Friday 9 January 2015

Rick ASTLEY: Whenever You Need Somebody

(#358: 28 November 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: Never Gonna Give You Up/Whenever You Need Somebody/Together Forever/It Would Take A Strong Strong Man/The Love Has Gone/Don’t Say Goodbye/Slipping Away/No More Looking For Love/You Move Me/When I Fall In Love

I hardly ever listen to Pick Of The Pops these days as, unlike what would seem to be the vast majority of Radio 2 listeners, I am able to lead a contented and fulfilling life without the need to hear “Maggie May” or “Love Train” ten times per day. I understand completely why the programme should trounce Radio 1’s The Official Chart show so soundly in the ratings, though note that it itself is trounced by almost the same margin by Capital Radio’s Vodafone Big Top 40 programme, which does not halt the flow of music or enthusiasm by calling everything “Official” and assuming that its listeners do not possess a level of intelligence equivalent to a two-year-old child or a capacity for memory retention similar to that of a goldfish and do not need to have the same few phrases shouted at them every twenty seconds.

Then again, you might think that in a world which is speedily going to hell, or at least back to the fourteenth century, in a handcart, people need the reassuring blanket of aged security that old records and old charts offer. I don’t believe that the old is better than the new by virtue of age alone, however, and this was quietly demonstrated by the first hour of last Saturday’s show, which featured the twenty best-selling singles from 1956. The fifties are a decade seldom revisited by the show – every few months, as, I suspect, a tentative experiment in audience engagement – and 1956, with one foot still in the pre-rock era, is a territory practically never ventured into. I noted with slight disappointment that the show wasn’t going to go through the Top 20 of the week ending 7 January 1956, where, I think, hits like Dickie Valentine’s “Old Pianna Rag,” two versions of “Suddenly There’s A Valley,” Jimmy Shand’s “Bluebell Polka” and Winifred Atwell’s “Let’s Have A Ding-Dong” would have befuddled too many people (despite there being, at number one, something called “Rock Around The Clock” and something else called “Rock Island Line” at number seventeen).

Still, the 1956 hour was a revelation, if only of how shockingly dated, to the extent of being practically prehistoric, most of the twenty featured records were. I well remember listening to a similar retrospective chart show on Radio 1 at Sunday lunchtimes in the seventies – a programme now written out of history due to its having being hosted by a broadcaster to whom Anthony Burgess, correctly as it turned out, referred as “the most evil man in Britain” – when these records were only twenty or less years in the past (i.e. the distance between “Some Might Say” and now) and they already sounded a bit pickled, a little frayed at the edges. But grotesque things like Anne Shelton’s “Lay Down Your Arms” sounded eviscerated from the nineteenth century (“March at the double down Lover’s Lane,” post-rationing self-denial in the age of Rachman and Christie). Frankie Laine’s “A Woman In Love” simply sounded ludicrous (“CRAAAAYYY-ZILLY GAAAAZE!”). Novelty instrumentals like “Zambesi” and “Poor People Of Paris” bore a creak worthy of Edison cylinders. Rock ‘n’ roll-inspired novelties like “Rock ‘N’ Roll Waltz” hit bigger in Britain than “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Even forward-thinking records like Lonnie Donegan’s “Lost John” sounded decidedly wrinkled, regardless of how many rock stars he or it may have inspired at the time. Things like “It’s Almost Tomorrow” – though anticipating the quiet dread of Fleetwood Mac’s “You & I Part II” – made me surprised that there wasn’t a lute or a crumhorn to accompany the medieval plainsong. The year-end top twenty contained two Elvis songs, but also two songs by Teresa Brewer, both of which have dated quite atrociously (one, “A Sweet Old-Fashioned Girl,” tries for Betty Hutton OTT-ness, but Brewer is too sweet to be convincingly unhinged; the other was “A Tear Fell,” about which you can read here).

The music demonstrated how, and why, Presley became so big – “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” in this context sounded as though they were proclaiming against what surrounded it – and otherwise, perhaps only Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This,” Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” (Britain’s first R&B number one) and, at a stretch, Doris Day’s “Whatever Will Be, Will Be,” would still pass muster and remain playable now.

The reaction on social media thereafter was quite revealing; many listeners had felt that the show had reached back a little too far, beyond their collective memory – well, we are talking about music that is almost sixty years old – and most seemed relieved to be immersed in the relatively familiar past of 1980 which followed in the second hour (then again, 1980 alone is now thirty-five years away, the same distance it was at the time from the end of the Second World War). 1956’s charts were also a field for subtle, or not so subtle, separatism. The “Only You” which hit big in that year’s Britain was not the Platters’ original, but the anaemic cover by white Kentucky college boys the Hilltoppers.

