Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Animal Crackers pt. 1: The Goodies: "The Funky Gibbon"

“This House stinks of racism!” Cornelius Cardew, October 1981

“We had marvellous musicians on those sessions, but they couldn't get it. They knew what I was sort of trying to do, but I probably listened to that sort of thing more than they did, and it was driving us nuts, so we sent the drummer and the bass-player and the guitarist home. And I had a keyboard player called Dave Macrae, who'd played with Matching Mole and Robert Wyatt and people like that - governor player - and he started playing some clavinet, very Stevie Wonder-type feel to it, and I said, 'That's fine; could you do a synth-bass on it?'

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.

I recently saw a comment about irony and music – its author very clearly stated that he did not appreciate it.  And you know what?  I do understand this point of view.  Most great music does not have a side; it is not trying to do two things at once, though it is possible to hear a song for some time and not know what it is really about.  In that case, you might get upset that you yourself did not realize this or you might project this anger on to the song itself or the person who told you. 

Most songs are very directly what they say they are.  However it is noticeable that anyone trying to express something by saying it with irony or in an indirect way is usually saying something the public at large may not want to hear.  It is entirely possible to enjoy a song and not get its irony*, and irony comes in many levels, of course...

I did not expect “The Funky Gibbon” to be in one of these spirals of irony, but it is the 1970s, when juxtapositions were all over the place.  The beginning is simple enough – jazz/funk fan Bill Oddie wanted his comedy troupe The Goodies to have a song for their hit tv show, and came up with something suitably dumb lyrically – the trio had an association with gibbons, doing a song called “Stuff The Gibbon” when they were on the BBC radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again in the 1960s.  (I will also note that before they made total fools of themselves on The Goodies, Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor had a tv show called Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life which was a faux-documentary show that hardly ever gets mentioned.)

Oddie was on the fringe of the UK jazz scene and had the good fortune to work with the Mike Westbrook Band’s Dave Macrae and Gonzales’ horn section, as explained above.**  The song reached #2 on the Luxembourg chart and got them on Top of the Pops – I doubt if they expected the song to do so well, but the kids loved it and so it happened.  It’s a catchy song and you could imagine it spreading around to the parents of children, to certain ears.... the ears of a certain composer who had been in various modernist trenches for many years, doggedly loyal to political ideas which may or may not have helped his music; a man who led a group of musicians (the Scratch Orchestra) that worked bottom-up and was too avant garde to be mistaken for another early 1970s conglomeration of musicians, Centipede.***  By 1975 the composer was beginning to shift his thinking to writing popular hard-left songs for people to hear and be moved by (politically at least).  Take the ideas straight to the people, with language and melodies they can sing and understand.

Cornelius Cardew’s need to make overtly and transparently popular music was not perhaps what was expected of him, but it is what he (once a disciple of Stockhausen) wanted to do – and so in 1977 he wrote “Smash the Social Contract.”  This is the chorus:

So smash, smash, smash the social contract

It’s the cry of workers all over the land

No to class collaboration      

We’ve sorted out your lies and deception


Sure to be a hit, right?  Well in a way, it is.  (And yes, the chorus’ melody sounds an awful lot like...”The Funky Gibbon.”)  Cardew’s instinct – that he had to bring his political ideas into popular music, not just live them with whatever free-jazz avant garde music he was doing for the greater good (as self-effacing/self-satisfying being in AMM or the Scratch Orchestra must have been) was in keeping with the times.**** I don’t know if he wanted this to be a hit or just something played to striking workers; I don’t even know if he knew about the Goodies, though having two sons the right age to be into them must have helped.  He seemed happy to compose lively tunes to, well, non-rhyming and just clunky but sincere revolutionary lyrics.  His being arrested for disturbing Parliament (during a speech by Enoch Powell, quoted above) shows how committed he was...I can't say his works have been hits, exactly, but Cardew is a fine example of English rebelliousness and I sense the establishment still isn't really ready for him yet.

I don’t know if Oddie ever heard this song, but the whole idea of the one song lifting from the other would have been (I’m guessing) more amusing to him than anything else.  You can’t really sue someone poor and Cardew at this point – while in demand and travelling around spreading the word – wasn’t exactly wealthy. 

And so we have the story of a dumb but reasonably catchy song entering the revolutionary atmosphere, fitting into a lively song about the deconstruction of the world as we know it. If this can happen, what else is possible?
Next up:  Exit, pursued by foxes.


*”Good Times” by Chic is the gold standard here.  Sadly I won’t be writing about it as it only reached #5 in the NME and regular charts. 

**I can imagine he wanted something between Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Funky Chicken” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin.’”

***Both groups had a short lifespan, both groups had (live, at least) Brian Eno as one of their members.  Coincidentally, the Oblique Strategies cards Eno helped to make appeared around this time:  go here to get a random card if you like... 

