Friday, September 6, 2019

The Right Time: John Holt: "Help Me Make It Through The Night"

One of the contributing factors towards 1975 being the amazing year it was has to be the general openness of the charts.  The old stalwarts of pop and rock were still around, but new things, new permutations of things, abounded in the early 70s.  In short, anything went, and amidst the joy/chaos there were more than a few songs that showed vulnerability and a slight sense of loneliness and even tiredness.  Country and reggae were old friends, and here they sound just right together.

By early 1975 the high that Trojan Records had been riding was coming to an end, but label star John Holt was wise/lucky enough to have a hit album 1000 Volts of Holt (the cover screams early 70s, right down to the paisley/plaid combination which Holt pulls off because star power) come out before the financially-struggling Trojan collapsed altogether in May, bought out by Saga Records. (This could be, as is suggested in Bass Culture, that the English kids who dug reggae c. 1971 were no longer interested in it, it being passé.)

“Help Me Make It Through The Night” was released in late 1974 and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart as a crossover reggae/lovers rock hit that was solid musically and sung with warmth and ease by Holt.  That it was so sophisticated was due to the English producer  Tony Ashfield, who had been involved in Jamaican music for some time and had worked with Holt on a previous album, The Further You Look.  That was 1972 though, and while it was a big hit in Jamaica it wasn’t elsewhere – hence Ashfield and Holt decided to do another album, one with proven songs like this one, which had already been a hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips as well as others, including a reggae version by Duke Parker.  The song suited his voice and modest mien* and its devil-may-care-desperate lyrics somehow work in with the longing in his voice.  I wonder if this song would have made it to number one had all the shops it sold in – not just Boots or Woolworths – were counted?
In the meantime, Ashfield and Holt split over differences, Holt continuing to record in Jamaica both in the lovers rock style and doing more political songs.  This song marks a moment when someone who is a worldwide star finally gets his due, and had things been different...
Next up:  Music, non-stop!



*Holt turned down a certain song which author Max Romeo eventually had to record himself.   Ahem.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Remembering the Forgotten: Ralph McTell: "Streets of London"

We have now arrived at the end of 1974; we are about to enter the then to-some scary area known as 1975.  A time of big decisions and already there's a sense that whatever will become of this decade will be worked out now.  The Nixon era has already ended and the Vietnam War is drawing to a close.  In the UK there’s the growing sense of unease coupled with two events that are responses to that unease.  This unease continues to this day and in fact its crushing and terrible logic is attempting to be worked out even as I write this.  There is hope however; there is always hope....
"Streets of London" is the sort of song that sticks; McTell is not singing of any general sense of loneliness but about specific people and to a specific person - a friend of his who was a heroin addict.  It is the realistic loneliness that stands quite opposite to the song which kept it at #2, Mud's "Lonely This Christmas."  It is a gentle, near classical song with a touch of folk; country blues, even.  The power of it is the musical simplicity which acts as a welcoming warm hug of a frame around the four people depicted, all of them alone, all desolate.
McTell's voice is warm too, familiar, as opposed to the (at this point) recently departed Nick Drake, who was more unworldly and yes, seductive.  McTell is taking the listener by the hand into the streets of London, starting at the Surrey Street Market in Croydon (where he was raised), ending on the Thames by the Seaman's Mission with a veteran (WWI? WWII?) who has been cast aside, just as the bag lady and the T.S. Eliot/Beckettian figure who does nothing but drink tea all night to pass the time.  These are all people who are alive but whom society does not want to recognize, who are yesterday's news. The addict is gently shown those who are lost, in darkness, wandering and sadly friendless.  I would like to think that some heard this song and it opened their hearts, or as McTell wanted to do, changed their minds.  Not through preaching but through the powerful examples that especially at Christmastime are a reminder to look out for others and to be more considerate.  That is the real meaning of the season as it happens.
That it took three times, three different recordings, to make this song a hit shows how sometimes a song just has to appear at the right time (and in the right way) to make its impact.  It has become a standard folk song (recorded first in '69, produced by Gus Dudgeon) so much so that punk (ah yes punk - we'll get to that in enough time) band the Anti-Nowhere League did their own cover, with altered lyrics (mais oui) "Let me grab you by the hair and drag you through the streets of London, I'll show you something that'll really make you sick" was heartily approved of by McTell himself. The song is McTell's main legacy, one he has accepted as his gift to the world, even as he continues to write and record albums to this day.  Can the world change because of a song?  Can it have an impact beyond itself? The answer is, as always, with the listener.
Next up:  Lord have mercy!

