Listen to this track by tri-cornered melancholically optimistic pop concern XTC. It’s “Wrapped In Grey”, a should-have-been hit single as taken from the band’s 1992 double-LP Nonsuch.
The song displays writer/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s affinity for Brian Wilsonesque pop confectionary, and also (for those in the know) the influence of Judee Sill, which slowly came to the fore as XTC put out more and more bucolic and elegantly arranged albums. This mix of influences creates a sort of partly-sunny effect, with the Brian Wilson influence providing the endless summery vibe to contrast with Judee Sill’s influence that suggests hopefulness in the presence of gathering gloom. But, like the work of both, it’s Partridge’s own penchant for the childlike and the innocent that really brings this song to life, parrots and lemurs and all.
For all of this song’s defiant optimism, which is yet another selling point, there is a certain level of irony to be appreciated when comparing the tone and tenor of this song to the situation in which it was recorded and released. By the time the record came out, the band were in the throes of a conflict with their record company, Virgin, who cancelled this very song as a single against Partridge’s wishes. This led the band as a whole to take some out of the ordinary, and even drastic, steps in response. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more
Listen to this track by South African “world music” pop alchemists featuring lead singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, Juluka. It’s “Scatterlings of Africa”, an international hit as taken from the band’s 1982 record Scatterlings, their fourth. This single received much attention on the Western charts, even reaching heavy rotation on video channels and programs at the time.
To contrast that, the band itself was practically illegal in their home country of South Africa. With black and white members, they were not even legally allowed perform in public and were banned from the radio under the Apartheid system. Along with the rest of the band, singer and songwriter Clegg and vocalist and guitarist Sipho Mchunu were the embodiment of a forbidden cultural unity in South Africa, performing a fusion cuisine of styles presented in both English and in Zulu languages, often within the confines of the same song.
All the while, Juluka had to keep a low official profile since forming at the end of the sixties. Their popularity was truly grassroots, eventually reaching the rest of the world by the 1980s with this hit song on international radio and on video channels. What was it about this song, and others that riled up the South African establishment so much? More importantly, how did this song fly in the face of Western mores and customs around geopolitics and race in very much the same way? Read more
Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Listen to this track by Heartbreaker honcho and first-time solo artist Tom Petty. It’s “Free Fallin'”, a smash hit song as taken from his first solo record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever. The song was the first single from that album, and remains today as his most enduring hit song.
The album was recorded around the same time as Petty’s involvement with the Travelling Wilburys, a “supergroup” that was more of an happily accidental situation that brought Petty together with some of his musical heroes, and by association revealing just what many people knew all along; that Petty himself had achieved hero status himself. Besides impressive results on the charts and with heavy rotation on the radio, one of the many things that came out of that situation was his relationship with Jeff Lynne, former ELO creative head and a producer with a signature style. The two began writing together. “Free Fallin'” is arguably their best result.
In some ways, this gambit in creating a solo album was a tough move for Petty, who’s backing band The Heartbreakers had been his comrades in arms for such a long time by then. Purportedly, others in the band were disdainful of the project, possibly fearing that their association with Petty was nearing its end. Still, a few Heartbreakers appear on the album including lead guitarist Mike Campbell (who plays on this song), bassist Howie Epstein, and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Ironically, instead of being a dramatic departure from his life fronting his old band, there’s something about this song that hearkens back to Petty’s earliest days with the Heartbreakers. Read more
Listen to this track by sardonic studio-bound jazz-rock duo Steely Dan. It’s “Peg”, a joyous hit single as taken from their 1977 album Aja, their sixth. The song is one of their most recognizable singles, spending several weeks in the top twenty on the Billboard charts.
By this time in their development, Steely Dan had reached the pinnacle of the artistic mountain they’d been climbing since the cessation of their life as a stable touring band. From 1974 to the time they were recording tracks for Aja, they’d created a meticulous workflow for themselves as a studio-bound concern, hiring studio musicians to supplement their own parts and to help them achieve the results of some very ambitious arrangements. They’d certainly displaced the contributions of former members who had played on their early hits. In this, we catch The Dan just where they wanted to be at the time, and with successful placements in the charts to justify their efforts.
