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Feb 11

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS – “Unchained Melody”

Popular107 comments • 12,492 views

#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. 76
    lonepilgrim on 9 Feb 2011 #

    re #49 I’m happy to be corrected Rosie – and in answer to your question: I celebrated by having a long first kiss with the woman who is now Mrs. Pilgrim.

  2. 77
    wichita lineman on 9 Feb 2011 #

    Re 75: I was only saying he was the Derren Nesbitt of pop, don’t think I was toooo harsh.

    I’d say Joe Meek treated him much like Phil Spector treated Ronnie Spector, though, so a large proportion of his singles are particularly strong when stacked against other 1963-66 RGM output. That extra bit of care being taken on each of them. And any singer – even Iain Gregory – could’ve made a good job of them.

    Re 76: that’s great!

  3. 78
    hardtogethits on 10 Feb 2011 #

    Back in the room. Whether to comment on the record, or its role as a chart topper? This seems to me the very opposite of the ballad that preceded it at the top. Unchained Melody was old, over-produced, lyrically stale, and on this version of the worn-out song, sung with those histrionic noodlings that many believe sound like heartfelt passion.

    Some have said that a great love song is like a hymn. This has many of the characteristics of a hymn – it has no pace and the melody is laboured; the words are timeless but do not reward great study, and they demand that the singer draws them out beyond their standard pronunciation and length (otherwise they won’t fit the melody); and, above all, just like a hymn, once it starts I realise it is going to end as soon as I would wish. “Time goes by so slowly” indeed. How could you sing that line anything but slowly if it were to retain its meaning? Saying it slowly and more than once does not make it pass any more quickly. Yet the same rules – rapidity of delivery being matched to concept being expressed – don’t apply when it comes to “Speed your love to me” – ok, that’s understandable, any song would struggle with that change in rhythm, but the singer is doomed to sound absurd. You can’t convey the need for hurry as slowly as that. And if you think I’m going on a bit, I started to type this at the “w” in “woah my darling” and he’s just about reached “darling” bit … wait… now.

    So why so popular? As punctum points out, if anyone had wanted to they could have bought it between 1984 and 1990, when it had been continuously available on the Old Gold label. But few did. It is absolutely endearing that people will seek out an original recording following the use of it in a film or an advert; I bet we have all done it. But when so many do it that it sends a familiar standard to no.1, it feels like we are being deprived of something that has a unique role to play in defining what was popular at the time – a contemporary number one.

    So if I were to be kind, I could label this ‘timeless’ and just say I want number ones to be ‘of their time’. And give it 2.

  4. 79
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Feb 2011 #

    # 70 – Yutte Stensgaard! Oh, Mumma! There’s an episode of, I believe, “Jason King”, where this uber-ravashing girl beats the crap out of Micheal “Ranji Ram” Bates when he is supposed to be guarding her for King. Following the coup de grace, Yutte leans over him and chides him as he passes out to a face-full of smiles, wavy blonde hair and other things. Pretty fabulous, I would say.

    # 73 – Millican and Nesbitt. I’m afraid that “Vaya Con Dios” is in the Swede’s collection, a legacy of my old man, long passed, who thought it was wonderful. As Lino said, they looked about 65, which says everything really. Didn’t they “come through the door of opportunity” or am I mistaken?

  5. 80
    Billy Smart on 10 Feb 2011 #

    I’m sorry that I’ve been out of circulation while all of this has been going on! (I’ve been preparing for an interview with one of the only ten actors to have appeared in both Doctor Who and Star Trek, cultishly enough.)

    I share Tom’s distaste for ghettoised cult TV. I’ve been doing some work on the mid-eighties recently and – to take two disparate examples – looking at Robin Of Sherwood and The Singing Detective, I was struck by how much both series expected of their audience, the one in expecting them to grasp concepts of mythology and medieval history, the other in interlacing three plots one of which is memory and the other of which is a fantasy. Yet there was no attempt to pitch or promote either at a cult audience, they were both made for a general viewership. Contrast with the recent BBC Robin Hood or Ashes To Ashes…

    It’s after my period, but I think that the reason for the change is for a variety of reasons, largely to do with financing and marketing; the rise of subscription channels and sales of videos then DVDs, etc. And possibly a generational shift – more likely to be impressed by self-referring ironic narrative, more sceptical about emotive depictions of character and Aristotelian notions of plot.

