The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell (2001) – A Real Life Review

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Mary S. Lovell’s sixth publication reads like a labour of love.  Her subjects are a biographer’s dream.  She must have been inundated with material for this thoroughly researched work.  The big decision must have been just what to include and what to leave out as the Mitford sisters have generated so much print over the decades.

 It would be a big enough job for a biographer to focus on one of the sisters but Lovell here tackles all six, not entirely forgetting brother Tom, the third of the seven children.  Read any account of British history of the period and at least one Mitford is likely to appear, even if on the sidelines, particularly anything which examines the upper classes of the first half of the twentieth century.  In fiction too, their influence can be felt as inspiration for characters in many novels as well as directly influencing English Literature through Nancy’s highly regarded novels published from the mid 1930s to early 1960s.

 I didn’t know a huge amount about them and was never sure who was who. (I haven’t read any of Nancy’s novels but intend to).  Six attractive high society girls (their father was Baron Redesdale) who between them spanned the whole range of political beliefs.  Nancy (1904-73) became a novelist known for her autobiographically based novels and waspish humour; Pamela (1907-94) was the most sedate of the bunch who lived a more rural-based life; Diana (1910- 2003) who became one of the country’s most notorious women when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists; Unity (1914-48) who arose stronger feelings in the popular press through her friendship with Hitler; Jessica (1917-96) who, at the other end of the spectrum, became a radical Communist and Deborah (1920-2014) who became the Duchess of Devonshire and regenerated Chatsworth House.

mitfordsThe Mitford Sisters

 Admittedly, it does take a while to get the girls sorted out one from another in their younger days but things become certainly clarified in the years leading up to World War II.  It is extraordinary that these six girls came from the same privileged family.  Lovell’s approach is largely non-judgemental which can seem a little odd but is probably the best way to deal with six such disparate characters.  In fact there are seven as we must count their mother Sydney (1840-1963) who manages to keep things together but must have been driven mad by the unpredictable antics of her daughters.

 It has been 17 years since this book’s publication and now none of the sisters are  with us (Diana and Deborah were both alive in 2001) maybe a new updated edition would make this work seem complete.  Since writing this the author has focused upon another major family of the period and relatives of the Mitfords- “The Churchills” (2011).  Her latest work (2017) focuses on the high society who frolicked at Cannes in 1920-60.

 Reading this fascinating biography has given me a taste for the fiction of this period – I must read Nancy Mitford and work my way once again through Evelyn Waugh at the very least.  This, however, is a tale of a family which is stranger than fiction and Mary S. Lovell does a great job at bringing these women to life.

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 The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.

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Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

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There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.

David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

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Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

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In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

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Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has meant that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

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“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

100 Essential CDs – Number 44 – Pet Shop Boys – Bilingual

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Bilingual- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1996) 

   UK Chart Position – 4

      US Chart Position –39

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Studio album number 6 from the Pet Shop Boys missed out on a UK Top 3 chart position, something which the other five had achieved.  It’s an extraordinary fact because it was, as far as I was concerned, their fifth essential studio release in a row, and may just very well be my all-time favourite of their albums.

It had been three years since the release of the chart-topping “Very”.  In the meantime we had the second album of club dance remixes of tracks in “Disco 2” which reached number 6 and the fairly splendid if a little patchy double album of B-sides “Alternative” which reached number 2.  A tour of South America after the release of “Very” provided inspiration for this new release as many of the tracks are infused with a heavy measure of Latin flavour which gives them an extra joyfulness which always makes this CD a pleasure to listen to.  In 1996 its early autumn release brought back a little bit of fiesta sunshine into our lives.  Unusually, for the album’s original release all of the songs are written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.  The reinvention of a song not associated with them had been around since they hit chart pay-dirt with “Always On My Mind”.  (A deluxe edition of the CD was released the following year which contained the boys’ take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” which had given them a Top 10 hit single. I don’t think Tennant doing battle with Bernstein’s melody and Sondheim’s lyrics really fits into the concept of the album so we will stick with the original twelve tracks).  The album is produced by the Boys with assistance on some of the tracks from Chris Porter, US DJ Danny Tenaglia, and Paul Roberts and Andy Williams who better known as K-Klass had scored a Top 3 hit of their own in 1993 with club classic “Rhythm Is A Mystery.”

