Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: L

L is for...Louie Louie, by The Kingsmen
Because it contains my favourite moment in the entire history of recorded sound.

Whole books have been written about Louie Louie. Every garage band worth their garage have recorded a version of it. More than any other song on this list, my choice for 'L' was never in any doubt. If you want to understand what this A-Z is about, and by extension what I think all the best pop music is about, listen to this record. There's probably absolutely nothing I can add to Louie Louie-ology that has not been already said by many others a million times, but, if we are to learn anything from The Kingsmen, it is that a lack of having anything original to say, or even the talent to make a reasonably accomplished copy of something wholly unoriginal, should not dissuade you from Giving It Your Best Shot Anyway.

My Favourite Moment In The Entire History Of Recorded Sound

Throughout Louie Louie, drummer Lynn Easton has potentially sounded the most clueless and deranged of all the Kingsmen, clattering wildly, exploding crazed rolls and breaks underneath the melody apparently at random - it's unconventionally effective, but you definitely wouldn't be surprised if this was the first time he's ever heard this song, or sat at a drum kit.

At 1:58, following the middle eight guitar break, the singer, Jack Ely, comes in a line too early. Recognising the error, he panics, and cuts himself short after just one word. Up until this point, the performance has been as error-free as The Kingsmen are ever going to manage. They can't get this take again. This is THE TAKE. History has reached a crossroads. Planets stop turning. ...And then, as if suddenly possessed by the holy drumming trinity of Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, Lynn Easton does something remarkable - he improvises, somehow cobbling together a stumbling, but absolutely crucial, fill, vamping out of his mind for the few crucial seconds until Ely can rejoin the song at the correct point. And They Left This Epochal Moment In Western Civilisation On The Actual Record.

Often when this moment is written about, it is from the perspective of Louie Louie being the godfather of Punk Trash Pop. By leaving the 'mistake' at 1:58 in the final recording, the band are perceived as exhibiting a lack of concern with getting the 'perfect take' - indeed, perhaps the Kingsmen were incapable of a perfect take. This establishes Louie Louie as belonging to a canon that is in opposition to the classical / jazz / prog rock canon of lifeless, schooled musicianship. And while I think that this analysis is entirely fair, it's also more than that. What's incredible about this moment is not the mistake, but the correction by Lynn Easton of it. It's about triumphing over the odds, and about people transcending their limitations, for the benefit of others. The drummer summons from nowhere the ability to do something contrary to everything else he's done throughout the song - the ability, presence of mind, and skill to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. This moment isn't remarkable because it's unusual to hear such an obvious blunder in a pop record - it's remarkable because Easton, in a moment of true inspiration, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, enabling his band mates to clatter their way successfully to the finishing line. It's the raw, exhilarating humanity of this moment that makes it special.

The Kingsmen's Louie Louie is an exquisitely charming and loveable record - it is the sound of a band struggling to achieve mastery over the world's most basic song structure, wailing and faliling, persevering, and ultimately succeeding. Succeeding not because they nail a technically perfect game, but because they make it to the end, together, and having absolutely stamped their own mark on a standard - infact, against all the odds, they have recorded the Definitive Version of that standard. It is a cinema verite recording bursting with humanity. It is Alive.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: K

K is for: 'King Tut', by Steve Martin & The Toot Uncommons

Or: The Novelty Disco Single, Post-Modernism's Black Hole And The Fall Of Western Civilisation

Or: Paul Thinks Way Too Hard About Something That May Not Justify The Analysis

So if The Avalanche's 'Frontier Psychiatrist' is an example of a great pop single that might be mistaken for a novelty song but definitely isn't one, Steve Martin's King Tut is an example of a great pop single that is absolutely 100% a novelty song...but it's more than that, too. Like much of Martin's best comedy work, it's both The Thing That It Is, and an off-kilter, deliberately dumb-ass, parody Of That Thing.

King Tut is without doubt, first and foremost, a quick-buck novelty single, released to make a dollar on the back of two coinciding late 70s phenomena - the King Tutankhamen exhibit which was touring the globe at the time, and the rapid escalation of Steve Martin's own immense, football-stadium-filling popularity (see video above). It's in a grand tradition of faddy pop-trend cash-in singles, from The Chipmunk Song to Rastamouse's (rather brilliant) 'Ice Popp'. It's also genuinely, laugh-out loud funny.

