Thursday, April 6, 2017

Searching For Light: Jimmy Ruffin: "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"

"I'm outspoken, I wasn't part of the clique." - Jimmy Ruffin

You may well be wondering what a Motown song from 1966 is doing in the 1974 chart, but as it stands, British radio has had its struggles with Motown for some time. 

In 1966, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" got to #10, at the point late in the year where the tide for new, interesting music was turning from the UK and back to the US; just months before the pirate stations were to close, and Radio One was to begin.  In the late 60s a reissue series of Motown singles that were never big hits when they were first issued began via Dave Godin*, who worked for the distribution arm for Motown in the UK; and Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman were only too happy to play these alongside the fresh Motown songs, in a belief that these songs deserved more airplay, sales and general respect.**

This song was rereleased (possibly by Godin; I am not sure of this) and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, #4 on the UK chart.  Which is only right for such a (and I don't use this word loosely) majestic song

And yet it has, as I keep thinking, something a bit rough about it too.  Ruffin grew up poor, singing in the church alongside his brother David, and went into the army for a time, then worked in a factory, and after an injury took up work at Motown, singing for sessions, doing singles that were on the Motown subsidiary Miracle, while his brother joined The Temptations (a job he had turned down).  He heard this song, written by William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean, and heard The Spinners were to record it - the song resonated with him, and he managed to convince them that he should record it instead. 

Though not on the single version, there is a spoken introduction:

A world filled with love is a wonderful sight.
Being in love is one's heart's delight.
But that look of love isn't on my face.
That enchanted feeling has been replaced.
The song was produced by Smokey Robinson, and Ruffin's voice is dignified, direct, unironic.  And the Andantes and Originals are there too, because this is one man's witness to a crowd, a congregation; though it is not a protest song explicitly, there is an inescapable sense that what he has suffered has been suffered by others, due to the many voices, voices who have growing needs but only experience is of an "unhappy ending."  Ruffin didn't want to be part of a group, and his tenor voice is too distinctive to blend in happily.  It is a voice of a man who is average, but outspoken; a man who went to the UK and Europe to work when things dried up in the US. 

The misery in this song is absolute - he is "cold and alone" and while he sees love growing everywhere for others, it does not exist for him.  There are The Andantes and The Originals testifying to this, and there they are encouraging him to keep going, to keep searching in the darkness for light;  the song's title, which is something of a question, is that the brokenhearted either give up to the bleakness or they have the faith (have to have it) to find a way out, to find someone who will care.  He is a seer; he has visions; and at first these are troubling, but he also walks towards something positive, even if he can't see it, he knows it's there.

Was this a hit in the UK of 1974 as people wanted to feel acknowledged in their hapless sense of "always moving but going nowhere"? Well, we are in the time of The Fog and the bewilderment many must have felt is echoed in this song. But the narrator is not going to "make do and mend" or "keep calm and carry on" or anything like that; he is restless, he is in pain, and passive suffering is of no use to him.  Though he may be anguished, he is active; as active as the opposite Motown song of the time, "Reach Out I'll Be There."

That this song would be covered by Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone*** in 1981 as an anti-Thatcher protest and be a hit (I like to think Ruffin appreciated this; it was his favorite cover version) is one thing to note; that Ruffin did a version of it in Italian called "Se Decidi Cosi"**** is another.  It was made a hit all over again for Paul Young in 1991, and memorably performed in the 2002 Motown doc Standing In The Shadows Of Motown by Joan Osborne. 

But what of Motown on British radio now?  (By this I mean 60s Motown, of course.)  Tony Blackburn does a "soul and Motown" show on digital radio and it is mixed up with random 80s soul and he no doubt plays some on his other shows (he has so many now and Motown is always a part of them).  But where else does it get played?  Is it doomed simply to be comfort food radio for those who remember being young at the time?  (Always with the idea, looming in the background, that everything has gotten worse since, including the music?) 

As the 60s disappear from the radio*****, Motown persists, but it is only as a sound, not as a meaning or as anything other than "the hits."  Northern Soul still gets played, I suppose, but what of Deep Soul, that of which Dave Godin was most proud?  That is perhaps too much for UK radio, and as so much US music tends to be, left to specialist broadcasters, while regular radio clings for dear life to the chart, as if to keep utter chaos from breaking out.  So much fine music being missed out, yet again; and what will become of it?

