Single of the week

Firestarter (Prodigy)

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In 1986 some lads from Essex were out ‘decorating’ the local railway arches in graffiti. One of them signed his tag, Fame, and stood back to admire his work. Fame, who was known to his friends as Liam Howlett, went on to create music of equal admiration.

Liam was into hip-hop and soon took up DJing under the name DJ Fame and became a member of a band Cut To Kill who put out one album in 1988. Soon after, Liam grew tired of the hip-hop scene and left. It was at a rave in 1989 that he met Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill. The following year they joined forces, recruited a rapper, Maxim Reality (born Keith Palmer) and called themselves The Prodigy, a name chosen by Liam in honour of his Moog Prodigy keyboard.

Their first single was a four-track 12-inch EP containing the tracks What Evil Lurks, We Gonna Rock, Android and Everybody In The Place, but it attracted few buyers. The next single, Charly, a slang name for cocaine, raced up to number three in the chart. It contained a sample from a Seventies public information film called Say No To Strangers, which was voiced by Kenny Everett. Over the next five years they registered Top 10 hits with Everybody In The Place, Out Of Space, One Love and No Good (Start The Dance). In 1992 their debut album, Experience, reached number 12 and the follow-up, Music For The Jilted Generation, went all the way.

Liam Howlett explained in a 2008 Q magazine interview, I’d already started The Fat Of The Land and I’d done the first track, an instrumental called Firestarter. Keith comes in and goes, ‘If I’m ever going to do any lyrics, I’m going to do it on this tune.’Flint, in the same interview added, “I remember Liam on the phone to (label boss) Richard Russell, He said, ‘Do you think these words describe Keith: Twisted? Self Inflicted? Yes, very much so.’ The lyrics were about being onstage: this is what I am. Some of it is a bit deeper than it seems.”

The original Firestarter video was directed by the same team who worked on the Diesel jeans television ad that Keith and Liam loved, but as Liam said, “It just didn’t represent us as people and it had to go.” For the new version Keith followed in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols and had turned to the punk look. It was shot in a tube tunnel at the disused Aldwych station and showed Keith dressed in an American flag T-shirt with a mohican and looking very menacing. ““It may be in black and white and shot in a cheap location but it ended up being the most expensive video we ever did,” revealed Liam.

The week it aired on Top Of The Pops, the tabloids reared their heads in an attempt to ban the record because it frightened young children and they said it encouraged young people to become arsonists. Firestarter, which was inspired by The Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, a track on their debut album, Foo Fighters, lifted the guitar riff from The Breeders’ album track, S.O.S. and borrowed the hey hey hey refrain from The Art Of Noise’s Close (To The Edit). Both samples cost them dearly as they hadn’t sought permission.

The band were pleased with the finished article which brought together a darting breakbeat, a whining guitar riff, and a keyboard sound resembling a siren. All this added to Keith’s ‘I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter’ growls gave the song a haunting, yet memorable sound. It’s clearly stood the test of time because earlier this month The NME placed it at number 52 on its list 150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years’

Not too many have covered the track, Weird Al Yankovic (of course!), Jimmy Eat World to name a couple but the best one has to be the OAP group, British band The simmers known for being entirely composed of aged pensioners, who covered it for their debut album, Lust For Life. The video parodied Flint’s hairstyle and Captain America costume used in the original clip.

In another Q magazine interview in 2009, Keith Flint was asked what he considered to be their best lyric. He replied, “That’s one of the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. I’d better say one of mine. Having barely written anything at school, and then writing the nine lines of Firestarter in Liam’s room… I was taking the piss. Causing a stir, f**king people off! I believe that naiveté served me well.”

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Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)

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When a songwriter pens a song which becomes a transatlantic chart-topper, let alone a multi-million seller, you’d think he’d be happy with the result, but Paul Simon always considered Bridge Over Troubled Water to be below the standards of others and wasn’t over the moon about it.

Paul’s then wife Peggy had rented a house on Blue Jay Way in Los Angeles, the house belonged to George Harrison and was the same house where George had penned Blue Jay Way for the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour EP. The song was created in 1969 in three different places. The writing of it happened on Los Angeles, the piano instrumental was laid down in a different area of Los Angeles and the vocals added in New York. The pianist was former Bread member and one-time ivory tinkler for Elvis, Larry Knechtel.

