This month the biggest British solo act in the history of the UK singles charts turned 80. I have zero shame in admitting my appreciation for the man who’s had more UK top 20 hits – upwards of 130 – than anybody else and no less than 68 top 10 hits – second only to Elvis. Why should I? Is Cliff Richard cool? Has he ever been?* Is it easier to make fun of him than to take him seriously?
Bob Stanley of The Guardian nailed it with an article in 2019 headlined “Cliff Richard – Why We’ve Got Him Wrong”. In assessing where Cliff now lies in the pop cultural landscape – particularly in his home country of England – Stanley writes that, “Cliff Richard is a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, an accidental maker of experimental pop, and Britain’s best exponent of sophisticated MOR. It’s time we stopped treating him as a punchline”.
Amen. Like Stanley, I find it liberating to like what you like and to shrug your shoulders at what anyone thinks. That said, I can still recall my pre-marriage days and having two free tickets to a Cliff concert and not being able to find anyone to go with. A mate said, “I’d like to go with you but I just can’t risk anyone finding out I went to a Cliff Richard concert”.
So I went on my own. There’s an irony that publicly admiring massively underbought artists that the tragically hip en masse pretend to love somehow seems more daring than what I’m about to do: saying out loud you think Cliff Richard has produced some of the best British popular music of the 20th Century.
My regular argument about Cliff Richard is that even he doesn’t know how good he actually is/was. Reason being? Well, concert set-lists that for decades drew too heavily on cover songs of inferior material to his own is a start.
But being derided for his Christianity, his reported celibacy and rumours about his sexuality? I happen to think Cliff is cooler than any baby boomer radio host who declared their middle-of-the-road stations Cliff-free zones – a not-infrequent circumstance these past couple of decades in British broadcasting. If only those guys knew that most people – including the younger generations they were desperately trying to appeal to – didn’t care as much about the who and when of a tune and far more about the what.
As in, what is it I’m listening to? Do I like it? Do I like the melody, the groove, the production and the vocals? Does it make me feel something? The what. Not who released it, when they released it and whether they’re a celibate God-botherer who you still haven’t forgiven for doing a Christmas mashup of Auld Lang Syne with The Lord’s Prayer**.
The proof being, the absolutely cream of Cliff’s biggest hits from his late 70s/early 80s critical and commercial peak – songs like Devil Woman, Miss You Nights, We Don’t Talk Anymore, Carrie and Dreamin’ – all still jump from the radio (if you’re lucky enough to hear them). This is Cliff not just at the top of his vocal game, but pushed to the top of his vocal range by producers like Bruce Welch and Alan Tarney.
I’ve played people, let’s say, younger people (read: sub 45-years old), those songs and had them genuinely surprised they were by Cliff Richard. When Devil Woman was used in a memorable sequence in the 2017 Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, removed of any visual associations with the most wholesome man in pop, it was a prompt to reassess just what a great record it is. Urgent, suspenseful. It’s little surprise it finally broke Cliff in the States in 1976 after 18 years of international hits everywhere else on the planet.
But what of the songs in between? Beyond the record-breaking hit-list, is there such a thing a Cliff deep cut? The following 20 songs will hopefully answer that question, because when I say Cliff Richard is responsible for some of the best British popular music of the 20th Century, I’m not just thinking of Devil Woman, Miss You Nights, We Don’t Talk Anymore, Carrie and Dreamin’. And pleasant and indelible as they are, I’m certainly not thinking of Summer Holiday, Bachelor Boy or Congratulations.
So to mark the occasion of the man’s 80 years alive – 62 of which he’s been making music – here are my contenders for the 20 best lesser-known Cliff Richard tracks. Just as these are the songs I’d play to win over a Cliff-sceptic, they’re also what I’d play the man himself to remind him just how good he was.
Throw Down A Line – 1969
Written by Hank Marvin of the Shadows reportedly with Jimi Hendrix in mind, he gave it to his old buddy Cliff instead. Featuring some spooky, reverb-heavy guitar from Hank, this moody, stomping, near apocalyptic socio-political pop is the anti-Congratulations. A UK #7 that I’ve literally not heard a solitary time on the radio in my 22-years in broadcasting.
Everyman – 1980
Groove-wise a musical cousin of Carrie from a few months earlier, this Alan Tarney-written gem from the I’m No Here album goes in a more synth-heavy, New Wave direction.
Time Drags By – 1966
Featuring none other than a young Jimmy Page on harmonica, the Shadows wrote this bluesy, unplugged-sounding, harmony-laden singalong for the film Finders Keepers. A UK #10.
I Can’t Ask For Anything More Than You – 1976
After years of diminishing critical and commercial fortunes, 1976 saw Cliff re-teaming with Bruce Welch of the Shadows with Bruce producing arguably the definitive Cliff album to that point, I’m Nearly Famous. Bruce encouraged Cliff to experiment with falsetto on this terrific R&B track, a UK top 20 hit.
Never Even Thought – 1978
A cover of a Murray Head song from 1975, this finds Cliff in dramatic, impassioned form, as well as having some of most ambitious vocals and orchestration of his career. Credit again to Bruce Welch as producer.
My Kinda’ Life – 1977
A dorky video masks a fine piece of acoustic country rock and one of Cliff’s strongest 70s singles. Written by Chris East, produced by Bruce Welch and a UK top 20 hit.
