Single of the week

Nikita (Elton John)

This week’s suggestion came in from mummybear following a conversation as to whether Nikita was a man or a woman. She’s heard it was sung about a man but the video shows a female. Nikita was actually a sequel to another Elton hit from the previous decade, so, mummybear let’s clear this up.

In January 1973, Elton John released the album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player that contained the hit single Daniel which like most of Elton’s hit were written by both Elton and his long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin. Daniel was inspired by an article Taupin had read in a magazine all about a wounded Vietnam War veteran who came back from war and was receiving a lot of unwanted attention, Nikita was effectively the sequel.

The video to Nikita is as well remembered as the song itself and Nikita is portrayed as a Soviet female love interest who the protagonist is unable to reach. We are so taken in by the visuals that we, in the west, don’t stop to think that in Russia Nikita is a male name and Elton is singing to a man. In a number of interviews when Elton was challenged he did say, “I was aware that Nikita was a male name in Russian.” At the time, Elton was married to the German recording engineer Renate Blauel which surprised many people, but it lasted four years with Elton eventually admitting later that realised he was gay before his marriage. Funny, many people knew before that.

The song made an interesting case against the Cold War, an historical event that led American president Ronald Regan, to dub Russia the ‘Evil Empire’. Elton, back in 1979, was one of the first westerners to tour the Soviet Union and had found the Russians that he encountered to be warm and friendly people first-hand.

In the opening verse Elton sings on first spotting the lonely soldier, ‘Oh, I saw you by the wall, 10 of your tin soldiers in a row’ and thinking he would probably want to be anywhere else, singing, ‘Just look towards the west and find a friend’ in the hope of enticing him. It doesn’t have a happy ending with Elton singing, ‘Oh Nikita, you will never know, never know anything about my home.’ The beautiful lady in the video was the 19 year old English actress, model and singer Anya Major. Anna will also be remembered for doing the dramatic hammer throwing in Apple’s famous Apple Macintosh ‘1984‘ commercial. The ad had its only American daytime broadcast in January 1984 as part of the telecast of the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII.

The last line of the first verse Elton sings, ‘With eyes that looked like ice on fire, the human heart, a captive in the snow’, the words ice of fire create a strong image and became the album’s title. Elton’s voice on this album sees less of his 70’s falsetto and led him to remark,  “I think I’m a better ballad singer, but I think I’m becoming a better singer, per se anyway.”

Elton asked his friend George Michael to contribute backing vocals and the electric guitar part was provided by Nik Kershaw who had played guitar on Elton’s previous hit Act of War, a duet with Millie Jackson. George had also added backing vocals to Elton’s follow up hit Wrap Her Up.

Elton did encounter one set back and that was that he’d been accused of plagiarism. A South African songwriter called Guy Hobbs had written a song in 1982 called Natasha, a story about a Russian waitress working on a cruise liner who, apparently, was never allowed to leave. He copyrighted the song the following year and sent it to a music publisher but never heard back. Fast forward 18 years and Hobbs found a book with the lyrics to Nikita and noticed some similarities with his song. He made numerous attempts to contact Elton John without success so 11 years later decided to instigate legal proceedings. Clearly, he’s not in a hurry. So with Hobbs claiming that Elton stole his lyrics, Elton retorted with, “I am a successful musician and would never lift lyrics from some no-name songwriter and also that the song’s theme was too general to win copyright protection.” Anyway, in October 2012 an Illinois federal judge found that the song did not infringe any copyright because the only similar elements were generic images and themes that are not protected under copyright law and found in Elton and Bernie’s favour and dismissed the case.

Elton went on to win an Ivor Novello Award with the song, and, according to the Eltonjohnsonglist website, said he could knock out a song like this every day, though he would not want to, as he has to be in the mood.

Nightswimming (R.E.M.)

Like Lennon and McCartney and Queen, in their later years, R.E.M. had an agreement that all the writing credits on all their songs would be credited to all members of the band, but this week’s suggestion of Nightswimming was actually written by the band’s bass player Mike Mills and it’s their only song where the lyrics were written before the music. Way before the music.

R.E.M. came to UK prominence with the first UK hit, The One I Love in 1989 but they had formed nine years previous and released their first single, Radio Free Europe the following year. The band who comprise lead singer Michael Stipe who was once in a punk covers band called 1066, guitarist Peter Buck, bass player Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. It all started after Stipe & Buck, who met in 1978 at a record shop where Buck worked.

