The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The wisdom of pop songs – Leaving home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
clash
The eternal question, as addressed in 1981 by The Clash

Leaving home is a source of inspiration for songwriters, perhaps because it is something we all do eventually. It’s those teenage years when we feel trapped, hemmed in by our family and a home town that seems too claustrophobic to contain us and our unique, misunderstood, restless souls.

Bettering yourself is what it’s all about, and The Animals put it as well as anyone in 1964 with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. This is often taken to mean leaving their native Newcastle-upon-Tyne in what at the time was a grimy coal mining area, the north-east of England. In fact they didn’t write it; it was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York-based songwriters who were also responsible for On Broadway, Blame it on the Bossa Nova and Saturday Night at the Movies, among many others. So they were possibly not determined to get out of anywhere in particular, but they recognized the feeling and put it into song.

Paul McCartney saw the scenario from a girl’s point of view with the tearful She’s Leaving Home, as covered by everybody from Bryan Ferry to Carrie Underwood. Just a few years later, having gone solo, McCartney released Another Day, in which the move has been made and reality has hit home, the city turning out to be full of men only interested in one thing, and only for one night, at that.

simon
You can’t start a revolution from your bedroom in your parents’ house

New York has always been a popular destination for those hoping to make it in the entertainment world, and has been celebrated in music several times, from Frank Sinatra’s assertion that “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” to Empire State of Mind, often attributed to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys but originally by two almost unheard-of Brooklyn girls who were feeling homesick while abroad. In that respect it’s not a leaving home song but a pining for home one.

Turning up in the big city doesn’t always end up well, as Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City demonstrates, the innocent hopeful from out of town gazing in awe at the “skyscrapers and everything” at the start of the song. But within four minutes he’s been banged up for five years.

An oddity among the Big Apple songs is Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, a sad tale of a local girl who may not be thinking of leaving but wishes she was at least treated better. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she laments.

Then there’s Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way to San Jose, where another starry-eyed would-be star joins the legions waiting on tables or “parking cars and pumping gas”.

Johnny Cash and June Carter played it for laughs with Jackson, a country romp by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber that was also a hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, with the men stating their intention to go to the fleshpots of a town called Jackson and give the women there the benefit of their frustrated masculinity. The women, on the other hand, predict that “they’ll lead you round the town like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs”.

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They’ll laugh at him in Jackson, won’t they, Nancy?

Bruce Springsteen’s contributes to the genre with a vivid tale in which the singer tells his girlfriend Sandy, whom he has been two-timing with a waitress, that he’s getting out of what is presumably a New Jersey seaside town of funfairs and small minds. What he is really doing, though, even as he urges her to leave town too, is trying to get her to make love with him one more time before he goes.

Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil theme tune for Midnight Cowboy, Everybody’s Talking, speaks of “going where the weather suits my clothes” to get away from people stopping and staring at him. Wherever you are, kids, it’s the same story. They don’t think you’re a genius, they just think you’re weird. And all because they know your Mum and Dad.

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When Carrie Underwood needed a great song for American Idol she went for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home

The Smiths’ London, a breathless and typically uncomfortable piece of Morrissey fiction, sees our hero on a train from (probably) Manchester to the capital, with doubt and trepidation already creeping in. “And do you think you made the right decision this time?”

Maybe. Maybe not, but you’ll never know until you try.

 

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