Wednesday, December 30, 2015

TMFW 121 - Have Yourself a Bummer Little Christmas

 

The holidays are holidays-ing me, and we have a foster baby here this week, so today's TMFW is a bit of a "check the box" to keep my promise of weekly entries alive at 121.  It's a "did you ever notice" story of the original "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

That song is now a holiday radio staple; Frank Sinatra's is probably the most famous version but it  has been covered over 500 times and ASCAP counts it as the fifth most-performed holiday song ever.  But if you are familiar with the original - sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis - it's interesting that it has become so ubiquitous.  Because the original is a true bummer. 


This short entry from The Atlantic tells the story nicely: the song was written in 1943, in the middle of World War II.  And it was written for a part of the movie where the characters are feeling despair over a planned move from St. Louis to New York City (imagine that as a plot device these days!).  So Judy Garland does her best to make the song a happy one.  But she is necessarily hesitant: she offers that "someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow," but follows up realistically "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow."  And there are little touches of uncertainty throughout: "next year" their troubles will be gone, faithful friends who "were" dear to them, "will be" near to them, etc.  The whole song comes across as a sad person's best attempt at optimism and hope in the face of less-than-optimistic circumstances. 

When Frank Sinatra took on the song in 1957, he went back to the original songwriter Hugh Martin and asked him to change the words to make it happier.  And Martin did that throughout.  Most noticeably, "someday soon we all will be together...until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" became "through the years, we all will be together...hang a shining star upon the highest bough."  And all of the future uncertainly was wiped clean in favor of happy times for everyone: "next year" became "from now on," faithful friends dear to the singer went from "were" to "are," and their presence went from the less certain "will be near" to the recurring "gather near."  They are all small touches, but they change the song fundamentally.

I love that transition because it seems like such a perfect encapsulation of our desire to make Christmas this unattainably beautiful and perfect season, when in fact it is often simultaneously a time of stress and peace and sorrow and joy and familial bonding and battle.  Judy Garland's version recognizes the latter, while Frank Sinatra's waves it all away in favor of the simpler story.  It's no surprise that his lyrics are the ones that most people sing.  

So there's your TMFW for today: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was originally a bummer of a song, but Frank Sinatra gave it a dose of Prozac and thereby made it famous.

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BONUS FACT:  I am a sucker for those "famous person sings [song]" videos that meticulously assemble soundbytes into a "cover" of a song.  (Jimmy Fallon's people do it beautifully with Brian Williams, for example.)  From just this week, here's New England Patriots coach and famous curmudgeon Bill Belichick covering "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," just as you might expect he would.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

TMFW 120 - "Hound Dog" as a Puppy

 
 
In August, all the way back in TMFW 100, I wrote about "answer songs" and teased in Bonus Fact 1.5 that "[t]here is more to come on answer songs - including the song that inspired some of the most famous ones - in a future TMFW."  That future is now.
 
This past weekend, my family took a road trip to Graceland, and to Sun Studios, in Memphis.  There are perhaps unlimited candidates for TMFW entries coming out of Memphis, but today's is one that nicely overlays Elvis and Sun.  It's the story of "Hound Dog" and one of its answer songs "Bear Cat," and how the latter almost undid Sun Studios before it ever took off.
 
For most of my life - defined in this case as birth up to a few months ago -  I assumed that Elvis Presley's breakout hit "Hound Dog" was "his" song (that is, that he popularized the tune.)  But in fact, in four short years from its first recording in 1952 to Elvis' version in 1956, "Hound Dog" made a long and interesting story for itself.
 
The story of "Hound Dog" starts with the odd combination of then-still-teenaged songwriters Leiber and Stoller and the 300+ pound blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.  Leiber and Stoller had written only two recorded songs together at that point, but they were known to the R&B bandleader/Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnny Otis.  Otis was working for Peacock Records, who had signed Big Mama but thus far found no success with her.  
 
Otis thought that maybe Leiber and Stoller could write something that suited Big Mama's style, and brought them to his house to watch her rehearse some songs.  They were struck by the power of her voice and her intimidating presence, and wrote "Hound Dog" for her that same night.  They went to the studio the next day, taught the song to Thornton, and recorded it (in only two takes) before the day was through.  The song went from concept to tape in one day.  
 
Thornton's recording of the song is a blues lament; in her version, the "hound dog" is a man who hangs around the singer hoping to get [insert here - love, money, sex] without giving much in return.  Thornton tells the hound dog that "you can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more."  Interspersed with "blues talk" over the instrumental breaks - Thornton commands "now wag your tail" and "awww, get it" - the song has a naturally subversive sound.  Big Mama's recording on "Hound Dog" was released in March, 1953, and was an instant hit.  It reached #1 on the R&B Charts and stayed there for 7 weeks. 
 
As was the tradition of the time, "Hound Dog" inspired a number of covers.  Within just a couple of months, there were covers by Little Esther (on Federal), Jack Turner and his Granger County Gang (on RCA Victor), Billy Starr (on Imperial), Eddie Hazelwood, child actress Betsy Gay, and Tommy Duncan and the Miller Brothers (all on Intro, which released the three different versions as consecutive singles), and Cleve Jackson & his Hound Dogs (on Herald).  And the next year, Frank Motley and his Motley Crew released "New Hound Dog" (on Big Town), an uptempo jive cover.
 
In addition to the straight covers, "Hound Dog" inspired several "answer songs," too.  Roy Brown did "Mr. Hound Dog's in Town" (on King), which tells the story from the hound dog's perspective.  Chuck Higgins and his Mellotones did "Real Gone Hound Dog" (on Combo), which did the same thing.  Charlie Gore and Louis Innis did "(You Ain't Nothin' But a Female) Hound Dog" (on King), which flips genders and portrays the hound dog as someone who wants to put a collar on the singer.  Jimmie Wilson did "Call Me a Hound Dog" (on Big Town), which boasted that the hound dog had "found himself a home" and "got all the meat [he] want[s], [so he] don't have to gnaw your bone." John Brim and blues harmonica player Little Walter did "Rattlesnake" (on Checker), which...well, I listened a few times and I'm still not sure what that one is about.  
 
So within a year of "Hound Dog"'s release, and still two years from Elvis recording it, it was a #1 hit and had inspired at least 8 covers and 5 answer songs, spread across 9 different labels.  That's amazing, and we aren't even to the TMFW yet.
 
Here it is: one of the very first "Hound Dog" answer songs was "Bear Cat," recorded by a Memphis DJ named Rufus Thomas for Sun Records, with lyrics written by Sun founder Sam Phillips.  Recorded and released within two weeks of Big Mama Thornton's original, the song opens "you know what you said about me, don't you woman? Well...," and then it launches into a rejoinder of the "Hound Dog" singer that turns the insults right back at her.  "Bear Cat" was only Sun's eighth single, and it was its first big chart hit, reaching #3 on the R&B charts.  
 
