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Copy Borrow Steal: Beatles edition

September 4th, 2009 10 comments

In this series, of which this is the second instalment, I am to a large extent guided by Tim English’ fine book Sounds Like Teen Spirit (website and buy), which inspired it in the first place. It must be stressed that I am not necessarily imputing unethical behaviour on part of those who created music that sounds like somebody else’s. A reader calling himself Fudge, in his comment to the first post, explained the legal case for plagiarism: “In terms of songwriting, lawmakers decided that melody and chord structure are the basis of the song (in terms of pop music anyway) and therefore those parts are the most protected. I think the term is ‘interpolate’. That’s why The Jam can ‘borrow’ “Taxman” for “Start!” and not get sued, or Steely Dan can nip Horace Silver’s cool bass line.”

I will also include a few songs where similarity has been suggested, but I can’t see it. You shall be the judge. Let me know what you think.

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Nat ‘King’ Cole – Answer Me My Love (1961).mp3
Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind (1960).mp3
The Beatles – Yesterday (live in Blackpool) (1965).mp3
nat_king_coleIn my introduction to the first instalment, I cited Paul McCartney’s concern that he unconsciously plagiarised (the technical term for that is cryptomnesia) Yesterday as an example of a songwriter’s scruples. In his comment to the post, Mick alerted me to a suggestion in 2003 by British musicologists that Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Answer Me My Love from 1953 — available here in a 1961 re-recording — inspired McCartney on a sub-conscious level (and kindly uploaded the song as well).

The case here rests on a line in Cole’s song which does bear some resemblance lyrically and in its phrasing. Cole sings: “Yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay, won’t you tell me where I’ve gone astray” (0:38). McCartney’s line goes: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now I need a place to hide away.” The musicologists suggested that McCartney must have been aware of the Cole song but kindly allowed that the influence was subliminal.

Paul and John in Blackpool, 1965

Paul and John in Blackpool, 1965

To my mind, this is hardly a case of Byron stealing from Shelley. It is not the most unlikely coincidence when two lyricist 12 years apart arrive at similar rhymes to the word “yesterday”. The phrasing charge doesn’t stick either. Yesterday was floating around with nonsense lyrics (“Scambled eggs, oh my darling you have lovely legs”) until McCartney eventually wrote the lyrics while in Portugal. He could not really phrase the lyrics in many other ways over the existing melody. Others have suggested that he borrowed the structure and chord progression from Ray Charles’ version of Georgia On My Mind. I don’t quite see that. So in more than 40 years, the best theories to support the notion that the most famous pop song of all time was influenced by other songs concern a generic rhyme and a song that sounds nothing like Yesterday. Members of the jury, there is no case.

Instead, enjoy this live performance of Yesterday, recorded at the Blackpool Night Out, with George Harrison’s introduction, “For Paul McCartney of Liverpool, opportunity knocks”, and Lennon’s attribution of the performance to Ringo at the end.

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Freddie Lennon – That’s My Life (My Love And My Home) (1965).mp3
Freddie Lennon – The Next Time You Feel Important.mp3
John Lennon – Imagine (1971).mp3

freddie_lennonIn early 1940 Alfred Lennon impregnated Julia and soon left her with little John Winston who’d barely hear of his seafaring father again. Alfred predictably turned up when the Beatles became successful. A reunion with his son was icy — funny enough, John was not impressed with the old man’s sudden paternal interest. Still, John later bought the old man a cottage. In the interim, Alfred tried to cash in by recording a self-justifying single, a precursor for My Way in many ways (in a “I’m a good bloke, ain’t I? I just like the sea more than my offspring” fashion). To John, the single was a running joke; he’d play it as a gag for his friends.

Tim English in his book suggests that John might have been unconsciously influenced by his father’s novelty record when he wrote Imagine. English refers to the stately tone of both songs, which in itself is no smoking gun. More crucially, he points to the similarity in the chord progression in the verses. These are not terribly complex or unusual, but the similarity is recognisable. Still, even if John was not in any way influenced, it is a delicious irony that John Lennon’s hypocritical hymn to idealism bears a resemblance to his father’s ridiculous novelty record. As a bonus, I’m including the b-side to Freddie’s single as well (it’s pretty awful).

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The Hollies – Stewball (1966).mp3
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Merry X-Mas (War Is Over) (1971).mp3

holliesWe might acquit John from nicking chords from his Dad, but his Christmas standard will have the jury wanting exonerating evidence before it can acquit. Stewball, an American folk song adapted from a British ballad about an 18th century racehorse, had been recorded many times before Lennon wrote Merry X-Mas. The folk-influenced Lennon might have been familiar with the versions by Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Peter Paul & Mary or Joan Baez. It is likely too that he knew the Hollies’ version, which appeared on their 1966 album Would You Believe?. Their version sounds close to Lennon’s song in arrangement, apart from the distinct melodic similarity.