Paul, who wrote the song in the key of G on guitar and gave it the working title of Hymn, had Aretha Franklin in mind to sing it, but she turned it down and so Paul decided to record it with his partner in crime, Art Garfunkel. Incidentally Aretha did eventually record it the following year and took it to number six in the US chart and was rewarded with a Grammy for Best R&B vocal. Paul ‘borrowed’ the title from a line in the chorus of a 1958 song called Mary Don’t You Weep by Swan Silvertones and later said, “Had it not been for him (lead singer Claude Jeter) I would never have written Bridge Over Troubled Water, that guy probably has the best falsetto in the world.” He gave the music, which originally only had two verses and still called Hymn, to string arranger Jimmy Haskell to transpose it for piano. He had to change the key to E flat which is what Art Garfunkel sings in. Jimmy misheard the lyric and erroneously headed his sheet music, ‘Like a Pitcher Of Water’. That original sheet is now framed and resides at Paul Simon’s home.

The slow build of the song was inspired by the Righteous Brothers’ version of Ol’ Man River which was produced by Phil Spector and teases us with the gospel-tinged chorus by holding it back until near the end thus giving it maximum impact.

When it came to recording the vocals, Art was adamant that he should not sing the lead claiming that he wasn’t right for it and suggesting that Paul would be better. Paul insisted on Art doing it and so eventually gave in. Years later, Paul expressed much regret over his decision as it focused more on Art and thus relegating Paul to the background. The song came in for a bit of criticism as the press typically misinterpreted the lyric, ‘Sail on silver girl’ as being a drug reference. Actually is it Peggy who inspired the last verse when she told Paul that she’d noticed her first grey hairs coming through.

The parent album of the same name was the last the duo recorded before they split up, but it did become Columbia Records’ biggest selling album ever. It was also the first time an album and a single with the same title topped both the UK and US charts at the same time.

The song has been recorded by over 250 acts including Glen Campbell, Shirley Bassey, Josh Groban,  Johnny Cash, Charlotte Church and the cast of Glee, but none bigger than Elvis Presley. His version appeared on his 1970 album That’s The Way It Is and this is what Paul Simon said about Elvis’ version, “It was in his Las Vegas period and done with conventional thinking. He sang it well, but it would have been nice to hear him do it Gospel because he did so many Gospel albums and was a good white Gospel singer. It would have been nice to hear him do it that way, to take it back, as opposed to the big ending; he seemed to end everything with a karate chop and an explosion. So he didn’t really add anything to the song. It’s not nearly as significant as the Aretha Franklin recording. It’s just a pleasure for me that Elvis Presley recorded one of my songs before he died.”

In 1973, Capital Radio, the first commercial station in London, was launched and Bridge… was the first song David Symonds played. Fifteen years later when the station split frequencies and Capital Gold started as a weekend service only, the same song opened that station.

On week ending 21 March 1970, Bridge moved from 2-3 and The Beatles’ Let It Be moved 3-2, ironically both songs were originally written for Aretha Franklin and she turned them both down, but ended up recording both of them at a later date. The lesson there is, if you want a big hit single; write it and offer it to Aretha in the hope she turns it down!

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Let Your Love Flow (Bellamy Brothers)

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It’s an often over used old cliche to say that someone is in the right place at the right time, but according to Howard Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers, it’s true when it came to their biggest selling single Let Your Love Flow.

The brothers, guitarist Howard and keyboard player David were born in Darby, Florida in 1946 and 1950 respectively. David began writing songs and pitching them to various publishing companies. In late 1973, one of his songs, Spiders and Snakes, became a big hit for another Florida-born singer, Jim Stafford.

Phil Gernhard was Stafford’s producer and manager and liked Spiders and Snakes and was interested in developing David Bellamy as a singer and songwriter. Gernhard was already using Diamond’s travelling band for sessions as Diamond then toured infrequently. One of Neil Diamond’s roadies, Larry E. Williams had written a song, recorded a demo and offered it to Neil but he turned it down. Gernhard,  his partner Toni Scotti and the band had to fly to Florida for the recording of a outdoor TV special in which Stafford was due to appear. Just as rehearsals were due to start, the weather turned bleak and Gernhard asked the roadie to quickly check the equipment so they could make the recording before the really bad weather started. That roadie was Howard Bellamy who was looking for a job, so Gernhard hired him.

After the recording had finished Gernhard and Scotti were talking when all of a sudden they heard singing coming from the stage which was still set up. They turned round and it was Howard singing Let Your Love Flow. They went into a studio in Florida to record the track, but the results were disappointing and the plan was temporarily shelved. Stafford was about to embark on a US tour, but once they returned things changed.

