Single of the week

Question (Moody Blues)

Question - thumb

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Moody Blues were largely ignored by the press and they will forever be associated with their 1965 chart topper Go Now or the dreary Nights In White Satin which only scraped into the top 20 when first issued in 1967 although did make the top ten when it re-entered exactly five years later. However, their best work arguably came with the albums Days of Future Passed (1968), On the Threshold of a Dream (1969) and A Question of Balance (1970) and it was the song that opened that album that I focus on today.

That opening track was Question, a truncated version of the album title which was written by lead singer and guitarist Justin Hayward. Justin broke into the music business in the late 50s, here he explained how it started, “I answered a singer/guitarist ad in Melody Maker when I left school. I turned up at this house in Blackheath (south-east London) and Marty Wilde answered the door, so I did an audition for him and I got the job and three weeks later they became the Wilde Three. After a couple of years I went it alone but my songs weren’t really that good. I sent some to Eric Burdon who was forming the New Animals around May 1966 and he kindly passed them to Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues because he knew that Denny Laine and Clint Warwick were about to leave the band and so I got the gig.”

After their debut hit, Go Now left the chart, they struggled with their next half a dozen hits; I Don’t Want To Go On Without You reached no.33, From The Bottom Of My Heart – no.22, Everyday – no.44 and their encore favourite, Ride My See-Saw stalled at number 42.

As the new decade arrived so did their biggest hit in over five years. Question was five minutes 45 seconds long but had a whole 50 seconds lopped off for radio purposes taking it to just under the five minute mark. It climbed to number two only to be kept off by the England World Cup Squad’s Back Home.

So how did Question, which was originally going to be the same as the album title, but later shortened, come about? Justin Hayward explained in an interview, “Well it was actually two songs and we had a recording session on the Saturday and it got to the Friday night and I was supposed to come up with something, and I had two different songs, one, very fast and aggressive which was very much influenced by the previous three years which we’d spent in America where we were very much involved, as a group with the youth movement and it really changed my way of thinking having come out of Swinging London and then see the total American point of view, so this upbeat part of the song was very much a protest song and then I had another song which was very slow and kind of said the same thing but in a subtle and much more emotion way. The song was very much about the anti-war movement which we somehow seemed to be involved with around the world particularly in America and France, basically it was a protest song that was also about the world that we were beginning to believe was lost.”

“Anyway, after midnight on the Friday night,” Justin continued, “I was still fiddling around trying to come up with something different and then I thought, hang on a minute, these two tunes are in the same key and one of them was in a big C open tuning (with a chord structure of CGCGCE) that Joni Mitchell sometimes used to use and I even saw Richie Havens use it and that where I got it from because he showed me quite a few tunings. So I changed the slow song into this big open tuning too and thought this really works great and so I put them both together and they flowed and came up with some lyrics that really worked between the two. We took it into the studio the next morning and, because it was a time in our careers when we were trying to get back to a live recording feel, we did it without any overdubbing or double tracking, just a bit of echo and within a week it was out.”

The Moody’s played the Isle Of Wight Festival and went down very well there because that song was all over the charts. Justin Hayward will relentlessly tell you that Question reached number one on the chart, which it did on certain charts, but it continues to disgruntle him that the world goes by the BBC chart which registered them at runner up position.

Their follow up, in 1972, was their last top 20 hit when Isn’t Life Strange reached number 13. On the album side, the follow up to A Question of Balance was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour which was another chart topper and seven more albums followed including the top 10s, Seventh Sojourn (1972), Octave (1978) and Long Distance Voyager (1981).

The group, which now consists of only Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge, have toured regularly since 2006 and Hayward even took part in the UK tour of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds in April 2006.

Tony Clarke, who produced all their material between 1967 and 1973 died in January 2010.

Please follow and like us:

Little Arrows (Leapy Lee)

Leapy Lee - thumb

There have been many brilliant songwriters in the last 100+ years, but only a handful are versatile enough to write outstanding, memorable songs both with a heart-warming nature as well as novelty ones . Bob Merrill is one that springs to mind, he wrote People as definitively recorded by Barbra Streisand and he also wrote How Much Is That Doggie in The Window. Ray Stevens is another with songs like Everything Is Beautiful and The Streak. Today, I focus on Albert Hammond, whose credits include The Air That I Breathe, Don’t turn Around, Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now and, on the lighter side, I’m A Train and Little Arrows.

