Sunday, November 19, 2006

MUSIC: Petula Clark - Blue Lady

BBC4, 17.11.06, 21.00

Whatever happened to her, then? Whatever happened to Pet Clark?

The questionable come-on of this hour-long show was to prove the arguable assertion that had happened to her, she was still just as big a star as a kiddie crooner or chansonneuse or epic-pop heroine, just a wee bit different. It didn't quite convince us either way (though locating her in any big-name agent's Rolodex would be a long haul); but it sure as hell faded away slowly and pitifully by its own terms.

Pet began, notoriously, as a Temple manqué, a Great British Garland, a trilling moppet, and hit the big time as Diana Dors' sister in Here Come The Huggetts (although seemingly a decade and several dozen or so bra sizes seemed to separate them, there was only a year's age difference). This was all dispatched smartly and with due attention to period charm and detail, as professionally as Pet might have perked and smirked her way through 'The Little Shoemaker'. It was TV as warm and comforting as Start-Rite shoes.

The show's most valuable segment was a rare lens for the casual browser into 1960s Continental pop and showbiz - Clark was a superstar in mainland Europe prior to the Beatlemaniac onslaught, and her husband, Claude Wolff, now a rubicund and jolly fellow with an accent as thick as Gauloises smoke, was a chunky A&R man resembling a swarthy Corsican heavy waiting for a Belmondo uppercut; she met him in Paris. British TV has always ghettoised francophone pop as overwrought, quavery melodrama à la Brel/Piaf or plinkyplonk banality à la Trenet. Here was at least the suggestion of an antidote to this received, and quite mistaken, wisdom.

Clark, at her best, was a superb if limited pop singer, boasting a mellifluous voice with perhaps too-open vowel sounds. Melodies and harmonies she'd learned from the chanson tradition were incorporated into her homeland material by the mid-60s, granting her material thst was robust enough to withstand the ravages of the moptop revolution. She was privileged to work with arrangers and musicians from Joe 'Mr Piano' Henderson to Tony Hatch who could conjure luxuriant and evocative chord changes as well as textures both soothing and stimulating.

Sadly, the classic epic pop of Pet's 1960s prime - 'Couldn't Live Without Your Love' and 'Downtown' (1966), for which most viewers surely would have tuned in, was relatively overlooked, although the co-authoress of those songs, Jackie Trent, appeared. Permatanned under a vanilla swirl of spun-sugar hair and as assertive as Les Dawson's old housewife caricature, she gave a sterling account of her own (substantial) contributions to some of the best pop of that, or any, decade. There was a blizzard of excellent footage, including a gooey video of a song recorded with Andy Williams that resembled a c.1970 Smirnoff ad shot through a Paisley filter.

An extraordinarily sad decline in the 1960s and 1970s was tackled at inordinate length and subjected to an almost Stalinist makeover. Apart from the assertion that 'bands' took over the late 1960s and 1970s, there was nothing to suggest that Clark found it very difficult to adapt. Her version of 'The In Crowd', heard here, has the emotional tenor of a Venn diagram. In fact, Clark's slow subsidence into the MOR schlock that was really the only refuge for a voice which, while precise and supple and lyrical, lacked attack, bite and soul - was apparently nothing of the sort, but a cunning plan to keep 'reinventing' herself. This patent nonsense reached its sidesplitting nadir in Paul Morley's suggestion that the anodyne sessions she recorded in Nashville (Blue Lady, 1975, from which the show took its title) and Memphis - where Clark desperately tried to hitch with the singer-songwriter bandwagons of King, Harris, Simon, Taylor et al - was hobbled not by lacklustre material or public indifference but by the fact that record companies found her 'too dangerous... too experimental'. Oh yeah? What next? 'Sussudio' as radical Deleuzeian manifesto? Terry Scott's 'I Like Birds' as ironic comment on sexism? As to the whys and wherefores of this 'danger' and 'experiment', we were given only a rationale only a little less vague than 'because I say so'. But that's postmodernism for you; everyone's point of view is valid, if you can get someone to publicise it.

