Single of the week

Rice is Nice (Lemon Pipers)

In 1968 one particular band were outselling acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Monkees with one song that topped the US chart and made number seven in the UK. The song was Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers. Your average music person will swear blind they only had one hit, but there was a minor follow-up, Rice Is Nice, so let’s find out about it.

The Lemon Pipers were a psychedelic band formed in 1966 in Oxford, Ohio and comprised singer Ivan Browne, guitarist Bill Bartlett, bassist Steve Walmsley, keyboardist R.G. Nave and drummer William Albaugh. They were students at the time and most had played in various student bands before all getting together to form The Lemon Pipers. A chance meeting with impresario Mark Barger pointed them in the direction of Buddah records where they signed a deal.

Their debut released was called Turn Around and Take a Look which went nowhere, but their next two did and were both written by musician Paul Leka and lyricist Shelley Pinz. Shelley, who was born Rochelle Pinz, was inexperienced at the time and decided to head to New York’s Brill Building with a stack of lyrics in her bag. She walked in, got into the lift where a man already in there offered her a cigarette to which she replied, “I wouldn’t like a cigarette, I would like a music writer.” That man was Stan Costa, son of producer and music arranger Don and he took her to an office where Paul Leka was working away and introduced the pair. “I never saw anybody with so many lyrics,” recalled Leka in an interview with Billboard, “But I like them and we ended up writing about 20 songs together.”

The Lemon Pipers’ debut hit, Green Tambourine, was based on a newspaper article Pinz spotted about an elderly gentleman busking in London and collecting his donations in a green tambourine that lay on the pavement and that image inspired Shelley to write the song. The band actually hated it because they wanted to make psychedelic music but their record label preferred them to fit in with the bubblegum genre that the label formed for and they only agreed to record Green Tambourine otherwise the label threatened to drop them. In the UK their hits were released on Pye International. They were contracted for two albums which they made, Green Tambourine and Jungle Marmalade, both of which were a mixture of established songs, Leka tunes and their own penned originals. Nave, they keyboard player recalled, “The albums sounded like two different bands – Leka’s sound and our sound. We were the Jekyll and Hyde band of the late 60s.”

On the back of the song’s huge success the obligatory follow-up was required and as Nave recalled in an interview with Cincinnati Magazine, “I distinctly remember being in an 80th floor office in New York saying to myself ‘I don’t want to record these stupid songs.” Browne, in the same interview said, “It wasn’t long before it showed and that applied to most of us.” Rice is Nice was a ridiculous song about matrimony with the cheesiest of lyrics, ‘Rice is nice, that’s what they say, rice is nice, throw some my way, rice is nice on any day.’ Clearly the record-buying public were equally unimpressed as it stalled at number 46 in America and 41 over here. By now they didn’t care because at a New York Awards ceremony where they received a gold disc for Green Tambourine the band purposely slaughtered Rice is Nice in the presence of all the label’s top brass. One further single, Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade) was already earmarked and was as bad as the title sounds and by the spring of 1970 the Lemon Pipers broke up.

The sad point is that the band were very happy with their own ‘sound’ and were never really given the chance to showcase it. If they had been given that opportunity and maybe even signed to a record label that let them have artistic control, their career could have been very different. That’s probably one upside to today’s technology where you don’t necessarily need a record label to launch a career and make a name for yourself.

So, what happened to the band; Browne moved back to California and is a postman by day and he and his wife have been making music for over 30 years and is available to download at Walmsley continues to play bass and is currently a member of Second Nature. Meanwhile Bartlett formed the short-lived band Starstuck, but then joined Ram Jam who recorded a funk/rock version of Leadbelly’s Black Betty and were rewarded with a UK number seven hit in 1977. Bill Albaugh died in January 1999 and Leka passed away in October 2011. Shelley Pinz became a psychotherapist specialising in the use of music, art and poetry. She also gained a Master’s degree in social work, and in 2001 she published a volume of poetry and lyrics called Courage to Think.

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Europa and the Pirate Twins (Thomas Dolby)

“I think something that set me apart was that I could have been a conventional songwriter, with piano and voice. I’m nothing special as a pianist or as a vocalist, so I needed a wider palette to express myself with. I’m not a song and dance man, like Elton John,” admitted Thomas Dolby, the man behind the Europa and the Pirate Twins which is this week’s Single of the Week.