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Much of this South-American influence can be found in opening track “Discoteca” in its Spanish chant “Hay una discoteca por aqui?” and complexity of multi-layered rhythms which with its keyboard refrain gives it a real richness of sound.  Neil is in questioning self-analytical mode which comes back to the repeated chant and which makes for a haunting, impressive opener.  The “Hawaii-5-O” type drums thunder their way straight into the next track which is one of the finest of all PSB singles and my favourite track on the album, the exciting “Single” which begins with its “I’m Single/Bilingual” refrain and eases its way into a song about the lone traveller on international business.  A tale of expense accounts, lonely hotel rooms and fax messages waiting at reception – “I come to the community from UK PLC “.  It has a great depth of sound to it, and with its musical references to the previous track provides a kind of flow which is unusual for a PSB album.  As a single the appropriately titled “Single” was the third released from the album and reached number 14 in the UK.  Neil’s still looking for that disco as the track ends and moves into the house-influenced  “Metamorphosis” which features sterling vocal work from Sylvia Mason-James.  It’s feels like an old style track as Neil delivers one of his impassive raps, which echoes tracks from the previous decade such as “Left To My Own Devices”, his “all about love/it’s a metamorphosis” does give me the same feeling of delight I had when he heard the distant feet of Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. This is the track that had production duties shared between Pet Shop Boys and K-Klass.

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“Electricity” is a slinkier track with its sampled female voice “What does it mean/What are you doing in San Francisco”.  It delightfully refers to one of the great neglected acts of the disco era “the greatest show with the best effects since Disco Tex and the Sex O Lettes”.  Flamboyant DJ Monti Rock III became Disco Tex in 1974 and scored with two odd-ball extravaganzas of Top 10 singles “Get Dancin’ “ (UK#8,US#10) and the even campier “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo (Doo Dat Dance) (UK#6, US#23).  The whole enterprise was a knowing nod towards self-aggrandisement, there was a lot of style (of a fashion) and not much real substance to the act.  I can’t imagine they had the greatest show and best effects so I’ve always taken that line ironically, although I’m sure that Disco Tex would have thought that he had the greatest show and best effects.  It’s a great line, but to be honest, like the best of the Sex O Lettes there’s not a great deal behind this track other than that repeated refrain.

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More joy follows and whoever says the Pet Shop Boys are just miserable needs a dose of “Se Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)” which continues the feel of the first two tracks, a Mardi Gras of a track, yet always more mid-tempo than I remember.  Single wise it was a top 10 hit (UK#8) released in August 1996 a month or so before the album.  It certainly gave us an appropriate taste for the album and who can’t warm to lyrics such as;

“Why do you want to sit alone in gothic gloom surrounded by the ghosts of love that haunt your room? Somewhere there’s a different door to open wide.  You gotta throw those skeletons out of your closet and come outside.”

Pass me those maracas, Neil!  It’s no surprise it was a Top 5 hit in Spain and also got the thumbs up in Finland, where the Boys were used to scoring high chart positions.  Things cool down for “It Always Comes As A Surprise” which starts off a little sounding like early Jamiroquai before turning into a pretty love song.  There’s none of the conflict of relationships in the previous albums.  It’s the sound of contentment in the early days of relationship “You smile and I am rubbing me eyes at a dream come true”.  Reading between the lines this may not be the most balanced of  partnerships.  There’s evidence that the other half is questioning and unwilling to be rushed into “love all night in your bedroom”, but at the moment things are all good for Neil.  Nice cool sax solo and the sophisticated Latin elegance is enhanced by a subtle sample from Brazilian bossa nova legend  Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado”.

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“Red Letter Day” is another of the anthemic “Go West” PSB tracks with a drum intro into the male choral voices.  I always like these sort of tracks from the Boys and this is up there with the best of them.  It was released as the fourth single from the album and it caused its own red letter day making chart history.  It probably isn’t the record they would have been hoping to break as it scored the biggest fall of a chart single on its second week in the chart to that date.  It came in at a respectable number 9 but the next week suffered a 33 place drop to fall outside the Top 40.  Bigger drops have been recorded since then but it seems that this single release was perhaps  of real interest to the fans who bought it in the week it came out.  Despite this unfortunate occurrence it is still a great track and fits in well on the album.

