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Nov 09

DIANA ROSS – “Chain Reaction”

FT + Popular42 comments • 9,265 views

#566, 8th March 1986, video

There’s something grotesque about “Chain Reaction” – Miss Ross, voice as slender and cut-crystal as ever, strapped into the musical equivalent of an Iron Man battlesuit, a chrome-plated machine that turns human reflexes into battlefield ordnance. Those drums! They’re a multi-kiloton version of the convulsive tattoos that gave Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” lift-off, and that song in its original was a harder take on the addictive, hardly subtle beat that made Motown its fortunes. A study in musical escalation, leading up to this.

Another singer might have done more with the beat’s unyielding strictness, fought against it or put it to dominatrix use – but with Ross it brings out her tendency to neatness. There’s a schoolmarmish precision about the lead vocal in “Chain Reaction”, unfortunate since it’s a song about the unstoppable throes of orgasm. (Not that anyone could do much with a line as coy as “Nature has a way of yielding treasure.”)

It’s a flawed, preposterous thing but for all that I can’t help enjoying it. It was one of those records that you knew would be Number One as soon as you heard it – in an era of bloat its particular style of big still muscled through, marked itself as an event. Wholly down to the brothers Gibb, I think – their lyrics may be utter nonsense but having written such a mighty chorus they work it with unrestrained glee, joining in themselves as the song rises through its key changes towards its treblesome meltdown, when “Chain Reaction” finally earns its atomic metaphor and convinces you it’s as huge as it wants to be.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    punctum on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Commissioned to write and produce an old-school but up-to-date Motown facsimile, the Bee Gees end up more or less taking over the record. The easy nostalgia of “Chain Reaction” coupled with its period monochrome American Bandstand pastiche video (occasionally exploding into affluent ’80s colour, with Ross creeping around what appears to be a giant-sized, floodit Twister board), gave Diana her first British number one in fifteen years, tying in as it also did with the resurgence of interest in sixties soul sparked by the various Levi’s ad campaigns (of which latter, more anon). Despite the Gibbs’ habitual bemusing lyric, which reads like Holland/Dozier/Holland fed through Babelfish Dutch and Japanese before being translated back into English (“And I was there not dancing with anyone,” “You give me all the after midnight action,” “You taste a little then you swallow slower,” “You get a medal when you’re lost in action”), it’s actually a rather smart song; with their usual assiduous monitoring of current trends, the Bee Gees seem to have taken Trevor Horn’s drum patterns into account, so that their architecture, to coincide with the various “motions” and “explosions” hidden within the song, at least betrays some sign that they had some idea about where to put the drum cascades, and why (as opposed to the now routine ’80s bigness which tended to dump them any which way). Its subtle continuous harmonic ascent also helps to keep the concept of climax fairly alluring.

    But Ross’ lead vocal itself is disappointingly airbrushed and emotionally neutral, as though she had been in her comfortable cocoon for so long that she has actually forgotten how to recapture her twentysomething joie de vivre. We had to wait a further fifteen years before the song’s strengths were brought out fully by those accidental genii, Steps; their “Chain Reaction,” as arranged and produced by Graham Stack and Mark Taylor (a number two hit in October 2001), turns the song into a true post-Horn Gothic kaleidoscope of tolling bells, schaffel explosions, that tremble of bass under the central “tremble,” the last pause before the final apocalyptic onset of orgasm.

  2. 2
    Tom on 11 Nov 2009 #

    By no real popular demand, the return of my 2-year old reviewing the songs:

    “It was a nice song. There were fireworks and dancing. The dancing took a long time.”

  3. 3
    Rick on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Aye, this does feel more like a Bee Gees track than anything else, to the extent that whenever it comes to mind it’s their voices I hear rather than Miss Ross’s.

  4. 4
    Mark M on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Supposedly, indie stalwart Phil King of Biff Bang Pow!/The Servants/Mary Chain/Lush etc etc is in video because of his 60s hair, but I’ve never spotted him.

  5. 5
    MikeMCSG on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Yeah you can admire the craft on this one without loving it. Not something you can say about the Stalinist video which re-imagines Ms Ross’s past without the intrusive presence of Mary or Florence.

    This was really a major comeback for the Bee Gees whose early 80s “Slough of Despond” was actually longer and deeper than their similar decline at the beginning of the 70s. Their 1981 album “Living Eyes” was the most calamitous flop of the year even surpassing Deborah Harry’s “Koo Koo” and their association with the “Staying Alive” film in 1983 didn’t do them any favours. This reminded people they were,ahem, still alive – their prominence in the chorus is no accident- and set the scene for their return as artists the following year.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Is that Phil King with the “Quant-ish” bob?

