❉ Stephen Porter revisits the halcyon days of teen pop’s most complex idol.
“The Bell Years is a great listen. Quite early on in his career, Cassidy saw himself as an artist, as opposed to Donny Osmond and his brothers… David was a technically accomplished pop singer, and he really ought to have written more songs”
When David Cassidy died in 2018 it would be fair to say that the media response was lukewarm at best for someone who had once been the world’s biggest pop star – and certainly within the lifetimes of the editors and writers who relegated him to the second-from-last TV news stories or half-arsed obituaries.
Make no mistake, in his prime (the years covered in this excellent box set), David Cassidy was huge, providing endless copy for the tabloids, making the late evening news and filling hundreds of thousands of pages of teenage magazines worldwide.
Pop rivalries are fun and exciting, be it The Beatles v the Stones, Spandau v Duran Duran or Blur v Oasis, but in the pop wars of the early 1970s the main battle lines were drawn early, and if you were a female fan of swoonsome male pop stars, David Cassidy and Donny Osmond were the two major duellists of their age.
Now, I say ‘female’, because that’s what the seventies were like. There was no gay-friendly media and the idea of having a man-crush would result in you having a skull-crush in secondary (and possibly primary) schools the length and breadth of the UK. Now I’m sure there were thousands of ‘boy fans’ who secretly loved David (in whatever way), and when I finally reached university it was a source of great amusement to my rugged Engineering student friend when I admitted that Cassidy’s (genuine) classic Could it Be Forever was the first single I had ever bought. Better still was when my chum – with a great sense of a weight having been lifted from his shoulders – revealed that he too had spent his 33p on that lovely silver Bell Records disc.
And we bonded manfully and did that pretend shadow-boxing thing and discussed what the Bears’ chances were that week. You can’t beat random, Freudian, NFL choices, I suppose. Specials singer Terry Hall recently told Radio 6 listeners that he had a big ‘man crush’ on David Cassidy; obviously nobody in their right mind gives a flying one about such things these days, but in the dark days of the seventies, anything but obviously-signposted heterosexuality was a crime punishable not by death, but by direct or insidious bullying and a relegation to the lower leagues of loneliness.
In our house, one of my older sisters was the big DC fan. She had posters covering every wall of her bedroom, she always scanned the latest Jackie for pictures and features on David and bought as many records as she could afford. As a huge pop fan myself, I was always well aware of pretty much everything in the charts thanks to the ubiquity of Radio One and I followed DC’s career with interest via Jackie, Fab 208 and all the other publications my sisters bought.
Mind you, I loved girlie comic Bunty best of all – and what it lacked in pop ephemera it more than made up for with tales of plucky Victorian orphans and scullery maids and splendid yarns about life in a posh school. I think I was an early sufferer of the Downton/middle class aspirational syndrome, but I think I got better. And when challenged for being a boy reading a girl’s comic, it always helped to have a firm conviction, to say the first thing that came into your head, and never, ever to reveal any sort of weakness to those wishing to drag you down:
Passive/Aggressive Bully/Nosey Parker: “Why are you reading a girl’s comic?”
Me: (emphatic) “Because I’M A GIRL.”
Anyway, this new box set appealed to me for all sorts of reasons and it’s been fascinating to see if Cassidy’s work has held up after almost fifty years.
Cherry Red’s four CD box set collects David Cassidy’s four biggest-selling long players from the halcyon days of his career. The Bell Years 1972-74 is packaged as handsomely as ever with a beautiful and informative little accompanying booklet from Phil Hendricks.
The Bell label will bring back waves of Proustian nostalgia for ordinary seventies pop fans and label obsessives alike. Its USP was unmistakably pop, and its roster included such names as Barry Blue, The Bay City Rollers, Dawn, The Drifters – and the glam rock pop star whose career has been all but expunged from our collective memories. Try listening to the awkwardness with which Paul Gambaccini has to mention (shall we say) GG’s name when that particular ‘glam rock’ pop star has a hit record to be mentioned in the weekly Radio 2 nostalgic chart run down Pick of the Pops.
