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Jun 13

ROBSON AND JEROME – “Unchained Melody”/”The White Cliffs Of Dover”

Popular124 comments • 5,875 views

#722, 20th May 1995

On Soldier Soldier’s Wikipedia page there’s a list of the places each season of the military drama was set- where Robson Green and Jerome Flynn’s squaddie characters were sent. Hong Kong, Cyprus, New Zealand… after Iraq, and a dozen years fighting in Afghanistan, the idea of a show about serving UK soldiers needing to get its drama from New Zealand seems bizarre, something out of a lost time.

But some things are constant: Britain is fond of its troops, whatever they’re asked to do. And when people start playing with ideas of Britishness and patriotism it’s no surprise to see a flash or two of khaki as the stereotypes parade. So, for the uninitiated or forgetful: this was number one for seven weeks, famously keeping Pulp’s “Common People” off the top. The singers are actors, who played soldiers in a long-running military soap. In one episode they have to do a bit of karaoke, and this is what they chose. Who, asked swooning viewers, will bring us this masterpiece on CD Single? A flash! – a whiff of sulphur! – enter Simon Cowell.

Cowell knocked together a recording, got it released, and it became the best selling single of the year. A great coup for the budding Svengali – perhaps, with a less handsome Robson Greene and a less sentimental public, the single would have flopped and much later grief might have been averted. Alas no.

Is the song any good? Yes, it’s “Unchained Melody”, it’s a great song. We were, of course, reminded of that only four years ago, but this is a standard (Simon likes standards) and there’s always room for a good recording. Is the recording any good? Ah. The singing’s – well, it’s passable, though terribly thin: we’ve heard worse from actors and we’ll hear worse again. Robson And Jerome don’t have the chops to handle the dynamics of “Unchained Melody”, but they’re not the worst thing about it.*

The backing however…if the brief was to recreate a karaoke system version of the Wall of Sound, then the brief was amply fulfilled. This is a very cheap sounding record. Cowell needed a hit, he called Stock and Aitken, late of “…and Waterman”, they said fine, and then in thirty seconds time, or at least that’s what it sounds like, he had a track. The drums are Tupperware, the keyboards toytown, the horns and guitars sound like Windows 95 alert sounds. The string parts – let’s call them strings – sound like they’re made from the kind of fabric Jarvis Cocker sings about. The one spark of intelligence on display is mixing this stuff high in time to cover up Robson (or Jerome) singing “Are you still miiiine?” and finally spluttering to the end of their range. Good sense from Stock and Aitken there. No need to give the enemy propaganda. There’s a war on, dammit! In New Zealand!

For the biggest hit of 1995, this has left almost no cultural mark. Robson Greene was a star for a few more years, Soldier Soldier wobbled on without him and Jerome for a little while, the song endured this insult and braced itself for the next one. But in one respect it’s important. It’s the moment Simon Cowell learned a very lucrative lesson: TV is far, far bigger than pop. You want to sell to common people? Give a TV audience an excuse to buy a single and the charts are yours to crush.

*(Which is which? The AA-side – by name only, it was barely played – gives them more to do separately. One has a firm, bland voice; the other is soft and paper-thin, almost creepily polite. Neither are strong. “The White Cliffs Of Dover” is still better than “Unchained Melody” thanks to its hilarious gospel breakdown – the only bold production choice made here. “When the world is free” sounds a bit like a gospel lyric, and now it is one, though on the evidence presented God has little to do with this record.)

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Comments

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  1. 101
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Jun 2013 #

    #100 – Well, there’s a healthy history of cross promotion – Guns ‘n’ Roses’ You Could be Mine featuring the best bits of Terminator 2, Madonna’s Beautiful Stranger, and a bunnyable 97 hit from one William Smith.

    The one that really stands out though is Metallica’s One, which was based around Johnny Got His Gun, a 1971 movie about a World War One quadruple amputee – they based the song around the story of the movie, and rather than faff around with licensing the film for the video, they just bought the rights outright.

