Single of the week

Smithers-Jones (The Jam)

Back in the sixties and seventies, when you left school those who weren’t massively educated either followed in the family business or took a job with a big industry company; gas, water, transport etc and were generally guaranteed a job for life. That almost certainly does not happen anymore and now looking less likely than ever as the big corporates talk about employing robots to do your everyday jobs. The city gent image of that long-forgotten era, with the men in their pin-stripe suits, bowler hats and umbrellas inspired a song which ended up as a B side, but its sentiment is probably more poignant now than it was back then.

The song is Smithers-Jones, a track recorded by The Jam which ended up on the B-side of their 1979, number 17 hit, When You’re Young. Like the Beatles whose almost entire hit singles catalogue were written by Lennon & McCartney, except From Something which was written by George Harrison, 16 of the the Jam’s 18 hits were written by lead singer and guitarist Paul Weller. David Watts, written by Ray Davies, and News of the World written by the band’s bass player, Bruce Foxton, were the only exceptions.

Bruce also wrote Smithers-Jones and said of it in an interview with Pennyblack Music, “Yeah, Smithers Jones was, and is, especially heartfelt. You still do get loads of people who give their lives to the job and then once they are past their sell-by date loyalty doesn’t matter. That is what happened to my Dad and hence that is how Smithers Jones came about. There is a lot of anger there in that song.”

It’s a shame there weren’t more Foxton-penned songs, he’d written two tracks that appeared on the 1977 album This Is The Modern World and one track on The Gift from 1982, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the Jam’s producer gave this explanation in an interview with Richard Buskin, “There were some Bruce songs that [manager and Paul’s father] John Weller was trying to convince me to include, but it was less about whose song than it was about the concept of the album. We were all very involved with the production at that stage, and we worked together pretty much as a four-piece in terms of choosing the songs. Smithers-Jones worked because it was fresh, it was new and it was interesting to have a different kind of arrangement.” The version that appeared as the flip side to When You’re Young was a band arrangement and, in my opinion the better version, but for the 1979 album Setting Sons it was a re-worked as a much more orchestral version. Vic continued, “We transposed rhythms from the original band arrangement to the violin score. It was a very good song. Paul’s music virtually conceptualised the Jam at that point.”

Setting Sons was originally supposed to be a concept album about three young school friends who, a few years after leaving school, were reunited and learned of the directions their individual careers paths had taken but it didn’t work out that way because their record label were rushing them to get the album finished. “Polydor wanted Setting Sons released in time for the band’s next tour, which had already been fixed,” Vic recalled, “so we were locked into that kind of pattern where Paul had to disappear and write the songs, and then we had to get together to record the album and finish it in time for it to be cut to vinyl, released and promoted – with the videos all shot – before the tour began. I, for one, felt enormously pressurised, but the whole project was also getting very exciting, especially with tracks like Eton Rifles taking off and leaping into the charts.”

The story of Smithers-Jones basically tells the story of a typical commuter travelling from Woking to London packing, like sardines, into a busy train and how he is loyal and reliable to the company, but one day he turns up and a colleague tells him that the boss wants to see him alone, you know that sinking feeling and so, indeed, the boss in that initial friendly way tell him ‘Come in Smithers, old boy take a seat, take the weight off your feet, I’ve some news to tell you there’s no longer a position for you,’ and ends the conversation quite bluntly with ‘sorry Smithers-Jones’. Smithers returns home now uncertain of his future but seemingly decides to put his feet up and go into early retirement probably thinking, to his chagrin, that ‘the only one smilin’ is the sun-tanned boss’.

The Jam called it a day in 1982 and Weller went straight on to form the Style Council who, like the Jam, also had 18 hit singles before Weller disbanded them and launched a solo career in 1991. The Jam’s drummer, Rick Buckler, formed a new band called Time UK and had one minor hit called The Cabaret in 1983. In the mid-nineties he left the music industry to set up an antique furniture restoration business but returned in 2005 with a new band called The Gift, named after the Jam album and in 2013 moved into music management. As for Foxton, he had three hit singles in 1983/84, the most successful one being Freak which reached number 23. To his other credits, he discovered the Vapours whose big hit was Turning Japanese in 1980 and then, in the mid-eighties, joined Irish band Stiff Little Fingers.

