100 Essential CDs- Number 99 – Various Artists – More Rock N Roll Love Songs

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More Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1991)

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With the run down of A-Z artists complete on my 100 Essential CD lists there are still 14 spaces.  These are for the various artists compilations I play the most.  With these it is important to know what tracks can be found on the CD so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog.  I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Sat at 99 is a double CD released in 1991 on the Dino Label with forty tracks largely by American artists.  These are the big names that dominated the charts in the late 50’s and early 60’s before the British Invasion and the Beatles ended most of their careers.  There’s a few that don’t quite fit into the category.  Title-wise its also a tad misleading as its broader than it suggests with my favourite tracks being those who fit more into the doo-wop and girl group categories.  There are some rock n roll classics in there as well.  There are many compilations which focus on this era including the very successful “Dreamboats And Petticoats” series but for me this mini-series which was preceded by Rock N Roll Love Songs has just about everything to give me a blast of nostalgia some dating  from before I was born and where the world seemed a much simpler place.

Track Listings 

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1.Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers (1965) (UK #1- 1990, US#4) – The CD kicks off with one of the most successful chart songs of all time.  Back in 1965 the “Brothers” Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield got to a middling #14 in the UK as the follow-up to their anthemic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”.  The song had previously been a number 2 1955 hit for Al Hibbler (US#3) and had reached the UK Top spot the same year for future mum’s favourite DJ Jimmy Young.  So a familiar song choice which might have explained why it under-achieved first time round.  The quality of the vocal performance here lingered and when Al and Jimmy’s version had been long forgotten the Righteous Brothers were deemed the perfect addition to the 1990 movie “Ghost” which explains its resurgence and the number 1 UK placing 25 years after its release.  The song had originally started off in a long-forgotten movie “Unchained” (hence the title which is not referenced in the lyrics) but after its Swayze/Moore association it has eased itself into the canon of popular music standards and has since topped the UK charts two more times  for musical thespians Robson and Jerome and Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates.  The Righteous Brothers have the definitive version.  It’s one of their best tracks (but not their best as the bombastic “Lovin’ Feeling” and “Ebb Tide” both do more for me.)

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2. Dream Lover – Bobby Darin (1959) (UK#1, US#2)

3. Bye Bye Love – Everly Brothers (1957) (UK#4,US#2)

4. Everyday – Buddy Holly (1957)

5. Then I Kissed Her – Beach Boys (1967) (UK#4)

6. One Fine Day – The Chiffons (1963) (UK#29, US#5)- These girls were good.  Three hit singles in the UK and each one of them was a first-class representation of the girl group sound and yet they are largely forgotten today.  Here on this Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition they are probably at their very best.  There’s also great piano work from Carole King herself in evidence here.   The Chiffons were four girls from The Bronx, Judy Craig, Sylvia Peterson, Patricia Bennett and Barbara Lee and became one of the biggest acts on the Laurie label.  During their hit period the girls were plagued with the financial problems which beset many of the artists of the era.  Probably best known now as being the subject of a court case when George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarizing their US chart-topper “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord” in a bizarre sound-alike scenario (to me there are so many songs that sound far more identical than these two did to one another that got away with it).

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7. Three Steps To Heaven – Eddie Cochran  (1960) (UK#1) If taken literally this is rather a morbid choice for a UK posthumous single released less than a month after his death aged 21 killed in a car crash in a taxi coming back from a show at The Hippodrome Theatre in Bristol.  The heaven Cochran aspires to here in his self-composed song is getting a girl to love him rather than the pearly gates itself.  For someone who grew up with the number 2 1975 version from Showaddywaddy it is surprising to hear just how good the vocal performance on the Cochran original is.  Who knows what he would have gone on to achieve?  In the UK this was his fifth UK Top 30 hit.  His last singles chart appearance was in 1988 with a re-issue of another of his biggest hits “C’mon Everybody”.

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8. Under The BoardwalkThe Drifters (1964) (US#4)

9. Sweet Nothin’s – Brenda Lee (1960) (UK#4, US#4)

10. Stand By Me- Ben E King (1960) (UK#1 (1987), US#4)

11. Blue Moon – The Marcels (1961) (UK#1, US#1) – Certainly not unique in being a young doo-wop group adopting a song from a previous generation, in fact there are a few more examples of this on these CDs.  This Pittsburgh group certainly hit the big time with a version of a Rogers and Hart standard which dated from 1934, but it is impossible to hear subsequent versions without being aware of the Marcels (a group named after the hairstyle The Marcel Wave) and the thrilling doo-wop vocal arrangement from the very first notes of the bass voice Fred Johnson.  There’s a great lead vocal courtesy of Cornelius Harp which helped it top charts on both sides of the Atlantic for Colpix Records.  That familiar introduction was largely lifted from the group’s cover of “Zoom” by The Cadillacs.  In the spring of 1961 it really looked like The Marcels had arrived.  They continued to mine the hits of the past and scored one more US Top 10 hit with another song from the 1930’s “Heartaches”. In the UK only their version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” made any impression but they continued with “That Old Black Magic”, “Over The Rainbow” “My Melancholy Baby” until their original takes began to seem hackneyed and which overshadowed songs especially written for the group.  By the time the Beatles came along the Doo-wop craze had passed by.

