Tuesday 29 April 2014

My Top Ten French Songs

No, this isn't a chart full of Serge Gainsbourg and Plastic Bertrand (don't tempt me). Instead, it's ten songs about French things. And no, Lost In France doesn't count. And neither does Parisienne Walkways. Look, it's got to have French in the title, OK? Do try and stick to the rules.

Special mentions to The French Impressionists, The French Horn Rebellion and Everybody Was In the French Resistance...Now! I swear I'm not making them up.

10. John Mellencamp - French Shoes

John doesn't think men should wear French shoes.

9. Sonic Youth - French Tickler

This is about sexy-time stuff, right? That, or it's about Kim Gordon's love of mille feuille.

Anything's possible.

8. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - The French Song

Whereas this one's definitely about sexy-time stuff.

J'aime faire l'amour sur tout a trois

Really, Joan? A threesome? How very continental.

7. Cosmo Jarvis - Girl In The French Film

Cosmo falls in love with a typically French movie heroine, the kind who obviously has no interest in men... and that's what makes her so attractive.

The film ended so beautifully,
Things like that do not happen
To people like me.

6. Debbie Harry - French Kissing In The USA

The obvious one. Debbie Harry's biggest solo hit, yet hardly her finest moment. Apparently, this was written by the creator of the sitcom Two & A Half Men. Which would explain a lot, if it's true.

The video is mesmerisingly bad.

5. Black Box Recorder - French Rock 'n' Roll

The sultry Sarah Nixey has an icy sangfroid which is definitely verging on the Gallic. Here she tells us how a little la la la saved her life...

I was at my wit's end
Things were looking black
It was getting pretty obvious
I was never coming back
I threw open window
And I stood out on the ledge
When the sweetest sound I've ever heard
Pushed me back from the edge

Written by John Moore and Luke Haines, from whom we'll hear more shortly...

4. Stereolab - French Disko

The only band on this countdown with an actual French singer, Lætitia Sadier, though she keeps the lyrics English here...

Though this world's essentially
An absurd place to be living in
It doesn't call for bubble withdrawal
I've been told it's a fact of life
Men have to kill one another
Well, I say there are still things worth fighting for
La resistance!
All of which existential angst is a little bit deeper than French Kissing In The USA, isn't it?
Tracey Anne Campbell meets a French sailor and love is definitely on the cards... but will his dietary restrictions get in the way?
2. The Auteurs - New French Girlfriend

The price of success, according to Luke Haines?

Want a girl to hold my hand
When the plane lands

Me, I want one to hold my hand when it crashes.

1. Warren Zevon - The French Inhaler

Another artist I've been listening to a lot in my dotage. Back when I had money, I bought a cheap box set of his early albums which has sat on the shelf gathering dust until poverty and desperation led me to dig it out. Wow. Thank you, poverty and desperation.

I'd always considered myself a Greatest Hits fan of Zevon but had never listened to any of his full albums. What a songwriter! Witty, acerbic, world-weary lyrics tied to some marvellous melodies... with a host of famous names helping him out in the studio. The French Inhaler is from his self-titled 1976 album and it features Glenn Frey and Don Henley on backing vocals. Elsewhere on the record are Phil Everly, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Wilson and half of Fleetwood Mac. And yet, this was never a hit. It's a great shame Zevon will go down in history as just the "Werewolves Of London" guy (great song though that is) because there was so much more to enjoy.

The French Inhaler is a bitter, post-break-up kiss-off to an ex. Yet despite the lyrical rancour, there's a real tenderness to the way Zevon sings it... even the lines below.

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
And when the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase...

See also French Inhale by Snoop Dogg, which goes into rather too much detail about the whole filthy process for my liking. Still, it's Snoop.

L'enfer, c'est les autres comments.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

My Top Ten Song Titles Bands Were Named After

Ten songs SO good... they named their bands after them. (And Victor Kiam bought the company.)

10. Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - Death Cab For Cutie

Why Ben Gibbard's alt-indie-occasionally emo band from Washington DC decided to name themselves after a bizarre Elvis spoof by Neil Innes and Viv Stanshall's psych-comedy 60s band from that London is anybody's guess. The title itself seems strangely apt - tragic beauty filtered through an everyday lens being Gibbard's lyrical stock in trade. But  then you listen to the actual song... which couldn't sound more different to the band DCFC if it was played solely on a Hawaiian nose-flute.

9. Tim Buckley - Starsailor

If you imagine Jeff's dad as the blueprint for a bunch of heartfelt indie romanticists led by Warrington's angelically voiced James Walsh, it sounds like a pretty good fit. Starsailor the song, however, is possibly the weirdest thing Buckley Sr. ever recorded. It's pretty far out there - certainly further out there than anything the Starsailor lads themselves have turned their minds to.

They should have called themselves Mojo Pin.

8. Leonard Cohen - Sisters of Mercy

Ah, Lenny, what a storyteller.
When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don't turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.
Alternatively, don't turn on the lights because Andrew Eldritch is one scary melon farmer.

7. Bernard Cribbins - Right Said Fred

All hail Saint Bernard of Cribbins: he's still too sexy for his shirt, even at 85 years young.

6. Wings - Jet

The band named after this song were little to get excited about, but as much as I like to rib good old Sir Thumbs Aloft, this is still one of his finest post-Beatles moments.

If you don't believe me, ask Alan Partridge. (That clip sadly not available on youtube.)

5. Queen - Radio Gaga
I'd sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
This song could pretty much be the story of my youth... and probably explains why I'm sat here at all hours of the night, after a long day at work, writing this blog now.

I'm guessing Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta must have had a very similar adolescence...(!)

4. Talking Heads - Radio Head

Here's David Byrne inspiring Thom Yorke...
The sound of a brand new world
If only Thom's band could record a record as joyously upbeat as the one that gave them their name... but I guess, if they did, they wouldn't be Radiohead.

3. Steely Dan - Deacon Blues

There was a time when you could reliably predict an appearance by either Morrissey, Bruce, Jarvis or Billy on this blog at least once a week. You might soon add Fagen & Becker to that list.
Drink scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama 'The Crimson Tide'
Call me 'Deacon Blues'!
Only a band with real Dignity could do justice to a name like that!

Steely Dan, of course, were named after one of William Burroughs' dildos. One day, I'll compile a list of bands named after dodgy sexual euphemisms... step forward 10cc and The Lovin' Spoonful. (Or did I blow my load with those two?)

2. David Bowie - The Kooks

It's not that long since I last featured this early Bowie classic, in my Top Ten Songs About Becoming A Parent. (Coincidentally, it made Number 2 in that list also.) The Brighton boys who took this name for their band never quite lived up to its potential... but that was a pretty tall order, so good on them for giving it a go.

1. The Smiths - Shakespeare's Sister

Another of Mozzer's playfully exuberant suicide anthems, with a cheeky nose-thumb to Billy Bragg thrown in...
I thought that if you had
An acoustic guitar
Then it meant that you were
A Protest Singer
Oh, I can smile about it now
But at the time it was terrible!
All of which led to some inspired pop-goth wonderment from a former Bananarama and Mrs. Dave Stewart way back in the Dawn of Time that was the early 90s. Of course, they misspelled Shakespear, but Big Willy was never too fussy over spelling anyway.

There are probably more bands named after Smiths or Morrissey lyrics than any other songwriter. See also Gene (Jeane), Panic! At the Disco, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Girl In A Coma, The Ordinary Boys (shudder!)...

All those song titles gave birth to stars. There's another Ten somewhere about bands named after lyrics (not titles) but we'll save those for another day. In the meantime, which one makes you want to change your name?

Tuesday 15 April 2014

My Top Ten Nursery Rhyme Songs

The music I hear more often than anything else at the moment is nursery rhymes. Sam is particularly fond of The Grand Old Duke of York (popular gay icon - after all, he had 10,000 men), The Muffin Man (do you know him?) and Pop! Goes The Weasel (as close as Sam gets to pop music right now). Because my head is full of little else - I even wake up in the night with them drilling their way into my dreams - here are ten songs inspired to some degree or other by traditional nursery rhymes of yore...

