The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

The wisdom of pop songs – It’s hard being young

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
teen 1
So you’re a teenager, eh? Can I see some ID please?

Young love manifests itself in song all the time and varies over the decades only by dint of the apparent level of innocence. When teenagers were first labelled as such in the 1950s they hit the world like a new species, and yet they seem, in retrospect, pathetically grateful to be acknowledged.

Teenager in Love, a 1959 hit for Dion and the Belmonts, sounds as if the title was written first and the song built around it (more of which next week), but like many a ditty featuring teenagers, it was written by professional songwriters well past puberty – in this case Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (Save the Last Dance for Me, Sweets for my Sweet, Suspicion et al).

Too Young was a hit in 1951 in the US for Nat ‘King’ Cole and in the UK by Jimmy Young, both of whom seemed too old rather than too young to be bleating about this.

They try to tell us we’re too young
Too young to really be in love

It has always been the teenager’s most cherished wish to be accepted as an adult and allowed to do ‘adult’ things, while refusing to get out of bed before midday and have a shower unless they have a date with the love of their embryonic life.

Longing for the day when all will be enabled has resulted in some beautiful songs, and none is more poignant t hanRuby and the Romantics’ highly emotional yet controlled Our Day Will Come, with its primitive, surging organ (the musical instrument, that is). Such is the majesty of the song that it has been recorded by scores of artists since, such as Bobby Darin, Brenda Lee, The Supremes, Fontella Bass, Isaac Hayes, The Carpenters, Dionne Warwick, K D Lang, Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

Hey Ruby! Give the guys the slip and meet me round the back, okay?

Puppy Love, written in 1960 by Paul Anka and recorded by him and others including Donny Osmond, falls on the mawkish side of the fence, but that didn’t bother millions of youngsters who moped tearfully around their bedrooms, hopelessly in love with some dork at school.

The magic age is 16, which coincidentally is the age of consent in many places. After all, if you’re that obsessed with somebody there is a fair chance that you’re going to end up with their tongue down your throat, and we all know where that leads.

In the mid 1960s it was still just about acceptable to openly lust after underage girls, as in blues songs such as Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, with its none-too-subtle declaration, “ I wanna ball you all night long”. Some people were seeing sense, though, or possibly seeing a prison sentence on the horizon. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap worried themselves sick in 1968 with Young Girl.

With all the charms of a woman
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be alone with me
That come-on look is in your eyes

teen 3
You can’t be arrested for wearing civil war gear, more’s the pity

It was a sentiment that still bothered pop stars in 1979 when Abba asked Does Your Mother Know: same scenario, hormone-driven young girl looking for trouble.

Meanwhile, the broader concept of teenagerism had been aired in the early 1970s with Alice Cooper’s Teenage Lament ’74 and T Rex’s Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream.

Brief teen sensations Alessi, two  cute twin brothers who could actually sing, brought dignity to the genre with their elegant, jazz-inflected 1976 smash Oh Lori, in which the action moves swiftly from wanting to ride his bicycle with her on the handlebars to recalling having her dance for him in her bare feet one afternoon when her feet weren’t the only things that were revealed. But that’s a teen-teen thing, and the world is more tolerant of that.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

Omigod, girls, his button’s come undone! Oops!

The Police raised the age-old problem of girl-fancies-teacher with Don’t Stand So Close to me, while Aerosmith merely strutted and lusted in true 70s rocker style on Walk This Way.

Even Steely Dan, well old enough to know better, found themselves in an age-gap romance on Hey Nineteen. Although 19 is probably old enough to do whatever you want in 99% of the universe, here it was the cultural differences proving troublesome.

Hey Nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
There’s hard times befallen the soul survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Sensible as he is, the narrator resorts to tequila and cocaine to gloss over the problem

The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing

The Ramones, never ones to let us into their troubled psyche, motored through Teenage Lobotomy, while British rock-popsters Supergrass poked fun at their junior selves with Alright.

We are young, we’ve gone green
We’ve got teeth nice and clean
See our friends, see the sights
Feel alright

Ah, youth! It’s a minefield and we all do well if we get through it unscathed.

Our Day Will Come:

Oh Lori: