23 – Dolly Parton: Here You Come Again

dolly

It may linger in the popular memory as the time of three-day weeks, power cuts, bombs and disputes, but my impression of the 1970s as a child was rather less glum. Having just missed out on that jamboree, I could keep it at a safe distance and ask my parents lots of questions about avocado dips and flowery shirts; they could reel off the textbook spiel, like talking heads on a TV retrospective, making a (Moulinex-blended) soup of the finer points to satisfy my appetite for anecdotes. It seemed that people were a good deal happier (or simply younger), and a good deal naughtier (or rather they could get away with all sorts of hideous bigotries and chauvinisms). It also seemed that popular music was smothered with greasy Revlon kisses and itching with the tickle of Angora wool. Flicking through my Dad’s limitless collection of vinyl from the period was like riffling through those weirdly outdated coffee-table magazines in dentists’ waiting rooms; each page of misplaced fashion trumps the last, and so it was with Dad’s LPs. Some still had the stickers on – record fairs in Harrogate, January sales at Boots – a sure sign they probably hadn’t been played. All those ersatz disco instrumentals by the Biddu Orchestra and Van McCoy had failed to find their niche at the house parties seventies people so clearly enjoyed throwing.

Yes, people did like showing off their houses in the seventies, didn’t they? Think of all those suburban sitcoms, not to mention the cliché of Abigail’s Party, which I still think of as a documentary rather than a play. I actually wonder whether the seventies were more consumerist than the eighties – despite the power cuts and the poorly pound, it was the first time that those baby-boomers had really been free to spend their salaries on a load of ephemeral crap. I should know – Dad’s attic is sagging with the stuff. I sense that the twenty and thirty-somethings of the disco age, rather like the Victorians, loved nothing better than material; everything kitted out in dralon and velour, and in a Good Life-ish way, customised with Pritt stick and scissors. I can well understand this. People did DIY back then, of course. What I can’t quite get my head around is that this down-at-home aesthetic, this love of decoration, seemed to go hand in hand with the semi-pornographic. Nothing is so seventies as décolletage. Nothing is so seventies as a breast poised for the great escape. I don’t know whether the soft furnishings and Warnincks advocaat were all just an elaborate run-up to rumpy-pumpy. I guess the answer is probably yes. If Jane Austen had written a novel about the social mores of the baby-boomer dinner party, she’d no doubt have called it Tits and Titillation.

Now, in the eighties, sex was rather blatant, even aggressive. Frankie Goes to Hollywood and their Fairlight orgasms; George Michael refusing to beat around the (ahem) bush, declaring blankly, ‘I want your sex’. AIDS might have tempered Janet Jackson (‘Let’s wait awhile’) but there was still plenty of bold sex-sloganeering. The thing is, that kind of upfront come-on just isn’t sexy. Whereas in the seventies, pop music discovered its Eros. There really were some fabulously seductive records. The problem is that we have ironised them within an inch of their lives, equating them with oysters and scented candles, making them into corny aphrodisiacs. There’s a world of difference between Donna Summer’s ‘Love to love you baby’ and the efforts of Barry White, but our arch revisionism reduces it to a hair’s breadth.  The mid-2000s ‘Guilty Pleasures’ movement, then, was a gleeful surprise to me at first; it seemed we were about to rediscover what we’d thought of as kitsch and hear it with new ears. Though I never went to the club nights, I spent two very happy Glastonburys stomping up and down in the Pussy Parlour (I know) to records that would not have been out of place in my Dad’s Formica ‘unit’. The whole thing became tired after a few years, as these things do, though it did at least inspire many hipsters to come out unashamedly as Billy Joel fans or whatever (for the record, I’m mostly indifferent, though the keyboard riff on ‘My Life’ is too good to be guilty). But it also forced me to reconsider the greatness of stuff I’d loved and then discarded in my anxiety to seem impeccable in taste.

