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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. 31
    Mark G on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Yes, that was reissued about this time, I got the CD single.

    A friend, after I played it to him, said “um, do you just, like, buy *everything*?”

    hmmph. What does he know? It’s Spike Milligan!

  2. 32
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #30: Though I do indeed remember Eccles, I was not aware of this. The music is quite good in a ramshackle sort of way!

  3. 33
    MichaelH on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Mention of Jarvis enables me to roll out my Cocker related trivia question (wichita lineman knows the answer). Three Yorkshire-affiliated men called Cocker have sung on UK top three hits. Jarvis is one. Joe is another. Who’s the third?

  4. 34
    weej on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I have little to say about this pointless record, except that I also don’t really mind it keeping Common People off the top. If it had gone all the way I fear that it would dominate the band’s history even more than it does now. And as Wichita says, two number 2s and another three top 10 hits isn’t at all bad for a bunch of freaks, mis-shapes and weeds.

  5. 35
    Erithian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #33 – sir, me sir me sir me! You’re referring to Les Cocker, trainer to the England World Cup Squad in 1970, whose voice is presumably well down in the mix of “Back Home”.

    Much the coolest TV programme Robson Green has been involved in is Being Human. Playing a werewolf, the role called for him to appear naked more than once, and his arse gained quite a fan club.

  6. 36
    James BC on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #33 Did a Yorkshireman called Pete Cocker fill in the high bits of Nancy Sinatra’s part on Somethin’ Stupid?

  7. 37
    MichaelH on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Erithian gets the Crackerjack pencil! It was indeed Les Cocker, Leeds United and England trainer, for his memorable participation on Back Home.

  8. 38
    thefatgit on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Oh, soldier, soldier won’t you marry me/ with your musket fife and drum?

    Oh no, miss maid I cannot marry you/ for I have a wife of my own…

    The series was a big success and its two everyman stars were not your archetypal leading men…

    And perhaps Soldier Soldier’s success gives us a slew of military themed dramas in its wake; Sean Bean (Game Of Thrones again!) in Sharpe, Ioan Gruffudd in Hornblower and Ross Kemp in Ultimate Force.

    I sort of remember the Karaoke episode echoing Maverick & Goose from Top Gun. The premise of revealing vulnerability behind the macho armour that all alpha-male types do work so hard to protect. All the girls swoon, and lo and behold Simon Cowell gets the alpha-males in the studio. Stock & Aitken put together a backing track possibly created entirely by computer, and the public in their droves hoover it up and propel it to the top. The very same common people indirectly referred to by Jarvis, keep Pulp at #2. Deduce what you will from that.

    Injustice it may seem, but oldies radio has come down firmly on the side of Pulp in the long run, if you considered both songs on the strength of radio play alone.

    Here’s a thing… is there an instance of one particular song performed by different artists getting to the top or near the top of the Billboard Chart?

  9. 39
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2013 #

    As mentioned upthread, Jerome has more than atoned for KEEPING COMMON PEOPLE OFF NUMBER ONE, THE BASTARD by being ace in Game of Thrones (which, other than Doctor Who OBVIOUSLY is the Greatest Show Ever Made), and I can even sort of forgive Robson for KEEPING COMMON PEOPLE OFF NUMBER ONE, THE BASTARD for being in the likeable Being Human.

    It’s odd, though, because this DOMINATED the charts. I didn’t watch Soldier, Soldier, and was shocked when it got to number one. As for the song – meh, Kareoke, a good song, but done blandly. And it KEPT COMMON PEOPLE (which I can’t really say anything new about, suffice to say it’s easily a 10) OFF NUMBER ONE, THE BASTARD.

    Oh, and I rather like HMTMKMKM – it would prob get a 6 or 7 from me.

  10. 40
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Re 38: I could be wrong but I think The Locomotion has been a Billboard #1 for Little Eva, Grand Funk Railroad and Kylie. The Twist was number one twice, both times by Chubby Checker.

    Re 33: I did know, but only because you told me. And I’d forgotten the answer. I feel ashamed (but not as ashamed as Kat).

    Re 28: Very good. Sam Cooke could sing the proverbial phone directory etcet.

  11. 41
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Ooops – forgot to say. This one’s a two (hence my having to revise my mark for Dreamer!)

  12. 42
    Another Pete on 25 Jun 2013 #

    My nan use to complain that one of them never looked at the camera when he sang.

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #41 And with that 2 overhauls St Winifred’s School Choir on the Readers’ Bottom 100.

