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Albums of the Year: 2001

October 30th, 2009 5 comments

I was very pleased that the first post in this series of my personal top 10 albums for every year of the outgoing decade (depending how you count decades, of course) created such a positive and generous response. Thank you for all the comments; they are always appreciated. I should point out again that I can include only those albums I actually have and know well. So Gillian Welch’s The Revelator fails to make the cut, though I believe that those of my friends who argue for its brilliance might have a point.

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Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs

ben_foldsThe are at least two types of Ben Folds fans: those who don’t think that Folds has ever topped the work he did in union with with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee as the ironically named Ben Folds Five, and those who prefer his more mature solo output. Put me down as belonging in the latter group. While the very funny title track, the driving Zak And Sara, Annie Waits or Not The Same would fit snugly in the Ben Folds Five canon, Folds’ solo debut exhibited a greater empathy for the subjects of his lyrics. On Rockin’ The Suburbs (released on September 11), Folds took the baton from BFF songs such as Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans or Best Imitation Of Myself, musically and lyrically.

Folds is a wonderful story teller. The story of Fred Jones, the old newspaper man whose retirement is going barely noticed by “all of those bastards” who don’t even remember his first name, is particularly poignant. Indeed, throughout the album Folds moves the listener: in the father-and-son relationship of Still Fighting It, in the desperation of the guy still trying to get over a girl in Gone (“the chemicals are wearing off…”), or in the tenderness of the astonishing love declarations on The Luckiest (one of the greatest love songs ever written; alas Folds has since divorced the song’s addressee). The album is not flawless — there is a weak trio of successive tracks in the middle) — but it does suggest that Ben Folds is this generation’s Randy Newman. And that is high praise.
Ben Folds – Fred Jones Part 2.mp3
Ben Folds – Zak And Sara.mp3

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch Soundtrack

HEDWIGThe first time I saw the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was gobsmacked. The curious storyline, the intense performances, the incongruous humour (black GIs in East Berlin!), the imaginative setpieces, the animation and costumes, and, above all, the fantastic music, written by Stephen Trask and performed mostly by John Cameron Mitchell as the genitally mutilated Hedwig, which ranges from ballads and punk to Ziggy-style glam rock.

The highlight of the film is the Wig In A Box setpiece, also the soundtrack’s most appealing track. Since I am urging those who have not seen the film to catch up with it, I’ll restrain myself from describing the scene. I expect that many viewers will want to see it repeatedly. I’ll limit myself to posting only one song from each album here (apart from the #1 album of the year), but I also might have posted the gorgeous The Origin Of Love, with its Aristophanes-inspired lyrics, or Wicked Little Town, or Midnight Radio, or the explosive Angry Inch…
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wig In A Box.mp3

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Judith Sephuma – A Cry, A Smile, A Dance

sephumaBefore the Idols franchise spewed forth disposable singers of debatable ability, at least in South Africa, televised talent shows in the country brought several artists of notable aptitude to the public’s attention. One of these was Judith Sephuma, born in the northern town of Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and a music graduate from the University of Cape Town. Her 2001 debut album is a captivating blend of jazz and Afro-pop which fully met, and even exceeded, the expectations observers had invested in the artist since her performance at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, a year before she made a huge impression at the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town (the local equivalent of the Montreaux festival). If the wonderful Randy Crawford had been South African, this is what she might have sounded like.
Judith Sephuma – Mmangwane.mp3

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Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread

sandovalMuch as I love Sandoval’s group Mazzy Starr, I struggled long and hard to “get” this album. It’s the sort of ambient set one needs to be in a perfect mood for (perhaps when one is recovering from a bout of inebriation). But when everything is set, it hits home in its quiet way. If Sandoval sounds fragile on Mazzy Starr, here you want to pack her in cotton wool and keep the volume low, just in case she breaks. The result is exponentially mesmerising and ultimately gorgeous. It’s not the sort of album from which one can pick a representative track (though I’ll try here); it works best as a body of music. If one is in the mood.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Around My Smile.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Late Night Final

HAWLEYLast month Hawley released a masterpiece, Truelove Gutter. Without wishing to resort to hyperbole, I’ll claim with confidence that it is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade. Hawley, a former member of Britpop groups Longpigs and Pulp, has produced a series of delightful and always affecting albums that started with his full debut, Late Night Final (it was preceded by a self-titled EP in 2000). The gorgeously melancholy, late night mood of that great triptych of Hawley albums — Coles Corner, Lady’s Bridge, Truelove Gutter — is already evident here. His voice has now dropped a register and the arrangements have become more intricate since Late Night Final (on which Hawley’s country influence is still evident), but the basics of the Hawley sound, and the quality, are already there. The stand-out track is Baby, You’re My Light, which I featured on this mix (which also features Ben Folds’ The Luckiest).
Richard Hawley – Love Of My Life.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album

dreath_cabDeath Cab For Cutie is one the most stupid band names in modern music. It evokes the image of shouting and wailing nu-metal emo types, or perhaps a death metal outfit that failed in conjuring a suitably satanic-sounding moniker. Death Cab are nothing of the sort, of course, nor do they deserve to be dismissed for featuring so prominently on the teen drama-soap The O.C. (which was actually quite good for a couple of seasons and featured some excellent music that otherwise would not have received wider exposure). The Photo Album is Death Cab’s transition album, still drawing from the Indie rock of the earlier albums but preparing for the almost symphonic feel of 2003’s Transatlanticism and last year’s Narrow Stairs. It lacks the diversity of 2005’s Plans, but like Plans and more than Transatlanticism, it does have tracks that stand on their own. This is solidly guitar-driven, ambient Indie rock, but more accomplished (or, purists might say, polished) than the four preceding Death Cab albums.
Death Cab For Cutie – I Was A Kaleidoscope.mp3

