Dittyday 5: Chris de Burgh

Yes, we’re still wallowing in the eighties music, and I say that up front so you can heap scorn and go back to listening to, I don’t know, some misspelled artist of some kind. There was a particular quality to music from the eighties, and I’m fully aware that I may be saying that because that’s when I first got seriously interested in music. It’s also the time when I started hearing music from much better sources than the local radio stations, and when I had a decent stereo system, which certainly introduced more nuances and subtleties that simply did not come through a single 8-ohm speaker on a clock radio, so yeah, there are mitigating factors. But there remain some aspects that I’ll highlight yet again here.

Our artist this fine Tuesday is Chris de Burgh, who most people are at least a little familiar with, even if they only know one song; in the US at least, there were but two that made it into regular rotation – a little too regular, according to some. We’re about to get to one of those before we move on to some unknowns from perhaps his strongest album.

“The Lady in Red” is certainly the single that charted the highest and received the most airplay, and I was under the impression that it made it onto a soundtrack of some movie from that period, but I find no mention of it so I’m probably conflating it with the obscure movie of the same name. As popular as it was, it also received some scathing criticism, a small portion of which (in my opinion) is deserved, since it’s a slow love ballad. One critic in particular called it “mawkish,” but then again, all slow love ballads can be called that if you’re so inclined, and I learned long ago that many music critics are even more sexually frustrated than televangelists, and just as mistakenly enamored of their own pronouncements; feel free to apply that to me as well if you like. I still find that “The Lady in Red” showcases de Burgh’s remarkable vocal range quite well, and establishes the mood that he was after. Depth or ‘meaning?’ Not so much; again, love ballad. It still compares favorably against countless other examples, before and since, and the sales figures have their own say. This may have led to it being relentlessly overplayed on many stations, which is enough to breed fierce resentment, but that’s the fault of program directors, not the musician or band.

But his first big hit was entirely different, and not even close to a love song, or indeed a whole lot else to be found, and certainly has all the energy lacking from any ballad. We’re no longer in the realm of ‘present day’ here, while being vague about what realm we are within – that’s up to the listener’s interpretation. Really, there should be more songs of this nature, because they induce a lot more attention to the lyrics – granted, I was into role-playing games at the time and so the legend/mythos aspect might have resonated more. Here’s the second recognizable offering from Chris de Burgh, “Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” and while the mood and energy are far from subtle, pay attention to the bassline and the synth accents that help establish much of the feel of the song.

Don’t Pay the Ferryman – Chris de Burgh

Should you have attempted to sing along, you’re either hurting right now, or cravenly skipped the choruses, or possess a significant vocal range, far in excess of ninety percent of recording artists in any time period, something for which de Burgh receives too little recognition. While most people seem to associate the eighties with synth and ‘New Wave,’ one of the biggest things emphasized then was vocalization, clear and melodic. How this morphed into semi-spoken and often mumbled lyrics throughout the nineties remains a mystery to me, possibly evidence of an interdimensional rift, but I’m betting most of those artists/bands will see no resurgence in popularity like the eighties did.

Not too long after “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” charted, de Burgh released the album Into the Light, which featured “The Lady in Red” and the following three songs. You’ve been forewarned: the next one is another love ballad, but as far as I’m concerned, it should have taken the place of “The Lady in Red” on the charts, because it’s much stronger and more dynamic musically, and even if the lyrics aren’t particularly deep, they nonetheless carry more of the story. And again, the vocalizing is excellent, though remaining within reach of more people this time. The saxophone was the only brass that seemed to make it out of the seventies for a while, largely vanishing by the nineties (in favor of the folk guitar – trite trite trite trite trite,) and it’s used to good effect here, establishing the mood as much as, if not more than, the lyrics. This is, “Fatal Hesitation.”

Fatal Hesitation – Chris de Burgh

For the next song, we see how de Burgh is adept at creating a brooding quality to his music, but it often exists as an undertone to very powerful crashes and flourishes, an undeniable amount of energy while still carrying a faintly forbidding air. No love song now – you can almost feel the stiff breeze coming off the ocean ahead of the storm, with the flashes of lightning, even as the celebrations take place. There’s triumph, but there remain indications of what it took to get there. This one deserves a lot of attention to the music, because it exemplifies a trait of the eighties, the ability to blend together a widely disparate collection of riffs and stings, commentary from countless instruments, eschewing the overused reliance on electric guitar and the extended solo (even though de Burgh is most recognized as a guitarist.) This time it’s the drums that provide a surprising amount of the music while not really being a drum song; meanwhile, the basic synth sound sticks with just a few notes in the background, though various other keyboard parts have their say. It’s a refined recipe rather than a potluck, though you’d be hard-pressed to establish what the ‘melody’ is. This is, “Last Night.”

Last Night – Chris de Burgh

I wasn’t originally going to include the next song, but realized that it should be in the collection. First off, it confirms that de Burgh has an interest in history, especially of the wars (this is not firsthand – he’s not that old,) which is further departure from love songs. But this one is much like a modern interpretation of folk songs or ballads of yore, in that it’s the lyrics that establish almost the entire melody, and it’s not hard to imagine them slightly differently as some Renn Faire version. Towards the end we get some dueling electric guitars, a little mainstream but necessary when there are no lyrics to fill in. Again, de Burgh can kick it vocally, which is a significant portion of why he’s being featured here, though his compositional skills should not be ignored. This is, “Say Goodbye to It All.”

Say Goodbye to It All – Chris de Burgh

If I recall correctly, I did actually get his followup album, Flying Colors, back close to when it first came out, but was never as struck by the songs as I was with Into the Light. I am slightly ashamed to say that I’ve done little research into later efforts, which will be corrected – I avoided it for this post, because it took long enough as it was, plus I had plenty to feature already, but there may well be a sequel to it if I find some nice little gems in there. This time around, I wanted to show that the guy that did that one song you knew of also did some much more remarkable stuff, so hopefully I accomplished that, but hey, I can accept that tastes differ. Even when they’re completely corrupt.