The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The Songwriters – Gerry Goffin and Carole King

When Carole King emerged as a solo star in 1971 and the album Tapestry made itself such a fixture in a generation’s record collections, many people didn’t make the connection between the curly-haired queen of hippie-lite and a run of hits 10 years earlier in which she had starred as both writer and performer.

Even the presence on Tapestry of the Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow  failed to convince us that this woman had a past in the very different world of top twentyism.

Despite the hit singles such as It’s Too Late, Carole King was a serious  artist and we were too cool and albumy to acknowledge that she was an oak tree that had grown from a pretty substantial acorn. Or too ignorant, in my case.

But back in the days just before the Beatles, Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin had written not just that Shirelles number one but a cluster of other indelible songs including Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee) and Halfway to Paradise, a hit in the UK for Billy Fury and in the USA for Tony Orlando, who wasn’t to become a household name across the water until the mid Sixties.

Then there was Chains, a US hit for The Cookies but better known on Planet Brit as a Beatles album track.

The following year brought The Loco-motion, sung by Little Eva, who may or may not have been Goffin and King’s babysitter, and revived many years later by Kylie Minogue. Kylie wasn’t much respected at that stage, but I remember thinking she sang the song better than the original, so she couldn’t be that bad.

There was also, from the Goffin and King factory, Go Away Little Girl, and as was common at the time there were two versions vying for our  5/4d (five shillings and fourpence, youngsters – about 26p), one by the American Steve Lawrence and a UK version by Mark Wynter.

The Drifters did the honours on Up On The Roof, an undulating melody overlaid with Goffin’s image of city dwellers escaping the noise of reality by fleeing to the top of the building to enjoy some fresh air and look at the stars.

The production line also found room for King to have a hit of her own in 1962 with It Might As Well Rain Until September. I can still hear it coming out of the Sunday teatime family radio on Pick of the Pops as we made our way through the ham salad and on to the pineapple chunks and custard.

Carole King was not destined to be an early 60s pop star. Her real celebrity lay further down the road in a cooler time, but her loss was other artists’ gain, as is the case with The Chiffons and One Fine Day, an oddly uplifting tale of rejection and optimism.

British minor stars The Rockin’ Berries wrapped their high-pitched tonsils around the rather disturbing He’s In Town before the Beat Boom bands got their teeth into the G&K catalogue. Manfred Mann’s Oh No Not My Baby demonstrated that you could have a hit without a Lennon/McCartney composition, while The Animals gave Don’t Bring Me Down a rough edge that the composers perhaps didn’t envisage.

That’s exactly what this series on songwriters is all about: the musicians, singers and producers do the wiring, plumbing and decorating, but it’s mainly down to the house the writers built.

Dusty Springfield, searching in vain for a cache of material that would propel her out of mere stardom and into the stratosphere, had a hit with Goin’ Back, which has been covered countless times, including, improbably, by The Byrds, who were more often to be found in possession of Bob Dylan songs.

And here’s an unusually jazzy take on it by Nils Lofgren.

Talking of covers, Will You Love Me Tomorrow has also been tackled by Helen Shapiro, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Melanie, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Bryan Ferry and Amy Winehouse – among many others including versions in Cantonese and Mandarin. Now that’s a song that fits the Ian Dury definition of great as being doable by other people.

The importance of Gerry Goffin in the partnership is demonstrated by his successes without King, from The Hollies’ Yes I Will (with Russ Titelman) to  a stream of hits much later with music by Michael Masser, such as Miss You Like Crazy (Natalie Cole), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You (Glenn Medeiros)and Saving All My Love For You (Whitney Houston).

King on her own didn’t exactly supply songs for others. Her songs just attracted people’s attention, to the extent that James Taylor had greater success than she did with You’ve Got A Friend, and the supreme talent that is Aretha Franklin ensured that in some quarters Natural Woman is regarded as one of hers.

 

The Songwriters – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has had plenty of hits in his own right, but he has also provided dozens of songs for other artists. Not all of them were successful, and even of those that were, they are not necessarily  known as being written by him.

