Friday 11 June 2021

TAKE THAT: Greatest Hits



(#546: 6 April 1996, 4 weeks)


Track listing: How Deep Is Your Love/Never Forget/Back For Good/Sure/Love Ain't Here Anymore/Everything Changes/Babe/Relight My Fire/Pray/Why Can't I Wake Up With You/Could It Be Magic/A Million Love Songs/I Found Heaven/It Only Takes A Minute/Once You've Tasted Love/Promises/Do What U Like/Love Ain't Here Anymore (U.S. Version)


Virtually until the last minute, BMG Records and Nigel Martin-Smith, Take That’s manager, endeavoured to convince their audience that the group, even as a four-piece, were still a going concern. In the notes of their Greatest Hits booklet, Gary Barlow is quoted as saying of "How Deep Is Your Love": “We wanted to prove that we could still do a cover version this far on in our career and do it very well,” but the truth was more prosaic – the Greatest Hits collection was being prepared for release and the obligatory new track was required. Loath to use any of the new songs he was quietly stockpiling for his own imminent solo career, Barlow settled for the Bee Gees.


Contractual obligations flow like a slightly stymied industrial canal through “How Deep Is Your Love”; Barlow sings a rather glum, downbeat lead and the rest of the group sound hardly able to stir themselves out of bed, so much so that half of the backing vocals were provided by slowed-down Fairlight samples of their voices. The mood is MoR acoustic Latin, the original song’s harmonic ambiguities (e.g. the chord augmentations under “then you softly leave” in the first verse or over “breaking us down” in the chorus) are ruthlessly ironed out. A stray Minimoog – the ghost of Robbie Williams? – waddles about in the distant slipstream, for instance in the out-of-tempo pause Barlow inserts between “it’s me you need to show” and the final chorus.


The group scarcely bothers to conceal its disinterestedness in the entire project; they sing as though they are being made to do it, this late in their career, and are audibly looking for ways out. In that sense, if no other, their “How Deep Is Your Love” does bear some nocturnal comparison with the Bee Gees reading, which latter was used to soundtrack Tony Manero’s all-night soul-searching session on the subway; defeated in the only thing he’s ever been good at in his whole life, unsure which exit to take.


But the video made the dichotomy more explicit, and here is where the Monkees comparison comes in, since you asked; in Head the members of the latter jump off the bridge - the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, fact fans - in slow motion to the strains of the “Porpoise Song,” while in the video for “How Deep Is Your Love” Take That are depicted tied to chairs, facing backwards towards a sheer cliff face, fearfully gawping at a woman who silently walks between them, assessing each for the drop.


Eventually – just as their version dies off into a tiny, rippling electronic hum – the woman pushes each of them off the cliff. Some interpreted this as an oblique comment on how they felt (mis)treated by their management. But it represents one of the quietest yet starkest ends to any major pop group’s career. Then again, recall how at the end of Albert Angelo the titular anti-hero (as with all his anti-heroes, he was B.S. Johnson personified) is ignominiously thrown into a canal by his ungrateful pupils and left there to drown, and yet, even though he appears to die in the context of that book, he actually continues to float out to sea, so far out that in Johnson’s next novel a few years later he resurfaces as a pleasure tripper on a North Sea trawler.


What we are left with is the documented popular history of a teen pop group who fit their time and desired audience perfectly - or to a degree, since you will note from the above track listing that the story of Take That (with the exception of the pointless bonus remix stapled onto the record's end) is actually being told backwards. I am not sure whether there were any precedents for this kind of sequencing (answers to me on Twitter, please, and yes I know about "Real Love," which serves a similar purpose to the Bee Gees cover) but it is intriguing to begin at the end and slowly wind one's compass back to the band's embryo.


I won't speak at length here about the group's make-it-big-elsewhere and imperial phases, since I have previously done so twice; instead I will rewind to their early days, which confirm the puzzling, though not uninteresting, story which this collection is attempting to tell. Indeed we were struck by how un-"Mancunian" Take That were (even though, in many ways, they couldn't have been more Northern) in that they offer sunny cheer instead of grey dourness - it is like being transported back to the happier days of Mancunian pop. They have confidence and perhaps more importantly they had Robbie Williams, always lurking in the middleground or occasionally leaping out front - no one else could have pulled off that lead on "Could It Be Magic," and hardly anybody else in early nineties pop would have countered covering the song in the first place, let alone remodel it from an entirely different angle, thus pleasing its co-author immensely.


Their "It Only Takes A Minute," it has to be said, takes its lead more from One Hundred Ton And A Feather than Tavares, but is a convincing update; "I Found Heaven" is a nice rave-era variant on late sixties soft-psychpop sun-soaked reflection ("Grazing In The Grass" by the Friends Of Distinction comes to mind) and "A Million Love Songs" proved that Barlow could win over the fans' parents.

Even more intriguing, however, are the really early singles which hardly got anywhere. They all show a group emerging from a surprisingly febrile post-KLF mindset, with their growled, cement-consuming vocals and thudding beats. "Promises," their first top forty hit (though only just), is admirably uncompromising in that respect. But "Once You've Tasted Love" is the real revelation with its deep, sunlit valley of Pet Shop Boys chord changes sweetening the soundtrack's hardcore-knowing-the-score elements.


Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining and imaginatively-programmed collection of hits which certainly deserved its triple platinum status and most likely deserved a better ending than its beginning. The group did eventually find their way to that better ending, following a prolonged period of rest and what some might still consider extensive extracurricular activity. In the meantime, however, do permit me to say that the story of Take That does not quite end at this point, but rather slips into voluntary suspended animation.

Thursday 10 June 2021

The BEATLES: Anthology 2

('#545: 30 March 1996, 1 week)


Track listing: Real Love/Yes It Is (Takes 2 & 14)/I'm Down (Take 1)/You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (Takes 1, 2 & 5)/If You've Got Trouble/That Means A Lot (Take 1)/Yesterday (Take 1)/It's Only Love (Takes 3 & 2)/I Feel Fine/Ticket To Ride/Yesterday/Help! (all four songs live on Blackpool Night Out)/Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby (live at Shea Stadium)/Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Take 1)/I'm Looking Through You (Take 1)/12-Bar Original (Take 2, edited)/Tomorrow Never Knows ("Mark 1"/Take 1)/Got To Get You Into My Life (Take 5)/And Your Bird Can Sing (Take 2)/Taxman (Take 11)/Eleanor Rigby (strings only - Take 14)/I'm Only Sleeping (rehearsal)/I'm Only Sleeping (Take 1)/Rock And Roll Music/She's A Woman (both songs live in Tokyo)/Strawberry Fields Forever (demo sequence)/Strawberry Fields Forever (Take 1)/Strawberry Fields Forever (Take 7 and edit piece)/Penny Lane (remix)/A Day In The Life (Takes 1, 2, 6 & orchestra)/Good Morning Good Morning (Take 8)/Only A Northern Song (Takes 3 & 12)/Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! (Takes 1 and 2)/Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! (Take 7)/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Takes 6, 7 & 8)/Within You Without You (instrumental)/Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) (Take 5)/You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)/I Am The Walrus (Take 16)/The Fool On The Hill (demo)/Your Mother Should Know (Take 27)/The Fool On The Hill (Take 4)/Hello, Goodbye (Take 16)/Lady Madonna (Takes 3 & 4)/Across The Universe (Take 2)

The inquisitiveness of the archivist has to be balanced out with the cold rationality of circumstances. There was a certain sense of closure about the hitherto firmly-closed catalogue of The Beatles. Despite reams of illegal evidence to the contrary, the Parlophone/Apple vaults were not empty; far from it. And there is a small element of Wizard Of Oz disillusionment inherent in discovering the untidy nuts and bolts which made the finished constructions possible - the great power turns out to be a little, insecure man pulling levers behind a curtain.

The general understanding, however, is that Paul McCartney agreed to the Anthology video and audio opening of the band's archives essentially as a favour to George Harrison, whose Handmade Films company had collapsed in 1991 and who was apparently close to bankruptcy. There is also, of course, as with other posthumous Beatles collections, the beat-the-bootleggers subtext; and, perhaps above everything, there had been Britpop.

The attempted coronation of the partially resurrected Beatles, intended to crown and climax the year of 1995, failed in Britain; mainly because too many other people preferred Michael Jackson preaching about the Earth dying, or Robson & Jerome, perhaps because the silent majority's idea of The Beatles stopped around the time Anthology 2 begins.


Then again, "Free As A Bird" wasn't nearly enough. At the time, however, it felt almost holy. I remember walking up and down Fulham Palace Road one grey Tuesday lunchtime, with Anthology 1 in my Walkman and "Free As A Bird" playing over and over again, as though trying to summon some long-fled spirit. I didn't think of it at the time as a fudged compromise, using a fragment of a lo-fi Lennon home demo to draw out everything that was sentimental, conservative and frankly morbid about late period Beatles, and nor did anybody else. Producer Jeff Lynne did his best with what was available to him.

But maybe the wider public already sensed a bill of goods, and the prospect of the boys crooning "On Moonlight Bay" with Morecambe and Wise was never going to be enough to inspire anybody. Already the very early Beatles seemed ancient in the mid-nineties, as though retrieved from the previous century, as opposed to just over thirty years ago.

Hence the launch of Anthology 2 was by necessity lower key, and that was probably to its benefit. I don't really know what "Real Love" is doing right at the album's beginning. Again Lynne had only a home demo on cassette to work with, although at least this was a full song rather than a discarded fragment of one (or, more properly, a fusion of two songs on which Lennon had been working on and off since 1977 - "Real Life" and the later "Baby Make Love To You" - and which at one point had been pencilled in to begin side two of Double Fantasy). The surviving band members added discreet accompaniment; Harrison's doleful guitar is particularly prominent. But the end result still sounded stodgy and elderly and Radio 1 passed on the single altogether, figuring that "Real Love" was much more of a Radio 2 record.

Nonetheless, get past that and you enable a fascinating peek into what most people still consider the group's apex, 1965-7 (with problematic bits of early '68 tacked on). Most of Anthology 2 consists of alternate takes, and while it is sobering to be reminded how much they needed George Martin to bring sparkle to their songs - "Only A Northern Song" in particular sounds rather marooned and grumpily self-pitying without all the sound-effects and free jazz blowing added on later - it is also refreshing to hear how well they worked together as a group.

