Single of the week

Making Plans For Nigel (XTC)

Any song with a person’s name in the title makes me wonder if it’s a real person or not and if so, is it autobiographical. So, is this the case in this week’s suggestion?

The roots of XTC  were formed as early as 1972 by lead singer and guitarist Andy Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding who had both grown up in Swindon. They formed a glam rock band with drummer Terry Chambers eventually changing their name to XTC in 1975. Two years later they signed to Virgin Records

Their debut hit, Life Begins At The Hop, was written by Moulding, released in May 1979 and just fell short of the top 50. The follow up, also written by Moulding, gave them their breakthrough. “Andy Partridge had been perceived as the writer and I was very much a sideshow,” Moulding recalled to Ian Harrison. “When Barry Andrews left the band in 1979 it seemed to set something off in me perhaps the desire to be myself. I came up with Nigel soon after Barry left and suddenly we were talking about dominating parents and family dysfunction and my dad was pretty upset that I’d forsaken my education at 16 to play in a band. Was I Nigel? I don’t know. My dad did kick up a bit but he wasn’t as domineering as the song makes out.” He explained in a 2014 interview with Uncut magazine, “There were no Nigels at school. I wasn’t bullied, but I think I had a natural empathy for people that were. ‘Nigel’ was my song for the bullied, I suppose.”

It was hard said Moulding; “It was like what George Harrison said, John and Paul were able to get their rubbishy songs out of the way before The Beatles became famous, whereas I had to do it in the public eye,” he mentioned in a Classic Rock interview. “On some of my early stuff I was aping Andy a bit too much. This was me trying to write something more ‘me’.”

So, what did the band initially think of the song? “It sounded like the Spinners,” remembered Partridge, “When Colin brought it to us and played it on an acoustic guitar, he might as well have had a dress on and some horn-rimmed glasses like Nana Mouskouri.”

The song tells the story of a young lad being hounded by his parents to go out a find a tedious and monotonous job which is very much how it was in the late 70s. His parents claiming they only want what’s best for him, like they knew! The song talks about him working of British Steel? Why that company? “British Steel was in the air at the time. You couldn’t get away from all the industrial disputes, the three-day weeks and all that,” Moulding reflected. I just chose British Steel as it just popped into my head. It could just as easily have been British Pharmaceuticals. Once the track entered the chart, Moulding got a phone call, “One of the union leaders at British Steel rang me up and said, ‘Really glad you’re supporting the cause’ What the cause was I don’t know.”

“I could never see Making Plans For Nigel being a single to be honest,” Moulding said. Top of the Pops was a bit of a laugh, we were on there with Lena Martell and Peaches and Herb but it was a farce as well. We had to go along with our record company who tried to the kiss the arse of the BBC, but I preferred the Old Grey Whistle Test, all the good bands played on that. It’s incredible what a bit of TV and radio airplay can do, We’d gone from the college circuit to the city halls, had bigger PA systems, bigger light show and were following bands like The Stranglers or The Clash so you had to step up.

Germfree Adolescents (X-Ray Spex)

With the whole world having just endured a pandemic where for a while everything was shut down, no one was allowed to leave their home, shops rationing many of their products and we’re all made to wear masks and use hand sanitizer, as well as taking lateral flow tests which had been rapidly invented to fight the cause, this week’s suggestion from Kev seems very appropriate. We all needed to stay germ-free, but surely that wasn’t what X-Ray Spex were worried about back in 1978…or was it?

X-Ray Spex joined the punk movement fairly late but did so in a very memorable way thanks to the band’s lead singer. Her name was Poly Styrene who was born Marion Joan Elliott-Said, in Bromley, Kent, is of Somali descent and was inspired to put the band together after seeing the Sex Pistols in Hastings for her 19th birthday. They comprised Jak Airport (real name Jack Stafford) on guitar, Paul Hurding on drums, Paul Dean on bass and, as a last-minute addition, Lora Logic (real name Susan Whitby) on saxophone. Logic was not yet a professional musician as she was only 15 and still studying. Just over a year later she left to complete her studies although some stories at the time claim she was dismissed because of trying to upstage Poly. This is probably enhanced by the fact that she went on to form her own band called Essential Logic, and played some saxophone sessions for artists like Boy George. Poly had a fairly unconventional voice but a distinctive look especially with the large braces worn on her teeth. At the time of their first hit, The Day The World Turned Day-Glow in 1978 she said, “I wasn’t a sex symbol and if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow”.

Poly explained in an interview with Jenn Pelly how she came to use that name, “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product. It sounded alright. It was a send-up of being a pop star—plastic, disposable, that’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.”

Their debut album, Germfree Adolescents was well received and remains so to this day. In various media polls it’s been referred to as, a masterpiece and storming album and was ranked ninth in the Top Albums of the Year in 1978 by the New Musical Express. Sixteen years later the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music named the album the eighth best punk album of all time then in 2001, Spin magazine ranked it at number five in its 50 Most Essential Punk Records. It also features in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

The title track was released as a single in November 1978 – the unusual reggae-punk ballad all about hygiene uses words you’d rarely find in any song. Use of the words Listerine, sterilised and disinfectant really pushes home that the new man in her life really must be spotless. The opening line, ‘I know you’re antiseptic, your deodorant smells nice’ tells us that he already meets with her approval. The lines, ‘deep frozen like the ice’ and ‘the S.R. way’ are references to the very first television advert shown in the UK in 1955 which was for Gibbs S.R. toothpaste, the S.R. standing for sodium ricinoleate.

Poly suffered with mental health issues and the stress of fame only aggravated her condition. She suffered with horrendous and intense mood swings as well as having hallucinations. She had a fixation about Nazis and the supernatural. Her band mates were getting worried and the band finally fell apart when she revealed she saw a UFO after a gig one night, “I saw a Day-Glo UFO in Doncaster one night after a concert. It was a bright ball of luminous pink, made of energy – like a fireball. Everyone else thought I’d lost the plot,” she explained to The Independent in 2008. It was as late as 1991 that she was diagnosed as bipolar. One of her best friends was John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. She would often visit his house, he confirmed this in his 2014 memoir, “They used to lock her up occasionally… She’d break out and always make a beeline for my house. She was good fun until the ambulance turned up for her.”

In 1995, Poly briefly reformed the band which included Logic but it was short-lived as they clashed again. Airport and Hurding were both members of Classix Nouveau but Airport left within a year and went to work at the BBC’s corporate and public relations department. Poly died of cancer in 2011 at the age of just 53.

Ghost Town (The Specials)

John Jones emailed to say that the second half of 1981 was memorable for him for two reasons, on the happy side it was the wedding of Charles and Diana and on the unhappy side was the riots across the UK which inspired the song Ghost Town, but, he asks, was there any specific part of the atrocities that sparked the idea. Let’s find out.

Towards the end of the 1970s, punk gave way to New Wave, a fairly short-lived, but popular, genre  which then gave way to the mod revival which soon became known as the 2Tone phenomenon and it was the brain child of Jerry Dammers who, in late 1977, formed a reggae/punk/ska band in his native Coventry and were known as the Coventry Automatics then the Coventry Specials before settling on the Special AKA.

He set up the group’s own 2Tone label with a logo which was based on a photo of reggae star Peter Tosh that Dammers found and he gave it the name Walt Jabsco which came from a bowling shirt that Dammers bought in a charity shop and had that name on it. Within a few months he’s also signed The Beat, Madness and the Bodysnatchers. Their debut hit was Gangsters went to number six and then they trimmed their name omitting the AKA although it would returned for various later hits including a duet with Rhoda from the Bodysnatchers and the 1984 hit Nelson Mandela.

Jerry Dammers’ inspiration for the song came from scenes noted during their UK tour, as he recalled in an interview in Mojo, “In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. In Glasgow there were little old ladies on the streets selling their household goods – it was clear something was wrong.” Dammers explained the wailing sirens at the start and end of the song, “they’re supposed to sound a bit middle eastern, like a prophecy of doom.” The lyric, ‘All the clubs have been closed down,’ specifically refers to the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry.

It was a police raid in the St Paul’s area of Bristol that sparked rioting which then spread to Toxteth in Liverpool, Brixton in South London and various other deprived inner-city areas. It was a coincidental and perfectly timed number one. The Tories were halfway through their first term in office and while the Yuppie revolution was under way, social services and housing were already feeling the blade of the Thatcherite knife. Everyone was experiencing the atmosphere of social unrest. This included me personally when I was on my way back from DJing at a club in Streatham and whilst stationary at some traffic lights in Brixton I saw, in my rear-view mirror, a large group of terrifying people running towards my car lobbing bricks and various other dangerous looking objects. ‘Sod the red light, ‘ I thought and floored it. I was in Central London in seconds it seemed.

It turns out that the song had another inspiration. Just prior to putting pen to paper, three members of the band decided to quit; Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples all left to form the Fun Boy Three and so, “Ghost Town was about the breakup of the Specials,” Dammers said. “It just appeared hopeless. But I just didn’t want to write about my state of mind so I tried to relate it to the country as a whole.”

Jerry Dammers continued with the remaining members, Horace Panter, John Bradbury and newly recruited ex-Bodysnatchers lead singer, Rhoda Dakar. He also reverted to the band’s original name, The Special A.K.A. The band split in 1984 and a brief reformation in 1996 went unnoticed. Jerry Dammers was also behind the free 1988 Artists Against Apartheid concert at Clapham Common and also worked as a DJ in London.

In April 2014, he received the South African Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in silver award for his role in the anti-apartheid movement. “It feels fantastic. It is a real honour to be considered for this, especially when I compare what little I did to the work of those who sacrificed their lives, I am humbled,” he said. This was featured in the 2000 Guy Ritchie-directed film Snatch which starred Jason Statham and Brad Pitt.

In 1995 Terry Hall released his Rainbows EP with guest artists, Damon Albarn and Ian Broudie. Bizarrely, on it there is a revamped, live version of Ghost Town featuring the rapper Tricky on lead vocals, but the eerie atmosphere of the original was never going to be recaptured.

To Sir With Love (Lulu)

Some songs are so well known but never made the chart and you wonder why. Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, Eagles’ Life in the Fast Lane, Champagne Supernova by Oasis and Born Free by Matt Monro, which were all released as singles, are all good examples. The latter was written by, arguably the UK’s greatest lyricist, Don Black, the same man who wrote this week’s suggestion, To Sir with Love. The reason that song was not a UK hit, despite topping the Billboard Hot 100, was because it was relegated to the b-side of Lulu’s Let’s Pretend. Which bright spark at the record company decided that? The only version of the song to chart was in 2010 when the castoff Glee took it to the dizzy heights of number 60.

Don was born Donald Blackstone in a council flat in Hackney and the youngest of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. “I realised very early on in my life that there are very happy people living in Hackney and some very unhappy people living in Belgravia and Hawaii.” Don once said.  Don’s first hit as a songwriter was Walk Away, a hit for Matt Monro in 1964 who he also managed for over 20 years.

Lulu was born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in Lennoxtown, Stirlingshire 10 years after Don. Having got her break when her first hit Shout made the top 10 in 1964, she followed it with her original version of Here Comes the Night which was later a hit for Them. She had her own TV series as well as recording the 1974 James film theme The Man with the Golden Gun, another song written by Don Black and not a UK hit. From 1969 to 1973 she was married to Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees.

To Sir With Love was the title and theme song for the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier as a well-educated teacher with a calm temperament. In the film he had landed a job in an east London school full of unruly children where his patience was tested but he won the battle. Every single one of the kids were changed by learning from one man. The children, many from poor backgrounds with little appreciation for things were taught the worth and how to treat people. So much so that the key line in the song, ‘But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume’ stands out a mile along with the last pre-chorus line, ‘I know that I am leaving my best friend, a friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong, that’s a lot to learn. What, what can I give you in return?

