Category: Single of the week

25 or 6 to 4 (Chicago)

Quite a number of songs are thought to be about drugs which the song writers have fiercely denied; Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a good example as is The Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode and the Stranglers’ Golden Brown. Now, surely if the writer says they’re not, then it must be true, no? No, probably not, but who are we to argue? This week’s suggestion is another, but what did the writer tell us 25 or 6 to 4 was really about?

Chicago formed way back in 1967 originally calling themselves Chicago Transit Authority and used the same name for their debut album. They shorten it just over 18 months later when the real Chicago Transit Authority objected. The band originally comprised vocalists Terry Kath and Robert Lamm, drummer Danny Seraphine and a brass section made up of Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider. Later the same year Peter Cetera joined as lead vocalist where he stayed until 1985. Their debut UK hit came in early January 1970 and was a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man which reached number eight. A few months later came 25 or 6 To 4 which peaked one place higher.

Lamm, who wrote the song during the night explained, “When I wrote it I was sitting in a room up above the Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Strip. I just kind of found that riff, I mean, waiting for the break of day searching for something to say. When I had nothing to say, I made this song about writing this song. 25 or 6 to 4 indicates the time in the morning, 25 minutes to 4 am. So, I was seeing all that, just really describing the whole setting. I usually mean exactly what I say, except when I don’t. In the morning when I looked at my watch – I was looking for a line to finish the chorus.” In reality it was more likely 03:34 and hence 25 (or 26) minutes to four.

“Most songs that were written, especially in the early days, whenever I got them to the band and we started rehearsing them,” Lamm told Songfacts. “That’s when the songs took shape – once these guys got hold of them. There was definitely a lot of raw material, I thought it was a song when I wrote the words down, I wrote the changes down and I brought the charts to rehearsal, but it wasn’t really a song until they all played it.”

If you’re wondering why there was a lot of rumours about it being about drugs, well that’s because…apparently, if you took LSD and did so at around 6pm before going out for the night and the effects wouldn’t wear off around 10 hours which would be around four in the morning hence that process became known as 6 to 4.

Chicago’s 60s and 70s material had their trademark brass sound and this song was no exception and was very often the song that closed their live shows. Terry Kath’s guitar sound was distinctive too. According to Songfacts, he played it through a modified Fender concert amp. The song’s producer, James Guercio, said in the same interview, “Terry was always playing with shit, he had this weird 1950s hi-fi preamp or something, like from a McIntosh, he would go through first. I don’t know what it was, but however he got that sound, it was a miracle. That’s what I wanted.” James Guercio knew what he wanted – as a producer should and he asked Peter Cetera, to use a pick when playing his bass, something Cetera never did – he used his fingers, but to compromise, the engineer, Tim Jessup, confirmed that Cetera used his fingernail.

Chicago’s biggest hit was the 1976 chart-topper If You Leave Me Now and, in the eighties, they had three further big hits with Hard to Say I’m Sorry, Hard Habit to Break and You’re the Inspiration. Cetera left the group in 1985 to concentrate on a solo career and scored one hit with Glory of Love – the theme to the film Karate Kid II which reached number three. As for Chicago, Lamm resumed lead vocal duties. In 1995, their music was back in the chart courtesy of a sample from their 1979 song Street Player of which the brass section was the main hook on The Bucketheads’ top five hit The Bomb (These Sounds Fall into My Mind).

The band are still active with four original members; Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Walter Parazaider the latter of which no longer tours with the band. Keith Howland, who joined in 1995 occasionally takes on lead vocals. Terry Kath, who had a history of alcohol and drug intake, died in 1978 after taking his own life by putting a gun to his head. His guitar playing was distinctive and in 2015, Guitar World compiled a list of all-time best wah-wah solos and they ranked 25 or 6 to 4 at number 22.

Lady (Kenny Rogers)

When one superstar asks another superstar to write them a song and the reply is, “I don’t think I have time” you would probably think to yourself, what a jerk! But in this case, it was sort of done in jest but the thought that there might be quite a bit of money in it convinced him and the deal was done. Who and what? Read on.

Kenny Rogers explains the story, “I was in Las Vegas and wanted a new song, so I called the king of the love songs, Lionel Richie and said to him, ‘Lionel, I’d love for you to come over and write a song for me’, and Lionel said, ‘I don’t think I have time’. I said it’s going to part of a Greatest Hits album and I think it will sell a minimum of four or five million copies and Lionel said, ‘Is seven o’clock tomorrow night ok?'”

Kenny continued the story, “So at seven o’clock the following night he turned up and we had this little upright rinky dink piano in the dressing room and just before he starts to play he said, ‘I have to tell you I pitched this song to the Commodores and they turned it down’ which I thought was an interesting approach to selling a song. Anyway, he started playing and singing, ‘Lady’ and then la-la’d the next line and stopped. He only had the one word. I asked him how the Commodores could have turned that one word down. So, we go into the studio six months later, we start recording, I finish the first verse and I’m sitting looking at the lyric sheets and there’s not a second verse. I said to the engineer, ‘Where’s Lionel?’ He replied, ‘He’s in the toilet writing the second verse.’ That song was a turning point in my career and one of the most identifiable songs I ever done.”

In a television interview, Lionel said, “I’m not used to pitching songs, but I had this song called, Baby. I land in Vegas and Kenny began talking to me about recently marrying his fourth wife, Marianne Gordon. He said, ‘Before you do your song, let me tell you, I married a lady, like a real lady.’ He said, ‘A country boy like me from Houston, Texas, what I am doing with a lady? He kept on going, she’s got such taste, such class, such style, and she’s such a lady. Oh, by the way, what’s the name of your song?’ I said, Lady,”, Richie says, laughing. “I’m no fool.”

Kenny, in his autobiography, Luck or Something Like It, says of Lionel, “He writes the most beautiful melodies, and his lyrics are like musical conversations. Not many people can do that. I’ve asked him time and time again for another song, but now that he is so successful, I think he feels that if they are good enough for me, they are good enough for him. Lionel happens to be the most unique songwriter I’ve ever encountered.”

So how come Lionel only had one verse and is that true? Lionel explained, “It is true. I was in the bathroom, on the counter, because I didn’t realise Kenny was going to get it so fast. So, he said, ‘let’s do Lady. Well, I hadn’t finished Lady. I didn’t have the second verse. He started sending toilet paper back and said, ‘Do you have the second verse.’ I said, ‘not, yet just hold on for a minute.’ Kenny Rogers does it to me every time.”

Lionel produced the song and it went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart where it stayed for six weeks. In the UK it reached number 12 spending the same number of weeks on the chart.

Lionel recorded his own version of the song which appeared on his 1998 album Time and in 2012, Richie and Rogers recorded a duet version for former’s album Tuskegee, which took its title from Lionel’s birth town. Lionel did ok out of it, he told Entertainment Weekly, “Lady is my profitable song. I have an estate that Lady bought.”

I’ve Never Been to Me (Charlene)

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a vocation in life, give it go only to find it didn’t work out the way you planned and get so disillusioned that you give it up completely. Then, all of a sudden, by a stroke of luck you’re back in that same business. Well, that’s what happened to the singer who recorded this week’s suggested song. Her name is Charlene.

Charlene Marilynn D’Angelo was born in June 1950 in Los Angeles. She always knew she wanted to be a singer because when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones first came to America, she managed to get seem them and then realised stardom was attractive.

She got a lucky break when she was offered the chance to join Petula Clark’s backing singers at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. There she was spotted singing by Berry Gordy who signed her to his Motown label in 1973. Her first single All That Love Went to Waste did just that. The label billed her as Charlene Duncan which was her married name. In the autumn of 1976, Ken Hirsch and Ron Miller wrote a song called I’ve Never Been to Me and less than two months later she got to record it.

