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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. 61
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #58: not all things military – just the soldiers.

  2. 62
    thefatgit on 25 Jun 2013 #

    I think there’s 2 strings of outsider’s perspective at work here. There’s the fetishistic aspect of military life a la Bravo Two Zero, and then there’s the banal side of military life, which I recall Soldier Soldier covered very well. I don’t see it as a perceptible conflict although I imagine serving soldiers could see it that way. We’ve had many a documentary, fly-on-the-wall style, like Warship for instance, which offers genuine insight into what it’s like to serve for Queen and Country. And that feeds into the “our boys” public admiration for those who choose to serve.

    Something else that strikes me about this particular version of “Unchained Melody” is that it doesn’t need a big, bells-and-whistles production. Aesthetes will pick this apart because it is cheap and shoddy, but the very people Cowell aimed this at care nothing for production values. The people who bought this,(forgive the generalisation) tend to buy one single a year, care nothing for Pulp or Britpop or House or Grunge. I think sometimes, we need to be reminded of that. For all its column inches and ubiquity within the media, pop is still a minority pursuit. I hate this record, but admire it in a perverse way, because it is anti-every reason I love music for. This is the king of cash-ins. The devil stands before us, hiding behind a pair of gormless actors who can just about carry a tune.

  3. 63
    Tom on 25 Jun 2013 #

    #60 Pulp did this delayed-release thing a LOT, I think – it was one of the ways Jarvis wrote songs, so to an extent it’s not especially bold, it’s how they did things – grab them with a great opening line, let things simmer, BOOM. They weren’t usually brilliant at writing choruses – in fact an awful lot of times their songs just kind of tail off where the chorus should be (“Mile End” and “Ansaphone”, two of my favourite tracks by them, are awful for this but it doesn’t matter) so they needed to write amazing payoffs instead. (Classic example – “This Is Hardcore”, paced like a striptease you can’t look away from) Even “Babies”, which has one of their most memorable choruses, isn’t really about the chorus, it’s about “I only went with her cos she looks like you MYGOD”

    “Common People” still seems a very odd, wonkily shaped record to get to #2, which is kind of what you were saying, but I don’t feel it’s particularly bold, it’s just Pulp being Pulp but this time with unexpected consequences.

  4. 64
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2013 #

    Re 63: I’m not sure, Tom. You’re right that Common People has a typically skewiff, Pulp structure but I think it has one more peak – the organ stab sequence, then the extra leap for “sing along with the common people” – than any of their other songs. It’s like the extra, extra key change on Hall & Oates’ She’s Gone, or the super, super low verse on Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line. It’s that “surely they can’t take it one stage further…. ooh, they just did!” trick which might be theoretically easy but, if you can get it to work, makes for an extraordinary record.

  5. 65
    Ed on 26 Jun 2013 #

    Soldier Soldier was surely the kind of gentle look at army life that was possible only in those golden years – is it only my age that makes me think this? – between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

    Actually, grim realism probably set in a bit earlier, with Warriors in 1999. It’s about the UN Protection Force in Bosnia, which went in in 1993, I think. Question: did Soldier Soldier ever get to Bosnia?

    After that, the stand-out military drama was the gut-wrenchingly bleak Occupation, from 2009. Hard to imagine Robson and Jerome in Helmand province or Basra.

    On a lighter note, it’s fantastic to realise that Jerome is in Game of Thrones. Makes Bronn the second character to have had a UK number one, alongside Ilyn Payne, although with him it was an album, not a single. Any others?

  6. 66
    flahr on 26 Jun 2013 #

    #65 We’ll be meeting a certain bunnied cheese enthusiast very soon who agrees with you…

  7. 67
    swanstep on 26 Jun 2013 #

    @65, Ed. Not sure whether this counts but Will Champion, Coldplay’s drummer, played percussion in the ‘Rains of Castamere’ rendition that led into the big wedding massacre.

    Anyhow, Bronn rocketh even if this version of ‘Unchained Melody’ doth not.

  8. 68
    23 Daves on 26 Jun 2013 #

    I really can’t think of much to say about this, but then it never was released with the idea that people would be discussing its content in nearly twenty years time. The furore around it seems more memorable than the product, and the fact that it also seemed horrendously out-of-time, like some middle-of-the-road mid-seventies novelty record which had somehow crashed into the nineties chart. Radio One had shifted its style enormously in this time, and I can distinctly remember waking up in the morning to Chris Evans bellowing loudly about how awful the number one was, and how more people needed to buy “Common People” to remedy this – his campaign came to nothing, obviously, even though I distinctly remember listeners phoning up to agree with him. It wasn’t for “us”, the young people, it was clearly being bought by our dopey distant relatives.

    The best thing about the above was that it was truly avoidable as a record as a result. It may have been number one and sold by the bucketload, but it’s one of those number ones which would never have been played in the pubs I drank in or the parties I went to – it was irritating only for blocking Pulp’s one bite at the top spot, and for reminding me (and especially Cowell) that most people have tin ears and will buy any old forgettable rubbish if you market it properly.

