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Step Back to 1975 – Part 2

January 29th, 2010 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Stepping Back

Perfect Pop – Vol.2

March 26th, 2008 7 comments

Here is the second installment of Perfect Pop. For the criteria, look up the introduction to the first part of the series. One commenter rightly suggested the inclusion of The La’s, which I happily already had on my shortlist. Tell us which songs you think constitute perfect pop.

The Troggs – Wild Thing.mp3
A bit like “Louie Louie”, featured in the first part of this series, there is something gloriously shambolic going on here, understandably so if one knows that it was recorded in 20 minutes as an afterthought to a recording session. Singer Reg Presley not just sounds lewd, he is fucking the listener none too gently. Which is quite a contrast to later, milder Troggs hits (Love Is All Around; With A Girl Like You), but quite in keeping with the famous recording of the Troggs’ having an animated discussion in the studio.
Best bit: The ocarina solo (1:11)

The La’s – There She Goes.mp3
Had the Troggs been 20 years younger, they might well have sounded like the La’s (a name I’ve always hated). Allegedly about heroin, this song has a catchy tune and beautifully jangling guitars which surely helped influence dozens of US Indie groups in the ’90s. And it was only in the ’90s that this song, originally released in 1988, became a hit.
Best bit: After the slow bridge, “She calls my name” (1:46)

Roy Orbison – Only The Lonely.mp3
My mother had the single of this: it was the song she and her teenage sweetheart shared. It’s a good “our song” if your love is being split up by disapproving parents, I think (he was working class, my mother the rebellious princess of upper middle-class parents; you know the deal). On many songs, Orbison’s voice annoys me (hence my utter hatred for the Travelling Wilburys), on a few it is perfect. Only The Lonely, where he sounds a lot like Elvis at times, is one of those.
Best bit: Orbison hits the falsetto (2:08)

Pilot – Magic.mp3
Unjustly never a hit in Britain, this is one of the finest bubble gum pop songs of the ’70s. It’s so full of lovely little touches. Listen to the quirks of the guitar, the sporadic handclaps, the intermittent strings, the soft backing la-la-la-las. And then there is the rich chorus; it’s all rather brilliant.
Best bit: The handclaps during the guitar solo (2:16)

The Cure – In Between Days.mp3
The Cure have a surprising number of straight pop songs; easy to forget if one listens too much to the weird or depressing stuff Robert Smith and pals have produced. This, the first of two outstanding singles from 1985’s The Head On The Door, is a quick, bubbly burst of perfect pop. New Order might have taken notes about the value of brevity in pop.
Best bit: Bob laments over the outro: “Without you!” (2:35)

Van McCoy – The Hustle.mp3*
Tune! Disco guitars, strings, flute, horns, a killer bassline, while friendly ladies and commanding gentlemen invite us to do The Hustle. Do it!
Best bit: The guitar demands to be heard (1:02)

Plastic Bertrand – Ça Plane Pour Moi.mp3*
Belgian punk, thankfully in French and not Flemish. It’s all very audacious, probably borrowing less from the Sex Pistols and more from the Small Faces, whose Sha-la-la-la-lee Plastic Bertrand covered on his debut album) than Sex Pistols. I have never bothered to establish what the man is singing about. I don’t think I want to. As long as I can sing the title and the ou-ooou-eeooou, I’m happy.
Best bit: Whatever he sings after being the king of the divan (1:12)

Mel & Kim – Respectable.mp3
Take them or leave them, but the much reviled Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory of the ’80s created some respectable pop. This song found SAW more or less at a crossroad: their formula was starting to take hold (with Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up becoming a hit just six months later), but there remains enough of the Hi-NRG-cum-pop sound which propelled songs such as Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” to pop classicdom. The “tay-tay-tay-tay” intro is an iconic ’80s moment. Sadly Mel Appleby died of cancerin 1990, just three years after Respectable (and the equally fine Showing Out).
Best bit: The House break (2:07)

ELO – Shine A Little Love.mp3
Jeff Lynne’s pop orchestra could get a little too prog, but 1979’s Discovery album was a jewel of great pop. I might as well have chosen Don’t Let Me Down (with its power chords and the bwoosh sound) or Confusion (with its lovely keyboard riff), but it always seems to me that Shine A Little Love tends to be overlooked. The urgent, swirling opening passage and the chorus with the strings and the woooo’s qualify this as a piece of perfect pop.
Best bit: “Ooh, ooh…ooh-ba-ooh-ba-ooh-ba” (1:37)

Georgie Fame – Yeh Yeh.mp3
2:47 minutes of pure joy. I think this is perfect kitchen pop: try not to dance to it while doing the dishes. Or while you sail a boat. The famous British pirate broadcaster Radio Caroline was launched because no other station wanted to play Yeh Yeh, on account of it sounding “too black”, according to its founder, Ronan O’Rahilly. Read the full story of that here.
Best bit: The slow build-up to the chorus: “We play a melody…” (0:49)

Soft Cell – Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.mp3
Oh man, that opening line: “Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain”! The lyrics, the lament of a gay man who can’t pull through a relationship because he is shackled in the closet, are incredibly sad, scored by a gorgeous melody, Marc Almond’s luscious vocals and some of the best synth pop lines we’re ever likely to hear. And, please, never listen to David Gray’s excruciatingly poor cover (or never do that again)!
Best bit: “We’re strangers meeting for the first time, okay? Just smile and say hello…” (3:40)