Wednesday, 23 November 2011
69 Wonderful Life - Black
Purchased : 8th October 1987
Tracks : Wonderful Life / Everything's Coming Up Roses / Sometimes For The Asking / Finder / Paradise / Sixteens / I'm Not Afraid / I Just Grew Tired / Blue / Ravel In The Rain / Just Making Memories / Sweetest Smile
This was purchased from Lewis's in Manchester having failed to find it at a discounted price in any of the more obvious record stores despite it being in the charts at the time. That didn't improve my mood ; after a week at Liverpool I needed cheering up ( although in hindsight I had picked up a good friend ) . I got the cassette version because it had two extra tracks.
Black had featured on the night time shows for most of the eighties but seemed just another Liverpudlian indie outfit in thrall to Bowie and Scott Walker until the single "Wonderful Life" came out in the latter half of 1986 and tickled the lower end of the charts. This got Black ( now revealed as essentially a nom de plume for singer-songwriter Colin Vearnacombe ) a deal with A & M and chart success ensued the following year.
The album starts brilliantly with the re-recorded version of "Wonderful Life" . From the opening with the main melody line picked out on a synth you're hooked. The song floats over a lush bed of synthesised Carribbean steel drums and Sade-esque percussion with Vearnacombe's lugubrious ( and not entirely in key ) vocals and bitter-sweet lyrics rubbing against the gorgeous melody and payoff line. It's up there with anything Morrissey's written about failing to share in the happiness of others around one. By the time of this album's release it had acquired a new political context in the wake of Thatcher's third election victory , the zenith of yuppiedom - "you know it seems unfair there's magic everywhere". It would be interesting to know how many times this song got played at dinner parties in the Docklands. Since then of course it's been used in numerous advertising campaigns keeping Vearnacombe off the breadline and reminding us of one of the very few British pop classics the late eighties produced.
The next track is nearly as good.. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" was actually the first Black single on A & M but didn't chart , radio programmers steering clear of the possible political connotations of the title with a General Election looming. The only real rock song on the album with stabbing guitar licks and Jimmy Sangster's buzzing bassline, it's thematically similar to "Life" with Vearnacombe ruefully admitting to self-deception - " there's a kind of magic to be had from your lies". The song construction is excellent with a rising swell to the chorus where Vearnacombe is ably abetted by The Creamy Whirls duo and an unexpected lengthy guitar solo before the final chorus. Definitely one that got away.
Unfortunately the LP can't maintain that standard. Sylvia Patterson in Smash Hits nailed it; much of the album " is spiky, sparse, void of a nice tune and ruffled by flimsily demented backing singers". "Sometimes For The Asking" ( actually one of her exceptions along with the preceding tracks) begins well with an utterly misleading descending guitar figure before settling into an Everybody Wants To Rule The World loping groove which goes nowhere. The first " chorus" goes by unnoticed and Vearnacombe's lyrics are vague and vacuous, faults exacerbated by a typically 80s over-production, crashing piano chords from the Anne Dudley manual, gospel-y backing vocals, a mini sax break and some fretless bass wobbling before the pointlessly sudden ending.
"Finder" again promises much with its pleasant keyboard intro but the main part of the song is set to a lumpy, dated electrodance rhythm and Vearnacombe never sounds comfortable in the setting. He gets off one or two good lines about relationship games but the chorus is really contrived with its awkward " finder/ find her" rhyme and he's all too obviously relying on the girls to carry the melody.
"Paradise" , a minor hit in early 1988, at least places him in a sympathetic context with a light jazzy backdrop that could have been lifted from any of Bryan Ferry's post-Avalon solo albums. Unfortunately Vearnacombe can't hold a tune like Bryan and warbles off key throughout the song. The Creamy Whirls try hard but can't quite rescue the optimistic chorus with his wordless wail accompanying them.
The side concludes with one of the cassette-only tracks, the ugly, tuneless "Sixteens" which plods along on a synth rhythm track borrowed from Donna Summer's State Of Independence with Vearnacombe manifestly failing to inject any sex into the vaguely suggestive lyric. Abrasive guitar blasts only compound the misery ; those lucky vinyl-buyers weren't missing anything here.
Side Two opens with "I'm Not Afraid" the disastrous choice for a follow-up single to "Wonderful Life" . It didn't even make the Top 75 proving that Vearnacombe had failed to seal the deal with the public despite consecutive top tenners. It isn't difficult to pick out reasons for the catastrophe. Instead of another lush romantic ballad his audience were presented with brittle white funk and Vearnacombe , far too high in the mix, wailing tunelessly about the experience of the Southern bluesman ( including the mysterious second appearance of the word "pats" in his repertoire ). The chorus is a graceless bludgeoning chant of the title . The jazz trumpet solo is nifty but otherwise the song stands as one of the great commercial mis-steps of the decade.
" I Just Grew Tired " isn't as painful but not very interesting either. The lyric ventures into Morrissey territory with hints at the allure of suicide - "And dying's easy ? I think I'll try it out today" - but the woozy backing track and Vearnacombe's ventures into falsetto bring to mind Paul Young's Wherever I Lay My Hat. In fact there's one bit of scat which seems like a direct lift from that 1983 hit. The suspicion arises that some of these songs have been over-gestated given Black's protracted journey towards an album-financing deal.
"Blue" begins promisingly with an inventive and naggingly insistent xylophone riff and the first couple of lines approximate the prowling menace of Talk Talk's It's You but the chorus is drearily anti-climactic and the lyrics deteriorate into vague cliches of defiance - "hold back the night, keep me up from the fire". The final verse throws in Antmusic gutteral exclamations and then mariachi trumpets to try and hide the evaporation of the song but it's a lost cause.
"Ravel In The Rain" is the other extra track and was the B-side to "Wonderful Life". It's slow, sparse and jazzy recounting a dream about meeting the French composer in New Orleans. It sounds like a David Sylvian track with an inferior vocal and isn't my cup of tea but it has aged better than some of the other tracks.
"Just Making Memories" is the pick of the non-singles. It has some of the drive of ",,,Roses" and a reasonable tune but the lyric is unfocussed and clumsy. The chorus is ordinary notable only for the odd similarity of the Creamy Whirls' response line to the one in the third verse of ELO's Livin' Thing.
That just leaves his other, near-eclipsed, Top 10 hit "Sweetest Smile" . A highly effective mood piece rather than a great song , Vearnacombe's lugubrious vocal for once works with the music and the backing vocalists don't need to be so intrusive. The soft pulse of the stand-up bass , insinuating clarinet and lush synth washes again recall Bryan Ferry but Vearnacombe makes it his own particularly with that famously awful line about melting "the pats in the butter dish".
And then, in more than one way, he's gone. After this disappointment Black don't reappear in this tale. I've never felt inclined to investigate his subsequent albums for A & M and not many others did either. Without radio support for the singles ( Janice Long's departure from Radio One was a bg blow) which thus fell short of the Top 40, they charted in low positions then disappeared. Perhaps looking like the product of an unholy union between Rick Astley and Billy Bragg didn't help his cause either. By 1993 he was recording on his own label. Kept afloat by perennial royalties from "Wonderful Life" he remains an active recording artist but well outside the mainstream. Perhaps he deserved better, two great songs is two more than contemporaries like Climie Fisher and Transvision Vamp managed so we'll part on good terms.