Morley owes his career as a 'cultural commentator' to a late-70s vogue at the NME for a half-baked postmodern relativism, which enables one to have one's ideas accepted as fact if one shouts loud enough, obfuscates them with enough jargonistic prattle, or dupes suggestible editorial staff into giving it space. Alas, there are too many influential media people who grew up reading (or maybe writing) that rubbish who are still credulous enough to not only air it but pay its progenitors, no matter how cock-eyed the premise. Now, if you or I or 99.999% of the people reading this were to try selling the patently stupid idea that Uriah Heep's success in central Europe in the mid-1980s wasn't actually the last flail of a flatulent musical anachronism but actually a knowing exploration of their roots, we'd be laughed out of town. Morley and co can still get away with it, and Blue Lady is the sort of culpable show that allows them to do so merely to fill a few minutes of airtime.

Unintentionally, these encomia are as pathetic as the feelgood bromides one hears in This Is Spinal Tap to flimsily rewrite what is uncomfortable and embarrassing. If there's one thing worse about talking heads than Jamie Theakston pontificating on programmes shown five years prior to his birth, it's the likes of Morley - or rather his employers - peddling this kind of intellectual fraud.

Things got weirder, though. Even more problematic was the curious preoccupation with Clark's absence from the mainstream. The last British hit of any size (notwithstanding a 1988 remix of 'Downtown') was in 1967. There was an awful lot of poppycock talked about that deplorable word 'reinvention' (sullied forever by its constant association with fatuous apologists for Madonna), much in the way that washed-up thesps bluster about 'developing new ideas' or moving to Australia or appearing in Doctors. The bottom line for all 'reinventions' is this; showbiz stars go where the money goes, point. Artistic fancy, pace those interviewed here, rarely comes into it.

But among all the dodgy speculations and punts and half-baked opinions, there was one lulu that sank the whole enterprise below the waterline, a candidate for flimsiest historical judgement of the year, a green-ink scribble from the playbook of the kookiest conspiracy theorist. It was that Clark's (long-forgotten) 70s recordings with the producer Arif Mardin effectively prefigured Norah Jones' debut album. The fact that thirty years divided the two efforts mattered not; the producer of both albums was Arif Mardin. QED (apparently).

Clark today seems happy, fulfilled, admirably centred, rich, content - she does musicals now - but are these productions not footnotes to a glorious heyday, and to be treated as such, rather than as a subsidiary happy ending to a career path that available evidence suggests has - fairly or otherwise - sloped gradually downwards? No - we got a full ten minutes plus on this or that forgettable production and an exposition from Pet herself about getting inside the role of Norma Desmond in Lloyd-Webber's Sunset Boulevard (now there's a man in need of publicity). It was not inconceivable that Clark, far more than the makers of this slowly wilting hagiography which grew lame and old and irrelevant at a rate of knots, recognised the mirror the Desmond role held up to her own advancing years and receding gifts.

Yes, Pet's still out there, still a pro, still a trouper, still a treasure, after 60 years. After 60 minutes, alas, Blue Lady was pretty much washed up. Pet's star diminished by degrees but never quite lost our attention and shines on. This tribute's candle burned out long before the legend ever did.


mike said...

Whatever your opinion about Petula's voice she has sold 70 plus million records throughout the world and had a career taking in all aspects of show business and we should be bloody proud of her and that was the thrust of the programme.Who cares if she has not had a hit single in years..did Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee have hit singles in later years?And yes i am putting her in the same category .
You blame Paul Morley for expressing his opinions as fact and then do the same yourself with your sneering evaluation of Petula as a singer.
Also get your facts right..she was not Diana Dors sister in the Huggetts,and if there was a decline it most certainly was not in the 1960's!
Petula has plenty of depth in her voice .Sure in her 70's it may not have the range it once did but she sure does have soul!Go see her this Sunday at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and see for yourself.

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