Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cliff Richard

I remember around the age of 9 or 10 suddenly discovering the joys of pop music. Like with so many other youngsters in Ireland at the time, a special status was attached to late night listening on Radio Luxembourg. So I soon prided myself on being well versed on everything new emerging on the pop scene.

So I can still remember the humiliation I experienced when chatting with some school pals in St. Anne's Park in Dublin after a football match. A newcomer who was in a junior class had joined the group and immediately asked me "Well! What do you think of Cliff Richard"? I tried to correct him suggesting that he meant Little Richard! However he was quite sure that it was not Little Richard to whom he was referring! So I had to own up to my shame that I had not heard of Cliff!

This was back in 1958 and Cliff's first single "Move It" had just been released. Needless to say I became quickly aware of Cliff after this episode and remarkably he is still going strong 55 years later.

He is due to give a concert in Dublin next June. So just for old time sake I decided to try and book some tickets. However within a brief few minutes of going on-sale online they were all sold out!

So this testifies to how popular he still is! And this popularity is richly deserved, as over his career he has accumulated an unparalleled number of hits in the UK (about 150) and has been equally popular here in Ireland. Also he is never less than fully professional in everything he does whether it be recording, granting interviews or performing live for his fans.

"Move It" is unusual in that it is not really typical of Cliff's work. It clearly was influenced by Elvis Presley and really comes across as Cliff's answer to "Heartbreak Hotel". And he does a darn good job too! However he was quickly to find greater popularity by moving more mainstream recording a stream of excellent pop records during the 1960's (ably abetted by his backing group "The Shadows" who became immensely popular in their own right). Among his best from this time (ably mixing up-tempo with easy listening material are "Please Don't Tease","The Young Ones", "The Next Time", "Don't Talk to Him" and the lesser known "The Day I Met Marie".

Indeed there was to be some consolation for my previous ignorance of Cliff!
The official Irish pop charts started to be aired in 1962. In the early days this was associated with a radio competition whereby listeners were invited to place the next week's top 10 in correct order. Normally it required at least 6 to be in the right positions to win. I felt confident about this type of challenge and came very close on a few occasions to winning before finally being successful.

And I remember the prize that I won was the "Wonderful Life" album by Cliff!

By the beginning of the 1970's Cliff, while retaining his popularity as a personality started to fade as regards hits. Undoubtedly some of this was due to the promotion of his Christian beliefs which seem to deflect his focus from what was required in terms of remaining commercially successful. 

However Cliff then re-invented himself making a marvellous comeback with some of his best work e.g."Miss You Nights" "Devil Woman" and "We Don't Talk Anymore" cracking the US market in the process.

There then followed what I would consider his golden period through the early 80's where he brought out a succession of superbly produced singles (all of a very high standard). Not surprisingly there was somewhat of a lull after that though he did acquire a number of huge seasonal sellers such as "Mistletoe and Wine", "St. Saviour's Day" and "The Millennium Prayer" (his last really big hit).

His productivity in terms of albums (pop and gospel) and singles has been truly incredible. Indeed recently he has released his 100th album "The Fabulous Rock and Roll Songbook" which sees him return to his early rock and roll roots. He has also duetted with many others such as Elton John, Van Morrison, Olivia Newton John and perhaps most notably with Sarah Brightman.

Now it would be very difficult nominating Cliff's best track from such an extensive and varied body of work. Instead I will highlight just two truly superb songs that are not generally mentioned.

The first is "Ocean Deep". This came out in the early to mid 80's as a B side to one of his singles "Baby You're Dynamite" (though it did subsequently attract some attention).

I remember first hearing it on a coach in Italy while travelling back to the airport after holidaying there where it made a huge and lasting impression. It is really a superb song (with an equally superb production) which should have been a huge hit in it's own right.

The other track is "Such is the Mystery" which was originally included on Cliff's great 70's comeback album "I'm Nearly Famous" which includes other great - and very varied - tracks such as "Miss You Nights", "Devil Woman" and the superb Tamla Motown sounding "I Can't Ask for Anything More than You".

This was originally recorded by the singer songwriter John Dawson Read (whose own version is very much worth listening to!) However it is a song that is ideally suited to Cliff, combining both pop and religious type sentiments and he gives a superb interpretation of this song (with its unusually meaningful lyrics). The gorgeous string finale at the end then elevates it to an even higher plane of sensibility.

If I had to nominate my favourite Cliff recording this - perhaps surprisingly - would be it!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ray Charles

I cannot say that I was ever a great fan of Ray Charles though I could appreciate that he was very talented.

I do remember however that one of the early singles that I purchased was his biggest hit "I Can't Stop Loving You". Those early single purchases were momentous occasions back then providing welcome relief from school routine.

I recall the HMV label on which it was released in Ireland with its pale blue colour.

