Single of the week

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? (R.E.M.)

Songs that were written specifically about a person are usually fairly obviously because their name might me mentioned in the title or they can be a little cryptic like Carrie Anne by the Hollies which was written about a lady that the lead singer had a brief liaison with but didn’t want to make it too obvious so changed her name by making it rhyme with her real name. This week’s choice is even more baffling because you would think the title What’s the Frequency Kenneth? might be someone asking Kenneth about a particular radio station or, at least, it would have something to do with Kenneth, but nope, that’s not the case.

R.E.M. first came to the UK chart at the tail end of 1987 but they had formed at the beginning of that decade when guitarist Peter Buck met lead singer Michael Stipe at a record shop where Buck was working in their hometown of Athens, Georgia. Their first album to chart was Fables of the Reconstruction but their first two releases Murmur and Reckoning both failed to interest the UK record-buying public.

It’s fairly well known that many of R.E.M’s lyrics are usually a bit cryptic and often indecipherable, just look at the confusion over what he’s singing in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight! But the inspiration for What’s the Frequency Kenneth? comes from a physical attack on the American CBS News channel reporter Dan Rather which happened around 11pm on 4th October 1986. He was walking home to his apartment in Park Avenue, New York when two men, who were well-dressed, stopped him and asked, ‘What’s the frequency Kenneth?’ to which Rather replied, “You must be mistaking me for someone else.” One of the men knocked Rather to the ground and started kicking and punching him but still asked, repeatedly, ‘What’s the frequency Kenneth?’ Moments later a security guard from a nearby apartment intervened and the assailants fled. The police took statements but no one was arrested. Soon after the attack, the media spoke to Rather to find out what happened and he said, “I have no answers. I got mugged. Who understands these things? I didn’t make a lot of it at the time and don’t now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea.”

“It was the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century, it’s a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media-hyped and just plain bizarre,” is how Michael Stipe described it. Stripe later said, in an interview with Bill DeMain, “I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out. And at the end of the song, it’s completely bogus. He got nowhere.”

As no one was arrested how do we know the assailant was William Tager? Well, eight years later there was another incident in New York where a man shot and killed Campbell Montgomery who was an NBC technician. In took place outside the studio of the Today Show and  man was identified as William Tager. He had somehow gained access to the studio carrying an assault rifle, and Montgomery, in an attempt to stop him, was shot. Tager was arrested and reportedly told police that the television network had been monitoring him for years and beaming secret messages into his head. He apparently came to NBC looking for a way to block those transmissions. When Rather saw a photograph of Tager, he identified his attacker. Tager was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

Most of this story is not obvious from the song’s lyric which opens with, ‘What’s the frequency, Kenneth? is your Benzedrine, uh-huh. I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed, I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream, Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen,’ this could well be talking about the attack, but the song repeats the line, ‘You wore a shirt of violent green’ which is unlikely to be about the colour, but a logo for the band Violent Green who were from Seattle in the mid-90s when Kurt Cobain and Stipe were good friends.

Rather retired from CBS in 2005 and for a short while remained an occasional correspondent. Now aged 90, he lives part-time in New York City and part-time in Austin, Texas. Tager was released from prison in 2010 on grounds of good behaviour and still lives in New York City, where he is closely monitored by parole officers and mental health personnel.

What’s the frequency, Kenneth was the first single lifted from the 1994 album Monster and peaked at number 21 in the U.S and number 10 in the UK. The album version of the song contains the added last line, ‘Don’t f**k with me’. There was an edited version without the line, but many radio stations, especially in the UK, play the album version and generally get away with it because you’d have to listen very carefully to realise what Stipe is singing.

In 1996, whilst the band were performing in New York they were joined on stage by Dan Rather who sang along with them. Peter Buck recalled the occasion in the sleeve notes for In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003: where he said, “I like Dan Rather. He’s a fine newsman, an interesting person to talk to, and quite a bit nuttier than most of those media types (I consider that a good thing). That said, nothing in my rich and varied life prepared me for the experience of performing behind him as he ‘danced’ and ‘sang’ ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?'”

Unforgettabe (Nat ‘King’ Cole)

This request came in a few weeks ago but I’ve been saving until Valentine’s week because, not only is it a great love song, but a couple of years ago Good Housekeeping magazine voted it number one on their All-Time Most Romantic Playlist. It is most associated with Nat King Cole who has the most gorgeous romantic voice which is why he was voted in at number three on Radio Two’s Voices of the Century programme back in 2000 behind Elvis at number two and Frank Sinatra at number one.

