45 at 33: Yello & Shirley Bassey’s The Rhythm Divine ft. Billy Mackenzie

I think it‘s fair to say I have a bit of a thing for music that sounds like it was made to soundtrack smartly dressed spies going about their shadowy business, and The Rhythm Divine, an icily cinematic single from Swiss pop duo Yello featuring a couple of big lunged Brits, is a classic of that particular sub-genre.

What’s so astonishing about it is for a beautifully arranged pseudo spy theme is how little of it there actually is. The brooding electronic ensemble is atmospheric and moves at a gloriously glacial pace, yet it‘s also incredibly sparse – just an ominous synthesiser presence tensely punctuated by the occasional horn stab.

it’s a Bond theme minus the bombastics, made for shadowy transactions in dark corners of romantic European cities.

The entire record hangs on two things – Miss Shirley Bassey’s perfectly pitched, precision timed lead splitting more than a few octaves (see, she does have the range), yet which stays on just the right side of hysterical at the same time.

Secondly, Shirl‘s supported by the always inscrutable Associates’ mainman Billy Mackenzie’s multi-tracked, Greek chorus-like backing vocal. In case you‘re wondering, both are just sublime.

One of the greatest James Bond themes that never was then.

The Rhythm Divine is in fact a Bond theme minus the bombastics, made for shadowy transactions in dark corners of romantic European cities. In fact, it makes me want to don a beret and sit in a café in Warsaw (to Rome), awaiting instructions from a beautiful Russian double-agent with an impenetrable name.

Just me? OK then.

Extracted from One Second, Yello‘s fifth original studio album, The Rhythm Divine was issued to coincide with the release of Timothy Dalton‘s first outing as 007, The Living Daylights, and while that probably seemed like a super if very cheeky marketing idea at the time, it meant the single was competing with aha and, to a lesser extent, the Pretenders, in the charts. So for most casual pop fans, a record by two strange men they’d never really heard of and a lady their parents used to like wasn’t going to be all that tempting.

Anyway, it wouldn‘t be long before our Shirl dashed off a fully orchestrated slightly Morricone-esquerendition for the tellybox. Take a bow.

Apropos of everything and nothing, the 45 came out the week I officially became an adult, and began a slow snail trail up the British singles charts before running out of gas at a lowly No. 54 the last week of August 1987. The song sitting comfortably at No. 2 (behind Rick Astley‘s immovable Never Gonna Give You Up)?

Only another trans-generational synthpop team-up in the shape of What Have I Done To Deserve This? by Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield.

Talk about a twist of fate.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: A previously unreleased 12″ version of the song, featuring Mackenzie on lead vocals, was recorded for The Glamour Chase LP and first issued in 1990 on the Associates compilation Popera. It‘s majestic.

 

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Steve Pafford
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