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“Up Against It” combines clever lyrics with a danceable tune, with once again the Latin feel percolating underneath.  “The Survivors” feels like it is taking us back to a wintry London in an unshowy ballad.  This leads into the track that was the biggest hit from the album “Before”.  Released over 4 months before the album it was good to hear it again in this new context.  It reached number 7 in the UK charts and made the Top 10 in Finland (again) and Sweden, amongst others.  It also scored the duo a Billboard Number 1 as it topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts.  Major commercial US hits had eluded the duo for over 8 years since the heady days of “Domino Dancing” (US#18 1988) their last big hit there to date. This is the first of the two tracks that had been worked on alongside Danny Tenaglia, the other being the disco joy of “Saturday Night Forever” which closes the album in magnificent style.  Before this there’s “To Step Aside” which benefits from a sample of what sounds a little like Native American singing, speeded up.  Another track which still sounds good twenty-one years later.

“Bilingual” was the last PSB album I would consider to be essential.  It’s not that they went off the boil from this point but this unprecedented run of five classic albums came to an end for me with their next release “Nightlife” (1999) which despite the storming “New York City Boy” and great titles such as “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” and “You Only Tell Me  You Love Me When You’re Drunk” didn’t feel quite as relevant as everything that had gone on before.  Albums such as “Fundamental”(2006)  and “Elysium” (2012) were solid rather than inspirational but they did notch up another first-class release with their 2009 CD “Yes”.  Their last album to date has been 2016’s hopefully titled “Super”.  As far as I am concerned any one of the albums I have featured as essential would have cemented the PSB’s place in pop music history but the twelve tracks they put out in 1996 might just inch ahead of  the greater commercial success of “Very” as their best.

Bilingual  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.14 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. In the US it is currently $10.38 new and used from $3.08 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 45 – Pet Shop Boys – Very

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Very- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1993) 

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position –45

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It felt like quite a long wait between 1990’s “Behaviour” and the release of this, the Pet Shop Boys fifth studio album.  In the meantime they had released a Singles Collection, “Discography” which had been a Top 3 album but there was still the feeling that they were getting a little disgruntled by things, including the sales of their last release which had a slightly different feel about it and which they considered to be up there with the best.

So this album when it arrived was perhaps more what you would expect, in fact, as suggested by the clever title it was “very” Pet Shop Boys and absence had made the heart grow fonder as it became their one and only UK number 1 album.  In the US it saw them back in the top 20 for the first time since their debut over seven years earlier and what is more, by giving the fans what they wanted the Boys came up with their fourth essential studio album in a row and their best album up to this point.

From here the boys start their retreat a little back from the limelight and let the music rather than images do the work for them.  The cover has no photos of the band but is wonderfully tactile, the chunk of orange plastic with raised bobbles on it, which seemed really quite daring at the time.  It’s sometimes referred to as “The Lego Cover” but not when the makers of that particular trademarked toy are around.  I’ve read somewhere that at the time they were thinking themselves too old to have the cover shots they might have wanted when they were younger so and came up with something that was a little surprising, a little tacky, a little arty but certainly “very” Pet Shop Boys. When the boys do appear in the artwork for this, they are somewhat disguised, for this is the era of PSB silly hats, half globes and pointy dunce caps which never really worked for them but probably entertained them at the time.

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The whole of Europe was won over once again.  Less subdued than its predecessor, the fans in 1993 wanted danceable tunes, sophisticated arrangements, tongue in cheek lyrics and probably some references to Neil’s coming out as gay which had also been confirmed in the gap between “Behaviour” and “Very”.  The album also topped the charts in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland and was a big seller in many other territories.  It was produced by the Pet Shop Boys with some help from old collaborator Stephen Hague.  All the songs were written by Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, apart from one cover version which also has a Brothers In Rhythm mix to help it up the singles charts.

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It kicks off with “Can You Forgive Her?” which had led the way as a single prior to the album release and reached number 7 in the UK charts.  The title was apparently spawned from the Trollope novel of the same name.  It’s a tale of humiliation, of waking from dreams in a cold sweat recalling an incident in a relationship where the male addressed to is made a fool of by his partner.  This man needs to get out of this relationship quick as he is being emasculated by her taunts;

“She’s made you some kind of laughing stock because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock. 

