Monday 21 December 2020

Michael BALL: Michael Ball


(#452: 30 May 1992, 1 week)


Track listing: One Step Out Of Time/It’s Still You/Holland Park/Secret Of Love/As Dreams Go By/Who Needs To Know/Simple Affair Of The Heart/If You Need Another Love/Beautiful Heartache/No One Cries Anymore/Love Changes Everything


The near-empty number 19 bus sped towards Piccadilly and down Shaftesbury Avenue. He used to look forward so much to Saturdays in central London. They were a big part of what had driven him to come to the city in the eighties, along with the general “London-ness” of the place; the fact that you could both do and be things here which you couldn’t hope of doing or being back at home. He was knocked out that the old W.H. Smith shop at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street stocked records by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel. All these things he’d hear or read about, they were here at the merest touch. Tuesday teatimes were good, too; the number 9 gliding to an elegant halt directly to the right of Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, new copies of the NME and Melody Maker – two days ahead of everywhere else – at the adjacent newsstand and he would scan them, see what or who was interesting and be able to go straight into Tower and obtain them for real.


All those chain stores you didn’t get anywhere else. Even the local pharmacy chain (Underwood’s) seemed impossibly exotic. And of course there was the historic, monumental aspect of London; all the great, gasp-earning buildings and statues, cinemas which screened new movies 2-3 months ahead of the rest of the UK, the fact that even a routine Sunday afternoon trip to Hampstead would uncover untold wonders. And the theatres with all the big shows and all the big names. Only tourists ever came to see them but somehow that was enough. At that time, and for a good long time afterwards, you could live in London relatively cheaply on comparatively low wages. The city felt like his playground.


In the old days it was not uncommon to board the 19 coming back home to Chelsea (yes! It was possible to live in the middle of Chelsea for next to nothing!) and encounter Slim Gailliard, loudly regaling the conductors with tales of his life. It was immense, it was tactile, London was living. Although he detested Thatcher and every consequence of her, even he could understand why people would be attracted to this exciting, colourful dream which once existed. He’d just started reading Shuggie Bain; he knew exactly what he’d been running away from. Like his mother before him, he had to move in order to stay alive.


It didn’t feel like his playground now, London, or indeed anybody’s; not even the well-connected trust fund types to whose scooters and smugness the centre of the city appeared to have been given over. The swiftness with which the city could be killed startled him, a resident of the city for fully half a lifetime. You needed a matrix, a socio-aesthetic underbelly, something to convert existence into life. You had to have something to which you could look forward.


And what was there now? Record shopping used to be an exciting adventure but he ventured into central London only occasionally now, during those rare moments when they were actually open. Most of his music he bought online. He enjoyed the stream of parcels; it was like an extended Christmas. He hadn’t been in a cinema since 2009. Cinemas had long stopped being fun and you can watch DVDs at home. Yet the option of there being such a thing as “cinemas” – let alone “theatres” – was still appreciated. You recognised how much you missed that option when it was summarily taken away from you.


Down a Shaftesbury Avenue as gloomy and unforgivingly grey as Douglas Stuart’s Pithead, with all the hopeful re-opening theatres about to be rapidly closed down again. Without those theatres, whatever their level of tackiness, there was no point to this street. Closed restaurants and diners, nothing to divert anyone from the task of making money for others and existing – not living.


He wondered about the fatal absurdity of systematically taking away everything that made the difference between living and just being. Had this been the London of 1985 he would have gone nowhere near it. But that “London” gradually stopped existing about twelve years ago. Now it is simply and opulently empty.


The theatres, and Michael Ball, who seemed to be in a lot of those West End shows. He had his first album out nearly thirty years ago. He was by then already known for starring in Aspects Of Love – from which “Love Changes Everything” concludes this record in its original recording, having been notably absent from the cast album of the show, as though to remind everybody who Mr Ball is, and why he ought to be cared about – and was asked by the BBC to represent the United Kingdom in 1992’s Eurovision Song Contest. Five of the eight songs which he sang for the public vote on television appear on this record; “Secret Of Love,” “As Dreams Go By,” “Who Needs To Know,” “If You Need Another Love,” and the winner, the sprightly “One Step Out Of Time,” which in the final contest in Malmo finished second to the Republic of Ireland entry (Linda Martin’s “Why Me?,” composed by Eurovision veteran Johnny Logan).


Although marketed as a new, modern name, there are many old pros behind the eleven songs on Michael Ball, including Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, Don Black, Richard Kerr and John Miles – I am not sure if the Ronnie Bond who wrote “Who Needs To Know” was the late Troggs drummer. Additionally, the album was mostly produced by Mike Smith, CBS’ UK hit man of the sixties and early seventies (Love Affair, Marmalade, Georgie Fame, Christie, the Tremeloes etc.), though you won’t hear much orchestral maximalism at work here.


It is all very polite. While I have no doubt that Mr Ball is an excellent, enthusiastic and amiable fellow – judging by his many later appearances in this tale, neither do most people – this isn’t really pop music as anyone outside Valium Court would recognise it. If anything, despite the occasional, mild stylistic nods to Marti Pellow, Ball has what can only be described as a pre-rock voice – a less stiff and strident David Whitfield, perhaps. Consequently his interpretations get in the way of my appreciating the songs. “Holland Park” is an elegant sunset of a London ballad (“I won't let me drown my emotions/Even though I'd just as soon forget”) crying out for a deeper reading. Over the attempted sauciness of “Beautiful Heartache” it is best to pass in a mutually embarrassed silence (though one is reminded that Mr Ball went on to star in the West End stage production of Hairspray).


He got the feeling that this record might offer a picture of how pop might have ended up if rock ‘n’ roll had not happened, or had prematurely petered out. Nicely-scrubbed, immaculately-behaved manners, a hit parade as Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey might have known it. But it wasn’t even about Michael Ball now, or nice nights out, anything to make you forget what you had to do to earn them. He felt that life was now being stripped down to doing what you had to do. He knew something had to have been done. It happened because humans thought they could fuck with Nature, and then Nature fucked humans back a trillionfold. It may be that we can never truly be human beings again, that our fate is to be semi-anonymous “unpersons.” Who bloody knew, he sighed to no one else on the deserted number 19 as it delivered him back from the planned desert of central London. Michael Ball might not have been much in the London scheme of things – though, to many, he most certainly was – but even he was better than this nothing, to which humanity has been condemned for a reprimanding eternity.