Thursday, 31 March 2011

Barry White - Can't Get Enough Of Your Love Babe (1974/ No. 8/ 12 weeks/ Pye)

I often wonder if you'd approach Barry White records differently if you had no idea who he was. There always seemed to be an exceptionally large amount of baggage to get past, which stopped me from listening to him with open ears until I was well into my twenties; His enormous girth, the Vic Reeves character ("Throw that liver onto the fire, pet"), the moniker "the walrus of love", late eighties interviews when he'd say things like women shouldn't be surprised if they get raped when they wear tight dresses. Above all, the unabashed sensuality and complete preoccupation with sex can be wearing if you're not in the mood for it, and can sound like boasting unless you're listening quite carefully. I may have never been more embarrassed by a record than when a minicab driver was playing an eighties White album and that low voice promised "I'm gonna lick you up! I'm gonna lick you down! I'm gonna turn you over! And lick you round!"...

I was missing out on an awful lot though, specifically one of the greatest arrangers in the history of pop. Few people have known how to carry a mood over a whole orchestra as well as Barry White did. This orchestration complicates the lyrics and can make the experience of listening to White overwhelming slightly rapturous.

Can't get by opens with a massive "Shhhting!" sound that takes you into the singer's innermost reflections;

"I've heard people say that
'Too much of anything is not good for you, baby'
Oh no...
But I don't know about that
There's MANY times that we've loved
We've SHARED love and MADE love
It doesn't seem to me like it's enough...
There's just not enough of it...
There's just not enough...
Oh oh, babe!"

Note the tone of gospel testifying, the combination of salvation and sensuality at the heart of so much soul music. This spoken word passage also sets up something of a thesis that White explores for the rest of the song: Can you feel too much love? Need the feeling ever stop?

And this is where the arrangement comes in. The singers protestations that he can never get enough of your love (babe!) could easily lapse into bragging - this mood of more More! MORE! love needs to be measured, documented, by the instrumentation to give it lightness and an appealing tone.

The song is evergrowing, undulating, surging in a way that is as much like the swell of the tide as it is fleshy tumescence. A question that I often find myself considering when I listen to favourite records is what am I being encouraged to listen to here, apart from the vocals? It's obviously not guitars on a record like this, but neither is it the drums, which operate along a fantastically light tippytappyboppy rhythm, as in George McCrea's contemporaneous 'Rock Your Baby'.

Is it the piano? It's brilliant and underpins the thing, but it fades out for most of the time. The joy of this is that it makes you register the orchestra as a whole; the stabs of ecstacy and lightheaded amorousness are there in the flights of strings that then spill upwards with a harp, and its there in the spurts of brass, every detail seeming to give sound to a fresh epithany.

The other thing that is too often missed in Barry White's songs is that he does allow for the possibility of doubt. The inner semi-spoken voice does return in between the choruses;

"Tell me, what can I say?
What am I gonna do?
How should I feel when everything is you?
What kind of love is this that you're givin' me?
Is it in your kiss or just because you're sweet?"

Obviously, the chorus then refutes this doubt, with yet more of the caresses of your love (babe!). But it is there right in the DNA of the song, and this doubt and the precise evocation of feelings is what makes the joys seem hard-won and genuine.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Bill Wyman - (Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star (1981/ No. 14/ 9 weeks/ A & M)

"We could go on the 'ovvercraft
Across the wa'er
They'll think I'm yaw dad
And yaw my daw'er"

The Rolling Stones made two records in 1981 that have subsequently passed into cultural history. 'Start Me Up' is alleged to be some sort of classic, while this is some kind of national joke. Guess which one I prefer?

'Start Me Up' sounds like a mildewed vacuity to me, a collection of cliches that show they'd run out of ideas. 'Rock Star' however has a degree of emotional honesty and wit that is a lot more appealing. A day in the life of Bill Wyman: He picks up a Brazilian girl with lovely 'air in Trafalgar Square, attempts to dazzle her by taking her to Paris, but the airport staff are on strike (so 1981!).

The video - - is also something of a half-intentional comedy classic. A couple of years ago the style decisions of male undergraduate students in summer months frequently and unfortunately reminded me of Wyman's appearance in this, resplendent in reflective shades, pastel blue blazer and skinny tie, but this eighties fashion appears to be slightly on the wane amongst the young by now. Was it supposed to be ironic?

As a South London man with a grating voice myself, the flat dialect vocals are an exciting thing to hear! The music also reflects it's time; bass and synth!

Droll, deadpan and genuinely funny.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Objet Trouve

 Most of my books are second hand, and date back to generations before mine. I find that, as a reader, I have a different relationship with books that were read or owned by others before I was born; I feel more of a custodian than an owner, knowing that my possession of - and relationship with - the book will be as transitory as it was for its previous owners. 

 Marginalia leaves the most tangential proof of previous readers. Usually, it just takes the subtle forms of underlinings and corrections. Inscriptions are always more interesting, adding an imaginative element to the road that was first trodden by previous owners - when they attempted to read this, how successful a gift it might have been. Because most of my library is plays and books about the theatre, sometimes I come across the traces of previous productions, either witnessed by the previous reader (cast lists penciled in), or participated in by them (lines underlined, lighting plans set out in the back). 

 I have one book that offers a higher order of marginalia, though. My copy of Famous Plays of 1932-1933 (Gollancz, 1933) has four pages of personal notes to self in the last two blank pages and flyleaves of the book. The writing is scratchy but almost entirely decipherable, and the ink has faded to a sort of browny-green. I transcribe the passage for you without introduction. Where I couldn't make out words I've put how they read to me, rather than guessing what they might be;

"I will be an actress worth while.

I will be quite lovely to look at & surprisingly intelligent.

I will do things that are worthwhile & not frivolous my 19 20 years. 

I will concentrate on what I want, what I am doing and resolve to build some strong foundations for my future happiness, my families & everything connected with me. 

I will be useful and considerate in every way, yet not weakly so. I will develop my character and personality & do the things I believe in.

I will always keep a sense of proportion & fairness in everything & be helpful & understanding. 

I am 18, not unenleiesly looking and can look quite pretty, good disposition, shy & rather negative, undeveloped & unniative in a underali way for my age. Not at all sexual, a trifle idealistic & very imaginative lazy thro lack of initiative, occupied with material living, thinks deeply rarely yet intelligent, original inventive & creative in minor ways. Ambitions growing in a wish for bettering material living & mental knowledge, for making people who've made me happy happy.

Untruthful when a lie is the easiest way out & occasionally unscrupulous weak by nature yet determined to raise ative is anxious & be successful & be acknowledged as different and above the ordinary level, & work the way up. Enjoys work, desire to please and to be liked & minds what other people say too much. Has real knowledge of self in impersonal way. Acknowledges faults & advantages tries to emulate & expand & develop the good & commercial analytical gift amounting to point of psychological insights wonderment at life sustains & complete unbelief in faiths of civilisation. Certain amount of will power developing.
Gets on easily with other people & adapts to surroundings in useful way when not she's & self conscious. Dislike of unnecessary sordidness & unnecessary luxury. Belief in appreciation as basis of real happiness & friendship & love on a 50.50 foundation real understanding one of most valuable assets. Love of people & pity of els suffering & tragedy & real depth of feeling in that respect. More mental than physical feelings, nervous & not frightfully brave yet could be I'm sure. Love of children. Very reasonable, sensible & often level-headed able to sift what's good & bad for one anxious to learn yet inactive to obtain that learning excuse lazy nites of difficulties of circumstances thus lazy mind, unstimulated. Love of nature & terrific appreciation of beauty of nature.

Incredibly disastrously vague to point of rudeness, yet knowing it & hating it all this time. Sense that if reasonably intelligent & adaptable life can really be happy & enjoyable. Wish & desire to act & make people feel & to desire to act & make people feel & to inspire. Likes solitude to think rather than being a close contact with people. One isn't in sympathy with at all tho likes of a lot of friends & intensely fond of real friends."

 I bought this book for £2 in the Spread Eagle shop in Greenwich in 1996 - I miss the days when Greenwich still had junk shops in it! - so I was 23 when I came across her message.

 I have a pretty strong idea of the author and the circumstances of her writing this passage. I think that she was given the book for Christmas 1933, a suitable gift for a stagestruck girl. The passage reads to me like the thoughts of somebody who normally lives in the presence of other people and who finds herself alone for a while. Either her parents and siblings have left the house for a walk for an hour or so and left her to her own devices, or - most likely - she's been allowed to stay in the living room after everyone else has gone to bed, and has decided to set out her impressions of herself.

 I get an oddly mixed sense of this girl - her thoughts are often generic and timeless, but also a product of her time; the lack of a sexual sense of self, the feeling that the opportunities facing a girl coming into womanhood in the thirties are somewhat limited, the sense that something more should be open to her. Its hard to tell how much of this is wishful thinking, invented character, and how much of it is the personality that she will eventually become. The sense of knowing too little and feeling too much, the great avowal of the importance of friendship is very particular to adolescence, and is strongly - and to some extent unwittingly - revealed by this girl.

 I wonder who she thought she was writing for? There's a different set of expectations inherent to the act of writing in a book than there are in writing a diary. The diary carries a specific set of cultural expectations; it is private, reading somebody else's diary is either a violation or an entrusting. While writing in a book is more of an act of offering a bit of yourself for fate. Either this girl was writing because she wanted to surprise herself decades hence, to discover her girl self as a woman and feel that she had remained true to her teenage feelings and avowals; or she hoped for someone else in the unimaginably far future to meet her as she was then. And it came to pass, too - me in 1996.

 I calculate that she was born in 1915. She surely can't still be alive now, but I felt that she was when I came across her words, about sixty-three years after she wrote them. I'm pretty convinced that she didn't become an actress, but I'd imagine that - subject to the Second World War and the eternal vagaries of fate - she became a wife and mother, the usual way of the world, leaving her legacy for posterity in more tangible but impermanent things than the words that she left for me to discover in another age.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Donna Summer - I Feel Love (1977/ No. 1/ 26 weeks/ GTO)


Here’s a question that might help us rethink this song from a different perspective: Does feeling love actually feel like ‘I Feel Love’?


Two things are going on with the music here; There’s the internal mind, locked on one enticing thought ad infinatum, refracted and repeated again and again, each time very slightly different through the tone having slightly altered. And then there’s the tremendous sense of incessant forward motion, due to the motoric thing, which feels as much to me like driving or train travel as dancing.



The combination of these two things; inner thought and feeling, combined with bodily movement make this an really intense experience to listen to, either on a dancefloor or on headphones, even on the tinniest of transistors.


It manages to convey something of the first sense of dislocation (not dehumanisation), when you are aware that your body, thoughts and feelings are starting to be out of synch with each other. When you don’t fully know what you’re doing anymore, but are keeping things together by still really concentrating on what you are doing. Becoming drunk is probably the most obvious example of this, but some sorts of breakdowns also produce the same sensation, as indeed does surrendering a large part of your own control to the presence and actions of a loved other.