Precisely because King Tut is a Novelty Fad Cash-In Single, it cannot function entirely successfully as a parody of Novelty Cash-In Singles. King Tut was a commercial product, people made money from it, and its major selling point was Steve Martin's contemporary pop-culture currency. This, as far as I see it, is the gaping, soulless, black hole at the centre of post-modernism's universe - "we know this is trash, that's the joke, it's ironic, but we're going to make a definitely non-ironic profit off of it anyway, which is almost part of the joke too, right..." It's a difficult position to defend, and leaves King Tut - like much 'ironic' pop culture product -almost fatally compromised and conflicted.

While King Tut's general parody the Novelty Fad Cash-In Single sort-of-doesn't-quite-work, King Tut's specific parody of The Novelty Disco Single is hugely enjoyable, and executed in a smart and imaginative manner. The disco era was proved particularly fertile for the novelty-hit pop single; (the entire disco genre was regarded by many as a mere novelty, a, ahem, flash (dance) in the pan), and for a short period in 1978, whacking a four-to-the-floor beat behind something and sticking the word 'Disco' in front of the title was considered legitimate hit-making methodology. King Tut's best 'joke' is the typically Martin-ish non-sequitur that occurs during the middle eight, when the song shifts for absolutely no discernible reason from a loping cod-Egyptian skank to an up-tempo, generic disco strut, complete with inane "Dancin' by the nile - Disco Tut! The ladies love his style - Boss Tut!" lyrics. Echoing the outrageously cynical and musically jarring attempts by multiple established Classic Rock acts to suddenly and unconvincingly 'go disco' (see: Kiss, The Rolling Stones, even the Grateful Dead), this is a pretty good gag, and a far more effective and incisive pastiche of that unfortunate trend than a straight disco track would have achieved.

And if 'successfully quite funny parody of novelty disco' was King Tut's grandest achievement, that would be enough....but it has a far wider point to make. The central premise of the King Tut joke is that a novelty disco song about Tutankhamen is the natural end-game of a 20th Century culture in which everything, including the holy relics of ancient cultures, is fair game for the mass-production, mainstream capitalist-media-machine. I guess you could sum this up as "Nothing Is Sacred", or as Christian Slater observes in 'Pump Up The Volume' : "All the great themes have been used up, and turned into theme parks." History is dead, all that's left is novelty disco songs about history, and a wildly inaccurate version of history ("Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia!") at that. It's a bleak message.

Martin's stand-up shtick was a parody of stand-up, a commentary on it, and in this way King Tut ultimately works because releasing an awful novelty disco track is precisely the sort of thing that the type of buffoonish light entertainment personality he parodied would do. It's consistent with his act, and therefore, artistically, legitimate. On the other hand - it's still product, he still charged people for it, and there's something very difficult, impossible even, to reconcile about those positions. It's very easy to shout 'irony' in a crowded market place. Smart, but very compromised: King Tut.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: J

J is for...Johnny B Goode, by Chuck Berry / Marvin Berry & The Starlighters

"Woah...Rock 'n' Roll."

The very first line of Back To The Future. Can you think of a better first line in a movie? (Actually, The Wild Bunch's "If they move - kill 'em" is a close contender) For all the credit the Back To The Future movies get, they still don't get enough. Certainly not the first movie, which by my estimation is about as perfect a piece of popular art as has ever been produced by the Hollywood machine. Mind-bogglingly well-constructed, sublime lead performances, an endlessly quoteable script, a concept (time-travelling Delorean) so insanely, gloriously B-Movieish it's a wonder the movie ever got made, masses to say about the development of pop youth culture from the 50s Dawn Of The Teenager to the Mtv 80s, and with a love of Rock And Roll at it's heart, Back To The Future is the teen-adventure movie in excelsis. And smart? Like a fox.

.1. In 1985, the McFly family are enjoying a re-run of an old Honeymooners episode entitled 'The Man From Space'.

.2. In 1955, the Baines family are watching this episode's TV debut. Marty causes some confusion by stating that he's already seen this episode, calling it "a classic - Ralph dresses up as a man from space," and attempts to explain that he must have seen a "re-run."

