The Infinite Jukebox: The Freshmen’s ‘You Never Heard Anything Like It’

I have two tracks in my collection by The Freshmen, which makes two more than every other Irish showband that ever existed. Showbands were a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, deriving from the Big Band era, usually six to seven strong, built upon a guitar/bass/keyboards/drums format overlaid with a small horn section and more often than not employing strong harmony singing. They were expected to play a mixture of music, extending from jazz and swing but encompassing rock’n’roll and country on an increasing basis, and their sets usually mixed standards and copies of current pop hits.
So no, not my natural form of musical attraction.
The Freshmen started out in 1962, under leader and singer Derek Dean, specialising in complex vocal arrangements (according to Rory Gallagher, the band supported The Beach Boys on a tour of Ireland in 1967, covering many of their songs, and doing them far better than the Beach Boys themselves!)
During this period, the band started to introduced original songs, penned by themselves, one of which, an Irish no. 9 hit from 1969, ‘Just to See You Smile’, is half of my collection. It’s a wonderful showcase of the band’s style, a gloriously lush romantic appeal with a sweeping chorus and lovely harmonies, that I found by accident on YouTube during the last decade. Until I looked up the details, I found it hard to accept that this was the same Freshmen who recorded one of the best singles of 1979 – their last, it seemed – which was Single of the Week in the NME and which tinkled me pink from first hearing to last, the latter being just this very minute.
‘Never Heard Anything Like It’, officially titled ‘You Never…’ was, of all things, a punk parody. Coming from a showband that had been around for nearly twenty years, the very words made your heart sink, and it’s true that, musically, there’s a lot more going on in the primally simple tune, and a damn sight more piano than we were used to hearing anywhere outside The Attractions. But it wasn’t condescending in any way, It had its own aggressive rhythm to make the song bound along, and an unbelievably gorgeous chorus that was as deliciously spiky as you could want, and which was a great big belly laugh of unexpected humour.
What it was was cynically expressive. A young man with a bit of a nervous, affected voice, writes to an Agony Aunt (‘Dear Judith’) for some advice. It’s about his family, They used to cherish him, but nowadays they grumble, constantly. And to give us an idea of what he means, the song unexpectedly starts to rock as an abrasive voice yells for him to shut up, you aggravating pup, or are you gonna rot in bed all day? Why don’t you get a job, you lazy, useless slob and start to pay your way?
Now really, this stuff is actually anti-punk, which sprung from the youth having neither jobs nor the prospect of one – No Future, remember? – but this was not stuff we were used to hearing on our singles, and there was the bored comeback of ‘Constant Criticism’: I swear to you I never heard anything like it.
There’s another verse, this time more of ‘Mixed-up’ repeating his family’s yelling at him, and once again cutting it off with ‘Never-ending boredom’ and the title line again, just before we bomb into the guitar bit, half-solo, half-riffing, the piano pounded.
It’s good so far but how far has it gone? Let’s say, enjoyable but. But then it went and went all glorious. Because Judith picks up things with her reply, explaining that there’s not much she can do, as he seems to be somewhat immature. As for his family, they seem a well-adjusted crew, and I can only recommend that you…
And boom! Here comes the chorus again only it’s not just the single voice, it’s a bunch of them, and it’s gloriously blunt. Shut up, you aggravating pup! they demand, insisting on an end to his whining. Once again they exhort him to get a job, though this time it’s mainly so he can shut his gob, and then there’s a line I just can’t quite make out and it’s heads down and chorus after chorus, with more voices piled in and the tempo subliminally increasing, until Judith cuts in with a bored ‘Do me a favour’ and the song rattles to a halt, and oh my my, but what a glorious breath of irreverent fresh air that was and, forty-three years later, still is.
Funny things aren’t supposed to still be funny forty-three years of regular playing later.
Yes, it’s a parody, and technically there’s all kinds of things wrong with it in terms of the original it’s cheerfully ripping up, but it gets the spirit dead on. It’s irreverent, its plain-speaking and it doesn’t care who it offends but most of all it’s got more life in it than its two minutes and forty four seconds can actually hold, and it bursts out and sprays all over you ears and really, how can you resist the appeal of joyfully telling someone who’s a pain the the arse, Shut up you aggravating pup!
If no-one had ever recorded this song, just think how dull our lives would be.


The Infinite Jukebox: Julie Covington’s ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’

