Wednesday, 25 June 2014
A very guilty adventure: Guilty (1980) - Barbra Streisand
There was a brilliant article in the telegraph a month or so ago by Anne Billson on the subject of guilty pleasures, referencing its use in the film industry and how it is something of a ‘henious cliche’ and a ‘yellow-bellied euphemism’ to mask the fact that a viewer might enjoy a critically dubious film on its own merits.
I would like to take this a step further and apply it to the world of music, especially music that came out of the ten year period between 1975 - 1985, and for the purposes of this article one album in particular... Guilty (1980) by Barbara Streisand. It is an album that I am extremely fond of for nostalgic reasons, but which now reigns supreme as the king of camp kitsch.
When I was growing up in the early 1990s (I was born in 1987), cassette decks were still the norm in cars up and down the country and the personal CD player was still very much in its infancy, clunky and prone to skipping if moved a mere fraction from a dead flat surface. It was also a time where petrol stations also doubled as rudimentary record stores, selling a patchy array of contemporary and no-so-contemporary albums for ‘bargain’ prices. It was from these purveyors that our Saab’s music collection was formed, albeit a limited one. The main stars of this lesson in 80s pop music were: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, Foreign Affair by Tina Turner, Brother’s In Arms by Dire Straits, No Parlez by Paul Young and of course Guilty by Barbara Streisand.
Of course, all the above albums share the same thing in common: in their day they were best-selling records (some with more critical acclaim than others) and all of which now seem to draw sniggers and derision from numerous different quarters. However, there is one that sticks firmly in my memory, taking me back to those long car journeys down to the Lot-Garonne region of France where we used to holiday and that is Guilty. It's a now critically overlooked gem in the career of one of America’s most successful recording artists.
Guilty was born out of a very astute judgement of cultural trends in the late 70s and early 80s and also the pairing of two acts who were riding a crest of popularity. Essentially it was the combination of USA’s original diva (Streisand) and the world’s most popular group at the time (The Bee Gees). If there was anything to be said about Streisand her business acumen should not be underestimated, especially her decision in 1979 to approach Barry Gibb to compose and produce the songs for her next album, the project which would subsequently become Guilty.
The title track opens the album with a seductive, understated drum roll that descends into a slow, funky and distinctly naughty tempo. Essentially it’s a Bee Gees track, but the duet, which she performs with Barry Gibbs cannot help but bring a guilty smile to the face of the listener... it glistens with tackiness, one of the most ironically un-seductive tracks ever written but yet one of the best produced, best written and best performed duets of all time... the I said it! Guilty as charged. It would definitely be on my Desert Island Discs!
‘Woman In Love’ is the most famous track of the album, a chart topper in 1981 and garnered a number of awards. It’s another great Bee Gees song performed by another artist, up there with Dionne Warwick’s ‘Heartbreaker’ or Diana Ross’s ‘Chain Reaction’. The song is heavy on the Fender Rhodes and gives Streisand a chance to flex her vocal chops.
I warn listeners looking for an upbeat listen that slow tunes dominate. In an interesting interview with Barry Gibb a few years ago he claimed that during this period the band wanted to be seen not just as a disco act but also recognised for their soulful music and ballad - there is a preponderance of the latter: ‘Run Wild’, ‘The Love Inside’, ‘What Kind of Fool’ (with Barry Gibb), ‘Make it a Memory’. They are all great songs and showcase the song writing abilities of the Bee Gees, as always they are full of strings with rise and fade into the firmament, inflected by the occasional, mournful guitar solo.
My personal picks, outside the title track are, firstly, ‘Promises’, an unashamedly camp dance song with one of the most brutally dated synthesiser riffs every committed to record and a distinctly disco-esque bassline. One feels that there was a conscious decision to include this track on the album for club play as it is the only cut that would sit comfortably on the turntable... It’s no slouch for that though, it’s a very infectious number.
Last but not least is ‘Never Give Up’, a filler track it may be but it’s one of the best, overlooked tracks on the album... it’s never mentioned in any reviews! It’s corny, uplifting and not the most challenging of numbers but it never fails to lift my spirits. It’s also got some of Barry Gibb’s best backing vocals on it, his refrain on the chorus is gold dust... I could go on...
Kitsch though it is, I cannot recommend this album to music appreciators enough, let’s put it this way, it wasn’t Streisand’s best-selling album for no reason. For that I feel it needs an urgent reappraisal, guilty pleasure or not! I like to think that it will still have a pride of place in my record collection to afflict on any future family I might have in years to come!