Unfortunately for Sam Phillips and Sun, Big Mama Thornton's label Peacock was run by Don Robey, who was infamously aggressive about protecting his business interests.  Though it was common at the time for answer songs to flood the market in the wake of a big hit, it was also standard procedure for the label of those songs to pay some modest royalty or license to the original publisher in recognition of the source material.  Phillips and Sun chose not to do so; in fact, Phillips claimed sole songwriting credit on "Bear Cat."  Robey didn't like that and threatened to sue if Sun didn't license "Hound Dog" from Peacock and its publisher.  When Sun refused, he carried through on his promise and sued Sun/Phillips for copyright infringement.  It was a sort of "test case" for the legality of answer songs.
 
Within a month of filing suit, the court sided with Robey and his publisher.  Sun was found liable for plagiarism, and was ordered to pay a percentage of profits and court costs.  This amounted to around $35,000 (at Sun's studio it says $25,000, but who's counting), and it put a huge financial strain on Phillips and his label.  It also established the legal framework for answer songs: the April 24, 1954 issue of Billboard noted "[t]he year 1953 saw an important precedent set in regard to answer tunes … since the 'Hound Dog' decision, few record firms have attempted to 'answer' smash hits by other companies by using the same tune with different lyrics."
 
Less than a month after the "Bear Cat" legal decision, in August 1953 an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley cut his first demo at Sun Studios.  A year later, in July 1954 his song "That's All Right" launched his career.   Elvis was still signed to Sun in November, 1955, when RCA records made an offer to buy out his contract.  Still heavily in debt (due in part to the "Bear Cat" disaster), Phillips let him go for $35,000.  
 
The rest is of course history, including the delicious irony that one of Elvis' first singles with RCA - and still his biggest selling ever - was a 1956 cover of what was by then a well-traveled song: "Hound Dog." 
 
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BONUS FACT/OBSERVATION:  Today's story makes it much easier to understand the "concern" in the 1950s that Elvis was bringing "black music" to mainstream pop audiences.  In the case of "Hound Dog," that was quite literally true.
 
BONUS FACT 2:  If you listened to the early recordings of "Hound Dog," you no doubt noticed that Elvis' lyrics are much different and more tame than Big Mama's.  That's because Elvis covered an adaptation of Big Mama's song that was done by Freddie Bell and Bellboys in 1955.  Bell and his group changed the lyrics of the record to make it more appealing to the mainstream; by the time they were done it was no longer a lament full of thinly-veiled double entendre.  Instead, it was mostly a song about a dog.  Elvis discovered that version when he was playing a series of shows in Las Vegas at the same time as Freddie Bell and his group.  He loved their rendition and (with their permission) added it to his act.  
 
For their part, Leiber and Stoller weren't fans of the watered-down lyrics.  Leiber went so far as to say that the change was "inane," that "it doesn't mean anything to me," and that "it ruined the song."  Stoller agreed, but noted that "after Elvis's record sold about 7 or 8 million [in] the first release, I began to see some merit in it."

BONUS FACT 3: Colonel Tom Parker famously managed/controlled Elvis' career, and wrung out every dollar that he could from his success.  In one particularly genius move, the Colonel made a merchandising deal that licensed Elvis' name and image for over 75 products.  Making sure he covered all demographics, one of those products was a button that said "I Hate Elvis."  If you have one, it's worth $50 or more.

BONUS FACT 3.5:  The Colonel is probably worthy of a TMFW all by himself, but just in case we never get there you should know that he was not a colonel in the U.S. Army.  Though he was in the Army, during his time there he went AWOL and was charged with desertion.  His sentence included time in a military prison, from which he emerged with a psychological condition that temporarily put him in a mental hospital and prevented him from further service.  He was discharged from the army shortly thereafter. 

Parker was given the honorary title of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia as a political favor from Louisiana governor/country music star Jimmie Davis, as a thank you for work Parker did on his political campaign.

BONUS FACT 4:  The Lovin' Spoonful had a top-10 hit in 1966 with their song "Nashville Cats."  The song, which is a tribute to the musical talent coming out of that city, features a verse that says "[a]nd the record man said every one is a yellow sun record from Nashville."  But of course, Sun is not from Nashville.  If you have paid any attention to today's entry at all, you know that it is 200 miles southwest, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis.  (Thanks to TMFW reader/neighbor Clifton for this one.)

BONUS FACT 5:  Later in his life, Sam Phillips sometimes struggled with excess.  One notable public display of that tendency was his bizarre/drunken appearance in 1986 on Late Night with David Letterman.  Like he did with other famous interviews gone bad, Letterman salvages the appearance beautifully.

FURTHER RESOURCES:  The Biography channel did a show called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n' Roll."  You can watch it in two parts here: one, two.  And just last month a book of the same name was released.  It has been well-reviewed so far.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TMFW 119 - The First Song From Space




In my car, I have an XM subscription.  It's typically pretty great, but sometimes in a tunnel or a parking garage the signal will disappear.  When that happens, my instinct is to get angry and curse the radio, and I have to stop and remind myself that they are beaming music to my car from space.  There's a satellite up there shooting down over 150 channels, and it finds my car whether I am in the middle of Chicago or on a 2-lane highway in North Dakota.  That's way cool.   

In the vein of XM, today's TMFW is about the first ever song that was beamed down from space.  It was 50 years ago today.    

As told in this Smithsonian magazine piece, the occasion was the joint NASA mission of Gemini 6A and Gemini 7, which marked the first time that two orbiting objects successfully rendezvoused with one another in space.  That feat was accomplished on December 15, 1965, when command pilot Wally Schirra (and onboard computers) brought the Gemini 6 capsule within 1 foot of Gemini 7 and the two spaceships stayed in close orbit for four-and-a-half hours. 

Following separation of the two spacecraft, the astronauts were feeling rightfully celebratory.  So the Gemini 6 crew decided to have a bit of fun.  Just before the astronauts went to sleep on the morning of December 16, Schirra and his partner Tom Stafford "spotted" an unidentified object and reported it to their orbiting colleagues.  The transmission went like this: 

"Gemini 7, this is Gemini 6.  We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably a polar orbit.... He's in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio...Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon.... You just might let me pick up that thing...." 

From there, the Gemini 6 astronauts launched into a performance of "Jingle Bells," played on a tiny Hohner "Little Lady" harmonica by Schirra and accompanied by a set of jingle bells by Stafford.  Gemini 7's pilot Jim Lovell (later the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, and famously played by Tom Hanks in the excellent movie of the same name) responded "we got him too, 6!" and laughed.  Schirra then boasted "that was live, 7.  Not taped," and Mission Control in Houston chimed in "you're too much, 6."    

