In praise of Chris de Burgh, musical genius
The singer’s finest songs demolish the caricature that he’s just a Daniel O’Donnell for Dart users. Indeed, if ever an artist was ripe for rehabilitation it is de Burgh
Chris de Burgh playing Berlin’s Ein Herz Fuer Kinder Gala in December 2014. Photograph: Franziska Krug/Getty Images
Consistency is rare in rock’n’roll, so you have to applaud singer Chris de Burgh for upending the stereotype. He has, through the entirety of his career, remained shockingly uncool.
He was uncool singing Patricia the Stripper, a song about a stripper named Patricia (nuance has not always been de Burgh’s forte). He was uncool belting out Don’t Pay the Ferryman, a chugging rocker chronicling, as the best chugging rockers invariably do, a jaunt into the Greek mythological underworld. He was especially uncool crooning Lady in Red, a valentine to the special woman in his life (no, not the nanny).
So no, de Burgh and the cutting edge have never been on speaking terms. This is unusual as even nakedly commercial performers typically enjoy a grace period of vague hipness.
I’ve been a Chris de Burgh admirer – I’ll say it again, a Chris de Burgh fan – since adolescence
Phil Collins was once taken seriously as an artist (things were different in the 1970s, children). The Spice Girls were considered plausible feminists for 10 minutes in 1996. Rewind to 2012 and some people were prepared to give Ed Sheeran a chance (you know who you are and are right to be consumed with guilt). De Burgh skipped this phase and went straight to chronic naffness. Bravo Chris – no mucking about for you.
Yet, as a fan of de Burgh’s music, I am frequently baffled by the intensity of vitriol directed at him. He’s written some bilge, sure. But name a singer who hasn’t. His finest stuff, though, demolishes the caricature of de Burgh as a Daniel O’Donnell for Dart users.
Indeed, if ever an artist was ripe for rehabilitation, it is the Enniskerry emoter. The catch is that the quality stuff isn’t what you hear on radio. You have to delve deep. Jump off the de Burgh deep end, as it were.
The opprobrium heaped on de Burgh has always had an edge. He was the James Blunt of his time.
You think I’m joking. I am not joking. I’ve been a Chris de Burgh admirer – I’ll say it again, a Chris de Burgh fan – since adolescence. It has in many ways been a forbidden dalliance. To this day I’m not entirely comfortable discussing it. Friends and family reading this article may feel upset I am outing myself publicly before having a quiet word with them first. What do I say? It’s complicated. It always has been.
As a teenager I glumly lost myself in Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy but also lived inside de Burgh’s 1988 album Flying Colours. This you will know for its drecky lead single, Missing You (the sequel Lady in Red neither required nor deserved).
But push past that stinker and it’s a collection of genuine merit. There’s a cracking song towards the end called The Last Time I Cried. It’s about war I think – or perhaps something unpleasant de Burgh s once saw on telly which upset him. I don’t know – and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s haunting and weird and it got inside my head when I was 15.
Also on that same album is Sailing Away, essentially the Cocteau Twins if they were posh, lived in leafy Wicklow and lay awake at night worrying whether they would make the Larry Gogan playlist. It’s great – a woozy, spooky tour de force. A bit soft-pop sure. So what? A-ha were soft-pop. Everybody loves A-ha. Why hold Chris de Burgh to a more exacting standard?
The opprobrium heaped on de Burgh has always had an edge. He was the James Blunt of his time. A toff with annoying hair and a flair for connecting with a “mass” (ie unimaginative and incurious) audience. He could, it is true, come across as rather smarmy in his interviews and we were obviously all terrified of his eyebrows.
The big difference is that, in contrast to Blunt, he wasn’t able to use social media to turn his critics’ bile against them. Had Twitter existed in 1986 perhaps Lady In Red would gone down as cheesy classic rather than hated as if it were Beelzebub’s slow-dance tune of choice.
I’m not pretending de Burgh hasn’t put out the occasional clunker. Yet if we are willing to forgive Bruce Springsteen for Glory Days and pretend Blur never released Country House, why condemn de Burgh to roast in all eternity for Blonde Hair, Blue Jeans?
One difficulty is that Lady in Red – to repeat, a crime against music, romance and the chromatic spectrum – was such a massive smash it obscured everything that went before, a downside de Burgh has himself acknowledged. “One of the problems of having such a huge worldwide hit, like Lady in Red, which is still a hit worldwide, is that you get pigeon-holed and so the other 250 songs you’ve written and recorded become irrelevant,” he said in 2012.
Yet what is consistently overlooked is the degree to which de Burgh has reinvented himself over his 45-year career. Granted, he will never be mistaken for David Bowie – or even David Gray, for that matter. He was, however, constantly moving forward. Consider the artistic leap from his 1974 debut, Far Beyond This Castle Walls (a twinkling folk collection King Joffrey might have loved), to the long, strange shadows cast, a mere 12 months later, by Spanish Train and Other Stories.
The latter, I am going to boldly assert, is his masterpiece. And that’s even taking into account the presence of the unforgivable Patricia the Stripper and A Spaceman Came Travelling – best thought of as Away in a Manger rewritten for a 1970s sci-fi rock musical. (Hey, Chris – why did you never write a 1970s sci-fi rock musical?)
The title tune is great – the sort of thing Tom Waits might do were he to clear his throat and put on a suit (its “blasphemous” recounting of a poker game between God and the Devil led to an official ban in South Africa).
Then there’s Lonely Sky, his great cloud-scraping lament, and The Painter, a fever-dream disguised as a plangent singalong. Most impressive of all is closer Just Another Poor Boy – The Police’s Roxanne reworked as candle-waving power ballad.
de Burgh’s big, ripe numbers go beyond mere guilty pleasure (though there’s plenty of that too)
With Spanish Train, de Burgh entered a patch so purple Prince might have been jealous. He followed that album with At the End of a Perfect Day, one of his darkest, most bittersweet releases. (It was Ireland in 1977; of course de Burgh’s thoughts were dark and bittersweet.) After that came Crusader, which belied its heavy metal title to deliver a hour of solid Beatles pastiche (much of the recording, appropriately, was at Abbey Road). This in turn laid the groundwork for Eastern Wind, his first proper, plugged-in “rock” record and the one that established de Burgh as a huge star in Scandinavia.
Later on, it is true, the cheese would flow extravagantly. But 1980s cheese was always a superior cheddar, and de Burgh’s big, ripe numbers go beyond mere guilty pleasure (though there’s plenty of that too).
Let me direct you towards Ship to Shore – the Human League if they came from bucolic Dalkey rather post-apocalyptic Sheffield. There is also, of course, the aforementioned Don’t Pay the Ferryman – a rock tune about a guy crossing the River Styx. You may think you don’t have space in your life for a song about a guy crossing the river Styx. But you would be wrong.
I will stop hyperventilating. The point is that the popular portrayal of de Burgh as a nabob of naff is lazy, inaccurate and ignores the breadth and depth of his catalogue. He plays Dublin on Sunday night. I already have my ticket. It’s going to be amazing.
Chris de Burgh plays the INEC - Gleneagle Hotel, Killarney on Saturday, and the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on Sunday.