Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bob Lind

Bob Lind was an American singer song writer who briefly appeared on the scene in 1966 who in certain limited respects sounded like a precursor to Don Mc Lean. He had the ability to write very interesting pop tunes with poetic - and sometimes - baffling lyrics. The best of these were often to be found on the B sides of his singles e.g. "Cheryl's Goin' Home", "Truly Julies's Blues" and "We May Have Touched". Another outstanding song and performance is "Spilling Over" (where his voice does indeed sound like Don McLean!)

However it is "Elusive Butterfly" for which he will always be known. This is simply a wonderful song - and still one of my favourites - with a truly magical lyric of poetic reverie. This for me perfectly "encapsulates" the truly fleeting nature of romantic love. Sadly for Bob his own encounter with fame was to resemble the elusive butterfly of his song as he quickly became consigned to that unenviable group of "one-hit wonders".

I must confess that I did go out and buy his follow-up single in 1966 for its B side. The A side "Remember the Rain" seemed like an upbeat reworking of the previous hit (and not particularly notable). However at the time I liked its B side "Truly Julie's Blues" even more than "Elusive Butterfly". Though I still like this track very much, on listening now I cannot honestly say that it exercises quite the same appeal. Again there is a connection with Don McLean in that one of his songs "Crossroads" subsequently was to replace for me in a more satisfying manner the sentiments initially evoked by the earlier song.

It may be said that Bob Lind does not deserve to be remembered as a true great (though admittedly producing a few great moments). Some of his material - though always interesting - does come across as a bit lightweight with the songs sounding too similar. However on second thoughts this assessment is maybe too harsh. For example "Spilling Over" is a truly wonderful song (though almost completely unknown) representing perhaps the most convincing of all Bob's performances.

So he certainly deserves a much higher place in the pantheon of pop music than his current largely forgotten position.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The Carpenters (more correctly, Carpenters) surely deserve a unique place in the annals of pop music. The group comprised the brother and sister duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter who both were gifted with very special talents.

Of course Karen is the one we nearly always hear on record with that pure, clear wonderful singing voice that perhaps remains unmatched by any other female performer. Though not especially gifted singing wise Richard was a bit of a musical genius who wrote (with John Bettis) some of their best songs and was chiefly responsible for the truly superb production values of their recorded albums.

Their first album - initially titled "Offering" - contained their cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride". Though sung in a slow tempo not really in keeping with the original, it displays well the remarkable quality of young Karen's voice. Though this was their first single release and proved a minor hit the album contains a few superb tracks that unfortunately have been overlooked. Chief among these - both co-written by Richard - are the sophisticated ballad "Someday" and the intriguing "Eve" which is a great song and quite unlike any other track subsequently recorded by Carpenters. It is given a remarkably mature vocal performance by Karen and deserves to be included in any "Best of Carpenters" selection.

However it was the next single "Close to You" that was to prove their real breakthrough and a worldwide massive hit. Though this Bacharach/David composition had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick and Dr. Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain, Carpenters injected it with fresh appeal especially through the hypnotic strains of the chorus.

Then it hit single following hit single and hit album following hit album. Among the greatest hits were "Top of the World " Goodbye to Love" and "Yesterday Once More" (which Richard wrote with John Bettis), "Rainy Days and Mondays", "For All we Know" "Sing and their revival of the Marvelletes hit "Please Mr. Postman". However as is so often the case this was eventually to undermine Carpenters. Great success can in fact prove a significant trap with all energy necessarily devoted to the next performance, tour, interview, studio session etc. And as world wide frame grows it becomes harder and harder to get off the constant treadmill.

It seems to me that problem was compounded by the fact that both Richard and Karen had perfectionist personalities. While this was of considerable value in getting them established, it was to prove a growing hindrance as they sought in different ways to cope with the demands of continuing success. While Richard developed a drug habit, Karen showed worrying signs of severe anorexia. Strangely however right up to the end there was no diminishment in the quality of her performances (which perhaps detracted attention from the seriousness of her condition). However it was apparent from the mid 70's onwards that the material and production values on their recordings had dipped somewhat (reflecting Richard's loss of direction). Having said this many of these still sound wonderful due to Karen's marvellous voice. Indeed some of the later material carry a refined sensual quality which I especially like. Chief among these are "Slow Dance", "Touch Me When I'm Dancing" (which was her last top 20 hit in the US) and "Make Believe it's your First Time".

