Archives for category: Pop

machine Due out on October 8th, John Seabrook’s new book The Song Machine is an expansion of a New Yorker article from 2012. It describes the modern method of putting together hit songs deployed by producers such as Max Martin – who has scored 56 top ten hits since 1996 – more than Madonna (38), Elvis (36) and The Beatles (34). In brief, producers work on a backing track of chord progressions, drum track and synth sounds and pass this on to “top  line” writers that might either be session singers, who come into the studio and improvise until they find some hooks, or star singers themselves such as Beyoncé, who do the top line work themselves. Lyrics are often derived from collections of common phrases culled from magazines and television. There must be multiple hooks, not just one, if the song is to become a hit.

Seabrook highlights a case where one producer, Ryan Tedder, inadvertently sent out the same backing track to both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson in 2009. Few people noticed, Seabrook points out, and both became hits – “Halo” for Beyoncé in April and “Already Gone” for Kelly Clarkson in August.


StepAfter all those years of prime time telly, Cilla Black is a somewhat unfashionable figure today – but look back at her music catalogue of the 1960s and 1970s and a lot of it is still remarkably fresh and interesting. The best of all for me is the stripped back demo version of “Step Inside Love” with composer Paul McCartney accompanying on guitar (and contributing the occasional vocal during the guitar break).  It was recorded in Chappell Studios (by then located at 52 Maddox Street, London) on November 21 1967, the same venue where the Beatles had recorded “Your Mother Should Know” three months before, and also where McCartney joined Chris Barber and his Band for the recording of “Cat Call” in July – another of the songs he “gave away”.

The take shows that Cilla doesn’t need big orchestral backing to support her, and nor does she need the power of her upper register to get across the emotion of the song – in fact when the single version came out it had been transposed up a full fourth (from D to G) for that reason. The deeper register of the demo – it’s really as deep as her voice will go – makes for a much mellower atmosphere.  All the elements used in the single are also in the demo.  McCartney told Barry Miles later on: “I quite like the song, it’s very cabaret. It was just a welcoming song for Cilla”.  And that’s the point – it was written specifically to open her 1968 TV series, Cilla, though in this demo version it retains a more personal intimacy.

That cabaret feel comes from the use of bossa nova rhythm, something that’s more evident in the Beatles’ own demo, made a year later using exaggerated percussion (not one of their finest moments). The most distinct harmonic aspect of the song is the chromatic slide down to the next full tone after “let me find you a place” (G, Gb to F in the example above, which has been transposed to C major), repeated after the following phrase down another tone (F, E, Eb), and echoed in the descending motto of the chorus:  ”Step-In-Side-Love”. Hard to notate in guitar chord symbols but entirely natural to play.

whitetrailsI was very sad to hear of the death of Chris Rainbow (real name Chris Harley) on February 25 after a long illness. He was 68. Chris had been living on the Isle of Skye since the 1970s – there’s a picture of the scene outside his Vital Spark studio on Looking Over My Shoulder, his 1978 album that I would say was his greatest.  Chris never really found mainstream success, but those who heard his intricate multi-tracked vocal work on that record, on the earlier Home of the Brave (1975 – standout tracks “On My Way” and “Glasgow Boy”) and on his final solo record White Trails (1979 – standout tracks “Be Like a Woman” and “Song of the Earth”) never forgot it.  After these, Chris recorded and toured for a few years with the progressive rock group Camel, but there wasn’t much room there for him to get his personal style across – the closest, perhaps, was in the song “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller (1984).

The Alan Parsons Project was a very different matter. Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson allowed Chris full rein to arrange the multi-tracked backing vocals on many APP tracks, and gave him the lead vocal on others. There’s close to another full album’s worth of material that, although not actually composed by Chris, could almost pass as his solo work. I’d list the following songs as the most influenced by him: “Winding Me Up” and “Secret Garden” from Eve (1979);  “Gold Bug”, “Snake Eyes”, “Nothing Left to Lose” and the title track from Turn of a Friendly Card (1980 – and surely that’s him at the very end of “Time” as well, from 4.00 onwards); “Gemini” from Eye in the Sky (1982); “Since the Last Goodbye” from Ammonia Avenue (1984); “Days are Numbers” from Vulture Culture (1984); and “Beaujolais” from Stereotomy (1985). Chris also contributed vocals to the tracks “Closer to Heaven” and “Money Talks” from Gaudi (1987), but they don’t sound particularly finished to me and have a much leaner production.