"I'm Down," for instance, has a storming vocal from McCartney which nearly cuts the released take (despite his pained cries of "plastic soul!" at the end). I will take the inclusion of the flute-free "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" as a knowing nod to Noel Gallagher. Of the previously unreleased songs, Ringo does his weary best on "If You've Got Trouble" ("Oh, rock on, anybody!" he exclaims halfway through) but the band doesn't quite nail the song down, while "That Means A Lot," with McCartney on lead vocal, sounds recorded in the midst of a blizzard - the band subsequently opted to give the song to P. J. Proby to record.

One of the loveliest things of the 1965 edition of The Beatles was that they were still willing to do workaday television shows like Blackpool Night Out. The four songs from their second appearance on the show, recorded at the beginning of August of that year, find them in fabulously friendly form - Harrison introduces the solo public premiere of Paul's "Yesterday" in the style of Opportunity Knocks (fittingly, since that show's arranger Bob Sharples was also to hand on the show and provided the string backdrop).


This was all within a firmly mainstream showbiz milieu; the show's hosts were Mike and Bernie Winters, and other guests included Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, and Lionel Blair and his company of dancers. In that context, "I Feel Fine," "Ticket To Ride" and "Help!" must have sounded like "White Riot." We have already heard Paul's initial dry run through "Yesterday," which is plainly a work in progress (two lines of lyrics are transposed), but his Blackpool reading of the song (performed at the long-demolished ABC Theatre) was something of a sensation at the time, and you can certainly sense the excitement patiently running through the screaming core audience, who sit down, listen and empathise.

Barely a fortnight after that, the band were onstage at Shea Stadium, but even that atmosphere can't coax the Harrison-led "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" out of dreariness (and, puzzlingly, it is the only Shea Stadium performance included here - there is definitely far too much of George on this collection as a whole, and not nearly enough Ringo). There follows a fairly brisk run through the Rubber Soul era; both "Norwegian Wood" (despite Harrison's audibly inept sitar playing) and "I'm Looking Through You" are punchier than the album originals, but one must draw a diplomatic veil over "12-Bar Original," mercifully edited down from over six minutes, in which Harrison gamely attempts to be Clapton (one thing you should never have expected The Beatles to be is "authentic").

Of the Revolver material featured, all of it was worked into infinitely better finished shape. This "Tomorrow Never Knows" sounds almost insultingly indie (or even borderline Madchester baggy), with its weedy organ drone (one could be listening to the Mock Turtles, or My Jealous God). "Got To Get You Into My Life," minus the horns and propulsion, not to mention a finished lyric, sounds like a below-par Georgie Fame album-filler (though it's instructive that the organ-dominant soundtracks to both songs put me firmly in mind of Brian Wilson - this is nearly a Smiley Smile remix of Revolver). "And Your Bird Can Sing" simply proves just how great a pop group they were, despite all of them collapsing in fits of giggles throughout. "Taxman" - Neal Hefti via Allen Toussaint - sounds angrier. "I'm Only Sleeping" sounds drowsier, but you are never left in doubt how absolutely terrific the four of them, playing together, were at this peak.

Just to underline that point, the first half of Anthology 2 concludes with two songs recorded live at the Budokan - and they certainly clear a path for Cheap Trick. Despite all the talk about lousy sound and performance quality, this doesn't pan on audio evidence; the band are in tremendous technical form on both the Chuck Berry cover and the tricky "She's A Woman," the latter of which works up a head of steam comparable to that of "Surrender" a dozen or so years later.

They sound like the happiest and the best band in the world.

* * * * * *

However, as Oscar Wilde noted, happy endings only happen when you're not told the rest of the story.

There are, if you choose to find them, twenty-seven takes of "Strawberry Fields Forever," all entirely different. Only a few of them are represented on the montage offered here, but even that is sufficient to gain a good working idea of how the best band in the world decided to break the mould of pop, and they did, stop bullshitting me with your meticulously cynical hindsight.

You hear how the song patiently evolves from a simple acoustic guitar meditation; in Lennon's early "cannae do it" hands, it sounds like a folk roundelay from two centuries before (actually, what it sounds like is Donovan, and that is a great thing so shut up), pensive and timeless. Then this strange keyboard called the Mellotron pops up, and the tempo becomes one of sultry tropicalia (with Harrison's lead guitar instantly recalling Hank Marvin - perhaps this represents the endgame of "Wonderful Land"). The song is sung dazed with wonderment, but straight, with one verse leading directly into the others, and is given a very simple but profoundly moving Mellotron coda. One can still listen to that first studio take and be driven to tears, thinking of the potential futures which we know all got sealed off and closed down, the other paths The Beatles, or indeed we, could have pursued.

Then the more familiar sound of what is labelled here as Take 7, which forms the first minute or so of the final single mix, but here continues to drift into subtly different waters. All the way through, Lennon's determinedly confused I-am-what-I-am-but-am-I-me philosophising (a typically Libran lyric, as Lena pointed out) gently pushes pop music outwards; unthinkable without Dylan but also, at the time, arguably unmatched by Dylan (The Basement Tapes were yet to be recorded), and markedly less thinkable without the contemporaneous catalyst of Brian Wilson (think of "Wonderful"). We also get the unedited final dissolve, with cranberry sauces and Ringo being urged to calm down.

