The Knack – ‘My Sharona

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The Knack. Smug doesn’t really cover it…

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 madness. After all, isn’t this the punchy, repetitive earworm that – when played in your favourite post-ironic ’80s revival knees-up (and yes, I know this is a song from 1979) – never fails to get everyone out of their seats? No, to truly comprehend what I’m saying here you have to contextualise. It really IS a lousy song with but one redeeming feature.

Here beginneth the lesson…

From a British perspective, the mewlings and wailings of punk’s earliest practitioners had (as with all basic forms) opened the floodgates to more sophisticated fare in no time whatsoever. The post-punk revolution was in full flow less than a year after the summer-of-hate zenith of punk’s progenitors in 1977. For instance, Magazine’s debut album – as good a place as any to mark the passing of three chord totalitarianism – was recorded as early as March/April 1978, fleshing out the punchy aggression of their first single, ‘Shot By Both Sides’ with – gasp! – keyboards, fretless bass and even – horreur! – time changes mid-song. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to raise the worthy-but-slightly-dull flag of Pub Rock and its role in the rise of kid brother, Punk. Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True – a record which at no point seeks to hide its country rock origins – arrived in record shops months ahead of punk’s grand latecomer, Never Mind The Bollocks. In other words, the crucible of 1976 gave birth to far more than three chords and the truth.

What’s more, due to the predominance of an intelligent(ish) free (in the sense of not being the plaything of the record industry) rock press and a more liberal broadcasting fraternity, the UK had a much faster and wider mainstream acceptance of radicalism in song form. Stuff such as The Ramones (first played on the Alan Freeman Show on BBC Radio 1 – hardly a bastion of John Peel-type credibility), not to mention an unending forgiveness of The New York Dolls and an eagle-eyed fascination of everything underground that was springing from New York and Detroit between 1973 and 1976 was genuinely loved and, luckily for us, our night-time shows were not entirely filled with Boston and Foreigner.

And yet, from an American standpoint, NONE of this really mattered. Punk hadn’t even STARTED, according to FM radio and pop culture in the mainstream. And this is where The Knack come in. Formed in 1978, they sprang up, not in foggy olde London Town (as they undoubtedly thought of it) or even uber-cool NYC; but in Los Angeles: a town still in love with West Coast rock (in ’78, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers still reigned supreme) and always with an eye on the big money. This isn’t to say that LA had no post-punk scene, or that there were no bands who didn’t kick against the traces (X! Black Flag!! The Circle Jerks!!! THE DICKIES!!!???!!!) but a close look at this list tells you what you really need to know about how music emanating from that city really operates. Post-’72 it’s mainly Schmaltz, Hair Metal, Corporate Speed Metal, Faux Punk Pop etc etc. Los Angeles may operate as a production hub, but at its heart it cares little for innovation, unless it comes with a big expenses account. Bands GO to LA to record and play, but the town itself has a dead heart. In fact, let’s face it, the only truly radical native music to the streets of LA is hip hop, and we’re talking about the end of the bloated ’70s here…

With this in mind, put yourself in the shoes of the A&R person* looking to boost his or her rankings at Capitol Records in 1979. Smaller labels such as Seymour Stein’s Sire Records were beginning to nudge up the pecking order by signing these annoyingly angular bands such as Talking Heads and The Ramones (and of course would go on to be globally dominant by signing Madonna. Urgh.). Everyone keeps blathering on about ‘New Wave’, whatever the hell that is and your bosses have told you to keep an eye out for something fresh that might get the kids who are too young to dig Little Feat into the stores. Voila! The Knack.

Ironically, lead singer and lyricist, Doug Feiger did come from Detroit, but had moved to the West Coast because, y’know… that’s where all the cool bands went to make it. Already blessed with at least one member who was a session player of renown (drummer, Bruce Gary), the band, in rather cynical fashion, latched onto the idea that they should adopt what they saw as the hip new sound. This was a typical (for the times, at least) American appropriation of contemporary British cultural mores: adopting the superficialities but ignoring the wider socio-economic underpinning. A cursory look in Rolling Stone or Creem at the time would have revealed – to bands wanting to latch on to this new sound – an alarming reversion to ’60s style values amongst many UK acts. From The Jam’s tailored mod-stylings (a truly British trend – irrefutably working-class in origin, but sun-drenched rockers in LA wouldn’t ever understand that) to Joe Jackson’s awful shoes on the cover of Get Sharp!, those boys saw skinny ties and suits and thought, reductively, ‘British Invasion! Again!!’. Well, that’s what they claimed at the time…

Joe_Jackson_-_Look_Sharp!

Yet in fact, The Knack in many ways at the time seemed, to us hip Brit kids, to be the descendants of something very much like the bandwagon-jumping Costello-isms of the aforementioned Jackson. let’s be clear: ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ is the kind of whiney, boo-hoo-girls-are such-bitches stuff that populated most of EC’s first four CLASSIC albums, but without an ounce of the wit, wordplay or grasp of two decades of popular songcraft that Costello commanded. But his less eloquent plagiarisms probably got across better on the other side of the Atlantic. As a side note: I once interviewed Joe and found him to be one of the bitterest, most unpleasant men I’d ever met. Maybe he should have listened to more Grateful Dead, like Elvis…

I digress, but the point is that by the time The Knack popped up, like some instant powdered version of The Vapors, the hard-nosed, more detached approach to style adopted by post-punk’s vanguard was already ripe for assimilation by THE MAN; in this case, in the form of The Knack and other horrors, such as Huey Lewis (who’d even more ironically leant his last band, Clover, to Elvis Costello for his first album) and all of those other Yanks who made the error of mistaking drainpipe trousers with some kind of doomed return to the ’60s (which most of them still missed like crazy).

To return to the subject of this new entry in Lousy Songs: ‘My Sharona”s entry on Wikipedia shows you how disingenuous the band could be when retrospectively assessing their own (ahem) contribution to world culture. The entry is full of references (by the band) to how they were emulating Smokey Robinson, The Who or even Spencer Davis. ie: classic Brit invasion bands and Motown, adding a posthumous air of classicism where it’s not in any way due. No, there was a vague sense that dressing in a suit equated with being in some way radically new (yet old). In reality: this was really a cut-price rewrite of Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, shorn of aggression and, instead, fuelled by a real-life infatuation with underage sex. As the above Wikipedia entry states: ‘Fieger noted that the song was written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy.’ as though this were some excuse for the inexcusably cringeworthy lyrics that the song contained:

‘Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind
I always get it up, for the touch of the younger kind’

Yes, ‘My Sharona”s subject matter was the then-17-year-old obsession of 25 year-old Doug Fieger. Maybe not such a massive mis-step, especially in those pre-PC days of yore, and yet when it’s combined with the LOOK of Doug and his cohorts it all starts to become a tad, well… creepy. But this was the States in the late ’70s. Even The Eagles – those lords of West Coast everything-all-the-time-ness were well known for their taste in, erm… younger ladies. But as I say, when you consider the sheer unpleasantness of seeing Doug (one of those guys who looked 40 when he was 25) sing those unsubtle words of lust and you can see why the American public soon rejected the band for exactly what they were – cynical chancers with nary an original idea amongst them, and a lead singer who found jailbait a suitable subject. Unfortunately the “Knuke the Knack” critical backlash which began the following year also rather wrongheadedly focussed on the fact that they were in some weird way a Beatles rip-off band, based, I presume, on their love of ties and horrible haircuts. In Britain it was merely a case of Americans getting the wrong end of the new wave stick, again. What’s more, it was produced by none other than Mike Chapman: a man who had previous form turning glam turkeys, like Mud and The Sweet into golden egg-laying hitsters. Thanks again, Mike.

But let’s return to the song. It was a MASSIVE hit; becoming a number one in five countries (for six weeks in the US) and clogging up the UK top ten playlists for fucking ever, seemingly. Catchy as hell due to the dumber-than-thou thumpa-thumpa drum pattern and stutteringly repetitive chorus, at the time I recall just hating every second of it every time it was played. But one thing makes it noteworthy here: the guitar solo, naturally. Oddly at the time I never noticed this, but I suspect that it was this as well that gave the game away and alerted me to how FAUX-New Wave it really was.

Let’s be clear here; this is no 10 second burst of glory, but ONE MINUTE AND TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS of red-hot lead. In other words, for those keeping score at the back, that means that 29% of ‘My Sharona’ is composed of pure guitar solo. This proves irrefutably that nearly 70% of the song is terrible while the other 30% proves that it was co-written by none other than THE GUITARIST.

To be honest at around the one minute and 23 second mark the guitar fills by this very same guitarist (Berton Averre) are a huge signpost that this is, in no way, a new wave record. Far too accomplished and far too filigree for anything approaching ‘cutting edge’, his technique nonetheless is impressive, even for a 26-year-old pretending to be way younger. But by the time the solo arrives at 2’45” (presaged by some sub-Townsend-isms giving him room to warm up his fingers) he really seals the deal. Sure, there’s a fair amount of cliched triplets in there, and none of it is truly envelope-pushing stuff, but his right hand technique is, to this day, scarily fast and the downward scale pattern at the 4’02 mark where he tumbles towards the final string bends always takes my breath away. To maintain such taste and precision for this long in any solo is impressive; to do it all in the space of a five minute pop hit (and still have a hit) is astounding. I suspect that there’s an edit at the 3’11” point where he flubbed it and he had to be dropped in, but as you can see from this live version – he really could wailwhen put on the spot. A truly GREAT solo.

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t appreciate this at the time because then I possibly would have started liking the bloody song. And it’s lousy. And now it’s doubly lousy because I’m positive that every single one of those people that went out and bought 10 million copies (in the USA alone) did so because they liked the song, not the solo. Talk about wasted beauty…

In conclusion: the improbably-named Berton went on to be a big cheese in musicals, Doug Fieger (after quitting the band in ’81) died in 2010, and the original Sharona: Sharona Alperin, ditched Fieger as a boyfriend and dined out on the questionable fame until becoming an estate agent and co-opting the song’s title for her website. The Knack, despite a couple of minor follow-ups were, thus, doomed to the one-hit graveyard and to be the soundtrack to some awful dance moves by some awful white folks. But the solo? My-ay-ay-ay-ay WOO!

Listen to ‘My Sharona’ here.

*Incidentally: this person was named Bruce Ravid as this hagiography-masked-as-fact-type article reveals. Apparently he was: “sold the first time I saw them”.  Frankly, claiming that a band, who played their first gig in June 1978 and by June ’79 had a worldwide number one, ‘were no overnight-success story’ is pushing the truth a bit. And what exactly does the phrase ‘genuine rock ‘n’ roll band’ even mean in that first sentence? 

The Nice – ‘The Cry Of Eugene’

Famous bands’ first guitarists: there’s possibly a book to be written there. You know: the ones that either left, lost their marbles or turned up at the studio to find that their gear was in a skip outside with no explanation (only to get a phone call from a roadie two months later) etc. etc.

From The Yardbirds onwards (Eric Clapton making way for the superior Jeff Beck) the ‘60s and ‘70s are littered with examples of groups who lost founding axe men only to finally make it big. Pink Floyd, of course, had Syd Barrett who, at least, had a few months working WITH his replacement, David (don’t call me ‘Dave’) Gilmour before he was ousted; The Moody Blues lost future Wings member, Denny Laine, but ended up with Justin Hayward (un)luckily for them; Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell drank himself out of a job, only to find that his replacement of TWO guitarists would lead the Irish rockers to world domination; Jethro Tull replaced Mick Abrahams with Martin Barre; Genesis parted ways with Anthony Phillips due to his stage fright (which almost split the band up) before they opted for Steve Hackett; and Yes ejected Pete Banks after a brief power struggle (and a disagreement about the use of an orchestra on their second album, Time and a Word), meaning that they could employ boring old perfectionist, Steve Howe.

Which brings me to the subject of this episode of Lousy Song, Great Solo: David ‘Davy’ O’List, who had the honour of being in TWO bands who went on to greater things after he left them: The Nice and Roxy Music. The poor guy must have felt cursed.

Born in Barnet, and rising to prominence in London’s swinging sixties scene in a third rate bunch of psychedelic chancers known as The Attack (whose biggest claim to fame was that they recorded ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ a few days before Jeff Beck), he was nonetheless a gritty, suitably far-out guitarist who (not unlike Pete Banks in Yes) actually managed that most difficult of tricks: having a truly distinctive sound. Unfortunately (again, as with Banks) the ability to play is rarely enough when you’re in a band with some other erm… strong personalities. Fate was ultimately not kind to these men.

O’List was recruited to join the ensemble that had initially been put together as P.P. Arnold’s backing band by Immediate label boss, and industry manager/provocateur, Andrew Loog Oldham, The Nice. Of course the band already had one show-off in their ranks in the shape of organ-mutilator, Keith Emerson. However at this stage Emerson’s legendary stage high-jinks were tempered by a deft touch on the B3 which owed a lot to his jazz heroes (Jimmy Smith etc.). He had yet to meet Bob Moog and unleash the full force of progressive rock on an unsuspecting public. But along with the powerful and sprightly rhythm section of Brian Davison (drums) and Lee Jackson (bass and gruff vocalisation) The Nice were, in truth, true pioneers. Their sound was both muscular and psychedelic, matching sonic experimentation with classical chops and the ability to stretch out arrangements live. Add to this Emerson’s exhibitionism, such as his tendency to stab his Hammond organ with a Hitler Youth dagger (given to him by their roadie at the time, Lemmy Kilminster), and the band were all set to become one of THE bands to watch in the Summer of Love.

Equally adept at mauling respectable stuff by Bernstein (‘America’) or Bach (ahem… ‘Brandenburger’) as well as writing their own freak-friendly numbers, The Nice looked set for big things. But this was 1967 and show business had yet to understand how to handle or present such wild stuff. It’s here that O’List’s story not only crosses paths with Syd Barrett, but even comes to mirror it. The band were booked on a ‘package’ tour with what now seems like a dream ticket for anyone interested in the period. Stuffed low down on a bill that included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move, Pink Floyd and Amen Corner, time constraints meant that each act played short sets which veered wildly in content and barely allowed for the full force of their stage craft. Remember, this was famously the period of misguided ‘commercialisation’ which was leading Syd Barrett to rapidly unravel. With a hit (‘See Emily Play’) on their hands and faced with screaming teenagers, such a tour didn’t sit well with the Floyd (or indeed many of these acts who were trying to break free of their ‘pop’ shackles in search of something loftier and more exploratory). Syd became more and more unreliable as the tour trundled on.

It’s interesting to note that Syd’s legendary instability actually led to O’List being drafted in at the last minute to sit in for the missing Madcap at a few shows. By all accounts he was more than up to the task. And yet, less than a year later, the strains of competing with an ego as large as Emerson’s had begun to take a similar toll on the guitarist. Well, either that or some kind of chemicals… Scant footage of the band (see below) shows O’List cowering in the background, unable to compete with the organist’s flailing acrobatics. The camera barely registers his presence.

What’s more, some accounts paint O’List as suffering similar mental troubles to Barrett, but whatever the truth, he, himself, became unreliable, arriving late for gigs etc. and following a fateful gig at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall the axe fell.

It’s here that O’List’s destiny almost crosses paths with another of the guitarists mentioned above – Steve Howe – as it was he who was initially auditioned as a replacement. When he eventually turned down the job the band continued as a trendy power trio (in the mould of long-forgotten pioneers, Clouds), upped the classical pretensions and eventually imploded due to lack of success and Emerson’s longings to find a better vocalist (more of which later) and be taken seriously as a composer (stop sniggering at the back).