Back in the days when singers rarely wrote their own songs because they were written for them by professional songwriters and each one had their own niche which gave them a unique identity, but there are a small handful who could write in such a wide variety of styles, one good example is Bob Merrill who wrote the light-hearted novelty song How Much is that Doggie In The Window and also wrote People which is most associated with Barbra Streisand – two very different types of song. Another is this week’s writer, Irving Gordon who penned comedic ditties like Delaware (Perry Como), I Didn’t Like It the First Time (The Spinach Song) (Julia Lee and Her Boy Friends) and Mama from The Train (made famous by Patti Page who had also recorded How much Is That Doggie…) and this week’s great love song.

Unforgettable is a very simple song that carries a meaningful message and does so in just 86 words. Its most memorable lines are ‘That’s why darling it’s incredible, that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable too’ which can easily be applied to all manner of relationships. We assume from the song that the ‘darlin’ refers to the protagonist’s wife or girlfriend but not necessarily. This point is proved when, in 1991, and with the clever use of technology, Nat’s daughter Natalie sang the song with her late father (on a screen) with no lyric change at all.

Another tie-in to Valentine’s day is that the song’s sole writer, Irving Gordon, was born on Valentine’s Day 1915. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family like many songwriters of that era. In the 1930s, he began writing parody lyrics to the popular songs of the day and in 1937, he was introduced to the jazz orchestra leader Duke Ellington who occasionally asked him to write words to his compositions. Gordon once said it was one of the most difficult times as Ellington’s compositions were predominantly jazz instrumentals. In 1951, Gordon wrote a song called Mister and Mississippi a title which led to him writing Delaware a few years later where the song name-checks a number of U.S states in parody form. Gordon died on 1st December 1996 at the age of 81.

Nat King Cole, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919, was signed to Capitol records by its co-founder Johnny Mercer in 1943 and released his debut album, The King Cole Trio, the following year. He recorded this song in 1951 with orchestra leader and elegant arranger Nelson Riddle. Nat played a pivotal role in the label’s output that the building itself was often affectionally known as ‘the house that Nat built’.

Nat was one of the first African-American stars to host their own television show. On 5th November 1956, his show debuted on the NBC network. It began as a 16-minute variety show which was extended to 30 minutes the following year, but, for some reason, it never found a national sponsor despite a number of Nat’s peers, namely, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Laine and Harry Belafonte all trying their best for him. In the end he decided to end the show just before Christmas 1957.

Nat was first married to Nadine Robinson at the age of 17. He was divorced 12 years later and married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington the following year. They had five children – three biological – daughters Natalie, Casey and Timolin, and two adopted children, daughter Carol and son Nat Kelly.

Unforgettable never made the UK chart first time round because the chart wasn’t launched here until 1952. In America, he peaked at number 12 on Billboard but topped the sheet music chart and remained on that listing for 25 weeks.

Its only UK chart appearance was the aforementioned duet with his daughter Natalie when it scraped into the top 20 in 1991. This version won three Grammy Awards in 1992, one of which was especially awarded to Irving Gordon in the category Song of the Year. The song’s producer, David Foster, was awarded the Record of the Year trophy.

Dozens of covers have been spawned including versions by Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Brenda Lee, Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr., Lou Rawls, Engelbert Humperdinck, Roberta Flack, Kenny Rogers and, more recently, Sia, whose version appeared in the 2016 Pixar movie Finding Dory.

Sixty years on, the song has certainly lived up to its title as it is still being recorded by various acts including Michael Buble in 2019 and most recently, in 2021, by the American Jazz, swing and ragtime pianist, Scott Bradlee.

 

Easy Lover (Philip Bailey and Phil Collins)

This week’s suggestion came from David who seemed keener to know how these two people got together to make this recording rather than the record itself. Well as the falsetto voiced lead singer with Earth Wind and Fire, Philip Bailey had already scored 16 UK hit singles and Phil Collins scored 12 hits as lead singer with Genesis as well as eight as a soloist, so it was a good bet that whatever they recorded was going to be something special.

