Oct 13

MARK MORRISON – “Return Of The Mack”

Popular88 comments • 14,736 views

#736, 30th March 1996

British R&B – like UK hip-hop – has tended to suffer credibility issues*. Back in the 50s and 60s, British groups lifted American sounds, but the American originals weren’t easy to find, and the signal could be scrambled in transmission. Productive mishearings ensued: the result, to a great extent, was the story we’ve been telling on this blog. By the mid-90s, things were different. News travelled faster, and production techniques were more transferable – the globalisation of pop apparent in the 21st century was well under way.

But they were also not so different – the British response to modern American music was still, typically, a slightly lead-footed imitation of it, just as it had been 40 years before. It’s the curse of the borrowing culture: you accept conventions as limits. When Britain did manage something more creative or divergent, the hybrid quickly got packaged up into its own genre – trip-hop, or later grime – and the more standard local product lapsed into general adequacy.

So one extraordinary thing about “Return Of The Mack” is that it seemed to have none of this cultural cringe. It was very good, and very good in exactly the way American R&B could be. There was nothing even slightly apologetic about its utter self-possession: the kind of absolute, to-the-manner-born confidence that stars exude. Which makes the other extraordinary thing about it – how comprehensively Mark Morrison fucked his opportunity up – even odder and sadder. On the strength of this song, we expected a superstar: we got a trivia answer, a panel show joke.

But in the context of the song, all that confidence might be a front – this guy’s been wounded, publically, by his ex, and he’s putting on a comeback show for himself, for his buddies, but especially for her. “All this pain you said I’d never feel – but I do, but I do do do”. And the more you listen the smaller he sounds – “hold on, be strong” Morrison mutters to himself on the outro.

The music certainly has his back – the rubbery basslines cocooning the song, the satisfying crunch of the drums, the light keyboard touches helping Morrison glide along his comeback trail. “Return Of The Mack” is a pleasure to listen to, a well-tailored suit of sound. But what’s it covering up? This is the final, hardest part of a break-up – the point where you have to turn “over it” from private claim to public practise – and it’s no wonder Morrison starts bolshy and ends up brittle. His smooth, high voice trails away at the end of every line, a vulnerable touch to counter the swagger. Perhaps this song is more British than it sounds.

*(in the case of UK hip-hop this was somewhat unfair: Britain produced a lot of enjoyable local hip-hop, which Freaky Trigger pal Tim Hopkins used to turn into excellent compilations. But it was a tight scene, deep-buried and little-respected, with no chance of national success let alone ever travelling.)



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  1. 1
    Tom Ewing (@tomewing) on 3 Oct 2013 #

    The Mack is back (& so, after a quick conference season break, is Popular) http://t.co/bdSONdf0ZI

  2. 2
    Alex on 3 Oct 2013 #

    May I be the first to say: I’m Mark Morrison! I’m Mark Morrison! Don’t you know who I am?

  3. 3
    punctum on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Britsoul’s Pete Doherty became the first black British male solo artist to have a number one single (even though he was born in Hanover), and almost certainly the first chart-topper since Showaddywaddy to have grown up in Leicester. It is a shame that his subsequent exploits and run-ins with the law – most famously, after being found guilty of firearms offences and sentenced to community service, he sent a lookalike to serve out the time while he jetted off to Barbados – brought his career to a premature and ignominious end since “Return Of The Mack” is one of the great Britsoul records, good enough to keep the Manics’ post-bereavement comeback single “A Design For Life” in second place.

    It is an unlikely twin to “Ain’t No Doubt” in its midtempo swagger and its rhetorical address of the double-crossing Other, though Morrison addresses her directly with his repeated, askance “You lied to me” before confidently reasserting his return to the world (“So baby listen carefully/While I sing my comeback song”). In the chorus he exultantly celebrates his triumph against all odds – “here I go!” “oh my God!” “pump up the world!” – against the titular chant. While vocally he appeared to take Cameo’s Larry Blackmon as a role model, the record is an astute celebration of all that was good in the twenty preceding years of British soul and dance music; the easy but insistent rhythm recalls Junior Giscombe, Cutmaster and Joe’s virulent scratching hook it up to the mid-eighties of Coldcut and M/A/R/R/S, the aquatically echoed rhythms place it in the nineties, the vocal arrangements to the late seventies heyday of Hi-Tension. And Morrison handles the voices with deft skill; the (mock?) vulnerability of his “but I do, but I do, do, do” is counterbalanced by the cocksure wink of “wants my pearl.” Another example (thus far thrown up) of great British pop which didn’t quite fit into Britpop.

