Category: Single of the week

Soul Train (Swans Way)

Last week’s Single of the Week was one of the two hits by Fischer-Z, a forgotten 80s hit that sounds as fresh in 2020 as it did in 1980. This week, it’s another forgotten singles by an act that had two hits. This one got higher in the chart than last week’s but do you remember it? It’s by Swans Way and it’s called Soul Train. They released one album and six singles before moving on to form another act. Let’s find out about it.

Swans Way were a trio who formed in 1982 and comprised singers Robert Shaw and Maggie De Monde who also played percussion and Rick P. Jones on double bass. They met when they were all living on the same street in Birmingham and discovered they all had a mutual interest in music and had all individually been in local bands without any major success. Maggie had been in a band called The Playthings who John Peel championed. “Duran Duran really liked us a lot and asked them to go on tour with them,” Maggie recalled. After that they decided the pool their resources and form Swans Way.

In their early days, they found a run-down casino to rehearse in and one day they had a problem as Maggie explained, “We got locked in, everything was dark, it was terrible and I was crying. We had to get out via the fire escape whilst trying to avoid the rats in the pitch black.” Rick recalled to Andy Strike, “It was freezing cold and was terrifying going to the loo because you had to go up three flights of stairs in total darkness. We had three paraffin heaters to try and keep warm.”

Jones, who is a stand-up bass player recalled to Smash Hits how they got started, “We literally locked ourselves away every day and forced ourselves to do something. At first we just tried out different instruments, then we slowly eliminated the ones that didn’t feel or sound right and we evolved into what we sound like now.”

Their first single in 1982 was called Theme from the Balcony. Two years later they released The Anchor followed by When The Wild Calls but all failed to chart. Both were taken from their only album The Fugitive Kind, but then came the third release, Soul Train that went to number 20.

“We wrote Soul Train a long time ago,” recalled Rick, “but the record companies didn’t want to know and we didn’t even get a deal until we released it ourselves.” Soul Train has a jazz influence although the band claim they never listened to old jazz.

The last line of the lyrics has become a favourite in the misheard lyrics department. The last line is, ‘I’m on soul train, soul train I’m not strong enough’ which is often misheard as, ‘Salty beef stroganoff, I’m on salty beef stroganoff’.

The band split in 1984 which was allegedly due to musical differences. Shaw went on to release solo albums under the guise Mighty Math whilst Maggie and Rock went on to form Scarlet Fantastic and signed a deal with Arista records. Like Swans Way, they managed two UK hits; No Memory which reached a respectable number 24 and the much forgotten follow-up Plug Me In (To The Central Love Line) which stalled at number 67.

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So Long (Fischer-Z)

Fischer-Z arrived on the scene around the same time as The Stranglers, 999, Dr Feelgood and the Buzzcocks, they all signed to the same label – United Artists, yet Fischer-Z never quite got the same recognition and chart success as its peers, but the quality of music was right up there. Let’s check them out.

The band were formed in 1976 by guitarist and singer John Watts whilst he was studying clinical psychology and working in psychiatric clinics. The original line up comprised, bassist David Graham, keyboard player Steve Skolnikand and drummer Steve Liddle and their name is a pun on the words fish’s head but said in a cockney style.

In an interview with Aaron Badgley, John talked about his early life, “I was brought up by my grandparents, who were really from the Victorian age, where kids do not talk. I was taught to observe. As a kid I was a loner, I guess you would say, and I would observe, people, and how they acted. I also read Maya Angelou from a young age. Then I went to University and studied psychology, as I was interested in people.” It was there he formed a new wave band; “I felt the energy of ‘punk’ at the time, but I was a never a punk,” he continued. “I was more of an art person, my hero was Andy Warhol, but I liked the spontaneous notion of punk, not careful in their approach, which is a lot like art. Art is an expression of the world, but it has to move you.”

They were more successful across Europe than in the UK. They toured with The Police and Dire Straits and once shared a stage with James Brown. Peter Gabriel and Kevin Rowland were fans and he collaborated with both of them. He was also on the bill for the last European festival dates with Bob Marley & the Wailers.