In the early 2010s, after many years of Hostility with Weller, he attended John Weller’s funeral and then played bass on a couple of tracks on Paul’s 2010 album Waking Up the Nation, later the same year he joined Weller on stage at the Royal Albert Hall – their first appearance together in over 28 years.

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Rip It Up (Orange Juice)

Do you know which pop star had the title chieftain of the Helmsdale Highland Games bestowed upon him in 2010? Well is was the lead singer of eighties Glaswegian pop band Orange Juice, it came several years after his grandfather had received the same. “I had to wear the full Highland kit, the kilt and the sporran although I wasn’t too sure about the sporran,” recalled Edwyn Collins. Of their nine UK hit singles, by far their best known song was the top 10 hit Rip It Up and that’s what we’ll explore this week.

Orange Juice were originally formed by Glasgow-born singer Collins in 1976 and originally called The Nu-Sonics which was taken from a cheap guitar brand, guitarist James Kirk and drummer Stephen Daly were both members of the Machetes and joined Collins a few months later when they signed a deal with Postcard records which was owned by Alan Horne. Aztec Camera, the Go-Betweens and Josef K were also signed to the label and the label became known as ‘The Sound of Young Scotland.’ The line-up was completed when former Go-Between Dave McClymont joined and they changed their name to Orange Juice in 1979.

Their first hit single came in November 1981 when a cover of Al Green’s L.O.V.E…Love, scraped into the chart at number 65. The next three hits in 1982, Felicity, Two Hearts Together and I Can’t Help Myself all failed to make the top 40 but then came Rip It Up which came with a new sound to the previous hits and were very guitar based, but Rip It Up was more funky and used a Nile Rodgers/Chic type synthesised bassline. The Buzzcocks had released their Spiral Scratch EP in 1977 and that was a big influence on Collins. The EP featured a track called Boredom which became a favourite hence its mention in the last verse, so much so that it even uses a tiny section of guitar riff from the song. It also introduced the Rowland TB – 303 synth, which later became a big part of the acid house scene in the late eighties. Backing vocals on the song were provided by Collins’ one-time school chum Paul Collins who later fronted his own band Bourgie Bourgie. The saxophone was played by Dick Morrissey, one half of the duo Morrissey Mullen who will be remembered in the pop world for providing the theme to the film Bladerunner. Just ahead of recording, Daly was replaced by Zeke Manyika who came from Zimbabwe, “I got out of Rhodesia (former name of Zimbabwe) because my parents had friends in Scotland,” Zeke explained, “They said go to Glasgow because it’s a nice place as far as race in concerned. I came over to study, but thought ‘I want rock ‘n’ roll man, not this studying thing. I’m glad I did because Rhodesia was really repressive.”

The New Musical Express did not give Orange Juice favourable reviews, one said, ‘Orange Juice are a minor group trying hard to be bigger and more significant than they really ought to be.’ It upset Collins who recalled in 2013, “When Rip It Up got slagged off by the NME, I would refuse to go on the tour bus because I was depressed! You can laugh about it now, but back then it was life and death.”

By 1985 the band had split and Collins was thinking about a solo career, he hired a new manager, Grace Maxwell who later became his wife. He released two solo singles in 1987 which were produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, but failed to impress the public. In the mid-nineties Collins built his own recording studio and recorded the album Gorgeous George. In 1994 he had the biggest song of his life when he released the Expressly EP with the lead track being A Girl Like You. The track, which samples the drum track from Len Barry’s 1965 hit 1-2-3, was the closest thing to a Northern Soul sound in years and was featured in comedy-drama film Empire Records. As an EP track is failed to make the top but in June 1995 it was re-issued as a single and reached number four.

Talking of life and death, as Collins was earlier, in February 2005 he nearly died after he collapsed at his home in north London. He was rushed to hospital and was diagnosed with a brain haemorrhage. Five days later he suffered as second and underwent a high-risk operation. At the time The Guardian reported, ‘The neurosurgeons succeeded, only for him to then contract MRSA, which meant the titanium plate they’d inserted in his skull had to be first removed then restored.’ It was six months before he was finally discharged. In 2007 Collins said in an interview, “I was dead and I was resurrected.”

