Monday, 30 June 2014

Jerry Keller 'Here Comes Summer'

Chart Peak: 1
This was Jerry's only Hit in Britain. It was No. 1 for one week in October (!) 1959 and he wrote the song himself.
Another out-of-time summer hit to close out the album, and needless to say a song called 'Here Comes Summer' should have been a hit even earlier than most summer songs. Perhaps people were looking forward to the summer of 1960? Timing aside, this is actually rather a nice example of the kind of light pop that emerged in the gap between the initial rock and roll era and the sixties beat groups. It doesn't have the same sort of bite or wit as 'Summertime Blues' but it has an easy-going charm and just the merest hint of sauciness as he boasts that double-features at the drive-in give him an opportunity to spend more time with the lady who "makes my flat-top curl". I shan't comment on whether "if she's willing, we'll go steady right away" is meant to be euphemistic, but really it doesn't matter anyway. This is another shot of teenage optimism, well-produced and just the right length. It's a brilliant piece of sequencing too, strumming away in undemanding cheerfulness and ending just in time to leave you wanting more.

So, you may want to listen to the album again straight away, in which case time to plug the playlists again: Spotify and Deezer, now featuring all the non-Beatles tracks for your chart-eligible pleasure. Secondhand copies of the album are available, possibly for less money than acquiring every track individually, and of course you can also obtain the 2014 Now That's What I Call Summer that led me to write these posts in the first place, I hope you enjoyed them.

Meanwhile, it'll probably be July by the time you read this, I'll be back soon with a main-series album.

Available on: The Very Best Of

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Monkees 'Daydream Believer'

Chart Peak: 5
A perfect Summer Hit in every way... apart from the fact that it was in the chart at Christmas(!) 1967, 'Daydream Believer' actually peaked at No. 5 in January 1968. The track was an American No. 1 and did return to the U.K. Top 40 in April 1980 as part of The Monkees EP.
I'm not sure why it's only 29 tracks in that the sleeve notes spot that some of these "summer" tracks were charting at the wrong time of year, but they are indeed correct on both that and the song's re-emergence on their EP that peaked at 33 in 1980.  In fact the song was back in the US Top 100 later in 1986 in connection with a hits collection, and I guess that would have been the time I remember hearing it on the radio a lot in my primary school days. Whilst this particular retrospective coincided with a reunion of the three members who weren't independently wealthy, Monkees best-ofs seem to emerge on an almost fortnightly basis. Perhaps this is a sign of the odd position they now occupy in pop history, both terribly cool to the knowledgeable and yet still carrying a burden of naffness to others, whilst also massive pop faves who induce nostalgia to many of a certain generation. Indeed, my mum was a (very) young Monkees fan back in the 1960s, whilst I had a boss who was only slightly older and hated them because they were a manufactured band. That of course they were but to be honest, in those days there weren't many who weren't.

Certainly, even though they were only a couple of years into their career, the group were already chafing at the limitations of their original roles, particularly the two who were actually experienced musicians. This particular track was of course a showcase for Davy Jones who wasn't an instrumentalist nor even a notably good singer, though he still had standards, as the testy studio talk on the intro (not included in the video, but it is on the edit used on this album) demonstrates. Apparently he thought this was the wrong key for his voice and wasn't a fan of the song either, perhaps unfairly. To be sure, they were making more interesting music in this era under their own steam, with the likes of 'Goin Down' and 'Randy Scouse Git', but they weren't really the Beatles and didn't really have the ability to sustain a serious pop career without outside help, certainly not at the work-rate required of them. Taken on its own merits, this song is OK but not brilliant, a slightly hokey attempt to play on Davy's English charm which still mentions a "homecoming queen" in the chorus. There's an audible jadedness beyond the initial dialogue, both from the singer and the backing musicians, but if you don't listen too carefully it sounds cheery enough and it's clear how the song had a second lease of life as a football chant.

Available on: Monkeemania: The Very Best Of The Monkees

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Lovin' Spoonful 'Daydream'

Chart Peak: 2
The first of two Summer Hits from John, Zal, Steve and Joe, 'Daydream' made No.2 in Britain and America in May 1966.
Strange but true, there are two Lovin' Spoonful songs out of the 30 on this album and they're right next to each other. The way the sleevenotes are phrased seems to imply that they were written before the album was sequenced, don't they?

Anyway, of the two big Spoonful hits this is the one I remember hearing more of when I was a kid, possibly because it was a slightly bigger hit but I suspect more because it doesn't have a title that ties it into one season and so got the lion's share of airplay as an oldie. That said, I haven't heard it for a long time.

The trouble with this song is that it seems a bit too determinedly laid-back, almost aggressively relaxed. Obviously, this is partly because it's really about smoking various substances, but also it seems to be one of those examples of people who are just a bit too insistent that you chill out and relax as if it turns into a sort of inverse macho contest. I'm a pretty relaxed - or, some might say, lazy - person generally, but there's nothing less relaxing than being told to take it easy, man. I guess this is trying to do something similar to 'Groovin' at the top of the album, but it doesn't quite convince me, though it's not unpleasant. At least it's nowhere near as annoying as their other Top 40 single, 'Nashville Cats'.

Available on: Very Best Of The Lovin' Spoonful

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Lovin' Spoonful 'Summer In The City'

Chart Peak: 1
The follow-up to 'Daydream', this track made No. 8 in August 1966. It was also an American No. 1 and was originally a poem written by John Sebastian's brother.
One of my favourite summer tracks, mainly because it's so ambivalent. Sure we're all pleased to see the summer when it first arrives but after a few days isn't there a little part of all of us that starts to get a bit tired of the heat as we pack ourselves onto trains and spend our days in offices and classrooms? That was of course even more the case in the days before widespread air-conditioning in Britain. Matthew Sebastian neatly sums up the physical manifestations of summer days "Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty" and hints at the impatient mood that can sometimes develop: he then contrasts this with the pleasures of a summer night, when the world seems a lot more open and welcoming. I went for a walk to the park after 9pm just the other day and it was great that it was still light enough to see then.

The song is greatly improved by its musical setting, even if they do have to sing it twice to make it up to a commercially viable length. John Sebastian's staccato electric piano part gives the song a hook before the rest of the arrangement kicks in, and there's a palpable contrast between the tension of the "day" verses and the lighter, more open-sounding "night" bridge. Like 'Lazy Sunday', it's also a great sound effect track, with the subtle use of jackhammers and traffic noises representing the irritation without actually becoming irritating themselves. For me the only flaw of the track musically is that they seem to run out of ideas at the end, sounding like they're going to a big finish that never arrives and fading almost as if they're shy.

Available on: Summer In The City - The Collection

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Small Faces 'Lazy Sunday'

Chart Peak:
The group's 9th Top 20 Hit, 'Lay Sunday' made No.2 in May 1968. Like many of their previous Hits it was written by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. The song made a brief return to the Top 40 in April 1976.
Sorry, the audio in that original video seems to be out of phase. There's also a video for the 1976 re-issue which has better sound quality. It doesn't look quite right to see such a Sixties-sounding track performed by people who are clearly in the Seventies, but at least Steve Marriott does some good pantomiming.

A song that seems fated to be confused with 'Sunny Afternoon' throughout posterity, 'Lazy Sunday' shares that song's ironic overtones, coming over as both a celebration and a parody of British psychedelic pop of the era, and of their own cockney image; certainly no couplet seems to sum up the style better than the juxtaposition of "Here we all are sitting in a rainbow/Cor blimey! Allo Mrs Jones, how's your Bert's lumbago?". On the whole, British songwriters in the Sixties seemed a bit more grounded than many of their North American counterparts, who gave the impression of taking the hippie thing more seriously. I guess they're taking advantage of increasing permissiveness by mentioning a toilet in the song too, I'm sure that would have been taboo not long before. You can see a similar thing in their previous hit 'Itchycoo Park' as they mock-seriously croon "feed the ducks with a bun", but this ups the ante slightly by being part of the mock-concept album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, which is trailed here with the reference to the moon.