Then when it was already too late, Karen in a desperate bid to find some self identity of her own, left for a solo recording with Phil Ramone as producer. Sadly - though interesting in it's own right - it falls below the earlier standard with most of the material not released for some time. Perhaps the best from this session is the catchy uptempo number "Making Love in the Afternoon".

Certainly the most revealing recording - and Karen's own declared personal favourite - is "I Need to be in Love" with the words especially fitting her personality (and unfortunately I suspect the root of her tragic illness).
"I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
and fool enough to think that's what I'll find."

Best Track

Surprisingly perhaps I would opt for "Only Yesterday" (another song written by Richard and John Bettis).

The more I listen to this, the more I realise how superb it is with Karen's beautiful singing of a lovely uptempo number and Richard's brilliant production (masterfully combining layers of sound in the chorus). I never saw him so animated as when he was interviewed once in a programme on Les Paul where he marvelled at his (i.e. Paul's) multitracking techniques on the songs he recorded with Mary Ford back in the 50's. Well he learnt well because "Only Yesterday" matches and perhaps surpasses the earlier Paul material (as regards production).

Favourite Track

However there is one clear favourite for me of all their recordings which is We've Only Just Begun" and released as their follow-up to "Close to You" in late 1970.
Again there is a special reason why it resonates so strongly with me as this was a unique time in my life when I was briefly filled with a pure form of spiritual joy. In no small measure the purity and clarity of Karen's voice together with the sentiments in the lyrics corresponded to my mood at the time. Bathed in this light, I felt that life indeed had really just begun and the future seemed very bright. In truth this mood was to pass very quickly giving way to lengthy periods of darkness and despondency. However whenever I hear this song it magically transports me back to that time restoring in some measure that original joy and the hope that it so powerfully enshrined.

There is one other song that I especially like called "When He Smiles" which is perhaps the most infectious they have ever performed. Though tipped at one stage as a future single release, this never in fact happened. Though a version with limited release was eventually made available some time after Karen's death, it never has received the attention that I - for one - believe it deserves.

Like so many others, I always remember Carpenters with particular fondness for their very special contribution to pop music.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joan Baez

There was an interesting programme featuring Joan Baez on BBC TV last night.

It was fascinating to watch again her early appearances in Club 47 in Cambridge, her collaborations with a young Bob Dylan, and her very public stance as a political activist (esp. as supporter and friend of Martin Luther King).

Looking at the concert footage is compelling as one sees a truly beautiful young woman with a unique guitar style and singing voice flawlessly presenting a large repertoire of the "old" folk songs. However on the critical side, perhaps these performances were just a little too perfect leading to the material acquiring a certain off-putting similarity. Ironically though her meeting with Dylan is credited with inspiring her with wonderful "new" songs, somehow even these started to sound like the "old" when given the familiar Baez treatment.

I instinctively felt this reservation about her performances - even back in the early 60's - which prevented me from becoming a true fan. It seemed to me that she was adapting too closely to her own idealised image of what a folk singer was supposed to represent. Indeed there was perhaps an interesting hint of this in her admission - that unknown to the wider public - she suffered greatly from stage fright at this time (suggesting an unconscious fear of failure). This also came out in her account of the dissolution of her romantic involvement with Dylan (where he did not conform to her preconceived role for him as a fellow political activist). Likewise even here - though I greatly admire the genuine courage and commitment that she steadfastly displayed - to a degree she seems to be conforming to a perfect image, always serene and smiling and cheerfully dismissing every setback.

In fairness Joan had clearly obtained much greater insight over the years into the true nature of her personality. Indeed she honestly admitted at one stage that she had always found it very difficult to come to terms with loss (as for example when her younger sister, Mimi, died of cancer). All in all she came across as an attractive engaging personality who still looked remarkably beautiful despite the passage of so many years.

She has continued to record new material, diversifying in the process well away from her original folk roots. And she still loves to perform (though now free of stage fright).

Some years ago I came across another song unknown to me by Jim Webb (remember "Postcard from Paris") with the intriguing title "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" . Though I found a couple of recorded versions - including one by Glen Campbell - I did not feel satisfied that I had heard a definitive treatment.

I had long forgotten about Joan Baez and was not even aware whether she was still recording. Then out of the blue I heard her version of this song one day on the radio and I was completely knocked out. For the first time - perhaps because of the change in context - I became aware of the truly superb quality of her voice. And, dare I say it, there is a certain passion evident in her performance, that somehow had eluded me on her earlier recordings.

No less than "Postcard from Paris" (as sung by John Denver) this unexpectedly has now become one of my all time favourite recordings.

So forget your diamonds and rust; for me this is just pure gold!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam as he is now called) appeared in the O2 in Dublin recently to receive a somewhat mixed reception.

I cannot say that I was ever a huge fan of his though I did respect the fact that he was - at his best - a superb songwriter.

When he burst on the scene in the late 60's with a somewhat overproduced sound he was hailed as a great new talent (in the singer/songwriter genre). The gimmicky - though hardly great - "I Love My Dog" was quickly followed by "Matthew and Son" and the rather similar sounding "I'm Gonna Get me a Gun". These were included on his 1st album (which not surprisingly was also a hit). Then he seemed to quickly fade from view releasing another overproduced album (like its predecessor) that attracted little notice. However this contained what perhaps was his best - and most commercial - recording "The First Cut is the Deepest" which oddly did not receive at the time the attention that it clearly warranted.

Then Stevens - who had been living at the time the life of the typical rock star - had his first brush with mortality when he developed a near fatal illness.

When he emerged again back to the recording world it was in a much more subdued and understated fashion.

I remember in the early 70's when I was doing some Summer construction work with a group of fellow students that we would put on the record player when dining together at the end of the day. The two albums that enjoyed pride of place were Cat Steven's "Mona Bone Jakon" and "Tea for the Tillerman" which were the first two that he released during his second coming. For me he was at his very best on these recordings. Indeed I would consider the former - which contains a number of superb reflective songs - such as "Lady D'Arbanville", "Fill My Eyes" (which is very much in the Paul Simon idiom) and "Trouble" as his best recording (though it did not enjoy great commercial success)! The latter for its part contains two of his best known songs "Wild World" and "Father and Son".

I would be the first to admit that our estimation of various songs inevitably contains a strong personal element. Certainly for me these enjoy a special place as they have become associated them with a certain period in my life (acting as catalysts therefore for a variety of different memories).

However, Stevens never seemed fully at home in the pop world and clearly was searching for his true identity. Then after a second brush with mortality when he nearly drowned while swimming, he began to strongly embrace Islam so much so that he eventually left the pop world altogether to pursue his new religious identity.

Unfortunately we now live in a celebrity culture that is really one full of idolatry. In other words, rather than striving to discover true spiritual meaning (in God) it is heavily projected on to people such as rock and movie stars, sports personalities and indeed anyone who happens to be in the public eye.

However this is all so shallow and superficial as this entails the elevation of mere image and appearance to a position that it cannot properly occupy. Then when - as so often - such celebrities demonstrate that they have feet of clay - we feel disappointed and betrayed.

It is to his great credit that Cat Stevens faced up clearly to the pitfalls of fame. Though his subsequent career as one of he best known converts to Islam has attracted much controversy and attention you have to admire him at least for his sincere commitment to finding spiritual truth.

Happily in more recent years he has found a way to combine his two identities i.e. as Cat Stevens (the pop star) and Yusuf Islam (the religious devotee).

However as the recent concert in the O2 demonstrated this is never going to be an easy marriage. For the fans who attend such concerts in the main want to just idolise the Cat Stevens (that had been removed from them for so long). And when they don't get exactly what they want, they are disappointed! So this is the same problem that Stevens (i.e. Yusuf) has tried so hard to avoid.

I wish him well. He always struck me as a truly intelligent, articulate and thoughtful person who now seems also to have found a substantial degree of peace. I hope for his sake that this will continue.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson (or Rick Nelson as was called for much of his career) was a pop idol at the same time as Elvis and arguably even better looking.

Though churning out a succession of hits over a number of years he has been largely forgotten at this stage suggesting perhaps that his success was due more to image and marketing rather than any exceptional talent. However I would not share this perception and would consider him one of the true greats of the early rock and roll era.

What I particularly liked about Ricky Nelson was the absolutely clear quality of his singing voice. Others indeed possessed more powerful and exciting voices but no male performer - with the possible exception of Don McLean - can match him on this score. Indeed in this respect he reminds me very much of Karen Carpenter.

To be honest I was never a great fan of Bob Dylan's as I always found it very difficult to hear what he was saying (due to a voice that sometimes resembled the scraping of sandpaper). With so much of his material dependent on conveying story through song this for me constituted a major problem!

Ricky Nelson was especially at home in the rockabilly style that defined the earlier careers of artists such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (who all regarded him highly). Indeed his own great idol was Carl Perkins who never really deviated from this genre.

