Last week in this space, I described a single by the Canadian rock band Prism as “sounding like an early-’80s Cliff Richard single (not that there’s anything wrong with that).” I’d like to say I spent hours deciding whether or not to make such a seemingly insulting comparison, but I’d be lying – I tossed it off. It wasn’t until I was editing the piece that I began weighing the significance of what I’d written; suddenly (ahem), the wheels were in motion, and that phrase triggered a flood of memories and bits of knowledge that I’m pretty sure I’ve been suppressing since about 1983 – when I finished high school and headed off for college determined to invent a cooler version of my previous self (just like everyone else does, right? Right?).

Cliff RichardAnyway, thanks to the magic researching powers of the Internet, I quickly discovered that not only had I been a fan of Cliff’s turn-of-the-’80s singles like “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” “Dreaming,” and especially “A Little In Love” – I had actually owned a Cliff Richard album. Legit MP3 files are difficult to come by for some of these tunes (how can it be impossible to buy a copy of a top-10 hit like “We Don’t Talk Anymore”?), but as I searched iTunes and Amazon I found the title of his 1980 collection I’m No Hero vaguely familiar, and as I sampled track after track I recognized each one, until…

Cripes! I know it was 28 years ago, but I’ve owned at least 10,000 records/tapes/CDs/digital albums in my life, and until now, I thought I had a pretty good handle on which ones I’ve had and which ones I haven’t. Is Cliff really that forgettable?

Apparently so, at least in the U.S.

Of course, in the U.K. no homegrown solo artist has ever been bigger. Beginning with “Move It” in 1958 – a song that no less an authority than John Lennon identified as the “first British rock record” – Cliff has sold more singles than any other act in British history.

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His posture in that TV clip of “Move It” clearly mimics Elvis singing “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)” in Jailhouse Rock; not surprisingly, Cliff’s early career mirrored Elvis’ in myriad other ways. An early spate of high-charting hits established his credentials as a rocker, one who was viewed by parents as a dangerous figure until he began appearing in films during the early ’60s. The films softened his image (and music) considerably; so did a conversion to born-again Christianity in 1964, which led him to dual careers in pop and gospel and to a series of appearances on Billy Graham Crusades through the early ’70s. Eventually his reputation morphed into a caricature, revered by some and reviled by others, as the one major pop figure of the ’60s to refuse to mix sex’n’drugs with his rock’n’roll.

Of course, almost all of this happened without American audiences giving a whit; during his run of 36 top-10 British hits from 1958-68, he hit the U.S. Top 40 exactly twice, peaking no higher than #25 with a cover of “It’s All in the Game” in 1963 (a single that rose even that high only because it was swept along in the first tide of Beatlemania). It wasn’t until Cliff was positioned for a comeback as a rocker in 1976, with the I’m Nearly Famous album and the classic trifle “Devil Woman,” that he finally cracked the Top 10 on this side of the Atlantic.

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The transatlantic success of “Devil Woman” had numerous rockers who had idolized Cliff as children, including Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, sporting I’m Nearly Famous buttons on their jackets. In ’79 Cliff returned to the charts on both shores with “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” a song that lacked the dramatic edge of “Devil Woman” – yet became his first British chart-topper in a decade. A year later he duetted with Olivia Newton-John on “Suddenly,” from the Xanadu soundtrack, right around the same time that I’m No Hero was released. The album’s first single, “Dreaming,” actually beat “Suddenly” up the charts and into the Top 10; it’s just as featherweight as “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” but it does have a killer bridge.

It was the second single off the album, “A Little in Love,” that hooked me. Like his previous two Top-10s, it was written by Alan Tarney, an Australian who scraped the Hot 100 a couple times during the late ’70s as part of the Tarney/Spencer Band; look for my Popdose colleague Dave Steed to post their two-time sorta-hit “No Time To Lose” in one of his “Bottom Feeders” columns sometime early in the Obama administration. It’s nowhere near as good as any of his songs for Cliff, which included eight of I’m No Hero‘s 10 tracks. (Tarney co-wrote “Dreaming” with Leo Sayer; the two also collaborated on one of Sayer’s own singles from that period, “Living in a Fantasy.” Tarney produced both singers’ albums of the period, as well.)

Comparing Cliff’s Tarney-penned hits, the similarities are obvious: Classic ’70s-pop arrangements (key changes included, natch), with rather mundane melodies in the verses giving way to hooks that arrive with dramatic flourishes on the way into and/or on the way out of the choruses. Those hooks were fleeting, but riveting enough to send circa-1980 pop listeners to the radio request lines. As far as I was concerned, “A Little in Love” had the best chorus of the bunch. I suppose it also spoke to my crush-prone-yet-hopeful adolescent approach to romance.

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“A Little in Love” crapped out at #17 in March 1981, and EMI quickly followed it with “Give a Little Bit More.” It was the boppiest single off the album, to be sure, but it barely missed the Top 40. Dave Steed will offer up the MP3 in due course; in the meantime, this clip features everything that was great and awful (and awfully great) about Solid Gold‘s first season:

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The rest of I’m No Hero, as my suddenly refreshed memory serves, is a bit of a trend-chaser, featuring an attempt at Rockpile-ish latter-day rockabilly on the title track and couple of Big Ballads in “Here” and “A Heart Will Break.” It’s all rather squishy, as you’d expect, but with the hits speckled throughout it’s agreeable enough – certainly for 1980, which was a year not exactly replete with classic pop albums.

I don’t know how long I held onto my copy of the I’m No Hero album – probably no later than my first uncool-record sell-off in college. With his next album Cliff continued his slide from the British Elvis to the British Barry Manilow, offering up a maudlin version of “Daddy’s Home.” Later in the ’80s, he scored his biggest hit yet with the Christmas dreckfest “Mistletoe and Wine” (go here to be horrified as my colleagues Jason Hare and Jeff Giles poop all over it) and briefly submitted himself to the machinations of Stock-Aitken-Waterman. In 1995 he became the first rock star ever knighted; naturally, he took it upon himself to offer his countrymen a “Millennium Prayer” in 1999, and sure enough he scored another holiday chart-topper (a very big deal over there, as anyone who’s seen Love Actually can attest).

His fortunes have fallen off a bit since then; most recently he’s recorded a requisite duets album and then a collection of love songs featuring utterly unnecessary remakes of “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” “All Out of Love,” “When I Need You” and more. The blue-haired early-boomer ladies with dodgy teeth still throw their baggy knickers on the stage, I suppose, but it’s a far cry from the passions he once stirred with “Move It” or “Living Doll” – or even from his brief run of middle-aged American success. Oh, well, at least Cliff had a couple good years over here; were he not such a goody-goody, he might be inclined to point to that era and snarl, “Suck on it, Robbie Williams!

As for me…what’s next? Will I wake up in a cold sweat sometime next week and realize I’m a closet Chris DeBurgh fan?

Cliff Richard – “Dreaming”
Cliff Richard – “I’m No Hero”
Cliff Richard – “A Heart Will Break”

Download I’m No Hero from Amazon .