The Songwriters – Gamble and Huff

“What you gon’ write about us, smart guy?”  Leon Huff (left) and Kenny Gamble

Sometimes you don’t know just how prolific a songwriter was until you look into it, because their names are not associated with the records as the artists’ names are. The Gamble and Huff partnership that flourished in the 1970s is pretty well known, but the volume of hits they wrote is astonishing.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff pioneered the Philadelphia Sound that became like a successor to Motown once the Detroit outfit had started to run out of steam.

Me and Mrs Jones brought them to our attention in 1972, Billy Paul doing a sterling job of singing it, and then it was on to the O’Jays. Love Train was a jolly little thing, but the preceding Backstabbers (no Gamble in the writing credits, but Huff, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead) gave a quick indication that they weren’t going to serve us up chocolate box stuff all the time.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, when Gamble and Huff’s igniting of the Three Degrees’ already long but uneventful career brought us Year of Decision, which wasn’t about making your mind up about love, but more serious, political matters. Somehow the nature of the subject matter was smuggled into the charts by a tune and production that smelled of perfume and wore long, glittery dresses.

Subsequent Three Degrees hits such as When Will I See You Again, Get Your Love Back and Take Good Care of Yourself were on more familiar pop/soul territory.

The cumbersomely named Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes benefited from G&F’s purple patch with  The Love I Lost and another thinker, Wake Up Everybody, plus If You Don’t Know Me By Now, which would be resurrected  in 1990 by Simply Red, while the O’Jays continued with Now That We’ve Found Love, which was also a hit for Third World.

In 1974 the largely instrumental TSOP (the sound of Philadelphia) featured vocals by the Three Degrees and in 1976 came something of a masterpiece: soul legend Lou Rawls’s smash You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.

Eventually, though, the Seventies sweet soul boom petered out in the face of, among other things,  cleaned-up rock bands with their pompous ballads, and  Gamble and Huff had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labours, but they weren’t quite finished and 1979 saw the release of Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead, names you no doubt recognized earlier.

So, if the Motown guys  were the mass  confectioners of the Sixties (and we’ll get to them in a week or two), Gamble and Huff took over the chocolate factory with some style.

The Songwriters – Jimmy Webb

It is probably true to say that all songwriters would like, or would have liked, to be stars themselves, singing their creations rather than giving them to other people. But somewhere along the line they decide, or the decision is made for them, that their talent lies in the composing, not the performing.

In Jimmy Webb’s case it took a long time – a fairly long, unsuccessful solo career even after he was an acknowledged great writer, with nary a sign of crossing over from provider to goalscorer.

The 1960s was Webb’s heyday, with a string of hits for Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension and others. His material was a mix of pop and country that veered alarmingly close to the  middle of the road but retained some credibility for the more critical, rock-oriented listener, by dint of beautiful melodies and creative, thoughtful lyrics.

His career in music really began in 1966, when the singer/producer Johnny Rivers recorded By The Time I Get To Phoenix, a supreme example of Webb’s craft, with a story that takes us along through a day where the singer leaves his girl, as he has threatened to do many times, and imagines what she is doing at various times while he journeys further and further away. She won’t believe it at first, he thinks, “She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving,” although the realization will grow throughout the day and when he reaches Oklahoma, she’ll find herself in bed and sleepily reaching for him:

“She’ll turn softly and call my name out low
And she’ll cry, just to think I’d really leave her.”

It’s one of those rare songs that does something millions of others could have done but didn’t, and turns a simple “I left her” into a drawn-out song of sorrow, pain and perhaps guilt.

It wasn’t Rivers who had the hit, though, but Glen Campbell, originally a much sought-after session guitarist who grew into a singer, and Jimmy Webb can take much of the credit for his flourishing. Songs of the calibre of Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston, with  restrained  orchestration and the top-drawer, unsung contributions of his former session buddies, proved a potent mixture.

Webb’s lyrical skill shines again in Wichita Lineman. We’re talking, don’t forget, about an engineer climbing up a telegraph pole to fix a problem with the line, and it is his thoughts that the song is giving us. He’s thinking about his love life, as we all do during our working day. He could do with a holiday but he’s not going to get one because of the weather. The context, the background information, the way it draws us in: this isn’t your average pop song by any means.

