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Cliff Richard’s “The Dreamer: An Autobiography” Reviewed

Here in the States it feels that the country needs to be told all over again the story of Sir Cliff Richard, the 81 year old greatest UK pop superstar of all time was unknown in the US at the height of his fame, he is less well known now and loves New York City because only in the States can he enjoy some degree of anonymity; the US is one of the few outposts of western civilization where he can go anonymously. In the UK, Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, Richard has sold over 250 Million records, he remains a living legend of the first order, the only UK pop greats still living who can be mentioned in the same breath are two other Sirs, Paul McCartney and Elton John, and he was having #1s at the age of seventeen while being a mere five days older than John Lennon -two years older than Macca, seven years older than Elton: in other words, he was a pop star since very near the birth of rock and remains one today. Still No US!

In his second autobiography “The Dreamer” (which he was anything but) (with ghost writer Ian Gittens) only by the tail of the long life (it ends with his 2020 tour being cancelled due to the pandemic) does he come to terms with his only failure. Perhaps his somewhat brittleness towards the Beatles (he prefers The Bee Gees, which is the moral equivalent of preferring Adam Faith to Cliff himself) has to do with his record labels indifference towards him over here -they preferred the four moptops.

Cliff is a serious Christian, he had planned to quit his career and devote himself to Christ back in 1964, but his extended Christian family convinced him he could do much more to further Christianity if he remained a pop star (the metaphor for homosexuality is clear: he had to come out as a Christian) and a goodly portion of his autobiography is about how his life as a Christian is lived, though like his musical career he isn’t very insightful as how his brain functions; he isn’t trying to convert us. This is a longish take on a longish story, that amounts to, er, Cliff Notes to the Cliff we know and love.

Opening with the song on the 2018 (not released here) Rise Up, written by a go to guy and professional pen for hire Terry Britten (he has a credit on “What’s Love Got To Do With It”) “The Dreamer”, but soon doubles back to India where he was born in 1940 and left in 1948 after the country ceased being a British Colony. His parents and three sisters went from the relatively rich days in India to a poverty stricken London where they lived six in a room.

In 1956, at the age of 16, he heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” coming out of a radio and it was over, school, white collar work, everything was shunted aside as he pursued his dream of being an English Elvis Presley. By 1958, Cliff had released the first real UK born rock song, “Move It” (by the early Shadows guitarist Ian Samwell) (a song so great power-pop maven Marshall Crenshaw once covered it) and began releasing hit single after hit single, 23 in succession and a # 1 hit every decade after.

Cliff uses his immense career to walk you through years and years and years of recording and releasing hits which foregoes any serious attempt to analyze his middle of the road 70s onwards and his autobiography settles into a rut of touring and records both secular and religious, friends and family, plus tennis and Church.

“The Dreamer” is not sold to us particularly well, the prose are bland and the insights can be unrevealing, and still there is a lack of sophistry that defines plain spoken and on point and if your interest is in Cliff the smart young man, you’ve got it. The most revealing moment is when an eight year old Cliff, in England for the first time in 1948, was bullied at his Secondary Modern (High School here, though not quite High School -High School for kids with no chance at University) by boys mistaking him being born in India with being a native American, punched his way back and ended it. That is part of his extremely competitive nature that despite being a man good enough to remain close to his backing band The Shadows (Hank Marvin is the definitive English guitarist), it still didn’t stop him battling it out on the charts, didn’t stop him from firing the man who wrote “Move It” and calling out the late fascist President Franco of Spain for rigging the Eurovision Song Contest against him. That competitive nature is central to what Cliff chooses to reveal, he barely touches on his love life at all and doesn’t give his third and fourth movies (the epics “The Young Ones” and “Summer Holiday”) their due. He answers question of his romantic life in a desultory manner, dismissing the only woman he made love to, Carol Costa, with an if you are that interested look it up and admitting to a sexual indifference that verges on celibacy; he doesn’t explain this anomaly and his faith certainly doesn’t explain it, Churches of the Anglican Communion have no restrictions on the marriage of deacons, priests, bishops, or other ministers to a person of the opposite sex. Who is this guy? You won’t find out here. Cliff was 20 at the time of his affair with Jet Harris’s’ wife and it reads like a rarity, since Cliff would come out against premarital sex (adultery goes without saying), it smells of hypocrisy, and also doesn’t: there is an x factor to Cliff and he doesn’t deal with it. He writes himself without revealing himself.

Cliff’s love life has been the subject of conjecture for decades, assumed to be a closeted homosexual he denies it on its face and claims it was the tabloids printing lies as his anger bubbles over. Cliff adds that even if he was gay (he supports gay marriage) it was nobody’s business. And just to unpack that a little, gay sex was punishable by death in the late 1800s and still a crime as late as the 1970s (almost unconscionable, England’s Public School were sexually segregated and a hotbed of buggery) , if he had been outed even via innuendo it could have been disastrous: he could have gone to prison or a mental hospital, not to mention it ending the career of a man who decided not to marry a woman because he would have lost 20% of his audience. While silence made perfect sense in the 1970s, by the 1980s with A.I.D.s ravaging the gay community (in the US and elsewhere), silence did equal death and Act-Up began outing closeted celebrities, so while it is true Cliff’s sexuality is none of our business, fame has a price. I have no idea and, honestly, don’t care except in an Act-Up manner.

