Friday, November 18, 2011

The Desert’s Mystery: Everything but the Girl's “Missing”

I don’t often get song lyrics wrong. No, I did not think that last night, Madonna dreamt of some bagels in “La Isla Bonita” (it helps that I grew up speaking some Spanish and knew it was an invocation to San Pedro). I did not believe anyone would excuse themselves so that they can kiss some guy. It used to bother and amuse me that North Americans could not get the words correct to songs in their first language while no one bothered learning anything other than English as a means of communication. This used to annoy me until it happened to me in late 1995.

The British dance duo Everything but the Girl (who I will refer to as “EBTG” from here on out) were known to underground American audiences, but had never achieved mainstream success despite considerable critical acclaim. They had made their reputation as a folk and jazz act to some success in their native Britain but hadn’t broken through outside of Europe. Their 1994 single “Missing” was a guitar single about a woman pining for her long-gone lover, one who vanished without a trace but who more than likely simply changed addresses. She goes to his street from time to time, wandering and wondering what might have been. It’s a mournful confession, the kind of lament you hear in the wee small hours of the morning after a drunken night of introspection. It’s exactly the kind of self-reflective poem or letter you write, re-read the morning after and, in the harsh light of day, throw out in a fit of embarrassment and disgust.

In 1995, EBTG decided to give “Missing” to American house music DJ Todd Terry to remix and play in nightclubs. The resulting work turned the song on its head. The opening slam and staccato rhythm, followed by a lilting guitar pluck, and slithering beat was a call to attention. When that slam first got onto the radio, it made you stop and listen. In the brief acoustic interlude, EBTG lead singer Tracey Thorne announces that she had stepped off the train and was walking down her street. She knows her lover is no longer there, but she’s going to check it out anyway. The beat was sinister and, paired with Thorne’s plaintive vocal, produced musical alchemy. Her little trip down your street was fueled with a mission and a driving force that suggests her quest to find you will not be denied. It’s the sort of single that Adele Hugo would have recorded had she been born a century and a half later and had a recording studio in her room at the asylum.

“Missing” finally took flight and gave EBTG their biggest rush of mainstream success. The single was a floor-filler in nightclubs and its maxi-single (remember those?), the only place you could buy the remixed version that didn’t appear on its parent album Amplified Heart, was one of the biggest sellers of the decade. Radio picked up on the single and it ended up spending an entire year on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually peaking at #2 and becoming one of the biggest smashes of 1996. To this day, it remains a popular adult contemporary favourite (in both the original and remixed versions), gets considerable play as a “way back track” or “retro” classic, and if you play this at a club somewhere, it will still fill the floor. It’s so recognizable it was even featured as the unofficial theme song for Saturday Night Live’s provocative, flamboyantly gay character Mango (which was of course some of the better bits of SNL for the last decade and a half).

So back to my assertion that I don’t song lyrics wrong often: for the first few listens, before the days of Googling song lyrics, I thought that Tracey Thorne misses you, “like the desert’s mystery”. It always confused me as to what mystery the desert held (was it in Lawrence of Arabia?), but eventually an enlightened friend with better hearing than I do said it was “like the deserts miss the rain”.