Slowly but surely, this year’s contest is turning into a walkover for the 1960s, who are now four points ahead of their nearest rivals. Looking at today’s selection, I think they have every reason to continue feeling confident. Jeez, I’ve started anthropomorphising whole decades now. Nurse – the screens! Bring on the Number Threes!
1964: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
1974: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
1984: Street Dance – Break Machine.
1994: The Sign – Ace Of Base.
2004: Baby I Love U – Jennifer Lopez featuring R.Kelly.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.
Time for the customary pretentious-music-journo waffle, then. I’ve been searching high and low for my copy of Semiological Signs & Signifiers In The Work Of Cilla Black, but I think our cleaning lady must have made off with it. In which case, I shall have to wing it. (Note to newer readers: he gets like this when he’s been out on the piss the night before. Just smile and nod.)
Anyone Who Had A Heart: undeniably great song, one of Bacharach & David’s finest, and Dionne Warwick’s impeccable original version is a much-loved classic. So what are we to make of Cilla’s cover version, which reached Number One and prevented Miss Warwick from getting any higher than Number 42? Tatty cash-in cover version? Pale imitation of the real thing? (There’s a whole thesis waiting to written here about ethnicity issues, but let’s save that for another day.) And, c’mon – bleedin’ Cilla “light entertainment” Black? I can hear the cries of “travesty” from here.
But let’s try and be fair. Let’s strip away all the naffness which followed – the Blind Dates, the Surprise Surprises, the Moments of Truth – and remember Cilla as she was in March 1964: the 20 year old former coat check girl from the Cavern in Liverpool, as breezy, optimistic, youthful and fresh as the rapidly emerging new pop culture that surrounded her, enjoying her first major hit and patently loving the whole experience. Let’s credit her – or at least her “people” – with the good taste to spot a hot US import of the day, and to cover it with love and respect for the song’s essence. Where Warwick is all elegant restraint, our Cilla chooses instead to belt the song out like the Mersey girl she is, with a screech on the chorus like an oxyacetalene blow torch. Technically speaking – even, dare I say it, aesthetically speaking – she’s not a great singer, the kindest word possibly being “eccentric”. But there’s an undeniable passion at the heart of the record, which saves it – by a whisker, mind, but a significant whisker – from being superfluous trash.
You’re My World, however, was bloody awful. Meanwhile, Dionne didn’t need to sulk for long; a month later, she entered the charts with her first UK hit, Walk On By, which went onto reach the Top 10. So everyone went home happy.
Wow, look everyone! The Hollies are back! So soon! Thirty years ago, I loathed The Air That I Breathe, viewing it as a dismal, never-ending dirge. With the wisdom of adulthood, hem hem, I am inclined to view it more favourably. Much more favourably. The song takes its time to work through its various sections (making it a bugger to edit down for the MP3), all of which are heading inexorably in the same direction, towards that epic, soaring chorus. The simplicity of the song’s lyrical theme, as the singer strips his existence down to the bare essentials, is juxtaposed wonderfully well with the full-on, everything-but-the-kitchen sink orchestration in the chorus. Lovely stuff, and – along with He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – one of the only two moments in The Hollies’ long but somewhat second division career that approached greatness.
In the case of Break Machine, the passage of time has produced the reverse effect. Twenty years ago, boom-box electro boy that I was, I fairly lapped up Street Dance – especially as it appeared on one of my favourite labels of the time, Record Shack (home of cult Hi-NRG divas such as Miquel Brown, Earlene Bentley and Evelyn Thomas). Indeed, I remember standing in the Record Shack store in Berwick Street the week before this very chart appeared, flicking through the import racks while the shop and label people discussed where Street Dance was going to end up (and correctly predicting its rise from #5 to #3). A moment later, Miquel “So Many Men, So Little Time” Brown casually strolled in with her shopping, and the whole shop went into a star-struck swoon. No, really, it did. Heady days!
However, the essential fakeness behind Break Machine has meant that Street Dance hasn’t worn at all well. Portrayed as beat-of-the-street b-boys, they were in fact the latest confection from Jacques Morali, former svengali to the Village People. Yes – it’s a little known fact, but Street Dance was written by the same team who brought you YMCA, and Eartha Kitt’s über-camp Where Is My Man. And as James Hamilton waspishly remarked in Record Mirror at the time, the vocals were distinctly more Santa Monica Boulevard than the Bronx. Miaow!
Faced with the prospect of writing anything at all about the irredeemably dreary Ace Of Base, I feel the will to live draining from my body. Did you know that they made the 1994 Guinness Book Of World Records for the biggest selling debut album of all time? It beggars belief, doesn’t it? Instead of trying to invent new ways of saying “pants”, I shall offer you the following little exchange from earlier this evening, when K did his voting.
K: “She’s got some sort of speech impediment, hasn’t she?”
M: “Actually, she’s Swedish.”
Laugh? We nearly drowned out the rest of the track.
At this stage of the game, I find myself desperately wanting to defend contemporary R&B from all you h8erz out there who are slagging it off for being unmelodic. As I see it, the essence of R&B isn’t melodic at all, or even particularly song-based. The emphasis here is on rhythm – on the intricate syncopated interplays between the various elements in the music, both vocal and instrumental. You might just as well slag Cilla Black off for not being funky enough; the criticism would be equally wide of the mark.
Unfortunately, I only have Jennifer Lopez and R. Kelly as today’s evidence for the defence, with this ropey old pile of toss. No doubt stunned by the somewhat freakish success of last year’s staggeringly good Ignition (remix) – my favourite single of last year, and a record which worked so well partly because it sounded so casual and accidental – R. Kelly is doggedly, and all too self-consciously, trying to repeat the formula here. It doesn’t work. At all. In fact, it sucks a big one. Meanwhile, J-lo continues to betray her utter disinterest in music as anything other than a means to an end, with her useless, indifferent, can-we-get-a-move-on-my-driver’s-waiting warbling. The track reaches its absolute nadir during what I suppose we must call the “chorus”, which sounds like the work of, ooh, about 3 seconds’ creative effort. If that. Plus there’s this awful percussive klatsch noise about once every bar, which sounds horribly intrusive on headphones. Pah. A pox on all your houses!
Mv votes: 1 – The Hollies. 2 – Cilla Black. 3 – Break Machine. 4 – Ace Of Base. 5 – Jennifer Lopez featuring Our Shelleh.
Over to you. Except that you’ve already started, haven’t you? (A skeleton version of this post first appeared three hours ago.) Naturally, I’m expecting a Cilla/Hollies two-horse race. But I’ve been wrong before. Come on, surprise me.