100 Essential CDs – Number 51 – Pet Shop Boys – Introspective

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Introspective- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1988) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -34

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Just over a year after their essential “Actually” Pet Shop Boys released their third studio album.  It featured just six tracks giving them a chance to explore more extended dance-orientated material.  It was a bit of a risk, commercially, with buyers probably looking for value for money and with fans being likely to own at least one of the tracks already released as a single, but it paid off with another double platinum album in the UK, becoming worldwide not just their biggest selling album up to this time but their best.

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“Introspective’s ” concept  was to put out what were in essence 12” mixes on one album.  The tracks that were released as singles were put out in shorter formats.  The title refers to the lyrics as in reality musically, these were certainly not introspective as they were out and out dance tracks.  On paper it might have seem rather hastily put together, and was hot on the heels of “Actually” which was still selling at the time of this follow-up’s release.  Three of the tracks had been recorded by other artists, one had been a B side of a previous PSB single and only two were produced specifically for the album.  It does, however, work magnificently and bringing in Trevor Horn for production duties lead to an over-the-topness which lays beautifully alongside the occasionally quite sombre lyrics.

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Trevor Horn (a little earlier than his work with PSB)

The opening track sets the tempo and feel of the album magnificently.  “Left To My Own Devices is grandiose from its first notes- a violin sweep to a full orchestra with an operatic female voice singing what sounds remarkably like the word “arse” before the club beat kicks in.  This was the first time the PSB worked with a full orchestra. Both musically and lyrically this is superb.  The full-to-the-gills production cuts into Neil’s impassive rap and lyrics such as;

I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy

In a world of my own at the back of the garden

I didn’t want to compete, or play out on the street

For in a secret life I was a Roundhead general.

The song is perhaps best remembered for its mid section when after  a particularly lively orchestral flourish it empties out for Neil’s spoken;

I was faced with a choice at a difficult age

Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?

But in the back of my head I heard distant feet

Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat

 These four lines seem to sum up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys to me.  The questioning outsider keeping their options open with the urge to be just fabulous.  For those of us who hear Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, I salute you!

From this point in the track the orchestral arrangement builds further in this stunning Trevor Horn/Stewart Lipson production which sounds all at the same time like classical music, movie theme and a great disco track.  It’s eight minutes and sixteens seconds of unadulterated pleasure.  Harps and handclaps compete before the opera voice returns.  It all builds to a rousing climax and can only be really finished off with a thunderstorm.   This track reputedly took months to produce and listening to it you can tell why.  As an edited single it reached number 4 in the UK charts, but you really need to hear the whole thing.  It did slightly better in Ireland where it reached the top 3 and made the top 10, in amongst other markets, Finland, Germany, Poland and Spain.

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“I Want A Dog” had seen life as the B-side to the single “Rent” but here is extended to six minutes and fifteen seconds in a Frankie Knuckles remix.  It’s a song about someone, who, basically, wants a dog.  There’s a yearning for company throughout which always pulls at the heart-strings perhaps exemplified by the line “When I get back to my small flat/I want to hear somebody bark”. It could be trite if it wasn’t a kicking house track set up by its lengthy instrumental introduction. In fact the first line almost seems like an anti-climax after what has been building up, but you’re soon sucked into the song.  “Don’t want a cat/scratching its claws all over my Habitat”. I’ve always taken that last word to refer to furniture bought at the shop of the same name, hence the capital letter. It’s not my favourite track on the album but it always brings about a poignant smile.

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“Domino Dancing” is the second of the two tracks recorded specifically for the album and was also the second single released prior to the album’s release.  There’s a great Latin flavour in this track from the keyboard work.  Once again this is the longer 7 mins 40 version of the song which as a single reached number 7 in the UK charts.  That Latin flavour got the thumbs up from Spain where it topped the charts as it did in Finland and made the Top 5 in amongst other regions, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland and became their last Top 20 US hit reaching number 18.  An autumn release may explain its slightly muted response in the UK as it feels like a heat of the summer track, released a month or so earlier this could have captured the feel of the holiday season.  Mixed with Wham’s “Club Tropicana” you’d taste the Pina Colada and smell the Ambre Solaire.

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It’s off to the parade for a marching band intro to “I’m Not Scared” which had already done the business earlier in 1988 when the version by Patsy Kensit led Eighth Wonder became their biggest hit reaching number 7 in the UK.  Lyrically, I have no idea. there’s actors on the street and that dog Neil wanted two tracks ago seem to be about to attack. There’s an unreal urban sense of menace to this track which is just a little scary and on the PSB version the sound of jackboots marching in the street is pervasive and a little chilling.

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Eighth Wonder

 Cover version next and it’s a great one.  Released as a single this became the Christmas number one of 1987 released in the midst of the tracks from their previous album and taken from the PSB movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” which I’ve covered in my review of “Actually”. “Always On My Mind” is a slightly cheesy song which is perfect fare anyway for the boys but here it’s toughened by slipping into “In My House” an extended house workout.  Another track which is really sublime in its full length version- here its comes in just over nine minutes.  The edited single also topped the charts in Canada, Finland, Gemany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  It is one of the duo’s biggest ever singles worldwide and in 2014 in a BBC poll was voted the best cover version of all time.

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Album closer “It’s Alright” is at nine minutes 24 the PSB’s longest ever album track, and truth be told, it does go on a bit.  It’s another cover version this time of a Chicago House track recorded by Sterling Void which the boys heard on a compilation album.  The original, produced by legendary House producer Marshall Jefferson did become a small hit once “Introspective” was released (#53 teamed as a double A Side with “Runaway Girl”).  The Trevor Horn production on the CD is impressive but by this time this listener is beginning to feel that he has over-indulged slightly on the club sounds (not that bad a thing to happen, but slight rhythm fatigue is setting in by this point).  As a UK single it reached number 5 and made the Top 3 in Germany and Ireland.  It’s an optimistic, reassuring end to what have been some quite sombre moments lyrically on the album but it lacks the magic of some PSB lyrics to put it amongst their greatest tracks.