  7. 7
    LondonLee on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Sometimes I am just in awe of the Gibb brothers ability to knock out a pop hook seemingly with the ease of buttering toast. This is a much better song than I remembered but a lot simpler and more sleek too, for some reason in my head it had big drums and harmonies. But Ross doesn’t do much with it does she? Shame the Gibbs didn’t give it to Gloria Jones.

  8. 8
    Steve Mannion on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Another “180” for me, I rather like it’s big bluster these days – 7. I wonder if Ross’ attitude to it was as Chaka Khan’s was to ‘I Feel For You’ tho. Both had a busy early 80s but seemed to flounder amidst the changing technology and trends (tho maybe no more than e.g. Bowie at this point). The distance between this and Diana’s previous top 40 hit ‘Muscles’ AND her next hit (being generous with the term here), 1989’s ‘Working Overtime’ is striking. Many of her singles from that time seemed to arbitrarily fall only a few places outside the top 40 tho – hard luck lady.

    The BeeGees would rehash this themselves with their inferior ’91 hit ‘Secret Love’.

  9. 9
    Conrad on 11 Nov 2009 #

    What a brilliant chorus!

    Haven’t heard this in a long time, and missed out on its time at the top due to spending this period up a grapefruit tree.

    Observations-
    I think the Bee Gees’ increasing presence on b/vs detracts from the singularity of the piece. This is a Diana Ross record, and while it might work for the Bee Gees’ inimitable falsettos to crop up all over Samantha Sang, the clash with Ross mars and disrupts the flow and feel of the record (not that the b/v harmonies aren’t good – they work very well, but they should have been a chorus of Dianas)

    I love Diana’s vocal – as always so incredibly pop on uptempo numbers.

    There’s a moment before the verse when it sounds like it’s about to go into Bad Company’s “Well I take, whatever I want/And baby, I want you…”

    The programmed drums and bass are the biggest disappointment – too resolutely 1986. I can see that a production a la “Woman in Love” would have sounded dated at this point, but still, it does dent my overall appreciation of the song.

    I’d give it 7 though – with a more sympathetic production, an 8

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Barry Gibb has put his demos for the Bee Gees’ 80s outside work on itunes: the Eaten Alive demos are the songs for Miss Ross, but disappointingly Chain Reaction isn’t on there. “I am a woman in love” is on the Guilty demos, though, which is quite a giggle.

    The words of Chain Reaction make me feel a little queasy; direct and opaque at the same time, but too biological. Millie Jackson could’ve made it work but not coy, creamy-voiced Diana. The Bee Gees bv’s possibly don’t work as well as they could because they hated working with her (see Hector Cook’s fine, exhaustive Tales Of The Brothers Gibb). 6 works for me.

    Mike at 5 – it took admirable self-awareness for the Gibbs to realise that Living Eyes bombed largely because nobody wanted to hear the Bee Gees in the early/mid 80s (it was also one of their worst albums, steering away from sleek blue eyed soul into guitar rock in the same way ABC did with Beauty Stab). So instead they cut solo albums and wrote for other people. Robin’s Juliet was a massive Euro hit, and Another Lonely Night In New York was one of his most gorgeous melancholic ballads; Barry wrote the best selling country song of all time (Islands In The Stream) and the Heartbreaker album for Dionne Warwick. No other 60s hit act were writing and producing such strong, contemporary, commercially successful material more than two decades into their career. Unbelievable. So, I don’t really think CR was all that set them up for their eventual comeback under the Bee Gees moniker – they’d subtly soundtracked the whole decade to date.

  11. 11
    punctum on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Wasn’t there also a legal dispute of some kind (with Stigwood?) which actually prevented the Bee Gees from putting out records under their own name in the early-mid ’80s? I seem to remember Barry Gibb in an interview referring to this and complaining about “Heartbreaker” and “Islands” not being Bee Gees records when they should have been but would be grateful for evidential back-up (if this is indeed what happened).

  12. 12
    MikeMCSG on 11 Nov 2009 #

    #10 WL, you are right as regards their continuing success as writers (and I had forgotten Robin’s Euro-success)but I think they still wanted to perform and Chain Reaction set them on their way to resume that. Interesting point about subtly soundtracking the decade through their writing – you could say that today about the likes of Cathy Dennis, Alison Clarkson (aka Betty Boo)and Rob Davies but what are the chances of any of them making the cut as artists now ? The Bee Gees are pretty much unique in returning to the spotlight.

  13. 13
    Izzy on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t like this. Like #3 it’s the Gibb voices I hear, and like #5 I see much to admire in the craft. It really is very skilful, the knitting together of all those hooks.

    But like it? No way – you couldn’t, it’d be like loving a Rubik’s Cube.

    I was reading Paul McCartney’s ‘Many Years From Now’ last night – he was describing scoring ‘Yesterday’, specifically learning the variation of wandering up & down in pitch, as opposed to his rock tendency to block out all his chords. That ‘blocking out’ is exactly how I think of the Bee Gees’ vocals. They’re just too full-on, there’s nowhere for the listener to insert yourself into the song.

  14. 14
    Kat but logged out innit on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I loved this as a kid – those key changes just seemed to go on for ever and ever.

  15. 15
    Erithian on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I actively disliked this, and not just because the Bee Gees were a bête noire of mine from Saturday Night Fever onwards. Diana Ross made some beautiful solo records in the 70s, not least the sublime one-two of “Love Hangover” and the theme from “Mahogany” in ’76, but it was striking from her cover of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” onwards that much of her 80s output was pretty soulless and, as pop, not all that good. Similarly with this vocal, and matched with the unsubtle beat, this one just seemed to me like a bit of a clunker. Speaking of clunkers, those lines Marcello quotes at #1 above – were the Gibbs going for some kind of prototype Bad Sex Award?

    Number Two Watch: two more deserving candidates for the top in my book, the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and the really rather underrated “Absolute Beginners”, Bowie’s last serious stab at the singles chart.

  16. 16
    TomLane on 11 Nov 2009 #

    This song charted twice in the U.S. and both times never made Top 40. In November ’85 it got to #95 and then in May ’86 it stopped at #66. The latter showing was due to a remix of the song. This did no better on our R&B chart (#85). I always liked the back to the 60’s Motown sound that the Gibb Brothers concocted, it still sounds fresh coming out of my speakers today, and wondered why it never charted better in the States. A good high 7 from me.

  17. 17
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Punctum, I’m not sure about Stigwood stopping them (can look it up in their vast biog later) but I remember a similar story, the brothers travelling in a car hearing Heartbreaker on the radio and feeling frustrated that it wasn’t THEIR record.

    Best Bee Gees key changes are on the astonishing finale of their other proto-bad sex award single, Fanny (Be Tender With My Love). Why didn’t they just call it Annie (Be Tender With My Love)?

  18. 18
    MikeMCSG on 11 Nov 2009 #

    #15 Bowie was helped by the absolute saturation coverage given to the very mediocre and anachronistic film of the same name because it was thought the entire future of the British film industry rested on its shoulders after the disaster of “Revolution”. A couple of months later “Mona Lisa” made such predictions look silly.

  19. 19
    MBI on 11 Nov 2009 #

    “It was one of those records that you knew would be Number One as soon as you heard it ”

    Wow. Man, I guess I had to have been there, because there is really not that much about this that screams “huge hit” to me, and I certainly do not hear anything that sounds remotely “big” or “kiloton drums,” not even at the end. If it can be called big, it’s a lumbering, stodgy kind of big (like an Iron Man suit!) But no, I don’t see it even there. Coming within a few years of Duran Duran and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, this sounds quite thin actually. Neither Diana Ross or The Bee Gees have voices I’ve ever really equated with sheer muscle or force — I mean, if we’re doing it comparatively, then yes, the Gibbs and Miss Di sound bigger than they usually do, but not compared to the other hits surrounding it. I’d give it about a 5.

  20. 20
    Tom on 11 Nov 2009 #

    It sounds big AND thin to me!

  21. 21
    col124 on 11 Nov 2009 #

    as Tom Lane noted, this went nowhere in the US, and so it continues the odd streak of American R&B stars having UK #1s that barely got airplay in the States (Phyllis Nelson, Sister Sledge). I wonder what the deal was? The UK pop audience being more receptive to slightly “dated” R&B sounds? It’s a bit odd.

    but yes, it does sound big and thin. Not doing much for me–a 5 at best.

