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.