The Snow In The Summer or So-So

Two Songs a Week

Mon 27 Nov 2006

Two Songs a Week 47 - Have This!

A few anniversaries in the Take That calendar come up this week. It's fifteen years to the week since their first top 40 single, Promises, entered the charts at the giddy heights of Number 38. This wasn't the group's first release - Do what you like had narrowly failed to make the top 75 over the summer. After the next single just missed the top 40, the That came within an ace of being dropped. In desperation, their record label threw a cover of It only takes a minute into the ultra-weak May 1992 record market, and were rewarded with a top 10 hit. Two singles later came A million love songs, a thoroughly decent track in its own right, and Take That would never again miss the top five.

This week in 1992, Take That swept the board at the Smash Hits Poll, and they would continue to hoover up the prizes for the forseeable future. It wasn't all their own way - none of the nine singles from their first album, Take That and Party, quite achieved the coveted number one position, and they were denied the top spot over Christmas 1993 by that rok legend Mr. Blobby. From 1993 until 1995, the group released a single every three months, and all but one spent time as the best-selling single. With sell-out arena tours, the world was at their feet.

As with all manufactured bands, obsolescence was built-in. Looking back, it's amazing that they lasted four years without breaking up. Robbie Williams left the That in July 1995, citing that eternal complaint, «musical differences» - Gary Barlow knew music, and Williams didn't. The end was in sight for the That, who played one last tour in autumn 1995 before announcing in February 1996 that they were splitting. A nation wept, bought valedictory single How deep is your love?, and turned their attention to Boyzone.

Solo recording deals followed for 60% of the band; Howard Donald faded into obscurity, and Jason Orange opened up a beauty parlor for such celebrities as David Dickinson, Robert Kilroy-Silk, and Dale Winton. The group's songwriter Gary Barlow was first to launch a solo career, releasing the plaintive ballad Forever love in July 1996. He had the slight misfortune to begin in the same week as Simon Fuller's new project, the Spice Girls, and was the most high-profile casualty of their steamroller. By the time Barlow released a second single, the overlooked classic Love won't wait, the Spices had already spent four months on top of the charts.

Erstwhile Thatter Robbie Williams came out of the blocks a month later, with a banal cover of George Michael's Freedom 90. His second single, released the following May, two weeks after Barlow's second, was Old before I die, just about the only decent thing Williams recorded. Two more singles were released in summer 1997 to diminishing returns, before fifth single Walk this sleigh sold ten zillion copies. Mostly thanks to the flip side, a song Guy Chambers had bought down the pub in Dublin for a few quid.

As for the man who was voted Most Fanciable Male in the Smash Hits poll for the previous four years, Mark Owen launched his solo career this week in 1996. Child entered at number 3, followed a few weeks later by his album The Green Man. His solo career was already on the slide; the album entered at 33, then fell out of the top 75, never to return. Though second single Clementine also made the top three, Owen would be dropped before 1997 was out, and wouldn't return until he won Celebrity Big Brother in 2002.

Ten years on, Mark, Gary, Jason, and Howard are enjoying their ninth number one single from ten releases, a record stretching back to 1993. We're not entirely sure what happened to Robbie; he must be around somewhere...

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posted 27 Nov 2006, 19.02 +0000

Fri 01 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 48 - La-la-la-la-la-la

Something a bit different to-day, no fewer than three different versions of the one song.

Johnny One-note was written by Rodgers and Hart for their 1937 musical Babes in Arms. The show's plot revolves around a group of teenagers who are trying to dodge a work farm by putting on a show. One of their number, the eponymous Johnny, is able to sing precisely one note, and sings it with all his might, so loudly that he overpowers all the whistles and deafens the traffic. (lyrics)

The first version is by Anita O'Day, the vibrato-free jazz singer whose career took off in the early 40s, but who squandered much of her talent through legal problems resulting from drug use. O'Day cuts straight to the chase, using her voice to tell of the fog-horn. O'Day died on Thursday last week.

Version two comes from the Ted Heath Orchestra, and is an instrumental. The eponymous Ted Heath is not to be confused with the sailor-politician. This bandleader also started work during the early 40s, and regularly performed on the BBC, until the rise of rock 'n' roll music forced them to disband in 1964. It was for one of these BBC recordings that the Heath orchestra recorded their version of Johnny One Note, prefixing the original melody with a short staccatto introduction of their own improvisation.

And finally, the third version is New Worlds, a short piece of incidental music created by John Baker of the BBC Radiophonic workshop. Though never intended to be a partner to Johnny One-Note, a constant juxtaposition of the two tunes ensures that they're forever linked in the public mind.

Until Monday, goodbye!

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posted 01 Dec 2006, 18.50 +0000

Mon 04 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 49: One Year Wonder

Some performers have just one hit, then fade away as quickly as they rose up. They're commonly referred to as one-hit wonders. For some reason, there's no such term for performers who shoot to fame, have a number of hits over a short period of time, and nothing afterwards. People like Tiffany, whose UK hitmaking capacity was confined precisely to 1988, might be known as one-year wonders.

Another one-year wonder, this time from 1996, was 3T. Toriano, Taryll, and Tito were the sons of Tito Jackson, brother of The Famous Michael «Kiddyfiddler» Jackson. Their album, Brotherhood, sold zillions of copies in 1996, and - thanks to their connection with The Famous Kiddyfiddler, who appeared on some backing vocals - the group found open doors where most of their peers saw blocks of wood.

Time has not been kind to 3T, and they've completely disappeared into The Memory Hole of acts popular in the mid-90s. It's hard to remember the titles of the group's three top three singles in the UK, kept off by the behemoths of Babylon Zoo, the Spice Girls, and Peter Andrex.

Perhaps that's because, after this fantastic start, their career stalled into nothingness. Spots on the soundtrack to Men in Black turned into such mass-market nepotism as The Jacksons: an American Dream, and the last report we have is of them appearing at a birthday bash for Schipol Airport.

The three hits were Anything, Why, and I need you.

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posted 04 Dec 2006, 18.36 +0000

Thu 07 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 50 - Mobile Home of Balloons

Caravan of love (m/l: Ernie Isley, Chris Jasper, Marvin Isley) was originally recorded by the writers under the name Isley-Jasper-Isley, for their 1985 album of the same name. Chris Jasper said that he wrote the song in order to set his religious beliefs into a worldly context. Released in the UK in December 1985, the single narrowly missed the official top 40, but received good notices in the weekly music press.

There was enough buzz around the song to bring it to the attention of the fourth best band in Hull. The Housemartins (for it was they!) moved from indie hitmakers to mainstream heroes during 1986, and capped their year by releasing an a capella cover of the Isley-Jasper-Isley song. It quickly became clear that the Housemartins' version was going to be a significant hit, and a sure-fire holder of the Coveted Christmas Number One Single slot. Except it wasn't; by reaching the top on 16 December 1986, the group had left a one-week gap for another record to creep through and steal their crown. And so it turned out - a re-release of Jackie Wilson's Reet petite moved to the top on 23 December, and the most surefire CCNOS was a Not-So-Coveted Christmas Number Two Single. The Housemartins split in 1988, forming the Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim, but not before Radio Active writer Philip Pope had put forward a memorable satire on pop stars (such as Paul Heaton of the 'Martins) tackling social issues, with a ditty entitled Mobile home of love.

There the story rested for two decades. Twenty years was also the length of time between substantial hits for Nena. After the substantial success of 99 Luftballoons (99 Red Balloons, for UK readers), the German songstress vanished into pop's dreaded Ver Dumper. She clambered out in early 2005 with the sensual number Liebe ist (Love is), which knocked the unstoppabble Schnappi from the top spot in March of that year. Nena's version returns the backing instruments to the track, and features guest vocals by Duncan Townsend. It's included on her forthcoming album of songs by other people, wittily entitled Cover Me.

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posted 07 Dec 2006, 19.24 +0000

Mon 11 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 51 - Going blind

This entry in Two Songs a Week is a blind entry. I'm not going to say what it is, or write about. Just post the link, and let you judge for yourself.

