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45 at 33: Diana Ross gets in the middle of the Bee Gees’ Chain Reaction

Diana Ross has announced she’s to celebrate her 75th birthday in supreme style for the rest of the year, starting with a special and unique Diamond Diana once-in-a-lifetime live event in Los Angeles on Tuesday, which is scheduled to begin shortly after various cinema screenings of Diana Ross: Her Life, Love and Legacy documentary, which also includes a remastered cut of that infamous Live in Central Park concert film from 1983.

The dirty diva — probably the most ageless performer of her generation — will be celebrating her milestone at Sunset Boulevard’s Hollywood Palladium on Tuesday, March 26, inviting fans to embrace their inner camp by wearing ultra glam apparel with sequins, beads, and feathers galore. The Diamond Diana & Family & Friends 75th Birthday Celebration evening will feature the former Supremes frontwoman performing classic songs from throughout her career, and family members and special guests will join her in celebrating her big day.

Slightly annoyingly, although writing this from California (I’m helping to arrange a celebration of my aunt Julia’s life for what would have been her 65th birthday, May 24*), I’m booked on a non-movable flight to Korea the day before. Grrr. The show was only announced earlier this month, though I’d hazard a guess Diana and her team were aware of her birthday quite some time ago. Tsk. I’m told she’s planning long-awaited British and Australian tours so perhaps all is not lost.

With a catalogue of riches spanning almost 60 years, Diana Ross is one of the world’s most successful artists of all time. In the UK alone, she’s racked up a whopping 58 Top 40 singles and 39 Top 40 albums. Incidentally, 33 years ago this very week, Ross was celebrating her third and final week at the top of the Official Chart with the Bee Gees-helmed banger Chain Reaction, her most successful single release ever.

Chain Reaction’s chart-topping supremacy arrested a steep decline in Ross’ commercial fortunes in Britain. Her previous eight singles didn’t even trouble the Top 40, with the previous 45 Eaten Alive checking in at a lowly 71, despite being written and produced by some famous friends: Teaming with Barry Gibb for an album and single featuring MJ, fresh from the world-conquering success of Thriller, on the lead single were moves clearly aimed at producing a smash hit.

So, what went wrong? In an issue of America’s music trade bible Billboard, noted essayist Nelson George sensed trouble in the jungle, writing in the 5 October 1985 issue, “It will be fascinating to see the reaction to Eaten Alive, which features the songwriting and production talents of the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson…The record will get airplay — but, despite the reputations of all involved, will it sell through?”

Miami sound machines, 1985

Just a week earlier, writer Brian Chin’s Dance Trax column also gave the song a less-than-effusive notice: “Diana Ross allows Michael Jackson to take her to a positively weird outer limit of theme and production…even more rockish and nerve-wracking than last year’s Swept Away”. Perplexed may have described the way Ross felt reading notices like these, considering she’d just enjoyed a Top 10 smash in America with Missing You, a Lionel Ritchie-penned tribute to her fallen fellow Detroit and Motown buddy, Marvin Gaye.

It looked like commercial dynamite on paper. Barry Gibb had been on a major hot streak for years, both as a performer and as a producer; after a pause in scoring major hits with his brothers as the Bee Gees, Gibb wrote and produced Barbra Streisand’s hugely successful Guilty album in 1980 (an album that, incidentally, held Diana’s diana from the top spot in the US), followed by hits for Dionne Warwick (1982’s Heartbreaker) and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (1983’s Islands In The Stream, initially intended for Gaye).

Reportedly, the idea of teaming Gibb and Ross had been floated around for a while; finally, following the release of her largely self-produced Swept Away album in late 1984, a deal was struck and Gibb’s team began cutting demos for Miss Ross.

Eaten Alive, Dead or Alive. These poptastic albums were released in 1984 and 1985: one thriller and one filler. But can you guess which? Go on, spin it round…

Slated for an August release, the LP ended up being delayed a month; reaction to the lead single and title track, co-produced by Gibb with his usual cohorts of Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson and Jackson, ranged from indifference to bewilderment. Rolling Stone’s Davitt Sigerson called Jackson’s input “unhelpful help” and dubbed the song “certainly his worst effort since Muscles,” while Billboard called it “high-tech, high-pressure paranoia for the modern age.

Although the song took off at R&B radio and in dance clubs thanks to an extended 12″ mix, Eaten Alive was completely ignored in mainstream media, which sank the parent album and sapped interest in the entire project, though it did hit the Top 20 in several European territories including Italy where it reached No.10, Sweden No.14 and Switzerland No.17.

Subsequent single Chain Reaction would suffer an even worse fate in the United States, barely making the R&B charts and its route up the Hot 100 stalling at 66; and even that was its second attempt, with a superfluous remix in 1986. Overseas, however, the track lived out its own lyrics, exploding in popularity throughout several countries including the United Kingdom, where it became Diana’s second chart-topper; the first, 1971’s I’m Still Waiting wasn’t a hit in her homeland either. Go figure.

Interestingly, Chain Reaction almost didn’t make it onto the album; according to the Gibbs, it was added after every other song had been finished. “The whole album was done, and Diana was still looking for that one song she could call a single,” Barry Gibb recalled in 2001. We asked her, ‘How do you feel about doing something that you might have done 25 years ago?’”

Maurice Gibb extrapolated, “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make a great Supremes record — we’ve already got the lead singer!’”. So that’s exactly what the brothers did, crafting a brilliantly compact and compelling pop single with an enormously catchy refrain. Though the saucy lyrics are way more suggestive than anything Holland-Dozier-Holland could have turned out back in the 1960s.