“Peg” is one of the greatest expressions of Steely Dan’s approach to making records, just bursting with life, full of optimism and musical effervescence. It’s downright happy and life-affirming! As usual though, all is not necessarily as it seems here when the lyrics are considered. If one thing hadn’t changed in the modus operandi of principals Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, it was that what we find on the surface of a made for radio pop song by Steely Dan isn’t the whole picture. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based hit-single generating vocal group All Saints. It’s “Never Ever”, their smash 1997 single as taken from their self-titled album All Saints, their debut full-length. The group had been together since 1993, led by members Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis, along with former member Simone Rainford, after serving as back-up vocalists for ZTT recording studios. With this song, and with then-new members in Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton joining them, they managed to score a number one single that would eventually become the second best selling single by a British girl group, just behind The Spice Girls “Wannabe”.
Like their spicy contemporaries, All Saints (named after a road in London) sought to appeal to a pure pop audience with a decidedly R&B flavour. With the kind of hooks their material featured, they were certainly able to get the attention of commercial radio, although perhaps with a bit less cultural impact than The Spice Girls initially. But one thing that All Saints had was an instinct for writing their own material. Shaznay Lewis wrote this song with writers Robert Jazayeri and Sean Mather. “Never Ever” was released in Britain in November of 1997, becoming a smash hit and remaining to be their biggest charting single to date with scores of accolades attached to it.
But like many hit songs, it was based in some very real struggles, specifically on Lewis’ part. Its success and its positive impact on the group struck her as ironic, rooted as it was in the pain of a real break-up. Beyond its undeniable commercial value and appealing pop hooks, there is a lot of darkness swimming below the surface that brings out some pertinent questions about break ups, and how they can very often skew our perceptions of ourselves. Read more
Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime. As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.
This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.
This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more
Other than the magnificently transportive music they made that shaped the way pop music itself was conceived, made, and culturally codified thereafter, one of the key things that makes The Beatles such a compelling band is the strength of their myth. Now, I have personally bored many people senseless in conversation, and even in podcasts, on the nature of The Beatles as a story, not just as a musical act.
What kind of story are we talking about exactly? I’ve come to believe that their story is a quest myth, and a coming of age story all rolled into one. To the former, it really is a story full of colourful characters that seem to be so huge that recognizing the fact that they were and are living, breathing human beings is rational, but not quite complete. They were, and are, more than that. This is because they take up space in our imaginations as much as they did and do in real life time and space. But as to the latter, the coming of age part of the equation, that’s the aspect of The Beatles story that adds a splash of mournful blue to the psychedelic spectrum. For something to be so wonderful to those outside looking in, it couldn’t possibly have been made to last.
As with everything in life, the answer to Why Did The Beatles Break Up? is and always has been more complicated than one factor affecting the whole. As much as fans like me venerate the people involved, we are talking about human beings here, however talented. They were subject to conflicting forces and grey areas that we all are. What were those forces according to me at least? Here in (very!) rough chronological order are at least 10 for you to consider, Good People.
Listen to this track by Indiana-born and bred heartland troubadour John Mellancamp, aka Johnny Cougar, aka John Cougar, aka John Cougar Mellencamp (whew!). It’s “Jack and Diane”, his enormous 1982 number one hit single as taken from the album American Fool, his fifth.
The song had enormous impact not only on the charts, but on pop culture during a time when music was becoming more and more stylistically ghettoized. As popular as it was, and is, there’s just something about this one that set it apart, seeming to have a cinematic quality that very few songs at the time contained. By 1982, “Jack and Diane” sounded like a progression for Mellencamp, who was then gathering momentum for a classic run of singles during the eighties and into the early nineties.
“Jack and Diane” concerns itself with two American kids growing up in the heartland and unsure of their places in the world. And yet, as with so many records that help define the times in which they’re released, there is an ocean of meaning underneath the scant story presented here. And ironically, much of it only comes to light as one gets older. Read more