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In Memoriam – June 2011

July 4th, 2011 5 comments

One of the true greats passed away this month: Clarence Clemons, a legend to every Springsteen fan. There are many things which made the E Street Band’s sound so unique, but the key ingredients, in my view, were Roy Bittan’s keyboards and Clemons’ sax. It is on Clemons’ shoulder on which Springseen leans on the Born To Run cover, literally and symbolically (and imagine the title track without that orgasmic saxophone build-up). The featured E Street Band song, here in the live version from  the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert, tells the story of how the E Street Band came together.

What would rock & roll have been without Elvis’ Hound Dog? This month we lost the trumpeter in the version of the song which Elvis heard in Las Vegas and decided to base his explosive version on (as recounted in The Originals Vol. 15). We also lost Carl Gardner, leader of The Coasters, who often are unjustly remembered as a novelty act because they knew how to be funny. I’d argue that The Coasters helped invent soul music.

Also noteworthy was the death of Andrew Gold, whom we previously encountered as the writer of the theme of The Golden Girls. He was also the son of Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voices on film for Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn.

I rarely feature non-musicians in my monthly litany of mortality, but the designer of the iconic Rolling Stone magazine logo merits a mention.

A bizarre death this month was that of Anet Mook, Dutch ex-singer of ’90s grunge band Cay, who was hit by a train in her native Netherlands. I could find no indication of the date of her death, and so list the date of her funeral.

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Ray Bryant, 79, jazz pianist, on June 2
Ray Bryant – It’s Madison Time (1960)

Andrew Gold, 59, singer-songwriter, on June 3
Andrew Gold – Never Let Her Slip Away (1978)
Andrew Gold – Thank You For Being A Friend (1978, full version of The Golden Girls theme)

Benny Spellman, 79, R&B singer, on June 3
Benny Spellman – Life Is Too Short (1960)

Martin Rushent, 63, English record producer (Human League, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, Dr Feelgood), on June 4
The Stranglers – No More Heroes (1977)
Human League – Seconds (1981)

Kevin Kavanaugh, 59, keyboardist for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, on June 4
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes – Talk To Me (1978)
Frankie Toler, 59, American drummer with latter versions of The Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band, on June 4

Leon Botha, 26, South African artist and DJ (appeared with Die Antwoord), progeria sufferer, on June 5
Die Antwoord – Enter The Ninja (2010)

J Harold Lane, 82, gospel songwriter and singer of the Speer Family Quartet, on June 6

Buddy Gask, 64, singer with Showaddywaddy, on June 7
Showaddywaddy – Under The Moon Of Love (1976)

Alan Rubin, 68, trumpeter with The Blues Brothers (Mr Fabulous in the film), on June 8
The Blues Brothers – Sweet Home Chicago (1980)
Darryl Pandy, 48, house music singer, on June 10
Farley’ Jackmaster’ Funk feat. Darryl Pandy – Love Can’t Turn Around (1986)

Gennaro Meoli, 76, trumpeter of Freddie Bell & the Bellboys, on June 10
Freddie Bell & the Bellboys – Hound Dog (1956)

Jamie Toulan, 31, guitarist For ’90s juvenile punk band Old Skull, on June 10

Seth Putnam, 43, member of charmingly named balladeers Anal Cunt, on June 11

Carl Gardner, 83, founder and lead singer of The Coasters, on June 12
The Coasters – Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart (1958)
The Coasters – Along Came Jones (1959)

Mack Self, 81, rockabilly singer, on June 14
Mack Self – Mad At You (1959)

Bill Johnson, 68, LP cover art director and designer of Rolling Stone magazine’s logo, on June 15
Dr Hook & the Medicine Show – Cover Of The Rolling Stone (1972)

Anet Mook, Dutch ex-singer of ’90s UK grunge band Cay, funeral on June 15

Wild Man Fischer, 66, eccentric singer-songwriter and pal of Frank Zappa, on June 16
Wild Man Fischer – Merry Go-Round (1969)