So yes, the sensation of feeling love internally is physically quite a lot like this record.



It’s astonishing, and it never stops being so.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Kate Bush - Breathing (1980/ No. 16/ 7 weeks/ EMI)

"Last night in the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep
In, out, in, out, in, out"

You can do anything with pop music and still find an audience. To remind you: This is a song sung from the point of view of a foetus in the womb of a - possibly already dead - mother in the immediate wake of a nuclear holocaust. A top 20 smash!

I think that perhaps the thing that I love about this most is how imaginatively it manages to convey both the womb and the fall-out; Through heartbeat rhythms, through samples, through screaming, through backing vocals formed as questions, and most of all through tone, both songwriterly tone of verse/chorus changing perspectives and narrative, and pure tactile textural tone of backing drone and hum.

Both terrifying and inspiring, it is – like many great works of art - elemental and about the value of existence.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Yvonne Fair - It Should Have Been Me (1976/ No. 5/ 11 weeks/ Motown)

The period trappings lead you to expect something rather different, a classy lovers' thing. It starts off with a George MacRae ticky-ticky shuffling beat, a cymbal periodically tshing away as in one of Isaac Hayes' epic meditations, the strings sounding a lot like Barry White.

However, the incorporation of wedding bells suggests that this might be more sentimental than such songs normally are.

And then the voice comes in;

"I saw my love
Walking down the aisle
And as he passed me by
He turned to me and
Gave me a smile..."

We know from this information that this isn't a happy situation, but already the vocals carry something that we didn't expect, enormous strength and control. From the moment that the voice comes in, the seemingly smooth trappings of the song become incredibly tense, snares and cracks. The first chorus of hurt breaks out from the voice with a tremendous disruptive force;

"The preacher joined their hands
and all the people..."

the people"

The repetition of "people"sounds dangerous here;

"began to stand

Capitalisation can't really convey the absolute force of this shift;


By rights, the song - and quite possibly the entire world - should stop at this point. That the song continues, in the same measured arrangement, leads me to start to speculate that it might be telling the story of an out of body experience, the body still functioning normally and the singer in reality still behaving sensibly, in the face of supertraumatic shock at the sheer injustice of it all.

But oh no! The second chorus leaves us in no doubt that all of this is really happening;

"Then the preacher..
whoa, yeah...
The preacher asked that
There be silence please"

This request does seem to indicate that a scene has already been made;

"If any objections to this wedding
Speak now or forever...
Forever hold your peace"

(The slightly more measured and reasonable delivery of the preacher's line is magnificent characterisation, by the way. This isn't really a song about anything other than the singer's wounded feelings, yet the actuality of the church is still established)

With some horror, we now know what's coming up next. Amazingly it occurs with twice the force that it did before;

"And I stood up and said
Jumped out of my seat and SCREEEAAMED


"Oh ho somebody call the police...
That woman down there -

You don't doubt that the police are going to arrive, but the bride isn't the woman who they are going to arrest. Nor do you doubt the rightness of the spurned woman's cause.

Life can be so unfair sometimes.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

T-Connection - Do What You Wanna Do (1977/ No. 11/ 8 weeks/ TK)

Disco-funk! Now there's an enticing prospect!

A tricky one too, though, if you think about it, especially in 1977 when attempting such a fusion was an expedition into pretty much uncharted musical territory. The triumphant success of the obscure T-Connection (from Nassau, 'Funky Nassau'!) in combining the muscle of the one and the gleam of the other resulted in a real evergreen Billy favourite, one of the handful of singles that I have been playing continually over the last 15 years.

You couldn't really describe it as much of a song, more a series of occasional carpe diem phrases to drape around the hooks;

You've only got one life - So live it COOL! (Heh!)

In this world of strife - You can't be a FOOL!

The chorus cleverly doubles as a message of personal empowerment, and a lascivious invitation;

Don't let nobowdy tell ya what to do -

Ya gotta be ya judge and jury too!

(Doo Doo Duh Duh Doo Doo Duh!)

Don't let nowbody tell ya what to do -

Uuuh! -

Ya gotta be ya judge and jury too!

(Da Doodah! Doodah!)

All right...

Do what ya wanna do!

I'm gonna do, yeah...

Judge and tha jury too!

I'm gonna do, yeah...

Do what ya wanna do!

Judge and tha jury too!

Its one of those adorably long records that feels as though it could stretch out infinitely and provides a real test to dance to. It takes a few listens for you to remember how it progresses and think through appropriate moves for each bit. Its based around some crisscrossy geometric patterns in the form of some basslines where the tempos quicken and quicken and get more and more exciting to follow, the listener in a state of tense wonderment at how time is being stretched. The spacious-seeming pattern allows all sorts of teasing deviation to happen underneath it though, like crossing over an iron bridge and seeing the ripples of the river through the parallel struts. Over the seven minutes of the T-Connection journey the listener passes through a wuzzybuzzy wah-wah guitar solo, a squelching moog, an overwrought electric piano, a tappytoppy drum solo, even a swarm of bicycle bells.

With so much occurring over seven minutes, its quite a challenge to dance to this - but you feel compelled to keep on moving once its started. Like going on a run, you realise that the process of physical response to this record might be quite punishing, but will give you a real rush of endorphins that builds and builds the further and further you get through it. Also note the orgasmic moment when the music gives way to a collective exhausted "WOOOH!"

