The other day, at one of the many Car Boot sales my substantial positon of wealth and power within the Duchy demands that I attend, I picked up a Barry Manilow album, at the not unreasonable price of 15p.
Unscratched and boasting a fine picture of our Baz in full make up and medallion on its beige-tinted cover, this 33rpm blast from the past includes such classics as Cocacobana, Could it be Magic and ‘Mandy’.
They’re all good songs. You can sing them, your Granny can sing them, your niece can sing them. Mandy in particular is a classic example of how to write a pop ballad.
Writing a pop ballad is not rocket science, once you’ve got a bit of a name for yourself and some agressive PR or supersonic self-fulfilling kudos, the three latter being by far the rarest ingredients required for success.
To write a pop ballad, start in the key of your choice with one major chord. Now lower the bottom note of that chord one tone, but keep the top end of the chord in play. Now move progressively, or randomly, down five keys, all the time keeping the top half of your chord in place, until landing in the complementary key five notes down
You may now move up or down scale or in and out of different keys using the same formula, and with the option of a chorus, and stay safe within the indomitable confines of a surefire singalong hit.
If you don’t believe me, try it at home. John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, David Bowie’s Life on Mars (recently voted the UK’s favourite pop record of all time), Paul McCartney’s Let It Be – and of course, Barry Manilow”s ‘Mandy’ – they’re virtually the same song if you play them in the same key.
Now there are shades of grey in these various artistic conformities. Let It Be, Life on Mars, You Only Live Twice are all written to formula, but some trademark of their authors still leave them with an edge: McCartney’s Let It Be sounds so sincere it’s more like a hymn than a pop song, Life on Mars has a load of cat-in-coitus wailing all over it and Mick Ronson’s wild fingers conducting the string arrangement, and John Barry can’t go two minutes into anything without throwing in his unique spine-tingling off-note and dischord: the real reason, I’ve always suspected, for the amazing success of the James Bond films (not to mention The Ipcress File or Out of Africa).
Barry Manilow just wrote ‘Mandy’, according to the instructions, which is why ‘Mandy’ is crap, and the other three are good. Nothing to do with Barry Manilow being a tit and the others having kudos – John Barry was considered cheesy once, but he lived to fight another day.
It’s the music, stupid.
All of which brings me on to James Morrison, and why he’s doomed, unless he assiduously makes the most money he possibly can right now while he’s still pretty and while building a base career on the sly to fall back on, or else works very, very hard indeed at acheiving Manilow-like mass appeal. Because having a couple of platinum albums is one thing – many are the platinum discs that adorn the walls of rural hoteliers and small businessmen and women in their latter years – but it’s surely just your first scouts badge on the way to becoming a fully fledged star, and I don’t see why James Morrison shouldn’t become one – (a star not a scouts badge, before my English teacher emails in to complain).
I’ve never heard anything by James Morrison that’s been either original or to my admittedly slightly eccentric taste musically appealing, and the obvious truth his mirror on the wall is unlikely to tell him any morning soon is that he can’t stay cool forever, and he has to decide at some point if he’s going to retire gracefully or become Val Doonican.
As far as I can tell his many fans are chiefly girls – and of course that’s no doubt rather jolly for him, to say the least. The question he wants to be asking is, do I want to grow old with these chicks,and sit out my middle age Tom Jones style with them throwing their baggy knickers at me until I’ve enough wrinkles to be adopted as an icon by their grandchildren – or do I decide there are other things in life and make some decent music?
Now from a selfish point of view, you’d choose the Tom Jones option any day. I mean, what a life. But it’s all rather depressing isn’t it, when My Elvis Blackout can’t make it, and Phaked Soundsystem is still stuck in Far West Cornwall, but James Morrison, after torturing Porth beachgoers incognito for years with his campfire busking, now gets to do it on GMTV and Loose bloody Women.
But there I suppose you have the answer to all my pretentious questions: because just because James Morrison isn’t John Barry doesn’t mean he’s an idiot, and you wouldn’t play prime time ITV unless you had a practical grasp of your talents.
So good luck to him I say, and long may he continue to be a nice man and have a jolly life pleasing the general public with cliched chord progressions. No-one could ever accuse him of being unpleasant, and coming back to Cornwall to raise cash for a local charity is thoroughly laudable, and he deserves respect for it: but I don’t have to lie and say I think he’s any good, and until someone breaks me the news that something interesting has happened in one of his songs, I won’t be listening to any more of them outside the call of duty, because I honestly think I have a fairly good idea of what they’re all going to sound like before the first chord is strummed.
But then who am I? Just a fat, whingeing old would-be aesthete who children point and laugh at in the street. I’d rather be thick-necked, tone deaf nice man James Morrison surrounded by hot blondes any day.
To see just how bad James Morrison was at the Hall for Cornwall, scroll up to this fan-shot of him playing You Make it Real at the Hall for Cornwall (by Morrison fan Elizabeth Robynn) and click in and out of the Manilow himself banging out ‘Mandy’ in his prime.
Now tell me I’m wrong.
Lots of Love