Sunday, 5 January 2014

The strange, sweet, keening sound of Don and Phil’s harmonies will forever remain one of popular music’s true glories

You’ll have heard the sad news that Phil Everly has died, aged 71. He was the fair-haired brother with the psychotic eyes who sang the high parts on Everly Brothers records (generally a third above Phil, for musicologists). I immediately thought of their 1960 Transatlantic No.1 hit, “Cathy’s Clown”, which I first heard on Radio Luxembourg in my bedroom (you had to hold the bare wires at the end of the aerial to get a decent reception). I can still remember being transfixed by the piercing, chiming, descending harmonies of the thrice-repeated chorus:
Don’t want your love any more
Don’t want your kisses, that’s for sure
I die each time
I hear this sound
Here he comes
That’s Cathy’s Clown
Those keening voices, the feeling of abject humiliation and the references to death made it all seem very mysterious (as a lot of things do when you’re seven): apart from “Heartbreak Hotel”, I’m pretty sure I’d never previously encountered such drama in a song, and, with the exception of two Phil Spector-produced tracks -  “River Deep and Mountain High” and “Bells of St. Mary’s” -  didn’t encounter anything comparable until I became aware of classical music.

The subsequent British Invasion washed away most of the safe, vapid, clean-cut creeps the US music industry manufactured to replace early rock 'n' rollers who gave the impression that their mere gaze could impregnate a pubescent girl at 40 paces. All the ghastly Bobbies and Frankies - and practically every other neatly-pompadoured teenage American pseudo-singer – fell by the wayside. But Don and Phil were so original, so rootsy and so talented – and were so firmly ensconsed in the affections of British record-buyers in particular - that they managed to notch up four  post-Beatles hits before bidding the singles charts a permanent farewell. Three of those records - “The Price of Love”, “The Ferris Wheel” and “Love Is Strange” – were among the best they ever cut: their harmony singing reached new heights. Just listen to them sing the lines "...It wasn’t on these rides I lost my girl/Way up high is where I lost her/On the Ferris Wheel":

On their penultimate hit, the self-penned stomper, “The Price of Love”, the harmonies reach new levels of weirdness and desperation:

It was many years later that I finally got around to buying the somewhat obscure 1958 acoustic album that fully revealed the rich folk music tradition of “the old, weird America” that infused The Everly Brothers’ work. It was called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, the title acting as a homage to their father, Ike Everly, a Kentucky coal-miner who became one of American folk and country music’s most influential guitarists (Chet Atkins and Merle Travis both credited Ike with originating the style that became known as Travis-picking) – you can catch Everly Senior strutting his stuff on an old Johnny Cash Show:

I’ve just read a Telegraph obituary of Phil in which the Everlys’ harmonies are described as “breezy” – yeah, about as breezy as a pair of wolves howling in unison at the moon, as you can hear in the murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden”:

So long, Phil – and thank you.


    Sadly - and it pains me to say it - it is only the Guardian that has writers who know enough about popular music to be worth reading, and they tend to have weird taste. Like you, I thought the Telegraph totally missed the point in their cuttings job.

    Very few have got round to mentioning the later period Everlys, including two albums produced by Dave Edmunds. The link above gives his insight into what producing them was like and their rather complex relationship, which itself, without wishing to overdo the cod psychology, was probably a factor in the way they sang together.

    On a point of detail, I think Don did chart again, but as it was in a ballad with Cliff Pilchard maybe we had better leave well alone.

    1. Fascinating article by the Welsh maestro! Thank you. What a shame they didn't record the bouncy "Here Comes the Weekend". Sounds like D&P needed some ruthless A&R type ordering them what to record - but it must be hard to push legends around.

      I think the brother who had the hit with Sir Clifford was in fact the deceased Phil - it was called "She Means Nothing To Me". I've just listened to it. Sounds a bit like Rockpile on their blandest day ever.