I never had much time for Julie Covington, not originally. Looking at her Wikipedia entry, I may have seen her debut, singing on The David Frost Show, and whilst I was strictly too old for such things, I may possibly have seen her more than once on the children’s TV show Play Away, and I definitely heard her, unknowingly, as the lead voice on the Cast of Godspell single, ‘Day by Day’, which I hated back then.
My first real experience of her was in the first series of the ITV series, Rock Follies where, along with Rula Lenska and Charlotte Cornwell, she was one-third of aspiring all-girl group The Little Ladies (urghhh). I can’t recall now quite why, but when it came to the second series, which added Sue Jones-Davies to make a quartet, I had absolutely no interest in watching it again.
Of course, by then Covington had come out with that sad and tedious dirge, ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ which I loathed with such a ferocity that it was almost bound to reach no 1, which it did in early January 1977. I didn’t go a bundle on her only top 20 follow up, Alice Cooper’s ‘Only Women Bleed’, which was preferable only in the way that suturing your fingers to a hot plate is better than live open-heart surgery.
No, I wasn’t in to Julie Covington.
But certain, hitherto unknown information, changed the picture to a some-might-say hypocrital extent. Late in the Nineties, I discovered that the wonderful Pete Atkin, who I’d ignored at the time but subsequently become seriously enamoured of, had been at Cambridge University not only with his lyricist mate Clive James but that both of them were close friends with, and musically appreciative of Ms Covington. Indeed, the missed Monyash Festival Gig that alerted me to the fact that Atkin was still playing, had included a guest appearance from Covington.
And from there I went on to learn that, in 1970, Julie Covington had recorded an album consisting almost entirely of Atkin/James songs, of which only a couple have been recorded by Atkin himself, and those many years later. That album, The Beautiful Changes, had also recently been re-issued on CD, in a …plus form that added two bonus tracks, as part of the See for Miles reissues of Atkin’s own sextet of albums on CD.
Which is where the hypocrital aspect comes in. A practically whole album of Atkin and James that I had never heard of before? Let me at it! I bought it, and I loved it, which went to show, on mature reflection, that it wasn’t actually Covington’s voice to which I took exception but rather her choice of songs to sing. With one exception, that being a duet with Pete Atkin on one of the few songs he’d written that didn’t feature Clive James, which the pair turned into an unforgivably horrible cabaret performance, this album was very good.
I have my favourites off it, neat little songs like ‘For Instance’ and ‘The Standards of Today’, in which Atkin applied simple, sweet melodies to deftly composed, intricate lyrics by James, but none of these were released as singles. The only song that was was ‘The Magic wasn’t There’, which built from soft, calm piano to a heavy orchestration that some have said was misguided, but which is one of the highlights of the album for me.
Covington comes in, singing without the power of which she was capable, holding that in reserve for when its needed. With just a word, she begins, wistfully, a single sign of care, with just a touch, I could have been beguiled. This, and her voice, sets out the song’s parameters, that it’s about that most curious of subjects for any song, or poem or book, about an absence, about something that might have, could have happened, but didn’t. There’s a particular dimension of loss to such things, to love that didn’t happen.
Covington was open to it. She may not have been inviting it but she was ready, ready to fall in love, needing only that one moment of connection, the one that never happened. But why not? Because circumstances never smiled. Because the Magic wasn’t there.
It’s amplified in the second verse, which turns away from the reality of the woman and her never-was lover. Covington tries to recall the name of a poet, who she quotes as saying ‘How beautiful they are, the trains you miss’, the image of potentiality unfulfilled, the journey to a destination never now reached and for that failure full of mystery and promise. But time can’t put an end to this, Covington states, because, and again, the Magic wasn’t there. I have the memory instead. It was there in her, all along: the loss, the fault, was his.
And as she reaches the middle eight, Covington brings out the strength in her voice, and the orchestra weighs in with its own force, as she goes onto a form of attack, defining this absence as, it its own way, a presence. These nothing scenes are still experience, she insists, you even weep for what did not take place. Events that don’t occur are still events. Some people vanish with a trace.
But there’s a softening fall on that last line. Covington retreats to repeating her first verse, how close it was, how near to her desire but the Magic… The damned, unreliable, mercurial Magic wasn’t there. She sings it again, but there’s an additional line, a favourite trick of James in the last verse, a favourite trick of mine when I used to think myself capable of writing lyrics. I could have been beguiled, and the wistfulness turns to passion as she admits, perhaps to herself, and now what never happened drives me wild.
Because the Magic wasn’t there. Her life was as it was, not what it could have been.
I have to say that the song and its words suit Julie Covington and her clear, clean voice far better than it ever would have Pete Atkin, so I excuse myself from charges of hypocrisy, especially as my opinion of Covington’s other music remains the same (she recorded an uptempo, bright and spectacularly wrong-headed version of ‘I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight’ that has me shaking my head in dumbfoundment). So I guess it really is a case of the Song and not the Singer.
Though, to be fair, she did a lot better than not spoil it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Downbound Train’

