Wednesday 31 October 2012

Leo SAYER: The Very Best Of Leo Sayer

(#208: 28 April 1979, 3 weeks)

Track listing: When I Need You/You Make Me Feel Like Dancing/Raining In My Heart/How Much Love/Dancing The Night Away/Thunder In My Heart/I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try)/One Man Band/Giving It All Away/Train/Let It Be/Long Tall Glasses/Moonlighting/The Show Must Go On

Look at him dancing! He’s dancing on the ceiling, admittedly, but he has only good intentions. Wacky Leo Sayer, always amiable, never taking himself too seriously, the seventies’ very own Olly Murs. At least that’s the impression he’s strived to convey over the years, but at his centre is a quiet and unshakable sense of dignity. I remember a BBC2 series from a dozen or so years ago called Celebrities where various stars – not so much relegated from the Celebrity Premier League as never having got out of the Championship (Bernie Clifton, Keith Harris) – were seen going about their daily celebrity duties. Among them was Leo Sayer, his hits long and far behind him, but he remained irrepressible, whether looking for a new girlfriend (without much success) or flitting about between Britain and the West Coast, reminiscing about how he was in the same room, and indeed at the same piano, as Albert Hammond when he put together the music to “When I Need You”; despite his physical smallness, he still seemed too big for the programme, and before long he became lovable again.

But superficial appearances can be deceptive; his subsequent appearance on Celebrity Big Brother suggested that beneath the jokey surface lay a bit of a temper, and likewise the fourteen songs collected here are not quite the genial, face-licking pop they might initially seem to represent. The album is well designed; one side of his chartbusting American work with Richard Perry, and another side of the things he did in Britain with Dave Courtney and Adam Faith before becoming famous elsewhere, with the “approachable” side coming first. But unlike other Atlantic-crossing rock stars one could mention, Sayer seems to have managed the transition well, mostly by setting his sights lower and also by maintaining his own personality amidst the gloss (four of the seven songs on side one, and six of the seven songs on side two, were co-written by him).

I am not sure, however, that the move and success got rid of the trouble that was, and perhaps still is, an integral part of him. Some of these recordings feature some of the most intense and aggressive singing I’ve heard on a number one album; from the start, it was clear that Sayer had a bee in his bonnet, and was desperate to avoid being stung.

Born in Shoreham-on-Sea, Sussex, he worked the standard late sixties/early seventies Brit singer-songwriter route, scuffling about in clubs, busking, etc., until his work came to the attention of songwriter and record producer Courtney, who in turn persuaded Adam Faith to manage and co-produce him (at the time of this album’s release, Faith was still, with Colin Berlin, Sayer’s manager). Most people first heard of him via Roger Daltrey’s 1973 hit version of his “Giving It All Away” and he was soon signed up by Chrysalis and released an album, Silverbird later the same year. It is a typically murky, pessimistic set of songs, preoccupied with fa├žades and masquerades, its best track being the agonised closer “Isn’t Anybody Going Home?,” one of the best of the late period let’s-get-out-of-the-sixties British pop tunes.

From the same album came his first hit single, “The Show Must Go On,” which he performed on television dressed in full pierrot clown make-up and costume, with bulging eyes and mouth beneath; from memory, he looked rather like Adam Ant. Falling just short of becoming the 1973 Christmas number one single, it is a remarkably intense performance, even for its time, with Sayer displaying the whole of his vocal gamut, from babyish falsetto via gutsy scat-singing to stinging punk growl, singing a song Scott Walker would have understood, about being ripped off and abused, about wanting to destroy the theatre where the audience are all after his blood, and issuing a determined “NO!” to the song’s ironic title (Sayer was extremely, and rightly, displeased when Three Dog Night covered the song the following year and changed the tag from “I won’t let the show go on” to “I must let the show go on,” thereby missing the song’s entire point).

Having gotten that out of his system, Sayer took off the make-up and settled down to become an apparently likeable and idiosyncratic storyteller. His second album, 1974’s Just A Boy, is here represented by no less than four tracks, two of which were top ten singles; “One Man Band” was an autobiographical jug-band canter (he really was sent flying by a taxi in Ladbroke Grove; and note how in the first chorus the clarinet plays Philip Glass arpeggios) which still conceals a roar of “Nobody knows nor understands!”; “Long Tall Glasses” is a shaggy dog story which Sayer starts out singing like Dylan (or, more accurately, Loudon Wainwright III) – hang on, being told you have to dance before you can eat; is this Shoreditch in 2012? – until, when he finds out to his astonishment and delight that he can dance, he turns the song into a serrated Noddy Holder bark (“Look at me dance on the FLOOOOOOOOOR MOVIN’!”). Throughout the song remains unmistakably British, with its references to “poultry and game” and Victor Silvester.

Then there is his own reading of “Giving It All Away” which pretty much sends Daltrey’s back to the pavilion; Sayer is a lyrics man, and so can deliver his thoughts without being handicapped by the necessity to be “Roger Daltrey.” Lyrically not at all far from “The Show Must Go On,” again he finds that he has been cheated, taken for granted, but the arrangement here – starting off with just piano and organ, before gradually building up to a full orchestra (with no drums) – is far more sympathetic, and Sayer’s rage is plainly palpable (“Oh! I! KNOW! BETTERNOW!!” he cries as though about to slit his wrist with a blunt potato peeler; his repeated “just a boy”s are watery in their grief). The final selection, “Train,” sums up Sayer’s approach in general; alternating between slow solo verses and fast group choruses, he admits that it is probably his fate to go away, and come back, again and again; once more we find the setting of wanting something being more enticing than actually getting it.

