ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: STARLIGHT EXPRESS (1984)
1) Overture; 2) Rolling Stock; 3) Call Me Rusty; 4) A Lotta Locomotion; 5) Pumping Iron; 6) Freight; 7) AC/DC; 8) He Whistled At Me; 9) The Race; 10) There's Me; 11) Poppa's Blues; 12) Belle The Sleeping Car; 13) Starlight Express; 14) The Rap; 15) U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.; 16) Rolling Stock (reprise); 17) CB; 18) Right Place, Right Time; 19) I Am The Starlight; 20) He Whistled At Me (reprise); 21) Race: The Final; 22) No Come Back; 23) One Rock & Roll Too Many; 24) Only He; 25) Only You; 26) Light At The End Of The Tunnel.
I have never read a single book of the Rev W. Awdry's Railway Series, so I do not have the faintest idea if Rev Ll. Webber's musical interpretation of these oeuvres matches the vision of their literary creator. I am pretty sure, though, that the Railway Series did not as thoroughly explore all of the clichés of popular literary genres as Starlight Express does it with popular music — and, therefore, deduce that, for Lloyd Webber, the cutesy stories about anthropomorphic trains were mostly just an excuse to write something lite — for the «young adult» or whatever that species is called — and indulge in a bunch of simplistic pleasures.
Simplistic, but genuinely fun. Like Tell Me On A Sunday, Starlight Express sort of got lost in between the hugeness of Cats and Phantom Of The Opera, but it is exactly because of its relative lack of ambition that I can easily see how the talking trains could be more sympathetic than the talking cats or the talking ghosts. However, there are two things one has to accept before proceeding: (1) the storyline, the train characters, and their life problems sound very silly, so if you cannot stand silly, get outta here; (2) the music is as derivative as it comes — derived from all over the place, but with barely a finger lifted to write a strikingly original melody. (Oh, and the actors are all supposed to be roller-skating throughout the show, but, fortunately, the original cast recording has no whirring on it, so I suppose the singers were skate-free in the studio.)
This strange bout of «laziness» resulted in the album having no big hit single, no ʽMemoryʼ to flood the airwaves, but that is hardly a reason to complain: despite the overwhelming diversity of styles, Starlight Express is sternly coherent, and does not really need a big cathartic statement. It's just one for the kids, really, and it works well from that point of view. The real downside is that, having temporarily re-oriented himself on the pop/rock idiom, Sir Andrew also got entangled in 1980s production — replete with generic synthesizers, big bashing drums, programmed rhythm tracks, the works. It does not occur on all of the tracks, but about 70% are contaminated, and you have to bear with this, too, or hunt for newer versions of the musical (which I would not recommend: given the fact that Lloyd Webber's sense of taste seems to have been worsening exponentially with each new decade, I can only hope that his heirs will return him the honors that he seems to be unable to bestow upon himself in person).
Anyway, lower your expectations, grab the popcorn, and Starlight Express is really a delightful little ride. As I said, the story is nothing to write home about: there is, naturally, a love element, an array of various «train personalities» in a mish-mash technically (but not musically) similar to the character array of Cats, and a shaky subject line concerning a train race, which Andrew regards as a good pretext to stuff disco elements into the pot — because, naturally, what other sort of music would better correspond to a train race? (Thrash metal, perhaps, but something tells me Sir Andrew was not a big fan of Show No Mercy at the time... yet).
The songs are harmless fun, though, particularly when they emulate older genres. ʽRolling Stockʼ sounds like bulgy disco-era ELO (à la ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ), with an extra touch of classic glam. ʽA Lotta Locomotionʼ is girl-pop with a Caribbean flavor (and a bit of pre-pubescent Michael Jacksonism?). ʽPumping Ironʼ is pedestrian, but startlingly arrogant boogie; ʽPoppa's Bluesʼ wisely imitates pub-style, drunken blues-rock rather than «reverential» blues-rock; the vaudeville of ʽBelle The Sleeping Carʼ goes down easy due to P. P. Arnold's powerhouse vocal performance (best on the whole album, I'd say); and by the time we get to the closing fast-tempo gospel finale of ʽLight At The End Of The Tunnelʼ, many more of these short genre-honoring nuggets will make their appearance, way too many to waste time on their descriptions.
Every now and then, of course, the composer delves into the «now», usually with abysmal results because such words as «underground» or «non-commercial» are not in Andrew Lloyd Webber's lingo: his idea of keeping up with the times is best exemplified on ʽThe Rapʼ, which is more or less what it says it is and wastes five minutes of my time on having to listen to a bunch of trains arguing between each other in a «rap» fashion. There are also a few numbers like ʽAC/DCʼ that tend to drift way too far into the synth-pop realm, and seeing Lloyd Webber work in a Depeche Mode state of mind is not the happiest of choices. On the other hand, ʽThe Raceʼ, which takes all the individual train themes and sets them to disco beats, is seductively cheesy in much the same way as the disco «experiments» on Saturday Night Fever — there is something deeply embarrassing about the experience, but it carries about a sense of silly happy giddiness that hooks you in regardless of, or maybe due to the silliness.
Derivative, but at times insanely catchy; silly, but unpretentious; lightweight, but cute; inconsistent, but diverse enough to justify the inconsistencies — Starlight Express is Webber-fluff at its absolute best, and all the lovers of solid, patented fluff should join me here in my thumbs up. But if you have kids, just give them the record: do not expose them to the sight of one too many pairs of roller skates at the same time.
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