A lesser hit but an equally great song is Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, in which Webb – again via Campbell – takes us into the daydreams of an ordinary woman, thinking about how her life has turned out and how it might have been.

The Fifth Dimension benefited from such gems as Up Up And Away, Paper Cup and the underrated Carpet Man, with its depiction of a man badly treated by his girl, the narrator giving him a frank assessment of things he is too blind to see. A different perspective.

All of these were simple, unpretentious pop songs, albeit with a PhD in insight, and in theory should be overshadowed by the neo-psychedelic nightmare that is MacArthur Park, a song that stretched the sensibilities of many a young music fan. It was great, it was exciting, but what was it about? It was about weirdness – it belongs in John Lennon’s yellow psychedelic Rolls Royce along with Lucy in the Sky and Strawberry Fields.

And then, as the Simple Sixties turned into the Troubled Seventies, Webb’s bubble burst and he headed off on that fruitless solo career. And when that failed, he was back being a songwriter, but what does a songwriter do when he’s not having hits? He sits there writing and then he sits there not writing. You can see why they want to be performers – just for something to do.

I’m going to finish not at the end, but somewhere in the middle, with a song Webb wrote about a songwriter friend of his, P. F. Sloan. Here was a strange character with a flair for melody but without what it took to be really successful. Sloan wrote Eve of Destruction and the Herman’s Hermits hit, Must to Avoid, and played guitar on a few things – the acoustic intro to California Dreaming, for instance – but his fame, such as it is, is down to his friend Jimmy Webb and the search for a different angle, a different subject.

This version is by Unicorn, a British band of the late 60s/early 70s whom I saw at the Cellar Club in Guernsey in 1970 or 71 when, for some strange reason, they came to the island for a two-week residency. With those sweet high harmonies it sounds like they wanted to be Crosby Stills and Nash, and they never amounted to much, but, again thanks to Jimmy Webb, they gave at least one person a brilliant little song he’ll never forget.

 

The Songwriters: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich

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.

With any record produced by Phil Spector, it is easy to think it was all his own work. Even the singers can seem almost irrelevant:  he would have one masquerading as another if the one he wanted was unavailable, so what chance did the writers stand of gaining any recognition?

And yet it is they who provide the raw material from which recordings are built, and although Spector’s name always seems to figure on the writers’ credits, whatever influence he had on the crafting of the words and notes was probably more of a tweaking job. Refining, he might prefer us to say.

Wall of Sound songs often feature the names of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, he from New Jersey and she from New York. They met in 1959 and became partners both musically and professionally.

The early Barry/Greenwich triumphs were the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, along with Da Doo Ron Ron, a massive hit for the Crystals. It’s the simplicity of these songs that is so striking. The big production lends them a sort of weight, but the message couldn’t be more basic.

Head Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was in competition with Spector at the time, freely admits that when he first heard Be My Baby on his car radio he had to pull over, such was the impression it made.

Ellie Greenwich, though, was disappointed that Be My Baby was released ahead of the couple’s ‘Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love’.

These sorts of lyrics are never going to win you a Pulitzer prize, but we all respond to a singer being in the same situation as us, and Ronnie Spector’s plea to her potential long-term love says what we want to say, but with an emotional power that drives a Grand Canyon through any possible opposition.

Like many songwriters who like to work in pairs, Barry and Greenwich also had successes with other partners,  such as Barry/Ben Raleigh’s Tell Laura I Love Her and Greenwich’s joint work with Spector on Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts, by Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, featuring Darlene Love.

But after they married in 1962 they naturally decided to work exclusively together, coming up with a torrent of material including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, originally recorded by The Exciters, a typical Motown-style vocal group of the time, before Manfred Mann, scouring the US charts for material, as people did in those days, gave it a very different stamp.

Leader of the Pack was a highly influential piece of musical drama in an age when motorcyclists diced with death and occasionally lost through not wearing a crash helmet, and even now, when we know full well it’s just a pop song and we’re not 12 years old anymore, it still makes a spirit-dampening  experience.

The one that brings a lump to Ellie Greenwich’s throat, though, is Darlene Love’s (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry, which is interesting, as she and Barry also wrote The Dixie Cups’ far more successful Chapel of Love.

Here are both of them: see what you think. (I’m a Chapel of Love man.)

And then there was the majestic River Deep Mountain High, the performance credited to Ike and Tina Turner, although Ike wasn’t on it because Spector had barred him from the studio. The song shook the British pop public to the core and made number three, but somehow in the US it failed to take off and limped to a paltry number 88, sparking fears that the Wall of Sound was about to fall down.

For Barry and Greenwich, River Deep marked a progression from  adolescent sweet talk to something a bit more substantial.  Spector considered it his best effort so far, and such failure in his homeland prompted his disappearance from the spotlight for a couple of years and quite possibly the mental /emotional decline that turned him into a legendary maverick rather than the consistent hit maker he had been up to that point.

The Barry and Greenwich partnership, too, began to fall apart and they were divorced in 1965, but by then they had created a body of work it would take most people a lifetime to accomplish.

The Songwriters – Sandy Linzer

To kick off a series of articles on songwriters, you might expect to see a name like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, and I will probably get around to them eventually. But this series is dedicated just as much to the lesser known writers whose little gems are in our memories and our music collections even though we may think of the songs as belonging to the people who sang them.

So how about this guy: Sandy Linzer.

Sandy Linzer (left) and Denny Randell

Who?

Well, there was a song by a vocal group called Odyssey in 1977 called Native New Yorker, a very singable dance tune back in those disco days, and the songwriting credit was Linzer/Randell. Sandy Linzer was primarily a lyricist, and as such he must take most of the credit for a song that has a bittersweet message hidden within.

This was originally recorded  – with a very similar arrangement – by Frankie Valli, but while from a man it is a song of compassion and pity, the subject matter makes it far more effective for a woman, singing about herself and other girls of her age, living in her part of the world. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she sighs, having introduced herself as “young and pretty New York City girl, 25, 35”.

It’s a brutally frank, quite heartbreaking little tale of a hard-hearted place and accepting your lot in life even when you’re taken for granted and underestimated because you’re standard-issue local rather than some exotic species.

Whether it’s true or not I can’t say, because the only time I visited NYC I went straight to Times Square, bought an acoustic guitar and left again, not pausing to allow any passing girls to pour out their heart to me.

But the function of the pop song is to whisper in our ear, whether in passing, on the radio, or late at night after a few drinks, and this one is a small precious stone in a many jeweled crown.

Sandy Linzer also co-produced the record – he produced a lot of Odyssey’s music, in fact – and the partner attached to his name on the label is Denny Randell, who also teamed up with him on another Odyssey hit, Use It Up And Wear It Out, which made liberal use of that odd musical instrument, the referee’s whistle.

The Frankie Valli connection

Unbeknown to me, Linzer had made his mark a good 10 years earlier with material for the Four Seasons (Let’s Hang On, Working My Way Back To You) and, along with Randell, a minor masterpiece by The Toys, A Lover’s Concerto, based on the melody from a classical piece, Minuet in G Major, which used to be thought of as Johan Sebastian Bach’s work but some now believe to be by the much less famous Christian Petzold.

Too much information? Sorry. Just spend  a few minutes alone with some of Linzer’s stuff and if you’re ever challenged by a tall, thin humanoid with a head like an ostrich egg, as to the merits of “tis popp music you laik so march”, play him Native New Yorker.

The wisdom of pop songs – Heartbroken

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

The world is full of sad songs, because sadness is an emotion that makes people want to write, to pour it all out. And as listeners, consumers, we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about it.

But what makes a great sad song stand out is the raw, painful, avert-your-eyes reaction it evokes in us. When Neil Diamond said something to the effect that his best songs were embarrassing for him  to listen to because they were so real, he was talking about You Don’t Bring me Flowers, his duet with Barbra Streisand, which deals with taking a partner for granted.

A real heartbreak song takes it one step further as the writer and singer reveal insecurities, fears, inadequacies and all the rotten infrastructure of our character that we would rather people didn’t see.

Amy Winehouse’s problems were public knowledge long before she died, her susceptibility to alcohol and drugs compounded by her relationship with an equally vulnerable man, a classic bad influence who not only caused her emotional distress and encouraged her substance abuse but accompanied her down the dark roads to which that led.

Back to Black is a typical piece of Winehouse bravado, making light of situations before revealing the damage they did her.

Unlike many people, I don’t claim she had the greatest soul voice, but she did have a way of wearing her heart on her sleeve that leaves us smeared in the blood it sheds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8

In the early 1960s Roy Orbison produced some very affecting, very real material, his rich timbre and mountainous range taking us over the edge of melodrama and into the real stuff.

It’s Over and Crying both hit us like a policeman’s early morning knock at the door which can only mean bad news.

While these seem completely genuine, there is also room here for products of the songwriter’s and singer’s craft, and the dream team of  writer Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, to whom he entrusted the song, make Until You Come Back To Me a chillingly beautiful experience. Aretha seems almost unfairly gifted with her voice; she hasn’t suffered more than everyone else, it  just sounds like that. Her sublime talent is as an interpreter of songs, and when Stevie Wonder called her one night and said he had a song for her, she said “I’ll take it,” without even hearing it. When the author of My Cherie Amour offers you a peach, you have no doubt that it’s going to be sweet.

Compare and contrast Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, in which, whatever the title might suggest, he plainly isn’t that bothered. Irish songstress Mary Coughlan  (see pic at top), whom fame has passed by, took the song, slowed it down and injected some emotion, but it still really just talks the talk rather than walking the walk.

Rickie Lee Jones is an interesting character, her early tomboy front masking a fragility that exists for real in her character as well as her work. Company is an achingly intimate account of the loneliness she knows is about to envelop her as this man leaves her for good. She’s not suicidal, but she is looking forward to seeing him again on the other side.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYEhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYE

Prince and Sinead O’Connor might have seemed an unlikely pairing until she took on Nothing Compares 2 U, but his ability to write direct from the tatters of his heart combined perfectly with her willingness to wash her dirty laundry in public to produce a timeless piece of heartache. Seven hours and fifteen days has now grown to more than 27 years, but it still feels like a kick in the guts from someone you’ve  given your heart to.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Revenge and vitriol

It’s the ugliest of emotions and completely fruitless. It makes us as bad as the person we’re getting back at. It leads to ongoing conflict. Revenge isn’t sweet, it’s sour. It just feels sweet briefly. And it makes for great little pop songs sometimes.

Connie Francis had a hit in 1958 with Who’s Sorry Now, which had first been published (in the old sheet music days) in the 1920s. She’s glad that her ex is sorry, so she’s got her own back in a tame way. We don’t learn what has happened to the man who broke her heart, but he’s not happy, and that makes her feel better, even if you get the feeling she’ll be round at his door within the hour with a tin of tomato soup and some ice cream to cheer him up.

The Ronettes got slightly more vitriolic with How Does It Feel, written by Vini Poncia and Peter Andreoli and produced by Phil Spector in a rare example of an uptempo wall of sound recording. Some girl has broken her ex’s heart and she’s as pleased as punch, but unlike Connie Francis, she openly admits she’d take him back because he still loves him. Silly girl; he’ll only do it again, you mark my words.

The Angels were in a very different situation in 1963 with My Boyfriend’s Back. He’s been away, you see, and in his absence a boy who fancies her, having failed with his advances, is spreading rumours about her. But now the boyfriend has returned and is about to give the young pretender a bunch of fives.

The Angels were unusual for a Sixties girl group in that they were white – not that colour has any bearing on what they were like as a musical unit. But it was the song, not the singers, and they are one-hit wonders – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A nifty little three minutes of pop and very singable: Hey la hey la, my boyfriend’s back.