1975’s Another Year didn’t do quite as well, although its single “Moonlighting” gave him another number two hit single. It’s a reasonably well-constructed story song whose natural charm conceals some implausibilities (although it was supposedly based on a true story); if the lovers are old enough to work and be able to drive, why do they need to elope? Also of note here is Sayer’s tendency to cram conversational lyrics into a line, regardless of bar lines or scansion, and the increasing awareness that songs about printing works, M6 turn-offs, building societies, Montague Street, respraying vans and council offices were perhaps not going to get him a more international audience. The last song here is his take on “Let It Be” from Lou Reizner’s ill-fated All This And World War II project; he does the song good service, makes it less churchy and more singable, although I would have preferred his aggrieved reading of “I Am The Walrus” (“You let cha knick-ahs DAAAAAHHHHHHHNNNNNN!!”).

Then came the transition to the States, and his moment of world glory, but without losing anything of the Sayer-ness that had endeared him to British audiences. “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” was the breakthrough smash - Billboard number one, yet another UK number two – and although it now sounds almost comically slow-paced, it did the required business, Sayer adapting modifying his “Long Tall Glasses” persona without, seemingly, any effort: his five descending, perfectly timed “no”s at the end of “I ain’t feeling tired,” his “flo-ho-hoar!” in the line “I can’t get off of the floor!” With Sayer and Barry Gibb I suppose it’s a case of chicken and egg as to who influenced whom, but if Sayer sounds like anyone here it’s more Little Jimmy Scott; a faultlessly controlled and frequently feminine-like falsetto.

“When I Need You,” his second US number one and – finally – his first UK chart-topper, is a good ballad sung in an evidently heartfelt technical and emotional tone. It’s another of those seventies songs about the musician’s lonely life on the road, but Sayer’s obvious craving is balanced out by his incurable optimism. The song and arrangement lope along in a patient manner akin to lovers’ rock, and I note how the multitracked Sayers on the staccato “It’s cold out! So hold out!” break are reminiscent of Jon Anderson.

It could be said that Sayer prospered in the States of 1977 because he filled a gap, performing (and largely co-writing) the sort of songs that Elton John was no longer prepared or willing to do. “How Much Love,” co-written by Sayer with Barry Mann, certainly owes something to “Philadelphia Freedom” (especially the string arrangement), but if “Giving It All Away” was the earlier angst-ridden Elton blown up to dangerous proportions, then Sayer, like Martin Fry after him, is only using “disco” as a tool, a mechanism to help him express something, in this case sexual indecision (“Should I come on strong or do I hesitate?”). Despite keeping his countenance throughout most of the song, Sayer finally loses control at fadeout and becomes despairing (“I! Can’t! Help! My! Self! Oh-whoah!”) as if, more than anything, he will lose love rather than consolidate it.

As for “Thunder In My Heart,” this contains the most impassioned, verging on hysterical, vocal I can think of in recent TPL times, possibly including John Lydon; as with the latter in the second half of “Holidays In The Sun” (which was out at more or less the same time), Sayer crams as many inchoate emotions into each line and stanza as he can; having arrived, he is (pace “How Much Love”) now unsure where to go or how to keep love (“Am I in too deep or should I swim to the shore?”). Against the beats and strings, he rants, gibbers, screams as effectively as any British male singer this side of Barry Ryan; it is one of his most naked performances, and one I knew immediately would eventually make number one, in whatever shape. It is almost too big for pop.

After “Thunder,” there was maybe nowhere to go except down, and so the remaining three songs here are tinged with deep melancholy. Sayer does Holly’s “Raining In My Heart” as a measured country-rock ballad, complete with his own harmonica. “Dancing The Night Away,” only ever an album track in Britain, is, though not written by Sayer, a fairly pitiless exercise in self-examination, which instantly pulls it away from “You Wear It Well” wannabe status; he is looking out over the Pacific, and the shoreline, but he’s empty inside because, well, the girl he asked to be patient in “When I Need You” wasn’t, and left him, He thinks about the past; the music goes up a heartbreakingly brief semitone on the line “The dresses you used to wear.” A violin solo materialises to remind us, again, of Mr Stewart. He admits he has painted himself into a corner (“I should look for companionship/But it just gets in my way”) and that, finally, after two big hits about dancing, he looks at people dancing on the beach, in the club, “But I just don’t dance no more.” He tries to visualise his ex-lover dancing, does his damnedest to bring back the memories, but now his instructions to her, “Ohhhh baby let me see you da-a-ance,” find him close to tears.

And at the end of that side one, we find “I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try),” another ballad, another break-up song; he’s seeing her off at the train station, not a word is spoken in the taxi on the way there, she gives him her “goodbye smile” but nothing else, and he watches the train pull away knowing that this time he can’t drag it back. He doesn’t want to stay there, in the past, but can’t help himself; the song was written by Billy Nicholls, whose 1967 album Would You Believe? helped in its way to set the ground for artists like Sayer, and this is where we leave the man; back where he was at the beginning, having learned a few things, but perhaps destined, or doomed, to slide between the two paths for the rest of his days. Little wonder he eventually emigrated to Sydney and took Australian citizenship, so that he can dance as much as he likes without worrying whether or not anybody is watching him.