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 – Boats and ships

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

A couple of weeks ago we had a look at air travel through the eyes of the world’s songwriters and now it’s time to take to the water: boats.

Boating is not necessarily about long voyages; it can be about pleasure and relaxation. In 1961 a Scottish folk singer called Josh MacRae had a UK hit with a sleepy piece of whimsy called Messing About On The River, in which he extolled the virtues of taking it easy on the water. Josh wasn’t his real name – he borrowed it from  blues musician he liked. He was really Iain, and if this song is representative of his usual conversation, one can surmise that he loved his mother, went caravanning to the same loch-side location every year and sometimes treated himself to a naughty third glass of shandy. A Jack Daniels-swigging rebel he wasn’t, but what is called in the UK an anorak, as this couplet suggests:

There are tillers and rudders and anchors and cleats,
And ropes that are sometimes referred to as sheets.

Rock on, Iain. Or folk on, perhaps.

New Zealand being a former British territory, that song may well have been crooning through the speaker of the radio in the house of the young Tim Finn before he formed Split Enz and was subsequently eclipsed by his younger brother Neil, with Crowded House. Split Enz had great success with the wonderful Six Months in a Leaky Boat, a rollicking tale of life on the high seas.

The Beach Boys had already brought us Sloop John B, a folk song from the Bahamas that told of problems of drunkenness and ill health aboard the eponymous ship, leaving the narrator wanting to go home.

You don’t get this kind of thing with air travel, because it’s all over too quickly.

Many songs with boat or ship in the title actually have nothing to do with nautical matters: Bebop Deluxe’s Ships in the Night, for instance, is a figure of speech meaning two people who don’t really connect, while the Walker Brothers’ My Ship Is Coming In is another way of saying his fortunes are changing and “things are gonna be different now”.

One of this blog’s favourite songs on any subject is perfect here, though: Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, a beautifully crafted story of British sailors thousands of miles from home and settling on a remote island. Lyricist Keith Reid put the words in Gary Brooker’s mouth – he also created the psychedelic strangeness of A Whiter Shade of Pale – and perhaps because he wasn’t singing them himself, he had a poetic flair and breadth of vision that is all too rare in pop music.

We fired the gun, and burned the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand

Rod Stewart’s massive hit Sailing, a song of love and loneliness, was written by Gavin Sutherland of the Sutherland Brothers, who enjoyed considerable success in their own right but are probably sick to death of the song, if not the royalties.

Christopher Cross’s song of the same name seems to tell of his love for being out on the water himself, forgetting his worldly cares because “the canvas can do miracles”.

Much less well known but equally brilliant are two songs by The Band. Rocking Chair, on their second album, the one with Up on Cripple Creek and Rag Mama Rag, features an ageing  man urging his friend Willie to join him in retiring from their seafaring life because they’re simply too old.

I spent my whole life at sea
And I’m pushing age 73
Now there’s only one place that was meant for me

Later came Evangeline, which sounds like a Canadian folk song but was actually written by guitarist Robbie Robertson just in time to be tacked onto the end of the film The Last Waltz. A tale of a riverboat gambler and his drowning  while his love watches, helpless, from a hilltop, it features the voices of Rick Danko and Levon Helm, with the girl portrayed by Emmylou Harris.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary evokes a similar era, albeit far less dramatically.

A completely different angle comes from Elvis Costello with Shipbuilding, which was also a hit for Robert Wyatt. Set in the tough economic times of the early 1980s when the Falklands war was generating money for the north of England and Scotland because war ships needed to be built, it’s about as appealing as a politically-motivated song can be.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday…

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

And on that somber note, The Wisdom of Pop Songs will see you next Friday.

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.

Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmS473ToPW8

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – odes to wine

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Would you like to taste it, Sir? Or just hurl it down your neck?

Drinking is a significant part of the rock’n’roll lifestyle and songwriters like to tell us about it.  In the early days they had an obsession with sweet wine, which is understandable, because wine was considered a sophisticated drink, but in many countries people didn’t know much about it and their tastes were not as sophisticated as their ambitions.

While the French and the Italians might have known a thing or two because it was part of their culture, in the UK (and, I suspect, the US) all people could relate to was what would now be considered dessert wines: Sauternes and so on are smooth and sweet and as such more attractive to the unrefined palate.

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, a hit for both Jimmie Rodgers and Frankie Vaughan in the late 1950s, was written by the American folk group The Weavers. As it is only a song lyric, there is little point in wondering whether the lady’s kisses actually tasted sweeter than wine (and if so, sweeter than sweet wine or dry wine?) or if it was the feelings associated with the kisses that were sweet in the emotional sense.

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With your own winery, there’s no more late night trips to the booze shop

In these politically correct and health-conscious days, there is no place for a song that promotes excessive alcohol intake, such as Mario Lanza’s Drink Drink Drink, from The Student Prince, but then that’s not rock’n’roll anyway – and it’s not about wine. It was a hearty, back-slapping, rousing  show tune from the days when men were men and women were nervous, and the lusty young studs were egging each other on to inevitable drunken oblivion with steins of German beer, while celebrating the girls who were to be the recipients of their boozy overtures later, if they were still sober enough to manage it.

While the demon drink took its toll on some of music’s biggest names from Bill Haley to George Jones, others made it part of the act. Dean Martin had a sizeable hit with Little Old Wine Drinker Me.

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Old Pink Eyes is back

I am indebted to  the fiercely independent Modern Drunkard magazine for information about Thunderbird wine, made by the American  company that is now E & J Gallo. This was cheap stuff that came in a screwcap bottle (now respectable but at that time denoting “bum wine” ideal for getting bladdered on a park bench, or at home if you were posh).

In his tribute to a rock’n’roll legend, Sweet Gene Vincent, Ian Dury wondered aloud:

Shall I mourn your decline
With some Thunderbird wine
And a black handkerchief?

Former  Bob Dylan cohorts The Band, who went on to fully-fledged stardom themselves with songs reflecting life from the old-time working class man’s point of view, delivered one the alcoholic’s most ill-advised retorts to his nagging woman with:

You just ain’t as sweet as my strawberry wine

Tragically, Richard Manuel, one of their three lead singers (although he didn’t sing this one) was downing five bottles of Grand Marnier a day before he eventually hanged himself.

In 1966 at least some people could see that drinking wasn’t without its consequences. The Greenwoods had a worldwide hit with a song supposedly sung by a little girl to the local bar owner:

Please don’t sell my daddy no more wine, no more wine
Mama don’t want him drinking all the time
Please don’t sell my daddy no more wine, no more wine
He may be no good, but he’s still mine

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Yes, but LILAC- are you sure?

In the rock world, good sense and sobriety are just not considered cool, though, and odes to the fermented grape continued, with the likes of Red Red Wine, written by Neil Diamond and a huge hit decades later for British reggae band UB40.

An old song from 1950, Lilac Wine, may have been another product of someone who didn’t know much about alcoholic beverages, but it served many artists well, with successful versions by everyone from Nina Simone and Elkie Brooks to Miley Cyrus and John Legend. Might be a bit much on its own, but maybe okay in a cocktail.