    For a little while there, R&J were on a flat 1 from the readers. I think I noted 200 views and still a flat 1 before it started to uptick (not that 200 views equals anything like 200 people and therefore 200 marks).

  14. 44
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    This was No.1 during my finals and when I left University, incidentally. I don’t remember it in that context at all – it was all about “Common People”, which I do remember, sitting around discussing the politics of it on the steps of an Oxford College Quad, on a gorgeous evening, subsidised beer firmly in hand. While the people in the discussion were from a pretty wide variety of backgrounds, it still seemed incongruous.

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I’d like to add that Billy Hicks’ description of “Common People” @19 is a thing of beauty. Thanks Billy.

  16. 46
    mapman132 on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Oh boy. I was waiting for this one because I was curious what kind of reaction it would get, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed….

    First, as an American, I of course never actually heard this record until I found it on Youtube a couple days ago (more on that below). That being said, my fascination with the UK chart was never quite the same after this one. By this point, my favorite radio show, UK Chart Attack, was off the air, and I was mainly following the chart via the weekly postings of James Masterton (noticed his name hasn’t come up here before – is there a reason for that?). So I was aware only that a karaoke version of Unchained Melody by two TV actors somehow debuted at number one. This of course sounded totally ridiculous to US-me, but I had managed to look past the likes of Blobby and Man U before. It was only after it then proceeded to become the biggest UK seller of the decade to date that I realized the Hot 100’s endless Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men wasn’t so bad after all. Suffice it to say that I continued to follow the UK chart, and will continue to post here, but again, it was never quite the same for me.

    So as for the recording itself, I listened to both songs on Youtube a couple days ago for the first time. And while I wasn’t as horrified as I could have been, I was very underwhelmed. I mean, if you want to buy Unchained Melody, why not just get the Righteous Brothers version?? Of course this could be said of many, many remakes. I guess I just don’t get “it”.

    Finally, I did listen to “Common People” for the first time a few years ago. A *great* record that really deserved to be UK#1, and I wish it had reached these shores back in 95. The fact that these two doofuses blocked both it, and later Oasis’s masterpiece, is about as great a travesty as one will ever find on a music chart.

  17. 47
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Re. James Masterton – no slight intended! I didn’t read his stuff though, and while I *was* on the Internet at this point I was much more on comics USENET than music USENET – the University servers didn’t get the alt. hierarchy. More on the mid-90s web in a bit though, probably the next Oasis No.1.

  18. 48

    We are a martial nation — as peoples all over the globe have had sour reason to know for centuries now — so it’s actually a bit strange that we don’t have a fvckton *MORE* TV drama based in this general area. As far as I remember it — of course I watched it, I watch everything — Soldier Soldier was pretty much in the slipstream of Auf Wiedersehen Pet or London’s Burning (not to mention any number of hospital drama and The Bill) without being as good as any of them (or anyway as memorable). Which is a pity, because it seems to me that the peacetime army is every bit as rich a topic for serial drama, as, say, British Gästarbeiten: the treatment needn’t be “hard-hitting” or “issues-based” — AWP was in a sense about class and unemployment (certainly it wasn’t stupid about these), but it was mainly about a mixed gang of ne’er-do-wells getting into ridiculous scrapes overseas.

    The record is bad and Stock Aitken Cowell Robson and Jerome should feel bad, but I don’t hear (or recall) much cause for worry that show or song were a “noxious mixture of sentimentality, romance, nostalgia… and patriotism”, or the revenant voice of the reactionary silent majority. OK I’ll spot you sentimentality, but the actual real sound of noxious patriotism is surely not this: which is a 60s pop classic sung karaoke-style by two actors! With a cynically piss-poor arrangement. Spivs are not patriots (even if some self-declared patriots are spivs).

    (This next is a bit off point, since as people have pointed out there were no hot wars at the time — there were peace-keeping forces in Yugoslavia, and of course troops stationed in Northern Ireland — but the kinds of people who might actually have strong sentimental reasons to buy such records, families of soldiers overseas, in other words, are by no means necessarily a lock for jingo politics, which tend to be much more brashly vicarious: the busiest flag-wavers are generally sending other families’ children off to face the cannons’ roar… But I actually suspect this social group and this phenom don’t have much to do with this record: this isn’t a forces wives charity release.)

