The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part II

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.





The wisdom of pop songs – Instrumentals

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
inst 1
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.