There is no need for me to be hypocritically cynical about what was the second pop record I clearly remember hearing (and watching its video on Top Of The Pops - the first record was "I Feel Free" by Cream) in the only chance I get to talk about it on Then Play Long. Both sides of that single formed me in ways which continue to have consequences. The record changed shit forever. "Penny Lane," here broken down into its components and with its radio ending, is if anything more disturbing in its refracted cheer than "Strawberry" - but don't take my word for it; Lena has written, with typical excellence and vision, about both.

It changed something crucial in the dynamic of The Beatles, too. "Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy," mumbles John as an introduction to their greatest song, which here sounds like a reticent, even in part bashful (and certainly baleful), meditation on lives passing, things happening and perceptions changing. Lennon seems full of regret here, while Paul in his section is perhaps a little too gleeful ("Oh, shit!" he laughs as he fumbles a line). It is this hidden nook into which you sense they do not quite want you to peek, for fear of what you might find. The ill-fated Mal Evans enthusiastically does the echoed count-up, at this point over a bare backing track; the orchestra, curiously reminiscent of John Barry, swells up steadily, but instead of that final note you hear Paul in an ambient whirlpool, chatting about the difficulties of putting the song together.

Anyone wanting to be sneery about Sgt. Pepper can simply go and do one. Such people prefer not to realise how radical and comprehensive a citadel it was in its time - and yet the record was still, if in places only just about, the work of an integrated group of players. Here "Lucy" and "Kite" are enthusiastic warm-ups, and "Good Morning Good Morning" is a dynamic punk thrash - they hadn't mislaid their chops at all. But its whole, in its original context, was indisputably greater than its sums. Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, work on which began, at Abbey Road, as the work on Pepper was ending, is perhaps a compromise that doesn't adequately convey the semi-trammelled power of its creators onstage, but Pepper was only what it was - the reprise of the title song, which Hendrix performed on stage in London three days after the album came out, is messy but clearly enthusiastic in a "yay, we're nearly ready!" gallus (as we Glaswegians say) manner.

The major stumbling block here is the absence of "Carnival Of Light," which was pulled from the album at the last minute following objections from others, chiefly Harrison. This is perhaps the great gaping hole in any Beatles discography, and dull instrumental backing tracks for "Eleanor Rigby" and "Within You Without You" (which were brought in as last-minute replacements) do not compensate for its omission. It may well be thirteen minutes of aimless collaging and general mucking about (we have no way of knowing for sure - what turn up on YouTube are, at best, educated guesses) but don't we have the right to listen to it and make our own judgements (Tim Worthington writes well and fully about the piece here)? Perhaps next time I bump into Sir Paul at Sounds Of The Universe I'll ask him about it.

Furthermore it may be argued that "Carnival" might form the great bend in the Beatles river - because what we hear in the last quarter of Anthology 2 really doesn't sound like the work of a group. All of it was conceived and recorded after Brian Epstein had died, and suddenly the old camaraderie has fallen away, been stripped from the band's chassis. Lennon's "Walrus," which is basically just him yelling over a distorted electric piano, with Ringo manfully drumming behind him, sounds like a cry of bereavement. As for Paul's work, it's all very worthwhile stuff, but nowhere do you feel that "Fool On The Hill" or even "Hello, Goodbye" has much to do with "The Beatles"; if anything, these songs point to the seventies and Wings (there is a fairly firm line of development from "Fool On The Hill" to "Let 'Em In"). John is, likewise, left on his own, and on the closing "Across The Universe," he sounds as throatily exhausted as he had done on the guide vocal to "Yes It Is" near the beginning of this collection, and not at all far away from the lonely compromise of "Real Love." Perhaps that is the core lesson of Anthology 2; you try to conquer new frontiers, then stuff happens and where did the air go, why did we end up so blue?

Perhaps it is best to leave the group in the final flush of their partly-learned, partly-felt insousciance, the full, nearly six-minute-long version of "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)," which to me, more so than "Revolution 9," is the track which sorts the Beatles wheat from the Swinging Sixties chaff - you think you love, or even know, the Fabs? Well, love this fuck-you-history romp, which not only points the way most directly to the seventies, given the obvious Bonzos/Python signposts, but finds the quartet in their natural element, irradiated by that vital irreverence. Having a laugh - remember that?

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Céline DION: Falling Into You



(#544: 23 March 1996, 1 week)


Track listing: It's All Coming Back To Me Now/Because You Loved Me/Falling Into You/Make You Happy/Seduces Me/All By Myself/Declaration Of Love/(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman*/Dreamin' Of You/I Love You/If That's What It Takes/I Don't Know/River Deep, Mountain High/Call The Man/Your Light*/Fly

(*on European and Australian CD editions only)

If Elvis had lived, he'd have recognised Céline Dion as his true heir. Just as Elvis, after he was presented with "If I Can Dream," swore that never again would he sing a song in which he did not thoroughly believe, there is absolutely no face or pretence about Mme Dion, no diplomatic screen to block or dilute her intimate intensity.

