Jul 13

SIMPLY RED – “Fairground”

Popular128 comments • 11,630 views

#728, 30th September 1995

The scales of pop injustice tip in both directions. It is often taken as scandalous that Prince only managed a single Number One. But what then to make of Simply Red’s total? Mick Hucknall’s blue-eyed soul brand trampled the LP charts underfoot with Stars: they were a ruby-toothed sales goliath. But as far as singles go, “Fairground” is your lot. And it’s hard to imagine many people being sad about it.

Simply Red were one of those bands who are easy to loathe. In a way they were the Mumford And Sons of their day – successful to such a degree they stood in for a pile of musical wrongs: bogus authenticity, misplaced nostalgia for older musics, the supposed complacency of the Great British Public. The traits which might have won another musician a fair hearing – his socialism, his love of dub reggae – were brushed aside in Hucknall’s case. Instead we heard about his arrogance, his pettiness, and his colossal libido.

“Fairground” gives us some of the case for Simply Red and a big piece of evidence against them. It surprised people at the time, and on the verses at least it’s their strangest-sounding single. “Driving down an endless road…” it begins, and that’s not at all a bad description of the lonesome vibe here – the odd combination of flowing, tumbling Latin percussion (lifted from dance act The Goodmen) and Hucknall’s ruminative vocal, working together to create something genuinely arresting, even haunting.

So far, so good. But this journey has a destination, and it’s “Fairground”’s belting, red-faced chorus. In comes the piano, up go the decibels, and suddenly I remember why I detested Simply Red. The Hucknall Yell – incarnate here as that triumphant “LUV the thought” – was Mick’s favourite vocal trick. It took him a while to hit on it – it’s not on “Holding Back The Years” at all, and on “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” he builds up the volume rather than switching suddenly into it. But it’s on “A New Flame”, it’s really prominent on “Stars”, and it takes over “Fairground” completely.

I don’t like it because it feels like a very cheap way to ramp up the passion in a song – and Hucknall seems to me a lazy singer in the first place, a man with a sturdy voice and a checklist of soulful mannerisms rather than any great expressive skill. But the Hucknall Yell is particularly irksome on “Fairground”, because the song was going.interesting places without it. The trouble is, those places probably wouldn’t have included the top of the charts.



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  1. 1
    fivelongdays on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Ah, chart injustices. Of course, the big Chart Injustice of 1995 – Common People being kept off the top spot – was exacerbated by this keeping ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’ from number one. I have a theory that some Chary Injustices are made worse by the act in question not getting to the top. For instance, loads of people talk about ‘Release Me’ keeping ‘Strawberry Fields…’ off the top, but all things considered, it’s not that bad because The Beatles had 17 number ones. Similarly, a certain Chart Injustice we’ll get to next year in Popular Terms is mitigated because the band in question went on to top the charts.

    But, regardless of Jarvis and Co being cruelly denied again, what of this song?

    Well, like Iron Maiden’s number one felt like a special award for services to British Heavy Metal, this is Mick and Pals special award for services to British Pop Soul. It’s a bit ho-hum, a bit meh, and slightly forgettable. Props for the ‘Make amends like all good men should’ line – nod to the sample, thank you very much. However, whereas Holding Back The Years would be a ten from me, and even Stars might squeeze an eight, I think Tom’s got this mark spot on. Four.

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    mintness on 17 Jul 2013 #

    From the category “Irrational Moments of Pop Hatred”: the bit in the video where they fling their hands in the air. I’m not mad keen on the song anyway, and Hucknell looks strangely creepy throughout, but there’s something about that moment – the implication of forced “fun”? I dunno – that really grates.

  3. 3
    Tom Lawrence on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Dear God I hate this song, and I hate everything Simply Red ever brought to the charts. I felt the same way then, and time has not dulled my enmity.

    It just seems to sit there, constantly idling in first gear; droning on in the verse and only approximating passion in the chorus. Only the drums bring any interest.