Another Bruce Springsteen song. But not a contemporary one, like the couple I’ve recently been listening to, rather a track from the legendary Born in the USA album, the one that in 1984 was so wilfully misinterpreted by the American right, the one that was the first Springsteen record I actually bought.
Born in the USA was an album about life in America in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s first term as President. Reagan acclaimed it, solely on the basis of its title track, not even going deep enough to touch the surface. For like the best of Bruce Springsteen, this album wore its heart on its sleeve, and its heart was not content with life as it was. It was about the reality of the USA, not the fantasy peddled by Reagan, and in the modern day by Trump, the airbrushed image of perfection and wonder that still comes nowhere near the dream of America that Simon and Garfunkel went seeking on their song of the same name.
Though the title track, with which I was already familiar, was the opening track, as bombastic a thing as Springsteen has ever recorded with the possible exception of ‘Born to Run’, on a first play the song that made me sit up and listen was this one, ‘Downbound Train’, tucked away as track 5 on side 1, and so little regarded that it was not one of the seven songs – out of twelve – released as singles and ALL top 10 hits in America.
So we’re not talking about a song that jumped out and hit you in the face, though it did me. From that moment.
What impressed me most about ‘Downbound Train’ was its honest and straightforward atmosphere, and its austere dignity. It’s a song that’s played entirely within itself, a solo guitar that lays out the basic melody and the rhythm of the song, and the first controlled explosion of drums that will drive things forward. And Springsteen sings with simple restraint, on the edge of letting rip but never allowing himself to drop into the automatic power of his voice, because what he’s singing about has no fight to it, just acceptance of the way that a life, with no massive ambitions beyond content, love and pride, can get smashed in hard times.
It begins with what for me is maybe the most honest and dignified couplet I have ever heard begin a song. I had a job, I had a girl, Bruce sings, I had something going, mister, in this world. It’s an opening that lays claim to a space, a place of one’s own, a life content in its living. But just by telling us that, by making it the focal point of the song, Bruce is already telling us, before he explains it, that that is no longer so. That it was, once, and now it’s not.
Again, the words are simple and straightforward. I got laid off, down at the lumberyard, our love went bad, times got hard. Do we need more details than that? Already the picture is complete. The song then switches into symbol, Bruce’s new job, instinctively containing less dignity than his previous job in honest labour, is at the carwash, ‘where all it ever does is rain’, and then he asks the central question, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train? This is just the beginning, we understand.
Without pause, with another crash from Max Weinberg’s drums, Bruce goes on, into the heart of the pain. Not the job, but the love, detailing the ending of what gave him the strength. Again, the words are simple. She just said, Joe, I gotta go, we had it once, we ain’t got it anymore. And he relates her packing her bags, leaving him behind, buying a ticket on the Central Line – the train again, that immovable symbol of things going away – but at nights he hears that long train whistle whining, and the most painful illusion that it isn’t as it is but is as it was, I feel her kiss through the misty rain.
Ah, don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
Throughout that second verse a new musical element has entered, Danny Federici’s organ, laying back from the rhythm of the E Street Band, a cool, almost tuneless aural accompaniment that suddenly, at this moment, as the beat ends, the Band stops, is the only sound we hear as Bruce relates a long, desperate, soul-destroying dream, of a call from his love, her despair at being alone, her wish for him, his headlong, body-racking sprint through the woods, racing towards her, the moonlight in the clearing where their wedding house shines, the charge up the stairs, and as we’ve known would be, the room that is dark, the bed that is empty, the heart that remains broken, the life that remains broken.
And in comes Weinberg again, in a rolling thunder, the Band once more picking up the tempo, and Bruce roaring that now he swings a sledgehammer on a railroad gang – if you can’t beat them, serve them – pounding down those cross-ties, working in the rain… Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train.
On rides the music, riding the rails, disappearing in the rain, another life for whom it will never ever be what once it was in that curious moment of plain human dignity. I had a job, I had a girl. I had something going, mister, in this world.
Not really now not any more.

The Infinite Jukebox: Shakespeare’s Sister’s ‘Stay’

I was reminded of this song not long ago, when the Guardian chose it for their ‘How We Made…’ weekly feature. I’d pretty much given up on listening to the radio by 1992, and was starting the long retreat from contemporary music, yet I was still watching Top of the Pops, and so I saw the video constantly, and was as familiar with the song as I had been with any hated hit in the past two decades.
I hadn’t seen or heard it in, I suppose nearly thirty years, but reading about the making of the video, and in particular how Siobhan Fahey’s contribution had been fuelled emphatically by too much sitting around being bored and the consequent indulgence in vodka, prompted me to watch it on YouTube and, now I’m no longer so close to it as I was then, I found it stunning.
Shakespeare’s Sister, taking the name from a lowly Smiths single almost a decade earlier, began as a vehicle for Fahey after she left Bananarama, but subsequently she had taken on American singer Marcella Detroit as part of the group, only to eject her later, apparently because of the attention Detroit was getting over her part in this record, which was number 1 for eight weeks.
The roots of the song lay in an unrealised SF musical, roughly based upon a 1953 sci-fi B-movie called Cat-Women on the Moon. The record company – how surprising – were not interested in acquiring the rights to the film, but by then apparently a half dozen songs on this theme had been written, one of them ‘Stay’.
According to Fahey, the song was inspired by an incident where a woman has to go back to her own planet and leave her human lover behind. According to Wikipedia, he was going back to Earth. So what? According to the video, neither of these circumstances apply to the song, and that’s where its great power rests. It’s about love all right, but it’s about love in the face of death, with Detroit as the lover, seeking to preserve the life of her dying man, and Fahey as the Angel of Death, come to claim him, leading to a literal tug of war over him.
If it sounds cheaply melodramatic, that’s because it is, but sometimes cheap melodrama is indistinguishable from primal emotion, and this is one of those cases, with that simple, irreducible chorus, draped in impassioned voices building together: Stay With Me.
And yes, whilst a song is sound and should be taken on its merits in that form alone, this is one of those occasions where the video is absolutely essential to its fullest appreciation.
Fahey and Detroit don’t sing together on this song, but take different parts, with Detroit for once allowed the greater share of the lines. The song begins in ballad-style, in an emergency centre, as Detroit keens over the prone form of her lover, inert in bed, encased in an oxygen mask. Her face and her voice betray her pain and fear, that he will die, that he is dead already, that he will leave her alone. She is desperate, for something, for a miracle.
Yet the words don’t quite equate to the visuals. Detroit is singing to someone who is thinking of escape, of leaving one world for another, one place for another, and she is demanding one simple thing: that he does not go alone. She must be put in chains to be taken with him. Stay with me.
And again, in the silence of his room and the darkness of his dreams, she is insistent that he must think of her, must want more, from her, from them. There’s no suggestion here that any departure may be involuntary, or into that bourne where there is no following.
And then both halves of the song come together, as Fahey enters, her rougher, raunchier voice, her black spangly catsuit as the Angel of Death, descending her own image of Powell and Pressburger’s staircase in A Matter of Life and Death. And she’s rasping, and growling, and sneering and challenging, defying Detroit to defy her in her implacability, warning her, ironically, that if she attempts to keep her lover from Fahey, Detroit may be taken too.
Detroit is there to confront her, to intercept her, to keep her from touching her man. Fahey spits and glitters, smiling maniacally, Detriot is fear and struggle. Each takes a hand, tugging, as the chorus mounts in passion, imploring Stay With Me.
And life wins. He comes awake, returns to life. Detroit gathers him in her arms, crying with unexpected joy, her own life force pinned to his, as Fahey’s Angel slinks away, for once foiled. Though the glitter in her eyes and our own sensibility tells us that this is but a skirmish, and a postponement, as indeed they can only ever be.
But emotions have been evoked, primitive and primal, and the video emphasises the depths of those feelings that, for once, have been fulfilled. I look at the song that failed to move me thirty years ago, and now it leaves me gasping, exhausted as if it has been me who has fought. Only at such a distance could I become close to it. Closer, I hope, than I will ever need to.

