Sunday, 9 December 2007

Was 'Things Can Only Get Better' A Gospel Song?

I have been absent from the ether for a week or so with illness, but maybe that is a good thing as recovering from it my brain seems to be far more active than it has been all year. I have been plagued by writer's block through most of 2007 and yet this week loads of ideas for my partially complete Steampunk novella sprung up and I have been working hard at it and hope it will appear here early in 2008.

Having a pause from work and the usual pressures (and the house saga seemingly being over for the moment, the keys were collected on Wednesday and the house is ready for moving into, I just need time off work to do it and a car that does not keep breaking down) has stirred up odd items that have been lurking in my brain for a while. Now you might think 'why has he suddenly come up with these points after all this time?'. Well I make no apology for their age; from the start this blog has been about getting debris from my brain and casting it into the pool of the internet just like the Romans cast curses and prayers on tablets of clay into bodies of water (for readers who have come in late). So in this and the next post I turn to looking at two pop tunes from years back and pondering some things about them. I am conscious that these may be very obvious things to many people and they will see me as naive for not knowing the answer already (like when I found that 'Orange Crush' by REM (1989) was about the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant, by US forces in the Vietnam War and a part-time DJ said to me 'of course, the kids have always known that anyway'; he was younger than me but using the phrase 'kids' that way suggested he was apeing a middle-aged record producer, it may have been intentional irony, but was delivered deadpan).

Sorry my introductions are getting as rambling as those of the British comedian Ronnie Corbett did in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a sit-down comedian (I know one other, the Irish comedian Dave Allen) as opposed to a stand-up comedian, and used to ramble for ages before getting to the point of his joke. Tonight I am looking at the song 'Things Can Only Get Better' partly because I heard it on a sing-along radio show this week. This record was produced by D:Ream which was initially a 2-man outfit of Al Mackenzie and enduring member Peter Curran. The group was really a one-hit wonder and I can only find two singles and one album they released. 'Things Can Only Get Better' was released in 1992 and was popular in clubs; it got into the mainstream UK chart in January 1993 reaching number 24; the more pop-focused remix reached number 1 in January 1994 and spent 16 weeks at that position, (if you are going to have one hit making it as enduring as that). The Labour Party used it as its election theme song in 1997, though Curran was unhappy about this usage (maybe he was apolitical, anti-political or a Conservative, like a surprising number of pop singers) and following their landslide victory the single was re-released and reached number 19 in May 1997. This was before downloads so this was all on record sales. It is an incredibly catchy song; easy to digest and sing along to and, as the title suggests, very positive.

My proposition tonight is that in fact it is one of the most successful gospel songs in mainstream British pop music of the 1990s. We get Christmas songs that sort of fall into that category and also some pop-opera that covers religious themes, and the occasional thing like 'Shackles (Praise You)' by Mary Mary (2000) which is more clearly gospel and reached number 3 in the UK charts in 2000. However, the UK lacks sustained cross-over from contemporary popular church-focused music that is common in the USA. Thus, I would argue 'Things Can Only Get Better' was a stealth gospel track. The British seem rarely to listen to the lyrics of the songs they buy and so ones with different agendas can get through, notable is the fact that in a country which has a state religion (Christian Church of England) the first religious pop song to reach number 1 was George Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord' which spent 5 weeks at the top spot in 1970 and was back at number 1 following Harrison's death in 2002. 'My Sweet Lord' is clearly a Hindu song especially focused on the Hare Krishna denomination and includes a Hare Krishna chant in the background. Hare Krishnas are not popular among the general British population and yet they rushed to buy this single at a time when you needed hundreds of thousands of record sales to get anywhere near the number 1 spot let alone hold it.

The gospel focus on 'Things Can Only Get Better' partly explains why Tony Blair (UK prime minister 1997-2007; leader of the Labour Party 1994-2007) used it in his campaign. I have long argued that the victory in 1997 was not for the Labour Party but for the Blair Party and that his politics were a kind of semi-authoritarian brand of Christian Democracy with policies reminiscent of the Vichy France regime. He certainly features Christianity far more vehemently in his politics than any British political leader of the 20th century. I have no knowledge about the religious outlook of the writer of the song's lyrics, but I think if we look at them we can see clear gospel references certainly no more muted than those appearing in 'Shackles (Praise You)'. The lyrics are:

"You can walk my path/ You can wear my shoes/ Let her talk like me/ And be an angel too/ But maybe/ You ain't never gonna feel this way/ You ain't never gonna know me/ But I know you/ Teach you now that:/

Things can only get better/ Can only get, can only get/ They get on from here/ You know, I know that/ Things can only get better/

I sometimes lose myself in me/ I lose track of time/ And I can't see the woods for the trees/ You set 'em alight, burning the bridges as you go/ I'm too weak to fight you/ I got my personal health to deal with/ And you say:/ Walk my path/ Wear my shoes/ Talk like that/ I'll be an angel and:

Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ And you and you/

You show me prejudice and greed/ And you show me how/ I must learn to deal with this disease/ I look at things now/ In a different light than I did before I found the cause/ And I think that you could be my cure/ And you say:/ Walk your path/ Wear your shoes/ Talk like that I'll be an angel and:/

Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get, things can only get/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you."

Superficially it seems to be about a man being very cheerful because he has found a partner and his life is looking up. However, I believe that is the wrong interpretation. Now there are clear direct references to being an angel but if you look you see there is stuff about walking the right path; being taught by this 'you'; seeing things in a different light than before the singer 'found the cause' and this 'you' enabling the singer to see beyond themself especially in dealing with the issues of 'prejudice and greed'. Thus, it seems jam packed with the kind of rhetoric used by many Christian preachers especially ones trying to make use of contemporary idiom. I would love to hear Paul Curran's views on this interpretation.

This song appeared at the time of the peak of the so-called Nine O'Clock Service (1986-95) in Sheffield which had a congregation of 600 at its peak and an average age of 24, so well out of step with other Church of England congregations. It is portrayed as having almost been a Christian rave at times. It dissolved itself when it began to be turning into a cult espousing Pelagian heresy (i.e. that man is responsible for his own salvation not through the grace of God).

Blair was seeking to tap into popular strands of Christianity and emphasised his youth at election, I believe the religious obsession distorted his politics in the direction of self-righteousness and authoritarianism. I think the song he used as his election anthem showed the British public what kind of prime minister they were electing, one well out of step with the areligious population of the UK. If only people looked at the lyrics they are singing along to, they would be more aware of what they were getting themselves into.

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