❉ Was Cilla Black a great singer, or a singer who grates? It really depends on the song, writes Stephen Porter.
“‘Cilla Sings a Rainbow’ contains enough of the more magical elements that made Cilla a bright, quirky and unusual star in the pop firmament – and brought her the attentions of musical titans like George Martin and Burt Bacharach in the first place.”
Another month, another set of Cilla Black re-issues from those good folks at Cherry Red Records. I know I upset one particular die-hard fan with my last review of Cilla re-issues, and I’ll be doing my level best to do the same again this time round – whilst looking at these four digitally re-mastered albums (spread across two CDs) from Scotland Road’s greatest-ever singer. Only joking!
The team at Strike Force have worked their little socks off to re-release the original albums with extra non-album singles, B-sides, out-takes and interviews for the most ardent of Cilla fans. And if you’re the sort of fanatic who would regard yourself as a Cilla completist, there’s everything you’ll ever need here.
As a preparation for my writing, I’ve been reading Cilla’s trenchant and illuminating autobiography What’s It All About? (Ebury, 2003) to get an insight into the singer’s psyche and maybe to gain an understanding of the mechanics and processes of the Abbey Road studio in the early to mid-sixties.
Alas, Cilla’s tome proved almost useless in these respects. Besides remembering every conversation (verbatim) from day one of her life – and everyone depicted in these conversations sounding pretty much exactly the same, Cilla’s memories of her recording sessions do not really shed too much light on the intricacies of the recording process.
Her recollection of her first recording session with George Martin yields the following:
“Every time I sang ‘thurr’ instead of ‘there’, George kept pulling me up.
“That word sounds much too Liverpudlian,” he (George) kept saying.
I have never met or heard anyone from Liverpool who has said ‘thurr’ instead of ‘there’.
Only Cilla. It’s a unique idiolectical feature that was only ever spoken by one person from Liverpool. Priscilla White. And bizarrely she never worked this out for herself. (See also the tonsorial features on her husband Robert’s head – also known as BOBBY’S HURRRRRRRRRR!)
And so to the latest re-releases of young Priscilla White. Incidentally, Cilla’s mum was also called Priscilla. Now I find that odd. I can’t remember coming across another example of any woman naming her child after herself. It’s usually men who do this. And why is this? It’s because many men are such incredibly vain wankers that they have a tendency to see their children as extensions of their own egos, and consequently name their children after themselves – and if their child turns out to be, horror of horrors, a girl, they have to give them a ‘masculine’ variant.
Nigella Lawson, indeed.
‘Cilla Sings a Rainbow’ (1966)
Anyway, Cilla’s second album Cilla Sings a Rainbow (1966) is from her imperious, early phase and her continued association with Beatles producer George Martin. The album spent fifteen weeks in the UK charts with a highest placing of number four. It’s important to remember how popular Cilla was as a recording artist and how – in many people’s minds – she was an important element in the Mersey Sound universe. Cilla appears on the cover with a flash of green-tinged gold amongst her familiar copper hair (I’d wager the young David Bowie was watching) and is resplendent in a rainbow-striped, metallic Biba overcoat. I’m pretty sure I would have been really excited to have bought this good-looking pop artefact had I been old enough at that time.
I’d love to praise this album to the high hills (wherever they may be), but opening song Love’s Just a Broken Heart is symptomatic of the problems I have with the Cilla dichotomy (a great title for a Big Bang Theory episode): namely – does the bad cancel out the good?
George Martin’s orchestration is superb – obviously – and Kenny Lynch’s English lyrics for this popular French chanson work perfectly. Cilla starts the song well, but as the notes rise up the scale her voice degenerates into that shrill, strident and frankly horrid Custard the Cat/back-of-the-throat howling and fillings-rattling timbre that helped to spoil all of (Runcorn Spice) Mel C’s better efforts. Cilla – a great singer, or a singer who grates? It really depends on the song.
Second track A Lover’s Concerto was originally a hit for The Toys and was famously covered by The Supremes. It’s a great song (with a melody stolen from Bach) and again Cilla starts off well before degenerating into Peggy Mount in the chorus. George should have had a word. Seriously.
