Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Troubled Dolly: Clodagh Rodgers: "Come Back And Shake Me"

If you said the words ‘Northern Ireland’ to, say, earnest young people at this time, they would talk about The Troubles; but the same words would evoke quite something else in those younger and more interested in pop, particularly boys; Clodagh Rodgers would be their main response, which puts a whole different spin on what, at this time, Northern Ireland meant to the British public in general. To some, sectarian strife; to others, home of a dream babe.

Unlike Mary Hopkin, who prospered under the aegis of Apple, Rodgers prospered with one American Kenny Young, who wrote and produced this song and finally got Rodgers (who had been performing since she was a teenager and recording for several years already) her first real hit, an NME number two. It is, in effect, a song about wanting her man back, the aggression of the title lyric implying she is all but dead without him – “My sleeves are all torn, my buttons are loose/My makeup’s starting to fade away*” – she is his “baby doll” and a rather sullied and sad Raggedy Ann. She begs him to come back and fix her up, and bring her back to life. It’s a standard uptempo song as you’d expect – “Hug me, bug me, be my friend!” she commands in the chorus – and her requests are topped with this bare fact: “My life is my love, my love is my life/My world is my man” – feminist anthem this is definitely not, but then it is1969, and this song chimes in well with Rodgers’ appearance as a “dolly bird” who is dressed up much as a Barbie would be, with a hint of invitation that would indeed make her the boys’ favourite at this time. Rodgers went on to other successes in the charts** and controversially represented the UK in Eurovision a year later (there were IRA death threats against her); she became part of 'all around entertainment' and was always there either on tv or the stage, even if she had bad luck with singles. (For instance, she recorded "Stand By Your Man" before Tammy Wynette did, but Tammy had the hit.)

Rodgers was a star, launched with Kenny Young's songs; he would go on to write and produce with Fox and Yellow Dog (Fox's hit "S-s-single Bed" in 1976 was too coy for Rodgers, I imagine; part of her appeal was her directness). The simplicity of Rodgers, that star quality, were part of the whole puzzle of 1969, when show business was going right along as usual, just as the 'classic rock' era was beginning and strangeness was starting to seep into things. If you were a boy, Rodgers was easy enough to understand, even if The Troubles was something hanging in the background, in direct opposition to just about everything she stood for.

Next up: a Manchester band that did much better in the U.S. than at home.

*I cannot help but think of the whole riot grrl 'kinderwhore' deliberately rough baby doll look here, as championed by Courtney Love; in the 60s that would have been unacceptable. Rodgers here wants joy in her life, as well as neatness and tidiness.

**She was the biggest female star of '69 in the UK, and her voice was insured for a million pounds. And yet growing up in North America I was unaware of her - a good example of how divided the two sides of the Atlantic were becoming at this time, a gaping crevasse that would increase in the early 70s.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Muse Sings: Mary Hopkin: "Goodbye"

While it may seem like time can be evenly split between ten-year chunks we call decades, the actual feel of any given time is oblivious to anything so arbitrary. The early 60s are now a half century in the past, but they must have seemed a long time ago even by 1969 standards; the 60s moved with such force that by its last year it had toppled over, collapsed through its own momentum, and much like a party where anything can happen and so it does, all kinds of good and bad (not to mention previously impossible and horrific) things were bound to happen. Which is to say it was a time of possibility; a time when those who, to quote the Dream Warriors, found meaning in their music addictions were able to start having hit singles and albums of their own, inspired by their own version of the 60s.

In the midst of all this was a voice; a young woman who won Opportunity Knocks and was signed to The Beatles' own Apple records, who became - if only for a brief time - a voice for this turbulent period. "Those Were The Days" is a song of remembrance and things returning, salvaged through the very act of remembering itself. This song, the follow-up, is already ahead of time - saying, literally, goodbye to the strained and somewhat exhausted decade. A voice like this persists; it becomes an emblem to those who need it and feel it, and it can return when you least expect it...to act as a kind of muse? Or to act as a reminder that there was a time when inspiration was not at all hard to find?

This is what I mean by a voice attaching itself to a certain time; or rather a certain voice coming to stand for that time, which was ephemeral and yet vivid, like a brilliantly-colored bird. Hopkin's voice has this quality, maybe because she was young - still in her teens when this was released - and her songs were ones that seemed to be about appreciating well enough where things were but wanting to move on. Whether she appears in "Sound and Vision" deliberately as that musing figure or not I don't know, but the effect is to give "Goodbye" a totemic feel of being a song of leaving and the typical McCartney blitheness hides whatever sadness there is in that; there, she seems to be saying, the 60s are gone and there's no point in being sorry about it; time for new horizons, opportunities, experiences...and in a short few months "Space Oddity" is recorded, and the 70s may not technically begin there, but then again decades do not always start where you might think they do. Hopkin leaves the party just before things start to get strange; Bowie's song is also about escape, though what kind of escape anyone can make from the 60s is a debatable point.