  9. 69
    Kinitawowi on 26 Jun 2013 #

    This was about the first time I became aware of the notion of “mum music”. No intention of being down with the kids here, this was all about selling to the olds; if it had come out before Mother’s Day it would probably have sold two million. Erk.

    Britain was on a bit of a nostalgia trip all around at this point (as a few people have mentioned); I seem to recall Goodnight Sweetheart doing fairly well for itself about now.

    Common People has been discussed to death (but damn, what a song! That’s what we were listening to on the bus on every school trip!), but HMTMKMKM was U2’s best song for a long time. Sadly, nine years and a few bunnies later they’d completely lost sight of the difference between “effortless” and “lazy”.

  10. 70

    Soldier Soldier did indeed go to Bosnia, and Northern Ireland also: if the Wikipedia entry is correct it was specifically conceived as a post-Cold War drama — one of the story-threads/threats was that the army would now be downsized and the regiment portrayed would vanish when combined with another. As noted above, the original point of it seems to have been a drama about the army in an age of post-imperial ploughshares (though this isn’t entirely how it worked out, given actual evolving history and the pressures of weekly ratings).

    Given its actual topic, there’s something pretty comical about “Common People” being held up as an Important Statement of We the Elect and Select, but that’s the kind of foolishness you get when a station dedicated to popular music turns itself into a vehicle for a half-grasped notion of the pop music as the vanguard (or indeed of “youth” as the vanguard). Matthew Bannister: so much to answer for.

    (Don’t imagine such a thing is possible but I’d love to see a breakdown of the relative ages of the owners of these two records: see if one does indeed skew older than the other, or — as I slightly suspect — whether they’re actually much of a muchness.)

  11. 71
    Auntie Beryl on 26 Jun 2013 #

    It’s only one sample, but my recollection of the purchasers of the two singles is that Pulp was mainly bought by 13-18 year olds and R&J skewed far, far older – the parents of the above in general.

    This was a sole indie shop in the Home Counties though, so nothing like definitive or representative – 18 year olds tended to leave town for higher education or to find affordable housing elsewhere, resulting in a huge demographic hole in the population between the ages of 18 and the early 30s, when some could afford to return.

  12. 72
    enitharmon on 26 Jun 2013 #

    Auntie Beryl @ 71 – I’d like to point out that at the time this was at number 1 I was the parent of a 15-year-old and I wouldn’t have touched this record with the proverbial bargepole. I liked (and still love) Common People though and that was the currency of the people of my age around me at the time.

  13. 73
    Tom on 26 Jun 2013 #

    I don’t know about much of a muchness but at 1.4 million sales vs (I’d guess) 250k-300k, it’s surely a good statistical bet that in any demographic you care to mention, Robson And Jerome sold more than Pulp.

  14. 74

    Of course records bought as presents for others (such as St Winifreds “Grandma We Love You”) have a complicated consumer profile: do you file them under the grandparents or the grandchildren? If this was being bought as a Mothers’ Day present — I know it actually wasn’t but if — then would it be an indication of mum’s actual tastes or just her children’s confused assumptions about same?

    (My mum liked Meat Loaf, as I’ve pointed out before. And my grandma liked Shostakovich and Schubert lieder, but she was still pleased when we bought her “Grandma We Love You”, though I seriously doubt she ever played it after the first time.)

  15. 75
    Rory on 26 Jun 2013 #

    #48 Re “it’s actually a bit strange that we don’t have a fvckton *MORE* TV drama based in this general area” – I wonder if police dramas serve as a surrogate, both here and in the US (fellow martial nation).

    In all this time of studying the list of 1990s UK number ones, I’d assumed that Robson & Jerome were some R&B duo who never made it big outside the UK.

    Yep, I’d take six weeks of HMTMKMKM at number one (as it was in Oz) over this any day.

  16. 76
    enitharmon on 26 Jun 2013 #

    I don’t think it’s the mass of the people that form a “martial nation”. I think it’s the elite that controls the state and creates the notion of the “nation”. The armed forces are there to maintain there to serve the elite, not the nation, and until they are needed to suppress insurrection at home they have to be kept exercised elsewhere.

  17. 77
    Nanaya on 27 Jun 2013 #

    Re: #60/63/64 – obligatory reference to the importance of the ‘Common People’ video in both the song’s success and the brand of Pulp.

  18. 78
    Izzy on 27 Jun 2013 #

    The idea that Britain is a martial nation is ridiculous, when there are plenty of places where the army wields actual political power, not to mention North Korea. Even when a huge proportion of men were experiencing or had experienced military service (i.e. WWII), the country wouldn’t’ve stood for mass fighting and dying – hence D-Day being postponed so long that it would actually work, whereas the Soviets would’ve thrown bodies at the beaches ’til their remaining armies could walk ashore.

    In reality the military barely features in civilian life here bar the odd parade, Northern Ireland being the sad exception.

