Wednesday, 15 October 2008


I saw Tom Jones for the umpteenth time on Later With Jools Holland last night. I mean, leave it alone. If you want an example of a Welsh veteran who manages to live in the present tense with far less fuss and much more style, Dame Shirley trumps Sir Tom every time. 51 years after she first hit our charts, her policy seems to be to peek in at pop about once a decade, have a careful look at what's happening, say her piece and get out again. Dignified, subtle and daring. Come in on the beat with Big Beat in the nineties, emerge as pink as Pink (avec Glasto wellies) in the noughties.

But her eighties glance was at the peak of one of pop's most lithesome dreams. 1987, the year of Hammering It Into Your Head, for better (Young Gods, Public Enemy, M/A/R/R/S) or worse (Johnny Hates Jazz, Wet Wet Wet, Terence Trent d'Arby), and here on this Swiss casino mountaintop emerged a butterfly of rare and true aristocratic grace. The stories about how Old Pop confirmed her mothering of New Pop differ; some say that Bassey had known Dieter Meier since the sixties, had met many times over the roulette table; others that she was intrigued by the tape Yello sent her and wanted to do more.

But there was also Billy MacKenzie, poor fucking Dundonian inadvertent life-saving bastard visionary, who worshipped Shirley, and there is no reason to doubt that Shirley knew more than something of the Associates' work - she is so much better at not falling asleep than, say, Madonna - and so this "Rhythm Divine" was a blessed union, a mirage of never-to-be pop, everything floating, impalpable, except for the closely touching voices; Shirley out front, rumbling and shaking with as she hungers and shakes, tears streaming in that same gradual, crystalline descent that once might have graced Dorothy Squires' banisters - there is a history to Bassey's futurism that can't be avoided - as she cries for salvation in this winter of roses, this whitened absence of substance. Boris Blank does exactly what you would expect him to do with the music, and it rends your heart more staggeringly as a result - so delicate and patient and mourning.

And, behind Shirley, all around Shirley, within Shirley, there is Billy, the tremendous tremble of the baton being passed from one Pop to another (and, as it turned out, back again), hovering like cuddly bear icebergs, rods of radiant red, from Warsaw to Rome, never out of time (how do you sail that space?), and even though the semitonal Doric arch of "With you in my heart" gives us clues as to what will happen, it's not until the song has ended on the fourth or fiftieth listen that you realise that Bassey's voice, striving higher and yet higher, now sounds like Billy's, and it not only tells you where he came from but also sounds with scarlet stun as though Shirley is turning into Billy, that she has joined the Associates, that these kindling spirits have merged, that here is an important and vital blessing, a ballet free of arch, the punch never more affectionate or soulfelt.