John’s songs are always melodic so it’s hard to know if the music comes first or the words. “I’m inspired to write words, sometimes about an event or feeling or something that evolve from words themselves,” he told Stephen Schnee. Their debut album, Word Salad in June 1979 became their only charting album in the UK and spent a solitary week at number 66. Three singles were released from that album, Wax Dolls and Remember Russia both failed to interest the public, but the third, The Worker went to number 53 and spent five weeks on the chart. The follow-up album, in 1980, was Going Deaf for a Living which contained the single, So Long. It was a much more melodic album with a hint of reggae and championed by John Peel and put on heavy rotation by the newly-launched MTV the following year.

So Long is a heartfelt song, a typical relationship break-up song where she decides to leave and pens a note for him to read. He obviously wasn’t expecting it and tries to patch things up. He gets nowhere and feels life can’t go on. He tries to find her through her friends but they just made excuses. He hired a private detective who tracks her down in France…with someone else. He asks her mother but she just advises him to leave her alone. Now he’s angry and wants to tell her that he hopes she’s happy she had done this to him. He cannot understand why she didn’t say anything. Surely the most common issue in a break-up?

Watts continues to make music and tour. He does a regular blog which is always an interesting read. He uses various guises for recording which include Fischer-Z, Watts, J.M.Watts or in the mid-eighties as The Cry which he briefly formed with ex-Fischer-Z bassist David Graham.

In 2014, he did a short tour of The Netherlands which extended into Germany. The following year he released the album This is My Universe back under the Fischer-Z moniker. Two years later, he released Building Bridges – his 19th album and last month he released his latest single called Choose. One thing that hasn’t changed in 40 years is John’s voice and enthusiasm which comes across so strongly in his lyrics.

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Hello, This Is Joannie (The Telephone Answering Machine Song) (Paul Evans)

Paul Evans is one of the unsung songwriters of the 20th Century. So many of you will know songs he has written, but his name is not as well-known as say the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole King, both of whom have had fewer UK chart hits as artists than Paul. His career, as a songwriter goes back to the fifties.

Paul, who recently turned 82, was born in the Queens Borough of New York and has lived there all his life. He was born into a musical family – his mother taught him piano and his sister taught him guitar. His father was a flautist and legend has it that he sold his flute to buy his son his first guitar. At Columbia University, he achieved a scholarship in engineering then decided to leave it all behind to go into the music business. Firstly, as a singer on the SS France and then singing in night clubs in New York.

His first hit as a songwriter came in 1958 with the song When which went to number five in the States and number one in the UK for the Kalin Twins. A cover version by Showaddywaddy went to number three in the UK in 1977. The following year, he had his first hit with a cover of a song he didn’t write called Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat which stalled at number 25, but he was competing with and lost out to a UK cover by The Avons who got to number three. The following year he had his second hit, as a writer, when George Formby scraped into the top 40 with Happy-Go-Lucky Me and his second hit as an artist when Midnite Special stalled a place lower. In 1961, Pat took Johnny Will to number four and in August 1962 both Bobby Vinton and Ronnie Carroll entered the chart in the same week with their versions of Roses Are Red (My Love) and both made the top 20 and both written by Paul. In 1966, Elvis Presley took Paul’s song Blue River to number 22 and Lulu’s Let’s Pretend reached number 11 the following year.

In 1978, 18 and a half years after his last UK hit, Paul was back with a song he had co-written with Fred Tobias (his collaborator on Johnny Will and Blue River) a death song called Hello, This Is Joannie (The Telephone Answering Machine Song). He recalled in an interview with Song Facts, “I did a trick on the guitar, and I was writing to that trick. It’s a way I play chords way up on the neck of the guitar. I couldn’t write a lyric to it – my co-writer’s the one that came up with the lyrics, and that was Fred Tobias. It was a death song, for sure.”

The song tells the story of a couple who end up having a row after a drinking session and she storms out and drives off. He feels bad so the next morning he tries to call her phone but gets no answer. Back in the seventies, an answering machine was quite a rare thing, but this girl had one and so he heard her voice which said, ‘Hello, this is Joanie, I’m sorry I’m not home, but if you leave me you name and number I promise soon as I get in I’ll phone.’ He left a message saying, ‘Joannie I’m sorry and I’m feelin’ oh so small’ and he waited anxiously for her to call. She didn’t call.

Then, things change. He sings, ‘My phone rang and my heart sang, my baby’s called at last, instead it was a friend who said that Joannie’s car had crashed’ at that point he realises he’ll never see Joannie again, but then takes comfort by ringing her number, at least he’ll keep hearing her voice.

