20 years old this year, “When You’re Gone” is one of my favourite tracks of the late 90s…and a duet with a difference…
You see, when most artists record a duet, one of them sings the first verse, they do the chorus together, the other does the second verse, they do the next chorus together, and so on.
In “When You’re Gone”, apart from Bryan Adams shouting “when you’re gone” over the intro and a bit of extemporaneous harmonising from Melanie C towards the end, they both sing every word of the song together.
It’s a duet in the sense the song has two artists singing together. But stylistically, “When You’re Gone” is more like the Everly Brothers…where they both essentially harmonise their way through a song…than a duet with, say, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, or Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, who tend to sing each verse in turn.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Everly Brothers made some fine records, but it’s not the most common way to structure a duet these days.
Whilst not quite the Everly Brothers, Bryan Adams and Melanie C’s voices do work well together…Bryan Adams’ rough-hewn tones contrast nicely with Melanie C’s lighter, sweeter vocals.
I spent quite a lot of time in the late 90s watching MTV and, having just gone through a significant break-up, songs about people leaving and dealing with the reminders of them every time you hear a familiar tune, go to a familiar place or do something by yourself you used to do together very much described what was going on in my head.
So I got to know “When You’re Gone” pretty well…a heady mix of self-prescribed therapy and the pleasure of listening to a pretty good tune, combined with heavy rotation on MTV.
I’ve been wandering round the house all night
Wondering what the hell to do
I’m trying to concentrate but all I can think of is you
At the time, I lived in a very small house. It was in a very nice part of town, but it was tiny, so there wasn’t much wandering I could do at night.
24 hour music video channels had to do the job of taking my mind off the situation instead.
I rather liked the “house” in the video for “When You’re Gone”. Whilst it clearly wasn’t a real house, the idea that you could come and go through different doors as just as one person left the other arrived was intriguing and well done.
Bryan Adams and Melanie C never appeared in the same shot together during the entire video. I always wondered if their sequences were shot completely separately or it was just video trickery on the director’s part to make the point about how close you can get two people without them actually being together.
But whether this was borne out of the video director making an important artistic statement, or whether it was just because two of the planet’s biggest music acts couldn’t work their diaries to be physically in the same place at the same time, the video for “When You’re Gone” is still one of my favourites.
When you’re in that immediately post-break-up state of mind, it’s funny how your mind works…
Got the TV on ‘cos the radio is playing songs that remind me of you
Little things set you off. Mostly you don’t go looking for them, they come and find you whether you want them to or not. (To this day, I find it hard to listen to Brian May’s “Driven By You” for precisely that reason, even though I really like the song.)
Even food don’t taste that good
Drink ain’t doing what it should
Things just feel so wrong
Baby when you’re gone
It was slightly different for me. I didn’t go off my food…can’t think why I carry those extra few pounds…but I did go off certain kinds of food.
Although this might seem like an odd source of memories, I’ve barely eaten a Yorkshire pudding or an apple turnover since the late 90s.
Of course, in the end I got over it. By watching enough MTV and avoiding Brian May (not easy on MTV at the time), Yorkshire puddings and apple turnovers, I could keep going and, in time, I was back to some sort of equilibrium.
Most of the memories faded, even if I still avoid certain ageing rock guitarists and some uniquely British foods, just in case. Life went on.
But every time I hear Bryan Adams and Melanie C sing “When You’re Gone”, I’m taken back to sitting alone in my little house 20 years ago.
I don’t have unpleasant memories of the song at all. Despite the fact I heard it a lot at a point which wasn’t exactly the greatest time of my life, it’s got a charm to it, and although I watched it a lot on MTV in the middle of the night when I couldn’t get to sleep, the video still makes me smile.
Partly that’s down to the premise of people nearly bumping into one another but never quite managing it, partly that’s down to a bit more wind machine usage than was strictly necessary and partly that’s down to the somewhat over-enthusiastic application of eyeliner on Bryan Adams…a man who doesn’t strike me as being very keen on eyeliner as a general rule…
But mainly I think about this song affectionately because it’s a great song. It’s not just me who thinks so… “When You’re Gone” was one of the UK’s best-selling songs of the 1990s.
It’s hard to put your finger on why this should be… “When You’re Gone” doesn’t have the world’s most complex lyrics, it isn’t the most intricate tune ever written, it doesn’t feature a legendary guitar solo or any of the things that would normally make a song stand out.
“When You’re Gone” is a great example of a fine piece of creative work being more than the sum of its parts.
Even if the song had more of the elements people normally cite to justify their description of a song as “great”, I’m not sure it could have been any better.
“When You’re Gone” has style and charm, a believable story told simply but well, nice harmonies, great tune and an iconic video.
Put all that together and you’ve got a song that’s still one of my favourite songs of the 1990s and a song that makes me smile every time I think of it.
Written by Bryan Adams and Eliot Kennedy, here’s Bryan Adams and Melanie C with “When You’re Gone”…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here)to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).