Just as there is a gulf between nostalgias between the US and UK, so there are gulfs between the general levels of what could best be called, borrowing from the gardening world, hardy perennials. These are types of musicians or performers that will always do well, in part because they make the audience feel ‘at home’ and somehow reassured that things may be a bit crazy outside, but here, here is proof that life goes on as it should. In the US this can be everything from gospel to country to Christian music – the sort of solid and reliable stuff that made (and makes) the nation what it is, the sort of music that little kids are taught to sing at school. (When I was about eight I learned to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” up in Canada, a song that could qualify as all three of the above.) In the UK this area seems to be represented by choirs and in particular by choirboys, or rather the type of young man who could be accurately summed up by the phrase “aw wee choirboy” – one that has no American equivalent, unless you count the young Michael Jackson doing songs like “Ben.”* He is “aw” because he is cute, “wee” because he is young, and the last word is self-descriptive.
I am not sure why this perennial is one, but it is borne out time and again on music-based reality shows; a young man, cute, sweet, the sort a granny in oh say Arbroath would vote for, wins. Whether he succeeds after his crowning is another matter (does anyone remember Leon Jackson?), as the “aw wee choirboy” type is not exactly cut out for making club bangers or making landfill indie or pursuing a career in electronica. He is too pure and exalted in a way to do much else but sing whatever his producers have in mind, depending on how amenable he is. Songs that uplift and inspire are his, love songs and (going back to the roots of the thing) songs of worship suit him best.
Neil Reid was the original “aw wee choirboy” of modern times, who came to fame on – you can see him here – tv, and this was his big hit. Looking uncannily like a young Gordon Brown – with a bit, I can’t help it, of Danny Bonaduce from the Partridge Family as well – he sings in his own accent (Motherwellian, if I can put it that way; so many “aw wee choirboys are from Scotland or the north of England) and wears his little suit (complete with a tie!) and in his smiling little man way grabbed a hold of many hearts. The appeal of the song is absolute and just the sort of thing you’d expect; a song of thankfulness and a raining of blessings. I can well imagine that this is a song that would make grown men weep, and I know that it must be played at funeral services to this day, but – you guessed it – as far as radio is concerned now, Neil Reid is for chart shows and nothing else. Perhaps that’s not because he’s so young (twelve at the time) but that the song (like Connie Francis’ “Mama” which I wrote about here) expresses something that is universal and yet private, really beyond words almost, the bond between generations that even when sung about (as Reid sings) is too powerful and immediate for a song. So many songs are about loves that could be or once were, but the mother-child bond is one that just is, and it is a mark of the time that such a song could do so well. He not only had a hit single, but a number one album, a remarkable one, and still the only one so far achieved by someone yet to reach their teens. I cannot ignore the fact that the man who produced this song and his later album was one Ivor Raymonde, father of Simon, who led the Cocteau Twins and was no doubt aware of the odd purity of Reid's voice, that piercing sharpness and beauty and (am I imagining this? I know I get a bit farfetched at times) found in Elizabeth Fraser that same kind of voice, more or less...
The perennial figure of the choirboy is also - inevitably in this case - one that can only last for so long. Reid did what he could until his voice broke; Joe McElderry, the latest choirboy, was lucky enough to be almost out of his teens when he won the X Factor two years ago (and he was also lucky to win yet another tv show musical competition, this time for classical singing). I doubt if someone Reid's age would even make it to the finals of any show now; he would be deemed too young, and I can well imagine the producers wanting someone who could have a career in music and not finance (as Reid has)**.
This song takes this blog back to the beginnings of pop; it is practically Victorian in a time when things all around it are starting to look anything but. He made people feel cozy and comforted, and he won the talent show at the time - Opportunity Knocks - easily. This song is a pause, a prayer, before 1972 really gets going - a look backward, to better appreciate the battle that is yet to come.
Next up: correct spelling not required.
*Except it's hard to imagine a choirboy singing a song of love and acceptance to a rat.
**All things considered, Reid did very well; Leon Jackson is still out there making music, but has yet to make a comeback, as such.