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I think the reason I love this album so much is its combination of PSB disaffection with a more strident production sense than we had ever heard before.  The group are morphing from a bedroom based recording duo to a pair who can take all musical forms in their stride and give it the Pet Shop Boys feel.  It really is “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, but it is also a lot more and from this release you can appreciate that these boys would be able to go on to score movies and write operas.  It’s arty, accessible, exhausting and great fun.  This would be their second but not their last essential release.

The chosen video is for the single mix of “Left To My Own Devices”.  You’ll have to dig out the album version to hear the opera woman sing “arse”!

 

Introspective  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99 and used from £0.72. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $16.99 new and used from $1.99 and as a download for $11.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2107)

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Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”

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All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 71 – Pet Shop Boys – Actually

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Actually- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1987) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -25

British National Treasures Pet Shop Boys found them ascending, after a couple of false starts, to the top of both the UK and US singles charts with their debut hit single “West End Girls”.  This was a 1985 re-recording of a track that had been out the previous year which had attracted attention in the clubs.  Their second release “Opportunites (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” also had to wait for a 1986 remix to make number 11 in the UK and 10 in the US.  A debut album aimed to install politeness to the record-buying generation, ensuring that they asked for “Pet Shop Boys Please” reached number 3 in the UK and 7 in the US.  It was a solid release, the best track for me being the third single “Suburbia”- a delightful piece of PSB nonsense which got to number 8 in the UK  (and went Top 3 in, amongst other territories,  Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and Switzerland).

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My real love affair with PSB started with this, their second studio album. I’d bought both “Please” and “Disco” their first collection of remixes which was released in 1986 and reached 15 in the UK album charts but with this album they upped a gear into the Essential Releases category.  It would be their first top class release but by no means their last nor their very best.  I may be going Pet Shop Boys for quite a little while with these reviews so let’s see what makes this particular album so good.

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The CD contains ten tracks, four of these were released as singles with two reaching UK number 1, one reached number 2 and one number 8.  In the US one single reached number 2 another number 9. There were also chart-topping singles for them in amongst other markets, Austria, Germany, Finland, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  The tracks are all written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, three in collaboration with other writers and they took production credits for three of the ten tracks alongside other producers, here still learning their craft.

The opening track “One More Chance” was written alongside Bobby Orlando, who had already had a part to play with their career.  The Boys hero worshipped this American producer who as Bobby O was a leading light in the Hi NRG dance music scene, which was by the mid 80’s a staple in gay clubs.  He recorded on a number of different dance labels, under a range of names, although quite often the tracks featured just Orlando himself.  He also produced for artists like drag superstar Divine and girl group The Flirts whose 1982 club hit “Passion” was a huge favourite of Chris and Neil’s.  A trip to interview Orlando when Neil was working with “Smash Hits” led to a request for the duo to record with him- the result being the original (non-hit) version of “West End Girls”.  Bobby O is back with the song-writing credits with “One More Chance” which had originally been the group’s second single three years before this album’s release and had appeared without success on a number of labels around the world.  For “Actually” it was re-recorded with additional lyrics by Chris and produced by Julian Mendelsohn.

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Bobby Orlando

A mood-setting introduction of screeching brakes leads into a street-bound paranoid love song.  A tale of one who is “chained/framed” and is begging for a chance to continue what seems like an unhealthy, obsessive relationship, all of this over crashing club beats.  It’s a good opener.

The most talked about track on the album follows next.  By 1987 arguably the greatest British female singer of all time had been in the musical wilderness and not featured on a top 40 hit for 19 years.  However the Dusty Springfield, PSB collaboration came about it was a stroke of genius.  Neil has often spoken of the painstaking way Dusty liked to record- the ultimate perfectionist, often to the detriment of her career and certainly her peace of mind.  “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” reached number 2 in both the UK and US just before the release of the album.  The crowning moment is when Dusty, initially a little lost in the mix with Neil in the verse comes in with her  “Since you went away/I’ve been hanging around” section.  It makes me breathe out and think “Dusty’s back!”.  And she was back as they collaborated again on “Nothing Has Been Proved” a track appropriately from the 60’s set movie “Scandal” as well as tracks on her number 18 1990 album “Reputation”, a recording which saw Dusty’s first Top 20 studio album for 25 years.  It also paved the way for other collaborations including one of my other Essential CD’s “Results” by Liza Minelli.

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“Shopping” is a bit of fun fluff examining the consumerism of the 80’s, “I heard it in the House Of Commons/Everything’s For Sale”.  It’s very much the “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” of this album.  I don’t know how seriously you can take songs with spellings (“D.I.V.O.R.C.E”& “D.I.S.C.O” being further evidence of this.)  Classic track “Rent” is up next and this is one that features on two of my Essential albums (Liza Minelli’s version on “Results” turns it into a Broadway ballad).  Here it’s faster and gentler than Liza’s and may very well be the first hit single to imply male prostitution or sugar daddy-ism,  but whatever it is Neil is quite happy with the arrangement; “We never ever argue/We never calculate the currency we spent/ I love you/ You pay my rent”.  Great lyrics.  The song reached number 8 as the third single from the album.

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“Hit Music” is a dance track, with nothing deeper in the lyrics than to have a good time.  Music as escapism and works well enough as that.  I’ve always had a big soft spot for the ballad which follows next.  “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and is written by the Boys alongside movie score supremo Ennio Morricone.  It comes from another surprising venture for the boys, a now pretty much forgotten feature film of the same name released in 1988.  The film starred Chris and Neil alongside Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt and joined the vast pile of British film starring pop stars which are just plain odd.  The surrealness of the movie didn’t really work.  The resume of it on IMD goes “A young boy’s holiday at a seaside resort includes a crazy blind priest, nuns in suspenders and a whole bunch of fat ladies”.  Enough said.   The song on “Actually” is actually quite lovely, a big sweeping ballad which certainly extended PSB beyond the dance music boundaries.  Another track taken from the soundtrack following the release of the film, the Boys’ version of the Elvis Presley hit “Always On My Mind” eased its way to the top of the UK charts between singles number 2 and 3 from “Actually” and was the 1987 Christmas Number 1.

