Thursday 27 November 2014

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tango In The Night

(#355: 31 October 1987, 2 weeks; 7 May 1988, 2 weeks; 28 May 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Big Love/Seven Wonders/Everywhere/Caroline/Tango In The Night/Mystified/Family Man/Little Lies/Welcome To The Room…Sara/Isn’t It Midnight/When I See You Again/You & I, Part II

“Don’t know what’s wrong,” grunts Lindsey Buckingham halfway through “Family Man,” “but I do know what’s right.” Walking down that cold, cold road is this troubled man who is Springsteen’s junior by just ten days. But who is this “family”? “Mother…father…brother…”; well, if he means Fleetwood Mac, then that takes care of Christine, Mick and John. But somebody else is missed out. In any case, is there actually anybody on this song except him? Does this family even still exist? Or did they already make their excuses and leave?

Detour #1: a hallucinatory rainbow of Fairlight strings and harp and booming Cocteau Twins guitar, the coda to SMiLE Brian never managed to imagine. Then, eventually, a voice, slightly startling in its deepness, uttering words like:

“You, under strange falling skies
You, with a love that would not die”


“You, where the strange wind blows
You, with the secrets no one knows”

and beyond that, nothing except “You, you and I.” You probably won’t know it, because it’s “You & I, Part I,” which only appeared on the B-side of the “Big Love” single. Its omission from this album is rather like Pepper going straight into “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

Another thing to note is that this album came out in April and took just over half a year to make number one. In the States, it did very well but never got past number seven on Billboard. Its eventual appearances in this tale can be explained by “Little Lies” becoming a major hit single (and “Everywhere” the following spring, hence its return to the top). This indicates that a lot of people found the record problematic, not quite what they had anticipated ten years before.

But then, what do you make of an album whose lead song and lead single were “Big Love”?

Detour #2: 23 May 1997, in the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, before an invited audience; the “classic” Fleetwood Mac quintet have briefly reconvened for an MTV special entitled The Dance. It is the first time they have been on stage together since Clinton’s inauguration over four years previously. The performance will climax with a spectacular “Tusk,” featuring the USC Marching Band themselves. But for “Big Love,” Lindsey Buckingham is all alone with his guitar.

Nobody really knew what to make of “Big Love” when they first heard it. Yes, this is Fleetwood Mac – or is it (like “Caroline” and “Family Man,” it was originally intended for Buckingham’s third solo album but sequestered by the band, with some resistance from its author)? Certainly, even Buckingham has rarely sounded so intense or angry. On one hand, as is evident elsewhere on the album, he is having an awful lot of fun with this sparkling new Fairlight toy.

But, not expecting the audience to know about Buckingham’s tortured love life, whom is he addressing? One moment he is promising to build her a kingdom, but in the next verse she is begging him to stay in that very same kingdom; that is, if it is the same “she,” which I doubt is the case (there was Stevie, and then there was Carol Ann Harris, and latterly Cheri Casperi). All the while he is “looking out for love – BIG, BIG LOVE” as though “love” were the equivalent of Family Fortunes’ “BIG MONEY.”

It really is that story again – wanting love as a symbol of perfection, settling for nothing less and not understanding what love is really about. And despite the determined futurism on the music’s surface and the alleged blackboard lectures about New Pop, Buckingham’s howl reaches back to Roy Orbison and forward to Kurt Cobain. When the rhythm section really make themselves known – under the “ooh, aah” climax – Buckingham’s high, pealing, extended one-note guitar scream reminds us that this is the same band who once performed “Man Of The World” and “Oh Well.” Names and faces change but emotions don’t.

More disquieting, however, is the fact that the male/”female” cross-channel “ooh”s and “aah”s are not Lindsey and Stevie, but Lindsey entirely. Where is Stevie again?

A decade later, they are all present, but Lindsey is alone on the stage, and performs a lightning-speed reading of the song. If you know the tricks of playing guitar then you’ll know the playing is not quite as complicated as it sounds – one hand plucking the upper two strings, the other holding down or otherwise handling the lower three, so it’s a question of technical coordination above everything else – but nobody except Lindsey could perform the song with the intensity that he invests in it. When he reaches the climax, thrashing out flamenco chords, rocking back and forth as though in an uncontrollable fit, screaming and crying rather than grunting, and right at the end, cutting off and reeling back from the microphone as though having collided with a volcano, there is a terror that is not present in the original recording; his Orbison musings have mutated into Chris Isaak, and, particularly when taken in combination with the penultimate song on #516, the conclusion is that this is some kind of threnody for Kurt.

Consider the trappings of the original song, which were already oppressive enough; here is Lindsey Buckingham, here’s Charlie Kane, alone in his big castle, with things, but things are not PEOPLE, and he is alone and he knows that none of it means anything without love, the right love, and in 1987 he is not yet ready to break down like he does at the end of the MTV “Big Love,” to admit vulnerability and fear.

What did that old song say?

“And how I don't want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love.”

But where is Stevie?

“Seven Wonders” in Britain was the second single, and missed the Top 40 entirely, and it is recognisably Stevie Nicks but on closer listening sounds more like a demon possessing Stevie Nicks. It doesn’t help that she didn’t write the song herself – the songwriter was her long-time associate Sandy Stewart (who worked extensively with her on 1983’s solo The Wild Heart) and the sum total of Nicks’ contribution was to make minute changes to some of the lyrics and get one line wrong (it was meant to be “All the way down you held the line” but Nicks heard it as “All the way down to Emmeline” and that’s how it stayed, as if she’d just remembered Hot Chocolate).

But Nicks’ delivery is rough, tortured, furious. I’m not saying she heard Kristin Hersh on “Delicate Cutters” and knew that the bar had been raised a little – since she wouldn’t have been in a position to do so – but her voice could scratch paint off the Taj Mahal, despite Buckingham’s sterling background support.

As for Christine, she was responsible (or, in the case of “Little Lies,” one-half responsible, with her then husband Eddy Quintela) for the album’s two best-known songs. “Little Lies” works chiefly because of Buckingham’s keen awareness of New Pop mores – the arrangement and whispered chorales are distilled Prefab Sprout, whereas the chorus could be Bucks Fizz (“Tell-me-TELL-ME-LI-IES!” Who said something about their camera never lies?) – and its own little lie that it’s a charming late eighties love song when actually it is proposing a break-up (“We’re better off apart, let’s give it a try”). Likewise, the happiness on “Everywhere” sounds very transient indeed (“You better make it soon/Before you break my heart”); the latter is effective because of the cut-up symphony Buckingham and his Fairlight make of piercing, pointillistic stars of voices.

Elsewhere there is the unusual sight of three Lindsey/Christine co-writes. Of those, “Isn’t It Midnight” was again written with Quintela, and canters along like a standard mid-eighties MTV-friendly rocker until Buckingham’s furious, fuzzy and increasingly atonal lead guitar suddenly and terrifyingly appears on the scene and proceeds to erase the song altogether; the only other time this happens on the record is with the Buckingham-penned title track, poised as it is between morbid contemplation and unfettered fury, perhaps echoing the record’s cover painting, Homage á Henri Rousseau, by the Australian artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, which depicts a nocturnal glade by the seashore. At its centre something gleams with a light that has been pointed at it from a direction and source unknown; in the water there are two swans, one camouflaged, and between them lurks a crocodile, ready to come ashore and wreak havoc if it gets annoyed – therefore, an idyll which on closer inspection isn’t idyllic at all.

“You & Me, Part II” I’ll come to eventually, but the third Buckingham/McVie collaboration, which closes side one, is the rather lovely “Mystified” with its gorgeous, ruminating chord changes and a feeling of crisp eternity that is highly reminiscent of OMD; it could theoretically fade out altogether, but the song is about uncertainty when faced with what looks like love. It plays like a tropical beach hut silently surrounded by sharks.

Like practically all of the songs here not written by Stevie Nicks, “Mystified”’s lyric is minimalist, almost like a pop haiku, and it can mean whatever your circumstances demand it should mean. Otherwise, Buckingham’s “Caroline” is all scratchy Peter Gabriel manoeuvres, and something about reaching the mountain top and cutting the cord (signifiers!).

But if there are only three songs on this record sung (less than fully) by Stevie Nicks, only two of which she fully wrote, then there is a melancholy explanation for this, as Buckingham told Uncut in a 2003 interview: “It was a very difficult record to make. Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.”

