24
Sep 10

SOUL II SOUL ft CARON WHEELER – “Back To Life (How Ever Do You Want Me)”

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#630, 24th June 1989

What’s remarkable about “Back To Life” is its self-sufficiency: surrounded by records so very eager to please, this is a track which stands out for its restraint. It’s become a ‘classic’ almost to the degree “Like A Prayer” has, but that record makes more sense the more public it is. Caron Wheeler, on the other hand, sounds more private and her song is more self-contained. It’s an ultimatum of sorts, but not a desperate one: this is real life, not fantasy, and integrity is more important than drama, so take your time.

That’s what the song sounds like, too: a voice, then a breakbeat, but no hurry. A switch to gospel vocalising just as that rich, rolling house piano line comes in – and then the strings…. there’s so much going on, but so much space too, and for all that Wheeler’s terrific performance centres the song, it’s worth thinking about how Soul II Soul construct that space.

A breakbeat isn’t just a steady rhythm or even a pattern, it’s a time-loop. It gains a lot of its power from the combination of the illusion of humanity (the sample coming from real drummers) and the comfort of inhuman steadiness. But more subtly it creates interest by what’s swept up in the loop, the crackles, ambient sound, and other instrumentation producers lift when they sample a beat. So here there’s that tiny glisten of treble at the end of the breakbeat, adding bewitching colour to the track but also drawing discreet attention to its modernist, slice-and-splice origins. The way it sounds like there’s been a cut between “Back” and “To Life” works in a similar way, and the video takes it further, cutting to and fro with abandon, never settling. This track was influential enough, but pretty much every dance performance on TV or video for the next five years looks a bit like “Back To Life”.

The great moment in the song is vocal, though: the sweep upward for “I live at the top of the block / No more room for trouble or fuss”. “Urban” has become a genre grab-bag at best, feeble racial coding at worst, but this is urban music – even without the beats, those lines are as vivid about city living as anything we’ve discussed since, oh, “West End Girls” (and that was from an observer’s point of view). “Back To Life” sounds self-sufficient because it sounds local and placed. This points towards the upside of the phenomenon Marcello identified in the comments on Jason Donovan – the way the charts in the 90s became a parade of one-week wonders, thrown to number one by a fanbase. Manufactured and fan communities could act collectively to bag a chart-topper, but so could more organic or physical ones, and if the acceleration in the turnover of hits creates a lot of forgettable ones, it also creates several welcome flukes.

So in a lot of ways “Back To Life” is one of the great turning points on the road to modern British pop – in terms of importance, it’s a 10. But my personal reaction to it has always been a little less enthusiastic, mostly because it gets overshadowed in my listening. The stuff it might serve as a gateway to – the contemporary world of hip-hop – seems more exciting, and the music it helped inspire perfected its ideas: “Back To Life” never chills or transports me like “Unfinished Sympathy” can. But very little does, so this is hardly a criticism: on its own terms, “Back To Life” is a huge and vital success.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    punctum on 24 Sep 2010 #

    The story of Britfunk and British soul remains the secret story of the eighties. The explosion presumed with the emergence, in and around 1981, of the likes of Light Of The World, Beggar and Co, Incognito, Imagination, Central Line, Junior Giscombe and Linx – supple, rhythmic and utterly relevant – never really came to pass, despite the best efforts of the Norman Jays and Paul Wellers of that world, and by the mid-eighties the “movement” as such had dwindled to a hardcore fulcrum on which balanced the likes of Loose Ends and I-Level. Although the former in particular were a group of rare power and originality – “Hangin’ On A String,” though produced by the American Nick Martinelli, remains one of the greatest and most startling soul records ever to emerge from a British studio – the fluffier teenpop variant of Five Star was the preferred mainstream option.

    But the story, though relegated to the background, remained a vital undercurrent; both Camden’s Soul II Soul and Bristol’s Wild Bunch developed an awesome reputation through their sound system DJ all-nighters, utilising their love for the undertold story of eighties pop – an eighties of Odyssey’s “Inside Out,” Evelyn King’s “Love Come Down” and Thelma Houston’s “You Used To Hold Me So Tight” – and mixing it with the residue of spirits from dub and post-punk to work towards a mix which could rightly be claimed to be their own art, their music.

    To appreciate the full impact of “Keep On Movin’,” the third Soul II Soul single but the first one to cross over into the Top 40, you really needed to have ambled through the imposing terraces of Belgravia, or Kensington (South or North), in that enlightened spring of 1989, since the overwhelming impression given by the record is one of elegance – an unhurried walk through the patience of reason. It slowed pop back down, made it breathe again rather than hyperventilate, even if the “keep on movin’, don’t stop” motif was non-specific when it came to directions; the perfect soundtrack for an idle wander around the outskirts of the Circle Line on an empty, cloudy Bank Holiday Monday, but much, much more as well.

