Songs I Love: Rose Elinor Dougall’s ‘Hell and Back’ (2017)

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Okay, deep breath. I’m going to try and put into words just how much I love my all-time favourite song by my all-time favourite singer and songwriter who isn’t called David Bowie.

Sad songs are everywhere, and I’ve listened to, experienced, cried to, dreamt to and been knocked out senseless by so many of them. Of course I also love happy songs, I love songs that I can dance to (badly) and I love weird shit too, but given that I find music the sweetest of all artistic tonics and it’s what I turn to when I need solace and comfort – sad songs in particular can be that indescribable embrace I need the most when I feel lost. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Then there are those sad songs that encapsulate turbulent, shattering and heartbreaking emotions so well and with such power that they end up being strangely kind of ecstatic, euphoric, utterly life-affirming and vital. They make me feel deliriously ridiculous and out of my mind with pleasure and sheer sensation.

‘Hell and Back’, a highlight amongst nothing but highlights (doesn’t make sense, I know) on the amazing 2017 LP Stellular by the fucking spectacularly talented Rose Elinor Dougall, is probably my favourite example of such a song.

I mean, it is very bloody sad indeed. But there’s a kind of defiant, passionate sweep to it that means I actually don’t want to curl up into a ball when I play it – I want to sing with it (badly) and then some. It is an an incredible, miasmic and breathtaking gut-punch of a song that boasts the kind of melodic (vocal and musical) shifts that make me want to weep with awe. It so good it just makes me want to knock on people’s doors like a bloody Jehovah’s Witness and ask them if they know about the Book of Rose – I mean, how can a song this astonishing not be loved by everyone? What the fuck is going on here, people?

And that’s the thing about Stellular, the thing that makes it so essential is its sheer richness. It sounds so fucking alive – it is an incredible production, a living, breathing, existing thing – it makes me want to live. It wreaks havoc with this heart of mine (to quote another Dougall song), it breathes life into the devils and demons in my soul and reminds me just how precious and essential the sheer act of existing is.

Compared to the modest (and very lovely) sound of Dougall’s first album, Stellular tears through the speakers in spectacularly exciting style. The beat, the pulse, the pace, the sweep – all of a sudden Dougall’s music was thrillingly widescreen, cinematic and yet so intensely intimate – sometimes a band or an artist can sound like they’ve had more money thrown at them but something ends up missing in the process. Not here. This album sounds like a million quid but also sounds utterly vivid, urgent – right there in the room with you.

It’s also the kind of all-killer/no-filler pop rush that the old days of vinyl demanded – there’s not a moment wasted here. It’s almost like a greatest hits that never was – every song delivers a colossal wallop, and yet it’s not exhaustingly high-octane either. The album moves through a kaleidoscopic range of tones, emotions and paces. Wind-tunnel, high-speed pop like the title track shake hips against utterly heavenly ballads (‘Take Yourself With You’), wrenching torch songs (‘Answer Me’), dancefloor funk (‘All at Once’), motorik-fuelled duets (‘Dive’, with co-producer Oli Bayston on guest vocals) and best of all, ‘Hell and Back’.

Everything about Stellular is brilliant, but above all else is that voice. It’s the voice I’ve been waiting to hear on record all my life – so relatable, charming, seductive, heartbreaking, powerful, subtle, beautifully restrained when necessary and, thanks to Dougall’s own creativity in the studio, wonderfully malleable and stunningly treated so that it becomes a kind of instrument in itself. I can listen to this voice all day. It has ten times the impact of other, lesser singers who always think more is more, that louder is better. It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. Dougall’s voice is stunningly layered, versatile and it’s getting better and better too. One listen to her new album A New Illusion is staggering proof of that – but that’s now. I’m talking about then.

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And I need to get back to ‘Hell and Back’ in particular – starting with, er…squiggles of synth (sorry writers, producers and performers, I tried my best with that one) and a drum beat that leads into those first lines: ‘In this world, seldom few contentedly make it through’ – we all have suffered, we rarely get through life without being burned, without avoiding the fucking dreadful pain that life can throw at us. Later talk of ‘black dogs’ suggest depression is a key subject matter here. Hey, I can relate to that. I’m on anti-depressant meds, have been for over a decade-and-a-half now – they’ve been part of my life so long that taking them in the morning (and evening) is as natural as putting the kettle on and waiting for it to boil to make my first tea of the day. I’ve suffered intense anxiety, OCD, depression in the past and wow, it’s a bastard. Yet it’s also made me stronger than ever because I’ve had to fight so hard to come to terms with it and I’ve learned to cope and live through it, and with it. Songs like ‘Hell and Back’ hit me hard because of this.

Dougall sings, ‘I walk that jagged line’ – I’m not sure if this means skirting the line between a what one would consider a normal life and one that one would consider ‘ill’ or ‘depressed’ – you know, seeming fine on the outside, but terrified that one might slip and fall into the abyss of depression at any time soon. It could also mean the euphoria and despair of feeling intense emotions, feeling like you can take on the world one moment and feeling there’s no hope at another. This is followed by ‘dance alone or out of time’. I’ve danced alone – sometimes, when you’re content with a night in, a glass of wine and your favourite mix playing, that can be great, but dancing alone can be the pits if you’re in a club and you’re with someone you feel no connection with or if you’re not dancing with the one you really want to dance with.

Obviously, I’m just taking what I’m personally taking from the song – there’s no definitive meaning to a song, ever. As for dancing out of time, well I’m going to assume that Dougall’s a good dancer (anyone who wrote ‘All at Once’ has to have a sense of rhythm) and that this is more to do with just feeling totally out of sync with everyone else. Feeling disconnected. Alone at the party. The music during these verses simmer and tremble with tension – sadness, an intense, longing and nerve-wracking kind of sadness, tightly wound by the coiled playing. It’s an incredible performance by the band, and proof of Dougall’s superb songwriting and grasp of structure. With verses like these, the tension can only last so long – something has to give.

The chorus is that very give, and it exudes a strangely determined passion – ‘let’s go to hell and back again’ – there seems to be a choice being made here, a statement of intent. Maybe let’s surrender ourselves to the pain, and if we see it through together, then maybe it will be okay. But who’s Dougall singing to? A fellow sufferer? Herself? Is she looking in the mirror when she’s singing this, prompting herself to carry on?

Yet ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ makes me question the line immediately before. Maybe Dougall’s not the one singing the title. Maybe it’s the demon on her shoulder, tempting her to fall into darkness, and ‘no matter how I try, they always win’ could be a surrender to that darkness. Now this chorus is, without a doubt, my most beloved moment in any Dougall song, and believe me, it’s up against formidable competition. What I love about Dougall’s songs is that they are, as well as being magnificent compositions as a whole, so full of extraordinary moments that I do the silly thing all the time and rewind my fave bits of the song to experience them all over again and again.

I’ll tell you which bit in the chorus absolutely kills me – every time. It’s ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ – especially, that bit I’ve put in italics. Oh my god, all I can do is sit down and just fucking keep it all together, lest I just fall apart over its unimaginable beauty. And the come down of ‘they always win’ ends the chorus (and indeed the song) on a frightening, uncertain note. This is not a song with a resolution.

