Single of the week

Thunderstruck (AC/DC)

Up until December 2013 when an internet campaign was launched to get them to number one for Christmas, AC/DC held the record for the most UK hit singles without making the top 10. The campaign failed to get them to the top, but a mass of downloads allowed Highway to Hell to reach number four giving them their biggest UK hit. This week I tell the story of their first hit of the 1990s, Thunderstruck.

AC/DC were formed in Sydney, Australia by the Young brothers, Malcolm and Angus. Their original lead singer was Dave Evans who was replaced within a year by Bon Scott. By the time of their debut album, High Voltage, in 1975 the remainder of the line-up comprised Mark Evans on bass, and Phil Rudd on drums. In 1977 Evans was replaced by Cliff Williams who continued until 2016. Following the tragic early death of Bon Scott in 1980, aged just 33, the band were going to call it a day, but then reconsidered when they figured Scott would have wanted them to carry on and began looking fora new lead singer. A few were considered including Noddy Holder who declined because he had further plans for Slade and so Brian Johnson, the former lead singer with Geordie got the job and led the way until 2016 when former Guns N’ Roses vocalist Axl Rose replaced him. Angus’ gimmick was always to be in school uniform and even at the age of 62 he doesn’t look too out of place.

Many fans consider their early material the best, but Brian did a great job, they had top 20 hits in the eighties with Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, Let’s Get It Up, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), Who Made Who and Heatseeker. Their first hit of the nineties was also their biggest – discounting the aforementioned Highway to Hell – Thunderstruck got to number 13 in 1990.

The tune came about by accident really as Angus described in the sleeve notes of the parent album Powerage, “It started off from a little trick that I had on guitar. I played it to Mal and he said, ‘Oh I’ve got a good rhythm idea that will sit well in the back.’ We built the song up from that. We fiddled about with it for a few months before everything fell into place.” Angus Young explained in The Story of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock, “I created the distinctive opening guitar part by playing with all the strings taped up, except the B. It was a studio trick I learned from my older brother George Young, who produced some of AC/DC’s albums and was in a band called The Easybeats. Lyrically, it was really just a case of finding a good title. We came up with this thunder thing and it seemed to have a good ring to it. AC/DC = Power. That’s the basic idea.”

They continued to released singles and albums throughout the nineties including Ballbreaker and in the 2000s with Stiff Upper Lip and Black Ice which, in 2008, gave them their second chart-topping album, 28 years after their first. To accompany the latter they set out of a 20-month world tour which took in 168 shows. During that tour some shows had to be rescheduled due to Brian Johnson receiving treatment for ulcers. The album was released worldwide but in the US it was only sold exclusively at Walmart, Sam’s Club and the band’s official website.

In 1988 they were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame and 15 years later into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In April 2014, Malcolm announced, via the AC/DC Facebook page, that he will be retiring from the band due to ill health but would be replaced in the studio by his nephew Stevie. Sadly Malcolm died in November 2017, just one month after his older brother George who, as mentioned earlier, produced much of the band’s early material.

Their sales figures are astronomical, by 2007, their 1980 album Back in Black had sold 22 million in the US alone which made it the fifth-best-selling album of all-time over there. Their total record sales exceed 72 million and are currently the fifth best-selling band of all time.

Thunderstruck was featured in the 1999 film Varsity Blues for which they charged a mammoth $500,000 for its use. The film’s music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, said at the time, “I remember being absolutely horrified when I heard that number, we spent a lot of time coming up with what we thought were great alternates, but there was going to be no budget on that, and they had money so they paid for it.”

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Holy Mountain (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds)

When Oasis split in 2009, it wasn’t obvious which of the Gallagher brothers was going to forge a solo career if either. Noel was the primary songwriter and guitarist whilst younger brother Liam was the voice – the sound – of Oasis and it’s usually the lead singer who will break away and launch the solo career. In this case they both did but Noel did it first.

