4
Apr 14

VARIOUS ARTISTS – “Perfect Day”

Popular92 comments • 9,713 views

#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.

6

Comments

1 2 3 All
  1. 1
    punctum on 4 Apr 2014 #

    No one seems to have stopped to think about the aptness of “Perfect Day” as an all-star charity record, but in truth the tale of two junkies vainly trying to forget their real lives (“I thought I was someone else/Someone good”) could work either way, since the climactic line “You’re gonna reap just what you sow” does not disallow the hope of escape or salvation; pearls to be scooped up from heaps of apparent ruination. In addition, “Perfect Day” was originally intended as the basis for an extended BBC promotional film, assembling a fair balance of celebrities from different genres of music to prove a point about the catholicism of the music output of a publicly funded broadcasting system. However, following a massive public response to the advertisement (since that was basically what it was – subtext: don’t take our licence money away, this is what it pays for) and equivalent public demand for a record of the performance, it was rushed out as a single with all profits going to the BBC’s annual Children In Need fundraising enterprise.

    It was a good idea, and occasionally executed dazzlingly, but sputters towards a disappointing end after a nearly awesome start. Fittingly, Lou Reed himself tops and tails the performance, though his drawled “drink Sangria in the park” indicates that he already thinks the whole thing is a bit of a joke. The record and video were painstakingly assembled from thirty or so separate shoots and recordings – no one was in the studio at the same time – and joining Lou (in the megastar division) are a very subdued Bono, Bowie and Elton with uncertain murmurs from Suzanne Vega and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards; Boyzone represent the boyband vote; Lesley Garrett, Sir Thomas Allen, Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Brodsky Quartet and tenor horn player Sheona White, the BBC’s 1996 Young Musician Of The Year, represent classical music; Burning Spear’s Winston Rodney appears for reggae; Emmylou Harris (very fine) and Tammy Wynette (in nearly her last creative act) for country; Dr John and Robert Cray for the blues; Courtney Pine for jazz; Joan Armatrading seemingly for the whole of the pre-punk seventies. The substantial indie component comprises Ian Broudie from the Lightning Seeds, a chillingly stark Brett Anderson (who, by standing in for an unavailable Thom Yorke at the last minute, appears on his only number one single), a clearly out to lunch (but quite magical) Evan Dando, Huey Morgan from Fun Lovin’ Criminals (“someone good…yeah”) and a mercifully brief appearance by Shane MacGowan (“Ith thuch thunnn…”). And, of course, if Lou is there, then so is Laurie Anderson, finally getting revenge for “O Superman.”

    As you can see, there’s a sense of multiple wrongs being righted in the procession of number one singles since the participants include many important and crucial musicians who otherwise would never have been mentioned on Popular except in passing or on extended diversion. And for its first half, the record miraculously works; the Horn-esque maximalist production (an in-house job by “The Music Sculptors” and Simon Hanhart) opening up the song, letting chinks of real sunshine and wonder filter through its dubious celebration.

    Sadly, however, its second half descends into a very familiar pattern of yowling and caterwauling in the names of Soul, Passion and Honesty courtesy of the Real Music Not “Tarzan Boy” delegation, principally the piercing (like a tuning fork being inserted into one’s skull) Gabrielle, that incontinent toad and unworthy Mercury winner Heather Small from M People (complete with The Inevitable Sodding Gospel Choir – the Visual Ministry Choir, if you will) and, the final deposit on the cake, Our Old Friend (Wales Division) with his unlovely belch of “yaaaaa gonna REEEEEEEEEEEEAP!” (listening to “I’m Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” it is easy to detect the clear cues in the song’s arrangement for Mr Jones to “emote”). A pity, but it did its job and overall is still a marked improvement on Duran Duran’s slaughter of the same song on their covers album Thank You, which latter artefact has long since been internationally acknowledged as the World’s Worst Record Ever Ever And I Mean Ever.

