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Apr 09

CHARLENE – “I’ve Never Been To Me”

FT + Popular72 comments • 6,037 views

#503, 26th June 1982

One of my favourite old threads on ILX was a compendium of right-wing American cartoons, in which politics I found highly disagreeable were counterbalanced by craft and chutzpah. In fact my reactions were murkier than that – my horror at the opinions was part of the thrill. I certainly wouldn’t have had this reaction to right-wing columnists or talk shows so I assume the medium gave the material a – possibly dangerous – air of safety.

I have a similar reaction to conservative pop, especially country and country-tinged records like “I’ve Never Been To Me”, which Charlene kicks off in a laid-back Carly Simon mode before waxing increasingly rabid over the futility of female independence. The rather feeble self-help title is no preparation for the contents: this is strong meat. “I’ve spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that costs too much to be free” is the kind of lyric I’m surprised to find at #1 unbanned – perhaps DJs were simply too shell-shocked by the bug-eyed spoken word interlude (“THAT’S love! THAT’S truth!”) to notice.

The masterstroke is presenting the whole thing as a Rime of the Ancient Mariner style narrative, sung to an anonymous lady who is quite probably trying hard to extract herself from the conversation. The frame gives a context for Charlene’s rising hysteria – she knows she might be taken as a nutcase but she’s got to get her story over anyhow. So unlike, say, “No Charge”, “Never Been To Me” isn’t ever complacent – there’s something at stake here (even if you don’t agree).

The arrangement is creamy, well-constructed MOR, but beyond the lyric it’s Charlene’s performance that makes “Never Been” so memorable – the way she sounds so ecstatic wallowing in her own disappointment, her dangerously precise cadences, her marvellous 70s breathiness. Yes, in the charts of 1982 this might have seemed like an infuriating anachronism – but I think its unusual blend of schlock and intensity would have stood out in any year.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Mark M on 7 Apr 2009 #

    I guess the question of the politics of the song is whether you treat the words as being uniquely about female independence. Obviously it can be, and was is probably mostly taken as part of the anti-feminist backlash (esp the I should have had a baby stuff. Boo). But you could also argue that she’s a woman so she’s addressing other women, and the whole thing could be a more general attack on jetset lifestyles and the widespread and false idea that going to lots of ‘exotic’ places necessarily gives you any perspective on anything (a notion swiftly dispelled by 30 seconds of conversation with your average ‘swam with the dolphins’ backpacker). There’s certainly something in it that appeals to my left puritan instincts.

    I’ve never thought of it as country, or even country-ish.

  2. 2
    Tom on 7 Apr 2009 #

    Your average backpacker hasn’t been undressed by kings though! Well I assume not.

  3. 3
    Alan on 7 Apr 2009 #

    I am obliged (by me) to say that this is my favourite cover on Ruby Trax.

  4. 4
    Mark M on 7 Apr 2009 #

    Re 2: Fair point… although I suspect if you had a sample of people who had been undressed by kings, they wouldn’t have much of interest to say, either.

  5. 5
    samwaltonyeah on 7 Apr 2009 #

    I was totally unaware of this song until a Belle & Sebastian B-side was released in 2001 called Take Your Carriage Clock & Shove It, which, according to several posts on a certain mailing list for bedroom saddo devotees, was a soundalike of I’ve Never Been To Me. Being one such devotee, I sought out the earlier track, and (broadly) those posters were right.

    Having done that, and looked up when it was released, I discovered that this was the record that was top of the pops when I was born. My sister, 11 years my senior, had always told me it was House Of Fun (because she didn’t know when I was born? Because she didn’t know when House of Fun was number 1? To spare me from the horrible truth?) and I had never thought to question her pop knowledge.