“I’d been signed to Motown for three or four years and I was doing demos for Michael Jackson and Diana Ross,” remember Charlene, “and a gentleman by the name of Ron Miller approached me and said to me, ‘Charlene, I’m Ron Miller and I want to introduce to you a song that I wrote.’ He said, ‘when I heard your voice I wrote the female version for you. He had written the male version after the captain in the movie Jaws. He pushed the button and on came, ‘Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life, you’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife. I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you’ll never do but I wish someone had a talk to me like I wanna talk to you.’ I just put my head down and I just started to cry because, at the time, I was an abused wife, I was an abused woman who dreamed of being out of my situation. I felt that I would never get out of it.” She concurred to Ian Wishart, “I’d married at 16, had a child to my first husband, and Ron Miller’s song just spoke to me and I just cried and cried. He actually stopped the tape to give me space to cry. It was such a beautiful song. All the pain and the hitting that my husband did at the time, it just sounded like my life. I experienced an abortion with that husband and when that line, ‘Sometimes I’ve been to crying for unborn children, that might have made me complete’ came, it meant everything to me.”

Originally, that latter line caused some controversy because although it wasn’t anything to do with abortion people perceived it that way. It referred to a female who had wished she’d had children but never made the time. Charlene’s original version had a spoken part which said, ‘Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie, a fantasy we created about people and places as we like them to be. But you know what truth is? It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with this morning, the same one you are gonna make love to tonight. That’s truth that’s love’ but some people at Motown deemed it to be too feminist and had it deleted from the initial release.

When Motown released the single it went to number 97 on the pop chart and, “I was so sad,” Charlene remembered. I thought to myself if this song isn’t a big hit, then nothing I’m ever going to do is ever going to be. So why waste my time? I was discouraged, I was broken, I was so sad. So, then I got away from the business.” She became a Christian and went on to work with autistic children. Then she moved to England with her new husband, a record producer named Larry Duncan.

In 1981, Scott Shannon, a DJ on a WRBQ-FM in Tampa, Florida, discovered the album and began spinning the track. Charlene continued, “I found out that Scott was good friends with Jay Lasker at Motown and he kept saying, ‘What’s happening with Charlene and I’ve Never Been to Me, I love that song?’ he then said, ‘You know what, I’m doing a contest on my show and I’m going to play two songs and get the listeners to vote for their favourite.'” He put Olivia Newton-John’s Physical up against I’ve Never Been to Me and Charlene explained what happened? “He said my song got thousands and thousands of votes and Olivia got about 150. It went mad and suddenly I was selling 66,000 copies a day. It went over a million in no time.

In the meantime, back in the UK, “I never knew this at the time, I was happy, I was working in a sweetshop in east London when I got a phone call from my mom who said, ‘Charlene, someone from Motown is looking for you, then about a month later I got a call from the president of Motown Records and he said, ‘your song is on the charts in America, you’ve got a double bullet, you’ve got a hit,’ and just like that, my world turned upside down, I was on Concord airlines flying back to America  and my life just turned around.”

The song was released in the UK, but it was the pressing with the spoken passage in and no one had realised until it made the chart. By then it certainly didn’t matter because it reached number one exactly one year after Motown had re-issued Michael Jackson’s One Day in Your Life, the song Charlene had done the demo of. Charlene also recorded a Spanish language version, which interestingly replaced the line ‘I’ve been to Nice, and the isle of Greece’ with ‘I’ve been to Acapulco and Buenos Aires’. By the time the song hit number one in the UK, she was now Charlene Oliver because she had divorced Larry and married an Englishman called Jeff Oliver. Both songs were six years old when they hit the top. In the wake of her new-found success, Motown teamed her up with Stevie Wonder for the duet Used to Be. It failed to make the Top 50 in the US and missed the chart altogether in Britain.

Although Charlene recorded it first, Randy Crawford’s version was released on her album Everything Must Change two months before Charlene’s. Other versions were by the jazz singer, Nancy Wilson the TV entertainer Marti Caine, Mary MacGregor, Motown acts Mary Wells and The Temptations did separate versions in 1982, Howard Keel, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin in 1992 and Jane McDonald in 2014.