Howard explains how they got the song, “Neil’s drummer came over to our house and brought the demo of Let Your Love Flow and said, ‘Hey, this sounds like something you guys would do.’ Well, it really wasn’t in Neil Diamond’s vein. I would say the guy who wrote this song is the wealthiest roadie now that ever was. Actually, Johnny Rivers had passed on the song. It had been pitched to a few people.  It was recorded once by a guy named Gene Cotton; he recorded a kind of unusual version. But when we heard it we had an idea of how we wanted to record it because it kind of fit our style, acoustic bass with a groove, and I think that has a lot to do with it. You’ve got to really match songs with artists, and I think it was the perfect song for us, a great match. So we went off to record that, and the rest is kind of history. It became not only the largest song of that year, it’s become somewhere in the area of one of the largest songs ever, as far as being played. And it’s become a standard, basically. I wish another one of those would come along.”

The band went into the studio and they spent a few sessions recording Let Your Love Flow. The song was rush-released and went to number one in America and number seven in the UK when eventually released in the early summer of 1976 when it was released to tie-in with a European tour. Fortunately the song was never off the airwaves. The Boys even received letters from various church organisations praising them for their music and its religious connotations.

In Germany the song spent five weeks at number one and was knocked off by Ein Bett im Kornfeld which was a German language version of the same song by Jurgen Drews and that stayed there for a further six weeks. In the UK, the song returned to the chart in 2008 where it peaked at number 21 after its inclusion in a Barclaycard TV commercial. The advertising agents obviously love the song because in 2010 A cover by Petra Haden was used in a Toyota Prius commercial.

David Bellamy stated in an interview with People magazine that the song wasn’t really beneficial to them, “Right after it was a hit, we hit rock bottom because we lost control. We had people working for us that we didn’t know and managers who wouldn’t let us do our own music.” Howard added, “There were so many fingers in the pie that there was no pie left. We ended up in debt after that song.”

In 1978, after the European tour, they returned to their native Florida. Once there they hired some local musicians and recorded some new songs one of which included the song that topped the America country chart and gave them their biggest UK hit, If I Said you Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me.

In June 2010 the brothers recorded a song called Jalepenos which was on the subject of political correctness, but US radio refuse to play it because of its blasphemous content. That wouldn’t of helped their career either!

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MacArthur Park (Richard Harris)

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When a new chart record is broken, chartologists (or anorak’s as we’re often called) lap it up. In August 1965, Bob Dylan entered the UK chart with Like A Rolling Stone which timed in at exactly six minutes, beating the previous record holder by 12 seconds, which was the little remembered Steptoe & Son At Buckingham Palace monologue. In June 1968 that record was broken by the Jimmy Webb-penned epic MacArthur Park as sung by the Irish actor Richard Harris, it weighed in at seven minutes and 19 seconds.

Jimmy began songwriting in 1966 and is often associated with Glen Campbell and the songs Wichita Lineman and Galveston. His song Up Up And Away was a hit for the Fifth Dimension in the US and for the Johnny Mann Singers in the UK but probably his best known song has never been a UK hit despite recordings by Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, Gary Puckett, Frankie Laine, Thelma Houston, Georgie Fame, a 19-minute epic by Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra among many others and that is, By The Time I Get To Phoenix. But seemingly his most confusing is MacArthur Park.

My co-author on the 1000 Number Ones book, Spencer Leigh, interviewed Jimmy a few years ago and asked him what he recalls of his first impression, “I met Richard Harris in 1965 at his flat in Belgravia, London. He was an incredibly seductive man and a complete charmer who was so full of life. He was also so full of humour and warmth. He had this grand piano and a lovely fireplace. After a while I sat down at his piano and played all the songs I knew, in fact I had a briefcase full of them and at the bottom was my music for MacArthur Park.  I had written it for The Association but they passed on it so I set the music on the piano and said, ‘Well, there’s always this one’. I played it through a couple of times and Richard said, ‘We’ll do it.’ What about the line, ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ meant, was it a wedding cake?’ Spencer asked.  Somewhat reluctantly Jimmy replied, “Yes it was, but I am sick and tired of talking about the song, no offence. It was meant to be a hallucinogenic image in the same style as many songs that were written around the same time like Nights In White Satin, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am The Walrus.” When asked if he thought those songs were written about drugs, he said, “I doubt it, I seriously doubt it.”

Jimmy doesn’t generally like talking about the track, even at live shows, but he has said that it was never meant to be a single because it was written as a lengthy track and knew it wouldn’t get airplay. American FM stations began playing it and slowly but surely the Top 40 stations started playing it.

