Rules, they say, are made to be broken. My self-imposed timeline for this blog is supposed to start at 1963 but this week I’ve chosen to go back a little further. My Track of the Week is a song that caught my attention before I realised that an indelible streak of music flows in my veins. The original was composed and sung by the Frenchman, Gilbert Bécaud, and it was called Et Maintenant. But the recording I heard in 1962 was an English version sung by Shirley Bassey, the Welsh singer of pop standards and show tunes.
Shirley Bassey is best known for her powerful renditions of the theme tunes from the James Bond movies Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker. In the U.S. she is something of a one-hit wonder, Goldfinger being her only single to break the top 40 in the Billboard Hot 100. Her live shows there, though, regularly sold out and over here in the UK she was one of the most popular female vocalists of the last half of the 20th century.
Back in 1962 most popular music fell into the easy listening bins in record shops, a genre that roused unvoiced contempt in the music appreciation section of the Crotchety Lad’s immature brain. What Now My Love could easily be dismissed as just another of those songs for the hotel lobby, a backdrop for check-ins and rendezvous, a mood-maker designed to dispel anxiety and add a little humanity to the mechanical operation of the robot they call the hotel clerk. It has been recorded by over 150 different artists and almost all the names I recognise are those old-contemptible easy listening crooners and their orchestras. And that’s odd because there’s nothing at all ‘easy’ about this song.
The lyrics of What Now My Love read like a suicide note. Here is a woman who has lost everything she held dear. Her love has left her and with him went all her hopes and dreams. Her world has been turned upside down; her life has no meaning any more; she has been stripped of her heart and soul. No-one would care if she should die. That’s hardly the message a hotel manager would want to be giving his guests.
Apart from the Shirley Bassey version all the covers I have heard use an instrumental arrangement more suited to the hotel lobby (or, in some cases, the hotel lift) than the high drama of a woman about to throw herself off a lofty parapet. It’s as if the scene is too starkly terrifying to show directly; we must avert our eyes, looking on only in Perseus’ reflective shield lest we become petrified victims ourselves. In that hotel entrance the TV is showing a film, a tacky drama in which a distraught woman teeters on the brink. But we just know a superhero will swoop down to save her – just after the advertising break – because it’s that kind of movie.
In contrast to all those ordinary covers that tell the story from a safe distance and filtered through a camera lens Shirley Bassey stands right there in that lobby and assails us with such power and emotion that we are rooted to the spot, turned to stone by Medusa’s evil stare.
What now my love?
Now that you’ve left me.
How can I live through another day?
As she sings the ominous rhythm of the bolero marches on towards the final tragic climax.
What now my love?
Now there is nothing.
Only my last goodbye.
And, with that, the orchestra builds to a thunderous crescendo, those final words rip the heavens apart and the song ends with a sickening crash of drums and cymbals. No good samaritan talked her down. No superhero saved her. Her spirit was already broken and now her body is, too.
There are decent versions of this song by Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand and Roy Orbison, to mention just three, but nobody does it like Dame Shirley Bassey. The power and passion of her voice caught the imagination of the young Crotchety Man in 1962 and I have never forgotten it. That’s reason enough to break an arbitrary cut-off rule.