sun 26/05/2024

Imagine: Just One Falsetto, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Imagine: Just One Falsetto, BBC One

Imagine: Just One Falsetto, BBC One

A thoughtful rumination on the singers who aim higher

Alan Yentob ponders whether he's got what it takes to go high

Despite the tee-hee title, the promise of a journey from “high culture to high camp” and the nudge-and-wink comment that the falsetto is “able to transport us to heaven knows where”, Alan Yentob’s examination of male singers who’ve chosen to “falsify their voice” was a thoughtful, though scattershot rumination on men who choose to take their voice beyond its natural range.

Making the choice to embrace the high register isn’t just about potentially inviting accusations of effeminacy, it can bring self-inflicted physical damage too. Not being equipped to go high, grown men can suffer. Images from a camera inserted into the nose of the singer of a Darkness tribute band showed a vocal chord afflicted with a callous-like bump – a nodule. The organ’s membrane couldn’t take any more of the gymnastics asked of it and reacted by forming the nodule. It wouldn’t flex to mimic the sound emitted by Justin Hawkins, the band's real-life singer. Surgery was the only option.

Russell Thompkins Jr StylisticsWhy would anyone do this? Internal damage and, as British countertenor Iestyn Davies attested, the equivalent of dealing day-to-day with “carry your handbag, darling” comments come with the territory. Many of the contributors pointed out that female audiences melt in the presence of these voices. Anyone who’s seen the classic, oft-repeated clip of fans’ reactions to Demis Roussos will have already surmised this. Emotion bleeds from men singing in high registers. Hayden Thorpe, singer of Wild Beasts, declared that his singing “pulls me out of the everyday, [it’s] expressive”. Russell Thompkins Jr (pictured right) of soul greats The Stylistics used the same terminology, saying, “It’s just expressive.” It’s also a timbre that cuts through – whether live or on the radio. Or even while yodelling across the Alps.

Which, although it wasn’t said, has to be part of the reason Frankie Valli adopted the style for The Four Seasons. Radio was king in the Sixties, and tiny transistor sets had equally tiny speakers. The upper register was suited to the weeny, bass-cancelling medium. Still, there was an ambivalence from the practitioners seen in the programme. “I like singing regular, straight music," said Valli, "like a man would sing.” The high voice is something other, something not manly, perhaps why The Bee Gees explicitly asserted in “Staying Alive” that “You can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman's man”.

SylvesterWith disco king Sylvester (pictured left) that wasn’t quite the case. But it is for Eddie Holman, the “(Hey There) Lonely Girl” one-hit wonder, a man with gargantuan levels of assurance. Proclaiming himself “one of the greatest singers of all time”, he said that he “inspired every falsetto singer since the time I started”. Yentob was more tentative when trying out the style. He'll never be the greatest, and you could see his heart wasn't in it.

For many music fans, the attraction is in the drama. Yentob first registered the sound in the music of The Beach Boys, which evoked the California sunshine. In pop, the falsetto or high-register male voice soars over the instruments, the arrangements and ensemble. Exposed, the voice has to be strong, carrying an immediate melody. This pure expression of the pop aesthetic brings an extra, unreal dimension to the music. Equally, when deployed with restraint it can make already fine songs arresting.

Yentob’s inspirations Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys cropped up, along with their vocal prototype The Four Freshmen. So did Earth Wind and Fire’s fabulous frontman Phillip Bailey and a thoughtful Brian May. Obviously, in this stimulating hour it was impossible to mention every high-register or falsetto great. But enjoy some YouTube clips of a few more overleaf.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch Jay & the Americans perform “Cara Mia”

Watch Tim Buckley perform “Come Here Woman”

Watch Curtis Mayfield perform “Pusherman”

Watch Led Zeppelin perform “Immigrant Song”

Watch Klaus Nomi perform “Total Eclipse”

Watch the video for Muses’s “Stockholm Syndrome”



Imagine......Just One Falsetto on BBC was great but why no mention of Paddy McHugh or David Mcalmont: two British men with truly astonishing falsetto voices?

Very interesting programme however was also dissapointed to see no David Mcalmont the man has the most amazing voice.

I'm surprised there was no mention of Jimmy Somerville. His 'Smalltown Boy' in the 80s was a great example of falsetto emphasising the poignancy of the song:

What an appalling article! There are so many things wrong in this badly written piece I don't know where to start! Why write about this when you obviously have absolutely no idea what your talking about?!

Shouldn't that be "callus"?

... and what about David Hurley, ex-Kings Singer, beautiful high voice ...

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