Single of the week

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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Right Said Fred (Bernard Cribbins)

This week’s Single of the Week is by a legend. I first remember him in 1970 shouting out “Oakworth” in the classic film The Railway Children where he played Albert Perks the station porter but little did I know then that eight or nine years previous he’d been a pop star. Younger readers will probably only know him from his role as Wilfred Mott – Doctor Who’s sidekick in the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned. Unless you’re an avid fan, you may not know that Bernard appeared as Doctor Who’s companion, Tom Campbell in Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. in 1966. Before all, that he in the UK singles alongside Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Helen Shapiro and Brenda Lee in 1962.

Bernard was born in Oldham, Lancashire in 1928 (he will be 90 at the end of this year) and his career began in 1956 at the Arts Theatre in London where he played the (twin brothers) two Dromio’s in Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. Soon after he appeared in another show which got his singing career started, in an interview with Jon Dennis at The Guardian, Bernard recalled, “The origins of my recording career go back to a revue show in 1961 or 62, something like that, called And Another Thing. We had a very nice cast of young up-and-comings, like Joyce and Lionel Blair, and some very good writers, including Barry Cryer – he wrote some of the sketches. I had two numbers in it, and one was called Folksong. George Martin, who was then head of A&R at Parlophone, and had made records with Charlie Drake and Peter Sellers, came to see the show with a view to recording it.” George then signed Bernard to the Parlophone record label.

The lyricist Myles Rudge and the composer Ted Dicks were both working on the show And Another Thing and decided to write song lyrics and together came up with The Hole In The Ground which they gave to Bernard who duly recorded it and took it to number nine in 1962 giving him his first UK hit. Bernard said, “When Hole in the Ground went to No 1 (sic), EMI said ‘More, please!’ Then Right Said Fred happened and because I’m a non-singer, to suddenly find myself in the charts was fabulous.”

Right Said Fred in its two minutes and 16 second entirety tells the story of two hapless removal men trying to shift a heavy object upstairs. At no point in the song is it mentioned what the item is, but it was so heavy that ‘After strainin’, heavin’ and complainin” they were getting nowhere and then deciding to ‘take off all the handles and the things wot held the candles’ one would have to assume it’s a piano. Well it was because it was inspired by the problems Ted Dicks experienced getting some workmen to move a piano. Bernard recalled, “Ted Dicks was living on the second or third floor somewhere, and he moved to a basement flat in Islington. He’d ordered a grand piano from Harrods. He said to the removal men ‘It’s just down these stairs.’ ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ ‘OK, what’ll we do?’ So they took it all to pieces and that became the lyrics from Myles Rudge.”

The vision of the song is so clear, Charlie has an idea that the only way to get the piano in was to remove the ceiling and lower it in with a rope, but being a bit heavy-handed with the crowbar it became like a Laurel and Hardy sketch and the ceiling caved it and Charlie ended up with ‘half a ton of rubble’ on his bald head. It’s got that ‘typical’ workman attitude, if it doesn’t come easy, stop and have a cup of tea.

Then it came to the recording, “I recorded it at Abbey Road, at number three studio,” Bernard said, “it was like a little concert hall. This was just before the Beatles got in there – we warmed it up for them! When I arrived there were about 12 or 13 musicians. I sang it live with them. We did a couple of takes, and that was it. Then George worked on it with his sound effects, like running up a ladder and so on. George used a lot of the techniques he went on to use on the Beatles’ records. He used a lot of lovely little noises.”

Bernard’s third and final hit, Gossip Calypso was written by the actor Trevor Peacock, who is best remembered for his roles in The Vicar of Dibley, Eastenders, My Family and Between the Lines which stalled at number 25. Bernard, however also recorded an album which contained I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face and a faithful version of When I’m 64.

The only other hit that Ted Dicks and Miles Rudge wrote was the novelty song A Windmill in Old Amsterdam, a hit for Ronnie Hilton in 1965. It seems a lot of songs they wrote were regular favourites on Junior Choice which would have kept the royalties rolling in. They also wrote the theme to Carry on Screaming in 1966 and the following year worked material for Kenneth Williams for his album On Pleasure Bent. A Windmill in Old Amsterdam won an Ivor Novello Award for the Year’s Outstanding Novelty Composition.

Rudge died in October 2007 aged 81 and Dicks, who also composed the theme to the television programme Catweazle, died in January 2012 aged 83.

In 1991 Right Said Fred cropped up again, this time as the name of a group. “I don’t think Right Said Fred had permission to use the title,” Bernard offered, “but they were quite a good group. Quite camp! I met them and did a song for Comic Relief with them, Stick It Out.” (Check out the video)

For another generation, Bernard will always be remember as the narrator of The Wombles and a story teller on Jackanory which was a 15-minute children’s TV series that ran from 1965 until March 1996. It featured many celebrities reading stories, a huge list which includes Clement Freud, Sheila Hancock, Penelope Keith, Tom Baker, Richard Briers, Angus Deaton, Judi Dench, Lenny Henry, John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Arthur Lowe Spike Milligan, Willie Rushton, Kenneth Williams, Victoria Wood and a whole heap more, but it’s Bernard who holds the record for the most appearances, 111 in total.

