The 500th Post – What You’ve Been Reading

5002It’s the big 500th Post!  This gives me a chance to sit back, eat cake and sip sparkling wine and to say thank you to all of you who have kept me posting by reading and commenting and suggesting.  On these big occasions I like to take a little look back and see just what it is you have been finding to read here on reviewsrevues.com.  According to my Stats page this is a total of 374,652 words.  Huge thanks if you have managed to read them all!!

I reset the clocks at the start of the year and so this is the Top 10 of those 500 posts which you have been  reading since January.

10. Collateral –  (BBC2 2018- posted in Feb 2018)

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Much anticipated four part Crime drama series by Sir David Hare had mixed reviews with some finding the writing at times a little clunky.  I did stick with it and there was a great performance from Carey Mulligan but it is unlikely to be the best police drama I will watch this year.

9. Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge (BBC2 2018- posted in April 2018)

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I liked this series as it brimmed with feel-good factor and feels to me like the BBC’s natural successor to the gap in the schedules caused by “Bake Off” moving to Channel 4.  It worked because of the passion of the contestants- people prepared to give up on their 9-5s to produce food, often during their evenings and weekends, often in places like their sheds or domestic kitchens, food which they really believein with a passion and wanting to spread the word.   I also loved the farm-shop setting in Malhamdale, Yorkshire.

8. The Real Full Monty (ITV 2017- posted in June 2017)

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This has received a surge in readers this year as ITV decided to do it all over again with two one-offs over consecutive nights, one with celebrity men and one with women.  My review was for the original 2017 one-off.  Even though I couldn’t really see it working a second time it actually did.  I know there was criticism in some quarters of the press about the amount of money actually raised for charity by these shows but it certainly raised awareness on prime-time television of testicular and breast cancer and that has got to be a good thing.

7. Let’s Groove – The Best Of Earth Wind and Fire (Columbia 1996- posted in October 2015)

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Continues to be the most read CD review I have ever posted, still leading the way two and a half years on.

6. Dynasty (Netflix 2017- posted in October 2017)

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I’m still working my way through the first series of this on reboot of a TV classic on  Netflix and I am enjoying it.  The writing of this review made me go all dewy-eyed with nostalgia for the days of John Forsythe, Linda Evans and of course, Dame Joan Collins and ended up with me buying the complete box set of the original series off Amazon.  Haven’t got round to watching any of it yet- it’s still in its plastic shrink wrap.  Maybe one day I’ll have 165 hours to spare!!

5. The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood and Mary Killen (2017- posted in January 2018)

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Despite all the literary treasures I try to put your way the most read of my book reviews this year has been dear old Giles and Mary from “Gogglebox”.  It is actually very readable, laugh out loud funny and quite a long way from most tv cash-in publications.

4. Make! Craft Britain (BBC4- 2016) (Posted in June 2016)

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It seems like I have been urging the BBC for ages to make more of this idea as this one off programme has always attracted a lot of attention on here.  At last, this year BBC4 went with a three parter which explored a range of crafts and has sparked many people who watched it into different artistic directions.  (I have unearthed the knitting needles again after watching beginners produce a hat).  This review was for the original episode- I hope the BBC will make more of these surprisingly relaxing and inspirational hours.

3. The Level (ITV 2016- Posted in October 2016)

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This six part Brighton set series remains the most read review on the site, clearly dominating the statistics in 2016 and 2017.  Although it has slipped off the top spot in this first part of the year it seems people have far from forgotten about it and still want to know what it was all about.

2. Jamestown ( Sky 1 2017- Posted in May 2017)

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Here’s one I feel guilty about.  Sky has aired a second series which has meant good traffic on the site for this review and yet I only ever watched the first episode of the first series.  I gave up with it at this point.  It seems as if I was in a minority……………

The most read review on this site so far this year is…………… (drum roll needed or at least a showbizzy fanfare -there’s a clue….)

Last Laugh In Vegas (ITV 2018 – Posted in April 2018)

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A clear winner here stats-wise for this five part series which started off with car-crash tv potential but actually turned out to be a really quite charming tale of dogged determination in keeping your name up in lights.  Celebrities better known in the 60s and 70’s took on Las Vegas for a night and you ended up willing them to succeed.  Certainly not without its faults, I’m still questioning the motives behind the whole idea but it has obviously attracted attention worldwide.

Well that was post number 500!  Thanks for reading.  Thanks especially if you read something on April 25th 2018 as that was the day I received the highest number of visits ever which spurs me on thinking there’s still life in the old dog yet! Here’s to the next 500 posts!

 

 

 

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 21– The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony

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Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony (Motown 1986)

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Back in the mid 1980’s the Motown label began a series of releases to capitalise on the vibrant back catalogue CD market.  These releases put together on one CD two albums by one artist giving those of us replacing our vinyl copies with CDs great value for money.  This 1986 release was the best of the lot.  

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The CD was credited as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes yet when the original vinyl recordings were released the trio were just known as The Supremes.  This two in one put together their 1964 second album, which very much marked their breakthrough,  a superb girl-group album containing three of their five consecutive number one singles alongside their eighth album released just two years later (boy, these girls were being worked hard in the recording studio) which gave them another US number 1 with the title track.  Chartwise, on original release the album “Where Did Our Love Go?” reached number 2 in the US and “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8.  The innocent girl group sound of chirpy three minute tracks had over those two years evolved into a more sophisticated sound which combined the tracks written to appeal to Young America with cover versions of standards which might appeal more to their parents.  This was all part of Berry Gordy’s strategy to make his acts appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  Occasionally, on some recordings this acted as little more than filler around the hits but here sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland productions ensure that this is a top-notch pairing alongside the first classic Motown album.  Neither albums were UK hits but that says more about the UK album chart of the mid 60’s rather than the quality of either of these recordings.

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It had taken quite a while for the career of The Supremes to get off the ground and it would have been likely that had they been with a larger record company they would have been dropped.  But the early days of Motown were very much a family affair, with all the acts supporting one another and schoolgirls Diane Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had just hung around at the Hitsville studio until they got noticed and continued to hang around until they were offered songs that could become hits. They had been recording singles since 1961.  Berry Gordy, fascinated by Diane (soon to change the last letter of her name) had seen them as his pet project but hadn’t had a hit with the singles he had written and produced for them and neither had Clarence Paul or Smokey Robinson.  People were referring to them as the “No Hit Supremes”.  It took the genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production skills to ensure that within the space of a few months The Supremes had become one of the world’s top recording artists and it all began with the tracks on this album.

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 Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers at the piano

In fact, the game changer was the title track which kicks off this CD.  An H-D-H song and production which was reputedly turned down by the top Motown girl group of the day, the Marvelettes (who to this point had scored five US Top 40 hits including the #1 “Please Mr Postman”) but before it might be offered to the second group in line, Martha and The Vandellas , the Supremes stepped in.  It’s a simple song, distinguished by a stomping beat and set the pattern of Supremes recordings with Diana as lead vocal and Mary and Florence reduced to little more than “baby-baby – ing”. Although early Supremes releases had switched lead vocal duties once the hit pattern was established it became very much Diana Ross’ group.  The song reached the top of the US charts.  In a UK, obsessed with everything Liverpool in 1964 it got to number 3.  The album was released just a couple of months after the single and it did give fans the opportunity to catch up with previously released singles and B sides together with some new tracks.

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The new track that caused the most attention was put out as the follow-up single, something of a rush release in the UK where its predecessor was still in the charts but “Baby Love” just could not be contained.  One of the finest girl group singles ever, it retains the simplicity of “Where Did Our Love Go” and is not so rhythm dominated and just has an extra little sparkle which makes it a phenomenal track.  It topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic and is perhaps the song most strongly identified with the group.  A further US chart-topper “Come See About Me” was less successful in the UK where it stalled at number 27.

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Other first class Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings on show here include the track which marked their first actual appearance on the US pop charts the #23 hit “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” an excellent but unexpectedly raucous sing-along track for the ladies who would be known for their sophisticated cooing.  On some of the earlier tracks there are male voices (apparently the producers themselves and The Four Tops) and this is certainly the case for the rather startling male grunt which explodes mid-way through.  “Run Run Run” has a honking brass and piano sound and male voices in the back-up and a great rough edge to it.  There’s a much softer edge to the subtle soul ballad “I’m Giving You Your Freedom”, “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” is a charming piano backed mid-tempo number and “Where Did Our Love Go”’s closer is one of the finest tracks Motown never  released as an A-side.  “Ask Any Girl” sounds like a monumental hit that never was with its flamenco feel, dramatic intro and perfect girl-group feel with a nod towards the best of the Phil Spector groups, the Shirelles  and the Shangri-Las.  The couplet “It’s heartaches without number/ Many nights without slumber” is one of the greatest girl group lines.  It’s a stunning track which has that heady combination of youth and sophistication. 