Her approach is almost the diametric opposite of Mariah Carey's. Where Daydream saw her strive to flee the towering shadow of her husband - shades of Susan Alexander assembling jigsaws at Xanadu - Céline wants to you to know that she is blissfully happy, that she means that happiness, and that she wants no more than to hold onto that happiness for as long as possible. Listen to the mutated doo-wop of "I Love You," the way in which she plays vocal tennis with her backing singers ("And maybe I, maybe you!, maybe you!, maybe you!"), the birthday party exhilaration which floods like the centre of a stick of Blackpool rock down and along her "River Deep, Mountain High."

Observe the winking pop-reggae bounce of "Make You Happy" or the upbeat pink lollipop of "Declaration Of Love," so reminiscent of early Madonna, before the world and Madonna did things to her ("so right you taste my sweeeetness on your lips!," "I'll make it better than you ever dreeeeeeeamed!!"). This is the voice of a woman who has got everything, and everyone, she needs to feel fulfilled, so if her "Natural Woman" doesn't quite match up to Aretha's authority (but what does?) or Carole King's routed fragility, it is nevertheless a powerful declaration of love principles.

Yet, as in all good stories, there abide doubt and dread. "Falling Into You" is a mysterious float, possibly inspired in part by "In The Air Tonight" but replacing Collins' ingrained paranoia with a lucid litheness, a blue absence of weight or depth which really doesn't place the song and its arrangement far from shoegazing. Within the song's fibres, carefully policed by guest percussionist Sheila E., Céline whispers that "while you sleep, I will miss you." The song had been recorded the year before by the Argentinian singer Marie-Claire D'Ubaldo; it is a complex song, with plenty of half-tones (pace Brecht), and initially the singer felt the arrangement was a little too forward and drowning out the song's core. She suggested some modifications to help bring out the song's emotions more readily, all of which were happily accepted by co-writers and co-producers Rick Nowels and Billy Steinberg, and discovered, perhaps to her own surprise, that she could maintain a high level of control over her music.


Similarly there is a pent-up desperation about "Seduce Me," co-written and co-produced by Dan Hill of "Sometimes When We Touch," and its harmonic parallelogram and guitar commentary, let alone the soaring, not-quite-of-this-world vocal, would not be out of place on side two of the Cocteau Twins' Treasure.

Where needed, she will rock, and Aldo Nova's triptych of songs ("Dreamin' Of You," "I Love You," "Your Light") ensures that she does, as well as demonstrating a pleasing sense of humour in places; in "Your Light" her voice at times sounds like Axl Rose.

But there is also a deep well of impermanence. Diane Warren apparently wrote "Because You Loved Me" with her father in mind, since he helped get her started with music when she was still a child, buying her a 12-string guitar on which to write songs and a metal shed in which she could practise doing so, as well as taking her to various music auditions; I am not quite clear whether David Warren was still alive at the time of the song's conception, but its "Wind Beneath My Wings" homilies are undercut by the rather sinister use of the past tense ("loved") which I am sure was intended. I have no doubt that, for her part, Céline was singing the song with René in mind. As I say, there is nothing in Céline's songs that she does not believe.

We know from "I Don't Know" - one of three revisited songs from her 1995 French language album D'eux (the others being "If That's What It Takes" and "Fly") - how starkly cold and bereft she would be were her love ever to disappear (she piles on the rhetorical "I don't know"s like a calmly frantic poker player, constantly upping the stakes), but her "All By Myself" set new standards for pop laments.

Reaching back to the original, it is odd how power pop, for all its alleged purity and perfection, never really became popular. Myself, I think it’s the charts’ loss, but the fact remains that when most people think of Alex Chilton they think of “The Letter” rather than Sister Lovers, to which “All By Myself” makes an unlikely companion. The song also reminds us of the age-old tradition of writing pop songs based on classical pieces; Barry Manilow had a Billboard top ten hit with his Chopin adaptation “Could It Be Magic” and then it was the turn of Rachmaninoff.

Again it is instructive to listen to the full seven-minute-plus album version of “All By Myself” since the long piano interlude in the song’s middle was actually the first thing that came to Eric Carmen’s mind. Working backwards, he then figured that the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor – “Adagio sostenuto,” no less – would form a good basis for the song’s verses, while the chorus was informed by, but did not slavishly mimic, “Let’s Pretend,” a song which he had written for his old band the Raspberries in 1972.

The Raspberries should have been far bigger than they actually were; their 1974 swansong “Overnite Sensation (Hit Record)” went Top 20 in the States but despite rave reviews and blanket radio play here the song never caught on in Britain. When “All By Myself” happened Carmen was roundly condemned as a sellout, which is rather unfair; think of its haunted cloisters as the expression of someone who lived through and came through the sixties and everything they promised, just to find disillusionment and a nearly unutterable emptiness at the end.
Yet while Carmen's contained hurt still packs a gentle punch, Céline's reading a generation later made the source of the pain bleed vividly. At times she seems scarcely able to breathe, let alone articulate, her grief - the steel guitar, echoing Hugh McCracken on Carmen's original, covers that pain more than adequately, at least for a while - but eventually it all gets too much and her voice explodes on that “anymoooooooooooore” key change, erupting through the roof of pop politesse and as wounded an expression of betrayed expectations as pop has ever delivered (producer David Foster presented her in the studio with that unexpected ascension and she was determined to match his dare - no other singer could get anywhere near her).