Top for the year – which added to the general sense of anti-climax; was this as good as it got? – was the record which kept “Heartbreak Hotel” at number two, Pat Boone’s weepie “I’ll Be Home.” But this was a bastardisation of a 1955 record by the Flamingos, whose original is superior to Boone’s in every way (the lyrics of Boone’s version seems to transpose some of the Flamingos’ lines); Sollie McElroy’s lead vocal is pained, ecstatic and dread-filled all at the same time; Boone does not attempt to repeat the “A-a-a-a-at the corner drugstore” which opens the second verse, and being a black doowop group from Chicago, their intonation of lines like “Our love will be free” and even “I’ll be home to start serving you” – the song is about a serviceman called off to fight – necessarily carries a deeper weight than Boone’s, which imply that to “be free” is to be free of dirty Commies. On the B-side was his blasphemous downsizing of “Tutti Frutti.” This is the world into which John Lydon was born.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with Rick Astley. But to look at his apprehensive apprentice face on the cover of Whenever You Need Somebody, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the intervening three decades had not happened. Actually, Astley was a tougher character than that; when discovered by Stock, Aitken and Waterman he was singing (having previously drummed) in a soul band called FBI, and four of the album’s ten songs were written or co-written by him. Nonetheless, the record’s deliberately arcane liner note, telling the lad’s story as though it were still 1957 and he were a Tommy Steele of the North, sets out a gradual but steady and grafting rise to fame; Astley was one of the first musical beneficiaries of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, one of the Thatcher government’s few good ideas (£40 a week – in eighties money – to start up and run your own business; and it should be reinstated, taking inflation etc. into account; £40 a week doesn’t sound much now, but in the mid-eighties it went a very long way) and he was then employed in SAW’s studio in Bermondsey, learning the business from tea-making upwards. A classic tale of free enterprise, in other words.

Now, I have to be clear here; I am an ardent fan of the work of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. I refuse to join in the sneering demolition job that is still being carried out on their achievements by commentators who really ought to know better. Along with New Order, the Pet Shop Boys and the Smiths, they basically kept the British pop single going in the puzzling days of the mid-eighties (and slightly less puzzling ones of the later eighties) and their commercial and aesthetic pummelling of the majors by, essentially, punk rock means is a New Pop feat in itself. “Today’s Sounds/Tomorrow’s Technology!”? I’m all for it.

But SAW were at their best as a singles team. With albums they tended to struggle, and once you get past the frontloading of hits there tends not to be too much else of interest. Moreover, they worked best with acts who had a bit of fight about them, who argued back and who, overwhelmingly, were female. Mel and Kim, Bananarama, even Mandy Smith (whose “I Just Can’t Wait,” the “Cool and Breezy Jazz” 12” mix thereof, also from 1987, is probably SAW’s finest single achievement) and, God bless her Scouse boots, Sonia – not to mention the Australian coming just around the corner (and there were more – Princess? Lonnie Gordon?) – all gave back more, arguably, than was put in.

Whereas Astley sounds a little overwhelmed. The opening trio of hits is fine enough; ideal soundtracks for strolling through sparkling, glittery late eighties shopping malls, knowing bubblesoulgum for the M25 and Big Bang, although one notices that a large part of Astley’s appeal was that he was straight as a die. In a year whose serenaders included confusing, ambivalent, troubled William Boldwoods and extravagant, flamboyant Sergeant Troys promising the world, the girls settled for eighties pop’s Gabriel Oak. Nothing wrong with this, per se; Astley stands in the midst of a long line of reliable Britpop boys-next-door which extends from Craig Douglas to Olly Murs – and is noticeably “meatier” of voice than either.

Astley was loved for his sense of reassuring permanence, a sense comparatively rare in the parallel world of rock ‘n’ roll. Listening through the hits, I am struck at the sentiments they express. “A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of.” “You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.” Lyrics of the calibre of “I’ll always do what’s best for you” had been by and large absent from mainstream pop since the days of Dickie Valentine, another youthful reliable with a pleasant, if somewhat limited, vocal mid-range and an approachable personality (although Lena wondered whether the 21-year-old Astley didn’t more resemble “Frankie Howerd’s nephew”; that same “ooh, not ME, surely!” quality). I also note that the title track was originally recorded, by SAW, with a female singer called O’Chi Brown, with no commercial success, in 1985; in a song which successfully manages to paraphrase both Dusty Springfield and Steve Arrington, Astley sounds, if anything, like a stronger Mark King.

