Monday, October 3

Hello Big Man (1983)

After Torch, it was hard to predict which musical direction Carly Simon would go in. Over the previous three albums, she had moved through a wider range of musical genres than most artists cover in their entire career. In a rare television interview in 1981,  she answered a question on this point by saying, 'The next album I do is likely to be even more of a risk than this one', adding, 'I could see myself doing an album of Irish drinking songs from the 15th century!' She was kidding, of course, but the joke highlighted just how wide the possibilities might be. 

In the Summer of 1982, a brief glimpse of what the future might hold came with her collaboration with Chic on the hypnotic dance tune "Why". It's lyrics (You say you'll come back again some day/But darlin' here's what I say/la-di-da-di-da, la-di-da-di-da) had an attitude familiar to anyone who had heard "You're So Vain" and, on the single's picture sleeve, she struck an Amazonian jungle-woman pose that was characteristically direct in its sexual confidence. However, it was Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers who wrote, produced and played on the song, and, while the voice itself was unmistakably Carly's, her phrasing was cut to the cloth of the well known Chic sound. Even if it did become a huge hit in Europe, "Why" was obviously not her next step forward.

Meanwhile, her record company was pressing her to make an album with a big-name producer, and she chose Glyn Johns, who had previously worked with the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading and many others. A start was made at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, but the collaboration didn't work out, and the new album was delayed while she returned to recording in New York and with her previous collaborator, Mike Manieri. In fact, the new album did not appear until September 1983, a full two years after Torch. At the time, this was an inordinately long gap to leave between albums, and fans could only wonder how ambitious and challenging her new work would be. Yet even the briefest glimpse of the cover of Hello Big Man would have reassured her audience that, whatever musical direction she may have gone in, her own distinctive personality was shining through. 

The album's color was one element of its reassuring familiarity. The light pink backdrop recalled her first album, released twelve years earlier, and so suggested that whatever surprises this new album may bring, it would demonstrate a degree of continuity with her previous work. The close-up photograph and direct to-the-camera gaze recalled earlier covers, too, and indicated that her trademark intimacy and emotional honesty continued unabated here. The grainy quality to the cover photograph (an added effect, as we can see from another photo from the same session, below) continued a career-long theme of accentuating both her availability and her exclusivity: we can get this close - looking right into her eyes - but only with a telephoto lens. Like the cover of No Secrets, there is a paparazzi feeling to this shot, as though she has been caught suddenly and in motion. But the cover of Hello Big Man is so close-up and apparently so spontaneous that it raises as many questions as it answers.  Has she really been caught unaware, outdoors and with a scarf around her neck, or is this a carefully constructed studio shot? Is she in mid-expression and about to smile? And is that a twinkle or a slight tear in her right eye? 

Lynn Kohlman was behind the camera. Kohlman had been a model in the 1970s and then become a successful fashion photographer in the '80s, and so some of the cover's stylish sophistication is surely attributable to her influence. Carly looks every inch the chic pop icon here, as surely as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor did when rendered by Andy Warhol, but the warmth and intelligence apparent in her face indicates that this icon actually lives and breathes and creates. The album's design also enhances its stylishness and contemporaneity. The jagged framing is redolent of a photographer's contact sheet, and suggests that this is just one frame from hundreds that could be chosen. And the lettering is so low key as to speak volumes. There is no need to shout her name in huge letters - every one recognises her - and the seemingly risque title is more powerful (and certainly more tasteful) for being rendered in this diminutive manner.

The cover's combination of familiar elements and a cutting edge, early '80s vibe was an appropriate representation of the album's music. On the one hand, Hello Big Man offered a return to the school of introspective, romantic, folk-inflected songwriting that Carly had long been known for. Although they have a bittersweet quality, informed by greater maturity and experience, the songs "It Happens Every Day", "Orpheus", "Damn, You Get to Me" and "You Don't Feel the Same" would have been at home on an earlier, acoustically based albums such as Anticipation. The title song is more upbeat, but its detailed storyline also makes it seem like a return to past form rather than a foray into a new musical frontier. 
On the other hand, Hello Big Man was full of surprises, including a cover of the Bob Marley classic "Is This Love", with the superstar reggae rythym section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare providing backup.  If this sounds an unlikely match, the results cannot be argued with: Sly and Robbie's strong underpinning of bass and drums allows her voice to float effortlessly over the lilting melody. They also co-wrote and played on the deceptively easy-going "Such a Good Boy", which bounces along playfully until reaching its surprise ending. (If the Grammies gave out awards for "Best O. Henry Ending in Song", she would surely win every year.) The reggae backing on "Floundering" is also very effective, providing an ironic counterpoint to the song's deconstruction of a metropolitan, middle-class self-help addict. Her observations on the culture of therapy - She's looking for a cure/She does not know exactly what for - are as incisive as those she makes about romantic relationships. It is "Menemsha", though, that takes the album's prize for the most ambitious and original song - musically and lyrically - as it transplants West Indies rythyms and sensuality to Martha's Vineyard, in a chanty, nostalgic reverie that is all at once full of joy and sadness. 
"You Know What to Do" was the big production number, and it was clearly designed to have as contemporary a sound as any record released in 1983, with Andy Summers (from the Police) on electric guitar, a catchy synthesizer riff overlaid with some other-worldly, echoey background vocals, and a bass line that hooks the listener in the first five seconds. If the production is a bit generic, her smoky, charged vocal makes this one of her most compelling songs. 

The accompanying promotional video - her first dramatic rather than performance video - was shot like a voyeuristic Hitchcock thriller, and it had a high profile on MTV. Its opening shots were arresting to say the least: you'd have to go back to the Bond film Dr No (1963), and Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a bikini, to find a swim suit scene that prompted so many jaws to drop in wonderment. But the song itself was too sexually frank for top 40 radio. It went nowhere fast on the charts and, although the album enjoyed great reviews, it never took off commercially either. 

1983 was the year of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, who made their respective debuts that same Autumn with the youthful, carefree hits "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Holiday". In these very early days of their careers, they projected images of frivolity and childishness; they were 'girls' and 'boy-toys' rather than adult women or serious musicians. This was not the time, then, for sophisticated and adventurous pop music, nor for women of stature and intelligence. Thus, even an engaging and intriguing cover could not save Hello Big Man from the outgoing tide of popular culture. Nevertheless, the album remains a highlight of Carly's oeuvre, and a mark of her own ability to explore the streams and currents of pop music without becoming stuck in its shallows.

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