(Special mention, for those of you who remember the 80s, to Cock Robin... who sound better than I remembered, despite their unfortunate name.)

10. Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart - Muffin Man

Enough to give Sam nightmares till his 18th birthday: I don't think I'll be playing him this in a hurry.

And if you think that was scary...

9. Green Jelly - Three Little Pigs

Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin.

(Spoiler: in this version, The Big Bad Wolf gets killed by Rambo-Morph. I shit you not.)

8. Raydio - Jack 'n' Jill

And this is why I thank the pop music gods I was born when I was. Because, yes, today's teenagers may pride themselves on their love of the "classics" from the 60s, 70s or 80s... but how many of them will ever even hear this choice cut from Ray Parker Jr.'s original band? You could trawl youtube for decades and never stumble across this gem: cheesy 70s soul at its finest.

7. The Offspring - Come Out And Play (Keep 'Em Separated)

OK, so the old English nursery rhyme "Boys and girls come out to play" probably wasn't much of an influence on The Offspring. Sue me; I wanted to hear this again.

6. Terry, Blair & Anouchka - Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes

Stretching the theme a little, though this is the only song I can think of to mention Nursery Rhymes in the title. One of Terry Hall's less successful recording ensembles, yet just as wonderful as anything else he's ever lent his vocal talents to. Ha, happier times, ba, ba, better days.

5. Tom Waits - Little Boy Blue

What happens when nursery rhymes grow up and become chain-smoking, whiskey-guzzling lounge singers? The answer is for adults only.

4. Aimee Mann - Humpty Dumpty

Another of Sam's favourites... and I will wean him off the original and onto Queen Aimee's far superior reinterpretation.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put baby together again
See also The Humpty Dumpty Love Song by Travis. Because if I don't mention it, somebody else is bound to. (And still might.)

3. Run DMC - Peter Piper

I'd be prepared to hear an argument for this being at Number One, considering it not only involves the titular pepper-picker but also Jack 'n' Jill, Jack B. Nimble, Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs and many other childhood favourites. They even throw in a reference to Weebles: "the turntables might wobble, but they don't fall down".

2. The Shangri-Las - Past, Present & Future

I wasn't familiar with the nursery rhyme "A-tisket, A-tasket, A green and yellow basket" as a child. I only discovered it through the epic, melancholic melodrama of the Shangri-Las, a band with a truly unique sound. If you're only familiar with Leader of the Pack, give this a spin... I doubt you'll ever have heard anything walk the tightrope between aching beauty and high camp hysteria quite so bewitchingly.

1. The Bluetones - Solomon Bites The Worm

One of the Bluetones' best, wherein a mightily chunky guitar riff supports a playful retelling of the story of Solomon Grundy, bundled up with a joyful "grab life while you can" message because "you've only got 7 days". Which only goes to demonstrate that Mark Morris and chums were always a far more interesting Britpop prospect than the Blunder Brothers of Oasis. (BTW, Britpop is 20 years old this year. What does that make us?)

So, those were the nursery rhymes Sam can investigate when he's a little older... and I managed to avoid all mention of Mary Had A Little Lamb by Wings.You owe me for that.

But... which one bites your worm?

Tuesday 8 April 2014

My Top Ten Songs About Songwriting

In a much-requested sequel to last week's post on Songwriters, here's ten songs about "the process"...

10. Jeffrey Lewis - Songs About Songwriting Suck

Let's start with a tune that rules this whole Top Ten insignficant.
There's nothing wrong with singing songs about being low and blue
Just don't feed me crap about how you know you're saying nothing new
Either have the confidence to tell me something real or something fun
Or put down the guitar until the muse returns to turn you on
I agree with him in principal, but if we followed Jeffrey's Law, the world would never have heard the nine gems below...