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Rilo Kiley – Take-Offs & Landings

rilo_kileyIn 2004, Rilo Kiley released a brilliant album in More Adventurous. The preceding two albums are more patchy. Take-Offs & Landings borrows its influences widely, blows some alt.country over it, and voila. Sometimes it works, and there is nothing here that is really objectionable, but this is very much the work of a group still finding its way. Likewise, the wonderful Jenny Lewis is still discovering her voice, which here is still banking on its cuteness before it became the sexiest voice since Julie London’s. If all this sounds half-hearted, then that is not quite fair on an enjoyable album. It suffers not on its own merits, but in comparison to what the group and Lewis as a solo artist produced later.
Rilo Kiley – Plane Crash In C.mp3

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Alicia Keys – Songs In A Minor

alicia_keysAt a time when soul music is dying a gangrened death at the hands of dancing corporate muppets and sexless nasal whiners, we ought to be grateful for the few artists who still refer to the rich heritage of the genre. So I find it difficult to sympathise with those who dismiss the artistry of Alicia Keys. OK, she’s not quite all that which the hype claims her to be, as a pianist or as a singer. Much of her material is bland. It’s safe to say that she cannot compare with, say, Roberta Flack. Judging only from her appearances at the Grammys (which I still watch for reasons I cannot comprehend; probably only for the In Memoriam section), I find her a bit smug, a bit corporate, a bit too convinced of her own genius. And yet, her albums includes a clutch of tracks which, had they been recorded 35 years earlier, would be noted as fine contributions to the canon of soul music, celebrating the derivations of her material as reflecting an astute choice of influences. Despite all the caveats I have raised, I’m glad that Alicia Keys is around.
Alicia Keys – A Woman’s Worth

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The Shins – Oh, Inverted World

SHINSPlaying the song New Slang from this album, Natalie Portman’s character in the fine film Garden State promises Zach Braff’s protagonist that it will change his life. Without wishing to spring spoilers upon the reader who unaccountably have not seen the film, it indeed does so. The Portland, Oregon-based band’s debut thus broke out from the ghetto of Indie cult on the back of Braff’s championing. If the Kinks had been Americans recording their music in the ’00s, this is what they might have sounded like. I have quite enjoyed The Shins’ subsequent albums, which are musically accomplished, perhaps more than Oh, Inverted World. But if I want a fix of The Shins, it’s the debut I turn to.
The Shins – One By One All Day.mp3

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Weezer – Green Album

WEEZERWhat is it with all those people who are so quick to dismiss every Weezer album because it isn’t Pinkerton? It seems to be accepted wisdom that Pinkerton, one of the great albums of the 1990s, set some kind of standard that Rivers Cuomo and the other three chaps must live up to. The trouble is, by the time the Pinkerton evangelists listened to the other Weezer albums, they were no longer of an age when they locked themselves in their bedrooms because school and parents and jocks sucked and listened to Pinkerton in the recovery period between wanks. The Green Album is a fine album; it has some great tunes, it’s fun, it doesn’t challenge you; it does everything you’d want from a Weezer album. Island In The Sun is my cellphone ringtone, by the way.
Weezer – Island In The Sun.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Any Major Halloween Mix 2

October 28th, 2009 2 comments

halloweenFollowing the slightly spooky Halloween mix posted on Monday, this one comprises songs mostly of less serious tone, setting what I hope is a bit of a party atmosphere, with a bit of rock, rock & roll and downright silly novelty numbers, including one by Soupy Sales, who died last week. The sense of levity this mix aims at is not of the literal variety.

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TRACKLISTING
1. Tim Curry – Anything Can Happen On Halloween (1986)
2. Golden Earring – The Devil Made Me Do It (1982)
3. Morgus & the Ghouls – Morgus The Magnificent (1958)
4. The Tarantulas – Black Widow (1961)
5. Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs – Haunted House (1964)
6. Big Bopper – Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor (1958)
7. The Kingsmen – Haunted Castle (1963)
8. The Five Blobs – The Blob (1958)
9. The Fifth Estate – The Witch Is Dead (1967)
10. Bobby Bare – Vampira (1958)
11. Johnny Cash – Ghost Riders In The Sky (1978)
12. R Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House (1967)
13. Alice Cooper – Feed My Frankenstein (1992)
14. Rob Zombie feat. The Ghastly Ones – Halloween (1998)
15. Medeski, Martin & Wood – End Of The World Party (2004)
16. The Pogues – Turkish Song Of The Damned (1988)
17. The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)
18. Jimmy Buffett – Halloween In Tijuana (1985)
19. Soupy Sales – My Baby’s Got A Crush On Frankenstein (1962)
20. France Gall – Frankenstein (1972)
21. Danny Elfman – This Is Halloween (1993)
22. David Seville – Witch Doctor (1958)
23. Bobby Rydell – That Old Black Magic (1961)
24. The Moontrekkers – Night Of The Vampire (1961)
25. Allan Sherman – I See Bones (1963)
26. Lord Melody – The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1957)
27. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross – Halloween Spooks (1960)

DOWNLOAD

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And to bring the mood down a bit again, here is a track sent to me by a friend, whose knowledge in music in encyclopedic. He points out that the artist, folk singer Jackson C Frank, is “ the single unluckiest man in music history”. Read this to find that this is most probably so.

Jackson C. Frank – Halloween Is Black As Night.mp3 (reuploaded)

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More Mixes

Any Major Halloween Mix 1

October 26th, 2009 9 comments

halloween2This is the first of two Halloween mixes I’ll be posting this week. The present mix, timed to fit on standard CD-R, is supposed to comprise vaguely creepy or eerie music. The kind of stuff that might  freak out Bart, Lisa and Milhouse in their treehouse. Ghosts, spooks, witches, devils, murderers, weird people (like the coffin-building boy in Florence and the Machine’s excellent song), voodoo and so on. Marie Floating Over The Backyard apparently still scares Any Minor Dude’s friend, two years after he first heard it.

