Roy Orbison and the miracle of records [August 16, 1992]
Plus: John Secada, K.W.S., Tori Amos, and Throwing Muses
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of August 16, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Sting gets married to his long-time partner, Trudie Styler. Everyone makes the same joke about how the ceremony last 72 hours. Honestly, you mention you’re into tantric sex one time…
📽️Big new movie in cinemas is misunderstood classic Alien³. David Fincher's feature film debut flops so hard that his career seems to be in doubt. Wonder what became of him…?
📺On TV, Emma Bunton makes her telly debut as a violent mugger on EastEnders. Maybe she should have been Scary Spice.
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🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ by Snap! Further down the charts, we have:
This week’s Number 24: ‘Crying’ — Roy Orbison & k.d. lang
Did you know that Roy Orbison recorded ‘Crying’ in one take?
This might not be true. I thought I heard this a few years back, but now I can’t find a source, so I’m probably thinking of a different song.
But it sounds believable, doesn’t it? The original version of ‘Crying’ is so cracked and bruised and raw and beautiful that it’s hard to imagine Orbison perfecting his delivery over multiple takes.
Listen to it again and imagine you’re there in Sun Studios in 1961, slowly melting in a sultry Memphis summer, watching the band getting ready to play. Someone counts off, and then the drummer launches into that kind of rumba beat, almost a military tattoo, Bah-bah-bum-bum-tss. Then Roy Orbison, the saddest man in rock’n’roll, opens his mouth and sings, “I thought that I was over you”…
Maybe he nails it on the first take, maybe it takes a few attempts. But boy, does he nail it.
My favourite moment in the song—and one of my favourite moments in music history—is the pause in the first verse. The song starts briskly and picks up momentum as Roy sings:
Then I saw you last night
You held my hand so tight
When you stopped—
Suddenly, everyone stops playing. Complete silence, as abrupt as a car crash.
It only lasts for a quarter of a second, but it perfectly recreates the feeling of your heart skipping a beat, as might happen when the person you love touches your hand.
Then the devastating reveal:
—to say, "Hello"
You wished me well
A false dawn. She’s just shaking his hand out of politeness. She has moved on; he has not. We have all been there, and we all know how much it sucks. The greatest pop songs speak to universal emotions.
‘Crying’ has been covered dozens of times since then, and a lot of artists don’t bother with the pause. Don McLean sails through the line. The Spanish-language version in Mulholland Drive is a capella with lots of reverb, so it wouldn’t even be possible to pause. Even Orbison keeps singing through the pause in some later versions.
That perfect delivery of “stopped” happened only one time, in Memphis on June 26, 1961. When you listen to that record, you’re revisiting a particular time, a particular place. You’re hearing Roy Orbison the way he sounded on that exact day.
Sometimes, I think we aren’t grateful enough for the miracles surrounding us.
Think about it. Isn’t it just mind-boggling that it’s possible to hear a performance from 61 years ago? It’s years later and thousands of miles away and Roy Orbison is dead, and none of that can prevent you from listening to him sing ‘Crying’ any time you want.
We can capture voices and replay them at will. If that’s not a miracle, what is?
The very first sound recording happened in 1860. A French inventor by the name of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was trying to unravel the mysteries of the human ear when he discovered a method for transcribing soundwaves.
Martinville’s recording device was called a phonautograph. It consisted of a membrane that reacted to movements in air and a delicate needle dipped in soot. When a sound caused the membrane to vibrate, the needle would scratch out a line that roughly corresponded to the soundwave.
Of course, there was no way to replay this—you were just left with a piece of paper covered in soot. But, in 2017, researchers used the phonautograph’s output to recreate a piece of audio, allowing us to hear the recording.
The sound was Martinville himself, singing ‘Au Clair de la Lune’:
Every single sound made by humans prior to 1860 is now lost forever. Sounds like Cicero’s speeches or Mozart playing piano—all gone. The past is silent, forever.
But we don’t live in the past.
We are lucky enough to live in a time where sounds can be preserved. We have the I have a dream speech and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ and the noise of connecting to dial-up internet. We can listen to them any time we want. These sounds will outlive us.
And you can make your own sounds! You could pull out your phone right now and record yourself singing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, and it’s entirely possible that your great-great-great-grandkids will play it to their kids.
(Incidentally, in 1885, an audio engineer did try to record himself singing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. Something malfunctioned and caused him to swear, which is how he became the first known person to say “fuck” in a recording.)
Of course, just because there’s a recording of your voice doesn’t mean anyone will listen to it. There are lots of records that have gone unplayed for decades, even if they were hits at the time.
Roy Orbison came perilously close to being a forgotten man (or at least, a dimly remembered has-been).
He was a huge star during the rock’n’roll interbellum, that strange period after Elvis joined the army and before The Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’. However, bad management and a bad label deal meant that Orbison’s career hit the rocks. All of his singles tanked after 1964’s ‘Oh Pretty Woman’.
There was also some heartbreaking personal tragedy. In 1964, his first wife was killed in a motorcycle accident. A few years later, two of his children died in a house fire. Roy retreated, and the world moved on without him.
Luckily, he had fans in high places who kept his music alive. Linda Ronstadt had a decent hit with a cover of ‘Blue Bayou’. Don McLean had a blockbuster smash when he sang ‘Crying’. David Lynch featured ‘In Dreams’ in Blue Velvet, which made Orbison extremely cool. The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame officially canonised him in 1987.