  2. 2
    Seb Patrick on 4 Apr 2014 #

    I think a lot of what followed this – endless radio play followed by endless comedy parodies – makes it one of those that’s difficult to appreciate on its own terms. If it had just stayed as the promo, it’d be “Hey, remember that awesome BBC advert from the late ’90s” rather than “The Perfect Day charity single”. If you *can* watch it without considering all the other context, though, then it does remain brilliantly put together. Although it’s hard to get too sniffy about something that raised so much for charidee.

    There’s another layer added to the “was it really an apt choice to be used as a Children in Need single” point, of course: to wit, the idea that the song was presumably chosen due to someone having just seen Trainspotting. I mean, I find it hard to believe it’s just a coincidence…

  3. 3
    Tom on 4 Apr 2014 #

    I vaguely know Jane Frost, the woman who put it together – she now heads up the UK’s biggest market research trade body – so I may ask about the “Trainspotting” connection.

    “Endless comedy parodies” – is this the UK’s first viral?

  4. 4
    wichitalineman on 4 Apr 2014 #

    It’s an interesting coincidence that this crops up just as the BBC has Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq on trailers celebrating 20 years since they changed the face of British radio, from its Yewtree Roadshow past to a 6Music indie-leaning future. Or, from uncool to cool, at least in Whiley’s eyes. What it makes me think is that 20 years is a long time and they are loudly advertising the fact that they should both be pensioned off, as forebears like DLT were in the 90s.

    This record, so smug it’s like an indie Peter’s Friends, really makes my skin crawl. A cool (but not obvious) song, cool acts like Dr John, cool, professional eccentrics like Shane Magowan, and the very cool Huey Morgan (someone must think he is – how has he kept a job after his disgusting comments about Lauren Laverne?).

    Hats off to Brett Anderson for handling his line with similar cool (as in not warm) aplomb to Kate Bush on Ferry Aid. But that’s not enough to lift this above a 1.

  5. 5
    Mark G on 4 Apr 2014 #

    What shocked most people was the prominence of Michael Hutchence not long after he died.

    It took the BBC to let everyone know it was actually Evan Dando.

    Still, though…

  6. 6
    Tom on 4 Apr 2014 #

    #4 Definitely the spectre of Cool lurks behind this record – but I think its attempt to be cool is thoroughly dashed by the actual execution (to PD’s immense benefit). Bowie is the key man here I reckon. Whether that was intentional or not I don’t know – it wouldn’t be the first time the Beeb had made the serious look gaudy. I can’t imagine the performers weren’t told to ham it up.

    There’s also an awful lot of celebration of Britpop around this week, too, I notice (without wanting to read any of it)

  7. 7
    Mark G on 4 Apr 2014 #

    So, looks like this will get the widest range of marks from the faithful..

    Me, I’ll pass it a five.

    5.

  8. 8
    Paul I on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Yeah, at the time this felt very Disco Dad, what with the song steal from Trainspotting (a curation of a curation), and the too-late-to-the-bandwagon adoption of Brett Anderson as yoof representative, and all that horrible Heather Smallpox business at the end, and the general putrid soulless grandiosity.

    But these days I think it’s quite fun. It’s aged into a respectable sort of naff, much like we all have.

  9. 9
    Steve Mannion on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Of those performing I’d never heard of Dr. John, Robert Cray, Thomas Allen or Laurie Anderson before seeing this and wondered who they were – and Burning Spear I only knew because of ETA’s sampling of him on ‘Casual Sub’ earlier that year. Dando and Emmylou Harris I did not initially recognise. I’m intrigued by the thinking that went into the single’s making (selecting a non-hit song to cover, ignoring its contexts, focussing largely on veterans to promote a cause for the young…)…one of the more bizarre chart-toppers on this basis. The inclusion of Broudie makes him a tasty pub quiz question re total number of chart-toppers he features on.

    re Huey coolness I liked him a lot initially (more than FLC as a musical thing really). Post-90s…less and less.

