October 5th this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of ‘Love me do’, The Beatles’ first single. I hope this doesn’t mean another woeful dose of McCartney on our TV screens. Judging by various social media campaigns, his public ubiquity has really begun to grate. There’s a risk that a genuinely important musical milestone may just be eclipsed by yet another flabby round of ‘na na nas’ and ‘Judy Judies’. I’m already wielding my remote control in readiness.
It’s sad for the present generation of young and hip things to be faced with constant reminders of Macca’s obsolescence. The Beatles are as ancient history to them as Vera Lynn or Glenn Miller were to me. In fact, Paul McCartney was even a bit of a relic when I was growing up. My earliest encounter was ‘We all stand together’, which of course I loved, though I was only recently out of Pampers, so I had the excuse of being his target demographic. Then I got to know ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ from primary school parties, which I rated highly – right up there with Shakin’ Stevens. The first time I properly heard The Beatles – my parents didn’t really like them so there were no formative vinyl encounters – I was thirteen, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was such a shock I almost needed therapy. You mean this guy used to be Paul McCartney, of Lennon and McCartney? I actually thought there were two, and that I’d mixed them up by accident, like Ingmar Bergman and his blonde alter-ego Ingrid. Fancy that.
It’s become a bit of a Q magazine cliché to say that rock stars weren’t meant to age. Like most clichés, it has a kernel of truth in it. I’m not being ageist here. There are many artists who have embraced their seniority, and written beautifully about it; they have adapted their art and have only become better with time. I saw Leonard Cohen live at the Big Chill in 2008 and he made me weep. Funny, eccentric and wise, he had the audience at hello. There are also those artists who are so mysterious that age only adds to their allure: see my Scott Walker piece for further reference. No, my problem is with those rockers who still pretend that joints are something they get from their dealer rather than discuss with their osteopath. It’s always depressing to see what was once counterculture parading itself with a sense of lordly entitlement. Once it would have been British Grenadier bugles and snares at national jamborees, but these days it’s Marshall stacks and superannuated riffs. I’m sure I don’t need to mention The Who here. You know what I’m driving at. Suffice to say, sometimes I hope I die before they get any older.
When I was a kid, I often watched Top of the Pops with my Mum. She liked many of the eighties upstarts with their bleached soul stylings – Paul Young, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club – but she reserved special affection for those veterans who had somehow survived the sixties and seventies and come through the other side. I especially remember when Diana Ross was at number one with ‘Chain Reaction’, which teased out all kinds of reminiscence about dancing to the Supremes at Joe’s Cafe in Gateshead – half a crown in the jukebox, a Sarsaparilla and a straw. There was Lulu, reissuing ‘Shout’. And then there was Tina Turner. Now, to a youngster, Tina seemed just a bit age-inappropriate. Her appearances on TV always had an element of the hen night about them: leather miniskirts and low-cut tops, flesh flooding out all over the place. Everything about her was so big and bold. It was all down to that ultra-mullet, I thought; I was quite convinced that it was the hairdo that sang, not the woman underneath it. Though when she cut off her barnet, the voice remained, as raspingly superhuman as ever.
No, Tina was no Samson. Nor – despite all that talk of steamy windows and private dancing – was she a Delilah. You see, I learned as I grew up that Annie May Bullock (as she once was) had been through the mill. Mum explained her history – her turbulent marriage to Ike, her years out of the public eye – and I began to think that she’d earned those thighs and that cleavage. That if she wanted to overpower everyone else in the charts then she bloody well could; she bloody well should. That doesn’t mean I get off on those steamy windows. I have an antipathy to songs about ‘cars and girls’ as Prefab Sprout once satirically put it, which I suspect is down to being British; there’s nothing romantic about a Ford Focus crawling through the drizzle to Little Chef. I’m willing to bet Tina has put in plenty of appearances down at Top Gear Towers; all those drivetime compilations that keep Roxette in royalties and local radio stations in playlists. All her eighties and nineties FM standards have their place (though not on my turntable), but this is not my point. Rather, I want to convince you that she has her place; that the world is better for having her in it, that the fact of her alone is a boon.