In 1991, the band release the album Out Of Time and whilst that album was climbing the charts around the world, the band began production on their next album Automatic For The People. Drive, Man on the Moon and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were the first three singles lifted from it all with an air of mystery about them and peaked at 11, 18 and 17 respectively in the UK. Their fourth single, the haunting Everybody Hurts reached number seven. That track was more piano and vocal led and arguably brought them a new audience. Perhaps realising this, a fifth single was released in the shape of Nightswimming which was even more vocal and piano led. It only featured Stipe and Mills but did include orchestral arrangements by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

Mills had written the lyrics in 1991 probably with the intention of the song appearing on Out of Time, but he couldn’t get the right tune to go with it so it got shelved until Out of Time was released.

So let’s find out how the music took shape; in the sleeve notes to the 2003 release In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003, Peter Buck explained, “Being competitive bastards that we are, Mike and I started auditioning chord changes and tunes for Michael. The two tunes of mine that Michael rejected eventually became Drive and Try Not To Breathe. Mike had a piano instrumental that he played to Michael. He listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was Nightswimming, exactly like the record we would record a year later. I was standing in the corner dumbfounded.” Mills added in a different interview, “I never thought it would amount to much because it was just a circular thing that kept going round and round and round. But it inspired Michael.” He also said he recorded the piano part on the same piano used by Derek and the Dominos on the recording of Layla which was done at Criteria Studios in Miami.

The song opens with the line, ‘Nightswimming deserves a quiet night, the photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago turned around backwards so the windshield shows’ confused? Stipe explained in the sleeve notes of the 2011 release Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011, “That’s exactly how I saw it, I’m pretty sure it was a pickup truck. Still confused? OK, In the second verse Stipe sings, ‘I’m not sure all these people understand, it’s not like years ago. The fear of getting caught, of recklessness and water, they cannot see me naked’ well we may not have understood until we find out that all that is a real memory and a bit autobiographical of the band’s illicit skinny dipping back in their home town of Athens, Georgia. Peter Buck explains the story, “We used to sneak out onto this guy’s property in Athens and go swimming in this water hole. It’d be great: 30 of us all running around naked. It was before AIDS, and whatever happened happened.” Maybe a little clearer now.

Unbelievably, there was a sixth single released from the album, talking about milking it! That track was Find the River, but it proved to be one too many because it peaked at number 54. Most people had the album by then as it sold over two million copies. The album title, by the way, came from a soul food diner in Athens that Stipe frequented because the waiters always used to answer with, “automatic” after customers made an order. Stipe once owned a vegetarian cafe and juice bar in his home town. He also owned the building that housed another veggie restaurant, The Grit but sold that building in 2004 and The Grit restaurant finally closed in October 2022.

Stipe and Kurt Cobain were once close friends back in the early 90s and Stipe is the godfather of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain.

Go (Cat Burns)

It’s not very often I get asked to write about recent music so it was a pleasant change to receive this. The lady in question is Cat Burns and when I put a picture of her in the online quiz during the last league, less than 50% of the participants knew who she was and thus got the question wrong. So far, she’s only had the one hit but it made a big impact both musically and statistically. It peaked at number two in the UK chart, spent 42 weeks on the listing and has a very personal story which resonated with a lot of people. Why? Read on to find out.

Cat was born in Streatham, south London in 2000 and her career and debut single were not instant. She attended the BRIT school which is famous for producing artists like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Jessie J among others but because her career was slow to get going she doubted whether she’d made the right career move. Initially her sexuality may have had a part to play in her own mind because she told Gay Times, “I felt defeated for a long time. There was a lack of money and no following,” which made her debate whether she was, in her own words, “meant to do music” at all.

Regarding her sexuality, she is a queer woman who is loud and proud about her support for the LGBTQ+ community. When she initially released the song Go in July 2020 little happened as it was the height of the Covid pandemic, but she did tell her TikTok followers that she likes girls and boys and identifies as bisexual. The following year she revealed that she was in a relationship with Jodie and they are still together. She then started posting various songs which included a mix of originals and cover versions and before long notched up hundreds of thousands of followers which, in turn, led to her begin signed by RCA records. Although she’d been releasing songs since 2016 she said of Go, “It was first song I’ve ever had that got to a million streams and I saw it the song that people will get to know me, but not on this scale.”

