An alternative voice

September 7, 2007

Long an icon of popular music, Dusty Springfield is now attracting academic attention for her broader cultural import. Clive Bloom gets into the groove.

Myra Hindley looked like her, Amy Winehouse borrowed her mascara, but with her trademark bouffant hair and kohl-black eyes Dusty Springfield - born plain Mary O'Brien - was a one-off who became the British equivalent of Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick. Martha Reeves credited her with paving the way for Motown in the UK. Little did she suspect when she died in 1999 (on the day she was to receive the OBE) the extent to which she would go on to stand for a postmodern sensibility that couldn't even have been dreamt about when she sang I Only Want to Be with You or Son of a Preacher Man .

Of late, Dusty's music and presence have made a comeback in the person of Tamsin Carroll, the star of Dusty: The Musical , a huge hit in Australia, where the show sold to half a million punters who queued to watch an uncanny impersonation and listen to all the hits. Despite its success Down Under, the show has been embroiled in financial problems preventing it reaching the West End, where presumably it would have taken its place beside Buddy: The Musical, Mamma Mia! (Abba: the Musical) and We Will Rock You (Queen: The Musical). Take That: The Musical is on its way. But perhaps we have had enough of pop music show adaptations, and perhaps that's the way Dusty would have preferred it. A Hollywood blockbuster based on the life and times of the "original pop diva" (as Dusty: The Musical bills her) was to be made starring Kristen Chenoweth, but that too seems, at least for the moment, to have bitten the Californian dust.

Well, at least there's always Dusty Day to keep fans happy. This is celebrated on April 16, the anniversary of her birthday, and was held in London for the first time this year. It attracted straights as well as gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, all of a certain age, who could let down whatever hair they had left, enjoy some indulgent dressing-up, exchange anecdotes, records and memorabilia or simply chew the fat.

One of these devoted fans is Laurie Cole, who is working on a book exploring Dusty's significance for music, popular culture and gender. The work will explore her not merely as a person but as a shifting signifier: "Dusty" as an important symbolic figure for the queer community as well as an iconic bridge to the black soul music of America in the early Sixties.

Cole first heard Dusty's husky voice while listening to Radio Luxembourg in 1962. The song was Island of Dreams by the folksy trio The Springfields, a song that might have been sung by Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson or even Nina and Frederick, but when Dusty sang the solo it was love at first listen.

Here was an authentic voice of soul, something Cole had been searching for since hearing The Drifters in 1958. And here it was in a home-grown singer of folk music and pop jingles. It was the sound of British music finding a voice that it could finally export back across the Atlantic. The days of those 1950s American wannabes would finally be over.

It was the search for that black soul sound that would motivate a whole generation and get the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started. It was the sound of something wholly new, liberating and authentic, and it was the first step in linking black and white culture in an understanding that helped break the colour bar both here and in the US.

Dusty faded in the Seventies and retired, but when she first heard the Pet Shop Boys' West End Girls in 1986 on her car radio she nearly "drove off the motorway". And it was this that made her agree to work with the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, whose own obsession had given him the courage to tempt an older, more mature but still cantankerous Dusty out of retirement.

The song What Have I Done to Deserve This? would push her back into the limelight in 1987 and restart her career, something for which she remained grateful ever afterwards.

The look and the stage presence were still there.

"She was showbiz and she was theatrical," Cole reminisces, but the importance she has for the gay community was always understated. "She was never camp or ironic as people want things to be nowadays."

Indeed, the thing about Dusty was that she was as mainstream as Kathy Kirby, Max Bygraves or Morecambe and Wise and often appeared as a guest artist or as the host of her own shows with old stagers such as Andy Williams.

It was her "funny little voice" (as Dusty described it) that was the key, in some peculiar unstated way, to her "undermining the system" and to a transgressive bisexuality that transmitted itself in code to those who could follow the plot, much as Kenneth Williams used Polari (a gay slang) on Round the Horne . Dusty could appeal to families and marginal culture all at once.

Cole's book will join the small but significant body of serious works dealing with pop music and culture. Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Jon Savage, Julie Burchill and Ian MacDonald (whose study of the Beatles remains a classic) complete a rather exclusive club of those for whom rock music and vinyl culture are more than just a throwaway experience. Andrew Blake at the University of East London is one of the very few academics willing to cover the territory and put up with the derisive flak. His new history of rock and its changing technologies, Popular Music: The Age of Multimedia , is out this month.

Pop music is now more than 50 years old, a rich source of social, ethnic, cultural and musical information - and, above all, lived historical memories. This is no excuse for nostalgia, however, for a re-evaluation of the past 50 years using pop music as a basis is long overdue. There has been much work on fans and fandom, but little on the actual style and aesthetics surrounding rock stars and their music. It's virtually virgin territory, so get the gramophone out and wipe down the 45s - Dusty's back in town.

Clive Bloom is emeritus professor at Middlesex University and is currently working on Haunted Castle: Adventures in the Gothic (Continuum).

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