The whole exchange lasted less than two minutes, but you can hear in it the joy and pride and spontaneity and almost giddiness of the astronauts.  I love it.  You can hear the transmission (just the song) on Soundcloud, and the longer exchange on Youtube here.  

Schirra's harmonica and Stafford's bells now sit in the National Air and Space Museum, as part of the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.  Notice in the harmonica picture that Schirra rigged up his instrument with dental floss and velcro so that it wouldn't float away on him when he was doing real work.   

So there's your TMFW for today: on this date 50 years ago, two orbiting astronauts spied Santa's sleigh and made "Jingle Bells" the first song ever transmitted from space.  Ho ho ho.   

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BONUS FACT:  My word-count-padding rumination on XM up there is a good excuse to link to this classic Louis C.K. "everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy" interview (most relevant part starts at 1:24.)  It's so true. 

BONUS FACT 1.5:  As fate would have it, this week's entry comes as I am traveling home from Paris, France.  I wrote today's TMFW on the plane and then posted it over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Newfoundland.  I almost literally can't understand how that is possible.   

BONUS FACT 2:  The idea of two spacecraft rendezvousing in orbit was a milestone that both the US and Soviet Union were chasing.  After the Americans had pulled it off in 1965, the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev wanted to do it for the 50th Anniversary of the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia.  And Brezhnev wanted to one-up the Americans by having the two spacecraft dock with one another and then have a cosmonaut transfer from one ship to the other.  

Instead, the mission became famous for a more sober reason: the first human death from a space mission.  This gripping NPR story of the launch (which was later amended to qualify nearly all of the fantastical details) tells the sad story of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died on reentry of Soyuz 1 when his parachute failed to deploy and he crashed into the ground.  

According to the story, Komarov and others in the Soviet space program knew that the mission was doomed to fail, but nobody dared raise the issue to Brezhnev.  And Komarov would not back out of the launch because his friend - the national hero Yuri Gagarin - was the backup pilot and would be killed in his place.  So Komarov took the mission knowing it would probably be his last.

BONUS FACT 2.5:  Yuri Gagarin unwittingly started a cosmonaut tradition when, on his first launch in 1961, he asked the bus taking him to the launchpad to stop so that he could relieve himself.  Gagarin stepped out of the bus, walked around to the back, unzipped from his launch suit, and peed on the rear right tire of the vehicle.   

Since then, departing cosmonauts have maintained the ritual, which requires them to undo all of the zippers and fasteners on their spacesuits that had just minutes before been carefully put together and checked.  (Female cosmonauts are invited to bring along a vial of urine to splash onto the tire.)  Truth is stranger than fiction.   

BONUS FACT 2.75:  If you want to know more about Space rendezvous, Wikipedia's got you covered with this comprehensive timeline.  

BONUS FACT 3:  Leonid Brezhnev is one of the three "L.B."-initialed people namechecked in R.E.M.'s classic song "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."  The others are Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, and (of course) Leonard Bernstein.  

BONUS FACT 3.5:  Michael Stipe explained in an interview that the L.B. references came from a dream he had where he was at a birthday party and was the only guy there who didn't have those initials. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

TMFW 118 - The #1 Frozen Pizza

 
 
Today's TMFW is short, and to the point, and wonderful: in 2006 and 2007, two different frozen pizza jingles reached the top of the charts in Norway.
 
The pizza in question is called Grandiosa. It is the most popular brand of frozen pizza in Norway and a sort of national dish; 24 million of the pizzas are sold each year, even as Norway has less than 5 million people.  That's almost 5 pizzas per person!  By comparison, the most popular brand in the US makes around 90 million pizzas for a population of 318 million - less than 1/3 per person.
 
Facing increasing competition in the early 2000s, Grandiosa invested heavily in marketing to maintain their brand dominance.  As part of that campaign, they worked with the Norwegian musician Lars Kilevold on a new theme song for their pizza.  Kilevold had reached #1 in 1980 with his song "Liver er for Kjipt" ("life is too short") and #2 in 1987 with "Ute til Lunch" ("Out to Lunch"), so he knew his way around a catchy tune.
 
The result of Kilevold's work was a song called "Respekt for Grandiosa." Credited officially to "Grandiosa," it became a ringtone sensation (remember when ringtones were a Big Deal?) and as a result reached number one on the VG-lista (the Norwegian version of the Billboard Top 40) for eight weeks in 2006. The album cover for the CD single looked like a Grandiosa box, and the CD looked like a pizza.  Pretty clever stuff.
 
Grandiosa followed up "Respekt for Grandiosa" with "Full Pakke," a song that celebrated the "full package" of toppings available on their pizza.  That song - complete with choreography - reached number one (for only two weeks this time) in 2007.  If you want to learn the "full pakke dance," TMFW's got you covered.  
 
Shamanamadong.
 
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BONUS FACT:  The 1993 satire/sci-fi/action movie Demolition Man sort of predicted today's TMFW.  When Sylvester Stallone arrives in the future, his handlers try to make him feel more at home by playing an "oldies" station on the radio.  It is made up entirely of "mini tunes" (aka commercials), and it is the most popular station in town.  
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  Here's the real live 1960s Armour hot dog ad - complete with reference to "tough kids" and "sissy kids" - that Sandra Bullock and Benjamin Bratt are singing along to in the Demolition Man clip above.  And for good measure, here's Bart and Lisa Simpson doing it, too.
 
BONUS FACT 1.75:  A famous joke in Demolition Man is that all restaurants in the future are Taco Bell, as they are "the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars."  That's a pretty good gag.
 
BONUS FACT 1.875:  Apparently, the studio felt that Taco Bell was not famous enough around the world for people in other countries to get the joke.  So in international versions of the movie, the lone survivor is changed to Pizza Hut.  
 
BONUS FACT 1.9375:  Keeping with the "mini tunes" theme, when Mr. Stallone and Ms. Bullock go into the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut in the clip above, the piano player is doing a rendition of  the 1960s "Valley of the Jolly Green Giant" advertisement.
 
BONUS FACT 1.96875:  The combination of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell above gives me a good excuse to post the love-it-or-hate-it song "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" by Das Racist.  (I, for one, love it.  It is beautifully stupid.)
 
BONUS FACT 2: Grandiosa pizza has a "Hot Nacho" variety, with little baby tortilla chips on top.  Between that and the world dominance of Angry Birds, Scandinavians are clearly geniuses.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

TMFW 117 - A DJ Prank Inspires a Gold Record

 
In TMFW 110, I told the story of The Knack's great song "My Sharona," and marveled at how on-the nose its lyrics are.  While writing that post, I was (naturally) listening to Get The Knack, which also includes the excellent song "Good Girls Don't" (that's the "clean" version for radio; the unsanitized album version is here).  
 