Calvin Scott, 73, soul singer, on June 17
Calvin Scott – Can I Get A Witness (1972)
Clarence Clemons, 69, saxophonist of the E Street Band, on June 18
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (live, 1975)
Clarence Clemons & Jackson Browne – You’re A Friend Of Mine (1985)

Gustaf Kjellvander, 31, Swedish singer-songwriter (as The Fine Arts Showcase) and brother of Christian Kjellvander, on June 18
The Fine Arts Showcase – Brother In Black (2006)

Mike Waterson, 70, British folk singer, on June 22
The Watersons – The Good Old Way (1975)

Jared Southwick, 34, guitarist of punk band The Dream Is Dead, on June 22

Fred Steiner, 88, film and TV composer (The Color Purple, Perry Mason, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Dynasty)
Theme – Perry Mason (1959)
Theme – Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959)
Gaye Delorme, 64, Canadian musician and Cheech & Chong collaborator, on June 23
Gaye Delorme – Sailor Sailor (2007)

Benton Flippen, 90, old-time fiddler, on June 28

Perry Jordan, 62, guitarist of folk-rock group Heartsfield, on June 29
Heartsfield – Pass Me By (1974)

Jimmy Roselli, 85, crooner from Hoboken, NJ, on June 30
Jimmy Roselli – The Sheik Of Araby (1962)

Ron Foster, 61, drummer and singer of new wave bands The Silencers (US) and Iron City Houserockers, on June 30
The Silencers – Modern Love (1980)

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Perfect Pop – Vol. 8

May 9th, 2008 3 comments

Here are a few more perfect pop records which brings the number of featured songs up up to 100 (by my rough count).

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.mp3
This song has been covered a zillion times and by some of the finest singers ever to commit their voices to record (Sinatra, Fitzgerald). And every one of these covers has failed to translate the sweet vitality of the original. It is a shame that this gem of a song has become a muzak staple; few major songs have been as poorly understood at this one. Written when Stevie was just 20, this mid-tempo samba number seems unassuming, until you listen to Stevie’s vocal inflections and, even more carefully, the deceptively simple arrangement. This song needs no big orchestration to fix its simplicity; indeed, strings or a big band treatment poison its sweet intimacy. And this is the key: it is a loveletter, not an epic declaration. Give it an orchestra, and the sentiment is varnished with cliché. All Stevie needs is keyboard, bass, drums and percussions. And the joyous exuberance of his voice (with the help of Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves, who sing the first verse; listen to it over earphones). Stevie sounds like he is in love, because he is: with Gloria Barley, who sings backing vocals here. And isn’t that lovely?
Best bit: “Mmm-mmm-hmmm-mmm (2:22)

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Of You.mp3
The Four Seasons had a number of great pop songs, but Valli’s finest moment came as a solo performer, albeit with the help of his old pals Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, who wrote this song. Can’t Take My Eyes Of You begins as a mid-tempo ballad, unremarkable except for Valli’s beautiful phrasing, frequently lagging half a note behind the beat, enunciating some vowels as if to provide an off-beat percussion. Suddenly staccato notes signal a change in tempo; jolly strings (not unlike those used on many disco records a decade later) suggest that Frankie is going to get quite excited now. And then Valli launches into a giddy chorus. He’s in love all right, but our fears that it may not be reciprocal, hinted at in the first verse (“but if you feel like I feel…”, “You’d be like heaven to touch”) are realised as the chorus tails off, and Frankie gently, anxiously asks: “let me love you”. We return to the mid-tempo verse, and are quite aware of Frankie’s doubts and that the giddiness (thanking God he’s alive) may just be the oxytocin talking.
Best bit: The way Frankie chews the final vowel in touch (2:17)

Jens Lekman – Your Are The Light.mp3
Among indie-pop fans, the Swede Jens Lekman is a semi-deity. He writes catchy, quirky tunes. His lyrics are invariably hugely entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes off-beat. You Are The Light has a great tune, introduced by a Earth, Wind & Fire-ish clarion call and supported by a beat that seems just a little too fast for the song. The chorus is proper singalong stuff. The melody and arrangement, with its occasional blasts of horn now and harmonica there, are hugely attractive. But it is the lyrics that captivate. In the opening verse, he uses his one phone call from jail to dedicate a song to his girl (who landed him in this predicament in first place) on the radio. Later the cops are “sad” because they can’t prove his act of delinquency. This song has much by way of completely likable charm — which sets it apart from much of contemporary pop.
Best bit: The horn intro (0:01)