Did John directly plagiarise? Well, Stewball came from a folk tradition in which melodies were routinely recycled and adapted with new lyrics. Bob Dylan did that with Blowin’ In The Wind (see here) sounding more than just suspiciously like No More Auction Block. If we want to get Lennon off the charge on a technicality, at least we have recourse to a defence based on precedent.

merry_xmasEnglish refers to another inspiration, acknowledged by Lennon: the arrangement, by Phil Spector, was lifted from a song Spector and George Harrison had produced for Ronnie Spector, titled Try Some Buy Some (later recorded by Harrison). Apparently the song was so bad, Ronnie thought her husband and George were joking when presenting her with it. Harrison later put another arrangement from the Ronnie sessions (which she did not record) to his hit song You.

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The Beatles – Norwegian Wood (Take 1) (1965).mp3
Bob Dylan – 4th Time Around (1966).mp3

rubber_soulIn his book, English writes that John Lennon almost had a fit when he heard 4th Time Around on Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album: it ripped off Norwegian Wood, which the Beatles had released a little earlier on Rubber Soul. One can understand Lennon’s point: listen to 4th Time Around a few times, and latest by the third time around the similarities become glaring, especially two-thirds of the way through, and not only in subject matter.

Of course, Dylan had influenced Lennon profoundly. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away is John’s musical homage to acoustic Dylan. It’s fair to say that without the Dylan influence, John would not have written something like Norwegian Wood. Posted here is the first take of Norwegian Wood, recorded nine days before the version which made it on to the album. Some people prefer this take.

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The Byrds – Bells Of Rhymney (1965).mp3
The Beatles – If I Needed Someone (1965).mp3

byrdsAnd if Dylan ripped off Norwegian Wood, the Beatles borrowed and adapted the jangling guitar intro of the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s Bells Of Rhymney for If I Needed Someone. Still with Dylan in mind, it is of interest to note that he was influenced to go electric by the Byrds and the Beatles. And just to add to the mix, the Byrds’ Gene Clark was moved by She Loves You to abandon the straight folk of the New Christy Minstrels, and instead co-found the Byrds, who borrowed further from the Beatles to get their guitar- and harmony-based sound (Tim English notes that Roger McGuinn bought his essential 12-string Rickenbacker after seeing Harrison use one in A Hard Day’s Night).

Harrison cheerfully admitted, in public and to the Byrds, that he had copied the intro to If I Needed Someone from the Byrds’ song, which had just been released when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul.

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The Beatles – Taxman (alternative take) (1966).mp3
The Jam – Start! (1980).mp3

taxmanThis is the rip-off every fan of English music immediately thinks off. As Fudge said, copying a riff does not constitute legal plagiarism. Here The Jam lifted the guitar and bass riff from Harrison’s rather mean-spirited complaint about having to pay taxes (which, admittedly, were punitive in Britain). The guitar and bass parts in Taxman, incidentally, were played by McCartney. Harrison took over Lennon’s rhythm guitar, and John (who contributed the bipartisan falsetto “Ah ha Mr Wilson; Ah ha Mr Heath”, replaced in the take featured here with the line “Anybody got a bit of money”) did tambourine and backing vocals duty. Start! Was The Jam’s second UK #1 hit after Going Underground.

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Ringo Starr – Back Off Boogaloo (1972).mp3
Franz Ferdinand – Take Me Out (2004).mp3

boogalooRingo Starr wrote his hit after having a dinner with T. Rex’s Marc Bolan who repeatedly used the word “boogaloo” (I am happy to dismiss the story that Boogaloo was Ringo’s nickname for Paul McCartney, who was engaged in legal action with the other Beatles at the time). The song was produced by George Harrison and was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand appeared on the scene in 2004 with Take Me Out, supported by a superb video. Take Me Out sounded a bit like a mash of several unfinished songs. It was Libertines singer and celebrity junkie Pete Doherty who, in an unfamiliar moment of lucidity, accused Franz Ferdinand of copying the riff and song structure of Ringo’s song. Apart from Boogaloo’s riff, the “I know I won’t be leaving here” bridge certainly bears a close resemblance. Theft or not? What do you think?

More Copy Borrow Steal

The Originals Vol. 30

August 7th, 2009 8 comments

In this instalment in the series of the lesser known originals, we look at Killing Me Softly With His Song, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, Evil Ways, (Ghost) Riders In The Sky, and I Wanna Be Loved, an obscure ’70s soul song covered a decade later by Elvis Costello. A vote of thanks to my friends Walter, RH and Mark for feeding me some of the music featured here (the latter a very long time ago).