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12. Leader Of The Pack – Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#3 (1972) US#1)

13. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters (1958) (UK#1,US#1) – Another mining of the Great American Songbook The Platters turned Jerome Kern’s 1933 song into an absolute tour-de-force.  This was largely because of lead vocalist Tony William’s outstanding tenor.  A group unusual in its time as it featured both male vocalists and a female Zola Taylor, who was married to lead “Teenager” Frankie Lymon which resulted in court action concerning his estate following his early death.  The Platters were there at the start of the rock n roll boom as they appeared with Bill Haley in the game-changing movie “Rock Around The Clock.”  This track was their only UK and last of their four US number 1’s and perhaps only overshadowed by their “The Great Pretender”.

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14. Little Darlin’ – The Diamonds (1957) (UK#3, US#2)

15. Who’s Sorry Now – Connie Francis (1958) (UK#1, US#4)

16. I’m Gonna Be Strong – Gene Pitney (1964) (UK#2,US#9)

17. It’s Only Make Believe – Conway Twitty (1958) (UK#1,US#1)

18. Dedicated To The One I Love – The Shirelles (1961) (US#3)

19. Come Go With Me – The Del Vikings (1957) (US#4)

20. I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos (1959) (US#11)

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1.That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly (1957) (US#1)

2. Runaway – Del Shannon (1961)  (UK#1, US#1)

3. Only Sixteen – Craig Douglas (1959) (UK#1)

4. Blueberry Hill – Fats Domino (1956) (UK#6,US#2)

5. Save The Last Dance For MeThe Drifters (1960) (UK#2, US#1)

6. Crying In The Rain – Everly Brothers (1962) (UK#6, US#6)

7. My Boyfriend’s Back – The Angels (1963) (US#1) – This girl-group classic topped the American charts but only attracted lowly sales in the UK.  The song speaks to the teenager in all of us and seems almost as relevant today in the world of internet trolls.  Somebody’s been scorned and bad-mouthing and when the boyfriend returns there is going to be trouble as he aims to save his girl’s reputation.  It’s fascinating in that it’s only half the story- we are never sure if the girlfriend is completely blameless (I’ve always suspected not).  There’s great handclaps a good lead vocal from Peggy Santiglia  and a hey-la hey-la refrain which always makes this a great listen.  The Angels never bothered the UK charts but this trio from Orange, New Jersey scored four Top 40 hits in total in their homeland and disbanded in 1967.

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8. Sea Of Love – Phil Phillips & The Twilights (1959) (US#2)

9. Come Softly To Me  The Fleetwoods (1959) (UK #6, US#1)

10.When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge (1966) (UK#2 (1987) US#1) Later than most of the tracks on this collection it fits in because it was another track (like the Righteous Brothers and Ben E King) which became revitalised in the mid 80’s UK nostalgia boom.  This had done better the first time round than the other tracks as in the year of its release it topped the US charts and got to number 4 in the UK.  It was a television ad for Levi’s jeans which reignited Percy’s career over 20 years after its release.  He reached the Top 40 four more times in his homeland and once in the UK.  He continued to record and perform live and died in 2015.

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11. Halfway To Paradise – Billy Fury (1961) (UK#3)

12. ‘Til I Kissed You – Everly Brothers (1959)(UK#2, US#4)

13. Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) – The Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#14, US#5) – Both of the Shangri-La’s UK hits are featured on “More Rock N’ Roll Love Songs” and this one is absolutely bonkers.  The emotions are cranked up to breaking point,   the anguish about the death of “The Leader Of The Pack” seems quite tame in comparison to this overblown track which never seems sure which song it wants to settle into.  The Shangri-Las sound had a street toughness which has made their reputation resonate over the decades.  Two sets of sisters The Weiss’ and identical twins The Gansers from Queens New York knew how to do melodrama.  It doesn’t end there.  If you like these two tracks “Past Present And Future” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” are certainly on a par with what we have on show here.

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14. Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa -Gene Pitney (1963) (UK#5,US#17) I grew up with this record.  It was one of a handful of singles we had at home until I started to use up all my pocket-money on seven inch vinyl in the mid 70s and may have even been my introduction to the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  I love the story behind this song of the man who can “never go home again” due to a dalliance en-route.  Gene Pitney is never better than he is on this, even a version by the legendary Dusty Springfield which made it onto her essential “Silver Collection” pales by comparison.

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15. The Single Girl – Sandy Posey (1966) (UK#15, US#12)

16. Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart – The Coasters (1958)

17. Stupid Cupid – Connie Francis (1958) (US#14)

18. Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton (1961) (UK#1)- John Leyton was a young British heartthrob actor who someone had the good idea (and it would happen again and again over the decades) to make him a recording star.  A TV acting part as a pop singer helped as it meant that the song could be performed on the show. Mad genius producer Joe Meek was at the helm and it was written by Geoff Goddard, a regular Meek collaborator and this chilling track which combined a galloping rhythm with a haunting disembodied female voice topped the UK charts even though it was banned by the BBC at the time.  Four more Top 30 hits followed and he can be seen cropping up in films in the period.  He kept up with the music and was continuing to perform as he approached his eighties. In one of the more bizarre song combinations of all time Bronski Beat and Marc Almond teamed it with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and “Love To Love You Baby” and got to number 3 in 1985.

