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May 11

GEORGE MICHAEL AND ELTON JOHN – “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”

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#671, 7th December 1991

There are fantastic number one records which are over and done with in two minutes thirty, which is how long “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” takes to hit its chorus. A streamroller chorus, to be sure, given a chest-thumping delivery, but it’s near impossible to care. George Michael at this point was a defensive, self-conscious sort of pop star. He was all-too aware he’d been a teen idol, desperate to be part of the pop establishment at the exact point – poor George! – when that establishment was going ironic or weird or getting cold feet about the half-decade of wholemeal soul-pop it had just served up. He’d catch up in the end, but meanwhile this is a grim trudge of a single: you can hardly hear the song through the sound of mutually slapped backs.

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  1. 91
    vinylscot on 2 Jun 2011 #

    That version of Dick Around is enough – the album version is 6 minutes 35 seconds long – about twice as long as it needed to be. Many of their songs on the last two albums have suffered similarly. Producing themselves has unfortunately allowed them to become too self-indulgent, and their quality control faculties have never been the best.

    For every “Dick Around” there’s a “Very Next Fight”…. or the turgid “Rock Rock Rock”…. or the terrible, hackneyed “Metaphor”.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that “Lil Beethoven” may have been a fluke – a sort of “dead cat bounce”. I hope they prove me wrong.

  2. 92

    Hazel Robinson of this parish or somewhere very near it pointed me first to “Dick Around” — which I instantly adored — and then the whole of “Hello Young Lovers”, which she correctly noted was (a) great and (b) something I would totally love.

    Hadn’t heard anything by — or ever thought of — Sparks since “Number One in Heaven” (which was one of my favourite LPs at the time it came out): I knew of but had never heard any of the 70s stuff except “Town Ain’t Big Enough”. I was taken aback they still existed.

    I don’t hear the decline you do, in the sense that none of the 70s stuff has struck me as obviously better than “HYL” or “N1iH” yet, but I’m enjoying it all — and obviously taking it all in in one huge vast gulp, pretty much.

    But basically “Hello Young Lovers” made me check out 40 years worth of a band’s back catalogue, which really doesn’t happen very often.

  3. 93
    Ed on 3 Jun 2011 #

    @84 Ageing as I am, I am always delighted to hear evidence that decline is not inevitable. But “it’s not at all the only pattern in jazz” is no more than half-true, is it?

    My knowledge is pretty patchy, I admit, but Miles Davis and Sun Ra were clearly past their (spectacularly high) artistic peaks when they died. Parker, Mingus, Ayler and Coltrane all count as untimely deaths, and we cannot know how their music would have changed. Coleman has stayed interesting, but in that company he looks more like the exception than the rule.

    Composed music, I will give you. I don’t think I am going to be able to make the argument that Mozart and Beethoven were past it by the time they went on stage at the great gig in the sky.

  4. 94
    swanstep on 3 Jun 2011 #

    @ed, 93. In painting, the Beethoven path of getting more and more radical and interesting the later you go is quite common: Turner, Goya, Rembrandt, and even people today such as Naumann and Keifer seem to get better and better.

    In film scores, Herrmann probably never topped his late 1950s/early 1960s work for Hitchcock but his Taxi Driver score (1975) is the equal of that stuff, and, amazingly, Herrmann conducted the final recording sessions for that score the night before his death.

    Lastly, Philosophy has one notable late bloomer: Kant. Didn’t do anything that great until he was 57, and after that it was 20 years of manic productivity (and whole academic sub-industries are devoted to arguing that it’s only in the light of items produced ever closer to Kant’s death at 79 that one can really make sense of the stuff he published in his late 50s and early 60s). Yee haw.

  5. 95
    swanstep on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Oops, that should be ‘Nauman and Kiefer’.

  6. 96

    Well I did say “autumnal”: I cannot deny that even jazz musicians are mortal, and that old people are often ill before they die, and (unless we’re cut down early) winter faces us all one grim day — but the “best before 35” assumption need not be universal, and there seem to be musics for which the “late mature” period really is arguably the best.