Actually, over the seventeen months it had taken to make the album – recording began as early as November 1985 – Nicks had spent a cumulative total of two weeks in the studio. Her cocaine habit had worsened to the extent that she required a thirty-day stay in the Betty Ford Clinic (which was the inspiration for “Welcome To The Room…Sara”). On her release, however, she went to see a psychiatrist and was prescribed the tranquiliser Klonopin, to which she soon became far more seriously addicted; she did not manage to shake the addiction off fully until the early nineties. As an addict, she was hardly capable of turning up in the recording studio and doing her bit and so Buckingham was faced with the task of having to build her vocal tracks up from isolated lines, sometimes even isolated words, as described above. If Nicks’ voice on things like “Little Lies” sounds cut and pasted, it is a speeded-up Buckingham (the drop-ins on “When I See You Again” where it sounds as though he is messing about varispeed-style with Nicks’ voice à la “If I Was Your Girlfriend” – within all the “What’s the matter, baby” stuff - are almost certainly speeded-up Buckingham).

Then again, is that really Christine McVie singing on “Isn’t It Midnight” or a 60 rpm Buckingham impersonating McVie impersonating Nicks? Buckingham, in the abovementioned Uncut interview, summed it up: “Everyone was at their worst, including myself. We’d made the progression from what could be seen as an acceptable or excusable amount of drug use to a situation where we had all hit the wall. I think of it as our darkest period.”

In other words, everybody in this family was too fucked up to make this album, and Buckingham (with co-producer Richard Dashut) had to bear most of the burden of putting it together and making it work. Thus Tango In The Night looks like Fleetwood Mac, sounds at a distance like Fleetwood Mac, but isn’t really Fleetwood Mac. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the two Nicks-penned/sung songs. In contrast to Buckingham’s essentially futurist musical outlook, Nicks sounds stranded in the past; “Welcome To The Room” plays with notions of Tusk and Gone With The Wind but in truth she is far too far gone; at one point (“This is a dream, right?”) she sounds like the yet-to-be-born Taylor Swift. She is back in the past, with the other “Sara” (but “Sara” is Stevie – isn’t she?), with “Beautiful Child” and maybe even with “Quicksilver Girl.” I wonder whether the nod to Propaganda’s “Duel” (“The first cut is the deepest one of all…”) was at Buckingham’s prompting. Most chilling is when she sings, towards the end of the song, “When you hang up that ‘phone/Well, you cease to exist.” As far as the Fleetwood Mac of 1987 was concerned, she was barely existing as it was.

In “When I See You Again” she is dreaming, she is lost in a dream, in memories of things and relationships that once were, and when she can go no further, she gives up:

“And the dream says I want you
And the dream is gone
So she stays up nights on end
Well at least there is a dream left”

With that, she makes her exit from the song, and the album; and we are left with the ghostly voice of Buckingham to sing the final lines - “If I see you again/Will it be over/Again and again/Over and over?” – and sing them right into the next world. He wants to get on; she is incapable of doing so.

The record closes with its most disquieting and disturbing song. Musically, “You & I, Part II” is a cheerful daytime television electro-jingle; with a slightly different arrangement it could have fitted onto the end of Sulk (and yes, I can imagine Billy Mackenzie singing “Big Love”) – but lyrically (and this is Lindsey AND Christine) what the hell is going on? Eyes shut tight, phantoms crawling out of the night, hoping and praying that tomorrow never comes, a Queen Dido-esque entreaty not to “forget about me”…but then again, the phrase “hoping tomorrow will never come for you and I” can have two meanings, depending upon whether you regard the verb “come” as transitive or intransitive. This, however, is unquestionably the end, the sound of the singer closing the door on the “family,” on the group which a decade earlier had already sounded on the point of disintegrating.

And so it proved. Disgruntled by the prospect of touring the album, given the stresses incurred in recording it, Buckingham demurred and left the band. Tango In The Night remains the last new word that these five people have left us; The Dance included no new songs, and by the time of Say You Will, effectively a Buckingham-Nicks record, Christine McVie had retired, contributing only occasional, ghostly backing vocals. There is no indication that their forthcoming reunion will produce any new material. And so the dialogue, the pain, continued in other ways. By the time “You & I, Part II” has done its business, Buckingham’s voice has been reduced to a ghost in the Fairlight. Perhaps he saw the future only too plainly.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

STING: ...Nothing Like The Sun

(#354: 24 October 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: The Lazarus Heart/Be Still My Beating Heart/Englishman In New York/History Will Teach Us Nothing/They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)/Fragile/We’ll Be Together/Straight To My Heart/Rock Steady/Sister Moon/Little Wing/The Secret Marriage

A Dictionary Of “…Nothing Like The Sun”

Chadwick, Guy  (b 1956): German-born English singer-songwriter and guitarist who, after a false start in the early eighties with the group The Kingdoms, found critical and commercial acclaim when he formed The House Of Love with guitarist Terry Bickers. In one of the inset photographs on the sleeve of …Nothing Like The Sun, where he is wearing a raincoat, Sting looks rather like Guy Chadwick.

Compact discs: The album was marketed as a double, though weighs in at just under fifty-five minutes and requires only one CD or cassette. The flow of the latter benefits the record as a whole, in order to distract from the suspicion that this is another smooth, never-listened-to item for the sophisticated yuppie car.

Crisp, Quentin (1908-99): Sutton-born model, writer and raconteur whose given name was actually Denis Charles Pratt. Famously suffering much mockery, abuse, contempt and violence for the way he dressed and conducted himself in public, he was determined to keep his dignity intact, though did not become a celebrity until John Hurt portrayed him in the 1975 television adaptation of his 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant. Thereafter he toured in a one-man show. Interviewed by Paul Morley for the NME, shortly before vacating the Beaufort Street bedsit in which he had lived for some forty-one years to emigrate to the States, he had that kind of Anthony Blanche-type insouciance which I think Morley was disappointed not to find in any of his other interviewees; Crisp is the first subject to appear in the anthology Ask: The Chatter Of Pop. The last subject is Sting.

“Englishman In New York” is all about Crisp, maintaining his style and preserving his pride (and thus reinforcing one of the album’s central themes, that of dogged resistance against oppression). As with several other songs on the album, the song breaks into a temporary jazz run before a five-second blast of hip hop beats – sort of – remind us that we are meant to assume that the 1987 Sting knows what time it is. Ironically, for such a cultured and unwavering man of the world, Crisp died in a hotel room in Chorlton-cum-Hardy near Manchester, the night before he was due to begin a British tour of his one-man show. In his sleevenote Sting remarks on how Crisp was looking forward to receiving his naturalisation papers “so that he could commit a crime and not be deported.  ‘What kind of crime?,’ I asked anxiously. ‘Oh, something glamorous, non-violent, with a dash of style,’ he replied. ‘Crime is so rarely glamorous these days.’”

Dream Of The Blue Turtles, The: Sting’s first solo album from 1985, which failed to top the charts because the public, not unreasonably, preferred Marillion. Working with what was more or less Wynton Marsalis’ old band, the record was full of catchy and moderately intriguing songs, but because they were performed by a jazz group essentially utilising a jazz approach, they were not viewed as pop, and it is hard to deny that songs like “Fortress Around Your Heart” really need The Police to work fully. In Britain, its biggest hit single was also its least typical song, the anti-war “Russians.”

ECM Records: Widely-acclaimed, innovative Munich-based record label (ECM is short for Editions of Contemporary Music), operative since 1969. Its famous slogan “The most beautiful sound next to silence” is secretly Canadian, quoting as it does from a 1971 article in CODA magazine. Although producer Manfred Eicher began ECM as a jazz label, his unique approach to production, presentation and packaging has meant that the label’s work has presaged much of Ambient and New Age music, and indeed the label has long been as famous for its contemporary classical releases (issued under ECM’s “New Series”) as its jazz catalogue. Unkind critics have condemned ECM’s music as jazz with its balls cut off, but these are the miserable politics of envy from social inadequates who spend their time listening to wasteful cack like Muslimgauze and “Bonnie” Prince Billy.

Instead, imagine a group of highly skilled musicians playing wistfully at the northernmost end of a stark Norwegian fjord, and you may get some idea of what …Nothing Like The Sun sounds like; sumptuously and expensively produced, so lavish that most of Sting’s vocals (and therefore, most of what he is trying to convey to us) get mixed into the murk and are incomprehensible. Rarely has Branford Marsalis sounded so akin to mid-period Jan Garbarek.

Eisler, Hanns (1898-1962): Austrian composer and polemicist, hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in the thirties and out of the USA by the HUAC in the forties. …Nothing But The Sun is not deprived of hope; “They Dance Alone” holds out hope for an eventual turnaround. “The Secret Marriage” put new English lyrics to the Eisler/Brecht song “An Den Kleinen Radioapparat” and, at the end of an album which largely seems to have been about women in one way or another – the record begins with his bearing a wound inflicted by his own mother, and ends with a new bonding – he echoes “Sonnet 130” by saying that there is no need for ceremony or rituals; we, you and I, know who we are and what we want from each other.