Earth Wind and Fire, who took their name from the three elements in Maurice White’s astrological sign, had established themselves as one of the great American soul/funk bands. They were formed in 1969 as The Salty Peppers by the multi-talented aforementioned singer/songwriter/producer, Maurice White who had been a session drummer for Chess Records and a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He brought in his bass-playing brother, Verdine and after two years of using a line-up of session musicians, they brought in a new permanent line-up comprising: Philip Bailey (co-lead vocals), Larry Dunn (keyboards), Al McKay (guitar), Andrew Woodfolk (saxophone) and Ralph Johnson (drums).

Collins had also appeared as a guest musician on other people songs including playing drums for Robert Plant, Adam Ant, Frida, Howard Jones, Tears for Fears and Eric Clapton as well as providing backing vocals for his former Genesis band member Peter Gabriel. For many, he will be remembered for his drumming effort on the 1984 Band Aid single.

Collins’ solo career began in 1981 with the introductory single In the Air Tonight which was also produced by him. Production came naturally and soon other people were requiring his services and he did so for the aforementioned Frida and Adam Ant. Whilst Collins remained lead singer with Genesis, Bailey remained lead singer with E, W & F and also embarked on concurrent solo careers. In 1983, Bailey asked Collins if he would produce his next album called Chinese Wall. Collins agreed and they met in London with bass player, Nathan East. Once the album was finished, Bailey, Collins and East all agreed that it didn’t have a commercial enough song to release as a single, so they sat down and wrote, Easy Lover. Bailey recalled in an interview with Musician magazine how it came about, “Phil and Nathan were playing around with a riff on the piano and I was walking around singing ‘Choosy Lover’ over the piano chords. We worked on it all day and put a rough version of it down on tape. The next day we said, ‘let’s check it out so we can go in and record it.’ When we heard it, we realised there was nothing wrong with it. We tried doing it again, but we kept the original.”

“So, we just started having a jam one night, and went round and round and turned it into a verse and a chorus”, Phil explained to Rolling Stone magazine. “We recorded it that night so we wouldn’t forget it. That song doesn’t sound like any particular era. It’s just fantastic. The hip-hop brigade fell in love with me after Easy Lover. They were like, ‘Where’d that come from? That ain’t black music and that ain’t white music. That’s kind of an interesting colour of beige.'”

In January 1985, Collins released his third solo album No Jacket Required and the first single lifted from it was Sussudio which peaked at number 12.  The next single was to be the balled One More Night and was due to be released at the same time as Easy Lover, but as one was a ballad and other was an uptempo number, no one could see any reason why they shouldn’t be released around the same time. This was done and One More Night peaked at number four exactly four weeks after Easy Lover topped the UK chart and went to number two in America.

The video was unusual because it showed the two Phils in the studio learning a dance routine and picking out costumes. It was more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a music clip. But, if nothing else, it was original and won the 1985 MTV award for Best Overall Performance. Their theory that the album lacked commerciality was proved when the follow-up, Walking on The Chinese Wall failed to make the Top 30. The pair were awarded a Grammy nomination for Best Group Pop vocal Performance but lost out to the mighty Quincy Jones-assembled USA For Africa with their charity offering We Are the World.

Bailey returned to Earth Wind and Fire and still tours with them to this day and Collins continued as lead singer with Genesis until he left in 1993 and was replaced by ex-Stiltskin vocalist Ray Wilson.

Walk Like An Egyptian (Bangles)

This week’s act was one of the most successful all-female acts of the 1980s, but their original name was not a good name so a swift change soon launched their career. But it was an ad in a paper that got them together. Let’s find out about the Bangles and their hit Walk Like an Egyptian.

They formed in Los Angeles in 1981 and comprised of lead singer and guitarist Susanna Hoffs, Michael Steele (born Susan Thomas) on bass, guitarist Vicki Peterson and her drumming sister Debbi. As a child, Vicki had various aspirations which included being a nurse, a vet and a cloistered nun, but “Music came to me early,” she revealed. “At nine I convinced my parents to buy me an electric guitar (a Rickenbacker copy, but with a case that looked just like George Harrison’s!) and I took a couple of lessons at the local music store. I soon found that I was very lazy about practicing scales and that writing my own songs was much more fun. I was the annoying kid who brought her acoustic to sleepovers and had a captive audience to audition the latest song.”

In 1980, the sisters put an ad in the Los Angeles newspaper, The Recycler, asking for girls to contact them. It read: “Band members wanted: into the Beatles, Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.” When Susanna Hoffs replied, it was clear that they had a strong lead vocalist and they could create magical harmonies. Adding Michael Steele they became The Supersonic Bangs and then The Bangs (an hilarious name for a female group!). As the Bangles, they provided a female take on the great groups of the sixties, and there are nods to The Hollies, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and Fairport Convention throughout their work.

They got their jangly guitars and four-part harmonies in place on their first album, All Over the Place (1984), and they sharpened their sound on Different Light (1986). They had hits with Prince’s anthem for the work-shy, Manic Monday which gave them a number two hit and their fourth single of 1986 gave them their next top three hit when Walk Like an Egyptian went to number three despite being inexplicably banned by the BBC during the Gulf War.

So, what is Walk Like an Egyptian all about? It seems that no one in the band was quite sure as Vicki once explained, “It was written by Liam Sternberg and its provenance is still a mystery to me. All I know is that David Kahne, our producer at the time, showed up at rehearsal with a tape of a demo of the song, sung with a droll charm by Marti Jones. I realised that we were never gonna write a song like that and there was nothing remotely like it on our album so far (or anywhere else, for that matter) and I agreed to try it in the studio. We had a sing-off for the verses, with Kahne as head judge. Don’t know that I’d ever do it that way again.”

The song was originally offered to Toni Basil but she turned it down and, as is often the way, the Bangles needed one more song for the album so they snapped it up. In an interview with Songfacts, Sternberg explained its inspiration, “I got the idea when I was on a ferry boat and saw people struggling to keep their balance. The way they held out their arms and jerked around made it look like they were doing Egyptian movements, and if the boat moved suddenly, they would all topple over.” Simple!

The original idea was for Vicki to sing the whole song, but Kahne, the producer, decided to try out each member singing the whole song and then he would decide who would sing which bit. In the end, all of them had a verse with the exception of drummer Debbi. Vicki took the first verse, Steel the second and finally Hoffs the third.

Released as a single in September 1986, it peaked at number three in the UK and went to number one on Billboard and in doing so, the Bangles became the first all-female group who played all their own instruments to reach number one Stateside.

The group had further top 30 UK hits with Walking Down Your Street, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 song Hazy Shade of Winter as featured in the film Less Than Zero in which Hoffs made her acting debut and then, in 1989, they had their only UK chart-topper with Eternal Flame which was inspired by Elvis’ grave when they visited his Graceland mansion. Walk Like an Egyptian was re-issued in 1990 where it spent a solitary week at number 73.

Tension formed within the band and they called it a day in 1989. Hoffs launched a solo career and had three relatively minor UK hits. The Bangles reformed in 1998 and in 2001 Atomic Kitten took a cover of Eternal Flame back to number one which prompted Hoffs to ask, “Do you think the young kids who buy it know it’s our song? in an interview with The Times.

Walk Like an Egyptian did reap a spin off parody version which was nothing to do with Weird Al Yankovic. It was re-titled Walk with an Erection by a group called the Swinging Erudites who began life as a lounge act, formed by Johnny Angel (of the Blackjacks) and Sonny Columbus. They were famously called ‘The Worst Band in the World’ at a WBCN lunchtime concert. Worth a listen if you’ve got 30 seconds!

Hanging on the Telephone (Blondie)

Oh, how times have changed with technology. Long before email and mobile phones with text facility, the quickest way to communicate was by telephone. Before answering machines were invented in 1935 you’d have to hang up and try again later and I’m old enough to remember that it was quite frustrating sometimes. This song is all about waiting for that long-awaited call back on a public phone which you had to hang around just in case that call came. Blondie made this song famous in 1978, but the song began life before that.

The song was first recorded by a Californian group called The Nerves who were led by their primary songwriter, Jack Lee. In 1976, they recorded just one EP which contained four tracks which were Hanging on the Telephone, When You Find Out, Give Me Some Time and Working Too Hard and released on their own label. They had so little money and the EP didn’t sell enough to cover their costs and they were on the verge of breaking up. The song is memorable for its ringing sound effect intro and the Nerves’ version opened with a single American ring tone before launching the song at break neck speed.

Lee was in trouble because he couldn’t afford to pay his bills and was on the verge of being disconnected, but just before it was, his phone rang and it was Debbie Harry asking if she could record Hanging on the Telephone. Naturally, Lee instantly agreed, and Blondie’s producer, Mike Chapman, described the song as ‘magic from the beginning’. Blondie’s version was recorded with a double British telephone ring but a similar pace. Lee recalled, “I remember the day vividly, it was a Friday and they were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too. Luckily, Harry got through before they did.”

When Blondie came to record the song, they changed the gender as Lee sings, ‘I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall, if you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall, I know he’s here but I just had to call,’ whereas Debbie sings ‘I know she’s here but I just had to call.’ Blondie did exactly the same with their debut hit Denis (Denee) which was first recorded by the all-male group, Randy and the Rainbows.

Blondie’s version was so similar to The Nerves version it makes you wonder why their version never made it, but the fact that Lee, as the songwriter, made money and managed to remain connected would have been enough. Lee did recall of the song’s brilliance, “Even people who hated me – and there were plenty – had to admit it was great.”

Hanging on the Telephone is the opening track on Blondie’s million-selling album Parallel Lines and the second song, One Way or Another, is along the same lines and another uptempo song about a stalker.

The song has been covered by many acts, namely L7 (1995), Girls Aloud and Def Leppard (2006), Jimmy Somerville (2009) and Will Young (2013).

Stop the Cavalry (Jona Lewie)

This suggestion came in about two months ago, but I thought I’d leave it until nearer Christmas because, although nothing at all to do with the festive period, it’s forever been associated with it. The man who recorded it once said, “I never intended for this to become a Christmas single. It started life as an anti-war song.” It’s probably all because of one line in the song. Let’s find out.

Jona Lewie, who was born John Lewis in Southampton on 14 March 1947, first charted as a soloist in 1980 although he was no stranger to the chart.  His career began proper in 1969 when he joined Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts as lead singer and in 1971 had a slot supporting Derek & the Dominoes. Although he remained with them until 1973, it was in 1971 that he recorded one of his own compositions called Seaside Shuffle which was released later that year with another group he fronted called Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs. It failed to take off, but thankfully after being spotted by Jonathan King and being signed to his UK record label, Seaside Shuffle was re-released and went to number two on the UK chart. The follow-up, On A Saturday Night stalled at number 45. He left the band and continued as a solo artist.

In 1977, he was signed to Stiff records where he toured for a couple of years as part of the Stiff package with various other acts on that label including Kirsty MacColl whom he often sang with. In 1980, he charted with You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties which went to number 16. It featured Kirsty doing backing vocals on Top of the Pops, but not on the single. Then came Stop the Cavalry. Lewie remembered, “I signed to Stiff Records with 50 demos to my name. When I played Stop the Cavalry to Dave Robinson, who founded Stiff, he said it was ‘just another anti-war song’. I’d just bought an electronic keyboard – the Poly Moog, as used by Gary Numan so I went back and beefed up the arrangement, playing the melody on a kazoo. Dave loved it.”

In an interview with M-Magazine, he revealed that it was while he was playing about with his grandmother’s piano that he stumbled across a melody that he liked and that would inspire the song. “I had this line in my head, ‘Can you stop the gallantry?’ and found a melody for it. Then I changed gallantry to cavalry and everything just fell into place,” he told The Guardian. “I started thinking about the Crimean war and the Light Brigade, about how officers would yell ‘Charge!’ and few of the men who did so would come back. Then I started thinking about other scenarios, like the trenches in both World Wars. Back then, in the late 1970s and early 80s, the possibility of nuclear war felt very real, so I also penned the line: ‘Mary Bradley waits at home, in the nuclear fallout zone.’ The opening line – ‘Hey, Mr Churchill comes over here to say we’re doing splendidly’ – wasn’t a dig at Churchill, who was a great leader during the war. I just imagined a tired private who was fed up with Churchill forever trying to gee up the troops, who would be shot if they deserted. I imagined my soldier standing for prime minister and saying: ‘If I get elected, I will stop the cavalry.'”

So how come it’s associated with Christmas? Lewie explained, “The soldier in the song is a bit like the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, but the song actually had nothing to do with Christmas when I wrote it. There is one line about him being on the front and missing his girlfriend: ‘I wish I was at home for Christmas’ and the record company picked up on that from a marketing perspective, and added a tubular bell.” Additionally, a Salvation Army brass band was recruited to play the main melody just like you’d get in the streets in busy cities at Christmas. The label’s owner, Dave Robinson, said, “I’ve always loved a Christmas single. I think it was me who suggested the brass band, actually, to make it more Christmassy.”

A few years ago, Dave Robinson reflected on Jona saying, “He’s a passionate, lovely, talented geezer. He has tapes full of ideas, and never gives up on any of them. He recently played me some ideas for a new album. I said: ‘Jona, these are the same songs I rejected 35 years ago.'”