Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fall From a Height and Land on Your Feet

It's become abundantly clear that I simply must obtain the box set by the group Orange Juice, and listen to it on repeat until I have absorbed all their songs. The wit of the lyrics, the joy of the melodies and harmonies, and the welcoming warble of Edwyn Collins's voice all add up to a marvelous pop music confection.

In the interim, consider the following: firstly, Can't Help Myself from the album Rip it Up.

On something of a tangent, have a listen to Fall From a Height by the Swedish pop maestros The Honeydrips, paying attention to the lyrics, compared to the opening line of Can't Help Myself.

Finally, set aside a bit of time to watch this documentary about Orange Juice singer Edwyn Collins, and his return to music after suffering from a severe stroke.

(playlist version of the above documentary in case that one has problems.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

1969 - A wellspring of Sugar, Sugar

I choose to begin this story in 1957, when songwriters Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss had a hit with Perry Como's Catch a Falling Star. In 1960, the pair struck again with Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, sung by Brian Hyland.

Then in 1964, the songwriting duo created a band called The Detergents, to perform a novelty song called Leader of the Laundromat. They were aided by a fresh-faced young singer called Ron Dante, rounding out a clean-cut trio. The song was a spoof of Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las, but in those days the rules about parody being fair use weren't enough to protect the soapy stars from a lawsuit brought by the authors of the original.

Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and George Morton were the aggrieved party. They were contracted to the production company Aldon Music, headed by entrepreneur Don Kirshner, and all part of an almost mythical scene which came to be referred to as Brill Building Pop. The name came from the structure housing the headquarters of many of the big songwriting teams of the day, but a building down the road at 1650 Broadway was also a key landmark, another hub of hitmaking in the early 60s, and where most of the action happened for this team.

Barry and Greenwich were a married couple, and it's tempting to think of the lawsuit as a major battle of the songwriters. But it was quickly settled out of court and everyone seemed to get back to the business of writing classic songs - or at least exploitative novelty songs - pretty quickly.

The three members for the Detergents were all contracted to Aldon music too, so the combatants were in one sense, all on the same team. But there was clearly a lot of internal competition between the team members.

Ron Dante - whose role grows as the story unfolds, can be seen in this video, a 1965 TV performance of the follow up to Leader of the Laundromat. It's pretty dire, and I can barely recognise Ron compared to his post-hippy era incarnation.

If you still have the stomach for it, the video-less Leader of the Laundromat is more likely to bring a brief smile. The structure is a carbon copy of the song it spoofs, but the melodies have been changed ever so slightly. 

Barry and Greenwich were on board when their boss Kirshner was hired to manufacture music for the the Monkees, although they didn't contribute any of their biggest hits. Their marriage ended during the reign of the prefab four, and with it, the songwriting partnership.

Soon Kirshner fell out of love with the Monkees, too, annoyed that his puppets had defied their masters by demanding at least a degree of creative control of their product. Famously, Kirshner decided to work with a band that was incapable of disobeying his orders, a band of cartoon characters. The Archies were about to come off the comic book page, onto the tube and onto vinyl.

Jeff Barry was brought on board to write songs. With his old writing partner now divorced, he teamed up with Andy Kim to write Sugar Sugar. Ron Dante, formerly of the dastardly Detergents who had pilloried Barry's classic death-disc, was the lead singer behind the animated Archie. Brill building alumnus Toni Wine (co-writer of A Groovy Kind of Love) provided Betty and Veronica's vocal contributions.

Sugar Sugar was the biggest-selling single of 1969. It was also the year Led Zeppelin's  Whole Lotta Love was recorded and released. Musically the two songs seem like polar opposites, but in a way they're about the same thing and I think they complement each other nicely.

There's also a Sugar Sugar video featuring Ron Dante, looking so much better here than in the 50s-style gear the Detergents favoured.