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19. Soldier Boy – The Shirelles (1962) (UK#23, US#1)

20. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#9) – Far be it for me to question the great Aretha Franklin’s presence on any compilation but this does seem a little out of place here.  1967 seems a long way from 1957 and the tracks by The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.  This blistering soul performance makes it feel very much of the next generation from the one represented here on the other 39 songs.

So forty tracks eleven of which topped the charts in either the UK or the US and even though if not always to my taste there really isn’t a filler track here.  This makes it an essential CD release which I play regularly when I want to sing along to tracks from a more innocent time.

More Rock N Roll Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.49 new and from £0.67 used.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 58– Will Young – The Hits

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The Hits – Will Young (19 2009)
UK Chart Position – 7

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It might seem odd to those of you who have been following my Essential CD recommendations that this particular artist has three albums within the listing putting him on a par with some real Titans of popular music when he can be considered as just  a singer coming from a TV talent show who hasn’t so far achieved the worldwide success of some who followed this route and doesn’t possess the big voice, big image or formidable creative talent that those who appear more than once on my Essential CD recommendations tend to have. So, the question may very well be: Why do I like Will Young so much to feature three of his albums on my list?
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First and foremost it’s the voice which has a warmth and sincerity which makes every listen an enjoyable experience. It’s also his unwillingness to compromise in an industry full of compromises. I believe both in his music and his belief in it. He chose a route to stardom which could have placed him very much into a pop puppet role but he has managed to forge his own identity in a way in which others that have come after him have failed to consistently do. As much as his music, however, it is what Will Young stands for and his decision to come out at the height of his fame within a market which was aimed towards young girls who would consume his music with the hope that one day they could be Mrs Will Young.

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It’s easy to forget, now that the world has moved on as much as it has because of people like Will what a decision this was. It happened right at the start of his career when his debut single “Evergreen” was at the top of the charts with an interview given to the News Of The World. This kind of revelation had largely been to this point as a result of “outing” by the press who couldn’t help but resort to sniping and bringing in “gay shame” and “twilight worlds” and “double lives” From the same section of the pop industry Boyzone member Stephen Gateley had largely been coerced to come out as the story was going to be run by the tabloid press anyway, and he had the other band members as support rather than being a solo artist. Will’s response was refreshing, telling a major newspaper not known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles; “For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I’m gay and I’m comfortable with that. I really don’t know what the fuss is about.” And with this statement the world shifted a little bit.

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The BBC News website had a forum as to whether readers thought this announcement would affect Will’s career. It makes interesting reading 17 years on. Just a couple of snippets; Rachel from the UK said “Keep buying his records everyone; let’s keep him at number 1 because he certainly is!!” Johnny G from Leicestershire made an attempt at a prophecy “Now he’s had his number one I give him precisely three more weeks of fame before his second follow-up single fails to make the top 40 and he is forgotten forever.” Erik gave a viewpoint from South Africa “Hello people wake up! Grow up and get with it. Reading some peoples comments on issues like that makes me often wonder, with what people really concern themselves.” Julia saw herself as a representative for the “young disappointed female fans” which are mentioned frequently with her comment; “Girls buy all the records and girls don’t fancy gay men. Boy George was an exception just because we liked his makeup”. (I love that one!) There are the inevitable “I’m not homophobic but….” This was a big comment board and the gist of it was that people didn’t think it mattered one way or another which must have been an eye-opener for the popular press who certainly at that point considered it did matter and also the record industry itself who was all for keeping gay artists in the closet in case it damaged their sales. There were more voluntary revelations rather than forced outings in the years to come.  Even the more conservative America where it seemed to matter a great deal caught up when a decade after Will’s announcement Adam Lambert, best known here as some-time front-man for Queen became the first out gay artist to top the US album charts.  Now, at long last, within mainstream pop music at least, we seem to be at the point that it doesn’t matter and recording artists are free to make statements regarding their sexuality without the media furore it would have traditionally caused and I think we have Will Young in the UK to thank for this.

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Not everything has been golden for Will, he has made some decisions which were a little off, most particularly his decision to do “Strictly Come Dancing” and then pulling out after what seemed like a hissy fit over comments made by Head Judge Len Goodman, the circumstances of which as reported by the popular press did make him seem that he just wasn’t going to play if he wasn’t going to win. Not all his acting roles have made the impression anticipated, although he certainly won critical plaudits for a role which seems perfect for him in stage productions of “Cabaret” playing the part made famous in the movie by Joel Gray.

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As a vocalist he has provided me with enough joy that he deserves a greatest hits package on my Essential CD listing alongside his first two studio albums “From Now On” and “Friday’s Child”. I have gone for his first hits compilation from 2009 released after his first four studio albums and which reached number 7 in the UK charts. I probably could have just as easily gone for the later 2013 “The Essential” which reached number 15  but I don’t own that one. That was a parting of the ways compilation with his record label. “The Hits” is better for me in that it is a mid-career retrospective. It says things have been good for the past seven years but there is still good stuff to come.

