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Anatomy of a Pop Classic

There are no doubt some amongst us, who would regard the above title as an oxymoron. Of course I profoundly disagree. My love of music, particularly good Rock & Pop music is boundless, and although I’m 62, I’m still discovering bands and songs that really speak to me. Not being a trained musician, (I only studied up to grade 5 at home) any analysis of what music I enjoy most and why, tends to be based on psychological criteria, rather than any logical, trained disassembly. I still ask myself why I enjoy a particular track, but usually just give up and simply listen to it – ignorance can sometimes be bliss.

So what is a classic pop song? Probably one that as well as being perenially popular with the public, is also covered by many other artists, because they enjoyed it too. Usually, such covers include recognisable additions and changes from the original, so that the offering is more in the style of the covering artiste – but not always. Rarely, a song comes along that is so good, that even covers of it retain almost all aspects of the original. Some would call this copying, and ask the question: Why has it been recorded again if it dosn’t offer anything extra? This would be true if there were none, but there is the exception that a cover although remaining faithful to the original, augments it in an inexplicable way. In such cases, we might still have a preference, but still enjoy both the original and the update.

As an example I’ve picked on an 80’s pop hit called ‘Duel’, by a synth band from Germany called Propaganda, which entered the top 30 in 1985. (In the UK)
You may or may not remember this – indeed you may not have even been around then, but I think it is a prime candidate for our criteria. First of all take a look at the lyrics:

Eye to eye, stand winners and losers;
Hurt by envy, cut by greed
Face to face with their own disillusion;
The scars of old romances still on their cheeks

And when blow by blow the passion dies sweet little death;
Just have been lies, the memories of, gone by time,
Would still recall the lie
The first cut won’t hurt at all;
The second only makes you wonder
The third will have you on your knees;
You start bleeding, I start screaming

It’s too late the decision is made by fate;
Time to prove what forever should last
Whose feelings are so true, as to stand the test;
Whose demands are so strong, as to parry all attempts

And when blow by blow the passion dies sweet little death;
Just have been lies, the memories of, gone by time
Would still recall the lie
The first cut won’t hurt at all;
The second only makes you wonder
The third will have you on your knees;
You start bleeding, I start screaming

(repeat 3 times and fade last)
The first cut won’t hurt at all;
The second only makes you wonder
The third will have you on your knees;
You start bleeding, I start screaming

I hope you will agree with me when I say that this story is a little dark, OK, very dark. Almost all of us have lived the pain of such an experience, but perhaps have been unable to describe what it felt like in such a vivid and compelling way – my definition of what poetry is and does.

The video linked below was recorded in 1985 and is the epitome of ’80’s naffness, although looking at it again, I quite enjoyed the grossly overblown production. There is one little scary bit towards the end involving a little girl walking down a passage – but I won’t spoil it by telling you. Look out for vocalist Claudia Brücken who sings the song, in English, in a way that only a German girl can, and looks very attractive doing it. The rest of the band are simply confetti – an honest admission that most of the music was made in the studio, and might be difficult to reproduce on stage. Also, give an ear to the early digital synthesizer work – quite a different sound than that in vogue today.

Propaganda – Duel

Now the cover. Sophie Ellis-Bextor covered ‘Duel’ on her album ‘Today the Sun’s on Us’. I haven’t a video of her singing this, so listen instead.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Duel

I hope you agree, that there is a very real tribute to the original in Sophie’s version, but what does she herself bring to the feast? – That lovely dark voice and immaculate phrasing, which I believe are missing from the original, but you only notice they are missing after hearing Sophie sing the song. I still like Propagandas version, but I prefer Sophie’s offering.

Now the music. Both tracks feature an underlying Rumba beat: 123 123 12, 123, 123 12; although this may not be apparent at first. This rythm ‘drives’ the music forward in an intense, unrelenting vibe that is fabulous to dance to. The mild sequenced bass and drums from the original are powerfully pumped up in the later version. The synth chords cut in off-beat in both versions in a way that adds drama and tension to the music, whilst the vocals are enunciated perfectly in both versions in an understated and undramatic way that belies their dark, dark message – perfect!

It’s easy to dismiss the music of the ’80s, there was a lot of rubbish, but there are several other tracks from that period that I believe will also become classics.

Buy Today the Sun’s on Us

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