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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. 1
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Actually I might not need Cowell’s intervention to tip the balance against it.

  2. 2
    enitharmon on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Out of its turn it may be, but of the many versions of this song this remains the definitive interpretation for me (of course it dates very much from my pop days so naturally I’m biased, but it’s refreshing to see it here amongst so much that goes way over my head).

    I’ve still not managed to track down a DVD of the film, if such a DVD exists. I gather it’s not exactly a classic but it’s no turkey either.

    (No, I don’t mean Ghost, that poor person’s Truly Madly Deeply, either.)

  3. 3
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Ooh! in early.

    Reserving space.

    Or, I would if I had much to say this time around about it.

    Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers version. Nope, done that one already.

    OK, how about: Is there a video of the two RBros performing this, where Bobby Hatfield’s giving it plenty, and the other dude stands next to him and just nods appreciatively?

  4. 4
    Andrew Hickey on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Of course, there’s the question as to whether this *was* a Spector production at all. It was originally intended as an album track, and Spector never bothered producing those, being a singles-only person with very rare exceptions. Bill Medley insists to this day that he produced the track and Spector just stuck his name on the credits when he realised its commercial potential.
    I asked Carol Kaye, the bass player on the session, if she remembered who produced it, and she said it was Spector, but Kaye is notorious as a fantasist and liar, so who knows? It certainly doesn’t *sound* like a Spector production – but then Spector’s ‘sound’ was really more Jack Nitzsche’s anyway, so if it was using another arranger…

  5. 5
    punctum on 7 Feb 2011 #

    If we’re talking about fusion between music and film, then no one fused as firmly or as transcendently in 1990 as David Lynch. In the late darkness of that year Twin Peaks premiered on BBC2, and although it quickly became clear that the series would have done well to have stuck to Lynch’s original concept of a seven-part serial, its vision transfixed with such abundant and focused intensity that it was easy to excuse the multiple holes in the central plot. In particular, Ray Wise’s Leland Palmer demonstrated such a minutely detailed and acute depiction of post-bereavement trauma in extremis that you almost regretted his having to be the killer, or worse, bringing in a shaggy dog of a demon to represent the evil in him. The backwards dream sequences were sublime and the opening avalanche of communal grief was so painful that you were suitably confused as to whether this was genuine emotion or high-flown satire.

    Floating Into The Night, the first album Julee Cruise made with Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, was one of 1990’s best; a Mondrian-meets-Rothko portrait of the haunted emptiness of pre-Beatles ’60s teenpop balladry (“Sealed With A Kiss” and, indeed, “Blue Velvet” – Bobby Vinton’s original recording of the latter was reissued in 1990 and, partly due to a Nivea cream commercial and partly due to momentary Twin Peaks-inspired Lynchmania, made number two that autumn), its bar lines and tear stains stretched out to form blurred horizons, coupled with post-4AD misty danger. Critically and commercially the record was cancelled out somewhat by Badalamenti’s own, huge-selling Music From Twin Peaks soundtrack album, on which several of the Cruise tracks reappear in subtly altered form, but the music’s microscopic weeping retained its quiet power – the serene gore of the first season’s closing episode would have been unbearable to watch had Cruise not been present to counterpart the violence with her knowing, ambient peace. It was hard to believe that her normal specialty was Janis Joplin-type bluesy shouts.

    Similarly, while Wild At Heart veered perilously close to an Airplane!-style Lynch parody, its great moments owe themselves entirely to the skilful use of music – in particular, in one scene, where Sailor and Lula are driving down an open highway, surrounded by fields of corn, in the late afternoon, and Sailor is frantically turning his radio dial to find some music but can only receive news bulletins of death, murder, robbery, war, bloodshed and anguish. Eventually he finds the resonant post-metal tones of Rammstein, whoops a loud whoop of joy as he and Lula get out of the car, pogo around madly to the riff and finally embrace, passionately and close to tears. Music can both save and justify lives. Elsewhere, at night, on the run, they career in near-total darkness down an unlit, narrow strip of road as the placid ghostliness of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” – Edward Hopper sings the Shadows – peals out of the sky like remorseful leaves of lavender.