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Obviously there is going to be an overlap with the first two albums which had been rich in hits so I’m largely discounting the first six tracks which I have dealt with elsewhere. That still leaves us with six tracks spread evenly between “Keep On” and 2008’s “Let It Go” together with the hit collection staple, the two new bonus tracks one of which was released as a single. That track “Hopes And Fears” became his least successful single to date and did not trouble the UK Top 40.  It isn’t exactly vintage Young written by two members of Phantom Limb who supported him on tour.  The other original track “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” which has Will in his tender, vulnerable mood and has a great opening line “Romeo would still be breathing/If it hadn’t been for love“.  Obviously it was decreed that a more uptempo single was a stronger choice to launch this album, but for me this is the better of the two tracks.

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There are some notable omissions on this album.  It seems strange that someone would put out a Hits compilation and not include songs which reached number 1, but that probably would have  given an undue bias to the earlier stages of his career so on this album there is no “Long and Winding Road” his chart-topping duet with Gareth Gates nor one side of the multi-million selling debut double A-sided single, the very likeable “Anything Is Possible” .  His 2002 number 2 double A-sided single is also represented by one track the stronger “You And I” rather than “Don’t Let Me Down”.

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Studio album number three “Keep On” kicks off with perhaps his rockiest track to date 2005’s “Switch It On” which got to number 5 which showed his willingness to diversify but it is a little one-dimensional to me, despite some good rhythm work.  I feel more at home with the other tracks chosen from this album the deliciously tender “All Time Love” which as a single got him back into the Top 3 for the last time to date.  A song rich in melody with a convincing performance could still charm the British singles buying audience in 2006.  Just as good is “Who Am I” which once again brings back the songwriting skills of Eg White who wrote his best track “Leave Right Now”.  This is written in collaboration with singer/songwriter Lucie Silvas, an under-rated performer in her own right.  As the third single release from this album it perhaps was too much to expect this to be a vast hit but it actually became the first Will Young single not to make the Top 10 when it stalled at number 11 but that is certainly not a reflection of the quality of the track.

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2008’s “Let It Go” has three tracks selected for this album the mid-tempo gem that is “Changes” which boasts a great build into the chorus and is full of a stirring optimism with a great vocal performance.  It was the hit track of the album and reached number 10 as the lead single. I really don’t know what happened with the other two single releases from this album as they both underachieved with “Grace” getting a number 33 placing and the title track missing out on the Top 40 for the first time in his career.

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Following the release of this album fans responded very positively a couple of years later when 2011’s “Echoes” gave him his third number 1 album despite not being as strong as what had gone before.  This feat was achieved again with his latest album “85 Percent Proof”  released on the Island label.

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And just this week the announcement was made that Will was back with a new single, with another of his top  quality stylish videos which have been so much a part of his career, once again not one to shy away from the controversial Will adopts a series of disguises, a sailor, a biker, a businessman which might make it sound like a twenty-first century Village People but it’s not tacky even though within each of these disguises he strips!  The single “All The Songs” will be his first release on the Cooking Vinyl label and will be followed by album number 7 “Lexicon” due in June which should I imagine see him back in the upper reaches  of the charts.  In the meantime he has been involved in an impressive podcast, which actually got me listening to podcasts, “Homosapien” which he presents with Chris Sweeney.  Not bad for a boy from a talent show who many predicted would be a five minute wonder, eh?

 

The Hits is currently available from Amazon in the UK for£2.75 and used from £0.20.  In the US Amazon have it for $11.98 and used from $1.08.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

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I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

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Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 54– Will Young – Friday’s Child

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Friday’s Child – Will Young (19 2003)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Just over a year on from his essential debut album “From Now On” Will Young was back with an album that was every bit as good.  Once again it ascended to the very summit of the charts and hung around for almost a year.  Single-wise it spawned three Top 5 tracks including his fourth (and to date his last) number 1 with perhaps his best ever recording.

 Although at this time he was still on Simon Fuller’s record label the boy had certainly grown up.  Success had given Will a voice and more independence to do what he wanted and this showed as musically this is a more coherent piece than the debut.  There was a new gang on board with Will getting writing credits on 6 of the 11 tracks.  There were a team of producers behind Stephen Lipson, a long-standing established producer who had worked alongside Trevor Horn for years at ZTT records.  Lipson worked either individually or part of a team for 8 of the 11 songs here.

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Producer Stephen Lipson at the desk

 The album kicks off with its only cover version.  To this point Will had followed the commercial popstars 90’s/00’s trajectory of recording a number of cover versions (this seems to have faded nowadays.  Who needs covers  with the originals so readily available on streaming services?)  To this point he had already covered Westlife, Bobby Darin, The Doors and The Beatles but here it is only “Love The One You’re With” a Stephen Stills song which makes the grade.  The original had just scraped the UK Top 40 in 1971 (US#14).  Nine years before the release of this album Luther Vandross had also led his album of covers “Songs” with the track and got to number 31 in the chart- the tune’s highest UK placing despite being an acknowledged radio classic.  Will’s version is pacy with a big sound and a good background arrangement and features one of his trademarks, the extended bended note (there’s probably a technical term for this).  It’s a good start to the album – probably with the tracks on display here it ends up in the middle of the pack for me somewhat but it is performed enthusiastically and both his and Luther’s version are worth a listen, with I suspect Vandross having the edge.

