Still reelin’ and rockin’

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Feb 2013 Still reelin’ and rockin’


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 After a rather barren 2012, Cliff Richard fans have something to look forward to in 2013. 

Granted, at 72 going on 73, he’s not as active as he once was. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Over the January/February period, there’s a string of concerts set for New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Manila. Then, in June, the show moves to a series of open-air dates in England, embracing various castles and cricket grounds before culminating in a two-night stand at Hampton Court Palace.

In between, there is a visit to Nashville to record a new album.  American Steve Mandile, who worked with Cliff on a few tracks from 2004’s Something’s Goin’ On, will produce.

Apparently, both the concerts and the album are to have a rock ‘n’ roll theme. In fact, the word is new versions of classic songs will be done “live” in the studio with a small group of musicians. While no titles are yet available, suggestions include things like Poetry in Motion, Rip It Up, Dream Lover, I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine and Sealed with a Kiss.

For Cliff fans, this is something of a mixed blessing. Most are happy to get any new recordings at all at this juncture, but some are adamant that he should only be recording new contemporary material.

Absent from this complaint is any recognition of the barriers created by radio playlists. If, like Cliff, your primary appeal is to a generally aging demographic that’s reluctant to buy anything with which it has no familiarity, radio’s refusal to play any of your new material creates a major problem.

Put another way: if radio decides you’re not sufficiently “cool” to fit with their “brand values,” just what do you do? At least, recording classic songs means prospective buyers will recognize the titles when they come across the CD in the music section at Tesco.

Then there’s the question of musical quality. When revisited by older artistes, rock ‘n’ roll classics sometimes suffer in the process. Yes, the performances are more polished, even sophisticated, but the life can also get ironed out of them.

Does Cliff have any past form in this regard? Indeed he does.  And, fortunately, most of it augurs positively.

As it happens, the first such venture dates all the way back to the mid-1960s and the advent of Mike Leander. With musical fashions changing rapidly, Leander was brought in to freshen up Cliff’s recording ambience, expanding the arrangements beyond the hitherto formula of guitars-drums-strings. For his part, Leander liked rhythmic brass and colourful sound palettes.

The first significant Cliff/Leander collaboration was the April 1967 album ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, consisting of a few contemporary songs mixed in with a raft of rock ‘n’ roll classics. It proved to be a very mixed bag.

Some of the classics adapted well to the new stylings.  Save the Last Dance For Me had an ebullient, driving quality that distinguished it from The Drifters’ original, without stripping away any of the song’s inherent charms. And Don’t had a nicely understated poignancy.

But, although bright and peppy, things like Dizzy Miss Lizzy and Good Golly Miss Molly were more frantic than convincing. As for the reworking of Move It, perfunctory and contrived would be descriptions that come to mind.

The next significant trip back to the roots was in the 1980s. This time, the results were more even, sometimes even excellent, with the ballads tending to work best from both musical and commercial perspectives.

Daddy’s Home, cut at a TV show recording in 1981, captured the spirit of doo-wop without pretending to be anything other than a Home Counties white guy singing a great song.  And the duet version of All I Have  Do Is Dream with Phil Everly – recorded at the same time although not released commercially until 1994 – was splendid.  Everlys aficionado Tim Rice considered it to be the only rendering that ever got close to the original.

Cliff’s 25th anniversary in 1983 also had its classic highlights.  True Love Ways and Treasure of Love, done with the London Philharmonic, were both effective.  And the Rock ‘n’ Roll Silver album, which was included in the 50,000-copy limited edition box set, had first-rate performances of Never Be Anyone Else But You and Donna.

Still, not everything clicked.  The take on Lucille set out to do something different with the song, only to end up unsatisfactorily laboured. To be sure, it was more sophisticated than

Little Richard’s version, but it was also clinical and cold, which is something rock ‘n’ roll should never be.

Cycling forward to the end of the decade, the June 1989 Wembley Stadium concerts – and the following year’s From a Distance tour and album – also included a significant tranche of rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia.

cliff-richardAgain, the ballads worked best, courtesy of the doo-wop flavouring given to Silhouettes and Always. And the up-tempo numbers were lively, toe-tapping and executed with precise professionalism, no more and no less.

Since then, there has been one other major dip into the past: the 2009 ‘Reunited’ album, specially recorded with the Shadows to coincide with the hugely successful reunion tour.  Shifting more than 200,000 copies within three months, it certainly worked commercially. And the music was fine too.

It’s true that the underlying premise of revisiting their early hits had caused trepidation in some quarters. After all, why mess with something that was just fine the first time around.  And who could expect guys approaching 70 to recapture the youthful edge of 45 to 50 years previously.

But as things transpired, there was no need to worry. The songs were approached in essentially the same way as they had been originally, with little extras added to spice them up.

So memories were thus enhanced rather than trifled with.  And whatever was missing in rawness was amply compensated for by the improved recording technology and overall musicianship.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the 2013 iteration will be similarly up to snuff. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, fans hungry for some real rock ‘n’ roll should avail themselves of the recent ‘Rollercoaster’ CD featuring Saturday Club radio broadcasts from the very early days. With its tearaway versions of things like Rip It Up and Ready Teddy, it’s proof positive that Britain rocked before The Beatles.

Pat Murphy

A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto,

Canada.

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