Wednesday 22 August 2012

Cliff RICHARD: 40 Golden Greats

(#191: 5 November 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: Move It/Livin’ Doll/Travellin’ Light/Fall In Love With You/Please Don’t Tease/Nine Times Out Of Ten/Theme For A Dream/Gee Whizz It’s You/When The Girl In Your Arms/A Girl Like You/The Young Ones/Do You Want To Dance?/I’m Lookin’ Out The Window/It’ll Be Me/Bachelor Boy/The Next Time/Summer Holiday/Lucky Lips/It’s All In The Game/Don’t Talk To Him/Constantly/On The Beach/I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)/The Minute You’re Gone/Wind Me Up (Let Me Go)/Visions/Blue Turns To Grey/In The Country/The Day I Met Marie/All My Love/Congratulations/Throw Down A Line/Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha/Sing A Song Of Freedom/Power To All Our Friends/(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On/Miss You Nights/Devil Woman/I Can’t Ask For Anymore Than You/My Kinda Life

Given that this year has already seen the return of Sinatra, the Shadows, the Beatles and Elvis (though half of these were posthumous returns), it was only logical that we should see the return of Cliff. But isn’t there something ominous about these gatherings, in the same way that, when jumping from a tall building, you are said to see your whole life flashing before your eyes on your way to the ground and a messy demise? It is as though the whole history of popular music has returned to dazzle us once again, one last, fierce burn of the filament before the light goes out forever. It feels like we are heading towards something, something not very obviously welcoming and profoundly disturbing.

That payoff is yet to come – although we are now only a few feet from the pavement, in the hope we might plunge into an underlying beach – but for now, let us examine the strange case of Cliff Richard. “Oh yeah, the British Elvis,” said Paul Simon on breakfast television once, a soft smirk on his face, when asked for his views on Cliff, but not only do I not think that a particularly fitting description of the singer, in the same way that he is not the British Johnny Hallyday or Adriano Celentano, but also that the story presented here – the fourth and, I am relieved to say, last of the forty-track TV-advertised double compilations which have studded this year like formica sarcophagi – is something like Elvis in reverse; it starts doubtful and lost, then steadily moves towards what its singer probably wanted all along.

Moving it, indeed. It’s a strange cover, even by EMI Golden Greats standards, and the two monochrome pictures inside hardly dispel wariness; in one, taken at the beginning of his career, he looks like a Bollywood Presley, while in the other, taken contemporaneously, he is singing, looking pained and agonised, like a cross between Scott Walker and David Cassidy. The self-deprecatory sleevenote by Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch does well to cover the feeling that, whenever Cliff reached an artistic impasse, he called on at least one Shadow to help him through.

Even with “Move It,” his introductory hit from 1958, and therefore by law the track that opens all Cliff greatest hits collections, one gets the feeling that the act then known as The Drifters were already racing ahead of him. His vocal is far closer to Jerry Lee than Elvis, and one wonders at his belief in the long-term power of rock ‘n’ roll, his expressed preference being for “real country music that just drives along.” No other nascent Britrock anthem, to my knowledge, flies the flag for country music, and already he sounds distracted, a heart not fully in it.

The compilation then leapfrogs his entire “rock ‘n’ roll” career to land at “Livin’ Doll,” and for an all-round entertainment crossover hit it remains exceptionally creepy; he’s going to keep his girl locked up in a trunk? Like Bryan Ferry – another Libra – Cliff seems obsessed with pursuing the notion of the Ideal Woman, who in all probability does not, and never can, exist. In the follow-up, “Travellin’ Light,” there is no gravity to speak of. “I’m travellin’ so fast/My feet ain’t touchin’ the ground” – the Peter Pan of pop, anyone? And we all know what happens to Peter Pan at the end of his story, when he tries to fly through the barred windows. Like the Edge a generation later, Hank’s guitar seems free of hands.

