Wired for Sound (1/3)

If there had been no Elvis, there would have been no Cliff Richard.

My Life, My Way – Cliff Richard

If you’re not a fan of Cliff, it seems that he is suggesting we should take it up with the estate of Elvis Presley.  This seems a little hard on Elvis, but then he has been responsible for a lot of bad impersonators since he arrived in 1956.  In the 1950s the impersonators were taken seriously as artists in their own right and had successes in their own countries; now they are a bizarre sub-culture.  Turns out Cliff began as one of England’s Elvis impersonators and struck gold with the 1958 number two hit Move It.  All of Cliff’s early hits feature him singing in a put-on Elvis voice that sounds ridiculous now, but got female juices – British ones – flowing in the late 50s.  Considering how much Cliff owes Elvis there is a very curious end note to the Elvis-Cliff story.  Offered the chance to meet his idol in 1976, Cliff had the following reaction:

 I said, ‘Absolutely.’  Then I thought about it a second. ‘Hang on,’ I said.  ‘Are we talking about this visit?  Elvis is about fifteen stone at the moment.  I want this photograph for my rogues’ gallery.  Couldn’t we wait until he looks vaguely like the Elvis that was so magnetic?’

And so he didn’t meet Elvis, and then Elvis died.  Which tells you a lot about Cliff, and what it tells you isn’t very flattering.  Ironically.  Because appearances are very important to Cliff.

Through the early chapters of My Life, My Way we hear a lot from Cliff about how amazed he was to be so successful so quickly (he was seventeen when he became a star).  He is perplexed and concludes that he must simply have had the X factor.  Perhaps.  I would like to suggest that it might have had something to do with his ugly mug.

He was a very good looking boy who became objectified at the age of seventeen, and this is the fact that seems to explain almost everything about Cliff.  At the age of seventeen he ceased living a normal life, and now he is in his seventies, but he still seems to have many of the views and faddish tastes of a seventeen year old.  Also, because he was classed as a minor when he became famous he has been used to having his life managed for him.  His Dad originally took over this job, but running Cliff’s life has been somebody else’s job for all of Cliff’s life.  It makes him come across as curiously detached from reality in his autobiography which frequently reads like the irritating, inane, thoughtless babbling of an inane, thoughtless and hugely privileged teenager:

I did once take the subway in New York and that was an amazing experience….  Thank you Frank for showing me a bit of real life.  I took the Metro in Paris once too… but, again, I did it with friends, and would never have done it on my own.  I just have to accept there are some things I can’t do as easily as everyone else.  And in the end, do I need to? No. I do them for the experience so that I can say, “Been there, done that.”

I’ve never paid a bill in my life… if a bill arrives at the house, I send it to the office and they pay it.

I wish there was tax relief on the clothes I buy for personal use too.  When you have this thing called celebrity the public has an expectation of how you should appear….  I remember, for instance, someone once saying to me, “What are you doing driving this crap car?”.  I said, “Well, my Rolls is being done up, I’ve been lent this one.”  It was actually a very nice MG.

This is all from one chapter by the way.  The whole book reads like a man talking into a tape about whatever meaningless rubbish flits through his mind.  After about eighty pages I was beginning to feel offended by Cliff’s blithe acceptance of privilege and belief that his personal vanity was a public service, and then I realised that I was essentially reading the autobiography of someone like Justin Beiber who happened to be seventy years old.  After I came to this realisation the book became a lot easier to take.  And let’s not pretend Cliff hasn’t made sacrifices in his life.  It turns out, for example, that he has sacrificed food so that the public do not have to endure seeing him fat,

I have dieted ever since I was twenty-one because I didn’t like the look of myself in The Young Ones, and for years I kept my weight down by eating just one meal a day.  I would eat at night after the show, at about midnight.

Now he is engaged in the blood-type diet.  Your blood-type dictates what kinds of food you can eat.  His masseuse told him about it.  Turns out blood type A can’t eat red meat, shell fish, dairy, wheat, potatoes….  Which makes perfect sense.  In a world where someone can go to exclusive food counters and select from goods flown around the globe.  It makes a lot less sense in, well, reality.

But, again, all this nonsense sounds like something a teenager might be into (“I’m on this, like, incredible diet.  Yeah, my masseuse told me about it, and he’s like twenty-four and looks a-ma-zing”).

I suppose the most surprising thing for me about reading Cliff’s autobiography (outside the fact that I read Cliff’s autobiography) is that he doesn’t seem very interested in music.  When I first picked up his book I went looking for the bits where he talks about his songs.  With the exception of about three songs however this is something he never does.  Cliff himself explains why this is the case.  He thinks of himself not as a performer, or a singer, but as a recording artist. He talks about the recording process, and the “art” of the producer in far more detail than he ever goes into on even a single song.  Which I suppose is how it is if you have your material selected for you, and arranged for you, and simply walk into a studio and lay down a vocal.

This doesn’t stop Cliff from vainly reaching for ludicrous musical connections.