  22. 22
    col124 on 11 Nov 2009 #

    as Tom Lane noted, this went nowhere in the US, and so it continues the odd streak of American R&B stars having UK #1s that barely got airplay in the States (Phyllis Nelson, Sister Sledge). I wonder what the deal was? The UK pop audience being more receptive to slightly “dated” R&B records? It’s a bit odd.

    but yes, it does sound big and thin. Not doing much for me–a 5 at best.

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I think the Freemasons remix of Solange’s ‘I Decided’ is a strong nod to this btw. Big and thin yes (not necessarily a bad thing).

  24. 24
    Elsa on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I’m a Yank who doesn’t remember this song at all. I don’t know about “slightly dated R&B,” this is more like 20 years dated. Sometimes full-on retro does work in the US charts if the arrangement is suitably dynamic (“Uptown Girl,” “You Can’t Hurry Love”) but I suppose that depends on individual taste.

  25. 25
    LondonLee on 11 Nov 2009 #

    I think Brits are just suckers for that Motown beat or anything that hints at it. And it did have the 80s vogue for old-timey soul to give it a leg up too.

    #18 Bowie might have been helped by the hype around the movie (I really can’t remember) but it being by far the best single in the post-Scary Monsters wasteland of his creativity helped too. Wonderful record.

  26. 26
    thefatgit on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Is this the longest gap between 2 #1’s by one artist? “I’m Still Waiting” was 1971.

  27. 27
    Jungman Jansson on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Meh. I was going to use that “mechanised warfare” metaphor too. Diana’s singing really is at odds with the incessant, militaristic drums, but I like the effect. This is not at all bad, actually – I didn’t recognise the title and was expecting something really torpid, but I was pleasantly surprised. It does sound somewhat familiar as well; emerging from some nameless primordial childhood soup of songs.

    The key changes are great and the climax certainly feels like a good way to end the song. Ross gets gradually more lost in the noise as the song progresses, but it works together with the rising intensity – if individual words go unheard, it’s no big deal.

    Am I entirely out on a limb when I think it sounds rather contemporary? Tweak the production slightly and you have something that would fit in pretty well with the trends of the last few years – that mechanical stomping feels like a typical 00’s thing. (Which is more or less what the Steps version did; I don’t know whether that proves my point or not).

    I’d go for a 7 here.

    SwedenWatch: Didn’t chart, nor did it appear on the Tracks chart. So I’m not sure why I think it sounds familiar; Steps’ version didn’t chart here either.

  28. 28
    swanstep on 11 Nov 2009 #

    that mechanical stomping feels like a typical 00’s thing
    @JJ. I was thinking (roughly) the same thing. On the one hand, the bass drum sounds like a washing-machine – tweak it a bit and you can get the Double Speed Mayhem bass drum from the clubbing scene in _Morvern Callar_. In general, you could easily toughen up CR, make the inhuman source of the, um, chain reaction a bit clearer!
    On the other hand, the vid. reminded me of Hey Ya’s, and, rounded shoulders notwithstanding, doesn’t Ross look amazing in the B&W bits? Free associating, one could imagine Outkast producing this song in a warmer but equally million-selling direction.

    Not in the same league as Love Hangover (the full 8 minute mix please), Upside Side, or I’m Coming Out (three of the most fantastic records I’ve ever heard, 10s the lot in my view), and the underlying song here does seem to want to do something horrible to Where did our love go? without ever coming out and just *doing* it a la Soft Cell. I guess Tom’s score of 6 does feel about right to me, but there are so many louche mash-up and remix targets in this track, I’m tempted to go higher. Alas, sanity must prevail. This vid, which keeps most of the good CR video stuff is worth a look.

  29. 29
    lonepilgrim on 12 Nov 2009 #

    I like this enough to hum along with it if it’s on the radio but wouldn’t feel compelled to pay money for it. Ross’s girlish tones always seem more adaptable to changing fashions in music over the decades than more conventional/authentic ‘soul’ singers such as Billy Ocean (for instance). 6 seems fair to me.

  30. 30
    wichita lineman on 12 Nov 2009 #

    Re 22: “The UK pop audience being more receptive to slightly “dated” R&B sounds”… that’s yr northern soul right there. Been happening since around 1967!

    Anyone else feel like ranking this with the Gibbs’ other 80s collaborations? I’d go:

    1. Dionne Warwick
    2. Kenny & Dolly
    3. Babs Streisand
    4. Miss Ross
    5. Jimmy Ruffin (Hold On To My Love? meh)

    might have forgotten one or two there… but this is no way better than Heartbreaker, or Guilty, or Islands In The Stream.

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