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posted 11 Dec 2006, 19.02 +0000

Thu 14 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 52 - Up, up, and away

In the late 1960s, Howard Blake was an exceptionally successful composer of light music. We're talking really, really successful. Writing every piece of music in a commercial break successful. Inevitably, this came at severe damage to his soul, and Blake found he had to decamp to Cornwall to sort his head out. I couldn't carry on writing junk any more. I had to find my own voice and write music that meant something, even if it only meant something to me.

One of his ideas was a symphony on the theme of innocence, which began with a six-note figure, but petered out after a few bars, and remained in a notebook for something over fifteen years.

Fast forward to 1982, and the London studios of TVC. Blake, by now a successful orchestral composer, is having a look at an early cut of an animated story based on a Raymond Briggs story. That is where the innocence symphony came to life. The six-note figure became the opening of Walking in the air, the remaining half-hour is drawn out from the same well, and the animation - The Snowman is as much a fixture of the yuletide schedule as anything can be.

The show features a recording by Peter Auty, a chorister at St Paul's cathedral. The best-known version is by his Welsh counterpart Aled Jones, a top-five hit in 1985. There are also versions by female sopranos, including everyone's third-favourite Finns, Nightwish.

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posted 14 Dec 2006, 18.54 +0000

Mon 18 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 53 - Tonight is the night

Ten years ago this week came a couple of defining moments in popular culture. Emma Forrest, the rising young star of the journalistic firmament, wrote a think-piece for Het Grauniad about a charity record. This pre-dates the newspreap's webties by a couple of years, so I'm reprinting a condensed version below.

As anyone who has seen the British tabloid press in full cry might expect, any criticism of the Dunblane project would meet with a vociferous, short-lived, and ill-conceived, backlash. Dylan fans completely missed the point, and one tabloid printed some fairly nasty stuff, enough to excite Living Marxism into writing a stern defence of Miss Forrest.

From the viewpoint of ten years on, it really does seem like a storm in a tea-cup. The Dunblane campaigners had already entered into a Faustian pact with New Labour; give us your support, and we give you the ban you crave. It was an early example of New Labour's hallmark - populist government, not good government. Emma Forrest moved to New Amsterdam, thence to PdLA, published four versions of three novels, with another on the way, and wrote many landmark pieces on movies and the people who appear in them. New Labour aged less well, and was last seen talking to a policeman down a blind alley.

The other key event from ten years ago was an interview in The Spectator magazine. The Spice Girls, the biggest popular music act of the time, are interviewed by a moderately influential news weekly. Geri Halliwell states that ancien prime minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, and pays tribute to her can-do attitude.

To everyone, not least interviewer Simon Sebag Montefiore, this was a mind-bogglingly odd piece to run, but it certainly achieved its aims. The Spices suddenly had a depth about them, they were capable of more than the most vapid thought. Here was a group that was capable of talking with clarity and conviction, and that wasn't afraid to alienate some of their audience - it's hard to imagine now, but at the time, there was an assumption that no Conservative could possibly do anything right.

The Spice Girls' interview was, originally, timed to coincide with the release of their third single, Two become one; the release had been delayed by a week in order to allow the Dunblane record seven days at the top before being thoroughly squashed by the New Fab Five.

And let's make no mistake: if the Dunblane record was - on an artistic level - amongst the most toe-curlingly rubbish ones ever, the Spices was amongst the greatest. The moderately unusual 2/4 time signature, and some major key magic, is not enough to make a classic single. The sparse vocals - indeed, the quiet nature of the whole song - weds with a remarkable video, featuring the Spices in front of time-lapse footage of night streets. For my money, this is the greatest festive number one single of the past ten years.

Here's that piece from Emma Forrest.

The people who put together these records always mean well. People mean so well that they don't stop to think about the forum they are using. On the one hand, pop reaches millions of people and anything that keeps the gun control issue in the headlines must be good. On the other, there is the simple truth that pop is notoriously ungentle.

