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Step back to 1978 – Part 2

February 17th, 2011 5 comments

In the belated second part of the 1978 instalment in this series (in which I revisit songs that have the capacity to take me back to the time when they were hits), the 12-year-old version of Any Major Dude shows himself to be an eclectic sort. In the first part, which covered the first three months of 1978, we became reacquainted with Blondie’s X-Offender and songs by the likes of Uriah Heep, Bonnie Tyler, Tom Robinson Band, Sex Pistols, Wings  and The Stranglers. Here we revisit Blondie, Sham 69, Boomtown Rats, a couple of Italians, and some prog-rockers.

Blondie – (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear.mp3
Blondie – Denis.mp3

In the first part of 1978 I described how it was the image of Debbie Harry that made me buy X-Offender unheard. I loved the song, and when on a trip to Amsterdam I bought the Presence Dear single (with the pictured cover) I became even more smitten. Deborah looks positively post-coital on the cover, though I don’t think that at the time I quite realised that. Her smile was appealing though. On the same trip I bought a fold-out Blondie fan magazine thing; a rather odd thing, because there wasn’t a big poster on the reverse side of all the photos and articles. And these were in Dutch, which I could more or less translate into German. Not that the text fascinated me much; far more agreeable were the pictures – and in particular a nude shot of the lovely Ms Harry (I have tried to locate in, unsuccessfully). Needless to say, it went up my wall; on the concealed side where I guessed – possibly incorrectly – my mother would not look.

I’m not sure about the release dates of Blondie singles. Most references date the release of Denis before Presence Dear. Perhaps the Dutch did things differently, or maybe they released Denis long before it came out in Germany. Anyhow, I bought the single soon after our return from the Amsterdam trip. By now I was so much a Blondie fan that I insisted our new kitten be named Denis. The song is one of those Blondie covers which the band chose astutely; that is, the originals tended to be not very well known. The original of Denis, by Randy & the Rainbows, was discussed in The Originals Vol. 1. Other Blondie covers treated in the series are Hanging On The Telephone and The Tide Is High. My unconditional love for Blondie reached an end a year later with Heart Of Glass, a discofied number which in a fit of misplaced self-righteousness I regarded as a sell-out.

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Sham 69 – Angels With Dirty Faces.mp3
Coming late into my barely pubescent punk career, this is still a favourite. I bought this single before it was a hit in Britain. It entered the UK charts in mid-May; I bought it in late April, even if I did so unheard and only because the cover suggested that this was a punk song (I might have listened to it on headphones in department store’s record bar though). I was so taken with the song that I bought a big yellow badge with some sort of reflector pattern and in red the name Sham 69, “the people you don’t wanna know”. It was the most disco item I have ever owned, but at the time the irony of that passed me by completely. I’ve often wondered about the name Sham 69. For many years I had no clue, and the idea that it refers to a faked position in the mutual administration of oral sex just made no sense. Apparently it’s lifted from a graffito that said, “Walton and Hersham ’69”, a reference to the band’s local football club winning an amateur league in 1969.

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Genesis – Follow You, Follow Me.mp3
In the mid-80s I left my record collection back home while living in London for three years. When I returned I found that almost all of my many singles and several LPs disappeared. I suspect they were stolen by a particular someone (ironically with the initials CD) and sold on to feed whatever partying habit he was maintaining. Among the few records he did not take were this and the late Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street (which might have featured here, but I’ve heard it too often since to let it transport me to April ’78). The Genesis single was the first the group released after Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett’s departure and the first with Phil Collins at lead vocals. At that point we had no idea just how unloved Collins would become among right-thinking people. There isn’t much Genesis v.2 has done that I approve of, and a lot I positively despise (I Can’t Dance and its supposedly satirical video above all), but I do like Follow You, Follow Me, especially Tony Banks’ keyboards.

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El Pasador – Amada mia, amore mia.mp3
At this point I must emphasise that the songs featured in this series are those that take me back, when I hear them, to the time when they were hits. Many of them I had on record, others I recorded off the radio. Most I still rather like. And then there are songs like this, the single of which I decidedly did not own (I mean, look at the guy’s comedy moustache!). But it was everywhere in the first half of 1978. I never owned the record, and much as I was a student of popular music, I never even knew the name of the performer until I came across the song by pure coincident a few years ago. And yet, when I hear it (preferably not too often), I can smell the corridor of my school, and taste the sickly sweet cold drinks the machine in the hall dispensed in flimsy plastic cups. I can feel the heat of the slightly more agreeable hot chocolate dispensed in the same flimsy plastic cups (the same machine also offered clear broth; surely nobody ever bought that). A Schlager herbert by the name of Roland Kaiser, who had a bit of a line in covering Mediterranean hits, made a German version of this, incoporating the Italian title in a feeble seduction routine. Some people thought it was very amusing; to me there was no mirth to be derived from Schlager singers; not until the following year when I was faintly amused, for a moment, by a song about drinking in suburban Berlin.

