June 8 – And They Did, 38 Years Ago…

Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and on this day in 1985, Tears for Fears did. Or the world of music at least; their song from the big chair was at #1 in the U.S., their first such chart-topper here. They’d already been well-established in their native UK and had a following in Canada, where they were at #1 earlier in the year with “Shout” (which was released as a single later on in the U.S.).

The great song was co-written by their producer Chris Hughes, who’d worked previously as a drummer for Adam Ant. He notes it was the last song the band did for their massive Songs From the Big Chair and it was “so simple, it went down so quickly it was effortless really.” Yet another case of a band not being the best judge of their own work, guitarist Roland Orzabel thought the song “lightweight” and Hughes said “it’s bland as hell.” The public disagreed! The song hit #1 the same day north of the border and also got to the top in New Zealand and has since been used as the theme song for Dennis Miller’s short-lived TV talk show and won the Brit Award for best single of the year. And something about the sound and the lyrics “about everyone wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes” according to Curt Smith of the group, really resonated. Slant magazine declared it was “one of the great indictments of the materialism and triumphalism of the decade.”

An unusual and ahead-of-its-time version of the song was its CD single, which was “enhanced” with the video included, for the few people who had computers capable of playing it at that point! “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” has so far been spun over 6 million times on radio. By comparison, the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”, released 20 years prior, recently hit 8 million and was considered the most-played rock song ever for years until The Police topped it with “Every Breath You Take.”.


June 7 – Funkytown Was The Destination Of Choice

Some artists liked lips-synching in videos, others refused to. The topic is a musical debate, some people being all for it, others hating it. But on this day in 1980, it seemed like no matter what their position on “lip synch” in music, everyone loved Lipps Inc. They held down the #1 spot for the second week in a row in the U.S. with “Funkytown” and would hang on to the top spot for two more weeks. OK, so it was a #1 hit – not bad, but not like it was the world’s biggest hit, you might be saying. Or was it?

Well… while it sold in the millions, it wasn’t the biggest-selling single of that year, let alone of all-time. And I seriously doubt many people, even dance enthusiasts, would suggest it was the greatest record ever made. But, on at least one count, it did become the most successful single ever, a distinction it would hang onto for over two decades. We’ll get to that, but first a little background.

Lipps Inc. were a funk/dance group out of Minneapolis, the brain child of Steven Greenberg. He was a popular wedding DJ in the Twin Cities, and one assumes he noticed people liked to dance to the disco hits at weddings. So he decided to make some music of his own. He was joined by Cynthia Johnson, a singer and sax player from a band which would morph into Prince’s backing band later on. They formed Lipps Inc. ( the name a play on words for “lip synch”), adding in various singers and musicians including David Rivkin, a drummer who’d done some work with Gram Parsons. They recorded their first album, Mouth to Mouth, in 1979, with Greenberg producing. While sounding quite highly synthetic and produced, they did utilize seven ordinary musicians, two more additional backing singers and a real quartet of violinists on the album.. which was perhaps better described as an EP. The release, on Casablanca which was hot at the time selling Donna Summer records, was a four-song, 30-minute dance affair.

The standout, and first single was “Funkytown”, a nearly 8-minute dance workout on the album cut in half for the 7” single and radio version. Sung by Johnson and written by Greenberg, it had her asking you to please take her to “Funky Town”, which to the pair was New York City. Although Minneapolis had a happening scene back then, to Lipps Inc., New York was where it was at.

The song would go on to spend four weeks at #1 in the States and end up as the eighth biggest hit of the year. As Time Out put it, “’Funkytown’ came late to the disco party but it gave it a jolt of electricity.” Indeed it did, being one of the very last major hits that fell clearly into the “disco” category. It also hit #1 in Canada. And Australia. And New Zealand. And Switzerland, where it was the #2 song for the year. And it made the top of the charts in some 23 other countries. That set a record. The 28 countries it topped charts in was the most by any song, ever, at that point. Take that “Hound Dog” or “Hey Jude”! It would hold on to the distinction until 2005, when Madonna’s “Hung Up” eclipsed it by getting to #1 in 41 lands – ironically, the U.S. not being one of them.

VH1 listed Lipps Inc. as their 36th greatest “one hit wonder” ever, and while the term generally fits, “Funkytown” wasn’t the only thing Lipps Inc. did that was popular. The song “All Night Dancing” was a dance chart #1 hit soon after “Funkytown”, and a year or so later they’d hit the top 30 again in most European nations with their take on the Ace hit “How Long.”

