Those were such happy times
And not so long ago...
For me, The Carpenters stand as the absolute antithesis of easy listening, presenting song after song to the listener that look searchingly into what it means to be alive and face the likelihood of vulnerability and disappointment. This is achieved with a stoicism and a lack of grandstanding that makes their work amongst the most grown-up in pop, supported by memorable, spacious arrangements that allow the mood of the songs to truly breathe and allow the listener to enter into the world of the music.
None of this would be possible without the wonder that was Karen Carpenter's voice, my favourite in pop, with its remarkable capacity for intimacy, a sense of closeness and compassion that made Herb Alpert remark that listening to her sing was "almost like she had her head in your lap". Every song seems like a confidence entrusted to you, the listener, alone. By the time that you get to the latter records, things like 'Make Believe It's Your First Time' and 'Touch Me When We're Dancing' the effect is almost unbearable, half-literally the voice of a dying woman, her brother's way with a tune and an arrangement audibly faltering behind her.
Even in their earlier glory days, this discomfort is always present. Hence this, their biggest ever British hit, is a song about youth meeting maturity and the ultimate limitation and failure of pop music;
When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin' for my favourite songs
When they played
I'd sing along
It made me smile.
The songs are now back on the radio and the opportunity to sing along has returned for the woman who was once the girl. This provides the opportunity for the girl and the woman to meet each other face to face, like the old and young Houseman in Stoppard's Invention Of Love;
Those old melodies
Still sound so good to me
As they MELT THE YEARS AWAAAY!
Something has gone horribly wrong for her between then and now. Love either never came, or failed, or was sought in the wrong places. The anticipation of grown-up feeling meets its actual reflection through the portal of the nostalgia show.
When it comes to the part
Where he's breaking her heart
IT CAN EVEN MAKE ME CRY - JUST LIKE BEFORE
Yes, but its a different intensity of crying now, isn't it? Not the impatient anticipation of love and incipient adulthood, but its failure or cruelty. Those songs seem both deeper and flimsier now ("Every Sha-la-la-la/ Every Wo-o-wo-o/ Every shing-a-ling-a-ling"...)
The dear old music, "back again, just like a long-lost friend", doesn't help her deal with the present.
It's as desperate as watching somebody hug themselves for comfort and understanding.
In the 1973 parent album, the effect is accentuated by the song fading into a 15-minute pastiche radio show 'Oldies Medley' of Carpenters-interpreted hits of 1963 (1960s nostalgia and so early!), the tenor of which gradually changes, from youth ('Fun Fun Fun'), to sex ('Da Doo Ron Ron'), to lost love ('The End Of The World'), to unrequited love ('Johnny Angel'), to betrayal ('The Night Has A Thousand Eyes'), to songs of anticipated love and triumph unbearable to return to... ('Our Day Will Come' and 'One Fine Day')
Flashing past her eyes like a suicide whose life flashes past her eyes.
And then a reprise for a minute. The sepulchral lines;
When I was young I'd listen to the radio...
are repeated on a loop, each time fading further into silence, against a single static piano chord.
The breaking string. The severing of the past from the present.
I have a theory that every childhood has its optimum point of receptiveness: the time when the openness to sensation and sense of wonder of the early years has yet to dim, but once some acquired knowledge and social skills can start to be used to find ones way in the world. For me, this blessed point was around the age of seven and that was the time that my parents took me on holiday to America: Seven days in New York and three days in Princeton.
I tend to remember everything anyway, but these ten days seem to contain an unstoppable bounty of memories; the long haul jumbo jet with the pleasure of being given gifts and puzzles and drinks and a dinky orderly meal and headphones to Bernard Cribbins introduce songs by the Muppets, the criss-crossy roads and seemingly much brighter daylight of New York, a forth of July parade where I am presented with a helium balloon, new and unfamiliar breakfast cereals, the coach journey from New York to Princeton that takes an entire day and then being shown a map of America and seeing what a tiny distance we had travelled, the great staircase of MOMA, a trip to Chinatown where I am given a small red rubber dragon, a Broadway matinee of Peter Pan where the principle boy flies out into the gallery and the pirates are funny and the dog is clever followed by daddy taking me to an ice cream parlour that serves 120 flavours where I choose coconut.
I imagine that I must have radiated more charm on holiday than I did at home. On a bus, an old lady compliments the little English boy and tells us how if I was staying with her she would enjoy taking me to Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. My mother is pleased by this exchange, both because I am managing to make a good impression, and that the love that she feels for me is reflected in the responses of strangers.
