❉ “Not recommended if you’ve just eaten your dinner”
I love Cherry Red Records – pretty much everything they put out is at best totally brilliant, or – at worst – of some esoteric interest to the ardent music fan. When We Are Cult boss James Gent put the new list of Cherry Red releases up for grabs – and I’d realised that I’d missed out on the Sheffield electronica album and other more ‘me’ fare – I ‘plumped’ for an unknown Cilla reissue. Now I thought it would be something akin to a collection of her early, highly regarded Merseysound classics, or something in line with Ace Records’ compilation She Came From Liverpool! Merseyside Girl-Pop 1962-1968.
Alas, it was not to be.
Especially for You (Revisited) is a beefed-up reissue of Cilla’s 1980 album (me, neither) and is twinned with Classics & Collectibles – a ragtag bag of odds and sods from the waxing and waning of her later career as a light entertainment host and (vaguely, very minor) gay icon status from the eighties and nineties and beyond.
Sounds horrible? Well. Let’s see.
I’d say that Cilla Black was a divisive figure here in Liverpool, but as far as I can gather, that’s simply not true. She was universally disliked, and despite the 2017 unveiling of her Mathew Street statue, there’s always been a feeling that Cilla – like her contemporaries Ken Dodd and Jimmy Tarbuck – are in no way representatives of the true spirit of the city.
An old cliché about Liverpool is that its residents don’t like anyone who has left the city for fame and fortune (or anything else); there may be a grain of truth in this, but in all my long lifetime I’ve never heard anyone hold this opinion – young or old, rich or poor. Nobody I’ve ever talked has ever given a flying one. The reason Cilla was so universally disliked was that she was a horrible Tory (tautology klaxon!), had a voice with (shall we say) a questionable timbre and made the sort of knobhead light entertainment (shite entertainment) programmes that have been the curse of anyone with any sensitivity/education/enlightenment for the past four decades and were the progenitors of such horrible spawn as The X Factor, Take Me Out and numerous other monstrosities. And let’s face it, that ITV biopic from a few years ago proved indisputably that Cilla was basically a poor man’s Sheridan Smith.
There’s no doubting that the early ‘60s Cilla was great. The Bacharach and David covers, the Beatles songs and one or two originals from the mini-skirted, quirky and quite frankly different singer were a breath of fresh pop air. There was – from all accounts – much parochial jealousy at the time regarding Priscilla Maria Veronica White’s rise to fame. The former Cavern club cloakroom ticket collector was accused of riding the, er, coat tails of The Beatles and received wisdom suggested that Liverpool rival Beryl Marsden was a much more talented singer (you would have to ask someone like Mersey musicologist Spencer Leigh for the validity of that claim) and there was always a suspicion surrounding the pushy young singer’s becoming the chosen one in a packed field.
But Cilla Black became a star and rightly surfed the waves of a Merseysound which effortlessly conquered the charts from late 1962 onwards. Towards the end of the decade, the hits started to dry up, and variety tunes like Something Tells Me and the teeth-itchingly ghastly Liverpool Lullaby were rare successes before the hits dried up forever. It has to be said that 1969’s If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind is a great song and was later (much later) covered by the reclusive Agnetha Fältskog in a rare return to the recording studio:
I always try to give credit where it’s due, but it’s difficult with ‘Our’ Cilla. I can understand why people didn’t like her – perhaps (like many of her contemporaries) it was because she acquired a fortune through promulgating and revelling in tat; it might have been that strange way she pronounce ‘hair’ as ‘hurrrr’, or people might have seen that brilliant internet pic where she’s refusing to move from a reserved (for someone else) table because of her own self-importance. The post-sixties Cilla meant little to me, and if she turned up on TV, I turned off, but if there’s a single solitary reason why she joined my very long list of detestables, it happened one cold winter’s evening in 1974.
Cilla was doing an outside broadcast for one of her many horrible TV shows (The Young Generation dance group/some sort of circus act/Val Doonican as not-so-special guest, that sort of thing) and as she was bantering with Joe Public in that insincere, Timmy Williams-esque manner that Bruce Forsyth had to a T. She picked on some young girl and asked her a barrage of closed questions that didn’t allow the girl to give anything but the shortest of answers.
“Who’s your favourite band?” asked Cilla.
“And what’s your favourite song of theirs?”
“Far, Far Away.”
