Tuesday, February 04, 2003

I need to commend Coronation Street for its use of music. It doesn’t use canned background music like American soap operas do. String sections don’t swell during the romantic bits, synthesizers don’t sustain low pedal notes while the villain plans his next move.

The only music on Coronation Street is music that the characters can hear themselves, in real space and real time. It comes out of the radio while Sally fixes breakfast for the gurls, it’s playing on a boom box while SarahLou2 and Candeeeece bemoan their lot in life, it’s danced to at Steve and Karen’s flatwarming party. Music is an important part of life on the Street, and an integral component of many characters’ histories and personalities.

Rita, for example, once enjoyed a career as a nightclub singer. While her air of tragic glamour is subsumed by her daily grind at the Kabin, on very special occasions she’ll take mic in hand and serenade some lucky patrons at the Rovers. Then there was the time she disappeared after Alan Bradley terrorized her into psychosis. Alec Gilroy found her in Blackpool, where she had returned to her old life as an entertainer. For Rita, music ties her to the past, her youth, and another life. The same could be said for many of us.

Then there’s Les, with his fondness for all things denim and leather. Music for him is a good time, part of a weekend afternoon out in the sun with a few cans. If someone wants to join him, all the better. Even through his tastes make everyone on the Street cringe, he’s always eager to share. When someone’s throwing a shindig, he’ll plump for being the DJ. Les gets more excited about music than any other character on the show. I always picture a milk crate stuffed with well-worn and well-loved vinyl on the floor of the Battersby abode. He probably doesn’t have many records, but he’ll lug the ones he does have around with him until his pasty, ginger-furred legs give out. Les’s past is the present, his youth is but a Quo song away. I can relate.

In a way, I started watching Corrie in earnest because of music. It was 1986, and a young Martin Platt was going out with Jenny Bradley (daughter of the aforementioned baddie Alan). One episode featured a scene where they were getting hot and heavy on Rita’s couch to the strains of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush singing “Don’t Give Up.” Wow. I’d always had certain yearnings, and that scene captured a kind of romantic ideal for me—a girl, some nice music, some grappling. It flipped a breaker in my head, and I was hooked on the show from then on. (That particular plotline unfurled in gripping fashion—a car crash, Martin in a coma, lies and deceit…)

The musical aspect of Coronation Street sometimes spills over into the real world. Actors from the show have recorded singles and albums, and toured internationally. You’d sometimes see ads for Bill “Jack Duckworth” Tarmey albums during Corrie commercial breaks. Kevin Kennedy (Curly Watts) once played in a band with the pre-Smiths Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke. I can remember the British contingent on Usenet’s rec.arts.television.uk.coronation.street (RATUCS) falling about themselves with mirth when both Adam Rickett (Nick Tilsley) and Tracy Shaw (Maxine Heavey/Peacock) took to the airwaves with “hit” singles. But so far no Corrie thespian has managed to escape the novelty act ghetto and seriously challenge Kylie, the queen of singing soap stars.

One episode last week provided the perfect example of how Coronation Street weaves music into the fabric of the plot (blargh). Peter Barlow’s army buddy Ciaran installed himself at Peter’s place. Ciaran took note of Peter’s living arrangements. “Pete and Shelley,” he said. “Pete Shelley!” Shelley didn’t see what the joke was, so Ciaran pointed it out. “You know--The Buzzcocks?” Later in the episode, the Buzzcocks’ hit “Ever Fallen in Love?” served as the soundtrack to sexual tension, playing in the background as Ciaran watched a pre-coital Peter and Shelley disappear into the bedroom. Cut to Maria, crying on the sofa, having just learned that Nick had a girlfriend in Vancouver. The Buzzcocks are still playing, and the effect is still taunting and ironic. Continuing the music across two different scenes bent the “real space/real time” rule I described above, but it worked well. Mike Plowman, I found out today, felt the same way.

When you mention Coronation Street and music, most people will probably think of Eric Spear’s theme song. It’s probably one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. Even non-CS fans must recognize that loping horn melody. As far as I know, the theme song--the recording, the arrangement--has never changed. ITV has never commissioned a Fatboy Slim remix or any such nonsense (although an unreleased version by Stock/Aitken apparently exists). Even if the producers have remastered it for the digital age, its nostalgic essence has remained intact. No one dares mess with it. The endurance of the Coronation Street theme reflects the show’s approach to music as a whole. The writers and producers recognize music’s allure, its power to evoke feelings and memories, and they give it the respect it deserves.

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