"Good Girls Don't" is even more direct in its adolescent rock-and-roll fantasies than "My Sharona." Lyrics include "she makes you wanna scream, wishing you could get inside her pants" and "you've heard she's pretty fast, and you're hoping that she'll give you some tonight..."  The chorus is pure teenage boy wish-fulfillment: "Good girls don't, good girls don't, but she'll be telling you 'Good girls don't, but I do.'"
 
So imagine my surprise when, during my research on "My Sharona," I came across the claim that both "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't" were covered by The Chipmunks on their album Chipmunk Punk. Surely this was fake, right?  Some merry pranksters creating a good example of inappropriate kids songs, maybe?  Nope, it's real.  And the story of the record is a pretty good one.
 
First, here's a short history of The Chipmunks. The group was the brainchild of a guy named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.  He was a musician who recorded under the name "David Seville," and first rose to fame with the novelty song "Witch Doctor."  That song - later credited to the Chipmunks (and re-recorded with them too) - hit #1 in April and May 1958.  Bagdasarian performed both parts of the song, and achieved the "witch doctor" vocals by singing at a low pitch and then speeding up the tape. 
 
The success of "Witch Doctor" lead Bagdasarian to continue experimenting with tape recording tricks, and his next big hit was "The Chipmunk Song (Chistmas Don't Be Late)" in December 1958.  As before, Bagdasarian performed all of the vocals (this time, David Seville and each of the three Chipmunks).  "The Chipmunk Song" reached number one and sold over 4 million records, and the Chipmunks were born.
 
Over the next decade, Bagdasarian turned out a steady stream of Chipmunks records, releasing 12 albums between 1959 and 1969.  But in 1972, Bagdasarian suffered a heart attack and died at age 52.  The Chipmunks seemed to die with him.  
 
So here's where today's TMFW comes in.  In 1979, seven years after Bagdasarian died and with no Chipmunks activity since then, the band Blondie recorded the song "Call Me." The record was a giant hit in 1980 and was at #1 for six weeks that year.  During that run, Los Angeles DJ played the song at twice the speed and announced that it was the Chipmunks' new record.  To the DJ's surprise, inquiries came flooding in about where the record could be purchased.  Word got to Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. (Bagdasarian Sr.'s son, if you couldn't figure that out for yourself), and he decided to give the people what they wanted. 
 
The resulting album was Chipmunk Punk, released in the summer of 1980.  Among others, the album included the Chipmunks version of "Call Me," along with Tom Petty's "Refugee," The Cars' "Let's Go," and three songs from The Knack: in addition to "Good Girls Don't" and "My Sharona," it included the also-inspired-by-Sharona song "Frustrated."  (Ironically, Chipmunk Punk did not include any songs that are considered even remotely "punk.") 
 
Apparently nobody thought that it was weird for young cartoon chipmunks to sing teenage sex anthems: within four months of its release, Chipmunk Punk went gold.  And the Chipmunks were reborn.
 
Since the release of Chipmunk Punk, Bagdasarian, Jr. has expanded the Chipmunks into a Saturday morning cartoon show that ran for eight seasons, 25 more records, several video games, and more recently a collection of four feature films.  Not bad for a group that started with some sped-up cassette tape.
 
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BONUS FACT 1: Following the "My Sharona" entry, TMFW reader and music scholar Les sent along the 2004 documentary Getting the Knack, which is available in its entirety on YouTube.  It's a good look at how The Knack rose to fame and made their first record.  
 
From that, I learned that the band did only one take of "Good Girls Don't" for their record.  As Doug Fieger explained in the film, "we recorded it for the first time in 1972 [Get the Knack was recorded 7 years later in 1979] and had made at least 4 demos of it.  [We'd] been turned down by everybody.  I was sick of the song I didn't really want to record it. And [Get The Knack producer] Mike [Chapman] was very high on the song.  He said "look at, Doug, we'll go out there, you'll play it one time, you'll sing live.  If we don't get it in one take, we won't put it on the album.  And of course we got it in one take and that's the take that's on the album."  That's a good story.  
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  Also from the documentary, Fieger explained (and then briefly demonstrated) that he'd written "Good Girls Don't" with Johnny Cash's voice in mind. He does a pretty decent impression.
 
BONUS FACT 2:  Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. got his start in the entertainment business from his cousin, the playwright William Saroyan.  Bagdasarian acted in a Broadway production of Saroyan's Pulitzer-winning play The Time of Your Life.  That he would start his career working on a Pulitzer and New York Drama Critics Circle winning play and end with fame from voicing three high-singing Chipmunks is amusing to me.  
 
BONUS FACT 3:  Just as the Chipmunks made their records by speeding up playback, several people have made "un-Chipmunk" versions of songs by slowing down Chipmunks recordings.  This "real-time" version of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" is an excellent demonstration of how Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. recorded the song.  This one of "Call Me" shows his son pulling it off in the same way.  And for good measure, here's the slowed down version of "Good Girls Don't."
 
BONUS FACT 4:  I remember being amazed when a sequel (sorry, I mean "squeakuel") to the first Alvin & The Chipmunks movie came out, and wondering how they could possibly justify making another one.  But it turns out that the movies are big business.  The first three movies have made over $550 million domestically at the box office, and over $1.1 billion worldwide, against a combined production budget of $210 million.  Unbelievable.
 
BONUS FACT 5:  Similarly, Chipmunk records are shockingly popular.  I thought it was just a good gag, but they have won five Grammys (FIVE) and an American Music Award, have had seven top-40 hits (including two number 1s in "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song"), and have scored three platinum and four gold records.  Not counting greatest hits compilations (and there are at least 8 of those!), they have released more than 35 albums over 54 years.  Respect to Mssrs. Bagdasarian for the mileage they have gotten out of what could have been a one-and-done gimmick.
 
BONUS FACT 6:  Just today, the Chipmunks were featured in this depressingly misanthropic news story of a town in England that plays annoying music on repeat at their train stations overnight, in order to keep homeless people from sleeping there.  A Chipmunks record of Christmas songs is apparently the flavor of the day; I would bet that's pretty effective.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TMFW 116 - The "Tom's Diner" Doggie Bag

 
Last week, TMFW brought the long story of Suzanne Vega's surprise hit "Tom's Diner."  As that entry got longer and longer, I realized that I couldn't stuff everything I had learned into one entry, and I ended the post with the promise that "there's enough good stuff that I found that next week's TMFW will continue down the 'Tom's Diner' rabbit hole just a little bit..."  So today's TMFW is two more cool stories about "Tom's Diner" and its legacy.  Both of them are included in this nice New York Times rumination by Suzanne Vega about the song; it's worth a read.
 
Our first item for today is the story of Tom's Album.  As Vega describes in her essay, shortly after she and DNA released the "Tom's Diner" remix, "[o]ther versions came flooding in from all over the world. People made them up and mailed me cassettes."  With a box full of adaptations - some sincere, others silly - and with the fresh memory of finding success by celebrating creativity rather than suing it into oblivion, Vega decided to work with an audio engineer and put some of her favorites together onto an album.  A&M Records agreed to release it, and the result is an album with one new DNA/Vega remix song ("Rusted Pipe," from her then-current album Days of Open Hand) and 12 versions/adaptations of "Tom's Diner."   As Vega describes it on the liner notes, "A small song about eating breakfast became a song about accidental pregnancy (Daddy's Little Girl – Nikki D.) and the recent war in the Gulf (Waiting at the Border). One version incorporates forgotten bits of pop culture (Jeannie's Diner). All of them surprised me; a couple made me wince. I include them anyway."
 
A funny thing about Tom's Album is the copyright law reality that Vega and her record label needed to clear all of the rights to the songs they included, even though the songs were first made by borrowing Vega's.  As she described the process: "it was a logistical nightmare to administrate. I had to go back to all the people who had taken the song without permission, and ask their permission . . . to use their version of my song!"  
 
Today's second item(s) are the technological legacies of "Tom's Diner."  First, it has an analog legacy in that the song is often used to test the sound quality of high-end audio components.  I had read that and intended to include it as a general item, but then TMFW neighbor and reader Clifton sent me a text this week that "[i]n the early 90s when I was shopping for a serious pair of speakers, the a cappella 'Tom's Diner' was one of the three cuts used to evaluate candidates."  That's pretty cool.  
 
The song has a cool digital legacy, too: "Tom's Diner" and Suzanne Vega are often called the "mother of the mp3."  (For TMFW readers who do not know that file format or its value - it is the compression scheme that allowed for digital music files to be made small enough that they could be easily transferred between computers and over the internet.  It lead to Napster and to iPods and to Spotify and to YouTube and to the modern music industry.)  Vega earned that title because her song - with its quiet-but-warm vocal - was used to perfect the mp3 encoding algorithm and "prove" the format.  The linked article quotes Karlheinz Brandenburg, the principal developer of mp3: "Suzanne Vega was a catastrophe. Terrible distortion...The a cappella version of 'Tom's Diner' was more difficult to compress without compromising on audio quality than anything else." So when they got the song to sound true, they knew they had succeeded.  
 
For his part, Brandenburg is still a fan: "I've listened to this 20 seconds [of Tom's Diner] a thousand times," he said. "I still like the music."
 
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BONUS FACT:  One of the tracks on Tom's Album is called "Tom's ?" by a band called "Bingo Hand Job."  You have probably not heard of "Bingo Hand Job," but it turns out you know them.  The band was a two-shows-only pseudonymous version of R.E.M. in March 1991, along with friends that included Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg.  R.E.M. was in London promoting their album (and TMFW 74 subject) Out of Time, and did two shows at a small club there under the assumed name.
 
One of the Bingo Hand Job shows was later released as a bootleg CD, you can find several videos from the show on YouTube, and the band released the version of "Toms Diner" (credited to themselves, this time) as a b-side to their woefully underrated song "Near Wild Heaven."
 
Here's the video of Bingo Hand Job performing a verrrrry loose version of "Tom's Diner".  I will confess that it sounds pretty terrible to me, but I fully support the idea of a band having fun while making music, and they clearly are doing that.
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  While we are on the subject of Robyn Hitchcock and R.E.M. and woefully underrated songs, here's Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians in 1991 doing "She Doesn't Exist," with background vocals from Michael Stipe. 
 
BONUS FACT 2:  I was first exposed to "Jeannie's Diner" from this Nick at Nite promo spot.  I always loved that line "it's kind of like Bewitched." 
 
SOCIAL MEDIA NOTE/UPDATE:  A couple of weeks ago, TMFW friend/reader Ben sent along this update to the TMFW 18 story of the "Amen Break" and wondered why TMFW didn't have a Facebook page where I/he could put stuff like that.  The reason was because I didn't know you could do that.  So last week I made one: it's at facebook.com/OfficialTMFW.  I will post each week's entry there, along with an old entry too.  Go and "Like" it if you want.  Or don't; it's really up to you.  This is America.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TMFW 115 - Suzanne Vega Buys a Bootleg and Hits it Big

 
 
Today's TMFW is about the odd path to success for Suzanne Vega's biggest hit "Tom's Diner."   You no doubt know it; many of you probably already have the "duh duh DUH DUH // duh duh DUH DUH // duh DUH DUH duh // DUH DUH DUH duh" starting up in your heads.  
 
When it was released as a single in September 1990, "Tom's Diner" was a giant hit.  It reached #5 in the US, #2 in the UK, and #1 in three countries.  Interestingly, even though Vega wrote and initially released the song, the version that made it big was billed as being by "DNA featuring Suzanne Vega."  That's because the 1990 song was in fact the third version of "Tom's Diner," and was a remix of the original that was created (and initially even sold) by the DNA guys without Vega's knowledge. 
 
We'll get back to DNA, but the story is worth starting at the beginning.  Vega went to Barnard College in New York City; she graduated in the class of 1981 and stayed in the City to start her career.  While she was there, she frequented a restaurant at Broadway and 112th Street called "Tom's Restaurant."  
 
Vega was friends with a New York City photographer. who told her once that he "felt as though he saw the world through a pane of glass." Inspired by that thought, Vega set out to write a song where she was simply an observer.  She constructed the lyrics around sitting at Tom's Restaurant and watching life happen around her - the man behind the counter greets a regular, a woman outside uses the restaurant's window as a mirror to adjust her wardrobe, bells go off at a nearby church, etc.  
 
The song was finished in the early 1980s - Tom's Restaurant became Tom's Diner because it sounded better - but Vega did not commercially release the song until she made her second record Solitude Standing in 1986.  Recording the track, Vega initially thought that she would back it with piano.  But she "didn't play piano and didn't know anybody who did, so [she] kept it a capella" on the record.  
 
The a capella version of "Tom's Diner" opened Solitude Standing, and an instrumental "reprise" version closed it.  Vega would often open concerts, a capella, with the song, but it was not otherwise notable on first release and Vega's career went on.
 
