The Songwriters – The Bee Gees

The hat, Maurice, the hat! I know you’re going bald, but even so…

This is another of those catalogues of covers that is so long it could turn into a 600-word list, so what follows is a very selective look at what’s around.

As for who wrote what, the Bee Gees’ songs were often credited to all three brothers, and although we know it was mainly Barry and Robin, actually picking one apart from the other is almost impossible at times. In general it is probably safe to say no more than that if the vocal sounds  slightly reedy and Robiny, he probably came up with the germ of the idea, and if it’s smoother and Barryish, then it was his.

Starting a little ahead of the beginning  we have Al Green’s version of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. It was slow the way the Bee Gees recorded it in 1970/71, but Green and his producer  Willie Mitchell slowed it down even further and relied on their masterly arrangement and sparse but settled instrumentation, on top of that unsurpassable voice, to create something too slow to dance to, too slow to make love to, but something to savour, like Kahlua drizzled over chocolate ice cream and served without a spoon.

That early Bee Gees stunner, New York Mining Disaster 1941, has been attempted by a few people, with a notable effort by folk legend Martin Carthy that should suit it but, to me, doesn’t. It has some of the hallmarks of a folk song, after all, but folk is all about stripping away pretence, and maybe there’s a touch of bitter-sweet artifice in the original’s harmonies that needs to be there for it to work.

Words is a more forgiving candidate, and the versions have flowed freely down the years, from Rita Coolidge to Boyzone.

First of May has been tackled by, among many, Sarah Brightman (whose most memorable contribution  was to pronounce the t in Christmas), as well as Matt Monro , Cilla Black, Lulu and Jose Feliciano.

Similarly, To Love Somebody is a nice tune with very singable lyrics, and has received treatments from Leonard Cohen (oddly cheerful), Michael Bolton (typically hysterical), Janis Joplin (what can I say, I don’t get her and never did). Michael Buble (what hasn’t he done a cover of?) and the live duo of Ray Lamontagne and Damien Rice (intense as you would expect).

Much later, after the first phase and then the disco chapter, the Bee Gees and in particular Barry Gibb began offering material to legends of the music business ,presumably because the brothers had had enough  of performing  and were prepared to let others do the hard work.

Thus came Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, whose well was rather dry by that time (1982).

Country colossi  Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were presented with a diamond-crusted, inscribed platinum song called Islands in the Stream, and Barbra Streisand got a whole album’s worth, of which Guilty and Promises are prominent.

But to finish this section I would like to go back to I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You. You might think there wouldn’t be too many takers for a song about a man on death row who has only one hour left to live, and in truth most people left it alone. But of the few that had a crack, a special commendation must go to veteran bluegrass merchant Bobby Osborne, who, with his crack team of instrumentalists (banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle), turn it into a thoroughly jolly occasion.

I urge you to have a listen to this, and if you think it’s just grossly inappropriate, I wouldn’t argue with you. On the other hand, there is something so infectiously good-time about this sort of thing – and you can’t not be impressed by the musicianship – that I find it impossible not to like it. They could make you feel good about your own execution.

As an interpretation of a song it’s as weird as they come, but as long as the Bee Gees didn’t take themselves too seriously I think they would have enjoyed this.

Advertisements

The Songwriters – Randy Newman

Randy Newman may not have contributed a huge  amount to the panoply of pop hits in terms of numbers, but has certainly done his bit in terms of quality. Newman is the songwriter’s songwriter, a master craftsman of the lyric and much more than the usual purveyor of fast-food tunes and words.

He first made his mark in the UK with Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, a hit for Alan Price and quite an oddity in the 1967 world of psychedelia, when everyone was vying to be the coolest cat. Randy Newman was never concerned with being cool. He’s the musical equivalent of the nerd, writing about whatever he feels like in whatever style suits the lyrics. He looks more like a school chemistry teacher than a supplier of superior songs to the stars and he certainly doesn’t look like a star himself. He never did. But Price was so impressed with the nascent songwriting talent that he put no fewer than five Newman songs on the album A Price on his Head. Even the B side of Simon Smith was a Newman song: Tickle Me.