In 2011 he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to drama and three years later he received the J.M. Barrie award for his lasting contribution to children’s arts.

Bernard is still popping up in various television shows and live appearances, I remember seeing him in May 2015 when he gave a reading at VE Day 70: A Party to Remember in Horse Guards Parade.

On a BBC London show in 2016 listeners were asked to ring in with their favourite comedy tracks and Right Said Fred was voted the favourite. “It’s become a little classic. It’s a real joy,” said Bernard “Long-range applause, I call it.” Anyway, time for another cup of tea after all, Charlie and Fred had six of them in two minutes and 16 seconds.

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Paper Planes (Hoseah Partsch)

In this 21st century of reality talent shows, not a huge number of the winners sustain a long and healthy career, but fair play to the ones who do. One of the fairest of the show would probably have to be The Voice with its ‘blind’ audition idea thus not judging on what someone looks like.

The Voice was created by the Dutch television producer, John de Mol, the man who also created Big Brother. A program director of a TV station, who was a fan of the X-Factor, asked John if he could create something bigger and better than the X-Factor and so, basing it on an existing show called The Voice of Holland created The Voice. It was first aired locally in 2010 and the following year was sold to over 50 countries around the world. In the UK the first series was aired in March 2012 and there have been six winner so far. This week I focus on the 2017 runner-up of the Australian series.

Since the series began down under the judges have included Joel Madden, Kylie Minogue, Keith Urban, Ricky Martin, will.i.am, Ronan Keating and Jessie J. The 2017 panel was made up Seal, Delta Goodrem, Kelly Rowland and Boy George who all turned their chairs when Hoseah Partsch amazed every one of them with his passionate rendition of Ariana Grande’s Almost Is Never Enough, but it was the latter who turned his chair first and it was his team who he joined. Hoseah worked with his mentor as part of Team George until, on the final, he was narrowly beaten by 20-year-old Judah Kelly.

Hoseah was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and had a tough upbringing, yet he remains so positive. He moved to Australia in 2011 and is one of four children who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment which he shared with his siblings. “Growing up was very rough and so tough,” he explained in an interview the Daily Telegraph, “it’s emotional just thinking about it.” He lived with his mother, Queenie, and his grandparents too and describing his mother as his best friend and hero, he dedicated many of his performances on the show to her. He also revealed that for most of his life he’d been wearing second-hand clothes, but all the while never lost sight of the fact he wanted to be a musician.

He was humbled by the admiration he has received, “For someone like Boy George, an international music icon, to have faith in a kid from Auckland, that meant everything to me,” he said. His first thoughts when applying to the show was, that if he got on, was to help his struggling family out financially, before making a name for himself. “I want to inspire other kids, whether you’re poor or not, you have to follow your dream,” he told the Telegraph.

Paper Planes, which opens with the lines, ‘I’m like a paper plane that’s caught in winds that change, I’ve never sailed so high your love will be my lullaby’ sounds like it would have been written by someone who has had a struggle and indeed it was, but it was not written by the person who had struggled, in this case Hoseah and his tough upbringing. His story did inspire the songwriters Dennis Dowlut and Maxwell Bistrup, “It’s a song that was written about the journey to reaching your full potential and finding one’s purpose,” Dennis explains. The next line lets you see that, ‘I’m like a paper plane, can’t be afraid of heights, don’t know how far I’ll fly just keep me in your heavenly sights’ and Dennis continued, “I felt a connection with Hoseah’s story and shared it with Max. The song came together very quickly.” What was Hoseah’s initial thoughts? “I fell in love with it straightaway, when I first heard it, it feels like something that I would have written myself. It talks about my life and things that I’m going through today. I’ve been blessed, and I feel like I’m flying. I’m extremely excited about everything that’s coming up. I can’t wait.”

He said a long time ago, and continues to say, that he wasn’t complaining about his hardships, but actually to give hope and prove to other people, in a similar predicament, that anything is possible. If they have a dream or goal in life, follow it and believe in it and you’ve got a good chance of achieving it.

Partsch is still only 18 and still has his studies to complete, “I have two terms left, I cannot wait. My friends have been messaging me 24/7 then after school music will be my day job,” he told Vents magazine. Partsch received a phone call at home from George asking him if would join him on the Australian leg of the tour in December (2017). “I’m incredibly nervous, but mostly I’m just excited,” Partsch revealed, “This is Culture Club! And I’m the support act for them! It’s a huge thing for me and honestly, I can’t wait. I can’t wait to smash it. I can’t wait to play a show that people will remember me by.” Boy George, his mentor, added, “I’m delighted to welcome him to the Culture Club tour.”

Partsch is eternally grateful to George saying, “He is an amazing person. I took everything he said to me on board. The main thing he taught me was to believe in myself. I’m a person who has a lot of self-doubt but he told me that if I believed in myself I could do whatever I wanted to do. He also taught me to have fun and enjoy every performance.”

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Psychotic Reaction (Count Five)

By the mid-nineties the UK music scene was very dance orientated (it was either that or Britpop) and one of the sub-genres was garage, but that term wasn’t new. Very much like the phrase, R&B it had a completely different meaning back in the sixties. Garage, then, was used to describe music that had quite rocky with fuzzy guitars and an element of distortion. The lyrics were usually a bit psychedelic and occasionally aggressive but not in a punk way and was extremely popular in America in the late sixties. It’s believed the term derived from bands, often professional, rehearsing in garages and helped give it its raw sound. One such band was the short-lived act Count Five who swiftly arrived on the scene in 1966 and disappeared just as quickly.

They were formed in San Jose, California in 1964 and comprised Kenn Ellner (lead vocals), John Byrne (rhythm guitar), John Michalski (lead guitar), Roy Chaney (bass) and Craig Atkinson (drums) and who were all rock ‘n’ roll fans. “I grew up with the Beatles, I wanted to be a musician and I emulated the Beatles,” Byrne, who was actually born in Dublin, recalled. Michalski added, “We had San Jose wrapped up! Everybody was our fan and we got along with the kids really well, so we had a good following.”

In an interview with Devorah Ostrov, Ellner said, “I started with music when I was real young. I used to sing quite a bit. When I was around 10 or 11-years-old I would listen to KLIV, they used to have a contest called Name It and Claim It so I used to listen with my ear to the radio, and I’d win almost every record that came on the air! Michalski explained how he got into music, “I used to listen to a lot of the Ventures. I picked up an acoustic guitar and just went by ear. I kept listening to the radio, trying to pick up everything people were playing, that’s how I got going.” It was Byrne who came up with the group’s name, “We were thinking of band names like the Dave Clark Five, and all the other Fives – and I just said Count Five and we stuck with it.” Ellner added, “It was never The Count Five, we wanted the double entendre. You could count one, two, three, four, five; or it could be like Count Dracula. The Dracula association continued as an early publicity photo showed the group dressed in ankle-length black capes, but why that gimmick? “That was mine and Sean’s idea,” admitted Ellner, “we came up with the capes and ruffled shirts. It just fit, as we thought that capes went with Counts.” The trouble is the costumes caused the band to start sweating so they could only wear them for about 10 minutes then off they came.

Psychotic Reaction was one of the few songs that was written by the members and became a crowd favourite. So what’s it about, “It was a drug idea, although we were not into drugs,” revealed Byrne “but we were looking at what was going on around us and we could see that kind of music could sell. Although I don’t want to say that we were trying to cash in on the drug thing, we thought it was interesting. We felt the song, we believed in it.” And the title? Ellner explained, “Sean was in a psychology class with a friend of Butch’s named Ron Lamb and they were talking about emotional problems, like neurotic and psychotic reactions, and Ron said, ‘God, that’s a great name for a song!’ Sean agreed, ‘You know, you’re right!’ I had just got my first harmonica and we were jamming, and we got into the part of the song that goes da da da da da… That’s how the whole thing got started. Then Sean wrote the lyrics to it.”

The group were managed by Ellner’s father and he certainly kept them in line and made sure that when they were in the public eye they were on their best behaviour. But they really had a good time as the drummer recalled, “That was probably the most fun of anything, the camaraderie we had with the other groups. We got along real well with the Syndicate of Sound. It just seemed that anybody had music in common with was pretty easy to get along with.”

They toured the US and at one stage were supported by The Doors. Michalski recalled, “I remember the first time I met Jim Morrison, he said, ‘The only difference between my group and your group is that you’ve got a hit record.’ He had mustard all over his face from eating a hot dog! He was a pretty sloppy guy.” During their live sets they did a number of cover version of British songs because they liked the ‘English’ sound. Byrne said, “At the time, we did more Yardbirds’ covers than we did The Who. The only reason the Who songs appear on the album is because we did them a little better than we did the Yardbirds’, at least as far as the record company was concerned. Truth is, we did neither of them very good. Their one and only album, also called Psychotic Reaction, was released in 1966, it contained 11 songs including two Who covers, Out in the Street and My Generation.

By 1968, Count Five was drifting apart. Byrne said, “Our record company didn’t promote us after Psychotic Reaction but the dollars started rolling in for those guys and they wanted to keep them. They didn’t put the money into producing or promoting us. Michalski and Chaney were the first to leave. They were replaced for some local shows by two members from the Syndicate of Sound, but by the end of the year the band had broken up. Atkinson added “It’s kind of tough when your first record is a hit and you can’t do it again. I think it would have been better if we had cut a couple of flops and then had a hit. We weren’t ready for it; it seemed too easy. When we couldn’t do it again and again, it got kind of frustrating.” Michalski said, “We were all 19, and at that time when you were 19, you were drafted. Butch enlisted because he wanted to be a pilot. Sean wasn’t a citizen yet, so he didn’t have to worry and Kenn had a bad back. Roy got out of it. But it took me four years to beat it.”

Atkinson passed away on 13th October 1998 and Byrne died in December 2008 from cirrhosis of the liver. In 2006 Count Five was one of the first bands inducted into the San Jose Rock Hall of Fame, so they certainly made their mark.

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