Saturday 27 July 2013

Barry MANILOW: Barry Live In Britain

(#263: 1 May 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: It’s A Miracle-London/The Old Songs Medley (The Old Songs-I Don’t Wanna Walk Without You-Let’s Hang On)/Even Now/Stay (featuring Kevin Disimone and James Jolis)/Beautiful Music (I Made It Through The Rain-Beautiful Music End)/Bermuda Triangle/Break Down The Door-Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed/Copacabana (At The Copa)/Could It Be Magic-Mandy/London-We’ll Meet Again/One Voice/It’s A Miracle

I would imagine that nearly all of the eight thousand or so people who came to see Barry Manilow at the Royal Albert Hall on 11 and/or 12 January 1982 believed that they were partaking in a miracle, and this record of these performances gives me little cause to doubt them.  Why should there be such a difference between Manilow and Streisand, both good Jewish kids born in forties Brooklyn? Perhaps it is down to the simple difference or contrast between ambition encouraging art and ambition getting in art’s way.  Listening to Streisand singing anything, except Broadway songs, with total technical mastery and a near-total absence of emotional involvement, the listener is never allowed to forget that Streisand is an actress first and singer second, whereas the only time Manilow has ventured into acting seems to have been the TV musical version of Copacabana (later a stage musical), in which he gave himself the lead role of Tony, although he only really has to play himself.

Moreover, Streisand almost demands that her audience worship her, gaze upon her and revere her but damn you, don’t even think of ever touching her. In contrast, Manilow is defined by the bond he has with his audience, which is umbilical to the point of symbiosis. Streisand sings to people; Manilow sings for and with his people. In that manner he can be compared with Springsteen; both performers make a point of listening and responding to their audiences, reacting with lightning speed to alterations in mood or tone, always looking out for requests, suggestions and, if they’re lucky, entreaties of love. Both performers do their thing in the knowledge that without their audience they would have nothing to do, and maybe nothing to live for.

But perhaps the apter comparison as far as Manilow goes is with that other Jewish kid from forties Brooklyn, Neil Diamond; very different approaches to their art, but both have the knack of making thousands of people feel like one person. Streisand’s voice may fill a room, but Diamond and Manilow know how to work the room. Many fans have commented on Manilow’s knack of seeming able to focus on one person out of several thousand in the auditorium and make them feel as though they are singing to them, only to them. It is a knack which is rarer than you would imagine.

In this sense, it is impossible to look at the cover of Barry Live In Britain and not find it filled with partially unspoken emotionalism. All these lights, candles, lighters, being patiently held up by primarily the female component of the audience – their even more patient husbands, partners or parents watching them from the side, besuited – contrasted with the pure whiteness of Manilow’s stage outfit and piano, suggest that Manilow is the opposite of Keith Jarrett. He wants to draw his audience into his music, not scare them away from it; not for nothing was a 1989 single entitled “Please Don’t Be Scared.” More than that, I believe that the cover picture is a depiction of mutual faith; the audience’s faith in the musician fuelling the musician’s own faith in the power of music which he then refracts back; the disparate dots of yellow filling a black hole, increasing in intensity until they converge upon a white light – do not mistake, or underestimate, this religious imagery.

Provided that they do not harm others, I am moved by demonstrations of faith, and even if Manilow’s approach to music is not compatible with yours, it still demands respect, or at least politely requests it. The inner gatefold sleeve has photographs of Manilow on stage and at large throughout Britain – with his trademark perm, and particularly when wearing blue suit and tie, Manilow resembles a benign version of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka (in contrast to the rather scary and devilish Wonka, Manilow is the good angel). Elsewhere, he is the good sport, sporting a kilt (in Edinburgh), or inspecting the Beefeaters at the Tower in outsized shades – the outdoor pictures subtly remind us of what a cold and unforgiving winter 1981/2 was – or singing along onstage with a disbelieving and clearly ecstatic female fan; he is the not quite ordinary guy, ready to be whatever you want him to be.

The hour or so of music on the album represents about half of what was performed at the Albert Hall concerts – a video was also available at the time, but this does not yet appear to have had a DVD upgrade – and the songs selected are less than predictable. Absent are such staples of Manilow’s stage act as “Can’t Smile Without You” – the one where he selects a random female audience member to come on stage with him and be sung to adoringly – and “I Write The Songs”; however, he did have a new studio album to promote (1981’s If I Should Love Again) and it may well be that Manilow felt that other less exposed songs demanded attention.

Also absent is most of Manilow’s stage patter; unlike Elvis, one could make a very feasible and entertaining album of Having Fun With Barry On Stage. Nonetheless, the record is so superbly sequenced and planned that anything else would really have been superfluous. From the opening vivacity of “It’s A Miracle” – a song from 1974 – it is clear that Manilow has his audience on his side from the first second. You can feel the roars and cheers as he bounds onstage like an eager Labrador puppy, beaming his greetings and settling down into superior post-Motown bubblegum. He wants this audience, and the audience in turn want him. After a chorus or two he segues into the song “London” and it is an immediate winner;  a sentimental musing set to a deceptively tricky post-Sondheim/Bacharach musical setting. He sings about walking by the Thames, reading The Times, drinking tea, shopping at Harrods, enjoying Saturday picnics; and his fans lap it up, especially when he considers (within the song) whether to stay in London. And no, this isn’t a set piece ready to change venues wherever he plays; there are no parallel songs called “Sydney,” “Tokyo” or “Bogota” (in fact the studio recording of “London” can be found near the end of 1980’s Barry album). You believe him.

