Surprisingly for a song almost twenty years old, I don’t really have any rose-tinted, nostalgic anecdote to tell for this one… well, almost none. For my relationship with this song stretches back only about six months. My wife and I often spend whole evenings listening to ridiculous songs on youtube, sessions in which she displays her truly encyclopaedic knowledge of forgotten (or often never heard of) pop/rock tunes; Kansas, James Ingram, Extreme, The Cranberries, Eddie Brickell; basically any artist that you thought of as a ‘one hit wonder’, my wife will know albums worth of songs by them!!!
So on one instance, we somehow got around to Shakespears Sister. Did we even play ‘Stay’? I can’t remember, but we did play ‘I Don’t Care’. I think I had heard it before – I must have – but it occupied only a vague space in my pop memory banks, hidden, perhaps, under the bushel that is ‘Stay’. I like everyone else, knew ‘Stay’, and knew it really as S.S.’s only tune of note. However, listening to ‘I Don’t Care’ obviously changed my mind, and it quickly became an over-regular fixture on my Spotify playlist (salad days [Shakespeare reference!] when Spotify didn’t constrict you to 10 hours a month and only five listens per song).
The shitty synth cello sound at the start of this, and the echo ‘dream version’ of the song at the start are already starting to grate on my nerves; only eight more to go!! But all is forgiven as soon as those screaming vocals enter. Histrionic doesn’t do it justice! In fact this whole song is sheer pantomime. Usually this would really turn me off, but with this song, something hits home, and I really love it. I think it’s because, behind all the melodrama, it actually has a great deal of complexity and care in the production and writing. Those harmonic guitar notes; the whole guitar part – has a really lush sound to it.
The dual vocals are, of course, the aspect which really make the song. The sound in parts as though they are competing (maybe this is a projection), but when they come together – particularly in the chorus – they complement each other so well that by the time the second screaming session comes in, I’m already anticipating listening to the song immediately again!
The rap. Hmmmm. It’s not really a rap is it, but it’s on the cusp! I’m still not entirely sure about this bit; I’ll come back to it I think.
Yet even this insecurity is washed away with the abandon of the final chorus; replete now with trumpets. Then it’s the guitar solo – as melodramatic as anything else in the song. Now usually I don’t particularly like gut-busting guitar solos. My short-live love affair with the medium was ignited by the slide guitar wizardry of Dave Gilmour at the end of ‘High Hopes’ (one of the very first CDs I remember listening to; maybe the first we owned?) and it died when I realised I was singularly incapable of playing the guitar solo from ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ (I was about 13 at the time, and had only been playing guitar for about 6 months when I came to this conclusion, maybe I gave up too quickly!). Anyway, the song is over now; I like this guitar solo.
Fucking synth-cello and ‘dream-song’; so unnecessary. I haven’t actually looked at the video yet to see what accompanies them. I have seen that there is some ‘quote’ at the beginning, but I haven’t read it yet.
The more I listen to this song, the more I realise I think of it as a series of beautiful fragments. Maybe I’ll address one fragment per listen.
One thing though; this is probably obvious, but I’m always reminded of the Cure when I listen to this song; and it’s not just because of the excessive make-up (though that certainly plays a part!). Siobhan Fahey’s voice is kind of reminiscent of Robert Smith’s, isn’t it? The jangly guitars etc remind me of the Cure’s ‘Friday, I’m in Love’ (also repeating the strangely positive-nihilist maxim ‘I don’t care’); the horn sections remind me a bit of ‘Close to Me’.
Anyway – the guitars in this song are, on reflection, my favourite bit of this song. Maybe that’s why I have such time for the guitar solo at the end, because throughout the song, the guitars are understated and precise, whilst adding so much to the sound world; such diversity. From the jangly chorus to the buttoned-down reverb punctuations in the sparse verses. It’s so nice to hear an out-and-out pop song utilising the guitar in such a fashion. I suppose the early 90s was something of a strange time for the electric guitar, wasn’t it? Well, this song is as much a celebration of the guitar as anything else.
The driving rhythm of the screaming section is so good – it really pushes the song along – almost pushing it past the ‘rap’ (still can’t think about this bit yet).
So: to the guitar solo. Firstly, the timbre is perfect; almost swamped by the trumpet stabs, always on the brink of disintegrating into white noise from the distortion, it always seems to find the next note just in time. There’s a bit around 4.48 (oh dear, I’ve just seen a few snippets of the video at this point!) which is an amazing melody – then capped by a pentatonic motif around 4.51 which signals a really satisfying end to the guitar solo.
There’s a bit at the start where someone says ‘that’s fantaaastic’; every time I hear it, I want to stop doing this!
