Monday, 27 April 2009

I feel the stab of pain returning

Cliff Richard hit his zenith of personal cool in 1958: it’s all been downhill from there, a fifty year descent from surly rocker to national smirking stock. Cliff has frequently claimed to be ‘the most radical rock star there has ever been’ for his strict avoidance of sex and drugs and booze and Godlessness, but this is clearly a load of self-justifying rubbish: Cliff has always been a square, and the fact that he terrified people in the 1950’s for a short time is indicative of how conservative Britain was in those days, rather than how radical he was.

To be even handed, though, it wasn’t all Cliff’s fault. There was simply no mechanism in 1958 that could have been called a rock and roll industry – upcoming music stars had to move almost immediately into show business if they were to stay popular, and show business in the late fifties meant Tin Pan Alley, The London Palladium and Panto. Within a year of arriving, Cliff was already on his way out as a menace to society: his Elvis sneer replaced by a smile, ‘Move It’ replaced by ‘Livin’ Doll’ and moody, provocatively jiggling ‘Oh Boy’ performances replaced by song and dance routines in straw hats on Sunday night telly for all the family.

From there on in, Cliff was Mr. Showbiz, and whether he was driving a bus to Athens with frequent stops for mediocre songs, or releasing yet another big ballad or Granny Clapper with an Oompah Band, he was, in rock and roll terms at least, very old hat, out of touch. Just as Beatlemania was hitting big and British beat stars were tearing the US apart, Cliff found God. By 1967, the most psychedelic year in world history, Cliff was making films with the Billy Graham Organisation.

But people loved him, they’ve always loved him, even if he was only cool for a year, and missed every chance to hit the zeitgeist since and, every now and again, he has his moments: plenty of kitsch favourites, some great pop records and, once in a while, a stone cold classic.

‘Throw Down A Line’ is a Top Ten single from 1969, written by Hank Marvin (In contrast to Cliff, The Shadows always tried to keep up and did so very nicely, thanks) and is probably the closest Cliff ever got to making a psychedelic rock record. A crunching martial beat and a short squeak of feedback lead into one of Cliff’s most impassioned vocal performances, detailing a world where ‘men are tied with chains of silence’ and ‘talons of steel have grown’ before pleading for assistance for a drowning boy ‘hanging in the nowhere tree’ (mixing your metaphors is very psychedelic). That boy, of course, is Cliff himself, and the standard interpretation is that he is singing about being rescued from moral turpitude by Jesus, but don’t let that taint your enjoyment of what may be the best single Cliff ever made (and definitely the only one with an atonal sitar-y guitar solo) during his long, steady slide into irrelevance.

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