Thomas was a sound pioneer in the early eighties daring to try things that few others dared back in the analogue era. He was born Thomas Robertson in London and not Cairo as NME and Smash Hits once stated. His father was a professor and a young Thomas was moved around between Greece, France and Italy as a child. He knew by the time he’d reached his teens years that he wanted to work in a creative field, but was unsure in which field be it a writer, actor, musician, producer or director. Wikipedia states that he completed his A-levels but Thomas once said, “I sang in a choir and learned to sight-read single lines, but other than that I don’t have a formal education.” He continued, “I kind of fell into music because it didn’t require a lot of entry qualifications. I picked up the guitar initially, playing folk tunes—Dylan mostly, then I graduated to piano when I got interested in jazz, listening to people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. The first electronic instruments started to become accessible in the mid-70s and I got my hands on a kit built synthesizer and never looked back.

He wanted to change his name because Tom Robertson sounded too much like Tom Robinson who was already making a name for himself. He kept his full first name, but it was friends who nicknamed him Dolby after the audio noise-reduction process created for tapes in the 1970s. He signed a deal with EMI Records and his debut single was Europa and the Pirate Twins. “People thought electronic music was a novelty, so I felt it was my role to show them its potential,” he exclaimed. Even though technology was much more limited back then he never felt limited as to what he could do. He explained how it was back then, “I did have the background, and I did have that compositional and arranging skill. Whereas a lot of people who play with machines got into it without much of a musical background, and were able to get the machine to express something to get themselves across in that way. In my case, I could have written conventional music on musical instruments, but instead I chose to work with these devices. The difference, really, was my songs were really songs. You’re hearing unusual sounds and arrangements, but the underlying compositional backdrop was quite a conventional one.”

Europe and the Pirate Twins’ inspiration came from World War II and tells the story of two young sweethearts, one 12 and the other 14 who, because of the circumstances, are forced to part company. On that fateful day he vowed that one day they would be together again. Nine years passed and one day he sees her…..on the cover of a magazine. She is now 21 and is an actress and singer. He so wants to be back with her, but he can’t get to her. The infatuation is still there and he goes out and buys all her music and sees all her films but he knows it’s not the same. One day he caught a glimpse of her in London and while he ran towards her he gets stopped by her bodyguard who obviously thinks he’s some kind of nutcase and then she was gone…forever.

The song, which features XTC’s Andy Partridge on harmonica, only reached number 48 in the UK chart and its parent album, The Golden Age of Wireless, stalled at number 65. In 2009, a greatest hits called The Singular Thomas Dolby was released and in the sleeve notes Europa was referred to as ‘a semi-autobiographical romp’.

Thomas turned his hand to writing a couple of films; in 1985 he composed the score to Fever Pitch which starred Ryan O’Neal and the following year scored Ken Russell’s Gothic. In 1992 he founded the computer software company Headspace in Silicone Valley, releasing The Virtual String Quartet as its first program, and also pioneered technology for music on mobile phones. Did he enjoy doing film work? Thomas: “You can spend days writing one little theme for a love scene, and then the love scene has to go so it’s on the cutting room floor and the studio owns it, so it’s kind of tough. When you’re working on a computer game, the team is smaller and the budget is smaller, you tend to be left to your own devices more.” Two years later he released The Gate to the Mind’s Eye, a soundtrack to the animated short film Mind’s Eye. For most of the 90s Thomas was occupied with his software company although did return to live performing in 2006.

These days he still makes music, but still wants to be involved with films but is fussy as to what he takes on, “It’s really hard because it looks good on paper but at the end of the day it’s not something you want to be involved in and it makes me appreciate how lucky I am with my records, that I can just have this vision and a year later it’s in the stores on the shelves. I really appreciate that freedom, which in a movie you just never have.”

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Fantasy (Earth, Wind and Fire)

Last month we lost the great jazz musician Al Jarreau, but as I noted in his obituary, the general public would not class him as jazz. On the late seventies he made his sound more commercial and that’s when he became commercially acceptable. The same goes for both George Benson and the band that provides this week’s Single of the Week subject – Earth Wind and Fire.