Which is not to say that my memory is rose-tinted - I never trust those whose childhood recollections present an unceasing flow of delight. Surely childhood is as much about frustration and feeling afraid or hurt as it is about happiness?
In Princeton I drink gallons of orange juice and develop a rash.
My mother has an aura of fear and fluster that strangers can be quick to pick up on - on a sidewalk a hairy and ragged-looking individual sees us and adopts a demonic pose that makes my mother cry out and hold me close to her. "He's probably on drugs", my daddy explains. Once we have crossed the road I notice that the hairy man is now joking with a companion and looks quite normal, and am not sure about my father's judgement.
Most trying of all, while the three of us are walking downtown, my father spots some distraction and goes gadding off after it. We become separated and mummy has to get a taxi back to the hotel with me - the driver has large aviator-style sunglasses and an air of quiet authority that impresses me. Back in our room my mother - who does not take well to the cross-Atlantic time difference - has to have a headachey lie-down all afternoon. When my father arrives back they argue. "You selfish PIG!" mummy tells daddy. "You pig!" I parrot back, entirely taking my mother's side in this dispute. "Now, now! Don't say that" responds my father, prepared to take this criticism without response from his wife, but not from his son. When you are seven years-old, and trapped in a small hotel room in a foreign city with your angry unhappy parents you can't escape to the playground or the garden.
One evening I find myself sitting alone on a sofa in the lobby of this hotel - we must have been about to go out and my parents gone back to the room to fetch something. I decide to pass myself off as a real American and integrate myself with the city. I walk out of the hotel and onto 46th Street. What shall I do now? Many people are walking fast in both directions. A man amongst them is on roller skates. He looks like a suitably interesting person to engage with. I make eye contact with him. What would be an appropriately American thing to say? "Hi!" I announce. "Hi" he replies, perplexed, before he skates off again. Satisfied with this exchange, I return to the lobby and my place on the sofa. My parents come back to collect me. I don't tell them about my expedition, not because I think that I've done anything wrong, but because I am not sure that I can convey the meaning and significance of my action. It was an instinctive thing that one does, hoping that its significance will become clear to oneself in later years.
It takes me almost twenty years to return to Manhattan, from the last months of Carter to the last months of Clinton. I sometimes find it amusing to review the progress of my life as being like a microcosm of a nation state, with booms and depressions, alliances and wars. Retrospectively, this period seems like some kind of pinnacle of good fortune - through having stable employment and not having to pay rent, I have a surplus of £6,000 in the bank. I am twenty-seven years old, one of the lowest rungs of adulthood and the latter reaches of being genuinely young. I have lucked into staying, free, for a week at a marvellous apartment that resembles the set of Friends on Bleeker Street. This is with my friend Polly, an actress training at the Actors' Studio and her landlady, an amazing old lady of Broadway, who carries sixty years of theatrical history on her shoulders.
It is in this blessed coalescence of circumstances that I find myself walking through Greenwich Village on a Friday night, a young man with money in his pocket and supposedly ready for pleasure and experience. I'm even dressed in a white suit, a costume that I've always wanted to wear. The only problem is that - I can't think of anything that I want to do. I feel rather tired and uncertain of what the time is. I wander around for a bit, milling in crowds and looking at the shop fronts and restaurants. I am amused to see an establishment that promotes itself as 'Mr Slinky's bar and celebrity hangout', but resist the temptation to go in to see if Tom Cruise is hanging out there tonight. Around me are unceasing crowds of people who actually belong here, or at least who make a better fist of making it look as though they do. I give up the ghost and go back to the apartment, where I read an act of When We Dead Awaken and try to get to sleep.
In this journey from boy to young man some sense of venture has clearly been dissipated. The impulse to catch the eye of a roller-skater and say "Hi" seems to have gone.
What couldpossibly be more 1970 then a novelty discotheque harmonica one hit wonder? A novelty discotheque harmonica one hit wonder performed a knocked together made-up band of top session musicians, of course! (The harmonica ace behind Mr Bloe is Harry Pitch, who can also be heard on the theme tune to Last Of The Summer Wine)
The title encourages the listener to think of the harmonica as being the musical embodiment of Mr Bloe, and the single as the wordless epitome of Mr Bloe's conception of grooving. And Mr Bloe most assuredly and instantly memorable groove to share with us -
Wahwah! Wah-wah Wahwah wah Wawah! Wah Wawah!
repeated many times. But Mr Bloe can also be a reflective and laid back character, who sometimes breaks off from his main groove to look over his shoulder and give a smile to the listener -
Wah wah Wawah - Wahwahwah...
