Single of the week

Tokyo Joe (Bryan Ferry)

Bryan Ferry, like Rod Stewart, were just two people from a very elite list of singers who managed to concurrently enjoy a career as a lead singer in a group and a solo artist, and did so for a number of years without one or the other suffering. It also makes it very hard in a music quiz to know which was which. Roxy Music’s chart career began with Virginia Plain in August 1972 and Bryan’s solo career began with a cover of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall just one year later.

Bryan was born in Washington, County Durham in September 1945 and studied fine art at both Durham and Newcastle Universities and went on to become a pottery teacher at Holland Park School in London. He had a massive interest in music and in 1968 formed his first band called The Banshees. In 1970 he and Banshees bass player Graham Simpson formed a new group called Roxy as a tribute to many of the old cinemas for which Bryan has always had a love for and a play on word rock. He then discovered that there was an American group with the same name so added Music on the end.

Bryan’s biggest solo single was Let’s Stick Together (Let’s Work Together) in the summer of 1976, but this week I delve into the story of his eighth hit from 1977, Tokyo Joe. The song was taken from In Your Mind, his fourth solo album and the first consisting entirely of original songs. The album reached number five in the chart and because Bryan was a massive Beatles fan, the B-side of the single was a cover of She’s Leaving home which was not on his album.

Tokyo Joe is not a real person, but is based on a character in a song. One of Ferry’s favourite films was Footlight Parade, a 1933 film starring James Cagney, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and in that film Cagney sings a Harry Warren and Al Dubin song called Shanghai Lil. Ferry liked its femme-fatale theme and paid his own tribute calling his own version Tokyo Joe.

He paints a vivid image with his opening line, ‘My girl Friday she no square, she like lotus blossom in her hair, be-bop records and something new, sometimes borrowed but she’s never blue.’ Its theme is not dissimilar to the image painted by Freddie Mercury in Queen’s Killer Queen three years previous.

The personnel on the album were not members of Roxy Music, keeping them very separate, Ferry brought in Chris Spedding on guitar, John Wetton on bass, David Skinner on piano and Paul Thompson on drums.

Tokyo Joe reached number 15 in the UK chart and would be Ferry’s last top 20 hit for eight years when he returned to the top 10 with Slave to Love in 1985. In 1997 the song was used as the theme tune to a Japanese TV show called Gift which then inspired a re-released of the single in Japan. It was issued as a 3″ CD single that included a TV edited version of the song and a karaoke version, after all the Japanese did invent karaoke and lo and behold it topped the Japanese chart.

It’s not an often-covered song, but Ryuichi Sakamoto named his 1982 album after it and is featured as the opening track as a duet with Kazumi Watanabe. The next time a Joe would make the top 10 would be in 1988 when Joe Le Taxi charted for Vanessa Paradis and then in 1994 when Rednex took Cotton Eye Joe to number one.

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You Better you Bet (The Who)

In any survey of the top drummers in the world, Keith Moon would always be assured a place in the top five. The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, once said, Keith never played a drum kit he drove it. He was one of the most unpredictable characters in music and yet fascinating at the same time. After he died in 1978, how did The Who manage to carry on as filling Keith’s boots was always going to be a tall order?

In the period 1978-1980 quite a lot changed with the band, former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones was chosen as Keith’s replacement, Pete Townshend, who had recently split with his wife Karen, began living in various hotels, drinking and clubbing. Drugs definitely came into it, in fact one night whilst out drinking with Paul Weller and Visage’s Steve Strange he collapsed, “They carried me into the hospital and I was dark blue,” Townshend recalled. “The nurse actually had to rip off my shirt outside the hospital and beat me back to life.” On recovery he started an affair with a lady called Jackie Vickers and it was her that most of this week’s song suggestion is written about. Pete said, “I wanted it to be a great song, because the girl I wrote it for is one of the best people on the planet.” That song is You Better You Bet.

