“Compliments, girl, on your kiss, you’re number one girl on my list.”
Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart. Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.
009] Red Dragon – Compliments On Your Kiss (Feat. Brian & Tony Gold)
Reached #2: 28th August 1994
Weeks at #2: 1
“‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ was a number one jam
Damn, if I say it, you can slap me right here.”
– Chuck D, Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (June 1989)
Britain, in 1994, had another one of its flings with reggae. Having been just a growing foetus in my mother’s belly for all but the last three months of the year, I cannot relate nor much speculate on the societal conditions that groomed the public at large for a reggae and reggae-fusion comeback – and the few sociological papers on the subject I could find were behind academic paywalls – but it happened. The year’s first #1 single, and the 700th in chart history, was Chaka Demus & Pliers’ cover of “Twist and Shout” which held the top spot for two weeks and set the stage for much of the higher echelons of 1994’s pop scene; either it was anodyne adult contemporary or anodyne reggae. The latter of which is especially odd since NPR’s Baz Dreisinger noted that much of the 90s youth was turned onto reggae as part of its cross-pollination with rave culture – jungle, garage, drum and bass – which furthered reggae’s initial radical desire to break down racial barriers between Britain’s tinderbox of race relations whilst still being proudly and defiantly Black in its musicality and messaging. Yet the ostensible reggae songs which got popular in ‘94, the ones which crossed over into the pop charts, had that radicalism and Blackness scrubbed clean from them.
Like most bad things in life, I’m tempted to lay the blame at UB40, one of the worst musical acts to ever land a major label deal and keep being successful for two interminable decades despite never once rising above the musical equivalent of a noxious septic truck regularly routing its way through a beautiful diverse neighbourhood that never asked for this. UB40 had spent much of the 80s thoughtlessly castrating the entire genre of reggae of its political edge, its musicality, its not being utter incontinent dog shit; dumbing it down to the most toothless, lifeless, joyless, corniest form at the tune of 11 UK Top 10 singles (two of which went to #1) and 8 UK Top 10 albums (five of which went at least once Platinum). They made reggae music for your Aunt Lynda who likes the tropical summery vibes of reggae by artists like Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff but wishes it were less, y’know, “ethnic.” (Yes, they did have some Black band members, but it didn’t change the fact that their music was still whiter than a snowman of Logan Paul.) Also, not content to merely shit out their own terrible music, they took it upon themselves to go about desecrating classic pop, soul, and reggae records by artists with actual talent at every opportunity, neutering the swing and sting of their originals in favour of empty comforting sickly familiarity.
Still, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to lay the blame for reggae’s dilution solely at the feet of UB40, even with “Red Red Wine” being the musical war crime that it is. For the longest time, pop music and pop radio were alternately disinterested or actively disdainful of black music – reggae was no exception with Tony Blackburn, Britain’s most famous and popular DJ in the 1970s, declaring the entire genre to be “rubbish” – and the genre of course wasn’t entirely urgent societal critique and didn’t have to be. But it’s really hard as an observer looking back not to see a racial coding in the kinds of reggae that managed to become successful and achieve chart success in 1994: the continued infuriating success of UB40, a group fronted by a Mexican-Irish son of mariachi musicians who got into the genre after watching a documentary on Rastafarianism, Swedish wannabe-techno artists one of whom was a reformed Neo-Nazi cross-pollinating reggae touchstones with Eurodance flair… The one Jamaican act who managed to score a #1 hit did so by covering one of the most well-known rock and roll songs in music history, one whose legacy in Britain was made by its appearance as the closing number on the debut album by the most acclaimed British musical group to ever exist, forever tainting them with the stink of “novelty.”
