Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TMFW 47 - John and Paul, (Not Almost) Reunited in 1980

This past weekend, I had the honor of attending the wedding of two friends: a longtime buddy from college and my new friend his bride.  My college friend is a giant Beatles fan (like, a GIANT Beatles fan), and the couple chose for their first dance a song by John Lennon called "Grow Old With Me."  If you do not know that song, you are not alone: it was originally a demo song from John and was only released after his death on the posthumous Milk & Honey album.  I was only passingly familiar with the song myself, but my friends' choice prompted me to do some research.
There is a nice fact about the song that reinforces its message of love for a life partner.   Lennon's song was written as a companion to Yoko Ono's song "Let Me Count the Ways;" the two songs were going to appear together on the Double Fantasy record before time ran out to complete that album. 
In turn, "Let Me Count the Ways" was inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "Sonnet 43," which famously begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..."  Lennon and Ono were fans of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her partner Robert Browning, and when Yoko wrote her song based on work from Elizabeth she suggested that John write a companion based on work from Robert.  John found the poem "Rabbi ben Ezra," which begins "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be..."  He took that for his inspiration and wrote the rest of the song. 
So, today's True Music Fact is that John Lennon's song "Grow Old With Me" was based on a poem by Robert Browning, and that the song was intentionally written as a response/companion to Yoko's song "Let Me Count the Ways," which was based on a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Isn't that sweet.
BONUS FACT:  For a long time, "Grow Old With Me" was known to exist only as the final-released Milk and Honey version and the double-tracked piano demo that formed its basis.  But in 1998, Yoko Ono worked with George Martin to create a cleaner version with strings and backing instrumentation added.  And in 2009, two other demo versions came to light: a single-tracked, more sparse piano version and a very pretty version with Lennon playing guitar.  All of them are uniquely beautiful.
BONUS (NOT) FACT 2:  Today's title comes from some of the early research I did for this song, which got me really excited but turned out to be not true. 
The Wikipedia entry for "Grow Old With Me" notes its almost-ran status as a Beatles Anthology song, stating "in 1994, Yoko gave Paul McCartney some cassettes containing demo recordings of four of John Lennon's unfinished songs: "Grow Old with Me", "Free as a Bird", "Real Love" and "Now and Then" with "Paul" written on them in John's handwriting" (emphasis added).  That statement - that the demos were on a tape labeled "Paul" - is repeated in the Wikipedia entry for the Lennon demo "Now and Then," this time with the added detail that "for Paul" was "scrawled hastily in John's handwriting."
As I read that, I got very excited.  "Holy cow," I thought.  "At the end of his life, John was working on songs that he wanted to collaborate with Paul on!"  I had never heard this before, and was more used to the narrative that John and Paul remained mostly estranged during John's final years. So I went in search of more information to flesh out the story.
Instead, I struck out.  There are some sites where the "fact" is repeated, but the source of the fact on Wikipedia is one page in a book about the Beatles' day-to-day lives post-breakup.  In a message board post on Paul McCartney's website, some commenters cast doubt on whether that source ever claimed that, so I tracked down the book myself and found the relevant passage.  It reads: "During Paul's visit to New York for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame event, Yoko gives him four John Lennon home demos, on which the 'Beatles Comeback' recordings will be based."  There is no mention of John's having written anything on a tape, and in fact the recordings Ono handed over were made several years apart and so they were likely on several different tapes.   
It would have been a cool story for sure, but instead it's a cautionary tale that not everything you read on Wikipedia is true.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TMFW 46 - "Vanilla," Indeed.