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Kelly Gordon – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1969).mp3
The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1969).mp3
The Persuasions – He Ain’t Heavy/You’ve Got A Friend (1971).mp3
Donny Hathaway – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1972).mp3
The Housemartins – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1986).mp3

kelly_gordonThe Hollies’ guitarist Tony Hicks was desperately looking for a song to record when he was played a demo of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. The band decided to record it without great expectations, with Reg Dwight (who would become Elton John) on piano. Of course, it became a mega-hit and pop classic. But the Hollies were not the first to record it. The song had already been released by Kelly Gordon in April 1969 — five months before the Hollies’ version — as a single and on his Defunked album (the single’s b-side was That’s Life, a song Gordon had co-written five years earlier, but had been recorded before and made famous by Frank Sinatra). The original of He Ain’t Heavy by Gordon, more active as a producer than a singer, is slower and more mournful. Based on his interpretation, the publishers thought it would be a good song for Joe Cocker to record. And it would have been, but Cocker turned the song down.

He Ain’t Heavy was written by Bobby Scott (who wrote A Taste Of Honey) and the older veteran lyricist Bob Russell (Little Green Apples), who was already ailing with cancer and died at 55 in February 1970, just after the song had become a worldwide hit. There is much speculation as to the origin of the title; most commonly it is believed that the line was inspired by Father Edward Flannagan, the founder of Boys Town, who had adopted it as the organisation’s motto, reputedly after spotting a cartoon of a boy carrying another in a corporate publication named Louis Allis Messenger, that was captioned “He ain’t heavy Mister – he’s m’ brother!” It was not a new line; it had been used in literature and magazine articles before, and supposedly provided the punchline for a Native American folk story.

persuasionsThere have been many covers of the song. I have several favourites. Donny Hathaway’s soul interpretation tops the Hollies’ pop version. Then there are two fine a cappella versions. There are three such recordings by the Housemartins are in circulation: on the compilation Now That’s What I Call Quite Good, as a bonus track on the London 0 Hull 4 CD, and unofficially on the 1986 BBC Saturday Live sessions. It is the latter featured here. It might very well have been inspired by the magnificent version released in 1971 by the a cappella band The Persuasions, who recorded it as part of a medley with You’ve Got A Friend — which the Housemartins also recorded a cappella. (Edit: See the message by former Persuasions frontman Jerry Lawson in the comments section.)

Also recorded by: Neil Diamond (1970), I Ribelli (as Il vento non sa leggere, 1970), The Ruffin Brothers (1970), The Osmonds (1971 & 1975), Glen Campbell (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1971), Cher (1971), Donny Hathaway (1971), Gladys Knight & The Pips (1971), Melba Moore (1971), Johnny Mathis (1972), Brotherhood of Man (1974), Olivia Newton-John (1975), The Housemartins (1985/86), Al Green (1987), Bill Medley (1988), Gotthard (1996), Rufus Wainwright (2001), Helmut Lotti (2003), Pentti Hietanen (2005), Barry Manilow (2007) a.o.

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Lori Lieberman – Killing Me Softly With His Song (1972).mp3
Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly With His Song (1973).mp3

lori_lieberman(Text has been edited since it was first posted)

There are two stories describing the genesis of Killing Me Softly With HIs Song. The more widely-spread story has folk-singer Lori Lieberman so moved by Don McLean’s live performance of the song Empty Chairs that she wrote a poem about, calling it Killing Me Softly With His Blues. The composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, who were taking time out from their impressive TV theme production line (Happy Days!) to write songs for Lieberman’s self-titled debut album, used her poem as the basis for the song which she would be the first to record in 1971, releasing it the following year.

Or so Lieberman says. Norman Gimbel’s recollection is very different, though much less known. In an e-mail to this blog (which will go up fully reproduced on Sunday), he explained how it was a book he was referred to years earlier by composer Lalo Shifre that featured the line “Killing Me Softly With His Blues” (the title of the poem Lieberman says she wrote). He like the idea and stored it away for a few years until he needed lyrics for the Lieberman album which he and Fox were writing, changing the word “blues” to “song”.

flackAlthough Lieberman didn’t score a big hit with the song, Flack stumbled upon it in 1972 while in air. After reading about Lieberman in the TWA airline magazine and her interest piqued by the title of the song, she tuned into the song on the in-flight radio, and decided to record it herself. Over a period of three months, Flack experimented with and rearranged the song, changing the chord structure, adding the soaring ad libs and ending the song on a major chord where Lieberman did with a minor. Her remake made an immediate impression, topping the US charts for four weeks and reaching #6 in Britain. Her version won Grammys for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance.

Almost a quarter of a century later, in 1996, Killing Me Softly – its full title by now routinely castrated – made an unwelcome return to the album charts in the form of the Fugees’ cover (it wasn’t released as a single so as to boost album sales). Lauryn Hill’s vocals are fine, though the hip hop arrangement negates the confessional intimacy of Flack’s, or indeed Lieberman’s, version. And that would be adequate; the mood of a lyric often is disengaged from a song’s sound to little detriment (think of all the great upbeat numbers with morose lyrics). Besides, the Fugees had conceived of the song as an anti-drug anthem with the revised title Killing Him Softly, a plan that was abandoned when they were denied permission for such modification. The whole exercise becomes something of a prank thanks to Wyclef Jean’s repeated intonation of “one time” and “two time”, as though he was auditioning for the role of parody DJ on Sesame Street. No matter how affecting Hill’s vocals, Wycount von Count’s antics render the Fugees’ version one of the most deplorable covers in pop.

