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Step back to 1977 – Part 2

July 21st, 2010 5 comments

In part one of my nostalgic trip to 1977 I recalled the sudden death of my father and how I shoved my rival out of the way in a race for my first true love’s favour. Puberty’s hormones had started to rage in my 11-year-old body. One day in early September I bought a copy of the teen magazine Bravo, familiar to me from the posters that used to cover my older sister’s bedroom walls. This one had Linda Blair from The Exorcist on the cover, and inside the first of a four-part series of Smokie posters. Apart with providing me with excellent sex education, buying Bravo turned me from a casual music fan into an obsessive. My growth was rapid, as the first part of 1978 will show. I might regard most of the sings in this post with nostalgic affection, but I am not proud to associate myself with some of them publicly.

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Baccara – Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.mp3
Baccara – Sorry, I’m A Lady.mp3

I have told the story before how the poetry of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie ignited my passion for the English language, which by 1977 I had learned for a year in school. It was the word “erjitayshin” (as in “Meester, your eyes are full of hesitation”) that send me to the Langenscheidt Englisch-Deutsch dictionary. It caused me great satisfaction to have mastered a four-syllable word. From there, I’d regularly translate lyrics from the snappily titled Top Schlagersongtextheft booklets. As we’ll see in part 3 of 1977, my first celebrity crush on an adult involved the blonde from ABBA, but the Baccara lady in black also gave me strange stirrings, proving that I am not tied to a particular type of woman. The spoken admonition in the Spanish duo’s second hit, in which the white Baccaraette regrets that she is a woman of virtue, also seemed cute and, indeed, sexy to me. In short, Baccara represent the aural and visual stimuli to my nascent pubescent sexual awakening.
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Harpo – In The Zum-Zum-Zummernight.mp3
Flute! This is not one of Harpo’s better-remembered songs. It reached #13 in West-Germany in September, his last Top 20 entry there. Indeed, by 1977 – the year he spent a month in Swedish jail for refusing to perform compulsory military service – Harpo’s career was declining. Being a bit of a Harpo fan, I bought two more singles by Harpo after this — Television and a cover of The Troggs’ With A Girl Like You, neither of which were hits — and then the singer disappeared. A few years later he briefly returned to the news when he sustained serious injuries from being kicked by a horse he was training (he lost sight in one eye and his sense of smell). You and I might have boiled the horse down for glue. Harpo, in commendable contrast to you and me, named his next album after the horse, Starter. Apparently Harpo still performs (Northern German and Danish readers can catch him on 30 July at an Oldies-Night in Süderbarup, near Flensburg).
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Boney M – Belfast.mp3
Like Woody Guthrie before them, Boney M had a message of politics. “Got to have a believin’, got to have a believin’, got to have a believin’ all the people ’cause the people are leavin’. When the people believin’, when the people believin’, when the people believin’ all the children cause the children are leavin’.” Right on! It took 20 years for the conflicting sides to listen to Boney M with open hearts and minds before they signed the Good Friday Peace Accord. On this song, Marcia Barrett got to sing lead instead of the more ubiquitous Liz Mitchell. It was co-written by Drafi Deutscher (who in the1960s recorded what may well be the only ever world-class Schlager, Marmor Stein und Eisen) specifically for Barrett, intended for her to sing even before she joined Boney M. Its original, less snappy title was Londonderry, which might locate Deutscher either on the Protestant or the Oblivious side.

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Rubettes – Ooh-La-La.mp3
When successful acts died commercially in Britain, they lingered on for a while in Germany. The Rubettes benefitted from such loyalties when their Ooh La La La became a hit well past their sell-by date. I thought the chorus was quite catchy, but I obviously did not take the time to translate them. “I’m contemplating having her my bride; she’s got great big tits, that’s what she has. Yes, when it comes down to lovin’, anything goes and everyone knows it, I swear now, for she has a thing about shedding her clothes.” Tom Waits was not going to perform a cover version of that, but it was pretty risque for the pop charts in the 1970s. And then, Rubettes Man engages himself with her clothes-shedding temperament: “I heard my parents footsteps coming down the stairs to see what all the noise was about. So I rolled over to the old piano and I said: ‘Ma, we’ve been playing the blues.’ My mother gave me a knowing glance and she said: ‘Son, is that how you play it with your trousers round your shoes?’” Surely a real mother would have given a knowing look and ask her horny son not to soil the rug…

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Bay City Rollers – You Made Me Believe In Magic.mp3
There are BCR songs I like because they make me feel like a kid again. But this song I like because it’s damn good. It didn’t do very well because by then even the German teen girls had begun deserting the group, though it apparently cracked the US Top 10 (but only #34 in the UK and even in Germany only #24). Soon singer Leslie McKeown would depart as well. So You Made Me Believe In Magic stands as a testament to what might have been. It has a great arrangement (I really like the strings) and the guitar solo – ostensibly by Woody, but I don’t buy that – is pretty good too, albeit rather of its time. In memory of BCR, here’s a great video of the band performing for OAPs; I suspect it was a funny response to their being a teenybopper band.

Anyway, BCR remind me of the Great Poster Debate of September 1977. Bravo carried four different sizes of posters: A4, A3, a double-sided A2 insert called the “Superposter”, and the Starschnitt, weekly pieces of a picture that glued together would produce a life-sized poster (the only one I ever collected was of the Beatles). Although I was not a little girl, there were BCR posters up on the walls of the bedroom which my younger brother and I shared. Although I bought the magazines, we’d take weekly turns in deciding which posters would go up; my brother’s bargaining strategy was that if he had no say, he’d veto any poster going up. One week, the Superposter choice fell between a garish picture of BCR clones called the Dead End Kids on the colour side, and a really cool monochrome photo of Jimi Hendrix (of whom I knew nothing yet, other than that he was dead). Alas, it was brother’s week to choose the posters (pictured on the Bravo cover here), and he opted for the fucking Dead End Kids. I tried all I could to persuade him that Jimi had to go up, even trying to emotionally blackmail him by claiming that our late father, an opera and theatre man, was a big Jimi Hendrix fan. To no avail. The Dead End Kids went up – comedy socks, skimpy cut-off denim shorts with rather too open legs and all. I never got to hear any of their records, but a lot of Hendrix’s.