Lipps Inc. called it quits in 1985 after four albums, but several members had decent careers afterwards. It would seem no story about dance or funk music in Minnesota would be complete without mentioning Prince. Perhaps too, no story about June 7 in music is complete without the Purple One, who was born this day in 1958. At least a couple of members of Lipps In. went on to work with Prince in the late-’80s and ’90s, including singer Margaret Cox and drummer David Rivkin, who would later go by “David Z.” He is given a writing credit on Prince’s hit “Kiss”, and suggests he actually was a major collaborator on the Parade album which it appeared. Rivkin would also be very successful producing for the Fine Young Cannibals. And Steve Greenberg himself went into the music business, rising to VP level of Mercury Records, and signing another major “one hit wonder”, Hanson.

June 5 – Forgotten Gems : Hugh Marsh

He’s had an over 40 year career in music, played with stars and on smash movies…but few have heard of Hugh Marsh. The seemingly anonymous violinist turns 68 today, so happy birthday to him. And it brings us to this month’s Forgotten Gem – his take on “Purple Haze”.

Marsh was born in Montreal and grew up in Ontario, largely in Ottawa. Unlike a lot of kids of the ’50s, he loved jazz and R&B and began playing violin at the age of 5. He would end up taking 13 years of classical training on it, and picked up some sax chops in high school too. For awhile he said he preferred the sax to the violin, but his real talent was the latter and in the ’70s he switched over primarily to an electric violin, opening up a whole new world of sound for him.

He began playing shows behind Moe Koffman, a respected jazz musician at the time, which drew the attention of Bruce Cockburn, the folkie who was starting to become an international star at that time. Hugh played in Cockburn’s backing band for a few years and worked on two of his albums, 1980’s Humans and ’83’s The Trouble with Normal, even playing some mandolin on a few tracks). By the mid-’80s, he was signed to Toronto indie label Duke street (who also had quirky Jane Siberry on their roster) and put out a solo record. Which got him the chance to do a second one, 1987‘s Shaking the Pumpkin, which is where the Forgotten Gem was from.

As we mentioned recently in regards to Joe Cocker taking on a Beatles song to cover, it takes some amount of guts to do a cover version of a “classic rock classic.” Which Marsh did with Jimi Hendrix’ iconic “Purple Haze”. Besides the electric violin and jaunty beat Marsh applied, the most obvious thing about the track is that it sounds like a Robert Palmer song. And with good reason. Marsh got Palmer to do the vocals on it and several other tracks on the album. Amazingly, the pair didn’t know each other until then.

I was a huge fan of Robert Palmer’s in the ’80s,” Marsh told Talkhouse, “and I would always try and find ways of getting ahold of somebody, not just the usual route…I read he was recording at Compass Point in the Bahamas, so I just went ‘Ok, I’ll send (a demo tape) to the recording studio. If he opens up the package, he can just put it on and see what he thinks.’” About three days later, Palmer called Marsh up and told him it sounded “great” and agreed to fly to Toronto to work on the record!

The pair remained friends after that, with Palmer apparently prone to calling Hugh up in the middle of the night to talk music. “He was a real musicologist,” Marsh remembers, “he was interested in World Music way before it became popular in North America.”

The song became a radio hit in Canada (it was the #55 record of the year at CFNY in his hometown Toronto for example) and in some markets in the U.S. when it was released there a year later.

Hugh’s had four more jazz albums since then and kept very busy. He’s been a member of Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt’s band for 30 years now. She calls him a “sound poet” but notes he refers to himself as a “music conversationalist, there to serve other people’s music.” More recently he’s toured with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy and been a member of alt rock faves the Rheostatics. And if that’s not enough, he’s been a regular on the Hollywood scene, working on scores for, well, scores of movies including Sinbad, Shrek II and the Chronicles of Narnia. Sounds like he could be quite an interesting music “conversationalist”, doesn’t it?

June 5 – The Golden Age Of Listening To TV

Yesterday we looked at a song called “Watching TV.” Today, we look at … listening to TV?

Unlike the summer we’re new embarking on, the summer of 1976 was one of largely Happy Days for the U.S. In more ways than one. Of course, the nation was wrapped in a happy, nationalistic red, white and blue pride as the Bicentennial closed in, and on TV, no one was more popular than a gang of friends in Milwaukee who harkened back to a simpler time twenty years earlier. Ehhhh – Happy Days was hot as a date for the Fonz! And back then, a popular TV show deserved a popular theme song. And this one had it.