The Beatles were absolutely great.  They took pop music to a whole new level and I often think of the Shadows and me as the bridge between the old and the new….  I think it’s true to say that between 1962 and 1970, when the Beatles disbanded, we had about thirty records in the Top Twenty while they had twenty-three.  They were geniuses, though.

That’s a mighty big “though”.

All of this is fine, I suppose, until he starts in on the problems of the world.  There is something about being a celebrity with legions of fans that compels these people to talk about “issues” and their charity work.  It rarely makes for palatable reading.  Here are my two highlights from My Life, My Way.  The first one is an excerpt from a trip to Bangladesh, and demonstrates how being honest is not a good thing if you are shallow and vain:

Those children had scabs all over their heads, their noses dribbled, their eyes were encrusted and there were flies everywhere.  There was no way I was going to touch them….  Now this baby reached up and instinctively I grabbed it –  and immediately the wailing stopped and it snuggled into my neck and snuffled.  It was the most unbelievable feeling.  Suddenly this child was no longer a sickly statistic, but a person.  It changed everything for me.  The rest of the visit was so much easier, I could touch the children, I was fine.  Afterwards, of course, I would shower, wash and scrub my fingernails.

Even before the final, awful sentence I love the way Cliff refers to the child as “it” and manages to twist all that suffering around to being a difficulty for him.

And here is Cliff on South Africa post-apartheid telling us why he couldn’t live there:

Some of my band have said they would, but I wonder whether they could honestly drive past all those people living in cardboard boxes day after day… and then drive back to their lovely homes with swimming pools.  It brings me down just thinking about it, because, as I’ve tried to say in the songs I’ve written, we can’t solve the problems of the world….  The thing about Christianity, though, is that it keeps you positive….  I have to believe that in the end God has a master plan for everything and each one of us plays a small part in creating the whole.

Your part is dying in a slum.  My part is wanting tax relief for Versace shirts.

Christianity for Cliff appears to be a way for him to deal with all the big questions and let him off all the intellectual effort of thinking for himself.  The only  fly in the ointment appears to be his homosexuality (he lives with an ex-Catholic priest… in his fabulous Portugal house… with vineyard… which produces a-ma-zing wine ).  But that’s his business.  And God’s presumably.  Frankly he comes across as a man who is not interested in intimacy much at all, but enjoys companionship.  Whenever these matters come up in his book Cliff gets quite cross sounding.

He also sounds cross with journalists.  He bemoans the fact that he does really lovely interviews with people but somehow when what he has said gets to print he comes across as a total idiot.  The journalists edit him unfairly.  Lest I be accused of doing the same thing, here is a complete paragraph from Cliff’s book.  It is far and away my favourite section in his autobiography, and can stand entirely by itself without any comment from me.

 During a gospel tour once I remember talking about love.  Love is such a strange word.  You know, in the Bible they have different words for love.  If you loved your mother it was one word; if you loved your wife it was one word; if you loved a friend it was another word.  We are stuck with one word.  For instance, I love God and I love the skin of custard – same word, yet God and custard are miles apart; I shouldn’t have to use the same word for my taste in food that I use to describe my feelings for God.  I thought I was being quite profound.  Blow me down, another night, as I started the custard story, I saw two girls walking towards me carrying a large shallow tray.  The previous night I had embellished the story, saying, “If it’s true that skin forms when the custard cools, then if you made it in a flat dish a quarter of an inch deep it would all be skin.”  And I was proved right: in the tray was custard and it was all skin.  It was funny and I was delighted by their experiment – but people only do things like that because they’re comfortable with me and want to participate in my story.

Much of British radio won’t play Cliff’s music.  He is not well pleased.  He points out, reasonably, that he wouldn’t have sold 250 million records if people didn’t like him.  Even though he has a point, you can still see why it happens.  Aside from the charm of the early hits, and a couple of latter songs which are enjoyable, his catalogue is either horrible, naff or pretty hard-out Christian.  Cliff, for most people, is a bit embarrassing.

I find him embarrassing.  One of the many hardships I have had to endure to write this piece was taking Cliff’s book out of the library.  I once read Cher’s autobiography.  When I returned it I heard actual cries of dismay behind the screen at the returns slot.  I had planned to take Cliff’s autobiography out using the self-issue machines to avoid any potentially humiliating exchanges with the library staff, but then realised I was trapped in the CD section of the library which has its own separate set of beeping alarms when you exit.  The young woman who issued my books was mostly able to maintain her frozen mask of indifference, but as I left I felt that her lip curled slightly into irony.  I toyed with the idea of saying I was conducting research, but reconsidered, sensing, rightly I believe, that she would have laughed at me.  Unkindly.

Cliff senses the same thing.  People laughing behind his back.  Unkindly.

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3 thoughts on “Wired for Sound (1/3)

  1. Blimey, you have Ronnie Wood’s wild tales of drugs, sex and rock’n roll, and then you have Cliff Richard’s experiments with custard LOL

    Loved reading this

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