“Dusty! Queen of the Postmods” - Annie J. Randall

An exclusive interview with Annie J. Randall, author of “Dusty! Queen of the Postmods”,
by Nancy J. Young of Let’s Talk Dusty!

Dubbed the "White Queen of Soul," singer Dusty Springfield became the first British soloist to break into the U.S. Top Ten music charts with her 1964 hit "I Only Want to Be with You"--a pop classic followed by many others, including "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "Son of a Preacher Man." Today she is usually placed within the history of the Beatles-led "British Invasion" or seen as a devoted acolyte of Motown. In this penetrating look at her music and career, Annie J. Randall shows how Springfield's contributions transcend the narrow limits of those descriptions and how this middle-class former convent girl became perhaps the unlikeliest of artists to achieve soul credibility on both sides of the Atlantic.

Randall reevaluates Springfield's place in sixties popular music through close investigation of her performances as well as interviews with her friends, peers, professional associates, and longtime fans. As the author notes, the singer's unique look--blonde beehive wigs and heavy black mascara--became iconic of the mid-sixties postmodern moment in which identity scrambling and camp pastiche were the norms in swinging London's pop culture. Randall places Springfield within this rich cultural context, focusing on the years from 1964 to 1968, when she recorded her biggest international hits and was a constant presence on British television. The book pays special attention to Springfield's close collaboration and friendship with American gospel singer Madeline Bell, the distinctive way Springfield combined US soul and European melodrama to achieve her own musical style and stage presence, and how her camp sensibility figured as a key element of her artistry.

annie-portraitAnnie J. Randall is Associate Professor of Musicology at Bucknell University. The coauthor of “Puccini and 'The Girl': History and Reception of Girl of the Golden West” and editor of “Music, Power, and Politics”, she is Vice-President of the International Society for the Study of Popular Music-US branch and Co-Editor of the Music/Culture Series of Wesleyan University Press. Her book, “Dusty! Queen of the Postmods” is published by Oxford University Press.

 

N: Thank you, Annie, for agreeing to be interviewed by Let’s Talk Dusty! First question--How did you become interested in Dusty as a subject of research and analysis, and what qualifications and training do you possess that qualified you to write a scholarly monograph on Dusty?

A: The point of entry was simple: a love of Dusty’s songs, curiosity about the person who sang them, and recognition that her voice and repertoire were unique. I think it was mainly curiosity about Dusty’s musical imagination that got me into this project. I’m trained as a music historian and have a Ph.D. in that subject though I’m also a composer and amateur pianist and electric guitarist. I like to sing too; I’m not very good at it, but I know enough about singing to know that what Dusty was doing with her voice was extraordinary.

N: Why did you write your book?

A: Dusty was a great musician and was an important cultural figure too, especially in the 1960s. As such, she merits special attention from scholars. Her life’s work deserves to be treated seriously; hence, a whole book devoted to Dusty’s musical imagination, its influences, her influence on later singers, and her role as representative of a new, transatlantic pop music. Knowing how simplistic narratives about pop musicians tend to become set in stone soon after their death, I wanted to put Dusty in a certain light—to highlight her amazing musicianship and to show the complexity of her public persona—to forestall in some way the one-dimensional views that tend to take hold.

N: Can you give examples of “one-dimensional views” of Dusty that your book seeks to contest?

A: The “tragic lesbian” storyline is one that I find particularly tedious. Another example of a simplistic reading is the often-repeated line that Dusty was “influenced by black music.” Of course she was, but it begs the question, well, what does that mean, “black” music? What about Dusty’s relationship to “white” music then? I wanted to dig beneath the surface of notions like these because I really think they affect the way we hear the music.

N: How long did it take you to write you book?

A: About six years from beginning to end.

N: That’s amazing. Did it take longer than you’d anticipated or did the subject (Dusty) explode on you as you began working—or perhaps six years is how long it takes to write a scholarly treatment of a pop singer?

A: I think that might be fairly standard for a heavily researched book on music. The hardest part and what took the longest amount of time was deciding what, exactly, to write about because Dusty had a long career and there’s just so much information out there about her. On top of all the recordings and TV performances, it was overwhelming. I threw away a lot of drafts before I came up with a structure and focus that seemed to work.

N: What kind of research did you do?

