Monday, January 06, 2014

RIP Phil Everly, 1939-2014

Global grief at the passing of Phil Everly was aptly soundtracked in more ways than one by the music he and elder brother Don made together, for the Everlys were the – sweet – sound of sadness.

Don’s voice may have been a bit more of a drawling caw, and occupying more of the solo stretches, but it was ideally complemented by Phil’s plaintive high harmonies prettying up the upbeat songs or turning even more winsome the almost-unbearably tender ballads.

The pair were not the first to bring such close-knit harmonies into then-emerging rock’n’roll, following in the countrified footsteps of, say, the Carter Family and later the Louvin Brothers among several.

Yet they provided a mainstream pop snap – and success – that would inspire future artists, such as their future touring partners Simon and Garfunkel or a young Lennon and McCartney.

That Everly influence can be heard resonantly on, for example, The Beatles’ intimately intricate "If I Fell" or – a few long years on - their swansong-album track "Because".

Don and Phil were also an early prototype for rock’n’roll’s feuding-brothers narrative, waging wars of words – or decade-long silences – to make Ray and Dave Davies or Noel and Liam Gallagher resemble the Jonas Brothers by comparison.

And yet their special chemistry was such as to produce, say, their chillingly instinctual revisit of "Let It Be Me" at a 1983 Royal Albert Hall reunion gig following ten years estranged.

Perhaps that sibling tension, simmering beneath the surface of those perfectly-blended voices, actually enhanced their harmonies – inspiring each to conjure intriguingly-divergent melody lines that nevertheless sounded so right together. 

Like John and Paul, Phil and Don gifted each other - and us - through harmonious rivalry.

Growing up the son of a folk music fan dad and a rock’n’roll-loving mum means remembering an Everly Brothers greatest hits cassette being among those most-played on long car journeys way back when in the, er, Eighties.

Back then much of the appeal here came not necessarily from those interwoven vocals, but the choppy yet chiming steel-string guitar chords, the high school hi-jinks of “Bird Dog” or “Wake Up Little Susie” and the rat-tat-tat-tat of “Claudette” or “Donna Donna”.

But there were also those chirpily catchy hooks, delivered so precisely, as well as the lovelorn ballads that even at their most potentially lachrymose – say, “Ebony Eyes” – remained just about gently earnest enough.

Those simple melodies with their to-the-point sentiments and deftly-constructed cadences came from and spoke of love, to all aspiring towards or affected – even, or especially, afflicted – by it.

Love at its most hurt or unrequited, rueful or bitter, joyful or yearning.

Few singers tug at the heartstrings, while shuddering shivers down the spine, like Phil and Don, and their music to woo to, cry over or simply, bittersweetly wallow in.

The irresistible middle of their take on "Love Is Strange" has Phil asking his older brother how he might convince a lost lover to return, prompting a swooning: ‘Baby, oh sweet baby, my sweet baby, please come home.’

"Yeah, that oughta bring her home, Don", admiring Phil warmly replies.

If only the mourning elder could now do the same for the missed younger, allowing him once more to, well, walk right back

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