“It Would Take A Strong Strong Man” was not a single in Britain, but went top ten in the States (as did the album) and topped the charts in Canada. Noticeably more strident and pained than the more familiar hits – you can picture Ashley, hoarsely yelling at the microphone – it suggests that his adoration might in part be one-sided, an impression which the faster-paced “Don’t Say Goodbye,” the record’s only remaining SAW-penned song, reinforces.

The trouble is we then dive headlong into Astley’s own songs – just to remove any tired notion that he was an SAW “puppet” – and they are…decent, but not much more than that, and certainly not very memorable, not even the Deep House anticipations of “You Move Me” which intertwines expressions of love with humdrum life in Thatcher’s Britain – he works his socks off, but the boss still calls him in to say, with regret, “Here are your cards” (is this the only song with such a phrase in its lyric?). This side of Astley is better than Curiosity Killed The Cat, certainly, but how low is that bar set? Like the fourth side of Welcome To The Pleasuredome, we are reminded that it’s only because of “Never Gonna Give You Up” that we’re hearing this stuff at all.

The album’s most troublesome song is its last, and the one which throws up all of the bothersome questions. Astley’s “When I Fall In Love” is an attempted carbon copy of the Cole original, down to Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement (here reproduced on Fairlight, or Fairlights), and vocally is no more than adequate. However, it is a strangely desolate piece of work, and one is drawn to the unfortunate conclusion that had this been 1956, Astley would have been out there dutifully covering American hits of the period. It sounds like an attempt to erase the three decades of uprising which separate the two recordings, a deliberate attempt to go back to a time when rock hadn’t happened and singers knew their place.

The video is creepier still; Astley wanders around a deserted, snowbound studio set, hanging out in front of, or inside, a log cabin – there is no object of his love, only the camera, only us. There is in the distance an arched bridge which could have fallen in straight from It’s A Wonderful Life. He looks as he sounds; like a sad, small robot, lost in an abandoned world; I think of WALL-E and his endless viewing of highlights from Hello Dolly, as if to remind us that this was what humanity was once capable of creating. I do think of a George Bailey who kills the world by never taking any risks. And last week’s Pick Of The Pops was a timely reminder of what such a world – this world which so many people in Britain supposedly desire – would actually be like.*

*An interlude here about radio comedy, mainly because I listened for a bit to BBC Radio 4Xtra on Wednesday evening. Some art doesn’t transcend its time, and may not even have been art. Was there ever anything remotely funny about The Navy Lark? I listened to what sounded like the first episode of the second series – from September 1959 – and it was creakily unfunny, a prematurely tired set-up with mirthless non-development. Stephen Murray’s Commander (“the new Number 1”) was so bumbling and anonymous, one forgot he was there most of the time. Leslie Phillips, as he has always done, played himself. Ronnie Barker and Michael Bates were wasted. A little of Jon Pertwee’s gurning gurgle – he sounds as though warming up to play Worzel Gummidge – goes an awfully long way (with the emphasis on “awful”). And yet the series ran, unchanged in any detail, until the era of punk. What was the attraction? Moderate pleasure giggling at a fundamentally inefficient British way of doing things?

A May 1966 episode of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again followed, and was as bad, if not worse. Given what most of its participants went on to do, this was thin stuff indeed, like a bad student revue where sound-effects and silly voices are allegedly funny in themselves…and with a thick dollop of misogyny, laid on with such relish that one marvels that Jo Kendall didn’t just hit the rest of the cast over their heads with a spiky baseball bat for the full half-hour. Derek Bailey was in the studio band, and wisely kept his head down. As regards “When I Fall In Love,” its best use in 1987 was as a scratchy introduction to Pop Will Eat Itself’s “There Is No Love Between Us Anymore,” which more or less could be construed as everything Rick Astley wanted to say, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

Thursday 8 January 2015

T'PAU: Bridge Of Spies

(#357:  21 November 1987, 1 week)

Track Listing:  Heart And Soul/I Will Be With You/China In Your Hand/Friends Like These/Sex Talk/Bridge Of Spies/Monkey House/Valentine/Thank You For Goodbye/You Give Up/China In Your Hand (reprise)