By this time many were lost and looking for a way home; something solid to grasp. But for those who were just getting started, departure was the thing; finding solace and energy in not being like others. Hopkin's voice symbolized this, and hers is one of several songs in this blog for '69 that sum up the whole time. It is deceptively light, but utterly firm in its convictions. The muse comes and goes as she wishes, appears when least expected...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pink Fluff: Lulu: "Boom Bang a Bang"

And now we return to the baffling and consternating (to this American, anyway) Eurovision Song Contest. The UK entry was this song, chosen by the UK public from several, and sung by a rather unwilling Lulu (she didn't like the song, but if the public wanted it...).

My general puzzlement with Eurovision is simply that so many of the songs chosen as entries aren't very good; Alan Moorhouse's oom-pah-pah was the same as every UK entry from this time, and Peter Warne's lyrics are so silly they were satirized almost immediately by Monty Python. But the UK public got it right, and this song won the contest...along with three other songs. Yes, there was a four-way tie, a situation that led several countries to boycott the 1970 contest as it was evident that the voting system was screwed up. I will pause here to give you, my dear readers, the other songs - "Vivo Cantando" by Salome (Spain, host country*), "De Troubadour" by Lennie Kuhr (Netherlands), "Un Jour, Un Enfant" by Frida Boccara (France). All of these songs are typical of Eurovision, but they all seem to be about something a little more meaningful than just cuddling; poor Lulu is stuck with a song that seems desperate, in comparison, to be called 'young' and 'pop' and 'fresh' while it's really just more of the same - drivel given to the UK's best singers at this time wasn't just for the men (Englebert, Tom) but evident here as well, sadly. (Even the great Sandie Shaw couldn't escape this: she hated "Monsieur Dupont" but it was a hit at the same time as Lulu.)

Whose fault is all this? (I mean song quality, not Eurovision.) Ultimately it is the public's I'm afraid; if these songs had not been hits, the producers/songwriters would not have been encouraged to do more of the same (and for everyone I've mentioned from the UK, worse). It's 1969 now but "the industry" (as Sir Cliff refers to it) still seems to think it's the swinging 60s when cheery bits of fluff were all the public wanted, and unfortunately, they were right.

As for Lulu, she followed Dusty Springfield to the US to make music; Sandie Shaw's attempts to do tougher stuff went nowhere** and she sensibly retired to raise her family. With songs like "Boom Bang A Bang" the UK had a hit across Europe, so I suppose it was a success commercially; but there is no punctum in it and it is all sugar without much substance. (I wonder how many people voted because it was Lulu, ignoring the song altogether.)

Next up: another young woman in a privileged position who has better luck with her songwriter.

*I should mention here that Austria boycotted this year's contest as it was being held in Franco's Spain. Isn't Eurovision supposed to be about the music? You can see why this American gets consternated.

**Reviewing The Situation has to be one of the great 'lost' covers albums; I say lost as the whopping majority of folks who know vaguely of her have no idea about it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Knowing: Dean Martin: "Gentle On My Mind"

Sometimes the invisible is just as important as the visible; intangible, tangible. As important as it can be to have an experience of something, it is in some ways even more rewarding to know that that experience is yours and yours alone, softly tucked away somewhere, to rest upon when you need it. It can make a harsh world seem more friendly and bearable, and the rough life smoother, more elegant.

I see a clear path; one away from the city, the town, the village even. It's where he walks and remembers and walks some more, parallel to the railroad track perhaps, nearby some woods where he's found a safe place to sleep...he's away from her and yet she is always there, an interior night light of sorts, a sureness that gives the randomness and, yes, repetitiveness of his life an extra dimension. As he talks/sings he unwinds his tether to her, one that is the most slack imaginable without being undone altogether; neither is one for clinging or even letter-writing.

She and he have a bond; that bond exists not as two irresistible soul mates but almost as two sides of one person, one forever there and content to see him when she can, the other out there in the civilized wilderness, rough and forever on the move. There is no great unrequited longing of romance but instead the sure knowledge that she is there, a quietly profound presence that soothes like medicine and is as solid as the earth itself. He may roam, but he knows there is that one path, that floor he can sleep on...and this gives his freedom a sweetness that takes any sense of deprivation or desperation away.

