Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Kind of Seizure: Barry Ryan: "Eloise"

We have had songs before where, clearly, a line was being drawn between the present and the past; songs which, once they get out into the general world of pop, charts and listeners' ears, prepare them for what is to come, and inspire a few to follow...this is one of those songs; it's a dangerous song, as well.

Songs like this usually come from bands that are already fairly well known (The Beatles did it several times) or from the most unexpected of corners, those who are brand new or are determined, to quote Ezra Pound, to make it new.

Avant-MOR, a term I've used enough, is simply taking regular middle-of-the-road balladry down a strange lane or two, until something like "MacArthur Park" or "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" - songs that take lyrical and emotional flight, whether they are anguished or secure. This takes guts - in a way it is too easy to just sing the same songs, essentially, over and over again - and the skill to pull it off. There is no halfway point here, no way to just say 'let's just be a little avant-garde' - this is unvarnished stuff emotionally despite the high production values.

Twins Paul and Barry Ryan were popstar pin-up types in the mid-60s; Paul suffered too much stress performing live, though, so the two decided that Paul would write the songs and Barry would sing them; in this way there is already a doubling effect, as if two men had one voice. Paul had heard and absorbed "MacArthur Park" and wanted to do something like it; not a neat song that would be something a mailman would hum, but a proper EPIC song that would unashamedly give voice to something far bigger and uncontrollable, that would gallop along, at first dramatically, then pause as if to recall reality, if only for a second or two, and then speed into a maelstrom that makes much of UK music in '68 sound as if it is asleep.

Which is to say, this is not baroque at all but romantic, the kind of romanticism where emotions are high-pitched to the point of hysteria; wild, as if she has loved him and spurned him but he will not give up, he cannot give up as he has no other point in living.

This is a dangerous song. I'll explain what I mean: we've had Cupid before, and The Casuals had that experience too, if a bit stronger, but I must go back to Joseph Campbell to explain the difference between those and "Eloise":

“The troubadours were the nobility of Provence and then later other parts of France and Europe. In Germany they’re known as the Minnesingers, the singers of love. Minne is the medieval German word for love. The period for the troubadours is the 12th century. The troubadours were very much interested in the psychology of love. And they’re the first ones in the West who really thought of love the way we do now — as a person-to-person relationship.

Before that, love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire. This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it. Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love. You see, people didn’t know about Amor. Amor is something personal that the troubadours recognized.

The troubadours recognized Amor as the highest spiritual experience. With Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for (in medieval Europe).

You know, the usual marriage in traditional cultures was arranged for by the families. It wasn’t a person-to-person decision at all. In the Middle Ages, that was the kind of (impersonal) marriage that was sanctified by the Church. And so the troubadour idea of real person-to-person Amor was very dangerous.”

Or, as Bill Moyers summed it up: "The point of all these pioneers in love is that they decided to be the author and means of their own self-fulfillment, that the realization of love is to be nature’s noblest work, and that they were going to take their wisdom from their own experience and not from dogma, politics, or any current concepts of social good.”

Even if Barry Ryan didn't know it, Paul had written a troubadour's song for him, a song of obsession, which didn't care for taste, politeness or anything modest. People think of courtly love as being stuffy and formal, but once the true origins of it are recalled and understood, the whole notion of The Summer of Love as revolutionary begins to make sense. Love goes against everything here, including common sense and even sanity (at the end when he sings about not being "there" I am not sure if he means not with her or not in her heart). Ryan sings like there's pretty much no tomorrow, attacking the song and freaking out at the end, passionate and fierce, the go-faster guitars and AAAAHHHHs of the backing singers forever egging him on.

Because it was now nearly 1969 and with that finality ahead, there was nothing to lose. Revolution wasn't just in the air, it was the air; the cute, the maudlin, the merely okay were not enough now. Not when songs like this and this* were in the top ten at the same time; not when Hendrix was singing about a coming apocalypse.