The Bell Years is a great, but occasionally difficult listen. Quite early on in his career, Cassidy saw himself as an artist, as opposed to Donny Osmond and his brothers who were strongly versed in the showbiz/entertainment mould. Cassidy himself came from a showbiz background. His father Jack Cassidy was a minor league TV and film star who had divorced Cassidy’s mother and married singer and actress Shirley Jones when his son was very young. In Cassidy’s autobiography C’Mon, Get Happy…Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus, he tells a story of how everybody in the neighbourhood had known that his mom and pop had been divorced for two or more years before little David heard it on the grapevine.
Coupled with this was the fact that Jack Cassidy would later father more children with Shirley (including minor pop star Shaun Cassidy) and that Shirley would play his genetic mother in the worldwide TV hit The Partridge Family and you may get some inkling as to why there was always a certain aloofness to Cassidy’s pop persona. In the David v Donny Wars, David lost some of his potential fan base because they preferred the more open and apparently wholesome Donny, rather than the somewhat more enigmatic and occasionally emotionally withdrawn Cassidy. David was a crazy, mixed up kid, but he certainly had good reason.
Cassidy’s good looks and family connections helped him land his role as Keith in The Partridge Family where he quickly became the star of the show.
The Partridge Family – like The Monkees – played out their weekly narratives bolstered by some of The Brill Building’s most talented songwriters and were still having hits well into the mid-seventies including the wonderful I Think I Love You and Breaking Up is Hard to Do.
Cassidy, like The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, believed himself above such bubblegum nonsense, and helped by his tough-talking agent (and former World Table Tennis Number One) Ruth Aarons, decided that he wanted to be a solo artist capable of delivering a more serious and prestigious brand of rock and pop.
Late in 1971, Cassidy recorded his debut album Cherish (Disc One in the box set) with some of America’s most gifted session musicians, including members of L.A.’s fabled Wrecking Crew. The album opens with the fairly anodyne Being Together and I Just Wanna Make You Happy; they are pleasant enough songs but they pave the way for the show-stopping and aforementioned Could It Be Forever, Wes Farrell and Danny Janssen’s lovely evocation of finding one’s true love. The song highlights the best and (for some) the worst of David Cassidy’s style; David was a technically accomplished pop singer of that there is no doubt, but his tendency to veer towards (shall we say) the ‘theatrical’ is a big-turn off for many people. It works in CIBF – largely because it’s a great song – but in some of the minor, filler works on this album and the rest of the box set, it can be become repetitive and tedious.
The classic Truck Driver Gear Change in Could It Be Forever is just great (in my humble), but in other songs it gives the impression of Cassidy being a somewhat more talented Paul Shane belting out You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling on Pebble Mill at One.
The song was a huge hit in Britain and was backed with a cover of The Association’s Cherish which was the choice of the lead single in America, and where it reached number one. In the UK, Radio One DJs preferred CIBF and the song turned Cassidy into a bona fide pop star in the UK as it hurtled towards number 2 in April 1972.
Much of the rest of the album Cherish is filled with Cassidy’s often portentous approach to somewhat light pop fare, but his version of the title track is superb and the splendid Blind Hope wouldn’t be amiss on the soundtrack of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with its evocation of late sixties California and all its attendant sunshine and blue sky imagery.
Another of the album’s big hitters is I am a Clown, a song that would not be released until late 1973 (an absolute age in teenybopper years) and would reach number one in the UK when it looked like Cassidy’s star was beginning to wane. Its spoken intro is fondly remembered, and the song is redolent of Cassidy’s lovelorn musical persona which enamoured him to the girls and boys of the early seventies.
The album’s original closer is the rather splendid Ricky’s Tune, the only track written by Cassidy himself. It’s an odd little song, describing its narrator’s decision to leave the love of his life but imploring her to look after his dog – the titular Ricky – during his permanent absence. It’s hard to tell if the song has a knowing meta edge or is simply unwitting bathos, but it has a deftness and lightness of touch missing from much of the rest of the album.
