(#490: 23 October 1993, 1 week; 8 January 1994, 1 week)
Track listing: Everything Changes/Pray/Wasting My Time/Relight My Fire/Love Ain’t Here Anymore/If This Is Love/Whatever You Do To Me/Meaning Of Love/Why Can’t I Wake Up With You/You Are The One/Another Crack In My Heart/Broken Your Heart/Babe
In so many ways, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are the sort of people we should all strive to be. One of those ways involves having an admirably and generously open mind towards the sort of music which so many ageing minds – prematurely or otherwise – would automatically shut out. They didn’t give a damn about what SELECT or the NME deemed as momentarily hip. They preferred sports clothing shops, full of smart, up-to-the-minute kids, to record shops, sparsely populated by disenchanted dinosaurs.
They had no problems whatsoever with Take That, and neither should you. The boy band’s second album, and the first of many by them, in various forms, to make number one, is a thoroughly enjoyable pop record which is surprisingly inventive in the sense that, in places, they could be apprentice Pet Shop Boys. Their net is cast a lot more widely, however, and they recall much pop which has been algorithmically erased from contemporary radio and from which heads at the time routinely averted – listen to “Meaning Of Love” and “Another Crack In My Heart” and you will hear pop minds influenced by, respectively, Kym Sims and Ten Sharp.
Furthermore, both record and band benefit immeasurably from the fact that this music is largely Take That’s – or at least Gary Barlow’s (and Howard Donald’s, and indeed, in one instance, their manager’s) – work, written with the assistance of pros such as Joey Negro, Steve Jervier, Eliot Kennedy and the Rapino Brothers. Their music has an innate confidence which puts the listener at ease. Barlow would be the first to admit that he has a relatively limited vocal range; in the big band era, he might have been a stalwart lead trombonist who occasionally stood up to deliver songs such as “Your Father’s Moustache.”
In this context, however, and especially when backed up by four other concordant voices, his trainee Cliff Richard approach is perfectly adequate for these songs, and reminds me of that other Mancunian-based lead singer, Bernard Sumner. Nowhere here do Take That attempt melismatic overload, and it is all for the better.
The album begins with an immediate curveball – a lead vocal by this young Stoke-on-Trent fellow named Robbie Williams. Now, from fairly early on it was evident that Williams had a long-term agenda of his own; in the group's many appearances on Channel 4's The Big Breakfast he was always the one whom your eye caught first, and most naturally, eternally romping around the garden or playing echt-bemused in his woolly hat. He never quite fit in with the notion of cosy communality inherent in boybands; but then it was the guy with the woolly hat in the Monkees who went on to invent MTV (Monkees TV? Some things are spelt out all along).
"Everything Changes," the song in question, is a bubbling, uptempo pledge of loyalty and faith to their Others as the group depart for yet another tour, but although it was intended to signify a new element of sophistication in Take That's music, it harks back to the days of Stock, Aitken and Waterman (already being spoken of as pop history in 1993!) with its bright electro-Philly. The song trots along in a way which reveals what an SAW-produced Osmonds might have sounded like – or, if you were paying attention, what SAW-produced Brother Beyond actually did sound like in 1988 - and it's not too bad at all with its nostalgically synthesised flutes and glockenspiels and Robbie's sturdy, confident vocal in which he discovers a couple of dozen ingenious ways of phrasing "I love you" without ever quite convincing the listener that he means it, and the fealty oath is eventually and shamefacedly punctured by the couplet: "The rumour's true, you know that there've been others/What can I do? I tell you baby, they don't mean a thing!" The long-term questions were: should we believe Robbie, and if so, what is our belief in him worth, and to whom? Still, with its cheery chorus of "We're a thousand miles apart, but you know I love you," the fans let it pass, if only for then.
With its monochrome, sub-Herb Ritts beach video of the five boys posing very awkwardly (for imagined centrespreads?) like the last surviving inhabitants of a vogueing bikini atoll, and its precise imprecations against “all the times I closed the door to keep my love within,” “Pray,” Take That’s first number one single, raised the question of how far, if at all, you could take the gayness out of the boy band (as indeed did the cover of this album).
The notes to their first Greatest Hits compilation (see entry #546) skilfully skirt this issue with their talk of “a new form of pop” and “there had never been a pop group in Britain quite like them before” but like the shriller legions of boy bands who would follow in their likeably clumsy steps, Take That came up through the gay dance scene – and this is particularly obvious in songs such as “Whatever You Do To Me,” with its mentions of “dignity and pride” and a totally unexpected Jimmy Somerville impersonation (not to mention an adventurous, if sadly uncredited, tenor sax solo).
But Barlow was certainly anxious to get out of that perceived boytrap, so “Why Can’t I Wake Up With You?,” a fabulously melancholy mid-tempo lament regularly intercepted by represented efforts to broaden their base. “Pray,” however, was the real breakthrough; written by Barlow, it was Take That’s “Living Doll,” their decisive attempt to break out of a confining musical straitjacket and appeal to everyone. Jervier’s bubbling production gives the song legs and impetus, since the string synths on the chorus otherwise put the song squarely in the line of post-SAW mainstream teenpop (many, including Laura, assumed at the time that it was an SAW production).
