Tonight Is For The Restless

Everyone has their musical obsessions. The one act or performer they hero worship and will do anything to own a complete set of everything they ever created. It may not be the coolest thing in the world, but as I’ve described in the past mine is Jim Steinman – although that linked to article is actually badly underwritten and needs reworking at some point in the not too distant future.

Maybe it is all the late nights I’ve been working but lately I’ve developed a fascination for one of his most obscure and all but forgotten musical creations. Fire Inc. were a studio creation, a name attached to his most commonly used musicians and who recorded just two tracks for the soundtrack of the 1984 movie Streets Of Fire.

The story of the film is a tale and a half in itself, intended as one of the summer blockbusters of that year but ultimately something of a box office disappointment and which would torpedo plans for an entire franchise centred around hero Tom Cody, as portrayed by Michael Pare onscreen. I first saw the film on television sometime in the late 80s, acknowledged it as a bit naff in places but was utterly captivated by the musical soundtrack. The most famous song from the film is “I Can Dream About You” which composer Dan Hartman turned into a moderate hit on both sides of the Atlantic but far and away the highlights are the two Fire Inc. tracks which bookend the film and which are portrayed as the work of Ellen Aim and the Attackers, the rock singer whose kidnap is central to the plot of the film.

“Nowhere Fast” opens the movie but is easily eclipsed by the second track “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young”, a six minute epic which is unashamedly and avowedly the work of Jim Steinman. If I’m being honest, as a production it doesn’t quite hit the mark. As I’ve written before, Steinman’s desire to throw the kitchen sink at a track production-wise means many of them walk a fine line between genius and ludicrousness. Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young possibly strays on the wrong side of that line, the vocals by Holly Sherwood just a little too strained, the heavenly backing vocals just a little out of place and the pace and structure of the song lacking quite the same magic as some of the other tracks he made around the same time such as "Holding Out For A Hero”. Released as a single in early summer of 1984 and credited to Jim Steinman and Fire Inc., Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young limped to a miserable Number 67 in the charts and fared little better in America.

Yet put it in the context of the movie and somehow it all starts to make sense. Have a gander at the way it is portrayed in Streets Of Fire and I’ll break it all down.

The women in Jim Steinman songs generally fall into one of two categories. They are either lost in gothic fantasy, forever stood in front of billowing curtains in flimsy night attire, contemplating the wild night below them and aching for the dashing prince to be their salvation or else they are wild, raucous and horny creatures, in thrall to their uncontrollable lust and determined to make the most of the opportunity which life presents to them.

Uniquely the singer of Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young falls into both categories, a dreamer with a fire in her loins and a healthy dose of reality. Hence when the song starts she is giving vent to her innermost fantasies:

“I’ve got a dream ‘bout and angel on the beach, and the perfect waves are starting to come. His hair is flying out in ribbons of gold, and his touch has the power to stun.”

It is like every trashy chick-porn novel ever written isn’t it? Accompanied by Roy Bittan’s piano and the odd shimmering effect, she continues to describe her angel, her perfect man in loving and longing detail. Only then she breaks the reverie and becomes something entirely more sensible – pragmatic:

“…if I can’t get an angel, then I can still get a boy. And boy would be the next best thing to an angel.”

At this point the whole of the band wakes up and the second verse sees our heroine in a frenzy of metaphorical clothes-ripping as her real-life hero hoves into view:

“He’s got the fire of a prince in his eyes, and the thunder of a drum in his ears”.

And yet the Prince is quite possibly someone just like her, dreaming of perfection and ready to grasp whatever fate decides to offer him:

“He’s there all alone, and dreaming of someone like me. I’m not an angel but at least I’m a girl.”

The drum reference in the previous line is a typical Steinman touch. In his world rock and roll music and sex are merely two different manifestations of desire and the passion for one can be expressed through the other. In a Peter Pan world where everyone is seventeen forever, and what we do at that moment has the power to define us for eternity, Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young explodes into a four minute frenzy of joy, an unrestrained celebration of the two dreamers coming together to make the most of their opportunity, and naturally to be the shining example for young lovers across the world:

“Let the revels begin, let the fire be started, we’re dancing for the restless and the broken hearted.”

To me that is a magical piece of poetry, smashing together fantasy and reality to create the perfect excuse to celebrate life, love and everything that flows from it.

Due to the production flaws I mentioned above, by itself the song simply doesn’t work. Yet it doesn’t exist by itself, it is after all the emotional climax to a movie. All Jim Steinman productions are done with a sense of grand theatre in mind, as if begging for each one to be made into a performance movie. Which is exactly what Streets Of Fire director Walter Hill gets to do. Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young is the valedictory performance of Ellen Aim and the Attackers after her kidnap nightmare is over and the gang who tormented her have been run off into the night, so he gets to stage it as a fantasy vision of what a rock concert should be. Diane Lane gives it her best rock chick in a ludicrously impractical dress, joined in stages by her band (complete with ridiculously overactive lead guitarist) and backing group The Sorels who take on the role played by a multi-tracked Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer on the actual recording. It is all at once ridiculous, bombastic and somehow extraordinarily entertaining and needless to say serves as the perfect backdrop for the movie’s final twist as hero Tom Cody slips out of the arena and drives off into the night with the feisty lesbian in search of new adventures (which were to be portrayed in the sequels that were never made).