Red Dragon, on paper, could not have been further from such stink. Born Leroy May on 18th March 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica, he learned to DJ on Barrington Hi-Fi by the time he was 15 and by the time he was 18 he had become one of Jamaica’s most popular DJs, hitting major sound-systems the country over. Changing his stage name from Redman to Red Dragon due to the popularity of one of his lyrics on a dub plate, he became immersed in the burgeoning dancehall scene – putting out and producing singles like “Commander” and “Hol’ a Fresh” – and helped legitimise yearly soundclashes at the annual reggae show Sting (not that one). In 1989, along with his debut album (a split LP with his brother Flourgon), he started his own record label and largely receded from making his own music aside from a pair of minor LPs in ’92 and ’94. Instead, he spent his time fostering new talent, taking on production jobs and moving away from dancehall. In a 2012 interview with Jamaica Gleamer, he explained, “dancehall music is mostly when you are a youth and some people lose interest in it after a while. Inna 1994, mi mek [sic] some money and buy up a piece of land and start mi [sic] own business.” He always had one eye on securing his future.
Brian and Tony Gold, meanwhile, had similarly been building up cred prior to the big crossover hit. Brian Derek Thompson (born in Birmingham, England) and Patrick Anthony Morrison (born in Manchester, Jamaica) first met as rivals in a 1986 talent contest in Kingston. Brian won, Tony came in second, and the two complimenting vocalists decided to join forces and embark on a career together, putting out local-buzzed about hits on small labels such as “Ebony Eyes” and especially “Can You,” a track explicitly tackling South Africa’s Apartheid system. How these two separate artists crossed paths is a mystery, I couldn’t find any information about the song’s genesis or process anywhere on the Internet (it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry and AllMusic has a barebones page and nothing more). As is how Sly Dunbar, prolific Jamaican drummer and one-half of famed influential writer-producer duo Sly & Robbie with Robbie Shakespeare, ended up co-writing the song with Red Dragon. As is how this song with next-to-no remaining online footprint and a placeholder-looking video became a proper slow-burning crossover hit (it took six weeks to reach the #2 peak). And yet, somehow, it did.
Probably by being a novelty hit rather than a work of any substance designed to last. Honestly, in comparison to some of the dreck and mediocrity we have covered and will cover, “Compliments On Your Kiss” is not bad and there are a tonne of things I really like about it. Hit play and instantly you can feel it stand out against literally every other song we’ve talked about in this series so far. Listen to that space! All that freeing space on the track, where every instrument and vocal line gets room to breathe and invite the listener in rather than pummelling and suffocating them to death by having every single piece of the track be processed to within an inch of its life! The tactility of those drums in an era of lifeless drum machines and drum tracks treated to sound like lifeless drum machines! The recurring steel drum run and the glistening chime glissando which are just utterly delightful in such a cheeky playful manner! The Golds’ chorus harmonies are so understated and warm, in stark contrast to many other vocal performances at this time.
And yet… I can’t really vibe to this. Part of it is the verse bleating from Red Dragon himself which not only acts as an awkward contrast with the Golds’ smooth harmonious chorus deliveries but is also just plain irritating once those vocal tics dig into you – his inhales are too sharp and his delivery of each third line, “the way you [x], the way you [x],” makes it sound like he recorded this in the midst of a bad case of the hiccups. A lot of it is definitely the fact that there is absolutely no reason for this to be 4:14 long, the song uses up all of its ideas by the 1:11 mark and then repeats itself over and over again unchanging for the next three minutes, save for an incongruous saxophone solo that pushes an already-cheesy song into full-on gorgonzola territory. It’s like the chaotic good version of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” the ironic (in “Sexy”’s case) or sincere (in “Compliments”’ case) enjoyment of hearing the song dissipating as soon as the realisation sets in that it is not, in fact, a mere 60 seconds long and that it has no new ideas to offset the stagnation. The radio/video edit trims things down to about 3:15 and yet that still feels excessively lengthy.
