Annie Lennox – Pavement Cracks
Nowadays we live in a rather lawless society – in terms of music at least – and there’s a battle raging right now to determine the manner of its consumption in future years – and currently all signs point to streaming becoming the eventual victor. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, are you? Even using the word consumption sticks in my throat, as it reduces pop to little more than a product. And then I think about how streaming begins to take away even its product status, turning it into something you only rent. For me, owning a piece of music was a physical marker of loving something – and while I’ve become used to a new definition of ownership through iTunes, I still miss the sensation of having something to alphabetise on a shelf.
There’s no doubting things had to change – you only have to look back at the 90s to see that. The UK chart became the land of the First Week Peak, where the majority of singles would be in decline almost from the moment they were released. Partially a result of early radio play building up demand and multiple CD formats, it created a situation where bands with particularly active fanbases would rush out on a Monday to scoop up every version, ensuring a high chart position the following Sunday – but it also guaranteed a precipitous fall the very next week. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was A Red Letter Day by Pet Shop Boys. It entered the UK chart at no.9 in March 1997 – something of a result considering its predecessor Single-Bilingual only made no.14. I listened to the chart the next Sunday afternoon to see how far it would fall, and by the time the countdown reached the middle of the top 20 I was seriously impressed – it looked like a proper hit! It didn’t even enter my head that it might drop out of the top 40 altogether in only its second week. But that’s exactly what happened – A Red Letter Day had plummeted to no.42 in just seven days. Something was eventually going to have to give, and of course with the advent of downloads, it did.
So now we live in a world where people discover music at a slower pace and songs once again spend time climbing the chart, and that’s lovely. But I tend to feel things have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction, to the point where records are spending more than a year in the top 40 and someone like Sam Smith can take up 10% of the chart for weeks at a time. With release dates these days being effectively meaningless and the music lover theoretically more in control than ever before, now should be the time for new artists to break through – but it seems harder than ever. Sigh.
The digital age has also been particularly hard on what we now have to call “heritage” acts, i.e.) anyone who’s been around for more than five minutes. U2 and Madonna have been hit particularly hard in recent years, though of course you do have to factor in the length of their careers, natural ebb and flow and a perceived dip in tune quality as well. The same can be said for Annie Lennox, who was one of the first artists to try and tackle the problem, albeit in a typically contrary way.
In 2003 Lennox returned from an eight year break with Bare, her first album of self-penned material since 1992’s Diva. A covers album, Medusa, had kept the bed warm in the intervening years, but as we all secretly know, covers albums don’t really count. Much was made of Bare being a stripped-back, artifice-free statement of unflinching honesty (Belinda Carlisle had attempted a similar thing with 1993’s Real), and it was all of these things – but primarily it was a really good album of ace pop tunes, the best of which was the Stephen Lipson-produced Pavement Cracks.
I was either extremely hormonal when I first heard Pavement Cracks or it is just that good – but it made me cry and cry and cry, and I listened to it endlessly. It’s perhaps the best example in pop of bleakness being uplifting. The lyric “The city streets are wet again with rain / But I’m walking just the same / Skies turn to the usual grey / When you turn to face the day” is thoroughly depressing on the face of it, but one line, sung with such beautiful clarity, turns it all around: “Love don’t show up in the pavement cracks” – what a reminder to just look up now and again. I know several people who struggle to make an emotional connection to Annie Lennox, but I’ve always found an extraordinary amount of warmth just below that granite exterior, and never more so than on this song.
Now, clearly a lot of discussions took place at BMG around how to market Bare; someone clearly realised that the chart landscape had changed massively since Annie had last graced the top ten in 1995, and if you look at the top 40 during the week of its release you’ll find it’s a remarkably youthful one – and Dannii Minogue is just about the longest serving hitmaker in there. I suspect much thought was given to whether a poorly-performing single might damage the commercial prospects for the album, and in the end the bold decision was taken to adopt a strategy that had been common in the U.S. for some years – release a song to radio as “promotional” but not make it physically available in its own right, a ruse I like to refer to as the Torn Supremacy: Natalie Imbruglia‘s mega-hit spent eleven weeks atop the Billboard airplay chart and propelled its parent album to huge American sales, but it eventually made the Hot 100 only when the rules were changed to allow radio-only hits onto the countdown.
Did it work here? Well, Ken Bruce played it a lot on Radio 2, and the album made no.3 and hung around for 17 weeks, so it didn’t not work. But it certainly wasn’t a triumph, and I still get a bit of a pang when I look through the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and Albums and don’t see Pavement Cracks in there.
The point I’m making with this song is that for me it represents the beginning of the singles chart’s diminishment as a genuine reflection of the popularity of songs – it was one of the first times where it was deemed unnecessary as a marketing tool. And while that particular strategy didn’t pay off (in much the same way that the On Air On Sale experiment didn’t work), it signalled that an inevitable change was coming, to the point where today you can have a song like I Can Change by Brandon Flowers which everyone seems to love, is commercially available and is all over the radio, yet it probably won’t ever see the inside of the top 40. It feels in almost every way like a hit, except for the one in which success is still measured by – but it also feels like it doesn’t matter now, which I think – old-fashioned as I am – is a shame. In some ways these Pavement Cracks have now become enormous fissures for amazing pop to fall through. Still, it gives us plenty to talk about here, right?
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Speaking of Natalie Imbruglia…