Yet extraordinarily this isn’t the best performance of this otherwise obscure song on YouTube. That honour must surely go to a glee-style choir from Sri Lanka called Soul Sounds whose rather badly mixed live performance of the song has in the past two years attracted over 34,000 views and numerous comments from admiring fans, not least one purporting to be from original singer Holly Sherwood who thanks them for a wonderful rendition and reminisces about recording the 72 track original. Is there any finer praise than that?

England’s Dreaming

I’ve a suspicion that a certain generation of music writers tend to romanticise the impact of punk rock just a little. I can’t comment from a personal perspective myself, being of slightly more recent vintage, but the notion that acts like the Sex Pistols marked a wholesale revolution which changed the entire music industry, and indeed fashion and musical tastes, overnight doesn’t really hold water. Maybe in London it was a genuinely exciting new musical movement which inspired a new generation of writers and wannabe musicians, but you suspect the impact in the rest of the country was rather less spectacular.

The story of the Sex Pistols and their brief musical career is a fascinating tale to read and one which has given rise to a number of legends over the years (the fate of Sid Vicious’ ashes anyone?), but one which keeps rearing its head time and time again is the alleged chart-rigging which went on over their biggest hit single God Save The Queen. Not chart-rigging to inflate its reported sales, oh no. In this case, so the story goes, so scandalised were the powers that be at the prospect of such a disrespectful record going to Number One during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee week that they contrived to downplay its sales, resulting in the single charting at a much more respectful Number 2. Thus was the nation’s dignity saved. Or something.

Over the years this apparent injustice (fuelled by the likes of John Lydon and even their then label boss Richard Branson who are both convinced it took place) has become something of a cause celebre, a wrong that should somehow at some point be righted – giving the Sex Pistols the Number One single the establishment felt they shouldn’t have back in the day.

Hence upon the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, God Save The Queen was re-released in a blaze of publicity, suggesting that 25 years on the chance was upon the nation to send it to the top of the charts where it surely rightly belonged. Sadly for them the call went unheeded although the single did reach a not totally disrespectful Number 15. Five years later the issue reared its head again, and a plot to organise a mass buy-in of the record to coincide with its 30th anniversary in 2007 became one of the earliest examples of a pointless chart campaign. The NME at the time were all over it, urging every one of their readers to download the track just to see what would happen. Articles to this effect are still on their website:

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Sadly for all those involved the idea had even less legs that it did five years earlier, and this apparently spontaneous re-issue of God Save The Queen limped to Number 42 and everyone quietly forgot about it.

This week it may not have escaped your attention that it is the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and quelle surprise once again there is talk of how we now have the opportunity to right a wrong and give the Sex Pistols the Number One single they were denied back in the day. To no great surprise (except possibly to the excited individuals fruitlessly urging their followers forward on the official Facebook group created for the occasion) this attempt is destined to go the same way as all the others, and you will find little trace of God Save The Queen in any midweek sales flashes. Quite simply nobody is bothered. Even John Lydon, enthusiastic cheerleader for the 2002 re-release is angrily distancing himself from the fad this time around. He has a new PiL album to promote after all.

Personally I was always slightly dubious about the provenance of the tale. You would think after all this time somebody working behind the scenes would have stepped forward and admitted “yes, I conspired to prevent the Sex Pistols making Number One to prevent the Queen being embarrassed”. Yet no such confession has ever been forthcoming. On the occasion of the 2002 re-issue of the single, I wrote a lengthy piece as part of the dotmusic chart commentary, stating:

To be honest this conspiracy theory is not something I’ve ever really subscribed to. Malcolm McLaren has admitted on several occasions that just about everything the Sex Pistols did was 90% hype, and being “cheated” out of a Number One single was a wonderful story with which to make his charges seem like social outcasts and to guarantee even more headlines. It is entirely possible that the Sex Pistols did indeed outsell Rod that week but it must be remembered that this was in an age when the singles chart was based on a sample of 200 or so selected shops each week and that the data was collected by the assistants manually noting in a diary which records they had sold. The system could and indeed was widely abused and for every establishment conspiracy against the Sex Pistols there were probably countless other examples of acts being penalised because the teenager working the till on a Saturday wasn’t going to bother writing down the sales for acts he hated. Indeed I often wonder how it was that a single which could not be heard on radio or TV and which in some towns was impossible to even purchase actually managed to hit the survey enough times to be listed even as the Number 2 single.

It is amusing to note the almost unceasing efforts people go to to keep the conspiracy theory alive. The Wikipedia page for the single takes time to note a page on the BBC news website about the cover of the single being ranked as one of the most memorable of its era which states blandly that the single “topped the charts despite being banned”, with the writers of the page wondering if this isn’t a tacit admission that the fix was on:

In 2001 in a unrelated article about the best record covers of all time, the BBC website published the following “God Save The Queen reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC and marked a defining moment in the punk revolution”. There has been no official statement from the BBC (before or after this article was written) regarding this admission and thus the issue as to whether the song did make it to the top of the British charts still remains unresolved.

