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May 08

JULIE COVINGTON – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

FT + Popular80 comments • 5,490 views

#400, 12th February 1977

This is the first entry in Popular that I’ve written about extensively for Freaky Trigger before, in this long piece comparing different versions of the song. It’s one of my favourite longer FT pieces so this entry is very much an extract from it, since I’ve not changed my opinions on the track at all:

“Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” opens Act II of Evita, a musical I’ve never seen about a woman I know little of. I’d assumed it was a finale, but no: Eva Peron sings it as the wife of Argentina’s new president – the song is her address to the crowd who – we know from the start of the show – will come to adore her. Andrew Lloyd-Webber wrote the music, Tim Rice the lyrics. It’s a classic show-stopper: dramatic, lavishly orchestrated, and (potentially) catastrophically over-the-top. It’s also the only Lloyd-Webber/Rice song to have become more-or-less a standard – which is odd, given Evita’s very specific political context and content.

But something obviously registered – the song is corny enough to be memorable and subtle enough to be a challenge to anyone taking it on. It can stand alone, and “Argentina” can stand for anything you want. Which is just as well, since from the brief readings I’ve since made of Argentinian history Peronism is not my cup of mate. I got flamed on a file-sharing website for uploading one version – “an ode to a bloodythirsty dictator’s wife” wrote a fellow-member. This is unfair to Rice and Lloyd-Webber in context – where Eva’s politics are constantly questioned by the young radical Che – and out of context, where the song is too abstract to be an endorsement of anything much.

But that’s not to say it’s not a political song. Evita the musical premiered the year after Margaret Thatcher won the Tory leadership. Evita the film opened the Autumn before Princess Diana died. One reason “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a fascinating song is that it resonates so much in an era when women are entering and operating in the public arena at last; an arena whose rules, like the song, are written by men. The song’s mix of empathy, spin and steel, though, is not specifically ‘feminine’ – it’s just modern. Thatcher is not the modern Prime Minister who “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” most fits.

Covington’s version, from the British soundtrack album, forms a musical template for most other readings: the huge juddering strings, the rhetorical dynamics, the switch into a slow tango-tempo for the penultimate chorus. She doesn’t actually sing the final chorus, letting the song end with Eva’s vulnerable final appeal (“Have I said too much?”). But she doesn’t need to. In Covington’s hands it’s an entirely staged vulnerability – hers is the haughtiest reading of the tune, sung by a career-politician Evita whose peasant origins have long been cauterised. Her key lines? “Couldn’t stay all my life down at heel / Looking out of the window”, the crushing emphases signalling a swelling disgust at the very concept of weakness, of inertia.

Many performances of the song find the singer switching between singing to the imagined crowd and singing seemingly to herself. Covington’s, forceful and direct, doesn’t: it’s pure balcony address, pure rhetoric. And if you take “…Argentina” as rhetoric, a key question needs answering – what is the sung character trying to do? The central ambiguity of the song is its dual role as victory anthem and defensive self-justification. “How I still need your love after all that I’ve done” – after all I’ve achieved? Or – after all my sins? Power and guilt are united in the need for recognition. Listening again, though, that’s not how Covington sings it – on “I love you and hope you love me” she’s defiant. It is a hope, never a need – her love is unconditional.

There’s only a few professions more based in performance, more reliant on public acclaim – and more potentially dishonest – than politician. Pop singer is one of them, though in pop we can enjoy our demagogues more safely. “…Argentina” is Tim Rice’s finest hour, speechwriting as much as songwriting. The opening is perfect, grabbing the attention, wrong-footing the audience – “It won’t be easy, you’ll think it strange”: what won’t? What’s strange? – and then at once explaining, “how I still need your love”, before setting up another ambiguity, “after all that I’ve done.”. The verse sets the tone – Eva is being utterly frank, honest almost desite herself – and the rest of the song carries through. Rice keeps using the trick of starting a verse with something spontaneous-sounding – “I had to let it happen”; “Have I said too much?” – and then turning it into something more prepared, more cadenced (the chorus, for instance). This is great songwriting and great rhetoric both. And you have to ask that question again – how honest is Eva being? Is it all scripted? And you have to answer, “Of course it is”.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Erithian on 29 May 2008 #

    A top moment in Gambo/Rice was when Rice played my then-favourite single, Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”, only for Gambo to literally take off the needle and announce that since Rice had just become the first serving Radio 1 DJ to write a Number 1 single, he was going to play [next bit smothered by bunny] in his honour. He did so, after which Rice apologised to Kirsty MacColl fans!