  10. 10
    Tom on 4 Apr 2014 #

    #7 Doubt it, I suspect I’ll be at the high end with a 6.

    Re anti Heather Small sentiment. OK, but she is used here very well, in a Hulk v Thing style battle against Tom Jones – which she loses – with the ringside “reap! reap! reap!” choir adding a final touch of nonsense. I appreciate I’m treading a thin line, but dammit, I think it’s a really funny part. (This record is GREAT for pub imitations, too.)

  11. 11
    James BC on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Loved this at the time. It’s dated a bit but I’d still give it a 7.

    On the CD single there were alternate versions made up of just male vocalists and just female vocalists, suggesting that they got each artist to record the whole song, or at least a fair bit of it, not just the one line assigned to them. Can anyone verify this? Is there a video somewhere of Huey (no surname at that time!) singing the whole song?

  12. 12
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Nah, I can only presume Ms Small knows where the bodies are buried (metaphorically), either at the Beeb, or at New Labour, or both: her unwelcome, vocally foghorn-honking, presence (and I say this as someone who had some time for Hot House, and even some early M-People) was unavoidable in national life on far too many occasions for the best part of a decade. “What have you done today that makes you feel proud?” Well, ruined this record a bit, anyway.

    I dunno, now. At the time I liked this – the sheer quality of the song is inescapable, as is that of many of the performers; as record by analytical cubism goes it’s OK. But it is like flicking through a “look at how very well connected we are at teh BBC” scrapbook nonetheless. Coherence remains or not? I’m not sure. Really not sure. 6, still, just.

  13. 13
    Cumbrian on 4 Apr 2014 #

    I agree that Bowie is the key performer here. The Bowiesongs blog is incredible – when it comes out as a book, I’ll almost certainly buy it – but I don’t agree with the take that COL has of Bowie’s readings as wry bemusement. His “you made me forget myself” is delivered as if this is Brel or something similar, melodramatic, wistful and with a tinge of regret. Just for that line alone, I can’t give this 1.

    It’s tempting just to run down the list and go, “good”, “bad”, “OK” after each of the people who sing this, and it’s inevitable that people will prefer individual performers as they go along. That said, it’s the idea that’s the thing I think and it is a more than solid one, in terms of what the Beeb are trying to do and the message that they’re trying to put across. Nevertheless, it really makes me wish for a Bowie version and a Brett version and pray there will never be a Heather Small or Tom Jones version, here showing their trademark restraint. It also really plays up annoying tics that are part of it that really stand out in amongst everything else (I can’t stand the way Ian Broudie hits “such” in his line, I also can’t stand the way Gabrielle sings “witha you”). So it’s a solid idea, with a minority of things I really like, quite a few things I can take or leave and some which over dominate or irritate. A perfect metaphor for the BBC then.

    I like Fun Lovin’ Criminals (100% Columbian’s non-heavy rock stuff is really good, I think, in a weird, pastichey sort of way) but I’ve never understood why Huey is so full of himself. Fast is the one who makes the music and is the key multi-instrumentalist. He’s one of those guys who is the face of, yet the sideman in, his own band. Maybe he’s blessed with a lack of self awareness.

  14. 14
    swanstep on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Hearing this (and seeing its video) for the first time now, I guess I absolutely hate that the soprano sax is allowed to faff around all over the top of Ronson’s string section middle eight that everybody loves, but I can live with the rest of it. At least half of the voices are pretty interesting (esp. Emmylou, Bono – recovering nicely from his massacre of Hallelujah in the Mid ’90s – Tom Jones, and some of the classical folk). Lou sadly is just too off-key even by his relaxed standards.

    As for the original song: I know everyone loves the junkie interpretation but the song is open to very universal interpretations. Lots of people hate themselves and are deeply frustrated by what they have to do to earn a living, and can appreciate a blissful weekend day when they forget themselves. Stockbrokers, Alastair Campbell-types, and many others can see themselves as barely hanging on, worry about someday reaping what they’ve sown in their day-jobs, and so on.