A good example of his rockabilly style can be fund in a song such as "It's Late". Indeed you could well imagine Elvis doing this number in a similar style. What I like however about Nelson's approach is a slightly understated approach. In other words he has the style and ability to perform the song very well without resorting to any histrionics.

I mentioned Don McLean who in many respects has a very similar voice. It is fascinating therefore to compare their respective versions of the Skyliners hit "Since I Don't Have You". I must say I love both versions. Once again the Nelson version is somewhat understated (which I actually see as a virtue). He sings the song as a smooth romantic ballad. Though showing superb falsetto ability when required, this is not allowed to dominate the overall performance.

The McLean version sounds as if it may have been modelled on the Nelson version. However it is given a somewhat more commercialised - and perhaps slightly exaggerated style - again displaying superb falsetto ability. If one ignores these differences one can see how similar and clear are the two voices. Which is the better version? In this case I would probably pick Nelson's by a short head which is really saying something as I consider Don McLean a superb performer.

So Ricky Nelson was equally good - if not better - in ballad than in rock mode. However precisely because he does not resort to any special effects, the sheer competence - and indeed quality - of his performances is not properly recognised.

Like many others, his career went into decline following the British group invasion. Gradually he diverted into - what is now known as - country rock and enjoyed short-lived success in 1972 with his self-written song "Garden Party". Once again there are interesting parallels here with Don McLean who enjoyed his own first success with "American Pie" in the same year. Also "Garden Party" sounds like the kind of song that Don himself might have written!

Just as McLean's hero Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, likewise Ricky Nelson tragically died in the same manner in 1985. Eerily, he had just recorded two of Holly's songs "True Love Ways" and "Rave On" before he died as he prepared to make yet another attempt at a comeback.

Best Song

I like many of his early songs especially "Poor Little Fool", "Travellin' Man" and "Hello Mary Lou".
The last two were two sides of the same single. Indeed Ricky Nelson must hold the record with the greatest proportion (by far) of hits where both sides reached the upper reaches of the charts!

His best recording however would have to be "Lonesome Town", a plaintive - and once again understated - beautifully sung effort (representing two minutes of sheer pop perfection).

Favourite Song

My own favourite however is "Fool's Rush In" in a great uptempo style which I have always loved. Funnily there is another up tempo song "Don't Get Me Wrong" by the Pretenders in the mid 80's which I equally enjoy. It always reminded me of some other song that I knew but I could never put my finger on it. Then it just struck me the other night that that song was in fact "Fool's Rush In"!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

John Denver

To be honest I was not a great fan of John Denver during his period of great commercial success in the US in the early 70's. His first great hit - apart from "Leaving on a Jet Plane" recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary - was "Take Me Home Country Roads". I have to say this is just one of those songs that does nothing for me (whether sung by John Denver or on a cover such as that of Olivia Newton John). I felt the same about many of his other popular "country" efforts such as "Rocky Mountain High"and "Sunshine on My Shoulder". Indeed I did not even like his voice at the time! Though this changed somewhat with "Annie's Song" and "I'm Sorry" it was not till the early 80's that I became a fan (and a big one at that!)

What changed my opinion so much was the album "Seasons of the Heart" given to me by a Denver fan at work. It left an indelible impression on me with a couple of tracks on it still among my favourites.

The most famous song on the album is "Perhaps Love" . Though this is recognised as a classic (largely due to a hit version featuring John with Placido Domingo) there are other tracks that I prefer. The title track "Seasons of the Heart" is a truly beautiful song and one of Denver's best. However the standout for me is "Heart to Heart" which I like even more now nearly 30 years on.

It was clear that Denver was going through a period of pain and readjustment when he was recording the album and gave free rein to philosophical speculation on the meaning of life. And this comes to the fore brilliantly on this track in a manner that is moving and sincere evoking a genuine depth of feeling. As mystics of all ages have discovered we cannot really explain life's suffering but ultimately its meaning is to be found in love. And this is the answer that Denver also arrives at that is beautifully expressed in the line "love is a light that shines from heart to heart". There is a wonderfully affirmative transcendent quality to this song greatly assisted by the soaring ability of Denver's voice that has never been used to better effect.

As is well known Denver died in a somewhat mysterious plane crash in 1997. Apart from Roy Orbison the death of no other pop singer has left me with such a residual sadness. It is not really the quantity of an artist's output that I find important. Much better that even one song strikes a rich chord and this one song has left a truly lasting impression which still moves me today.