That fantasy compilation album will have to stand in for the fourth solo record Chris almost made around 2000. In the 1990s he spent most of his time producing other bands, most notably Runrig. But in 1999 he got back in touch with his fans – this time directly through the Internet – and to their delight he issued CDs of his original material, re-mastered and with some previously unheard demos and outtakes. That’s when we first started hearing about a proposed new album, to be called In a Perfect World. The surprisingly detailed biography of Chris on AllMusic still maintains that this record actually hit the shelves in 2001. I wish it were so. We waited in hope, but it never came.

In the tributes this week, Alan Parsons remembered Chris as “the one man Beach Boy”, and Brian Wilson himself posted a tribute here. I’d often wondered whether Brian had heard of Chris, and it’s great to know that he did at least hear the song written about him, “Dear Brian”, from Looking Over My Shoulder. “I was touched and honored by it. It was a beautiful track”, he said.

AerialThe high profile Kate Bush live concerts going on at the Hammersmith Apollo (until October 1) have had the beneficial effect – at least for me – of highlighting some of her lesser known material. In the 22 concerts Bush has refrained from playing her greatest hits, and focused the show around two of her longer sequences of music – the dark Ninth Wave suite from 1985’s Hounds of Love and the joyous Endless Sky of Honey suite from Aerial (2005). Both are excellent, but the latter has become my favorite – it’s been described as a journey through a summer’s day, from morning to sunset, dusk, moonlight and then the rise of the new dawn, with lots of references to the changing light, and with the sounds of birdsong (both recorded and imitated) throughout. “The day is full of birds” says the child at the beginning – “sounds like they’re saying words”.

While the songs are distinct, they share thematic material, common sounds and cross-references in the lyrics, which serves to unify the piece. And while hooks and choruses are there aplenty, the structure of each of the songs is stretched out and relaxed, with extended passages of texture allowed to run their natural course. The instrumentation, consisting of rich piano chords, subtle percussion and Eberhard Weber’s fretless bass is beautiful, and carefully mixed in with spoken material and environmental sounds, such as the cooing of the dove in “Prelude”. The musical language nods towards jazz, dance music such as flamenco, and minimalism – as in the opening of “Aerial”. And Bush takes risks that many artists would steer clear of, such as the use of her young son’s voice (which could come over as too “cute” in other hands), and her vocal imitations of birds in the “Aerial Tal” section, which in the later “Aerial” song is developed into a comparison of birdsong with human laughter, which at the end turns a little menacing. Despite these quirky vocal extravagances, the layered vocals of more familiar Kate Bush material is less evident overall.

I’m not sure what it all amounts to, but it’s beautiful to listen to and builds to an exhilarating climax before fading into birdsong once again at the end. It’s all unusually celebratory and life-affirming. Perhaps the music is a relative of the much maligned “prog rock” genre – Bush has had, after all, associations and collaborations with both Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel of Genesis. But the best thing about it is its unique personality – only Kate Bush could have created this. I can’t think now why I resisted listening to this material for so long.

Rwrockbottom“Sea Song”, the first track on Robert Wyatt’s highly regarded second album Rock Bottom, has the feel and memorability of a classic rock ballad, and yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from using the experimental techniques that characterize the rest of the album. That “classic” feel has something to do, I think, with the implied descending bass line that underpins the verse material (compare “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “All You Need is Love”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “All the Young Dudes” and countless others). Here it descends over four bar phrases and is repeated a full six times, before being interrupted on the sixth repeat as the melody moves into a “bridge passage” that leads not to a chorus but to an extended instrumental section.

