28
May 08

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

FT + Popular80 comments • 6,431 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. 31
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    Always reminds me of that “Beat Generation” Comic Stip episode, where Dawn French is “you want to do me? Hey everyone, he wants to do me!”

    (OK, the line is “he wants to do It to me!”)

  2. 32
    LondonLee on 28 May 2008 #

    Speaking of Mr. Andy Mackay, Micheal Bracewell’s recent history of the first Roxy Music album and the artistic currents leading up to it is a cracking read. Got me all nostalgic for my own art school days.

  3. 33
    Erithian on 28 May 2008 #

    Apparently Rock Follies did have a degree of influence on punk as well – as the Little Ladies’ fortunes improve during an early episode, Covington’s character says “We’re really getting a buzz, cocks!” Which reputedly inspired the name of a certain Manchester band.

    The single “OK?” (extra point for the question mark, Dignified) is probably the only single with a B-side entitled “B Side” – in which Charlotte Cornwell’s character bemoans her fate at being given the B-side of the band’s latest single with the payoff line, “Today I’m the B-side, tomorrow I’ll be – side A!”

    As for DCFMA, there’s not a lot to add after those excellent earlier posts, but you have to say that Julie Covington puts in one of the outstanding vocal performances of any number one ever. (And note that we’ve reached the landmark of the 400th UK Number 1 as well.)

  4. 34
    and everybody elses Mark G on 28 May 2008 #

    Other B-sides called, um, B-Side:

    Manfred Mann’s, on the bside of “Ragamuffin man”, used to be the Cadbury’s Flake music for some years afterwards if I remember rightly.

    Style council had one “Oh I do like to b-side the a-side” but that’s all I’m saying bout that.

  5. 35
    Billy Smart on 28 May 2008 #

    Re 22: Covington’s performance of Bonie Moronie is taken from the 1977 proto-Secret Policeman’s Ball gala ‘Mermaid Frolics’. It’s available on DVD and is something which I watch it all the time.

    Julie Covington is something of a heroine of mine, mainly for her 1971 Pete Atkin collaboration LP, ‘The Beautiful Changes’, which – if you like Atkin and James as songwriters probably has the best interpretation of their work, especially in the crystal note of wistfulness and regret that she sounds in ‘Ice Cream Man’, ‘If I Had My Time Again’ and ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’.

    Her theatrical career was also quite something too, I’d imagine, perhaps particularly in being one of the original cast of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Cloud 9’.

    What has she been doing for the last 20 or so years?

  6. 36
    wichita lineman on 28 May 2008 #

    Re 33/34 Manfred Mann’s A ‘B’ Side was the music for “dad’s favourite” advert for Mannequin cigars with exotic ladies lolling around on the beach, under waterfalls and presumably at some point (though I don’t remember) rolling tobacco leaves on their bronzed thighs.

    Tintern Abbey’s Beeside (which was the A side) 45 on Deram from ’67 is worth the best part of a grand because of its driving-yet-droning psych B side, Vacuum Cleaner.

    Does that make sense?

    Yes indeed, The Beautiful Changes is a wonderful LP; I love Julie C’s cut-glass diction. Not sure if it’s in print but there was a cd on See For Miles a long time ago…

    The depth of analysis on this show tune reminds me of an excellent piece on jazz buff Phil Schaap in the May 19 issue of The New Yorker. Did it feel like “there but for the grace of god” to anyone else?

  7. 37
    wwolfe on 28 May 2008 #

    While reading this entry, it occurred to me that Mick Jagger would make a great Evita. No one understood the dynamics of desire and distance like Mick. And if ever there was a suitable companion piece for Rice’s lyrics, it would be Jagger’s “Salt of the Earth,” a very similar “Heroic Figure Addresses Congregation of Little People” lyric, in which the verses’ never-ending salute to every Man of the People demographic is shattered by the bridge’s straight-no-chaser declaration:

    When I search this faceless crowd
    A swirling mass of grays and blacks and whites
    They don’t look real to me
    In fact, they look so strange”

    Don’t cry for me, Ian Stewart.

  8. 38
    LondonLee on 28 May 2008 #

    My old man worked with Julie Covington for a while, he was a stage manager at The National Theatre where she did a lot of work including the brilliant ‘Guys & Dolls’ revival where she played Sarah to Bob Hoskins’ Nathan Detroit.

  9. 39
    lonepilgrim on 29 May 2008 #

    re #38 I saw that production, which also featured Ian Charleson (later to feature in Chariots of Fire) in the role of Skye Masterson and was, as Lee says, brilliant

    I remember my Dad (along with many of my parents friends) buying the Evita album around this time and thinking it strange that someone would release a musical soundtrack before the musical itself had been staged – an early example of ALWs marketing strategy – now he gets the BBC to do it for him.

