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.