Albert was born in London in 1944 after his family were evacuated from Gibraltar during World War II although he moved back there soon after the war. By his own admission, at the outset of his performing career Hammond played and sang in a Moroccan strip club, but in 1958 he and a friend, Richard Cartwright, began performing as a duo on the island and in Spain. Hammond become reasonably proficient on the guitar and was a more than fair singer, and they were good enough as a duo that they eventually became the core of a band called the Diamond Boys. His first success on these shores where with Family Dogg, a band he had formed in 1966 but had to wait three years for their only hit A Way of Life. In the latter part of the 60s he teamed up with Mike Hazelwood for a long and fruitful songwriting partnership which gave us hits like Make Me An Island and You’re Such A Good Looking Woman (Joe Dolan), Good Morning Freedom (Blue Mink), Gimme Dat Ding (Pipkins), Freedom Come Freedom Go (Fortunes), with other songwriting partner he gave us When I Need You (Leo Sayer) and One Moment In Time (Whitney Houston) among many others. However his first UK hit as a writer was the novelty ditty Little Arrows in 1968.

Albert said, “I was working at a Chelsea Drug Store just doing dishes and sometimes I’d carry around a little transistor radio and play it to the other guys when the song came on but they’d never believe it was me.” In the mid sixties, there was a budding Eastbourne-based singer called Graham Pulleyblank who was a jack of all trades, he’d been a comedian, an antique dealer, a fruit seller and even a bingo caller in Shepherd’s Bush, but he was a friend of Ray Davies of the Kinks and Ray’s brother Dave used to occasionally lay down backing tracks for Graham to sing to. He was once a member of the Urchin Skiffle Band but wanted to try a solo career and changed his name to Lee Graham before he used the moniker Leapy Lee, a nickname he was given at school because he was always leaping up and down.  “I met Leapy Lea in a bingo hall in Shepherds Bush and gave him the song because he said he was a singer and I couldn’t get anyone else to record it,” Albert told me in an interview last week. Lee’s cheeky, slightly sideways, smile and massive sideburns, got him noticed and led to an appearance on The Beat Club which in turn led to Top of the Pops. It reached number 18 in the US but soared to number two in the UK only kept off the top by Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days. It also topped the chart in 18 other countries charts and sold over four million units.

He was seemingly a one hit wonder although his next song, Good Morning, just scraped into the UK top 30 in early 1970. Then his singing career came to an abrupt end when, following a fracas in a bar with Alan Lake, the husband of the actress Diana Dors in which the pub owner got stabbed. I always wondered if he ever thought about the extraordinary foresight of the lyrics of Little Arrows which said, ‘little arrows in your clothes’ as he spent two years at Her Majesties pleasure.

After leaving prison he moved to Saudi Arabia with the view to opening his own bar, but on realising that was probably not a good idea he went off to Spain when he remains to this day. In 1985 he published his autobiography Anyone Who Doesn’t Want to Take Their Clothes Off Can Leave!’ and in the late 90s he got a co-presenting job on the English TV show Passport to the Sun. He is also a regular contributor to the Euro Weekly News, an English newspaper published in Spain.

As a hitmaker, Albert Hammond, managed one UK hit as an artist when his hit The Free Electric Band went top 20 in 1973. As a songwriter he has written or co-written 39 UK hits, 18 of them making the top 20 and four number ones.

He has continued working into the 21st century, including the album, Revolution of the Heart in 2005. It was around that time that his classic ’70s albums began getting reissued on CD for the first time. He has been followed into music in the 21st century by his son, guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. who is a member of the Strokes.

Please follow and like us:

Star Trekkin’ (The Firm)

firm - thumb

In 1982, John O’Connor and Grahame Lister, as The Firm, wrote Arthur Daley (E’s Alright), a song paying homage to the lovable rogue Arthur Daley from TV’s Minder, played by George Cole. The song went to number 14, after which The Firm seemingly disappeared. The follow-ups, Cash In Hand and Bravo Costa Brave failed to connect. Five years later, they returned with another novelty song, Star Trekkin’.

The song had its origins amongst a group of people known as The Sealed Knot, who held weekend jamborees recreating English Civil War battles. Part of the entertainment was to gather around the campfire at night and sing songs. One of the favourites was a parody of I Am The Music Man from the sixties musical The Music Man, recast as I am the Star Trek Man featuring the five ‘spoken’ lines used in Star Trekkin’, ie. ‘It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’, ‘There’s Klingons on the starboard bow’ etc. Grahame heard folk singer Chris Steinhauer perform a version of the song one evening at a local folk club and was struck by its good humour. Grahame asked Chris to record his version onto cassette, which he then took to his writing partner John O’Connor.

