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Step back to 1981 – Part 1

June 14th, 2012 7 comments

For me the first few months of 1981 was dominated by Beatles, John Lennon, more Beatles, more Lennon, more Beatles, a bit of other solo Beatles and more Lennon, and a touch of Bruce Springsteen. Of course, Lennon had just been murdered, and if I was a bit of a Beatles fan with quite a few albums before that, I now bought all the British and US releases, plus all Lennon solo albums, including the Wedding Album with all the paraphernalia. Many of them were Japanese pressings. Over the years my collection became decimated by theft. The Wedding Album and Two Virgins are gone, as are all US releases (except Something New), and the Magical Mystery Tour gatefold with booklet…

 

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels.mp3
The songs that dominated the airwaves were Woman and Imagine. The latter has become so ubiquitous that it now is timeless; the former was so overplayed, I am still sick of it. Watching The Wheels , on the other hand, still takes me back to early 1981. It was quite sad: John Lennon, the professional troubled soul, had finally found contentment – and then the revolting Mark Chapman murdered him. I think Watching The Wheels is a little underrated in the Lennon canon; perhaps it’s not a classic, but it’s a very good song, the kind that makes one wonder what sort of music Lennon might have churned out had he lived. My guess is that by 1988 everybody would have been thoroughly sick of him until his comeback, appearing on stage with Oasis at the Reading Festival, rehabilitated his reputation with cover features in Q and Rolling Stone, and a big appearance at the Grammys, duetting with Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt and Seal, followed by – oh, classic TV moment – a bluesy medley Beatles and Stones hits with Mick & Keef.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind.mp3
I had been aware of Bruce Springsteen, of course, but I had not really listened to his music. In February 1981 I heard Hungry Heart on the radio, and on strength of that I bought The River, which had been released in October 1980. It helped that Springsteen looked very cool, much like Al Pacino, on the cover. I was hooked with the first song of the first side, The Ties That Bind. In fact, the first two sides of the double album, so upbeat and joyous, were enough for me. I almost never listened to the other two sides; in fact, even as I love Point Blank and Drive All Night, some of the songs remain unknown to me even now. And I cannot abide by Cadillac Ranch. Above all, the album reminds me of being half-blinded for several hours after the optician shone a bright light into my eyes, just after I had bought the record. Coming home, I had to unwrap the record and place it on the turntable mostly by touch.

The Look – I Am The Beat.mp3
I might have been on a massive Beatles and Springsteen trip, but I still loved the British post-punk stuff. I Am The Beat was one of the very few singles I bought in 1981 – indeed, I’m struggling to think of any non-Beatles related singles I bought that year, though I’m sure there must some. But by then I was very much an LP-buying teenager of 14-going-on-15. The singer of The Look, Johnny Whetstone, had a strange accent: “I’m in demond”! It was the band’s only hit, reaching #6 in the UK in February 1981, and by 1983 The Look broke up. Apparently they reformed a few years ago and released an album titled Pop Yowlin’ which got some good reviews.

Kim Wilde – Kids in America.mp3
Half a year earlier I would have loved Kids In America. I would have bought the single, and put up a poster of the lovely Ms Wilde. But with my Beatles/Lennon and Springsteen obsession I had very limited time for anything else. I heard Kids In America on the radio and saw Kim Wilde perform it on TV, but against Revolver and the White Album, or indeed The River, it was aural wallpaper. The good news was that my classmate Stefan, who had been a great Beatles fan, became so obsessed with Kim Wilde and the burgeoning Neue Deutsche Welle genre that he offloaded his excellent collection of Beatles posters and newspaper cuttings to me. And for that I have to thank Ms Wilde and the next act.

Ideal – Blaue Augen.mp3
Before 1980, German popular music consisted of the Schlager genre, which was becoming increasingly novelty-based when it didn’t exceed previous levels of banality; the Liedermacher (singer-songwriter) genre of angry lefty-wingers and non-conformists; and a clutch of individualists such as anti-establishment rocker Udo Lindenberg, who had long hair and a cultivated impertinence, former actor Marius Müller-Westernhagen, who specialised in mostly sneering lyrics for beer drinkers in leather jackets, and a few punk outfits such the Zeltinger Band. All that changed in the early 1980s with the emergence of the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, meaning New German Wave).