  6. 81
    Billy Smart on 10 Feb 2011 #

    No-one has yet mentioned Derren Nesbitt’s biggest role as Detective Inspector Jordan in the first two (1969-70) Thames series of Special Branch, i.e. before it was made by Euston films. In theory he’s a dishy undercover cop, but this is one of those sixties characterisations that you really have to imaginatively squint to accept 40 years on.

    The one moment where he really lives up to his star status is as the Mongol warlord Tegana in the 1964 Doctor Who story Marco Polo, though admittedly, I’m basing this assertion from off-air audio recordings and off-screen telesnaps, the actual episodes long since lost.

    According to Wikipedia “in 2008 he was writing a book on “biblical myths and falsehoods”” It also suggests a reason why people were reluctant to cast him after an incident in 1973.

  7. 82
    punctum on 10 Feb 2011 #

    “TV actor spanked ‘unfaithful’ wife with thong.”

    Blimey!

  8. 83
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Feb 2011 #

    As the aforementioned Jason King would say: “Fancy!”

    And he probably would have…

  9. 84
    wichita lineman on 10 Feb 2011 #

    … and he has such a kind face. Who’da thought it?

    Re 78: many of the earlier versions of the song (Roy Hamilton, Al Hibbler, Les Baxter) do double the pace of the lyric just ahead of “God speed your love to me”. Not that the scales will suddenly drop from your eyes or anything.

  10. 85
    Billy Hicks on 10 Feb 2011 #

    In my Grandma’s record collection – which spans my grandparents’ purchases in the 60s (a million Gilbert & Sullivan soundtracks), my older aunties in the 70s (Queen/Beatles/Mull of Kintyre) and my mum in the 80s (Pet Shop Boys/Erasure/New Order), there exists a ‘Best of the Righteous Brothers’ LP produced in 1990, likely to cash in on this. No one knows where it came from, not least my Grandma who famously has hated Unchained Melody for over half a century, and was somewhat horrified when it came back again at this time. It’s one of my family’s many mysteries, all I can guess is that it was a joke purchase one Christmas.

    I personally have always liked it, especially this version. My favourite is the live version that all the music channels play, where he gets gloriously carried away at the end with some breathtakingly high notes.

  11. 86
    Paulito on 11 Feb 2011 #

    Poor old Bobby Hatfield, who on his untimely demise was subjected to the indignity of one of the Sun’s most tasteless (though, admittedly, rather amusing) headlines: “You’ve Lost That Livin’ Feeling”.

    For me, perhaps the most poignant and powerful rendition of “Unchained Melody” is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXDUKDtOP9Q. At twilight’s last gleaming, a moment of genuine triumph.

  12. 87
    hardtogethits on 11 Feb 2011 #

    That’s a good spot #84, they do though, don’t they? Thanks for pointing me in that direction. It certainly makes me believe that Bobby Hatfield could have put a little more thought and a little less foghorn into his delivery. That said, I have listened to 10 full versions of the song (8 of them hits) and a further 20 for the bit about Speed Your Love To Me (it’s almost always around 70 seconds in) and I have finally heard one (only one mind) which suggests the singer sees this line, as I do, as an explosion of impatience. And of course, wouldn’t you know it, that version is not very good.

    Throughout this, I am glad I have got my headphones on. Otherwise I think I’d be heading for the tabloids. “Neighbours complained that Hardtogethits (41) had been playing various different versions of the song continuously for three days.”

  13. 88
    MikeMCSG on 11 Feb 2011 #

    #87 I know what you mean. I compile pop quizzes and occasionally do classic song rounds where I play snippets of 20 different versions of the same song. My wife always complains when I’m compiling them; I’m not going to do one on this because as said above I loathe the song.

  14. 89
    wichita lineman on 11 Feb 2011 #

    Re 86: That’s pretty unchained. I think it was recorded for a tv special, along the lines of Aloha From Hawaii – Col Parker really didn’t think much of Elvis (beyond being a cash cow) did he?

  15. 90
    vinylscot on 11 Feb 2011 #

    The Elvis version is a little OTT, is it not? I always wondered whether he was taking the p*ss with it a bit.

    The live version on the (Canadian) single thankfully featured a different, and better, performance from Elvis, but it was let down slightly by some VERY fake crowd noise (a pretty obvious loop at the end IIRC).

  16. 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!!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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”.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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?

  24. 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….

  25. 100
    punctum on 23 Feb 2011 #

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

  26. 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.

  27. 102
    enitharmon on 23 Feb 2011 #

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

  28. 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.

  29. 104
    Mark G on 23 Feb 2011 #

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

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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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