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It’s to “Actually’s” big hit next, a number 1 single which preceded the release of the album.  “It’s A Sin” is amongst the best of PSB tracks of all time and was their first really great single.  Full of Catholic guilt, the single was helped by a memorable video directed by radical film-making genius Derek Jarman, the first of a number of collaborations with the boys.  The whole theme of the song resonated with the world’s record buying public as it topped the chart in at least 10 countries, ascending to the top in both Catholic and Protestant nations.  In the US it was their third top 10 hit reaching number 9.

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Sandwiched between credible but not totally memorable dance track “I Want To Wake Up” produced by PSB with Shep Pettibone and the under-rated album closer slowie “King’s Cross” with its somewhat obscure, strangely poignant lyrics is “Heart” a track which, when released as single number 4 from the album some seven months after “Actually’s” arrival somewhat surprisingly topped the UK charts – becoming their fourth and to this date final chart-topping UK single.  It was accompanied by a video featuring Ian McKellan as a vampire.  Less showy than their previous number 1’s, it is a great Hi-NRG track, although in interviews the duo have tended to dismiss it on occasions.  The feelings I get from “King’s Cross” may still have something to do with the shocking fire at the tube station just a couple of months after the album was released which killed 31 people- Neil sings of “the dead and wounded on either side”, which can have nothing to do with the fire and yet, because this album was still pretty much on  constant rotation at the time of the tragedy it is still linked in my mind.

“Heart” Record sleeve and on set with Ian McEwan

With sales of over 4 million and appearances in books such as “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” “Actually” cemented the global reputation of Pet Shop Boys.  Its variety, the quality of the songwriting, the big hit singles and Dusty Springfield makes this an essential CD.

Actually  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.50 and used from £0.74. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $11.36 new and used from $4.17 and as a download for $9.99.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 34 – Kylie Minogue- Light Years

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Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (Parlophone 2000) 

UK Chart Position – 2

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By the Millennium Kylie Minogue had been churning out UK hits for twelve years but things had gone just a little awry.  After her excellent 1991 album for PWL “Let’s Get To It” (another of my Essential CD’s) attained disappointing sales Kylie moved away from the security of Stock and Waterman and joined the more street-cred label Deconstruction where her first single release “Confide In Me” became her 7th single to reach number 2 in the UK charts.  The subsequent album was her second to give her a name check but this time she had matured to “Kylie Minogue” rather than the more teen-sounding “Kylie” of the first album.  The number 4 placing gave her biggest album success for 5 years and produced two more hit singles demonstrating a cooler Kylie.

Where it went a little wrong for me was with the follow-up where Kylie became so cool that she seemed to have distanced her original fans and became embroiled in indie-chic which just didn’t seem like the Kylie we had known and loved.  “Impossible Princess” was actually Kylie’s most personal work, as she had co-written all the songs and had a significant part to play in production and the whole image of the album.  This was the Kylie that she wanted to be at that time and there were collaborations with the Manic Street Preachers and Dave Ball from Soft Cell. Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) the title of this album was deemed inappropriate in the UK following the death of Princess Diana and it was referred to as “Kylie Minogue” – her second album in a row titled thus.  It was a top 10 album although sales in her usually supportive UK were deemed disappointing.  In Australia it did reach number 4.  I never bothered to get it as it was a Kylie that I didn’t really buy into at the time.

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Confusingly, both Deconstruction albums had the same title in the UK

Following this disappointment Kylie left Deconstruction and got herself a deal with Parlophone and made this clever “comeback” album which won back all the fans who were no longer sure as well as many more.  It became her first album to top the charts in her native Australia, gave her a UK number 2 (her previous chart-topping album had been 11 years before), scored her a 5th  UK number 1 single as well as three more Top 10 hits.  The Kylie that we knew and loved was back with a vengeance. She may have gone on afterwards to have bigger selling albums but for me this is the career highspot and still sounds excellent 17 years on.   Of the 14 tracks on show Kylie received co-composition credits on 9 of them – other names involved in the writing include Robbie Williams with hit-making partner Guy Chambers and 80’s mega-star Paula Abdul.  There is one cover version, a highly successful version of a Barry White song recorded for his girl group Love Unlimited.

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Spinning Around in gold hot pants

Opening track “Spinning Around”certainly spun things around for Kylie when it entered the charts at number 1 in July 2000, her 27th Top 40 hit, prior to the release of the album.  It’s a great club track helped by a video in which Kylie sported what became an iconic pair of tiny gold hotpants.  The song itself was written by a pair of future American Idol judges Kara DioGuardi and Paula Abdul with the intention of being on a comeback album for Abdul whose eleven year career had tailed off somewhat.  With that album being temporarily shelved the song was given to Kylie, for whom it was perfect.

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Paula Abdul who could have been Spinning Around at the top of the charts

“On A Night Like This” became the follow-up single released just before the album and became her 8th number 2 hit.  It has more of a Europop feel than the opener, enhanced by the odd touch of a Spanish guitar sound and the whole thing feels very Ibiza.  This fits in with the concept of the album with artwork by Vincent Peters being based upon a photoshoot in Ibiza. I actually think this is a stronger track than the chart-topping opener.

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Kylie gets the first of her nine writing credits with “So Now Goodbye” which feels like a classic disco track and the first of three tracks produced by Johnny Douglas.  It’s a great singalong song with strong hooks.  It’s not the greatest of the Disco-tinged tracks on offer but if it had been on most of her previous albums it would have been the stand-out track.  On “Light Years” the quality has been seriously upped.  Further proof of this is “Disco Down” which perfectly recreates the time when Kylie could “boogie in my dreams/To Le Freak and Dancing Queen”.  It’s not subtle but it is great.  The vocodered male “burn this disco down” interludes makes it feel really quite funky with Douglas on production duties it is a real crowd-pleaser.  The whole thing builds beautifully.