He's brought some friends along with him, too. Although they are very much supporting characters in the Mr Bloe show, their contributions are vital. There's a peripatetic bassline - dumdadalumlum- dumdumdum! - and a drum that provides cascading rolls whenever Mr Bloe catches his breath, and lets us know that yet another
Wahwah! Wah-wah Wahwah wah Wawah! Wah Wawah!
is about to reappear and delight us once again.
Like a lot of instrumental records, the particular delight of Mr Bloe lies in its use of space, ensuring that the listener fully discerns every pleasurable detail of the record and immediately wants to play it again to moment that it finishes.
Postscript: Oh this is interesting - I've just found the US original single that Mr Bloe is a UK copy of. It sounds more Northern Soul and a bit more frenetic than the British hit -
So, whether by accident or design, the session musician version does change the tune into something different, and not in a cheap or tacky way.
I can never understand why Gene Pitney doesn't have the same kudos as Roy Orbison. Both men worked within the same form, the highly melodramatic ballad, and both used highly distinctive voices to extract the maximum possible emotion out of their material. Both singers also always came across as being genuinely humble and modest in interviews.
In Pitney's case, the voice is a quavering adenoidal tenor, purpose built for the expression of anguish. The amazing thing about this voice is that it will build and build throughout a song, and then - just when the listener thinks that things couldn't possibly get any more exciting or compelling - build some more, reaching a kind of delirious catharsis.
The songs that he interpreted were generally short and unhappy. They are usually tales of lost love, or the fear of being about to lose love. When, less often, Pitney sings about finding love, the effect is equally uncomfortable, because he tends to be consumed by guilt at stealing someone's girl or cheating on someone, most famously in '24 Hours From Tulsa'. 'Backstage' is a definitive lost love tale, given a metatheatrical spin through being the story of a successful pop star.
A brief drum-roll and fanfare sets the scene. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's star attraction";
A thousand hands -
I sing my songs...
My star shines bright...
I stop and smile...
I take my bow...
I leave the stage...
and then some-how -
Hubris is swiftly followed by nemesis;
Backstage I'm lonelee
Backstage I cry
You've gone away
and each night
On the second verse, Pitney becomes notably louder and more desperate-sounding;
Out on that stage
I'll play the star
I'm famous now!
I've come so far..
A famous FOOL!
I let love GO!
I didn't KNOW!
I'd miss you SO!
It's taken a while to get there, but the second chorus brings the first extended anguished phrase;
Backstage I'm lonelee!
Backstage I cry
since I let you say -
A middle eight cranks up the tempo, the strings echoing the singer's manic excitement;
Every night a different girl!
Every night a different club!
And yet I'm lonely all the time...
When I sign my auto-graph!
When I hold an in-ter-view!
Can't get you out of my MIIIIND!
The point of self-revelation;
Come back my love!
Come back to me!
I need you now!
What good is fame?
It's just a game!
I'd give it awll to be the same
Backstage I wait now -
ho-ping I'll see
Your smiling face waiting there backstage for meeee-eeee!
(A trumpet backs that "meeee-eeee!")
Your SMI!LING! face waiting backstage for meeeeee-eeeeee!
She won't be there. Surely that's it?
No. Pitney reminds us of the scene;
And them, that astonishing Roy Orbison trick of taking things one stage further than anyone could realistically expect them to go;
I've found a new layer of poignancy in this song since the 2006 death of Gene Pitney, alone in a Cardiff hotel room, after a show on a comeback tour. When he was found dead on his hotel bed he was fully dressed and looked, according to his tour manager, "as though he had gone for a lie down".
It starts like the end of a record; applause and lively party whooping and yelping. This is clearly going to be exciting.
Then a voice attracts the attention of the crowd;
Hold on everybody! Hold it! Hold on... listen!
A bluesy piano line. Then the song proper starts.
Has there ever been as great a vocal group as The Temptations of the late sixties and early seventies? They were reacting to the departure of Jimmy Ruffin, their troubled original member and figurehead, emerging stronger and more defined as individuals from the process. There's a great joy in renewal and re-invention in their music of this period. The Motown writers present them with harder and more socially engaged songs ('Cloud Nine', 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone', et al), and they place their trust in a visionary producer, Norman Whitfield.
