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SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop

 

Sublime Moments In Pop

 

Jonathan Westwood

Pithead Publishing

London

 

Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Westwood

 

All rights reserved. Jonathan Westwood asserts his moral rights to be identified as the author of this book.

 

Sockdolager Limited trading as Pithead Publishing

Room 6334

Chynoweth House

Trevissome Park

Blackwater

Truro

TR4 8UN

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contents

Sublime Moments In Pop 1

INTRODUCTION 1

INTRODUCTION 1

SMIP #1
Happy Together
by The Turtles 7

SMIP #1
Happy Together
by The Turtles 7

SMIP #2
Have I The Right?
by The Honeycombs 11

SMIP #2
Have I The Right?
by The Honeycombs 11

SMIP #3
Union City Blue
by Blondie 16

SMIP #3
Union City Blue
by Blondie 16

SMIP #4
Atmosphere
by Joy Division 21

SMIP #4
Atmosphere
by Joy Division 21

SMIP #5
Soul Man
by Sam & Dave 27

SMIP #5
Soul Man
by Sam & Dave 27

SMIP #6
She’s A Mystery To Me
by Roy Orbison 34

SMIP #6
She’s A Mystery To Me
by Roy Orbison 34

SMIP #7A
Cars And Girls
by Prefab Sprout 42

SMIP #7A
Cars And Girls
by Prefab Sprout 42

SMIP #7B
Thunder Road
by Bruce Springsteen 48

SMIP #7B
Thunder Road
by Bruce Springsteen 48

SMIP #9
Walk Away Renee (Version)
by Billy Bragg 61

SMIP #9
Walk Away Renee (Version)
by Billy Bragg 61

SMIP #10
Strawberry Fields Forever
by The Beatles 70

SMIP #10
Strawberry Fields Forever
by The Beatles 70

 

 

 

For Charlie and Lorcan

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

YOU HAVE NEVER MET a cooler seven-year-old than me.

I don’t care what my family, former schoolmates or teachers might have to say on the subject: I was Joe Fucking-Cool at the age of 7½.

And I say this with confidence because, at that most tender of ages, I bought a Sex Pistols single on its first release and helped it reach number three in the charts.

How’d you like them apples?

 

—-

 

Now, I am prepared to make a couple of very small concessions regarding the lowness of my childhood temperature.

OK, yes, the Sex Pistols had effectively split up about 18 months before the single in question was released in the summer of 1979.

And, yes, the singer of the single (who wasn’t the Pistols’ real singer and, in fact, wasn’t even an original member of the band) had fatally overdosed six months before it saw the light of day.

And, all right, Sid Vicious’ “interpretation” of C’Mon Everybody was an epically pisspoor cover version of a 1958 Eddie Cochran song, about which even Malcolm McLaren must have had some reservations about inflicting on the public.

So if we’re being absolutely didactic about matters, I guess I didn’t technically buy a punk single during the glory days of punk.

But punk came late, and in a diluted form, to the pit towns of the East Midlands, OK? When it came, I was there. That’s what matters.

And I had great taste, because Eddie Cochran’s original version of C’Mon Everybody is still the mutt’s nuts.

Anyway, let’s not detract from the real issue here.

I was 7½-years-old.

They were The bloody Sex Pistols.

Mum: what were you thinking…?

 

—-

 

My point—amazingly I do have one, of sorts—is that I was a precocious little brat where pop music was concerned. I started early and, 35 years on, I’m still not through with it, even if I no longer pore over the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles or listen to the charts.

In fact, my obsession started well before my punk phase.

I remember being so enthralled by the movie Grease in 1978 that I emotionally blackmailed my poor, dear Mum into taking me to see it at the local ABC cinema three times. Culpability for my behaviour is excusable because of the utter and indisputable loveliness of Saint Olivia Newton-John.

(Though have you actually listened to the lyrics of Greased Lightnin’? Have you considered the movie’s plot? Teenage sex, unwanted pregnancy, delinquency, mooning. Again, I think it’s reasonable to at least question my Mum’s judgment in matters of child rearing…)

Nobody sentient over Christmas 1977 could have avoided—or failed to come to loathe with a vengeance—Wings’ execrable Mull Of Kintyre and its bloody bagpipes. Apart, apparently, from the two million-plus Britons who inexplicably handed over good money for that particular seven-inch piece of vinyl. To paraphrase the Daily Mail: if you all love the Mull of bloody Kintyre so much, why don’t you go and live there?

In fact, while I don’t actually remember this incident, it would seem I was already immersed in pop music as a five-year-old, when I apparently bounded off a Chesterfield Corporation bus one August morning in 1977 to break the news to my waiting grandmother that it was, “a bad job about Elvis”.

Which it was.

A very bad job indeed.

Seems I’ve always called it as I’ve seen it.

 

—-

 

Pop music matters to me and I’ve always thought that, while much of it is meant to be consumed and almost instantly disposed, some of it has always stood apart as works of art that deserved to be taken more seriously than The Establishment—yes, Brian Sewell et al, I’m looking (disdainfully) at you—would have it.

But in fairness, this book is not about pop music as art. This is about those parts of pop music that make you want to bounce around your bedroom wearing nothing but your underwear as you sing along at the top of your lungs.

When I talk about pop music in this book I’m simply referring in general to popular contemporary music. I’m not interested in defining genres further than that. A particular single may be ‘pop’, it may be soul, rock, R&B, metal, rock’n’roll, whatever: it just doesn’t matter. In fact, to a large extent, the song or single itself doesn’t even matter for the purposes of this book.

Some of the ten entries are brilliant songs and/or stunning singles in their entirety, but some are not. Because this book is not about whether or not Soul Man is a great song or great single. (Though it is both.) This book is about whether one particular moment in Soul Man is knicker-wettingly great.

Which it must be, because it’s in this book.

 

—-

 

As we apparently live in a multimedia world, I’ve created a Spotify playlist of (most of) the songs featured or referred to in this book, so you can listen to what I’m blathering on about.

The Beatles’ back catalogue isn’t on Spotify (at the time of writing), so there’s no Strawberry Fields Forever on that playlist. But you already own Strawberry Fields Forever, don’t you? (You do, right? I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with you reading further if you don’t already own and revere Strawberry Fields Forever…)

The Spotify playlist is at http://klik.to/smipplay.

And if you like—or at least don’t loathe—what you read, there are details of how to obtain a “special hidden bonus SMIP” at the end of the book. It’s a complimentary bonus I’ve created just for you, as a token of my undying love.

Yada, yada, yada… Enough.

Let’s dive headfirst into Popworld and explore ten Sublime Moments In Pop.

 

 

[2]

SMIP #1
Happy Together
by The Turtles

Ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba.

Ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba.”

[1:44-2:02]

 

MUCH AS THIS LYRIC should probably more rightly have formed part of the Cypriot Eurovision Song Contest entry for 1958, this 18-second-long joyous invocation of the unbridled joy of head-over-heels-in-love-ness provides our first Sublime Moment In Pop.

Co-written by songwriting team Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, Happy Together was turned down by various bands and singers before The Turtles started playing it as part of their live set. Arranged by bassist Chip Douglas, the 1967 studio recording builds from a gentle, almost apologetic, opening guitar riff [0:00-0:07] to tell the age-old story of unrequited yearning.

Should our protagonist pick up the phone and call the girl he loves? “If I should call you up, invest a dime,” accompanied by a low-in-the-mix piano (the only solo piano in the song, a lovely touch) tinkling to mimic the sound of a phone ringing [0:27-0:28].

The familiar chorus—“I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life/ When you’re with me, baby, the skies will be blue for all my life!”—is an overblown cacophony of trumpets, trombones, tubas, percussion and layer upon layer of vocals that arguably captures the giddy exuberance of youthful love as well as any other pop record before or since.

The arrangement and production of this record is so perfect that, in the second repeat of the verse, there’s even an oboe weaving a sublime pattern [1:28-1:44] beneath the vocals before the crescendo into the irresistible confection of the ba-ba-ba rendition of the chorus that makes this record one of the few genuine contenders for The Perfect Three-Minute Pop Song (2 minutes 52 seconds from start to finish).

The pay-off (too often dismissed as jokey frippery)—“How is the weather?” [2:21-2:22]—is in fact our hero bottling the task at hand, admitting that even if he does invest his dime he won’t be able to tell his girl how he feels.

Keith West had his Excerpt From A Teenage Opera; but Happy Together is the full Monty.

It would be wrong to dismiss the song as just another piece of the bubble-gum fluff in the belly-button of the Summer of Love, for this is one of the songs that pre-dated and influenced the Summer of ’67: the single was recorded in March 1967—just a couple of weeks after the release of Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane heralded the new vibe—and released a month later. It’s not cutting edge, but neither is it Scott Mackenzie’s pappy San Francisco.

It is only fitting that it should take something special to knock Penny Lane from the top of the Billboard Hot 100: Happy Together was just that special (and was itself replaced after three weeks by something stupid called Somethin’ Stupid). While the band produced a handful of hits Stateside either side of Happy Together, nothing would—or could—ever top this, their crowning achievement.

True to form, the British record-buying public proved their cluelessness by helping the single limp to only number 12 for two weeks while the chronic Somethin’ Stupid and musical crime against humanity that is Puppet On A String sat at number one; The Turtles’ follow-up hits She’d Rather Be With Me and Elenore both made the British Top 10.

Within three years of releasing Happy Together, The Turtles were no more but the band’s finest moment took on a life of its own and has been used in countless movies, TV programmes and—spit—advertisements for products as diverse as cars, chewing gum and electricity, in the process deservedly becoming the 44th most broadcast record of the 20th century in the USA.

