“Reet Petite” would have fit right in on an advert: I scratched my head for a while trying to remember which it came from. No luck – so I went and looked it up, and of course it wasn’t on one at all. It got to number one on the back of an animated short – played on BBC arts show Arena – in which a triangle-headed plasticine Jackie shook and jived while mouths on stalks quivered behind him in an angular landscape which reminds me a little of Krazy Kat. As an enactment of the song’s pop-eyed restlessness and vocal flexibility it works, and it’s more a fan video than an advert. All the giant caricature lips threw me at first but as a sung performance “Reet Petite” is a real celebration of the mouth with all its trills, twists, held notes and squawks of joy.
Its easy ascent to Number One, though, is a bit more problematic than its video. We’ve occasionally seen records top the charts a half-dozen years, even a decade after they were recorded, but “Reet Petite” came from a generation away: a hit in 1957, and a hit very much of 1957 in its swinging, wisecracking urban R&B feel. As a listener I remember feeling completely alienated – not only did I think it was goofy but it felt like a betrayal of what I’d assumed the charts were for: showcasing new music, even if it wasn’t my new music. Adam Ant hits are as old now as “Reet Petite” was then, and now I can love it, thrill to “she’s AWWL-right!” But at the time its success really bothered me, and an instinctive dislike for reissues remains (meaning this and most others will grab a point or two less than they might have).
So even though “Reet Petite” wasn’t an advertising song it’s worth making a few general points now about what I think was going on. The mid-80s, and the introduction of the CD, saw record labels wake fully to the potential of their back catalogues. People were prepared to buy the old stuff, even if they already owned it. And this raised another question: if that could work for albums, why not for singles? Plenty of great records lurking in those vaults, waiting for potential audiences. What’s more, sales of new singles were in decline – none of the great pop bands of the early 80s were selling like they used to. No better time to promote old records, you’d say.
Except if any label executive did think like that, they hit a problem. The singles market was awareness- and novelty-based: kids bought a track cos they heard it on the radio or saw it on the TV. The crucial radio stations put new records on their playlists, not old ones. And there was no way of getting this stuff on TV at all. So aside from special campaigns – like the Beatles reissues in 1982 – the market for classic singles qua singles was limited to imprints like Old Gold, two old hits on one 7”, steady enough sellers to get a small rack in WH Smith or Virgin but nothing more than a sideline.
And then Bartle Bogle Hegarty helped change all that. They made a commercial for Levi’s – “Laundrette” – in which Nick Kamen stripped down to his underwear while “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” played. The ad is remembered now for its chain-reaction smashing together of sex and denim, but the music was just as important – a reissued “Grapevine” got to #8. This was the vector needed to sell old singles: license them to a well-made advert and you had the equivalent of a video on heavy rotation.
So what was the music that adverts would help sell? Soul music, first and foremost: old soul music, that constant echo in 80s music now completing its journey from style mag reference point to a nationally understood signifier of the authentic, the real, the rooted in a brittle and shallow world. After all, the only people in the world who bang on more than marketers about authenticity are rock critics – even if the two disagree deeply on what it might be or mean.
This was the context in which “Reet Petite” emerged – through quite a different channel, but another piece of proof that timely reissues of singles could really clean up. The after-the-fact success of old soul, R&B and rock’n’roll music in the late 80s charts could be seen as a vindication for songs which were often neglected at the time. But it could equally be seen as confirmation that much of pop had stagnated in the mid-80s: the growing turn to classicist values reaching a logical conclusion. If Tony Hadley, say, was working in the shadow of Marvin, why not just listen to Marvin, who wasn’t in anyone’s shadow? But this new context had a chilling effect on these old songs. A song as free and easy as “Reet Petite” had suddenly become part of a rulebook.