Evans, Gil (1912-88): Toronto-born jazz bandleader, arranger and composer; one of the key musicians in any genre of the last century. His brass-dominant harmonies hang over jazz like question-mark-shaped clouds. Beginning as an arranger for Skinny Ennis’ band in 1935, his work with Claude Thornhill persuaded unlikely instruments like the French horn to assimilate themselves into jazz vocabulary, and instruments like the tuba to realign their previous role. Although largely feted for his work with Miles Davis, which extended over the best part of four decades (from The Birth Of The Cool to Decoy) –and rightly so; the moment where Lee Konitz’s almost unaccompanied alto sax reed splits a double-voiced semitone on 1949’s “Moondreams,” with the accompanying transition from lushness to discordancy, marks the irrevocable dividing line between old and new ways – the work he did with his own bands is among the most remarkable jazz has ever seen, and his relatively sparse discography benefits from not being overcrowded.

I myself saw his orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in February 1978 (it was during an extended teachers’ strike up in Scotland; school was closed) – an event documented on two albums, released on different labels, which have yet to be tidied up, put in order and put on CD – made most other music, and not just jazz, seem small. The staggering “Variation On The Misery,” a feature for the trumpets of Ernie Royal and, unforgettably, Hannibal Marvin Peterson, was the high point.

But I had already been transfixed by his astonishing 1975 album There Comes A Time. Using twenty-three musicians, including at least five synthesiser players, Evans, with cheerful patience, drew lines from Jelly Roll Morton (“King Porter Stomp,” still a hit single waiting to happen) to Tony Williams’ Lifetime (the gargantuan title track, which Sting also interpreted with Evans’ help during the …Nothing Like The Sun sessions) via Miles Ahead (“The Meaning Of The Blues,” which extends to twenty minutes on the CD release, topped and tailed by a Morricone-ish kora motif and featuring George Adams’ tenor suffering for the world).

The album also features his original arrangement of “Little Wing”: more profuse and diffuse than Sting’s, it teeters into being with Joe Gallivan’s random drum synthesiser pitches and Ryo Kawasaki’s distant guitar pitched against Herb Bushler’s fulsome bassline. Then the whole orchestra spills in, letting way for a spirited alto solo by David Sanborn and a vocal by Hannibal Marvin Peterson, who, shall we say, does his best (he actually sounds like Ian Anderson). The Sting/Evans version begins not dissimilarly, with Mark Egan now handling the bass and Hiram Bullock’s more orderly guitar. Sting sings Hendrix’s song with palpable gusto and enthusiasm – but where is the Gil Evans Orchestra? We hear a backdrop of keyboards, which may have been played by Evans and/or Kenny Kirkland (my ears guess that it’s both), with harmonic cadences which are more advanced than Hendrix’s and, as Lena pointed out, are clearly Canadian. It wasn’t quite the last thing Evans did – that honour goes to a pensive but profound 1988 duo album with his old associate Steve Lacy – but Sting’s sleevenote (and accompanying picture of the two) makes his love of Evans’ art clear. He went on to sing with Evans’ band at the Sweet Basil club in New York, but there not being enough room for him to be onstage with fifteen musicians, he sang on the floor, between two dining tables.

Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983): Massachusetts-born architect, inventor and writer. Jobless, drunk and suicidal by 1927, he had a profound experience in Lake Michigan which involved a sphere of white light and a voice calling out to him to continue to live and work out what good he could do for everybody else. Driven by his belief that more could be achieved with less, his short 1981 book Critical Mass was an attempt to sum up his life’s beliefs and produce a succinct but meaningful history of human progress. The song “History Will Teach Us Nothing” was directly inspired by the book, which continues to read as though it had been written yesterday. “The desire to make money is inherently entropic, for it seeks to monopolize order while leaving un-cope-with-able disorder to overwhelm others”; words which have not dated in these neo-robber baron/medieval liege days.

Hayes, Isaac (1942-2008): Tennessee-born soul singer, songwriter, producer and actor who became indelibly associated with Memphis and Stax Records.  His astounding 1995 comeback album Branded – which appeared on Virgin Records – is chiefly notable for its marathon reading and deconstructing of “Fragile,” which expresses and encompasses the song’s underlying pain far more avidly and inventively than Sting managed.

Hendrix, Jimi (1942-70): Sting first saw the Experience play at a club in Newcastle, when he was fifteen. He never forgot it. It is amusing how, in an album of so many words, Sting finds his truest and most open self singing somebody else’s words.

Highgate Hill: A street in North London which links Archway and Highgate Village. It is a formidably steep street, though nowhere near as steep a street as, say, Steep Street in Lincoln, which is so steep that it includes a stairway for those who find the climb too intimidating, though is worth visiting for its several excellent secondhand bookshops. Highgate Hill was also the site of the first cable car route in Europe, running between 1884 and 1909. At its Archway end you will find most of the Whittington Hospital. If you choose to walk up the street, expect to be accosted approximately every twenty seconds by confused tourists attempting to find Highgate Cemetery, which the street borders near its northerly end. It was while walking up Highgate Hill late one night that Sting was accosted by a drunk, pointing at the sky and demanding to know: “How beautiful is the moon?” Searching his mind for an answer, Sting replied by quoting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” “A good answer,” said the drunk, who then staggered off.

Intertextuality: Having quoted “Every Breath You Take” at the end of “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” Sting was at it again when he faded “We’ll Be Together” with quotes from the entirely inapposite “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free).” Some consumers wondered whether they weren’t investing in an expensive and egocentric jigsaw puzzle.

Marsalis, Branford (b 1960): Louisiana-born jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader; elder brother of Wynton, who drew a unilateral line in the sand when Branford began working with Sting. In truth, if jazz were Downton Abbey, Wynton Marsalis would be the Earl of Grantham (“I forbid pop music in this house! See to it, Carson!”) –and yet he ultimately recorded and worked with Eric Clapton.

Nonetheless Branford is this album’s man of the match; his saxophones, principally the soprano, go places Sting’s voice and words can’t (especially in “They Dance Alone”) and are always eloquent and telling. A mere eighteen months later, he would contribute harmolodic tenor and alto to the superior Do The Right Thing mix of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which any meaningful list of the ten best singles of the eighties would have to include.

Padgham, Hugh (b 1955): Record producer who on …Nothing Like The Sun only mixes rather than produces as such; production credits go to Neil Dorfsman (replaced by Bryan Loren on “We’ll Be Together”) and Sting himself.

Police, The: Anglo-American rock-pop-reggae trio who enjoyed global acclaim with their unique blend of rock, pop and reggae between the years 1979-84. If “The Lazarus Heart” sounds uncannily like The Police, that is because Andy Summers appears on guitar, as he does on “Be Still My Beating Heart.” Drummer Stewart Copeland did not contribute to the sessions.

Politics, A Little Bit Of: No one doubts that “They Dance Alone” and “Fragile” are tremendously moving-sounding songs. “They Dance Alone” in particular benefits from underplaying the contributions of its multiple celebrity guest stars – a muttered spoken cameo by Ruben Bladés, guitars from Fareed Haque, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler so tasteful and restrained that they are inaudible – but one wonders whether Sting is looking at the lonely dancing ladies of Chile or the world destroying itself and resisting the temptation to add the line “That’s my soul up there.”

Price, Alan (b 1942): County Durham-born, Jarrow-raised singer-songwriter and keyboard player whose jazz-influenced songs always bristle with pointed humour. Had it not been for the state of British light entertainment in the seventies, he and Peter Skellern would vie for the title of Britain’s Randy Newman. When Sting gets vocally worked up, he can sound just like Price, and “Rock Steady” sounds like a (below par) Price romp of wry wit.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616): English poet, playwright and actor, whose “Sonnet 130” begins with the couplet:

“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips' red”

The poem was intended as a satire on flowery poets who made improbable comparisons between their beloved and various facets of nature. Shakespeare resolves not to describe his beloved in such a fashion, but this is not to demean her; on the contrary, he finally claims that she is above all such tired descriptions:

“My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

As opposed to walking on the moon, one supposes. In the song “Sister Moon,” Sting quotes the first line of the sonnet, following it up with the line: “My hunger for her explains everything I’ve done” – words which could only have been his own.

Simon, Paul (b 1941): Newark-born singer-songwriter and occasional producer (Jackson C Frank) and actor (Annie Hall) whose work, and specifically his singing style and occasionally very clunky lyrics, Sting strongly recalls on the rather hamfisted Noah’s Ark epic “Rock Steady.” The two are due to tour together in early 2015. Rumours that they will be firmly situated at opposite ends of the stage from each other and that Simon will nudge a bouncer and ask: “Who is that guy? I’ve never even seen him in my life” are nothing more than the miserable sneering of inferiority from social inadequates who spend their time listening to Communist subversives like Wolf Eyes and Peter Gabriel.