The official video was shot at the 17th-century stately home, Blickling Hall near Aylsham in Norfolk and Charlene wore the same dress that she got married in, but we’re not sure which marriage it was.

In 1994, the song was used in the The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Charlene, who was now living in Santa Clarita in California, said, “I got a call from Ron Miller who told me about the movie, I couldn’t wait to see it. OMG, the movie was incredible. I loved it. When the musical opened up in Australia I was asked to come and perform I’ve Never Been to Me for the cast on opening night. It was amazing. I realised then that I was a gay Icon. I totally loved the amazing adventure I went on.”

In an interview with a Dutch Television programme, she was asked if she did ever find her ‘me’ she said, “No, I’m still searching.”

Atomic (Blondie)

The amount of people I have conversations with who think Nena, who had the 1984 chart-topper 99 Red Balloons, is an actual person is unbelievable, I often correct them to explain that it was a group whose lead singer was called Gabrielle Kerner. The same was true of the group who recorded this week’s suggested Single of the Week. So many people though Blondie was Debbie Harry. Granted they acquired that name because, as Debbie recalled, “I had always been called ‘blondie’ by assorted motorists and truck drivers and thought it was a good name, a natural and so easy to remember”. Anyway, now I’ve cleared that up, let’s find out about their first number one of the eighties, Atomic.

Now, be honest, how many times have you sung along to this song and not really understood what you’re singing about? Yes, guilty! Well, the title itself actually doesn’t have any significant meaning within the song, but the focus is more on the line, ‘oooh your hair is beautiful’ and Debbie explained how that came about, “The lyrics, well, a lot of the time I would write while the band were just playing the song and trying to figure it out. I would just be kind of scatting along with them and I would start going, ‘Oooooooh, your hair is beautiful.'” So, basically, she made it up. As for the music, “Jimmy Destri (the keyboard player) who wrote this song,” Debbie continued, “was trying to do something like Heart of Glass, and then somehow or another we gave it the spaghetti western treatment. Before that it was just lying there like a lox.”

The 7″ single is a shortened version of the album version yet both intros owe a nod to different songs. The album version was inspired by the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice whereas the single borrows heavily from Dean Parrish’s northern Soul hit I’m On My Way from 1975 although originally released in 1967. However, the 12″ is worth checking out as it features a live cover version of David Bowie’s Heroes with some great guitar work by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Record Mirror described Atomic as ‘Vapid and irritating’ the best thing about this single is the live version of David Bowie’s Heroes on the B-side.’

Atomic was the debut single from the album Eat to The Beat and was also one of the first ever rock video albums, with a video to accompany each song. Following the success of Blondie’s previous album Parallel Lines, Mike Chapman was asked to take care of production.

Debbie Harry, who had always wanted to be a movie star, decided to pursue acting. She was cast in her first role as Lillian Harlan in Mark Reichert’s Union City. Chris Stein (Debbie’s partner) provided some of the music for the soundtrack and the title track, Union City Blue reached number 13 in the UK.

There has been plenty of exposure for the song over the years with appearances in the films, When Strangers Appear (2001) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) as well as various television series’ including Queer as Folk (1999), Cold Case (2006), Who’s Doing the Dishes? (2016), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018 and The Flight Attendant (2020). The song has also been heard in Coca-Cola commercials during the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cup campaigns. In 1996, Sleeper covered it for the Trainspotting soundtrack and appears in the B-side of their single Sale of the Century.

Naturally brunette Deborah, as she now likes to be called, began a new vocation. She was asked to present a three-part documentary on Sky’s Discovery Channel. The series focused on how rock ‘n’ roll music, particularly The Beatles and the worlds of fashion and film, permeated countries outside the Western world. She recalled, “In 1980, I nearly met John Lennon. I was supposed to go and meet him the week after it happened. It was kind of awful. I mean beyond him getting shot I would have really liked to have met him.”