But what really kills “Compliments” for me is that Chuck D quote I plastered at the start of this write-up and which slotted into my head upon my third listen. In that verse on “Fight the Power,” Chuck was calling out how White artists, and the racist music industry that directs and encourages them, repeatedly steal from Black artists and Black culture, dumbing down and removing the Blackness of their origins in order to sell it back to White middle-America with a friendly non-threatening (read: Black) face, erasing Black contributions from the history books. And when he derogatorily invokes “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” he’s not only doing so to point out how detached from reality a song like that is when faced with the continuing oppression and struggles of Black Americans, but specifically calling attention to how Black artists themselves are forced to dumb down their work to cartoonish borderline-racist caricature in order to make any headway with pop audiences. That they have to sell out their own Blackness in order to make it in the industry.
(Because I know you’re wondering, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was not actually a number one jam in the UK, topping out at #2. It’s a borderline 2.)
And once that quote flagged up in my brain, I couldn’t shake it and it ended up colouring the entirety of “Compliments On Your Kiss.” Again, this is not to say that reggae and reggae-adjacent music militantly needed some kind of edge and couldn’t occasionally just be a silly little love song, but there is something especially toothless and cartoonish about “Compliments” that doesn’t sit right with me the more I listen to it. It might be the cross-pollination with 50s doo-wop which is so utterly the antithesis of reggae musically and thematically that it’s like mixing arsenic into an ice cream sundae. I can more envision this playing in the background of a 50s nostalgia diner from the mid-80s than in the streets of Kingston or the house parties of a London inner-city just about to come out of Thatcherism-based oppression. I feel DFS are about to sell me on their latest limited-time-only Autumn Sale when I listen to this. To quote Jamie of now-defunct 90s reggae blog Neggae:
“It’s too forced and unnatural. It’s as though some music mogul has said to himself… (*in a Fifties news-hound voice*) ‘OK, got a toast man, now get me a crooner, a schmoozer, a face guy, a hit with the ladies. Get me Carlton Banks, can he sing? He’s not available? Well get someone like him, a frat boy, yeah that guy. What? He looks too American? Just Rastafy him a little, take off his shirt, get him a waistcoat and a Malcolm X chain. Puyfect, a real doozy, we’re in business!’”
Again, everybody involved with this song has bona fides, cred, they’re not just tourists trying to cash in on a quick buck. Yet “Compliments On Your Kiss,” despite its flashes of charm and refreshingly clear-headed production and feel in a sea of hyper-compressed airless assaults, reeks of insincerity and self-parody. In its milquetoast chorus lyrics and sexless “sexy come-ons” verses, in its nagging doo-wop underpinnings, in Red Dragon’s awful incongruous vocal turn, in even those steel drums which are recast in an unflattering light once the new reading sets in, in its overall feel. If I were wanting to truly stick the knife in, I’d make a hyperbolic invocation of UB40 but that would be disingenuous. At least “Compliments” isn’t a UB40 joint.
Neither of the credited acts on the song would grace the singles chart by themselves again. Brian & Tony Gold effectively retired after the album following the single flopped due to label fuckery, save for a guest turn on Shaggy’s 2002 single “Hey Sexy Lady” which peaked at #10 in the UK and briefly revived their careers with a 2007 album titled Irresistible. Red Dragon, meanwhile, kept up steady production work on a bunch of singles before effectively hanging it up come the start of the new millennium. In 2007, he had a fall from a roof which even further limited has capacity to make music and, on 31st of July 2015, he eventually passed away after a period of illness, including hypertension and heart problems, at the age of 49.
Bonus Beats: As far as I can tell, no professional artist has deigned to record a cover, sample, or even feature “Compliments On Your Kiss” in a TV show or movie in the 25 years since its release. So, err, here’s some guy on YouTube named Danny McEvoy who records a lot (and I mean A LOT) of acoustic covers doing his thing to this song because I needed to fill this segment somehow.
The #1: Week #14 for Wet Wet Wet’s “Love Is All Around” at the #1 slot and, I imagine much like the British public at the time, I am more than ready to never hear that opening cannon blast of fake-out guitar soloing following up the #2 song I’m covering that week on my work-related playlist again. Despite that, it’s still a 2.
We’re #2! will return in two weeks.