The Summer Before The Summer Of Love

Anytime I like, I can close my eyes and transport myself back to the summer of 1966.

The sun is shining and pop is becoming sublime.

Monday Monday, Summer In The City, Sunshine Superman, Paperback Writer, Good Vibrations, Revolver, Pet Sounds – it’s easily the best summer for pop music to date. Possibly ever.

It’s the summer of me, John O’Sullivan, Jenny Cropper and Jenny’s cousin.

John is moping about the cousin. Jenny is moping about John. I’m moping about Jenny.

The cousin isn’t bothered either way.

Talk about (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Still, aged 17, everything points to a future of magic, hope and optimism. The next few years were not to disappoint.

Talking about 1966 and classic songwriters, Michael Brown is not a name that would spring to many people’s minds. But he did write one stone cold classic. He was 16 when he wrote Walk Away Renee with two of his bandmates in The Left Banke. It made number 3 in the UK charts, number 14 in America.

It was a nice record, but not a great one.

Given where pop was by 1966, Left Banke were slightly behind the curve. The singing is rigid and uncertain and the production and arrangement are over-elaborate. They’re trying too hard. Phil Spector or George Martin would have sorted it, although they might have struggled with Michael Brown’s vocals.

But George and Phil didn’t get the gig. It fell to Motown’s top production team – Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier – to reveal the true greatness of the song when The Four Tops recorded Walk Away Renee for their phenomenal Reach Out album.

This was an album that included 7 Rooms of Gloom, If I Were A Carpenter, Standing In The Shadows Of Love and Bernadette. Any song would have its work cut out to shine in this company. But Walk Away Renee fearlessly followed the smash hit opener, Reach Out I’ll Be There, and did the job so brilliantly it became a pop standard.

At number 220 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, it sits just above Walk On The Wild Side, Pretty Woman, Dance To The Music and Good Times.

So Michael Brown has his own little corner of pop eternity.

He died earlier this week. In keeping with the pop fraternity’s efforts not to live into old age and become a burden on society, he was only 65.

In the last month alone Lesley Gore (68), Andy Fraser, bass player with Free (62), Chris Rainbow (68) and Steve Strange (55) have all done their bit to reduce our burden.

I was saddest about Chris Rainbow. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Chris and my music partner Pete Zorn did a lot of work together. They would frequently end up back at my sister’s in Gipsy Hill for mind altering substances and the best cheesecake on the planet.

Chris spent the last years of his life on the Isle Of Skye.

After I chose Denis Blackham to master my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!!, it turned out Denis was also living on Skye. (Skye Mastering. Duh!). It stood to reason he would know Chris.

Sadly, he told me, Chris was suffering from dementia. He also had Parkinson’s Disease.

Remembering a young man who had scared the pants off me driving around London in his Rover 2000 (once was enough) and – despite a debilitating stammer – could have you laughing into the early hours of the morning, it seemed a terrible end.

No worse than for anyone else who suffered similarly, I’m sure. But Chris Rainbow was preternaturally talented, and it’s a cruel God who doesn’t allow full rein to such gifts.

Back to that summer of 1966. As it drew to a close, I was on my way to London in a black Humber Hawk estate (‘the hearse’ my mother called it). On the radio Satisfaction was still being played, and Monday Monday.

Listening to music cocooned in a big car was a much better way to experience it than on our Dansette player back home. Everything was enhanced. Most of all from that four hour journey I remember Lee Dorsey’s Working In The Coalmine.

Obsessed as I was with The Beatles, I was unaware that r’n’b and soul music had crept up on me. Hearing Lee Dorsey as if I was inside a hi fi speaker suddenly coalesced my taste for something different – the rougher, tougher descendants of the blues.

As the summer before the summer of love turned into the actual Summer Of Love, you would find me dancing myself dizzy at parties all over London to Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music.

I didn’t need a dance partner. Didn’t want one. I was in what was then the greatest city in the world, at the best time it was possible to be there. I was 18, and I was a dancing fool. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, Carla Thomas, Booker T – oh my goodness, were there ever such riches? It’s a wonder Sgt Pepper got a look in.

And the fun didn’t really stop until round about the mid-70s, when the beginning of years of social unrest revealed the fine line that separates civilisation from our more primitive selves.

But even the three day week and the winter of discontent couldn’t take away those memories of 1966.

And, for me at least, there’ll never be another summer like the summer before the summer of love.

Hard to find decent video for Walk Away Renee from that time, but you should watch at least the first 30 seconds of this, if only to see how hard the stylists and the cameraman have worked to make Michael Brown look like Paul McCartney (15 seconds in).

And this will hopefully take you to Spotify for a pristine Four Tops.

Walk Away Renee – Single Version (Mono) – Four Tops

They think it’s All Over. But it’s not. It’s All Over Now.

I was really amused a couple of weeks ago to see Bob Dylan get a writing credit on It’s All Over Now, The Rolling Stones first number one.

I’d always known it as a Bobby Womack song. I’d also always assumed that Shirley Womack, who co-wrote it, was his wife. In fact, she was Bobby’s sister-in-law.

And that’s the trouble with assumptions.

Big rule of journalism: assume makes an ass out of u and me.

Which begs the question: how big can an ass possibly be, since at least 50% of the internet seems to be built on assumptions?

It has to be nearly 10 years since I had my introduction to the internet version of ‘I search, therefore I am’. My son, Remi, 14 or 15 at the time, insisted on playing me this ‘brilliant Eric Clapton track’.

He searched it, brought it up and played it. Eric Clapton my arse.

“That’s Classical Gas by Mason Williams,” I said.

“No. It’s Eric Clapton,” he said. “Look, it says so here.”

“Yes, I can see it says it is, but it’s not. When did you ever hear Eric Clapton play like that?”

“Well, that’s the point. It’s so different.”

“Yes. It’s different because it’s not Eric Clapton. It’s Mason Williams.”

Which got me looking ‘under the hood’ as they say and I was shocked at what I found. iTunes meta info rarely includes a songwriter credit. When it does, it’s frequently wrong. Elsewhere on the internet these mistakes are legion, and will probably never be corrected.

I once found You’re My World – Cilla’s number one, famously adapted from an Italian original – attributed to Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This was on a big compilation cd, so of course, the information found its way onto iTunes.

Even funnier, they apparently also wrote Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. The giveaway there is, Cole Porter. He wrote the song in 1934 when Burt Bacharach was six years old. Burt didn’t meet Hal until 1957.

Now you might think, “Does this really matter?”

To which I might reply, “Yes, it fucking matters!”

On reflection: yes, that is how I would reply.

Imagine you’re Harlan Howard, a relatively obscure country music writer and performer. You write a song called Busted. It’s picked up by Ray Charles, who has a massive top 10 hit with it. That’s your pension, right there.

Now imagine you’re Harlan Howard, and years later, you find that some lazy, feckless, ignorant, highly paid jackass has credited your song to Ray Charles as writer – forever to remain so on databases and download sites worldwide. Well, you’d be a little cheesed off, no?

Mind you, it’s a wonder Harlan didn’t get a writing credit on It’s All Over Now, along with Bobby and Shirley Womack and Bob Dylan.

Because the way Bob Dylan got a co-write credit on that song was that he did, in fact, write a song called It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. And that’s what another feckless jackass had in mind when he put Bobby Dylan’s name alongside Bobby Womack’s. It was in his mind, so he made an assumption.

But, of course, he didn’t know that Harlan Howard had also written a song called It’s All Over. Poor Harlan doesn’t get a look in. Not on his own song; nor on one he didn’t write.

This is how the record industry lets itself down. No attention to detail.

Some years back Virgin released an album called John Lennon’s Jukebox. John used to have a portable jukebox on which he carried 40 singles that had had some influence on him.

At least four of the songs on the album were credited to John Lennon as writer. How lazy do you have to be? You’re working on a project about the influence these songs had on someone. And then you credit that person with writing the songs that influenced him.

Two of these were classic Lovin’ Spoonful – Daydream and Do You Believe In Magic, written by John Sebastian. How come you’re filling in a database that determines where the money goes, and you don’t even know that John Sebastian wrote Daydream? Or at least, that John Lennon didn’t write it?

I write as a victim of the same kind of laziness, but from a different angle.

There are two versions of Car 67, the UK hit and the American version.

On Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops a few years ago, in the chart rundown for the week when I was in the top 10, they played the American version. The following week’s Feedback on Radio 4 devoted seven minutes to this catastrophic event. (I thought it was quite funny. But I also thought ‘Get a sense of perspective!’)

The next week – that’s right, two weeks after the original broadcast – Feedback devoted another eight minutes. So across just under an hour of broadcast time on the most important consumer show on radio, I had been given 15 minutes of time for outraged fans to vent their spleen.

Some while later, I was given a private glimpse at the database the BBC uses for its music radio. And there it still was, Car 67 (US version). And there it still is eight years later.

All anyone has to do is listen to the competing versions, and delete the wrong ones. But that would require a revolution of attention to detail and pro-action that seems beyond the wit of the lazy jackasses we trust with our precious work.

Net result for me? The record rarely gets played any more because no-one trusts to get the version right. That’s a couple of curries a year I can no longer afford.

When I talked to Phil Swern, producer of Pick Of The Pops, he was more outraged at the level of complaint he had received than embarrassed by the mistake.

“I could have understood it if it had been a Cliff Richard record,” he said. To me. On the phone. “But Driver 67?”

I’m on the phone, Phil. You’re talking to me. I am that Driver….

Anyway, it’s not Phil’s fault. A man more dedicated to exposing the obscure and forgotten would be hard to find. He’s made a 30-year career out of it.

But next time you hear some solid gold artist complaining about royalties and copyright and piracy and streaming, try not to get all up in his face and “Oh you greedy bastard, haven’t you had enough money yet”.

Because what’s happening to the solid gold greedy bastard is also happening to me and Harlan Howard. And, really, aren’t we allowed just a couple of curries a year out of our meagre contributions to popular music?

Meanwhile, for a quick giggle, have a look bottom, centre for the writing credit on this.

And if you want to hear Eric Clapton playing Classical Gas, well, you never will. But you’d never know.


Not dazzled by the Headlights

No-one ever sets out to be a one hit wonder.

When I was first offered a record deal Car 67 hadn’t even been conceived, let alone written.

The song everyone thought was going to be the first hit was Headlights. I certainly did. So did several record companies, the music publisher and all the musicians who played on it.

Headlights was part of a package of songs that Pete Zorn and I had amassed over a three year period. There wasn’t a novelty song among them.

We were what the industry back then regarded as  an ‘album act’. Pete Zorn wrote seriously complex and brilliant songs about creeping urbanisation, friendship and the American desert.

I tended to the more commercial – songs about love, heartbreak and longing. It’s very rare for me to write a song about something that has nothing to do with my life, or the way I feel.

But Headlights is a straight up story. It came to me in a dream and was in my head when I woke up in the middle of the night. I always kept pen and paper by the bed, and I quickly scribbled down the words that appeared to be on a radio playing in my head. Then I fell groggily back to sleep.

A test of a song’s strength is when it takes up residence in your head. When I woke up next day, it was still there.

Also there in my head was the atmosphere and feel of it: moody and threatening, set on one of those mysterious back roads in American horror films that start nowhere and go nowhere. The sides of the road are thick with trees, and the full moon occasionally spills through to illuminate the tarmac.

For some reason, a girl is stranded on the road and is picked up by a truck driver. As the song progresses, he decides she’s easy prey; she tells him to back off and show some respect. He persists in his advances.

Somehow – I didn’t even try to resolve the means – the girl escapes from the truck and the rest of the song has the asshole driver following her and menacing her: “I can see your fright in the dead of the night. I can pick you up in my headlights”.

I think it took no more than 20 minutes after picking up a guitar to write the whole thing down and figure out how the guitar could set the mood: kind of JJ Cale style. The process was thrilling – I was convinced this was a top 10 song in the making. When we recorded the version I’m posting here, guitarist Mart Jenner said that in all the sessions he had done and in all the bands he had ever played with, he was never more sure that he was playing on a hit.

The original deal I negotiated with Logo Records was for me and Pete Zorn as the mainstays of a project we called Tax Loss. Headlights was the jewel in its crown.

But while the album deal was being negotiated, I wrote and demo’d Car 67 and the record company wanted it right here, right now!

I knew they were right. I knew it would be a hit. But I had no idea what the consequences would be for my future.

Oh dear. If we could take back time…

Barely stopping for breath after the success of Car 67, in May 1979 we released Headlights in a special sleeve on luminous vinyl. Once again Radio One demonstrated its awesome power.

One play on the station drove Headlights straight into the Top 75.

But that was the only play it got. Here’s what happened.

The dj introduced the record by saying, “If you thought Driver 67 was a one hit wonder, think again. Listen to this and see if you agree with me that we’ll be hearing a lot more from him”.

At the end of the record, the dj came back on and said, “Ah, it appears we won’t be hearing that record again”.

And that was that. No explanation, no intervention by the record company. My own interpretation was that the brass at Radio One had decreed that Car 67 was a novelty record, and as such constituted a one hit wonder. This dj hadn’t got the memo, but his producer had intervened while the record was on air.

Others thought differently – that Headlights was unsuitable for a teenage audience; that they couldn’t play a record in which the protagonist appeared to be threatening rape.

I really want that to be true, and it is credible. Terry by Twinkle had been banned because it was about a boyfriend dying; similarly Leader Of The Pack by the Shangri-Las.

I’m not going to post-rationalise Headlights. It’s a horror film in three minutes. It’s not a pleasant subject. But then neither was They’re Coming To Take Me Away Aha, or Midnight Rambler, or Cold Turkey. What it was was a bloody good record.

I’d put money on it being played on Radio One if it had been by Eric Clapton (I Shot The Sheriff), or the Stones (Brown Sugar), or Gary Puckett (Young Girl). And all of these songs predated Headlights by between five to ten years. So it’s not like I was carving out a new frontier.

Whatever the reason, Headlights was stopped in its tracks, and the record company didn’t have the clout or the gumption to challenge the decision. Shame. If one play could put it in the top 75, imagine what 10 plays would have done. And then I’d have had a very different career.

Apart from my home demo version, I recorded Headlights three times with different musicians. I was never completely satisfied, but the closest we came to what was in my head was the version that was eventually released in May 1979. That was in large part due to Mart Jenner’s playing. There’s real menace in his guitar parts.

Listening to it 35 years later, it still sounds like a hit to me. Judge for yourself and check your answer here: 

Mick Jagger! Keith Richards! Phil Spector! Fight, Fight!

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 note

The handwritten envelope

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.