Track three Make It Easy on Yourself is also problematic. The young Cilla had plenty of her own charm, and her pop personality as a whole is much greater than the parts. Unfortunately, when there are direct comparisons with the God-like geniuses of pop who have covered the same songs, there really is no comparison. The imperative to release a Bacharach/David composition (in the UK market) before the other singer managed it was a challenge for both Cilla and Dionne Warwick.
Dionne was undoubtedly a better singer, but Burt Bacharach was a huge Cilla fan, and was not particularly bothered about who hit gold first. Cilla is no Scott Walker, though, (who is?) and though it’s an unfair comparison, the memory of The Walker Brothers’ fabulous version of this song doesn’t help with any reappraisal of Cilla’s talents.
Cilla’s version of Len Barry’s great song 1-2-3 is just horrible, and I could only manage a minute and a half before I had to leave the garden to ‘next track’ my remote’s-gone-missing CD player. (Modern life, hey? I almost tripped over my Filofax and smashed my pager in my haste.) Next up is There’s No Place to Hide; it’s a decent song, but Cilla is intent on honking like a wounded goose throughout and spoils it.
I’d be flogging a dead pop horse if I described the awfulness of Cilla’s version of When I Fall In Love in detail. It’s a horrible song anyway, but when you find yourself pining for Rick Astley’s (awful) version, something’s awry in your life. In the accompanying album booklet, Cilla reckons George Martin asked her to release her version of Yesterday but she declined. A pity. It’s a genuinely lovely version.
Title track Sing a Rainbow was originally sung by Peggy Lee in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues. I can’t blame Cilla for this song. It would be hideous by anybody.
The Real Thing is next. Not the criminally underrated Liverpool band (the late Eddy Amoo’s voice should be ranked ‘up there’ with the soul greats), but a song knocked out by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson after hearing Heatwave during a fag break at the Brill Building back in 1964. Slight as it is, the song deserves better than being belted out like Tessie O’Shea on steroids as it’s done here.
Everything I Touch Turns to Tears was looking like it was going to be the highlight of the album, but then I reckon you can guess what happens. Like all great singers, Cilla’s phrasing and understanding of the pathos in a broken hearts song can be brilliant, but then the shrieking begins.
The final track (from the original album) My Love Come Home is probably the highlight. It’s sad and melancholy to start off and still as plaintive during the more strident sections of the song. It’s one of those sixties girl songs you can picture the teenage Morrissey listening to in the sanctuary of his bedroom – whilst wanking himself into a coma over a strip of black and white photo booth pictures.
Of the bonus tracks on the CD, the best track is I Don’t Know, a fragile, early Drifters-like song written by husband and almost pop-star Bobby Willis (he of BOBBY’S HURRRRRRR! fame) and somewhat reminiscent of the Kursaal Flyers’ great 1976 hit Little Does She Know with its deliberately-halted phrasing and repetition.
And to end with, there are a couple of decent songs nicked from their Italian sources (a popular ruse in the mid-sixties), namely the rather nice Don’t Answer Me and A Fool I Am.
Although there are some nice touches on this album, ultimately it’s a little too shrill for my liking and there are some covers which are certainly unwisely chosen, but it’s not without its merits.
Original album – 5.5/10
‘Sweet Inspiration’ (1970)
I’m going to do this in chronological order – if that’s alright by you – and so album two (album 1 on CD 2, if you get my drift) is Cilla’s fifth studio album 1970’s Sweet Inspiration.
Recorded in 1969, the album marks a transition to the sort of songs Cilla would be singing in her popular late sixties/early seventies variety programme. The album picture is of a badly coiffured Cilla in profile, deliberately chosen to show off Cilla’s rather fetching new nose job.
The opening, title track was written by ‘songsmith’ and producer John Cameron (whose arrangement of Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love was used for years on TOTP). The song is reminiscent of Vanessa Paradis’ Be My Baby and also a Persil advert from the 80s that I’ve spent years trying to track down on YouTube). The song indicates a much lighter direction than the style of much of Cilla Sings a Rainbow, and is really rather pleasant, although I found myself longing for the howling of Cilla Sings a Rainbow, such was my Stockholm Syndrome experiences of listening to that album on rotation.