    I also found it strange that someone should be singing about Argentina, my knowledge of which was limited to those jigsaws that looked like maps which featured a picture of a gaucho on the pampas to represent the country – why write a musical about them? (I hadn’t asked similar questions about Austrian nuns years earlier, mind you). It seemed eerily prescient in the light of the Falklands conflict

  10. 40
    Erithian on 29 May 2008 #

    So it seems a whole lot of Popular regulars have more or less tenuous links to players in this particular drama. Marcello used to see Elaine Paige in Chelsea and Waldo spotted her while at Wimbledon with this charming Anne; Rosie had a lover in common with Julie Covington and Lee’s old man worked with her. As for me, I had my letter read out on Tim Rice’s radio show.

    For a brief period in 1985 Rice co-hosted a Radio 1 show with Paul Gambaccini, a feature of which was their playing a landmark Top 3 – the first all-British Top 3, the first Top 3 under a Labour government, that sort of thing. The one I suggested was the most static Top 3, the one that remained unchanged for five weeks over Christmas of ’77 (but wild bunnies wouldn’t get me to give any further details on that just now), and, yes, they played it. Bit of a naff claim to fame, but there you go.

  11. 41
    vinylscot on 29 May 2008 #

    Could this song title be the one most often used in “punny” headlines?

    It must have featured in several thousand, starting when England failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. After that there were more headlines when Scotland wished THEY hadn’t qualified; more at Falklands war time; and more when Argentina knocked England out in 1998.

    B.A. Robertson was good for B-side titles – the B-side of “Bang Bang” was “B Side The C Side”, and the B-side of his earlier not-quite-a-hit “Goosebumps” was “The B Side”.

  12. 42
    Billy Smart on 29 May 2008 #

    Oh God, the B-Side of Harry Enfield’s hilarious 1988 top 20 smash ‘Loadsamoney (Doing Up The House)’ is also called ‘The B-Side’: “Alright? This is the B-side!”.

    Little in the way of thought and effort appeared to have gone into it.

  13. 43
    rosie on 29 May 2008 #

    LondonLee : @10 Memory is, I believe, one of the few bits of Cats that isn’t attributable to Tom Eliot (apart from the odd fragment of a phrase). It’s Webber/Nunn I believe.

    The ultimate professional bullshitters are actors, of course. Well, there’s barristers too but I don’t think a barrister ever had a British number one. But this is an actor in the guise of pop singer singing the role of an actor, and it needs an actor who can sing, rather than a singer per se, to carry it off. This is why, I think, Julie – a super actor above all – can carry this off better than Elaine Page. In my humble opinion anyway.

    Rock Follies trivia: Charlotte Cornwell is the niece of David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, and the model for the character of Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl.

  14. 44
    lonepilgrim on 29 May 2008 #

    another thing about Julie Covington was that she had that servalan/julie driscoll short hair thing going on which was strangely arousing and was kind of punk before it’s time

  15. 45
    DJ Punctum on 29 May 2008 #

    Best conceptual B-side plan: Mud, who on one B-side did a throwaway instrumental entitled “Watching The Clock” and a few singles later did another one entitled “Still Watching The Clock.”

  16. 46
    DJ Punctum on 29 May 2008 #

    I remember that Gambo/Rice programme very well (Sunday lunchtimes?) and especially Rice’s extreme enthusiasm about “Breakfast” by the Associates.

  17. 47
    Waldo on 29 May 2008 #

    1978 also saw Miss Argentina win Miss World. On cue she started crying – lovely beautiful young girl tears, certainly not the great big heaving sobs proffered by poor old John Terry. I personally would never haved cried like that. I would have simply fucking shot myself.

    UP THE BLUES!!!!!

  18. 48
    Waldo on 29 May 2008 #

    #44 – Servalan. Oh, yes indeedy!!!

  19. 49
    DJ Punctum on 29 May 2008 #

    Footballers should PRACTISE not waste their time poncing about on TV ads then maybe they might score GOALS.

    That also goes for Nicholas “Applaud Me For Breathing” Anelka.

  20. 50
    Waldo on 29 May 2008 #

    I couldn’t agree more.

  21. 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!

  22. 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”!

  23. 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.

  24. 54
    vinylscot on 29 May 2008 #

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

    Well done, Mr Lineman.

  25. 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.

  26. 56
    Billy Smart on 29 May 2008 #

    – cue Waldo reminiscences and reflections here, surely?

  27. 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.

  28. 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?”).

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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