Tuesday, 3 August 2010

[Spellbinding Falcons - will that do?]

The day of the anniversary of my friend's death - or possibly the day before or after, as that's the kind of person I am - I saw a copy of The Northern Soul Story Vol. 1: The Twisted Wheel (above) in my local, not very impressive, HMV and after much dithering bought it. Below is a reasonable-sounding youtube clip of the song which struck me most, which I include as a final salute to him. Until I decide otherwise and add more. (Hey, it's a blog: we don't live by your petty rules, man.)

If you are a Northern Soul fan, no doubt the song below is a stone classic, so look away NOW, as I'm going to write about hearing it for the first time. And again, there will be stuff about the Spellbinders online, which you could look up if you wanted to; still reeling from a (living) friend's cruel decision not to read this blog it hardly seems worth searching for links to place here. I mean, the internet's a big place, so why don't you forage for yourself, eh? Ah, gone are those days of late December/early January when I was able to delude myself that I had a substantial audience - or even one faithful reader.

Anyway, the Spellbinders track was the one which has stuck with me, and it tied in neatly with reading Will Hodgkinson's Song Man, as it's a song which seems very simple, but there's no sense of anything missing.
The tiny bit of info I could be bothered to find online said that Van McCoy had produced (but not written) it - and the arrangement is indeed pretty darned good. It's undoubtedly a dance record but what I like about the singing is what also happens in Jackie Wilson's performance of Higher and Higher: as Dave Marsh points out in The Heart of Rock and Soul, there's a point where the singer, relatively controlled until then, just lets go for the rest of the running time.

I know Van McCoy was involved with some Jackie Wilson recordings - was he behind Higher and Higher? Hey, there's even a link with the group in the previous post, as the Dells have another Higher and Higher from the same root. Now, a few short months ago I'd have written a massive two part blog entry about the origins of the song (like I did for Stand By Me, if anyone can be bothered to search that out); now, however, it's just a vague bit of info which I knew once on a time.

Anyway, Help Me is what we call in the trade a "good" record, and one which I've listened to quite a few times on my mp3 player (and no doubt the use of that magic word will bring people here in search of non-existent downloads, but I can't help that) and I've tried to work out why. (Why good, I mean, not why this insatiable thirst for downloads.)

First off is the vocal restraint of that first minute or so: there is the coolness of a Smokey Robinson or a Curtis Mayfield, almost. Secondly, or maybe equal first, there's the sheer irresistable danceability of that thumping great beat. Third is the sense of joy which emanates from the other singers: they don't have anything too complicated to do other than more or less chanting "Help me" but that adds the hypnotic quality you can hear in Soul Stirrers records: it's their insistence which lends a strange power to the lead voice. And the backing singers are both an expression of the lead's torment - his voice amplified, as it were - and a kind of support, suggesting they know what he's going through, tying his experience to the common stock of pain: the blight man was born for, if you will, but you probably won't.

But they are also providing, as I said, a simple chant that any listener can get in about three seconds, so in the middle of a drunken disco night this record would cut through whatever dwam our departed hero might have been in. I'm presuming.

Now, as far as I remember, when my friend (no, no, the dead one, not the cruel one - do keep up) bored on about the Twisted Wheel he didn't mention this record specifically - but now that I've heard it I can't help associating it with him: so easy to imagine the group support (as in vocal group) on the record growing into a wider sharing on the dance floor: odd, because it's about the pain of loss - and yet it's also a kind of joyful wartime-style singalong (or chant-along), an affirmation of community for those blitzed by lurve. What becomes of the broken-hearted? On the evidence of this record they attain membership of a far from exclusive club.

Just broke off there for two and a half minutes to listen to it again. The song is very simple but there is light and shade in the arrangement: the strings are good. Which reminds me of my first experience of Van McCoy (assuming it was him): hearing those strings during the bridge of Higher and Higher coming out of Onesti's, one of the fish and chip shops in Steelopolis-as-was, in 1967 or whenever it was that Jackie Wilson first had a UK hit with it: an interlude of luxuriating before Wilson hammers the song to death.

Annoyingly, given that I have no intention of looking it up, I vaguely remember reading fairly recently (a source other than Marsh) that the producer of Higher and Higher really had to push Wilson to get the keeper vocal performance. Which is suprising, given Jackie Wilson's vocal power: his version of Danny Boy, Van the Man said on a documentary, "knocked my socks off." But maybe he just didn't appreciate what kind of a song it was he was about to immortalise. The Rita Coolidge version shows that you can't do it any old way.

But don't sidetrack me, please. I'm trying to talk about Somebody Help Me. Or Someone Help Me. And the vocal support is, of course, reaches back to doo wop and beyond to gospel. And you know, on the evidence of such support, that the chances are he will indeed  "get myself back together again": as he starts to jabber near the end, you can hear the passion behind his desire, and the sense of his being uplifted by the support of these friends - or maybe just strangers who get it.

But in the disco (I'm guessing) it just becomes sheer joy, and as I write I see in my head those images of community in the film Millions Like Us (above), where dancing and communal singing provides a momentary release from the grinding work in a munitions factory in wartime. Also I have just been watching Sh*g (Brian Conley voice: It's a beach party-type daaaaaahnce!") where the dancing is not always spectacular but the sense of communally enjoyed fun comes across loud and clear. The dancing feels real in a way that aspects of the storyline don't. A bit like those films which you wouldn't watch in order to gain an insight into how to interract with washing machine repair men.

Enough talking. Here is the clip - and again, it has been scientifically tested against other youtube options for comparative whump:

Have just been listening to this again, a few weeks later, and am still trying to work out why it's good. Maybe it's simply that all the elements are familiar - or are now; I can't speak for its original effect. It doesn't try to be clever, but it does build: not just the vocal but the arrangement.

It sounds, in fact, like the ideal song for that semi-drunken state which invariably attends the habitual frequenting of discotays. You're not being confronted with anything outwardly clever but you are being given that prime soul thing of sadness and joy intermingled.

In this case it's a kind of celebratory despair - personal despair lifted by the affirmation all around - whereas in a record cited (if I remember correctly) by Drifters author Bill Millar as one of the first soul records, You're So Fine by the Falcons, the opposite applies: the singer's praising of his girl has a melancholy undertow. Is it the pain of knowing that it will end some time, that he can't quite believe his luck?

I first heard You're So Fine on Radio 1 in the early seventies in a cover version, possibly done by a pub rock-type band. Already familiar by then with Jackie Wilson, thanks to the Wilson Stereo Library (anyone remember them?), I immediately assumed the original must have been by Wilson (no relation to the library - he had his own business problems, believe me) and heard it in my head, as bright as Reet Petite or Baby Workout - though not, I hoped, quite so leadenly arranged.

When I eventually got to hear the Falcons track on an Alan Warner doo wop compilation I remember my initial surprise and disappointment; now, however, like all right-thinking people I recognise it as a classic. And that the attendant sadness is part of what soul is all about. Okay, let's hear it now:

The first youtube clip which came up, as you can see, with images from American Grafitti. That wasn't my intention when I set out on this entry some weeks ago, but it does tie back rather neatly to my late friend. If you remember the film, you will recall that the Richard Dreyfuss character spends much of his time in the fruitless pursuit of an ideal woman, waiting in vain for her to show up, and it's not until he's airborne, cruising towards a new future, that he finally catches sight of her car again on the road below. But - and this is the great trick - he is able to smile wistfully and, as Neville Holder so frequently entreats, look to the future.

In my last ever (WHEN THEY'RE GONE THEY'RE GONE!!!) conversation with my friend we talked about someone who'd had the same symbolic importance for me - although I've never been able to muster the same insouciance as in the Dreyfuss case.

Which may be why I like both the records featured here. The End.

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