Single of the week

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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All Over The World (Francoise Hardy)

I don’t know about you, but when I listen to the lyrics of Where Do You Go to My Lovely, I think of a certain French singer of the sixties, especially after I learned that she too studied German language studies at the Sorbonne. A beautiful looking woman, as described in the song, with a sweet voice to match. That singer is Francoise Hardy.

Her upbringing was quite a different story. Her father left when she was very young and her mother, who worked as an accountant’s assistant, had to bring up Francoise and her 18-month younger sister Michele, on her own which was challenging. Their father initially only visited his daughters a couple of times a year at their home is Paris but soon didn’t bother at all, nor did he contribute financially either.

Having said all that, ironically, it was a gift of a guitar from her father that sparked her interest in music. She had heard the Everly Brothers and Elvis on the radio and decided to give up her studies to concentrate on singing and songwriting at the Petit Conservatoire de la chanson, a French-speaking radio and television program which had been devised and presented like a singing class. She became passionate about music and expanded her mind by listening to Georges Guétary’s operettas as well as learning about composers like Charles Trenet and Cora Vaucaire. In school holidays her mother often sent her to Austria to improve and perfect her German which she did but also spent hours listening to music by her favourite composers as well as writing her own songs.

Her first audition was at EMI’s Studio Pathé Marconi but that didn’t go well, next she auditioned for Philips but was sent away and advised to taking singing lessons. Quite determined, it was third time lucky when, in 1961, she sang a cover of Elvis Presley’s I Gotta Know, the B-side of Are You Lonesome Tonight, in French, for the Vogue label who liked her a signed her. The following year her first EP was released. A lot of her own songs were from personal experience about be lonely and unloved and that struck a chord the public. The title track from that EP was called Tous Les Garcons et Les Filles which translates as all the boys and girls and it soon sold over a million copies. In the UK it was released in 1964 and became her first hit but stalled at number 36. She’s always had a love-hate relationship with that song saying, years later, “I’m grateful for it, but also a little fed up. It’s my most famous song, and I’ve never had such a big success since, but it’s not my best song – far from it.”

Françoise soon began to appear on the cover of various well-known magazines and one day, whilst working on a photo shoot for the magazine Salut les Copains, she fell in love with the photographer Jean-Marie Perier, who transformed her from a shy young lady into a confident young showgirl. They had a five-year relationship but never married.

By 1964 she had recorded a number of successful albums in France and she decided to head to the UK to work with producer Charles Blackwell which led to her writing her next, and biggest, UK hit, All Over the World which became a favourite on the BBC Light Programme’s Two-Way Family Favourites and reached number 16 in the UK chart. It was a significant change in her life as she revealed in an interview with Alex Gerry, “I really think my records are only any good from that point when Charles started working with me. My material before that hasn’t aged very well.”

All Over The World tells of lost love – people meeting and parting and as she penned the song it makes you wonder whether it was a personal tale from a sad person, Francoise said, “I don’t see myself as an especially sad person, When I write, it is always the melody that comes first, and it just happens to be the case that the most beautiful tunes are sad, and the lyrics follow the mood of the melody.”

Her good looks led her into the film industry where, in 1965, she had a minor role as an assistant to the Mayor in What’s New Pussycat and the following year appeared as a girlfriend of a racing driver in Grand Prix.

“From the moment I went to England, I had more confidence,” she said in an interview. “In France, the image I had was of a shy girl – a poor lonely girl and not too good-looking. When I went to England I had another image. I felt the journalists were much more interested in my looks than in my songs.” She rubbed shoulders with stars like Alan Price and Georgie Fame as well as the Beatles – although it was George Harrison she got on best with as they were similar, but the person who made the biggest impression on her was Mick Jagger. Although they dined together and the press lapped it up, nothing happened as they were both in relationships. She said of him, “I was like a shy fan, you know.

I met him on the street and he smiled at me and I thought I would never recover. He was like an angel – a dark angel. He doesn’t know this, but he was the first one who gave me a little more confidence in myself because in an interview for a French magazine for young girls he said that I was his ideal woman.”

In 1981 she finally married her long-term partner Jacques Dutronc, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who also recorded the original version of Mungo Jerry’s hit Alright, Alright, Alright under its original title Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi in 1966 which was released on the Vogue record label – the same label who first signed Hardy. The couple had one son called Thomas who is now an established jazz guitarist.

Hardy, for many years, claimed she was never going to sing after the age of 50. In 1988, at the age of 44, she started preparing her farewell album which was called Décalage, but fans were disappointed as she didn’t seem to go out with a big bang. Maybe she had other plans? As it turned out six years passed until we really anything from her – in 1994 she collaborated with Blur for their re-recorded version of To The End of which she sang some verses in French and it was retitled To The End (La Comedie), the following year she lent her voice to a Malcolm McLaren single called Revenge of the Flowers. Then, in 2000, she made bigger comeback with a new album called Clair-Obscur which featured her son on guitar and a duet with her husband whom she’d not collaborated with – musically – since 1978. It received rave reviews with Hardy’s voice and the arrangements being highly praised.

There’s another string to Hardy’s bow, her other passion is astrology and in the 1970s she began studying it seriously and thus became an expert on astrological birth charts even writing two books on the subject.

She is still legally married to Jacques but they choose to live apart spending the majority of her time in her Paris apartment and him in their other home on the island of Corsica. She continues to record and in 2012 signed a two-album deal with EMI the first of which was called L’Amour Fou. We’re still waiting for the second.

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Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (The Wonder Who)

One of the most popular shows running in the West End since 2005 is the jukebox musical The Jersey Boys, which tells the story, via the music, of the Four Seasons. A thoroughly recommended show if you haven’t seen it. It brought the music of the group to a whole new audience especially as they hadn’t had a UK hit since 1977. It was so successful that it was made into a film in 2014 and directed by Clint Eastwood. The name Four Seasons, and their falsettoed lead singer, Frankie Valli, have been well-known during the sixties and seventies, but the group also had brief success in America under an alias.

Before the Four Seasons began proper in 1962 with Sherry, Frankie Valli had already been trying to make his name for almost 10 years. His first release was My Mother’s Eyes which was credited as Frankie Valley in 1953. The following year he formed his first band, The Variatones with guitarist Tommy DeVito. They stayed together for a couple of years but during that times changed their name and eventually settled with the Four Lovers. Their only American hit under that name was You’re The Apple of my Eye which stalled at number 62. They released seven singles under that moniker but success eluded them. In 1959 they began working with a producer and songwriter called Bob Crewe and whilst on tour in 1958 they were on the same stage as The Royal Teens who are best remembered for their American-only hit Short Shorts. That song was written by Bob Gaudio who Valli met and invited him to join the band. Bob Crewe had his own production company and in 1961 he signed them and changed their name to the Four Seasons.

In the summer of 1965 they’d recorded an album called The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits by Burt Bacharach…Hal David…Bob Dylan, it contained 12 tracks – six on side one by Bacharach and David and six on side two all by Dylan. Now the same year Frankie Valli began a concurrent solo career which kicked off with a track from that album and was a version of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. It failed to make the Hot 100 but a version by the Walker Brothers was released at the same time and they made it to number 16  over there and number one in the UK. They decided to release a version of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right which was credited to The Wonder Who and peaked at number 12 at the same time The Four Seasons’ Let’s Hang On peaked at number three. “It did create a lot of confusion,” Frankie Valli said. So how come it was credited to a different act?  Frankie Valli explained, “It all began when I started to clown around in the studio with the song doing an impression of a very famous black singer, Rose Murphy who did I Can’t Give You Anything but Love. We played it for a disc jockey in Atlantic City, New Jersey and he said, ‘Please give it to me. I just want to play it. I won’t tell anybody who it is. I’ll run a contest.’ He actually broke it. When the record company found out, they were really pissed. They said, ‘Now we have to put it out, but we already have a Four Seasons song out, and this will kill it, so we’ll say it’s the Wonder Who?” The song peaked at number 12, Frankie said of it, “Well, the way we did it was very campy. To take a song that seriously and do it that way puts it in a kind of camp place. I enjoyed doing it. I’m probably one of the biggest Bob Dylan fans that ever lived. It was an interesting take on the song. I talked to Dylan about our version and he absolutely loved it.”

Bob Dylan wrote that song after his girlfriend Suze Rotolo went off to Italy to study at the University of Perugia and left him in New York and Dylan saw it as a separation. He said, “A lot of people make it sort of a love song – slow and easy going. But it isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say something to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Suze, who was an artist and civil rights activist, is the woman seen on the cover of Bob’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

During the first verse you hear the lyrics, ‘When your rooster crows at the break a dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone’ Suze explained the meaning of this in her memoir A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, “We used to live near a poultry supplier in our Greenwich Village apartment. We would sometimes stay up all night and hear the roosters crowing at the break of dawn.”

The song has been covered by many artists including Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Joan Baez, Brook Benton, Ralph McTell, Bryan Ferry and even by Ke$ha on the 2011 charity album, Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan which was recorded to mark 50 Years of Amnesty International. Ke$ha said of the emotional recording session, “I was weeping, you can hear it. We just used that recording. We didn’t record it into a professional microphone, nothing. I tried to sing it a few times but that magic was really in this first, genuine, distraught, emotional take that you guys are going to hear on the record.”

Over the next 18 months, The Wonder Who released three more singles; On the Good Ship Lollipop, The Lonesome Road and the final one, Peanuts which all failed to make any impact so they decided to give up with The Wonder Who and stick the Four Seasons.

The Jersey Boys, so named because they all came from New Jersey, will provide you with the reason why the Four Seasons were so popular. Valli explained his opinion in Rock Cellar magazine when he first saw the show, “When I saw it for real, acted out, it was rough on the edges and it was strange to see somebody play me. Usually they play people after they die so the person can’t have anything to say about it. Having an interest in acting I understood that the actor would have to play it from his point of view to some degree. He would have to apply some of himself to the role or it wouldn’t be real. The thing I was most concerned about was the singing. I had to see it about three times before I felt comfortable with it and when it went to Broadway and they were auditioning people, I went to all those auditions because I wanted to be sure that the integrity was there.”

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