Single of the week

My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)

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In 1970, Paul McCartney announced that the Beatles were to split, the four members of the band coped with news better than most of their fans. John was the first to have solo success with Give Peace A Chance under the guise of The Plastic Ono Band, but George was the first to have a UK number one single.

George Harrison felt that his songwriting deserved more attention from John, Paul and George Martin.  Even though he had written the excellent Beatles’ tracks Here Comes the Sun and Something on their last album, Abbey Road, he was only permitted two songs. He also co-wrote If I Needed Someone which was a hit for the Hollies, Badge for Cream and without credit, Hurdy Gurdy Man for Donovan.

When The Beatles disbanded, he teamed up with the producer, Phil Spector, and made rock’s first triple album, All Things Must Pass, which despite being twice as expensive as a single album, it made number one on the UK album chart for eight weeks, although many sources will list it as a number four hit. The reason for this was there was a six-week postal strike during February and March of 1971 and Record Retailer didn’t bother compiling a chart during that time whereas the more important publications, Melody Maker and NME did via telephone calls to shops. Years later, the official Charts Company recognised this and agreed to use the Melody Maker chart for that period.

The key single was the inspirational My Sweet Lord, which George described as “a song to live up to”. He was thrilled to be singing both ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ in the same song. Harrison began writing this while on tour with Delaney & Bonnie in Copenhagen. Delaney Bramlett assisted with the song but never pursued co-writing credit. He gave the song to Billy Preston who had been signed to Apple records and he recorded it in early 1970, George produced Billy’s version but nothing came of it so George recorded it himself.

Although his inspiration had been the 1969 hit by The Edwin Hawkins Singers’, Oh Happy Day, he was accused of plagiarising a 1963 hit by The Chiffons, He’s So Fine. It seems odd that Spector, who was well acquainted with the New York girl group scene, hadn’t drawn attention to the similarity. Joey Molland of Badfinger who played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals on the session says, “I was struck by the similarity but I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. We relied on The Beatles for work.”

Bobby Whitlock, who played keyboards on the track, remembered, “All during the sessions, the door would pop open and in would spring 3 or 4 or 5 Hare Krishna’s in their white robes and shaved heads with a pony tail coming out the top. They were all painted up, throwing rose petals and distributing peanut butter cookies.”

A few years later, Allen Klein’s management contract with George Harrison was terminated and back in New York, he acquired the rights to Ronnie Mack’s song, He’s So Fine – Mack himself had Hodgkins’ disease and died in 1963. Was it revenge that prompted Klein to sue George? In 1976 a judge ruled that George was “not guilty of stealing the tune but there was a copyright infringement”. His unconscious plagiarism cost him £1m. George responded by writing and recording the witty This Song. In 1979, Klein was jailed for income taken from illegal sales of George’s charity album, The Concert For Bangla Desh.

On Boxing Day in 1975, George Harrison parodied My Sweet Lord during Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television Christmas special by turning it into The Pirate Song. George had further hit singles during the 1970s, Bangla Desh (1971), Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) (1973) and Blow Away (1979). He made a top 20 return in 1981 with All Those Years Ago, his tribute to John Lennon who had been murdered the previous year. Six year after that he scored a UK number two and a US number one with Got My Mind Set On You, a remake of a James Ray 1963 track.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of George’s passing. Like Freddie Mercury last week, their best known work was re-released and My Sweet Lord was back at number one. It knocked off Aaliyah’s More Than A Woman making it the only time in UK chart history there were two back to back posthumous chart toppers.

In the 1980s George believed that his birth was wrong and thought he was born at 18 minutes to midnight on the 24 February rather than at 12.10am on the 25th. It turns out he was wrong because after his death, his birth certificate was located and it shows as the 25th. So now we know!

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Innuendo (Queen)

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This Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the rock world’s greatest showman. Love or hate him, he knew how to entertain and have an audience eating out of his hand. Anyone who saw a recording of Live Aid will get an idea of how in command he was, if you actually there you would have witnessed a master at work and understand why Queen stole the show in front of the world’s biggest audience.

During 1989 and 1990 Queen recorded what was to be their final official studio album. It was called Innuendo and the title track, which was a similar length and had the same song structure with its varying tempos and style changes as Bohemian Rhapsody, was written by Freddie and drummer Roger Taylor as a tribute to Led Zeppelin.