 

Stephen Stills and Luther Vandross also loved the one you’re with

 “Your Game” is a stronger track and up there with his best.  It reached number 3 as the second single from the album helped by a very memorable video.  Like the last track it is the interplay between Will and the Gospel Choir Metro Voices which provides a highlight.  I love the fullness of this track written by Will and co-producer Blair MacKichan with Tayo Onilo-Ere.  It gave Will a Brit Award for Best British Single of 2005.  “Stronger” is a much more understated affair written by Steve Lipson and Karen Poole, the daughter of ex-Tremeloes Brian Poole and herself one half of Alisha’s Attic who had 8 Top 40 UK hits between 1996 and 2001. 

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Alisha’s Attic

“Leave Right Now” is probably Will’s finest moment.  A track which succeeds on so many levels.  A great song written by Eg White and a convincing vocal performance with a good build and another memorable video of Will fixated on us at an art gallery which is both affecting and slightly disturbing which helped it shift a few units.  It was on this song that Will moved from successful pop talent show artist to an act who Britain should be proud of.  A number 1 single which was awarded an Ivor Novello Award.  It also topped the charts in Ireland and made inroads in European charts such as Belgium, Norway, Italy and Sweden and world markets such as New Zealand and was heavily featured on American Idol getting Will recognised Stateside.

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 “Love Is A Matter Of Distance” is a gentle convincing number, with a warm vocal performance and leads into “Dance The Night Away”, a more uptempo, urgent funkier track .  “Very Kind” was co-written and co-produced by Robin Thicke who also in 2003 launched his album recording career with “A Beautiful Mind”.  Robin of course would go on to have a massive hit a decade later with “Blurred Lines” and possesses the same white soul boy feel as Will.  Here, a sweet vocal performance is boosted by good orchestration arrangement. 

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Robin Thicke

“Free” gives a composing credit nod to Bill Withers, another obvious hero of Will’s and an artist who Will was covering back in his Pop Idol days when he won audiences over with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.  I’m not sure which Withers song is being referenced here.  “Going My Way” is not one of the strongest tracks on display.  It has a contemporary acid-jazz feel but never fully reaches its stride and here I find the interplay between Will and backing voices which has been a real strength on this album a little bit annoying.  “Out Of My Mind” is a welcome uptempo club-influenced track which has the feel of Jamiroquai, which is no bad thing.

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The album closer is another gem of a track and became the third single from the album and reached number 4 some 7 months after the album became available. In its extended play here it pushes nine minutes and every single second of it works.  Once again it had an excellent video and from his performances on the videos that accompanied this album Will was able to re-establish his credentials as an actor which led to a period where both his music and dramatic performances went hand in hand.  “Friday’s’ Child” has a chunky sound and an arrangement which recalls artists such as Soul II Soul and is a totally credible strong way to round things off.  This is a track as strong musically with extended its instrumental sections as it is vocally and up there with his best and seems miles away from karaoke classics on a Saturday night entertainment show.   

With this album anyone who considered Will would just be another Saturday night pop puppet had to reconsider.  It’s a mature album with the singer at ease with himself as an artist and the type of music he was recording.  Taken as a whole, although there are stronger high spots this time round I personally give a slight edge to the debut, but there really is not much in it and both I consider essential albums. 

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Will has to date recorded another four studio albums, two of which also ascended to the top of the charts with the other two stalling at the runner-up position.  Music seems to have currently taken a bit of a back seat in favour of other interests since his last release in 2015.  The other studio albums have been strong but not in my opinion essential.  He has become an acclaimed actor, especially in musical theatre and an advocate for gay rights.  His role in the popular culture of this country so far this century is significant.

 

Friday’s Child is currently available in the UK from Amazon from £3.21 and used from £0.01.   In the US it is currently only available used from $1.51.  In the UK it is also on Spotify streaming service.

100 Essential CDs – Number 52– Will Young – From Now On

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From Now On – Will Young (19 2002)

UK Chart Position – 1

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If twenty-three year old Will Young had not won the first series of ITV’s “Pop Idol” it is possible the whole reality talent show movement might have died a quiet death.  The format of finding a star on television had really faded since the 70’s and the heyday of starmaking duo of “Opportunity Knocks” and “New Faces” until it was revived in what initially seemed a small show “Pop Stars”.  This talent show format was intended to form a group and ended up with Hearsay and a totally unexpected huge sales volume for their first single “Pure And Simple”. 