"Eloise" was a huge hit not just in the UK but all across Europe, in part because it was so unhinged ("Kitsch" was a later hit for Ryan, it being "a beautiful word"), and its follow-up, "Love Is Love" goes beyond even this lyrically to sum up love so totally that it's almost embarrassing. But that was the point; to go beyond what had come before, and belatedly to inspire those to come. Years later a certain band, wanting to do something big and memorable themselves, would be inspired by "Eloise" to write their own EPIC tune that would not just stomp all over their rivals but become one of the best-loved UK songs of all time; which is how Queen got to "Bohemian Rhapsody," itself a song that drew a line neatly between old and new rock, not to mention deliberate kitsch. The only way in which it differs is that the narrator there claims that nothing really "matters" to him, whereas the narrator in "Eloise" is so utterly focused that nothing besides her matters to him.

The drama of this song cannot be ignored; the sense that something out of the ordinary is happening, the sense that in hearing it you are participating, sharing his desperate need. Certainly a couple of boys in Dundee heard and absorbed it, coming up with their own 'popera' years later, with songs such as this. Here, as with "Eloise" I can only feel awe: this is what music is, what it is capable of, something beautiful and fearless and intense. Music that comes from somewhere else.

In a way there is nothing after this, though as '68 comes to a close there are a few more songs, pointers this way and that. But with this the Ryans abruptly took UK pop into a different world, a world that others would and did find inspiring, and I thank them for that.

*The Motown resurgence was due to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1 and the saintly Dave Godin, who were determined to get as much Motown in the charts as possible.


Mark G said...

Funny, when you were discussing "Honey you mentioned that sense of menace and stalking behaviour, and it made me think of "Eloise"!

The man is searching for her in the first section, with manic intensity.

The mid section, he's sitting down maybe, thinking about what he'd do if he finds her. Well, he's going to be kind. Like he hadn't before? or hadn't been for a while?

Bob Stanley said...

I think Eloise is twinned with Jesamine rather than Honey. No stalker, Barry Ryan is totally bewitched by a woman who may or may not (though his delivery suggests it's the former) be aware of the effect she's having on him. And I think they're living together, she is shunning him ("but she's not there" not being literal), spurning his lust, driving him wild. Both Jesamine and Eloise* definitely have the 'hand', in Seinfeld speak.

Honey is the polar opposite, terrifying in its 'love story' mundanity: man marries out of duty, takes wife utterly for granted, she dies of boredom (or, possibly, he's a violent abuser and kills her).

I was reading the disturbing story of Anneliese Michel earlier, and thought that, by the end of this single, it sounds like Barry Ryan is going through an exorcism. Possibly that's the only way he can get Eloise out of his system.

In my mind, Eloise looks like Demelza from Poldark (sorry Lena, arcane 70s UK tv reference). And Barry Ryan I find hard to mentally separate from Patrick Mower.

*both are names to roll around the mouth; I'm reminded of besotted Humbert slowly repeating the name Lolita.

Robin Carmody said...

Superb analysis. Absolutely superb.

Couple of things: might Barry Ryan's greater standing and status in mainland Europe have to do with his connection with the troubadours, a parallel that isn't quite there in the English mythos? Certainly the way he sings, the way he expresses his feelings, are more easily understandable and more instantly feelable there; they seem more natural, more part of the national self-image, less something to brush off in shame.

I can understand why "Love is Love" missed the UK Top 20 (like all his future singles) but was almost as big as "Eloise" on the mainland; he sounds genuinely disturbed and disturbing in a way he doesn't quite on "Eloise". The way he sings "Listen, love, to what I'm saying" ... he genuinely sounds capable of rape, even murder; and his son will keep his campaign alive after him (a campaign of revenge, of sexual violence?). This would have been strong stuff in the Anglosphere in any era, and I can understand why it was one step too far for the British. On the mainland, these extreme emotions in popular song have always been better understood, less taken literally or interpreted as Dire Warnings (indeed, this is a very precise part of the Europhobia of those - not just the Mail; parts of the Left can be as bad - who want pop to be simply a parade of moral instructions and endorsements).