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Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods ~ by Annie J Randall

Dusty Review by Jay Benedict.

Dusty! Queen of the Postmods is the most painstakingly-researched book I’ve ever read. For those of you seeking a University degree in the study of popular music this is the book for you.

Yes, on one level, it’s about Dusty in all her complexity – and on another, it’s an intellectual and academic seminar on 60s popular music.

It has an Appendix ‘A’ with all her major record releases and events; an Appendix ‘B’ purely devoted to all the people mentioned in the book; a chapter of notes, all cross referenced to numbers in the text; a Bibliography; another general index from A-Z with every reference from ‘aesthetic of excess’ (mentioned on page 72) to Richard Wagner (on page 144).   It has an ‘Acknowledgments’ section at the front of the book, followed by a Contents section, followed by an illustrations section covering four chapters, which then launches us into an introduction, before a combination of historical source study, musical analysis, ethnography and cultural theory gets us comfortably into Chapter One entitled Dusty’s Hair – proving that success really does go to the head. This is an awesome book on every level.

There’s no plot or story as such in any conventional form. The book is more a series of argumentative treatises or formal discourses with the idea of illustrating Dusty from every single point of view.

We learn that Dusty Springfield was born a redhead to Irish middle class parents, who christened her Mary O’Brien, and that she grew up in Ealing, London. A suburban accountant’s daughter, she became the model of self transformation when she went from mid 50s ugly duckling to 60s swan, in her beacon-like wigs, held fastidiously in place with vast quantities of hairspray.  We then find out that overweight blobby girls back then didn’t have the routine plastic surgery that overweight blobby girls do now, so the discomforts – both physical and psychological – behind Dusty’s look were largely concealed from the public, while her fun-loving down to earth qualities were accentuated. This could explain her penchant for crockery smashing (she was known to hurl entire tea-sets down flights of stairs) and might even go some way to explaining her bi-polar disorder later in life.

In truth, she became a camp, artificial, self-acknowledged Drag Queen – in much the same way, I would imagine, that David Bowie had to invent Ziggy Stardust for himself before he could sing a note back in the heady 70s, or Paul O’Grady needed Lily Savage for years or even how Paul Gadd became Gary Glitter … On second thoughts, perhaps we won’t go there!

Yet, out of this mass of contradiction came Dusty’s soul sound. As Mary she was definitely  ‘Dominique the Singing Nun’, but the moment she ‘wigged up’, this black sound came out of her mouth!  A ‘post-modern pile up of disjuncture’, as the author puts it, that came together in the figure of Dusty Springfield.  An Irish redhead wearing an über-blond mile-high beehive wig, singing cover versions of black American music, and we’re only on page 19!!

We soon find out that her father was responsible for all of this; by listening to the BBC with him, Mary (aka Dusty) would have come into contact with American music. They tried to find a cure for it, but like every decent contagious disease, it spread and caught on. Despite her going into vocal harmony pop and folk music with The Springfields, she had a musical conversion when she heard “Tell Him” blaring from the Colony Records shop window in Manhattan, New York, in 1963. Tell him what exactly, I’d like to know? I wish I’d been born straight?  She leaves the group to pursue her penchant for all things Afro-American, leading to her being dubbed the White Negress by Cliff Richard whilst others, more appropriately I feel, called her The White Queen of Soul.

The author mentions that in a broader context The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured England in about 1870 singing Negro spirituals, might have influenced her as well. Well, I happen to know that they also influenced Samuel Coleridge Taylor – a Black English classical composer from the Victorian Era – when he composed 24 valses nègres, but that’s a bit like saying that because I wear the colour black I’ve never been attacked by tigers.  However, I don’t wish to nitpick.  If the author feels that Dusty suffered from what W E B Dubois describes as the two identities that African-Americans were, by necessity, forced to adopt as two non-integrated social groups, and makes the analogy with Irish descendants living in England in the 60s, who am I to argue? But I fear it’s a trifle over-intellectualized.  At the age of 11 she declared her intention to become a blues singer and that’s it. I suspect a lot of listening to Bessie Smith on Armed Forces Radio might have had more to do with it.   Certainly by 1964/5, she was actively promoting the sounds of Motown on Ready! Steady! Go! (Britain’s only live TV show) as well as singing with Martha and The Vandellas at the Brooklyn Fox in 1965. She describes this as the biggest thrill of her life. She was one of the first white singers to ‘cross over’ into the segregated black sound, becoming a hybrid. Madeleine Bell and Doris Troy came into her life, initially as backing singers, but I feel Madeleine Bell became a lot more to her than that later on – a part of her life which is only vaguely alluded to in the book.

