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In Memoriam – May 2011

June 6th, 2011 4 comments

This series has noted a couple of hundred musicians’ deaths. Not many have caused me so much sadness as that of Gil Scott-Heron. Never mind that the man was a drug addict, and that he once wrote a homophobic song. He was a poet, and he set his poetry to glorious music. He was the Bob Dylan of the ghetto. I hope that with his dying breath, Scott-Heron appreciated the fact that astronauts were just then making a final journey and the US president has introcuded health care reform he was demanding in Whitey On The Moon).

As a soul fan, I noted with particular sadness the passing of jazz-funk guitarist Cornell Dupree, who played that opening riff of Aretha Franklin’s version of Respect, and also backed favourite acts like Bill Withers and Marlena Shaw.

We tend to mourn deaths by suicide, though that of Gramy-winning songwriter, screenplsy writer and director Joseph Brooks, who wrote the much-loathed You Light Up My Life, leaves us at best with mixed feelings: he killed himself while under indictment for a series of “casting couch” rapes (the details of which are nauseating). Not a very nice guy at all, it seems.


David Mason, 85, English trumpeter who played the piccolo solo on The Beatles’ Penny Lane, on April 29
The Beatles – Penny Lane (1967)

Hume Patton, 65, guitarist of Scottish psychedelic rock group The Poets, on April 30

Ernest ‘Shololo’ Mothle, 69, South African jazz bassist and percussionist, and session musician for Robert Hyatt, Hugh Masekela, Mike Oldfield, Jonas Gwangwa a.o., on May 2
Mike Oldfield – In Dulci Jubilo (1975) (as percussionist)

Odell Brown, 70, jazz/soul organist, arranger and songwriter, on May 3
Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing (1982) (as co-writer)

Nigel Pickering, 81, rhythm guitarist and vocalist of Spanky and the Gang, on May 5
Spanky and Our Gang – Like To Get To Know You (1968)
John Walker, 67, founder of The Walker Brothers, on May 7
The Walker Brothers – Just For A Thrill (1966)

Big George Webley, 53, British composer and arranger of TV themes, including The Office (UK), and radio broadcaster, on May 7
Big George Webley (feat Fin) – Handbags and Gladrags (2001)

Johnny Albino, 93, Puerto Rican bolero singer, on May 7
Johnny Albino – 7 Notas de Amor

Cornell Dupree, 68, soul and jazz-funk guitarist, on May 8
Cornell Dupree – Teasin’ (1974)
Marlena Shaw – Time For Me To Go (1973) (as guitarist)

Dolores Fuller, 88, actress and songwriter for Elvis Presley a.o. (also cult director Ed Woods’ girlfriend, as portrayed in the movie), on May 9
Elvis Presley – Rock-A-Hula Baby (1961) (as composer)
John Carter, 65, producer, songwriter and A&R man, on May 10
Strawberry Alarm Clock – Incense and Peppermints (1967) (as writer)

Norma Zimmer, 87, “Champagne Lady” on The Lawrence Welk Show, backing singer for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como a.o., on May 10

Zim Ngqawana, 51, South African jazz saxophonist, on May 10

Snooky Young, 92, jazz trumpeter with Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton a.o. and with The Band, on May 11
Count Basie Orchestra feat. Tony Bennett – Life Is A Song (1959)
The Band – Rag Mama Tag (1972)

Lloyd Knibb, 80, drummer of Jamaican ska band The Skatalites, on May 12
The Skatalites – Fidel Castro (1964)
Jack Richardson, 81, producer of Guess Who, Bob Seger, Rage Against The Machine a.o., on May 13
Bob Seger – Night Moves (1977) (as producer)

Bob Flanigan, 84, singer of The Four Freshmen, on May 15
The Four Freshmen – It’s A Blue World (1952)

M-Bone, 22, American rapper with Cali Swag District, killed in drive-by shooting on May 15
Cali Swag District – Where You Are (2010)

James ‘Curley’ Cook, 66, blues guitarist and founder member of Steve Miller Band, on May 16

Sean Dunphy, 73, Irish singer (the first to record in Nashville), on May 17
Kathy Kirby, 72, English ’60s pop singer, on May 19
Kathy Kirby – Dance On (1963)

Joseph Brooks, 73, songwriter (You Light Up My Life), suicide on May 22

Jeff Conaway, 60, actor (Kenickie in the movie Grease) and singer of 1960s ban The 3 1/2, on May 27

Gil Scott-Heron, 62, musician and poet, on May 27
Gil Scott-Heron – I Think I’ll Call It Morning (1971)
Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On The Moon (1974)

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The Originals Vol. 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect Pop – Vol. 3

April 4th, 2008 9 comments

The inquiry into what makes perfect pop perfect continues. My pal Andy thinks: “I think ‘perfect pop’ can’t be too alternative. It has to be very mainstream, on top of everything else. And probably fairly breezy. Populist and lightweight.” Somebody else suggested: “Perfect pop should feel timeless yet completely of its time as well, creating a wonderful paradox.” Another Andy also considered the question of timelessness: “Timelessness shouldn’t be consciously striven for. One of the qualities of great pop music is its ephemerality, and I think that pop music that doesn’t embrace that is lacking in a certain something. Of course, timelessness is what allows us to relate to music of different eras, and we do so very strongly, but it’s best when it’s an accident or a result of the quality of the song or performance, rather than a conscious striving for posterity by the creator.” And this suggestion pretty much sums it up: “The definition of a perfect pop song is simply a song which nothing could be added or taken away to improve it.”

Or consider this: there once was a review which praised a single along the lines of “great lyrics, great chords, two fine singers, great musicianship and the best production money can buy”. Of course, even with all these ingredients, the result can still be imperfect. But that is why perfection in pop is a relatively rare thing. Incidentally, the single thus reviewed was “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” by Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams.

And then there is the Paul Morley theory, mentioned in comments last time by Planet Mondo, that a good pop song is truly great when you can imagine Elvis singing it.

Dusty Springfield – I Only Want To Be With You.mp3
If I had to compile a shortlist for a top 10 of Perfect Pop, I Only Want To Be With You would be an automatic choice. It has been covered several times (Jackie DeShannon’s version was the first song ever to be performed on Top Of The Pops), and it is nearly impossible to mess it up. The Bay City Rollers did a particularly good version of it in the mid-70s, but Dusty’s rendition hits perfection on every single level. It is so good, I cannot decide what to choose as the “best bit”.
Best bit: The strings first come in, almost unnoticed (0:50)

The Style Council – Speak Like A Child.mp3*
It may not be an indispensable ingredient in perfect pop, but it helps when a song can communicate pure joy, as does Speak Like A Child. Try to feel miserable when listening to it. Unless you have genuine cause for unhappiness, it must cheer you up. Paul Weller has written quite a few great pop songs, but none reach the pop perfection of this.
Best bit: Talbot’s keyboard solo kicks in (1:38)

Cliff Richard – We Don’t Talk Anymore.mp3
I am a magnanimous observer of music. I never liked Cliff Richard (not unlike Whiteray, whom I’ll mention again later), and I particularly despised this song when it was on never-ending rotation on German radio in 1979 — and yet I acknowledge the perfection of this track. Not too long ago, I played the song to see whether it could still induce the same reaction of physical illness it did when I was 13. The memories it invoked did indeed do so, but I also had to accept what, deep down, I knew even then: this is a brilliant pop song.
Best bit: “Taaaalk anymore, anymooooore” (3:14)

Johnny Cash – Ring Of Fire (live).mp3
This is what you get when three forces of inspiration collide. June Carter’s beautiful lyrics, Merle Kilgore melody, and Johnny Cash’s mariachi treatment. This song is a good example of the “add nothing, take nothing away” theory of perfect pop. Apparently a haemorrhoid ointment manufacturer wanted to use Ring Of Fire for a commercial. Regretably, Roseanne Cash refused to give permission. This version is from the Live In St Quentin album, where it resides as a previously unreleased bonus track on the re-released CD.
Best bit: “…oooh, but the fire went wild.”

Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3
Thanks to ’70s nostalgia, the Bay City Rollers are not judged by their too short, tartaned trousers, but by the often wonderful pop they produced (or was produced in their name). So giddy retrospectives of ’70s pop will dig out Bye Bye Baby as representative of BCR’s musical contribution to the era, with the more forensic compiler opting for I Only Wanna Be With You (both cover versions). It is unfortunate that those songs when BCR achieved did actually pop perfection, or at least came close to it, tend to be ignored. Of these, Yesterday’s Hero and the superb You Made Me Believe In Magic (download link here) were released at the arse-end of BCR’s career, and made no impact on the charts and thus on he public’s consciousness. Saturday Night was a hit before BCR really hit their stride in the mid-70s, and so somehow tends to slip through the cracks too, which is entirely regrettable.
Best Bit: S-S-S-Saturday Naa-aaaight (0:57)

Hanson – Mmm Bop.mp3
I suspect that most people were like me: they hated the song because of the performers (and, possibly, its title). And just look at the Hanson brothers: precocious kids whose mugs would qualify for plastering all over pre-pubescent girls’ bedroom walls regardless of their musical merits. The same reasons why few people then proclaimed the Osmonds’ Crazy Horse the work of genius it really is, and the same reason why BCR were laughed at despite headlining some great pop. With the passage of time, knowing that the pre-pubescent girls are now young adults and that even the drummer’s balls will have dropped by now, Mmm Bop has been critically rehabilitated, to the point of a consensus that it really is a brilliant pop tune.
Best bit: The insistent chorus throughout the song.

Nena – 99 Luftballons.mp3*
When I posted this last July, I actually used the words “perfect pop” to describe 99 Luftballons. In fact, it is so perfect, that the German original topped the US charts (whereas in Britain the less satisfactory English version was a hit. Here German actually sounds better than English in a pop song). The US is not generally known for its expanding worldview which embraces different cultures. For most Americans, communication with non-English speakers tends to take the form of raising one’s voice and speaking slower (American readers of this blog excluded, of course). So the US pop consumers of 1984 bought into Nena’s hit purely on strength of it being a great pop tune.
Best bit: The song kicks in with a machine gun guitar after the slow rhythmic build-up.

Blondie – Denis.mp3*
Any number of Blondie songs might qualify for inclusion in this series, but Denis has that extra bit of brevity, energy and lots of likable little touches. Still unaffected by the disco wave, when Denis came out in early 1978, Blondie were still a band audibly rooted in NYC’s new wave scene, albeit with a distinctive pop bend. Denis still had the edginess of the wonderful debut single, X-Offender (download link here). Soon Blondie would pander to the Top 10 with faux-disco (Heart If Glass; Atomic) and cod-reggae (The Tide Is High). It wasn’t bad, but Blondie were never better than they were on those first two albums.
Best bit: Debby does Dalles, in French.

Britney Spears – Toxic (Clap Ya Hands remix).mp3
Jim Irvin, whose reference to “perfect pop” in The Word magazine inspired this series, used Toxic as one of three examples to illustrate what is perfect pop. He is entirely correct; this is a catchy bastard of a song. Forget all about the hype, degrees of undress and the scandals which have made Britney Spears more famous for being famous than for her artistry. Spears is just the vehicle by which the rich, inspired arrangement of a fine song reach us. I might be unfair on Spears, who delivers a good vocal performance, but Toxic could have been recorded by any number of female singers with no detriment to the final product — even if it was written specifically for Britney. The star of Toxic is really the production team, Bloodshy & Advant. Can’t imagine Elvis singing it, though.
Best bit: The intermittent guitar riff.

The Undertones – Teenage Kicks.mp3
The point when bubblegum pop met punk. And yet, its spiritual heart really resides in the ’60s. Strip down the loud guitars, maybe slow it down just a little, amplify the handclaps, and you have a chart-topper ca. 1965. Teenage Kicks was played at the funeral of John Peel, who had championed the song, and the line “teenage dreams so hard to beat” is engraved on his tombstone. How utterly appropriate.
Best bit: Two drum beats, and the guitar hits (0:01)

Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.mp3
This was #1 in Britain on 6 April, 42 years years ago (I remember that because I was born that day; I think my German #1 is a Stones song). That is why I’ve held back its inclusion for this installment of the series until today. And, my oh my, what a fantastic pop song this is! The tune is exquisite, the production mighty, the vocals are…oh, use whatever hyperbole does it for you. But the drumming tops it. Listen to it. The drums and percussions are totally bossing the song.
Best bit: The drums set up and emphasise the line “When you’re without love…” (2:18)

The Association – Cherish.mp3
This 1966 hit is a nomination by Whiteray, proprietor of the excellent Echoes in the Wind blog, who rates it has perhaps his favourite pop single of all time. It is indeed an astonishing song (with fantastic lyrics), but I’m not convinced it is perfect pop. Which demonstrates the bleedin’ obvious: perfection in pop is an entirely subjective thing. We may agree in great numbers that a song is perfect, even achieve near-consensus. We may even share our reasons as to why it is perfect. But play the next song, and I might rave about it and you’ll shrug your shoulders (or, later, come around to my way of thinking). And that is why talking about music is so great.
Best bit: “And I do…” (2:56)

Perfect Pop – Vol.1
Hall & Oates, Sweet, Jesus & Mary Chain, Turtles, Guildo Horn, Big Bopper, Buggles, Kylie Minogue, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Temptations, ABC, Smiths, Kingsmen, Strawberry Switchblade, David Essex, Rainbow, Wham!, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

More Perfect Pop