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Apr 14

VARIOUS ARTISTS – “Perfect Day”

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#777, 29th November 1997

PDay Charity covers as multi-artist jigsaw puzzles were a whiskery idea by this point, so it’s remarkable how startling and beguiling “Perfect Day” sounds. It’s a successful reinvention of the Band Aid concept that also more or less finishes it off: the next time I write about this kind of record, it’ll have explicit nostalgic overtones.

There are several things this record gets right. Firstly, it wasn’t a record. The “Perfect Day” collage was a video first – a promotional film for the BBC justifying its license fee – and it had a huge visual impact. Massive stars, enticingly shot, and – crucially – not collaborating. The point of Band Aid and USA For Africa was that the famine crisis had been big enough to bring all of pop together, but the BBC’s aim on “Perfect Day” was to celebrate its diversity, not its unity.

This made the film superb television – gorgeous, colour-saturated portraits of the musicians, a dramatic shift in tone and look every few seconds, and almost a decade before YouTube you couldn’t quite be sure you’d really seen its many surprises. Wait a minute, that was Shane MacGowan!?

The second right choice it makes is the song. The best reading I’ve seen of “Perfect Day” is from the wonderful Bowiesongs blog: it’s sung by a man whose life is so shot that “the perfect day for him is one that the good and prosperous people of the world would forget about in a week.” Whether it’s about heroin or not, it combines a lovely piano and string setting (courtesy of Mick Ronson – another Bowiesongs tip of the hat needed) and plain, halting vocals that turns out to be ideal for this recording’s purpose. There’s room for strong, dominating readings which take their cue from the orchestration – and there’s room for weaker or more idiosyncratic vocalists to take the song flat, like Lou Reed did. And, in fact, does here.

And that’s the third right choice – the idea on “Perfect Day” seems to have been for every performer to be as much themselves as they could possibly be. So Ian Broudie sounds more scouse than ever, Bowie more Sphinx-like, Heather Small more belting, and Huey from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals (somehow) sounds more of a dick.

It feels like the first time since the original Band Aid that someone has thought about how to make one of these Frankenrecords work aesthetically – instead of trying to smooth the juxtapositions over, revel in them. You can spot several places where the gear-shifts seem joyfully deliberate – Huey into Broudie; Boyzone’s timid harmonies shifting to Lesley Garrett; Tammy Wynette feeding Shane MacGowan the track’s best gag. It’s as good as any record that lets Bono have a go twice can be.

By the time “Perfect Day” finishes, with Tom Jones and Heather Small in an absurd, colossal reap-off, we’ve gone back beyond charity records and are firmly in an older entertainment tradition – the TV Christmas special. There’s a loveable, vaguely tacky pantomime ambience at work here – guest stars galore, in relaxed holiday mode – which overwrites any lingering remnants of the song’s original context or emotional heft, and in fact makes its bombastic arrangement enjoyable kitsch. You might say “Perfect Day”’s drive at the spectacular kills the feeling in the song – the specific line readings are mostly just singers performing themselves. But given how overwrought previous charity pass-the-parcels have been, this feels like a price worth paying.

There is one exception to this: Suede’s Brett Anderson drops his vowelly fruitiness for a grave, beaten-down “You’re going to reap just what you sow” to begin the song’s coda, making it sound more like a warning than Reed ever did. This, more than anything, nudged commentators to consider at the politics behind the record. Of course, the BBC didn’t create this simply to give Dr John and Laurie Anderson a Number One single – this is and remains an advert. The whole piece is an argument for the license fee, explicitly stated at the end: without that, you can’t have things like this. For once – between Blair’s election and the death of David Kelly – the BBC could make this case from a position of confidence, which to an unfriendly eye (and there were still many) might look close to hubris.

But if there’s one thing the BBC really had been proven good at, it was creating unusual and spectacular music juxtapositions. They’d had thirty-three years practise at this point. “Perfect Day” works in the same way Top Of The Pops once did, by taking everything happening in music and jumping around between it, making the contrasts the point of the show. But in 1997 TOTP was in decline, shunted opposite Coronation Street on a Friday and subject to perpetual failed relaunches. The new model of how music worked on the BBC was more cautiously curatorial – Matthew Bannister’s Radio 1, with its brief to serve a smaller audience with more explicit tastemaking and a deeper concern with that was cool.

