The Madonna Of Bolton – Matt Cain (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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A nine year old boy living in Bolton in the mid 1980s becomes obsessed with Madonna when given a copy of her single “Lucky Star” for his birthday.  This is the story of his next twenty years with the music of Madonna always very much a focus in his life.  Need I say any more, you are going to know already whether this book is for you.

 Madonna provides an opportunity for the young Charlie to escape into himself to avoid the anxieties of knowing he is growing up different, magnified by living in an unsophisticated, football-orientated working-class environment.  Later her talent for reinvention guides him as he makes life choices.

 Matt Cain writes well (this is his third novel and he has considerable journalistic experience) and has produced a very readable, entertaining book.  He has chosen to head each chapter with an appropriate Madonna song title which is a nifty enough idea, although at times can feel a little forced.  Over twenty years Charlie faces situations that every gay man will recognise as will every family member or friend of a gay man.  There’s virtually the whole gamut of experience in these 416 pages and it may very well be this which stops this good book from becoming a great one.

 By covering all bases Cain doesn’t allow himself to write with the depth which will provide a different viewpoint for the reader other than recognition.  Charlie himself can be somewhat shallow as a character but by narrowing the focus down and exploring certain of his issues with a greater depth I think could have proved an even more satisfactory experience.  Getting all those song titles to fit the structure and all of the stages of Charlie’s development has made the book overlong.  There were quite  few places (I read a Kindle version so my reading experience was influenced by this) where I thought it had reached a natural end and turned the page to find it hadn’t.

 I feel like I am being churlish because I would very much like people to read this book, but I can’t help feeling that with this subject matter and with the author’s accessibility and energy that there’s an even better book lurking inside.  Its episodic nature means that chapters build and end and then are followed with something which occurs months afterwards when occasionally it is the parts that fall in the gaps between chapters which would have been the most interesting to read.  This is always the danger with this type of structure and I don’t think Cain fully avoids it.  But then again, I did enjoy it.  My three star rating might seem mean and if I was reviewing this book, say, for Attitude or Gay Times magazine I would award it an extra star because I think that the readership of these titles would get much from it.  But for the more general reader….

 My current Book Of The Year, John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” covered  some of the same ground and also used this risky episodic structure and was hugely successful because as I noted then “but what comes next was just as involving or even better.”  Boyne’s book is far stronger, which in itself justifies the two star difference between them but Matt Cain certainly has a story to tell and does it well.  I will be certainly keen to read his previous novels.

 This book has been published by “Unbound” and has been funded by pledges from potential readers.  This is an idea from centuries ago given an up to date twist by using the internet to develop a fan base for a title.  The names of those who subscribed are listed at the back of the book.  This type of active participation from readers is a fascinating proposition.  I had not heard of “Unbound” before this but a visit to their website provides opportunities to find out about future projects and to sign up for their newsletter, which I have done . 

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 The Madonna Of Bolton was published by Unbound in 2018

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100 Essential CDs – Number 77 –Madonna – The Immaculate Collection

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The Immaculate Collection – Madonna  (Sire/Warner Bros 1990) 

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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As far as I was concerned, 1990 was a great year for Madonna.  She put out her best album “I’m Breathless” with music taken from and inspired by her hit movie “Dick Tracy” and at the end of the year she was back again with this 17 track album.  Not exactly a Greatest Hits package as it had two new songs this did have the effect of getting people to buy all over again tracks that they would probably have already owned.  But, as is often the case with Madonna, her timing was right.  1990 was still a time when people would have been replacing what they had on vinyl with CDs (we’ve turned full circle again on that).  A lot of Madonna’s early stuff would have been purchased on vinyl.  I certainly had a vinyl copy of her “Like A Virgin” album.  Up to this point, Madonna’s albums were not exactly essential- the best tracks were the hit singles taken from them, so here was a chance to get those hit singles without album filler on one Immaculate CD.  We certainly went with it as “The Immaculate Conception” is Madonna’s biggest selling album of all time, to date over 30 million copies.  It is the best-selling greatest hits package ever by a solo artist.  Its nine week stint at number 1 in the UK singles chart was  a record for a female artist for 21 years until Adele’s appropriately titled “21” came along.  It is the fourth biggest selling greatest hits package (behind the two Queen Greatest Hits volumes and Abba Gold) and to date has been in the charts for 338 weeks.  In July 2016 to celebrate the 60 years of the UK chart , the Official Albums Chart published a list of the biggest selling UK albums of all time.  This was at number 12.

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In the US it sold ten million copies and stayed 141 weeks on the chart although it peaked at number 2.  It topped the album charts in many countries including Canada, Finland and Australia, where it was also one of the biggest albums of the year.