As with so many great singles, the draw of 'Do What You Wanna Do' is down to a series of paradoxes. The geometric arrangement is both harsh and very attractive, bold and detailed. The glacial line that runs through the thing guides the listener along an experience of tremendous spirit and yearning. The combination of glitter and sweat offers an intense and ecstatic experience for any listener prepared to submit themselves to T-Connection's spell.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Doris Day - Move Over Darling (1964/ No. 8/ 16 weeks/ CBS)

Its slightly surprising to discover that Doris Day had a hit as late as 1964, by which time she was already forty, and had been out of the charts for five years. 'Move Over Darling' is a wonderfully timely performance, though, playing to all of her strengths as a singer, but transplanting them into a recognisably 1960s setting.

Much of the credit for this has to go to her uncredited female backing singers, The Blossoms, who sound like they could be working for Phil Spector. The record is a masterclass in how to use supporting vocals, with the singer's every thought reinforced by The Blossoms, who in turn subconsciously suggest ideas and sensations to her, emotions which Day then goes on to articulate as if they've just come into her mind. Crucially, the arrangement has enough confidence that the listener is paying attention to put these phrases far apart from each other in the song, making it something more subtle and convincing than simple call and response. So the first verse is shared;

Our lips shouldn’t touch...

(Blossoms: Move over darling!)

I like it too much...

(Blossoms: Move over darling!)

That gleam - in your eyes - is no big surprise any-more
Cos you fooled me before!

Then, two verses later, the phrase crosses over from The Blossoms to Doris Day;

(Blossoms: I yearn to be kissed...)

Move over darling!

(Blossoms: How can I resist?)

Move over darling!
You've captured my heart, and now that I’m no longer free...

Doris Day's phrasing is brilliant there, with the first "move over darling" sung in a low, comic register, while the second is high and playful, both carrying a palpable, but different, sort of laugh within them. This a really sexy record, teasing and seductive in a way that can only come with middle-aged know-how. Some of the seductiveness comes through giving the listener a privileged sensation that she's acting out of character, succumbing to temptation, just for his benefit;

Though it’s not right -
I’m too weak to fight - it some-how
Cos I want you right now!
The way... you sigh..
has me way-ving my conscience bye-bye...

An emphasis on vulnerability that also makes the listener more sympathetic towards her - Is this wise? I know that its enticing! All of this flood of intensity through the body is working towards the release of tension that comes after it. The short song is already starting to fade, when we get to the pay-off;

Make love to me!

Which is then repeated three times. It sounds stately and triumphant. Its also helped by its position in time - 'making love' means billing and cooing when sung in 1950s pop songs, and fucking in 1970s ones. The maturity of the singer and her performance makes it something more ambiguous at this precise point in time, suitable for a magnificently tantalising and tingly song.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Rocksteady Crew - Hey You The Rocksteady Crew (1983/ No. 6/ 12 weeks/ Virgin)


To fully enjoy this song it probably helps to have been eleven in 1983, but its vivacity and joie de vivre are such that it manages to transcend it's very precise period detail.

Heralded by an appearance of the Rock Steady Crew on Blue Peter, it was like being visited by a new planet of entertainers - They span around on the floor! (Was this safe?) They pushed records back when they were playing! (Were they some kind of vandals?) Soon the bolder ones of us were attempting to emulate this breakdancing craze.

"Hey - you - the Rock Steady Crew!
Show what you do, make a break, make a move -
Hey - you - the Rock Steady Crew!
B-boys, breakers, electric boogaloo"

The music and construction of this is just fantastic. The persistent submarine style bleep that is batted back and forth, the way that the synth seems to unwind and rumble before the single springs back to life once again...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Enza - Scene Seven.

This isn't going to make much sense unless you start reading from the beginning - Enza - Scene One.


(The sanatorium gardens. Herbert is moving slowly, and with great exertion, on crutches towards the bench. It is the first time that he has been outdoors for some months. Winter sunlight. Mavis walks by his side, coaxing and guarding him.)


MAVIS. English sun, too, Mr. Inglis. English sun and the time and peace to enjoy it. When did you last have that?

HERBERT. Over two years… was it? Mr. Asquith was still our prime minister at the time, anyway.

MAVIS. That seems like a long time ago, now. You weren’t bothered about not voting in the election?

HERBERT. I don’t bother about things like that. Will you ever vote, do you think, Nurse?

MAVIS. You can call me Mave now that Matron can’t hear us, Herbert. I’ve got better things to worry about than the government. I suppose if they did ever give me a vote I suppose I’d use it once, just to see what its like. Nurse Taylor gets cross about votes for women sometimes. I don’t really listen to her.

HERBERT. Phyllis… You did say. You have seen her?

MAVIS. Haven’t seen her yet today. But it has been arranged, yes. She should be out in a minute and I ought to go back. How many more steps do you think that you can manage?

HERBERT. A hundred!

(He attempts to walk with a jaunty gaiety that he has not yet recovered sufficiently enough to achieve.)

MAVIS. Don’t be silly. Here, let’s sit you down Private Inglis. Is that satisfactory?

HERBERT. Perfectly.

MAVIS. Well, I ought to be getting back by now, if I want Matron not to bite my head off, but Nurse Taylor will be out in a minute or two, and she’ll take you back in after a while.

HERBERT. Thank you. Thank you for everything, Mave.

(Exit Mavis. Herbert waits in the sun.)


Friday, 18 March 2011

Lonnie Gordon - Happenin' All Over Again (1990/ No. 4/ 10 weeks/ Supreme)

Perhaps the greatest record that Stock, Aitken and Waterman ever made. You can certainly tell that its one of their prestige productions, when they're really pull out all of the stops in order to make a classic single. Although the SAW formula was always enjoyable, there are a lot of lesser works where you can tell that they're working on autopilot; a verse that doesn't go anywhere, an unattractive blare of synthi-horns.