A couple of years drifting in rock limbo for O’List ended briefly when he placed an ad in the music press looking for a band to fill the void in his professional life. As it happened the person to answer was none other than Bryan Ferry who’d seen O’List in concert at Newcastle City hall in 1968 and had been impressed. And for half a year O’List helped Roxy Music gain shape, even up to the point of recording five numbers for John Peel’s Top Gear show, all of which would eventually turn up on the band’s debut album a year later. By all accounts (barring O’List’s – his own account makes for some mighty peculiar reading) the guitarist’s eccentricities quickly wore on the other members and with a young PhilipTargett-Adams (later to be renamed Manzanera) in the wings as their road manager, the writing was on the wall. Once more fame and fortune had eluded O’List.

This isn’t the end of his story, however. As the above linked interview recounts, O’List’s hasty ejection from Roxy seemed to have left Ferry feeling uncharacteristically guilty, and he was invited back to provide some guitar on Ferry’s second solo album, Another Time, Another Place. O’List’s claims to have played on the later hit, ‘Let’s Stick Together’ seem somewhat far-fetched, yet his contribution to Ferry’s ‘74 hit: a version of Dobie Grey’s mod classic, ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’, is an undeniable fact. I’d even considered picking this number as the subject for this LSGS. The wigged-out solo at the close of the track is just about the only thing that redeems its rather plodding approach. Attacking a soul classic with a rhythm section made up of not only Roxy’s Paul Thompson (never a subtle drummer) but also John Wetton on bass was never really going to suit the number, and Ferry’s delivery can only be described as dull.

But to return to the subject of this article: back in 1967 The Nice were signed to Immediate records and recording their debut album which went under the amusingly cod-serious title of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (see what they did there?). This was to be The Nice at their most concise and approachable as well as their most psychedelic. The album, coupled with the single version of ‘America’ (which features a great solo by O’List at its core), would turn out to be one of the great defining documents of English psych. From the revved up re-tooling of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ (here renamed ‘Rondo’) via the full-on baroque pop explosions of the title track and outtake (included on reissue), ‘Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’ to the creepy experimentalism of tracks like ‘Dawn’; the album is actually a delightful product of its time. O’List is on fire throughout: just check out his explosive intro to ‘Bonny K’. However, also very much a product of its time are Lee Jackson’s hokey, jokey, florid lyrics.

While I can understand why Emerson would eventually tire of Jackson’s rasping, oft-shouted vocals, preferring the angelic pipes of Greg Lake as an accompaniment to his mock-symphonies, I have a bit of a soft spot for his voice. On later work, such as their take on Dylan’s ‘Country Pie’, I think his Geordie bluster fits the bill nicely. But there are times when it can grate terribly. One such moment is on the song chosen for this series: ‘The Cry Of Eugene’.

Closing the album, this track sums up just about everything both right and wrong with The Nice. Emerson’s delicate organ intro displays a sensitivity that runs counter to his usual, more outré approach (as on the bombastic piano ending to ‘Tantalizing Maggie’ which Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman used as a comedy jingle for years on his Radio 1 rock show) and promises far more than is delivered. O’List at this stage limits himself to a weird, overdriven viola-like accompaniment. Enter Jackson, burbling what can be only described as psychedelic drivel. The song’s dreamy atmosphere is completely broken by his barking delivery of lines like ‘’The cry of three plus two times nothing at all, splits all time’s mind asunder.’’ Please, if anyone has the foggiest idea what the song’s about, let me know. Here, the internet has failed me…*

Building in intensity the song reaches a histrionic zenith at the exact mid-point where a frankly wobbly cornet adds a touch of typical English baroque-ness accompanied by Emerson’s thumping Rachmaninov impersonations and all hope seems lost. But out of nowhere at 2’ 45’’ comes O’List playing an arpeggiated, fuzz-drenched six-note motif that rips open the feyness and forcefully shoves the song into its tortured climax. Six notes, played over and over but they all matter. It’s as if someone left the studio door open and the zombie ghost of Jeff Beck walked right in. From this point on all hell breaks loose. Beneath Jackson’s laboured delivery O’List goes positively APESHIT. I can still remember the first time I heard this as a teenager, and even then I recognised the greatness. And, if that weren’t enough, as a masterstroke, 20 seconds before the end of the track the motif reappears, devouring all before it until the song does the only thing it can: stop dead.

Nearly 50 years on, the track (and the album) remain favourites of mine, mainly for O’List’s manic attack. Jackson obviously felt offended by his bandmates’ treatment of the song as he re-recorded an insipid version on the debut album by his follow-up band, Jackson Heights. This version just emphasised how lousy the song was, and yet O’List’s solo remains a highlight of British ‘60s rock.

*Also, I have no idea if the use of the name Eugene had any influence whatsoever on The Pink Floyd’s later ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’.

10cc – ‘Good Morning Judge’

By 1977 English art-pop perfectionists, 10cc, were in crisis. Actually, they weren’t just in a crisis, they were fucked. The only thing was: they didn’t know it.

Famously 10cc were born from the ashes of nascent careers writing hits for the Hollies and Yardbirds (Graham Gouldman), paying dues with Wayne Fontana (Eric Stewart had actually sang lead on The Mindbenders’ biggest hit, ‘Groovy Kind Of Love’) or just being jobbing session players and studio rats (Kevin Godley and Lol Creme). Following a reasonably lucrative period running Strawberry Studios in Stockport and masterminding other faux-bands’ singles, as well as a minor hit as Hotlegs (with ‘Neanderthal Man’), the band were signed to Jonathan King’s UK label, given a questionable new name and they were off.

The next four years had seen them put into effect what was almost a masterplan of pop strategy, moving them from cheeky chart contenders to album conceptualists. Their self-titled debut album‘s parodies laid their stall out with aplomb. It was full of 50’s pastiches such as ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ or ‘Donna’ and the censor-baiting rockers such as ‘Rubber Bullets’ while displaying a fearsome grasp of studio trickery. Here was a band that not only had the ironic detachment of, say, Steely Dan (a band with whom 10cc are most often compared, both bands having learned their trade via the ’60s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley on either side of the Atlantic) but also the smarts to make top 40 gold out of what was far more grown-up fare than that of contemporaries such as say, Slade or Gary Glitter. The following year’s album, Sheet Music, saw the pastiches jettisoned and the band truly find their own sound. What was effectively a pair of duos combined Godley and Creme’s cerebral love of art rock and musicals with Gouldman and Stewart’s ear for an irresistible tune. Sardonic, knowing hits ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ and ‘Silly Love’ rubbed shoulders with hilarious deconstructions of the ridiculous trade in which they worked such as ‘The Worst Band In The Word’ (‘Never seen the van, leave it to the roadies, never seen the roadies, leave ’em in the van‘) or ‘Old Wild Men’ (possibly the first song to conceive of rock stars ageing), while third world politics and terrorism, were also fair game to these clever boys.

Of course the following year’s Original Soundtrack contained THAT SONG and the world now seemed theirs for the taking. However the cracks were beginning to show. The differing approaches of the two pairs was becoming more obvious with Godley and Creme’s post-modernism (‘The Film Of My Love’ or the overlong tri-part ‘Une Nuit A Paris’) sounding at odds with Gouldman and Stewart’s more straightforward rock and pop craftsmanship. It was still a fantastic album, however, and by 1976’s How Dare You! these cracks seemed less apparent, to the point that the album could stand as their masterpiece, containing suites in miniature like ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’, ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ or ‘Don’t Hang Up’. But in the studio the four had reached breaking point and Godley and Creme headed for the hills (and a future in video pioneering) holding their art school credentials high and leaving the remaining duo to wonder whether to carry on as 5cc.