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‘Hold my breath, even count to ten’ – are these methods, attempts to hold off anxiety? Maybe an OCD ritual, an exercise? It doesn’t seem to work – ‘the dark clouds descend’ immediately afterwards. Thinking about these words are fucking killing me, to be honest. They’re so sad. That feeling of hopelessness – ‘it’s no use’ – it just breaks my heart. If this indeed is what Dougall’s singing about, then I can relate to that sense of despair.

The next line –  ‘will you be my sole one partner in crime?’ is delivered with such a yearning, emotional wallop that it makes me want to fucking cry. Who is this partner? If it is Dougall singing in the first-person at the start of the chorus, then the sole partner must be that same person she’s singing to. A best friend, a lover – someone who she needs here with her. ‘Partner in crime’ is a fascinating way to put this, too – it gives the whole song an almost darkly romantic air, that together the two of them can find some kind of escape, like outlaws on the run, maybe? Yet unlike the almost determined ‘let’s go to hell and back again’, Dougall’s question (and delivery of that question) is less a hand outstretched to join her on this journey and more an intensely hopeful, pleading proposal.

The black dog, that famous signifier of depression arrives immediately afterwards, that blasted, incessant, heavy and intent beast that spoils it all, that tells you nothing will be alright, that you’re right to worry, to doubt, to feel bad. ‘Here comes the black dog’ – Dougall awaits her arrival, she’s been here before, it’s happening again. ‘Feel her running wild’ – not ‘see’, but ‘feel’ – because the dog is obviously not literal, its actions, its behaviour can only ever be felt. And don’t I have a lazy imagination for being taken aback when Dougall refers to the black dog as ‘her’ and not ‘him’? For me I’ve always pictured the black dog as male, but when a girl or a woman is suffering from depression, why the fuck would they picture it as male? I’m an idiot. Maybe it’s because most exposures to depression that I’ve encountered first-hand have been from men. That’s no excuse, though.

The chorus comes again, and like all brilliant second choruses, it takes the first and builds on it – in this case, backing vocals come in (are they Dougall’s?) doubling ‘devils and demons’ and adding ‘oh I have tried’ to the relevant foreground vocals, and the effect is almost like a taunting, deceptively innocent nursery-rhyme being sung by a playfully malevolent chorus of singers. It’s totally devastating.

Then there’s the amazing middle-eight, where everything builds and builds and swirls and swirls: synths come in, at once pulsating and insistent and also moving around and over the listener, and soon Dougall’s vocals do the same– multi-tracked so they mirror this whirlpool of sound, where they become a kind of instrument in themselves. I like to think of it as a less disturbing version of Tim Buckley’s incredible vocals-only experimental piece ‘Star Sailor’. Unlike that ‘song’, where the effect was pretty fucking terrifying, the effect here is like being intoxicated, or maybe something like hurtling through the stargate at the end of 2001 – absolutely remarkable production here. Few songs have conveyed this sense of sheer sensation – it takes the song to another level entirely.

With expert sleight of hand, it all stops, with nothing but a bassline, minimal percussion, and of course Dougall’s voice singing the chorus. It’s disarming and makes you double-check yourself. The second half of the chorus sees the whole band come back in and once more, the devils and demons win, and the song stretches out for a few more moments before stopping abruptly. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song. Brilliantly, the song that follows – ‘Space to Be’– is cut from the same emotional, despairing cloth as ‘Hell and Back’, but something close to sunshine and wild determination breaks through here, a fiery yearning to be free from it all which makes it a far more positive song, and the absolute rush of energy the music provides delivers that positivity. Together the two songs form a mind-blowing double impact.

‘Hell and Back’, no lie, is in my top ten songs of all time. It just encapsulates absolutely everything I love about music, how it can take me away, how it can take sadness and make something truly exhilarating, incredible and astonishing from it, how it can make me want to cry, how it makes me want to just want to sing, scream, sigh and swoon. Nothing beats it. Fuck it, I think it might be my favourite song ever.

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Rose Elinor Dougall: ‘Make it With You’

The road to the third album begins here…

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So… last Tuesday… just another day. Sign in at work at 9am, sign out at 5pm, the usual. But somewhere in-between I see a tweet from Rose Elinor Dougall informing us to keep an eye out for something new in 24-or-so hours time and my attention is well and truly caught – a new song, hopefully?

Dougall’s last album, 2017’s Stellular, was frankly the finest album I’d heard this century. I can’t really say much more about it than I already have done, but I have to say here that it encapsulated everything I love about pop music in one concentrated blast of ecstatic, sad, beautiful, sexy, haunting, catchy and spine-tingling euphoria. I wish it had done better in the charts – songs these good deserve to be heard more, but there you go. It wasn’t to be. The public’s loss. What do they know, eh?

I remember writing at the end of my review that there was no need to look forward to what Dougall would do next, because what we had right there and then was more enough, but time passes, and new songs inevitably come along. Given that Stellular was an absolute high for me, what happens after that? Well, a fall isn’t necessarily inevitable. I mean, if Stellular was Dougall’s Ziggy Stardust, then her next album could very well be her Aladdin Sane, and that would be A Very Good Thing Indeed, right? Still, I was a little bit nervous – could Dougall deliver a song as wonderful as anything on Stellular?

Aaaaaagh! Enough with the suspense! Yes, she can, alright?!!! Happy now?

Well, you should be. What a gorgeous song this is.

‘Make it With You’ is recognisably Dougall, but also sounds like the start of new territory for her. There are shades of Without Why‘s occasionally forlorn balladry, but now it feels imbued with the richer textures of Stellular as well as a more mature, sadder perspective. It sounds like the next step from the latter’s album’s closer ‘Wanderer’, but the mood is even more intimate, even more personal. I imagine when performed live this is going to be very special indeed. I wonder how the rest of the album will sound. As a lead single it’s remarkably subtle and quietly emotional. Dougall has a way with balladry and melodic shifts that clutches the heart and reduces me to a right old state. Seriously. I’m talking close to tears here, people.

The song appears to be about a relationship which is at a crossroads – there’s doubt and uncertainty here, yet hope and optimism, albeit of the bruised kind, too. The words are sparse, but each line cuts deep. I won’t delve into them here, because the song is too new for me and I think these lines should only be heard within the context of the song itself. I don’t want to try and take the song apart, not just yet. I feel like I should barely be talking about this  – Dougall sounds like she’s putting her heart out on record and here I am blithely writing about it.

What I will say that there is a beautiful directness to the words  that is very affecting and, couple with the music, proves to be quite powerful indeed. I won’t go into specific moments, but I heard shades of Pulp’s mid-eighties sound – notably that eerie violin drone of theirs that gave some of their B-sides a particular chill. Also, a vaguely country feel somewhere between the layers of sound. Also, an ambient hum – is that a mellotron? Some achingly lovely piano. A bit of Bowie’s ‘Five Years’-in-slow-motion with its beat.

