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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  1. 31
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #29 He wasn’t wholly wrong. Though my first experience of seeing a DJ playing live was at the Roses’ Alexandra Palace gig that November: it was very much “two steps back” for my still-nascent interest in dance music, since the acoustics were truly godawful.

  2. 32
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    ‘My Book’, their first flop single and not one of Paul Heaton’s better moments – At least Soul II Soul got songwriting royalties from it, though!

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    My favourite contemporaneous Stone Roses criticism came from young Lloyd Cole, unhappy to now find himself as yesterday’s man in January 1990. “They have a single called ‘Sally Cinnamon’, don’t they? I am *never* going to listen to band who can give a song a title like that!”

  4. 34
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Of course, the third part of the trinity of albums that South London hipster teens were playing alongside Soul II Soul and the Roses that summer was ‘3 Feet High & Rising’ by De La Soul.

    I myself at this time was listening to ‘Disintegration’ by The Cure more than anything else…

  5. 35
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    @29 Jazzie B OTMFM. Fuck the Stone Roses forever.

    Also I totally hear a ton of heart in this, it’s such an affecting song!

  6. 36
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Out of respect to the Lex I will save my reminiscin’ about what I was actually listening to in 1989 for a later thread.

  7. 37
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Was Jazzie referring specifically to ‘Fool’s Gold’. I don’t know the full extent of it’s portability to and appeal in London clubs but the popular remix did have that great breakbeat similar if not the same as the one used on a hit that was probably more up B’s street – ‘Heaven’ by The Chimes.

    I’m sure I linked it elsewhere on FT but Morley’s Showing Off with Jazzie B is worth a look: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/feb/19/paul-morley-jazzie-b

  8. 38
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    #34 De La album means a lot more to me personally than those other two LPs and I usually cite is as first album I bought tho it wouldn’t have been until late ’89 at the earliest, if not early ’90 (following the release of ‘The Magic Number/Buddy’ which was definitely my first (cas)single).

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    24/35. Yes, I’ve been trying to work out why I can’t find this quality of heart. I think its because, as a song, I get a strong sense of situation from ‘Back To Life’, but not of a distinct personality other than that Caron Wheeler is a tremendously able singer… I don’t have this problem with Manchild or Unfinished Sympathy!

  10. 40
    Tom on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I’m sort of with Billy – not so much on lacking heart but (as the review says) I respect the importance of the record more than I actually ever play it. To be honest I was expecting to give it a 7, and then the wonderful video brought more of its quality home to me (and triggered the memory a bit) so it was an easy 8.

    Also, listened to in the context of most of 1989’s No.1s it’s infinitely classier.

  11. 41
    Steve Mannion on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I actually found ‘Manchild’ too bleak and depressing-sounding a record at the time and just couldn’t listen to it. Half-baked theory is that I first heard it while nauseous so would associate it with that for some time thereafter. I had a similar reaction to some Boards Of Canada stuff at first – tho I often love sad or menacing synths and strings, seems as if I’ve just been oddly sensitive to certain chord sequences and progressions (and each example I can think of is actually an amazing piece of electronic music in one way or another).

    It was frustrating in the former’s case tho what with the song climbing the charts, harder to avoid and perhaps the most unconventional top 5 hit since ‘O Superman’ (depending on the broadness of your definition there). I always recognised it as remarkable but ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ went down much much more easily.

  12. 42
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    “Safe From Harm” > “Back To Life” > “Unfinished Sympathy”

    (all would get 10/10 from me, maybe “Unfinished Sympathy” might be “only” 9/10 some days)

  13. 43
    lonepilgrim on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I loved this at the time (and would have given it a 10) because it seemed to capture such a positive urban summer vibe. Appropriately enough given when it hit number one the video always suggested a black version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Jazzie B as Bottom, maybe).
    Nowadays I’d agree with the 8 mark because the S2S beat and vibe became so overfamiliar (almost as quickly as JBs croaky ‘raps’).