 

 

[3]

SMIP #2
Have I The Right?
by The Honeycombs

Grrrrr…”

[0:32-0:33]

 

SOME THINGS SIMPLY SHOULDN’T work—for example, the aerodynamics of a bumblebee; OJ Simpson’s defences; Patrick Kielty.

A record with slightly-out-of-tune guitars, vocals that sound like they were recorded with a bucket over the singer’s head and drums that somehow manage to be simultaneously both a yard in front of and a metre behind the beat, recorded by a band whose members included a professional hairdresser, and produced by an emotionally unstable megalomaniac, should definitely be one such thing.

And yet, and yet…

The sum is so extraordinarily greater than its parts—the very thing that makes pop music so irresistible—that this is the setting for our second Sublime Moment In Pop.

Have I The Right? was an August 1964 number one for The Honeycombs: beginning life as The Sheratons, the band comprised drummer Ann “Honey” Lantree, lead guitarist Martin Murray (day job: coiffeur), Honey’s older brother John on bass, Alan Ward on rhythm guitar and lead vocalist Dennis D’Ell (born Denis Dalziel).

They were spotted playing in a London pub by the pioneering and unconventional independent producer Joe Meek, who became their manager. At a later gig as part of their residency at the Mild May Tavern in the East End, they were seen by song writing team Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley—the closest thing to Stock Aitken Waterman early 60s Britain could offer, the duo wrote hits for Lulu, Petula Clark, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and their song I’ve Lost You was recorded by someone called Elvis Presley—who sent them back off to Meek with their new song Have I The Right?

The words “troubled” and “genius” might have been struck for Joe Meek, whose life and death have been the source for at least three biographies, a stage play, a movie, and a raft of documentaries.

The Tornados were the first British band to top the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1962 with the Meek produced and composed Telstar (a record inexplicably beloved by Margaret Thatcher). Meek wrote or produced for artists as diverse as Lonnie Donegan, John Leyton (the number one Johnny Remember Me) and Humphrey Lyttelton while harbouring an unhealthy obsession with Buddy Holly and repressing a gay lifestyle that would not be decriminalised until 1967 or accepted until much later.

Unable to read or write music, Meek nevertheless produced and/or wrote 40 UK chart hits between 1957 and 1964, creating a style as distinctive as Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound but via the use of overdubbing, echo, reverb and intense compression rather than the cavalcade of musicians Spector favoured. Installing The Honeycombs into his three-floor flat/recording studio complex at 304 Holloway Road, Islington (above a “leather goods shop”—it must be a euphemism, though I’m not sure for what), Meek set about crafting what would transpire to be his last big hit.

The band’s USP was its female drummer, so Meek—naturally—set out about burying Honey’s drumming beneath a wall of percussion, handclaps and thumping “bass drums” that were actually a recording of the band members stamping their feet on the staircase of 304 Holloway Road while Meek stood at the same time with one foot in his bath and the other banging out the rhythm on his bathroom’s floorboards, microphone wires trailing the height of the flat to a two-track recorder in a top-floor bedroom. Compressing the “drums” track to within an inch of its life created a sound that remains unique and beguiling, despite not all band members being quite as adept at keeping steady time as the fragrant Ms. Lantree. How Honey felt about her drumming going virtually unheard on her band’s number one single is unrecorded.

D’Ell’s vocal technique reminds the listener of Gene Pitney on amphetamines, a double-tracked tremulous vibrato, straining—not always entirely successfully—for some of the chorus’s higher notes. Murray’s guitar (almost certainly manipulated electronically by Meek during the recording) forever teeters precariously on the brinks of flat and sharp. The keyboard runs in the verses (played by Ward) represent Meek’s only obvious nod towards his beloved electronica.

Individually, there remains relatively little to commend this slightly iffy recording—the final sound as the track fades out [2:54] is of fingers lifting from a fret board—but its collective vibrancy stands as a headlong rush through the sort of lyric that simply couldn’t be written today.

If read as a plain love song, long gone are the days when a boy might first stop to consider whether or not his advances might actually be welcomed; if read as the coded gay rights anthem many believe it to be, that fight has thankfully been won.

But that victory came too late for Meek. Having been charged with “importuning for immoral purposes” in 1963, Meek was subsequently blackmailed.

In January 1967, police in Suffolk discovered a suitcase containing the mutilated body of Bernard Oliver, an alleged rent boy who was known to have associated with Meek.

His musical career all but over and his mind affected by drugs and the stress of the police investigation, on 3 February 1967—eight years to the day after Buddy Holly died in a plane crash—Meek murdered his landlady Violet Shenton before turning his shotgun on himself.

Surfing the wave of the British Invasion that overwhelmed America in 1964, The Honeycombs took Have I The Right? to number five in the Billboard chart, lasted a couple more years and managed a handful of further, minor hits on both sides of the Atlantic before disbanding.

Dennis D’Ell died in 2005 but two versions of The Honeycombs, one led by Martin Murray as the only original member, still perform today. Have I The Right? and D’Ell’s lascivious, growled introduction to its chorus resonates to this day.

Legend has it that Joe Meek turned down, at various times, the chance to produce The Beatles, David Bowie and Rod Stewart, but the list of those with whom he did work is still pretty impressive—Tom Jones, Gene Vincent, Billy Fury, Frankie Vaughan (for whom he produced the legendary lesbian-chic chart-topper Green Door), Shirley Bassey, Tommy Steele…

Today, a blue plaque rightly hangs on the wall of 304 Holloway Road and Meek is recognised for having developed recording techniques that would soon propel The Beach Boys and The Beatles to artistic heights that could not have been reached without his pioneering genius.

 

 

[4]

SMIP #3
Union City Blue
by Blondie

Drum intro

[0:00-0:32]

 

SOME SMIPs REVOLVE AROUND profound lyrics. Some SMIPs revolve around painstakingly constructed aural soundscapes. Some SMIPs warrant intricate dissection.

This SMIP isn’t like that.

This SMIP is just a mad bloke belting seven shades of shit out of his drum kit for 30 seconds.

 

—-

 

The history of Blondie is a saga that has been recounted countless times by better and more authoritative writers than me. Suffice to say that today, 40 years on, only three of the seven founding members of a band then called Angel And The Snake are still standing—guitarist Chris Stein, vocalist and general deity Debbieorah Harry and drummer Clem Burke.

(Keyboard player Jimmy Destri retired in 2004; bassist Gary Valentine left in 1978 just as the band began to achieve success, replaced first by Frank Infante and then, when Infante took up second guitar duties, by Stockport’s own Nigel Harrison; singing sisters Tish and Eileen ‘Snooky’ Bellomo came and went very quickly.)

Burke—a rock’n’roll survivor who really has been there, seen it and done it all—is a whirling dervish, perpetual motion machine of a drummer. If it’s there to be hit, Burke’s going to hit it. Hard.

Where some of pop’s best and most successful drummers are there to hold things steady and blend into the background—the Charlie Watts and Larry Mullens of this parish—Burke sees himself as an entertainer first and foremost. Sticks are twirled, sticks are thrown, sticks are dropped: but you never forget he’s there.

Said Blondie producer Mike Chapman of Burke: “Clem had this attitude that he was Keith Moon and just wanted to play EVERY drum ALL of the time. My first challenge was to get him to play in time.”

When Blondie first split up in 1982, Burke became one of pop’s most in-demand drummers: The Eurythmics, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Bob Dylan, Nancy Sinatra and The Ramones are just a few of the acts to have benefitted from Burke’s tub-thumping either in the studio or on tour before Blondie’s second coming in 1998.

When Jimmy Destri’s vintage Maria hit number one in February 1999, Blondie became the only American act to have UK number one singles in each of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Nigel Harrison wrote the music for Union City Blue; Harry provided the lyric, inspired by the movie she was filming in 1979, Marcus Reichart’s extremely odd Union City and its location. (The song does not appear in the movie.)

Union City itself lies in the state of New Jersey and is one of the most densely populated cities in the USA, with more than 67,000 citizens crammed into just 1¼ square miles. Joined to Manhattan by the Lincoln Tunnel, wave after wave of immigrants have made up Union City’s resolutely working class population, working in its docks (on which the main part of the song’s video was filmed, Burke and his drum kit banished to the upper deck) and manufacturing factories. The Union Dry Dock office building can be seen over Burke’s shoulder in the early shots of the video.

Harrison says: “When I started it, I tried to come up with one of those anthemic flag and banner songs.”

He succeeded.

From the pulsating intro [0:00-0:16] to the full-on main riff [0:16-0:31] and Harry’s early moans of the first chorus—“Oh-ho, oh-ho: what are we gonna do?” [0:32-0:37]—this record is defiantly in the listener’s face.

When the band breaks things down after the second verse and third chorus [2:00-2:04—four seconds and no drumming!] it’s almost an act of mercy, allowing the listener to gather breath and sensibility for a final push over the top.

Harrison’s bass [2:04] heralds in that last minute-long onslaught, a never-ending sonic wave of cymbals and drums breaking over a sea of guitars, while one of pop’s best female voices writhes around with trademark silk and steel phrasing.

The song repeats to fade—a song that doesn’t stop, a feeling that doesn’t end. “What are we gonna do?” We are going to submit absolutely, Goddess Debbieorah—even if we’re eight years old and haven’t a clue what it is to which we are submitting.

