All music lovers have a set of songs they hold dear to them, carry them with them as they move through life, and consider to be the best combinations of words and music ever put to vinyl, optical disk or silicon. There are songs that are admired for their lyrics, tune, instrumentation or overall feel. It could be the singer’s attitude or phrasing that hooks us. Or a beat or a guitar hook. At the first time of hearing such songs we appreciate them as we would a poem or statue, as stand-alone works of art. As the years go by these songs are filed away and hearing them again can summon powerful memories of good or bad times and their corresponding emotions. Our personal landmark songs cannot be parsed from recollections of key events or sometimes entire periods of our past. Some songs, first heard during our formative years, bed themselves deep down into our personalities, and almost come to define who we are. I have many such songs, stretching all the way back to Brendan Shine’s “Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down”, which we belted out as kids as we pedalled our jeeps and go-karts around the neighbourhood. (No wonder we were always given the bum’s rush come trick-or-treat time!)
On the other side of the coin there is an equally large, or sometimes even larger, collection of songs that we loath. Songs that if they come on the radio have us reaching for the dial. Songs that hasten our exit from a room. Songs that for whatever reason are anathema to us. For me, most of Phil Collin’s output fits into this category; his music is the non-alcoholic beer of the pop world — beyond bland and purposeless. I also have an ingrained hatred of English band Suede’s sub-Bowie warblings (a girl left me for a Suede fan back in 1995, and I just haven’t been able to give Brett Anderson and co a fair crack of the whip ever since).
Up at the top of my personal Billboard Hated 100 is Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red”.
For those of you fortunate enough not to have stumbled across Chris de Burgh previously, here’s the skinny: he’s an Anglo-Irish singer-songwriter who came into this world in 1948, and signed his first record deal in 1974. As well as being born with the gift of a golden voice (sarcasm alert!), he was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was brought up in a twelfth-century castle in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, attended the exclusive Marlborough College in Wiltshire, England, and moved on to Dublin’s no less prestigious Trinity College. His grandfather was Chief of the General Staff in India during the Second World War, and our Chris is a distant descendant of the thirteenth-century English nobleman Hubert de Burgh, mentioned in Shakespeare’s play The Life and Death of King John. Not your typical rock ‘n’ roll backstory.
From the outset of his career, De Burgh enjoyed great success in Ireland (the big fish in small pond syndrome), in a scattering of European and South American countries (the David Hasselhoff syndrome), only modest success in the UK, and none at all in the US. But this was to change in 1986, when “The Lady in Red”‘s syrupy sweetness and message of undying lurve began to ooze from stereo speakers the world over. Like a virulent strain of myxomatosis, the wan sentimentality and half-hearted sexuality (aka smoochiness) of “The Lady in Red” spread from FM station to station, city to city, country to country. Almost overnight we had a pandemic on our hands, and as with all outbreaks, it was the infirm and vulnerable who suffered most and succumbed the fastest. Bubble-permed DJs, weak willed and feeble minded from the strain of having to maintain a constant stream of up and butch between-song banter, fell in their droves. Yuppies, for whom “The Lady in Red’s” over-produced synths and processed guitars spelled money and success, dropped like flies. That species of man and woman who only buys one record a year flocked lemming-like to record stores across the globe. There were stampedes. Daily deliveries of fresh stocks of Chris de Burgh’s infernal 45 came to resemble Depression-era food riots, only with more baggy chinos, hairspray and shoulder pads (this was the ’80s after all). June 1986 became a kind of time zero for those of us with reasonable taste in music. Before, we could turn on the radio safe in the knowledge that the worst possible schlock that any über-mulleted drive-time DJ could throw at us merely amounted to Barry Manilow, Level 42, the Eagles or, God forbid, Dire Straits. We could take them in our stride. But now, armed with their newest, deadliest weapon, daytime radio was no longer safe. At any moment you were liable to be overcome by the opening pish, pish, pish of “The Lady in Red”‘s hellish electronic drums, and, before you knew it, you’d involuntarily have caught a couple of bars of Chris’s distinctive whine.