Until 1981 NDW was an underground phenomenon, led by groups like Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF) and Mittagspause. It was not  so much a musical genre as a label for post-punk and New Wave bands. In early 1981, NDW exploded into the mainstream, and Berlin-based band Ideal’s Blaue Augen, more post-punk than New Wave, was one of the pivots. Quite incredibly, Ideal had made their breakthrough as a support act at a Berlin open-air gig for prog-rockers Barclay James Harvest. Even more incredibly, and I hadn’t known this until I looked it up for this piece, it took until 1982 for Blaue Augen, first released on LP in November 1980 and as a single in early 1981, to become a hit.

Visage – Mind Of A Toy.mp3
At around the same time, the New Romantic thing was starting to get traction. It had been brewing for a while, with Gary Numan as a spearhead, but now the Bowie-influenced synth-based pop music was becoming quite ubiquitous, with Ultravox, the Human League and Duran Duran breaking through. Visage were heralds of the movement, first with their hit Fade To Grey, which was quickly followed up with Mind Of A Toy. The brilliant video for the latter was directed by Godley & Creme. Visage was fronted by eccentric nightclub owner Steve Strange, but the lead vocals on Mind Of A Toy are by Ultravox’s Midge Ure, with Ultravox’s Billy Currie on keyboards, and Rusty Egan on drums.

Yoko Ono – Walking On Thin Ice.mp3
Walking On Thin Ice was the song John Lennon and Yoko Ono were working on that 8 December, before Chapman shot Lennon dead outside the Dakota, apparently while John was holding the master tape of the song. It is easily Ono’s best song, a disco number with a new wave sensibility (or vice versa).  Lennon played the lead guitar on the song. I bought the single as an act of loyalty to Lennon, and quite liked it. Not everybody did, it seems. Despite widespread sympathy for Ono just a couple of months after the murder, the single stalled at #58 in the US and at #35 in Britain. Presumably Yoko’s monkey-like chants put off the average record buyer; in this context I quite like it (and, as I’ve stated before, I don’t bow to the musical genius of Yoko Ono).  Later remixes by the Pet Shop Boys and others managed to revive the song on the dancefloors.

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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?

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Twattery in Pop: Yoko Ono and Mojo

June 17th, 2009 20 comments

yoko onoI like Mojo magazine a lot. But I like it just a little less now that it has awarded Yoko Ono a fucking Lifetime Achievement award.

Let me set the record straight even before it bends. As a Beatles fan, I don’t blame Yoko for breaking up the band. In my fairly extensive reading of Beatles history, I have found little that portrays Yoko as an active agent in the Fabs’ demise. The conventional wisdom that Yoko was to blame has its roots not in her conduct, but in an unpleasant combination of xenophobia, misogyny and perhaps societies’ obsession with beauty. No, Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles; growing up did.

I find no cause to object on principle to Yoko Ono on grounds of her idiosyncratic style of singing. God knows, pop has awarded stardom to some gravely untalented charlatans whose baneful carolling nevertheless penetrated the airwaves (Michael Fucking Bolton, for one). Yoko’s atonal primal screams have rarely troubled radio playlists, so the adroit listener has always enjoyed the privilege of avoiding exposure to her stylings.

Likewise, I have no problem with Yoko’s brand of art (if art indeed it is). Apparently she had always relied on the patronage of older men in publicising her art. One artwork succeeded in landing her a younger, glamorous and talented man who loved her, and she him. It’s a fairytale that ended too soon. It is immaterial that the artwork which a possibly drug-addled John Lennon found so appealing involved a ladder and a card that said “yes”. Some people see art in images of the Virgin Mary created from elephant dung, some climb letters and find reward in monosyllabic non-sequiturs. That’s why art is subjective. I don’t need to understand it to be indifferent to it.

season_of_glassAnd yet, Yoko joins the league of extraordinary twattery in pop. Even so, I induct her reluctantly. I don’t want to be the guy to beat up on a grieving widow, even as she has built an industry on that grief. Her professional widowhood opens doors that would otherwise remain shut. The cover picture of her Season Of Glass LP, released with undue haste in June 1981, was troubling not for the image of Lennon’s blood-stained glasses, but for the intrinsic crass, morbid sensationalism in depicting them. One may be inclined to defend it as an artwork that speaks of the horror she had experienced. To me, it marked Yoko’s public transition from genuinely grieving wife to attention-seeking widow. By presenting us with the grisly image, she made her grief public and, alas, commercial.