That magic moment - and it is one of the key moments in all of pop music, that key change - cut an awful lot of people very profoundly, in ways usually too profound for pop to realise. Who could possibly take her higher? Jim Steinman?

Steinman co-produced three songs on the album; "Call The Man," which, as was common with its writers, Andy Hill and Peter Sinfield (see also Bucks Fizz's "The Land Of Make Believe"), was a political allegory disguised as a right-on gospel song ("Needed in the chaos and confusion/From the plains to City Hall"), a demand for deliverance and salvation, accompanied by a gentle choir which eventually disperses into atoms of near-silence. Steinman also took a crack at "River Deep, Mountain High," and funnily enough that works, mostly because the producer had the good sense to treat it as a runaway rocker and Céline has just about the most fun that she has on this record, racing through its slightly strained analogies with good humour. She has the wit not to try to reproduce Tina Turner's inhuman climactic scream but instead yells out in triumph. The track gladly canters towards a stock-car pile-up. A different wall of sound, but perhaps a more usable one.
Which leaves us with the album's opening and closing songs. The opening song is the third of the Steinman productions, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now," as originally performed by Pandora's Box on their solitary, Steinman-helmed self-titled album from 1989. It seems like the natural sequel to "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" - that same wind machine, those same sleigh bells, a singer who sounds more weary than thrilled - but if anything the song darkens that scenario into something potentially very morbid.
Steinman said that it was based on the part of Wuthering Heights which nobody talks or sings about or films -  you know, Heathcliff with the gravedigger's spade, dancing on the beach in the moonlight - in terms of resurrecting the dead. Elaine Caswell's original reading certainly leaves little doubt in the listener's mind as to the song's real intent (it is alleged that, while recording the song, Caswell collapsed on five separate occasions in the studio).

With Céline, the song seems more optimistic but remains emotionally ambivalent. Out of the limbo of nothingness which ushers in the song, she sternly itemises all the things she hated about him (with a terrifying growl on the word "banished" in the line "And I banished every memory you and I had ever made") and perhaps about the wider world ("There were nights of endless pleasure/It was more than any laws allow"). But he comes back to her, and she finds that she cannot resist. She misses his moments too sorely, and is that quietude at the end a contented purr or a withered white flag of surrender? The song, as was Steinman's intention, is an extended meditation on obsession - the moment when, on return, one's defiance dilutes to subservience. About the terror, he said, about loss of control.

The album's final and shortest song is also its least characteristic and most heartfelt song. Originally recorded for D'eux under the title "Vole," "Fly" was inspired by the singer's niece Karine, who died, in the singer's arms, in May 1993 of cystic fibrosis, at no age at all. Everybody who heard it, including the song's writers and producers, was taken aback at how raw and emotional this performance was. It accentuates the cracks which have been building up in Céline's voice right the way through the album and in places her vocal on "Fly" is naught save cracks and whispers. After barely three minutes, the song dissolves, its spirit flies free.

The performance exemplifies why Falling Into You touched so many people, and why, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, Céline is the natural heir to Presley. She fills that same yearning gap where people want to be told that the singer feels the same as they do about so many elemental things, so much vital stuff that pop generally prefers to leave out. There are no character studies on Falling Into You, no irony, no rallying around the record collection.

No - this is emotion, as experienced by you, me and everybody else, and as expressed by those whom we would normally choose to guide us. One cannot understand why the likes of Adele and Ariana and Jennifer Hudson will subsequently speak to, and for, the masses, without first understanding how Céline Dion elected to pave the way for them. Remember this was all done at a time when pop, and the power ballad stripe in the middle of its road in particular, were routinely sneered at - and, despite all of that, Céline came through and triumphed, in ways at which Oasis could only ever have imagined doing. Falling Into You moved thirty-two million people across the world...think of that figure for a moment or buy it, 2,170,000 of whom were in Britain. Hers is the spark which lit the flame enabling that phoenix to rise again.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

The BLUETONES: Expecting To Fly



(#543: 24 February 1996, 1 week)

Track listing: Talking To Clarry/Bluetonic/Cut Some Rug/Things Change/The Fountainhead/Carnt Be Trusted/Slight Return/Putting Out Fires/Vampire/A Parting Gesture/Time & Again

1995! What a year! The apex of our new golden age!

What happens next?

Oh...1996 does.

Before, it would have read:

1967! What a year! The apex of our new golden age!

What happens next?


Oh...1968 does.


The parallels are clear. Early idealisation gives way to career considerations. No one else follows through on the leaders' perceived innovations, or else retreat from them, afraid of their potential implications. The industry gladly snaps everybody up, only to lecture them if they fail to come up with endless hit singles and then eject them.

It's like being hired as the C.E.O. of a private equity firm. These engagements generally last twenty weeks. For the first eight weeks the boss says YOU ARE A ROCK STAR! For the next four weeks the boss doesn't talk to you. For the last four weeks the boss says, uh, sorry, but we wanted a rock star, and drops you.

