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Friday, September 21, 2012

Living In A Dream World: ABBA's Missing Songs

You probably consider yourself to be a "fan" of one or more artists, but what kind of fan are you? Fandom can range from a simple liking of a particular singer or group through to dangerous, and quite possibly illegal levels of obsession. Most people would consider themselves a fan of an artist if they bought (how old fashioned) all or most of their albums, perhaps saw them live and generally enjoyed their music. The next level up would see a fan seeking out B-sides and other rarer tracks, maybe following/stalking the act on social media and literally "buying the T-shirt". Then there are the superfans for whom the officially released material is just not enough. They need to hear and possess every piece of music the artist has created; the discarded demos, the alternate takes and the abandoned album tracks.

For these fans the connection with the music created by their favourite artists is so great that every recorded note has value, regardless of the sound quality or relative success of the material. In days of yore, finding such "bootleg" material meant hanging round the dodgier stalls in record fairs and trading cash for illicit vinyl and tape in brown paper bags. But this is the Internet age and superfans have never had it so good. A simple YouTube search will unveil all manner of rarities that should satiate even the most rabid superfan. Some artists understandably are not thrilled that their cast-offs or perceived failures are available in this way, but most choose to turn a blind eye, perhaps understanding themselves what it means to be a superfan. For me, it seems preferable that these goodies are now available for free to enjoy rather than shady profiteering in back alleys, with altruistic superfans able to share their gems and their joy with fellow fanatics.

If all this seems bizarre to you, then let me walk you through a case study. I am an ABBA fan, always have been, always will be, and like most so afflicted still believe that their "hiatus" will end at some point and we will get a new album (they never officially broke up). OK, so it's been thirty years since their last new single, but like keeping fairies alive, such delusion requires a leap of faith. To keep me going in the interim I have quickly latched on to the occasional re-release that offers something new and unheard from the Polar Music vaults, which usually requires buying lots of stuff I already have again, but of course I don't mind that. Then there are the "leaked" recordings of unheard songs that were once much sought after bootlegs, but can now be heard with impunity on the worldwide web. Here then is my guide to some of the best of ABBA's rarities, officially sanctioned or otherwise, to inspire the superfan in you.

The Original Dancing Queen

First stop is a song that has become one of the most familiar in all of pop music, but which you may not have heard quite like this. ABBA's undoubted masterpiece and in my book the greatest pop song ever written, Dancing Queen. A few years ago I was watching an ABBA documentary (no, really) and they played a clip of Agnetha and Frida in the studio singing Dancing Queen, only the words they were singing weren't in the song we all know and love. After choking on my Maltesers, I rushed to find out what this meant; was there a version of Dancing Queen I'd never heard? It turns out the second verse was initially the same length as the first and began with:

Baby, baby you're out of sight/Hey, you're looking alright tonight/When you come to the party/Listen to the guys/They've got the look in their eyes...

The song then continued with the You're a teaser... bit. OK, so the lyrics aren't quite up to Björn's usual standards, so you can understand the edit, but OMG!!! The best song ever could be 17 seconds longer! Sadly this extended version can only be heard officially in Spanish, as La Reina Del Baile on ABBA's Spanish language release Gracias Por La Música (see this blog is educational as well as informative, you'll soon be bilingual!), which for some reason used the original backing track and lyrics. However, superfans are not deterred by the lack of official release, they instead spend hours splicing together the released version with the audio captured from the documentary with differing levels of success. It may not have the polish of a digitally remastered track, but if you squint you can hear the magic of Dancing Queen like you've never heard it before. And for that I am truly thankful.

Dream World

It's not unusual for an artist to write more songs for an album than they require and then pick the best. Sometimes the leftovers become B-Sides, are shelved, or used for scrap, with elements being reworked for use in other songs. Such is the case with this cast-off from the recording sessions for the Voulez-Vous album. If it had not been rejected it would have sat quite comfortably on ABBA's "disco" album, having all the trademarks of a classic ABBA track. Agnetha and Frida's beautiful harmonies: check. Catchy sing-a-long chorus: check. Top quality arrangements and production: check. It has a fun circus fanfare intro and a perfectly serviceable "boy meets girl" lyric, maybe not a hit single, but a strong album track. Nonetheless, Björn and Benny were writers of such quality they could easily afford to abandon such a polished track if they felt it didn't quite pass muster.