There is a certain category in Popstrology (if I keep referring to it that’s because it’s a great book) called You Had To Be There.  At certain points in history, a song and/or band is briefly very popular, for reasons that, looking back, may be hard to understand, unless you were there at the time. 
Now, I don’t remember this time all that well –I am not who I was in the summer, nor am I like how I will be in midwinter – so the moment here for me is (in a non-creepy sense) historical; there hasn’t been a woman-fronted rock  band on Then Play Long for some time, let alone one from Shrewsbury.  Carol Decker – who is looking askance at something/someone on the cover, not at the viewer – is not, as you might expect, someone who has been singing in a band since she was a teenager; in fact she only got into making music in her twenties, having been encouraged by someone who had overheard her singing at art school.  T’Pau (named after a Vulcan princess from Star Trek) came together in Shrewsbury in 1986, though she had been in bands for five years before – and had, crucially, grown up hearing big female voices, whether they were the jazz greats, Dusty and Cilla, opera stars and disco divas – and yes, the Pretenders, too.  All of this she heard and absorbed, and Decker’s voice is as big and dramatic as all those references would imply.  (She also, like Corinne Drewery, liked to go out to Northern Soul clubs.) 

T’Pau’s fame is a You Had To Be There moment as women – one by one, all of them quite different – began to have success in the charts and acceptance in the critical and (if I can put it this way) female world.  It was women who immediately understood T’Pau and put Bridge Of Spies here, women who may or may not have gotten the Frankenstein references of “China In Your Hand,” but who certainly understood the physical aspect of the song – the delicate thing that must be handled carefully.  I can even see the song as anti-Thatcher, as a plea for gentleness and slow steady progress as opposed to someone who is pushing way too hard, who maybe should let some of her ideas simply remain ideas, and not become realities.    

The crash of ’87 has happened, the Great Storm has happened – there are forces that are bigger than mere people, and the yang/yuppie/greed-is-good vibe of '87, repugnant at the time and now revived and once again becoming obsolete, is being replaced by something else.  Sure, the blonde ambition of Madonna is everywhere, but even in her next album, she realizes there is something greater than herself.  But I digress...the women who buy this may not be buying it for the music as such, but for what it stands for - what it represents,  if you like.  "China In Your Hand" - which is a big rock ballad about not going too far - is a song that can come off as British Pat Benatar, only Decker is more pleading, less snarly; at no point does Decker come off on the album as someone different or Other; she's no Kate Bush, singing from the point of view of the creator or monster, just as the observer who sees that life is difficult and can't always be solved by mere rock oomph or the triumph of someone's will.  

"Heart And Soul" is a song I associate with a very specific time and place that hasn't happened yet;  I will get there eventually, but in the meantime, what a song!  Written by Decker and her bandmate/boyfriend of the time Ron Rogers, it poses two overlapping voices - one singing, one kind-of rapping - against each other, one counterpointing the other, the speaking voice remembering how it was, the singing voice yelping "Living in a fantasy/Was never any good for me!" She begs and pleads for "a little" of what she needs, but her romantic needs are so great that you sense a little of anything isn't going to be enough - the song builds and drums circle and thwack, the bum-bum-de-de-bumpa-bum becomes more insistent, as if she is going to fall into a damn whirlpool of agony if the Other doesn't at least realize that she wants him.  "You never want me for myself" is a line many women would have co-signed on immediately, and she will or will not beg him to love her, depending on which voice you believe.  It is as if the inner and outer dialogues within a woman are revealed here, which is different from Bowie's modest/wry echoes of himself on "Ashes To Ashes."  

"I Will Be With You" is (as the title almost guarantees) T'Pau doing their best Bon Jovi - the album's producer is Roy Thomas Baker after all, so the rock thing prevails, and this is the most stock, if I can put it that way, of songs, though I don't know if Bon Jovi would sing "And I have such memories/But I don't like to resurrect them."  The demand for reality, not fantasy, is constant in this album; and there is a toughness to it, too, a refusal to look back.

"Friends Like These" looks at the world - again I think of Thatcher - of elders and betters, "friends" who only know one way of doing things, and who won't change, could never alter or modify themselves - "They see how you should feel/But oh how/The mighty all fall down/Heavy in a sea of principles/They drown."  All this in a Eurovision-friendly "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da" way, as if to say the time of such high and mighty people is coming to an end; oh they mean well, but they are patronizing and presumptuous and no one from Shrewsbury (or elsewhere) is going to be impressed by them anymore.

"Sex Talk" - well, there's a title - is actually about just that; the sex phone lines that existed in the 80s, and it's a song of justification, of need, of speed - it is a rock song, alright - of a woman in a room who just wants someone to talk to, who is (and this is never discussed) maybe afraid to go out and find an actual guy herself, who is too scared, who is so lonely that even a voice on the phone is better than nothing.  Decker from the point of view of this woman with gusto and understanding, not looking down at her.  As the song rocks along and Decker wails, "Love, love, love without a face" you can tell  this is a cold and frustrating world for the narrator, and the anger has already erupted:  "I never had any one to love me/Anyone to need me/I take what I can on the telephone" - in fact on Bridge Of Spies almost none of the songs are happy ones.  There's an impatience and eagerness to get on with things, which again I think women would have understood - and still do - whereas some men would hear this and just interpret the album as one by a needy, unhappy woman. (Though there are some men who dig "rock chicks" and with her denim and big hair and earrings, Decker fits this very well...)