    Soldier Soldier was a popular show of several years’ standing, and this record recapped a popular — climactic? — episode, starring two likeably handsome and cheeky young fellers: reasons enough many people bought it, surely, recalling that they’d enjoyed the episode. And reason enough that it’s not been taken to the nation’s heart, also, because I suspect it’s pretty shoddy memorabilia for said episode. If the show was at all obnoxious in this vein, I’d probably remember it much better: I think it was cautiously clichéd at best and worst, and not very clearly pro- or anti-etablishment.

    (Tho I’d actually quite like to see comparative figures — of the ordinary viewing audience of a well liked but not startling mid-week drama serial, compared to how many sales make up a number one in any given week — before I signed off on this as the main impetus for its sales. And the GBP did come back for more, which maybe undermines the argument I’m making a little.)

  19. 49
    enitharmon on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Tom @ 3 – and you’ve got to do the song a couple more times too I think. It is a good song, one definition of which is one that can survive very different interpretations, but it doesn’t survive this one.

    I preferred Robson Green as the porter in early Casualty. He should have stayed there.

  20. 50
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    “The 1994 UK viewing figures had climbed to 16.1 million – an extraordinary 65% of the viewing share” – J Flynn’s website.

    If true this really is whopping, even for pre-Internet. I suspect this was a special or Xmas episode? But anyhow it was a success.

    Number one sales at this point? Not sure – THIS sold a bit over a million I think, across its 7 weeks and a few declining ones after. It’s definitely selling on the basis of TV – ‘shoddy memorabilia’ will become Cowell’s stock in trade, as I suggest in the review.

    BUT the public are not rubes, or at least not always, and are happy to reject TV stars making singles before and after, so I doubt the particular subject matter (and VE Day anniversary, and choice of songs) hurt this one. And I DO think there was a bit of patriotic play going on in the waning Major years (and not just Cool Britannia) – this is the year Portillo did his “S! A! S!” routine at the Tory conference, isn’t it?

  21. 51

    I suppose what I’m arguing is that Soldier Soldier itself — judging a little from memory and a little from the wikipedia entry — was really quite a long way from undiluted Andy McNab in tone: it was (intended to be) about the changing role of the army in a post-Cold War world, and the psychological effect of being restructured away from exciting swordplay towards respectful ploughshare maintenance.

    (Except I think a lot of it was actually about birds and beer and other laddish shenanigans… )

  22. 52
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    The Jerome website has sales figure data week by week: 310k first week, 460k second, 320k third. Blimey.

    Also: “Simon Cowell, the person who signed the lads to record with RCA, dismisses the hostility that Robson & Jerome have received from elements of the music media. “I would say the criticism they have received for their music is based on ignorance and musical snobbery. Their knowledge of music is fantastic and they came up with some great choices of tracks. I would also say that they have surprised themselves on this as to how well they can sing!””

    Praising song choice and broadsides at the snobs, in ’95. A template forms!

  23. 53

    Track listing (to help self-assign yr ignorance/snobbery index):

    “Unchained Melody” (Alex North, Hy Zaret)
    “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart)
    “I Believe” (Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl, Al Stillman)
    “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio)
    “Up on the Roof” (Gerry Goffin, Carole King)
    “I’ll Come Running Back to You” (Sam Cooke)
    “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” (Walter Kent, Nat Burton)
    “Amazing Grace” (John Newton, William Walker)
    “If I Can Dream” (Walter Earl Brown)
    “This Boy” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
    “Love You Forever”
    “Little Latin Lupe Lu” (Bill Medley)
    “Danny Boy” (Frederic Weatherly, Traditional)

    Truly their knowledge of music is fantastic.

  24. 54

    Except wtf is “Love You Forever”? *IGNORANCE KLAXON*

  25. 55
    mapman132 on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #28: Les Baxter hit #1 with it on the US sales chart (pre-Hot 100) in 1955. Pretty much everything that was said about Jimmy Young’s version could apply it as well.

    #38 & #40: Surprisingly few. If we ignore The Twist since it was actually the same recording, only 9 songs have topped the Hot 100 in two different versions. The Locomotion was one (Eva and Grand Funk, but Kylie only reached #3). The most recent in both original version (1975) and remake (2001 – half a bunny here?) is Lady Marmalade. Here’s the full list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_artists_who_debuted_at_number-one_on_the_Hot_100_%28U.S.%29#Number-one_songs_by_different_artists

  26. 56
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Re 48: Granted the “sound” doesn’t come from that noxious mixture, but the physical fact of the record does. Birds and beer and laddish shenanigans, and soldiers! I have a pretty low tolerance for things that make war or war games seem chirpy (spoofs like Dad’s Army and MASH aside).