I’ve listened to this song loads of times already in just these few days, and it’s a really special slow-dance of a song that’ll turn those grey skies outside a deep, dark blue. Yes, blue. I hear this song bathed in dreamy, sad, beautiful blue and I want to fall into it, and that’s what playing the song on loop is for, I guess. Also, the song features the word ‘renowned’, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in a song before. Bravo.

Listen to or buy ‘Make it With You’ here – the single package also features an edit of the title track and a lovely cover of Dave Cousins blissful/spooky 1972 song ‘Two Weeks Last Summer’, which strips down the trippiness of the original and plays up its acoustic, bucolic core. It’s very, very nice indeed.

’18 and Cry? A Look at the new Never Let Me Down by David Bowie

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Another year, another new David Bowie box set with, among other things, a new take on an established classic.

Oh wait, this is Never Let Me Down we’re talking about here, right?

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Bowie’s 1987 album, his seventeenth, is usually regarded as his absolute worst, his great misfortune, as bad as or even worse than its similarly lambasted predecessor, 1984’s Tonight. Thirty- one years later, it’s getting a belated makeover, or a dressing down at the very least. Each of the box sets in Parlophone’s Bowie retrospective programme has featured an alternate version of a particular studio album. The first two sets – Five Years and Who Can I Be Now? – featured down-mixed-from-5.1 versions of Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station respectively, but last year’s A New Career in a New Town went one step further and explicitly set out to improve what was considered by creators, critics and fans as a compromised album, 1979’s Lodger.

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Lodger had been long criticised for it’s ‘muddy’ sound and was regarded as the runt of the Berlin Trilogy, so news of a buffed-up remix, addressing what producer Tony Visconti and Bowie had considered to be flaws in the production, was eagerly anticipated. Having initially struggled with the original album myself when I first heard it nearly twenty years ago, I soon came to adore Lodger, warts and all, and loved the messy, queasy, claustrophobic sound of it. I wasn’t sure it needed any further work, but I had to admit that the thought of it getting a makeover to approximate Bowie and Visconti’s original vision did intrigue me.

In the end Lodger ’17 was a bit of a disappointment – it sounded bigger for sure, but its cavernous drum sound sounded at odds with the original era, its revisionist mixing occasionally crass and clumsy. On the other end of the spectrum, the stuff originally on Lodger that was intentionally clumsy, most notably the famously twisted, atonal guitar solo at the end of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, was removed, a decision I don’t think I’ve heard a positive word about. Lodger wasn’t perfect, but that kind of made it perfect in a weird way. After all, one of the album’s original titles was Planned Accidents, and this new mix made me realise that, yes, the album that we got in 1979 might not have been the one its makers had dreamed of, but it still turned out great. They should have left it alone. But then box sets aren’t sold with that kind of philosophy. They need tantalising hooks to draw us in. And that brings us to Never Let Me Down 2018, aka, Okay, We Admit It, We Let You Down.

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Bowie’s 1980’s has been a problematic phase of the man’s career for many fans. If we put aside the valedictory, phenomenal achievement of 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the odd single like ‘Under Pressure’, nearly everything Bowie released in that decade was tarred with the ‘too commercial’ stick. Much of this music shifted units, but it didn’t rank as highly as Bowie’s 70’s, which, lest we forget, is home to one of the finest runs of recorded music ever released. Case in point: when EMI re-released the Bowie albums on CD in 1999, I remember reading a review in Q Magazine where the writer reckoned that Let’s Dance, despite selling more copies than any Bowie album, was in fact no one’s favourite Bowie album. That review was a long time ago, though, and I think things have changed and that quite a few people would indeed hold that album very dear to their hearts. Indeed recently, the band Let’s Eat Grandma, whose members weren’t even born when that Q review that came out, included Let’s Dance in their list of their thirteen favourite albums. So I guess anything can eventually rise to the top, and stuff that’s not initially considered ‘classic’ era material can mean just as much to a listener as say, Hunky Dory or Low. Yep. Anything.

Except Never Let Me Down.

I can say with complete confidence that it is definitely no one’s favourite David Bowie album, and I doubt it ever will be. It was intended by Bowie at the time as a return to rock roots and artistic form following his misplacement of the muse on 1984’s Tonight, an album not as quite horrible as you’ve heard, but nevertheless a somewhat thin stew of odds and sods, covers and tepid production. Still, it had ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Loving the Alien’, not to mention the ambitiously bonkers ‘Dancing with the Big Boys’, so it had some merit. But at the time it was seen as a let-down. Three years later, during which time he’d worked in film, soundtrack work and of course, gave us ‘Dancing in the Street’, work on Bowie’s next album began. Peter Frampton was the new lead guitarist. Apart from the by-now-requisite Iggy Pop cover version, there was more original material on Never Let Me Down than there had been on a Bowie album since Scary Monsters. Also, Bowie was playing instruments again, even taking lead guitar on a few songs, the first time since…. is it Diamond Dogs?

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Nevertheless, the released album did suffer from a lack of truly strong material, not to mention some questionably OTT production, and despite selling well initially (there were some good reviews too), it quickly came to encapsulate all that was wrong with 80’s Bowie in the eyes and ears of long-term fans and critics, not to mention Bowie himself. One fair criticism was that it could have been recorded by absolutely anyone, that it was pop/rock in the broadest and blandest sense (at least by Bowie’s standards). Bowie may have gone ultra-pop and sold millions with Let’s Dance, but he did so in a way that was supremely distinctive, mixing Nile Rodgers’ trademark funk with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar howls. Never Let Me Down on the other hand, was seen as the dismal culmination of ‘what’s been referred to as The Phil Collins Years’.  Bowie, it was said, had never been so irrelevant. When I first heard it, its reputation as a stinker was already set in stone (oh, let’s say one of those stepping stones from The Bog of Eternal Stench), and I didn’t think much of it either, bar the undeniable loveliness of the title track (more of which here). But time will crawl, and so eventually I returned to the album with even fewer expectations, and in that respect, it didn’t let me down. In fact, I found it quite entertaining, quite catchy, and, thanks to its glossy sheen, quite appealing. No, it’s not one of Bowie’s best albums, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, and I continue to appreciate it more and more.

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I mean, this is the album that boasts the sparkling loveliness of the title track, the whirlwind rush of ‘New York’s in Love’, ‘the ugly/pretty’ bounce-funk of ‘Shining Star’ (yep, even the Mickey Rourke rap), the serious/goofy strut of ‘Beat of Your Drum’, the overblown but spectacular ‘Zeroes’…., and that’s not even mentioning the song that everybody’s legally allowed to like from the album, ‘Time Will Crawl’. Okay, not all the songs land, but I can’t help but warm to it. Bowie is on many levels is utterly untouchable and I find it quite endearing that he lost the plot a bit around this time, be it him rollerskating in the video to ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the This Morning/Pebble Mill-style daytime sax that introduces ‘Too Dizzy’, the WTF, out-of-nowhere concept that is ‘Glass Spider’ and its accompanying tour….ultimately I think its bad reputation is more to do with what is and what’s not deemed cool. It definitely doesn’t deserve one star out of five, which is what that Q review from decades ago gave it. Saying that, it is at most a fifth (arguably a twentieth) as good as Low, so maybe one star is appropriate, after all. And that’s why I hate star ratings. Look, if you like 80’s pop, you’ll probably enjoy it. Hey, if you like David Bowie, you’ll probably enjoy it. It isn’t ‘Starman’, but I don’t care. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.

