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Oct 13

MARK MORRISON – “Return Of The Mack”

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#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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Comments

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  1. 31
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Oct 2013 #

    This is pretty great, far better than anyone had any reason to expect it to be (his other singles prior to this one, and of those I can recall later were a bit meh, as we didn’t say then). Sure-fire dancefloor classic, no more, no less. Not obviously of its time: could have been made 10 years or 20 years earlier (ah: hello next bunny. you too? ah.) , and would still sound good, and indeed, a few minor technical points (and yes, samples) aside, pretty much identical.

    7 I think.

  2. 32
    Izzy on 3 Oct 2013 #

    Very good record. I hated it at the time of course – indie orthodoxy – but Mark’s utter ridiculosity has left many fond feelings for the guy. Better than being a regular one-hit wonder, but no substitute for a proper career.

    I stumbled on a pleasing a capella when searching for this. The vocal sounds far more processed than I’d’ve thought – lots of echo, very tight double-tracking, the lead vocal sounds autotuned throughout. It may just be for this version I guess, I’m not conscious of it at all on the full version (on relistening it is processed, though it doesn’t sound to be quite to the same extent). The ad libs are left natural, and sound great.

    Made me try to isolate the backing track, actually. It does a good job of sounding like a chilled party; I’m not sure whether that’s actual background chatter or a found sound. It all sounds very sweet and relaxed; no hint that Mark’s going to burst in with loads of guns or anything.

    In summary it’s no *2003 bunny*, but it’d make a decent substitute. (8)

  3. 33
    @sowton on 3 Oct 2013 #

    http://t.co/zgJisLQvyL

  4. 34
    Mark M on 3 Oct 2013 #

    I have good reasons not to love this, but I do. My issue with it was purely personal: for years and years afterwards, I’d give my name on the phone to someone at a utility company or the council, and they’d say, ‘Oh, like the Return of the Mack guy?’ and I’d have to go, ‘Almost, but I’m Morris, not Morrison.’ Still, rather him than Mr Morriss from Britpop bores The Bluetones.

    Anyway, but so, I think Tom and Marcello have done a good job with the song itself. Although I’m not that sure that British R&B has had the same issues that British hip-hop has, and funnily enough, Dizzee Rascal was saying pretty much the same thing on in an entertaining Radio 4 interview this evening. Singing is singing, but rapping is, I guess, less natural and for a long time it was felt that the right way to do it was not just the American way, but the New York way (‘can British people rap?’ was a debate first heard around the same time that ‘can guys from LA rap?’ was still considered a question worth asking).

    What I would say is that Morrison might have come from Leicester, but the song sounded well at home in South London, where it was boomed out of superbass car speakers a lot that spring and early summer. And rightly so.

  5. 35
    flahr on 4 Oct 2013 #

    “it was felt that the right way to do it was not just the American way, but the New York way (‘can British people rap?’)”

    REBEL MC TO THREAD

  6. 36
    flahr on 4 Oct 2013 #

    (oh, and an almost entirely uninformed 6)

  7. 37
    ciaran on 4 Oct 2013 #

    My mum is actually from Leicester.I spent a week in late November 96 over there visiting relatives but no one had anything to say about Mark Morrison.Then again the intial ROTM-buzz had passed by a good 5/6 months at that stage.The talk of everyone in the area was Leicester City’s very good start to the 96/97 premiership campaign when relegation was being tipped beforehand.Also you had tabloid expectations for the forthcoming Only Fools and Horses Christmas specials and the changing of the guard in Pop Music.Ye’ll find out who soon enough!

    ROTM baffled me slightly at first.Why was a singer who I can only remember from a TOTP rundown showing he had a top 20 chart entry during some other music video in 1995 be writing about his own comeback.

    ROTM was also quite a slow burner if I can remember.Not a favourite at first listen but very radio friendly and gaining momentum all the time.An unmistakably British R+B vibe to it and none the worse for it.Leicester isnt the type of city you’d associate ROTM with but there was a strong Black population around the place back then.Around arcades and cars IIRC.

    I liked ROTM at the time and many of the friends did too.Never was heard at school discos though.One of those songs that seemed to get better with every listen.

    It’s surprisingly good to liten to after a long long time.Bouncy and well performed.A 7 from me.

    Morrison’s subsequent shoddy material worked against ROTM in the long run.Its not really remembered as well as it should be now.The fall from favour was not far removed from Vanilla Ice.The number 1 records of this time for many reasons had more longevity too.

