Tom Jones at the House Of Blues, Anaheim, California. March 2009 © Mykal Burns

Suddenly It All Went Pop

22nd January 2010

In 2009 the big record sales weren’t just the domain of Hip-Hop and R&B icons like Jaz-Z and Beyoncé Knowles, but also of old-stagers such as Vera Lynn and Barbra Streisand. Has pop music for all made a comeback, asks Jack Watkins.

“I hope I die before I get old,” snarled Roger Daltry on the hit single My Generation in 1965. It was inevitable, however, that having cheated a young and beautiful early death, The Who and other bands of the time would continue into wrinkle-rocking middle age, urged on by similarly ageing fans, while yet maintaining a cool credibility with younger audiences.

Not so lucky, it seemed, were the crooners and chanteuses, the middle of the road (MOR) artistes and purveyors of all-purpose, cross-generational pop. Once commanding the sort of mountainous record sales that the Lily Allens and Duffys of today can only contemplate with envy, for years their fate had been exile on the supper club circuit… Appearances in the television and radio studios they had once dominated had become as unlikely as the sight or sound of a gritter in the snow.

Suddenly, though, a number of veteran artists are enjoying renewed exposure, surging back to the fore in all their sequined and lounge-suited glory on the back of rising record sales. Dame Vera Lynn who, at 92, became the oldest living performer to top the album charts in September when her Greatest Hits album elbowed Arctic Monkeys from the No.1 spot, was simply the most extreme manifestation of the phenomenon. Barbra Streisand, a still youthful 67, also made it to No.1 this autumn with Love is the Answer. In doing so, she joined a select group of singers – Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and, yes, it had to be, Cliff Richard – who have had a hit album in five decades within their lifetimes. Meanwhile, in November, old helium lungs herself, Dame Shirley Bassey, re-entered the charts with The Performance, her first album of new material in twenty years. New, it should be explained, in terms of different songs – but, as fans were soon happily reassured, belted out in the familiar paint-peeling fashion of old.

In live performance, many more grey heads have given evidence of their evergreen talent and craftmanship. Bruce Springsteen – genuine rock star, of course, but with his populist crossover appeal – was apparently the best thing on the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival in the summer. Jack Jones, Neil Sedaka and Andy Williams were other golden oldies who pleased their fans – and surely won new ones – on their concert visits to England in 2009. Both Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight, Motown artistes who had subsequently moved into crossover territory, also won good reviews. Robinson, now 69, proved that his wondrous falsetto, honed in the later years of doo-wop, had been kept pristinely intact during a breathtaking, BBC televised performance at the Electric Proms at the Camden Roundhouse.

If this is all being presented as proof of the long overlooked weight of the grey pound, it’s a movement that has been growing for some time. It was in 2005 that Sheffield-born Tony Christie, a solid, virile-sounding but never-really-had-been crooner of the early 70s, registered the biggest selling single of the year with (Is This The Way To) Amarillo?

It’s surely the case that the main market for Christie’s songs lies among older record buyers, yet not entirely. Perhaps his hit was the first sign that a younger audience was rediscovering the beauty of cross-generational MOR, the appeal of a fine, big voice, a well constructed melody, a catchy chorus – or “a nice tune”, as my grandmother would have put it.

Shirley Bassey at Wembley Arena, 2006 © Nyctc7

Those now in their mid 40s may dimly recall Top of the Pops in the early 70s when, wedged in amongst T-Rex, Slade, Bay City Rollers and (heaven help us), Mud, you occasionally got a song by Perry Como, Sinatra, Williams or – younger admittedly, yet purveyors of the mellifluous line – Rita Coolidge or Carly Simon. This was more likely to appeal to parents and grandparents, but somehow widened the musical palette, if only at an unconscious level, of the young too. It would be no surprise if current Streisand and Bassey buyers include those now harvesting the musical seeds first planted in youth.

A little research shows that a ‘pop chart’ catering for all ages was nothing unusual from the 1960s into the 1970s. The ‘Hit Parade’ for January 1960 (yes, 50 years ago) had stalwarts like Frankie Laine, Russ Conway and Tommy Steele mixing it with Marty Wilde, Fats Domino and Duane Eddy. The 1970s equivalent was similarly eclectic. ‘Family’ performers like Rolf Harris (Two Little Boys) and Roger Whitaker (Durham Town), together with Kenny Rogers, Engelbert Humperdinck and an Elvis Presley on the comeback trail, occupied the high spots alongside soulsters like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. Contrast this with the upper reaches of the chart for January 1980 when the only retro offering was Fiddlers Dram with the dire music hall ditty Day Trip to Bangor, and a re-release of the still limber-sounding Stax classic Green Onions, by Booker T and the MGs. By the 1990s the charts were purely for kids.

Seeing some of these examples, you might think the change left little cause for regret. Yet in recent years the excellent Jools Holland and the proprietor of Glastonbury Michael Eavis have done much to revive pop eclecticism and to have shown how much you are missing by writing off any performer over fifty as a has-been. Holland’s Later has been a box of musical delights, the guests ranging across the genres, enriching the popular musical education of the nation, while yet showcasing brilliant new talent. Eavis has allowed the likes of Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett and Tom Jones well deserved moments in the sun - and rain - that have breathed new vigour into already lengthy careers.

The big sales being reported are emphatically due to the fact that it is the over 40s among music buyers who have remained loyal to CDs rather than to downloads. Yet before the Internet is written off, it too has played its part; anyone can investigate the work of an artiste who catches their ear by sampling more of their music on sites such as Last.FM or Spotify. All we need now is a revival of Top of the Pops, adhering to the old family formula and screened at a time when anyone can watch, to complete what is proving a highly enjoyable trend.

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