Single of the week

Shannon (Henry Gross)

Songs written about a loved one is always going to be personal to the person who wrote it or to anyone in a similar situation who can relate to it. The same must apply to songs written about pets because pet owners will usually get very attached to it, but, oddly, this week’s choice is a song written about someone else’s pet.

Henry Gross was a one hit wonder in the UK, his only hit was called Shannon. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and because his mother loved music, she encouraged her son to become a musician. He learned to play a number of instruments including the guitar, ukulele and sitar and by the time he was 14 he began playing in small clubs around the New York area. In 1969, when he was 18, he became a political science and speech major at Brooklyn College and was a member of a band called Orogeny which is the technical name for a formation of mountains. Whilst there he and a couple of school mates had the idea to form a fifties revival band which they called Sha Na Na. The same year they played at Woodstock and in doing so Gross became the youngest person to play the main stage. In 1970, he decided to depart for a solo career.

It took six years until Gross first graced the US chart with the track One More Tomorrow which reached the dizzy heights of number 93. Gross was a fan of the Beach Boys and paid a visit to Carl Wilson and Gross revealed in an interview with Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo what they talked about, “Carl told me that he had an Irish setter named Juliet and it was killed by a car. I related to it strongly because, at the time, I had an Irish setter too and her name was Shannon. It was corny, but it really touched me because I knew how I’d feel if my Shannon had died, so I went home and wrote the song in about 10 minutes. I’m a real animal rights person and loved my dog so much that it was easy for me to write the song.” He went on to explain about likening the background music to the sound of the ocean, “I was living in an apartment in Queens and there was a guy from Colombia living on the floor directly above me and he had these great big speakers on the floor and in the afternoons he’d blast his salsa music. It was really great music but I couldn’t think nor write because it was so loud. So I went out and bought an environmental sound record called The Ultimate Seashore and played it at full blast to drown out the bass coming from upstairs. Those ocean sounds put me in the right frame of mind to write Shannon.”

He recorded the track onto a cassette and sent it to Carl Wilson hoping the Beach Boys would record it. It even had the falsetto sound the Beach Boys could produce. “I never heard from anyone about it, so I recorded it myself and put it on my album,” Gross recalled.

Gross was signed to A&M records at the time and he was teamed with producer Terry Cashman. Terry wasn’t over keen on the song until he saw Gross perform it live and that changed his mind, so much so that he bought Gross’ contract from A&M and signed him to his own newly-formed Lifesong label. The execs at the label preferred to release a track from the album called Springtime Mama believing it had more potential than the story of a deceased canine but Gross said, “I didn’t want to hear about it. I loved Shannon and believed in it. To me, it’s the best thing I’d ever written and I wanted to go with it without further ado.”

In the mid-eights Gross moved to Nashville and continued songwriting and recording. He formed his own Zelda Record label and released the album Nothing but Dreams. In 2006 he recorded an album called One Hit Wanderer which is also the name of his one-man show which he still performs around the States. In 2016, Joe Brown began a UK tour an invited Gross, his long-term friend over to share the stage where they perform songs from both of their repertoires. It was a great success and in January 2018, the pair took to the road again for three months and this time it was recorded for a live album.

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Somebody to Love (Jefferson Airplane)

If Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear some Flowers In Your Hair) and Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale shaped the Summer of Love in the UK in 1967, almost certainly Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane did the same across the pond. It might just have been the right time for that song because it failed first time round.

The song, which for a certain generation, will always be associated with the American psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, never made the UK chart so for another generation it will be best remembered by the Boogie Pimps who took a dance version to number three in 2004.

Jefferson Airplane were formed in 1965 in San Francisco and originally comprised singer and rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner, bass player Marty Balin, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, singer Signe Anderson, double bass player Bob Harvey and drummer Jerry Peloquin. Within a few months Peloquin was replaced by Skip Spence and Harvey left. Arguably the most famous female voice of Jefferson Airplane was Grace Slick who joined the following year to replace Anderson who left to have a baby.