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Kylie and Robbie Williams

The sublime disco continues with “Loveboat” written by Kylie with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers,  a track with as much summer in its pores as Wham’s “Club Tropicana”.  The “ba-ba-ba” vocals give it a Pearl & Dean coolness, there’s French lyrics and the whole thing is exquisitely Mediterranean (or what a couple of Brits and an Australian see as Mediterranean).  Kitsch levels are ramped to high with its nod to the ultra-camp 70’s TV series of the same name- but unlike this series this track certainly goes somewhere.  It’s also a perfect track for the kind of highly visual performance which would go on to dominate Kylie’s career.

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All aboard the Loveboat baby!

Things get just a little rockier with “Koocachoo”, but in a finger-snapping cool rock world.  It takes us away from the Disco camp for a four minutes but we are certainly plunged back with the anthemic “Your Disco Needs You” – the greatest Kylie track not released as a UK single, although it charted in some territories.  The power of Disco is here seen as the cure to world’s ills and Kylie is the recruiting officer.  It’s as tongue in cheek as the best of Robbie Williams, who with Guy Chambers took on writing duties.  From its opening Pet Shop Boys influenced “Go West” vocals (something Robbie was still using with his 2016 release “Party Like A Russian” ) from the breathy reprise of the word “ass”, to the French section (translated into other languages for different markets), to the great build of female operatic voices and its explosive ending, this is a real statement and a “follow that!” track.  It is for me the undoubted highspot.

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Following that is the much more gentle but classy Spanish influenced track “Please Stay” with it’s handclappy castanet feel and guitar sound.  As the fourth single off the album it reached number 10 and provides the perfect cool-down after the previous track. It is another of the first-class tracks. Things get even gentler for the only ballad on the album, the very pretty “Bittersweet Goodbye” written by Kylie with producer Steve Anderson.  Although some might think of “Light Years” as Kylie’s disco album, when you listen to the whole thing the range of styles of tracks is impressive.  The same writing team works on next track “Butterfly” although this is produced by American club DJ Mark Picchiotti and it is back to the more contemporary club feel of the opening tracks .

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It takes a brave artist to cover a Barry White song with their lushness and complex arrangements but Kylie gives Love Unlimited’s  1973 hit “I’m Under The Influence Of Love” a great go.  There isn’t quite the build as there is in the original  but this is a very good Kylie cover even if it doesn’t eclipse the original where I love the soon to be  Mrs Barry White’s Glodean James’ vocal and the whole girl-group sound his production gives this.  I do love the swirling opening bars of Kylie’s version .

Kylie vs Love Unlimited – both under the influence!

The William/Chambers/Minogue next collaboration “I’m So High” is the least successful of their tracks and is the only track which smack a little of album-filler.  It leads into the duet with Robbie, “Kids”, which became chart runner up number 9 when it attained second position when released as the third single.  It feels more like Williams than Minogue, with its “Let Me Entertain You” rocky vibe, but it doesn’t feel out of place and saw the duo paired in a swimming pool for the closing moments of the video with its typically unsubtle Williams champagne cork popping for the video’s climax!

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Closer track “Light Years” has the feel of Giorgio Moroder and sees Kylie as our space age purser for the trip of our lives.  It’s “I Feel Love” meets Crown Heights Affair’s “Galaxy Of Love” with a great heap of Kylie kitsch.  A strong closing  nod to all that has gone on before.  With this release Kylie had tweaked the image somewhat and the public was back with her.  Her next album “Fever” contained the international smash hit “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” which topped the charts in over 40 countries and gained sales of over 5 million.  That album saw her back at number 1 in the UK, Australia, Austria, Ireland and Germany amongst others and took her to number 3 in the US Billboard charts, returning her to the worldwide market stronger than she had ever been.  “Fever” is another first-class, but not essential album.  Kylie’s subsequent albums have been strong but have never attained the heights of the two early Millennium albums.

Kylie may have started out with a music career tacked onto her soap star celebrity status but through hard work and a shrewd awareness of what was going on around her, perhaps even more successfully than the Queen of Reinvention, Madonna, she has remained much loved for thirty years.  She has battled breast cancer and many broken relationship headlines (There are rumours which link her currently to Prince Andrew).  The public have always adored her.  We, of here consider her a national icon and she is not even British!  In 2010 she was proclaimed the most powerful celebrity in Britain in a survey of brand identification and only The Queen has had more Madame Tussauds waxworks made of her – showing the sheer power of her longevity and ability to reinvent.

“Light Years” , for me, remains her finest moment.

Just in case you doubt the power of disco here’s Kylie recruiting the whole of the Royal Albert Hall!

Light Years  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.53 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.99. In the US it is currently $8.15 new and used from $0.56 and downloaded for $12.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 49 – Kylie Minogue- Let’s Get To It

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Let’s Get To It- Kylie Minogue  (PWL 1991) 

      UK Chart Position – 15

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Kylie Minogue’s 4th studio album was the last for the PWL label which had transported her from Aussie soap actress to international singing star.  It was very much a parting of the ways.  Kylie would go on to leave the label to join Deconstruction for her next release.  The PWL label masterminds were already down to two thirds strength as  life at the” Hit Factory” which had spawned close to 100 UK Top 40 chart placings by this time was beginning to waver.  The UK chart of 13th October 1990 was the first for over two years that had no Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced songs in it.  A burnt out, stressed Matt Aitken left the team leaving Mike Stock and Pete Waterman to work with their number one artist.

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The men from The Hit Factory – Stock, Aitken and Waterman

“Let’s Get To It” ended up as Kylie’s least successful studio album .  The number 15 placing is lower than anything apart from compilations and mix albums.  All this is rather bizarre, as it is one of her best and is certainly superior to the three she had put out with the SAW team in the previous three years.

