Single of the week

Merry Christmas Everyone (Shakin’ Stevens)

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Few pop star of today come up through the ranks because everything is so instant. You win a reality show and you’re famous…for a short while, but generally soon forgotten, but the real pop stars had to work their craft for years with relatively little success until one day….

Shakin’ Stevens, or Michael Barratt as he was born, was one of those artists. He is the youngest of 11 siblings born over a 20 year span. His first job was a milkman working around the Cardiff area of Wales. He formed his first band in 1965 originally called The Olympics, then The Cossacks and then The Denims. There was an existing 50s rock ‘n’ roll style outfit called The Backbeats who, in 1968, ten years after their formation, invited Shaky to become their lead singer and changed their name to the Sunsets. In 1969 they landed a chance to support the Rolling Stones and signed to Parlophone records. They soon amended their name to Shakin’ Stevens & The Sunsets. They spent the entire 70s decade touring relentlessly but chart success eluded them.

In 1980, he went solo and signed to Epic records but his first couple of singles, Hey Mae and Shooting Gallery, both failed to chart. Next came Hot Dog, an old Buck Owens song which gave him his first UK hit reaching number 24. This was followed by Marie Marie, an old Blasters song which fared five places better. In 1981 ex-Pinkertons ‘Assort’ Colours bassist and now producer Stuart Colman found the right song and catapulted him to commercial success when This Ole House went to number one.  Later the same year Green Door topped the chart and the following year had his third number one with Oh Julie. He continued to have a stack of hits throughout the 80s and Shaky holds the record for the most appearances on Top Of The Pops for a solo singer in that decade.

Shaky almost had his fourth number one at Christmas 1982 with Blue Christmas but it was unable to dislodge Renee and Renato’s sentimental Save Your Love. In 1983 Scottish songwriter, and former member of the Headboys, Bob Heatlie, who had written Japanese Boy for Aneka, said, “I wrote a song for Elkie Brooks called Cry Just A Little Bit. However, it was played to Shaky’s next producer, Christopher Neil, who thought it would be ideal for him.” It was, and it went to number three. Shaky had further Top five hits with A Rockin’ Good Way – a duet with fellow Welsh star Bonnie Tyler, A Love Worth Waiting For and Teardrops.

“I’d always wanted to have a big Christmas hit, because if and when it all ends, it’s something that would go on forever you know! The grandchildren and all that sort of stuff,” commented Bob. “Merry Christmas Everyone was written and a demo made in my garage studio in Edinburgh. I’ll never forget that. It was in the summer of 1984, and with no ventilation in the studio, I was sweating like a pig! It was quite weird; there I was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, shaking sleigh bells, and singing about snow falling. Everything was in place ready for Christmas 1984 when the Band Aid release was announced. So Shaky decided that it should be held back and indeed it was, until the following year and became a Christmas classic.” The video was shot in Lapland Shaky remembered, “We were halfway up a mountain but unfortunately it wasn’t snowing, so we had to bring in some snow machines. And I remember lunch was cold salad, which was a bit bizarre!”

Although Bob never actually got to work with Dave Edmunds, he said, “The production he did was exactly copied note for note from my demo.  As Shaky always says about demos, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, just try and get more from the desk, sound-wise’. Bob continues writing and in 2004 was working with Tina Arena, but now mainly writes music for TV animation.

Shaky, like Cliff Richard, was becoming a Christmas chart regular when Merry Christmas Everyone returned to the chart in 1986 and again with What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For (1987), True Love (1988), The Best Christmas Of Them All (1990) and I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1991). In 1993 he took a break from recording but continued touring, playing to festival audiences of up to 200,000 people and is still massive in Denmark where he still plays a regular annual festival. Shaky has now been ranked as the 18th highest selling artist in the UK. In 2004 he was back in the studio recording new material.

In July 2010 Shaky was rushed to hospital after he collapsed at his home in Windsor. He had suffered a massive heart attack and endured a triple heart bypass operation. After two months he made a full recovery and in 2011 was back on the road with a new ten-piece band celebrating on his 30th anniversary tour.