“Perfect Day” straddles these two ideas. It’s a carefully compiled mixture of the current and the classic, of obscure and household names, which then rejects tastefulness in favour of delightful spectacle. It’s a marketing triumph and a lovely moment in the spotlight for some mostly deserving acts. But it’s also the BBC poised between its Top Of The Pops past and its Later With Jools Holland future, a future where the role of “the charts” already looks considerably murkier.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    anto on 5 Apr 2014 #

    #60 – I’m astonished that the Primal Scream album was even nominated – Without doubt the worst long player that I’ve ever handed over cash for. Rather bemusingly it featured a hidden track that was if anything even more crappy than the other songs – Hidden for a reason.

  2. 62
    punctum on 5 Apr 2014 #

    #60: No I fucking well don’t. A big and stupid disaster from which the Mercury prize has never really recovered. Newsflash to “popists,” because I know for a fact that you don’t know this – some pop music is shit.

  3. 63
    Rory on 6 Apr 2014 #

    I hadn’t heard this version until all the Lou Reed obits last year, and haven’t listened to it more than a few times, but it has one big thing going for it: it lets you imagine, in the space of four minutes, something like thirty different cover versions of a very fine original, saving almost two hours of listening time. Which you can then use to listen to Transformer three more times, or watch Trainspotting again.

    Some of those imagined cover versions I would happily hear in full, especially Brett Anderson’s (but also Bono’s, Bowie’s, Suzanne Vega’s… quite a few of them, actually), and a few I’d skip (Joan Armatrading was surprisingly subdued), but in most cases the singers’ readings of one or two lines are enough to evoke the whole, and render full versions unnecessary. Not many tracks capture that sense of hours of music within a single song. The obvious multi-artist charity comparisons, Band Aid, USA for Africa, “Sun City”, don’t give the same sense of hidden vistas, because they were originals. The closest comparison that comes to my mind is Stairways to Heaven, an album collecting covers of the Led Zeppelin song performed as a running gag on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s comedy talk-show The Money or the Gun (which the UK knew for Rolf Harris’s contribution, an out-of-context novelty hit here). But that was a compilation album, not a single song. A compilation song, that’s what this is: the Various Artists moniker feels entirely appropriate.

    I like it for its source, its witty juxtapositions (MacGowan, especially), the shamelessness of those chanted “reap”s, and the fact that it wasn’t conceived as a charity single and released as “Artists United for Auntie Beeb”. There’s certainly enough entertainment here to justify a 6.

    Tom mentions Later with Jools Holland: there’s a Later performance by Lou Reed of this song on YouTube, with an almost unlistenable vocal and a dude doing Tai Chi off to the side; I haven’t made it all the way through it.

    A lot of bagging of Duran Duran’s version above, but Lou Reed admired their take on it, and you have to wonder if its release in 1995 helped inspire the use of the original on Trainspotting and some of the musical choices in this version.

    I’m surprised that this thread hasn’t inspired many digressions by fans of the artists represented here who never had number ones in their own right. I, for one, plan to push it past 200 comments with my extended analysis of the complete works of Suede. (Later. And then home.)

  4. 64
    Rory on 6 Apr 2014 #

    (Comment-in-moderation-queue heads-up.)

    (Edit: Heads-up-in-moderation-queue heads-up.)

  5. 65
    Rory on 6 Apr 2014 #

    Curiosity is prompting me to test whether this third comment in a row ends up in the moderation queue…

    Edit: Yes! I am the Modfather.

  6. 66
    Paulito on 6 Apr 2014 #

    Whenever I hear Heather Small’s voice, on this or any other record, I can’t help but recall an NME review that likened it to the sound of snot being vigorously smeared on a window pane.

  7. 67
    James Masterton on 6 Apr 2014 #

    One of the more positive and understated consequences of the Diana record was that it ushered in the golden age of the CD single. The literal million or so who had queued up to buy that record were suddenly persuaded of the idea that purchasing a single that they happened to have heard on the radio or on TV was a neat idea – this also coinciding with the major supermarkets realising they were a commodity worth devoting shelf space to – both for pester power purposes and also to grab the interest of the casual shopper who would never be seen dead in their local HMV.

    Thus this period features a number of singles which were unexpectedly enormous sellers as they tapped into this market of people who wanted to put something next to Candle In The Wind on the shelf and found much to appeal to them.

    Perfect Day was the perfect supermarket record. Promoted to an audience normally outside the reach of pop music, all in aid of charidee and one which managed the usual feat of featuring some achingly cool artists yet being nailed to the middle of the road at the same time. My mum bought a copy. As did I.

    Over the next few months of chart history there are a number of these records – Never Ever, My Heart Will Go On. All million sellers, all with ‘housewife’ appeal.

    1998 was a Golden Age for grown ups music in the charts, feeding the sales frenzy of 1999 and 2000 as a younger generation caught up and purchased singles in the same massive numbers.

  8. 68
    admin on 6 Apr 2014 #

    Yep – we have a problem with the anti-spam system (Akismet) that might be down to our a change by our server hosts. we’ll keep you posted.

  9. 69
    Rory on 6 Apr 2014 #

    #67: No worries. Sorry about the string of bemused midnight comments.

    Another reason I like this, or at least find it novel: we talked a bit about charity records as protest records on the Dunblane thread; the “Sun City” single definitely was one, but even Band Aid could be considered a political record as well as a charitable one. (Even CITW ’97 in a certain light, as we just discussed.) This record, too, was a protest of sorts: a preemptive protest against changes to the licence fee. A lobbying effort, effectively, by a government body and aimed at ministers, MPs and the wider public. It seems pretty unlikely that such an effort would result in a listenable record, let alone a number one. Had that ever happened before?

  10. 70
    Tom on 6 Apr 2014 #

    #67 weirdly I’ve just been writing about the supermarket effect in the next entry – though obviously that one can’t really be framed as grown up music (or actually it could – but a particular subset of grown ups)

  11. 71
    Billy Hicks on 6 Apr 2014 #

    Yep, we’re now well and truly into an astonishing age for single sales here which continues more or less until the summer of 2002. It actually started with ‘I Wanna Be The Only One’ back in May, since then every week bar one – Hanson’s third – has seen the #1 sell at least 100,000 copies. Although we’ve got years of this to come until the Great Singles Slump Of The Early Noughties hits us in late ’02, it’s worth noting that the year 2000 is actually a little down on 1999 (hello Napster) but 2001 picks things up again thanks to its several million-sellers. After that it’s down all the way until January 2005 and up all the way until Summer 2013.

    The absolute peak of all of this though was late 1997 to early 1998, which as mentioned is just a frenzy of million-sellers one after the other – not just this and the #1s to come but also Torn (peaked at #2) and Angels (peaked at #4!), with even a novelty pop track way down at number 14 selling well over 300,000 copies which I think was a record for a non-top tenner at the time.

    The track? ‘5,6,7,8’ by a bunch of fresh-faced newcomers called Steps.

  12. 72
    Ed on 6 Apr 2014 #

    @69 Clearly what we need right now is a charity / lobbying cover version to make the case for the NHS.

    ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’?

  13. 73
    swanstep on 6 Apr 2014 #

    @Ed, 72. How about Radiohead’s ‘Lurgee’ (an early fan fave)?

  14. 74
    AMZ1981 on 6 Apr 2014 #

    A couple of points nobody seems to have picked up on, interestingly concerning the two Perfect Day contributors that have been most bashed on here.

    Firstly Boyzone had the rare distinction of featuring on both the top two singles when their cover of Baby Can I Hold You entered at two on Perfect Day’s second week. This gave them a hat trick of number two records, one of two acts in 1997 to do (Sash being the other).

    Secondly the much maligned Heather Small. Obviously we never get a chance to discuss her in her own right but it’s interesting that nobody has noted her prior appearance on a number one single which was on the rerecorded Ride On Time.

  15. 75

    why not curate a PERFECTER perfect day? who would you keep? who would you drop? who would you draft? (some notes towards a possible poll)

  16. 76
    Izzy on 6 Apr 2014 #

    it’s interesting that nobody has noted her prior appearance on a number one single which was on the rerecorded Ride On Time.

    What?!

  17. 77
    AMZ1981 on 6 Apr 2014 #

    #76 I’m assuming you’re familiar with Ride On Time and the controversy surrounding the Loleatta Hollaway sample. Midway through that record’s chart run the original version was withdrawn and replaced with one featuring a soundalike vocal from the then unknown Heather Small.

  18. 78
    Izzy on 6 Apr 2014 #

    Amazing. I had no idea about that. Has it ever happened before or since? It almost makes them separate no.1s

  19. 79
    Kinitawowi on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I mostly recall this one for how quickly Harry Enfield And Chums managed to rush out a parody (which I’m not entirely sure wasn’t responsible for giving this the second wind it needed to get back to number one after Christmas).

    But yeah. An interesting collection of artists that would otherwise never have got close to number one (there’s a couple of Morcheeba songs that I like, but…), and a nice dance through the genres as noted way up top, slightly tainted by the knowledge that it’s a BBC promo piece (which I wasn’t aware of at the time – I remember thinking it a bit weird that the BBC were okay to run a parody of a charity record, which of course it wasn’t really). Separate it from the context and it’s still a pretty decent collection of outtakes (a few people have noted that whole songs by some of these artists might be pretty good). 7, I think.