The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’

There’s very little now that is instant but this was. Whilst writing about Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Ghost’, I found myself linked to this song, from the same album, Letter to You, which it closes, just two tracks on. Full of the emotions that the thoughts behind ‘Ghost’ had brought into my head, I clicked on the song, and found myself enthralled. So much so that I had to write about it, to pay tribute to a song that went even deeper into love and loss, and what you do when they’re no longer here with you.
‘I’ll see you in my Dreams’ is a slower song, without the same degree of fire that lights up ‘Ghost’, the defiance with which Springsteen greets ageing and his refusal to give way before it. The defiance is still there, but it’s muted in the singing. Springsteen is in a more reflective mood here, and it is as if his shoulders are bending under the weight of loss, and he’s looking back on those who are no longer there, the pieces of his life that cannot be summoned back in any tangible form. He sits at the piano, musing on the multiplicity of the days that have gone by, his shoulders slumped as the memories bear down upon him.
The loss: so much loss, so many of them, so many memories in tangible form kept by him as if they are talismans that can actually draw those people back across that unconsidered bourne, from shadow back into light. They can’t, and the losses are so much so that it feels as if his soul splits at the seams.
But they are not gone, as no-one we have lost but still remember is ever truly gone, for Springsteen sees them in his dreams, and the E Street Band kick themselves into life to add their dreams to his, the guitars that still crash, the drums that keep the rhythm of the beat foursquare in all their hearts, the ‘la la las’ that push the Boss forward.
Because no matter the pain, Springsteen will not give in, to loss and misery. So long as he can sing he will keep them all alive, for as long as he still has the power. And he flows into that chorus of denial in such positive terms that my throat automatically tightened as I listened that first time, and I knew that the song was entering into me, not something to hear but something to live.
I’ll see you in my dreams, he repeats, when all the summers have come to an end. I’ll see you in my dreams, we’ll meet and live and love again. I’ll see you in my dreams, yeah, up around the river bend. And then there is that extraordinarily simple yet monumental line. For death is not the end.
And I’ll see you in my dreams.
Death is not the end. The whole of the song rests its weight upon that line and it bears the strain, free and effortlessly. No wonder this is the closing track for what other song could ever succeed that.
It came into me in an instant, yet I can’t play it too often. It draws my ghosts back to me. I have them, like you do, and they have been gone a very long time. There is a videotape in my home, transferred from my Dad’s cinecamera films. I watched it once. There was ten minutes of footage from an old holiday at Lytham St Annes, from before my sister was born. I had not been watching it for thirty seconds before I realised that with the exception of myself, everyone in that film was dead. I have never been able to watch it again.
But like Bruce Springsteen’s dead, I cannot ever forget them. I remember very very few of my dreams, so I don’t know if, like him, I see the lost there. But though I have no religion to promise and reassure me, like him I believe that we’ll meet and live and love again. And I believe from the depths of everything I am that Death is not the end.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s gone to the Moon’