The second mix, which will go up mid-week, will be a bit more lighthearted, and even without the overcooked Monster Mash and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

TRACKLISTING
1. The Go! Team – Phantom Broadcast (2005)
2. The Never – The Witch (2006)
3. Dr John – Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya (1968)
4. Jim Stafford Swamp Witch Hattie (Back Of The Black Bayou) (1973)
5. Alan Price Set – I Put A Spell On You (1966)
6. Tony Joe White – They Caught The Devil And Put Him In Jail In Eudora, Arkansas (1971)
7. Donovan – Wild Witch Lady (1973)
8. Fleetwood Mac – The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown) (1970)
9. Eels – Marie Floating Over The Backyard (2005)
10. Violent Femmes – Country Death Song (1984)
11. Florence And The Machine – My Boy Builds Coffins (2009)
12. Godley & Creme – Under Your Thumb (1981)
13. Alan Parsons Project – Raven (1976)
14. The Box Tops – I Must Be The Devil (1969)
15. Sidney Hemphill – Devil’s Dream (ca 1942)
16. Howlin’ Wolf – Evil (Is Going On) (1954)
17. Louvin Brothers – Mary Of The Wild Moor (1956)
18. Squirrel Nut Zippers – Hell (1996)
19. Mazzy Starr – Taste Of Blood (1990)
20. Imogen Heap – Getting Scared (1998)
21. Iron Butterfly – Real Fright (1970)

DOWNLOAD (new working link)

I have a good few songs left over for a mix next Halloween. But there are two ghostly soldier songs I’ll want to add to this lot, one as an antidote to Warren Zevon’s more ubiquitous Halloween song:
Warren Zevon – Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.mp3
Stan Ridgway – Camouflage.mp3

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More mixes

Step back to 1973

October 23rd, 2009 7 comments

In 1973 I had my first proper party to celebrate my seventh birthday; after the summer I had a new teacher (for reasons explained in the 1972 review); and the German version of Sesame Street was flighted in most of West Germany as of January 1973. Read more…

Albums of the Year: 2000

October 21st, 2009 13 comments

Perusing the calendar, I was shocked to realise that the current decade — what some people call the “Noughties” — is almost over; that we’re about to start the 2010s. And here I am still getting used to the idea of the new millennium. So, with this decade coming to an end soon, it seems right to review my top 10 albums of this period. I’ll try to avoid joining the critical consensus (which probably agrees on albums I either never heard of or don’t like), and obviously I can’t list albums I don’t have. So, no Kid A here.

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1. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

cash_solitary_manIt’s not necessarily the best album in Cash’s American series, but probably the only one that’ll top one of my annual charts. It certainly is a fine album, with an astute song selection (no peculiar choices such as Personal Jesus, which appeared on the follow-up). Cash had previously taken a Sting song, Hung My Head, and entirely appropriated it, leaving Sting’s original sound like a pale, inadequate and ill-advised cover version by an inferior hack. Here Cash repeats the trick with One, lending gravitas to a song that in Bono’s hands sounds overwrought (Bono really meant it, man). But it is what Cash and producer Rick Rubin do with Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat that blows me away. For this album, Rubin roped in a few heavy-hitters, including Tom Petty and Will Oldham. I’m not sure it was necessary to do so.
Johnny Cash – One.mp3
Johnny Cash – The Mercy Seat.mp3

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2. D’Angelo – Voodoo

d'angelo_voodooAfter 2000, I began falling off Planet Soul. Voodoo was the genre’s last high-water mark, even if the likes of india.arie, Erykah Badu and (to some extent) Alicia Keys proceeded to release decent albums (and I suppose John Legend isn’t bad either, even though I own nothing by the man). Before too long, it became a law that soul singers must have uniformly nasal, almost pre-pubescent voices and sing about sex a lot without projecting any confidence that they really know what to do in the sack. D’Angelo, on the other hand, left us in no doubt that he knew exactly how to create a concerto of orgasms.

In terms of soul, D’Angelo fused all that came before, plus a strong dose of hip hop and a shot of Hendrix in one album, creating a whole new, exciting and intensely sexual sound. It had taken him five years to follow up the gorgeous Brown Sugar, and I believe a new album is imminent. Whatever happened before or will happen, Voodoo is Michael Archer’s masterpiece. Had Marvin Gaye lived, this is what he’d have sounded like.
D’Angelo – Untitled (How Does It Feel).mp3

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3. Elliot Smith – Figure 8

elliott_smith_figure_8Smith’s final album in his lifetime — he died three years later — may not be his best, but even then, it is lovely and affecting. It could have done with some trimming, and the cover is unattractive. You don’t pick up an Elliot Smith album to cheer you up, but the charge of miserablism often levelled against seems unfair to me. There is beauty in Smith’s sadness — made all the more poignant by his apparent suicide (there are theories that Smith didn’t actually kill himself). We owe Smith a huge voter of thanks for his part in inspiring so many of the great acoustic artists that emerged in (and, perhaps, from) his wake.
Elliott Smith – Somebody That I Used To Know.mp3

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4. Colin Hay – Going Somewhere

colin_hayThe solo albums of the former Men At Work frontman tend to be frustrating; amid the near-perfect gems there is so much indifferent filler material. Best, really, to put together one’s own compilation. But then one would not find that some of the mediocre stuff is actually pretty good, but required a few more listens. Going Somewhere does not suffer from this. It is one of two albums on which Hay re-recorded his better songs and a couple of new ones, here mostly acoustically. And it works wonderfully. Highlights include opener Beautiful World (which features the brilliant line “where a man can still be free — or a woman if you are one”), I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You, Looking For Jack (about an encounter with Mr Nicholson), Waiting For My Real Life To Begin and Lifeline.
Colin Hay – Lifeline.mp3

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5. Jill Sobule – Pink Pearl

jill_sobuleSobule kissed a girl and liked it long before Katy Perry did so — and Sobule meant it. Sobule is an engaging lyricist dealing with often unexpected subject matter, ranging from anorexia to the case of a teacher who had sex with her pupil. In turn she can be insightful, funny, ironic, cute, tender and daring. Her music is neither particularly challenging nor bland, and some of the tracks on Pink Pearl are excellent, especially the Bacharach-via-Spektor-sounding Rainy Day Parade. But it’s for the lyrics that I return to it. This, from the also outstanding One Of These Days, always makes me laugh: “One of these days I’m gonna touch the sky. Like that awful song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, [pause for effect] I believe I can fly.” Download free Jill Sobule tracks from her website
Jill Sobule – Rainy Day Parade.mp3