****Cardew, by the way, had no interest in punk – he called The Clash “reactionary” and I can’t imagine he had much time for Citizen Smith either.  This despite him looking a bit like Joe Strummer in the early 1970s.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Cookie Crumbles: Guys 'n' Dolls: "There's A Whole Lot Of Loving"

I sometimes remember the 1970s as a mostly regular time, but with jarring oppositions too. It was in many ways a bluntly realistic era, but there were a lot of very determinedly happy things to balance that out, including the smiley button (I wore a variation on it myself as a child), not to mention a lot of cheery upbeat music, including this song.  Now, I could go down the path of picking a side in the perpetual tug-of-war between oh-so-sensitive singer-songwriters and the manufactured production line of producer/songwriters/singers*, but this song would not exactly fit in to the debate.  Oh it has songwriters (Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow) and singers (Tony Burrows and Clare Torry) but uh, wait a minute.  It came from a commercial?  For cookies?

Yes, we have reached the stage where a song from a McVitie's fruit shortcake tv ad can be recorded and released as a hit single.  The song itself has nothing to do with cookies and a lot to do with the natural hugeness of the United States (the songwriters were American).  It’s a proper song, not a jingle fleshed out.  The loving going on is abstract; the love could be for anyone, but it’s heartfelt and the wholesome goodness of the song’s sing-a-long style matches the Hoover Dam mention.  It could be straight out of a musical, though usually there’s a bit more plot in a stage song.

I don’t know if this was expected to be a hit – but it was.  So, what to do?  On very short notice, a group of male and female singers were put together so they could appear as Guys 'n' Dolls for promotional purposes – miming the song and dancing on variety shows (one of them being Julie Forsyth, daughter of Bruce – do you see how showbiz this is?)  There was no time to re-record the song with the new group, however. It worked, at least at first.  The main problem was that the lead singer of the group, Dominic Grant, didn’t sound anything like Tony Burrows.  He sounded more like a wannabe Scott Walker, completely pointless as the actual Scott Walker existed and at this time was plotting the return of The Walker Brothers.**  

The group had its problems as you might expect and two of the six were dismissed for (I am guessing) wanting to do things in a different way. Guys 'n' Dolls were essentially there to fill the gap before The New Seekers reconvened, before the Brotherhood of Man made this kind of music uncool for a whole generation.  They had one more hit in the UK but were far more popular in Europe, where they had hits right into the 1980s.

This scam, if you like, did have one unintended consequence.  A few years after their being relieved from Guys 'n' Dolls, Theresa Bazar – the female of the pair – approached the studio bass player, one Trevor Horn, to see if he would be interested in working with her and David Van Day, the male of the pair.  He was and so they did – as the duo Dollar.  And so from late 1974, the tiny seeds of something different were being sown. 

 Next up:  keep the red flag flying, kids!


*There are times when I don’t mind singer-songwriters, and then there are times I just want to avoid them as much as possible.  I don’t know how common this is amongst those who grew up in the 70s.

**There are certain voices that are inimitable, and Walker’s is one of them.  There’s a song by The Herd where the lead singer does a Walker-style vocal and it’s awful.  No wonder Peter Frampton left to start Humble Pie.

Monday, May 4, 2020

When Is A Song An Unsong?: Mac and Katie Kissoon: "Sugar Candy Kisses"

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

Radio Romance: Helen Reddy : "Angie Baby"

It is easy enough to state that this song was a transatlantic hit (#1 in late '74 and here #2 on Radio Luxembourg in February '75); it is also easy enough to state that the songwriter, Alan O'Day, worked on the lyrics for some time, even showing them to his therapist* to get his/her advice on them.

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....

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Very Strange Vibration: Gloria Gaynor: "Never Can Say Goodbye"

There are few moments better than the one where confusion and doubt are conquered, even eliminated.  We are in disco when this particular and precise emotion happens to make sense, as disco is about that joy, a joy that magnetic and crushing and inexplicable, an energy that cannot be denied.  That it comes in with Max Roach-inspired drumming, swirling strings and an I’ve-lived-this-and-we-can-share-it vocal from Gloria Gaynor (who sounds as caught up in the song as anyone) is just as well.  We are far from the laid-back pleasures of "Rock Your Baby" or the get-down Miami horn blasts of KC & the Sunshine Band here.  Gaynor is singing to be heard, and that this is a Jackson 5 song seems to make no impression on her whatsoever.  She is making this her own.
What those who bought this en masse may or may have not known was that “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the middle of a trilogy from her album of the time – a “mix” really – by Tom Moulton*, which starts with “Honey Bee” and ends with “Reach Out I’ll Be There.**”  This mix was the first to appear on an album – let’s just pause to ponder this – and capitalized on Moulton’s ability as a mixer to really get into the songs – not in a complicated way, just in a way that was supposed to elongate the song, and have Gaynor’s voice in your head *even when she wasn’t audibly there*. Dancing in your head? That the very male world of disco (I have been reading Peter Shapiro’s book on it and early discos were definitely male territory, with disco becoming a more female-friendly phenomenon later on) should have a woman taking on Levi Stubbs’ aria of a song and making it sound like the veritable audio version of the last helicopter out of Vietnam is, to say the least, quite something. 
The power of the song is to worry away in the verses and then dismiss these worries in the chorus with a rising "I love you ssssooooooooooo" that has in it right there a real vulnerability/strength moment which disco (when it wasn't just exhorting you the listener to dance, which it often did) does so well.  Can you stop?  Is stopping on the dancefloor possible?  Tom Moulton didn't want you to stop, and put this together with oh say Eddie Kendricks' "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" and it won't stop.
Next:  A radio, a woman, a man. 