But if Britpop were to gather any meaningful momentum, there had to be other acts coming through to develop and expand on what its leaders had done. New blood, new ideas, all the time. Unless you consider Britpop as fatal and meaning-free a chimera as Brexit.

It was 1996. Oasis, Blur and Pulp were busy consolidating their success, touring, releasing singles, hoping to make it even bigger abroad, working, if they could find the time and energy to do so, on new music, none of which would be released in 1996. It was therefore down to the next lot to step up to the plate and all that dreary sporting analogous bollocks.

The problem was that after those "leaders," the drop to the next level was...significant. It was like following the Premier League with Sky Bet League One. All honest and unthrilling doers at a time when people urgently craved gods who could also be their best mate. I need not emphasise the inherent irony in that observation.


Hence we stride from the achievements of 1995 and limp into the realm of the underachievers of 1996.  This is, I grant, deeply unfair to Hounslow quartet The Bluetones, who throughout their first album try their best; they really do - they do at least work up a Neil Young's Concerned Horse level of steam on "Things Change" and songs like "The Fountainhead" are harmonically inventive (see also the unexpected major-to-minor variants in the chorus of "Vampire"). It is all very well recorded by Hugh Jones.

The problem is this album would barely have been noticed had it been released three years earlier or later. For all the media hype of the time - even after all that had happened, that white male student NME-reading demographic still seemed to want The Stone Roses - Expecting To Fly is a moderately agreeable but finally utterly routine UK indie guitar-based album being expected (ha!) to punch well above its weight. Yes, I'm squashing a grape with a steamroller, but my point needs to be made.

I need hardly say that there is nothing on Expecting To Fly fit to lick the boots of the Neil Young song which gave the record its title - released on a Buffalo Springfield album, but only Young and Jack Nitzsche's orchestra appear on it. A major problem is the offputtingly weedy and nasal voice of Mark Morriss, securely in that Ian Brown/Tim Burgess tradition of Vicks Sinex singing, and the lyrics generally do not stray beyond routine platitudes and, in the case of women, unpleasantly askew (e.g. "Bluetonic," even if its central lyrical conceit was pilfered from Adrian Mitchell).

"Slight Return," which is like Aztec Camera covering "(I Love You) Don't You Forget It," but nowhere near as interesting as that concept might suggest, rose to number two as a single (fittingly kept off the top by "Spaceman" - "it's time to terminate the great white world" indeed) purely because - well, why? Because Chris Evans played it, because a significant British demographic thought that they were still in the middle of something, because the illusion was that "a refreshing return to basic, raw, honest, indie guitar rock" was what the nation was crying out for. Again, that title; if you're going to reference the closing track of Electric Ladyland, you're going to have to be as good as it, or better it. Too much suffocating respect for Received Rock History.


Meanwhile, that summer in Canada, Sloan released One Chord To Another, a genuinely powerful and provocative guitar-based pop album whose best songs ("The Good In Everyone," "Everything You've Done Wrong," "The Lines You Amend") frankly ride The Bluetones roughshod. But Chris Evans didn't play Sloan or invite them over to appear on TFI Friday, and we British allegedly knew better, so you probably still haven't heard them, or that record.

What happens after freedom? does.

Monday 7 June 2021

ROBSON & JEROME: Robson & Jerome



(#542:  25 November 1995, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Unchained Melody/Daydream Believer/I Believe/The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More/Up On The Roof/I'll Come Running Back To You/(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover/Amazing Grace/If I Can Dream/This Boy/Love You Forever/Little Latin Lupe Lu/Danny Boy

As we end this superficially remarkable year of 1995, we are forced to face some rather inconvenient truths. One is that, despite being comfortably outperformed over subsequent years by (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, this was the year's biggest-selling album within the boundaries of that year alone. In his book The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize, the late David Cavanagh refers to the single of "Wonderwall" being kept off number one by the double-sided "I Believe" and "Up And The Roof," performed by a couple of reluctant television actors whose appeal, says Cavanagh, broached a middle-aged female demographic which even Oasis couldn't reach.

Nor, for that matter, could The Beatles. Their Anthology 1 collection, complete with a rebooted Lennon demo fragment which had been cast as "the new Beatles single,"  had been designed as the number one to crown or climax that Britpop year. It was kept at number two by Robson & Jerome. Perhaps that was as much of a humiliation to some as "Release Me" holding "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" off the top - even though the records of Engelbert and Robson & Jerome were largely bought by the same people.

Interestingly, Robson & Jerome and Anthology 1 have one song in common; "This Boy," originally the B-side of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and one of the band's many attempts at the time to convey their underlying wholesomeness to their fans' parents. The difference is that The Beatles travelled beyond "This Boy," whereas this collection, or at least one of the people behind it, would prefer you to believe that this is where they end - lovable cuddly moptops who never met Dylan, never took drugs, never went weird.

It was clearly part of the overall plan by the A&R man at RCA, an ambitious fellow named Simon Cowell, to recast the history of popular music such that "rock" never happened. Cowell it was who watched the episode of the ITV drama Soldier Soldier, where Robson Green and slight Patrick Allen-lookalike Jerome Flynn deputised for an AWOL wedding reception band at the last minute; billing themselves sardonically, and almost apologetically, as "the Unrighteous Brothers," they launched into "Unchained Melody" and, because this is television, gradually won the audience over.

