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Jun 13

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

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#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. 1
    Mark G on 25 Jun 2013 #

    One morning, I woke up, as I often do, with a “new” song in my head. Often, I struggle to remember it past 30 mins of awakeness, sometimes I decide it’s not worth saving, sometimes I write it down, Jasper.

    Anyway, one time I ended up with a bit of “Post-Punk” called “Stupid Little Soldier”, the rest of the lyric got lost in the mist, but I did reflect that this may, possibly, be the only way you could get banned in this day and age. Imagine, not supporting “our Boys”…

  2. 2
    Izzy on 25 Jun 2013 #

    SAW have come up before, and I feel like we’ve been unduly kind to their efforts (Ferry Aid apart). But really, why do these backing tracks have to be so bad?! The same goes for nearly everything I’ve heard from the ensuing formula (Girls Aloud the exception – so far as I can tell, anyone else has to pay their dues before being allowed to do anything bold).

    These are guys who know how to work a studio, what could go wrong if they threw in a jazz chord or turned the beat around? Would it really put anyone off a record like this?

  3. 3
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    BTW there are areas I’ve not really got into on this (already longish!) entry because – bunny be damned – I have to deal with these simps TWO MORE TIMES.

  4. 4
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #2 this is just SA, W had broken up the ‘band’ by this point. I think cheap sounding production is fine when you’re going for a tinny back of the car walkman radio rush, but on something like this it stands out, particularly as the original is still fairly fresh in buyers’ memories.

    Obviously the buyers didn’t give a fuck, though.

  5. 5
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I had no idea to the background to this song nor knew anything about the TV series (other than its name): but, God, this is awful. So it WAS intended to sound like two blokes (and not the finest pair of singers) with a shit karaoke machine then!.

    I had assumed (evidently wrongly) that the series was set in WWII, and this was a 50th anniversary thing – an inferior downturn from “Singalongawaryears” Max Bygraves, or for that matter from one of the pretty decent Lost Number 36 hits of 1982, Stutz Bear Catz “The Song That I Sing” (with proper orchestral backing – which is really what is required here), the theme tune from a contemporaneous ITV drama set in WWII, “We’ll meet Again”.

    Evidently a case of the public being given what they want, rather than what they should want. Pure dross, even for such a great song.

  6. 6
    Charlie on 25 Jun 2013 #

    The music for ‘Soldier, Soldier’ was arranged by my then girlfriend’s Dad (Jim Parker), and obviously he oversaw the karaoke episode. So indirectly he led to this this being inflicted on the nation, hence I hold him responsible. I broke up with his daughter shortly afterwards.

  7. 7
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Placing my cards on the table, I know Unchained Melody is meant to be an unimpeachable classic, but I hate it, going round and round on its piano figure and boring the life out of me. Bobby Hatfield’s version does have chops, I’ll give it that, and as a result, I have slightly more regard for The Righteous Brothers take on the song than the multiplicity of other versions.

    So, when you take all of the ability out of the vocal and replace it with something thin and nasal, you’re not winning any points with me. I’m disappointed that I have listened to this again to be honest, but I felt I had to in order to make sure that I wasn’t being totally unfair.

    Tom is right about the instrumentation – the vocals set a low bar and the backing comfortably limbos under it. I can’t agree about White Cliffs of Dover though. If anything, it is even worse. The track itself seems to have been done on one of the presets of an old Casio “My First Keyboard”, by turns tinkling and lacking in depth. The vocals, naturally, are rubbish. Poor old Dame Vera.

    Besides the well-known Common People fact, Tom mentions, this also kept Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me by U2 off number 1 – a record for which I have a sneaking regard. Sort of the bridge between Achtung Baby and Pop, it never really takes itself too seriously, unlike some of U2’s other, more po-faced, efforts. It would have made a good #1 in my view.

    Soldier Soldier though eh? Must have had a substantial number of fans who bought this at Tesco. At least both of these guys went on to better and more interesting things – though not before torturing us two more times – whether it be going fishing or being a double hard bastard in Game of Thrones.

  8. 8
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I had completely forgotten Jerome Flynn ended up in Game Of Thrones, and I’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, so I’ve not actually seen him in it! Well well well.

