18
May 15

ALL SAINTS – “Black Coffee”

Popular69 comments • 4,654 views

#876, 14th October 2000

saintscoffee All Saints’ final number one is their most oblique, their most grown-up, also their finest. The song barely glances at its title – a pair of words out of a hundred in the lyric – but the whole record is a glance or a quiet smile, a celebration of tiny satisfactions, and of finding yourself with someone who conjures them so easily. “Each moment is cool / freeze the moment”. It’s a song, most of it, about feeling contented – a rare subject for pop, which prefers to nose out conflict (the video finds some anyway, staging “Black Coffee” as a post-Matrix bullet time break-up drama). There are songs – cousins to this, like “I Say A Little Prayer” – that capture the way love makes the everyday blush with significance, but “Black Coffee” is after something more comfortable. A day with your lover, as casually sweet as all the other ones. Nothing’s perfect, but “Black Coffee”’s rippling, overlapping melody lines make even the quarrels sound blissful.

It’s a lovely record, two late 90s takes on pop meshing and peaking: All Saints’ idea of a British female harmony group, and William Orbit’s gorgeous dissolve of pop into ambient bubbles and flows. (Both now disappear: All Saints split, to largely unsuccessful ends; Orbit, jilted by his primary collaborator, stepped back from the charts.) The combination, as on “Pure Shores”, is irresistibly of its time: unlike that record, “Black Coffee” isn’t pure escapism. Around the edges of this playful song snaps another, one with a harder bite. The opening and breakdown of “Black Coffee” – crunching drums, radar synths – is like a more unforgiving world which our couple spend the mid-song cocooning themselves away from.

The snap and turn of those opening beats makes me think of catwalk photography; the video feels more like a magazine shoot than a relationship. Probably more than anyone since the early 80s, All Saints were a band who felt like they belonged in fashion, a style press imagining of what pop could be like. They always looked the part, but often the music strained too hard to live up to its references. Finally, with the Orbit collaborations, they got there, and “Black Coffee” is the greatest realisation of the All Saints concept – their most perfectly glossy exterior, and only warmth inside.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    weej on 19 May 2015 #

    Silly video aside, this is indeed quite a bit better than I remembered. Kirsty Bertarelli’s story is erm, interesting too – crowned Miss UK aged 17, marries a Swiss Billionaire and Americas Cup champion, writes a song about how chuffed she is about everything, gives it to All Saints, and here we are…

    As for Coffee & Domesticity, how about Dusty Springfield’s Just A Little Loving? Coffee & TV is according to the deathless prose of Wikipedia “about his struggle from alcoholism, and how he would unwind by watching television over a cup of coffee instead”

  2. 32
    ace inhibitor on 20 May 2015 #

    Ed – Tricky’s ‘Black Coffee’ fits your thesis with a vengeance (assuming he wrote the words, its one that Martina T-B sings): ‘feel so lonely haven’t slept a wink / I walk the floor and watch the door / and in between I drink black coffee / love’s a hand-me down brew’, and so on. All floating on a ‘Pills & Soap’ sample for that added sense of dread.

  3. 33
    swanstep on 20 May 2015 #

    @Ace. That’s just the songbook standard, first recorded by Sarah Vaughan, and (looking this up now) music by Sonny Burke, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster (who did lyrics for ‘Somewhere My Love’ and many other film songs – won three Oscars apparently).

  4. 34
    will on 20 May 2015 #

    I’m completely amazed by the high praise this has been getting.

    It’s ok, decent enough but all a bit stop-start and the opening part, yes, sounds bolted-on and doesn’t really fit. Then there are Orbit’s trademark production touches – those globules of keyboard, which were lapsing into cliche by this point. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed at the time, disappointed even, after the sublime Pure Shores. 6

  5. 35
    AMZ1981 on 20 May 2015 #

    I must admit that at the time I viewed this as a slipstream number one and an attempt to photocopy Pure Shores. Reading the comments so far suggests that this song had something I missed. Bottom line for me is that I didn’t find it interesting then and I don’t now.