Though a great number of them have been overturned as I grew older and more widely experienced, much of my musical foundations were formed in those first two or three years of listening to what was around. Which naturally produced a lifelong distaste for Jonathan King.
Some people just rub you up the wrong way, and King was several of these. He was a smug arsehole, a prominent singer and producer who based his entire output upon what could only be called commercialism without any thought of the quality – usually completely lacking – of the music which appeared as a multiplicity of singles, some of them under his own name, far more of them under a whole string of pseudonyms. The sole thread linking these pseudonymous tracks together was that every single one was based on a gimmick. None more blatantly so than The Archies bubblegum classic re-done in a weak Heavy Metal arrangement under the name Sakharin.
Scanning the discography in Wikipedia, it’s notable that only a very few of this relentless onslaught became big hits, with most of the chart successes failing to crack the Top Twenty if at all. The only one that holds any merit as far as I’m concerned was King’s pop rearrangement of the B.J. Thomas country song, ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, and that because the Swedish band Blue Swede recorded a near identical version but with considerably beefed up sound.
Yes, that was another common characteristic of King’s output on his own music, production that was as thin and weedy as his voice.
But. In 1965, as an Undergraduate aged 19, King had recorded one of his own songs, called ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’, one of half a dozen songs with which King was trying to make his way into the Music Industry after boasting to the first label boss he’d met that he knew how to make hit singles. According to Wikipedia, when the single reached no. 18 he was invited onto Top of the Pops (then still recorded in a former church on Dickenson Road in Manchester). The next day, the single sold 35,000 copies. It would eventually peak at no. 4.
I heard it often as a Radio 1 Golden Oldie. It was probably actually the second song from King that I ever heard, the first being his Top 30 hit, ‘Let It All Hang Out’, at the beginning of 1970. I learned to listen out for further plays of this oldie. It was different. I drew a firm distinction between that and King’s contemporary output. What made it so different? Some of it I attribute simply to it being of the Sixties, but the biggest difference is that quite simply, ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ was sincere.
This was King singing an atmospheric, floaty song, with a lovely, lazy melody, and some quite beautiful string arrangements, but above all he was singing the song seriously. He wasn’t pissing about, wasn’t sneering at the audience that bought his modern, ephemeral music. It wasn’t an idea brought about by cynically combining two disparate notions. ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ was straight.
But then again, what was it all about? It was the middle of the Sixties, the time of the Space Race. The Moon was in the atmosphere, and not just literally. Every day, every Apollo Mission, was one step nearer to when we would, in fact and not just in Dan Dare, cross space and stand upon another body in the Universe. King’s song, with its drifting ambience, its sense of strangeness, captured that feeling, that air of yearning for what was out there. It was even emblematic of the Sixties itself, when nothing could stop us, when we would keep growing, keep expanding.
And yet, if you listen to the words, they’re meaningless. They’re nothing but a series of paradoxes, sung without any thread connecting one to another. Streets full of people, all alone. Roads full of houses, never home. And everyone’s gone to the Moon is the cause of this strangeness, this lack of any inner substance.
King was never any great shakes as a singer, not even then, but his reedy voice is integral to the song. Other, better singers who covered it, like the English duo successful only in America, Chad and Jeremy, can’t go anywhere near the air of a fever dream – no, a cool, unexcited fever dream, if one can be said to exist – that King brings to life.
Even the middle eight has no meaning in words though it’s the necessary counterpart to King’s verses. Long time ago, life had begun, everyone went to the sun.
Yes, Jonathan King showed everyone that he could indeed come up with hit records, but once upon a time he wrote and sang a song, an actual song, that for two minutes and twenty seconds carried us off, and still had the unspoiled power to carry us off into a strange land that we could only glimpse through its distance from our real lives, but which whether we knew so or not we all yearned to reach. In time, it turned out to be the only way that we could go to the Moon, but it still remains an invocation for the desire still to go there.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jimmy Ruffin’s ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’

