Lionel Richie – ‘Hello’

Louie Shelton

This one’s a rather obvious choice, so let’s get it out of the way.

To anyone over the age of 40, this particular song means one thing and one thing only: Lionel Richie pretending to be a drama teacher while his blind girlfriend makes a big clay Lionel head. Yes, it’s ‘Hello’ – the cheesiest, most superbly, cloyingly awful schlock that Richie ever produced.

Well, apart from ‘Say You, Say Me’, ‘Stuck On You’, ‘Penny Lover’, ‘Truly’, ‘You Are, My Love’… hold on a second… Lionel made hundreds of these monstrosities!  But ‘Hello’ pips them all, if only because of that video. You want to see it now, don’t you?

There… happy?

Let’s get to the nub of the matter: ‘Hello’ is not actually the very worst thing LR’s ever done. The thing is, by this point (1984) he’d been around the business for years. His industrial grade funk with The Commodores had proven that he had the requisite soul chops, but the gigantic success of ‘Easy’ and the knowledge that he had a very particular talent for the kind of records that Simon Bates used to dredge up every other day on his Our Tune slot on daytime Radio One meant that our Lionel was destined to follow his star (and maybe his agent’s advice) and literally churn out the tooth-rottingest pop imaginable. Ma Richie obviously didn’t raise no idiots – the cash registers rang merrily for most of the ’80s, by which time Lionel had gained his apotheosis.

And don’t get me wrong – I actually like Lionel Richie. ‘Machine Gun’ and ‘Brick House’ are solid gold classics on any planet. And ‘Hello’?: well, it’s terrible, but no worse than later Stevie Wonder dross (and let’s face it, his golden period was over by about 1979). No, we have the video to blame for the reputation of the song. And Lionel obviously never really took himself seriously. Watch this little clip and see if I’m not wrong:

Point taken?

Anyhow, this doesn’t get us to the main point: that ‘Hello’ may contain more E numbers than Sunny Delight, but it has at its heart a truly awesome guitar solo.

Popping in at around the 2’48” mark – this jazzy little confection is the cherry on top of Lionel’s sticky creation. It’s in no way flashy, but it’s perfect for the setting – a little supper club, a little yearning too.

The solo is played by Louis ‘Louie’ Shelton – a legend among session players whose career crossed paths with just about every late ’60s and early ’70s MOR act that scored a hit. He also plays the rather more complex flamenco style solo that appears in the 1968 Monkees’ hit ‘Valleri’. It’s worth revisiting that on video as well, just to watch Mike Nesmith attempt (and heroically fail) to mime the solo. You also have a levitating Davey Jones in there. Good times!

But to return to this particular lousy song – Shelton’s solo exudes the kind of Grant Green-in-a-sweet-shop vibe that always got my attention, even though I knew that the place it resided was forbidden territory. It was this solo that I was looking for…

Bill Haley And His Comets – ‘Rock Around The Clock’

This man changed history

It was while I was researching the previous inaugural piece that I discovered the dark secret behind this particular song. Reading an interview with Brian Setzer (probably best known to my generation as the blonde leader of rockabilly one hit wonders, The Stray Cats) I stumbled across the tragic back story behind one of my least favourite singles in the history of recorded music: ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley and his Comets.

Setzer, listing his five favourite solos of all-time, chooses a selection of predictably ‘jumpin” numbers that fit right in with his (admittedly hugely enjoyable – the man really is a great musician) jive-friendly profile. I was surprised that in amongst the Cliff Gallup and Eddie Cochran credibility was Haley and his Comet’s workmanlike if record breaking, err… record.

I’m fully aware of the song’s importance as the first real rock ‘n’ roll crossover hit in 1954. Written two years earlier by Max Freedman and James Myers and originally recorded, not by Haley and his combo, but by the awfully-monikered, Sunny Dae and his Knights; the song was rock’s first number one hit and unquestionably opened the door to far more exciting fare from the genre’s most exciting pioneers, from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Yet at this distance the song sounds even more bland and ersatz as it did in my youth. My particular generation couldn’t escape the simplistic 12-bar tedium of it, even in the ’70s, as I distinctly remember it being re-released (undoubtedly as a 20 year anniversary celebration) and gaining the top spot in the UK charts all over again. Happy days.

