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Sep 12

D:REAM – “Things Can Only Get Better”

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#701, 22nd January 1994

A song of many lives: we’re catching it at the end of its first, after a failed release in 1993 and a bounce around the charts. In three years time it’ll be changed for good, the soundtrack to Tony Blair’s first election win. From then on its critical fortunes are linked to its grinning patron’s, and at some point in the early 00s it stops being a naff take on real optimism and becomes a different kind of reflection: brittle, shallow, endlessly on-message.

The problem with it in ’97 was that it was too small for its moment. It was a record for diligent staffers to let their hair down to after a long campaign, it said hardly anything about the giddy hopes and vengeful glee of May 1st, which means it can’t – for me at least – summon them to mind now. It sounds tacky, not poignant or bittersweet.

So can we scrape all that away and put “Things Can Only Get Better” back in its 1994 place? We can try, but it was never much of a record. It’s part of a strain of tune-heavy, hands-high dance-pop which was hitting big at the time – sometimes excellent (Sub Sub’s “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)” for instance), usually at least momentarily seductive. This is as memorable and catchy as any, but pushy with it, which is the risk you run with gospel-tinted music. Gospel does not come easy to the British, who focus on the uplifting handclap qualities and ignore the spiritual elements that elevate the ecstasy and frame more complex or painful emotions. The result are records, like this and some M People songs, that walk a very fine line between inspiration and aerobics. Not to mention that Peter Cunnah’s voice isn’t really up to it – his strained micro-grunts surfacing dark memories of the Goss twins. I bet it all sounds pretty good if you’ve just won an election, but what wouldn’t? By the same token, there are worse songs out there for events to ruin.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 21 Sep 2012 #

    And I’m leaving the ENTIRE matter of the star-gazing keyboard player to you lot, aren’t I generous?

  2. 2
    Matthew H on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I met Pete Cunnah at a thing a couple of years back and waited a respectable time before mentioning his old pal Brian. “Brian’s doing alright, isn’t he?” I probably said, and Pete was chuffed about what he was doing and pleased too that they were still friends. He even went as far as showing me his iPhone and one of their recent conversations. He thought they’d do something again soon.

    U R The Best Thing is the one for me, but removed from associations this is a good old hands in the air moment. That Goss comparison’s something I’d never thought of but bang-on.

  3. 3
    hardtogethits on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Sometimes it’s all about watching for an opportunity to get into the upper reaches, and waiting to see what happens. No matter how vacuous or unoriginal your material.

  4. 4
    Pete on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I always see this as a “death of the dancefloor” record. Its house tinged pop which sat safely at any event, a nail in the coffin of rave music due to its general inoffensiveness. As someone who was dj-ing indie at the time, whilst trying to incorporate more dance music, they were an obvious play – a “proper” band, and the song itself seemed rather beguiling. But on the dancefloor I never saw it live up to its potential. From the implicit self-criticism in the title (things can only get better than this song) and its clumsy gospel break, it wanted everyone on the floor to embrace it like Clifford the Big Red Dog, when actually it was Scrappy Doo on a fag break. I never saw a dancefloor fling their arms wide, and bellow to their personal gods that “Things Can Only Get Better”, it felt more like a placeholder with a few embarrassing looks in it.

  5. 5
    Izzy on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Nothing in particular to say about this one, except that its plain goodtiminess does leave some affection, which isn’t the case for records too self-conscious not to hedge their bets by trying for a bit of weight too (yes, M-People). Office party does seem like the right venue, so that reference to it being ideal for a knees-up for the staff, and hopeless for capturing an era, is perceptive.

    The Sub Sub though, that was a cracker. Shame it won’t be darkening our door further.

  6. 6
    Cumbrian on 21 Sep 2012 #

    The problem with this – for me – is that it’s pretty one note. Once you’ve blown your wad on the gospel choir on the first chorus, where are you going to go after that? Particularly given Peter Cunnah’s limitations, whacking in a key change wasn’t going to happen and, though they try to give us some kind of more spare backing to some of the verses, it’s not a real success in giving some kind of lift when the chorus comes back in. I get the sense I am being bellowed at.