    And I also assumed until starting the “research” for this that it was a series set in WW2. To be fair the sleeve isn’t exactly trying to avoid those associations – more of nostalgia and R&J next time we see them, though.

  9. 9
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Have you read the books Tom? If not, I won’t spoil it. Jerome got a damn good part though – one of my favourites. It would be great if Robson turns up in some battle somewhere, only for Jerome to dismember him.

  10. 10
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #9 No I haven’t – having got through most of Robert Jordan I decided I’d read enough unfinished fantasy monstrosities for one lifetime, and the TV series seems a much better way to experience GoT. But I don’t have much time for watching, so I’ll struggle through it slowly.

  11. 11
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #10 Having read the books, I would say that the way to experience GoT is through the TV series. The books have great plots but the details and the length can be a bit of a slog – but I guess, it has regularly been thus in fantasy fiction. The TV series gets to the meat of the matter a bit more. The performances are good too. About the only advantage of being a book reader is that what might seem like the rather weird decisions made by the writers/directors with respect to focus on certain characters are based on the books, so it helps in not getting infuriated. I’m watching with my girlfriend who hasn’t read the books and she gets a bit pissed off when the narrative sails away from something interesting to go and focus on a character she doesn’t care about as much.

  12. 12
    MichaelH on 25 Jun 2013 #

    And let’s not forget that Robson Greene remains a huge star, in such shows as Robson Greene’s Extreme Fishing.

  13. 13
    punctum on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Evidently a case of the public being given what they want, rather than what they should want.

    Come on, that’s why the war was fought, to stop people who thought like that!

    Jim Parker from those lovely old John Betjeman records, eh? Well, I suppose everyone has to earn a living.

    I wonder if Robson is now primarily going to be thought of as a hard man angler rather than an actor. What was the last big drama he was in? Seems a while ago, now.

    Again I’m taking the fifth amendment with this record because it does appear on a number one album and I’ll have something to say about it on TPL when the time comes/if I still have the will and energy to be doing it then. Five more of these to come in 1995, as well.

  14. 14
    James BC on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I’d never seen Soldier Soldier, never heard of these guys and had no idea the song was coming out until it appeared at number 1 on the Chart Show. What the hell?

    I don’t begrudge it existing, though. I’m sure it made a lot of people very happy, and I prefer it to Hold Me Thrill Me etc which just seems to go on and on and on and is impossible to dance to.

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Does anyone else listen to a commercial radio station in the morning? Then you’ll be familiar with the advert for Armed Forces Day, on which Ray Winstone (or, to be fair to the gambling enabler, possibly a soundalike) introduces a string of actors pretending to be members of the public, all with a simple-minded explanation for why they’ll be supporting “our boys.” This is the musical equivalent.

    Soldier Soldier, good grief. We were between wars (Gulf War I and Kosovo) – normally we’d need one to push a record like this to the top (Korea for Vera Lynn’s sheet music no.1 Auf Wiedersehen in ’52, Suez for Ann Shelton’s Lay Down Your Arms in ’56, Afghanistan/Iraq for at least two bunnied entries).

    So Simon Cowell spotted a gap in the market for a noxious mixture of sentimentality, romance, nostalgia (where’s our Blitz spirit gone?!) and patriotism. I’m not surprised that people thought Soldier Soldier was set in WWII. The only reason I remember it being set in the modern day was because a friend-of-a-friend Lesley Vickerage was in it, and rather modernly took her clothes off.

    Re 7: Unchained Melody first had the piano figure on the Righteous Brothers version – the 50s hit recordings (including Liberace’s one and only chart placing) are surprisingly varied. And often very good.

  16. 16
    Nixon on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I’ve called a few records “bad karaoke”, or some variation on that theme, but this one’s slightly different. They’re not great singers, but they’re not awful, albeit with those voices they’ve chosen completely the wrong song out of the book here. What this is isn’t bad karaoke, it’s just karaoke, recreated absolutely exactly.

    Which explains why it was a hit (I may be remembering wrong, but I have a vague memory of this going to #1 a week or two before the Michael Jackson/Pulp records hit, and some R1 midweek DJ announcing that it was going to go to #1 automatically on the strength of the vast amounts of pre-orders). Karaoke with your friends is fun. Watching a bunch of strangers of varying talent doing karaoke is not fun. But the TV show racked up vast numbers of viewers to place those vast amounts of pre-orders, many of them older, most of them not traditionally singles buyers, and for those buyers, R&J were indeed their friends.