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 Smokey Robinson

Other song-writing and production teams do get a look-in.  Smokey Robinson was one of those that had tried and failed to give the Supremes a hit and it is rather amazing that he missed out with the sultry “A Breath Taking Guy”, which is unusual in that it features all of the girls having a stab at lead vocals.  The other Robinson track “Long Gone Lover” is a nod back to earlier doowop tracks given a girl group slant.  Norman Whitfield would go on to produce some classic tracks for The Temptations but here his “He Means The World To Me” is an attractive Mary Wells-style track.  Label boss Berry Gordy gets in on the action with “This Kiss Of Fire” without challenging the best tracks on the album.

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It is likely that “Where Did Our Love Go” with its range of very good quality songs and performances and that great trio of HDH hits would have made it alone onto my 100 Essentials list but here we’ve certainly got more for our money with the other twelve tracker “I Hear A Symphony” on the same CD.

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We fast forward to 1966 and the Supremes are known worldwide.  Berry Gordy, always the businessman has begun, especially on albums, to extend the fanbase and not just bring in the young, the traditional 45RPM single buyers but also their parents and grandparents and has his eye on the world’s most prestigious night spots for his acts to perform in.  By this time all the exciting rough edges have gone from the music and the girls themselves, smoothed out by formidable Deportment Coach, Maxine Powell, a Motown employee, who both Diana and Mary today would credit for turning them into ladies and who took the “girls from the Brewster Project” and enabled them to mix with VIPs and Royalty – all part of Berry Gordy’s plan for his leading act and, especially, Diana Ross.

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“I Hear A Symphony” reflects this as alongside the four Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions we get show tunes, standards and recent pop hits.  Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier get to produce all the tracks bar one from Norman Whitfield, where the girls tackle the Beatles’ “Yesterday”.  Album-wise since “Where Did Our Love Go” the trio had put out a run of themed long players, tackling the Lennon-McCartney songbook with “A Bit Of Liverpool” (1964 US#21), Country and Western (1965 US#79) and a Sam Cooke tribute album (US#75).  There had also been a non-charting Christmas album all of which showed that the heady days might be over as these albums garnered only a fraction of the sales of “Where Did Our Love Go”.  A more traditional studio album “More Hits By The Supremes” had been a success, reaching number 6 in the US as it featured two more number 1 US singles.

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 The more sophisticated style can be seen in the title track which became their 6th US chart-topper with its classical musical imagery of symphonies and rhapsodies, it feels more complex than some of the earlier hits.  That had been released a few months before the album, which was very much built around the sound of the hit single.  Thus we get the girls’ intepretations of “Stranger In Paradise”, “Unchained Melody” “Without A Song” together with a touch of Rodgers and Hart and “With A Song In My Heart” an idea which would spawn a whole album of these songs in the future.  Earlier Pop hits Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” and the Toys’ Bach-influenced “A Lover’s Concerto” are also present.  This might sound a little hackneyed and it does veer dangerously close to the middle of the road at times but the performances and productions are exemplary.  I know the people can be critical of Ross’ distinctive slightly nasal voice but given the right song and production and boy, can she shine as a song stylist.  The back-up work by Florence and Mary also works sublimely on these tracks with both the versions of the Mathis and the Toys hits eclipsing the originals. 

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Amongst these you also get the Holland-Dozier-Holland numbers (helped out on two of the tracks by one James Dean).  “My World Is Empty Without You” followed the title track up the charts (US#5) and perhaps better than all these is another of those Motown tracks which should have been a single, the excellent “Everything Is Good About You” which just must have been an influence for Barry White as it sounds so much like Love Unlimited’s “It May Be Winter Outside”.

 The album “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8 on the US pop charts and is a perfect accompaniment to the earlier album on this CD to show just how good these girls can be.  It revitalised the trio’s career and there would be another 6 US number 1 Pop hits before they hung up the matching sequin gowns and Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.

The two-on-one CD “Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony is available used on Amazon UK from £14.99 and in the US from $7.99.  Both albums are available separately and as a download.  In the UK they are also both separately available for streaming on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 64– Donna Summer – The Donna Summer Anthology

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The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

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With three studio albums in my Essentials list it is no surprise that I am recommending a career retrospective for all the Donna Summer I have so far missed out.  There are quite a number to choose from but I have gone for the double CD Anthology which appeared in 1993 and was the first up- to -that point complete career collection with 34 tracks spanning 17 years.

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 Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948 and as a teenager won a part in the German production of “Hair”.  She married Austrian Helmuth Sommer and anglicized his surname to become her stage-name.  The marriage lasted three years, the name much longer.  In Europe she began working with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte leading to her first smash hit “Love To Love You Baby”, one of my all-time favourite Disco tracks which I covered when I reviewed her first essential album “A Love Trilogy” which was released in 1976.  The version on this album is the US single version, which is not actually my favourite.  The British single mix is harder to find but feels more of a complete track.  From “Love Trilogy” we get the single versions of “Could It Be Magic” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, which really demands to be heard in its entirety.  “Spring Affair” is taken from “Four Seasons Of Love” and was the track which attracted the most attention in the discos but in the UK the ballad “Winter Melody” became the hit.

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 From 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” we get the 60’s girl-group pastiche of “Love’s Unkind” and her only UK number one, the phenomenal I Feel Love”, which really was the sound of the future and is probably one of the most significant dance tracks of all time, propelling electronic dance music to the forefront, a position it still occupies today, over forty years later.  There’s three tracks from the essential “Once Upon A Time” album.

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By this time Disco was huge and her Casablanca record label joined forces with Motown to put together a disco movie starring Donna and featuring a double album soundtrack.  The music was at times over-produced and grandiose but the film was actually a rather understated piece which also starred Jeff Goldblum and The Commodores but it was the music that made the most impression with the best , sung by Donna, getting an Oscar , the sublime “Last Dance”, which was written by  her co-star Paul Jabara.  This is a track which has grown in reputation over the years but I have always loved it.  It’s changes of pace were deemed a little confusing at the time which might explain why it did not even make the Top 50 in the UK.  In the US it became her second Top 3 hit.

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 The double album “Live And More” became a huge seller in the US, giving Donna her first number 1 album.  A lot of these sales were fuelled by the “studio” side which comprised three tracks put together in a non-stop close- to- eighteen -minute medley, of which two are included here.  “The MacArthur Park” suite took a distinctly weird Jimmy Webb song which had been a hit when growled by actor Richard Harris and turned it into something fabulous.  It is here in a lengthy six and a half minute promotional single version which gives it a chance to show its epic sweep and once again the changes of pace which were to be a feature for Donna in the latter disco years.  Her first US number 1 single (“I Feel Love” had inexplicably stalled at #6) it got to number 5 in the UK.  This eases into, as it did in the original album, the almost as good “Heaven Knows” in which Donna sings with fellow Casablanca signings Brooklyn Dreams.  This got to number 4 in the US but a lowly 34 in the UK.  This was a significant track in Donna’s life as the following year she was to marry lead singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

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 The first CD has really peaked here as far as I am concerned but is rounded off by four tracks from the huge “Bad Girls” album.  Two of the tracks most associated with Donna are the title track (US#1, UK#14) and “Hot Stuff (US#1, UK#11) both here in their full 12” version.  There’s more changes of pace in “Dim All The Lights” (US#2,UK#29).  Of the tracks from this US double platinum #1 album, the biggest seller in her career I have always preferred the more electronic European feel of “The Anthology’s” closing track on the first disc, “Sunset People”.

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 CD 2 opens with a real tour-de-force which topped off Donna’s most commercially successful year with her third US number 1 single of 1979.  More of a singing contest than a track it paired the Disco Queen with the Showtunes Queen- Summer vs Streisand.  It’s incredible to think that at the start of Donna’s hit career many people thought that she could not even sing and here she is matching one of the most celebrated singers note for note.  In the UK this became Donna’s third Top 3 hit.  Her final hurrah to disco came with “On The Radio”, another song which has become more familiar in the UK over the years, at one time it was a regular choice for competitors on TV talent shows and soap star turned pop star Martine McCutcheon significantly bettered Donna’s original number 32 placing when she took it to number 7 in 2001.  In the US it reached number 5, which was her lowest chart placing for a couple of years.  It’s a song with a slightly odd narrative, I never understood how a letter which felt out of a pocket in an old brown overcoat ended up being read out on the radio, but then Donna had been convincing when she left her cake out in the rain.  It’s a great vocal but lyrically just a little strange.

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 And then in the US, disco was over.  The response from Summer, Moroder and Bellotte was to release an album with a distinct rock-chick feel.  Summer had moved away from Casablanca Records with its strong disco emphasis and signed up to Geffen Records.  It was a new start but I, for the first time, didn’t really buy into it.  As someone who had always preferred her more European sounding tracks it was a step too far into the rock arena.  Donna was keen to get away from the sexy disco siren image not least in part because she had become a born-again Christian.  Commercially, her UK fans agreed with me as it became her lowest selling album to date.  The title track reached number 3 in the US but follow up “Cold Love” stalled at 33, although did garner Donna a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal.  Her next album was not even approved for release by her new label.  From it we get the title track “I’m A Rainbow” and her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” played straight, which became a staple in her live shows.  It was not released until 1986 and it marked the last album in the ten year partnership of the artist with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

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 The next album had more than an element of reinvention about it.  It is unusual for an artist this far on in their career to release an eponymous album- 1982’s “Donna Summer” being set out as a new start.  Producer Quincy Jones did a very good job, the songs have a range of style from jazz standards, to ballads, to rock tinged tracks.  From this we get US#10, UK#18 “Love Is In Control” and the odd but fascinating version of a Jon & Vangelis song “State Of Independence” which put Donna in front of an all-star gospel choir including Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick.  This became the big hit track in the UK reaching number 14 and giving Donna her highest UK studio album chart placing since “I Remember Yesterday”.