Or….take it and remix it!

Well, not quite remix, because the novelty of the new Never Let Me Down is that, unlike Lodger ’17, where certain existing instrumentation was brought to the fore and others pushed to the background, here we have totally new sounds played by current musicians, including long-time Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar. In other words, it’s a case of ‘look, we couldn’t salvage this knackered old banger, so let’s just replace the parts’. Not all the parts, mind, but a fair few. The most obvious holdover from the original is obviously Bowie himself, who’s not around to redo his vocals. The fact that he’s not here anymore has led to some fans regarding this project as a desecration of his legacy, something made against his wishes and without his involvement. Yet it must be noted that Bowie had long expressed his satisfaction with Never Let Me Down , and had made a point of wanting to try re-do the album, and given that these box sets were most likely planned well in advance whilst Bowie was still alive, I can see this project being very much in line with his intentions. After all, the seeds for this project were sown around a decade ago, when a stripped down, reworked version of ‘Time Will Crawl’, mixed by Bowie collaborator Mario J. McNulty, was released as part of the iSelect compilation in 2008. It was drastically altered, with the bombast removed and its protest message more explicitly transparent. Since then though, there had been no further work done on the rest of the album’s songs.

Until now.

So let’s track-by-track this thing. There are no tracklisting changes or shifting here, unless you count the continued absence of ‘Too Dizzy’, that notorious blast of throwaway sexism that Bowie deemed so objectionable he removed it from all pressings of the album from 1995 onwards. It’s kinda fun, moronically catchy even, but those lyrics about a jealous lover, including the infamous ‘who’s this guy I’m gonna blow away?/What kind of love is he giving you?’ couplet, was enough for Bowie to retrospectively scrap it. I can see why fans might be upset at its disappearance, and to be honest, if that’s where Bowie’s head was at the time of making it, then the album in all its pressings should continue to reflect that state of mind. Oh well, let’s start at the start, shall we?

The stomping ‘Day-In Day-Out’ was originally the lead single for the album, complete with mildly controversial video, a more socially-conscious Bowie lyric (which didn’t convince some) and a massive sound that seemed tailor-made for the stadiums (indeed, it was). As much as I like the song, it was probably the most anonymous Bowie single to date. It sounded like a million other songs from that time. It was good, but was that good enough? The new version does a fine job in easing you into this project gently – it’s different for sure, but compared to some of the later reworkings on this album, not so much so. The essence of the original is very much still there, and aside from those very cool Reeves Gabrels guitars which can’t help but make me think of later-period Bowie, it could pass quite easily as an genuine alternative take from 1987. I do miss the guitar that was in the background during the verses of the original, but overall this is a really good paring down of a song that admittedly suffered from an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production. You know, synthetic, clipped brass. Drum machines. The works. It all became fatiguing after five minutes. On an aside, the vinyl version of Never Let Me Down featured shorter edits, and is slightly preferable to the CD release. The positives of the stripped new version is best showcased on the middle-eight, where the ‘la-la-la-la’s of the original, which used to be submerged, are now brought to the forefront and sound all the better for it. Overall, it’s like a layer of fat has been taken off the surface. Sometimes though, the stripped down approach leaves the song sounding incomplete – take that missing guitar in the verses that I mentioned earlier. It makes the song sound like a demo during these stages. However, at other times, when Gabrels’ new guitars take over (replacing the original, nondescript solo) near the end, the results are brilliant and stop the song from sinking into monotony like before.

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The reworked ‘Time Will Crawl’ is already familiar to fans – I’ve got to be honest, and I never thought I’d say this about a track off this particular album, but this song has almost become overrated, in that it’s the only bloody song on the album that ever seems to get a good review at the expense of everything else, and yet I can sometimes take or leave it. It hits all the right notes and was the sort of thing that sounded good on the radio, but like ‘Day-In, Day-Out’ hardly outstanding. The 2008 MM mix got a lot of praise at the time for scaling back the original’s excesses, but I still think, even in this later version, that it’s merely a decent song, nothing special. Yet it is pretty well loved, even by Bowie himself. The newer version makes things a bit more palatable for the anti-80’s crowd – stronger acoustic guitars, less reverb, real drums, etc. but it also suffers from excessively dry vocal production, just like on the verses of the new ‘Day-In Day-Out’, and stuff like this makes the song occasionally sound like a demo or radio session. For all the flaws of the 1987 Never Let Me Down, at least it sounded like a proper, finished album! This is the problem with making songs ‘nude’, they sound incomplete as a result. On this basis I prefer the original ‘Time Will Crawl’. It sounds fuller.

Now, this is going to seem perverse, but seriously, I prefer ‘Beat of Your Drum’ to the two songs that precede it. In fact, I fucking love this song! On the original it was a very enjoyable mix of cavernous, exciting verses and a rambunctious, supremely dumb chorus that recalled Lou Reed’s similarly silly ‘Banging on Your Drum’. On the new version, the fun element has arguably been removed and in its place a more sober mood – this works well on the verses, where sharp strings replace the synths of before and prove almost as effective, but the once goofy, throwaway, carefree ebullience of the chorus now sounds older, more respectable – it’s still base-level (you can’t get away from that horny, salacious lyric), but more sophisticated, formal and mature, and I don’t know, maybe that makes the words even more decadent and wrong-sounding as a result? Like the Bowie on this version should really know better? Isn’t this song about shagging groupies, and young ones at that? It’s still a great new version though, and the first thing on ’18 that sounds like a genuine, startling alternative, not just a case of a bit of trimming here and there.

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The title track was notably recorded after the bulk of the sessions for the main album, and ended up being the best thing on it. I wrote about this excellent song in further detail before, but just to recap, the 80’s bounce, the great use of slap bass (yes, you read that right), the lovely harmonica, the spot-on homage of Lennon with the vocals helped make it an utter delight of a song, and I think of all the tunes on the album, this is the one that didn’t need altering at all. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happened here. It’s a decent alternative – no slap bass, unsurprisingly – but it does sound a bit more lumpen compared to the original. The new bass feels too loud and overbearing too. To be honest, the original could never be bested in my ears, so that’s a point to the ’87 version.

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‘Zeroes’ was confidently selected as the lead single for NLMD ’18 (it really should have been a single back in ’87), and it was a wise choice – not only is it the album’s most anthemic and joyous song regardless of whether your listening to it in ’87 or ’18, but the new version is a great example of the kind of changes this project has brought about. Originally it was a great, upbeat and admittedly overcooked explosion of a tune, but the new one strips it down and makes it more intimate and yet still huge. Both versions are excellent, and Peter Frampton’s sitar is wisely maintained on the new one, but it still has that ‘dry’ sound on the vocals that occasionally make it sound like a soundcheck.

