Despite a very attractive budget price, The Singles Collection offers far more Cliff Richard, and far less information, than the casual listener is ever likely to need. The booklet is bare-bones chart fax 'n' figures, and the packaging is as minimal as a picture-sleeve 45. But that's precisely how it ought to be. This is a collection for the genuine specialist, someone who cares as much for the double A-sides and flipped B-sides that litter Richard's U.K. discography as for the export releases and withdrawn oddities, and wants them all wrapped up in one tidy collection. And while few people, including the man himself, would argue that every single 45 that Cliff Richard has ever released was a bona fide classic, there is still something impossibly awe-inspiring about seeing them all lined up like this. No less than 127 tracks are spread across six CDs, to represent 44 years during which Richard hasn't simply seen every one of his contemporaries fade and fall, he has presided over the entire history of rock & roll. Laid out in strict chronological order, from monster hit to minor ripple, from "Schoolboy Crush" (1958) to "Let Me Be the One" (2002), The Singles Collection traces the course of modern popular music like no other single-artist collection ever could -- and does so with such versatility that, sometimes, it's difficult to believe that it is all the work of just one man.
In terms of cultural resonance, it's the first disc, and the rock & rolling half decade that launched Richard's career, that hits the hardest; by the time the Beatles came along, Richard was already a hoary veteran (he was 24, the same age as John Lennon), his days of pink-jacketed rebellion far behind him, and onto his fourth movie, too. But there was barely a band in the land that hadn't cut its teeth on "Move It," the first truly British rock & roll record ever, nor a guitarist who didn't owe his or her first synchronized step 'n' twang to the example of Richard's guitarist, Hank Marvin. Here are 30 songs, almost every one a classic, that follow the process from ignition to absorption. Through the remainder of the '60s and into the '70s, Richard could neither do, nor hope to do, more than consolidate his fame, and by 1971-1972 (early disc three), he was clearly on his way out. The singles no longer charted automatically, and those hits that he did have were little more than jingles. But he turned it around, not simply seeking out a new direction but an entire new musical discipline, one that answered the one question rock & roll had always wondered about: what happens if you don't die before you get old? In Cliff Richard's case, you just keep going. This second patch of musical brilliance stretched from "(You Keep Me) Hanging On" in 1974, through "Devil Woman," "Miss You Nights," and "We Don't Talk Anymore," and on to the still-remarkable "Carrie" in 1980, by which time Richard was so firmly reestablished that the next two decades (and close to three discs) fly past in a sequence that might not be consistently great, but was consistently successful. And that is possibly the greatest achievement of them all. Few artists, after all, will ever be able to boast of half a century of regular hitmaking. And fewer still will remain so listenable (almost) throughout.