.3. In the next scene, Marty and Doc are shown 're-running' the video camera footage Marty shot at Twin Pines Mall on a TV set. The notion of 're-running' situations, events and images is common to the whole trilogy, but finds it's purest expression here, where an earlier scene from the film is actually repeated on television, becoming a re-run.

.4. Marty, dressed in a radiation suit, is himself mistaken for a Man From Space earlier in the movie, and later dons the suit again to deliberately impersonate an alien.

I just think this is massively impressive; post-modern without being smart-alecy, it deals with complex ideas in a fun way, and totally integrates them into the story.

Uh...I was meant to be talking about Johnny Be Goode, wasn't I?

For people of a certain age, Marty's performance of this song at the end of BTTF defined their adolescent understanding of what Rock and Roll IS. "It's a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up" is the only way anybody should ever introduce any song, regardless of whether it's actually a blues riff in B or not. The escalation of Marty's wild abandon as the spirit of rock and roll electrifies his soul, duck-walking, amp-kicking and Hendrix-wailing across the Hill Valley High School stage, remains one of the truly great celluloid evocations of pop music's almighty power. Lots of movies have great soundtracks, but few get pop music in the way BTTF does, or have done as much to engender a love of it in its audience. Like much of Berry's work, Johnny B Goode is a song about rock and roll, making it the perfect choice for this scene. From a film characterised by unparalleled attention to detail, you would expect nothing less.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Singles: I

I is for: 'I Think We're Alone Now' - Tommy James & The Shondells (1967) / Tiffany (1988)*
*And also Girls Aloud, but their version was uncharacteristically woeful and pointless. For shame, Girls Aloud.

(So check this out for inter-textual pop-geekery: My choice for 'H' (Heaven Is A Place On Earth) was knocked off the Number One spot in 1988 by my choice for 'I' (I Think We're Alone Now).You might - but probably won't - be interested to learn that the song that knocked Tiffany off Number One was another 'I' record, Kylie's 'I Should Be So Lucky', completing a remarkable triple-whammy of 80s Girl Pop chart dominance during this period.)

So, I have A Bit Of A Thing for 80s / early 90s Super Pop; The Bangles, Pat Benatar, Go-Gos and Ex Go-Gos...and yes, even Tiffany. Well...not really Tiffany. But this song at least, and one good song is all that matters. I've dug Tiffany's version on some level ever since I was a kid, but only I only found out that it was a cover-version a couple of years back. I like pretty much both versions equally. They have different things going for them, but they fulfill the same remit in their respective eras, that of being Definitive Bubbblegum Pop.

Tiffany's video for this, if you recall, was filmed in a mall. If you want to know what US teen-culture looked like in 1987, watch this video. It tells you everything you need to know. If you want to know what US teen-culture looked like in 1967...go buy the Doors first album. But also take three minutes to listen to The Shondell's original version of I Think We're Alone Now, because although it couldn't have less to say about the Woodstock Nation, it's certainly a very enjoyable slice of MOR Apple Pie pop-rock, and has the edge on 'Light My Fire' in that it's like about a fith as long, and has a chirrping crickets sound effect on it, and no matter how much acid he gulped, Jim Morrison never thought to put insect sound effects on his records.**

**Tiffany had the good sense to repeat the crickets sound effect at the beginning of her version, a pretty cool nod to the original. Thus ends the nerdiest A-Z post so far.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The A-Z of All Time Great Pop Singles: "H"

H is for: "Heaven Is A Place On Earth", by Belinda Carlisle

Few pop-music related things seem as wrongheaded to me as the concept of the "guilty pleasure". Nobody should feel guilty about the pop music they take pleasure from, at least not if the cause of guilt is simply the perception that the music which pleasures them is not Cool. For the pleasure someone derives from listening to a pop record to be found Guilty, we must accept that somewhere there is a judge and jury passing sentance on what is the Right Sort Of Music and what is The Wrong Sort Of Music. This sort of joy-killing fascism is the antithesis of everything pop music should be about, and is largely a construct of an entertainment industry which, in order to market it's product effectively, divides it's consumer demographic into managable sub-sections and pitches them in opposition against one another in an eternal battle of My Scene Is Better Than Your Scene.