    And so, by accident of birth, this song is inexorably linked to me, and I’m sad about that because I think it’s a real stinker. The melody and the schmaltzy arrangement aside, surely the key to “advice” songs like this is that the artiste dishing out the tips should be someone you can identify with or, if the advice isn’t aimed at you (I’m not, and never have been, a middle-American teenage girl), someone you can at least like and respect. And Charlene’s melodramatic (‘bug-eyed’ is an ideal description) delivery sounds gushing, a bit self-promoting and, in the end, just insincere.

    I’ve never thought of it as country either, but assumed it was a ‘soul’ record (whatever that means) because it was on Motown.

  6. 6
    lonepilgrim on 7 Apr 2009 #

    the wikipedia entry for this song is so improbable that I wonder whether some popular pundits have been spreading disinformation. If you believe the entry then Charlene was working in a sweet shop in Ilford when this hit the top. Shame she wasn’t a waitress in a cocktail bar.
    I don’t think I’ve ever consciously heard the version with the spoken(?) bridge but I can’t say I’ve ever warmed to this song. For all the intended conservative message of the lyrics I’ve always mentally filed it alongside ‘I will survive’ and the Thelma Houston version of ‘Don’t leave me this way’ as female anthems – perhaps due to the performance and arrangment. It’s not for me – I’d give it 3.

  7. 7
    will on 7 Apr 2009 #

    Being a mere slip of a lad in 1982, I wasn’t aware of any feminist arguments raging over this record. No, what I found loathsome was the AOR arrangement and the spoken word section’s gushing faux-sincerity, which seemed to me symptomatic of a certain breed of American entertainer.

    Interestingly, I’ve Never Been To Me is the first chart topper by a US artist for a whole year (unless you count Stevie Wonder’s contribution to Ebony and Ivory). British pop just seemed streets ahead of anything America could produce at this stage. From my young perspective, this was a source of pride and a kind of blinkered chauvinism. We had been through punk, post-punk, 2 Tone and were now well into the New Pop era, where as the Yanks… well, they were still wearing flares! And records like I’ve Never Been To Me just summed up how useless they were. I hated it.

  8. 8
    justfanoe on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Whoops, it turns out “Goody Two Shoes” was my birthday #1 after all.

    I’ve never liked this song, but this makes me want to go back and give it a fresh listen. BTW does anybody know why this song only became a hit 5 years after its original release?

  9. 9
    LondonLee on 8 Apr 2009 #

    We used to call it “I’ve Never Been To Leeds” which is the most interesting thing I can think of say about this rubbish.

  10. 10
    The Intl on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Yeah! The Motown Sound in full effect!

  11. 11
    wichita lineman on 8 Apr 2009 #

    The divarication of “I’ve been undressed by kings”/”I’ve been to Greece” reminds me of Shania Twain’s “So you’re Brad Pitt”/”So you’ve got a car”.

    She’s grabbing the other woman’s sleeve throughout the song, ever, ever tighter. Clearly unhinged. I wonder how many sales were down to its comedy value.

    Motown released some other equally un-Motown material when I’ve Never Been To Me was recorded, like Albert Finney’s Album (yes, that’s the title) on which he attempts to match Richard Harris’s orch-pop and doesn’t come close, wallowing instead in three-day-week gloom like What Have They Done To My Home Town?

  12. 12
    marna on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I’m terribly sorry for linking this, but I cannot even think of this song without getting the Dustin the Turkey parody of it in my head.

  13. 13
    peter goodlaws on 8 Apr 2009 #

    #9 – Yes, “I’ve Never Been to Leeds”. My lot sung that also and it was the only fun we had with this terrible nonsense, in which Charlene whined on about seeing things women were not supposed to see and all the rest of it. What a drip!

    As for the deliberate misheard lyric, the juxtaposition between Paradise and Leeds couldn’t have been more marked. Cloughie was well out of it.

  14. 14
    rosie on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I’d been blissfully unaware of this until a couple of years ago when Charlene herself appeared on Woman’s Hour.

    This is another throwback song, recorded in 1976, and by the time it became a hit Charlene had given up her singing career and was living in London and working in a shop. I don’t know what flung it into the spotlight in 1982, but it started in America.