    The video is a bit odd.Easy to see it as now as an early indicator of the garage scene that would break around 2000.A bunnied artist from that year must surely have been influenced by Morrison’s success (bo!)

  8. 38
    mapman132 on 4 Oct 2013 #

    This was a decent-sized hit in America – it eventually peaked at #2 in 1997. I couldn’t remember what blocked it, but according to Wikipedia it was [bunny]. And I agree with the general consensus – it’s actually pretty good, even though I usually don’t like R&B much. 7/10.

    Too bad he turned out to be such a jerk…

  9. 39
    swanstep on 4 Oct 2013 #

    This one’s new to me. Hate the guy’s lack of diction (Luther Vandross with marbles in his mouth) but the slow groove’s sweet (Ha! ‘Genius of Love being pillaged for its bottom end and drums here just as Mariah pillaged it for its top end keyboard hook – I guess a jam’s a jam and I assume Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth got paid both times), and the vowels at least are nice. The best hook for me is that just-audible, high, whining swell-synth that emerges every 8, sometimes every 16 bars. Nice.

    Anyhow, I gave Soul II Soul’s ‘Back To Life’ a (high) 8 so this one has to go significantly below that, so for me a:
    7

  10. 40
    Mark M on 4 Oct 2013 #

    For those who weren’t around at the time, or weren’t listening to much stuff in this genre, this is probably the US yardstick Morrison was working against.

  11. 41
    anto on 4 Oct 2013 #

    A very dapper single. One of the best productions on any of the number ones from this time. I didn’t really go for it but it made sense at the top of the charts.
    It was also very timely. At the beginning of 1996 British cinema seemed to be in it’s best shape for several years with the releases almost concurrently of ‘Trainspotting’,’Sense & Sensibility’ and ‘Secrets & Lies’. All three were good films with an apppeal across age ranges and tastes and a wealth of British talent involved. These films were also sucessful at the box office and did pretty well internationally. Around this time, it might have been at one of the film festivals or maybe a press event, but I recall there was a special reception for the people involved with this mini-renaissance. Just about everyone who worked on the films was there, but there was one notable absentee – Marianne-Jean Babtiste the black actress who played Hortense, the optomitrist who goes in search of the birth mother who gave her up for adoption in ‘Secrets & Lies’. As her character is at the centre of the films story you would have thought Babtiste would be one of the first names on the list for this reception, but no the organisers had simply forgotten to invite her, or maybe forgot she was British.
    At near enough the same time a British singer swept the board at the Grammy Awards when Seal enjoyed considerable success with ‘Kiss From A Rose’. Surely there would be a lot of coverage in the UK press about this London-born singer winning a clutch of awards for his song? As it turned out there was virtually nothing about it and far more interest in the obnoxious way Oasis were presenting themselves to the USA – Liam spitting on stage, the brothers rowing again and some embarrassing ‘we’ll-show-these-yanks’type talk all of which insured that America would understandably lose interest.
    I don’t know if it was early ’96 or a bit later that we started hearing the phrase ‘Cool Brittania’ being used, but it seemed for some people British acheivments and Britishness were not so much a black-and-white as a white-and-white matter. In this context ‘The Return of the Mack’ was a much-needed nudge.

  12. 42
    leveret on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #40 I also wonder how much of an influence Bobby Brown might’ve been on Mark Morrison? Some of the same belligerence and defensiveness that you find in something like ‘My Prerogative’ seems to be present here, and they seem quite similar stylistically (to a non R&B afficianado like me, anyway).

  13. 43
    Izzy on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #41: As I recall, Seal got a bit of coverage, roughly in line with what one would expect when someone from here makes it big over there without actually being big over here at the same time. Bush or Dido spring to mind – a little attention, but nothing to bite on.

    The suggestion that he ought to have been on a par with the rolling maul surrounding Oasis isn’t how the gossip media works, I don’t think. Seal’s is essentially a one-off curio which doesn’t really translate – who here really pays attention to the Grammies? – whereas the Oasis fiasco was basically the same running story that had long been filling tabloids, only on a different stage.

