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.