Category: Single of the week

The Devil Went Down To Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band)

So many times and song becomes a big hit and is remembered for years and then you find out that it was a last minute thought. Many people I have interviewed tell me that a particular song was just going to be an album filler because there wasn’t enough material and it turns out to be the biggest song of an artist’s career. This week’s choice is one of them songs.

Charlie Daniels was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in October 1936 and as a teenager learned fiddle, mandolin and banjo, so when he graduated in 1955 he formed his first rock and roll band. He tried his hand at song writing and in 1964 wrote a song called It Hurts Me which Elvis Presley recorded as the B-side on the UK top 10 hit Kissin’ Cousins. He then went solo but lent his services to a number of musicians including playing for The Marshall Tucker Band, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan on his Nashville Skyline album.

In 1973, now having formed the Charlie Daniels Band, he released his first single, Uneasy Rider, which crept to the dizzy heights of number 67 on the country chart, but more unbelievably reached number nine on the rock chart.

After a few years of little happening he got the backing of Hank Williams Jr who, with his massive fan base, advised his followers to check out Charlie Daniels saying, “He was one of the best country rockers in the business.” In return, Charlie asked Hank to record some tracks with him which Hank duly obliged. All of a sudden, Charlie Daniels was big news.

Charlie stated that if he was ever going to make it big, now is the time. “We were in the studio cutting the Million Mile Reflections album and I felt we needed a fiddle song to round out the album,” Charlie recalled. “At that point we kind of hit a wall , so I decided to take a two-day break and then come back and finish up the session. During that break I thought a lot about finding the right fiddle tune. I just had this idea. The Devil Went Down to Georgia, which came from an old poem called The Mountain Whippoorwill that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school. He didn’t use that line, but I started playing, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down. I decided that this time Johnny and Satan would face off with bows instead of harps.”

The standoff between the devil and Johnny sound like a real battle between two different musicians, but Charlie revealed that he played both parts, “The Devil’s just blowing smoke, if you listen to his part, there’s just a bunch of noise. There’s no melody to it, there’s no nothing. It’s just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course Johnny’s saying something. You can’t beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn’t have that in the song, but I should have. He added, “I have always believed that the very best things happen off the cuff and it’s true of this song.”

The song was released in September 1979 and got to number 14 in the UK and number three in the US singles chart. There is one lyric difference, in the US version he says, ‘I’ve told you once you son-of-a-Bitch’ whereas the UK version refers to him as a ‘son-of-a-gun’ because, typically, the BBC thought it was a bit near the mark for daytime radio.

The song earned him a Grammy for Country Vocal Group and won him Single of the Year and the Country music Awards. The band appeared in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy that starred John Travolta where, as well as performing the Devil Went Down To Georgia, they played Falling In Love For The Night, Texas and Urban Cowboy Breakdown.

In 1993, the song was revived and reworked by another country fiddler, Mark O’Connor. It was the sequel and this time features invited country stars Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels himself. O’Connor plays Johnny’s fiddle solo and Marty Stuart is the voice of Johnny. Charlie Daniels plays the Devil’s fiddle solo and Travis Tritt is the voice of the Devil. Johnny Cash is the narrator who tells about the epic duel which is now called The Devil Comes Back to Georgia.

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Hey Nineteen (Steely Dan)

Yelling out for a Paul Hardcastle UK number one hit – could be a cryptic crossword clue for this week’s single of the week, but what is Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan all about? Let’s find out.

Steely Dan were essentially the duo Donald Fagen (vocals & keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar & bass) who formed the partnership in 1972 and used an ever-changing cycle of musicians. They took their moniker from the name of a female sex toy featured in Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. “We had to come up with a name in a hurry and Walter and I were both Burroughs fans, though he was not known at the time,” Fagen explained in an interview with Mojo. “It was an in-joke, who’s going to know what Steely Dan was? We figured that, like most of our bands in the past, it would fall apart after three months, so we didn’t think much about it. The name had less to do with sex than a rebel spirit, a beat consciousness that we grew up with.”

They originally met in the late sixties whilst attending Bard College in New York. The first band they put together was called Bad Rock Group and their drummer was another fellow Bard member, Chevy Chase. If you listen to their third album, 1973s  Countdown to Ecstasy, the track My Old School talks all about it.

Hey Nineteen is taken from their eighth album Gaucho in 1980 which featured 32 different musicians on the album and ones heard on Hey Nineteen are, Hugh McCracken on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and both Victor Feldman and Steve Gadd on percussion. Other notable musicians on the album are Mark Knopfler, Joe Sample, Michael McDonald, Patti Austin and David Sanborn. One of the engineers, Roger Nichols devised a drum machine which was showcased on this track. They even gave it a name, Wendel and it was used to record the drum part and play them back with absolute precision? Incidentally, the only musician to have played on all eight albums was Victor Feldman. Feldman, who died in May 1987 aged just 53, was a British Jazz musician who had played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when he was 13 years old.

