Sunday, 17 July 2011

PETERS and LEE: We Can Make It

(#128: 18 August 1973, 2 weeks)

Track listing: All Change Places/I'm Confessin'/Take To The Mountains/Turn To Me/There They Go/We Can Make It/Let It Be Me/Cryin' In The Rain/Good Morning Freedom/Cryin' Time/Never My Love/Welcome Home

"From the moment they started to sing, the whole studio was filled with a great warmth, not just because they make a beautiful sound, but because they are both very beautiful people."
Royston Mayoh, producer of Opportunity Knocks, from his sleevenote to We Can Make It

"We're here...then we're not here. We're somewhere else. Maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?"
Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) to Braddock (John Hurt), from the film The Hit, 1984)

The Hit, directed by Stephen Frears, was maybe the first modern British gangster movie. True, The Long Good Friday was set in the present (1980) time but still seemed umbilically attached to the tradition which Get Carter had set a decade earlier (if "traditions" can be said to stretch over just one decade), but this road movie seemed more prophetic of the neutered, ineffective hideaways of such successors as Sexy Beast (Ray Winstone could almost be Tim Roth grown a generation, still having learned next to nothing), not to mention the gradual, voyeuristic glamourisation of gangland practised by Guy Ritchie and others. In The Hit, however, the picture is more jumbled; Stamp's supergrass, exiled in Goya's Spain for a full ten years after sending some former associates down with his testimony, seems to accept the arrival of his executors with calm, verging on cold, acceptance. He is supposed to be delivered to Paris to meet his fate, but soon we know that, like Lorca's Cordoba-bound horseman, he will never make it out of Spain. But he is not quite a regenerated, resigned John Donne; he subtly plays Hurt's robot professional and Roth's hardnut trainee against each other through their various adventures. The inevitable bloodbath occurs, but as Fernando Rey's police catch up with Hurt's Braddock, he has absorbed Willie Parker's unreachable coolness, become Parker.

The crime lord Parker sent down we only see at the beginning of the picture, as he is led down from the courtroom into the cells - he is hardly in shot for more than a few seconds, but his impassive glower casts a shade over the rest of the film which the plentiful sun cannot obscure or supersede. He looks, stares, although of course he cannot see. His name is Mr Corrigan, and he is played by Lennie Peters.

It is something to consider when one looks at the purple-dominant sleeve of We Can Make It, Peters and Lee's first and most successful album; Dianne Lee looks the picture of Test Card girl purity, but despite his homely smile one senses that Peters is concealing something; more pronounced is the high probability that, despite his blindness, there is the vaguely suggested ruthlessness of someone who could order your head to be taken off your shoulders if he so felt. There is a bigness to Peters which doesn't quite fit in with the intended cosy listening profile; he appears ready to burst out.

His history is accounted for in different ways; some stories claim that in his sixties days of pub and club work he was close friends with, and was promoted, or even protected, by, the Krays. What is certain is that he was not born with his blindness (although estimates of his year of birth vary, he was certainly born at some point in the thirties); when he was five, he was knocked down by a car while crossing the road, losing the sight in his left eye, and ten years later, upon remonstrating with a group of youths about throwing stones and disturbing his sunbathing, a brick was thrown directly in his face, causing permanent damage to his right eye.

He grew up in north London, was even one of Charlie Watts' uncles. He seems to have become seriously involved in music in the early sixties; the Migil Five of "Mockingbird Hill" fame were originally formed as his backing band. He worked solidly throughout the decade and issued the odd single here and there but greater success eluded him. While doing a summer season in 1970 he met with Dianne Lee, then principally a dancer and aspiring actress; they got on (though were never romantically involved) sufficiently that Lee became his backing singer; the duo's sound was refined (and made closer) with experience and in 1973 they managed to win a slot on Opportunity Knocks. Less an everyman's scenario of getting in ordinary people with extraordinary talents off the street, the show concentrated more on semi-established club and cabaret acts seeking a big break. They appeared, and won the show for the next seven weeks; it was not until the third or fourth week that Peters revealed his blindness. Their popularity was sudden and immense; the single of "Welcome Home" made number one and stayed on the chart for six months, and this album, masterminded by Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield's old Philips team (producer John Franz and arranger Peter Knight) quickly followed.

What to say of We Can Make It in 2011, other than the title's implied reaching out of hands to a beleagured British public desperate and hungry for the smallest crumb of warm reassurance? On the most superficial level it is a typical MoR record of, and firmly entrenched in, its time, with a boxed-in production and the general, slightly anaesthetising feel of music played to Co-Op shoppers.

On a deeper level it indicates the importance of establishing a distinctive and successful vocal harmony out of two fundamentally unremarkable voices. It's no accident that side two begins with two consecutive Everly Brothers covers; despite the already dated "Willesden Sound" reggae arrangement of "Cryin' In The Rain," these tracks demonstrate how much stronger Peters and Lee's voices were together than they were separately, especially when they take their solo turns. Peters is clearly the stronger singer, with an appealing brand of post-Ray Charles bluffness to his voice, although it is arguable that such voices could be found in any pub of a musical evening (Blackpool in the early-to-mid seventies, for instance, was, as I know from personal experience, full of Lennie Peters types, boisterously playing the hits of the day and silently wishing that somebody would come up and ask them to play Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays"; my father, indeed, made that very request to the pianist/singer in one restaurant in the summer of 1970 and he seemed startled but pleased - I cannot with certainty either deny or confirm that the pianist/singer was Lennie Peters since this would certainly have been part of his circuit at the time). Lee, on the other hand, really couldn't sing, at least not at this point - there is a Dusty-ish timbre to her voice but the best that can be said is that, when unaccompanied, she just about manages to stay in tune.