Lulu was cast in a small role as one of the students and at this point the film had no theme. She got the job of singing the theme after the film’s director James Clavell saw her at a show where was supporting The Beach Boys. Clavell was impressed and as well as giving her a bigger role in the film he also asked her to sing the theme. Some songs were submitted but as Lulu told Billboard in a 1985 interview, “I hated them. I thought they were all poor choices. I said to my friend Mark London, ‘They’re going to make me sing these rotten songs and it will be awful. Why don’t you write the songs?'” London dismissed the idea believing he didn’t have a chance. Lulu insisted so the Canadian composer came up with the music in five minutes. The next day, Don Black was asked to write the words. “I was over the moon,” Lulu said. “I just knew it was going to be a great song.”

Black usually writes with a composer and usually adds his lyrics to a tune, but, “It’s one of the very, very few songs that I’ve worked on where I’ve written the words first,” he explained in The Sunday Times in 2008. “Normally, I may give the composer a title or suggest a couple of lines, but I don’t like to write the whole lyric first. If you write the lyric first, you tend to ramble. You want the structure there to work against it.”

The film version of the song had an extra verse which was edited out of the single. The missing second verse had the line, ‘Those awkward years have hurried by, why did they fly away? Why is it, Sir children grow up to be people one day? What takes the place of climbing trees and dirty knees in the world outside? What is there for you I can buy?’

In 2018, Don began writing his autobiography. At the time he admitted that he finds most autobiographies “too long, and full of boring pages about stuff I’m not interested in” and thus has done his memoir in the same way he writes his lyrics – by being spare, economical and trimming any excess fat. Not long after he started he was hit by tragedy, Sheila, his wife of over 60 years, passed away. But he continued with the book because, as he says, “It became my main motivation for writing it was to spend more time with her because every word brings her closer.”

Two years later, it was reported he Don had been hospitalised with Covid. Whilst there a nurse happened to notice his hands. “She said, ‘they’re very soft – what do you do?'” he told Weekend Magazine in The Mail, “I said, ‘I write songs – Google me’. And I thought that was it. Anyway, when the day came for me to leave, they put me in a wheelchair, the door was opened, and there were, I don’t know, around 20 nurses, all singing Born Free, and applauding me. It was so moving, as you can imagine.”

Especially For You (Kylie & Jason)

Earlier this year it was announced that Neighbours was coming to an end after 32 years in the UK. More announcements followed including the re-release of Especially For You on both limited editions of vinyl and cassette and also that both Kylie and Jason would be returning to Ramsey Street to make a final special appearance together. But how did this song come together in the first place? Let’s find out.

In 1988, Kylie followed I Should Be So Lucky with three number two hits, Got To Be Certain, a re-recorded version of The Locomotion and Je Ne Sais Pas Pour Quoi, which were all lifted from her debut album, Kylie. When the album made number one, Kylie set two new records. She became the youngest female artist to have a number one album and, with its sales of 1.8 million, the biggest selling debut album by a female.

In the UK, Neighbours was 18 months behind Australia and the UK viewing figures were phenomenal which, in turn, helped Kylie’s pop career. But the pinnacle of their acting careers came in October 1988, when Charlene (Kylie) married Scott Robinson (Jason Donovan) in what was publicised as ‘The wedding of the year’. The kissing scenes came naturally as the couple were dating in real life. Accompanying the pair down the aisle was the song Suddenly, performed by Angry Anderson.  Such was the demand for the record, that it was released as a single giving the former lead singer with Aussie hard rockers, Rose Tattoo, a number three hit. The wedding made such an impact that Kylie’s wedding dress was put on display in London’s Museum Of The Moving Image.

Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman had written the majority of both Kylie and Jason’s early hits and this song was no exception. Pete Waterman, who is generally the spokesperson for the trio, said in his autobiography, I Wish I Was Me, “Because we were working with both Kylie and Jason, who were romantically linked, there was inevitably a feeling amongst the public that we’d have them do a romantic duet together. We’d known from the beginning that they were going out, but the idea seemed a sickly proposition.” Pete met Matt at Heathrow Airport and the pair flew to Sydney and sat up all night writing the lyrics. “We didn’t actually sing the duet together,” recalled Jason. “We had to learn the song very quickly and recorded our parts separately.” After 10 hours of recording, Pete and Matt flew straight back to London. When I heard the finished version, I hated it. It had absolutely no passion. Mike hated it and everybody I played it to in the office hated it,” admitted Pete. “But it was going to be a smash because of who was singing it.” Mike Stock spent four hours remixing it, but they still weren’t happy. Then Pete had a go and as he remembered, “somehow it came together at the last moment; so, we rushed to the pressing plant and got it out in time for Christmas.”

In actual facts, it missed the Christmas sales week and got to number on the first week of 1989 where it stayed for three weeks. A cover version by the unromantically linked Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen was recorded in 1998 for the BBC’s Children In Need appeal. It reached number three in the UK chart probably helped a bit by the fact that it was Steps on backing vocals.

On her 2001 show An Audience with…Kylie, after giving the song a big build up, asked the audience to welcome an old friend. As the orchestra played the opening bars of Especially For You, the audience found themselves applauding Kermit the Frog.

Theme From A Summer Place (Percy Faith & His Orchestra)

This week’s suggestion was described, in 1976, by the American DJ Casey Kasum as, “The biggest hit on the American charts by a Canadian artist.” It is the longest-running number one instrumental hit on Billboard ever where it spent nine weeks at the top and, not only that, it was the first film theme and the first instrumental to win a Record of the Year Grammy.

In the UK, Guy Mitchell’s Feet Up became the first ever song to peak at number two which was back in 1952 when the chart compilers were using the New Musical Express source up until 26th February 1960. Those compilers changed from NME to Record Retailer (later Music Week) from 10th March 1960, hence there was no actual chart for week ending 5 March 1960. The chart that was printed in Record Retailer on 10th March  was actually dated 5th March and more or less corresponded with the NME chart dated 4th March. Are you keeping up? So, the first number two hit with the new chart compilers was Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place taken from the film of the same name, and starred Dorothy McGuire, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, and was favourably compared to the already established Peyton Place. Now that’s out of the way we can get on.

Faith  was born in Toronto, Canada on 7 April 1908, learned violin as a boy and by 11 he was playing piano at the silent film theatres, before moving to the U.S in 1940. Ten years later he joined Columbia Records as conductor and arranger and worked with a variety of names including Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Doris Day.

In 1927, he was involved in an accident, in which, as recalled in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of American Number Ones, his sister’s clothes caught fire and Percy had tried to put them out with his bare hands. Later, medical experts told him that he wouldn’t be able to play piano for about five years, and so he turned to composing music.

Having said that …Summer Place was not written by Faith, it was a cover of the Austrian film composer Max Steiner, who also wrote the score for Casablanca. It was Hugo Winterhalter’s original orchestral version which was used in the film.

The song has been covered by a multitude of people in its instrumental form by the likes of Mantovani, Santo & Johnny, Chet Atkins, the Tornados, Bert Weedon and Duane Eddy. In 1960, Mack Discant wrote some lyrics to it and has been recorded as a vocal version almost as many times but by The Chordettes, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Cliff Richard and Dorothy Squires.

Such is its appeal that it has been featured in stacks of films including, The Omega Man (1971), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Batman (1989), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022).

Faith, who passed away in February 1976, aged 67, had so much faith (no pun intended) in the track that he re-recorded it…twice, firstly in 1969 which included a female choral vocal then, in 1976, as a disco version which he retitled Summer Place ’76 and done in quite a classy way as you probably expect.