He set out in 2010 and the band name, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is really a pseudonym for Noel although he does have a regular touring band that comprises keyboard player Mike Rowe who has been with Noel since 2010 and ex-Zutons bass player Russell Pritchard who joined in 2011. The rest of the current line-up are former Oasis members Gem Archer on rhythm guitar and Chris Sharrock on drums. Earlier this year he added Jessica Greenfield who performs backing vocals and a little extra keyboard work. The name is taken from two sources, as he explained to Jonathan Ross, “The idea to prefix the name with Noel Gallagher’s was formed whilst I was washing up dishes listening to the album Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and the Flying Birds is taken from the song High Flying Bird by Jefferson Airplane.

His eponymous debut album arrived in 2011 and made number one spending just over a year on the chart thus proving Noel’s popularity. The debut single, The Death of You and Me reached number 15 which was followed a couple of months later with Aka What a Life which made number 20. His next album Chasing Yesterday arrived four years later and also topped the UK album chart and from it the hit singles were In the Heat of the Moment and Ballad of the Mighty I which featured Johnny Marr. This year saw the arrival of his third album Who Built the Moon?

The first track from it was Holy Mountain, a much catchier song that we’re used to and very infectious. Noel explained how it came about, “It started around the tin whistle sample which was from a track, a very obscure track, called The Chewin’ Gum Kid by Ice Cream and the producer, David Holmes, played me the sample and I was like, ‘wow, it’s amazing, the sound of it and the feel of it’ and he said ‘do you think you can do something with that’ and I knew instantly it was going to be the first single. I worked out the chords of what it was and we did a tiny demo of it and then I took it on tour and added some different chords and some different verses and went back to Belfast when it started to become a song.”

Noel showcased the song live during his set at Estadio Unico de la Plata in La Plata, Argentina on 10th October 2017 and was well received. Many, at the time, compared it to Ricky Martin’s hit She Bangs, but Noel explained his side of it in an interview with Radio X, “The only similarity, his tune goes – as I remember it – She bangs! She bangs! So it’s the phrasing of the words. That’s it. I understand people have mundane jobs and they’ve got nothing better to do, so they can comment on stuff.”

Even though it’s a relatively new track, Noel has already said that it’s one of his favourites; “There’s so much joy in it,” he enthused, “until the day I die, it will be one of my favourite pieces of music that I’ve ever written. It sounds great live. My kids love it, my friends’ kids all love it and I am sure ‘the kids’ will love it.”

The single was available for download, stream and on a physical 12″ picture disc single and entered the chart in October but stalled, surprisingly, at a lowly number 69. The album was released one month later and crashed in at the top of the chart. The 12″ version came with an instrumental version of the song and the additional track Dead in the Water (Live at RTÉ 2FM Studios, Dublin) which is a song that Gallagher and Rowe recorded ad hoc whilst visiting a radio station in Dublin.

Noel’s brother Liam, unsurprisingly, wasn’t particularly complimentary about his brothers new material, he said in an interview with NME, “Musically, I find it a bit annoying,” adding “I think there are too many notes in it, and it’s just a bit not risky. It’s not for me.” No, it wouldn’t be!

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Abraham Martin & John (Marvin Gaye)

Some singers have such a command of a song that the listener is convinced it’s their own song. One such singer is Marvin Gaye who famously had a number one and is synonymous with I Heard It Through the Grapevine, but he didn’t write it nor record it first. Smokey Robinson recorded it first in 1966 and Gladys Knight recorded it the following year and her version was released first. The Isley Brothers and Willie Bobo both did it in the same year, but Gaye took it to number one on both sides of the Atlantic. But this week I focus on another Marvin Gaye track, also previously recorded by Smokey Robinson, which hit the UK top 10 in 1970 and written about four dead men.

The song is Abraham, Martin and John, I’ll come to the fourth later, which was written by the Indiana-born songwriter called Dick Holler who had been a member of band called the Dixie Cats in the mid-fifties which also included the singer Jimmy Clanton. Holler was a member of a number of different bands until the early sixties when he began to concentrate on songwriting. In 1966 he wrote a song called Snoopy vs the Red Baron which was recorded by a Florida band called The Royal Guardsmen and made number two in the US and number eight in the UK.