Perhaps this is because in this instance they're creating a dance (pop-house) record, which therefore had to be absolutely of the (January 1990) moment and carry a certain club credibility. It owes a lot to contemporary Italia house, and is therefore inspired by 'Ride On Time' by Black Box, the sound of Summer 1989. If you're making a record that's indebted to one of the most exciting singles in pop history, you've got to be really good! There's tremendous charm about the arrangement, especially in the way that it combines pleasing machine powered effects; jets of steam, pumping noises. There are also spot-on atmospheric 1990 embellishments - yelps of "whoo" and "whee" in the mix. (The type of thing that provoked my 17-year old muso distrust, I'm embarrassed to recollect.)

The thing that really made the writer-producers raise their game here was that they were working with a singer who totally knew her chops. Lonnie Gordon came from the Bronx, sang in clubs, had moved to the UK, and become the first-choice house diva to call upon for any number of acts by the late 1980s. The degree of passion in this performance, realised in ecstatic wailing and screaming, overwhelms the framework of the arrangement and is the thing about the song that you always remember first, which isn't something that you could say about the usual SAW roster; Sonia, Bananarama, Rick Astley, etc.

It tells a familiar story of returning to an unsatisfactory boyfriend against your better instincts... but then, Hey! What can you do?

I prom-ised tu my-self...
I'd neev-uh mayke the same mis-takes a-gen
(same mistakes...)
And though I look for some-one else...
I nev-ah really waaahnt tu walk away

It seems
that your
just the SAME
I forgot
all the PAIN
Look in your - eyes!
you said -

then you -
Broke-my-heart-and -
when you
Said you
nev-er!-could -
LEAVE me !
But-its -

The first two minutes of verse/chorusry is fab, but, once you know the record, acts as foreplay in anticipation of the extended chorus/ bridge/ reprise that the you know its leading towards: an extended section of multiple Lonnies exploring the situation from every possible vocal perspective. The effect of this section on the listener is deliriously exciting.

Several things happen simultaneously. Lonnie reiterates "Happ-nin'!-all-O-ver-AGAIN!" what feels like a million times, but she also magically appears in another place, holding the note of "Agaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaain!" for an eon. Backing vox (some of whom sound a lot like Kylie Minogue to me) counterpoint the ecstasy of Lonnie's voice with an undertone of "BELIEVE", "DECEIVE" and "LEAVE". Lonnie protests "No! No! No!" and then we're in the breakdown bit, where a seductive analogue house bassline strokes the listener while Lonnie breaks free of language - "OH!WOOOAHWAH!" - the structure of the song no longer able to support the overpowering emotion.

Although the lyrics of this are perfectly fine, its one of those singles that you respond to very much as a record, rather than as a song. It comes on and you instinctively throw yourself into it. You have to rush onto the dancefloor for this one! It offers such pleasure that it's just what you do. Which is very much in keeping with the pattern of returning to an unreliable boyfriend once again. BELIEVE me! Its Happ-nin'!-all-O-ver-AGAIN!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Manfred Mann - Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James (1966/ No. 2/ 12 weeks/ Fontana)

For a band with such a jovial and lighthearted image, the Manfreds convey the unattractive bitter sarcasm of a rejected man with remarkable conviction here.

Its also not a single that ponces about in getting to the point. We get a Morse code flourish of woodwind, and the situation is immediately set up;

There's an unconcealed quality to Mike D'Abo's vocal on this single. Right from the start, every single note of querulousness that can possibly be emphasised is;

I was SORR-EEE to HEAR you SAY -
you're gonna be HIS not MI-INE!

This styling is in part the ubiquitous influence of Bob Dylan, and in part D'Abo's South African background. It does a rather better job of convincing you of the strength of the singer's feelings than it does of persuading you - let alone the fiance - of his case;

Do you THINK? you WILL? be HAP-PY?

(this next line delivered in rather a fey, mocking, tone)

For your semi-detached suburban Mr JAMES?

There are two tactics being employed simultaneously by the spurned singer here. The first is a rather heavy-handed satirical swipe at suburban mores; "Do you THINK? you WILL? be HAP-PY? BUTTERING? the TOAST?" or "taking DOGGIE? for a WALK?". The only time that this might possibly hit home is in the middle eight, where D'Abo tries to persuade her that she'll be wasting her life as a housewife;

I can see you in the morning time...
Washing day, the weather's fine...
Hanging things upon the line ...
And as your life slips away... ay!... ay!... (yeah...)

This type of imagery has an unintentionally romantic and wistful pull on a listener of my age, evoking how a small child in the 1970s would see the life of his parents. See also 'Shangri-La' by The Kinks or 'Good Morning Good Morning' by The Beatles for more of this sort of thing.

The second part of the singers argument is more persuasive, but only implicit in the song. The singer positions himself as a much more virile figure than the rather effete fiancee;

So you FINAL-EE GOT! your MAN!
you WON'T -
He can't LOVE-YOU the WAY! I CAN!
FOR-GET it...

He's not just calling Mr James semi-detached because of the marital home that he can provide, but because he can never offer the carnal attraction that the singer can. This dichotomy is accentuated by the arrangement of the final verse and fade-out, where the backing vocals for the impending wedding are all ascetic churchy chorals, while the mocking repetition of "Semi-detached suburban Mr James" are underscored by a great blare of grinding urgesome keyboard distortion.