American  megastars Three Dog Night brought Newman back into the UK charts with 1969’s Mama Told Me Not To Come, a nerd’s eye view of a party where everyone else is drunk and smoking dope and the narrator doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

The Newman CV includes a long solo career with limited commercial success but a core of devoted admirers, and sporadic outbreaks of hits for other people.

He’s Got The Blues, sung in part by Paul Simon, is typical, or typically different, with Newman’s character raising a cynical eyebrow at the way a smooth singer tugs on the heartstrings, while Simon’s bits demonstrate just how that is done in his sweet, effortless voice. It’s like a practical seminar at a college of popular music.

This song bends this series’ rules in not being a cover version, but Paul Simon is so perfect for his part that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t written for him, and it’s also hard to imagine a Simon completist not considering this a bona fide part of the collection.

I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today, which Newman originally recorded in 1968, has been covered by dozens of artists, from Judy Collins to Leonard Nimoy, Barbara Dickson to Barbra Streisand and Chris Farlowe to Peter Gabriel.

One that has become a standard of sorts, nor least in karaoke, is You Can Leave Your Hat On, an amusingly suggestive little number ruined, in my opinion, by such leering fools as dirty old uncle Tom Jones, who leaves no nudge unnudged and no wink unwinked. Millions of people disagree, and I hope I don’t sound prudish, but really, it’s the kind of performance that merits a slap in the face. Good for the Newman pension fund, though, and he needs it, because he signed away the rights to his early songs and doesn’t receive a penny in royalties for them.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kaycee’s Klasic Films – Anjelica Huston

Siobhan Kennedy-Clarke’s classic film reviews
Our fictitious reviewer Siobhan (KayCee) didn't have much of an education but she's passionate about films

anjelica 2

Hollywood is full of beautiful women and the real world is full of women who wish they looked like them I think you’ll agree that’s true. It’s different for men because they can have character roles in movies and then become really big when they get older and looks don’t matter so much.

But for the ladies no one wants to look at a non-stunning girl see I’m not talking about revolting like a witch with a spiky nose and rotten teeth I’m talking about you and me the average women in the street. Sure, we get along okay and there are potential partners out there who think we’re beautiful because they love us but generally speaking it’s easier if you look like Marilyn Monroe.

But once in a while you come across a woman who breaks the rules and manages to get cast in good roles in spite of the fact that when she sees herself in a photograph, she must think, “Why is this funny looking woman always in my pictures?”

I’m writing about this because last night I watched a film in which Anjelica Huston was the only adult female. She had a cameo they call them a brief appearance but since almost every film has to have a woman for people to lust after she must of been it.

Anjelica’s mother was a ballerina and her father was John Huston, a director, and her grandfather was Walter Huston an actor. So I guess showbusiness was in her blood. She started off as a model so obviously somebody thought her looks were unusual but not unattractive and so did Jack Nicholson who she was with for a long time.

She is a kind of role model for girls who aren’t what we would call normal-pretty it’s not having that perfectly proportioned face and body its how you carry yourself and a lot of it is to do with appearing to be happy with yourself. If you’re giving off the kind of feeling that says “Don’t look at me cos your eyes will get dirty” you’re putting a nail in your own coffin. You don’t have to be cocky either mind you or you’ll make a fool of yourself just be confident your all woman and your as good as anyone else okay that’s enough of Kaycee the guru what do I know about it.

anjelica 1
Dead sexy: Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams

So Anjelica has had a decent career with films like The Postman Always Rings twice (with Jack), Prizzi’s Honor and The Grifters and if your wondering the one I mentioned with the cameo was Seraphim Falls with Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. She was Morticia in The Addams Family (extremely sexy I reckon) and she did a couple of Woody Allens.

Two others who have flown the flag for the woman of character are Judi Dench and Barbra Streisand. Somebody once said of Judi “She’s not beautiful but she can play beautiful” by play they mean act and that’s what I was talking about she dresses well holds her head up and gives it some serious dignity. Being the first female M in James Bond she had to be tough and believable in that way but you also got the feeling that Bond quite fancied her and if they did get together for a night he might learn a thing or two.

