Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Ballad of Faul and Yoko

I have one more Beatles tidbit for you, taken from the book Revolution in the Head, as have been the Beatles items of the past few days. The book, to tell the truth, is a bit disappointing; it purports to be a musicological look at each recorded Beatles number but ends up spending half its time telling the stories behind the songs and, in the end, isn't really satisfactory on either end.

It does have a neat Beatles timeline, though, which informs us that on November 9, 1966, Paul McCartney crashed his moped while out riding with his buddy Tara Browne. A rumor sprang up that Paul had been decapitated, leading to his being Officially Pronounced Dead. (Browne too would go down for the count just over a month later.)

Shortly thereafter Faul - the False Paul - was enticed to join the Beatles. The other Beatles would have gotten away with the whole thing had they not felt the need to taunt the newbie, making Faul wear a black carnation during the shooting of Magical Mystery Tour and whatnot, just to remind him that he wasn't a real Beatle.

Anyway, it was on that very same day, November 9, 1966, that John Lennon met Yoko Ono at her art exhibit in London. So if you're looking for the day that was the beginning of the end for the Beatles, that would be it.

Birthday Wishes, Eh?

Canadian pop singer Paul Anka turns 68 today. Anka was a huge star back in the late Fifties when he was just a teenager; "Diana," which he wrote and recorded when the native Ottawan was just 16, went to Number One in the summer of 1957. Before Anka turned 20, he had seven more Top Ten hits, including the Number One "Lonely Boy."

One hit that failed to reach the Top Ten was his spoken-word record "The Teen Commandments," on which he collaborated with George Hamilton IV and Johnny Nash. It topped out at Number 29 early in 1959 and, it says here, consisted of "inspirational talk from the three ABC-Paramount artists." I bet it's a hoot.

Anka's superstardom more or less ended when he turned 20, which is a little sad. He had six more Top Forty hits by 1963, but none of them made the Top Ten. According to Anka, though, he ran into Johnny Carson when he was about to take over The Tonight Show, and Johnny asked him to write some new theme music for him. Anka reworked a song he had written called "Toot Sweet," and the rest is history. He also wrote the English lyrics to "My Way."

Anka made his pop comeback in 1974, when his song "(You're) Having My Baby," a duet with Odia Coates (had her parents really never heard of the word odious? Did she have sisters named Execra and Ignominia?), went to Number One, his first chart-topper in 15 years. A nearly identical version called "I'm Having Your Baby," by the country singer Sunday Sharpe, went to Number 11 on the C&W charts.

There's a street in Ottawa called Paul Anka Drive. In 2008, Anka's second wife was arrested after she smacked him in the head with a piece of ice.

Monday, July 27, 2009

All of Chuck's Children Are Out There Playing His Licks

As everyone reading this blog already knows, the first lines of the Beatles' "Come Together" are "Here come old flat-top, he come/Grooving up slowly." There is a line in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" that goes: "Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me." Morris Levy, the music industry macher who owned the rights to "You Can't Catch Me," somehow decided that John Lennon had appropriated too much of Chuck's song for "Come Together" and sued.

When I first heard this story, I thought, What? You can sue someone for using half a line of a song? How is it that Bob Dylan is able to walk the streets a free man?

The upshot of this is that Lennon reached a settlement with Levy, out of court, that he'd include three songs Levy owned on his next album, the nostalgia collection called Rock 'n' Roll. (During the making of the record, to get that proper Fifties feel, Lennon and May Pang went to far as to visit the set of "Happy Days.") The Levy songs Lennon agreed to cut were "You Can't Catch Me," Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," and, I believe, "Ya Ya."

Lennon started making Rock 'n' Roll (at first called Oldies but Mouldies) in December 1973 with Phil Spector during his infamous Lost Weekend, but soon went back to New York to make Walls and Bridges, leaving the oldies collection unreleased. When Walls and Bridges came out, in October 1974, Levy was po'd that the record didn't have his promised three songs, and threatened to sue again. Lennon went back into the studio, quickly finished Rock 'n' Roll, then sent the rough tapes to Levy to assure him that everything was OK.

