Monday, May 4, 2020

When Is A Song An Unsong?: Mac and Katie Kissoon: "Sugar Candy Kisses"

What is it like to listen to a song that has fundamentally been...forgotten? This song is essentially no longer part of what I (guess) is the musical “canon.” Of course this may not be a bad thing, but in a time when people seem to obsess over the past in a way which is unhealthy (look at the current album charts – how much of the music is from the past or are greatest hits from the past? A lot) it is rare.  If you are me, trying to find the new is increasingly difficult but the past seems to loom and even interrupt, making the new (and interesting) harder and harder to locate. 

Do people deliberately like bad things?  Do people deliberately like mediocre things?  These were my first thoughts upon regarding this song.  But I have had a bit more time to think these things over.  This song is neither bad nor mediocre; but it is in a unique and unenviable position of being utterly forgotten.  Finding a 70s compilation with this song on it – and there are so many 70s compilations – is nearly impossible.  It has been virtually erased from music, been turned into a non-song.  An unsong, if you will.  This is a rare feat, as so much of radio (in the UK at least) is fixated on the 70s, as the album charts to this day show.  Almost all songs from the 70s which were big hits (that can still be played, of course) are still being given airtime somewhere (if not on Radio 2 then on 6 Music or elsewhere).  The overwhelming narrative is not just on the radio but on these compilations; for a song to only be available on a Disky (Dutch) box set is saying something.  It is saying only Europe still cares; the UK has effectively turned its back on this song and Mac and Katie Kissoon, denying its existence and leading us, dear reader, straight into the void that I somehow instinctively knew was at the heart of the 70s UK single charts.  With this song we are beyond the edge; we are in the world where things disappear, and must go forth carefully.  This is not The Fog as much as what The Fog has been hiding.

Of course, there are many songs which managed to get into the charts which are, for any number of reasons, no longer played – singles are, lest we ever forget, supposed to be evanescent things, things which strike at the moment acutely, moments that reach out to the listener directly as if taking up a conversation, adding their voices to the discussion. (By the way, while I remain ambivalent about the 70s personally, I think they are far more interesting than radio generally lets on.)  They can be good or bad or indeed mediocre, but they all hope (or the songwriters and performers do) to be at least remembered and even celebrated. The music industry loves (in part because this is how it survives) to remind us of the past, even if it is just the recent past of the NOW series. 

For a song to be left out of all this is a puzzle, particularly as these two were already part of the UK  musical world – Katie Kissoon had been recording since the 60s (under the odd name Peanut) solo and with her brother Jerry (stage name Mac).  This song was their big chance for a hit in the UK, and as it was as deliberately written* as The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” and it worked, getting to #2 on Radio Luxembourg and #3 in the UK.  (That a love song is being sung by siblings was something blithely ignored at the time I am guessing, especially since Donny and Marie were also popular.) 

I can think of a few reasons this song has been...left behind.  It sounds as if they are singing the song – their voices are genuine and sweet enough, but somehow still there is no punctum. It is, even by 1975 standards, a bit square; like a music box it dutifully revolves and then fades abruptly once it’s done.  It is professional music, done by professionals; Mac and Katie Kissoon are and have been very much part of the business as in-demand backing singers** since their heyday (mostly in Europe) was over.  They are doing their best with a song that is just too rote and routine to spark any actual fervour, the sort of song done on variety shows.

Ultimately this song shows that just being a hit is not enough.  Being in the charts at all as we have seen is not really enough either. There is something amiss about the charts themselves at this time – which I will address in due course.  A whole other thing is quietly and determinedly already existing and growing, music which is not perhaps as technically good as this...but that will not, in time, matter.  Alongside this in February 1975 Margaret Thatcher becomes leader of the Conservative party.  The end of “the 1970s” is not in sight...yet.

Next up:  a different pair with a different future.


* The composer credits are Bickerton/Waddington, who also wrote "Nothing But A Heartache" by The Flirtations. 

**Katie is a favourite with Van Morrison in particular, though I should note she has also worked with the KLF and Dexy's Midnight Runners.. I should also note that as Mac and Katie they had the first crack at “Love Will Keep Us Together” before the more famous version, and had the US hit version of "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep."



David Belbin said...

I have no recollection of this single but after reading the end I remembered that I got to see Katie twice during Van's 1978 tour when she was a backing singer and, to my chagrin, got to sing Moondance. I think the second time I used it as an opportunity to go to the loo. Welcome back, Lena!

vinylscot said...

Looking back at the charts for the two weeks when this sat at #3, it was a particularly weak chart for the mid-70s. It was early February, and the post-Christmas clearout took rather longer back then. The "new" releases from January were beginning to take up space on the charts (10 of the top 20 debuted on the chart dated 18/01/75), but very few major acts had yet released anything in 1975, and a few records performed rather better than expected, pretty much by default. (Tymes, Glitter Band, etc.)

As an aside, there is an early Bjork solo bootleg from 1994 called "Sugar Candy Kisses", but thankfully she doesn't cover the track.

Will said...

Great to see this return! Hope you are both staying afloat amid the turmoil.

Robin Carmody said...

Feel like a lot of the non-played songs from this era which aren't by Gadd or King (and don't have lyrics which get too close to the bone when it comes to the memory of what those people did, like Smokie's "Oh Carol") are the ones dependant on archaic regional stereotypes: Brighouse & Rastrick (which you'll be getting to), Brian & Michael, Tony Capstick (OK that was strictly 1980s but come on, and it's pre-Falklands after all), Chas & Dave (see above re. the crossover), and of course the group who were played at number one in 1976 in last Saturday's POTP. The last may not be quite the same thing for some, because racists on the Right often believe that areas only change when they have a huge BAME population (the first three mentioned above to some extent, the last to a massive extent) and their mirrors on the Left often believe that areas only change when they go through de-industrialisation (the first three mentioned above to a huge extent obviously, and the disappearance of the London docks plus the Wapping dispute are similar), but those of us who actually live in such areas know that there has been as deep and as profound a language change and disappearance of the traditional working-class accent in the shires as in any cities, and indeed greater than in some cities, and that the mayor of Lydney does *not* speak for the *young* of such areas in any sense whatsoever.

Those records speak of what was a residual culture then, and their disappearance - other than on the likes of POTP which increasingly tells a very different story from the revisionist one of other radio shows; nothing from the endlessly-streamed 'Rumours' will ever get played unless they dip outside the Top 20 - is a sign of how archaic their world now is. But your general point is accurate considering that a lot of commercial FM stations, including one in my area, which mixed old and new are now becoming Greatest Hits Radio, a recognition that the contemporary pop audience increasingly has fled to Spotify and YouTube and the audience for neither era wants to sit through the other.

I think I may have said this before, but is there any chance that the entry for "Jeans On" - an NME number two hit - could be a high-concept piece imagining how the young Diana Spencer, David Cameron and Boris Johnson reacted to it, considering the paranoia they must have sensed from their elders that their class was under threat and the ludicrous equation of pop with communism which they may also have imbued, blissfully unaware of how it actually was treated in such countries? You could even throw Prince Andrew into it; now *there's* a thought ...