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Perfect Pop – Vol. 3

April 4th, 2008 9 comments

The inquiry into what makes perfect pop perfect continues. My pal Andy thinks: “I think ‘perfect pop’ can’t be too alternative. It has to be very mainstream, on top of everything else. And probably fairly breezy. Populist and lightweight.” Somebody else suggested: “Perfect pop should feel timeless yet completely of its time as well, creating a wonderful paradox.” Another Andy also considered the question of timelessness: “Timelessness shouldn’t be consciously striven for. One of the qualities of great pop music is its ephemerality, and I think that pop music that doesn’t embrace that is lacking in a certain something. Of course, timelessness is what allows us to relate to music of different eras, and we do so very strongly, but it’s best when it’s an accident or a result of the quality of the song or performance, rather than a conscious striving for posterity by the creator.” And this suggestion pretty much sums it up: “The definition of a perfect pop song is simply a song which nothing could be added or taken away to improve it.”

Or consider this: there once was a review which praised a single along the lines of “great lyrics, great chords, two fine singers, great musicianship and the best production money can buy”. Of course, even with all these ingredients, the result can still be imperfect. But that is why perfection in pop is a relatively rare thing. Incidentally, the single thus reviewed was “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” by Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams.

And then there is the Paul Morley theory, mentioned in comments last time by Planet Mondo, that a good pop song is truly great when you can imagine Elvis singing it.

Dusty Springfield – I Only Want To Be With You.mp3
If I had to compile a shortlist for a top 10 of Perfect Pop, I Only Want To Be With You would be an automatic choice. It has been covered several times (Jackie DeShannon’s version was the first song ever to be performed on Top Of The Pops), and it is nearly impossible to mess it up. The Bay City Rollers did a particularly good version of it in the mid-70s, but Dusty’s rendition hits perfection on every single level. It is so good, I cannot decide what to choose as the “best bit”.
Best bit: The strings first come in, almost unnoticed (0:50)

The Style Council – Speak Like A Child.mp3*
It may not be an indispensable ingredient in perfect pop, but it helps when a song can communicate pure joy, as does Speak Like A Child. Try to feel miserable when listening to it. Unless you have genuine cause for unhappiness, it must cheer you up. Paul Weller has written quite a few great pop songs, but none reach the pop perfection of this.
Best bit: Talbot’s keyboard solo kicks in (1:38)

Cliff Richard – We Don’t Talk Anymore.mp3
I am a magnanimous observer of music. I never liked Cliff Richard (not unlike Whiteray, whom I’ll mention again later), and I particularly despised this song when it was on never-ending rotation on German radio in 1979 — and yet I acknowledge the perfection of this track. Not too long ago, I played the song to see whether it could still induce the same reaction of physical illness it did when I was 13. The memories it invoked did indeed do so, but I also had to accept what, deep down, I knew even then: this is a brilliant pop song.
Best bit: “Taaaalk anymore, anymooooore” (3:14)

Johnny Cash – Ring Of Fire (live).mp3
This is what you get when three forces of inspiration collide. June Carter’s beautiful lyrics, Merle Kilgore melody, and Johnny Cash’s mariachi treatment. This song is a good example of the “add nothing, take nothing away” theory of perfect pop. Apparently a haemorrhoid ointment manufacturer wanted to use Ring Of Fire for a commercial. Regretably, Roseanne Cash refused to give permission. This version is from the Live In St Quentin album, where it resides as a previously unreleased bonus track on the re-released CD.
Best bit: “…oooh, but the fire went wild.”

Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3
Thanks to ’70s nostalgia, the Bay City Rollers are not judged by their too short, tartaned trousers, but by the often wonderful pop they produced (or was produced in their name). So giddy retrospectives of ’70s pop will dig out Bye Bye Baby as representative of BCR’s musical contribution to the era, with the more forensic compiler opting for I Only Wanna Be With You (both cover versions). It is unfortunate that those songs when BCR achieved did actually pop perfection, or at least came close to it, tend to be ignored. Of these, Yesterday’s Hero and the superb You Made Me Believe In Magic (download link here) were released at the arse-end of BCR’s career, and made no impact on the charts and thus on he public’s consciousness. Saturday Night was a hit before BCR really hit their stride in the mid-70s, and so somehow tends to slip through the cracks too, which is entirely regrettable.
Best Bit: S-S-S-Saturday Naa-aaaight (0:57)

Hanson – Mmm Bop.mp3
I suspect that most people were like me: they hated the song because of the performers (and, possibly, its title). And just look at the Hanson brothers: precocious kids whose mugs would qualify for plastering all over pre-pubescent girls’ bedroom walls regardless of their musical merits. The same reasons why few people then proclaimed the Osmonds’ Crazy Horse the work of genius it really is, and the same reason why BCR were laughed at despite headlining some great pop. With the passage of time, knowing that the pre-pubescent girls are now young adults and that even the drummer’s balls will have dropped by now, Mmm Bop has been critically rehabilitated, to the point of a consensus that it really is a brilliant pop tune.
Best bit: The insistent chorus throughout the song.

