The Songwriters – Bob Dylan

For a songwriter as idiosyncratic and downright awkward as Bob Dylan to have so many of his songs covered by such a variety of other artists is something of a mystery. He sings them himself in one of a variety of voices, appears to make no attempt at commercialism and yet others listen to them and hear hits.

The first to do this was Joan Baez, who was very close to him in his early days when it was just guitar and vocals and he wanted to emulate his gritty, no-frills heroes such as Woody Guthrie.

Baez did an album’s worth of Dylan covers, from Farewell Angelina and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue to Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and she didn’t do anything revolutionary with the songs – she just sang them in her pure, guileless voice and somehow something came out that wasn’t immediately apparent in the originals.

The Byrds took a different approach, though, giving them a full folk-rock treatment complete with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string  Rickenbacker guitar. The result was like putting milk on cornflakes.

Mr Tambourine Man changed from folk club staple to worldwide chart resident, but without selling out in any way (although the purists who didn’t like Dylan himself going electric probably wouldn’t have agreed). All I Really Want To Do and My Back Pages followed the same formula, giving the material a bit of melodiousness, a bit of juice. Suddenly those of us who had found him a bit dry and forbidding had those great lyrics and those hidden  tunes opened up by the band sound and the vocal harmonies.

The international hits flooded out under various banners, with British beat boomers Manfred Mann particularly partial to a bit of Bob and able to translate his heavily disguised likeability into chart hits.  If You Gotta Go and Mighty Quinn took Dylan into those little boxes of seven-inch singles where he had probably never imagined himself and elsewhere in England Fairport Convention, who had yet to embark on the traditional British folk material that would be their métier, put three Dylan songs on their Unhalfbricking album, including a French-language version of If You Gotta Go: Si Tu Dois Partir.

Fledgling jazz singer Julie Driscoll, under the musical leadership of Brian Auger and his band The Trinity, hit the jackpot with This Wheel’s On Fire.

Meanwhile back in Dylan’s homeland they were queuing up to record his stuff, with multiple versions of I’ll Keep It With Mine (including one by the high priestess of strange, Nico) and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Ray Stevens and others).

Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix drove his early girlfriend Fayne Pridgon mad by spending their last few dollars on  a Dylan album and playing it obsessively, interrupting conversations to point out this great line and that brilliant phrase. His version of All Along The Watchtower was such a brilliant treatment of the tune that Dylan himself would play that arrangement live in later years. Hendrix also did a typically sprawling version of Like A Rolling Stone, which I thought was unbeatable until I heard what Californian psychedelic outfit Spirit did with it.

The Band, who at one stage were Dylan’s backing band and with whom he recorded the legendary Basement Tapes, were perfectly positioned to snap up some gems and duly did great versions of Tears of Rage, When I Paint My Masterpiece and others.

Even Neil Young, a fellow long-term American musical hero, and not exactly short of great material, has done loads of Dylan in his live electric sets, cranked up and feeding back as ever and treating the songs as if they were his own.

As he got a bit older and perhaps less crabby, Dylan gave us some tuneful songs such as one on Blood On The Tracks, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which Madeleine Peyroux rubbed some massage oil into thus:

And to round off what is admittedly a tiny selection of what is available, one of the highlights of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album is  Dylan’s If Not for You. Olivia Newton-John did it too, but never mind.

Got your own favourite? Let me know.

Forever Young? I know, I know, it’s just not one of my favourites.

 

 

 

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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 – The drugs don’t work

drug 4
If your thing is done and you want to ride on: cocaine. Don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…

It is true to say that people who work in the music business  are more likely to use drugs than, say, bricklayers or accountants. Anyone can get hold of something if they really want to, but if you’re a professional musician, you won’t have to try too hard. It sounds like fun to many people, and most will try something and either continue with it occasionally or just decide they don’t want to do that.

Smoking cannabis is like a rite of passage in such circles, but what worries non-users who care about someone who is exposed to that world is that the same people who sell a bit of grass are quite likely to have access to other things.

The 1960s saw an explosion in freedom of choice, and for a while everyone was happy. But trouble was lurking, as Steppenwolf pointed out in The Pusher.

The dealer is a man with a lump of grass in his hand
But the pusher is a monster and God he’s not a natural man
Goddam, goddam the pusher

drug 2
Come on – do I look like I smoke dope?

Then the drug-related deaths started to happen.

Whatever you believe about the 1970 demise of Jimi Hendrix – and ‘choked on his own vomit’ tells only part of the story among the conspiracy theories –  he was no choirboy. A gentle, peaceful character by all accounts, despite the media’s portrayal of him as the ‘wild man of pop’, he was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle all right, and that didn’t mean mineral water and early nights.

Janis Joplin’s number was up around that time, too, with heroin and alcohol mentioned on the death certificate.

Jim Morrison checked out of the hotel of life soon afterwards, with heart failure blamed for his departure and no autopsy performed. A heroin overdose is widely believed to be the real cause.

