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Any Major Soul 1982-83

March 26th, 2010 3 comments

If I had any concerns that I might not be able to cover the 1980s with great soul music, then I was entirely mistaken. This series will go up to 1988-89 (at which point I’ll consider whether 1990-91 is worth covering). The 1982/83 season saw the continued rise of the Quiet Storm, corporate smooth soul stuff which would eventually choke the genre. There isn’t much of that on this collection (and where there is, such as Beau Williams’ Elvina, it’s great).

Opening track Time Is appeared on veteran funk group New Birth’s swansong album, I’m Back, a title that proved terminally temporary. Put together in the late 1960s by Harvey Fuqua, New Birth scored a number of R&B hits throughout the ’70s.

The LIVE Band, from New York City, released only one album (on The Sound of Brooklyn label). The title feature here sounds a lot like a Maze song, especially Joy And Pain, with the vocalist doing his best to emulate Frankie Beverley’s phrasing. It would be horribly unfair to call this a pastiche, though. It’s a great track from a fine album.
Gayle Adams represents the Washington D.C. soul scene here. Like so many other artists on this set, her career was relatively short-lived. Perhaps best-known for her cover of the Four Tops’ Baby I Need Your Loving or possibly the dance hit Love Fever, both from the album featuring Don’t Jump To Conclusion, the sets one mid-tempo number, with a rather nice guitar solo.

Among the bonus tracks for Any Major Soul 1978-79 were Switch, which included two brothers of the DeBarge clan, Bobby and Tommy. Through their good office the younger siblings, led by El DeBarge, landed a contract with Motown subsidiary Gordy. It would be an injustice if the group’s reputation were to hinge on the chart-fodder Rhythm Of The Night; the group produced some excellent soul music. Check out the acoustic guitar solo on All This Love.

I have been unable to find out anything about Lenard Lidell, or even if he ever released anything else but his 1983 four-track EP, Afternoon Affair, from which the lovely Sweetie Pie comes. It was released by the L.A.-based Jara Records. Likewise, I have no information on The Vosonics, other than that they apparently recorded in Oakland, California.
Beau Williams was going to become a replacement member of the Temptations, but was rejected because at 5’8” he was considered too short. In reparation, of sorts, the Temps appeared on George Benson protégé Williams’ 1983 debut album Stay With Me, on which Elvina appeared. The song is a classic in some Cape Town karaoke bars, invariably causing much distress to singer and listeners when it comes to the high note at 4:20.
Fred Parris was one of doo wop group Five Satins, who recorded the original version of In The Still Of The Night, and he still tours with an incarnation of the group. In the 1980s, he led the now unnumbered Satins on a very nice soul album. Homepage here.
Windjammer, from New Orleans, are probably best remembered for the 1984 hit Tossin’ And Turnin’. Stay is from their self-titled debut, released 1982. Five years earlier, guitarist Ken McLin had ambushed Tito Jackson on a hotel escalator with a Windjammer demo. To his credit, Tito listened to the tape, and two years later that charming man Joe Jackson became their manager.

Like Windjammer, Atlantic Starr were for a while produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a period that produced gems like Silver Shadow and Let The Sun In as well as MOR ballads like Always. Circles preceded that period, with James Anthony Carmichael doing producing duty, with Sharon Bryant still with the Lewis brothers before leaving and replaced with Barbara Weathers.

PW is amdwhah.

TRACKLISTING
1. The New Birth – Time Is
2. Vernon Burch – Simply Love
3. The LIVE Band – A Chance For Hope
4. O.T. Sykes – Lonelines Inside Of Me
5. Roberta Flack – I’m The One
6. Gayle Adams – Don’t Jump To Conclusions
7. DeBarge – All This Love
8. Lenard Lidell – Sweetie Pie
9. Beau Williams – Elvina
10. Bloodstone – Go On And Cry
11. Fred Parris and the Satins – Let Me Be The Last One
12. Windjammer – Stay
13. Randy Crawford – In Real Life
14. The Vosonics – Set My Soul On Fire
15. Gwen Guthrie – It Should Have Been You
16. Atlantic Starr – Circles
17. Mtume – Would You Like To Fool Around

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iPod Random 5-track Experiment Vol. 8

March 23rd, 2010 8 comments

A couple of years ago I started an occasional series of songs that popped up on my iPod’s random shuffle. I had sort of forgotten all about it, but it’s rather good fun (and liberating) to explore these random songs instead of working from carefully compiled shortlists. So, here are five more in the Random 5-track iPod Experiment.