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La Bionda – One For You, One For Me.mp3
Likewise, One For You, One For Me wasn’t really my bag either. Though when the Italo-disco track was performed on the Musikladen TV show, I thought it was rather sexy, what with the cover girl cut-out’s nipple caps and the dancer’s very transparent blouse. Remember, I was 12; I would have considered surrealist art depicting deboned chicken breasts sublimely sexy. Surely the Zappa-lite on guitar and that absurd drummer should’ve persuaded me that there are sights that involuntarily and sometimes abruptly unsettle the libido.  I cannot say that my opinion of the song has improved greatly, though if it played at a retro party, I’d get up and boogie. The opening piano riff is actually pretty good. The La Bionda brothers, Michelangelo and Carmelo, apparently specialised in folk and prog-rock before jumping aboard the disco gravy train.

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Jethro Tull – Moths.mp3
I might have been on the cutting scene of punk, but I also took an apparent interest in prog rock. Hell, I had two Barclay James Harvest albums by then. I liked neither of them (except for their song Hymn), but pretended that they were spiritually enriching. But I did love Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s Davy’s On The Road Again. Anyway, at around this time my older brother by six years began to introduce me to the music he listened to, mostly prog rock stuff (plus, I remember, Them and Donovan). When you’re 12, six years is a massive age difference, of course. Plus he was a DJ for the church youth group. And he had a party cellar populated by people with moustaches and girls with make-up who all smoked (Marlboro packets look really good when stuck on the ceiling next to each other) and probably drunk too. And perhaps had sex (even the lovely Sandra!). So when so cool a role model introduces you to the wonders of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, and soon after you happen upon the brand new single by that group, you obviously buy it, unheard, to impress the old guy. Happily, the song was quite nice. Anderson looked a bit like the British TV character Catweazle, and I supposed that he might sound like Catweazle in the programme’s original English dub.

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Goldie – Making Up Again.mp3
More rock stuff, so these chaps are not to be confused with the British artist of dental misfortune and Strictly Come Dancing appearance. In fact, I don’t know much about this Goldie lot at all. I know they were label mates of Uriah Heep on the Bronze label, and that they were English (from Northumberland, a bastion of rock). Their founder, Dave Black, toured with David Bowie in 1976, which would have given the group some cool factor which their sole hit must have quickly negated. Their look, seriously rivalling that of REO Speedwagon, can’t have helped either. Making Up Again, a UK Top 10 hit, sounds like a song which Boston refused as being too soft. I may sound like I’m mocking it, but I actually rather like the song.

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The Boomtown Rats – Like Clockwork.mp3
The kind reader may regard this writer as an individual of entirely sinless record, but there were times when he deserved punishment. One such merited punishment included, apart from a good thrashing, the confiscation of my record collection, for the crime of redistributing the familial wealth. The cruel penalty would prove, contrary to initial threats, transient (a little over a month, perhaps). In the interim, my dear grandmother financed my unabated record-purchasing addiction, and in a spirit of clandestine conspiracy let me keep new acquisitions at her place, to be played on her gleaming old music box. It was a gorgeous piece of furniture, with a mirrored liquor cabinet that smelt of brandy. To access the record player, you had to press a button, whereupon the middle front of the cabinet opened. The record player had known opera and classical music, Schlager and the dreadful German Volksmusik that always seemed to include too much yodelling. Now it could add the pub-rock of the Boomtown Rats to its playlist. The alarm clock bell at the end of the song is pretty good.

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The Motors – Airport.mp3
In those heady days of 1977/78 any rock act that wasn’t prog or glam was prone to be called punk. Pub rocker Elvis Costello was initially called punk, for pity’s sake. So were The Motors. Look at their picture on the sleeve for Airport. None of them is likely to kill their girlfriend in a crazed heroin rush. They look like the third-choice goalkeeper for Rochdale, a geography teacher at a secondary school in North Wales, a trainer in telesales for Tupperware products, and a university economics major dropout battling his way through by working as a bus conductor to finance the modern arts course he really wanted to do but his father vetoed. All noble conditions of existence, of course, but unequivocally not punk (though the bus conductor might join the other arts students in being punks when he re-enters academic pursuits). And Airport is much better than most punk records. It’s a splendid song. In his marvellous memoir of growing up with vinyl, Lost In Music, Giles Smith recalls how he and his mates would endeavour to time the high-pitched background cries of “airport”. I did the same, as did a fellow with whom I discussed Airport at, of all places, the Dead Sea.

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More Stepping Back

Step back to 1978 – Part 1

November 11th, 2010 11 comments

In 1977 I started to build a record collection; in 1978, the year I turned 12, I began to be really serious about music, buying singles by the Sex Pistols and Jethro Tull alike. And I became a Blondie fan before anyone else I knew was even aware of them. In early 1978 I had my first kiss (which also was the last for a while), went to my first rock concert (ditto), and made a friend whom I recently met again for the first time in 29 years (but more of that at a later stage). The first part of my 1978 nostalgia trip – on which songs are chosen only if they have the power to transport me back to the time – covers the first three months or so of the year.