Monday, August 5, 2019

You've Come A Long Way: "Rock Me Gently" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet"

Now then, where was I?....

You may or indeed may not know that I have had a long break from this blog as my husband was diagnosed and tested and then finally operated on last year.  It was a big and rarely-done operation and was, thank goodness, a success.  I spent a lot of last year either at work, shopping or in the process of visiting him in hospital, which I did nearly daily until I knew he was okay physically and mentally.  2018 was a hot summer; a summer of record; but I was blanked out by the end of the day, able eventually to listen to music (impossible at first), eat dinner, rest.  And then phone early the next morning to see how he was overnight, and it would then all start over again.

Now however, he is back at work, and my brave (possibly), unheralded and amazingly unrivalled blog can continue.  If you are new here – hello!  I hope you like it and have time to catch up with what I have written already.  And if you have read it before, you know how it goes...

It just so happens that I left off at a place very few people want to be stranded in – The Fog.  Or, if you are a psychogeographer, the liminal period.  Late 1974 was confusing and contentious - the Glam Slam era was virtually over, and disco had yet to really catch on.  Naturally it was a time (as ever) when record companies wanted hits, they wanted something catchy and oh well who cared what the lyrics were about as long it had a decent chorus and some good hooks.  The sexual revolution?  Who upstairs approved of that though?

Leave it to the Canadians, as always, to inadvertently push things forward.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the prairie kings of HRS, were working on Not Fragile and someone from the company came along to see if there were any obvious singles from the album.  Nope.  Well what else do you have, guys?  They had a song they only used to play to warm up which no one saw as being anything great or even okay – it was just a crappy song to them.  The company man knew it would be a hit though, so “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” was duly recorded, deliberate stuttering put in by Randy as a tribute to his brother.  And so it was a hit, this song about a naive young man who has fallen in love with a more experienced woman, and hooee is he having fun.  The stuttering works as a way of showing his shock, his pleasure – and the simplicity of the cowbell-rockin’ song does too.  That it’s a song about a sexually assertive woman and a man most happy and even greedy (“I took what I could get” he says, after “any love is good love” which actually gives the song a risqué element beyond mere greed) is very quietly revolutionary.   He is not resentful or bitter or neurotic about being the one who has things to learn – quite the opposite.  This isn’t “Summer The First Time” – the implication, as much as BTO can be bothered, is that they are equals, save for this one thing. Listen to the bass and you will see how sexy and knowing the song is, without being tiresome.
Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” is a similar song, though it was very much intended to be a single, one that Kim had to finance and release on his own label as no one else was interested in it.  It was a gamble so desperate that on the b-side there was no time for another song, just the instrumental part of the a-side.  That both were hits (the b-side got airplay on US R&B stations) shows how gambles can indeed pay off sometimes.

Kim – and I’ve had a lot of time to consider this – sounds a lot more experienced than the prairie-boy narrator from BTO.  He wears linen and good cologne; he knows about art and music and yet is not a boring hipster.  He is a together dude and thus when he comes across a woman he loves and she wants...something he’s a bit unfamiliar with, he can be generous and gracious.  He knows about liberated women, the sexual revolution, and he’s perfectly fine with it, as long as it’s a gentle one.  Polite.  Thoughtful.  Sends flowers.  That kind of revolution!  Which was happening now that the 70s was busy putting the 60s ideology into actual practice. The lyric “Don’t you know that I have never been loved like this before” is sung in a way that it could be just that, or you could hear a little smile in it, implying....whatever you think it means. 
Both of these songs went to #2 here in the UK, and #1 in the US; there is a sweetness and humility and generosity in these songs that are sexy, a counterpoint in the UK at least to the usual idea of this era being something scary and most certainly macho.  
Now then, I should note that I have skipped some songs as I didn't really *feel* the need to write about them - "Wombling Merry Christmas" being one, "Far Far Away" by Slade being another and there's a Rollers song in there too - and of course "Killer Queen" by Queen I wrote about over at Then Play Long.  This is so I can better focus on the wonders of 1975, which I will be doing as usual but with the addition of the odd album or two* when needed to give a greater context to what was an exciting time musically (unlike some people who were just bored by music at the time).  Those of you who know what 1975 meant in UK terms will be waiting for June; in some ways we are living in the opposite of that time, when the UK said yes.
Up next:  a hunky folksinger takes you on a tour.
*Not in a TPL sort of way, but more as a sidebar, as such.

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.