While "Tom's Diner" was just an album track, Solitude Standing became a success for Vega. Driven by its second single "Luka," a brutally on-the-nose song about child abuse that hit #3 in 1987, the album went Platinum in the UK and Canada and Gold in the US (in 1997, it made Platinum here, too).  It was a top-10 album in eight countries and reached #11 in the US. 
 
So as of 1990, Suzanne Vega had a Gold record in Solitude Standing and "Tom's Diner" was just a quirky a capella song that she opened concerts with.  That brings us back to DNA.  Well, almost.
 
In March, 1990, Vega released her follow-up to Solitude Standing, titled Days of Open Hand.  The album was generally well-received by critics, but it lacked a "Luka"-esque single and was for those days a commercial disappointment, never rising above #50 on the album charts.  Vega toured to promote the album, and was having a difficult time replicating her success of just a few years before.  
 
Okay, THAT brings us to DNA.  The group that called themselves "DNA" was really just two anonymous electronic music producers from England.  Without ever consulting Vega or her record label - though they say they called and didn't get a response - the duo (a) took the a capella version of Tom's Diner, (b) brought the "du du DUH DUH" stuff front and center (it was originally just sung at the outro of the song), (c) mashed it up with the beat from Soul II Soul's 1989 hit "Back to Life," and (d) added some embellishments along the way.  DNA then pressed some copies, using a plain white label and calling the track "Oh Suzanne!", and they started to sell them in dance clubs.  The record became an underground hit in the UK, and in the summer of 1990 it found its way back to Vega and her record label.
 
You will recall from 2 paragraphs above that Vega was touring in support of her new album and not having much fun.  So when the unauthorized remix and release of "Tom's Diner" came to her, it would have been totally reasonable for her to just tell the lawyers to kill it.  
 
Instead, Vega liked the remix and worked with her label to buy it.  Working out a deal that paid DNA for their work and credited them on the song (but gave the rights to Vega), A&M Records released the remix as a single.  By all accounts, both Vega and the label had modest hope that it would find some small success on the dance charts.  And the rest is history.   
 
Credit to Ms. Vega for seeing the potential in her/DNA's song, and going to market instead of to court.  
 
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BONUS FACT:  Ms. Vega has described writing her song sometime in the 1981-82 timeframe, and it is rife with specific details of what she encountered at the diner.  So, much like the detective work to discover the precise date of Ice Cube's "good day" detailed in TMFW 67, music sleuths used clues in "Tom's Diner" to determine the exact date it was written.  
 
In fact, only 2 clues were needed: (1) in the newspaper, there was "the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," and (2) the narrator was "looking for the funnies" in the newspaper.  Only two New York newspapers at the time of writing featured daily comics, and on November 18, 1981, the New York Post (one of those two) featured on its front page the story of William Holden's death with the headline "Drunken Fall Kills Holden."  Holden - the star of films such as Network, Stalag 17, and Sunset Boulevard - hit his head on a table and bled to death at his home in California. 
 
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  On November 18, 2011, Ms. Vega played "Tom's Diner" at a show in Pennslyvania and noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the song's composition.  She confirmed that, true to the song's lyrics, although Mr. Holden had been nominated for three Oscars he was indeed "no one [she] had heard of" at the time of his death.
 
BONUS FACT 1.75:  If you have not checked your calendar, TODAY is November 18.  So happy Tom's Diner Day to you.
 
BONUS FACT 1.875:  When I was a kid I too called the comics the "funnies."  My wife's beloved grandma did, too.  I like that we share that.  
 
BONUS FACT 2:    As it turns out, Tom's Restaurant is doubly famous: it was the facade used for Monk's Cafe, where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer frequently ate on Seinfeld.  The restaurant's fame has even inspired a documentary.
 
BONUS FACT 3:  Early in their career, TMFW favorites (and sort of TMFW 75 subjects) The Lemonheads did a really good cover of "Luka." 
 
BONUS FACT 3.5: Here's a great reflection on "Luka" from Vega herself in the New York Times.
 
IMPORTANT UPDATE (!!!):  Last week, TMFW was all about the 40-year speculation over the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain."  The entry ended with the quip "it's totally Warren Beatty." 
 
And then today - only one week after TMFW chose to weigh in on this long-running story - the news is awash with stories that Carly Simon has just confirmed that Beatty was indeed the subject of the song's second verse. This sort of timeliness and relevance is why TMFW is your best value in once-weekly music trivia story blogs.
 
BONUS OBSERVATION:  When I got an idea to write about this song a couple of months ago, I started the entry as "song was originally a capella." That's all I knew about it: it was on an earlier album and then these guys remixed it.  All of the stuff that filled in the gaps was discovered along the way, and then I saw that November 18 was a Wednesday and I pegged the entry for today.  These are my favorite kind of TMFWs.  (In fact, there's enough good stuff that I found that next week's TMFW will continue down the "Tom's Diner" rabbit hole just a little bit...)
 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TMFW 114 – He's So Rich, This TMFW is About Him


Today's TMFW was written on a plane, and so it is a topic that is pretty straightforward and plane-writeable.  It is the story of the (maybe) subjects of Carly Simon's big song "You're So Vain," and the one guy who knows for sure.

First, an observation (that upon Googling, has been observed by many other people too): the refrain of Ms. Simon's song taunts its subject, saying "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."  But whoever it is that she is singing about, the song actually IS about them.  So when that guy thinks the song is about him, he is totally right.  That doesn't really make him vain so much as a correct observer of fact.  Heavy stuff, man. 

Okay, now to this week's entry.  Carly Simon was 27 years old when she released "You're So Vain."  It was the lead single off of her third album, and Simon's career was on the rise.  She had won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1971, she had already had two top-20 songs – "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and "Anticipation" – and her second album Anticipation was on its way to being certified Gold.   Just five weeks after its release in December, 1972, "You're So Vain" reached number 1 in the US, where it stayed for three weeks.  The song also hit number 1 in Australia and Canada, and was top-5 in the UK and Ireland. 

Shortly after the song's release, people started to speculate about its "so vain" subject.  (For fellow Gen-Xers or younger readers – this was for a time a real thing that people talked about.  Pop cultural literacy required one to at least know the candidates.)  The lyrics are cryptic but suggest that the fellow is arrogant and philandering – the first verse describes him "walk[ing] into the party like [he was] walking onto a yacht" and "watch[ing himself] gavotte" in the mirror in an apricot scarf, the second notes that he "had [Ms. Simon] several years ago when [she] was still quite naïve," but that he "gave away the things [he] loved, and one of them was [her]," and the third accuses him of being with "some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend." 