Special Disco Department, HMV: I’m not saying this was where Sting went when looking for the latest hot waxings by the Ultramagnetic MCs and Spagna, but “We’ll Be Together” is a zesty, zappy disco offering to kick off a second half which is largely (though not unquestionably) about love, following the first half, which is largely in mourning, mostly for Sting’s mother, who was ill with cancer and died while he was recording in Montserrat in late 1986, and also at the state of the world in general. Then again, the equally sprightly “Straight To The Heart” which follows it contains one of pop’s least convincing marriage proposals: “Come into (sic) my door/You’ll never have to sweep the floor.”

Springsteen, Bruce (b 1949): …Nothing Like The Sun is Sting’s Tunnel Of Love in that it sets itself the same questions: what am I doing, why am I doing it, how will I recognise myself and how can I make this different, not what people are expecting? And maybe Springsteen is the world’s best-disguised art-rocker. Springsteen constantly looks outside himself to understand himself better.  But, like Waits, the Sting of 1987 is heading for an imminent happy ending. The trouble is, I believe Springsteen and Waits more, because both recognise that they are not the cynosure of the troubled world of which they sing. I’m not sure Sting does.

Styler, Trudie (b 1954): Taught at North Bromsgrove High School, Worcestershire, by Clifford T Ward. She and Sting did not marry until 1992, but she is the clear subject of much of side two (or sides three and four) of …Nothing Like The Sun. When love comes round again, and all that.

Video Offer: Bring On The Night, 90 minutes, directed by Michael Apted, £5.50 for a limited period by mail order (+ £1.50 postage and packing).

Sunday 23 November 2014

Bruce SPRINGSTEEN: Tunnel Of Love

(#353: 17 October 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: Ain’t Got You/Tougher Than The Rest/All That Heaven Will Allow/Spare Parts/Cautious Man/Walk Like A Man/Tunnel Of Love/Two Faces/Brilliant Disguise/One Step Up/When You’re Alone/Valentine’s Day

“I had a certain talent for friendship, but I never had any friends, either because they simply didn’t turn up, or because the friendship I had imagined was an error of my dreams. I’ve always lived alone, and ever more alone as I’ve become more self-aware.”
(Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin, 2001, p 270, end of section 319)

“The laws that govern your private madness when applied to the daily routine of living your life can coagulate into a collision.”
(Tom Waits, interview with Mark Rowland, Musician magazine, October 1987: “Tom Waits Is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)”)

Another Springsteen album, another Annie Leibovitz photo shoot. But these photos are different from the ones on the album before. On the cover he looks up at us, a little like a suspicious Columbo, in smart dark suit and bootlace tie, hands in pockets, or looks across to us with what could be interpreted as either weariness or contempt. He is leaning against a capacious-looking, cream-coloured car, against an unidentified shoreline, presumably somewhere on the New Jersey coast, maybe Atlantic City. Or the car, beach and sea could be a two-dimensional advertising hoarding as per Heaven 17’s The Luxury Gap. On the back cover he has taken his jacket off, rolled up his white shirtsleeves and looks somewhere to his right, beyond the camera, markedly more relieved. On the inner sleeve he is indoors and stares grimly at us, holding his guitar, in a cramped-looking room, wearing dungarees and the working pants from the front of Born In The U.S.A., perhaps the ones where he swears he left his wallet in “All That Heaven Will Allow.”

On the cover itself, however, it looks to be evening, and the sun appears to be setting. He could be anywhere, and from a personal perspective it would be an interesting surprise if the camera moved round 180° to reveal Blackpool Tower*. But he is with a car – or his idea of a car – and he is alone, and possibly not enjoying it as much as you think he might.

Or perhaps he is too much in love with this thirtysomething thing called rock ‘n’ roll and regretful that a music based on youth and impetus has proven so poor an indicator of permanence. The music was intended to be spontaneous, transient, not to be subject to lengthy studies of meaning, purpose and function. But this man has just turned thirty-eight, and there is nothing on this, his new record, which could possibly talk to twenty-year-olds, never mind appeal to them. Whether this was a hindrance or a reproach was not too clear in 1987, a year in which music did everything except stand still.

What is known, what is palpable, is that he is still in love with this music he first heard thirty years before, and still hopelessly entangled in its promised fantasy of escape. So it is that the opening of “Ain’t Got You” is performed with such fearful fearlessness that it might be the first rock ‘n’ roll record following some unspecified apocalypse. Such gusto does he have that he doesn’t even bother with instruments for the first verse; it is as if he is at home, listening through loud headphones and singing along.

And it’s the oldest story the capitalist wagon of rock ‘n’ roll knows; the man who has everything except what he wants. Got what he wanted but lost what he had (“They gain a peace but they lose one too,” as Samuel T Herring might put it). There is a discreet echo to the singer’s voice, designed to arouse memories of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and even before the acoustic guitar-and-castanets Bo Diddley shuffle waddles into aural view – this is not the only 1987 number one album that will begin with such a gesture – the unusual, almost tortured tension Springsteen (for it is he) puts on the first half of each line, tearing up the words like unread telephone directories out of his reddening sky of rage, suggests, ten years after he died, Elvis at the end of his rainbow, with nothing left in his life but the thing that drove him to this life in the first place (“But I’m still the biggest fool, honey, this world ever knew”).

Memories too of “I Can’t Get Next To You” – the fast Temptations or the slow Al Green; either will do – in which the singer is nothing so much as God, impatient that He can create everything except the one thing that matters, despite all of His powers; and “I Can’t Get Started,” that Gatsby of a song which became the unwitting anthem of a generation lost by war, a war Bunny Berigan didn’t even live to see, having already destroyed himself with drink (the Mingus/Schuller orchestration, as heard imperfectly on Epitaph, is a tortured jigsaw puzzle of tonalities and anti-harmonies out of which Vernon Duke’s simple melody eventually emerges like an intact butterfly. At the opposite extreme, the song is effectively a beacon of light relief in the middle of No One Cares, the darkest record Sinatra ever made). “Ain’t Got You” is both start and end to this record, or he finishes where he starts, or vice versa.

If the record starts in the manner of a tut-tutting, surviving Buddy Holly, then “Tougher Than The Rest” might take place in the same post-nuclear bar where the radioactive Blondie perform “Atomic” in their video. The song lumbers along like a big Orbison ballad, but the perspectives are all wrong; the bass synthesiser looms across both its melody and rhythm like a disused, partially destroyed bulldozer in a newly-created desert. Like Johnny Cash, Springsteen is ready to walk the line; unlike either Cash or Orbison, he says to the girl that he knows he’s not perfect, that he’s aware that they’ve both been around – probably been hanging round and annoying each other for years – but Springsteen is sadly pragmatic:

“Well, ‘round here baby,
I learned that you get what you can get.”

The song also includes the first appearance of the recurring adjective “rough” (“If you’re rough enough for love,” “If you’re rough and ready for love”), indicating that this is no blushing romance, this is a cynical, or desperate, bidding, or plea, for love. Max Weinberg’s drums boom unshowily like God’s alarm clock, while Danny Federici’s organ creeps into the picture at the start of the second verse, holding sustained chords like Webb on “Wichita Lineman.” Springsteen’s single-note, low-strung guitar solo is reminiscent of Duane Eddy. Federici’s organ gradually moves to the front of the mix, such that the song becomes more hymn than barroom pickup, and Springsteen’s own harmonica takes the song out, more “Hey Baby” than Dylan, and more “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe” than either (see also Bowie’s “A New Career In A New Town”).

Still, the song holds out some hope, and in “All That Heaven Will Allow,” the singer pleads with the bouncer, or Mister Trouble, or God, to let him into the club where he knows his girl is waiting for him. There is no indication whether he is working at all, let alone have working pants or a wallet to leave in it, or maybe whether there is actually a woman inside waiting for him to come through the door. The style is Ben E King-period Drifters (as if Springsteen wants her to save every dance for him), fast and Latin-ish, but the title is sung and addressed from a different angle every time it appears, and eventually it appears that the song’s not about a dancehall at all, but about where the dancehall might lead him and her, the life and future that they want. Buried deep in its mesh are the following words:

“Now some may wanna die young, man,
Young and gloriously.
Get it straight now, Mister,
Hey buddy, that ain’t me.”

Oh no, rock ‘n’ roll was all supposed to be about “My Generation” and hoping to die before one got old. So what happens when neither dies? You have to see things through and find out how the story would have progressed, or keep making the story up as you go along.

So far, so hopeful.

“How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stitch of land growing smaller and smaller. Or in a balloon swept up on a column of prairie air, the ground widening and flattening, growing less and less distinct below you. You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far away, and all is lost.”
(Richard Ford, Canada. London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p 110, chapter 15)

Throughout “Spare Parts,” Springsteen’s guitar is speedy and attacking, like an ill-treated motorcycle, before it descends into baby-like cries. Something is wrong, and it is wrong from the song’s beginning, with an opening line worthy of Ellroy:

“Bobby said he’d pull out. Bobby stayed in.”