John, a guitarist who had worked with Steeleye Span in the Seventies and Bucks Fizz in the Eighties, owned Bark Studio in Walthamstow, London, and the two of them began playing around with the idea. They decided to abandon the Music Man parody, write a new melody and chorus, and use the tongue-twisting, ever-increasing tempo format pioneered by Rolf Harris with his tune The Court of King Caractacus. Rory Kehoe, a member of The Sealed Knot, was eventually identified as the author of the five ‘spoken’ lines, and duly credited as co-writer. The Firm were never a proper gigging band but for the recording of Star Trekkin’, Bill Martin played keyboards, Dev Douglas voiced Spock, John provided the voice of Kirk and McCoy, studio engineer Brian O’Shaughnessy was Scotty, Grahame’s wife Kathy and Karen Turney were the female backing singers with Grahame and Dev supplying the male backing voices. John’s wife Shelley was the distinctive voice of Lt. Uhuru. Shelley, a native Californian, was at first embarrassed about her singing and didn’t want her vocal used, but was eventually persuaded otherwise by John and Grahame.  Fortunately so, for Shelley’s ‘Klingons on the starboard bow’ contribution turned out to be the most memorable and most quoted part of the record.

They had trouble getting the record released, as John explained: “We approached a few record companies who said, ‘You must be joking, we’re not going to release this as a single!’ But we believed in it so much that we started our own label Bark, named after my studio, pressed 500 copies and sent them to radio stations in England. Then, suddenly everything went haywire.”

“It started selling fast and we knew it was going to be a hit, but John and I decided not to do personal TV appearances – we were a bunch of balding thirty-something’s and we figured us doing Top Of The Pops would kill the whole fun element of the thing stone dead! So we decided to do a claymation / cartoon type video as the song’s image. We approached the Spitting Image team among others, but all the quotes were far too expensive and most required months of preparation time, whereas we had exactly one week to have it ready for Top of the Pops,” remembers Grahame. “So we gave the project to a group of young art school graduates called The Film Garage who performed miracles with potato heads, stick-on mouths, cardboard cut-outs and a minimal budget, finishing the video with just hours to spare.”

The Firm’s follow-up, Superheroes, duly bombed, and John soon moved to America where he pursued a successful career as an acoustic guitarist specialising in new-age music recording under the name EKO. He also wrote the incidental music for the Channel 4 series King of the Hill. Grahame still lives in Essex, still writes and records original songs, and performs in his home town of Brentwood with his band Roots Revue. Addition he is a tennis coach at Billericay Lawn Tennis Club.

In the early Eighties, he’d written and recorded a solo acapella doo-wop single called Automobile released under the name of The Stick Shifts which was later used as the basis of a Lurpak butter commercial.

Please follow and like us:

Silver Machine (Hawkwind)

Silver Machine

Although probably impossible to verify, Hawkwind claim that their landmark single, Silver Machine is the only top three single ever recorded entirely on LSD. Hawkwind were Robert Calvert – vocals, Dave Brock – guitar & vocals, Nik Turner (saxophone & flute) Lemmy (Ian Kilmister) (bass guitar & vocals), Dik Mik aka Michael Davies and Del Dettmar (Synthesizers) and Simon King on drums.

They were formed in 1967 and originally called Famous Cure, Dave Brock tells more, “Famous Cure was a band I had in 1967. We toured Holland in a psychedelic circus so we were travelling around in caravans. But all that fell apart and I went back to England and then formed Hawkwind. It was initially called Group X because we didn’t have a title. We then called it Hawkwind Zoo and then our manager said, ‘drop the Zoo bit’ and so we were called Hawkwind. That’s how that came about.”

In 1970, London was experiencing a serious comedown with Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix all having recently passed away and British rock was at a crossroads torn between prog-rock and the space-age stomp of glam and then along came Hawkwind. Dave Brock explains how their best known song came about, “Silver Machine was recorded at The Greasy Truckers Ball at the Roundhouse in Camden on a Sunday night in February 1972. “During the afternoon we all took LSD in the dressing room. As we were sitting there, someone said it was time to get on stage. We were all completely off our heads, but once we got started it was OK. We’d done so many gigs by then, it was easy. When we listened back to the tapes, we realised Bob Calvert’s vocals didn’t sound right, so we went into Morgan Studios to finish it off. Robert Calvert wrote the words and put them to a riff I’d come up with when I was living in Putney. He was one of the earliest alternative types, heavily into science fiction, a real free-thinker. Everyone thinks Silver Machine is some sort of sci-fi epic, but in actual fact it was a send-up – it was about a bicycle. It was inspired by the Alfred Jarry essay How to Construct a Time Machine which Calvert interpreted as a description of how to build a bicycle, he was very good at conjuring up images which would stick in your head. A lot of notable French intellectuals formed an academy around the basic idea of coming up with theories to explain the exceptions to the Laws of the Universe, people like Ionesco the playwright. The College of metaphysics. I thought it was a great idea for a song. At that time there were a lot of songs about space travel, and it was the time when NASA was actually, really doing it. They’d put a man on the moon and were planning to put parking lots and hamburger stalls and everything up there. I thought that it was about time to come up with a song that actually sent this all.”

