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It takes two

Now that Advent is well and truly on us, and the tree is up and glinting (the Spanish Lady looking good for her age I’m pleased to say) the radio is now gradually filling up with Christmas songs. A few of these songs are not actually that bad, which is a bit of a miracle in itself as listening to some Christmas songs is like getting teeth extracted, without anaesthetic. People usually quote ‘Fairy tale of New York’ as a highpoint, but I’d throw in ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by the Waitresses and Thea Gilmore’s ‘That’ll be Christmas’ as a more recent Christmas tune that is actually a good song too. But this is not really what I wanted to waffle about this week.
It started with a Christmas song. Well, it is a ‘winter song’ I guess rather than being explicitly Christmassy, but ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ does have a naughty festivity to it. Well, the version I was listening to is my favourite one, with Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews from the Reload album back in 1999. Tom has never sounded dodgier and Cerys Matthews has one of those voices that just fits this song like a glove (and post song giggles and ‘bloody freezing innit?’ comments always cracks me up. Reload was an interesting album, a successful piece of reinvention marketing by Jones to bring him to a younger audience by doing duets with various more recent stars, a strategy that several have tried with varying degrees of success. Reload works I think as the songs are well chosen and some of the collaborators do sound as though they are enjoying themselves and enjoying working with an all-time great vocalist.
So what’s my point?
Well, they are alive. At the moment everyone seems to want to sing with dead people. It’s very odd and in my mind distinctly creepy. Some of the people having a go mixing their vocals in with someone who long since left the mortal coil are young and/or upcoming (e.g. Gregory Porter, who I like a lot, warbling along with Julie London on ‘Fly me to the Moon’). Julie London died in 2000. But it is not just the new folks, everyone is at it, as a glance at Barry Manilow’s new album reveals.
Now, I know that many duets today are not recorded together in the same studio, or even on the same continent. Most are recorded as separate tracks to be mixed later; fair enough. As someone who spends a lot of time at work thinking about the principles of things in order to understand what is a right or wrong decision, it does not take me a huge leap to go from this practical way of getting some interesting records made (although it loses some magic don’t you think?) to creating some fantasy records where one of the tracks is from someone no longer with us. But it just doesn’t feel right to me.
Posthumous music releases are a difficult one, even when endorsed by estates, families and former band mates. It is rather nice to hear a ‘new’ Queen song recently, albeit an inferior one, because for most of us this is totally new and a reminder for us to go back to the massive back catalogue (and a reminder of just how much Freddie Mercury could lift even the mediocre to something better than most of the tosh produced every year). But adding your vocal onto someone else’s track – without their permission – is something different to me. I don’t think it is creating new music. It is more like Damien Hurst daubing some paint on a Rembrandt. I’d much rather the artist just go and record their own cover and create a new interpretation and if they want to duet, why not use someone who is actually still alive? It all seems to me either a cynical exercise in marketing, ego (putting themselves on the same level as an established star of the past) or wish fulfillment. None of which particularly make me feel anything other than slightly creeped out.
Singing along to dead people should be reserved for the restricted audience of your own shower. Create new art with the living.

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