Sound check: mad about Imelda Marcos
By David Smyth
26 March 2010
They're the most unlikely trio in pop history: David Byrne, Fatboy Slim and Imelda Marcos. The first two have united to write Here Lies Love, a “song cycle” (somewhere between a musical and a concept album) about the latter's rise to power and notoriety over two decades in the Philippines. It's not quite the new Evita — although New York's Public Theater is reportedly working on it.
Byrne first performed the songs on stage in 2006 at an Australian arts festival, but since then he's developed the cycle and, on 5 April Nonesuch Records releases it as a 22-track double album featuring, among a remarkable line-up of guest vocalists, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Steve Earle and Cyndi Lauper.
It also includes a 100-page book in which Byrne explains his motivation for what has been a five-year labour of love. He was fascinated by Marcos's love for disco music — in the Seventies she had a disco in her New York townhouse and was often seen at Studio 54 — so he strove to link that sound to her story. [Imelda]
“I imagined that the ecstatic joy and loss of self inherent in a lot of dance music might mirror some of the headiness of a person in power as well as their view of themselves as a living symbolic entity — so the combination could be a natural one,” he says.
He also likes the idea of Here Lies Love as a means of rescuing the album format from the pick'n'mix iTunes ethos. “The more songs you hear in such a sequence, the more accumulated depth and information there is in each one.”
Indeed, taken out of context, a few tracks don't sound great. Martha Wainwright's syrupy ballad The Rose of Tacloban is described by Byrne as “quasi-Disney”. Its strings and crooning are appropriate to depict the innocent schoolgirl cutting out the faces of magazine models and replacing them with her own, but it wouldn't appeal as an individual download.
The Latin disco sound produced by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook and his Brighton pal Thomas “Cagedbaby” Gandey is great fun, though. Sharon Jones sings about meeting “Ali Hassan, Margot Fonteyn, Christina Onassis and the Queen of Spain” over rubbery bass and stabbing synths in Dancing Together. Róisín Murphy's Don't You Agree?, about Imelda's energetic campaigning on behalf of her husband, Ferdinand, is fabulously funky.
Byrne tries to be an impassive reporter throughout, lifting a lot of his lyrics from actual quotes (the album's title is what Marcos, now 80, wants written on her gravestone). He has been criticised for going too easy on a woman who was forced into exile in 1986 and is still due to face more embezzlement charges in her homeland. The line in Every Drop of Rain, “No clothes, no bed, no jewellery/Sometimes I had no shoes”, about her impoverished childhood, is the only hint at the infamous footwear hoarding that was to come. He deliberately ends his story before the true indulgences of her palace life were discovered.
But he's not the first to find the former First Lady more fun than ferocious. Ruby Wax once did a TV number on her, while a 2007 documentary called Dictators by Design was also amused by her excess. Today, despite an assassination attempt in 1972, she lives safely and comfortably back in Manila. Even her people don't seem to resent her.
Byrne and Cook's infectiously bouncy music is the clearest indication that this isn't a tale to be taken too seriously. Despite her crimes Marcos is essentially remembered for her eccentricities. This none-more-eccentric production is a suitable reflection of a very strange life.