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.)