As the sixties arrived, he and the Shadows continued in this vein, more etiolated than ethereal, Marvin’s Morse code single notes being yanked out like stray hairs. “Fall In Love With You” and “Please Don’t Tease” are moderately interesting in that they deal with British sexual reticence in differing ways – in one, he sings “Please give me one more chance/This is my first romance,” and in the other he chides, “You love me like a hurricane/And then you start to freeze” – but a certain neutered bloodlessness takes over (so neutered that his Christmas 1960 chart-topper “I Love You” is omitted completely).

It is a wonder how any of his work from this period can be taken seriously; the cumulative effect of listening to dreck like “Theme For A Dream” (with its atrocious dolly bird backing vocals) and “A Girl Like You” is numbing, clinical, the same dentist’s waiting room feeling I’ve felt listening through so many of these number one collections – was blandness really all that mainstream 1977 Britain wanted? This music is so anaemic one longs to drag it to A&E and undertake a four-unit blood transfusion; and yet I suspect Norrie Paramor at Columbia Records designed it as such. Even rockers like “Nine Times Out Of Ten” (featuring Cliff’s priceless “Well!”s and “Yeah!”s, as though just having spotted a two-for-one Golden Delicious bargain at his local Tesco’s) and “Gee Whizz It’s You” don’t make it past the first hurdle, or if they do, it’s entirely down to the Shadows; they roar out of the pitstop for their instrumental break on “Gee Whizz” as though liberated by the British Army (and it’s hardly surprising that any frustration they did harbour was channelled through the far more vital work the group did in their own name).

Film themes like “The Young Ones” and “Summer Holiday” point forward to a hopelessly optimistic future for Britain, and are here mixed with morose ballads – the bizarre “I’m Lookin’ Out The Window,” with his one suit that he wears every day, still searching for his Ideal, is like a crude template for the Scott Walker of half a decade hence – not wholly convincing rockers (his “Do You Want To Dance?” is a failed affair, from its emasculated title downwards, but he does better doing actual Jerry Lee, chuckling his way to the future – “a rocket ship bound for Mars,” “Ah, keep on lookin’, y’all!” – in “It’ll Be Me”) and baffling curveballs like “Bachelor Boy” (which, I now see, points the way directly, both musically and lyrically, to “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”).

Then it was 1963, and the Beatles and Co. had happened, and Cliff was suddenly adrift. Listening to things like the ghastly “Lucky Lips” – even Leiber and Stoller, like Homer, occasionally nodded – it is easy to see why the Beatles had to happen; I don’t think it an over-generalisation, and indeed would still think of it as a truism, to say that the fundamental difference between American and British popular music is that American musicians sound as though they mean it, that they have something to say, to communicate, whereas British musicians primarily seek to impress their superiors and not upset their audiences – so, apart from big exceptions like the Beatles or the Pistols or the Smiths, everyone has an eye on the catch-all/impress-none demographic, or getting a major label deal, or not rocking the boat. British pop quite often has to apologise for being both British and pop, and I think Cliff at his most eager to please, and therefore at his worst, exemplifies this tendency; the same sinking feeling one experiences at seeing diet this or that light in the supermarket, blanded out, neither lovable nor detestable, just in the middle, taking up space, appealing to “everyone,” ultimately an obstruction, a sustained exercise in self-denial (“yes, just give us individual slices of cheesecake because we deserve no better – not like those vulgar Americans who eat WHOLE cheesecakes!” If ever a nation needed a kick up the backside, followed by being dragged by the scruff of the neck, at bayonet point, into the future, Britain still does).

The first half of 40 Golden Greats ends with his tremulous reading of “It’s All In The Game”; he still hasn’t sorted out his lower range, but now he sounds more like an adult, and has the Mike Sammes Singers rather than Estuary-accented dolly birds backing him; this is the beginning of the mature ballad style which will eventually transmutate into the Cliff we know today. Meanwhile, “Don’t Talk To Him” musically acknowledges that there is now this thing called Merseybeat, but remains one of the most paranoid pop hits of its, or any, time, even with its built-in archaisms (“Sue and Jean,” “merely a whim”). Both songs were, I note, kept off number one by “She Loves You.”