The consequence of this tactic is that pop music becomes a tool of exclusivity, of elitism, a way of establishing who's Out and who's In. When you're a kid, this has it's uses. Maybe it's even a healthy part of growing up. But there comes a point when you're meant to out-grow that shit, and it strikes me that Babyboomer culture, with a premium placed on Cool, and Youth, and Being Hip To The Latest Groove, has prolonged the period of somebody's life where this sort of mentality is acceptable, or smart, or healthy, pretty much indefinately. I think that's a shame, because it means that people are more uptight, for longer, and feel less empowered to stand up and say "You know what. I think Gang Of Four are OK. But it's really more of an intellectual thing. What really gets my blood pumping is Heaven Is A Place on Earth by Belinda Carlisle, and Uncut Magazine can Go To Hell."

(Note: I DJ'd at the wedding of my very good friends Lee & Jud, and 'dropping' this record during my 'set' still stands as the most fun I've ever had behind a pair of decks.)

(Another Note: Belinda would have been one of two ex-Go-Go Girls to make an appearence on this A-Z, had 'R' not already been over-subscribed. Jane Wiedlin's unbelievably great 'Rush Hour', unfortunately, won't quite make the cut.)

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The A-Z Of All-Time Great Pop Singles: "G"

G is for 'Green Onions' by Booker T & The MGs

Simply because it never gets old, which is remarkable, because it's, like, really old. 1962, man, and those Onions sound just as fresh today as they did when Booker T first cooked 'em up.

While lacking the lyrical themes, vocal stylings and Flute Solo that California Dreamin' has somehow managed to overcome in it's avoidance of not being an irritating Babyboomer nostalgia yawnfest, this Hammond Organ instrumental (surely the most famous organ instrumental of all-time) is still Typically 60s enough, and recycled as a 60s Soundtrack Shortcut often enough, to make it astounding in itself that it hasn't become a tiresome relic. But is Absloutley Hasn't. It falls into the same category as Louie Louie - put Green Onions on in a club, any club, anywhere, and People Will Dance. I DJ'd at a Sixties Night for 5 years, and played all sortsa obscure nonsense - but not playing this was simply never an option. It has The Vibe. It creates a whole scene. It's Three Dimensional - it transports you. Smoky, slinky, COOL.

Green Onions is an example of the Good Will Out, of The Cream Rising To The Top. Of popular culture Getting It Right. Why is this the most famous Organ Instro? Because it's the best one. There are loads of other great organ instros, thousands of 'em infact, but if we gotta pick one, let's all just agree on this one. I like Jimmy Smith's Root Down pretty much more than any record on earth, but it doesn't have the whole package like Green Onions does. This is a pop record. It has hooks. You can sing along. It hits the ground...well, not running...it hits the ground grooving. And that guitar...Steve Cropper's guitar...might just be my favourite guitar part ever. SHRAK! SHRUK! He play's next to nothing, and get's it absolutely right.

Finally, Booker T. He was like 17 years old when he played on this record. How insane is that? 17 years old, and you're on a record that people will still be digging for centuries to come. The video above is simply one of my all-time fave pieces of video. Booker T's expression at 2.52 makes me laugh every time; mugging to the crowd, grinning his ass off as he plays the most insane, juddering, outrageous organ solo, like "I KNOW, RIGHT? I'M AWESOME! THIS SONG IS AWESOME! Check out what I'm doing on this organ! It's RIDICULOUS!"

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The A-Z Of All-Time Great Pop Singles: "F"

F is for: Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches

John Lennon said of Revolution #9, the cut & paste sound collage piece regarded by many proponants of "Proper Music" as Not Being Proper Music, that he had expended more time and energy on the creation of that White Album epic than he had on much of his back catalogue, the inference being: 'I can knock out tunes on my acoustic guitar all day. It's stuff like that which is throw-away and lazy and inconsequential, not this. This took real effort. This was the challenge. And it's valid.'

But as much as I like Revolution #9, and could spend all day defending it...it sure ain't funky. It took hip-hop, maybe 7 or 8 years later, to marry the avant-garde cut-ups of postmodernist art as exemplified by Revolution #9, and the dancefloor filling RnB sensibilities of James Brown. Revolution #9 was self-conciously anti-pop - it was designed to shock and disturb and shake the squares from their bourgeois slumber. Grandmaster Flash's The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel was super-pop, designed to amuse and move and get the squares to shake their tail feathers.