What I'd never really noticed before is that whilst Marriott starts the song in his exaggerated Cockney character, by the end he's back to the soul-oriented vocal that first made the band famous as an R&B act. Although he obviously wasn't really from Memphis, in the context of this song and their career, it feels like he's actually trying the shed the persona as he exclaims "there's nothing to stop me from feeling this way". A song that pulls into a lot of directions at once but is saved by the tight performance and arrangement, with sound effects emphasising the humour but not becoming distractingly gimmicky. As much as I'm more of Kinks than a Small Faces fan generally, I do like this one more than 'Sunny Afternoon'.

Available on: Small Faces: Ultimate Collection

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Mungo Jerry 'In The Summertime'

Chart Peak: 1
One of the few groups to have 2 No. 1 singles with their first 2 Hits, Mungo Jerry were at the top of the UK charts for 7 weeks form Mid-June to the beginning of August 1970 with 'In The Summertime'.
As of Summer 1986, it was still pretty unusual to have topped the chart with your first two chart singles; George Michael had recently achieved this with his first two solo singles, though of course there were Wham! releases before and between them, and of course Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Gerry And The Pacemakers could also make this claim. You could make a case for Gary Numan if you count his hit with Tubeway Army too, but it's happened many more times since: just off the top of my heard there's the Spice Girls, Westlife, Jive Bunny, Arctic Monkeys, Leona Lewis... What's particularly remarkable about Mungo Jerry is that they might be the act fewest people remember doing this; when I was a kid in the 80s, they'd become a running joke of a one-hit wonder like Carl Douglas, and 'Baby Jump' must rank among the most forgotten chart-toppers of the 1970s if not of all time. Just as well, really, it's rubbish.

Whatever you might say about 'In The Summertime', it's not rubbish, but it certainly feels dated now. Admittedly it was aiming at a sort of retro sound even at the time, with its jug-band arrangement (it must be one of the very few Number One singles that actually features somebody blowing into a bottle) and mouth percussion. The lyric also seems to equate its subjects with an earlier generation of wandering minstrels. And yet the production is very redolent of its time, with Ray Dorset's haphazardly double-tracked vocal something that would only have been technically possible a few years earlier, whilst the stereo mix which features here (and which I presume was on the original 45) pans the vocal across the stereo spectrum. Of course the engine sound effects also anchor the song pretty firmly in the 20th century, and the lyric openly advocates drink-driving (at 125 miles per hour!) which is not something you'd expect to hear nowadays; the song has of course been licensed to some road safety adverts since. The song has now become such a familiar part of summer it seems almost irrelevant to try and form an opinion on it, and indeed its sheer ubiquity has spoilt it a bit. It no longer feels as easy-going and light-hearted as I think it's meant to.

Available on: Magic Summertime

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cliff Richard 'The Day I Met Marie'

Chart Peak: 10
Cliff's 34th Top 10 single in Britain, 'Marie' was a top 10 Hit in September 1967.
And so Cliff returns with the onerous task of following the Beatles. Arguably he's doing so in more ways than one because by 1967 he had to move with the times and whilst you couldn't call this psychedelic, they're clearly trying for something of a "Summer Of Love" feel, with the music veering from the hazy, dreamy verses to the brass-band enhanced chorus section. Although it would presumably have been recorded before Sgt. Pepper or 'Excerpt From A Teenage Opera' came out, those sorts of sounds were clearly in the air in British pop at the time.

What may come as even more of a surprise to 21st-century listeners who know Cliff only by reputation is the lyric of this song. It's be stretching a point to call it sexy, but there's a definite erotic charge to the tale of Cliff waking up lying in the hay and recalling the mysterious Marie who "came to touch him" and who kissed his brow and told him to go to sleep. Even though the exact details of what preceded the brow-kissing are elided, it changed our protagonist's life somehow. You could see this as a companion to 'Summer The First Time' earlier on this album, except that it strikes a different mood, wistful where Goldsboro is merely boastful. At least this protagonist recognises how lucky he is. Also, and I'm not afraid to say this, this is much better sung. Actually, that's pretty faint praise, so I'll go further: this is a genuinely good vocal performance. two and a quarter minutes it comes to a sudden halt, the sort of trick that was emblematic of its era but also suits the song's meaning. We all know Cliff has made some terrible records in his time, but this isn't actually one of them.

Here's the link I forgot to include in yesterday's post about 'Here Comes The Sun': an isolated section from the backing track with the Moog, strings and handclaps only. I've edited the post to add this but I know not everyone will see that.

Available on: Dansette Days & Jukebox Nights [+Digital Booklet]

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Beatles 'Here Comes The Sun'

Chart Peak: 58 [in 2010]
Originally included on the Abbey Road album, released in 1969. The track was never a single by the Fab 4, but it was a Hit for Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel in Summer 1976.
Surprising enough to see one Beatles track on here, but two is really generous. This does of course differ in that it's a George Harrison song rather than a Lennon/McCartney one. Indeed John Lennon, who sang lead on 'All You Need Is Love' doesn't appear on this track at all. Given that the Beatles never released the track as a single themselves, it's slightly surprising there was never a hit with a cash-in cover version, as was the case with many of their earlier popular album tracks, but perhaps the increasing importance of the album format reduced the market for such covers by the end of the Sixties? Certainly, the officially endorsed cover of 'Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight' by Trash, which was even released on Apple, failed to chart. So it was that Steve Harley's cover was the first version of the song to grace the chart, and indeed the only one until the original got a defacto single release when the Beatles catalogue was loaded onto iTunes. Since then Gary Barlow has also made the Top 75 with a version I never had the misfortune to hear.

Anyway, it's the original that concerns us here, and it's something of a late bloom as one of the last tracks most of the Beatles recorded together, albeit that by this point deteriorating band relationships and Harrison's increasing assertiveness mean this is almost a solo track with Paul and Ringo playing on it. In some ways it feels closer to the music on his first few post-Beatles albums than to his earlier contributions to the group. he was perhaps justified in feeling that Lennon and McCartney had given insufficient assistance with his earlier compositions but by now he probably wouldn't have taken any anyway. Whilst George Martin has also said in retrospect that he didn't put enough care into Harrison's songs, there's little sign of it here, where he supplies a luxurious orchestral arrangement, although it's not especially prominent in the mix. In fact, whilst they're clearly taking advantage of the improved technical facilities on offer in the studio, the track retains a crisp arrangement the better to focus on the song's sunny optimism. It's an upbeat message that Harrison clearly thought he needed as much as anyone while the band and their business empire dissolved into endless meetings. By the time he wrote this song in the spring of 1969 he'd already stormed out of the Beatles at least once and had been suffering difficult times in his personal life. Apparently the weather in early 69 had been particularly poor too, so when spring finally did show up he must have been genuinely pleased to see it. That's the universal message he manages to convey in deceptively simple language, which is probably why the song barely seems to have aged. Even the use of a Moog synthesiser has left it less dated than it should, perhaps because it's only incorporated as a texture. In reality I suspect it's mostly there as another sign of Harrison's assertiveness: as with the Indian music a couple of years earlier, it was something he brought to the group, something the others could consult him about. EDIT 24th June: somebody has uploaded the isolated Moog/strings/handclaps track to YouTube. Still, when the finished product is this good, I won't begrudge him any motivation and this is certainly a more summery track than 'All You Need Is Love' as well as a better one.

