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.