    The All Saints story doesn’t quite finish here; a number seven hit followed prior to their first split and a comeback single got to number three in 2006 (possibly the best performance by a reformed pop act, Take That excepted). Between the two the Appleton sisters are nearly bunnied with Fantasy.

    All Saints have been described as East 17 to the Spice Girls’ Take That. It’s a rather unfair parrallel for all concerned but there are similarities. For me All Saints were like East 17 in that they were a fairly second division act who occasionally struck gold with the right song at the right time.

  6. 36
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    The opening and closing sections do sound bolted-on, but I think in a good way; very much like that dream mechanism where you sometimes “wake up” out of a nightmare into a good dream (or, I suppose, like passing out in grim reality & drifting into a good dream, although in my experience grim reality tends to lead to grim dreams). Returning to the jarring, unsettling opening at the end makes sense in this context – as well as making you want to put the record on again (he says, showing his age).

    But what I really wanted to say is that the opening/closing section is a modified ska beat. Using Xs for beats, / for the main beat in the bar, – for silence and | for bar lines, most of the song is a busy, shuffling 4/4 with backbeats, with the same pattern in every bar
    X x / x | X x / x | X x / x |…
    Something very different happens in the opening & closing section:
    X – / x | x / – – |
    Dropping it on the one, as you do, but then going for the two in the second bar – and repeat. Contrasting with the body of the song it initially sounds hideously undanceable – and at the start of the song it sounds more like an intruder alarm than a dance beat – but it’s actually an old ska pattern. You can also hear it here (another song which reverts to a steadier 4/4 for the verses).

  7. 37
    Andrew on 20 May 2015 #

    #35 I hadn’t ever noticed how ‘Rock Steady’ was the biggest chart hit of the pop comeback crop (apart from Take That’s handful of bunnies), but you are quite right:

    Backstreet Boys – no.8 (twice), 2005
    Spice Girls – no.11, 2007
    Boyzone – no.5, 2008
    New Kids on the Block – no.34, 2008
    Wet Wet Wet – no.10, 2008
    East 17 – a few songs that wouldn’t trouble the top 100, 2011-12
    Blue – no.16, 2011
    Steps – no.82, 2012
    McBusted (McFly and Busted supergroup) – no.12, 2014

    There is one act who did out-perform All Saints with their comeback, and that’s Girls Aloud with ‘Something New’, reaching no.2 in 2012. I suppose it depends on how you interpret their ‘hiatus’; they hadn’t really split. Then again, neither had the Spice Girls, officially, nor the Backstreet Boys.

  8. 38
    Steve Mannion on 20 May 2015 #

    Liked ‘Rock Steady’ but its follow up ‘Chick Fit’ even more – too bad it failed to chart and the revival fizzled out right there.

  9. 39
    ace inhibitor on 20 May 2015 #

    thanks swanstep@33 – did not know that. and there was me thinking it was a typical wired/paranoid tricky lyric. the original is a very lovely thing – the costello sample does add something very doomy to it

  10. 40
    Mark G on 20 May 2015 #

    If you count the comeback crop as being an actual reformation where the band actually did go away and do something else post split; there are a few that managed hits as big as previous, but how many make it past three?

    Of the former, you have yer Echo/Bunnymen, Blondie, um who else?

  11. 41
    Steve Williams on 20 May 2015 #

    “Before Take That and the cafetiere, was Boy George and instant coffee – before that the Rolling Stones and espresso – and in the beginning, Lonnie Donegan and Camp Coffee. That’s Pop & Coffee: A History of their Association, tonight at 9 on Fab FM.”
    http://www.dirtyfeed.org/2013/10/smashie-and-nicey-the-end-of-an-era/

    Nice to hear Chick Fit get a mention there, because I really liked it but it was never actually released because they’d been dropped. I remember seeing a weird half-complete video for it on Popworld.

    And of course All Saints Top 40 Singles was a category in the final of Pointless the other week. Just the two pointless answers, War Of Nerves and All Hooked Up. Amazed Rock Steady got any points!