There are fewer than 100 words in this song’s entire lyric (and half of those are indistinct—despite loving this record for almost 35 years I genuinely didn’t know the word “turquoise” featured [1:32] until I started researching this SMIP) and the recording is an archetypal straightforward guitar, drum and bass thrash with a bit of synth low in the mix [most prominent at 1:50-2:00].

Blondie—perhaps the best singles band in pop history apart from The Beatles and ABBA—released a run of 13 almost flawless UK Top 15 hits in 5½ years.

Union City Blue, never released as a single in the States, was the lowest charting of their singles in that run, peaking at number 13 in December 1979.

It was the final record I bought before I was consigned to a two-year, four-month long pop culture exile in the Middle East. By the time I got back to the UK, Blondie were no more.

The unexpected reunion allowed me to fulfil one of my outstanding musical desires—to see the band live. On 22 November 1998 at the Lyceum Theatre in London I was privileged to witness the re-formed Blondie launch their second coming. Harry exuded sass (there’s no other word for it) and I dug the Mrs. Robinson vibe, at least until my wife slapped me a couple of times. The hits brought the house down and tears to my eyes.

It would only later emerge that Harrison and Infante had been excluded from the reunion and unsuccessfully sued the other original members in an attempt to prevent them from using the name.

Union City Blue isn’t the band’s best record—that honour falls to the colossal Atomic (from the same album, Eat To The Beat)—but its throbbing intensity and Burke’s manic percussive noise propelling the show along makes it one of the most perfect, sing-along-at-full-volume driving records ever made. It’s what Monday morning commutes to work were made for.

 

 

[5]

SMIP #4
Atmosphere
by Joy Division

Synthesizer and peal of chimes

[4:01-4:03]

 

IT IS ONE OF the spooky coincidences to spring from the digitization of music that my old iPod’s shuffle function should have played me this SMIP as I drove to work on the day on which Anton Corbijn’s excellent movie biography of Ian Curtis, Control, was released.

(Another such coincidence was another old iPod’s unnatural attachment to Suzanne Vega’s Luka, something I was delighted to discover changed when Apple had to replace my unit under warranty when its hard drive failed. I absolutely refute any suggestion that I threw that iPod against a wall when Ms. Vega’s voice piped up once too often. Mind you, the replacement iPod proved to have an unnatural attachment to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, proof you should be careful what you wish for.)

Atmosphere—initially entitled Chance—was perhaps not the best track to play to oneself while driving up the A1(M) to a job you despise at 6.45am on a dark, misty and chilly autumn morning in 2007, but there you go. It was either that or take the back roads and pass a road sign for a place called Souldrop. Either way, it was hard to get fired up for another ten hours in that particular office…

It is practically impossible to separate Joy Division’s music from Ian Curtis’s mental illness: it is too easy to read into every line that Curtis’s lyrics and their Voice Of Doom delivery were a prolonged cry for help that went unheeded. The typical images of Curtis—monochromic, swathed in industrial shadows, or sweating and maniacally wide-eyed, lost in his music, on stage—reinforce the impression of a soul far deeper and darker than his band mates or friends ever seemed to notice.

Curtis’s Wikipedia entry has it that, “Many of Curtis’ writings were filled with cavernous-deep imagery of emotional isolation, death, alienation and urban degeneration.” Atmosphere is no different:

My illusion, worn like a mask of self-hate,

Confronts and then dies.

Don’t walk away.

People like you find it easy…

[1:49-2:39]

It’s another Curtis lyric about desolate isolation. When a 23-year-old father hangs himself, how can lyrics like this have been anything but a desperate plea?

Shortly before his own death, Joy Division’s label boss Tony Wilson told a BBC documentary about Factory Records that two weeks before Curtis’s suicide he asked Curtis’s mistress, Annik Honore, what she thought of the band’s just-completed second album, Closer: “She goes, ‘I’m terrified.’ I said, ‘What are you terrified of?’ She replies, ‘Don’t you understand? He means it.’ And I go, ‘No, he doesn’t mean it—it’s art.’ And guess what, he fucking meant it.”

Even had Curtis’s life not ended as and when it did, it would be difficult to imagine a band whose output—lyrical and musical—so comprehensively introduced its audience to life’s bleakest aspects and enraged alienation. My Chemical Romance didn’t know they were born.

For me, Atmosphere’s appeal has remarkably little to do with Ian Curtis’s lyrics or his performance (which is nevertheless one of his best). This record’s chief appeal lies in its arrangement, production and, in particular, the shimmering keyboard flourishes (played by Bernard Sumner) that bookend each verse—“produced to sound like rays of light from the heavens, a beautiful contrast of light against the heavy rhythmic doom down below”, as allmusic.com’s Ned Raggett would have it.

The fondly shambolic presentation of Factory Records’ in-house producer, the late Martin Hannett, in Michael Winterbottom’s movie 24 Hour Party People and as the butt of countless anecdotes suggests just another producer in the “mad genius” vein of Phil Spector and Joe Meek. But, by Christ, he knew his way around a recording studio and a mixing desk. The bands may not always have liked Hannett’s finished product or the methods by which he achieved his recordings, but it is unthinkable now to imagine that he was anything less than a fifth, unofficial member of Joy Division, the midwife assisting the birth of Factory Records and a thousand legends and urban myths.

The surviving (rarely satisfactory) live recordings of Joy Division showcase aspects of the band that appear only infrequently in their studio work (though both demonstrate that Morris merits serious consideration as one of the best drummers in rock and pop history—it’s perversely delicious that the song with which he is most associated, New Order’s Blue Monday, utilises a drum machine; how I would love to believe that the story in 24 Hour Party People of Hannett once making Morris play his drum kit on the studio roof was true), but Hannett’s studio work adds a dimension to the band’s songs that a more conventional producer would surely never have achieved.

Joy Division’s live sound depended largely on Sumner’s jagged guitar assault to create an industrial soundscape, augmented by Morris’s imperious timekeeping and crisp snare. Hannett’s studio recordings push Peter Hook’s bass and Morris’s drums more to the fore, bathing the latter in particular in reverb and echo. Sumner’s guitars were softened and quietened in the mix, complemented by his synthesizer work in a manner that, as a man with just the two arms, he obviously could not emulate on stage.

Atmosphere—recorded in October and November 1979, before the Closer sessions, but only released posthumously—represents, alongside Love Will Tear Us Apart, the first signs that Joy Division’s sound was evolving from its post-punk roots into (or at least making the occasional concession to) more mainstream rock.

Opening with Hook’s haunting bass line and Sumner’s layered synths, the record quickly combines Hook’s twists with ritualistic bursts from Morris’s drum kit [from 0:03], building to create an ethereal aural canvas on which Curtis laid down an atypically controlled baritone performance [from 0:25]. Sumner’s guitar is not even introduced until 3:21.

By the final, scintillating release of synthesizer and peal of chimes [4:01-4:03], those listeners to Atmosphere prepared to submit to its mesmerising meanderings should be crying, smiling or—best of all—both.

Drink, drugs and obesity did for Hannett, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991, aged 42. With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to claim that he achieved anything of substance (pun intended) other than produce Joy Division’s studio work and New Order’s first album—but as a good friend of mine sometimes puts it: “Fuck it, that was a good life in the office.”

Hannett’s outstanding achievement, Atmosphere was voted by listeners to John Peel’s show as the best song of the millennium. There are higher accolades, but that’ll do.

 

 

[6]

SMIP #5
Soul Man
by Sam & Dave

Play it, Steve!”

[1:15]

 

OF ALL THE UNDERAPPRECIATED legends of Sixties soul music Stephen Lee Cropper, a pasty-faced white boy born in October 1941 on a Missouri farm, perhaps leads the field. In 1950 the Cropper family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. A late musical starter, Cropper was ten when he played a guitar for the first time, getting his own instrument only when he was 14.

He soon became a founding member of the band The Royal Spades. The Royal Spades became The Mar-Keys. The Mar-Keys became one of the first Stax Records acts to make the charts, with 1961’s Last Night.

Cropper left the Mar-Keys to become the A&R man for Stax, the Memphis-based Atlantic Records affiliate that ran neck-and-neck with, and often bested, Tamla Motown throughout the soul decade. Simultaneously he was a founding member of the Stax house band, Booker T. & The MGs, and became one of Stax’s lead producers.

While Motown’s Funk Brothers were content to stand in the shadows of their label, the MGs—with Booker T. Jones on organ/piano, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr.—were more than just any old house band. Best known in the UK for 1967’s Soul Limbo (the BBC’s long-standing cricket coverage title music) and in the US for the 1962 hit Green Onions, the MGs were innovative hit makers in their own right, defined the Memphis Soul sound (alongside The Memphis Horns) and influenced the very best: The Beatles famously kissed Cropper’s hands when they met for the first time, claimed that they had based Day Tripper’s guitar riff on Duck Dunn’s bass line on Otis Redding’s original recording of Respect and initially intended to record their Revolver album in Stax’s Memphis studio. (In 1970 the MGs released the sublime and fantastically-titled album McLemore Avenue—named for the street on which the Stax studio was located—reinterpreting The Beatles’ Abbey Road album as three instrumental suites.)

When not engaged in one of the above roles, Cropper also found the time to co-write singles such as Knock On Wood (with Eddie Floyd) and In The Midnight Hour (with Wilson Pickett) and strike up a formidable partnership with Otis Redding, with whom he composed (among many others) the hits Pain In My Heart, Mr. Pitiful and the sixth most-played record of all time on American radio, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. It is probably Cropper’s long-standing collaboration with Redding for which he is most lauded: “I don’t know what it is about Otis’s voice,” Cropper once said. “He just makes my guitar sound better.”