Between 1988 and 1995, five of Blondie’s hit singles were re-mixed and back in the chart for no apparent reason and generally went by unnoticed with Atomic reaching number 19 followed by Heart of Glass which went four places better and these mixes probably haven’t been heard since.

Supermarket Flowers (Ed Sheeran)

In July 2017, the Official Charts Company (OCC) changed the rules surrounding the compilation of the UK Singles chart and all because one of the most popular and successful artists of the 21st century dominated it. The idea was to prevent the heavyweight acts saturating the majority of the charts. So, when Ed Sheeran released his Divide album in the summer of 2017 and every track charted something had to be done. Many will agree that the OCC changed the wrong rules, it really should no longer be called a singles chart when it is populated with any track that is available and not necessarily a single. Either way, it only allowed one lead credited act to have a maximum of three songs in the chart at the same time. This week’s suggestion, Supermarket Flowers was on that very album.

Taking a glance at the lyrics of the song, the last two lines of the first verse are, ‘Dad always told me, don’t you cry when you’re down, but mum, there’s a tear every time that I blink’ whilst the chorus includes the line, ‘You were an angel in the shape of my mum’ which would lead you to think it was about Ed’s mother, but not so, “Supermarket Flowers is about my grandmother,” he explained to Mike Pell. “She [my grandmother] was in a hospital near my house where I was making the album so I saw her quite a lot while making the album and she passed away while I was in the studio. So that’s my first reaction for anything that happens to me, good or bad, pick up a guitar. The song is supposed to really make you cry.”

His grandmother, Anne, along with Ed’s brother Matthew gave Ed the inspiration to follow a career in music. “I just wanted to make a tribute to my gran as she was the musical one in my family. Hopefully I will pass that on to my kids. On the day she passed it was just a knee-jerk reaction. You can be really upset and dwell on something or you can put all the good memories in one song.”

After his grandmother passed it was the after process when the inspiration and the title came to him, “After my gran passed away we were clearing out her hospital room and the supermarket flowers from the window sill and having that moment is when it came to me,” he explained in an interview on Nova FM.

Ed didn’t originally plan to include Supermarket Flowers in the Divide album, so how come it ended up on there? “My grandfather just turned to me at the funeral, he was like you have to put that out, that has to go on the record,” he explained in an interview on CapitalFM, “It’s such a good memory, that’s why it’s ended up on there.” In the same interview he revealed what it was like to write given the circumstances at the time, “It was really hard to write and very easy at the same time in terms of its flow. Because there was no trying to think of poignant lines and being like you know death is this or like life is this. It was just so spot on and the lyric of ‘you are an angel in the shape of my mum’, that could end up in a poignant line but it was the truth.”

The single peaked at number eight and spent 11 weeks on the survey. Had the chart rules been different and only allowed one or two tracks to chart, the song may well have had longevity but because top 40 radio stations were spoilt for choice, it would have limited its airplay.

In 2019, Co-Op Funeralcare published a top 10 list of the most popular funeral songs in the UK and this song was only five places behind the leader on that list which was Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

Ed said of his grandmother, “She was one of the nicest women you’d ever meet and she was my mum’s mum. It was written from my mum’s point of view; it was choosing loads of specific things and then just finishing it as a song.” And that is what Ed is so good at.

Beds Are Burning (Midnight Oil)

If you ask virtually anyone who was into music in the 1980s how many hit singles Midnight Oil had, they are likely to say one and that’s purely because they are remembered in the UK for their biggest hit, Beds Are Burning. They actually had half a dozen. Their next biggest being Truganini which scraped into the top 30 in 1993. In their native Australia, they had far more hits although Beds Are Burning is their second biggest reaching the same position down under as here. But what is the song all about? Let’s find out.

The band formed in Sydney as far back as 1972 but took them six years until they scored any success in Oz. They were originally called The Oils but changed their name in 1976 when they amended their line up to comprise singer Peter Garrett, guitarists Jim Moginie Martin Rotsey and drummer Rob Hirst. The only varying member was the bass player: Andrew James originally then Peter Gilford until Bones Hillman became the final permanent member.