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6. Lewis Taylor – Lewis II

lewis_taylorI’ve read that Lewis Taylor has retired from the music business because his albums didn’t sell. That is a pity. Lewis II (which, you will have worked out, was his sophomore album, following the more psychedelic self-titled debut) is a likeable soulful and funky effort. When white soulsters arrive on the scene, they tend to be matched with their likely influences, invariably from the ’60s and ’70s (usually Curtis Mayfield with a bit of Motown). London-born Taylor escaped such labelling, or at least its accurate application. He drew from the treasury of soul through the ages and created his own unique sound. The album features a fine cover of Jeff Buckley’s Everybody Here Wants You.
Lewis Taylor – The Way You Done Me.mp3

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7. K’s Choice – Almost Happy

ks_choice_almost_happyIn my view, Almost Happy is the Belgian brother-and-sister act’s best album. The title track and Another Year are most affecting, beautiful songs dipped in sadness but not despondency. Both of these, and other K’s Choice songs, find an echo in the music of the wonderful Weepies (another female/male singing and songwriting combo). The stand-out track is the almost gothic (though not goth) Shadowman, a song about depression.
K’s Choice – Shadowman.mp3

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8. Ben Kweller – Freak Out…It’s Ben Kweller

ben_kweller_freak_outI know, EPs aren’t albums. But I’m not going to list my favourite EPs of the decade (hmmm, or maybe I should), so Ben Kweller’s debut on disc gets in. And what a debut it was. The stand-out track here is In Other Words, which features a few duff lines (including references to passive-aggressive butterflies) but has a tune and, especially, an arrangement that one might not expect from an 18-year-old. The piano and banjo interplay in the song’s climax is exquisite. Kweller later re-recorded In Other Words, as well as the brief How It Should Be (Sha Sha), for his first full album, 2002’s Sha Sha. Both songs are superior on this eight-song EP.
Ben Kweller – In Other Words.mp3

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9. Richard Ashcroft – Alone With Everybody

ashcroftI’d include this for Brave New World alone. And I‘ll cheerfully admit that I don’t really like about half of this album. But the other half is better than most music he created with the Verve. From his former group, we knew Ashcroft was rather given to kitchen-sink productions, and there’s little here that could be described as sparse (quite in contrast to Elliott Smith). At times the onslaught of instrumentation is sumptuous, at other times one yearns for some respite. Not a great album, but one with great moments. I’d recommend You On My Mind In My Sleep, A Song For Lovers and On A Beach; and strongly advise against Money To Burn, which I think was the lead single.
Richard Ashcroft – Brave New World.mp3

10. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of The Bewilderbeest

badly_drawn_boyThe album title merely hints at the punnery Damon Gough engages in here. I like the wordplay in Badly Drawn Boy’s lyrics, even if I find them unnecessary in songtitles (Everybody’s Stalking!). Like almost any studio double album (and how audacious to release a double album on debut), there is a lot of unnecessary music here, and the brief interludes are annoying. But in the day of WinAmp, one can happily re-sequence an album according to one’s tastes. And doing so with this set is a very rewarding experience.
Badly Drawn Boy – The Shining.mp3


Answer Records Vol. 2

October 19th, 2009 11 comments

In the second instalment of answer records, we hear from Laura whose Tommy died, the son of the late Shaft, and the commie-hating response to Barry McGuire’s Eve Of Destruction.

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Oh no, Tommy’s dying! Will Laura be sad?

Act 1: Ray Peterson – Tell Laura I Love Her.mp3
ray_petersonJames Dean has a lot to answer for. The American youth of the late 1950s and early 1960s was decimated by unnecessary motor accidents, at least in song. Among the most maudlin of the many teen death records was Tell Laura I Love Her, which was so popular that it was recorded by several artists. Ray Peterson’s 1959 hit version is probably the best known.

The set-up here is that Tommy takes part in a stock-car race so that he can buy Laura a wedding ring with the supposed winnings of $1,000. He knows it’s dangerous business and phones Laura. But she’s not in, so he gives Laura’s mother the message of the chorus. You know what happens next. Well, you do know the conclusion, but no one knows what happened that day or how his car overturned in flames. “But as they pulled him from the twisted wreck, with his dying breath, they heard him” sing the chorus of this fucking awful song.

The teen death genre gave rise to the most bizarre parody, Jimmy Cross’ I Want My Baby Back, which can be found HERE.

Act 2: Skeeter Davis – Tell Tommy I Miss Him.mp3
skeeter_davis_answersIn Act 2, the delightfully named Skeeter Davis plays the part of Laura (as did Marilyn Michaels, Laura Lee, and someone called Pitersen Ray). She cuts straight to the chase in catching up with Ray’s mawkishness: “Tommy my sweetheart has gone now. He’s up in the heaven somewhere, so little star high above, if you see Tommy tell him all my love.” As we valiantly choke back the puke, Skeeter/Laura recounts the story of Tommy’s death, turning it into as much of a cautionary tale as a lovelorn lament: “Why did he do such a reckless thing?” Hear that, kids? DON’T RACE STOCK-CARS!!! Still, she implores the little star high above (eurgh!) to “tell Tommy I love him, tell Tommy I miss him, tell him though I may cry, my love for him will never die”.

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It’s war. Left, right, left, right!

Act 1: Barry McGuire – Eve Of Destruction.mp3
mcguireThis song will turn up again on this blog. In this context, we concern ourselves with McGuire’s righteous anger about the “exploding” “eastern world” and civil rights and, well, everything. It’s 1965, and Barry’s “blood’s so mad, feels like coagulating” because people who are too young to vote are old enough to kill, and the war-mongers don’t want to believe that we’re “on the eve of destruction”. Four decades later, so little has changed that Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded to a US president for saying peaceful things while increasing troop deployments to Afghanistan (bit of political comment always goes down well here).

