22 November 2020

George Chandler - The Best Dreams/ Dream On

Salman Rushdie's disco dreams for midnight's groovy children

Label: Burnley Building Society
Year of Release: 197?

Whenever the Nationwide Building Society broadcast a new television advert featuring a poet, my social media feeds fill with howls of protest. Among the usual complaints that the poem accompanying an advert for a financial institution isn't exactly "The Wasteland", there's a tendency for howls of "Sell out!" to be heard from other writers too. 

I feel somewhat ambivalent about all this. Making a living as a writer is absurdly tough and not everyone has the means to plough through the hardest times without taking up distracting full-time day-jobs. If an advertising agency drops by your door with a quick and lucrative offer - as agencies did in the past with John Cooper Clarke, who for awhile was the Honey Monster's companion in the Sugar Puff adverts - it's going to be very difficult to say no if the cash buys you a year off working in the council post room. 
"No! They're off the artistic roll-call!" scream the Bill "orange drink" Hicks fans on Twitter, forgetting that Hicks did actually add the disclaimer "but if you're a starving artist [and do an advert] I'll look the other way". 
"But how can they expect to be taken seriously ever again?" yell the writers, and I'd argue that's entirely their own business to resolve... and anyway, the roll call of writers who have been down this road before and "got away with it" is immense, so it's probably nothing to worry about. 

The highly critically acclaimed and wardrobe-hiding author Salman Rushdie, for example, previously held a successful career at the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, where he penned several successful campaigns and slogans including "Naughty But Nice" for Fresh Cream Cakes, and "That'll Do Nicely" for American Express. This is interesting from an advertising historian's perspective, but it's this little 45rpm wonder, seldom referenced on Rushdie's CV, which is most relevant to "Left and to the Back".

Back in the late seventies, the now-defunct Burnley Building Society took the generous step of giving away a free Disco single about the brilliance of their organisation to new clients, a move which must have had many customers saying "Oh, you shouldn't have!" The single itself is a perfectly acceptable, inoffensive piece of work with accomplished production and musicianship behind it, but the lyrics over-egg the ecstasy of opening an account with the Burnley. "Dreamin' 'bout a country garden/ dreamin' 'bout feeling free/ skies of blue can come true for you/ 'cause the best dreams begin with B!" penned Salman Rushdie all those years ago, in a move which is doubtless now causing numerous Nationwide poets to collapse with laughter. 

The tone of the disc is purely aspirational and not remotely subtle - "Dreamin' 'bout a pile of money" Salman writes elsewhere - and reflective of the message banks and building societies wanted to promote at the time. If Nationwide now tend to focus on getting a first foot on the property ladder or finding a tiny budget friendly gap in the market to squeeze into, Burnley here are pushing the idea of a Scrooge McDuck existence with glistening gold coins and fifty pound notes on toilet roll holders. Different times, my friends. 

Still, Rushdie was smart enough to know that different people required different things from banks, which is why one verse here is about the security net they offered - "You and your family/ are safe in our hands" trills George Chandler happily at one point. There's a cosy familial tone here, and there was often only the tiniest of difference between advertising discs of this kind and the propaganda messages spouted by countries ruled by dictators. While I'm not claiming the Burnley were comparable to North Korea in their practices, I do know that my modern spidey-senses tingle nervously at some of Rushdie's euphoric outpourings here. In the 21st Century, we're collectively wiser to the bluff behind these delirious ditties and evangelistic slogans, which is why a more subtle home-spun approach has been adopted. Is it better? Well, if you want to enter a huge debate about the relative artistic merits of advertising, you'd probably be better off taking out a year's subscription to "Campaign" rather than reading this blog.

And while we've let ourselves get distracted by the ethics of advertising and Rushdie's early career, we've somewhat ignored the singer on this record. George Chandler was from Atlanta, but moved to the UK in 1973, initially becoming the lead singer in the group Gonzalez, then eventually splitting from them to try his hand at a solo career in 1976. He had numerous singles out throughout the decade, including two with The Olympic Runners, but didn't really rise up much beyond having a niche clubland audience. Crucially, though, his career was no more hurt by this record than Rushdie's was.

As for The Burnley, they eventually merged into the Provincial Building Society to become the National & Provincial in 1984, and were then absorbed into Abbey National in 1996, who in turn were acquired by Santander in 2004, who I closed my account with due to their utter Godawfulness (they wouldn't grant me a joint account with my Canadian wife because she worked for a company in the City of London who 'weren't in the Yellow Pages' which they believed made the request suspect). 

And do I have any advertising sins of my own to confess? Well, bless me father, for at one point in 1999 I penned a syndicated local newspaper advert for those wooden shelving units that disguise "unsightly household radiators", a product I actually feel indifferent to in real life. I'll be waiting at the flogging post at the top of the High Street. 

If the previews below don't work for you, go right to the source here

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