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 There wasn’t too much that was great about the next couple of album releases, “Anthology” cherry-picks the most worthwhile tracks from “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws”.  The very good title track from “All Systems Go” is here.  Her one album dalliance with Stock Aitken and Waterman brought about one of her (and their) best ever recordings.  I consider “Another Time And Place” (from this we get “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt) to be an Essential CD.  The magic didn’t carry on for her next album “Mistaken Identity” but two of the better tracks are here.

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 This CD does end with a good enough reason for the Summer fan to purchase “Anthology” as in 1992 Donna guest vocaled on a track by old friend Giorgio Moroder on a project called “Forever Dancing”.  This track “Carry On” seemed to turn back the years and I  I wish it could have led on to more recordings with the producer and his greatest muse.

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 Post “Anthology” Donna made the occasional single -the best being her number 21 UK hit “Melody Of Love” from 1994 and a fairly breath-taking version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from 1999 which took the song better known as “Time To Say Goodbye” out of the funeral services, for which it has become a staple and into the dance clubs.  I thought this would be a huge hit for her but it wasn’t.  Her final album “Crayons” released in 2008 after a 14 year gap after her previous very worthwhile Christmas album was a strong attempt at giving Donna a contemporary club edge and healthy sales seemed like it could be the beginning of a new phase in her recording career. 

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 Her death in 2012 came as a complete shock and was one of those passings that makes you feel that a phase in your own life has come to an end.  Her final illness was kept quiet as lung cancer claimed her.  It was Donna’s belief that this was brought on by toxic dust she inhaled by being in the proximity of New York on 9/11.  She was the artist I felt that I had grown up with and even when some of her recordings in the mid 80’s did not inspire me greatly I was always delighted when her music was in the charts and she was in the public eye.

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 I’ve gone for “Anthology” because it does have a number of those tracks on CDs which I never made the transfer from vinyl to.  There are omissions, especially with tracks which hit bigger in the UK (no “Winter Melody”, no “Down Deep Inside” no “Dinner With Gershwin”).  If you are looking for these tracks I suggest you go for “The Journey – The Very Best Of”, which got to number 6 in the UK charts in 2004 (but still no “Winter Melody”) or the three disc “Ultimate Collection” (2016 UK#30) which has all of the above, some of Donna’s German pre-hit recordings as well as tracks that I have never owned and which the completist in me is telling me to purchase.  58 tracks, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…………………………

 

Donna Summer in a live tribute to David Foster from 2008 bringing the show to a resounding close with “Last Dance”.

 

The Donna Summer Anthology now only seems to be available on Amazon UK as a used import with prices ranging from £1.95 to £700.38 (you make your choice!).  In the US it is more readily available new currently for $29.99 and used from $1.98.  There are many other Donna Summer compilations available.

100 Essential CDs – Number 68– Donna Summer – Another Place And Time

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Another Place And Time – Donna Summer (WEA 1989)

UK Chart Position – 17

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It had been nearly twelve years since Donna Summer’s previous essential album “Once Upon A Time”.  In the meantime her career had reached stratospheric levels with US number 1 pop albums (“Live And More” and “Bad Girls”) and had also hit the doldrums.  Disco had been and gone and in the US there had been a backlash against Disco artists so Donna  found herself needing to diversify, not always with great results.  Her career was also further complicated by her becoming a born-again Christian causing her to play down some of the raunchier hits in her back catalogue and then there was a comment she was reported to have made about AIDS which seriously affected her standing with the gay record buying market, who had been amongst her strongest supporters since day one.  Donna Summer always denied making such statements but it did have a significantly detrimental effect on her career.

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Throughout the 80’s Donna continued to record with some success but the career lacked consistency and the quality of albums was patchy.  She did come very close to being essential with her 1982 release “Donna Summer” produced by Quincy Jones.  Donna was pregnant at the time of recording and claimed not to have responded well to Jones’ methods of working.  There were some great tracks on this album and a lot of musical styles which showed the versatility of the artist on big gospelesque numbers like the Vangelis penned hit single “State Of Independence”, on Bruce Springsteen rock and with a jazz standard “Lush Life”, in which, whatever Donna herself thought, she turned out one of her greatest vocal performances.  This album also marked her move away from Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the first time.

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Later 80’s albums (here I’m including “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws” )just didn’t do it for me.  Her “All Systems Go” album from 1987 was the first in her hit career not to make any impression on the US and UK album charts.  It wasn’t even a bad album, her star had just waned.  Around this time I saw her perform live for the first of two times at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where there were protests outside against her reported comments.  She was excellent that night, as she was when I saw her again some years later but it did seem like the hits might have dried up.

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Like both other veteran female performers Tina Turner and Liza Minelli it was the British who saved the day.  Turner had become a global star again following her association with Heaven 17 and Minelli found herself making pop charts for the first time ever when she worked with the Pet Shop Boys a bit later on  in the same year that Donna made her comeback.  And it was a comeback,  scoring in the UK her highest charting album for 11 years and three Top 20 singles. In the US it gave her a first Top 10 single for 6 years.  In 1989 Donna was back and it was thanks  to Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

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This song-writing and production team, known as the Hit Factory by the time they began working with Donna had scored number 1 singles for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Dead Or Alive, Sonia and Mel and Kim amongst others with a high-energy sound which was spawned in the gay discos and taken into the pop charts in the UK and Europe with alarming frequency.  Working with one of the original disco legends seemed a sensible move for all concerned.

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“Another Place And Time” has ten tracks written and produced by the team with two tracks penned alongside the artist.  Why it works so well as an album is that for the first time since her peak of her work with Moroder and Bellotte it gave her a clear identity as a performer, the songs feel cohesive.  True, they fitted perfectly into the pop-dance pocket which Stock, Aitken and Waterman had found for themselves and the songs could have worked easily as well for Kylie or even Hazell Dean but the Summer Legend gave the whole thing a little extra sparkle and the end result was something really very special.  Stock, Aitken and Waterman were reputed to say that this was their favourite of the albums they worked on, and it is easy to see why.

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The album’s star turn comes in at track three and is certainly indicative of both the best of Summer and SAW’s work.  “This Time I Know It’s For Real” is an absolute gem of a single.  Released a month or so before the album it soared up to number 3 in the UK, a position she had last attained ten years before with her vocal battle-to-the-death duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”.  It got to number 7 in the US, where there had been a certain amount of record label scurrying around before it appeared on Atlantic Records.  It saw her back at the top of the Billboard US Dance charts and was a big hit, in amongst other markets, Norway (#3). Ireland (#4), France (#6), Netherlands (#5) and Canada (#7).  It’s a joyous song which celebrates love and wants to proclaim it anyway possible.

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The CD opener “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt” followed its predecessor up the charts reaching number 7 in the UK.  It was a smaller hit in Europe (although got to number 3 in Ireland) and was not released as a single in the US.  It might have been tempting to put out a whole album of tracks aimed at the dance floor but there is variety here, with slower tracks such as the title track and “Breakaway” which was the track on the album which refused to die as it was released as a single not far off two years after the release of the album and made the UK Top 50. 

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Donna also made the UK Top 20 with the closer “Love’s About To Change My Heart”.  On the album this has a great instrumental coda which rounds things off perfectly which was not present on the single mix.  The album version was much better.  The slow start kicking into an uptempo track brought to mind what felt like a bit of a trademark from Donna’s golden era, present on some of her biggest hits from her golden era (“Last Dance”, “No More Tears”, “On The Radio”, “Dim All The Lights” and, especially, “Macarthur Park”).  This felt like a touch of genius from the production team who were showing their ability to update the sound and still please the fans of long-standing.

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They certainly got mileage from the denim jacket photoshoot!

Donna Summer and Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  It all seemed to fit together so perfectly as I had expected it to do right when I heard about the collaboration.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it was the front cover art which saw Summer in Japanese Geisha make-up.  One gets the feeling that this was Summer’s idea and this is confirmed by credits which state she came up with the concept with photographer Lawrence Lawry.  Donna Summer was also a painter and the image has the feel of some of her artwork.

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 Driven By The Music by Donna Summer

In the US label issues meant that sales were damaged by high levels of import purchases and by the time the album appeared on the Atlantic label a high chart placing seemed out of the question.  Having said that it still performed better than its predecessor.  Back in 1989 this seemed just like a taster for more good stuff to come.  Donna fitted into the Hit Factory set-up so well that I was ready for a long association with the producers.  A second album was proposed but due to difficulties with record label contracts never happened.  What felt like a return to previous chart glories was too short-lived.  This would also be the last essential Donna Summer release.  Her 1991 Atlantic album “Mistaken Identity” was sadly without much identity.  Returning to Mercury she put out a first class Christmas album (there’s only one essential Christmas album) in 1994 and her 2008 swansong “Crayons” was a big success in her homeland and certainly had its moments and could have paved the way for an even bigger career renaissance in her sixties.  Donna Summer sadly died aged 62 in 2012. 

