The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

ShirellesBabyIt'sYou3

Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

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David Bowie, Be My Wife (1977)

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Artist: David Bowie
Title: Be My Wife
Description: single; album track from Low
Label: RCA
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1983

David Bowie is, in my opinion, the most important solo artist the world has ever produced. (Actually, it doesn’t feel that weird to say it out loud. You’d have to be a much bigger Dylan or Elvis or Bruce or Neil Young or Prince or Madonna or Lady Gaga fan than I to think otherwise.) It’s cool that he’s enjoying some kind of autumnal renaissance since Where Are We Now? and The Next Day, as it means Bowie no longer exists exclusively in the past. That would be a shame, since he spent so much of his career in the future.

I was a late starter. Woefully late. I was aware of Bowie’s work, of course: I remember the padded-room Space Oddity on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show in 1980, and, around that time – the first flourish of New Romanticism – my attention was piqued by Ashes To Ashes. But my much more broad-minded friend Craig McKenna had the Scary Monsters album, and although I really liked the sleeve artwork, it never really grabbed me in long form like, say, The Specials or London Calling or Boy or Setting Sons or even The Biggest Prize In Sport by 999 did around that time. I liked John I’m Only Dancing, and other singles, but David Bowie and I seemed to get on just fine without each other. Until 1983.

Just in time for Bowie to release what diehard fans still believe to be his first bad LP, Let’s Dance (certainly his first LP made with a larger audience in mind), I got him. It’s like a couple of years later I got onions. And a few years after that, Ingmar Bergman.

It feels important as I get into The 143 to name those friends and associates who turned me on to certain artists, and in Bowie’s case, it was Vaughan Mayo, the older brother of a girl I “went out with” in the early stages of romantic development when kissing meant bashing teeth. He had all the Bowie albums, couldn’t believe I had none, and set about educating me. He lent me Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie first, which proved an excellent combined primer as they gave me accessible entrance points like Suffragette City, Changes, Starman and so on. If I remember correctly, it was Sound and Vision that was the first track to go onto a series of compilation cassettes I began compiling.

So it was that Low was the first Bowie album I taped in its entirety, with Sound and Vision as my start-up. It’s a peculiar LP, in that it’s divided into two distinct “sides”, and you’re not always in the mood for those ambient instrumentals. But Side One, as we must call it, is wall-to-wall clanky brilliance. My favourite track varies, from the melancholic Always Crashing In The Same Car to the moody A New Career In A New Town, with its bass drum beat that sounds like someone tapping the stylus with a finger, but Be My Wife inevitably rises to the top.

That my discovery of Low coincided with a TV showing, perhaps the first, of The Man Who Fell To Earth – for whose soundtrack many of Low’s songs were initially developed and rejected, and which provides the striking, heart-stoppingly beautiful side-on sleeve portrait – clinched it. I didn’t know I was feeling the cocaine-kicking Bowie’s pain in Be My Wife; it felt to me like a straightforward declaration of love (“Please be mine, share my life, stay with me”), not quite getting the restlessness, both geographical and spiritual, in the lines, “I’ve lived all over the world/I’ve left every place.” I knew from the sleeve that Low was recorded in Berlin, with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno (whose names cropped up regularly on the sleeves as I gradually and greedily worked my way through Vaughan’s catalogue), but it’s only now that I appreciate the context.

It’s the pub piano of the intro that does it for me, banging away throughout as if by Mrs Mills, the perfect ironic underlay for Bowie’s Chas & Dave vocal. As the compensating Bowie archaeologist, I quickly identified from sleeve credits Dennis Davis as my favourite of Bowie’s drummers, but his work on Low is so loose, tumbling and roughly recorded it goes utterly against the grain of the surgical precision of the craft he demonstrated on Stage, for instance. I still love these incredible drums, which join the harmonic organ, squawking guitars and almost buried funk bass in a mix that’s at once treacly and indistinct, yet endlessly joy-giving and layered. I know there are reference books I could consult right now to tell you who played what, through what piece of kit, and how Visconti captured them to tape, but I didn’t have access to such books in 1983; I was flying into this brave new world blind and feeling my way.

David Bowie is the one artist I find impossible to represent with one track and stick to my choice. There are a hundred I could mention. But Be My Wife is a three-minute bash of which I never tire