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May 08

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

FT + Popular80 comments • 6,488 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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  1. 1
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    I have purposely avoided reading Tom’s article, and the above extract, until now, lest it influence the following relevant excerpt from my forthcoming book Was Michael Powell Right?: High Tory Principles As Applied To Art; it may come to the same conclusion or a completely different one:

    For a pair of writers who were Conservative (with a capital C) in both background and instinct, you could easily mistake Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for a couple of severely disillusioned Marxists. Jesus Christ Superstar seems for most of its duration to be an unyielding attack on unregulated capitalism and the imperialism to which it gives deliberate birth, as well as the occupational hazard of the destruction of visionaries which is one of its most characteristic by-products. But Webber and Rice were primarily fascinated with the spectacle (are we proceeding down the equally inevitable road to Barthes here?) and consequences of how people and things looked. Looks and appearances, and the judgements made on their primary basis, are the backbone of their fascination; the conjecture that the fate of the world can turn on the hue of Joseph’s coat, or the wiriness of Christ’s hands, or the hips of Eva Peron; what these are all trying to project, even if they’re projecting nothing. Perhaps this is to where humanity descends, in the end; the strength of belief and faith being entirely dependent upon how good a spiel their would-be saviour can weave. If the message is bright and loud enough, believers will gladly overlook the lack of actual content, the fatal avoidance of commitment, the shades behind the smile.

    Evita is an examination of a bright, possibly naïve and certainly corrupted mind; it doesn’t bother itself overmuch with the inherent corruption in post-war Argentinian politics, and how that fit in so astutely with the equivalent corruption in post-war British politics, paving the bright yellow road towards the Falklands. It may be a dream in which “Eva Peron” is only an imagined existence – yet that existence was real, and side-effects reverberated for decades as a result.

    “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a request, or possibly a plea, for redemption in the resentful eyes of the people out of which she rose; she has done too many bad things, turned too many backs, is centimetres away from tossing them fragments of semi-swallowed cake. But its pleading is the special kind reserved for the dock; not a genuine cry to be touched, but the cornered, faintly embarrassed confession of someone who’s been caught in the act.

    Fittingly, the music doesn’t have much to do with Argentina, apart from a very subtle tango rhythm; the song begins with a solemn tabula of low and very English strings, as though Elgar or Delius had been commissioned to write yet another commemoration of the prematurely departed. Then the voice of Julie Covington enters; hesitant, unstable, she whimpers: “It won’t be easy/You’ll think it strange…/That I still need your love after all that I’ve done.” Then, a pause for breath: “You won’t believe me.” The voice is an ideal one; Covington, one of the stars of Rock Follies, had floated unobtrusively between the worlds of theatre and folk-pop for some years (see for instance 1971’s “My Silks And Fine Arrays”); it is a voice which knows both how to act and how to believe.

    Brass takes over from strings in the second verse as Covington slowly attempts to assert herself: “I had to let it happen/I had to change,” then, with a sense of real anger slowly radiating into her tone, “Couldn’t stay all my life down at heel.” She immediately tries to excuse that incipient rage: “But nothing impressed me at all/I never expected it to,” and she sounds nowhere near convincing or convinced.

    Strings return for the chorus: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina/The truth is I never left you.” But what is the nature of that crying – is it mourning for a lost princess, or the baying of a disgruntled mob, crying for her blood? “I kept my promise,” she sings, again on the defensive, before lowering her voice to something like a threat, “Don’t keep your distance.”

    In the third verse, acoustic guitar and rhythm enter, together with a pan-pipe synthesiser, providing a direct link to post-Fairport Convention modes, she continues to justify herself (-love?): “And as for fortune, and as for fame/I never invited them in.” Later her voice softens again, “They’re not the solutions they promised to be/The answer was here all the time…I love you…and hope you love me.” It is among the least believable “I love you”s in all of pop. The music stops, like a curtain silently sweeping open to reveal the bloodied mouths and the gallows beneath the balcony – I think of Scott Walker’s concept of Clara Petucci, of the terrified sparrow trapped in the room; the difference being that Eva has walked straight into it, voluntarily and ecstatically (and the general tenor of the orchestration, for example the ‘cellos and basses as rhythm at the end of each chorus, suggests that Webber was more than somewhat familiar with Walker’s late ‘60s work).