    Both “Wicked Game” and Julee Cruise’s “Falling” were deserved top ten hits as 1990 crawled to its regretful close, Cruise’s TOTP performance in particular bringing new meaning to the term “stasis.” But the use of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” in the film Ghost is more problematic, not to mention the film’s own cavalier attitude to death and afterlife. Ghost, as befits its title, is nothing really; a clumsy broth of yuppie romance, supernatural whodunnit and screwball comedy which would have been, in an entirely different sense from Twin Peaks, unwatchable without Whoopi Goldberg’s dynamo of a performance. Swayze quickly and wisely realises that the film is not worth taking seriously and pitches his acting accordingly (whether Dirty Dancing or Donnie Darko, he was always a dopey, amiable big lug and nobody’s idea of a yuppie) – but Demi Moore gives a harsh, unsmiling portrayal so unforgivingly and blankly resentful that it unbalances the fluffy concept of the film entirely; even at the potter’s wheel, she acts as though already bereaved.

    “Unchained Melody,” of course, is used in that famous scene, and thereafter throughout the film as a leitmotif of – what? Everlasting love? The long and loveless life which Moore will be obliged to live before she sees Swayze again? Being “artistic” yuppies, of course, they have their own custom-built home jukebox (see also Pacino’s unlikely alphabetised library of 45s in Sea Of Love) with non-obvious golden oldies; although the Righteous Brothers recording was a reasonably big hit in both the States and Britain on its original 1966 release, it never really achieved oldies radio rotation status. On our way back from the cinema after seeing Ghost we stopped off at the old Tower Records in Piccadilly. Thumbing through their singles section – for yes, once upon a time there were sections for 45 rpm seven-inch singles in record shops – we found one copy of “Unchained Melody” on the Old Gold label, looked at each other and knew this was going to be number one forever.

    “Unchained Melody,” with its panorama of quivering yet noble expectation of long-distance spiritual reunion (and subtle carnal reunion – “Lonely rivers flow to the sea” etc.), is a song which more than most depends on the performance that it is given. The 1955 spring charts were crammed to bursting with different recordings of the song – Jimmy Young, who had the number one, sings it stoutly from a Two-Way Family Favourites perspective; the soldier serving abroad, the war memories still bitingly fresh. Al Hibbler’s reading (USA #1, UK #2) was the pick, his baritone’s tingling sensuality immediately picking up on the song’s real subtext. The Goons’ recording was perhaps far more indicative of war damage than the staunch Jimmy Young; here Milligan and Sellers are ageing buskers, a two-man band atonally bashing out what they think is the song, somewhere in the forlorn pavements of pre-hip Shoreditch High Street, trying and miserably failing to keep up with the times (“Swing them traps!”) but always falling back into the past (they end up singing the 1928 music hall ditty “I Played Me Ukulele As The Ship Went Down”) with resolutely out-of-tune jangling piano, Last Post trumpet and drumming angular enough to give Tony Oxley a headache.

    The greatest straight recording, however, was that of Roy Hamilton, a black singer with an immense technical and emotional vocal range to whom even Elvis looked up but who failed to see his fortieth birthday, and his “Unchained Melody” was the template for the Righteous Brothers’ recording. It was one of many standards which the Brothers and Spector revisited and interpreted in their peak period (see also “Ebb Tide,” “White Cliffs Of Dover,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” etc.) and although their “Unchained” doesn’t quite equal the near-unholy climactic power of “Ebb Tide” in particular, it is nevertheless a fine record due to Jack Nitzsche’s typically regal arrangement, Spector’s gulley-vaulting production and an uncanny vocal from Bobby Hatfield – although credited to the duo, “Unchained” (as with “Ebb Tide”) is a solo Hatfield performance; but then again, at least for its first two verses, Bill Medley has “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” pretty much to himself – with its apparent Aaron Neville influence (his first “I” in “I need your love” spinning out to eight short syllables followed by one, yearning long syllable), his low bow to God on the “God” of the first “God speed your love,” and his towering falsetto of “need” following a more frantic, four-syllable “I” in the final verse. It is as though without imminent spiritual and physical contact, he will crumble.

    Fittingly the reissued “Unchained” featured on its B-side the Righteous Brothers’ greatest recording, “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” produced by Medley rather than Spector and a performance of unfeasibly, near-inhuman candid and volcanic intensity which makes “Lovin’ Feelin'” (which it actually outsold in America) seem like “Seven Little Girls Sitting In The Back Seat” in comparison. But this naked soul far outdoes its misuse in a polite, yea-saying piece of family entertainment like Ghost. The latter promises eventual resolution and eternal life, as tawdry and transient as Swayze’s ghastly grin at the end, whereas records like “Unchained Melody” and “Soul And Inspiration” take titanic hammers to the wall of death and try to demolish it forever. “Unchained Melody” became 1990’s best-selling single, but perhaps for the wrong reasons – and the two “interpretations” of the song which Popular has yet to consider would seem to confirm this. I await Lynch’s use of the Righteous Brothers with no small degree of awe.