It’s a good pop song, filled with regret for an unspecified long-term withholding of (or inadequacy in? “But the morning always comes too soon”) physical love (“When the time drew near for me to show me love/The longer I stayed away for”), if slightly too anxious to be an AoR standard. Again, Barlow’s rather strained lead vocal tends to muddy up in the higher registers, though clearly he is doing his best; witness the plaintive falsetto of “picture me inside” in the middle-eight followed by the adolescent bereavement of “I’m so cold and all alone.”
It, and they, certainly spoke to the new teengirl generation and for a general pop idolatry which had been dormant since New Kids On The Block. They were generally wholesome and funny on TV; the mothers remembered the Osmonds; the kids began to scream; and the unlikeliest of teen idol careers commenced.
But the non-single tracks here are just as good – “Wasting My Time” is brilliantly Palladian pop, bearing the sublime kind of chord changes one thought had been outlawed in 1957; one gasps inwardly as one realises just how bloody and naturally good this album is.
Listening to their recasting of “Relight My Fire” – originally recorded in 1979 by its author Dan Hartman as the second half of a disco medley also incorporating the song “Vertigo” –makes one realise that it is this, not Radio 2-approved seventies and eighties disco “anthems,” which forms the temporal backbone for records such as Future Nostalgia – it is Take That recalling seventies disco in the first place which is the influence.
And, of course, this “Relight My Fire” was all about Lulu. I think of “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby),” her delicious, slow-burning debut single for Atlantic Records, released at the end of 1969, superbly produced by Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler in Memphis and featuring a characteristically empathetic string arrangement from Arif Mardin, and in America her biggest hit since “To Sir With Love.”
Then I remember that in Britain the single barely crept into the Top 50, and at the other end of that same year she scored her biggest British hit with joint Eurovision winner “Boom-Bang-A-Bang.” It seemed that all we wanted was the cutsey pie and the vaudeville wink-wink; Lulu herself continues to despise the record with rare intensity, and certainly has no complaints about “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” keeping it at number two. Even “To Sir With Love” itself – apparently 1967’s biggest-selling single in the US – was deemed worthy of B-side status only in her native land.
So her imperious “Yeah!,” two minutes and 36 seconds into “Relight My Fire,” represents the outcome of a freedom long fought for. Nearly three decades after her “Shout” (the Isley Brothers, via Alex Harvey) she had finally made number one here, and it’s no accident that her own big hit of that year was entitled “Independence.” She also acts as a valuable mentor to Take That, who essay their revival of Hartman’s disco/proto-Hi NRG classic with a typically British reticence, in spite of Joey Negro’s spot-on production, complete with period, but not tacky, syndrums.
However, Barlow’s reserve actually comes across as quite endearing here – note the way he politely pronounces the “got” in the line “I’ve got to say I only dream of you” and his nobly bluff “uh huh uh huh huh” aside, each syllable carefully separated and individually pronounced. A substantial improvement on their “Could It Be Magic?,” the fire, as such, really occurs with Lulu’s utterly confident and welcoming entry – “You gotta have HOPE in your soul!” she hollers to herself and to us as she strides easily through the octaves, gradually encouraging the boys to loosen up until they are comfortably trading eights with her, and it’s she who provides the punctum here, relighting her own fire (1993 also saw her first hit as a songwriter – Tina Turner’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight”), proving to Mickie Most and anyone else who’d doubted her that she’d been right all along. An act of proud reclamation.
“Love Ain’t Here Anymore” is a skilfully and very carefully-handled traditional 6/8 pop ballad, and a natural successor to the first album’s “A Million Love Songs” which would have been equally big a hit in 1968 or 1975. But then Howard Donald pops up, singing lead on a song he wrote himself (with Dave James), and “If This Is Love” is rather startlingly inventive harmonically. No wonder some observers thought we had another Beatles on our hands.
And then the album ends, unexpectedly, with Mark Owen, and a ghost.
“Orchard Road” was the last of Leo Sayer’s original decade-long run of hit singles and one of his most affecting; the song was entirely improvised in the studio (and according to the singer not even mixed) as Alan Tarney messed around with some Pachelbel chord progressions on his synth and Sayer sang off the top of his head about telephoning his ex-wife in the middle of the night, pleading to be taken back and, to his complete astonishment (“You’re kidding me – no! Is it alright with you?”), finds his pleas wholly accepted. Hardly able to contain or restrain himself, he sets off on the journey homeward, and the song fades just as dawn approaches and he walks down the old avenue once more – remembering that he performed his first hit, “The Show Must Go On,” dressed and made up as a clown.
Take That’s third number one expands on and formalises that theme, but whereas the story of “Orchard Road” was a relatively straightforward one, “Babe” tells a more complex and perhaps more disturbing tale. Although Gary Barlow wrote the song, in a stroke of inspired genius Owen was given the lead vocal. Owen was the group’s diminutive heartthrob (Barlow being the solid frontman, Williams at this stage still the jester) and was the first to admit that technically his voice wasn’t quite the equal of Gary’s or Robbie’s, but in “Babe” this deficiency works in his, and the song’s, favour, since it is about the vulnerability and inarticulacy of someone who wants his life back but isn’t quite sure how to get it or ask for it.