So who was the guy?  There were two immediate front-runners: Warren Beatty (with whom Simon was briefly involved in 1971) and Mick Jagger (who sings uncredited background vocals on the record, who allegedly had a fling with Simon (she denies it), and who was apparently interested in Angela Bowie, the "wife of [his] close friend" David Bowie). Other contenders were TMFWs 16 and 34 subject David Bowie himself, Cat Stevens (who Simon dated in the early 1970s and who inspired the song "Anticipation"), TMFW 42 subject David Geffen, her then-husband James Taylor, guitarist Dan Armstrong (whom she dated for more than two years and who was a cocky, "too cool for school" type of fellow), and even David Cassidy. 

No doubt appreciating the commercial and publicity value of the debate, Carly Simon has embraced the mystery.  She has alternatively obfuscated and hinted about it since the song came out.  To that end, all of the various clues and denials and answers and un-answers about who "You're So Vain" is really about could be the subject of a TMFW all by itself.  But it won't be – if you are so inclined, you can read about them all on this detailed Wikipedia entry for the song.

Instead, today's TMFW is that there's one guy who knows for absolutely positively sure who the song is about: the famous NBC television producer Dick Ebersol.  In 2003, Simon agreed as part of a charity auction to reveal the subject's name to the highest bidder.  Ebersol won, paying $50,000 for the answer.  After he was sworn to secrecy, Simon played the song for him in a private performance, then whispered the name in his ear.  Since then, Ebersol has honored his vow of silence, giving only the Carly Simon-approved and almost wholly unhelpful clue that the subject of the song has an "E" in his name. 

So there's your TMFW for today: Carly Simon and Dick Ebersol turned a famously trivial (in all senses) question into a $50,000 charity donation.  Credit to them.

(Oh, and it's totally Warren Beatty.)

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BONUS FACT:  At least two other people claim that Carly Simon told them the subject of "You're So Vain": radio DJ Howard Stern and…Taylor Swift.  At first glance Ms. Swift's claim might seem strange – why would Carly Simon even be hanging out with Taylor Swift, much less telling her secrets? – but Swift is an avowed Carly Simon fan and has brought her out during a tour show to sing together.  Here's an audience video of Simon and Swift singing "You're So Vain" together at Gillette Stadium near Boston; Swift's admiration for Simon is clear and it's a pretty decent cover.  I am perhaps overly-sentimental, but it makes me happy that the World's Biggest Pop Star does stuff like singing duets (and sharing her bright spotlight) with the now-70-years-old Carly Simon.

BONUS FACT  2:  Two of Ms. Simon's songs have been famously used in commercials.  First, her 1971 hit "Anticipation" was the soundtrack of Heinz ketchup commercials in the late '70s that featured the stuff pouring out really slow and sexy-like.  More recently, her Oscar/Grammy/Golden Globe winning song "Let The River Run" was used just after the 2001 anthrax scare in a really excellent U.S. Postal Service commercial.

BONUS THING ABOUT ME 2.5:  No joke, I would someday like to be a letter carrier for the Postal Service.

BONUS FACT 3:  Like the song-clue-sleuths who figured out Ice Cube's "Good Day" in TMFW 67 and (foreshadowing alert!) those who will be featured in next week's TMFW, some perceptive listeners clued in to Simon's lyric "you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun," and used astronomical data to figure out that the likely day Mr. Vain was up north was March 7, 1970.  That is pointless and a waste of time and I love it. 

BONUS FACT 4:  Researching today's entry, I found this short CNBC clip where Simon talks about how she put the song together from three distinct parts.  First, Simon thought of the phrase "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."  She jotted it down in her ideas notebook, but had nothing to go along with it.  Next, she was working on a song called "Bless You Ben," which created the melody, but with completely different words.  Finally, she saw Mr. Vain come into a party and catch a glance at himself in the mirror as he walked through the room, and a friend commented to her that he had come into the party "like he was walking on to a yacht."  Taking that as the first line, she stuck all of the parts together and the song was born.  

CORRECTION:  The title of last week’s Spinal Tap-themed TMFW suggested that Spinal Tap was “England’s loudest band.”  In fact, the film makes clear that they are merely one of England’s loudest bands.  TMFW did not mean to suggest Tap’s supremacy in this field; only its membership in the group.  We regret the error.   

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

TMFW 113 - Life Imitates England's Loudest Band



Today's relatively short TMFW comes to you from Boston, where we are celebrating my wife's 39th (for the first time) birthday.  Thinking about Boston, I was reminded by the great throwaway line from the all-time great movie This is Spinal Tap, where early in the tour the band's manager Ian Faith reports that their Boston gig has been cancelled.  The band is not happy, but Ian reassures them by saying "I wouldn't worry about it though, it's not a big college town."  So two little This is Spinal Tap facts are the subject of today's TMFW.

I am a sucker for stories where fiction inspires real life. For instance, after the high-flying game quidditch was a staple in Harry Potter novels and was exhaustively explained by J.K. Rowling, some enterprising college students adapted the rules so that the game could be played on brooms that don't actually fly.  Today, U.S. Quidditch has over 300 teams and hosts events throughout the year.  It looks like a real live sport.  (But players still run around the field with a broom between their legs.)

Similarly, the Christmas alternative holiday of Festivus - celebrated by George Costanza's family on Seinfeld - has inspired adherents around the world.  You can get your own 6 foot tall aluminum Festivus pole online for the low price of $39, and there are several books to help you understand the "traditions" associated with the holiday. 

On that note, let's get to the music facts.  First, in This is Spinal Tap, the band tours the country and plays at a number of delightfully-named venues that includes the Xanadu Star Theater in Cleveland and Shank Hall in Milwaukee.  Those sound like fake places, and they are: they were made up for the movie. 

But in Milwaukee, fiction inspired reality.  In 1984, the appropriately-named Peter Jest booked Spinal Tap (then on a real live tour) at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin Ballroom.  Talking to the band, he shared with them his dream of opening a club, and promised that if he did he would name it Shank Hall.  Five years later, he did just that.  Shank Hall has been open for more than 25 years, and has hosted Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Guided By Voices, Drive By Truckers, TMFW 134 future subjects Yo La Tengo, Bob Mould, Dead Milkmen, and a host of other great acts.  Its logo is a tiny little Stonehenge.  And in a case of "life imitating art imitating life," Spinal Tap held a press conference there in 1992.  I love everything about that. 

Separately, perhaps the most famous scene in the movie features lead guitar player Nigel Tufnel showing off his guitar collection.  Nigel ends by showing off his Marshall amplifier, which has volume knobs that go to 11, so that if you are playing at 10 and "you need that extra push over the cliff," you can make it "one louder."  The volume plates for that amp were a one-off prop for the movie, but since the film came out there have been a number of audio devices that do in fact go to 11.  That includes several amplifier models, some mixing and audio consoles, and even the stereo on Tesla cars.  Just as Shank Hall has become a real venue for Spinal Tap to play, "one louder" has become a real option on lots of stuff you can buy. 