Still, as much as ‘Zeroes’ has been given a new lease of life, none of the songs have been so drastically altered as the album’s erstwhile laughing stock – ‘Glass Spider’. Since Bowie’s vocals remain unchanged, his opening narration, which details the tiny glass arachnids mourning the disappearance of their formidable mother, is as crazy as ever. Close your eyes and you can almost glimpse a miniature model of Stonehenge being lowered onto the stage. In fact, the original ‘Glass Spider’ may very well be the most preposterous song in the entire Bowie canon. Once the music in the original kicked in, its theatrical, high-concept approach was at odds with the less fantastical tone of the rest of the album. Now however, the up-tempo music has been entirely altered to the extent that it sounds like something from 1.Outside, which is as about as far removed an album from Never Let Me Down as Young Americans is from Earthling. It’s doomy, dystopian and just like before, doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album at all! I’m not sure if this is what Bowie had always preferred the song to sound like, but it sounds pretty damn good anyway!

‘Shining Star (Making My Love)’, despite lyrics alluding to Sinn Fein, bodies covered in scabs and whatnot, was musically the bounciest and most upbeat track on the album. Seriously, you could imagine the Gummi Bears doing their opening titles thing to this song. Maybe Bowie and his band originally recorded it on a trampoline, I don’t know, I haven’t checked. I wouldn’t be surprised though. Some find it unbearably silly, others (like me) think it’s immensely entertaining, especially Bowie’s almost wide-eyed vocal. This is also the song with Mickey Rourke providing a rap, a bizarre turn of events to say the least. The new version remains bouncy, but in a manner closer to 90’s trip-hop than the bubblegum pop of before. A little bit Black Tie, White Noise in fact. I’m surprised they didn’t get Al. Be Sure! to guest rap, but instead it’s Laurie Anderson who replaces Rourke, which is a bit of a cruel move, especially since her delivery is almost identical to Rourke’s anyway, but I guess the cool kids will find it easier to digest the hipper Anderson on record than the guy who ended up playing one of the title roles in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. I hope this new version finds them well.

‘New York’s in Love’ is still a rush, but with an emphasis more on the stomp than the glide, with the drumming recalling the insistent beat of Reality‘s ‘Looking for Water’. On an unpopular album, ‘New York’s in Love’ is exceptionally unpopular, but I really like the original, especially the way it takes flight during the chorus. Like ‘Beat of Your Drum’, it rides along on sheer spirit and bounce. It’s very dumb, it’s not clever, but fuck it, I love it. Funny thing is, near the end of the song, I used to think Bowie sang ‘I can smell a B-side’, as though he knew this wasn’t one of his best songs and he was prepared to relegate it, but on the new version it’s more obvious that he sings ‘Ugly (or ‘ug-er-lee’) on each side’, which may also have been a critique of the original vinyl, I’m not sure. One thing’s for sure, Bowie’s love for the album dwindled sharply after its release. Very sharply. This new version is less excitable, and as such, less exhilarating, but it’s still a lot of fun. I like Gabrels’ guitars, occasionally sounding like vapour trails throughout and blending nicely with Frampton’s original leads. I miss the silly organ from the original though.

‘ ’87 and Cry’, whilst being reasonably catchy, is a pretty nondescript bit of filler on a notably nondescript Bowie LP. Musically, it’s the slackest, most throwaway thing on the album as it presently exists, and to be honest, by this stage, the dependence on straight-up rockers would start to get a bit wearying and conceptually depressing, even if it and the deleted ‘Too Dizzy’ fun bits of filler in themselves. The new version does a fair job in giving it some alternate oomph, I suppose. There’s not much I can say about this song. Skipping over the now deleted ‘Too Dizzy’, we come to closer ‘Bang Bang’, originally an Iggy Pop song from his Party LP, and a song that I had difficulty with on the old album – the production seemed especially dated, particularly during the chorus (the way everything came to a standstill just before Bowie sings ‘I got mine!’ seemed so silly), but I’ve come to like the song quite a bit, it gives the album a little extra push before calling time on Bowie’s commercial phase. One thing’s for sure, the original music better suited the original vocal, which was Bowie at his most flippant and cavalier. Replacing the ultra-glossy pop of ’87 with the moody ’18 music sounds bloody weird, to say the least. Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek voice mixed with an atonal string section makes for an unusual blend, and I’m left thinking – like ‘Glass Spider’, is this really what Bowie wanted ‘Bang Bang’ to sound like all along? Never mind, the awkward tension between old vocal and new music does give the song a new edge.

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It sounds like I’ve been a bit dismissive of the new Never Let Me Down here. On the plus side, the changes are mostly impressive, and there’s nothing here as anachronistic as the weird percussive updates on last year’s Lodger. It’s very rewarding to hear the substantial alterations made to ‘Beat of Your Drum’, ‘Glass Spider’ and ‘Bang Bang’, and when the changes are more subtle, like on ‘New York’s in Love’ or ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the effect is quite pleasing. Nevertheless, I must admit that, having now listened to it, there’s something about this endeavour that I’m not sure about. I truly believe its intentions are noble and passionate, but I also feel at times like it’s trying too hard to court the cool crowd, the kind of listener who’s far too hip or even grouchy to admit liking the original version, as though its brash pop-rock hybrid was something dirty, something to be ashamed of. However, in draining the album of its excesses, some of the original spirit has been taken away too. The new version sounds more tentative, as though the music’s lost its nerve a little, opting to keep a cautious step back while Bowie’s original vocals remain set to full-throttle. Some songs, like ‘Time Will Crawl’ or ‘Never Let Me Down’ don’t match or provide a truly satisfactory alternative to the originals. Still, the whole enterprise works very nicely as an experiment, an interesting ‘what if?’ and I like to think that Bowie would have been very happy with it. I think a lot of listeners will prefer it to the original too. On one level it’s definitely ‘better’, in that all those embarrassing 80’s quirks that many would now consider dated have now been ditched, but you know, I like those quirks! Like it or not, the album is a part of Bowie’s canon, influenced by what came before and an influence on what came after. The album was a response to Tonight and in turn it paved the way for Tin Machine, and I’m glad Parlophone or whoever’s responsible have respected the original’s place in history by making sure it will still be the most commonly available edition (it’s guaranteed to get an individual reissue next year, while this new version will only be available as part of the box set), unlike the recent tinkering of some of Felt’s albums, where the first versions tragically look set to be consigned to obscurity.

So there you go, that’s the new Never Let Me Down. It’s definitely the best of the alternate versions of Bowie albums that these box sets have offered, and I’d like to think that it will also urge listeners to re-evaluate the original. Incidentally, I think this Loving the Alien box set marks the very first time that Bowie’s ‘Phil Collins Years’ have been focused on exclusively, with no overwhelming shadow from either the earlier, classic period or the later comeback material cast over it. On previous compilations and box sets, the likes of ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Underground’ were always going to seem lightweight after “Heroes” and ‘Starman’ and ‘Golden Years’ and all that, but with strict emphasis on this period and with no distractions on either side, this era’s pleasures become all the greater – Let’s Dance sounds like a total classic for probably the first time since 1983, all those odds and ends on soundtracks shine even brighter (‘This is Not America’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’ are absolutely ace, and in its own soppy way, ‘As the World Falls Down’ is really quite beautiful) and you realise that Tonight could have been much better if some of those alternate mixes found on the accompanying Dance compilation had been used instead.