As disc two commences (after three record-only double album excursions, or regimens, I felt it right to go for the luxury of the CD edition), we find Cliff in 1964, still busy working things, and himself, out. “Constantly,” a song of French origin, offers him more challenging ballad material, both harmonically and lyrically. “On The Beach,” however, tries too hard to recapture the old magic, with its numerous, desperate lyrical and musical references to bossa nova and “Twist And Shout.” “I Could Easily Fall,” his Christmas offering of that year, is a clumsy mongrelisation of ’63 Beatles and ’62 Elvis with ’64 Supremes handclaps. Number one in the chart at the time was “I Feel Fine”; he was in danger of being lapped on the track.

Perhaps mercifully, his two biggest hits of 1965 – “The Minute You’re Gone” and “Wind Me Up” – were recorded well away from Mr Paramor, in Nashville under the watchful eye of Billy Sherrill. He gives “The Minute” a fine, concentrated reading and it deservedly put him back at number one. “Wind Me Up,” however, is the first in a bizarre series of what I can only describe as melancholic fourth-wall lectures, or pleas, to his audience. He casts himself as a tin soldier – though he was doing pantomime at the time – who is, as he has been in previous tracks, on the shelf. “You don’t really need me/When there’s a hundred other toys,” he sings, and if this sentiment is not that far away from that of Altered Images’ “Dead Pop Stars,” then I think it intentional; he senses that his time might be stumbling to an end, and may even be quietly saying a coded goodbye to his fans, or at least testing their loyalty. “Visions,” from 1966, continues in much the same vein, with one of the most desolate middle-eights in British pop; two repeats of “When will we meet again/When, when, when?” Perhaps to prove to himself as much as his fans that he still knew what time it was, he commissioned “Blue Turns To Grey” from Jagger and Richards, and despite the song’s melodic resemblance to “Here Comes The Night,” he does surprisingly well with a very characteristic Stones riff (and Hank doesn’t do a bad Keef impression either). He then concluded 1966 with the cheery, upbeat “In The Country,” very much in the style of “Paperback Writer” with some McGuinn guitar chorales and, at one point, the sound of breaking glass.

In 1967 he made one of his greatest records, “The Day I Met Marie.” Written for him by Hank Marvin, his dazed (“Baby, go to sleep now”) yet unmistakably English (“Least of all me”) vocal fit in perfectly with that late summer’s disorientated pastoralism, the hazy acoustic dreams alternating with the surreally laughing eyes of a brass band (“Jugband Blues”!). It was strenuously denied that “Marie” was a “girl” along the same lines as the “Mary” of the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” but Cliff’s wide-eyed innocence confirms that, in his mind, he is singing about a woman, real or (still) ideal.

But he ended that year with another fourth-wall ballad, “All My Love”; not content with the Beatles, he now had Tom and Engelbert pressing in on his audience from the other side, and there is no small degree of resentment in his performance, with couplets including “Now there’s no place for me/In the future you see,” and “I don’t understand you/I’ve done all I can do!” He seemed in desperate straits, and even his momentary Eurovision triumph “Congratulations,” a swift number one in Britain down to residual good-hearted nostalgia – remember how things used to be, guys ‘n’ gals? – wasn’t really enough to stem the downward flow.

Jumping over things like “Don’t Forget To Catch Me” and “Big Ship” – the latter an early expression of his Christian beliefs – 1969 finds him in a deeper hole than ever before, with the extraordinary “Throw Down A Line,” a song Hank Marvin had written with Hendrix in mind (as his own yes-it’s-really-me solo spells out), and Cliff bites down on the song with a terrifying resilience, with all its poor boys hanging in a nowhere tree, its grown talons of steel, and – finally, after all this time – an extended scream: “WHY DON’T THEY SEE THE END?” 1969 was nothing if not a time of apocalypse in our charts – everything from “Grapevine” to “Cold Turkey” signified this – and Cliff found himself right in the middle.

