Sunday, 30 October 2011



1999 Westlife: I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun

I wonder what sort of Christmas they have over at the Westlife place? Is it all day party of food, drink, fun and good times, or do they sit around the table, crackers unpulled and turkey uneaten, stressing about all those worse off and remembering all the low points of the year just gone? Evidence tends toward the latter - there's never much of the easy going about Westlife's singles to date and this Christmas number one double A side isn't bucking any trends on that front.

Originally a number 2 hit for Abba in 1979 , 'I Have A Dream' was never a 'Christmas song' per se, but its sleighride jaunt and lyrics about angels meant there was no need to quibble over small change; it was festive enough. Unfortunately, the light and breezy melody that made it so sounds rather less so after Westlife transfuse a ton of their readymix into its veins. True to form, their heavy handedness creates a Frankenstein's monster of a song that kills, crushes and destroys the fragile delight of the Abba original by replacing its slippers with hobnail boots which it proceeds to stomp around in. By the time the choir of kids appears at the climax, the whole thing has stumbled off the edge of a cliff into the rollers below where, being as indestructible as nuclear waste, it keeps on singing until the tide carries it out of earshot.

'Seasons In The Sun' could never be classed as a 'Christmas song' no matter which way you cut it, and coupling Abba's song of hope with Brel and McKuen's deathbed reminisces makes for an odd pairing at any time of the year, let alone Christmas.* At least now the "Goodbye my friend it's hard to die" gave the boys something suitably grim to sink their serious teeth into, and they do with aplomb, but 'Seasons In The Sun' is a song written for one voice and by breaking it up so that each of the quintet gets a turn then it defuses the 'message' of the lyric until it becomes a Chinese whisper, shorn of its emotional charge by a confidence totally absent from the quivering longing of Terry Jacks' original which made it such a delight/horror (take your pick on that one). But whatever, even Scrooge would think twice about giving this a spin on Christmas morning.

* In order to provide some linking narrative, both tracks are shot through with a good blast of a penny whistle. No doubt it was meant to remind us where these boys hail from, but it's sheen is as authentically Irish as an O'Neils bar in Cardiff.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

1999 Cliff Richard: The Millennium Prayer

I've recently bought 'This May Be My Last Time Singing', a compilation of African-American independent gospel singles, released privately between 1957-1982 and performed by non professionals. This won't come as too much of a surprise for regular readers who will be aware of my long standing passion for gospel music, and I'm happy to report that it's marvellous. All of it. A stand out track for me though is 'On The Right Road Now', recorded by the Crump Brothers in 1968 and sees vocalist M Crump (no other name is given) hollering out how he looks forward to the day when every day will be Sunday.

This stands out on two counts; firstly, by virtue of the sheer joy and evangelical desire to spread the good news that fires the man's voice in a way that even manages to inspire a lifelong atheist like me, and secondly by the fact that Mr Crump is able to get me to derive pleasure from a proposal that, in some ways, is one of my worst nightmares. Maybe a song advocating swallowing live spiders would give me more of the creeps, but not that many - you see I simply can't imagine anything much worse than a world where every day is Sunday. Dear me no.

I think a lot of this stems from my childhood where every Sunday afternoon, the local church down the road would ring its single bell at 5pm for fifteen minutes. Ostensibly to call the faithful to prayer, all I heard was the tolling of the end of the weekend and each ring fired a hollow point bullet into the joy that once was Saturday. BONG! Time to come in from playing with my mates. BONG! Time for a bath. BONG! Time for Last Of The Summer Wine on TV. BONG! Time for bed ready for school next day. Brrrrrrrr - that bell sucked lifelessness of the day the way a naked flame burns oxygen and the feeling of inevitable helplessness has never left me, meaning every Sunday since comes with its own black and white tinted minor miseries.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it's mainly because I want to be upfront about my inbuilt prejudices and to show, on one hand, what a fine job those Crump Brothers were doing within the medium to get me to overcome them and to listen to what they're saying - I don't believe in Fascism either, but I can't imagine any act could dress up a song with a message of white supremacy in a way that would let me give it the time of day. On the other hand though, it also demonstrates what a poor job they were doing after all; for all Mr Crump's enthusiasm, he moves me not one step closer to his God. Yet at the same time, and somewhere in the middle of both of these reactions, it can't be said either that his message is falling on deaf ears; I can draw sufficient secular inspiration from his own zeal the same way I can draw it from all the best gospel. It's why I listen to it after all. And further, it neatly illustrates why I don't listen to Cliff and his Millennium Prayer.

Basically is a marriage of the 'lyrics' of The Lord's Prayer to an overcooked rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne' as musical backing ('Living Doll' it ain't), Richard's voice solemnly quivers like a plucked string with the enormity of the lyric he's been called on to deliver. This is no time for any light-hearted banter about mistletoe and wine, this is serious, end of the Millennium territory, and yet rather than recite the message as blank verse, Cliff falls between the stools of song and sermon and goes for the pop bait by trying to force the lines into a tune and rhyme of sorts as they crawl over a rousing drum tattoo to march the Christian soldiers onward into the coming Millennium.

Sincerity isn't the problem here; Cliff is no less sincere than the Crump Brothers were; he's just a whole lot less enjoyable. You see, outside of the already converted, his sincerity is neither infectious nor contagious. It's not inspiring either - Richard wasn't the first to record a version of the Lord's Prayer,* but he surely serves up the worst with his dullard thud of showbiz schmaltz dressed up as populist religiosity covering fascistic evangelism as Cliff in his own way wishes every day of the new Millennium could be Sunday too, whether the rest of us want it or not - this is THE Millennium prayer don't forget.

But in trying to do God's work on earth, he's succeeded only in raising hell in a truly awful concoction that really does not make me wish that everyday was like Sunday** and its success must surely have fed on new Millennium fears and some subliminal desire to appease the gods into not delivering earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world via the vague notion of a Millennium Bug waiting in the wings to wreck havoc as soon as the clock chimed midnight on New Year's Eve. That's how I rationalise it anyway. But maybe it's simply a logical and fitting (almost) end to a year that, in terms of number ones, has been pretty bloody poor. Cliff's Christmas songs would get a hell of a lot lighter after this, but there would be no more number ones. I'd like to think even God knew when enough was enough.

* For a whistle stop tour, check out the Nina Hagen and Siouxise and the Banshees versions for punky irreverence that aim for controversy but are no less dull in their own way. Mario Lanzo managed to wring some melody from the lines without the need for a sing song tune, but for a showstopping version that has all the inspirational passion of of any gospel song, then check out Mahalia Jackson's paint stripping take at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Cliff was clearly taking no notes.

** Then again, Wizzard never made me wish it was Christmas every day either.

1999 Wamdue Project: King Of My Castle

Wamdue Project was an alias of American producer Chris Brann and 'King Of My Castle' is a house remix of an ambient dance track originally released in 1997. This remix tightens it up to a defined percussive thump and walking bassline to secure its house credentials but all I ever hear is Daft Punk in callipers, an 'Around The World' with a once flexible vertebrae fixed with titanium pins that make it all a lot less fun than it could have been. This was a popular enough track to warrant a re-release and remix in 2009, but whatever caught the clubber's ear back then simply isn't catching mine now.

Friday, 28 October 2011

1999 Robbie Williams: She's The One/It's Only Us

A double A side, 'She's The One' was originally written and recorded by World Party in 1997. On this, Williams takes the unusual step of not only borrowing writer Karl Wallinger's song and arrangement, but of also copying his own style of vocal. But whereas Wallinger's husky strain comes naturally, Williams' attempt at heartfelt means his trademark cheeky persona and charm is banished to the dug out for the duration to leave him sounding like Neil Young on bad news day. And while none of this detracts from the quality of the song underneath, this 'She's The One' is more forgery than bona fide cover and nobody here are earning their biscuits. Flip side 'It's Only Us' is livelier, but its in your face quick thrill rush of The Cars meet Green Day soon wears thin when the quick thrill rush wears off after it's parted from its original FIFA 2000 video game soundtrack setting. Everso quickly in fact.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

1999 Geri Halliwell: Lift Me Up

The second number one from Halliwell is a less fussy, lighter ballad affair than the last, but the same problems remain - in delivering her flim flam of a song, Halliwell's thin altitude vocal emotes no further than the roof of her mouth, presumably due to all the unmelted butter clogging up her maw that serves to coats it with a sickly schoolgirl, trying a bit too hard to be liked sweetness. Call me a snob, but I don't really regard 'Lift Me Up' as a 'proper' single; it's simply a vehicle for product placement, with that product being Halliwell herself. Not being anything I can imagine deriving any pleasure from listening to, it serves the same function as a poster hording advertising washing powder (this even comes with a free poster dammit) - it remains in place for the duration of a campaign only to be scraped off and replaced with something else when it's over. And as far as that goes, in sitting proudly at number one for a week, 'Lift Me Up' has succeeded admirably. But in its success in inflating Ms Halliwell's ego it's also devalued the currency of the medium to Weimar-like hyperinflation proportions where you needed a wheelbarrow full of marks just to buy that washing powder. Unfortunately, a wheelbarrow full of Geri Halliwell singles is always going to add up to nothing. I'm not having a good year am I?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

1999 Five: Keep On Movin'

It was tempting at this point to pause and ponder my recurring 'are the charts getting worse' shtick to see if I'm any closer to an answer. But do you know what? I've decided I'm not going to. It seems to me that if I'm going to raise this issue every some assembled by audition pop band comes my way then both I myself and you the reader (if I still have any) would be in for a torrid time over the coming years with my cod philosophising. No, I'm just going to focus on the song itself and as far as that goes I can report that 'Keep On Movin' is flat pack furniture of a song; each piece fits logically in its right place to create a whole whose functionality is there for all to see. But like cheap, flatpack furniture it's also homogenous, uninspiring and unmemorable with no hint of charm, personality, character or lastability - there's nothing here to hate beyond railing at the corporate machine behind it (which I've said I'm not going to do) and nothing to like beyond getting in a lather over the five pretty boys shaking their legs in front of it (which doesn't appeal to me on any level). And even there, each of these Five boys manage to recite their lines with the passionless inflect of infants performing at the school nativity, a drab intonation that breathes the kiss of death into a song that, despite its title, never manages to get movin' anywhere. How ironic.