His frequent visits and spending evenings just sitting around certainly inspired the line ‘I lay on the bed with you, we could make some book of records, your dog keeps licking my nose and chewing up all those letters’. They were both fans of T-Rex hence the line ‘I’ve drunk myself blind to the sound of old T-Rex’ It was quite a different sound from many previous Who singles. Obviously the new drummer played a key part and it was more personal too. I wonder how Roger Daltrey must have felt being a mouthpiece for Townshend’s extracurricular activity. The piano was much funkier as played by John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick and it included some falsetto backing vocals too. For me, the most interesting things is how Roger never sings the word ‘better’ the same way twice.

You Better You Bet, along with the parent album Face Dances, was Kenney Jones’ debut with the band. Roger recalls what it was like initially, “The first tour Kenney did with us, was absolutely f***ing brilliant, but after that he settled into what he knew, which was his Faces-type drumming, it doesn’t work with The Who. In some ways I’d like to go back and re-record a lot of the songs on Face Dances, but You Better You Bet is still one of my favourite songs of all.” In a 2001 interview with Uncut magazine Daltrey recalled, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful song. The way the vocal bounces, it always reminds me of Elvis. But it was a difficult time, yeah. The Moon carry-on was much harder than carrying on after John, because we’re more mature now. I hate going over this but, in retrospect, we did make the wrong choice of drummers. Kenney Jones – don’t get me wrong, a fantastic drummer – but he completely threw the chemistry of the band. It just didn’t work; the spark plug was missing from the engine.” Years later Kenney concurred, “The chemistry of the band and producer wasn’t right. The sound was too laid-back, like rubber.”

Contributing to the ‘new’ sound is obviously a producer. In the sixties, it was mainly Kit Lambert and Shel Talmy who looked after them and by the seventies the band themselves assumed production duties. In 1976 they brought in Glyn Johns whose magic can first be heard on Squeeze Box and then in 1981 the new man on the block was Bill Szymczyk who, like Johns, had started out as an engineer. Former Rolling Stones producer and manager Andrew Loog-Oldham commented in Mojo, “Bill was perfect even though the group may not have thought so at the time.” One of Bill’s habits was called comping, which is recording many versions of the same track and editing bits of each together to get the right sound, something George Martin had famously done with Strawberry Fields Forever. Bill explained how he got involved: “Face Dances was the first album that I had made outside the US. Everything about The Who was new i.e. a new drummer and a new label (in America) so they wanted a new producer, and Pete and I had hinted to each other over the years that we would like to make a record together. One of his favourite albums is Hotel California, and really, that’s what got me the job with them, that album. Your reputation goes before you, and it’s like, “You hear the way that sounds? Do that to me.” But I felt like I’d crawled into the forest and couldn’t see the trees.”

What also helped the band’s profile was that MTV launched later the same year and the black-and-white video featured the band performing the song onstage and was the fourth video shown on the day of its launch.

Tension was growing within the band, the band’s bass player, John Entwistle recalled in an interview With John Bauldie, “You Better You Bet is a good stage number, but to tell the truth, the last two Who albums were a kind of blank. By the time we were recording them, personalities were clashing. There were different ideas of music, policy and general backbiting and people not agreeing with each other. Roger and Pete always had differing opinions about everything.”

In 1982 Pete Townsend found himself unable to write any material and paid to be released from a contract in which they still owed Warner Brothers an album. At the end of 1983, he released a statement announcing he was leaving the band which, seeing at Townshend solely wrote virtually every Who track, meant the band had split. There was a brief reunion for Live Aid in 1985 with them performing Love Reign O’er Me and the rousing epic Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Four years later they decided to hit the road again and embarked on a 25th anniversary tour called The Kids Are Alright reunion tour. They had replaced Kenney Jones with Simon Phillips on drums and added Steve Bolton as a second guitarist. They remained together but continued touring and in 2002 decided on a UK and US tour. The UK dates went fine, but on the eve of their US leg bassist John Entwistle died of a heart attack in Las Vegas. Entwistle’s son Christopher gave a statement in full agreement of the Who’s decision to continue the tour and brought Pino Palladino in on bass.