Then things became really problematic. “Goodbye Sam” was MoR bubblegum, feeble even by his own 1961 standards (and I’m not sure that its writers Mitch Murray, Peter Callander and Geoff Stephens weren’t aware of this tendency in him and tailored the song appropriately), but it was his fiftieth single and did decent business, with the accent on both those words. Then the long hardcore Christian spell in the wilderness, here highlighted by the toe-curdling Good News Bible advert that is “Sing A Song Of Freedom” (freedom from rather than freedom to, as the song didn’t point out) and the previously cited “Power To All Our Friends” (although a definitive compilation of Cliff’s early seventies work in this area is sorely needed; gems like “Silvery Rain” and “Jesus” remain largely hidden). By the time of Take Me High, he was making movies on the Birmingham Ship Canal rather than in Greece. “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On,” his only 1974 hit, is a slightly resentful, country-tinged tribute to the listener: “You know how to…thrill me and control me/Just enough to keep me/A-hangin’ on.”

By now he was being produced by David Mackay rather than Paramor, but in 1975 the hits stopped altogether (not helped by the singer withdrawing his single “Honky Tonk Angel” after someone explained to him precisely what a honky tonk angel was), and by 1976 Bruce Welch was prevailed upon again, pretty much to revive his standing. It was exactly the kick he needed, and he proceeded to put out the best work of his career thus far. “Miss You Nights” may well still be his single greatest performance; an art song, yes, with many poetical curlicues and emotional ambiguities, but Cliff understands the song’s message instinctively and gets completely into its skin. In his performance one can tell that he knows what it’s been like to be hurt, patronised, ridiculed and God knows what else over the preceding two decades, and now he has his chance to show what he wants to do with a ballad, he shows it; sensitively backed up by Tony Rivers and the Castaways, wearing their best Beach Boy hats (including a heartstopping acappella-only verse – “Thinking/About leaving/How to cut the thread and leave it all behind”), he sings as someone who has been, above all, disappointed by life and love, thinking of all the chances he had, wondering whether he should even keep going, although he keeps going, because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Always understated and heartfelt, never overblown – though the song gives him plenty of chances – “Miss You Nights” is Cliff’s key to the kingdom.

He was on a roll, and he knew it. “Devil Woman” was maybe the most convincing rocker he had ever done – thematically we may not have strayed too far from “Honky Tonk Angel,” but Cliff was having none of that; this was, he said, a song about Satan, and temptation – and his “Um!”s more than make up for his previous “Well!”s and “Yeah!”s. For once, the song crossed over big time to the USA (when asked on radio why Cliff had never managed to extend his worldwide popularity to the States, singer Bobby Vee philosophically replied that maybe he should have toured there more) and after a lifetime of compromise, just as though the Gracelands Elvis was by some temporal miracle moving back towards the Sun Elvis, it seemed as though the real Cliff Richard was at last revealing himself. The two closing tracks here end the album on a high; “I Can’t Ask For Anymore Than You” cocks more than an ear to Leo Sayer (though technically it precedes “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”) with a completely convincing Cliff falsetto performance, and the symbolic line “I feel like a slave that’s just been freed.” And, finally, what was then his most recent big hit, “My Kinda Life,” a confident rocker owing something to “Johnny B Goode” but otherwise entirely Cliff’s own; here he looks back happily on his pathway, and growls a real song of freedom (now, rather than polite “Well!”s, he growls “WWWEEEELLLLLL-UH!” as Elvis would have done). He is summing it all up, and yet the impression left by 40 Golden Greats is that, despite all the popularity, hits and rewards, he still, somehow, wants something more - and, moreover, is 100% sure that he will get it. He is totally comfortable in his own skin, and it is nice to come to an album which has something of a happy ending, except of course for Cliff it is not an ending; we will be coming back to the next chapter of this story in the late eighties, and it is worth remembering that at this point he is about two years away from having the biggest hit of his career.

It is a reassuring beacon, on a 1977 landscape that is about to have every trace of reassurance removed from it.

Something had to give. And the ground is now touchable.

You know what’s coming next.