Friday, 26 August 2011

The Carpenters - Yesterday Once More (1973/ No. 2/ 17 weeks/ A & M)

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

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

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...

So fine...

So fine...

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.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

New York New York - So good I went there twice (1980 and 1999)

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.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Mr Bloe - Groovin' With Mr Bloe (1970/ No. 2/ 19 weeks/ DJM)

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.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gene Pitney - Backstage (1966/ No. 4/ 10 weeks/ Stateside)

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 -
applaud tonight...
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
I seem
to die
a little...

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
Hating myself
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!
So desperatelee!
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".

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Temptations - I Can't Get Next To You (1970/ No. 13/ 9 weeks/ Motown)

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.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Perry Como - For The Good Times (1973/ No. 7/ 27 weeks/ RCA)

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.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Mud - Tiger Feet (1974/ No. 1/ 11 weeks/ RAK)

"All night long you've been -
Lookin' at me!
Well you know you're the -
Dance hall cutie that you love to be!
Oh well now -
You've been layin' it down!
You got your
Hips swingin' out of bounds!
And I like the way you do what you're doin' to me!- ! - ! - !

True stories behind the hits: Nicky Chinn is wallpapering his home. As he attempts the tricky maneuvering of some pasted paper he says to himself “That’s right. That’s right.” Admiring his handiwork, he reflects “That’s neat!”. Then the good mood is spoiled by his looking down at his shoes and observing that stands of fallen paste have formed stripes. “Oh, I’ve got tiger feet.” he observes ruefully…

Then a great big lyric writer’s light bulb is illuminated above his head.

There can be few better apprenticeships for becoming a great pop group than being the house band on 'The Basil Brush Show'. The next few paragraphs aren't by me ( ), but rather brilliantly explain in musicological detail just why 'Tiger Feet' is so tremendous;

"“Tiger Feet” achieves the magic 10 status thanks to (a) the writers and performers remembering that pop is “you know, for kids”; (b) the inspired idea to nick the drum beat from “Ballroom Blitz” and double track it - thus that irresistible dance groove; and (c) the quintuple guitar attack.

Here’s the set-up. Back-centre is an octave leaping pig-nosed ‘bass’ (this could be a guitar actually, I think there’s a separate bass line in there somewhere, but no matter), ramping up the beat yet another notch. Right channel, the fuzzy main riff straight out of the Quo playbook. Left channel, a sparking second guitar, responsible for the off-beat accents. Then in the instrumental breaks after the chorus two more lead guitars in the centre of the mix, playing the solo in descending, parallel fourths - again probably a nod to the likes of Quo - and of course this was later a Thin Lizzy trademark. I don’t know if Rob Davis - our friend with the dress and the earrings and the future second pop career - is responsible for all these guitars. I fancy he might have been, since this arrangement is a feature of all three of the above-mentioned singles yet not of any other ChinniChap production of the time.

But each part sits beautifully in the mix and at no time does it feel like excess. There is plenty of space for Les Gray, thankfully reining in the Elvis Presleyisms for once, to coo his appreciation of the ‘dance hall cutie’ who’s given him a feeling in his knees(!) - the dumb lyrics a perfect match for the party vibe of the music.

My favourite bit is actually the fade, where you get two dueling vocal lines, one going ‘T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-tiger Feet’ and the other ‘That’s right (x8), That’s neat (x4)’ and so on. The two parts meld to create nonsense sounds - simply adding to the general sense of delirium the record has been building up to."

God, I love this… It cheers me up and makes me laugh. I even always attempt to do a silly dance whenever I hear it.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Martha & The Vandellas - Nowhere To Run (1965/ No. 26/ 15 weeks/ Motown)

Odd how these old Tamla songs have been co-opted as signifiers of cosy nostalgia, when they sound so tense when you listen to them.

Listening to 'Nowhere To Run' this alongside The Who and The Yardbirds in its 1965 chart context, I was struck by how locked-on the grooves of so many pop songs of this time. In the same way that 'I Can't Explain' revolves around an unceasing riff, everything in this single follows a descending and extremely heavy bassline. The drums are really martial, too - the prominent tambourine sounds not light but cutting, like manacles, the odd crazy drumming flourish coming to emphasise particular revelations of being trapped in the narrative.

The other thing about this song that you tend to overlook is that the singer is not failing to run away from a bad boyfriend, but about to start an affair with him;

"It's not love I'm runnin' from
But the heartbreak I know will come"

This is falling in love as a horror story;

"Each night as I sleep
Into my heart you creep!
I WAKE UP feeling sorry I met you
Hoping soon that I'll FORGET you!
When I look in the mirror
And comb my hair
I see your face
just-a-smiling there!"

This self knowledge of not being able to stop a bad thing is rather an interesting perspective for a song of anticipated love.

(Buried within the middle eight is a brilliant moment that people tend to forget originated here;

"My love reaches SO HIGH
I can't get over it!
I can't get around it"

Both The Temptations and Funkadelic cultivated brilliant songs from this one tiny green shoot...)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Hamilton Bohannon - Disco Stomp (1975/ No. 6/ 12 weeks/ Brunswick)

"Everybody do the disco stomp!
Everybody do the disco stomp!

Staggeringly ahead of its time; the minimal, utilitarian, vocals, the subtly flowing rhythms, the patient key changes, the robotic place name recitations (particularly the atonal 'NEW YORK CITY' towards the record's end).

Was the disco stomp ever a real dance? I’d like to think so. The rhythm and structure of this single make the imaginary dance the best pop craze ever in my mind, spiralling across the United States, peculiar and unexpected, and yet – yes! – making dance floors fun and affectionate places.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Band - Rag Mama Rag (1970/ No. 16/ 9 weeks/ Capitol)

Now here's an exercise of remarkable audacity and boldness - The Band decided to freshen things up in the studio by swapping instruments, and the resultant thrown-together song of lurching and joyous experiment became the hit single!