After a pedestrian version of Jackie DeShannon’s Put a Little Love in Your Heart (which was used to great effect in the brilliant Drugstore Cowboy), Cilla sings her version of the lovely Bacharach/David composition April Fools (from the forgotten Catherine/Jack Lemmon film of the same name). It’s a great song and a great version.
A bird-scaring version of Elton and Bernie’s I Can’t Go On Without Loving You brings memories of Cilla’s mid-sixties stuff, before Cilla gives us her take on Joni Mitchell’s From Both Sides Now (a song inspired by a Saul Bellow novel, fact fans). Now some may say dressing in the borrowed robes of the greatest of all living female singer songwriters was a suicidal move, but Cilla’s version is OK. Surprisingly.
More Beatles’ covers follow with John Lennon’s spitefully-inspired Across the Universe. I’ve never been a big fan of this song, ever since David Bowie spoiled the almost perfect Young Americans with his insipid version – included, one presumes, to creep around John Lennon during the recording of the album. Again, Cilla’s version is not unpleasant.
Black Paper Roses is unfortunately not a radical take on the Donny and Marie classic, and the following track Mysterious People is very reminiscent of the oddball childhood ‘story’ songs from Bowie’s first album. Mysterious People is based on an old German song and – even better than this – it’s arranged by the god-like We Are Cult favourite Ronnie Hazlehurst.
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway (two of Cilla’s preferred songwriters) provide the next two songs including Oh Pleasure Man – which sounds like something sung at the start of The Benny Hill Show – and Little Pleasure Acre, which again is similar to the search for Eden/Arcadia and lost childhood songs found on David Bowie’s eponymous 1967 debut and many other contemporary albums of that era.
This is followed by an OK version of Orlando Murden’s/Ron Miller’s For Once in My Life – a song which I would have gambled all of my Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? accumulated money on being written by Stevie Wonder.
So far so good. A nice enough album with one or two gems, and then Cilla goes and spoils things with the (original) album’s final track, Rule Britannia.
YES – RULE FUCKING BRITANNIA!
Cilla’s Irish Catholic background notwithstanding, Thomas Arne’s nasty imperialist, nationalist, racist, cretin’s rallying cry is an appalling choice for any contemporary (1970) artist. A harbinger of Cilla’s later (?) Tory politics, it was only the opportunity afforded to sing five Chinese crackers up your arsehole that stopped me putting my foot through the CD player and sending the bill to Cilla’s estate.
The bonus tracks are good, though. Liverpool people will appreciate the double meaning of the abstract noun-heavy A Street Called Hope (bizarrely cut from the original album at the last minute), and a couple of nice but same-y Cook and Greenaway songs.
The final bonus track on the CD is the brilliant If I Ever Thought You’d Change Your Mind, a sad and beautiful song which wouldn’t appear out of place on one of Abba’s later psychodrama albums; indeed, it was eventually covered by Agnetha Fältskog in 2004, the reclusive Swede’s first single release in 17 years.
Written again by John Cameron and thus neatly bookending the CD re-issue, the song got to number 20 in 1970 – a slight return for what (for me) is Cilla’s finest moment – where she proves that (on her day) she is a great singer, is fully in control of a difficult song, and creates a more is less minor work of pop genius by refusing to go over the top and give in to bombast.
A fabulous recording.
The original album is a 6/10 – point deducted for Rule (fucking) Britannia) – but it’s a heathy 7/10 for this rather nice CD re-issue.
The poor performance of Sweet Inspiration (a lowly #42) must have troubled Cilla. Her follow up Images (the Bowie connections grow stronger all the time) failed to trouble the charts despite once again having George at the controls and a high profile maintained by the success of Cilla’s Saturday night TV show. Contemporary songs and songwriters were trawled and captured, but there is very much the sense that Cilla has moved from artist to artiste, and from attempting to push the boundaries of pop to basically being an unthreatening light entertainer. The youth market of her audience had long gone, but a big AOR market had opened up for the right sort of performer.
Opener Faded Images (that man Kenny ‘Lynchy’ Lynch again) is OK, but nice. Cilla then covers Paul McCartney’s Junk (from his debut album, McCartney). Disappointingly – and it being post-Beatles McCartney (although it had been an Abbey Road reject) Junk is not about hard drugs, but consists of a description of the shite found in Paul and Linda’s yard. A lovely song, well sung, nevertheless.
It’s hard for anyone half-decent to go wrong with Elton and Bernie’s Your Song, and Cilla’s version is nice (that word again) enough. Oddly, Cilla changes ‘man who makes potions’ to ‘witch’ in her version. Harsh on herself, possibly, but true.
Clive Westlake’s It’s Different Now is yet another song that sounds like Cat Stevens’ Wild World, but no court cases ensued for this version.
Cilla’s version of The Bee Gees’ horrible First of May (a song which made Robin Gibb walk out of Les Freurs Gibbs in a huff – OK, a minute and a huff) sees Cilla revert to her default horror-timbre mid-stream and is best avoided.
More Burt Bacharach ensues. I doubt if there’s ever been a (white) female pop voice to match Karen Carpenter’s, so Cilla’s version of Close to You was going to pale even if she’d brought her ‘A’ game to Abbey Road. A decent stab, nevertheless. The great pop fact here is that it’s an uncredited Dudley Moore on piano on Cilla’s version. I’d have liked to have heard Cilla sing Dudley’s Derek and Clive classic Jump, though.
Cilla returns to rainbows with, er, Rainbow, a pleasant enough track, but not a cover of the great LGBT classic children TV’s theme song.
Again, I can’t even blame Cilla for the emetic qualities of Bread’s/David Gates’s euphemistic beast- with-two-backs, buttock-fondling AOR monstrosity Make It With You, but I presume nobody forced her to sing it.
Husband Bobby (BOBBY’S HURRRRRR!) provides his wife with the forgettable Our Brave New World before the original album ends with Cilla’s version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Bridge is one of those songs which is indelibly printed on your mind by its original singer. Art Garfunkel’s version is obviously the definitive and best. Even Elvis made a tit of himself by trying to match Art’s angelic interpretation. Again, Cilla’s version is OK, but she (and her version) is/are no/not Art/art.
The bonus tracks are a mixed bag. Again, Cilla unwisely attempts Carole King’s Child of Mine (parts of which Prince ripped off for Purple Rain). It’s alright, but if you’ve heard Carole King’s version of the song (and you should have) it’s a version that’s never forgotten.
A couple of re-mixes of Cilla’s last big hit – the splendid Something Tells Me – complete a decent but nana-friendly album, her penultimate with producer George Martin.
Original album – 6/10
CD version – 6.5/10
‘Day by Day with Cilla’ (1973)
Though recorded in 1972, Day by Day with Cilla (what a dreadful, I’ve given up title) wasn’t released until 1973 because of industrial action at the EMI pressing plant. Yes, the album was so bad that thousands of poorly-paid factory workers said they would rather starve than mass produce an album that was so middle of the road it had white lines painted across the front. In the 1970s, the workers at the EMI pressing plan were always going on strike, be it because they were offended by the sweary content of Derek and Clive, the anti-royalist sentiments of the Sex Pistols or more likely just because it was the seventies and that was what one did – apart from eating spaghetti hoops and wearing beige from head to toe (according to the sort of theories postulated by Britain’s worst ever social historian; Dominic Sandbrook, that is).
Cilla is resplendent in a pink satin Elton-style jacket, silver sequinned tie and black shirt on the cover of Day by Day by Cilla. As the title implies (for those in the know), Cilla was gravitating towards a milder, apolitical form of Church of England/God-Squad Christianity and possibly drifting away from being a staunch Roman Catholic – or ‘Left Footer’ as Cilla herself refers to the followers of Britain’s slowest growing religion on every two lines of her Pulitzer-winning autobiography.