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Kenny Rogers – Lucille.mp3
Two years ago I was at a party when the electricity went off. The host quickly produced a guitar for an old-fashioned sing-along. But when nobody really remembers complete lyrics, these things tend to e short-lived. So as our host was idly playing as blues riff, I started singing along, making up lyrics as I went along to what I called The Muthafuckin’ Blues. The lyrics of my ditty were more country than blues. You know the deal: my dog gone died, my woman gone left me, and the crops in the field are being left unharvested. Later I realised that, apart from the deceased canine (and the bitter end that my woman who gone left me would eventually meet), I was riffing on the theme of Kenny Roger’s Lucille, from the point of view of the wronged husband.

My mother bought the single on a trip in October to Cologne, at the massive Saturn store, at the time Europe’s biggest record shop. It was our first family trip since my father’s death in June. Before departing, I had been given a new pair of black leather shoes which had a very distinctive smell. Lucille evokes that smell and the very particular memories of that trip.

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Hoffmann & Hoffmann – Himbeereis zum Frühstück.mp3
Carole King – Hard Rock Cafe.mp3

This German cover of the Bellamy Brothers rather good Crossfire played every morning on our radio alarm clock, a modern thing with green digital numbers. Almost like I Got You Babe in Groundhog Day. It was one of three songs that seemed to play in a loop at the time: Carole King’s Hardrock Café, a German cover version of Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today by a guy who played the fiddle, and this song. Although I was by now vehemently opposed to any German music whatsoever, I had a sneaking affection for this song. Raspberry ice cream for breakfast (which beats starfish and coffee, maple syrup and cream) sounded like just the thing to fulfill my nutritional needs. I was intrigued by the notion of rock ‘n’ roll in an elevator (you don’t think they meant something other than dancing to Bill Haley, do you?). Sadly, one of the Hoffmanns died young, having thrown himself from a Rio hotel window in 1984. He was 33. I can’t say I liked Carole King’s song much, though it sounds a lot better now.

Part 3 follows soon. And when we get to 1978, when the music will get a lot better.

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More Stepping Back

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Step back to 1977 – Part 1

June 4th, 2010 8 comments

1977, the year I turned 11, was a pivotal year in my life, perhaps more than any other. My family was torn apart by my father’s sudden death, I discovered love and became a serious fan of pop music. We’ll deal with the first two in part 1. As always, I must stress that all songs are included here because they have the power to beam me back to the time under discussion. Some I like, and some I most certainly do not endorse. Don’t despair, things will get better as I get older…
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Electric Light Orchestra – Livin’ Thing.mp3
Until this point, the Electric Light Orchestra had passed me by, and they would again do so until 1979/80, when I really liked their hits Don’t Bring Me Down, Confusion and Shine A Light from the Discovery album. There were other songs in between, and every friend’s long-haired, bumfluff-moustached older brother had a few ELO albums, alongside the ubiquitous Heart LP (the one with Barracuda, which to this day remains Annoying Older Brother music to me). But I didn’t dig ELO. Except Livin’ Thing. Perhaps not coincidentally, it sounds much like the Discovery era ELO. The production is brilliant, of course (the strings especially), but it’s the chorus that must have grabbed me then. For all values that I have come to appreciate about ELO since then, I don’t think they were that great with choruses.

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Bay City Rollers – Yesterday’s Hero.mp3
In West Germany, the little girls maintained a rivalry between the Bay City Rollers and Sweet. If churning out the better hits in 1977 is the yardstick by which we shall measure victory, BCR won, even as the song’s title was becoming increasingly apt. Yesterday’s Hero is a bit of a stomper in the Saturday Night vein. Written by Harry Vanda and George Young, it was originally recorded in 1975 by John Paul Young, who’d score a couple of worldwide hits in 1977/78 with Love Is In The Air and Standing In The Rain (an Italian cardinal was such a great fan, he adopted the singer’s name upon becoming pope in August 1978). George Young, incidentally is AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm Young’s older brother. With Vanda, George had been a member of the Easybeats. They then recorded as Flash and the Pan. They also produced AC/DC’s Powerage and High Voltage albums.

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Bonnie Tyler – Lost In France.mp3
If any record my mother bought was going to excite me, then it had to be one that included the timeless lyrics: “Hoolay-hoolay hoolay-hoolay-dance”. It might have supposed to sound like ooh-la-la ooh-la-la dance, but Mrs Tyler (no doubt she was married, because she looked like a Hausfrau) gave the French phrase her own Welsh twist. Lost In France, which sounds like a Smokie song, was recorded before Tyler had an operation on her vocal chords, which gave her already smoky voice that distinctive rasp. Within a year Tyler had an even bigger hit, with It’s a Heartache, and in 1983 with the magnificent Jim Steinman production Total Eclipse Of The Heart.

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Frank Zander – Oh Susie (Der zensierte Song).mp3
While my interest in German Schlager had diminished by 1977, I couldn’t escape the likes of Peter Alexander, Roberto Blanco, Costa Cordalis and Howard Carpendale on the radio or TV. Compared to those ingratiating chumps, Frank Zander was fairly cool. With his almost tuneless voice and faintly amusing lyrics (well, up to a point), he certainly stood apart from the chumps. He had first come to general notice in 1975 with Ich trink auf dein Wohl Marie, the supposed humour of which resided in his supposed drunkenness (hell, at nine years of age, I was amused). Two years later, he had moved from the adult Marie to jalbait Susie, of the “uncensored song” which through the medium of country-pop operates on the fun to be had with bleeped out double entendres. Oh, how we almost laughed. An “uncensored version” was also released, with Zander voicing over the supposed words that were bleeped out, but those were not really objectionable either; a comedic double bluff, in other words. Zander later became a full-time practitioner of the novelty song, doing unhilarious spoof covers of Trio’s Da Da Da and, under the pseudonym Fred Sonnenschein released particularly inane Scheiße.

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Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran – Rock Bottom.mp3
Ah, the days when Britain still had a shot at winning the Eurovision Song Contest; before bitter regional enemies in the Balkans would divvy up the highest numbers of points between one another (except this year, when Germany won). Rock Bottom was the runner-up in the 1977 contest. France won that year, with Marie Myriam’s L’oiseau et l’enfant, a song I would not even pretend to recognise if it stuck its tongue down my throat while humming itself. And while Croatia is happy to give Serbia 12 points, Ireland gave Rock Bottom nil points. Austria’s entry, Eurovision cliché watchers will be pleased to know, was titled Boom Boom Boomerang. Mike Moran went on to produce David Bowie and write the theme for crime TV series Taggard. De Paul had already enjoyed a career as a singer and songwriter (including Barry Blue’s hit Dancin’ On a Saturday Night). At around the time that Moran co-wrote Kenny Everett’s not entirely welcome Snot Rap, De Paul was singing songs for the Conservative Party.