“The funny thing about the song, it was a bigger hit in England than it was here,” Paul explained. “Here it was a country hit, big city country stations, there it was a pop hit. The funny thing was that answering machines were not very popular in England at the time. I can’t explain that. They liked the record more than we did.”

When I was in New York in 2004 researching for my Number Ones book, I did a brief interview with Paul. He was a lovely man, but what I wanted to know more than anything was the name of the female who provides the voice of Joannie, “No problem,” he said, “her name is Lea Jane Berinati but the lady in the video was a model called Susan Brooks.”

Paul, like Albert Hammond, goes out on tour on the oldies circuit and performs all the songs that have made him famous either as an artist of a songwriter, I suggest if you’re in New York try and catch a show, you’ll be singing along to the majority of his material.

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Einstein A Go-Go (Landscape)

There are hundreds of music genres past and present, but have you ever wondered who comes up with the names for them? I often do. Who first called reggae reggae? Where did the term punk come from? Who knows! Some are known, for example the term rock ‘n’ roll was first coined by the American radio DJ Alan Freed and the early eighties genre New Romantic was first coined by Richard James Burgess. Who’s he you might ask. Well, I’ll tell you because he was involved with the week’s suggestion.

Landscape were formed in London in 1973 originally as a jazz outfit and comprised singer/drummer Richard James Burgess, keyboard player Christopher Heaton, trombone player Peter Thomas, bassist Andy Pask and additional keyboardist John Walters. They toured relentlessly during the 1970s before experimenting with electronic music and synthesiser music later in the decade.

Once the 1980s dawned, they were steeped in electronic music and began recording. Burgess also turned his hand to production and had his first success as a producer before he did as an artist. In 1980, he produced Spandau Ballet’s debut hit To Cut a Long Story Short which reached number five in the UK chart. He went on to produce their next six hits and the remainder of the decade produced hits for King, Colonel Abrams, Five Star, Living In A Box and Brother Beyond.

He was as the cutting edge of electronic music and its associated equipment. On three occasions, he appeared on the BBC show Tomorrow’s World demonstrating the Roland Microcomposer and his own Simmons SDSV – the first standalone electronic drum kit where the individual restrictions of each sound could be adjusted. “The original idea had been to make a machine which could be played by a drummer as a replacement for acoustic drums,” he explained, “and was developed from having to deal with the problems of audio spill via microphones when playing drums live. Sounds were originally mocked up around an ARP 2600 synthesizer which had already been popular with producers such as Martin Hannett and Daniel Miller for being able to obtain distinctive but useable percussive palettes. He went on to explain how he came up with the idea of the drum kit, “I was driving up to St Albans where Musicaid was based (that was the name of the company before they went bankrupt and Simmons was formed) and I was thinking about what kind of shape the pads should be. I realised they didn’t need to be round. The first prototype was triangular (I still have that) but I wanted something that would fit together well in a drum set and it struck that the honeycomb is an organic shape that locks together. Dave Simmons made bats-wings and the Rushmore Head set (I have two of those) but in the end it was the hex shape that caught on.”

In an interview with Chi Ming Lai, Burgess explained how it began, “Spandau’s manager Steve Dagger called me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to produce their first album. I was very excited about that and I had seen the band at nearly all of their first six gigs. I knew them personally from The Blitz and liked them. I also knew that we could make a great album that would be a hit and that the Landscape album would be more likely to chart if I had a hit with Spandau Ballet first. The Journeys to Glory album immediately went gold and launched my production career. It nearly ended my career as well because all I was offered after that was artists who wanted to sound just like Spandau Ballet and I preferred to work with artists who are fundamentally original.”

As a member of Landscape, their first and biggest hit, Einstein a Go-Go reached number five in March 1981. “We had all or most of the music written for what would become [the parent album] From the Tea-rooms of Mars to the Hell-holes of Uranus and I was sitting at home thinking and I realised that we were going to get the same result as we did with the debut album if we put out another instrumental jazz-funk album through a major label,” Burgess explained in the same interview. “We discussed it in the band and everyone was on board so I started working on the lyrics that became European Man (over a track we called Route Nationale). John and I worked up Einstein A Go-Go; everybody in the band wrote and arranged so we reconceptualised that album. We talked about the track conceptually before we wrote it and our objective was to make a very simple, cartoon-like track with a strong hook that would belie the meaning of the lyrics!”