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Cat’s In The Cradle (Harry Chapin)

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A good song that will last and stand the test of time is always a song that people can relate to and those songs are usually about relationships and ‘love’ in general. Cat’s In The Cradle is no exception albeit with a twist.

This is one of those songs that can really only mean more once you’ve had your own children. I first heard this song in the early 80s and as much as I loved it, it really hit home when my own son Harry was born in 2001 and having been a workaholic all my life and I was really determined that the essence of this song was not going to happen to me and I think I’ve succeeded.

The song was not strictly written by the song’s performer, Harry Chapin, but actually by his wife Sandy. Sandy explains why, “Cat’s In The Cradle’ was a combination of a couple of things. Whenever I was on a long drive I would listen to Country music, because words would keep me awake more than just music. And I heard a song… I can remember the story, but I don’t remember who sang it or what the title was, but an old couple were sitting at their breakfast table and looking out the window, and they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox, and they were reminiscing about the good old days when all the children were around and then the grandchildren, and how it passed, and now it’s all gone. The other part of the idea – this is always a problem, because Harry introduced the song at all his concerts and said, ‘This is a song my wife wrote to zap me because I wasn’t home when our son Josh was born.’ I was always kind of amused by that because of the fact that we learn life’s lessons too late. We don’t learn lessons before the fact. We don’t have a child born and then have all this wisdom. So I always thought it was interesting the way he told the story. But I learned the story because my (first) husband was going to New York to be a lawyer, and I had a teaching job in New York. While we were apartment hunting, we were living with his parents in Brooklyn. His father was the borough president of Brooklyn at the time, which I think was a much more important job than it is today. But every day when he got home from work, he would start talking to his son about, ‘It’d be great if you’d go down to the club on Tuesday night, I’d like to introduce you to some of the people I know,’ and so forth. And he started trying to engineer a career for him which leads to politics. They did not have any relationship or communication because they had been so busy until his son went off to college and was gone. I don’t remember exactly how, but he started talking to me. My father-in-law would say – and this is when we were all in the same room – and yet he would say to me, ‘Tell Jimmy I would like to see him down at the clubhouse on Tuesday.’ It was really very strange. So this is the way the evenings went. The conversation was going through me. So I realised what had happened. You know, relationships and characters and personalities and all those things are formed by two, so I realised that that hadn’t happened and it was very jerky at that stage. So I observed something that gave me the idea for the song.” The real heart-wrencher is that the son just accepts that his dad is too busy.

Harry never had that problem in his own childhood. His father, Jim, was a jazz drummer who had played with Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey. This led Harry to learn trumpet and sing in a local boys choir. Harry’s brothers, Stephen and Tom, were also musical and had formed their own folk group. It took the birth of his son for Harry to decide to turn the poem into a song. Sandy continued, “Harry and I would exchange writing of all kinds. We were always working on each other’s writing. Some of my writing at a certain period were 20-page papers for a doctoral program at Columbia. So it wasn’t always that poetic. But we both looked at each other’s stuff. And then one time he came home and he said, ‘What have you been doing?’ I showed him ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ You know, sometimes he’d pick up something and put music to it. And that didn’t really grab him at all. And then after Josh was born, it did. He picked it up and he wrote music to it.”

The song includes many references to childhood things like Cat’s Cradle, a hand game played with string. Silver spoons, which are ornamental spoons, usually given as gifts to babies and Little Boy Blue is an old nursery rhyme. On July 16 1981, Harry was on his way to a business meeting in Manhattan, New York and whilst driving along the Long Island Freeway, he changed lanes to make an exit when a tractor trailer hit him from behind and crushed the back of his car. This, in turn caused sparks which ignited the fuel tank. The tractor driver pulled Harry from his car but upon arrival at the local hospital 38 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Sandy Chapin still runs the Harry Chapin Foundation, which does what it can to continue supporting the causes Harry championed when he was alive. She now has six grandchildren and naturally tries to spend as much time with them as she can.

Unbelievably this song never made the UK chart. However, in 1993 rock group Ugly Kid Joe took their cover version into the top ten. They obviously wanted to make their version appealing to felines everywhere as they’d missed out the apostrophe in the Cat’s! In 2001 another cover by Jason Downs featuring Milk stalled at number 65.

In the UK, Harry is still classed as a one-hit wonder when, in 1974, his song W.O.L.D, a tale of a morning DJ, just scraped into the top 40. One fan who championed that single was Noel Edmonds, who at the time was the Radio One breakfast show DJ. At the time of Harry’s death, Noel was doing a weekend mid-morning show on Radio One and began playing Harry’s songs quite regularly on his show in the hope that his record company would re-released his material, but that never happened.

Harry had been a tireless performer who managed to schedule around 200 concerts year the majority of which were for political and social causes. He also founded the World Hunger Fund which has since raised over eight million dollars. He had also performed at many concerts on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. His manager, Ken Kragen  set up the Harry Chapin Memorial Fund, to continue his humanitarian efforts. This was noticed by Harry Belfonte in 1985 who was inspired to instigated the USA For Africa – We Are The World project.

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I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper (Sarah Brightman)

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By the mid-seventies, Sci-Fi had arrived in the UK from America and is still here. Star Wars landed like a meteorite and grabbed the nation by its ears and naturally the music followed suit.

Meco beamed into the top ten in 1977 with the Theme from Star Wars. A year later Mankind had a top 30 hit with a disco version of the Dr Who Theme, the same year we were subjected to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Steve Rowland, a producer in the 1960s who had worked with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and the Pretty Things before becoming a member of Family Dogg, wanted to further his career into the 70s. He explained his passion, “Being a sci-fi fan I wanted that as a record. I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper was written by Typically Tropical’s Jeff Calvert and Geraint Hughes (Max West’s real name). It was round the time of Star Wars and I liked it. I said, ‘Let’s make it so you can see it, rather than hear it.’ I worked on a storyboard and tried to match that on record.” Continuing, he explained the inspiration, “I borrowed from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Egyptian Reggae.’ That was my groove and the basis of Starship Trooper – listen to them back-to-back and you’ll see what I mean.” Just for added effect the song included lines like ‘And evil Darth Vader has been banished to Mars’ and ‘Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion’ just to cash in on the film’s success.

Sarah Brightman began her career as a member of the dance troupe Hot Gossip which was assembled by choreographer Arlene Philips. They were spotted by television producer David Mallet who invited them to become a regular feature on the Kenny Everett Television show which ran until 1981. They were noted for their risque costumes and the dance routines which were all designed and choreographed by Phillips.

Brightman is a classically trained soprano and possesses a three and a-half octave range voice and can sing in English, French, Russian, Spanish, Latin, Chinese, German, Italian, Hindi and Japanese.

I Lost My Heart to A Starship Trooper made number six in the UK chart and was followed-up with The Adventures Of A Love Crusader but that failed to make the Top 50 and so Brightman decided to put her voice to better use than the novelty disco scene. In 1981 she made her West End debut in Cats where she met the show’s  composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and later married him three years later.

Five years later she landed her most famous roll as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera. That musical is still running (albeit without Brightman) and this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. In 1987 the soundtrack was released and has since sold over 40 million copies making it one of the biggest selling soundtracks in the world.

In March 1985 she was back in the chart with her biggest hit single when Pie Jesu, from the show Requiem and written by her husband, peaked at number three. The title track of The Phantom of the Opera, a duet with 70s veteran, Steve Harley made number seven.

In 1992 she was invited to perform at the Barcelona Olympic Games on which she duetted with the Spanish tenor Jose Carreras on Amigos Para Siempre. In 2008 she performed at the Beijing Games with Chinese singer Liu Huan as by doing so made her the only singer to perform at the Olympics twice.

In 1990, the same year she divorced Lloyd Webber, she began a West End run as Rose Vibert in Aspects Of Love. In 1997 she recorded her most popular album, Time To Say Goodbye which saw her teamed with Argentinean singer Jose Cura and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. Their duet Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro) made number two in the UK chart and went on to become the biggest selling single of all time in Germany.

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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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