The following year he wrote Abraham Martin and John and gave it to the Royal Guardsmen who recorded the demo. The men in question are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, three iconic figures who campaigned for civil rights in America. The last four lines of the song are, ‘Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby, can you tell me where he’s gone? I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill With Abraham, Martin and John,’ which is a reference to JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy who was also an American politician and civil rights campaigner specialising in the fight against organised crime and the Mafia. The song was recorded just two months after Robert’s death.

Dick Holler, who had actually written the song on the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, played the demo to the head of Laurie records who thought it would be ideal for one of his former artists whose hit making days of the late fifties and early sixties had come to an end due to a drug addiction, but was now clean and looking to get his career back on track, that singer was Dion DiMucci. He had approached his former label looking to renew his contract and offered them a song he’d written about his drug problem called Daddy Rollin’ They were happy to but also told him they wanted him to record Abraham, Martin and John, they showed him the sheet music and Dion instantly hated it and refused to record it. In return Laurie refused to renew his contract. He eventually relented and it’s often cited that either his mother-in-law or producer Phil Gernhard first made Dion realise what the song was about, he didn’t get it. Gernhard claims that it was when Dion had to perform the song live with an acoustic guitar on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because there was a musicians strike, that he finally understood its sentiment.

Dion said in his 1988 memoir, The Wanderer, “If it had been up to me, Abraham, Martin and John would have stayed just a young songwriter’s dream. I realised that what these four guys — Lincoln, King, and the Kennedys — had in common was a dream. It was like they had the courage to believe that a state of love really can exist… Abraham, Martin and John was a way of reminding people that they could aspire to great things, even in the midst of tragedy and confusion.” He did the song in one take but was irked that his song was relegated to the b side.

What’s always made me curious is that the song is sung in the order of Abraham, John and Martin. Admittedly if it had been called that it would be more of a mouthful to say, but why didn’t they sing the second and third verses the other way round?

The song was the last real success for both the singer and the writer. Dion never returned to the US top 50 again and Holler, who continued to write songs for the like of James and Bobby Purify, Petula Clark, The Bellamy Brothers and Cher, never had another chart hit. Dion once claimed that he had received over 4,000 letters thanking him for recording it.

Abraham, Martin and John has been covered by many people and in many diverse genres including Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Bon Jovi, Tori Amos, Mahalia Jackson, Andy Williams, Whitney Houston, Cliff Richard, Paul Weller, Harry Belfonte, Marillion, Seasick Steve and even Dr Spock aka Leonard Nimmoy. The only UK hit version was by Marvin Gaye who never charted in his native country, however four versions did make the US top 40; Dion took it to number four, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles made number 33 in 1969, the black comedienne Moms Mabley made number 35 the same year and was the oldest person to debut on the Billboard chart – she was 75 at the time, and the radio DJ Tom Clay made number eight in 1971 when he combined his version into a six-minute medley with Jackie DeShannon’s What The World Needs Now is Love. His version included snatches of speech from both the Kennedys and Luther King and has children defining ‘bigotry’ and ‘segregation’, which, as Spencer Leigh pointed out, is audio journalism at its best.

One of the song’s poignant line is ‘it seems the good die young’ and that is true of Marvin Gaye who was shot dead by his father the day before his 45th birthday. Dion continues to make music, his last album in 2016 being New York Is My Home of which the title track was a duet with Paul Simon. As for Dick Holler, he’s just celebrated his 83rd birthday and in 2007 was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He currently has two homes, one in Switzerland and the other in Georgia, but returns to his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana for an annual reunion at the Baton Rouge Eagles’ Club.

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Monkey Man (The Maytals)

The first hit single to use the term rock and roll in the title was Kay Starr’s 1956 number one hit Rock and Roll Waltz, the generally held view is that John Lennon was the first person to include the f-word in a song which he did in Working Class Hero in 1970, but Al Stewart actually who beat him by two years when he included it in his 1969 song Love Chronicles, but do you know who the first person to use the word reggae was?