  2. 102
    swanstep on 30 Jun 2013 #

    what other pop promos have leaned so heavily on the movie world for inspiration?
    Lots and lots of them! Blur did at least two, riffing on Clockwork Orange for The Universal’s vid, and doing a shot-for-shot reconstruction of (a condensation of) Last Year at Marienbad for To The End (I reverse engineered that vid with Marienbad footage here); Paula Abdul’s Rush Rush vid, restaged a good chunk of Rebel Without A Cause; Smashing Pumpkins’s Tonight Tonight vid riffed on Melies’s A Trip To the Moon, Madonna’s Express Yourself aped bits of Metroplis; Berlin’s No More Words did Bonnie and Clyde; Stacey’s Mom did Fast Times at Ridgemount High; Beastie Boys’s Body Movin’ did Danger Diabolik; Musess Time is Running Out did Strangelove; lots of vids have kind of done Mad Max/Road Warrior/Death Race 2000/Two Lane Flattop/Vanishing Point… Oh and Sixpence None The Richer’s vid for Kiss Me did Jules et Jim.

  3. 103
    Mark M on 30 Jun 2013 #

    Re 100/1/2: Also Emili Sandé’s Clown, an homage to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, no less.

  4. 104
    Steve Mannion on 30 Jun 2013 #

    The movie homage was also rife in mid 90s rap videos e.g. 2Pac & Dr Dre ‘California Love’ (Mad Max), Nas ‘Street Dreams’ (Casino), Busta Rhymes ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See’ (Coming To America) and I recall a video on Yo! MTV Raps homaging THX-1138 including the sunset scene as the very last shot but can’t remember who this was by (maybe Gravediggaz). D12′s ‘Fight Music’ (The Warriors) is another one from a few years later.

  5. 105
    Lazarus on 30 Jun 2013 #

    Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’ also borrowed from Metropolis I seem to remember.

  6. 106
    mintness on 3 Jul 2013 #

    This song, and hence (among others) this version of this song, came up on this week’s edition of the wonderful Only Connect on BBC FOUR. Teams were asked to identify the fourth link in the sequence, based on the following clues:

    1: Umbrella
    2: Uptown Girl
    3: Do They Know It’s Christmas?

    Their guesses: “4: We Are The World” and (and I quote) “4: Bob the Bui- Can You Build It? Bob The Builder”.

  7. 107
    Mark G on 3 Jul 2013 #

    And? We’re on tenderhooks here ..

  8. 108
    Billy Hicks on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Just spent a couple of minutes looking in confusion, but I think I’ve got it :) Think of bunnies, in particular those from 2001 onwards!

  9. 109
    Mark G on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Well, obv the R&J song (and not the R&JStone song) was the number 4, but why? oh y?

  10. 110
    Erithian on 3 Jul 2013 #

    The logic was that “Umbrella” (picked at random) had been number one in one version, “Uptown Girl” in two, DTKIC in three and “Unchained Melody” in four.

  11. 111
    Mark G on 3 Jul 2013 #

    O Blimey! The things you have to know off-the-top-of-your-head, just to get close to Victoria Coren!

  12. 112
    Cumbrian on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Nothing has got to the top in 5 different versions right? Everyhit says not, I am guessing they are right?

  13. 113
    Mark G on 3 Jul 2013 #

    I believe.

  14. 114
    Scott M on 7 Jul 2013 #

    I’ve just gone through all of the (very interesting!) comments and I don’t think I saw anyone mention this. Basically, it’s not exactly clear just how much of what you hear on this track (or probably even the rest of the Green & Flynn oeuvre) is actually them. Not that that stops it from being anything other than not very good.

  15. 115
    Patrick Mexico on 8 Jul 2013 #

    If it wasn’t for the VE Day anniversary celebrations the patriotic pound wouldn’t have been enough to get them to number one. There’s not much I can say about this other than it’s awful karaoke tat and has all the bad hallmarks of everything Cowell puts his hand to. 2 is spot on. I agree with Tom’s marks more than any year I’ve been following this since 1988, despite childhood mark inflation.