Here especially, but also throughout the song, the synthesizer and piano instrumentation and Wyatt’s strange vocals have an unearthly, meandering quality that, as Edwin Pouncey memorably put it, sounds “as though [Wyatt] is chorusing from the bottom of the ocean and playing his piano with octopoid arms.” Eventually we return to the second, shorter section of verse material that leads on to a coda before disintegrating once more into an instrumental section featuring agonized submarine yodeling and overlapping synthesizer waves, gradually fading away. There’s never really anything like a chorus.

Given Wyatt’s unconventional vocal delivery, it’s all the more surprising that the lyrics, poetic and ambiguous but still conversational, come across so clearly and so powerfully. It’s a love song of sorts, but one where the lover is re-imagined as some kind of amphibian that comes out of the sea in the moonlight. And the love is changeable and susceptible to outside influences – the sea, the moon, the seasons, night or morning, but also alcohol and (presumably) drugs. This clarity is aided by the opening phrase of both verse sections being sung a cappella: “You look different every time” and “You’ll be different in the Spring”. The central lines of the piece, though they come round only once, are sung in a much higher register to mark their impact:

But I can’t understand the different you in the morning
When it’s time to play at being human for a while. Please smile.

That “please smile” is far from the phrase of conventional jollity as used in more typical love songs – here it sounds like a desperate plea to a mermaid out of water who is struggling with severe depression. However, the second verse and coda reminds us that there will be plenty of occasions when moods and empathy coincide, even if the danger of things getting completely out of hand remains a threat.

So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon
You’re madness fits in nicely with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own

RatherBeWhen I first heard this song, in passing on the radio, I immediately honed in on the bubbly synth accompaniment as its most interesting element. It was a while before I heard enough of the complete song to notice that this material is also used as the introduction, played by a string quartet – and played convincingly. This isn’t a typical pop string arrangement. It makes full use of the independent voices and is also written idiomatically for the instruments, clearly by someone who knows what a string quartet can do. And it converts surprisingly well to the video game sounding electronic bleeps that alternate with strings throughout the song to play this music. (Note: the sheet music suggests it’s a trio rather than a quartet – it sounds fuller to me on the recording).

Researching into the song, I found that the band Clean Bandit was formed out of a real classical string quartet from Cambridge, the Chatto Quartet (named after cellist and band member Grace Chatto). This sounds exciting. I can only think of a handful of pop songs that make the most of a string quartet – “Yesterday”, of course springs to mind, but also “For You” by Judie Tzuke, on which the quartet arrangement was made by Paul Hart.

I’m still listening to Clean Bandit’s just-released album New Eyes to hear what else they can do with this combination. I have to say that, so far, I’m not entirely convinced. For instance, while “Mozart’s House” uses a chunk of Mozart’s String Quartet No 21 (a less obvious choice than most Mozart “samples”), it’s not really integrated into the rest of the song, and at one stage it sounds disconcertingly close to the Hooked on Classics approach – an unforgiving regular beat dominating the music and draining out all of its life. I do like the use of strings in an earlier Clean Bandit track called “UK Shanty” – not included on the new album – where folk music elements are more in evidence. And the videos I’ve seen are very inventive.

However, the album, and the song “Rather Be”, both indicate that the songs themselves are mostly generic, and that it’s the textures where the main interest lies. At its core, “Rather Be” is very simple as a straight song. It seems as if the songs are mostly written by outside writers and the band then adds the quartet textures – so we don’t get a lot of classical influence in the basic material itself, which is a shame. The band’s personality is also weakened by the use of different guest vocalists for every song. I also didn’t like the way that in the two dance remixes of “Rather Be” the strings seemed to be excluded altogether, indicating that for the hardcore clubbers that strings perhaps aren’t what they want to hear. Despite all that, it’s catchy enough to have made the charts, and I think its appeal comes from a combination of both the song itself and the unusual instrumental textures.

