Tanita Tikaram – Stop Listening
Strange folksy-pop, sung in a deep, sonorous voice and backed by an oboe was hardly emblematic of the UK music scene in the late 1980s, but somehow Tanita Tikaram scored one of the decade’s best – and most unlikely – top 40 hits with the haunting Twist in My Sobriety.
It remains her best known song, having become something of a standard in the years since, and covered most famously of course by Liza Minnelli on her astonishingly good, Pet Shop Boys-produced album Results.
Interestingly it wasn’t Tanita’s biggest hit: that accolade went to her first single, the atypically jaunty Good Tradition (no.10 in 1988). Both songs were taken from her four million selling debut album Ancient Heart, released when Tanita had only just turned 19 years old. Born of a Malaysian mother and an Indo-Fjian father, her startling looks, distinctive deep voice (which I always find veers thrillingly close to going off pitch, but never does), and her sometimes impenetrable (but lovely) lyrics made her stand out from the pop crowd. The fact that both songs sounded utterly unlike anything else on the radio at the time has only become more startling in the intervening years.
As a UK female solo singer a good half-decade before they became chart staples, Tanita had to put up with intense press scrutiny. She was presented as a rather serious, unsmiling teenager and it wasn’t long before she was labelled ‘the sixth-form Leonard Cohen’, and even more unkindly, the ‘suicidal Suzanne Vega’. Although Tanita was anything but miserable in real life, it was an image she has never really shaken off.
Despite a moderately successful follow up album (The Sweet Keeper), which contained the exquisite Little Sister Leaving Town, her subsequent three albums were very much proof of the law of diminishing returns in terms of chart success and sales. Her releases were really flying well under the radar of the record buying public.
She returned in 1998 with a new image and a new sound. The Cappuccino Songs was an album of sometimes dark sophisti-pop. Its painfully fashionable title (yes, cappuccinos were the height of continental chic in the UK at the time), was another example of Tanita’s new approach. “I’ve discovered yoga”, she declared in an interview to launch the album – which I think says it all.
The standout track was the compelling Stop Listening – a dark pop masterpiece which somehow manages to be both uplifting and melancholy at the same time. It was edited down and released as the first single from the album, and was supported by an equally arresting video. After a startling orchestral start, Tanita’s vocals (the full range of which are shown in the song) are set against a synth and string backing, with acoustic guitar and piano adding to the gorgeous full pop sound. The orchestral build pre-chorus as she sings “It’s on and on and on and on, and on and on and on and on and…” – is a perfect pop moment. And as always her voice is instantly recognisable, warm, husky, and just gorgeous. Stop Listening was unlike anything she has done either before or since.
The song’s lyrics suggest that passion is just as important as calm consideration, and her exclamation of “Stop listening, start calling my name” gets me every time. If you have an aching heart from the damage of a breakup, this song will hit you hard. I love how the lyrics are almost conversational throughout, before she launches her rocket in the killer chorus “Don’t do this to me, stop listening” BOOM! If you are a melancholy-pop junkie like me, you’ll be singing (and no doubt acting) along to the lyrics too.
This was perfect pop, sung with conviction. It should have signalled a triumphant return, but despite clearly being one of her best singles – with almost zero airplay – it only reached a lowly chart peak of no.67 in the UK. What a sorry state of affairs.
Following the album’s lukewarm reception, Tanita took a break from recording for seven years, returning with the lovely, jazz/soul inflected Sentimental album in 2005 and her most recent release Can’t Go Back in 2012 – (make sure you check out the latter’s propulsive Heavy Pressure, a single that should have been).
Tanita Tikaram has always operated somewhat outside of the mainstream, and to be honest those two big hits early in her career have been something of an albatross around her neck. The fact that the music press has been almost unfailingly critical of her says a lot about how we treat our best pop stars. It was no surprise she upped and moved to the continent, where she has been very successful ever since, thank you.
Tanita has consistently displayed her credibility as a songwriter and has created a fine body of work over an almost thirty year career. Super friendly to her fans, and apparently back in London recording a new album, Tanita really is a treasure. If ever there was an artist deserving of a full reappraisal, it is she.
Entered chart: 06/06/1998
Chart peak: 67
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? In my fantasy world, there would be a bidding war between Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn, and both would end up releasing their own versions of the track.