Monday 27 July 2015

Jason DONOVAN: Ten Good Reasons

(#387: 20 May 1989, 2 weeks; 10 June 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Too Many Broken Hearts/Nothing Can Divide Us/Every Day (I Love You More)/You Can Depend On Me/Time Heals/Sealed With A Kiss/Question Of Pride/If I Don’t Have You/Change Your Mind/Too Late To Say Goodbye/Especially For You (duet with Kylie Minogue)

The other side of a not terribly interesting story; while Kylie sings about generally being a doormat, here’s the boy desperately trying to persuade her, or us, that no, he means it, and yes, he loves her even though he’s always away, and no, there’s nobody else, and…well, you can judge from the respective album covers; Kylie smiling against a virginally white background, and Jason, in front of a blood red wall, looking perturbed as though just having been caught out.

The key may well lie in the first song: “Too Many Broken Hearts” can be interpreted as a last-ditch don’t-leave plea or, if you look at it from another angle, the first number one song about impotence since “Band Of Gold” (“Last night I tried to reach you/But somehow it wasn’t enough,” “"So I said, can't you wait a little longer?/I'll give you all that a lover should give"). The song demonstrates, for all SAW's talk of nowness, a surprisingly traditional gait; with only minor alterations in its arrangement, "Too Many Broken Hearts" could have been a hit for the Fortunes in 1965, with its endemically catchy "You give me one good reason to leave me/I'll give you ten good reasons to stay" tag. Shielded by layers of protective double-tracking, speed slowing and backing vocalists, Donovan gives a reasonably lusty reading...of a song which is supposed to be about desperately holding on, in more than one sense.

The trouble is that when Donovan exclaims "I'll be hurt, I'll be hurt, if you walk away" he appears to regard this "hurt" as being on a par with bumping into an errant doorknob, and given that the song may then venture into "Band Of Gold" territory, he sounds more than ever like a confused teenager who hasn't quite worked out which end to hold. The chorus also lets the song down somewhat with its hackneyed "I won't give up the fight for you" meme. The whole is like a gaudily coloured Commonwealth jigsaw puzzle whose pieces never quite seem to fit.

Throughout the remainder of side one he protests his faith perhaps a little too much; “Every Day” sees Donovan anticipating Bryan Adams (“’Cos everything I do, I do it for you”) and its bathetic plea of “I may be working overtime” recalls not only “Always On My Mind” but emphatically also Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” whose protagonist, you may recall, spends so much time working overtime that he’s never there for Emma when she needs him. “Nothing Can Divide Us,” the album’s best song, is sung with such an air of bafflement that it hides how strange the song really is – “You can put your faith in me/I will never set you free”; what kind of reassurance is that? Herein lies another central problem; although Donovan is technically a reasonably competent singer, so much so that you don’t notice that “Nothing Can Divide Us” covers some three-and-a-half octaves, I have heard Rick Astley’s isolated guide vocal track for the same song and his voice thunders out its message; he knows how to project a song, whereas Donovan sings the notes, so to speak.

Like other SAW albums, the music gets a little headachy after a while with its benign hammer of repetition – although, with SAW, one has to remember that they regard the comment “all the songs sound the same” as the highest of compliments. There are no doomed adventures into daytime Jazz FM land, but the music simply doesn’t let off, hasn’t given itself room to breathe. By the time the side limps to its closer, “Sealed With A Kiss,” one is reaching for the paracetamol.

Brian Hyland's 1962 recording of the song is a record of unalleviated bleakness comparable with "Johnny Remember Me" and "Ghost Town." While Carole King attempted to put a brave, jolly face on the same issue in the same year's "It Might As Well Rain Until September," the five-note dies irae of the opening guitar figure, the distant harmonica and the unreachable wraiths of female backing voices all contribute to the singer's sense of dazed dread that September may never arrive, or that his love is already lost (the sequel to "Sealed With A Kiss" did eventually arrive five years later in the Velvet Underground's "The Gift," a warning that unilateral cherish always has its inbuilt limits).

Hyland sings with the chill of death flowing within his teenage veins, since of course to such teenagers even summer holidays from school are a matter of life and death. Although there is no evidence in the song that any of the singer's idolatry is reciprocated, the most charitable remark I can make about Donovan’s version is that he sings it as Max Bygraves might have sung it; the right notes - well, approximately - but with a complete (verging on detached) lack of attachment to the emotions the song tries meta-clumsily to articulate. It is all done on one, not even especially morose, level. At the song's climax of "You won't be there," and "I don't wanna say goodbye," which Hyland sings as though having just slashed his wrists with fragments from his newly-broken mirror, Donovan can't even get his timing or phrasing right.