Happy Days” peaked at #5 on Billboard this day 47 years back. It was the extended version of the new opening for the sitcom, which made Pratt & McClain one of the ultimate One Hit Wonders of the decade.

The ABC-TV show had begun in ’74, fueled by the retro-craze the movie American Graffiti had started. Initially it had used Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” as the opening theme, with a short version of “Happy Days” playing over the credits at the end. Two seasons in though, the producers decided either that the royalties were too high to Haley or simply that they wanted an original, unique song to identify their show. Either way, they opted for the previous closing theme, but wanted to re-record it with better musicians. They’d originally used a little-known singer called Jim Haas.

Oddly, they picked a producer before the artists. They went with Michael Omartian, and had writers Gimbel and Fox add to the lyrics. That duo had already co-written Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and would soon also do the TV themes to Happy Days-spinoff Laverne and Shirley, as well as the Love Boat. Omartian remembered his friend Jerry McClain, whom he’d been in a band with in the ’60s. By then McClain was in a duo with Truett Platt, and they’d put out a largely unnoticed album on Dunhill Records, which was owned by ABC.

The pair came in and recorded the feel-good song which sounded truer to the ’50s than much of the actual music of that decade had. They signed to Reprise Records, and put out their first album again, but this time with the new song. The album sold a bit better, but only a little. However, the public couldn’t get enough of Fonzi and the show, nor its theme. The Pratt & McClain song quickly rose to #5 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. To top it off, they put a song called “Crusin’ with the Fonz!” out as the b-side. Ehhh! Curiously, in Australia, a band called Silver Studs recorded “Happy Days” almost simultaneously and had a top 5 hit there with it. And that wasn’t all the TV love music fans were giving that year – the theme from “Welcome Back Kotter” by John Sebastian was on the charts at the same time and had hit #1 a few weeks earlier.

Although the Pratt & McClain follow-up, a cover of “Devil with the Blue Dress On” scraped onto the charts lowest levels, there career essentially wound down as fast as Fonzi’s bike when he saw a police car with a radar. At last word, Pratt currently owns a production company in Texas while McClain runs the “Happy Days Rock Revival Ministry” near L.A. which seems to be a church that utilizes early rock and roll.

They might be gone from the music scene, but their hit lives on. The actual 7” single that was used in the jukebox on the opening for Happy Days is now in the Smithsonian with Fonzi’s leather jacket. And 20 years later, another super-popular sitcom paid homage to it; the song was played in an episode of Friends. Coincidentally, that might well be the last TV show to have its own hit theme song.

June 4 – Waters Was Watching

Another sad anniversary in world history; another powerful protest song to recall it. It was on this day in 1989 the Chinese government put its jackbooted foot down on protestors at Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead and the country’s reputation in tatters…not that they much cared.

Tiananmen Square is actually a 53 acre open space in the middle of Beijing. It’s home to the National Museum and a Monument To the People’s Heroes. But in ’89 it gained international notoriety when in April thousands of protestors took to it and set up camp to protest the country’s state of affairs. Mostly it was university students there, although some ordinary laborers joined them. China was changing (as was the entire world) and while they’d allowed in some access to Western media and partly converted their land to a market economy, it was still a Communist dictatorship. Students wanted free elections and freedom of the press; the workers mostly wanted a fairer share of the wealth as they sensed that a few were getting very rich while most were working harder for less than before.

The protests drew attention, both internally and internationally. By late May, similar protests were occurring in 400 different towns and cities. “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping ordered a crackdown on them, and sent some 300 000 troops, many in tanks and all armed, into Beijing. On June 3rd, people were warned to stay in their homes the next day, but the protestors stood their ground. Troops rolled into the square, shooting and killing many, running over others and of course creating pandemonium. The battle was lopsided, but not entirely one-sided; along the streets to the square, people attacked soldiers, threw molotov cocktails at them and publicly hung a few unfortunate soldiers they captured. A few foreign journalists were able to get footage of the massacre out to the world and the next day Stuart Franklin took the now-iconic picture of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks leaving town seen above.

