Sep 10

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

Popular101 comments • 6,179 views

#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. 61
    Billy Smart on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Dale doesn’t like The Temperence Seven, or SL2, or ‘The Beatles Movie Medley’. And I think that I detected withering sarcasm in his “What a *great*! way to start the week ending September the 25th 1993!” when he was unexpectedly compelled to play ‘Jewel’ by The Cranes – “That was the only hit they had!”.

  2. 62
    punctum on 27 Sep 2010 #

    I’m fully behind Blackburn’s appointment and may even start listening to the programme again. Let’s hope he continues to bash Phil “The ” Swern into the ground with his useless (and frequently inaccurate) stats as per his recent Bank Holiday performances (“Don’t know about you but I’m losing the will to live here,” he commented after one splurge of pseudo-info).

    I’m all for Pick Of The Pops Bingo, though. We all know that Dale is apt to skip past anything in any given chart that we might want to listen to and play all the dreary AoR stuff (well, it is Radio “Compliance Please Sir Don’t Take Away Our Pocket Money” 2). We ought to set up a sweepstake.

  3. 63
    flahr on 27 Sep 2010 #

    He skipped over “The Message” on Saturday. I was livid.

    Did play “All Of My Heart” though (‘beautiful’).

  4. 64
    Mark G on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Well, here I am, way too late to offer something profound, except for:

    The first time I heard this, I thought “Blimey, Bros have made a decent record!”

  5. 65
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Sep 2010 #

    One thing about Tony is that he’ll never pretend to be something he isn’t, bless him. And MC’s right, perhaps he might be more objective than Dale. My great hero, Johnnie Walker, of course would have been all wrong for POTP, simply because he would have repeated his comments about a certain Scottish outfit who had two number ones in 1975, which precipitated his departure from Radio 1 all those years ago.

    I’m personally surprised that the Beeb didn’t give the job to Stephen Fry. The pompous, sanctimonious bore seems to have hijacked everything else at the Corporation!

  6. 66
    Conrad on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Tony Blackburn is a fantastic choice for POTP. I will have to start listening again. He’s a very underrated broadcaster, but one of the very very best at what he does.

    Anyway, Soul II Soul. Appreciate what it is trying to do, admire the originality. But find it really rather boring, so a 6.

    There were some terrific records around summer 89 though. The De La Soul and Stone Roses albums almost single handedly reinvigorated my interest in contemporary music after a five year hiatus.

    And Batdance is very silly indeed – but entertainingly so, like another of my favourite singles from this time – Love in an Elevator

  7. 67
    Dominic on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Love in An Elevator is one thing (I can kind of see its appeal, but am not really into it big-time), but its followup (that made number 76 in the charts!), “Janie’s Got A Gun” – to me that’s the real deal. Original, melodically, and a real “story” song, too (girl takes vengeance on a man who abused her as a child). I kind of guess the lyrics meant that it was not really radio-friendly, but to my mind one of the best singles in a rather good year musically.

  8. 68
    Gavin Wright on 27 Sep 2010 #

    I think this has to be the first 1989 entry that fits in with that year as I remember it – around that time I became very aware of things (clothes, buildings, cars, electrical appliances) looking or feeling *new* and ‘Back To Life’ really taps into that, it just sounds so effortlessly modern. It’s a 10 for me – I initially went for 9 but after reading the rest of the responses here I’ve had it stuck in my head all afternoon to the point where I really really want to hear it again, immediately…

  9. 69
    wichita lineman on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Yes, newness. This was the first number one in years that had a bass-heavy production, no chickety-chickety tin drums, and no gated snare. Hurrah! So, the beginning of a new decade. I preferred Keep On Movin’ for its gauzier chords and lyrics – just as urban, but “yellow is the colour of sunrays” is gorgeously vague and evocative of the best summer of your life.

    I’d venture the strings and stripped production owe as much to Brit soul’s most underrated act Hot Chocolate as they do to Chic.

    Tom, I’ll check that Eddie Fisher 45 when I’m back home tomorrow!

  10. 70
    wichita lineman on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Now! watch – “Back To Life” opened Disc 2 of Now! 15, followed by Neneh Cherry’s “Manchild”, Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” and Inner City’s “Do You Love What You Feel”, a splendid run of moderne soul.

