Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Why Cry When You Can Dance? : “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo”: Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes/ “Try To Remember/The Way We Were”: Gladys Knight and the Pips
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Now I feel we have reached a song that divides people to this day – is it good? Is it unbearably twee and girly and yuck? Certainly the latter was my reaction to it once I had grown up a bit, had my own radio and so on. For all I know this is how some still respond to it, because of Riperton’s high voice, because of the birds tweeting away, because they think music (particularly by women) must somehow involve suffering, and there is no suffering here. There is no struggle here, no abandonment, no imminent collapse or mourning. It is all love, optimism and joy.
I listen to this now and carefully note that this is a heroic tugboat of a song. Happiness with a strong voice (a coloratura voice with four octaves) gliding along emphatically as well as gracefully. She looks forward to the future, knowing in her heart it will always be springtime, there will always be birds chirping and sunshine and and....
Let me back up a bit in Minnie’s story. She met Richard Rudolph as a young woman in the group Rotary Connection, a band on the Chess label which had Charles Stepney producing and (rests gracefully on sadly non-existent chaise longue) among their albums there was one of covers from 1969 called Songs which kludged rock and soul together in a way that still sounds startling. Then two years later came Hello Love and the abundanza of “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun.” Stepney really should have been nominated for Producer of the Year because WHAT WITH THE WHAT NOW and IT CAN BE DONE BUT ONLY I CAN DO IT reasons. But Producer of the Year didn’t exist then (Thom Bell was the first to win one in 1975).
In between these albums her first solo album, Come Into My Garden, was released in 1970 (produced by Stepney). Rotary Connection had had some bad luck (declining Woodstock, for instance, as it was too far away – instead they opened for The Stooges closer to home) and Stepney was determined to get Riperton’s voice heard. He tried, with the amazing “Les Fleur” but the label she was on (a subsidiary of Chess) was floundering and eventually everyone left for Los Angeles to make a fresh start of things, save for Riperton, who basically needed a rest and wanted to settle down, moving to Florida with Rudolph in 1972. However, Riperton was coaxed into getting back into music a year later (lured inevitably to Los Angeles).
Riperton started to work with Stevie Wonder as a backing singer, and then he produced her album Perfect Angel, where “Lovin’ You” appears. After the ornate and sometimes flat-out overwhelming Stepney productions, Wonder made things simple – just a few birds to add to the perpetual springtime of the song, with Riperton’s voice front and center, as opposed to being part of a chorus. It’s an easy song that Rudolph and Riperton wrote, a kind of lullaby to their baby Maya (you can hear Riperton sing her name at the end).
Is there something guileless about this song? I’m not sure there is, though it certainly can seem that way to hipsters who disdain open sentiment. The remarkable thing is what happened after this was a hit – she made more albums, continued to perform and at the same time had to live with the diagnosis of breast cancer, which doctors told her at first was going to end her life in six months. She had a double mastectomy and kept right on going, becoming a spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness and even recorded her last album while in great pain – presumably at her own insistence.
She died at the age of 31 in 1979, an indomitable force and an inspiration to many musicians (Mariah Carey, Kate Bush and of course Stevie Wonder) and the women who were also dealing with cancer at the time – not a taboo subject these days, but one hardly mentioned in the mid-70s. This song is a song of love, a heroic and happy song of the mother and wife, ultimately a song about being alive itself as a joy.
Next: There’s looking backwards and then there’s taking stock.
*Could someone at Ace Records do a Charles Stepney compilation please? It’s way overdue and there are all sorts of music he did while at Chess. Thanks!
Monday, November 9, 2020
Animal Crackers pts. 2 and 3: The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog: "Fox On the Run" Sweet and "Love Me Love My Dog" Peter Shelley
For the foreseeable future I am going to have to speed up some here at MSBWT in order to get out of the emotional ditch known as ‘the mid-70s’ – perhaps you feel the same way? Though when (for lack of a better word) landmark #2s come along, I will devote more time to them.
Thus, these two very different songs have to be together. They both point to something – the end of the Glam Slam and what happens next. The Sweet, a bit at a loss as to what to do (and politely told by their label to have another hit already), found a song on their album they wrote themselves, rejigged it and lo and behold it was a worldwide hit, just at the time when Glam was pretty much over and this tougher style was...no, I can’t use that word just yet.