So Janey gets pregnant and Bobby says they’ll marry but Bobby gets scared and runs away. She has the child, never sees him again, and hears of this woman in Calverton who drowns her child in the river. Bobby, now in a “dirty oil patch” (which description sums him up) in South Texas, hears of the birth but resolves never to return. Janey doesn’t know what to do; she weeps, she prays. Finally she takes her child down to the river (“my baby and I” as another song put it) and places him in it, but only up to waist level, as though baptising him. Then both mother and child return home; she puts him back to bed, takes out her engagement ring and wedding dress, takes them down to the pawnshop and “walked out with some good, cold cash.” Life has been shit, but she has no choice but to persist with it, to bury the old dreams and enable two futures. Regaining “normalcy” is her only chance, just as the music is the most straightforward and rock-like on the record. Canada outlines the dire consequences when two people make a mistake, when they’re too young and too drunk to know better, and Bev Parsons stays in. The narrator’s mother dies, in prison and by her own hand, because she is unable to dissociate her reality from the dream which haunted her all her life. “Spare Parts” suggests a way out.

Because what other way is there? “Cautious Man” gives us a comparable story from the opposing viewpoint, though consists of just Springsteen’s voice and acoustic guitar with discreet background synthesiser drones – sometimes, as in the phrase “a thousand miles away,” his voice can sound Vocoderised, as though the awake man is trying to put some distance between himself and his sleeping lover. He has wandered carefully, if aimlessly, through life, and then he falls in love and settles down. But he remains restless; one midnight, while she is sleeping, he steals away, half-intending to resume his life on the road, away from responsibility.

He reaches the outside – but sees “nothing but road” and feels “a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name.” Or, to put it another way, the cold, cold ground (and a different type of coldness from Janey’s “good, cold cash”). He finally realises that there is nothing left for him out there, no future and no life. The fantasy has to be rejected because his mind, his heart, his totality, is now with his wife. It may be that the “God’s fallen light” that he witnesses and inhabits at the song’s end is a signifier of Springsteen’s Catholic guilt (as the ending of “Spare Parts” may also in part suggest), but it is a striking image (which Springsteen sings in the voice of an exhausted wanderer), as well as a warning to anyone foolish enough to reject reality for a wreckage of life based on rootless dreams, as another record released six weeks ahead of Tunnel Of Love made horrifically and comically clear**.

But the first side’s most profound meditation may be its closer: “Walk Like A Man,” a song which would eventually show up the timid likes of “The Living Years” for the flaccid failures that they were in terms of father and son relationships. It is the son’s wedding day, and his father is in attendance – there’s that roughness again as the singer recalls “how rough your hand felt on mine.” He remembers how he had always tried to walk like his father, right from the age of five on the beach, and how his mother would take him and his sister to the church every time “she heard those wedding bells” – those last two words are underscored by a hollow-sounding synthesised whine – and show them the happiest or saddest of visions:

“Well, would they ever look so happy again,
The handsome groom and his bride,
As they stepped into that long black limousine
For their mystery ride?”

The “long black limousine” is a direct reference to one of Elvis’ darkest songs and raises questions about the concept of “happy”; each couple ventures into unknown darkness, as they find out what being together is actually all about, what is involved in building and sustaining a marriage. Now the singer himself is left by his father at the altar, waiting for his bride to appear, praying and hoping that he can finally learn to walk like his father did, all the while knowing that he almost certainly will not. This doubt is a lifetime away from the masculine certainty of the Four Seasons’ 1963 hit of the same name, where the singer’s father warns him away from love and commitment. “No woman’s worth/Crawling on the earth” – no, that won’t wash anymore, and shouldn’t have washed even in 1963 (even if you capitalise that “earth”). What can he do? He can’t walk on. He walks on. Because what other way is there?

The title song is the nearest thing the record gets to an E Street Band – and this was no accident; many of the record’s songs had begun as largely solo demos, and Springsteen had an urge to keep it that way. Co-producer Jon Landau agreed; the other co-producer Chuck Plotkin listened to the songs, worried about Springsteen and asked whether he wouldn’t mind having the band go over them. Springsteen emphatically and angrily did mind, but suggested a plan where individual band members would contribute to each song. This upset the band members more than if Springsteen had kept them out of the process altogether, and although they were called in, hardly any of their work was used in the final product. “Beat the Demo,” they called it. Max Weinberg adds drums and sundry percussion to eight of the twelve songs, but Federici appears on only four songs, Garry Tallent on one (“Spare Parts”), and Clarence Clemons is heard only as a backing singer on “When You’re Alone.” Keyboardist Roy Bittan appears on both the title song and “Brilliant Disguise.” Otherwise it was Springsteen all the way, and many of the musicians were furious about it.

But the band, such as they are on “Tunnel Of Love,” sound like nothing less than Simple Minds, with the song’s jerky introduction, Nils Lofgren’s very Charlie Burchill-esque guitar solo (his only other appearance here, also as a backing singer, is on “When You’re Alone”) and the constant four-chord synthesiser motif, not to mention Springsteen’s own, rather Jim Kerr-ish vocals (his groan on the “fall” in the phrase “they fall in love”). The song again focuses, via its fairground metaphor, on the unknown darkness of commitment, and perhaps outlines a forensic self-examination on Springsteen’s behalf of what really is meant by the word “love.” “But the house is haunted, and the ride gets rough” – that “rough” again – “And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” which draws us back to the ambiguous principle of “Tougher Than The Rest.” Towards the end of the song, it is noticeable how backing singer Patty Scialfa’s voice gradually becomes louder and more forthright and urgent. Weinberg rains down drum thunderbolts, and the song screeches into a freeform pile-up which resolves into the delighted screams of the riders of the rollercoaster at the Point Pleasant Amusement Park (who, incidentally, were coached and directed by engineer Toby Scott and his assistant).

Next comes “Two Faces,” a song worthy of a vengeful, surviving Buddy Holly (“Two faces have I”) where the singer is at war with himself, or his worse self; half of him wants love, the other half to destroy it. The battle is numbing (the slow up-rolling of the word “baby” in the second line of the second verse sounds like the singer is slitting his own throat with a Swiss Army penknife) but the singer’s good half finally triumphs – for now (“He swore he’d take your love away from me…/Well, go ahead and let him try,” suggesting that the Orbison of “Running Scared” was both pursued and pursuer).

“Brilliant Disguise” is a sister song to “Two Faces” but that isn’t the half of this remarkable piece of work.  We immediately note how the line “Out on the edge of time” relates back to the themes and emptiness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town – so it may not be too helpful to label Tunnel Of Love as a break-up album since this was not the first time Springsteen had presented us with such forlorn songs (for what it’s worth, both Springsteen and Julianne Phillips continue to speak of each other with what I think is heartfelt respect, although both are naturally guarded about talking in great detail about their time together).

Nonetheless, both song and performance beg the question: what the hell do you, or I, want from pop music, from love, from life? The song, like most of the songs on the album, proceeds like any immediate pre-Beatles pop record might have proceeded, or perhaps a few and very select post-Beatles pop records – those castanet triples which seem to resound throughout the entire history of pop, Weinberg’s rhetorical Orbison/Spector timpani. “I hold you in my arms/As the band plays,” Springsteen begins as though it were 1961 and he was Ben E King and the debt of the future had yet to incur itself. The doubt takes no time to make itself known: “What are those words whispered, baby/Just as you turn away?”

And suddenly the performance is so far from certain. There is paranoia – whoever is calling her name from underneath “our” willow, the shameful secret tucked beneath her pillow – and in his evaluation of the song, Dave Marsh is right to speak of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” but also of “Suspicion”, the Terry Stafford song covered by Presley in 1962, Pomus and Shuman’s shame-filled sequel to “Save The Last Dance For Me.” He also mentions Gene Pitney’s 1965 single “Last Chance To Turn Around” (a.k.a. “Last Exit To Brooklyn”) as a specific precursor of “Disguise”’s “Is it meeee, baby?,” but I can’t hear it, only one of Pitney’s fiercest and angriest vocals as he surveys the extent of his lover’s deception before heading out of town (accompanied by a bizarre Bubber Miley muted trumpet cry) with lyrics foreshadowing both Scott Walker’s “Duchess” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Bittan’s piano enters deep and dramatically after Springsteen’s “Well, I’ve tried so hard.” When he reaches the middle eight’s “struggling” he sounds at the end of his tether, and the stark imagery of that same sequence points to another, less likely precedent – and the other end of the “Lovin’ Feelin’” anti-rainbow – Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Federici’s high, held organ note at the song’s end, combined with Weinberg’s timpani, removes all ambiguity)***. Finally, they marry, but Springsteen already realises the danger lies within himself, as he slowly turns the song around and asks his lover whom she sees: “Is it meeee, baby?/Or just a brilliant disguise?” (Julianne Phillips is, of course, an actress). Tired of everything, he wanders away from the song at its end, again recalling “Apart” (“Tonight our bed is cold”), and finally crucifies himself: “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of.” In 1987, only Waits’ “I’ll Take New York” touched its self-destructive power.