The 80’s Bowie comeback starts here!

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Felt: The Pictorial Jackson Review (2018 version)

Another round of reissues, another round of problems…

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This year’s ‘A Decade in Music’ retrospective of Felt, that most wonderful of indie bands, continues with Cherry Red’s recent reissuing of the latter half of Lawrence and Co.’s ten albums – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1986), Poem of the River (1987), The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988), Train Above the City (1988) and Me and a Monkey on the Moon (1989) – in long-awaited vinyl re-pressings and deluxe CD sets complete with odds and sods (badges, posters, etc) as a contemporaneous 7″ single. Felt were one of those bands who, back in the day, gave fans value for money, rarely releasing tracks from albums as singles, instead preferring to do it the old fashioned away and give us exclusive, non-LP A and B sides. This current reissue programme however has been a bit a funny one – compiling the 7″s with the CD version instead of the LP edition, for example, and ignoring the far superior 12″ releases which featured even more exclusive tracks. To be honest though, that’s not been the only problem with this programme.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not bought any of these new editions – I’m more than happy with the LPs and 12″s that I already have, not to mention the 2003 CD reissues (although there was an early screw-up regarding The Pictorial Jackson Review that switched its first eight songs with the entirety of Train Above the City, a problem since rectified with the second, more commonly available Cherry Red CD pressing) and I’m really not fussed about things like posters and badges, so I limited my exposure to this year’s Felt reissues via streaming platforms. That’s how I heard the surprise ‘de-mix’ of Ignite the Seven Cannons, the band’s fourth album that had long been criticised for its reverb-heavy Robin Guthrie production. The new mix had done something like what Paul McCartney did with his Let it Be…Naked project, which was to strip the album of its excesses.

Unfortunately in Felt’s case, the new Ignite (or at least the tracks that had been restored – weirdly, half of it was still left alone) sounded like a bunch of demos, and as someone who loved the original production, despite or maybe even because of it’s over-richness, I was left pretty underwhelmed. What made this exercise worse was that, in terms of physical presence, this restored mix was to be the only version made available to buy over the counter, with Lawrence getting all George Lucas on our arses and insisting that these new versions were the only ones he wanted physically available. Hey look, I love Lawrence, I think he’s a genius, but I have found this preservation of his legacy (and it’s not just his, let’s remember – Felt were a band) pretty perplexing. Today if you want to hear the original Ignite the Seven Cannons, it’s streaming/download options only.

There was also some tinkering on third album The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories (the instrumental ‘Crucifix Heaven’, rudely deleted from the 2003 edition but reinstated here but in edited form) and the hilariously mad title of fifth album Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was replaced with the more palatable The Seventeenth Century, but they were relatively small changes compared to the sonic overhaul of Ignite and now, with this new round of reissues, the structural overhaul of The Pictorial Jackson Review, a change which is so ruthless it’s almost funny.

To refresh your fuzzy Felt memories, The Pictorial Jackson Review was the eighth album by the band, a curious LP of two halves which boasted short, snappy, delightful and relatively lo-fi pop songs on one side and spooky, jazzy instrumentals (composed by organist Martin Duffy) on the other. The two sides didn’t resemble each other in the slightest, and the second half probably alienated more than a few fans, but this kind of perverse manoeuvre was classic Felt, and it was also a helpful warning sign for the all-out cocktail-bar jazz of Train Above the City later that year. Although the band’s exposure was nowhere near on the level of David Bowie, Felt’s ‘pop on one side/ambient on the other’ risk on Pictorial was very reminiscent of what had been done eleven years earlier on Low – and arguably even more uncompromising, if ultimately not as risky in regards to public acceptance. The twelve-minute length of ‘Sending Lady Load’ may try many listeners’ patience (I prefer the shorter, creepier ‘The Darkest Ending’) but the sheer audacity of combining these disparate sides definitely made it a Felt album worth admiring. However, what Lawrence has done with Pictorial ’18 is to completely remove the two Duffy tracks and add a couple of songs closer in approach to the original first side. That still makes ten tracks, but the new LP has split them up evenly so we now get five per side and with some of the original first side songs moved to the second. This makes the album slighter in more ways than one. I mean, it’s literally a shorter album, but instead of an eight-song side punch of vinyl, with pop gem after pop gem, all the way from ‘Apple Boutique’ to ‘Don’t Die on My Doorstep’, we get an unnecessary split down the middle.

So yeah, let’s not mince words – the concept of the original album has been completely obliterated. Now what we have is a straight-up pop album that despite featuring splendid vocals and lyrics, amounts to a work as small as Felt’s two all-instrumental LPs. It’s a terrific set of songs in its own right, of course. The original pop side of Pictorial was a great run of songs, a kind of 80’s Basement Tapes for Lawrence, with warm, friendly Hammond organ from Duffy, a strident and lively rhythm section (courtesy of Felt mainstay Gary Ainge on drums and the late Mick Bund on bass) and melodic, supremely catchy guitars from Marco Thomas and Lawrence himself, who also indulges in his most overt Lou Reed/Bob Dylan vocal homages here. Compared to the epic Maurice Deebank years, or even the grand likes of Forever Breathes the Lonely Word and Poem of the River, the first side of Pictorial kept things small and cosy, yet also lively, raw and garage-like at times. It’s quite an unusual approach for a band already eight years into its existence. At times it sounds like debut. A bloody great debut, but still a debut. That is, until you flip the record over and you get those Duffy instrumentals, which sound absolutely nothing like what we just heard. On vinyl the difference is more pronounced and arguably more effective. On CD it’s a bit too much like someone switched the radio station when your back was turned. It’s almost too brutal a swerve. Still, it’s preferable to what we now have here. I’m sorry, I respect an artist’s decision to do what he or she or they want to do with their work, but I do think this album has been neutered somewhat.

If the album had always been released this way, then I’d have nothing to criticise, except maybe that I’d have liked it to have been a bit longer? But, just like with Ignite, Lawrence has changed something established and denied listeners a chance to hear it as it was originally heard. Re-writing history, essentially. The new additions, an embryonic version of Denim song ‘Ape Hangers’ (here named ‘Jewels are Set in Crowns’) and an alternate take of later ‘Space Blues’ B-side ‘Tuesday’s Secret’ (with a production closer in line with Pictorial rather than the brighter, cleaner sound of the single) are absolutely fine and help to bulk up the remaining tracklist well enough. Like I say, the new Pictorial Jackson Review of 2018 is excellent, a great bundle of songs that’ll always bring a smile to my face. But I know all too well about what the album used to be. And to change the essence of the original album, to change what made it so unique and most fascinating just seems irritatingly cavalier. Then there’s the baffling decision to move ‘Bitter End’ to a slightly later spot on the album. Instead of following ‘Until the Fools Get Wise’, now it comes after ‘How Spook Got Her Man’. Why? Who knows?