She made fun of you and even in bed said she was gonna go and get herself a real man instead.”

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Is it forgiveness or revenge that is on the cards?  It’s a good start but I like even more the second track “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing”.  Released as single number three, the first after the album’s release it reached number 13.  It’s a great stomping pop tune, joyful in its abandonment and contains the great lines;

I feel like taking all my clothes off dancing to The Rite of Spring and I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

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“Liberation” is a cool piece of mid-tempo with Love Unlimited rhythms and has a feel of the Style Council meets Barry White all imbued with a great Pet Shop Boysness.  It followed the previous track as a single and reached number 14 in the UK.  It builds beautifully and is a track I always love to hear, often forgetting how good it actually sounds.

The first of the tracks not to be released as a single is next and “A Different Point Of View” is a much more frantic affair from its brassy, electro intro.  The song is quite simple, this is a PSB track where the strength is in the production rather than the lyrics.  “Dreaming Of The Queen” sees the lyrics back into stronger focus and is a quirky tale of;

Dreaming of the Queen visiting for tea You and her and I and Lady Di  

It beautifully captures the surrealism of the dream, the unlikely protagonists, the sage words, the realisation of being naked in such esteemed company.  It’s a mid-tempo piece of fun, not the strongest on the album, but then this is a strong album.  The gears crank up again for “Yesterday When I Was Mad” which became the fifth and final single from the album and got to number 13 in the UK.  Neil “raps” the verse and sweeps it into a singalong chorus. It addresses the criticisms that seemed to hang around the group and is a glorious swipe at the music industry with strong lyrics such as ;

‘You have a certain quality which really is unique Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak It doesn’t really matter cause the music is so loud Of course it’s all on tape but no one will find out’

And;

Then we posed for pictures with the competition winners and argued about the hotel rooms and where to go for dinner and someone said: ‘It’s fabulous you’re still around today You’ve both made such a little go a very long way’

very7Top grade PSB track. The album moves nicely into the West End grandeur of “The Theatre” which features a choir.  I have no real idea what’s going on here but I like it and its very much in the mould of tracks such as “Suburbia” and “I’m Not Scared”.  It’s a tale of the haves and have nots, the juxtaposition of wealthy theatre-goers turning a blind eye to the homeless in the streets.  A more traditional house dance track follows with “One And One Make Five”.  It’s back to the lush, sophisticated midtempos for “To Speak Is A Sin”, a really attractive song which has the feel of the Minellis and the type of track they came up with when working with Liza.

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“Young Offender” has the feel of an arcade game in its lengthy intro, which smacks of dodgy amusement arcades playing Space Invaders.  Perhaps the track I’m the least excited about this album.  It is certainly a nod to Neil’s recently confirmed sexuality with its lyrics about an older man and the disaffected scally lad youth.

Will I get in your way or open your eyes? Who will give whom the bigger surprise?

“One In A Million” returns to the Europop feel in a song which really moves and builds well to a singalong chorus paving the way to the big hit from this album, another inspired cover version of the Village People’s number 15 hit from fourteen years earlier, “Go West”.

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I always thought the original was under-rated ,  a great example of call and response over a disco beat which the Village People could do so well.  On Neil and Chris’ version there’s seagulls squawking, an electronic voiced choir which manages to sound both Russian and like a Welsh male voice choir and the whole thing is resplendent in its over the top Pet Shop Boys feel.  Neil’s vocal is certainly impassive compared to the original and it actually gives the song a whole new level.  It’s camp, yes, but totally splendid and probably eclipses the original.  It certainly did sales-wise when as it reached number 2 in the UK charts, their highest chart position for five years.  It became a number 1 single in Finland, which certainly was a good market for the Boys at this time and also topped the charts in Ireland and Germany and saw Top 5 placings in countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden  and Switzerland.  The Pet Shop Boys were back.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by “hidden tracks” which were quite prevelant at this time and when we began burning our CDs onto MP3 players caused minutes of emptiness.  You have to wait a good few minutes for the one minute fifteen “I Believe In Ecstasy” an attractive enough soundscape of a track but I really wish they hadn’t bothered because “Go West” is in itself the perfect way to end “Very”.   They first performed the song live  at an AIDS benefit set up by film-maker and PSB collaborator Derek Jarman at The Hacienda in Manchester and was originally intended for a non-album release single which didn’t happen as the Brothers In Rhythm mix fitted perfectly into the concept for this CD.