Slick, who was born Grace Wing, was a member of The Great Society, a band formed at the same time Jefferson Airplane. That band comprised Grace’s husband (drummer) Jerry and his brother (guitarist) Darby and they recorded Somebody to Love originally in a much mellower style but it sank without trace. It was written by Darby when he realised that his girlfriend had done a runner. Darby became a bit disheartened and turned to exploring Indian music and in-turn Grace left to join the Airplane and one of their first tasks were to re-record the song this time in a more brash way most notably with the line ‘ Your mind is so full of red.’

Balin was unhappy about Anderson leaving and Slick replacing her and despite them singing together on most song they rarely spoke to each other, “Marty was never very communicative, which is odd when you’re singing duets,” Slick recalled, “Maybe he was jealous of me ‘cos I was so fabulous. He’s the only one (of the band) I never speak to anymore. Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner – anyone who’s alive is fine. Not Marty. His wife calls me once a year – when she’s drunk.”

In an interview with Loudersound, Slick was asked what she remembered about the recording, “I don’t know whether it was a Tuesday or Thursday, but I remember being in front of the microphone, then listening to the playback on four big Altec speakers in the control room. I remember thinking, ‘My God that is amazing – they make it sound like I can really sing.’ My mom was a singer, I can imitate her, but it’s not my style. She was a lot quieter. They didn’t have rock and roll in the thirties.”

Their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1966 did the exact opposite, it failed to trouble the UK & US chart, the follow-up, Surrealistic Pillow, now with Slick at the helm had a cult following and, like the single, never troubled the UK chart, but did reach number three in the States. It also contained the Slick-penned track White Rabbit also written and first recorded by the Great Society after Slick had read Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland.

In 1996, Jim Carrey performed a version in the film The Cable Guy in which he starred.

The Airplane recorded five further albums over the following five years, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967), Crown of Creation (1968), Volunteers (1969), Bark (1971) & Long John Silver (1972) but by now Balin had left the group and other members were embarking on their own solo projects. Some remained friends and continued touring and they decided in 1974 to continue under the name Jefferson Starship with Balin returning. Balin left again in 1978 and was replaced by Mickey Thomas and the following year Slick departed for a solo career. In 1980 they had a UK hit with Jane and recorded eight albums under that moniker.  In 1984, Kantner, the last remaining original member left and then filed a lawsuit over the use of the name. Kantner settled out of court and an agreement was signed that no one left in the group could use the name Airplane nor Starship, so they became just Starship and had their biggest UK success with We Built This City in 1985 and the chart-topping Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, written by Albert Hammond, two years later. At the time it was announced that Slick, then aged 47, became the oldest female to appear on a number one hit however researchers at the time hadn’t considered Hilda Woodward, the piano-playing mum with Lieutenant Pigeon who was 59 when Mouldy Old Dough went to number one in 1972.

After all that, in 1989, with the original 1966-70 line-up (except Dryden), reunited for a tour but he did join them in 1996 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where they performed as well, but Slick was not present apparently due to medical reasons.

In 2006, Richard Branson launched Virgin America Airlines and named their first aeroplane Jefferson Airplane. Slick was present at the time and gave a speech. The same year she had health issues suffering from diverticulitis and also required a tracheotomy. She was put into an induced coma for two months but then had to learn to walk again.

Not many of the original line up are still about; Spencer Dryden died of colon cancer in 2005 and both Anderson and Kantner died on the same day – 28th January 2016.

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Three Lions (Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds)

In America, only one song by the same artists has reached the top spot twice in separate chart runs, that was Chubby Checker’s The Twist which did so in 1960 and 1962. In the UK, the same feat has happened twice, firstly in 1991 when Bohemian Rhapsody topped the chart 16 years after it was first there and that was following Freddie Mercury’s death. The second time was in 2002 when George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord returned to the top spot exactly 31 years after its original run and that was following George’s death. Only last week have we had a song return to number one for a third time.

