The Songwriters – John Lennon and Paul McCartney

When The Beatles  exploded onto the music scene in the early 1960s they were so full of new songs and fresh ideas they could feed their own recording career and still have plenty left over for other people.

That’s not to say they recorded exclusively their own songs at first. Although there were precedents – Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were largely self-sufficient – there was still a feeling that it was best left to the specialists, so the four who were to become fab borrowed Roll Over Beethoven, Money, Please Mr Postman, Twist and Shout and Long Tall Sally, to name but a few.

Whether that was because John Lennon and Paul McCartney found it hard to believe how good they were, or because their management and record company didn’t believe it, they continued to  use existing material even while farmingout their own to their peers.

While George Harrison would come into his own later on, the early Beatles composers were Lennon/McCartney, and they generated songs like hens laying eggs.

Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, fellow Liverpudlians and not a bad band and singer, earned a hit with Do You Want To Know A Secret, David and Jonathan (future writing kings Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway) did Michelle, as did The Overlanders, and Peter and Gordon gave A World Without Love a nicely-spoken clean-cut treatment (The Supremes and Del Shannon covered it too).

The female Merseybeater, Cilla Black, was given It’s For You and later asked Paul McCartney for a theme song for her new TV show and was rewarded with Step Inside Love.

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers produced a thoroughly convincing take on Got To Get You Into My Life without straying from the path of the original.

So far, so reverent, with singers and producers doffing their cap to the masters, but as the compositions became more adventurous, so did the covers. Joe Cocker took the singalong With A Little Help From My Friends and set fire to it to the extent that it became his nightly showstopper. Raucous and uplifting, the song took on a life of its own and, with Cocker always prepared to give his all, triumphed at Woodstock in 1969 and more than 30 years later in 2002’s Party at the Palace, both performances being available on YouTube. I’m putting the studio version here because, as incendiary as the live onesare, this ship was launched fully laden.

Less well known but even heavier is Spooky Tooth’s treatment of I Am The Walrus, which takes an already  slightly unsettling song and drapes it in the colours of doom, with thunderous guitar chords, swirling Hammond organ and Mike Harrison’s croaky, wailing vocals. Just the sort of thing for 1970s neo-hippies like me to listen to lying on the floor, one speaker either side of their head.

Once the psychedelia had passed, we were back to short, singable songs, and one that has attracted an inordinate number of suitors is Come Together, Lennon’s Lewis Carroll-like self examination.

For the benefit of the less obsessive I should point out that although the pair’s Beatles songs were always credited to both of them, generally speaking whoever did the bulk of the singing is presumed to be the originator, and the way McCartney tells it, they used to “fix” each other’s half-formed efforts if one got stuck or felt the need for some help. So Come Together was Lennon while Yesterday, one of the most-covered songs ever, was McCartney. You can hear that form of collaboration very clearly on A Day In The Life, where Lennon’s addictively downbeat song gets a McCartney lift in the middle – woke up, got out of bed etc.

The psychedelic stuff proved surprisingly tempting (who would dare have a go at Strawberry Fields Forever? But people have.) Even Elton John must have had his doubts about tackling the global treasure that is Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds, although his effort was not just commercially successful but acceptable to many purists.

In the same way, punk rock prefects Siouxsie and the Banshees did a creditable job on Dear Prudence.

The list goes on forever. If you consider that Count Basie, James Galway and Shirley Bassey have all recorded Lennon/McCartney songs, and Sammy Davis Jr even did a bit of A Day In The Life as part of an excruciating Beatles medley, we can certainly claim that, “everybody’s done one”.

Oddly, though, that doesn’t apply to their solo output after the band broke up and the 70s saw them going their separate ways. Although the great songs continued to appear, they did not attract cover versions to anything like the same extent.

 

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Sun worshippers

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

sun

The Beatles summed it up with Here Comes The Sun and its simple expression of post-winter relief, “It’s all right”. Rain we call for when we need it. The sun we want almost all the time.

The beautiful innocence of the early 1960s (beautiful and innocent from this distance, at least) gave us  the Beach Boys, who, if not always mentioning the yellow hot thing by name, were always obviously out in it, admiring the girls and getting a tan (apart from ginger-haired Mike Love, who probably just got roasted).

1965 saw a catchy if brainless little ditty called I Live For the Sun, by the Sunrays. With a name like that, it sounds suspiciously like the song came first and the group was just a vehicle to take it to the people.

It was produced by Murry Wilson. There was only one man of that name and spelling in the musical sphere, and he had sons called Brian, Carl and Dennis. That’s right, the Beach Boys. He had been their manager and co-producer until they ditched him in 1964, so his involvement with these one-hit wonders seems quite understandable. I’ll show the ungrateful sods.