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Tracy Chapman – If Not Now (1988).mp3
I have many great memories which are soundtracked by Tracy Chapman’s excellent 1988 debut album, particularly a life-changing trip to Zimbabwe. I played Side One of the album to death, put off by a couple of songs on the second side which simply weren’t as good, especially the two openers, Mountain O’ Things and the cod-reggae of She’s Got A Ticket. If Not Now is the side’s penultimate song, preceded by the outstanding For My Lover. Great memories of Zimbabwe apart, the Chapman album now always reminds me of my wedding day in 1993, when my brother played the album loudly while dressing that morning. The wedding video film captures him binding his tie and singing loudly along to Behind The Wall, a song about…domestic abuse.

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Joy – Paradise Road (1980).mp3
Oh, great pick, iPod. Released in 1980, this was the first number 1 on South Africa’s “white” charts by a local black act, topping the Springbok charts for nine weeks. That was remarkable under apartheid, of course, even if the song is mainstream pop. Even more remarkable, it was quite evidently an anti-apartheid song, taking issue here with the laws that outlawed sex (and therefore marriage) across the colour lines. I’m not sure which Paradise Road is being referred to. There is one in Cape Town, in the upscale suburb of Claremont, but that isn’t near the tracks that separated white from black (as Tracy Chapman once put it). It is a fine song, with a most wonderful vocal performance by the late Anneline Malebo, who became the first South African celebrity to announce her HIV-positive status. Despite the mammoth success of Paradise Road, which remains a South African pop classic, and supporting such acts as Lamont Dozier, Timmy Thomas, Clarence Carter and Dobie Gray on their South African tours (before the cultural boycott took hold), Joy had split up by 1983. More on Joy and the tragic, inspiring Malebo.

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Bill LaBounty – Didn’t Want To Say Goodbye (1982).mp3
The iPod is caught in an ’80s vibe, it seems. Bill LaBounty’s self-titled 1982 album is a criminally overlooked gem. Perhaps it came three years too late, belonging to the AOR genre populated by the likes of Ace, Player, Rupert Holmes, Orleans, Ambrosia etc — the types featured on this mix, in which LaBounty was also represented with the stand-out track of the 1982 album, Living It Up. Another fine track from the album, Look Who’s Lonely Now, was also recorded in 1982 by Randy Crawford, but I don’t know which version came first. The eponymous album was his last for 12 years as LaBounty returned to writing songs for others. In the 1990s he branched out into country, writing several hits for Steve Wariner.

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Linda Lewis – Been My Best (1972).mp3

This is really nice. Not a song I’m particularly familiar with. Well, I wouldn’t have known it had you asked whether I have this song, even though I have played the album it’s from often. It resides in the middle of Side 2 of Lewis’ 1972 album Lark, a lovely affair in which Lewis creates a folky fusion of Joni Mitchell and Minnie Riperton. The shuffle function is a great way of discovering songs.  The versatile Lewis could do the easy folk thing well; I’ve know her better as the future soul singer who as a child actress appeared in A Hard Day’s Night, as a backing singer, with Tina Charles, on Steve Harley & the Cockney Rebel’s hit Come Up And See Me (she also did backing vocals for the likes of David Bowie and Cat Stevens), and for her glorious ’80s disco number Class-Style (I’ve Got It), which featured on Any Major Funk Vol. 4.

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Dean Martin – Everybody Loves Somebody (1964).mp3
Dino at his most languid. I don’t think that Dean Martin was very serious about this song, written 17 years earlier and recorded spontaneously at the end of recording session. His sardonic delivery, accompanied by antiquated backing vocals that just scream kitsch, is an indication. Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes became a massive hit and one of a handful of signature tunes for Martin. In fact, the title apparently is engraved on his tombstone. In the US, Everybody Loves Somebody took over the #1 spot from the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night — which he had predicted the song would do. He also sent Sinatra, who had recorded the song earlier, a telegram, telling his old pal: “This is how you do it”. While a huge hit in the US, Everybody Loves Somebody reached only #11 in Britain, a market which cannot be said to have been averse to easy listening schlock, as the career of the regrettable Engelbert Humperdinck illustrates.

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Rat Packery in Pop

March 19th, 2010 13 comments

On a regional audition round for the South African version of Idols, a hopeful entrant introduced his chosen song as “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head by…Michael Bublé”. As one would expect, the contestant’s performance was thoroughly mediocre.

The real ring-a-ding-ding thing: Today any crumb wants to be a Rat Packer.

I have no particular beef with Michael Bublé — except that he personifies the banalisation of the rich legacy of what Rod Stewart (of late another offender) calls “The Great American Songbook”. Bublé compensates for his lack of personality with some talent. His swinging version of George Michael’s Kissing A Fool was quite excellent. But Bublé and singers of his ilk have created an impression that anybody can and should sing the standards.