The writing credit on the single is Bob Calvert and someone who claims to be Sylvia MacManus. It was often speculated that it was something of a pseudonym for the famous wrestler Mick McManus. I even read somewhere that it was Elvis Costello’s father, who was a musician, and whose real name was McManus but all are completely wrong. She was Dave Brock’s then wife Sylvia, whose maiden name was Macmanus which Dave used for the credits in order to put pressure on his publishing company to improve his deal. Using non-de plume’s seemed to be the order of the day, if you look at the producer credit; it says Dr Technical, which was Dave Brock’s alias.

Robert Calvert sang the lead vocal on the original live recording. However, the vocals were considered too weak for the single release so they were re-recorded in the studio. Calvert, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, had been sectioned at the time so was unavailable to attempt another version. Dave said, “His vocal was fucking hopeless, but he never realised it. That’s how mad he was. It sounded like Captain Kirk reading Blowing in the Wind. They tried everybody singing it except me. Then, as a last shot, someone said try Lemmy. It was late one evening and we’d all cleared off, Lemmy decided he’d do it and when we came back he’d put his vocal on it, it sounded fine, so that was that.  Lemmy just had the best voice for it. Of course, Bob was not pleased when he found out.”

The psychedelic space sounding intro was recorded on a VSC3 synthesiser which is a Voltage Controlled Studio with 3 oscillators. Hawkwind were one of the first to use this machine but became more commonly used by Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, The Alan Parsons Project and The Who among others.

Simon King, the drummer recalled what happened on that day at the Greasy Truckers, “It was about my third gig, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t done any rehearsals and I thought that Silver Machine was a Chuck Berry number, really!”

When it came to Top of the Pops, they didn’t feel comfortable. They had done very little television but now the single was in the chart an appearance was required. They felt ill at ease at the prospect of miming a performance in front of a studio audience who didn’t represent their following, so a compromise was reached with the BBC recording the band performing live at Dunstable Civic Hall on 7 July 1972, this clip being shown with the single version dubbed over it.

They followed it up with Urban Guerrilla which only reached number 39 and the next run of singles, Psychedelic Warlords, Kings of Speed, Kerb Crawler and Back on the Streets all failed to make an impact. They had one further hit which was a live version of Shot Down In The Night which peaked at number 59 in July 1980, just before Cream’s Ginger Baker very briefly joined the band.

Lemmy was sacked in the spring of 1975, Dave Brock recalled what happened, “Well, we’d be on tour and Lemmy was into taking speed back then and unfortunately, if you’re up for a few days you usually fall asleep for a long time afterwards. So Lemmy was always late, we’d be leaving the hotel for the next gig and there’s no Lemmy and this habit used to piss everybody off. When we crossed the Canadian border, Lemmy was asleep and they decided to search him. Our manager had said ‘make sure you don’t have anything on you’ and of course he got pulled at the border. We had this gig in Toronto we had to do the next day and it didn’t look like Lemmy was going to be allowed into Canada. We had to get Paul Rudolph who used to play in a band called Pink Fairies to fly out and replace Lemmy.” In the summer of the same year Lemmy formed Motörhead and are still going to this day albeit as a trio.

Calvert died of a heart attack in 1988 aged just 44. Dave Brock is the only remaining member of Hawkwind who still tour with a line up of Tim Blake, Richard Chadwick, Mr Dibs & Niall Hone. In 2012 they released their 25th album called Onward.

Not too many cover versions have appeared of Silver Machine, but a couple to note are James Last who performed a version on his Non Stop Dancing 1973 album and William Shatner with Carmine Appice and Wayne Kramer covered the song on his 2011 album Seeking Major Tom.

Please follow and like us:

Up The Ladder To The Roof (Supremes)

Up The Ladder to The Roof - Thumb

The Tremeloes did it and The Mindbenders did it. The Shadows did it with more success and The Supremes did it too. What? They all had a healthy chart career when their main lead singer left.