On “One Step Up,” terminally disgusted with himself, the singer breaks and quits. But everywhere he runs into a brick wall. His home is unhappy, but his car won’t start and so he has no option but to go back to the bar:

“When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be.”

He is even reduced to trying a half-hearted pick-up at the bar but, like the singer of “Tougher Than The Rest” and maybe even “Brilliant Disguise,” he knows that she knows that it’s all bull and jive. Then the dream reappears: “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms/The music was never-ending” – as if the beginning of “Brilliant Disguise” had happened only in his mind, in his mind alone. But another voice joins in on the subsequent “We danced…” and it is the voice of Patty Scialfa. The music then rises to a crescendo of wordless  chorals, as though both dancers were rising out of that old world.

On “When You’re Alone,” she ups and leaves (“Times were tough, love was not enough”) and he is all sneering and accusatory, but sounding so empty attempting either that the conclusion has to be that he is singing to himself. She does come back in the final verse, but the triumph sounds Pyrrhic; the intermediary second verse sounds like the plot of Franks Wild Years in précis. And then the backing singers – Patty Scialfa, from New Jersey, being one of them – form a chorus behind the singer, telling him that perhaps he’s not really alone. Or would prefer not to be seen as such.

But on the closing “Valentine’s Day,” he is entirely on his own. It is an attempt at deep soul with a steady, patient 6/8 tempo, and Springsteen’s own bass prowls and arches beneath the singer as he realises that fantasy and idealisations, like tears, are not enough. What is love, he wonders; it’s the friend of his who became a father last night – he, Springsteen, who on this album tries so hard to walk like his father – and the singer has had enough of façades; he wants home, and her. He is driving down a dark and “spooky” highway, but in the record’s most resonant and candid couplet, he lays it open:

“That ain’t what scares me, baby;
What scares me is losin’ you.”

And again, those dreams, that light of God (dying in his dreams reminding us of Joy Division/New Order’s “In A Lonely Place,” not to mention “The Electrician”), come through with a hymnal organ to underscore their importance. ”Don’t walk away. In silence” was how the song went. There are closing, chiming bells, the bluest and loneliest of Valentines – but, unlike Frank, he at least sounds as though he has a home still to reach and reside. “Now that we’ve found love” asked the O’Jays some years earlier, “what are we gonna do with it?” Recognising it, Springsteen recognises, is not the same thing as living with it, nurturing it, allowing it to grow and flourish. He has to get beyond the fun of the fair and get his hands dirty. It might even be called growing up, that inconsiderate and un-rock ‘n’ roll-like phenomenon that the most searching music of 1987 appeared to want and address more and more. You’ve finally got to learn to live with what you know you can make rise above. That is that thing called love.

*Appendix 1: Blackpool

You may wonder why I should reminisce about Blackpool in the context of an album set in one man’s heart in America, much of it recognisably set along the New Jersey shoreline – if that “dirty oil patch” in South Texas isn’t a roundabout reference to Roy Orbison’s background, and remembering that Newark’s Four Seasons were as much the sound of New Jersey in their day as Springsteen was, and perhaps still is, in his -  and the only answer I can give is that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Blackpool, a place I knew very well in the seventies and which I have not visited since the seventies, and something about the sunset/end-of-the-road twilight gleaming of Tunnel Of Love set me thinking about the place.

Specifically I’ve been looking at Blackpool as it is now via the marvel of Google Street View, tracing all the approaches to the town, and the town itself, as far as fits my memory of them. The overwhelming feeling that I have is one of melancholy. It doesn’t really matter which way you come into town; however you do it, the familiar shape of the Tower will soon come into progressively less distant view.

When my parents and I visited the resort regularly in summer holidays past, we used to lodge somewhere in Egerton Road, part of the elegant North Shore, by far my favourite district of the town (there is even a Carlin Gate to mark the otherwise invisible boundary between Blackpool and Bispham). As a very young boy I used to fantasise about living in the very grand Imperial Hotel, but then I had similar fantasies about living in Buckingham Palace and even in Tower Bridge. Tracing the path from there, I was astonished at how swiftly and how well I recognised the streets, the houses built in a brickwork of sandstone in a shade of red you don’t really find anywhere else. The turning at the top of the road which turned into another road, and you can glimpse the top of the Tower above one of the houses  on the right (the same house used to boast an advertising hoarding for Omega Watches which no longer exists). Dickson Road, always an exciting walk in my younger days, eager to check out the latest American Marvel Comics, which came to Blackpool a lot sooner than they did to Glasgow. Then down to Talbot Road, with its terrific Marks and Spencer and fantastic butcher’s shop which sold the best burgers I have yet tasted, past Yates’ Wine Lodge to Talbot Square and there, facing you, was the North Pier, stretching far out into the North Sea – on an especially clear day, you could go right to its end and glimpse the coast of the Isle of Man.

Just to your left were Lewis’s department store – blue and huge – then the Tower itself, and the Tower complex, and next to that was the art deco Woolworth’s. If you glimpsed up the street that lay between Lewis’s and the Tower then you would see the famous Winter Gardens, which incorporated the comparatively swishy Opera House. Actually we hardly ever ventured into the Winter Gardens itself, except accidentally one summer when we opened a door and found ourselves in an auditorium, with distant acting on a distant stage, and affable-looking fellows standing around at the back laughing and conferring. It turned out to be the Are You Being Served? stage show (of which cast only Nicholas Smith, a.k.a. Mr Rumbold, now survives). There was a fairground of sorts and other such distractions.

The Opera House we went to twice, to see Ken Dodd, once in 1968 and again in 1971. I don’t really remember anything about the 1968 one, but I still have the programme for 1971’s The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular and it brings everything back. In truth it probably presaged the truth about Blackpool in the seventies, that it was already in slow decline from its twenties-to-fifties heyday, the cheap airline/package tour market gradually eating into its numbers of visitors. Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the likes of Sarah Bernhardt paid the town more than one visit (except, on one occasion, when acting in a French play with suboptimal sound quality, one gruff member of the audience regaled Bernhardt with the upbraid: “Speak up, lass! Nobbut a soul can hear what th’art sayin’! We haven’t paid our hard-earned money for that!”).

There was also the Grand Theatre, not too far away, where we went twice; once to see Jimmy Jewel and Hylda Baker in the Nearest And Dearest stage show, and again to see a farce starring Jack Douglas whose title I have long forgotten (it might have been called The Love Nest). But The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular seemed like a last-ditch effort to stage the sort of grand variety show to which Blackpool had been long accustomed.

I also recall it not being that funny. Dodd was only onstage here and there; once near the beginning, and again near the middle for some dreary song-and-dance business with the Diddymen which also involved some admittedly spectacular waterfalls (and there was a full orchestra in the pit). Otherwise the fare on offer could have come from 1911 or 1941; the Tiller Girls, ventriloquism (Jack Beckitt, “supported by WILLIE DRINKALL”), juggling, fire-eating, sleight-of-hand magic (the latter from the highly-respected Johnny Hart, the only name on the bill apart from Dodd’s that I recognised) and lots of stern, doughy songs sung by one Lyn Kennington with themes or titles like “When Knights Were Bold” and “Derby Day.”

But at the end, more or less, Dodd came back onstage, alone, and riffed, improvised or recalled gags from the air, reacted immediately to his audience, for what must have been almost an hour and a half and maybe even two hours. It was staggering. I’d never seen anything like it before, and it was clear that this was what everybody had paid to come and see, and that all the sub-Franz Lehar rictus-grinning stuff that preceded it was merely a warm-up. It doesn’t really matter that over forty years later I can hardly remember one joke that he told; it was about the moment, the here and now, and the thrill and pleasure in watching a master of his art at peak power and enjoying it so hugely.

Or maybe it was just one hour; I was very young and time out of school was a matter of elasticity. What I do remember was that when we eventually got out of the Opera House it was well past midnight and we had to get a taxi back to our boarding house. Dodd’s then-current single “When Love Comes Round Again” was sung on stage, played over the PA as we left the auditorium, and indeed was on sale in the downstairs foyer. It didn’t become a hit record until slightly later, and it remains perhaps Dodd’s strangest single. It was an English version of a 1970 hit by Italian singer-songwriter Sergio Endrigo, originally entitled “L’Arce Di Noé,” and followed Endrigo’s original see-sawing between cheerful singalong choruses and melodramatic verses. In Dodd’s recording, however, the pull-and-tug is almost schizophrenic; now we have the honky tonk piano, the Mike Sammes Singers, the hand-waving singsong (“Love –is-LIIIIIIIIKE an ever spinning wheel”), before these musicians suddenly drop out, perhaps through a trapdoor, the key switches from dominant major to subdominant minor, the guitar goes proto-Portishead on the listener, and we are left with a regally cold string section – although the song ‘s pulse is always constant, the verses pull off the illusion of sounding out-of-tempo – against which Dodd’s voice descends a staircase of grief (“Down the years, many tears have been cried about love and devotion”) with a methodology of phrasing and pause control almost identical in elegance to that of Scott Walker. The strings swell up, the chords mourn like a lamenting Dido – but before the wrecked soul can jump off the cliff, just as suddenly returns the don’t-worry-be-happy-clappy chorus. The overriding arc of love dying and love being reborn isn’t that distant from the overall theme of Tunnel Of Love. Towards the end of 1971, the song, retitled “Love Is Like A Spinning Wheel,” became a hit for American country singer Jan Howard, who in tandem with producer Owen Bradley did it as straight country without any of the melodrama.

