There was a moment- and in terms of the size of pop music it really was only a moment- when Leo Sayer seemed like he was the new David Bowie. To the general public he arrived fully formed and a bit weird. His first hit `The Show Must Go On` spliced a music hall melody with raspy lyrics and was performed by the singer dressed as Pierrot (in a costume made by his wife) some seven years before Bowie himself sported this sort of look. As a package the irresistible song and image seemed to herald the arrival of a daring new artist.
In fact it turned out to be an anomaly in a career that would subsequently keen towards middle of the road pop. It is nonetheless curious for someone to open their solo career so atypically. Managed by former pop star Adam Faith, Leo Sayer had already established himself behind the scenes as a songwriter and some of his material was featured on the first solo album by Roger Daltrey, lead singer with The Who, including co-penning the hit single `Giving It All Away`.
Released in 1973 `The Show Must Go On` was actually Sayer’s second solo single and was co-written with David Courtney. The opening motif of the song references the `Entrance of the Gladiators`, music often associated with clowns. The self- critical and bitter lyrics concern mistakes and wrong choices in a career and wanting to stop them. The song uses a circus or possibly theatre metaphor to describe a “lonely life” that the character has chosen but “It seems like its strangling me now”.
Sayer’s vocal sounds dry and regretful yet also determined, a vocal style that was also well suited to his later material. “I’ve been used, taken for a fool” he declares but resolutely concludes “I won’t let the show go on”. The second verse seems to address wider expectations describing “an enormous crowd of people and they’re all after my blood” so much so that he wishes they would; “tear down the walls of this theatre” to let him out. The character’s repeated declaration that he won’t let the show go on is matched by the jaunty musical backdrop which includes a wordless middle eight which he scats his way through and that could almost be described as happy go lucky. His performances of the song were nervy and odd bringing a strange quality of their own.
All told it is a masterful single with a powerful lyric that is certainly not your usual pop hit. However 1973 was a year with several distinctive songs including Bowie’s classic trio `Drive in Saturday, `Jean Genie` and Life on Mars`, Bryan Ferry’s rather scary reading of `A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,` David Essex’s atmospheric `Rock On`, the arrival of Wizzard and T Rex’s `20th Century Boy`. In this sort of context `The Show Must Go On` fits the times.
Unfortunately it was to be the high water mark of the `unusual` Leo Sayer. He would go on to more conventional material and the Pierrot threads soon disappeared. This particular show did not go on for very long at all but for a moment it was brilliant as you can see here....