Lockdown playlist no. 6: Heed the Warning

Not a lockdown day goes by without some public figure being caught doing something they shouldn’t. Even the Minister of Health in New Zealand drove his family to the beach before realising he shouldn’t have, and he has only hung onto his job because there’s a health crisis going on, which after all is his department. More predictably, we’ve had a numbskull English footballer hosting a party with a couple of hookers, while that same profession (prostitutes) is  trying to popularise online sex because this social distancing lark is making life very hard for them.

However, we’ve all just got to grit our teeth and sit tight. And so to the song. Heed the warning is from Chaka Khan’s 1981 album Whatcha Donna Do For Me, on which the boundaries of rock and funk are well and truly blurred. There’s some great stuff on there, from the rollicking title track to the jaunty Any Old Sunday. Yvette Stevens, to use her original name, burned brightly for a few years without quite making it to the heights she perhaps deserves, but this album is a belting, life-affirming delight.

Lockdown playlist no. 4: Crisis by Bob Marley and the Wailers

I first heard this as an instrumental on the B-side of I don’t remember what and although there are versions with lyrics, it’s the instrumental I’m putting here. As you would expect from Marley, it’s pretty laidback – not the atmosphere of a crisis but great for making yourself relax and let the storm blow over, assisted by a large spliff or 10 and a bottle of white rum.

I’ve lived in the Caribbean for almost 10 years now and you still hear his music everywhere: it’s like reggae never found a new hero. Imagine if pop/rock ended with The Beatles and there was never an Elton John, a Prince or a Led Zeppelin You can walk into a pub or club in England and pretty well guarantee not to hear Paperback Writer or Revolution, but step off a boat in the West Indies and I guarantee within half an hour you will hear Three Little Birds.

You probably won’t hear this, though.

Lockdown playlist no. 5: Spinning the Wheel

Suddenly every film recommended on Netflix is something to do with an epidemic, which personally I could do without when I’m trying to have a nice evening without wondering about the end of the world.

This song is from the golden era George Michael enjoyed in the mid 90s and it too is about an epidemic: AIDS. Interestingly, for someone who came out to the world by getting arrested for exposing himself in a public toilet, the singer is claiming the moral high ground here as he complains about his partner being out all night, presumably having sex with other men.

Quite how this makes for a good pop song is a mystery, but it does. Nice languid rhythm, mellow production and mature vocal performance.

I hated Wham! with a vengeance (particularly the early tosh when he was pretending to be tough), but I suppose it is hard growing up in public, and by this stage he was coming up with some quality stuff.

Lockdown playlist no. 2: Long Time Gone

Feel free to add your own ideas for coronavirus songs in the comments at the bottom. It’s mainly the title that matters, not what the song is really about. When I’ve done 10 posts I will compile a list of the best suggestions.

Long Time Gone fits the Lockdown theme mainly for it first words (It’s been a long time coming) and its general tone. It’s a song by David Crosby from the first Crosby Stills and Nash album. Crosby has always been politically minded and this one is about something that the government or some wider hierarchy is keeping from us. He probably has a similar view about Covid-19. There is a particular breed of conspiracy theorists who will invariably blame their own people, and just saying this virus was produced in a laboratory isn’t enough for them. Nor will they say it was a Chinese or North Korean laboratory. No, they’ll tell you it was American. Among their other bugbears will be religion, but if pressed they will side with Muslims against Christians, purely because their parents were Christians and therefore that must be bad.

Anyway, the song. David Crosby and Stephen Stills came from The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield respectively, both American 1960s bands regarded as cooler than the “British invasion” crew, so it was a surprise when they teamed up with Graham Nash from pop harmony group The Hollies.

At their first get-together, when Nash put his trademark high harmony on what they were singing, Stills says, “Crosby and I just looked at each other.” It was Nash who elevated the band from excellent to incredible, and he and Crosby would be lifelong collaborators.