Oh well, that’s Felt for you. Like New Order, the handling of their back catalogue can be described as wayward (hey, that rhymes with ‘Hayward’, Lawrence’s supposed surname) and bound to frustrate. Still, for the most part, it’s amazing that most of the band’s music has been made physically available once more. And there’s always Lawrence’s present incarnation as Go-Kart Mozart to savour, with the new Mozart’s Mini-Mart album having turned out to be one of the most delightful releases of 2018.

PS: Poem of the River, the album that preceded The Pictorial Jackson Review, has also been subjected to changes, though nowhere on the same level as what I’ve just described. ‘She Lives By the Castle’ appears here in a slightly different version – the guitars are noticeably unfamiliar to what I’m used to. It’s a fine alternate version, no better or worse than the original. I can live with it! The album also seems to be mastered a little louder than before, at least from the sounds of opening song ‘Declaration’, which used to begin so quiet that Lawrence’s hushed vocal sounded like a little mouse. Now he sounds like a bigger mouse. Good for him!

PSS: Here is my earlier look at the de-mixed Ignite the Seven Cannons.

PSSS: Here is my even earlier look at the whole of Felt’s output.

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

Seriously, it’s not that bad…

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In 1984, Prince was so hot you could get blisters just from looking at him. After five increasingly spectacular albums, the phenomenon that was Purple Rain shot him into the stratosphere, and I think most of us would agree that it was a thoroughly deserved success. As I’ve already said in my earlier review, Prince delivered a 1-2 shot that was so irresistible he became the biggest star on the planet for a while. The film was – the occasional iffy performance, touch of sexism and cringey line of dialogue excepting – a triumph. It still stands up well today, with the performance material still utterly electrifying. The accompanying album was mind-blowingly great – a non-stop thriller (even more so than Thriller) of a pop juggernaut that, for better or worse, consolidated Prince in popular culture. I say worse in that it was the sort of album that everything Prince did afterwards was going to be judged against.

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I mean, how the hell do you follow it? After all, Prince had not one but two albatrosses to conquer – a blockbusting album and a blockbusting film. On the musical front he remained as preposterously prolific as ever, with parts of Around the World in a Day already finished before Purple Rain had even been released, not to mention the wealth of still-unreleased stuff that lurks in his vault. Of course, the easy thing to do would have been to release another Purple Rain, but Around the World in a Day was a classic example of Prince not looking back, instead taking on a new wealth of influences, delivering something entirely different. Yet despite the low-key promotion (Prince wasn’t even in the video for first single ‘Paisley Park’) and the not so-hot reviews, the album still sold, just not in the same league as its predecessor. Fans wanting more ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ might have been disappointed – the album rarely burned with the same white-hot electricity. It’s far more playful, bittersweet, weird and no, it’s not a blockbuster like Purple Rain, but its rewards are plentiful. It’s big hit – the effervescent ‘Raspberry Beret’ – is difficult to resist, the baroque tale of heartbreak that is ‘Condition of the Heart’ is one of his most beautiful ballads, ‘America’ rocks, ‘Paisley Park’ is pure utopian loveliness, ‘Pop Life’ home to one of the best piano + synth + slap bass hooks EVER and ‘Tamborine’ a delightful throwaway. Okay, ‘The Ladder’ was a bit too obviously ‘Purple Rain’ Part 2 and ‘Temptation’ a bonkers tale of sin, guilt and last-second redemption that won points for sheer bravura, but was still an oddly unsatisfying album closer. Then there was the real life stuff – Prince, already known for his reticence with the press, had now refused to contribute to the Stateside equivalent of Live Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ – ‘We are the World’ – which wound up some of the press and the public a little, not to mention that on the night that the music world’s biggest and brightest were recording said song (and apparently eating caviar/drinking champagne, but let’s not concentrate on that), Prince’s bodyguard got into an violent altercation with a photographer (this and other contemporaneous events would be referenced in later B-side ‘Hello’). All of a sudden, Prince was a selfish jerk, a weirdo, etc. Still, the music. Damn good music. Ah yes, but what about the movies?

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If Prince had quit while he was ahead cinematically and never released anything other than the Purple Rain movie, his celluloid legacy would have remained untarnished. However, everybody wanted more. Now, the obvious thing would have been Purple Rain 2, but Purple Rain was soooo 1984. No, this new film would have to be just as much a step into new territory as his music had been so good at doing. By the time Under the Cherry Moon had come out, even Around the World in a Day was last year’s news. He’d made another album, which would act as the soundtrack to the new movie.

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That album, Parade, is a masterpiece on equal footing with Purple Rain. The Revolution-era of Prince is one of the most giddying, deliriously imaginative and varied capsules of music ever created by anyone, and that’s just the stuff that was officially released. Honestly, dig further, and there are even more unreleased riches to discover. If Around the World in a Day was an album full of gems but not quite a classic overall, Parade hits back with a vengeance, an expertly executed, almost scary-in-its-scope rollercoaster that continues the Prince momentum with flair, funk, ingenuity, beauty, humour and outright razzle-dazzle. The first stretch of music, an uninterrupted medley of breathtaking variety that takes in the carnival psychedelia of ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, the so lean it’s malnourished strut of ‘New Position’ and the humid, Lisa Coleman-sung lust-funk of ‘I Wonder U’, packs more into its five or six minutes length than most albums could hope to accomplish. The dreamy balladry of ‘Under the Cherry Moon’, the jazzy ‘Girls and Boys’, monstrously epic ‘Life Can Be So Nice’, beautiful interlude ‘Venus de Milo’, the monumental, soaring ‘Mountains’, the delightfully cavalier ‘Do U Lie’, the overlooked single ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ and heartbreaking closer ‘Sometimes it Snow in April’… oh, and ‘Kiss’. You know that one. I mean, the album’s just embarrassingly brilliant. Unfortunately, all of this musical genius was undermined by the accompanying movie, which was regarded as his first out-and-out failure. It probably didn’t help that Prince was listed as director – for critics this insanely multi-talented genius had gone step too far, like what, he can do anything? What was he going to do next, write children’s stories?

It was probably was very eagerly anticipated back then. Nowadays it’s rarely described as anything (if described at all) but a total turkey. Reviews were crap, box office was low and it crawled out of cinemas in quick time. It also won five Raspeberry Awards. Luckily Prince was still hot, and he moved on and we got Sign O the Times and everybody forgot it, if not forgave it.

It’s an odd film. Unlike Purple Rain, which tapped into a cultural buzz and ended up defining it, Under the Cherry Moon has absolutely no likeminded ambitions. It’s Prince doing his thing, his own idiosyncratic thing, I’ll give Prince this – he’d could have done Purple Rain all over again, but Cherry Moon is so different to Purple Rain that it almost feels like an act of perversion. The most obvious thing is that it’s in black and white. I mean, the 1980s – the most day-glo, neon-drenched decade of them all, reduced to monochrome? What was he thinking? Also, even though the personal elements of Purple Rain made for some surprising drama, I’m going to wager that everybody’s favourite bits in that film was the performance stuff. Cherry Moon has almost no footage of Prince actually singing or playing. Only one song – ‘Girls and Boys’ – gets ‘performed’, and even that’s rudely cut-off halfway. The Revolution don’t feature, except for the ‘Mountains’ promo that plays over the end credits. You can either hate this film for its refusal to play by expectations or just enjoy the ride.

