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Feb 11

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS – “Unchained Melody”

Popular107 comments • 13,681 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. 61
    Jimmy the Swede on 9 Feb 2011 #

    MC (#23) – I never noticed the Derren Nesbit/Joe 90 thing before in “It’s Your Funeral” but do you know something, you’re absolutely right. When Number Six bursts in to the Green Dome to try to tell Derren that the “little watch maker” was going to blow him up, Nesbit does indeed start nodding like a Gerry Anderson puppet. It’s hilarious. As indeed is the watch maker’s hammy over-acting and cod German accent: “MUSHT GET ON WIT MY VERK!! MUSHT GET ON WIT MY VERK!!” Annette Andre is still lovely, though, even though she has often stated that Mcgoohan treated her like shit throughout the whole shoot.

    The new “Dallas” will only work if it is played out as a comedy. Surely a part can be found for Texan born Peri Gilpin somewhere? If I had a say, I’d bring my personal favourite Daniela Denby-Ashe over to play a femme fatale as she did to such great horny effect in “Torchwood”. But that’s just the Swede being pervy and sad.

  2. 62
    punctum on 9 Feb 2011 #

    Nesbitt’s performance really does radiate the message: “Please do not give me any major acting work ever again.” Easily the worst Number 2 (the Number 2 of 2s, so to speak).

  3. 63

    “he told me that he had just completed filming on the new Ray Winstone thriller The Hot Potato

  4. 64
    Jimmy the Swede on 9 Feb 2011 #

    # 62 – He was certainly the Number 2 one would have fancied one’s chances against above all the others. The next time I noticed Derren was in the eighties when he and some serious-looking woman were trying to clobber Tony Robinson in an episode of “Bergerac”. At least he’d stopped nodding by then.

  5. 65

    In Where Eagles Dare he needed R.Burton, C.Eastwood *and* M.Ure (in a tight ski sweater) to foil his dastardly plans. Effective villainy is not about eloquent monologues you know.

  6. 66
    Jimmy the Swede on 9 Feb 2011 #

    That’s perfectly true, Mark. The other side of the same coin, though, is that effective villainy is surely compromised by acting performances which are not meant to be funny but are. I’m sure that Mr Nesbitt turned in many fine performances over a long career but his Number 2 was not his greatest hour in what was supposed to be a drama.

  7. 67
    wichita lineman on 9 Feb 2011 #

    Derren Nesbitt is the cinematic equivalent of Heinz.

    Mary Ure is the cinematic equivalent of Jackie de Shannon. Dear Mary Ure.

  8. 68

    “You laughed when I ordered red wine with fish, but who’s on his knees now?”

    (Not a good example of villainy actually, because he monologued instead of letting fly, but people finding you amusing = lulled into a false sense of security…)

    (I have been researching the history of the male blond bubblecut as a signifier of EVIL HAIR)

  9. 69

    wine/fish lines spoken by Mr Mary Ure, come to think of it!

  10. 70
    wichita lineman on 9 Feb 2011 #

    Here is ‘Evil Hair’ Nesbitt’s strongest link to Popular . Theme tune by The Scaffold. I have no memory of it – mind you, I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have encouraged me to watch a programme about graverobbing murderers when I was 7. Besides, it also starred Francoise Pascal and Yutte Stensgaard, the combination of which might have blown my tiny mind.

  11. 71

    “graverobbing murderers” = this business model seems flawed in terms of necessary workload

  12. 72
    MikeMCSG on 9 Feb 2011 #

    # 67 Don’t diss Heinz – he played on one of the greatest singles of any era and compared to some of the muppets of our own time (Jason Orange, Posh Spice) he was multi-talented.

  13. 73
    wichita lineman on 9 Feb 2011 #

    Well, iirc they started as graverobbers and ended up as murderers to lighten their workload. I haven’t bothered watching the show to see if Nesbitt is Burke or Hare or Mulligan or O’Hare.

    On a ridiculous tangent, I’m shocked to find next to to nothing on Millican and Nesbitt on the internet. Not a single clip on youtube. Erased from history! From memory, they looked about 65.

    Re 72: obv I have a ton of his 45s, beyond Telstar, and some of them are phenomenal (I’m Not A Bad Guy, Big Fat Spider, and world cup winner Questions I Can’t Answer) but may I suggest it wasn’t Eastleigh’s favourite son who was the magic ingredient on any of them?

  14. 74
    Erithian on 9 Feb 2011 #

    – and as recorded elsewhere on these pages, Heinz once had Dr Feelgood as his backing band!

  15. 75
    MikeMCSG on 9 Feb 2011 #

    # 73 Fair comment but those people were happy enough to work with him even when it was clear he wasn’t going to sustain his success.

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 82
    punctum on 10 Feb 2011 #

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

    Blimey!

  23. 83
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Feb 2011 #

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

    And he probably would have…

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.”

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 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).

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