The song is all about a relationship break up but not her own. She told Apple Music, “I wrote the song after hearing of a friend of mine’s relationship troubles. It was my guitarist and he told me the whole story and I thought, ‘How would I react?’ And then the song just wrote itself.” She actually co-wrote it with the singer-songwriter George Morgan and revealed to Amanda McArthur, “To me, it’s about always knowing my worth and knowing that if that ever happened to me I would leave the situation immediately. For others, I hope they can find solace within the song and know that they are not alone, and hopefully it gives them the strength to leave their toxic situation and move on.”

The original version of the song was very sparse, it had virtually no drums but with producer JonahPH it had various different versions laid down. Cat said, “We had about 74 million versions of this song,” she explained, “It went from having loads of production and an intense beat to us completely stripping it back. Then it was acoustic, but the tempo wasn’t right.” The version we know was mixed by Aaron Ahmad and there is also a duet version with Sam Smith and a Drill re-mix version by Loski and Russ Millions.

What probably resonated the most was the lines, ‘You said you fucked up on a night out, you drank way too much, you’re feeling bad now’ and, ‘pack up your shit (or ‘stuff’ in the radio edit) and go’, as Cat said, “I think it’s the bluntness of it. As a whole, the song isn’t a mean song, it just states the facts. The storytelling is in the verses, you’re hearing how it’s going, or seeing how the story unfolds in your head watching the video, and then the chorus kind of just says, ‘Cool, well, you’ve told me, or I’ve found out, that you’ve cheated on me so this is the end of this relationship, cool. Go.” Where I’m from in south London, that’s just how everybody is. We’re very blunt, straight talkers. People like how there could have been a prettier way of saying ‘pack up your shit and go’, but instead it’s just pack up your shit’. It’s just as simple as that,” she told Jett Tattersall.

The Logical Song (Supertramp)


The first time I heard a Supertramp song was when Give A Little Bit charted in the summer of 1977. I heard it played on the radio and loved the ‘American’ sound to it. Likewise a couple of years later when they released the album Breakfast in America I thought it had a terrific ‘American’ sound. It was only when I started researching that I realised they were English and formed in London. I was stunned.

Also, little did I know that they had formed, originally as a progrock band, back in 1969. Founding member Swindon-born Rick Davies had been in a band called The Joint which had been funded by a wealthy Dutchman but then he felt the band weren’t doing very well and stopped funding them. But the Dutch guy was impressed with Davies’ talent and offered him a chance to form his own band which he then backed. So he brought in singer and bass player Roger Hodgson and a couple of other musicians who didn’t remain for long. By 1973, the more permanent line up featured Dougie Thomson on bass, John Helliwell on keyboard and saxophone and Bob Siebenberg on drums.

Their third, fourth and fifth albums, Crime of the Century (number four in 1974), Crisis? What Crisis? (number 20 in 1975) and Even in the Quietest Moments (number 12 in 1977) respectively were all well received but it was 1979’s Breakfast in America that brought them to a worldwide audience. Even the album sleeve with the waitress holding a tray with a glass of orange juice aloft with a blouse matching the colour of the orange juice and overlooking a New York skyline is iconic and very memorable.

All of their UK hit singles were written jointly between Davies and Hodgson and the first single from Breakfast in America gave them their biggest UK hit, The Logical Song with 19 different rhyming words that end with ‘al’ or ‘le’.

The song is all about growing up. Transforming from a child to an adult and going from an innocent care-free kid to the worries of a pessimistic and sceptical world that we now live in.

Roger Hodgson, who sang lead vocals on the track, once said, “This song is quoted in schools so much. I’ve been told it’s the most-quoted song in school. That may be because it has so many words in it that people like to spell. But I think it also poses that question, and maybe stimulates something with students. I hope so.”

He explained more in a 2012 interview with Songfacts, “I think it was very relevant when I wrote it, and actually I think it’s even more relevant today. It’s very basically saying that what they teach us in schools is all very fine, but what about what they don’t teach us in schools that creates so much confusion in our being. I mean, they don’t really prepare us for life in terms of teaching us who we are on the inside. They teach us how to function on the outside and to be very intellectual, but they don’t tell us how to act with our intuition or our heart or really give us a real plausible explanation of what life’s about. There’s a huge hole in the education. I remember leaving school at 19, I was totally confused. That song really came out of my confusion, which came down to a basic question: please tell me who I am. I felt very lost. I had to educate myself in that way, and that’s why California was very good for me to kind of re-educate myself, if you like.” It’s obviously a subject close to Hodgson’s heart because on Crime of the Century there was a track called School which had very similar sentiments.

The title came about after Hodgson was singing nonsense words whilst playing keyboards to try and get some ideas for real words, “From singing absolute nonsense, a line will pop up that suddenly makes sense, then another one, and so on. I was doing that when the word ‘logical’, came into my head and I thought, ‘That’s an interesting word'”. Once the song was finished, he initially did nothing with it, why? “I had actually finished the words and the arrangement six months before I proposed it to the band for the album – I didn’t think anyone would like it.”

If you listen carefully in the last verse of the song, there’s a bit that goes, ”Cause I was feeling so logical, yeah, D-D-D-D-D-D-D-Digital’ and just after that there is a bleeping sound, which was made by a game machine. In the studio next door to where the band were recording an engineer named Richard Digby-Smith had a Mattel handheld electronic football game and the bleep you hear is the sound made when a player loses the ball to another player. Roger liked that sound and decided to include it which accentuated the word digital. This all happened at a time when digital games were still a long way off.

As much as the song still get a regular airing on many radio stations, in 2002 it was brought to a new audience when the German techno/trance band Scooter covered it and took it two places higher peaking at number two. That band were made up of four members, all of whom were once telesales operators at Edel Records in Hamburg.

In 2004, a tribute band called Logicaltramp were formed of which real band members Roger Hodgson and John Helliwell are in favour the latter of which has actually appeared on stage with them.

The River of Dreams (Billy Joel)

I’m not a songwriter but so many times we’ve heard it said that a songwriter wakes up with a song in their head the most famous being Paul McCartney who woke up with Yesterday in his head and temporarily called it Scrambled Eggs until he finished the song. Billy Joel is another one especially The River of Dreams and when it wouldn’t go away, he wrote the song.

The New York-born legend had been away from the UK top 10 since We Didn’t Start the Fire, in 1989, dropped out and The River of Dreams was a bit of a comeback and gave him his biggest hit since he topped the chart with Uptown Girl 10 years previous.

“When you wake up singing a song and having a certain rhythm running through your mind and you can’t get rid of it, it means something,” he explained in an interview with Psychology Today. “I woke up one morning and had the tune in my head, and it just stayed with me through my morning shower and the rest of the day. I could not shake it, so I wrote the song. I’ve always found it’s best to follow up the initial impulse when something is that strong.”

He has famously said that he often dreams in sounds, colours, and shapes. When he was at school he remembered, “Sometimes kids would come into school and say I had this dream about a monster or I had this dream that I saw you or somebody died, I had a nightmare , I thought to myself, ‘Gee, I have a completely different kind of dream. I dreamed a melody or I dreamt a great rhythm or a chord pattern or symphonic fragment for a song.’ It was always music but it wasn’t always the same kind of music. I have had literal dreams like other people but more often than not it’s an abstract kind of dream.'”

When he woke, the remembered thinking that he was walking in his sleep at that’s what sparked the first lyric. He also stated that the phrase “River of Dreams is a play on the phrase Stream of Consciousness.” The line, ‘Through the valley of fear’ was inspired by the famous line, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ from Psalm 23:4. The river itself conjures up a religious image and the song says he is baptised by the fire, I wade into the river that runs to the promised land, but he also states, ‘God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man.

The sleeve of the parent album, also called The River Of Dreams, was painted by Joel’s second wife and supermodel Christie Brinkley. Brinkey, along with his daughter Alexa Ray both feature in the accompanying video which was directed by Andy Morahan and opens with a train on a bridge crossing a river. That bridge scene was filmed at the Providence & Worcester railroad bridge in Middletown, Connecticut.

The song earned a Grammy Nomination for Record of The Year and at the 1994 Grammy Awards ceremony, Joel performed this song backed by a large gospel choir but, unbelievably, lost out to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. Is there any justice in the world I ask myself?

At Seventeen (Janis Ian)

I first learned the truth of Janis Ian in 1979 when I was actually 16 and received a promo copy of Fly Too High. It flew very low into the UK chart but was well received in the clubs where I used to play. Two years later, after my first real intimate liaison, the young lady I was with put on an LP from her collection. As I lay there listening and taking in the magic of the wonderfully honest lyrics to what I later learned was Between The Lines it became obvious that Janis was a lady who knew how to make a point and make it in a way you just had to listen.