Then things got even weirder: Levy suggested that he and Lennon would make more money if they sold the album via mail-order, on late-night TV, with Lennon appearing in the ads. Bizarrely, Lennon agreed. Capitol, however, wasn't so excited, and reminded Lennon that he already had a recording contract. Putting out albums via late-night TV was apparently not permitted by that contract. Lennon told Levy the deal was off.

But Levy still had the tapes, remember? So for three days in January 1975, before Lennon and Capitol got their lawyers in gear, if you were watching TV at the right time, you could have bought yourself a vinyl copy of Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock 'n' Roll Hits. Lennon was reportedly very upset by the crappy cover art - as well as the fact that it took a month for his own mail-ordered copy to arrive.

All because of "You Can't Catch Me." Aside from the one line, Chuck's song has the vaguest resemblance to "Come Together" in the meter of the lyrics and a couple of similar chords, but you can be the judge:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Seconds of Pleasure

In May 1968, Richard Harris' epic, multi-part "MacArthur Park" reached the Top Forty, where it would eventually crest at Number Two. It clocked in at an epochal 7:20.

Two months later, the Beatles recorded their own lengthy single, "Hey Jude." It was released on August 26, 1968, and went to Number One for nine weeks.

But Jimmy Webb, the author of "MacArthur Park," wasn't peeved by the chart position of "Hey Jude" as much as he was by its length. "After I put 'MacArthur Park' out and it was 7 minutes 20 seconds long," Webb said in 2005, "the Beatles put out 'Hey Jude' and it was 7:21, one second longer." He has claimed that the band specifically edited the single so that it would be longer than "MacArthur Park."

There's only one problem with this theory: "Hey Jude" actually runs only 7:11, just like the store. It makes a nice story, though, Jimmy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And the Hits Just Keep On Comin'

That business about Silver Convention that I wrote about the other day leads to another question: Which act had the most hits, all of which reached the Top Ten? For a long time, I thought this record was held by the odious Milli Vanilli, which placed five songs not just in the Top Ten but in the Top Five before exploding in a sea of backing tapes and hair extensions.

It does make sense: The artist who holds this record is likely to be someone who has a lot of early success, then totally disappears from the charts. Dying isn't enough; posthumous hits tend to wander into the lower reaches of the Top Forty.

Many artists have looked as if they'd beat Milli's record easily. The Lovin' Spoonful's first seven hits all went to the Top Ten, before "Darling Be Home Soon" topped out at Number 15. The Captain and Tennille matched the Vanilli Brothers by having their first five hits all go to the Top Five. The Jackson Five's first six hits all went to the Top Five (Top Two, as a matter of fact). More recently, the R&B singer Monica had her first nine hits all make the Top Ten, until breaking the string with "U Should've Known Better," which went to Number 19.

All of those artists could have had Rob and Fab's record, but blew it. One who didn't, though was the actress and singer Gale Storm, star of TV's "My Little Margie" in the early Fifties. She was already an established TV star when a record exec heard her singing on the "Colgate Comedy Hour" in 1954 and signed her to a record deal. Storm's very first release, a cover of "I Hear You Knocking," went to Number Two late in 1955, and her next five hits (including a cover of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") all followed it into the Top Ten, giving her an unbroken string of six Top Ten hits.

Storm's recording career more or less ended at that point in favor of her own sitcom and appearances in Vegas. Good thing, too, because I always hated Milli Vanilli.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two-Hit Wonders

I write an awful lot about one-hit wonders on this site, but near as I can figure, no act has ever been a pure two-hit wonder: two songs going to Number One without anything else even reaching the Top Forty. The closest was the German disco act Silver Convention, which sent "Fly, Robin, Fly" to the top spot on November 29, 1975, then had "Get Up and Boogie (That's Right)" stall out at Number Two for three weeks the following spring. The followup, "No No Joe," peaked at Number 60, and Silver Convention was done making hits.