Everything about this is off-centre - the fiddle saws and the tuba puffs, the way that rinky-dink piano slips and slides all over the place. It all fits a non-realist lyric about a skinny girl who just wants to rag mama rag instead of other activities, which would be evidently more appealing to the singer.

"Its dog eat dog
and cat eat mouse.
You can rag mama rag
all over my house."

The tale takes in caboose and turtles, railroads and telephones. It is not a surprise to learn that "the bourbon is 100% proof" in the world of this song.

This single opens a gate into another land for the listener, a place where life is lived differently.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Simon Gray 1936-2008. In Other Words.

(Published in Contemporary Theatre Review Volume 18/4, 2008)

BETH. In other words, you do know.
SIMON. In other words, can’t we confine ourselves
to the other words.
(Otherwise Engaged, 1975)

The sadness of the recent death of the playwright
Simon Gray has been lightened by the unexpectedly
sensitive and thoughtful reappraisal of his work
that his passing has encouraged. Had he died ten
years ago when his critical standing was at rock bottom,
the response would likely have been much
more dismissive. There are several reasons for this
improved standing: public knowledge of anybody’s
mortal illness is always likely to encourage the
realisation of their value; the continued patronage
of Harold Pinter and Peter Hall; a few high-profile
and successful revivals (Otherwise Engaged in the
West End, Butley on Broadway); and the unexpected
appearance and production of new plays,
some – notably The Late Middle Classes (1999) and
Little Nell (2007) – of the first rank.

Above all, the renewed interest in Simon Gray
in the twenty-first century has been due to the
publication of four volumes of stream-of consciousness
memoirs; The Smoking Diaries
(2004), The Year Of The Jouncer (2006), The Last
Cigarette and Coda (both 2008), following on
from four earlier volumes of theatrical diaries.
These memoirs give a real sense of the distinctiveness
of Gray’s voice and intelligence, an original
quality that they share with the plays; a seemingly
artless (but actually extremely precise) sense of wit
that works by setting up a reasonable premise, then
to then test it, unravel it, look at it from unexpected
angles, using seeming logic and reason to demonstrate
the constant oddity of life and thought, as in
this passage that combines two recurring preoccupations,
Harold Pinter and smoking;

To come back to Harold’s problems with smoking.
I probably make things more difficult, being a
chain-smoker. In previous rehearsals, we’ve chain smoked
together. This time, he chews away at his
nicotine gum, with the smoke of his cigarettes
leaking reminiscently up his nostrils, down into his
lungs. On top of that he used to use his cigarettes in
rehearsals, taking one deliberately out of the black
box (Sobranies) putting it in his mouth, lighting it
with a swift gesture, inhaling it deeply, as often as
not walking a few paces away to take the cigarette
out, study it, put it back in his mouth, inhale. It was
a pantomime, an enactment of thought, he was
making it clear to everyone that he was thinking,
making it clear to himself that he had taken the time
to think. Now, without a cigarette to resort to, he
finds a lacuna between a question and its answer,
which he can only fill with a baffled silence, which
leads to further silence and further bafflement as the
need to answer looms larger and larger, the people
waiting for his answer no doubt seeming to do
likewise. He hasn’t yet found an alternative ritual to
accompany thought, and I doubt if he’ll find it in his
chewing gum. You can’t do much more with
chewing gum than put it in your mouth and chew
it. At least not without disgusting everybody.
(An Unnatural Pursuit & Other Pieces, Faber,
1985, pp. 95–6)

Gray applies this technique to his own life and
personal failings with alarming candour: the guilt of
adultery and alcoholism, the harshness of his mother,
the betrayal of a boyhood friend who went on to
commit suicide in adult life. Although the memoirs
are consistently funny, they are too frank and honest
to be shelved under humour, and it is their emotional
effect that remains with the reader.

This application of humour, rather than jokes
for their own sake, is also how Gray’s plays work.
Although a surface response to his plays might be
the impression of a sparkling theatrical wit, this wit
is always used to serve a deeper purpose of
characterisation and insight into the human condition.
Where the wit may appear to take the form of
smooth and allusive phrase-making, such as Simon
Hench informing an acquaintance incapacitated by
unrequited love that he is ‘obviously in the grip of a
passion almost Dante-esque in the purity of its
hopelessness’, the reference actually serves its comic
effect by demonstrating Hench’s awareness of the
self-pity and quotidian haplessness of the acquaintance,
rather than serving to flatter the audience’s
knowledge of Dante. The line is funny not because
of the allusion to a classical source, but because the
allusion fits and complements the audience’s
understanding of the scene’s power dynamics.

How Gray structures this wit makes his jokes
deeper than they need to be to elicit laughter, and
always work on the level of subtext. In The
Common Pursuit (1984), Humphrey replies to a
rambling explanation of a mutual friend’s infidelities
from Martin (a confused description that is
suffixed with a pleading ‘If you follow?’) by saying;

HUMPHREY. Of course I follow. Merely because
you can’t speak properly doesn’t mean I can’t understand
you. Generally well before you’ve finished.

The devastating precision of Humphrey’s correction
of Martin’s inarticulacy might be the part of
the speech that initially makes the audience laugh,
but it is the extension of the thought (‘Generally
well before you’ve finished’) that adds depth to the
joke, intimating the wider truth that Humphrey
can see and understand that Martin also is having an
affair with a different, closer, mutual friend. These
are the phantom ‘other words’ of unsayable truth,
masked by Gray’s characters who choose to talk in
anecdotes or spiraling and freewheeling digression
instead (see especially Ben Butley’s sly insults and
pastiches). Except that, in Gray’s plays, the inferences
and hidden knowledge of the masking other
words do always eventually hit home, normally
prefacing an event that irrevocably changes circumstances
(a pregnancy, an abortion, a departure) making
the appalling pain and mess of life unavoidable,
however elegant or funny the characters’ coping
strategies have been up to that point.