The man who assembled the band was Memphis-born Maurice White who learned drums as a kid and played in a school band with his friend Booker T. Jones who later led his own group, The M.G’s. The White family made regular trips to Chicago to visit his mother and eventually moved there in the late-fifties. After graduating he became a session drummer for Chess records in the mid-sixties where his first visit to the UK chart was on Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit Rescue Me, the following year he could be heard drumming on Billy Stewart’s hit Summertime. Later that same year he was invited to join the Ramsey Lewis Trio and can be heard on their two biggest hits Wade in the Water and The In Crowd. He left in 1969 to form his own band The Salty Peppers and decided to head south to Los Angeles to explore a new journey in music. In 1970 Maurice changed the name of the band to Earth, Wind and Fire which came about because of his fascination in cosmology and astrology. He chose the name from his astrological sign – Sagittarius, which has the primary elemental quality of Fire and the seasonal qualities of Earth and Air. He once said, “Earth, Air & Fire didn’t sound right, so I changed Air to Wind.”

Over the years more than 50 musicians have passed through the ranks of the band, but this week I look at their second UK hit, Fantasy from 1978 of which the line up at the time was vocalist Maurice White and Philip Bailey, Maurice’s brother Verdine (bass), Larry Dunn (keyboard), Johnny Graham (lead guitar), Al McKay (rhythm guitar), Andrew Woolfolk (sax and flute) and drummers Fred White (another brother of Maurice’s) and Ralph Johnson.

The music for Fantasy was written by Verdine White and a keyboard player and composer Eddie del Barrio, the lyrics were penned by Maurice. He explained how they became successful and how he came to write Fantasy, “Basically we were a jazz band and we converted a jazz band into a pop band so we covered all areas because we wanted to be universal. Universal means appealing to everyone. We got the music down first and then it was time to write the lyrics and it took me a long time to write those lyrics. Nothing was coming. I eventually went to see the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was an extra-terrestrial movie and I was so inspired after seeing it that I came back to the hotel and wrote all the lyrics and it happened in one night and it all just came out, it was like someone was talking to me. He said, in an interview with Melody Maker, “The song is motivated about escapism in the sense of living on a world that is untrue, a world that is unjust, and a world that is very selfish and envious, there is a place that everyone can escape to which is their own fantasy. I had to write the song in the sense of sharing this place with people. It’s an escape mechanism.”

When it came to recording it, Maurice reflected, “The whole idea is that you build a pyramid, where you have different sections playing things and everyone makes a contribution. It’s a multi-layer, we had an orchestra behind us then we had a rhythm section.” The studio engineer was George Massenburg who added, “We always said just throw things on tape, if the guitarist had an idea we’d throw in on tape and if the percussionist played something interesting, we’d throw it on tape and it was kind of my job to separate these and I made sure you could hear everything, you could hear the guitar here and the drummer there rather than just one great big wall of noise. I used to separate them by equalisation by bringing up parts of instruments to make then shine, but Maurice always wanted more kick and when he asked for more vocal or more kick then that changed everything and I had to play around with everything to keep it balanced. Thomas ‘Tom Tom’ Washington was the string and horns arranger on the session and really gave the song lots of colour.”

One thing that gave the band their distinctive sound is an African instrument that Maurice discovered call the Kalimba. It is an African hand-held thumb type keyboard and is a modern addition to the ancient African lamellaphones family of instruments. Its name fascinated Maurice as he named an interlude called Kalimba Tree after it as the opening track on side two of their 1981 album Raise.

The band scored 15 further UK hits including September, Boogie Wonderland (alongside Maurice’s protégé group The Emotions), After the Love Has Gone and Let’s Groove through to 1984 when they took a three year hiatus. They returned in 1987 with five original members still intact. In 1989 Maurice was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which stopped him touring, but he retained executive control of the band up until in death in February 2016.

The current line-up still includes three original members – Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson – Bailey’s son is also now a member of the band and plays percussion as well backing vocals. I was lucky enough to see them at Hammersmith in 1981 and again at the o2 just a few months ago and they still a great live attraction with the same sound and energy they’ve always had. The highlight for me was that Philip Bailey’s falsetto voice, which, at the age of 65, is still crystal clear and can still get all the high notes. He even does a 10 minute acapella falsetto set which was mesmerising.

Fantasy is a song few would have the guts to cover, but Black Box, with Martha Wash on lead vocals, brought it to a new audience in 1990 and took it to number five.