Redding’s cruelly early death in a 1967 plane crash marked the beginning of the end for Stax—the label’s suits shamefully had Cropper in the studio finishing Dock Of The Bay before Redding’s body had even been recovered. By 1971 the label had also lost Cropper, Booker T. and its star writers Issac Hayes and David Porter, as well as its distribution deal with Atlantic. But for that magnificent soul decade, the Stax star shone brighter than any other in the firmament—while Motown had more hits (a scarcely credible 110 US top ten singles in the decade from 1961 to 1971), Stax made up in quality for what it lacked in quantity.

Cropper was at the heart of it all, but claimed he “really didn’t learn to play fluent lead guitar until after” he left Stax.

Shoot, guitarists are all different. For years I’d see guitarist come into the studio and change their guitar strings before each session. Man, I never changed my guitar strings! I’d let ’em stretch into place and play ’em forever. I’d even apply Chap Stick to my guitar strings to break ’em in and enable my fingers to slide across the neck. It just made the guitar sound so much better that way.”

While undoubtedly underappreciated, it would be wrong to say that Cropper’s work has been entirely overlooked: he was voted the best living guitarist by fellow musicians in Mojo magazine in 1996. It is therefore ironic that some of his simplest guitar work should be the catalyst for this SMIP.

Samuel Moore and David Prater—southern boys tutored in the ways of gospel—met in Florida in 1961, unsuccessfully recording for several years before being signed to Atlantic Records and handed off to Stax in 1965. Initially paired with Cropper as the act’s writer and producer (he co-wrote and produced four of their earliest Stax singles), it was chiefly with the later help of the MGs and songwriters/producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter that Sam & Dave created a sublime body of sweaty urban soul throughout the late Sixties that epitomizes Southern R&B, at one stage making the Billboard R&B Top 20 with ten successive single releases, though familiarity and drug misuse quickly bred contempt to the extent that the duo barely spoke off-stage and their act was put out of its misery in 1970.

Sporadic reunions throughout the Seventies and the emergence of The Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live (an act that heavily borrowed from Sam & Dave’s stage performances—Dan Aykroyd later said, “If there wasn’t a Sam Moore, there never would have been a Jake and Elwood.”) kept the act’s name in the public eye, despite the pair’s respective drug addictions. (Prater would be arrested in 1987 for selling crack to an undercover policeman.)

Written and produced by Hayes and Porter, 1967’s swaggering calling card Soul Man featured all the members of Booker T. & the MGs (except for Booker himself; Hayes filled in on piano) and The Memphis Horns. Cropper jangles an uncomplicated guitar riff in the key of G as an introduction [0:00-0:08] and the Memphis Horns add light and shade [from 0:08] while Sam and Dave’s shouted call and response sets out their stall to the object of their affection:

Good lovin’ – I got a truck load;

And when you get it – huh! – you got somethin’.

So don’t worry – ’cause I’m comin’…

[0:22-0:33]

So, honey, [I] said, “Don’t you fret,

Cause you ain’t seen nothing yet”…

[1:00-1:07]

I was brought up on a side street – listen now!

I learned how to love before I could eat.

[1:25-1:33]

A simple slide guitar lick from Cropper [0:41] complements the chanted chorus [0:34-0:49] emphatically proclaiming Sam and Dave’s status as men well and truly of soul. During the second chorus [1:08-1:23] Sam yells out, “Play it, Steve!” [1:15] while Cropper reprises that simplest of four-note solos [1:14-1:16].

In the rich history of ad libs, yells and asides, the exuberance of Moore’s imploring of Cropper, recognising and immortalising the latter’s influence over Sixties soul, stands out. Recorded in the dying days of the age when most records were still recorded live in the studio, it represents a time when bands and vocalists alike could still lose themselves in their performance during a recording session.

While John Lennon’s manic mariner’s cackle heralding the final chorus in Yellow Submarine rarely fails to raise a smile and Michael Jackson’s yelps and vocal tics on the Off The Wall and Thriller albums can still excite, they were added to their respective tracks long after the musicians packed away their instruments.

There remains something special about live pop music, something indefinable that can only be experienced properly at a gig but can sometimes be represented on the very best live albums. Ropy as the sound sometimes is, you can hear ‘it’ on live recordings such as Sam Cooke’s album Live At The Harlem Square Club, Otis Redding’s set at the Monterey Pop Festival, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, or Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now.

The days when acts sought to reproduce their live sound on vinyl have long since gone, but a trawl through those recordings made ‘as live’, before four-track recording studios became the norm, can—as with Soul Man—yield vast rewards.

The Soul Man single topped the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks and made number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but only scraped to number 24 in the UK—hardly surprising in a year when this country’s top three selling singles were all recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck.

The single won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Rhythm & Blues Group. Rolling Stone listed Soul Man as one of its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2005, and the Recording Industry Association of America placed it in its list of Songs of the Century. Sam & Dave’s recording of Soul Man was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

Steve Cropper became (and remains) a member of the Blues Brothers’ Band. He named his own label Play It, Steve Records and his website is at playitsteve.com.

Dave Prater died in a 1988 car accident; Sam Moore continues to live, love, thrive and survive as a very special soul singer.

 

 

[7]

SMIP #6
She’s A Mystery To Me
by Roy Orbison

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’s a mystery gi-i-i-i-rl!”

[4:05-4:15]

 

FOR BRITONS OF A certain age, Roy Orbison was one of many childhood musical figures of fun.

Through the mid to late Seventies, the same old faces would do the rounds of awful light entertainment or variety shows, miming to one of two or three prehistoric hits to pay the mortgage.

If it was Gene Pitney, it meant we were about to hear Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa or Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart. Lonnie Donegan’s dad was a dustman or had something to do with a gap in Cumberland. Tom Jones didn’t exist outside the narrow confines of What’s New, Pussycat?, It’s Not Unusual or The Green, Green Grass Of Home. And Shirley Bassey would send me running from the room before she could bellow the second syllable of Goldfinger or Big Spender.

The final column around which variety TV shows were built in 1970s Britain was Roy Orbison. Every few months he’d turn up, standing motionless, dressed head to toe in black, eyes and any emotion hidden behind sunglasses, miming the bizarre and alien cadences of Only The Lonely, Crying or Oh, Pretty Woman (“Mercy!”) before silently sloping away once more. For some reason, there did not seem to be a more disconsolate human being on the planet.

I’m sure I even recall Orbison turning up on more than one edition of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, which might as well have been filmed at the Working Men’s Club at the top of my street (a glass of shandy and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps on a Saturday afternoon while my grandfather watched the ITV Seven…) and was noted for host Bernard Manning crooning pre-war ballads most weeks. (Yes, really.)

Like Diana Dors’ predictable chat show innuendo these singers seemed principally to exist, without discernible contemporary achievement, to remind adults of a bygone time when they had to make their own entertainment by candlelight. Nothing more, nothing less—the routine never changed and these people had nothing original or relevant to offer me. A BBC strike in late 1978 and a four-month-long ITV strike of 1979 at least meant we had to find something else to watch for a while…

Though I still have nothing good to say about Shirley Bassey, with the benefit of hindsight and a modicum of maturity I’ve come to realise that Pitney and Orbison were great songwriters, that Donegan is the bridge between rock’n’roll and The Beatles, that Jones was a brilliant entertainer, and—above everything else—that Roy Orbison possessed one of the two best white male voices in pop music.

If you look up the adjective ‘tragic’ in a dictionary of popular culture, the definition is replaced by a picture of Roy Orbison: if he looked disconsolate and sounded desolate, it was because he had every right to be. When Orbison sang that he was crying or that it was over, he knew what every word of it meant: his wife died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and less than two years later his house burnt to the ground, killing two of his three sons.

Writing in the wonderful The Heart Of Rock And Soul, Dave Marsh says of Orbison:

If Phil Spector is pop music’s truest romantic and John Fogarty its greatest fatalist, Roy Orbison stands as its ultimate stoic. Maybe he wore those shades all the time to disguise the fact that he never blinked no matter what you threw at him… Orbison was different than any other rock star of his period. He was relatively middle-class, college-educated and on easier terms with more kinds of music—opera and Mexican ballad singing, for instance—than any of his peers. His songs possess a psychological complexity that is commonly believed not to have existed in pop music until Dylan and the Beatles… No other singer with this much range displays anything like Orbison’s complete emotional commitment—when Roy sings ‘from this moment I’ll be crying,’ there’s no reason to believe that the tears will ever stop.”

According to Bob Dylan, writing in the sleeve notes to the posthumous compilation The Very Best Of Roy Orbison:

Orbison… transcended all the genres. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes… [He sang] his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal… His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it’. His songs had songs within songs. Orbison was deadly serious – no polly-wog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn’t anything else on the radio like him.”

Bolero, chanson, opera, mariachi, symphony – not words ordinarily associated with rock and roll, but all of which can be applied to Orbison’s oeuvre. No wonder it confused me as a kid.

Orbison placed nine singles within the Billboard Top Ten in the five years from 1960, with even greater chart success in Europe and Australia, but for 20 years after that Orbison floundered, consigned to the clubs and variety shows.

One of the unlikeliest musical career revivals ever began in 1986 when Orbison’s In Dreams featured in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; a year later, another movie song—a re-recording of Crying with k.d. lang—would earn Orbison a Grammy Award; in 1988 Orbison would join Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in The Travelling Wilburys and record Mystery Girl, his first album of new solo material in over a decade.

After performing this new material in concert just a handful of times, Roy Orbison would die—literally of a broken heart—on 6 December 1988, at the age of just 52.