And so to the death of Gram Parsons, who succumbed to a mixture of morphine and alcohol.

drug 1
The ‘Jake’ they were encouraging to clean up his act was guitarist Paul Kossoff (centre, front) and guess what – he died of  a “heroin-related heart problem”

With ‘drugs’ now considered all one thing by many people, in the US and elsewhere the ‘Just say no’ campaign sent a clear message to the youngsters who are presented, as on a conveyor belt, as potential customers for the purveyors of drugs, prescription and illegal alike. But even though the next generations couldn’t claim they weren’t aware of the dangers, and their spokespeople may have said the right things, humans are fallible.

drug 5
Yeah, cos it’s like serious. It’s by our friend Ed Sheeran and it’s called… The A Team

The bravado continued.

While the highly intelligent, studious Walter Becker of Steely Dan gained worldwide respect for his contribution to their music, he and Donald Fagen (but I suspect Walter either wrote or strongly influenced the lyrics) gave us Time Out of Mind and the blasé lines

Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold

Becker is still alive, but in 1978, before the song was released on 1980’s Gaucho album, he was sued over his girlfriend’s overdose death in his apartment. Shortly after Gaucho, Steely Dan split up and he moved to Hawaii, where apparently he managed to quit drugs altogether.

Johnny Thunders, one-time guitarist with the New York Dolls and then his own band the Heartbreakers, bragged about his drug use on Chinese Rocks and duly died a drug-related death years later.

Whitney Houston came through a stormy, cocaine-fuelled marriage to Bobby Brown, only to fall victim to her weakness in 2012.

Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album Back to Black is like a diary of her substance-abusing life. On Rehab she proudly declares that they’re trying to get her to enter a rehabilitation program but “I won’t go, go, go”.

drug 3
The man said “Why you think you’re here?”  I said “I have no idea”

It was tragically predictable that, with that wonderful album under her belt and a bountiful future ahead of her, she wouldn’t be able to get it together and live a careful life, although the terrible irony is that when alcohol finally nailed her it was because she had been dry for a while and had lost her tolerance to it, so when she hit the bottle like old times, her body couldn’t handle it.

And so it goes on. Defiant and foolhardy, the rebels carry on while knowing it can only lead to trouble.

The warning songs continue too, such as Ed Sheeran’s song The A Team, about a crack-addicted prostitute, which was covered by teen sensations One Direction.

But it won’t stop the tide. Rock’n’roll is rebellious, and if you tell it not to do something… it’s not going to listen.

The wisdom of pop songs – violence

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
hey joe
Check the lyrics: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady”.

It’s a thin line between love and hate. We know that because the song of that name says so.

In 1934 Cole Porter, the composer of countless classic songs, brought us the sad tale Miss Otis Regrets, in which the lady in question got so upset when a man had his wicked way with her and didn’t love her afterwards that she shot him. Killed him.

So much for the misty-eyed notion of the past: “Ah, more innocent times”. This was an era when Al Capone was in prison and sufferering from syphilis-induced dementia, and John Dillinger breathed his last in a hail of bullets.

Perhaps that is why there seems to have been no furore about Porter creating a bad role model and inciting people to violence. When you can’t see across the street for flying lead, what is one more seducer in the graveyard?

In today’s politically correct world, such a story of mayhem would probably be banned. That the world of rap music has largely escaped such censure for its litany of bitter diatribes and stories of drive-by shootings can only be due to the fact that the people who would like to have that sort of thing banned can’t understand the words because of da way dem muthas sing.

Confessions account for several notable pop violence ditties. When Jimi Hendrix made an international hit out of a song, Hey Joe, that had been kicking around for a few years (and we’re not even sure who wrote it), he wasn’t expressing murderous thoughts, but explaining why he had shot his girlfriend. It wouldn’t get him very far in front of a real judge and jury (ask Oscar Pistorius), but somehow Hendrix came over as a nice guy in spite of what he was telling us.

On a completely different note, Bessie Smith once sang about domestic violence and apparently excused her man for hitting her. “I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” and “I swear I won’t call no copper if I get beat up by my papa” must have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, but nothing like they would today. They are not her lyrics, in fact, because the song was written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, but even so, she was delivering the message. When Mary Coughlan recorded it in 1985, the strong-minded Irish singer switched “hit” and “quit” in the first of those lines, making her disapproval clear, and changed the second to “I swear I would call a copper…”

otis
And yes, I have a load of spare ammunition under there too

Messing around with a lyric in that way wouldn’t always work (Hey Joe, where you going with those heavy thoughts in your mind? I’m going to have a word with my old lady…), but then some songs are obviously just youthful rock’n’roll bravado while others seem relevant in reality.

A more modern take on domestic violence came in Suzanne Vega’s 1980s song Luka, which drew attention to the fact, even though the Luka character seems resigned to her fate, urging her neighbor to ignore anything that sounds like violence late at night. It is not pop music’s job to offer solutions, but it can draw our attention to things.

luka
No laughing matter: Suzanne Vega gets serious

Quite what Bob Marley thought he was doing when he admitted he shot the sheriff but denied shooting the deputy is not clear. Was shooting sheriffs okay in Jamaica at that time? Although his work is streaked with trouble with the police, Marley’s general message was that he and his fellows should be left alone to smoke ganja as and when they wanted, because they weren’t doing anyone any harm.

All of these songs, though, are from the fringes of pop: blues, rock, rap and reggae. In the simpler, more peaceful world of true pop music, from Doris Day to One Direction, no such skullduggery lurks. And anyway, it’s only rock’n’roll, so we can’t take it too seriously.