Selections of some of their recordings here
Sunday, 8 January 2012
A reflection on some of the singers I have enjoyed
Well I did say I would write a companion piece to my piece on classical singers, so here it is. Choices are again personal, and some of them may not be amongst the greatest singers of all time. I’d be the first to admit I know far less about what is collectively called pop music, than I do about opera, so no doubt some of my choices may seem eccentric. I can already hear the cries of disbelief. What! No Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday! No Tony Bennett or Nat King Cole! No Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone, no Marvin Gaye, you can’t be serious! All I can say is that I am not. I love the work of all the aforementioned singers, but the ones in my list are ones that have meant something special to me at various times of my life, and, for that reason, I make no apology. Together they have provided some of the musical signposts of my life,
Passing over such early loves as Doris Day (as a child, I loved her recording of Che sera sera, recently re-invented by the fabulous Pink Martini), and Nina and Frederick (Little Donkey my favourite Christmas song), the first singer who really spoke to me was Dusty Springfield (how could my parents not have known I would turn out gay?). Her solo career roughly coincided with my teens and her first solo album, A Girl Called Dusty , was the first LP (vinyl back then of course) that I owned. Dusty’s smoky voice filled with pathos such songs as My Colouring Book and the classic You Don’t Own Me, and belted out such blues classics as Don’t You Know? I bought each one of Dusty’s subsequent albums, right up to Dusty in Memphis, which didn’t sell well on its initial release, but subsequently acquired the status of one of the classic albums of all time, housing, as it does, Dusty’s definitive readings of such songs as Son of a Preacher Man and The Windmills of your Mind. Though an enormous critical success Dusty in Memphis was not a commercial success at its first release, and Dusty’s subsequent albums did no better and she seemed to disappear for several years, until she guested on the Pet Shop Boys’ What Have I Done To Deserve This? in 1989. This and the use of the song Son of a Preacher Man, in Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction helped revive her career and she had another brief spell of success until breast cancer tragically took her life in 1999.
This was also the time of The Beatles, and nobody of my generation could possibly have escaped their influence. I remember having a crush on Paul McCartney (well he was extremely cute back then), though I didn’t really understand that’s what it was . Just to hear Paul sing and shake his mop top to songs like All My Loving and I Want to Hold Your Hand was enough to get me screaming like a girl. Please forgive me. I was only 11 or 12 at the time. Still you’d think my parents might have had a clue. That and the fact that my main loves were music and dancing, and I had no interest in sport whatsoever, apart from horse riding. The Beatles, of course developed, though, for some reason I stopped following them for a while. I never owned the seminal White Album, but Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was unignorable, and remains to this day one of my all time favourite albums. I love every track, and would find it impossible to pick out a favourite; possibly Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, or that gorgeous mini symphony She’s Leaving Home or the sublime fusion of Lennon and McCartney that is A Day in the Life, apparently an amalgamation of two songs that John and Paul were working on independently.
Reluctantly I pass over The Shangri-Las, whose outpourings of teen angst, struck a chord in my teenage soul, ( Leader of the Pack, with its signature screeching bike tyres, once banned by the BBC, has since become a classic of the gramophone, a paean for every teenager who was ever in love ) and move on to a French singer, whose music I still enjoy to this day. With her long, straight hair, fringe half covering her eyes, tall and lanky, a square cut jaw, high cheek bones and thick lips, Françoise Hardy looked like a female Mick Jagger, and was the very epitome of the sixties chick. She had a small, husky voice of limited range, but it was extremely expressive, in a French non- committal way, and has hardly changed in all the years she has been singing. In her most recent album, released in 2010, she hardly sounds any different from the young girl who first sang Tous le garcons et les filles way back in 1964. Incidentally her diction was, and still is, superb. I remember a French teacher, agreeing to a lesson in which we all listened to Françoise Hardy songs, translating the lyrics into English as we went along. The piano riff that opened the glorious Voila was even sampled in Robbie Williams’ recent You Know Me. Françoise, je t’adore.
Then there is Cher. She may not have the greatest voice in the world, nor would she claim to have, but you have to admire a woman who has managed a number one hit in every decade from 1960 to the last one. Her career has had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, and her private life was almost as rocky. When her daughter Chastity came out to her as a lesbian, Cher was surprisingly (she admits this herself) less supportive than one might have expected. However, having finally come to terms with the fact, she seems to have accepted with total equanimity Chastity’s transformation into the male Chaz Bono, regularly tweeting support for her son in her twitter feed. Cher is a legend, and as a singer her voice has come a long way from the days of Sonny and Cher, which is when I first became a fan. The woman has been with me from adolescence till today and I would find it impossible to leave her out; and I actually think she is a better singer than she gives herself credit for. Just listen to the joy with which she sings the words “Man I am tonight”, when the preacher asks her if she is a “Christian chile” in her version of Walking in Memphis. I had a particular fondness for an album called Stars, after the Janis Ian song of that name, but it doesn’t ever seem to have been reissued. Cher may not be one of the greatest singers of all time, but she has definitely earned her place in the pantheon of great stars.