    On that first occasion I was pleased to spot the Ancient Mariner connection (and Wikipedia confirms that the song was originally written from a male perspective, though not that of a greybeard loon obviously. I agree with Tom that without that offbeat framing this would be a rather deliquescent song but as it is I like it quite a lot. There’s a message in there, of course, for those of today’s vacuous teenagers who crave a life of celebrity rather than being well-rounded and doing something worthwhile!

    Though Carole King was featured on Woman’s Hour this morning and I can confirm that Charlene ain’t no Carole King!

  15. 15
    marna on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Actually, scrap that. I’ve listened to them both (because I hate myself, clearly) and I think I’ve Never Been To Meath is the better of the two.

  16. 16
    Billy Smart on 8 Apr 2009 #

    7 out of 10 is perhaps a bold statement, but Tom is largely right. It may be a terrible record, but at least its storytelling narrative makes it a terribly compelling record. I can’t recall it having any effect on my nine year-old self, though.

    The really duff thing about it is the central metaphor. Speaking for myself, I have never been to paradise, but have – all to often – been to me.

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 8 Apr 2009 #

    TOTP Watch: Chrlene performed ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ twice on Top of the Pops;

    3 June 1982. Also in the studio that week were; ABC, Echo & The Bunnymen, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Fun Boy 3 and Junior. David ‘Kid’ Jensen was the host. That looks like a good show.

    17 June 1982. Also in the studio that week were; Roxy Music, Queen, Duran Duran and Echo & The Bunnymen. Simon Bates was the host.

  18. 18
    Tom on 8 Apr 2009 #

    #16 Billy that’s because paradise IS A LIE. You think you’re in Paradise and in fact you’re in Nice getting felt up by a minor bicycle monarch.

  19. 19
    Alan on 8 Apr 2009 #

    i’m recalling the R1 breakfast DJ (hairy cornflake or mike read i guess) at the time speculating on what the things were that a woman just ain’t supposed to see.

    the central metaphor ISN’T duff in the context of the philosophy it espouses and within its own definitions. where paradise = riches and luxury, but what really matters = facing up to who you are. MAN

  20. 20
    Pete on 8 Apr 2009 #

    As a nipper I found this a rather intriguing philosophical quandary as I had never considered “me” to be a place before. After this record I noticed people using phrases like “me time”, and the shifting of my understanding of a holiday being more a state of mind than actually visiting some place (it possibly helped that this was about the time when we started going on package holidays to sunny places that weren’t very interesting). And it is a killer tune, storytelling package. But Tom is right, there is something off about it, something a bit dissatisfied, something a tad ungrateful.

    Later in life I was told it was about female masturbation, which I have never questioned.

  21. 21
    Erithian on 8 Apr 2009 #

    There’s a fun dissection of this song from a feminist perspective at http://www.tartcity.com/newdungeon.html by one Lauren Henderson (a former writer for Marxism Today and the Observer!), who points out that the song was written by a MAN and then gives the man a good shoeing.

    At the time I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics, apart from noting what clunkers some of the lines were – it all seemed of a piece with the nauseating glamour depicted in Dallas, Dynasty and all those spinoffs, and the song being at number one just got in the way of a lot more enjoyable stuff. Looking at the lyrics now, it sounds like another one from the “Stand By Your Man” stable, or maybe it’s an older and wiser Marie-Claire from “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” telling her friend back in Naples that it wasn’t all that glamorous after all. Not that the friend would have minded the chance to find out for herself, you understand.

    BTW, welcome back Rosie, good to hear from you again. Carole King is on Later with Jools Holland this week, I notice.

  22. 22
    Martin Skidmore on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Carole King was on Later last night, as were the Specials. BBC as ever bringing us the most exciting new music.