    Over a drone Covington makes her central titular plea. There is another brief but seemingly eternal pause, before a chorus, evidently dreaming of Gerontius once again (think of the reinstatement of Elgar as revolutionary as proposed in Alan Clarke’s 1975 TV film Penda’s Fen), hums wordlessly, like a deliberating jury. Finally orchestra and rhythm join to frame Covington’s last chorus.

    Then the music glides to a complete halt, and Covington, now seeming for the first time genuinely distressed, whispers: “Have I said too much? There’s nothing more I can think of to say to you,” and is answered by trilling, descending flutes which sound less Latin American, more Le Sacre Du Printemps…and then she turns to her jury, to her people, to us, and intones with careful slowness and gravity: “But all you have to do is look at me to know that every word is true.” The syllables of each of these last four words she stretches out over a barline apiece; the tympani strikes a roll and she is left to ponder her fate.

    Or is she? As the orchestra plays the melody fortissimo, now reminiscent of Copland’s setting of Streets Of Laredo, there is suddenly a terrible sense of emptiness and not a small degree of numb shock as we realise that Eva has been addressing nobody, no one at all; the camera cuts to the dressing table mirror and she has been rehearsing the whole thing. As with Peter Sellers’ “Party Political Speech,” we gradually understand in retrospect that all Evita has been doing for the last five-and-a-half minutes – the era of the long single hadn’t quite died away with “Bohemian Rhapsody” after all – is sweetly and grandly saying nothing at all, save a string of crowd-pleasing clichés which in truth promise and pledge not an atom of what remains of her soul. The song and record end with the orchestra on a question mark of an unresolved chord, as is only right, and its full meaning can only be grasped by listening to it in tandem with its sister song, “Oh What A Circus,” a long hiss of post-mortem cynicism allotted to Che Guevara (played by David Essex) set to the same tune but at twice the speed and intensity (it was a top three single in the summer of 1978). But “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” has endured as one of the greatest exposés of bullshit masquerading as emotion in all of pop; the song itself is sad enough to make you cry, and then you check yourself – at what, or whom, are you crying, and why? How much “reality” do you actually desire to derive from a piece of music; and, to extend the argument into the fuller world, look – that is, look – at the Princess Diana Panorama footage, or the last Gordon Brown speech, and examine the minute slivers of genuine meaning which exist in either, or neither.

  2. 2
    Tom on 28 May 2008 #

    This is surely the highest wordcount for thread plus first comment ever!!

  3. 3
    vinylscot on 28 May 2008 #

    Oh dear…

  4. 4
    Tom on 28 May 2008 #

    Not that I’m complaining obviously :)

    Lloyd Webber and Rice were a big formative pop thing for me – acting in Joseph as a tiny and also listening endlessly to my Dad’s bought-in-a-service-station Jesus Christ Superstar highlights tape and later the “best of” that introduced me to the Evita and Tell Me On A Sunday material.

    JCS I think is interestingly double-edged vis-a-vis your “it’s all about spin” angle on their work: as audience you have perfect liberty to agree with Judas (in fact I think exposure to JCS helped form my own atheism! I found the arguments very persuasive!), but of course you also have knowledge of the aftermath (which may or may not include belief that Jesus is more than a showman) – obviously Judas is the identification figure in most ways, and definitely gets the best tunes, but his songs about manipulation getting out of hand are aimed at himself as much as their apparent target.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    I’ve now read Tom’s highly enjoyable piece (which I am pleased to see comes to a not dissimilar conclusion!). Agree thoroughly about the missed opportunity of Madonna’s version (though as he says it’s partially redeemed by the so-absurd-it-gets-closer-to-the-bullshit-truth dance mix) and that Sinead’s cover is the best; apparently she won a prize singing this song while at school so in her autobiographical sense it works ideally.

  6. 6
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    I think that’s just about covered it!

