❉ Superstar? Daytime hustler? It’s the Divine Miss M! Bette’s best is back.
“”As it stands, Bette is neither middle-of-the-road nor far left.”
We all love Bette Midler, right?
Depending on your age – and sexuality – Miss Midler will be variously best known to you as one of the trifecta of such pyjama party faves as ‘The First Wives Club’ or ‘Hocus Pocus’, the wind beneath your wings in ‘Beaches’, an occasional Simpsons guest star, the star of ’80s screwball comedies, and a social media legend who can always be relied upon to dole out some sass to Republicans and Kardashians alike.
But how many of you know that for almost half a century, this buxom, Hawaiian-born, Jewish princess, has been knocking them dead as a chanteuse and screamer, from the Continental Baths to Las Vegas?
Yes, it’s quite easy to forget that Miss Midler is a chantoose of some note. In her 1970s heyday, she was the self-proclaimed ‘Divine Miss M’, and in its this incarnation that We Are Cult finds ourselves revisiting her 1972 Atlantic debut album, recently reissued as a deluxe edition.
When her debut album, ‘The Divine Miss M’ landed in ’72, Miss Midler found herself accidentally in fashion, while at the same bucking trends. ‘The Divine Miss M’ is divided between originals and irreverent covers of ’50s stompers like Chapel of Love and Leader of the Pack, like some kind of crazy revue.
So it was Miss M first arrived, in the year of Ziggy Stardust and Alice Cooper, and became an overnight sensation, with her raucous renditions of the Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and a tender reading of Leon Russell’s groupie ballad Superstar.
What the fuck? It’s important to remember that the whole aesthetic behind the UK glam rock revolution had no US equivalent. In America, “Glam” was everything from ‘Cabaret’, to the New York Dolls riping up Shangri-La’s romps in the Mercer Arts Center, and Manhattan Transfer’s earliest chansons d’amour (rat-ta-da). It was a retro thing.
Within this milieu, ‘The Divine Miss M’ is a perfect evocation of glam camp. With the emphasis on camp.
Glam prized itself on a knowing, trashy, reinvention of the accumulated twenty years of rock and roll history – think Hello’s Tell Him, or David Bowie’s Drive-in Saturday – but there’s no time for irony in Bette’s version of the world. She authentically LOVES pop in all its forms, from ’40s syncopated rhythms to girl-group doo-wop, which is why this album rings more true than Barbra Streisand’s contemporaneous attempts to “Get with the kids” on (the admittedly great) ‘Stoney End’.
‘The Divine Miss M’ begins with a slow, samba arrangement of the old fave Do You Wanna Dance? – a favourite of Cliff Richard, Marc Bolan and John Lennon – before swelling into a rhapsodic arrangement seemingly influenced by Carole King’s Tapestry rearrangement of Will You Love Me Tomorrow.
Hard on its heels is a riotous attack on Chapel of Love – which begins with an almost outtake “Woah!” – that refuses to take a breath, in an arrangement off the brakes a la Laura Nyro’s take on Met Him On A Sunday, and which collapses on top of itself with Bette’s assessment: “Boy, that is a pits ending for a really terrific song!”
The killer track here is Leon Russell’s Superstar, aka the groupie ballad. Karen Carpenter had successfully recorded this track, but Bette’s smokey vocals tell the whole story. It’s a killer rendition of a killer song; full props to Arif Mardin for his arrangement, which is frankly sublime.
Next up is Daytime Hustler, which is basically Grease before Grease, with a side order of Manhattan Transfer and the Shangri-La’s. In two years, Blondie would mint this formula and get a record deal.
Daytime Hustler is worth a listen for Midler’s rapport with call-and-response girl groups, combined with her Andrews Sisters-indebted syncopation. She’s on it. the orgasmic breakdown also predates fellow diva Barbra Streisand’s Shake Me Wake Me by three years. Ding dong!
Ballads dominate the second half of ‘The Divine Miss M’: Hello In There, which Scott Walker covered for one of his mid 70s contractual obligation albums, but it’s all good because Bette recovers with Billie Holliday’s Am I Blue, sans affections, which will melt you, with Bette in full “wee small hours” mode, and make you recognise her skills as a chanteuse. Just lovely.
The album ends in theatrical style, with a ‘straight’ reprise of the opening number Friends, minus side one’s giddy ad-libs (“That’s the favourite part of my voice”)… Curtain call…
This great, underrated, album, is signed off with an EP’s worth of alternative mixes and versions, including 7″ edits of Chapel of Love and Do You Wanna Dance,and demo versions of songs that would appear on ‘Songs For The New Depression’ such as Old Cape Cod and Marahuana, and an essential early take of Leon Russell’s Superstar that is worth the entrance price alone, sans the ornate arrangement and with a tender, cracked, heartfelt vocal, and a heartfelt, “BABY!” just before the reprise. Buy it.