Given the reasonably consistent directions that my interests in music have taken over the course of fifty plus years since starting to properly listen to music, it’s pretty unusual to recall that my first favourite act was a relatively modest Tamla Motown solo singer with a string of re-issued Top 10 hit singles.
I was so new to music that I barely understood the difference between soul and pop. I didn’t know that Ruffin, the elder brother of the more celebrated David, the mostly-lead singer of the Temptations for the last half-decade, had had a British Top 10 hit in 1966 with his best-known song, ‘What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted’ and some very minor hits in the wake of that. I hardly knew what was Tamla Motown to begin with, as the label was known in Britain, and I certainly had no idea that Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’, which had been played all over The Light Programme and registered with me, was Motown. I just knew that I liked ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’.
One of the reasons I liked it was Ruffin’s voice. Don’t ask me what other soul music I got to hear throughout 1970, but what I did hear seem to be dominated by falsetto vocalists, who all seemed to sing in the same key as Smokey Robinson, and I didn’t like that. Jimmy Ruffin sounded like a man.
But of course it wasn’t just the singer, it was also the song. ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’ is yet another of those mournful love songs, end-of-love songs, that I would dive deep into and wrap around myself, long before the prospect of love ever reared its thorny head. I went to an all-boys school, my sister was six and a half years younger than me and so too were her friends, there were practically no girls in my life at all.
Yet still I identified with break-ups and heartache more than I did songs about the happy side of love: romance, fulfilment, (gulp) sex (face goes red and everyone will guess what I’m thinking about).
Whatever it was down to, I loved the song. It was slow and measured without being in any way a ballad. After a couple of rhythmic, light bass-notes under a removed chorus singing ‘Farewell, farewell my love’, twice, and an ‘ooh ooh’, Ruffin entered, singing the chorus up front, starting with the title line.
Musically, the song was quiet and worked without haste. It’s instrumentation was light, mostly rhythmic, with the backing vocals functioning to carry the melody. Ruffin sets things out briefly. Farewell is a lonely sound when told to someone you love. You know you hurt inside and you wonder why you must leave the one that you love.
That’s the matter of the song in just four lines. It’s a break-up. Ruffin is going away from his girl, seemingly for good, going away from someone that he loves. Both of them will be hurt by this separation, but why it’s happening, seemingly having to happen given Ruffin’s implacability over his actions, is a mystery, and one that the song will not even hint at, let alone explain.
So immediately there’s a void at the heart of the song, the most important question: why? Why is this song saying goodbye when neither of them wants it? The answer was invisible to me at age 14, and not a very advanced 14: indeed, there’s a very good chance I didn’t even notice the question, responding only to the atmosphere of leaving and grieving. But given that the song was originally released in America the previous year, the answer is unexpectedly obvious: Vietnam.
When Marvin Gaye wanted to sing about Vietnam on What’s Going On, Berry Gordy hated the idea, wanted the album buried, delayed it a whole half-year. In ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’, songwriters Dean, Goga and Witherspoon were slipping it in between the lines, turning the focus away from the War and onto the effect it had on people. Ruffin is a conscript – well, of course he is, he’s a black man, isn’t he, natural cannon fodder – being shipped overseas to the ‘Nam. For which his promises to see his girl again, to come back, are merely hollow.
So we walk with him through his emotions, as they stand there on the platform. In both their heads he’s already half gone, and these last minutes of waiting are torture to both. As the train pulls out, she’s crying and he’s forcing himself not to, because a man should never cry. He’s told her it’s just for a while, but that’s a promise he can’t make, because over there is shot and shell, disease and drugs, and the prospect of a mental trauma that will destroy him.
And the prospect of a Dear John letter from her, when the separation, in the prime of her life, becomes too much.
Yes indeed, Farewell is a Lonely Sound.
I appreciated none of the sophistication then, but I responded to it, more strongly than anything I’d heard yet that year, and yes, I include ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ in that. ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’ reached no. 8. I was delighted to find that I also loved Jimmy Ruffin’s follow up, ‘I’ll Say Forever My Love’, which got to number 7. And I was positively eager to hear his next single, which was the rather prosaic ‘It’s Wonderful (to be loved by you)’, which had me loving the fact that it got to number 6! Clearly, the next one would get into the Top Five.
But the next one didn’t come out until the middle of spring in 1971, and it got neither the airplay nor the sales, and that little purple patch was over until the re-issue of ‘What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted’ in 1974, which went two better, getting to number 4. Before then my real tastes had started to coalesce and soul/Motown was not where I was at. Jimmy Ruffin was never a front rank Motown singer. He didn’t get the top songwriters turning out songs for him. He left, went elsewhere. But I didn’t forget my first enthusiasm, even if it was never as deep as those that followed.
And ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’ still does more for me than to take me back, temporarily, to 1970, with all that means to me.

The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Ghosts’

This is the sound of Bruce Springsteen in the year 2020, the blue-collar Jersey rock’n’roller turned superstar and multi-millionaire. This is the sound of Bruce Springsteen, aged 71. But it is also the sound of Bruce Springsteen of almost any age or year since Born to Run. This is Springsteen in his own archetype, the Springsteen that is, was and ever will be until the strongest of winds comes and takes him away and you just know that when he’s in whatever heaven veteran rockers end up, he’ll strap on that guitar, call out ‘1-2-3-4’ and the drums will crash and he’ll go on being the sound of this, rock’n’roll’s energy and flare and its call to excitement, joy and all the things that are what make you alive.
Who is the Ghost? Is it someone loved and gone, their ghost the memory that is left of them? Is Springsteen feeling the years, harking back to better times? That’s one interpretation, and a truthful one, but it’s not entirely so. The Ghost is Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen himself, what he once was, that in his own eyes he is no more.
I hear the sound of your guitar, he growls, his voice as hoarse as it always was, comin’ from the mystic far. Not just the guitar but the stone and the gravel in your voice, and he calls it to his dreams so that he can rejoice.
It’s your ghost moving through the night, he proclaims, your spirit filled with life, Bruce needs ‘you’ by his side, your love and I’m alive. And the E Street Band crank up like it’s 1974 again and they’re about to record ‘Born to Run’, which for a moment makes you wonder if the ghost is not actually Clarence Clemons, the Big Man on the sax, no longer here to blow that sound and honk and wail through the sound. It could be, because who says this ghost is one and only one thing?
Indeed, as other songs on the album make plain, the ghost is not just the Big Man, it’s everyone who was part of the music, who played with Springsteen, who has gone on ahead and will never share that stage again, and yet is still alive in the music, in which they none of them will ever die.
Bruce is singing it loud, about what it once was, pretending to be calling up the shade of Times Past, yet all the while, as he and the gang run through the old chops, they’re subtly reinforcing that those days are not gone, never did go, because Bruce and the boys can still do it, are doing it, even as they raise their mythology about themselves. He and they can feel the blood shiver in their bones, I’m alive and I’m out here on my own, I’m alive and I’m coming home.
Build the image, the buckskin jacket, the boots and the spurs, the Fender whose dial is still, always, turned up to ten, count the band in, then kick into overdrive… And they drop the beat to let that old defiance roar: By the end of the set we leave no one alive!
They don’t intend on any survivors now. They are the survivors, wheeling out for one more grand slam, one more show to set their ears a-bleeding, the drums pounding, the guitars ringing. Bruce is not just singing the rock’n’roll of his and his forefathers, not just reminding him and us that this isn’t going away, no matter what the young trends demand, but that he’s doing this in homage, and dedication to all those who have been before.
For a moment, let the passion subside, let us catch our breath, let the piano balance things out, as Bruce gathers everyone into him
I shoulder your Les Paul and finger that fretboard.
I make my vows to those who’ve come before.
I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide.
Meet you, brother and sister, on the other side.
Yes, he’s alive, as the band crash back in with that old life’s spirit, he’s alive and he’s coming home, and the song bursts into a la-la-la chant that you can just hear fifty thousand voices taking up, like they do to the coda of ‘Born to Run’. No, it never went away, but sometimes we need the clarion, to call back the ghosts that went ahead, that we want so much to see strutting that stage still, whipping up the frenzy like once happen so automatically, but now sometimes has to be cajoled out before us.
Count the band in and kick into overdrive, by the end of the set we leave no-one alive. But in this song we are alive forever, and so is the music. Not like this will anything die.