So there's your True Music Fact(s) for today; two stories of Spinal Tap silliness becoming reality.

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BONUS FACT:  Separate from those who celebrate the holiday purely for the whimsy, Festivus poles have been used as a political point for liberally-minded people who wish to reinforce the separation of church and state that is established in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In some places where civic leaders insist on Christian holiday displays - for example, the Wisconsin and Florida state capitols - activists have succeeded in similarly insisting on an adjacent Festivus pole display.

BONUS FACT 2:  There's a fun little "easter egg" on This is Spinal Tap's IMDb page: the film's rating goes to 11.

BONUS FACT 3:  In one of the most famous scenes from This is Spinal Tap, the band has difficulty navigating the labyrinthine backstage of a venue in Cleveland.  As they struggle to find the stage, bass player Derek Smalls works to keep up his enthusiasm, at one point exclaiming "Hello Cleveland!" several times.

Since then, "Hello Cleveland" has become ingrained as a rallying cry.  Aside from obvious uses (e.g. a video promoting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland), YouTube features videos of several different bands wandering backstage and noting the inspiration, the R&B singer Sade got her bass player to holler it at a show in Cleveland, it has inspired the name for (at least one) band, it is the name of a record label in Australia, and it's the title of several songs, including one by the instrumental UK band Mono.  An old bandmate of mine used to greet our audience with "Hello Cleveland!" at each of our shows (which were never in Cleveland).

BONUS FACT 4:  Several years ago, my wife bought me this wonderful Nigel Tufnel t-shirt. The few times anyone has commented on it, I have relished the chance to say that it was my "exact inner structure...done in a t-shirt."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TMFW 112 - Naked Eyes' Biggest Hit, on the Charts for the Fifth Time

 
[NOTE: maybe you will read this one and say "duh."  But it was new to me and blew my tiny mind.  And hopefully there's something in here for you in any event.]
 
Today's TMFW has a good mix of things I like: (a) one-hit wonders, (b) cover songs that I (foolishly?) didn't realize were cover songs, (c) cover songs, period, (d) weird differences between UK and US chart performance (see, e.g., the story of the maybe-a-cynical-bet girl band Vanilla in TMFW 46 or Bob the Builder's chart dominance in the Bonus Facts of TMFW 105), and (e) Burt Bacharach.  So let's get into it.
 
Our story begins with an earworm that my wife had earlier this week: "Take a Letter, Maria."  As she sang the refrain over and over, I was infected too.  "Who sings that?" she asked, and though I knew it was the wrong answer I guessed Sam Cooke.  We looked it up and saw that it was not Mr. Cooke but instead an artist named R.B. Greaves. (There's the one-hit wonder part: Greaves hit #2 with that song, but never cracked the top-20 again).  
 
With the song stuck in our heads, we had to play it so that we could purge it.  Thanks to Apple Music (which I find to be really great when it works, but I also find only works sometimes), we started listening to Mr. Greaves' body of work.  The song immediately after "Take a Letter, Maria" featured a familiar melody, and the lyrics started "I walk along the city streets you used to walk along with me..."  Within a few seconds, it was at the refrain: "how can I...forget you...when there is always something there to remind me?"  It was a cover of the big Naked Eyes synthpop hit from the '80s - or more likely, the other way around.  (There's the cover songs part.)
 
What the heck?!  This dude R.B. Greaves was the guy who did the original version of Naked Eyes' "Always Something There To Remind Me?"  I needed to figure this out.
 
Google brought me to a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the history of the tune.  It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the early '60s (there's the Burt Bacharach part).  And it turns out R.B. Greaves wasn't the first to perform it, or even to chart with it (it was his follow-up single to "Take A Letter, Maria" and he hit #27).  
 
In fact, by the time Naked Eyes recorded their version of "Always Something There to Remind Me," it had been on the charts four times: by Lou Johnson (#49 in the US in 1964), Sandie Shaw (#1 in the UK, Canada, and South Africa but only #52 in the US in 1964 - there's the "weird differences between the US and UK chart performance" part), Dionne Warwick (#65 in 1968) and Mr. Greaves (#27 in 1970).  And it had been released (at least) on records by The Four Seasons (1965), Brenda Lee (1965), Percy Faith (1965, an instrumental from Latin Themes for Young Lovers), Johnny Mathis (1967)  The Troggs (1967), Jay and the Americans (1967) Patti Labelle (1967), Jose Feliciano (1968), The Delrays (a local St. Louis act that briefly featured future Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald, 1968), Martha and the Vandellas (1968), and Peggy Lee (1970).  It had also been performed by The Carpenters (in 1972, as part of a medley) and Donna Summer (partly in French, as a duet in 1976).  That's a lot of famous acts that covered the song.  
 
I had no idea; the Naked Eyes version was so perfectly '80s, I assumed that those guys had written it.  So there's your TMFW for today: the synthpop song that made Naked Eyes famous had been done (and done and done and done) before they got to it.  
 
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BONUS FACT:  The song is still being recorded.  UK girl pop group All Saints performed a version at a Burt Bacharach tribute concert (accompanied by Bacharach himself) in 1998, Champaign, Illinois band Braid did a rocking version in 2000, and Chicago musician/producer Jim O'Rourke did a surprisingly straightforward version with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in 2010.
 
BONUS FACT 2:  The likely reason that R.B. Greaves sounds a bit like Sam Cooke is that Cooke is his uncle.
 
BONUS FACT 3:  While Sandie Shaw's version of the song was a smash in the UK but fell outside of the top-50 in the US, Naked Eyes' version hit number 8 in the US but only made #59 in the UK.  Go figure.  
 
BONUS FACT 4:  I am ashamed that I did not know that ex-Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member and "yacht rock" legend Michael McDonald was from my hometown of St. Louis.  More specifically, he grew up in Ferguson, where for a time he was raised by a single mother in an apartment complex near where Michael Brown (who made Ferguson famous for more sobering reasons) lived.  McDonald released a thoughtful statement in the wake of the shooting mourning the event.  
 
BONUS FACT 5:  Naked Eyes got their name during contract negotiation sessions with the label, but might have suffered a worse fate if the label guys got their way.  According to a 1997 interview with founding member Pete Byrne, "[w]e were looking for a name that suggested 'two,' and 'Naked Eyes' just popped into my head. I thought it was a great name, but the Record Label thought otherwise. I remember one meeting with about ten people, and they were asking everyone what they thought. Some of the ideas were truly awful...I suggested, as a joke, we call ourselves 'Boulevard Credibility.' One of the Marketing people leapt to his feet in agreement..."