Saturday, 22 September 2012

Floating Boaters or But wherefore could not I pronounce "Hooray" or "Boo"?

The BBC are currently rerunning 35 year old episodes of Top of the Pops, its now sunken flagship pop show, in sequence. I initially thought I'd store them all on my TV's hard drive but weekly exposure to the programme has hardened my heart a little.

Maybe the Beeb has picked up the story just a little too late. At some point around this time these editions first aired Top of the Tops stopped being watched religiously in our house. On occasions when I was watching on my own I began to change the channel when a boring song was on, preferring to watch James Bolam in When the Boat Comes In. Then one day, lost to history, I became engrossed in the unfolding story and didn't change back after the requisite three minutes. Not sure whether that meant I had grown up or that part of me died that day. Or both.

Anyway, the repeats on BBC4 only started a few months ago, and I have read that the decision was taken to begin at the point where a complete run of programmes started, so the surviving editions from the sixties and the early seventies are not part of these reruns, which is a pity. My earliest memories of regular TOTP viewing go back as far as Englebert Humperdinck being number one with Release Me in 1967; ten years on the shine had gone a little, and I would have been out on some of those Thursday nights.

I still watch these repeats, nevertheless, and the newfound ability to fastforward makes up for the absence of James Bolam. But one thing always strikes me at the start of each edition. Back in the day, as photographs of artists and groups appeared during the chart rundown my brothers and I - unless this is a sentimental reworking of the facts - would cheer or boo lustily according to the perceived coolness of each act.

Now, watching alone, I keep hesitating, no longer sure what attitude I am meant to have. Soul stars, disco stars who might have seemed old hat then, can now be judged in a wider context, and some former heroes now seem embarrassing.

Which brings me to what prompted this post. The most recent episode on BBC 4 included a film clip of the Floaters singing Float On. It is, it has to be said, ridiculous, and yet ... well, I've watched it several times and I'm still trying to work out what I feel - whether, in short, to plump for "Hurraaay!" or "Booooooo!" So I'm going to explore that a little here.

I suppose as a smooching-type disco record you can't fault it, even if the list of requirements which each singer provides for his perfect woman is somewhat on the lean side. Ralph, Charles, Paul and Larry desire, respectively,
  • A woman who loves her freedom and who can hold her own
  •  A woman who's quiet, a woman who carries herself like Miss Universe
  • All women of the world 
  • A woman that loves everything and everybody
And a wonderful touch is that each member, having made his stipulations,  optimistically adds:
And if that's you ...
But the visuals help provide a context. There is elaborate, old-fashioned choreography and costuming, indicative that the Floaters are in the business of creating a mood intentionally divorced from normal interactions. We are in a heightened, idealised world where fairytale-like or pantomimic gestures are to be regarded with deep seriousness. These guys - if you awake your faith - are not clowns but princes. (Or possibly clown princes, depending on how you react to the OTT choreography.)  And most importantly, the singing is restrained but soulful, and each brief solo is distinctive. The words may not be up to much, but they are given a sort of luntic conviction by each singer. Which makes me think of the music which has powered much of this blog: I'm tempted to see Float On as a kind of modernised doo wop, no more or less ridiculous than - well, The Letter by the Medallions.

I suppose the only difference is that the Floaters are not summoning up impossible love objects; for all the smoothness of delivery, I'm not sure how much vulnerability is there: you could even say they sing with the certainty of imminent conquest, an elaborate preamble which can be indulgently prolonged (there is an extended version of the track available) because they know all this slo-mo seduction is going to pay off.

But finally, over the graceful or graceless moves, the limitations of the song, several listens finally informed me of what may be bleedin' obvious to some readers: above all it's the singing.

It's a realisation which came to me all of a sudden, just as, waiting for one who is now dead in Cafe Select in Edinburgh's Waverly station about ten years ago, I heard Shirley and Company's Shame, Shame, Shame -  a record I had become inured to in my early seventies disco pomp - and suddenly realised that the battling voices, gospel-inflected, made this a record which was and ever would be great.

Why it should have taken me so long to realise that I don't know; it might simply have been the fact that I was nearer one stereo speaker in the cafe. I did not repair to a nearby lavatory and don my thirty inch pinstripe flairs, but my enjoyment, grooving as I sat, was no less keen for that.

So I end with a full-throated "Hooray!" for both the Floaters and for Shirley and Company. (Incidentally, I'm looking for a woman who loves her freedom but chooses to defer to me in all matters musical and comedic. If you feel that's you, don't touch that dial. We can always rent a Bolam box set during one of our contractually agreed Quiet Nights In.)