But when singing together, this somehow doesn't matter; indeed the underlying semi-amateurism is quite appealing, and both voices cancel out the failings of the other. Hear, for instance, the really rather touching ballad "Turn To Me," which is "Reach Out, I'll Be There" as Scott might have conceived it, so much so that Knight reproduces the intro and outro from Walker's "Rosemary" at song's beginning and end. And there is something surprisingly moving about the largely unspoken struggle of the pair to make sense of a nonsensical 1973 world, or the good fist they make of Tony Hiller and Ivor Raymonde's title track. "We can make it to the other side," their voices reassure us; hang on, we know the way even if one of us can't see (recall also Walker's highly pertinent "Such A Small Love").

When they don't strive for effect, Peters and Lee do well, and I think prospered over the coming decade because they knew their limitations. They turn "I'm Confessin'" into an affectionate little Satchmo tribute (complete with vocal impressions by Peters) with some nice spoken interplay: "It's too late for that, honey," whispers Lee's Home Counties vamp. Their reading of Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time" is aptly claustrophobic, conjuring up images of darkened front rooms, endless soul searching (why does this happen every time to Peters' protagonist?), Cresta cans, The Changes and Fred Trueman's Indoor League and other 1973 detritus, whereas their version of Blue Mink's "Good Morning Freedom" is bouncily optimistic in a let's-take-this-kandy-kolored-VW-camper-van-to-Maidstone sort of way. The Association's immortal "Never My Love" is recast as a Crown Paints commercial, complete with Pete Murray's Open House/Northern Dance Orchestra trumpet/flute unisons, and if this version doesn't begin to approach the heartrending profundity of the original (because, as they always did at their best, the Association sound as though they're holding something back; the ambiguous final chord of "Cherish," the simultaneous medium and fast tempo playouts of "Windy," the deceptive, full-throated plaintiveness of "Everything That Touches You") it says: well, we're reaching our destination, let's settle and sit down, and will this do? At this point, you feel, anything would.

Even on more challenging material they mostly retain their assurance. The opening "All Change Places," written by two chaps named David Gold and John Garfield, about whom I've been able to find out next to nothing, is the record's fiercest gauntlet; there's the warmongering general sending people to their deaths, here's the old guy queuing up in the Post Office for his pension - wouldn't it be so much better, the duo beam vibrantly at us, if they could change, not just places, but faces, for a day? The arrangement suggests a development of Mike Vickers' chart for Cilla Black's "Surround Yourself With Sorrow"; the sympathies the song is expressing aren't that far away from those of Prufrock (and how right that, at virtually the same time as this record, Eliot should be cited in the singer's notes to Let's Get It On - literally, everything that We Can Make It isn't, or wouldn't want to be. There is no sex here - "If I Should Die Tonight" is very far from either singer's mind - but neither is there a "Just To Keep You Satisfied" with which to close down the planet). They don't quite meet the challenges posed by Tony Hazzard's exceptionally strange "Take To The Mountains," a minor Top 40 hit for ex-Quiet Five singer and future West End rep reliable Richard Barnes three years previously, and the buried vocal mix doesn't help matters, but still the feeling of communal escape is unavoidable, the repeated refrain "No peace of mind" softly hammering at us over and over - it is simultaneously the more sober and the more abstract mirror of "Good Morning Freedom." Wherever you go, Peters might have reflected, you end up having to take yourself with you. Only Harold Dorman's clunky reggae-lite song "There They Go" doesn't work; the lightness the song needs to balance out its shadows isn't achieved in the production's murkiness, and the alternating of solo voices is perhaps unhelpful.

The record closes with "Welcome Home" itself; an adaptation of a French song entitled "Vivre," and a record which, I think, did as much to pull together an alienated 1973 Britain, or at least part of it, as "Merry Xmas Everybody" (each song pulled together separate strands of the same society). In some ways, it's a deliberately old-fashioned record; it could almost stand as a displaced WWII anthem with its huge choirs, soaring strings, homely guitar (possibly played by Derek Bailey, who was present on the sessions), slightly disturbing echoes of bass voices and subtle spreading out of its initial miss-you loneliness until the singers turn, face the world and sing to their audience. Such essential good-heartedness was rare in that season's pop, and I still find it an almost unbearably poignant performance - here, in all places and on/of all records, is a scenario which ends with the words "You're home once more."

"One person with two voices," Lena calls it, and each half makes the other complete. I think of another P&L - the McCartneys - and how Linda's vocals, while not especially outstanding in themselves, prove themselves indispensable to the whole. And we can also look back obviously to the Everlys, and look forward less obviously to the untutored female voices which will work to startling effect in just over eight years' time. As for Peters and Lee, although the hits dried up after 1976, they remained a hugely popular act on stage and television; they split in 1980, and Peters continued as a soloist for a while, with only limited success. They reunited in 1986 and continued to work together sporadically until Peters' death from bone cancer in 1992. Lee meanwhile went on to marry ex-Move/Wizzard bassist Rick Price, and both now perform as a double act. But it is perhaps wise to reflect on how hard won this return home was, particularly for Peters; there is menace in his unseen eyes but also much evidence of trouble and pain, despite his gamely smiles (and yes, he also appears briefly in The Long Good Friday, near the beginning). The predominant message from this collection to its purchasers and listeners, however, is unmissable; don't be scared. You know the game.