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    Wheedly on 17 Jul 2013 #

    A strange one. I agree with Tom that the verse is far more interesting than the chorus, but Hucknall’s soft vocal during the verse is often distractingly out of tune. And not just a little bit, either. It’s really surprising for a guy with a not undeserved reputation for vocal prowess. I’m not normally bothered by off-key singing (there are many Bob Dylan records on my shelves), but in this particular case I find it really painful (can’t put my finger on why – does anyone else feel the same way?).
    I get the sense with this song that perhaps Hucknall and co. (if, indeed, the rest of the band and co-producer Stewart Levine had much input into Simply Red records at this point) were getting a bit lazy. The record has an idea (drums!), but only one idea, so it goes with that idea to the point where the percussion becomes intrusive, perhaps to mask the fact that there’s not much going on in the verses other than an undulating synth line. The chorus, too, is rote, a hedging of bets.
    Similarly, I find it hard to believe such a half-arsed, barely-in-tune vocal would ever have made it to a master if this song had been cut for Stars, which is an album without a hair out of place at any point.
    Not a fan of Hucknall particularly, but even to me this felt like a long way from his/their best work.

  5. 5
    Kinitawowi on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Hated this hated this hated this hated this. The earlier better stuff was just the wrong side of my musical memory – I’m pretty sure I’d heard Holding Back The Years but could never have placed it as a Simply Red song – so this just looked like a terrible song, rather than the reward for a career of nearlies that it so obviously is. It still doesn’t sound like much of anything, and if anything the new appreciation of the earlier work only makes this seem even worse in comparison. 3.

    @1; I’ve thought suchlike before, and even mentioned it, I think (yep – late to the party on Shaddap You Face, natch).

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    Chelovek na lune on 17 Jul 2013 #

    I didn’t “hate” Simply Red: their smoochy, vaguely soulful numbers had a purpose: slow dance at end of (school) disco. And some of them weren’t ‘alf bad (“For Your Babies”, “You’ve Got It”, “Holding Back The Years” and their cover of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”).

    This though…oh no. It’s really rather a dreadful record, that combines wallpaper blandness with percussional aggression. It also, in retrospect seems really an odd time for Simply Red to have got the number 1 (yes, like Prince: well past their prime, if they exactly had one). I was rather surprised to count that they actually had slightly more Top 40 hits AFTER this than they had before. (30+ odd more WEEKS on chart, before, mind, reflecting the way the charts had gone.) Although of their later hits, only “Say You Love Me” has left any impression on me at all, and that’s not a terribly positive one either)

    I’m still unsure whether this record represents a daring piece of experimentation by Simply Red, an attempt to appear “relevant” and contemporary after some time away, or simply an act losing faith in or forgetting what they had a proven talent for (or were simply bored with it: a lot of those ballads had been rather bland: and the uptempo stuff they put out was generally not really worthy of note at all).

    While by this time, there had been a few reasonably high-charting (if not, exactly, mainstream) “jungle” hits, for an essentially “mainstream” pop act to use a manic, rapid, drum beat over the introduction, recalling M-Beat’s “Incredible” was still a little….brave. And later on for aggressive drumming, more or less lifted directly from The Goodmen’s “Give It Up” (which, to be fair, had spent four weeks in the top 10 two years before, albeit in the sales slump of summertime), to play such a dominant part in a track by Simply Red (or an act who could be confident of receiving airplay on the vast majority of commercial radio stations across the UK) was…if nothing else, unprecedented.

    Should, can one praise them for that? I don’t know. If they’d made a more likeable, more engaging, less annoying, less overblown, record, perhaps.


  7. 7
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Jul 2013 #

    I spent a LARGE AMOUNT of time drumming along to that Goodmen record (Now 26 side 2 iirc) on my old wooden sideboard with two pencils. I was very upset when Simply Red swiped it and had no idea that of course the Goodmen had themselves sampled Sergio Mendez until I started working in music royalties and saw the vast, complicated sample history for many of my favourite tracks (the page for Pump Up The Volume was a wonder to behold on the creaky old database of doom).

    My Mum loved Simply Red though, and for a while I did too – I still know all the words to every song off Stars, because the tape lived in the car stereo for about 18 months (replaced by M People, once Mum finally got sick of it). There is a moral here somewhere.

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    pink chamaple on 17 Jul 2013 #

    blimey, I thought everyone agreed that this was the simply red record that was actually good – I was expecting a rash of 8s. totally agree the verses are where it’s at – the half arsed, barely in tune nature of the singing is surely deliberate and creates a lovely dreamy wooziness, that actually i think is bought out more by the song occaisionally snapping into focus for a more pumping (though i think not too anthemic or soulmanish) chorus. well done mick I say.

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    DanH on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Simply Red made some waves in America, but we passed on this particular one. Oddly enough, I hate myself deeply for admitting this, and it’s got flaws already mentioned, but I like this one. I dunno, when I heard it in my UK #1’s traversing, I was in a really bad way, and the simple pleasures perked me up a little. They had two #1’s, both #2’s in the UK, and I disliked both of them. And no one here has mentioned “Sunrise” yet. I’ll start that awful ball rolling :-)

  10. 10
    Erithian on 17 Jul 2013 #

    Well I’ve been kind-of looking forward to this. Scroll back to early 1985, when “Whistle Test” featured this new band doing their version of “Money’s Too Tight To Mention”, and sitting in my bedroom in Manchester I’m watching the video and thinking, I’ve seen that singer before somewhere. Then they cut to an interview and put up a caption, and I go “bloody hell, it’s Micky!”

    Micky ‘Ucknall, as we all called him at primary school (unlike the big school lads who reportedly called him Period Head) was in the year above me. My clearest memory of him is the day a school bully tried out a judo throw on me while I was minding my own business in the hall. I landed on my arse and Micky saw the whole thing. And did he “come to my aid”? Did he hell as like – he stood there clapping and just went “What a beaut!”

    Another quote that sticks in my mind is a match report of a very rare win for Denton St Lawrence’s, 3-1 against St Anne’s. The games teacher Mr Little pinned the report to the notice board, including the words: “‘We’re all over them Sir,’ Michael Hucknall said to me after our third goal.” Micky played the Glenn Hoddle role in the school team, but sadly the team played the Barnet role in its league. Bet Mr Little wishes he’d kept the report for posterity.

    I’ve few memories of him after primary school, although we went to the same secondary school as well, and I do remember bumping into him at Crown Point in Denton after he left. I could relate that he told me he’d formed a band, although that would be embellishing the memory a bit. In fact my mum knew his “auntie” Nellie, who looked after him once his mum left home, better than I knew Mick, and it was Mum who bought his biography – and it’s very weird to read about your old teachers in a rock star biography. Maybe my fellow Tamesider Mike MCSG can fill in some later memories?

    As for his music, well I preferred the early stuff! “Picture Book” is without a dud track, including the Talking Heads cover “Heaven”. I can understand why aspects of their later output were loathed, although I didn’t mind them at all. “Stars” (91-92) is one of only two artist albums to have been the UK’s best-seling album of the year in consecutive years (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” being the other in 70-71).

    “Fairground” was an original mix, the combination of the drum patterns and the dreamy vocal a winning one. The drum approach reminded me of Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child”, but the Goodmen track was an interesting discovery tonight. Bit of a dampener to learn that a track you’ve liked isn’t as original as you thought, but hey it still uses its source to good effect.

    (Edit: blimey, Goodmen was a top 10 hit? I really wasn’t paying attention!)

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    Garry on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I love this song. Partly because it was a soundtrack a time and several places – finishing school, then promptly the whole family moving to another town, and three months later I moved on again to University. I heard a lot of the song on commercial radio in the middle of these three towns as I went from a town with commercial radio plus Triple J (Australian national youth station) to one with only commercial radio. The momentum of the song made it one of my favourite driving songs of the time. And I’m a sucker for stretchy, noodley keyboard parts.

    This at a time I really didn’t like what was in the Australian charts.

