Deborah Harry – Sweet and Low
If you remember 1989 and you love pop you’ll probably recall what a thrill it was to see Debbie Harry back in the charts, and with a song written by the Thompson Twins at that. As I’ve mentioned before, the eighties seemed to be an incredibly long decade, so when Debbie returned to the top 40 after three years it already felt like she’d been gone forever. The Twins hadn’t had a hit for four years, so for me it made the brilliant I Want That Man something of an event.
Apart from the fact that she’d made an ace pop tune, the other thing we were all talking about at the time was that we now had to refer to Debbie as Deborah. I will never fully understand why she did this. I seem to recall interviews at the time citing the name change as a sign of maturity that would perhaps allow her to be taken more seriously by the music press. Maybe that was true, or maybe she’d always just preferred Deborah as a name. All I know is that it didn’t work (and nor did it work when Debbie Gibson tried the same thing a few years later). Debbie is a fine name, and Debbie Harry is an iconic name. Don’t change it. If it’s good enough for Debbie Reynolds – and these are words I generally swear by – it’s good enough, full stop.
After I Want That Man made a decent showing of no.13, it was time to try and nab something Debbie had never had before in the UK – a second top 40 hit from a solo album. Dreamy – and really rather good – sinister-ballad Brite Side was chosen as the follow up single and crept into the shops quietly just as the Christmas rush was getting started. I’m sure the thinking was “oh, ballads sell albums”, and of course they do, but only if you actually let people know about it. Sending the video to The Chart Show and crossing your fingers for a nice fat bonus in January doesn’t quite cut it.
Brite Side stopped at no.59 in the UK, meaning that it fell to the next single to fix things. And so the record company did what any sensible record company did when they wanted a hit – they rang up PWL. Ian Curnow and Phil Harding were drafted in to remix the faintly dull Sweet and Low and turn it into something of a club banger, and that’s exactly what they did. And had this been 1988 or 1989 it probably would have worked a treat. But this was March of 1990 and the Sound of a Bright Young Britain was beginning to sound decidedly old.
Of course none of this stops Sweet and Low from being rather amazing, in a cheap and nasty quick fix sort of a way. Not entirely inappropriately for a record which uses a sugar substitute as a metaphor for shagging, the glossy coating that’s been applied means it satisfies lots of pop urges but leaves you feeling a bit sick afterwards. There’s often a fine line between brilliant and terrible, and this is a record that streaks back and forth across it alarmingly, particularly when the keyboards go all Japanese sounding whenever the word “sayonara” crops up. But I can’t help but love it, and it soundtracked many an evening driving round Dumfries with my pals – as a result I always associate it with sitting in the car while the others popped into the Pearl Palace for a late night banana fritter.
The best way to enjoy Sweet and Low responsibly is by watching the video, in which Deborah is firmly in control of matters. It is literally a masterclass in not giving a f**k, and answers the question “why didn’t she ever do an exercise video?” most effectively – it makes Angela Lansbury’s Positive Moves workout seem like a Tough Mudder course. Deborah – resplendent in possibly the greatest eyeshadow work of all time – looks like she would rather be anywhere else on the planet right now and makes the very minimum amount of effort possible when a) moving her lips and b) jigging about, which is probably why the whole thing was draped in exciting day-glo colours in post-production.
Needless to say, it’s one of my favourite videos of all time.
Sweet and Low fared a little better than its predecessor, peaking at no.57 – but once again Debbie/Deborah’s chances of having more than one hit from an album were scuppered (and in fact she never did manage it). Could things have turned out differently? Maybe – had it snuck in at the end of 1989 it might just have managed to ride the last wave of PWL supremacy. And had Debbie enjoyed a double espresso before the video shoot she might have seemed a little bit more enthusiastic about it. Oh well.
Entered chart: 31/03/1990
Chart peak: 57
Weeks on chart: 3
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Meghan Trainor could have so much fun with this.
The ‘curse’ of ‘second singles flopping’ continued through Blondie’s re-formation. Well, until the day they couldn’t get a hit at all!
‘Sweet and Low’ was a rare case at the time of an international artist’s single being released in Australia before the UK/elsewhere, and it came out here in mid February 1990 as a double A-side with ‘Kiss It Better’. By that point, the video had not been shot (or at least wasn’t available locally), and a live performance (sounding nothing like the mix used in the video) was used to promote it on TV instead. When the video premiered on the top 50 countdown some weeks into its chart run, I had no idea what song it was until the vocals started and the artist/title credit appeared. Not knowing who Andy Warhol was (other than knowing he was dead, courtesy of Transvision Vamp) at the time, I had no idea what the ‘love Andy’ meant at the end, and thought maybe it was a dedication to Debbie’s boyfriend. The production qualities on the video do seem rather cheap, but somehow it works.