Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why Whisper Carelessly When You Can Let The Sax Can Do All The Talking? - Part I: Early Whispers

Blow along with me now:

Bwah Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da-duh ... Bwah-da-da-da Da-da-da-da ...

Like the sirens calling Odysseus, like the Piper luring the children of Hamlin, there is a saxophone solo that snakes its way through the night, sliding deeper and deeper into the recesses of your subconscious being. It cannot be resisted. It can only be tamed.

The first notes soar into the air like a lithe swan, gliding and swerving in the dewy morning's mist, dipping and weaving ever so cautiously, then suddenly swooping down, down, down into the translucent water, like a soul without remorse, only to rise out of the liquid like a Phoenix burning in the desert sun.

One meditative afternoon, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou found himself listening to early '80s Top 40 radio, observed the endless litany of saxophone solos, and thought, "Hmmm. You know, these are close, but no one's really ... mastered it. You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna do the ultimate saxophone solo."

"Careless Whisper" was born.

Even the title is elusive. No, it's not called "I'm Never Gonna Dance Again." I remember looking in a Billboard chart book in the '90s and seeing that Wham! (and/or George Michael - see Part II) had had a massive #1 hit in 1985 with a song called "Careless Whisper." "Wow," thought my ignorant younger self, "I wonder what 'Careless Whisper' sounds like. Sure was popular at the time. Maybe it just fell out of radio rotation." The phrase "careless whisper" is, of course, mentioned in the verse, but come on, that title was a pretty artsy-fartsy move.

"Careless Whisper" is the Doomed Love Affair Ballad to end all Doomed Love Affair ballads. It is the Anna Karenina of '80s pop songs, the Brief Encounter of Yuppie Rock, the Titanic of easy listening radio staples - even more so than the theme tune from Titanic! George doesn't give us all the juicy details, but I think it boils down to this: while involved with someone, he started fooling around with another girl (or guy?), things got serious, and now he's realized that the best course of action for all involved is to end it once and for all - on the dance floor. I don't see why his feet feel so guilty; I mean, they only danced together. Maybe his girlfriend's the brutally jealous type, you know, the kind who can't even watch her boyfriend dance with another girl. Something else I've always wondered: don't all those people in the ballroom hear George singing his aching ballad in the middle of the floor? Alternate theory: "Careless Whisper" is the story of a professional dancer at the height of his powers, whose jealous dancing partner smashes his foot with a club a la Tonya Harding, thus destroying the promise of a decades-long career.

Ever heard the early version of "Careless Whisper" produced by Jerry Wexler? Oh yes. The same Jerry Wexler who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, etc.? Turns out George Michael traveled to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to work specifically with Wexler, but Michael didn't like how the song came out and decided to re-record it himself. Well guess what? Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here's what "Careless Whisper" sounds like in an alternate universe. I have to say, probably because the final version has become so overexposed, I enjoy this early take. I'm into the Bernard Herrmann-esque string section, the lounge piano, the vocal double-tracking on unexpected lines, and even a couple of small lyrical changes ("But now it's never gonna be/That way"?), but the organ does come on a little strong under the last chorus. A few YouTube commentators claim this version could have never been a hit, but I think I would dispute that, if required to ever do so. What's funny is that, even at this stage, the saxophone solo was already set in stone, note for freaking note. It's like the sax solo existed before the song did. It's like the sax solo existed before time did.

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