MoonlightAside from an infectious rhythm and a good title, this mid-1970s single by an obscure Atlanta-based group doesn’t have that much to recommend it – until the amazing marimba solo in the middle. Other pop records have used the marimba’s deep resonating sound in the past, but I can’t remember a solo, and certainly not one like this. The player was Bo Wagner, who in the early 1970s worked as a studio musician in Los Angeles, appeared on the Lawrence Welk show, and played drums for the extravagant pianist Liberace.

The solo lifts the record to a whole new level. For a start the marimba sound is unexpectedly punchy. It comes straight in with some magnificently fluid runs up and down the instruments. The solo can be divided into eight four-bar phrases, and things get particularly exciting in the fifth of those, where Wagner changes tack with a series of notes separated by wide intervals that momentarily challenge the underlying harmony. Then things take off again – like a rocket – with a repeat of the opening upward run, a cycle of recurring triplets at breathtaking speed, and finally a rapid fire scale passage that leads up to (probably) the highest note on the instrument. It’s brilliant. Wagner has claimed the performance that ended up on the record was his first attempt, really just a rehearsal. But everyone seems to have realized they wouldn’t get it any better.

Starbuck tried in vain to follow up their single hit, but called it a day in 1980. Wagner went on to set up a performing arts school and taught music and dance. He then shifted careers into health care for the entertainment industry, where he has established himself over the course of thirty years as “Dr Bo”. Unfortunately that means there aren’t any equivalent marimba instrumentals to dig up in the recording archives. But some members of Starbuck did get back together last year to perform “Moonlight Feels Right” once again in Chastain Park, Atlanta – though Wagner uses an electronic instrument this time (a MalletKAT Pro), which (I think) is a bit of a shame.

sleep3Comparing Ray Davies’ demo of this song from December 1964 (recorded during the sessions for Kinda Kinks, the second Kinks LP) to the version by the Pretenders from 1981, is a great illustration of how an arrangement can bring out the full potential of a song. While just about every ingredient is there in the demo, there’s a marked lack of any interpretation and colour. The Kinks were under pressure at the time due to touring commitments, the production of Kinda Kinks was rushed and the band were unhappy with it. So it’s likely that Davies only had a short time to spend on the demo of a song that seems never to have been intended for use by the Kinks themselves. Once done, he immediately sent it off to Peggy Lee, a singer he had always admired. She included it on her 1965 album Then Was Then, Now is Now.

Remarkably, Lee retains what I think is the most awkward element of the demo – the setting of each syllable in the verses to a separate quaver, each sung marcato, and mirrored exactly to the quaver chords of the accompaniment. Long forgotten vocal group The Applejacks also picked up the song and treated it much the same way. Of the three contemporary covers, only Cher managed to come up with a more flowing vocal performance, but her version is marred by a plodding orchestral accompaniment and some ill-judged chords that undermine the harmonic effectiveness of the chorus.

Fans who admired the rawness of the early Pretenders may not have appreciated the middle-of-the-road lushness of “I Go to Sleep”, arranged and produced by Chris Thomas. But the French horn that provides most of that lushness is the key element, subtly altering the original’s opening motif (or at least its bar 3 variant) by starting it a third lower so that it spans the entire B minor 7 chord (A minor in the original). There’s an added 9th (C#) in the accompaniment introduced in bar 2 that stays on to become a major 7th in bar 4, when the underlying harmony has shifted to D major.

After this magnificent introduction Chrissie Hynde delivers the first “joined up” performance of the verses with some real phrasing. The result is that the song emerges as a classic, somewhat reminiscent in style to the work of Bert Bacharach, with its chorus – “I go to sleep” – emerging almost seamlessly out of the verse. The long held notes on “sleep”, which suggest a drifting off into sleep, act as an echo to the long top notes of the opening horn calls. Only the somewhat frenetic bridge passage introduced rather abruptly towards the end sounds to me a little out of place.