  19. 79

    Hi Izzy: no, you’re right, we don’t at all have a militarised society, socially or culturally, and our politics is not in any sense dominated by the military. But — just to pick this record’s arrival as a start-point — there hasn’t been a year since 1995 that we haven’t been fighting some sort of a war, large or small. Even setting Northern Ireland on one side as a different, historically complex case that our generations inherited — and I’m not at all sure we should set it on one side — we have taken part in seven wars of choice since 1995: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq twice, Sierra Leone, and this year Mali. We have a significant armed forces in global terms, expensive, well maintained, and — and this is my point — we are not at all shy of using it. So: martial, as I meant it. Martial but not in any way militarised, especially culturally.

    And again, I was being a bit cheekily provocative saying “we are” — because of course plenty of people have argued or agititated against these wars, and some have tried to vote out those who started them; and some certainly think “not in my name” of many of the nation’s actions and characteristics. Nevertheless “we” as a democratic polity — rather than as individuals — have not in fact voted to end any of these wars.

    It’s the semi-hiddenness of much of this that interests me, actually — and a degree of hiddenness was a feature of British cultural life even in the heyday of Empire. When Kipling started writing about ordinary British life in India, it came as a shock to readers in London, and even a scandal.

  20. 80
    Izzy on 27 Jun 2013 #

    That last point is excellent. Was reflecting that Britain (and France) do seem particularly good at that sort of hypocrisy – though I was thinking more in terms of money, in tolerating tax havens, non-domiciles, nepotism. Maybe it’s universal. Maybe in other countries they call it corruption.

  21. 81
    Patrick Mexico on 27 Jun 2013 #

    I’m genuinely too scared to listen to this.

    But I started reading Popular and listening to the entire (!) corresponding top 40s from 1988, is it scarier than Heartbeat by Don Johnson?

  22. 82
    mapman132 on 27 Jun 2013 #

    #81: Can’t believe I’m commenting on this thread yet again, but I’ve always believed that actor cash-in records were the absolute bottom feeders of the 80s-90s pop landscape, below even boy bands, hair bands, novelty songs, and Vanilla Ice. In the US at least, not only was there Don Johnson, but top 10 “hits” by Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Jack Wagner, and probably a bunch of others I’ve blocked from memory. Fortunately these NEVER get played on the radio anymore, not even during retro/nostalgia shows that will play almost anything else from the period in question.

  23. 83
    punctum on 27 Jun 2013 #

    *plays Square Rooms by Al Corley card*

  24. 84
    Cumbrian on 27 Jun 2013 #

    #83: I have just looked that up on Wikipedia. The single sleeve appears to be where Ben Stiller ripped off Blue Steel/Le Tigre/Magnum from for Zoolander.

    There is also Stefan Dennis’ “Don’t It Make You Feel Good” in the period after Kylie and Jason had made successful records and the industry thought that they could just throw any old actor from Neighbours at us.

  25. 85
    Mark G on 27 Jun 2013 #

    .. and they were right, briefly…

  26. 86
    Patrick Mexico on 27 Jun 2013 #

    The OP mentions how strange it would be for soldiers to be posted to New Zealand, but talking of “Coolest Man On The Planet For Two Weeks In the Mid-Eighties” Don Johnson, there was a Miami Vice episode where James Brown plays an alien. Just let me repeat that again: James Brown plays an alien.

    On IMDB, though its users still seem to celebrate MV as a whole as a “groundbreaking classic of its era”, that episode gets an even bigger panning than Robson and Jerome. Never even consciously watched Soldier Soldier. Am I missing anything?

  27. 87
    pootle on 27 Jun 2013 #

    Wasn’t this oddly linked to VE Day anniversaries due to a retro video?

    I had ‘Common People’ to thank for buggering up my first two terms at university, due to over-identifying with working-class chippiness. But then I discovered the relatively class-free computer geeks running the film society and all was well.

  28. 88
    Another Pete on 27 Jun 2013 #

    #87 Yes but that was more to do with the White Cliffs of Dover cover than Unchained Melody.

  29. 89
    Auntie Beryl yet unlogged on 27 Jun 2013 #

    #81 Heartbeat by Don Johnson was never a top forty hit.

    I shouldn’t know this stuff. Off for a life down.

  30. 90
    Patrick Mexico on 27 Jun 2013 #

    #89 I didn’t know he had a full album. I’m getting a bit terrified.

    Here’s a question: what’s the best pop song that consciously or unconsciously sounds like a TV theme tune? The jaunty, plinky-plonky Big Breakfast theme is truly one for all seasons, as it’s been used to great effect on The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me, Bruce Springsteen’s Racing In the Street and give or take a key change, Elastica’s Connection – though perhaps that owed more to the theme from Are You Being Served and Justine’s affected, estuarine accent. There’s a similar accent in a right dubious hairy anchovy of a hit single around right now which could well be the next bunny. Something about basketball springs to mind, and we’re not talking Space Jam..

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