All of these revenge songs seem to be from the early 60s, and we’ll continue with The Shirelles and Foolish Little Girl. It’s not openly about revenge, but a girl talking to another girl who wants her guy back, having dumped him earlier. Now he’s about to get married and she’s a jealous as hell. The singer is berating her for this, which leads me to read between the lines and surmise that there is history between these two and the singer is glad her rival has been hurt.

Whatever, this is a classic lineup of four black women. The lead singer has a good, strong voice and the backing vocals sound like they’re done by a bunch of random girls dragged off the street as they walked past the studio and told to do their best and do it loudly. And I mean that in the nicest possible way – it’s part of the record’s charm.

Incidentally, if you’re going to download this from YouTube or wherever, make sure you get the original version. There’s a rerecorded one out there, and I wish they wouldn’t do that. Sure, singers may improve as they get older and recording techniques are constantly evolving, but the artistes never recapture the magic, and if they’re eradicating some blemish that’s been bugging them for years, they should realize that we, the fans, know and love it just as it is.

John Lennon, for all his peace-and-love stuff, had a nasty jealous streak and wasn’t averse to venting it in song. Take You Can’t Do That, from A Hard Day’s Night. He’s not taking revenge – yet – but he’s telling the girl in no uncertain terms that he’s going to dump her if she persists in talking to a particular boy.

The live recording I’m putting here is pretty faithful to the studio version but there’s one irritating thing: they don’t show us who played the solo. It doesn’t appear to be George, which means it must be John, but we don’t know for sure.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it. There are plenty of others and you could probably name a few off the top of your head. Cry Me A River, yes, and products of spiky personalities like Alanis Morrisette and Lily Allen, but the early Sixties was the goldmine.

The wisdom of pop songs – Regret

Having your heart broken is an unwanted part of life’s rich pageant, but there is another side to the coin: when we do the hurting. I’m not sure anyone has ever deliberately broken someone’s heart through stopping loving them. It’s just one of those things, although don’t try telling that to the person on the receiving end.

Breaking up with someone doesn’t make us a monster; it shows that we’re human, and what were we supposed to do: not fall in love in the first place? The more you look at it the more complicated it gets.

Prince gets straight to the heart of the matter in Purple Rain. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow…”

Cher, on the other hand, in If I Could Turn Back Time, has lost the guy through her own stupidity, so what she is regretting is the things she said and did.

John Lennon’s Jealous Guy hasn’t quite blown it altogether, but he’s singing to himself as much as his lover, regretting what he said and did and knowing that if there’s a next time it could be terminal.

At a glance you might think Bryan Adams’s Please Forgive Me is about a similar scenario, but closer inspection shows it’s not. In this case he’s apologizing for loving her so much, perhaps because she thinks his adoration is over the top and is stifling her. Sometimes you just can’t win.

John B. Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful evidently found himself in a regrettable position in 1966 when he wrote I Didn’t Want to Have to Do It. However, he’s not blaming himself entirely. He had to do it because one of them had to and, good hearted guy that he is, he elected to carry the can.

“Was a time when I thought our love could fly

And never never fall

Why should I suppose we were never really meant

To be close to each other at all.”

We’re not told the girl’s reaction, but he does tell us he knew she would end up crying, so presumably that’s what happened.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, on a song written of course by Smokey himself, are also not accepting unmitigated blame. Ooh Baby Baby wasn’t a hit in the UK and may have never even been released as a single there, but it just goes to show the charts don’t paint a comprehensive picture of the brilliant stuff that exists in other people’s record collections. I only discovered the song three or four years ago and I couldn’t believe it had eluded me for so long.

“Mistakes,” he says, “I know I made a few. But I’m only human: you’ve made mistakes too.”

Quite right too. We don’t know the ins and outs of it, but nobody’s perfect. Whether or not this is an admirable trait he’s displaying, I’m not sure, but he’s clearly crazy about the girl. About three months ago Ooh Baby Baby got stuck on repeat in my head and was with me for days. I was on the net for hours, searching for  a slightly different version I seemed to remember, but there isn’t one. It must have been just my imagination, if you’ll forgive the Smokey-inspired reference.

And then there’s the kind of regret to which there is no answer, no other way of doing it. It had to be done and that’s life. Sometimes the end of a relationship is like that.