As for Jimmy Ruffin, he sang on miner's strike benefit single "Soul Deep" by the Council Collective as he knew about the struggles of the working man; and he would have had another hit with Stock, Aitken & Waterman's "Roadblock" but his vocal was left off to make it more mysterious.  But this is the song that has persisted; and whatever the cause, I am glad it got a second chance in the UK, much as Ruffin did.

Next up:  back to Canada.

*Dave Godin also coined the terms Northern Soul and Deep Soul, more on which anon.

**"Dancing In The Street" originally got to #28 in the UK in 1964 (when "Little Red Rooster" by The Rolling Stones was #1 - Dave Godin didn't think much of that, I bet); but with the push of Godin et. al., it got to #4 in 1969, for example.

***It was originally supposed to be Robert Wyatt, but he was busy working with Scritti Politti at the time. 

****"So If You Decide"

*****Radio Two's Sounds of the 60s now comes on at 6am on Saturday and is determinedly upbeat cheery stuff, as presented by Tony Blackburn.  The previous host, Brian Matthew, was dismissed only a few weeks ago and recently was taken to hospital, and mistakenly reported as dead by the BBC.  As of this writing he is still alive. 


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Road That Sometimes Bends: The Stylistics: "You Make Me Feel Brand New"

First, a short explanation as to why there has been a pause here – apart from various holidays and birthdays, there was the rather traumatic Saturday when I came home from work, to find Marcello agitated.  By now I am used to the misery and agitation upon the announcement of a death of a musician, and a song produced by Thom Bell was playing in the background, so I naturally assumed the worst, only to be told no, Mr. Bell was very much alive.  It was only after a bit of prodding that he told me that a man who had been inspired to blog (in part) due to Marcello’s own blogging had died the previous day, by his own hand.  That man was Mark Fisher, a man I had only met once, and then only briefly, at that.  I had attended the Deep Listening Club, noting coolly that I was the only woman there, and was nearly the only woman another gathering where I half-whimsically suggested the next Deep Listening Club be Charles Spearin’s The HappinessProject. 

There was no second Deep Listening Club though.  I can relate only a few impressions of what he was like here:  nervous, enthusiastic, sensitive.  I got the idea he had his own tastes and views that had very little to do with my own (I am not especially interested in the eerie or weird, for instance).  His creating the website Dissensus and then leaving it behind are both noble gestures however, and unlike others in the circles he was in he was not “one of us” in the sense that he went to a public school, Oxbridge and/or “just happened to be” related to someone of money and importance.*

 If you live in a culture like this day in and day out, you have to be extremely careful, distanced, self-aware and self-protective.  I could not tell, from just meeting him once, how good Fisher was at this, or whether he was capable of it.  This in part is why his loss is so tough.  Marcello decided right then to end Then Play Long, for many different reasons, including the general sense that the "one of us" types have no interest in it whatsoever.

Music Sounds Better With Two, however, has never been about wanting or even really needing too much acceptance for me; it is something I do mostly (though not wholly) for my own understanding of things, with the hopeful by-product of helping others to learn things as well.   

And so, we return to the number two song behind “When Will I See You Again”:  “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by The Stylistics. 

Here we are in August 1974 and for many reasons, which (if you’re an American, especially) the Long National Nightmares are over, or nearly so.  The Fog still exists in the UK however, but look how the charts have shifted.  The Glam Slam is fading away (to be replaced by Queen in the popularity stakes, though Slade and Mud and the chart-observant Rubettes still around), and dance music – of the sort that is now apparently immovable from the Radio Two schedule – is taking over.  The word disco has yet to really become known, but it is well on its way  The beginning of the 70s is over; the Fog still exists as I said, but there are welcoming beams of something else coming from Philadelphia....

To help explain Thom Bell and why he is a genius, you have to understand that he was classically trained and indeed wanted to become a concert pianist/conductor.  He went to New York City with this ambition only to be rejected and told to go to Harlem and the Apollo and find work there.  This was a disappointing turn of events (there were black conductors in the US, but as ever one or two were seen as being “enough” by the Man) and so he went back to Philadelphia and worked as a conductor for Chubby Checker.  After tiring of the Twist, he got to work with a group he refashioned as The Delfonics, writing songs for them as the ones he tried to get for them from labels were so bad, he figured he could do better himself; so he taught himself composition, straight from books.  He had some small successes at first, but with “La-La (Means I Love You)” he had a huge hit**, and became a known figure, winning a Grammy and (along with his friends and work associates Gamble and Huff) began to define the Philadelphia sound. 

After producing and writing for the The Delfonics he then in 1971 moved along to The Stylistics, who he accepted as the voice of Russell Thompkins Jr. was (and is) so strikingly high and distinctive – pure and naive and sharp all at the same time.  And he constructed the near-classical pieces to feature that voice ,though on “You Make Me Feel Brand New” you also hear the voice of Airrion Love.  It is the great contrast between the two that in part makes the song so special.  It is a song of two voices– to have it sung by only one voice seems odd (Mick Hucknall tried and failed, spectacularly).  It is also a song of vulnerability and gratitude, utterly calm and even if Linda Creed does rhyme “friend” with “friend” this just adds to the realism.  That a sitar is in the mix should not be seen as anything other than Bell’s own determination to make his songs sound different (and he knew about the sitar from way before the Beatles made them famous; his West Indies background and experience with exchange students at an early age gave him a musical knowledge others didn’t have). 
This moment of calm and vaguely exotic and strikingly modern bliss was a number two hit on both sides of the Atlantic; it feels utterly grounded in a way and yet soars (due to the two voices) and both Love and Thompkins take it slowly, not showily, somehow fitting in as voices in the general palette but also instruments.  It is a hymn; solemn,  stately and melodic enough to have a reggae cover version (I can only imagine there is one). 
Thom Bell won the very first Producer of the Year Grammy award in 1974 - and I am sure whoever has won it since has looked up to him in some way.***  His genius was to keep pushing ahead and teach himself things when others wouldn't, and to know what he wanted and with the lyrics of Linda Creed in this case, bring a delicate and genuine moment to the charts.  The Stylistics suffered once Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi and worked with The Spinners instead; but along with Charles Stepney (a very different producer, but underrated I feel****) and Maurice White he made some of the very best music of the 70s.  It is music that speaks to the spirit and to the heart.  
Next:  we go back to go forward, so to speak.
And:  thanks for waiting, everyone!


*It may be obvious, but it needs stating:  the “one of us” types who feel entitled to everything have pretty much ruined the UK and everything good about it.  The worst ones are those who act as if they are not “one of us” but actually very much are. 

**He won a Grammy but was only able to see this in person as somehow he wangled his way to get a seat in the room – he wasn’t invited.  The president of the company, not him, accepted the award.  He hasn’t been to a Grammy ceremony since.
*** I can just imagine the temper tantrums in certain quarters when (cough) certain big-headed producers didn't get the award, and weren't even thought of to give it to first. 
****Even if Stepney had only produced this, he would be one of the greatest of all time (also co-wrote it, of course):  Rotary Connection's "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

3, 2, 1: Mud: "Rocket"

And so we return to the increasingly awkward subject of the Glam Slam.*  I say awkward as it is coming towards its natural end here in August 1974, when Mud's "Rocket" only gets to #6 in the UK charts (it is here as a Radio Luxembourg entry).  Yes, there's more of the Glam Slam to come, and Mud do keep having hits - but if you look around the charts, things are starting to change. 

The awkwardness of Glam rock is not a problem in Mud's time - back to that in a moment - but now.  I have already written at length about its most notorious figure, and that put together with other people's even more notorious behaviour has put a damper on the fun.  I will let Stewart Lee, of all people, explain, from this blog entry on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

"I don’t really like this whole album much.  I have a quite visceral response to it. It makes me feel physically sick throughout and I’ve not enjoyed living with it. It’s not Bowie’s fault, but because of all that Jimmy Savile Top of the Pops footage that whole early 70s glam rock guitar sound now just makes me think of children being harmed.  That’s what it reminds me of, and I can’t get past it, which is awful, but people get a similar thing with Wagner. Something becomes associated in your mind with something and you’re stuck with it, sadly. There’s not much you can do about it. It’s pavlovian."