BBDWC kicks off with Badfinger’s beautiful Without You. Pete Ham’s and Tom Evans’s song was done well by Mariah Carey, brilliantly by Harry Nilsson and appallingly here by Cilla. A real teeth rattler and a really bad start to the album.
Thank Heavens I’ve Got You is nice enough, but it made me start worrying about the religious connotations, a notion which is further compounded by track three, Help Me Jesus, a track written and originally performed by the great but unheralded Lesley Duncan, a woman groomed for stardom, but who never quite made it. Lesley retired to Mull in the early 70s and never spoke about her nearly-pop star days and was thought of as that nice woman who tended her garden by her unsuspecting neighbours. Cilla’s version of Help Me Jesus is great, and a storming pop song despite its Lena Martell-like non-secular title.
There are more Beatles connections (Badfinger were McCartney’s proteges, sort of) with The Long and Winding Road. It’s OK. There’s not much I can say about it apart from the theory that George Martin was finally having another bash at the song after the furore created by Phil Spector’s remixed Beatles’ version. Perhaps another session with McCartney would have been more apposite if this were the case. Or maybe Cilla just liked the song. Who knows? (Who cares?)
The Alan Partridge-esque I Hate Sundays (“when the postman doesn’t come”) precedes Cilla’s version of the Jesus Christ Superstar number I Don’t Know How to Love Him. Cilla reckons that Tim Rice said that it was the definitive version of the song (I bet Yvonne Elliman was made up with this!), a remark which suggests that Sir Tim had only ever heard one version of his own song.
Much as I dislike this sort of religious balderdash, for some reason I love Godspell’s Day by Day. Cilla’s version is quite good here. The 13thcentury Bishop of Rochester (AKA Saint Richard, and the original prayer’s/incantation’s funky lyricist) would have been well pleased.
Cook and Greenaway’s I’ve Still got You, Joe is lovely, as is Graham Nash’s Sleep Song, and Cilla makes a decent fist (again, whatever that means) of Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves (which is very similar to the orchestration of Cher’s version). There’s an OK version of Don McLean’s (alas, NOT the Crackerjack one) Winterwood, and the album – the original album – is rounded off with a splendid version of John Lennon’s Oh My Love, one of my favourite tracks from Imagine.
All in all, it’s another OK album, but the artistry, the risk-taking and the magic of youth had long deserted Cilla Black’s recordings and this is a cabaret album in search of an audience (hence its almost zero sales figures) and was Cilla’s last album with George Martin.
Full-on TV stardom beckoned.
Original album – 5.5/10
So, what is Cilla’s musical legacy? Sweet Inspiration, Images and Day by Day with Cilla are all decent enough albums made with the world’s most famous producer and with enough quality songs as to be more than listenable. But Cilla Sings a Rainbow – though admittedly very weak in parts – contains enough of the more magical elements that made Cilla a bright, quirky and unusual star in the pop firmament – and brought her the attentions of musical titans like George Martin and Burt Bacharach in the first place. None of her albums matched her debut Cilla, but maybe her greatest legacy is the slew of great singles released from 1963 to 1967, starting with the brilliant Love of the Loved and concluding with wonderful Don’t Answer Me.
And that’s a fine legacy if you ask me.
Right, I’ve now sat through eighty-six Cilla Black tracks (some at least four times) – I’ve finished off the Pernod, the ouzo, the Old Spice – even the industrial strength floor cleaner. Three litres of it!
Listening to so much Cilla is like eating a whole box of Domino’s pizza – OK to start off with but ultimately not terribly good for you and liable to engender almost fatal guilt pangs and nausea.
I’m off to listen to Grimes’s Miss Anthropocene to cleanse my palate.
❉ Cilla Black – Cilla Sings A Rainbow/Day By Day With Cilla (QSFE072D) is out now from Strike Force Entertainment/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99.
❉ Cilla Black – Sweet Inspiration/Images (QSFE073D) is out now from Strike Force Entertainment/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99.
❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. Order your Cilla Black reissues here: http://cherryred.co/CillaBlack
❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at the Liverpool Sound City festival at the end of September.