 

Another Place And Time is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.82 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99.  In the US it is available for $16.99 and used for $15.93.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.  

100 Essential CDs – Number 85– Donna Summer – Once Upon A Time

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Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)

UK Chart Position – 24

US Chart Position – 26

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By 1977 the Disco era was in full swing and Donna Summer was certainly being worked hard to capitalise on this.  Her last essential album “A Love Trilogy” had been released in May 1976 and by the end of that year “Four Seasons Of Love” had  arrived.  This tied in with the Christmas market (I got it as a Christmas present that year, I recall) and actually had a free 1977 calendar inside.  Visually, it was certainly different to what had gone before as the soft-focus images of Donna were replaced by strong, sharp photos .  Donna was perched on a moon on the front cover and posed as Marilyn Monroe in a recreation of the iconic white dress blowing-up scene from “The Seven Year Itch”.  Musically, it felt a little stingy, with four tracks covering the seasons and a reprise of one track which had gone on for too long anyway.  It didn’t perform nearly as well as the two albums which preceded it and it did seem like Donna’s career might be one of diminishing returns.  In the US it proved to be the second album in a row without a Top 40 hit single.  In the UK, bizarrely for a woman known as the Disco Queen, it was the pretty ballad track “Winter Melody” which caught the public imagination and its number 27 chart placing meant she could no longer be considered a one-hit wonder.

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Everything changed in the summer of 1977 when the album “I Remember Yesterday” hit the streets.  It’s a strong album with a first side of three retro pop tracks, which took in a disco take on the 1940’s with the title track and two 60’s girl-group inspired tracks.  On the second side amidst the strong soul ballad and okay disco tracks was the sound of the future.  Left until last, “I Feel Love” was completely different to anything we had heard before and set a benchmark for electronic dance music which can still be felt today.  It is often credited as being the most influential dance track of all time.  The record buyers of 1977 loved it, the single became Donna’s only UK #1 and got to number 6 in the US.  Donna’s superstar status which I had believed in from the first moans of “Love To Love You Baby” was confirmed.  Each one of the side 1 tracks became a UK Top 40 hit and by mid 1977 Donna was inescapable in the UK.  A change of distribution from GTO who had put out her records to her US label Casablanca meant that both labels were putting out product.  Her sublime song taken from the soundtrack of the hit movie “The Deep”, “Down Deep Inside” gave her a third Top 5 hit , “Love’s Unkind” from the GTO released album reached number 3 and 10 months later the fourth track to be released from the album “Back In Love Again” reached #29.  The album reached #3 in the UK and #18 in the US.  At the time I loved it, but I don’t consider it to be essential now.  It does have essential tracks upon it and although it felt much more like a traditional album than what had been released before it just falls short, as an album, of her very best releases.  I think the first side medley is just a little cutesy although there was no denying its commercial appeal in 1977.

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“Once Upon A Time” was the follow-up and Donna fans who were not being saturated in her product didn’t have long to wait as this appeared in November 1977.  What’s more this was a double album, which was certainly putting  demands on the purse strings of record buyers, as these were expensive and not always the best value for money.  On previous albums there had rarely been as many as five tracks, here there were fourteen plus a couple of reprises.  This was Donna’s best chance to show us what kind of artist she really was over more than a handful of songs.

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Once again there was a concept.  Here (and I know this doesn’t sound that promising as I write it) the concept was based around a poem written by Donna of a girl inhabiting a fairy tale world entering real life and looking for love and the tracks were contained within “Acts” as in a play.  It was “Cinderella” with a disco beat and what we have here is really the blueprint for a musical that never happened.  You don’t need to buy into the theme to make this album work.  It contains some great tracks from the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte team with Donna penning more thoughtful lyrics rather than refrains to fit in with the electronic visions of the musicians.  It was a much broader album than all that had gone before and the additional length meant that Donna could offer more variation without disappointing her disco fans.

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This was recorded once again at the Musicland Studios in Munich and yet it is the most American sounding album to date with the European influences which dominated her previous material now used more subtly.  With this selection of songs Donna switches between a narrator’s role and main character as it follows (not always perceptibly) the framework of a modern-day fairy story.  We start off firmly in fairyland with opener “Once Upon A Time” which always sounded like a hit single to these ears.  There’s an epic sweeping film-score introduction which settles into a strutting, mid-tempo number and very good use of backing singers.  It’s very much the Overture to Act One .  It sets out the concept of the album, musical themes from it will be used from to time to time culminating in the final track where Donna largely speaks the poem which links the whole thing to a slower version of the track, which is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

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The rest of Act One takes a darker turn with “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” where the tempo speeds up and the whole thing becomes a little trippy;

“It’s a nightmare, daymare, it’s a bad ‘mare not matter which way ‘mare”

After the sweetness of the previous track this driving slice of simmering paranoia works really well, even the male bass voice intoning that we are on “a trip to nowhere” hits home.  In case we’re getting too chilled there’s an extra sugar coating on “Fairy Tale High” with a wide-eyed coy performance from Donna saved from absolute tweeness by some good things going on in the rhythm arrangements especially handclaps and a good bit of electronic wizardry from Moroder mid-way through.  This gives way to the rockier sound of “Say Something Nice” one of the more ordinary tracks on the album.  It gives an indication of the direction Donna will increasingly move towards over the next few years as she attempted to move away from the disco tracks which defined her.

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 When I bought this album I would have been more than happy with a selection of tracks along the lines of “I Feel Love” so it is no wonder that the side I played most on my vinyl copy was Act 2, which boasted the stronger disco tracks with a couple of them having that bleak, industrial feel that I really loved and were reminiscent of what both Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd were doing at the time.  “Now I Need You” is the album’s high-spot and once again was never released as a single.  It’s a cross between “I Feel Love” and the later hit she had with Quincy Jones as producer “State Of Independence” with its big gospel-esque choir which manages to add warmth and colour to the coolness of the arrangement.  A dominant pulse beats throughout with something sounding like someone pumping up a tyre.  The beat, Donna in whispering mode and the choir make a real gem of a track, which has only got better with time.

onceupon9Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years

 The bleakness continues with “Working The Midnight Shift” with its great electronic introduction.  These two tracks would still sound good on the dancefloor today and with Donna being a popular choice for remixers , it’s quite surprising that reworking of these two tracks have not ever made the charts. The disco side closes with “Queen For A Day”, a more pop influenced proposition with some pretty daft lyrics but some real creative work from the production team going on really lifts this.

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 Act 3 sees Donna getting rocky once again with “If You Got It Flaunt It” and slowing the whole thing down for a couple of ballads “A Man Like You” and “Sweet Romance” which show her versatility as a performer as probably never before.  “Sweet Romance” is a quasi-religious track as Donna turns to higher forces to find the man she is looking for.  There’s a Caribbean feel to “Dance Into My Life” in its which reminds me a little of another hit track she would have in later years when she worked with British teen group Musical Youth for “Unconditional Love”.  Although this is Disco flavoured it would be very hard to dance to as it stops and starts throughout.

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You have to wait for Side 4 to get the two UK Top 20 hits off the album and they come back to back.  “Rumour Has It” (UK#19) is a track I wasn’t that fussed about at the time and was surprised it was chosen as a single but I do think it has stood the test of time and sounds as good (if not better) than it did then.  The bigger hit “I Love You” (UK#10) is a much better proposition which brings us back to the “Cinderella” theme as Donna reverts to being the narrator of the moment when this particular Prince Charming meets his love.  It’s warm and joyous and boasts a great performance from Donna.  The theme is rounded up with “Happily Ever After”, an attractive but unsensational track before Donna speaks her way through the main musical theme with the poem which is central to the concept.  It’s a rather odd finale and veers close to the self-indulgent but there is something about it, especially once it gets going about mid-way through when it has a kind of “War Of The Worlds” feel .

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At this point in her career Donna was performing better chart-wise in the UK and Europe than in her homeland.  This album spawned two sizeable UK hits but only “I Love You” would just scrape into the US Top 40.  This would change when she began a run of 8 US Top 5 singles (including three #1s) in 1978 and 1979.  These were the golden Summer years and there were some great singles but album wise there would be nothing more that I would consider essential with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and after their partnership ended there would be some substandard work with other producers.  I always suspected that she would be back with a top quality album but we had to wait a while for it.

