There will be a few people this morning maybe slightly disgruntled at the final result of the public vote for Best British Single at last nights Brit awards. Given that it had been showered with plaudits from many other sources (the Grammys, Record Of The Year) you could have been forgiven for assuming that Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ was the automatic choice to win the award. It was after all the greatest song they have ever recorded and will probably remain that way, a lavish epic that deservedly gave them their first ever Number One single.
Nonetheless I’m actually quite pleased, as the record that did win the vote is just as magnificent, lavish and heart-warming and at the same time stands scrutiny as a pop music masterpiece. Don’t believe me? Well check out the detailed case for ‘The Promise’ by Girls Aloud. The video won’t embed (because record companies are idiots) but you can check it out on YouTube here. Note that the timings referenced below are those of the original track and don’t quite tally with those in the video.
Truth be told, the five ladies can’t really take much credit for the track. They are by definition just the hired singers on a piece of music crafted by the writing and production wizards of Xenomania – five of whom receive songwriting credits on the track. I’ve said before (as have many others) that what makes Girls Aloud such fun is that their producers are effectively given free reign to turn them into their playthings, using them as a chart-friendly means of exploring new concepts and at times playing around with the very idea of what makes a pop record.
First let us deal with the production, for it seemed to go almost unremarked when the single was first released at the tail end of last year that ‘The Promise’ is a lovingly constructed pastiche of the work of Tony Hatch and the music he made for Petula Clark back in the 1960s. The song screams showbiz decadence, awash with trumpets and brass to give the whole production a warm, big band feel and one which you can only imagine being performed on a gigantic stage set under coloured spotlights and in front of an enthusiastic audience. This whole feel inevitably colours the the way the song is presented and their performance of it at the awards last night, caressed throughout by tuxedo-clad dancers wielding modesty-shielding feather boas is lifted straight out of the Vegas show of your dreams.
The song itself is a revelation from the moment you hear it, thanks to the well worn but still never overused Xenomania trick of dispensing with the idea that a pop record has to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus with the same melody throughout. They first used the trick on ‘Biology’ a few years ago which won plaudits galore for actually being five different choruses all bolted together in one track. ‘The Promise’ doesn’t quite go that far but does during the course of the song fit the lyrics into as many as seven different melodies, only one of which (the chorus) is ever heard more than once.
Best of all though, just like ‘Biology’ you could actually have constructed the entire song around any one of the melodies and it still would have been one of the best pop records of the year. The fact is that in one three and a half minute record Xenomania stirred in half an albums worth of ideas, just to make ‘The Promise’ as spectacular as possible.
Count them up, just as the girls count themselves in at the start of the track. We start with the “Everything he does, better than anything ordinary” chant (0:06) which you could be forgiven for assuming was the basis of the song. Certainly it serves to lead us into the first chorus (0:27) and so far things seem just like an ordinary pop record. Then you realise that this was just the introduction, the first verse proper kicking in with the “Maybe next time I’ll take a ride on by” section at 0:49. Yet this tune is used for just four or five lines as the song immediately switches to the rising chord sequence of the “Giving up just looking into windows” segment (1:10). From a musical point of view this actually serves the purpose of dragging the melody back up to the key of the chorus, the initial verse having dropped to a lower register to properly convey the regret and longing of the lyrics. It is a wonderfully subtle point that will bypass most listeners, but if you listen carefully the song actually changes key with every new verse as the mood of the singers switches from joy to despair at the hold the man has over them.
Once we reach the top of the ramp, we’re back to the chorus for a second time but instead of dropping back down a chord for the next verse at 1:53, we carry on up into a higher register for the plaintive “Here I Am” segment. Conventional rules of songwriting say you go back to the first verse and re-use the melody. Xenomania don’t, they discard it altogether to introduce a brand new tune. Even that is cast aside in fairly short order as the one consequence of the mournful tone of the verse means we are now “above” the chorus in musical terms – a bit of a no-no given that the one rule the track does stick to is that the hook has to be the climactic part of the music. Consequently we switch gears entirely for the bridge, dropping down to a lower level for the “I’ve got my hands all ready to touch your soul” segment (2:14) which not only takes the girls back through a sequence of rising chords but most notably does it twice. Listen carefully if you can, we could theoretically hit the chorus again after the first four lines (at “are you watching me baby?”) but instead we have to wait while the girls repeat themselves in the “cos my heart is turning to solid gold” stanza (2:25). It means that the chorus when it comes, although it will be for the third time, still sounds fresh and exciting.
Following this third run through the chorus we inevitably shake things up with the middle-eight which as in all good songs features a different melody to the rest of the track. Except of course that is what we have been doing throughout, so the “maybe it’s not that hard to know you” verse is no less than the seventh different tune to which the girls have sung along (2:57).
I’ve heard some producers bemoan the current ubiquity of the climactic key change in pop records, worrying that people come to expect such a musical device all the time and thus diminishing the impact it has when it is used more sparingly. Still, a song such as ‘The Promise’ which has shuttled up and down the scale several times already would be lacking something if it didn’t build to what I term The Great Key Change Of Joy. Yet we are made to wait for it at the end of the third chorus. Only briefly, but by the simple means of the drum fill at 3:15 all the emotions, all the joy that inevitably comes with bringing the song to a shimmering climax is put on hold. It is the musical equivalent of a delayed orgasm I guess, the moment of release all the sweeter by the fact that you’ve had to wait just that little bit too long for it to arrive. After that we can relax, the key change hits, fireworks go off, the wall of sound of brass is cranked up a notch and the song can play out to joyful renditions of the chorus.
Except that it doesn’t. After they’ve sung it twice more, the music falls away and the girls utter one final pleading cry of “Babe!” which dies away in an echo to bring the track to an abrupt close. For all the joy conveyed by the instrumentation, for all the exuberance of the melody, the end of the song hammers home the point that the singer is a tragic figure, trapped by the hopeless irrational feelings she has for the man in the song, even though she knows he doesn’t believe in the kind of love she feels for him. “The promise I made, is starting to fade..”, she’s sworn herself off him but in the end can’t resist and so the song has to die at the end, just as she surely will of the broken heart that is going to result.
So that’s why ‘The Promise’ deserves to be Bes
t British Single. It is a three and a half minute pop record that bears close scrutiny, one which has been lovingly constructed by some of the best writers and producers in the business at the moment and who wanted to reward their charges for their loyalty with an enduring pop classic to mark the sixth anniversary of their association with each other. Sure, if ‘Viva La Vida’ had won it would have been possible to write just as detailed an essay about its strengths and appeal, but I won’t deny that of all the results last night, this was the one I was anticipating the most.