What was the worst you were hurt? And was it as bad as this?

A simple piano figure echoes through the emptiest room in creation, its notes caked with dust and maybe regret, repeating until it stops being any kind of melody and becomes the sad up and down rhythm of a girl’s thoughts. And then voices whisper something: “Past”, so softly you almost don’t catch it. “The Past” replies the girl, just as soft, and then she says, with a heartstopping mixture of longing, defiance, coldness and bafflement, “Well now, let me tell you about the past…”

The Shangri-La’s “Past, Present And Future” is the greatest record ever made in part because it’s the best acted, a melo/dramatic monologue of dwarfstar compactness, a two minute armageddon and aftermath which is simply one of the most astonishing vocal performances in pop. The singer’s voice swells and sighs with infinite resignation, giving the track an undercurrent of blank-eyed numbness so that when the killer punch lands, you don’t see it coming: it stuns.

Halfway through the first verse she takes a question from the audience (the piano’s still going, joined by the high whine of a single string) “Was I ever in love?” she repeats. The answer comes easily, “I called it love. I mean, if felt like love. There were moments when…” and then she pauses, catches what she’s saying before it goes too far back into herself. “Well, there were moments when.” Some things you don’t talk about. The pause is perfectly short, the repetition sly genius.

At the middle of the song’s narrative there’s a hole as big as a heart, a gap between the idyll of past and the blasted amorality of present. What happens there? We’re not told. The ground zero of teenage (or any) break-up, or something darker? The pat characterisation of the Shangri-La’s as soap-opera queens draggin’ the pop song into a world of gum-chewing issue-led relevancy has driven a couple of commentators to see “Past, Present And Future” as a song ‘about’ rape. It’s not that that’s a step too far – if that had been the intention, the track can carry the weight – it’s just pinning the tune down in this way can’t ever go far enough. The Shangri-La’s’ two untouchable strengths are theatre and atmosphere, but they were never mysterious – in every song the situation is clear, the narrative as bubblegum as a magazine and as inevitable as a classical tragedy. What elevates this one track above even their magnificent others is its unknowable centre. (For what it’s worth, I never bought the rape argument – it rests on a literal reading of the word “touch” which I just didn’t hear.)

“Present”, whispers the backing chorus, and the monologue shards into fragmented dialogues, the girl faced with a gaggle of would-be boyfriends. “Go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance? Of course? Take a walk along the beach tonight? I’d love to.” The repeated questions are almost disgusted (especially the disbelieving ‘dance?’), the replies off-handed and laced with something which might be contempt, if she cared enough. And then the warning: “Just don’t try to touch me. Don’t try to touch me. Because that can never. Happen. Again.” And then….

The defining moment of “Past, Present and Future”, the moment that nobody who hears it forgets, is its catastrophic, classical, climactic middle eight. “Shall we dance?” asks the singer, her voice a dagger, and suddenly the backing music explodes into fifteen seconds of a waltz so melodramatic that it turns the record inside out. It’s so unexpected, so unsubtle after the tenderly, tensely weighted words we’ve heard so far, that it’s both brutal and laughable at once. Is it sentimental? Of course it is.

Ian MacDonald’s patrician pop overview, Revolution in the Head, pretends to be a book about The Beatles in order to deliver a reactionary deathblow against everything else (made worse by the fact that he’s just as insightful as he is pompous). At one point he comments dismissively that his revolutionary moptopped poppets shared the charts with the “kitsch” Shangri-La’s. He’s talking about one of their few false moves, Remember (Walking In The Sand), which is too in love with its own found sounds and is too sprawling to really impact, but he’s still right. The Shangri-La’s are kitsch, sentimental, any adjective that the pockmarked priests of rock realism might care to chuck at them.

And just for MacDonald, the “Future” section of “Past, Present and Future” is as corny as it gets, songwriter Shadow Morton trying vainly to top the coup his own production just launched by referencing A-Tisket, A-Tasket and wringing some magnificently tremulous speech-singing from his performers. It’s sweet, silly and touching, and it’s the only part of the song where you can actually climb inside and live it, too. “Past, Present And Future” isn’t the best song of all time, you see, only the greatest. The rest of it is too monolithic: it fills me with absolute awe at its scope, originality, power and precision, and I love it as a pop masterpiece too, but in honesty it floors me rather than moves me. Listen again to that baroque middle eight: “Past, Present And Future” is the sound of pop turning progressive, reaching out for the elusive apple of Art, achieving and so falling. It may be as monumental an achievement as anything Costello or Springsteen or Mike Watt or Thom Yorke has ever managed, but with hindsight it’s somehow prey to all their misguidedness, too. In the final analysis, maybe it’s just not kitsch enough.

And why are the Shangri-La’s kitsch, anyway? Because love is. The eddies and idiocies of the heart, as ephemeral and destructive as ball lightning, force us to fall back on phrases, languages, and actions our critical souls would never countenance. Pop songs are the best way the twentieth century has thrown up of dealing with that: musical sublime allied to lyrical corn – or was it the other way around? Loving the Shangri-La’s, like loving every great pop band, is about asking one question: do you want a rock history that makes sense, or do you want a rock history that makes sense of you?