And while one may argue that 25 million plus copies sold is proof enough that this is a great song, its anachronistic jump jive delivery and hokey lyrics seemed (to me) obviously cooked up to cash in on something that was already well underway amongst the youth of ’50s America. Not only that, but Haley and co. looked like creepy uncles in their matching tartan drape coats and receding hairlines. This is remarkable because when Haley recorded the song for Decca he was still under 30. In fact he was only 55 when he died in 1981 (seemingly of alcoholism) – but I well remember thinking that he looked about a million when he reappeared on the TV screens in the early ’70s. People really DID age faster in those days…

But I’m not here to bash poor old Bill but to deconstruct the song that, once it was featured in the following year’s Blackboard Jungle, became a three-minute encapsulation of wild, untamed teens, drinking soda, ripping up cinema seats and sassing back to their moms and dads. Its attendant hour-counting lyric was tailor-made for dividing the song into three verses (four hours apiece, natch), not unlike Eddie Cochrane’s similarly brain-dead ‘Twenty Flight Rock’, wherein our hero climbs some stairs, leaving him too knackered to ‘rock’ (hehe). But Eddie looked, sounded and played like a proper lithe young rock ‘n’ roll idol. Haley’s Comets deliver a strangely lumpy melange of rockabilly slap bass and big band bluster. Coming from a country background the song’s instrumentation was also odd: marking some evolutionary mid-point that prefaced the stripped-down approach that set teenagers free to make their own racket. One look at film of the band taken at the period shows the line-up boasting not only an ACCORDION player, but also a pedal steel guitar. I’d argue that until the late ’60s and the birth of true country rock via The Byrds and The Grateful Dead, this instrument had no place in the birth of youthful rebellion*.

And it drags terribly. Every time this came on the radio (and due to its lack of fade out) you HAD to wade through all 12 hours of the dreadful thing, and it seemed like three minutes lasted an eon. Listen today to ‘Great Balls of Fire’ or ‘Tutti Frutti’ and adrenaline still stirs in these ageing veins. This was never the case for ‘Rock Around The Clock’. And yet a whole previous generation, from John Lennon to David Gilmour, went on record to say how their lives were irrevocably altered by this one song. Why?

Well, obviously in 1954, the radio was ostensibly a wasteland, devoid of up-tempo thrills beyond the odd jived-up country number from the likes of Hank Williams (‘Move It On Over’ bears a striking resemblance to RATC), jump blues of the likes of Louis Jordan (early rock ‘n’ roll’s true precursor), rare airings of bop jazz or really turbo-charged big band fare. So Haley and his band – scoring the first mainstream airplay for rock – must have sounded pretty radical in comparison. But only up to a point.

Danny Cedrone

I’d argue that the real gravy lay in the guitar solo that transports the song into a much more dangerous realm. And here’s where the story gets tragic. It turns out that this arpeggiated beauty was performed by Danny Cedrone, a jazz-influenced session man who led his own band (The Esquire Boys) and who played sessions for Haley, when his band were called The Saddlemen. It was this band who recorded a cover version of ‘Rocket 88’, a song which lays claim to being one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written (in 1951). As to why Cedrone’s superb solo represents a tragedy? Well, a mere week after the session was recorded, the man fell down a flight of stairs and fatally broke his neck at the age of 33.

Thus one of the first (if not the first), most influential and best electric guitar solos in history belongs to a man who never even lived to hear it played on the radio or earn a single cent of those 25 million sales. And what’s more, it’s in the middle of a lousy song. Life, readers, is NOT fair at all.

*I’d also argue that the accordion has no place anywhere, but that’s a different issue altogether

Deep Purple: ‘The Mule’

Kicking off with a tiny explanation for those who have missed these (ir)regular posts on my other blog: this is a series of articles about songs that for multitudinous reasons fail as decent examples of the form and yet hide within them some glimpse – no matter how tiny – of six-stringed greatness. C’mon… the clue was in the title, right?