In 2009, he recorded a number of interviews on various radio stations including one with Jeff Lloyd on Absolute Radio which was filmed and you could see the change in Collins. His hair was thinning and his speech was slow but was in good spirits and was looking forward to returning to music. He did so in 2010 with the released of Losing Sleep which was produced by Sebastian Lewsley who explained in an interview how the recording process went, “We did each song in a day and a day consists of about four hours. So there’s a real expediency about how it’s recorded. The whole attitude of the album is just doing that. Not indulging anyone. Not having any band sitting round for days and days. Everyone involved looked quite petrified but they did it.

So many have recognised his bravery, in 2009 he received the Ivor’s Inspiration Award in recognition of his struggle after the brain haemorrhage and the following year received an honorary Master’s Degree from the Buckinghamshire New University, in recognition of his ‘strong influences and contribution to the national and international music industry over the last three decades’.

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Pandora’s Box (OMD)

Lulu, Brooksie and Scrubbie are three rather unusual nicknames for which the 1930s actress Louise Brooks was known. She was a fascinating character and an air of mystic surrounded her sexuality which she seems to encourage. She had a number of relationships with both men and woman, the most famous bring Charlie Chaplin. She starred in over 20 films between 1925 and 1938 of which one of them inspired a hit single from 1991.

Louise, who was born in Kansas in 1906, had a bit of a tough childhood because her father, a lawyer, spent more time with his business than he did with her and her mother, a pianist called Myra, apparently once said, “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves.” In 1915, when Louise was nine, she was sexually abused by a neighbour and even when she told her mother, many years later, her mother said she probably brought upon herself. She began her career as a dancer in 1922 with the Denishawn modern dance company in Los Angeles.

Her first major film role came in 1925 where she played a moll in The Street of Forgotten Men and many films followed over the next few years, but, arguably, she’ll be best remembered for her role as Lulu in the 1929 film Pandora’s Box and it was this film that inspired this week’s single.

Pandora’s Box was a 1991 top 10 hit by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a new wave band who first opened their chart career in 1980. Often cited as a duo of vocalist and bass guitarist Andy McCluskey and vocalist and keyboard player Paul Humphreys but throughout the eighties they had Martin Cooper as their wind instrument player and occasional keyboard player and Malcolm Holmes as their drummer. They had a brief sabbatical in 1990 and by 1991 the line-up was McCluskey, Nigel Ipinson and Phil Coxon as keyboard players and Abe Juckes on drums.

Pandora’s Box, which had the subtitle It’s a Long, Long Way on the American release was taken from the album Sugar Tax and, and Andy McCluskey explained , “Pandora’s Box was inspired by the silent film star Louise Brooks and the song is named after her most famous film which was directed by the German film-maker G.W. Pabst. The plot revolves around a femme fatale played by Brooks and actually incorporates two stories originally written for the stage, Pandora’s Box and The Earth Spirit.”

The accompanying video is in black and white and features both Brooks and McCluskey. According to the missive at the start of the video, it explains that the original film was banned by Hitler who described it as ‘Degenerate art’, it goes on to say that ‘all the scenes of Louise Brooks in the video are from the original film’. It’s also one of those songs where the title does not appear in the lyrics.

Brooks, who in 1995, was listed at number 44 on Empire magazine’s 100 Sexiest Stars in film history retired after her final film, Overland Stage Raiders in 1938 after which she went on to write many witty and clever stories on the film industry. She also opened a dance studio in Beverly Hills but due to scandalous stories surrounding her business partner it failed. In 1932 she filed for bankruptcy and began dancing in nightclubs to earn some money, but by 1940 she’d had enough and boarded a train bound for Kansas and left Hollywood behind. She remained comfortable for the rest of her life because, according to IMDB, she was briefly the mistress of CBS founder William Paley, who secretly provided her with a yearly pension for the rest of her life.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark called in a day in the summer of 1996, but McCluskey carried on because in 1998 he founded the Liverpool group Atomic Kitten and co-wrote six of their hits including the chart-topping Whole Again. He later worked with the Lightning Seeds and Gary Barlow for which the pair wrote the song Thrill Me which featured in the 2016 Eddie the Eagle and was performed by McCluskey.