However one more unexpected surprise was to await.

Though it is now - perhaps rightly - made illegal, there was a glorious period of freedom on the Internet when music downloading sites such as Napster were in their prime.

What fascinated me at the time is that such sites had the capacity to serve somewhat as archaeological digs where certain forgotten treasures of an artist's recordings could be unexpectedly found.

I found several tracks in this manner of various artists - of which I had not been previously aware - which now rank among my favourites.

Of these, pride of place has to be given to a Jim Webb song "Postcard from Paris". Though this had been recorded by John Denver, I had not been aware of it and was in fact hidden away on an album released in 1990 "The Flower that Shattered the Stone".

It really baffles me as to why John Denver's version remains so unknown. I have never heard it on radio, and believe that if it was played it would evoke considerable interest from listeners. It is a really class song with a truly lovely nostalgic quality and has joined "Heart to Heart" as my two all time favourites of his recordings.

Even at this late stage it should be promoted for I am sure that many others who have not yet heard the song would react on hearing it in the same manner that I did!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Tornados

I have a simple confession to make.

There is no pop single that I loved as much as "Telstar" by The Tornados on its release in August 1962. Though this love has diminished somewhat with time, I consider it a truly great pop single that still stirs something of that initial excitement I originally felt when I heard it all those years ago.

At the time I would have considered myself well informed on the pop scene. So I was already aware of the Tornados from a previous unsuccessful single "Love and Fury".
Once however I heard Telstar I decided "this was it" and that I had never heard a better pop instrumental. So like a religious missionary I quickly spread the "good news" to my school pals predicting that it would be a massive hit.

On this at least I was proven correct in a manner that then exceeded all my expectations. Indeed its success filled me with such a sense of pleasure that it might as well have been my own creation.

It quickly went on to top the charts in the UK and in the newly published charts here in Ireland. Then it hit big in the US where the Tornados became the first British group (before the Beatles) to top the Billboard chart.

Its success was largely down to the considerable talents of the legendary Joe Meek who both wrote and produced the song. Meek was a difficult and troubled man who was however ahead of his time in terms of his recording ability (somewhat in the same manner as Les Paul who we profiled previously).

The record's success for a while suggested that the Tornados might rival that great instrumental group of the 60's i.e. the Shadows in popularity. But that was not to be. Though they soon released another good effort "Ridin' the Wind" it was wasted on an EP (which enjoyed limited sales). Though the first few follow-up singles achieved a degree of success, the magic quickly dissipated due to the somewhat repetitive nature of what was on offer.

As Joe Meek's career in parallel also went into decline, he suffered badly from depression. Then on 3rd February 1967 - the 8th anniversary of "the day the music died" - his life ended in tragedy. He murdered his landlady with a handgun before shooting himself deliberating choosing that very day to commit these gruesome acts.

Just as the Shadows were the backing group for Cliff Richard in the 1960's, likewise the Tornados acted as the backing group for Billy Fury for a short while in the early 60's. Billy Fury was a rival in popularity to Cliff at this time and for a brief while their backing groups shared this rivalry.

However though backing Fury on tour they rarely appeared on his studio recordings. Only recently did I have the pleasure to hear them them actually backing "the boss" on "Nobody's Child" (YouTube) which has a special plaintive quality - reminiscent of Elvis Presley's "Old Shep" - that is unmatched on the many other recordings of this song.

PS I was certainly no fan of Margaret Thatcher when she was at the helm in the '80's. However, somewhat surprisingly, I later discovered something in common i.e. that she was a great fan of "Telstar".
Maybe on reflection she was'nt so bad after all!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Beatles

I saw the Beatles second film “Help” recently which proved a nostalgic experience (having seen it originally at the time of its release in 1965). The plot seemed even more ridiculous than it did the 1st time around. However what rescued the whole thing for me were the superb songs like “Help”, “You’re Going to Lose that Girl”, “Ticket to Ride” and George’s “I Need You”. They sounded better than ever which possibly is due to the fact that the film has since been remastered. Indeed their entire catalogue has just been remastered with simultaneous releases of the Box Set and all the individual albums (including other single, B side and EP tracks).
Now in the first week of release no less than 11 of these are included in the UK Top 40 (40 years or more after the original recordings).

To my mind no other band even came close to the Beatles both in the quality and range of the output. Though occasional single tracks by other groups such as The Rolling Stones, Procul Harum, The Moody Blues and Queen may indeed be comparable with the best of the Beatles, in terms of their overall body of work I consider that they all fall well short of the Fab 4.

