Friday 24 October 2014

Whitney HOUSTON: Whitney

(#348: 13 June 1987, 6 weeks)

Track listing: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)/Just The Lonely Talking Again/Love Will Save The Day/Didn’t We Almost Have It All/So Emotional/Where You Are/Love Is A Contact Sport/You’re Still My Man/For The Love Of You/Where Do Broken Hearts Go/I Know Him So Well

It is October 1986, somewhere in a studio which could be in New York or California. The times look brighter to some and resemble, or represent, the end of days to others. There is, not for the first or last time, considerable concern over whether there is much to do or say in a pop song any more.

“Yeah, your love is real
I might as well sign my name on a card which could say it better
See, time will tell
‘Cause it seems that I've done just about all that I can do”
(“For The Love Of You”)

What was left to say about the need or craving for love in the mid-eighties? We had been conditioned by “society” – which, according to at least one person in charge at the time, did not exist – to look to and within ourselves, to comfort our deeply disturbed selves with what, or whom, money could buy, to live for ourselves first, as Ayn Rand had instructed. And if the zipping up was not morally voluntary, then for many it became a matter of survival, for the virus had become known and was spreading.

“Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows”
(Leonard Cohen, 1988)

Pop – by which I mean the mainstream which for millions was the only line of communication open, despite the multiple provincial revolutions that were happening – had by the mid-eighties become an increasingly joyless and grim affair, practically ashamed of itself, for being pop, being trivial, even being happy, when the code was to grow up, become introspective, mournful and politely accusatory. It was deemed necessary that pop and its media should concentrate on pleasing life’s “winners”; the couple driving home from the theatre, or to the restaurant, wanting to hear something reassuring on the car radio. It was vital that pop should pretend that pop – or, specifically, that dinosaur exhibit called rock ‘n’ roll – never actually happened. It is hard to explain to audiences of today how difficult or impossible it was to access pop’s back catalogues in those last pre-CD days. Much of it was out of print, or appeared only erratically. Those NME writers who a year ago voted for Pussy Galore’s 1986 demolition/reconstitution of Exile On Main Street as the 253rd greatest album ever made were either dining out on wishful thinking, or listening to the album online; the original run of 550 messily-designed, individually-numbered cassettes sold out almost as they were released. Although not technically out of print, you still had to hunt for the original.

But many people had no time for trifles like that.

March, 1987, a dull and wet Thursday trip to the Rough Trade shop off Portobello Road, and there is an odd twelve-inch white-label single in the racks. “All You Need Is Love?” “Samples the Beatles,” said a clearly baffled assistant. Intrigued, I paid my £1.99 and took it home.

A lengthy and probably illegal sample of “All You Need Is Love” followed by the MC5 screaming for the jams to be kicked out, motherfuckers, followed by John Hurt’s “No known cure” boombox baritone from a public information film specifically designed to scare people shitless and the advertisement’s accompanying Yamaha DX7 dies irae bell tolls (which itself was unexpectedly echoed in other music of the period; see Django Bates’ commentary in the final moments of “Would I Were” on Loose Tubes’ Delightful Precipice).

This was then succeeded by a rough Scottish “rapping” voice – “We’re the hottest MCs on the River Clyde” indeed! – intoning fierce proclamations about southern Texas in the late seventies, about “the sixties” being a gigantic hoax, the last gasp of unqualified capitalism, with cuts from Samantha Fox’s “Touch Me (I Wanna Feel Your Body)” and a group of children singing “Ring-A-Ring O’Roses,” a late nineteenth-century nursery rhyme said (probably inaccurately) to date from the time of the Great Plague; nevertheless, the song’s first set of published lyrics, in Kate Greenaway’s 1881 edition of Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes, say “Ashes! Ashes!” (relating to cremation of the body) rather than “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”

There are various references to something called the “Justified Ancients of Mu Mu,” and then, about halfway through the record, the mood, if not the beat, changes abruptly, and a solemn pair of female singers make themselves heard:

“My child is dying and there’s nothing I can do,
Just wait and watch and pray to God for a miracle to break through.
You preach and teach about the life I have led,
But tell that to my little boy who’s just turned two.”

The refrain persists and builds (with a sudden irruption of Drummond shouting: “I DON’T WANNA DIE!”). The record’s two main elements eventually combine and the whole thing ends with Bill Drummond screaming: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?” to the response of a terrible silence. It felt like the last record that could possibly ever be made, pop or otherwise.

But back in October 1986 – probably at the same time that “All You Need Is Love” was being put together – in one of those recording studios in New York, or California, a woman has had enough.

It begins with bass synthesiser and drum machine curled up, asleep, like a cobra. There is the cowbell setting from the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer which is now being heard on so much pop, from Man Parrish to Mel and Kim. Gradually, Randy Jackson’s bass synth stirs into life. A woman is scatting, sparsely, with diminishing nervousness: “Uh…Yea-ea-eah…WHOOOOOO!!!”

The bass synth rears up on itself and tears a hole through the song’s dark fabric, so to let the light in better. A synth trumpet section, and somewhere a real alto sax, play a jolly riff, and the woman gains confidence: “Well, won’t you dance?” she asks her listeners, secure in the knowledge that her “WHOOOOOO!!!” has ripped up popular notions of pop, either her pop or that of others.

“Clock strikes upon the hour
And the sun begins to fade
Still enough time to figure out
How to chase my blues away”

Behind her “clock” we distantly hear a sound which could almost be the dies irae iceberg leitmotif. But it is clear that she is running out of time to love, that the world as she and love knew it is closing down, regardless of how happy or unhappy she was with it, or living in it.

“I’ve done alright up ‘til now
It’s the light of day that shows me how
And when the night falls, the loneliness calls”

Her “light” is reasonably confident and forthright, but when the night falls, she becomes quieter, and the music crouches down with her as if to confer. With her “the loneliness calls,” she sounds as if she knows that she is standing on the verge of an abyss. She knew everything about the world in the “light of day” but is scared by this new, and perhaps less welcoming, one. But Jackson’s bass is there to roar reassurance back to her, and the chorus is an extended plea for life and future masquerading as pre-Beatle girl group joyousness. “With! Some! Body who LOVES me!”

In the second verse, she recalls losing her senses, spinning through the town (whose town? Where?) and a fever which has now ended. Gradually she is becoming accustomed to the encroaching darkness, with a view to fighting it.

“I need a man who'll take a chance
On a love that BURNS hot enough to LAST”

She makes sure that we don’t miss those two emphases.

“So when the night falls
My lonely heart calls”

She is still vulnerable, but, I would say, no longer scared (she now personalises her loneliness). At least not within the confines of this record; on the second chorus, she stretches out the word “heat” over four bars, and terminates it with an ecstatic gasp. If only, goes the subtext, she had been allowed more of this.

The song was written by Seattle duo George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who had written “How Will I Know?,” the clear standout from her eponymous debut album, and were asked by producer Narada Michael Walden to come up with something similar (professionally they recorded as Boy Meets Girl, and scored a huge hit at the end of 1988 with “Waiting For A Star To Fall”). But Walden wasn’t too sure about the song when he heard the original demo; too much like country music – he could imagine Olivia Newton-John singing it, but not Whitney. Nevertheless, he slept on the question of how to turn it into a dance record, and he succeeded; it was the singer’s biggest hit to date.

“Somebody WHO, somebody WHO” croons a light girl group in the background.
“To HOLD me IN his ARMS OH!” roars the singer in response, rolling those emphases to stop them getting stuck in her body.

But the second Whitney Houston album wasn’t very good, or it was one dynamic pop-resuscitating song plus ten fillers, or it was Clive Davis seeing her as the next Barry Manilow, or Michael Jackson, and suffocating her in a one-size-fits-all aesthetic jiffy bag. Look at the Richard Avedon cover, marvel at her twenty-three-or-four-year-old joy and cheek, lament that she didn’t get the post-punk/House/bubblegum/Sub Pop/hip hop career she deserved.

For there are far too many schlocky easy listening ballads designed for middle-aged divorcĂ©es, produced to the point of numbness. Whitney was much too young to sing things like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and “I’m Still Your Man” and listening to them is a numbing experience, as if it were still 1954, or 1975, and despite the calibre of people involved – both Mike Gibbs, who once did arrangements for Bill Fay, and Gene Page contribute string and horn charts and sometimes conducting, but to little avail (although Gibbs’ hovering strings underscoring “Just The Lonely Talking Again,” an excellent Sam Dees song turned into Mars Bar glucose, suggest the continuing influence of Ives’ The Unanswered Question). Speaking of 1975, her “For The Love Of You” is not a par on the Isleys’ original, losing the patient West Coast percussion patter of the original and, more crucially, Ronald Isley with all his “oooooh,” “well well well” and “oh darling” asides – the original came from the album The Heat Is On, a pioneering record which firmly divided itself in two; three fast, funky jams on side one, three drawn-out proto-quiet storm slow jams on side two. Somebody, probably Davis, wanted Whitney to remain sexless.

But slothy sludge like “Where You Are” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” was not what Janet or Anita was aiming at in the mid-eighties – indeed, it is startling how Whitney appears to shout the entirety of “Didn’t We…” as though protesting against having to sing this by-the-book mush, so enraged that her key doesn’t necessarily change when the song’s does, and her final, sustained “ALL” resembles a buried scream. Can’t you see who I am underneath all this corporate camouflage, or what I want, she seems to be asking; okay, you’re not making me up to look as though I were forty-four, like you did on the cover of the first one, and there’s no Jermaine Jackson duet schmaltz, but what you do want from me – pop’s St Agnes of Rome?

Even the other uptempo songs don’t really pack the punch of “I Wanna Dance.” “Love Will Save The Day,” produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez, utilising a Yamaha RY-30 beatbox and featuring guest vibist Roy Ayers, comes closest, insofar as she sounds and presumably felt like the jazz singer she should always have been. But on “So Emotional,” this record’s “rock” track (featuring one Corrado Rustici on guitar synth), she sounds at times drunk – the dazed opening commentary of “I don’t know why I like it – I just do, ha ha ha!,” for instance. As for “Love Is A Contact Sport” – presumably an attempt to “do” Madonna via the Vandellas – this is purulent sub-Ferris Bueller piss that she has no business being forced to sing. Quite frequently, her compressed squeals and screams sound as though she is being stretched on a medieval rack.

Worst of all is her “I Know Him So Well.” You want show tunes, prematurely middle-aged yuppies – well, here’s one to finish. Quite apart from demonstrating that Streisand has nothing to worry about on this front – although the ballads really are on a par on the rubbish Streisand sang in A Star Is Born – whoever came up with the idea of having Whitney duet with her own mother on a song about two women who have both known the same man, who in turn has clearly been bullshitting both of them, must bear the burden of cooking up perhaps the wrongest idea in Then Play Long to date; as Lena said, the wrongness of this concept cannot be over-emphasised, and I think may go towards explaining why her career and life subsequently went the way they did.

“I need a man who'll take a chance
On a love that BUUUUUUUURNS hot enough to last
So when the night falls
My lonely heart CALLS!”

It calls for a triumphal key change, at least – and it is evident that Whitney has irrupted the cosy fabric of mid-eighties pop and thrust herself into the foreground. Now she is liberated and can do anything; she laughs with, or at, the musicians, she dreamily whoops as though she is the age she was at the time when the picture on the back cover was taken (“Whitney Elizabeth Houston, 3 months”). She is born again, and pop with it. Consider that by the time she was Whitney’s age, Madonna had only got as far as “Everybody,” a disco invitation, or instruction, which left no doubt that “everybody” would end up dancing with her.

But Whitney howls “OHOHWOHWOHOHHWOHH DON’T YOU WANNA DANCE SAY YOU WANNA DANCE WITH ME BABY” against a Nabucco slaves’ basso profundo chorus, in the knowledge that she now owns this song. It is the only point on the album where she sounds entirely herself.

* * * * * *

A few months later, the second Justified Ancients of Mu Mu twelve-inch single appeared. A more “official” twelve-inch of “All You Need Is Love” had been released in the meantime, with the Beatles sample drastically cut down and the Samantha Fox samples re-recorded; it was redolent of copyright compromise and felt watered-down. But the second single sounded more professionally recorded, less worried about itself, if only slightly. Built around samples from the Mission: Impossible theme and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” Drummond begins the record by sounding very anxious indeed, as if Whitney joining the JAMs was the only option left if pop music were going to be saved. He begs her to hook up, and after a bit of this, the familiar Roland TR-808 pattern starts up in the distance and Drummond cheers as though Christ had returned to Earth. No one could have conceived a record like “Whitney Joins The JAMs” if they didn’t fundamentally love pop music, and the KLF recognised that if pop must survive, so must Whitney. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was her key out of the Reaganpop dungeon, but no Cowell figure was (yet) required to confiscate it again. What could she have done? Where could she have turned? She could have been at the forefront of what was already making itself known as New Jack Swing. But the first major New Jack Swing star was…Bobby Brown. As the doomed man once sang on a record, which also featured Cissy Houston in the background, “We’re caught in a trap, there’s no way out.” “With somebody who LOVES me!” “All You Need Is Love.” Where did we hear that before?
(Many thanks to Rob Morgan and Ian Wade for clarifying my uncertainty with regard to eighties drum machines)