    “Back To Life” was their moment of eternal summer. Despite the lyric’s urges of “back to reality” and “back to the here and now” (yeah) there seems something wonderfully unreal, something evocatively 1967, about the record’s straight delineations; as with “Time Of The Season” the absence of a musical centre – no guitars, hardly any chords or harmonies except for the occasional and thoroughly relevant interceptions of piano – widens the song’s emotional space. For large stretches there is nothing to the record beyond Caron Wheeler’s sublime, expansive lead vocal, a bassline and a drum program, but its movement remains sultry, decisively carnal but sociologically generous, coloured in at precisely the right moments by those Oriental strings – brilliantly remembering their Chic – drawing watery lines of art across the song’s benign canvas. Wheeler, too, is patient: “However do you want me, however do you need me” – she both wants and needs her Other, but she is prepared to wait, smiling and welcoming (despite her “Let’s end this foolish game” asides), until he’s fully ready to embrace her spirit.

    Of course, such references as “take the initiative,” “make a change, a positive change” and “I live at the top of the block” (though the piano chords accompanying that line are the record’s punctum) betray evidence of a businessman writing a song, and indeed Club Classics Vol One proved a major disappointment, largely consisting of Jazzie B drawling glorified advertisements for his clothes shop and club nights. And perhaps the success of their two great singles was ultimately down to producer Nellee Hooper – the far from missing link between Soul II Soul and what was about to evolve from the Wild Bunch into Massive Attack – whose intimate and instinctive understanding of space and structure helped lead to the latter’s string of masterpieces, starting with Neneh Cherry’s startling “Manchild,” also a top five hit that spring (a co-production by Hooper and Cameron McVey, who between them paved the way for New Pop Mk II). But “Back To Life” stands tall as the last great number one of the eighties, summer seeping through its grooves like honey through a brightly coloured ladle of hope.

  2. 2
    sonnypike on 24 Sep 2010 #

    About six years ago Crystal Palace had a popular Finnish player in their team named Aki Riihilahti. At one of their games I was delighted to hear a small group of supporters singing “Back to life / back to Rii-hil-ah-ti”. 9 for the chant, agree with 8 for the song.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Nice observation about the breakbeat and that machine-y wince around the fourth beat – I always found this a particularly striking sonic detail.

    But that and Jazzie’s keytar bopping in the video aside, Wheeler owns this effervescent club classic.

  4. 4
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #3 thanks, though if Marcello’s right and it’s programming not a breakbeat then that whole section is nonsense ;) (well, not nonsense, but as applied to THIS track it is).

  5. 5
    pink champale on 24 Sep 2010 #

    really splendid tom and punctum write-ups. thought this’d be a definite ten, though for me too, it isn’t *quite* – think i’d stretch to a nine though. Best bit not already nailed (that underlying house piano! the chic strings! top of the block!) is the lovely squelch that comes with the beat arriving for the first time under the intro.
    the first major nme cover story on flowered up (by indie traitor jack barron?) the following summer had their singer liam (now sadly no longer with us) raving deliriously to and about ‘back to life’ in his local estate pub – for some reason this has never quite left my mind.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Looking at that video again – there’s the anticipation as the camera sweeps down silently, the electrifying moment when Caron Wheeler opens her mouth and those beautiful eyes, Jazzie B literally kicks things into gear and we’re off for a few minutes in the company of the coolest people we could wish to know. It’s not the style of music I normally go in for, but this is an utter classic – the epitome of summer ’89, making the top of a London tower block seem the place to be. This is how to take a groove and develop it, add to it, play with it and have it take over. The best black British single of the decade, and one of the best – black, white or whatever – of all time.

  7. 7
    Venga on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I remember watching the video of this on TOTP when it was number one and thinking what a pristine, modern, exciting record it was and that after the slough of despond that was the mid 80s we had now entered some kind of golden age. Neneh Cherry was also rocking the hell out of my cassette player at the time.

    Looking back, the only thing that could have topped this for me would have been if one of those stupendous 88/89 Inner City singles had got to No1.

    10

  8. 8
    pink champale on 24 Sep 2010 #

    i *think* my squelch is something slightly different than tom and steve’s wince…

  9. 9
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Your squelch is my crunch.

  10. 10
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Get a room.

  11. 11
    MikeMCSG on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I’ve never been a soulboy but did recognise that this was a significant step up from those mostly forgetteable bands that Marcello listed upthread (Linx being the exception).

  12. 12
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #6 I also like how the camera starts on the tree leaves – hints at and compliments the freshness of the music.

    It’s not quite a 10 for me because I enjoy the approach to space and electro-ness of the decade’s finer, earlier equivalents that bit more but there’s not much between them.

    Remember really hoping that the follow-up ‘Get A Life’ would top the charts at the end of the year – one of the best (least annoying!) uses of a chorus of kids ever perhaps, and it would’ve been a great note for the decade’s charts to finish on (a cute unintentional nod to ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) even!). But thanks to the increasing market for crappy Christmas cash-ins this was not to be.

  13. 13
    MichaelH on 24 Sep 2010 #

    More than house, this felt to me like a turning point. I’d been paying more attention to hip-hop than house, partly because I listened to Peel, partly because the evangelistic nature of house’s following turned me off rather than on. But hip-hop remained a US thing, with the UK responses never hitting the spot. This seemed like the first convincing homegrown response to US hip-hop and R&B – the first time a UK group and producer managed a sound that was new, distinctive, and British. In a summer when I was listening mainly to horrible American noise bands, this and Keep On Movin’ were just about the only British songs to make it regularly to my turntable: they sounded like distilled optimism. But rarely did two songs promise so much from a group that went on to deliver so little.

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #13 Is there anything particularly British-sounding about the early SIIS singles tho, apart from Jazzie’s own accent (where he does rap)? I would’ve thought even in the context of the 80s Brit funk/soul lineage there may have been surprise from some listeners when they learned the act were London-based.

    The reason I say that is because much UK hip-hop at the time tended to be so indebtted to American (or Jamaican) characteristics both vocally and musically that the common flaw must’ve come down to the quality of writing and mic flow, which is fair enough and not really a big deal (imitators fail to match originators scandal!). The gap was closer when it came to production tho, at least wrt trying to sound like the Bomb Squad.

  15. 15
    Dominic on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I remember seeing Caron Wheeler, years later, performing just two songs (IIRC this one and “UK Blak”) outside Westminster Abbey, at a very brief gig (alongside Des’Ree and Joan Armatrading) organized by a friend to mark both International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day – lots of Commonwealth leaders had just been to a service in the Abbey, Tony Blair, and the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in presence too. So, a small and select crowd, I very much the interloper.

    Just before the drum machine started up for this, Caron Wheeler stepped up to the mic, and shouted “I hope the Queen – feels the bass – in her womb!”.

    Not the usual royal protocol, then.

    But otherwise, a great summer track; yes, not absolutely breathtaking (I think at the time I preferred “Keep on Movin”, but this has aged better), but wholesome summer fun.

  16. 16
    rosie on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Unusual for me: not only one I remember from the time but one I actually liked at the time. I’m not sure the electronica had much impact on me (it wouldn’t, would it?) but the vocal bowled me over.

    Remind me, because I’m feeling too lazy to check: is this the first number one to feature the sweaty ‘ft’ in the title? I assume there’s some copyright reason behind the trope but, old sixties slapper that I am, I can’t help giving Caron Wheeler second-class billing to her backup seems wrong somehow since it’s her record.

    An 8, borderline 9 from me but no 10 since it ain’t no Good Vibrations or House of the Rising Sun.

  17. 17
    Paytesy on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #4

    It’s inspired by the Ashley’s Roadclip break famously sampled on Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full. Soul II Soul’s break is made with a drum machine and has an extra production ‘flourish’.

    http://www.whosampled.com/sample/view/494/Eric%20B.%20%26%20Rakim-Paid%20in%20Full_The%20Soul%20Searchers-Ashley's%20Roachclip/

    However, the Soul II Soul version (with the twiddle) became so sampled itself in 89/90 that it became known as the “Soul II Soul Beat”.

  18. 18
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Her credit is based on her being a guest vocalist albeit a returning one. She may actually be the only Soul II Soul vocalist to have been credited (unless Victoria Wilson-James got it for ‘A Dream’s A Dream’).

    Not sure where I stand on this but spare a thought for Massive Attack’s array of guest vocalists, none of whom ever got a text credit.

  19. 19
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I think this might be the first No 1 I recognise from the time, though it’s less a specific memory and more a sense that I’ve always known this song, when I first “consciously” heard it I knew every note already. I guess it was fairly omnipresent in south-west London, where I was still at primary school, and my living situation at the time would definitely have been conducive to hearing it all the time.