You see, at some point in the 1980s, Tina Turner was liberated: by Heaven 17, of all people, the height of what Julie Burchill dismissed as ‘beige’ music (white soul for yuppies).* This, in a sense, was the template for the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, the KLF with Tammy Wynette, Bronski Beat with Eartha Kitt. Tina’s version of ‘Let’s stay together’ was kind of perfunctory, but its chief purpose was to remind the public that she had once been the singer of ‘River Deep Mountain High’. And through the 1980s, she gradually reclaimed that signature song, an unmatched pop pinnacle; reclaimed it from its associations with that other domineering, abusive man in her life, Phil Spector. Over the years, Turner has torn strips off ‘River Deep’. She’s bitten it, chewed it and spat it out in endless restylings; done the dirty on it, made love to it, killed it, disinterred it, reanimated it. It’s a kind of necromancy. How appropriate for a song, for a record, that always seems about to hyperventilate its way towards death.
Of course, there’s a whole Spector-centric narrative to tell here, but you’ve read it before. You’ve read about his monomania, his impossible demands, take after take until Tina stood in her bra, dripping sweat onto the microphone. Phil carted Ike off with some hush money so that he could have his wicked way with his wife; one type of abuse ceded to another. The way some rock journalists have it, it’s all about the auteur producer. The record (and God is it a record) was the very peak of his career: not just mountain high, but higher than the sky. It sounds like a rocket taking off; it sees the whole of the moon and it raises it a planet or two. You know how they say you can see the Great Wall of China from space? Well, I think you can hear ‘River Deep Mountain High’s Great Wall of Sound in the cosmos too; that’s if it hasn’t already sucked you into a black hole. But it’s also the sound of incipient self-destruction. Not just a rocket, but a bomb too; while Europe lapped up its tumbling drums and endless, redoubling echoes, America hated it. Its extremities still make it an almost uniquely divisive record. Some may find its overt expression of female submission troubling, especially taking Tina Turner’s own situation into account. To those who hate it, it might sound like a woman being trapped in an airless room, being almost strangled into love.
But there’s another way. Another story. Throughout her career, Tina never let go of this song. Why? Well, people expected it of course; but it always seemed a necessary performance. ‘River Deep Mountain High’ is a song overwhelmed by the power of the human voice to rise above any catastrophe or trauma. There may be tsunamis, there may be floods, there may be earthquakes and avalanches, but the voice, the singer, can plummet deeper than the river and higher than the mountain. In the original, Tina is drenched. Spector lays it on like never before; compared to this, ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ and ‘Be my baby’ are almost skeletal. Yes, it sounds like she’s being chased by a cavalcade of giants, but once she breaks away at around 2:50, foregoing lyrics entirely for gasps and gargles, you can actually hear triumph. By the final ‘baby baby baby’, her supporting choir has doubled in volume. Tina’s army is rising against the threat; her warriors are turning back the tide.
Like all the best pop music, ‘River deep’ seems straightforward. Its appeal is in the gut, the heart, the feet and the goosebumps. But its implications are vast, and its reach is great. Spector famously described his work as ‘little pop symphonies for the kids’, and that’s the duality right there; the disposability of pop and the durability of the symphony – the wonder of the timeless, everlasting three-minute high. Nothing grows old in this parallel universe, and there is no Dorian Gray rocker in the undergrowth, ‘withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage’. Return to the records, and they’re as fresh as the day they were pressed. You can climb Everest again and again, and each time you reach the peak is your first time.
In 2007, Ike Turner died of a cocaine overdose. I wonder if he’d always been jealous of that high, that almost indescribable high, of the record he was bribed to stay away from. Perhaps I’ve been too harsh on McCartney and Daltrey and all the other jubilee-rockers; playing classic music, reminding you that it’s classic, is a worthwhile endeavour, and they’ve earned their stripes. Nevertheless, next time Macca’s on TV Judy-Judying his way through an encore, I’m going to put him on mute and stick on Rubber Soul. You have to be reminded of these things. Go on – give ‘River Deep Mountain High’ a spin. It’s up there. If you play it enough times you might banish memories of karaoke power ballads forever. Sorry to say it, but Spector and Turner’s wall of wonder is…simply the best.
* For the record, I’m actually a fan of Heaven 17, and do not subscribe to Burchill’s views on the matter.