By 1990 Madonna had been scoring single hits for six years and had so many chart records that the compilers could pick and choose.  It certainly is not the definitive catalogue of hits as it even omits UK number 1 singles such as “True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl?”.  Its 17 tracks comprises 5 UK number 1’s and 11 UK Top 5 hits.  In the US the tally is 8 number 1’s and 6 Top 5’s.  (In case you are wondering the ones that missed the Top 5 but still made the album are Lucky Star (UK#14) and in the US Holiday (US#16) Borderline (US#10) and Rescue Me (US#9).  Statistically, it is an important album and it still sounds very good too.

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For most of us Brits our first sight of Madonna was on “Top Of The Pops”on 26th January 1984 when her debut single had entered the charts at 29.  Traditionally a quiet time in the music business after the Christmas festivities “Holiday” had moved up 11 places to number 29 so was an obvious choice for the chart-linked show.  Her performance was very memorable.  She was sandwiched between two dancers, one being her brother Chris wearing fishnet vests with a dance routine which was curious, but mesmerising.  It was atypical Madonna in a way, because the size of the stage and the emphasis given to the dancers would have left some viewers unsure if Madonna was the name of the female in the middle or a three piece group.  Making her UK chart debut in exactly the same week as Madonna was another squeaky-voiced New York resident who was zooming up the listings with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.  I would think that, at the time, if people were asked who would have the biggest career, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, a sizeable number would choose the latter.  There was a greater buzz about her.  The week after that first Madonna British TV appearance Cyndi had climbed eight places to her chart peak at number 2 and Madonna 16 places to number 13 with her song that would eventually peak at number 6 on this chart run.  “Holiday” was a party song that would have lifted the spirits of the gloomy start to 1984 but would have fared better as a summertime track. Re-released in August the next year it climbed to number 2. In the US it reached number 16.  The “holiday/celebrate” refrain is certainly an earworm which will go through my head on probably every day off I have.

Two new stars of early 84- Madonna and Cyndi

Second hit “Lucky Star” is more of a club groove and became her lowest charting UK single for the next 10 years when it reached 14.  In the US it was saved as the third single where the ever-increasing buzz about this new face of 1984 took it to number 4.  It is her third UK single which for me is her first great track, and one that certainly still stands the best of time.  “Borderline” was written and composed by Reggie Lucas, remixed by her then boyfriend Jellybean.  On re-release like “Holiday” this would go to number 2 in the UK but the initial response was lukewarm.  In the US as a second single it would reach number 10.  Despite its tale of unfulfilled love it is a very warm track, and has echoes of Motown and Philadelphia International tracks of a decade earlier.  It has appeared in various all-time great track lists and just shows what Madonna is all about.

Things became more showy and more pop with her next couple of singles “Like A Virgin” (her first US number 1) and “Material Girl” which both went a great way in establishing the brand of Madonna and both were supported by all-time classic videos which ensured the visual imagery would always be strong in the rest of thirty-plus year career.  Both were also produced by legendary producer Nile Rodgers who by this time had abandoned his distinctive Chic-like sound and came up with something more pop influenced.

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Ballads “Crazy For You” and “Live To Tell” rang the changes but did not make a great deal of impression on me (although the former sounds better now than it did then).  Sandwiched between these was a convincing return to the dance floors with “Into The Groove” taken from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” which bizarrely was released as a B-Side to “Angel” in the US but became in the UK her first number one single.  If Madonna had lingered in the decidedly pop side of dance music this felt more authentic at the time.  It was written and produced by Madonna with then boy-friend Stephen Bray.  A run of great tracks follow on  with the Illegitimacy-to–a-dance-beat of “Papa Don’t Preach” with its great use of strings, the cool latin summer of “La Isla Bonita” and  the gospelesque fervour of “Like A Prayer”, all of which were UK chart-toppers.  Her 1989 hits included the powerhouse of “Express Yourself” and the cutesie retro-pop of “Cherish”, which both reached number 2 in the US (UK#5 and 3 respectively).

This brings us to 1990 and the release of the Dick Tracy movie and the return to the top spot worldwide with “Vogue”.  The two new tracks which follow this are to a good extent, inspired by “Vogue” and mark another shift in the musical sounds of Madonna.  The rap in “Vogue” gave Madonna the confidence to explore this a little further, we have the spoken sensitive sultriness of “Justify My Love” produced by Lenny Kravitz and the combination of this new Madonna and the old dance diva with the Madonna and Shep Pettibone produced “Rescue Me”.  Both presented here as new tracks with the lyrics printed in the CD booklet.  “Justify…” would be released as the first single from this collection at the end of 1990 topping the US charts and missing out on the UK top spot because of Vanilla Ice.  In the UK “Rescue Me” would follow up another very successful re-release of “Crazy For You” (UK #2- 1991) and would reach #3.  In the US it reached number 9.

“Erotica” the album and “Sex” the book – thank goodness she dedicated “Immaculate Collection” to the Pope!

Madonna’s next album in 1992 “Erotica” would explore the same area as “Justify My Love” but would push the boundaries further into sex, bondage and a coffee-table book which would make this vision explicit, showing us perhaps more Madonna than we wanted to see.  Detractors held their hands up in horror, citing Madonna as a reason behind the fall of the human race but we all knew it was Madonna ensuring that we were still talking about her and taking notice of what she was doing.  Twenty years at the top for female pop recording artists was still pretty rare then.

From this release onwards I was with Madonna all the way up until 2012’s “MDNA”.  However, this would be the last release that I would consider essential although I had most time for 2008’s “Hard Candy”.  “The Immaculate Collection” features an important outline of the first 6 years.  For my YouTube pick I’ve gone for my first introduction to Madonna and her debut performance on “Top Of The Pops”.  I wonder, whilst she’s cocking her leg in that strange way whether she can see the next thirty odd years of  an amazing career stretched out in front of her?

The Immaculate Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.12, and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.09. In the US it is currently $10.00 new and used from $0.01.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 60 –Madonna – I’m Breathless

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I’m Breathless – Madonna  (Sire 1990) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 2

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By 1990 Madonna had been at the top of her game commercially for six years.  In this time she had notched up 7 US  and 6 UK number 1 singles and had recorded four studio albums the last three of which had topped both the UK and US album charts.  She was achieving a level of fame which had not been experienced by solo female singers before.  For me, however, she was still very much a singles artist.  There had been a great run of these but album wise I thought her output was a little patchy as if she had not really found that true direction.  I’d owned a copy of her Nile Rodgers produced “Like A Virgin” where the great moments had been released as singles although the album sold in bucket-loads –some 25 million which puts it up there in the best selling albums of all time.

The albums to this point had all been worthy with some great tracks but lacked a certain cohesiveness which could push her, as far as I was concerned to another level.  It was from this point onward that I really got on board. The central point that pulled everything together here was the movie Dick Tracy.

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It was well known how much Madonna yearned to be a huge movie star.  Hollywood era glamour was long gone by the time she came around but there was a belief that she could turn back time to become another Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe.  She’d triumphed co-starring in the small 1985 movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” but when the budgets went up and she was expected to carry a whole production we got “Shanghai Surprise” one of the biggest disasters of all time.  Four years on “Dick Tracy” did a little to recover her tarnished movie reputation.  This return for the 1930’s comic strip detective was masterminded by Warren Beatty, very much a power figure in Hollywood.  Madonna’s marriage to Shanghai co-star Sean Penn had ended in divorce in 1989.  Love blossomed on the Dick Tracy set between Madonna and Beatty, even though it did not last much longer after the release of the movie.

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A loved-up Madonna, however, thrilled by her role of Breathless Mahoney was inspired by the whole feel of the movie and wanted to do more to ensure the film’s success.  This album is the result.  The subtitle states “Music from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy”.  It’s a soundtrack album that’s not quite a soundtrack and also a Broadway musical that never was.  Part a tribute to 30’s glamour, part “Bugsy Malone” and “Chicago”,  part a relevant 1990’s club album (with a groundbreaking club track) this remains for me Madonna’s finest moment and the one that gave her a strong image which has been her stock-in-trade ever since.  She may have reinvented herself umpteen times since but they are always strong images from the dominatrix of “Erotica” to Eva Peron of “Evita”, to indie-girl of “Ray Of Light” to disco bunny of “Confessions On A Dance Floor” .  This combination of the movie image and musical image seems to be the most effective springboard for this.  Apart from the “Material Girl” video Madonna as showgirl  had never really featured as part of her creative vision until this but it became an essential part of her make-up from this point on.

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Madonna as “Material Girl”

Commercially, the album has certainly outlived the film that inspired it but in terms of a Madonna album the worldwide sales figures of over 7 million were down considerably from the heady days of “Like A Virgin”, but these sales are impressive for a soundtrack album (and beat the previous soundtrack “Who’s That Girl” she had been involved with by at least a million).  In the UK it gave her a chart-topper and a number 2 single in the US, one number 1 hit and one top ten hit.  There are 12 tracks three of which actually featured in “Dick Tracy”. All three of these are written by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. It was produced mainly by Madonna with Patrick Leonard and features guest vocals from Warren Beatty, Mandy Patinkin (best known to us Brits as Gideon in the first few series of “Criminal Minds” and features tap dancers named amongst the music personnel.