  6. 6
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #4 interesting! I actually edited an “untypically” out of the “knows when to get out of the way” comment – so it’s quite possible I’ve given him far too much credit here.

  7. 7
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #4, ouch! If she was such a fantasist and liar, she’d have told you it was *her* that produced it!

    #8 – OK, so what you are saying is that she maybe didnt play bass on this either, so wouldn’t know who produced it? Or that she’s got a lousy memory?

    #9 Hey, I can answer things backwards! Cool.

  8. 8
    Andrew Hickey on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Mark – google ‘Carol Kaye James Jamerson’ and make up your own mind…

  9. 9
    punctum on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Assertions such as “(Carol) Kaye is notorious as a fantasist and liar” should either be backed up with tangible evidence or left to the dark world of deprived conspiracy theorists or internet messageboard inadequates (which a quick Google search confirms to be the case).

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #2 Watch: A week of Gazza & Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog On The Tyne (Revisited)’ followed by a week for Kim Appleby’s ‘Don’t Worry’ – another bereavement record, though you couldn’t call it spectral in any way.

  11. 11
    Andrew Hickey on 7 Feb 2011 #

    punctum – without wanting to derail this, here#s tangible evidence http://www.bassland.net/bh1.htm . An affidavit signed by Brian Holland (writer/producer of the tracks) that James Jamerson played on ten songs, for which he has *always* been credited, and about which nobody other than Kaye has ever said anyone else played the bass part. Kaye to this day insists, despite all documentary evidence (and despite it not even sounding like her playing – Jamerson played with his fingers, she plays with a pick) that she played on those records. Nobody else has *ever* backed her up on this, she has provided *no* evidence at all, and all the evidence (tape boxes with recording sessions listed at the time, musicians union contracts for the dates in question) goes against her.
    If anyone’s a conspiracy theorist, it’s Kaye, because she’s alleging that the Funk Brothers, all Motown historians, several of her LA session colleagues, Stevie Wonder, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Smokey Robinson and more are all deliberately lying about her involvement in a lot of hit records and giving credit to someone else.

  12. 12
    swanstep on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Great record of a deserved, standard song – 8 or 9 easy, although I dare say that when you *first* hear it, it’s so giddy-making that absolute top marks would probably be consensus if everyone were asked to vote in their first flush stage!

    To Punctum’s ‘spooky retro’ pantheon that was big at the time I’d add Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions versions of Sweet Jane and Blue Moon. Have those songs too been Cowellized?

    As for the film, I think it may be a little better than people here are giving it credit for. It’s harder to make an efficient weepy thriller than it looks (just as it’s harder to write an Unchained melody than it looks) – Hollywood would remake Ghost every year if it could. The script for Ghost was by one Bruce Joel Rubin, who had a very good 1990. He’d shopped two death-centered scripts around Hollywood for a number of years before suddenly getting hot and having both produced almost at the same time. His second script was for Jacob’s Ladder which came out in November 1990 in the US and was genuinely creepy and upsetting (Jacob’s Ladder has been a big influence on horror video games, and anticipated the look of stuff like Se7en, but otherwise seems to have been largely forgotten), and with Gulf War I brewing its sub-themes about cover-ups of defense dept experimentation on soldiers struck a bit close to home in the US too.

  13. 13
    David Belbin on 7 Feb 2011 #

    I first heard this song on a Phil Spector’s greatest hits comp around 1973. It didn’t entirely belong, perhaps for the reasons Andrew gives at number 4, but also because it felt like a much older song. I fell in love with it, though, ten years later, when Joni Mitchell released her cover as a medley with an original song ‘Chinese Cafe’, by far the stand-out track on the ‘Wild Things Run Fast’ album. It is one of Joni’s very best later period songs, the second (after ‘Little Green’ on ‘Blue’) to refer to the child she gave away for adoption(and was not reunited with until quite recently. Her use of ‘Unchained Melody’ to evoke the romanticism of youth is sublime, and this remains my favourite version.

  14. 14
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Things I never knew before I looked on Wikipedia number one million: it’s called Unchained Melody because – duh – it’s from a fillum called Unchained. Kind of makes it less poetic a title TBH.