That is what the revelations have done; they have made the ears close, the eyes wince, the whole body revolt.  Please note this is after Bowie's death, and that I don't think he's alone in feeling awful in listening to something that happened to be Glam, which was, to say the least, a time when some men thought they could get away with anything. 

Meanwhile, it's August 1974 and this thing called dance music is starting to appear - it's fresh, it's sensuous, and it will soon be called disco and once it does, it becomes the new glamorous music. Soon whatever Glam Slam heroes that are left will be making disco music, or at least trying, including Mud.

But to the song!  It is pure Chinn/Chapman cheese, melting in the Elvis-isms of Les Gray's voice, rocking away while the story of Abigail Rocketblast (so she named herself; I wonder if the unseen teenager in Abigail's Party is named after her).  This Abigail wants to be a movie star, and the narrator talks of her going out to Hollywood - "this here's the story" says Gray at the beginning.  At sixteen she is ambitious, and she rejects her blue jean past for the world of fancy restaurants minks and fast-talking agents.  "Second verse" says Gray, fourth-walling the whole way...

Does Abigail become famous?  No, alas, she doesn't, and the narrator, who remembers her from back when, says they were using her, and now she's just in a regular diner, hanging out, and guess who is there to remember her?  Who is there to launch her now?  He calls her Rocket and is going to "launch" her soon.  Along the way are odd Russian-monks style background vocals, a straight-ahead guitar solo and a breakdown at the end of Elvis hip-swinging doo-waaaah, as if the word "launch" actually stands for something else.  She's a rocket alright, going straight to the moon.  It's cheese, like I said, but for Mud it's relatively sexy cheese. 

The Wedding Present, in their gallant attempt to destroy the charts in 1992, did their own version of this song as a b-side, and it's done in their rough Leeds style, with more "come on, come on" and less Elvis.  It's a faithful version, and it's odd to hear Gedge sing a happy song (there is no breakdown at the end; it stops, after a few more impassioned "come on COME ON"s).

So what to make of the Glam Slam era?  With Bowie now held even higher, it is hard to see how it could be seen in hindsight as nothing but a launching pad for him, while it was fun-while-it-lasted for everyone else, who did what they could before disco and then punk superseded it as sources of glamor and even shock.  Mud still exist, with no original members; Les Gray is gone, and guitarist Rob Davis went on to write songs done by Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Rachel Stevens. (They are all really good, too - Come And Get It by Rachel Stevens being better than you'd expect.)

Something as infectious as Glam can never really go away, but besides being the subject of Simon Reynolds' next book, it has mutated into other things, with the come-on-cheer-up-Britannia aspect having curdled into something indigestible, unless you are able to separate those men from the Chinn/Chapman fromage that some can still remember with great fondness, despite everything. 

Next up:  Philadelphia, here we come.

*Please note I was using this term before the untimely death of Prince; a man who certainly was glamorous himself.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A New Hope: Sparks: "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us"

And now we have, for all intents and purposes, the last (and in a way, first) great song of the Glam Slam era; I say last as outside of a couple of hits by Mud and Sweet that era is nearly done at MSBWT, and first as while all of these bands are - or aren't - going to continue, Sparks are just getting started.  To say there's no one really like them is an understatement; only this year has another band (Franz Ferdinand) been able to join them onstage as equals, and indeed record an entire album with them as FFS.

And wouldn't it be a couple of Americans - Ron and Russell Mael - who would be able to storm the charts (and, infamously, Top Of The Pops) and show up the scene as being over?  Not that I think this is a confrontational song in that way.  After all, it starts quietly, with that high nervous tinkle of piano and Russell Mael singing about, of all things, "zoo time" (yes, it's a romantic triangle that starts in a zoo - all those musky smells!) being "she and you time" and the song seems to come into focus as he mentions the "stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers" that then JUMP out into the song and are, as the guitars and drums come in, all but rampaging around, the gunshot like a trigger for their rebellion.  And our narrator is brave enough (though nervous, heartbeat increasing) to stay around....