  14. 44
    taDOW on 4 Oct 2013 #

    mark m otm bringing up montell! for years i’d get the two confused, until finally the reminders (in the song itself) that ‘this is how we do it’ was part of a def jam resurgence helped remind me that the other one was the british dude. re: british acts having success in american r&b staying very strictly within its limitations or lifting out of the genre completely if they move beyond them, i think it might be somewhat true here (why this is a 6 or maybe a 7 for me) but not entirely sure it is for lisa stansfield and definitely not the case w/ sade, who was and still is a giant in this market. interesting to me that seal never made much headway on r&b radio, he was always an adult contemporary artist whose music owed a little something to r&b (not uncommon in the 90s: des’ree, dionne faris), while sade was an r&b artist whose musice owed a little something to adult contemporary. babyface managed to stride the two like a colossus and ruled the 90s until timbaland came and shifted the ground. r kelly spent much of the later 90s attempting to stride the two – first w/ great success (commercially at least) w/ ‘i believe i can fly’ (from the same soundtrack that features seal doing a steve miller cover), then diminishing returns w/ ‘gotham city’ and the celine collaboration. there was a moment in the very early 00s i thought that grime might manage to have an impact stateside (and not just pfork kids knowing who dizzee rascal is), i can remember hearing signifiers in various tracks i took to reading as fingerprints, that there was some cross atlantic gene flow. turned out not to be the case and any brit influence on r&b came thru a predictable vector, adult contemporary once again. enter coldplay.

  15. 45
    fivelongdays on 4 Oct 2013 #

    This is, taken out of context, a perfectly pleasant, groovy, well-sung and amiably ridiculous song about a bloke who wants to stick two fingers up to his ex. You could, quite easily, see it as Britsoul version of ‘Out Of Time’ and would, in and of itself, get a seven or even an eight from me.

    Since, however, we are talking about the song in context, and that context being that it was a number one. And this is one of those cases where the number two is an unimpeachable classic.

    A Design For Life is a glorious statement, an anthem which – although somewhat unbeknownst to me – would finally make me realise that it was OK to be an intelligent Welsh boy in my backwater, hick, borderline westcountry town. Forget the cack that masquerades as the latest album, ADFL is truly elegiac and properly anthemic. It’s a real comeback, a real return (and what happened to the Manics was far worse than getting dumped), and rather than bang on in detail about what happened, its existence alone says ‘We Are Back’. I have said before that when a great song gets kept off number one, but the act in question either had, or would have, number ones, it isn’t really a Great Chart Injustice (D’you really think The Beatles record was diminished by Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever losing out to Please Release Me?), but this feels like one, that’s for sure. Even though I’m not sure if it’d make my top five, or (sometimes) my top ten Manics singles (trust me, I will have an absolute fuckton of things to say about ’em in the fullness of time, and I hope that you’ll tolerate this post, and the bunny won’t be next), A Design For Life is a 10.

    Which, to paraphrase Billy Hicks, makes me wonder why the hell the British Public chose some bloke from Leicester singing about how is ex is a slag instead.

    Three.

  16. 46
    lonepilgrim on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #41 I’m pretty sure that the event from which Marianne Jean-Baptiste was omitted was an event to celebrate British Actresses at the Cannes Film Festival – when ‘Secrets and Lies’ won the Palme D’Or there was much (deserved) embarrassment that she had been ‘overlooked’ and she was hurriedly flown out.

  17. 47
    Query on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #40 Which, of course, is practically a remix of “Children’s Story”, produced by the London-born Slick Rick!

  18. 48
    thefatgit on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #41 The MOBO Awards began in 1996 didn’t they? Not hard to see why, when some talented and successful black performers of the day were being considered an afterthought.

  19. 49
    Billy Smart on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #45 Except it wasn’t a ‘choice’ for the public. Certainly not for me anyway, because I bought both of them!

  20. 50
    James BC on 4 Oct 2013 #

    Great song and highly recommended for karaoke.

    I used to love the way that every time he went on Top of the Pops, he would keep dropping in lines from other songs of his.

  21. 51
    mapman132 on 4 Oct 2013 #

    #3 “the first black British male solo artist to have a number one single”

    Is this really true? I guess you’re not counting Eddy Grant and Billy Ocean for being born outside the UK (although they spent some of their formative years in London)?

    If this IS true however, it means at least two Afro-Brit males (Maxi Priest and Seal) had US#1’s before an Afro-Brit male had a UK#1. Who would’ve guessed?

  22. 52
    Mark G on 4 Oct 2013 #

    Or even Emile Ford.

