Wednesday, January 25, 2012

the last great pop single....

....was, or if you will currently is, Bodies by Robbie Williams. i've just listened to it again this evening and yes, nothing has personified nor dared all that is great about pop music since this was released over 2 years ago. more on how sad that is later, but i suppose i should give a "why" first.

some presumably unrequired history first, though. Robbie Williams was, of course, the "not as pretty or talented as the others" member of seminal 90s outfit Take That. Robbie didn't particularly care for this tag as you would expect, but that only came to the notice of the public one fine June afternoon at Glastonbury. presumably fed up of being the personification of a fifth wheel at a Take That recording or rehearsal session, Robbie headed off to Glastonbury, armed with a crate of champange libertaed from the record label.

his intention was, presumably, to sit and drink it all whilst catching some decent music. a certain Noel Gallagher clocked this pop star and his booze, and asked if he could help him neck it. sure was the response, as legend has it, on two conditions. Robbie would share the champers so long as he could join in the "Brit Pop" game of football backstage, and indeed if he could go on stage with Oasis later that day. done deal for Noel, Robbie got to do both and practically overnight went from anonymous boy bander to being really, really f****** cool.

material was required to back up being cool, though. it came eventually. the debut solo single, a cover of George Michael's Freedom 90, did well, but Old Before I Die and Lazy Days failed to inspire. the debut album, Life Thru A Lens, did sort of OK, in particular when people clocked one track - the one that would be the next single, Angels. it was this last song that saved Life Thru A Lens from a fast trip to sale bins and indeed changed Robbie from being a quasi-one hit wonder curiosity into being one of the biggest solo pop stars, financially and sales wise, in history.

hit album after hit single followed, any venue holding one of his concerts sold out in the time it just took you to read this, awards were thrown at him. he became guilty, then, of the very worst thing you can be for certain elements of the British press and society - a huge success. after a decade or so of huge success it was time, some decided, to try and knock him down.

this he duly gave all and sundry the means to do.

whereas it sold a few million (4.5 according to some), Rudebox did not sell mega millions, and did not feed his adoring public nice pop songs and a ballad as was expected. a mostly experimental piece made for the most part with the Pet Shop Boys, it bewildered many and left a few more rather cold. it was as brave and as bold a move from him as the one he took to walk or get fired from Take That, but did't quite lead to a new level of success.

i'm not going to sit here and write how Rudebox is wildly misunderstood and wrongly overlooked. in respect of artist indulgence it's not Metal Machine Music, but that doesn't mean it's a classic. it has a reasonable following of admirers, though, and it did contain one bona fide great song.

She's Madonna, by being in sound and appearance a traditional Robbie Williams song, is so out of step with the rest of the album that when it comes up on the album you can almost hear the executives at EMI begging him to rather go back and record more like it. lyrically, it was an astonishing peek into the world of celebrity. if you are unaware of it, in some stark detail it gives over the information about how Guy Richie and Madonna came to be an item, and the break up of Mr Richie's relationship on the spot - "I love you baby / but face it she's Madonna / no man on Earth / could say that he don't want her". legend persists that this is how the conversation actually went.

by the time it was released, however, interest in Robbie was on a downward road to say the least, and the single barely made Top 20. so off Mr William vanished, for nearly 2 years.

so, let's skip forward 2 years (give or take) and get to September 2009. beyond tabloid tales of Williams living in a tent in the Nevada Desert in the hopes of seeing a UFO, little interest or attention was paid to what he was up to in his day job. as it turned out, Robbie had been writing songs, recording and producing them with no less than celebrated producer Trevor Horn.

in an exceptionally rare case these days and in particular at that time, no leaks or advance copies of what Robbie had done had made it near the internet. when the first new single from Robbie Williams in over 2 years got its world premiere on stations around the world at 8am GMT very few people had heard even a note of it beforehand.

after it had been played, there were some horrified reactions, with many stations (the one i heard it on here in particular) scrambling to give apologies for the lyrical content. it's safe to say that Bodies made quite an impact on debut.

if for some reason you've not heard the song and read this far, now might be a good time to stop and have a listen. here's the link to the official video.

musically, it is all that you would have expected and hope that a Trevor Horn produced Robbie Williams song would be. it is impossible to avoid referencing Horn's greatest ever success as a producer, the celebrated 80s singles of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. musically the song carries with it a sense that this would not be at all out of place if it were released between Relax and Two Tribes back in 1984, and yet it does not sound like some nostalgia trip or "homage". it's a song very much of its time. this is for the most part due to the lyrics, which feature things that not even the boundary pushing Frankie would have got away with back then.

other than the "f bomb" dropped on radio stations around the world early in the song, most outrage and complaints came from the religious references. these come in right at the start :

God gave me the sunshine,
Then showed me my lifeline
I was told it was all mine,
Then I got laid on a ley line
What a day, what a day,
And your Jesus really died for me
Then Jesus really tried for me

wow. whatever he did actually do for two years away, reducing his famous and perhaps beloved ego wasn't on the agenda. i do think, however, there's a bit more going on here that Robbie's usual flippant mentioning of how rich and celebrated he is. it's hard not to see this as a comment on the relative ease with which certain people have attained "celebrity" status, their fame as disposable as their thoughts on how it came to be. taking that thinking even further, and one gets a sense that Robbie's commenting on the disposable nature of life itself these days.

