Saturday, June 5, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs / One Word: Days

Kirsty MacColl: Days


My first post this week featured a perfect Tracey Ullman popcover of a Kirsty MacColl song; I couldn't resist the chance to end the week with an equally perfect cover performed by Kirsty herself.

Days, which first emerged on 1989 hit record Kite, is a lovely, dreamy pop take on a Kinks song that charted third highest of MacColl's lifetime releases. I've always found the song a bit more poignant since the English singer-songwriter's untimely death by speedboat a decade ago at the age of 41. And it makes a great transition song for our upcoming theme, which will feature songs with one-word titles.

Three Minute Pop Songs: What I Like About You

The Romantics: What I Like About You


I have no idea who The Romantics are... and, to tell you the truth, I really don't *want* to know - all that matters is, every time I hear this song, I think (i.e. fantasize): I am twenty-five... I am a great dancer... I don't have a care in the world...

Seriously (or not)... who can resist the catchy melody, the intoxicating lyrics and the insistent beat - and if you really want to find out more about them, go here or here. Not me - I'm dancing (up, down, jump around, think about true romance, yeah!)

Three Minute Pop Songs: Gene Clark Edition

Dillard and Clark: Radio Song


Gene Clark: Hear the Wind


Gene Clark: Rain Song


Steve Earle famously said he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s Kitchen table in his cowboy boots and declare Townes Van Zandt the best songwriter ever. Well, I don’t own a pair of cowboy boots but I’m prepared to stand on Bob’s kitchen table in my dirty socks and say Gene Clark had a lot of what Townes had and a bit more of something else. Trying to prove the case when the theme is three minute pop songs is tough; not because Clark couldn’t write a great pop song – no one needs to prove that – but because he was inclined to time them around 2:48, 3:17 or, just to be perverse, 3:05. We miss out on some obvious classics; ‘In a Misty Morning’, ‘I Remember the Railroad’, ‘Polly’, ‘Dragon’s Eye’, all of ‘No Other’ and ‘So Rebellious a Lover’ and that was just his solo career, after he’d made it big with the Byrds. In this post we get to hear three tracks – a whole nine minutes - that may have slipped below the radar.

It’s too bad Gene Clark gets lumped into country rock because it’s questionable whether he was either. Sterling contributions to that genre aside, he crafted great pop songs. The tracks here, Radio Song, Rain Song and Hear the Wind are but humble examples. Listen closely to Radio Song and you hear his early days in the New Christy Minstrels. Tune an ear to Hear the Wind and you’ll catch the budding strains of early 70s FM. As for Rain Song? Imagine the Bee Gees circa 68-69 getting their hands on it; not hard to do. It was a tragedy of Clark’s that after success with the Byrds he never cracked it with an audience that really deserved him.

Guest post by John

Three Minute Pop Songs: More Recent Edition

It would be easy to think, from this week’s posts, that the three minute pop song was a phenomenon of the 60s and early 70s, never to be heard of again. Even They Don’t Know, from the 80s, was produced with a certain retro feel, and the same case could be made for the British ska scene in general, if not of Three Minute Hero in particular. But I am here to report that the three minute pop song is alive and well. Here are an example from the 90s and one from 2003. Each has thematic elements that are universal to pop songs throughout the ages, and each, musically, belongs entirely to its time.

Fountains of Wayne: Hackensack


Hackensack is a beautiful pop ballad, and a love song. The guy pledges devotion to the girl who has left him behind, swearing to be there for her should she ever return. The production is understated for this kind of song, compared to how it might have been done in the sixties or seventies. But the emotion comes through every bit as clearly. For this kind of song to work, every element must be exactly in place, and yet it must all feel effortless. I offer this as a fine example of how it’s done.