  23. 53
    flahr on 4 Oct 2013 #

    He wasn’t a solo act though (and apparently he was born in Saint Lucia, although it was a British colony at the time so dunno what that means)

  24. 54
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Oct 2013 #

    Ah, Mark Morrison, you bastion of macho, swaggering masculinity, you American Adventure Theme Park where guns, bitches and bling are not part of the four elements of hip-hop, but one definite being free scampi-and-chips for every senior citizen, you Ashby-de-la-Zouch and “duck” suffix-infused Fray Bentos pie of a man.

    Adapted IKEA flatpack-style to all the Blade films but looks like he spent too long in a Salford jewellers. You are also the cultural absolutist opposite of Mark Morriss, though in their most fondly-remembered moment visions haemorrhage of pram-pushing jumble sale mums with the inconsistently galloping souls of cheese and onion crisps.

    As the “crap hooligan flick with great 80s club soundtrack pretending everyone in Thatcher’s Britain” bassline kicks in, we know the guy means business. And it’s a nasty business. It’s also a Yahtzee business, as his future misdemeanours would eventually make him run out of throws of the dice. But he’s been let down. Mark, stop lying about your Big Break! And who’s been snookering you, snookering you tonight? Well.. hearing anecdotes on this thread, usually I’d be as quick to leave the table if MM sat down next to me in the pub as Jim Davidson. And the chorus is going on and on and on.. Are you Jimmy Ray? Well, are you? Are you Sting Ray? And who is the Mack? Just tell us, stop teasing.

    It treads an unusual line between absolute confidence (especially about stock elements of this genre to create something distinctive) and a genuine sense of heartbreak, and better still, it was torpedoed into the height of “Bands who aren’t as good as the Sleeperblokes without Louise”, before R&B became oversaturated. Er, that’s all folks.

    7.

  25. 55
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Oct 2013 #

    *crap hooligan flick with great 80s club soundtrack pretending everyone in Thatcher’s Britain wanted nothing but a good time. But not the one by Poison, when the glam-metal beat combo played rocky islands off the Cornish coast – that would just be Scilly.

  26. 56
    Tim Byron on 5 Oct 2013 #

    I recall absolutely despising Mark Morrison and ‘Return Of The Mack’ when it first made a dent on my consciousness when it got to #2 in Australia (held back from the top by Celine Dion and then the Macarena in August-September). The guy just seemed like an arsehole, some incredibly up himself wannabe star who was trying way too hard. I suspect I heard and saw the swagger and confidence, and didn’t hear that the bravado was the thin veil. I don’t think I had any idea he was English – I think I assumed he was from the US, which suggests he pulled off the vibe pretty well.

    In 2008, I lived in an apartment complex that was right next to a service station, and we would often be woken at 1am by cars blaring loud R&B or dance music. On more than one occasion it was “Return Of The Mack”. We found this extremely comical at the time – because I’m sure Return of the Mack wouldn’t have entered my consciousness at all in the intervening time. And so the idea that there was some guy in a hotted up Suzuki Swift who was totally stuck in 1996, who was driving around imagining he was The Mack.

    In a funny way, the song becoming comical, an injoke between me and my partner, has led me to warm to the song where I’d initially hated it; it works much better if you don’t take Morrison at face value, and the song being funny meant that we didn’t.

  27. 57
    calumerio on 5 Oct 2013 #

    To the manor born, surely, unless manner was deliberate.

  28. 58
    Rory on 5 Oct 2013 #

    @57: The title of the Penelope Keith TV series was a pun on the original saying, “to the manner born” = “born into that way of doing things”.

  29. 59
    Kinitawowi on 5 Oct 2013 #

    #45: The Manics’ time will come, but surely with the wrong tracks; ADFL will always be the one that got away. But you’re right, of course – The One And Only isn’t that terrible in its own right, but what it did to James and Sit Down (with the Waterboys’ The Whole Of The Moon at three; how the hell did Chesney frickin’ Hawkes best both of those two?! What chart god looked down at those three songs and decided that The One And Only deserved the top spot?!) is something I’ll never be able to forgive.

    As for Return Of The Mack… it’s one of those that gets my score I reserve for “probably not that bad, but simply not my Thing”. A resounding 4.

  30. 60
    Izzy on 5 Oct 2013 #

    The One And Only must’ve been a close-run thing – iirc both the others made no.1 on the competing chart that counted down on commercial radio on a Sunday afternoon (sorry, can’t remember the presenter or which stations)

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