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Posts Tagged ‘Strawberry Switchblade’

Copy, borrow, steal: Rikki’s number & Sibelius’ swans

July 29th, 2009 12 comments

Few things at once delight and annoy the music fan as much as spotting a melody, a riff or a lyric lifted from another song. The delight resides in the act of knowing; the more obscure the source, the greater the pleasure. The irritation rests in the suspicion that an artist we admire has committed an act of plagiarism. How can one listen now to many Led Zeppelin classics knowing that Page and Plant didn’t just draw inspiration from other people’s composition, but irrefutably plagiarised artists they claimed to admire, and not give them a credit (except, belatedly, under the duress of legal action)?

Not all similarities in songs are plagiarism, of course. Some reference another piece of music with a knowing nod and a wink, as George Harrison did when he too inspiration from the Ed Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day for My Sweet Lord (of course, we can’t sounds_like_teen_spiritknow to what extent he knowingly plagiarised the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine — see here for more on that). It is quite possible that more than one people might have had the same good idea (it might well be that somebody has written this exact sentence before me in a similar context). It is plausible that a melody, riff or hook heard a long time ago has worked itself into the composer’s subconscious, and thus internalised emerges as something original, or at least presumed original. When Paul McCartney woke up with the melody for Yesterday in his head, he asked anyone who’d listen whether it sounded familiar to them. It didn’t. McCartney was scrupulous in ascertaining that the idea was indeed his. Not everybody is.

Timothy English wrote a fascinating book on songs that copy, borrow and steal, titled Sounds Like Teen Spirit (Website and Buy), which inspires this new series. And I will liberally draw ideas from it (having been in contact with Timothy I know he won’t mind). And since this blog is named after a Steely Dan song from the Pretzel Logic album, it seems right that this new series should kick off with a song from that album. The second segment does not feature in Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the scope of which excluded reference to works from the world of classical music.

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Horace Silver – Song For My Father.mp3
Steely Dan – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.mp3
Stevie Wonder – Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing.mp3

horace_silverYes, Steely Dan’s biggest hit borrows liberally. The opening keyboard riff that runs throughout the song was lifted was lifted from the title track of jazz legend Horace Silver’s 1964 album, released on Blue Note (and featuring Silver’s Cape Verde-born father on the cover). Silver was a pioneer of the percussive hard bop form of jazz, but Song For My Father, written after a visit to Brazil, has more of a funky bossa nova vibe.

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker famously fused their jazz sensibilities with their rock direction, so it seems appropriate that their biggest hit, reaching #4 in the US, should have borrowed from a jazz classic. Evidently sampling a riff so faithfully, even from a piece regarded by many as a classic, did not qualify its creator for a co-writer credit: Horace Silver is not credited on Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. The titular Rikki, incidentally, may be the writer Rikki Ducornet, who claims that Fagen, whom she knew in college, once did giver her his number at a party (Fagen has not commented).

Had Silver sued Steely Dan, he probably would have won. Writers have secured credits for much less (and others have gotten away with much more!). He also might have succeeded in litigating against Stevie Wonder’s use of Song For My Father’s horn riff as an inspiration for the melody of 1973’s Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing.

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Sibelius – 5th Symphony 3rd Movement.mp3
The First Class – Beach Baby.mp3
Strawberry Switchblade – Since Yesterday.mp3

first_classOnly nostalgists and one-hit wonder devotees might remember The First Class or Strawberry Switchblade. Beach Baby was The First Class’ only hit, in 1974. The First Class was one of the names under which British singer Tony Burrows and songwriters John Carter and Ken Lewis released some of their songs. While Beach Baby was The First Class’ only hit, Lewis and Carter were behind other one hit wonders. They were the Flowerpot Men, who had a solitary hit with Let’s Go To San Francisco in 1967, while Burrows fronted Edison Lighthouse, who had a massive hit in 1970 with Love Goes Where My Rosemary Goes, as well as with White Plains (My Baby Loves Lovin’) and Brotherhood Of Men before they hit the Eurovision trail. Carter had previously also enjoyed chart success as a founder-member of The Ivy League (Tossin’ And Turnin’).

strawberry_switchbladeStrawberry Switchblade, one of the few acts I ever caught live before they had a hit (The Housemartins and R.E.M. are the others; besides them, I was a jinx to every unknown act I saw), emerged from Glasgow’s punk scene to make some beautiful pop in the mid-‘80s, produced by John Deacon of Queen (so much for the punk revolution). Since Yesterday was released in November 1984, but hit the UK top 5 only in February 1985. They released only one LP and a couple of singles in Japan before splitting and disappearing.