To this day, the Who still tour and, in all fairness, with Townshend’s songwriting and Daltrey’s voice sounding as good now as it did in 1965, the Who are still the Who and, having seen them four times how, I can speak from experience.

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The Pushbike Song (Mixtures)

Only five songs with a mode of transport in the title have reached number two, Johnny Duncan was the first, and the only one of the fifties, with Last Train To San Fernando, Peter Paul and Mary did it in 1970 with Leaving On A Jet Plane, The Mixtures’ Pushbike Song freewheeled to number two in 1971, The KLF’s took the Last Train To Transcentral, wherever that is, in 1991 and finally Nicki Minaj did it in 2012 with Starships. For those who are off to check for anymore, yes, I could have included Crazy Horses and Rocket Man, but didn’t really think they qualified! This week I delve into the third one of that list.

According to historian Noel McGrath, the Mixtures had its origins in a chance meeting between Melbourne vocalist Terry Dean and Tasmanian-born bassist Rod De Clerk, who met while Terry was holidaying in Tasmania in 1965. Rod sought Terry out when he visited Melbourne a short time later and Terry took him to a dance where he was performing. It was here that Rod was introduced to guitarist Laurie Arthur, who had been a founder member of leading Melbourne band The Strangers. At the time, Laurie was subbing in a group that included John Creech on drums and as the three chatted between sets they soon discovered that they shared similar tastes in music. They jammed together after the show and decided on the spot to form a group.

They began making a name for themselves and gained extra kudos when they supported the Walker Brothers on their Australian tour. By 1967, there was a change of personnel with Mick Flynn replacing De Clerck, Fred Weiland replacing Arthur (who took over as the band’s manager) and organist Dennis Garcia being added. A few months later, Garcia left and was replaced by Idris Jones. By 1970, there were even more changes and when Gary Howard replaced Creech it meant that there were no original members left in the band.

They release a couple of singles with average success but by their third, which was called Music Music Music, in March 1967, they had expanded to a four-piece when they re-added organist Dennis Garcia.

In the summer of 1970, Mungo Jerry topped the UK singles chart with In The Summertime and spent seven weeks there, but in Australia at the time there were problems with radio broadcasters who seemed to be at war with many of the major record labels over royalty rates for the airing of records and many British recordings were banned from the airwaves, so the Mixtures recorded a cover version of In The Summertime which topped the Australian chart. Band member Idris Jones wanted to quickly follow-up that success and asked his brother Evan to co-write a song with a similar sound. The brothers, originally from Adelaide, had both been in a band called the Gingerbread Men and they came up with The Pushbike Song. The Australian record-buying public obviously liked the sound and bought enough copies to give the Mixtures their second chart-topper.

The band began recording tracks for their album at Armstrong’s Studios in Melbourne but then, to cash-in on their success, they travelled to the UK and finished the album at Morgan Studios in London. They weren’t called The Mixtures for nothing, as soon as they arrived in London, Jones decided to leave and was replaced by Greg Cook and Mick Holden was brought in the replace the sudden departure of drummer Gary Howard. With a complete change of heart, Jones felt he was missing out, so travelled back to the UK to re-join the band. Somehow they stayed together until 1976 and no fewer than 15 different member passed through the ranks of the Mixtures.

The Pushbike Song has been covered numerous times, not least in a novelty way by Pinky and Perky and then by The Wurzels, who retitled it I’ll Never Get A Scrumpy Here. There were more serious versions by The New Seekers, Anita Harris and, bizarrely by Olivia Newton-John whose version featured in the 2011 film that she also appeared in A Few Best Men.

In 1990, Ray Dorsey, of Mungo Jerry, agreed that he rather liked the Pushbike Song and eventually covered it, “as a tribute” and it appeared on their 1990 compilation All the Hits Plus More.

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When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin)

So many bands of the 60s were inspired by the blues and the bluesmen that came some 20 years before them. Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, to name just three, launched their career with that great blues sound. This week’s song was never a hit single but a well-known album track by Led Zeppelin, a band who decided not to aim their music at the singles market, but to concentrate on albums. This week’s choice is the song that closes their classic 1971 album Four Symbols or Led Zeppelin IV as it’s also known, that song is When the Levee Breaks.

Just two months after that album entered the chart, the word levee became more popular when Don McLean told us about driving his Chevy there only to find it was dry, in American Pie. Well Don’s levee may have been dry, but the one Led Zeppelin sang about was quite the opposite. A levee, for those who don’t know, derives from the French word levée which itself is taken from the female participle of the French verb lever, which means to raise, and is a small, lengthy ridge or embankment which runs parallel to a river and is meant to regulate its water levels.

At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, many former slaves had to move to a more fertile land that surrounded the Mississippi River so they could rebuild their lives and many of them became farmers. A whole heap of little shanty towns materialised all over the place and order to protect themselves from the river flooding they built a man-made levee for their own protection. In March 1913 there were many days of heavy rain and a number of rivers across 11 different states were subjected to major flooding, the worst hit were in Ohio, Indiana and Mississippi. This whole disaster became known as the Great Flood of 1913 and the second worst in American history after the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

In the immediate aftermath, black American plantation workers were forced to work by piling hundreds of sandbags to save the town. They were held at gunpoint and were not allowed to leave the area, as the song’s lyrics describe, ‘I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away.’ In Mississippi alone, damage exceeded $200m. The surviving inhabitants either moved south to New Orleans or north to Chicago as there was no work – which is described in the song as, ‘Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good” and “I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.’

The song was based on that collapsed levee but only paid tribute to some 14 years later, in 1927 when the 22 year-old American Delta blues musician and songwriter Wilbur McCoy, known as Kansas Joe, wrote the music to When the Levee Breaks. He teamed up with another blues musician, Lizzie Douglas but known as Memphis Minnie who wrote the lyrics and recorded their version together. Soon after, they married she became known as Memphis Minnie McCoy.

Led Zeppelin’s vocalist, Robert Plant, had a copy of the recording in his private collection, listened to it and took it to the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, who gave the music a facelift and then the band recorded it. A lot of different techniques were used especially with the drums, very much like Joe Meek used to do. The whole thing was recorded at Headley Grange studio in Hampshire and John Bonham’s drums were set up in a stairwell with the microphones placed vertically up the stairs so when the drum sound echoed it was caught on those mic’s to find that the captured sound was unique and distinctive. The track was recorded at a faster tempo than we hear it on the album, then slowed it down. Robert Plant then recorded his vocals in a key that was in between the original recording and the slowed down version which is what gives the song a slightly strange flattish sound. Jimmy Page also tried something new with a reverse echo putting the echo before the sound. In fact the only natural thing on the track is Plant’s voice.

The whole album was mixed in both the USA and the UK, but the one track that was virtually untouched was When the Levee Breaks because everyone decided the original mix suited the track well and didn’t need tampering with.

The drum intro has been sampled on numerous occasions but most notably by Dr Dre on his track Lyrical Gangbang, on Beats and Pieces by Coldcut and on Rymin’ And Stealin’, the opening track on the Beastie Boys’ 1987 album License To Ill.

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Young Girl (Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett)

How many times have you heard a song and thought, ooh, that’s a bit near the mark, or how did they get away with that? Oliver’s Army is a good example using a word that was acceptable in 1979 but not these days. This week’s choice dates from 1968 and even back then some people frowned upon it. Given today’s society it’s still a bit surprising that it get any airplay at all, but it’s a staple favourite of many radio stations.

The song in question is Young Girl first recorded by The Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett to give it its correct credit. The song was written by Columbia Records’ staff producer Jerry Fuller who discovered The Union Gap when he saw them performing at a San Diego bowling lounge. Jerry, who was also a singer/songwriter, was born into a musical family as both his parents were singers and his father once performed with the Light Crust Doughboys, before they became Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. In 1960 Jerry wrote Travelin’ Man for Sam Cooke, but Ricky Nelson’s bass player, Joe Osborne, was in Sam Cooke’s office and heard the track. Sneaking it out of the office, he played it to Ricky, who quickly recorded it without Jerry even knowing.