Today is a (Possibly) TMFW, in that the "F" is not a "fact" per se but instead a persistent and fun rumor (or "rumour," as we are dealing with Brit Pop). 
1997 was not a great year for British pop music. The Spice Girls had three number one songs - none of which are the one that you know (or even the two other ones that you know if you are a Spice Girls fan from back in the day) - Elton John's dreadful "Candle in the Wind"/Princess Diana song was the biggest hit of the year, and the Teletubbies had a #1 song for two weeks in December. 
Against that backdrop, the Brit Pop girl band Vanilla is less of a shock.  But it is no less terrible. The band - four women, all in their late teens/early 20s, with a blond, a brunette, and even a big-haired quasi-readhead - were a pretty blatant attempt at a Spice Girls knockoff.  (And in that respect, even the name Vanilla seems derivative.)  But cheap knockoffs of popular trends are as old as music.  What makes Vanilla interesting is that they were allegedly created out of a cynical bet: two British music veterans at the time are said to have wagered over whether they could create a group and a song that were objectively terrible, yet still score a hit record.  One of the two alleged bettors was none other than Simon Cowell, whose father was an executive at EMI (the label that released Vanilla) and who at the time was in A&R with another major label in Britain.
The end result was Vanilla's track "No Way No Way," an adaptation of the "Mah Na Mah Na" song that was made famous by the Muppets.  The song is barely-sung - in large part, it is recited rather than sung - and repetitive, and features lyrics like "if you tempt with your charms (ah) you can hold me in your arms (ah) but if you force yourself on me (ah) things are gonna get nasty."  The video (at the link above) is the women in bathing suits, seemingly with mirrors reflecting the sun right into their faces, working through awkward choreography and mugging for the camera.  The cover for the record looks to have been quickly made in MS Paint.
Amazingly, though, the two A&R guys were right.  They could turn garbage into a hit.  "No Way No Way" spent 8 weeks on the charts in Britain and made it all the way to 14.  
BONUS FACT:  The original "Mah Nà Mah Nà" was not done by the Muppets.  Far from it.  The song was written by the film composer Piero Umiliani for the 1968 Italian softcore film Sweden: Heaven and Hell.  Here is an excerpt from the song's appearance in the film; it is from YouTube and is safe for work (but your cube-mate might give you some looks). 
BONUS FACT 2:  Vanilla's follow-up, "True to Us," spent only two weeks on the charts and hit only 36.  It's about a million times better than "No Way No Way," but is still pretty brutal.  After that second single, the band broke up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

TMFW 45 - Rock Music's True Dinosaur

Today's TMFW comes to you from the northern shore of Lake Kabetogama, which is one of the chain of lakes that makes up Voyageurs National Park.  It is a pretty amazing place, with islands created from ancient volcanoes and lakes created from glaciers that dragged themselves across North America over a period of 2 million years.  The rocks that cover much of the landscape are up to 3 billion years old.  Taking it all in, my mind turned to dinosaurs.  And thinking about dinosaurs brought me to today's TMFW.  (See? It all ties together...)
As rock and roll reaches senior status - the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show turned 50 this year, making it eligible for AARP membership - rock critics and bloggers often use the term "dinosaur" to refer to older musicians still at it.  A few examples are easily plucked from Google - The Rolling Stones, The Who, and friends; Morrissey and U2; even a whole slideshow of 20+ "dinosaur acts."
But when people refer to Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler as a dinosaur, they are literally correct.  The Masiakasaurus was discovered in 2001 in Madagascar.  It is a "small predatory theropod dinosaur," and looks to me kind of like a cuter version of a velociraptor.   When it came time to name their discovery, the crew of palaeontologists that found the dinosaur thought back to their dig.  The crew listened to a lot of Dire Straits records, and the band's music seemed to bring some good luck to their excavation.  So they gave the dinosaur the proper name of Masiakasaurus knopfleri in tribute to the inspiration they received from Knopfler's musicAnd thus, the rock dinosaur became a real one.
For those interested in dinosaurs (and in bad puns), the Masiakasaurus took its last "Walk of Life" around 70 million years ago.
BONUS FACT:  As it turns out, it seems that there weren't many dinosaurs hanging around Minnesota. So today's TMFW was inappropriately inspired. 
BONUS FACT 2:  When researching for today's TMFW, I learned that Mark Knopfler is not unique in the "real rock dinosaur" category.  In fact, he's so far from unique that today's TMFW was not only inappropriately inspired but also is just about commonplace.  Per the link above, there are also dinosaur species named after Mick Jagger (2 of them!), Keith Richards, The Sex Pistols, each of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Ramones (RIP Tommy).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

TMFW 44 - John and Paul, (Almost) Reunited in 1976

Tonight I am taking my kids to see Paul McCartney at the United Center in Chicago.  Though I acquired (and came to know intimately every beat, note, and syllable of) the Beatles discography in high school, I have never seen him in concert before.  I am almost certain to be teenage-girl-in-1964-level emotional by the end of it.  So what better time for a Beatles-themed TMFW.
After the Beatles broke up in 1970 (an event that merits its own Wikipedia entry), there was almost instantaneous fan interest in a reunion.  In 1974, entertainment promoter (and, more importantly, pay-per-view television pioneer) Bill Sargent offered the group $10 million to reunite for one show.  They did not bite, and so in January 1976 he offered $30 million.  A month later, he offered $50 million dollars.  Adjusted for inflation, that's over $200 million.  For one show.  Again, the Beatles did not bite.
In the meantime, Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975.  It was a big hit from its inception, and in the first several seasons, the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" were appointment television.  Against the backdrop of the February 1976 offer of $50 million, SNL decided to have some fun with the big-money Beatles reunion talk.  On April 24, 1976, Lorne Michaels appeared on the show and made a monetary offer for the Beatles to come on the show to perform.  He made a show of holding up a check, and announcing that NBC was prepared to pay the sum of three thousand dollars for the event.  (Note: because whoever is in charge of SNL rights is a complete buffoon, good video of this famous moment is not available anywhere, except perhaps a set of VHS tapes that were released in 1997 or some obscure Latvian site that will cause your computer to blow up.  It's maddening.)
Unbeknownst to Lorne Michaels, John Lennon - who at the time was living at The Dakota in New York City - sometimes watched SNL.  And as fate would have it, on that very day**, Paul and Linda McCartney were visiting John and Yoko in New York City and they watched the show together.  As John recalled in a September 1980 Playboy interview: "Paul and I were together watching that show. He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired."  Paul recalled it similarly: "[John] said, 'We should go down there. We should go down now and just do it."  Allegedly, Lennon recognized that the reunion would be only half of the Beatles, and suggested that they would demand only $1500 for the appearance.  Of course, the two did not reunite on that night, and with John's death only a few years later they never got the chance to again.  According to the interview linked above, it was the last time John saw Paul. 
It's fun to imagine what that night in 1976 would have looked (and sounded) like.
** In more recent recollections, Paul has suggested that the discussion and almost-reunion took place one week after the initial offer, but that's much less fun.  So let's choose to believe the more contemporaneous story.
BONUS FACT:  A fictionalized version of the real-life visit between Paul and John in April, 1976 was made into a movie for VH1 in 2000 called "Two of Us."  The film borrows from the Playboy interview and features the SNL offer as a plot point.
BONUS FACT 2: For the first season and a half of SNL, the show was called NBC's Saturday Night, as ABC had a show on Saturdays called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.  By all accounts, the show was a complete dud, and it was cancelled after 18 episodes.  (I did not know this bonus fact until I started this week's TMFW.)
BONUS FACT 3:  The aforementioned Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell featured Bill Murray, his brother Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest as regular performers.  They were referred to by the show as the "Prime Time Players."  That's where SNL got its gently-mocking "Not Ready for Prime Time Players."  (I also did not know that.)  Once Cosell's show was cancelled, Bill Murray joined SNL.  So he has the distinction of being both a "Prime Time Player" and a "Not Ready for Prime Time Player."
BONUS FACT 4:  Speaking of Howard Cosell and the Beatles, many people got the news that John Lennon had been killed from Cosell himself.  The evening of Lennon's murder - December 8, 1980 - was a Monday night, and Cosell was broadcasting a Monday Night Football game between the Patriots and the Dolphins.  ABC News had early information of Lennon's condition due to the fluke coincidence that a local news producer was at the ER at Roosevelt Hospital waiting to be treated when Lennon was brought in.  He called in the information and it made its way up through the ABC News organization and into the broadcast booth in Miami.  As the game wound down late in the fourth quarter of a tie game, with the Patriots marching in field goal territory and stopping the clock for a field goal attempt that would put the game away, Cosell broke the shocking news to the audience

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

TMFW 43 - The 40s Cuban Song That Inspired a 90s German To Record a Worldwide #1

Perez Prado was a Cuban bandleader who had a successful career and was most active in the 1940s and 1950s.  Known as the "King of Mambo," he played spirited, (mostly) instrumental songs.
David Lubega was a German musician of Italian and Ugandan descent.  As a kid in the late 1980s, he formed a hip hop group, and released a record in 1990 as a rap artist.  But in his 20s while visiting Miami, Lubega discovered Latin music.  He zeroed in on a Prado song called "Mambo #5" (well, there goes the mystery) and built his own version around it. 
In 1999, Lubega - then rechristened as "Lou Bega" - released "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of..." The song heavily sampled Prado's tune - Prado is officially listed as a co-writer of Bega's version - but added all of the lyrics, including the famous "a little bit of..." chorus.  The song was an instant, and international, smash hit.  It went to #1 in the UK, Australia, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.  About the only place it didn't hit #1 was the US, where it topped out at #3 and ended the year at #42 (!).   
So now you know that "Mambo No. 5" is an old cover song by a German guy.  And now it is stuck in your head, too.  My work is done here.
BONUS FACT:  As best I can tell, there were never Mambos # 1-4, or 6-7.  But Perez Prado did have a track called "Mambo #8."  One can imagine Lou Bega quietly waiting for his moment...
BONUS FACT 2:  Though Bega's hit never made #1 in the US, Prado had two different songs that did.  His band's cha-cha cover of "Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)" hit #1 in 1955 and stayed there for 10 weeks.  It was Billboard's "Year-End #1" for the year 1955.  And his song "Patricia" made it to number 1 and stayed there briefly in 1958.
BONUS FACT 3:  "Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)"'s place on the charts came just in front of a sea change in popular music.  The song that followed it at #1 was Bill Haley & His Comets' "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock."  And the rest was history.