 

Once Upon A Time  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.30 and used from £5.58.  It can be downloaded for £8.99 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $3.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 9 – Donna Summer – A Love Trilogy

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A Love Trilogy -Donna Summer (Casablanca 1976)

UK Chart Position – 41

US Chart Position – 21

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The worldwide success of Donna Summer’s debut hit “Love To Love You Baby” took everyone by surprise.  The singer spoke of the recording of it as just messing around in the studio and did not expect it to be a single.  Recorded in Munich, it was the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte’s nod to another controversial European success, the French legend Serge Gainsbourg’s and English actress Jane Birkin’s “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus”.  Like the French track, the steaminess ensured that it was not going to get many daytime radio plays.  With Disco becoming increasingly a commercial force this track took off and when Neil Bogart, head of Casablanca records heard it, he demanded a longer track.  Moroder and Bellotte extended it to an 18 minute epic and put it out on one side of Donna’s second album release, named after the track.  This is the song that paved the way for the 12 inch single and pop music was never the same again.

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It became a huge hit and the album was propelled into charts worldwide on the strength of this track alone.  I believe the 7” version which was released on the GTO label in the UK and got to number 4 is one of the greatest singles of all time. (I think the US had a slightly different edit, which didn’t build to the great choral “Love to Love you baby baby” bit towards the end).  As an entire side of an album it felt overly stretched and somewhat looped.  There isn’t the great progressive build of the single. The rest of the album, apart from the single’s b side “Need A Man Blues” and the fragile ballad “Whispering Waves” indicated the speed with which it had been put together to capitalise on the title track’s demand and consisted of largely throwaway pop/rock tracks where the artist lacked a clear identity.

lovetrilogy4Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder

With this second album a lot of learning had taken place and all that learning is synthesized (in more ways than one) to produce an absolute classic recording-the finest of Donna’s career and the zenith of her work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.  In the intervening months since the release of the previous album Disco had continue to grow as a musical force and the world was ready for an album that was out and out disco and not one that contained a couple of disco-friendly tracks over a mishmash of soul, R&B and pop.  Technically, the production team had also moved on and were able to achieve a greater, more coherent electronic sound than on the previous  album.  Skills that were continue to build until they came up with one of the most important dance tracks of all time with the genius “I Feel Love” a complete game-changer a couple of years later- but that was still in the future.

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Although I played the single “Love To Love You Baby” until it virtually wore out I did not, at the time, buy the album.  It just didn’t seem very good value, when I knew I had the best tracks as a single but I was determined to buy this one as soon as it was released.  On the GTO label in the UK it was a thick slab of vinyl, for some reason,  it was certainly the thickest album I ever owned.  When vinyl got wafer-thin and the edges razor-sharp by the mid 80’s when we were being pushed to buy CDs, putting on “A Love Trilogy” felt reassuring and solid.  And play it I most certainly did.  There must be very few albums I have played more than this one over the years.

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Whilst browsing on Amazon I discovered a review for this album that I’d written 15 years ago, back in 2003.  I think this is the very first review I ever published, so motivated was I to keep this album in the public consciousness and that review is still there today with the massive total of 25 people who have found it helpful!  Here is what I said back then:

 

Summer’s second album is superb. At various times in my life I have worked out what my favourite albums or CDs would be and this one is always there somewhere – it is an album which meant so much to me at the time, I knew every single note of it. Amazingly, it still sounds outstanding today. It was the follow up to her “Love To Love You Baby” album, which was a decidely hit or miss affair and did not suggest that Donna would be around too long as a recording artist. The format is similar, with one long track which took the whole of the first side of the vinyl version and three shorter tracks on the second side. The long track (at 18 minutes) is “Try Me I Know We Can Make It” which is broken down into sections like “Try Me”, “I Know”, “We Can Make It”, before coming together for (you guessed it) “Try Me I Know We Can Make It”. A single was released but it was nowhere as good as the extended mix. It became a small hit in the States but didn’t really do a great deal of business over here in the UK. “Could It Be Magic” was the stand out track, a cover version of a Barry Manilow song, which was just so exciting made even more so by a breathy spoken introduction and a middle section which many ways seemed even ruder than “Love To Love You Baby”! How this wasn’t a huge hit I will never know- the Take That smash revival of the song seemed to owe more to this version than to Barry’s. I was obsessed by this album- I played it over and over again. It seemed so creative, so very then. I would still argue that it was Donna’s best album – yet sales wise it certainly did not capitalise or build on the success of the first album. Do not miss out on this CD.

lovetrilogy2The back cover of the original vinyl LP

Fifteen years on and I agree with every word.  Why this was so far superior to what had come before was largely due to the “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” track.  True, it is largely made of those eight words repeated in various combinations many times over but the whole thing really builds and feels a much more organic piece than the extended version of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There is so much going on here and it is so creative.  It really is Moroder’s masterpiece.  Also, what works well  is that the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte partnership here feels equal and this is as much the producers’ album as the vocalist.  Donna’s vocals are often wispy and ethereal, sounding as if she’s been recorded in an oxygen tent but it gives the whole thing a beauty and vulnerability and makes the sound extremely intimate (if an eighteen minute disco epic could be called intimate).  The mystique of Donna Summer the artist is still strong here.  You can’t tell exactly how good a singer she was (that was the case on the first album).  Also, like the first album you can’t really tell what she looks like from the album cover which opted for soft focus- maintaining the 70’s soft-core porn aesthetics which had adorned the art work of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There was still mileage to be had in portraying her as a kind of mythical sex goddess, which fitted in superbly with the hedonism of disco.

lovetrilogy11I would imagine Donna would come to hate this picture but it fitted in with the mood of the time.

I still think “Could It Be Magic” is the stand-out track but the second side of the album was not plumped out by filler as its predecessor had been.  “Wasted” and “Come With Me” are both great tracks which fit in well with the concept of the album and also sound great on their own.

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Photographers were also keen to convey a more wholesome image

Commercially, it may have been a little ahead of its time.  In the UK the Manilow cover version got to number 40, just one place above where the album stalled.  It would be many years before Donna would again put out an album that did not have a US Top 40 single on it but I think this was never a singles album.  It is heard best as a whole.  The Canadians got it, as it became a Top 10 album there, reaching a higher position than “Love To Love You Baby” had but for most markets, commercially it was a bit of a backward step for Donna and The Munich Machine.  I  think Donna sounds great throughout and that the production team of Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte,  arranger Thor Baldurson and engineers Juergen Koppers and Mack & Hans, on the evidence here demand recognition as being amongst the most important pioneers of electronic dance music.

 

A Love Trilogy  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £14.83 and used from £8.21.  It can be downloaded for £7.09 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $2.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 15 – Stylistics – Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together

Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics  (Phonogram 1992)

UK Chart Position – 34

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Now I will admit that a sweet tooth is needed here.  The Stylistics led the way in a brand of soul music which combined romance, lushness, a distinctive falsetto lead and a tight vocal group performance sound which was a progression from the Doowop sounds of a decade earlier.  Others in this soul subsection who shone most brightly in the mid 1970s included The Moments, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, all of whom had been around some time when they found fame but the sweetest of all the sweet soulers were The Stylistics.

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 This was, without doubt, because of the lead vocal of Russell Tompkins Junior,  a beautifully rounded soft, nasal sound which always avoided becoming the whine it could so easily have been.  Not strictly falsetto his voice is often described as high tenor.  In some of the group’s strongest recordings this was paired with the rich baritone voice of Airron Love.  Also, providing sterling back-up were James Smith, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell.  They had been in various groups since the mid 60’s in the Philadelphia area but joined forces in 1968.  By 1975 their first hits compilation “Best Of The Stylistics” was the UK’s biggest selling album of the year and at that point the biggest ever selling by an African-American act.   

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 The hit singles continued after 1975 leading to another chart-topping Volume 2 compilation just over a year later.  The best compilations combine these two volumes and as consistent sellers there have been a number over the years.  I have chosen as my Essential Stylistics recording an eighteen tracker from 1992 which achieved a moderate chart position but is a great indication of what was both good and frustrating about their success.  It contains all sixteen of their UK Top 40 hits and nine out of the 10 US hits. 

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 The CD opens with their only UK number 1 hit single from the summer of 1975. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love” record label Avco’s hot disco producer Van McCoy was drafted in as arranger to add a little extra something for the group.  Chart-wise it was the most successful track for both the group and the arranger but is not representative of the very best of either of their work.  It does have a lovely languid trumpet introduction which captures the attention and it heads off into a shuffling track which is a little faster than we would expect from the group and a nod to Disco.  It does sound at times as if Van McCoy’s signature hit “The Hustle” is playing in the background.  Van’s best productions were when he used gospel based singers to add bite to the lushness of his Soul City Symphony Sounds, most successfully in his work with Melba Moore, David Ruffin and his gospel based backing singers Faith, Hope and Charity with whom he cut a couple of albums.  With Russell Tompkins Jnr’s already sweet falsetto it’s a little bit too much of a sugar rush to be their very best work.  It was, however, their biggest UK hit and gave them a gold single.  It was not a US chart hit.