Whitfield does two things, he makes them go psychedelic soul, a most appealing genre, giving them funk through wah-wah guitars, driving bongo-style drums, etc. He also, derived from Sly & The Family Stone, accentuates the tremendous range of brilliant and different voices in the group, making the experience of hearing to the babble of diverse interpretation so ecstatically surprising for the listener. Such as the set-up of this song;
Dennis Edwards (certain, grown up tone) I! Can turn the GREY sky BLUE-ah!
Melvin Franklin (lower, sonorous, slightly comic and croony) I can make it rain, whenever I want it to!
Eddie Kendricks (falsetto, excited) I can build a CASTLE from a SINGLE GRAIN OF SAND!
Paul Williams (gritty, aggressive, agitated) I can make a ship sail (Huh!) on dry land!
Otis Williams (smoother, more soulful, sort of regretful insousciance) I can make the seasons change - jus' by a wave of my hand!
This is tremendously exciting, like a team-up of superheroes, the godlike claims made more plausible by the multiplicity of testimonies. But what happens when the voices join together? Dennis Edwards exposes an Achilles heel;
But my life is incomplete, and I'm so bluuue!
'Cause IIIIIIEE! can't get next to you.
(vox X 4) I CAN'T GET NEXT TO YOU! (Dennis: NEXT TO YOU!)
It's a Promethean story, the hydra-headed Temptation challenging the gods with his powers but failing in his human needs. The way that the song is structured and delivered you don't doubt the force of that need for a moment, much though you enjoy being seduced by the superhuman claims.
Those godlike powers in full; in addition to the aforementioned five, flying like a bird in the sky, buying anything that money can buy, turning a river into a raging fire, living forever "if I so desired" (that smooth insouciance again!), turning back the hands of time, changing anything from old to new.
For me, the greatness of this quietly astonishing single lies in the disjuncture between the singer and the song. This isn't a glib exercise in cross-generational marketing - the modern world is full of unwelcome and trying "Tony Bennett sings Nirvana" promotions - but a surprising choice that adds depth both to the voice and the song.
Even a crate-digging pop swot such as myself finds it hard to find anything good to say about the fifties heyday of Perry Como. His Bing Crosby easygoing vocal stylings are clearly attempting the same sort of thing as Dean Martin. but while Deano generally achieves a state of soused insouciance, Como at best sounds bored by what he's singing, at worst lobotomised.
His early seventies commercial second wind is something quite different, though. The sense of ease is still there, but it now sounds like an emotional state that's been earned and has some life experience behind it, plus he's stopped singing irritating perky songs. There's a very slight waver in his voice now, making him sound grandfatherly. And RCA have clearly put their very best arrangers and players behind him, and some thought has gone into the selection of his material.
Who wrote 'For The Good Times'? Kris Kristofferson, that's who! A hippy cowboy! The really disconcerting line in this song is;
Lay your head upon my pillow
Hold your warm and tender body close to mine
This degree of intimacy - however unsalacious and matter-of-fact - is surprising from Como's mouth. You expect a Como love song to be palliative and general, a tabula rasa for the audience to draw their own tender feelings upon, not an actual song about a specific relationship. The framing context for this line shows what unfamiliar territory this is for the singer;
Don't look so sad
I know it's over
But life goes on
And this old world
Will keep on turning
Let's just be glad
We had some time to spend together
So these two people share a bed and are separating. In a Como context, this feels remarkably grown-up - in a rather uncomfortable way. Songs of lost love you expect, but the actual separation is surely too painful to go into.
The singer is clearly trying for a measured dignity and conciliation in his approach ("There's no need to watch the bridges that we're burning"), but is desperately clinging on to this last day together;
Hear the whisper of the raindrops
Blowing soft against the window
And make believe you love me,
One more time...
For the good times
The good times have gone really, but a perhaps a simulation of them can be constructed from their ashes. Note the vibraphone emulating the patter of the raindrops, one half of a melody line which it alternates with a chilled string section, supported in the background by a refracting guitar line. You'll eventually note the world's subtlest backing vocals once you've heard this a few times, too, female "Oooh-ooh"'s that seem to cradle the hapless singer.
The speculative second verse is almost unbearable;
I'll get along
You'll find another
And I'll be here
If you should find,
You ever need me
Don't say a word
About tomorrow or forever...
There'll be time enough for sadness
When you leave me
It takes the greybearded MOR dignity of Como to mask the country origin of the song, the tale of a deluded loser trying to hold things together: You must do what you think right dear and build a new life - but I can't, and will be here waiting for you.
The gentleness of the song can't completely muffle the pain. A song for beautiful losers.