  7. 97
    Mark G on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Well, I remember Davy Graham saying something to the effect that his heroes were people like Segovia, and that those people only did their best and most noted stuff after decades of playing and practicing.

    Which is unfortunate, seeing as how his “Anji” was side 1, track 1 of his first (e.p) record.

  8. 98

    There was a Nemi cartoon about this in the Metro only two days ago.

  9. 99
    thefatgit on 3 Jun 2011 #

    #96, I humbly offer Seasick Steve as an example.

  10. 100
    AndyPandy on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Isn’t pop music the exception to the rule? because as Lord says “yes we all die, some earlier than others” and so more of us are alive in our 20s, 30s 40s than later on which therefore equates to more great work being produced at those ages purely because more people are working then.
    But of course this debate returns us to the thorny issue of whether most pop/rock music is ever true art anyway ie are image,looks, youth and beauty as important as what is actually produced…

    but as far as those who survive in reasonable health great work can be produced at just about any age – just of the top of my head I can think of Haydn still producing great works (and still being ridiculously prolific)into his mid-80s, Thomas Hardy still writing great poetry into his mid-80s (with no real fall off in quality until he became unwell and stopped a few months before his death) indeed he didnt even start writing poetry seriously until he was aged 55-60 and in the subsequent 30 years staked out as good as reputation in that field as he had previously with his novels.

    As has been mentioned Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Shelley, and hundreds of others can’t prove the theory as they were long gone when any such later work would have been created…it also makes you wonder just what wonderful works we were deprived of by their early/relatively early deaths…

  11. 101
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Well, we’ve certainly all tended to internalise the idea that pop must work differently. And I imagine plenty of people actually go into it like sports, on the assumption that it’s about a few fast busy bright years and then out to pasture and run a pub, or whatever. But I wonder if it isn’t only a “truth of pop” if you unconsciously frontload your definition to exclude the people it isn’t true of…

  12. 102
    Cumbrian on 3 Jun 2011 #

    #101: The problem with comparing sports and pop in this particular sense (not that you have – I’m referring to the hypothetical practioner you raise in your second sentence) is that for pop, it seems that it is the expectation of decline that is seemingly built in. In sports, the decline is not expectation; it is a fact – as ability deteriorates with age (your eye goes, your not quite as strong as someone in their mid-20s, continued exertion over a prolonged period leads to a greater propensity to injury, etc), so you always have to plan for the decline. Planning for the decline in pop seems like it will be self fulfilling to me.

    I can’t think of a cogent reason why “pop is a young person’s game” should be a truism. Not only is it potentially the case that it is a truth of pop only if you frontload the definition but also it may be that the pop consumer is more likely to look for the new and unexpected and thus start to ignore the older performer whose ability is taken as a given.

  13. 103
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Someone should write a history of pop drug abuse arising out of pain-killer addiction: dancers like Michael Jackson and James Brown almost certainly did themselves irreparable physical injury when young, the management of which would possibly have serious impact later…

  14. 104
    Ed on 4 Jun 2011 #

    @96 I like the sound of having a “late mature” peak. Davis was in his 40s when he did his best work, Sun Ra in his 50s and 60s, so I see your point.

  15. 105
    weej on 4 Jun 2011 #

    I’d like to suggest Robert Wyatt as a candidate for never going into decline. Though he’s hardly pop he’s been consistently brilliant at what he does for about 45 years.

  16. 106
    Ed on 4 Jun 2011 #

    @105 Yes: Wyatt was one of the ones that I was thinking of. But although his stuff remains great, his absolute pinnacle was in the 70s, wasn’t it?

    I guess I would be more convinced by the unconscious frontloading argument if I could be shown a handful of pop / rock artists who were *better* after 35 than before it. Any takers?

  17. 107
    weej on 4 Jun 2011 #

    My overly extended highlights package would comprise the first three Soft Machine albums (68-70), Matching Mole’s first album (72), Rock Bottom (74), Nothing Can Stop Us (82), Shleep (97) and Cuckooland (03), which may look a bit 70s heavy until you factor in my least favourite albums, The End Of An Ear (70) and Matching Mole’s Little Red Record (72) – If anything I’d say he’s got more consistent over the years, if a little less productive.
    All of his contemporaries seemed to follow the usual pattern, though, most annoyingly Kevin Ayers, who had a near 100% hit rate until about 74-75, and then nothing particularly interesting from then on.

  18. 108
    Izzy on 4 Jun 2011 #

    #106: that’s a great question! I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head – Jarvis Cocker or Fleetwood Mac’s rhythm section are as close as I can get. Maybe LCD Soundsystem, I don’t know what age he is but he seems kind of jaded.

    There must be some, though – there are enough artists who’ve flourished way past 35 and there must be many peaks among them. I wonder whether we’re getting sample bias here simply because pop’s fundamentally a genre for young people – we judge its peaks by zeitgeist-catching, anthems or danceability, mostly, which are things only young people really need. So obviously things *by* young people are going to appeal most. It’d be slightly sad for mature artists to be trying for those things when they and their peer group have different needs and tastes – maybe Dylan’s most recent work or, I don’t know, David Byrne’s artwork or Nile Rodgers’ production duties are their real peaks, and your question presupposes the wrong criteria?

  19. 109

    “pop’s fundamentally a genre for young people” — it’s become this, but was it always?

  20. 110
    Wheedly on 4 Jun 2011 #

    #106 Sticking strictly to 35 and up makes it really tough. Being a little looser, it’s easier to think of a number of singer-songwritery folks who did great work (whether their greatest work is always going to be subjective) in their thirties: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Fred Neil and Tom Waits sprung to mind, and there must be others. Indeed, Paul Simon was still consistently excellent in his forties, and is still occasionally so now.
    All of them were slightly younger than 35 when they made my personal favourites though.
    Oh, and Sinatra was 38 at the start of his Capitol contract, I think.

  21. 111
    Alfred on 4 Jun 2011 #

    Robert Forster, DJ Quik, Ghostface, and, of course, Dylan are all at their peak of their powers.

  22. 112

    Sinatra’s interesting because I think he highlights the issue of circular definition: is his Capitol work “pop”? And if we’re saying not, are we saying not simply because audience-wise it’s not on the face of it “young persons’ music”. What about Franco? Googoosh? Lata Mangeshkar? Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?

  23. 113
    Cumbrian on 4 Jun 2011 #

    35 being the cut off is quite stringent. Obviously, this is heavily my opinion – but Wayne Coyne’s best work with Flaming Lips is all post him turning 35 (and Clouds Taste Metallic is from when he was 33 or 34). Certainly this stuff mostly comprises their more commercially successful work (and is more to my taste than their early stuff).

    I couldn’t think of much else off the top of my head. XTRMNTR by Primal Scream was released after many of the key players’ 35th birthdays (though I would imagine the quality of this record is up for debate – I personally rate it highly but can definitely see that not being a consensus opinion). It also not really a standard that they’ve kept up, so debatable whether their best work in general was produced post 35.

  24. 114
    Ed on 5 Jun 2011 #

    @110 and @113: Yes, a couple I thought might get in there don’t, quite. Joni Mitchell was 32-33 for ‘THOSL’ and ‘Hejira’. Neil Tennant was 32-34 during the PSBs’ imperial phase.

    It’s easier if you get away from performers. Brian Higgins of Xenomania and SAW were post-35 for their imperial phases, or at least S and W were.

    @108 and @112: The demographics and playlist for Radio 2 surely suggest that even for a quite tightly defined category of modern Anglo-American pop/rock, its audience is not just young people. Another question, which you would probably need ESRC funding to answer: what is the average age of the performers compared to the audience for pop radio? And how has that relationship changed over time?