It's just struck me that '59 Lyndhurst Grove' by Pulp is a variation of this song, sung about the same sort of people if they'd been born twenty years later.

This song leaves me wondering where the protagonists would be now. All three people would now be in between about 65 and 70. If Mr James (who, incidentally sounds like the sort of son-in-law that parents hope for) and his wife had stayed together they'd have grandchildren by now. Mrs James might feel that she's missed out on something in her life and through marrying young, but feel that she'd gained more than she'd lost through it. The singer, though... Either he'd still be complaining about how that stupid bitch had sold herself short 45 years ago or would have forgotten her completely. On balance, I think that the second option would be more likely, but makes for a less satisfactory narrative. Either way, I'd much rather meet Mr and Mrs James than him.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Enza - Scene Six.

This isn't going to make much sense unless you start reading from the beginning - Enza - Scene One.

(Back to the sterile place. Mr. Stokoe and Ms. Bullock return. Ms. Bullock has been given a packet of herbal teas)

BULLOCK. Are you sure that it’s alright for me to take them?

STOKOE. Yes, go ahead. They’ve only been hanging around for a year. I don’t know who it was that thought that we’d want to drink elderflower tea in the first place.

BULLOCK. Do you think that you’re okay with this now?

STOKOE. Oh. Yes. I just… She… A corpse ought to look more decomposed than that, I feel.



STOKOE. Here are the gloves.

(The gloves are long, veterinary-style ones.)

STOKOE. Wash your hands in the fluid?

BULLOCK. (Smelling her hands with displeasure) Mm. It must be eighty-five years since someone last touched her. Wonder what she must think about all of this?

STOKOE. She doesn’t know, does she? I’m sure that she never anticipated something like this was going to happen to her, when she was still alive. She’s dead, Ms. Bullock. She just looks alive. But look at her - look how waxy and rigid the flesh is, look how lank the hair is.
There’s no gleam in her eye. She’s not really here.

BULLOCK. We should respect her wishes.

STOKOE. We don’t know what her wishes are. She can’t tell us.

BULLOCK. She lived here, she was a nurse. I suppose that she must have had some sense of duty.

(Stokoe fetches a new, sterilised plastic case in which to store Phyllis’ clothing. He removes its protective covering and carefully places it at the foot of the coffin. He takes out a plastic body bag from its protective wrapping, unfolds it, unzips it and places it alongside the coffin.
He starts to strip the corpse in silence, occasionally pointing to Bullock to assist him. He handles the body more expertly and with greater care than Bullock. They remove Phyllis’ left shoe and he puts it into the box. They remove Phyllis’ right shoe and he puts it into the box.
He motions to Bullock to assist him in lifting Phyllis out of the coffin.)

STOKOE. Lay her out on the plastic.

(They lay out Phyllis onto the body bag. Stokoe turns her onto her side, and they start to remove her funeral dress. This is a complex and slow procedure as Stokoe is unfamiliar with handling such a garment and Bullock is not used to handling a corpse. Stokoe gently folds the dress and puts it into the box. Now that Phyllis is in her underclothes, the pair hover around the body and momentarily consider their next action.)

Next -
Enza - Scene Seven.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Four Seasons - Silver Star (1976/ No. 3/ 9 weeks/ Warners)

An interesting triptych structure here. The slow middle section is a heartbreaking capitulation to broken dreams and the humdrum;

"They gave me a 9 to 5, honey
Ain't livin' but I'm alive, honey
Sure cut me down to size
They gave me the second prize"

Either side of this comes the release. The lyrics are fantasies of a sublime old Hollywood silver screen life, but the music is disco, even a kind of prehistoric house; flamenco guitars, flourishing and rollicking piano, helium harmonies, moog squelches, bounding exploratory bass...

"Leading ladies in warm embraces,
Ecstasy on their faces"

It could be an interesting drug as much as a daydream. The exalted unreal gets the singer through the crushingly mundane. (The full length minute album version is dificult to find - my copy jumps, and its never been on CD - but is incredible)

Monday, 14 March 2011

Keith West - Excerpt From 'A Teenage Opera' (1967/ No. 2/ 15 weeks/ Parlophone)

Despite the title, there can't have been many hits of the day that chime less with teenage concerns than this tale of the death of an octogenarian grocer and its effect upon his customers. Its not really that operatic either, but it is an oddly structured song, feeling more like a collection of fanfares and middle-eights than something which organically flows.

This sense of oddness is inherent to the tone of the piece, which keeps shifting from sarcastic to empathetic. Some of this must stem from Keith West himself, commandeered away from his day job in psychedelic scenesters Tomorrow (of 'My White Bicycle' fame) into singing this pop project, and uncomfortable interpreting this material.

Consider the first verse. Heralded by a rinkytink harpsichord and an orchestral fanfare. It starts with pathos;

"Count the days into years...
His eighty-two bring many fears.
Yesterday's laughter turns to tears..."

And then switches uptempo into a rather gleeful description of a heart attack, with Bob Dylan enunciation;

"His arms and LEGS!
Don't feel too STRONG!
His heart is WEAK!
There's something WRONG!
O-pens win-dows in despair!
Tries to breathe-in some fresh air!"

(fifteen years later, Madness cribbed this section, and built one of their best songs around it - 'Cardiac Arrest')

And then the lyric turns back to sketch some of the character

"His conscience cries -
'Get on your FEET!
Without you, Jack
the town can't EAT!"

The conscience then takes over the chorus, seemingly mocking him.