yeatsI wondered how well the poems of Yeats would serve as pop song lyrics – especially a whole album’s worth – but Mike Scott carries it off superbly. Of course he’s done it before – he set “The Stolen Child” on the Fisherman’s Blues album – but this is a far more sustained effort: Scott says he’s written around 36 settings, 20 of which were used for a road show which premiered at Yeats’ own Abbey Theatre, Dublin in March 2010. The audiences responded well, so he recorded 14 of the songs for this album, released a year later. It works because Scott isn’t over-reverential about the texts, he’s prepared to adapt them as necessary to serve the song, changing rhyming schemes, repeating phrases and in some cases, mixing several poems together. But they stay essentially intact and the words are always audible, so if you listen with a Selected Poems edition in hand it can act as a great primer to the poetry. Scott’s doesn’t just stick to the early poems, his choice covers all periods, right up until “Politics”, the last lyric poem Yeats wrote in 1939.

Early Yeats, often based on romantic Irish folklore, has more often been used as the basis for lyrics. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (from the 1899 collection The Wind Among the Reeds), set previously by Judy Collins, Donovan, Christy Moore and David Gray, among others, is both familiar and suitable for song:

I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Mike Scott’s version is based on a simple 16 bar chord sequence that repeats right through the song, and uses a regular meter, the instrumentation gradually building until it reaches the famous final couplet – and there follows a long flute solo by Sarah Allen on the same chord sequence that further intensifies the mood. (The same technique is used, as we have already seen, in the Waterboys song A Man is In Love).

However, Scott also tackles late Yeats, where the language is greatly simplified and more direct – the lively “Sweet Dancer” for instance, from 1939’s Last Poems, which describes the mental breakdown of the poet’s much younger lover, the actress Margot Ruddock. I especially like “Before the World Was Made”, a poem from 1929 (part of the sequence A Woman Young and Old) exploring self-identity, one of Yeats classic themes. With everything leading up to the haunting final two lines, it comes over as almost Dylanesque in this tiny setting.

I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

WizzardThis is a fascinating CD to revisit. Wizzard was Roy Wood’s post Electric Light Orchestra Project, and it was released after the success of a couple of singles – “Ball Park Incident” and “See My Baby Jive”. These were admittedly “heavy” in some respects, but Wood’s in-built pop sensibility showed through nonetheless, and they both ended up high in the charts. In retrospect, there are hints in these two singles of what was to come on the album, but it did nothing to prepare me for the shock when I bought Wizzard Brew in March 1973, lured by the singles and by the splendid cover. In those days buying a record was a fairly big investment, and for me the guilt factor of money not wisely spent soon kicked if I didn’t immediately like what I heard.

The opening track “You Can Dance the Rock and Roll” takes us straight away into very hardcore guitar rock territory, and then turns disconcertingly to dissonant free jazz for the second track, “Meet me at the Jail House”, with its extended passages for savage saxophones at the opening and closing. After that, another complete contrast: “Jolly Cup of Tea” is a Sousa-like piece for brass band, massed male voices and whistling that might easily have been recorded by the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, or the Beatles in “Yellow Submarine” mode. Roy also gets out his 1950s Elvis Presley rock and roll impersonation on “Gotta Crush (About You)” complete with anarchic instrumental interpolations.

The one track I did latch onto at the time was more in Wood’s epic melodic style, familiar from the Move and (particularly) ELO. “Wear a Fast Gun” is still the album’s highlight for me with its accessible pop melody mixed with florid classical horn solo lines and everything-but-the kitchen sink orchestration. Best of all is the lengthy coda where the hymn “Abide with Me” is introduced as a counter melody to powerful effect, either side of an elegiac orchestral interlude led by the cellos.

Those who buy the CD version nowadays get extra tracks – the four Wizzard hit singles plus the intriguing “Ball Park Incident” instrumental B-side called “The Carlsberg Special (Pianos Demolished)”. As if the original music on Wizzard Brew wasn’t diverse enough, the CD now ends with the pop novelty classic “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday” – arguably one of the catchiest songs of all time, though still featuring massed horns, children’s choirs and whatever other instruments Roy Wood had to hand.