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One of the most watched TV weddings of all time

Kylie Minogue joined the Australian soap “Neighbours” as garage mechanic Charlene in 1986.  At this time the show, broadcast at teatime in the UK, was gaining huge audiences and the romance between her and character Scott, played by Jason Donovan, captured the British public’s attention in a very big way and ensured that both actors were well on their way to becoming household names over here.  A recording deal for both was inevitable.  Kylie signed to the Australian label, Mushroom records and her first recording, a cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” became Australia’s biggest selling single of the 80’s and number 1 over there for seven weeks.  Sensing international success, the label sent her over to work with Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  The story goes that they forgot she was waiting to see them, had very little to offer her and quickly wrote a song “I Should Be So Lucky” which became a massive hit single in many countries and began the reign of the new pop princess.  The trio remixed the first Australian hit and released it as “The Loco-Motion” which gave her another worldwide smash.  The first two albums “Kylie” (1988) “Enjoy Yourself” (1989) were both huge number 1 albums in the UK, but were pretty light pop confections, centred around the hit singles, of which there were becoming many.  The third album “Rhythm Of Love” saw Kylie beefing up the image somewhat.  It contained probably her two best ever singles “Step Back In Time” and the phenonomenal “Better The Devil You Know” and it was probably around this time that  I joined the Kylie party.  As an album it is still a little patchy apart from these tracks.

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The first three albums

Album number 4 seems to carry on with what “Rhythm of Love” had attempted in making Kylie a credible artist who could achieve commercial pop success and also extend the fan base from those who would put up her poster on their bedroom wall.  This album, in its range of more mature styles, together with Kylie’s consummate stage performances help pave the way towards the longevity which has really been extraordinary in the pop arena.  That people didn’t buy into it in this occasion has always been puzzling.  It might just have been by 1991 people had tired of the whole domination of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound in the UK charts and that the backlash was beginning to set in.  The trio had scored their last number one production the year before in 1990 with Kylie’s rather pedestrian cover of “Tears On My Pillow”.  It might have been a wise move for Kylie to move on to the more street-cred label Deconstruction, but this was actually a stronger album than the two released on that label.

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The first of the ten tracks on display was lead single “The Word Is Out” which saw Stock and Waterman experimenting with New Jack Swing.  It was the  jury that was out with this one as well as the word, as with its number 16 UK Chart placing it became her first ever single to miss out on the UK Top 10.  It’s a chunky little opener and I have always liked it.  It almost has a group feel to it as it features an uncredited male vocalist taking a bit of the lead just before the end.  It’s a great opener, rather than classic Kylie.  I think it shows that the producers were not stuck in a groove, the criticism being levied towards them at this time was that their songs were beginning to sound the same.  This is a definite attempt to keep up with the sounds that were current in 1992- I just think that New Jack Swing was not always dated that well.  The single did make the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland.

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Cover version time up next and Kylie’s version of the great song by Chairmen Of The Board “Give Me Just A Little More Time” became the big success off the album when it was released as the third single becoming her sixth track to reach number 2 in the UK.  This an affectionate cover version with a nod towards the original artists as Kylie includes lead singer General Johnson’s trademark “Brrrr”. Like other Kylie covers, the chart-topping “Tears On My Pillow”, and “Celebration” they do not challenge the originals in terms of quality.  This, however, is the most successful of the three by far. (I think “The Loco-Motion,” which let’s face it, is going to be a fluffy novelty track whoever sings it does actually challenge Little Eva’s as a fun track for a generation who did not know the original)

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“Too Much Of A Good Thing” has a Madonna feel to it and a nod towards House Music.  It is the first on the CD where Kylie also takes writing credits alongside Mike Stock and Pete Waterman.  “Finer Feelings” was the fourth hit single taken from the album.  Four hit singles show that this album was certainly no slouch quality wise.  It shows a mature Kylie, some distance away from “The Locomotion” and “Hand On My Heart”.  Kylie references sex on here, for goodness sake!  The whole thing comes across as really quite sophisticated and was perhaps a precursor to the type of tracks which appeared on the first Deconstruction album.  Although the UK bought enough copies to take her to number 11, her native Australia were not so sure as it became her first single to miss out on the Top 50 over there.

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There’s a definite nod towards the American market with the slightly Disney sounding ballad duet “If You Were With Me Now”.  To this point in the US Kylie’s SAW debut had reached number 28, but “The Loco-Motion” had passed expectations and reached number 3.  From then on things had been a bit of a struggle (the non UK single “It’s No Secret” crept into the US Top 40 at number 37) but there was enough kudos to persuade an artist who looked like he was on the way to become a big US Soul star, Keith Washington, to record with her.  Her first duet, with Jason Donovan “Especially For You” had charmed and topped charts but it was one heck of a cheesy track.  This, still a little schmaltzy felt like a much more mature track and took the pairing to number 4 in the UK Singles chart.  It became the first hit single to credit Kylie for her songwriting.  The duo, in what was then common in pop music, did not record their vocals together and only met for the filming of the video (where oddly, they also do not appear together – somewhat like the Patti Labelle/Michael McDonald track “On My Own”).  Here once again the song’s lyrics have been interpreted literally.  Washington, incidentally, had topped the US R&B charts with his debut single “Kissing You” and won a Soul Train Award but lasting success eluded him.  He puts in a good vocal on this track and is well matched by Kylie’s.  If it was an experiment to garner American sales, however, it did not work.  Kylie would have to wait another ten years for her next US hit.

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Title track “Let’s Get To It”is a rare thing.  It was perhaps the first great Kylie track not put out as a single.  It’s a real earworm of a song and probably my favourite on the album.  It’s mid-tempo classic Kylie, builds well and stays in my head long after each listen.  Both “Right Here, Right Now” and “Live And Learn” are good quality album tracks and good examples of dance-floor Kylie.  “No World Without You” shows a different side of Ms. Minogue.  It is a nicely-performed, melancholy, sparsely accompanied ballad.

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At the time eyebrows were raised by closing track “I Guess I Like It Like That” which boasted a harder dance sound than Kylie fans were used to.  It sounds like a track that might have had a big gospel disco diva such as Martha Wash or Jocelyn Brown on it.  At six minutes in length, it’s almost twice the length of most of the other tracks on the album.  It’s club music rather than commercial dance and this was somewhat of a departure.  It contains samples of 2-Unlimited, Salt N’Pepa and the Freestyle Orchestra and yet the whole thing blends well as a cohesive, contemporary track and shows that , in case there were still any doubters out there that Kylie was no pop puppet and that there was considerable diversity there.  And that is one of the reason why this ex-Australian soap star has had a music career now pushing thirty years.