    Huey FLC’s greatest work in the last ages was undoubtedly his role as Toxic Bob in the third generation of Skins.

  20. 80
    nixon on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Re 79: the “second wind” was more likely due to the Beeb producing a “Christmas version” of the video, exactly the same but with snow and fairy lights replacing the sunny garden scenes, which went into heavy rotation some time after the original had already begun to be cut back/shown in shorter form. YouTube has a few copies for the curious who don’t remember, but I recall it being a ubiquitous presence in the week after Christmas 97.

  21. 81
    glue_factory on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Re: 78, did that other version definitely get released in the UK? I’m surprised never to have heard of it, especially given its vocalist. The wikipedia page points to discogs, and that’s the entry for a German cd single (although it does describe it as the “UK Remix”).

  22. 82
    AMZ1981 on 7 Apr 2014 #

    #81 I’m not quite sure of all the ins and outs but the Wikipedia article for Ride On Time http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_on_Time states that the Heather Small re-recording was substituted for the original during the second week of September. Ride On Time hit the top on w/e 9th September so it would have depended how long it took for existing stock of the Loleatta Hollaway version to sell through.

    I’ve reread Tom’s original piece on Ride On Time and in the discussion there’s a comment that the original Hollaway version is quite hard to find now as the Small rerecording became the one used for video and radio purposes. It’s to Black Box’s and Small’s credit that the substitution is not obvious.

    I think that’s right. I was a bit too young to have followed this first time around and it’s not my genre.

  23. 83
    Mark G on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Hang on, if that had happened, I’d have noticed the difference, I’m sure.

  24. 84
    Billy Hicks on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Re Ride on Time, neither version is hard to find and indeed it seems to be a case of pot luck on compilations (and music channels) which version you get, Holloway’s or Small’s. I’ve definitely seen 7″ copies of the re-recorded version (labelled the ‘Massive Mix’ for some reason) and compilations from late 1989 all seem to include Small’s, but in general today whatever the issue was at the time seems to be no longer such a big deal and you just tend to hear whatever copy was picked off the shelf first. In the last ten years I’d pretty much say it’s bang on 50% whether I’ve heard either version played.

    And for those wondering which version they’re most familiar of, here’s Loletta’s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiJ2B8PFjqU

    And here’s Small’s, which seems to be on all the Youtube video copies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lOb799cTxM

    I’d say the biggest difference is on the “You’re such a” (you’re such a, you’re such a” line, where Loletta sings it fairly normally where Small makes it sound oddly Northern by going “YOU’RE SOOCH AH”. Listen for yourself!

  25. 85
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I was 26 when this was released and had been familiar with the song for about 8 years. I liked The VU, and by this point had their albums and a few of Reed’s. Transformer was, by far, my favourite. I quite enjoyed Berlin, to the extent that you can ‘enjoy’ that sort of wallowing in other’s misery. I probably liked the story about Bob Erin getting the sound of kids’ crying hysterically by telling them that their mother had died. His own kids. I say, ‘liked’, probably, I marvelled at the insensitivity of it more.

    I worked part time at the local Odeon and, when Trainspotting came out, my fellow ushers and I would play ‘spot the student pretending to be on heroin’ as we showed people to their seats. There were lots and lots to choose from. Regardless of the producers’ claim to the contrary, Trainspotting made the lifestyle seem quite attractive to a substantial number of young people. I’m not judging anyone, but Trainspotting was a big thing in a lot of ways. We’d call out a mark out of ten and give the winner a small tub of melted ice cream after the adverts. It passed the time.

    I enjoyed the use of PD in Trainspotting. I’d never really thought about it relating to heroin and I don’t necessarily think it does. Trainspotting popularised it, no doubt in my mind. It was, as someone’s said “culty”. Trainspotting put it firmly in the mainstream. Which was what Britpop was, in general. Indie goes mainstream. Which happened following the investment of majors into indies when they realised that they could make money from it, after The Stone Roses.

    I enjoyed this version of it, not least in terms of comedy value. I thought Dr. John’s ‘poyfect’ was entertaining. I thought Bono did what Noël Gallagher made a career out of: sounding ‘deep’, but without any real understanding of what he was saying. Like me reading something in German and trying to put emphasis and expression into a language I have no understanding of at all. Tom Jones and Heather Small just bellowing in tribute to William Faulkner/Shakespeare, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Brett Anderson in non ‘oh-ho’ mode, for a change. Pantomime horse mode, regretfull, instead. At least he had two forms of expression, unlike Tom or Heather.

    Huey was and is a person who tries so, so very hard to look effortless. Truly cringeworthy. Who buys into this nonsense? Students pretending to be on heroin is my guess.