In 2006 McCluskey reformed OMD with Humphreys, Cooper and Stuart Kershaw on drums. He explained the reason for the reformation was because his kids had never seen him on stage and it was their encouragement that inspired him to do it. He was divorced in 2011 and his American wife moved back to the States with the children.

As for Louise Brooks, well as the video says, ‘she valued her integrity more than her success and she paid the price for her independent spirit. Her career was brief but brilliant. She died in Rochester, New York 8th august 1985, alone. She was 78.

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Pistol Packin’ Mama (Gene Vincent)

Artists who name-check themselves in their own song is very common nowadays, especially in the rap genre, but it was once a fairly rare thing. Anyone who recorded Hello Dolly would have done it, The Weather Girls do it in It’s Raining Men and the Big Bopper is an early example in 1959’s Chantilly Lace, but the earliest example I can find is in the original version of the Gene Vincent hit Pistol Packin’ Mama.

Vera Lynn (who has just turned 101), was the Forces sweetheart and when she sang the British troops’ spirits were lifted and she brought a smile to their faces, in America Pistol Packin’ Mama had a very similar effect. The US soldiers, by 1942, like most people, were sick of the fighting and just wanted the War to be over. Pistol Packin’ Mama was a jukebox favourite and the following year, once people saw how much joy it was bringing, others decided to cover it with popular versions by the big names of the day Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters and Frank Sinatra.

The writing credit on the label is Albert Poindexter which is (almost) the real name of the man who recorded the original. He was born Clarence Albert Poindexter, but known as Al Dexter, in Texas in 1902 and spent his early years as a house painter but music was his first love and so he, without a lot of money he managed to afford a harmonica which he taught himself to play and then, using an old washboard, he built himself a guitar and offered his services in the local dance halls in the early thirties. A lot of what he play was gospel music, but it was only after a record company promoter told him that if he recorded gospel music it would never be a big seller that he turned to country music. He signed a deal with Vocalion records which was predominantly a jazz-genre label but between 1937 and 1939 he released 10 78rpm singles then in 1939 issued My Troubles Don’t Trouble Me No More which was now credited to Al Dexter and His Troopers. In 1941 he switched to the Okeh label, the country arm of Columbia Records and the first single being The Money You Spent Was Mine.

In March 1942 he wrote and recorded Pistol Packin’ Mama which was born out of a conversation Dexter was having with a waitress in a roadhouse in Turnertown, Texas. She told the story of how her boyfriend’s wife chased her through a barbed-wire fence whilst toting a gun. This interested him and he began to have thoughts of what he himself might say to such a woman yielding a gun and those thoughts he noted on a napkin were ‘Lay that pistol down, babe, lay that pistol down.’ Dexter recounted, “I said ‘I told you to leave that married man alone. That woman’s gonna kill you ’bout that man.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but Dex I love that little cross-eyed man.'” The song eventually made it on the American Billboard chart and took a very slow climb eventually reaching number one where it remained for eight weeks.

The song was the epitome of the old grey whistle test, whoever heard couldn’t prevent themselves from singing or humming it. In October 1943, the New York Yankees, who had just beaten the St. Louis Cardinals at a hard-fought baseball game, celebrated in style when, in the dressing room, after the match began singing Pistol Packin’ Mama weaved in and out of Beer Barrel Polka. A few weeks later they dropped the latter and Pistol Packin’ Mama became their marching chorus.

Dexter earned a reported quarter of a million dollars from that song – a lot of money in the 1940s, he said in an interview with Tony Russell, “It’s just a case of a fellow dreaming for 14 years and nothing happens, then one night he has a nightmare and it makes him a fortune.” It sold over three million copies and became one of the biggest selling tracks during the War years alongside White Christmas.

