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  • Tony Harris

HISTORY LESSONS

Updated: Jul 15, 2020


I find it's always quite interesting when artists name check other artists in the course of their songs. It seems to serve one of three different uses...


Firstly, to set the mood of their own record, often by bringing an air of nostalgia to the proceedings. You can instantly place yourself into the same situation and so connect with this new record even more.


"Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John..."


"I've got two tickets for Iron Maiden, baby..."


"Me and my cousin used to play Mel and Kim practising dancin' coming down the stairs and ting..."


Top marks if you guessed Robbie Robertson, Wheatus and Estelle, by the way.


The second use is inevitably to denigrate the past to make your own offering look better and contemporary. Hence, The Clash will happily sing about "phoney Beatlemania" and Mott The Hoople (well Bowie actually) will pass off the Beatles and the Stones as old hat because your older brother listens to them. Lynyrd Skynyrd for their part, decided to make sure they thought Neil Young's stereotyping of their friends and neighbours in "Southern Man" was beyond contempt.


And as for The Reynolds Girls and their Stock Aitken and Waterman farrago - "I'd Rather Jack" - where Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits and any kind of heavy metal all felt the acerbic lash of the two teenage sisters from Sefton in snow-wash denim, back in 1989. I imagine Messrs Jagger, Gilmour, Knopfler and McVie are quaking still behind their fortified stacks of platinum discs.


Even Max Bygraves decided to have a go at "Elvis P" during "Fings Ain't What They Used To Be" although this time he seems to be speaking for the more conservative older generation. Ask your grandparents!


The third and most interesting reason for name-checking is tributes. Now sadly, these are often for recently deceased stars such as Danny Mirror's execrable "I Remember Elvis Presley" - which should be contrasted to the infinitely better "King's Call" from Phil Lynott - to "Nightshift" by the Commodores which bewailed the passing not just of Marvin Gaye but Jackie Wilson too via U2's lament for Michael Hutchence "Stuck In A Moment...". There was of course, the sometimes macabre recordings of the legendary British producer Joe Meek who created "Tribute To Buddy Holly" for Mike Berry and "Just Like Eddie" for Heinz (out of the Tornados) partly as a nod to his fascination with matters paranormal and the afterlife.


Others use their musical tributes to praise their influences and following this line, you would consider "When Smokey Sings" by ABC, "The Prince" by Madness or the majestic "Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder.


However, in the latest FabFive for your debate and delectation I wanted to look at five tracks that celebrated entire genres or categories of popular music of one hue or another. There is a one hit wonder by a group called Reunion entitled "Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)" for which its sole purpose seems to be to namecheck as many musicians, songs and styles it can think of - it's dreadful. The truth is (like all tributes) these records can be a little cack-handed but here are five that benefit from the scale of their lyrical intent and are far more interesting as a result.


Perhaps the easiest place to start is with John Cougar Mellencamp and his "R.O.C.K. In The USA" from 1986. The record reached #2 in the US and featured on his excellent "Scarecrow" album - on which it provided something of an energetic burst compared to the more downbeat tracks on the rest of the record. While recording the album. Mellencamp had rehearsed lots and lots of 60s songs with his band and it inspired him to right this song in tribute to what he felt was the excitement of radio at the time, which was far less defined by category but just hit after hit after hit.


No surprise that the disc's full title is "R.O.C.K. In the USA (A Salute to 60s Rock)" as it really lives up to its name with lots of little references to various classics such as The Troggs "Wild Thing" sprinkled throughout. It definitely feels like the work of a devoted fan.



In a similar vein the Ramones recorded "Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio?" as a tribute to the golden age of American wireless referring to DJs like Murray The K, shows such as "Hullabaloo" and of course, some of their favourite artists ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis to T-Rex.


The Ramones had set themselves up as an antidote to much of the overwrought music of the 70s and returned to a simpler formula of fast punk with rudimentary musical flourishes. A Ramones show was desperately exciting but mercifully short as their setlist did not adhere to the normal cadences of light and shade. All of which makes "Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio?" something of an anomaly.


Not only is it a eulogy to the past - one that punk was trying to sweep away - but it also utilised the kind of musical panorama they normally eschewed violently. There's horns; there's strings; there's even synths. None of which is surprising when you consider that they brought Phil Spector in to produce the album "The End Of The Century" and give them a more commercial sound - though he hadn't had a hit for a decade.


By all accounts, the recording process was fairly fraught with only superfan and 60s devotee, Joey Ramone, finding himself able to work with Spector's idiosyncratic ways - not least his tendency to wave guns around the studio.


Many Ramones fans absolutely hate this record and refuse to acknowledge it but I cannot help but feel that in there is a deep felt love for the golden age of rock n roll and the debt that even iconoclasts like The Ramones felt they owed.



Soul is normally a shorthand for wanting to appear on the right side of cool - ask Spandau Ballet whose "listening to Marvin all night long" line in 1983 chart-topper "True" is definitely intended to show that the band had much more impressive credentials than simply wearing tartan and their respective mums' blouses.


As a genre, it has always seemed happy to reference itself and perhaps this was because of the network they created across studios, sessions and labels. The most notable soul category eulogy came in the form of "Sweet Soul Music" by Arthur Conley which put the spotlight on James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls (several years before he had even had a mainstream chart breakthrough). Redding in fact co-wrote the lyrics with Conley as the song itself was a reworking of an old Sam Cooke track.