It is this use of language as a mask, and Gray’s
depiction of life being governed by betrayal and deceit
(often not even deliberately) that must have formed
part of the attraction of these works for Harold
Pinter, who went on to direct eight of Gray’s plays.
Certainly, the works of the two dramatists to seem to
be inextricably linked together for a few years in the
1970s, each writer exploring the ideas of adultery,
publishing and professional rivalry from a different
perspective that is informed by the other’s plays.

Gray was a very prolific author, and perhaps too
prolific for the good of his reputation which, with
the exception of the shabby-genteel Quartermaine’s
Terms (1981), tends to rest on the more
metropolitan adultery plays; Butley (1971), Otherwise
Engaged and The Common Pursuit. Dig deeper
into his body of work (and most of it is usually out
of print, to say nothing of the junked television
plays), and this impression is soon complicated;
Spoiled (1970) a modest and unshowy – but quietly
devastating – study of a pederast (insanely produced
as a glittering commercial prospect at the Haymarket
at the heart of the West End!), the lurid – and
possibly unperformable – black farces Wise Child
(1967) and Dutch Uncle (1969), and the long cherished
project of a play about Dickens, Little
Nell. These plays are characterised by phantasmagorical
elements when reality seems suddenly to
become stranger and less negotiable, an aspect of
Gray’s work that tends to be neglected, but is always
present as a possibility, and can be found in the
sudden and unnerving breakdowns of characters in
more ostensibly conventional plays, as in Quartermaine’s
Terms and Japes (2000).

Most surprising and exciting of all, though, is The
Rear Column (1978). In this remarkable play,
Gray’s skills at depicting collegiate rivalry, and
emotional detachment and dislocation are placed
in the unexpected place and time of the Congo in
1887, when Major Barttelot’s colonial expedition
eventually degenerates into a terrifying nightmare of
violence and cannibalism (the same series of events
which inspired Heart Of Darkness). This was clearly
too far a breach from what West End audiences
expected from Simon Gray thirty years ago, and the
play has laid totally neglected since, awaiting the
more sympathetic hearing that is surely its due.

Even without revivals, though, Simon Gray is very
likely to be remembered by future generations
through his memoirs and diaries. These will serve
an important purpose of showing what life was like
for the last generation of serious playwrights to have
worked in the West End, rather than the subsidised
theatre (although he did have one original play
produced by the RSC, and one at the National).
Something that makes Gray’s memoirs of his
theatrical career so compelling for the reader is the
combination of tremendous strokes of luck (such as
Alec Guinness unexpectedly deciding that he wanted
to appear in the West End in drag, or the continual
enthusiasmof Pinter and Alan Bates) with calamitous
and unexpected misfortunes.

Unsparingly recounted in Gray’s diaries and
memoirs, these misfortunes become, in the telling,
both very funny and instructive and enlightening. It
is chastening to follow him through such unhappy
experiences as: knowing that the play that you have
heading for the West End is going to be a terrible
flop, the self-deception amongst the company that it
can be improved, and the appalling afterlife of the
production achieving a posthumous infamy (culminating
in the ultimate humiliation of its providing
the basis for a Daily Mail campaign to reintroduce
booing to the theatre); or having an exciting new
play blocked from transferring into the West End by
the presence of an indifferent revival of one of your
old plays; or the backers of your play stabbing you in
the back by abandoning the West End transfer of
your play while refusing to inform the company; or,
most notoriously, hitching the commercial success
of your play to a wholly unsuitable star comedian
who then has a very public breakdown and suicide
attempt; or, as recently as 2007, nobody having the
courage to be unkind and sack an insufficiently
talented young actor from their Broadway debut
until it’s too late.

Gray’s theatrical memoirs illustrate the unexpected
vicissitudes and disappointments of life, while
the life memoirs tell us much about guilt, betrayal
and humiliation. It is a source of hope and wonder
that they manage to achieve this while remaining
amusing and entertaining. It is to be hoped that
Gray’s likely survival in the canon as a memoirist and
diarist will keep interest in the plays themselves alive,
plays which share the qualities and insights of the
autobiographical writing. As Lyn Gardner wrote in
Gray’s Guardian obituary (8 August 2008);

Gray bridged the gulf between intellectual and
popular drama. Along the way, he provided the
West End with some robustly funny and darkly
melancholic plays about the failure of hope over
experience. Most people can relate to that.

Joe Loss & His Orchestra - March Of The Mods (1964/ No. 31/ 7 weeks/ HMV)

If you're British and over thirty, you might be wondering where you know it from. I regret to inform you that it is extensively sampled in 'Let's Party' by Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers, a lazy mobile-disco medley number number one of 1989, but don't let that put you off.

This is party music, but music for a party that I might even enjoy being at, if I could travel in time. I imagine it playing at a proper dancehall , circa 1964, the age when you could go to both dances and discotheques. Its a big formal event, a works dance or New Years' Eve, and the men and women are particularly dressed up for the night, as more hangs upon having a good time this evening as would normally be the case, neat partings, new ties, colourful dresses.

Crucially, this wouldn't be a gathering of the kool kids of the day, but a collection of several generations and more unfashionable and uncertain revelers. The 'Mod' in the title is just a with-it period trapping. The only mod thing about the single is the groovy organ that adds a few jolly flourishes over the second half of the disc.

What this record really is a stomp, a chance for the dancers to let their hair down and lose a few inhibitions through an unapologetically silly tune. It's a great blaring brassy thing;


The effect of this repetition is really quite locked-on and relentless, demanding an instantaneous and non-cerebral response from the listener, rather like a hard-rockin' guitar riff does. Eventually other instruments join in and flirtatiously play off against this riff, a call and response, some of the flutey arrangements sounding like the instrumentation for a British comedy film of the fifties or sixties. If you were dancing to this, I would imagine that you and your partner would have worked out some mutual action with your feet during the riff, walking towards and away from each other, say. Then, when the new bits of instrumentation came in, you'd have to do something silly like throw your arms out together. It would also be a good tune for communal dancing like holding hands in a ring-a-roses or a conga line. It's certainly just as well that it only goes on for two minutes, because you'd reel away exhausted to the chairs at the edge of the room once it had stopped, feeling in need of a drink... but you'd feel happier and less selfconscious.

Like many pop phenomena, The March Of The Mods comes from an unlikely source, the letkajenka, a traditional Finnish linedance that revolves around bunnyhopping actions. In the early 1960s a mutant strain of this spread in Finland, incorporating steps from the Madison and the Conga. And then somehow it traveled to England, Joe Loss & His Orchestra and to provincial dancehalls and night outs such as I like to imagine.

P.S. Further internet research validates my theory that this tune led to the creation of special dance routines. YouTube listeners reminisce;

"Takes me back to my dancing days at the Pamela Chelmiah school of dancing in St.Ives near Huntingdon! Fantastic memories."

- and -

"I'd forgotten all about this music. I can vaguely remember doing the dance that went with it. Everybody went round the dance floor in a big circle. There was one bit where you jumped forward with your feet together then jumped back again then took four steps forward. I hated doing it as a kid because I wanted to be a rocker and thought that all mods were poofs. I still do."

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Royal House - Can You Party? (1988/ No. 14/ 14 weeks/ Champion)

Todd Terry was the absolute zenith of pop in 1988. Such was the appetite for Chicago house music that every week seemed to bring forth a new record under some pseudonym or other (Royal House, The Todd Terry Project, Swan Lake, Black Riot) somewhere in the Record Mirror club charts. These records were often actually not at all new, and had been - rather oddly - made by a (really young) man who had no idea of the ecstasy and smileys UK acid house rave culture into which they were co-opted as anthems. Unlike the rather charmingly clueless British-made hits that tried to tune into the spirit of the time ('Acid Man' or 'We Call It Acieeeed') these Chicago source records can create a sense of communal joy and euphoria that is timeless.

"Check this out!"

A siren. Disco diva "Ooh yeah!", more woozy than caterwauling. That feeling of becoming slightly discombobulated, a surge of happy feeling.

"Too Black! Too strong!"

Also sampled by Public Enemy at the same time! Here - to my fifteen-year old whiteboy public school self - the note of militancy works as an appealing reminder that this music comes from another source.


Yes. Yes, I really can! What's lovely about this is the mechanised music sounds so wonderfully organic and inviting to me. Actually a lot more humane and welcoming than say, the contemporaneous number one, Whitney Houston's motivational Olympic theme 'One Moment In Time.


Oh yes! Note how there's a muted sample of a cheering crowd under that "FEEEL IT". (A device also used on Chaka Khan's 'I Feel For You') That sense of this music being really inclusive and welcoming if you accept it. Another thing that people forget about early house is how trebley rather than bassy it is, the rush coming from the snares and stabs that tickle and stroke something within the listener.

"Aw shucks... Hi let me tell ya sumptin"

That babble of conversational voices low in the mix is like me, how my mind responds to things, prolix, thinking too much about what he's feeling, turning it into words. But it makes me respond to this brilliant record all the more.


Yes. I can. I really can! God bless the house sounds of Chicago.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Mary Hopkin - Knock Knock Who's There? (1970/ No. 2/ 14 weeks/ Apple)

A two-time loser, runner-up to 'All Kinds of Everything' in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, and then #2 in the charts behind 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'... But a lot better than either of those.

There appears to have been a real formula to arranging British Eurovision entries in the late sixties, a jaunty oompah feel and a chorus made super-memorable by a hook that you could sing along to if you were in nursery school. So this comes after 'Puppet On A String', 'Boom-Bang-A-Bang' and 'Congratulations', all songs that I quite enjoy listening to, but for which I couldn't make any claims for.

This is rather deeper, though I'm not sure how many 1970 Eurovision viewers picked up on this. The chorus is so bright and universal that it fits the competition formula;

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Could this be love that's calling?
The door is always open wiiiiiiiiide!
Knock knock!
Who's there?
Now as the night is falling,
Take off your coat and come insiiiiiiide!

And then, to impress the song upon the non-English speakers:

La la la la la!
La la la la!
La la la la la la la la la la la!
La la la la la!
La la la la!
La la la la la la la la la la la!

(You have to have a very appealing voice to pull off that particular trick without being irritating. Mary Hopkin was up to the task - remember how much her vocals contribute to David Bowie's 'Sound & Vision')

As is often the case with the songs I like, the verse undercuts the chorus. The happy arrival is a longed-for occurrence, disrupting solitude and misery;

Tears of rain
run down my window pane,
I'm on my own again
good evening, sorrow.
Sit and dream
of how things might have been,
And as I close my eyes,
I get the strangest fee-ling.

The knocking visitor is only a spectre, a product of imagination, "how things might have been".
Although its not quite as good as 'Those Were The Days' this is another song of projection and ghosts, events that don't take place...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Usura - Open Your Mind (1993/ No. 7/ 12 weeks/ Deconstruction)

I have no doubt as to what my favourite album is. It's New Gold Dream by (THE EARLY!) Simple Minds. For the abstraction and the expanse. You know the experience when you're on a coach or a bus, coming into New York or Boston, say, and for the first time you cross over a bridge and see the whole expanse of the city? The many blocks, the twinkling lights, the vast scale of it? You feel a sense of possibilities suddenly in front of you, the feeling that you too have a place in this?

New Gold Dream evokes that moment and sustains it for 45 minutes.

It sounds incredibly shimmering, the closest that sound comes to being like light, and is a synesthenic experience, not bombastic stadium rock at all, no siree. It is the album that is most likely to make me feel better when I'm unhappy, and the album most likely to keep a feeling of happiness going when I feel that way.

