Saturday, 12 April 2014

7 inch single collection: Roy Orbison - Drifting Away

The Big 'O' on the comeback trail:


A-side: Drifting Away
B-Side: Under Suspicion
(Monument 1977)

Many exciting and new things were happening in the musical world in 1977 - things like disco and punk exploding, and the early sounds of hip hop starting to emerge. What wasn't happening was a chart career for Roy Orbison. An early pioneer of rock 'n' roll - yet separate from all the rockers, hellraisers, and firebrands because of his drift into the dramatic (and sometimes melodramatic) big ballad. A man with a pure angelic voice, singing big heartfelt emotional songs really wasn't on the musically agenda in 1977. He was pretty much a has-been, an echo from another generation, a voice for for the easy listening crew. They (and by they I mean the record buying public of the late 70's) simply weren't interested in the Big 'O' any more. They, of course, were wrong.

Drifting Away, may not be quite as good as Pretty Woman, or Only The Lonely, but it's definitely playing in the same league.It starts with no pre-amble, and cuts straight top Roy's marvelous voice, which aches with sadness and pain. It's bound too because this is one of those timeless sad love songs about heartbreak and splitting up. The depth of sorrow is enhanced by a country-style melody and instrumentation (country does sadness better than most other genres).  Drifting Away is to be intimate and yet epic at the same time - a feat that few can accomplish with any sort of grace or style, yet here it feels effortless and natural. Furthermore there is more poignancy as you realise the lyrics act as a metaphor. Not only is Roy drifting away from his love he's also drifting away from his audience - people aren't buying his records like they used to, he's a pillar of old-fashioned steadfastness, when we are all tempted away from him by pulsing electronic repetitive beats or shouty sneering kids with attitude and discordant guitars. His voice quivers as he yearns to not be left behind, and you don't know at that point if he's talking through the narrative of the song, or directly at you the listener. This is truly powerful stuff and all I can think of to say is sorry, sorry Roy we should have listened to you more and not as a collective audience drifted  away from your wonderful songs.

Of course if he was mainly making records like Under Suspicion over on the b-side it's no wonder the audience drifted away. This song has none of the timeless charm of the a-side, in fact it's very attempt to sound contemporary is what immediately dates it. There is late 70's feel to the song, there's a whole heap of horns going off in the background, producing a smooth, if soulless, soft funk atmosphere to the tune. It's not suited to his voice, it's better suited to a soul singer. Roy Orbison was not a soul singer, he was a soulful singer, and anything less than a big song could fall flat and fizzle away. Under Suspicion is nowhere near a big song.

Fortunately Roy Orbison stopped making songs like Under Suspicion, and managed to bring himself back into the public eye, and produce the kind of songs that only he could. That he did it just before he passed away is something of a triumphant heartbreak - not unlike the greatest of his songs.

Next time a poppy duo brighten up the place...

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