The Supremes broke all sorts of records in the States since their formation in 1959 as The Primettes. They notched up 32 Billboard hit singles in the 60s alone and were the first act to have five consecutive number ones. By the end of the decade things were changing at Motown. Diana Ross left for a solo career following the possibly prophetic hit Someday We’ll Be Together, Stevie Wonder began producing his own songs, Marvin Gaye refused to record or perform, Tammi  Terrell died and Smokey Robinson delayed his departure from the Miracles following the surprise transatlantic number one The Tears Of A Clown.

Berry Gordy had decided that an existing Motown singer was going to replace Diana Ross, that singer was Syreeta Wright. She had recorded a few songs that had overlapped with Diana’s choices which led her to believe she was doing the demos for the Supremes and thus being groomed to take Diana’s place. At the last minute that was changed. One night Berry and the Supremes’ manager, Shelly Berger, went to see the ex-boxing champion Ernie Terrell perform with his group The Heavyweights at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami. His sister Jean was a singer and after a quick audition, Berry signed her to his label. He decided that Jean was now to replace Diana and that was announced to the world at the Supremes final concert at the Frontier hotel in Las Vegas on January 14th, 1970 and, on the Ed Sullivan show. Then Berry, again, changed his mind and told Mary Wilson, “I don’t like Jean Terrell and I want to replace her with Syreeta Wright.” Mary was shocked and retorted with a firm “No.” Berry replied, “All Right, then I wash my hands of the group.”

Up The Ladder to The Roof was the first song released as the ‘new’ Supremes. Their profile was boosted when they made their debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan show where he introduced Cindy Birdsong as Cindy Birdstone and was also confused over which one was Jean until Mary put his straight. The song was written by Frank Wilson and Vincent DiMirco. Frank had worked with the ‘old’ Supremes as co-writer of Love Child and I’m Livin’ In Shame and as producer of I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, I Second That Emotion (the duet with the Temptations) and the lesser known Why (Must We Fall In Love). Johnny Bristol who had worked on a few of the ‘old’ Supremes’ hits had produced a song called Life Beats which he was led to believe was going to be the Supremes’ first single, but instead Gordy asked Frank to look after business. Dimirco was an up and coming Puerto Rican songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote Up the Ladder to The Roof and submitted it to Wilson who recalled, “I just loved that melody and the chorus and I came back to Detroit and re-wrote it to fit Jean. The girls were working live so much I’d cut the tracks, get on a plane and go where they were. We may have recorded the vocals in either Vegas or D.C. I can’t remember.”

Dimirco had it in his mind that he might be signed to the label and record the track himself but it was not to be although he did play guitar on the recording. Wilson remembered, “I usually worked material up from the piano but gave this song a second favour by building it around Vincent’s guitar, that session came very easy.” The sentiment is about a woman who invites her man to be hers forever so that even after they die, their spirits will climb the ladder that leads to the roof of heaven. The original plan was for Terrell and Wilson to alternate on the lead vocal but Terrell, whose roots were in Gospel, possessed a much stronger and soulful voice and thus got the job. During the recording of the song, Frank Wilson had to ask Terrell to cut down on the amount of vocal runs she was doing.

In the recording studio, Mary Wilson recalled, “I found myself standing in front of the microphone with Jean and Cindy and as I looked at this new grouping of the world-famous Supremes I reflected on the first time Diane (that’s what they called Diana. Diane was her real name but in the early 60s she decided to call herself Diana originating from a spelling error on her birth certificate), Florence and I were together in the studio. It dawned on me how much the three of us had accomplished. At first it felt odd without Diane but I realised that my life must go on and that there was no sense in dwelling in the past.”

The song has been covered by Al Green on his 1984 album Trust in God and also by Bette Midler on her 1977 Live At Last album. The Nylons did an acapella version in 1982 which was featured in the 1987 film Made in Heaven. In 1997, the female leads of the Fox Network sitcom Living Single (Queen Latifah, Erika Alexander, Kim Fields, and Kim Coles) performed the song in an episode during a fantasy sequence depicting them as a Supremes-esque girl group called the Flavorettes.

Vincent still lives in New York but is now a recluse. After leaving Motown Frank Wilson recorded a track called Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do) which years later became a Northern Soul favourite and probably the rarest record on that scene. He later produced tracks for the Four Tops and Eddie Kendricks and then in 1976 he became a born-again Christian and eventually a minister but kept his hand in by producing gospel music. Frank died on 27th September 2012 in Duarte, California, he was 71. According to his daughter Tracy Stein, the cause was complications of a lung infection but he had also been treated for prostate cancer.

Please follow and like us: