Elaine Paige had never truly been a pop star.
For sure, during the 1980s she had made more than her fair share of forays into the pop singles charts, but these were by and large as an adjunct to her primary career as a star of musical theatre. It just so happened she was for a while the favourite muse of the composers of some of the most famous theatrical productions of the decade and was therefore gifted the chance to sing on some of their most iconic works.
Thus when we think of Memory it is not in terms of the show-stopping first act closer in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Cats but more as Elaine Paige’s signature rendition of the song, and one which she took to Number 6 in the charts in the summer of 1981. The same goes for the musical Chess which is not defined by Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok (although that would be no bad thing) but instead by I Know Him So Well which as performed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson was a memorable Number One hit single in early 1985 and was appreciated on its own level by people who were ignorant of its true context in the libretto of the musical.
This interplay between stage show and chart success had however resulted in the singer recording a handful of albums, although her most successful ones had been TV-advertised collections of songs from stage and screen: 1983 release Stages and its 1984 follow-up Cinema both released through K-Tel records, the former reaching the dizzy heights of Number 2 upon release. Then in 1988 came the rather notorious Queen Album which saw Elaine Paige croon her way through selected highlights of the Queen back catalogue accompanied by a Philharmonic Orchestra. It is as extraordinary as it sounds and in truth deserves an entire blog devoted to it. But that is for another time.
However in 1991 she signed a new deal with RCA records, the label convinced that they had the secret to turning the then 43 year old star into a mainstream pop performer in her own right. To that end she travelled to California to record with renowned producer Dennis Lambert. The result was Love Can Do That, an album crammed with contemporary songs from some very big names indeed. Diane Warren was in there, as were Steinberg and Kelly (via a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours). The album was hailed as a very big deal indeed and was promoted as a huge priority – including extensive coverage for what was hoped would be its major hit single.
Well Almost had a pedigree all of its own, composed by one man hit factory Mike Chapman alongside his favourite protege Holly Knight. It was also very Diane Warren-like, a made for FM radio mid-tempo soft rock anthem which in truth barely stretched the powerful talents of its appointed singer but whose highly polished vocal tones somehow made it exude a classiness which made it stand out from the crowd. The song had a huge fan in the shape of Radio One mid-morning host Simon Bates who played it virtually every day for a fortnight in March 1991, proclaiming “this is the single which will send Elaine Paige back to the top of the charts”.
History records that didn’t quite go as plan. Well Almost failed to chart at all as stockists and indeed purchasers appeared singularly uninterested in Elaine Paige’s pop star reinvention. It is a shame because the song is at the end of the day a rather classy and well constructed pop record. It was just that it was possibly a record out of time, a production steeped in the musical shorthand of the late-80s with its chiming synths and squealing guitar figures. It wasn’t that the charts of the time weren’t host to such soft-rock balladry. The One And Only by Chesney Hawkes was at Number One at around the same time after all, but by and large such records were outliers. Novelties harking back to what was by then a bygone musical era. If it had been backed by being the soundtrack to a hit film or the theme to a TV series then Well Almost might have stood a chance. As a major pop hit it never truly stood a chance.
The Love Can Do That album fared slightly better, limping to Number 36 in the charts and spending a month with respectable levels of sales. It would turn out to be her final dalliance with pop music. Her stage career would hit new heights with her acclaimed portrayal of Edith Piaf in 1993 and she would spend the rest of the decade in her comfort zone, releasing albums of songs from stage musicals – heralding in a way her later career as a radio presenter dealing with the very same material.
Yet despite its failure I’ve still a soft spot for Well Almost. For years it was for me one of the great lost pop records and indeed a track which for a long time I had a yearning to hear again, having never picked up a copy when it was released. I genuinely hadn’t heard it since that ill-starred release until I started working in full time radio three years later and spent one Saturday evening browsing the hidden depths of the record library at The Pulse in Bradford. There to my delight on the shelf I found a copy of the Love Can Do That CD and so was thrilled to be able to play Well Almost to myself. Then the song became a long buried memory once more, that was until 2001 and the heyday of the fantastic (and illegal) Audiogalaxy file sharing app which miraculously seemed to contain a copy of every song ever recorded. I spent one long evening queuing up a download of all manner of hard to find tracks – amongst them Well Almost a copy of which I was finally able to own after ten years of searching.
I note with some amusement that anecdotes such as the above will themselves one day become long buried memories. Despite sometimes annoying gaps in their coverage (still no sign of Material Issue’s second album even after all this time) services such as Spotify are close to containing every last bit of popular music ever recorded. It means that buried in their database as you can see above is indeed Elaine Paige’s long-lost “pop” album from 1991 and the song which was supposed to take her to the very summit once more but which now relies upon people like me to call attention to it a generation later.