9. Barry Manilow - I Write The Songs

Deano suggested this last week, although he went for a cooler cover. But I'm not ashamed to say there are Barry Manilow records in my collection, or that I enjoy getting them out from time to time. On first listen, the idea that "I write the songs that make the whole world sing" seems a little arrogant. Until you realise that old Manly Barrimore (copyright Terry Wogan, 1981) isn't staking this claim for himself. Oh, no: this record is written from the perspective of Music itself.
I've been alive forever
And I wrote the very first song
I put the words and the melodies together
I am music and I write the songs
Beat that, Sting!

8. Eels - I Write The B-Sides

Which brings us to E's gloriously self-deprecating riposte to the Bazzer Boogie...
I write the b-sides
That make a small portion of the world cry
I like the seaside
And singing songs that make you not wanna die
Wonderful stuff.

7. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Wrote A Song For Everyone

A common theme in John Fogerty's songwriting was protesting against the Vietnam War draft, and this one starts in similar vein. The twist in the chorus is rather sweet though, taking us from protest anthem to ballad, as Fogerty admits he can write a song for everyone... but he can't write one for you.

6. Justin Currie - Every Song's The Same

Ah, heartbreaking cynicism, thy name is Currie. Here's your basic songwriting lesson from JC... the second line should rhyme with something in your baby's heart.

5. The Blazing Zoos - I Didn't Have The Material (Before Now)

Phew. For a second I thought the internet was going to let me down. Youtube hadn't heard of it, but fortunately I was able to locate Andrew Mueller's twanging comic-country genius on Soundcloud. If you've never heard The Blazing Zoos before - and I'd be surprised if you had - give this one a spin, please, and hear Mueller tear strips off the woman who gave him everything he needed to pen this tune...
Always wanted to write a country song
But  never had a girl who did me wrong
I didn't have the material... before now!
4. Art Brut - Formed A Band

This one will surely make its way into my inevitable Top Ten Songs About Being In A Band, when I get round to that, and you might think it'd be more appropriate there. Except for the wonderment of verse 2...
I want to be the boy -
The man -
Who writes the song
That makes Israel and Palestine
Get along

I'm gonna write a song
As universal as Happy Birthday
That's gonna make sure
That everybody knows
That everything's gonna be OK

I'm gonna take that song
And we're gonna play it
Eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops
Eddie Argos hasn't been the same since they cancelled TOTP.

(And, yes, that is his singing voice. It's not irony. It's not rock 'n' roll. He's just talking to the kids.)

3. Harry Chapin - There Was Only One Choice

At almost 14 minutes in length, this is a masterclass in songwriting from one of the best in the business. An autobiographical rage against the machine-cum-sage lesson in life, it's epic in every way.
Strum your guitar -- sing it kid
Just write about your feelings -- not the things you never did
2. Bruce Springsteen - Dancing In The Dark

The story has become legend. Bruce had written the majority of the songs for the album that would become Born In The USA, but (to quote Tom Petty), "The A&R man says he don't hear a single." And so he was tasked with writing a radio hit... and the ensuing struggle with writers' block is chronicled metaphorically in the lyrics to Dancing In The Dark.
I get up in the evening
And I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark
The irony, of course, is that he almost did his job too well, creating his biggest ever radio hit... and launching Courtney Cox's career in the video to boot. But the album had plenty more singles to come...

1. The Beautiful South - Song For Whoever 

Songwriter Paul Heaton had me from that inspired opening...
I love you from the bottom of my pencil case
...but by the time Dave Hemingway hits the line about loving you because of the "PRS cheques that you bring", it became clear that nobody had ever written a love song about the fringe benefits of writing a love song before... even if they couldn't remember exactly which girl they wrote this one for.
Deep, so deep
The Number One I hope to reap
Depends upon the tears you weep
So cry, lover, cry

Oh Cathy, oh Alison
Oh Philippa, oh Sue
You made me so much money
I wrote this song for you...
See also Throw His Song Away, Prettiest Eyes, One Last Love Song, My Book... and many more. In fact, Heato's probably written more songs about songwriting than any other lyricist (since, credit where it's due, the music was mostly written by Dave Rotheray). And, no, Jeffrey Lewis, none of them suck.