Janis, who was born Janis Eddy Fink in Brooklyn, New York in 1951 to a Jewish family was raised in New Jersey, was a fan of Joan Baez and her influence led her to write her first song, Hair Of Spun Gold, at the age of 12. A year later she wrote Society’s Child, a song about an interracial romance (you can read the story of that here: ( and in her 2008 Autobiography of the same name where she talks about receiving hate mail and death threats over the song’s content.

Throughout 1974 and into 1975 Janis was playing the club circuit. She would tour for a few months and then spend a couple of months writing songs and then go into the studio to record them rather than write all the tracks and then record them all. She would then go back on the road to make some more money. Sound Studios in New York is where she recorded and in the studio next door was a man in a similarly poor position. Janis said of him, “We became friends and hung out at the diner together, we were both starving.” That man was Bruce Springsteen. They later both signed to CBS records and Between the Lines was her first with that label. On it was, arguably, her most famous song At Seventeen which was never a UK hit but did make number three on Billboard for which she won a Grammy for best Pop Female Vocal.

It’s her most brutally honest song and tells of teenage angst and adolescent insecurity ‘And those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home inventing lovers on the phone’ – it breaks your heart to think that came from a girl who could think that about herself at a fairly young age. It tells the story of her own life but looking back to when she in her early teens, “I had to move back into my mom’s house because I was broke and I couldn’t make any money on the road. I was sitting at the kitchen table with a guitar one day, and I was reading a New York Times article about a debutante, and the opening line was ‘I learned the truth at 18.’ I was playing that little samba figure, and that line struck me for some reason. The whole article was about how she learned being a debutante didn’t mean that much. I changed it to 17 because 18 didn’t scan,” Janis explained to Songfacts.

She wrote the first verse quickly and easily, ‘I leaned the truth at 17, that love what meant for beauty queens and for high school girls with clear skinned smiles. ‘ The chorus wasn’t so easy, “Sometimes you don’t have a lot of control over a song. You can control the craft, but not the inspiration. I wrote the first verse and chorus and it was so brutally honest. It’s hard to imagine now but people weren’t writing that type of song then. I was coming out of listening to people like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, who did write those kinds of songs, but pop music and folk music really didn’t. I remember thinking I couldn’t blow this because it really was going to be a good song. I put it away for three weeks and it took about three months to write the whole thing. I couldn’t figure out the ending, I couldn’t figure out what to do with her, then I thought I would recap it, bring myself into it and bring it into the past.”

Once recorded she began showcasing it and initially performed the song with her eyes closed as she sang it. She was worried that the audience would laugh at her because of the personal nature of the lyrics. In 1976, she was invited to appear on the first-ever edition of NBC’s Saturday Night Live as the first music guest which she did so alongside Billy Preston. She remembered, “I realised it was a hit not only when it sold out all the time, but also when people started clapping after the first few bars.”

Like At Seventeen, most of the songs on the album carry a sombre mood and most tell the story of heartbreak and lost loves or more to the point a lack of them. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful album but then again with an American population of just over 200 million there might just have been enough people going through relationship problems to have touched a nerve. She once said, “To me it’s never been a depressing song. It says ‘ugly duckling girls like me,’ and to me the ugly duckling always turns into a swan. It offers hope that there is a world out there of people who understand.”

Between the Lines won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance beating Olivia Newton John and Helen Reddy and At Seventeen was also nominated for Song of the Year. In the song there’s a line that goes; ‘To those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came’ this obviously had such an effect on so many people that the following Valentine’s day she received 461 Valentine cards.

In 1981, whilst on holiday in the States, I was driving through Washington D.C. and saw a sign saying, ‘For One Night Only – Janis Ian’. I slammed on the brakes, reversed to see the sign clearly only to realise it was the previous night. I’d missed my opportunity. Janis rarely toured the UK but luckily, in 1985, she played one date only at the Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road and I was there in the front row. The house was packed and I believe the audience’s reaction overwhelmed her somewhat. I don’t think she realised she had so many fans in this country. The show was awesome!

In 1989 she moved to Nashville where she met Patricia Snyder and the couple eventually married in 2003. Around the same time Janis began writing science-fiction books and has had many works published including an anthology called Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian.

Between The Lines never made the UK chart but remains to this day, my all-time favourite album.