a better deal, with four number ones (four more than Dynamic) and a few tracks which have some relevance to 1972. As a listening experience, however, it falters badly; Dynamic may have been put together on the turn of a dime but its sequencing does have a dim sense of logic, whereas with the nearly unending broth of blandness offered on Fantastic, the wonder, again, is how glam took so long to happen, given the supposed competition.

It was all to do with licensing, of course, and where K-Tel had enlisted the cooperation and recent back catalogues of EMI and CBS, Arcade relied mainly on hits from the Polydor and Bell labels, with a smattering of offerings from Larry Page’s labels (Page One/Penny Farthing) and one from Mercury. The latter was “Maggie May” which is placed first in sequence – and uncut – as if to shame nearly everything that follows in its wake; this song recurs at least twice more in the course of the seventies, but one thinks, once more, of Ronnie Wood’s comments that these songs (the early Rod classics) were more or less “designed in the pub” and then taken to the studio for a good shakedown.

Next come the Osmonds; “One Bad Apple,” their sole US number one as a group, did no business here and it’s maybe not surprising to see why; as a Jackson 5 wannabe this song hunches down where it should stride, settles for politesse rather than explosions of freshness. And as a Michael Jackson hopeful (“NOOOO!!!”), Donny simply doesn’t cut it. He did much better on “Puppy Love,” the moment Britain capitulated (and also the moment that the family had passed its commercial peak in the States) – his pleas of “Someone help me! Help me PLEEEEEEASE!” are justly celebrated, but the remarkable thing about his vocal performance here is how much it resembles Karen Carpenter (a good deal more oomph, perhaps, but far closer to Karen than the currently overexposed Rumer). Then the Osmonds, as a group, cleaned up in Britain with some great singles (“Crazy Horses,” “Goin’ Home,” the Wilson-esque “Let Me In”) and a baffling and nearly brilliant concept album (The Plan), while Donny took care of the teens, Little Jimmy mopped up the pre-teens and Marie briefly entertained the country and western constituency before teaming up with Donny in an increasingly silly television series; why the duo never made a single out of “I’m A Little Bit Country/I’m A Little Bit Rock And Roll” remains a puzzle.

But “Pushbike Song” really is next to nothing; failing Melbourne beat group the Mixtures had, largely thanks to a 1970 radio ban on major record company product on Australian radio, experienced a brief career revival with a Xerox cover of Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime”; the soundalike “Pushbike” followed – an utterly charmless indulgence in the period’s quite uncalled-for boom in twee twenties revivalism which climbed to number two in our charts and stayed there for nearly half a year.

Yet more in the same nagging vein follows with the abominable Melanie. The fact that hers is not the worst version of “Brand New Key” to top anyone’s chart – a US number one, a UK #4 – does not reduce the death ray of Ms Safka’s appalling, migraine-inducing bleat. Worse yet is her original and interminable reading of “What Have They Done To My Song Ma?” (as it is listed on the sleeve, rather than “Look What They’ve Done...”) in which she whinges, in two languages, for several centuries. “It’s like listening to low fat yoghurt singing,” said Lena, and she, as ever, is right. How this buffoon ever conned enough bedsit inhabitants to keep her wretched Candles In The Rain on the album chart for eight months is yet another candidate for an episode of Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries.

It doesn’t get any better; not immediately, anyway. So restricted in choice were Arcade that they had to resort to including two tracks from 1969. Vanity Fare’s “Early In The Morning” is a pierced spitoon of pleomorphic piss, the exception to the general rule that records including harpsichords cannot be less than great, a soft-pop ballad so feeble you just want to pick it up, take it to the vet’s and have it humanely put out of its misery. One does see the point behind the success of “Hitchin’ A Ride,” an altogether superior song and record, but clearly the song’s co-author Mike Leander needed to drag himself closer to the lit window to get back into pop again. Could this really have gone as high as number eight in Britain and number twelve in the States? Were people content with this nullifying Nurofen pill of a pop record?

“Coz I Luv You” tramples all this crap into the ground, and dances proudly on their ashes. The arrival of Noddy Holder & Co. arrives like the most blessed blast of oxygen; at last, here is a pop record with architecture, attraction, cheek, nerve, uncertainty and vividly gaudy colours; building up very carefully from its “Have I The Right?” rhythmic template towards a terrifying but elating mass boot stomp climax, Holder displays all the rancorous vulnerability of Lennon at his best, while Jim Lea’s bass playing is several stops past inspired and his violin is better still, never quite deciding whether to be Dave Swarbrick or atomise into John Cale atonality; it’s the knife-edge that keeps us all hooked. It made number one in a fortnight and still feels like British pop being kicked awake with an electrified cattle prod, and I look forward to returning to Slade in more depth and detail in the very near future.

Skipping smartly past the deliberately daft yet distinctly disturbing bubblegum of “Johnny Reggae” (“He always looks me in the eye when he shoots,” squeals the record’s lead singer, Barbara Kay, whom you may recall ripping up “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” on Top Of The Pops Volume 18, while Johnny Arthey deftly sends up his own “Willesden Sound” string arranging style), the record relapses into hopeful blandness. Poor Johnny Johnson never quite surpassed “Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache,” and although “Pony Express” got him back into the top ten, its Macaulay/Greenaway/Cook confectionery is so fragile, it’s all he can do to keep the song and record afloat – James Brown grunts, howls, purrs; you name it, he tries it, but the song is too feeble to be supported. Taken by cancer at thirty-five, the New Yorker deserved much better.