This is indeed the sweet life without caring; a genial warmth that spreads easily from the singer to the listener, and while Glen Campbell had the biggest hit with John Hartford's song in the US, it was Dean Martin's in the UK, and his laissez-faire style of singing (on his tv show he does it so lazily I can't always make out the words; not sure if Liz Fraser ever heard this or not) suits the words perfectly. The song is carefree, open, wide as the plain I imagine the narrator walks and knows well; and Martin's cheerful embracing of that joy is a pleasure, and you can imagine happily walking along with him, sharing that gurgling soup, if not envying the fact that she is constantly - though not heavily - on his mind. Is he going away from her, going towards her, orbiting her? All are possibilities, but that she and he have that connection is the point, and essentially as long as they are both safe, they are both happy.

This was Dean Martin's last UK hit in his lifetime; it neatly helps to end the decade, to give notice that the early glamorous Mad Men 60s had not entirely disappeared (and how much more secure and at ease this is than Sinatra's persistent hit of the time, "My Way"). It is also damn refreshing to hear a song of love that goes along at its own pace (in a faster tempo than "Honey" - this is the flip side of that in many ways) and is coolly but glowingly happy, instead of miserable and maudlin. Extracting the sweetness in life and teaching the zen of being happy by making others happy - of enjoying the ride, even if he has to hug himself - that is what Martin is doing here, and as it is so many times, it is a stark contrast to the top song, which is one of insecurity, aching and dread. Blessed were those at this time who could live life so easily; whose only needs were a place to eat and store a sleeping bag, catch a passing train and drink the waters of memory.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Build A Better Dream, Then: Cilla Black: "Surround Yourself With Sorrow"

As we go into 1969, I should note that while I don’t remember this year at all in any general sense, this is when – if I do know a song – I seem to have a profound relationship to it, as deep as any smell or taste; I was two at the time and so I was raw, more than easily impressionable and my whole reaction to the mere mention of 1969 is one of apprehension and stupefaction, as if something wholly unthinkable just happened and there I was, trying to understand what I had just seen*.

That this is the case – my complex and wordless reaction to the music of 1969 – is solid, but that is based on US hit songs; and this blog exists to chronicle the hits of the UK chart, as you dear readers know. Looking at the events in the news here for this time, there exists an unsettling thing in the background for most people who are aware of it – a thing that seems far away but is in fact close**, a historical circumstance that looms…and then becomes public in this year, something the general public would prefer to consider momentary, like student protests at the LSE or some form of political cold that will, with the correct remedies, disappear.

I mention them because as of this time – mid-March – The Troubles are well underway. Now, I don’t know how much of an impact they had on the charts directly, but I can certainly understand how a song that is cheery but admits to blankness and misery might have a resonance it would not have ordinarily. The “buttercup” (hm, that word again) here has had a fight and looks out to a wet, neon-flashing world and there’s Cilla telling her to buck up, presumably because this is – OOH! – how a modern young woman would behave. There is more than a trace of ye olde morale-building war spirit here, as if being miserable after a fight just won’t do; there is more misery in the world than you can comprehend, so why add to it? Falling apart over one man, one fight, is almost palpably not good enough. Cilla (interpreting the work of Bill Martin & Phil Coulter – one Scotsman, one Irishman) understands the sorrow the woman in question feels, but hey, she also says, even in the tone of her voice, her smile – the world is a big place and just looking out the window re-hashing things isn’t going to improve anybody’s situation. (Or so George Martin's brassy, punchy production seems to say; he did this rather than work with The Beatles, who were in the slow process of falling apart, and were nearly impossible to produce at the time.)

Love is gone; the pressure is on to either continue in some way or fall apart completely. Perhaps the promise of The Summer of Love has expired, but to give up now and be self-pitying is just not appropriate; not when this apocalyptic year holds a new promise, a re-making of the world that is necessarily going to cause a lot of heartbreaks all over the place. Something bigger is taking place, "tomorrow" may as well be right now and that pressure, while unrelenting, needs something more than just crying (the water in this song falls, surreally, inside and outside the woman's head - she is but a little boat that has briefly capsized but can right itself with enough - OOH! - willpower and determination). Maybe the neon lights that Petula Clark once sang about can cheer her up too?

Next up: why struggle with thoughts when they are all you have?

*At the time I was growing up in Los Angeles, there was a certain growing tension and paranoia in the air; this is written about very well by Andrew Hultkrans in his book about Love’s Forever Changes in the 33 1/3 series on classic albums. I will get to the eruption that ends this later on.

**Strictly speaking of course Northern Ireland was the place of conflict, but tensions between Catholics and Protestants existed in parts of mainland UK as well; as I understand it, the worst area was West Central Scotland, Glasgow in particular.