Subsequently, Brit pop and black gospel met to form the unusually polished multi-layered sound she spent hours in the studio perfecting.  The author makes the point that Dusty was practically producing her own records, which were recorded in a superior way to those of Tom Jones, for example, whom she dismisses as being in and out of the studio in one day. Thus, she infers that Dusty’s mid-sixties popularity allowed her to be indulged by the studios. I would argue that Tom Jones was every bit as popular, if not more so, and also had a voice that ‘crossed over’; that he could sing in practically any style you wanted, including Dusty’s, went on to a long-running TV show Stateside, and that apart from a few years singing to chicken-in-a-basket type audiences in Las Vegas for vast fortunes, he successfully re-invented himself in the 80s and is probably more popular today than he has ever been AND he didn’t have to die in order to to make the ultimate career move.

Dusty, on the other hand, fell spectacularly from grace after the critical failure of Dusty in Memphis, when she went to Tennessee, rather taking coals to Newcastle.  More about this later.

We close Chapter One  with Dusty’s voice and personality being compared to that of the centre-stage diva soloist, in the mould of Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee or Judy Garland – singling out her voice’s distinctive ‘grain’, inspiring a blend of text and tone that transfixes fans and inspires cult followings. As for myself there was always too much in the way of hair, eyelashes and hand movements. Ella F had a voice that could a break a crystal glass at 20 paces and Judy Garland was so much more than a diva soloist. Such comparisons are dangerous as Judy had a movie and musical career, as well as being a team player. As for Peggy Lee, well – who can forget her in Disney’s The Aristocats; the woman who gave us ‘Fever’ for decades. I’m really not convinced Dusty stands in there amongst the other three.

Chapter Two leads us into another didactic – Migrations of Soul –  and another extended discussion of the emergence of soul in the States and its transfer to London in the guise of Madeleine Bell (again – why don’t they just come out and say it!) in 1963. Personally I always found Madeleine Bell, with the gap in her teeth, dead sexy – and our paths almost crossed when yours truly appeared on Top of the Pops with Dave Clark, doing background dancing and singing on ‘Everybody get together’. (A bit of pop history for you: When Dave Clark’s pop career finished he made the switch to acting, much as Adam Faith had done very successfully. He enrolled at Central School of Speech and Drama for two years where we met and became friends.)

Right, back to Chapter Two …

We get the whole rip-off back drop story here, whereby artists like Ruth Brown in the States had to watch white girls like Georgia Gibbs and Patti Page rip off her records note for note on top TV shows to which she had no access, while she watched from the wings.  The chapter ends with the Dusty in Memphis album.  According to Rolling Stone Magazine, it was amongst the best 100 albums ever made, but was a critical flop – unsurprisingly, according to the author, given the racially polarized period at the time following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It was too white for some, not black enough for others. The intersection of race, gender, sexuality and nation got all mixed up and Dusty got cut adrift.

Chapter Three, Soul + Melodrama = 1960s Pop Aria, explores Dusty’s style of African-American soul and European melodrama: the odd pairing of musical and theatrical traditions from different cultural sources producing the perfect 3-minute pop aria – not unlike scene-sequencing in movies, when you a have the perfect 3-minute sequence within the film, which has the perfect beginning, middle and end – like the perfect pop song. The author dissects all of Dusty’s pop hits for the fans to get emotionally involved in, but again – for me – there’s too much theory and analysis to let you experience the simple melodrama. It’s best illustrated in an entire two pages of pictures of Sarah Bernhardt juxtaposed with Dusty. We see the famous 19th century actress, in Cleopatre/Phèdre and La Sorcière, displaying classic melodramatic acting poses of longing/protest/denial and passion, opposite pictures of our 60s icon on TV making the same physical gestures and  demonstrating the pop aria’s connection to 19th Century aesthetic conventions. It’s uncanny how the two resemble each other – and here the author is spot on. She goes on to show the principles of melodrama being adapted to opera, women’s films, the novel and TV soap operas. She excels herself and is quite brilliant and incisive. This is the highlight of the book for me.

Chapter Four – the final chapter – is called Dusty as Discourse. There are four broad areas covered here – self discovery, virtuosity, identity and legacy, mainly coming out of interviews with Dusty’s friends and peers, fans and performers. The author follows Carole, Moira and Edward who were members of the original Dusty Springfield fan club, who share their memorabilia and recollections, along with their Dusty-centered relationships, and who still contribute to the Dusty Springfield bulletin today. A chapter for the true anorak.

We get more dissection of Dusty’s self-invention from her solo career in 1963, when press coverage was intense.  The idea that Dusty had transformed herself through sheer force of will from drab tomboy schoolgirl to glamorous international pop star was a seductive one for fans and journalists alike. However, by the end of the 60s the author argues that journalists had reversed the dynamic and taken charge of the on-going discourse on Dusty’s identity. This led to her running off to California for a new life, but in effect meant the end of her five years at the top. The next 20 years, as far as I can make out, were spent in debauchery and relative obscurity. She ruined her voice through too much smoking and drinking, only to be rescued by the Pet Shop Boys in the 90s for a slight revival of her lost career, before contracting breast cancer and dying in 1999 at the age of 59.  A tragic end to a tragic life then.