The ITV switchboard was bombarded with queries as to where a record of that "Unchained Melody" could be obtained. Cowell immediately saw the giant commercial potential and spent four months trying to persuade the two actors to sign a recording contract. They were highly reluctant to do so; at one point Robson Green even threatened legal action to stop what he perceived as harassment. But eventually, and probably with the success of Jimmy Nail in Crocodile Shoes fresh in their minds, they agreed to give it a go. Mike Stock and Matt Aitken (but, significantly, not Pete Waterman) produced a single of "Unchained" and "White Cliffs Of Dover."

The single was an immediate and immense success, staying at number one for seven weeks, famously keeping, amongst other singles, "Common People" at number two, and outselling every other single released in Britain during the nineties with the exception of "Candle In The Wind 1997." Its success is easy to understand; its release coincided, I am certain on purpose, with the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, and it touched some very raw nerves in that substantial majority of the British public who didn't give a damn about being cool, or hip, or about much of anything after around 1954.

Watching the videos for the songs makes things even clearer. In "Unchained," the two performers take an ancient, monochrome stage in front of an elderly and sceptical 1940s audience. They fumble with their microphones and that provokes laughter; the audience think they are a comedy duo. But then they sing the song, as seriously as they can muster, and we are taken through a transposed tableau of various forties film scenarios, quite deliberately organised (as is the musical arrangement, with its Pavlovian climactic synthesised bells) to provoke memories beyond the reach of pain. As the song ends, the duo fade into colour and, with the lights up, see that the auditorium is empty; they have been playing to ghosts.

Yet this is not a menu of straightforward nostalgia. The video for "White Cliffs" commences with some emotional bombing footage from the Blitz - the wound which Britain does not want to heal - but, halfway through, both song and video take a somewhat unexpected left turn. Over an increasingly intense refrain of "just you wait and see," we see footage of Martin Luther King intoning those four words, of the freed Terry Waite, the freed Mandela and the demolished Berlin Wall, before zooming out on a picture of the Earth, floating in space. The message is that cosy war nostalgia is not enough - we have to make this peace work and last beyond our memories. It is a lesson more people should clearly have taken to heart.

Both Green and Flynn are ardent socialists, of my (and Jarvis Cocker's) generation - they are, in delivery and stance, just a hair's breath away from being indiepop - and in their various videos they are usually agreeably approachable and self-deprecating, as though fully aware of the absurdity of the enterprise, yet still wishing somehow to pierce that deep blue wall of absurdity. Hence the video for "I Believe," which sees them onstage in a semi-derelict working men's club, wearing singularly ill-fitting gold lamé jackets (the fate which Martin Fry's Worried Man endeavours to avoid?) and wondering out loud if they'd ever seen so many dead people gathered together in one place. But then they sing the song, which once served as a Korean War beacon, and somehow the crowd stir, and are, almost despite themselves, moved. A gospel choir inexplicably materialises briefly on the stage, but perhaps they too are ghosts. We, the audience, are being dared not to believe (for an interesting comparison, see the climax of Mike and Kate Westbrook's short television film from 1983, Hotel Amigo).

Hence there is something more intriguing at work here, perhaps as much of an intrigue as TPL 1995 has to offer. This is not to say that the album is a particularly good one. The voices are efficient but indie-weedy - at times the record comes across as a C86 Plays The Big Hits exercise (or perhaps one of those Embassy cheapo compilations trying its best to be Peter and Gordon - whose 1965 recording of "True Love Ways" is the secret ancestor of all of this - or The Bachelors). The musical backing is, shall we say, functional; every expense has obviously been spared. The enterprise is not up to the emotional bipolarity required by such songs as "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More" or "If I Can Dream." Not everything here is obvious; "I'll Come Running" is a seldom-heard Sam Cooke song, "Little Latin Lupe Lu," if not exactly the Righteous Brothers, let alone Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, comes as an askew nod to the ideations Rob Fleming harbours throughout the then year-old High Fidelity, and "Love You Forever" was a cover of a song originally performed by a Bristol-based girl group called The Shrinking Violets, who turned up at the studio one morning to audition for Cowell, who in turn invited them to contribute backing vocals to the album. One of their members was Anna Jacobs, now best known as an artist and designer (Anna Jacobs Design).

The duo perhaps cut deepest on the folk songs older than any of us. "Danny Boy" is an unexpectedly sombre album closer, with its intimations of war and mortality, and is handled as sensitively as the singers can handle it. I noted the YouTube comments about this version being played at the funerals of grandparents. And then there is the weightless drone of "Amazing Grace," the square root of so much pop, sung seemingly on a forgotten Tyneside doorstep prior to demolition - a folk song, for common people, people who, in 1995, were hurting, needing reassurance. Robson & Jerome is not by any means a great album; I concur with Tom Ewing's conclusion that, after the war ended, television was always going to end up a far bigger societal catalyst to this country than pop. But its message hit so many otherwise forlorn mid-nineties guts that it cannot be smugly dismissed. Up on the roof, you are away from the pain and rage - but you can still see everything.