Continuing our (very short, I promise) series of songs which have the same title as much better-known songs, such as Frank Sinatra’s “All Of Me”, today we turn to Leo Sayer’s 1973 UK Number Two hit “The Show Must Go On”.
For most people, that title makes people think of Queen’s soaring, masterful 1991 hit, back when Freddie was still with us. Possibly my favourite Queen vocal.
Listening to Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” is always quite emotional for me. We now know Freddie was in his final days as he lay down the vocal for this track but nobody could wish for a finer epitaph than this wonderful record. (Here if you need a reminder…https://youtu.be/t99KH0TR-J4 )
However, nearly 20 years before Freddie Mercury stepped into that recording studio I got Leo Sayer’s record called “The Show Must Go On”…an entirely different song, it has to be said…as a Christmas present. I was just a kid but already obsessed with music.
Obsessed, but still with slightly questionable tastes. Although I’ll defend asking my mum and dad for “Step Into Christmas” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” till the very end, I’m afraid I’ve got much less justification for asking them to buy me Alvin Stardust’s “My Coo Ca Choo”.
But those four records kicked me off on a journey which lead me to writing this piece all those years later, so maybe I’m being a little harsh on Alvin Stardust…
Leo Sayer’s “The Show Must Go On” was perhaps an unusual choice, when set against my other selections, but I loved that song at the time and still think it’s not appreciated nearly as much as it should be by the record buying public. The video below has been played about 120 million fewer times than Queen’s song of the same title, for example.
I was fortunate to see Leo Sayer in concert just a couple of years ago, in a smallish venue with only seven hundred people in the audience and he was truly excellent.
Back in 1973, he performed “The Show Must Go On” dressed as a pierrot character in full make-up. 40-odd years later he had the good sense not to bother with that in the concert I attended, but in 1973 his circus clown character certainly stood out among the glam rock stars strutting the stage on Top of the Pops.
Of course, that visual was quite an important part of the story. We all know about what Smokey Robinson called “The Tears Of A Clown”…also one of my favourite songs…the artist who makes other people laugh and makes sure they have a great time whilst being overwhelmed with melancholia inside themselves.
It’s a story I’m always attracted to because that’s pretty much how I live my life…different on the outside than I am on the inside.
Looking back, I realise that even if I didn’t fully understand the psychological or metaphysical connotations of feeling I had to live my life in two separate compartments, in some childish way I knew as long ago as 1973 that Leo Sayer singing “The Show Must Go On” was important to me.
Nothing much has changed in the years since. When you’re told often enough that nobody is interested in who you are, you end up living life pretending to be someone you’re not just to try and fit in well enough to earn a living and make it through life relatively unscathed…at least on the outside.
But like Leo Sayer’s pierrot, when you get home at night and take off the greasepaint, what’s underneath isn’t the same character as the audience was clapping earlier in the day.
Your life becomes a performance and every day you set out to trigger another high…a brief round of applause, a small gesture of appreciation, however fleeting and superficial…before you crash to another low when you’re by yourself in the evening and realise while someone might have appreciated your performance, nobody can bring themselves to care about the person you really are.
For that reason, I’ve always understood how actors and rock stars go off the rails. I’m neither of those things but, in my own little world, the emotional drivers are very similar. We all want someone to accept us and appreciate us for who we really are.
So, if only probably subconsciously at the time, “The Show Must Go On” seemed like a very significant record to me back in 1973. It must have seemed a puzzling choice to my parents among my more mainstream glam rock choices but, to give them credit, they bought it for me anyway.
Baby, although I chose this lonely life
It seems it’s strangling me now
All the wild men with big cigars and gigantic cars
They’re all laughing at me now
I’m not sure my mum and dad ever really listened to the opening verse of “The Show Must Go On”. Considering I was just a kid, it’s a little disturbing, frankly.
That’s why Leo Sayer’s pierrot visual was an important part of the song’s success in the UK, I think.
Firstly, it softened the impact of the words on one level…it was someone playing a character and telling a “tears of a clown” story which fitted in with a narrative most people would understand.
I’m convinced that’s the only basis for “The Show Must Go On” ever getting on Top of the Pops, which is where I first came across it. The same words with a different treatment would have been kept well away from the BBC’s heavily sanitised weekly collection of popular music otherwise.
But much as the pierrot character visual softened the lyrics in one way, it actually made them more impactful to those of us who felt that was a pretty fair representation of how we lived our lives.
For those “tuned in” to those experiences, the pierrot heightened the emotions rather than softened them. Leo Sayer was speaking our truth in words we understood, through experiences we lived ourselves.
Less clear in the lyrics is who Leo Sayer is singing to. We presume “baby” is a girlfriend of some sort, someone he relies on, perhaps one of the few people who accept him as he really is away from the bright lights and the greasepaint.
Whoever she is, it seems she’s his last hope.
He’s trying to leave the life he’s constructed for himself…or, perhaps more accurately, allowed others to construct for him.
Leo Sayer’s twist to the old showbiz saying “the show must go on” is that he’s wanting the exact opposite…he wants the pain to stop…
Baby, I wish you’d help me escape
And help me get away
Leave me outside my address
Far away from this masquerade
I’ve been so used, I’ve been so abused
I’ve been a fool, I broke all the rules
I’ve been so used, oh, and abused
But I won’t let the show go
Ah, but I won’t let the show go
Ho, I won’t let the show go on
Leo Sayer isn’t talking about the show in the sense of the place he goes to perform. He’s talking about “the show”…the performance he delivers every time he pretends to be someone he isn’t.
And that gets wearing. It was wearing for me in 1973 and it’s been wearing for me every year since.
Just like the ageing rock star…albeit without the private jets and rivers of champagne to bathe in…you reach the point where you either just go with the flow and get through life as best you can, even though that means doing things you don’t really want to for people who don’t really care about you.
Or you become another tragic headline of someone who was taken before their time.
Long ago, I decided to keep going with the flow. It’s not an easy path. But every time I hear Leo Sayer sing “The Show Must Go On”, I know somebody understands me. And, in life, if just one person understands you and accepts you for who you really are, that’s enough to get you through.
Leo Sayer wrote “The Show Must Go On” with David Courtney and it was covered by Three Dog Night in the US, who took their version to number four in the Billboard charts. Until today, I’d never heard their version, but as a service to you, dear reader, I have done so now and you can listen to it here, whether that’s for the first time like me or as a reminder of times gone by…https://youtu.be/xtAlzo_pqys
For me, the Three Dog Night version comes across as a parody more than anything else, with some slightly over-obvious creative choices, so I won’t be clicking “play” on that video again any time soon.
But Leo Sayer’s original version still brings a tear to my eye today, just as it did in 1973, when I discovered someone could write lyrics to a song which perfectly described how I felt…
Here’s Leo Sayer with his UK Number Two hit from 1973… “The Show Must Go On”…
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/3XgaLbaK55y8dOBQV1ECPJ