    I didn’t realize until checking now that ‘Perfect Day’ was originally ‘Walk on the Wild Side”s B-side. Mind boggled; best single ever contender surely. I’d give it the edge over, e.g., ‘I get Around’/’Don’t Worry Baby’; there may be a couple of things above it but that’s it… Anyhow, even though this version of PD isn’t ideal, it’s fabulous to get Lou and half of one of the greatest singles ever to the top of the charts eventually:
    5 (original track’s a 9)

  15. 15
    Mark G on 4 Apr 2014 #

    I never heard the song before BEF’s excellent cover version on “Music of Quality and Distinction Vol 1”, and am thankful I didn’t discover it via Duran (still never heard it but)

  16. 16
    alexcornetto on 4 Apr 2014 #

    My parents got me the single when I was a kid, I am a huge Lemonheads fan, and yet I still had absolutely no idea that Evan Dando was on this until I read this post. Weirdly, he’d already done a version of this song with Kirsty MacColl in 1995 (one year before Trainspotting came out, no less).

    My question, for the older wiser sorts, is this: was ‘Perfect Day’ always the kind of big canonical song it is today, or did that come about post-Trainspotting/Children in Need single? I never quite could grasp if it was a cult concern that exploded through mainstream use, or if it had grabbed the public imagination from year dot. I mean, I know Transformer is Lou’s most popular album, but still…

    Oh, and mainly for the warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia (and the fact it was the first version of the song I ever heard – took ages for the sax-solo-less original to sound right to me…) this gets a 7 from me.

  17. 17
    Mark G on 4 Apr 2014 #

    #14 so how many on this record had not hit No 1 before, but did again with a later single?

    (one bunny….)

  18. 18
    Steve Mannion on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Having read and realised the original purpose behind this cover now I rescind my intrigue above.

    Fun fact: Huey recorded his bit dozens of times in order to make sure he got the right “…Yeah”.

  19. 19
    wichitalineman on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Re 16: Cult concern before Trainspotting I’d say (as was Lust For Life) – I don’t remember hearing it any more often than I heard Satellite Of Love. It does seem astonishing that RCA stuck it on a b-side. Vicious was the second single off Transformer, with Satellite Of Love on the b-side.

    Re 19: Haha! I can believe it.

  20. 20
    James BC on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Not convinced by people saying Bowie is some vital lynchpin of this. He’d been releasing rubbish for well over a decade at this point, and I just find his faux-thoughtful delivery as annoying here as everywhere else.

    The first comment is rather unnecessarily mean about Gabrielle, the finest British singer of her generation. Boo!

  21. 21
    Tom on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Fun Lovin’ Criminals felt like something new to me when I encountered them – a band (it seemed to me) really cynically appropriating a particular kind of pop culture “cool” in a way that was catnip for a small but profitable demographic and poisonously infuriating outside it. I’m sure there had been 80s equivalents though – bands really crassly latching onto some signifiers of cool or other and just riding them until they broke – which I wasn’t distant enough to really see as that.

  22. 22
    mapman132 on 4 Apr 2014 #

    So the most successful group in album chart history, Various Artists, gets their first #1 single. For some reason, VA sounds different on every record – they’re quite genre-busting….

    Seriously though, I used to think the VA credit on this record was weird (as opposed to a Band Aid/USA for Africa type moniker), but after reading Tom’s writeup it makes sense now. Unsurprisingly this was never a hit in the US. It would be interesting for PBS to try this sort of thing, although I’m sure it would come nowhere near #1 as PBS has a much, much lower profile in the US than the BBC does in the UK. Agree with the review: this is fairly pleasant as charity records go, and 6/10 sounds right.