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Kylie with Pete Waterman

Despite the disappointing sales this is a Kylie album that has stood the test of time and was a glorious final hurrah for the team who made her famous.  It was a brave move to leave this nest, but the time was right and there would be even better for her to come.

Let’s Get To It  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.88 and used from £1.44. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $24.95 new and used from $21.06 and downloaded for $9.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

 

100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 47 – Liza Minnelli – Results

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Results- Liza Minnelli (Epic 1989) 

UK Chart Position – 6

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By 1989 Pet Shop Boys had been at the top of their game for four years.  During this time they had scored three UK and one US number 1 singles, three big selling studio albums and one remix album.  Significantly, they had also revitalised the career of 60’s singing legend Dusty Springfield with their UK & US number 2 collaboration “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”  In 1989 Dusty was riding high again with their “Nothing Has Been Proved” a song about the very British sex and politics Profumo scandal which was taken from the movie “Scandal”.  The whole Dusty project had been a fascinating one for Neil and Chris, from the painstaking way she liked to record to their bringing to a new generation one of the greatest British voices of all time.  The experience had left them open to consider new collaborations.

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PSB with Dusty Springfield

In 1989 showbiz legend Liza Minnelli was telling her record company that she wanted to move away from the live Broadway -style albums and standards that had been her lifeblood and record something more contemporary.  This came to the attention of  the duo’s manager Tom Watkins.  Minnelli was a big fan of their song “Rent” and so the deal was struck.  Neil Tennant, a huge Minnelli fan, straight away began writing songs that would be suitable for a woman in her 40’s keen to re-enter the youthful pop market and “Results” was the fabulous result.

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Performing with her mother Judy Garland

Liza Minnelli was born a showbusiness legend.  With her parentage it was inevitable.  Superb in her 1972 Oscar winning performance “Cabaret”, she became an unstoppable force, huge Broadway star and a household name somewhat outside of the commercial pop mainstream.  Recording-wise she had never been as successful as one might think.  The soundtrack to the movie had made it to number 25 in her homeland (#13-UK) and a recording of her television special “Liza With A Z” which had also gone a long way to cement her into public consciousness had reached US#19, UK#9).  Her highest placed studio album in the US was 1973’s “The Singer” (which reached #38, #45 in the UK).  With the exception of the last album, chart-wise she had performed better in the UK, so perhaps a collaboration with a top UK band would seem a shrewd move.

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The whole concept seems very British- a pairing of the Queen of Cheese with the Kings Of Cool, the emotional Yank with the detached Brits.  In the UK we got it, Liza did a lot of television to promote the album and received  a gold album and her highest ever chart placing.  It was also a big hit in Spain.  In the US the mixture of showbiz glitz meets electro left them cold and it was considered to be a flop.  The whole project appealed to the British sense of camp and to be honest, still sounds very good over twenty-seven years on.  It is an album which is technically accomplished, superbly produced and can have you up and dancing and can both bring a smile at moments of kitsch as well as be genuinely touching and affecting in places.

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The album produced by Julian Mendelsohn and Pet Shop Boys contains ten tracks- three covers of songs associated with other artists, two tracks which had been previously released by the duo and five originals that Neil and Chris wrote especially for Liza.

Opening track “I Want You Now” is one of the new Tennant and Lowe compositions and from the introduction you can tell we are in Pet Shop Boys territory  with a strong electro feel.  There is, however, an epic orchestral sweep which accompanies Liza’s sterling performance.  The song is bold and dramatic and it sets out what is going to follow superbly.  A great opener.

“Losing My Mind” is the hit single from the album, reaching number 6 in the UK charts.  A Stephen Sondheim song from “Follies” would feel like familiar ground for Liza but Pet Shop Boys magic turns it alongside “Always On My Mind” (of which it has a slight feel) and “Go West” as one of their great covers.  It is also gloriously kitsch, probably one of the kitsch pop lover’s finest moments, probably until KLF got Tammy Wynette to sing “I’m justified and I’m ancient and I drive an ice cream van”.  I remember Liza heavily promoting the single at the time and on (I think) an episode  of “Wogan” she explained how she, the showbiz trouper, had learnt singing tips from Neil and that to get the proper ending to the word “Mind” she should sing it as if it ended with a “t” and it would sound as if it ended with a “d”.  She said she had taken this on board but, listening to the track, there are a few occasions when she sings “Mind-t” ending in a t and it sounds like it ends with a “t”.  There’s something about that whole story and its result that I love.  If that is a singing technique here is evidence that it doesn’t always work, with glorious results.  It was a number 2 hit in Ireland and got to number 7 in Spain and amongst other chart placings made the Top 20 in Austria, Belgium and Germany.  It also saw Liza performing on “Top Of The Pops” and has been a staple for drag acts to mime to for nearly thirty years.

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“If There Is Love” has a dramatic start and yet for me is the weakest track on the album.  It does feature a “Minnelli rap” and what might we expect from her?  Well, I wouldn’t have counted on Shakespeare as she gets here, Sonnet 94 “They that have the power to hurt….”It’ a good track but does not reach the heights of others on the album.  It has a false ending before Minnelli-does-Shakespeare kicks in over programming and Courtney Pine on Sax .  Another Tennant-Lowe original “So Sorry I Said” is probably the closest on the album as to what we might have expected from Liza, a slightly over-blown ballad lyrically yet her performance is subtle and really very strong and probably in a lower register than she is used to.  The whole thing comes across as quality.

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It’s certainly back to the dance floor with “Don’t Drop Bombs”, with a big electronic sound and scratching.  Who knows what is going on here but it has always been one of my favourite tracks on the album with Neil coming in to warn us “Don’t Drop Bombs!”  The off- the- wall feel continues with an inspired cover of Tanita Tikarim’s #22 UK hit from the year before, the very odd “Twist In My Sobriety”.  This kicks off with a rap from Donald Johnson who intones the memorable lines from the song Kander and Ebb wrote for her the name-checking “It’s Liza with A Z, not Lisa with an S, because Lisa with an S goes ss not zz”. The song is fairly bonkers but its given an epic feel which works sublimely.  There’s strong background choral work, whistling, considerable scratching and Liza singing if it’s the most important message she ever wants to get across.  I love this.