  14. 44
    will on 24 Sep 2010 #

    Christ, this thread is making me nostalgic…and slighty sad at the fact it’s now more than two decades since the summer of ’89. Soul II Soul, De La Soul, Stone Roses, ‘Manchild’, The Pixies’ Doolittle. Bliss was it to be alive in that dawn, but to be 19 etc etc.

    9 for Back To Life from me. Keep On Moving would have been a 10 though.

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 24 Sep 2010 #

    KOM and BTL, are the sublime highlights of CC Vol 1 and some not unpleasant, but unmemorable filler, but there is an intention to form an identity
    through it’s music, and importantly it’s updated, re-imagined hippy philosophy, so maybe the 2nd Summer Of Love is just as significant here.
    Camden may be the heart of Soul II soul, but it’s face was Covent Garden’s Africa Centre. Jazzie B’s club nights there mixed up
    the ingredients that formed the Soul II Soul sound. Little wonder Jazzie B was proud of it enough to promote it on the album. The clothes range
    you’d have to put down to Jazzie B’s entrepreneurial streak. Who can blame the chap? Is he not a pre-cursor to the likes of Jay Z?
    BTL is undoubtedly important. The timing is almost spot on, as around 89 Kiss gains it’s commercial radio licence. Kiss have managed to legitimise
    their formerly pirate status, and the likes of Soul II Soul and songs like BTL and KOM are key to Kiss FM retaining it’s pirate audience and gaining new
    listeners. With Rap spanning East and West Coasts in the US and fledgling dance movements forming out of the output from bedrooms
    across the UK, BTL stands maybe not as the first footprint on the surface of a newly conquered moon, but perhaps the first
    deployment of the Lunar Rover.

  16. 46
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2010 #

    46 And that’s not all! Two other epochal singles were also in the charts during the reign of Back To Life – Public Enemy, ‘Fight The Power’ and A Guy Called Gerald, ‘Voodoo Ray’!

  17. 47
    lex on 24 Sep 2010 #

    @45 Wow, that’s remarkably similar to what’s happening NOW – Rinse has just legitimised its pirate status, songs like “Katy On A Mission” will be key to retaining its old listeners and gaining new ones, hip-hop is…in a really interesting place, at least, with the best rap mostly not speaking to a chart audience, and fledgling dance movements are being formed and shaped in bedrooms across the UK and world, those connections being facilitated by the internet…

  18. 48
    Rory on 24 Sep 2010 #

    I hadn’t heard this before today – it only reached number 45 in Australia, which may be why – but I like what I hear. Given the diet of sawdust and rabbit that surrounds it in 1989, “Back to Life” is positively Michelin-star-worthy, but I’d have to live with it a bit longer to go to an 8 or above, I think. For now, a definite baseline of 7.

  19. 49
    CPB on 25 Sep 2010 #

    Of course, as anyone who was listening to the Golden Hour on Radio 1 will know, ‘Fool’s Gold’ is shall we say, heavily inspired by the Young MC’s ‘Know-How’. I wouldn’t know but I’m guessing some people were playing that in clubs.

    As for this track (and indeed ‘Fool’s Gold’) I think I might suffer a little from having been too young to appreciate it properly when I first got to know it. I can tell instinctively that it’s at least an 8, and I certainly know now why it’s important, but whenever I hear it, it somehow doesn’t quite hit the spot.

  20. 50
    swanstep on 25 Sep 2010 #

    Agree with the consensus about this track: unbelievably important as a landmark, but not 10-worthy on its merits (the ‘tower block’ middle eight feels to me underdone musically). So, yeah: (a high) 8.

    I guess I loved how non-gimmicky this record felt compared to earlier House-ish dance records (even stuff I’d loved like Paid in Full or Buffalo Stance). It felt like a new normal was being asserted and had arrived.

    And, ahem, the hell with Batman. This very week (June 23 ’89 in the UK and June 30 ’89 in the US) saw the release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing w/ Public Enemy’s Fight the Power as its big soundtrack hit. Epic stuff, and again a kind of new musical and cultural normal seemed to be being asserted and exemplified.

