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Feb 11

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS – “Unchained Melody”

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#653, 3rd November 1990

The charts have always moonlighted as a marketing department for Hollywood but sometimes in the early 90s it seemed that was their primary role. A shrinking pop audience was no match for the commercial wallop of blockbuster cinema, so soundtrack hits could boss the Top 40 for weeks or months on end. Most, obviously, were a great deal worse than this but in 1990 “Unchained Melody” seemed very much part of the problem. Add the song’s unfortunate post-Ghost tendency to hit big no matter which muppet got their hands on it, and you’ll understand why it took me a long time to warm to this. Even now it feels like a fragile truce: all it would take is one flick of Cowell’s little finger and I’d be back cursing it again.

Even if it never gets a fifth turn at number one, “Unchained Melody” has an eternal top-table membership in the pantheon of popular love songs, and like many a great love song it’s absolutely soaked in agony, lust and paranoia. Just like “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, “Unchained Melody” shows how Phil Spector could use sound to dramatise and intensify the feeling in a song. In “Loving Feeling” he turned a break up into Armageddon, in “Unchained” the stately throb of his arrangement underpins all the frustration and fear in Bobby Hatfield’s reading of the song’s killer lines. “And time goes by so slowly / And time can do so much / Are you still mine?”

Spector also knows when to get out of the way. This is one of the great solo vocals, the pop equivalent of a long tracking shot, holding the focus unflinchingly on Hatfield’s pain even as he seems to crack with the stess of it. Everything you need know about the song is in that thrilling, desolate moment at the end of the song’s first section where “still mine” falters and slides into “I need”, the “I” breaking up as it falls. After that, the inevitable crescendos and crashes don’t take anything away from the record, but they can’t add to it either.

The song’s genius – in this version especially – is also in how it freely mingles the emotional and physical pain of separation. “Oh my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for your touch”: singing this Hatfield sounds contemplative and chaste at first, but then a sudden emphasis on “hungered” and the sharp line-ending of “touch” give the lie to that. In its own way this is as tensely carnal a record as its ’65 contemporary, “Satisfaction”, and you don’t need a potter’s wheel to feel that side to it.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    vinylscot on 12 Feb 2011 #

    Doing a bit of f*rting about his morning, I came across the rather bizarre fact that the lyricist of this song, Hy Zaret, was also responsible for the sublime (and slightly less melo-dramatic) “Why Does The Sun Shine (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas)”, as made famous by They Might Be Giants.

    If you don’t know it, listen to it, and see if you can spot any similarities!!

  2. 92
    Ed on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Inspired by @13, I went and listed again to ‘Wild Things Run Fast’, for the first time in about two and a half decades, and it’s great! “Chinese Cafe’ is indeed the best song, but the rest of it is charming, or striking, or beautiful, or all of those things at once.

    It is a record that really shouldn’t work. It has an 80s “modern rock” production that dates it instantly. It has lyrics about “we’re middle-class, we’re middle-aged”. It has fretless bass, and Frank Zappa’s drummer. It has that fake-tough guitar sound that sounds like the Cowardly Lion going “grrrrr!” You can practically hear the jacket sleeves being pushed up in the studio. In fact, I think Mitchell does have her sleeves rolled up on the cover, although I would need to see the vinyl version to be sure. It has an Elvis cover, and a song with lyrics taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, (Chapter 13, the famous bit that you get at weddings.)

    Yet for all that, it really does work, reconciling her jazz instincts with a pop aesthetic in ways that are fresh and often gorgeous. The only real flop is the Elvis cover, a ham-fisted take on ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’, but even that has a kind of awkward charm: she is making a fool of herself, and knows it, but like the song says, she doesn’t care.

    She was listening to The Police and Talking Heads at the time, apparently, and the album is both smarter and more appealing than a lot of what those bands were doing at the time, and certainly better than what they would go on to do.

    Now all the cool kids are listening to Hall & Oates and Toto, it is surely ripe for rediscovery.

  3. 93
    lonepilgrim on 14 Feb 2011 #

    re 92 – I must listen to ‘Wild Things Run Fast’ again. She toured on the back of the album and so I had a rare chance to see her play live in the mid-80s. Her reluctance to tour due to health reasons and a cussed nature have been one reason why her profile has waned a bit – although I have friends who have recently begun to explore her back catalogue.
    She featured on the Radio 1 equivalent of Desert Island Discs around the same time and she was understandably a little snarky about the fact that while her jazz stylings had received criticism from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s, Sting’s use of jazz players a few years later had been praised to the sky by the same people. I remember her choosing ‘Nefertiti’ by the Miles Davis band and ‘Gaucho’ by Steely Dan among her musical choices.
    I really like the ‘Dog eat Dog’ album which has even more of an 80s production sheen thanks to the involvement of Thomas Dolby but which has quite a pleasantly sour quality to it – criticising both the religious right and some of the more utopian pronouncements from the Live Aid performers.

