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.