Disc One ends with the bonus throwaway All I Wanna Do Is Touch You (the B side of the American release of Cherish) and it’s fair to say that there is (just) enough quality and decent tunes to justify the album’s long forty three week run in the charts.
David Cassidy became a global superstar from this point on, and despite many attempts to shrug off the image (his ‘nude’ Annie Leibovitz Rolling Stone spread, for example) his would be a world of limousines and five star hotels and endless screaming girls re-creating Beatlemania on a truly epic scale.
Cassidy’s star rose highest in the UK and his next two studio albums would consolidate his status as beloved but slightly aloof pop royalty.
Disc 2 of the Cherry Red box set is Rock Me Baby, Cassidy’s second solo album release which reached number 2 in the UK and spent almost a full year in the British album charts. David looks pensive and moody on the album cover as he sits in a wicker rocking chair, resplendent in his white jacket and cheesecloth shirt, and finished off by some nicely-washed, slightly flared bootcut denims and a lovely pair of silver, chisel-toe cowboy boots.
Title track Rock Me Baby and Lonely Too Long are instantly forgettable, but things pick up with the maudlin, Cassidy-penned (he really ought to have written more) Two Time Loser which features the usual, over-earnest and breathy vocals of DC opining a lost love and being melancholy, and all the usual tropes you’d imagine from this most tragic-sounding, but pampered pop star. It’s at times like this, and whilst binge-listening to a young man who had it all – good looks, a cushy acting gig and millions in the bank – you have to ask yourself: “What’s your f***ing problem, Cassidy?”
Honestly, if the dishy David had asked me out I wouldn’t have been giving him the (silver, chisel-toed, cowboy) boot, and I’d have definitely been putting out big-time on the first date, good Catholic boy that I was.
Track four, the oddly titled Warm My Soul, sees David enter bluesy/Doors-y territory and reveals the strange dichotomy at the heart of his music. On one hand Cassidy wanted to be seen as a serious rock artist (don’t they all?) whereas his management and fans preferred a good old-fashioned pop star with some corking pop tunes. When the serious rock song backfires – as it does here with Warm My Soul – the results are frankly horrible and I’m sure there were any number of teenagers longing for a future world of digital technology where a track like this could be skipped in the blinking of an eye, rather than 1973’s practice of either going over to your record player and manually skipping the offending track, or – like the rest of us on the spectrum – having to wait for what seemed like an age for the effing thing to end so that important sense of completion and closure wasn’t broken and the fabric of the universe wasn’t rent in two.
When it did end, track 5 – Some Kind of a Summer – is revealed in all its glory. It’s one of David’s best-loved songs and resolutely ace. Side two’s (you know what I mean) opener Song for a Rainy Day was written with Bette Davis Eyes singer Kim Carnes and is the usual breathless, heartbreaky affair, but things threaten to pick up slightly with a cover of The Moody Blues splendid 1964 chart topper Go Now. Unfortunately, David miserables it up somewhat and ‘owns’ the song – but in a very bad, solipsistic way.
The album’s highlight is the deserved 1972 number one How Can I Be Sure?, a showstopping tune which, with just a little tinkering, could have been an awesome chanson for Aznavour or Mireille Mathieu. The lovely keyboard reverb takes me back forty odd years, and for once the soaring vocals are matched with a tremendous and powerful pop song.
The album is concluded with the rather nice Song of Love, a track which – like Spiritualised’s 1999 fabulous Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space – bears an uncanny resemblance to Clive Dunn’s seminal rock classic Grandad in its early verse phrasing.
So, Rock Me Baby, not a classic, but with enough recognisable tunes to keep its target audience swooning until the next release.
Although his next album – the bizarrely-adverbed Dreams are Nuthin’ More Than Wishes – hit number one in the UK, there were signs that the wheels were already falling off the Cassidy (ex-Partridge Family) bus. The album is characterised by a reliance on cover versions, some of which are either lazily chosen or dreadfully considered.