As a lifelong fan myself, I’m much more interested in the post-60s Dusty to which the author devotes just twenty lines on page 159. It’s too late and not enough and doesn’t explain the perceived suddenness of her demise. How can you be so brilliant for a short intense period and then go to pieces? She must have cracked under the pressure; the split personality; the living in public denial over her sexuality and her camp sensibilities. Why did no one help her? Why doesn’t the author tell us more about this period?

I remain in awe of this book, though. No stone is left unturned as far as the combination of Dusty and the mid-60s are concerned, which is – after all – the objective of the book.  However, it’s way too intellectual for me and over-analyses everything to the point of repetitiveness. It lacks love and it lacks humour, but for the Dusty-obsessed fan it remains an essential part of his or her archive: a holy shrine to Saint Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien.

Oxford University Press. 2009. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0195329438.  240pp.

6 comments on “Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods ~ by Annie J Randall

  1. Annie J. Randall
    May 12, 2009

    Dear Jay,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful review of my book. I hope you don’t mind me responding to one point you made toward the end: “it lacks love and it lacks humour.”

    Ouch! I tried very hard to fight against the academic pose of “objectivity” (is there such a thing, really?) and hoped that I’d conveyed to the reader that yes, I’m an academic, but I’m also a huge Dusty fan (several reviewers have said the same thing, by the way). Evidently, I didn’t succeed in getting across that I do indeed love Dusty and her music. That’s why I spent six years writing the book!

    As for the humour, I thought there were quite a few moments in the book, but the academic prose may have stepped on my punch lines, unfortunately. I thought the bit about Mommie Dearest on p. 129 and the line about bacon and donuts on p. 138 were, for example, pretty funny. At least I was laughing when I wrote those lines!

    For my next book or article on Dusty, I will take another crack at conveying love and humour as I think you’re absolutely right: it’s important for academic writers to let readers know that they share the true fan’s admiration and love of the artist and their music in addition to having a scholarly interest in the artist’s work.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write about Dusty!

    Sincerely,

    Annie

  2. Jackie
    May 12, 2009

    For all of its flaws, this still sounds like an intriguing book. I would argue that the extensive details is proof of love and/or obsession, that’s a key element of such devotion. Perhaps there isn’t much about the post-60s Dusty because there is so little info available?
    I hadn’t realized there was so much racial conflict about her music, it was simply enjoyable & I was pleased when the Pet Shop Boys introduced her to a new generation. It was great to hear that voice again.
    Thanks for the humorous scrutiny of a book & subject the reviewer is obviously quite familiar with. Thoroughly done & with the trademark Benedict twinkle.

  3. Elaine Simpson-Long
    May 13, 2009

    I was a huge Dusty fan and used to spend hours in my bedroom miming to her records, in front of the mirror. The daft things you do as a teenager…

    I had the arm gestures and flick of the wrist off to a T I can tell you. I love all her music but my most favourite track of all is Son of a Preacher Man. It is timeless and every time I hear it or play it, I am back to my teenage days. This sounds a totally fascinating book

  4. Moira
    May 13, 2009

    You know, I hadn’t actually realized (mostly because I’ve never thought about it) that Dusty Springfield’s reputation mainly centres around so few years in the Sixties. I suppose it’s because I’ve known her songs so well and so long that they’re part of my mental luggage and have been with me most of my life.

    But much as I loved – and love – her voice, I always felt – even when young and impressionable – that all that framing around was unnecessary. With a voice like that, all she needed to do was just stand there and sing … and for that reason I’ve always preferred listening to her to watching her.

    Of all of her songs, my favourite has always been ‘Going Back’ … Gerry Goffin and Carole King, I think? A magical meeting of singer and song.

    As far as an academic treatment of her life and works is concerned – I’m in two minds. The cynical part of me feels that she was, after all, just a pop singer and that in over-intellectualizing and over-analyzing her and her work you’re in danger of destroying the essence of what made her so special. Real artistic talent is in many ways an intangible and personal thing and if you put it under a microscope it’s likely to disappear completely – but another part admires and understands that sort of dedication and obsession, which I can be a little guilty of myself …

    Not a book for the casually interest lay reader, from the sounds of it … but probably destined to become the Bible for the true believer.

    Great review, Jay. Thank you.

    And Annie – lovely to see you here and to have your thoughts on the review.

  5. H J Weiss
    May 15, 2009

    That’s quite a review, and it sounds like quite a book too. I agree with Moira. Dusty was a great singer who didn’t need all the dramatic stuff. And what a shame that no-one was prepared or ready or able to help. What a sad end for a talented woman.

  6. Pingback: Pimp: The Story of My Life ~ by Iceberg Slim « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2009 by in Entries by Jay, Non-fiction: biography and tagged , , , , .

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