So you might expect me to have my doubts as to the wisdom of an Italian rave version of the title track. Not a bit of it. Hearing the introduction slightly faster with some blips and souped up with a rhythmic undercarriage, gives me a tremendous sense of communal affirmation. Look! This music is so good that it works on a pilled-up dancefloor, too, not just in my head.

What you don't get are the lyrics, neither the heroic vagueness nor the one thing that locks the original into its specific time ("81 - 82 - 83 - 84") Instead a stentorian Eurovoice commands the listener to;


An instruction that is repeated many many times.

Remarkably, this is not irritating, largely because the command is actually supported by the endless possibility of the music. Also, the merciful lack of elaboration comes as a relief. How many records of the early 1990s were ruined by the elucidation of half-baked philosophies of positivity? The Shamen being perhaps the most persistent offenders.

This disc both rocks and shimmies.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Peppers - Pepper Box (1974/ No. 6/ 12 weeks/ Spark)

'Pepper Box' is an instrumental that would not exist without the exciting possibilities created by the development of the primitive synthesiser. There are three elements; A generic, but still highly pleasurable, pop/ funk bassline, some handclaps, an a persistent very-high-pitched Moog whine (like the one in 'Machine Gun' by The Commodores, but all over the thing). I imagine that for a lot of listeners, the synth solo might be as irritating as a buzzing wasp in the room (and it is so high pitched that it could remove earwax on headphones) but works for me within the jolly spirit of the thing.

Research leads me to discover that The Peppers were not, as I'd presumed, some very minor Moments-type American R&B troupe but a pseudonym for Roger Tokras, a French studio musician. So historically this could be the source from which (the 1970s) Space, Ottowan, Daft Punk and Air all flowed from.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Medicine Head - Rising Sun (1973/ No. 11/ 9 weeks/ Polydor)

"Ooh when you speak its just like a symphony
Ooh your fingers touch me with poetry
Don't underestimate what you mean to me
You're like a constant glimpse of the rising sun"

Few genres of music seem less appealing to me than 'blues-rock', which suggests worthiness without the sense of necessity that the old bluesmen had. But this is dandy!

It can only be described as a groove, a bassline that details flake off of and embellish; an echoing riff or knocking of drums, a spacey bit of keyboard, a twanging spring. It's locked-on - a happy sentiment - rather addictive.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Aaliyah - Back & Forth (1994/ No. 16/ 5 weeks/ Jive)

"It's Friday (wooh!)
and I'm ready to swing
Pick up my girls
and hit the party scene"

It's the real blankness in this record that makes it so compelling to me. I'm not sure where the emotional heart of it is, or even if it has one. Ostensibly a song about going out and partying, Aaliyah doesn't sound very excited by the prospect, even though she was only 16 when she recorded it.

Part of this void is the peripatetic nature of going back and forth as a metaphor. It doesn't sound very sexual, which you might imagine. Crucial to how the listener understands this record, is where one places the omnipresent R Kelly in the narrative. He's all over it, issuing instructions and advice - but really low in the mix. Is he a desired other on the other side of the club? Or is he the internal voice of the singing girl, making sense of the environment, working out how to appear cool?

It doesn't make going out dancing sound fun or affectionate…

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Kinks - Everybody's Gonna Be Happy (1965/ No. 17/ 8 weeks/ Pye)

Rule #1: Don't mess with the formula.

Having pretty much invented rock music with 'You Really Got Me' and then, rather brilliantly, made almost exactly the same record again with 'All Day & All of the Night', The Kinks decided to diversify with their next fast-tempo single.

What's different here? That's right - there's effectively no lead guitar! There's a choppy thing going on, but the music is led by the rhythm section; a fantastically brutal sounding descending bass roll, some frenetic bursts of drumming, and even some handclaps. This music seems about twice as fast as Ray Davies' vocals, a fairly uninspired - but still effective - series of tropes about everybody being happy, seeing his baby walking in the street, etc. The vocals are the glue that keeps the rhythm together, rather than the other way round.

The result? Number 17, and the sixties Kinks hit that no-one remembers. It's terrific fun, though.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Carpenters - Only Yesterday (1975/ No. 7/ 10 weeks/ A & M)

Although it was one of their biggest hits, I'd be surprised if Only Yesterday was one of many peoples' very favourite Carpenters songs. The effect of listening to the single is a bit like hearing a Carpenters Greatest Hits Medley, reminding you of treasured moments and effects in their other songs.

In particular, of three of their previous songs, perhaps their greatest; from 'Rainy Days and Mondays' and 'Goodbye to Love' the very personal sense of loneliness explained and confided to you, the listener, alone; and returning from 'Yesterday Once More', the yesterday motif - that earlier single an almost unbearable suicide note of a song, as upsetting to hear as watching someone forlornly hugging themselves for comfort.

The yesterday of 'Only Yesterday' is performing a very different narrative function here, however. Instead of signifying the irretrievable hopes of a teenager, this yesterday is the literal immediate past, bringing a sudden change of fortune for the singer in the form of a new boyfriend. Much as the appeal of listening to The Carpenters lies in desperately wanting things to come right for the singer, it has to be said that cheerful optimism was probably not their strongest facet, and is the sort of clean-cut white bread thing about them that people who dislike The Carpenters find so grating.

So 'Only Yesterday is very much a record of two halves. The first eighty seconds of the song - I've been so unhappy - belong to Karen, and then - "Now that I've found you!" - Richard takes charge with a top-of-the-range-1975-hi-fidelity-ingenious-bells-and-whistles easy listening arrangement. Both halves are good, but the second doesn't carry the emotional depth of the first.

Karen Carpenter's treatment of the first verse is a masterclass in phrasing and inflection, giving conviction to the story of desolation turning into hope. She starts by emphasising the universality of her situation, stoically sharing troubles with the listener;

(A slow drumbeat, some airy keyboards)

After long enough of being alone,
everyone must face their share of loneliness

There's an endearing sibilance at the end of that"loneliness". And then a confidence is shared, as she starts to sing her particular story to the listener.

