Henley on Thames is a funny old place. It’s just about the most kempt town in England. Spick pavements advertise their immaculate surfaces; Pedigree Chum advert dogs keep obediently on the leash. The river beckons you to pootle, to call up the spirit of Ratty and mess around in boats, though the scene is so perfect it’s even impossible to imagine a disruptive Toad toot-tooting his way up the High Street. Gosh, no; these are roads designed for four-by-four weekend Sloanery and open-top sports-car displays of headscarf and diamonds. Henley. Antonym: Middlesbrough. An easy-living, Bolly-swallowing, Spectator-subscribing, pastel-shirt and chino-togged embodiment of much that is piss-awful about this country.
Well, on some levels, yes. I’ve had to bite my lip sometimes in this simulacrum of aristo privilege, and break on through my class hang-ups to the other side (not least because the rambling country round the Hambleden Valley and the nearby Chiltern woods is so life-affirming and glorious). Henley has also been the site of some unlikely musical experiences. Perhaps the most bizarre was the 80s Rewind Festival in 2009. It was lovely to see and hear so many second-rate stars of yesteryear (erm, Howard Jones, Go West, Carol Decker) as well as some genuine pop legends (Bananarama, ABC, Gloria Gaynor), but my overriding memory of the festival is the mind-boggling descent of deely-boppered fortysomethings onto unflappable Henley, hysteria rubbing up against hauteur. The weekend was one long nightmarish stag and hen party; the air reeked of sunburnt flesh and spilt Carlsberg. And it was sort of gleeful. I found myself contemplating what the millionaires over the river must be thinking, and also what the popstars on stage were going through. I imagined the lead singer of China Crisis surveying the hillside mansions, thinking “this could have been mine. I could have been George Harrison!” Never has a music festival caused me to reflect so much on the haves and have nots. How very eighties indeed.
But Henley’s lasting musical connection for me is altogether more profound, spiritual even. I never visit the town without a little pilgrimage to the parish church of St Mary to pay my respects to a certain someone. For here lies a legend. Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife (or at least from the braying county vowels) a little gravestone marks out an unassuming woman with an unmistakeable, unmatched gift.
Dusty Springfield was a very English pop star, which is a funny thing to say about an Irish Catholic soul singer who whiled away a good deal of her life in California. Or perhaps it’s not a funny thing at all; her very unlikeliness was part of the deal. Where Aretha and Etta nursed their instruments in the gospel church, Dusty found hers in the convent school and on the BBC. Those early black and white variety shows for the Beeb are so part of the iconography of the English sixties – cappuccino chrome and beehives – that it’s easy to mistake them for cosy Carnaby-lite. To do so would be a gross oversight. Not only do they contain some of the most spine-tingling musical footage of the era; they also offer a priceless glimpse into the art and life of the singer. Dusty chose the material herself, and often had a hand in inviting particular guests (a quick internet search will yield clips of Woody Allen and Jimi Hendrix on her show, amongst others). She used her influence to introduce the British to the sounds of Stax, Motown and Atlantic, and proffered her own fantastic cover versions into the bargain. Check out her jubilant take on Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to run’: it’s such wondrous release, and epitomises just why the bubbling pop culture of the 1960s was so important to England, offering a way out into America, and a way in to the soul.
Those were Dusty’s horizons – the beckoning Atlantic and the bruised heart. It was this inside-outside duality that made her into a truly singular musician, gifting her a dynamic range far beyond that of many of her contemporaries. Listening to a classic Springfield record is like watching a fragile star in her dressing room talking herself into performance, then emerging from the wings into the glaring light. We’re given the privilege of eavesdropping on her transformation. It’s not something that happens as regularly as you might think in soul music; Aretha could certainly show vulnerability, but the sheer throttle of her voice always underscored it, whereas Dusty worked up to the climax, rather than down from it. ‘I close my eyes and count to ten’ is a perfect example of this. We hear her move from apprehensive understudy to smoky chanteuse to tragic Motown queen; with any other singer, it would seem like donning masks or flitting between roles, but with Dusty every single voice is the real deal, and entirely consistent with the others. And in every song she’s living what it is to be an English soul diva; to conquer an inbuilt reticence or self-consciousness, to discover that there can be strength in holding back before holding forth.
This can be tremulously sensual. As the redoubtable Greil Marcus put it, Dusty in Memphis is ‘a cool, smart, sexually distracted’ album, and it certainly resituates the loins somewhere near the ears. ‘Son of a preacher man’ is quite possibly the sexiest three minutes ever committed to disc by a British female singer. Aretha’s later version is technically perfect but considerably inferior; she keeps her coat on while Dusty’s unbuttoning her blouse. So many of the other tracks are just pinnacles of interpretation: from the overflowing country-soul of ‘So much love’ to the post-coital, mussed-up, lip-smudged ‘Breakfast in bed’ and the pre-coital anticipation of ‘Just a little lovin’’, this is an album that never falls below bed temperature. It’s all even more miraculous when you think that Dusty couldn’t bear to sing a note at the original Memphis sessions and had to be overdubbed in New York afterwards. Ego is utterly absent: it’s almost a cliché to talk of a singer losing themselves in a song, but Dusty really did, and we are all the better for it.
It’s very hard for me to choose a track in this instance. The first line of ‘I’d rather leave while I’m in love’ is one of the greatest five seconds in pop music (though the song suffers from a windy sax solo); Dusty’s live TV version of ‘A house is not a home’ could have made the cut, but this blog’s about the recorded track, not the song. And so I’ve gone back to the first one that ever melted my spine to liquid. ‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’ is one of those fabulous sixties recordings in which all the disparate threads of the era are woven into one seamless strand. The cleverest of songwriters, Burt Bacharach, bumps into Dusty. They take each others’ hands and walk straight up to the Wall of Sound, only to discover that together they can vault clean over it and leap into pop Elysium. The timpani boom, the violins swirl, and Dusty’s soul is all but consumed in the heat of the rising melody.
‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’ makes me deliriously happy, which seems ill-fitting; it’s a song of nail-biting, almost self-harming sadness (and it’s difficult not to factor what we know of Springfield’s own life into this). But whenever Dusty takes on a Bacharach and David song, the listening experience for me is unmatchable; it’s like Janet Baker’s Purcell or Regine Crespin’s Berlioz. There simply is no other way to do it. I can’t listen to Dionne Warwick slinking through ‘The look of love’ or Gene Pitney caterwauling through ‘Twenty four hours from Tulsa’ (or, for that matter, Cilla Black crooning ‘Anyone who had a heart’). These songs are only Dusty songs. There is no such thing as a ‘version’ in her universe. Song and singer are the same.
As the end of ‘I just don’t know’ makes apparent, she simply didn’t know what else to do. It was natural that such a shy girl should make that amazing sound once the orchestra crescendo took flight; it was, perhaps, the only thing that truly made sense in her life. Everything else seems like a dream – her instrumental role in getting Led Zeppelin to sign to Atlantic, her legendary reputation for food fights, her refusal to sing to a segregated audience in apartheid South Africa. Even that little grave in Henley is a phantasmic vision; a trick of the light in a town of smooth veneers. Close your eyes, though, and the reality of musical perfection drowns out the unreality of the cars and pushchairs and pleasure boats. Dig down deep, and there is soul in the soil.