And yet, as outgoing and welcoming as Manilow’s persona is, it has to be noted that many of his songs concern themselves with loss, loneliness and betrayal. But as many are about the heart of music itself. “The Old Songs,” then his most recent single, seems squarely in the tradition of sixties hits like “The Way It Used To Be” or “My Sentimental Friend”; there she is, the lost lover, and how to regain her but to remind her of how music used to sound, and how it could still sound.

Like the quarter-hour “Yesterday Once More” on the Carpenters’ Now And Then album, Manilow here uses “The Old Songs” as a framing device for going back into, and with any luck reclaiming, the past; but there is no desolate post-Watergate angst evident – no, he sees Jule Styne as part of the same story as Bob Crewe, and treats both “I Don’t Wanna Walk Without You” and “Let’s Hang On” – both desperate songs, in their own ways – with equal respect. With the former – significantly, a big song during World War II – the audience cheers as Barry gets up to some unspecified bits of stage business (“Is there nothing he won’t do?” he asks himself). In fact, Manilow has recently broadcast two series on Radio 2, entitled They Write The Songs, in which he takes a close look at selected writers of the Great American Songbook, ranging from Berlin and Gershwin to Holland-Dozier-Holland, and all of the episodes are worth listening to; with a startling but refreshing (and decidedly un-British) enthusiasm, he has things both praiseworthy and trenchant to say about his field, and understands perfectly both the mechanics and the emotions which go into creating a great popular song. On this record, as elsewhere, he is intent on putting his knowledge to practical use – see, he is saying, this is all pop music, from vaudeville to Motown (those “Dancing In The Street” references in “It’s A Miracle”), and that it all contributes towards a greater good. Sounds familiar – or prophetic?

His conclusion is that the songs, whether old or new, can and should still matter. But still there is this rueful restlessness; “Even Now” sounds triumphant – the closing rhetorical key changes sound much more suitable to Manilow than to The X-Factor -  but he is drowning himself in regret over the lover – or life? - he left behind on the road to fame. “Stay,” which came out as a single (both in live and studio form), features two of his backing singers, who, as a commenter on Amazon has noted, sound, when teamed with Manilow, like three parts of the same soul saying the same thing.

Side one closes, not with “I Write The Songs,” but with “Beautiful Music,” the closing track of 1975’s Tryin’ To Get The Feeling, and it is an extremely touching song about what music can do to a lost person, how it can bring them back to the world (“And when I heard about hurting and healing/Beautiful words about beautiful feelings/What lots of believing could do…”); similar in nature to, but different in kind from, Abba’s numerous songs about the effects of music; this song carries hope rather than the faint air of despondency. Here he uses the song – and yes, I do note that “Beautiful Music” and Barry Manilow share the same initials – as a bookend for “I Made It Through The Rain” (a song co-written by Gerard Kenny, whom you may recall from Chart Hits ’81); the effect is rather overwhelming, the feeling one of modernist old-time revivalism. As Manilow only implies here – though Wolfsbane’s Blaze Bayley and Bill Hicks both said it out loud, on Massive Noise Injection and Rant In E-Minor respectively – the audience are here, if not to be saved as such, but to be transported, even if only temporarily, from their everyday (and, by implication, mundane) lives. But the greater challenge would be: could you get an audience up to this level and keep them there? Manilow seems to think so; “We dreamers have our ways/Of facing rainy days,” he sings, with no evident intention on becoming Scott Walker (you might even say that Manilow is the happy alternative future which Walker steadfastly, or stubbornly, refuses to contemplate), and yet, as he sings his song about coming through, and surviving (“And somehow we survive” is the third line, unconsciously echoing Auden), you can sense that there’s something happening in this theatre, that lives are being reassessed and transformed, and perhaps even transcended  - especially when he sings, at the climax and to the audience, “…and so can YOU!” (i.e. “make it through”). You only have to believe, and this first half will end with you in a different place than where you were at its beginning.

As side two begins, we are in the “dancing” section; yet all four songs being sung are about two-timing, or cheating, or worse. “Bermuda Triangle,” a Top 20 hit from 1981, is a very silly but very amiable shaggy dog story – Humperdinck might have been able to sing it – with Manilow sighing “Woe is me!” as his partner runs off with someone else (but he then runs off with another woman, and are these the same two people viewed from different angles?). There follows a bit of stage chat – we have already heard repeated high cries of “WE LOVE YOU BARRY!” from the upper stalls (to one such exclamation, Manilow reacts with a smiling “All right, already!”) – where he compares the audience up in the stalls at the back as being “like a little singing, dancing nose.” Cue much laughter, and he can’t believe that the British press are writing about “my nose and the transit strike – in that order.” From this we move into a pretty funky medley of “Break Down The Door” – from If I Should Love Again, and co-written with Bob Gaudio (hence a good conceptual parallel with “Let’s Hang On”) – and “Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?,” a song from 1979 later sampled by Daft Punk (“Superheroes”).