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Space – Magic Fly.mp3
This was a bit of an instrumental novelty hit in the way that there always was at least one every year in the German charts. Unlike some of the others, however, Magic Fly is rather good. Space were a pretty cool French disco act whose music might well be sought out by aficionados of the genre. I had the single of this. It got stolen at the last church youth camp I bothered attending, in 1979. The youth leaders didn’t even bother to investigate the theft of my records (the violation of the commandments about theft and coveting thy neighbour’s goods notwithstanding). That annoyed me, because in 1976 they had a whole scene from The Shield going when some hapless goon stole a popular guy’s pocketknife. Nobody asked what the cool guy was doing with a knife in a church camp in the first place. But to the religious church camp regime, rightful ownership of weapon clearly was more important than pop music. So, you know, fuck them.

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Oliver Onions – Orzowei.mp3
I actually didn’t like this song that much; my younger brother was a great fan of it (and, yeah, the chorus is quite catchy, in the way choruses with the phrase “nananana-nananana-nananana-na-na” often are). Little bro’ was also a great Bud Spencer and Terence Hill fan, so he had an Italian obsession already which would only later incorporate the finer aspects of that country’s rich cultural heritage. Oliver Onions (named after the British writer) were Italian film writers Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, who wrote for Bud Spencer & Terence Hill movies. Orzowei was the theme song for what I think was an Italian mini-series titled in Germany Weißer Sohn des kleinen Königs, a story about a white boy brought up in an African tribe. It was a German #1 in late May and early June, which was, as we will see in the next entry, a rather significant point in my young life.

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Julie Covington – Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.mp3
In early June, my mother bought the single of this. One night she played it for my father, a theatre and opera buff who probably would have liked any of the crap inflicted upon us by that revolting grease-head Andrew Lloyd-Webber. And, indeed, Mom and Dad, sitting together on the green suede lounge suite, really enjoyed that song together. A couple of nights later (the anniversary of which is on Saturday), a shrill scream echoed through our house, alerting me to the notion I was now fatherless. My father had collapsed with a heart attack at work; we had been notified that he had been taken to hospital, but didn’t know that he made his final, apparently artificial breath in the ambulance.

In the subsequent weeks, my mother was totally obsessed by Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, playing it over and over and over, her loud sobs disregarding Evita’s injunction not to shed tears for her or, by extension, my father. I cannot have an objective opinion of that song’s merits. I love that song because it evokes such intense emotions. And I hate it for the same reason. Catch me on the right day, and you’ll find that the strings that open Don’t Cry For Me Argentina can still produce a lump in my throat, a knot in my stomach, or a tear in my eye.

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Smokie – It’s Your Life.mp3
Readers who are familiar with the oeuvre of Smokie will rightly question my good judgment in including this song, and, if there had to be Smokie, not one their bigger hits of 1977, Living Next Door To Alice (and you may very well ask politely who is Alice) or Lay Back In The Arms Of Someone, both far less rubbish tunes than this. But the point of the series is to include songs that have the power to transport me back to a particular time. It’s Your Life, a tempo-changing mish-mash of cod-reggae, bubblegum pop and Beatles-homage, does just that. It evokes the summer of 1977. When it comes to the bridge, and the backing singers start singing: “How does it feel…” I am inclined to continue “…one of the beautiful people”. The fleeting similarity to the Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man is not subtle. And the chorus borrows more than a bit from George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (or, indeed, The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine).

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Rod Stewart – Sailing.mp3
Yes, I know, it was a hit in 1975. Yet it belongs here. In August 1977, my brothers and I went on a church camp. The regular reader may recall from the 1976 installment that the previous year’s camp (the one with the pocketknife incident) had been intolerable due to my older brother’s Gauleiter complex, bullying me mercilessly. This year, he was totally cool. The whole group of about 40 kids from 9-15 was great and grew close over two weeks. It was one of the best fortnights of my life. And I fell in love with the lovely Antje, with her dark hair and little freckles on her nose. Of course I was too shy to do much about it, other than carving her name on my bed’s headboard (and anywhere else I found suitable). A night or two before our departure — the day we received news of Elvis’ death — we had a disco evening. I was intent on asking Antje for a slow dance, and practised with one of the youth leaders, the generously bosomed Doris, to Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London. The next ballad would be my cue.

After loads of Sweet and T Rex songs, played by my DJing older brother, the opening notes of Rod Stewart’s Sailing sounded. Being totally sexy in my tight white jeans and navy T-shirt, I got up and made a beeline across the dancefloor for the lovely Antje. Halfway down, approaching from the right flank, came a chap called Roland. I had not known that he too had taken a fancy to the lovely Antje. For all I knew, he might have had his sights on any number of girls cliqued together in the lovely Antje’s vicinity. Still, somehow I sensed his intended target right at that moment.

It was like High Noon; tumbleweed blowing as nervous eyes darted here and there. Little me and big Roland, both after the same girl, with the entire crowd watching from the sidelines. Our paths met. Instinctively, I shoulder-charged my rival out of the way. As he tumbled away I reached the lovely Antje, stood in front of her and boldly asked her to dance to Rod Stewart’s Sailing. She looked inquiringly at her best friend, who nodded her consent. So Antje and I had our awkward first — and, alas, last — dance, with all my pals giving me the thumbs up, and Roland plotting a revenge which never came. After the camp, I never saw Antje again. But not a year goes by when I don’t think of her, of the feeling of my hands on the back of her slightly clammy T-shirt and her soft breath brushing against my neck.

So when I think of 1977, the shock and grief caused by my father’s death comes to mind, but also the intensity of my puppy love and the comfort of my holiday with a great group of people. The year had awoken in me an intense consciousness of life, and I would soon direct that intensity towards the fanatical acquisition of music.

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More Stepping Back

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

Step Back to 1975 – Part 2

January 29th, 2010 9 comments

For the second part of my journey back to 1975, when I was nine years old, I dug out an old Arcade sampler of that year. A number of songs featured here were included on that album: I’m On Fire, Down By The River, Moviestar and New York Groove. Some other songs might well have featured here as well, such as Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Typically Tropical’s Barbados, Chris Spedding’s Motor Bikin’, or Billy Swan’s Don’t Be Cruel.