They did like the bridge though and so surgically removed it and implanted it in Does Your Mother Know, proving that art created is never truly wasted. Dream World itself finally got allowed out on ABBA's 1994 box set of hits and rarities Thank You For The Music. It is a great little number and it is always a joy to hear those voices again, especially when they were at the height of their greatness.

Just Like That

I've previously covered the slow disintegration of ABBA as a working unit during the recording of their final album (to date) [When All Is Said And Done: ABBA, The Visitors]. It is well-known in fandom that ABBA began work on another album, erroneously referred to as Opus 10, with a number of songs written and recorded in 1982. Some of these became singles and B-Sides for what turned out to be the career retrospective best of The Singles: The First Ten Years, such as the awesome The Day Before You Came and the extremely catchy You Owe Me One. Fans were obviously thirsty to know what else might have been recorded in this period and one track in particular reached almost mythical status; Just Like That. Fans first became aware of the track from articles written by journalists visiting ABBA in the studio during 1982, when they mentioned this track along with another, I Am The City. The latter would get a posthumous release on the compilation More ABBA Gold, but Just Like That remained tightly locked in the vault.

Finally in 1994 a snippet of the chorus appeared on a 24-minute medley of unreleased material, ABBA Undeleted, on the Thank You For The Music box set. When fans heard it they became obsessed. It was an undeniably classic ABBA chorus, immediately catchy and had "hit" written all over it. Clamour for a full release fell on deaf ears though, with the boys still unhappy with the song, which they couldn't make work despite numerous attempts at recording it in slightly different ways, including the inclusion of a ubiquitous 80's sax break on one version. As with Dream World, the song was cannibalised to create a single for the Swedish group Gemini, also called Just Like That, using that great chorus, but in my view less effectively at a slower tempo. The verse melodies found themselves reused for an added song in the Swedish version of Benny and Björn's musical Chess.

Eventually bootleg versions of the ABBA recordings emerged and the full song quickly became a favourite amongst superfans, myself included. It shows the level of perfection ABBA strove for if a song of this quality was considered fit for the cutting room floor. The song's final hope was inclusion in the ABBA-inspired musical Mamma Mia and it made it through to the rehearsal stages before being dropped. We live in hope that one day a fully produced version of the original ABBA recording will emerge, I have no doubt it will cause a sensation if it ever happens.

Every Good Man

As it became clear that ABBA's ninth studio album was not going to be completed, the band members started to focus on their own projects. Frida was extremely keen to get a new solo album made and she is noticeably absent as a lead vocalist on ABBA's final tracks. Agnetha too began to think about making a solo record, while Benny and Björn wanted to write a musical. They began demoing songs that might work in such a stage production and one of these was Every Good Man. Agnetha sang the lead vocal, so although not officially an ABBA record, most fans think of this as the final recording of the band. It is a classic ABBA mid-tempo ballad, though clearly unfinished. It would finally evolve into Heaven Help My Heart in Chess, originated by Elaine Paige on stage and for the cast recording. Again superfans have to make do with a bootleg version, but as a glimpse of the death of ABBA and the birth of Chess it is a treasure to cherish.