“The Lady in Red” gets under your skin, or rather, makes it crawl, on various fronts: the lyrics are dull and idiotic in their simplistic take on lurve, the music is woefully unimaginative — plodding rather than romantically slow-dancey — the vocals are thin and wispy, with Chris de Burgh having one of those voices that grates and does things to those special cells you have in your inner ear, and the singer-songwriter himself is an unappealing, unsympathetic figure. Let’s get the unlikeability of Chris de Burgh out of the way first.
Being so huge in Ireland in the 1980s meant that Chris de Burgh was practically a national figure. He was everywhere — on kids’ TV shows, daytime radio, breakfast radio, night-time radio, chat shows, the social pages of the newspapers — and the persona he presented was humility and virtue exemplified. Those of us trapped in a pre Celtic Tiger Ireland of just two TV channels found Chris de Burgh inescapable, and were more or less obliged to listen to his regular cant about spirituality, love, niceness and being a normal, down-home guy who just happened to grow up in a castle and have a treasury filled to the brim with silver and gold. He always came across as priest-like, holier-than-thou. He was sickly-sweet nice, super nice, Mr Nice de Nice. Nice for him was more than a four-letter word: it was a way of life. Material goods didn’t matter to him — just the big man upstairs, being humble, being nice and love. And he clearly loved his wife (see theme of “The Lady in Red”, below). When he could have been off doing the Mick Jagger with all those de Burgh groupies who were throwing themselves at him (I pray for their misguided souls), our Chris was at home in his castle writing songs about how much he loved his wife. And being nice. It was with some glee then that news of his affair with his children’s nanny was received, and we witnessed the very rapid and very public tarnishing of Mr de Nice’s halo. The icing on the cake for those of us who like a strong serving of Schadenfreude was that, while he had been playing not so far away from home, his wife (the lady in red herself) was in hospital recovering from a broken back. Not so nice at all. I have no wish to play the man rather than the ball, so let’s leave off Chris and kick his malevolent spawn of a song into touch!
“The Lady in Red’s” theme is simple: the narrator has never seen his wife looking so beautiful as she does on this particular night. Proud that she has chosen him above all the other men in the room (world?), he has never felt such love and nor will he ever forget the way she looks. The lyrics are low-hanging fruit for anyone interested in rustling up an unfavourable critical appraisal of its merits or the motivation behind their penning. Interpreting the song in one particular manner, the listener can be insulted on behalf of the lady in red. “Wow, you scrub up well!” implies de Burgh. “I never thought that with a few ‘oul highlights, a bit of make-up and a red dress you could look so presentable.” Furthermore, is de Burgh implying that his wife is looking slutty and available when he adds “I’ve never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance, they’re looking for a little romance, given half a chance”? Or worse: is he deriving some sort of sick, voyeuristic pleasure from watching his wife being propositioned by “so many men”? Is de Burgh the jealous type, simmering in the corner while his wife mingles, and reading sexual advances into the most innocent of interactions with other men? Could it be insane (and possibly drunken) jealously that spurs de Burgh into finally paying a little attention to his wife? Is Chris de Burgh suffering from some sort of personality disorder whereby he is only turned on by his wife when she is receiving sexual attention from other (perhaps multiple) men? There are further admissions in the lyric that also portray our Chris in a less than nice light. He has failed to notice her highlights, which, unless she got her hair done five minutes before whatever do they’re at, speaks of gross inattention. As he sings himself: “I have been blind”. Has Chris been ignoring his wife for months or even years? Has their marriage been a tissue of lies, a toxic mixture of putting up with one another for show, passive-aggressive silence and mutual avoidance? Has he been too busy in his studio composing new ballads to inflict upon an unsuspecting world to even acknowledge his wife’s existence? Or maybe he has been on the road, immersed in depths of hedonism not seen since Led Zeppelin last toured? Maybe “The Lady in Red” is all about guilt rather that niceness?