Praying for the rapture,
‘Cause it's stranger getting stranger
And everything's contagious
It's the modern middle ages
All day every day
And if Jesus really died for me
Then Jesus really tried for me

calling for the Biblical end of days because of the bizarre, state of fear way of the world? that pay off line of "and if Jesus really died for me / Then Jesus really tried for me" is a work of genius. it's basically saying "well, the presumed best of us tried and failed, we have no hope". no hope, perhaps, but no reason just to carry on, as the chorus so brilliantly shows off :

All we've ever wanted
Is to look good naked
Hope that someone can take it
God save me rejection
From my reflection,
I want perfection

hiding behind a rudimentary rhyme scheme here is, for me, some of the best lyrics i have heard. the depth of what's going on with these words is staggering. this business of only wanting to look good naked - what's going on? a criticism of vanity? an open celebration of beauty? a scathing attack on the superficial nature of the world? and this whole "God save me rejection from my reflection" bit is sheer genius - not only is it witty, but placed in context of the "then Jesus really tried for me" theme then there's a suggestion of the narrator being oblivious to God doing his very best to save.

that Bodies works on so many different levels of interpretation is most impressive. i have no idea what or rather who the song is actually about. it could well be Robbie talking of himself, or presumably how he was, in a manner of honesty not seen since Dave Gahan begged his way through Depeche Mode's dark masterpiece Barrel Of A Gun/ equally, it could be him saying "well, this is how and who i am, deal with it". or it could be just a broad sideswipe at the world he lives in. the latter interpretation gets support from the album being called Reality Killed The Video Star.

the album title is commonly seen as a nod to producer Trevor Horn's greatest solo success, Video Killed The Radio Star. i think on top of that, though, it is the case that they just stopped him from calling it Reality Killed The Pop Star. that would have been a more honest name for it, really. the album sees Robbie return to the more "traditional" sound that the fans obviously wanted, but he's brought to it the sense and style of lyrics he explored in Rudebox. there's also a sense to it, though, that he's resigned to the fact that the world no longer has space of enduring, mega-sized pop stars.

the fact that Robbie William's 'comeback' single was kept off the top spot by the runner-up of some TV talent show tells you all of the sorry state that the music world has become. i am not saying that Robbie Williams or anyone else should automatically get to number one, but when a third rate band from a second rate talent show is outselling a genuine classic slice of pop by more than 2 to 1 you have to ask what's going on. as far as i can work out, mobile devices happened and "the kids" choose to rather download something catchy and all over TV to use as a ringtone instead of exploring and, more importantly, enjoying better (in my opinion) things.

Bodies, two or so years later, was clearly the last chance the industry has given to pop music being a decent force again. lavish production and promotion simply wasn't enough. sales did well, but not as well as Robbie had done before. of the pop music that has followed there has been one or two good moments - Lady Gaga, for instance, could be an all time great if she would only (a) stop stealing other songs and (b) in the case of something like Bad Romance, stop taking brilliant songs and ruining them by chanting "ga gaaaa oooh la la" over them again and again for no reason. Katy Perry is good too, although when you play all of her singles together you all of a sudden notice just how much experimentation and variety there was in Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Flaunt It album by comparison after all.

they say in 2011 pop records outsold rock records for the first time in a long while. yeah, ok, but you have to consider what they call a "pop" song these days. do they mean Moves Like Jagger, which just features some apparently gelded chap whining "I've got the moves like Jagger" over and over again? or do they mean I'm Sexy And I Know It, which just features someone sounding like the nerdy one out of Fresh Prince Of Bel Air channelling a homosexual variant of Barry White and chanting "i'm sexy and i know it" again and again? if so, then the definition of "pop" these days is "even more disposable than the last thing you flushed down the toilet".

Robbie Williams, and indeed Trevor Horn for that matter, aspired to do somewhat better with a humble pop record, trusting an audience to accept that "pop" had space for intelligence and interest. they reached their aspirations with Bodies, what a shame the audience for it had been denied proper, quality music for so long that they didn't know quite how to embrace it.

i kind of hope that i'm wrong with this and one day again the world at large accepts that music matters more than how it sounds as a ringtone or message alert.

thanks for reading.

be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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