The Chinese government cracked down on public freedoms and either jailed or expelled foreign news people and journalists. And much like the Irish Bogside Massacre and the Ohio State riots, a scathing protest song arose from it. Although unlike the U2 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classics, this one by Roger Waters didn’t get a lot of attention. Still the 1992 song “Watching TV” does give an angry dose of insight into the horrible event.

While one can accuse Waters of many things (and David Gilmour and his wife do just that) one can’t say he pulls punches with his angry lyrics, nor that he is lacking in know-how to create a good-sounding and well-produced record. He checked off both those boxes on “Watching TV”, a six-minute dirge written from the perspective of a fictional, heartbroken young Chinese student whose sister died in the protest and showed up in the TV coverage. It hints at how traumatic that would be as well as the irony that the protests had probably been fueled by them seeing the outside world (particularly the rapid changes happening in the Soviet Block) on TV and wanting that for themselves. It was from his third solo album, Amused to Death, a loose concept album about how TV and mass media was dumbing us all down. The album checked in at over an hour, and was recorded in “Q-sound”, a way of enhancing 3D sound effects and more recently re-released in 5.1 Surround Sound. He said that was done, about eight years back because “it didn’t get the attention it deserved” and the problems he sang about are “maybe even more relevant to our predicament as people in 2015.” Among those helping him on this track were Jeff Beck on lead guitar, Madonna-collaborator Patrick Leonard producing and playing keyboards while Don Henley added backing vocals.

The song wasn’t released as a single but did get some airplay on FM rock stations. The album reached #8 in the UK and #21 in the U.S. Record Collector applauded it for being “Waters at his most bleakly inspired since… The Wall.” One wonders if he’ll come up with a bleakly-inspired follow-up, “Watching Tik Tok.”

June 3 – Long Before Bud Lite…

A story about a Trans person and a controversy about a popular beverage… sounds like one ripped from today’s headlines, doesn’t it?

Might we have a word, Mr. Davies?” One might imagine someone placed a call like that to the mastermind of The Kinks about 53 years ago, resulting in a very busy day for Ray Davies. On this day in 1970 he had to fly from New York City to London and then back… to sing a couple of words! Maybe even just one – “cherry.”

The reason was a potential problem with the song The Kinks had recorded the month before that was due to be their next single – “Lola.” The song was bound to be controversial, with it being about a guy picking up a person they assumed to be a woman, “Lola” , in a club only to find out Lola was really a cross-dressing man. Racy stuff for the early-’70s. In fact, some radio stations here and there would refuse to play it because of the content. But the real problem for the band was for another reason. The BBC at home in Britain had strict rules about product placement, and when they heard “Lola”, they’d informed the record company it couldn’t be played on radio because they mention “Coca Cola” in the lyrics. That was an unpaid ad in the Beeb’s opinion. This was a problem for the Kinks, who Davies admits “I wanted to write a hit.”

Indeed, while they’d never rivaled the Beatles nor the Stones in sales, they were a very well-established act, particularly in the UK. But of late their fortunes, and sales had dipped, and the U.S. had all but forgotten about them, with their last significant hit there being five years earlier (“Tired of Waiting For You.”) They needed something to spark interest in them again, particularly with a big tour planned after being banned from performing in North America for some time. In fact at that time, they were doing a small tour of North America, in preparation for a more extensive one late in the year. They’d played Chicago May 30th and were in the Big Apple, getting ready for a concert there June 4th. But the BBC threw the monkey wrench into the plan.

Ever creative, as his lyrics show, Davies realized that they could solve the problem and maintain most of their artistic cred by simply calling the drink “cherry cola” instead of the Atlanta brand name. So he decided to record a version with those lyrics for the radio back home. What’s not clear is why he didn’t rent a New York studio for half an hour and simply sing “cherry cola” and have the tape shipped, but he instead decided to fly back to London to do the new take in the studio where they’d recorded the song, and in fact, the whole album, Lola Vs. Powerman & the Moneyground, Part I. He jetted across the ocean, sang “cherry” and then got the redeye back, in time for the concert the next night.

The effort was worth it. The song became their first hit of the new decade, and hit #2 in the UK, their 13th top 10 hit there. It made #9 in the U.S. (where they generally heard the “Coca Cola” version), their fourth top 10 there. It also got to #2 in Canada and topped the charts in New Zealand, Ireland and a few European countries. According to Dave Davies of the band, it saved their career.