And as far as bone fide hit records go, few have ever taken the model of imaginative collage + humour + grooviness and done anything with it nearly as joyfully, danceably, delightfully brilliant as Australia's The Avalanches did on their 2000 Top 20 sampledelic smasheroo, Frontier Psychiatrist. I Love This Record. I probably wouldn't have even bothered doing this list if I hadn't wanted a reason to write about Frontier Psychiatrist. Alphabet Of Pop aside, I'd still put this in my all-time Top 50 singles. Wikipedia states that it contains 37 samples; I'm gonna say I think it's higher than that, but even if it's just 37, I'm pretty sure this must be a record for a Top 20 UK single. Best of all, one of those samples is from The 'Burbs, one of my all-time favourite movies - and I'm damn certain that Frontier Psychiatrist is the only Top 20 UK hit single with a 'Burbs sample in it.

I dig the Wild West, spaghetti-western, Morricone sorta vibe; I dig how daft it all is...it's really a comedy record, and certainly The Avalanches spoke in interviews around the time that they feared being percieved as a novelty act. Now, there's nothing wrong with novelty songs - I like Doctorin' The Tardis as much as the next man - but this isn't a novelty song. It's funny, sure, and fun, and definately unusual - but nothing this artfully constructed can be called a novelty. I'm a real sucker this sort of sample-heavy fare; it appeals to the record-geek in me, the crate-digger mentality that has you thinking "Ohh - where'd they nick this bit from, and where can I find it?" As a pop-culture junkie, a song composed entirely of pop-culture junk is just right it my street.

Oh, and the video is potentially my favourite video of all time.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The A-Z Of All-Time Great Pop Singles: "E"

E is for "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin

This was the first song I heard as a Married Man. It played as I walked back down the eisle hand-in-hand with my new wife, and it will forever bring back memories of that magical, snow-blesssed day in late December 2009. My & my wife chose it as the day's We Just Got Married Song because it makes sense lyrically, because it set the tone for the Wedding's evening party theme (50s cocktail party), because I'm a big Dean Martin fan, because it's a great freakin' record, and because when those drums kick in after the opening spiral of strings and Disney-esque female choir, it meant we had a cue to start walking. So yeah - I guess you could say this song is sort of a Big Deal for me.

While I am a big Dean Martin fan, I'm happy to admit that the dude didn't make hundreds of Great Records. But he did make some - and this is one of them. Mainly it just has more OOMPH than alotta his stuff. Dean couldn't have cared less about recording "serious" music, or trying to be an "important" "artist". Not like Sinatra. For Dean, the whole song & dance thing was a hustle, and anybody who thought it was anything more than that was a shmuck. Part of me really likes that. I'm a big believer in irreverence, especially when it comes to pop music (a medium I've always understood as being essentially irreverent by nature, but which babyboomers have managed to turn into something which has deified more holy saints in 50 years than the Catholic Church have managed in thousands), and nobody had less reverence for Pop Music than Dean Martin. Even here, with the benefit of having an Actually Good Song to Sing, he gives up really trying after about a minute and a half. This careless, sloppy-drunk half-assedness didn't hurt the song at the Cashbox of course - careless, sloppy-drink half-assedness is precisely what he was paid for. Irked by Beatlemania, legend has it that Martin promised his Fabs idolising 11 year old son that ELS was "gonna knock your pallies off the charts", which is exactly what happened when it went to #1 in August 1964, 10 years since his last chart topper. Again, irreverence: screw The Beatles. I'm Dean Freakin' Martin. And I can still get Number Ones the same way I always did - without even trying.