Cue an absolute killer from one of this column’s favourites, Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, via the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Normal Gimbel. How Insensitive sees the singer wishing she hadn’t broken the boy’s heart, but “what can one say when a love affair is over?” He must hate her; he must think she’s a heartless bitch, but really she had no option. The poor man’s loss is our gain, however (or perhaps girl, since Gimbel is a man). It doesn’t have to be autobiographical to strike a chilling chord in the listener’s heart.

Regret of a different but equally painful kind can be found in Cat’s In The Cradle, a 1974 hit for Harry Chapin. This is about a man who fails to find enough time for his young son and then, when he’s old and the boy is the one with a busy life, finds the tables are turned.

Chapin was something of a genius with lyrics, and regret was one of his themes. W.O.L.D., his other huge success, is the sad tale of a DJ who walked out on his family to follow his broadcasting career wherever the offers came from. Now he’s getting past it and he’s thinking he’d like to get back with his wife, but she has moved on.

It’s hard to see either of these songs as truly autobiographical, although they might have been visions of what he worried might happen, given the musician’s inevitable absences from home while touring. Sadly, he never had time to find out, because he died at the age of 39 in a car crash, possibly having had a heart attack that caused him to lose control.

As it happens, anyway, the lyrics were written by Chapin’s wife about her ex-husband’s relationship with his father. And if you didn’t want to know that because it spoils your personal memory of the song, well I’m sorry.

The wisdom of pop songs – Mr and Mrs

The idea of singing to a real person – or perhaps inventing a person and singing to them – but not in a boy-girl-I-love-you way can be effective. Anything that brings realism to art tends to give it credibility. In the case of pop music it can add a touch of originality by shifting the listener’s perspective.

Take, for example, Outkast’s Ms Jackson. He’s sorry, the singer is, for hurting Ms Jackson’s daughter, and I have always had this mental picture of him in Ms Jackson’s kitchen, having gone round there to apologise. The popular video actually shows her driving round to have it out with him, curlers in her hair and all. That’s one reason I would rather just listen to a song, rather than watch the video, because the visuals are just someone else’s interpretation.

I’m not putting that video up because I would like you to use your imagination.

The music borrows from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, the section known as The Bridal Chorus (and colloquially as Here Comes The Bride), which imparts a certain romantic air, and the song has a catchy hook; in fact you could say it consists largely of the hook, even if he does wander off down a lane of incomprehensible soulbrutha chuntering (and when I first  read the lyrics I had less sympathy for the guy because he’s whingeing – although some people might think he has a point. For me, finally watching the video was like wandering innocently into the wrong part of town and being confronted by gangsters).

Having set up in my own mind the image of being in the woman’s house, there is also the possibility that Ms Jackson is an attractive woman in her own right and that our penitent hero has noticed this. It wouldn’t be the first time a boy has fancied his girlfriend’s mother.

Again, the video takes a different view, casting Ms Jackson as the kind of old dragon no cool rapper would be interested in. So, sadly, the more I look into this song, the less it seems to be what I originally imagined, and would still like to imagine. Quite a moving little pop experience, though, if you keep other people’s images out of your head.

A similar kettle of fish (sorry, what a vile expression) exists in the very different Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, as sung in 1965 by Herman’s Hermits. Either despite or because of its self-consciously Manchester accent, this was a big hit in the USA, but it wasn’t originally released as a single in the UK. They loved our regional accents in the States, lapping up the Beatles’ pronunciation (thur instead of there and so on), and Davy Jones flew the Mancunian flag in The Monkees. Even now Americans talk of how they love a “British” accent, whatever that is.

This is one Mrs Brown’s lovely daughter: Polly Brown of Pickettywitch. Looks a bit Sheryl Crowish, doesn’t she?

The original version of Mrs Brown had been recorded a couple of years earlier by the actor Tom Courtenay for a TV play.

And even that isn’t the most interesting thing about the song, because you’ll never guess who wrote it. And I mean never, because without  some monstrous clues and guidance, surely no one would get anywhere near it.

Trevor Peacock.