To be honest I was not really impressed with their debut single “Love Me Do” when it appeared in late 1962. I found it repetitive with somewhat banal lyrics and my opinion on this still remains the same (despite their subsequent success). However I really sat up and took notice with the follow-up “Please Please Me” which I rate one of their best and most exciting singles. Following that every new single was an eagerly anticipated event. And they rarely let us down with one great release after another. The only ones that I am not that mad about are strangely their two biggest hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a couple of their later efforts “Paperback Writer” and “Lady Madonna”. Strangely - what I consider their very best release - i.e. “Penny Lane” coupled with “Strawberry Fields for Ever” proved commercially to be one of their least successful.

And then we had all the superb album releases starting such as “Please Please Me” “With the Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Beatles for Sale”, “Help”, “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver”, “Sergeant Pepper” “The White Album”, “Abbey Road” and “Let it Be”. Though I purchased most of these on their release sadly the only one that now remains in my possession is “Beatles for Sale” (very much underrated!)

What is truly remarkable is how this great body of work - the vast bulk of which comprises Lennon Mc Cartney originals - was all produced within a short 7 year period. Nowadays we think that a pop group is doing well if they manage to release an album every 4 years or so. However at their peak the Beatles were releasing brilliant 14 track albums every six months. At the same time they were regularly putting out singles and B sides (often not to be found on albums) and even EPs with additional material. Indeed so prolific were Lennon and McCartney that they also provided material for many other artists as for example most of Billy J. Kramer’s early successes such as his no 1 hit “Bad to Me” .
Peter and Gordon had a worldwide no 1 with “World without Love” and several other hits (penned by Paul).
Cilla Black’s first release was another Lennon McCartney composition “Love of the Loved” and also had a hit with “Just for You”.
The Fourmost - remember them - had a couple of hits with “Hello Little Girl” and “I’m in Love”. And the Applejacks “Like Dreamers Do” is yet another that comes readily to mind.

When you realise how busy the Beatles were at this time - for example they toured the US in three successive years (64, 65 and 66) - their prolific rate of both writing and recording was simply incredible! No doubt this quickly led to burnout with the writing already on the wall when they decided to quit touring altogether. John Lennon in particular was now seeking an identity outside the group while Paul McCartney wanted to assume a greater degree of control within. This inevitably led to a growing degree of conflict and rivalry which hastened the demise of the Beatles. Though Lennon was the clear leader in the beginning and composed most of their earlier material, the balance started to shift considerably when touring stopped with McCartney now coming to the fore. Both in quantity and quality of compositions he surpassed Lennon during this time.

Nearly all their compositions (jointly or solo) were credited to Lennon/McCartney. However in truth most were written largely or - often totally - as solo efforts. However the rivalry as between the two – who clearly were both brilliantly talented – kept raising the bar as they attempted to surpass previous efforts. Following the break up of the Beatles, despite notable exceptions - such as Lennon’s “Imagine”- neither reached previous heights.

Though technological sophistication has grown greatly in the last 40 years it has been greatly at the expense of creative endeavour. At the time of the Beatles groups would aim to put out 2 or 3 albums each year. Now it is more like an album every 3 or 4 years. In addition singles have lost any identity in themselves and are issued simply to promote albums when they at last arrive. Also the albums are used to market the inevitable world wide tour of the act in question. Then there is a slow build up to the release of the next album with often an inordinate amount of time required to produce pretty mediocre material.

No wonder nostalgia continues to grow for all the great acts of old such as the Abba and the Beatles. With few exceptions their material was much superior to today’s pretenders.

Favourite Track

With respect to John a favourite would be - perhaps surprisingly - “That Boy” which was the B side of “I Want to Hold your Hand”. In up tempo terms “Please, Please Me” is hard to beat.

As for Paul, though “Yesterday” is probably his most revered song, personally I never liked it!
However I think many of his later efforts are superb e.g. “Eleanor Rigby”, "Here There and Everywhere" (Revolver), “When I’m 64” (Sergeant Pepper) “Long and Winding Road” and “Let it Be” (Let it Be). However my favourite is “She’s Leaving Home” (also from Sergeant Pepper).

Strangely my favourite uptempo number of Paul - who was a great rocker - is “Long Tall Sally” Though not his own composition (but Little Richards’) his vocal is the best!

George Harrison

George operated in the shade of John and Paul for some time only came to the fore later. The two best tracks on Abbey Road I consider “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”, both of which are superb.