After this we’re on to “Copacabana” – Manilow can hardly not sing this – and what a bleak song it is, with a final verse in particular which is worthy of Lou Reed. Still, Manilow asks the audience, while they are “in mourning for Lola’s lost love,” to applaud the musicians who have been working their backsides off all night. And he is very careful not to be entirely clear about “just who shot who”; when the song was expanded into a full-length stage show, it turns out that Rico was the one who was shot…and not by Tony or Lola (moreover, there is a framing device which has Tony existing only in the mind of a middle-aged songwriter, the actress who plays Lola is also the songwriter’s wife, etc. – do I even need to point out that this is yet another step to New Pop?).

The dancing section duly over, it is time for the heavy duty finale. I wrote about “Could It Be Magic?” in my non-selling book The Blue In The Air and do not propose to revise my views, namely that it is not just Manilow’s masterpiece but also one of pop’s true masterpieces; the last piece in the late sixties avant-MoR jigsaw puzzle (hence “I Made It Through The Rain” can be viewed as a very belated sequel to “MacArthur Park”). The opening Chopin chords inspire the biggest cheers of the evening and the song, like the stallion to the sun, rises to meet its opposing number – “Mandy,” his first hit of consequence, a song which, when called “Brandy” and recorded by Scott English, was about a dog, but here becomes a Holy Grail symbol of a love lost, never to be found again (“I sent you away”) – and hence the thunderous transition back into “Could It Be Magic?” at the end signifies just how hard-won Manilow’s joy and ecstasy are, how greater, therefore, is the catharsis.

The concert then ends, as such, though hasn’t really ended; there is a regretful, low-key bye-bye reprise of “London,” and then comes the point where the album reaches a new level of transcendence. He goes straight into “We’ll Meet Again,”  a song this audience has known all their lives, yet very few of them were probably even alive when it was written, let alone throughout the war which it typifies and symbolises. And…perhaps without even thinking…the audience starts to sing along and clap their hands; it is initially just Manilow’s voice and a very slow-burning acoustic guitar, before the music switches to a careful electric piano – and the audience comes in, and it is as if the circle has been completed, that we are back in the days of soundtracks and singalongs, maybe even back in the music hall.

It is a fairly overwhelming listening experience. It is not just that Manilow is effectively covering the waterfront of pop history here – there’s little rock to be heard, but things unobtrusively advance until the onset of disco (the final verse of “Copacabana”) – but…well, there is something greater at work here. Or something more accidentally sinister. Remember that this album was released and made number one in the middle of a war; how much greater, therefore, the inadvertent poignancy of hearing “We’ll Meet Again,” perhaps in some cases sung by people who might not have lived to see that year’s summer.

But Manilow is still not finished – “I ain’t goin’ home yet!” – and it is time for the major audience participation number, with the lights shining out of the dark, and the one voice, or eight thousand voices, singing in the darkness. If nobody has compared Iron Maiden with Manilow before, then they should, and both are highly relevant in this year of years; if Maiden were reviving rock, then Manilow’s music plays like a secular revival. Listen to the communion on “One Voice” – he is patiently, slowly urging his listeners, his co-conspirators, to understand just how much music can matter. On “Beautiful Music” he talks to music as though it were a human being, and with this album we are getting awfully close to “the point” (even if The Point is New Pop); music, Manilow says, is only worth playing or listening to if it has something to express, a meaning or a message to offer. “One Voice” as performed and recorded here makes you feel something, and perhaps here we are getting to the bottom, or the centre, of what music means.

What Manilow’s music means is everything that is absent from, say, Streisand’s music – there’s colour! There’s dancing! There are funny costumes! – balanced by a very concentrated and, I believe, heartfelt faith, maybe even a sanctity, which puts me in mind of Bill Fay. “One Voice” ends; there’s a quick reprise of “It’s A Miracle” and the band play out with an instrumental reprise of “Could It Be Magic?” which you feel could go on forever, as the dazed but fulfilled crowd flood out into Kensington Gore, back to their desks, their counters and their lives. And yet Manilow is rolling out as elaborate a preparatory rug for The Lexicon Of Love as anyone. But look closely at the front row on that cover, the one which seems more lit than any. The man sitting in suit and stripey tie just in front of Manilow, red handkerchief firmly in breast pocket, and hands grudgingly placed on his knees – that could be Alan Partridge. Whereas the woman sitting three seats to his left, the woman who appears to be holding her candle more fervently than anyone else, bending her head to stare directly at him – that can’t be Diana. Or can it?

(Some overdubbing and redoing of instrumental parts took place back in Los Angeles. The musical director was Victor Vanacore. The album was advertised on TV – catalogue number: ARTV 4. Irish pressings came with a bonus one-sided 7” flexidisc on which Manilow is interviewed by RTE2 DJ Marty Whelan.  On the back cover he stands alone, with a grin, hands on his hips, head and foot in white, receiving the light – and clearly very glad, and redeemed, to do so.)