I mean Jesus wept, it is a line in an ineptly researched throwaway archive piece on a news website, the author of the article almost certainly assuming that the single was a chart-topper without bothering to check. Yet somehow this is a CLUE and is worth noting.

As I mentioned in my own archive piece above, I’ve often marvelled at just how it was that the single even made Number 2 given that most people couldn’t hear it and many shops refused to stock it altogether. A single that was never on the radio and which was impossible to buy making Number 2? That was surely the biggest fix of all. Even aside from that, given that the idea was apparently to avoid the scandal of such a seditious piece of music being Number One at the point the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, quite how the single being one place below made it any better has never been made clear. Surely a full establishment suppression of the track would have involved contriving to remove it from the charts altogether. Would that not have made more sense?

Believe it or not a couple of years ago some enterprising researchers did uncover the truth. During a brief period when the BPI were more than happy to let anyone who asked nicely enough scour through their archives stored in a cupboard under the stairs, the officially audited sales reports for the week in question in 1977 were dug out. They confirmed clearly and unequivocally that I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Rod Stewart did indeed sell substantially more copies than God Save The Queen. There was no fix, no conspiracy and no real injustice. The Sex Pistols simply lost the sales race, nothing more.

You will notice that all of the recent attempts to right the wrong have had something in common – they seem to conveniently coincide with a re-release of the single and re-promotion of the Sex Pistols’ well-worn back catalogue. 2012 is no different and indeed the “Sex Pistols For Diamond Jubilee No.1” Facebook page points fans not only towards a newly available live version of the single but also a specially limited edition physical version of the track which had been brought out to commemorate. The whole thing has the air of a ham-fisted attempt by Universal Music themselves to astroturf some demand for a still lucrative bit of back catalogue. It couldn’t possibly be that the whole conspiracy tale is indeed a ruse to ensure that the legend of the Pistols continues to run, way beyond their music actually having any relevance to anyone under the age of 40.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

ADDENDUM: For an even more forensic take on the God Save The Queen myth, and one which makes use of the statistics referenced in the forum post detailed in the comments below, check out the post on the Yes It’s Number One blog which deals with this particular moment in music history.

Burning The Candle

A true story about how I got where I am today.

I didn’t get to work on the radio as a presenter and producer because I was necessarily the most talented guy around, the best talker, the funniest writer or even the most informed sportsman. It is because I said yes to a great many things.

It is because immediately after graduating I worked during the day at an accountancy office and then many evenings and all weekends at the local radio station which would go on to become my first proper radio employer. I rarely took a day off in 18 months.

It is because when someone was needed to drive the desk for a week of broadcasts from a remote town, I took a week “off work” to be available for it.

It is because when someone was needed to screen calls for the late night phone-in on the night of the office Christmas party, I abandoned the meal after the starter and jumped in the car to the studio to make a radio show happen.

It is because when asked if I’d play out a recorded show for four hours on Christmas afternoon instead of sitting at home unwrapping presents, I readily agreed.

It is because when one Saturday evening at home my phone rang and I was asked to go in at short notice and present the late night love songs show, I said yes with wild enthusiasm.

It is because on every single one of those occasions, I was prepared to push aside whatever other plans I had for the time and make going and being on the radio my number one concern, because from my point of view it was really the only thing that mattered.

Last weekend, hardly anyone in the team of people I manage wanted to work. Some were away, some had booked holiday specifically for the occasion, so fair enough. Others had plans and priorities, birthdays to celebrate with friends or important shopping trips that just couldn’t be put on hold. In short, none of them cared enough to say yes to everything.

So a decade and a half on from being the man who stepped in to the breach every time, I still had to be the one to care instead. So I worked all night on Friday night producing. I came home at 7am, kissed the family good morning and slept for seven hours. I got up, made them dinner and went to work again. I pressed buttons for four hours on Saturday night, before switching hats and producing for six hours through the middle of the night again until 6am. Then there was no point going home, so I unrolled a sleeping bag in an empty studio and slept for four hours or so. Then I got up at 11am on Sunday morning to help produce some live sport at lunchtime. I finished at 4pm and returned to my sleeping bag for another few hours sleep. I got up at 9pm and produced another all night radio show until 6am Monday morning. Then I travelled home again finally and slept as best I could, dosed up on all manner of herbal tinctures in an attempt to free my mind of the sheer mental exhaustion of such a schedule and the crushing despair I still felt when trying to persuade others to do even half the work I’d otherwise be committed to.

It wasn’t so terrible. Between Friday night and Monday morning I’d made a grand total of 24 hours of live radio and I’m delighted to say felt the same passion and the same joy for every single one of them as I did on a Christmas afternoon 17 years ago. Yet I can’t take much joy from apparently being the only one who cared enough to put himself through it. That might take a little while for me to reconcile.