Terrified By way of The Sapphire VXIII (Part Two)

As we discovered in Terrified By Way of the Sapphire (Part One), yours truly was introduced to (and spooked by) popular music via sounds emanating from the 3” speaker of the trusty Sapphire XVIII am radio in my mom’s 1975 VW Super Beetle. An active imagination and exposure to Scooby Doo Where Are You? had made me an easy scare. Part one covered the eerie references to a sinister, indulgent world in The Eagles 1975 “Hotel California,” which had me quaking in the midday sun as the pastoral landscapes of Minneapolis’ western reaches spooled before my eyes. A year later, a singer with a smooth, calming tenor voice raised the ante. 

One does not think of Cliff Richard as someone who sends chills down your spine (at least not in the classic sense). Being a veteran entertainer for a good twenty years at that point, he might’ve once been been thought by some as a punk threat to the British aristocracy with his involvement in early British Rock N Roll. But, that’s about it. Back then, he and his backing band, The Shadows, had a fantastic (if not relatively tame) rockabilly sound that pre-dated as well as greatly influenced the Mersey Sound/British Invasion some five years later.

But, as for so many other bands, success for Richard was fleeting. Richard was unable to drum up a real presence on the American charts until his mid-70’s comeback. That comeback was birthed from a simple three-and-a-half-minute ghost story set to a catchy little disco beat.

Though Terry Bitten would become one of the more successful songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s by penning a few monster hits for Tina Turner, he scored his first hit by co-writing Richard a song called “Devil Woman.” The song was placed smack in the middle of Richard’s I’m Nearly Famous LP (gotta love that self-deprecating title!) and chosen as the second single to be pulled from that record in April of 1976. The bigwigs at his label, EMI, obviously wanted to switch gears when the first single from that record, the yawn-inducing “Miss You Nights,” meandered into UK’s top twenty. “Devil Woman” crept into the top ten here in the U.S. and became his third highest-selling singleNot sure what it says about this country when a song about an evil, manipulative female becomes a guy’s first hit after nearly twenty years of making records. Was it the disco groove? Maybe Americans like a little danger with their party?

The charts were a mess of styles that month: obligatory disco (Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” Sylvers’s “Boogie Fever”); rock-solid rock (Aerosmith’s first single, “Dream On”), schmaltzy love songs (Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” Carpenter’s cover of “Kind Of A Hush”); and even danceable historical revisionism (the Four Seasons’s “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”). To hear Richard’s perfect tenor sail over those other styles was a shot to the ear, regardless of lyrical content. And, because America has been knee-deep in a Zombie fetish for the last ten years (TV shows, movies, kids shows, games, t-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, names of cocktails), it’s hard to appreciate that the spooky content of “Devil Woman” was quite the anomaly for a top-40 pop hit.

The song’s protagonist believes he’s been hexed since a mysterious black cat appeared at his door. He finds himself at the table of a fortune teller only to realize she might be that same cat “with evil in her eyes.” The song’s co-writer, Christine Holmes, recorded and released her own version that same year (under the name Kristine Sparkle), changing the perspective to a cautionary tale. The arrangement of Holmes’ version, however, is too busy and lacks the fantastically patient creepy-crawling feeling of Richard’s.

All the ridiculous nods to man/woman relationships were of course lost on my five year old mind, but the ominous notes, minimal instrumentation, and the tense, opening 4/4 drum pulse was a nail biter while my mom and I put-put-putted around. As a child, this spooky little jam blindsided me and put me on edge. The lyrical imagery was as powerful as it was clichéd. The word “evil” was thrown around a few times and, though I didn’t know the depth of its meaning, I was aware of its connotations and knew it stood for bad things. As the song slithered out of that three-inch speaker, my mind raced with images of black cats with evil eyes, crystal balls, mean-looking strangers, dark neighborhoods on moonlit nights. It was full-on Halloween time within these three and a half minutes. Plus, Richard upped the ante during a quiet moment following the second chorus by ad-libbing  a whispered “stay away” followed by “look out” (which perhaps further stressed me out). But – abracadabra! — such was the power of Top 40 Radio!  

Was I the only one affected by this song? Probably not. In fact, there’s a good chance “Devil Woman” was a seed planted in many would-be musician’s minds back then that bloomed into glorious dark flowers in the years to come. Of course, the song could’ve had another effect, as well. Beyond the haunted house imagery, some may have walked away from this one forever strapped with a lifelong distrust of women.

But, wait a minute. What if this wasn’t just a hackneyed relationship song with a demonic allegory wrapped in a minimal disco beat? What if Terry Bitten really did know a devil woman? Ever wonder about that? What if we’ve all been far too dismissive about this whole damn thing? Maybe this is a cry for help! Jeepers, has anyone even heard from Bitten lately?

Think about it.