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Laura Branigan – Spanish Eddie

orig_laura_branigan

Was there ever an American pop star who embraced Europop quite so willingly as Laura Branigan? While her contemporaries – principally Madonna and Cyndi Lauper – radiated a very modern, very American mix of confidence, sex and a little bit of danger, Laura was, if you ask me, a different thing altogether – a clean cut American soccer mom type on the surface, but a mysterious Europhile temptress beneath. Despite being of the same generation as her peers, she appeared (to me at least) to be somehow that bit older, more proper. Parents seemed to instinctively disapprove of Madonna, and Cyndi too (at least if they’d heard She Bop), but nobody I knew objected to the nice lady who sang Gloria.

Ah, Gloria. Originally a smash hit across continental Europe for Umberto Tozzi in 1979, it’s something of a Trojan horse, this song. In an English translation by Jonathan King, Laura’s cover went all the way to no.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and no.6 in the UK), propelled by its irresistible, chant-laden bounciness and Laura’s clean, oddly joyous delivery. If you didn’t pay attention – and I certainly didn’t in 1982 – you wouldn’t necessarily realise what a fantastically dark record it was (the line “if everybody wants you / why isn’t anybody calling?” always gives me the chills), hinting at mental ill health and paranoia. It was followed by a trip to France for Solitaire, another top 10 hit, which paved the way for the unbridled filth of 1984’s Self Control – an ode to cruising if ever I heard one – to climb all the way to no.4 in the US (and no.5 in the UK). It sort of proves the theory that you can get anything past the easily shocked brigade if you deliver it via someone who looks like they knit their own sweaters.

Self Control (another Giancarlo Bigazzi co-write, just like Gloria) wasn’t really about opening the floodgates to filth, rather Europop itself – and Laura’s biggest hits were nearly all (a bit like early Dusty Springfield before her) from ‘the continent’. It’s a wonder more American pop stars didn’t do this – god knows in the sixties we Brits loved nabbing American songs and ramming out covers first – but Laura seemed to have the field to herself for a good long while. And in much the same way that Stock/Aitken/Waterman filtered the urge-driven pop of Hi-NRG through to the masses with a selection of non-threatening, perma-grinning popstrels your gran would just love to wipe down with a hanky from up her sleeve, sweet and lovely Laura Branigan was the vessel used to deliver racy Europop to the American people, who in the early 1980s might still have been suspicious of anything of remotely disco related. She inadvertently created a climate – a happy nation, if you will – where Ace of Base could later flourish, so I guess what I’m saying is that we have an awful lot to thank Laura for.

After Self Control, further Euro-based American hits followed in the form of Ti Amo (another Umberto Tozzi cover) and Satisfaction (a no.24 hit on the US Dance chart). But in the UK, Laura’s top 40 chart career was already over, and I’ve never fully understood why this turned out to be the case. Perhaps we had enough Europop to tide ourselves over, perhaps Atlantic were just rubbish at promoting her. I’ve certainly never been able to comprehend why the first single from 1985’s Hold Me album flopped, for it represents Laura at the absolute peak of her Europop powers – ironically with a song written by Americans. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Spanish Eddie.

If you’re blinking in disbelief right about now, let me just confirm that yes, you have just listened to a super up-tempo, glistening pop moment all about murder. Now, I may be very well be wrong, but I have an inkling that Spanish Eddie wasn’t originally intended to be the out and out stomper it is in Laura’s hands. Written by David Palmer and Chuck Cochran, late of the soft-rock band Wha-Koo, and with references to Bob Dylan’s Destination Row and “mixin’ Vick’s with lemon gin”, I suspect there’s a much slower, more serious demo out there somewhere. I don’t know who we have to thank (probably German producer Jack White and arranger Harold Faltermeyer) for deciding that what this song really really needed was a breakneck speed and castanets, but I am hugely grateful. The opening two seconds  – commanding claps, basically – work (for me) as a summons to the dancefloor (or more accurately, the centre of my living room as I’ve never heard this in a club). Let me tell you, it is a joy to dance to this, unless of course you happen to catch yourself in the mirror while twirling an imaginary flamenco dress.

There’s no hard and fast rule that precludes gruesome death as a subject for pop songs – just ask Boney M – but there’s no denying that this one really, really works when it absolutely shouldn’t. Perhaps Eddie just wasn’t that nice and this borderline hysterical, jubilant production is entirely appropriate. But what sells it – of course – is Laura’s tremendous vocal. Commanding, powerful and occasionally a bit breathless (“cashed it”), it cuts through the many faintly ridiculous production elements and dramatic flourishes to retain the pathos the song probably was intended to have prior to becoming a total banger. I love it.

The UK completely ignored Spanish Eddie, sending it only as far as no.87, but it did at least manage a reasonable no.40 in the US, marking the beginning of Laura’s chart decline. A further European assault accompanied by an ascendant Stock/Aitken/Waterman on the magnificent Shattered Glass only made no.48, and her last top 40 hit came with a cover of Jennifer Rush’s The Power of Love in 1987 (astonishingly, the original only ever made no.57 in the US). Her pop reign may have been a bit short, but for opening America’s ears to that Europop sound and being generally rather brilliant, I salute the late, great Laura Branigan.

unknownEntered chart: 24/08/85

Chart peak: 87

Weeks on chart: 2

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I have a policy of allocating all Laura’s magnificent near misses to Carly Rae Jepsen.

 

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