As for Barbra she’s such a character that if she wanted you to think she was once an Olympic hurdler and Miss World you’d believe her.

It’s a short list because like I said at the start the film world is full of pretty little things no disrespect to them but there is room for other types too not just Nicole Kidman and Michelle Pfeiffer  there’s hope for us all.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part II

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
duet 5
Freddie meets his match: big girl, big voice, big subject (the Olympics). Barcelona!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The vast majority of duets are man-woman, but Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson showed that a single-sex pairing could work too with 1982’s Ebony and Ivory, the latter also taking the duet into new territory as regards subject matter. A plea for racial harmony sung by one white megastar and one black legend, and a solid gold McCartney tune into the bargain.

McCartney repeated the trick a year or so later with Michael Jackson and Say Say Say, but without the racial message, and it worked a treat once again.

There followed another golden age of the duet with the  film-related likes of Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes) and  Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s Separate Lives. And there was Olivia Newton John and John Travolta with You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights.

duet c
“Up” being at the top of the charts

The astonishing vein of form hit by the Bee Gees in the 1970s meant they had hit songs to spare, and Barry Gibb put some to good use with Barbra Streisand, notably Guilty. Streisand apparently liked the duo format so much that she teamed up with several more people, including Neil Diamond on You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, and Donna Summer for Enough is Enough.

Meanwhile, away from the pop charts, The Band’s farewell performance had been made into a film, The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, and tacked onto the end  is a song seemingly recorded at the same venue in private a day or two later. By definition a duet involves two singers, but The Band had three lead vocalists who took turns, and in this case Rick Danko and Levon Helm did a verse each, with Emmylou Harris joining in. If being well rehearsed is key to a good performance, this is a minor miracle, because guitarist Robbie Robertson had only written the song the night before.  To further confuse matters, it sounds like a Cajun folk song.

Back in the top 40, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross hit big with Endless Love, which also sold by the bucketload a few years later in the hands of Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey.

duet 4
Yes, you get to sing a duet with me. Oh, you want your name on it?

Stevie Nicks enjoyed the genre, it seems, doing Leather and Lace with Don Henley and Stop Dragging My Heart Around with Tom Petty.

George Michael, too, took advantage of his fame to partner with Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting and Mary J Blige on Stevie Wonder’s  sublime Always. Both brave moves: it was like a decent amateur boxer getting into the ring with Mike Tyson, but perhaps Michael had more confidence in himself than some us had in him.

From around  that point the duet goes into decline. In the past 20 years or so there have been plenty of songs featuring a guest singer, but often this takes the form of an already-recorded performance being dropped into a new one, sometimes even with no pretence at the two vocalists having been in the same studio at the same time. Rap songs can often benefit from a drop of melody, as Eminem’s adaptation of Dido’s Thank You for his own Stan amply demonstrates. And it resulted in exposure for both of them to the other’s audience, which means more sales and more profit. But it’s not a duet.

duet d
Senza una donna. The only trouble with this was that the key was too high for Zucchero. Or maybe he wasn’t well. It’s clearly a struggle, anyway

Jay Z and Alicia Keys may have issued a joint version of Empire State of Mind, but the piano diva’s solo version sounds like the real deal, while Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s Promiscuous also doesn’t feel like a true partnership.

The same could be said, admittedly, for Natalie Cole’s reworking of her long-dead father Nat’s old hit Unforgettable. But it works, and although some uncharitable souls have seen it as disrespectful and perhaps commercially-motivated, to these ears it’s just beautiful and if she felt she had to make that connection with her Dad through what technology had made possible, then good for her.

Finally, if I may be permitted a personal favourite that is a bit of a rarity, I was  browsing through YouTube one day when I came across Burt Bacharach doing a live version of A House is not a Home. Alone at the piano, he laboured through a minute or so until I wished Dionne Warwick was there, when suddenly the audience buzzed as Dusty Springfield appeared and took over. Shivers down the spine. Burt croaked some harmonies, but only showed why he is principally a composer rather than a singer – and as much as I love Dionne Warwick, in the right mood Dusty could make her sound like Miss Piggy.

Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmS473ToPW8