Mystery Girl was released two months later to levels of critical acclaim and commercial success that had eluded Orbison for two decades: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Mystery Girl would simultaneously reside in the top five of the Billboard album chart in early 1989. A few months later, filming began on a Richard Gere-Julia Roberts movie that would introduce Orbison to a whole new generation, with his 1964 recording of Oh, Pretty Woman bizarrely winning him the 1991 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

In 1989, Orbison was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame and in 1998 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, Only The Lonely and Oh, Pretty Woman were inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame; Crying joined them in 2002. In 2004, those three songs and In Dreams made Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.

Mystery Girl is a splendidly fulfilling album, recalling Orbison’s heyday without sounding like self-pastiche. His voice soars as high and strong as ever within well constructed and sympathetically arranged songs. The most successful single from the album—You Got It—revives the timpani of It’s Over and the twanging guitar of Oh, Pretty Woman—and its co-author and producer Jeff Lynne for once resists the temptation to make his subject sound like the Electric fucking Light Orchestra.

The album’s crown jewel, though, is She’s A Mystery To Me, penned for Orbison by U2’s Messrs. Hewson and Evans. At the end of the Eighties, Bono and Edge had a penchant for penning persistent ballads, initially driven by gentle percussion and noodling guitars that build inexorably to a dramatic and climactic crescendo: She’s A Mystery To Me comes from the same place as The Joshua Tree’s With Or Without You (1987) and Rattle And Hum’s All I Want Is You (1988). It stands apart from its siblings, though, in that it swoops and soars across a wider span of octaves than Bono could ever manage himself, taking full advantage of Orbison’s magnificent range.

Like much of Bono’s output, the lyrics deserve barely a moment’s consideration; like a lot of Edge’s guitar work of that period, it would drone tediously without a hearty vocal performance to propel it upwards.

It’s not until after the first verse that Orbison first begins to cut loose [1:00-1:10], but that’s only a tease. There is no chorus as such—merely the repetition of the line “She’s a mystery girl,” in a higher range—and first time around Orbison rocks even more gently than Val Doonican. Producer Bono allows the song to fall back to the verse and Orbison’s voice falls two full octaves for the next 40 seconds. From 1:55 to 2:15, we’re back at the ‘chorus’: his voice of necessity emboldened to rise above the rising waves of cymbals, guitar and piano, Orbison now takes the line out for four walks around the block and powers his vocal cords up to 50%.

Still we’re not where we need to be. We need to summon all our strength for the final push over the top, and a gently tinkling piano line atop Edge’s guitar motif gives us time to draw breath [2:17-2:22]. During the final verse, Bono introduces a string section [from 2:25] to swell the ranks further for the last battle; from 2:44 a snare drum signals the final stage of an introduction that takes three minutes and six seconds to take the listener to the Promised Land, the place where Roy draws in a lungful of air and truly lets rip. One final crash of cymbals [3:06] and our boy’s away.

Power, passion, vibrato and falsetto—from 3:07 Orbison gives it the ghostly, full-throated works for almost a minute. There is no question about this girl’s mystery when Roy seemingly lets the matter rest at 3:59.

But after a few seconds of the band playing on, the musicians almost audibly astonished by the singer’s efforts [3:59-4:05], The Big O hits the very highest note one last time—for two bars, across five full seconds [from 4:05]—and the hairs on the back of the neck stand up to applaud.

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’s a mystery gi-i-i-i-rl!

Singer and band spiritually and physically spent, that last word—extended to five distinct syllables [4:12-4:14]—masks their exhaustion. In those two seconds the percussion, guitar, piano and bass all fall silent. When Roy lets go the last sound he has, just a solitary violin string fading into the background [4:15-4:16] brings matters to a conclusion.

Neither Roy Orbison’s nor U2’s best song, She’s A Mystery To Me nevertheless archives two talents at the height of their games.

Immense, beautiful and haunting—there has been no other sound in pop music like Roy Orbison.

 

 

[8]

SMIP #7A
Cars And Girls
by Prefab Sprout

Alright…”

[3:14]

 

THERE IS A SCHOOL of thought that believes Patrick Joseph “Paddy” McAloon, the former leader, singer, guitarist and composer of Prefab Sprout, to be the best British songwriter of the Eighties. Never exactly shy at coming forward, that school was initially cheer-led by Mr. McAloon himself, but the sheer consistency of quality of the music released by the band brought quite a few people around to his way of thinking.

Just one Top 10 single (The King Of Rock’n’Roll, number seven, 1988) and six other minor hits (none making the Top 20) suggests the band underachieved commercially but four of their albums made the album chart top ten. As the ad men later had it with Crowded House and James—you know more Prefab Sprout songs than you think: their first compilation, 1992’s A Life Of Surprises, hit number three.

Their breakthrough second album, 1985’s Steve McQueen (released as Two Wheels Good in the States), contained a breathtaking single in the sprawling, lush, romantic panorama created by When Love Breaks Down but it was a minor hit from the band’s fourth set, March 1988’s From Langley Park To Memphis (containing contributions from Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend), an extended diatribe against America’s obsession with superficial celebrity, its very title ripping the piss out of the title of Springsteen’s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., that contains this SMIP.

McAloon was particularly and rightly applauded for his lyrical style; like Elvis Costello before and Aimee Mann afterwards, McAloon subscribed to Lewis Carroll’s theory, “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves”. Ironic, then, that his biggest hit should be a song with the chorus: “Hot dog, jumping frog, Alberquerque.”

But McAloon’s songs usually work, like Jarvis Cocker’s, just as well as poems or prose. Cars And Girls is no exception, a vicious assault on Bruce Springsteen and his mid-Eighties AOR peers and their apparent penchants for nothing more than the subjects in the title.

Like all the best satire, Cars And Girls wraps itself in its target’s clothes: the poppy sound that propelled its fellow album track The King Of Rock’n’Roll up the charts would not have sounded entirely out of place on The Boss’s own over-produced offering Born In The U.S.A. (1984)—the prosecution offers up that album’s anaemic Bobby Jean by way of evidence.

Opening with a repeated refrain of “Ba, ba, ba/ Sha do-dah do-dah” [0:00-0:13] by backing vocalist Wendy Smith, it is immediately clear that urine is being extracted. And then McAloon goes for the jugular.

Brucie dreams life’s a highway.

Too many roads bypass my way

Or they never begin…

[0:14-0:25]

Life’s a drive through a dust bowl…

Someone stops for directions;

Something responds deep in our engines

[1:18-1:39]

The lines squeeze the vice around poor Bruce’s nuts just that little bit harder. It’s hard to know where Born To Run ends and Cars And Girls starts.

But it’s Cars And Girls’ last verse that really twists the knife:

Brucie’s thoughts – pretty streamers:

Guess this world needs its dreamers –

May they never wake up.

[2:35-3:13]

Venom oozes from every line and we’ve still to meet the SMIP.

For all a writer’s lyrical artistry, sometimes a single word can be the most devastating.

Were this a Sublime Moment In Cinema, its equivalent would be Kristin Scott-Thomas dismissively sneering, “Slut,” through the side of her mouth when Hugh Grant first sets eyes on Andie Macdowell in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

But we’re in Popworld.

At 3:14, summoning up every bit of vitriol his skinny frame can muster McAloon sarcastically mimics the drawl of a hundred soft rockers—“Alright!”—to segue into the final chorus.

A simple, single, humdrum word that features in countless anonymous, meaningless, pointless and soulless AOR recordings employed to say, ‘Have that, Brucie—and let’s see how long you’d last in Langley Park, County Durham on a Saturday night.’

(Seven years later another working class northerner, Jarvis Cocker, would use precisely the same device twice [at 1:55 and particularly at 3:05] to slice through the fake brotherly love of a million Ecstasy poppers on Sorted For E’s And Wizz.)

Cars And Girls is far from Prefab Sprout’s best song; it’s not even McAloon’s best lyric. But for the forensic accuracy in which it stabs its victim in the heart, it’s damned hard to beat. It reached only number 44 on the charts, thanks in part to a lack of radio airplay.

Prefab Sprout would go on to release two arguably better albums than From Langley Park…—1990’s Jordan: The Comeback and 1997’s Andromeda Heights—but would never again skewer a target so effectively.

Never one to take the low road when a high one was available McAloon’s career is scattered with abandoned or unrealised projects (the prospect of one, Behind The Veil, a double album based on the life of Michael Jackson, scared even his most ardent fans), but he achieved a good deal of success as a songwriter – writing major hits for Jimmy Nail and album tracks for the likes of Dame Kylie Minogue—as well as penning a UK Eurovision entry and the theme song for the ITV series Where The Heart Is.

This was achieved against the backdrop of a progressive eye disorder that slowly destroyed McAloon’s retinas, necessitating a series of operations after which he could not see or read for an extended period. He turned to the radio for company and from that experience emerged in 2003 his first solo album, I Trawl The Megahertz, a mostly instrumental, quasi-classical work interspersed with dialogue and narration—a highly distinctive and challenging but ultimately rewarding piece of work.

A year later, as McAloon was working on reinterpreting some of the material from Steve McQueen to feature on a re-mastered re-release, he was struck down by Meniere’s Disease—a disorder of the inner ear—and lost a large part of his hearing.

Thomas Dolby finished Steve McQueen’s re-mastering process, while McAloon recovered from Meniere’s. But he’s been left with permanent tinnitus and his subsequent output has necessarily been limited.