Cilla looks at the camera and says: “That’s where I like to hear them!”
And just in case you couldn’t work out the inner logic of Cilla’s rapier-like repartee, she added: “Far, Far Away!”
The studio audience laughed, and a little girl looked crestfallen.
Cilla didn’t even give the little girl the salvation of the bully’s classic ‘It was only a joke’ rejoinder.
Anyway, apparently “engineer” (studio, rather than mechanical, I presume) Ted Carfrae has “revisited” Cilla’s classic (!) album and updated former Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch’s original production, so it’s time to while away the next two and half hours of my life in Cilla heaven.
The opening track sees Cilla sink her overbite into the storming Gladys Knight (und Das Pips) song Baby Don’t Change Your Mind. Now I love this song out of all proportion for any number of reasons -be it the sheer psychodrama of the story, the brilliant arrangement, the dramatic pausing or just Gladys’s amazingly underrated voice, so I was expecting to hate Cilla’s version. Which I did, obviously, but nowhere near as much as I expected to. The production is very similar, and Cilla’s voice is surprisingly tolerable. Bizarrely she emphasises the ‘T’ in ‘Don’t’ on every occasion and it sounds like someone trying too hard to sound ‘RP’ – a bit like Alf Ramsey’s elocution lessons, in fact – but the whole effect is not unpleasant. A bit like experiencing post-Domino’s pizza guilt.
Next up is a cover of Dan Hill’s emetic 1978 hit Sometimes When We Touch. My mate Stuart once wrote the lyrics into a love letter he sent to a lovely, but not terribly bright woman he was seeing. She didn’t spot them, and thought it was a beautiful original poem. The relationship didn’t last because he was THAT SHALLOW, and was the sort of person who would end a relationship for something petty like finding Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits in a prospective partner’s album collection.
Which is something I’ve never done.
Cilla’s version of Dan’s mawkish horror sounds like one of those rubbish Top of the Pops album ‘facsimiles’, so she couldn’t really win either way.
Next up is Billy Joel’s/Barry White’s Just the Way You Are. The production is very similar to Barry’s version, but – for some reason – omits the classic sax solo near the end.
Which – if anything – goes to allay the nagging doubt you may have had while reading this: YES, I F*****G DID LISTEN TO IT!
In fact, I listened to it twice. On the day of review, I’d taken in a parcel for a neighbour and was living in fear of him calling round and then telling everyone in the street that I was the sort of person who listens to Cilla Black albums (which, technically, I suppose I do). I’m not somebody who is overly concerned about other people’s opinions of me, but I have to get home each day and I don’t want the neighbours shouting ‘Cilla!’ at me or jumping out naked (again) shouting Surprise! Surprise!
Track four Talking in Your Sleep only serves to prove that Rita Coolidge is much better singer than Cilla (next week’s revelation: William Shatner wears a wig!) and remind me of the linguistic merriment one can have by exchanging Talking with a much more unpleasant present continuous verb and removing the suffix to turn the verb into a noun for the second line. (You’ll have to work that one out, I’m afraid.)
Track five You Don’t Bring Me Flowers features an unknown artist singing counterpoint in the manner of the horrible Barbra Streisand/Neil Diamond original. It’s not nice.
How Deep Is Your Love? features more odd counterpointing and Cilla gets bored and starts La/La-ing when she either gets bored or forgets the words.
Track seven is a cover of Art Garfunkel’s theme song for the ace 1979 violence/gore-fest that is Watership Down. (Wasn’t the BBC/HBO version terrible?) Cilla’s enunciation is weird throughout the album, and her avoidance of glottal stopping makes her sound like a Scotland Road Margot Leadbetter.
This strange avoidance of elliptical forms continues in Cilla’s version of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, a song I kept at bay for a long time until I realised that Julie Covington has the most brilliant of voices (next week’s revelation: it’s NOT Bob Holness playing sax on Baker Street!) and that you can put you own metaphorical spin on the song to make the lyrics more palatable. Cilla’s cover isn’t very good and led me to think that there are so many track titles on these albums containing the word ‘Don’t’. Perhaps her manager/agent/the producer could have used this word as a piece of advice.
Many people reckon there are very few genuinely good white soul singers. Cilla’s version of The Three Degrees’ When Will I See You Again? only goes to show that there are no genuinely good Priscilla White soul singers.
See what I did there?