Now here’s my guess as to why he doesn’t like to talk about it, the inspiration came from a relationship break up between Webb and his girlfriend Susan Rondstadt (Linda’s cousin). At the time, Susan worked for a life insurance company and MacArthur Park, which was located opposite her office block, was where they used to meet for lunch and enjoy happy times.  Webb explained in Q magazine that the cake reference, “It’s clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that. OK, it may be far out there, and a bit incomprehensible, but I wrote the song at a time in the late 1960s when surrealistic lyrics were the order of the day.” If you happened to have read a copy of the Daily Mail in April this year, you might have read an interview with Colin McCourt who was a staff writer at Edwin H. Morris music who published the song. Colin revealed a story that Webb had told him at the time. He said, “Jim was in love with a girl who left him. Months later, he heard she was getting married – in the park. Broken-hearted, he went to the wedding and, not wanting to be seen, hid in a gardener’s shed. As the open-air ceremony was taking place it started to pour with rain and the rain running down the shed window made the cake look as if it was melting.” Even more interestingly, the man she married was a phone engineer from Wichita.

Webb produced Richard’s version and although Richard had a few moans about the orchestra being a bit loud, he was pleased with the end result in what Jimmy managed to bring out in Richard’s voice, especially the B flat that concludes the marathon.

Throughout the song, Harris continually sings ‘Macarthur’s Park’ and it is believed that Webb has said he tried to correct Harris a number of times, but gave up when he simply couldn’t sing the correct words. Despite this, the song won a Grammy the following year for Best Orchestration in a song.

In 1978, a disco version by Donna Summer made the chart and peaked at number five, one place lower that the Harris version. Donna’s single was a mere three and a half minutes unless you picked up the 12″ version which was an impressive 17 minutes and 31 seconds but that did include an interpolation of the Summer & Moroder compositions One Of A Kind and Heaven Knows before reaching the crescendo with a reprise version of the main track. The song has also been interpreted in a country version by Waylon Jennings, jazz style by Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, a parody version by Weird Al Yankovic and a cartoon version when Homer sang it in an episode of The Simpsons.

In one interview with Webb, when he was obviously completely fed up talking about it, the interviewer asked what the song actually meant, Webb’s reply was, “It means I don’t have to write another song in my life.”

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Streets Of London (Ralph McTell)

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Many people have turned down other people’s song, but few turn down their own song. Often it’s because they don’t have enough faith in it like country singer Eddie Miller who, in 1946, wrote a song called Release Me. He spent four years touting his song to various artists who all turned it down. He re-recorded it no less than five times but still had no luck getting someone to sing it, so eventually he recorded it himself and scored a big country hit. Twenty one years later Engelbert Humperdinck took the song to number one in the UK chart and made it a million seller.

Ralph McTell is most famous in the UK for his one and only hit Streets Of London, but he very nearly didn’t have a hit with it. In 1966 the Croydon-born singer/songwriter, then called Ralph May, having spent a few years busking on the streets of Europe began, whilst in Paris, writing a song called Streets of Paris for his forthcoming debut album Eight Frames A Second. It was based on his experiences of hitchhiking and busking around Europe. The song addresses many of the everyday sights you would see in a big city, homelessness, elderly people, lonely people and various odd members of society.

A couple of years later and realising the title didn’t really work he changed the title to Streets of London which are not all references from London, but from his home town of Croydon as Ralph explained, “Three of the characters in the song are Croydon characters, for example, there was no Seaman’s Mission in Croydon, but there was a working man’s hostel, but working man’s hostel doesn’t scan terribly well, but people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve seen that place, I know that place and they seem to know all the characters and when the song is translated to other languages, they just change the city.” The hostel is in Mitcham Road and the opening line ‘Have you seen the old man In the closed-down market’ is a reference to Surrey Street market. The all-night cafe is Mick’s cafe on Fleet Street.

Ralph first recorded it in 1969 and then explained what happened next, “I offered it to a professional singer on the circuit and he thought it was a bit sad so I thought maybe it is. But it was dear {producer} Gus Dudgeon, who had produced my first two albums, who persuaded me to record it and add it as the very last track on my second album, Spiral Staircase.” He re-recorded the song for a single that made the Dutch chart in 1972 and re-recorded it yet again for the version that made the UK chart in 1974.

Ralph only recently learned that he was named Ralph after the classical composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams.  He was impressed and said, “It was my rather wayward dad who once did a gardening job at Ralph’s house and loved the name. I took my surname from the bluesman Blind Willie McTell. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the guitar and was particularly interested in black American finger-style blues guitar. There was an LP that came out in the early 60s which had a track on it called Statesboro Blues played on a 12-string guitar and I just had to get a 12-string and I became known as the bloke who played the Willie McTell song so it was a natural progression to change my name.”

In 2011, Ralph is back with a new album called Songs For 6-strings and starts a tour on September 27th which runs until 11 December. For more information, click here.  http://www.ralphmctell.co.uk/tour.php

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