Who? Not the stuttering villager in The Vicar of Dibley?

Yes, him.

And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not? Young people desperate to get into the entertainment field will try anything, and clearly Trevor had all-round talent.

Despite the accent giving it a slightly comic feel, the song is a poignant little thing. Again, the singer is addressing the mother, but in this case it’s the girl who has dumped him and he’s saying “tell her that I’m well and feeling fine” while secretly hoping Mrs Brown will shake her daughter by the shoulders and tell her not to be so stupid because he’s a nice boy and he’s crazy about her.

In the mid 70s Billy Paul brought us Me And Mrs Jones, about an extramarital affair which he wants to keep secret but has no intention of ending. It’s the sort of love song that requires us to either ignore or forgive the circumstances and just concentrate on the genuine love that’s going on there.

Brazenly borrowing the title, Amy Winehouse gave us a very different story on a track from her miraculously good album Back to Black. It’s hard to work out what she is really trying to tell us, but she and Mr Jones are apparently getting it on. Listeners of a sensitive disposition should prepare themselves at the start of every verse for the invented word “f***ery”, which can be translated as mischief, stupidity, treachery and probably many other things. She’s having a go at her man for making her miss the Slick Rick gig and thinking  that she didn’t love him when she did. And she’s not going to put him on the guest list for her own gig because he has had a lot of other women.

But is Mr Jones the object of her affections as well as her tirade? As is so often the case, we can’t be sure, because it’s just a pop song, with words being thrown at a vague subject and the main requirement being to fit the lines and rhyme where necessary rather than to make a cohesive story.

Jones is a popular name in songs, even cropping up in the Bee Gees’ highly unusual New York Mining Disaster 1941. “Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?” one trapped miner says to another, presumably showing him a little black and white photograph. The song is nothing short of a triumph of craft over subject matter and shows the inventive side the Gibb brothers exercised before discovering that smartly tailored disco music and gimmicky falsetto singing could make them a thousand times more money.

Paul Simon hit a seam of pure gold when fashioning a song out of the 1967 film The Graduate. Anne Bancroft’s simmering older woman, Mrs Robinson, inspired Simon to one of his most enduring successes and to his credit he did it without resorting to sexual fantasizing, delving into her mind rather than her underwear to explore what made her as she was. Many years later George Michael would use Mrs. R’s “Would you like me to seduce you?” line in Too Funky.

The ultimate “cougar” before the term was even coined. Anne Bancroft seduces a generation

For me, though, even that brilliant musical psychoanalysis  is eclipsed by Simon’s song about an architect. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is a beautiful piece of wistfulness reflecting on a friendship between two men. And it’s not even based on fact. Legend has it that Art Garfunkel challenged Simon to write a song and gave him the most unlikely subject matter, which the master turned into a hypnotic three minutes that makes the listener feel sad about something that not only they didn’t experience, but never happened.

So, with all due respect to the millions of songs that take liberties with our willingness to believe, once in a while somebody creates a song that is the equal of any poem by any celebrated man of words of any era.

It’s not just the song, of course: that is just the framework on which the layers of sound are added through  spellbinding production, and if you or I had a go at this one open-mic night there would be precious little magic in the air. But the recording as issued on the album Bridge Over Troubled Water is one that I would be very tempted to put in a time capsule for future generations or people from another planet to marvel at.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – O Caroline by Matching Mole

The way it goes in writing this blog is that sometimes I’m enjoying it so much and the ideas are coming so thick and fast that something slips through the net. And so it is that in this case I must apologise not just to you but to myself for omitting this beautiful, haunting song by Robert Wyatt.

Wyatt, for those who may have missed him throughout his long but low-key career, started out as the drummer with The Soft Machine, a jazz-rock band that emerged from Canterbury, England, in the late 1960s. Why is the city worth mentioning? Because it spawned a host of talent around that time and there was a cohesion to it all: musically sophisticated, jazzy and with an understated English eccentricity about the lyrics.

