Leigh Jaeger – Johnny & Mary
My grandmother on my mother’s side would always add a little water to the cream for dessert to make it go further. It still looked like cream, and if you didn’t think about it too much it still tasted like cream, but after a while you kind of lost the urge to have it any more. This is sort of how pop works. Something really successful comes along that everyone loves, it gets widely copied and eventually the whole thing gets so watered down that you’d much rather go without than taste it again. A new thing then comes along to replace it and the whole cycle repeats itself until the one you got bored of seems new again.
The tail ends of these cycles are usually rather interesting, in much the same way that I imagine the last days of Sodom were – basically, everybody is doing it. The death throes of the late 80s pure pop era really bring this point home – whereas disco sucked in big names who’d hitherto been strangers to four on the floor, the DIY approach spearheaded by Stock, Aitken and Waterman made it feel like anyone could be a pop star. The Reynolds Girls represent the tipping point of the period with I’d Rather Jack – a cocky two fingers up to critics and the record industry designed to prove that S/A/W could make stars out of anyone. It worked, but it also set the clock ticking. Pop is a bit of a juggling act, and once the ball marked ‘aspirational’ had been dropped and it felt like you could probably sign to PWL via a form at the dole office, time was running out. The cream was starting to taste bitter, and within a year only Kylie Minogue was really still standing (and only just – her best ever run of singles, from Better the Devil You Know through to Shocked fell below what was expected of them).
I’ve never quite known if being the last one to leave the dancefloor is a brilliant or tragic thing – perhaps Madonna could tell us – but there are still some amazing moments to be had when everyone else has gone home. Consider today’s subject – sounding so very 1988 in 1989, it’s ridiculously fast and yet terribly, terribly sad. Its very existence represents the scraping of the bottom of the barrel. And yet it is fabulous.
Many of you will remember the iconic video for Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love, which featured leggy models looking bored. It was such a hit that Palmer returned to that particular well several more times until we were all as bored as the models looked. Featured in one of the later re-treads was glacial beauty Leigh Jaeger. I have no idea if she had a burning desire to be a pop star or not, but I’d be willing to bet some bright spark at A&M Records did a little sum in their head and came up with ‘model from Robert Palmer video + cover of Robert Palmer song + PWL remix = HIT!’ And thus Johnny & Mary, a lovely song about two people with very low self-esteem, which started the decade as an understated new-wave-y gem, ended it as a poppers o’clock HI-NRG stomper. And the odd thing is, it doesn’t suffer from this treatment at all. This is largely due to Phil Harding and Ian Curnow’s knack of using great big synth washes to bring desperately sad chords to the forefront even while you’re being hammered/uplifted by a relentless 130bpm tempo and waiting for the big key change that you know is coming. The whole thing is cheap, lazy, formulaic (deploying literally every weapon in the Hit Factory arsenal) and some might even say cynical – but if you ask me none of these qualities stop it from being a great pop moment.
Of course that bright spark at A&M turned out not to be so bright, but had all this happened a year or two earlier he or she might well have been on the money. Johnny & Mary was a total flop and we never heard from Leigh Jaeger again – but for me it remains one of the last fabulous gasps from possibly my favourite era. I think I danced to this once in a club, and the other thousand times have been in my living room. There’s a lot to be said for dancing on your own.
Entered chart: did not chart (and the Robert Palmer version only made no.44 in 1980).
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Well now, there’s actually a gorgeous version by Todd Terje from 2014 sung by Bryan Ferry. Use it in the latest zeitgeist-capturing BBC drama and you have a smash right there.