It’s not unusual to act your age

A record company executive has just achieved an unlikely feat. He has made a man whose career has largely been based upon a bulging crotch and tight trousers seem dignified and wise.

Sir Tom Jones is in trouble with his new record label. At the age of 70, he is not as sexy as the marketing men would like him to be. In what must have been a slightly odd family conversation, he had agreed with his son and manager Mark that the time had arrived to shift the public’s focus “three foot up from his waist and on to his voice”.

It was a brave and radical decision. Years of marketing endeavour had gone into that “waist”; since the 1980s, it has become one of the most famous “waists” in show-business. For a generation of women, Jones was more than a great voice. He and his “waist” represented an idealised figure of lustful fantasy. He was manly and direct in his sexuality, with none of the gender ambiguity or unspecific moral dodginess associated with others stars of his generation.

He meant something to men, too. “In my head, I’m still 25,” he has said, and, unlike other male dreamers, he was prepared to play it on stage. It was his son who made him aware that it was time to get in touch with the “real me” and start singing moodier, quieter, older songs. The model for the grandpa makeover is country singer Johnny Cash, whose image and career were revived by a series of recordings made when he was seriously ill at the end of his life. Unlike the man in black, Tom Jones has reached his eighth decade looking particularly perky.

All the same, it was decided that, for his new album, he should move away from the trouser-straining repertoire and sing the gospel and blues songs that suit his voice so well. Instead of “Sex Bomb”, and “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, there would be “Lord, Help the Poor” and “Needy and What Good Am I?”

It was a sane enough move but record companies tend not to be interested in personal or musical growth. At Island Records, which had invested £1.5m in the project, the firm’s vice-president David Sharpe was, according to a leaked email sent to an unnamed colleague, unimpressed.

“Imagine my surprise when I walked into the office this morning to hear hymns coming from your office – it could have been Sunday morning,” he wrote. When he discovered that he had been listening to a new Tom Jones recording, he detected “a sick joke”. He had not “invested a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the Book of Common Prayer… For god sake what are you thinking about when he went all spiritual?”

The problem, of course, was not so much that Jones was an established artist, but that he was a product, created by the music business. Songwriters, from Dylan to Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson, are expected to reflect the experience of growing older but, when the singer’s talent is only part of a package, and the other part is a manufactured image, there is a problem.

The last thing that Tom Jones’s record company – and the vast majority of his fans – want him to do is to look into his ageing heart and sing about the reality of being 70. He is in the fantasy business. His bulging lunch-box, like Kylie Minogue’s bottom or Tina Turner’s thighs, is inescapably part of the image.

The vulgar and grammatically challenged recording executive was right. People do not listen to Tom Jones to be depressed. They are buying into the illusion that, while the rest of us are falling apart, Tom is still the prancing, potent Welsh stallion he was 40 years ago.

It is not an easy thing for a singer to do, and may well become self-parodic and absurd over time, but an important part of the act that is Tom Jones (or Cliff Richard or Mick Jagger) is to imitate his young self in order to reassure his ageing fans.

Independent, Tuesday, 6 July 2010