Sep 10

SOUL II SOUL ft CARON WHEELER – “Back To Life (How Ever Do You Want Me)”

Popular103 comments • 6,987 views

#630, 24th June 1989

What’s remarkable about “Back To Life” is its self-sufficiency: surrounded by records so very eager to please, this is a track which stands out for its restraint. It’s become a ‘classic’ almost to the degree “Like A Prayer” has, but that record makes more sense the more public it is. Caron Wheeler, on the other hand, sounds more private and her song is more self-contained. It’s an ultimatum of sorts, but not a desperate one: this is real life, not fantasy, and integrity is more important than drama, so take your time.

That’s what the song sounds like, too: a voice, then a breakbeat, but no hurry. A switch to gospel vocalising just as that rich, rolling house piano line comes in – and then the strings…. there’s so much going on, but so much space too, and for all that Wheeler’s terrific performance centres the song, it’s worth thinking about how Soul II Soul construct that space.

A breakbeat isn’t just a steady rhythm or even a pattern, it’s a time-loop. It gains a lot of its power from the combination of the illusion of humanity (the sample coming from real drummers) and the comfort of inhuman steadiness. But more subtly it creates interest by what’s swept up in the loop, the crackles, ambient sound, and other instrumentation producers lift when they sample a beat. So here there’s that tiny glisten of treble at the end of the breakbeat, adding bewitching colour to the track but also drawing discreet attention to its modernist, slice-and-splice origins. The way it sounds like there’s been a cut between “Back” and “To Life” works in a similar way, and the video takes it further, cutting to and fro with abandon, never settling. This track was influential enough, but pretty much every dance performance on TV or video for the next five years looks a bit like “Back To Life”.

The great moment in the song is vocal, though: the sweep upward for “I live at the top of the block / No more room for trouble or fuss”. “Urban” has become a genre grab-bag at best, feeble racial coding at worst, but this is urban music – even without the beats, those lines are as vivid about city living as anything we’ve discussed since, oh, “West End Girls” (and that was from an observer’s point of view). “Back To Life” sounds self-sufficient because it sounds local and placed. This points towards the upside of the phenomenon Marcello identified in the comments on Jason Donovan – the way the charts in the 90s became a parade of one-week wonders, thrown to number one by a fanbase. Manufactured and fan communities could act collectively to bag a chart-topper, but so could more organic or physical ones, and if the acceleration in the turnover of hits creates a lot of forgettable ones, it also creates several welcome flukes.

So in a lot of ways “Back To Life” is one of the great turning points on the road to modern British pop – in terms of importance, it’s a 10. But my personal reaction to it has always been a little less enthusiastic, mostly because it gets overshadowed in my listening. The stuff it might serve as a gateway to – the contemporary world of hip-hop – seems more exciting, and the music it helped inspire perfected its ideas: “Back To Life” never chills or transports me like “Unfinished Sympathy” can. But very little does, so this is hardly a criticism: on its own terms, “Back To Life” is a huge and vital success.



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  1. 91
    Chelovek na lune on 30 Sep 2010 #

    Are there no midnight tokers present, or does everyone get their lovin’ on the run ?

  2. 92
    Rory on 30 Sep 2010 #

    When I found myself feeling overexposed to Fry’s tweets, I discovered this really helpful button called “unfollow” that made everything better… isn’t QI also something that you can not watch if you don’t like it? It’s not as if he does the voiceovers at the end of every programme.

    I’m overexposed to that northern bloke who says “4-oh-deayyyy” on Channel 4’s online promos.

  3. 93
    wichitalineman on 30 Sep 2010 #

    I don’t use Twitter, I don’t watch QI, but I’m aware Stephen Fry is “officially a national treasure”.

    Erithian, before it fades from public memory entirely, I’ve been trying to think of a Popular entry to which I can attach something about David Miliband and his “nibbles”. I wonder how many union barons’ votes they cost him. I’ll bet Baron Bob Crow wouldn’t bring the nibbles out if you went to one of his houseparties. Nothing but Party Seven in tankards, Slade on the stereo.

  4. 94
    Mark M on 30 Sep 2010 #

    I have a feeling that there is an expectation in certain quarters that when this joke is eventually explained, Lex will go “d’oh” and he baffled he didn’t get from the start, whereas I’m fairly sure he’ll be none the wiser.

  5. 95
    rosie on 30 Sep 2010 #


    As a Bristol City Councillor in not many more years now Popular time, I still had to contend with the rump of the old Tobacco Workers Union (who hated my guts as an upstart from London with dangerously Livingstoneite tendencies towards empowering the individual members). At mayoral receptions they scorned the Cava and smoked salmon roulade and had to be provided with their own barrel of cider and plates of faggots[1] and peas.

    Mind you, there’s nowt wrong with proper cider with faggots and peas.

    [1] For the benefit of our Leftpondian readers, faggots and peas is a Bristol delicacy otherwise known as meatballs served with boiled leguminous seeds of a bright green colour. And not what you first thought.

  6. 96
    Chris Gilmour on 2 Oct 2010 #

    A bit late to this one, but had to add my twopenneth; a fabulous, fabulous record, hinting at the excitement that was to come at the turn of the decade. Love Caron Wheelers vocal and another vote over here for all the rhythmic squelches and ‘tape stop’ sounds.
    Living up north, this, along with the likes of the Cookie Crew and D-Mob ( I was mad about ‘It Is Time To Get Funky’), made London seem a very exciting place to be. This would prove to be ironic a few months later, living a half hour bus ride away from Manchester….

  7. 97
    lonepilgrim on 24 Oct 2010 #

    ‘Close to you’ by Maxi Priest just popped up on iTunes shuffle today and stuck out as a blatant copy of the production on this tune – with the same string arrangement

  8. 98
    Billy Smart on 27 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Everett True hardly gave the single the attention that it warranted. June 3 1989;

    “Soul II Soul weigh in with a silky, “Back to life/ Back to reality” (a note states: AVOID THE OBVIOUS) which tumbles as it grooves, smooth female voices doing some serious damage to my libido.”

    True awarded single of the week to ‘In-A-Live’ by The Clean. Also reviewed that week;

    Bangles – Be With You
    REM – Orange Crush
    Soundgarden – Flower
    Cliff Richard – The Best Of Me
    Karyn White – Superwoman
    UB40 – I Would Do For You

  9. 99
    mapman132 on 28 Jul 2014 #

    The summer of 1989 was significant for 16-year-old me for my trip to England which was also my first trip overseas of any kind. I was one of a group of students from my school who spent a couple weeks with host families in Salisbury. Quite an experience being in a foreign country away from my family. As they say, “separated by a common language” indeed :) Anyhow…

    I think I first heard “Back To Life” on one of those airline music stations (Virgin Atlantic in this case). Surprisingly I wasn’t into music charts yet, but I knew enough pop music to be familiar with “Keep On Movin”, their current US hit at the time. BTL must’ve made enough impression on me over the next two weeks because when it appeared in AT40’s year-end countdown for 1990 (by which time I had become obsessed with the charts), I was quite surprised as I strongly associated it with the summer of 89.

    So BTL’s kind of one of those touchstone music/travel combined moments for me, much like the no longer bunnied “Believe” would be nine years later. Unlike “Believe” which had to grow on me, I liked BTL pretty much immediately for many of same reasons given by other posters. Also like “Believe”, it was no longer #1 (going by w/e dates) at the time I arrived in Britian. Which I guess means I’ll have to comment on the next record too….

  10. 100
    hectorthebat on 2 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Soul Bounce (USA) – The Top 100 Soul/R&B Songs (2008) 16
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mixmag (UK) – Nominations for the Greatest Dance Track of All Time (2012)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 56
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 67
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 38
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 534
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Vox (UK) – 100 Records That Shook the World (1991)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 8
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 36
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 17
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 2
    Melody Maker (UK) – Singles of the Year 12
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 8
    Record Mirror (UK) – Singles of the Year 1

  11. 101
    irishbearaz on 1 Apr 2019 #

    Don’t let the username fool you, I’m a Yank. But I think I love you already, Freaky Trigger.

    I have loved this song since I first heard it on vacation in August 1989. “Keep On Movin'” was still climbing up the US chart at #15, but for some reason this little rural town (which I ended up moving to) had a cassette single of “Back To Life”. I’d never heard it, but I was a good sport back then. When I did, I was struck by the fabulousness of what I heard, and it should be noted the single back then edited out the first verse, so it wasn’t until the video hit the US that I fell in love with the whole thing. The breakbeat, the glory of Caron Wheeler’s voice, and that feeling of joy in the middle section, the whole bloody thing.

    I pretty much ate up anything Soul II Soul-related for the next 4 years. But of course, I had to, because Virgin Records in the US messed everything Soul II Soul-related up. Club Classics Vol. 1 wasn’t a letdown, per se, it was…different. The album didn’t have the single mixes on them, so there was a certain sense of betrayal. A friend who was trying to be a DJ did pick up the 12-inch vinyls of the singles, though, so I didn’t miss out. It was an eye-opener on how happy music can make you, and it opened me up a bit to British pop, which I didn’t know a whole lot about as a teenager. All I knew was what crossed over to US radio (Stock-Aitken-Waterman stuff, interchangable stuff). If not for the Internet, I might not have found out that SAW really did kinda suck after a while.

    Anyway, I’m bookmarking the site. I know some of the songs that charted here which didn’t chart in the US, so I’m not at much of a disadvantage…after 1986. anyway. That you rated “Back To Life” so highly indicates there’s a wealth of good taste to be found. That is, until the next song, probably.

  12. 102
    Lisa Nelson on 27 Apr 2021 #

    A phenomenal single for my money. This record would get a 10/10 from me.

  13. 103
    Gareth Parker on 3 May 2021 #

    Some wonderful Late 80s and Early 90s UK #1s and I would give Soul II Soul a 10/10 as well.

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