The music came about after Brian May, Roger, and bassist, John Deacon, were jamming in the studio in Montreux. From then on Freddie Mercury composed the song and added the long interlude. The melody is Mercury’s as well. The lyrics were started off by Mercury but completed by drummer Roger Taylor. The orchestral middle section, unlike the complicated Bo Rhap was all done by Freddie and producer Dick Richards on synthesizers.

The wonderful Spanish guitar licks was not Brian as he admitted that he couldn’t play Flamenco guitar. That solo was played by Yes’ Steve Howe who happened to be passing the studio and was popping in for a chat with Richards at which point Freddie invited him to join them on the track.

Freddie had known for a few years that he had contracted HIV and by now, his condition had deteriorated so much that a bed was set up in the recording studio so he could lie down during takes. Throughout the recording, the band knew Freddie was not well, but he hadn’t actually told them. Even though the tabloids carried gossip headlines, no one knew what was wrong with Freddie – not even the band, until January 1991, when Freddie called a meeting at the Mountain Studios in Montreux, near where he had bought himself a hideaway house. It was then he turned to Brian, Roger and John and said, “You probably realise what my problem is”. Once Freddie realised they knew, he said, “Well, that’s it, I don’t want it to make any difference, I don’t want it to be known and I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to get on and work until I can’t work anymore”. Brian later recalled, “None of us will forget that day. We all went off and were quietly sick somewhere”.

The follow-up single, I’m Going Slightly Mad insinuated that Freddie was going mad. For the video, which was co-directed by Freddie, he made the rest of the band portray different symptoms of madness. Such was Freddie’s condition, his make-up was caked on to hide the cracks in his face, and a wig was used to hide his thinning hair.

Freddie made a press statement on 23 November finally confirming that he had AIDS. It still came as a shock even for those who had suspected and he passed away the next day. I cried that day. I had been a fan for many years, and was lucky enough to have met the great man on two separate occasions. The second time being more daunting than the first I have to admin and not because he was famous either. If you ask me, I might just tell you!

The last song Freddie ever recorded was These Are The Days Of Our Lives which was released as one side of a double A-side with the re-issued Bohemian Rhapsody. It topped the UK chart at Christmas 1991 making the latter track the first of only two songs to return to number one in its original form.

It was a sad lyric only made surreal then you think what Freddie was going through when he wrote it. Freddie didn’t really look like himself in the video, he could hardly stand up. But his sweet ad lib at the end – ‘I still love you’ – was a kind of goodbye to Queen’s fans everywhere.

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No One Quite Like Grandma (St. Winifred’s School Choir)

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Prior to their Christmas number one in 1980, the children from the St Winifred’s School in Stockport, Greater Manchester, had appeared on another chart-topper, backing Brian and Michael on Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs in 1978.

Having had a taste of success, the headmistress, Sister Aquinas gave her consent for the children to record another song. The choir mistress, Miss Foley, rounded up the best boys and girls and set to work. The song was recorded at 10cc’s Stockport’s Strawberry Studios and featured Rick Wakeman on keyboards. All the royalties went to the St Winifred’s school fund.

Miss Foley picked eight-year old, Dawn Ralph to be the lead singer, which was an interesting choice because most of Dawn’s front teeth were missing which gave her a lisp. The group travelled to London to appear on Top Of The Pops. There, they met Abba, who invited them to support them on their UK tour.

Gordon Lorenz was born in Childwall, Liverpool in 1943. His parents were in the Salvation Army and after a time in drama school he became an evangelist. He retained his interest throughout his life and wrote for their magazine, War Cry. However, after his father died in the early 1970s, he took a full-time job with Border Television writing music for television programmes. “I penned the song originally for HM the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday and was disappointed, to say the least, when the record company decided to delay its release until Christmas of that year”, he remembered. “I was not to know at the time that the single would become the Christmas number one and sell one million copies, but it certainly helped to ease the disappointment at missing out on the Queen Mother’s birthday.”

The song entered at number 47 and surged up the chart. Tragedy struck the week it reached number two when the world learned of the murder of John Lennon. At the time, the young performers were more concerned about not having a number one than the ex-Beatle’s untimely death. It didn’t look like they were going to get it. A week later, John’s ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’, which was already on the way down the chart, rebounded 21-1 leaving the kids in second place. John Lennon’s comeback album, Double Fantasy, was selling well so less people bought the single. The following week was Christmas and it went to number one after children up and down the country bought a copy for their grandma. They stayed there for a fortnight. After that, the kids grew up and never troubled the chart again.

Thinking he had hit a commercial motherlode, Lorenz wrote My Mum Is One In A Million for Mother’s Day, 1981, and it was a Top 30 single for the Children of Tansley School. And, in 2002, Lorenz got his wish to write for royalty. He wrote “Rejoice, Rejoice” for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. It was sung by a 1,000-strong choir conducted by Sir David Willcocks and performed as the Queen left Buckingham Palace for a service at St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1998 he worked on Voice Of An Angel, for a 12-year-old Charlotte Church, which became a Top 10 album. Lorenz died in July 2011.

When Brian and Michael first heard that the choir were going to release the single, they offered to write the B-side which was called Pinocchio.

In 2008 the song was used in a one-off Channel 4 comedy by Peter Kay called Britain’s Got the Pop Factor…, which had original member Sally Lindsay (who was also in Coronation street), made a cameo appearance.

The following year the song was re-recorded by 14 members of the original choir and was released as a promotional campaign for the food company Innocent Drinks’ ‘Big Knit’ campaign, to raise money for Age Concern.

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Up The Junction (Squeeze)

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Jools Holland has one of the most successful music shows on British television and since Top Of The Pops folded in 2006, it’s now the only real place to see and hear an eclectic mix of music unlike the fodder that most commercial radio station turn out. Jools began as a session musician before becoming one of the founding members of Squeeze in 1974. He was their keyboard player until 1981 and played on classics like Take Me I’m Yours, Goodbye Girl, Cool For Cats and Up The Junction.

Up The Junction, which is reference to Clapham Junction, took its title from a pop show or kitchen-sink drama. Chris Difford explained, “Up The Junction came from a book and film of the same name, but it was inspired by the BBC series The Wednesday Play that I watched as a kid. It was written by people such as Mike Leigh and Tom Stoppard, so it was all kitchen-sink drama, EastEnders in black and white. I think we were among the first to apply that to music and write about women having periods and all that stuff.”

The song is unusual in that it has no chorus. Glenn Tilbrook explains, “I was thinking of something like Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively Fourth Street’ as a template when I wrote the music. It was our old manager, Laurence Impey, who was a big Bob Dylan fan and he introduced me to tracks like Who Killed Davey Moore, which was a stunning lyric about a boxer who died in the ring and it was written from the point of view of a ringside journalist. Up The Junction originally had about 16 verses, but it was Dylan who inspired me to write in a seamless way, like I was narrating a story.”

Glenn’s fellow member and Chris Difford added, “I imagined it would never be a hit and we’d have to take it off the album. And the record company said that they disagreed, and it our second consecutive number two hit, so they said if the manager was wrong he’d have to eat his heart. Not a very tasty thing to be doing.”

It has some wonderful near rhymes – happen with Clapham, common with forgotten and assumption and junction. It’s also one of only a handful of hits where the title is only mentioned once – at the end of the song.

When it came to Top Of The Pops, the band made a spoof performance which sees band members play the wrong instruments. Guitarist Glenn Tilbrook was seen on drums and Jools Holland attempting some fancy finger work on guitar.

In 1980, after returning from an Australian tour, Jools announced he was leaving the band with immediate effect. Glenn was absolutely devastated. He said, “I was convinced that we could have been the biggest band in the world, I felt like we were a unit that were welded at each hip.” Jools had a great way of communicating with an audience and was always the one to introduce the band halfway through the set, hence his success as presenter of the Channel 4 show The Tube and currently is own show Later with Jools Holland.

Other Top 20 hit singles followed, Another Nail In My Heart, Labelled With Love and Hourglass.  Although their subsequent albums contained some lyrically great songs, the chart positions didn’t reflect to well.

Squeeze split in 1982, but reformed three years later with a new bass player, Kevin Wilkinson. Throughout the Nineties, there were various line-up changes including a brief re-appearance by Jools Holland. In July 1999, Kevin took his own life and that marked the end of Squeeze for the final time. If you meet someone who claims to be a squeeze fan, give them this trivia question, In Up The Junction what time was the baby born?  They’ll probably speed through the lyrics and come up with 4.50. Just remind them that that was the time she was taken to an incubator – she was born 30 minutes later!

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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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