Single of the week

Sartorial Eloquence (Elton John)

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Elton, after years as a jobbing musician, finally made his name on the UK music scene in 1971 with his hit Your Song. Many musicians will wonder how long their career would last and no doubt Elton did the same, but 41 years on, he is still doing it with immense success.

Throughout the 1970s he racked up 25 hit singles including; Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,  his first number one Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee on board and Part Time Love. His albums included Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Blue Moves. As the 1980s arrived, Elton was keen to let everyone know how successful he’d been by the title of his next album, 21 At 33 – his 21st album at the tender age of 33!

Although his albums were regularly making high chart positions, his singles were in a lull. Was there a reason for this? not really is probably the answer, the music scene was changing a little, disco was in full force, new wave was new on the scene and new romantic was on its way. Things were also turning a little electric and Elton had changed producers from Gus Dudgeon to Clive Franks. He and his long time lyricist Bernie Taupin were on a ‘break’ after Elton declined to use any of Bernie’s lyrics on the 1978 album A Single Man. The 1979 album Victim of Love was a disaster with most songs co-written by former Chicory Tip and Donna Summer collaborator Pete Bellotte. The only track not written by him was a bland cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode which failed when released as a single. Although 21 At 33 saw Elton and Bernie reunited, it was only on three of the nine tracks, Chasing The Crown, Two Rooms At The End Of The World and White Lady White powder. Elton began working with song writer Gary Osborne who had written Take Me Back, Dear God and the first single released Little Jeannie (misspelt on the label as Little Jeanie).  Give Me The Love was co-written by recent hit maker Judie Tzuke and the other two tracks, Never Gonna Fall In Love Again and Sartorial Eloquence were written by Tom Robinson.

Two Rooms At The End Of The World was about how Elton and Bernie got together, then parted and reunited again. Chasing The Crown lyrically resembled The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil in as much as they are both puzzles where the listener has to identify the culprit who causes misery and conflict. White Lady White Powder features three members of the Eagles, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit on backing vocals.

Sartorial Eloquence opens with Elton at the piano sounding despondent. The song expresses a homosexual longing, the object of affection for a stylishly dressed, emotionally unrevealing man, who prefers to leave an intense affair for other pleasures down the road. Could this be because of the sexuality of both its writers? According to the book, His Song, by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, the music evokes the disappointment of a man left behind which grows in volume and despondency with the introduction of supporting musicians an backing singers finally reaching the chorus ‘Don’t wanna play this game no more’, which, interestingly became the main title of the song in the USA and Sartorial Eloquence only preceding the title in parenthesis, probably catering for the less liberated minds of the American record-buying public. Around the same time Robinson wrote a song about a boy in boarding school who had a crush on another pupil which he called Elton’s Song but it was held back and released the following year on the album The Fox.

When the single was released, it was Elton’s third (after Rocket Man and Saturday night’s Alright for Fighting) to contain two tracks on the B side. Cartier was a 53-second track about Elton’s favourite jewellery. He once explained on an American TV interview, “I feel that in these depressing times, I would write something to cheer myself up.” The other tracks was White Man Danger which hasn’t yet appeared on any album nor issued on CD.

During the 1985 World snooker championship (the one with Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis in the final), the song was used to great effect as the backing to a montage of impeccably dressed snooker player being knocked out in the earlier rounds.

The image attached is my personally signed copy of the 21 At 33 album when I met Elton in 1980.

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Iris (Goo Goo Dolls)

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One thing many songwriters suffer from is writer’s block. It’s when you’re not inspired and nothing comes. One of the best known cures is to write everyday and approach your song writing from different angles, probably easier said than done. Quite often after a long period of not managing to put pen to paper, all of a sudden it flows and that happened to songwriter John Rzeznik who is the lead singer and guitarist with the New York based trio the Goo Goo Dolls.

They formed in Buffalo in 1986 with Robby Takac on bass and drummer George Tututska. Takac was the original lead singer because John was too shy but he eventually overcame this. They picked their name from a True Detective ad for a toy called a Goo Goo Doll. John remembered, “We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It’s the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If I had had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name.”