Sometimes, though, you hear a song and feel it has a touch of genius that you can’t pin down, but then you look at the credits and think, “Of course…”

A prime example of that is Tell Me Something Good by Rufus, the funk group fronted by a young Chaka Khan. It’s a strange song when you analyse it (not that analyzing pop songs is a very rewarding business). Take away the funky instrumentation and it positively plods. A recording that seems full of life and energy is based on a melody too full of holes to work on its own.

No doubt when he was writing it, Stevie was hearing the backing and he was able to pass on his ideas  and deliver what was in his head because  he produced the record.

Another early 70s Wonder composition that propelled a different act up the charts is The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, which is simply catchy from start to finish. Known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners, to distinguish them from the folk group of that name, The Spinners had been around since the 1950s with fluctuating degrees of success, but it took a Wonder song to get their name inscribed on the honours board of pop immortality.

One of Wonder’s co-writers on It’s  A Shame was soon to benefit from his patronage with a stellar career of her own. Syreeta Wright had started at Motown as a receptionist. Many hopefuls blagged their way into the company  in minor jobs simply trying to wheedle their way in and get noticed, and Wright certainly accomplished that, singing her way around the building until people noticed and gave her little assignments singing backup and demos for established artists. She also attracted the attention of Stevie Wonder in her capacity as woman, and they were married in 1970.

Initially writing together for other people, they eventually managed to get Syreeta  a record deal for herself and a trio of hits made her a serious name in the Motown roster. The mesmerizing Spinnin’ and Spinnin’ was followed by the cod-reggae of Your Kiss Is Sweet (dismissed as corny by early purists but a fine tune all the same). Harmour Love made an impression on the charts too, and the Wonder/Wright partnership was established for posterity.

In 1974 the faltering career of soul goddess Aretha Franklin was revived by a Stevie Wonder song. Even the woman widely regarded as having the ultimate female voice relied on finding great material, and when Wonder presented her with Until You Come Back To Me, she breezed through it with the insouciance of an expert interpreting a genius.

Roberta Flack was in a  similar situation in 1980, with a sensational track record built on great songs apparently running out of steam before Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long got her back in the UK charts. It wasn’t a smash in the great pop-buying consciousness, but it was a minor masterpiece in my humble opinion. Fellow music lovers  will know the warm feeling you get when someone else shares your feelings about an unrecognized gem.

I was working in a wine shop in south west London when this song came out, and spent long periods sitting by the till, listening to the radio and watching the world go by until the traffic was stopped by red lights at the junction of Putney High Street and the South Circular.

One morning Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long was on as the lights asserted their authority and a van with the driver’s sliding door retracted pulled up alongside a saloon, whose occupants watched, bemused, as the driver of the van performed to them the middle section of the song, a half-spoken sort of rap, complete with hand gestures and pleading arms spread wide. He loved it, he was listening to the same station and a magical piece of unscripted theatre made my day.

 

The Songwriters – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

 

The way this series is eating up the hits it almost seems like there’ll be none left soon, and here we go again with a sizeable chunk of the 60s treasure trove in one fell swoop.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were another of those early 60s partnerships that spawned great songs seemingly at the drop of a hat. Both New Yorkers, they formed a writing partnership, fell in love and got married.

They started at the tail end of the 50s, when rock’n’roll had lost its way and the square world thought it had ridden out the storm. It would take The Beatles to drive the stake right through the heart of sensible-sweatered adulthood, but American pop writers were doing their bit to decorate the present and point to the future.

One of the “squares”, if you like, was Eydie Gorme, a croony sort of conventional type your mother would have liked as much as you did and who worked with her husband, Steve Lawrence.

With Brazilian music jamming its foot in the post-Elvis door, Eydie had a solo hit with Mann and Weil’s Blame it on the Bossa Nova, issued around the same time as the team’s Don’t Be Afraid Little Darlin’ with Lawrence.

This was Drifters time, too, and they loved a nice Mann/Weil song, with a list including On Broadway (with help from  fellow songwriting legends Leiber & Stoller) and Saturday Night At The Movies.