Also recorded by: Johnny Mathis (1973), Rusty Bryant (1973), Tim Weisberg (1973), Perry Como (1973), Bobby Goldsboro (1973), John Holt (1973), Anne Murray (1973), The Ventures (1973), Shirley Bassey (1973), Woody Herman (1973), Katja Ebstein (as Das Lied meines Lebens, 1973), Vikki Carr (1973), Lynn Anderson (1973), Rune Gustafsson (1973), Lill Lindfors (as Sången han sjöng var min egen, 1973), Marcella Bella, Lara Saint Paul, Ornella Vanoni (all as Mi fa morire cantando, 1973), Andy Williams (1974), Mike Auldridge (1974), Charlie Byrd (1974), Petula Clark (1974), Engelbert Humperdinck (1974), Ferrante & Teicher (1974), George Shearing Quintet (1974), Charles Fox (1975), Hampton Hawes (1976), Cleo Laine & John Williams (1976), Mina (1985), Lance Hayward (1987), Al B. Sure! (1988), Donald Brown (1989), Casal (as Tal como soy, 1989), Linda Imperial (1991), Yta Farrow (1991), Joanna (as Morrendo de amo, 1991), Luther Vandross (1994), Ron Sanfilippo (1994), Michael Chapdelaine (1995), Mahogany (1996), The Fugees (1996), Victoria Abril (1998), Joe Augustine (1998), Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers (1998), The BB Band (1999), Anthony Arizaga (2000), Hank Marvin (2002), Eric Hansen (2002), Kimberly Caldwell (2003), Raymond Jones (2004), Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (2005), Omara Portuondo (as Matándome suavemente, 2006), Helge Schneider (2007), a.o.

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Burl Ives – Riders In The Sky (1949).mp3
Vaughn Monroe – Riders In The Sky (1949).mp3
Peggy Lee – Riders In The Sky (A Cowboy Legend) (1949).mp3
The Ventures – Ghost Riders In The Sky (1961).mp3
Deborah Harry – Riders In The Sky (1998).mp3

burl_ivesRiders In The Sky, sometimes known as Ghost Riders In The Sky, is one of those standards which is famous mostly for being famous. It has been recorded many times, and most people know at least its melody (I knew it first in the The Ventures’ 1961 guitar-driven instrumental version), but there seems to be no artist to whom the song is universally and specifically attached.

The song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones, a California forest ranger by trade who wrote western music as a sideline, also contributing music to film classics such as The Searchers and Rio Bravo. Riders In The Sky was first recorded in February 1949 by Burl Ives, still to be outed as a supposed communist fellow traveller and a few years from becoming friends with the McCarthyist defenders of freedom. Two months after Ives, Vaughn Monroe recorded it with his orchestra, and scored an international hit with it. The same year, Gene Autry sang it in a film, also titled Riders In The Sky, and Peggy Lee did a version, adding the parenthetical “A Cowboy Legend” to the title. The song made a comeback in the British charts in 1980 with the instrumental take by The Shadows, covering ground previously traversed by The Ventures and Dick Dale. And in 1998, Deborah Harry, formerly of Blondie, issued her electronica version.

Also recorded by: Bing Crosby (1949), Peggy Lee (1949), Gene Autry (1949), Spike Jones (1949), Eddy Arnold (1959), The Ramrods (1961), The Ventures (1961), Dick Dale (1963), Frank Ifield (1963), Frankie Laine (1963), Lorne Greene (1964), Duane Eddy (1966), The Englishmen (1967), Tom Jones (1967), Elvis Presley (live, 1970), Dennis Stoner (1971), Mary McCaslin (1975), Riders in the Sky 91979), Johnny Cash (1979), The Shadows (1979), Outlaws (1980), Fred Penner (1980), Milton Nascimento (1981), Marty Robbins (1984), The Trashmen (1990), R.E.M. (as Ghost Reindeer in the Sky, 1990), Michael Martin Murphey (1993), Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (1998), Deborah Harry (1998), Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and The Blues Brothers Band (1998), Ned Sublette (1999), Concrete Blonde (2004), Peter Pan Speedrock (2006), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2006), Die Apokalyptischen Reiter (2006), Spiderbait (2007), Dezperadoz (2008), Children of Bodom (2008) a.o.