These are just a sample of the wonders that can be found with remarkably little effort thanks to the godsend that is the Internet. While some may mourn the days of dodgy bootlegs and the thrill of owning rare recordings that few others could hear, I welcome the democracy of fans being able to share such gems without seeking profit. As a rule of thumb I never steal music that an artist has put out for sale, but when it's a recording that can only be heard in this way I admit the temptation is too hard to resist. If they released it, I would buy it, as would any true fan. So whoever your obsession may be, I hope this encourages you to do a little digging to see what unheard marvels may be waiting for you out there in cyberspace.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

She Really Is So Unusual: Cyndi Lauper

When she burst onto the pop scene in 1983 with the timeless smash Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the multi-million selling album She's So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper was heralded as the new female pop sensation. In the mid-1980s only Madonna rivalled her success and Cyndi competed toe-to-toe for a while. Cyndi became known for her very colourful outfits and hair and her occasionally Minnie Mouse-like vocals, but this enduring public perception masks a multi-layered, fascinating artist with a rich, versatile and unique voice. Cyndi eventually caved in the fake battle to be Queen of Pop and was then free to carve out an arguably more interesting career in music, exploring different genres and growing into a unique artist. Although the huge hits dried up, Cyndi has released many great and criminally overlooked singles over the last three decades, so rather than focus on gems like True Colors and Time After Time, today I want to celebrate those classic Cyndi songs that deserve similar praise and attention and underline why, frankly, she really is so unusual.

My First Night Without You (1989)

Cyndi's follow-up to the awesome I Drove All Night should have been another international smash, but inexplicably it flopped. It is a loving pastiche of a fifties style love song, think Peggy Lee at her rawest, clicking to a slinky beat. Cyndi is driving home to face her first night alone after a failed relationship, the vocal starts calmly enough, but becomes more and more distraught as the reality sinks in. It's not hysterical at all, but it is heartbreaking, you buy every word as Cyndi's fears grow. The song builds beautifully to its gut-wrenching climax: "will I be able to sleep... what if I forget and reach for you?". This was the song that took me from a listener to a fan. There are few singers able to deliver such operatic themes without descending into soap opera: Cyndi is one of those that can.

Sally's Pigeons (1993)

Heartbreak of a different kind awaits on this most affecting of ballads from Cyndi's criminally overlooked fourth album Hat Full Of Stars. This autobiographical tale recalls a childhood friendship and contrasts the innocence, freedom and promise of youth with the sometimes harsh realities of adulthood. With a poet's allusion, Cyndi mourns the loss of that friend to a botched back alley abortion, but the song is not sensationalist or morbid, it has true pathos. The melody is gentle and beautiful and Cyndi's vocal is honest and measured perfectly. It is hard to create such a nostalgic tale without tipping into sentimentality and this song shows Cyndi's songwriting abilities are equal to her vocal talents. It doesn't hurt that her co-writer on this track is the similarly gifted Mary Chapin Carpenter. Truly one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Ballad Of Cleo & Joe (1997)

And now, as they say, time for something completely different. By the time she made her fifth album Sisters Of Avalon Cyndi had moved far beyond any desire to play to the mainstream. Always an individualist, she was fully embracing her place on the margins and alongside that using her music to address the marginalised. The album was a full-on attack on complacency in popular culture and the treatment of women and minorities. This is not to suggest that the material is preachy, it is among her most inventive work and a prime example is this fantastic (in all senses of the word) single. It tells the tale of blue collar Joe, who struggles through the working day so that at night he can transform into his totally fabulous alter ego, Cleo. Cyndi had always had a rock edge to her pop sounds, but on this she sounds like a gypsy Pat Benatar. The musical backing is frenetic and eclectic and wonderful. The lyrics take the form of a traditional ballad and Cyndi sings them with appropriate energy and urgency. The song is tremendous fun as well as being a great anthem for living a liberated life. Cyndi has been a tremendous supporter of the LGBT community and this is one of the tracks that shows she is more than prepared to put her money where her mouth is. A whirling dervish of a song, be warned it may have you heading for the wardrobe, but not the closet!