...but this is no song of macho heroism, as that first nervous tinkle propels the song, pausing for breath at times (this always sounds like a song climbing and climbing, trying to avoid vertigo) and appropriately, the next verse sees our triangle in the air, she a stewardess and he is a bombardier and it's Hiroshima they are nearing - but still, the narrator won't leave.  All this on a domestic flight?  This is romantic anxiety that is blowing everything up, making it bigger than life, but it's not exaggeration if you're experiencing it.  And then it descends to a cafe, where he meets her each day, and the rival sees "twenty cannibals" there eating him - they've got to eat too, after all! - and suddenly the idea of Glam seems to fade, right here in front of us.  This is not good-time music per se, nor is it about romantic languor (HA) or some kind of dystopian world where the kids will be feral but all right (Bowie)*. 

This is sweaty palms, shallow breathing, sure, but also determination.  The narrator won't give in no matter how dangerous things are, and scenario after scenario is conjured up and defied.  The rival takes a shower ("you've got to look your best for her and be clean everywhere" - that's just not Glam lyricism, there) and in the rainy foreign town "the bullets" can't hit him - because he's too clean, too sleek?  And then the last scene, where a census (?!) shows there will be more girls in town, but still not enough - and the derring-do nerves come back once more, leaping up and down - "this town AIN'T big enough not BIG ENOUgh for the Both OF US" - and ends on a high ascending "I ain't gonna LEEAVE" and stops abruptly, so the audience can get used to what they've just heard. 

The narrator has more than made his case, if only in his own mind.  No wild animals, nuclear explosions, gunfights on deserted streets by cafes, no, nothing is going to stop our high-voiced narrator from getting the girl and defeating his rival.  Guitars wail, pianos pound (one Ron Mael stares into the camera and doesn't blink and this just adds to the steely determination of the song) and drums beat time that is Anglophile but somehow not - more fleet of foot, less teathered to "the blues" - Sparks are just different and I've seen them compared to Queen (um, NO) and 10cc (a bit closer, but still, no).  ("Amateur Hour" was their next hit, and is funny and sexy and yes, the girls did scream...) 

This is instinctive music, dramatic, playful - you get the idea that no genre of music is off limits to Sparks, no lyrical idea too weird.  (This song seems to come out of a musical, for instance.)  This song marks the real start, I feel, towards not punk so much as post-punk**; a kind of follow-your-own-path sense that prizes skill, sure, but also awkwardness, singularity, experimental-mindedness.  Compare this to the Glam-by-numbers of "Sugar Baby Love" and you can see how this song's increasing heartbeats are somehow truer to life than the 50s throwback at the top; it's more alive, it's rock music without being beholden to "rock" - it is the leap forward, forward to Glasgow, to London, to Dundee, to anywhere that longs for something new.  Just as The Beatles brought American music back to America, Sparks have brought British music back to the British; a big claim, but a valid one, I feel...

Next up:  There, and yet not.

*In case you were wondering, I was supposed to write about ChangesBowie over at Then Play Long, but the prospect of doing so gave me a literal headache.   

** Siouxie and the Banshees covered this on their Through The Looking Glass album in '87, which is when I first heard the song; Sparks have always been more popular in the UK than in their native land - and while she tries her best, she's too serious. This is a tough song to sing though, and she does get through it very well.                 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dedicated: Wizzard: "Rock 'n' Roll Winter (Looney's Tune)"

If there is one thing that I sometimes think music writers tend to discount a bit, it's sentiment.  Sentiment is all over music; strong feelings can be the cause of music (and its cure - having a passion can be exhausting too) to find out that a song is for a certain person can make the song more poignant, but I do wonder sometimes what the Other in this case feels.  What is it like to have a song about you be a huge hit?  Is it still for you, or it is suddenly for everyone else who needs it as well?  I guess it depends upon the individual and the song, too*.