I think the Americans call it eating out:

“You make me tremble when your hand moves lower

You taste a little then you follow slower

Nature has a way of yielding treasure

Pleasure made for you, ooh!”

What semi rhymes with chain reaction? Fake orgasm. Only this feels very real to me.

“You let me hold you for the first explosion

We get a picture of our love in motion.”

It’s as if they knew homemade porn was going to be a thing..

The Motownish melody of Chain Reaction is sharp and instantly memorable and gives Diana plenty to work with. As The Diana Ross Project‘s summation makes clear: ”The diva delivers her best vocal on the entire album; never once is she difficult to understand, and her voice is treated as the star, which means she’s not competing against clanging contemporary backing tracks. Along with a pitch-perfect, energetic performance on the verses and chorus, she also finally gets to display a little more power, such as when she wails out the title phrase at around 3:30 amidst the uplifting and constantly changing key of the music.”

Ross’ work is also smartly evocative of her earliest performances as a recording artist; listen at roughly 37 seconds in, as Diana lets out a coquettish sigh straight out of her Supremes days. Sadly, that kind of signature touch (by touch) is absent on every other track on the Eaten Alive album; conversely, when Barry Gibb’s demos for the project were released as iTunes downloads in 2006, Chain Reaction was missing, which means it’s possible Ross didn’t have a guide vocal to mimic.

In any case, Chain Reaction is the clear triumph of the album and ‘80s Diana; it was the obvious first single, but released second, in November of 1985 in the US; after which it disappeared quickly with a dismal peak of 95. But when EMI released song was released internationally, it caught on immediately, sailing pole position for three weeks in the United Kingdom and also topping the charts in Australia and Germany. Ross’ American label RCA responded by remixing the song and reissuing it in the States; it returned to the charts in May, but after a promising start, its route stalled out at 66, marking a disappointing final appearance on the pop singles chart in her home country.

In Britain, it was a completely different story, Ross scored a further 17 Top Forty singles, including further contemporaneous remixes of Chain Reaction and I’m Still Waiting plus a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem I Will Survive, and two versions of the schmaltzy cornball ballad When You Tell Me That You Love Me; the inexplicable duet version with Westlife becoming her final look-in on the UK hit parade… so far.

My 1986 diary indicates that I bought the 12” ‘Special Dance Mix’ of Chain Reaction as a not so sweet 16 year-old on Wednesday 13th February, the day before Valentine’s Day and the day after my parents’ 17th wedding anniversary. The song had moved up to No.14 on the UK chart and the promotional video was being played on Top Of The Pops on a regular basis. Can we talk about that video for a minute?

Dripping old school glamour from every orifice, Ross looks as lithe and lovely as ever, resplendent in a dazzling array of star wardrobe power from mink to lamé to that fabulous PVC coat at the beginning. The camp, colour sequences are interspersed with black and white retro footage designed to resemble a 1960s pop programme, in particular Shindig!, Jack Good’s variety show which started airing on ABC in America the same year The Supremes started their incredible run of hits, 1964. 

Best of all, is the sequence that starts at two minutes in, where Diana, fur coated up to the nines, walks through flames to flash a bit of shoulder, all the while a gaggle of handsome young men in regulation ripped Levi 501’s give up trying to dance and decide to clamber over a wire fence to get to Diana but then, impossibly, decide to run past her, because they’re clearly more interested in each other. 

It’s funny, silly, cheesy, incredibly camp and absolutely bloody brilliant.

Amazingly, all four members of my family liked Chain Reaction, even if I was the only one to bother to buy it. My mum, who’d bought a couple of Supremes singles back in the day, thought the video was clever.

“I love the black and white bits. It’s just like it was in the ‘60s, like Ready Steady Go or something.”   

“Maybe it’s an old song from that time?,” piped up my father, ever the contrarian.

“Don’t be stupid,” retorted mum.

“The Bee Gees are behind it,” piped up I.

“Ah, I can hear Barry Gibb now you mention it,” said mum.

I retrieved my twelve-inch from upstairs and showed them the sleeve. I think I got a perverse measure from owning a record by a dinger older than either of them.

Black don’t crack, but paper does

“Aren’t her eyes dark?,” observed mum, five years Diana’s junior. “They’re almost black.”

The song was No.1 three weeks later. 

“Do you like No.1?” I asked at college, during a common room chat about about the hits of the week.

“It’s alright”, came the collective response. As per usual. As I mentioned in the previous 45 at 33 post, how I longed for more musical mates who were serious purveyors of pop the way I was.

As I mentioned earlier, Chain Reaction was Ross’ final chart-topper. Famously, it held off another retro throwback from the top spot, when Absolute Beginners, David Bowie’s ‘50s styled title theme from the movie of the same name, had to contend with being runner up, giving The Dame his final single in the Top Five.

The upper echelons of the charts were chock full of oldies that month: Sinatra, Cliff Richard, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Stevie Wonder, even Sam Cooke and Tavares. But none of them have the effervescent luminescence that Diana Ross had and still has. The song’s authors even released their own version of the song in 1990, strangely retitling it Secret Love.

Happy birthday Diana, you’re truly the very essence of star quality. Shine a light for the whole world over, and long may you reign supreme.

Steve Pafford, San Francisco

*Talking of California, I was all set to accompany my aunt to see Diana at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, September 2014, had my passport not been stolen just before I was due to fly out. Grrr

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