On a personal note, there is another story connected to this song which makes it a favourite of mine. My stag do was held in the wilds of the Peak District, and at some point during the Saturday night we (about a dozen middle-class lads from various parts of Yorkshire) wound up in a very dodgy Buxton pub which had Bad Idea written all over it. They were showing WWF on the widescreen TV, and Nu Metal was thundering from the sound system. The crowd was an ugly gallery of muderous, dead-eyed goths, local Straw Dogs types and tooled-up teen hooligans. Total Mos Eisley cantina vibes. We hussled our way to the darkest corner of the pub we could find, and while my friends busied themselves avoiding eye contact with the other patrons and nervously peeling strips from their beer bottle labels, I started pumping cash into the jukebox. By this point in the weekend two days of near constant low-level drinking may have thrown my intuition off somewhat, but quite frankly my ability to "sense the tone" has always been suspect; the Australian's have a word for The Guy Who Always Picks The Wrong Record To Put On At A Party - I forget what the term is now, but I definately have a tendancy in that direction. I found the first track I wanted. "Nailed it," I thought, supremely confident of the awesomeness of my selection, the song that was gonna blow everybody's tiny minds and unite the pub in some epic, spontaneous dance sequence. The harsh Nu Metal ground to a halt. A pause. The opening, saccharine strings of "Everybody Loves Somebody" drifed surreally through the musty, dead air. "Everybody....loves somebody....sometime". I span triumphantly around to my stag party, expecting to be greeted with manic Stag whoops and a sea of raised hands desperate to High Five this act of genius. Instead, I turned to greet 12 open-mouthed, ashen faces starring back at me, frozen in abject terror and nauseous disbelief, expressions which collectively stated one thing: "We're gonna die."

Fortunately, the Buxton Massive must be slightly more tolerant of mushy, campy old lounge music than my friends feared, because as it turned out we weren't actually murdered. Infact, we weren't even murdered when the next song that came on, chosen by my friend Wardy, was some Bon Jovi song nobody has ever heard before that was about 15 minutes long or something, which is probably about 12 minutes longer than any Bon Jovi record should be, I mean, I like Livin' On A Prayer as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Wardy), but seriously...that said, I guess the insanity of Wardy's choice did distract attention away from the insanity of my choice, so really I should thank him for this act of Stag Party heroism. This post, then, is for Stephen M Ward.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The A-Z of All-Time Great Pop Singles: "D"

D is for "Dance To The Music", by Sly & The Family Stone

Like Funkadelic, I guess Sly & The Family Stone act as a gateway funk band for rock orientated teenagers - they've been fulfilling that role ever since their show-stealing performance at Woodstock 40 years ago, when they got thousands of peacenik long-hairs up on their feet and grooving in the mud. The footage of the Family Stone at that concert is simply mind-boggling; a firestorm of full-throttle funk. Takes no prisoners. KICKS. ALMIGHTY. ASS.

The Family Stone were the first "cross-over" act; their music an explosive cocktail of white rock and black soul - but, unlike so much (good & bad) soul-does-psyche experiments, there is nothing remotely self-conscious, artificial or exploitative about this fusion. I love a lot of psychedelic soul, but even the very best stuff, at least the commercially successful stuff, (Norman Whitfield-era Temptations, say) has some element of "lets give this whole hippy thing a go". (To be fair, that's often a big part of it's charm.) But The Family Stone's sound works because it's totally natural, and, crucially, it was their idea first. And it wasn't just their sound that was "integrated". Consisting of men and women, white folks and black folks, The Family Stone lived the Woodstock Nation ideal of interracial, inter-gender harmony, where so many others just talked a good game.

Dance To The Music, their break-out hit, is an example of how a big single can be used by a band as a calling card, a statement of intent - everything you need to know about the Family Stone philosophy is here. The phrase "melting pot of influences" is a cliche, but it applies perfectly here - it is a bubbling gumbo of Doo-Wop, Motown pop, and fuzzed-acid rock. It has one of the all time great first lines - the exhortation to "Get up - and dance to the music!" is impossible to refuse, and I dig how it makes their music The Music, the definite article, the only music that matters. From thereon, it's just your regular arrangement of accapella doo-wop, drum solos, fuzz bass solos, about five different vocalists, introductions to the band members, and an instruction for "squares" to leave. Dance To The Music: the sound of somebody spiking King Curtis's Memphis Soul Stew with LSD.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: "C"