Even more money came in when the song was featured in the 1943 film of the same name which tells of a woman who is cheated out of her bankroll by a gambler that rolls into town. He then opens a casino and whilst he’s on holiday she gets a job there as a singer. When he returns he tries to fire her but she then pulls a gun on him and they gamble for the club he bought with her money. Sounds exciting even if it is only just over an hour long.

Like Dave Clark in the sixties, Dexter was an astute businessman and soon learned the benefits of owning his own copyright which made him a lot of money. He went on to have a country number one with Guitar Polka in 1946 but with the money rolling in he dabbled in real estate, bought a couple of nightclubs and owned his own motel in Lufkin, a city in East Texas.

By the 1960s, more people were covering the song and thus earning him more money. In 1960, the Hurricanes recorded an R&B version whilst both Lloyd Price and Gene Vincent recorded rock ‘n’ roll versions, the latter reaching a reasonable number 15 in the UK which is altogether a lot better than in his home land where it missed the chart completely. In 2010 Willie Nelson recorded a version on his album Country Music. In 1972, it got another lease of life when Rowntree used it in a Fruit Pastilles TV advert where a mother tiptoes down the stairs, picks up a tube of pastilles starts to eat them until she is caught red-handed by her children who start to sing (to the tune of Pistol Packin’ Mama) ‘Put those pastilles down, ma, put those pastilles down, pastille pickin’ mama, pass those pastilles round.’

Dexter, who received 12 gold records for million-selling singles between 1943 and 1948, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. He died in Lewisville, Texas, in 1984.

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Hocus Pocus (Focus)

When you hear yodelling you would think Holland, or The Netherlands as it likes to be known. That sound made a fleeting glimpse into pop music in the sixties courtesy of both Frank Ifield and, to a lesser extent, Karl Denver. It cropped up again in a flash in 1973 when Dutch prog-rock band Focus descended upon us, like magic, with Hocus Pocus. What’s always puzzled me, is that Hocus Pocus entered the chart on week ending 20th January 1973 and the follow-up, Sylvia, entered a week later, both songs peaked on week ending 24th February and got to numbers 20 and four respectively. I assume their label, Polydor, wanted to strike whilst the iron was hot.

They formed in Amsterdam in 1969 and comprise mainly of vocalist, flautist and keyboard player Thijs Van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkerman with an ever-changing line up of bass players, drummers and various other musicians. They got their break when they were asked to play for the Dutch production of Hair and then they began touring locally performing cover versions of A Whiter Shade of Pale and Nights in White Satin as well as a number of original songs written by Van Leer. The majority of their output is instrumental apart from an array of odd noises and a bit of yodelling from Van Leer as well.

Although Hocus Pocus was the smaller of their two hits, it is the most well-known especially when it was brought to a new audience in a slightly remixed form when it was used for the TV trailer for the 2010 World Cup and thus crept back onto the chart where it spent one week at number 57.

So how did the tune come about? “We were not in a studio,” van Leer explained, “we were in a wing of the Groeneveld Castle in Baam, which was a meeting place for all kinds of artists, and we used to rent part of the castle for very little money and it was one of the most beautiful rooms. So we worked our music in there and one day Jan started playing this riff and immediately I thought it was a world class riff, this was the first sensation and I thought, ‘shit’ this sounds great’. He played it four times and then the drummer, Pierre van der Linden, spontaneously started playing  a solo for two measures, very virtuous, just like Jan on the guitar, and then the bass player, Cyriel Havermans, he stopped playing, even though he wasn’t meant to  and we just made a stop there. After the drum solo I started yodelling. It was unique for rock ‘n’ roll to sing that way. People call it an instrumental song, but it’s actually a vocal song, only we’re not singing ‘I love you, I need you.’ Improvisation was the starting point for the song and I had the freedom to do the gags in between.”

The band had called it a day on more than a few occasions but keep reforming with a varying line-up. The first split came in 1978 with the first reformation coming in 1990, then again in 1997. Van Leer has kept it going since 2002 still with van der Linden on drums, the other two current members are guitarist Menno Gootjes and bassist Udo Pannekeet.

Their last album, The Focus Family Album, was released in September 2017 and included extensive unreleased and new material and they are currently lining up a European tour for 2018.

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