Mandy Patinkin and Stephen Sondheim – collaborators on “I’m Breathless” 

The whole thing kicks off with “He’s A Man” a slinky, mid-tempo number written and produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard which is sung in praise of the Dick Tracy character and is a good album opener with it’s snatches of “calling Dick Tracy” over police radios.  Madonna is very much in the Breathless Mahoney role with this.  Things shift up a bit for the first class “Sooner Or Later” the first Sondheim song to actually feature in the film.  The feel is just right, it’s as if we’re transported to “Guys And Dolls” watching a performance from “Ever Lovin’” Adelaide and there’s a good performance from Madonna.

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Hit single next and “Hanky Panky” was best appreciated by us Brits who took the single to number 2.  It’s one of those naughty but nice tracks which fit in with the British psyche and have been with us since the days of music hall and was the first hit single to feature spanking as it’s theme.  Perhaps, predictably in the US it got a slightly cooler reception and it’s number 10 chart placing was (apart from the previous year’s “Oh Father” which made #20)was the first time she’d missed out on the Top 5 for six years.  It’s song-along, cheerfully rude (“my bottom hurts just thinking about it”) and is a fun bit of fluff.  Its 1940 jazz/swing references makes it a precursor of Christina Aguliera’s “Candyman”.  It’s all done with fun.  In her next projects “Erotica” and the “Sex” book Madonna would become considerably more in your face with sexual expression and scared quite a few people off!  There’s Carmen Miranda cheekiness in “I’m Going Bananas” a track written by Michael Kernan and Andy Paley and the fun continues with the Madonna and Leonard penned “Cry Baby”.

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“Something To Remember” was something of a turning point for me.  Up until then I had never really cared for Madonna as a ballad singer but this was something of a revelation.  It does move away from the ritzy camp of the last couple of tracks and works well within the concept of the album.  This was the first of a number of really good Madonna tracks such as “Take A Bow”, “You’ll See” and the sublime “One More Chance”.  Madonna obviously felt proud enough of this to use it as the  title track for her collection of ballads CD in 1995.  This sounded like a big hit single to me.

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“Back In Business” starts off calmly but explodes into the razzmatazz we’ve heard on the album before.  Less cheesy  than some of the more fun tracks this rounds up with a great sax solo by Jeff Clayton. Two Sondheim songs follow and the first “More” is up there with his best and puts Madonna back into the Material Girl mode.  Clever lyrics, as we might expect and a great production from Madonna and Bill Bottrell.  It fits right into the tradition of “Material girl-ness” which has produced songs such as “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” and “Just An Old Fashioned Girl”.  There’s a snatch of tap dancing, the song builds well and it is one of the real joys of the album.  Ballad “What Can You Lose” with Mandy Patnikin who plays piano player 88 Keys in the movie feels like a piano led Broadway number.

I’m a big fan of the two part “Now I’m Following You” which starts off as a touching little dance duet between Madonna and Warren Beatty and features more tap dancing until the record grinds to a halt for part two which transforms the song into a delightful piece of electro-swing which acts as a finale for the musical with reprises in snatches of other tracks.  It works well heard in the context of what has gone before but I really like this second part and has a very cool feel.  Talk about cool, that’s certainly a word which can apply to the final track and the song which gave Madonna her 8th US number 1 and 7th UK number 1.  In fact, it was in 1990 the epitome of cool.  Madonna used a dance attitude she had witnessed in New York black gay clubs and brought it into the mainstream. It had been seen in the 1990 documentary about New York dance culture “Paris Is Burning” and choreographer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza was its leading light. “Vogue” was both incredibly relevant, daring and a throw back to the glamour of yesteryear with its name-checking rap section “Dietrich and Di Maggio……” You know you still know most of it!

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A black and white video of the striking postured moves scooped three awards in the 1990 MTV Music Awards and is one of the best known videos of all time.  It also clearly established that this is a dance that will only look good if performed by a professional.  Half-hearted attempts on dance floors the world over were thankfully short-lived and always embarrassing.  “Vogue” notched up worldwide sales of  over 6 million and was a truly international hit topping the charts in amongst other territories, Canada, Australia, Italy and Spain. It was the best selling single of 1990 and ensured that Madonna would make the transition from 80’s superstar to 90’s megastar.   It is a superb way to round off what is as far as I am concerned the most essential Madonna album and the one that I still play more than any of the others.

With career certainly back at the top it was time for Madonna to take stock a little and allow the rest of us who may have joined the party late to catch up.  Her second release of 1990 would be a greatest hits collection with a couple of new tracks.  Released in November four months after “I’m Breathless” hit the shops “The Immaculate Collection” would rewrite the Madonna record-book, but that’s another story…………………….

I’m Breathless – Music From And Inspired By The Film Dick Tracy  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.49, and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £8.69. In the US it is currently $13.74 new and used from $0.01. and as a download for $9.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.