Anyway – lyrics now. Strangely, for someone who is obsessed with lyrics, and in a song where the vocals take such centre stage, I haven’t really noticed them too much. The line “I’ve got nine lives, and I land on my feet” always sticks with me; it seems like such a child-like thing to say in the face of someone being hurtful in some (I assume) adult way. In fact, it gives the whole song a sort of child-like quality; making the song into a playground rivalry between the two tempestuous singers – or them comparing notes on recently dumped boyfriends behind the bike sheds. Etc.
No; what I wanted to say is that, based on absolutely no empirical research whatsoever, I am prepared to say that everybody remembers one girl in their infant school who pretended to be a cat – thought she was a cat, if only for a brief amount of time – and that is what the above line reminds me of; “I’ve got nine lives and I land on my feet”. I like it a lot.
Well, this listen has finished. I was going to talk about the lyrics, I got caught on another singular fragment, but that is, I’m starting to think, the beauty of this song (perhaps of all these ‘must-listen’ songs), that in each listen, a new little fragment will catch you unawares and snare you, and you feel compelled to go back and listen to that particular bit more deliberately. However, the truly great (or infectious, depending on your view point) pop songs will then throw out a different, even more intriguing, more unexpected barb, that will catch you out as you’re listening intently to the other little bit, so you have to go back and listen to that bit as well, and so on.
Right; we can’t put it off any further. The ‘rap’.
Actually, while I wait, there is a little faux-laughter immediately before the song proper begins, and immediately after “fantaastic”, that is even more annoying.
Well, I wasn’t fully aware of the lyrics to the rap at all, and they are certainly more esoteric than many pop-raps are (cf. Debbie Harry’s “and get in the car/and drive real far/ and you drive all night/ and you see a light” from ‘Rapture’). So, to fully appreciate them, here they are the lyrics to this, what I’m now calling ‘spoken word section’:
In a borealic iceberg came Victoria
Queen Victoria sitting
Shocked upon the rocking horse of a wave
Said to the Laureate
This minx of course as sharp as any lynx
And blacker deeper than the drinks
As any hottentot without remorse
For the minx said she
And the drinks you can see
Are hot as any hottentot
And not the goods for me
Hot as any hottentot
And not the goods for me
[You can read all the lyrics, along with the video here]
Now I’m not going to pretend to have know that these ‘lyrics’ come from an Edith Sitwell poem; I didn’t. But they do. And I’m not sure whether this makes them better or worse. Better, I think, in that it unashamedly melds so-called ‘high art’ into pop in a very deliberate way (maybe this is just me, but is there something akin to ‘The Smiths’ in this appropriation, in the way Morrissey would reference poets: “Keates and Yeats are on your side, while Wilde is on mine”. I’m sure there are more direct quotations from poetry in The Smiths’ lyrics (though not as extensive a passage as the one quoted above), but I have left my knowledge of Smiths lyrics behind me now.)
So, the song finished ages ago, as I Googled all the relevant information above, and we’re still not really any closer to understanding the rap. I’ll give it one more go in a bit, but first; the video!
So, the illusive quote at the beginning is: “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of women…” [I think there should be a question mark there somewhere, shouldn’t there?], which, as we all know, (after searching Google) is a play on ‘The Shadow’s’ tag line ‘who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.’ Very literary. Let’s move on.
Strangely, the video accompanying the ‘dream-song’ version (I swear I didn’t know that Marcella Detroit was sleeping in this bit of the video when I named it that!), makes this bit even worse! A totally shit ‘effect’ (like those ‘crazy photos’ you can take on mac books that squash a bit of your face) on a black and white image of the band ‘horsing around’ whilst Marcella tosses and turns in a fitful sleep ‘neath golden sheets. She wakes. She screams. Though the video tells us not why.
Oh, actually, I get it now. The rest of the band are laughing and joking about Marcella at a rehearsal that she isn’t at. The scream is akin to the classic “WE SLEPT IN!” moment in Home Alone [another Catherine O’Hara reference!]. We see a golden clock. It is five past four. Either the band are practising at an ungodly hour of the morning (in which case, Marcella has every right to be in bed), or else Marcella has slept in until four in the afternoon. In which case she has absolutely no excuse, and really needs to have a serious word with herself, screaming about it won’t help!
Black and white now, a skewed camera angle of a corridor (Siobhan is so fit, by the way). A bit of over the top ‘crazy’ acting for Siobhan. She meets Marcella (is this corridor in Siobhan’s dream? A dream within a dream? Wow. This video preceded ‘Inception’ by eighteen years!)
