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Feb 11

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS – “Unchained Melody”

Popular107 comments • 13,781 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. 31

    their employERS I mean

  2. 32
    DietMondrian on 7 Feb 2011 #

    It seems wrong to me that Dallas and Twin Peaks could have been in production at the same time. The former seems so much of an earlier age, whereas Twin Peaks ushered in a new one.

  3. 33
    punctum on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Did it, though? There were a few subsequent series with the mannerisms of TP but no subversion beneath (Northern Exposure, anyone?).

  4. 34
    Tom on 7 Feb 2011 #

    I have a bad feeling that the era TP helped usher in – by its immediate success and then slow mainstream failure – is the era of ghettoised ‘cult TV’.

    Where’s PROFESSOR TV Billy Smart to drive a coach and horses through some of these arguments?

  5. 35

    Twin Peaks end broadcast mid-1991; The X-Files begins broadcast end 1993: the latter is certainly well in the former’s slipstream, but far more comforting than it was unsettling. (“The truth is out there” versus “The truth will make no imaginable sense to you”…)

  6. 36
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Kind of implies that there is a truth.

    The one that *you* are being protected from by Buffy.

  7. 37
    MikeMCSG on 7 Feb 2011 #

    # 32 Well as I said, that last series of Dallas was excrutiating; the cast were deserting in droves and yes it did seem well out of its time. BBC1 realised what a dog it was and put it into the Last Of The Summer Wine Sunday teatime slot.

  8. 38

    Actually my lovely beloved “Roswell High” may come closest, though that didn’t arrive till 1999. The episode where the Roswell crash museum is compared to the Ann Frank museum (while William Shatner no less opens the 50th anniversary festival* dedicated to the crash as backdrop) is some of the most jawdroppingly WTF TV I ever watched in kiddie-broadcast hours

    *(This festival — inc. Shatner’s presence — being an actual real event filmed in real time by the people making the series, to cut into the action…)

    Fair enough Mike, but one is Truth in the Asimov/Arthur C. Clarke sense — will seem like amazing magic but is explicable — and the other is Truth in the Lovecraftian sense, of screaming till your face falls off.

  9. 39

    “screaming till your ace falls off” is truth in the sylvester mccoy sense (typo since corrected)

  10. 40
    punctum on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Do we think there will be any magic realism or indeed Sylvester McCoy in the new Dallas series that is currently being put together?

  11. 41

    Soaps with ghosts are surprisingly common — I found this out ilx back in the day. Soaps with deliberately non-signifying conventions less so.

  12. 42
    wichita lineman on 7 Feb 2011 #

    Gosh, I’m late on this one. Bill Medley’s writing, producing and arranging chops are proven by this fabulous record , though I’m inclined to think Unchained Melody does sound like the work of Jack Nitszche.

    “I’ve hungered for your touch” is, I think, one of the greatest lines in all pop. Cowell cannot diminish it.

    Has anybody actually seen Unchained? Apparently it stars Elroy ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch as a hungering convict.

  13. 43
    Kat but logged out innit on 7 Feb 2011 #

    #41 in 2004 there was no Hollyoaks character that was not a ghost! Then they paradoxically killed them all off…

  14. 44
    lonepilgrim on 7 Feb 2011 #

    I’m sure that I read that Lynch was pressurised by the studios to reveal ‘who killed Laura Palmer’ – when he would have preferred to keep it a mystery. Episode 1 of Series 2 is one of my favourites.

    more subversive still is ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with me’ which tellingly begins with a TV being smashed

  15. 45
    anto on 7 Feb 2011 #

    This ones moved into interesting digressions very early on –
    affadavits, David Lynch and the last days of Southfork.Unchained is the right word.
    It took me a while to really appreciate the song. Punctum made a smart point about it’s reputation having really grown in the 20 years since rather than the 20 years before this. It’s one example of a number one which was unequivally not for kids. I’ve never seen Ghost and at the time it felt a bit like Unchained Melody was being foisted upon us.
    Now I can hear the wonder of it. There is a touch of androgyny about Bobby Hatfields voice and the lyrics are ungendered so in that’s another way in.

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 7 Feb 2011 #

    The Righteous Brothers…the BLOODY RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS!

    At the time this reached #1, I was pleased that a record from the year of my birth had been embraced by a new generation, albeit they were influenced by the erotic juxtaposition of fingers and wet clay. And then…I thought little more about it. At this time, I was soaking up the techno and the new hip-hop influenced “ragga” stuff that David Rodigan was playing alongside dub and roots reggae.

    Fast-forward to 1996 and my wedding. The DJ at my reception played “Unchained Melody” as the First Dance record. The DJ was a work colleague, who did weddings and parties as a sideline. I got him on mates rates. “Unchained Melody” hadn’t been my choice as the 1st song I would dance to with my new bride. We had discussed a few choices between us and agreed that an uptempo or dancey song might get the party started. I don’t remember all the choices we submitted, but one that stuck out was Bryan Adams’ “Summer Of 69”. I submitted the list to him at work before the big day. Imagine my surprise, when we walked out to an empty dancefloor hand in hand, as the opening bars of “Unchained Melody” strike up from the speakers. My Bride looked at me quizzically. “Oh, this is so cheesy”. I flashed a pained look at the DJ. He responded with a broad grin and a shrug of his shoulders. So to all the family and friends present, this had somehow been interpreted as our song (just as well it hadn’t been the tainted bunnyable version).

    What struck me like a bolt of lightning, whilst reading Tom’s essay was his mention of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. At the point where our marriage was about to become a 1 in 3 statistic, I had heard this on Radio 2, and there it stayed in my head, after I learned the awful truth of my wife’s infidelity. A marriage parenthesised by The Righteous Brothers’ two most popular hits. In hindsight, however I prefer to remember my marriage to be parenthesised by Erik Satie; Gymnopedie #1 at the beginning, Gnossienne #1 at the end. No lyrics to wound, but wistful thoughts remain.

