Friday, January 21, 2011

What Can He Do?: Joe Brown: "A Picture of You"

One of the many reasons I am writing this here blog - in case any of you were perhaps wondering - is to educate myself in the history of UK rock and pop, in some cases to find out that music does indeed run in families. (This makes me think that there must be a gene that gives music a boost, at the very least.) Back when I started to really buy music all the time (c. 1988), an album called Stop! came out by one Sam Brown; I bought it, just like I bought a lot of music that year in an attempt to understand and comprehend the world better after my father's death. Her acute pain was mine, just as the anger and energy of other albums gratified and encouraged me. Not that Stop! is all pain, but the title single is played to this day on 'easy-listening' radio stations, despite being anything but an 'easy-listening' song. I knew her father made music, but never had heard of him, until now...

...and again I can't help but think of how close families are in expressing themselves; how Joe's singing must have influenced Sam's, as well as (at least evidenced by this song) a kind of romantic helplessness. Once again there's just a nameless woman, seen and seen but never known, "all of the evening and most of the day" (such precision is a foreshadowing of the Bee Gees) and he is preoccupied by his heart and a photograph he took of her, after which she simply disappears. (The song this most reminds me of is "Photograph" by Def Leppard, oddly enough.) I am beginning to think that boys in 1962 simply & merely looked at at girls and dreamt about them, maybe approached them and maybe...didn't, as the picture began to take over the reality of the situation. He seems sanguine enough about it in the song, helpless like I said, but not upset or angry - how can he be? At least he has the picture, unlike, oh, in this song. (Again, I think of Roland Barthes and the image being more important than the actuality; maybe this picture Brown has of this woman is punctum enough for him.)

In any case, I want to honor both Browns here for making music that is powerful enough to be successful and just odd enough to make that success more than merely 'being in the chart'.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Last Breaths: Cliff Richard and the Shadows: "Do You Want To Dance/I'm Looking Out The Window"

This presents two rather different versions of the Cliff Richard Experience; an experience which is rooted in the 50s (those lock-steps that he does with the Shadows) and yet the same song, as done by the Beach Boys just a few later (I cannot help but mention my fellow Californians, particularly since Dennis is singing lead here) is a song that verily defies you not to dance; the Cliff Richard/Shadows version sounds as if maybe you'd want to do a brisk minuet or perhaps the stroll, at best. I know it is unfair to jump into the future here, but the future in 1962 was very close to appearing; in a way this seems like the last breath, the last relic before something is about to happen - something that Cliff and the Shadows will bravely live through and endure in their own ways. But in the meantime, here they are doing their dance and being the polite and lovable rockers that they are.

And now we have Cliff's future, and thus a way out - a gentle mourning hum, softly hoping and waiting, the Shadows like a beneficent sun on Cliff's focused pain. He sits in his suit (a suit he claims to wear every day, just in case - not visible here, just audible here, alas) and sings the words as if they were almost too awful to sing. How can he be second best? How can he have fallen for someone who treats him like this? The main problem here is that Richard is just, lest we forget, 21 and cannot really be suffering as much as he claims here; but again the poignancy of this is that he can see into his future, wherein he is always there, ready and well-dressed and waiting, but no one calls; at the time this may have been just a song, but songs have a way of becoming uneasy reality after a while. The girls presumably loved this one and rightly found Richard too beautiful to suffer; Cliff and the Shadows' dancing had everyone happily tapping their toes. However it is late June 1962, and while heavy smog descends once again on London, Algerians are about to gain their independence and the Port Huron statement is written, printed and distributed across the U.S.; the polite world that Cliff Richard and the Shadows represent is coming to a close, with rougher and wilder voices just edging in from the wilderness.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Raw Not Cooked: Del Shannon: "Hey! Little Girl"

By 1962, Roland Barthes was probably already working on the idea of the grain of the voice; the punctum of the voice, if you will. Some songs work because the lyrics are so good; others work because the voice that sings is so, well, grainy that there is no way to ignore it. Del Shannon's voice is one that sounds almost perpetually on the edge of being too rough and out-of-key for proper singing; unlike the operatic Orbison, he jumps over the idea of a 'normal' or 'average' voice that could be expected from a pop single. It's not a non-voice as such, or an anti-voice, but there is a certain punctum here that takes a song as nominally average as this one and makes it into a virtual short story. He is walking the street; he sees her crying; he remembers wanting her and not being able to talk to her, even to learn her name. His open and honest growls and cries makes his desperation more than credible (and makes him the godfather to emo, along the way) and his addressing this girl is far more intense and anguished than the easy-going Bruce Channel - suddenly with this song the story* here deepens, the plaintive tone that probably started in the chansons of yore has come back with a vengeance.

Otis Blackwell (the song's writer) must have been happy that this was a much bigger single here than in the US; and it almost goes without saying that a certain group still to be accepted by a record label must have listened to him with keen interest, their own directness coming in part from Shannon's brave example.

*The story of the 60s in this case; a decade that is about to change in ways that were unthinkable to most, including a lot of musicians who were unaware that something big was about to happen. Shannon wasn't one of them.