Which leads me to the third selection which is, I suppose, a tribute to a tribute.


"Tribute (Right On)" by The Pasadenas from 1988.


This West London band's footprint on pop history did not crunch deep, aside from some serviceable covers, this track and its virtually identical follow-up "Riding On A Train" - following the old Motown follow-up trick of it worked once then do it again (think the Four Tops "I Can't Help Myself" and "It's The Same Old Song" or even "Bernadette" and "Standing In The Shadows Of Love"). However, "Tribute (Right On)" was a very authentic rattle through the early pioneers of "Rock n Roll and Soul" set to a pacy James Brown-style rhythm track.


Very much an update of Conley's earlier classic.


However, the irony is compounded further because at the time, this entirely retro-pastiche was greeted as a fresh new sound which in a world of endless gated reverb and Hi-NRG synth drum patterns, it genuinely was. This represented the kind of time-slip confusion that would boggle even Dr Emmet Brown but it's still a hugely enjoyable and untarnished experience.



What a difference a semi-tone can make to a record.


When Fatboy Slim was asked to remix Cornershop's previously sluggish "Brimful of Asha", he threw his whole Big Beat toy box at it, speeding the whole record up, raising the pitch of the vocals and creating, to date, the only number one single that was a tribute to the golden years of Bollywood soundtracks. What we ended up with was a hedonistic track still guaranteed even now to bring a case of disco-bottom to even the most jaded of posteriors, should the record emerge clattering from a pub jukebox.


The track was really written in honour of Asha Bhosle, the grande dame of Bollywood soundtracks who was a playback singer, providing the dubbed-on voice for many thousands of songs in Indian cinema. However, the track turns into a retrospective not just of Bollywood - we are introduced to Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar - but also a meander through writer, Tjinder Singh's earliest memories of his record collection. Hence there are references to T-Rex, Trojan Records (the home of Jamaican Ska & reggae) and Jacques Dutronc, one of my favourite Ye Ye Freakbeat French chanters. It's a musical anorak's wet dream.


This makes it a more interesting record than many of the dance records of the time but ultimately it is the remix that makes it. When NME voted "Brimful Of Asha" #2 remix of all time, they rightly pointed out that it achieved what all great remixes should aim to do - make the original virtually unlistenable.



Finally, my final choice is a record that was referred to as "an epic tone poem" written by John Phillips called "Creeque Alley" which outlined the musical origins of The Mamas And The Papas in the New York folk scene.


Their earlier incarnations as The Journeymen and The Mugwumps are duly recorded as well as the parallel development of The Lovin' Spoonful with John Sebastian and Zal Yalowsky (previous bandmates of Denny Doherty). Then, there are the envious glances cast at the earlier successes of Roger McGuinn from The Byrds and Barry McGuire whose #1 "Eve Of Destruction" is still quite a chilling expose of middle-American hypocrisy.


There are few bands who have managed to create quite the vocal harmonies of The Mamas & The Papas and although bands like The Seekers, We Five and The Springfields had tried to put male and female vocal leads together, they had always ended up feeling quite folksy, this band created something very very current.


Everyone is familiar with "California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday" and they are deserved classics but, perhaps, because it is less exposed, I have always preferred "Creeque Alley" for its sense of humour and knowingness but also its sense of musical camaraderie.


If only people actually knew that even as this recording of The Mamas And The Papas was going out on the Ed Sullivan Show (who liked the band very much - they once got him to wear a hippy flower garland) the band was breaking up bitterly and with the kind of acrimony you rarely see this side of Fleetwood Mac.



I find it hugely reassuring that my love affair with records is often reflected with a similar affection by the artists who make them. I am always impressed when they have done their homework on their fellow artists and can present more than just borrowed interest or a snarling jibe within their lyrics.


Because overall, authenticity seldom fades. It all helps when they have a good tune of course.


POSTSCRIPT


I normally write these articles a few weeks in advance just in case I have an inspirational lapse so there's always something to try and interest you, dear reader. So whilst I had finished this FabFive, I came across another contender from a very very different time that I thought I would include anyway.


I know it's Five but they are my rules!


I find (strangely) that I really enjoy listening to the Calypso music of the fifties which became a staple of London club-life around then and there is a great example that I wanted to share.


Obviously the Windrush injustice has come to light in recent times and the cack-handed governmental handling gets all the criticism it deserves. This is the music that that generation brought over to London and it presents a fascinating snapshot of the time because it more often than not used current events or contemporary life as their lyrical inspiration - the Queen's Coronation, the general election, bad landlords (perhaps understandably) or even woman police officers.


However, these new Caribbean arrivals found themselves fascinated with the sudden rise of Be-Bop jazz. King Timothy celebrates it in "Gerrard Street" whilst Young Tiger in "Calypso Be" cannot stand its noodling. Lord Kitchener one of the great London Calypso pioneers did fancy it.



What is fascinating that it uses a very very different musical style to eulogise another and even includes little be-bop references. It's not only another great tribute but a fantastic historical snapshot of the beginning of the blending of some very different cultural worlds. More of that please...


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