They continued to exhaust themselves touring and relying on writing their own material, eventually hitting it big with “Love Is Like Oxygen” in 1978. That is the first time I heard them – however that song is no fun* whereas "Fox On The Run" (not as odd as The Hollies’ “After The Fox” of course) rocks and jumps and struts around its Glam victory lap before disappearing, all shiny and loud and stompy as ever.
Peter Shelley (I’m sure he’s heard all the comments) once wrote songs for Alvin Stardust, but as Glam faded he and Marty Wilde wrote about his dog instead, about how anyone interested in him should appreciate his dog too. Which is.... fine. Every sentiment can get written about, though in this case the song (an NME #2, posted below) has disappeared from the common memory just as “Sugar Candy Kisses” did, hiding somewhere on a European compilation which is lingering in an attic. The song is sincere at least (he appeared on Top of the Pops to perform this song with his loyal dog by his side) and it does add to the odd number of mid-70s songs about animals, including “Shannon” and “Mandy” (originally) and “Wildfire” which I think is about a horse that disappears into the West.**
These were anomalies for the time, little signals of the decade as it turned quite decisively to something else. Disco, reggae, these guys from Germany called Kraftwerk, the Rollers – this replaced Glam***, along with the Soulboy contingent who were into...well, anything from Bowie to jazz-funk to Northern Soul. Any casual look at the charts from this time will show that what was going on wasn’t boring, though if you were fifteen or so you might find a lot of what I just mentioned too...sophisticated? Safe? The very complicated situation (or you could say grown-up) of music meant certain sectors felt a bit ignored and left out.
This is addressed eventually, but for now there’s a homely man and his dog, and a fox disappearing over the horizon.
Next: The birds and the bees et les fleurs.
*It’s them trying to be New Wave, and failing miserably.
**Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road” sort of fits in here, more or less.
***Not that Glam goes away entirely – there will always be echoes of it here and there, the most prominent of them showing up in the due course of time.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
And then I literally started whacking the top of the grand piano. So the actual rhythm-track of 'The Funky Gibbon' has only got me and Dave on it - he plays clavinet and synth-bass and we miked up the top of the piano. Then we got the horn section of Gonzales playing a Memphis Horns-type thing. It was lovely for me to be able to use musicians I liked and try to reproduce sounds which I also listened to. And then put the stupid song over the top of it. The idea that all that effort went into 'The Funky Gibbon'!” Bill Oddie. as quoted in Alwyn Turner's blog The Lion and the Unicorn.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Next up: keep the red flag flying, kids!
Monday, May 4, 2020
What is it like to listen to a song that has fundamentally been...forgotten? This song is essentially no longer part of what I (guess) is the musical “canon.” Of course this may not be a bad thing, but in a time when people seem to obsess over the past in a way which is unhealthy (look at the current album charts – how much of the music is from the past or are greatest hits from the past? A lot) it is rare. If you are me, trying to find the new is increasingly difficult but the past seems to loom and even interrupt, making the new (and interesting) harder and harder to locate.
Do people deliberately like bad things? Do people deliberately like mediocre things? These were my first thoughts upon regarding this song. But I have had a bit more time to think these things over. This song is neither bad nor mediocre; but it is in a unique and unenviable position of being utterly forgotten. Finding a 70s compilation with this song on it – and there are so many 70s compilations – is nearly impossible. It has been virtually erased from music, been turned into a non-song. An unsong, if you will. This is a rare feat, as so much of radio (in the UK at least) is fixated on the 70s, as the album charts to this day show. Almost all songs from the 70s which were big hits (that can still be played, of course) are still being given airtime somewhere (if not on Radio 2 then on 6 Music or elsewhere). The overwhelming narrative is not just on the radio but on these compilations; for a song to only be available on a Disky (Dutch) box set is saying something. It is saying only Europe still cares; the UK has effectively turned its back on this song and Mac and Katie Kissoon, denying its existence and leading us, dear reader, straight into the void that I somehow instinctively knew was at the heart of the 70s UK single charts. With this song we are beyond the edge; we are in the world where things disappear, and must go forth carefully. This is not The Fog as much as what The Fog has been hiding.
Of course, there are many songs which managed to get into the charts which are, for any number of reasons, no longer played – singles are, lest we ever forget, supposed to be evanescent things, things which strike at the moment acutely, moments that reach out to the listener directly as if taking up a conversation, adding their voices to the discussion. (By the way, while I remain ambivalent about the 70s personally, I think they are far more interesting than radio generally lets on.) They can be good or bad or indeed mediocre, but they all hope (or the songwriters and performers do) to be at least remembered and even celebrated. The music industry loves (in part because this is how it survives) to remind us of the past, even if it is just the recent past of the NOW series.