    The vids for BTL and Fight the Power were played a lot on MTV in the US during the very hot summer of 1989. The future was here and seemed to promise a very satisfying fusion of the carnal and the brainy. Yay.

    Semi-amusing note: I was not really a single-buyer at this point and so my response to seeing the BTL vid was to purchase the album. I was genuinely peeved that, as Lex mentioned above, its only version of BTL was essentially beatless!

  21. 51
    Erithian on 25 Sep 2010 #

    #32 the “My Book” lyric “Mother played by Peter Beardsley, father by John Cleese” was a treat though, as well as a good one for a lyric quiz!

  22. 52
    Rory on 25 Sep 2010 #

    What intrigues me is that this hit number 4 in New Zealand and stayed in their charts 25 weeks, compared to its 7 weeks spread over 7 months of dropping in and out of Australia’s in the high 40s. Sometimes comparing national charts feels like that experiment someone did where they gave arbitrary groups of similar students the same songlist to play and rank over time, and watched entirely different charts emerge.

    I’m liking this more and more now, getting to the point where if I were still in the singles market I would have bought the single, so I should nudge my mark to 8.

  23. 53
    Rory on 25 Sep 2010 #

    That silhouette shot in the video of the dancer swinging her hair around reminds me that 1989 was also the year of Milli Vanilli. A shame “Blame It On the Rain” didn’t top the charts in the UK… that would have been a fun discussion.

  24. 54
    Steve Mannion on 25 Sep 2010 #

    ‘Blame It On The Rain’ didn’t even go top 40 here but the also terrible ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ was their biggest hit as well as their last one.

  25. 55
    Mark M on 25 Sep 2010 #

    I popped back to London from Milan around this time – it’s hard to remember any song seeming to completely own the moment the way Back To Life. It did seem like Soul II Soul were about transform British pop culture… London seemed relaxed and vibrant and fun, despite the tube strikes and the fag end of Thatcher. Highlight of the week was going to see Do The Right Thing at the now defunct cinema on the south side of PIccadilly…

  26. 56
    LondonLee on 26 Sep 2010 #

    This was THE sound of London at the time, ‘Club Classics’ seemed to be pouring out of every car car stereo and storefront that summer. I was having some of the best years of my life then, at the start of a relationship that would last three years, going to great clubs and great music everywhere. Bliss it was to be alive.

    A 9 from me but only because I need create some space between it and the magnificent ‘Keep On Moving’ which is a sold gold 10 for me. Though it wouldn’t be long before the “remixed by Nellee Hooper” credit became a bit too ubiquitous on 12″ singles.

  27. 57
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Sep 2010 #

    GOODBYE DALE! I’ve just learned that Dale is leaving “Pick of the Pops” at the end of October, which is fair enough since he’s had a decent stint. The alarming news, though, is that of his replacement. It is none other than the “sensational” Timmy Bannockburn. Dear God, not him again!

    Radio 2 are idiots. They should have held out for the uber-cool David Milliband. Now that’s a thought, Popular Pals!

  28. 58
    flahr on 27 Sep 2010 #

    B-but how will we know whether each entry was a “good record” or not?

    As it happens the next edition of POTP will focus on the music of October 1989. I don’t know if Spoiler Bunny has jurisdiction over The Winton.

  29. 59
    Billy Smart on 27 Sep 2010 #

    I predict that ‘Sweet Surrender’ by Wet Wet Wet, ‘Right Here Waiting’ by Richard Marx, and ‘Simply The Best’ are most likely to be proclaimed as “good record!”s, come Saturday. I’d most like to hear Dale play ‘Kennedy’ by The Wedding Present on that chart, but won’t be holding my breath…

  30. 60
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Sep 2010 #

    # 58 – The Spoiler Bunny has jurisdiction over everyone, flahr. He’s omnipotent is Bun.

    I wonder if anyone can remember Dale ever saying: “that’s NOT a good record”? Or: “And that’s why we DIDN’T love it”?

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