Robert Palmer – You Are In My System
It’s pretty clear I’m definitely ‘one of them’. And by ‘one of them’ I mean I have a natural tendency to prefer female voices when it comes to my favourite artists and singers. From the soaring, country-heartbreak of Trisha Yearwood and Patsy Cline, or the power pop of Kelly Clarkson to the unique and otherworldly qualities to be found in the voices of Kate Bush, Tracey Thorn and Dusty Springfield, I’m a sucker for the ladies. But when I’m asked, if I had to choose one male singer, I always say the late Robert Palmer.
For me, Palmer was a rare breed of male vocalist who used his voice as an instrument. Rather than his voice merely sitting on top of the track, following the melody of the song, his vocal was infused into the production, as vital as the rhythm section and key to the overall impact of whatever he was singing. Whether it was the guttural yelps and horny grunts that drive his version of Some Guys Have All the Luck or the strangled ‘Hup’ which kicks Addicted to Love into its sleazy swagger, there’s always more than just his velvet-y croon.
Palmer’s other great strength was his ability to stay one step ahead of the curve. While it didn’t always deliver commercial success, it set him apart as a true pioneer. His early adoption of synthesisers and a team-up with Gary Numan on the Clues album and its subsequent singles, Johnny and Mary and Looking for Clues, put him right at the front of the electronic pack in 1980 and he never felt the need to tie himself to any one genre for too long. While his fall-back position was a Sinatra-esque croon, as much as Prince or Michael Jackson, Palmer’s career saw him moving effortlessly from rock and pop to reggae and soul, and everything in between.
My all time favourite Robert Palmer song is 1983’s You Are In My System. A perfect example of his love for the unexpected cover version – see also his versions of Cherrelle’s I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On, Gary Numan’s I Dream Of Wires and Kool and the Gang’s You Can Have It (Take My Heart) – here he tackles The System’s underground electro-pop hit from the previous year. The song was a last minute addition to the album, Pride, after Palmer heard the track playing in a club before heading back from the Bahamas based recording sessions. In some respects, Palmer doesn’t change much of the overall sound from the original, actually persuading one half of The System, David Frank, to play on his version of the song. Palmer’s vocal adds an urgency to the original track’s more laidback, funky groove and the bubbling electronics and state-of-the-art keyboard sounds (courtesy of Rupert Hines) makes the record sound fantastically fresh and positively futuristic – isn’t this the electro-clash pop sound which would begin to dominate the pop charts in the early 2000s and is still going strong today?
Ironically Palmer chose to re-record his vocal for You Are In My System for its inclusion on his greatest hits package, Addictions: Volume 2 in 1992. While it’s hard to imagine what he felt was wrong with the original, we live in a world where someone said, ‘Okay, if you really think you have to’, when Kate Bush said she wanted to have another crack at the vocals on Wuthering Heights – her signature record and one of the greatest pop songs ever made. Singers be crazy man!
Entered chart: 26/03/1983
Chart peak: 53
Weeks on chart: 6
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’d love to hear Will Young push the electronic sound he and Richard X toyed with on the Echoes album one or two notches harder. This would be a pretty good jump-off point for that project.