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 And here we have the dichotomy of the Stylistics hit career.  It is in two distinct phases, the first, which saw them as a Philadelphian soul act which captivated the US and gave them a solid reputation in the UK and the second where veteran songwriters and producers Hugo and Luigi took over which gave them bigger UK success but their increasingly middle of the road sound did not work so well with their traditional US audience.  By the time the group returned to their more soulful Philadelphian roots in the late 70’s/early 80’s their chart career was over on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Linda Creed & Thom Bell      Hugo and Luigi

The second track on the album is the one that most clearly marks the end of the first era and is the track most associated with the group as well as being their biggest US hit and marked the first time they scored a UK Top 5 hit.  1974’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was both a UK and US number 2 as well as being a Top 3 hit in Australia and Canada, amongst other markets.  It is also their best track.  It marked the culmination of the group’s association with producer Thom Bell, who, with songwriter Linda Creed worked a string of gems not just for this group but for other sweet-soul stalwarts The Detroit Spinners and The Delfonics.  It employed the under-used rich voice of Airron Love as a counterpoint to Tompkins.  At the time it foxed quite a lot of people, who thought it was a male-female duet, even at this point in the career not everyone had cottoned on the fact that what they were listening to when they heard the Stylistics was a male voice.  The intimacy of the track is undeniable and it feels like they are singing to each other.  This was a little too much to contemplate in 1974 and may be why the group concentrated on one lead singer rather than using much interplay between the two.  Other groups got away without anyone asking questions but it is the sheer honesty of the voices and of the songs lyrics that can make it feel like a love song between two men.  (I don’t think that’s just me!)

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 The CD is not chronological so both periods of their career are interspersed.  I might have implied that the later tracks were not without merit, but this is far from the case.  Not every one of the Bell/Creed songs hits home and some of the Hugo and Luigi/George David Weiss tracks are real guilty pleasures.  Like The Drifters who had an extended UK career after their American hits dried up there’s a lot of enjoyment from their later tracks, but unlike the Drifters, who had enjoyed a long chart career, these two phases were condensed into a period of just six years from their first US hit “Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart (US#39) (better known in the UK as a Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet three years later (UK#25) to their cheesy chart career end of “$7000 Dollars And You” which got to number 24 in the UK in 1977.

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 Phase 1 really kicked off with another hit which was later more associated with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye with the Bell and Creed song “You Are Everything”.  There’s  a calm confidence in this, their first US Top 10 pop placing (#9 in 1971) and a much richer sound than the version which became a UK #5 three years later for Diana & Marvin.  Motown here appropriated the Philadelphia sound and turned out an inferior track.  What Bell and Creed were producing here at this time were standards, good quality songs with great orchestration to which was added the Tompkins voice.  Hugo and Luigi put the voice first, maybe over-egged the orchestration and the songs were more throwaway.  In phase 1 you get the beautiful love song that is “Betcha By Golly Wow” (US#3, UK13- 1972) a good enough song to have two great cover versions by Prince (UK#11 1996) and the under-rated Phyllis Hyman together with “I’m Stone In Love With You (US#10,UK#9 1972) which also became a comeback hit (after a twelve year chart absence) for Johnny Mathis (UK#10 – 1975).  There’s also a lovely version of the Bacharach/David song “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) (US#23 -1973) which had to wait until it was re-released as the led track of an EP to chart in the UK (#24 1976). 

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 The track which hasn’t dated so well from the first phase is the uptempo “Rockin’ Roll Baby”.  As a child when this was released I got this completely wrong and thought, despite its joyous take of a father’s love for a young son, that it was a sad song.  The line that did this for me was “He’s got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes”.  This to me conjured up a disabled child being forced to dance, thrust on the stage to perform.  I thought it was a song about neglect with a theatrical setting “One night stands weren’t easy for little Joe” and was chilled by it.   I haven’t quite ever forgiven the song and the “Na Na Na” repetitions are a little annoying. 

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 Phase two of their career opened strongly as “Let’s Put It All Together” is actually really quite a beautiful song and the highpoint of the Hugo and Luigi productions.  It became their final US hit reaching number 18 in 1974 as well as number 9 in the UK.  I’ve also got a sneaking affection to the “Stone In Love With You” feel of “Star On A TV Show” UK#12) and the real guilty pleasure that is “Sing Baby Sing” (UK#3).  I used to spend all my pocket money on 7 inch singles  around this time and “Sing Baby Sing” was actually the last Stylistics single I bought.   Things started to slip downhill a bit from here. “Funky Weekend” was a nod to the disco market but was just too empty a song.  There was no reason why The Stylistics could not have made a stronger transition to disco, other Philadelphian male vocal groups such as The Trammps, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes produced great hard-hitting disco gems in this era but The Stylistics were not going to get too far with “Funky Weekend” despite its number 10 UK chart placing.  Their version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was also uptempo and both likeable and popular (UK#4).

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 The track I find it hardest to forgive is “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”.  What does that even mean?  Musically it’s an attractive song but lyrically, please!  The group were hot after their number 1 single and this was chosen as the follow-up.  There was enough interest in them to make this a UK #5 but this was not a chart position based on the song’s merit.  “I wrote a love song in 16 bars” is not The Stylistics taking to alcoholism and once again is not strong lyrically.  It reached number 7 in 1976.  It did seem, at this point that the cash registers were ringing happily so it did not matter a great deal if the songs were a little throwaway.  What happened to The Stylistics is far from unique in the history of pop.  Another massive group from the 70’s Boney M finished the decade with real disposable tracks (Painter Man/ Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday etc.) that suggested those around them wanted to just take the money and run.

 It’s money that marks the end of the Stylistics chart career.  “$7,000 Dollars And You” has a cheesy Tijuana feel but the song shows the boys had their price.  Up to a million and they would choose the girl, but after that they’d take the cash!  It actually puts a smile on my face this track! It’s actually a shame record-buyers tired of them from this point as in the 1980’s they returned to their home-town and recorded again with Thom Bell under the Philadelphia International umbrella, churning good quality. less commercial pop-soul tunes.  The group, with changes in personnel, continues to tour to this day.   

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 The Stylistics – still touring!

The 18 tracks here give perhaps the best overview of the hits of The Stylistics.  If the Hugo and Luigi tracks are too much then you might wish to consider a compilation which focuses on the early years.  (One of their all-time best tracks “Only For The Children” which appeared as the B-Side of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” can be found on other compilations) but I’ve always got pleasure from the bitter-sweet soul of the Thom Bell stuff and the sugar overdose of the later tracks so this selection is the one I end up listening to most of all.

The video is intended for Karaoke purposes but seems to be the best version of the guys singing this song.  Just ignore the highlighted lyrics unless you want to sing along!

 

Greatest Hits; Let’s Put It All Together  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.24 and used from £2.19.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $13.07 and used for $1.68.   Other promising compilations available include 5 Classic Albums (48 tracks) and the 36 track Double CD “Ultimate Collection”.

100 Essential CDs – Number 43 – Steps – Gold : The Greatest Hits

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Gold: The Greatest Hits (Jive 2001)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Sometimes you just need to rise above the gloom.  Pop music is going through one of those cyclical stages where it’s taking itself all a little too seriously and is all a little worthy.  In the history of pop this has led to explosions of new music forms – rock n roll, punk, disco, the New Romantics all came about to just shake things up a bit.  Is it then, any wonder in this time of tension and uncertainty that one of the big albums of last year marked the return of Steps?  The timing must have been just right.  A previous comeback had been spurred by the reality show “Steps; The Reunion” which saw the group having to come to terms with their break-up with tears and silences worthy of Harold Pinter. This led to “Light Up The World”, an attempt to cash in to the 2012 Xmas market which didn’t either light up the world or particularly cash in with its number 32 chart place.  Five years later we were properly ready for the return. 

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Steps provides an excellent example of how the music business has changed.  Back in the mid 90’s they would be guaranteed a good chart placing with their singles bought by legions of loyal fans but now with vast numbers of streaming required they don’t really get a look in.  It would have seemed incredible then that an original number 2 album by a pop band would only spawn one number 37 chart single, but that is how things have changed.  2017’s “Tears On The Dancefloor” was probably their strongest studio album as it departed from the pattern of an album built around potential hit singles with a number of largely throwaway album tracks. The best, most essential way to listen to this group remains through a Greatest Hits Collection and in 2001 a lot of record buyers agreed with me as it became the second of their three number one albums (with another hits package “The Ultimate Collection” doing the same ten years later with just a couple of track changes.)

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 On “Gold” we have twenty tracks representing the best of Steps, from their Abba pastiche ballads to tracks that went down a storm in nightclubs.  Here they are in non-chronological order and feature their two number 1 UK singles (one of which was a double A side which has both sides represented) and their string of Top 10 hits.  They are great fun, non-threatening and accomplished- really the perfect pop band for our times.  They are also manufactured, put together in an attempt to give the world a choreography- based pop band – hence the name.  Following a magazine advert and auditions the line-up became Claire Richards (who incidentally went to the same secondary school as I did- not at the same time, I hasten to add), Faye Tozer, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian “H” Watkins, and Lee Latchford-Evans.  The criticism that is often levied at the group is that the boys do not add a great deal.  True, their vocals may not always be totally distinguishable on the songs, particularly in the early days, but they helped so much with promoting the brand image of the band, Lee’s good looks and H’s manic likeability ensured TV appearance and magazine covers geared towards a younger audience.  Anyone doubting their value (and Lisa, who probably got less lead vocals than the other two girls, can get dragged into this) just needed to see them perform live to bring home how hard they all work and what a strong unit they could be.