This song must have sounded like a big hug at the time, a hug given to Roy Wood's girlfriend of the time, the late Lynsey de Paul.  In their dare-I-say-it-legendary performance on TOTP (the only time a vacuum cleaner has been played like a cello), Roy Wood looks utterly calm and also in love; with his mass of multicolored hair and multicolored face, he appears to be trying his best to hide, to put on a mask, but love cannot be hidden.  The song is addressed to De Paul (who is crying), perhaps because she now has the notorious Don Arden as her manager; who knows.  But this song is huge, complex, rock 'n' roll taken up to some new degree - as big as their previous hit

There is something a little intimidating to have all this dedicated to you, I would guess, but the sheer riches on offer (Wood played almost all parts himself) in the wintertime...well it is like Christmas all over again, in part.  The Glam Slam isn't just about flash and trash; it's also about cheer and joy and merriment as well, which in 1974 was otherwise in short supply.  "If your most important things don't go your way" he says to her, then just ignore it, as his "teenage heart" is in love with her, and her music sustains him through the ice and snow; so this song is not just about their relationship but also about the ability of music - their music, all music - to sustain them.  He could dedicate any song to her, he says; though exhausted, too tired to speak, the music does the talking for him.  And so the song gallops through its chorus, then comes up to the end, stopping as a friendly horse would at the door. 

I don't know if de Paul loved this song, or even how long she was with Roy Wood; but I can say that this song (late in being released as, well, Wood wanted it to be just so) could easily be addressed to the general audience as well.  Yes, we know 1974 started badly, even the spring can feel cold, dreadful times are upon us - but the eternal promise of rock 'n' roll is going to keep things afloat.  At this time Wood wasn't really part of ELO anymore**, but Wizzard were still a parallel to them; I would rather listen to this than ELO's concurrent hit "Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle" at any time. 

This song, however, is utterly normal compared to the next one...

Next up:  They came from Los Angeles.   

*It's called "Looney's Tune" as that was de Paul's nickname, given to her by Spike Milligan; it was #2 on the Radio Luxembourg chart.  It was kept off the top by "Waterloo," which is clearly a Wizzard-inspired song. 

**That said I can't help but think he had a hand in Out of the Blue.


Friday, June 26, 2015

It Just Wouldn’t Go Away: Mud: “The Cat Crept In”

It can be a bit disturbing, listening to the BBC sometimes; as the writer of this blog especially I can wonder just what is going on.

By this I mean that while I have written about nothing but popular songs, some have fallen into The Void.  That’s to be expected; some of them are what I can say are “of their time.”  But can a whole genre date? 
The Glam Slam era can seem like a mirage by current radio standards.  Apart from a few “curated”* artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie and T. Rex, the actual Glam Slam era gets an exceedingly short shrift on the radio.  There are reasons for this, of course.

I think there is a nostalgia problem; maybe that’s the wrong word.  “False memory syndrome” seems more apt.  A certain version of the70s is being pushed on these stations (I mean 6 Music and Radio 2 in particular) – a version that comforts and flatters.  It is not fully reflective of the decade – anything that is deemed too much in one way or another has been edited out.  It ends up being a lot like the older (and presumably) cooler older brother/sister throwing out all the singles and albums that made the 70s fun and grimly insisting that unless you listen to Philadelphia International and The Eagles/ABBA/Blondie (R2 version) or Kraftwerk/The Clash/Led Zeppelin (6 Music) you are hopelessly naff and probably suspect, in some way.  Radio 2 in particular will seemingly play any old song, however awful (“Howzat” by Sherbet and “Little Does She Know” by the Kursaal Flyers stand out here) rather than play anything by Wizzard, Suzi Quatro, Slade, Sweet, the hapless Glitter Band or Mud. **

Now, before I get to this hit I have to mention – as I am pretty sure I have before – that there are two kinds of nostalgia.  One is personal and specific and can be hard to translate into words at times, relying as it does on touch, smell, sight and taste; that one moment where I was so bowled over by a painting that I actually got a stomach ache and had to lie down, for instance.  (This was just a modest version of something that would happen to me two decades later.)  I can show you the painting, I can tell you about the expensive fruit salad my father reluctantly ordered for me later, but my intense reaction is my own.  (If you live in Cleveland, it was at your art museum; I don’t know if there’s a huge Monet still hanging there – a water lilies one I think –  but look at it, lie down, and then go have some fruit salad.  You are entitled to swear.  I hadn’t learned how to swear yet at the time.)  

