Tuesday, 15 March 2016

It's Like You Never Left At All: Taking a look at one of Mike Stock's favourite compositions

"I think from the point of view of what's personally given me greatest pleasure is one of the songs I did with Suzette Charles called "After You're Gone"... it has a very strange spiritual lyric, it's not so much a direct pop song as some of the others."
Mike Stock, interviewed by Paul Smith (Roadblock fanzine, 1994)

Mike, Matt and Pete have often been asked -- separately or together -- to choose their favourite song out of their own back catalogue. Whilst the common answer has been broadly "the songs the public loved the most" such as Never Gonna Give You Up and I Should be So Lucky, Mike Stock has also cited another, more obscure, track as one of his favourites.

The song in question is After You're Gone performed by US singer Suzette Charles, and one that most people are unlikely to have heard.

A former Miss America, Suzette Charles signed a record deal with RCA America and elected to record an initial six tracks with Stock & Waterman in 1993. One of these tracks -- soulful breakup song Free To Love Again -- did see a UK release via RCA UK and made it to #58, but it has been suggested that record industry politics resulted in the project being pulled.

As with pre-1987 SAW, the 1991-1993 Stock & Waterman period saw a great deal of experimentation in different styles, but the six Suzette Charles tracks were very much playing to their strengths as mainstream soul pop. The released single Free To Love Again was a lyrically clever track with a contemporary sound, whilst Just For A Minute was a dramatic slab of pop with a killer chorus. Don't Stop (All The Love You Can Give) was probably the most populist cut (and was earmarked as a possible second single given that Charles performed it on This Morning), whilst What The Eye Don't See was a classy piece of 90s Soul. Every Time We Touch was a slow, US-style ballad, effective if perhaps not in the recognised SAW style.

And then there's After You're Gone.

After You're Gone is a track which doesn't easily fit into categories like the other tracks do. Sure, at first listen, it's shiny and it's catchy, but underneath, it's a difficult track to pin down. Many SAW tracks present a dichotomy of upbeat arrangement and melancholy lyrics to the listener -- an interesting fact missed by many commentators -- but this track is more ambiguous.

If we take the lyrics of the chorus -- "And the spirit of you / is still here in my room / After you're gone / And your presence I feel / Undeniably real / After you're gone" -- yes, there is melancholy there, but also optimism.

An initial reading would perhaps suggest that Charles is singing about how she misses her partner when they are apart. However, I would argue that Stock's lyrics can be read in at least three different ways; yes, it could be a song about missing a partner, but it could be a song about a much-missed ex-partner, or even a partner who has passed away. I appreciate that the opening lines of the song -- "Every time we say goodbye / and you leave me" -- suggest a living partner, but Stock's suggestion of the lyrics having a spiritual quality could point towards a more supernatural visitation.

The recording itself helps with this ambiguity. What is clear from this track (and indeed the other 5 tracks) is that Charles has an amazing voice. Very smooth, very lyrical, but there's great power there -- and crucially, control. Some vocalists have powerful voices, but can sometimes sound like a foghorn belting a song out. It's obvious Charles has a strong voice, but the control she exercises is what makes it. And that benefits After You're Gone; the song demands emotion, but the ethereal, spiritual quality of the lyrics also requires temperance.

Likewise, Stock's arrangement manages to walk a fine line between upbeat pop and emotional ballad, supporting Charles' performance and aiding the sense of ambiguity. Opening with a sitar-esque sound, the track takes a mid-tempo pace with light percussion, guitar and undulating synth line, punctuated with backing harmonies and descending synth pads. The production gives the vocals room to breathe, which suits the lyrical and thematical qualities of the song, and the overall effect is to musically reflect the sense of mixed emotions presented by the lyrics.

A snippet of the track (the into and opening verses) was featured in an item about Charles on ITV's magazine show This Morning in 1993, but as the project faltered shortly afterwards, the track (along with four of the other five tracks Charles recorded with Stock & Waterman) did not see an official release. Although bootleg copies of those tracks did emerge in fan circles a few years later, it was not until Stock made the track available for streaming on his website that it garnered wider attention.

For me, this is my favourite Suzette Charles track and one of my favourite tracks of the Stock & Waterman period. I find most SAW fans (myself included) favour the more obscure tracks over the big hitters, and certainly After You're Gone is a fan favourite. Longtime SAW fan and expert Paul Smith has taken his love of this track even further, by having the chorus lyrics tattooed on his arm!

After You're Gone is a fine track, with a typically seductive Stock melody, neat production, ambiguous lyrics and a winning vocal. It deserves an official release, and one hopes that, given the ongoing re-issue of SAW product, one won't be too far off.

In an interesting postscript, Charles has recently been recording again with Stock, and writing about the song on his own website, Mike Stock states that he's "still very keen on this song and the nature of the lyrics, and I'm sure it will crop up again in some form or another in the future". So, whilst it's unclear if and when these recordings will be re-issued, it is not unreasonable - given Stock's love of the song - to suppose that one of those tracks could be a new recording of After You're Gone...

images copyright Mike Stock

With thanks to Paul Smith -- check out Paul's comprehensive Mike Stock discography at http://mikestock.moonfruit.com/