  2. 52
    Rob M on 29 May 2008 #

    Regarding b-sides about b-sides, there’s an Andrew Oldham single from the sixties – one of those “Rolling Stones Orchestra” things I believe – whose main title escapes me, but the b-side is entitled “I do like to see me on the b-side”. What’s odd about it is the composer credit goes to “Oldham / Wyman / Watts”!

  3. 53
    wichita lineman on 29 May 2008 #

    Presumably it was to rake in a bit of dosh (if it had been a hit) for the non-songwriting Stones. Which says a lot about what Andrew Oldham thought of Brian Jones.

    The Shadows released a double ‘B’ side in 1966, The Dreams I Dream b/w Scotch On The Socks, on a white Columbia demo with two lovely red B’s. It must have tickled them, but I bet their promo man could’ve wept. It duly became their lowest charting single in seven years, and they wouldn’t trouble the Top 10 until 1978, with Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

    Ah, that felt good.

  4. 54
    vinylscot on 29 May 2008 #

    Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

    Well done, Mr Lineman.

  5. 55
    LondonLee on 29 May 2008 #

    Charlotte Cornwall was the one I fancied in Rock Follies (I was immune to Rula’s pre-Raphaelite locks and Julie C. was a bit too butch for me), there was an episode that involved them boxing for some reason and seeing Charlotte bouncing around the ring in little satin shorts and a vest gave me palpitations.

  6. 56
    Billy Smart on 29 May 2008 #

    – cue Waldo reminiscences and reflections here, surely?

  7. 57
    Billy Smart on 29 May 2008 #

    By far the best bit of the notorious 1977 “punk” episode of The Goodies, is their Rock Follies pastiche, ‘Rock Goodies’, in the first five minutes. As I remember, Tim is Julie Covington. They end every line with “cock”, and the number they play, ‘Shiny Shoes’, is one of Bill Oddie’s best songs.

    I really ought to get around to seeing Rock Follies… It does sound like 100% my sort of thing.

  8. 58
    DJ Punctum on 29 May 2008 #

    I’m blowed if I can remember anything about Sue Jones-Davies, though (she is credited on “OK?”).

  9. 59
    lex on 29 May 2008 #

    Ironically, given how blah her own version of this song is, I think the only reason I like Evita at all is because of Madonna. (I have a long-standing hatred of the entire musical genre otherwise, not unrelated to my hatred of all comedy ever. It’s too ‘wacky’, and it reminds me of the scary plastic smiles on the faces of kids’ TV presenters (NB: I hated kids’ TV even more when I was actually a child).)

    Not much to add to Tom’s og ‘Argentina’ piece – I also think the Sinéad version is the best I’ve heard, and the Miami mix of Madge’s is maybe the most camp thing in the world – other than to say I wish loads more people would cover this just because it’s one of those standards where, contra ‘Dancing Queen’, I think anyone can make their own, and where someone’s interpretation of it can be really revealing.

  10. 60
    vinylscot on 29 May 2008 #

    DJP @ #58

    You might remember her better as Judith, Brian’s sort-of love-interest in “Life of Brian”.

    I don’t remember her from RF either, I presume she must have been in the second series which wasn’t really as popular as the first had been.

  11. 61
    LondonLee on 29 May 2008 #

    She played a character called ‘Rox’ apparently, and has a long list of other credits

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0429495/

  12. 62
    Waldo on 29 May 2008 #

    # 55 + 56 – Actually, I can’t recall Charlotte as Dave Boy Green. I must have missed that episode. My abiding memory of “Rock Follies” is when they wailed out a number called “Glen Miller Is Missing”, which I thought was complete cobblers.

    Btw, I’d certainly like to see Daniela Denby-Ashe in boxing signet and shorts, although my next stop would be an oxygen tent.