The unfortunate decision was to draft tour drummer, Paul Burgess as a full-time member, recruit some other fine session players and soldier on. The sense that Gouldman and Stewart did this just to show the quitters just how much they didn’t need them is borne out by later interviews. Both parties now admit culpability with Godley and Creme admitting that maybe they could have gone off to make the overblown Consequences album (ostensibly a triple album vehicle to advertise their patented Gizmotron guitar tool which was hamstrung by a little too much self-indulgence and weed) and simply brought the resulting lessons learned back to be used by 10cc, Gouldman and Stewart meanwhile found it impossible to sanction any hiatus by the others while they were at the peak of their earning powers. Ah, foolish youth…

But be quiet, big boys don’t cry; this lengthy back story serves as a scene setting for what came next: the truly awful Deceptive Bends album. Although by no means a total disaster (especially when compared to the following studio album, Bloody Tourists which contains ‘Dreadlock Holiday’. The world’s most racist hit? You tell me…). Obviously Graham and Eric weren’t dunces, and their ear for a hit hadn’t deserted them, but somehow without the worldly cynicism of Kevin and Lol they had to rely on their own more forced sense of humour. Deceptive Bends contains ten of the cleverest, most slickly produced cuts, but somehow it’s a joyless affair. Just compare ‘I’m Not In Love’ from two years previously with ‘The Things You Do For Love’. or ‘People In Love’. The sly irony has vanished and instead it’s replaced by something utterly impressive and yet lifeless.

But worst of all was the lead track which when released in 1977 made it to number 5 in the UK charts: ‘Good Morning Judge’.

For starters, there are the lyrics, concerning what Allmusic describes as ‘a career criminal’.  Let’s have a look at the first verse:

Well good morning Judge, how are you today?

I’m in trouble, please put me away

A pretty thing took a shine to me

I couldn’t stop her, so I let it be (repeat three times) etc.

So in the very first verse our ‘hero’ is admitting to what exactly? It sounds suspiciously like an ‘ironic’ reference to either sexual assault or under age sex to me (good grief, what was I saying about Gary Glitter?), especially when you examine the following verse’s reference to a car theft (‘I found a car but I couldn’t pay. I fell in love so I drove it away‘).

Nice!

Riding on a jaunty beat that  drives home the repeated refrain at the end of each verse, it also contains what by now had become the band’s stock in trade, the doubling of lead vocal with a bass voice an octave underneath. In other words, with this, the first song of a post-split 10cc, the band have begun to parody themselves. If this isn’t warning enough, the stand-in for a chorus (‘I didn’t do it, i wasn’t there‘ etc…) sounds like the pair are making excuses for their own musical crimes.

And yet, at the end of each verse there’s something strange happening. Eric’s ultra-nimble slide guitar which had appeared in the middle section of the previous year’s ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ reappears to make a startling little interjection before droning up the fretboard and away. Clearly the chops hadn’t deserted them. And, as if that wasn’t frustrating enough, at the 1’31” mark the slide returns to usher in perhaps Eric’s finest moment: a solo that manages to combine Bakersfield with a call-and-response chickenwalk and blows your head away, all before the 1’58” mark when it gives way to a bottom end riff (again, merely reiterating the band’s superior earlier work) that signals a return to the laugh-free irony fest.

It’s doubly annoying here because not only is it a blinding solo – perhaps one of my top five of all time despite its brevity (or maybe because of it) – but also because it resides in a completely shit song that objectifies women, trivialises crime (Rubber Bullets at least knew it was springing from a tradition that included ‘Cell Block Number Nine’ or ‘Jailhouse Rock’) and, worst of all, was catchy as hell.

To be fair, at the age of 16/17 I thought it was very clever and loved it to death. But age, wisdom and a heavy heart now lead me to cringe every time I hear it. All except for those scant 25-odd seconds of six-string heaven in the middle…

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