Sonically, “The Lady in Red” is of its time. It is unmistakably of the 1980s, but not in a good way. In the mid ’80s, all sorts of people, from Prefab Sprout to New Order to the Cocteau Twins to Talk Talk to PiL to Depeche Mode were pushing the barriers in terms of combining the new digital technologies — synths, drum machines, primitive samplers and sequencers — with traditional pop instruments to produce a never-before-heard, smooth, pure and balanced sound. Mainstream acts were quick to piggyback on this sound, knocking the corners off it to distil it into a commercially acceptable form. On some occasions, sublime pop resulted from this process: I have a soft spot for Huey Lewis and the News’s string of mid-80s hits, and what would the decade have been like without Robert Palmer or Duran Duran or a yuppie-suited and yuppie-sounding David Bowie ? More often than not, artists who had come of age in the seventies committed grave faux pas in updating their sounds. In terms of its instrumentation and overall sonic feel “The Lady in Red” is a huge faux pas of a song. It kicks off with electronic drums, the likes of which, even back in 1986 could have been generated by the most bottom-of-the-range Casio toy keyboard. There is the clichéd synth sound that dominates the track and which was probably achieved by nothing more than pressing the Smooch button on an off-the-shelf Korg. The dampened, compressed electric guitar is high ’80s and designed to get the sluggish pulses of wine-bar Romeos and small-town disco pick-up artists racing. The rhythm is so plodding and basic that even a corpse could slow-dance to it. All lowest common denominator stuff, but, hey, it worked: didn’t “The Lady in Red” sell millions of copies?
For a song that sold millions of copies, it has a pretty lumpen tune. Count how many times our Chris repeatedly sings the same note during the opening lines of each verse. Boring! Imagine going to the trouble and expense of ordering the sheet music for the song and trying to impress your friends by tinkling it out on the piano. You would be a laughing stock, an in-joke among your peers. They would always talk of the night your little pinkie kept hitting that same note over and over again.
If we can conclude that Chris de Burgh is no Burt Bacharach, we must ask why has he achieved so much success and fame. If his personality is on the bland side of dull, and his looks could best be described as fair-to-middling, could it be his voice that has carried him all the way to the top of the charts? I’ll lay it on the line here: Chris de Burgh is not a great singer. He can hold a tune, fair enough, but you wouldn’t say his singing could be placed in the same category as a Sinatra or a Morrison or an Ian McCullough. The de Burgh voice is a wavering, high-pitched whine, a late middle-aged voice with none of the mellow baritone one would come to expect from a mature, male vocal apparatus. On “The Lady in Red” it is obvious that someone behind the mixing desk has had a word in Chris’s ear and told him to do the song sensitive. There’s no way he’s going to ruffle any feathers with his vocal delivery here; it’s gentle, neutral, deadpan . . . mortuary-stiff. Maybe that was the best sensitive Chris could do. He only breaks out of the vocal equivalent of an over-70s one-hundred metre sprint on a few occasions: the high note he hits at the end of the second chorus — that ear-curling, creaking, scratchy to-ni-ight; the song’s crowning moment of one-hundred percent, pure-bred cheesiness — the whispered tonight as the song closes; and then the genuinely, blood-curdling I love you at its very end. This I love you is said with such deliberate coldness and mechanical emptiness that it renders almost certain the theory that “The Lady in Red” was written not from the point of view of a husband who is suddenly disarmed at his wife’s beauty and falls in love with her all over again, but is the poison that has dripped from the pen of a jealous, unhappy man, seething with repressed contempt and rage for his partner. Thus, those of us with our emotional radars tuned to the awfulness and pure evil of the song cannot bear the stench of corruption it exudes. We have no other choice than to flee the room when those villainous