The Songwriters – Graham Gouldman

The firmament of 1960s British pop music wasn’t all Beatles and Motown; there were hundreds of singers and bands hoping for a crack at this wacky new world where they could be an unknown, selling nail varnish in Woolies’ or suits in Burtons one day and appearing on Ready Steady Go the next. It hadn’t yet become a case of writing your own stuff, not for most people, anyway, so there was a market for songwriters, and one who burst through was Graham Gouldman.

Later to become famous as one quarter of 10cc, Gouldman was a Jewish lad from Manchester who just happened to have tunes popping into his head, and he found himself ploughing two distinct furrows at the same time. While he was providing the sort of out-and-out pop that the chart-oriented acts needed, he was also having his sleeve pulled by The Yardbirds, an altogether more rootsy outfit, brought up on blues and soon to branch out into psychedelia, and boasting future legendary guitarists, not one but three, in their ranks.

That Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page should all pass through this British combo is little short of miraculous, but even so, the way of things at the time was that they needed hit singles. Gouldman gave them For Your Love, later covered by plenty of people, including a version by Fleetwood Mac in between the Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham eras. He gave them Heart Full of Soul, which was edging towards that strange psychedelic sound, and Evil Hearted You, a tougher, darker thing that American alternative rockers The Pixies would, much later, sing in Spanish, for some reason.

Of the mainstream pop material he was generating, Gouldman assisted the Hollies’ soaring 60s trajectory with Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop, both evocative as well as tuneful, but the one that has always fascinated me is Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today, in which an empty milk bottle on a backstreet doorstep symbolises the singer’s lost love. Pretentious? Nah. It’s just a nice image:

But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down

Another one with a bit of character, a bit of uniqueness, is Tallyman, a minor hit for Jeff Beck, which tells the story of a family paying for goods “on tick”, whereby the housewife is given the clothes or whatever by the salesman and is then visited once a week for repayments.

The early and mid 60s are famous for their gritty, kitchen-sink novels and films, and Tallyman and No Milk Today are cut from the same cloth: little slices of life that paint as much of a picture as going down the dancehall to check out the girls and the beat groups.

Once 10cc had got together in the 1970s, Gouldman started concentrating on his own song needs, and that’s what brought us  I’m Not In Love, sometimes voted as the greatest love song of all time. And there was the melodramatic, oddly gripping I’m Mandy Fly Me and the cheeky swipe at the Caribbean, Dreadlock Holiday.

If songs are handed out by God – or however you believe it happens – Graham Gouldman certainly received, and passed on, more than his fair share.

 

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Caroline

With a sizeable part of the pop music canon devoted to songs about girls, their names inevitably crop up as the lovesick boys profess their undying devotion. And one name crops up a lot: Caroline. It’s not as if the world was full of Carolines, and it doesn’t rhyme with many things, but songwriters seem to like it.

So off we go on a journey that starts with Neil Diamond, whose Caroline of choice was apparently sweet (and he rhymes it with “inclined). So was Status Quo’s muse shortly afterwards, if a muse is somebody who inspires you to “really wanna make ya”).

The Beach Boys had already used the name for one of Brian Wilson’s trademark heartache ballads Caroline No, about a girl who has grown up too fast and left the boy trailing in her wake. It happens, Brian. But there’ll be another one along in a minute.

Former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone’s breathy 1971 ode, Caroline Goodbye, was about a real girl who people of a certain age will know. Caroline Munro was Blunstone’s girlfriend, an aspiring actress who entranced a generation of  young men with her TV commercial appearances as the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl before graduating to film, notably in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Around the same time Lou Reed, under the influence of David Bowie but just before his breakthrough Transformer album, recorded Caroline Says, a prototype of Reed’s strange era when he attempted to be camp and which heralded songs such as Satellite of Love.

In the early 1990s an American heavy rock band called Concrete Blonde had an album called Bloodletting and from it issued the single Caroline, with vocals by Johnette Napolitano (a woman) and the most fluid guitar work in rock history by half man, half octopus James Mankey.

And then there was the late, lamented Kirsty MacColl, destined to be killed by a powerboat while swimming in Mexico. With MacColl’s knack of sounding like the rather naughty girl next door, her Caroline song deals with not wanting to see her friend because she feels guilty, having just  pinched her boyfriend.

Fleetwood Mac’s contribution comes on 1987’sTango In The Night. Caroline here is both “crazy” and “lazy”, which is nothing more than lazy writing, with Lindsey Buckingham having stumbled upon the art of sometimes making a hit through production rather than songwriting.

By coincidence, former Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, many years after his introduction by Peter Green, had his own C-song, a typically dreamy piece of work by a man who was by all accounts (and presumably still is) intense and serious. If you’re heard His Fleetwood mac song Dragonfly you will recognize this one as being his.

In 2007 a slightly oddball English girl, Kate Nash, had a surprise hit with Caroline’s a Victim, which is refreshingly raw in the era of computer-smooth pop.