That first album, which includes 49 Byebyes, Wooden Ships and Marrakesh Express still stands (in my humble opinion) as one of the landmarks of that era, late 60s-early 70s

Lockdown playlist no. 3: I started a joke

Well, somebody somewhere started all this. Whether the virus came from a bat or some other delicacy in a screeching, heaving market in China or as a result of a good scientific education channeled into evil, or if it was all a terrible mistake in a way we can’t yet imagine, somebody started it.

The song is a 1968 release by the Bee Gees and, on the basis that the writer sings the lead, the author was Robin Gibb. As ever with pop music, it doesn’t pay to take the lyrics too seriously; he may or may not have had some apocalyptic event in mind, but more likely  he just came up with the title and made what he could of it.

Lockdown playlist no. 1 Every Day is Like Sunday

This blog has been idle for a couple of years or more – which is a good thing, because it means I’ve had better things to do with my time, such as paid work, rather than just amusing myself here.

But now things have changed and with not a lot to occupy myself, it’s time to revive it, if I can remember how to do it.

So here we go with a suggestion for an appropriate commentary on the times: Morrissey’s Every Day Is Like Sunday.

Quite honestly, I haven’t heard any new Morrissey stuff for 25 years, but there was a time when I played his albums a lot. His solo work was never quite as good as The Smiths because he didn’t have Johnny Marr to bring magic to his words, but he still had that peerless turn of phrase and a mischievous way of misleading you with a title.

I’m thinking about stuff like Our Frank, which is not about a member of his family, but the start of the first line, “Our frank and open deep conversations, they get me nowhere, they just bring me down…”

And then there’s “Driving your girlfriend home”, which suggests nothing out of the ordinary, but the first word turns it on it’s head: “I’m driving your girlfriend home”. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether, although of course given his apparent proclivities, you would have nothing to worry about if it was your girlfriend, apart from the way he handled his Ford Anglia.

And there were fabulous bursts of slice-of life songwriting like Hairdresser on Fire, taking the mickey out of an ultra-camp hairdresser who takes his job very seriously as the custodian of his clients’ appearance and reputation.

Or how about King Leer, which begins:

Your boyfriend he went down on one knee
Well could it be he’s only got one knee?

And talking of titles, who else would write You’re The One For Me, Fatty?

For someone who created his own image as a never-happy person not interested in romantic relationships or sex and refuses to confirm or deny he is gay, He Knows I’d Love To See Him is a pretty good clue that he does, in fact, have feelings just like the rest of us.

I lost sight of him after 1995’s Southpaw Grammar but I’m sure there is a huge volume of gems I have missed.

The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

The Songwriters – Diane Warren

The 1990s. An eerie, all-pervading shadow descends on the earth. The synthesisers and sequencers and samplers have taken over. Technical advances allow bad singers to have their false notes corrected by computers. Producers and entrepreneurs are the new superstars. Songwriters are banished into the past, where their old-fashioned skills are still valued, but they are now an underground movement.

Talent is revealed as an abstract notion, a gift conferred on the naive but grasping, the desperately ambitious, by the new elite; the Technocrats. Panels of TV “experts” guide a gullible public in what should be considered good.

A bleak, barren, shiny, antiseptic world masquerades as the entertainment industry. And at the same time, oddly, technology allows small-time individuals to create and make available their own little creations.

And then, out of the deafening darkness of high-tech production, there emerges a latter-day Aladdin’s Lamp of song who has been there all along: Diane Warren.

She’s a strange woman, by all accounts. Writers of pop songs inevitably plough the fields of love and romance, but Warren’s life appears to have been notably short of those things. Even her mother has been quoted as saying she should stop writing for a while and get out more.

Let’s start with Because You Loved Me by Celine Dion. The French-Canadian beanpole has a tremendously strong voice, but it’s nothing without killer material, and Warren specializes in that. Everybody goes to her when they need a hit. Even reformed rock bad boys Aerosmith, who no longer needed the money to buy cocaine and booze because they had given it up. They took I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing into the dainty but lucrative environs of the pop charts.