So what gave Ray the idea for the unusual hit? A night in Paris with his bandmates and manager apparently. “I was asked to dance by this really fabulous-looking ‘woman’. I said ‘No, thank you,’ and she went in a cab with my manager straight afterwards…it was OK until we left at six in the morning, and I said ‘have you seen that stubble?’ and he said ‘yeah’ but he was too pissed to care.” Drummer Mick Avory added “the Kinks did attract these sorts of people!”

Davies apparently knew he was onto something good, like his manager, with the song, so he bought new equipment to record it. He went to a music shop and said “I want a Martin (guitar) and they had this 1938 Dobro that I bought for 150 pounds (about $2000 today) and I put them together on ‘Lola’ which is what makes that clangy sound.”

So there you have the story of one very long haul by jet plane to correct one very short bit of a song. Which only leaves us wondering did Lola ever hear the song about her/him?

June 2 – Ringo Got A Little Help From His Friends

It was a big day for North American music fans 56 years back. That day in 1967 kicked off the “Summer of Love” … and signified that the ’67 The Beatles weren’t your daddy’s Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the stores here that day, about a week after they had over in Britain (which was earlier than the label had planned to release it there; a story for another day).

The album was a landmark, both musically and culturally and we’ve looked at it before, as well as its iconic cover picture. So today we’ll look at one of its iconic songs – “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

The song kicks in directly seguing from the opening title track (meaning radio usually played both together since they merge on the LP) and stands out from the rest of the album because it’s sung by Ringo Starr. Or “Billy Shears” in his Sgt. Pepper alter-ego. By then the band typically allowed Ringo one song per album to sing and take a bit of the spotlight on. Mind you, it wasn’t til their “White Album” that they actually trusted to write the song. So this one was a Lennon/McCartney one, although generally it’s believed to be more Paul than John. Lennon himself verified that. While at the time of the album he said it was about “fifty-fifty” writing, by 1980 he said the song was “Paul, with a little help from me.” Paul is believed to have written the lyrics but John tweaked them and helped compose it, on piano. He had an injured index finger, leading him to play primarily with his middle finger… which led to the band’s working title for it, “Bad Finger Boogie.” The title changed, but wasn’t wasted. Apple Records first non-Beatles stars took the name “Badfinger” from it. No matter whose words and whose finger may have been sprained, it was seen as one of the last songs John & Paul actually wrote together, no matter what the publishing credits might show.

They wrote it specifically for Ringo however, and he rose to the occasion. He sang it superbly, even the prolonged high note ending it, at about 5 AM after they’d already done 10 takes of the song. Interestingly, on those recordings John played piano, producer George Martin was on a Hammond organ and George played lead guitar. Paul’s bass and a bit of John guitar (and cowbell!) were added in later. And it was the perfect song for Starr. After the band broke up, the others had gigantic success for varying lengths of time, but Ringo did OK for a couple of albums then disappeared from the charts. But not from the stage or fans hearts; his All Starr Bands over the last 30 years or so have been live music highlights for millions and feature Ringo … with a little help from his friends who could range from Todd Rundgren to members of Men At Work and Average White Band to Joe Walsh. Everyone loves Ringo, and he traditionally closes his live shows with the song. Even Paul has joined him on the song at least three times, including a Grammy Awards Tribute to the Beatles with additional help from friends like Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl and Miley Cyrus! Everyone loves Ringo.

So too must Joe Cocker. The Mad Dog Englishman made his version of it (with Jimmy Page on guitar) his first album’s title and it quickly became his only #1 song in the UK. As such, it ranks in the rarified air with another Sgt. Pepper song – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – as a Beatles song where a cover version not only exceeded the original in popularity, but actually hit #1.(The Lucy cover being by Elton John of course.)  Joe’s version was a hit in the ’60s, made his name known when he appeared at Woodstock and later was used as the theme song for the TV show The Wonder Years. Not everyone liked his gravel-road, bluesy rendition of it, but many did, including Paul McCartney. Cocker made it into an homage to Ray Charles and McCartney said “it was just mind-blowing. Totally turned the song into a soul anthem, I was forever grateful for him doing that.”

As many know, The Beatles didn’t release any songs off Sgt, Pepper as singles in ’67; relying instead on standalone releases of “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love” to keep them on the airwaves that summer. They did release it in 1979 (to capitalize on the … well, not quite “popularity”… but the presence of the Sgt. Pepper movie) but it failed to hit the top 40 in major markets. The album however, was another story.