At Last (2003)

When assessing a vocalist's talents it is easier if you can compare them to widely recognised greats. That is often tricky with pop singers who mostly sing their own material. Cyndi gave her fans and her critics the chance to judge the quality of her voice when she released her 2003 album At Last, an inspired collection of standards and more modern songs done in a jazz style. The arrangements are pared back, allowing the songs to breathe and giving the sense of a live performance in an intimate club. Cyndi proves that she is that rarest of artists who can conjure comedy and tragedy with her voice and sound sincere at both extremes. The album was a justified success in many territories, including the US, but was sadly overlooked in the UK where she is perhaps still typecast as "kooky", making an album of standards a hard sell. One of the many standouts is the title track, where Cyndi wisely doesn't compete with Etta, but instead focuses on wringing all the emotion and meaning out of the lyric she can. That's not to suggest that this white girl doesn't have soul, her rip-roaring final note soars up there with the best of them. Proof, should it be needed, that Cyndi is as great an interpreter of song as she is a conveyor of her own music.

Into The Nightlife (2008)

For her tenth album, Bring Ya To The Brink, Cyndi decided to make an out and out dance album. To ensure authenticity she collaborated with current and cutting edge dance artists and the results are stunning. There are many diva fans who shudder at memories of great singers forced into making "disco" albums late in their careers, but let me reassure you this is not the case here. Cyndi sounds as fresh and energetic as when she just wanted to have fun in 1983. The album is so full of energy and spark it could power a city. A case in point is this most fantastic of singles, easily my favourite Cyndi song ever. A warped bass sound signals the start of the song with Cyndi feeling an "endless itch to ride" drawing her to the dancefloor. The chorus erupts in a sonic wave and has the most infectious lyric I've heard in a long while, suffice it to say this was on constant repeat on my iPod for about five months. The song is so brilliantly realised it can make the most dreary of surroundings seem like the most fabulous gay club. It also contains the best dance song lyric ever: shirtless wonders wreck my sight. If Britney had recorded it, it would have been a worldwide number one smash. With no mainstream airplay support Cyndi had to settle for a number one on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart. Such is life.

Early In The Mornin' (2010)

As she approaches the end of her third decade as a recording artist, Cyndi shows no signs of fatigue. Her latest reinvention is as Blues artist and it is a natural fit. Her voice was so clearly made to sing the Blues, it's astonishing it took her this long to realise it. When listening to her album Memphis Blues you are transported back to a smoky underground club in the forties, with Cyndi holding the rapt audience in thrall. Showing the respect Cyndi is held in, she was able to attract true Blues legends to work with her on the album, including Allen Toussaint and B.B. King who feature on this great cover. The album has continued Cyndi's commercial renaissance, becoming her third highest charting album in the US, following her first two mega hits. Cyndi further proved her Blues chops by undertaking an acclaimed tour to support the album.

Cyndi Lauper is without question one of our most versatile female artists, who can seemingly succeed with ease at any genre she chooses to turn her hand to. Her next projects include a memoir and compositions for a new musical based on the movie Kinky Boots. One thing is certain, whatever Cyndi chooses to do in the future, it will be both unusual and, as usual, quite brilliant.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Cyndi's memoir is published on 18 September. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:She Really Is So Unusual

Friday, September 7, 2012

What The World Needs Now...

One thing every great vocalist needs is a great lyric to sing. Sure people say "she's so fantastic she could sing the phone book and it would be great", but seriously who really wants to hear that? A stupendous voice deserves an equally amazing lyric, so that as well as technical perfection we can be moved on an emotional, spiritual and (when it's done really well) a physical level. This last week we lost one of the greatest lyricists of popular music, Hal David. I absolutely love the songs he collaborated on with Burt Bacharach and in their prime when working with the divine Dionne Warwick (see my earlier blog Golden Legacy) they created songs so timeless they have become standards of pop perfection.

Of course Hal and Burt's work with Dionne was just a part of their prodigious output and so today I want to pay tribute to what I consider to be not just three of Hal's greatest lyrics, but three of the best lyrics to be found in all of pop music. I have also chosen, out of the many many cover versions you will find, who I think gave the best vocal interpretation.