The other is a generalized nostalgia which Douglas Coupland calls “legislated” and it can be unnerving to witness.  You are asked to remember things you don’t recall, celebrate things that don’t belong to you, to join in at all times with what the mass is supposed to feel, supposed to think, and if you don’t then you are odd, different, not one of “us.”  This stretches (in the UK) from the perpetual  remembrances of WWII***  (as I write a Glenn Miller compilation is in the Top 40 album chart and when was the last time he was so popular? – oh yes, 1976) to the aforementioned edit of the 70s on the radio to any time you see a “we” or “us” in a headline or in the speech of someone who isn’t an editor or the Queen.   The BBC in short is eager to get its listeners to become a hivemind (Glastonbury!  John Peel worship!  Vinyl vinyl vinyl!) and the existence of this and other blogs where music is looked at with care and consideration is seen as being funny or weird.  They jar against the received wisdom that only one version – theirs – of the past really exists.    

But to the song!****  This is old school rock 'n' roll - all about a bad girl, don't you know -"She ain't superstitious but she's hanging on to life number nine/Well, you may not show it but she hides in the light/And she may not show it but this cat can bite" - yes, another sexy dame mapped out by Chinn and Chapman, and who doesn't like a little played-behind-my-head guitar?  Mud did so well because they were fun, energetic, didn't take themselves too seriously - all the things that now mean that the radio barely play them - or any of the Glam Slam folks - unless it's Christmas (itself the most Glam of holidays).  Certainly this is an oppositional number two behind "Seasons In The Sun" and a lot cheerier, to say the least, than another song in the Top Ten at the time - the near embodiment of The Fog, Hot Chocolate's "Emma."

As shunned as Mud are these days, the vibe of the song wasn't lost completely - the seeds of a future, ground-breaking MSBWT song are here - Adam And The Ants' "Antmusic."  And once that song's life on the radio was more or less over, along came Rob Davis of Mud to write and play on Rachel Stevens' hit "I Said Never Again" - there are references to this hit and "Antmusic" in there, and just like the Glam Slam folks, does La Stevens (or Spice Girls, Sugababes, Girls Aloud, All Saints) get much airplay these days?  It is as if there is an embargo on all this fun and girly music (dare I say also working class music as well).  Hmm.  The cat keeps coming back, no matter what The Man tries to do.

Next up:  the Glam Slam continues!    

* I have to roll my eyes when I hear this; as someone who grew up being led around by my parents in any number of galleries, museums, etc. I have known what “to curate” means for a long time.  And it has nothing to do with music.  I roll my eyes a lot these days.  

**The Bay City Rollers are also a victim here – they weren’t part of the Glam Slam itself but became popular at the same time, and their Tartan Edinburgh sweetness was their big plus and minus.  They aren’t played on these stations and one broadcaster I can think of in particular, who only plays 70s music, refuses to play them.  He’d rather play The Sex Pistols, who were only based in part on The Rollers.  Rockism, in other words, lives.

***The never-ending reruns of Dad’s Army on television and radio point to something very disturbing in the British psyche.

****Not to be confused with the classic NFB animated short "The Cat Came Back."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Endless Quest: Charlie Rich: "The Most Beautiful Girl"

This is one of those songs that takes me back to a time – very roughly, when it was a big hit, a time I don’t recall that well, but this song crossed all kinds of boundaries on the radio, so the song’s easy for me to remember – and a more recent time, the 90s, when I was socially active with a bunch of good folks whose interests and obsessions and completist tendencies had almost nothing to do with mine.  I don’t talk about the Serial Diners much in my writing about music as I didn’t have a lot of experience with them that had a musical focus; they were collectively bound by a dining in a different restaurant every Friday night at 6 or so, and beyond that it was up to the group as to what would happen next.  A movie?  A games night?  A night where we’d just wander around, not up to much?  It all depended, but no two people’s musical tastes were really the same, so going to a concert was never on the agenda, not at even a small, affordable club on Queen St. West.  Why pay for fun when we could convene with a tape recorder and microphone and bell and do improv comedy at someone’s house? 