 *Tom Moulton is the first person to use a 12" single to do the pressing of a song, giving the song more space to breathe, sound better and of course have more time to let the song be itself. That he found this out by accident is charming. 
**We are not done with Motown yet and in a few entries the topic of jazz will appear, with Motown popping up unexpectedly.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Right Time: John Holt: "Help Me Make It Through The Night"

One of the contributing factors towards 1975 being the amazing year it was has to be the general openness of the charts.  The old stalwarts of pop and rock were still around, but new things, new permutations of things, abounded in the early 70s.  In short, anything went, and amidst the joy/chaos there were more than a few songs that showed vulnerability and a slight sense of loneliness and even tiredness.  Country and reggae were old friends, and here they sound just right together.

By early 1975 the high that Trojan Records had been riding was coming to an end, but label star John Holt was wise/lucky enough to have a hit album 1000 Volts of Holt (the cover screams early 70s, right down to the paisley/plaid combination which Holt pulls off because star power) come out before the financially-struggling Trojan collapsed altogether in May, bought out by Saga Records. (This could be, as is suggested in Bass Culture, that the English kids who dug reggae c. 1971 were no longer interested in it, it being passé.)

“Help Me Make It Through The Night” was released in late 1974 and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart as a crossover reggae/lovers rock hit that was solid musically and sung with warmth and ease by Holt.  That it was so sophisticated was due to the English producer  Tony Ashfield, who had been involved in Jamaican music for some time and had worked with Holt on a previous album, The Further You Look.  That was 1972 though, and while it was a big hit in Jamaica it wasn’t elsewhere – hence Ashfield and Holt decided to do another album, one with proven songs like this one, which had already been a hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips as well as others, including a reggae version by Duke Parker.  The song suited his voice and modest mien* and its devil-may-care-desperate lyrics somehow work in with the longing in his voice.  I wonder if this song would have made it to number one had all the shops it sold in – not just Boots or Woolworths – were counted?
In the meantime, Ashfield and Holt split over differences, Holt continuing to record in Jamaica both in the lovers rock style and doing more political songs.  This song marks a moment when someone who is a worldwide star finally gets his due, and had things been different...
Next up:  Music, non-stop!



*Holt turned down a certain song which author Max Romeo eventually had to record himself.   Ahem.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Remembering the Forgotten: Ralph McTell: "Streets of London"

We have now arrived at the end of 1974; we are about to enter the then to-some scary area known as 1975.  A time of big decisions and already there's a sense that whatever will become of this decade will be worked out now.  The Nixon era has already ended and the Vietnam War is drawing to a close.  In the UK there’s the growing sense of unease coupled with two events that are responses to that unease.  This unease continues to this day and in fact its crushing and terrible logic is attempting to be worked out even as I write this.  There is hope however; there is always hope....
"Streets of London" is the sort of song that sticks; McTell is not singing of any general sense of loneliness but about specific people and to a specific person - a friend of his who was a heroin addict.  It is the realistic loneliness that stands quite opposite to the song which kept it at #2, Mud's "Lonely This Christmas."  It is a gentle, near classical song with a touch of folk; country blues, even.  The power of it is the musical simplicity which acts as a welcoming warm hug of a frame around the four people depicted, all of them alone, all desolate.
McTell's voice is warm too, familiar, as opposed to the (at this point) recently departed Nick Drake, who was more unworldly and yes, seductive.  McTell is taking the listener by the hand into the streets of London, starting at the Surrey Street Market in Croydon (where he was raised), ending on the Thames by the Seaman's Mission with a veteran (WWI? WWII?) who has been cast aside, just as the bag lady and the T.S. Eliot/Beckettian figure who does nothing but drink tea all night to pass the time.  These are all people who are alive but whom society does not want to recognize, who are yesterday's news. The addict is gently shown those who are lost, in darkness, wandering and sadly friendless.  I would like to think that some heard this song and it opened their hearts, or as McTell wanted to do, changed their minds.  Not through preaching but through the powerful examples that especially at Christmastime are a reminder to look out for others and to be more considerate.  That is the real meaning of the season as it happens.
That it took three times, three different recordings, to make this song a hit shows how sometimes a song just has to appear at the right time (and in the right way) to make its impact.  It has become a standard folk song (recorded first in '69, produced by Gus Dudgeon) so much so that punk (ah yes punk - we'll get to that in enough time) band the Anti-Nowhere League did their own cover, with altered lyrics (mais oui) "Let me grab you by the hair and drag you through the streets of London, I'll show you something that'll really make you sick" was heartily approved of by McTell himself. The song is McTell's main legacy, one he has accepted as his gift to the world, even as he continues to write and record albums to this day.  Can the world change because of a song?  Can it have an impact beyond itself? The answer is, as always, with the listener.
Next up:  Lord have mercy!