Gaucho means Latin-American cowboy but meant in this context they’ve used it as a play on the French word gauche meaning socially awkward or uncomfortable with other people, especially the young and inexperienced.

Becker and Fagen were 30 and 32 respectively in 1980 and the song tells of an ‘older’ man trying to seduce a 19 year-old girl and realising they have nothing in common except sex and drink. He talks about ‘That’s ‘Retha Franklin’ explaining that ‘She don’t remember Queen of Soul’. He says she thinks he’s crazy and says they can’t even dance together. Then plying her with the Cuero Gold (tequila) and the fine Colombian (possibly coffee but more likely marijuana). This was not the basis for a serious, meaningful and long-lasting relationship!

Although released as a single it failed to make the UK chart, it did, however, reach number 10 in the States. They were unlucky in the UK singles stake with their best showing being Haitian Divorce which reached number 17 in 1976, Do It Again only just crept into the top 40 the year before and FM (No Static At All) and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number both failing to make the top 40 altogether. In 1989, De La Soul sampled Peg, a track from their 1977 album Aja, on their hit Eye Know.

In 1981, they stopped recording with Fagen launching a solo career but they reunited in 2001, the same year they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Also, that year they received honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where their music is a large part of the curriculum.

Tragedy struck on 3rd September 2017 when the musical world lost Walter Becker who succumbed to oesophageal cancer. According to Scott Bernstein at Jam Base he said, Hey Nineteen was the third most played song of the band’s live performance career. Live performances of the tune would usually include a portion in which Walter Becker bantered with fans about a variety of topics. Sometimes, Becker would tell a story involving the city where the Dan was playing. Other times he’d take aim at Ticketmaster and the high price of tickets. Most times he’d encourage the audience to imbibe tequila. Regardless of the topic, Walter would always fit his incomparable wit and humour into the ‘rant.’

One of Walter Becker’s last performances took place at Humphrey’s By The Bay in San Diego on April 18. The evening featured a version of Hey Nineteen in which Walt cracked up the crowd throughout his speech. Becker seemed to know the end was coming and gave tons of props to his band, told a bit of the history of Steely Dan and praised the audience. At nearly five minutes, the San Diego Hey Nineteen speech displayed Walter Becker wasn’t just a world-class songwriter, composer and guitarist, he was also one hell of a human being.”

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Inside Looking Out (Grand Funk Railroad)

What do Frijid Pink, Grand Funk Railroad and Santa Esmeralda all have in common? No? They were all one-hit wonders with covers, and longer ones at that, of songs the Animals had a UK hit with. The first two were with heavy rock versions, the latter was a disco version. This week I look at Grand Funk Railroad who, in America, were for more successful than in the UK with 20 hit singles, including two number ones and sales of over 20 million albums, but, this week’s choice, Inside Looking Out, didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100.

The band were a trio formed in 1968 in Flint, Michigan and comprised lead singer/guitarist Mark Farmer, drummer Don Brewer and bass player Mel Schacher and their name was inspired by the Grand Trunk Railroad which is the American branch of the Canadian National Railway which runs between Chicago, Illinois and Port Huron, Michigan. Farmer and Brewer had both been members of Terry Knight & The Pack whose most successful hit was a cover of Ben E. King’s I (Who Have Nothing) and Schacher had served as bassist with ? And The Mysterians.

Farmer wanted a career in football but after breaking a finger and suffering from bad knees and then being expelled from night school, he took up music. Once the band were established, they decided to employ Terry Knight, who had also been a radio DJ in Detroit, as their manager. The first gig he got them was at the Atlanta Pop Festival where they played to 125,000 people for free. Some gig!

In 1971, they covered The Animals’ 1966 hit Inside-Looking Out, but in a slower tempo and altering a few lyrics, most notably the line ‘When my time is up be my rebirth, like I was worth on God’s green earth’ which became ‘When my time is up, you’ll be my reefer, life gets worse on God’s green earth’ sneaking in a drug reference.

The song itself is loosely based on a song called Rosie which was an African American Prison Work Song. In the 1920s and 30s prison camps, especially in the deep south like Mississippi, they had inmates who used to work for 12-15 hours a day chopping trees, cutting cane and shovelling gravel as well as other menial back-breaking jobs and to help them pass the time and get through the day, they would make up songs. Alan Lomax (the song’s co-writer) and his father John (an American teacher and musicologist) and gone to visit some of these prisons in the 1930s and Alan said, “These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River. They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.” Alan visited other prisons 10-12 years later and found much of the same work ethic but with the added heartbreak of prisoners having to endure harsh beatings and various other violent treatments. He visited more prisons as late as the 1970s and although some of the violence had lessened, they were still singing songs like Rosie which clearly has stood the test of time as a prisoner’s anthem. Given the circumstances Alan, who was involved with a number of other prison songs, decided not to release an album of them for about 10 years.

The Animals’ version ran to about three minutes and 40 seconds which was quite long for a mid-sixties song, but the Grand Funk version clocked in at a whopping nine and half minutes and thus to fill one side of a seven-inch single if had to play at 33 ⅓ rpm.

Grand Funk Railroad had problems with their manager and in March 1972 decided to sack him. In return, Knight began filing lawsuits for various things and it all got very ugly. The band employed an Attorney called John Eastman who was Linda McCartney’s father, to help sort the situation, however, in the interim period, they lost momentum. Once sorted they added a fourth member, organist Craig Frost, and in 1973 released the Todd Rundgren-produced album We’re An American Band of which the title track became their first of two American number one hits, the other, in 1974 was a blistering rock version of The Loco-motion.

The band broke up in 1976 with Farmer deciding to spend time with his family on his 1500-acre farm in Michigan whilst Brewer and Schacher formed Flint who released just one album before calling it a day.

They have made the occasional reunion but none as big as in 1997 when, for the first time in 20 years, the threesome were on stage together embarking on a world tour with a tri-city concert raising money for the Bosnain-American Relief Fund to provide money for the war-torn area.

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Mack The Knife (Bobby Darin)

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The BBC’s rules about banning songs, or ‘restricting’ them, as they now call it, have always been a bit ambiguous. Any song in the forties and fifties which mentioned anything to do with religion was refused airplay, clearly foul language would not be aired (obviously there are a few exceptions where nobody noticed) and, in the early sixties, there was a wave of ‘death’ discs which were deemed unsuitable. As time has gone on, most of the rules have been relaxed and nowadays there are clean radio edits of most rap material, which is lucky otherwise Radio One wouldn’t have much output. However, going back to ‘death’ songs and things that slipped through the net, Tom Jones’ Delilah is one example, but more blatant, about out and out murder was the 1959 chart topper Mack the Knife.

The song was from a show originally known as Die Dreigroschenoper or The Threepenny Opera in English by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht which was based on John Gay’s 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera. The show first opened in Berlin 200 years later in 1928 and is set in a Victorian London where an appalling man called Macheath went about his nasty business. The show starred Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as Jenny Driver and Harold Paulsen as Macheath, a gangster in the Berlin underworld.

Mack the Knife was the famous song from the show, but it wasn’t supposed to be in it. Originally called Morität Von Mackie Messer (meaning The Criminal Record of Mack the Knife in English) wasn’t part of the show. It was a last minute addition because, according to David Cheal in the Financial Times, only a few days before the show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm the production’s egotistical star, Paulsen, insisted that he be given a grand introduction. Therefore, Brecht and Weill quickly wrote a scene-setting Morität, with barrel-organ accompaniment, bigging up the frightful deeds of Mackie Messer. The man singing that original introduction was Kurt Gerron, who therefore recorded the original version. The song makes little sense outside the musical but that did not stop it becoming a hit song and covered by numerous people including Lotte Lenya herself in 1930.

The show was a slow burner for a couple of years but by the early 1930s it was flying. As Hitler rose to power, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were forced into exile and in 1938, in the Düsseldorf exhibition; Weill was labelled a composer of ‘degenerate music’.

In 1952, the show went to America and first played at the Brandeis University in Massachusetts with an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The following year some of the lyrics were translated into English by Marc Blitzstein just before opening off-Broadway in a production which again featured Lotte Lenya. Blitzstein’s translation certainly softened Mack the Knife from being an out and out serial killer to a roguish gangster. Having said that, Blitzstein’s story is still intense as he refers to the blood scene as ‘Scarlet billows start to spread’ and the excuse about the cement bag being there just for the weight. In 1961, the show moved to Greenwich Village in New York.

In 1955, Louis Armstrong recorded his version for the jazz world and he was the one who added ‘Miss Lotte Lenya’ into the lyrics as an ad-lib by mistake because he was looking at a cast list of the show and thought Lotte Lenya was a character not the actress, hence this error has lived on. Louis’ version was a ‘friendly’ version as it didn’t included some of Mack’s terrible crimes, one being about a woman who was raped in her sleep.

Bobby Darin, in 1958, went to a production of the The Threepenny Opera in Greenwich Village and decided to perform it in his live shows. He turned it around and did it in the swing way nobody else had and it was very well received. The following year when Bobby Darin was considering an album of standards, That’s All, his friend, Buddy Greco, told him that he was going to record Mack The Knife. Darin urged the record company to get his version out quickly and beat Greco to it. Darin describes Macheath’s talent with a jack-knife and his ability for disposing of the bodies in a disguised way certainly omitting the verses about rape and bomb explosions. His final ‘Look out, ol’ Mackie is back’ was a master touch. The album was released in May 1959 just when Darin’s previous hit, Dream Lover, featuring Neil Sedaka on piano, was climbing the chart. Mack the Knife was so popular in his live shows that it would be ridiculous not to release it as a single and thus, like Dream Lover, it went all the way to number one.

Darin’s version of the song built in tension and this was done dramatically with five key changes in the song. It has become a standard and has been covered by the likes of Les Paul, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr, Connie Francis, Sting, King Kurt, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull and Robbie Williams, but none give it the tension as much as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington who performed a searing version at the Jazz à Juan festival in 1966 where Fitzgerald manages 11 key changes.

In 1960, Buddy Greco eased into the charts with his version of The Lady Is a Tramp and he made a resolution never again to tell another singer what he was working on.

Going back to Ella Fitzgerald, the Radio 4 documentary, Ella in Berlin, recalled the time when Ella, who had only learned the words on the way to a show in Berlin, had forgot some of them halfway through performing it. So, being the professional she was, she began to improvise vivaciously in rhyme. The Queen of Jazz never hid the fact and began singing:

‘Oh what’s the next chorus, to this song, now, this is the one, now I don’t know, but it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune, so we tried to do Mack the Knife. Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong, they made a record, oh but they did, and now Ella, Ella, and her fellas, we’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife.’

She probably wasn’t too bothered as the majority of the German audience probably couldnt speak English anyway.

Oh, and talking of murder, the song was used in a 1980s advertising campaign for McDonald’s hamburgers sung as Mac tonight but missing out the bit about the murder and then dumping the body.

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(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding (Nick Lowe)

Many singers have titles bestowed upon them by their fans or the media. Elvis was The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Aretha Franklin was The Queen of Soul and Bruce Springsteen became The Boss. Nick Lowe’s decoration came from one of his album titles, he’s come to be known as Jesus of Cool after his 1978 album. He is a respected figure in the music industry and has been grafting for years. He also has one of the strangest middle names.

He was born in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey in 1949 and began his musical career in 1967 as a member of Kippington Lodge alongside his schoolmate Brinsley Schwarz. The other members were keyboard player Bob Andrews and drummer Billy Rankin. They released a handful of singles on EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone but to little interest. A couple of years later the renamed the band after his school friend and were joined a few weeks later by guitarist and singer Ian Gomm. In 1970 they released the album country-tinged Despite It All which earned them respect on the pub rock scene.

It’s often said that Nick wrote many of his best songs whilst in Brinsley Schwarz and one of their most famous songs was (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding which first appeared on their 1974 album The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz. Nick said recently, “People who know how to play rock ‘n’ roll, this is going to sound a bit po-faced, but it’s quite hard to find people who know how to do it properly. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the roll part of the rock ‘n’ roll, that’s the intriguing bit to me. Otherwise, it’s just rock, and rock isn’t very interesting to me.”

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding has been a favourite in all the live shows Nick does either as a member of a band or as a solo career. Apart from appearing on the aforementioned album he re-recorded it as the B-side to the 1978 single American Squirm and it was credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound, but what is the song all about? “It started out as a joke,” Nick revealed in an interview with the A.V. Club, “I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink. Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, ‘Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is, ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’ And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good idea to make it into a joke but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up.”

Nick was one of the first acts signed to Stiff records in 1976 and had the first released with So It Goes. His next release was a cover of a Sandy Posey track called Born A Woman and was the lead track on the Bowi EP – a title that was a response to David Bowie’s album Low, in which Nick thought ‘If he can’t spell my name right, I won’t spell his right.’ In 1978, he was signed to the newly formed label Radar and his first release on that label finally gave Nick his first solo single with the number seven peak of I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass.

Nick’s label mate was Elvis Costello who recorded a version of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding but never released it as a single. His version was more energetic and probably more radio friendly as it seemed to get the message of love and peace in troubled times across better. It was released as a single in the States but failed to chart, however it was included on the American-only issue of his 1979 album Armed Forces. Nick has said, “Elvis Costello’s version is more earnest than mine,” admitting he favours humour over seriousness.

Nick, since 1977, has made a name for himself as a producer too having credits for the Damned’s debut album Damned Damned Damned, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, a handful of singles for Dr. Feelgood and the Pretenders eponymous debut album. He had further UK hits with Cracking Up, Cruel to Be Kind and a great 1984 song Half A Boy and Half A Man which missed the top 40 completely.

Where Nick really got lucky was when (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding  was covered by Curtis Stigers and used in the film The Bodyguard of which the soundtrack has sold over 40 million copies, “It was a tremendous piece of good fortune. I made an astonishing amount of money from that,” Nick said in The Telegraph.

Nick is still very active by touring and recording. His last album, in 2013, was the Christmas-themed Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family which was just wonderful. Worth checking out especially the track A Dollar Short of Happy which was co-written by Ry Cooder.

How does Nick feel about doing his old songs all these years later? “Well, Peace, Love, and Understanding is almost 40 years old,” he explained in Interview magazine, “It really comes down to how good the song is; if the song is basically a good tune, it will stand the test of time. And, not only that, it will sort of evolve, almost without you having to do anything about it.”

A few years ago Nick wrote a song for Mavis Staples called Far Celestial Shore and in celebration of her 80th birthday Mavis had invited Nick to Nashville to perform it live with her next month.

Oh, if you’re still wondering what Nick’s middle name is, I’ll tell you, It’s Drain!

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Squeeze Box (The Who)

It must be a nice feeling for a songwriter when they write something a little risqué and get away with it. The first song I remember hearing and thinking, ‘how the hell did they get away with that’ was on Bill Haley’s Shake Rattle and Roll. The third verse opens with ‘I’m like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store’, but they did and, 65 years later, it still gets an airing…so to speak. Well, it’s a similar story for The Who’s Pete Townshend when he wrote Squeeze Box.

A squeeze box, very simply, has two slang terms. For the innocent and naive it is an accordion which is an air-based bellow-driven keyboard and button-operated instrument strapped round the body and, with both hands, pumped in and out to get the sound, for the not-so innocent, it’s another term for a vagina. It wasn’t written by coincidence, Pete said, “I had bought myself an accordion and learned to play it one afternoon,” adding, “The accordion gave the song a polka-esque rhythm and the lyrics, which I wrote for fun, were intended as a poorly aimed dirty joke. I had no thought of it ever becoming a hit but amazingly recorded by The Who to my disbelief. Further incredulity was caused when it became a hit for us in the USA.”

The band just wanted to see if they could get away with singing about explicit sex and clearly, they did – ‘Mamma’s got a squeeze box daddy never sleeps at night!’ indeed!

In 1974, there were plans for a Who television special and Squeeze Box was originally intended for that programme. To give the song even more kudos there was also a plan to have the band surrounded by 100 topless women all playing accordions. Shame that never happened. It made me wonder if that’s where Queen got the idea for 65 (although only 25 are seen in the video) naked women riding bicycles around Wimbledon greyhound Stadium for the video to Bicycle Race?

The song was featured on the 1975 album The Who by Numbers and released as a single in 1976 where it reached number 10 in the UK and number 16 in America. It was also their first UK hit for just over two years.

Interestingly, the song doesn’t feature much of the newly purchased accordion, the only time you can hear it is about 90 seconds in when Roger Daltrey sings ‘squeeze me, come on and squeeze me’ and it lasts for approximately 20 seconds. The predominant instrument in this song is the banjo which is play by Townshend. He explained in an interview with Steve Rosen, “I’ve got a really nice G banjo made by Fender which has their version of Scruggs’ heads. I learned how to do a flat-picking very early on; I used to listen to a lot of Chet Atkins and stuff like that. So I can do all that stuff.”

The song is a favourite of lead singer Roger Daltrey’s, he said in an interview with Uncut magazine, “What’s great about Squeeze Box is that it’s so refreshingly simple, an incredible catchy song. A good jolly. I’ve never had a problem with that song because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is and I love it for that. Live audiences love it. Nothing wrong with a bit of ‘in-and-out’, mate!” When the Who did perform that song on stage, Roger and Pete often used to thrust their hips when Roger sang the in and out bit, thus leaving no doubt what they really felt the song was all about.

There have been a few cover versions, some good and some not so… Poison did it justice in a heavy version that featured on their 2002 album Hollyweird, Laura Branigan gave it a nice country feel on her Branigan 2 album in 1983 and the American band Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band gave it a grassroots flavour. But UB40’s lead singer, Ali Campbell, did a solo version which just sounded like yet another bad UB40 cover version.

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