Monthly Archives: May 2017

Inspiration is fleeting

Inspiration is fleeting – it’s up to the songwriter to bottle that lightning as fast as they possibly can, before the phone rings and half of the golden chorus they’ve just imagined falls out of their heads forever. But some songs are so quick to write, their essence – whittling and polishing aside – was captured in only slightly more time than it takes to play them from start to finish.

Here are some of the most speedily captured flashes of inspiration in musical history.

Ray Charles – What’d I Say

The subtext with each of these songs is that while it may have taken just a few minutes to write the song, there’s a lifetime of preparation behind that moment of inspiration. No one exemplifies this better than Ray Charles. At a 1958 gig in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, he found himself 12 minutes short of material, and with an expectant audience waiting to dance. Turning to the Wurlitzer electric piano he brought with him (because he hated relying on venues to provide a decent piano to play), he pounded out an insistent four note riff, set to a rhumba beat, and began jamming boogie-woogie licks over the top of it.

His horn section joined in, playing stabs, then Ray improvised a couple of verses, before going into a call-and-response section with his backing singers, the Raelettes. Each element will have come from years of working the clubs, but never arranged with this fire and vitality before. As the band played, the room began to shake from the vigour of the dancers, and as soon as they finished, Ray was besieged with fans wanting to know where they could buy his latest creation.

Nicki Minaj – Super Bass

BBC News recently ran a report on the amount of professional songwriters used to create certain hits, with some being experts in beats and grooves, some working on melodies, and some bringing the key moment, the hookline, written by specialists known as top-liners. Ester Dean is a particularly hot top-liner of the moment, having written refrains for Rude Boy and S&M by Rihanna, and Turn Me On by David Guetta. She also wrote the “boom badoom boom / boom badoom boom” section of Nicki Minaj’s Superbass, and like all of her greatest creations, she claims never to have spent more than five minutes on any one song.

She told the the New Yorker: “I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here [touches her upper arm, just below the shoulder] and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.'”

Time to get excited, folks Glastonbury with it the chance to see of new music

Time to get excited, folks, Glastonbury looms and with it the chance to see a whole load of new music. There will be bands on their first run round the festival circuit and also a few artists you might think have played Glastonbury before but haven’t. Here’s our pick of six who have taken many years to make the journey to Worthy Farm and are more than worth the wait…

Katy Perry

Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran are headlining, all of whom have played before (the first two going all the way back to the 90s). In many ways, though, the big announcement this year was that Katy Perry was joining the bill. It’s a great booking – Katy loves it here in the UK, and she’s emblematic of quite how musically broad Glastonbury’s lineup has become in recent years. Before Glastonbury, though, be sure to check Katy’s set at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, 27-28 May.

Shaggy

NME have truly nailed their colours to the mast on this booking, saying in March: Sorry Ed, Shaggy’s going to deliver the biggest Glastonbury moment of 2017. Could they be right? The It Wasn’t Me and Oh Carolina singer certainly brings the nostalgia factor to the festival, and that’s been a winner in recent years, with hugely successful sets from the likes of Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton. And with 25 years in the game this year, Shaggy’s mastered how to give the crowd what they want.

Lorde

Repping alongside Katy Perry on the pop side of things is the magnificent Lorde, also making her debut (and also playing the Big Weekend in Hull this weekend). Tantalisingly, the New Zealand star’s second album Melodrama will be out just before Glastonbury starts. Expect to hear plenty of songs from it, alongside all the big hits from 2013’s Pure Heroine.

Music pioneers who just missed out on the big time

The history of popular music is littered with examples of trailblazers who, for whatever reason – poor luck, bad deals, being ahead of their time – didn’t get the props they deserved. Sometimes, time catches up with them and at the heart of Arena’s excellent new documentary series American Epic are scores of songwriters whose influence on the course of music in the US and beyond is finally coming into focus.

This list looks at three featured in the series, alongside four others, and we’re just scratching the surface. Who do you think has been overlooked by music history? We’d love to hear your views on Twitter.

Will Shade

Part 1 of American Epic tells the story of how record companies travelled the American south in the 1920s recording the music of ordinary working people. “It was the first time America heard itself,” narrator Robert Redford says, before giving over the second half of the episode to Will Shade, driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.

Groups like the Memphis Jug Band were too poor to afford instruments, so they made do with what they could get their hands on, including jugs, washboards and kazoos. Shade’s group got a reputation performing on Beale Street in Memphis in the 20s and 30s, and became famous locally, playing to both black and white people. Their raw sound is credited as being proto-rhythm and blues, yet when that style of music, along with swing, took over in the 40s and 50s, the Memphis Jug Band faded from view.

In the above clip Nas makes a direct link between the group and rap music today, saying: “The Memphis Jug Band, it sounds like something today. These guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honour, chasing after someone who’s done them dirty… This is not high-society black folks they’re singing about; this is the down-under, street, wild black folks. And it’s the same as rap music today.”