And so, within the group my own musical epiphanies and enthusiasms were mostly bottled up.  I had a Walkman and listened to CFNY by day and the easy-listening classical station at night to help me get to sleep, but found myself really isolated within the group, forever trying and failing to find common ground with anyone besides one person…and there were a lot of people in the Diners back then, men and women, older and younger than me.  I found myself at a loss once in being asked by one main member what made Jimi Hendrix so special; again at a loss when another one (who was courting me at the time, or about to) didn’t know who Al Green was; and long before I pretty much stopped attending the Diners on an even semi-regular basis (c. 1999) I was disheartened by an event that I will write about in the fullness of time*. 
This song I remember mentioning to yet another Diner and she didn’t know it and I attempted to sing it – my voice certainly isn’t like Rich’s – and she still didn’t know it.  I was a little puzzled**, since the song hits the bullseye for American music in so many ways – and it was a #1 hit in the US and Canada, obviously a number two in the UK, too – I remember hearing it on a jazz station at the time.  Rich’s ‘countrypolitan’ music finally saw him succeed in the charts after two decades in the business. . 

Rich was a jazz and r&b guy who wasn’t considered ‘bad’ enough for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, so he worked there as a session musician and songwriter, instead of being one of the Big Five – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins  and Johnny Cash.  He had the odd hit here and there on one label and another, including at Phillips (“Lonely Weekends”) and at another with “Mohair Sam.”  He considered himself a jazz pianist at heart and wasn’t really getting anywhere*** until producer Billy Sherrill (who helped Rich to write this, along with Rory Michael Bourke and Norris Wilson) turned him into a country crooner, a man with clear experience in his voice, a man who’d been there and back and didn’t need a damn souvenir.  His success came when, as “The Silver Fox” this (and other songs, notably “Behind Closed Doors”) were hits not just in the world of country music but in pop charts, too.

The story is just about the oldest one in pop; he said something he shouldn't have, she leaves, he wakes up in the dawn to the knowledge he's wrong and is looking for her, his "sun" - the one thing he has worth having in the world.  His casualness (starting a song with "Hey") isn't far from The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" though you get the idea that Rich isn't about to go asking anyone who hasn't had the same experience themselves.  He's not about to talk to kids in the park about her; this is one guy speaking to another in a bar, a truckstop, the laundromat.  He asks if she's crying (not because she misses him too, but because he caused her such pain - this narrator knows he's in the wrong) - and that if she has been spotted, this intermediary should go and tell her that he needs her.  That's it, but the solemnity and maturity back it up, and I can imagine many a man hearing this song and maybe realizing, before it's too late, just how brutal and cold being alone is, that this song is one long exercise in hopeful hopelessness, that being without her is much, much worse than being with her.

As a girl when I heard this I didn't really understand how someone could be the "most" beautiful; someone either was beautiful or she wasn't.  How could he ever find her if there are so many beautiful women, I thought, this man is on a long, long quest.  And knowing now that beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, his quest seems even more hapless, that short of being like The Bee Gees and having a literal picture of her to show to others, or phoning the cops, he's never going to find her.  But the real story is the terrible gulf between the cold morning of his loss and the warmth she brings, as if there were no spring or fall in his life, just summer or winter.  And for his sins, he'll spend the rest of time asking for her, trying to describe the indescribable...

Next up:  the return of Glam Slam, football and the Fog.  


*It wasn’t the night I couldn’t go to the 8th  anniversary of the Diners as the guy who didn’t know about Al Green and I had an arrangement wherein I’d miss the dinner but get to hang out afterwards.  I did show up, feeling…odd, and when I asked the Diners if anyone knew anything about Stereolab, no one did.  It was 1997, and I’d just discovered them via a tv commercial for the new VW Bug, so it wasn’t like I was all that hip.  But it was alienating, nevertheless.  Something  much, much worse, however,  had already happened years before…and I will get to it on Then Play Long

 **There were plenty of times I'm sure she was puzzled by my musical knowledge (or lack of it) too.

***His exhaustion at being an outsider for so long can be heard in the b-side of this single, "I Feel Like Goin' Home"; this is the demo version.