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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Nothing/Nothing Paradox: The Hollies: "The Air That I Breathe"

It is a delicate thing, what this song talks about; it talks about a certain moment, a moment of fulfillment and privacy; something ordinarily not something to discuss or even sing about, but this did not stop Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood from baring their souls, so to speak.  This song was originally done by Hammond on his album from '72, and then by Phil Everly on his the next year, and since the Hollies were Everly Brothers fans they came across it and decided to record it themselves.  This is as much as I can figure; the Hollies needed a hit, and Allan Clarke was back in the band and able to handle the soaring chorus. 

But as usual, I have to wonder, what is this song about?  I mean, it's obviously about post-coital bliss, but what that is borders on non-existence.  "No light, no sound, nothing to eat, no books to read*" - if he could make a wish, it would to be in this state of non-wanting, to get away from the physical world altogether.  His body is weak; his mind is at rest.  He wants for nothing but to breathe, to be separate but together (he, rather bossily, tells his Other to sleep, but what if she feels the same way - pleasantly weak and wanting nothing more)?

To bring something so common but, well, intimate to a song is tricky, as it requires a noble forthrightness and honesty, which can seem a bit cloying or cheesy, and I can't say that the Hollies avoid that altogether - it has always struck me as ironic that songs that are about being happy and quiet and contented can be so, well, loud - and this does also have the hapless early 70s stigma of the whole Love Is... cartoon thing about it, as well.  Open, honest, sensitive - I can't help but applaud Albert and Mike for this, for mentioning this moment and its glory - a glory that the production makes into a kind of king-for-a-day moment, an escape from the turmoil-of-1974. 

The 70s were a time when people shared thoughts and feelings with each other, maybe overshared - though there is the inverse of the tough man who says nothing but nevertheless has feelings, dammit, and this song speaks to him, there in his privacy, reaffirming that what he feels is worth a song, a one of dips and gliding arches, rising and falling like a bird in flight.  It's not a sexy song, per se, but of peace, of stillness, of a soul at rest.  Which is nice, but...and I know I can't be the only one of my Gen X crowd who felt a little uneasy hearing this as a kid...what is this song really about?  Nothing, in essence - a falling away - a lack of self, which in Boomer logic means it must be given a big production.       

The legacy of this song is a little strange - it's kind of a mall-psychedelic-mellow-out-man song muscially; all about the ultimate moment of forgetfulness and detachment, save from the Other.  And yet there it is, reworked a bit as "Creep" by Radiohead (how many heard this song and were influenced by it?  Come on down, Richard "HEEEEEEyyyyyyyAAAAAAAAHHHHHEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYY" Ashcroft) which is the ultimate song about someone who most certainly isn't at peace, doesn't fit in, has a want and wants to be special, noticed, loved - but nope, no luck, he doesn't belong "here" - where he does belong, he's not sure, but it's not with the Others he encounters, hates and yet longs to be.  (I wonder if these Others are the posh kids going to Oxford, cool scenesters, or what.)  Radiohead were sued and gave credit where it was due for taking this song and making it their own, an angry, implacable jab at a world full of mindless bliss, oblivious to anything and anyone else.  And "Creep" has more resonance now than this song - as everyone wants to feel special, more than they want some near-death lack of want.  Or at least that's how it looks to me, these days. 

Next up:  a man who's lost without his love.

*I can't imagine another song like this that mentions books, if there are any other songs about this specific situation.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Met A Man Who Wasn't There: Lulu: "The Man Who Sold The World"

Or, the power of Bowie in the age of crisis.  Lulu attended one of Bowie's concerts, he invited her backstage and said he wanted to do a single with her; and so this happened (b-side is "Watch That Man").  Lulu had been through a lot by this time, including her Eurovision hit (a number two, as you'll recall) and an early and rather poignant marriage to Maurice Gibb, which was over by the time this was released.  So she is at something of a loose end - she has by this time also gone and done an album at the new studio Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, New Routes (following dutifully in the footsteps of La Springfield) and another called Melody Fair -  in Europe she was more or less a hit more in Germany than in the UK, where she was the pantomime star in Peter Pan.  Neither of her albums charted, but I can imagine Bowie wishing she would do something a bit more modern, and since at this time Bowie was the thing (Lulu thought he was "ubercool" herself), a cover version was obvious.

But this song?  Nothing about it is obvious.  Lulu herself didn't understand it but sang it anyway with a kind of toughness and raw quality that acts as a natural bridge between Bowie's version and the justifiably definitive one by Nirvana.  In this version, she is staring, masculine, unamused; this creep on the stair is making her nervous, sure, but her "gazely stare" is expectant, defiant, even.  The man (and she is dressed as a man) has sold the world, she laughs and shakes his hand, but then roams...someone died, didn't they?  Did millions die?  Death is part of life, and yet here death seems to become this man, somehow.  Or is this a kind of death-in-life?  "We never lost control" the song says, not ever saying who "we" are.  Lulu's controlled voice brings the song to life in a way that makes it sound as if the man really did sell the world, and now she is looking in the mirror somehow and seeing herself in that figure on the stair; as if a hidden part of herself has confronted her, and her assertions of control are all she has against this uncanny double.

 We die, we live, and yet do we know who we are?  Lulu's flat "Who knows?  Not me" are a solid wall here, and Bowie's saxophone lends it a kind of creepiness that makes this slightly reggaefied cover unnerving, which is presumably what Bowie wanted.  The pauses and echoes of the original are gone, all is centered on Lulu's voice - and does it alter the song, hearing a woman sing it?  Is this a woman meeting her male self, her repressed side?  Or is The Man here really The Man, content to let you think he's your friend, even though you've never really met him before?  There are puzzles within puzzles here, but Lulu was smart enough to let the song stand for itself, and it was a #2 hit on the Radio Luxembourg chart, where the loucheness of the song altogether was indeed welcome and modern.

Lulu is still an underrated singer and it would be most welcome if she could record a new album a la Petula Clark's Lost In You*; from what I could tell from the Commonwealth Games, she is still full of the genial toughness and eagerness to break new ground, even if all they wanted was her to sing "Shout" one more time.

Next up:  the (partial) invention of Radiohead. 

*It would be almost asking her too much to do this, wouldn't it?  And yet, I think it could work....