In my own tiime nobody knew...
the (throat contracts, the next word sung chokingly) *pain* I was goin' through...
And waitin' was all my heart could do.

This making the best of things, being honest to herself about her vulnerability... Karen Carpenter is like a Terrence Rattigan heroine relocated to 1970s Los Angeles. During the next few lines of tentative hope, she allows a little sunlight and breeze into her singing;

(still desolate) Hope (sudden, vulnerable rise) was all I haad until you came.
Maybe you can't seee (might lighter, with a smile) how much you mean to me...

And then a delirious note of optimism bursts through;

You were the DAWWN breaking the niight...
The promise of morning liiiight!

It sounds delirious because you worry for her as you realise how elemental this feeling is - how everything is at stake for her, the new-found love as necessary for this woman to live as light is for a plant to photosynthesise. This change in her situation creates new, sensuous, possibilities for the singer;

Filling the world (mouth relishing the next word) surroundin' me.

Up to this point, the presence of Richard Carpenter has been pretty muted. Only a very close listening reveals his touch - through a clever arrangement which unobtrusively continues to add new orchestration to a sparse-sounding recording. He's been saving himself up for the chorus, which starts relatively subtly by building up the singer's new mood of tentative optimism;

(multi-tracked Karens) When I hold you -
(multi-tracked Karens and Richards!) baby, baby, feels like maybe, things will be all right.
Baby, baby, your love's made me -

And this is the precise moment when the single changes over from being about the sister's vulnerability to being about the brother's delight in using the studio's resources to playful effect. There's a sudden change of gears;

Free as a song!
Singin' for ever!
Only yesterday! When I was sad and I was lonely -
You showed me the way! to leave the past -
and all its tears behind me!

For years, whenever I heard this, I had a nagging sense of familiarity. I now realise that *this* is what I was being reminded of - .

As a narrative, the song is effectively over by this point. What follows is less of a disappointment once you know how the record goes. A cornucopia of Richard studio tricks ensues - sunny harmonies, clarinets, a swiftly abandoned skwalling rock guitar (a reprise of 'Goodbye to Love's surprise masterstroke), a sax solo, castanets, bells, chiming guitars... Best of all though, is some quietly bonkers drum rolls from Karen. She sounds like she's enjoying herself, and the sense of fun and possibility carries over to the listener.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Cher - Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves (1971/ No. 4/ 13 weeks/ MCA)

DAUGHTER: The fair has come to town, Mummy! Can I go? Can I go? Pleeease! There'll be dodgems and a helter skelter and a wheel and shooting galleries and a ghost train and candy floss and toffee apples and everything! Let me go there! Pleeease!

MOTHER: Well, alright dear, but your not to go on your own, do you hear me? I'll take you on Saturday, but we'll have to leave before it gets dark.

(to FATHER): Have you heard, darling? The fair's come back!

FATHER: Oh God! Is it that time again? We must remember to lock up very carefully for the next few days. At least she's not a teenager yet.

Although this is a song about a "travelin' show", not a fairground per se, all of the fears and excitement raised by the descent of carnival folk upon your town are evoked by Cher here. She tells us the story from the inside, as an itinerant child;

Gypsies! Tramps! And Thieves!
We'd hear it from the people of the town...
They'd call us -
Gypsies! Tramps! And Thieves!

Her tone of voice is particularly interesting when she tells us this. You might expect her to be upset and angry about facing all this mistrust and prejudice as a girl. Instead, there's a flat note of resignation, acceptance that this is just how things are. This tone makes the story of the song feel more authentic, and also puts the listener on their guard - You're aware that something bad might happen to this girl.

The mean townsfolk are, of course, hypocrites. It is from this reversal, the showpeople being the honest victims, that the drama of the song derives;

But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

Lay their money down for what, exactly? Cher tells us about her parents;

I was born in tha wagon of a travelin' show.
My mama used ta dance for the money they'd throw
Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little gospel...
Sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good

Note how there's a bar of woozy drunken tinkling after "Doctor Good", to evoke the groggy effect of drinking the moonshine. The song's arrangement is built upon a lot of rinky-tink percussion, harmonica, xylophones, tambourines, that sort of thing, to create an authentic travelin' show mood of a pitch being struck. (It also sounds a bit like the theme to Ski Sunday at times, but that's not an overbearing problem)

The misfortune that befalls the protagonist is a story that is economically told;

Picked up a boy just south of Mobile
Gave him a ride, filled him with a hot meal
I was sixteen, he was twenty-one
Rode with us to Memphis
And papa woulda shot him if he knew what he'd done

I never had schoolin' but he taught me well
With his smooth southern style
Three months later, I'm a gal in trouble
And I haven't seen him for a while...
I haven't seen him for a while...

Nobody could hear this single and assume that this silver-tongued and shifty young Southern man was going to come back... The end of the song echoes the beginning, only now the singer is dancing for the money they throw, to support her daughter, another baby "born in the wagon of a travelin' show", the aged grandfather now having to pitch and hustle to support another generation of children.

I sometimes think that this is the only Cher song that I've heard where her part Native American ethnicity informs her performance, if only subliminally: The story of a group of people who are patronised as being colourful, but backward and uncivilized, who end up getting exploited. Its certainly a song about being a victim, but also, through Cher's interpretation, a song about accepting your lot.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dusty Springfield - Goin' Back (1966/ No. 10/ 10 weeks/ Philips)

Once again, a 1960s ballad of pain and vulnerability exquisitely sung and open to ambiguous readings. This one is by Goffin & King...

There's a real ambiguity at the heart of this love song - if it is a statement of faith in the other, its a remarkably shadowed one, and one which certainly posits the option of a blank retreat into the world of the inner self for good. You do feel, in the quietness of the song, that something has gone terribly wrong in her life.