However, in October 2013 a splendid new Prefab Sprout album—Crimson/Red—emerged, with McAloon playing every instrument on the record. It became the band’s highest charting album in 16 years.

Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from this idiosyncratic and unmistakably English talent. Either way we are fortunate to have some magnificent music, some lovely memories and at least one SMIP.

 

 

[9]

SMIP #7B
Thunder Road
by Bruce Springsteen

[Piano break]

It’s a town full of losers

And I’m pulling out of here to win”

[3:40-3:48]

 

SOME THINGS UNDENIABLY HURT more—much more—than cars and girls. But mouth-watering as Paddy McAloon’s attack on Bruce Springsteen was and remains, hindsight suggests that the named object of McAloon’s castigation was among the least deserving of the swathe of blow-dried rock offenders congesting radio airwaves at the time it was written.

While the inflated 1984 production values of Born In The U.S.A. may have given Springsteen his biggest commercial success, it also represents his last truly bombastic studio release for 23 years. Though most of his subsequent albums continued to contain a smattering of straightforward rockers, few would have predicted at the dawn of the 1990s that Springsteen’s next big commercial success would be the Oscar-winning, minimalist lament The Streets Of Philadelphia or that the decade after 1995 would see The Boss release three acoustic folk albums.

Where Brucie’s dreams would soon turn to matters of more substance, those lesser mortals who swam in his wake in the Eighties—the preening prinnies and walking groins that made up the Van Halens, Bon Jovis, Motley Crues, Def Leppards and Guns’n’Roses of this world—remained little more than hormone-fuelled cartoons from start to finish.

Rather than wishing ill on a songwriter whose work had always documented social realism amidst the drums and guitars, I’d like to think McAloon was railing more against the wider genre of formulaic AOR that provided the soundtrack to the “greed is good” culture of the mid- to late-Eighties (and which would be swept away by house, dance, R&B and rap).

While Born In The U.S.A. contains its share of cars and girls, re-examination suggests that the writer’s heart was barely engaged by either subject: a good number of the album’s songs were overtly political, while others are pale photocopies of the intense and urgent billets-doux Springsteen sent to lost loves a decade earlier. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the apolitical songs on the album such as Bobby Jean and No Surrender represent an extended farewell to long-time E Street Band member ‘Little’ Steven van Zandt, whose (initial) swansong as a band member the album represented.

Yet McAloon singled out Springsteen by name and, as an intelligent and thoughtful writer, he almost certainly did so for a reason.

Perhaps McAloon wanted to warn The Boss there is something unedifying and more than a little embarrassing about a greying man of 40 inviting a teenage woman to “wrap her legs around his velvet rims and strap her hands across his engines” (what Nick Hornby accurately calls the moment at which Springsteen “tips into Meat Loaf territory”). You might just about be able to get away with that at 23, but…

Perhaps McAloon was warning Springsteen about the superannuated path down which he seemed to be heading. By 1989 the Rolling Stones and The Who had already become little more than jokes, dissolving and reuniting as monetary considerations dictated, giving a grateful planet the spectacle of men in their 40s, 50s and 60s singing about how they hoped they died before they got old and supermodel-dating multi-millionaires telling us that they can’t get any satisfaction. Were Springsteen to continue to phone in anaemic Bobby Jeans another of the greatest beacons in pop history would fall into what I call the Death Or Glory Trap. To quote that song by The Clash (and who wouldn’t, given the chance?):

I believe in this—and it’s been tested by research:

He who fucks nuns will later join the Church.

In other words: if you continue to play the percentage game, Brucie, your value to the suits will be mind-blowing but your real worth will be no more than the rest of the artistically exhausted Jaggers, Claptons and Townshends cranking out the same old shit 100 nights each year to pay for Caribbean islands, substance habits and trout farms.

Rightly or wrongly I don’t, however, believe for one moment McAloon was suggesting either that Springsteen’s early records were anything other than great rock’n’roll albums or that cars and girls have no place in pop music—those subjects are, as Born To Run proves, the very foundations of the most successful artistic genre to emerge in the twentieth century.

If the pop genre came into being as music by teenagers(-ish) for teenagers, how could it possibly fail to reflect the twin obsessions of most 15-year-old boys (in America, at least)? Indeed, I would argue that, assuming they had been exposed to the work of the men in question, there was something unusual about a 15-year-old boy in the Seventies or Eighties who didn’t believe that the real Holy Trinity was Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer and J. D. Salinger.

Perceived wisdom has it that the title track is the purest moment of pop genius on the Born To Run album. Perceived wisdom is wrong.

The album’s finest moment breaks every rule about running orders by appearing as side one, track one. Thunder Road is more than just the album’s lead song; it encapsulates the album’s entire message. It is the first example of a song that could be considered a SMIP in its entirety, lasting four minutes and 48 seconds.

Unveiled live in February 1975 under the title Wings For Wheels, so crucial did Springsteen consider the song to the album’s structure his initial plans had two different versions of Thunder Road acting as bookends, both opening and closing the record. The album’s concept was to feature a day in the life of a series of characters in the jungles of New Jersey, with an acoustic version of Thunder Road signifying morning and the full-band version closing the night’s proceedings.

The adjective most often applied to Thunder Road by reviewers is ‘cinematic’, appropriate insofar as it took its eventual title from a 1958 B-movie of the same name written by and starring Robert Mitchum.

Certainly, the song’s introduction—Springsteen’s laconic harmonica playing alongside Roy Bittan’s languid piano [0:00-0:15]—sets the tone for the story to be played out before us: we could not be anywhere else but America, the ubiquity of the instruments involved suggests we’re in a small American town, and the minor key and occasionally slack timing tell us that we are in for, at best, a bittersweet ride.

As Bittan’s timing solidifies and quickens for the introduction’s final two bars [0:15-0:18], the harmonica gives way to Springsteen’s voice. Atop a pretty, gentle piano riff come arguably pop music’s greatest opening lines:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves.

Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

[0:18-0:31]

Bam!

The screenplay’s being written before our ears; the scene is set and we can hear the transistor radio to which Mary sways. For the first and, I trust, only time I cite with approval Jeremy Vine:

The first line is ‘The screen door slams’—that’s the opening to a novel, an incredible first line! You’ve immediately got him, standing at the end of the garden path, and she’s come out, and the door shuts behind her. Lyrically, that is the perfect opening to a song.”

There’s nothing novel about Thunder Road’s story: it’s a simple tale of a young man’s desperation to leave the small town that’s choking him and start over somewhere—anywhere—else as soon as he can, preferably in Mary’s company.

As Greil Marcus’s famous review of the Born To Run album for Rolling Stone magazine put it:

It is the drama that counts; the stories Springsteen is telling are nothing new, though no one has ever told them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is half their power: the promise and the threat of the night; the lure of the road; the quest for a chance worth taking and the lust to pay its price; girls glimpsed once at 80 miles and hour and never forgotten; the city streets as the last, permanent American frontier. We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.

What is new is the majesty Springsteen and his band have brought to this story. Springsteen’s singing, his words and the band’s music have turned the dreams and failures two generations have dropped along the road into an epic – an epic that began when that car went over the cliff in Rebel Without A Cause. One feels that all it ever meant, all it ever had to say, is on this album, brought forth with a de-termination one would have thought was burnt out years ago. One feels that the music Springsteen has made from this long story has outstripped the story; that it is, in all its fire, a demand for something new.

There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: no, you’ve never heard anything like this before, but you understand it instantly, because this music – or Springsteen crying, singing wordlessly, moaning over the last guitar lines of Born To Run, or the astonishing chords that follow each verse of Jungleland, or the opening of Thunder Road – is what rock & roll is supposed to sound like.

“‘Oh-oh, come take my hand,’ Springsteen sings, ‘Riding out to case the promised land.’ And there, in a line, is Born To Run. You take what you find, but you never give up your demand for something better because you know, in your heart, you deserve it. That contradiction is what keeps Springsteen’s story, and the promised land’s, alive. Spring-steen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.”

The protagonist in Thunder Road, though, has a few years on the protagonist of the song Born To Run. Not for this leading man any melodramatic declarations about wanting to die on the streets in an everlasting kiss. Time is moving on and there isn’t enough left for further prevarication. Mary’s no stunner, but she’ll do. And if he and Mary are to make their move, they’re going to have to do so tonight.

As the urgency of the moment intensifies, other instruments enter stage right. Drummer Max Weinberg keeps time with bass drum, a fill and then snare rim through the next section, in which Springsteen’s own guitar finds it voice.

We’ve already made all the excuses; we’ve tried crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. It hasn’t worked, so:

What else can we do now?

[1:38-1:40]

With the help of all but one of the rest of the E Street Band in full flight—Little Steven on backing vocals, Weinberg belting at his full drum kit, Garry Tallent on bass and Danny Federici’s glockenspiel—he answers his own question:

Except roll down the window

And let the wind blow back your hair!

[1.41-1:46]

The song’s title gets its only mention, the “two lanes” now described as “lying out there like a killer in the sun” [2:22-2:25]. And then we learn a little more about the protagonist’s beautifully naïve plan and hear his final reason why Mary should head with him for the city. If a more bewitching lyrical passage exists in pop, I have yet to come across it (and I’m not sure I want to):

There were ghosts in the eyes

Of all the boys you sent away;

They haunt this dusty beach road

In the skeleton frames of burnt out Chevrolets.

They scream your name at night in the street,

Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet.

And in the lonely cool before dawn

You hear their engines roaring on,

But when you get to the porch they’re gone

On the wind.