Toad the Wet Sprocket: Walk on the Ocean


Walk on the Ocean is a little more complicated. This is a little gem of songwriting, of the sort that makes the charts only once in a while. Taken literally, the song tells of a couple who make a trip to the seashore, and then come home. If that was all, it wouldn’t be worth remembering the song. But Walk on the Ocean also works on another level. It seems to me that the trip to the seashore is actually a remembrance of the characters’ youth. They remember all of the friends they’ve always said they would get back in touch with, but probably won’t. And they remember an innocence lost that can never be regained.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)

Looking Glass: Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)


I was at an acoustic jam last night, and during our dinner break, we started throwing out the names of songs we wanted to learn. Someone suggested "Brandy", and someone else laughed derisively. I came to the aid of the first person, because I've always loved this catchy story song. At some point in the past decade of so, I discovered the Looking Glass formed in New Brunswick, N.J., further endearing the song to me.

Some say the song was inspired by a local oddity: the grave of Mary Ellis. According to local lore, she fell for a sea captain who vowed to marry her, but never returned. Her grave stands on the banks of the Raritan River, where she came to every day to wait for his return. Even though the area surrounding her grave became a flea market, then a movie theater parking lot, her grave remains.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: I Want You Back

The Jackson 5: I Want You Back


The thing about the perfect pop song is how infectious it is, how even if you want to not like it, it will find a way into your veins and make your toe tap without you realizing it, or have you humming it on the car on the way home from work. There is perhaps nothing as saccharine and infectious as the hits the Jackson 5 were putting out in the 1960's and 70's on the Motown label.

"I Want You Back" was released in 1969 with lead vocals by a preteen Michael Jackson and was one of their biggest hits. It is a perfect three minutes of toe-tapping, head bopping joy.

Three Minute Pop Songs: You're the Best

Joe Esposito: You're the Best

I'm not quite sure why I had this song in my library, but I'm glad to share it here anyway.

This is, of course, the song that played during the tournament montage in the movie The Karate Kid. As a wide eyed Daniel Russo punched and kicked his way through the members of the Kobra Kai dojo, Joe Esposito's lyrics told us all what we already knew. Russo was the best around, and nothing was ever gonna keep him down.

Esposito actually had a fairly long and distinguished career in the music industry. He scored a top 5 single with Donna Summer in 1978 as a member of the R&B group The Brooklyn Dreams ("Heaven Knows"). He is also a three time Grammy nominee and has written songs for artists such as Summer, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Stephen Stills.

Still... he'll always be known for these three minutes.

Interesting sidenote... In a 2008 interview with Adam Carolla, Esposito said this song was originally written for Rocky III, but was replaced at the last minute by "Eye of the Tiger." Rocky or Russo, who do you think is the best?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: There's Always Something There To Remind Me

Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick: (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me


Three-minute pop songs were a hallmark of the 60's – the length suited AM radio demands, for one thing. Here's a tune from a pair of songwriters who met working in the NYC Brill Building, a music producing center since the 30's. Burt Bacharach, composer and pianist, teamed up with Hal David, who wrote the lyrics, and together they penned dozens of hits for Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, The Carpenters, Jackie DeShannon, The Fifth Dimension, Tom Jones, B.J. Thomas, and others. Their premier vocalist, though, was Dionne Warwick, who had 38 charting singles with Bacharach in the 60's and early 70's. Bacharach-David were so prolific at cranking out the 3-minute pop song that no fewer than 12 unique songs of theirs on my hard drive fall within 5 seconds of the holy 3:00 mark. This hit song from 1967 hits it exactly.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: Three Minute Hero

The Selecter: Three Minute Hero


When I found out what our theme was this week, this is the song I had to post. That it clocks at exactly three minutes is probably not a coincidence, given the subject.

How do we define a pop song? In the 1980s, British ska came out. It was never even remotely popular here in the United States. Sure, Madness had a hit with Our House, but that wasn’t ska any more. But this music came from England, and there it was quite another story. The two-tone ska rode up the British pop charts from the beginning. Still, the members of The Selecter didn’t know that was going to happen when they went into the studio to record Three Minute Hero. So the singer’s hope of singing that one song that could a get a working man through the drudgery of his day was an attempt at irony. The great irony is that it actually happened.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: Reach Out (I'll Be There)

four tops

The Four Tops: Reach Out (I'll Be There)


I feel as though I have to hurry up and post a musical apology for that last entry of mine, guys. So let me take you from the ridiculous to the sublime.

