Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Stand-In Star: Alvin Stardust: "My Coo Ca Choo"

As the year draws to a close, this is a good time to recall how split this year has been between the US and UK charts - there was only one common #1, the unremittingly awful "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando & Dawn.  The Glam Slam, outside of Bowie (and at one remove, Roxy Music) was not getting anywhere fast in the US, and even then was, I'd guess, something of a cult for the teenagers hanging out at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco in Los Angeles, for instance.  For me Alvin Stardust is a purely UK-understood phenomena, someone whose whole persona is "rock 'n' roll" at a glance, all the odd signifiers of "danger" without any of said danger really there whatsoever.

He was born in London, was Bernard William Jewry, and grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (a town a few miles just north of Nottingham itself).  He was working as a roadie for Shane Fenton and the Fentones when Fenton got ill and died; Fenton's mom wanted the band to continue in his honor, and so they did, with Jewry taking Fenton's name and leading the band to some chart success in the early 60s.  The group broke up, leaving Jewry on his own, and by the early 70s he was given a new name by his label boss Michael Levy, and that was Alvin Stardust.  It's a bit more complicated than that, however; "My Coo Ca Choo" was written by Peter Shelley and recorded by him as well - but he didn't want to "be" Alvin Stardust, so Jewry once again stepped in and took on the task of looking moody, dressing in black leather, and generally being a rock star - a role I feel he acted as much as really was.  The song is pure glam stomp, seductive-style (though "Tom Cat! Y'know where it's at/Come on! Lets go to my flat/Lay down 'n' groove on the mat" is not exactly Bryan Ferry singing to his siren).  There is something reassuring about something so inherently safe and unthreatening appearing at this time (and how reassuring as well, that this public service ad featuring two girls can be viewed with a clear conscience even now, thank goodness.)  Perhaps the long years working in obscurity gave Jewry a sense of responsibility and perspective that others have sadly shown to have lacked; to take on someone else's part or role is in itself a situation that works best with some modesty and determination.  Stardust (and yes his name was a take on one Gary Glitter) remains one of those beacons in The Fog, a man who was pure showbusiness but somehow humble about it in a way that showed the Glam Slam to be the people's music.  How could it ever go?

Next up:  Every day?  Really?   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Burning On: Mud: "Dyna-Mite"

The main virtue of rock 'n' roll is that it's not supposed to be about technical excellence at its heart (though that can be stupefying, goodness knows) but about a kind of knowing-wink look, a sense that maybe what is happening is a little...dangerous

Mud aren't dangerous; certainly with this song the woman in question is explosive, but Les Gray's voice doesn't shriek or go camp - it is a plain voice (one from quiet suburban Carsharlton, no less) and poses no threat to any order whatsoever.  And so the woman's impact is tempered, made suggestive somehow, because of Gray's calm. 

This Chinn/Chapman song (rejected by The Sweet for being not quite rocking enough, I guess) sounds a little like Status Quo, a little like Suzi Quatro - when the Glam template was fresh every song was distinctive, but now that it has been worn smooth it has become a genre, as opposed to a movement.  Glam was still big enough to have real force in the charts (this was a #2 on the Radio Luxembourg hit parade) to matter and wasn't going away anytime soon (see the next two entries here) but emotionally it had to be more ooomphy than this (though the music going "on and on and on and on" with the Gray's voice going up and up each time is at least a good try). 

The sophisticated velvet goldmine era of T.Rex has given way to this handclapping/vaguely intimidating ode to a woman who can turn on a whole damn town, not just one man, with her flashing eyes and radiance - so much so that no one knows if she's "wrong or right" as she is so overwhelming.  This is again a woman-as-spectacle song (nowhere in the narration is there any interaction between the narrator and the woman) - she tells you to boogaloo and you do, and that's that.  She comes from nowhere and is beholden to no one.  She is a flash in the sky, but it's too bad the song is durably rock 'n' roll but not much more than that; this song is in The Void, as far as I can tell, for being too neat and tidy about a woman who is anything but.  She's on fire, as Alicia Keys will one day sing, and as Gray gets across backhandedly. 

Next up:  groove on me what?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Irresistible: David Bowie: "Sorrow"

As 1973 draws to a close - there are only a few songs left (for this blog, in any case) to consider - the understandable and complex idea of going backwards to go forwards is coming into play.  David Bowie's understanding of this was to do an album of covers, as if to say, hmm, yeah, the 60s was my decade too, but it's the 70s now, and what is left of the 60s?  Surely the 70s are not going to be some endless rehash of the previous decade, are they?

"Sorrow" started its way towards Bowie rather modestly as the b-side of The McCoys' version of "Fever" - which brings the nigh-legendary figure of Rick Derringer into the MSBWT story, amongst other things.  It was The McCoys who did it first, and The Merseys (Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley, formerly of The Merseybeats) then covered it and had a hit with it in May 1966.  A line from the song appears in The Beatles' "It's All Too Much" ("with your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue").  The song (written by Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and future Blondie/The Go-Go's producer Richard Gottehrer) is a typical lament about a girl who is "acting funny" and who "never does" what she should (she plays "high class games" - are these the same ones that the woman in "It's All Over Now" plays, I wonder).  The song (an NME #2) is in two parts - the first, wherein he presumably leaves her because she brings nothing but, well, sorrow, and after the saxophone solo, where he is alone and missing her and her "OWNLEY" things - blond hair in particular.  He's unable to sleep, his mind wanders in the song as he tries to find her, unable to resist the pull of her, even if she's bad news for him. 

It is a low-key song, slightly nervous, as if the narrator acknowledges that the object of his desire is possibly "the devil's daughter" but that she has a pull on him that is hypnotic, languorous and will not let him be.  It's not like "Eloise" in its absolute high-pitch of romantic obsession - Bowie is trying to keep a lid on that, but it is as if, with the strings and his own delicate singing, that he is hooked on her sorrow, that he would rather be with her than with someone who was more conventional.  It could be that "Sorrow" is a song looking back at the 60s themselves - dangerous, fluctuating, self-important and utterly compelling - as something that can only be lamented, remembered and sought for, but never recovered.  Not entirely; not completely. 

The 60s are going to keep resonating as the 70s go on - in some parts of the UK the 60s only really begin to happen in the 70s; there is a time-lapse going on, a reluctance to move ahead.  But considering late '73, who wouldn't want the 60s all over again?  Bowie seems to be warning against such thinking, though, and his emotional distance here breaks down pretty quickly - he may be cold or cruel in other ones on the album, but this is a moment of reflection and loss; of wanting and ache.

Next up:  if it can't be shiny, it's dirty.