The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, March 05, 2003
ASHES TO ASHES, DUST TO DUSTY

No more shouting. No one needs it. Some get off on being shouted at; many music writers derive some kind of epiphanic self-justification at the amount of sweat they manage to theorise out of someone else’s shouting. What Dusty Springfield demonstrated is that it’s not necessary to shout; sometimes it’s not necessary to swim out of the womb, because Springfield at her most candid, and therefore at her best, sang lullabies to you about her despair, and yet while she sang about her life being a wreck (which it wasn’t particularly), she simultaneously offered an unconditional haven under which you can come and shelter, shaking off someone less pleasant – someone who might shout.

But the former Mary O’Brien was a convent girl, and she could assert herself when she needed to – hear the astonishing punctum in the folk group the Springfields’ jolly swag-along 1963 top five hit “Say I Won’t Be There” where Dusty’s voice suddenly leaps out of the muted gaiety in the second half of the chorus. The Springfields were wide-eyed, widescreen MoR-folk optimists, the exact precursor of the Seekers, who contributed to that strange New World mood which coloured the charts in 1962 – their “Island Of Dreams” next to the Shadows’ “Wonderful Land” next to Ifield’s “I Remember You”; look at how blue and bright it is out there, now that the world isn’t going to be ended because of Cuba.

However, a voice like Dusty’s couldn’t be contained for long in such an environment, so she suddenly quit the Springfields and went solo. A big mistake, everyone said; groups are in, girl singers are not unduly required – consider Helen Shapiro, her chart career lately over at 17. Except she wanted to drop a bomb on pop; specifically she wanted to do a Brit Wall of Sound, and to help her achieve this she signed to Philips and got together with house producer John Franz and arranger Ivor Raymonde.

The first fruit of this alignment was of course “I Only Want To Be With You,” a record which could have been designed to be the anti-Alma Cogan. Shadowing the Spector template surprisingly well – though with demonstrably fewer musicians and a British studio budget – her voice can hardly wait to crack open the Coke bottle of ecstasy: “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so” – her voice descending down an orgasmic helter-skelter, comparable with Van Morrison’s “the love that loves to love the love that loves” on “Madame George”; a record which as well as acknowledging Spector, also betrayed keen study of Motown. It’s about joy and it’s about 1963 and it’s about time and just you try to leave me out of your party.

And she was more authentically sexy than either Cilla, or Lulu, or even Sandie; compared to these three, never mind latecomers like Kathy Kirby (whose cover of “Secret Love,” rushed out barely a month after “I Only Want To Be With You,” gave early notice of just how influential Dusty would prove), Dusty looked grown up; that bouffant, the subtle steeliness of those eyes in her otherwise welcoming face, an absolute assuredness. She could also tease; there’s hardly anything more subtly sexual in early Britbeat than her gleeful rendering of Bacharach and David’s “Wishin’ And Hopin’” – those staccato smiles of “holdhim…andsqueezehim…andkisshim…” were brilliantly natural in their delivery.

She could at other times make you collapse with humility and want to embrace her. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” – Bacharach and David again – inverts the Be A Man subtext of Tommy Hunt’s reading to tell us, as Beth Gibbons would do 23 years later, that she’s breaking at the seams just like you. Here Raymonde and Franz give Dusty’s pleading the grandeur it deserves; the strings whip around her like the winds through which Lear and the blinded Duke of Gloucester struggle, the triple-drum fills sound like the Sinai stone tablets shattering into waters of guilty gold. “Like a summer rose” as Dusty’s voice rises to scream its agony; then everyone, everything, pulls together to get her to the climax. “COME ON BACK!” Dusty cries through the centre of your head. Everyone must have thought this was a number one…and had it not been for the first of the Beatles/Stones battles for the top spot (“A Hard Day’s Night” vs “It’s All Over Now” which ended in an honourable draw), it would have got there. As far as Bacharach interpreters go, Dionne Warwick remains the definitive voice – assured and reassuring – but Dusty had the power and the vulnerability to bookend Warwick; in 1964 she even had a not-at-all-bad crack at “They Long To Be Close To You” six years before Karen Carpenter.

The real proto-Carpenter delivery, though, can be found in her 1965 interpretation of Goffin and King’s “Some Of Your Lovin’.” Lyrically a precursor to the SOS Band’s “Just Be Good To Me,” Dusty offers selflessness, or else she’s a mug, but the way she sings it, it sounds nothing other than selfless and sexy; slow-burning but utterly seductive. When the flame was turned down to low heat, her uncertainty simmered all the more enticingly - though I still think that Cilla Black’s softened Scouse rasp-to-a-whimper strangely fits in better with Randy Newman’s “I’ve Been Wrong Before” than Dusty does, and a brave bilingual attempt at Brel’s “If You Go Away” suffers from staying on one emotional level, as well as a ridiculous spoken coda – it avoids the occasional camp undertones of both Nina Simone and Scott Walker’s readings, but equally the quite shattering emotional extremes to which Simone and Walker end up taking the song.

This doesn’t mean that Dusty wasn’t capable of emotional extremities, though; hear the ebullient ricochets of drums against lead vocals against Doris Troy and Madeline Bell’s backing vocals on “In The Middle Of Nowhere,” not to mention the fantastic Northern Soul backbeat of “I’ll Try Anything” (a very distant relation to Troy’s “I’ll Do Anything”) or “Am I The Same Girl.”