Ringo Starr

Unfortunately Ringo lags behind in this company though his “Octupus’s Garden” (on Abbey Road) is enjoyable in a childish sort of way. However he was probably the most natural comic among the Beatles. And this is really saying something for as a group they were really funny - reminiscent of the Marx Brothers - which greatly contributed to their overall appeal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Del Shannon

I had just installed my new record player when Barry a neighbour from down the road arrived in to proudly play his most recent purchase. It was Del Shannon's "Runaway" which Barry really loved. It was not difficult to see why as it is is a truly great pop record. And Del Shannon was destined to figure large in my early pop memories. No sooner had "Runaway" started to fade from the charts that Barry arrived in with the follow-up "Hats off to Larry" (which we renamed in his honour "Hats off to Barry") and then "So Long Baby". After all this time I can even recall the B sides. One in particular (on the flip side of "Hats off to Larry") stuck in my memory due to its strange title "Don't Gild the Lily, Lily". Another (on the flip side of "So Long Baby") was "The Answer to Everything" which became a huge hit subsequently in Ireland for Joe Dolan.

Del Shannon was very versatile with a truly distinctive and exciting pop voice. It should have ensured him lasting success but sadly this was not to be. Both personal and management difficulties undoubtedly contributed to his demise. Also he tended to become typecast following "Runaway" - and perhaps unwisely - tried to keep repeating this winning formula. For a while it worked but gradually began to become a bit too predictable. Likewise the pop group phenomenon broke quickly after his initial success. Though in many ways he served as a forerunner for their sound, he then seemed replaceable once it gained momentum.

Tragically he took his life in 1990 at a time when prospects for his revival were never greater. If he had overcome depression at that time he could well have lived to see himself once again regarded as a true pop legend. He certainly deserved that status.

Favourite Track

Probably "Little Town Flirt"; however I also love "The Answer to Everything". For some strange reason this has been overlooked and does not seem to appear on any of his CD collections. Indeed if this had been promoted along with, or perhaps instead of the A side, it could well have been a big hit and facilitated a transition away from the "Runaway" prototype.

Best Track

This has to be "Runaway" which was - and still is - just a marvellous pop song that was always guaranteed to be a runaway success.


Nearly 50 years after introducing Del Shannon into my world, Barry celebrated his 60th birthday, with a disc jockey hired to play the music for the evening. Pride of place was of course given to "Runaway" with Barry himself joyously singing along. It was lovely to see for I never had doubted that here we had Del Shannon's biggest fan!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Les Paul

I watched a fascinating programme on Les Paul last night on BBC 4. I was in two minds beforehand as to whether to bother but it turned out to the best 90 minutes of TV that I have seen in a long time.

I have of course heard of Les Paul and his successful association with Mary Ford, especially "How High the Moon". But I did not realise how great a guitarist and creator he actually was. Most of all, though in his 90's when footage for the programme was shot, he turned out to be a wonderfully engaging personality.

Why was he so successful? Obviously he had a considerable inherent talent (indeed many great talents). Not alone did he develop a unique playing style (combining both country and jazz influences) he was a true innovator of sound and the first to develop overdubbing and multi track techniques which he exploited brilliantly in his own recordings (especially with Mary Ford). However the real secret that came across was a tremendous self confidence in his ability. He seemed to be lucky again and again at different points of his career. For example when he took his band at the time to New York he immediately gained an audience with the great band leader Paul Whiteman. Then when he went to Hollywood he once again gained the immediate attention of Bing Crosby. Later when he had come up with his exciting new instrumental sound he was able to wander into Capitol Records and come up with an immediate contract.

Clearly he had great gift.

However it is a sobering fact that a great many people of considerable talent who never manage to make any real impression throughout their careers (despite their best efforts).

I think the difference in his case was a calm though considerable self confidence that immediately won over all those that he sought out. This allied to an innate shrewdness and marketing ability acted to ensure his success. Luck generally only comes to those who are prepared to accept it and in this sense he was always prepared.

I rarely have seen a person who seemed so comfortable in his own skin (especially in his later years). As all his many admirers queued up to play with their idol he seemed utterly at ease, revelling in these impromptu sessions (which again is down to confidence in his own inherent ability).

He also displayed a wonderful stand up - or more accurately - sit down comic ability, as if he found it funnier than anyone that he could still be playing before an audience in his 90's.

