“The Days of Pearly Spencer” — Marc Almond

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Photo by Liam Riby on Unsplash

Marc Almond has had an interesting musical journey. He started out as one half of pioneering synth-pop duo Soft Cell. Their biggest hit was the 1981 UK Number One “Tainted Love”, but they also racked up a series of commercial and critical successes before disbanding in the mid-1980s.

Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was a cover of Gloria Jones’s 1964 original with a synthesiser-based makeover. The original was never a hit in either the US or the UK so it was virtually unknown before Soft Cell’s cover. Since then, it’s gone down in music history as one of the earliest foundations of the 1980's synth-driven music scene.

After Soft Cell, Marc Almond’s career went in a range of different…some might say surprising…directions.

He duetted with Gene Pitney on a revival of Pitney’s “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”…also a UK Number One…he recorded an album of darkly tinged French chansons and a range of even darker-themed Russian torch songs. He’s nothing if not experimental in his musical choices.

For me, though, one of Marc Almond’s best was “The Days Of Pearly Spencer”. This was also a cover of a little-known record from the 1960s…for Brits at least…written, and originally performed, by David McWilliams.

David McWilliams was from Northern Ireland and he had a 1968 Top 10 hit with his original (the titled “Days Of Pearly Spencer”) in much of Europe. However, due to a little quirk in broadcasting politics, his record didn’t get any radio airplay in the UK, so was never a hit here.

Unfortunately for David McWilliams, his manager was one of the directors of the pirate radio station Radio Caroline so the BBC refused to play his records.

So, to all intents and purposes, Marc Almond repeated the great public service he’d given with Soft Cell for Gloria Jones’s record, and breathed life into a wonderful song pretty much nobody had ever heard of up to that point.

What David McWilliams had written as a folkie ballad turned into something more sophisticated and altogether wonderful in the recording studio.

His producer, Mike Leander, brought in the wonderful string arrangements which are such a distinctive element of “Days Of Pearly Spencer”. Mike Leander had plenty of form for wonderful string arrangements. Among other recordings, he was responsible for the strings on Marianne Faithfull’s classic “As Time Goes By”.

Mike Leander also introduced the clever device of using a distinctly low-fi recording style for the brief choruses. This gives a wonderful reportage feel to “Days Of Pearly Spencer” as David McWilliams describes what he sees with his own eyes, occasionally interjecting…

The days of Pearly Spencer
The race is almost won

This effect…supposedly achieved by phoning into the studio and picking up the sound from the telephone handset in front of a studio mic…splits the song into two parts.

First David McWilliams paints the picture, before the brief chorus reminds us that he’s not describing his own life but the lives of others he sees around him. It’s almost the “…and now back to the studio…” piece to camera TV reporters do from the scene of some disaster or other.

It’s fair to say that Marc Almond, and his producer, the legendary Trevor Horn, had the good sense not to mess too much with such a fine piece of work.

The strings are updated a little, but recognisably based on the strings from the original, and the mix is a little different. But the “phoned-in” choruses remain (albeit this time courtesy of some Trevor Horn studio magic instead of an actual telephone).

The production on Marc Almond’s version is beautiful, as you’d expect from someone as talented as Tervor Horn, and the brief, wonderfully delicate, but hard to spot brass section towards the end is an especially delightful embellishment of the original recording.

The one big change Marc Almond did make was adding another verse to the original lyrics. Interestingly, this changes the narrative quite significantly…whether that’s for better or worse, I’ll let you decide in a moment.

David McWilliams told a tale familiar to many poor districts of post-industrial towns in the UK. He was writing about his own experience of Ballymena in Northern Ireland, but anyone living in, say, Sheffield, Manchester or my home town of Glasgow would absolutely recognise the scenes of deprivation and disenfranchised communities David McWilliams wrote about…

A tenement, a dirty street
Walked and worn by shoe-less feet
Inside it’s long and so complete
Watched by the shivering sun
Old eyes in a small child’s face
Watching as the shadows race
Through walls and cracks and leave no trace
And daylight’s brightness shuns

The days of Pearly Spencer
The race is almost run

David McWilliams certainly knew how to paint a picture.

I especially like the segment which reminds me of my own childhood…although not necessarily in a good way. In the 1960s, in the name of progress, historic communities were bulldozed to make way for high-rise apartment blocks which, rather than achieving their stated objective of improving people’s lives, often made them much, much worse. Psychologically and aesthetically…

Iron trees smother the air
But withering they stand and stare
Through eyes that neither know nor care
Where the grass has gone

The was urban planning for you, 1960s style. I say planning, I mean mostly an abomination which ripped communities apart.

David McWilliams, reporter-style, pretty much painted the picture and left listeners to draw their own conclusions. Without question he did a fine piece of work as far as that was concerned.

Marc Almond’s extra verse added a bit of editorialising at the end, so it was no longer a straight piece of reportage. This changed the narrative from the much darker original.

In essence, Marc Almond encouraged listeners to think beyond their current circumstances and imagine that, in the end. anything is possible. In essence, he gave us the choice between letting our circumstances define us or using them as the impetus for self-improvement until our poverty-stricken origins are no more than a distant memory…

A tenement, a dirty street
Remember worn and shoe-less feet
Remember how you stood to beat
The way your life had gone
So, Pearly, don’t you shed more tears
For those best forgotten years
Those tenements are memories
Of where you’ve risen from

The days of Pearly Spencer
The race is almost won

Because I always like to think hope and redemption is possible, I rather like Marc Almond’s extra verse in what is otherwise a pretty bleak song. But I also greatly admire David McWilliams’ original for telling the world what it was like to grow up in a community with no hope, no jobs and no prospects.

Since Marc Almond’s version was by far the biggest hit, I’ve linked to that first below, but you can find David McWilliams’ original down there too. There’s also a really lovely version by David McWilliams’ daughter, Mandy Bingham, who recorded her version of her late father’s song a few years ago. It’s a lovely hazy, dreamy, delicate take on the song recording which is very different to the other versions, but which I like very much as well.

Whichever version of “The Days Of Pearly Spencer” you prefer, I think we can all agree David McWilliams’ original lyrics are a wonderfully observational piece of lyrical poetry, describing a scene all too familiar to deprived post-industrial communities in the UK after their local coal mine, shipyard or steelworks closed down.

Of course, a huge amount of credit should go to Marc Almond for rescuing this fabulous song from obscurity, but let’s not forget David McWilliams who had the immense talent that’s required to write a song as good as “The Days Of Pearly Spencer” in the first place.

With one of the most instantly-identifiable string arrangements in 1990s pop, here’s Marc Almond with his 1992 Top Five hit, “The Days Of Pearly Spencer”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7cWiJ0dyQXYkXcg2dZSmwq

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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