In 1987 they signed to Mercenary records and released their debut self-titled album, the following year they changed to Celluloid records and released their second album, Jed. It was with their third album, Hold Me Up in 1990 that they made their mark in America. Their next album, called Name, was their fifth and was called A Boy Named Goo, but soon after recording it Rzeznik and Takac decided to replace Tutuska with a new drummer Mike Malinin. After a legal dispute with their record label, they re-signed to Warner Brothers and released their sixth album, Dizzy Up The Girl. This brought more success which led to a cameo appearance on Beverly Hills 90210.

It was in 1998 that Rzeznik suffered from writer’s block and was on the verge of quitting the band when he was approached to write a song for the film City Of Angels. He accepted the offer and the result was Iris. The song came fairly easily and John explained how, “I think the biggest difference is when writing the songs for a film, you sort of have your subject matter in front of you and the concepts right in front of you. The emotional aspects of whatever part of the film you are writing for are laid out in front of you. It gives me a bit of a format to work under, you know to work with. When you are writing songs strictly for yourself, sometimes you’re pulling stuff out of your hat. You’re sort of making up stories or reflecting on conversations you had with someone. I think it’s easier to write songs for film because you have that road map in front of you and put the pieces together.”

Iris is about a person with an invisible identity who no one understands. Then, he finds true love. He wants his true love to know that he exists and that she is the only person in the world who can understand and love him – hence the last line, ‘I just want you to know who I am.’ The name Iris was inspired by a Country singer named Iris DeMent, whose name Rzeznik came across while reading a magazine.

The song topped the U.S Billboard airplay chart for a record 18 weeks but in the UK, despite masses of radio airplay, it stalled at number 50. The follow up, Slide, only went seven places higher but it gave their UK record label, Hollywood, incentive to re-issue Iris, but without the budget for vast promotion it disappeared from the chart after only two weeks although it did peak higher at number 26.

In October 2011 the song got a new lease of life when two X Factor contestants, Frankie Cocozza and Joe Cox, both performed it on the show. Unlike most of the X factor winners and contestants whose career has a limited shelf life, this song had the appeal and remained on the chart for over 30 weeks and reached a new high of number three some thirteen years after its initial release.

The track has also proved popular as a first dance at weddings including Avril Lavigne who chose it to start her evening when she married Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley in 2006. The same year Ronan Keating decided to have a go at it and somehow took it to number 15 in the UK chart, but thankfully after four weeks it was gone.

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I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) (Meat Loaf)

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On 22 November 1963, 16-year-old Texan, Marvin Lee Aday witnessed the assassinated President Kennedy’s limousine’s arrival at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital. That teenager was to adopt his nickname of Meat Loaf (partly coined by his father because of his size, even at the age of two. His classmates added the ‘Loaf’ in his later school years) and became one of rock’s most successful artists.

In 1975 he played the roles of both Eddie and Dr Scott in a Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Show. Shortly after, he recreated the role of rocker Eddie in the film version. Meat also acted in many movies, including Roadie, Wayne’s World, Spiceworld and more recently, Fight Club.

After meeting and befriending virtuoso pianist, New York-born Jim Steinman, at an audition for a part in Jim’s off-Broadway play, More Than You Deserve, they created one of the biggest albums ever, the 30 million-selling Bat Out Of Hell, which has spent almost 500 weeks on the UK chart to date. Jim wrote and arranged the epic record with the multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren in the role of producer.

At almost 22 stone, Meat was an unlikely sex symbol, but Bat Out Of Hell turned him into a big star. The album took some time to set the chart alight, but received a much-needed boost when BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test showed a clip of Bat Out Of Hell in early 1978. It eventually produced three singles, You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth, Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad and the title track. These songs have become classics – more than the rather unimpressive chart positions of the first two suggest. Exhaustive world tours took their toll on Meat’s voice and he took many months to fully recover.

The Eighties wasn’t a particularly good decade for Meat. Being at a physical and mental low, and plagued with 22 separate lawsuits from his former manager and music publisher, Meat was advised to declare himself bankrupt. Although CBS Records claimed Bat Out Of Hell to be ‘the most profitable record in history of the industry – more so than Thriller’, astonishingly Meat only started receiving royalties in 1997.

Meat and Jim had fallen out in 1983, largely due to the album Bad For Good, a record meant as Meat’s follow-up, but because of the problems he was experiencing with his voice, Jim had decided to sing it himself and release it as his own.

Jim had been busy, writing and producing for artists such as Bonnie Tyler (Total Eclipse Of The Heart), Air Supply (Making Love Out Of Nothing At All), Celine Dion and a chart topper for Boyzone, (No Matter What) in 1998.

They were reunited in 1990 when Meat invited Jim over to his house for a meal. Jim brought a new song, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) over for him to hear.  Meat Loaf loved it but recommended they make some changes to the arrangement. Letting bygones be bygones, they agreed to record a sequel album, Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Featuring a similar bombastic and over-blown production to its predecessor, it went on to sell over five million copies worldwide. The first single released I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) (doesn’t he just love those parentheses), which was edited down from the original 12-minute album version, went to number one in 25 countries and won him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal. Meat Loaf has always enjoyed becoming the character in his songs. “I saw myself as a 14-year-old boy, looking at this girl trying to figure out how to get the nerve to go over and ask her out,” he revealed to Billboard’s Fred Bronson. As for the song’s seemingly ambiguous lyric, Meat explains: “It’s so simple. The answer is right before every chorus. ‘I’d do anything for love but I won’t do that. I’ll never stop dreaming of you every night of my life.'”

Meat Loaf began a new world tour in 2003, but had to cancel some dates after he collapsed in front of 11,000 fans at Wembley Arena. It was discovered he was suffering from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart condition.

Jim Steinman and Meat collaborated again, this time on Bat Out Of Hell 3, which was released in 2006, the lead track, It’s All Coming Back To Me Now, peaked at number six, three places lower than the Celine Dion version from 10 years earlier, but higher than the original by Pandora’s Box from 1989.

In 2009 Meat released Hang Cool Teddy Bear which, although reached number four, only spent six weeks on the chart. Sadly he really only appeals now to the die-hards as proved by his latest album, Hell in a Handbasket which peaked at number five this year but was gone after just four weeks.

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While You See A Chance (Steve Winwood)

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Not too many musicians make a living over so many years and cover so many genres. In the last 46 years, Steve Winwood has done blues, jazz, folk, prog-rock, rock and pop.

Two groups with back to back number ones in 1966 were led by young singers with very mature voices. Scott Walker led the Walker Brothers and Steve Winwood led the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood was just 15 when the band formed in 1963 and they got their break after Island record label owner Chris Blackwell, saw them supporting  Carl Wayne & The Vikings in Birmingham and then signed them, but licensed them to the Phillips label.

After the group broke up, Steve formed Traffic who had two successful years, but when that fell apart, he left to form the Supergroup Blind Faith. In 1970 he attempted a solo career with his first album being Mad Shadows, but after he enlisted the help of former Traffic members Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, the album was re-titled John Barleycorn Must Die and was released as Traffic thus forcing them to reform.

When that didn’t work out, Winwood effectively retired to Gloucestershire where he built his own studio and spent the following two years writing songs but also helping fellow musicians Sandy Denny and the Sutherland Brothers on various sessions.

He released his first solo album proper in 1977, but due to the onslaught of punk it got overlooked and the reviews dismissed it as Passé, despite this it still reached number 12 in the UK.  The following year he began work on his next album which he wanted to be a real solo project and so he played all the instruments, arranged it, produced and engineered it. It took two years and the result was Arc of A Diver. The only contributions were from songwriters George Fleming and Will Jennings and former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band leader Vivian Stanshall who co-wrote the title track.

Prior to recording the album, Jennings and Winwood became good friends and spent a lot of time socially. It helped with the writing as Jennings explained, “If you’re writing a play, you’re writing for a particular persona, a particular character, and you try to feel as deeply inside them as you can – where are they coming from and what they’ve been through. It’s the same with Steve, While You See A Chance because he was coming out of a whole period with Spencer Davis and Traffic, and then where else do you go? I was up there at his place in rural England, and I was in his life so to speak, and trying to see through his eyes as well as mine. And that’s what all those things were about, all the songs we wrote.”

The song has often been regarded as an inspirational song, but one of the lines says, ‘While you see a chance take it, find romance, fake it’, which seems negative, Jennings explained, “Well the next line explains it: ‘Because it’s all on you.’ There’s an old English expression called ‘Fake it till you make it.’ If you don’t have romance in your life, meaning in the broader sense, really, something to make life interesting, just imagine it until it’s there.” Jennings’ logic can also be spotted in Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit Didn’t We Also Have It All which he co-wrote with Michael Masser.

During the recording process, Winwood accidentally erased part of the drum track in the intro. He spent many, many hours trying to replicate it and piece what he had left back together, but in the end decided to leave it without the drum track for the first 29 seconds. Personally I think it makes it more atmospheric and show cases Steve’s brilliant keyboard abilities. Steve’s comment about it was, “The mother of invention in music is necessity, not Frank Zappa!” The song reached number 45 in the UK but the album reached number 13. Steve’s contract with Island records had lapsed but because of the success of Arc of A Diver, he was now in a position to renegotiate his contract.

On Steve Winwood’s 1988 album Roll With It, there is a track called Hearts On Fire which describes a boy who is out with his friends when he sees a girl at the bar who he fancies. He chats her up and she comes back with the line ‘baby while you see a chance, you better take it’. Rumour has it that this was a true story about how he met his second wife Eugenia.

Steve released further albums, Refugees of the Heart (1990), Junction Seven (1997), About Time (2003) and Nine Lives (2008). He is still writing, recording and performing live. When I met him in 2009 he looked in great shape and was a lovely man to chat to and came across as a genuine passionate musician and not a ‘rock star’.

He is currently touring the USA until June but will make one appearance in the UK this year which will be at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May. It would have been quite handy for him as he only lives up the road from it, but this year he will be popping back from the States.

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I Saw The Light (Todd Rundgren)

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“I saw Bat Out Of Hell as a spoof on Bruce Springsteen, I thought it would be just a cult thing” says Todd Rundgren, the man who produced one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

Philadelphia-born Todd, after cutting his teeth in a band called Woody’s Truck Stop, formed a garage band called Nazz in 1967 in which Todd wrote most of the songs most notably Hello It’s Me (which he later cut as a solo single). They also released three albums, the imaginatively titled Nazz (1968), Nazz Nazz (1969) and Nazz III (1971). He was influence by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Yardbirds and Cream, but it was after hearing Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and Dionne Warwick’s first album, which he describes as, “The sensibility of Burt Bacharach” that made him change his writing style and use of harmonies. He recalled, “It always rankled with me when my album Something/Anything? came out and people said, ‘He’s the male Carole King’ which is someone I appreciated as a songwriter but never emulated.”

In 1970 Todd had gone solo and released his first two albums, Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, but it was his third album, the aforementioned, Something/Anything? that brought him to the mainstream. The album, in which Todd played all the instruments and overdubbed scores of vocals, opened with I Saw the Light, a 1960s pastiche and a homage to Laura Nyro. He recalled, “I wrote this song in 15 minutes from start to finish. It was one of the reasons that caused me to change my style of writing. It doesn’t matter how clever a song is – if it’s written in 15 minutes, it is such a string of clichés that it just doesn’t have lasting impact for me. And for me, the greatest disappointment in the world is not being able to listen to my own music and enjoy it.”

The song is about a mixed-up teenage boy who stumbles into his first affair and doesn’t know if he loves the girl or not. Was it based on a personal experience? Todd revealed, “I Saw the Light is just a string of clichés. It’s absolutely nothing that I ever thought, or thought about, before I sat down to write the song.”

Todd liked the way Berry Gordy operated at Motown and decided to copy the idea of putting a track that he thought would be a hit at the beginning of the album. The song reached number 16 in the US, but it was his solo remake of Hello It’s Me that became his biggest hit reaching number five. In the UK, I Saw the Light was his only hit and only just made the top 40. The song has been used in the TV shows Six Feet Under, Beavis and Butthead and That ’70s Show and also in the films Kingpin and My Girl.

Todd enjoyed making records but was equally comfortably producing. By 1977 he’d got together with Meat Loaf and they started work on Bat Out Of Hell. Looking back on that, he recalled, “the best thing about that album was that you had three egos – three huge egos – in me, Jim Steinman and Meat. That, of course was also the worst thing about that record – and you can still hear that today – the best and the worst. None of us thought it would be a success – it was such a crazy idea, as the record unfolded. I mean, can you believe we just wanted to get it done? We just wanted to hand it in – to have it finished.”

Beyond that he worked with XTC and even did some backing vocals for Celine Dion. Throughout the 80s, 90s & 2000s, Todd has released a string of cult albums with the most recent being 2011’s (Re) Production which contains covers of Hall & Oates’ Is It A Star, Badfinger’s Take It All and even his own version of Meat Loaf’s  Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.

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