  15. 15
    lonepilgrim on 7 Feb 2011 #

    somehow, given it’s intimations of eternity in both lyric and mood, it seems appropriate that this song should appear at number 1 in 1990 like Brigadoon. As Marcello has indicated it was a haunted year for popular culture.
    It somehow seems an appropriate soundtrack for the political drama that was unfolding at the time with the Conservative party conspiring to dispatch Margaret Thatcher – although her departure coincided with the next number 1. I can imagine her listening to this on a scratchy gramophone shrouded in cobwebs like Miss Haversham. Another ghost that continues to haunt us.

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 7 Feb 2011 #

    …oh, and another vote for Joni Mitchell’s use of the song in ‘Chinese Cafe’

  17. 17
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #14, damn, I was going to put that in at #3, but then I thought “ach, they all know this”…

  18. 18

    Are they even ghosts that don’t continue to haunt?

    (= “Where does my headache go when it goes away?” I guess)

  19. 19
    enitharmon on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Well yes, Unchained was the film I was referring to at #2. I’m pretty sure I also mentioned it ages ago, in the entry for Jimmy Young’s version.

    (Although now that I look I think that must have been in a Haloscan comment, or even the system in use before Haloscan.)

  20. 20
    MikeMCSG on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Oh dear. dog in the manger time again. I don’t like the song in any of its versions I think because it seems to be promising a big “You’ll Never Walk Alone” type chorus and then doesn’t deliver it. And I hate Hatfield’s yowling vocal; maybe I’m just uncomfortable with bare-wired emoting.

    I did like “Twin Peaks” while agreeing with DJP that it outstayed its welcome. Surely the best-looking cast (M & F) ever assembled for a TV series.

  21. 21
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #20 pretty sure everyone thinks TP went on too long – though even the weakest season 2 episodes were watchable and had ideas, even if they increasingly seemed like ideas’ for ideas’ sake. Loved the final episode, though.

  22. 22
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Well, I didn’t get into it until about halfway through, so I’m glad it ran for as long as it did.

    I’m sure everyone’s more pleased the latter series existed more than didn’t.

  23. 23
    MikeMCSG on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #21 “Loved the final episode, though”

    Hmmm. I thought it was OK. I liked the idea that Bob’s evil trumped that of Wyndham Earle who I thought was a bit superfluous to proceedings but again the curtains sequence went on too long.

    This must be a cue for DJP to compare and contrast wth the last episode of “The Prisoner” ?

  24. 24
    DietMondrian on 7 Feb 2011 #

    @12 – Jacob’s Ladder gives me the absolute flipping creeps. It’s a shame it’s so little regarded.

    @21 and others – agreed that Twin Peaks dragged on a bit, but I’d still rather watch one of its slow second season episodes than about 99 per cent of everything else that’s ever been on the telly.

    I can’t stand Unchained Melody, though. The little part of me that wants to destroy the passer by gets absolutely furious on hearing it.

  25. 25
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Well, that had a definite ending.

    The TP one was more an inconclusive conclusion…

  26. 26
    MikeMCSG on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Thinking back I seem to remember that in the last, execrable (I loved the programme as a whole) series of “Dallas” which was running (if that’s the right word) at this time there was a scene where Bobby and another character start dissing TP for no good reason. This must have been uncomfortable for his screenson who was in both series.

  27. 27
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Was Bobby complaining they’d done all that freaky dream shit years ago?

  28. 28
    punctum on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #23: I believe Lynch originally wanted TP to be just a seven-part mini-series but ABC wanted a full season for syndication purposes. It was the same story with Lew Grade and The Prisoner, although I still think that the full 17-episode run of the latter has a cumulatively numbing power of its own, even the relatively boring episodes (e.g. the one with Derren Nesbitt as Number 2, who looks the spitting image of Joe 90 but doesn’t quite have the latter’s acting versatility).

  29. 29

    Yes, I seem to remember Lynch saying that they were scripting TP from ep to ep as if it was going to be cancelled forthwith, never knowing (or caring) how the original whodunnit played out — and their employees kept on asking for more, so they had to resolve more than they meant to. I always quite liked the backwards-soundtrack stuff — my sister had done some in her graduation film-school film, and we both got quite good at mimicking it to make each other giggle.

    I still have the whole lot on home-taped video, if the plastic hasn’t turned back to air and dust.

  30. 30
    MikeMCSG on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #27 I might not have the context absolutely correct but I think Bobby was rather creepily courting a much younger girl in the hope of extracting the whereabouts of her mother ( a terrorist who’d been responsible for the death of his new wife on their honeymoon), and he appeared on her campus. A film student friend of hers came up and started pitching his idea for a series based on a lady who talked to a log and Bobby laughingly put him down.

    Funny that the very last episode of Dallas featured a demonic character and a parallel universe.

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