"Fly, Robin, Fly" won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental, even though, as you'll probably recall, it had lyrics. The song had a total of six words, as a matter of fact; they were, in alphabetical order, "fly," "robin," "sky," "the," "to" and "up." "Get Up and Boogie (That's Right)" also had just six words, all of which are helpfully listed in the title, so I don't need to repeat them here. I don't know how many words "No No Joe" had.

There are a couple of footnotes to this feat. The Cuban bandleader Perez Prado had two Number One singles ("Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" and "Patricia") and no other hits during the rock era, but both those hits predate the Hot 100. "Cherry Pink" dates back to March of 1955, which is as early as my reference materials go, and I rather suspect that Prado had other Top Forty hits before 1955. He also wrote "Mambo No. 5," which Lou Bega turned into a hit in 1999.

Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders sort of matched Silver Convention's record. Their "Game of Love" went to Number One on April 24, 1965, and the next spring, the Mindbenders (note new band name) had another huge hit with "Groovy Kind of Love," which went to Number Two. But in between those two hits, Wayne Fontana left the group - in the middle of a show, from what I've read. He was replaced as lead singer by guitarist Eric Stewart, who would later form 10cc. Anyway, whether the two Mindbenders' hits are by the same band is a decision the reader will have to make.

A Taste of Honey went to Number One with "Boogie Oogie Oogie" in 1978, and then to Number Three with "Sukiyaki" in 1981. "Sukiyaki" did go to Number One on both the R&B and adult contemporary charts. Plus, it's better than anything Silver Convention ever did.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Strangers No More

I heard a strange and wonderful thing the other day: An Elvis Presley song used in a Coke commercial, and not just one of the old usual suspects like "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Teddy Bear" but a nonhit, "Stranger in the Crowd," from the 1970 album That's the Way It Is. It wasn't Elvis' version, but it sure sounded good. "Stranger in the Crowd" was written by Winfield Scott, who had also written, along with Bumps Blackwell, earlier Presley hits "Return to Sender" and "(You're the) Devil in Disguise," as well as a never-used title track to Roustabout.

That's the Way It Is
is my favorite Elvis album, accompanying a concert film of the same name, although most of it was cut in a Nashville studio. For much of Elvis' career, Colonel Parker demanded that writers submit songs to Elvis and give his management team a cut of the publishing, which meant that Presley rarely recorded covers that other people had already done. By 1970, for reasons I don't recall, Elvis was at liberty to do things like B.J.. Thomas' "I Just Can't Help Believin'" or George Harrison's "Something," and no matter who had done these songs originally, Elvis sang them better, because he was the best.

This period of Elvis' career is generally remembered for treacly hits like "Don't Cry Daddy" and the Mac Davis-penned "In the Ghetto," but the non-cover parts of That's the Way It Is is packed with what I think of as Kristofferson-type songs, full of adult emotion and quotidian detail. Love is negotiated around unpaid bills and babies crying at six a.m., and Elvis handles this territory marvelously. It's a wonderfully grown-up collection.

Truth be told, "Stranger in the Crowd" is one of the weaker songs on the album, but it's still real good:

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Swedish Thing

That March 1977 issue of Creem ("America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine") I mentioned the other day had the expected features on Boston, Jefferson Starship and Patti Smith, but also a big blowout on Abba. I wonder how well this went over with the metalheads in Detroit who thought Ted Nugent had gone soft with Free-for-All. I suspect it looked a bit silly back then, but it's aged pretty well, better than the rave review of the new Rory Gallagher album.

"Like all pop masters," the piece reads, "Abba express and sell themselves entirely according to the grooves; they've rarely performed live [Ed. note: Note even when they appeared on Saturday Night Live] and have no personality - few people know their names and nobody knows which girl is which." As it happens, I do know which girl is which: Agnetha is the blonde and Annifrid, better known as Frida, is the brunette.