NB: I have now updated the Spotify and Deezer playlists up to the end of Side 3. At time of writing the Beatles tracks are unavailable although with the increased popularity of streaming, and last night's announcement that it will be incorporated into the singles chart, this may be only a matter of time.

Available on: Abbey Road

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Barracudas 'Summer Fun'

Chart Peak: 37
Barracudas, an Anglo American group, had a No. 37 Hit with 'Summer Fun' in August 1980.
I've had reservations about some of the other inclusions on this album, but you can't really argue with a song called 'Summer Fun' on a summer album, can you? Barely even a one-hit wonder (coincidentally, 37 was also the peak of the only other chart hit by the Young Rascals), 'Summer Fun' is a staple of various sorts of compilations, but not a song you hear on the radio too much: the only time I can remember hearing it was on Forgotten 80s just a few weeks ago. The fact that the first 31 seconds are given over to an old advert is memorable but not exactly airplay-friendly. At least it's an ad for a car that was never sold in the UK, so the BBC didn't have to ban it. They seem to have dropped the intro for Top Of The Pops, although as that clip's TotP2-sourced it's hard to be sure.

Having had some John Peel airplay for their debut 45 'I Want My Woody Back' (I'm sure that's a song about a car, right?) they were signed up by a major for this hit and doubtless bigger things were expected of them but in the event this was it, and by the time their debut album came out in early 1981, nobody seemed to care anymore, though the band kept going for a couple more years and have reunited several times since. I certainly found a lot of recent live performances on YouTube. 'Summer Fun' is one of those retro-pop songs with "ba-ba" backing vocals that always seem to excite critics and nostalgists. The only flaw is, it's a little too knowing and not quite catchy enough to be the classic it obviously aspires to be. Good to see it here though.

Available on: Drop Out With The Barracudas

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Martha And The Muffins 'Echo Beach'

Chart Peak:

The only British Hit for the Canadian group Martha and The Muffins, 'Echo Beach' reached No. 10 in March 1980
Although the group has sporadically reappeared over the years - or at least core members Martha Johnson and Mark Gane have revived the name - as of 1986 they were working as a duo M+M, in which form they had a Top 50 hit in the UK. This was and still is the parent group's only appearance on the British chart, however. I can't remember exactly when I first heard this song, though it was presumably have been later than 1980. I think it was on a tape because it had been on a radio after something my mum recorded that was less than 45 minutes long. I was still pretty young but I remember it making quite an impression on me, because I'd never really heard anything quite like this, with that slightly sci-fi mood, those low-pitched guitars and that slightly detached-sounding vocal. I'd never heard of a band with a silly name like Martha And The Muffins either, although I don't think it's a bad name. I only discovered much later that there were two Marthas in the band at the time.

 For some reason, the other thing that really caught my ear was the pronunciation of "clerk" (to rhyme with "work") which I'd never encountered before; mind you, I might never have seen the word written down, as opposed to the name Clark. It transpires that Mark Gane's actual day-job when he wrote the song was checking wallpaper for printing errors, which sounds considerably more boring than being an "office clerk". Full discloure, now I'm a grown-up, I actually do work in an office and I don't really mind it. Rather that than the jobs my ancestors had to do. I'm not that keen on beaches for that matter, but then again Echo Beach isn't supposed to be a real place in the song, and it certainly doesn't sound like one. Canada is not a nation we really associate with beaches, though we could be doing them an injustice there. The song is really about imagination.

Like a lot of songs on this album, I like it but struggle to associate it with summer, beyond the fact that it has the word "beach" in the title of course. A bit like 'California Dreamin' it's a song about the idea of being elsewhere, and as such I always sort of thought of it as more of a winter or autumn thing.

Available on: Metro Music

Friday, 20 June 2014

Elton John 'Island Girl'

Chart Peak:
Elton's 14th Top 30 single in Britain was 'Island Girl'. It reached No. 14 in November 1975 and became his 5th No. 1 in America - his 3rd just in 1975 following 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' and 'Philadelphia Freedom'.
Side 3 has been pretty decent so far, albeit very 80s-oriented. The good news is that this single is a break from the latter. Unfortunately, it's kind of a change from the former as well; just like the fifth track on the first disc it's an attempt at reggae by some white people who sound like they might once have had the genre described to them by a deaf person, and it comes with an unpalatable side-order of racial stereotyping. Not only is this statuesque lady "black as coal" but she's a whore who will wrap herself around you "like a well-worn tyre". Really, Bernie Taupin actually wrote that and thought it was OK. I can just about imagine that the chorus "What you want with the white man's world" (note the elided auxillary verb there, to make it sound more "ethnic") is only supposed to be patronising rather than actively racist but it doesn't sound right at all now. The most charitable interpretation I can make is that his album Rock Of The Westies was allegedly somewhat rushed, and this has the atmosphere of an in-joke studio jam that ended up on an album out of desperation. And I obviously do recognise that this was almost forty years ago and the world has moved on. It's not really any good musically, although that odd guitar sound that opens the track and recurs later on is quite nice. Somebody sample it and put it in a better song please.

Available on: Rock Of The Westies

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Haircut 100 'Fantastic Day'

Chart Peak: 9
The third Hit single from Nick Heyward and the Lads, 'Fantastic Day' reached No. 9 in May 1982 as the follow-up to 'Love Plus One'.
I'm not sure how cool it is to say this now, but I've always had a major soft spot for Haircut 100. Particularly in the days before they reformed on the 80s revival circuit, it always seemed that their boyband image overshadowed their stylish combination of funk, bossanova and sixties pop, and indeed the very songwriting skills of Nick Heyward. Admittedly, their one album with him in the lineup, Pelican West, is a bit heavy on the filler and the production sounds a little dated now, but there's a core of really good material and playing on there - ex-members ended up working for the likes of Paul McCartney, the Pretenders and Echo & The Bunnymen, and 'Fantastic Day' is one of the best, a romantic lyrical successor to 'Lovely Day' even if the middle eight seems to imply that the whole thing is a dream. Great trumpet and guitar playing. And there's a Triumph Herald in the video, what more could you ever want?
The only quibble I do have is that I never really thought this was a summer song. For that I'd slightly prefer
'Nobody's Fool', by which time they could afford a car that actually moved for the video.

Available on: Pelican West Plus

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

KC & The Sunshine Band 'Give It Up'

Chart Peak: 1
The 10th Top 40 Hit became the first British No. 1 for KC (Harry Casey) in Augsut 1983. It spent 3 weeks on top of the chart. Despite his 5 US No. 1 singles, 'Give It Up' was not a Hit in America until the following year.
This one takes us right the way back to Now 1, and the sixth song I ever wrote about on here. In the US, it was clearly a victim of the backlash against disco acts, although with hindsight it's not exactly a disco song. It may also have suffered from the falling out between KC and the act's other founding member, Richard Finch: this track was recorded before the split but released afterwards, and only made the US chart when re-issued as a KC solo track. Although it was a major comeback hit in itself, he/they never had another Top 40 hit on either side of the Atlantic and drifted into retirement by the mid-80s. At least the compensation is this one mega-hit, still a wedding DJ and radio favourite over here and presumably a big money-spinner. It isn't and never has been cool but the combination of those burbling synths and the marching band-like call and response from the brass and woodwind arrangements is hard to argue with.