The beautiful, but mercilessly chopped Intro (written by Michael McDonald) feeds into a cover of The Lovin Spoonful’s ’20s pastiche Daydream and David does his level best to suck the jaunty life out of John Sebastian’s summer classic with his unnecessary breathy and almost stentorian vocals.
Tony Romeo’s delicate Sing Me is much better, but then somebody obviously went to see South Pacific one night and maybe suggested:
“Ever heard of Bali Ha’I, David?”
“Bali High? Heck, no! Is it a comprehensive school in Bootle, near Liverpool, Englandshire?”
“No, Dave, it’s a swell, peachy, siren-like song sung by some South Sea island women in some swell, peachy musical that me, Tabitha and Junior saw last night. It would be perfect for you.”
“Sounds swell! And peachy! Let’s do it!”
Let’s be charitable and say that David’s Bali Ha’I doesn’t bear close examination.
David’s on safer territory with Mae, another of his breathy, yearning ballads – and all the better for it.
After thinking Bali Ha’I was the nadir (I’ve never heard this album in full before), David hits rock bottom with a truly, truly terrible version of Peggy Lee’s Fever. The song is slowed down to a snail’s pace and David gives it the full Paul Shane double-plus-bad, constipated Northern club singer schtick.
Good old Tony Romeo saves things again with his upbeat Summer Days, a song with a 1970s Coca Cola advert vibe and then its straight into side two – if you had the vinyl that is.
Harry Nilsson’s The Puppy Song is another bizarre song to cover for the ever-breathy David Cassidy. It’s another jaunty twenties pastiche written by a man that Elvis/John Lennon biographer Albert Goldman called ‘The Devil’ and is itself a lovely little song that worked well during Nilsson’s 1920s – 1940s obsession – a phase which took in his beloved A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night covers album from 1973. Cassidy is a little heavy handed (as usual) but this was a massive favourite with his fans and the UK record buying public when it was double A-sided with Daydreamer.
Terry Dempsey’s lovely song represents peak Cassidy – a conflation of all the DC tropes in one neat package which hit number one in October 1973. The simple but heartfelt lyrics capture the essence of the singer’s distant, lovelorn appeal:
I remember April
When the sun was in the sky
And love was burning in your eyes…
Nothing in the world could bother me –
I was living in a world of ecstasy;
But now you’re gone I’m just a daydreamer,
I’m walking in the rain
Chasing after rainbows I may never find again.
The accompanying video shows the singer at his most David Cassidy, a Greta Garbo-esque figure wandering around deserted gardens and fountains, alone and aloof and (supposedly) desperate to escape the trappings of fame and teenybop adoration. The video would be a cruel foreshadowing of the aftermath of the next year’s tragic events.
After two good songs in a row, it’s back to the tat. Same Old Woman is a rag arse version of the white man’s blues and comes across as a distinctly second-rate version of Lena Zavaroni’s Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.
Can’t Go Home (another Cassidy/Kim Carnes composition) is more puppy eyes/woe is me fare; It’s Preying on My Mind (Carnes/Cassidy again) is another Coke advert-style song with rising chords, truck gear changes aplenty and unhealthy bombasticism.
The album concludes with the lovely Hold On Me, where David is yet again breathy (he really ought to invest in a nebuliser) and lovelorn and wants someone to rub his head and tummy until he’s all better.
By 1973, Cassidy was the world’s biggest pop star (for a short time) and his appearances – particularly in the UK – created excitable, but essentially harmless near riots wherever he appeared. I was watching Banshees and Other Creatures (an old Rock Family Trees documentary) on YouTube whilst writing this, and in the programme Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist Steve Severin said that after a riot at their Glasgow gig, he and his ‘fellow’ Banshees had to leave the building under cover of disguising blankets.
“We knew we’d arrived,” said Severin. “It was just like being David Cassidy!”
In 1974, Cassidy’s world was plunged into darkness. During a stage surge at London’s White City Stadium, eight hundred young women were injured in the crush. Teenage fan Bernadette Whelan suffered a cardiac arrest and died a few days later. Cassidy was devastated by the accident and visited Bernadette’s parents several times to offer what solace he could. He essentially retired from stardom at that point.
