Jan 13

TONY DI BART – “The Real Thing”

Popular62 comments • 4,047 views

#706, 7th May 1994

Before reality TV commodified the rags-to-brief-riches pop story, the charts threw out an organic example or two. Here’s one: a bathroom salesman from Buckinghamshire with a bedroom studio, his song riding a remix to fleeting glory. Within a few months of hitting number one, Tony Di Bart was shorthand for facelessness – as the stars fell into eclipse, would pop be taken over by herds of such worthy, ordinary try-hards?

But rather than a sign of ill-health, “The Real Thing” may just have been the charts working smoothly – a brokerage for clashing networks. When people talk about “fragmentation” – which they did in the 90s, though not quite as much as now – what they’re diagnosing isn’t the eternal separation of tastes: people like different stuff, surprise! It’s more a fragmentation of distribution, scenes building knowledge systems which bypassed one another. Radio 1 (itself in shock from listener bleed as it abandoned its cross-generational mission); commercial radio; the University and indie circuit; mainstream clubland and a mess of party undergrounds.

These overlapping systems have always been with us too, so I think “fragmentation” is what it feels like when their hierarchy is upset and shifting, which it certainly was in the early 90s. If you don’t understand the channels through which things become popular, their popularity might start seeming random, threatening almost.

And so, Tony Di Bart, who I wasn’t threatened by exactly but who certainly seemed random. I was quite unattuned to the places where this record had built a following, and I couldn’t imagine what anyone heard in it. Has time made things easier? The backing – “anthemic”, “pumping” and so forth – has had a rougher ride of it than Di Bart’s spooked, slightly murmured vocal. In fact, the vocal uses the confident production like a cheap cologne and a shiny suit, something to cover up how nervous and unsure its trailing-off platitudes are. There’s a vulnerability to “The Real Thing” which isn’t necessarily sympathetic – in the end, Di Bart sounds too wimpy, and his lines too rote, for me to really care about him. But it seems to me that this relative weakness and diffidence is also what let “The Real Thing” cut through and give the guy his hit.



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  1. 51
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Jan 2013 #

    “Healing Hands” had been a minor hit in its own right in 1989 (as indeed had been “Sacrifice” – it certainly got a fair amount of radio airplay first time out where I was living (and is probably more obviously catchy than “Sacrifice”, even if it a bit EJ-by-numbers). Certainly a much bigger airplay hit for Elton than quite a few of his other singles from the same sort of period (e.g. “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That”, erm,…whatever it’s follow up was called, the actually rather lovely “A Word In Spanish”, or “The Club At The End Of The Street”.

    I suppose the Billy Bragg/Cara Tivey 1988 AA is pretty obscure (even if it did net them a TOTP appearance)

  2. 52
    Mark G on 7 Jan 2013 #

    .. memorable (on TOTP) for the line “sommmtkleaving home after living alone ..”

    Anyway, this is in danger of getting a bit bunny, innit?

  3. 53
    Mutley on 7 Jan 2013 #

    Re 48. and toy/movie tie-ins with a #1 hit (Partners in Kryme – Turtle Power). I was hoping to add The Ballad of Davy Crockett (early 1956) to that exclusive list. Davy Crockett “coonskin” hats were all the rage with small boys for about one week (still widely available on Google Image), there was a successful Disney film starring Fess Parker, and Bill Hayes had a #1 US hit with TBODC. Sadly, it didn’t make #1 in the UK, but was at UK #2 and #3 in two separate versions (which must add up to an honorary #1?) – Bill Hayes and Tennessee Ernie Ford respectively – in January 1956 with the Max Bygraves version creeping into the top twenty in February.

  4. 54
    Izzy on 7 Jan 2013 #

    #45: I suppose on one level (boredom?) I was hoping to provoke a tedious busybody response, so thanks for obliging. I was also paraphrasing Alex Ferguson, for no particular reason.

    On another level – and do bear in mind I’m not really annoyed, it was a lighthearted remark, and we’re analysing Tony di Bart for goodness’ sake – there is probably a certain frustration at the groupthink dismissing this record, which I’ve always thought pretty fine. A dissenting view is often useful, and there’s little point in it sidling in unnoticed and spending the rest of thread in the kitchen.

  5. 55
    punctum on 7 Jan 2013 #

    #54: Bit of a cop out; again you resort to beginning with an ad hominem attack.

    I reiterate; what’s the real reason for your discomfort?

  6. 56
    Izzy on 7 Jan 2013 #

    I can’t deny it, except that the attack (such as it was) was on #45, not its author.

    I don’t understand why you’d think I’d be uncomfortable though? I explained the reason for my not-actual-annoyance already.

  7. 57
    speedwell54 on 7 Jan 2013 #

    Mark G at 43, could only come up with one, and I can’t believe we could ever have a longer chain unless you can persuade One Direction or Rihanna to call their next single “Overlanders” or “Tony Di Bart”.

    Overlanders-Michelle-All This Time.

    Close are;
    Pet Shop Boys-Heart-Alone (only made No2 here but No1 in the US)
    Razorlight-America-Horse With No Name (No3 here but No1 in the US)
    Deniece Williams- Free- All Right Now (No2 here)

    Hardtogethits -I think I remember the book you’re talking about, and roughly how it was laid out with columns for weeks at No1, weeks at No2 etc so it could rank all the singles by chart positions rather than sales. Other hit a bit like the Model; – the cd came in a protective sleeve/ jacket.

    Well done Izzy.

  8. 58
    wichita lineman on 8 Jan 2013 #

    Re 43: Pet Clark on the Today programme – a little overshadowed by the Bowie story but sounding a lot younger than 80 – made me think of:

    Petula Clark->Sailor->A Glass Of Champagne (NME no.1… I think)

    ps Speedwell! Don’t anger the bunny!

  9. 59
    punctum on 8 Jan 2013 #

    #56: We both know that’s not the real reason.

  10. 60
    tm on 8 Jan 2013 #

    #38: I’m amazed Marion made four grand a year in their heyday! But then Greg from Big Flame told me he still gets royalty cheques for radio play which is surprising given the somewhat, ahem, challenging nature of their music… The bassist from Marion used to work on the door of the Night & Day cafe in Manchester. He looked like he’d been on the needle. In other rubbish, forgotten indie news* the drummer from Haven told a mutual friend he blew £100k on blow which kind of explains why the record industry ended up the spout if they were giving Haven that sort of money to stick up their noses.

    *obviously this slur does not apply to Big Flame!

  11. 61
    Patrick Mexico on 10 Apr 2013 #

    I agree completely with #38. None of you are idiots for finding this a bit “weak” and “generic” – yes, it is a bit fey and distant, if compared to the clubland number 1s of the late eighties and (very) early nineties. But it’s 1994, not 1989. Stock, Aitken and Waterman seem gone. It’s fine to like football again. Blur have somehow rewritten Boys (Summertime Love) and saved their career. It’s just great, well-executed, subtle, shimmery, summery trance-pop isn’t it? And it’s a triumph for the underdog that a “bathroom salesman from Buckinghamshire” can usurp an (admittedly favourite of mine) megastar whose own name he can’t now even pronounce.


    However, straight in at number 39 this week – 15 behind Sonic Youth! – is a record which will split opinions and provoke more fiery arguments than Marmite, or even Thatcher:
    N-Trance – Set You Free.

  12. 62
    Erithian on 27 May 2013 #

    So utterly forgettable that I thought it must be a companion piece to Robin Beck’s “First Time”, flogging Coca-Cola to the masses. On seeing it again on the TOTP YouTube clip, it’s horribly weedy even for the type of puner it’s pitched at, which certainly isn’t me.

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