Back in 1980, this sort of easy-listening covers album still sold in their hundreds of thousands when they were marketed properly, and even unknowns like Australian ex-monk Tony Monopoly could earn gold discs if their albums were sold with a primetime advertising blitz. Especially For You sunk without trace on first release. This was a time of a great hiatus in Cilla’s career – her singing career was all but over in terms of sales and her (apparent) ease with the general public was yet to be exploited by the good folks at London Weekend Television.
The rest of Especially For You is how you’d expect. There are one or two OK (just) versions of easy listening hits of the late seventies and some really horrible ones (there’s another Circle of Hell where Cilla sings Leo Sayer’s When I Need You on a permanent loop), and Cilla completely spoils Abba’s wonderful Knowing Me, Knowing You by eliminating all of the drama and by not understanding the power of a dramatic pause within the structure of a song. Elsewhere Cilla demolishes The Commodores’ splendid Still, and her cover of The Captain and Tennille’s horrid old-people-have-sex–too-you-know song Do That To Me One More Time is bowdlerised in case its target audience get ideas. The song does however revive fond memories of its brilliant, ironic use in Alan Bleasdale’s fall-from-grace TV play The Muscle Market.
Bonus tracks include a Peter Powell interview with Cilla (not recommended if you’ve just eaten your dinner) and another interminable version of Sometimes When We Touch.
After reading the accompanying ‘deluxe’ twelve-page booklet. I ploughed on wearily through disc two – Classics & Collectibles. Cilla quickly trashes The Beatles Fool on the Hill (her doo-doo-ing a step up or down on her la=la-las from her Bee Gees experience) before moving on to some live versions of You’re My World, Anyone Who Had a Heart and Alfie. They all start off (surprise) surprisingly well, but warbling, a lack of pitch control and some questionable vocal gymnastics turn each of them into, well, a din.
Cilla sings the non-hit version theme song of her hit TV programme Surprise, Surprise and then there’s another non-hit, the genuinely rather nice There’s a Need.
After a return to Tim Rice territory with the execrable I Know Him So Well, there is a series of Cilla’s musical collaborations. That’s What Friend Are For (with Cliff Richard) is awful but not hateful, and there are various mixes of songs from Especially For You ranging from the OK (Bronski Beat’s remix of When Will I See You Again? and Club Junkies’ disco remix of Baby Don’t Change Your Mind) to the frankly rubbish Klubkidz remix of Cilla’s Abba desecration of KMKY.
There are some forgettable bonus remixes to complete Disc Two, but there are three tracks on the album which I’m still thinking about long after the nightmare is over. Cilla’s version of Heart and Soul (not the T’Pau song) features a duet with Dusty Springfield. It’s actually OK, but it (yet again) highlights her management’s unwise decisions – Dusty’s mere presence highlights the gulf in class and talent of the two performers. A genius working with someone who got very, very lucky.
Much, much worse is Cilla’s ‘comedy’ version of Keep Young and Beautiful. Cilla dons a ‘posh’ voice and telegraphs her comic intentions with sledgehammer subtlety throughout.
It was just difficult to stop myself from crying. Such was my despair.
But the worst of all is Cilla’s duet with Barry Manilow. Ask anyone from the ‘blue half’ of Merseyside what the worst song ever written is and there’s only ever one reply. Barry sings the first bit, Cilla the second and they come together for its ghastly, dirge-like chorus.
You’ll Never Walk Alone. Just awful,, scarily omnipresent like mathematician’s John Nash’s imaginary ‘family’ and – incredibly – Everton Chairman Bill Kenwright’s favourite song.
And sung here by Cilla Black and Barry f***ing Manilow.
It became too difficult to stop myself from crying. Such was my despair.
So, all in all, Especially for You/Classics and Collectibles are not the worst albums I’ve ever heard.
But it’s a close thing. A re-release for die hards and Cilla’s official fan club only, I’d think.
The ‘team’ at Strike Force Entertainment (who I presume are using Cherry Red as their distribution company) hope to re-release all of Cilla’s back catalogue. It’s a pity that there’s nothing forthcoming to match one of their earliest re-releases, Cilla Black’s 1965 debut, Cilla. It’s really rather good.
See you next time – I’m off to buy a bottle of disinfectant and some ordinary household bleach.
❉ Cilla Black: ‘Especially For You: Revisited/Classics & Collectibles’ (SFE077D) released November 1, 2019 by SFE/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.