I listened to 10cc for the first time in years, and found my jaw dropping as the ethereal chorale of ‘I’m not in love’ filled my headphones. Isn’t that just about the most seventies record of all? That soft-focus pulse, a heartbeat drunk on Crofts Original; the silver-tongued woman who whispers ‘big boys don’t cry’ in one of the instrumental breaks (she was the record company secretary, for fuck’s sake – this is Reggie Perrin stuff!); the massed ranks of multi-tracked Godleys and Cremes, oohing and ahing their ode to heavy breathing. And it’s just incredible. Really, such a stupendous piece of studio art. You should listen to this programme about how they made it. It was revolutionary at the time; and though you could probably approximate it now with a Mac in a couple of hours, it would have none of the bubbling ambience that comes from pushing technology to its limits. Yes, it’s the apotheosis of seventies sex; discarded fifty denier tights down the back of a beige leather sofa.  It’s also bloody brilliant – like something Brian Wilson might have made had he been from Salford. But though I am in love with that record, my totally uncool seventies (non-guilty) pleasure hails from Nashville, Tennessee. Like all good pop art of its era, it has breasts. Very famous breasts. But let’s try and see past them, please. Dolly Parton isn’t just front, you know. She has depth. Remember, this is the woman who said that “it takes an extraordinary amount of money to look this cheap”. She’s a smart one. And ‘Here you come again’ is a smart song.

It isn’t one of her own. The credits are Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann’s – the songwriting team behind ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ and Mama Cass’s ‘Make your own kind of music’. I could have chosen ‘The Bargain Store’ or ‘Jolene’, Parton’s own wondrous creations, tremulously real odes to romantic martyrdom and disappointment. But ‘Here you come again’ just brings the sun out every time. If you put aside the kitschy associations, it’s really a masterclass in easy listening country-pop, a winning mix of heartache and relentless optimism (and thus a metonym for Parton’s entire career). There are so many things to love about it. The lyrics perfectly capture a familiar truth – the relationship as repeat offence – with a hint of irritation (the man who re-enters Dolly’s life ‘looking better than a body has a right to’). But, as Dolly explains to us, all he has to do is ‘smile that smile’, and ‘there go all [her] defences’; and on cue, the middle eight opens up a wide, shiny expanse, with one of those classic chord sequences that seem beautifully inevitable. Her man is there in the very workings of the song, literally pulling the strings. Those violins, so sweet, so AOR, say to us: ‘Just give in. Just give in to this song, and grin from ear to ear. There’s absolutely no use resisting’.

And then, ingeniously, the chorus comes back in another key. In fact, it keeps doing that, all the way through. I have a sneaky feeling that every time this guy returns, the sex gets better. Hey, it’s only what the music is telling me! Though it’s not exactly erotic, this one. It’s more flirty. Ridiculously flirty. Every bit of the arrangement is a bat of eyelash. Dolly hiccups, giggles and grins her way through the vocals, and you get a sense that the promise of nookie is actually better than the real thing; so she might as well keep flirting with us, allowing us to look but not touch.  And that’s very seventies too, I’d say. Seventies in a sadder way; in the way  that I’m sure many people imagined their neighbours were swinging partners while they muddled on with the banalities. I wonder whether this was why pop music mattered so much back then. It opened up possibilities, in three minutes of slow-dance at the wedding reception; it reflected the yearnings and fantasies of Mr and Mrs Average, rather than manipulating them.  ‘Here you come again’ ultimately makes me very happy and very sad at the same time. It comes off as innocent, and I think this is how I rosy-tint the seventies themselves. I’m sure it was a bloody awful time, in fact I know it was. But I hear the perfect popness of Dolly’s song, to be taken purely and on nothing but its own terms, and I feel a little tear at the back of my eye, knowing that the world we live in now is crueller and more sadistic.

And on that note, you’ll be pleased to know that next week I will be writing about Joy Division.

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