  7. 7

    i: somewhere in my flat i have a tattered copy of the book that came out after “jesus christ superstar”, the double LP of which i was bought as a tenth bday present (or xmas present?) bcz aged 8 i had liked “jospeh” so much — if i wasn’t quite busy with an actual real grown-up project at the moment i would promise an FT REVIEW of this er er literary artefact, as it is very bizarre
    ii: my dad bought and for a time apparently enjoyed the lloyd-webber LP “variations”, which formed the meat of the first ever SOUTH BANK SHOW <-- this is a bit away so i will hang fire on it (also i have to kind of steal the LP off my dad which i feel bad abt even tho i doubt he's listened to it or thought of it for 30-odd years) iii: PLZ TO TALK ABOUT ROCK FOLLIES A LOT

  8. 8

    “the book of the rock opera” <-- most despised genre ever?

  9. 9
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    Unjustly so, as well, since the best record ever made is a triple-album jazz-rock opera with oblique lyrics, not all of which are actually sung or spoken.

    The music to Rock Follies was strange in that it marked the transition of Ray Russell from berserko-neurotic Sonny Sharrock wannabe to mild-mannered TV cop show composer.

  10. 10
    LondonLee on 28 May 2008 #

    I’d agree it’s an 8. Covington is such a great singer it’s a shame she didn’t record more. But for two composers with such a successful track record in musicals it’s shocking how few Rice/Webber songs have become standards or are even that memorable, apart from this one, ‘Memory’ and ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’ are about the only two I could hum the tune of.

    I did like this a lot less during the Falklands War, it’s a depressing thing to hear it played at a Rugby Club disco and listen to a bunch of loud, Maggie-voting knobs singing it as if it was some sort of victory song.

    I loved Rock Follies but I’m scared to watch it again now because I might find out it wasn’t actually that good.

  11. 11
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    Cov recorded Alice Cooper’s “Only Women” losing all the um, irony? sympathy? for a more strident statement.

    Oh, and yeah she recorded lots of things, but shied away from fortune and fame, ironically enough.

  12. 12
    Waldo on 28 May 2008 #

    Julie Covington. Okay, good. The androgynous girl from “Rock Follies”. Very good. And a song from a musical. And a Rice/Lloyd-Webber musical too. And those two were simply electrifying back then. I would fully expect one or two of you to sneer at them for their clear support for the Conservative Party, but as I have opined in another place such beasts in the entertainment industry are rare to non-existent and in any case one would be disappointed if a political standpoint, no matter how much it may be disagreeable to someone, should provide an intractable blinker through which one is not only able to see but is not even prepared to try to. Lloyd-Webber has composed plenty of guff over his lengthy career but much of his work, with and without Rice, has been wonderful and of immeasurable merit to the cause of UK arts, ironically populated so heavily by the Left. “Evita” was one such work and DCFMA perhaps its most celebrated sub-text. A wonderful song of many complexities, belted out impressively by Covington, who then surprised many by declining the stage role, thus allowing Elaine Paige in, who promptly commenced a relationship with Rice. Act I, of course, had already seen “Oh What A Circus” (a hit for David Essex) sung to the same melody, DCFMA being performed much later after the interval. Whether you wish to bracket these two songs together is a matter of personal taste. I prefer not to.

    A little personal note about Elaine (all four foot something of her). In 1982 I was at Wimbledon with a perfectly lovely girl called Anne, whom I had met in the queue. Anne was petit and just about peeked over five foot. We were walking past the outside of Centre Court, which in those days was the place to be in order to clock the arrivals and departures of players and celebs. Cue the arrival of Miss Paige (sans Rice) looking ravishing. Anne turned to me and said “Isn’t she short?”, which I thought was charming. Indeed before Paige was bitten by the musical bug, this the result of seeing Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” (my own favourite musical by some margin), she dreamed of being a tennis player but was not encouraged especially by her sports mistress who told her that “you couldn’t even see over the net”. She is now a malleable, but slightly touched, presenter of a Sunday Radio 2 show on musical theatre. Rice, of course, went onto to help edit “Guinness”, the very bible which we are following in order to fortify this project. So he can’t be all that bad.

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    She certainly did startling service to “Only Women Bleed” which I believe is still the only Top 20 hit single involving John Cale. The eponymous album she released on Virgin at the same time (late ’78, produced by Joe Boyd) is also very fine and deserves a CD reissue.