"Grocer Jack! Grocer Jack!
Get off your back!
Go into town.
Don't let then down...
Oh no-oo-oo!"

The second verse shows us Jack's place within the life of the town. The housewives don't understand why Jack hasn't turned up, and they'll give him hell when he does. I often think that this section of the song owes an awful lot to The Beatles contemporaneous 'Good Morning Good Morning'

"Husbands MOAN!
at breakfast ta-bles -
No milk!
No eggs!
No marmalade labels!"

If you're over about 35, this record acts as a very evocative lament for old school grocers, by the way... And then the masterstroke comes in, what makes this record unforgettable even after your first hearing;

"Mothers send their children OUT!
To Jack's HOUSE!
To scream and SHOUT!"

Yes, the chorus is sung by a choir of urchin children;

Oh no no!"

The three verses have a thesis - antithesis - synthesis structure, as Jack and the townspeople are brought together by his funeral.

"A Sunday morning, bright and clear.
Lovely flowers dec-o-rate a marvelous square.
People CRY!
And walk AWAY!
Think a-BOUT
The fateful DAY!
Now they wish they'd given Jack
More attention and respect"

The heavenly choir of backing vocals that has been lurking in the background of the song really start to cut free at this point, lifting Grocer Jack into the After-world. And then the children return;

"The little children
dressed in BLACK!
Don't know what's happened
to old JACK!


The cumulative effect of this final chorus being sung by the children, the heavenly backing vocalists and Keith West - plus the returning trumpet fanfare accompanying then - is really quite overpowering. Its a bold record that insists upon dropping you into the world of Grocer Jack, and it can't possibly function as background listening.

(the 'Teenage Opera' project was never completed. A second single, 'Sam' got to number 38 in the Christmas charts of 1967. The story of an engine driver who has to leave a town, and is only missed by the town's children, it, um, bears some similarities with its predecessor, although it is also rather fantastic)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Enza - Scene Five.

This isn't going to make much sense unless you start reading from the beginning - Enza - Scene One.

(Mrs. Taylor and Maude at home.)

MAUDE. When’s my tea?

MRS. TAYLOR. When it’s good and ready and your father gets home, that’s when. And you can count yourself lucky to be given any, my girl. Your father and I are still very angry with you.

MAUDE. Nobody told me that I couldn’t go out at night.

MRS. TAYLOR. I should think not, too! We’d have thought that you’d have had more sense than to want to. We’ve never forbidden you from lying in front of a steamroller, neither, but you know full well enough that you’re not supposed to.

MAUDE. I’m hungry. When did father say that he was coming, then?

MRS. TAYLOR. Half past six, I think. It is Wednesday today, isn’t it?

MAUDE. No, Mother, it’s Thursday! Don’t you even know what day it is?

MRS. TAYLOR. No, I don’t, child. It’s only when you’re at school or at work that it matters very
much what day it is. Oh, bother! Now I’ve got everything ready for half past six. Bother, bother! It’ll spoil, too. You’ll have to go out and fetch him.

MAUDE. You want me to go out into the cold and dark?

MRS. TAYLOR. Yes, try and be quick.

MAUDE. But you just said that you didn’t approve of me going out at night.

MRS. TAYLOR. I’m not going to rise to your bait, young lady.

MAUDE. I might get lost in the fog.

MRS. TAYLOR. On the High Street? I don’t think so.

MAUDE. But I’ve got homework.

MRS. TAYLOR. Never known you bother about that before. Now you know that your father will
either be in the Railway Tavern or The Pipers, so it’ll only take a quarter of an hour or so.

MAUDE. You expect me to go into pubs? They will be full of drunkenness and wickedness.

MRS. TAYLOR. No, your father will be smoking a cigar with the other clerks from the foundry in a table in the corner, talking about the price of machinery. Now do go, dear, and let me get on with my cooking.

(Exit Mrs. Taylor. Maude sticks out her tongue and amuses herself, displaying little intention of leaving the house. Phyllis arrives home. She wearily notices the presence of Maude and removes her hat, coat and gloves. She sits down and looks at the torn glove for a while)

MAUDE. Good evening!


(Phyllis puts the gloves to one side and decides to pick up her book instead. Maude stares at her throughout)

MAUDE. A cat may look at a king, you know.

PHYLLIS. I see that you’ve managed to stay indoors for once.

MAUDE. I see that you’re in a bad mood again.

PHYLLIS. I’m just tired, Maude. Can’t you leave me alone for once?

MAUDE. Sorry, I’m sure. What’s that you’re reading?

PHYLLIS. Not telling.

MAUDE. Why - is it rude?

PHYLLIS. No - because you’re not really interested.

(Maude takes the book.)

PHYLLIS. Oh give it back, you horrible girl!

MAUDE. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett”. What’s that about, then?

PHYLLIS. Oh, these two sisters. Let me have it back, please, Maude. I want to finish this chapter.

MAUDE. Two sisters. That could be interesting. What do they do?

PHYLLIS. One of them elopes to Paris with an unsuitable man and the other one has to stay in
Stoke-on-Trent and run their family’s shop, since you ask. Now, do leave me alone.

MAUDE. Huh! Only half of that sounds worth reading. You’re strange.

PHYLLIS. Oh really? I’m sure that you’re going to tell me why.

MAUDE. Because you don’t have to read books once you’ve left school.

Do a favour for me.

I said, do a favour for me.

PHYLLIS. Maude, I’m not listening to you. I just want some peace and quiet. Go and tease Caroline or something if you’re bored.

MAUDE. Can’t. She’s gone to the Slaters

PHYLLIS. Have they had their new baby yet?