Rolf Harris had recently arrived in England at that time from Australia, with a unique angle: using aboriginal influences to make distinctive pop music. With its highly unusual, primeval didgeridoo sound conjuring up roasting reptiles on a camp fire in the outback, it was perhaps Harris’s one admirable contribution to music and culture in general, far more so than, for instance, his previous single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, even if the B-side was “an old traditional Cockney folk song that I’ve just written”, Someone’s Pinched Me Winkles. But those were different times, when George Martin was still producing comedy records rather than buffing the brilliance of the Fab Four.

The Kinks  brought a broader dramatic scope to their pop/rock with Sunny Afternoon:

My girlfriend’s run off with my car
And gone back to her Ma and Pa
Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I’m sitting here
Sipping at my ice-cold beer
Lazing on a sunny afternoon

One of the era’s timeless classics, House of the Rising Sun, had nothing really to do with solar matters, while the Kinks came back a couple of years later with Waterloo Sunset, in which the sun is in spectacular decorative mode.

Cream, the blues-rock gods whose early output included some surprisingly poppy singles, came up with one of the all-time great guitar riffs for Sunshine of your Love, in which the sunshine is metaphorical, representing the goodness and warmth of a romantic relationship.

sun 2

Jumping forward to reggae times in the 70s and 80s, Bob Marley and the Wailers got Sun is Shining from legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and even though it appeared on their Kaya album in 1978, it took a remix by Danish producer Funkstar de Luxe to propel the song to the stratosphere in 1999.

Meanwhile, The Police had been on the case with Invisible Sun, where lyricist Sting presages his later social commentator role with a song full of gloom and danger, redeemed only when the sun “gives us hope when the whole day’s done”.

Morrissey, that grossly misunderstood pop genius, wrote and recorded a superb little dig at those who like to loll around, soaking up the rays while the world falls apart around them, in The Lazy Sunbathers. You see, Mozza, that’s how you got that reputation.

In 1985 Katrina and the Waves unleashed the phenomenally popular Walking on Sunshine, a clearly impossible feat that just expressed  how elated they were.

Elton John had already lamented the loss of solar activity in Don’t let the Sun Go Down on Me. Sun: happy, no sun: sad. It’s a simple equation.

In 2015, Rihanna went all wise and mature on us with Towards the Sun and it’s profound advice:

Turn your face towards the sun
Let the shadows fall behind you
Don’t look back, just carry on
And the shadows will never find you

Ed Sheeran alluded to the dangers of the sun when he used it to describe his feelings on being dumped:

You scarred and left me
Like a sunburn

The full picture, though, was brought to us by the film director Baz Luhrmann in his rather bizarre song/lecture Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. It is the first and most important piece of advice he offers young people in a litany that includes not believing they’re fat and not being upset by criticism.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now…

Okay, Baz, you’re Australian, so you probably know what you’re talking about, but this is pop music. Where’s your bravado, your exultation? If they want to get melanomas, that’s up to them.

Here:

 

 

Did we mention the 1990s? here’s a bit of Supergrass.

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
duet 1
She was a fruit, he was a flavouring and together they made a beautiful taste

Why do people do duets? For the sheer joy of combining our talents with someone else’s. It’s why team games are so popular: it’s not all about the individual, but the pleasure of seeing someone else adding to what we do.

That is how duets are supposed to work, anyway, and in the early part of the pop era there were some gems. We’ve got to start somewhere, so how about Deep Purple, the song that started life in 1933 as a piano instrumental by Peter DeRose before Mitchell Parish added lyrics five years later. Various people recorded it in the coming years, but the version we’re concerned with here is the 1963 incarnation by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother and sister act whose casual enjoyment of their craft gave the dreamy melody a poignant tone somewhere between happy and wistful.

Around the same time, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, a married couple who had been singing duets since the mid 50s, released I Want to Stay Here, an outwardly innocent piece of love talk which contained the urge for privacy and intimacy that young lovers feel. They don’t want to go to the party, they want to stay home and have a party for two.

These two songs reflected the gradual change from young adulthood to teenage self-assertion that was going on at the time. Lawrence and Gorme and Tempo and Stevens came across as fine, upstanding, clean-cut people destined to become responsible adults almost before their youthful flower had blossomed.

duet 6
A duet of groups. The Supremes only had one lead singer, but The Temptations used to pass it around

Then came Sonny and Cher, a long-haired man and a heavily made up young woman, with I Got You Babe, in which they complained that they weren’t being taken seriously as people. While Cher would go on to be a huge star, it was Sonny Bono who was the senior partner at the time, with his links with Phil Spector and a burgeoning career as a songwriter (Needles and Pins, among others).

Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan took the reins back for the old-style crooners with Passing Strangers, a minor hit in the US on its original release in 1957 and a bigger success when reissued in the UK in 1968. The kids who bought it then didn’t know Vaughan and Eckstine were respected jazz singers from another generation, the big band era; we just knew it was a great tune and had something classy about it. It was a bit showbiz, and that wasn’t a cool thing at the time, but what’s good is good.

duet 7
Hey buddy! Take the G off the end. And on the B side. I don’t like Gs on the end of words

Everybody knew who Frank Sinatra was, though, and he wasn’t giving up his hard-earned stardom just because the world was full of rock bands. Somethin’ Stupid, his duet with daughter Nancy,  hit the same spot on the target as Passing Strangers. On a technical note it is interesting that they didn’t sing alternate lines, but harmonized throughout, with Frank’s part carrying the melody and Nancy’s adding light and shade, although what she was given required more discipline to sing. You can hear she wasn’t making it up as she went along; she was singing the notes the arranger wanted her to sing.

All the songs we’ve looked at so far have been fairly serious and romantic, but in 1967 Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood added a bit of fun with their recording of Jackson. Also recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Jackson features a frustrated womanizer threatening to give up his stable relationship and go to the sinful city of Jackson to sow some belated wild oats. His partner just thinks he’s pathetic and would make a fool of himself (which, if this weren’t just a pop song, might be seen as the root of the problem rather than just the reaction to it).

duet
When Mr Hathaway passed on, one UK music paper ran the headline “Wrong Donny dies”

We’re back in romantic territory for Elton John and Kiki Dee’s 1976 hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which some sources take as an affectionate pastiche of Motown duets by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston or Tammi Terrell (It Takes Two, The Onion Song, Ain’t Nothin Like The Real Thing etc). Whether that is true or not, it was a huge hit that is still popular today.

The brother/sister combination was an obvious choice for the Osmonds, and Donny and Marie duly raked in the cash with Morning Side of the Mountain and Leaving It All Up To You.

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had a string of hits including Where Is the Love and The Closer I Get To You, while after Hathaway’s premature death Flack enjoyed great solo success and also slotted in a duet with Peabo Bryson, Tonight I Celebrate My Love.

Then there was Too Much Too Little Too Late by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams… and the list goes on.

Next week: second golden age and the emergence of the fake duet

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Tearjerkers vol. 2

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Tearjerkers vol. 2: the serious stuff

If Leader of the Pack was the one that started the tearjerker trend in pop music, the most blatant bandwagon-jumper was a British girl called Twinkle (aka Lynn Ripley), who had a huge hit with Terry, another song about a boy who dies in a motorbike accident. “Please wait at the gate of heaven for me, Terry,” she wails, waving to him with one hand while collecting her royalty cheque with the other.

But there is a more serious side to the tearjerker: the one based on a real life event rather than a melodramatic piece of cynicism.

tears in heaven

You can’t poke fun at Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven when it tells the story of how his young son plunged to his death from an apartment block. The issue for Clapton, a private man by nature, must have been whether, once he had written it as part of his grieving, he should release it. But he did, and in a commendable instance of public decency, most people sympathized with him and, while enjoying the tune, silently prayed that such a thing would never happen to them.

elton

Another that must have troubled its author on the grounds of taste was Elton John’s reworking of Candle in the Wind for the funeral of Princess Diana. Anyone who has ever chosen the music for a loved one’s funeral will know that the instant that music kicks in, you’re flooded with tears, and it happened to a worldwide TV audience on that occasion.

There have been objections to the new version, some from fans of Marilyn Monroe, about whom the original version was written, while others question the motives of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The latter, Elton’s long-term lyricist, maintains that the singer asked him to do it, and both remain puzzled that something meant as a sincere tribute – and which raised millions for charity – should come in for criticism.

dance with my father

Also based on fact, but without being a direct view of a particular tragedy, is Luther Vandross’s Dance with my Father, in which he prays not so much on his own behalf but more for his mother, who is even more bereft at her husband’s passing than Vandross himself. He longs to see them dancing together one last time. It’s profoundly touching and a perfect example of how such a sensitive subject can be handled with raw emotion but without gooey sentimentality.

Mime nd the Mechanics

Along the same lines is Mike and the Mechanics’ The Living Years, which deals with the death of a father before he and his son have had a chance to settle their differences. Composer Mike Rutherford and lyricist B. A. Robertson, both of whose fathers had recently died, benefited hugely from the work of vocalist Paul Carrack, whose beautifully understated soul voice goes nowhere near the dangerous border of over-the-top emotion that many would have brought to it. Instead, Carrack delivers the sentiment to us simple and unadorned.