The unpredictable side of Cliff
By Pat Murphy
By any estimation, a huge part of Cliff Richard’s multi-decadal success derives from an ability to spot a potentially commercial song and serve it up in an accessible manner.
Indeed, he himself has cheerfully volunteered that his goal has always been to be a guy who makes hit records, thus leaving the starving artiste role for others.
Still, as the recent hit compilation ’75 at 75′ demonstrates, he’s done the unexpected from time to time, putting records into the charts that either would’ve been woefully uncommercial in anyone else’s hands, or else not at all the kind of thing you’d normally anticipate from him.
Contrary to stereotype, Cliff has sometimes been a very unpredictable guy. Here’s a few examples.
I’m Looking Out the Window (1962)
Pretty much everyone knows that Elvis was a major inspiration in Cliff’s musically-formative years, but there was another influence that’s less well understood: Peggy Lee, the American jazz-pop singer. In fact, Cliff has gone so far as to credit her intimate, breathy style with helping to shape his own approach to ballads.
On the afternoon of December 11, 1961, he went into the studio for a four-song session with
Norrie Paramor’s Orchestra. One of the numbers recorded had been found on the B-side of a relatively obscure 1959 single of Peggy’s, and it was this interpretation that Cliff and producer/arranger Paramor set out to emulate. Indeed, they liked Peggy’s version so much that Paramor essentially nicked its arrangement!
Called I’m Looking Out the Window, it was a slow, almost bluesy piece with a lyric bearing no relationship to usual hit parade fare. Instead, it was the kind of thing that would normally have been tucked away on an album as a demonstration of the then 21-year-old’s evolving maturity. But riding the wave of The Young Ones, EMI opted to try it as the lead on a double-A with Do You Want to Dance?, for which they were duly rewarded with a No. 2, only held off the top by Elvis and Good Luck Charm.
Interestingly, precisely one week after the session that produced I’m Looking Out the Window, Cliff was back in the studio doing another bluesy Peggy Lee song, this time with the Shadows.
You Don’t Know had been tried out on stage during his six-week Blackpool Opera House season several months earlier, evidently to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. And yes, they nicked Peggy’s arrangement again!
Wind Me Up (1965)
When Wind Me Up was announced in the trade press three weeks before its October 1965 release, it was described as a “slow country and western waltz,” which didn’t have a particularly auspicious ring for a chart environment sporting the likes of Satisfaction, Eve of Destruction and If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now, even more so as it was coming on the heels of a couple of singles that had disappointed sales-wise, and reviews were, at best, lukewarm.
Written by John Talley and Bob Montgomery (of Crickets fame), the song had been recorded during Cliff’s visit to Nashville in August 1964, a productive couple of days that also generated The Minute You’re Gone, On My Word and Angel – the latter a successful international single rather than a UK one. Still, its prospects seemed a tad iffy in the late autumn of 1965.
And it did start slowly, entering Record Retailer’s chart at a paltry No. 48. However, as the weeks went by it crept up, finally spending three weeks at No. 2 during the peak Christmas sales period. Only the Beatles’ Daytripper/We Can Work It Out was strong enough to keep it off the summit.
Throw Down a Line (1969)
Legend has it that writer Hank Marvin originally visualised this as being suitable for someone much “heavier” than Cliff. And
Jeff Beck did record it, although his version didn’t see the light of day for quite a while.
But, as Hank subsequently told the story, Cliff was keen on it from the first time he heard it, in part, Hank surmises, because it went against the grain of the lighter material he’d been recently focusing on.
Whatever the motivation, it was recorded on May 2, 1969, and released at the beginning of September, credited to the duo of Cliff and Hank. In addition to writing the piece, Hank played guitar and provided vocal harmonies to what was an altogether different Cliff record.
With a lyric that was described as “intense, almost bitter” and a Mike Vickers (ex-Manfred Mann) arrangement that flirted with heavy metal, it caught reviewers by surprise. Most of them liked it, finding it conversant with the then contemporary music scene. As one reviewer expressed it, “Cliff throws off years of boredom.”
Mind you, not everyone was equally impressed. DJ David Symonds, for instance, found it “undignified” and “out of character.” There was even a suggestion of unseemly bandwagon climbing, as if keeping a shrewd eye on trends wasn’t a time-honoured part of the record business.
In any event, the public took to it with reasonable enthusiasm, lifting it into the middle of the Top 10 – No. 5 in Melody Maker and No. 7 in both the NME and Record Retailer.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Juvenile album was a deliberate attempt to take Cliff into edgier territory than usual, picking-up a little on the energy aspect of the punk vibe. Terry Britten was responsible for 10 of the dozen songs, either writing by himself or in collaboration with B A Robertson.
But although the album was a substantial hit, Britten believes it was sufficiently out of character that many of Cliff’s fans never really warmed to it. In his view, they “want to hear him sing love songs” and many of the songs on it had very little to do with love.
Carrie – co-written with Robertson – certainly strays from the path of a typical Cliff song. Referring to its mysterious theme, Robertson perhaps put it best: “You don’t know whether Cliff, as the narrator, is the husband, boyfriend, lover, brother or father. Nowhere does the song say what his relationship with Carrie is.”
Mystery, however, didn’t get in the way of success. Released as the third single from the album and helped along by an effective promotional video, Carrie reached No. 4. None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that Cliff has spent a career on the cutting edge. Shrewdly navigating shifting public tastes while continuing to cultivate his ever-loyal core audience, he’s always and ever been in search of hit records. Still, there’ve been some unpredictable moments along the way.
A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.