Well it was Toots Hibbert; in an interview with Outline he explained its origins, “Yeah I’m the one who came up with the word reggae and is still very strong all over the world. Young people try to do it but they don’t capture it the way myself, Bob Marley and many other originals did. People are always trying to spell it reggae but I spell it reggay! The word was coming from the roots of Kingston in Jamaica. If someone didn’t dress properly then we called it reggae. You know, the word originally came from the streets but I was the first to coin it in a song.” People learnt about reggae from Toots and the Maytals and that first he recorded was called Do the Reggay.

Toots was born Frederick Hibbert in Jamaica and has just turned 75, as a teenager he moved to Jamaica’s capital, Kingston and met two musicians, Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon who got together to form The Maytals and very quickly became a popular attraction in Kingston. In 1972 they appeared in Reggae’s most influential film The Harder They Come which starred Jimmy Cliff and featured an appearance by Prince Buster as the club DJ. The Maytals sang Sweet and Dandy and Pressure Drop the latter of which many have covered including the Specials, but the only act to chart with it was former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin whose version starts in a rock style and then the last 45 seconds turns into reggae.

Although it was requested by Mick Blee it’s actually for his cousin Gary who is a singer and has recorded a song called The Old East End Tonight which is featured in a recent film called The Rise of the Foot Soldier 3. Gary often sings at a club in Hornchuch in Essex and always getting requests for a song called Monkey Man as originally recorded by The Maytals. With lyrics like ‘Tell you baby, you huggin up the big monkey man’, ‘I’ve seen no sign of you, I only heard of you huggin up the big monkey man’ and ‘Now I know that, now I understand you’re turning a monkey on me’ he wondered what it was all about.

Well it seems a simple explanation as Toots revealed, “Well Monkey Man is all about a girl, a very good looking girl. I fell in love with her and then a monkey-looking man took her away from me but I thought she was in love with me. The guy was ugly and not good looking like me, ha ha!” It’s not a song that has been covered much, but whether a white act could get away with it in the day and age is doubtful as someone will complain!

Toots has been working and touring now for six decades, “I arrange, create and produce, I like to just work, work, work by myself,” he says, but is still respected not just by reggae fans but his peers as well; in 2005 he sang with Willie Nelson on the song I’m a Worried Man which appeared on the former’s album Countryman. The following year a number of reggae artists came together to record a reggae version of Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was billed as Radiodread and Toots contributed Let Down. On New Year’s Eve 2011 at a private party Toots duetted with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a version of Louie Louie.

Now he’s collaborating with dance act Major Lazer whose 2018 album Music is the Weapon features Toots contributing new alternate vocals to the track My Number which is based on arguably The Maytals’ most famous song 54-46 was My Number, which, if you’re wondering where that title came from, was Toots’ prison number when, in 1966, he served 18 months for marijuana possession.

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I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) (Whitney Houston)

Once upon a time a record company would sign an act they believed it and give them money up front to record an album and even draw up an agreement for a two or three album deal. If their first one or two singles failed to chart, they would try again and re-promote until they succeeded. Nowadays, if an act is lucky enough to get a record deal they have to have instant success or they’re dropped, hence why many acts now don’t need or want a record company’s involvement because there’s too much expectation and stress. The singer of this week’s suggestion was signed to Arista by Clive Davis and she spent her whole career with the one label. In 2001, she signed the biggest contract in music history: an eight-album deal for $100 million. That does not happen anymore. We’re talking about Whitney Houston.

I Wanna dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) was suggested by Joanneblee not so much for the story but, as she puts it, “Just because it’s my feel good song and always puts a smile on my face.” I can vouch for that because if I’m DJing at a party or wedding and you get a particularly stubborn crowd, then this track is almost certain to get people up. Whitney, who was born in 1963 in New Jersey, was destined to be a star given her mother was the gospel singer Cissy Houston, her cousins were Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick and her Godmother was Darlene Love so it was going to be hard for her to fail. When she was 11 she joined a gospel choir in her hometown of Newark and as soon as she reached her teens she went out on the road with her mother and occasionally join her on stage. She was introduced to Michael Zager who invited her to sing backing vocals on Life’s a Party – the non-charting follow up to Let’s All Chant – which then led to her to perform more regular backing vocals for Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls.

She joined Arista records in 1983 and the label lined her up with a whole bunch of top musicians and songwriters. Her first hit, Saving All My Love for You, was a transatlantic number one which was written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin and originally recorded by Billy Davis Jr & Marilyn McCoo. George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who together form Boy Meets Girl, wrote the follow-up, How Will I Know, for Janet Jackson who turned it down so they passed the song to Whitney Houston, and it became a US number one and was also part of her multi-million selling album, Whitney Houston. Merrill and Rubicam were asked to write for Whitney’s second album and submitted Waiting for a Star to Fall. The standards were extremely high and the song was rejected. They knew it was a good song so they recorded it themselves and it became both a UK and US hit in 1988. The couple thought they would try again and I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) describes a girl who is tired of dancing aimlessly. She wants someone who loves and appreciates her. Rubicam submitted it to Clive Davis, the head of Arista, who loved it, but her producer, Narada Michael Walden, felt it sounded more like a country song for Olivia Newton-John. Narada worked out an arrangement to make it funkier and then included Jim Gilstrap on backing vocals, Randy Jackson from the Jackson family on bass synth and Walden played drums. The song had a very bright sound and, unusually for the eighties, a calypso feel. It was included on Whitney, the first album to go straight into the charts at number one in both the US and the UK. The album also included a duet of I Know Him So Well with her mother, Cissy.

George Merrill explained in an interview with Song Facts what it was like for him, “I think the biggest deal for Shannon and me was that we had had this meteoric success with How Will I Know, that was the biggest thing that had ever happened for us in our career, and then to be asked to come up with another one, well, we just looked at each other. We thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of what this is about, it’s not about the one song and goodbye. This is part of the fun of it, this is gonna be something that we want to continue, so we just went to work.'” Shannon added, “That song got written pretty quickly, as I recall. We had a funky little garage studio at the time, and we just hung out in there one afternoon and wrote the song, and I know we tweaked it the next day, and started recording it on our little TX 4-track deck that we were using. Then a friend of ours had a larger, more comprehensive studio, so we recorded the demo of I Wanna Dance with Somebody and it was a kind of a rock version.” George said, “Shannon nailed the vocal on that one and I’m really proud of that demo, I think it still holds up. Our bass player, Leon Gaer, just really nailed it too. I think that really contributed to when it was played for Clive (Davis), I know that it really came across strongly.” Shannon concluded, “It was fun too, we recorded the song, mixed it, and then George literally ran to the airport with it and met Clive, who was getting on a plane, because he wanted it. And we thought, ‘Well, best get it to him in person and we’ll have more of an impact,’ so he took it with him and listened to it on the plane.”

The video for the song showed Whitney standing fairly still which you wouldn’t expect for upbeat dance track, but that was because Whitney couldn’t dance. Brian Grant, the video director, brought in choreographer Arlene Phillips to help solve the problem and Phillips came up with the idea of surrounding Whitney with real dancers and thus diverting the viewers’ attention away from her. But, Whitney did add a suggestion to the track whilst in the studio, which was her repeated lines ‘Don’t you wanna dance, say you wanna dance, don’t you wanna dance’.

It was in 1989 at the Soul Train Music Awards she met R&B singer Bobby Brown. He’d already had hits with Don’t Be Cruel and My Prerogative, but they began a relationship which led to them marrying in July 1992 – it lasted 14 years.

At the start of her career she had seven consecutive singles make number in America and her biggest international hit was I Will Always Love You which spent 10 weeks at number one in the UK and 14 in America. The track is taken from the best-selling soundtrack album of all-time, The Bodyguard. In 2001 she was the first recipient of the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Lifetime Achievement award.

In 2012 we received the shocking news that Whitney had died. She was found unconscious in the bath at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. The official cause of death was accidental drowning and the effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use. Her gravestone in New Jersey has a teardrop shaped headstone bearing the epitaph I will always love you. She was just 48.

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