The Gibb brothers, too, could have done with a better introduction into this tale; “My World” went transatlantic top twenty but sees them in the firmest of ruts, still in 1968 with their Fairchild-compressed big balladry – and this ballad mopes on forever, with the usual daft Gibb attention to lyrical detail (“I’ve written to you nearly every day”). No wonder Arif Mardin needed to save their hides with Mr Natural only a couple of years later. Side one slopes to an anticlimactic end with Dawn’s dreadful “Candida” (Lena’s response: “Cher would have something to say about gypsies!”) and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this side of music represents all the crappy things from the sixties, magnified and polished up, all the name of some elusive, i.e. non-existent, “authenticity.”

Side two offers little in the way of remedy. “Beg, Steal Or Borrow” was Britain’s 1972 Eurovision entry, and like so much else on this record, sounds like the musical interlude from the Morecambe And Wise Show - desperate not to offend anybody, harmless and toothless. What a deliverance, therefore, to come across “La La Means I Love You” – at last, here we have a record constructed with emotion, style and intelligence, a sunny punnet of deceptive strawberry lightness, Thom Bell’s proto-Philly magic approaching its bluest. It’s like a grown man amongst stultified children.

Whereas “The Baby” is just mystifying; not that it isn’t a good song – it was written by Chip Taylor and its sinister musings on “the passion of the spring” would be more intriguing if, say, Bobbie Gentry or Dobie Gray had sung it – but that, with its bongos, sitar-FX and strings, and, above all, its unstable deep lead vocal, it sounds nothing like the Hollies. Allan Clarke had briefly quit to pursue an unsuccessful solo career; in his absence the Swedish Mikael Rickfors was drafted in as lead singer, and abruptly introduced a darkness to the group absent since the departure of Graham Nash. Rickfors stayed for two albums and one tour; it seemed a brave attempt to break with the group’s past but audiences were baffled and/or hostile and Clarke soon returned. “The Baby” represents a modest but intriguing entry in the directory of what-ifs in British pop.

No need to dwell overly on “Love Grows”; its natural, smiling ebullience made it a fine choice for first UK number one of the seventies (it smiles “Here comes the new decade!,” hangs out the bunting, and is the well-mannered British equivalent to “I Want You Back”); Tony Burrows’ grin is both audible and infectious. “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” – the second 1969 track – works well within its limitations, too; Lou Christie was in fairly dire need of a hit, his startling experiments in sixties pop having slightly trailed off, and Tony Romeo duly supplied him with a lifeline, Christie’s joyous falsetto instinctively blends in with the female backing singers on each chorus, and the reputation of the harpsichord in pop is rescued. Still, it didn’t prepare unwary listeners for 1971’s astonishing Paint America Love album; track it down and you’ll believe that Walt Whitman was alive and well and living in Laurel Canyon with a harmonica and encyclopaedic orchestra for company.

These are about the last highlights on the record. Barry Ryan, together with his songwriting twin Paul (in the mid-sixties they were our Bros), had been responsible for some of the most startling records in turn-of-the-decade British pop; “Eloise” apparently helped inspire “Bohemian Rhapsody” and still sounds unreachable, abstruse, bewitching, frightening, while subsequent singles such as “Love Is Love,” “The Hunt,” “Kitsch” and “Red Man” did progressively less business at home but cleaned up on the Continent (Ryan became a superstar in Germany and Holland) and took the “Eloise” template out even further; the debut Barry Ryan Sings Paul Ryan and its eponymous follow-up both sound like an unholy marriage between Lionel Bart and Alban Berg (which, via Ryan’s vocal stylings, would eventually give birth to Meat Loaf). The experiments carried on until well into the seventies, following which Ryan’s other career as a photographer took priority (as it continues to do to this day), but by 1972 he was evidently in need of a hit at home, thus the wholly unremarkable Russ Ballard-authored proto-schaffel rocker “Can’t Let You Go” with only a moderately interested lead vocal and a flatness of production which bunked in at #32 on our chart. All that remains is to document the two contributions of Birmingham’s Daniel Boone; he had the original UK hit version of the Wayne Newton weepie “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” but “Beautiful Sunday,” endlessly played and covered at the time, was his moment; booming bass drum, early seventies British polite optimism, huge in Scotland. He also composed “Blue Is The Colour” for Chelsea’s 1972 League Cup campaign (they made it to the final but were unexpectedly beaten 2-1 by Stoke City) and while Osgood, Bonetti, Hudson and colleagues give it their best shot, and while it still remains an anthem at Stamford Bridge, it’s hardly the most dynamic of football anthems (perhaps it’s my being Scottish, and therefore being spoiled by “Easy, Easy” and “I Have A Dream,” but it lacks a certain chétif) and scarcely an arousing, or even awakening, end to this rather listless collection. For the most part, then, well-behaved middle-of-the-road pop with only a couple of spikes to indicate how rapidly all of this was going to be overturned - "Original Artists" or not.