He of course had no need to worry on this score as both in terms of his wonderful gift and his great natural humour he still outshone all his rivals.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Elvis Presley

The first LP in my house (brought home by an older brother) was "Something for Everybody" by Elvis Presley. I was 12 at the time and had just been given a record player - one of those old manual jobs that you plugged into the radio - for my birthday. The primitive nature of the equipment, by today's standards, did not diminish my enjoyment in any way. In fact I remember it as the most magical time of my life.

Though technology has moved on somewhat nothing can replace that personal feeling that came with the old vinyls. As the stylus needle slowly fell, winding its way through the record grooves the unique sound associated with each track unfolded momentarily transporting one to another world. Even the crackling from the scratches that inevitably appeared with repeated playing developed their own unique signatures. Compared to this early joy I find CDs somewhat cold and impersonal.

Though not one of Elvis' best known recordings, he was in superb form on that album displaying a supple vocal maturity that he never surpassed.

My favourite track was - and still is - Side 1, Track 1 "There's Always Me". It remains one of those hidden gems that somehow has escaped wider attention. A cover version by Dickie Rock was a huge hit in Ireland. However, the original version - though much superior - was rarely played on radio (despite the popularity of the artist). Strangely Elvis' version was released as an unpromoted single in the UK some six years later but made little or no impression on the charts.

Elvis is superbly backed on this track by Floyd Cramer and the Jordanaires. Rather than simply belting out the lyrics he gives a refined controlled performance (which is much more effective). It then builds to a glass shattering crescendo at the end greatly assisted by Cramer's keyboard skills. As an example of his ballad style this is truly superb.

Of course Elvis was a hero to a great many young lads growing up at that time. In contrast to the somewhat repressed environment then, he represented real glamour and excitement daring to flout convention (while beneath it all exuding an innate decency and even touching vulnerability).

And he really was the embodiment of how a pop star should look. When one now sees that fascinating footage of the early years (1955-56) one can readily understand what the excitement was all about. Though other stars of the time (and later) would now seem somewhat dated and square, one certainly cannot say this about Elvis. He still represents above all the personification of the true rock star serving as the inspiration for so many performers later e.g. Cliff Richard, who wanted to be "just like Elvis".

The best of Presley is largely confined to his earliest years. John Lennon has stated that Elvis died the day he went into the army. In terms of his rock contribution, I would tend to agree with this though I would qualify a little in maintaining that his ballad ability peaked in the early 60's (around the time that "Something for Everybody" was released). Though there was a brief resurgence in the late 60's, he was already well past his best. And unfortunately most of what happened in the 70's really represents a parody of what went before.

The decline of Presley the rock star largely coincided with his film career which has been largely panned. Though many of these movies (especially the later ones) are second rate doing Elvis few favours either as actor or singer there are some exceptions. For example Elvis is very good in "King Creole" (possibly because the lead character "Danny Fisher" so closely represented his own persona).

My own favourite however is "Follow that Dream" where Elvis is extremely funny and supported by good acting from the rest of the cast in a simple but very touching film.

Best Recording

I would have to choose "Heartbreak Hotel" which was his first big breakthrough single.

For me this is the definitive rock classic. It has a totally timeless quality. When I hear it it is still just like the first time where I have the urge to invite others "Listen to this"!

Indeed it is still so unique and original that no other rock number even comes close.

Why this is so is however hard to define.

What is so surprising about "Heartbreak Hotel" is that it is very dark in content. The lyrics were written in 1955 in response to a contemporary real life incident. A well dressed suicide victim was reported in Florida as having carefully removed all personal identification documents before dying, leaving the note "I walk a lonely street".

And far from playing down this dark element, the very manner of the recording acts to enhance it with the immediate vocal statement, the stark nature of the backing, the background echo and the funereal nature of the instrumental interlude. This all helps to create an appropriate tragic atmosphere with Elvis giving a raw searing vocal treatment (perhaps expressive of a hidden loneliness in his own life).

It is certainly interesting how he immediately identified strongly with this song and wanted to release it (against the inclinations of his musical bosses).

It is simultaneously rooted in both the blues and country music - giving it its true authenticity - and yet moulded by the genius of Presley into the new medium of rock music.

Because of its surprising depth it is not really suited for a live act where its content clashes with the customary extrovert mode of pop performance.

Sadly however it also serves as an epitaph to Elvis' own life. In a certain sense despite all the fame and achievement, it can be truthfully said that he actually died of loneliness.
In a strange way Elvis perhaps was already dimly aware of his ultimate fate when recording the song.