Available on: The Original Hit Recording - Give it up

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Katrina And The Waves 'Walking On Sunshine'

Chart Peak: 8
A number 8 hit from June 1985 for Katrina Leskanich and the Boys - It also made the American Top 10.
Finally, 17 tracks in we reach the first track here that's also on a main series Now album (Now 5 to be exact); it's also the only track common to this and the 2014 Now That's What I Call Summer. Not a surprising choice, since the song is a staple of 80s compilation albums and frequently revived for adverts and similar. It even recharted in 1996 when re-released from such a usage, though at that time they had only one other Top 40 or even Top 75 hit to their name, though a further five singles made the Top 100.  Despite the eventual Top 3 success of their Eurovision-winning ballad dross 'Love Shine A Light', they were effectively a one-hit-wonder for a long time but one of the most enduring of them. Here's somebody on X-Factor who doesn't seem to know the words fighting through Autotune. And here's a version of the song sung by the cast of a forthcoming movie. It looks awful, but at least it shows that the song continues to resonate into a fourth decade, even though the kids today wouldn't be expected to understand waiting for a letter to arrive in the post.

Although it's a record you can hear too much of, it has an irrepressible quality that's hard not to warm to - well, for the listener at least. I can't imagine what it's like for a band to spend twelve years when most of your audience only want to hear one song, and when that song is as cheerful as this it must be even worse. It was almost four years ago when I had to give this song a thorough listen for possibly the first time to write my previous post about this song. Curmudgeonly as I am, I found myself liking it then and I haven't really stopped. I hear it often enough that I don't need to go out of my way to listen to it, but it's enough fun when I do. As long as nobody's throwing tomatoes around.

Available on: Tainted Love 80s Pop Classics

Monday, 16 June 2014

Level 42 'The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)'

Chart Peak: 10


This track became the group's first Top 10 single in August 1983. They recently had their biggest Hit in their six-year chart history when 'Lessons In Love' reached No. 3.
The track that starts Side Three and so almost has to follow the Beatles is also the first track on here that's actually from the Now era. Indeed it has cropped up on at least one retrospective Now 1983 release, though it was never on a main-series release. It catches the band at a sort of transitional point, as they attempted to convert their reputation on the jazz-funk scene into more mainstream success - presumably with encouragement from the record company who were hoping for some return on their investment.

As such it should fall awkwardly between two stools, but in fact there's something rather addictive about it. I don't actually sound very much like my conceptions of jazz or funk music, but neither is is quite the same as the smoother Level 42 sound I remember from later in the 80s. It has a rather sparse arrangement, featuring some catchy little synth runs from Wally Badarou (who also gets a co-writing credit) and two contrasting vocals: Mike Lindup's naive singing and Mark King's cynical rap. Combine that with the chanted "Living It Up" subtitle and there's a set of elements that shouldn't really fit together but somehow they do I might even have to download this one myself. I'm not sure it's really summery beyond the fact that it has the word "sun" in the title, though.

Available on: The Very Best Of Level 42

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' (from the film Yellow Submarine)

Chart Peak: 1
Their 12th No. 1 single, 'All You Need Is Love' topped the chart for 3 weeks in July/August 1967 as the follow-up to 'Penny Lane'/'Strawberry Fields Forever'. It was also No.1 in America.
Yes, you have read that correctly, it really is the Beatles. Famously, you don't often get Beatles tracks on compilation albums; even at this point, when EMI still claimed complete ownership of the recordings and were happily chopping them up and putting them together on all sorts of compilations, they were presumably asking a pretty high price. It was the year after this that saw the final straw as EMI licensed 'Revolution' to a TV commercial and the three surviving Beatles sued. Since then, Apple Records have kept a much tighter rein on these things, making exceptions only for such things as a George Martin retrospective (though of course anything released before 1963 is now out of copyright and out of their control). Although the Beatles had three Top 10 hits in 1995-6, those were all kept exclusive so this is the only Now-branded album ever to include the Beatles collectively.

You have to be impressed that the Beatles had scored as many as 12 chart-toppers in less than five years (and that total doesn't include 'Please Please Me'), as you have to be impressed that they were able to turn out a non-album single within a month of the Sgt. Pepper album, one of the most elaborate recording projects to date. It's a pity the single itself wasn't better, though. Recorded for a pioneering international telecast - they played over a partly-recorded backing track on the night, and further overdubbing was done for commercial release - it has rather sloppy quality about it, and possibly due to the number of musicians involved and a lack of rehearsal time, it's quite a slack performance, with the tempo feeling quite sluggish in places. It sounds even worse in this stereo mix, with that annoying moment after the 'La Marsaillaise' intro where everything is in the left channel for a few seconds. John Lennon claimed in retrospect that the lyric was actually an ironic parody of the sentiments of the time, and this is plausible but there were certainly people who took it seriously, if not literally, at the time. It feels almost of a piece with the Scott McKenzie track (which is actually a bit better produced, though a far weaker song) as a piece of instant nostalgia. Everything on Side 2 of this album has been from the Sixties (except 'Summertime Blues', and even that recharted in 1968) and there's a sense that it's the idea of that decade that's being celebrated here, because it was now long enough ago to be cool. And to be sure, there was an upbeat mood abroad in those days according to people who were around then, it's just harder to recognise now.

It's a pity that the greatest pop group ever are represented on this blog by such a substandard song, but then that's been part of the joy all along. Incidentally, it's stretching a point slightly to say this song is from the Yellow Submarine film, as it's significantly older. I wonder if the film had been on TV in 1986 or something?

Available on: 1

Metapost: Summer Sound

As the end of the first disc approaches, now seems as good a time as any to mention that I've generated playlists on Deezer and Spotify of the tracks covered on this album so far, as there's no official version available. I shall try to keep these updated to the end of the album, where possible. New post later tonight.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Scott McKenzie 'San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)'

Chart Peak: 1
Took over at the top of the charts from 'All You Need Is Love' in August 1967 and stayed there for four weeks. Most people think 'San Francisco' was Scott's only hit but 'Like An Old Time Movie' did race to No. 50 for one week in November of the same year.
Do I detect a tongue placed in cheek with that "raced to Number 50", sleevenote? A week at 50 was of course the smallest hit it was possible to have, and even then it was only on the relatively low-profile Record Retailer chart: the more widely-read charts of the time cut off at 30 so The Golden Voice Of Scott McKenzie (as he's billed on that follow-up single) didn't get a look in. My mother used to refer to a notional The Golden Hits Of Scott McKenzie Volume 2 as a kind of running joke, and when we got phone calls from a supplier at work whose name was Scott McKenzie, I always used to pass the call on to the relevant person by saying "The golden voice of Scott McKenzie has called..." Not many people got the joke, which I suppose is a sign that this Scott McKenzie (whose real name was Phillip Blondheim) was less famous than his song.

Oddly, the note doesn't mention that this song was written by John Phillips of the Mamas & Papas, a former bandmate of McKenzie. At least this song is actually set in California, although it's about people from elsewhere in the country (and the world) going there which I guess is a bit of a thematic link to the previous track. I still always found it odd that he seems to be warning us to wear flowers in our hair because we're going to meet some "gentle people" there. Surely if they're really gentle people they'll let us wear whatever we like? Aren't flowers available in California anyway? In fact the whole song has always felt more like an advert than anything else to me, and it's almost a surprise that the record was actually made by genuine hippies and not by somebody thousands of miles away as a cash-in. Mind you, the best parts are arguably the shimmering percussion parts and the bassline, which are of course both the work of professional session men. I guess what they're selling is a sort of easy rebellion - buy this song and you can identify yourself with the "whole generation" feeling "such a strange vibration", even if you're actually in Hull or somewhere. No disrespect to Hull, of course, but I can imagine that if you were a teenager there in 1967 it must have seemed like all the excitement was a long way away. I can understand the pull from that circumstance but from here in the 21st century, when we've seen the world actually being run by that generation, it just comes over as pompous and silly.

Available on: San Francisco

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Mamas And The Papas 'California Dreamin'

Chart Peak: 23

The Mamas and The Papas were John Phillips, Denny Doherty, Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass Elliott. 'California Dreaming' was their first Hit, making No. 23 in May 1966.

I'm going to have to come straight out and mention this: the opening lyric of this song is "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray, I went for a walk on a winter's day," and whilst this makes a nice tenuous link with the film clip I included in the previous post (the character is called Phillip Winter), it does rather make me wonder why this track is on a compilation of summer songs. I'm also grateful to Victorian expert Lee Jackson for a couple of tweets last week where his wife points out that grey skies and brown leaves would actually imply Autumn rather than winter. Either way, that's still not summer though.

Mind you, it seems like quite a common misconception that this is a summer song - I remember hearing a music documentary premised on that basis, where even professional writers seemed not to notice that the very point of this song was that the protagonist isn't in California, and in some ways I feel like that's a bit of an artistic failure as the track fails to convey the longing that the words are about. As a pedant I found the conflicting tense use a bit of a distraction as well: "I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray" always sounded awkward. I never totally understood why they were doing that anyway - are they just going into the church to keep warm or something? Knowingly or otherwise, the River City People version - my earliest memory of the song - solves the problem by changing the lyric to "I began to pray".

In fairness, it is pretty good musically if you don't worry too much about the message. The harmonies aren't as rich or complex as the Beach Boys but they're still very good and the song has a strong singalong element as a pop track. Unfortunately, like a lot of music from this era it suffers a poor stereo mix, which is the version here. It's also the version that finally made it to the Top 10 in 1997 thanks to a TV commercial. A few years later, another commercial promoted Bobby Womack's grittier version of the song which for me conveys the sentiment better.

Available on: California Dreamin' - The Best of The Mamas & The Papas

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Drifters 'Under The Boardwalk'

Chart Peak: 45
This was the first Hit to feature Johnny Moore as lead singer although it only made No. 45 in September 1964. Incredibly the group had only one Top 10 single in Britain in the 'Sixties, yet made the Top 10 on eight occasions in the 'seventies.
A song that seems to have been around forever, and one that I can remember liking long before I had any idea of what a boardwalk was. Much later it made an impression on me through its appearance in one of my favourite films, Wim Wenders' Alice In The CitiesSo it's a bit of a surprise that it's never made the Top 40 in its original version. Maybe it was a little bit too saucy for British broadcast in the 1960s since in the original version they're "making love" under that boardwalk, although there is of course the more familiar edit which repeats the "falling in love" lyric instead.

In some ways, the song pioneers the formula of 'Saturday Night At The Movies' and 'At The Club', listing attractions of a particular location - but its rather mellower atmosphere makes it feel less like an advertisement and more contented. It's an unfortunate irony that part of the reason for this vibe was probably that incumbent lead singer Rudy Lewis had been found dead from an overdose the day before the recording. Obviously the business in those days wouldn't countenance cancelling a session at short notice so they dutifully trooped into the studio and taped the song with Moore (who'd previously been a member in the 1950s before being called up to military service) assuming frontman duties for the next few years. Despite its distinctly American sound, the song was actually co-written by our very own Kenny Young, whom viewers of Seventies Top Of The Pops might recall from such classics as 'S-s-single Bed' by Fox or 'One More Night' by the Yellow Dog. By that time of course the Drifters had based their recording operation in the UK, hence that impressive run of hits at a time that would generally be considered to be after their musical peak.

Maybe the greatest tribute to this track is how bad all the cover versions are. Obviously, you wouldn't expect Bruce Willis to do a good version, but even the Undertones couldn't get this one right and their attempt is surely the worst song on any of their albums. It shows how right the original is.

Available on: Up On The Roof - The Very Best Of

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Kinks 'Sunny Afternoon'

Chart Peak: 1
The group's third No. 1 single, 'Sunny Afternoon' was No. 1 in July 1966, and was their 9th Top 20 single in Britain. The singer and writer of the song, Ray Davies, appeared as Colin's Dad in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners.
Spot the desperate grab for 1986 relevance there. Now, I don't know if you've heard anything about this but you know that World Cup thing that starts tomorrow? Apparently they did one before in 1966 and England won it. This happened to be the Number One single when that happened and that fact seems to have helped shape the popular image of the Kinks - it was already part of the familiar but restricted greatest hits package that people knew them for at this point when they were still releasing albums and which the Britpop era pretty much boiled down to this, 'Waterloo Sunset' and 'You Really Got Me'. Hey, I'm as guilty as anyone, I bought The Village Green Preservation Society because I'd read that they were an influence on Blur. I'd certainly agree that their best work was in this so-called English era while they were largely ignoring American influences and consciously depicting their own home nation and everyday life, but there's more to Ray Davies as a writer than that, not least his satirical edge.

'Sunny Afternoon' is a difficult song to parse as it's clearly written with an element of sarcasm about it, but also represents a genuine complaint about taxation (in fairness to Davies, and to George Harrison and other big British stars, higher tax rates in the 1960s were far higher than the rates Gary Barlow is avoiding these days). Cleverly, though, the finished song has an utterly unsympathetic protagonist, an obviously rich playboy who's not just upset about his bill but that his girlfriend has left him "telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty"; he's an unreliable enough narrator that we don't know whether these are true stories, whether she's actually dumped him because he's not rich anymore, or both. Either way, he's left sipping ice-cool beer (which, in an English context, is presumably supposed to be a bad thing?) in the summertime, apparently under no particular obligation to work for a living. He's not a man we can feel sorry for, even if he is joking when he says "I love to live so pleasantly". And yet there's something sort of seductive about him too, and we find ourselves singing along with him. A lot of this is obviously due to the music, a brilliantly simple composition with a solid arrangement including the piano that runs through to guide the listener along and generate instant audience participation. The simple acoustic guitar figure that repeats throughout is an example of Davies' favourite trick to hook the listener's attention, but it works. Incidentally, it's worth noting that he hasn't totally abandoned the blues influences he started with: the "save me from this squeeze" section has a slight New Orleans tinge about it. His other masterstroke was the follow this single with 'Dead End Street' (and its banned video), which is musically similar but has a lyric from the opposite end of the social pyramid.

As a song, 'Sunny Afternoon' isn't among my all-time Kinks favourites, partly because it's so overexposed. But it's undeniably an artistic success, and certainly a summer tune.

Available on: Waterloo Sunset: The Very Best of the Kinks and Ray Davies

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Eddie Cochran 'Summertime Blues'

Chart Peak: 18

This was Eddie Cochran's first British hit, reaching No. 18 in November 1958. It was also his last hit when the track returned to the chart in May 1968. He died prematurely in a car crash in England.
Coincidentally, a song that was also covered by the Beach Boys, and a record so familiar I had to check whether this was the only copy I had of it (it is, surprisingly). This was one of the songs I had in mind when I referred to the different economic circumstances of American teen acts in the early rock era - whilst Cochran bemoans not being allowed to borrow the car, I suspect only a minority of parents of British teenagers had access to a car in 1958. Of course, most of our teens couldn't drive anyway. Despite the lack of direct verisimilitude, though, 'Summertime Blues' still has a real slice-of-life quality about it, the sort of teenage drama that was very much the stuff of rock and roll in the fifties but seems to have almost disappeared now; teenagers now obviously don't want to listen to songs about being teenagers now, I guess they'd rather aspire to being adults.

Knowingly overdramatic, 'Summertime Blues' presents a series of minor conflicts with authority figures in a self-centred way, just as an actual teenager would. It fits perfectly with Cochran's handsome rebellious image and is genuinely witty, thanks to its clever rhymes and characterisations. It's also a masterpiece of production, with the distinctive deep voices in an echo-chamber used to play the voice of the grown-ups - it always reminded me slightly of the sort of voice used for off-screen characters in cartoons. It doesn't matter that all three voices - his father, his boss and his congressman - sound the same, quite the reverse in fact because to our young protagonist they are all the same voice. More subtle but no less remarkable are the multiple overdubbed guitars, a trick Cochran had obviously learnt from Les Paul but something that was very difficult to do with 1950s technology. The layered acoustic guitars lend the track a three-dimensional texture that's unusual for the times. For a track recorded more than 55 years ago, it sounds surprisingly contemporary: Pharrell Williams is a master of multiple clean guitars and uses this very trick on the Ed Sheeran track that's Number One as I write this.

'Summertime Blues' gets all its work done in barely two minutes and is all the better for it. Perhaps it would even have been a Top 10 hit it deserved to be had it not come out in November. As it turned out, the 1968 re-issue wasn't quite his last hit, as another re-release got him onto a main-series Now album. But that's a story for another time.

Available on: The Very Best Of Eddie Cochran

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Beach Boys 'California Girls'

Chart Peak: 26
Surprisingly only reached no. 26 in September 1965 (no. 3 in America) but known to millions through the "Caledonian Girls" adverts.
In case you didn't live in the UK in the early 1980s, didn't watch commercial TV, or are just a fan of casual sexism and ethnic stereotyping, the adverts are now available on YouTube. Whilst they're the earliest memory I could plausibly have of the song, my impression is that it was already relatively well-known in the UK, not least thanks to the success of their many hits collections which feature this song. Indeed, I presume it was parodied in the ads on the assumption that people would already know it.

This is the other side of the commercial peak from 'Do It Again', but arguably comes from another transitional time in their career. It is in fact the first released Beach Boys track to feature Bruce Johnston, who famously took Brian Wilson's place in the touring band after Wilson had a breakdown and refused to travel. Johnston was not an official member of the band yet, for contractual reasons, but his presence did also allow Wilson to spend more time in the studio working on the music; the backing track for this was recorded (by top-notch session musicians) almost two months before the actual Beach Boys were available to add their vocals. The other great significance of the song is in the band's legal history; as of 1986 the writing credit was to Brian Wilson alone, but he'd already widely acknowledged that the lyric was penned by Mike Love, which ultimately led to a lawsuit in the 1990s where Love claimed co-writing credits on a large and lucrative share of the back-catalogue. In fairness, this lyric in particular has Love's fingerprints all over it, as he boasts of his success with the ladies, praises girls from various locations in vaguely lecherous tones but ultimately sucks up by saying his local audience are the best of all.

The good news is that the lyric is easily the weakest thing about this track. Already an accomplished composer, Brian Wilson excels himself here with once of his most complex and beautiful melodies to date, using the studio as an instrument to integrate the composition and arrangement more than ever before. In a particular favourite trick of this time, he starts the song with an introduction totally unrelated to the main melody and the transition is joyous. Even the delivery of the words makes up for their content, with the brilliant and complex harmonies you'd expect - Wilson famously mixed the music into mono on one track of an eight-track tape and used the other seven just for vocals. There is a stereo mix available now, which is interesting to hear for detail but it's not quite the same as the proper thing. An authentically sunny record that sounds good all year.

Available on: Summer Days (and Summer Nights) (Mono & Stereo Remaster)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Cliff Richard 'Summer Holiday'

Chart Peak: 1
Cliff's 7th British Chart-Topper, 'Summer Holiday' was No.1 in March 1963 for two weeks and again for a week in April the same year.
A few weeks ago now I was listening to this album and starting to get the idea of blogging about it. My wife was in the room (don't worry, I didn't inflict Bobby Goldsboro on her) and asked whether this song was from the austerity era, as its ambitions seem so modest - just going on holiday and having some fun "for a week or two", not even promising that life after the holiday will be better. And crucially, it's not complaining about that fact, seeming merely grateful for any possible fun at all.

To be completely honest, I'm not totally sure when the standard definition of Austerity Britain ends, though it goes without saying that this was a (financially) poorer country in 1963 than it is now, and that British teens could look with some envy to the sort of wealth claimed by protagonists of hits from US acts like The Everly Brothers. Spring 1963 was certainly a significant time in British pop though. At least according to the Record Retailer chart used in modern-day reference books (and the sleevenote I've quoted above), 'Summer Holiday' deposed Frank Ifield's 'Wayward Wind', which had infamously kept the Beatles' 'Please Please Me' at Number 2 on that chart. This song's run was interrupted by a week at the top for the Shadows with 'Foot Tapper' (their last Number One without Cliff) and then finally ended by 'How Do You Do It' by Gerry & The Pacemakers, the first undisputed Merseybeat Number One and effectively the end of Cliff and the Shadows' reign as the dominant force in British pop. Needless to say, both acts remained popular for decades after this: we all know Cliff was still able to top the singles chart right to the end of the century, and Hank Marvin has a solo album in the Top 10 right now. But the imperial phase was over. Nowadays, whilst this is clearly somewhat scrubbed up from the early days of rock and roll (and of course even the early recordings in that genre were toned down from what might have been happening on stage) the distinction between this and a lot of what was to follow isn't so clear, but it's permanently set the image for Cliff's subsequent career as staid and safe. Of course he's been happy to play up to the image himself most of the time and has done well out of it financially but it makes it slightly harder to praise this for the good two-minute song it is.

(NB, this post has been backdated to fit all the album's tracks into one month. Since I've actually finished writing about Cliff on the 9th of June, RIP Rik Mayall)

Available on: Summer Holiday

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Bobby Goldsboro 'Summer (The First Time)'

Chart Peak: 9

Bobby was once part of a group called The Webbs - they were best known for backing Roy Orbison. His other main success was 'Honey', which was a multi-million seller around the world. 'Summer' made No. 9 in Britain in 1973
No question that this is a summer song, then - it doesn't just have the word in the title, it's specifically set on the "last day of June" so I was tempted to put of listening to it for another 23 days but I have to get it over with somehow.
Although 'Summer' does lack the unfortunate racial overtones of 'Dreadlock Holiday' it does combine several of the least appealing qualities in pop music, somehow managing to meld both the cloying sentimentality of 'Honey' with a leery sexuality, as it details a teenage protagonist losing his virginity to an older woman (only 31 though, presumably it would have been too brave to put her into her forties) and finding room for a series of rhymes so dreadful I'm half-convinced he was doing it on purpose: "demon/steamin'", "swelter/melt her" and of course "julep/two lips". Goldsboro would have been 32 when this came out, which somehow seems to lend the whole thing a slightly unsavoury air - I think partly because of the rather heroic and romanticised way he looks back on this; had he sounded a bit more awkward or embarassed about these events he might just about have got away with it, although his monotonous vocal is hardly appealing in any case. Without him the backing track might just about serve as background music to a TV documentary about an NHS scandal or something.

If you do want to hear a song about this subject matter, I'd suggest 'Apr├ęs Ski' by Cinerama, which is in the third person for a start. Otherwise, I'd just jump to Side Two.