In my mind, there are three songwriting teams who were major contributors to pop songs of the 60's. I hope to post about all three in coming days, but let me start off with three hugely talented men who mean a lot to this Detroit-bred gal: Lamont Dozier and Brian and Edward Holland. They were known collectively as Holland-Dozier-Holland, and together they wrote an enormous number of Motown-label hits for Berry Gordy's artists between 1962-1967, names that include Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Miracles, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, and the group I'm featuring here: the Four Tops. Rolling Stone magazine ranks this #206 of the top 500 rock/pop songs, so there! Hopefully I'm now forgiven for that last tune.

Three Minute Pop Songs: They Don't Know

Tracey Ullman: They Don't Know


Audiophiles know that 7-time Emmy Award winning actress and comedienne Tracey Ullman - whose late eighties sketch comedy show spawned The Simpsons - was also an international pop star for a short time in the early eighties; her 1983 debut album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places and its 1984 follow-up You Caught Me Out spawned 6 top 100 UK hits, making it all the odder that she would move on from music almost completely, except as a stage-and-screen actress, for the remainder of her long and fruitful career.

Ullman's music tended towards retro Spector-esque 60s and 70s pop with a humorous, over-the-top 80s flair, but this Kirsty MacColl cover, her highest-charting hit, plays it relatively straight. Catchy as hell, and perfectly pop, from swirling intro to short, ringing fade-out.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Three Minute Pop Songs: Gimme Some Lovin'

The Spencer Davis Group: Gimme Some Lovin'


Steve Winwood was only 17 years old when Spencer Davis recruited him as a vocalist in 1965. Now all of these years later most people don't remember much about Spencer Davis but Winwood went on to have a legendary career that has spanned multiple bands and decades.

The Spencer Davis Group only had a couple of hit songs before Winwood left the band to form Traffic. Without their dynamic frontman SDG foundered and Davis spent much of the rest of his career as a producer for other acts.

Interestingly, the only other major hit that The Spencer Davis Group produced was I'm A Man, clocking in at 3:01. So these guys were true forerunners of the perfect pop song!

Three Minute Pop Songs: Philosophy of the World


The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

[OMG it's still in print for you to purchase]

Some pop songs capture us with a compelling hook. Others may tap into a personal reminiscence of our lost youth. Some are slow and moving. Some are fast and spirited. We'd happily play them until we wore out the grooves.

And some are none of these things. Listening to them can be considered more of a rite of passage than a musical treat. Sadly for you, I have one such song that clocks in at exactly 3:00.

The Shaggs are unique in American music, both in their backstory and in their approach to music. Three sisters formed the group at the insistence of their father, whose own mother had predicted during a palmreading that "he would marry a strawberry blonde woman, that he would have two sons after she had died, and that his daughters would form a popular music group." After the first two predictions came true, he set about to realize the third by yanking his daughters out of their New Hampshire school and setting them to work learning to sing and play.

The results weren't pretty. For one thing, these girls can't find the rhythm with both hands and a flashlight. Their lyrics might pass for profound if English were your fourth or fifth language. Harmony – that's a town in Maine. So when Papa Wiggin died in 1975, the sisters hung up their guitars, dismantled the drum kit, and moved on with their lives.

Still, as is sometimes the way of these things (see also, for example, Florence Foster Jenkins or Mrs. Miller), their single 1969 album took flight, first catching the attention of the band NRBQ, and later Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain. "Philosophy of the World" stands as a quintessential example of the style known as Outsider Music.

Give it a listen, if only for the bragging rights.

Public Domain/ Three Minute Pop Songs: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The Tokens: The Lion Sleeps Tonight


Here is the perfect transition tune to welcome our new theme. Of course, The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a traditional song, known in its home of Africa as Wimoweh. And it was a huge hit for The Tokens here in the United States. So Public Domain and Pop Song are covered. Three Minutes? Ahh, there’s the rub. The Tokens’ hit version in the sixties came in at 2:45. What to do? Well, I had a bit of luck. It turns out that The Tokens recorded the song again for one of those wonderful doo-wop specials on PBS. And their voices still sound great. And there are the extra 15 seconds, without having to resort to just applause at the end. To top it all off, you get to hear The Tokens recorded with modern equipment. It’s a win-win-win situation.