So that’s plenty of Carolines and it doesn’t even take into account the Carolinas ( James Taylor) and Caroles of this world (Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, Al Stewart on Modern Times, Neil Sedaka singing about Carole King and so on).

Not a bad tally for a name that originally, according to some sources, meant a follower of King Charles an certainly owes its start in life to versions of that male name (Karel in German, Karol in other languages). It just has a ring to it, I suppose, and like most things about pop songs, you shouldn’t think about it too much anyway.

The wisdom of pop songs – Instrumentals

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Don’t talk. I like it when you’re silent

With the relentless rise of electronic music and the elevation of the humble DJ to the status of “musician”, it is odd that there are so few instrumentals around these days. After all, if you want to be a pop star but you don’t have the lyrical talent to back up your ability to create a beat, why not just stick to what you’re good at?

When rock’n’roll was a boy, even though a guitarist might have had only rudimentary skills, they churned out their twanging tunes as if they were Segovia anyway. The blistering, blur-of-fingers speed merchants of the 21st century could probably play everything the Shadows ever recorded while in an induced coma  for research purposes, but nobody was trying to amaze us with speed in those days.

The Shadows, in fact, are a pretty good place to start. Influential according to such surprising future stars as Neil Young, they issued smart, neat tunes with a minimum of swagger and a tone as clean as their sharp suits. Apache, FBI, Wonderful Land and all the rest showed the world what a Fender Stratocaster could sound like with no effects apart from a little echo or reverb.

Across the pond, Link Wray, a more rebellious, boundary-pushing character, gave us the classic Rumble. He did a version of Apache too, quite differently. Meanwhile pioneering London producer Joe Meek set family radio speakers alight with the keyboard-driven workout that was Telstar, in which the guitar provided a bit of mellifluous light relief in the middle section.

The 1960s was an era when rock and pop were running away with it, but middle-of-the-road bands and orchestras refused to give up, and so we had A Walk in the Black Forest by the classically trained German pianist Horst Jankowski, while Sounds Orchestral, aka orchestra leader Johnny Pearson and some pals, created Cast you Fate to the Winds. These recordings were not rock’n’roll, they weren’t cool, but they transcended fashion because they were beautiful.

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Troubled mind produces soothing sounds. Peter Green’s strange legacy

1974 saw the emergence of a group of white Scottish lads who called themselves the Average White Band and created an instant classic with Pick Up the Pieces.  And there was Focus  with Sylvia and Hocus Pocus. They were Dutch.

Then, as the Seventies got dirtier and scruffier, a suave German bandleader, James Last, ploughed a lone furrow with considerable success, while a Frenchman, Richard Clayderman, inserted some embarrassing piano-based items into friends and girlfriends’ record collections when you thought  they were into Led Zeppelin just like you were. Then came punk, which didn’t really lend itself to melodicism, and when the musicians resurfaced, it was with lyrics attached, with the odd exception such as Doctor Feelgood’s catchy but album-bound Hi Rise.

A genuine former denizen of a  rock band, Vangelis, ditched the disturbing material of Aphrodite’s Child (and yes, he is Greek) to sell millions of copies of the middle of the road stroller Chariots of Fire, while Herb Alpert, a veteran instrumental hit maker from the Sixties, revived his career with the trumpet-led Rise. This was certainly smoother and cooler than his original novelty stuff such as Spanish Flea.

Then we had Mike Post’s theme from Hill Street Blues, plus other American film or TV theme tunes, such as Harold Faltermeyer’s  Beverly Hills Cop music Axel F – and guess what, he’s German. What is it about these Europeans?

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“Odio do dodio do dodio do dodio do dodio do dodio do do bom bom”? Whatever you say, boys

The 1977 film The Deer Hunter boasted an aching instrumental lament, Cavatina, which classical guitarist John Williams had recorded before the film was made, and the Shadows did a version of it which replaced Willliams’ subtle nylon strings with the plangent ringing of the electric guitar. The purists may have scoffed but Hank Marvin and co. reaped a big hit anyway.

The bombastic, big-haired AOR acts of the 80s and 90s were too preoccupied with tales of broken hearts to simply give us a tune, but then came the freakish success of Kenny G. Sneaking into the music business as a member of Barry White’s band, the sultan of sax smuggled in a bit of easy listening under the guise of quasi jazz.

And then… almost nothing until 2013’s Harlem Shake (originally by producer Baauer), which features a few words, but not enough or in the right way to constitute lyrics.

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Carlos Santana did a lot of instrumentals early on, and what lyrics he did write were in Spanish

Is the lack of instrumentals a result of the ease with which anyone can get their words out into the world now? Or is it a reaction against the classical music tradition in which the instruments need no help to convey a message? Well, definitely not the latter. Probably not the former. Lyrics take the spotlight off the music, exposing it to greater scrutiny, so perhaps it’s something to do with that.

Or is it that they’ve got nothing to say? No. It’s no different now from how it was for Elvis Presley: nobody has ever really had anything to say. But it’s natural to want to talk.