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Hearsay, the original “Popstars”

If it worked with a group it could work with a solo artist but when the first series of “Pop Idol” launched nobody was totally sure and nobody would have predicted that it would have spun off versions all around the world and still seventeen years later remain one of the most significant formats in UK television (and now through its overfamiliarity often reviled) with its own Saturday night juggernaut spin-off “ The X Factor”.  Will’s victory certainly got cash tills ringing with well over a million copies of his debut single sold in the first week, with two more number ones following on before the release of his first album in October 2002 which also topped the charts and followed up with a double A-sided single which reached number 2. 

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And yet Will Young was not expected to win.  Throughout the competition the hot favourite had been Gareth Gates and the famous look of surprise on Will’s face when it was announced he had won was echoed on viewer’s faces around the country.  The debut single had to be ready to be released immediately, as this had worked so well in Hearsay’s favour and so the three finalists, Will, Gareth and Darius recorded their versions of “Evergreen” a song that seemed much better suited to Gareth’s voice.  Perhaps the tension that was reputedly there between Will and music mogul and benefactor of these huge sales, Simon Cowell, that had simmered throughout the show became something a little more serious from this point.  It seems to be a well established fact that Cowell wanted and expected Gareth Gates to win.  Although for a time there was room in the public hearts for both acts (with Will and Gareth topping the charts together with a song which appears on this album) it was Will’s career that had the longevity and by far the bigger sales.

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 Will Vs. Gareth

The release of the debut album was thankfully not rushed in the same way as the single and it remains by far the strongest debut from a Simon Cowell helmed reality show winner.  Although other non-winners had launched strong first albums (including Olly Murs, Rowetta, Marcus Collins, Rebecca Ferguson)the actual winners had to put up with albums that were musically patchy, even if they were being launched on a worldwide stage, like Leona Lewis.  Will’s is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

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It opens with that double-sided huge hit taking up the first two tracks of the CD.  Sales of 1.79 million in the UK which still remains the highest debut single sales for a solo artist and makes these tracks according to a quick check at the Official Charts Company the 19th biggest selling single of all time fitting in between The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the hit-twice around of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.   It is the 5th biggest track ever by a solo male artist slotting in behind Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams.  The UK in 2002 were undoubtedly swept up in Pop Idol fever and it’s hard to see it as a classic single compared to some of the others in the all-time Top 20 but I actually really quite like both songs.  “Evergreen” was written by the Swedish triumvirate Jorg Eloffson, Per Magnusson, and David Kreuger and had previously been an album track by Westlife and that is what it sounds like with its build and swell and key changes but there is something in Will’s voice that pushes this up to another level which is not there in the Westlife version.  The songwriters were part of what was known as the Cheiron song-writing team of around about a dozen who worked at the Stockholm studio and between them were responsible for countless pop hits in the 90’s and 00’s for artists such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Boyzone, Westlife, Celine Dion, Ace of Base who dominated charts in that era with songs that might have veered towards the formulaic at times but it was certainly a winning formula.

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I like even more “Anything Is Possible” with its slicker soul sound and a lovely vocal performance from Will which saves it from a slight sugariness.  This was written and produced by former solo recording star Cathy Dennis alongside Chris Braide in composition duties and Oskar Paul in production duties.  A song was commissioned for the winners by Pop Idol head man Simon Fuller from the writing duo because of work they had done with S Club 7.  (Simon Fuller is perhaps the forgotten man in all this- at this stage Simon Cowell was just one of the judges, it was Fuller who had the control and held the purse strings).  This has a great example of the Will Young soaring note which he always does so well and has become a bit of a trademark for him. 

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Follow-up single “Light My Fire” was a cover version of the Doors song that would have been familiar to viewers of Pop Idol as Will had featured a version of it back in the Top 50 stage of the show.  This was very much a turning point for Will as Simon Cowell described the performance as “average” and a miffed Will answered him back.  This was the moment the public really got behind him and results published after the series had finished showed that at this stage the public had awarded him with the highest number of votes where he would remain until the Top 6 when he slipped to second place behind Gareth Gates in Abba Week and would remain behind him until the final when he emerged from the background to take the Pop Idol crown.  We viewers never knew it was as close as this and most would have assumed that Gareth and perhaps Darius were scoring higher with the public throughout than they actually were.  I did vote for Will all along (and had a considerably higher than average phone bill that quarter to prove it!)

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So when looking for a follow-up to one of the biggest selling singles of all time perhaps a studio version of “Light My Fire” produced by Absolute was an inspired choice. It had been a hit song on five previous occasions, the original by The Doors had been a US#1 in 1967 but had to wait 24 more years before it became a UK Top 10 hit reaching number 7 in 1991.  Ironic cheesy retro performer Mike Flowers Pops took a version just into the Top 40 five years later and acts such as UB40 and Shirley Bassey had released it as a single without much success.  In fact the most successful chart placing up to this point had been disco singer Amii Stewart who had placed it in a medley with “137 Disco Heaven” and got to number 5 in 1979.  However, the version that Will’s took more of its inspiration was the cool jazz-enriched version by Jose Feliciano which had reached number 6 in the UK in 1968 and number 3 in the US.  Rich in acoustic guitar Will’s version is lovely and became his second chart-topper.