[3:05-3:37]

Throughout these bars the band has taken down the intensity a couple of notches, the drums have momentarily fallen quiet, and our man makes his final plea:

So, Mary, climb in –

[3:38-3:40]

And then our SMIP: an enchanting descending scale of minor key piano chords from Roy Bittan, ramping up the tension and hinting at the story’s imminent resolution, allowing our protagonist to draw breath for his closing, roared statement of intent:

It’s a town full of losers

And I’m pulling out of here to win!

[3:40-3:48]

After all this, you’d think the band would be as spent as the listener. Nothing of the sort. It’s only here, with a full minute left, that the final member of the E Street Band, the much-missed Clarence Clemons, exercises his saxophone’s reed and valves. Weinberg lets out a one-bar drum fill and then Clemons lets rip. With the band back at full tilt, they repeat an eight-bar motif to fade.

A tour de force from first to last, Thunder Road sounds every bit as urgent today as it did when it was committed to tape at The Record Plant in New York in the spring of 1975. The arrangement and production—“Dylan as produced by Phil Spector” in the words of Nick Hornby—hasn’t dated; the musicianship can’t be faulted; even Springsteen’s vocal (rarely his strongest point, and he admits he spends this particular song trying to emulate Roy Orbison) demonstrates atypical subtlety and nuance alongside the more usual power and bombast.

Springsteen achieved his ambition:

I wanted to make a record that would sound like Phil Spector. I wanted to write words like Dylan. I wanted my guitar to sound like Duane Eddy.”

Yet the song contains the same central themes—a boy, a girl, a car, the symbolic freedom offered by the open road, an aspiration to leave a stagnating small town and a burning faith in the redemptive power of rock music—at which Cars And Girls sneered so contemptuously.

Our man yearns for maturity but his chosen means of escape—his car and his guitar—remain the same tools by which many teenagers seek to attain eternal youth. Yet even McAloon would surely recognise that, whatever its subject matter, Thunder Road is a truly great record—irrepressible music with a great story, realised spectacularly.

Thunder Road’s ambiguous conclusion suggests that even its author was uncertain of where our anti-hero was heading or how things would work out. The released studio version ends with the roar of confidence; yet Springsteen’s acoustic re-workings of the story end with a softer-sung intention imbued with the fear that he’s never going to win a damned thing.

In Springsteen’s own words:

[The Born To Run album] really dealt with faith and a searching for answers. I laid out a set of values, a set of ideas, intangibles like faith and hope, belief in friendship and in a better way…In some ways I suppose it is [young man’s music], but also a good song takes years to find itself. When I go back and play Thunder Road… I can sing very comfortably from my vantage point because a lot of the music was about a loss of innocence, there’s innocence contained in you but there’s also innocence in the process of being lost. And that was the country at the time I wrote that music.

I wrote that music immediately preceding the end of the Vietnam war, when that feeling swept the country. A part of me was interested in music which contained that innocence, the Spector stuff, a lot of the Fifties and Sixties rock’n’roll, but I myself wasn’t one of those people. I realised I wasn’t one of my heroes, I was something else and I had to take that into consideration. So when I wrote that music and incorporated a lot of the things I loved from those particular years, I was also aware that I had to set in place something that acknowledged what had happened to me and everybody else where I lived.”

 

A few months after Cars And Girls’ release in 1988, Bruce Springsteen would share the bill on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now world tour with Tracy Chapman. Her biggest hit concerned a boy, a girl, a car, the symbolic freedom offered by the open road and an aspiration to leave a stagnating small town…

You got a fast car:

I want a ticket to anywhere –

Maybe we make a deal,

Maybe together we can get somewhere.

Any place is better.

Starting from zero, got nothing to lose

Maybe we’ll make something,

But me, myself, I got nothing to prove…

You got a fast car:

But is it fast enough so [we] can fly away?

[We] gotta make a decision –

[We] leave tonight or live and die this way.

Some things undeniably hurt more—much more—than cars and girls. But in Popworld, if they’re all you’ve got, nothing else matters more.

 

 

[10]

SMIP #9
Walk Away Renee (Version)
by Billy Bragg

And then one day it happened:

She cut ’er ’air and I stopped lovin’ ’er.”

[1:42-1:48]

 

HOLLAND, DOZIER AND HOLLAND; Ashford and Simpson; Whitfield and Strong; Stevenson, Gaye and Hunter; Brown, Sansone and Calilli: the great Motown song writing teams. At least that’s what I thought.

Most of us can rattle off some Holland-Dozier-Holland and Whitfield-Strong hits. Many of us know plenty of Stevenson-Gaye-Hunter and Ashford-Simpson songs, even if we can’t necessarily list them from memory.

Brown-Sansone-Calilli, though—not so much.

Michael Brown, Tony Sansone, Bob Calilli: the names stare out from many Motown compilations—and every Four Tops compilation—but eventually it dawned on me that these familiar-to-me names made just the sole contribution to the canon of the best label in history: The Four Tops’ legendary 1968 hit Walk Away Renee.

When the hit-making genii that were Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland fell out with Motown chief Berry Gordy and left the label in late 1967 the most nervous act on the roster must have been The Four Tops.

Since finally hitting the charts in 1964 with the HDH composition Baby I Need Your Loving (after an entire decade of dues-paying), the group rode a flying carpet of HDH gold: I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), It’s The Same Old Song, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Reach Out, I’ll Be There, Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Bernadette, 7-Rooms Of Gloom

But now the magic sorcerers were gone. With no songwriters in the group, it seemed there might no longer be anywhere for The Four Tops and Levi Stubbs’ astonishing voice to turn.

Casting around for material, it seems The Four Tops chose to look outside Motown for inspiration; their first two post-HDH hits would prove to be reinterpretations of other people’s hits.

And so, with research (back in the pre-Internet days when people actually had to go to libraries and look things up in books, kids) it came to pass: one of the foundation stones for my personal Tamla Motown devotion crumbled: The Four Tops’ legendary 1968 hit Walk Away Renee transpired to be—shudder…—a cover version.

In July 1966 The Left Banke—a so-called “baroque’n’roll” group, unafraid to wield violins, flutes and harpsichords—had scored a number five Billboard Hot 100 hit with Walk Away Renee, a song composed by Mike Brown, the band’s 16-year-old keyboard player (real name Michael Lookofsky) and Tony Sansone. Though credited as a writer, Bob Calilli actually wrote no part of the song.

Written in the winter of 1965, one month after Lookofsky first met Renée Fladen, it would prove the first of three paeans to Renée—the others being the group’s sophomore hit, Pretty Ballerina, and She May Call You Up Tonight, a track on the group’s debut album.

The Left Banke’s biography reads like a soap opera, perhaps only to be expected when its teenage prodigy songwriter was openly infatuated with and writing a series of love songs inspired by the bass player’s ballerina girlfriend, who would herself soon move on to date the band’s drummer before growing “uncomfortable” with the attention and splitting the scene. Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac had nothing on this lot.

Such was the turmoil within the group that the vocals for Walk Away Renee, provided by Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro (credited as Steve Martin), were recorded after Lookofsky first left the band. He re-joined only after the record became a hit but hung around only for one album and the initial recording sessions for the band’s second release. The Left Banke spluttered to a halt and neither Lookofsky nor Caro would scale the heights their initial entrance suggested.

The Left Banke’s original sounds like it could have been recorded by The Mamas & The Papas—indeed, Walk Away Renee’s flute solo (replaced with a muted trumpet by The Four Tops) was purportedly inspired by the arrangement of California Dreamin’.

Baroque it is not, but the arrangement, orchestration and Caro’s straining vocal certainly lend the song an air of youthful desolation missing from The Four Tops’ world-wearier, plaintive rendition.

I’d loved The Four Tops’ recording for as long as I can remember—not least because its lyric piqued my literary side, beginning not only a sentence but an entire story with the supposedly grammatically verboten “and”—but had not heard Bragg’s 1986 cover until I shared a student flat with a Bragg completist in my first year at university.

Exploring almost all my flatmate’s record collection over that academic year, I came across Levi Stubbs’ Tears, the lead single from Bragg’s third album, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. Only Bragg’s second top 40 hit, Levi Stubbs’ Tears had made number 29 in the summer of 1986; the album, recorded between March and July 1986 with the assistance of the likes of Kirsty MacColl, Hank Wangford, Johnny Marr and Bobby Valentino, became Bragg’s breakthrough release, making the UK album top ten.

Tucked away unprepossessingly on the B-side of Levi Stubbs’ Tears was a short and idiosyncratic track called Walk Away Renee (Version). While it might be considered a throwaway semi-novelty, two things cause it to stand out.

First, Johnny Marr’s gorgeous guitar work; second, Bragg’s lyric—which might just be pop music’s most honest and self-deprecating account of first lust and the follies and embarrassments it induces.

Marr’s fourth introductory chord [0:12] sounds dissonant in comparison with what went before—much like the heady shock of first love. Bragg’s mordant estuary foghorn kicks in just a fraction of a second before that chord, disorienting the listener such that it is immediately clear that this is something different and unexpected from Britain’s foremost agitprop-rocker, something you were most unlikely to hear on the radio in 1986 unless you sought out the darker corners of John Peel’s or Andy Kershaw’s programmes.

Marr’s guitar vibrates and distorts under the weight of his fifth chord [0:17-0:18] and the strings sharply squeak between his fingers and the fret board [0:19].

It’s only when Marr begins to pick out the melody [from 0:20] that you realise this is another interpretation of Lookofsky’s bittersweet missive to Renée, the girl of his best friend—the perfect backdrop for the nostalgic wordplay of Bragg’s lament.