The idea came to me while listening to Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive! late one night (I KNOW) – now there’s a man whose entire career consisted of lame AOR lifted (barely) by a genuine talent for axe wrangling. But we’ll get to the blonde bombshell at some later date. Maybe never… Who cares?

After much prevarication, I’ve decided to legitimise the subject by giving it its own site, mainly because, having started, I can’t really get the subject out of my head.
I decided to kick off the series with a piece on one of the world’s most enigmatic (in the true sense of the word) guitarists – yes, the Black Knight himself (hoho): Ritchie Blackmore.
If I’m completely honest, this opening piece for what I hope will be a long and fruitful series of rants, complaints and miserably ill-informed put-downs, reveals one fact: that I’ve been fascinated by Blackmore for years, (in fact, this entire blog is for the main part about guitarists for whom I have an unending fascination). A few days of immersion in the man’s work reveals a character for whom the word ‘contradictory’ seems to have been invented. Every single quote about him, every single utterance from his own mouth seems to serve merely to either make you despise him or wonder if his entire career has been one of the practical jokes for which he’s renowned. For starters, check out this video interview with Ronnie James Dio – the original singer with Rainbow whose diminutive sword and sorcery schtick made that band such a template for a generation of reality-escaping rockers. It’s quite something: from the allegations of spitting at fans to the fact that he’s a ‘cruel, cruel’ man (and what exactly DID he do to keyboardist Tony Carey? One dreads to think).
 
For those not versed in these things (and I’m assuming most of you have stopped reading by now), another FABULOUS example of how perverse Blackmore can be is the fact that he fired Dio because he was sick of his penchant for the fantasy medievalism that peppered Rainbow’s early classics such as ‘Sixteenth Century Greensleeves’ with lyrical guff about ‘crossbows in the firelight’. This from a man who nowadays tours German castles dressed in faux-minstrel garb with the Unicorn-scaring Blackmore’s Night! One might even think that Ronnie invented his famous ‘devil horns’ hand sign as a mark of respect for Blackmore.

To be clear, I have no love for most of the music with which Blackmore’s been associated (more of which, later) but cannot in all honesty deny both his influence and sheer skill.
As a teenager in the mid-‘70s I was beset on all sides by friends who espoused the genius of the man in black and his prowess on a Stratocaster. And just as with The Eagles and Black Sabbath (both of whom I now ‘get’ at least, if not love, exactly) Purple were, for years, a total mystery. Compared to the pseudo-Tolkienesque bullshit blues rock of Led Zeppelin (yes, we’ll get to them in a later article); the technical wizardry and seeming erudition of progressive acts such as Yes, Genesis or even ELP; the sexual sophistication of David Bowie etc. etc., DP seemed workaday, emptily posturing and with no seeming regard for the awfulness of their album covers (a big point against any band when I was 14 or 15). Certainly, the artwork for In Rock and Fireball still make me snigger uncontrollably.

Listening today I don’t really find much to change that viewpoint. Ian Gillan’s vocals/screeches still grate (as much as they seemingly did with Ritchie himself) and his lyrics beggar belief in their half-assery: stuffed with cliche and crass innuendo. Just try deconstructing the ‘poetry’ of their sensitive epic, ‘Child In Time’. Go on, try. Meanwhile, even when viewed with a post-Spinal Tap eye for irony, something as hateful as ‘Strange Kind of Woman’ (about a hooker that was known to the band and imaginatively originally entitled ‘Prostitute’) seems unacceptable. Actually, this is odd as Gillan in subsequent interviews seems charming, self-effacing and quite an intelligent guy. His words in this interview about how the rest of Purple breathed a collective sigh of relief when they finally were rid of the tyrant guitarist seem to be genuinely heartfelt:
 
Elsewhere Jon Lord’s heavy-handed Hammond, obviously based on the gruesome template of proto-heavy acts such as (urgh) Vanilla Fudge lend the band a solidity which, when welded to the exciting drive of rhythm section, Ian Paice and Roger Glover, is invigorating; but when exposed in his solos seems clodhopping in the extreme.
And yet, watching a recent documentary on BBC Four about the ‘legendary’ Made in Japan double live album (a tedious fixture on every turntable at every grim teenage party for a huge part of my adolescence) I was struck at how effective their brand of what is now termed ‘jam rock’ was in the live arena. Footage of them tearing through ‘Highway Star’ – another contender for most inept lyrics of the century, right there – was exhilarating. Paice’s drums are astoundingly deft and Ritchie’s solo during the last third displays all of his plus points and several minus ones as well. Returning to the band’s early ‘70s work I was amazed at how much of that nonsense had remained in my head. And how, well, enjoyable his playing seemed.