In those days one would inevitably flip over the other side to see if it contained some hidden treasure. (It generally didn't)! However I can still hear the closing refrain "Born to lose, and now I'm losing you".

As is well known the peak of Ray Charles' popularity came in the early 60's when - unusual for a black performer - he recorded two albums devoted to Country and Western material.

"I Cant' Stop Loving You" was a single taken off the first album.

However my own particular favourite was "Take These Chains from My Heart" which appeared on the second album.

Then for some reason though this song was released some 50 years ago, last week, quite unprompted,  it resurfaced  vividly in my memory and has been constantly replaying there ever since.

And it is only now that I can properly appreciate the true brilliance of that recording in conveying its aching emotional message in unparalleled fashion

And that I suppose more than anything sums up the unique genius of Ray Charles.

Now these things never occur as if by accident (though it often appears that way). Since retiring from work recently, I have had more time to reflect on the nature of life with the realisation that in many ways we do becoming enslaved by our employment and other responsibilities. Don't get me wrong! I feel extremely fortunate to have had a steady secure job (especially when many young people find it so difficult to find work.

However it is perhaps that our very mind set then becomes conditioned by the experiences (largely of a routine nature) surrounding such activity.

In the deepest sense life can hold a lot of disillusionment in that our early great hopes and expectations somehow get continually trodden on by the realities of day to day living.

I am not saying that true meaning cannot be thereby found, but not in a phenomenal manner!

So in the end the deepest meaning comes from attempting to continually peel off the earlier illusions that eventually are revealed as without true substance. And then in the very process of continually returning from disillusionment to the present moment that the spiritual reality of life can shine through.

There is a misleading distinction preserved as between country music and R & B which reflects a racial dividing line.

Ray Charles realised clearly that country music was the white man's blues essentially expressing the same universal longings and feelings. And being earlier rooted in the blues tradition, he sought to marry this with country music.

Indeed it was very similar earlier when Elvis Presley coming from a white country background attempted the same from the opposite direction (as exemplified in his first great hit "Heartbreak Hotel").

However though both were for a time extremely successful in this regard the old colour bar has largely remained.

So there are remarkably few black singers that have been accepted as country singers (Charley Pride is perhaps the exception here that proves the rule).

Also there are remarkably few white singers that have been accepted by the black community as possessing any real credibility as blues singers.

White country music is generally associated with the wide open plains and rural type experience; however black R & B is more a city experience associated with the congested ghettos.

So perhaps it is the traditional economic divide as between whites and blacks that underpins a corresponding divide in their music.

For a short while Ray Charles seemed to overcome that divide. But his popularity quickly faded in this regard with the colour bar remaining.

Perhaps he was too good at doing what he was not supposed to do!

For if conveying the raw emotion behind lyrics is the measure of good country music, then Ray Charles was surely a supreme country singer.

Also it is reassuring to know that even after an event may have long since passed that its meaning may can still remain alive at a much later date.
So in my own case, it has taken 50 years for this song to powerfully resonate with an unexpected new relevance.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dusty Springfield

The 60’s was a great era for female singers in the UK with the likes of Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, Helen Shapiro and Cilla Black all making a big impact.

However perhaps the most fondly remembered of all is Dusty Springfield.

I remember well her earlier incarnation as the girl singer in the Springfields. It was a very competent folk trio that was like the British equivalent of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Indeed they had a top 20 twenty hit in the States with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” before the Beatles which was completely unheralded then for a British group.  Though strangely this missed out completely in Britain, they soon established themselves there with "Island of Dreams” (written by Dusty’s brother - now called Tom Springfield).

They had become extremely popular, regularly appearing on radio and TV, when they suddenly broke up. There was no doubting that Dusty was the undisputed star of the group and having discovered the music of Tamla Motown wanted to expand her horizon beyond the folk scene. However it is still interesting to recall that she was very good indeed in the folk genre and surely would have gone on to greater success with the Springfields if she had remained.

Dusty was indeed a superb talent who very much like Eva Cassidy later could turn her hand to almost any kind of song. In fact she experimented widely with a great number of different styles. However after initially enjoying great success to the end of the 60’s, she subsequently lost direction in an alarming fashion.

Clearly personal factors had a great deal to do with this, for underneath her confident stage persona lay a frightfully insecure individual whose problems and gender identity issues had only been compounded through her initial success.

So she was not able to sustain the discipline necessary to sustain a successful career and it has to be said that during her “lost years” her musical output was less than memorable.

She had become largely forgotten when the Pet Shop Boys were to briefly revive her fortunes with a cameo performance in one of their big international hits “What Have I Done to Deserve This”.

Thus, there was an irony here. Having left a group to enjoy individual success, she was to find it again through again joining a group.

Due to her great admiration for the black R & B artists Dusty played a big role in helping to popularise this soul music in Britain.