His is not a solitary presence in that accusation, of course. Many more talented artists have travelled the retro route and some have even found their way. Natalie Cole, when not singing ghoulish duets with her father, is a wonderful interpreter of the standards. Even Phil Collins delivered a good performance with Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me on Quincy Jones’ Q’s Jook Joint album (he undid all the goodwill he might have merited for that by producing a thoroughly ghastly album of his songs in Big Band style).

But blame for the banalisation of the big band must be appointed. Frank Albert Sinatra (his birth certificate said Frank; Francis was a later affectation. It also erroneously called him Sinestro) has to shoulder some of it for allowing himself to be recorded duetting with a bunch of chancers, among a few genuinely talented artists. It communicated a most vile message: if Bono can sing poorly with the self-styled Chairman of the Board (and, my goodness, how embarrassing are his vocals in contrast to even a half-assed Sinatra), then so can any old joker. Like Robbie Williams.

Robbie Williams sees himself as a latter-day one-man Rat Pack, and so he did what comes naturally to latter-day one-man Rat Packs: record an album of songs that may evoke the Rat Pack (the Sinatra-led version, not Bogart’s original gang). So it is not a surprise when on the terrible version of Me And My Shadow — a Rat Pack anthem — the word “pally” is self-consciously used to describe a friend. And, of course, there is the obligatory duet with Sinatra-from-beyond-the-grave. In fairness, Williams did not do an entirely bad job on his Swing When You’re Winning album of 2001. But more than reflecting well on Williams, it really proved that with a good arrangement, any old karaoke singer can sound good. The song selection was astute, lacing the eye-bleedingly obvious with a few less remembered numbers. The cover art was good as well, a successful pastiche of a late ’50s Capitol record (even if much of the material post-dates that era).

The filmed concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall — incredibly not renamed the Francis Albert Hall for the occasion — is entertaining, because Robbie Williams certainly can entertain you, with a little help from his talented friends. Williams doesn’t take himself too seriously, he mugs with a bizarre combination of self-deprecation, modesty and smugness. All that. And yet: on what basis does Robbie Williams presume to measure himself against Sinatra, Sammy Davis or Nat King Cole? And if his intention is not to measure himself against the legends, what is he doing covering them (other than to make money)?

The most cringe-inducing portion of Williams’ show is also the most telling. The singer who so craves to shiver in reflected Rat Pack Cool tells the audience how much he loves his mummy. Which is nice; a good boy should love his mummy. It is a sweet moment, if one can stomach maudlin moments of sentimentality. But what would Sinatra do? Most likely he’d have said something like: “Ladies and gentleman, my mother. She’s one classy broad.” And then perhaps threaten Dino with violence for making eyes at his Ma before returning to racially abusing his close pally Sammy. In contrast, Robbie Williams is a real Harvey.

Williams’ success-in-a-tux set the scene for the advent of all manner of fake rat-packery. Canadian Bublé and the insufferable Jamie Cullum soon had the housewives lusting. Then Westlife, the blandest, most characterless pop band ever, got in on the act. Dressed like — and you would not guess it — a Rat Pack living it up at The Sands (the Scunthorpe version rather than the mafia palacio in Vegas, presumably), they issued a batch of standards selected not for their suitability but instant recognisability. And then they titled their karaoke collection, with putrid punnery, Allow Us To Be Frank. I wouldn’t allow you to be Daisy, never mind Frank. Did the world of music absolutely need Westlife’s interpretations?

At around the same time our old friend Michael Fucking Bolton (as his mother calls him) — having had his vicious way with soul and opera — molested the Sinatra canon and Rod Stewart began his American Songbook series. The first of these Songbook albums was quite good, as far as pastiche goes, if somewhat redundant (did we really need Rod singing standards?). But one album of that was quite enough. When the concept turned into a franchise, Stewart ended up performing songs that have no claim for inclusion in any great Songbook.

Here’s the rub with revival of ratpackery. You don’t go around impersonating Jesus just because you think the Gospel According Matthew is brilliant. You have to earn to earn it first, baby. Likewise, you don’t just decide to do Sinatra because your Mum had the Strangers In The Night single and you think you look great with brylcreemed hair. You have to earn it first. Which means you don’t just sing the ring-a-ding-ding showstoppers, but learn to do the quiet stuff. Don’t ask me to fly with you unless you first have mastered the lonely introspection brought on by being caught in the wee small hours of the morning. And, for fuck’s sake, know that Ain’t That A Kick In The Head is a Dean Martin song.

Here then, for the benefit of those who think that Straighten Up And Fly Right is a Robbie Williams original, are the songs he covered on the Swing While Your Winning in more glorious recordings, in the sequence of the Williams album — plus Anita O’Day’s fine version of It’s De-Lovely, which Williams covered (rather well) on the biopic about Cole Porter, De-Lovely.