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 It all started off for them with a track which didn’t exactly shout out career longevity.  “5,6,7,8” is largely a novelty, line dance of a track with the rap by Lee Latchford-Evans being one of his most significant contributions to the Steps oeuvre.  It fitted in with Europop one-offs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and other tracks too ghastly to recall, but what set “5,6,7,8” apart was a video which showed these five shiny pop stars for the first time.  Lee, Claire, Faye, H, Lisa.  We were already beginning to pick our favourites in a tactic which had worked very well for the Spice Girls.  The single got a respectable mid chart #14 placing.  Based on the track alone this might have been all we heard from Steps but the image and concept were stronger. There were also the international markets to consider as the group scored a worldwide hit from the off, reaching number 1 in Australia and number 2 in Belgium and New Zealand. 

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Producer Pete Waterman, in putting together their debut album knew he had more than a singing dance troupe on his hands as this group could sing and with the girls he had three voices which could add much texture to a song.  In coming up with a follow-up hit he recalled a track which he had previously recorded. Bananarama never had the vocal quality of Steps (sorry girls) and a track “Last Thing On My Mind” had been an album track on their 1993 post-glory days album “Please Yourself” when they were recording as a duo.  Waterman realised there was life in this track and boosting it with additional Steps energy worked a treat and made me  think for the first time that this was a group who were going somewhere.  Released in May 1998 it reached number 6, was a Top 5 hit in Australia and topped the charts in Belgium.    It opened the floodgates and for the next three years we were never more than a couple of months from a big Steps track.

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 “One For Sorrow” (UK#2) added another dimension as here was a song which had an authentic Abba-esque feel in its verse, a cut-price “Winner Takes It All” in effect.  The Abba influence is also evident in a number of the other tracks.  The group scored a #4 hit in 1999 with an Abba tribute taken from the Brits Ceremony for that year performed with lesser pop acts B*Witched, Billie Piper, Cleopatra and Tina Cousins and the group just seemed to slot into the whole Abba revival thing created by “Mamma Mia”, the show and the film which became beloved of hen parties everywhere. “Thank Abba For The Music” does not actually appear on “Gold”.  This connection was most fully realised, however, after the Steps implosion when H and Claire put out their fans’ loyalty-splitting album recorded as a duo, the title track of which “Another You Another Me” was written for them by Bjorn and Benny. 

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 The fourth single was a perfectly timed double A side which gave them their first chart-topper and featured the song most associated with them.  The Bee Gees had already had a number 1 hit with “Tragedy” in 1979 and nineteen years later all it needed was an ear-cupping dance move and a wedding themed video and that ensured that this would be the hit of Xmas office parties for years to come. The better track of the two is the attractive sing-along ballad “Heartbeat” with its trademark stomach-rumbling sound touches and a Steps -at- Christmas cockle-warming video.  The original Bee Gees version of “Tragedy” is now less remembered than the Steps cover.  With such a successful cover version under their belt it’s not surprising that it was a method tried on further occasions.  “Chain Reaction” (another Bee Gees penned song) gave a slightly different interpretation to the Diana Ross chart-topper and reached #2 in 2001.  Pete Waterman raided his old song-book again for “Better The Devil You Know” which added absolutely nothing to the Kylie version (1999 #4) and a track left off this album was paired with the “new material” “Words Are Not Enough” for a number 5 single in 2001, but I don’t think we really needed another version of “I Know Him So Well”.

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 The golden years were 1999 and 2000 as the group then put out a string of tracks which perfectly summed up what Steps were all about and were rewarded with big sales “Better Best Forgotten” (UK#2), “Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart” (UK#2), and “After The Love Has Gone” (UK #5) are a trio of little pop gems, danceable sing-alongs which, even when the lyrics were melancholy lifted the spirits.  In 2000 a slightly harder dancer edge was used to great effect in the sublime “Deeper Shade Of Blue” (UK#4) and the latin-tinged fiesta of “Summer Of Love” (UK#5).

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By the time of the third album “Buzz”, which just a couple of years after did seem to be a regular feature in the CD collections of charity shops, the group were striving for a cooler sound than the Hit Factory artists they had become and were using Swedish producers and saw the group writing themselves and employing Cyndi Lauper to help out.  It certainly paid dividends with the track released just before the album as “Stomp” with its Chic influenced “Everybody Dance” groove, felt like a song by one of the cooler boy bands of the time more than the sound we had associated with Steps and it showed the public was behind this (slight) change of direction when it became their second UK #1 single after so many near misses.

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 At least part of Step’s continued success could be put down to them being a highly bankable live act.  I did see them perform at The Brighton Centre at the height of their career and the audience split equally between kids, parents and grandparents, hen and office parties and gay men absolutely lapped it up.  They worked so hard onstage and this was publicly recognised in 2000 when they were given a special Brits award for being the Best Selling Live Act for that year.  Working so hard, however, recording, touring continually and being in demand for television appearances was bound to take its toll.

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On Boxing Day 2001 it publicly fell apart.  There had been rumours circulating from the release of the “Gold” package that the group’s days were numbered.  When the announcement came there was considerable backlash concerning poor timing, ruining Christmas for fans and criticism that the band had cashed in to make the most of the Christmas market.  Claire and H had been through enough, fans could see how hard the band had worked and knew they would be in need of a rest.  It was perhaps not the best of news for H and Claire to sign a reputed big value recording deal with Warner to continue as what would really be Steps minus three.

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This partnership scored three Top 10 singles which suggested good things for them, but the album release was fairly disastrous, reaching number 58 in a one week chart stay.  I picked up a copy in Poundland just a couple of months after its release and the duo were dropped, causing bitterness and recriminations which permeated throughout the five members of the group which were only partly resolved during the reality series “Steps- The Reunion.” Faye moved fairly effortlessly into musical theatre (with earnings obviously drastically reduced), Lee concentrated on personal training and choreography with occasional forays back into shows and pantomime and Lisa, eventually got a reality TV series “Totally Scott-Lee” in 2005 which focused on Lisa and family members in which she made the rash statement that if a solo single did not reach the Top 10 she would give up on the music business completely.  With the twist of fate that such pronouncements encouraged it reached number 11.

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And now Steps are back, issues resolved and now in their 40’s and able to recreate their happy pop sound for a different album-buying era.  I hope this revival isn’t just a flash in the pan, but even if this turns out to be so, we do have compilations including my essential CD “Gold” to relive those finest moments.

 

Gold  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.31 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $12.99 and used for $0.01.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 6– Dusty Springfield – The Silver Collection

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The Silver Collection – Dusty Springfield (Philips 1988)
UK Chart Position – 14

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Dusty Springfield was the best of the British 60’s singers and her lasting legacy on popular music cannot be over-emphasised. This single CD collection of 24 tracks was put out (originally on vinyl) in 1988 to celebrate Dusty’s 25th year as a solo artist. Its healthy chart position marked the first time she gained a Top 20 album in 22 years when another hits compilation had reached number 2. At the time of “The Silver Collection’s” release Dusty had received a boost in her career thanks to her association with the Pet Shop Boys and their “What Have I Done To Deserve This” which had been a number 2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987. There was no new material on this compilation, the tracks chosen were her sixties hits and contains her only UK number 1, her twelve UK Top 20 and five US Top 20 hits from this decade. It is the perfect one disc introduction and her most essential release.

dusty2The Lana Sisters, Dusty (pre-beehive) on the left

Mary O’Brien began her music career as a Lana Sister, a late 50’s girl group which followed an established pattern of girls posing as or as real sisters performing light pop tunes in a style which picked up on the continuing popularity of the Andrews Sisters. These acts were perfect for variety shows and summer seasons and for the early days of television where was a demand for attractive girls, dressed in similar clothes, performing inoffensive ditties. Some, including The Beverley Sisters (real siblings) achieved a good level of success. The Lana Sisters, however, despite recording a few singles and appearing on stage with some of the top acts of light entertainment of the time were not so fortunate and Mary decided to move on to join her folk singer brother’s band The Springfields. Here was another fake family outing in a way, Mary became Dusty Springfield and her brother Dion, Tom Springfield. They were joined by Tim Feild who never adopted The Springfield moniker but did later become a spiritual leader and expert on Sufism, and father of actor JJ Feild (best known for playing a younger version of a character played by Michael Caine in “Last Orders” and for an excellent turn as 60’s pop singer Heinz in “Telstar” the bio-pic of producer Joe Meek). The trio became regular television guests and scored a couple of UK Top 5 hits in 1962/63. If you see clips of them performing it was really difficult to take your eyes of Dusty, so perhaps inevitable that she would decide to embark on a solo career.

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The Springfields: Tim, Dusty and Tom

There was one of those seismic movements in popular music when Dusty recorded her first single. Known primarily as a folk singer and probably by a younger audience as slightly old fashioned she exploded with a delightful slab of pop-soul inspired by both Motown and Phil Spector and became instantly Britain’s coolest solo singer with an instantly recognisable image. “I Only Want To Be With You” entered the charts in November 1963. Throughout that year a four piece band from Liverpool had been rewriting British pop and Dusty wanted to be part of it in a song which seemed to perfectly straddle the new and old eras. Producer Johnny Franz had that big orchestral feel given a “wall of sound” in a rock and roll number which combined with Dusty’s smokey tones felt different.