But back to the Woolworth’s tower – such as it was  - and beyond that you left the North Shore and entered the Central region, by far the most popular among the largely Glaswegian Fair Fortnight holidaymakers. Far more colourful, and maybe tackier, than the North, the smell of fish and chips combined with candy floss was prevalent all the way down the Golden  Mile. Central Pier was also a far brasher pier than either the North or South ones, with its extravagantly vulgar design and its Peter Webster talent contests. There was a waxwork museum called Louis Tussaud’s, a cinema whose name I’ve forgotten where we’d go to watch morning matinees of seemingly endless Warner Brothers cartoon classics, and lots, but lots, of seafront hotels. Central Blackpool was all about loudness, as opposed to the calming reserve of the North Shore – there’s a great point on the North Promenade where the Metropole Hotel rises up and suddenly, if briefly, there are huge buildings on either side of the street.

Whereas the South Shore always seemed like something of an afterthought, looking as it did rather down-at-heel, primary-coloured paint scraping from the bright houses on the shore. The South Pier looked almost embarrassed to call itself a pier, although it really wasn’t all that bad. Nevertheless I clearly recall the pier’s theatre manager coming out onto the pier deck to address the masses reclining in their deckchairs, imploring them to come inside and see Freddie Garrity in The Jolson Story. “Plenty of seats left!” he repeated, the implication being that all seats were left (which, as I understand things, wasn’t that far-fetched; nobody took up the offer). This was very different from cheerful characters like Frank Carson and Little and Large strolling up the North Pier, waving to deckchairs, beaming and always ready for an autograph and a chat.

There was Pleasure Beach, Europe’s largest amusement park, or so it was claimed in those pre-Alton Towers days, and yes, it had a rollercoaster and a Tunnel of Love (not to mention a Ghost Train). It was probably the only institution in Blackpool which could advertise itself as separate and distinct from the Tower. After that, Blackpool slowly and unspectacularly dwindled down to nothing, at least until you got to Lytham St Annes, with its sand dunes on which you could actually sunbathe (at the opposite end of the town were the infamously windy and often Irish Sea-drenching Bispham Cliffs). And there were the trams, always the indispensable trams, and in autumn, the Blackpool Illuminations which four decades ago were pretty spectacular. Not to mention the local paper, the Evening Gazette, and the exotic novelty of watching Granada rather than Scottish Television.

These memories are all intact, and really I don’t want to spoil them by thinking about what Blackpool has turned into since then. Traversing along Google Street View I saw on my right, on Church Street, a huge and apparently disused club called The Syndicate. Now wait, I thought; don’t I know this building from somewhere? And then it struck me – it wasn’t remotely the same building, but was the building which had replaced the Blackpool ABC Theatre, a constant in the seventies, and before then, where stars like Morecambe and Wise trod its boards and guitarist Derek Bailey practised his Webern in the orchestra pit.

Then, the all-too-familiar parade of chain stores, and a feeling of slight desolation. Where Lewis’s once stood, there is now a Harry Ramsden’s and a Poundland, amongst many others. Where once there was a Woolworth’s, now stands Sports Direct. Many shops and hotels I had once known and recognised along the shore were now closed, boarded up or turned into other, less attractive things. I am aware that, for a multitude of reasons, Blackpool is a far less pleasant place than it was when I knew it. If I went there now, the thrill of instant familiarity would, I suspect, be swiftly undercut by the same saddening, reddening sunset one sees on the album cover; the time is gone, and I prefer to preserve the place as I remember it.

**Appendix 2: Franks Wild Years

I’m not very clear about Tom Waits’ religious upbringing or beliefs – like Lanark’s Duncan Thaw and myself, he may well have his “own conception of God,” although one of his most apocalyptic songs has to be 2002’s “God’s Away On Business” (“The ship’s sinking,” “it’s all over” etc.) and I note that his wife Kathleen Brennan, who co-wrote that song along with much of Franks Wild Years, was, like Springsteen, raised as a Catholic – but he seems able to raise his head from the mud more surely than Springsteen, forever crucified by his Catholic guilt, manages on Tunnel, and maybe has a happier story to tell.

Franks Wild Years – and this, incidentally, is not a typo; sleeve, spine and label are entirely free of the pardoning apostrophe, implying that Waits is collecting and filing wild years like others do stamps – was staged under the aegis of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, premiering at Chicago’s Briar St Theatre in June 1986. Planned as the third part of a trilogy of albums also encompassing Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, it is perhaps more neglected than either. The original, apostrophe-incorporating monologue appears on the former, is over in a hundred and ten seconds, and is not much more than Waits growling a tale over Ronnie Barron’s Hammond organ and Larry Taylor’s walking bass, a story which doesn’t really have much bearing on what happens on this record, other than the awful, spontaneous urge to abandon a life based on reality and run away in pursuit of one based on fantasy.

Without wanting to waste my time and space and your patience on what a thousand writers have already told you about Waits, I’ll cut straight to the story that the record tells. It begins with excitement and anticipation; “Hang On St Christopher” as Frank – Sinatra? Bascombe? Wheeler? – sets out for Christ(opher) knows where, past The Grapevine, through Reno, further and further away from what he knew. “Straight To The Top” continues with the absurd optimism. But as he goes through “Blow Wind Blow” and “Temptation,” his voice gets higher and more torn, the music less graspable. The first “Innocent When You Dream” – the roughness of his dreams – is bawled as though he is weeping at his own funeral.

As his travels broaden and narrow, and his resources run out, the music becomes steadily more doleful as it becomes more dissonant; in “I’ll Be Gone” he actively welcomes the prospect of suicide, and by “Yesterday Is Here” and “Please Wake Me Up” he is dimly aware that there is no going or coming back. “Franks Theme” teeters in and out of comprehensibility like Carla Bley’s least forgettable nightmare. “More Than Rain” sees Waits pulling down the shutters on the planet. “Way Down In The Hole” is deep soul marooned deeper than Hades, Marc Ribot’s guitar tugging on the song’s perilous strands of logic, a trio of backing singers – a signifier of “soul” music – entering the song only a few seconds before it is terminated.

Side two is nightmare all the way. The Vegas “Straight To The Top” is both pitiful and hilarious, while “I’ll Take New York” is Sinatra refracted through Lynch**** – although Scorsese’s original New York, New York movie hardly said yes to life; Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle are fated to separate and go into their respective musical and emotional dead ends . Then again, you could experience Waits/Franks’ torment, as the lounge music disintegrates around him like the world, the future, his life floating away from him (in his play “What Is The Right Thing And Am I Doing It?,” BS Johnson has Ghent reiterate that the only way he can explain how he coped what he made happen to him is “You had to…float”), as the devil who, as Waits put it, knows the Bible like the back of his hands and flows through the mind, wind and fingers of Jimmy Doyle as de Niro plays him. At the end of the song, he is fluttering, bleary, incomprehensible and unlovable, in the gutter.

There is a grain of hope in the hopped-up “Telephone Call From Istanbul,” as well as some of the album’s funniest lyrics (sample: “Never drive a car when you’re dead” – well, Waits makes it funny) – but “Cold Cold Ground” – the same cold, cold ground into which Springsteen’s cautious man stares – with the aid of David Hidalgo’s accordion, is the first of a pair of great vocal performances that showed D’Arby that he had some way to go; slow, patient, deep, hurt, and genuinely “soulful.” The second is the numbing “Train Song” where he realises that he has returned home, but that it’s not “home” any more, that it is too late for redemption or anything else. Springsteen never lets himself get anywhere near that trap. The final “78” reading of “Innocent When You Dream” sounds played from beyond the grave, as if Frank had expired. All that having been said, Waits is always accompanied by a core of his repertory company of musical players – musically he never sounds alone, as such – and given that the woman who became his wife helped to write so many of these songs, you could argue that the ending here was, paradoxically, happier than Springsteen’s lonely Valentine.