His performance is therefore something of an innocent insult. But naturally such concerns failed to register with his fans, most of whom were not old enough to remember Donny Osmond, let alone Brian Hyland, and who ensured that his "Sealed With A Kiss" became the first non-charity single to debut at number one since "Two Tribes." But even this achievement signals the beginning of the decline and devaluation of the singles chart. In the same week there was also a new entry at number two - "The Best Of Me," Cliff Richard's 100th single, and heavily promoted as such, although it was an instantly forgettable routine ballad - and although Cliff's hundredth single attained the same peak position as his first, thirty-one years previously, both he and Donovan dropped down and out of the charts fairly rapidly, and neither record has survived on oldies radio or endured in any other noticeable way. The ground was therefore laid for the charts to becoming yet another marketing tool as opposed to a genuine representation of the public's musical likes at any given period (though some would believe, not without reason, that 'twas ever thus); instant results became required, and by the mid-nineties a first week number one entry would become more or less obligatory for any would-be chart-topper. Thus the stage was set for the rotating passing fancies of a few thousand people rather than for genuine future classics; and thus the overall decline – in the singles chart rather than in SAW’s work; that is yet to come - begins here.

Things get darker, but no better, on side two; now boy and girl appear to be breaking up but the musical merriment is so remorseless and one-dimensional that it’s hard to recognise emotions. Listening to this, its year’s biggest-selling album in Britain, is like being made to eat a dozen sugary chocolate éclairs in a row; it is not long before nausea becomes dominant. While SAW took pride in comparing themselves with Motown, the non-differential attitude is a fallacy; Motown may have been a churn-‘em-out hits factory but its best records depended on a matrix of musicians who not only play the notes they’re given but are also given the freedom to play with them. There is no James Jamerson or Paul Riser in SAW’s work, and drummer “A. Linn” is far from being Benny Benjamin.

Actually, the further you listen to Ten Good Reasons, the crappier it becomes. One is hit over the head, “Mule Train”-style, by song after interchangeable song, insubstantial trifles which I forgot even as I was listening to them. Donovan’s “Change Your Mind” is no Sharpe and Numan (nor is it even a cover of that song), while “Too Late To Say Goodbye” is really a very nasty little song. As with Level 42’s “It’s Over,” he’s gone, left her only a letter, but where Mark King is consumed by the pain of his own guilt, Donovan, the staunch Gabriel Oak who has throughout this record proclaimed his stalwart faith, suddenly announces that he’s found somebody else (“Who gives me all that I need, not like you”). As he merrily rolls away cheerfully singing “I won’t be there watching you cry,” it’s perversity worthy of mid-seventies Lou Reed. It is also the album’s tenth song and its natural closer; here the mask drops and Kylie was right – he really has been a shit all along.

But it’s not the end of the album. Tacked onto its end – and it must have been tacked on – is the big number one duet with Kylie, and suddenly they are together again and happy again and in the context of this record it makes no sense whatsoever. The photograph of the pair suggests a Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan for their age, but where Kylie is clearly A Star, Jason just resembles a grinning dork (Dick van Dyke? Richard Chamberlain? Stan Laurel?).

With professional perfectionism SAW had put the two of them together for a romantic duet to coincide with the broadcast of Scott and Charlene's wedding in Neighbours, watched by in excess of twenty million Britons. "Especially For You" still had to wait a month at number two behind "Mistletoe And Wine" before ascending to the top, but somehow that was seen as a polite gesture in itself, since the song and performance are so unambiguously nice and wholesome, and it was clear that SAW were setting Kylie and Jason up as the Donny and Marie of their day, without the troublesome subtext of brother and sister singing tender love songs at each other.

The song sees them reunited after an unspecified spell apart, and it is handled with such delicacy; on TV they performed a courtly little dance routine to accompany it, and the overall air is one of a Christmas pantomime duet between the two romantic leads. Kylie clearly takes the lead; her "mmm"s and "ooooh"s leading into the build-up to each chorus are skilful and emotionally connective and there is an audible smile on her face while she is singing. Double tracking and varispeeding disguise Jason's rather lesser voice, but they drift agreeably enough through the song, constructed as only “professionals” could construct it (twenty years previously it might have been a hit for Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch, authors of the Neighbours theme tune) with that question mark of an augmented minor underscoring the eighth bar of each chorus, under "oh so true" as though questioning "how true is this, really?” After all, “all the love I have is especially for you” – what exactly does that mean? That it’s also distributed in lesser quantities elsewhere?