Then – joy of joys – we’re at the rehearsal – now in ‘real-world’ colour. And all the band are wearing their most fashionable gear! (actually, I can’t be bothered to make any comments about the “terrible fashion from twenty years ago” mainly because it’s just a tired thing to do, but also because it will be back in fashion in a revivalist way in a few years time, as inevitably as the tides coming in and going out again; In fact, I may grow my hair into ‘curtains’ now, just to be slightly ahead of the curve (and simultaneously totally out of the loop)).
I can’t go through the rest of the video with this level of detail (there is no detail in the above, just tangents; it’s that kind of a day). What I will say is that both Marcella and Siobhan have studied and practised the fake smile (1.16 – both, 1.22 – Siobhan, 1.37 – Siobhan, 1.45 – Marcella, 1.56 – Marcella, etc) to the point of turning it in to a fine art; again another playground trope: the withering smile.
2.30, the rehearsal over, they have changed into their stage costumes, sparkly black spandex: now we’re talking!
More screaming in the futurist-architecture golden bedroom. (actually, it looks – deliberately, I’d suggest – a bit like a scene from Metropolis, this bit; the overabundance of makeup and silent cinema scream).
Finally, there is a party on a Shakespearian stage, with balloons and flashing lights. Then Shakin’ Stevens does his guitar solo. Actually, that ending reminds me a lot of the Cure’s video for ‘Friday, I’m in Love’, which I haven’t seen since for ages, which I’m watching now. Yeah, sort of; an ever-changing stage, that gets more and more crowded with a bizarre cavalcade of people.
So, after that short Cure break (and a cup of tea), I’m still in the mood for a visual treat (and in need of not hearing that synth-cello part again), so here is a live version of the song.
And David Letterman’s dulcet tones make me immediately long for the synth-cello. Bring back the synth-cello, I don’t want to hear David Letterman. Listen to the way he says ‘Shakespeare’. Then the patronising ‘kids?’ like they’re not entirely ready to perform, and might be hiding in the front room eating chocolate snowmen off the Christmas tree (that was me.)
Immediately struck by how good the scream vocals are executed. Siobhan’s vocal style is slightly over-done here, bordering on embarrassing even, but she look amazing, so we can let it slide! Actually, the pre-chorus (“we hurt the ones we love the most”) is incredible. I think Marcella Detroit must be an amazing singer, and Siobhan is an amazing performer, so as a duo, they work perfectly. A few more fake smiles around 1.16. Is Marcella Detroit American? Were they big in America? ‘Yes’ and ‘not really’ respectively. Thanks Wikipedia!
Siobhan’s dancing at 1.51 is incredible. And that’s from someone who hates almost all forms of dancing.
I’m just noticing things now.
The guitar solo is disappointingly curtailed here; I don’t like that. But at least the video finished without too much of Letterman.
Back to the rap. I’m going to come to a conclusion this time.
What do I make of it?
There is one line that turns it around: the delivery of “said to the laureate”. Before that it’s a bit too contrived, a bit too overdone. But the phrasing of ‘said to the laureate’ makes it work. I love the pronunciation of ‘laureate’; the ‘t’ sound is really nice. Then it’s repeated a number of times through the word ‘hottentot’, but nowhere is it as beautifully said as in ‘laureate’.
So, it’s ok. No, it’s more than that, it’s good. I like the ‘rap’. It’s good. One more listen. Yeah. It’s good… Ah, it’s alright.
This time through, as with each of these ‘10 time listens’ I’m actually just going to listen to it, without pauses and repetitions of certain sections. Just a straight run-through. I think more than ever this is a necessary thing to do, because I keep getting side-tracked by aspects of the song, or things it reminds me of. Maybe that’s just the skittish mood I’m in…
…but I don’t think it is. This song seems to have a number of tangents built into it. The poetry, the Shakespeare references (this version of the video cuts it almost completely out, but there is a Shakespeare quote finishing the song: “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their entrances and exits, and a man in his time plays many parts” – from, of course, as we all know, obviously, As You Like It [thanks again, Google]), it’s place within other late-80s/ early-90s guitar music; why bands such as The Smiths and The Cure obtained such a huge cult following, but Shakespears Sister did not (or did they? I don’t know). No, they didn’t. They were the one-hit-wonders. There’s so many shards that stick in me with this song. Ten listens in (as should be obvious by now, this number is pretty much arbitrary; I’ve listened to parts of this song many more times in writing this), and I still don’t think I’ve got anywhere near the bottom of this song. It’s a strange one. Actually, unlike the other songs I have listened to so far, I didn’t mind pausing and replaying parts of this song so much (though I enjoyed listening to it all the way through on play 9). Like I said, I think this song is made up of little fragments, each one catching the mind, each one leading it of down a different corridor. That is a subtle form of compliment, I suppose.
 High Hopes is definitely on the list of repeated tunes. Though it’s about ten minutes long; I’m going to have to wait for a particularly rainy day to do that one!