However I would be of the opinion that to an extent she over-identified and in a sense spent too much time trying to copy these artists rather than emphasising her own inimitable talents.

Some of her hits therefore seem somewhat derivative. For example I was listening again yesterday to “Stay Awhile” which was her second solo release and thought that it sounded remarkably like the Ronettes.

However the Ronettes had the advantage of the superb production skills of Phil Spector. So Dusty was hardly like to beat them at their own game.

Therefore though Dusty was very competent at performing the newly emerging R & B music from the States, for me she would have been better off as I have said concentrating on market niches (based on her unique gifts as a singer).

I think she was probably at her best with Bacharach and David material.

Though she did cover several of their songs, in a way I am surprised that she did not have an even closer collaboration with them e.g. recording an album with material especially written for her in mind.  

However it may well be that the personality difficulties that seemed to grow with her fame, acted as a major barrier to such a development.

Best Recording:

Though not one of her biggest hits I would say “The Look of Love”. This is a Bacharach and David song and no other singer could possibly match Dusty’s restrained but oh so sultry version of this song.

If you want to know how good she really was just listen to this recording!
See also Dusty performing with Burt "A House is not a Home" Why on earth did Dusty not record this song which suited her so perfectly?

Favourite  Recording:

I must say that I love “All I See is You”. Though Dusty never participated in the Eurovision Song Context, this always seemed to me like the archetypal Eurovision ballad which would have simply brought the house down if she had sung it in the competition.

So “douze points” everyone for Dusty!  

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don McLean

It has been recounted many times how the song "Killing Me Softly With His Song" arose from the attendance of the young folk singer Lori Lieberman at a Don McLean concert in the early 70’s. The song in this case that “killed her softly” was “Empty Chairs”.

I remember experiencing a similar moment when attending my first Don McLean concert in the National Stadium (a boxing arena) in Dublin in the late 70’s.
However on this occasion it was the song “Tapestry” that had the effect. Though included on his first album, I had not yet the heard this song and was completely knocked out by both the beauty of the composition and the quality of the lyrics.

Indeed 35 years later I would be very much of the same opinion and would consider it quite simply as the best environmental song I have heard.

Indeed when one listens to this superbly crafted composition, one realises that it is so much more than a “pop” song with its relevance for our world even greater today than when it was first recorded.
And what poet has ever described the holistic nature of creation in more majestic terms?

Every dawn that breaks golden is held in suspension
like the yolk of the egg in albumen.
Where the birth and the death of unseen generations
are interdependent in vast orchestration
and painted in colors of tapestry thread
When the dying are born and the living are dead.”

And yet it is the manner in which such beautiful word pictures of creation are counterbalanced by stark warnings of the impending threat to our planet due to gross mismanagement of economic resources that makes it all so effective such as in the last verse:

“ Every fish that swims silent, every bird that flies freely,
every doe that steps softly.
Every crisp leaf that falls, all the flowers that grow
on this colourful tapestry, somehow they know
That if man is allowed to destroy all we need
He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.

As I say, I am still lost in admiration when I consider how superb this song truly is on so many different levels.

And perhaps the biggest asset of all on this - as on every one of his songs - is his crystal clear voice enabling one to effortlessly hear every word.

Don McLean would count along with Roy Orbison as my two all-time favourite male singers. In this context it was nice to know that they became mutual friends, with Roy referring to Don as “the voice of the century”. And certainly with respect to the clarity of diction on his recordings, I would go along with this!

I subsequently tracked down Don’s first album “Tapestry” after this concert which contains several other superb songs such as “And I Love You So”, "Castles in the Air" and “Three Flights Up”.

However it is his second album “American Pie” that I consider undoubtedly his best and - for me - simply the best album ever recorded.

I have been listening to the songs on this album for over 40 years and like them now as much - if not more - than when they first appeared. At least 6 – or perhaps 7 – of the 10 tracks I would consider as pop masterpieces.

As is well known the album was recorded as a tribute to Buddy Holly, to whom the title song - a marvellous sprawling epic - is dedicated.

I remember too the day of Buddy Holly’s death in a plane crash, feeling a great sadness for the untimely loss of such a talented performer. Though not as big a fan of Holly as Don McLean, I still find it easy to identify with the feelings evoked by “American Pie”. Don uses the episode of Holly’s death as the background for capturing the atmosphere of growing up in the US in the late 50's and early 60’s. He explains in a wonderful impressionistic manner, how it decisively shaped the meaning, or perhaps more accurately loss of meaning - echoed through a wider loss of cultural meaning - in so many areas of his life.

In an important sense I would see the very desire to write such an unprecedentedly brilliant tribute song (over 8 minutes long) as Don’s way of attempting to properly acknowledge and perhaps ameliorate the effects of what - for him - was clearly a key life changing event.

And in this regard he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams as “American Pie” is now widely accepted as one of the great rock anthems of the last century.

