Today’s POP RESCUE is the 1989 26th studio album (!!) Stronger by the Peter Pan of Pop, Cliff Richard, but was this album a bold move, or a bit weak? Read on…
This 12 track album bursts open with the snare drum intro of fourth and final single Stronger Than That. This song is really up-beat and pop sounding, including ‘woah-oh oh-oh-oh‘ vocals that were all the rage between about 1989-1991. The beat is hard, and like the bass it’s ever present, as guitar roars in the background. Even the video is filled with black-clad formation dancers as if it’s some funky Janet Jackson pop song. This is Cliff taking a wedge of the late 80’s pop pie, and he does it perfectly. His vocals feel perfectly at home here and delivered with great ease. The song itself is musically and vocally catchy, and understandably gave him a hit, albeit a bit of a moderate one at #14 (it deserved higher).
This is followed by Who’s In Love, with a gentle mid-tempo beat as some mysterious synths lead us into the verse. Cliff’s vocals are soft here, and some Dire Straits-esque guitar riffs occasionally pitch in the background. It’s a quite nice simple little light pop song, although definitely has an earlier 80’s pop sound to it.
Up next is the lead single, The Best Of Me – a somewhat breathy ballad that’s laced with piano, strings, and gentle keyboards that sit perfectly alongside his soulful sad vocals. Cliff gets to show off his vocal range here. Despite starting this new album’s single run with a ballad, it makes sense as it came just 6 months after his 1988 Christmas #1 Mistletoe and Wine, and probably acted as a bit of a career bridge between that and the rest of the fresh and contemporary sounding singles here. Either way, he scored a #2 hit UK single out of it.
Clear Blue Skies arrive, bringing us a chugging guitar led rhythm. There’s a part of this song that sounds a bit like this song could have been seamlessly sung by David Hasselhoff instead. The verses are simple, with a fairly repetitive set of lyrics loaded with vocal harmonies, over that chugging pop-rock guitar sound. Not the most inspiring track so far.
Lean On You is up next – the third single from the album. There’s minimal percussive beats here after the heavier intro steps aside. Cliff’s vocals are delicate and soft here and fit perfectly against the minimal beats and tinkling keyboards and synthscapes. Once it gets going, the track gets stronger, throwing in some electric guitar – aided by its solo before the song falls back to simplicity. It seems odd that this was a single, but unsurprisingly it stumbled a bit in the charts – stalling at #17 and being the least successful single from the album.
This is followed by Keep Me Warm. Another chugging chord sequence opens this song, before it builds nicely for the chorus. This aptly warms up this song perfectly as it builds momentum – throwing in acoustic guitars, more backing vocals and percussion towards the end. Cliff’s vocals are soulful again, and get plenty of time and space to show their range and strength. It’s another simple song and works really well.
Next up is I Just Don’t Have The Heart, which is undoubtedly a Stock/Aitken/Waterman song from the first 2 seconds. Backing vocalists compliment his bright pop vocals well, and the song oozes a bouncy positive feeling. There’s plenty of house piano here and funky new vocal effects. It reminds me a lot of You Can Depend On Me – one of the S/A/W album tracks from Jason Donovan’s debut Ten Good Reasons from the same year. The song quite rightly gave him a huge #3 UK hit single.
Joanna follows this, sounding fairly late-70s/early-80s and even musically a little like the For Your Eyes Only Bond Theme in the chorus. Cliff’s vocals are warm here, and he’s backed by echoey percussion, backing vocals, gentle guitars and strings over an 80s beat. The song even throws in Obligatory 80s Saxophone to help build the song up to that final push.
Tempo is up for Everybody Knows, which at first reminded me of Pet Shop Boys meets A-ha in the intro (and later the chorus). The track is pretty simple during the verse, with Cliff singing over a synth and pop beat. A guitar joins in towards the mid-section. I think that this could easily have been a single, and might have fared better in 1989 than Lean On You did given the state of the charts at the time. The song fades out with beats and synths all of a sudden, again sounding like some early Pet Shop Boys tracks.
Forever You Will Be Mine follows this. There’s an almost Jamaican feel to this song, but it manages to retain a gentle pop sound too. There’s lots of breathiness in the backing vocals, and Cliff as his vocals shine again as they effortlessly tackle the chorus and verses. A tinkling synth helps to keep the simple music track interesting, but the bass and percussive beats really hold this song together.
Penultimate track Better Day opens with a flurry of hi-hats and cymbals before a racing snare-led beat joins electric guitars as it races into the song. Cliff’s vocals sound deeper and stronger here than in some of the previous tracks. This feels like a great little 80s pop-rock guitar-led song. Again, it probably could easily have been a hit single for him.
The album closes with Share A Dream, which has a slight reggae feel to it – probably because (weirdly) it was produced for Cliff by Aswad. Lyrics include ‘hey children of the world, is the dream we’re dreaming so absurd?‘, as the song clearly means to deliver a message: ‘we could make a stand here and now of higher love‘ he goes on to add, before asking for trust and peace, as electric guitar swaggers around in the background and backing vocalists sing ‘oh yeah e yeah e yeah‘. This song feels a bit like pure Christian pop camembert – vocally asks for lots, musically leaves you empty.
Where is Cliff Richard now?
Cliff’s success with this album certainly boosted his career in the late 1980s and perhaps helped him to continue to prove his relevance as a modern diverse musical performer. He won the BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution in 1989. The 1990s saw him continue to release albums and run extensive tour.
With an ageing fan base, his albums tended to lean towards the Christmas time market – allowing him to repeatedly vie for the UK Christmas Number One, which he achieved (Saviour’s Day, Millennium Prayer) or came close (Santa’s List, 21st Century Christmas) to on many occasions until the advent of X Factor and Pop Idol winners.
His 35 year tradition of calendars has given him the biggest selling calendar title for many consecutive years, and his success has saw him release his 100th album in 2013.
However, he has been dogged by tabloid allegations that have damaged his career in more recent years. Despite these, his fan base appears to have remained loyal. This tabloid hounding in the UK, perhaps inspired him to begin performing on cruise ships instead, although he became a citizen of Barbados in 2010.
His most recently charting single was a re-charting of I Still Believe In You in August 2014, probably a note between him and his loyal fan base.
His most recently charting album was one of his many career retrospectives – 75 At 75, released in 2015 to coincide with his 55th year in music, and 75th birthday.
Cliff Richard ‘Stronger’ album rating:
Over all, this is a great pop album. Considering that this was Cliff Richard turning 50yrs old, he really does embrace and succeed with some of the high-paced, energetic pop songs (and dance routines), proving that he really is the Peter Pan of Pop.
Whilst the album manages to do pop very well, I wonder what might have happened if Cliff had worked with S/A/W for a whole album?
- POP RESCUE 2016 RATING: 4 / 5
- 1989 UK CHART PEAK: #7, certified Platinum.
- POP RESCUE COST: £1.45 from a Sue Ryder shop.