    Whilst searching for this on Youtube, ostensibly to work out whether I liked it or not, I discovered that one of the guys who uploaded it is the director of the video and he’d helpfully linked off to some of the other videos he’d directed including:

    a cover of “Now That We’ve Found Love” in aid of victims of the Marchioness Disaster – interestingly upbeat for a charity record, where mournful dirges seem to be the norm;

    a reggae version of “Hey Jude” by New Creation, that I’d never heard before in my life;

    Sleep Talk by Allison Williams (again, a new one on me);

    and the video for band named for a fairytale whose antagonist is a German imp (and spoiler bunnied).

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2012 #

    B Movie
    C-Bank
    D:Ream

    M People

    O Band (formerly A Band Called O)

    Q Tips

    X Ray Spex
    Y Pants

    Can we do the whole alphabet?

  8. 8
    Cumbrian on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I suspect A Certain Ratio is not what you’re looking for in terms of usage of the letter?

  9. 9
    will on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I don’t know where to start with this song.

    Leaving aside the irony of an ode to ecstasy co-written and sung by a then-cocaine addict being adopted by a mainstream political party, leaving aside the fact that it’s somehow ended up becoming aural short hand for the rise and fall of New Labour/C*** B********/ that whole wave of mid 90s cultural self-confidence that begat Britpop..superclubs..you name it, if you can disentangle it from all that baggage I still think it’s a pretty good dance pop record.

  10. 10
    glue_factory on 21 Sep 2012 #

    A House?

  11. 11
    weej on 21 Sep 2012 #

    It’s all one big anticlimax, apart from the sax break, which is never as good as I remember it being, so that would also make it an anticlimax too, I suppose.
    If ever a song were a natural ‘5’ this is it.

  12. 12
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2012 #

    A-teens

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 21 Sep 2012 #

    What a precipitious decline in quality this band’s thankfully brief career demonstrates.*

    * re #7 N Trance. You could say something similar of them, too.

    It started so very promisingly, with the quite sublime, uplifting, melodious, deeply alive, deeply felt, “U R The Best Thing”, which created expectations (more from the dancefloor end of things than from the pop charts) that they could never meet, or even come close to meeting.

    Then there was this, a slightly different tack, both overreaching and really quite mediocre even before the mendacious manipulative malelovent grinning goons with boorish bozo sidekicks (though I am not sure why it is really necessary to single out Prescott so) got their hands on it for their own vile purposes.†

    † You may gather that I was never swept up in all the “1 May 1997” thing, and living in a (Scottish, rural) constituency in which Labour came (their usual position there) 4th, think it fair to say that the PR promises of New Labour were hardly on their wind or in the haar there, too, not just with me.

    But anyway whereas UR The Best Thing was a clear 5 out of 5, this was a 3 at best. And then, the deluge, drivel like Shoot Me With Your Love aimed straight and unambigiously at the charts but with no special appeal, no (as we used to say) X factor, that would be lucky to earn these hired hands a 1 on a 5-point scale. Or even a 2-point scale.

    Their big mistake was obviously not the putting out an absolutely cracker of a track, but in attempting to follow it up at all. If they hadn’t, they would be much loved and admired and talked of fondly. And that is before we get into the questions of re-releases and re-re-releases and the remodelling from white label gurus to Saturday morning TV nonentities. As it is, mild scorn and moderate contempt and lack of interest all the way.

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Interesting to think about the better examples of gospel choirs in dance hits. Gloworm’s sadder-seeming ‘Carry Me Home’ springs to mind although I didn’t really like that either.

    ‘U R The Best Thing’ is significantly better – an ‘Ibiza-friendly’ progressive house outlier that crossed over as a pop song. TCOGB aims lower overall and there were just too many superior feelgood ‘handbag house’ hits at the time e.g. Nightcrawlers and John Reid (Robbie Savage’s Dad or what?), Rollo/OT Quartet, Livin’ Joy, Strike, Everything But The Girl’s rebirth and so on…for it to seem worthwhile.

  15. 15
    Mark G on 21 Sep 2012 #

    a-Grmph

  16. 16
    Chelovek na lune on 21 Sep 2012 #

    #14 Sounds Of Blackness – Optimistic.
    That’s the way you do it, re gospel/pop

    Even MC Hammer – Do Not Pass Me By

    Not like this though. (Bit of a Joy Sarney/Mr Punch conversation, I know, but a valid one)

  17. 17
    James BC on 21 Sep 2012 #

    G Unit
    K-Klass
    N-Trance
    P Diddy
    S Express
    T-Spoon
    V

  18. 18
    Mark G on 21 Sep 2012 #

    #14, Gloworm seemed to me like they were going to have a steady stream of hits after the blueprint-hit of “Carry Me Home”, oops. (Was there a gospel choir on that one? I don’t remember one)

  19. 19
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2012 #

    #16 They were actually a gospel act tho – a clear advantage there.

    I’ll just vote for ‘Come Together’ tho.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2012 #

    TCOGB strikes me as very undistinguished, so that it’s hard for me to believe that it was such a big hit. (It peaked for one week at #9 in Australia, and only reached #46 in NZ; that’s more like it in my view!)

    Anyhow, back to Mark’s list:

    Q-Feel
    M83
    REO Speedwagon
    TLC
    X, XTC
    Zoo-Z (almost!)

  21. 21
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2012 #

    haha yes, has to be à;GRUMH, the only band (big claim! but come and disprove it!) with a semi-colon in their name!!

  22. 22
    Erithian on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Curses, thought I had you there but it turns out Waterson:Carthy is another one with a colon!

  23. 23
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Important: we need to get the punctuation right if we’re doing this at all. (We needn’t do this at all.)

  24. 24
    weej on 21 Sep 2012 #

    A Silver Mount Zion
    I Am Kloot
    U-Roy
    V/VM

  25. 25
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2012 #

    E-Motion (‘Naughty North, Sexy South’)
    H-Town (‘Part Time Lover’)
    I:Cube (French dance dude)
    J-Kwon (‘Tipsy’)
    L Boogie (Lauryn Hill)
    P Money (whether a grime MC or NZ producer)
    R-Tyme (Derrick May alias)
    U-Roy

    just stuck on W…

  26. 26
    The Lurker on 21 Sep 2012 #

    L7
    U2
    ZZ Top

    There is another political context for the song – Peter Cunnah and most of the rest of the band (not Brian Cox, obviously) are from Northern Ireland and at the time this hit #1 the wheels were turning in the Peace Process (the Downing Street Declaration happened at the end of 1993). Given the song was first released a year earlier, as Tom mentions, they presumably didn’t have this in mind when they recorded it, but it’s slightly surprising that it ended up being adopted by New Labour rather than the Peace Process (which did have a few years yet to come to fruition).

  27. 27
    lonepilgrim on 21 Sep 2012 #

    soundbite house

    as I wrote about Brotherhood of Man’s Angelo yesterday: it’s a hook in need of a song. I quite like the burbling bass-line

    re Gospel-tinged dance I preferred Rozalla’s ‘Everybody’s free (to feel good)’ and Candi Staton and The Source’s ‘You got the love’

  28. 28
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I favour Z’ev over ZZ Top (by faintly arbitrary rules I only just formulated, which also lean towards X Ray Spex over XTC) (but erm allow L7 and U2, except U Roy/U-Roy was claimed first) (he seems to be both on his record sleeves)

    Anyway, CHEERFUL DIGRESSION OVER, back to your popchat.

  29. 29
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2012 #

    Z-Factor (‘(I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars’)

  30. 30
    thefatgit on 21 Sep 2012 #

    I thought I had a handle on this one, but it appears all my thoughts relate to New Labour, Blair/Brown, sweeping away the broken glass of the turgid Major years. So in terms of 1994 and TCOGB’s relevance to that year, I’ve drawn a blank. First entred the charts in 1993, you say? Stumped. I know I must have heard it on the radio back then, but I just can’t cleave it from the all pervading New Labour optimism of 1997. Which in itself just goes to show how party propaganda can seriously skew your thinking.

    J Magik?

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