Sibelius thinks about another pop riff.

Jean Sibelius contemplates creating another pop riff.

As the attentive reader may have worked out, both pop songs sample from Sibelius 5th symphony. The horn riff that opens Since Yesterday so gorgeously appeared a decade earlier in an interlude on Beach Baby (at 3:05) which unashamedly and deliberately recreates the sound of the Beach Boys, producing a rather good pastiche.

Jean Sibelius wrote his 5th Symphony in 1915 at the request of the Finnish government which wanted to mark the composer’s 50th birthday by declaring it a public holiday. It was revised twice, and it is the final revision from 1919 that is most commonly performed. Sibelius said the recurring horn motif which the two pop bands would adopt more than half a century later was inspired by the sound of swan calls. For both acts, the songs that used Sibelius’ swan call represented — and you know that I can never resist a criminally bad pun — their swansong.

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More Copy Borrow Steal

Perfect Pop – Vol.1

March 17th, 2008 7 comments

Jim Irvin in the latest issue of that fine British music magazine The Word makes the point that when his fellow critics describe something as perfect pop, it probably is neither. “It’ll be the work of a tone-deaf beanpole with a great haircut who sings like a rusty hinge while his mates commit acts upon musical instruments that the Spanish Inquisition would have thought twice about,” he writes, exaggerating for effect only marginally. Irvin mentions three songs as examples of what does constitute perfect pop: Britney’s Toxic, Take That’s Back For Good, and the Beatles’ I Feel Fine. I think these are excellent choices. But perfect pop is not a rarity, as I and a few Internet buddies found.

So, what are the ingredients in a perfect pop record? One pal suggested that pursuing a recipe is like “unweaving a rainbow” (a reasoning which might recall Stephen Fry’s immortal line, “Don’t analyse comedy; it’s beautiful as it is”). Unlike my pal, I prefer to approach such things scientifically, so here are some criteria I’d employ:

1. Great tune (obviously)
2. A killer chorus
3. Relative brevity (six-minute epics really must justify their time)
4. Instant recognisability
5. A certain timelessness (it should sound fresh three decades later)
6. Singalongabillity (or humalongability)
7. something undefinable; let’s call it aural fairydust (probably the one essential ingredient)

With all that in mind, and acknowledging that discerning perfection in pop is intrinsically subjective, let’s dip into the first bumper lot of 20 perfect pop records (enough to make a mix-tape, so take your time):

Hall & Oates – Private Eyes.mp3
It is easy to make fun of Hall’s mullet and of Oates in general, but Daryl and John were purveyors of many a perfect pop record. ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Kiss On My List’, ‘Rich Girl’, ‘Everytime You Go Away’, ‘One On One’, perhaps also ‘Out Of Touch’ (were it not for the horrible ’80s production) are all contenders. ‘Private Eyes’, however, towers above all of these in capturing a flawless pop sensibility: you sing along with it involuntarily, you do the drum thingy, your foot taps, you remember the lyrics even when you haven’t heard the song in years…
Best bit: The whipping drum thingy (0:42)

The Sweet – Teenage Rampage.mp3
It could have been any number of Sweet hits. ‘Ballroom Blitz’, ‘Blockbuster’, ‘The Six Teens’ or ‘Fox On The Run’ have no deficiency in the pop perfection stakes. When the verses are almost good enough to be the chorus, and the chorus tops it, and you have to sing along, then it has the main ingredients for perfect pop.
Best Bit: When the chorus kicks in (0:54)

The Jesus And Mary Chain – Just Like Honey.mp3
Can a record with excess feedback be perfect? In this case, I think it can be. Indeed, had the Reid brothers dispensed with the feedback for ‘Just Like Honey’, the song might have been just another Phil Spektor pastiche.
Best bit: The guitar solo gets even louder (1:42)