A: I’ve read pretty much everything that’s been published or broadcast on Dusty from the 1960s through to the present. This includes print sources as well as Internet, radio, and television sources. While doing this research, I was listening very closely to Dusty’s recordings and videos, analyzing the songs, studying her sound and look. I also interviewed many fans from the 1960s in addition to people who knew Dusty. The interviews included the usual suspects: Madeline Bell, Norma Tanega, Pat Rhodes, Simon Bell, Vicki Wickham, Derek Wadsworth). All but Vicki Wickham were in-person interviews. (We just couldn’t get our schedules together on the occasions when I was in New York so we settled for an e-mail interview.)

N: As you were researching and writing, did you encounter any surprises? Breakthroughs?

A: Yes, and those surprises and breakthroughs kept me going during such a long research project! As far as surprises: These came mainly in the form of nuggets of information and impressions derived from interviews. In themselves, they were not earth-shattering but often just a tiny phrase or sentence would put something in a completely different light and then, in turn, that would shed new light on something I had heard in Dusty’s music. Just hearing the tone in someone’s voice as they described Dusty was very meaningful to me. The breakthroughs would bubble up from the swamp after months/years of thought about something; different angles (seemingly unrelated) would suddenly come together and become clear enough for me to grasp them and write about them.

N: Can you tell us about such an instance or two?

A: Yes, during an interview, Howard Lifsey (a drag performer who does Dusty in his shows as Lori Le Verne) used the word “transformation” in a way that made certain aspects of drag performance take on profound meaning for me. Another instance was a passage in a fan letter that I quote at length about in the book. It’s a letter from Moira to Eddie (both teenagers), written in 1965. Moira was writing to Eddie about the time when Dusty (then a megastar who was mobbed by fans wherever she went) recognized her and called her by name. I was completely drawn into the magic of that interaction between star and teenage fan. It had a big influence on the tone of that whole section on fans.

N: You’ve mentioned several times “the hand of Dusty”—Dusty’s influence on your book—can you give an example or two of how her presence influenced your writing?

A: This is a common experience among authors who concentrate on a single historical figure, so it’s not that strange (perhaps just strange to admit it!) Without sounding spooky, it’s the feeling that the person you’re writing about is hovering nearby, looking over your shoulder, making sure that you’re getting it more or less right. And letting you know if you’re not! I would guess that this is inevitable after spending so much time thinking about a person. It’s probably a trick of the mind to think that Dusty was aiding me in some way, but I admit to having had that sensation, whatever it was. No doubt, as a result of the long periods of close concentration, I was becoming super-aware of my own thought process and liked to imagine that Dusty herself was somehow steering me in certain directions and away from others. As they say, whatever gets you through the night! I know that fans often speak of Dusty’s “presence”—well, I’m a fan and can certainly relate to this!

N: When did Dusty let you know you were going in the wrong direction? What was her “presence” like when you were taking a misstep? Was it a distinctly different feeling than when you felt you were going in the right direction?

A: I think it was about perspective rather than factual things. When I was off course, I seem to have been always steered back to the idea of emotional connection: Dusty’s connection to the music and the musicians she was working with, fans’ connections to Dusty, her music and to other fans, Dusty’s connection to fans, etc., the music itself as a means of connection. I also felt impelled to try to capture Dusty’s hipness and boldness. She was very hip and very bold and really daring in what she did on stage and with her voice. I tried to follow her example sometimes in my use of language and felt egged on to take some risks. Whether it was Dusty’s presence or not, there were times when I definitely felt blocked from going any farther with certain ideas (I can’t tell you what they were now because I threw them out). But when I was on the right track, I would actually be smiling and laughing as my fingers flew across the keys. Thank goodness there were no surveillance cameras in my house. This would have looked very strange indeed! I should add that there were no séances.

N: Can you explain the title of your book?

A: It’s a play on a couple of different things: “White Queen of Soul,” “Queen of the Mods” (a title that was more widely associated with Cathy McGowan though occasionally conferred upon Dusty), and the pop music habit of calling people king, queen, empress, duke, count, etc. “Postmod” is short for a term used by cultural historians and critics—“postmodernist.” I used this in the title to signal that I was bringing the idea of postmodernism into the discussion of Dusty’s 1960s self-creation. Dusty, in many ways, embodies the traits of postmodernism—pastiche, undermining traditional assumptions about identity—and brought them squarely into the realm of 1960s pop music. She did it so consistently and so well, that I thought she deserved the crown!

N: Who is the audience for your book? Scholars? Fans?

A: Both will find something of interest here, I hope. I’m a scholar and musician myself, so I hope that my own community of scholars will respect the quality of the work even if they don’t have an affinity for popular music. But I’m also a fan and hope that I am speaking to that community too. I have found that Dusty’s fans understand that what Dusty was doing musically was very sophisticated; they want to hear about Dusty’s artistry—and that’s where I am coming from too. I found also that fans are weary of the near-total recent preoccupation on Dusty’s private life. I wouldn’t say that this is a typical book about a pop musical figure in that it foregoes the hype and tries to get at what really made Dusty such an important musician. There’s a lot of real digging beneath the surface here that I think fans and scholars alike might appreciate.

N: Is there any specialized knowledge fans might need to better appreciate your book?

A: I think different parts of the book will strike people in different ways. The chapter that is entirely about Dusty’s music has some technical language in it, but I have also included references to the recordings (minute and second markings) so that readers can listen and hear what I’m referring to in those passages. I imagine that really zealous fans will read that chapter with their headphones on and with a stack of CDs and DVDs close at hand.

N: Or iPods!

N: What misconceptions about Dusty do you hope your book will address (and how)?

A: I’m presenting a deeply researched view of Dusty as a brilliant musician and complicated celebrity. My opinion is that Dusty has been viewed more often than not by pop music scholars as a blond bimbo and little else. I’m annoyed that she doesn’t appear at all in some treatments of 1960s pop music or that she appears as a footnote to the British Invasion/Motown story of the mid-sixties. I argue in the book that this is just a flat out, mistaken view of that period and that to miss the Dusty story is to miss a massive chunk of the developing transatlantic cultural phenomenon.

N: It’s clear you think Dusty’s role in the history of popular music has been undervalued. What about Dusty the singer? In your book, are you able to describe what made so many of her songs so special?

A: That’s what I spent six years of my life trying to figure out! You’ll have to read the book for the answer to this question!

N: What were your biggest challenges in writing this book?

A: I know that this will come as a surprise to fans, but the biggest challenge was explaining to people who Dusty was; so many people simply could not connect her hits (which they knew) with her face or her name. I was astonished by this disconnect—that Dusty’s music had somehow become detached from her persona. We hear a Beatles or Motown song and instantly visualize the singers; but this was not the case with Dusty, I found. So it was a challenge trying to explain to people why I was so interested in someone that “no one knew.”

N: Actually, I’ve run across a similar disconnect with people—do you think it’s an American phenomenon? Dusty was so much more of a celebrity in Britain.

A: I think it’s more prevalent in the States though I’ve encountered a different form of it in Britain as well. In both places there seems to be fragmentary knowledge of Dusty—a bit here and a bit there—and somehow the bits fail to cohere into a single story.

N: What else were you up against in writing your book?

A: Another challenge was that many of Dusty’s inner circle were wary that the objective of my interview was to collect “dirt.” After all the scandal mongering, who could blame them? I had to do a lot of convincing and go through a degree of vetting before people would talk to me. They were surprised that I wanted to know about Dusty’s musical process more than anything else. I had to make it clear that I was a scholar and not a journalist.

N: Dusty fans often feel very protective of her, it’s true.

N: Were there people you wanted to interview for the book but were unable to?

A: I restricted myself to Dusty’s career in the 1960s and talked to many of the people who were there (who are still alive). It would have been amazing to interview John Franz or Doris Troy or Clive Westlake or Ivor Raymonde. Of course, Tom Springfield would be the prime person to talk to but he is famously reclusive and has made it known that he doesn’t give interviews at all. Had I decided to write about Dusty’s later career I would have sought out Carole Pope and some of the producers Dusty worked with in the States during that period. Luckily, many of these people have been interviewed in the various posthumous documentaries and in the Dusty Springfield Bulletin, so I was able to fill in a lot of blanks that way.

N: What are your hopes for the book?

A: I hope it succeeds in putting Dusty in a new light both for pop music scholars who have given her short shrift and those whose knowledge of Dusty is fragmentary.

N: What do you want readers to take from it?

A: I look at Dusty’s life and music from a number of different perspectives. I would hope that this results in a richer appreciation of Dusty’s role in 1960s pop culture.

N: And what about fans? What do you hope they will take from the book that might be different from—or in addition to—what scholars will take from it?

A: Fans will, of course, know a great deal about the subject going in and there probably won’t be that many surprises in terms of factual knowledge. They will, I hope, be intrigued by some of the musical interpretations, especially of Dusty’s melodramatic pop arias (the “big ballads”) and some of the cultural interpretations too.

N: Your book contains a long section on Dusty fans. What did you learn about Dusty fans in particular? Do you consider yourself a fan? What effect did being a fan have on you as a writer?

A: This was the most wonderful part of writing the book—meeting some of Dusty’s early fans. I’ve made many friends! Dusty’s fans tend to be sophisticated listeners who really care about their music. It was amazing to hear fans describe to me what Dusty’s music and Dusty herself meant to them. I thought of fans as an “expert community” or as “insiders” who allowed me to tap their expertise. I’m indebted to fans for sharing their thoughts on the music with me; I’m sure they’ll recognize many of their ideas integrated into the discussions. Yes! I’m a fan! Absolutely! Something Carole Gibson said to me really hit home: she hoped that I would make it clear in my writing that I was “simpatico” with Dusty and her music. Academics often assume a dispassionate voice and mask their own fandom in order to appear “objective.” Sometimes they even overcompensate and sound like they are making fun of their subject so as to project a proper distance. Carole had, I think, intuitively picked up on that (not from me, I hope, but perhaps from other scholarly things she’d read) and her remark really jolted me. I decided to dispense with the mask and write from the perspective of an avowed fan that also happened to be an academic. (Thanks, Carole!)

N: Finally, I want to know, what aspect of your book are you proudest of? Is there a particular insight, analysis, or other contribution that especially makes those six years of research worthwhile?

A: I like the way the book is organized; rather than taking a biographical or chronological approach, it is organized around themes, i.e. Dusty’s hair, her “black” sound, her musical high drama, and the discourses about her. I’m proud too of the way the discussions of camp performance and Dusty’s sexuality came together. Readers may not agree with me but I think I’ve put forward something solid to think about.

N: Are we witnessing a Dusty revival?

A: Definitely. We’ve all heard about the films that are being made (Nicole Kidman et al.) and the four books that are coming out this fall (Lynes, Cole, Davis, and mine), and the musicals that are finding their way to stages in Sydney, London, New York. It looks like a great trend to me.

N: Will Dusty—should she--be remembered as one of the “greats”?

A: Without question. Her voice is right up there with all the other singers who we know only by their first names. I think Dusty is the British Elvis, by the way.

N: I like that, and I think other fans will too. Do you rank Dusty above her contemporaries, such as The Beatles?

A: When compared to her contemporaries, it’s clear that Dusty was doing something completely different, musically. Dusty and the Beatles represent different cultural phenomena, and very different musical imaginations. Each deserves a great deal of close attention from scholars. As far as ranking them, I wouldn’t go there. Both are extraordinary and both had enormous influence on later generations of pop musicians, emphasis on both.

N: Do you plan to write more about Dusty?

A: Yes. I’ve concentrated here mostly on Dusty in the 1960s. There is much to say (and a lot we don’t yet know) about her career and life in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

N: What directions do you see for future Dusty scholarship?

A: More fan research would be good. The Dusty fan phenomenon is a story in itself and deserves to be studied. More memoirs from people who knew Dusty would be amazing. I’m hoping that Norma Tanega might write a memoir of her years in London when she and Dusty lived together. Because Norma is a musician herself, I think her memoir would be particularly illuminating. Also, she knew what Dusty was up to in California all those years—our knowledge of that period is still very sketchy. Same thing goes for Madeline Bell. Some fans have called for a full on, cradle to grave, minute-by-minute biography that brings together the public and private stories, complete with a comprehensive discography and videography. I’d like to see that too.

N: I do too, and I hope your book and others coming out this fall might inspire the right writer to take on that project. In closing—and I think this will tell other Dusty fans a lot about you—what are your favorite Dusty songs?

A: I tend to like the 1960s repertoire and love “Di fronte all’amore” and “I Wish I Never Loved You,” “Look of Love,” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.” “Little by Little” is a favorite as is “Spooky” and “Doodlin’.” “I Only Want to Be with You” always makes me smile and puts me in a good mood. As some fans have remarked, I think Dusty was talking to her fans in that song. “Son of a Preacher Man” and “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten”…and how can I leave out “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “All I See Is You”?

N: Thank you so much, and good luck with your book!

A: Thanks to you, Nancy!