1. Anita O’Day – It’s De-Lovely (1959)
2. Ella Fitzgerald – Mack The Knife (live, 1960)
3. Carson & Gaile – Something Stupid (1967)
4. Billie Holiday – Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me (1946)
5. Kingston Trio – It Was A Very Good Year (1961)
6. King Cole Trio – Straighten Up And Fly Right (1942)
7. Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra – Well Did You Evah (1956)
8. Nina Simone – Mr Bojangles (1971)
9. Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra – One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) (live, 1966)
10. Nancy Sinatra & Dean Martin – Things (1966)
11. Dean Martin – Ain’t That A Kick In The Head (1960)
12. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – They Can’t Take That Away From Me (1957)
13. Frank Sinatra – Have You Met Miss Jones (1961)
14. Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis Jr. – Me And My Shadow (1963)
15. Bobby Darin – Beyond The Sea (live, 1971)

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Step back to 1976 – Part 2

March 16th, 2010 11 comments

The long, hot summer of 1976 brought changes in my life. I had graduated from primary school, and at the age of ten would attend a high school which included in its student population bearded old hippies, some of them as old as 18. And in the summer we were packed off to a church camp while my parents went on holiday in France, the first time we didn’t all go on holiday together.

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Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Love Flow.mp3
The big summer hit of 1976, in its original form by the country music siblings and in its German version, titled Ein Bett im Kornfeld, by Jürgen Drews (like Boney M’s Liz Mitchell an alumnus of the Les Humphries Singers). I certainly wouldn’t have recorded this on my cassette recorder. In fact, it still reminds me of my miserable time on church camp, at which my older brother was a youth leader. For reasons probably related to his being a 16-year-old teenager on a power-trip, he asserted his fascist ascendancy through the brutal persecution of yours truly (my little brother, blond and the youngest in the group, enjoyed the protection of all the girls whom older brother fancied). Sturmtruppenoberführer Big Brother did get his just desserts towards the end of the camp when an insect bite gave him mild blood poisoning. He would be a youth leader again the following year, but that camp turned out to be one of the best fortnights in my life.

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Boney M – Daddy Cool.mp3
Much as I hate to admit it, this is a pretty good song. Indeed, if Boney M hadn’t jumped the Zugspitze after 1977 with shocking songs like Rivers Of Babylon, Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday and the hilariously bad “We Kill The World”, they (or Frank Farian, whom we met in part 1 of 1976) might be remembered with greater respect. Daddy Cool, Ma Baker, Belfast and their cover of Sunny are fine disco-pop songs, even if the lyrics were exceptionally bad, especially those of Belfast. And to a boy about to enter puberty, the covers of the first two LPs, featuring the three exotic ladies in various states of undress, were rather appealing. Though I did hope that as a grown up there would be no circumstances that would compel me, by dint of being an adult, to wear anything as absurd as Bobby Farrell’s gold underpants.

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Johnny Wakelin – In Zaire.mp3
Mohammad Ali vs George Foreman. The Rumble in the Jungle. Back in the day, I was actually a Joe Frazier fan, and was delighted to find among my late father’s possessions an autograph by the great man (since faded, alas). He also had an autographed picture of the erstwhile Cassius Clay, obtained when he interviewed The Greatest in 1966 in London while covering the football World Cup there. Sadly, that autograph has gone missing. In Zaire is a novelty number, obviously (Wakelin made a career of novelty songs). And yet, the African percussive beat, though entirely hackneyed, were an innovation in the upper reaches of the pop charts of the day. Wakelin was something of a Muhammad Ali cheerleader: a year before In Zaire, he had a UK hit with Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)..

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David Dundas – Jeans On.mp3
As I mentioned in the introduction, after finishing Grade 4 I departed the safe cocoon that was primary school for the local gymnasium (the highest of Germany’s three tiered school system). My father had gone to the same school, and my elder brother was a student at the converted medieval monastery. My father, whose politics were centre-left, knew that the school’s teaching body comprised many old Nazis, people whom he knew back in the bad old days. Still, he sent me to that hell hole. The teachers were gruseome. The severe German teacher, who’d enter the classroom with big strides and purposefully bang his bag on the table by way of intimidation; the unpleasant religion teacher (doubtless one of the old Nazis) whose forbidding theology I could not follow because I was hypnotised by the strand of white slime that invariably moved between his lips; the geography teacher (definitely a Nazi) who had us standing to attention when he entered the classroom, stopping short from having us salute him with a raised arm; and the biggest bastard of them all: the coach, who systematically robbed me of all my self-confidence because I was not quite the legendary sportsman whom he believed my father to be. And David Dundas’ Jeans On provided the soundtrack to my miserable time there.

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Sherbet – Howzat.mp3
I am certain that if cricket had caught on in Germany in good time, the country would have become quite excellent at it. Look at the German national football teams who have a way of hitting form at just the right time. That’s the secret to test cricket: winning the decisive sessions, coming back from setbacks, maintaining pressure on equally or more talented opposition. Basically the attributes that made Australia so domineering a side for a decade until a couple of years ago. Cricket fans will know why I’m yabbering on about what really is a minority sport (but huge in India, so in terms of numbers, it’s a significant discipline). The word “Howzat” is typically shouted by bowlers (they are like the pitcher in baseball) when the ball hits the batsman (that’s the guy with the bat) on the leg in a certain position, which the umpire may declare illegal and give the batsman out. Sherbet, being Australian, employed that cricketing term to give a cheating girlfriend “out” (they use another cricket term when they inform the girl: “I caught you out”). None of that made sense to me at the time, of course, even had I known about cricket. After all, I had started learning English only a couple of months before this became a minor hit in West-Germany.

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Tina Rainford – Silver Bird.mp3
If one wanted to locate a song with English lyrics as a good example of what a German Schlager sounds like, Silver Bird would be a most astute choice. Indeed, it was written by a Schlager producer, Drafi Deutscher (an old friend of Rainford’s whose ’60s hit Marmor, Stein und Eisen is one of the few truly great Schlager), under the pseudonym Renate Vaplus. It is a song of its time, recalling the likes of Pussycat and the George Baker Selection — and, indeed, ABBA in their Schlager phase. It was a massive hit. Quite bizarrely, Silver Bird also reached the top 20 of the US country charts. I had long forgotten about this song, so when I heard it again, it proved the powerful impact of music on the long-term memory as all kinds of feelings came rushing back, beaming me back to our living room.

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Ricky King РLe r̻ve.mp3
German-speakers of my generation who may be reading this will not thank me for posting his. Ricky King was a German guitar virtuoso located firmly in the muzak genre. The Fender Statocaster wielding King, known to his granny as Hans Lingenfelder, had been a session man for assorted Schlager types when he released Verde (an instrumental adaptation of a song by the improbably named Italian duo Oliver Onions) and this song, Le rêve. I suspect the only readers who will be interested in this are fellow nostalgist on a quest to recapture the feeling of the autumn of 1976. For everybody else, Ricky King is to Jimi Hendrix as Richard Clayderman is to Al Kooper. Bernhard Brink, who sported a blond afro, recorded a quite horrible vocal version of Le rêve.

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Marianne Rosenberg – Marleen.mp3
As mentioned in Curious Germany Vol. 2, Marianne Rosenberg began her career as a maidenly teenage singer, trilling songs about Mr Paul McCartney. After doing the standard Schlager thing, Rosenberg turned to disco in 1975 with the marvellous Ich bin wie Du (also in Curious Germany Vol. 2), all the time maintaining her secretary-next-door look. Today she is a cult legend in Germany’s gay scene, a status she seems to embrace. Marleen follows the same story line as Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit Jolene (note how Marleen more or less rhymes with Jolene). Marleen is in love with Marianne’s man, and the latter begs the more beautiful (less housewifey?) Marleen to abandon her romantic designs on Marianne’s man. Just hear Rosenberg’s tortured, drawn-out cry of Marleen. And all that is set to a gentle disco beat, so that we may dance and weep at the same time. The song, like many in the Rosenberg catalogue, was co-written by Joachim Heider, whom we met previously as a member of Krautrock band Glory Be in Curious Germany Vol. 3.

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Step back to 1976 – Part 1

March 12th, 2010 14 comments

If to me 1974 coalesced with 1975, then 1976 was a year of some change. For one thing, I got my first cassette recorder, which would set me off on a career of illegal copier of music (as we now know, home-taping killed music, stone dead. If only we had known!). In West Germany, pupils leave primary school after Grade 4, and that’s what I did in after the summer holidays — a very unhappy experience, as we’ll learn in part 2. And before that, I had my first holiday without my parents because they packed me and my brothers off to a church camp while they made a tour of France. It would be my father’s last ever holiday. I think I should apologise for the poor quality of the music that soundtracked my 1976. It will get better…

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Frank Farian – Rocky.mp3
Frank Farian had been trying for almost a decade and a half to become a famous Schlager singer. He had one minor hit in 1973, So muß Liebe sein, and then a big one in early 1976 with his German version of Austin Roberts’ tearjerker. But by then Farian had already branched out into the brave new world of disco. Recording under the name Boney M, his Baby Do You Wanna Bump (because the world needed more bump records), on which he did deep lead vocals and falsetto backing, became a minor hit in 1975.

Suddenly, Farian needed to send out a Boney M group to do gigs, and to front an album. So he drafted a bunch of West Indian female singers to lip synch on TV and at gigs. The line-up changed a few times before dancer Bobby Farrell joined to complete the group we all knew and despised. The latter didn’t appear on Boney M’s records — Farian did Farrell’s voice. But it wasn’t a huge secret, never mind a scandal. Notoriety would arrive with another group Farian had lip-synching: the Grammy-winning duo Milli Vanilli. The Milli Vanilli standard destroyed the lives of the two frontmen, but Frank Farian’s career continued merrily. In the ’90s he produced dance groups La Bouche and Le Click. And he never needed to become a Schlager star.

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Pussycat – Mississippi.mp3
On my tenth birthday I was given a cassette recorder; a rather simple bit of audio machinery with big buttons and no radio. It might have been simple, but to me it was pretty new-fangled technology. My mother has only recently given up on her eight-track machine, and this portable cassette recording lark was a damn sight more convenient than that. Once we got over the novelty of recording our voices (I thought I sounded like a complete dork; how I wish now that we had kept those tapes), I had to figure out the technology of recording music. The recorder had no futuristic gizmos such a wire which one might connect to a transistor radio, so the process of recording music required that nobody in the room would make a noise, preferable maintaining perfect stillness in contemplative prayer for no ringing telephones or barking dogs, as I would hold the cassette recorder close to the radio or TV or record player speaker.

My first proper test with illegal home taping came at the instigation of my older sister, who in the 1960s had amassed a fine collection of Beatles records, but now, at the old age of 24, no longer bought records. Dutch trio Pussycat would be performing their international number 1 hit Mississippi on TV (memory told me it was on the Disco 76 show, but Pussycat’s appearance on that monthly programme preceded my birthday). I was ready to tape the song, for which I had little affection. At my order, we all fell perfectly still, and the gap-toothed lead singer lip-synched her heart out. Like a great sound engineer, I allowed for the applause to fade out gently, and then clicked the pause button, rather than stop, because the former facilitated a smoother transition to the next song. Except all the other songs on the show were rubbish. In the end, my sister never collected the tape with my recording of Pussycat’s Mississippi…

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Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3
Mississippi was a rubbish song to the 10-year-old dude, remained a rubbish song throughout the fallow period before the rehabilitation of ’70s pop, and is a rubbish song still today. The Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night, on the other hand, was a great song to the 10-year-old dude, then fell into disdain during the fallow period, and is a great song again, even if only for reasons of nostalgia (I can never be sure whether my good judgment is clouded by an emotional connection to the past). Originally released in 1973 with Nobby Clark on vocals, it had been re-recorded in late 1975 with Nobby’s successor Leslie McKeown on the mic — as a glam rock number when glam rock was on its way out. The people in glam’s homeland knew that: the single did not do well in Britain. But it topped the US charts and was a big hit in West Germany, which defiantly kept the glam flame glittering. Of course, Saturday Night is a bit of a Sweet rip-off. And the stuttering evokes Bowie’s Changes. But, hey, do we really expect artistic innovation from a BCR song?

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Harpo – Motorcycle Mama.mp3
Motorcycle Mama, Harpo? Really? At the same time every German primary school kid was singing a song called Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad (My granny is riding her motorcycle inside the chicken coop)? The song is pretty standard pop stuff; our Swedish friend, who would perform barefooted because he had difficulties finding well-fitting shoewear, had a way with a catchy melody that was very much of its time, with a hummable chorus. The nostalgia-drenched lyrics on the other hand…oh dear. He remembers Jimi Hendrix from 1965? This was Harpo’s follow-up to the hit single Movie Star (which featured in 1975). Motorcycle Mama did not become a classic, but the far superior follow-up, Horoscope, was a big hit in West Germany. We shall encounter Harpo again in 1977.

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Slik – Forever And Ever.mp3
If Forever And Ever sounds a bit like a Bay City Rollers song, then that’s because it was written by the songwriting team Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who wrote several songs for BCR — including Saturday Night (they also wrote Sandie Shaw’s Eurovision Song Contest winner Puppet On A String and Cliff Richard’s Congratulation). And like BCR, Slik were a teen-pop band from Scotland on the Bell label. Their frontman was one Midge Ure, future singer with Ultravox and the forgotten co-writer of Do They Know It’s Christmas. Forever and Ever was a #1 hit in Britain. I don’t know how well it did in West-Germany, but I recall seeing it on TV. Then I forgot about the song for a decade or so, and rediscovered it on a K-Tel type LP I picked up in a second hand shop. Cue memories flooding back…

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Nico Haak – Schmidtchen Schleicher.mp3
Among the Schlager dross of 1976, there was the novelty dross. Schmidtchen Schleicher was regarded as hilarious by Germans because of Nico Haak’s peasoup-thick Dutch accent and the “amusing” lyrics about the eponymous lounge dancer’s elastic legs sliding across the dancefloor by way of charming the ladies. I recall my mother and me being in agreement that this was all very funny, though clearly not so funny as to compel either of us to spent 5DM on the single. I might have recorded it on tape though. Alarmingly, this song seems to have some kind of cult status in Germany. Please say it ain’t so.

I believe this was also a big hit in East-Germany, where Haak’s shtick certainly was a lot funnier than the regime there, or any of the misery guts on TV there. Yes, while we in the West had Niko Haak to entertain us, the good citizens of the DDR had the arch-polemic Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a joyless, goateed man of no discernible charm who in his TV commentaries peddled the ideals of an egalitarian, socialist brotherhood that was not evident in the workers’ and peasants’ state (not that Schnitzler’s West-German equivalent, Gerhard Löwenthal, was any more attractive). Haak, who possibly had no interest in all that, just managed to see the fall of German Democratic Republic before his death at 51 in 1990.

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Sailor – Girls Girls Girls.mp3
This is the only pop song I can recall my father reacting favourably to. He was more of an opera man. When I asked him about his favourite singer, he replied Maria Callas. Absent her regular appearances on Disco or the ZDF Hitparade, I had no idea who Ms Callas was. I didn’t expect the old man to dig Slade or even ABBA, but I had hoped he’d give me Mireille Mathieu or, hell, even Nana Mouskouri. Somebody I’d know. And then I saw him tapping his foot to Sailor. With the passage of years, I can understand what he saw in the song. My father was born in 1923 and loved the theatre. Girls Girls Girls evokes the sound of his childhood and it is grounded as much in a pop tradition as it is in the theatrical cabaret. To me it sounds like it belongs in the Muppets Show, which had yet to be launched. It’s a dangerous earworm, too.

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Tina Charles – I Love To Love.mp3
You have to love this disco-pop song alone for the Wooooooooooooo’s. I’d like Kylie Minogue to cover this, perhaps in a mash-up with the song’s spiritual cousin, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Tina Charles was a member, mostly in invisible form, of 5000 Volts, who had a hit with the Euro-disco song I’m On Fire (as recounted here). I Love To Love was produced by Biddu, the man responsible for Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting. Before storming the charts, Charles used to sing on the Top of the Pops albums, the cheap LPs on which session musicians would imitate (often badly) current chart hits. Before that, in 1969, she released her first single on which an unknown Elton John sang backing vocals. And Charles, for her part, sang backing vocals on Steve Harley & the Cockney Rebel’s Some Up And See Me, alongside Linda Lewis.

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More Stepping Back

Murder songs Vol. 1

March 9th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I posted the Louvain Brothers’ version of Knoxville Girl, in which the song’s protagonist kills his girlfriend. Ever since I have held on to the idea of starting a series of songs about murder. There are many obvious ones, but I hope to include a couple of lesser known murder ballads as well. I think the concept might also incorporate songs about death row inmates, for two reasons. Firstly, in the US, where almost all the songs on the subject are based, the death penalty is applied only to individuals who have been convicted of murder; secondly, capital punishment is, in my view, itself an act of murder. No dead men walking in the inaugural post though. Here we have the song with the most famous line about murder in pop, a murder song that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a song about mental illness leading to the death of a child. Creepy and chilling.

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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues.mp3
It is probably appropriate to begin the series with the song that features arguably  the most famous line about a murder in popular music: “I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Now the narrator sits in the titular jail as he listens to a train running by outside. He imagines the passengers “eatin’ in a fancy dining car. They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars”. He is regretting his crime, but evidently not because it was evil (Cash wanted to come up with the worst possible motive for killing a man in Reno), but because he can’t be as free as those highly mobile folk on the train. Famously, Cash later played his groundbreaking concert in the prison he sang about, and from which the recording here comes from.

The song might feature in the Copy Borrow Steal series. Cash borrowed the title from a 1951 movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and the melody from Gordon Jenkins 1953 song Crescent City Blues. Jenkins later sued and was received a settlement amount from Cash.

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Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Kill My Baby.mp3
Sometimes fiction becomes fact. In 1954, blues guitarist Pat Hare (born Auburn Hare!) sang a song — a cover of a 1940s song by Dorothy Clayton —  in which he vowed to kill his woman: “Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby — yeah, I’m tellin’ the truth now —‘cause she don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie.” Eight years later, Hare had just finished a stint as a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ group when he shot dead his girlfriend and a policeman in Minneapolis. Hare was convicted of the murder and died in jail in 1980 at the age of 49.

Hare is not the most famous music man to have killed. There are Sid Vicious and Phil Spector, and of course Charles Manson, who once co-wrote a Beach Boys b-side. And then there are all those rumours about Jerry Lee Lewis and the wives who widowed him, rumours which imply that the man’s self-proclaimed nickname might be read literally. Other musicians who killed include English producer Joe Meek (in a murder-suicide), Little Willie John (who sang the original of Fever), blues legend  Leadbelly (pre-fame, in 1918), Claudine Longet (whose shooting of skier Spider Sabich was ruled accidental) , drummer Jim Gordon (Derek & the Dominos, who killed his mother), rapper Cassidy (convicted of  involuntary manslaughter), western swing performer Spade Cooley (who kicked his wife to death, in front of their daughter!), two members of The Prisonaires (see The Originals Vol. 29), country singer Charles Lee Guy III , ska man Don Drummond, and blues singers Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams.

Apologies for the poor quality of the sound file, by the way.

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Violent Femmes – Country Death Song.mp3
The title of this song almost could provide the title for this series.  The set up here, apparently based on a true event in 1862, is a father’s murder of his daughter, by throwing her down a well. “I led her to a hole, a deep black well. I said: ‘make a wish, make sure and not tell and close your eyes, dear, and count to seven. You know your papa loves you; good children go to heaven.” Then he gives her gently push, never hearing the impact.  Ashamed of himself, he proceeds to hang himself in a barn. Unlike the narrators of the songs by Cash and Hare, the killer here has a fair excuse: he is mentally ill, and kills to protect his daughter from what he perceives to be the evils of this cruel world. The arrangement of this outstanding 1984 track illustrates the father’s descent into homicidal psychosis. Rarely has the banjo, played here by Tony Trischka, sounded so utterly menacing. And a clottish label executive wanted the song dropped because he didn’t like the banjo break (which he mistook for a piano).

In Memoriam – February 2010

March 5th, 2010 3 comments

After a hyperactive beginning of the year, the Grim Reaper took it mercifully easy on the world of music in February. So featured this month are some musicians who left us during the month past (and one of them died on the last day of January). As always, I don’t claim that this list is complete.

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Herman Dunham, 73, doo wop singer with The Solitaires, the Vocaleers and The Blenders, on January 31
The Solitaires – Walking Along (1958).mp3

Richard Delvy, 67, drummer of the Bel-Airs, songwriter and producer, on February 6
The Bel-Airs – Mr Moto (1962).mp3

John Dankworth, 82, saxophonist and clarinetist, jazz and movie soundtrack composer, on February 6
Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra – Experiments With Mice (1956).mp3

Pena Branco, 70, Brazilian folk singer, on February 8
Pena Branca & Xavantinho – Cutelinho (2002).mp3

Dale Hawkins, 73, rockabilly singer and songwriter, on February 13
Dale Hawkins – Suzie Q (1957).mp3

Lee Freeman, 60, rhythm guitarist with Strawberry Alarm Clock, on February 14
Strawberry Alarm Clock – Tomorrow (1967).mp3

Lil’ Dave Thompson, 40, blues guitarist, on February 14
Dave Thompson – Mississippi Boy (1995).mp3

Doug Fieger, 57, frontman of The Knack, on February 15
The Knack – Good Girls Don’t (1979).mp3

Art Van Damme, 89, jazz accordionist of cool repute, on February 15
Art Van Damme – Autumn In New York.mp3

Kathryn Grayson, 88, musicals actress (Kiss Me Kate, Showboat, Anchors Aweigh etc), on February 17
Kathryn Grayson &  Howard Keel – Make Believe (from Showboat, 1951).mp3

Chilly B, 47, co-founder of influential ’80s rap group Newcleus, on February 23
Newcleus – Jam On It (1984).mp3

Tom ‘T-Bone’ Wolk, 58, bassist for Hall & Oates since 1981 (also recorded with Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, Billy Joel a.o.), on February 27
Hall & Oates – Maneater (1982).mp3

Larry Cassidy, 56, singer and bassist of Section 25, on February 27.
Section 25 – Dirty Disco (1981).mp3

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In Memoriam January 2010
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Intros Quiz – 1970 edition

March 2nd, 2010 3 comments

We continue on our five-yearly cycle of intros quizzes, going on to 1970. The advanced mathematicians will therefore have deduced that the April installment will deal with the Year of Our Lord 1975.

As always, twenty intros to hit songs from that year of 5-7 seconds in length. All were singles releases that year, all hits or otherwise very well known. The answers will be posted in the comments section by Friday. And if the pesky number 5 bugs you, e-mail me at halfhearteddude [at) gmail [dot] com for the answers, or  better, message me on Facebook. If you’re not my FB friend, click here.


Intros Quiz – 1970 edition

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