    Massive Pulp fan but I do feel like playing devil’s advocate and as a sequel to my “15 more deserving number 1s than Love is All Around” list, “seven top 40 singles released during the run more deserving than this one or Common People” but given one of them is the Farm’s “All Together Now” being adapted/soiled as an Everton FA Cup final song, I think that’s virtually impossible. I set it as a mission to other Popular users, should you choose to accept it…

  16. 116
    Brendan F on 8 Jul 2013 #

    More deserving than this you could take your pick but whether they’d actually be any good either is another question

  17. 117
    Chelovek na lune on 8 Jul 2013 #

    #115 Having just looked through the list of new entries (& re-entries) for those seven weeks, there is a lot that I don’t know, and perhaps never knew, and a lot that I did once hear but have forgotten….so naturally this selection is both partial and subjective

    Of those that stood out to my mind and ears (and excluding remixes/rereleases of big hits from years past: sorry Joy Division & Blondie):

    1. Sparks – When Do I Get To Sing `My way’ (re-release, but barely a hit the year before, either: Surely “Common People”‘s dancing partner for the summer, for numerous reasons of both tone and experience. Yeah, that would have made a fine number 1. It would have been great to discuss Sparks here, too, not least making such a comeback.)

    2. McAlmont & Butler – Yes (yes.)

    3. Mike & The Mechanics – Beggar On A Beach Of Gold (A fine song, polished in composition and structure, both musically and lyrically)

    4. Billie Ray Martin – Your Loving Arms (strictly speaking a remix of a previous minor hit: and, while appealing enough, not quite as deep and as haunting as her best in Electribe 101, when the powerful Germanic-torch singer effect over geeky keyboardism with, or without, Frankie Knuckles doing his production stuff, could be utterly sublime)

    Runners Up: Edwyn Collins – A Girl Like You, Black Grape – Reverend Black Grape

  18. 118
    Mark G on 8 Jul 2013 #

    1. Yeah, but Russell’s voice did not come over on this one.

    2. Yes.

    3. Hmm, don’t recall it, but probably would if I looked for it.

    4. This was much more commercial than the E101 which had that over-worthiness attached to it for me.

    Edwin had a massive worlwide hit thanks to the rerelease off being the lead track on an e.p.

  19. 119
    Patrick Mexico on 9 Jul 2013 #

    Re 117 – Many thanks for stepping up to the plate. I’d have to agree with nearly all of them.

    Just watch out for Duran Duran’s take on White Lines (Don’t Do It). This is what it sounds like, when David Cameron goes hip-hop.

  20. 120
    ciaran on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Not much to add to this but I hated it back in 95.A 2 would have been my mark back then.I dont have the same hatred towards it now largely because another version of UM with the same fingerprints all over it makes it look a lot better. Also its up there with the righteous brothers themselves compared with the following years efforts like the Woolpackers and John Alford.

    4

  21. 121
    Elmtree on 6 Aug 2013 #

    While the vocals are terrible, I sort of like the idea of the arrangement here-locking the singers onto a piano figure does give it an urgency that makes it feel determined. They’re not luxuriating in melancholy, but striding forward. It does sound cheap though.

    But anyway, how bad are those vocals? Awful mid-Atlantic accents to fit some soul into this that don’t fit the stalwartly British Brief Encounter video, and sudden jumps into first Irish-sounding, then R&B-ish phrasing (on the ‘yeah’s) that make it feel like some desperate editor patched the vocals together from about thirty different takes. Should have been underplayed if this had any chance of working. (Relatedly, this is a song I’d love to see Neil Tennant cover.) This is the classic Cowell mega-belter formula already perfectly assembled, complete with the massive bells at the climax, but his appointed vocalists aren’t suited to what he wants them to do. No wonder he started running talent contests.

  22. 122
    Guillermina on 3 Feb 2014 #

    3single dot com is a great site. It has live chat so you can talk to other people online. Good luck.

  23. 123
    Mark M on 10 Jun 2014 #

    Re 100 etc: The new Pixie Lott video owes its look (right down to the typography, which is a giveaway) to early colour Godard, most specifically Le Mepris/Contempt.

  24. 124
    Elmtree on 3 Sep 2014 #

    New thought: Simon Cowell’s genius move here is to create a record that looks like a charity record but isn’t. Two actors known for a drama about soldiers release a song about being away (at the front?) missing your love and one actual song from the war. It looks like a record you’re Officially Meant to Buy to Support the Royal British Legion. But it isn’t.

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