Nena – 99 Luftballons.mp3*
When I posted this last July, I actually used the words “perfect pop” to describe 99 Luftballons. In fact, it is so perfect, that the German original topped the US charts (whereas in Britain the less satisfactory English version was a hit. Here German actually sounds better than English in a pop song). The US is not generally known for its expanding worldview which embraces different cultures. For most Americans, communication with non-English speakers tends to take the form of raising one’s voice and speaking slower (American readers of this blog excluded, of course). So the US pop consumers of 1984 bought into Nena’s hit purely on strength of it being a great pop tune.
Best bit: The song kicks in with a machine gun guitar after the slow rhythmic build-up.

Blondie – Denis.mp3*
Any number of Blondie songs might qualify for inclusion in this series, but Denis has that extra bit of brevity, energy and lots of likable little touches. Still unaffected by the disco wave, when Denis came out in early 1978, Blondie were still a band audibly rooted in NYC’s new wave scene, albeit with a distinctive pop bend. Denis still had the edginess of the wonderful debut single, X-Offender (download link here). Soon Blondie would pander to the Top 10 with faux-disco (Heart If Glass; Atomic) and cod-reggae (The Tide Is High). It wasn’t bad, but Blondie were never better than they were on those first two albums.
Best bit: Debby does Dalles, in French.

Britney Spears – Toxic (Clap Ya Hands remix).mp3
Jim Irvin, whose reference to “perfect pop” in The Word magazine inspired this series, used Toxic as one of three examples to illustrate what is perfect pop. He is entirely correct; this is a catchy bastard of a song. Forget all about the hype, degrees of undress and the scandals which have made Britney Spears more famous for being famous than for her artistry. Spears is just the vehicle by which the rich, inspired arrangement of a fine song reach us. I might be unfair on Spears, who delivers a good vocal performance, but Toxic could have been recorded by any number of female singers with no detriment to the final product — even if it was written specifically for Britney. The star of Toxic is really the production team, Bloodshy & Advant. Can’t imagine Elvis singing it, though.
Best bit: The intermittent guitar riff.

The Undertones – Teenage Kicks.mp3
The point when bubblegum pop met punk. And yet, its spiritual heart really resides in the ’60s. Strip down the loud guitars, maybe slow it down just a little, amplify the handclaps, and you have a chart-topper ca. 1965. Teenage Kicks was played at the funeral of John Peel, who had championed the song, and the line “teenage dreams so hard to beat” is engraved on his tombstone. How utterly appropriate.
Best bit: Two drum beats, and the guitar hits (0:01)

Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.mp3
This was #1 in Britain on 6 April, 42 years years ago (I remember that because I was born that day; I think my German #1 is a Stones song). That is why I’ve held back its inclusion for this installment of the series until today. And, my oh my, what a fantastic pop song this is! The tune is exquisite, the production mighty, the vocals are…oh, use whatever hyperbole does it for you. But the drumming tops it. Listen to it. The drums and percussions are totally bossing the song.
Best bit: The drums set up and emphasise the line “When you’re without love…” (2:18)

The Association – Cherish.mp3
This 1966 hit is a nomination by Whiteray, proprietor of the excellent Echoes in the Wind blog, who rates it has perhaps his favourite pop single of all time. It is indeed an astonishing song (with fantastic lyrics), but I’m not convinced it is perfect pop. Which demonstrates the bleedin’ obvious: perfection in pop is an entirely subjective thing. We may agree in great numbers that a song is perfect, even achieve near-consensus. We may even share our reasons as to why it is perfect. But play the next song, and I might rave about it and you’ll shrug your shoulders (or, later, come around to my way of thinking). And that is why talking about music is so great.
Best bit: “And I do…” (2:56)

Perfect Pop – Vol.1
Hall & Oates, Sweet, Jesus & Mary Chain, Turtles, Guildo Horn, Big Bopper, Buggles, Kylie Minogue, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Temptations, ABC, Smiths, Kingsmen, Strawberry Switchblade, David Essex, Rainbow, Wham!, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

More Perfect Pop