    It was alright. I didn’t buy it because I didn’t need to. It was on telly every hour or so – I didn’t have satellite tv – and I can’t really think of an occasion when I’d choose to listen to it. I still don’t turn it off if it comes on the radio, as it did following Lou Reed’s death quite often.

    Apart from the contributors generally getting a rough ride here, including the BBC, the main problem was avoiding tokenism. How could they not?

    On the whole, it could have been a lot worse. As po-faced as some of the contributors undoubtedly were, it only added to its comedy value. Which, in turn, diluted some of the (alleged) bleakness that it picked up from the Trainspotting association.

    6.

  26. 86
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Also, I forgot about Gabrielle, whose vocal tic of adding ‘-a’ on the end of words that would otherwise require extending in a manner that she was incapable of (perhaps a Mark E Smith influence, I’m joking, of course) is in evidence here, as it was on everything she ever did.

    ‘I’m glad I spent it with-a you’

    In some ways, this sort of thing illustrates how few singers have more than one or two little signatures of their style. It’ says if on this sort of thing, they have to get their tic in, or nobody’ll know it’s them.

    I mentioned Brett Anderson’s habit of singing ‘oh-ho’ on almost everything he ever did, Gabrielle’s ‘-a’ suffix. Who else has a very limited vocal palette?

  27. 87
    glue_factory on 8 Apr 2014 #

    Thanks Billy Hicks and AMZ1981, I never knew any of that. I’m rather looking forward to hearing the Heather Small’s version when I get home tonight.

  28. 88
    Steve Williams on 9 Apr 2014 #

    #80 That’s right. The first time I saw the film was, I remember, in September 1997 when it appeared before BBC2’s Radio 1 Night. I think that might have been its first ever outing. As mentioned, it was shown in various lengths over the next few weeks, though I can’t remember what they did when the Beeb changed their logo a few weeks later.

    But then at Christmas, it was actually billed in the TV guides at various points as “A Perfect Day For Christmas” as almost a programme in its own right. The Harry Enfield parody was on Christmas Eve, so he really got it out sharpish. I remember when that show was repeated the following year they chopped it out completely, because it was the day of the Omagh bombing and it was faded out so they could get to the news on time, and then it didn’t appear in the VHS version, presumably for clearance reasons, and so I never saw it again.

  29. 89
    tm on 9 Apr 2014 #

    I agree with Tom that Heather Small vs Tom Jones is a naff highlight of this rather than an embarrassment. Mind you I liked M People when I was a pre-teen though I’d gone off them by the time of their butchering Itchycoo Park. In fact I like (in small doses) voices that are bordering on the silly.

    The singers who irk me most on this and indeed on covers in general are those who mess with the timing. It’s something a few great singers (and Mark E Smith) can do well and on the right track but most just sound like they’re doing it because that’s what a jazz singer would do, telegraphing that theirs is a proper interpretation and not a karaoke cover version. I don’t think Perfect Day (or most pop songs) benefit from this approach (unless you are actually as good at it as Nina, Billie, Mark E etc) and you notice that the classical singers on this do it completely straight.

  30. 90
    ciaran on 11 Apr 2014 #

    I enjoyed this one more than many of 97’s Number 1’s..I remember watching it on BBC one quiet afternoon well before it was released, thinking it would be forgotten about soon only to reappear soon and get to the top. Friends used to do the operatic bits brilliantly.

    A bit of a risk to make it given how badly charity singles with numerous artists had fared since the late 80s but this one seemed to get it spot on. Getting Bono and Heather Small to sing 2 separate parts was a bit much but overall quite pleasant.

    8

  31. 91
    Steve Williams on 11 Apr 2014 #

    There was a second BBC-derived release of Perfect Day in 2000 based around the Beeb’s Music Live event which was held over the Spring Bank Holiday. The programme itself lasted 24 hours from 10pm on Sunday to 10pm on Monday, with various special shows, there was a live Top of the Pops from Sheffield Arena, a live Blue Peter and sundry other items such as an attempt to create a boyband in 24 hours, before that became an entire entertainment concept in its own right.

    At the climax of proceedings was a Nationwide-esque cross-country link-up where loads of the artists who took part all sang Perfect Day, with Lou Reed himself chipping in from the USA, and that was released as a single. But technically it was all over the place, so it sounded more like a cover of a track from Metal Machine Music.

  32. 92
    James BC on 15 Apr 2014 #

    Going back to the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and their approach of
    adopting a particular stylised “cool” and doing it to death, I’ve been struggling to think of other examples but maybe Lana Del Rey would be a modern-day equivalent.

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