Let’s just for a moment pretend that Chris de Burgh never wrote ‘The Lady In Red’; that ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’ was never recorded, let alone ‘a minor hit in the states [sic]’ as alleged on his (as of 2007, appallingly designed) official website. Indeed, let’s go so far as to say that Chris de Burgh never existed. Okay, perhaps that’s taking things a bit too far.
However if, like me, you grew up on Chris de Burgh records (thanks in my case to a father and mother who fell in love with his ‘balladeering’, his ‘storytelling period’, his songs of ‘espionage’, ‘crusading’ and ‘womanising’—but I digress), then you’re probably just as likely as I am to get riled by people who mention only those two songs, as if that’s all Chris de Burgh ever did.
For the benefit of the vast majority of the world’s population, therefore, I’d like to set the record (no pun intended) straight (ditto). Chris de Burgh (CdeB) released five studio albums before The Getaway (arguably his ‘breakthrough’ record, featuring ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’), as well as one other studio album (I speak, naturally, of Man On the Line) before Into the Light (that unfortunate basket case of songs featuring ‘The Lady In Red’) was even thought of.
It puzzles me that people pretend these albums were never made; it saddens me that they are becoming harder and harder to find, even on eBay; and frankly, whenever I hear people laughing at CdeB and mocking his song-writing skills on the basis of one or two songs—well, I think you know what’s coming next: I find that, once again, I’m seething.
I remember a golden moment in the career of CdeB—the release of Best Moves, his first real ‘greatest hits’ album. Dear reader, take note: this album was released in 1981—that is, before his so-called ‘breakthrough’ album The Getaway was even spawned, let alone thought of, let alone . . . okay, I’ll tone down the melodrama.
Speaking of best moves, cynics might reply that CdeB’s best move in releasing this album was his decision to include two new songs on it, including the incendiary ‘Waiting For the Hurricane’. It takes real smarts for an artist to put out an 11-track best-of that only includes nine actual hits (and even that description of these songs seems, in hindsight, a tad generous).
No one, however, would dispute Chris’ decision to appear on the cover of this record playing chess against himself. Checkmate!
But again, I digress. Actually, that digression was in aid of another point I was about to make; or should I say a problem I have just encountered, namely that I have never listened to any of the pre-Eastern Wind albums at all, and am in fact only familiar with a handful of tracks on them, thanks to my dad’s purchase of the Best Moves compilation around about the time The Getaway became popular, thanks in turn to the afore-mentioned ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’ and its twin single, the superbly affecting ‘Ship To Shore’.
Thus I am placed in an exquisite dilemma: should I spend hours of my time downloading old CdeB tracks from a file-sharing site (an activity Chris would surely disapprove of)? Or should I instead purchase all of these albums from CdeB’s website (a decision Chris would undoubtedly approve of but, since his website is so appalling, one I could never in all conscience make)?
Or should I instead pretend that Chris de Burgh is a poet, not a singer, and undertake an appreciation of his early work by analysing the lyrics from each song, all of which were, as of 2007 at least, freely available from his website? That way, I could also pretend that each of Chris’ ‘albums’ is in fact a ‘slim volume of poetry’—or, indeed a chapbook—and proceed chronologically through his ‘literary career’, with reference to his expanding ouevre, his use of symbols and imagery and his grasp (again, no pun intended) of rhythm and metre . . .
I must admit that I have no choice here, as I do not possess oodles of time or money; nor indeed do I possess the patience to listen carefully to 50-odd songs from CdeB’s back catalogue over and over again just fot the sake of an ironic blog post on the subject. Therefore, what follows is a literary analysis of CdeB’s first 10 published poems.
Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . . (1974), Chris de Burgh’s first collection of poetry, deserves a moment’s silence. I’m talking right now, you down the back. Innovatively published in an LP-sized package complete with a haunting black cover featuring some kind of gothic ‘castle’, these 10 ground-breaking poems represent the beginning of what has turned out to be an astounding career.
Sure, you can’t really compare these early works to later sequences (see Man On the Line), however their sheer technical genius and intricate use of language work to set their author apart from other literary wannabees including Rod McKuen, Kevin Johnson and the rest. Take, for example, ‘Hold On’ with its hauntingly simplistic opening:
A lonely girl lies weeping.
A lonely man tries sleeping,
But he’s getting nowhere.
Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
This is deceptive stuff, lulling the reader into a false sense of security until, by the poem’s devastating end, we are left wondering just what the hell has happened:
Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
While ‘The Key’ is a disappointing cliche, third poem ‘Windy Night’ releases CdeB’s bats, with its jarring alternation between rhyme and clang in the first two stanzas. Just when the tension becomes almost unbearable, however, Chris throws the switch and in floods emotion. Sing this with me:
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night.
Chris De Burgh, ‘Windy Night’
‘Sin City’, surely a reference to South Africa’s ‘Sun City’, is a bold and political poem, with a directness lacking in the collection up until this point:
Good morning, Blue Rider, and how was your night?
Did you get the best deal from your body, did she make you feel alright?
Well she did ‘cos she’s my friend …
Chris De Burgh, ‘Sin City’
That de Burgh manages to riff on Kandinsky and the Rolling Stones at the same time is both incredible and a hint of things to come. Note also the link between this poem and the previous poem, through the repeated use of the word ‘night’.
Puzzling though the meaning of this and other pieces (see, for example, ‘New Moon’, ‘Lonesome Cowboy’) may be, there’s something uplifting, something moving here, a kind of seething anger at the unfairness and injustice of everything.
Still, this is not to say the Chris has totally abandoned his rock and roll roots, as shown clearly by the bizarrely debauched ‘Watching the World’:
Oh Ram bam bi doo ah… Ram bam bi doo ay…
Roll one for me brother, eighteen inches long,
And we can lay down here by the riverside
Smoking and singing this song… oh yea
Chris De Burgh, ‘Watching the World’
Oh yea, indeed. While ‘Satin Green Shutters’, with its melancholy air and gently maudlin delivery was (in my opinion, deservedly) the only poem here that made it onto Best Moves, I’d like to conclude this all-too-brief appreciation with a nod to the final poem, ‘Goodnight’, the only sonnet in this collection and not a bad one at that.
Sure, it’s a little hastily cobbled together and yes, the first and second parts do end with the same words and, clearly, most of the line breaks are arbitrary but hey, no one ever said CdeB was John Donne. Lacking a central conceit, the poem does nevertheless manage to evoke some feelings within the reader, mainly relief at the book’s impending conclusion but also a sense of eerie deja vu, perhaps due to the fact that the final lines echo lines from other poems in the collection:
I will lead you to the river, here’s the door,
And the key is turning round
Close the shutters, do not cry, there’s a new moon in the sky;
Oh hold on to your love, until your time has come to say … goodnight.
Chris De Burgh, ‘Goodnight’
And on that note, I too must say goodnight but I will return, very soon, with another poetic appreciation – this time, of Chris’ first real ‘storytelling’ ‘masterpiece’: Spanish Train and Other Stories (1975). Until then, as Chris would say, ‘guard these moments well’.