  11. 71
    anto on 27 Sep 2010 #

    Strangely part of me is gonna miss Dales auto-pilot professionalism.
    Surely ” so there’s a strong record at number one ” must be an official catch phrase – a bit bland maybe but he says it often enough.
    Having read Victoria Woods comments about BBC interference in the Guardian today I began to wonder if Dale was restrained by that mysterious Swern character signalling at him to finish the link and play the next one ” we have to get to The Goombay Dance Band sharpish if we’re to hit the news on time etc “. Dale audibly winced at anything a bit punkish or avant-garde but he always made a point of mentioning if a particular song had been a hit in the clubs. I know he’s a Northern Soul afficienado so he might be more at home on a niche-based show.
    What sort of memos do Radio 2 presenters receive anyway? Are they told to follow Steve Wrights example ie talk about Elvis and The Beatles (or the Beeedllles as Dale calls ’em) as though they’re the only ones who really matter and stick on that ugly recorded clapping when they introduce todays special guest. Is Jeremy Vine told to screen the calls so that only people too provincial for their own good or too metropolitan for their own good can get through? What about Ken Bruce? Do the bosses notice that he only played Beyonces latest 7 times last week and Alesha Dixon just twice? They must take a dim view of that.
    I would still stick up for Pick Up For Pops. For anyone who visits this blog it’s useful for context. It’s also good for brushing up on pop history. On Saturdays show the first hour was the chart from this week in 1964 and it was surely one of the best charts ever. There were at least 15 brilliant tunes in the top 20 and 2 gems by Lesley Gore and The Searchers amongst the climbers. The sort of thing that makes me envy my parents generation.
    Anyway what are we meant to be talking about? Back to Life. Good tune,very much part of the zeitgeist when it was at number one.
    Caron Wheelers replenishing vocals are what make it. I agree with Punctum that Nellee Hooper probably had as much a role in the sound as Jazzie B. Those strings are certainly one of Hoopers motifs.
    For all that the whole Rare Groove thing has a you-had-to-be-there vibe and clearly a lot of people were. It’s been a pleasure to read the reminisences about this track, but I wasn’t there myself.
    What can I say? Born too late for 1964 and too soon for 1989. Sometimes the future feels like being kicked in the face by Scouting For Girls forever.

  12. 72
    Chelovek na lune on 27 Sep 2010 #

    #70 Oh yes it strikes me that in many ways 1989 was on the same phase of the eternally twisting pop music cycle of creativity and inertia as was 1981 – masses of fantastic, innovative, wonderful stuff out there (ah, my favourite of them all would have been bubbling in the lower regions of the top 50 round about this time, or possibly slightly later in the summer – Kariya’s “Let Me Love You For Tonight”, with its subtly distinct X-side and Y-side mixes on the 7″, a great deep house number, haunting and melodious)

    Although thinking especially of the next-but-one number one after this one (among others -and it would appear to be germane NOT to mention the type of creature known to get upset with such references around here on this specific occasion) there are other parallels with 1981 too…

    I’d be hard-pressed to say 1990 was quite the equal of 1982, though.

  13. 73
    Vince Modern on 28 Sep 2010 #

    A couple of things to add…

    1. The opening beat (after Caron Wheeler’s first two a capella lines) is particularly sublime. I still can’t work out if it’s a beat reversed, or the sound a beat makes when you ‘shut down’ a record deck. Maybe it’s both, all I know is it’s pertty clever.

    2. Referring back to Lex’s comments @19 about how widely this has been sampled this year made me think of one or two other tracks that have sampled BTL. I had a look on whosampledwho.com and there’s tons of em. And they’ve even missed a few (Black Eyed Peas interpolated the “Steady are you ready” vocal from the a capella version on their rather dire ‘Hey Mama’ from 2004).

    Here’s the list in full:

    Obviously it’s Caron’s memorable vocal they sample, rather than the beats.

    Wonder if this makes the BTL the most sampled UK number one?

  14. 74
    Steve Mannion on 28 Sep 2010 #

    “Sometimes the future feels like being kicked in the face by Scouting For Girls forever.”

    Yeah you don’t even notice it happening.