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Reputedly there had been a number of recordings made in a hunt for the song which would really establish Dusty as a singer. These were not released as Franz held back for the perfect match and he found it in this. His patience was rewarded. It became a number 4 hit in the UK and Dusty found herself in the wave of British artists who were making it big in the US with this, her very first release which reached number 12 in the Billboard charts and also made the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland. The song has lasting appeal and also established the chart career of another great British talent, Annie Lennox, when as lead singer of The Tourists it reached the same position Dusty posted in 1979, which weirdly was also the position it reached three years earlier in a paler version by The Bay City Rollers. Samantha Fox broke the pattern when she took it to number 16 in 1989 (the Rollers also uncannily peaked at the same chart position as Dusty in the US#12, with Sam Fox getting to #31).

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Dusty’s follow-up single “Stay Awhile” was almost as good. It had a similar feel but ramped up the Phil Spector vibe to the point where it almost sounds like a Ronettes track. Sales were not as buoyant as it reached #13 in the UK and #38 in the US but her hit status on both sides of the Atlantic were confirmed. What comes next on the CD is perhaps her greatest single and the track which marked her out as a real soul singer and one able to drive up the dramatic potential of a song to the max. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” had already been recorded by Soul men Jerry Butler and Tommy Hunt both men with great voices but giving the female viewpoint on this Bacharach/David song worked magnificently. Dusty apparently was given the song to record by Burt Bacharach when they met in New York. From its gentle horn start it seems like a great soul number and then builds with the Johnny Franz production. Dusty’s voice beautifully sums up the ennui at the end of the relationship. The vocal and the whole feel of the song set the template for the rest of Springfield’s career. It became her biggest UK hit to that point reaching number 3.

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In the US they went for the next track another Bacharach and David composition “Wishin’ And Hopin” which had been previously recorded by Dionne Warwick which was turned into a UK #13 hit by The Merseybeats. This track gave Dusty her biggest US hit to date reaching number 6. It was also her biggest hit to this point in Australia where it got to number 2. Another Bacharach and David song “The Look Of Love” which became a standard was given to Dusty to record the first vocal version and also gained an Oscar nomination in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of the first version of “Casino Royale”.

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From 1964 we get the great swinging ballad “Losing You” which was a UK number 9 and which also benefits from an exemplary vocal. “Give Me Time” is a sultry number and was an example of Dusty’s management hunting out songs that had been European hits, being an English language version of L’Amore Se Ne Va” an Italian hit single. Released in 1967 it became a number 24 hit but didn’t quite pay the dividends raiding the Italian songbook had done the previous year. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” began life as “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” by Pino Donaggio, an Italian chart-topper which was entered in a European Song Festival (not the Eurovision) which took place at San Remo and at which Dusty was also entered. She loved the song and the English language lyrics were written by two prominent music managers of the time Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell. Dusty was determined to get the emotional power of this huge ballad right. Always a perfectionist this one apparently took 47 takes and was recorded with her standing on the stairs outside the studio. Frustration with her performance was a common bugbear. Neil Tennant has spoken how when he worked with her she would record her vocals in very small sections and that he had never encountered anyone who worked in this way before. The repeated takes were worth it as this song became Dusty’s biggest hit, a UK number one and number 4 in the US. The song is a standard recorded by many artists over the year but few could give it the conviction of Dusty.

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I love Dusty when she metaphorically lets that famous beehive down and relaxes into uptempo numbers. “In The Middle Of Nowhere” (UK#8 1965) and “Little By Little” (UK#17 1966) are great examples of peak-era Springfield. Both songs were written by Buddy Kea and Bea Verdi. Kaye was a veteran song-writer who had written songs such as “A (You’re Adorable)” and hits for Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and “Speedy Gonzales” for Pat Boone. These tracks for Dusty show that he was still going strong in the mid 60’s.

Dusty was a great song stylist and her version of a song often challenged the original. I prefer Bacharach and David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” from Gene Pitney’s more histrionic guilt-ridden male standpoint but her version of Belgian Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is the best version of this song I have heard. Her version of “How Can I Be Sure?” is magnificent. Also on this CD Dusty doesn’t really challenge the hit versions of Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” nor Barbara Acklin/Swing Out Sister’s “Am I The Same Girl”.

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In 1968 Dusty released my second favourite track of hers. “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” has the drama of the big ballads combined with a neo-classical feel through great piano work and is just an excellent song. Written by Clive Westlake who had previously given Dusty two hit songs in “Losing You” (written with her brother Tom) and “All I See Is You”. Both had reached number 9 in the UK with “All I See Is You” getting to number 20 in the US in 1966. Amazingly, “I Close My Eyes” did not chart in the US. It was caught up in Dusty’s changing of labels from Phillips to Atlantic and probably was not promoted with the gusto of her earlier hits.

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By 1969 Dusty’s soul credentials were renowned. She had been instrumental in promoting the Motown label four years earlier in the UK putting together a now legendary episode of TV show “Ready Steady Go” which had her introducing Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & The Vandellas in one extraordinary episode demonstrating Dusty’s love for black American music and beginning a life-long friendship with Martha Reeves. Sometimes this role is a little overstated, the Motown stars were well-known over here with The Supremes having scored a UK number 1 with “Baby Love” and the other acts (with the exception of Stevie at this point) notching up their own hits. She didn’t actually introduce Motown to the Brits but ensured we saw some of its biggest stars on our black and white TV sets on a Friday tea-time. By the late 60’s Aretha Franklin’s star was in the ascendancy and the sounds of American Southern Soul were making inroads in the charts and Atlantic and Stax records were moving music on from the pop/soul of Motown. Dusty wanted a part of this and went to Memphis to record her 5th studio album with heavyweight soul producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd and backed by Aretha’s backing singers The Sweet Inspirations which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum as a member.

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“Dusty In Memphis” was critically acclaimed and saw Dusty heralded as new blue-eyed soul royalty. It is an album which regularly features in lists of the greatest album ever made. It was a very strong studio album but I think I would give her debut “A Girl Called Dusty” the slight edge. “Memphis” just misses out on being an essential album for me because I find it a little intense, the song choices are not all great and I think Memphis took out some of the verve of the British recordings which I loved. Perhaps buyers at the time agreed with me as it never charted in the UK and barely scraped the charts in the US. Perhaps some saw it as Dusty deserting her homeland or the whole concept might have been too cool for the mainstream. It is an important album and really from this you can track influences along to many female singers of today, especially Adele. From this album you get two stand-out tracks Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and another of Dusty’s signature songs and the big hit single “Son Of A Preacher Man”.

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“Preacher Man” was originally intended for Aretha Franklin, but neither her nor her management were initially sure about the song. Once Aretha heard Dusty’s version she was convinced and she covered it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”. There’s no doubt about it this is a real soul song and reached number 9 in the UK and 10 in the US.

For her next album Dusty relocated to Philadephia to record. “A Brand New Me” was an early example of the sweet soul sound which emanated largely from the city over the next few years and here she was working with the masters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who would go on to have major success with their Philadelphia International Label. The title track written with their leading songwriter Thom Bell sounds like a perfect match between all these talents but was not a hit. The album was titled “From Dusty With Love” in the UK and was a small hit, performing better in the charts than “Dusty In Memphis” had done.

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Also on this CD you get the extended metaphor of a lost love in “My Colouring Book” a Kander and Ebb song which Dusty performs sublimely and the wistful “Goin’ Back” a Jerry Goffin and Carole King song.

Throughout the 70’s Dusty spent more time in the US, preferring the anonymity a large country could offer. She felt hounded by the press in the UK as they seemed obsessed  with her sexuality which she struggled herself to come to terms with. Her recording career became more erratic. For a while she became fascinated by women’s tennis and followed the ATP tour around the US. There were often short-lived comebacks but it was not until the Pet Shop Boys worked with her that her commercial credentials were re-established. Following the release of this album Dusty celebrated a run of hits of great singles “Nothing Has Been Proved”, “In Private” and “Reputation”. She died of breast cancer in 1999.

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The influence of Dusty Springfield lives on and she has certainly influenced my music choices for the whole of my lifetime. From her groundbreaking performances and career you can see the evidence of other of my Essential CD choices with Madeline Bell, Duffy, Martha Reeves, The Carpenters, The Exciters and Gloria Estefan springing immediately to mind. Her “Silver Collection” is chock-full of gems and is always my starting point when I want a blast of Britain’s best female star. I know I’ve written a long review here but I find it impossible to pass any of these great tracks by without some comment.

The Silver Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $10.00 and used for $1.02.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You

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A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)

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Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

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In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.

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But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

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It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

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Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

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The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 

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The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.

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Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show and latterly on “The View” which I think is the US Version of “Loose Women”.  Here Darlene is joined by R&B star Fantasia.

 

A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,