  17. 47
    DanielW on 8 Feb 2011 #

    Yes, Twin Peaks was excellent wasn’t it? It’s one of those TV shows/films that make you wish you could jump into the screen and cross some magical reality barrier and actually live there.

    The 16-year old me knew of the Righteous Brothers through “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” which I loved the first time I heard it, despite going through an ignorant adolescent phase of hating anything more than a decade old. I had never heard of “Unchained Melody” until it’s re-release. It’s a fantastic song and Bobby Hatfield’s performance is superb, just a shame it’s been so brutally bunnyed….

  18. 48
    enitharmon on 8 Feb 2011 #

    Brutality to the song isn’t necessarily a leporine matter, Daniel, as an inspection of the Popular archive for 1955 will confirm.

  19. 49
    enitharmon on 8 Feb 2011 #

    lonepilgrim @ 15

    Can I pick you up on something? If the dates in the No 1s list are correct then it is indeed during the reign of this song at the top. On 22 November to be precise, and I have good reason to remember that date because I was in the US at the time, at mom-in-law’s house in upstate NY, and it was, yes, Thanksgiving Day! Never was Thanksgiving Day more apt as far as I was concerned. I went to bed the night before with the words of Peter Jennings ringing in my ears: “Tonight, British premier Margaret Thatcher is fighting for her political life”. And in the morning I heard the news of her resignation on an AOR radio station that didn’t normally carry news. I burst into a rendering of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning”, quite spontaneously.

    What were you doing when you heard?

  20. 50
    Tom on 8 Feb 2011 #

    #49 I was at home, my friend John was staying over for a few days and we were lazing about in my brother’s room playing on the Atari ST. Obviously we’d been following what was happening so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Mum called upstairs “Thatcher’s gone!” but it still was very obviously a Big Deal and we were very happy.

  21. 51

    I was watching it unfold on TV all day. In the evening my sister and I went to the Scala cinema to see “The Singing Ringing Tree”, a v.odd Czech (?) TV fairytale we had loved as kids. On the way home, B3cky nabbed an Evening Standard newspaper flyer — “Thatcher quits” — which was up on her wall for years, and possibly still is actually. I rang my former colleague C4th C4rr0ll in the US to tell her the excellent news, and started pitching a piece about the whole thing to the Village Voice, which ended up largely being about Goths and witchcraft and wasn’t run, for some reason.

  22. 52
    wichita lineman on 8 Feb 2011 #

    Quite a strong memory of this day. I was at home, I’d met a perky blonde at a club the night before, and we’d spent the day lounging in my flat. We went out and bought a bottle of champagne when we heard the news. We did not break into a chorus of Unchained Melody.

  23. 53
    Ed on 8 Feb 2011 #

    #14: I am unbelievably disappointed to discover that. I had always assumed it was one of those songs where the title described what it was, like ‘Acid Trax’ or ‘Ant Rap’ or ‘That Song About the Midway’ or ‘Only a Northern Song’. Or, indeed, ‘Song for Whoever’.

    I imagined North picking it out on the piano, or maybe humming it to himself, and – possibly slightly awe-struck by what he had just created – saying “That’s UNCHAINED, that is!”

    Which would have been entirely merited. As a demonstration of what can be achieved by sheer melodic loveliness, the arrangement of a line of notes, it is hard to think of anything that can top this.

    #13, #16: On Joni, again, I heard the tune first in ‘Chinese Cafe’, and I would endorse the earlier votes for its heart-rending beauty.

    There are some songs that not even Cowell can kill, and we will meet at least one of them, eventually. For me, this is another.

  24. 54
    will on 8 Feb 2011 #

    I was on the dole living in a dingy bedsit in Swansea and (somewhat appropriately) had just got back from signing on when my girlfriend greeted me with the news. I punched the air, we scraped together our meagre funds and went down the pub to celebrate. I had been waiting half my life to hear the news

  25. 55
    swanstep on 8 Feb 2011 #

    I remember seeing Morrissey on MTV news in the US being all contrarian and acting sorry that Thatchula was dead and expressing some quasi-aesthetic reservations about the manner of her going. Six months later, he last-minute cancelled an evening outdoors concert in Pittsburgh (which was my one real chance to catch him live) because of a late afternoon thunderstorm (which soon passed) and because the arena/bowl was (I shit you not) ‘too close to the railway tracks’. Grrrr.

  26. 56
    Mark M on 9 Feb 2011 #

    We went to the Warehouse (in Leeds) that night to celebrate – I think they did play Margaret On the Guillotine. I do, however, remember my friend Carl being presciently downbeat on the (correct) grounds that the medium-term effect would be that the Tories would win the next election.

  27. 57
    Ed on 9 Feb 2011 #

    *Realises everyone is talking about something else*

    I was working for the BBC, where everyone made a studious effort not to seem jubilant, although I would guess most of them were.

    The most opening rejoicing was over John Sargent looking silly in the “where’s the microphone?” incident. An intimation of his later fame as a national figure of fun.

  28. 58
    swanstep on 9 Feb 2011 #

    And in the Grauniad today:
    Meryl Streep *is* Thatchula

  29. 59
    Ed on 9 Feb 2011 #

    @57 Erm: “The most open rejoicing…”

  30. 60
    MikeMCSG on 9 Feb 2011 #

    I was at work and some guy down the office had a transistor. Although not being of a Left disposition even then, I couldn’t abide her philistinism and it felt like a liberation- more so than the Berlin Wall the year before. If you were a public sector worker you knew you were on her hitlist so it was a case of someone get her before she gets me.

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