  15. 75
    Steve Block on 28 Sep 2010 #

    This is a ten. It’s the best song of the best year of British music in my lifetime. I can’t compete with the posters above, but this song is like one of many culminations of everything that had been happening musically over the last ten years. I also can’t help but feel it is in some way a response to Good Life by Inner City, the good life is over, it’s back to reality. But 1989, what a year, when artists actually cared about the music they were making rather than the product they were selling.

  16. 76
    anto on 28 Sep 2010 #

    Re65: Thank you for saying it. Some people seem to genuinely think Stephen Fry is right about everything just cos he has a plummy voice and digs technology.

  17. 77
    Erithian on 29 Sep 2010 #

    #57: before time moves on and we forget the Miliband soap opera being hyped up the way it is now: thought should be given to the sadly neglected third Miliband brother, Steve, who hasn’t had a hit in years. (Come on, I like the gag and it won’t be topical for long!)

  18. 78
    punctum on 29 Sep 2010 #

    Oh, Erithian, you’re such a joker.

  19. 79
    lex on 29 Sep 2010 #

    @65/76 totally agree, Stephen Fry can and should fuck off forever.

    I don’t get the Miliband joke :(

  20. 80
    thefatgit on 29 Sep 2010 #

    I guess that one flew like an eagle over your head, lex ;)

  21. 81
    Mutley on 29 Sep 2010 #

    #20. Re first use of the term “featuring”. I think this goes back to the time of the big bands (Count Basie etc) when they featured singers with star – or soon to be star names (Ella Fitzgerald etc). I’m sure there would be quite a few examples on records, although the only instant internet evidence I could find was at http://www.discogs.com/viewimages?release=2085848 which has an image of an LP cover and label of Count Basie and his Orchestra featuring Joe Williams from 1959.

  22. 82
    Dominic on 29 Sep 2010 #

    #79 Abracadabra is the magic word you might be looking for. (I would say “I wanna reach out and grab ya”, but well, that would be a bit familiar to someone I don’t know.)

    #65/76/79 More agreement on Stephen Fry. His much vaunted imitation of Oscar Wilde shows ever less understanding of why Wilde is remembered fondly, and frequently quoted a century after his death, and why that won’t be the case for Fry. Utterly overrated, all style, no substance, and frankly the style is not impressive.

  23. 83
    rosie on 29 Sep 2010 #

    No, thefatgit, it hopped over lex’s head like a rabbit.

  24. 84
    wichita lineman on 29 Sep 2010 #

    Re 81: Not sure about that. Quite often the vocalist would get no credit at all on a 78, just the band leader. If they were credited it would usually say “vocal – Jo Stafford” rather than “featuring”. That Count Basie album is a re-issue, so isn’t a reliable source. But I may well be wrong, not being at home with my useless boxes of 78s.

    Re Fry, for someone supposedly so smart, the twittering tart doesn’t seem to have any concept of overexposure killing his career. Hugh Laurie, on the other hand, is one of those lucky chaps who gets better looking with age, and is presumably now far more popular in the US than Fry.

    I’m very pleased to see the backlash starting on Popular : )

  25. 85
    thefatgit on 29 Sep 2010 #

    Far be it from me to split hares.

  26. 86
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Sep 2010 #

    A: Lex – Have you got the joke yet?

    B: Would someone more computer literate than I be able to send this thread to “Stevie” Fry on his Twitter page or whatever the hell it’s called? But first let’s lay into the tosser some more!!!!

  27. 87

    i: the Lex getting this joke is actually the opening of one of the mid-table seven seals
    ii: Fry is fine on QI — he is our Robert Robinson, no more, no less, a cuddly pedant in a tiny world of useless facts (on QI I can even tolerate Jimmy Carr)

  28. 88
    wichita lineman on 29 Sep 2010 #

    I wish Robert Robinson had been asked to say “Happy new millennium” to the nation.

  29. 89
    lex on 30 Sep 2010 #

    I am no closer to getting this joke :(

  30. 90
    flahr on 30 Sep 2010 #

    We’re almost exactly a year away (Popular time) from you getting this joke :)

    (at least we are given that we’ve just discussed “Swing the Mood”)

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