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Teacher’s Edition – I Wanna Be Loved (1973).mp3
Elvis Costello – I Wanna Be Loved (1984).mp3

teachers_editionFor a prolific songwriter, Elvis Costello has covered songs widely. His best known cover perhaps is George Jones’ A Good Year For The Roses, itself a country classic. I Wanna Be Loved, a Costello single in 1984 which appeared on the otherwise underwhelming Goodbye Cruel World album (and features Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside on backing vocals), was plucked from obscurity. That’s what Costello said, and he was not exaggerating. I have been able to find nothing about Teacher’s Edition or about Farnell Jenkins, who wrote the song, except that it was released in on the Memphis-based Hi Records (which counted Al Green, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright among its roster) in1973 as a b-side to a song titled It Helps To Make You Strong, and enjoyed popularity in the Northern Soul set. Jenkins, now 67, now seems to be a Chicago-based writer of Gospel songs.
Also recorded by: nobody else, it seems

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Willie Bobo – Evil Ways (1967).mp3
bobo Santana – Evil Ways (1969).mp3
This month, you may hear it incidentally mentioned, marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. For Santana, the festival was the great break-out moment. Within a few months of Woodstock, the group had a hit with Evil Ways, the first of a string of covers by Carlos and his shifting band of chums. Evil Ways was recorded first by Latin jazz percussionist Willie Bobo, who would later collaborate with Santana. It was written by Bobo’s guitarist Sonny Henry, who is also doing vocal duty. Bobo died young, in 1983 at 49 of cancer. His son, Eric Bobo (the family name is actually Correa), also became a percussionist, with Cypress Hill.

evil_waysThe vocals (and the organ solo) on the Santana version are by the band’s co-founder Gregg Rolie, whose keyboards and vocals were also so integral to Santana’s version of Black Magic Woman (featured in Vol. 1). Rolie proceeded to co-found Journey with former Santana bandmate Neal Schon. In Journey, Rolie was initially lead vocalist, but ceded frontman duties when Steve Perry joined.

Also recorded by: Johnny Mathis (1970), Cal Tjader (1971), Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles (1972)

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In The Originals Vol. 22 we looked at The House Of The Rising Sun. In the interim, our friend Walter has sent me the first known recording of the song, by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, recorded in 1933. I have added it to the original article, and post it below:

Ashley and Foster – Rising Sun Blues.mp3

Those interested in more versions of the song will be well served by this post on the fascinating Merlin in Rags blog, which specialises in old folk and blues.

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More Originals


The Originals Vol. 8

October 5th, 2008 1 comment


Jackie DeShannon – Needles And Pins
The Searchers – Needles And Pins
Last night I watched The Commitments on DVD, with the scene at the wedding where the singer belts out a cheesy version Needles And Pins. What struck me is how difficult it is to mess the song up. Even Smokie’s 1977 version was quite good. It is, of course, regarded as a classic in its incarnation by the Searchers (a group I used to confuse with the Seekers, featured above). It was written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nietzsche and first recorded by the vastly underrated Jackie DeShannon in 1963, crossing the Atlantic the same year in Petula Clark’s version before the Searchers finally scored a hit with it in 1964 (actually, DeShannon’s version, while not a hit in the US, topped the Canadian charts). The story goes that the Searchers first heard Needles And Pins being performed by Cliff Bennett at the Star Club in Hamburg and immediately decided that the song should be their next single. It became the second of their three UK #1 hits. They did retain DeShannon’s pronunciation of “now-ah”, “begins-ah” and “pins-ah.
Also recorded by: Petula Clark (1963), Buddy Morrow & his Orchestra (1964), Cher (1965), The Wallflower Complextion (1967), Smokie (1977), The Ramones (1978), Crack The Sky (1983), Tom Petty & Steve Nicks (1986), Mr. T Experience (1998), Willy DeVille (1999), Raimundos (2001), The Commercials (2001) a.o.
Best version: DeShannon’s original has a great energy, Smokie’s I have a nostalgic attachment to, but the Searchers had a moment of pop perfection with their version.

Jackie DeShannon – Bette Davis Eyes
Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
In 1981, my half-sister’s boyfriend went on holiday to Colorado. For us in Germany, that was tremendously exotic. Although we had by then travelled through much of central Europe, America seemed another world. Where we had medieval churches, all of American architecture seemed to be mirrored skyscrapers (cf. the Dallas titles montage), and where our forests were populated by Rumpelstiltskin, granny-eating wolves and poisonous mushrooms, American woods were run by Grizzly Adams. And, most significantly, new LPs were available in America before they came out in Germany. So when our man came back from Colorado and told of his adventures (in what probably was boring suburbia), his tales were soundtracked by Juicy Newton’s Angel Of The Morning and Kim Carnes’ Betty Davis Eyes. The former has long been pencilled in to feature in this series, the latter joined the list only when our friend RH sent me the original.

I hadn’t known it was a cover version: neither did the song’s subject, who went out of her way to thank first Carnes and then the songwriters for introducing her to a whole new generation (including myself) and giving her cool status among her grandchildren. Davis and Carnes remained friends till the actress’ death. As noted above, Jackie DeShannon was not just an underrated singer, but also a songwriter. She co-wrote Bette Davis Eyes with Donna Weiss, and recorded it in 1975 in a country-boogie woogie style. Her version attracted little attention, but seven years later Carnes’ cover became one of the biggest hits in US chart history, spending nine weeks at #1 (a week less than the year’s top-seller, Olivia Newton John’s Physical). As for the titular eyes which warranted a song, apparently they were the product of a thyroid condition Davis suffered.
Also recorded by: Gwynneth Paltrow (for the film Duets, 2000), Crash Test Dummies (2001), Handsome Devil (2004), Space Cadet (2005)
Best version: The Carnes version reworks the song entirely. The guitar, synth and the somewhat sleazy drums complement Carnes’ raspy voice in the slowed down. That production evokes Davis’ (public) personality better than the original does.

The Highwaymen – Whiskey In The Jar
The Seekers – Whiskey In The Jar
The Pogues & the Dubliners – Whiskey In The Jar
“Musha ring dum a doo dum a da” is gibberish, apparently. And “Whack fol the daddy O” is not slurred ’50s slang. Whiskey In The Jar is an old Irish folk song about a girl betraying the highwayman who loves her. Folk historian Alan Lomax (who among many other things did that recording of Black Betty featured earlier on in this series) suggested that the song goes back, in some form, to the 1600s and might have inspired John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera. When the folk revival hit in America in the 1950s and ’60s, Whiskey In The Jar, which had long enjoyed popularity in the US, was among the many traditional tunes to be performed by the likes of The Limeliters and Peter, Paul & Mary. The oldest recordings that I’ve been able to turn up are thise by The Highwaymen from 1962 (thanks to caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown) and from 1964 by the Seekers. The song is, of course, more famous now as a rock song, thanks to Thin Lizzy’s iconic 1973 interpretation (which took some liberties with the lyrics). The Dubliners, whose 1967 hit with the song returned it to its native land, re-recorded it to fine effect with the Pogues in 1990. Some people talk highly of Metallica’s 1998 Grammy-winning take, but since I boycott those Napster-busting fuckers, it won’t feature here.
Also recorded by: The Dubliners (1967), Jerry Garcia & David Grisman (1995), Pulp (1995), Metallica (1998), Brobdingnagian Bards (2001), Belle & Sebastian (2005), Gary Moore (2006), as well as Roger Whittaker, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Irish Rovers, the Poxy Boggards, Seven Nations, King Creosote, Axel the Sot, and Smokie (a.o.)
Best version: The Dubliners and Pogues nail it.

Albert Hammond – The Air That I Breathe
The Hollies – The Air That I Breathe
I feel very old when Albert Hammond needs to be introduced as “The Dad of the dude from the Strokes”. Hammond Sr is of course the more significant figure in pop, having scored hits on his own and written many more for others. The Air That I Breathe, composed with frequent collaborator Mike Hazlewood, is among those (and at least one more will feature in this series). Hammond’s 1972 recording on his debut album, It Never Rains In Southern California, went by fairly unnoticed. It starts of uncertainly, but mid-way through hits a strange stride. Perfect it is not, but interesting it certainly is. According to Hammond, it was written for a physically unattractive girl while Hazlewood came up with the title upon glimpsing LA’s smog – I rather like that story. The song was then recorded by Phil Everly in 1973, but became a hit in the hands of the briefly resurgent Hollies a year later. Subsequently Hammond and Hazlewood received an unexpected songwriting credit on Radiohead’s Creep for its resemblance to The Air That I Breathe.
Also recorded by: Cilla Black (1974), Olivia Newton-John (1975), José Feliciano (1977), Hank Williams Jr (1983), Julio Iglesias (1984), Steve Wynn (1995), Barry Manilow (1996), k.d. lang (1997), Simply Red (1998), Patti LuPone (1999), The Mavericks (2003), Blue Mule (2005), Tom Fuller (2007)
Best version: It’s a great song to interpret (as Thom Yorke would agree), but the Hollies version is just lush.

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Perfect Pop – Vol. 7 (more '60s)

May 1st, 2008 5 comments

Here is the second part of the Perfect Pop ’60s Special. I think there are still enough songs for two or three more instalments in this series, with the ’70s now having run a backlog.

Lovin’ Spoonful – Summer In The City.mp3
This may be the quintessental summer song, at least as far as inner city life is concerned. It captures the claustrophic energy of a baking city; the song harries you, disorientates you. You feel the city dust in your nose, the steam rising from asphalt. Nobody is chilling on the beach or over a barbecue, because regardless of the heat, life goes on: cars are hooting, construction workers are pressure drilling (you can hear both in the song). There is something ominous yet utterly attractive in the air, creating a delicious tension as the stress of surviving the oppressive urban heat gives way to the warm nights when girls are lightly dressed and guys go on the prowl for summer sex.
Best bit: Possibly the first use of a pneumatic drill in pop (1:16)

The 5th Dimension – Up-Up And Away.mp3
I first became aware of this Jimmy Webb-penned song through Sesame Street in the early ’70s, and loved its mellow, almost comforting melody. It is a lot like a Bacharach songs, in structure and arrangement. It also sounds a bit like the advertising jingle it subsequently became; but if all commercial jingles would be as lovely as this, maybe ad breaks would not be such an imposition (to wit, I really like the Jeep ad with the Stephen Poltz song, You Remind Me). The 5th Dimension were a bit of a hippie outfit, so when this track was released in 1967 I imagine that a lot of people interpreted it as an invitation to get high. In fact, I like to imagine that it was a drug song, only for it to be played on Sesame Street and to flog airline tickets. The boring truth seems to be that the song was just about balloon travel. The familiar story that it was written to celebrate the wedding of band members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davies Jr in a hot air balloon is rubbish: the song came out in 1967; McCoo and Davies were married in 1969. But either they or fellow member Florence LaRue did marry in a balloon as a tribute to their first big hit.
Best bit: A flute in the background! (1:43)

The Hollies – Carrie Anne.mp3
From grey and rainy Manchester, the Hollies produced a song that is as California sunshiney as anything the Beach Boys ever delivered. The Everley Brothers influence is most evident in this1967 song, on which Stephen Nash (who later hooked up with Crosby and Stills) at the end harmonises with himself. There has been much speculation about who the eponymous girl was. Carrie Fisher has claimed its about her (just as I claim that Steely Dan wrote their song about this blog), some say that it was about Marianne Faithfull or Jagger’s future sister-in-law Karri-Ann Moller. I think it might be about my pal’s Kevin’s daughter, even though she was not yet born. The most likely explanation is this: the song’s working title was “Hey Mr Man”, and Carrie-Anne rhymes with that.
Best bit: The steel drums (1:37)

B.J. Thomas – Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.mp3
I cannot imagine what exactly a Bacharach pop song was doing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I never did “get” that movie. The scene it scored — Paul Newman monkeying around on one of those newfangled “bicycles” — was memorable, though. Thanks to Raindrops… The lyrics don’t make sense either. On the one hand, B.J. (did he ever get teased for that?) says that the rain doesn’t bother him; on the other he has a supervisory word with the sun which doesn’t get things done properly. Which suggests that the lyricist Hal David flunked science in school, because it is in the sun’s job description to facilitate evaporation which will lead to rain. So it bloody well did its job. (Of course, I flunked science too, so what do I know?). Ray Stevens was initially tapped to sing the song, but he turned it down; a real Decca moment for a singer I cannot immediately associate any song with. I don’t think it is necessary to discuss at length why Raindrops is a perfect pop song. It most self-evidently is.
Best bit: The half-minute trumpet coda (2:26)

Dion – Runaround Sue.mp3
Runaround Sue seems a bit like the early ’60s equivalent of losers posting nude pictures of their ex-girlfiends on the Internet for revenge. Dion, who was brought up a good Catholic boy, clearly is pissed that Sue has not been exclusive, alleging that she has been sleeping with all the boys in town. If she was such a nympho, then Dion must have had massive blinkers on; if she really shagged all the boys in town, at least after boy-in-town number 17 reports of Sue’s conduct should have come to Dion’s attention before she could notch up the rest of the local boys. And how many girls-in-town did you shag, DeMucci? The real background story to “Sue” is rather less dramatic, by Dion’s own account: “It was about, you know, some girl who loved to be worshipped, but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone. So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.” And where is the rich legacy in pop music exercising its critical muscle in relation to vain, commitment-shy men? Whatever the ethical merits of Dion’s character assassination, the song is great, even if it rips off Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales. A cracking melody, totally assured vocals, superb handclaps, and tremendous doo wop backing. Wonderful.
Best bit: “Aaaaaaaaaaarh” (0:45)

Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – Young Girl.mp3
Fuck it, Mr Puckett, but you’re right: a statutory rape charge is too high a price to pay for the consummation of love, no matter how hot the hottie, and the law would not accept ignorance of her age as a defence, no matter how mature she seemed. We don’t know how old Gazza is in the song, nor how old this “baby in disguise” is. Puckett in an interview once suggested that the ages of the protagonists were 20 and 14. In four years time, that age difference would be quite acceptable, so we’re not having a dirty old man scenario here, thank goodness. Having said that, if it’s a Californication type of deal, the storyline where Duchnovy’s Hank is getting banged (in more ways than one) by the 16-year-old girl, then maybe it doesn’t seem quite so sick.
Best bit: “Get out of here…” (2:18)


Udo Jürgens – Es wird Nacht, Señorita.mp3*
Udo Jürgens is in many ways the Frank Sinatra of the German Schlager, with the added dimension of also being a talented songwriter. In the early ’60s he wrote big hits for Shirley Bassey and Matt Monro, and he even wrote a song for Sinatra (If I Never Sing Another Song, subsequently a signature song for Sammy Davis Jr). An institution in Germany, the now 73-year-old Austrian-born singer has been around for decades, producing music that at times was excellent (within the confines of Schlager), often pushing the boundaries. He was among the first Schlager singers to address the taboo subject of divorce, and even addressed German xenophobia in his 1975 hit Griechischer Wein, which was at once daring and patronisingly hackneyed. At the same time, he was responsible for some abominations against music (German readers of my generation will rightly recoil at the thought of Aber bitte mit Sahne). Es Wird Nacht, Señorita, from 1968, is hackneyed in as far as it creates the whole faux-Spanish vibe, and yet it is an absolute corker of a song. The lyrics are pretty explicit for its time and place within a very conservative genre. In the song, Udo seduces a “Señorita” — whom I like to picture as looking like Whistler’s girlfriend in the third season of Prison Break — by asking for accommodation, seeing as he’s apparently itinerant (“I’m tired from hiking”). “I want nothing from you”, he assures her. Except “perhaps a little love”. Ultimately the tired hiker asks Señorita to take him to bed, because there he is “not as bad as the others”. When the song ends with Udo triumphantly shouting “Olé”, you know he has scored.
Best bit: Udo has scored (2:10)

The Rolling Stones – 19th Nervous Breakdown.mp3
The Stones are another act with a wide treasury of perfect pop songs. Satisfaction might have been the obvious choice; Let’s Spend The Night Together or Get Off My Cloud would have been excellent choices as well (though my favourite Stones song, She’s A Rainbow, probably not). So it became a contest between one of the greatest riffs in pop music, a great use of the word “Ba-ba-ba-ba-bababababa”, a fantastic shouted chorus, and a track on which everything comes together. Listen to Watt’s drumming (those cymbals!) and Wyman’s bass complementing Keef’s guitar line, the insistent rhythm guitar, and Jagger’s vocals which are still relatively free of some of the affectations they would assume later.
Best bit: Wyman’s shuddering bass (3:31)

The Supremes – You Keep Me Hangin’ On.mp3
Early in this series I featured the Temptations’ My Girl as a proxy for all the perfect pop manufactured on the conveyor belt of hits at Tamla-Motown. I have since toyed with the idea of doing a Perfect Pop Motown special. That idea will need to wait until I have exhausted my shortlists of remaining perfect pop songs (which, rather annoyingly, keeps growing). In the interim, having a male Motown group as a proxy cannot suffice. The Supremes may not have performed on the most perfect Perfect Pop single by women on Motown (that would be Martha & the Vandellas), but their body of work represents the greatest number of perfect pop records by females on Motown, hence their proxy status. And among so many great songs (Baby Love; Stop In The Name Of Love; The Happening; You Can’t Hurry Love; Where Did Our Love Go; Reflections etc), You Keep Me Hangin’ On stands out. Diana Ross and Florence Ballard (who was so royally and tragically stitched up by the Motown machinery) are almost breathless as they demand a resolution to what clearly is not a happy relationship, and the arrangement, especially the rock guitar, add to the urgency.
Best bit: “And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it” (1:30)

The Beatles – I Feel Fine.mp3
Tracking back a little, the reader may recall that the Perfect Pop series was inspired by a comment in an article by Jim Irvin in The Word. Irvin identified three songs as examples of perfect pop: Take That’s Back For Good, Britney Spears’ Toxic, and the Beatles’ I Feel Fine. I have featured the Take That and Britney songs, so it is only right to include his third pick as well. And from the Beatles’ incredible repertoire of perfect pop, I Feel Fine may indeed the most perfect, exuding an overdose of joyfulness. It was issued as a single only before the release of Help, which I regard as possibly the best pop album of all time, but strangely seems more accomplished and mature than anything on Help, with the possible exceptions of the album’s title track and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. I Feel Fine also signalled the beginning of the Beatles’ experimental phase, with the inclusion of an accidentally discovered sound, the feedback that starts the song. It may be unnecessary to mention that this came about when John Lennon parked his still switched on electric guitar against an amp et cetera.
Best bit: The feedback intro, of course (0:01)


The Chiffons – He’s So Fine.mp3
The song George Harrison never heard before writing My Sweet Lord. In this series, the Chiffons represent all those great girl-bands from the early ’60s. He’s So Fine may not be the best of the lot (I like the Ronettes’ Be My Baby, for example, or even the Chiffons’ One Fine Day better), but I think it has all the ingredients which made girl-band pop so perfect. The wonderful backing harmonies which are almost bell-like, the always slightly sad undercurrent in the melody and vocals even when the song is about happiness, the dense production (often by Phil Spector, though not here), and the killer chorus — which, in this case, must have wormed itself so deeply into Harrison’s subconscience that he took plagiaristic ownership of the melody. After losing his 1976 plagiarism case, Harrison bought the rights to He’s So Fine so he would not be sued again.
Best bit: “Doo-lang-doo-lang-doo-lang” (0:01)

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