What The World Needs Now Is Love - Jackie DeShannon

Originally written in 1965 this anthemic ballad was offered to Dionne, but she inexplicably passed. Next in line was singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who had just had her big break supporting The Beatles on tour. Her fragile rock voice perfectly suited the deceptive simplicity of a lyric that in essence is a plea for love to be the dominant force in the world. Jackie does not have the power and range of Dionne, but perhaps because of that she focuses more on the meaning, adding a sense of desperation to the plea that is lost in some other powerhouse vocal versions. It is a truly lovely song and Hal's direct and unfussy lyric allowed it to reach the broadest possible audience. Dionne later reclaimed it and it has become a staple of her live shows, as it is the perfect audience participation number. By not referencing current events, Hal made sure the song could continue to be meaningful to future generations and with each decade's new challenges it has given strength and comfort to many.

I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself - Dusty Springfield

Break-up songs are the staple of pop music, we all have our go-to records that perfectly sum-up the pain and misery we felt over a particular romantic meltdown. There are the angry ones, the revenge ones, the "I told you so" ones, but I've always been drawn to the "what the hell do I do now?" ones. The greatest example of this latter genre is this masterly composition from Hal and Burt. The melody is one of Bacharach's best, mournful and subdued in the verses, the chorus soars into a plaintive cri de coeur. Hal's lyric is total perfection, again it is direct and concise, but he manages to sum up the core heartache in one elegant phrase: "I'm so used to doing everything with you, planning everything for two, and now that we're through...".

The song was originally recorded by Tommy Hunt in 1962, but failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. When Dusty Springfield visited Burt in New York in February 1964 he played her a number of songs she might like to record and she immediately saw the potential in this gem. Dusty's vocal is a masterclass, she takes her time, landing every word, slowly adding heartache to her voice, until it spills over in the final heartrending moments. Like the consummate singer-actress she was, she begins from a place of calm, trying to hold her emotions together before it all becomes too much to bear. Of course I am not suggesting Dusty loses control of her instrument: that is an impossibility for her. Instead she shows that a great singer uses tone and inflection rather than histrionics to pluck those heartstrings. One of my favourite Dusty vocals and the best break-up song ever.

Alfie - Alison Moyet

This has to be one of the most-covered Bacharach & David songs, everybody from Cher to Blossom Dearie has had a go, which is not surprising as it is truly sublime. Originally written as the theme to the Michael Caine movie in 1965, it was originally recorded by Cilla Black, who famously struggled somewhat with the song's range and Burt pushed her into numerous takes trying to find the "magic". Cilla's version is well-suited to the movie, sounding authentic as the soundtrack to a sixties Brit-flick, but try as I might I struggle to love Cilla's voice. I just don't get it. Thankfully I have dozens of alternative Alfie's to choose from and for me the ultimate version is from another Brit diva, the incomparable Alison Moyet.

Hal wrote the lyrics after reading the movie script and cleverly stole the "What's it all about?" line direct from Caine's mouth. It is the jumping off point for the most sophisticated and philosophical pop lyric ever written, which explains why so many singers want to have a bash at it. It is pure poetry from start to finish, with an impossible amount of meaning and story crammed in to just seventeen lines. I've never seen the movie, but I find it hard to believe it can better the song in terms of storytelling. Alison recorded it in 2004 during sessions for her Voice album. The arrangement by the wonderful Anne Dudley is sparse allowing Alison's sonorous voice to wring every ounce of feeling from the song. One of the very best things about Alison is she has never lost her true character from her voice, she's still Alf from Basildon, which means she always sounds totally authentic. For me Alison's voice just gets better and better and if you've never had the chance to see her live, take the next opportunity you can, as she sounds even better than she does on record.   A new Alison album is imminent I believe, so I'll no doubt be returning to the subject in the near future.

So thank you Hal David for providing the world with some of the greatest lyrics we have had the good fortune to hear and for giving our best vocalists something meaningful to sing. You had the magic ability to create layers of meaning from the most simple of phrases and to cut right to the core of human experience. I have no doubt your lyrics will live for as long as humans are singing and probably beyond. Good night and sleep well.

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