As lead singer of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker wrapped his gorgeous, velvety voice round such hits as Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, but some of his own material had shown a darker side to him. As a teenager, I responded to their downbeat, esoteric lyrics, which were to be more fully explored when he left the group and embarked on a solo career. His first solo album, simply called Scott, definitely tried to cash in on Walker’s big ballad appeal, with songs like The Big Hurt and When Joanna loved me, but also contained a fair amount of Jacques Brel and Scott’s own compositions. The next album followed along the same lines, but Scott 3 was made up only of songs by Walker himself and by Jacques Brel. Scott 4, arguably the best and most homogeneous of his early albums, was the first of his albums not to make the top 10. It was also my favourite. Particularly ambitious is the first track, a glorious musical evocation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its Morricone style arrangement, and the dark foreboding of The Old Man’s Back Again. I also treasure his Jacques Brel covers, particularly a haunting beautiful If You Go Away, though Walker also has a way with the wickedly malevolent Funeral Tango and the sarcasm and pain enshrined in Next. In later albums, he became more and more experimental, the music and arrangements ever more spare, and I found it harder to get on with him, but I still listen to his first solo albums regularly.
And so to Barbra Streisand. When did it become fashionable to knock Barbra? I suppose round about the time she achieved superstar status. Before that she was this kooky American Jewish comedienne with an amazing voice, and she was very much in vogue, especially amongst gay men, who responded to her the way previous generations had adored Judy Garland, and future generations would revere Madonna and Lady Gaga. Maybe it was the bitterness she injected into a standard like Cry Me A River or Free Again. I was slow to jump on the Streisand bandwagon, I’ll admit. In fact I was determined not to like her. So when the film of Funny Girl was released, I reluctantly went along to see it. By the time she’d sung I’m The Greatest Star near the beginning of the movie, I was agreeing with her. She truly was the greatest star, the talent just bursting through the screen. Later on, I suppose, some of the mannerisms began to grate, but that first exposure to Streisand at full tilt was a knock out. I’ve heard all the stuff about it actually being a small voice and only really suitable for recordings, but even if that is the case, it’s an amazing instrument. I’ve heard many classical singers praise her impeccable legato, breath control and intonation (she’s always bang in the centre of the note). She has sung a wide range of music and I suppose I would have to agree that the song does tend to come second to Streisand. We are often too aware of the singer and not of the song. That said, she did manage to sublimate her ego to an extent in the Richard Perry Stony End album, when she fully embraced the music of her own generation for the first time. She is also an intelligent singer, as Stephen Sondheim discovered, when he worked with her for the first time on The Broadway Album. She was the first singer to notice that the last verse of Send in the Clowns didn’t properly follow from what went before. When she asked him about it, he told her that, in the musical, there was a scene between that explained it. She asked him to write a bridge to make it work better as a song out of context, and he did. I have most of her albums, and though I am more critical now than I once was of the Streisand mannerisms, I refuse to bow to fashion. She was, and is, unique.
I first heard the voice of Karen Carpenter on the Carpenters’ single Rainy Days and Mondays, a voice of such richness and beauty, so easily and evenly produced, that it simply drew you in. The dark colour of her voice was particularly suited to melancholy ballads, and reached its apogee in the wonderful Yesterday Once More, which can still evoke memories of sitting alone in my room listening to Radio Luxembourg, or the pirate radio station Caroline, the only stations that played non-stop pop music in those days. Streisand praised her “marvellous instrument” and k d lang went one step further, comparing her to Nat King Cole “and uh....there's very few singers that are that rich actually...." She died tragically young, a victim of anorexia nervosa, but her legacy lives on.