The man with the huge voice and matching hair (apart from a drastically receding front half), Michael Bolton, was furnished by Warren with How Can We Be Lovers (If We Can’t Be Friends). Incidentally, on a personal note I am very grateful for the intro, in which he sings the title, tipping me off so I have time to hit the off button before the song really gets going.

Cher has always provided work for writers, and contributed to Warren’s bulging retirement plan with If I Could Turn Back Time.

A relatively early hit for Warren was Rhythm Of The Night, a cheerful latiny hit for DeBarge in the days when Gloria Estefan ruled.

If I haven’t said anything complimentary about Warren’s songs so far it’s because by and large I find them efficient rather than affecting. But they can’t all be like that, and sure enough there’s Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart, which can take on a suitably noble, sob-worthy aspect after a few Merlots.

Even better is country gal Leann Rimes with How Do I Live, which brandishes some real emotion amid the clever chord changes.

So, we may not be able to think of any straight off, but there are hundreds of this woman’s songs in existence. Johnny Mathis, Tony Hadley, Jody Watley, Jimmy Barnes, Gary Barlow, Chicago, MeatLoaf, Deniece Williams, Joan Jett…  The bountiful catalogue of Diane Warren is all around us.

 

 

The Songwriters – The 60s English mob

 

We stray now into territory that is not cool, except to those who simply like the songs and don’t acknowledge the difference between natural sugar and artificial sweeteners.

The pop charts of the 60s – in the UK, at least – required liberal supplies of songs that are sometimes referred to as “disposable”. The writers were never going to be given much credit by the cognoscenti, but they would sell millions of singles and make sums of money that “serious” artistes could only dream of as they drove their Ford Transits up and down the country in search of a place in history.

I’m talking here about people like Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway, Tony Macaulay, Geoff Stephens, Les Reed & Barry Mason –people with a big house in the country but who, when you deliver a pizza to them and they tell you they made their pile as songwriters, are hurt but not surprised when you say you’ve never heard of them.

Take Cook and Greenaway: You’ve Got Your Troubles by The Fortunes, I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith, Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart (Gene Pitney), Melting Pot (Blue Mink) and I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (New Seekers) are just five of dozens of songs that blared through transistor radios and put singers’ faces on bedroom walls while everyone was officially  worshiping The Beatles and The Stones.

Macaulay gave us Baby Make It Soon (Marmalade), Build Me Up Buttercup (The Foundations), Don’t Give Up On Us and Silver Lady (David Soul), Lights Of Cincinatti (co-written with Stephens, sung by Scott Walker) and Sorry Suzanne (The Hollies).

Geoff Stephens created  The Crying Game (Dave Berry, Boy George and a film), Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast (Elvis Presley), There’s A Kind Of Hush (Herman’s Hermits, The Carpenters), Winchester Cathedral (The New Vaudeville Band) and You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me (with Macaulay, sung by The New Seekers)

Reed and Mason came up with Delilah (Tom Jones, Alex Harvey Band), Here It Comes Again (The Fortunes), Les Bicyclettes De Belsize (Engelbert Humperdinck), Supergirl (Graham Bonney) and Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes (Edison Lighthouse).

Masterpieces? Compared with Yesterday or Ruby Tuesday, perhaps not. But Winchester Cathedral demonstrated considerable imagination and the courage to attempt a chart hit from a very different direction, while Melting Pot was pretty cool, with a bit of social commentary (and Cook was a member of Blue Mink). Delilah is a great one for any clown with a guitar to bash out at a party (I’ve done it myself, hungover one Boxing Day in Venezuela – they all knew it and loved it).  I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing was enormously successful in the advertising world in its guise as I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.

It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see any of these as footnotes in the Paul McCartney songbook.