June 1 – Alice & His Student Anthem

Well, this is going to be the anthem for a lot of kids – and probably some teachers! – today. In our county, it was last Thursday but in a number of cities in the country, today is the last day of classes for public school. It’s holiday time… “School’s Out”! And back in 1972, it seemed pretty much everyone, student or not, was lovin’ that scary Alice Cooper‘s hit.

The title track to his (or, more accurately his band’s) fifth album, “School’s Out” captured the exuberance only a child knows when the bell rings for the last time for two months. Which was according to plan. Cooper has told people he got the idea for the lyrics after someone asked him “what’s the greatest three minutes of your life?”.

People didn’t really know what to make of Cooper back then. He’d had one real hit single before (“I’m Eighteen”) but was mostly known for his macabre makeup and stage show, complete with guillotines and boa constrictors. Take Rolling Stone for example. Their review of School’s Out noted “Alice is variously an actor, rocker, comic, madman and exorcist” before declaring “as a cultural assassin, he is harmless.” The fact that the original pressings of the LP came out with a thin pair of panties around the album instead of a paper liner only added to the notoriety.

That notwithstanding, or maybe because of it, the LP was his only #1 hit in Canada and charted to #2 in the U.S., much better than his prior releases. The single, although banned by some radio stations for it’s counter-culture lyrics (ironically, as much as we’ve gotten more accepting of ‘out there’ statements of late, it seems doubtful anyone would play a new tune suggesting “school’s been blown to pieces” in the current environment) the single was a smash hit. It got to #7 at home in the States – he’s never had a higher-charting single. In Canada, it was in the top 10 of the year and it was his only #1 across the sea in Britain. Seems that summer break is a universal highlight for students.

The song has usually been his closer at his concerts through the year and is heard in any number of other places, including a number of movies and commercials. Most noteworthy of those perhaps was one for Staples in which he appeared.

Enjoy your summer, kiddies!.

May 30 – The Beatles Booked Another Smash Hit

The Beatles were about as hot as you could be in 1965, particularly at home in Britain. But they had one critic at least. “Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse, or a summit conference or something interesting?”

So asked Paul McCartney’s aunt Lil of the mop-top superstar. And he accepted the challenge, the result being “Paperback Writer” which came out as a standalone single on this day in 1966. Not a horse nor a summit but at least for Lil’s sake it wasn’t about love…unless you count the love of books. It’s suggested that Paul got the idea from his friends opening the Indica Bookshop of which he was the first customer. Whether or not that was the case, it was clearly a McCartney creation although credited to “Lennon/McCartney” as was their norm then. Lennon said it was “the son of ‘Day Tripper’, meaning a rock’n’roll song with a guitar lick or a fuzzy, loud guitar song. But it’s Paul’s song.”

Not only were the lyrics, about an aspiring novelist trying to hit the Best-sellers list a bit different than their ordinary fare upto that point, so was the sound which involved a bit more overdubbing than previous singles and more Paul… they amped up the bass parts a bit. Oddly it was John, not Paul, who requested that; he felt the band’s records lacked enough bass oomph til that point. So engineer Geoff Emerick boosted that instrument in the mix and had Paul try out a new Rickenbacker bass instead of his usual Hofner. Emerick noted it was “the first time the bass has been heard in all of its excitement.”

EMI in Britain put out the 7” on this day, with it being about six months since the Rubber Soul album was released and a couple of months before Revolver would be ready for the stores. While the band became known for the somewhat unusual practise of releasing singles that weren’t on the albums they were currently promoting, which might have been a way of getting radio play (from the single) without cutting into the LP sales, this one was simply because the record company felt they’d been too long without a hit single (weeks!) and needed one out quickly. They put a lot of effort into promoting it, some quite innovative and successful, some not so much. They initially promoted it using the infamous “butcher cover” photo with the band bloodied, standing around decapitated dolls… it also was used on a limited number of Yesterday and Today album sleeves before being pulled. This got noticed, but not in a positive way, so they quickly replaced that with other photos of the band, including on some editions a photo of them playing live, but with the photo reversed so George and John seem to be playing left-handed.

More successful was their decision to promote the song heavily on TV. They got them onto several British programs including Top of the Pops (which, Peter Asher noted, per usual, the BBC taped over on their master tapes to save money, leaving only one known copy of the appearance – a home taping without sound) and recorded a “promotional clip” – what would later be called a “video” – of it with the band at Chiswick House and its gardens in London. That would be shown on Ed Sullivan in North America and lives on in Youtube glory and elsewhere.

