The Songwriters – Graham Lyle

Graham Lyle (left) with Benny Gallagher

No, I’m no forgetting Benny Gallagher, his long-time partner from the early days, but Graham Lyle’s career extended beyond the Gallagher and Lyle brand and into heady chart territory in the US.

But first, the first bit. He’s Scottish, Graham Lyle. Part of a general group of musicians and singers who, it seemed almost reluctantly, insinuated themselves into the British music scene in the 60s and 70s – Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly et al. Gallagher and Lyle had gone the usual route of local bands before getting down to London in the mid-late Sixties, being spotted by The Beatles’ Apple Corps and doing some writing for Mary Hopkin.

Then they found themselves part of McGuinness Flint, named after bass player Tom McGuinness (Manfred Mann) and drummer Hughie Flint (John Mayall). The Scots songsmiths provided the hit singles When I’m Dead and Gone and Malt And Barley Blues.

In the mid Seventies Gallagher and Lyle went duo and sold plenty of copies of I Wanna Stay With You and Heart On My Sleeve. They were mining a seam on the very border where rock and folk met middle of the road, so leftover neo-hippies (such as myself) found their stuff acceptably cool while Radio Two and your Mum thought they were quite pleasant too.

The album that contained those hits was Breakaway, the title track of which became a hit for Art Garfunkel, while Bryan Ferry enjoyed success with Heart On My Sleeve.

Just as the world seemed to be opening up for the duo as writers, while Lyle embraced the US music scene, Gallagher faded from the scene and was missing in action during the 80s, before reemerging with The Manfreds in the 90s. When his tenure with them came to an end he became a fixture on the Scottish  folk club circuit as a singer-songwriter, and there he has remained, also playing at festivals, teaching songwriting and being instrumental in a charitable organization aimed at helping songwriters to gain their due share of royalties.

Lyle, though, took a very different path. Often writing with fellow Brit Terry Britten, he became one of the most sought-after writers in the US. What’s Love Got To Do With It was a major factor in Tina Turner’s 80s rebirth, and he also co-wrote I Don’t Wanna Lose You and We Don’t Need Another Hero for her. He had a song on a Michael Jackson album and has been recorded by Ray Charles (Rock’n’roll Shoes), Diana Ross (Change of Heart), Etta James (Hold Me Just A Little Longer Tonight), Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Joe Cocker. It’s not all hit singles and famous songs, but ask a vintage musician in L.A. who Graham Lyle is and chances are they will know.

And that is success. Hits are the icing on the cake.

Country music number ones also appear on his CV, with Don Williams, The Judds and Crystal Gayle among the beneficiaries, and in the UK he found late success with Conner Reeves (My Father’s Son and Earthbound, both 1997).

In recent years Lyle has teamed up again with Gallagher, revisiting the material that shaped both of their lives.

Advertisements

The wisdom of pop songs – Fire

Pop music being about youth and excitement a lot of the time, it’s not surprising that fire crops up. Not in the literal sense, that is, but as an indication of emotion.

One that did purport to be about the real thing was 1968’s Fire by  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a rabble-rouser if ever there was one, and appealing to teenagers even now. Sadly for Arthur, he burned brightly for a very short time and that was his only hit, although he has recorded plenty of music over the years and is apparently still at it. Incidentally, his band originally contained keyboardist Vincent Crane, who went on to form Atomic Rooster, into which drummer Carl Palmer later followed him before becoming part of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Brown toured with Jimi Hendrix and managed to get thrown off the tour for safety reasons, in spite of Hendrix’s own predilection for squirting lighter fluid on his guitar and setting fire to it. And of course Hendrix had his own song called Fire, in which he urged the object of his affections to let him stand next to her “fire”. A figure of speech, no doubt.

Jerry Lee Lewis’s contribution to the theme came merely as part of an exclamation, goodness gracious, Great Balls of Fire, again as a result of an incendiary woman.

The Rolling Stones were also just playing with words when they wrote and recorded Play With Fire, a warning by the singer to a girl not to mess with him.

Deep Purple’s perennial favourite, Smoke on the Water, was about a real incident when Montreux Casino burned down after a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. As the song tells us, “some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground”. This mattered to Deep Purple because, for whatever reason, they had intended to record an album in the casino, using the Rolling Stones’s mobile recording equipment.

And so was born a guitar riff that sounds easier to play than it really is, as fledgling rockers have been finding out for almost 50 years.

Many years later, Saturday Night Fever included Disco Inferno, in which the writers (no, not the BeeGees) imagined a blaze, so hot was the atmosphere in this particular palais de dance.

The Pointer Sisters, during their 1980s heyday, claimed to burst into flames courtesy of a kiss, although science has for centuries failed to prove or disprove the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion.

Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire is supposedly an attempt to absolve his rock’n’roll generation of the blame for the world’s ills – although it sounds more as if he’s just enjoying a bit of a reminisce and trying to make it sound like a rock song.

Possibly the most gentle fire song is Jose Feliciano’s acoustic guitar-powered version of Light My Fire, which was written by the Doors and recorded by them with a rampant organ… err, a  driving, organ-based accompaniment.