The Ronettes were the lucky recipients of Walking In The Rain, and then M&W came up with one of the real titans of the era, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, with the Righteous Brothers giving it some serious lung and Phil Spector pumping it full of steroids.

Cilla Black and Dionne Warwicke covered it in the same era, and it’s one of those songs that people keep fancying as the years go by, with notable versions by Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway and Hall & Oates. Elvis had a go in 1970 during a period when he was hard-up for good material, and as recently as 2003 it was tackled by British synth-pop duo Erasure.

And of course it’s a karaoke favourite for any guy who thinks he’s got a Bill Medley-style boom in his chest and can find a higher-singing sidekick.

Back on planet Earth in 1964, Mann and Weil provided Looking Through the Eyes Of Love for Gene Pitney and, in a slightly odd collaboration, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place for the Animals. It is easy to think of Eric Burdon and co. singing about wanting to leave the grim (at the time) industrial north-east of England, but the song was about Mann and Weil’s neck of the woods. It was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, before Mann began his own singing career and his record company wanted it for him. In the meantime, Animals producer Mickie Most was on the case, somehow snapped it up and released it before he could be gazumped.

Monkees fans will be grateful to Mann and Weil for Shades of Grey, and Cass Elliott brought her own touch of class to Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1968.

Mann and Weil have never stopped writing and although their time in the spotlight ended with the passing of the writer-hungry 60s, they did resurface in 1977 with Here You Come Again, a hit for both B. J. Thomas and  Dolly Parton.

Mann and Weil, ladies and gentlemen: man and wife. And not only are they still working – by gum, they’re still married.

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.

Why do the atheists bother?

Last night I felt like watching a documentary, so I had a look at what Netflix had to offer. The one that caught my eye was called The Unbelievers and was about a couple of atheists: the Englishman Dr. Richard Dawkins and an American, Dr. Lawrence Krauss.

Why would a Christian want to watch a documentary about atheists? Because they were bound to be talking about us, so I wanted to see what they said.

Something from Nothing? A Conversation with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss Critically-acclaimed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss discussed biology, cosmology, religion, and a host of other topics in a free ranging conversation at ASU's Gammage Auditorium February 3rd.
Okay Richard, time for a damning pearl of wisdom

Dawkins is an urbane, rather old fashioned kind of Englishman: smart suits, wavy hair a bit longer than you might expect, and he is reserved: an introvert.

Krauss is very different: he wears a smart jacket but likes to team it with jeans and canvas sneakers in wacky colours. And his wide mouth is always ready to burst into a smile. An extrovert.

They complement each other very well, making up for each other’s shortcomings in any given situation. If you want gravity and intensity, you’ve got Dawkins. You want a wisecracking man of the people, here’s Krauss.

The documentary followed them on a country-hopping tour, doing TV talk shows, live shows and lectures.

I couldn’t help liking them both. Dawkins might be quite interesting, and perhaps even fun when he’s had a few drinks. I was slightly surprised to find that he is married – on his second one, in fact – to an actress most famous for playing a Time Lady in the BBC scifi series Doctor Who.

And Krauss is a born entertainer.

atheists 2
Haven’t you got anything better to do?

The way they approach their atheism is through science: they’re both PhDs, Dawkins an evolutionary biologist and ethologist – dealing with knowledge of human character and its formation and evolution, and  Krauss a theoretical physicist. Clearly hyper-intelligent people, and they use their brain power, their ability to grasp details when everyone else is struggling to hold onto the general idea, to hack their way through the jungle of belief.

Dawkins found himself on an Australian talk show with the Archbishop of Sydney and proceeded to run intellectual rings around him, until you could see the brakes come on and a look in his eyes that said, “Ease up or they’ll thing you’re a smartarse and a bully”. He seems to find it frustrating talking to people of only above-average intelligence. How would he relate to a room full of people who, whatever their gifts, are not deep thinkers?

We saw him taking a telephone call and trying to keep it simple while whoever was on the other end tried valiantly to keep up.

We saw Krauss impressing and amusing a concert hall where the audience obviously considered it a good night out. He can make them laugh.