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The song that Liza attracted to the project is up next.  “Rent” with its tongue in cheeks lyrics with its definite nod towards male prostitution would not seem likely material for Minnelli but here it is transformed into a song that could have stopped a Broadway show.  There is certainly a dramatic full orchestral sweep, the song is slowed down which suits Liza’s deliberate diction.  The whole song sounds very different from Pet Shop Boys version.  It’s really a precursor to the sort of things that took Paul Anka back into the charts with his 2005 “Rock Swings” album when he famously turned Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a cheesy swing classic.

“Love Pains” was originally a disco hit for Yvonne Elliman.  Minnelli’s version is good but I actually prefer the version that was also released in 1989 by Hazell Dean.  It’s a song that has underachieved for all artists who have recorded it which also includes Kelly Marie, Obsession and the great Viola Wills,  .  “Tonight Is Forever” is another song associated with PSB as it appeared on their debut album “Please”.  It’s given the “Rent” feel, but doesn’t work quite as well.

A veritable epidemic of Love Pains

The final track on the CD, written for Liza by the Boys is “I Can’t Say Goodnight”, which is as strong a closer as “I Want You Now” is an opener.

Disappointingly “Results”  was Liza’s final dabbling with the contemporary pop market and is the only CD in my collection by her.  She did do a good duet with Donna Summer “Does He Love You?” in 1996.  It does seem fitting though, that someone associated with places like Studio 54 and those big 1970’s discos had her own moment on the dance floors around the world with some of the tracks of this album.  Personally I would have loved the PSB-Minelli collaborations to continue for at least another album but I’m certainly thankful for these ten tracks.

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One of the crowd at Studio 54

You won’t escape the intensity of Liza’s eyes in this Top Of The Pops performance of “Losing My Mind” (here shown on taken from a TOTP2 re-run).

 

 

Results  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.97 and used from £0.24. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $27.24 new and used from $1.14 and downloaded for $8.99.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 90 –Glenn Miller – The Ultimate Collection

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The Ultimate Collection – Glenn Miller  (Prism 1998)

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And now for something at least a generation earlier than most of the music on my Essential CDs list.  This was the music that our parents and grandparents listened and danced to.  My Dad was a big Glenn Miller fan and always said that during the War that was what the people he was serving with wanted to listen to.  He always said that the notion that Vera Lynn was the sound of the War Years was wrong, that most people he knew found her depressing, that if you didn’t know whether each night was going to be your last then “In The Mood” was a much better bet.

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Fast forward fifty years when I knew someone who worked in a crematorium.  I asked him what was the most popular music chosen to leave a service and he said it was Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”- Now, that was a few years ago and things are likely to have changed as the war years generation have diminished in numbers so much, but there is no doubting the effect that this bandleader’s music has had on many lives.  For those of us born in the decades after his death there is still so much to consider as essential.  The research for chart positions usually takes some time for these CD reviews, but Miller predates all UK charts and the US Billboard charts.  However, “Moonlight Serenade” has charted twice as a re-issue in the single charts (In 1954 probably due to the release of “The Glenn Miller Story”, of which more later, and  again in 1976 when there was a bit of a swing revival).  There have been 11 charting albums for Miller and his Orchestra of re-issued music.  The most recent was actually the most successful – 2010’s “The Very Best Of” issued on Sony which reached number 4 in the charts.  That is a 24 tracker and would seem to be a very good choice.  I however, have gone for this non-charting budget 1998 release  which has 23 tracks in an order which seems to me to provide the perfect Miller playlist.  At times this can be not enough Glenn Miller so then I would opt for the 100 hits collection over 5 CDs which was released by Demon in 2009.

Three of the many other Miller compilations available

Glenn Miller was born in Iowa in 1904 and slogged away very much on the breadline for many years as a trombone player and song arranger.  The 1954 movie “The Glenn Miller Story” which I watched recently, starring James Stewart as the bandleader makes much of the fact that Miller was searching for a sound that he heard in his head.  This came about when he moved a clarinet to the lead with saxophones harmonising which led to a rich, distinctive feel which became established as “The Glenn Miller Sound”.  This clarinet player Wilbur Schwartz spent five years in the Orchestra until 1942 and died aged 72 in 1990. By the time war broke out in Britain in 1939 Miller was a huge star.  He had the Orchestra, a vocal group “The Modernaires” and a number of featured vocalists such as Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly and Skip Nelson all of whom feature on tracks on this CD.

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James Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

Miller was first and foremost an arranger, adapting tunes to his signature sound.  His main songwriting success came with “Moonlight Serenade” which closes this CD.  The “Glenn Miller Story” features it being composed then being turned into a cheesy vocal number with limited approval before Miller is persuaded to develop it as an instrumental track.  With its clarinet led saxophone section this sums up perfectly the Miller Sound that turned him into a household name.

The most essential tracks, and those that brought the most success were the instrumentals and the CD kicks off with the most radical of them all.  “In The Mood” had been first recorded by the Edgar Hayes Orchestra but Miller’s version from 1940 with its jive rhythms seems to nod towards the rock and roll that would be sweeping the nation by the mid 50’s.  Its changes of volume and intensity throughout the track also makes it memorable.  Great track, but I think I favour even more what comes next, “String Of Pearls” which is chock-a-block with hooks and has that middle section which sounds like it comes from a 60’s movie soundtrack.  This is a more jazz-influenced sound.  Here Miller’s 1941 recording is the original version of the song.  It is significant in The Glenn Miller Story as James Stewart’s Glenn, whilst a struggling musician, scrimps to buy a pearl-like necklace for girlfriend Helen (played by June Allyson) who is presented with the real thing when, now famous, he introduces the song at a nightclub.