The song’s introduction is a confused, dislocated melange of backing vocals and strings, as though the singer is trying to rehearse the words in his head; a telephone rings but only the impersonal voice of the answerphone is heard. As the landscape settles, Owen begins his quest, so disturbed that the lyric vacillates almost randomly between present (“I come to your door”) and past (“I asked where you’d be”) tense. He is back from a journey and an absence which the song never makes specific, although the video cast Owen as a soldier returning from the war, and to make matters more ambiguous did so as a World War II period piece.
But instead of his Other, an old man answers the door, and he may well be looking at a prophecy of himself as he will end up, lonely and still grieving. The old man gives him her new number and he calls her up – his anguished and unstable balancing of the word “dialled” in the phrase “dialled your number” suggests that his whole world will stand or collapse upon whatever answer he receives (“Not sure to put it down or speak”). The telephone is answered (the stunned tautology of “Then a voice I once knew/Answered in a sweet voice”).
He itemises the nanoseconds which seem to stretch for years as though dictating a reconnaissance report from a battlefield: “She said hello…then ‘pause’ before I begin to speak…” And he speaks, audibly trembling – “Babe…I’m here again…I tell you ‘I’m here again’ (as though he can’t quite believe he just said it)…where have you been?” (note the immediate echo of Joy Division’s “Decades” and its afterlife reproach of “where have they been?”). She reacts, inspiring admiration on the singer’s part (“You held your voice well”) and the possible hope of reconciliation (“There were tears - I could tell”), and he cannot really believe that this is happening (“But where were you now?”), in his bewilderment slipping into the vernacular (“Was you gonna tell me in time?”).
He asks for directions (“Just give me a town”) and implores that “I’ve got so much to tell you about where I have been,” raising the possibility that the tears have been inspired by the thought that he has literally come back from the dead, that she had given him up as a war casualty, or perhaps he is already a ghost and doesn’t realise it. He stands at her new front door and they reel in mutual, dazzling disbelief: “You answer in a sweet voice/You say hello…then ‘pause’ before I begin to speak…” She isn’t exactly rushing to embrace him but is maybe too stunned to react in any sense: “I tell you ‘I’m back again’…where have you been?”
Then the song, which so far has been set as a mournful, slow-paced, minor-key ballad, reveals a blue glimmer of bright hope as the strings (the arranger is unfortunately not credited) begin to soar behind Owen’s voice and a babbling brook of rushing keyboards beneath it articulate his racing pulse, his excitement, his anticipation as he sees who else is there with her: “As I looked away (so he is not exactly rushing to embrace her either) I saw a face behind you (has she found someone new…no, but there is someone new)/A little boy stood at your door (the backing vocals now swell up to their climax)/And when I looked again, I saw his face was shining/He had my eyes…he had my smile!”
Note the counterpoint of the little boy’s appearance at the song’s close with that of the old man at its beginning; it is as if life has begun for the singer again, and relieved, and barely concealing his mounting ecstasy and joy, he now sings to the son he never knew he had: “Babe, I’m back again…I’m back again (note there are now no quotation marks; he has found the courage to speak directly)…I’ll be here for you,” before turning back to his Other, “Babe, please…take me back…(tears well up in his voice)…take me back…back home again” (note the immediate echo of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” morphing into “Revolution 9” with McCartney’s “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back?”).
The vulnerability still stands; words have been sung imperfectly and shakily, not always corresponding with tempo or harmonies, all because the singer is doing his best with his limited resources to express what he is feeling and why, even though he has not yet explained why he was away or where he has been.
And there is the suspicious and vaguely sinister feeling that this might only be an illusion (“Can’t you see that I’m back again?”), and also the suggestion that the child is merely a mirror of his own reborn, or reincarnated, self: “I’m here for you…Babe, just me and you…You and me?”
It may be that only the mother and child have survived, that he himself is lying on the battlefield, fatally wounded, experiencing fevered visions of reunion in the moments just before he dies. The final, three-syllable “Ooohhh” flows like quietly spilling blood before it, and he, expires and the song ends on a dying wave of quivering synth figures (derived from the end of Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science”) a four-note upper keyboard cycle and a telephone, which again rings, but when picked up reveals no voice, though at the final fadeout we discern sharp twinges of atonal electronica like receding shards of shrapnel.
The video settled for the happy ending of soldier and family reunited, and the natural hope which flows within me prefers to think of “Babe” as a story of love restored to someone who expected never to get it back again (“I tell you, I’m back again!”). But there is a disquiet radiating throughout both the song’s structure and its performance which could cast “Babe” as a shadowy Christmas ghost story. Whatever Barlow’s actual intentions, the emotional and spatial ambiguity of the song marks it as pop at a level beyond the grasp of any of the beaming karaoke boybands who would follow, clowning hopelessly down that same poignant avenue.