"Bridge Of Spies" is a nearly-happy song - she is so close to being with him, so close and finally free:  "Your love is a distant thing that I kept deep inside of me/Now if I could show you where I lived in my fantasy

On the continent of dreams you'd be with me."  It comes with the requisite rockin' guitar solo, but her ultimate happiness doesn't really come through musically; there is no explanation as to what the title means or why is it that she is unhappy in fantasy usually, but not here - because she gets to abandon it?  So much of this album is about having to pretend, to fantasize, to live in some parallel universe just to get through the damn day.  Is this the You Had To Be Thereness of T'Pau?  

"Monkey House" is about freedom of choice, of movement, ultimately existence; it's the most overtly political song on the album, with the early mention of "no more dirty books" it's a revolt against the PMRC/Victorian mores that Thatcher was bringing in - "mental hygiene" is the phrase that sticks out here (again this song rocks like Pat Benatar, and Decker sounds her toughest).  Just act and think nicely, says The Man, and Decker replies, the hell with that

Well, as modern as Decker is, the roots of rock are dug deep in the world of romantic and hopeless longing:  "Valentine" is one such song, not "oh-look-at-my-pain-as-I-stalk-you" like Adele, but full of stoic 50s suffering:  "I know mine are the tears I never cry/I know mine is a love I must deny.../I see you every day/With happy home and child/I look the other way."  I can't even tell if the Other even knew about her love in the first place; again there is at a deeper root a cowardice here, a too-cautious way of living, where her love is never expressed, and she winces when she sees him, which is apparently every day.  This is a living death, and her song for him - this song - is giving her game away, using song to say what cannot be said otherwise.  It's the heart (and soul) of this album - the need to do something, anything, other than nothing, because this is what happens if there's no courage...

"Thank You For Goodbye" is much more upbeat, with lots of "HHHHEEEEEEEAAA-AAAYYYYYYYYAAAA!" and "HAHHHHOOOOOWAOOOOOOHHH!s" from Decker, as she thanks someone for getting rid of her, as she is now "Here with someone new/Why do you stare/Cos you know/Our love is dead you leave it be/Don't come to me" - yes, this is the happy ending of the album, or so it seems; she is with someone who cares for her, she was dumped but is now able to look her ex in the eye with gratitude, and she has crucially moved on, out of the fantasy world and into an actual relationship.  If only this were the end, but....

"You Give Up" is as relentless an ending to any album TPL has come across so far.  She is clearly addressing her Other here, someone who is too fond of extremes, someone who needs to be (yes) more realistic: "Now why can't you reach/For a closer dream?" Decker wonders as she accuses this Other as being lazy, of not trying hard enough to get anything done, too reliant on excuses and alibis.  And the caution and patience that "China In Your Hand" is crying out for meets its match here, in a tough song about how you've got to hang in there and be tough yourself.  As if to emphasize this contradiction, the music of "China In Your Hand" appears again at the end, as if to say, "Yeah BUT."  You can be pushy but be too pushy, too ambitious, actually achieve that extreme, and you will not enjoy the consequences.  And so ends this album of dissatisfaction, thwarted desire, anger, a big voice from a (relatively, in rock terms) small place which itself is ambitious but has its doubts.  Decker herself admits that the band, herself very much included, needed more self-confidence; more belief in itself.  

Thus this is their only appearance on TPL (their appropriately titled follow-up Rage got to #4 in a year's time) and that is because, I think, they captured a moment; but the late 80s were a time of so many moments, some more lasting than others, and the Women In Rock one was going through some pretty intense times. The Blondes (The Primitives, Transvision Vamp, The Darling Buds) were coming up on the horizon, and the underground riot girrl scene in Seattle/Portland* would bring its own views to bear.  Standard, solid and honest T'Pau couldn't keep going through all these changes and broke up in '91; but to give a real happy ending, they have a new album out, as if to say, we now have the confidence and belief, and Decker is now happy, looking directly at the viewer, not dubiously at her bandmates or inwardly, at herself.

Next up:  some like to rock, but he just likes to roll.

*I wonder if a young Courtney Love heard this album.