Shade counted electric blues musician Charlie Musselwhite among his friends and admirers. In the episode, Musselwhite recalls that Shade would sing the song I’ll Get a Break Before Long later in life. He died in 1966 without anyone really knowing his music, but now, as Musselwhite says: “All these years later, right down on Beale Street by Handy Park there’s a brass note with Will’s name right on it.”

Grandmaster Caz

The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight is an iconic song in the history of American music – hip hop’s first hit. It begins with Wonder Mike’s legendary lyrics, “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / To the hip hip hop and you don’t stop / The rock it to the bang bang boogie,” before the second MC on the track, Big Bank Hank, comes in with his verse: “Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y / You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you why.”

And if you’ve always wondered why someone called Big Bank Hank introduced himself as Casanova Fly, it’s because he reportedly nicked his rhymes from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, previously known as Casanova Fly.

In 2014, Caz told the BBC World Service what happened (above, from four minutes): “Hank and I were friends and Hank got a job in a pizza shop in New Jersey, called Crispy Crust Pizza. One day, Sylvia Robinson [Sugar Hill Records co-founder and producer of Rapper’s Delight] walks in and hears him lip-synching to one of my tapes. She asked him, ‘Why don’t you come outside and do that for my songs – we’re auditioning people to become part of this group I’m putting together.”

Hank, who was also Caz’s manager, got the job and became a star. Caz never sued and never got a credit, unlike Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who threatened legal action over the use of their song Good Times in Rapper’s Delight.

“Chic’s Nile Rodgers wasn’t happy, but he now says Rapper’s Delight is one of his favourite tracks,” The Sugarhill Gang’s Master Gee recently told the Guardian. “It is one of his most lucrative – we gave him a credit. Then it turned out that Hank’s rhymes had been written by another MC, Grandmaster Caz. We’ve given him credit in public and done shows with him, and he’s cool about it. But I’m sure it bothers him every time he hears it.”

Laura Nyro

In a 2010 Guardian article, music journalist and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley credits Laura Nyro with being “the first non-folk female singer-songwriter”, adding: “She defied all categories in the late-60s, and Laura Nyro’s music makes more sense now, after four decades of her influence trickling down.”

Her style was to combine elements of doo-wop and soul into Brill Building-like songwriting – best exemplified on the albums Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) – and she might have become very famous indeed if she hadn’t asked filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker to not include her performance in his film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, convinced that she’d been booed while playing. However, a new profile of Nyro in Uncut magazine reveals that when Pennebaker reviewed his footage in 1997, he discovered that the audience were crying out, “Beautiful!” Nyro died from ovarian cancer, aged just 49, before she could take up Pennebaker’s offer to watch the footage again.

Nyro also turned down the chance to play Woodstock, but she was well-known and highly respected by other musicians at the time. Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand and The 5th Dimension all had hits with her songs in the late-60s and early-70s, and she would go on to influence countless other songwriters, including Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Tori Amos and Bette Midler, who presented a Radio 2 documentary about Nyro in 2005.

Nyro became a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2012, 15 years after her death.

Even by The Beatles’ lofty standards, and evocative of a particularly giddy moment in pop music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a remarkable album, even by The Beatles’ lofty standards, and evocative of a particularly giddy moment in pop music. But the startling mix of psychedelic whimsy, music hall pastiche, Indian classical music and conceptual art didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was it the sole interesting thing to have happened at that moment. Far from it, in fact.

This, then, is a snapshot of the world Sgt. Pepper entered, a look at other cultural events that were also going on during 1 June 1967, on the TV, on the radio, in literature and in sport. So, to put the album back in its rightful context on the family Dansette, crack open a bottle of Corona cherryade, grab a slice of Black Forest gateaux and dive in.

TV was very different in 1967. There were only three channels, most television sets were black and white, and programming was not 24 hours a day. But some things remain constant, like a nice chat show in the vein of Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross. Simon Dee was the host of Dee Time, and in the early evening of 1 June, he played the gracious host to the British comic actress Thora Hird, singer Julie Rogers, film composer Bernard Herrmann and American comic actor Stubby Kaye.

Musical support came from the Northern Dance Orchestra and The Frugal Sound – a folk group with an astonishingly 60s name, who’d released a cover of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) a year earlier.

Although perhaps not as significant an event then as it appears now, the first McDonald’s restaurant franchise to open outside of the United States started serving in Richmond, British Columbia, right in the middle of the Summer of Love, on 1 June 1967. The burger chain would not reach the UK until 1974.

There were already some fairly way-out albums in the shops when Sgt. Pepper was released. Country Joe and the Fish had released Electric Music for the Mind and Body on 11 May, The Mothers of Invention had released Absolutely Free on 26 May. The Ventures even had an album out called Super Psychedelics, while Paul Beaver put out a musical interpretation of astrology called The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds.

By contrast, David Bowie’s self-titled first album, released on 1 June, was a rum collection of London-centric whimsy, pitched somewhere between Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley, from a man still finding his feet artistically. It’s interesting to note, with the release of Elvis Presley’s album of songs from the movie Double Trouble, that 1 June 1967 is the only date on which the defining artists of the 50s, 60s and 70s all released original albums at the same time.