Matt Monro – We’re Gonna Change The World.mp3
If Barack Obama was into the British crooners of the ’60s and ’70s, he might well have adopted this as his campaign anthem. Monro, whom Sinatra described as the only British singer, might have been an easy listening merchant, but this song has a socially conscious edge which was not usually reflected in the genre, even in the late ’60s (the song itself was released in 1970). The song tells of three women, two of them going on a protest march, presumably for peace, while another sees the demonstration but doesn’t join. In the punchline, the non-joiner is a war widow, crying in her office over her dead husband. Monro’s chorus suggests that her option is the wrong one as he calls, as if from within the throng of marchers: “So, come with us, run with us! We’re gonna change the world. You’ll be amazed, so full of praise, when we’ve rearranged your world. We’re gonna change your world.” And don’t these words sum up the message Obama has been trying to sell? Add to that a wonderfully jaunty tune – try not be lifted by it – and Monro’s enthusiastic vocals, and you have a perfect campaign pop song.
Best bit: Monro nearly shouts the word “run” in his call to action (2:54)

Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3
Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Hound Dog as teenagers for Big Mama Thornton, apparently in ten minutes. Meditate on that for a minute. A couple of teenagers write what will become a timeless classic for an intimidating blues singer, and do the job in ten minutes. The way Thornton sings it is the way the composers conceived it. Hound Dog became a local hit, and inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to produce Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley. It took Elvis a few years to get around to Hound Dog, which had been brutalised in a series of covers which dismantled the original lyrics and added doggerel to it (such as the rabbit line) to become the nonsense we know today. In the 31rd take we know today, Elvis made no attempt to sing the lyrics, symbolised by the way he chews up the pronunciation of the title. He shouts and sneers through the song with his band rocking to the beat of the handclaps, while the Jordannaires gamely try to instill some civility over the raucous guitar solo. Guitarist Scotty Moore’s final chords are a breath of post-orgasmic release. It seems clear while Hound Dog threatened the USA’s repressed sexual morality: Elvis is fingering America’s daughters right there.
Best bit: Drum roll, Elvis groans something, and a guitar chord closes the song (2:09)

Sex Pistols – Pretty Vacant.mp3
The Sex Pistols were the poster boys for the British punk revolution; more than their music, it was their exploits and, more to the point, their image that made Middle England nervous. They swore on TV; they insulted Her Majesty with a song that was banned from radio and yet reached #2 on the UK charts (some have smelled a conspiracy to keep the Pistols off #1, to the benefit of Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It); they used a naughty word in their album title (it was later established in court that “bollocks” is a non-vulgar Olde English word) . And now hear how Johnny Rotten supposedly pronounces the second syllable of the title’s second word. Ooooh, the threat. Ooooh, the publicity! The Sex Pistols invented punk as much as Elvis invented rock & roll. In many ways, they were the Spice Girls of their day: a phenomenon managed by a clever svengali, whose music was secondary to the image. That’s why Glenn Matlock, the really talented one, could be replaced by a disorientated thug who’d become the most pathetic junkie in rock history. It was all about presentation. But that also glosses over the music. While the primary sales pitch was the image, the product – the music – was very good too. For all the punk posturing, the Sex Pistols had some fine pop tunes. Other than John Lydon’s hysterically sneering delivery and the nature of the lyrics he sneered, there was little revolutionary about the Pisxtols’ music. Never Mind The Bollocks, a very well produced LP, was a harder-edged, faster version of glam rock, with an additional debt to the likes of the Kinks. Of the handful of hits, Pretty Vacant has was the best pop song. Shook your head at the glam reference? Matlock said the riff was based on Abba’s S.O.S.
Best bit: “And we don’t caaaaaaaahre” (1:44)

Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination.mp3
The Human League’s Dare probably was the most perfect pop album of its era. But when I pondered which Human League song to feature, I kept coming back to Fascination, which was a single release only. An EP featuring to mixes of Fascination came out later (it also included the excellent preceding single, Mirror Man). Fascination kicks off proper with the swirling, horn-like synth hook which runs through the song and, in the intro, instructs the listeners to get on their feet and dance. The band members take turns singing lines, including even guitarist/keyoardist Jo Callis.
Best bit: “…and so the conversation turned, until the sun went down” (1:00)

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3
Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3*
Cobain’s Pixies moment (he admitted consciously copying them) sounds as much as the uncles of grunge as it sounds like an angry glam rock song. Cobain tried to write a pop song, and succeeded. Tori Amos might have fucked it up, but when Paul Anka covered it as a big band swing number in 2005, the pop sensibilities of Teen Spirit revealed themselves from beneath the grime of discontent. The anthem of non-conformity had, by dint of its over-exposure on MTV and radio, acquired the status of conformity; much of what came after – all the “feel my pain” emo gubbins – was no more non-conformist than the industry and its hit machines Teen Spirit was railing against. Anka stripped the song of its suburban rebellion sheen, turned it into a swing song, and perpetrated an act of subversion one hopes Cobain would have approved of: turning on its head the conformity of Nirvana’s own followers. It may not be the best Nirvana song, but it certainly is their best pop song.
Best bit: Apologies for being boring, but it’s the “yay” bits (1:31)

More Perfect Pop

1983

July 20th, 2007 4 comments

1983 was my least favourite year of the ’80s, personally and musically. I worked inhuman split shifts throughout the year, leaving no time for a social life in a country I had arrived in only a year before. So I was hanging around with fellow hotel people which means that by the age of 17 I was drinking and clubbing prodigiously.

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart.mp3
I saw Bonnie Tyler live some years before, supporting Slade. Even then I was suspicious of her housewife rock. But, my goodness, this track is utter genius. Written by Jim Steinman, who was responsible for the pomp of Meat Loaf’s glorious Bat Out Of Hell (as was producer Todd Rundgren), “Total Eclipse” recreates the rock operatic drama, supported by a wonderfully gothic and hilariously camp video (with flying altar boys!). What I like best about this song, though, is the percussive sound of the lyrics.

The Smiths – This Charming Man (Peel session).mp3

1983 saw the emergence of arguably the most important and influential band of the 1980s, the Smiths. U2, who made their breakthrough the same year, might have shifted more records, but virtually every Indie act owes a debt to Morrissey, Marr and pals. “This Charming Man” featured Morrissey’s great yelp, which is still there in this recording from the BBC John Peel sessions in August 1983.

Big Country – In A Big Country.mp3
Scotland’s Big Country were widely considered a poor man’s U2. Ironic, then, that U2 (with Green Day) recently covered “The Saints Are Coming” by the Skids, from whom emerged Big Country. Stuart Adamson’s band had a big, rich sound dominated by guitars that sounded like bagpipes, lending their brand of rock a celtic flavour. This song did worse in Britain than it did internationally, reaching only #17 in the charts. It deserved to do better, if only for the fist pumping “Cha!” shouts and a kick-ass catchy chorus.

Aztec Camera – Oblivious.mp3
When I think of Aztec Camera, I think of Bright Eyes. Like Mr Oberst, so was Roddy Frame considered a bit of a prodigy. Frame’s huge talent never translated into stardom, just as Bright Eyes will never become mainstream (and let’s thank the good Lord for that). “Oblivious” was the hit single from the lovely, utterly exquisite High Land, Hard Rain album, making the British Top 20. It’s the poppiest track from the album, but “Walk Out To Winter” and “The Bugle Sounds Again” are just as great. But in 1983 I didn’t know that; I bought the LP only in 1985.

Malcolm McLaren – Double Dutch.mp3
McLaren is best known as the manipulative svengali who made the Sex Pistols the boy band of punk, paving the way for Tory bastards Busted. As a performing artist, he compensated for his vocal and musical limitations by helping create cocktails of genres which were, if not always great, then consistently engaging and often influential. He (and, more importantly producer Trevor Horn) fused hip hop and African music with pop, popified Madame Butterfly and later introduced the world to disco waltzing and to vogueing well before Madonna did (1989’s “Something’s Jumping In Your Shirt” was quite brilliant). “Buffalo Girls”, which came out in late 1982, brought hip hop into the mainstream before anyone else did. “Double Dutch” — bizzarely a song about country music dancing — rode on the sound of South African kwêla music, but used a New York group, the Ebonettes, to provide the distinctive backing vocals in the style of the Mahotella Queens (whom Horn used six years later for the Art Of Noise).

Rufus & Chaka Khan – Ain’t Nobody.mp3
By 1983, soul music was going to pieces. The Philly Sound was dead, Motown struggled, Stevie Wonder was preparing to record the truly evil “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. Luther Vandross was fine, but just too smooth. The even smoother Lionel Richie turned into soul’s biggest name. Despite the revolting “Hello”, you can’t dismiss Lionel (just hear “Love Will Find A Way” on Can’t Slow Down), but soul’s biggest name? OMG! Soul awaited its re-energisation at the hands of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and their likes. In the midst of all that despondency, the amazing Chaka Khan said goodbye to Rufus with one of the mightiest soul tracks not only of the ’80s, but of all time.

Blancmange – Living On The Ceiling.mp3
This song sums up the sound of 1983 for me. If musically that year had any redeeming graces, it was in New Wave: New Order, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Human League, Bauhaus, XTC… But also Kajagoogoo.

Depeche Mode – Two Minutes Warning.mp3
“Everything Counts” was the killer track on Construction Time Again, and “Love In Itself” was close behind. Yet it was this song, with its fantastic chorus, that really stood out for me on an album I totally loved at the time. Why was it never released as a single?

Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination.mp3
What an uplifting song, the kind one puts on in the morning to force a good mood. I really like Phil Oakley’s deep voice when he sings: “And then the conversation turned, until the sun went down.”

The Style Council – Speak Like A Child.mp3
And in the unlikely event that “Fascination” can’t lift a mood, then the infectiously cheerful “Speak Like A Child” should. Paul Weller had foreshadowed the Style Council song on some the Jam’s latter tracks, such as “The Bitterest Pill” and “A Town Called Malice”. Now he introduced brass and Talbot’s jazzy keyboards. I like the way Weller emphasises the word “a” in the titular line. I later saw the Style Council live twice, in 1984 and 1985, and very good they were, too. But they did dress like a pair of pretentious idiots.

Heaven 17 – Temptation.mp3
My favourite song of the year probably, and a great companion piece to New Order’s “Blue Monday”. Quite unusually for a New Wave it featured an orchestra, plus the soul beltation (a word I just invented) of Carol Kenyon, who provided backing vocals for Pink Floyd at Live 8. Singer Glenn Gregory looked a bit like a young Christopher Walken — adorable creatures with unacceptable features?

Culture Club – Black Money.mp3
1980s revivalists tend to regard Culture Club as a bit of a novelty act, thanks to Boy George’s image and the substance-free “Karma Chameleon” (and let’s not even think of “The War Song”). That is a huge injustice. Culture Club produced some of the finest pop music of the decade (“Church Of The Poison Mind”, “Miss Me Blind”, “It’s A Miracle”), and Boy George was a very good singer. This blue-eyed soul track from Colour By Numbers shows Culture Club’s depth, a powerful and sad song about unrequited love, aided by the turbopowered lungs of Helen Terry.

Spandau Ballet – True.mp3
Another ’80s revivalist favourite, Spandau Ballet are another terribly underrated pop band. Yeah, they do look camp now; indeed, they looked camp even then. They were regarded as a teenybopper act in an era when teen favourites were creating some excellent music. Only a fool woul

d deny the masterful pop of Wham!. Likewise, Spandau Ballet merit a thorough rehabilitation. Songs like “Gold”, “Round And Round”, “Only When You Leave”, “Chant No. 1” and this great ballad deserve to be regarded as bona fide pop classics.

Oh yeah, and there was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. You might have heard of it.