One of last year's biggest pop music surprises was Paul Young's American bomb.
One of Britain's top singers, Young was supposed to be the next English conqueror, overwhelming the American pop scene the way Duran Duran and Culture Club had done.
But his first solo album, "No Parlez," a hit overseas, fizzled here. The main single, "Wherever I Lay My Hat," a remake of a Marvin Gaye song, was a blast of white-hot soul; it too was a commercial U.S. dud. His performances on an American concert tour were generally lauded but couldn't compensate for the flop records.
"I was a little devastated," Young acknowledged. "The ego gets knocked around a bit, but it recovers. I thought it would happen as quickly here for me as it did in Europe. What happened here wasn't what I expected."
It wasn't what many pop observers had expected either. In the blue-eyed soul ranks, he's near the top--as good as Daryl Hall, and probably superior on ballads. Young's voice has that husky, grainy quality that's ideal for soul.
But a hit single has turned his U.S. disaster into triumph. "Everytime You Go Away," from his current "The Secret of Association" album, climbed to the top of the Billboard magazine pop singles chart.
Young is touring again, appearing tonight at the Greek Theatre. If this show is anything like his last one in April at the Wiltern Theatre, it should be filled with those seething soul vocals and assorted James Brown-style moves. In April, he was a bottomless pit of energy.
Young has been a soul music fanatic ever since he was a youngster. But in those days, none of his buddies shared that passion.
"They were into rock," Young recalled. "I was against the grain with soul. I had problems finding people to play with, but I had to play that music. I loved it so much."
What was it about soul music that appealed to him?
"The texture, the energy, the emotion, the expression--you name it," he replied.
Young didn't ignore rock in his early days. He just liked it performed in a certain way, with soul--the way Paul Rodgers, the superb rock singer then with Free, did it, which powerfully influenced Young's style.
Young started to shape his rock 'n' soul style in the '70s in an amateurish pop-rock outfit called Streetband, which recorded two albums and then was mercifully wiped out by the onslaught of punk. In his next band, the rock 'n' soul Q-Tips, he was able to concentrate more on soul. Though a bust at recording, this was a popular live group for more than three years. For Young, the best thing about Q-Tips was that it was a springboard to a solo career.
"We made one studio album and one live album, but it was obvious we weren't going anywhere," he said. "But there was interest in me as a soloist. When I was offered a solo deal, I decided to take it."
In 1983, he recorded "No Parlez." The first two singles weren't hits in England but the third, "Wherever I Lay My Hat," went to No. 1 on the English charts, paving the way for his American debut.
At 29, Young isn't particularly thrilled with one aspect of his image. Many consider him a teen idol, meaning he's coveted by screaming teen-age girls.
"It all started in England with my first hit," he explained, somewhat apologetically. "My first hit was a ballad. It's romantic. That's what they like."
Does he discourage the legions of shrieking young ladies? "No, I wouldn't do that, but I don't encourage it either," he replied. "I don't want to be labeled a teen idol. Then people don't take your music that seriously, and you don't last very long."
Young's albums reflect his varied tastes--particularly "The Secret of Association." Experimenting with different kinds of songs, like the country-flavored "Everything Must Change," his accents are on quality and his personal taste rather than commerciality. Why else would he include Tom Waits' somber "Soldier's Things"?
But he does recognize the need for commerciality. That's why he used "Everytime You Go Away," a Daryl Hall composition that appears on Hall and Oates' "Voices" album.
"My album ("The Secret of Association") needed a commercial track," he said. "Everything on it is so different. It's like a musical maze. I thought people might find it hard to listen to, even my hard-core fans. You need a gateway into the album, something to make it accessible. A publisher sent me 'Everytime You Go Away' and I eventually used that as the commercial song."
Initially, Young didn't want to use it: "It was too obvious, too commercial, too rock 'n' soul. Now I'm glad I changed my mind about it."