Then came a huge career jolt, as Roy got drafted into the most super of all super groups, The Travelling Wilburys. Orbison was probably the least famous member of the group, but you got the feeling that even Bob Dylan was a little stoked about jamming with Roy fuckin’ Orbison.
Sadly, this late-career renaissance was cut short by a fatal heart attack in 1988 at the way-too-young age of 52. But at least he died when public affection was at its peak, both for his music and for Orbison as a person.
The duet of ‘Crying’ with k.d. lang was recorded in 1987, back when lang was still a minor figure on the country scene. It was re-released in 1992, after Ingenue had made lang a star.
To be honest with you, I don’t consider this an especially good version of ‘Crying’. The production is a little too glossy, when neither artist requires any polishing. A much better version is their live duet on Jay Leno’s show:
But even that’s not the best version of ‘Crying’ that either of them sang. Orbison’s best version is, of course, that version that he laid down in Sun Studios in 1962. It’s the best version of the song, full stop.
Amazing to think that he recorded it in one take .
lang’s best version is the one she did on MTV Unplugged. She does the pause at “stopped” and it’s perfect, although her mellifluous voice has a different emotional resonance. It’s more languid, more epic.
These versions are great precisely because they contain some of the quirks and imperfections you get in a live performance.
And you know what’s cool? We can go back and listen to these performances over and over, as many times as we like, and decide which one we like best. We can hear k.d. lang singing, even though she’s not on tour. We can appreciate Roy Orbison’s unique voice, 30+ years after his death. We can hear the way he sang ‘Crying’ that one particular day in 1962.
That’s amazing. It’s kind of a miracle.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 5 (↑ from 8): ‘Just Another Day’ — Jon Secada
I’ve always thought of Jon Secada as a one-hit wonder, but it turns out I am wrong and also obnoxiously parochial.
Secada has in fact sold 15 million records over the years. The trophy cabinet in Casa Secada groans under the weight of all his awards, including two Grammys, neither of which were for ‘Just Another Day’. He’s worked with everyone from J-Lo to L-Pav (Luciano Pavarotti). In the world of Latin Pop, he is one of the all-time greats.
Definitely not a one-hit wonder then, even if this was his only appearance in the UK Top 10.
Number 11 (↑ from 29): ‘Amigos Para Siempre’ — Jose Carreras & Sarah Brightman
More opera! If you missed the issue about ‘Barcelona’ from a few weeks ago, the tl;dr is that opera can be very popular, if it’s presented in the right context.
This particular track was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber as part of the 1992 Olympics’ opera vibe. Carreras and Brightman performed it at the closing ceremony that year.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Rock Your Baby’ — K.W.S.
K.W.S. try to repeat the ‘Please Don’t Go’ recipe of classic choon + dance beats + very charismatic singer = big hit. It didn’t have the same success, despite being essentially the same thing. Actually, maybe that was the problem.
Number 34 (New Entry): ‘Then Came You’ — Junior Giscombe
Nothing but love for Junior, whose ‘Mama Used To Say’ is one of the most slept-on hits of the 1980s.
Number 39 (New Entry): ‘Silent All These Years’ — Tori Amos
Failed to make the Top 40 on its original release in 1992, but Tori decide to give this one a second chance. It ended up becoming one of her signature hits.
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Album of the Week
Red Heaven — Throwing Muses
When we last saw Throwing Muses in 1991, Kirsten Hersch and her stepsister Tanya Donnelly were recording the very fun album The Real Ramona, and having a decent-sized hit with the catchy single “Counting Backwards”.
A year is a long time in rock’n’roll.
Donnelly quit to form Belly and took bassist Fred Abong with her, leaving only two Muses: Hersch and drummer Dave Narcizo. Undeterred, they drafted in a new bass player, Bernard Georges, and recorded a new album as a three-piece.
Red Heaven takes a step back from The Real Ramona’s pop ambitions, and instead tries to evoke a grimy dive bar atmosphere. Opening track ‘Furious’ starts with heavy drums as Hersch’s wailing voice seems to rise from the ground like an angry demon:
Hersch is such a dominant presence that it’s sometimes tempting to think that she is Throwing Muses. In fairness to Narcizo and Georges, they play a vital part on this record, often stretching the songs out in new directions, like the serpentine groove that runs through ‘Backroad’:
That said, Kristen Hersch is a force of nature and she’s always going to be star of the show. Her voice and guitar are astonishing, and her lyrics flash like diamonds in songs like ‘The Visit’:
Jesus said in heaven
There’s not that much to do…
Leave your dollars where they fall
They have a message of their own
Red Heaven is kind of a throwaway record in some respects. Only one single was released—the excellent ‘Firepile’—and Hersch already starting to focus on her next two albums, both of which would be massive hits (Throwing Muses’ University and her solo debut Hips and Makers.)
But it’s notable for being the first record of the Hersch-Georges-Narcizo lineup which remains in place today. So it is, in a sense, Throwing Muses’ debut. And it kicks ass.
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Beautifully written piece about Roy Orbison. I was very nearly crying myself.
Excellent as par usual. Loved the breakdown of Orbison's work and legacy.