The final disc here, Cassidy Live!, was recorded at various venues throughout the UK at the height of Cassidymania. There are two obvious things to note when you hear this album: firstly, Cassidy is a brilliant live performer and one or two of the songs sound better than their studio originals; but more importantly, I have never heard a live album with a crowd reaction like the one you can hear on Cassidy Live!
It is phenomenal.
The voiceover heralding David’s stage entrance is followed by a tsunami of sound – those girls were out to enjoy themselves! When the crowd finally recognise a song – after an unfamiliar opening – their reaction is just brilliant. The Partridge Family favourite Breaking Up is Hard to Do is fantastic for this – and best of all is preceded by the massed voices of six thousand or so girls chanting:
“Nice one, David,
Nice one son;
Nice one, David…
Let’s have another one!”
Which, if you are unfamiliar with this football terrace classic, started off as a Mother’s Pride bread commercial catchphrase – “Nice one, Cyril!” – and then turned into a hit single by the Tottenham Hotspur football team – which included the unfashionably-named Cyril Knowles in their ranks.
David plays (some very bad) mouth organ for Bali Ha’i – and the crowd goes berserk.
The reaction for I am a Clown sounds like a portal from hell has been discovered, and the greeting afforded to Please, Please Me sounds like Shea Stadium in 1966.
Cassidy Live! is that rare thing (for me) a really enjoyable live album, and is partly the sound of young women unfettered from the usual societal restrictions and enjoying a cathartic release. The simple act of watching a favourite pop star and being allowed to express happiness with like-minded souls is a thing of great joy. The spectre of White City is always there, but it would be just plain wrong to apportion blame to either fans or performer for the tragedy, and perhaps just to concentrate on the life affirming qualities of the pop star/teen fan dynamic on this surprisingly good album.
The album ends with a frankly rubbish Rock Medley – featuring songs from Elvis, Bill Hailey and Chuck Berry before segueing into Cassidy’s own Rock Me Baby – which sounds much better live than its anaemic studio version – but if I didn’t rate it, I can hear six or seven thousand young women who clearly disagree!
After the death of Bernadette Whelan, there were a few more hits until David Cassidy’s superstar career started to disappear from public view. There was a brief resuscitation in 1985 with the hit single The Last Kiss, but Cassidy’s star had been dramatically on the wane for well over a decade. Appearances in musicals (most notably Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers), guest star TV appearances and a shedload of solo albums appealing to ever-decreasing numbers relegated one of the world’s most-recognised faces to the Where Are They Now? bin.
Bell Records disappeared in 1974 and re-emerged as Arista, and the death knell of a bubblegum pop label which promised “pop music for the millions” coincided with the beginning of the end of Cassidy’s imperious phase.
Cassidy’s personal life was often a mess – the numerous drink and drug busts, drink driving offences, failed relationships and the fathering of a child he rarely saw elicited little sympathy for a man who was once so beloved. After his death Samantha Fox made accusations of Cassidy groping her at a 1985 Top of the Pops recording and as Cassidy drifted further and further into alcoholism, there was little sign of the beautiful young man he had once been.
Last year’s BBC 4 documentary David Cassidy: The Last Session was indeed deeply troubling. Cassidy, suffering from an ongoing drink problem and the early stages of dementia, cut a sad figure, and watching his final recordings (where he was never anything but unfailingly polite to those around him) was a sad evocation of his final days and the transitory nature of fame and youth and just life itself.
I doubt if David Cassidy will ever be embraced by a newer, younger generation in the manner of many other heritage artists, but the David Cassidy: The Bell Years 1972-74 box set is everything you would expect from Cherry Red – a lovely little artefact and a beautiful encapsulation of an occasionally brilliant pop star and his place in the hearts and minds of the early 1970s British pop generation.
❉ David Cassidy: The Bell Years 1972-1974, 4CD Boxset Released by Cherry Red Records (GLAMBOX173) September 27, 2019. RRP £19.99.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.