  23. 23
    wichitalineman on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Re 21: In the early 80s Modern Romance scored a hit with Everybody Salsa by pinching the music press-sponsored Blue Rondo A La Turk’s act – they then rode their Latino-spiv-funk thing long and hard (Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey was worse, Best Years Of Our Lives a contestant for the worst record ever made) until it sounded more like Black Lace than Klactoveesedstein. I think Marcello has written about this.

    Huey Morgan’s wiki entry starts with a bang: “In his youth he got into trouble with the law [citation needed].” His overdone New Yorkishness reminds me of D.I. Fowler in Catterick:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3nYWLJwYbY

  24. 24
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 4 Apr 2014 #

    are we not here tiptoeing round the suck-vortex that is mr blobby gillespie? :)

  25. 25
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Speaking of whom: if my dim memories do not confuse me, the “records you must own” finger pointed FAR more at the VU in the late 70s and 80s than solo Reed, who didn’t entirely rehabilitate himself for this kind of perspective until maybe New York? Canonism wasn’t quite the thing we now know anyway (nor did it really concern itself with individual songs or singles in the same way): it emerged in its recognisable modern form along with the shift from vinyl to digital, which saw enormous budget re-release programmes, and a review media springing up to service these (Q, for example). It’s more a product of famine than feast [update: I mean FEAST THAN FAMINE, sorry]: you’re deciding what to overlook or cull, from the overwhelming array of “everything”. The 70s were much more famine than feast; the early 80s the sluggish turnaround into feast.

    1997 was the yea of Bowie’s Earthling, which I guess is some kind of potential re-emergence of non-naff Bowie — or actually not, but he’s naff in a rather different and somewhat more interesting way. (I like it anyway.) I don’t actually think he can pull off wry bemusement; he’s a sentimentalist far more than he’s an ironist.

  26. 26
    punctum on 4 Apr 2014 #

    “Aye, ah told Lou ootside Cooper’s Fine Fare in Hamilton tae call his album Hope And Keen’s Crazy Bus but he widnae listen. Wee Wullie Reid ended up gie’in’ me his first edition copies o’ Kraftwerk 1 & 2 ‘cos he wanted some Robert’s Robots bubblegum cairds.”

    I wrote about Modern Romance (and others) here: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/various-artists-raiders-of-pop-charts.html

  27. 27
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 4 Apr 2014 #

    (Actually canonism’s concern with individual songs possibly did not emerge largescale until mp3 culture, I suspect: of course people did make mixtapes of “the good stuff” by favoured artists, off otherwise bad LPs, but I don’t recall it generating list-making tendencies much till the late 90s.) (tho to be fair I was paying much attention in the mid-90s: it was in strong swing by the time I arrived at ILM, presumably fostered on usenet etc).

  28. 28
    Tom on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Famine vs Feast – Julian Cope’s and Morrissey’s autobiographies both spend time on musical discovery and questing in a very famine-ish way. Though admittedly, Cope is mostly concerned to prove he was into Faust before Jim Kerr was.

  29. 29
    anto on 4 Apr 2014 #

    That line about Huey made me laugh. Someone I know used to do brilliant impressions of nearly everyone on this track – Doctor John (‘such a poifict day), Heather Small (‘such a pahrfict day’) and Ian Broudie (‘oh its sooch a purr-fect day’). I think Brett Anderson’s contribution is best, he seems to have a real feel for the song. Maybe because it’s not a million miles from Suede’s own ballads which often have a similar theme of glorious escape – ‘The Wild Ones’ and ‘By The Sea’ are two that spring to mind.

  30. 30
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Slight tweak to the above: cover collections — like Ferry’s solo LPS, BEF’s Music of Q&D, the Banshees’ Looking Glass and haha Duran Duran — are of course concerned with individual songs. Ferry was radically expanding the potential reach of what counted as a “rock song” — by weird juxtaposition as much anything — where BEF and the Banshees were somewhat consolidating the backstory of “new pop” (arguably, anyway: and possibly they would not have described what they were up to in exactly these words).

1 2 3 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page