Keep Me Warm – 1989
Cliff Richard’s 26th studio album was also one of his biggest, with Stronger producing four UK top 20 hits. At this stage of his career he could’ve been forgiven for hits + filler, but together with longterm writer/producer Alan Tarney, they crafted first-rate album cuts like this piece of creamy, soul-lite pop. Listen for the cut-through of the acoustic guitars.
Say You’re Mine – 1963
The single coolest recording of Cliff’s first decade? Certainly a contender and it’s a shame this sultry little Tony Meehan-written number (original Shadows drummer, though this came out two years after he’d departed) was merely the B-side of the UK #2 Don’t Talk To Him. As Bob Stanley said in his defence of Cliff in the Guardian in 2019, this “rhythmically tricksy” song is “atmospherically redolent of back-street fire escapes”.
Yes He Lives – 1977
An underplayed part of Cliff’s sustained success has been the strength of his bandmates as writers, including this outstanding Christian pop/rock song from the pen of longtime Cliff guitarist Terry Britten. The standout cut from Cliff’s best spiritual album, Small Corners.
Faithful One – 2004
Written by Christian songwriter Chris Eaton, this is a quietly profound late career highlight from easily Cliff’s finest studio album post Stronger (1989), 2004’s Something’s Goin’ On. It’s a shame Cliff didn’t carry on in the same vein as this Nashville-recorded project for future LPs because it’s precisely the sort of album Cliff Richard in his 60s and 70s should’ve been making: true to himself, reflective, not trying too hard to be hip, entirely focused on solid, authentic song-craft.
Once In A While – 1981
Alan Tarney wasn’t just responsible for mammoth Cliff hits like We Don’t Talk Anymore, Dreamin’ and Some People, he also gave him some of his most memorable albums tracks too. Originally recorded by Leo Sayer in 1980, Cliff’s take on Once In A While gets the nod not just for being vocally superior, but also for Tarney’s laid-back, smooth early-80s production. Indeed, Tarney was only improving on himself as he produced both versions.
Hey Mr Dream Maker – 1977
A co-write between Bruce Welch and Alan Tarney most notable for the beauty of the picked acoustic guitar hook that runs throughout. A minor UK top 40 entry (#31) and quite possibly the best outro and fade-out of Cliff’s career.
She Means Nothing To Me – 1983
Cliff’s abilities as a harmony singer don’t get mentioned enough and this sensational John David-written duet with Phil Everly is full of intricate, complex harmony lines. A UK #9 but largely forgotten now. Guitar work from a certain Mark Knopler too.
Lean On You – 1989
One of four UK top 20 hits from Stronger, this R&B-inflected power ballad takes a surprising turn in the Alan Tarney-led call-and-response chorus of “My baby she cares”. The fact Cliff was capable of an album with four major hits this deep into his career – 31 years since Move It in 1958 had made him a star – is testament both to his indefatigable desire for success, but also to the talents of the people he surrounded himself with, in this case, writer/producer Alan Tarney.
Hot Shot – 1979
Sure, Cliff singing, “I’m the Latin lover of the local scene,” is one of the least convincing lyrics in his oeurve, but this cover of a rowdy BA Robertson pub singalong is so much fun it doesn’t matter. With this being 1979, Cliff is right in his peak vocal years and is so good in his upper register that you understand why Bruce Welch knew to push him to hit those kinds of notes.
Try A Smile – 1977
A pleasant if innocuous ballad gets turned on its head with an unexpectedly hooky chorus that’s been crying out for a boyband remake for over 40-years. Imagine the screams of the female fans when the lads – whichever lads they may be – launch into, “Can this be really for the best?” Huge!
One Night – 1987
Alan Tarney wrote all but one track for Cliff’s most fully-realised studio album in years, Always Guaranteed, and while not a single, this stonking pop/rock ditty made for a mighty fine opening track. That pre-chorus of, “so let me be with you tonight,” is killer too.
Discovering – 1982
Another Chris Eaton spiritual – albeit subtle enough that it could pass as being secular – from the equally subtly spiritually-minded Now You See… Now You Don’t LP. Minimalist, sparse production and among the great buried treasures of Cliff’s 80s output.
Ease Along – 1978
The Green Light album is the anomaly in the renaissance-era of Cliff that began with I’m Nearly Famous in 1976 and carried through until another short quiet patch in the mid-80s. It’s a reasonable work, but the wrong singles were chosen and album flopped. Luckily the next wave of the comeback was just a matter of months away with Rock ‘n’ Roll Juvenile and hits like We Don’t Talk Anymore and Carrie. But tucked in between is Green Light and gems like this funky little Alan Tarney track. Produced by Bruce Welch.
Goin’ Home – 1977
A beautiful, melancholy spiritual from American Christian songwriter Annie Herring. Self-produced by Cliff, as were all the songs from Small Corners.
*The answer is actually an emphatic “yes”, especially during those first rock ‘n’ roll years in the late 50s and early 60s where Cliff & The Shadows were arguably the biggest band in the world outside of America. I’d also make a case for the Cliff of the late 70s/early 80s renaissance being pretty cool too!
**The Millennium Prayer combined The Lord’s Prayer with Auld Lang Syne and upon its release in 1999 became Cliff Richard’s 14th and final UK #1 single. While being a huge and unexpected hit, a backlash against both song and performer quickly became apparent.