  25. 115
    Wheedly on 5 Jun 2011 #

    It’s easier for singer-songwriters and solo artists, I think, to carry their audiences with them into their thirties and for them to retain a creative drive forwards. I imagine that, as an example, the majority of fans of an artist like Aimee Mann would be about her age and that Mann is unlikely to be picking up new young fans at this point in her career.
    Bands tend to be hamstrung by the peculiar dynamics that go on within bands – all the internal compromises and jealousies and insecurities; the members’ tastes and sensibilities drifting apart; the divisive effects that overbearing labels and producers can bring to the fray. I’d argue that, at least in today’s industry, a band that survives three album cycles of all that (each lasting two to three years, and before all that a year or so of slogging around before beginning work on a first release) is actually doing rather well in terms of longevity. Given that it’s unusual for labels to sign new bands not in their 20s (it happens, but not often), it becomes inevitable that comparatively few of them will reach their thirties still in the group they started off in.

  26. 116
    wichita lineman on 5 Jun 2011 #

    Re 114: Brian Higgins’ imperial phase was more down to his chosen engineers/workhorses Tim Powell (in his early-mid 20s) and Nick Coler… who was in his 40s. Doesn’t prove or disprove the theory, then, but I thought I’d give them their due.

  27. 117
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2011 #

    It’s all about the kid in the window.

    The back-stage workers have usually been ‘older’ (cf: The Reynolds girls “the DJ at the radio station is almost always twice the age of me” – yes and the person writing the song is twice the age of the DJ)

    Still, what is “pop”, as can you really mean Paul Simon, Robt Wyatt, Dylan, etc? But then again, without calling them “rock”, what category can you give them?

  28. 118
    Wheedly on 6 Jun 2011 #

    #117, well, a musicological explanation of pop would always be unsatisfactory and subject to change on almost a weekly basis, but at bottom isn’t pop just song- or dance-based music that sells?
    Paul Simon has had UK and US number-one singles, and albums, as both a solo act and as part of Simon & Garfunkel. S&G’s greatest hits sold 14 million copies in the US alone. Fourteen million copies.
    Sure, he’s not Lady Gaga, and his sound may not be the defining sound of top-40 radio, but that’s a cultural reach that few artists can dream of.
    Wyatt I suppose would be harder to describe as a pop artist, but Simon and Dylan (tens of millions of albums sold, 7 UK number-one albums, 5 US number-one albums, four US top-ten singles) are surely pop musicians.

  29. 119
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Yeah, but the remit/question is “which pop artists are still in their prime, after the age of 35” ?

    They have great back-catalogue and chart hit stats, back when they *were* pop. now, they sell albums but don’t have chart singles.

    So. *Are* they still pop musicians? Well, inasmuch as they aren’t ‘classical’, but then these boundaries have changed so much since the sixties, in that the ‘classic artist’ fulfils the role that ‘classical music’ used to, i.e. make ‘highbrow’ albums…

  30. 120
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    There is such a thing as “adult pop” but in the UK that has been demographically sidelined by youth-obsessed radio programmers to such an extent that the singles chart is now governed by Logan’s Run rules. Even if an act is under thirty, they are unlikely to appear anywhere unless they are Cowell, Brit School, Glee or club banger-related.

    The radio stations in Britain which should be playing and focusing on this music seemingly prefer to concentrate on safe, same-200-oldies computer playlisting (Heart, Magic) or old indie (6Music) or quixotic selections of unsellable rubbish as long as the head of music likes it (Radio 2 – every time the quality of a show audibly dips when the DJ has to play something from their playlist, usually a variant of Quirky Woman or Sensitive MoR Country Woman or This’ll Do ‘Til Amy Sorts Her Act Out Woman or Hornby-Approved Sensitive Man. Other than that, we have the spectacle of a publicly funded radio station who still want us to think that “Brown Eyed Girl” was a hit and Abba only ever made five singles).

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