I found myself relistening to a song on the Finding Your Feet playlist the other day. ‘Stainsby Girls’ by Chris Rea is a 1985 track about falling in love with a girl from Stainsby (which is a small village in Middlesborough, somewhere between Sheffield and Nottingham). It’s a simple song, fairly bland at first listen, but really gorgeously built and executed. I’m not a music reviewer, I know next to nothing about how to critique songs, but I was trying to figure out why this song is one of my unexpected faves. It surprised me. The first time I heard it, I was underwhelmed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and now I love it.
Those of a particular generation will remember Chris Rea. A musician from Stainsby who largely taught himself, he was regarded for a hot minute in the 80s as the UK’s response to Bruce Springsteen. There are definitely similar elements – working class boy from the industrial north, singing about life and love, pop/rock with a grass roots edge. Other hits are ‘Fool (If You Think It’s Over)’, ‘Road to Hell’, ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Josephine’. The only song of his I knew and recognised growing up, and which I thus consider his most well-known work for later generations, is ‘Driving Home for Christmas’.
The first time I listened to ‘Stainsby Girls’, I thought it was good, but . . . different. Underwhelming. I’m used to cheesy soaring melodies from 80s pop-rock – I lap them up, I want angsty lyrics and strong voices to shoot me up and slap me back down with all the subtlety of bricks (see Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ or A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ or Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’). This is not that kind of song.
It’s understated, building from a quiet beginning into a crescendo of guitar and keyboard, and is fairly typical of Rea’s laid-back style. I’m not using the right terms here, but I think there are two main parts to the song: a light overarching melody and the background chords/instrumentals which support it. Rea’s distinctive gravelly voice is restrained throughout, but carries the melody through the quieter parts. The background instrumentals are slightly different from the main melody; they’re solid but verge on repetitive. They’re lifted by the melody and by the additional flourishes of Rea’s guitar work and the saxophone. The song never gets dramatic or overly synthesized, instead adding in instrument layer by layer, and taking its time.
It’s not perfect. I think the guitar part at 1.44 aligns with the beat and rhythm almost awkwardly, like it was forced to fit within those bars until it was allowed free at the end (2.02). There’s a jarring simplicity about the song overall, and I honestly don’t have the knowledge to judge if that simplicity is because it is a technically simple song, or because it’s that deceptive simplicity which comes from combining a number of elements very well.
This still rings as pretty damn 80s to me, with that light synth in the background and the saxophone near the end, but it’s not ever cheesy. Not really. (I can’t say much for the video, heh.) I think my initial disappointment came from my expectations – I see ‘80s music’ and expect certain things. This seemed to deliver in some ways, but not in others, which then disappointed.
However, the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate its qualities. There’s a meatiness to this song that isn’t there in, say, ‘Don’t You Want Me’. The lyrics are simple but effective, focused on those elusive, otherworldly girls. Each gradual step up in the song – the extra layering of the background music at 0.50, start of the drum as percussion at 1.38, the ridiculous whistle at 1.44, the emotional lift at 2.10, into serious business by 2.18, the start of the end at 2.55, and then that glorious rush from 3.30 onwards – seems calculated and controlled. Even if it’s simple, it’s executed masterfully, and it satisfies.
On my first listen, I thought that the energy at the end should’ve come way earlier, should’ve been repeated throughout the song, so that the song could easily have been the cheesefests I adore. But I realised that that would make it a different song. This gradual build-up and eventual rush is deliberate, and all the better for it. I may be completely wrong about whether this song is good or not, but I love ‘Stainsby Girls’ for its subtle meatiness. I love ‘Take On Me’ for its unsubtle cheesiness. I think both are wonderful examples of music from that crazy decade.
Which leads me to the point of sharing this on my writing blog. This song never became a top ten hit, not in the UK or overseas – but here’s me, listening to it over thirty years later. Judging by the comments on the various videos for it, the song has legs, it has enduring fans, and it’s still resonating and meaningful to people now.
The romance genre is wide and bursting at the seams with content, some of it excellent, some of it great, some good, some okay, some bad, and some utter crap. ‘Good’ is highly subjective – and sometimes isn’t immediately apparent. Enjoy the end of year lists, but they’re far from the end of the game. Write with focus and deliberation, know your craft, keep things simple, make your work the best subtle meaty goodness or unsubtle cheesy delight that you can, and try not to worry about the rest. Who knows, maybe in thirty years’ time, people will still be picking your book up and saying, “This surprised me. The first time I read it, I was underwhelmed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and now I love it.”