They followed up Einstein with Norman Bates which stepped onto the bottom rung of the top 40. In 1983, Landscape broke up and Burgess continued in production. Andy Pask went on to be a member of various house bands performing music on TV shows like Barrymore, Wogan, Stars in their Eyes and Pop Idol. Most notably he co-wrote and performed a track called Overkill, better known as the theme to the police drama The Bill. Some of you may remember the Lurpak butter advert which was voiced by Penelope Keith and featured a miniature trombone player called Douglas, well the trombone sounds were performed by Peter Thomas. In fact, it’s such a great advert you must see it now

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Mambo No. 5 (Lou Bega)

Once upon a time, list songs were very popular but are few and far between now. This week’s choice was a number one hit in 1999 with a vocalised cover of a 1950 instrumental. Lou Bega said of it in an interview with VH-1, “Mambo makes you happy, Latin music makes you happy, it’s sexual, it’s erotic, energetic, I think that’s the point.” So why all the girls names and who were they? Let’s find out.

In the fifties Cuba was run by the corrupt General Batista, who kept most of his citizens in poverty. It was liberated by Fidel Castro in 1959 when he and his bearded guerillas took control – they were actually known as Los barbudos (The bearded ones). President Kennedy did not support Castro and so Castro declared the country to be a socialist republic and aligned himself with Russia. If the Russians had not backed down in 1962, there could have been another world war.

The CIA had many, almost comic plans for removing Castro including presents of exploding cigars. He has survived assassination attempts and was still in control until April 2011. His compadre, his Ministry for Industry, Che Guevara, was less lucky: he left Cuba in 1965 and continued guerilla warfare in Bolivia. He was killed in 1967 but he lives on as a poster and t-shirt icon.

Although Castro appreciated the importance of song (his guerillas had guitars as well as rifles), the new order affected the lifestyle of the main Cuban musicians and they either emigrated to America (until that loophole was closed in 1964) or were reduced to poverty, The beautiful music continued, however, and the mambo and the cha-cha retained their native popularity. Because of the détente between America and Cuba, few Americans knew of the music.

The Cuban bandleader, Pérez Prado, toyed with the concept of the mambo in the early Forties. He had the concept of adding American swing music, especially the saxophone, to Afro-Cuban rhythms and he wanted something more exciting than the rhumba. He said, “I am a collector of cries and noises, elemental ones like seagulls on the shore, winds through the trees and men at work in a foundry. Mambo is a movement back to nature by means of rhythms based on such cries and noises and on simple joys.”

Pérez Prado recorded numerous mambos, often giving his original compositions names like Olé Mambo, Manhattan Mambo and Mambo-Jambo. When he ran out of inspiration, he would simply number them and Mambo No. 5, in 1950, was one of a series of eight. Mambo in its time became old-fashioned and was replaced by salsa.

Lou Bega was born David Lubega in Germany in 1975 to Ugandan and Italy parents who both loved Pérez Prado’s music. He made his first album as a rapper in Munich in 1990. He achieved popularity as a singer and rapper and trumpet player. He set about writing lyrics to Mambo No. 5, paying tribute to Angela, Pamela, Sandra, Rita, Monica, Erica, Tina, Mary and Jessica. It was reported at the time that the girls he mentioned were all former girlfriends but is it really likely he had chosen a stack of women whose names ended with an A? Unlikely.

Bega did say in an interview with Fox News that the story was a simple one. “I dated a lot of pretty nice ladies when I was younger. These names of my past, you know, just came to me and I wrote it down, got the melody and the rest is history.” He went on to say, “My favourite is Sandra, that’s why she was the one in the sun.”

The song was first issued in Germany where it went to number one and stayed there for 17 weeks and a record-breaking 20 weeks in France. It became so popular that import copies started to sell in the UK and when RCA realised, they released it here and it went to the top. It also went to number one in 20 other countries.  He looked elegant in his thirties hat, white suit, pocket handkerchief and spats and he said, “Never lose your joie de vivre; there is more beauty around us than we can possibly imagine.”

It was covered in 2001 by Neil Morrissey as Bob the Builder where it went to number one again but with time with re-adapted lyrics and regularly name-checking Dizzy, Lofty and Roley.

The year before, it became the theme song for the 2000 Democratic Convention which was Bill Clinton’s party and that night he gave the opening speech. It became a bit more of a joke when someone noticed the line, ‘A little bit of Monica in my life.’

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Hats off to Larry (Del Shannon)

Two weeks ago, I lost my dearest best friend Larry Foster to that wretched COVID-19 virus. I’m still desperately sad and when this request came in from jukeboxdil I pushed it to the front of the queue. jukeboxdil was a regular attendee at one of Larry’s music quizzes and they’d become friends. He had also become a regular at my Start of Year quiz so I got to know him too. He wrote, “As a little tribute to the Mad Hatter (one of Larry’s early DJ names) would you consider doing Del Shannon’s Hats off to Larry as single of the week soon – I’ve never asked before – so now so seems a good time.” That song was also Larry’s mobile ringtone. When I spoke to Larry’s son Scott following the tragic news, he said, “That ringtone was so annoying. It was so loud and it used to drive us all mad. Now, I just want to hear it again.”

Battle Creek, Michigan is affectionately known as the Cereal City USA as Kellogg’s has its headquarters there. In 1959, the workers would unwind at the Hi-Lo club and listen to a 25-year-old Charles Westover fronting the resident band. “There was a guy in the club who wanted to be a wrestler called Mark Shannon,” Del explained in an interview with my Number Ones book co-author, Spencer Leigh, “and I thought Shannon was a great name and borrowed it. Mark Shannon wasn’t right though as it sounded like a detective. I was selling carpets by day and the guy who owned the store had a Cadillac DeVille, which was beautiful and so I became Del Shannon.”

A modest man, Del never claimed he was doing anything original with his vocal, saying that it borrowed from The Ink Spots’ We Three, Jimmy Jones’ Handy Man, Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover and Dion & The Belmonts’ I Wonder Why.

His first hit was the multi-million selling Runaway and firmly established Del on the music scene. Hats off to Larry became the follow up in September 1961 and is a break-up song with sweet revenge. Just after Runaway had been a hit, Del was making his debut stage appearance at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre in New York where he was sharing the bill with Dion Dimucci. They also shared a dressing room and as Del explained on his website, “I wrote Hats off to Larry in the dressing room that night with Dion and fellow rock ‘n’ roller Bobby Vee present.”

Hats Off, which was solely written by Del, tells the story of his heartbreak when his girl goes off with another man. That is reflected in the slow one piano chord intro and Del telling that her name doesn’t even matter now and how she went off with another guy who now, doesn’t even look at her. But then the beat kicks in and suddenly it’s upbeat because he’s realised that the new man, Larry, has already dumped her and Del is happy to take her back but not until he’s reminded her that Larry told her lies like she did to Del and it’s her turn to cry, cry, cry when Larry said goodbye to her.

Shannon was signed to Big Top records in the States and like most record companies they think they know best. They were not too happy with the slow intro. They told Del that it should have been faster to hook the listener in earlier and seemly ignoring the song’s sentiment. Del wrote it, he should know best. He said in an interview with Ted Yates, “I had to fight for about two hours to get that the way I wanted it. They didn’t want to listen to me. I was just the singer.” Thankfully, Del rightly got his way.

The song features a similar instrumental break to Runaway;  that familiar sound is an electronic keyboard called a Musitron and played by Max Crook. Max had auditioned for Del’s band and brought his prototype synthesiser that could copy violins and other instruments. As soon as he heard it, Del said, “Man, you’re hired.” A music publisher, Ollie McLaughlin, was impressed with the group and asked Del and Max for original songs. Max wrote the instrumental, Mr. Lonely which appeared on the B-side of Johnny & The Hurricanes’ 1961 hit, Ja-Da.

In January 1961 Del and Max and their wives, Shirley and Joann, went to New York and the two men recorded with session musicians. While they were recording, Shirley and Joann joined the audience of a TV show and Joann ended up as a winning contestant on Beat the Clock. Almost nine months to the day, Shirley gave birth to their daughter, whom they named Jody, after the B-side of Runaway and itself named after a girl who went to the Hi-Lo.

Anyone who has toured with Del Shannon knows he was full of obsessions – one day he was attacking sugar and the next day scooping down ice cream – and he went from one fad to another. His songs reflect his paranoia and he took his own life in 1990.

Larry Foster was my closest friend for 37 years. He had celebrated his 50th anniversary of DJing last year and was, by far, the world’s best music programmer. Nobody, but nobody could touch him for his knowledge of how to read an audience. He just knew what to play as well how and when to play it. When an evening fell apart he could fix it quicker than anyone I know or will ever know and to that I take my hat off to Larry! RIP my dear friend.

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