This seriousness of intent is announced by the dolorous piano that introduces the song;

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things
I learned so well
In my youth

I think I’m returning to
Those days
When I was young enough
To know the truth

This is vulnerable singing without a sense of it being a performance of vulnerability, a sense of searching for a reserve of inner strength. The arrangement - ethereal strings and amorphous woodwind - makes all this past life spectral, woozy, unreal.

In a sense, those days are now gone, though;

Now there are no games
To only pass the time
No more colouring books
No Christmas bells to chime

Now the time has come to put away childish things. A decision is made;

But thinking young
And growing older
Is no sin
And I can play
The game of life to win

I can recall the time
When I wasn’t ashamed
To reach out to a friend
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than
A skipping rope to lend

She's reaching out to somebody again; This is who I am, I have something to offer. Again? You get the impression that there's some considerable gap of emptiness and or pain between childhood and now.

(If you're into biographical reading, I guess that the other that Dusty would be singing out to in her head as she recorded this would be a woman, hence perhaps an accelerated sense of concealment and risk to the intimacy, but you certainly don't need to give this a queer reading to get all of this)

(Oops - I've spent the last 20 years mishearing "lend" as "mend". I realise. the fact that it hasn't jarred does show the sense of loss and terrible cost that I hear at the heart of this, though);

Now there’s more to do
Than watch my sailboat glide
And everyday can be
My magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years

The sense of vindication and strength in this is then emphasised by the most MASSIVE swelling fanfare of a bridge that suddenly appears. And yet.

And yet and yet... I still sense a potential retreat into blankness and the consolation of memory here, too. The last verse seems quieter after this swell;

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s
All we lack
So catch me if you can
I’m goin’ back

What is the true reality that the singer isn't interested in following? Material gain and status? (the hippy reading) Marriage and responsibility? Being grown-up? Compromise and mediocrity?

And what sort of freedom would she find without the other who she's singing this to?

EVERYTHING seems to hang on that "catch me if you can" to me. Either she rediscovers the values of being childlike - openness, curiosity, wonder, play, being secure in being loved. OR if she isn't caught retreats into the solace of memories of childhood.

I've seen that happen to people.

I only present that as an idea. I don't think that its particularly the true reading. But Goffin & King certainly knew how to give a three minute song depth, drama and a sense of internal voice. And the singer to be able to convey all this; vulnerability, polite defiance, inviting but untouchable.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Chuck Berry - No Particular Place To Go (1964/ No. 3/ 12 weeks/ Pye)

I'm currently thinking that Chuck Berry may be my favourite songwriter. One particular and precious reason for this admiration is that his songs were always genuinely really funny, and the telling is so good that the joke still makes me laugh whenever I hear the songs, even if I'm feeling down. This much loved song works around a set-up and reversal of circumstances that could be a Max Miller music hall number.

Chuck Berry's evening starts off full of horny promise. He has company and transport

Rrrridin' along in my automobile!
My baby beside me at the wheel!

Things seem to be going as he would wish them;

Rrrridin' along in my automobile!
I was anxious to tell her the way I feel...
So I told her softly and sincere
And she leaned and whispered in my ear
Cuddlin' more and drivin' slow -
With no particular place to go!

A brilliant thing about Berry's vocal style lies in his ability to convey both lechery and dainty finesse - You really understand both the carnal impulse and how the driver might be a practised seducer.

Rarely has a blues structure supported a pop song so well, too. The riff that follows each line sounds like a release of joy, but is so clipped that it also conveys a certain frustration, too. On top of this, there a tinkly piano that just tickles you into submission.

The evening reaches it's make-or-break moment;

No particular place to go -
So we parked way out on the Kokomo!
The night was young and the moon was gold
So we both decided to take a stroll...
Can you image the way I felt?
I couldn't unfasten her safety belt!

I don't think that we're supposed to understand this as a literal occurrence.

By the third chorus - this is not a single that outstays its welcome - all of the joys have remained untasted, and the guitar line now sounds more cross than cheery;

Rrrridin' along in my calaboose!
Still trying to get her belt a-loose!
All the way home I held a grudge -
For the safety belt that wouldn't budge!
Crusin' and playin' the radio!
With no particular place to go!

As with Jerry Lee Lewis, the idea of Chuck Berry holding a grudge is rather scary, but restrained in the comic-book world of his songs, the frustration is authentically comic and true to life.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Chic - I Want Your Love (1979/ No. 4/ 11 weeks/ Atlantic)

Hearing this song in its original March 1979 top ten context on Pick of the Pops is an instructive experience. Surrounding it are many records that I really like, and could easily write about instead (The Players Association, Squeeze, The Real Thing, Elvis Costello, Gloria Gaynor) but even so, this immediately stands apart, as a more serious and higher order of being than anything alongside it. Why should this be?

I'm not sure that there have ever been another group of musicians who I react to quite as deeply as I do with Chic. Is it the bass or the guitar that's leading the tune? The thing really is dependent on the interplay between them... Bernard Edwards' bassline seems to slow down time, make the experience more sonorous and make the song a really autonomous world that the listener is inhabiting - and then Nile Rogers' guitar keeps things moving, frisky. Both instruments are always playing to each other as much as combining to create a tune. You're following two different lines of feeling that are entwining around each other. And then the drumming gives the whole thing a pulse.

What is unique about this is that there is so much going on in this music, so much fascinating and joyous detail, and yet it seems so spacious and uncluttered. The arrangement is clever, too, strings, brass and bells are all thrillingly deployed but very sparingly used.

And what a song this is! You could perform it a capella and it would still be pretty devastating;

Do you feel ?
Like you ever want ?
To try my love ?
And see how well it fits?
Baby can't you see?
When you look at me
I can't kick this feelin'
When it hits
All alone
In my bed at night
I grab my pillow
And squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze it tight
I think of you
And I dream of you
All the time
What am I gonna do?