  13. 63
    crag on 29 May 2008 #

    Re:B-sides- the B-side of Adam Ants Apollo 9 was called B-side Baby.
    For me Webber/Rice’s greatest achievement was undoubtably JCS-a better display of using the rock form to tell a whole continuous story than Odgen’s Nut, The Wall or any of Townsends efforts and, IMO, stands as one of the great records of the rock era.
    Julie Convington meanwhile will always be Beth from Jeff Wayne’s WOTW to me…

  14. 64
    Snif on 30 May 2008 #

    Of course, Napoleon XiV aka Jerry Samuels took the B side cake with the B side of “They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha Ha!”, entitled “!Ah Ah Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er’Yeht”, and consisted of the A side played backwards.

    Never liked this track much, but loved JC’s version of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” which was a medium sized hit down under.

  15. 65
    Waldo on 30 May 2008 #

    Oh, what a circus. Oh, what a typo. I think I meant “singlet”, not “signet”, which is a little creature that provides sport to Canadians with clubs. I’ve only just noticed and will write the correct word out fifty times to satisfy our brace of teachers. As for Daniela, she is certainly the only reason to watch the risible “My Family”, the longevity of which is truly mystifying.

  16. 66
    DJ Punctum on 30 May 2008 #

    In viewer demographic terms, My Family is only a Heartbeat away…

  17. 67

    i’m hoping the russell t. davis revamp of “my family” will actually OVERLAP with the original run

  18. 68
    DJ Punctum on 30 May 2008 #

    With Kris Marshall in “who are these people” mode obv. and consequent hilarious additional amnesia-related long-running sitcom strand.

  19. 69
    rosie on 30 May 2008 #

    Did we get hacked, or what? My morning wasn’t complete without Popular and The Guardian…

  20. 70
    Tom on 30 May 2008 #

    I didn’t notice anything happening! I’ve been busy catching up at work after being off sick the last cpl days, though.

    Alan and I are working to make the Popular format a little more user-friendly (in terms of huge thread lengths, easier access to the list of reviewed #1s for new readers, etc.) – so it might be he was experimenting a bit.

  21. 71

    it was evil elves in flight from the fall of otherwhere

  22. 72
    rosie on 30 May 2008 #

    I agree about the list of reviewed number ones – we need an index of some kind. Now that we are up to 400 – yes, another milestone passed – it is getting cumbersome looking back. And after all it’s ‘my’ period – say 63 to 73 – that’s of most interest to me just as the later 70s sets some pulses racing and I’d imagine others like Tom finding ‘their’ music starting to emerge later in 1977… AAAAAARGH, NO, NOT THE GIANT CARROT!

  23. 73
    Tom on 30 May 2008 #

    There is already a list – http://freakytrigger.co.uk/populist/ – it’s just a matter of linking to it better :)

  24. 74
    Waldo on 30 May 2008 #

    DJP # 65 – …yep, and Miss Denby-Ashe can certainly do a turn keeping me warm night and day…

  25. 75
    Drucius on 2 Jun 2008 #

    Nobody mention Charlotte Cornwell’s bum!

  26. 76
    Billy Smart on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Re 41/42/45 et al – I’ve found a good conceptual song called ‘The B Side’ – its by Morecambe & Wise! “You’ve paid to hear me on the hipside – why should I have to bother with the flipside?”

  27. 77
    Dispela Pusi on 23 Dec 2010 #

    #58 and #60 – Sue J-D’s character Rox was a pretty key character in Series 2. She was brought in to the Little Ladies as a second lead vocalist when manager Kitty Schreiber decided only Dee (Julie C) out of the original three was up to the job (until then they’d all taken equal shares in the singing). Charlotte C’s character promptly took umbrage and quit, soon followed by Q (Rula L), who’d realised that harmonising solo behind two leaders was simply daft.

    Dunno why she’s credited for “OK” though. That was the (intended) big breakthrough single for the three-girl line-up. Rox came aboard afterwards.

  28. 78
    Mark G on 23 Dec 2010 #

    Probably because she’s singing on it. (in real life)

    I do remember the show when they performed the song, the shot of Charlotte showed quite clearly that the words she was singing were not present on the track.

    Which she made up for by being given the b-side to perform her song “b-side” which was her, solo. In the story, that is.

  29. 79
    swanstep on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Many ’70s kids have a soft spot for Linda Ronstadt. A fantastic, career-spanning interview with her is streamable and downloadable here: http://tinyurl.com/mjfgh2t. Highly recommended.

  30. 80
    Larry on 15 Nov 2014 #

    There are definite echoes of this song in “We Are the World.”

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