And what other vocalist, female or male, could be capable of unabashed melodrama and heartbreaking contemplation in two consecutive singles, as Dusty did in 1966. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” was her only UK number one, and her biggest US hit, and it is her epiphany, the first half of her greatest moment. Now, thanks to Franz and Raymonde’s astute use of the Fairchild compressor (which put the vocals forward in the mix while keeping the orchestra in the middleground, but allowing the orchestra to suddenly surge forward when the vocals dropped out, thereby giving the illusion of a far larger orchestra), this was a record worthy of the Wall of Sound. The silence after the opening brass and screaming backing vocals fanfare – where has she gone? Did we lose her? – then she comes in quietly. She can’t get along without you. She’s not asking you to stay forever or even love her, “just be close at hand.” Her despair escalates as the orchestral swell increases; it just keeps building up, beyond melodrama, and yes you know where it’s going, where worship and fucking reach their apex (that key change leading to the final chorus!), their climax, and finally unite as she screams orgasm – “Believe me! Believe me! OH, BELIEVE ME!” – the latter high C sung as every other musician and singer plays and sings as high and as long a note as possible until the record has reached catharsis.

(And listen to how Franz and Raymonde used the exact same dynamics but in reverse on the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”)

And what does she offer us as a sequel? A return to childhood, a contemplation of death – “Goin’ Back.” The acknowledgement of the need to move forward while not necessarily abandoning or mummifying your past. “And I can live my days instead of counting my years” Springfield says, never more quietly, with that vibrato to which you cannot refuse to cry, before the orchestra, and specifically the trumpets, sweep back in to reveal the vast plain, or garden, or sea, ready for her to travel across – they’ve said their peace, they recede; just let her say it as plainly as anyone could. “A little bit of freedom’s all we lack – so catch me if you can, I’m going back.” As if to say you’ll have to do better than that, you can’t kill me, I remember how it was, it’s all in my head, and now it’s all documented so it can never be denied.

And a coda – Bacharach and David’s “The Look Of Love.” Hear her breathe. The record wouldn’t make sense if you couldn’t hear her breathing on it, across it, through it. Peter King’s beyond-sublime alto sax, sounding like a breathing alter ego, and all he’s doing is playing the tune.

“don’t

go

away”

bury me in your bosom, just hold, stay there, whatever way you want it, PROTECT ME FROM THIS WORLD

After that emotional ekphrasis, the only way was down, but she went down slowly and elegantly. The disbelief at the existence of unconditional love – the major key lyrical ecstasy balanced against the defiantly minor key of Clive Westlake’s music – in “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” (the punctum here? “The music that keeps flooding my mind” as Keith Mansfield’s orchestra suddenly floods into your ears from the strings in the left channel, culminating in the low brass over on the right). The precision of their understanding of the dynamics of silence and contrast.

That was her last throw of that particular dice, though. Many suspected that with Barry Ryan’s “Eloise,” musicians were now just having a laugh at this sort of orchestral pop (but hadn’t they listened to Jimmy Webb? Did they think there was the slightest fucking bit of camp in something like “Wichita Lineman” or even “Macarthur Park”? What fools) and anyway she wanted to go and do other things anyway. One of the most vocal champions of black music in ‘60s Britpop – she personally arranged a BBC TV Motown special to coincide with the Motown Revue’s British tour in 1965, giving the Temptations and the Miracles their first exposure on British TV; Cliff Richard famously called her “the white Negress” (he meant it as a high compliment); she even more famously was deported from a South African tour after refusing to play in front of segregated audiences, for which pains she was roundly derided by old-school entertainers like Arthur Askey and Max Bygraves – she was persuaded by Ahmet Ertegun to sign to Atlantic in the USA in 1968 and recorded Dusty In Memphis, about which all I can usefully say is that, if you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. Its lead single “Son Of A Preacher Man” was her last big hit; and while there’s no doubting the sensuality (even in more prosaic musical surroundings) of performances like “Breakfast In Bed,” attempts at things like “Windmills Of Your Mind” were ill-advised.

After that Dusty struggled; periodically retiring with the occasional unexceptional record release (Scott Walker, who had enjoyed a similarly fruitful production relationship with John Franz in the ‘60s, was in the same boat) – moving through pale soul facsimiles, attempts at disco. There were personal difficulties as well, both with the bottle and with relationships, and when she finally returned to the charts in 1987 under the patronage of the Pet Shop Boys she was looking her years. I’m not quite sure how successful her liaison with the PSBs was, artistically; “What Have I Done To Deserve This” is a clever deconstruction of mutual unconditional love, clever because it acknowledged the existence of decay and impermanence. “Nothing Has Been Proved” was written for the film Scandal about the Profumo affair; the poignancy here is listening to the Face of 1963 calmly intoning the litany of events which happened in 1963 – “Please Please Me’s number one” and also “Dusty goes solo.” Self-referential to a fault, her subsequent Reputation was only partially overseen by the PSBs; the clumsy House-ification of the old Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme smoocher “I Want To Stay Here” sits uncomfortably when compared with the inspired work which the PSBs coaxed out of Liza Minnelli on their collaborative Results album of 1989 – a record which some still consider to represent the Pet Shop Boys’ finest achievement. It would perhaps be better to draw your attention to her entirely unheralded but very moving performance on the song “Something In Your Eyes” from Richard Carpenter’s 1987 album Time; that same blissful compassion was present, when sympathetic writers and producers allowed it to be.

No need to go through the final decline of the ‘90s – the inelegant Dianne Warren songs, the long-distance duets with Daryl Hall, and of course the onset of the cancer which claimed her life in 1999, just a few months before what would have been her 60th birthday. Just as there is no need to shout her immense technical and artistic qualities – it’s all still there, it all remains alive, her voice remains caressing you, you remain comfortable within the same womb. At her finest, listening to her is like refuting the existence of loneliness, because it tells you that there is always someone in this world who can, and does, understand.

The voice pleads to me, hugs me:
“Don’t go away.”

So here I am, going back…back to you.


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