Self-indulgent as ever, I must mention The Fire by one of New York’s new wave bands of the 70s, Television. A dead-slow, basically nonsensical but emotional-sounding piece of poignant fantasy, I won’t bother you with a track to listen to, but if you ever come across their second album, Adventure, it’s on there. And tell them I sent you.

One that has always made me quite angry is The Prodigy’s firestarter, a vile and puerile piece of vitriol that makes me want to go round their house and lob a Molotov cocktail into the shed, if they think it’s so damn funny. It’s only a pop song, of course, but does this add to the beauty of human existence?

Current world favourite Adele mixed her metaphors with reckless abandon on Set Fire To The Rain, but then she could sing the Koran  in Greek and it would be a hit.

On one final note of self-indulgence, I give you Etta James (real name Jamesetta Hawkins – that’s what it says on Wikipedia, anyway), perpetual   bridesmaid in the pantheon of female soul singers. Well known in certain circles in the 1960s with songs such as I Just Want To Make Love To You, she faded badly before re-emerging in 1986 with an album called Seven Year Itch, on which she breaks your heart one minute and rocks like a bitch the next on tracks like Jump Into My  Fire.

The wisdom of pop songs – Sex

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
tina
Rock you, Tina? I hope you mean what I think you mean

Sex. The very essence of rock, pop, soul and r’n’b music. Along with its more reserved sister, Love, it accounts for approximately 99.9% of all song lyrics.

The only problem facing people who want to write and sing about the oldest preoccupation is that to be explicit is to invite trouble, criticism, being banned and so on, which may or may not have an adverse effect on sales.

This, along with the usual need to rhyme, and the equally restrictive need to keep it simple, has resulted in certain innocent words being misused and eventually misconstrued.

Exhibit A: charms. The evidence against this is due entirely to its so often keeping company with the word arms, itself a harmless enough item except for its involvement in romantic clinches leading to intimacy.

Thus in the 1960s tale of a straying husband, 24 Hours from Tulsa, Gene Pitney tell us
All of a sudden I lost control as I held her charms
And I caressed her, kissed her
Told her I’d die before I would let her out of my arms

You held her ‘charms’ did you, Mr Pitney? And where were these ‘charms’ located? On her chest? Or at the top of her legs at the back?

The very term rock’n’roll is itself a reference to the sorts of motions made by those engaged in making love.

And talking of making love, is love really what people are talking about when they say that? It’s a euphemism that has made its way into the spoken word.

When Bad Company sang Feel Like Making Love, they weren’t suggesting merely saying a few romantic words in their lover’s ear, and nor was Roberta Flack in her very different song with the same title.

etta
Put them away, Etta. We get the idea

In the UK, Frankie Goes To Hollywood had their hit single Relax banned when people listened closely to the lyrics, as did Max Romeo with his ska smash Wet Dream.

At the beginning of her career Donna Summer made a fortune as much out of moaning and groaning suggestively as actually singing, while a few years later Olivia Newton John attempted to lose her nice-girl image by recording Let’s Get Physical, although many listeners were not convinced. She persevered by asking ‘will a little more love make you stop defending?’ when what she was really asking was if she would find her way into his heart by letting him have his wicked way with her again.

Notice how the ones sung by girls seem more brazen than the guys’ Neanderthal posturing. 1980s mini-star Charlene gave us I’ve Never Been to Me, in which she confides

I’ve been undressed by kings
And I’ve seen some things
That a woman’s not supposed to see

Oo err, girl, steady on.

Grace Jones, too fearsome a character for most men to make a pass at, took matters into her own hands with Pull Up to the Bumper, which had little to do with squeezing into a parking space. ‘In your long black limousine’, indeed.

grace
Where I come from you have a cigarette afterwards, not during

While so many songs of the past few years, particularly in the hiphop genre, are astonishingly sexist, with the bad muthas singing about ho’s and what they’re going to do to them, the world champion of the dirty lyric has to be the female rapper Khia, who came to prominence/notoriety in 2002 with My Neck My Back. The hit was with a cleaned-up version, but even on the raunchy original, she attempts to throw us off the track by mouthing different words on the video. While one person’s sexual interests are entirely their own business and the practices advocated in this song should not be condemned, you will have to look it up yourself, alone, preferably using headphones to protect the innocent. Or don’t.

So impressed was Miley Cyrus, Newton-John-like in her determination to redefine herself, that the former Hanna Montana recorded her own version of the song.

olivia
Give it a rest, Olivia – you’re just embarrassing yourself

It wasn’t an entirely original thought – is there anything that hasn’t been sung about before? In 1995 a UK indie duo called Scarlet had a hit with Independent Love Song, although its censor-evading urging to ‘go down, go down’ seems positively mild compared to what Khia and Miley are suggesting.

One can’t help wondering if, 20 years later, the Scarlet girls are living quietly in suburban obscurity, taking their own daughters to school and glossing over their brief brush with fame. After all, every generation of teenagers think they have exclusive rights to sex and it’s okay if they do it, but their parents?

God, Mum. You keep quiet about that or I’ll die.