The record industry, eh!!? Drugs, sex, shouting, bullying. A few more drugs, a bit more sex. It’s a wonder we ever make any music.
And just when you think maybe people can see it’s a bit more serious than that, along comes Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s and Mick Jagger’s take on the early 70s American record industry.
I haven’t seen the Sky Atlantic series, because I don’t subscribe to Sky. My cable provider is Virgin, and Virgin refuses to pay the necessary fee to carry Atlantic. So I’ve missed out on a lot of reportedly brilliant drama, from Boardwalk to Game of Thrones to Ray Donovan.
What I’ve read about Vinyl is that it’s either a) a rollicking and accurate rendition of the American record industry in the early 70s, albeit with some script problems; or b) that it’s a ridiculous caricature of how the public thinks the record industry behaved but rarely did.
One way or the other, it obviously reinforces stereotypes and, frankly, we could do without them.
Then up pops Kesha, tied into what looks like, on the face of it, a totally unreasonable record deal. But a US Court didn’t think so, and refused to give her leave to break the terms of the deal and record elsewhere.
Having lost that battle, we then start hearing accusations that her producer (and boss of the label) Dr Luke abused her, verbally and physically. More, she says he drugged and raped her.
I don’t know if any of this is true. And neither do you.
But that hasn’t stopped the Twitterati going mad with charges that Sony – the ultimate owner of her records – is a ‘rapist sympathiser’.
It does seem remarkable that an 18 -year-old would be advised to sign a record deal (with Dr Luke’s Kemosabe label) and a publishing deal, (with another Dr Luke company, Prescription Songs) that tied her into a situation which, 11 years later, she can’t get away from. I’m told that the initial deal was for eight albums, but as far as I can see only two have been released. Someone is doing something wrong, and someone is lying.
I can tell you, hand on heart, that I would never let the pop star who lives in my house near such a deal. The idea that one individual has one hand in your recording pocket, the other in your publishing pocket, and is also your producer – well, someone steered Kesha wrong. Or Dr Luke gave her a ton of money, enough to make her not care one way or the other.
All I can observe is that, generally speaking, courts tend to look with sympathy on young artists who have signed unsuitable deals. That would usually go double when, 11 years down the line, things have clearly broken down.
And I might also observe that if Kesha had taken the allegations of drugs and rape to court, and won, her contract would instantly have been rendered invalid.
But what with Atlantic’s fictional Vinyl, and the all-too-real life Kesha case, the public is once again fed a diet of record business exploitation and excess.
As the music business and, more particularly, artists fight to wrestle back their right to earn some money from their efforts, this is exactly the kind of jiggery-pokery tabloid fodder we could all do without. Well, apart from the public who clearly lap this stuff up before turning to Twitter and Facebook to make their uninformed observations.
You couldn’t make it up. And in this instance, you don’t have to. More’s the pity.
Do we really listen to certain music because we think the band or the singer is ‘cool’? I do hope not.
We certainly weren’t giving the matter any thought at as we luxuriated in the riches of 60s pop that rained down on us after the success of Love Me Do and Please Please Me.
The whole ‘were you Beatles or were you Stones’ question was a post-rationalisation by NME writers more interested in their own philosophical musings than the music itself.
I was 13 when I heard Love Me Do, 14 when Please Please Me was released three months later.
It was a momentous time for me. Between the release of those two records, just before my fourteenth birthday, my mother had given my sister and I a carrier bag each – containing underwear and pyjamas – and told us to go to a friend’s house down the road.
And that was the last we saw of the house we had lived in for seven years with a stepfather who had beaten and bullied us. We had been, largely, cowed into submission.
But in my fourteenth year, I had grown five inches and with increased height had come physical strength. I used the height and the strength to fight back. Oddly, it was that – me fighting back – that made my mother decide it was time to go.
Three days later, pathetic carrier bags in hand – all we had left of our previous lives – we were back at my grandfather’s house, where we had lived for six years prior to this disastrous marriage.
Back to me sharing a bed with Uncle Jack; back to one tap, cold water only, in the scullery; back to the toilet out in the back yard; back to bare floorboards and such cold that ice would form on the inside of the windows.
Do you remember that winter? January 1963 was the coldest of the 20th century; the coldest recorded for 150 years. But I was comfortable with my background and the emergence of The Beatles – touted at first as working class lads from Liverpool – could not have been better timed.
These four guys were like me. If they could do it, so could I.
Love Me Do shone through the dross of pretty young Americans called Frankie and Bobby and Ricky.
Mind you, the name – Beatles; that sounded stupid. But, you know, we got used to it.
And then, as the snow took hold and yesterday’s Daily Sketch made do as toilet paper in the iced up backyard loo, Please Please Me came out like the sun.
But even that was eclipsed nine weeks later by the first album.
The Please Please Me album was a revelation. Now we began to realise – these guys are writing their own songs!
But they were also covering songs by people we’d never heard of.
There was the sophistication of Arthur Alexander’s Anna (my personal favourite), the sweet pop soul of Baby It’s You (part-written by Burt Bacharach), the throat-tearing excitement of Twist And Shout (a Motown classic before we knew about Motown).
And standing alongside these ‘professional songs’ were the McCartney-Lennon songs – every bit as good, making excuses to no-one.
And by the way, if you think I got that wrong, check out the back cover of the album sleeve. McCartney-Lennon was the order and stayed so until She Loves You (where it reverted to Lennon-McCartney, as it had been on Love Me Do).
We were now in a different world, and things started moving at a speed that only 14-year-olds could keep up with. In the middle of 1963, along came The Rolling Stones.
Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On didn’t sound like a cover (we barely knew who Chuck Berry was at the time; we found out pretty fast); Come On sounded like The Beatles on speed (we didn’t know what speed was……etc).
Which was not altogether a bad thing, because their follow up single was a Lennon-McCartney cover. Jagger and Richards were in the room and watched John and Paul ‘knock out’ I Wanna Be Your Man in 15 minutes. That, and a lot of pressure from their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, persuaded the two Stones they should give this songwriting lark a crack.
Their first attempt was As Tears Go By, a top 10 hit for Marianne Faithfull in June 1964. The Stones themselves took another seven months to ‘dare’ (according to Keith Richards) to release one of their own songs as a single. The Last Time made the top spot, and even cracked the US top 10 for them.
But look at the speed of all this. Between October 1962 and February 1965 – 29 months – the world had been stood on its head. Apart from The Beatles and The Stones, we had The Hollies, Billy J Kramer, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Gerry & The Pacemakers.
Not to mention Bob Dylan.
I was studying Grade 7 piano. I refused to attend any more lessons. I told my mother I wanted a guitar. In early 1964, having learned to play three chords in three different keys, I formed my first band.
So do you think, honestly, we had time to sit around asking ourselves, “Is this cool?”
It just was. Bloody cool. And it kept getting cooler. We weren’t bothered whether The Stones were cooler than The Beatles; whether we should be listening to Sandie Shaw; whether Freddie & The Dreamers were just bloody embarrassing.
We understood quality though. We knew Dusty Springfield was a touch above. And we understood that sooner or later we would have to take Bob Dylan seriously. And that it was all over for Elvis.
But we also knew, and you can’t post-rationalise this, that The Beatles were the vanguard, the leaders and the high water mark.
They went from Beatles For Sale to Rubber Soul to Revolver in barely 18 months. They went from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in three and a half years.
Now that is cool.
But it doesn’t take anything away from The Stones, who made live their arena. After following The Beatles down the road to psychedelia – a blind alley for The Stones – they put their heads back on straight, recorded Beggar’s Banquet and slowly established themselves as the world’s biggest concert draw. They also, during the next ten years, recorded seven albums replete with stadium anthems that have kept them going for another 40 years.
Which is also cool.
So – all I’m saying – don’t ask again. We didn’t have to take sides. It was all just bloody wonderful. And it still is.
And if you don’t believe me, believe this – Mick Jagger less than a year from his 70th birthday; The Stones celebrating 50 years, and still delivering.
I spent an afternoon with Phil Spector in his suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel. Spector was always, to put it mildly, eccentric. But he could also be charming and lucid. I came away with at least four great tales (you’re reading them here for the first time).
I was there because Apple Records, the Beatles’ label, was reissuing A Christmas Gift For You, Spector’s fabulous 1963 album which I had bought on day of release, aged 14. Now, here I was, nine years later, in the room with the man himself.
Going off on a bit of a tangent, here’s an insight into the mind of a tabloid journalist. Also in the room was the Daily Express ‘music columnist’. Believe me, this person knew nothing about music. She was an embarrassment. (I was chatting to Harry Nilsson one day, when this buffoon cut across me with: “So, Nilsson, how did you come to write Without You?” Very quietly, Harry replied: “I didn’t.” And for her, the ‘journalist’, that was the story: Number One Hit Man Didn’t Write Song).
So, back at the Dorchester, Phil Spector has decided to put us all at ease by telling a funny story. The previous evening he and a couple of Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards) and friends had gone for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Some American diners had taken exception to these long haired, dirty rock and rollers in their midst and made their feelings known both to the maître d’ and to the dirty rock and rollers themselves.
The Stones, according to Phil, were British manners personified. Keith Richards tried to mollify the tourists, showing how civilised he was by attempting humour to defuse the situation. But the Yanks stayed angry, and eventually stormed out, refusing to pay.
Now, here’s the tabloid mind for you: before he even finished the story, your Daily Express correspondent asked Spector if she could use the phone in his suite. Right there in front of us, she dialled out and demanded, “Give me the news desk”. Then she started to dictate her story: “Rolling Stones and American Producer in posh restaurant fight”.
Right there in front of us! No shame, no hint of embarrassment.
Spector walked over, took the phone out of her hand and replaced it on the stand. He put his hand on her shoulder, politely guided her to the door saying, “Please do that outside” and showed her out.
Unphased, Spector continued to be the perfect host, before excusing himself to make a phone call. I wasn’t taking much notice until I heard him say: “Get me Muhammad Ali.” Ali – possibly my biggest hero – was fighting that night in America and Phil wanted tickets to a cinema relay of the fight in London.
“Hey, Muhammad, how are you, Champ? Listen, can you arrange some tickets for me to see the fight in London? Great, yeah I know you’re busy. Go get ’em Champ.”
I was so naive I believed it. It was years before I realised that this was a perfect piece of Spector grandstanding. The idea that a man preparing himself for a fight, and on his way to regaining the World Heavyweight Title, could be got on the phone in a couple of minutes of 1970s transatlantic telephony – well, you get my drift.
But that’s the kind of chutzpah that got the young genius into the hit-making business in the first place.
Later, I told him I was a songwriter and had been an admirer ever since I made the connection between Zip A Dee Doo Dah (by Bob. B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans) and Da Doo Ron Ron (by the Crystals). By the time the Ronettes’ Be My Baby arrived I was completely hooked on Spector’s Wall Of Sound.
I don’t even remember how I knew he was the guy behind these records. The concept of ‘the producer’ was unknown to the public pre-Spector. But in 1963, within three records I knew who Phil Spector was, and I excitedly bought his Christmas Album totally on faith.
So, naturally, I asked him to divulge some secrets. Well, he said, one of his tricks was to record, say, the drums. Then he would feed them back out into the studio and put microphones in strategic places to get that big, bouncy echo.
It took me just two years to discover he was snowing me. I was at AIR Studios with Mott The Hoople and they wanted the Spector sound. Their engineer Bill Price was explaining how it could be achieved. I said, “No, Bill. This is how he did it”. We argued back and forth and finally, exasperated, I said: “Look Bill, I didn’t want to have to say this, but Phil Spector himself told me this is how he did it!”
He looked at me like a hole had just opened up in his world. “But he told me he did it THIS way!”
I’d love to be able to report that we both fell about laughing. In fact I felt deeply embarrassed. I’d thought I was in possession of a magical piece of knowledge, but the Wizard of Phil had just made up different stuff to keep his secrets safe.
I should have known better, because Spector did tell me one very obvious tall story at The Dorchester. At the end of the Christmas album is a sweet, string-laden Silent Night over which he speaks a little homily to Christmas. “The union called a strike just before that session,” he told me, “so I had to go into the studio and overdub 16 violin parts, one at a time.”
It’s just as well I have never subscribed to the idea that my heroes should live up to my personal expectations. But at least he sent a handwritten note, in a handwritten envelope – what more could you ask?
The handwritten note
The handwritten envelope
In truth, all I ask of my heroes is that they thrill me from time to time with their genius. And Phil Spector was a genius in the limited sphere that is pop music.
Which brings me to this week’s song, a cover version.
There are almost as many reasons for making a cover version as there are cover versions. You do it because you love the song as written; or because you think it will be a hit; or because you’ve seen something in it that no-one has seen before.
Phil Spector’s You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (co-written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill) is a song that’s been covered countless times, a dramatic song that singers use to show off their power and range. I’ve never had much power as a singer, and my range has gone with the wind in the past two decades.
But what a song! And I’ve always loved singing it. So I challenged myself to approach it in a way where my limitations wouldn’t be an issue. What I came up with was: ‘How would Norah Jones do it?’ And my answer was: she would remove all the drama and simply rely on the song to tell its own story.
So that’s what I tried to do. And guess what? It’s impossible. The drama is all there, in the writing. It’s really, really hard to sing it low-key. I manage it, through an act of will. You’ll hear that I barely raise my voice. But even Norah Jones, the most understated singer I can think of, would struggle to remove all the drama. Have a listen and let me know, please, what you think.
And for the aspiring songwriters and producers out there, here’s a second version with the drums and reverb removed.
You’ll hear that it begins to feel even more intimate, but still no less dramatic. For a similar (but infinitely better) example of the low key approach to a dramatic song, have a look at Katie Melua singing Diamonds Are Forever, just her and her guitar. Whether you like her or not, this is a stunning performance.