How did people react to the new, not-talkin’-’bout-love Fab Four. Critics mostly liked it. Cashbox for example said it would “continue their run of blockbuster singles”, calling it “a rhythmic, pulsating ode with an infectious, repeating riff all about the creative urge.” A few British publications sniped at it a little, thinking it a bit too experimental or “a trifle too clever for its own good.”

The public didn’t seem to think it too clever to enjoy. It debuted at #1 in the UK and spent two weeks on top in the U.S., making it their 12th #1 there. It also hit #1 in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany and quite a few other lands. It helped that American listeners wouldn’t be able to buy it on an album until the Hey Jude compilation in 1970. However, it might have signaled to discerning watchers that perhaps the Midas Touch was dimming a little for them; despite being a #1 it sold fewer copies in the UK than any single of theirs since “Love Me Do.”

The band must’ve liked the change though; Revolver delivered the most experimental sounds from them upto then and a wider range of song topics (“Taxman”, “Eleanor Rigby” etc) than fans had come to expect. Thanks Aunt Lil!

May 29 – Stones Own Label Debut Was A Sweet Success…Or Was It?

At the time they thought it was pretty sweet. The Rolling Stones were on top on this day in 1971 with their fifth American #1 song, “Brown Sugar.” That must’ve been a relief to them as it signaled a number of changes for the band and a return to form commercially. Remarkably their three previous singles had failed to chart on Billboard.

Brown Sugar” was the first single off Sticky Fingers, which was not only their first album on their own self-named record label after they left Decca Records, but their first studio creation with Mick Taylor on guitar replacing (by then dead) Brian Jones. This one brought in Bobby Keys for a powerful sax bit and Ian Stewart on piano as well. It was also a bit of a return to their straight-forward, dirty rock origins after a few more experimental, psychedelic efforts to finish the ’60s. Fittingly, they’d recorded it (back in early 1969) at Muscle Shoals in Alabama. As Cashbox put it, the single was a “return to the fresh blues sound of the team’s pre-Satanic days.” So it was a bit of a risk. Would their fans return with them?

Lyrically it was a bit of a risk too, although few back then thought so. Some thought it was a veiled reference to heroin as that was sometimes nicknamed “brown sugar.” But a more careful listen seemed to suggest it was all about sex with Black women and what’s more, with lines like “sold in the market down in New Orleans”, one about slave women. Although at the time, it didn’t seem very risky or risque.

Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics and was the main composer (although as per their norm, Keith Richards got co-credit) and said “it was all to do with a combination of drugs and girls.” He, and the band were hot commodities then, so maybe not surprisingly, different girls or women claimed to have been his inspiration for it. Most noteworthy of those were Marsha Hunt, a girlfriend of his who had his child, and Claudia Lennear. Lennear was a backing singer for Ike & Tina Turner who was the subject for David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” Bandmate Bill Wyman suggests it was her who was Mick’s “Brown Sugar.”

Either way, the song was a massive international hit, something that had eluded them a little in the previous couple of years. Besides the States, it also topped charts in Canada, Switzerland and a few other European lands and got to #2 in their UK, where it got them a gold record. They’d go on to score two more U.S. #1s, “Angie” and “Miss You.”

The song’s considered a classic. Rolling Stone has included it in their list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time and put it as a lofty #5 on a list of the greatest “Guitar songs”. They note “here the Stones lay waste to a battery of taboo subjects – slavery, sado-maschochism, inter-racial sex – and still manage to be catchy as hell.”

It was a highlight of their live set on many tours (even some concerts from before it was officially released), but the times, they are a-changin’. In 2021, the band bowed to pressure and removed it from their setlist. Mick Jagger said “it’s such a mishmash of all the nasty subjects in one go… I would never write that song now.” Keith Richards, on the other hand stated “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters, quite where the beef is? Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?”

Maybe they did, maybe they interpreted it another way. As did, perhaps, Pepsi  and Kahlua…both of whom have used it in commercials.

By the way, if you like the song but thought “what it really needed though was Eric Clapton on guitar”, you’re in luck. They actually recorded a version of the song for the album with Clapton playing, but preferred the ’69 original when it was done. The Clapton one was eventually released on a deluxe reissue of Sticky Fingers however.