What the two doctors also did, though, was  a series of shows in which they sit together on stage on comfortable chairs and dismiss religion in a mocking way, teeing each other up to deliver witty putdowns and unanswerable conclusions.

atheists 3

The justification for this, they revealed by chance later on, was that on panel discussions, when two people are having an intense debate, they don’t like it when the chairman butts in and invites someone else to have a  say.

By implication, they are almost always the two cleverest people in the room, so why should anyone else be allowed to get in the way?

Religion, they both firmly believe, is similarly dimwitted and should not be permitted to muddy the waters of science. Incidentally, they seem to have mainly Christianity in their sights, rather than other religions – perhaps because they were brought up with it and are therefore better equipped to analyse  and ridicule it. And as they pointed out, nothing should be above ridicule. If we can make light of any other subject, from politics to sex (they dropped that sparkling, free-spirited word  in several times to show how much cooler they are than we are), why not religion?

What they didn’t explain was why they bother to tour the world, broadcasting their views in this way. If they don’t agree with religion, that’s up to them. You don’t suppose it’s anything to do with money, do you? Money from books and DVDs and touring shows.

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This is why we have to stop fighting each other

For all their studying and theorizing, Dawkins and Krauss can’t point to any concrete proof to back up their opinions. But scientists keep discovering things and to them the Bible looks increasingly absurd. Maybe one day they or one of their hyper-intelligent ilk will accidentally stumble on something that proves to them what billions of us know from a much simpler source. Maybe they will look in their microscope and see God.

The English Pedant – Feeling fine is a fine feeling

 

A little while ago we looked at the potentially confusing word “quite”, with its various meanings. Another one in that vein is “fine”. It’s the sort of thing that the TEFL (English as a foreign language) teacher dreads a student bringing up, because when they ask what it means, there is more than one explanation. Even native English speakers can get confused when they start to think about this one, as I found early in my magazine-editing career when the secretary, with whom I had been at primary school, attempted to show me that education counted for nothing and anything I could do, she could do too.

So when I described a cricketer as being a fine player, she took issue with the word. Fine, she stated, meant okay. And it does. Sometimes. How is your burger? Fine. How was your day? Fine, thanks. Nothing special, just okay. Don’t worry, it’s fine.

But what about fine art and fine wines? What are they? Just average? No, they’re fine, they’re top class, exquisite. And Brian Lara, the subject of my discussion with the secretary, was a fine cricketer, as was Ian Botham and Joe Root is now. Lionel Messi isn’t just a fairly good footballer. He has a level of skill and “footballing intelligence”, if you like, that makes him exceptional. He’s a fine player.

But fine can also mean thin or very small. There is a fine line between very good and great. Sandpaper that consists of fragments of glass so small it actually feels smooth is known as fine, and its opposite in that case is coarse.

We strain fluids through a fine mesh, a fabric of very slim strands that allows liquid through but catches any solids.

Some people have fine hair. That doesn’t mean it’s just okay or even that it’s beautiful. Each strand of hair is just very thin, that’s all.

In a business document we may look at the fine detail, a close relative of “the small print”.

Then there is the weather. If that is fine, there is no rain about. There might be the odd white fluffy cloud passing through, and it might even be a bit windy, but it’s fine. Plenty of sunshine.

If someone “picked a fine time” to do something, we mean it ironically: they did it at a very inconvenient moment.

Then there is the noun; nobody wants to have to pay a fine, because it is a penalty imposed for breaking a law or rule.

And finings are substances added to beer, wine etc. to get rid of any lingering sediment or other particles, making it perfectly clear.

If we refine something, we improve it, except in cases such as sugar, where the process of removing impurities is said  to produce something that is harmful to health. It’s similar with flour, where the refining process removes the “bits” that are good for digestion and contain nutrients.

So, have you ever wanted to be teach English as a foreign language? Just steer the students away from this kind of thing, because it is almost unexplainable to an English speaker. To a Chinese speaker or even a Spaniard, it must sound a if you’re making it up as you go along.

Even writing about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wish you’d never started.

And by the way, have I missed anything?