Cathy Dennis’s presence is there as songwriter and producer (one with Mike Peden)  of the next two tracks, one written with Robbie Williams’ hitmaker Guy Chambers and one with Will himself.  “Lover Won’t You Say” is another piece of chunky jazz-soul which has the kind of wistfulness I associate with cool bands such as Swing Out Sister.  “Lovestruck” with its acoustic guitar intro feels like a deceptively sweet simple song which has a warmth which makes it one of the highlights of the album. 

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It was certainly one eye on the tills which decided upon single number 3  put out just before the release of the album.  Combine the fans of Will with those of runner-up Gareth Gates who had himself by this time also scored two number 1 singles.  The decision was to record The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road” was an okay one I suppose and it was almost a guaranteed number 1 which it achieved for two weeks.  It’s nice enough and on the few bits they sing together their voices harmonise nicely.  There are better cover versions of this song around however.

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Once the album was released most people who forked out for it would have been highly likely to have had at least a couple of the three tracks already released as singles.  It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to put out a lot of singles after this, but around a month after the release the only track to be put out after the album’s release was the strong “You And I”.  It was packaged alongside a new track “Don’t Let Me Down” as the official Children In Need Single of 2002 and stalled at number 2.

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After this rash of singles the last six tracks set out the future for Will Young including another two Cathy Dennis songs (one alongside Will again) and one with the legendary Burt Bacharach and three written by a team of Richard Stannard, Julian Gallagher, Dave Morgan, Simon Hale and Will Young.  What was evident right from this point was that Will was not going to be another pop puppet with strings pulled by management or song-writing or production teams.  He was going to be involved right from the start and that determination led to the odd story that he was prickly when in fact he was just keen not to go down some pre-determined route.  This also helped him be loved by the British public.  These are all consistently good pop songs with my favourites of the bunch being the Dennis and Bacharach combo “What’s In Goodbye”, which hides its complexity under a song which seems initially simple, as do many of Bacharach’s best songs and the jazz-influenced “Over You”.

 The final track seems the start of a new chapter for Will.  “Fine Line” is produced by Mike Peden and written with him alongside E and H Johnson and is an intense, dramatic, pretty uncommercial piece of mood music which has an exemplary vocal performance and seems to me to be a long way away from a duet version of “The Long And Winding Road”.  This is a mature, brave way to close the album. 

 Next time round the song-writing and production teams would be completely different (other than Will’s own involvement of course) but this closing track seems to me to be the one that sows the seeds for some of things we would hear musically and vocally in 2003’s follow-up album “Friday’s Child”.

From Now On is currently available from new  Amazon in the UK for £3.28  and used from £0.01.  In the US it is available new from $12.99 and used from $0.98.  In the UK it is currently available to stream from Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 96– Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

 

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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 There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album.  It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up.  Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts.  In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense.  A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition.  I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years.  On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.

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Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.

I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time.  I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation.  It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase.  The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.

It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.

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For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride.  Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly.  I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began  performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single.  Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well.  The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now.  Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

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It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”.  One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good.  He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again.  There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”.  It works superbly.

Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album.  It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever.  Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant.  This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.”  This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation.  When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.”  This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”.  This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus.  It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.

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The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK.  This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best.  “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk.  The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.

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There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot.  And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album.  “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.”  It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture.  A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!)  “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long.  The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams.  At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.

 

Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album

The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track.  “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece.  Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness.  In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart.  A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single.  The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music.  I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.

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After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you.  “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA.  “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.”  Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener.  Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.

The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track.  This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song.  Extraordinary.

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“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40.  It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends.  It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige.  This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original.  Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit.  Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme.  This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights.  As it is, it starts to get on your nerves.  Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US.  In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals.  The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.

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This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record.  I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated.  In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”.  This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going.  It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good.  Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta.  “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.

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There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade.  Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording.  It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums.  That would come a few years later.  It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.

The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.  One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.

 

Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66.  In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2018 – Part 2: The Top 5

I am continuing my countdown of my favourite books I read in 2018.

5. House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018) Read and reviewed in November

tshumaAnother title (like Claire Hajaj’s #8 rated novel) that I would never have come across if it were not for the good folks at nb magazine who sent me a copy to help out with the longlisting for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards.  The shortlist is due to be announced this month and this is one title that certainly should be up for serious consideration as for me it was the best debut novel I read and narrowly misses out on being my favourite novel published in 2018.  Zimbabwe born Tshuma is a real storyteller and here tells the history of the last fifty years of her homeland using an unreliable narrator who plots his way through and manipulates the other characters.  I said of it “Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power.  The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius.  It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.”  This is unlikely to be as easy to find as some of the works on this list but is definitely worth seeking out.

4. Ladder To The Sky – John Boyne (Doubleday 2018) – Read in June, reviewed in July

boyneladder A great year for books with ladders in the titles (cf: Anne Tyler’s # 6 rated book).  Irish author John Boyne reached the top of my personal book ladder last time round with his outstanding “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this, his latest, is almost as good.  Novels about writers tend to not be as good as they think they are but this look at the publishing industry with its emphasis on the creative process and the ownership of ideas is extremely strong.  I said “this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew.”  For the second year running John Boyne has produced the best novel of the year published in the year I read it.

3. Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)- Read and reviewed in March

bookwormMy favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I’d highlighted this as one I really wanted to discover before publication and I was certainly not in anyway disappointed.  In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated.  Lucy Mangan explores the reading material of her childhood in a superb “book about books”.  I said of it; “Thank you Lucy Mangan.  This book has brought me so much pleasure.  I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops.”  I don’t think there can be much higher praise!  I have recommended this book so many times this year and will continue to do so.

2. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (Definition 2006) – Read in September, reviewed in October

pyjamasI actually had this sat on my bookshelves for quite a few years unread.  I’d seen the film but I was so enthralled by Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” that I had to explore a bit of his back catalogue and read this, his most famous work.  He really is a great find for me as an author and got very close to doing the unprecedented and being named the author of the Book Of The Year for a second year running.  In fact, everything I had read by this writer has been a five star read with his 2015 children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain“, pretty much a companion piece to this just missing out on the Top 10 this year because of the number of outstanding books I’ve read (the other non-Top 10 5 star read was Kate Atkinson’s “A God In Ruins“).  Bruno is relocated with his family away from the grandparents he loved to a house in the grounds of a place he believes is called “Out-with” peopled by men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  Painfully sad and extremely powerful and an essential read, even if you have seen the film.

And the reviewsrevues book of the year for 2018 goes to:

1.The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Penguin 1845) – Read and reviewed in December

dumasI’m sure that this is just coincidence but for the second year running the Book Of The Year has been the very last book I’ve read.  I don’t think this is because I forget the books I’ve read earlier in the year because I do carefully go through everything, it may be because I’m keen to fit in a book which has the potential to be a big-hitter before the new year dawns and this was certainly a big-hitter in every sense of the word.  It took me a month to get through the 1200+ pages but it was certainly time well spent as it introduced me to a classic novel dominated by a fascinating character which will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Brought to life in a vibrant translation by Robin Buss and recommended to me by my friend Louise, whose mission is to get everyone to reading this book.  I certainly now think she has a point.

I’ve never read Dumas before and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more and he is a deserved addition to my awards list.  Dumas becomes my first French author to join my ultimate favourites and the fourth translated work.  It is the best nineteenth century novel I have read since I read “Jane Eyre” in 2000.  Here is my Hall of Fame for the past 11 years:

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2019!

The rest of my Top 10 for this year can be found in my earlier post here

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018

100 Essential Books – The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1844)

 

 

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For my final challenge in the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I chose what felt like the momentous task of getting through 1243 pages of small, quite dense print in the Penguin Classics Paperback edition of this book which I had never read before.

One of the challenges drawn from the hat in this year long initiative was to ask a member of staff what their favourite novel was and then to read it. My co-worker Louise would offer this book as her most cherished but once potential readers saw its size they balked at the task (“What’s your second favourite read?”).  So disheartened was she by this reaction that I said if I made it to the last challenge then I would read it.  It has taken a month and the closing date for the challenge went by before I was mid-way through it but I am so glad that I took a month out of my reading commitments to experience this.

Written as a serial in the “Journal Des Debats”, beginning in 1844 Dumas was being paid by instalment and needed the money so kept things going.  To maintain the plot movement over this length is a considerable achievement and to keep the readers’ interest over the twists and turns of the tale is even more of an achievement and Dumas manages both.

Part of this success is down to the robust, lively translation from Robin Buss which dates from 1996 and feels different from the somewhat turgid older versions which derive largely from the Victorian period where the text is mistranslated, bowdlerised and aimed to meet the needs of those who desired to read it purely as adventure fiction.  On trips out, put off by the weight of my copy, I downloaded a cheap Kindle version which was an earlier translation and found myself largely stumbling through it.  It was a relief to get back to Buss’ version of the text.

The bare bones of the story is likely to be well known through the myriad of adaptations in various media over the years.  Edmond Dantes is accused of treason on the eve of his wedding by men who seek to benefit from his downfall.  Imprisoned in the foreboding Chateau D’If he plots revenge on those who set him up and prevented him from proving his innocence.  The rest of the novel takes in the 25 years of seeking to attain that revenge.  It all goes much deeper than that, obviously, and there is actually less swash-buckling than I had anticipated.  Central to it all is Dantes who adopts the role of the Count of Monte Cristo, a character who will provoke mixed emotions from the reader as he is a profound, enigmatic creation and who provides the lifeblood of the book even when less well-drawn characters are brought more into focus.  It is his desire for vengeance which drives the reader onwards though some extraordinarily surprising moments in a plot that moves so fast it can at times leave the reader behind trying to piece together the significance of what has occurred.  Its length made it a challenge but it was so entertaining that I wasn’t going to give up and I feel on completion that a major gap in my reading history has been filled and that it was all a pretty amazing experience.

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The publication of The Count Of Monte Cristo first began in 1844.  If you are going to spend as much time to read it as it requires I suggest you do not choose an early translation.  I went for the 1996 translation by Robin Buss in the 2006 Penguin Classics anniversary edition.