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June Allyson and James Stewart

The same film also features “Little Brown Jug” with more than a measure of poetic licence.  In the film Helen loves the song and it is heard sung by a glee club as the courting couple take a walk through campus grounds.  She suggests Miller arranges it but he holds out until it is used as a Christmas surprise for his wife at the Christmas concert.  This is a tearjerker moment in the film because (I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything here, we all know what happened to Miller) he has not turned up for the concert as his plane has been lost in fog.  In reality, the song was one of the Orchestra’s early  hits from 1939, his first million-seller recorded some five years before Miller’s disappearance.

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After these three instrumentals we get a number of vocal tracks including the sublime “Serenade In Blue” and the rightly famous “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (rather spoilt for my generation who will recall it as “Toffee Crisp A Choo Choo” from a television ad). A number of the vocal tracks are songs that were already popular numbers such as “Over The Rainbow”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” but there are some little gems to be found amongst these.  I have a big soft spot for “Humpty Dumpty Heart” and especially, “Elmer’s Tune” from 1941 which was a vocal version of an instrumental by the Dick Jurgens Orchestra.  “On A Little Street In Singapore” is another gem which was covered magnificently in 1978 by Manhattan Transfer(UK#20)- a group who had their UK debut hit with another song associated with Miller when “Tuxedo Junction” got to number 24 in 1976 during that mini Swing music revival I mentioned earlier.

Manhattan Transfer scored big with songs associated with the Orchestra

There’s a couple of ambitious instrumentals in Miller’s take on Verdi with “Anvil Chorus” with its drum solo and “Song Of The Volga Boatman” recorded with the Army Air Force Band with its strident jazz arrangement.  In 1942 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was disbanded as Miller joined the Army Air Force and directed its band.  Miller was an incredibly popular touring attraction, played to troops in war-torn Europe and America and was promoted to the rank of Major.

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The CD ends with five first class tracks, the almost-instrumental of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (the phone number of New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania where the Orchestra played).  “I’ve Got A Girl In Kalamazoo” is a great fun track with vocals by Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke and The Modernaires.  This leaves us with two monumental instrumentals the stirring “American Patrol”, a nineteenth century marching song  which Miller brought to a whole new audience with his 1941 version and the aforementioned Miller composition “Moonlight Serenade” which provides a  great closer for this immense talent.

Major Glenn Miller was lost at sea in a plane crossing to France in December 1944.  His success did not last the entire war and yet over 70 years later his music is so redolent of that time and the hope and optimism of those who listened and danced to his music.

 

Glenn Miller- The Ultimate Collection is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £7.78 , used from £0.01 and as a download for £5.99.

100 Essential Books – Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (2016)

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With its references to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” from a Financial Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition I knew that this would be a must-read for me.  It is also an apt and deserved comparison.

And like McEwan and Waters I am happy to welcome Cleave as an author of one of my 100 Essential Books – such is the quality of this novel.  His fourth book but the first I have read and for once I am pleased about this because I can tell this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way with “Incendiary”, (Winner of a Somerset Maugham award for writers under 35 in 2006), the 2008 Costa Award shortlisted “The Other Hand” and “Gold” (2013).

Also like McEwan and Waters Cleave has re-created the war years perhaps more evocatively than most of the countless writers who were writing when that period was not so distant.  Perhaps we need that distance and the stories of our parents and grandparents need to become assimilated into what we perceive life in those years to have been like.  Cleave loosely based his novel on a series of letters between his grandparents.

The novel spans from September 1939-June 1942 and has a refreshingly simple month by month chronological structure.  It is centred on wartime London and Malta where a blockade is starving the serving officers and civilians.  Mary North signs up for War Office work and finds herself being sent to teach in a Primary School where preparations for evacuation are under way.  She soon discovers that not all children are welcomed by host families and within her now empty school and with the support of her school official boyfriend, Tom, begins to work with the children unwanted by the countryside.

Tom’s work means that initially he is too valuable to be called up but flatmate Alastair joins up, taking a jar of jam Tom made to be eaten together at the end of the war and soon finds himself an officer in Malta, struggling to survive.

What Cleave gets across very well is the thin line between life and death for this generation.  Catastrophe can descend very quickly and the characters have to adapt their lives to this.  They fall in love quickly, have to endure long absences and periods of not knowing whether loved ones are dead or alive.  This all seems alien to our generation but there are still many people with us who lived through these times and Cleve’s novel has further deepened my appreciation of these people.  Also very effectively conveyed are the attitudes of a class-driven society suspicious of other races.  The treatment of black American schoolboy Zachary is shocking both in terms of action and language used.  Cleave confronts these issues which can make for some disturbing moments.

The novel is well-written and totally involving.  I found myself purposely slowing down my reading of it because I wanted to savour just what was going on (causing a bit of a backlog of books to be read to build up) but  I don’t regret a single moment spent in the time of Chris Cleave’s characters.

This is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.  Seek it out!

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published in April 2016 by Sceptre and as a paperback from January 2017.

100 Essential CDs – Number 93 –Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)

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It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group.  They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels.  Commercial success eluded them.  The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene.  (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label).  Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band.  His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.

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In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.

At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially.  The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.

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When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name.  By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on.  But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was.  Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.  It was going to cause tensions.  There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure.  Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend.  The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.

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These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time.  They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics.  For a long time this group was not best served by compilations.  I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised.   This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.

 

Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years

The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form.  “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit.  The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”.  From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it.  The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974.  This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here.  It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album.  It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding  like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.

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“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976.  Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label.  In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes.  “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness.  (Things haven’t really changed).  Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune.  Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.

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The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them.  “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions.  It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation.  In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK.  The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989.  I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.

There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974).  This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long.  As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK.  And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…

“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album.  A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track.  Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma.  In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career.  In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing.  I love both versions of this song.  To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987.  I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song.  By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC.  The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.

Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards

The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself.  It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance.  It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure.  To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts.  Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply.  It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not.  What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead.  You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great.  This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”.  Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks  but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.

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Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.

The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”).  Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group?  Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this.  Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps?  I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.

Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass

Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997.  Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever.  I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”.  In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer.  In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic.  There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work.  He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career.  Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.

The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.