Pages of misheard lyrics are rife on the internet, but many of the examples look too contrived to have evolved naturally. In 1985 Prince had a hit with Raspberry Beret and one of the lines was ‘Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees’ the Liverpool musician Ian Broudie heard it as ‘Thunder drowns out what the lighting seeds’ and that became their name. They were the most successful Merseyside band of the nineties. This was largely due to Ian’s melodic songwriting and strong vocals, but the contributions at different times of guitarist Paul Hemmings, bass player Martyn Campbell and keyboard player Angie Pollock should not be overlooked. Chris Sharrock was the group’s first drummer and for a time they also had Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey, in the band too.

Between 1989 and 1996 they charted eight UK singles but none had made it into the top 10. When they were asked to make a record for Euro 1996, Ian Broudie was not sure, “I would never have bought a football single myself and I certainly didn’t want to do one of those cheer-leader records. Being a fan is being about losing and, if we did it, I wanted to write it from a fan’s point of view.” He asked the football-obsessed comedians, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, to sing on the record and help with the words.

David Baddiel explained what he remembered at the time, “What I do remember clearly is getting, probably on cassette, Ian having come up with the melody. We’d talked, I think, about football’s coming home.” Ian added, I remember Frank coming up to Liverpool but David couldn’t make it because there was a Chelsea game on he wanted to watch, but Liverpool were playing Leeds and David and I went to watch that match. Then we went back to the studio after the match and I played, in a jovial way, this la-de-da tune that we all know.” David continued, “Football comes home was from a branding slogan that was already around and whoever came up with that we owe a bit of debt to, but then Ian came up with this melody which was actually ‘it’s coming home, it’s coming home’ which worked around Ian’s melody.”

“I remember when we played the single to Terry Venables and the team,” Broudie recalled, “They were training and we had this horrible ghetto-blaster. I was suddenly conscious of the words, ‘Everyone knows the score, we’ve seen it all before’ in other words, ‘We’re rubbish’ and we did get some funny looks. But the song is from a fan’s point of view and England fans are pretty long-suffering.” When it came to presenting the song to the players Broudie was worried, “I could see them thinking: ‘what is this guy saying? We’re going to get stuffed?’ Fortunately Frank Skinner made an impromptu speech explaining the song’s hopeful sentiments, then Paul Gascoigne pronounced his approval, and all was well.”

Three Lions was the first football single which suggested that the team might not win and was therefore more realistic. It turned out to be correct as England lost to Germany in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final. The reason for the title is that the Lion has been a symbol of England since the 11th century and it was featured on early versions of the English Coat of Arms. English medieval warrior rulers had a reputation for bravery and the most notable was Richard I who was known as Richard the Lionheart. After he died in 1199, the arms on the second Great Seal of Richard I was used by his successors until 1340 and depicted three golden lions on a red field, representing the ruler of the Kingdom of England, Duchy of Normandy and the Duchy of Aquitaine. Between 1154 and 1189 the crest was a single vertical lion facing left, from 1189 – 1198 there was two vertical lions facing each other and 1198 – 1340 there were three horizontal lions facing left but looking forward.

After Three Lions, the Lightning Seeds had further hits with What If…, Sugar Coated Iceberg and You Showed Me but then in 1998 they were asked to update Three Lions for the 1998 World Cup with slightly different lyrics. Again, England did not come through and the home team, France, won. “We’re like Spinal Tap,” Broudie said, “we’ve had hundreds of drummers, they keep appearing and disappearing.” When they met up with Ringo Starr’s son, Zak, he was with The Who who were not on the road at the time, so he joined them, playing drums on the remake of Three Lions. “The song has passed into folklore,” says Broudie, “Every time there’s a big match, you can guarantee that some newspaper will be quoting from the song in their headlines.”

Lightning Seeds disbanded in 2000, and although a reunion tour has been mooted, it grows less likely as Ian Broudie has been producing hit singles and albums by The Coral and The Zutons.

Another new version of Three Lions was recorded by The Squad to tie in with the 2010 World Cup and featured Robbie Williams, Russell Brand and commentator John Motson. Brand told The Sun about recording the tune: “I was embarrassed by how emotional I felt singing this song. I nearly cried. It took me back to Euro ’96 – Spice Boys, dentist’s chairs and Gazza’s last hurrah. It’s the only good England song and I look forward to singing it as we crash out on penalties. Then I will be crying.”

At the 2018 World Cup in Russia England got further than expected. By the time of the semi-final, it was no longer a World Cup, just European as the only teams left were England, France, Croatia and Belgium. At this point the football anthems began to make the UK chart again. The week England made it to the quarter finals Three Lions re-entered the chart at number 72, but as it was all down to streaming and downloading the version that entered the chart was just billed as Three Lions because it was an amalgamation of the 96 and 98 versions. The following week it climbed to number 42 and once we’d made it to the semi-final it sprang up to number 24. The week we were due to play the semi-final the midweek sales flashes had the song at number one. When England lost to Croatia the streaming dropped off but it had done sufficiently well earlier in the week to remain at number one when the chart was revealed on Friday 13th July – not unlucky as it became the first song to top the chart three times. Even the chart-topping predecessor, George Ezra, selflessly encouraged fans to buy Three Lions. That week’s ‘sales’ of Three Lions was 79,999 which was made up of 43,369 in paid-for downloads and 36,410 streams. It took the single’s total sales to date to 1,078,421.

In this day and age you need to be a mathematician to understand the chart rules implemented by the Official Chart Company. The rules state that an act with a lead credit can only have a maximum of three tracks in the chart, this followed the Ed Sheeran debacle where every track from his Divide album went into the top 20. Other rules state that if a track has had three consecutive weeks of sales decline then ACR (accelerated chart ratios) kicks in, which means that a sale to stream ratio will change from 1:100 to 1:200 (in the case of premium streams) or 1:600 to 1:1200 (in the case of ad funded streams). But these rules do not apply until a song has been on the chart for at least 10 weeks. As of 1st July 2018 video streams were taken into account for chart counting. Just to add to any confusion, a new recent tweak of chart rules say that a track only escapes ACR if it is not being actively promoted, Three Lions wasn’t so as chart commentator, Alan Jones, put it, “If Three Lions was being actively promoted, its sales this week would be 116,189 instead of 79,779.” Anyone keeping up with this? Incidentally, the week following the final saw another chart record set when Three Lions dropped from number one to number 97 beating the previous record set by the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir’s rendition of A Bridge Over You which dropped to a mere number 29 in 2016.

Tom, a producer on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC6 Music, just before the final, witnessed and was incensed that some French football fans people in a pub were singing ‘Football’s coming home’ but not for England but for themselves. Well, why not, for them it did.

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Smooth Criminal (Michael Jackson)

Michael Jackson clearly had a very vivid imagination as can be clearly seen in the hit single Smooth Criminal and the story is entirely fictional, but some of the terminology is based on some real phrases which Jacko picked up whilst on a training course.

Michael has really always been a star, but after his 1979 album Off The Wall, he was catapulted to a different level and people were queueing up to work with him for what was to become the biggest-selling album of all-time – Thriller. The superstar pairing of Jacko and producer Quincy Jones continued and personnel included on Thriller were Paul McCartney, James Ingram, Janet and LaToya Jackson, David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, Rod Temperton, David Foster, Greg Phillinganes and, of course, Vincent Price. It went on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide, but in 1986 when Jacko began work on the follow-up people did wonder if he could ever emulate its success. In short, yes he did. The result was Bad.

The first single was I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, a duet with Siedah Garrett which got to number one, then came the title track which reached number three, The Way you Make Me Feel equally the peak of Bad. The record company continued to milk the album for singles, Man in the Mirror peaked at 21 but then Dirty Diana reached number four, Another Part of Me got to 15 and came Smooth Criminal which was yet another top 10 hit.

The song tells the story of a burglar coming in through the window saw the woman sitting at the table, she tried to run and he struck her leaving blood all over the carpet. As the first rescue team arrive they found she wasn’t breathing and were trying to resuscitate her. The memorable refrain throughout the song is the repetitive line ‘Annie, are you OK? Are you OK Annie?’ This would imply that the assaulted woman was called Annie, but not necessarily.

