Monday, 31 March 2008

CANDY FLIP: Strawberry Fields Forever

Yesterday’s Pick Of The Pops sounded like a demographic experiment, bold by Radio 2’s standards, featuring as it did the charts of 1984 and 1990 – although both are now at some generational distance (24 and 18 years respectively), the choice was practically avant garde for a comfy Sunday afternoon audience; I wonder what the cardiganed sixtysomething Bachelors fans made of Queen Latifah or Orbital. The 1990 list struck a particular resonance with me since – as reminded by the Boat Race – this was the Top 20 in the week of the London poll tax riots, and a markedly celebratory chart it seemed, if sometimes a rather threatening one. In that context, Snap!’s “The Power” was the timeliest number one since “Ghost Town,” its menace palpable, while “Love Shack” in second position sounded like the party the day after the revolution, especially since the riots ensured that Thatcher’s days were numbered.

But the record with which I felt most emotional congruence on yesterday’s listen was this cover version, universally derided as a cash-in on baggy and/or rave and/or Madchester and unjustifiably so. I can’t remember at this stage whether or not Candy Flip came from Manchester (answers in the comments box please) but I think this a remake or reshaping of some genius. “Strawberry Fields,” as a record more than a song, is something which defies any notion of interpretations by others as, despite its speed-variance cut-and-paste assembly, the original sounds so complete – at least until you listen to the 27 different takes of the tune which Lennon and George Martin recorded, slowly working towards its final form.

There is something genuinely heartbreaking in the song’s original existence, as a worried but gentle acoustic ballad which could easily have fitted into Revolver, but then the rest of the Beatles, and other elements, are systematically added in – even at this mid-stage, prior to all the backwards tapes, orchestral overdubs and other special effects, there is a chastening humility about the song’s nakedness, a true sadness reaching out to a childhood which either cannot be retrieved or never happened in the first place; emotionally and structurally it’s hardly any distance from “In My Life.”

But it reached its definitive form (by Martin’s standards, if not to Lennon’s satisfaction) as a sort of challenging gateway to 1967 (whereupon Larkin’s cloakroom girls and typists instantly clutched to Engelbert for fear of something worse); and then, in 1990, it came back for another era of hopeful happiness. Still there remains something ineffably sad about Candy Flip’s revisit, an Elysium of damp Northern streets still awaiting transformation. The heavy, slow, chugging and clanking breakbeats locate it in the road adjacent to Saint Etienne’s “Avenue,” and if St Et had done this themselves it would have been universally applauded as a classic. The singer isn’t quite there or here and yet not really everywhere; he croaks the song in post-comedown bliss – the arrangement itself sneaks in a few structural clues which led some people to think that this was a SAW production on the quiet – but the song itself is treated with utter and delicate respect; it doesn’t mechanically strive to be “out there” but subtly distorts its own picture as it proceeds like some Victorian hansom cab ready to be repainted in colours primary. The chords and harmonies are pared down to the necessary minimum, such that the deliberate discordance of “nothing is real” is emphasised more dramatically, and the song simply ends on a final, rueful (“The End”?) fanfare of electronica; a new start, a second chance, a second summer, try to hang on to the love this time around. In 2008 the extra poignancy time and circumstance have afforded cannot be missed. How could we get it so wrong, again? As for Candy Flip, however, two of their number contributed writing and production duties to Robbie Williams' Rudebox. The subtle battle continues.