    Many years later I bought the album for a couple of bucks in a charity shop. But am i right in thinking Sly and Robbie provide rhythms – at the time I was hearing their work in various dub-flavoured electronic outfits. I can’t remember what I thought of the Life album but I think I loved the cover and liner notes.

    (As an aside #1 I love Pulp but I’ve always hated Common People – the Shatner version aside. I can’t put my finger on it but it annoys me greatly)

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    Chelovek na lune on 18 Jul 2013 #

    As well as Pulp, this also kept Def Leppard at no 2, with “When Love and Hate Collide”. I had no recollection of it at all, but one listen on YouTube suggests it’s a fairly polished and creditable soft metal ballad of the type that they could, sometimes, do so well. And when it comes to having served their time, among those whom we won’t encounter here, they really are an act that could reasonably be said to rival Mick Hucknall. Or indeed Pulp.

  13. 13
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I love “Sorted For Es And Wizz” but, as someone said on the Robson and Jerome thread, it’s hard to work up much of a sense of injustice – even it’s #2 placing seems slightly absurd.

    I thought the “Simply Red song people think is good” was Holding Back The Years! Written at some absurdly young age IIRC.

  14. 14
    Billy Hicks on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Remember it, enjoyed it. Excellent to finally begin to enter an era of #1s I actually remember from the time and that’s gonna continue right up to, ooh, July 2013 at the earliest. It’s tied in my head with both Year 2 of primary school, and indeed ‘Donkey Kong Country 2’ on the Super Nintendo and its fairground levels, which share similar wispy synths to this song. So this is just a lovely nostalgic autumnal #1 for me and even listening to it now takes me back to simpler childhood times.

    ‘Sorted’ would have admittedly been an amazing #1 but then it comes from one of my favourite albums of all time, so no surprise there.

  15. 15
    Richard B on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I love this too. Not just the original drum-stuffed version, but also Rollo & Sister Bliss’s sumptuous remix, which intensifies and deepens that contrast between the sweetly diffident verses and the exultant chorus.

    Completely understand the negative views here – I was indifferent or hostile to most of what Simply Red had done before (except ‘The Right Thing’ which was kind of fun). But ‘Fairground’ was a lovely surprise to me at the time.

    Another surprise was the way the cover photo made Mick Hucknall look like a pretty teenage girl.

  16. 16
    mapman132 on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Simply Red had a strange US career: a pair of #1’s three years apart in the 80’s, both of which I kind of liked, although not necessarily loved. Other than that a couple of minor hits, and nowhere near the album sales they got in the UK. By 1995, they were pretty much long forgotten in America(*).

    So what of “Fairground”, which Wikipedia says was released in the US and “bubbled under” the Hot 100 at #114? It’s hard to pinpoint what to think of it exactly. I guess it sounds like a song that was going for “epic”, only to fall well short. I think, as Tom alludes to, that somehow the verses and the chorus don’t fit together right. So 5/10 for me.

    (*) They still got a shout out in the 2007 Family Guy Star Wars parody. Of course, getting referenced on Family Guy pretty much means you’re culturally considered part of the 80’s.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 18 Jul 2013 #

    New to me, the first verse especially reminds me of The Smiths’ ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ (which drew extensively on Elvis’s ‘(Marie’s the Name of) His Latest Flame’) with the percussion occupying the space the fast-strummed guitars occupied on the earlier record. That comparison maybe helps put Tom’s complaints about the Choruses in perspective: Hucknell’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in the effectively chorus-less originals. Hucknell too should probably have worked on ways to extend the groove of the verses, figured some new ways to scat over the top to stop things getting boring… Scratch your name on my arm with a fountain pen. Anyhow, I could probably go a 5 or 6 (the chorus doesn’t bug me *that* much).

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I also feel quite positively about this song, largely because of the woozy quality of the verses and the sense of propulsion created by the rhythm track. A 6 for me.

  19. 19
    Izzy on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Two great spots here – The Obvious Child and Rusholme Ruffians. The latter especially interesting because it could be just a lazy comparator of lyrical theme, but no, you’re talking about the woozy production. Which of course is the way it evokes that lyrical theme. Does the other big fairground song – Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! – draw from the same well? Well it more or less does really, how curious – I’ve never paid a great deal of heed to how lyrics influence production (or vice versa) but here’s strong evidence for the case.

    Anyway I do love this. It must be one of the very strangest soundscapes to reach the top. The drum battery (what’s the ultimate source? No.7 reckons Sergio Mendes, which I didn’t know); the pulse with its offbeats and accents being impossible to pin down and thereby keeping the ear searching; and the lazy vocal, which is neither lazy nor irregular but seems so because of the unusual metrics behind it.

    The chorus I don’t particularly love in context, though I like it better than I did and in isolation it’s fine; but Tom is quite right, without it there’s never a no.1 record here.

    Anyway no sense of injustice from me, nor should there be from anyone anyway – this is a far better record than the Pulp one. I recall at the time thinking this was the best no.1 for a while, and I’d stand by that now. (9)

  20. 20
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Weirdly I have never assumed this was actually about a fairground – I figured it was a metaphor for something. IIRC the video has them dicking about on a pier so there’s strike one against my theory.

  21. 21
    snoball on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I always hated the early Simply Red material, and didn’t like the later stuff much either. Hucknall’s ego always gets out of control and spoils everything. I guess it’s a fine line. Liam had a fair sized ego, but it somehow always managed to serve Oasis’s songs rather than do a big turd all over them. ‘Fairground’ is the proof for me: a song that could have been a lot better had someone else sung it. Tom hits the nail on the (red)head – the Hucknell Yell more or less ends any chance the song had of being good.

  22. 22
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I always thought of Simply Red in the same bucket as UB40, 80s UK tributes to ‘other’ music that lasted longer than is easily explicable or desirable. This is not the sort of view that survives actually learning anything about the history of black music in the UK, but somehow the connection still remains in me.

    A difference of course is that UB40’s earlier more credible stuff was obliterated by their history-facing work – Simply Red credible stuff was in part their history-facing work, and was still alive up to roughly this record – you’d still hear people saying that they weren’t any good nowadays of course but that the twin pinnacles of Money’s Too Tight To Mention and Holding Back The Years still held up – though they’ve disappeared from history now as well, leaving only the Yell.

  23. 23
    weej on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Simply Red were something my dad liked, vaguely socialist, slightly credible, the sort of thing that was played at the Green Party and Woodcraft Folk parties I was taken along to, along with Joan Armatrading, Billy Bragg and Tracy Chapman. It wasn’t until Fairground came out that I realised that they were despised by many. Mick Hucknall’s voice isn’t quite as rich and soulful as he imagines, and he does seem to settle for belting something out whenever there’s a lull, but these are still fairly minor offenses, and listening to ‘Holding Back The Years’ it’s still ok. I suspect that there’s an anti-ginger element to the way he’s treated, not on here of course.

    For Fairground itself, I agree that the verses are the best part.

    #19 – I made a mix of fairground tunes a couple of years back. No Simply Red though, I’m afraid. http://haonowshaokao.com/2010/05/30/last-night-a-dj-killed-my-dog-podcast-025-the-unfair-funfair/

  24. 24
    anto on 18 Jul 2013 #

    While I concede that Simply Red are off-putting for all the reasons listed in the review, at the same time I don’t believe they’ve ever made a record that was rankly bad in the stinking out the room sense. Why even their 1987 single “The Right Thing” where their lead singer first tried to convince us that not only was he an outstandingly great singer but also a Stretford End luvin’ machine is one of those songs catchy enough to jump into my head unprompted every 3/4 weeks (and believe me the image of Monsiuer Hucknall insisting “The time is right/Sexily right” is not always welcome on a weekday morning, as you can now see what I mean).
    I was pleasantly surprised at how amiable I found “Fairground” when it came out. I agree that the verses are what make it not least because they showed how Mick Hucknall could practice restraint if needs be. I don’t really have a problem with the chours which is spirited and certainly memorable, but it’s those elusive utterances over the almost 808-State-ish backing in between that made this almost confounding.
    I was on the verge of falling in love with Pulp by this stage. With the release of “Different Class” in autumn 1995 they appeared to be everywhere and it was as pleasing as the far more pervasive ubiquity of Oasis was becoming grating. We were at the stage where the Gallaghers “attitude” was veering from brazen cockiness to a general refusal of basic grace or self-censorship. Also around this time I visited the continent for the first time. I had never been beyond the British Isles before and it gave me a glimpse of an alternate view on a lot of things including pop music. In Italy and Switzerland the Simply Red record was everywhere, but not a single thing about Oasis or Pulp. This was when I realised what “internationally successful” was really about.

  25. 25
    Cumbrian on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I could be wrong but I strongly suspect opinion of this would be (slightly?) higher if it were done by a dance outfit with a Euro Disco Diva over the top of it. Simply Red strike me as a band who it’s OK for people to play the man (i.e. Mick Hucknall – I don’t think I could name anyone else from Simply Red) rather than the ball on. This has good verses and a propulsive jungle meets latin beat. Yes, the chorus does its job, instead of being spectacular but it’s not dragging it down for me. As I said, if it were by someone else, I reckon this would be a bit higher up. I’d not go as far as Izzy but this would be at least a 6 for me.

    Simply Red are an act of minor importance in my life, in that I can remember them specifically as part of my growing up. Prior to the final episode of Series 6 of Only Fools and Horses, I watched it with my parents and enjoyed the pratfalls and the catchphrases. I’d only be about 8 at this point. Then, in the final episode, Rodney gets married and, at the wedding reception, as people file away, Del is left alone on the makeshift dancefloor with Holding Back The Years playing. I felt sad for him – it became obvious to me, as a young child, that there was more going on with Del than being the funny, wide-boy. It’s the point at which I started to see more in entertainment (and indeed in life) than the obvious face value – an important point in my life in terms of developing empathy (of course, this sequence is manipulative – but I would argue that a lot of dramatic moments are manipulative, it’s whether you care that you are being manipulated or not that counts). And Simply Red is part of it – residual affection for them is the result.

  26. 26
    Cumbrian on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Also, looking at the sleeve, I now see where Disney/Pixar got the inspiration for Merida in last year’s Brave.

  27. 27
    JLucas on 18 Jul 2013 #

    This is a bit of a secret shame (I won’t use the dread term ‘guilty pleasure’) for me.

    I remember it being absolutely everywhere. Listening now though I am struck by both the flat verses and the ‘Hucknall yell’. It hasn’t aged terribly well.

    I didn’t know Hucknall was a noted socialist. I read a Q Magazine interview around the time of Simply Red’s 2003 comeback and he seemed like an absolutely horrible man (not that the two things are mutually exclusive).

  28. 28
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #25 I see what you’re getting at but “I think you’d like this more if it had a completely different arrangement and singer” doesn’t prove very much! Definitely my objection here – meandering verses making a belting chorus feel unearned – is the very structure I liked in “Never Forget” so there’s an inconsistency here and I suspect an irritation at Mick Hucknall is the root of it. But being irritated by pop stars is allowed, and I really don’t think he has an interesting voice or style.

    But! To redress the balance, things I like about Simply Red:

    – The opening line on this and it’s vibe on the verses, which makes me think of the episode of Halo Jones where Rodice is dribbling on Halo’s shoulder.
    – Holding Back The Years in general but especially in that Only Fools And Horses episode
    – The “Yes I would!” bits in Something Got Me Started
    – Money’s Too Tight To Mention. The people who used to go “ah but have you heard the original?” were really annoying especially because they were right.
    – Wonderland off Stars made me cry! I think after the 92 election. Is it a political song? I can’t bring it to mind now. I should hear that one again.

  29. 29
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    (No, I’m misremembering – wrong song wrong election. Wonderland was an “ambushed by unexpected emotion” moment but not IIRC actually tearful.)

  30. 30
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    And it totally is a political song – written after Thatcher’s exit. Surprised I didn’t see anyone mention it back in April, but I was on holiday.

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