This was a return to form commercially for the Pet Shop Boys and a great album which still sounds so today.

 

Behaviour  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99and used from £3.47. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $8.99 new and used from $1.98 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

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

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The Ultimate Collection – Glenn Miller  (Prism 1998)

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

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

Three of the many other Miller compilations available

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

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James Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

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

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

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June Allyson and James Stewart

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

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

Manhattan Transfer scored big with songs associated with the Orchestra

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

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

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

 

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

100 Essential 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.

What Happened, Miss Simone? – Alan Light (Canongate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Music journalist Alan Light has put this biography together using the research material for a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus.  There was obviously a wealth of information on this unique performer and Light has done a very good job in pooling this all together to provide a fascinating biography on a fascinating subject.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymons in 1933, the sixth of eight children from Tryon, North Carolina showed early musical talent playing piano at church and began lessons with the intention of becoming a classical pianist.  Her application for a scholarship at the esteemed Curtis Institute was turned down.  Simone always believed this was because she was a black woman and this rejection became very much a foundation stone for her life and career.  The pop and jazz world beckoned, (requiring a name change so her mother wouldn’t find out), but for Simone, this was always a second-rate choice with second-rate audiences who did not always seem as engrossed as she believed a classical audience would.  A 1959 American hit, a cover of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (amazingly her only US single hit reaching number 18) began a career which encompassed many musical styles and certainly had its highs and lows.  There was a marriage where abuse was commonplace and Simone could not lose the feeling that she was being exploited by those around her personally and professionally.

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By the mid 60’s Simone had become highly involved in the civil rights movement  This led to her writing and recording what was termed “The Black National Anthem”, the stupendous “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” (perhaps the greatest protest song of all time).  This together with tracks such as “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Four Women” and an embracing of the Black Power movement and her need to educate her audiences led to her being deemed as a radical which would have been to some detriment to her career in the whites-dominated music industry and led to further disillusionment with her homeland.

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Nina struggled with mental-health issues and her reputation for being “difficult”, and in fact quite often terrifying, was down to a severe bipolar disorder.  The increasing need to be medicated and her own reluctance to take this medication at times makes for extraordinarily chilling reading.  An account of her involvement with the Pamplona music festival is fairly mind-blowing.  But, however difficult she might be, you could not ignore the talent and some people did whatever they could to stick with her.  Fans were loyal despite her testing of their patience, through late arrivals, arguments and bad-tempered performances and no-shows and also through the trappings of touring which could easily become too much for her.  Always unpredictable in her repertoire, she had the ability to move an audience to raptures (as well as occasional boos).

The title for both the book and documentary comes from a poem by Maya Angelou. Much of what I read in Light’s biography did not come as too much of a surprise.  Nina’s struggles were well documented in her lifetime.  You can get a great sense of the turmoil in her 1991 autobiography “I Put A Spell On You”, which is both highly readable yet confused and confusing.

She may have been hard to like but it was easy to fall in love with that voice and great talent.  She was a real tour-de-force, a complete one-off who defies categorisation and whose like we will never see again.  Alan Light portrays this clearly and respectfully and aims to illuminate the genius of the performer conflicted with the traumas and tensions of the woman.

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What Happened, Miss Simone was published in hardback by Canongate in March 2016  and will be published in paperback in 2017.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Kathy Kirby – Secrets, Loves And Lip Gloss – James Harman (2005)- A Real Life Review

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This is a very British tale.  The story of the singer dubbed “The British Marilyn Monroe” who at one point in the mid 1960’s was reputed to be the highest paid woman on UK television – and then it all went wrong.  I think this is what is termed a “published on demand book” (I got my copy from Amazon ) by Harman, a life-long fan who went one step further and for a short time believed he could engineer a comeback when he became Kathy Kirby’s manager.  It didn’t turn out quite the way he planned it.