Even after 28 years, her husband’s murder must be a horrible pain to bear, but Yoko Ono is marketing — exploiting — her widowhood a little too publicly and cynically, exemplified by that “John would say…” shtick, as if Lennon was a sage-like Confucius rather than a complex man with some serious limitations. No matter how swell Yoko thought her husband was, it is nauseating. It perpetuates the false notion that Lennon had special insights into the human condition. Like, he invented peace, brother man! One might expect evangelical Lennonians to sport wristbands enquiring WWJS (What Would John Say). The canonisation of John Lennon is a lie. The man was a fine pop musician, one of the greatest. But he was not a man to emulate. He was naïve to the point of fatuity, and he was a hypocrite. Imagine no possession – except a white Rolls Royce, a rural mansion with a white grand piano…you get the picture. Woman is the “nigger” of the world? Er, no, the “niggers” of the world would be the people you refer to as “niggers”, John. You are the walrus, googoogoojoo? Yup, that’s your level right there, Lennon. Even the serial perpetrator of Twattery in Film, Richard Gere, worked that one out when he quoted that line as representative of Lennon in the 1990 Grammy Awards (a rich source of future Twats in Pop).

Of course, the benefit of doubt must go to the idea that Gere is just a very stupid man who thinks that “googoogoojoo” represents a some kind of profundity that might make us all better people. If so — and, oh, let’s stop fooling around and acknowledge that it indeed is so —then the blame must be directed in large part at Yoko Ono’s myth-building. “As John would say…” We ought not give a fuck what John would say, whether through the medium of Yoko Ono or that of Linda Polley, a nasal right-wingnut with a toy keyboard who channels inarticulate reactionary messages from the beyond by Lennon and commits them to record.

mojomokoBut Mojo did not award Yoko Ono for her connection to Lennon, but for her indelible influence on music (even if without that relationship, very few would have been at threat of Yoko’s influence). Backed by the apparently deranged twosome of Mark Ronson and Johnny Marr, Mojo editor Phil Alexander gushed: “She may have been married to one of the most famous men in the world, but she also helped change music as we know it in her own right. First, by introducing avant-garde sensibilities to her husband but, just as significantly, by continuing to push the boundaries of what was deemed the norm way after that.” Fuck, I missed that. I thought Yoko’s musical style was portrayed with much accuracy in the classic “Beat Alls” episode of The Powerpuff Girls. It may well be that Ono has influenced some musicians, including her husband (whose successful songs were largely untainted by Yoko’s avant-garde); but even then, that influence has not been pervasive. Had there been no Yoko Ono, music would not be different.

Truth is, Marr, Ronson and Mojo have elevated a mediocre musical artist not on merit, but because of a revisionist “cool”. The elevation of Yoko Ono’s supposed musical genius is as pretentious as her art. By Mojo’s logic, Hazel O’Connor should feel aggrieved should the magazine fail to honour her, who has been more influential than Yoko — and actually had at least two good songs (Yoko’s one really good song, Walking On Thin Ice, is marred by some frightening simian shrieking).

And then there is the saga of Yoko Ono’s dispute with Paul McCartney over the order of songwriting credits on Beatles records, an episode that did not reflect well on either. The billing dispute hit overdrive in the late ’90s, when McCartney sought to reverse the traditional Lennon/McCartney on songs which he wrote by himself, but it first surfaced as early as 1976. When the credit for five Beatles songs on the Wings Over America live album was reversed, Yoko publicly objected. All five were written with no or very little input from Lennon. Yoko would have known, first-hand, that John had nothing to do with The Long And Winding Road, and even hated the song.

More than two decades later, Paul wanted the reverse credit for Yesterday — a song John was not involved in writing or recording. Yoko feigned outrage at the supposed desecration of St John’s memory. When Paul released another live album in 2002 on which the credits were reversed, Yoko was considering legal action, with her camp saying that McCartney was trying “to rewrite history”. In a way McCartney was trying to do just that: to clarify the true authorship of songs Lennon had no involvement in. The associated ego-trippery is irrelevant; he had a point. In the event, Yoko did not sue, and in 2005 McCartney let the matter drop, declaring it unimportant. Nonetheless, it does rankle that she insisted, with a singular lack of spirit of magnanimity, that “a deal is a deal” — even though that deal was verbal, struck long before she met John, involving songs she had nothing to do with. No matter how difficult her historic relationship with Paul, that is robust twattery. What would John say?

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Barenaked Ladies – Be My Yoko Ono (1992).mp3
Dar Williams – I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono (2000).mp3
John Lennon (via Linda Polley) – Hussein’s Butt Song.mp3
John Lennon (via Linda Polley) – Vote Republican.mp3

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