Available on: Top of the Pops: 1973

Friday, 6 June 2014

Astrud Gilberto 'The Girl From Ipanema'

Chart Peak: 29

This was originally a Top 30 hit in August 1964 but Astrud Gilberto, who sings on the record, was not credited. The names on the disc were Stan Getz, who played saxophone and Astrud's husband Joao. It made No. 55 when re-issued in September 1984.
I should probably clarify at this point that Joao Gilberto does actually play guitar on the track (and the rest of the album it was originally on), he's not just getting credited for being a man. Apparently, it was a spur of the moment decision for his young wife to sing the English vocal part on this track, which swiftly became one of the big jazz crossover hits of the era. Soon enough she found herself miming a re-recorded version in the film Get Yourself a College Girl. It's hard to resist using the word "sultry" when talking about this track, but there's something impressive about the way it combines both a summery sound (not just because it's about a beach - there's something bright about it) with a distinct chill from the boy's unrequited love. Mrs Gilberto's vocal is perhaps the most distinctive element, something that sounds unconventional for either jazz or pop, and is curiously improved by her unconventional pronunciation of some of the words. Of course, this also helps her to get away with the ungrammatical rhyme "She looks straight ahead, not at he", but mainly it helps to give the track a slightly hazy, unreal atmosphere which suits both the season and the lyrical theme.

It's a slightly odd edit here, neither the full album version nor the original single edit, it just seems to fade out rather suddenly in the middle of a verse; possibly this is the version that came out in 1984. Should you wish to download this song there are plenty of versions available (and as you may be aware, a World Cup is soon to start in Brazil so there'll doubtless be even more) but my advice is to avoid any incarnation of this track with a running time of 3:18 because that will be the later disco re-recording.

Available on: True Mellow 3 CD Set

Thursday, 5 June 2014

10cc 'Dreadlock Holiday'

Chart Peak: 1
The group's third British No.1 single, 'Dreadlock Holiday' topped the chart for one week in September 1978.
Great, so we've started this album with four unassailable classics.  So are we bound for a whole 30 tracks of them? Well, no. This is the second track in a row to have been a UK hit in 1978, and something of a surprise success for the duo (Godley and Creme had of course left by this point) after a run of flops. It wasn't really a comeback, because all the follow-up singles flopped as well, and their only Top 40 appearance since this was with an acoustic remake of 'I'm Not In Love' in 1995.

I think it's partly a generational thing that I recoil slightly from obviously white British people doing poor reggae in cod-Jamaican accents. Maybe in 20 years' time it'll seem ridiculous to even notice, but even so this track suffers from a case of cultural stereotyping as our protagonist takes a holiday to Jamaica and discovers that everyone is either a robber or a drug dealer, and they seem to have "dark" voices, whatever that means. The best that can be said for the lyric is that at least our narrator isn't portrayed much better, insensitively boasting how much he loves cricket, reggae and Jamaica itself in an attempt to fend off trouble; presumably that's why the album was called Bloody Tourists but somehow it still leaves an unpleasant taste behind. Even beyond the accent it's no great shakes musically, although there are some guitar parts that would sound decent if they weren't pretending to be reggae - they're surely rich for sampling on something better, as the well-known mash-up of this with Destiny's Child proves. I did notice listening on headphones that Graham Gouldman does sort of grunt into the background at the first mention of a "dark voice", which is good production of a bad idea. Still, in the balance this is quite a poor song and it feels slightly offensive when it shows up on reggae albums. Here it's just bad.

Not sure our former council leader has remembered the words properly though.

Available on: Dreadlock Holiday: The Collection [+digital booklet]

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Bill Withers 'Lovely Day'

Chart Peak: 7

From the Navy to a milkman to a toilet seat maker and then into the Charts - that is a brief history of Bill Withers' adult life. 'Lovely Day' was Bill's 2nd Top 20 Hit in Britain making No. 7 in February 1978.
And if you find yourself amused by a song that was a hit in February appearing on a summer-themed compilation, well it's not the last time something like that will happen on this album. Like the previous track, 'Lovely Day' was a noticeably bigger hit in the UK than the USA, and came at time when his biggest American hits were already behind him. In the sleeve notes to a later re-issue of the album Menagerie, Withers admits that he was under a degree of commercial pressure, but that he didn't entirely object. "I'm not a purist. I began in Appalachia, where poverty hangs in the sky like a dark cloud that never moves." Ironically, 'Lovely Day' wasn't one of the songs he had in mind there, but it's proved one of the most enduringly popular songs of his career and although its most distinctive feature is the long note he sings in the chorus (officially the longest (genuine) sustained vocal note in a hit by a solo artist) the lyric is in a way quite typical of his worldview, with a kind of authentic positivism. By that I mean that he's not a man given to platitudes, but seems a natural optimist who's seen some tough times too and appreciates the power of a good song. There's a certain modesty about the song too that's always very appealing.

Rather like the Isley Brothers a couple of tracks ago, Withers is an act I heard so much of in my childhood (largely my Dad playing a Greatest Hits album in the car) that I was genuinely surprised to grow up and discover that there were people who'd never heard of him, or only knew his songs through cover versions. Though by no means obscure, he's a slightly underappreciated figure in the history of soul music, possibly because he doesn't fit in with any of the obvious scenes that are part of the standard narrative: he's not Motown, he's not Stax, he's not Chess, he doesn't come from Chicago, nor from the deep South. Instead, as the note hints, he was born in West Virginia's coal country, joined the military as an alternative to a life down the mines and ended up in California - another connection with the Beach Boys of course but not a traditional centre of the soul sound. He's never seemed the sort to grab for recognition or fame either, but he has a catalogue of albums that bears comparison with any of the great soul legends of this era. You really should try to find some shelf space for Complete Sussex & Columbia Album Masters.
By this time he was already in semi-retirement: he'd released his last album in 1985 but continued to tour sporadically, even making it onto Top Of The Pops for the 1988 remix of this track. Whilst the lack of further material from him is of course a disappointment, there's something decidedly admirable about a pop star who has the honesty (and, I admit, the money) to step back and say nothing when they've nothing to say.

Ironically, my knowledge of his deeper cuts makes me slightly less emotionally attached to this song because it's such a familiar one. But only slightly so because it's one of those tracks that has a smooth sort of rightness about it that never really allows you to get tired of it (the same sort of quality that 'Baker Street' has and a very few other tracks).

The one question I have to come back to is, though, how much does this really have to do with summer? Since 1986 it seems to have acquired more of that sort of connotation thanks to the aforementioned remix and to frequent sampling in summer-themed hip-hop tracks. But this original version wasn't released in summertime on either side of the Atlantic and apart from the reference to "the sunlight hurts my eyes" there's nothing directly estival about it. Really it's too good to only listen to a quarter of the year.

Couple of topical notes: 1. At time of writing a Brazillian-style reworking of the track is available as a freebie download from Google Play (I wouldn't normally mention such things but it's a timely coincidence). It's his birthday exactly a month from the date of this post.

Available on: Lovely Day: The Best Of Bill Withers

Now Summer 2014 tracklisting

Yeah, I was hoping to stretch out the theme of speculating on what might show up on the new album, but they've gone ahead and put the listing on Facebook already. So you can see if it floats your boat and pre-order if you wish. 

Better than I feared, though I still don't know why Maroon 5 are on there and I was wrong about the Isley Brothers. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Beach Boys 'Do It Again'

Chart Peak: 1

Their 15th Top 30 hit in Britain and their second No. 1, 'Do It Again' topped the chart in August 1968 for one week.
Ah, the Beach Boys. Is there a major act more associated with the summer? Even their name connotes the season, at least to people living in our climate, and the word is ubiquitous in the titles of their many albums and hits compilations: Endless Summer, Summer Dreams, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), Summer Love Songs, Summer In Paradise, Keepin' The Summer Alive... It's no surprise that they get effectively top billing on the cover of this album, the very first of the nine acts named on the front cover (admittedly they're in alphabetical order, but most people on this album don't get a mention on the front at all) and that they show up nice and early with the less familiar of their two UK chart-toppers.