On the other hand, I probably didn't know this until Frida's 1982 solo hit "I Know There's Something Going On," produced and drummed into submission by Phil Collins. I certainly believe that no one knew the difference in 1977, because Creem didn't know. "Benny and Bjorn started recording together as Bjorn and Benny in 1966," one part of the article goes, "and Anna and Frida started their successful solo careers soon after." But Anna and Frida are the same person!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Allen Klein, 1931-2009

Allen Klein, onetime manager of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, dead at the age of 77, much to the relief of the surviving members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. After his mother died when he was two, Klein spent much of his childhood in a New Jersey orphanage, and eventually got a degree in accounting from Upsala College, where his friend Don Kirshner suggested he go into the music business.

Klein made a name for himself discovering unpaid royalties to the likes of Bobby Darin and Sam Cooke, and eventually got himself installed as the Rolling Stones' business manager. In 1966, Mick Jagger supposedly told Paul McCartney that the Stones were making much more money than the Beatles were, all because of Allen Klein. After Brian Epstein's death and the disaster that was Apple, the Beatles turned to Klein for financial help, trying to create a management mishmash with Paul's future in-laws the Eastmans. (McCartney was said to be impressed by the fact that Klein was wearing a sweater and sneakers when he came to meet the Beatles, as opposed to the rest of the suits Paul had to deal with.)

Klein wrested full control, and after the Let It Be sessions foundered on the rocks, it was Klein who called in Phil Spector to help rescue them. This helped spur McCartney to leave the group - they'd been screwed over by businessmen before, but having them meddle in the Beatles' music was just too much.

Klein went on to build a whole music-publishing empire at his company ABKCO, and kept himself busy harassing people who ever suggested that his motives weren't pure and righteous. One time I was working on a magazine story that mentioned ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears," including the fact that the song had never been released on CD, and that all CD versions of the song were remakes. My original version noted specially that Allen Klein had never allowed the song to be released on CD, but the editor took out Klein's name, saying that he didn't want to be the recipient of an angry phone call from Allen Klein the morning after the issue appeared.

But now, the truth can be told.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday

Happy 233rd birthday to the greatest country in the history of the planet. How many songs mention the Fourth of July? You'd think there'd be a bunch, given rock & roll's fascination with summer, but I can't think of that many:

"Saturday in the Park," by Chicago
"Good," by Better than Ezra
"4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," by Bruce Springsteen (doesn't actually mention the Fourth of July, but whatever)

There are also songs called "Fourth of July" by U2, Soundgarden, Mariah Carey, X, and Galaxie 500.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Spirit of '76

Hey, were you wondering who won the readers poll over at Creem magazine ("America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine") back in 1976? Well, I just happen to have the March 1977 issue, on loan to the OPC archives from the permanent collection of Rob Sheffield. The choice of Creem readers for best album were:

Rocks, by Aerosmith
Frampton Comes Alive, by Peter Frampton
The Song Remains the Same, by Led Zeppelin
Destroyer, by Kiss
Agents of Fortune, by Blue Oyster Cult
Presence, by Led Zeppelin
Blue Moves, by Elton John
A Night on the Town, by Rod Stewart
Station to Station, by David Bowie
Black and Blue, by the Rolling Stones

Boy howdy, they loved the Zep, didn't they? Songs in the Key of Life came in 13th, Ramones 16th.

Here's the singles list:

"Don't Fear the Reaper," by Blue Oyster Cult
"Last Child," by Aerosmith
"Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," by Elton John and Kiki Dee
"Show Me the Way," by Peter Frampton
"Bohemian Rhapsody," by Queen
"Beth," by Kiss
"Magic Man," by Heart
"Tonight's the Night," by Rod Stewart
"More Than a Feeling," by Boston
"Rhiannon," by Fleetwood Mac

Interesting how much poppier that singles list is. But really, guys, "Last Child"?