Is he or isn’t he gay is a matter of conjecture, what isn’t is that the Berkshire police leaked the story to the BBC who had helicopters in the air and foot soldiers at his door, and filmed a raid on Richard’s house after a man in his 30s claimed Cliff had molested him when he was 13 at a Billy Graham revival meeting. Clearly untrue, it was a waking nightmare for Cliff who received both money and an apology from the Police and from the BBC.

Musically, as an artist, he had a terrific 50s and early 60s, with his lush and boyish good looks he took the pursuit of fun mode of Elvis and made it buoyant and beguiling, Cliff had no interest in anything but being Elvis, especially including his fanbase of screaming girl fans: the teenage rebellion didn’t really matter to him. Considered lascivious at first, that wasn’t Cliff’s interest, he didn’t want to be a rebel, he wanted to become a mainstream pop star and was as likely to perform middle of the road ballads as early rock sounding songs. That made him fair game for all would be hipsters (and certainly the music press) though at his worse his voice could sell even the mundane and it could be scarily predictable syrup ballad after syrup ballad. By the 80s he admits to have lost a lot of interest in his singing career, recording his vocals miles from the folks performing the music and allowing his management a huge hand in choosing the material, and yet still managed to hit # 1 quite often and when his interest revived he got back into it and the hits kept coming. In the annals of rock, as read from the US, he is a footnote but in the UK his phenomenal success, as well as his earliest albums, Cliff, Cliff Sings, and Me And My Shadows, were pinnacles of Brit rock and the gateway for the entire Mersey Beat sound. You can add many songs to those two, everything from “Devil Woman” to “We Don’t Talk Anymore” though not many albums and if you look at the 1996 Cliff’s impromptu concert at Wimbledon during a rain delay, when he wanted to entertain on the spot (see the video at the beginning of this article) he started with “Summer Holiday,” “The Young Ones” and “Bachelor Boy” before detouring to his debut album and his cover of Presley’s “All Shook Up” and concluded with the set’s most recent song, 1968’s “Congratulations”. Obviously, Richard wasn’t fooling himself and when it came time to entertain he went for his classic early stuff.

But he doesn’t appear to have cared for Merseybeat and while he doesn’t say, he must have loathed the hippies and psychedelia. The very tenants of hippiedom went against his grain, “love not war” is fine but “Free love” not at all, drugs and promiscuity were the hallmarks of the sixties and he refused to swing. Richard remained true to his MOR sensibilities (and also capable of AOR) and if he was given to give heed to the young generation, them bouncing him out of the charts and off radio would’ve been enough for him to be displeased. Later he suffered through ageism and pop’s search for the new, the radio stopped playing him and he nearly lost his copyright on his songs (there was a 50 year moratorium and he ended up at the E.U. and managed to change the law to 70 years while simultaneously losing the loyalties for everything from 1958 – 1963).

As a man, and as a symbol, he was the first baby boomer popstar and nearly the last one as well and as such understands both the music business and the god business very well, he could tell us but chooses not to exactly how his God works with him (he doesn’t hear voices, he looks at the magic of Christ as something without precise magic but rather living and breathing as self-revelation -in other words, a bore) . “The Dreamer” isn’t the sociological impact we might have hoped for, Cliff is the story of Post-World War II Britain and its decline and fall. As a stand in for lower register conservatism that birthed us Margaret Thatcher (though not Boris Johnson), his father came from the world that refused national assistance, that believed in the individual and were snookered while they were at it. His lush teenage years as a heartthrob in the midst of teen rebellion soon succumbed to the status quo while battling Mersey Beat and the Beatles for market share and swinging steadily and constantly to the middle. Completely misguided political, he was against the hippies and the punks (his insult of Johnny Rotten is gratuitous and wrong, though not without its reason) while misrepresenting them if he cared at all about anything except how politics were reflected in his faith. Another man might be considered a traitor to his class and Richard isn’t because his views only glance off his character and his artistry, if he advocated legalizing prostitution you might have wondered, that is not the case, his professed faith and belief coincides exactly with his politics.

His voice has a 2.5 octave range and yet it is a soothing tenor and it oozes a warmth and emotionalism that fits his character; within that range he floods his songs with, ahem, good news. Whether happy or sad he sounds unique enough to make him a more than capable cover artist. If the beginning of his career was the true artistry of rock, his ballads were not and yet together they gave a world of meaning to teen romance and beyond. It doesn’t feel like Richard made a wrong turn anywhere, he made his own choices and stood by them as few before, and the result is a life bereft of much controversy, I mean if your biggest insult is faith in God, right?

In “The Dreamer” Cliff has had a wonderful life, over and above the usual rush and tumble, he was not a dreamer but a steely eyed businessman and pop musician, he was an immediate success and remained committed to his career and his religion to a degree. He gave up many things to pursue them and did so with unerring success. If EMI had pushed him he would have been huge here (and you have to wonder what Clive Davis might have done). We have never had a man like Cliff Richard, he is the epitome of a world he embraces and if political he is very conservative (and that is reflected in his hatred of UK punk). But his hatreds, apartheid for one, tabloid journalism for another, are documented with power and conviction, and he is a true philanthropist and a leader for the Church Of England embraced by (gasp) Billy Graham. Though”The Dreamer” reads like a collection of recording and concert stats, real estate deals, and closed curtains, it rings completely true and if that is all true only as far as it goes, if your interest lie in Cliff and/or UK pop, it is an enjoyable and enlightening trip through his life (so far).

Grade: B+

Cliff Richard And His Mom

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