The song that supports all of this magnificence is so simple, so unembellished, that it is always an uneasy, personal thing to hear, no matter where or when you hear it, as if its being sung directly to you, or you're being made to imagine yourself singing it.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Sandie Shaw - Girl Don't Come (1964/ No. 3/ 12 weeks/ Pye)

This single demonstrates the largely-forgotten value of supa-concision in the construction of pop songs. In only just over two minutes the situation is set up;

"You have a date for half past eight tonight
Some distant bell starts chiming nine
You wanna see her...
You wanna see her, oh yeah!...
So you wait
You wait and wait...
Girl don't come..."

Verse swings into chorus in an instant! Just to rub it in, Shaw then expounds upon what you must be feeling;

"You've been stood up!
Tears fill your eyes! (oh oh oh)
You're hurt inside!
You wanna die! (oh oh oh)"

Yes, thank you, Sandie, that's highly accurate appraisal of the situation.

Something rather marvellous then happens in this song. Years of pop listening have attuned our minds to expect some kind of final act reversal - she turns up, apologising for being late, you see her with another man, that type of thing. Rather more interestingly 'Girl Don't Come' just stops dead. You know that she's not going to come. How much longer shall I stay here waiting? This absence of songwriterly embellishment is actually a lot more true to life, and makes this the definitive song about being stood up.

A word as well about the masterstroke of getting Sandie to sing this in the second person, addressed to a man. How much less engaging this song would be if she had to put personal empathy into singing it about herself. Instead, the rather blank and fierce delivery of a blank-faced striking Dagenham teenage beauty, certainly not overflowing with emotive empathy, accentuates the female inconsideration and harshness of the world as shown in the song.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Suzi Quatro - She's In Love With You (1979/ No. 11/ 9 weeks/ RAK)

1979? She was still having hits that late? Wholly deserved though. An interesting single for two reasons;

The sheer joyousness of the music -

"She's in love with you!
(bass goes dumdadalumdumdadalum! - drums go fump! clik!
That's all she wants to do!
(dumdadalumdumdadalum! fump! clik!)
She'll never let you down!
She'll never fool around!
Cos she's in love with you!
(dumdadalumdumdadalum! fump! clik!)"

- not to mention the masterstroke of the continuous Hammond organ drone, like Focus or the like.

It also has a deeper, lexical, fascination. Songs declaring somebody else's love are surprisingly rare - 'She Loves You' being is the obvious example - especially when you consider how integral "My mate fancies you" is to schooldays courtship. Suzi offers a lot of special pleading on behalf of the 'she' who she's lobbying for;

"So if you happen to be out one night
and someone asks you where you're gonna go
Just remember she's not like the other girls
she may not want them all to know
Though she may need a little time
she never wants to stand in line
the way they would
So treat her nice!
Treat her good!
Treat her like you know you should!
You may never find another girl like her"

The note of caution is always apparent. There is a real sense of lived experience, and misfortune, to the message. Suzi brilliantly manages to convey both the joy of the lovestruck girl, and the worldy wisdom of the woman who's been around.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Donna Summer - Down Deep Inside (1977/ No. 5/ 10 weeks/ Casablanca)

"Down deep inside
there's a place in me
I'm yearning to explore"

Written by John Barry, not Giorgio Moroder this time, but the great soundtrack man has learnt a trick or two from the disco king. All of the great Summer singles have an extraordinary effect on perception in replicating an altered state through tempo and instrumentation; 'Love To Love' ever more unfurling and internal and orgasmic, 'I Feel Love' with its combination of refraction and motorik movement replicating the dislocating moment when body, thoughts and feelings start to go out of synch with each other.

"something warm is turning inside of me"

'Deep' creates the sensation of feeling oceanic, swimming or sexual. The cricket chirps make it fussy and tropical, but then that central section where it all dissolves into aqueous dub before the strings re-emerge like the Titanic's bow port. And then the waves start to roar..

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

London Boys - Requiem (1988/ No. 4/ 21 weeks/ Warners)

Oh, poor dear departed London Boys, two huge hits in 1989, both dead in a car crash in 1996, forgotten in 2011.

This is gloriously crass mid-tempo Hi-NRG with a very effective contrast between the guttural Euro "rapping" and the speeded-up 1969 ballad choruses.

It sounds like an accelerated Yello, if such a thing were divinely possible.

It is crammed with diverse hooks which should jar horribly, but don't; the cathedral organ, the echoing and plangent desert guitar, the 'Johnny Remember Me' spectral chorus, the constant -

"Never gonna get enough
Never gonna get enough"

- and, underneath everything, the stammering "I - I - I - I love you”s, giving the song a vulnerability and heart that makes you feel that something is at stake.

I'm not entirely sure that they'd looked up the word requiem in the dictionary when they wrote it, but it doesn't matter because this is a great affirming YES! to life and love - performed by two sadly dead men.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Laura Branigan - Gloria (1982/ No. 6/ 13 weeks/ Atlantic)

Jarvis Cocker has clearly heard this song...

From the Guardian obituary of Laura Branigan (31st August 2004);

"Her first and biggest hit, in 1982, was the Grammy-nominated Gloria. It was an English language version of a then recent Italian hit sung by Umberto Tozzi composed by Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi. It was given an arrangement in the power ballad style pioneered in America by Pat Benatar and the music video of the song showed Branigan, in the spirit of the Eighties, in black spandex trousers and knee-high boots with a single discoball spinning above her head. Gloria remained in the United States top 40 for 22 weeks in 1982 and peaked at number two. It was also a British top 10 hit."

Only God and Italian speakers know what this song was about in the original version, but in translation, this might be the most berserk thing in pop history in translation;

Gloria (Gloria!)
I think they got your NUM-BER! (Gloria!)
I think they got the A-LI-AS! (Gloria!)
That you've been living UN-DER! (Gloria!)

Tremendous! And what happens to Gloria (is she on the run? Is she about to throw her youth away on an unworthy man?) is clearly of the utmost importance and significance Laura Branigan.

I know very few records as likely to cheer me up and take me out of myself as 'Gloria'.