    Or we can call this a throwback to Whispering Grass, although R&J’s future bunnyable #1s (with their “comedy” videos) fit that description a bit better.

    Two personal memories. I disliked Soldier Soldier because my elderly aunt came to visit one evening and made us change the channel over to it from Reeves & Mortimer. I disliked White Cliffs of Dover because even though I’d never heard of Vera Lynn, at a school music quiz aged somewhere around 10, in a “fill in the blanks” round, I answered “BLUEBIRDS OVER…” with “The Mountain”, a Beach Boys/Ersel Hickey reference because those were the sorts of records my parents listened to in the car. 0 points, and the injustice still burns.

    Weirdly, even though Pulp are my favourite band of all time, I don’t hold any grudge against R&J for this at all. Other than its being crap, I mean.

  17. 17
    James BC on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Was this the first Cowell number 1? He’d been around for a bit by then, and I believe he’d even done the TV tie-in wheeze before with a couple of hits ‘sung’ ‘by’ WWF wrestlers. What else did he try before this?

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #15 Cheers for that. I should listen to a few and see whether my opinion changes.

  19. 19
    Billy Hicks on 25 Jun 2013 #

    It begins with a fall.

    The door opens up beneath you and you drop into darkness. The sound echoes around the room, filling your mind. A repetitive, incessant sound of rumbling bass and treblesome shakes.

    An unassuming, spectacled man forms in front of you, only barely being able to make him out. He speaks in a staccato, slow, almost whisper of a voice, fixating and probing his gaze into yours. Although his words are strange you feel compelled to listen, like the lines he describes form the most important story ever told. The bass drills in your stomach ever deeper, the volume of voice and sound gradually, inconspicuously increasing.

    Thump, thump, thump, THUMP the room begins to pound, like a giant above is strolling through his morning walk. But all you can see, all you can focus on is this one man, and this one voice. Something is building. You can feel it. Your ears begin to bleed from the intensity of the surrounding soundscape. The voice feels captured inside a box, a box getting thinner and thinner and imminently this voice is going to break out of this box and burst alive. It’s coming. You can’t stop it, and neither can him. She didn’t understand, he warns.

    She just smiled. And held his hand.

    LIGHTS. We jump from darkness to the brightest most powerful most dazzling white lights ever emitted. The man, and the voice is set free. He jumps, dances, screams around the room, bellowing out his words. Raw, euphoric, animalistic energy surrounds you and you have no choice but to dance with him. Climbing and flying off walls, spinning, running, singing along because it might just get you through and laughing, laughing even though they’re laughing at you. Shaking off the weight of the WORLD because this is all that matters and you don’t care how long it lasts because this is your moment. And you want to be with this man – in this state – forever.

    You fall again, this time to the floor. The lights, now filled with colour, continue to shine. The bass continues, quietly. The sweat pours off you and soaks you in a puddle beneath. You’re short of breath, your throat and voice are bitterly shot to pieces, you feel that this may well be it. This may be your final moments, your final resting place, and he was there to see it. With the tiniest muscle of energy you have left, your eyes move to where he is. He too is on the floor, trembling from the power that just overwhelmed you both. He’s whispering something. You can’t quite hear – the music is too loud. But the whisper becomes a mumble. Becomes speech. Becomes shouting. He wants to live like you. You. And in one final throe, he screams that magical world. Y, O, U, YOU. Your lifeless body is flown around the room, his voice controlling you. Flying higher, higher, higher, up to the ceiling, the light getting brighter and brighter and brighter…

    …and you awake, back where you started. Before the fall. You pick yourself up, wearily dust yourself down, and return to reality.

    And wonder why the hell the British public chose two blokes from the telly singing a 50s song instead.

  20. 20
    punctum on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Got things to say about that one as well (to a point; Lena will, I’m pretty sure, have a lot more to say about it on MSBTW). But not the things I might have said about it in 1995.