Now, there can hardly have been a time when I wasn’t aware of Frank Sinatra, as my parents both loved him, but I only really started to listen when I heard his 1969 album of Rod McKuen material, called A Man Alone. Although the album was recorded in 1969, I was only really aware of it in the late 70s after a break up with my then girlfriend (yes I was still trying to be straight). It’s melancholy mood certainly chimed in with my own at that time, and I remember sitting alone in the dark, wallowing in my misery with the voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Sinatra had a way with a lyric, a way of making you feel that the thought came newly minted from his lips. I particularly enjoyed the Nelson Riddle years, and my favourite albums still seem to be the more melancholic ones – In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, allegedly recorded as a response to his break up with Ava Gardner , and the equally downbeat Only the Lonely. Sinatra may have been great at the up tempo classics like I’ve Got You Under My Skin, but it was the sad resignation with which he sang such songs as I Get Along Without You Very Well that always touched me most.
Moving forward in time a little, I confess I’d taken very little notice of George Michael until seeing him sing Somebody To Love (on tv) at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness in 1992. He was one of the few singers to really do justice to a Freddie Mercury song, and his was undeniably the star turn of the concert. Just over 18 months later, I got the chance to hear him live on Wednesday December 1st 1993, at an AIDS benefit in the presence of HRH Princess Diana at Wembley Arena. David Bowie presented and the other artists were Mick Hucknall and k. d. lang (more of whom below). George live was even more impressive than George on tv or on record; I was totally bowled over. Subsequently I rushed out and bought the album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol 1 (too bad that, because of his battle with Virgin, we never got Vol 2), and it fast became one of my most played albums. Older I liked even better, I think, though it would be a tough call. In 1999, he released an album of covers, Songs From The Last Century, that was, and remains, the least commercially successful of all his albums; but I love it, if only because it is only in the songs of other composers that an artist reveals his true credentials as a singer. Ranging from jazz standards like My Baby Just Cares For Me, to the Police’s Roxanne, George shows a masterful appreciation of different styles. My personal favourite is his version of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, sung with a quiet rapture, so full of wonder and awe. His personal life has not been without troubles, and his health has recently been cause for concern. It is good to hear that he is well on the way to recovery, and I hope that it won’t be too long before he can resume his performing activities.
The other singer to knock me out at that AIDS benefit in 1993 was k. d. lang, whom I’d hardly even heard of before that time. The majority of the material she sang was off her album Ingenue, which I didn’t know, though I bought it straight after the concert. At the end of her set, she brought the house down with her rendering of the Roy Orbison classic Crying, which of course she had already recorded with Orbison himself. Lang is another singer who has proved herself equally in her own material and the music of other composers. She sings a heartrending version of the Cole Porter classic So In Love, on the AIDS charity album Red Hot And Blue, and her version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is arguably the greatest of all the many covers of that song. I don’t think Alexandra Burke had the least idea what it was about. There is a youtube clip of lang singing the song at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction of Leonard Cohen in 2006. It is the most touching tribute that one can performer can give to another, and Cohen, who is in the audience, is visibly moved. Her career hasn’t quite reached the heights it ought to have done, possibly due to her uncompromising attitude to her sexuality, which she has refused to play down. Whatever the reasons, she is a major artist, with an extraordinary voice, and a way with a lyric that draws you into its meaning. You really feel she is telling you a story. Her latest album (k. d. lang And The Siss Boom Bang) returns her to her country roots, and is a joy from beginning to end.
So that’s 10, but I wonder if I might be allowed an indulgence to include one more, a singer who is actually known to me personally. I first heard David McAlmont on David Arnold’s The James Bond Project, singing an absolutely stunning version of Diamonds Are Forever. David had been around for a while already of course, but you have to remember that pop music was only really at the peripheries of my listening. I spent most of my time listening to classical music and opera. David’s voice made itself known to me again on the Craig Armstrong album As If, singing the haunting Snow. I did a little more investigation and found he had had quite a career. David and I became twitter friends, occasionally commenting on each other’s posts, and I was surprised and delighted when he invited me to the launch of his last album The Glare, a collaboration with Michael Nyman, which was also the first time we actually met. I bought the CD then and there, and transferred it to my ipod, so I could get to know it. I actually had to stop playing it in the gym, because I’d find myself sitting listening to the music instead of working out. It is a great achievement and thoroughly deserves the accolades that have been heaped on it. Ever moving on, David has now formed the duo Fingersnap with Guy Davies. They have released their first EP, Rise (my favourite track is predictably The Bishop of New Hampshire) and are about to go out on tour. I urge you to hear them.
One more indulgence. My niece, Abi is a superb singer/songwriter. Still at college, studying for her BMus, she has two London gigs coming up Symptomatic present abi at the The Workshop and Monto presnt Abi at The Shoreditch. She is going to be a huge star. Go along and hear her now so you can say “I was there when…”
Selections of some of their recordings here