                                    Kathy Kirby   and Ambrose at the peak of their fame                                                      

 Essex-born Kirby was discovered by Bert Ambrose, a band leader, big in the 1940’s, who by this time was really from another era who saw her as a way of bringing a younger audience to his venues.  Her look, the obvious glamour and the fantastic voice made her a television regular and she was very much a household name even before she began a run of chart hits in 1963-5.  Kirby was very much controlled by the much older Ambrose and they became lovers.  He reputedly financially exploited her, gambling away her money whilst all the time convincing her she was a great star.  When Ambrose died Kathy went into free fall- a catalogue of bankruptcy, incarceration in a mental hospital, inappropriate relationships, attempted comebacks and increasing mental health problems.  For the last years of her life she lived very much as a recluse, shunning the limelight she once craved.  She died in 2011, but throughout Harman’s work there is the hope that she would return and shine in show business again.

The structure of the book is odd.  It begins with an extended series of tributes from those in the business, wishing her well.  Frank Ifield uses it as an excuse to plug his autobiography and when you get to singer from much the same era, Julie Rogers, beginning “Kathy and I never met” you do begin to question this format.  The narrative throughout is brokn up by italicised sections of Harman’s own words and reminiscences, rather needlessly as the whole book is surely his own words and reminiscences.  That aside, this book is a permanent fixture on my bookshelves because of the absolutely fascinating story he tells.  I re-read this to remind myself of some of the incredible things that happened to her before reviewing the Essential CD – The Very Best Of Kathy Kirby.  Kathy was obviously too naive for a life in show-business but kept attempting to bounce back – a real survivor.  She was also too honest for the press and many  way hastened her own “downfall” by the things she told them.  The media treated her very much as the girl who found fame and lost it, creating a self perpetuating myth which got her selling stories but probably didn’t do her much good.  If anyone wanted a view on the fickleness of fame it was Kathy they turned to.  The Sunday press were always keen on stories about her and scandal made good reading- her every mistake and misery was taken apart by the press.

Kathy was really just a victim of changing tastes in popular culture.  By the 1960’s fame was not a life-long thing it had maybe been the generation before  and Kathy became one of the many casualties of changes in pop music at this time and yet she railed against this.  She was determined to remain a star, her legion of fans saw her always as a star but bookings diminished to bingo halls and restaurants as, despite the talent, she was just no longer in vogue and that had a serious effect.  As time went by she became deemed to be“difficult” which further compounded things.

For anyone who wonders “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” Harman’s tale is an eye-opener and very much a tale of the shallow world of showbusiness and the vulnerability of some who rose to the top.

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Kathy Kirby- Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss was published by Mediaworld in 2005

The Top 100 Best-Selling Albums – Edited by James Bennett (Igloo 2005)- A Real Life Review

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This is a real coffee table book.  In fact, I’ve drunk coffee on smaller tables than this.  A weighty tome I got it online from Poundland (£1) who must be seriously out of pocket based on postage alone.  It was published ten years ago so that needs to be taken into account.  We get the ten best selling albums of the 50’s, twenty from the 1960s-90s and 10 from the 00’s, so not strictly the 100 best selling of all time, but I’m quibbling.

Each album has a double page spread with sumptuously reproduced front cover art which takes up the whole of the page, which is a joy for those of us who have now got used to miniscule CD covers.  There is information about each album on the facing page and  it is this which lets the book down.  It is often clunkily written, it doesn’t feel especially trustworthy and a “fact box” adds little.  There’s not a great deal of analysis about the actual albums and the information given is a tad too superficial.

It does make for surprising reading, however.  It is based upon global sales and obviously the US must account for much of these as there is a lot of overblown stadium rock in the lists which is a little unsettling and whereas it might not shock too many to discover the revelation that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the biggest of the 80’s (29.3 million at time of book’s compilation which was before his demise and the surge of sales that caused) some of the other biggest for each decade are less predictable  – Norah Jones for the 00s, Shania Twain for the 90s, a Christmas album from Elvis for the 50’s.

I think this book looks good, weighs a ton, reads quite well but is not going to demand a permanent place on my bookshelves.

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The Top 100 Best Selling Albums was published by Igloo in 2005.  If UK readers fancy it check out the Poundland site first.