Do the names Yannick Etienne, Cheryl Parker, or Katrina Phillips ring any bells with you? Me neither; until tonight. And they would’ve been condemned to obscurity forever had I not been reminded of my close acquaintance with these women by the release of Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. The film pays tribute to those unsung heroes of contemporary music – the backing singers. In anticipation of seeing it, I’ve been digging out vinyl featuring memorable backing vocals that often feature forgettable backing vocals that threaten to murder them all single-notedly.
Yannick Etienne climbs the world’s highest vocal peak on Roxy Music’s Avalon. I’ll risk busting a vocal chord every time I hear it to assail those closing notes that orbit a vocal range only dogs in Siberia can hear. And maybe Joe Pasquale. Here, have a listen, and find out what knocking yourself out by strenuously flexing your voice might feel like. If you succeed, I’ll nominate you for a Darwin Award.
Ditto Cheryl Parker on I Can See from Martin Stephenson’s Gladsome, Humour and Blue album. Poor Cheryl went on to join Beverly Craven (of “you light up another cigarette and I pour the caustic acid over your ears” fame), but prior to that fall to disgrace, she was knocking about with one of the underrated folkies from Oop North. Stephenson was one-time label mate of Prefab Sprout who themselves incubated their own wistful houseplant that doubled up as a backing vocalist. Allegedly. Just put some white tights over your head, eat half a packet of Oreos and loll your head around to re-create those vocals. Cheryl would knock her unconscious by merely drawing breath. You’re gonna pull an Elvis lip at the 80s production, and I’ll worry you’ll dismiss him on the basis of listening to one of the weaker tracks on the album. Free the shackled mind, as Cheryl sings before hopping her vocals up on a rocket launcher.
Wait a second, it’s not on youtube, and I’m fucked if I’m deleting a paragraph that slags off Prefab Sprout’s backing singer. We’ll never see the likes of it again. Buy it on iTunes.
To my mind, Katrina Phillips was always a young Kathy Burke crossed with the fiddler from Dexy’s circa ’84. She and Terry Hall are ambling through the streets of Brighton hop-scotching around their feelings and promising each other they’ll always be friends. They’ll vow to meet up in 20 years time on the promenade, she in her dungarees, he in his sullen lips. This imagery should never have been tampered with, but their vocal game of tig took a turn for the unexpected tonight when I discovered she looks like the love child of Annie and Marmalade Atkins, scientific progress permitting. “So walk where angels fear to tread….”, you’re it, Kathy, I mean, Katrina, “… for everything we ever wanted”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6c5ntJ6Kw0