There are plenty of postscripts to the Sugar Sugar story. Ron Dante went on to co-produce lots of Barry Manilow's music. Apparently his voice can be heard among the backing vocals of Mandy. I would have preferred more of Ron and less of Barry, but that's just me. The two swapped roles in '75, when Barry produced a new, proto-disco version of Sugar Sugar for Ron. It can be heard on this page

I am more fond of the weird version by Sakkarin, which grazed the bottom of the British top ten in 1971. Novelty pop hitmaker Jonathan King was behind this one. I love the video where it's used to count down the top 30 on Top of the Pops. 

While not as infamous as Gary Glitter, King went on to serve jail time for sex offences against minors.

I also love Bob Stanley' assessment of Sugar Sugar  in his marvellous book Yeah Yeah Yeah.

As the Brill Building cubicles emptied and Ellie Greenwich licked her wounds in her New York apartment, ex-husband Jeff Barry packed his cowboy hat and headed for California. Old Golden Ears Don Kirshner welcomed him back into the fold, and together they concocted a song, which it was only too easy to imagine Davy Jones singing, called ‘Sugar, Sugar’. It was given to the Archies, a cartoon group that couldn’t answer back or punch holes in walls.
‘Sugar, Sugar’ is one of pop’s most beautifully constructed singles. It’s sweet, of course, and takes a while to stretch beyond the rather obvious sugar, honey and candy-girl references, but when it does it catches fire and it then becomes clear that the song is all a prelude to sex: ‘I’m gonna make your life so sweet,’ coos Betty Archie, so deeply and huskily it’s barely audible, then the line is repeated by excitable Veronica Archie in a precocious squeak, before singer Ron Dante, lead Archie, brings it all back home with real, human desire (‘Aaaaaaaah, SUGAR!’); the record fades just as it introduces a final hook to snare you, with joyous ba-ba-bas straight out of the Mamas and Papas’ locker. It’s so good you want to hear it all over again the moment it finishes. It’s the kind of single the auto-repeat function on a Dansette was made for.
Christmas 1969 saw teenagers getting their own stereo hi-firecord players, built for long-playing albums; their Dansettes were discarded, handed down to their younger brothers and sisters. In Britain, eight weeks of ‘Sugar, Sugar’ at no. 1 was followed by six weeks of Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’6 as 1969 bled into 1970; the severance between album-based rock and 45-led pop was complete, and the Monkees were held responsible for the inanity at the heart of our singles chart.
Ron Dante never matched the pop perfection of Sugar Sugar, but he did it justice on more than one occasion. His solo album Ron Dante Brings You Up has pretensions of ushering in adulthood, but this track  had just the same juvenile appeal has his super-young cartoon work. It was also a Barry/Kim composition.

The other post-script closes a few more circles. Vance and Pockriss got their old buddy Ron Dante to record an album of their songs, using the band name the Cuff Links as a vehicle. The first album Tracy was top notch. One of the best songs, All the Young Women was an anti war anthem in the Pete Seeger tradition, all sombre and minor key.

By contrast, the album's hit singles were very much in the bubblegum mode, girls' names in the titles, uplifting, radio-friendly unit shifters par excellence

But after the album was made, Ron had a row with Vance-Pockriss over royalties. He was replaced as singer, at one stage the arranger of the album, Rupert Holmes stepped in on vocals. In a later incarnation, Rupert would later take up residency at the top of the charts with Escape, the Pina Colada Song. But before that he had the important job of miming to Ron Dante's vocals in the videos for the two best Cuff Links songs, Tracy and When Julie Comes Around. It was like the cartoon all over again, but this time it was Rupert instead of Archie being animated with Ron's voice. (My contention that Rupert Holmes is in the videos is corroborated only by a youtube commenter, but I haven't had confirmation. It certainly looks like the same guy who 11 years later would clown around with the Village People.  If I have got this wrong, please let me know!)

Really I hope it's true, The Pina Colada Song is too perfectly cheesy, and how nice to end the story where it began, with Vance/Pockriss, legal argy bargy, and the total artifice and total joy of manufactured pop at its finest.