The Turtles – Happy Together.mp3
The sound of 1966, a great year in pop. A judiciously employed backing vocal of ba-ba-ba-bah and a martial beat can make a difference between a good pop song and a perfect one.
Best bit: “How is the weather?” (2:21)

Guildo Horn – Guildo hat euch lieb.mp3
Germany’s quite brilliant Eurovision Song Contest entry in 1998 seemed to at once embrace the contest and give it the finger (hence his relatively poor showing in seventh place). The name alone suggests some ribbing at the German Schlager (Guildo is phonetically identical to the surname of the late Schlager icon Rex Gildo, whose ‘Fiesta Mexicana’ can be found here). On ‘Guildo hat euch lieb’ (Guildo loves you [plural]), Horn accomplishes the impossible: he makes German sound good in a pop song.
Best bit: “Tief, tief, tief, ich hab’ dich lieb” (1:00)

Big Bopper – Chantilly Lace.mp3
This might have aged a bit since it was a hit 50 years ago, but if you have to listen to somebody speak on record, wouldn’t you rather it was the Big Bopper instead of bloody Fabolous?
Best bit: “Helllooooo baaaaaaybee” (0:01)

The Buggles – Video Killed The Radio Star.mp3*
Not quite three-and-a-half minutes packed with so many endearing touches, from the piano intro to the sing-along fade out. It’s impossible, surely, not to love this song.
Best bit: The drum comes in (0:31)

Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.mp3
Would one say this song was perfect pop if it wasn’t for that video? “Spinning Around” is perhaps the bouncier pop song, but this creeps into your head without you even noticing and squats there like a hippie commune. Where do I apply for the job as Kylie’s gold shorts?
Best bit: “La la la, la-la-lala-la…” (0:15)

Abba – Dancing Queen.mp3
Some would say that this is the most perfect pop song ever. If one takes the view that there can be such a thing as a single “most perfect pop song” ever, then ‘Dancing Queen’ would be as good a choice as any (but there can’t be, of course). Indeed, there are a number of worthy challengers in the Abba canon: there is only a sliver of difference in the perfection of ‘Dancing Queen’ and, say, ‘S.O.S.’ or ‘Mamma Mia’.
Best bit: “You can dance, you can jive…” (0:20)

Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield – What Have I Done To Deserve This.mp3*
The Pet Shop Boys are another outfit who could churn out some wonderful pop. The 1986 debut album, Please, in particular boasted four singles which accomplished or neared perfection, especially ‘Suburbia’. But it was in tandem with another purveyor of great pop that they conjured indisputable perfection.
Best bit: Dusty’s voice goes higher as she sings “make me feel better” (2:48)

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – Come Up And See Me.mp3*
Steve Harley’s periodically stuttering, spluttering and sneering delivery are complemented by a great tune, infectious hooks and an exciting arrangement, with sudden stops and those “oowooh-la-la-la” backing vocals.
Best bit: The two second pause between the acoustic guitar solo and Steve Harley resuming (2:19)

The Temptations – My Girl.mp3
One could fill a whole 2GB iPod with perfect pop from Hitsville, and still regret leaving out great songs. So we’ll settle for “My Girl” as a representative for Motown, appropriately so not only because it is a mindbogglingly great song, but also because it combines two agents of serial pop perfection: it was written by Smokey Robinson, and performed by the Temptations.
Best bit: “Hey hey hey” (1:42)

The Smiths – This Charming Man (Peel session).mp3*
There are people who have bought into the foolish notion that The Smiths were in any way depressing. Who created that idea? The Smiths were a great pop combo, and ‘This Charming Man’ is the best example of that.
Best bit: Marr’s closing chords (2:39)

The Kingsmen – Louie Louie.mp3
If you have the right hi-fi equipment and good hearing, apparently you can hear the drummer say “fuck” when he screws up as he comes into song. Which would be the first instance of the f-word word being released on record. Everything about this song is shambolic, which adds to its attraction. It makes even the untalented among us believe that anyone could do this rock ‘n roll lark. So it’s probably more punk than the Sex Pistols ever were.
Best bit: “OK, let’s give it to them, right now” (1:25)

Strawberry Switchblade – Since Yesterday.mp3*
My son’s 13-year-old friend Thabo was going through my iPod, and attracted by this duo’s name (mmm, strawberries) discovered ‘Since Yesterday’, a piece of pop heaven from 1984/85. Thabo was so enchanted by it, he recorded it on to his cellphone (when all he needed to do was visit this blog to get the MP3. Or just ask me for it).
Best bit: The instrumental break (1:32)

David Essex – Gonna Make You A Star.mp3
Is this glam rock or bubblegum pop? Either way, it is faultless pop with loads of little touches which reveal themselves the more familiar one becomes with this1974 hit.
Best bit: “I’ gonna make you a stah-yee-yah-yee-yah-yee-yah-yee-yah-ee-yah-ee-ye-yay-yeaaaa-ur (2:39)

Rainbow – Since You’ve Been Gone.mp3*
Great opening chords, some of the best handclaps outside a Motown studio, a catchy chorus, and fantastic pop-rock vocals of the kind that would come to influence every big hair rocker (by a dude with short hair).
Best bit: Things picking up again after the bridge (2:15)

Wham! – Club Tropicana.mp3
Wham! had their share of great pop tunes: ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, ‘Freedom’. But this trumps any of these. It’s a total joy from the first few seconds when the crickets chirp to the final “coooo-ooool”. Only a curmudgeon could not derive pleasure out of this.
Best bit: The duelling saxophones (2:45)

DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince – Summertime.mp3
It is indeed the sound of a lazy summer’s day. If this is going to be Will Smith’s sole legacy worth preserving (as seems likely), then we nonetheless owe him a debt of gratitude for adding to the pop canon this most evocative seasonal anthem. Props to DJ Jazzy Jeff who presumably was responsible for sampling so well from Kool & the Gangs ‘Summer Madness’ (download that as well).
Best bit: The Kool & the Gang sample throughout.

* previously posted

Agoraphobia…

June 4th, 2007 No comments


Due to popular demand (at least in my fertile imagination), here’s another song by ’80s sensations Stawberry Switchblade. This one goes out to all you agoraphobics out there…

Strawberry Switchblade – Trees And Flowers.mp3

C'mon, get happy…

June 1st, 2007 2 comments

Everybody has a set of songs that cheer them up. Sometimes these songs have a happy message, or a happy sound; sometimes they trigger happy memories. Here are some of my happy songs.

Chuck Mangione – Feels So Good.mp3
Rarely has a jazz-fusion song been so appropriately titled. On a forum I frequent, somebody described Mangione as the Kenny G of the flugelhorn. Slander. If you want to be scathing about Mangione’s descent into smooth jazz, then compare him to David Sanborn — another one who traded credibility for Quiet Storm commercialism. But listen to Mangione’s 1975 album Chase The Clouds Away, especially “Can’t We Do This All Night”, and you have something much closer to the mighty Crusaders than Kenny bloody G.

Earth, Wind & Fire – In The Stone.mp3
A companion piece to “Feels So Good”. Anything by EWF can make me happy, but none more so than “In The Stone”, with its happy melody, soaring horns, jaunty bassline, funky guitar, and Latin percussion. And the “Never…” outro is pure singalong magic.

Bill Withers – Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix).mp3
An obvious choice on any happy-song list, and with good reason. This is the 1988 Sunshine Mix, which is nit as good as the original, but more difficult to find. I concede, it sounds a little aged now (the female “hey hey”s!), but — unlike the original — this remix can get a party going. And, let’s face it, you can’t fuck up that great a song.

Bill LaBountyLivin‘ It Up.mp3
Bill LaBounty should be a legend in the Guilty Pleasures department which includes the likes of Boz Scaggs, Ambrosia, Linda Ronstadt etc. Somehow, fame eluded the dude, despite at least one quite excellent album which included this wonderful track. It’s a song of denying the pain of a love lost, set to a happy melody. Magnificent.

Strawberry Switchblade – Since Yesterday.mp3
In 1984 I somehow got to see Howard Jones and his mime sidekick at the Hammersmith Odeon. But it was the support act that blew me away. A couple months later, Strawberry Switchblade’s “Since Yesterday” was a Top 10 hit in Britain. It remains of one of the finest moments of pop in the 1980s.

Fifth Dimension – Stoned Soul Picnic.mp3
The happy association is obviously in the title.