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Blondie – X-Offender.mp3
What a difference a couple of months make when you’re 11. In the autumn I had bought a single by teen herbert Leif Garrett; in winter I bought a single by NYC punk scene regulars Blondie. Or, better put, my not yet impressive penis bought it. I saw the cover of the re-released X-Offender single (it had originally been issued in 1976), and fell for Debbie Harry. Like a week or so before with the Runaways record, I tingled with excitement at the thought of hearing Debbie Harry sing. The very sexy spoken intro followed by the rapid drums and that guitar which sounded unlike anything I had heard before instantly broadened my musical horizon. I am still impressed with my nascent trendspotting talents: Blondie’s breakthrough with Denis was still a couple months off, but I already was a fan, even if I knew only X-Offender and the rather good b-side, Man Overboard.

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Long Tall Ernie & the Shakers – Do You Remember.mp3
A few years before Stars on 45 afflicted us, fellow Dutch nostalgia merchants Long Tall Ernie and the Shakers visited their Sha Na Na stylings upon us in medley format. Actually, it isn’t at all bad, as these things go. In the song lead singer Arnie Treffers introduces the notion of nostalgia and memories of Buddy Holly, and then the rest of the band lets go with songs like Little Richard’s Lucille, the New Beats’ Bread And Butter and the Everly Brother’s excellent Bird Dog (one of my constant earworms), occasionally enquiring of us whether we can remember. Obviously I couldn’t, having been not even nearly alive in the 1950s. In fact, those early days of rock & roll seemed very distant to me in 1978, so that the song was something of a history lesson for me. Considering that the songs in the medley were all about 20 years old at the time, today’s corollary medley might include songs by Tracy Chapman, U2, Kylie Minogue, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Crowded House and Babyface.

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Uriah Heep – Lady In Black.mp3
Uriah Heep – Free Me.mp3

Originally from 1971, Lady In Black was re-released in Germany in 1977, and became a Top 20 hit. This and Free Me, which I bought in March or thereabouts, are the only Heep records I have ever acquired. But Lady In Black is important for a very good reason: it reminds me of my first kiss. I would like to say that it was a beautiful moment, like Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss in The Wonder Years. Alas, it was more the product of a bet. My friend, who was just half a year older than me but much more advanced, dared me and my “girlfriend” to French kiss. So we accepted the dare, rather unsure about what to do with our tongues once our open mouths met. Our tongues touched lightly before we both withdrew them in mild disgust, yet excited by the sensation. It was dark and it was winter. I felt her warm breath exhaling on my face, which was probably more sensual than the meeting of lips. And, er, her long hair was blowing in the mid-winter wind…

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Tom Robinson Band – 2-4-6-8 Motorway.mp3
Around the time I bought this, Tom Robinson was causing a bit of a furore with his song Glad To Be Gay, sentiments that were not often publicly expressed. At a time when punk was finally seeping into the German consciousness, Robinson’s proclamation was so counter-cultural as to include him in the movement. Of course, like many others who were included under the punk banner, Robinson was more of a pub rocker. Or pop rocker. Still, his lyrics were militant for their time (Motorway itself has a gay subtext, of course), and I think I can credit Robinson for making an important contribution to my unconditional rejection of homophobia.

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Bonnie Tyler – It’s A Heartache.mp3
In February 1978 I saw my first live concert, a multiple bill organised by Bravo magazine, headed by Slade. It was not in our city, so my friends Jens and Andreas and I took a train to the town where the gig was held, about 250km away. Jens, the leader was 12, Andreas and I were 11 (and some fraction which I’m sure we were willing to state as an indication that we were, in fact, closer to being 12 than 11). Times have changed, I think. I have no memory of how we found our way from the station to the arena, but we got there. The bill included a British teen outfit called The Busters (whose identifying gimmick consisted of having black hair and wearing identical denim jackets), Schlager singer Bernhard Brink (who had a white man’s ’fro) and Bonnie Tyler, who was just then having a big hit with It’s A Heartache. A year previously – hell, two months previously – I would have liked the song. Now I had tasted Blondie, and Jens and I were into punk. Tyler was for the housewives. We enjoyed Slade though. Dave Hill, he of the stupid haircut, no longer had a stupid haircut: he was now completely bold, at a time when shaved heads were very unusual. I cannot say whether it was a good gig, but I remember emerging from the hall into the cold winter’s evening air soaked in sweat.

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Sweet – Love Is Like Oxygen.mp3
My affection for Sweet was such that I bought the Level Headed LP when they made their comeback on the Polydor label, a big financial outlay which requireed much sacrifice (that is, at least that of three singles). By now, Andy Scott was wearing a middle-aged men’s beard, as though he was going to join the Beach Boys; Steve Priests looked sober and serious, and Mick Tucker and Brian Connolly were about to shear their locks. The music now was much more prog than pop rock. The lads obviously wanted to be taken seriously. Well, they might have been, had they not produced an album that was even more boring than one by Barclay James Harvest, and less deprived of the Zeitgeist than Emerson Lake Palmer. The lead single, however, was pretty good, like a song by the Electric Light Orchestra.