****Appendix 2b: Climate of Sinatra

In 1986, Sinatra’s brassy, Don Costa-arranged “Theme From New York, New York,” reissued by Reprise to promote a routine best-of compilation album, became an unexpected top five hit in Britain (his last such as a solo performer). I am not sure whether this had the welcome effect of drawing curious listeners back to the performance’s original home, 1980’s Trilogy: Past Present Future, a self-explanatory triple album which, in its final third, the Gordon Jenkins-masterminded “Future” suite, constitutes the most exploratory and avant-garde music Sinatra ever recorded. Those who think that Scott Walker was striking out a stubbornly lonely path are directed to “World War None!,” “Song Without Words,” and “What Time Does The Next Miracle Leave?”; the record is Sinatra’s Tilt, his Metal Machine Music, and as brilliant as either.

***Appendix 3: A Love Trilogy: Past Present Future

(a)  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”

There were Springsteen-compatible precedents in Orbison, Pitney and the Four Tops; what else is the knowingly failed barroom pick-up in “One Step Up” but a cold rationalist update of “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa”? But I doubt whether even the fifteen-year-old Springsteen was ready for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Like the opening of Citizen Kane, “Lovin’ Feelin’” plays its cards upfront. There is no introduction or prelude; without warning we are immediately lowered into the pit of the sarcophagus of Bill Medley’s voice, clanging its own hellish chimes of doom. It is like the Last Trump being blown directly into your ear.

No reassurance either: “You never close your eyes any more” is how it begins; did we come in halfway through the story, or record? Those first two words are uttered, as though they constituted the last words of man, before any music begins, and when the music does begin it is distant, like the band are playing in the next room, or on the next continent. The language of what the singer took to be love appears to be no longer valid, and he is having difficulty accepting that.

As he reaches the first chorus a second, higher voice joins him in harmony and their joint “gone, gone, gone” resounds like the sailors crying for bread in Boris Godunov. Then the song lands again, not quite where it was at the beginning – the sound is fuller and there are next-door-neighbour backing vocals, one of which is provided by Cher. A high string line – Nitzsche was indisposed and so Spector grumpily hired Gene Page to do the arrangement – enters into our consciousness like an oxygen tube. Then there’s another pained build-up – you may think these are just little things but SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL’S DYING, the greatest offence that humanity is incapable of bearing – and another chorus, before the rhythm section suddenly drops out, perhaps through a trapdoor.

There is just a vibraphone, and a double bass, and then “Goodnight Irene” harmonising, and then congas – but before even those Medley tries to prove that even Homer (Simpson) can nod – “Baby, baby…I’d get down on my knees for you” (then the wordless choir – is the subtext here “Take Me To Church”?).

But then there is another voice, a higher, more urgent one, which we hear on its own for the first time – the voice of Bobby Hatfield. Restraint versus anger, countenance against fear; two sides of the same man? More percussion enters, then snarling muted trombones; the music just keeps building and building – by the time the singers reach their quatrain of “Don’t, don’t, DON’T, DON’T let it slip away-ay-ay!,” the song, the record, sounds as though it is barely under control.

Then the two singers start to shout at each other – “Baby!” “BABY!” “Baby…” “BAYYYYYYBAYYYYY!!” – why are they arguing? They continue towards their peak of outward mourning: “I need your love,” says Medley mildly. “I NEED YOUR LOVE!” hollers Hatfield, to remind us of how he could stretch out and heighten that “I need your love” in “Unchained Melody,” a song Spector gave him to do alone, as recompense for being absent from most of “Lovin’ Feelin’.” Everything is about to boil over. It’s clear why they are screaming at each other. It’s their version of getting laid.

But instead of a Penderecki-type eruption, we can only go back to the chorus, the “Bring back that lovin’ feelin’,” roared more in forlorn hope than assured certainty (for otherwise why would they hush up and sing “I can’t go on” towards the end?). Another drop-out, and then an intentionally anti-climactic fadeout. Burdon’s “House Of The Rising Sun” wasn’t even in it.

Nor, for a moment, was British pop music. The big chart battle here was between the original and Cilla Black’s George Martin-produced cover. But Cilla and George got nowhere near it; the climactic bridge is cut short (the singer said she didn’t want people to get bored, not too convincingly) but after leading the original in the charts for three weeks, the British public turned around and decided that they preferred “to get bored,” to hear the whole, unabbreviated, unconfined story. It’s arguable that Black’s pop career never regained its momentum after that episode; her follow-up, a far more convincing and adventurous reading of “I’ve Been Wrong Before” – a record which introduced Randy Newman to our charts – was perceived as an audience-testing single and only just crept into the top twenty (a shame because I think her version better than the contemporaneous Dusty Springfield one; her cold harshness suits the song’s shopworn cynicism better, Martin’s strings crouching in the bushes like unexploded grenades).

Perhaps the most convincing cover of the song appears on the Human League’s 1979 debut album Reproduction; coming out of an abstract instrumental called “Morale,” Oakey’s grave voice resonates against giant tick-tocks, like God’s clock. He makes no attempt to reproduce Medley and Hatfield’s original vocal pyrotechnics, but sings it in a state of blank disbelief and premature resignation. The underlying “Morale” motif does not move to accommodate the chorus’ chord changes. It is as if Oakey is raising the question: what’s the look of love, and where did it go?

(b) Love Will Tear Us Apart

It is said that Tony Wilson gave Ian Curtis a copy of the 1978 Frank Sinatra Twenty Golden Greats compilation to give him tips for singing the song, which he sings more quietly and slowly than any other uptempo Joy Division song, and most of the downtempo ones. The music begins where most punk records ended, with a gigantic guitar/drums climax, but this then unexpectedly gives way to Duane Eddy lead bass and Hapless Child string synthesiser. The song’s sentiments are the same as those of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but like Frank and Bruce the routine has now degenerated such that there is no chance of reconciliation or even elementary contact with each other. The music does not attempt another climax; instead Curtis simply muses quietly and regretfully. Eventually the song gives way, and we are left with a single high note of elegy flying above what is essentially “Then He Kissed Me.” It’s not so much that the record closed down the recent past and permitted New Pop to flourish, but that it is resigned to the possibility that there is no future at all. Even the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” hadn’t gone that far. Beyond this only the posthumous ice forest of “Atmosphere” and something awkward called the future.

(c) (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life

(“I” by Kendrick Lamar)

“If the future proves sweet, would it tell us to leap before we move?”
(“The Future (Continued): I’ve Been There” by Frank Sinatra)

Dirty Dancing was released in August of 1987 and could in any other world have been an Elvis movie (I wish that both Elvis and Marvin were still alive to give us their readings of “Take Me To Church”); it is set in the summer of 1963, i.e. before the Beatles changed everything, and the little plot it has hardly gets in the way of the dancing, which is the movie’s point. You remember Patrick Swayze and Baby and don’t recall the name of Swayze’s character or the name of the actress who played “Baby” (Johnny  Castle and Jennifer Grey respectively). Maybe you bought the soundtrack, and even its sequel/appendix, which is full of songs which would have been part of the teenage Springsteen’s canon – “Hey Baby,” “Be My Baby,”  “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “In The Still Of The Night,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Love Is Strange,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”; all these songs of implied deliverance and paradoxical, if retrospective, reassurance; those days before “we” were obliged to grow up.

“Time Of My Life” was written by John de Nicola, Don Markowitz and Frankie Previte, which latter you may remember from early eighties act Frankie and the Knockouts (the same team wrote “Hungry Eyes,” recorded for the film by Eric Carmen). The original choice of duo was Donna Summer and Joe Esposito, but they turned the song down, and so it came to the attention of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Although the Righteous Brothers had a second number one in 1966 with the ostensibly self-produced (though Jack Nitzsche was heavily involved) “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” a record of such desperate intensity as to outdo even “Lovin’ Feelin’,” they faded relatively quickly, only really coming back in 1974 with the terrible “Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven.” So no doubt Medley was glad of the chance to reassert himself. Meanwhile Warnes was busy enough, working with more dangerous characters like Leonard Cohen and Arthur Russell – her Cohen covers album Famous Blue Raincoat was one of 1987’s most emotional records, as indeed was Russell’s solo/multitracked voice-and-‘cello essay World Of Echo – but the film’s music producer Jimmy Ienner prevailed upon her to repeat the “Up Where We Belong” magic.

The song, as Medley and Warnes recorded it, was a lot less ambiguous or ambitious than “Lovin’ Feelin’,” despite a deliberate reference to the latter in the string chart, but it was undoubtedly happier, and at the time of its initial release found an unlikely champion in Morrissey, who reviewed the record on Radio 1’s Round Table show and rated it very highly. It is corny and eighties-sounding, but both singers sound heartfelt, and there is the feeling of closure being attained.  “I’ve searched through every open door/’Til I’ve found the truth/And I owe it all to you” – are we really that far away from a less melancholy Springsteen, out there on the highway in the dead of night, heading home again?