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Van McCoy – The Hustle.mp3
What a tune! Disco guitars, strings, flute, horns, a killer bassline and friendly ladies and imposing gentlemen commanding us to do The Hustle. Do it! It’s the sound of summer ’75. Before trying to peddle a dance nobody could really do, McCoy had been a songwriter, a producer and a label boss. He co-wrote such songs as Jackie Wilson’s I Get The Sweetest Feeling, Brenda & the Tabulations’ Right on the Tip of My Tongue, The President’s 5-10-15-20 (25 Years of Love), David Ruffin’s Walk Away from Love… And then, in 1979, McCoy died of heart failure. He was only 39.

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Bay City Rollers – Give A Little Love.mp3
When the sartorial disaster zone that was the Bay City Rollers had a hit with a ballad — a cover of the Four Season’s Bye Bye Baby — it was inevitable that they’d release another retro ballad. And it gave them a second #1 in Britain. Give A Little Love was not a patch on Bye Bye Baby, and yet I preferred it. I suspect I was showing my preference for the understated. Or I was just being in touch with my feminine side because, let’s face it, this song was for all you girls out there for whom it supposedly was a teenage dream to be thirteen. Lucky girls. By the time I hit 13 four years later, I discovered that it was a nightmare being that age. Anyway, in ’75 I might have liked the girly song, but within the next year and a bit, BCR would release Saturday Night and Yesterday’s Hero, two real bubblegum pop stompers.

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I Santo California – Tornerò.mp3
The holidaymakers’ import hit from sunny Italy in 1975. I really like this song. But I do have a soft spot for some Italian pop, supplementing my great love for Italy. I have no idea how desperately uncool it may be to like songs by Umberto Tozzi (“Ti Amo”, “Gloria”), but I do. There was a German version of Tornerò by Michael Holm titled Wart’ auf mich, but the melody is so essentially San Remo pop, it requires the sound of the Italian language. I wonder how many Europeans in their mid-thirties owe their life to Tornerò?

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Albert Hammond – Down By The River.mp3
Albert Hammond – To All The Girls I Loved Before.mp3

Originally a minor US hit for Hammond in 1972, the re-recorded version of Down By The River that became a über-hit in Germany in autumn 1975. The merry tune masks the fact that the song states Hammond’s ecological concerns. It’s pretty well done; starting out as a camping romance poisoned by the polluted river, Hammond ends the song in ways that might have given me nightmares had I understood English then: “The banks will soon be black and dead, and where the otter raised his head will be a clean white skull instead, down by the river.” The b-side could feature in The Originals series, but I’ll post it here, simply because I really don’t like Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias’ awful duet.

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Harpo – Moviestar.mp3
A Top 30 hit in Britain only in 1976, Germans got to know the barefooted Swedish singer Harpo in late 1975 with this cheerful and sarcastic number, which apparently features Anni-Frid of ABBA on backing vocals. In Britain Harpo might be remembered as a minor one-hit wonder, but he had a string of hits in Germany between 1975 and ’77. In 1977 Harpo was jailed for four weeks for refusing to do his compulsory military service in Sweden. By 1978 his German career had fizzled out. I was loyal to Harpo beyond the call of duty, buying 1977’s Television and 1978’s With A Girl Like You, a cover of the Troggs hit. Both had pink and black covers, neither charted.

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Penny McLean – Lady Bump.mp3
The sound of Munich disco. Penny McLean was one of the three members of the Silver Convention (Fly, Robin Fly), and possibly not the most talented of the lot. The recurring scream on Lady Bump? Not Penny. The spoken bit? Not Penny. Which leaves us with some pretty ropey vocals. The scream was the work of one Gitta Walther and the introductory recital by Lucy Neale (of Love Generation). Penny McLean, you’ll be shocked to learn, was a pseudonym; the singer’s real name was Gertrude Wirschinger, not a moniker to inspire much by way of sexy disco fever. But she didn’t even use it in her career as a folksinger, as part of a duet with husband Holger Münzer called Holger & Tjorven in the 1960s. After her disco career fizzled out, McLean became an author on New Age twaddle, such as numerology. How fitting then that the follow-up hit to Lady Bump (a German #1) was titled 1,2,3,4…Fire.

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5000 Volts – I’m On Fire.mp3
Another disco hit, this one from Britain, and much better than Lady Bump, if one can get past the blatant rip-off of Black Is Black. 5000 Volts was basically Martin Jay (whom we would later encounter in Tight Fit and Enigma) and Tina Charles, who would soon score a huge solo hit with I Love To Love. And good for her: when I’m On Fire became a hit, Charles was replaced on the lip-synching Top of the Pops by blonde actress Luan Peters, who also appeared on most single sleeves (she is otherwise best known as the hot Australian over whom Basil Fawlty fawns in Fawlty Towers’ “The Psychiatrist” episode). The subterfuge caused a scandal at the time, with the German label replacing the single sleeves for I’m On Fire to depict Tina Charles with Martin Jay and another dude. I don’t recall whether I watched the Disco ’76 show of 5 December. I hope I did, catching in the process not only 5000 Volts, but also ABBA singing S.O.S. (months after having a hit with it) and Hello performing New York Groove.

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Hello – New York Groove.mp3
Americans are more likely to know New York Groove in the version by Kiss man Ace Frehley, but it first was a hit for the English pop group and BCR labelmates Hello, who were clearly aimed at the teenybopper market while holding for themselves higher aspirations. Three of the four Hello members were only 19 at the time, and had been releasing records for three years before having their first hit in 1974 with a cover of the Exciters’ Tell Him. New York Groove a year later became their only other hit. They also supported Gary Glitter on tour (good thing then that the drummer was ten years older than the other members). New York Groove was written by Russ Ballard, who to my knowledge never released it.

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Juliane Werding – Wenn Du denkst Du denkst, dann denkst Du nur Du denkst.mp3
Essen-born Juliane Werding was just 15 when she had her first hit, a German cover of Joan Baez’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in 1972. After that she disappeared from the scene, completed her education, and returned in 1975 with this verbosely titled country number, which translates as “If you think you think then you only think you think”…that a girl can’t play cards. This is the storyline: like Udo Jürgens in part 1 of the 1975, Juliane fancies a late night drink. Unlike the Greek tavern dwelling Udo, Juliane finds a nice working-class Kneipe in which beer swilling men challenge her to a game of cards, thinking she’ll be easy prey. Of course, she beats them and proceeds to drink them under the table, giving cause for her good-natured taunting in the manner of tongue-twisting posers. In the middle of all that, a man interjects in a disconcertingly creepy manner that he’ll get her next time. On the ZDF Hitparade show, presenter Dieter-Thomas Heck does the creepy guy honours.

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Smokey – Don’t Play That Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me.mp3
I was going to write an essay about why Smokie were uttley naff (and fans of the group will know what I did there). And, of course, they were. But here’s the thing: some of their songs were quite good, in the ways of 1970s pop ballads. I quite like this Chinn/Chapman production, which borrows its riff rather too liberally from His Latest Flame. Anyway, the eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that the heading and the single sleeve spell the band’s name Smokey. As I recall it, the Motown legend Mr Robinson apparently believed that the name Smokey was his trademark alone, suggesting that the public might become confused between his high-pitched voice and Chris Norman’s pebble-garglings. Or that people might not properly process the picture of four white Yorkshiremen on a sleeve, and buy the record in the belief that they were getting a Quiet Storm. Faced with the threat of litigation, our four friends changed their name to Smokie. Incidentally, Sammy Davis Jr didn’t sue Robinson for appropriating the rather indelicate nickname Frank Sinatra called him by.

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More Stepping Back

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…

The Originals Vol. 1

August 28th, 2008 11 comments

Inspired by a propitious confluence of a long discussion about cover versions we didn’t know where covers and a generous correspondent whom we’ll know as RH e-mailing me a bunch of rare originals of better known covers, we are now at the cusp of what will be a longish series. Any Major Notebook now includes two pages worth of almost 100 shortlisted songs that in their original form are lesser known than later versions. In some cases that reputation is entirely subjective. There will be people who think that the version of Lady Marmalade perpetrated by Christina Aguilera and pals was the original. But people of my generation will long have been familiar with LaBelle’s 1970s recording. Until a day ago, I thought that was the original, but RH has disabused me of my error. The real original of Lady Marmalade will feature later in this series. In a very few cases, I will not present the original, but the earliest version available (I will note these instances accordingly). And we’ll kick-off with a heavy-duty dose of 10 originals. Tell me which songs you were surprised to learn are in fact covers, and let me know whether you prefer the originals or later versions.

(All original songs re-uploaded on March 31, 2009)

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Leon Russell – This Masquerade.mp3
Carpenters – This Masquerade.mp3
It makes sense to start this series with the Carpenters, who made it a virtue of picking up relatively obscure songs, and re-arrange and appropriate them. Think of (They Long To Be) Close To You, which despite legions of competing covers has become the Carpenters’ signature song as much as Richard’s arrangement has become the best-known, indeed primary incarnation of that song. For another good example of Richard’s rearrangement genius, take This Masquerade. Covered only a year after it originally appeared on Leon Russell’s 1972 Carney album, it becomes quite a different animal in the Carpenters’ shop, doing away with the long movie-theme style intro. Oddly, both Russell and the Carpenters’ used the song on b-sides of inferior singles. George Benson’s 1976 Grammy-winning version from the Breezin’ album is also worth noting.
Also covered by: Carl Tjader, Sergio Mendez, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, No Mercy, CoCo Lee, Nils Landgren a.o.
Best version: The Carpenters’s version has a flute and Karen’s voice, beating Benson into second place.

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Randy & the Rainbows – Denise.mp3
Blondie – Denis.mp3
Here’s one I didn’t know until a few days ago: Blondie’s 1977 burst of pop-punk was in fact a cover of a 1963 hit. For Randy & the Rainbows, Denise represented a brief flirtation with stardom. It reached #10 on the Billboard charts, but after the follow-up barely scraped into the Top 100, that was it for the doo-woppers from Queens. For Blondie, on the other hand, Denis was something of a break-through song, at least in Europe. The French verse in Denis was necessary to explain away the object of desire’s gender-change. Thanks to my friend John C for the original version.
Also covered by: nobody worth mentioning
Best version: The original is very nice indeed, but Blondie’s cover is just perfect pop.

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Bing Crosby – Try A Little Tenderness.mp3
Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness.mp3
My kind friend RH, who helped inspire this series, has made me aware of many originals that have surprised me. It was not news to me, however, that Try A Little Tenderness was in fact an old 1930s standard, when RV sent me this Bing Crosby version. And yet, of the many songs I have received from RH, I was particularly delighted with this one, because among its crooned renditions I had heard only versions by Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. It needn’t be pointed out that once Otis was through with the song, with the help of Booker T & the MGs and a production team that included Isaac Hayes, it bore only the vaguest semblance to the smooth and safe standard it once was. Redding didn’t want to record it, ostensibly because he did not want to compete with his hero Sam Cooke’s brief interpretation of the song on the Live At The Copa set. Incredibly Otis’ now iconic delivery was actually intended to screw the song up so much that it could not be released. Bing’s 1932 version is actually not the original, but the song’s first cover version following the Ray Noble Orchestra’s recording.
Also covered by: Mel Tormé, Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Jack Webb, Frankie Lane, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Nancy Wilson, Percy Sledge, Nina Simone, Three Dog Night, Etta James, Al Jarreau, Rod Stewart, The Commitments, Michael Fucking Bolton, Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Diane Schuur & BB King, Von Bondies, Michael Bublé a.o.
Best version: Otis.

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The Arrows – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.mp3
Joan Jett – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.mp3
The Arrows were a short-lived English band on the RAK label, which also gave us the likes of Smokie, Hot Chocolate and Racey, and so were produced by the semi-genius of ’70s pop, Mickey Most. After two hits – though not this song – and starring in a couple of brief TV series on British TV, they disappeared. Joan Jett also seemed to disappear after the break-up of The Runaways in the late ’70s, suddenly reappearing with the largely obscure I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, which she had previously recorded with members of the Sex Pistols. Apparently Jett had known the song since 1976 when, while on tour with the Runaways, she saw the Arrows performing it on TV. Jett had another hit with another cover version, and that was her solo career over. The song found a new generation of admirers in 2001 with Britney Spears’ redundant cover.
Also covered by: Allan Merrill, Hayseed Dixie, Queens of Japan (no, me neither)
Best version: Jett gives it beery attitude.

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Everly Brothers – Crying In The Rain.mp3
Cotton, Lloyd & Christian – Crying In The Rain.mp3
A-ha – Crying In The Rain.mp3

Before she was all dreamy and barefooted hippie cat lover, Carole King was a songwriter in the legendary Brill Building. One of the many hits she churned out was Crying In The Rain, with which the Everly Brothers scored a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1961. It was periodically revived on the country circuit, but is best known to many as the A-ha hit from 1990 – and the many would include me. In between, it was recorded in 1976 by an obscure outfit called Cotton, Lloyd & Christian. I have no idea how their version landed up in my collection, but here it is, serving as a missing link between the versions by the Everly Bothers and A-ha.
Also covered by: Sweet Inspirations, Crystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams a.o.
Best version: A-ha, by a whisker

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Liza Minnelli – New York, New York.mp3
Frank Sinatra – New York New York.mp3
The Theme from New York, New York has so much become a Sinatra cliché, it is often forgotten that it came from a rather long and boring Scoresese film with Minnelli and Robert de Niro. In the film, Minelli’s version is a source of some melancholy viewing; Sinatra’s 1979 take, recorded two years after the film, gets parties going with the hackneyed high-kicks and provides any old drunk with an alternative to My Way on karaoke night. If proof was needed that Sinatra trumps Lucille 2, consider that the NY Yankees used to play the Sinatra version after winning, and Minnelli’s after a defeat. Minnelli objected to that, understandably, and gave the Yankees an ultimatum: “Play me also when you win, or not at all.” Now Sinatra gets played even when they lose.
Also covered by: Michael Fucking Bolton (imagine that!), Reel Big Fish, Cat Power a.o.
Best version: Frank’s version is A-Number One

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Four Seasons – Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye).mp3
Bay City Rollers – Bye Bye Baby.mp3
The Four Seasons will be occasional visitors in this series. At least those people who grew up in the 1970s will be more familiar with cover versions than the Four Seasons originals. Bye Bye Baby was written by band member Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, making it to #12 in the US charts. A decade later the Bay City Rollers scored their biggest hit with their decent but inferior version. The story goes that the Bay City Rollers were oblivious of the Four Seasons orginal, choosing it because Stuart “Woody” Wood had the 1967 cover by the Symbols. I have no idea what the Symbols did with the song, but the BCR arrangement certainly owes nothing to the more sparse original.
Also covered by: Apart from the Symbols also by something called the Popguns
Best version: Always the Four Seasons

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Fleetwood Mac – Black Magic Woman.mp3
Santana – Back Magic Woman.mp3
From Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 debut album, Black magic Woman is “three minutes of sustain/reverb guitar with two exquisite solos from Peter [Green],” according to Mick Fleetwood. Carlos Santana covered it on 1970’s Abraxas album and retained its basic structure and clearly drug-induced vibe, but changed the arrangement significantly with a shot of Latin and hint of fusion, and borrowing from jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo’s Gypsy Queen. It became one of Santana’s signature tunes, while Fleetwood Mac had to remind audiences that the song was actually theirs. The vocals on the Santana version are by Greg Rolie, who later co-founded Journey. And the who is this Black Magic Woman? According to legend, it was a BMW of that colour which the non-materialist Green fancied.
Also covered by: Dennis Brown, Mina, the Go Getters
Best version: Santana’s, especially for the use of the congas

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Scott English – Brandy.mp3
Barry Manilow – Mandy.mp3
Although he is a talented songwriter, Barry Manilow is a bit like the Carpenters: he appropriated other people’s songs by force of arrangement (and, obviously, commercial success) – including a Carpenters song, which will feature in this series. If we need proof of how much Bazza owned the songs he didn’t write, consider his giant hit Mandy. It was a cover of a ditty called Brandy by one Scott English, which was a #12 hit in Britain in 1971 (the tune was written by Richard Kerr, who wrote two other hits for Manilow, Looks Like We’ve Made It and Somewhere In The Night). Manilow’s renamed version was the first cover. None of the subsequent recordings are dedicated to Brandy. English’s version is not very good. To start with he couldn’t sing, and the production is slapdash. Manilow recorded it relucantly, not yet sure about singing other people’s music. He slowed it down, gave it a lush arrangement, and we know how it ended. Quite hilariously, Manilow is not popuar among some people in New Zealand who think that he stole the song from a local singer called Bunny Walters, who had a hit with Brandy in his home country while the actual songwriter’s version failed to dent the charts there.
Also covered by: Johnny Mathis, Starsound Orchestra, Helmut Lotti (urgh!), Westlife
Best version: Mandy trumps Brandy.

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Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.mp3
Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.mp3
The first time ever you heard this song probably was by Roberta Flack, whose performance on her 1969 debut album was barely noticed until it was included in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Play Misty For Me. Those who dig deeper will know that it was in fact written in the 1950s by folk legend Ewan MacColl, for Peggy Seeger with whom he was having an affair and who would become his third wife. For MacColl, the political troubadour, the song is a radical departure, supporting the notion that he didn’t just write it for inclusion in Peggy’s repertoire. Followers of the ’60s folk scene might have known the song before they heard the Flack version; it was a staple of the genre. The Kingston Trio even cleaned up the lyrics, changing the line “The first time ever I lay with you…” to “…held you near”. After the success of Flack’s intense, tender, sensual, touching and definitive version – which captures the experience of being with somebody you love better than any other song – there was an explosion of covers, with Elvis Presley’s bombastic version especially infuriating MacColl, who compared it to Romeo singing up at Juliet on the Post Office tower. It does seem that he did not take kindly to the intimacy of his song being spread widely and, indeed, corrupted. And Peggy Seeger never sang the song again after Ewan’s death
Also covered by: Smothers Brothers, Peter Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Marianne Faithfull, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot, Shirley Bassey, Vicky Carr, Andy Williams, Engelbert Humperdinck, Johnny Mathis, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Timmy Thomas, The Chi-Lites, Mel Tormé, Barbara Dickson, Alsion Moyet, Aaron Neville, Julian Lloyd Webber, Lauryn Hill, Celine Dion, George Michael, Christy Moore, Stereophonics, Johnny Cash, Vanessa Williams, Leona Lewis a.o.
Best version: I’m waiting for Michael Fucking Bolton to do his version before I commit myself…
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Pissing off the Taste Police with the Bay City Rollers

August 14th, 2008 14 comments


It was inevitable that the Bay City Rollers would be regarded as the apogee of uncool, even in their pomp. The screaming, barely pubescent girls at their concert one might have overlooked – after all, the Beatles survived that. Even the outfits – tartan and stupid sock-revealing bell bottoms – might have been forgivable. But the juncture of both was too much to accept for the self-respecting music fan. That, and the name of the bassplayer, Stuart “Woody” Wood. Woody!

My rejection of the Bay City Rollers coincided, quite naturally, with the nascent sprouting of pubic hair. Once I had bravely (or obliviously) paddled against the informed mainstream which held BCR in the sort of contempt which two decades later would later be directed at the hapless Hanson. Where I once regarded BCR’s I Only Wanna Be With You as the definitive version of the song – and, well, the only one I knew – I now wished Leslie, Eric and Derek ill. Not on Woody, though, because I liked Woody. I laughed when their post-Leslie McKeown career, with South African teen idol Duncan Faure at lead vocals, flopped.

Still, BCR were my introduction to pop fandom. I don’t know why I chose them, and not, say, Sweet, who had much better songs and whose Poppa Joe was a favourite when I was six. It can’t have been the outfits. Perhaps I just liked Woody’s feather-mullet. But my pre-pubescent band they were. The girls loved them, which seemed to me a good reason to emulate them. So when I read that the Scottish idols wore no underpants, I was at once appalled and fascinated. Of course I tried going commando. That sartorial imitation did not last long on grounds of the jeans’ zipper and stitching chafing my tender scrotum.

I forgave the Bay City Rollers their lapse in hygiene (should the reader be of the commando persuasion, may I implore him at this point to put on some Y-fronts. You never know when you are going to have an accident. And I don’t necessarily mean vehicular mishaps). I even found it in my heart to overlook the personnel changes which followed the departure of Alan Longmuir. It was an odd thing: Alan, who looked 40 even then, was replaced by Ian Mitchell, who looked 12, who in turn was substituted for Pat McGlynn, who looked nine and three-quarters. Before BCR hit the big time – before Woody and Leslie joined and they had a hit with Keep On Dancing – the original members looked like old dudes, held over from Woodstock. Now the new influx was barely older than I was.

Ian and Pat didn’t last long, and the final album with Leslie McKeown on vocals, It’s A Game, was recorded as a foursome, with many of the songs self-penned, mostly by Eric Faulkner and Woody. There was a slightly incongruous cover of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. On the back cover, our friends had shed not only their shirts, but their trousers seemed to have fallen off too, revealing the folly of going commando (actually, it probably was a comment on shedding the loony tartan outfits). I can’t say that It’s A Game was a poptastic triumph; my BCR infatuation was already waning on account of pubic growth (and here we enter another good argument against going commando). It did, however, deliver a quite magnificent song, You Made Me Believe In Magic. It is exquisite, perfect pop, crying out to be covered and turned into a massive hit (which it was in Japan, where BCR fever contributed to global warming). The title track was not bad either, at least the chorus.

Indeed, a couple of BCR singles could qualify as perfect pop. Saturday Night, with the stuttering chorus, is a bracing bit of glam pop. Likewise 1976’s prescient Yesterday’s Hero, which borrows the live concert effects from Sweet’s Teenage Rampage. It would be regarded as a classic had it been released in 1973 (which would have been two years before it was originally released by Australians Vanda & Young).

Summerlove Sensation, Bye Bye Baby, Rock And Roll Love Letter (“I’ll keep on rock and rollin’ till my jeans explode”), Money Honey, Give A Little Love, Shang-A-Lang, I Only Wanna Be With you are all fine pop records of their era. I wouldn’t want to listen to those every day, but once in a while, when in a ’70s mood, I do enjoy a bit of Bay City Rollers – even without the nostalgia caveat behind which I sometimes hide.

And if someone has their 1972 song Mañana, I’d be delighted to receive it…

Bay City Rollers – Yesterday’s Hero.mp3
Bay City Rollers – Rock And Roll Love Letter.mp3
Bay City Rollers – Summerlove Sensation.mp3
Bay City Rollers – You Made Me Believe In Magic.mp3*
Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3*
Bay City Rollers – Bye Bye Baby.mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Counting Crows
Simply Red
John Denver
Barry Manilow
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America
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Perfect Pop – Vol. 3

April 4th, 2008 9 comments

The inquiry into what makes perfect pop perfect continues. My pal Andy thinks: “I think ‘perfect pop’ can’t be too alternative. It has to be very mainstream, on top of everything else. And probably fairly breezy. Populist and lightweight.” Somebody else suggested: “Perfect pop should feel timeless yet completely of its time as well, creating a wonderful paradox.” Another Andy also considered the question of timelessness: “Timelessness shouldn’t be consciously striven for. One of the qualities of great pop music is its ephemerality, and I think that pop music that doesn’t embrace that is lacking in a certain something. Of course, timelessness is what allows us to relate to music of different eras, and we do so very strongly, but it’s best when it’s an accident or a result of the quality of the song or performance, rather than a conscious striving for posterity by the creator.” And this suggestion pretty much sums it up: “The definition of a perfect pop song is simply a song which nothing could be added or taken away to improve it.”

Or consider this: there once was a review which praised a single along the lines of “great lyrics, great chords, two fine singers, great musicianship and the best production money can buy”. Of course, even with all these ingredients, the result can still be imperfect. But that is why perfection in pop is a relatively rare thing. Incidentally, the single thus reviewed was “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” by Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams.

And then there is the Paul Morley theory, mentioned in comments last time by Planet Mondo, that a good pop song is truly great when you can imagine Elvis singing it.

Dusty Springfield – I Only Want To Be With You.mp3
If I had to compile a shortlist for a top 10 of Perfect Pop, I Only Want To Be With You would be an automatic choice. It has been covered several times (Jackie DeShannon’s version was the first song ever to be performed on Top Of The Pops), and it is nearly impossible to mess it up. The Bay City Rollers did a particularly good version of it in the mid-70s, but Dusty’s rendition hits perfection on every single level. It is so good, I cannot decide what to choose as the “best bit”.
Best bit: The strings first come in, almost unnoticed (0:50)

The Style Council – Speak Like A Child.mp3*
It may not be an indispensable ingredient in perfect pop, but it helps when a song can communicate pure joy, as does Speak Like A Child. Try to feel miserable when listening to it. Unless you have genuine cause for unhappiness, it must cheer you up. Paul Weller has written quite a few great pop songs, but none reach the pop perfection of this.
Best bit: Talbot’s keyboard solo kicks in (1:38)

Cliff Richard – We Don’t Talk Anymore.mp3
I am a magnanimous observer of music. I never liked Cliff Richard (not unlike Whiteray, whom I’ll mention again later), and I particularly despised this song when it was on never-ending rotation on German radio in 1979 — and yet I acknowledge the perfection of this track. Not too long ago, I played the song to see whether it could still induce the same reaction of physical illness it did when I was 13. The memories it invoked did indeed do so, but I also had to accept what, deep down, I knew even then: this is a brilliant pop song.
Best bit: “Taaaalk anymore, anymooooore” (3:14)

Johnny Cash – Ring Of Fire (live).mp3
This is what you get when three forces of inspiration collide. June Carter’s beautiful lyrics, Merle Kilgore melody, and Johnny Cash’s mariachi treatment. This song is a good example of the “add nothing, take nothing away” theory of perfect pop. Apparently a haemorrhoid ointment manufacturer wanted to use Ring Of Fire for a commercial. Regretably, Roseanne Cash refused to give permission. This version is from the Live In St Quentin album, where it resides as a previously unreleased bonus track on the re-released CD.
Best bit: “…oooh, but the fire went wild.”

Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3
Thanks to ’70s nostalgia, the Bay City Rollers are not judged by their too short, tartaned trousers, but by the often wonderful pop they produced (or was produced in their name). So giddy retrospectives of ’70s pop will dig out Bye Bye Baby as representative of BCR’s musical contribution to the era, with the more forensic compiler opting for I Only Wanna Be With You (both cover versions). It is unfortunate that those songs when BCR achieved did actually pop perfection, or at least came close to it, tend to be ignored. Of these, Yesterday’s Hero and the superb You Made Me Believe In Magic (download link here) were released at the arse-end of BCR’s career, and made no impact on the charts and thus on he public’s consciousness. Saturday Night was a hit before BCR really hit their stride in the mid-70s, and so somehow tends to slip through the cracks too, which is entirely regrettable.
Best Bit: S-S-S-Saturday Naa-aaaight (0:57)

Hanson – Mmm Bop.mp3
I suspect that most people were like me: they hated the song because of the performers (and, possibly, its title). And just look at the Hanson brothers: precocious kids whose mugs would qualify for plastering all over pre-pubescent girls’ bedroom walls regardless of their musical merits. The same reasons why few people then proclaimed the Osmonds’ Crazy Horse the work of genius it really is, and the same reason why BCR were laughed at despite headlining some great pop. With the passage of time, knowing that the pre-pubescent girls are now young adults and that even the drummer’s balls will have dropped by now, Mmm Bop has been critically rehabilitated, to the point of a consensus that it really is a brilliant pop tune.
Best bit: The insistent chorus throughout the song.

Nena – 99 Luftballons.mp3*
When I posted this last July, I actually used the words “perfect pop” to describe 99 Luftballons. In fact, it is so perfect, that the German original topped the US charts (whereas in Britain the less satisfactory English version was a hit. Here German actually sounds better than English in a pop song). The US is not generally known for its expanding worldview which embraces different cultures. For most Americans, communication with non-English speakers tends to take the form of raising one’s voice and speaking slower (American readers of this blog excluded, of course). So the US pop consumers of 1984 bought into Nena’s hit purely on strength of it being a great pop tune.
Best bit: The song kicks in with a machine gun guitar after the slow rhythmic build-up.

Blondie – Denis.mp3*
Any number of Blondie songs might qualify for inclusion in this series, but Denis has that extra bit of brevity, energy and lots of likable little touches. Still unaffected by the disco wave, when Denis came out in early 1978, Blondie were still a band audibly rooted in NYC’s new wave scene, albeit with a distinctive pop bend. Denis still had the edginess of the wonderful debut single, X-Offender (download link here). Soon Blondie would pander to the Top 10 with faux-disco (Heart If Glass; Atomic) and cod-reggae (The Tide Is High). It wasn’t bad, but Blondie were never better than they were on those first two albums.
Best bit: Debby does Dalles, in French.

Britney Spears – Toxic (Clap Ya Hands remix).mp3
Jim Irvin, whose reference to “perfect pop” in The Word magazine inspired this series, used Toxic as one of three examples to illustrate what is perfect pop. He is entirely correct; this is a catchy bastard of a song. Forget all about the hype, degrees of undress and the scandals which have made Britney Spears more famous for being famous than for her artistry. Spears is just the vehicle by which the rich, inspired arrangement of a fine song reach us. I might be unfair on Spears, who delivers a good vocal performance, but Toxic could have been recorded by any number of female singers with no detriment to the final product — even if it was written specifically for Britney. The star of Toxic is really the production team, Bloodshy & Advant. Can’t imagine Elvis singing it, though.
Best bit: The intermittent guitar riff.

The Undertones – Teenage Kicks.mp3
The point when bubblegum pop met punk. And yet, its spiritual heart really resides in the ’60s. Strip down the loud guitars, maybe slow it down just a little, amplify the handclaps, and you have a chart-topper ca. 1965. Teenage Kicks was played at the funeral of John Peel, who had championed the song, and the line “teenage dreams so hard to beat” is engraved on his tombstone. How utterly appropriate.
Best bit: Two drum beats, and the guitar hits (0:01)

Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.mp3
This was #1 in Britain on 6 April, 42 years years ago (I remember that because I was born that day; I think my German #1 is a Stones song). That is why I’ve held back its inclusion for this installment of the series until today. And, my oh my, what a fantastic pop song this is! The tune is exquisite, the production mighty, the vocals are…oh, use whatever hyperbole does it for you. But the drumming tops it. Listen to it. The drums and percussions are totally bossing the song.
Best bit: The drums set up and emphasise the line “When you’re without love…” (2:18)

The Association – Cherish.mp3
This 1966 hit is a nomination by Whiteray, proprietor of the excellent Echoes in the Wind blog, who rates it has perhaps his favourite pop single of all time. It is indeed an astonishing song (with fantastic lyrics), but I’m not convinced it is perfect pop. Which demonstrates the bleedin’ obvious: perfection in pop is an entirely subjective thing. We may agree in great numbers that a song is perfect, even achieve near-consensus. We may even share our reasons as to why it is perfect. But play the next song, and I might rave about it and you’ll shrug your shoulders (or, later, come around to my way of thinking). And that is why talking about music is so great.
Best bit: “And I do…” (2:56)

Perfect Pop – Vol.1
Hall & Oates, Sweet, Jesus & Mary Chain, Turtles, Guildo Horn, Big Bopper, Buggles, Kylie Minogue, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Temptations, ABC, Smiths, Kingsmen, Strawberry Switchblade, David Essex, Rainbow, Wham!, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

More Perfect Pop