Act 2: The Spokesmen – The Dawn Of Correction.mp3
spokesmenMcGuire implicitly invited those who didn’t share his view that we’re on the eve of destruction to justify their view. The modestly named Spokesmen, who included David White of Danny & the Juniors, take the time to offer a fairly reasonable if unrefined response with their furiously punning title. Rush Limbaugh’s antecedents they are not, nor are they redneck racists (they do welcome racial integration and even dig the Peace Corps). But they do hate the Reds who presumably must be contained by the simultaneous means of napalm bombing civilians and nuclear deterrence. “So over and over again, you keep sayin’ it’s the end. But I say you’re wrong, we’re just on the dawn of correction.”

Of course, the flag-waving Spokesmen match the naiveté of the hippie movement with a vigorous dose of their own, and muster an army of strawmen in a bid to catch out McGuire. Take their endorsement of protests — “Be thankful our country allows demonstrations” (set aside an evening to debate that) — which is followed by a bizarre interpretation of McGuire’s position: “I don’t understand the cause of your aggravation. You mean to tell me, boy, it’s not a better situation?” Where to start, Spokesmen, where to start?

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He’s a bad mutha… shut your mouth. And his son?

Act 1: Isaac Hayes – Theme of Shaft.mp3
I need not waste your time introducing Ike’s most celebrated tune. Suffice it to say that it spawned an answer record in 1972 from Hayes’ old mates from Stax, The Bar-Kays.

Act 2: The Bar-Kays – Son Of Shaft.mp3
son_of_shaftMusically similar to Hayes’ classic, but a damn sight funkier. Hell, let’s face it, the son eats the sex machine to all the chicks for his funky breakfast. The son of John Shaft had a tough time of it, “thrown in the street; problems of a man at the age of three”. Now Shaft Sr is dead, and Junior will be just as bad a mutha as Daddy. “I love by the clock and live by the gun. If you met my father, soon you’ll meet his son.” Can ya dig it?

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More answer records

The Originals Vol. 33

October 16th, 2009 8 comments

In Volume 33 of The Originals, we’ll look at the first recordings of Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind, The Drifters’ On Broadway, Millie’s My Boy Lollipop, George Harrison’s Got My Mind Set On You and Lutricia McNeal’s Ain’t that Just The Way. The two versions of On Broadway that preceded The Drifters’ version are of particular interest because they were recorded as originally written; the song was reworked for the version that became a hit. As always, thanks to Walter and RH who helped me out with songs.

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John Hartford – Gentle On My Mind (1967).mp3
Glen Campbell – Gentle On My Mind (1967).mp3
Leonard Nimoy – Gentle On My Mind (1968).mp3
Boots Randolph – Gentle On My Mind (1968).mp3
Elvis Presley – Gentle On My Mind (1969).mp3

HARTFORDEven without a chorus, Gentle On My Mind made a great impact when it first appeared in the late 1960s. John Hartford, who wrote the song, picked up two Grammys for best folk performance and best country song, but that was eclipsed by Glen Campbell, for whom it became a signature tune (literally; it was the theme of his 1969-72 TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, on which Hartford frequently appeared). Campbell, who discovered the song when he heard Hartford’s record on the radio, also won two Grammy for his version, for best country recording and solo performance). His version was a hit twice, in 1967 and again in 1968. The song also bothered the charts in versions by Patti Page (1968) and Aretha Franklin (1969), and featured on Elvis Presley’s excellent comeback album, From Elvis In Memphis (1969). In Britain, its only chart appearance was a #2 hit for, of all people, Dean Martin in1969.

Gentle On My Mind was not a typical John Hartford number. The singer is better known for his bluegrass roots which found expression in his accomplished use of the banjo and fiddle (shortly before his death at 63 in 2001, Hartford won another Grammy for his contributions to the bluegrass soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Hartford — the son of a New York doctor who grew up in St Louis and later acquired a steamboat pilot licence — said that he wrote Gentle On My Mind after watching the film Dr Zhivago. “While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.” See Hartford’s scribbled lyrics on the website dedicated to the singer.

The song is said to have spawned some 300 cover versions. Elvis’ remake is from the great Memphis sessions which also yielded Suspicious Minds (another cover, dealt with HERE); saxophonist Boots Randolph delivers a very likable easy listening instrumental; and Leonard Nimoy’s version…well, it needs to be heard.

Also recorded by: Tammy Wynette (1967), Trini Lopez (1968), The Lettermen (1968), Burl Ives (1968), Eddy Arnold (1968), Nancy Wilson (1968), Jim Ed Brown (1968), David Houston (1968), Johnny Darrell (1968), Wally Whyton (1968), Patti Page (1968), Billy Eckstine (1968), Dean Martin (1968), Frank Sinatra (1968), Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968), Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (1968), Wolfgang Sauer (as Die schönen Zeiten der Erinnerung , 1968), Andy Williams (1969), Lenny Dee (1969), Nat Stuckey (1969), Aretha Franklin (1969), Elvis Presley (1969), Lawrence Welk (1969), Wayne Versage (1969), Claude François (as Si douce à mon souvenir, 1970), The New Seekers (1970), Albert West (1975), Bucky Dee James & The Nashville Explosion (1977), Howard Carpendale (1980), Mark Eitzel (2002), Johnny Cash with Glen Campbell (released in 2003), Lucinda Williams (2006) a.o.

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The Cookies – On Broadway (1962).mp3
The Cystals – On Broadway (1962).mp3
The Drifters – On Broadway (1963).mp3
(reuploaded)
George Benson – On Broadway (single version) (1978).mp3

CRYSTALSBarry Mann and Cynthia Weil were among the giants of the Brill Building songwriting collective, although they were based at Aldon Music on 1650 Broadway, not in the actual Brill Building at 1619 Broadway (Aldon Music was co-founded by Al Nevins, one of the Three Suns who recorded the original of Twilight Time). According to Cynthia Weil, her future husband Mann had wanted to write a “Gershwinesque” pop song, and she, being a Broadway fan, was delighted to put appropriate lyrics to the melody. They first had the song recorded by The Cookies (who featured in The Originals HERE), who ordinarily recorded songs, mostly demos, by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Their demo was not released, but that by fellow girl-group the Crystals recorded soon after was, opening side 2 of their 1962 Twist Uptown album.

