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.

 

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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 – The drugs don’t work

drug 4
If your thing is done and you want to ride on: cocaine. Don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…

It is true to say that people who work in the music business  are more likely to use drugs than, say, bricklayers or accountants. Anyone can get hold of something if they really want to, but if you’re a professional musician, you won’t have to try too hard. It sounds like fun to many people, and most will try something and either continue with it occasionally or just decide they don’t want to do that.

Smoking cannabis is like a rite of passage in such circles, but what worries non-users who care about someone who is exposed to that world is that the same people who sell a bit of grass are quite likely to have access to other things.

The 1960s saw an explosion in freedom of choice, and for a while everyone was happy. But trouble was lurking, as Steppenwolf pointed out in The Pusher.

The dealer is a man with a lump of grass in his hand
But the pusher is a monster and God he’s not a natural man
Goddam, goddam the pusher

drug 2
Come on – do I look like I smoke dope?

Then the drug-related deaths started to happen.

Whatever you believe about the 1970 demise of Jimi Hendrix – and ‘choked on his own vomit’ tells only part of the story among the conspiracy theories –  he was no choirboy. A gentle, peaceful character by all accounts, despite the media’s portrayal of him as the ‘wild man of pop’, he was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle all right, and that didn’t mean mineral water and early nights.

Janis Joplin’s number was up around that time, too, with heroin and alcohol mentioned on the death certificate.

Jim Morrison checked out of the hotel of life soon afterwards, with heart failure blamed for his departure and no autopsy performed. A heroin overdose is widely believed to be the real cause.

And so to the death of Gram Parsons, who succumbed to a mixture of morphine and alcohol.

drug 1
The ‘Jake’ they were encouraging to clean up his act was guitarist Paul Kossoff (centre, front) and guess what – he died of  a “heroin-related heart problem”

With ‘drugs’ now considered all one thing by many people, in the US and elsewhere the ‘Just say no’ campaign sent a clear message to the youngsters who are presented, as on a conveyor belt, as potential customers for the purveyors of drugs, prescription and illegal alike. But even though the next generations couldn’t claim they weren’t aware of the dangers, and their spokespeople may have said the right things, humans are fallible.

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Yeah, cos it’s like serious. It’s by our friend Ed Sheeran and it’s called… The A Team

The bravado continued.

While the highly intelligent, studious Walter Becker of Steely Dan gained worldwide respect for his contribution to their music, he and Donald Fagen (but I suspect Walter either wrote or strongly influenced the lyrics) gave us Time Out of Mind and the blasé lines

Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold

Becker is still alive, but in 1978, before the song was released on 1980’s Gaucho album, he was sued over his girlfriend’s overdose death in his apartment. Shortly after Gaucho, Steely Dan split up and he moved to Hawaii, where apparently he managed to quit drugs altogether.

Johnny Thunders, one-time guitarist with the New York Dolls and then his own band the Heartbreakers, bragged about his drug use on Chinese Rocks and duly died a drug-related death years later.

Whitney Houston came through a stormy, cocaine-fuelled marriage to Bobby Brown, only to fall victim to her weakness in 2012.

Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album Back to Black is like a diary of her substance-abusing life. On Rehab she proudly declares that they’re trying to get her to enter a rehabilitation program but “I won’t go, go, go”.

drug 3
The man said “Why you think you’re here?”  I said “I have no idea”

It was tragically predictable that, with that wonderful album under her belt and a bountiful future ahead of her, she wouldn’t be able to get it together and live a careful life, although the terrible irony is that when alcohol finally nailed her it was because she had been dry for a while and had lost her tolerance to it, so when she hit the bottle like old times, her body couldn’t handle it.

And so it goes on. Defiant and foolhardy, the rebels carry on while knowing it can only lead to trouble.

The warning songs continue too, such as Ed Sheeran’s song The A Team, about a crack-addicted prostitute, which was covered by teen sensations One Direction.

But it won’t stop the tide. Rock’n’roll is rebellious, and if you tell it not to do something… it’s not going to listen.