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The plot? Well, first of all it seems to be set in an undefined time period that looks like it’s set in the 1920’s, what with its Jazz Age ambience, yet there are references to Sam Cooke and Miles Davis, plus one of the characters starts singing ‘Planet Rock’, so where the hell are we, the eighties? Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a narcissistic gigolo/pianist who loves seducing the money out of the local high society women on the French Riviera. He’s assisted by his fellow conman brother Tricky (Jerome Benton), with whom he has a flirty, homoerotic chemistry. The latest rich girl on the block is Mary (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who’s potentially worth a cool 50 million dollars. So Christopher begins his seduction, but what starts out as mere mercenary greed soon blossoms into….yep, love. The thing is, Mary’s already engaged to someone she doesn’t love, and her criminal father (Steven Berkoff) isn’t going to take too kindly to some flash hustler trying to rip off the family. Yeah, it’s an old, old, old story, but filming it in monochrome actually makes everything here seem agreeably old-fashioned anyway. The director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, was a Scorsese collaborator at this time, so it’s no surprise that this is one very fine looking movie – it was rumoured that Ballhaus had actually co-directed the movie with Prince after original director Mary Lambert was ejected from the scene.

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The plot stuff is pretty loose – there are often scenes of Christopher and Tricky goofing around, trying to charm their way out of paying the rent on their flat, or showing up Mary’s ignorance (the highly amusing ‘Wrecka Stow’ sequence). There’s a gag involving bats which comes out of absolutely nowhere, and yet it’s kinda genius – I love it for its sheer randomness. There’s also a bit where Prince channels Bela Lugosi’s bizarro close-ups – absolutely mad. There are also an awful lot of shots of Prince and Mary kissing, if you like seeing that in close-up. Well, one of the songs on the soundtrack is called ‘Kiss’ – what did you expect? For the most part it’s a breezy, fun ride. There’s little of the darkness and misogyny that lurked underneath Purple Rain, and while Mary is initially treated as a figure of fun, it’s more to do with her class roots than her gender. I think.

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As for Prince himself, it was noted around the time of Purple Rain‘s release that The Kid was a thinly veiled depiction of himself, but here he seems to be trying something else. Maybe there’s a lot of Prince in Christopher; who knows? Like The Kid, he’s hardly a flattering example of humanity, though instead of the former’s ugliness, here it’s more do with gaucheness and arrested development. There’s a rather telling scene later on when Christopher calls Mary late at night – she’s already smitten and is lying in her bed (listening to an instrumental of  ‘I Wonder U’ – if that’s not music to get you in the mood then I don’t know what is) and she asks what’s on Christopher’s mind. He responds with the goofiest delivery of the word ‘sex’ possible, like he’s struggling to keep it together and not blow the charade. You realise that at this stage that Christopher is still a child at heart, despite the reality of these adult complications he’s involved himself in. Sex is definitely a game to this guy – he behaves like an adolescent (even more so than The Kid), a coquettish schemer with a gamut of poses and moves that resembles role play and not actual adult sexuality. He’s a little brat. Tricky is no better – the pair of them deserve each other. Still, they are funny together – it’s nice to see Prince actually play off another actor following the sulky sullenness of his Purple Rain interactions, and his and Benton’s scenes are a pleasure.

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There are hints throughout that all this romantic treachery could end badly, but still, seeing Christopher get gunned down at the film’s climax was a bit of a jolt, like a compilation album with nine party tracks that ends with Joy Division’s ‘Decades’. Okay, maybe not that severe, but still! To be fair, the album does something similar – the momentum of the first eleven songs are so breathlessly exciting that the downer of ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ comes as a shock. Yet like that song’s title suggests, life can be full of sudden left-turns. Besides, ‘April’ is one of Prince’s most beautiful songs, whereas the ending of Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t quite have the dramatic punch it was probably hoping for. In fact, such is the generic nature of the boy-meets-girl/class divide/vengeful father plot that a lot of the film doesn’t really have much in the way of emotional heft. It’s all been done before, I suppose. The pleasures of this film lie in the little bits, the little idiosyncrasies, and of course, the songs, if you can hear them. Unlike Purple Rain, where all nine songs were heavily integrated into the film’s fabric, almost acting as a commentary on the action. Under the Cherry Moon prefers to showcase Parade‘s songs as background material – sometimes they dominate a scene, like ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’ soundtracking the establishing shots of the Riviera, or ‘Kiss’ and ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ dominating later scenes, and of course the aforementioned ‘Girls and Boys’, but other times they’re just there to a little extra ambience. A waste of great songs, you may think. You may be right.

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So, is it actually a misunderstood gem? Hmm. Hear me out. I love Prince, particularly 80’s Prince, so I feel that everything he did during this time was touched by some kind of genius. Yes, even this. It has a ebullient, effervescent charm that I find pretty appealing. It has been noted that the more fun the crew had on a film set, the less fun it ends up being for the viewer. This can apply mostly to comedies, where everybody seems to be getting off on their own jokes, more so than the audience. I get the feeling that Prince and his mates were goofing around on the set – Cherry Moon is hardly an outstanding example of watertight narrative or originality, but it gets by on an easy-going vibe. Most of the humour in Purple Rain was of the unintentional kind, like when Prince was going off on one of his tantrums, or the occasional wooden supporting performance. Here, the comedy is most definitely intentional.

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Ultimately, Under the Cherry Moon will remain a curio, but I like it. Yeah, it got slagged, but Prince was moving too fast to seem to care too much. After Cherry Moon, Prince broke up the Revolution, tried to release a triple-album called Crystal Ball which fell through and, combined with other unreleased projects, emerged as Sign ‘O’ the Times, which many regard as Prince’s artistic peak (not me, but it’s still a 5-star experience). This was followed by the acclaimed concert film of the same name, which usually doesn’t get lumped in with Prince’s other three films because, aside from a few dramatic segues between songs, it’s essentially a gig set to celluloid. Then there was the attempt to get back to funk basics with the salacious The Black Album, which was pulled by Prince at the last minute for various reasons the most rumoured being that he took Ecstasy and God told him not to release such unsavoury material. Good move there from the Man Upstairs, because had it been released, The Black Album would have been (in my opinion) Prince’s weakest album of the 80’s. A good album for sure, but not great. The swiftly created Lovesexy was the ‘good’ to The Black Album’s ‘evil’ and was a deliriously funky, often spectacular ride through Prince’s spiritual and physical obsessions. Maybe not quite on the same level as his last few albums, but damn, damn fine nonetheless. Then came Batman, which brought renewed commercial success thanks to the film itself, and did have plenty of engaging songs in it (the sparkling ‘Vicki Waiting’, the fun ‘Partyman’ and especially the gorgeous ‘Scandalous’, for me his best recorded seduction) but the overall quality was a step down from before. A few genuinely mediocre songs (‘The Arms of Orion’, ‘Lemon Crush’) didn’t help.

This takes us to the Graffiti Bridge
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