According to Spike Lee in his documentary Bad 25 Michael had attended CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training prior to writing Smooth Criminal and it was this experience which inspired him to write the song. Annie are you OK is the phrase used as one of the first steps when assessing whether to perform CPR on an unconscious casualty. Young medical trainees are taught to use the phrase to determine if the patient is conscious and responsive. The second verse is Michael singing to an unconscious Annie saying, ‘Will you tell us that you’re ok, there’s a sign at the window that he struck you’ but Annie doesn’t seem to respond.

Michael began penning the song in 1984 and originally called it Al Capone and the demo was recorded the following year. This version eventually appeared on Bad 25 in 2012 which was the 25th anniversary of the album. The original track was re-worked with amended lyrics and became the track we know.

One of the highlights of Michael Jackson’s music was the wonderfully ground-breaking videos that accompanied them. It was at the Motown 25th Anniversary in 1983 that Michael first revealed his Moonwalk, for the Smooth Criminal video he showcased a gravity-defying forward lean often at 45 degrees which he even performed at live shows. The video, which was originally 42 minutes long, was a section of the Moonwalk film that was directed by Colin Chilvers who had created The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Superman films. Colin explained in an interview with Rolling Stone how it came about, “I showed Michael a movie that I felt would fit the theme of the piece, The Third Man. He loved the look of it, that sort of film-noir look, so we used that to get the camera man to light it in a similar way. The dance piece was a tribute to Fred Astaire and he actually wears a similar kind of costume that Fred had used in one of his movies – Band Wagon. We had the pleasure of having Fred’s choreographer, Hermes Pan, come on the set while we were doing the song and dance piece and said that Fred would have been very happy and proud of being copied by such a wonderful person.” The lean was accomplished with specially designed shoes that were able to lock into an anchor on the floor. The video was co-choreographed by Jeffrey Daniel, a one-time member of Shalamar, who himself showcased his own moonwalk. The dancer in the video was Vince Paterson who Michael used in both Thriller and Beat It.

The song opens with a dramatic stab followed by a pumping heartbeat, it’s Jacko’s own heart which had been digitally procssed through a machine known as a Synclavier.

A cover version by California rock band Alien Ant Farm made the UK top three in 2001 and was number one in Australia and New Zealand. Their video is a tribute and pays homage to Jacko and his videos. The band’s guitarist, Terry Corso explained in an MTV interview, “We want to pay homage to Michael Jackson, but on our level. Obviously we’re not that glitzy, so we just want to tastefully take the stuff that’s cool in his videos and apply it in our own dirty little backyard way.”

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A Scottish Soldier (Andy Stewart)

In the old days of variety entertainers turned their hands to acting, presenting, singing and comedy and if you could do all of the above, you could be a star and this week’s subject was just that. He was the Englishman’s image of Scotland with his regular television appearances in a kilt he was known as the kilted minstrel.

Andy Stewart was born in Glasgow in December 1933 but when he was five the family moved north-east to Perth and when he was 11 they moved further north-east to Arbroath. They were a close family and none of them had any inhibitions, his sister, Moira, recalled, “Our father was a musician and a bit of a show off and we all had a bit of the histrionic touch. Andy loved singing and performing and dad encouraged him.” He often gave little performances at school and he once said, “I was only belted three times at school and twice it was for doing impressions and one of them was of my maths teacher.”

It was felt that he could follow in the footsteps of Harry Lauder, a Scottish comic who was immensely popular when Stewart was growing up, but he wanted more to be an actor. His comic timing and knack of being funny led one of his friends, John Cairney, to comment, “He was essentially an actor and he acted the part of a comedian.” He attended Drama College in the mid-fifties which is where he met Sheila who later became his wife. His mimicry was spotted by someone who brought it to the attention of a producer at the BBC where is got a slot doing impressions of Louis Armstrong and Bruce Forsyth on BBC Scotland. Andy recalled, “Whilst I was there I had a chance meeting with a man who said to me ‘I am starting this show called the White Heather Club but there is no room for you Andy because, although I know you can do impressions, I’m looking for someone who can do bothy ballads.'” A bothy is an outside farm building in the northeast region of Scotland where unmarried labourers used to sleep and those labourers used to sing songs. Andy continued, “I turned to him and said, well I could sing a bothy ballad to which he replied ‘go on then, sing one for me now.'” He did and it got him the job.