  4. 4
    Kat but logged out innit on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Far superior to his work with the Bluetones etc

    I remember there was a big hoo-haa about him being in prison for assault/guns/whatever (didn’t realise there were handcuffs on the cover though!) which I guess was played up as much as possible to add to the ‘Americanness’ of it all? In the end I shrugged off the gnawing feeling that I shouldn’t like this song & thus be encouraging this sort of violent dude, and just lapped up the awesome call/response bits (“OH MA GAWD!” “HERR I GAWW”).

  5. 5
    Mark G on 3 Oct 2013 #

    At least two singles by himself predate this one, so that’s my opening “first artist to start with a title indicating a comeback” blown..

  6. 6
    Mark G on 3 Oct 2013 #

    I do remember about a year after this occasion, looking at the US singles chart and finding this one, which is a mark of respect from the origin, yeah. Actually, it stayed in that chart for a very long time!

  7. 7
    EndlessWindow on 3 Oct 2013 #

    This one didn’t translate to the playground in the way Firestarter did, so I can’t claim much contemporary knowledge of this one. Having first heard it a few years back though, it’s a very strong track – as already pointed out, Morrison’s vocal conveys something far more nuanced and emotionally complex and the swaggering comeback the lyrics would have you believe. And personally, I’m in favour of any record that can sneak Genius of Love by Tom Tom Club into the Popular canon…

    As a Manics fan though, I do have to note that while this is probably a 7 or 8, A Design For Life would have been an unquestionable 10 for me. A beautiful eulogy to the band’s past and their roots that felt far mor fin de siecle than any bunny I can recall this side of the millenium.

  8. 8
    thefatgit on 3 Oct 2013 #

    The Leicester connection: if there are any Leicesterites lurking, could you confirm that Mark Morrison is held in as high esteem as Englebert Humperdinck and Showaddywaddy? Or is it all Kasabian, Kasabian, Kasabian these days?

    Anyhoo, ROTM swings nicely, and it’s undoubtedly the best of his output. Punctum beat me to the punch with the “sounds like Larry Blackmon” thing, so not a lot to add, really.

  9. 9
    punctum on 3 Oct 2013 #

    There are still some hardcore Joe Orton, Family and bunnied future Popular act (not Kasabian) defenders out there, I reckon.

  10. 10
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Also from Leicester: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Dodd_(broadcaster)

    (idea PD has a fandom is kind of an in-joke with myself, tho mark morris will possibly get it)

  11. 11
    Nixon on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Help me out here, as I think my memory’s playing tricks. Didn’t Chris Evans (claim to) have something to do with this hitting #1? It had already been a top 5 hit for a few weeks until Evans started playing it all the time, possibly as some sort of hilarious joke – I remember him sheepishly apologising for causing it (in his head anyway) to implausibly leapfrog the aforementioned Manics record to the top. But I have a feeling I may have muddled up several different memories there.

  12. 12
    Nixon on 3 Oct 2013 #

    (Implausibly because that was against the grain of a singles chart lifespan at the time, not because this isn’t good or anything – I agree with 8)

  13. 13
    Tom on 3 Oct 2013 #

    D’oh! Larry Blackmon – of course.

    It sounds like the kind of thing Chris Evans would say (and would fit the Britpop worldview as it started getting less and less ‘pop’ – an R&B record as a silly novelty next to the Important Rock Single) (a dumb attitude even when the rock single WAS great)

    Of course in an ideal world this AND A Design For Life would have got to #1, and I’d have the extremely pleasant problem of writing about the latter. But at least I’ll get to read Lena’s piece on it.

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    thefatgit on 3 Oct 2013 #

    #10 Reading that wiki page on Philip Dodd, he’ll sorta kinda feature in just over 1 Popular year from now, as part of a National rebranding exercise, if you know what I mean.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Oct 2013 #

    PD looms large in my personal mythology — I certainly owe him a professional debt for hiring me at S&S — but i’d take the claims made on his er haha “behalf” on much of that wikip page with an entire radioactive pillar of salt

    meanwhile larry blackmon’s wikip page is distressingly stubform :(

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    enitharmon on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Marcello @9 – I’ll certainly put in a word for Family, a fine band whose legacy seems not to have stood up to the passage of time.

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    lonepilgrim on 3 Oct 2013 #

    I didn’t know until now that the song sample ‘Genius of Love’ but that helps to (partially) explain why the song has such an engaging, propulsive shuffle. MM gives a confident performance that balances bravado with vulnerability, qualities that are echoed by the other instruments and voices rising and falling from the foreground to the background.

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    23 Daves on 3 Oct 2013 #

    I went to university with someone who had a very minor ‘run-in’ with Mark Morrison before he was famous back in her native Leicester. I got to hear the run-of-the-mill details of this every single time his name was mentioned (he pushed her out of the way in a local nightclub or something – I doubt the tabloid press would have been interested in her story then, never mind now) so whenever I hear “Return of the Mack” it always comes with an internalised commentary of “Eh! He’s a bloody ‘orrible man!” This probably undercuts its intended American R&B sophistication a little bit for me.

    I don’t think this is purely to blame for “Return of the Mack” failing to grab my attention, though. It was a huge single and seemed to be everywhere for awhile, but its mid-tempo swagger did nothing for me. I was neither irritated nor thrilled by it, and its a track I tend to completely forget about until someone else brings it up in conversation.

    I also distinctly remember getting a promo CD for “Only God Can Judge Me” in the post, sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the large titlefont on the sleeve and wondering if it was a genius marketing move or a very, very stupid one.

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    enitharmon on 3 Oct 2013 #

    [Goes to YouTube to find this hitherto unfamiliar track]
    [Turns youTube off again smartish]
    [Finds some Wilson Pickett to listen to]

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    Tom on 3 Oct 2013 #

    #18 The defiance in ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ is, as Kat points out, very American – incarceration (or community service) as a scar inflicted on the star by the system, whose authority he rejects. In the US it’s still risky, but backed up with a certain amount of cultural power, and a wide audience primed to stand by their stars, and a general acceptance among that audience that the system IS unforgiveably skewed. I don’t think Britain had those elements at the time. I also think you would need to be a REALLY hot star to use defiance as an excuse to cover up only recording 3 actual tracks on a 9-‘song’ mini-LP.

  21. 21
    will on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Well, this is brilliant. No two ways about it. Probably my favourite Number One of ’96.

    But Mark Morrison the person? What a curious individual he was. All that handcuffs-jangling, self-conscious adoption of US gangsta imagery, and eventually, behaviour. Why?

  22. 22
    Tom Ewing (@tomewing) on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Low comments box turnout on the latest Popular entry http://t.co/bdSONdf0ZI I fear this is no way to treat The Mack :(

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Marky Mack’s two previous (and also quite tickable) hits sounded more American than this to me (‘Let’s Get Down’ may actually have had the best prominent bassline in an R&B or hip hop hit since ‘The Humpty Dance’) and I was really surprised how well ROTM did in the US. But the success seemed to go to his head in a bad way – nothing he released after this seemed any good at all.

    On the Chris Evans connection I do recall he was whisked into the TFI Friday studios immediately upon his release from prison in order to perform this song.

  24. 24
    Another Pete on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Maybe the US gangsta imagery might of worked more if he was from London or Birmingham rather than a provincial city like Leicester. Great song though might be better without the spoken ‘Mark, stop worrying about your big break’ bit

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    Jon (@jon_roc) on 3 Oct 2013 #

    But they do, but they do do do :( RT @tomewing Low comments box turnout… http://t.co/482wHtJBLa I fear this is no way to treat The Mack :(

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    hectorthebat on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Sample watch: as well as the Tom Tom Club sample, there are also samples of “Games” by Chukii Booker, “Rocket in the Pocket” by Cerrone, “Feel the Heartbeat” by the Treacherous Three, “UFO” by ESG, and “Peter Piper” by Run DMC. Most samples so far?

  27. 27
    iconoclast on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Hm – another piece of self-promotion masquerading as a song. Not as bad as I’d feared, but as enitharmon implies, this kind of thing has already been done before, and better. It’s pleasant enough, and quite well sung, but the repetitive backing gets tiresome, and it’s ultimately all rather forgettable. FIVE.

  28. 28
    lonepilgrim on 3 Oct 2013 #

    btw this currently has the same ‘number’ and date as Firestarter – if this gets changed perhaps this comment could be deleted

  29. 29
    Birdseed on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Certainly the best collections of sampled tracks so far! Those are all bona-fide classics.

  30. 30
    pink champale on 3 Oct 2013 #

    I love this. First off, the sound is gorgeous, slighty reminiscent of Creep, I think. And there’s a great tension and release thing going on, with the verses circling and returning obsessively to the same paranoid thoughts – like a bloke pacing in his cell, innit – and then the chorus surging forward triumphantly, but all the time with Mark’s obsessive babble alternately reassuring and undercutting himself. A triumph.

    i remember having a big row with a girl I was seeing about MM’s Brits performance – basically sexy WPCs on his case – with me arguing in vain that it was pop genius and her having precisely none of it for Chris Evans type reasons. It didn’t last and it happened that my feelings changed before hers…

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