    Yugoslavia almost certainly had nought to do with the success of this single – the massacre in the UN “safe area” of Tuzla was in May ’95, which emboldened the Serbs to walk into Srebrenica shortly afterwards and kill 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Oddly we were talking about this this morning – blue berets have had a low profile since, which has possibly led to regular US and UK (and occasionally French) military intervention without UN involvement.

    Re 55 Nah! Les Baxter’s version is a lovely, evocative thing, with a structure similar to Doris Day’s Secret Love, upping tempo gently to suggest passage across wide open spaces. Jimmy Young sings “speed your larb to me” – awful.

  27. 57
    mapman132 on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #56: Guess I should have actually listened to Jimmy Young before posting that comment! Les Baxter’s version is better. Righteous Brothers still have the best version though.

  28. 58

    I think this was the episode that spawned the hit: “Disaster is successfully averted when Garvey, Tucker and Farrell follow Voce on his stag night and rescue him from serious embarrassment at the hands of an exotic dancer”

    Which fits my slightly over-sneery and dismissive description quite well — and maybe backs wichita’s position, about chirpiness. Other episodes are intended as more serious in tone, as far as you can tell from the summaries: “New recruit Fusilier Andrew Butcher is causing trouble – his enthusiasm gets the better of him and his gun goes off by accident in a live fire exercise, shooting another soldier and leading to a major inquiry.”

    I didn’t really watch enough to take anything away either way, in terms of what the show was aiming for or achieving: I still basically think that (a) the idea of serial drama based in a peacetime army — even if it’s light in tone — is not intrinsically a bad thing, in fact quite the opposite, and (b) the fact that we’re so shy of representing it is simultaneously a good sign (because we’re not — even today — enormously in hock to a fetishisation of all things military) and a bad thing (because it’s something wide open and exploitable, which we — the “writerly classes” — have a pretty bad sense for).

    First paragraph after the intro of the Andy McNab wikipedia entry: “McNab was born on 28 December 1959. Found abandoned on the steps of Guy’s Hospital in Southwark in a Harrods shopping bag, he was brought up in Peckham, with his adoptive family. He did not do well in school, dropped out and worked at various odd jobs, usually for friends and relatives, and was involved in petty criminality, finally being arrested for burglary in 1976. Partly inspired by his brother’s time in the army, he wanted to join the British Army He failed the entry test for training as an army pilot, but enlisted with the Royal Green Jackets at the age of 16.” This is a long way from Soldier Soldier, and from Robson and Jerome, I think — potentially much more alluring, to various people in various ways, and potentially much more toxic also.

    (I haven’t read any of McNab’s books: the second was big in 1995, though, and advertised everywhere on the tube and such.)

  29. 59
    lonepilgrim on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I can barely summon up the energy to comment on this – I didn’t watch Soldier Soldier and wasn’t paying much attention to the charts at the time. I vaguely remember hearing it and being underwhelmed. In theory I quite like the idea that the UK chart can reflect the public succumbing to broad sentiment like this but in practice when gems like Common People miss out I become less forgiving. I recently picked up a copy of the Brits 96 Nominees CD which features all of the Number 2 hits while this was at number 1 and it’s a wonderful selection of music. (Thanks to Alan for pointing me towards it – here: http://rateyourmusic.com/release/comp/various_artists_f2/the_96_brit_awards_f1/
    I even like the U2 song – helped by the fact it sounds less U2-ish than usual.

  30. 60
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Jun 2013 #

    To pick a military metaphor, one of the things that I love about Common People is that it keeps its powder dry for so long, that the moment Billy described (Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturdays the best second in music) is nearly two minutes into a four minute track*.

    It’s an impressive display of confidence, of a band that had been around for over a decade, had met the spotlight halfway, and had figured out how ‘it’/they worked, but would be happy with heading back to obscurity if they got it wrong. And a confidence based on this knowledge that there wasn’t anyone within miles of them in any direction, that they’d risen to the attention of their natural audience of interested indiests, and they quite fancied a grab for pop-pickers, rather than Oasis’s security that there was a market for Proper Songs Played Properly.

    Simon Cowell’s been involved in a lot of music that I like, but I don’t think any of it, or very much that’ll trouble us after (as always prepared to be wrong!) shows that specific confidence of holding the finger over the booster button until halfway through a hit (let alone your signature and summarising track).

    *Okay okay six minutes for the ‘proper’ version but the fans weren’t buying the real it.

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