One thing IS clear: that Ritchie always knew that he was – to every band he was ever in – their meal ticket and that he didn’t really care who he hurt while exploiting his position of power. Ian Gillan’s remarks about how psychologically damaging it was for Jon Lord et al to endure Blackmore’s petty tirades and petulant walk-outs during their ill-fated reunion of 1993 is well backed up by this video of their performance of ‘Highway Star’ during their last gig as the mark II line-up. Watch as Ritchie doesn’t even bother to come on stage until his solo, leaving the remaining four to brazen it out for the first five minutes. And then when he does appear he showboats like an egomaniac before throwing a glass of water over a cameraman. Classy…

This performance echoes his famous tantrum at the 1974 California Jam festival where he does a camp jig on his guitar and smashes a TV camera with the self- same Fender. Me and my good friend Peter Marsh always enjoyed watching this ‘performance’ late at night after refreshments. Allegedly he was annoyed at the TV producer, not the cameraman as he explains in (possibly) the frankest interview he ever did with Cameron Crowe. The whole thing’s worth reading because you get a tiny glimpse into Ritchie’s rather odd and (again) contradictory world view (‘fuck it, I’m having a great time as a moody bastard’ he says, after flinging a steak across a restaurant). He doesn’t like Jimmy Page’s showmanship, and yet he knows he can blow others off stage due to the showmanship he learned from Screaming Lord Sutch for whom he worked in the mid-‘60s (‘I could be very sexy onstage’).

 

It was this early career as Page’s rival in London session circles (also working for Joe Meek) that taught young Blackmore his chops and by 1968 he was ready to conquer the world. Research into sundry interviews and articles reveals that his ego was already fully-formed by this point as well. He rated Hendrix’s stagecraft but didn’t really rate him as a guitarist. His distaste is also dished out to Pete Townshend (‘overrated’) as well as the aforementioned Page. However he respects and loves Jeff Beck, if only for his four-fingered fretting technique. Indeed, the man’s own technique by the late ‘60s was in that bracket marked ‘scary’. With the pre-Gillan and Glover (and Stratocaster!) line up of Purple mark 1 you realise that, if he’d have given two hoots for it, he could have very possibly been a great jazz guitarist.

But no, for Ritchie it was the RIFF that beckoned, and here we come to the crux of the matter. His riffs are STUNNING. His solos are tasty too, but between 1970 and 1978 he effortlessly helped lay the ground rules for hard/heavy rock while inadvertently (and unfortunately) also paving the way for what we now know as ‘shredding.’ That solo on ‘Highway Star’ basically contains the seed for every tedious guitar solo that Yngwie Malmsteen and his hideous ilk have churned out ever since. Yeah, thanks for THAT, Ritchie…
Never mind, all that, the fact remains that Blackmore’s use of a Strat and a Marshall amp, eschewing the central pick-up for a more honest throaty roar, mixed with fluid arpeggios, still can set fire to your ears, after all these years. Claiming to love classical music more than most of his contemporary acts led to some hilariously misguided attempts to ‘class up’ his flash, but one listen to the unbelievably catchy riffage of ‘Never Before’ on Machine Head or ‘No, No, No’ or ‘’Demon’s Eye’ on Fireball are enough for me to cement his reputation as a guitarist, if not his standing as a decent chap. Here he is providing the only thrills in the overlong ‘No, No, No’ live on German TV. Also note the fact that he appears to be having fun. This was not to last…
 
What’s more surprising, for a man who has a reputation for being a ruthless taskmaster and all-round venal bastard, is that he’s always been honest about his appropriation of other people’s work as his own. For instance ‘Black Night’’s riff is lifted wholesale from Ricky Nelson’s ‘Summertime’ while the dazzling work on ‘Lazy’ from Machine Head is basically a supercharged version of Eric Clapton’s interpretation of Buddy Guy’s ‘Steppin’ Out’. The difference between him and the ‘credible’ work of Jimmy Page, is that he was entirely open about his pilfering, to the point where he even ripped off JP’s own ‘Kashmir’ on Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer’. How’s that for cheek? It kinda makes me respect him a little bit more…

Back when the album that ‘Stargazer’ came from – Rainbow Rising (now THERE’S a proper album cover, at last!) – I was in thrall to punk and was in danger of missing out on my West Midland heritage of rock in its loudest incarnation.

Yet my childhood pals in Coventry, siblings Brian and Cathy Gould were patient enough to put up with my youthful snobbery and still let me come along to their beloved hard rock gigs, two of which were, indeed the aforementioned Sabs (supported by Van Halen, believe it or not) and Blackmore with Rainbow. (This raises another divergent point: can you remember when music was important enough to help you actually choose your friends? I spit on modern tolerance and pan-acceptance. I long for the days when an opinion was both acceptable and expected.)

To be honest, that show at Stafford Bingley Hall will live on in my memory forever. Never had I seen something so preposterous (Cozy Powell’s drum solo on a hydraulic ramp that lifted him over the crowd, coupled with Ritchie’s entirely obvious change of a beautiful vintage sunburst guitar for another cheaper WHITE model before he smashed it into oblivion) and yet so, well… life-enhancing. As far as I could tell as a callow 17-year-old; no one in that hall took any of it seriously, and it felt liberating. This is possibly why metal remains the most enduring of all genres: it allows for pomp, stupidity, visceral thrills and musical mastery of the chosen instrument while never forgetting to laugh at itself. Long live rock ’n’ roll, indeed.

But you’ll notice that I’ve yet to get to the one song from hundreds of albums-worth of grim song craft that lives up to this blog’s title. Accepting that his work with early Rainbow verged on the tasteful, if only because Ronnie James Dio really could sing well, and his lyrics, while hilarious at least make sense, it has to be one from Blackmore’s previous band: Deep Purple. And the one I choose is, surprisingly, a number that, live, usually showcased Ian Paice’s drum solo: ‘The Mule’.

The studio version of this track is subsequently half the length of its live compadre from Made In Japan, and it stinks. Allegedly about ‘The Devil’ according to Gillan, the murky lyrics live up to his best/worst. It even begins with a riff (doubled up with Lord on the organ) that’s below par for Blackmore. These riffs were often the only thing that the band had to start a song when they entered the studio, and it makes way for some desultory singing from Gillan that, at least, doesn’t resort to ‘the screech’.  Underlining the paucity of ideas here, Lord then reappears to make some strangely retro-sounding (for 1971) psychedelic organ. There’s really nothing to see here. And then… at the 2’41’’ mark in storms Ritchie with a stuttering marvel of a solo, backed by Paice’s clattering funky drums. It’s hair-raising stuff which morphs into some space wailing that decides to get all modal at its finale, a mere minute later, and it’s back into that riff again. Blackmore’s tone, attack and aggression are everything that a rock solo should be, and it bears the mark of the spontaneity that he was renowned for: hating to spend time in the studio at that or at any time, and never writing or preparing his solos.

It still stands as one of the most astounding minutes in rock history, and it’s there buried in one truly lousy song!

 
And what about Ritchie today? He does seem to have mellowed. Anyone who saw the Made In Japan doc will have seen him crack a genuine joke about how he came up with the original riff for ‘Smoke On The Water’ as a baroque lute piece, but the band preferred the more basic version. It was… odd, but then for any outsider Ritchie will always be an enigma. Perhaps this interview (by some German teenager) conducted with his partner, Candice Night, goes some way to shedding light on where he’s at these days. Certainly, the profundity of his Bob Dylan anecdote will live with me for a while. The wig’s still ridiculous, though.
Anyway, I think we’re off to a fine start. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for additions to the series, drop a line below. And remember: you’re all the man!*

*an obscure Ronnie James Dio joke, sorry