  23. 23
    Snif on 8 Apr 2009 #

    This song gets extra amusement points around my way, as Paradise is a suburb about five km from where I live. Nothing like jumping on the bus to Paradise whenever the mood takes you…actually, it’s better known for being the site of an Assemblies Of God church that’s more like a giant music arena than temple of quiet religious contemplation.

    This song is also a favourite among the sort of divas seen in “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.”

  24. 24
    Erithian on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Maybe it should be twinned with Hell in the Cayman Islands.

  25. 25
    Mark G on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I believe the “subtle Whoring” line never made it to TOTP performances, and the record got faded out before the spoken word part.

    “Seen some things a woman ain’t sposed t’ see”

    A men’s urinal, I believe.

  26. 26
    SteveM on 8 Apr 2009 #

    #22 Martin! Surely the look of ecstasy on Dame Terry Hall’s face during the performance, as is his wont, was quite enough excitement for all of us.

  27. 27
    SteveM on 8 Apr 2009 #

    And to be fair “Joolz” did also feature the rather good+actually hip Yeah Yeah Yeahs (perhaps to focus on the 2009 aspects of their new record rather than the 1979 ones, for sake of this argument)

  28. 28
    pjb on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I thought there would be more affection for this, however ironically expressed.

    Kitch beyond belief, sure, but hugely memorable and with a lyric that went beyond the usual cliches (largely by reaching new, previously unexplored cliches, but there you go). Sung ‘in character’ I always supposed, but no worse for it.

    I’m actually not sure it’s that different therefore from the Adam (and the) Ant(s) singles of previous months – they were ‘punk’ extended to entertaining pop cliche, and this was Motown/Country taken to the same extreme.

    Distinctive enough to have made no 1 in pretty much any year.

  29. 29
    rosie on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Erithian @ 21: I haven’t been anywhere, I’ve been lurking, just haven’t had much to say about some recent entries.

    Happening in Rosieworld about this time: the first microcomputer bubble had burst and I was out of a job again and at the beginning of a long slide the culmination of which we’ll come to in early 1983 when there’s some rather more interesting stuff about than this.

  30. 30
    AndyPandy on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Life was so good for me in 1982/83 that complete crap didn’t usually register although this made me cringe enough to force its way onto my personal radar.Since however I’d sort of forgotten about it – but yes it’s appalling not even “so bad it’s good” in fact I’d put it down with St Winifrid’s School Choir, Little Jimmy Osmond, and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ as hardly worthy of 1. Having said that if ‘You’re Gorgeous’ had got to number 1 surely minus figures would have had to be introduced…

    As Will said pop culturally America seemed to exist in a parallel universe and similar to his point about them still wearing flares their haircuts were unbelievably dated too – whilst young males in this country over the last few years in the early 80s were wearing anything from wedges, skinheads, flat-tops, short and neat or New Romantic fringe type haircuts when you saw Americans on contemporary telly programmes they still had those early/mid70s hair ears three-quarters or completely covered cuts that noone in the UK had had for at least 5 years…I used to despair of them a bit like I did for different reasons when the dance culture hit but that’s another story…

    Finally its been mentioned that it was surprising that the word “whoring” wasn’t banned. I’ve always found at least in the last 30+ years the BBC to be far more lenient than theiir given credit for. Half the time when I read of a track being banned it seems to be complete SUN-style sensationalist rubbish as I often remember hearing the track in question plenty of times on the radio and it often seems a case of the record company courting a banning/pretending it has been banned just for the controversy.
    I’ve even read articles which say ‘Ebeneezer Good’ or ‘We Call iT Acieed’ were banned (and in the case of the former it was so shite it maybe should have been!) when they were on especially in the Shamen’s case at a saturation level of play.
    Even something from a year or 2 after cHarlene which was famously “banned” was only banned because a dj wanted to make a name for himself and up till then had been on the playlist. I think Top of the Pops were a bit stricter for some reason but post the mid-60s you could count the number of genuine big hits that were banned on not many fingers and even most of those were played in the evening if the dj wanted to…

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