MAUDE. Yes - for a week- A boy called Andrew.

PHYLLIS. Good. Why don’t you go and see him, too, then?

MAUDE. Babies are stupid.

Do a favour for me.


(Maude sticks out her tongue. Phyllis sighs and covers her ears with her hands.)

MAUDE. (sings) My sis-ter is an ugly old maid.
My sis-ter is an ugly old maid.
My sis-ter is an ugly old maid.
Ev-ry-bo-dy hates her.

(No response. After a while, Phyllis has to take her hand off her ear to turn a page. Instantly-)

MAUDE. Do a favour for me. Phyllis? Pleasepleaseplease!

PHYLLIS. Nonono.

(Phyllis continues to attempt to read but her concentration is now broken. After a while,
Maude waves her hands between Phyllis’ face and the book. Phyllis closes her eyes and curls forward.)

PHYLLIS. Owwwwwh!

(Eventually, Phyllis uncurls back up into an erect posture, takes her hands away from her ears and looks at Maude with an expression of infinite weariness.)


MAUDE. Why doesn’t anybody we know die of the ‘flu? Anna Briggs was walking to school yesterday, and she saw a milkman die in the street. Why can’t I get to see things like that? It’s not fair!

PHYLLIS. Maude! Even you would get upset if you saw somebody die in front of you!

MAUDE. At least it would be something exciting.

PHYLLIS. If you became a nurse you’d discover that the novelty soon wears off.

MAUDE. I s’pose that you’ve seen people die of it, then?


MAUDE. What’s it like?

PHYLLIS. They get hot, their face turns maroon, they fall over and die. Stop grinning! It’s not very pleasant.

MAUDE. That’s how I’d like to die.

PHYLLIS. No you wouldn’t. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You want to die like everybody does: painlessly, in your sleep, when you’re old. Oh, why am I talking to you?

MAUDE. No. I want to know when I’m dying. And I want everybody to see me die and everyone to be appalled, like I was – Archduke Franz Ferdinand!

PHYLLIS. You want somebody to shoot you?

MAUDE. Maybe not. But I’d like everybody to know when I die. I’d like to upset everybody.

(Maude performs dying feint.)

MAUDE. Oh! Oh! Help me!

PHYLLIS. Oh, get up.

MAUDE. No, no. I do feel faint. Perhaps I’m coming down with something.

PHYLLIS. What’s the matter with you?

MAUDE. Err - I’ve got a headache.

PHYLLIS. No, you haven’t.

MAUDE. I’ve got a headache!

PHYLLIS. You are a headache.

MAUDE. Nurse! Nurse! I’ve got a headache!

PHYLLIS. If you really were ill you’d want to go to bed and be quiet and still. And if you really
were ill everybody would be glad, because you’d be out of our way, and meek and humble and appreciative, and not the mean and spiteful little slut spoiling everybody’s lives that you are. So go to bed, and I don’t care if you’re ill or not.

(Exit Maude, pouting. Phyllis reopens book, stares blankly at pages. Examines her chilblained fingers. Re-enter Mrs. Taylor, distracted.)

MRS. TAYLOR. Hello. Good, you’re back and she’s gone.

PHYLLIS. Caroline? She said that she was going to the Slaters after school tonight, to see their new baby. She’s not late back yet, is she?

MRS. TAYLOR. No, Maude!

PHYLLIS. She’s in - She’s just gone to bed.

MRS. TAYLOR. Well, whatever for?

PHYLLIS. She claims to have a headache.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh, that minx!

PHYLLIS. What’s she done now?

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh, I asked her! We’re too good to her! I asked her very kindly to go and fetch
your father for his dinner. She won’t even do the simplest thing to be of assistance.

PHYLLIS. Beat some sense into her.

MRS. TAYLOR. Now, my girl - You know that that’s not how civilised people do things.

PHYLLIS. She’d probably hit you back, anyway.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh, that disobedient nuisance! She won’t do the tiniest thing to help.

PHYLLIS. I’ll go and tell her to find him, then. You don’t want to let her get away with things.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh well, though - if she says she’s got a headache -

PHYLLIS. But she hasn’t! She’s jumping about like a kitten. She just refuses to put herself out for anybody. I’ll make her do it.

MRS. TAYLOR. No, no - I’d rather you didn’t, dear. If she says that she’s got a headache.
We can’t take any risks these days.

PHYLLIS. That girl needs to be told what to do.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh yes, I know - I do know that you’re right, dear. But sending a child who says that she feels ill out into the fog… I could never forgive myself if she caught a chill and got the influenza.

PHYLLIS. My sister is indestructible.

MRS. TAYLOR. Just imagine how awful it would be if she died!


Well, I’m sure that my father can find his way home.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh, we have to fetch him. It’s Thursday today and I thought that it was Wednesday. His dinner will be spoiled if he doesn’t get home in time. Oh, he would be cross if his dinner was spoiled. You’ll have to do it, I’m afraid.

PHYLLIS. (slowly and exhaustedly) Of course. I’ll do it. Maude must stay indoors.

MRS. TAYLOR. Oh good. That’s a relief. You needn’t lay the table tonight. I’ll just make the gravy.

(Mrs Taylor leaves. Phyllis slowly gets up and puts her book to one side. She gets her coat.)

MRS. TAYLOR. (Off) Phyllis? He should be in the Railway Tavern!

(Phyllis puts on her coat. She puts on her hat. She puts on her gloves, examining the seam of the torn one with displeasure and leaves)

Next -
Enza - Scene Six.