Names? Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North among many. As for musicians, in addition to Wyatt, there was Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen of Gong fame and Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics one, but he had a couple of surprising hits with Barbara Gaskin). Those are the people you might have heard of, the tip of an iceberg of people who are musicians but not potential celebrities. If, like me, you spent a lot of time hanging around in record shops after school, you will recognize names such as Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, David Sinclair, Pip Pyle, Pye Hastings and Elton Dean.

Some of them are dead now, while others have made a career out of it without necessarily making much money.

As for Robert Wyatt, he overcame the adversity of being paralysed from the waist down after falling out of a fourth floor window at a party and has continued making music. His guileless, angelic voice has given a new twist to such pop hits as I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, while his version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding gave the anti-war song (about building ships for the Falklands conflict) a poignant edge quite different from Costello’s own treatment.

This Caroline song is by Wyatt’s band Matching Mole (a literal French translation and wilful mispronounciation of Soft Machine). Listen to the first line: “David (Sinclair)’s on piano and I may play on a drum”, which leads into his reiteration to Caroline of his love and devotion, and the fact that they once expected to marry, but clearly things have changed. That girlfriend was Caroline Coon, an artist who briefly managed The Clash and who was also celebrated in The Stranglers song London Lady.

How did this song fail to be a hit when released as a single? Maybe it is possible for a record to be too good, too sophisticated to succeed.

The wisdom of pop songs – Caroline

With a sizeable part of the pop music canon devoted to songs about girls, their names inevitably crop up as the lovesick boys profess their undying devotion. And one name crops up a lot: Caroline. It’s not as if the world was full of Carolines, and it doesn’t rhyme with many things, but songwriters seem to like it.

So off we go on a journey that starts with Neil Diamond, whose Caroline of choice was apparently sweet (and he rhymes it with “inclined). So was Status Quo’s muse shortly afterwards, if a muse is somebody who inspires you to “really wanna make ya”).

The Beach Boys had already used the name for one of Brian Wilson’s trademark heartache ballads Caroline No, about a girl who has grown up too fast and left the boy trailing in her wake. It happens, Brian. But there’ll be another one along in a minute.

Former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone’s breathy 1971 ode, Caroline Goodbye, was about a real girl who people of a certain age will know. Caroline Munro was Blunstone’s girlfriend, an aspiring actress who entranced a generation of  young men with her TV commercial appearances as the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl before graduating to film, notably in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Around the same time Lou Reed, under the influence of David Bowie but just before his breakthrough Transformer album, recorded Caroline Says, a prototype of Reed’s strange era when he attempted to be camp and which heralded songs such as Satellite of Love.

In the early 1990s an American heavy rock band called Concrete Blonde had an album called Bloodletting and from it issued the single Caroline, with vocals by Johnette Napolitano (a woman) and the most fluid guitar work in rock history by half man, half octopus James Mankey.

And then there was the late, lamented Kirsty MacColl, destined to be killed by a powerboat while swimming in Mexico. With MacColl’s knack of sounding like the rather naughty girl next door, her Caroline song deals with not wanting to see her friend because she feels guilty, having just  pinched her boyfriend.

Fleetwood Mac’s contribution comes on 1987’sTango In The Night. Caroline here is both “crazy” and “lazy”, which is nothing more than lazy writing, with Lindsey Buckingham having stumbled upon the art of sometimes making a hit through production rather than songwriting.

By coincidence, former Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, many years after his introduction by Peter Green, had his own C-song, a typically dreamy piece of work by a man who was by all accounts (and presumably still is) intense and serious. If you’re heard His Fleetwood mac song Dragonfly you will recognize this one as being his.

In 2007 a slightly oddball English girl, Kate Nash, had a surprise hit with Caroline’s a Victim, which is refreshingly raw in the era of computer-smooth pop.

So that’s plenty of Carolines and it doesn’t even take into account the Carolinas ( James Taylor) and Caroles of this world (Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, Al Stewart on Modern Times, Neil Sedaka singing about Carole King and so on).

Not a bad tally for a name that originally, according to some sources, meant a follower of King Charles an certainly owes its start in life to versions of that male name (Karel in German, Karol in other languages). It just has a ring to it, I suppose, and like most things about pop songs, you shouldn’t think about it too much anyway.