  4. 94
    David Belbin on 16 Feb 2011 #

    Good old Joni, always ahead of her time. I thought ‘Dog Eat Dog’ was a superior album to WTRF, indeed it was my favourite of 1985 (of course I made a list, still do). Never got to see her live but the recordings of the ’83 tour make it sound like a decent show, albeit the new material isn’t strong enough to let the setlists compete with the ’79 tour that produced ‘Shadows And Light’ – she always played ‘You Dream Flat Tyres’ and ‘You’re So Square’ neither of which I was keen on.

  5. 95
    Erithian on 21 Feb 2011 #

    Agree with Rosie (way back at #2) on the merits of “Truly Madly Deeply” (“I have a bunch of dead people watching videos in my living room!”), a film which means a lot to me and my other half and which I can’t watch without a packet of Kleenex. “Unchained Melody” is a fine, fine song but not so fine that it deserves to be number one in umpteen versions. But this is by far the best one I’ve heard.

    I think it was around this time that somebody on Comic Relief had the genius idea of “The Righteous Brothers featuring Postman Pat”, in which a younger, black-and-white version of Postman Pat is spliced into a clip of the RBs doing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”.

  6. 96
    punctum on 21 Feb 2011 #

    I’m afraid that Truly, Madly, Deeply makes me wish for NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST IN FIVE SECONDS but each to their own.

  7. 97
    pink champale on 22 Feb 2011 #

    Yeah, afraid I’m the same on ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ – THE HOPPING!!!!
    The most comprehensive case I’ve ever seen made for the wretchedness of TMD, including its massive inferiority to (the still pretty poor) ‘Ghost’, was by – unexpectedly – Ian Hislop.

  8. 98
    LondonLee on 23 Feb 2011 #

    Thank Christ I’m not the only one. Has there ever been a more annoying example of smug Hampstead luvvie-dom committed to film?

  9. 99
    swanstep on 23 Feb 2011 #

    Hmmm, it’s been a while since I saw TMD, but I remember it as being quite understated and reserved modulo its basic premise. I therefore wouldn’t have picked it as the sort of film that *could* provoke strong allergic reactions. Love Actually by way of contrast….

  10. 100
    punctum on 23 Feb 2011 #

    The first two minutes of Love, Actually make me wish for nuclear holocaust in 0.0000000000000000000005 seconds.

  11. 101
    Erithian on 23 Feb 2011 #

    I thought Juliet Stevenson in particular was excellent, but yes, each to their own. I’m certainly not in thrall to “Hampstead luvviedom” – couldn’t care for any of the characters in Four Weddings or Love Actually – but let’s just say that my attachment to TMD derives partly from the stage in our lives we were at when we watched it. It’s a deeply personal thing I wouldn’t want to discuss on here, and I’m sure Punctum recognises that feeling.

  12. 102
    enitharmon on 23 Feb 2011 #

    Anything is better than the torrent of smug Los Angeles luvviedom that plagues our cinemas.

  13. 103
    punctum on 23 Feb 2011 #

    My wife is from Los Angeles.

    Maybe a “Think Before You Post”/”Do You Really Want To Post This?” function would be useful.

    Or maybe just think, very carefully, before you post remarks which are likely to be offensive to others.

  14. 104
    Mark G on 23 Feb 2011 #

    He didn’t accuse her of making those movies though.

  15. 105
    LondonLee on 23 Feb 2011 #

    Juliet Stevenson was excellent, as was Rickman. But there was that scene in a restaurant or something which I swear involved mimes and people being oh so quirky… I’ve blocked the specifics out of my mind but Lord how I wanted to slap them all. I’d rather have Demi Moore making pots.

  16. 106
    enitharmon on 23 Feb 2011 #

    LondonLee @ 105

    It was the Orangery at Goldney Hall in Bristol. Much of TMD was filmed in and around Bristol even if purportedly set around Highgate, so ‘Clifton Luvviness’ might be more apropos. I never minded the mimes and the quirkiness, it lent a touch of magical realism as if a roomful of ghosts watching videos wasn’t enough. The mime/conjuror was a highly empathetic teacher of people with learning difficulties and I was very much touched by that.

    Besides, my personal nomination for “best film ever made”, Les Enfants du Paradis, involves a mime and lots of quirky people.

  17. 107
    hectorthebat on 19 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 138
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 365
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 374
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 601-700
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 53
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1960s (2012) 61
    Neil McCormick, The Telegraph (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2009) 4
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 416
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    STM Entertainment (Australia) – The 50 Best Songs Ever (2007) 20

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