So... those were my favourite songs about songwriting. Which one do you love from the bottom of your pencil case?

Tuesday 1 April 2014

My Top Ten Songs About Songwriters

Songwriting is an art form, but some of its most famous artists are more well known for the songs they wrote for other people. Which is why there are no songs in this list about John Lennon, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, et al. Just in case you were wondering...

Someone will still suggest a song about Lennon, you can guarantee it.

10. Nosferatu D2 - I Killed Burt Bacharach

I don't approve of the sentiment, but I love Ben Parker's songwriting, both here and in The Superman Revenge Squad.

9. A - I Love Lake Tahoe
Yeah, the trees are pretty wide
That's where Sonny Bono died.
A - not a great name for band, though I suppose it got them first place in the Bands section of the Yellow Pages.

8. Mercury Rev - Tonite It Shows

This gets in because it's the only song I can think of to mention Cole Porter in its lyrics. (There must be more.) Plus it's much better than Dinner With Gershwin by Donna Summer.

Don't get me wrong: I like Donna Summer, but having watched the video for that, my eyeballs have been scorched by some awful 80s dancing.

See also The Coal Porters, obviously. 

7. Super Furry Animals - The Very Best Of Neil Diamond

Long before the rhinestone-collared shirts and treacly voice made him a household name, Neil Diamond was just a jobbing songwriter in the Brill Building. There he wrote I'm A Believer for The Monkees, among many other gems.

6. The Boo Radleys - Jimmy Webb Is God

You won't get any argument from me on that one, Boos... which is why this isn't the last song about God in this Top Ten.
Wipe away this tear from my eye
Wash away this sadness from my heart
I'm not even fit to tune your guitar
Oh, Jimmy, make me happy...
5. Pulp - Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down)

Jarvis pays homage to the Elusive Butterfly of 60s folk.
When you think you're treading water, but you're just learning how to drown.
And a song comes on the radio telling you that "The Only Way is Down".
You're out of luck, you're out of time, get out of here.
Your lover just traded you in for the very same model but a much more recent year.
It will not stop, it will get worse from day to day 'til you admit that you're a fuck-up; like the rest of us.
4. Prefab Sprout - The Songs of Danny Galway

From one of the best albums of 2013; and their career. Being a bit dim, I didn't realise that this was written about Jimmy until Miller pointed it out to me.
His melodies inspire whims, his chord changes like Baptist hymns
They lift your spirit til it soars, til you forget that spirit's yours
Sound and word in sweet communion, echoes of a better world
Where chivalry's not dead, we'll look for it instead in the songs of Danny Galway
3. Billy Bragg - Levi Stubbs' Tears

No, Levi Stubbs wasn't a songwriter: he was the lead singer of The Four Tops. Which is probably the only reason this track doesn't get to Number One with a bullet... in most other Top Tens, Billy's heartbreaking Motown tribute would be unstoppable.
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Are here to make right everything that's wrong
Holland & Holland, Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all OK with you
2. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby - Doc Pomus

Ben & Nick pay tribute to one half of the classic Pomus/Shuman songwriting team. This song made me want to read more about Doc Pomus's life. Stricken by polio as a young boy, Pomus refused to be "one of those happy cripples", pouring his heartache directly into the hits...
And out they pour
The hits and the misses
'Turn Me Loose', 'Lonely Avenue'
And down in Nashville, Elvis sings 'Suspicion':
Pomus / Shuman 1962
1. Rumer - P.F. Sloan

And so we return again, inevitably, to Jimmy Webb, with a classic example of his own songwriting, in tribute to a songwriting hero from his early days. Webb's recording of this record is beautiful... but Rumer took it to another level.

Yes, Jimmy Webb is god.

They wrote the songs that made the whole world sing. Which song gets you singing about songwriters?
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