It’s as lovely a melody as in any of its other incarnations, played delightfully by a brilliant guitarist, but after the initial stages this SMIP is driven purely by Bragg’s lyrics and the feelings they evoke.

For even if the listener cannot directly empathise with Bragg’s boy whose nose begins to bleed just because he finally finds himself before The One [0:30], I’ve yet to find anybody who is unable to recognise within this short soliloquy an episode of youthful gaucheness that resonates deep within the memory bank of their own teenage years.

I went home and thought about the two of them together

Until the bath water went cold around me.

I thought about her eyes; and the curve of her breasts;

And about the point where their bodies met.

[1:16-1.27]

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, sat in a cooling bathtub brooding over a love slipping away? Who hasn’t, at one time or another, tortured themselves with mental images of the sexual pyrotechnics performed by their estranged inamorata and her new beau?

I said, “I’m the most illegible bachelor in town.”

And she said, “Yeah, that’s why I can never understand

Any of those silly letters you send me.”

[1:33-1:40]

Rob, one well-intentioned but not particularly linguistically gifted school friend, once diligently wrote out the entire lyric of Dire Straits’ Romeo & Juliet and sent it to Rebecca, the girl with whom he was breaking up.

Rebecca sent it on to a mutual friend with every one of Rob’s many spelling mistakes corrected in red ink. It subsequently—inevitably, predictably—made its way around the school.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her

And every time I switched on the radio

There was somebody else

Singing a song about the two of us.

[0:41-0:46]

Our Tune tortured the nation for almost three decades precisely because every relationship has a song, even if—as in the case of my wife and me—the parties can’t agree on what it is. (It’s between songs by No Doubt and Eternal, for reference. Yeah, I know…)

It was just like being on a fast ride at the funfair;

The sort you want to get off because it’s scary

And then, as soon as you’re off,

You wanna get straight back on again.

[0:49-0:56]

I still clearly recall the moment in spring 1997 at which I became certain my wife would be sticking around for a while, as she sat recovering from the head rush of Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris and, still white from the fright, suddenly beamed, declared, “Let’s do it again!” and strode purposefully off to re-join the back of the queue.

And, finally, the SMIP:

And then one day it happened:

She cut ’er ’air and I stopped lovin’ ’er.

[1:42-1:48]

A funny punch line to a tragicomic tale but, with the benefit of hindsight and for me at least, shockingly realistic.

1985 was far from a golden age for hair styling in the East Midlands of England, and one 14-year-old girl’s Saturday morning trip to the hairdresser’s—the result: a perm on top with a short, straight crop on the back—fair ruined my Monday morning wait for the school bus and promptly burst a two-year-old bubble of unrequited love…

Marr’s fingers continue to spin up and down, across and around Lookofsky’s tune until the record fades, giving the listener 25 seconds to digest what has gone before, to think about those who walked away from him and those from whom he walked away, and the horror of the inexplicable hormone-fuelled antics and scrapes into which we got ourselves as kids.

Perhaps it’s not quite what the 16-year-old Michael Lookofsky intended as he longed for his Renée 40 years ago, but it’s certainly closer to reality.

Rolling Stone placed Walk Away Renee at number 220 in its 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.

Renée Fladen-Kamm is a music teacher and artist living in California.

 

 

[11]

SMIP #10
Strawberry Fields Forever
by The Beatles

Cello counterpoint

[2:17-2:30]

 

213 WEEKS. 1,494 DAYS. Four years, one month and two days.

It’s not a long time.

And that is how little time elapsed between the release of Please, Please Me on 11 January 1963 and the release of Strawberry Fields Forever on 13 February 1967.

That is how little time it took for The Beatles to re-define pop music TWICE.

Having blown away years of musical torpor and stagnancy with their harmonies and harmonica, their calls and responses and undeniable joie de vivre, The Beatles rode a four-year wave of insanity before being forced to retreat to the recording studio.

When they emerged from that exile with Strawberry Fields Forever (and the almost-but-not-quite-as-scintillating Penny Lane), they had re-written the rulebook again. In doing so, they undoubtedly lost some of their audience: those ten-year-olds in January 1963 were still only 14 and not all 14-year-olds could cope with the loss of the lovable Moptops and the emergence in their stead of this weird-sounding band.

Because 213 weeks is really not a long time at all.

To put it in perspective, as at the date of this book’s publication David Cameron has inexplicably survived as Britain’s Prime Minister for 230 weeks.

 

—-

 

It is a scientifically proven and well known fact that Strawberry Fields Forever contains precisely 4,825 sublime moments in its four minutes and five seconds: McCartney’s Mellotron introduction [0:00-0:09]; Lennon’s “Cranberry sauce!” during the second fade out [4:00-4:03]; the back-wards cymbals [2:13-2:29]; the stabbing of the brass section [1:55-1:56]; the blissful interjections of Harrison’s newly acquired swordmandel [1:19-1:21 and 2:05-2:08]; Ringo’s astounding drumming [from 0:12]; the reversed tape [3:37-4:00]; the Morse Code [0:15-0:20]; the fake fade out [3:22-3:37]; the variations in time signature; the entire lyric; you name it.

And, of course, The Big Edit [at 1:00]. Everyone knows the story—two takes, recorded at different tempos and in different keys, painstakingly merged into one coherent, finished product by producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick.

The feat is no less aurally impressive for all that retelling; unless you are directed to the precise moment of the Big Edit (between “I’m” and “going” at the start of the second refrain), it’s almost imperceptible. It’s a piece of piss to do things like this when you’ve got a massive computer-driven desk at your fingertips; it’s something else entirely when it’s just you, a razor blade and a manually-operated variable speed reel-to-reel tape player.

And yet none of this innovation is the SMIP that has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Strawberry Fields Forever’s SMIP belongs to the sixteenth-century stringed instrument, the violoncello.

In the spring of 1982, a music teacher tried to convince me to learn to play the cello.

It was never going to happen: the instrument was wholly alien to me—I simply couldn’t relate to it. While I knew that cellos existed, I could not then point to a piece of music to which one was an integral part. My parents owned no classical music records, they didn’t listen to Radio 3: it was something for which I genuinely had no reference point.

I wanted to learn the piano—an instrument that sat in the corner of every pub, bar or hotel and was always on stage alongside my favourite singers and groups. There were no piano lesson slots available when I joined the school for the summer term of 1982, so I was left with the cello. But being stuck with a big violin between my knees was never going to cut it for me. I was a shabby student who didn’t practice, didn’t try and didn’t care.

Had my music teacher tried to inspire me not with names such as Bach, Beethoven, Elgar and Haydn but with names such as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr I might have been more motivated. Had he gaffer-taped a pair of headphones to my head and forced me to listen repeatedly to Strawberry Fields Forever my interest in the cello might have been more profound.

Blessed with a producer, orchestrator and arranger as gifted as George Martin, The Beatles had a resource denied to their peers, one they mined for all it was worth: the ba-roque, Bach-like harpsichord bridge to In My Life was, for example, written (uncredited) and performed by Martin. Cellos littered Beatles songs—1965′s Yesterday (astonishingly only an album track in the UK) featured a string quartet while the 1966 single, Eleanor Rigby, contained no “rock” instruments at all, the band replaced by a Martin-conducted string octet.

While John Lennon might not have known too much about counterpoint, Martin did. When tasked with providing an arrangement of strings and brass to enhance and embellish Strawberry Fields Forever, Martin employed the tech-nique in the song’s third verse to stunning effect.

For thirteen delightful seconds [2:17-2:30] across eight glorious bars, 32 gorgeous strokes of a cello’s bow weave above, below and around Lennon’s nonsense—“I think I know/ I mean, ah, yes/ But it’s all wrong/ That is I think I disagree”—and define conclusively what represents iridescent beauty in pop music.

Were I permitted to pick the last sound I would ever hear, and could not choose the voices of my loved ones or the snore of my dog, it would be this segment of this song.

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Westwood used to be a lawyer but he’s alright now. These days he writes. Jonathan is an Ordained Dudeist Priest and is known to shout angrily at broadcast news bulletins. In his spare time he’s a semi-professional cheesecake aficionado. He once owned a brand new Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet for about 45 seconds. (Don’t tell Korean Air, but he’s still got the ignition key…) Jonathan lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and their rescue dog.

 

 

 

 

Against all odds you’ve actually—finally—made it to the end of this book. Congratulations!

Before you go for a stiff drink and a much-deserved lie down in a darkened room, please may I ask you to consider leaving a short review of the book on Amazon, or iBooks, or whichever den of iniquity from which you got your grubby little mitts on this book?

Constructive reviews really are invaluable to independent writers like me, both in terms of helping to improve our writing and in marketing our wares.

So if this book hasn’t completely turned your stomach, I would really appreciate it if you could spare a moment to leave a comment.

Thank you.

You’re beautiful.

You’re beautiful.

You’re beautiful.

It’s true…

 


SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop

The very best pop music is undeniably irresistible: its whole point is to captivate the listener immediately and burrow its way firmly into their subconscious. But sometimes it’s one of a record’s slightest and most fleeting of things - a chord change, a vocal ad lib, a guitar lick, a bass line - that makes your pulse race a little bit harder—that moment that makes you go, ‘Hmm...’ In SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop, Jonathan Westwood selects 10 such moments—from artists such as The Beatles and Blondie, Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison, Sam & Dave and Billy Bragg—and explains how and why they’ve drilled their way into his own psyche.

  • Author: Jonathan Westwood
  • Published: 2017-03-04 17:35:13
  • Words: 14730
SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop