Diana Ross, Upside Down (1980)

diana-ross-upside-down

Artist: Diana Ross
Title: Upside Down
Description: single; album track, Diana
Label: Motown
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Respectfully I say to thee …

Because life isn’t perfect, I sold my entire vinyl record collection to a voluble sounds-trader called Rob in 2005. Hundreds of circles went in the back of his truck bound for Newcastle and what was then a shopless mail-order service (he’s since reopened the shop, which I would love one day to visit). I hope those records that have been subsequently re-sold went to happy homes. They certainly came from one.

Of course I’m tinged with sentimental hoarder’s regret, but the back-breaking collection had come with us twice when moving house and with another move on the horizon, we made the Big Decision to set the LPs and 12-inch singles free, and clear some physical and psychological space. Every significant LP had been replaced on CD in any case, and that supposedly “compact” collection in itself was arduous enough to lift. Of course I was sad to see a few items of sentimental value go, but I squared it with myself by keeping back all of my seven-inch singles. Every single one. These now occupy a hefty flight case in the eaves and act as as a musical photo album. Flick through the 600 or so singles and each produces a Proustian memory.

And so to the seven-inch of Upside Down by Diana Ross. This, I can tell you with total confidence, I purchased in St Helier in Jersey in the Channel Islands while on a family holiday in July 1980. Staying in a hotel called the Merton, it was the Collins family’s first ever catered holiday after years in North Wales farmhouses and bungalows, and our first across a body of water. The quick-witted will have already deduced that this seven-inch single in its monochrome paper sleeve was a useless item. I couldn’t play it until we got home a week later. So why did I buy it?

I bought it because I was 15 and at that enraptured time measured out my life in seven-inch singles. These were affordable with saved pocket money and fitted snugly into the handled record box we all carried. I bought Upside Down as a trophy, because even though I was on holiday, the accumulation of seven-inch singles need not be put on hold. With limited funds, the choice of a single was no quick decision made lightly. Planning was involved. The selection process was complex. You didn’t want to waste your next turn.

I suspect we had extra spending money that fortnight because we were on holiday. I asked Twitter how much a seven-inch single retailed for in 1980 and the hive mind reckons between 99p and £1.29. It would have been a chart single as it went to number 2 and I suspect the record shop I bought it in would have been a Woolies and nothing too specialist? (Residents of Jersey at that time will be able to confirm this.) So let’s assume I set aside a pound which might otherwise have gone on a paperback or a miniature bottle of spirits (which I’d convinced my parents were collectable) and spent it on a piece of black extruded polyvinyl that I could only look at.

Such was the heady power of pop music. Now, Upside Down – a fastidiously produced nugget of disco funk from the Chic Organisation used to flag up the May-released Diana album – was not my usual poison, musically speaking. In 1980 I was all about angular post-punk and way more likely to be getting a penny change from a pound note at the record shop for Totally Wired, Holiday In Cambodia or Feeling Alright With The Crew.

That said, I was going to youth club discos at the time, because that’s where the girls were at, and among my immediate circle of friends, both Craig McKenna and Andy Bonner had begun to invest in disco 12-inches, which had piqued my interest with their executive-length and predominantly beat-driven mixes. If I didn’t hear Upside Down at a disco, I’d be surprised. I fell for it instantly and for reasons visceral not intellectual or even social. That it didn’t quite fit into my handled record box, as it were, was possibly part of its appeal. And at least it had a picture sleeve, which wasn’t a prerequisite of disco singles.

But I feel I appreciate its artistry more keenly now. I gamely attempted to copy Tony Thompson’s immaculately fluid drum fills at the time with rulers on a stool without even knowing his name, or fully appreciating that the people who made Le Freak, which I was also dancing to at discos, had made Upside Down. There is much I didn’t know then that I know now; crucially, that Miss Ross got into a funk with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards as she didn’t like their final cut of the LP, going so far as to remix it herself with an in-house producer. Motown put out her version and inflamed the wrath of Chic’s learned friends. It all got a bit nasty. Which is a shame, as the album – whose subsequent hit singles the declamatory I’m Coming Out and jaunty My Old Piano are also spectacular – does not sound of acrimony or post-rationalisation.

The lyric may not be Shakespeare – “Upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively” – but the use of “thee” in “respectfully I say to thee” is cute and in any case, Ross’s voice, high in the mix (maybe higher than intended), is light, sexy and seamlessly authoritative throughout, aware of its space and reflected off the mirrored architecture of the Chic sound: Rodgers’ much-copied masturbatory guitar (the song is counted in by a jitter), Edwards’ spare bass and Thompson’s airtight beat, while the Chic Strings punctuate skywards. The single edit runs some 30 seconds shorter than the album version and gives Rodgers the elbow room to freak out a bit, but even in the fade, Thompson’s tactile curlicues are memorable, each concentrated splash of Zildjian a graphic marker flag. I’ve attempted in adult life to “learn” the drums on this track, and the sequence is beyond my capabilities. We may never see the late Mr Thompson’s like again.

Maybe I should have saved up the extra 50p and purchased the 12-inch in St Helier, although it would only have been the four-minute album track. With singles, the selection process was complex. But I didn’t waste my next turn.

Advertisements

Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987)

pet-shop-boys-introspective

Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Description: single
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.

Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.

Since it is a cover – and there will be further covers in The 143 as a great song is not a great song without a great version; I’m even hovering over another cover by Willie Nelson for inclusion –  I feel duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.

My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.

I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was unbearable.

Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been on Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough).  Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.

I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.

Yes, there may well be an Elvis entry in The 143. And as previously vouchsafed, definitely a few further covers.

The Source feat. Candi Staton, You Got The Love (Radio Edit) (1991)

SourceCandiStaton

Artist: The Source featuring Candi Staton
Title: You Got The Love
Description: single
Label: Positiva
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

After my first full year of absence from the airwaves of 6 Music, I felt sufficiently emancipated from the yoke of BBC impartiality and general station cheerleading to shout from the rooftops, “I think Florence Welch has pulled off one of the great confidence tricks in modern music!” Two hit albums in, she was worth $14 million ($28 million by 2019) and feted around the world, so I don’t feel she’ll lose any sleep to discover that I don’t hear what millions of others do in her vocal style or mode of musicality. It still feels liberating to state for the record that in my subjective opinion I find her opportunistic 2009 remake of You Got The Love – pedantically “corrected” to You’ve Got The Love – to be one of my least favourite cover versions in all of pop music. Though slavishly similar, and clearly bound for glory by association, for me, Florence Against The Machine’s rendition sucks every drop of soul from one of the greatest modern mash-ups of the 20th century.

I won’t bore you, or myself, with the circuitous history of the eventual 1991 version credited to The Source, whose vocal was apparently recorded by Candi Staton a capella for a video documentary in the 80s and whose vital studio production can, it seems, be credited to John Truelove and Eren Abdullah (although Frankie Knuckles was involved somewhere along the line). Needless to say, the Young Hearts Run Free disco legend supplies a supreme, inimitable vocal which needs little enhancement to raise it up. But can you imagine a more sympathetic exoskeleton than the minimally plucked “talking” bassline and mechanical, insectoid synth tinkle that frame it?

Has anybody ever heard that now-immortal intro and not air-clicked their finger in time to it? This is such a boldly graphic and sonically desaturated underlay, which adds melodrama and dirty funk to Staton’s reverb-enhanced declaration:

Sometimes I feel like throwin’ my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care”
But you got the love I need to see me through

The production knows instinctively when to trigger each new layer (the first finger click just as she starts the second verse with another “Sometimes”), and by verse three, everything’s working together as a team from hi-hat to added keyboard wash cycle; it’s not even a minute in. At this point if you don’t yet feel like throwing your hands up in the air, you never will do. It’s certainly one of those tracks that ought to struggle to match its own impeccable intro, but once up and running, there’s always something new, vocally or sonically, to keep you keen: the way Staton sings the word “occasionally”, that insistent synth line two and a half minutes in, the squelching sound, and the drop-out to bass, click and vocal at three minutes. Give thanks.

Sometimes a classic song comes together in a roundabout way, but as when the stars align, we should savour the moment. You Got The Love is one of those moments. I’m not a purist about cover versions – there are a number in The 143 – but this isn’t really one that should be attempted in karaoke. Just do the finger clicks instead. Or sing the bassline. That would be a greater tribute.

As with These Boots Are Made For Walking and Try A Little Tenderness, I’m always sad when the Radio Edit fades out.