Some of these guys have a further claim to fame: Cook had a lot of success as a writer and singer on the US country scene and Macaulay made his mark in American musical theatre, for instance.

I thought long and hard before lumping them all into one post and a slightly different category from those more commonly regarded as greats, but no disrespect: I wouldn’t mind having their track record  – and a fraction of their royalties.

The Songwriters – Bert Berns

“Live fast, die young” is the sort of motto that appeals to young people, but the image it conjures up is of hedonism: drink, drugs, sex and rebellion. In the case of Bert Berns, the fact that he crammed a lot of songs into his short life (he died at 38) may have had something to do with his knowing he didn’t have long in the first place.

People who contract rheumatic fever as a child know their heart has been weakened and that it is likely to give out relatively young, and such was the case with Bertrand Russell Berns, author of immortal pop/rock songs like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy.

Those two songs alone make Berns the king of the three-chord trick, the holy grail of the aspiring guitarist. You’re aged 12, say, and you’ve just persuaded your parents to buy you a guitar. It’s a terrible thing with a heavy action and a tone devoid of any beauty, and it doesn’t stay in tune. But it’s a guitar and you are now a guitarist. All you need is a song you can knock off in five minutes, because the fancy stuff can wait – you just want to be able to bash something out and show the world you’ve got the gift.

Without wishing to get any 11-year-olds too excited, you should be able to master three simple chords quite quickly. By the time your fingertips have hardened enough to hold the strings down for three minutes you should be able to go – slowly and clumsily – from D to G to A, and if you can, that’s Twist And Shout in the bag.

Learn how to play the chord of C and you’ve got Hang On Sloopy, which is G, C and D. And Bob’s your uncle: you’re a star in the making.

For the rest of the world, those are just great little songs. The Isley Brothers had a hit with Twist and Shout before the Beatles took it on. John Lennon recorded the lead vocal at the end of a long day in the studio, his voice tired and ragged, and had to be cajoled to go through with it when he would have preferred to leave it for another day when he would be more in control. He didn’t like the result – strained, imprecise and as rough as a bear’s armpit – but for us, the consumers, it’s kind of thrilling. And the song itself is just one of those rabble-rousing things that gets people dancing and singing almost in spite of themselves.

Its durability can be seen by its success in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Matthew Broderick as the charismatic Ferris gatecrashes a carnival float and mimes the entire song. That’s a song more than 20 years old, sounding as fresh as yesterday.

Sloopy was recorded by The McCoys and easily makes it into my top ten raucous, good-time songs.

And then from Berns’s pen came Here Comes The Night, a hit for a young Belfast band, Them, featuring Van Morrison before he  became  a “serious artiste”. The chords have upped the ante a little, but any young guitarist worth his salt and with six months’ experience should be able to negotiate it. Speaking of guitars, Jimmy Page played on the track, even though Them had their own guitarist in Billy Harrison.

It’s another irresistibly singable song and has been covered many times, including early versions by Lulu and David Bowie and a more recent one by Rod Stewart. Lulu’s version actually came out before Them’s, but tanked, failing to make the top twenty – much to Them’s delight.

Lyrically it’s quite gloomy, a tale of lost love and seeing your girlfriend with someone new and wondering what is wrong with you and why you can’t accept the situation: Morrison’s voice and character are perfect for it.

Another success for Berns was Tell Him, a hit in the US for The Exciters (as Tell Her – it works either way) and in the UK for Billie Davis, sometime girlfriend of Shadows bass player Jet Harris.

Other early 60s hits included Cry Baby and Piece Of My Heart, both revamped later in the decade by Janis Joplin.

Berns also had a successful career as a record producer, working with people such as The Drifters.

His damaged heart duly packed up in 1967 when he was just 38, and that was the end of Bert Berns. Such was his knack for creating a hit song out of very little, he could have extended his career and reputation for many more years. Think what might have happened if he had still been around in the punk era. Three chords and a catchy chorus – there was no one better.