  12. 42
    Steve Mannion on 20 May 2015 #

    I thought the poor performance of ‘Chick Fit’ was the reason for the drop but I guess it was the actual album sales (bold risk calling it ‘Studio 1’ though). ‘War Of Nerves’ still my favourite single of theirs. ‘All Hooked Up’ certainly seems the most forgettable.

  13. 43
    Paulito on 20 May 2015 #

    I’m invited in for coffee and I give the dog a bone…

  14. 44
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    Naah, that’s not actual coffee. Or (given the way the narrative goes) it is, but only because he’s out of luck.

  15. 45
    wichitalineman on 20 May 2015 #

    Gordon Lightfoot’s Second Cup Of Coffee:

    “I’m on my second cup of coffee and I still can’t face the day
    I’m thinking of the lady who got lost along the way
    And if I don’t stop this trembling hand from reaching for the phone
    I’ll be reachin’ for the bottle, Lord, before this day is done.”

    And there’s Donovan’s Young Girl Blues from 1966, about being home alone on a Saturday night, with its vogueish French pronunciation of coffee:

    “Cafe on, milk gone, such a sad light and fading.
    Yourself you touch, but not too much. You hear it’s degrading.”

    So that’s what the sixties were like.

  16. 46
    Erithian on 20 May 2015 #

    “Today we’ll sit here drinking coffee in your incident room” – Hippychick, Soho. Love that song if only for rhyming “motorbike” and “miners’ strike”.

  17. 47
    Kinitawowi on 21 May 2015 #

    “You told me you don’t love me / Over a cup of coffee / And I just have to look away” – Garbage

    “Toast is burned, and your coffee’s cold / And you leave all the post ’cause it’s nothing but bills again” – yeah

    Coffee is one of those things that’s so mundane that I usually find specific references pointing to either stagnation or boredom, a life that’s somehow petering out; what else is there, if all there is to highlight is the mundane? Such is Black Coffee’s hidden edge; the insecurity of the hot and cold frozen moments, the little “wouldn’t wanna take everything out on you / though I know I do” niggle, the “beach walking” / “until you see the shore” skirting the line in the sand of beaches as venues for romance as well as being frontiers; and suddenly that reprised first verse at the end is framing the whole thing as a breakup – at the very least, I’m certainly not seeing enough here to say it’s a song about contentment.

    Still a brilliant song though, possibly precisely because it runs that dividing line so effectively. Can’t argue with Tom’s 9, but I’d still rather kick back and listen to Pure Shores.

  18. 48
    mark g on 21 May 2015 #

    Yep, classic example of the unfollowable hit. And yet, I bought the album and found their first single in a record shop in Berlin. Nothing bad, but.

  19. 49
    Phil on 21 May 2015 #

    Ooh – “and now my coffee’s cold and I’m getting told that I’ve got to get back to work”. Stagnant mundanity, (lost) contentment and a break-up (unspecified) – if there’d been a hangover reference in there as well Rod would have had the set.

  20. 50
    The Arn on 21 May 2015 #

    The sun comes up
    I think about you
    The coffee cup
    I think about you…

    Sondheim, though I’m guessing most of us would be familiar with it at all via the Liza Minnelli/PSB version.
    Again, coffee as an indication of mundanity and routine. There’s Mike and the Mechanics’ Another Cup of Coffee too.

    Or there’s R.E.M.’s ‘I’ll settle for a cup of coffee but you know what I really need’ from ‘I Don’t Sleep I Dream’. Again, it’s ordinary… someone so obsessed they just want to spend time with the other person, even if it’s just talking.

    Coffee basically gets a really bad deal from pop doesn’t it?

  21. 51
    Phil on 21 May 2015 #

    “Baby, instant soup doesn’t really grab me today,
    I need something more sub, stub, sub, substantial –
    A can of beans, some black eyed peas, some Nescafe on ice,
    A candy bar, a falling star or a reading from Dr Seuss”

    We might need to start another category for that one.

  22. 52
    Steve Mannion on 21 May 2015 #

    And from Fuzzbox’s…deathless ‘Pink Sunshine’:

    “Gun metal sunrise sees you ragged round the edge
    you turn around both of them sleep away
    coffee and toast-you’re back from the dead”

    NB googled, only that last line may be accurate

  23. 53
    Kinitawowi on 21 May 2015 #

    The coffee and toast combination in particular seems oddly popular…

    “If you come back to my house
    I’ll make some coffee and some toast”

    Thank you James, for what might be the most uninspiring invitation ever.

  24. 54
    Ophir Zemer on 21 May 2015 #

    Put another log in the fire for me, I’ve made some breakfast and coffee

  25. 55
    Brendan F on 21 May 2015 #

    the lip ring on a half filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn’t drink – Good Year for the Roses

  26. 56
    wichitalineman on 21 May 2015 #

    I thought the original conversation upthread was about coffee as a signifier of break-ups, bad news and misery – as in Good Year For The Roses or Mike & the Mechanics’ Another Cup Of Coffee (great song).

    If it’s about hot beverages in pop generally, I’ve always admired Roy Harper’s Another Day for its incredibly mundane opening line (“The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day”), used as the prelude to an uncomfortable meeting between former lovers who still fancy each other.

    (Even though he is offered “Tibetan tea on a flower tray” rather than coffee).

  27. 57
    Phil on 21 May 2015 #

    I think we identified four main groups of coffee-related songs – coffee seems to symbolise the mundane & everyday in three of them, but the mundane is variously associated with contentment (this one), stagnation (the St Etienne one) and break-up (GYFTR). The fourth group are basically about sobering up. Then there’s The Sidewinder… which is about God knows what.

    Incidentally, Stephin Merritt appears never to have mentioned coffee in a song, If a search on Stephinsongs is to be believed.

  28. 58

    The earliest coffee-related song i’ve so far found via google is the 1928 “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” (music Ray Henderson, lyrics Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown) from the Broadway musical Hold Everything! I seriously doubt it is the first — I just haven’t thought of a quick way of hunting such things down.

  29. 59

    No wait, the earliest song i’ve so far found via google to mention coffee is stephen foster’s angelina baker (1850): “She can’t do hard work because she is not stout/She bakes her biscuits every day, and pours the coffee out/CHORUS: Angeline the baker, her age is 43/I bought her candy by the peck, and she won’t marry me

  30. 60
    Stevie T on 21 May 2015 #

    1734: https://youtu.be/YC5KpmK6oOs

    If I can’t drink
    my bowl of coffee three times daily,
    then in my torment I will shrivel up
    like a piece of roast goat.

  31. 61
    Mark G on 21 May 2015 #

    #56 funnily enough, I’d nominate Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s performance of “Another Day” as the most miserable duet of modern times. Entirely in context, of course.

  32. 62
    lonepilgrim on 21 May 2015 #

    not sure what category ‘Starfish and coffee’ by Prince falls into

  33. 63
    innit on 21 May 2015 #

    As usual Natalie Appleton’s vocal talents are ignored. she makes the song.

  34. 64
    Paulito on 21 May 2015 #

    In ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’, Joe Jackson’s reference to this ubiquitous beverage helps to conjure a scene of everyday frustration. Joe’s coffee slowly cools at his side, neglected, as he gawps incredulously out his window at passing lovelies and their Neanderthal consorts.

  35. 65
    Chelovek na lune on 22 May 2015 #

    “I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee”

  36. 66
    ace inhibitor on 22 May 2015 #

    “I drank a jar full of coffee, and I took some of these!”

  37. 67
    Phil on 22 May 2015 #

    From what I know of MES’s lifestyle, that is a celebration of the mundane and everyday.

  38. 68
    Ophir Zemer on 22 May 2015 #

    There’s too much caffeine in your bloodstream and a lack of real spice in your life

  39. 69
    Tom McKennan on 12 Mar 2016 #

    The Guardian is advertising an interview on the All Saints reunion describing them as ‘pop rebels’. (annoyingly I can’t find it to link) Needless to say there are scores of old punks spitting feathers at the description but for all that it did strike me as odd: It’s not a label I’d ever have stuck on them. Was rebellion part of the package with All Saints? Grown-up, classy sophistication surely? I was never a fan so I’m quite prepared to imagine I’ve missed something.

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