Perhaps you had to watch the soap at the time to understand the phenomenon fully, although I believe that Angry Anderson’s “Suddenly,” the ballad which soundtracked the actual wedding scene, is far more upfront and heartfelt in both intent and delivery, and other singing actors approached the secondary art with far more adventure and enterprise – David Essex, for example, was fully the equal of Kevin Coyne and Peter Hammill in the seventies, David Cassidy’s voice cut through when needed – you believed him, and while Richard Harris admitted he was never the world’s greatest singer, that worked to Jimmy Webb’s advantage enough to yield two very fine albums. But other things in Australia were also ahead of this jolly game; Midnight Oil’s Diesel And Dust reminded us that there was more to that land than boy meets girl, while Michael Hutchence’s Max Q side-project was a considerably bolder take on electropop (imagine Donovan having a go at “Way Of The World” or “Buckethead”).

The trouble with Ten Good Reasons – well, one of them, anyway – lies, I think, in the overall presentation and especially the presence of “Sealed With A Kiss”; as with Kylie, here is a cover of a pre-Beatles pop song, and one is left with the impression that, given the singers were brought into the studio, did their vocals double-quick under strict supervision, and then emerged at the other end, what SAW wanted was a world where rock ‘n’ roll had never happened; where popular music was a polite procedural straight back to the days of 1953-4 with well-scrubbed, clean-minded singers who never offended anybody but never stayed in anybody’s mind. No doubt when faced with such a viewpoint, SAW would shrug their shoulders in genuine what’s-wrong-with-that? Bafflement and furthermore say that their records were never for people like me anyway. I wonder how many of the teenage girls who screamed at Jason and these songs, and who are now in or approaching their forties, view this music now other than with fond personal nostalgia.

It was a bit of an aesthetic quandary, but typically Lena pointed out a comparison from left field which I had not even considered – and yes, I have to be hard, up to a point, with SAW because once upon a time, and in not dissimilar circumstances, there were…

What we know about, and how we value, The Shaggs were down to the stubborn perseverance of their father Austin Wiggin Jr. Taking one of his mother’s palm readings as a prophecy, he took his daughters out of school, bought them instruments and essentially pushed them into writing songs and performing as a band. The girls were not sure that they were ready for making a record, but their father was insistent; sure enough, twelve songs were taped and the Philosophy Of The World album was ready to run.

It may well be that pére Wiggins was a tyrant with a temper. But he must have heard what few others, including the group themselves, could hear. Listening to Philosophy is a little like listening to three musicians playing three separate songs at the same time, or a jigsaw puzzle of a pop group whose pieces are not quite in alignment. They sang of simple but resonant things, of world love (the title song), the importance of parents (“Who Are Parents?”) and God (“We Have A Savior”) and did it with such inconvertible honesty that complaining that the drummer wasn’t quite doing what the two guitarists were doing seemed petty.

This was the music of teenagers who weren’t allowed out of the house to go to gigs, who were influenced purely by the pop they heard on the radio – mainly Herman’s Hermits, Ricky Nelson and the Monkees. This worked in their favour; if Philosophy had been put together by some arthouse smart alecks, you would have seen right through it on a first listen. But more importantly, what you hear is a group in the throes of learning how to play together. Terry Adams’ Ornette comparisons aren’t really fair (except that Coleman had his own unshakeable notion of tonality and how to use it), although the late Helen Wiggin’s drumming, when coaxed away from basic midtempo 4/4, occasionally rolls like the young Denardo, for example on “My Pal Foot Foot.” Likewise, on songs such as “My Companion” and “Things I Wonder,” Dorothy and Betty’s guitars shift regularly out of recognised harmonic consonance. On “My Pal Foot Foot,” the three musicians even, if only by accident, discover new ways of interacting.

Finally, the group slowly forms into something not yet quite together, but approaching notions of coherence. “Why Do I Feel?,” the album’s longest song, at just under four minutes, sees the musicians reaching some kind of rapprochement; by the time we reach “We Have A Savior,” they are playing as an almost recognisable group. Crucially, these unforgiving hothouse conditions gave the Wiggin sisters a chance to show the world what they were really like, lets us witness the formation of something from what might initially seem like nothing. Whereas with Ten Good Reasons, the system appears to have been: get it clean and get it right and anyone can come in and do what they like on top, as long as it’s what we like. I’m not sure that’s what music was, or is, meant to be about.