  21. 21
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I am actually quite grateful that I don’t have to go back to it again – when we did Poptimists on LJ it felt like there were about twenty threads arguing about “Common People”, and it’s the kind of entry that would have caused a 3-week umming and ahhing over writing, at exactly the wrong time. I know what mark it would have got, I think.

  22. 22
    anto on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Vienna schmienna. This is proof that pop like life just ain’t fair.

  23. 23
    AlexN on 25 Jun 2013 #

    “But some things are constant: Britain is fond of its troops …”

    and #15

    This is an interesting one because I’d always assumed that this sort of patriotism – and its expression in pop culture – were at an all time low in the mid-nineties, that in the absence of a “proper war”, and with the monarchy mired in its 1992-97 nadir, a less martial, vaguely countercultural version of Britishness (ie. Britpop and its offshoots) came to define the era.

    But maybe, in light of this entry, that theory is total bollocks.

    Cowell’s strategy was particularly clinical given that this was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of VE Day the previous week. Common People might have won out without the leg-up WCOD provided in that context.

  24. 24
    wichita lineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I like the way Let Robeson Sing is a related post. I’d always assumed that was about Paul Robeson, but obviously the Manics loved a spot of khaki karaoke.

  25. 25
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Soldier Soldier had already been going on for 5 years so there was plenty of time for a head of fondness to build up for the characters – obviously draping oneself in the flag isn’t ALWAYS a route one method of getting to the top – as Lineman says there does usually need to be an actual war on. And while the militarisation of British life now is WAY ahead of anything in the 90s – nobody back then was assuming ex-soldiers should waltz into teaching jobs – I don’t remember there ever being a distaste for the army. The monarchy is a different matter, and obviously there’s an entry in a while where we’ll get plenty of time to talk about that.

  26. 26
    wichita lineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Re 22: Pulp scoring a brace of #2 hits seems miraculous enough to me. I’d settle for that if I were them.

  27. 27
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Does anyone else listen to a commercial radio station in the morning?

    Not now, but I was in 1995, to the extent that my 100% legally acquired copy of Hold Me Thrill Me Kill Me Kiss Me Etc (the only U2 song I’ve ever had any time for, for Batman Reasons) had Chris Tarrant’s burbly Krusty The Klown laugh over the end ‘WuHUH-ell it’s five past eight and you’re listening to’ *hits jingle button* Capital Efffff Emmmmm. This would come to bite me in the bum a few weeks later during the last Music lesson of the year, in which everyone could bring in a tape of ‘whatever song you like right now’. I was umming and aahing about whether to take in this or Karmacoma by Massive Attack, went for the U2 because at least I understood what that one was about (it was about Batman) (Karmacoma had the word ‘Karma’ in it which might have been something to do with the Karma Sutra i.e. SEX which would have been INSTANT MORTIFICATION in the classroom). At first it seemed like the right choice! I got some approving nods from the cool boys (who liked Nirvana as well) (I couldn’t bring in Nirvana though as that wouldn’t have been cool) (they all brought in Green Day). But then I had to dive over to where Ms Hartley was sat with the tape player before bloody Tarrant started chortling and arrrrrrrgh I didn’t quite get there in time…. *weeps* O FOR A TIME MACHINE (still wouldn’t have picked Karmacoma though).

    Ms Hartley was the only teacher I ever got a detention off.

  28. 28
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #15 A quick run around Youtube has brought me to the following conclusions:

    The piano figure is the thing that really pisses me off. It’s not the tune. So thanks for the heads up.

    Al Green and Sam Cooke’s versions are thus far my favourite. Soft and questioning, as opposed to strident and pleading. Very good.

    Liberace is florid and sounds like what the original was, a soundtrack for a film. This is a good thing to my ears, though less affecting than Al or Sam for me.

    Jimmy Young’s version is worse than the Hatfield/Righteous version, even though the latter has my least favourite piano on it.

    I reminded myself of Righteous and bunny versions. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to Fisherman and Bronn the Sellsword’s version again. I feel like I have been sold a dummy on this tune by the British public.

  29. 29
    AlexN on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Yeah, I was thinking that this is a sort of silent majority record for the nineties. Maybe it was just a TV spin off.

  30. 30
    punctum on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #28: there was another one… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqqNsyHajb0

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