Was there ever a song as bad as ‘My Sharona’? To several generations younger than me as well as the lunkheads that put it in the charts in the first place, this possibly sounds like… More
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?
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:
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…
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
*an obscure Ronnie James Dio joke, sorry