The Infinite Jukebox: Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ ‘Dance Stance’

Just as was the case with The Flamin’ Groovies and ‘Shake Some Action’, once again we have the spectacle of a band not understanding what makes their own record great.
‘Dance Stance’ was the debut single by Dexys Midnight Runners, the first I and most people heard of them. It received relatively little airplay from Radio 1, who were more concerned with promoting The Q-Tips, whose lead singer was Paul Young, the big difference being that whilst both bands were soul revivalists, returning to the sounds of the Sixties, Kevin Rowland and Dexys were intent on using the sound in a new way, for their own ends, whilst The Q-Tips were just duplicating old songs. It was ever thus with Radio 1.
Nevertheless, ‘Dance Stance’ did reach the British charts, even if it was for only one week at no. 40, and more importantly it thrilled me every time I heard it, it went down brilliantly on tapes I made to dance to at parties, and it’s still as fresh as paint to this date.
Kevin Rowland hated it. He hated the production, by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, and sacked him and everyone else involved with it, bringing in Pete ‘Eighteen with a Bullet’ Wingfield as producer for the follow-up single, ‘Geno’, which got the band their first Number 1, and their debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. For the opening track, ‘Dance Stance’ was re-recorded, and reverted to its original title, ‘Burn It Down’. Kevin may have approved much more, but to me the second version hits the ground with a dull thud, just like the Dave Edmunds-produced ‘official’ version of ‘Shake some Action’.
What’s the difference? There’s not that much difference in instrumentation and arrangement. ‘Dance Stance’ kicks off with a storming riff, blasted out on two saxaphones and a trombone, that sets the single alight, and the fire of the horns keeps returning, to break down and restart the rhythm and set your heart beating.
Rowland comes in, his voice abrasive, his words abrasive and dismissive of someone he claims doesn’t understand. This person being described is a loser, a know-nothing, ignorant, not fully understanding the meaning. For once, the lyrics don’t really matter, the sneer overlooked in the passion of the music, an active bass, a cutting guitar playing underpinning chords, and then the song hits its chorus, its chant, its real moment of fun, because the chorus is the band, mixed to a distance that makes them sound like a crowd chanting, and what this guy who’s the target doesn’t understand turns out to be… classic Irish writers.
Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Edna O’Brien and Lawrence Stern, a litany of names reeled off by the band in rhythmic delight whilst Rowland delineates different kinds of ignorance or unconcern prefixing each name.
It’s a colossal shock. Since when did pop or rock or soul concern itself with literary ignorance? But the sound’s so fresh, the beat so immersive, the chant so infectious that who gives a damn? Just dance and sing and groove on those horns until the thing fades out over a thankfully near incomprehensible rant by Kevin. Then cue up the needle and let’s go again, baby!
What you get when the song is re-recorded as ‘Burn it Down’ is, to begin with, a diffusive intro consisting of over thirty seconds of someone tuning an old-fashioned radio dial across different radio stations, talk and music, a few seconds of each, until there’s a shout from the background and a response by Rowlands, in disgusted tones, of ‘Just burn it down’, and then, finally, we get the horn riff and whilst it’s still proud and affecting, there’s something missing, or rather something’s been added, and that something is polish.
Yes, ‘Dance Stance’ is fresh, because it’s raw and the sound has an edge to it that Wingfield’s production robs completely. And Rowland’s singing is more affected, as if he’s deliberately trying to sing the lines with different tones and inflections only to be different, when he’d got it right first time. His voice is mixed further forward, to be more dominant, especially on the chorus, where the band chant close to him, sounding like two or three people, not a bunch.
Because ‘Dance Stance’s supposedly shonky production is crisp and clean. There’s a distance, a separation between the instruments. Rowland’s vocals are mixed a bit further back, and given a touch of echo, emphasising the separation from the band, both when they play and when they sing. ‘Burn it Down’ makes all the aspects of the sound into a composite, and its polish diminishes the song. The band are used to playing it by now. It doesn’t excite them the same way to be riffing on this.
Or, to put it another way, ‘Dance Stance’ has the energy of playing live baked right into it and ‘Burn it Down’ wouldn’t know what the hell to do outside a studio.
Which is why Kevin Rowland was talking through his woolly hat when he slated this song.

The Infinite Jukebox: Kathy Mattea’s ‘Asking us to Dance’

Again it was the early Nineties, and a combination of things conspires to have me listening to country music for a few years. This, in itself, is almost miraculous, because I don’t like country music, I really don’t. The occasional examples of it that hit the UK chart all hurt my ears: Lynn Anderson, Faron Young, Tammy Wynette, oh God, Kenny Rogers. I am not enamoured of the sound of the pedal steel guitar. I cannot stand the voice of the male country singer. In short, even more so than Heavy Metal, this music is an anathema to me.
Then I start exchanging cassettes with a never-really girlfriend. One brings together k.d. lang and Shawn Colvin, which was how I started a musical love affair that’s lasted thirty years so far. I stay a weekend with a couple of friends in Shropshire, the Country Music Awards are on on Saturday night, we watch, take the piss, but are truly impressed by some songs, one of them Alison Krauss’s version of ‘When you say nothing at all’.
I hear of and listen to some Nanci Griffiths. In the HMV Shop’s basement, in the country section, I see a CD of Suzy Bogguss with a cover photo which makes her look like a dead ringer for my lovely friend Fliss, and there are some good, upfront songs on it. I find that I do not loathe the female country voice. In Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau has his longterm protest singer/songwriter Jimmy Thudpucker go country, defending himself by claiming that that’s where song and melody has gone now that it’s been forced out by rap and hiphop, and I find myself nodding in agreement.
The phase doesn’t last long, but whilst it does I seek out new voices to explore. Of course Emmylou Harris becomes one of them, though it’s not until the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball that I am really captured. But my range is not unlimited. My interest has gone as far as Country, but not & Western. Anything that’s deep country, whether in sound or lyrical atmosphere, is too much for me. I fancy Reba McIntyre – she’s a redhead, isn’t she? – but I can’t listen to her.
No, where I find I enjoy Country music are the (usually) younger female artistes, singers of songs that aren’t overburdened with Country sounds, no pedal steel or bluegrass fiddles, that in the Seventies would just have been classed alongside singer-songwriters.
Kathy Mattea was one of those who were close to the edge of what I could enjoy, though the edge this time was not so much Deep Country as MOR. Nice voice, but with not enough of that edge to her music that I still found fundamental to anything I liked to hear. One CD, borrowed from Withington Library, played, enjoyed but not enough. Three tracks taped and retained.
All three are semi-melodramatic ballads. Mattea has a good, powerful, yearning voice and ballads suit her, especially with lyrics that have a bit of a melodramatic theme. I’ve still got those tracks, now burned to a private CD compilation.
As far as I’m concerned, ‘Asking Us To Dance’ is the stand-out, still, after thirty years. It’s a love song, but it’s a love song from a standpoint that’s very rarely represented in modern music, and certainly not pop music as we have known it since the Fifties.
It’s about Love, oh yes, and it’s sung to a loved one, but this is no boyfriend, actual or desired. Mattea, as perhaps her status in Country music, music of the people with its conventional and Christian roots in family, is singing to her husband. A long-married husband. A husband still loved, but a love that, through no fault of either but just through the way love gets put aside in the face of living, that has started to risk growing stale through disuse.
And Mattea has recognised that danger, the danger of loss that not just yet, but maybe soon if not faced head-on, might dry up and blow away. Because that love has been the foundation stone of everything they have built. And it should be and must be fought for, by recognition, by a re-watering of it at its roots.
She conjures up a night with a full moon, casting its light down on a scene that’s become familiar to them in a way that it shouldn’t: the tangled silver dangling from the cypress trees, the moonlight river flowing into the lake and, above all, both literally and figuratively, a sky full of a million stars, big, wide and open, and every one of those stars waiting for them to wish upon. Some will snort at the cliche of the scene, but Mattea sings with a heartfelt passion that makes the moment as real for us as it is in this moment for her, because it’s a moment of recognition, and one of longing.
And she makes her appeal to him, the silent, nameless partner who is as important to her as breathing, and with whom she is afraid their connection might be lost. Darling, she sings, tonight I am reminded how much these two hearts need romance. You know, it isn’t very often we get this kind of chance. She’s asking him to join her in this sudden, almost mad moment, why don’t we get caught in this moment? Be victims of sweet circumstance. It possesses her so deeply that she transcends the ordinariness of their mundane, settled lives: tonight I feel like all creation is asking us to dance.
And in token of what she is saying in this chorus, there is a harmonising voice, in time and tune with her but buried deeper in the mix. I don’t know who is the singer, but his is the male voice, the echo and complement to Mattea, the symbol of the love she wants to enfold herself within.
There is another verse, that recounts the flatness of the lives they lead and its eternal existence, still there tomorrow, for them to return to, but it is this very ordinariness that leads her to plead for him to feel what has overcome her now, this special moment, when heaven and earth meet where they are and are waiting, ready to be open fully, as once they were, and her adamant belief that all the things on earth worth having are the things they’ve already got.
Though if he hasn’t already responded to that beautifully sung chorus, and her soul deep feelings, no other words will sway him.
But we know he’ll respond. No matter how long we’ve been together, been in love, no matter how dulled that first overwhelming passion has become by familiarity and repetition, those two are still within us, and just as flowers need to be fed, watered, nurtured, that original love needs nurturing if it is not to die.
Kathy Mattea sings as a plea, but the depth that remains in her heart must call back the man she still loves. A song with this solidity could only have come from Country music, so lacking in doubt but nevertheless still well-versed in fragility.
Darling, tonight I am reminded…