C is for: "California Dreamin'", by The Mamas & The Papas
When me and my kid sister used to holiday with our folks, we'd go in the car someplace like Northumberland or Norfolk or wherever, and our parents would take the opportunity of having a captive audience to educate The Kids about The Popular Music Of Their Youth. The syllabus was largely defined by whatever cheapo 60s cassette compilation my Dad could find in the first petrol station we came to, tapes called things like 'Music Inspired By Easy Rider' or 'The Best Of The Sixties'. The real mainstay, however, was a double-cassette called 'Psychedelia', 40 tracks of late 60s wig-out magic, including White Rabbit, 8 Miles High, See My Friends, and even Beefheart's Electricity. Undeniable, timeless pop records. And I heard 'em a lot. But there was one song that, despite the fact that it only apeared on the album once, just like the rest of those songs, seemed to be on in our car the whole time, every time I looked up from the Beano Summer Special, or the NME, or from playing Top Trumps with my sister - The Mamas and The Papas' California Dreamin'.

There are very few songs awesome enough to withstand the sort of maximum over-exposure that the Western World has had to this record. It's wheeled out every time a movie, TV or advert director wants to evoke 'The Sixties'. It's a shortcut, short-hand for a whole era. It should, by all rights, have become a terrible cliche, synonymous with yawnsome babyboomer nostalgia. Everybody, everywhere, should be bored to death of this song. And yet, somehow, California Dreamin's spooky, chilly glory remains entirely undiminished. Partly I think this is because, unlike, say White Rabbit, California Dreaming isn't a "hippy" record, or an "acid rock" record - it's not a record about living in sixties LA; it's a record about dreaming about living in sixties LA. This puts the protagonist in the same position as the listener, and provides the sense of longing, of yearning, for a mythical other place, which defines this song.

Beyond that , there are so many great things about this record that it's impossible to list them all here. I like how dramatic it is, and how short it is, and how it packs so much briliant stuff into those two minutes and 39 seconds that it makes you wonder why more pop records can't do it, and I love the outrageously loud backing vocals "well I got down on my knees (GOT DOWN ON MY KNEES!) / and I pretend to pray (I PRETEND TO PRAY!)", and the final, rushing "DAAAAAAYYYYYYYYY" (six seconds long!).
Maybe most of all, I love the flute break, a pristine, ghostly, yearning little melody which send shivers down my spine still. It's just one of my very favourite moments on any pop record. Bud Shank played that flute solo. Bud was a West Coast jazzman who played with Stan Kenton, and on pioneering indo-jazz fusion tracks with Ravi Shankar. Most people who've heard California Dreamin', and that's pretty much everybody everywhere, probably don't know the name Bud Shank. Truth be told, neither did I until I was reading about this song recently. His music can be heard everyday on radio stations around the globe, but his name remains a quiet footnote in the pop history books. So this post is for Bud Shank.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The A-Z Of All-Time Great Pop Singles: B

B is for: "Boom! Shake The Room" - Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

What, no Be My Baby? My choice for "B" presents the perfect
opportunity to confirm an essential aspect of this A-Z, which is that I intend to compile it instinctively, in a first-thought, best-thought sorta way - this is a list of pop songs that matter to me personally, which spring immediately to mind because they're heavily playlisted on mybrain FM, rather than an exercise in advertising what refined taste I have. So I coulda chosen the undeniably wondrous Phil Spector / Ronettes girl-group classic, and almost did...but the truth is what I always really wanted to pick was Boom! Shake The Room, by Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. So I have.

"The f-f-f-f fresh p-p-p-prince is who I am: so tell my mother that I never wrote a wack jam."

Should an alien race ever require the people of earth to provide a sample of our best work, we would bundle William Smith up onto a rocket ship and send him hurtling off into the cosmos, with a suitcase containing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air DVD box-set, Men In Black, 'Summertime', 'Miami' and this record on 12" vinyl, and a note stapled to his t-shirt saying "Now show us what you've got." Will Smith is about as bankable a celebrity as it's possible to imagine, and B!STR is a Very Commercial Record. It's essentially LL Cool J's Momma Said Knock You Out, already a relatively pop rap single, with every pop hook turned up to 11, an explosion for a chorus, and a lead vocal performance by the most charismatic man on the planet. If hip-hop heads wanna grumble about how "sanitised" Will & Jazz's version of Rap Music is here, let 'em. One of pop music's roles is as a gateway drug to harder, more adult kicks. B!STR was a sneaky toke behind the bikesheds for a generation of Fresh Prince teens, who the very next year were probably nodding out in their bedrooms to the sounds of Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg.