Diamond diva

Shirley Bassey made her name as the ritzy glamour queen of showbiz, but her sparkle has rubbed off on today's clubland DJs. Now she's a disco grandmother. Toby Manning pays homage
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Shirley Bassey. What a dame. Her name alone evokes Vegas and variety shows, satin and sequins, an old-school glitz and glamour that by the Seventies somehow found itself cryogenically frozen.

Shirley Bassey. What a dame. Her name alone evokes Vegas and variety shows, satin and sequins, an old-school glitz and glamour that by the Seventies somehow found itself cryogenically frozen.

This month, however, the album Diamonds Are Forever finds the tigress from Tiger Bay all thawed out and thrust into 21st-century dance culture. Bassey is getting the disco treatment - not by the usual band of also-rans who mastermind such conceptions, but by the cream of the clubbing crop. Ibizan chillmasters Groove Armada take "Diamonds Are Forever" to the Café del Mar, just in time for sunset; Sheffield's "Sing It Back" superstars Moloko tackle "If You go Away"; while the Propellerheads and New York house legend Kenny "Dope" Gonzales also take their turn at the Bassey classics.

Tom Jones might think it's not unusual to have a dance hit at sixtysomething (he has recently been grinding his hips in the charts with "Sex Bomb"), yet Jones is an exception: try to imagine Vegas stalwarts such as Streisand, Minnelli or Manilow being treated with the same kind of kitsch-free reverence by today's tastemakers (except by those custodians of camp, the Pet Shop Boys). It just doesn't happen.

Then again, Bassey has never been solely confined to either the crimplene and curlers set or the tucked tees and 'taches of the gay scene. Unlike modern chanteuses - Geri Halliwell, Kylie, Billie - who rely on their kitsch following, Bassey, like all true divas, has always been about family entertainment. How else do you explain her appearance at the rugby World Cup earlier this year in a giant Welsh dragon smock? Never mind that she mumbled her way through the Welsh national anthem, the fact that she showed up and sang at all (she's been an expat for years) was enough to thrill the stadium.

"There's a certain mystery, an elusive quality to Shirley Bassey which is key to her appeal," gushes Moloko's Mark Brydon. "It's only my opinion, but to me she stands above everything and seems untouchable. She's beyond musical genres - what would you call what she does? Jazz? Pop? Lounge? In music, as in life, she's beyond nationality."

Matthew Kershaw, music editor of Mixmag, is another surprise Shirleyphile. "Unlike other Vegas stars such as Streisand or Manilow, who went disco in the Seventies then plain naff in the Eighties, Bassey always kept an aloof foot in the Sixties, which have remained perennially cool. Particularly, of course, the whole James Bond, John Barry association. In the Nineties, those tunes became the basis of a whole dance genre - trip hop, via Portishead, in particular, and so she's never dated."

"Goldfinger" crystallised Bassey's style, shifting her away from the unconvincing jazz, blues and calypso standards that marked her Fifties career. The song perfectly complemented a voice that had shed its early softness to give everything an anthemic, dramatic and distinctly European sweep. Where early Sixties hits like "Climb Every Mountain" were simply hearty, "Goldfinger" was heart-stopping. It was an approach to which Bassey has adhered closely for the rest of her career.

No surprises then, that Bassey's influence on dance culture goes back way beyond trip hop. Vinyl "crate-diggers", those High Fidelity-style music junkies whose heads seem to be constantly buried in second-hand record shops, are always on the lookout for perfect sounds to pilfer and have been sampling her records for years. Having already utilised Bassey's rock operatic 1970 version of The Doors' "Light My Fire", Kenny Gonzales seized upon the chance to rework the original into the proto-hip hop track it always hinted at. "I found her Something album in a New York record store," he recalls "and was just immediately blown away by the combination of these intense, funky grooves and this extraordinary voice that cut through everything."

But dance culture's interest in Bassey goes beyond mere musical spottery. A culture that apparently venerates ordinariness (hello Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers) isn't anti-glamour, it's just starved of it. Bassey's new incarnation represents dance culture's desire for a fix of exoticism after years of down-dressing and understatement (something that Miss Moneypenny's, a lone glamour clubbing outpost in Birmingham, will no doubt be relieved about).

Because Bassey is brash, upfront, brazen - just think about the diamonds, the white Jaguars with blue leather upholstery, the extravagant furs. Then there's the sex. Bassey's risqué, nudge-nudge tunes such as "Big Spender" have long been as integral to her stage act as her plunging necklines, dizzying skirt splits and "oops, forgot to put the back bit in" gowns. Alex Gifford is one of the few of the new generation of Bassey-ites who's actually met her in person. "She's very fit," is his somewhat guarded summary. Fit healthy, or fit sexy? "Both," he says laughing.

A recent Manchester show confirms this. Bassey is in prime vampish form, smouldering like South Wales coal, hiking up her skirt to show a little leg, at 63 losing none of her ability to pop those corks. Introducing "History Repeating", she says: "This is the song that briefly transformed this diva into a disco grandmother." With Diamonds Are Forever hard on its heels, it seems that transformation isn't going to be so brief after all. *

'Diamonds are Forever' (EMI) is released on 28 August

Comments