For a song to be left out of all this is a puzzle, particularly as these two were already part of the UK musical world – Katie Kissoon had been recording since the 60s (under the odd name Peanut) solo and with her brother Jerry (stage name Mac). This song was their big chance for a hit in the UK, and as it was as deliberately written* as The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” and it worked, getting to #2 on Radio Luxembourg and #3 in the UK. (That a love song is being sung by siblings was something blithely ignored at the time I am guessing, especially since Donny and Marie were also popular.)
I can think of a few reasons this song has been...left behind. It sounds as if they are singing the song – their voices are genuine and sweet enough, but somehow still there is no punctum. It is, even by 1975 standards, a bit square; like a music box it dutifully revolves and then fades abruptly once it’s done. It is professional music, done by professionals; Mac and Katie Kissoon are and have been very much part of the business as in-demand backing singers** since their heyday (mostly in Europe) was over. They are doing their best with a song that is just too rote and routine to spark any actual fervour, the sort of song done on variety shows.
Ultimately this song shows that just being a hit is not enough. Being in the charts at all as we have seen is not really enough either. There is something amiss about the charts themselves at this time – which I will address in due course. A whole other thing is quietly and determinedly already existing and growing, music which is not perhaps as technically good as this...but that will not, in time, matter. Alongside this in February 1975 Margaret Thatcher becomes leader of the Conservative party. The end of “the 1970s” is not in sight...yet.
Next up: a different pair with a different future.
* The composer credits are Bickerton/Waddington, who also wrote "Nothing But A Heartache" by The Flirtations.
**Katie is a favourite with Van Morrison in particular, though I should note she has also worked with the KLF and Dexy's Midnight Runners.. I should also note that as Mac and Katie they had the first crack at “Love Will Keep Us Together” before the more famous version, and had the US hit version of "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep."
Monday, November 11, 2019
But what is the song about? No one, even O'Day and Reddy, who you would think would know, don't. This is actually rather refreshing, as how many songs actually seem to be flattened or reduced by having their meaning/origin explained? It almost even takes away some of the power - the listener's power - in understanding and interpreting a song. So my version of this song may not be yours, but here goes...
A girl loves music, loves it so much and thus it takes over her life. Is she touched, a little crazy in the head? For some reason she doesn't go to school but gets to stay at home, in her room** listening to her radio all day. She whirls around with one song, one fantastic partner, after another. She is, as Sister Sledge will later attest, Lost In Music. Whether she knows this or not isn't stated, but Reddy's voice is always present to hint, to insinuate, to make the case for Angie that she is a "special lady" and not one to be messed with.
A girl's attachment to music is a strong thing. The power of music matches her own power, which can be so great and yet so ephemeral, but always is there, and the radio becomes a means of possessing this power in a way, of having means to escape even if you are shut-in at home, it seems in the song for Angie's own good.
But there's a boy, a ne'er-do-well, who wants Angie and looks in on her and sees only her body, of course. He doesn't know about her "really nice place to go" but perhaps knows she's a bit "touched." This boy wants and gets into her room, only to find himself, his very soul, spun around and somehow disappearing into the radio, never to be seen again. The radio keeps him - he's not dead, exactly, but he can never escape. She has a lover; she has her radio; she has her land of make-believe...or is it?
Even here I can say that the radio, that music itself, somehow defends and protects Angie, that she who is so utterly devoted has her just reward, and that the confusing, fuzzy and emotionally and psychologically profound reactions a girl has to music are all here. The way a guitar and drums and voice can hit your nerves, all your nerves, so that you become altered, even liberated, by what happens to you when you hear them. The effect is instantaneous and all those radio stations who didn't need any encouragement to play this song (radio stations love songs which mention radios, after all) maybe didn't get the whole subversive sexual undertow here, or maybe they very much did.
A girl and her radio; a radio romance.
Next up: it's the Valentine's Day massacre.
*Hardly anything more 70s than doing this, though how much popular culture - through books, music, movies - was about young women who were deemed "odd" or "weird" or flat-out "crazy" in this decade has no doubt been written about, but also sort of written off. The male/masculine version of the 70s has become the default understanding of the decade, with only a few women accepted as part of that male world, and this goes for all media, really. I know this is a super-obvious point, but it always bears making.
** How much would I have loved to stay in my room say circa November 1981 and listen to the radio all day? A lot....