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Darts – Come Back My Love.mp3
The inclusion of Long Tall Ernie may have tipped off the reader that I rather enjoyed the odd bit of retro-rock & roll, even if I fancied myself at the time as a bit punk (though I didn’t dress punk, or act  punk, or hated society any more than my non-punk mates). Among the revivalists, The Darts were the greatest. I remember buying the Darts LP, alongside The Tubes’ What Do You Want from Live, on a trip to Stockholm. I still have the Darts album; the Tubes LP was lost long ago. Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It was the bigger hit, and it was that song which turned me on to Darts. But soon I preferred the cover of the Wrens 1954 song, which featured in The Originals Vol. 3 (as did the original of Daddy Cool by The Rays).

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Sex Pistols – No One Is Innocent.mp3
Sex Pistols – My Way.mp3
At the time it seemed the height of impertinence: Sid Vicious – we didn’t know yet just how undeserving of adulation that miscreant junkie was – first warbling and then quite amusingly violating My Way, by way of telling Sinatra: “Oi, old geezer, your song is shit!” We had no idea at the time that Sinatra himself hated the song and, if he had cared to acquaint himself with Mr Vicious’ interpretation, he probably applauded its defilement, in the principle of it, if not in execution. My Way just is too easy and obvious a target to be subversive, really. Roping in Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs for what was initially presumed to be the a-side was a touch more seditious. Musically, the song was, well, not very good. Biggs deserved to be locked up just for singing in public.

Of course, at the time I also had The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks LP. It is fair to say that my brother, two years younger than I, did not like their music much. So one day he scribbled on the vinyl with a ballpoint pen, apparently in retaliation to my alleged act of iconoclasm involving his poster of Winnetou, the noble Native American friend of Old Shatterhand dreamt up by the 19th century German author Karl May (who had never been to the USA, never mind the Wild West, but whose stories are still hugely popular in Germany). As far as disproportionate responses go, my brother belonged in the camp of those who sought to exterminate and subjugate Winnetou and his people…

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The Stranglers – Nice ’n Sleazy.mp3
My friend Jens had a fine collection of punk albums, which I tried to match with punk singles. Of course, time would show that most of the stuff we called punk wasn’t punk at all. Still, Jens had albums by the Damned, Boomtown Rats, Ultravoxx and so on. I had Holiday In The Sun and later No One Is Innocent/My Way. And I had this single, a fine track with expert sneering featuring one of my favourite rock riffs ever, though I had no idea what sleazy was (till I looked it up and found the answer richly satisfying). The pun, of course, passed me by, seeing as I was still learning English. Same day I bought a single by an outfit called The Killers (not to be confused with the currently successful band). That single — it had a German shepherd on the cover – was utterly horrible.

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Brian & Michael – Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats & Dogs.mp3
One of the great discoveries in 1978 was the weekly radio broadcast of the latest UK charts – it might have been the Top 10 or Top 20 – by which I got to know all the latest tunes (like Brian & Michael’s number) before they would finally make it in West-Germany. So I would sit with my grandmother’s cassette-radio portable and recorded most songs. The recorder very usefully had a fade-out button, so the shock of the inevitable cut forced by jabbering DJs was not as brutal as it otherwise might have been. At the time, I might have bought records by the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers, and by Gerry Rafferty and Kate Bush and the Rolling Stones – but I was still 12. Of course I liked Matchstick Men & Matchstick Cats & Dogs, even if I didn’t buy the record, because that certainly would not have been at all cool. And how could a song featuring a children’s choir be cool? Here it was the St Winifred’s School Choir, who would later torment Britain with songs about their collective grandma. On Matchstalk Men, they are singing the children’s song The Big Ship Sails On The Alley-Alley-O. Matchstalk Men, incidentally, was a tribute to the northern English artist LS Lowry, who died in 1976 and is mentioned in the song.

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Wings – With A Little Luck.mp3
I admit it: I liked Mull Of Kintyre, which I bought the week it came out in 1977. By the time With A Little Luck was released, Kintyre was still a massive hit in Germany, and I was beginning to get sick of it. In fact, I liked With A Little Luck better; so much so that I bought the London Town album (or it might have been on the Greatest Hits album, which I think came out before that, and which I also bought. Anyone know which came first?). It’s a charming little tune, with a synth that actually sounded warm. I liked the “with a-little-luck-a-little-luck-a-little-luck” bit, and the double “we can do it”, which sounds like it was a production mistake. Now, do I have an unnecessarily dirty mind when I detect a sexual meaning in this line: “With a little love, we could shake it up, don’t you feel the comet exploding”?

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More Stepping Back

The Originals Vol. 9

October 13th, 2008 8 comments
Another installment of lesser originals (and their famous cover versions). After Volume 8, caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown send me an even older version of Whiskey In The Jar than the one I posted by the Seekers. I’ll add the Highwaymen version from 1962 to the original post, and stick the link to the file at the end of this one. caithiseach’s series on incredibly rare early ’60s vinyl is coming to an end. He has listed a few options for his blog’s future direction, which look great (personally, I could do without the instrumentals option, but that’s just me). Have a look and help this fine writer shape his blog. As for this batch of originals, we owe our friend RH for A Boy Named Sue and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.
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Badfinger – Without You.mp3
Nilsson – Without You.mp3
There is something dismal about the notion that a pop classic would be best-known among some people in its incarnation by Mariah Carey. Those with a more acute sense of pop history will have been dismissive of Carey’s calorific cover of Nilsson’s hit. But even Harry Nilsson applied a generous dose of schmaltz to his cover of the Badfinger original.

Without You apart, there is a chain of tragedy which links the Welsh band and Nilsson. Both acts had a Lennon connection (more tragedy here, of course). Badfinger were signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, on which Without You was released in 1970; Nilsson was a collaborator with and drinking buddy of Lennon’s. Nilsson died fairly young, so did two members of Badfinger, both of whom wrote Without You and committed suicide. Singer Peter Ham killed himself in 1975 (in his suicide note he referred to their “heartless bastard” of a manager), and in 1983, Tom Evans hanged himself after an argument over royalties for the song with former colleague Joey Molland (who both had played on Lennon’s Imagine album and other ex-Beatles solo records).

Nilsson reportedly thought that Badfinger’s Without You had been a Beatles recording – indeed, the Rolling Stone touted Badfinger as the Beatles’ heirs. His version, turning a fairly rough mid-tempo rock song into an orchestral power ballad (at a time when such things were rare) became a massive hit in 1972; Carey’s version hit the charts just a week after Nilsson’s death in 1994. One may fear the worst for Ms Carey should the Nilsson curse strike her: apart from the sad story of Badfinger and Lennon’s death, both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died in Nilsson’s flat.
Also recorded by: Shirley Bassey (1972), Johnny Mathis (1972), Percy Faith (1972), Vikki Carr (1972), Cilla Black (1973), Petula Clark (1974), Billy Paul (1976), Susie Allanson (1977), Heart (1978), Mina (as Per chi, 1978), Melissa Manchester (1980), T.G. Sheppard (1983), Richard Clayderman (1988), Beverly Jo Scott (1991), Air Supply (1991), Pandora (as Desde el dia que te fuiste, 1992), Mariah Carey (1993), Donny Osmond (2002), Natalia (2003), Jade Kwan (2003), Weezer (unofficial release, 2004), Clay Aiken (2006), Il Divo (as Desde el dia que te fuiste, 2006), Wing (2007).
Best version: Tough choice. Nilsson’s vocals are quite impressive, but I prefer Badfinger’s arrangement and Ham’s desperately sad voice. Or the phonetic Bulgarian Idols version now known as Ken Lee is worth watching, as well as the improved English version (“You alwees smile lolly nigh…Ilibu dibu douchoo”).

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Frankie Valli – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.mp3

Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.mp3
When some years ago I looked up the UK number 1 on the day I was born, I was delighted: the Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore was one of my favourite ’60s songs. It’s magnificent Spector-esque production makes the song sound like a Righteous Brothers number (don’t the strings sound a bit like The Theme from A Summer’s Place?). I had not realised that the Walker Brothers’ 1966 version was a cover.

A year before the Californian trio recorded their biggest hit, it had been recorded by Frankie Valli on his debut solo album. The single release flopped, even though it was in almost every way a Four Seasons song. It was written by Bob Crewe and Robert Gaudio, who wrote most of the group’s hits, and produced by the Four Seasons’ producer, Crewe. There is little difference in the arrangement; the Walkers’ is a richer and more dramatic carbon copy. Their version attained some sort of notoriety as the soundtrack to a London gangland killing. The story has it that it was playing on a jukebox in the Blind Beggar pub when Ronnie Kray entered and shot his adversary George Cornell. A stray bullet hit the jukebox causing the needle to get stuck in the groove, repeating the line “The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore” as Cornell lay dying.
Also recorded by: Richard Anthony (as Le soleil ne brille, 1966), Caterina Caselli (as Il sole non tramonterà, 1967), The Lettermen (1970), Neil Diamond (1979), Nielsen/Pearson (1981), Long John Baldry (1986), The Flying Pickets (1986), Russell Hitchcock (1987), David Essex (1989), Cher (1995), Robson & Jerome (1995), Keane (2004)
Best version: With Scott Engel on vocals and the lush arrangement, it must be the Walker Brothers’.

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Lou Johnson – (There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me.mp3
Sandie Shaw – Always Something There To Remind Me.mp3
One would think that Burt Bacharach songs would feature strongly in this series. Somehow that hasn’t been the case, though some will still be highlighted. In some cases it is difficult to find the first recording (Richard Chamberlain singing Close To You), in many instances the original is already sufficiently well-known or indeed the best-known version (Walk On By). So I’m glad that I can include one of my favourite Bacharach songs in this series: Always Something There To Remind Me.

The most famous version is Sandie Shaw’s, which has some of the sexiest vocals I can think of (though nobody seems to agree with me). Shaw’s version has the standard Bacharach arrangement. Johnson’s original, like Shaw’s version recorded in 1964 but released as a b-side, has the Bacharachian trumpet, strings and keyboard, yet sounds like the soul song it is, especially when Johnson’s abandons the song’s structure and ad libs the final half minute as the backing singers spur him on. Dionne Warwick, who’d later release the song herself, sang the demo, and Shaw later recorded the song in German.
Also recorded by: Brenda Lee (1965), Gals and Pals (1966), Johnny Mathis (1967), Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles (1967), Dionne Warwick (1967), Mal dei Primitives (1968), José Feliciano (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1968), Martha Reeves & The Vandellas (1968), R.B. Greaves (1969), Barbara Mason (1970), Winston Francis (1970), The Carpenters (as part of their Bacharach Medley, 1972), Blue Swede (1973), The Stylistics (1982), Naked Eyes (1983), The Starlite Orchestra (1995), Tin Tin Out featuring Espiritu (1995), The Captain Howdy (1998), The Absolute Zeros (1998), Rebecca’s Empire (1998), Braid (2000), Steve Tyrell (2008) a.o.
Best version: Johnson’s is very good, but Sandie Shaw’s is heavenly (Her German version, Einmal glücklich sein wie die ander’n, is quite good, in a cute foreign accent sort of way).

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The Paragons – The Tide Is High.mp3
Blondie – The Tide is High.mp3
The Tide Is High probably is the least surprising of Blondie’s cunningly chosen covers. When Blondie suddenly turned up with a reggae-pop number, it was apparent that they had not written it themselves. And yet, the original by the Paragons, a mellow soul-reggae number, has not become a pop classic in its own right. Another case of the cover artist appropriating a song. The Paragons released The Tide Is High in 1967, in Britain as a b-side, and the song remained relatively obscure until Blondie’s 1980 cover, which added horns and more strings to the arrangement. Singer Bob Andy made an appearance in the British charts in 1970, as one half of Bob & Marcia, scoring a hit with a cover of Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted And Black. John Holt, who wrote The Tide Is High (or, more precisely, adapted it from a 1930s song), became a legendary exponent of lover’s rock. I’ll soare you the Atomic Kitten UK #1 version from 2002.
Also recorded by: Top of the Poppers (1980), Sinitta (1995), Nydia Rojas (as La número uno, 1996), Papa Dee (1996), Maxi Priest (1997), Angelina (1997), Billie Piper (2000), Up The Duff (2000), Sheep on Drugs (2000), The Chubbies (2001), Atomic Kitten (September 9, 2002), The Selecter (2006), Kardinal Offishall feat Nicole Scherzinger (as Numba 1 [The Tide Is High], 2008)
Best version: I never liked the song in Blondie’s hands much, but really like the original.

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Shel Silverstein – Boy Named Sue.mp3
Johnny Cash – A Boy Named Sue.mp3
It’s a Johnny Cash signature tune, but was actually written by the ultimate Renaissance Man, Shel Silverstein (who previously featured in this series as the author of Dr Hook’s/Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan). It is unclear what inspired Silverstein to create this fantastic story about the guy with a girl’s name (or why the boy named Sue just didn’t acquire a butch nickname). But there once was a prominent Mr Sue, Sue K Hicks, the original prosecutor in the notorious 1925 Scopes Trial. Cash (or possibly his wife June Carter; the accounts vary) was introduced to the song at a “guitar pull” party in Nashville, at which musician friends ran their latest compositions by one another. According to Cash, other artists present that night were Bob Dylan (who played Lay Lady Lay), Judy Collins (Both Sides Now) and her then lover Stephen Stills (Judy Blue Eyes), and Silverstein.

Just before his televised 1969 concert from St Quentin jail, June suggested that Johnny perform Silverstein’s song. And he did. On the film footage he can be seen referring to the scribbled lyrics of the song taped to the floor. And so his spontaneous performance of the song, apparently the first time he had even sung it, became one of his biggest hits. Some have claimed that Cash’s lack of familiarity with the song explains his half-spoken delivery. But Silverstein’s 1968 version, from the Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs album, is similarly half-spoken. Silverstein followed the song up with a composition from the father’s perspective, using the same tune, It’s very funny: check out the lyrics. Oh, and Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory is in fact called Susan.
Also recorded by: Joe Dassin (as Un garçon nommé Suzy, 1970), Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (1970), Mike Krüger (as Ein Junge namens Susi, 1975), Joshua James (1999)
Best version: Cash’s, represented here in its unbleeped version. Havea look at the video of Silverstein and Cash performing a bit of the song together

and, as promised above:
The Highwaymen – Whiskey In The Jar.mp3

The Originals Vol. 2

September 2nd, 2008 No comments

Roger Miller – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kris Kristofferson – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Janis Joplin – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3

first-editionIt is odd when a legend of popular music ends up covering his own song. So it is with Kris Kristofferson who was commissioned to write Me And Bobby McGee by a record label boss.

The song’s first version was recorded by Roger Miller in 1969. His was a mid-tempo country-pop number, rather bereft of emotional engagement, an entirely misjudged drumtrack and, in the carnivalesque “la la la” part some ill-advised ’60s horns and some background whooping. It failed to set the world of music alight, making it to #12 in the country charts, and failing to dent the pop charts. Things could only get better. The next version was by the First Edition, featuring Kenny Rogers, who even in 1969 looked like your middle-aged uncle. If one doesn’t know that version, one can imagine Rogers performing the song in his languid way, the gravelly baritone drawing out all the gravitas of the lyrics. But imagination can be treacherous: the treatment here is light and quirky and much faster than one might think. A bit like Miller’s original.

The following year Kristofferson finally recorded it himself. Introducing a live version of it, KK seems unsure whether it is a country song or not, deciding that if it sounds like it is, then it must be. A couple of country types mucked about with it over the following few months, before Janis Joplin – a former lover and friend of KK’s – decided it was really a blues-rock number. Recorded just a few days before her death, Joplin is initially restrained before launching into a climax of screams and groans, as was her wont. Her take is not lacking in poignancy, especially given the circumstances, and many would regard hers as the definitive version, but – as with much of Joplin’s output – I distrust the notion that histrionics necessarily express true emotion. Indeed, Me And Bobby McGee is a country song; it tells a story whose narration requires no excessive emoting (especially if, as Willie Nelson claims, Bobby McGee is actually a guitar). In the space of three years, the song would be recorded 15 times.
Also covered by: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Haley, Dottie West, Loretta Lynn, Grateful Dead, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam The Sham, Olivia Newton-John, Charlie McCoy, The Statler Brothers, Lonnie Donegan, Gianna Nannini, Skid Row, Willie Nelson, LeeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alison Crowe, Dolly Parton & Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie a.o.
Best version: Kris Kristofferson nails his own song by delivering a tender, sadly resigned narrative of loss and freedom.

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Kingston Trio – Sloop John B.mp3
Beach Boys – Sloop John B.mp3
kingston-singersOne of the biggest Beach Boys hits was in fact an old Caribbean sea shanty about the ship John B which was sunk in a Barbados harbour in 1900. Borrowing from a 1935 recording titled Histe Up the John B. Sail, folk pioneers the Weavers first recorded it 1950 as The Wreck of the John B. But it wasn’t that version from which the Beach Boys borrowed their tune, but the 1958 take by clean-cut, stripey-shirted folk singers the Kingston Trio, who were the first to record the song under its now established title. The Kingston Trio’s version has an appropriate calypso lilt, giving it a lightness that invites a spot of finger-snapping.

One’s digits are safe from being used as a rhythm section in the hands of the Beach Boys, equally famous for their striped shirts (Pendeltones, fashion fans) before adopting the excessively hirsute line of appearance. Al Jardine suggested the song to Brian Wilson on to the song. Legend has it that Brian didn’t know the song, a myth peddled by Wilson himself. The great Kingston Trio fan Wilson of course knew the song — there reportedly are tapes of a young Brian singing the tune with high school friends.

Wilson was initially reluctant to adapt Sloop John B., but eventually mapped out the complex arrangement within a day, one which made the Kingston Trio’s attractive version seem very dull indeed. Its recording and single release preceded the recording of Pet Sounds by a while; which might explain the misguided resistance to Sloop John C by many fans of the album – because it feels out of place on an otherwise coherent set. It was included at the urging of the Beach Boys’ record company, Capitol, who apparently could not see much by way of hit singles on the groundbreaking album, other than the traditional Beach Boys sound of opener Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Sloop may be a cover version, but it is as autobiographical of Brian Wilson — then under the thumb of his Dad-from-hell Murry and the hectoring Mike Love (who did not dig the Pet Shop vibe at all), and quickly disappearing into the world of drugs — as any track on the album. The line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” reflects the mind of the tortured artist; the desperation in the line “I want to go home; please let me go home” anticipates the growing frustration and alienation of Wilson, the genius who was being told how to arrange his music by the musical hack Murry and pressured to keep writing about surfing, girls and cars by cousin Mike — a conflict that came to a head with the aborted Smile album.
Also covered by: Lonnie Donegan (as I Want To Go Home), Tom Fogerty, Roger Whittaker, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Dick Dale, Relient K, Okkervil River a.o.
Best version: You can’t get passed the harmonies of Brian Wilson’s arrangement, even though vocals include the loathsome Mike Love.

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Gladys Knight & The Pips – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
gladys-knightGladys Knight believes she has good reason to be pissed off. There Gladys and her Pips had delivered an excellent dance number with I Heard It Through The Grapevine, scoring a US #2 hit in 1967, and Motown’s best-selling single up to then. And yet, a fair number of readers will be surprised to know that the song was in fact not a Marvin Gaye original. One has to feel for poor Gladys, but Marvin’s version is flawless in every way. Released a year after Gladys’ hit, it was at first just as an album filler. Marvin appropriated the song, investing himself into it so much that nobody can conceive of it as anything other than a Marvin Gaye number. Look at the list covers: would you really need to hear any of them in any way other than out of curiosity?

If you feel jaded by the song, as I once did, sit down and listen to it carefully again; I still find little surprises with every airing. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, several Motown stars – including Marvin Gaye as well as Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers – tested for the song before Gladys Knight’s version was approved for release. If she had not been upstaged by Marvin (whose single release pipped, as it were, her Motown sales record), her version, not Marvin’s, would feature prominently on all those Motown compilations. Instead it is a neglected stepchild, a point of trivia. It deserves better, but how can it compete against one of pop music’s rare moments of absolute genius?
Also covered by: Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, King Curtis, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Chi-Lites, Ike & Tina Turner, Young-Holt Unlimited, Ella Fitzgerald, The Undisputed Truth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Earl Klugh, Average White Band, Joe Cocker, The Slits, The Flying Pickets, Ben Harper, Emmerson Nogueira, Michael McDonald, Kaiser Chiefs a.o.
Best version: I have made my case and hereby close it.

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The Nerves – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
the-nervesIf it is not widely known that Blondie’s 1979 hit Hanging On The Telephone is a cover, then it probably is because the original performers, The Nerves, only ever released a four-track EP in 1976, which included the song. And having obtained it recently, I think it’s a very fine EP it is, too. The Nerves – a trio comprising songwriter Jack Lee, Paul Collins (who’d later join The Beat) and Peter Case (later of the Plimsouls) – were a heavy-gigging LA-based rock band which despite their extremely recording career proved to be influential on the US punk scene. The members of Blondie surely have were aware of the song. A year after The Nerves split, Debbie Harry and pals picked up the song and enjoyed a huge worldwide hit with it. The original hasn’t aged much: it reminds me of the Von Bondies or The Killers.
Also covered by: Mephisto Waltz, Scheer, L7, Germ Attack, Johnny Panic, Cat Power, Def Leppard, Girls Aloud
Best version: Much as I love Blondie, The Nerves’s original is superior. Though I’d like to hear Cat Power’s take.

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Bruce Woolley – Video Killed the Radio Star.mp3
The Buggles – Video Killed The Radio Star.mp3
bruce-woolleyThis slice of sci-fi flavoured nostalgia, inspired by a JG Ballard story, was co-written by Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes (then new members of horrible prog-rock band Yes) with Bruce Woolley. So it seemed right that it should be recorded by the two parties – the Yes contingent and Woolley – in 1979. The latter got in there first, with his Camera Club. It is a breathless version with much energy and a quite nice guitar solo at the end, but none of the bombastic detail which made the Buggles’ synth-fiesta a huge hit. The Buggles version is sometimes considered a bit naff, which does great injustice to a catchy song which does everything that is required of a very great pop song. The video of the Buggles version was the first ever to be played by MTV. But the Woolley version is all but forgotten.
Also covered by: Ben Folds Five, The Presidents of the United States of America, Erasure, Jimmy Pops, Rocket K, The Feeling
Best version: The Buggles single is one of my favourite singles of the 1970s…

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James ‘Ironhead’ Baker & Group – Black Betty.mp3
Ram Jam – Black Betty.mp3
james-bakerMy latest greatest chum RH sent me this me. Black Betty is an old African-American folk song favoured by labour gangs. The recording here is the oldest in existence, preceding that by Lead Belly, who often is credited with writing it, by six years. Indeed, it probably dates back to the 19th century. This is a 1933 field recording made by the musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 of the convict James “Ironhead” Baker and backing band of prisoners at Central State Farm in Texas. The Ram Jam version wasn’t even the first rockified adaptation. In 1976, a year before the Ram Jam hit, it was recorded by an outfit called Starstruck, which included future Ram Jam member Bill Bartlett.

Civil right groups boycotted the song because it was thought it insulted black women. Anthropologists are undecided what exactly a “Black Betty”, perhaps a rifle, or a bottle of whiskey, or a whip (as Lead Belly claimed), or a penitentiary transfer wagon, or indeed a prostitute. In the Ram Jam lyrics Betty clearly is a woman, probably of African-American heritage (from Birmingham, Alabama). But it’s difficult to see how they are offensive.
Also covered by: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (going back to the song’s roots as an a cappella blues), Mina, Tom Jones, Spiderbait (#1 in Australia in 2004, non-antipodean fact fans) a.o.
Best version: Oh, I bet ole’ Ironhead would have loved to kick ass with the song as Ram Jam did.

More Originals

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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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

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