'Do It Again' is here in the original version from the Mono 45, rather than the later album version with the workshop sound effects on the fade-out. It's a slightly odd record to approach now, in that it's a very nostalgic track released only a few years into a career that's now lasted more than half a century; it's tempting to overstate the extent to which this was "needed" in the historical context of 1968. But it's not hard to see why it made sense in the context of the group's own career, as in their home market the hits were getting harder to come by at this this point. An earlier demo version made this even more explicit with the lyric "let's get together and surf again", [you can still hear a stray "s" in the last chorus] but it's a tribute to Brian Wilson's record-making skills that he realised the need for an extra syllable in the chorus. Indeed, though by 1968 he was already in a declining mental state and is generally agreed to have peaked artistically, he still had moments of absolutely top form and this is one of them, a great production with inventive use of percussion and handclaps and the sort of intricate vocal arrangement that no other band seemed able to match. Despite the retro sentiment, there are even a couple of experimental touches: that distinctive drum sound on the intro (a snare drum with a long echo delay, apparently) which seems almost proto-electronic and has been illicitly sampled once or twice and a humming tone which rises and falls throughout the verse/chorus sections, only to disappear during the middle-eight and thus lend that section a slightly ethereal quality.

The song itself, though simple, has a winning conversational tone to it that seems to slide seamlessly from verse to chorus as one train of thought. For all the work that obviously has gone into it, it's a less obviously complex single than 'Good Vibrations' and in that way a somewhat more summery one. Making the surf references less prominent inadvertently aids its universality too, which was fortunate since in the event this only got to Number 20 in the US; mind you, even that was their last Top 20 there for eight years, whilst they remained Top 10 regulars over here until the end of the Sixties.

Available on: 50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Isley Brothers 'Summer Breeze'

Chart Peak: 16
Originally a Number 16 hit in June 1974, 'Summer Breeze' is being re-promoted in 1986. The group is still releasing records - under the name of Isley, Jasper, Isley - and somehow failed to make it big last year with the superb 'Caravan of Love'.
At time of writing, the tracklisting for the 2014 incarnation of Now Summer is still TBC, but whilst I don't expect the Young Rascals to make the cut this seems a much more likely candidate as it's joined the group of records radio DJs always seem to dig out when there are two consecutive sunny days in Britain ('Summertime' by DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince is another one, plus a few still to come on this album). On Radio 2 you might occasionally get to hear the original Seals & Crofts version of the song, but this rendering still has pride of place. Even 28 years ago it was one of the most obvious inclusions here. It's also the longest at 5:43; not quite the full-length album version but much more than the truncated 7" edit that somehow found its way onto a compilation called 80s Groove 2 even though it's chronologically closer to the Sixties than the Eighties. I guess that 1986 re-promotion must be the reason, although I can't claim to have noticed it at the time - and since the song didn't return to the Top 100 I don't know if many other people did either.

I touched on this point earlier, when discussing the later Housemartins version of 'Caravan Of Love' (see, it did get to be a hit eventually) but I grew up thinking the Isleys were a lot bigger than they actually were. Remembered over here mostly for this and a few of their Motown hits, and possibly for having once employed Jimi Hendrix as a backing musician, they were actually a pioneering act in many eras of soul's golden age. This cut comes from their classic 3+3 album, that title alluding to the line-up at the time which combined the original vocal trio (Ronald, Rudolph and O'Kelly) with younger instrumentalists Ernie and Marvin Isley and their in-law Chris Jasper. It was this latter trio who had split off to Isley Jasper Isley by the mid-80s, although the original act continued in parallel (as a duo at this point, since O'Kelly Isley had died earlier in 1986) and Ronald and Ernie continue to tour as a duo now.

Although they were writing very good songs in this period, most obviously the hits 'That Lady' and 'Harvest For The World', arguably their strongest suit was their covers of rock-oriented material. Interpretation had always been part of their game, of course: their version of 'Twist And Shout' wasn't technically the original but it's obviously the model that the Beatles and subsequent performers of the song used. They really hit their stride at this point with their versions of singer-songwriter styled-material, in the days when cross-genre cover versions were still a normal thing and weren't done for novelty as they are nowadays. Sometimes they played it fairly straight, as on James Taylor's 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight' (still much better than the original) and sometimes they were more radical, as on their ten-minute version of Carole King's 'It's Too Late'. 'Summer Breeze' is somewhere between the two approaches, still recognisably a version of the original but a certainly emotional intensity that's missing from that and a superb vocal from Ronald. The most distinctive and different element is Ernie Isley's fuzz-toned lead guitar, clearly influenced by their former employee but by now developing into a style of its own. Surely if he'd been a member of a rock group instead of a soul one, he'd be in the list of guitar greats everybody reels off. This isn't my favourite Isleys track, mainly due to overplay and the shortcomings of the original lyric. But it easily deserves the classic status it has.

Available on: Original Album Classics

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Young Rascals 'Groovin'

Yes, after that quiet spell on the blog I'm dipping back in with another special series, one of the very few Now spin-off albums I own. I read a couple of weeks ago that there was a new Now Summer volume due out soon and that prompted me to pull out my own copy of the original 1986 equivalent. I thought this would be an apposite time to look back at it, as well as an opportunity to cover some acts who never show up in the main series.

'Groovin' was No. 1 on America for 4 weeks and then reached No. 8 in Britain in July 1967. It was written by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of the group and was their only major Hit in this country.
Chart Peak: 8

No, I'm not sure why "Hit" is capitalised in the sleevenote either, but at least there are some notes, which was part of my excuse for buying the album. I must admit also that as I write this entry in late May, the weather has turned somewhat and made a Summer album seem a little less appropriate to be listening to than it was when I originally had the idea. Still, 'Groovin' is relatively little affected by the change in weather. To be sure, it has that sort of laid-back, easy-going, mellow -ahem- groove that plays so well in the summer months, and it has a slightly Caribbean rhythm of the sort that Britons seem especially fond of at this time of year - but it's not really about the summer to enough of an extent to make it seem out of place out of season. It's as much a romantic song as anything, a tribute to the joy that so vague an activity as "groovin" can have when there's the right person to share it with. If anything, the plaintive harmonica in the first half of each verse offers a slightly chilly touch and perhaps in some way that's the point; it gives the song a slightly hazy, unreal edge that was obviously a fashionable sound in 1967 anyway. But it also seems to set the real world somewhat at arm's length, the way that falling in love does. It also represents a bit of a move away from the sound that had made their name in their homeland: previous singles, including their other US Number One 'Good Lovin' (a cover of a song that was also in the The Who's repertoire at the time) had been full-tilt RnB and this was reportedly a controversial choice of A-side, unless that was just hype.

Funnily enough, though, my earliest memory isn't from a summer at all, not even from the original song: I used to have my own video tape with a selection of my favourite TV programmes on it, and when I was four years old that meant... an Arena documentary about the Ford Cortina. About 21:40 a band perform a song about the car to a tune which I got to know rather well with all the times I watched the tape (sorry, Mum) and I was surprised when I heard it as part of another song. What became of Paul Welton I don't know but it gives this song an extra glimmer of personal nostalgia for me. Even for people who don't share that memory (which would presumably be everybody in the entire world except me), 'Groovin' is a very good way to ease into the album, even if not the most obvious song for the theme. It's so good I can even forgive the obviously fake birdsong dubbed over the top.

Available on: Time Peace: The Rascals' Greatest Hits