Beds Are Burning is a political song as one can understand from the second and third verse where they sing, ‘The time has come to say fair’s fair, to pay the rent, to pay our share. The time has come, a fact’s a fact, it belongs to them, let’s give it back.’ Give what back you might be thinking? Well, I can tell you. A massive rock standing 2,831 feet high and a perimeter of 5.8 miles, its name is Uluru to the locals and Ayers Rock to the rest of the world. I can vouch for its size as I climbed it in 2001, it took me 54 minutes up and 38 minutes to come down and a tiny piece of I still proudly possess.

“Back in 1985, Uluru was handed back to the First Nations people that lived around its base,” Peter Garrett explained to Duncan Haskell at Songwriting. “Around that time, we had become quite popular here in Australia and we had started to get more of an audience in Europe and the United States. We were approached by some folks from out in the desert here who asked if we’d like to submit a song, or songs, to commemorate the handing back of Uluru. We thought, ‘We could have a crack at it but surely there is a First Nations band that should be approached first?’ – We’d gotten to know quite a few of the bands from the desert and elsewhere, bands like the Warumpi Band. They came back and said, ‘We want the message of the handback to go the big cities, and that’s where Midnight Oil is from, so could you have a crack at it?’ So, Jim Moginie (Garrett’s song writing partner) and I got to work. Jim & I got together when we were 15 and almost immediately started writing songs. We actually wrote three songs for this handback and one of them was accepted, a song called The Dead Heart which we’d already recorded.”

After the success of Beds Are Burning, Garrett said to Songfacts, “In retrospect it was the song we were born to record. It’s got all the bits to make it work, strong rhythms, good melody and the lyrics had some punch, while being very Aussie, it took a while to stick. It’s incredible how much it still gets played around the place. Who would have thought an Aboriginal land rights song would travel that far?”

The whole band are credited as songwriters on this track and drummer Rob Hirst explained his part, “I wrote the chorus before we went out into the desert and it was actually translated from Italian. I had been to an art exhibition which featured the story of the fascists during the Second World War, Mussolini and the fightback from the partisans. The guy who put the exhibition on explained to me that there was an expression from Italy about the fightback from those partisans, ‘How could you sleep when beds are burning?’ and I thought we could write a song about the same idea of an ancient Australian community who had so much thrown at it but was still joyfully dancing in the desert, singing their songs and pushing back against all the shocking things that had been visited upon them ever since Europeans had arrived in this country. We had the chorus written and we had the groove but I actually wrote the verse lyrics while travelling around with a friend of ours who was very well known in the desert – a guy called Charlie McMahon from the band Gondwanaland who was playing with us every night and was also a guide. We were still city slickers but were wide-eyed and learning, picking up as much as we could. I travelled around a lot with Charlie in his Toyota Troopcarrier, listening to him explain bits and pieces about the bush. I was jotting all the time in my black Moleskine book, writing things down in case melodies come into your head later on. We hoped the chorus would send a real shiver down the spine and that Pete’s delivery of the verse would sound very Australian. We were very determined that our band would be seen as an Australian band, in an international context. We were determined to put place names and other specific bits and pieces in all our songs.”

The parent album, Diesel and Dust, made the UK top 20 and was produced by the British producer Warne Livesey who had worked extensively with The The, Julian Cope, Deacon Blue and Paul Young. “We had no idea that Beds Are Burning had any particular merit above all the other songs on the album, but, much to our surprise, that song opened up a much larger audience right across the world,” Garrett recalled. “On the back of that song and a few others from Diesel and Dust, we were able to get from a college audience in the States to a larger audience and play some quite big festivals in Europe.”

Beds Are Burning was used in the 1988 TV movie Ladykillers and was featured in the 2007 film The Kite Runner. The band split up in 2003 but reformed in mid-2016. Last year, 2020, was a year of mixed feeling; on the up side they released Gadigal Land, their first single in 18 years which received radio play in Australia but failed to chart, on the down side, Bones Hillman died of cancer in November.