In the company of truly great songs the second track “Till Tomorrow” while fully acceptable in its own right, does not match the greatness of other tracks.

The third track offers a complete contrast  to "American Pie" in the also highly acclaimed song “Vincent”.

Listening carefully to it, I can pick up the melodic influence of “Tapestry” which thereby in this sense serves as its precursor.

Van Gogh of course is now recognised as the great impressionist painter. However for me the unique conception of “Vincent” with its “impressionist” poetic lyrics, paints an unsurpassed musical picture, which in its own genre equally qualifies as great art.
I would however consider the fourth track “Crossroads” as my favourite track of all on the album.

I would describe this song - again superbly written and performed - as one of personal transformation that again for me works on many different levels.

It is a deeply reflective “dark night of the soul” type of experience (aided by the use of the sombre sounding piano).

Having embarked then on an arduous spiritual journey, I remember the early 70’s as constituting the most trying time in my life. My former ego identity slowly unravelled over several years without anything seeming to replace it. So I was left feeling lost and entirely alone.

It was only afterwards with some newly attained perspective, that I began to realise that more accurately this time represented the erosion of an excessively developed male identity (with all its false confidence and intellectual pretensions) together with the yearning for a God with a - still unfamiliar - feminine face.

This song “Crossroads” then beautifully came to describe that spiritual transition with the lyrics of the 3rd verse especially meaningful.

“Can you remember who I was?
Can you still feel it?
Can you find my pain?
Can you heal it?

Then lay your hands upon me now
And cast this darkness from my soul.
You alone can light my way.
You alone can make me whole
Once again.”

The next song “Winterwood” is a delightful “song of nature and love” with a simple purity to the lyrics that is utterly charming.

“The birds like leaves on Winterwood,
Sing hopeful songs on dismal days.
They've learned to live life as they should.
They are at peace with natures ways.

You are as natural as the night,
And all that springs from you is good.
And the children born beneath your light,
Are like the birds on Winterwood.”

“Empty Chairs” - which we have already mentioned - is another undoubted classic, portraying again in a superb poetic manner the anguish of lost love.

“Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can't forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know

That I never understood
That although you said you'd go
Until you did, I never thought you would”

I find an interesting contrast here with Glen Cambell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” where reflection is on the opposite case of the woman who did not understood that she could be left by her man!

The next track ”Everybody Loves Me Baby” is just a throwaway song - enjoyable in its own right  -  but hardly likely to figure on any greatest hits compilation. (Also it unashamedly borrows from the tune of “American Pie”)!

Then we have “Sister Fatima” which though a relatively short song (2.30) again manages to capture a special atmosphere, while superbly conveying an evocative story of spiritual healing (with meaning that is multi-layered).

I believe in one of the re-releases of “American Pie” the record company decided to exclude this track which must amount to one of the most stupid decisions ever taken!

This is followed by “The Grave” which is the most chillingly convincing anti-war song that I have ever heard. Don did later record another anti-war song “1967” which though an interesting song does not carry quite the same impact.

The final song "Babylon” is again quite short (less than 2 minutes) and the only non-original composition on the album. Though a concert favourite, I would not rate it as high as many of his own tracks on the album.

Of course great fame followed the success of “American Pie” which was a mixed blessing.  Having produced an unprecedented classic album, the pressure was on to keep up this standard and clearly he has never enjoyed conforming to conventional expectations..

Thus when his next release “Don McLean” did not reach such dizzy heights, the critics had a field day.

Indeed though by any other standard this is a very good album with memorable tracks like “Birthday Song”, “Dreidel”, “Winter Has Me in Its Grip” and “If WeTry” it inevitably falls short when compared with the previous album. It also seems obvious that McLean is subconsciously rebelling in any case against the demands of his new-found fame.

And if you listen closely he even sounds somewhat disillusioned and under the weather e.g. on “If We Try”.

Though he released many more albums in the 70’s pop success quickly faded. Ironically when he did briefly enjoy chart success again in 1980, it was with Roy Orbison’s “Crying” rather than one of his own compositions.  

He has however always been an excellent stage performer. So there is still a big demand among his faithful fans to see him and he still tours regularly.

He is still very popular here in Ireland where he is remembered also for a truly superb recording of a traditional Irish favourite “The Mountains of Mourne”.

However there is a certain problem with all this touring! As time goes on, fans in the main become ever more nostalgic for the older material which played such a big part in their lives at the time of its success. Therefore whatever his intentions, he has become more and more defined and indeed even trapped by this old material. Though the fans may indeed tolerate hearing a track or two from the “latest” album, they are really in attendance to hear their old favourites. So in the end this seems to have acted to stunt his creativity with little demand for his latest recordings.    

However, there was a brief time when Don Mc Lean’s star was the brightest in all the heavens. For this we can still be truly grateful!