    It’s so timeless, and I mean that in the best possible sense: that vocal line, it’s like everything in the world is in it, it makes sense wherever and whenever you hear it, and it’s so unifying. This year alone, sampled in three very different hip-hop singles – Fat Joe ft. Young Jeezy’s “(Ha Ha) Slow Down”, where it’s looped and turned into this airy backdrop/counterpoint to the booming beat and gully rapping; Big Boi’s “Shutterbugg”, where it’s this sudden splash of recognition in the middle of a sweaty house party; and Estelle’s “Freak”, where it’s a slightly desperate attempt to salvage a weak song with a sample that everyone knows and loves already. (The Big Boi and Fat Joe singles are GREAT, though, check them out.)

    But it’s also so personal and self-contained – it’s fundamentally a love song, and from my favourite perspective of all – the non-committal fronting like it doesn’t matter that can’t quite mask the longing. It still pops up in my head unbidden to this day, but it’s not an annoying earworm, it’s an old friend, and it’s the most natural thing in the world to just nod along.

  20. 20
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #16 According to Everyhit it might be “I’m Walking Behind You” by Eddie Fisher featuring Sally Sweetlands!

    (Wichita Lineman – do you have the record of this to check?)

    Otherwise yes, this is the first to have “featuring” rather than the previously used “with”. Much more on the ethics of attribution in three number ones time, I suspect.

  21. 21
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    @18 a few Soul II Soul vocalists are credited on the Club Classics Vol. One album – Caron Wheeler on this and “Keep On Movin'”, Rose Windross on “Fairplay”, Do’Reen on “Feel Free”.

    It’s only in the past decade or so that “feat.” has become de rigueur – on ’90s hip-hop CDs, guest rappers will rarely be prominently credited. I approve, it’s mystifying to me the antipathy some people have towards “feat.”.

    Talking of the album, I didn’t know until I bought it that the version of “Back To Life” on it (w/o parenthetical title extension) is almost all a cappella, with the beat only arriving at the very end! (And IIRC the “haha” vocal bit that Fat Joe samples, linked in my previous post, is only in the album version.) Prefer the single version but both are interesting.

  22. 22
    punctum on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #19: the Comic Relief “Living Doll” was credited to “Cliff Richard and the Young Ones, featuring Hank Marvin.”

    Can’t stand “featuring” myself since it turns musicians into brands rather than people. I mean, “David A Stewart featuring Candy Dulfer” – what, was she glued to his forehead?

  23. 23
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    (My previous post that is “still awaiting moderation” (uhhh what? why isn’t my second one then?) so I guess you’ll have to wait to see it.)

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    The whole construction of the single feels monumental, impressive, sultry, cool… But my response to it has always been to be impressed, rather than moved. I’ve never really been able to find much heart in the song.

  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Number 2 Watch: A week of Prince’s quite atrocious Batdance, then a week of The Beautiful South’s calculating Song For Whoever.

  26. 26
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Soul II Soul were generally too cool for mainstream TV appearances;

    BEHIND THE BEAT: with Prince, Burning Spear, Just Ice, Soul II Soul, Phil Bent (1988)

    BIG WORLD CAFE: with Eagle Eye Cherry, Mariella Frostrup, Soul II Soul, Carmel, Paul McCartney (1989)

    BIG WORLD CAFE: with Eagle Eye Cherry, Mariella Frostrup, Ten City, Soul II Soul, Les Negresses Verte (1989)

    PARAMOUNT CITY: with Arthur Smith, Mark Thomas, Cathy Ladman, Richard Jeni, Lenny Kravitz, Soul II Soul (1990)

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Bros, Jason Donovan, Phillip Schofield, Kylie Minogue, Neneh Cherry, Big Fun, Soul II Soul, The London Boys, Sonia, Transvision Vamp (1989)

  27. 27
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    “LOL kids” watch: ‘Batdance’ (and most of the Batman soundtrack) was a total thrill to me at the time and vied with Bobby Brown’s ‘On My Own’ (also from a summer blockbuster, altho Ghostbusters 2 wasn’t released until Xmas here) for my most-listened to song of the time. The Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack may technically be the first album I ever bought (or got my Mum to buy, really can’t recall these crucial details).

  28. 28
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I liked the brazen-ness of Batdance but I would fear revisiting it now.

    Batman, though – that was occupying as much of my brain as any pop music in summer 1989, certainly. Had the Stone Roses album come out by now, though?

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    It had – in about May IIRC. Jazzie B commented: “The Stone Roses – It’s not like music you hear in a *real* club, is it?”

  30. 30
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    The Beautiful South, of course, referenced this song on one of theirs – in fact it’s all I can remember about it (title included): Paul Heaton going “Back to bed, back to reality”, a grim memory.

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