  14. 14

    since the best record ever made is a triple-album jazz-rock opera with oblique lyrics, not all of which are actually sung or spoken — but the book of this has not yet been written! (or, more to the point, it HAS, but is not yet published in book-form): DJP i’m looking at you! :D

  15. 15

    i always thought elaine paige looked a bit like a Q-tip (the ear-stick thingy not the band)

  16. 16
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    When I lived in Chelsea I used to see EP and her little Westie dog Tigger every Sunday morning when I went to the newsagents round the corner for the papers.

    Her regular Sunday showtunes session on R2 is a most sprightly listen. And since it won’t be troubling SB, a word for her brilliant performance of “Memory” (#6 in 1981) which is another of the songs of its century.

    Does anyone else remember her being part of the troupe on long-gone BBC1 teatime proto-karaoke medley show One More Time?

  17. 17
    Waldo on 28 May 2008 #

    Mark – She could have cued my tip anytime, buster!

  18. 18
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    #14: Jeremy B to thread and I don’t mean the late Beadle either… :-(

  19. 19
    Tom on 28 May 2008 #

    #10 – Memory isn’t Webber/Rice, it’s Webber/Eliot :)

    Webber/Rice, and Webber/X and X/Rice will all be back.

    My own favourite W/R not-#1 is “Take That Look Off Your Face” by Marti Webb. Now that’s a belter.

  20. 20

    (#18: marcello can you email me an update)

  21. 21
    vinylscot on 28 May 2008 #

    DJP – I vaguely remember that dreadful show. Was “David Copperfield” (the British one) in it too?

    Her IMDB entry says she appeared as a regular in “Crackerjack” in 1970-1, but I don’tt remember her from there.

    I first encountered her (without realising) on the 1969 single “Mother of Convention” by the altogether wholesome and slightly folky “Colors of Love” on Larry Page’s Page One. For some reason there seemed to be rather a lot of copies of it around Glasgow in the early 70s – maybe another member of the band was a local.

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    I remember Covington, on some late night show in the late seventies (or possibly early eighties) whose name I’ve long forgotten, performing a striking version of “Bony Maronie” where she didn’t change the gender of the lyric.

    The only singing female regular I recall from early seventies Crackerjack was one Christine Holmes, who later attempted to hitch a ride on the glam wagon as “Kristine Sparkle,” was a member of Bizarro World New Seekers group the Family Dogg and wrote the lyric to Sir Cliff’s “Devil Woman.”

  23. 23
    rosie on 28 May 2008 #

    I’d probably rate it Lloyd-Webber’s finest hour too. I’m not exactly a fan, to the extent that I passed up an opportunity to accompany a journalist to the press preview of Aspects of Love and I haven’t suffered a moment’s regret as a result. But Evita is his masterpiece, this song is a cracker, and Julie Covington’s performance is spot on. 8 is right I think.

    Sometime in the early 1980s somebody wrote a book called Who Rogered Who which attempted to apply the six-degrees-of-separation principle to coitus. My claim at the time was that, as I’d slept with somebody who had slept with Julie Covington, that gave me a route to some interesting people.

    Oh, and I think Only Women Bleed is a favourite of the period.

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    As regards that David Copperfield, I don’t recall him being on the show, but Glasgow’s very own Danny Street definitely was.

  25. 25
    H. on 28 May 2008 #

    I recall a Goodies parody, “Don’t Cry For Me Marge ‘n’ Tina”, from God knows which Goodies episode.

  26. 26
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    Oh lor, Christine Sparkle!

    Anyroad, was surprised to find the second series of Rock Follies was *after* this! Memory not failing but shuffling!

    Of course, RF2 was ‘informed’ by punk…

  27. 27

    RF music written and produced by avant-garde oboiste (and roxy musicker) mr andy mackay! <--- invented punk btw

  28. 28
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    Quite right – Ray Russell did the arranging rather than the composing.

    I thought it was Simon Puxley who invented punk? Or maybe it was Gary Windo.

  29. 29
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    anyroad: Tom, the odd thing regarding the pics: The current sleeve I only get the very top of, and on the front page right now, the bottom of the pic as well. Inbetween is a white ‘on-top’ foreground that presumably should be background.

  30. 30
    DJ Punctum on 28 May 2008 #

    Also a mention for Rock Follies’ very own ’77 top ten hit “OK” with its chorus of “You want to do me, but I don’t want to be done – OK?”

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