“We’re fooled by first impressions, they’re not always true…”
Back in 1979 soul diva Thelma Houston released a single entitled “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” which was, and remains, a genuinely thrilling disco classic. It’s the sort of song that should have been number one and that should be the only correct answer to the question “What is the best disco song?”…which is a song that is asked all too infrequently in my opinion. It was drowning in funky bass, soaring strings, strident brass and, of course, it had the sort of vocal that only Thelma could deliver. Hers is a voice that is pure, soulful, sweet, full of heartache and yearning and that is laced through with her gospel origins.
Houston is a legend for those who really care about soul, gospel and disco. An iconic figure with a personal story that is steeped in the history of black America, pop culture and, of course, the key moments in the development of soul as a cultural phenomenon.
Morrissey has talked loudly, and frequently, about the books and films that made his childhood and adolescence tolerable. Casual observers will know of his love of James Dean but he often cited the Karel Reisz kitchen sink drama of 1961 “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” as one of his favourite films. Starring Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton, a disillusioned, angry young man who spends his working week in the Raleigh factory in Nottingham dreaming and yearning for Saturday nights and Sunday mornings when he can drink, womanise and live his life.
Anyone who thinks that Morrissey was unaware of the Thelma Houston single that, almost, shares the same name as one of his favourite films doesn’t know much about him. This is the sort of obsessive attention to detail and love of the things that shaped him (for better or worse) that defines his career.
Now he has succeeded in bringing both things together with his resolutely Northern sensibilities and artistic vision sitting at the same (turn)table as Houston.
“Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?” is, quite possibly, the best song of the late period of his career which runs from 2014’s “World Peace is None of Your Business” (a lost classic to my ears) then through the slightly lumpen and heavy handed “Low in High School” and up to last years covers project “California Son” which, despite his impressive vocals, was a bit of damp squib.
The lyric is a tale of woe…of some sort…but it is a mystery as to who Bobby is or what it is that “they” should know. As his diaries have been emptied the moments of lyrical genius that defined The Smiths and much of his early solo work have been fewer and further between. That may be inaccurate, it may simply be that the style and content has become less personal and so the form of the genius moments has changed. He is certainly still capable of wonderful lines, moments of laugh out loud humour and emotional devastation.
What makes “Bobby…” soar is the wall of sound that envelops everything. Horns, strings, keyboards, drums, bass, guitar…all sweeping around, over and under one of the best vocals of his career. It sounds like Phil Spector if he had been born in Burnage…harder, more strident but still an incredible wall of noise. But the thing that really lifts this above the status of just another Morrissey song…songs that are, increasingly, assessed only in direct contact with his, well, “views” and not on their quality or otherwise…is the presence of Houston. At times the vocals are a sort of Gospel call and response, while it would be easy to define what she has contributed as backing vocals the truth is that this is a duet. If you remove Houston the whole thing falls apart, her “Lord have mercy Bobby” brought tears to my eyes and caused my pulse to quicken. This is the sort of duet that defined the pinnacle of Tom Jones career when he would perform medleys with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young…a young man from a working class community standing toe to toe with the best America had to offer and matching them every step, or note, of the way.
This then is the finest moment in many years from Morrissey and it bodes well for his forthcoming album “”I Am Not a Dog on a Chain”. Let’s hope, this time, that the music is all we have to talk about.