Following 9/11, Earth, Wind & Fire performed at a benefit concert in Virginia to raise money for the American Red Cross. The show raised $25,000 for the charity. They also performed at the closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. President Obama was a fan too because in 2009, by invitation, they became first musical acts to play at the White House since Obama took office.

Maurice said of the song’s success, “The key to writing a good song is to come up with a good melody that sounds like you’ve heard it before when you haven’t. You get lost in the music and when you’re lost you’re found and that’s not so bad.”

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Handbags and Gladrags (Chris Farlowe)

If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the time when TV adverts were memorable mainly because of a particular catchphrase or the music they used. If you mention a Cadbury’s Fudge to someone, they’ll instantly remember the tag line, ‘a finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat’ which was used for about 15 years, beginning in the mid-seventies. Well the music used for that was called the Lincolnshire Poacher which was an old folk song, but the words, however, were conceived by the man who wrote many UK hits including this week’s Single of the Week.

That man is the former lead singer with Manfred Mann, the one who took over from original vocalist Paul Jones, we are talking about Mike D’Abo who was born in March 1944 in Betchworth, a small village near Dorking in Surrey. Whilst at school in Harrow he’d been a member of a group called A Band of Angels, but success was never forthcoming because, as Mike agreed, years later, “We looked old fashioned and I knew I looked wrong but I didn’t want to change.”

In 1966, he was invited to join Manfred Mann as a replacement for Paul Jones who was departing for a solo career. Their first hit with D’Abo as lead singer was Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James, which was originally written as Semi-Detached Suburban Mr Jones, but the band thought that with Jones’ recent departure it was not appropriate, so it got changed to the fictitious Mr James. Their biggest success with D’Abo was the chart-topping 1968 cover of Bob Dylan’s Mighty Quinn.

In 1967 he began writing songs for other artists and his first success was Handbags and Gladrags. So where did that song start, “Divine inspiration I guess,” admitted Mike. “I think something special was coming through me, I think it was a little touch of God trying to help me out here. If I think about it hard enough, I suppose if I take it right back to the beginning I might have been indirectly inspired by a Jimi Hendrix record called The Wind Cries Mary and in there is a guitar riff that is not unlike the piano riff in Gladrags. Those who know the country pianist Floyd Cramer will also recognise that sound and I can play like him. I played it to the Manfred’s and they didn’t know what it was all about, we even did it live on The Julie Felix Show on BBC2 but it didn’t really connect.”

The song opens with the lines, ‘Ever seen a blind man cross the road trying to make the other side’, “Where that lyric came from I don’t know,” admitted D’Abo, “inspiration I guess.” The next lines are, ‘Ever see young girl growing old trying to make herself a bride’, “I didn’t know really what I was writing but I knew there was a message in there for a beautiful girl who thought the whole key secret to life was having the right clothes and the right accessories and the message is, what becomes of you my love when they’ve stripped you of all these things, you’re nothing. Then I suddenly came out with the words handbags and the gladrags and I thought, ‘I like that’ but then I needed one more rhyme, hmmm what other word rhymes with gladrags? Ah I know, grandads and that’s how I came up with the chorus.”

There was always a little bit of controversy as to who actually recorded the song first, so here’s the story as explained by D’Abo, “I got a call in 1967 from Andrew Oldham who had been producer and manager of the Rolling Stones who had just parted company with them and was forming his own record label called Immediate. One of his first artists was a young soul singer called Chris Farlowe who had just had a number one with Out of Time which, of course, Jagger and Richards had written. Oldham said, ‘Mike, my partner Tony Macauley had heard that you’re writing songs and were frustrated with the Manfred’s, why not come and work for us writing and producing for some of our artists?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to’, so I played Chris Farlowe some songs and he instantly fell in love with Gladrags and said he wanted to record it. A few months later I got another call from Andrew who said, ‘We’ve just signed another soul singer call Rod Stewart, would you like to go and check him out?’ So I agreed and went to see him with the Jeff Beck Group, with Ronnie Wood on bass, and I thought ‘what a knock-out voice’ so I invited Rod over to the house and played him some songs, he immediately picked out Handbags and Gladrags, but I said, ‘You can’t have that one because I’m recording it with Chris Farlowe and we can’t have two rival versions’, so I persuaded him to record another song I’d written called Little Miss Understood. Rod agree but it came with a deal, he said, ‘I’ll sing that song but only if you let me do Handbags and Gladrags when I get my first album deal’. Anyway, a year later, in 1969, Rod turned up at my house, unannounced, and said, ‘OK, I have my first record deal and I now want to record Gladrags with you on piano, but I want you to come up with a new arrangement and I’ve booked a studio for 10 o’clock tomorrow morning’. I stayed up all night working on this arrangement. I cannot write a note of music, I can play but not write and Rod wanted me to disguise the piano riff and make it sound like woodwind, so I came up with this oboe sound and Rod loved it. We went into the studio the next morning, a bit bleary eyed, and we did it with me on piano, Ronnie on bass, Ian McLagan on organ and Mick Waller on drums all in one take.”

Farlowe’s version reached a meagre number 33 in December 1967, Rod’s remained an album track until it was issued as the B side of It’s All Over Now in 1976, but that never made the chart. The song finally made its chart mark in 2001 when, not only did the Stereophonics cover it and take it to number four exactly 34 years later, but Ricky Gervais decided he wanted it as the theme tune to a new comedy programme he was writing and starring in called The Office. The version used in the show is not the Stereophonics version as many believed, it’s actually a version arranged by the late Big George Webley who had composed the theme to Have I Got News for You and recorded by Fin who was the lead singer with the heavy metal band Waysted. George and Fin were best friends and George invited Fin to record it.

Many versions of the song have been recorded and has obviously make D’Abo a nice little packet, but what does he think about it? “I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written and I may never write another song that is so well known, so it’ll probably be my obituary, my calling card and Handbags and Gladrags will more than likely be the epitaph on my grave, but I’ll settle for that.”

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Heartache Avenue (Maisonettes)

Back in the late 1970s, a Birmingham rock band called City Boy finally hit the big time after three years of hard graft. Their single 5-7-0-5 climbed the UK chart to number eight and despite a couple of lower charting follow-ups, What A Night (no.39) and The Day The Earth Caught fire (no.67) they’ve been labelled as one-hit-wonders by which time the band had really had enough.

Lol Mason was the lead singer and had co-written 5-7-0-5 but wasn’t keen on touring so eventually broke and band up. Before long he formed another band with a songwriter and keyboard player Mark Tibbenham, “City Boy were on their last legs in 1981” Mark explained in an interview with Kieron Taylor about how he and Lol got together, “they used to rehearse at a studio where I was a trainee engineer. We had a drink and Lol said ‘Let’s do some Northern Soul.’ We were sick of the New Romantics.”

They formed a band called the Maisonettes – which was a play on Lol’s surname – and comprised Lol (vocals), Mark (keyboards and guitar), Elaine Williams (vocals), Denise Ward (vocals) and Nick Parry (drums). It turned out that Elaine and Denise could not harmonise sufficiently so two other singers were drafted in, but by the time their first single had been recorded all the publicity material had already been published.

That first single was Heartache Avenue which was recorded as a demo but it was agreed that it sounded good enough to be the finished article, so they sent it round to a number of record companies who all turned it down. Mark explained how they eventually got a record deal, “Our drummer, Nick, said he knew David Virr who ran UB40’s Graduate label so we gave him a cassette and within a week he told us he was interested in publishing it.” It was eventually released on a Graduate subsidiary label called Ready Steady Go! The song was, as Lol and Mark wanted, Northern Soul influenced with a touch of Motown which was more well-known and thus caught the public’s attention and climbed the chart to number seven.

They released two follow up songs; Where I Stand and Say It Again but they sank without trace, they even released a 10-track album called Maisonettes for Sale which only charted in Canada. With no further chart action, they broke up.

Heartache Avenue got a new lease of life in 2011 when the grime outfit, Roll Deep sampled it in their UK number 11 hit The Avenue.

Lol remains an in-demand session musician, Mark, after Where I Stand flopped, said, “I wasn’t bothered. Heartache Avenue irritated the hell out of me. I was more impressed by the later single This Affair. It was a beautiful ballad, which appeared regularly on a local radio station, but sadly not a hit. I was worried it would be found out we were not a real group.” He went on to play bass in a bluegrass band called the Toy Hearts. He said, “When I joined the Toy Hearts they never knew about Heartache Avenue – but thanks to Roll Deep, they do now.”

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