The Songwriters – The last verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Songwriters – Diane Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Songwriters – Ashford and Simpson

Prolific but with a career as uncelebrated as some of their songs, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were a husband-and-wife duo, unsuccessful as performers at first and then enjoying a renaissance after their Motown writing heyday had passed.

They had a few early hits with songs for stars such as Aretha Franklin (Cry Like A Baby) and Ray Charles (Let’s Go Get Stoned, I Don’t Need No Doctor), which is an achievement most writers would be happy with, but it is a measure of the exalted standards we’re dealing with in this series that this part of their career doesn’t invite real celebration in its own right.

Eventually their work with Charles attracted the attention of Berry Gordy, and Ashford & Simpson were enlisted on the Motown roster, with a special brief to provide material for Marvin Gaye in his second partnership, Kim Weston having been replaced by Tammi Terrell.

There is a heartwarming quality about the team’s big hits, The Onion Song, You Ain’t Livin’ Until You’re Lovin’ and You’re All I Need To Get By that owes much to Terrell’s vulnerable delivery of an Ashford and Simpson trademark. While the Motown catalogue is full of love songs, something about this writing duo gave an extra mellow feel to the recordings.

There was also the original version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with Gaye and Terrell which would later be eclipsed by Diana Ross’s more dramatic version, and the drama element continued in the early 70s with Ross’s Ashford & Simpson collaborations on Remember Me and Surrender. It was a more grown-up style for Ross as she moved on from the teen angst (high class though it was) of the Supremes, and Ashford and Simpson knew exactly how to do it.

A splendid combination of the mellow and the dramatic sides of Ashford and Simpson is the surprisingly low-profile I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You, which they co-wrote with Eddie Holland and which shifted a few units for Syreeta Wright (billed as Rita on that occasion). Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross both covered it, as have a host of others over the years, including Vikki Carr, but in my opinion nothing rivals the Syreeta version. Meanwhile, British guitar hero Jeff Beck thought enough of it to do an instrumental version, blustering (vainly, I’m sorry to say) to wring out every drop of emotion without the help of words. Nice try – it just doesn’t quite work.

The Seventies knocked the stuffing out of many Motown writers, who managed only sporadic hits, and Ashford and Simpson were no exception, their sporadic one being Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman.

And they had their belated singing career too, building slowly before culminating with Solid in 1984.

After that they got out and about, opened a restaurant/music bar, worked with the poet Maya Angelou and adapted Solid for Barack Obama (Solid as Barack). Nik Ashford died at the age of 70 of throat cancer in 2011 just days before Simpson’s 65th birthday. Is it ever less than insensitive to observe that someone “had a good innings”? Ashford and Simpson didn’t do too badly for themselves.

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 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ref! On the Olympics and George Michael

The candid thoughts of former Premier League referee Colin Preece, as recorded by our eavesdropping mole in the Duck and Peasant.

 Referee

Evening lads,

So, what did we think of the Olympics then? Needs a rethink, Dave? I don’t disagree with you, mate, but I wonder if we have the same thoughts on the general principle.

Well, it’s a paradox, isn’t it? A paradox, Baz, is… kind of hard to explain. It means two things exist together when you’d think it doesn’t make sense. Like George Michael and Aretha Franklin, Dave, thank you. The American Queen of Soul and an English berk who was a teenage girls’ heartthrob until he got arrested for gay activity in public toilets.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Baz? I appreciate that we’re men of the world and despite your Neanderthal appearance you’re trying to keep up, but actually there is something wrong with that. Not necessarily the gay part but the public aspect. Look, we’re going wildly off the subject; what’s the matter with you two tonight?

The Olympics, gents. What I was trying to say is that on the one hand it’s supposed to be a celebration of man’s physical gifts – stop it Dave – and yet you can’t believe any of it because you don’t know who’s been taking performance-enhancing drugs. Now I know we once had a spliff before that match against Woolford, but we didn’t ever do it again because cannabis is not performance enhancing. It robs you of your edge.

There was a time when Malcolm Allison was in charge of Manchester City and he caught one of his players in the middle of a match gazing at the sky and when he asked him what the hell thought he was doing the guy said he was looking at the birds flying overhead. That’s only performance-enhancing if you’re a landscape painter.

But athletes seeking to gain an advantage, they’re taking drugs to make them stronger, bigger, fitter. Yes, it’s been going on for years, but it’s got to stop. I don’t know if there is a drug to make George Michael sing as well as Aretha Franklin, but there are some that will make him think he’s as good as her.

Cheers Gary, I’ll have a shot of Jagermeister and see if I get arrested by the thought police because it looks dodgy.

No, you see, it makes football look like an innocent’s game. Apart from Maradona that time with his wild eyes that had “out of me head” written all over him, I don’t reckon the beautiful game has a drug problem. They’ll push the boundaries with things like injecting sheeps’ placenta into an injured knee – afterbirth, Baz; yes I’m serious, believe it or not – but you don’t find footballers looking like Ben Johnson.

I know Gianluca Vialli when he was Chelsea manager gave everyone half a glass of champagne before a match, but that was psychology. You’re never going to win a game if you’re pissed, and that’s what footballers like to do of an evening.

Of course I’m not saying everyone’s at it, Dave. Probably not even all of the Russians, but you just don’t know, do you? When Maria Sharapova, who looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her lap, admitted taking meldonium but said it was for a heart condition and she knew it by a different name and anyway she’d stopped before it became banned – when that happens, lads, we have to admit the current system is  a lost cause.