Urbane cowboy of the subtly subversive melody
Sunday 07 July 1996
You wouldn't automatically call Burt Bacharach subversive, but no one is more so. That's not because Noel Gallagher, given the opportunity, would lick his patent slip-ons, or because Marlene Dietrich, whose act he arranged, adored him so much she'd wash his underwear when they toured. Bacharach's subtle rebellion is in the way he changed the sweep of popular music as irrevocably as The Beatles. "Easy listening" couldn't be a less accurate term; the melodies he and lyricist Hal David turned out in the 1950s and 60s were full of shifting, unexpected rhythms it took an assured vocalist to manage. Bacharach has stories about the way Tom Jones faltered over the complex waltz time of "What's New Pussycat?", and even Sinatra couldn't quite negotiate the shifting terrain of "Wives and Lovers". Dionne Warwick had the range to break their sound - 39 hits in 10 years - but it was the enunciation of male vulnerability that set the duo apart, the blend of sensuality and self-denial of "Make It Easy On Yourself", the remorse and sexual yearning of "24 Hours From Tulsa". It's heady stuff, most likely drawn from life.
Bacharach was - maybe still is - a romantic, a workaholic playboy running a high-profile career plus strings of racehorses and beautiful wives; when he took the stage at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday, it was easy to see why, at 68, he recently married a 35-year-old ski instructor. From his bow tie and immaculate cuffs to his craggy good looks he was the epitome of urbanity, and the audience - including Tony Blackburn and Soho hipster Count Indigo - was there to learn. Bacharach and David numbers aren't about adolescent infatuation but about dangerous Niagaras of fully fledged adult emotion, high-velocity passion built to last.
Burt played as though his life depended on it, one hand on the keyboard, the other conducting like a T'ai Chi master, describing taut, arcane shapes in the air. He was not above sending himself up - "There are three Academy Award losers in this medley," he huskily admitted. "How could I lose? At anything?" And in between "The Look Of Love" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head", which he sang in a cracked alto, he proved himself a man of the people, murmuring glumly, "I am so ... sorry ... that England lost to Germany, I can't tell you." It was a night of hits without their signature stars, but though, for example, only Cilla Black's tough Northern soul can do justice to "Anyone Who Had a Heart", LA crooner Lisa Taylor delivered it in a mellifluous tremble and, as escalating strings reached a climax, turned it from a victim's lament into stormy, pitying insight. There were longueurs - "That's What Friends are For", co-written with Carole Bayer Sager, and the Neil Diamond-assisted "Heartlight", feyer than the Swingle Singers - but these were blips in a show that got a standing ovation, mainly for the man's track record. The previous evening, Noel Gallagher shared an encore duet on "This Guy's in Love...", which apparently saw him more nervous than he's ever been. The avuncular Burt, naturally, remained the definition of unruffled.
"I saw you / You slob / Puttin' sugar in my hog / I'm gonna get you / I'm gonna get you / In Montreal". Occasional solo artiste Fred Schneider, on the other hand, seems to have had everything ruffled: hair, face, psyche, the lot. At the London Garage, the man his press release calls the "inventor of zany" hammered the kooky frat-pop of his long-time band The B-52s into the dust by screeching shock-jock lyrics over heavy-duty thrash informed by the Undertones, the Cramps and all points punk. Debut album Just Fred led one to expect the worst, but Schneider had a Blondie-style live crew to provide a noose-tight backup. Fred's voice, though, is nothing if not atonally piercing, his addled spleen not always listenable. On Tuesday he sprinted through the album, bringing each song, including Harry Nilsson's "Coconut", to a vortex of twanging hysteria. At times, it seemed like behavioural therapy, which might explain John McEnroe's guest slot on frenzied guitar. Though "Secret Sharer" is coaxing, and "Helicopter" has a dastardly riff, most of the set consisted of ultra- noise. At a Fred Schneider gig, no one can hear you scream...
Screaming was a key mode of response at the Royal Albert Hall where Isaac Hayes, godfather of funk, was looking supernaturally fly. Son of a Memphis sharecropper, Hayes was holding down a job in a meat-packing factory when he started to sell soul classics - "Hold On I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" for Sam and Dave - but it was his own sub-sonic voice that made him the thinking man's Barry White long before White took the audience he'd primed. On Thursday, flanked by a big-boned band, Hayes proved that, with the right intonation, even a line like "Cerebellum, medulla oblongata" (from "Hyperbolic") can be disturbingly erotic. He delivered a spare, swooping "My Funny Valentine", gave us "Shaft" because he had to, then took Bacharach and David's "Walk On By", pulled out the bones and made it a remorseless, languid epic. As for surprise celebrity guests ... oh, please. If you were Isaac Hayes, would you?
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