Gary was born in Minnesota in 1942. His first band was The Outcasts, followed by Gary & The Remarkables, but then taking the name from a Washington State suburb, he formed The Union Gap in 1966 and came up with the gimmick of wearing American Civil War uniforms giving all the members a military moniker, so on parade were vocalist/guitarist ‘General’ Gary Puckett, ‘Private’ Gary Withem on keyboards, ‘Corporal’ Kerry Chater on bass, ‘Sergeant’ Dwight Bement on the sax and ‘Private’ Paul Whitebread on drums.

It was interesting in the 50s and 60s that the label credit went to the group featuring the lead singer, very odd. The first to do it were the Four Aces featuring lead singer Al Albert and The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon followed soon after. I could never fathom out why this was especially in the case of the Union Gap where Gary felt he was in charge, “They understood that I was the band leader,” Gary explained in an interview, “They understood the outfits were my idea and I had put it together. We didn’t always agree on points, in fact, there was one member of the group that almost left because he didn’t think I could see beyond the nose on my face. That was his prerogative. He ended up staying with the group for several years and gained some success through it. There came a point when I think they started taking exception to it because the pay scale changed. I was kind of splitting it all down the middle and then my management said, you’re really the force behind this you should make a little more money, kind of thing. So, when that started to happen then I think there started to be dissension in the ranks.” The follow-up hit, also written and produced by Jerry Fuller, Lady Willpower, gave the credit as Gary Puckett And the Union Gap, but bizarrely, their third and final hit, Woman Woman – note the theme, had the same credit as Young Girl.

So what was the song all about? “Most people wanted to think it was about it as a guy who was a bit shady, but that’s not the case,” Gary offered. “It was written by a guy who was upstanding and like, ‘Hey, you told me you’re old enough to give me love and now I know the truth, so get out of my mind!’ That was the way I always thought about that song.” The author, Jerry Fuller gave his story, “I was on the road a lot as an artist, fronting various groups for many years. I guess every entertainer goes through a time when 14 year-olds look like 20 year-olds. That’s somewhat of an inspiration…not from my own experience, but just knowing that it happens.”

Young Girl certainly carries a message about older men falling for younger girls. With the opening lyric, ‘Young girl, get out of my mind, my love for you is way out of line, better run, girl, you’re much too young, girl’ there is a lesson to be learnt. If the song had been around 10 years earlier, would Jerry Lee Lewis have thought twice when he married his 13 year-old cousin Myra? It obviously didn’t bother Elvis Presley when he started dating 14 year-old Priscilla. As for Bill Wyman, Mandy Smith was only 13 years old when they first met, none of those marriages lasted.

Very often artists like to stick to a winning formula and The Union Gap was no exception. “Jerry Fuller was a smart and talented writer and producer and knew how to guide us through those hits,” Gary concurred. “He knew the value of a success formula, he would say the hardest thing to do is follow your last success. You have to follow a hit with something strong, and I think that was his forte. Those songs had success built into them.”

Young Girl spent 17 weeks on the UK singles chart and due to its continued airplay, was re-issued in 1974 where it reached number six and spent a further 13 weeks on the chart. Many have covered the song including Gary Lewis and the Playboys and the Lettermen. In the UK chart, the entertainers Joe Longthorne and Darren Day both had a go and peaked at 61 and 42 respectively and even the cast of Glee got their teeth into it by incorporating it into a medley with the Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me.

On one of their recent ‘Solid Sixties’ tours I was advised that the Searchers still include it in their set which, for a bunch of 70 year olds, seems a little worrying. Even Marty Wilde, who still tours, said he was worried about singing ‘Why must I be a teenager in love’ at the age of nearly 80.

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