It was his love of poetry that led him to songwriting and in 1959 he signed a recording contract with Top Rank records, his first release was Donald Where’s Your Troosers, a song Stewart had co-written with Neil Grant and the arranger Iain MacFadyen. It wasn’t a big seller spending one week on the UK chart at number 37. The follow-up, A Scottish Soldier which has the parenthesis Green Hills of Tyrol was a completely different story. The tune, which Stewart first heard on a family holiday at the Braemar Highland Games, was old but the lyrics, written by Stewart, were new and he explained how he came to write the song, “I wish I could say that it was written somewhere in tranquil solitude, but I wrote it in a pub. I had always known and loved The Green Hills of Tyrol because my father was a musician and played it on his fiddle and I remembered it from when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. It was one of the few things I could play as a boy on the mouth organ and I’d always had an ambition to write words to the tune. When I first began putting words to music, I was haunted by this tune and eventually inspiration came during rehearsals for The White Heather Club. I got an idea for the lyric for the song, it was a story about a Scottish soldier who finds himself in a far land, his soldiering days are over and the call of his own country takes him back for his final resting to Scotland. And I sat down and the words just came to me; ‘there was a soldier, a Scottish soldier.’ I wrote two verses and then I got pianist Harry Carmichael to fit the tune to my words. The next day we were doing the song and I knew it wasn’t right. It was Bobby MacLeod’s Black Band that was playing it with us and of course they didn’t need the music, they knew the tune, they just had to play the arrangement that had been set down of the tune. So I went down to one of the pubs in Springburn Road and I wrote on the back of an envelope the third verse (the slow verse) and came back and just sang the song.

In September 1960 following a sell-out summer season in Dundee, Andy travelled to London to record the song at Abbey Road studios accompanied by The Mike Sammes Singers, “I flew down on a Sunday and I should have known it would go alright because that was through public demand – the first night I sang it on The White Heather Club we had about 800 letters the next day saying they liked the song. I got this message left saying “I hope you realise this is Sunday and it’s double-time and we hope this is all going to be worth it”

On the Andy Stewart website, there is a section called  The untold story which states, The popular romantic idea of the Scottish soldier defending his beloved Scotland – patriotic to the end, and the notion of the tune being an old Scottish traditional, were actually far from the truth behind the origins of A Scottish Soldier. The tune, The Green Hills of Tyrol, a well-known ‘Scottish’ melody was transcribed for the pipes by Pipe-Major John MacLeod of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders during the Crimean War (1853-56) from the third act of Rossini’s 1829 opera William Tell. Rossini in-turn had adapted that tune from Alpine folk music – nothing at all to do with Scotland. However that did not stop Andy receiving a backlash from traditionalists who wrote to him saying he had ruined a ‘fine old Scottish pipe tune’ by putting words to it. The theme of the dying soldier, wishing to return to the hills of home rather than die in a foreign country is not a straightforwardly sentimental one. The soldier Andy was imagining was far away from home for reasons of monetary gain, war being to him a lucrative business, defending those who rewarded him well. Although there may have been battles glorious and deeds victorious, when the bugle ceases the underlying story is not one of patriotic heroism.

By the mid-eighties, Stewart’s health wasn’t in good shape; he had two heart by-pass operations and for a man in his fifties he began to look a lot older. His doctor advised him to take things easy at which point Stewart decided to set off on an Australian tour. He did say “I would need a psychiatrist to tell me just why I carry on.” He was set to appear in a Pride of the Clyde variety-revue at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow in October 1993 but died of a heart attack just before at the age of 59.

A Scottish Soldier spent a staggering 40 weeks on the UK chart but climbed no higher than number 19, but did chart in the US and made the top five in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, surprisingly, India.

Years after its success, Stewart reflected, “If those people had known the origins for the melody, they would probably have choked on their porridge. The tune is actually a traditional Swiss air heard in Sardinia and borrowed by a Scottish Pipe-Major during the Crimean War.”

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