High Fives No. 10 – Allan’s Not-so-guilty Pleasures

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We asked Allan to come up something a bit different this year and he went all sociological and autobiographical on us before digging into music theory and sexual politics. We find it’s best just to let him get on with it. Here are his not-so-guilty musical pleasures.

You probably already guessed this, but pop culture and pop music fascinate me. The music that you grow up with is part of your identity, it’s part of the uniform of the tribe you belong to or aspire to. I have fairly broad musical tastes and I try to judge artists on merit rather than by which genre or sub-genre they belong to. The roots of those eclectic tastes are in my teenage years in the East Midlands where I grew up on an estate that was built to house an influx of families from Scotland, Wales and the North-east and North-west of England to deal with a labour shortage in the Nottinghamshire coalfields. I passed the Eleven Plus and went to a grammar school with mainly middle-class boys and that’s where my musical schizophrenia started. At home, at the local youth club, I heard lots of singles; Motown, Stax, Northern Soul and a bit of ska. At school I was exposed to albums; rock and prog mainly. There was virtually no overlap; it was all very tribal and each of the groups hated the music of the other group. I loathed my school years but I learned to value music rather than tribal allegiances and that’s never changed.

And that’s a bit of a long-winded way of getting round to today’s theme of songs that I loved (and still do) that weren’t seen as particularly credible at the time. I took flak for loving some of these singles but I didn’t care (and I still don’t). In no particular order.

“Run Baby Run” – The Newbeats

This was originally released in 1964 in the US and was an American hit in 1965 but it was picked up during the Northern Soul era in the UK and was a Top 10 hit in 1971. This was at a time when anything with a four-to-the-floor beat, a BPM over 120 and a vaguely soulful feel would get a speculative release to cash in on the Northern Soul phenomenon. I loved the song, unreservedly, from the first time I heard it. It doesn’t waste any time; two bars of the bass riff and drums, two bars where the riff’s doubled up on over-driven guitar and two bars of the riff reinforced again with the string section before the harmony vocals come in. One of my favourite intros, and there’s even a falsetto vocal to come later as well.

Lyrically, it’s a really simple teen love song. There are no stunning insights there; that’s not the point, it’s a pop song, a great pop song, beefed up by a powerful rock arrangement. They were designed to be catchy but disposable; to be sung or hummed until the next hit came along. “Run Baby Run” bucked that trend by becoming a hit eight years after its original release. Even better, nearly forty years later, the riff resurfaced on “Up the Dosage” on Paul Weller’s 2010 classic, “Wake Up the Nation”. So much for the ephemeral pop tune. I don’t know if all of the UK single pressings were slightly off-centre, but mine is. I bought a Newbeats CD so I could hear a digital version, but I still prefer the analog, even with the slight wowing; it’s more authentic.

“Isn’t It Time” – The Babys

January 1978; punk had run its course, New Wave and Power Pop were still in the gestation period and disco reigned supreme; it was a good time to be a DJ and absolutely the wrong time to release a four-minute single that went through various tempo changes and breakdowns, had strings, brass and backing vocals and featured an androgynous singer in the Bowie mould. The album “Broken Heart” had been released the previous year and, to be fair, the band was probably being aimed at the American market but it was never going to fly in the UK. I’ve been blessed with the awkward gene and I didn’t care about that. “Isn’t It Time” pushed all of my buttons; the lead vocal was stunning, the backing vocals were superb and there was a huge dynamic range, from the quiet piano-backed verses to the gloriously over-the-top chorus with strings, brass, thunderous bass and huge BVs. I’m partial to a bit of overkill now and then and The Babys certainly fulfilled that need in January 1979. I picked up a copy of the album a few years later on a market stall and I still say “Isn’t It Time” was a great single; I can still enjoy it today. Here’s a couple of observations: this widescreen, two kitchen sinks, almost operatic style that would never work was actually the same formula that worked for Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman a few months later. That stunning lead vocal was by a guy called John Waite who, seven years later had a global hit with “Missing You”. Sometimes it takes a while.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” – Graham Bonnet

Released at around the same time as “Broken Heart” was Graham Bonnet’s eponymous solo album. Bonnet had seen modest success as a singer with The Marbles in the late Sixties but had moved into making advertising jingles in the Seventies. The album was the attempt to break into the music business; it was to take a little while.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” was the album’s first single. Bonnet wasn’t renowned as a songwriter and the album’s packed with covers of standards including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Tired of Being Alone” and “Rock Island Line”. Looking back at it now with a greater knowledge of how the business worked, it was obviously a showcase album covering a variety of styles as part of a longer-term strategy to break through. If you can’t write great songs (and the only Graham Bonnet song on the album definitely isn’t great) then do an interpretation of a Dylan song. Fair play, he did a great job.

It’s a rock treatment of a folk song with a bit of Talk Box lead guitar and a sinew-straining vocal from Bonnet that was later to become his trademark. Again, I fell in love instantly when I heard this on Radio 1. The single did nothing chartwise (except in Australia). The album did even worse but a couple of years later he was singing with Rainbow on “Since You Been Gone” and “All Night Long” and in 1981 he got his solo hit single with “Night Games” and he’s been in and out of rock bands ever since.

“Build Me Up Buttercup” – The Foundations

The Foundations started their career as a soul band. “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” was a classic piece of early piece of British pop/soul. Following that they were condemned to walk that line between soul credibility and pop success. Like many Sixties bands they had management problems, personnel problems and issues around the production of their songs. “Build Me Up Buttercup” straddles that line between bubblegum pop and soul. It’s catchy and I’m fairly certain it was never intended to be anything other than an ephemeral sixties hit. It didn’t quite work out that way. For me the performance of Colin Young (who replaced the original singer Clem Curtis) elevated the song to classic status. And it’s stuck around; when I was doing a weekly DJ set to a packed 1500-capacity student venue in Canterbury, it was a guaranteed floor-filler with people that were born at least ten years after it charted. You can call it cheese, I’ll say it’s a mature classic.

“I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor

This song is a bona fide anthem. When it was released in 1978, it was a bit of a lightning rod for the anti-disco sentiments that were coming from the rock world. Looking at it from a twenty-first century perspective, it wasn’t about the music, it was homophobia pure and simple, and I think I knew that at the time. Disco tracks were being made by hugely gifted musicians (Nile Rodgers is an international treasure now) and they were complex rhythmically and melodically. More importantly, they were hugely popular. A couple of years ago, I looked up the chords to the song. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I wanted to try an acoustic guitar version of the song. It was a bit of a wake-up moment; the song’s chord progression is circular, moving up in fourths from the tonic chord of A minor and eventually finding its way back there via a few jazz chords. Sorry for the basic music theory, but it just confirmed my gut feeling that the song was a bit special. As for the reaction to the song in the Seventies, two things. I’m Scottish, don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t like; I love rock music, but I don’t take kindly to homophobia from hairy-arsed rednecks – burning albums isn’t so far from burning books and look where that ended. This is a great song.

If there’s a message in all of this, it’s to be open-minded and respect the musical preferences of others. All the best for 2022.

Sorry if I got a bit carried away with this one.

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