DRIFTERSIn February 1963, Brill bosses Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were in need of a song for the Drifters. At their request, Mann & Weil offered their On Broadway. Leiber & Stoller didn’t quite like their arrangement, and revised it overnight with the original composers. Next day the Drifters recorded the song, with Leiber & Stoller protégé Phil Spector on guitar and Rudy Lewis (successor of Ben E. King as the group’s lead singer) making one of his final appearances as a Drifter before his sudden death of a heart attack in 1964. Released in March ’63, the Drifters’ version became a hit, reaching #9 in the Billboard charts.

George Benson’s jazzed-up 1978 live recording did even better, reaching #7 in the US. Recorded in L.A., the crowd clearly agrees with the statement that Benson “can play this here guitar”.

Also recorded by: The Challengers (1963), Bobby Darin (1963), Nancy Wilson (1964), Dave Clark Five (1964), Frank Alamo (1964), Freddie Scott (1964), Lou Rawls (1966), King Curtis (1966), Nancy Sinatra (1966), Willis Jackson (1966), Blossom Dearie (1966), Mongo Santamaría (1970), Livingston Taylor (1971), Tony Christie (1972), Eric Carmen (1975), Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes feat. Sir Monti Rock III (1977), George Benson (1978), Bogart (1979), Gary Numan (1981), Jeff Beck & Paul Rodgers (1983), Neil Young (1989), Jeff Beck & Paul Rodgers (1994), George Benson & Clifford and the Rhythm Rats (1995), Stacy Sullivan (1997), Johnny Mathis (2000), Barbie Anaka with David Loy (2003), Frankie Valli & Jersey Boys (2007), James Taylor (2008), Daniele Magro (2009) a.o.

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Barbie Gaye – My Boy Lollypop (1956).mp3
Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964).mp3

How often does a cover version change the course of music history? Elvis’ remakes of country, blues and rockabilly numbers. The standards sung by Sinatra and Crosby. And Millie’s My Boy Lollipop, widely regarded as the first crossover ska hit which helped give reggae a mainstream audience. In its original version, My Boy Lollypop (note the original spelling) was a song recorded in 1956 by the white R&B singer Barbie Gaye, at 15 two years younger than Millie Small was when she had a hit with the cover in 1964.

barbie_gayeAs so often in pop history, the story of the song’s authorship is cloaked in controversy. By most accounts, it was written by Bobby Spencer of the doo wop band the Cadillacs, with the group’s manager, Johnny Roberts, getting co-writer credit. Barbie Gaye’s single became a very minor hit, championed by the legendary rock ’n roll DJ Alan Freed (the late songwriter Ellie Greenwich styled herself Ellie Gaye in tribute to Barbie on her first single, 1958’s Silly Isn’t It). It was Spencer’s misfortune to come into contact with the notorious record executive and music publisher Morris Levy, who implausibly claimed that he had in fact written My Boy Lollypop, using the moniker R Spencer as a pseudonym. The Cadillacs’ Spencer was later reinstated on the credits which nonetheless still list Levy as a co-writer. Levy’s name is attached to other classics which he had no hand in writing, such as Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya, Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love, and later the Rivieras’ California Sun.

Millie_My_Boy_LollipopMy Boy Lollipop was resurrected in 1964 by Chris Blackwell, boss of the nascent Island Records in England label which had recorded no big hit yet. He chose young Millicent Small, who as the duo Roy and Millie had enjoyed a hit with We’ll Meet in Jamaica, to record it. Her version changed that: the song became a worldwide hit, reaching #2 in both US and UK. Island, of course, went on to become the label of Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Robert Palmer and U2. Millie’s German version of the song featured HERE.

Also recorded by: Joan Baxter (1964), Heidi Bachert (German version, 1964), Plum Run (as part of a medley with Lollipop, 1969), Maggie Mae (1974), James Last (1975), Lea Laven (1976), Flesh (1979), Bad Manners (as My Girl Lollipop [My Boy Lollipop], 1982), Lulu (1986), Isabelle A & The Dinky Toys (1996), Die Mädels (2003), Élodie Frégé (2003), Steven Seagal (as Lollipop, 2005), The King Blues (2008), Amy Winehouse (2009) a.o.

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James Ray – Got My Mind Set On You (1962).mp3
George Harrison – Got My Mind Set On You (1987).mp3

Produced by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, it was a cover version that gave George Harrison his first big hit since his nostalgic All Those Years Ago six years earlier. With Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Harrison and Lynne went on to form the Traveling Wilburys. It is no accident that Harrison’s US#1 and UK#2 hit sounds a lot like a Wilburys song.

james_rayGot My Mind Set On you was originally recorded at roughly the same time as the Beatles began their ascent. Indeed, Harrison discovered the song at that time when he bought James Ray’s LP during a holiday to visit his sister in the US in September 1963. It was written by Rudy Cark, who also wrote The Shoop Shoop Song (featured HERE), Good Lovin’ (which will still feature in this series) and Barbara Mason’s Everybody’s Got to Make A Fool Out Of Somebody. He also co-wrote the Main Ingredient’s Everybody Plays The Fool. R&B Singer Ray James was remembered mostly for only one song, and it wasn’t the song Harrison resurrected 25 years later, but If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, which reached #22 in the Billboard charts. It might have become a Beatles cover (they did perform it), but in Britain Freddie & the Dreamers had a hit with it.

The diminutive Ray began recording in 1959, as Little Jimmy Ray, releasing one single which flopped. He soon became destitute until he was rediscovered in 1962, while busking in the streets and living on a rooftop in Washington, by Gerry Granahan of Caprice Records. Soon after, If You’ve Got To Make A Fool became a hit, and Ray’s star seemed to be rising. Alas, he struggled to have more hits. James Ray died in 1964, reportedly of a drug overdose. Featured here is the longer album version of I’ve Got My Mind Set On You, on which Ray was backed by the Hutch Davie Orchestra, which Harrison would have heard on the LP he bought (and which is a lot better than his cover). The single version apparently was brutally truncated.

Also recorded by: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (parody as This Song’s Just Six Words Long, 1988), Shakin’ Stevens (2007)

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Barbi Benton – Ain’t That Just The Way (1976).mp3
Lutricia McNeal – Ain’t That Just The Way (1997).mp3

benton_playboy_72Twenty years before the unusually named Lutricia McNeal had a European hit with Ain’t That Just The Way, it was recorded by the girlfriend of Playboy honcho Hugh Hefner. Hefner and Benton became a couple, for seven years, after the then 18-year-old pretended to be his girlfriend in episodes of the Playboy After Dark TV series in 1968. Born Barbara Klein (the more Playboy-friendly name was suggested by Hefner, of course) in New York and growing up in California, Benton was primarily an actress, appearing in a few unsuccessful movies as well as in the TV show Hee Haw. Between 1978 and ’81, she had three cameos playing three different characters on the Love Boat. In the meantime, she recorded six albums (including a live set) between 1974 and 1988, scoring a country chart top 5 hit in 1975 with Brass Buckles. She also appeared several times in Playboy, making it to the cover in July 1969, March 1970, May 1972 and October 1985 — but never as a Playmate.

barbi_bentonBenton first released Ain’t That Just The Way, which she co-wrote with film composer Stu Philips, as a single in 1976, possibly for the TV series McCloud, which Philips scored. It Appears in an episode of which the song played (the “Park Avenue Pirates” one, fact fans). Benton re-recorded a slowed-down version of the song, produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover, for her 1978 album of the same title (the cover of which is pictured here). The version featured here is the 1976 single. Benton today is married to a millionaire real estate developer and apparently works as an interior designer in L.A.

The song was covered in 1977 by Dutch singer Patricia Paay, retitled Poor Jeremy. Two decades later, American R&B singer McNeal had a big hit throughout Europe with her version, restored to its original title, reaching #5 in Britain and the top 10 in every European chart, as well as topping the Billboard Dance charts. In a bit of a twist, McNeal posed in the German edition of Hefner’s Playboy magazine in 2004.

Also recorded by: Patricia Paay (as Poor Jeremy, 1977)

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More Originals

Answer records Vol. 1

October 13th, 2009 6 comments

A while ago, a Facebook friend of this blog proposed that I might do a series of answer records, the novelty songs that riffed on the theme of a contemporary hit. Excellent idea, so this series is dedicated to Mike C., kicking off with answer records to Etta James’ Stop The Wedding, Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line, and The McCoys’ Hang On Sloopy.

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Church bells are ringing. Oh, look, a bride and a groom…

Act 1: Etta James – Stop The Wedding (1962).mp3
The opening notes from Here Comes The Bride set the scene. Immediately the rich baritone of the preacher invites the congregants to state their objection to the presently to be blessed union. And of course we know what happens next. Etta pipes up: “Wait! Wait! Stop the wedding!” See, Etta is the groom’s ex-girlfriend, and it is her conviction that he is entering into matrimony only to spite Etta. If the bride knew of his less than true motivation, Etta figures, she’d pull out of this deal herself. “So stop this madness before it starts…and don’t break two hearts.” As Etta urges “DON’T DO IT!” in soulful ways which Aretha Franklin would envy, we are becoming quite convinced that he should follow Etta’s advice. But, what’s that? Oh, here comes the bride:

Act 2: Ann Cole – Don’t Stop The Wedding (1962).mp3
ann_coleSame intro, and the pastor (well, he sounds different now. Maybe it’s an ecclesial double act) notes Etta’s appeal, and yields the floor to the bride. We are not surprised to learn — alerted perhaps by the songtitle — that Ann fails to concur with Etta’s spin. The wedding should in fact not be stopped, Ann proposes. And then she gets personal: “You just can’t face the fact…that he is happy here without you.” Anyway, she posits, Etta doesn’t really love him. Indeed, it turns out that Etta dumped the groom and now, with the benefit of hindsight and his impending nuptials, she’s sorry. Ann says that she gives him the kind of love he never had, so “don’t stop the wedding and break two hearts” (and where Etta meant hers and Ann’s, Ann doesn’t give much of a damn about the state of Etta’s heart). And the groom? We don’t hear from the poor bastard, though we can imagine him calculating all sorts of possible options, ranging from polygamy to running for the hills.

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Unsteady on the lines…

Act 1: Johnny Cash – I Walk The Line.mp3
You know the deal: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time; I keep the ends out for the tie that binds, because you’re mine, I walk the line”. Johnny is a straight-up guy who finds it “very, very easy to be true”. So he walks the line (though we know that Johnny did so unsteadily). So, Johnny, let’s meet your brother.

Act 2: Tommy Cash – I Didn’t Walk The Line (1965).mp3
tommy_cashOh dear, Tommy’s nothing like his straight-arrow older brother. He sings an entirely different tune, literally. He didn’t treat his wife very well, she found love with somebody else, the marriage is ending and she’s off, leaving Tom with self-recriminations. But what to tell the children, of whom she will evidently have custody? Tommy, in a mood for self-flagellating, knows how: tell them their that their Daddy didn’t walk the line. Yes, “you were mine, but I didn’t walk the line”.

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The next pairing of songs has featured previously, in The Originals series. But different context calls for different treatment.

Act 1: The McCoys – Hang On Sloopy.mp3
MCCOYSThe Sloopy of the title was the jazz singer Dorothy Sloop, but for our purposes, she is any random girl called Sloopy, of whom there must be millions. Sloopy is from meagre circumstances, whereas our interlocutor evidently is a young man of more abundant means. But class divisions don’t bother him: he is in love with wrong-side-of-the-tracks Sloopy, which means he doesn’t even care about her father’s occupation, which is very right-on of him. Her red dress may be old, but it turns him on. And the relief he requires is of the oral variety (“Sloopy let your hair down, girl, let it hang down on me.”). Her ministrations prompt the McCoy to prefigure your standard porn movie script: “Well, it feels so good, (come on, come on). You know it feels so good, (come on, come on). Well, shake it, shake it, shake it, Sloopy (come on, come on). Well, shake it, shake it, shake it, yeah (come on, come on).” And then: “Aaaaaah!”

Act 2: The Debs – Sloopy’s Gonna Hang On.mp3
Sloopy acknowledges that she lives in a bad part of town and that people are always putting her down, which wins her our sympathy. But she buys into the sincerity of his declaration of love and so “your girl Sloopy’s gonna hang on”. Sloopy us perfectly happy enough to let her hair hang down on him, and here we go hoping that she will insist on reciprocal oral favours. Perhaps she does, as we may guess as she exclaims “Sloopy’s coming” (if that’s what she means; or maybe our minds are just too corrupted), and “it feels so good now” (which probably means exactly what it says).

For the original of Hang On Sloopy, titled My Girl Sloopy by the Vibrations, go HERE.

Pissing off the Taste Police with Wet Wet Wet

October 7th, 2009 6 comments

wetwetwetThey never really stood much of a chance of being taken seriously. Having chosen a, well, wet name (inspired by a Scritti Politti lyric), they were fronted by a Tom Cruisean grinmeister backed by a trio of sidekicks who looked more like journeymen footballers for Clydebank than the craftsmen of infectious blue eyed soul which they were. The early hype as their debut single hit the charts painted them as the successors to Wham! in the teenybopper hierarchy, at a time when the Taste Police was already rounding up those still in possession of Nik Kershaw albums (with exception of the dedoubtable Giles Smith, who used to be friends with Lil’ Nik).

All this did not prejudice sales. The barely pubescent girls bought Wet Wet Wet’s records, as did the occasional connoisseur of pop whose critical appraisal was not influenced by the demographic the music as marketed at (though that segment may well have been turned off by the Wets’ poor but chart-topping cover of With A Little Help From My Friends). A few years after Wet Wet Wet arrived on the scene, they managed the cross-over, from schoolgirls to the mainstream that bought albums by Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston and MFB, thanks to their massive hit Love Is All Around, a cover of the Troggs’ song. The progression from one despised market demographic to another was seamless.

I think their version of Love Is All Around is quite lovely, though I know I’ll find myself in a pitiful minority here. I think more people would share my view that it is quite lovely had it not been played to absolute death. Love Is All Around may have financed singer Marti Pellow’s tragic drug addiction, but its overexposure removed whatever shade of musical credibility Wet Wet Wet might have aspired to. And even as I set out to defend the group, I can do so only on basis of their first three albums, being almost entirely ignorant of their subsequent output.

Popped_In_Souled_OutThe debut, Popped In, Souled Out (1987), however is a pop gem (groanworthy punnery in the title notwithstanding). Pellow, let there be no doubt, was a very good singer, even if he was given to overemoting at times. The musical and vocal highlight of the LP is Temptation, in which Pellow pleads gently, then angrily, then with the desperation of an Al Green seeking a repair kit for his broken heart. On the LP version, he even swears as he exclaims “don’t waste my fucking’ spirit”. The lyric on the gatefold cover excises the expletive. On the best-of compilation Part One (1994), the word “fucking” has been overdubbed with what sounds like “angry”. Unaccountably, it then fades out before the climactic “peace, love and understanding” bridge and Pellow’s ad libbed “mwah!”

For all its merits, Popped In‘s sleek production was not a reflection of the way the band saw itself. The foursome considered themselves serious soul aficionados, influenced by the ’60s and ’70s sounds of Stax, Hi and Vee Jay, Atlantic and Chess, of Memphis, Philly and Motown. The real sound of Wet Wet Wet, unfettered by the dictate of A&R people, was captured on The Memphis Sessions, recorded before Popped In but released only in 1988.

Wet Wet Wet Memphis SessionsThe eight-song set was produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell, who at Hi Records produced Al Green in his pomp. The group had the self-confidence to cover Mitchell’s song This Time — it does take courage to record a song by one’s hero as he sits in the studio — and did so beautifully. The difference in sound is most obvious when the Memphis version of Sweet Little Mystery is played against the poppy hit version. The Memphis Sessions is not a soul classic — they just hadn’t earned their stripes yet — but the album presents Wet Wet Wet as a group of serious, talented musicians who understood and respected the genre for which they had such an affection.

The follow-up, 1989’s Holding Back The River, sought to incorporate that soul sensibility into the pop sound. It worked only incompletely. The title track tries to combine soul, blues and gospel, coming across entirely self-conscious in the process. The album’s best songs are the mid-tempo pop songs, Sweet Surrender and Broke Away.

One day in early 1990, a dance remix of Sweet Surrender was playing in a Cape Town disco I regularly frequented when the DJ interrupted the song to announce that the following day, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. Whatever demerit one might want to attach to the song, to me it will always be beautiful as a symbol of the sound of the final nail being banged into apartheid’s coffin.

Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (LP version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Single version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – This Time
(Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Broke Away.mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Surrender (remix).mp3

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Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police

Intros Quiz – US #1s edition

October 5th, 2009 2 comments

Route 1A simple concept this month: US #1s between 1960 and 1987, not all of them classics but, by dint of having been chart-toppers well known enough. We shall turn to the British #1s in December. But British music fans need not despair: most of these songs were hits across the Atlantic too, a few topped the charts there too. Those that failed to dent the UK Top 20 (such as number 6 and14) are classics in their own right. Only number 10 failed to chart in the UK. All songs are in chronological order of reaching the top of the US charts.

As always, each of the 20 intros is 5-7 seconds in length. I will post the answers in the comments section by Thursday, so please don’t post your answers. If you can’t wait till then to find out what the blasted number 4 is, please feel free to e-mail me or, better, message me on Facebook. If you’re not my FB friend, click here and become one.

Intros Quiz – US #1s edition

 

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