This record is always going to be sandwiched between two other songs on the radio. I imagine all the parents gave there support or it would not have gone ahead, but there are still average members of the public who just don't want to hear this song in the background at work or in a shopping mall.

The idea that this is a Christmas record is repulsive. The senseless murder of 17 innocents in a primary school gym is something that will be with us forever. Dunblane as a Christmas cause can only appeal to the same people who don't realise there is a homeless crisis until the fortnight before Christmas. The Dunblane single is symbolic of the blurring of lines between what's real and what's not real, between society and popular culture, between Casualty and the 9 O'Clock News.

How can you contain something so unimaginable in three minutes? What happened in Dunblane beggars words, so why try? It is part of the human condition to try to understand everthing; but it is also part of the human condition to say that some things are impenetrable. Pop is what it is. That's what it should be. But because it is no more than that, the tragedy of Dunblane is inevitably cheapened. It may reach millions of people, but it also reduces the slaughter to something that comes with a PR contact number.

It is so crass, you can't help but feel it corrupts the innocence of the children involved. It is tabloid - in fact, the single has heavy backing from the Sun. It is not a good record and it is not a fitting memorial. Pop is by its nature disposable, but it is being used to contain something we will never forget. The song is performed by the community that was truly affected by Dunblane, and they have the right to react as they choose. But I wish they had raised a statue instead.

As for highlighting the issue - true, if sports enthusiasts, weapons salesmen, jaded politicians and potential psychopaths were watching Top Of The Pops last Friday and said, 'Look, the people from Dunblane are singing Knockin' On Heaven's Door, only they've made the lyrics worse - hey, they have a point, let's ban all handguns,' then it may be worth it. But if what happened at Dunblane has not convinced the Government to place a total ban on handguns, why should a pop song?

In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Thanks to the Spices's astute piece of public relations, the Dunblane cover spent a week at the top of the charts, before making way for the Spice Girls' work. Geri Halliwell's support for Mrs. Thatcher was so strong that she appeared in a Middle-Aged Labour re-election commercial in 2001; three years earlier, Newish Labour had passed a law to ban pistol ownership. Only Emma Forrest's point remains unanswered; the ten years since have seen an upsurge in pop stars trying (and failing) to do well: witness Paul Hewson and Bob Geldof's nauseating attempts to sell themselves as social engineers.

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posted 18 Dec 2006, 18.33 +0000

Fri 22 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 54 - All alone

Just a quick one, for my favourite festive song of the 90s. It's recorded by Darlene Love, who had already been a name on the Broadway stage for three decades, and continues to act today. In 1992, she agreed to record a song for a movie. Though the motion picture has been completely forgotten, the song has not; it was a deliberate re-creation of Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound, with just enough seasoning to make it sound modern. All alone on christmas retains its magic, and just drips with festive spirit.

To all our readers, whichever season it is, may we take this opportunity to wish you a happy and pleasant season. We'll be back soon...

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posted 22 Dec 2006, 18.35 +0000

Wed 27 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 55 - Greenwich

One of the most curious one-hit wonders of the mid-90s was Spacehog, whose In the meantime only ever brushed the bottom of the top 30. A four-piece group of Brits, who met in New Amsterdam and blended glamour with crunching rock, the group was the personal project of record boss Seymour Stein. Huge budgets, massive promotion, but not enough raw talent to be anything more than a short-lived trivia question. In concert, the group attracted praise for its showmanship, but this excitement never transferred to the records. Only the telephone samples and rising-and-falling oohs of their minor hit are remembered. But, hey, what a four-minute wonder.

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posted 27 Dec 2006, 17.35 +0000

Sat 30 Dec 2006

Two Songs a Week 56 - Raise a glass

After the excesses of Christmas, the New Year holiday always gets a very rough ride. There's Dina Carroll's rather fabulous The perfect year, and, er, Cliff Richard's This new year, and, er, that's all.

All? No! New year is, as the name suggests, a new year song by the Sugababes. You know, Mutya, Keisha, Siobhan. The classic line-up, who blended garage beats with swoonsome vocals, and all three had the looks and attitude to become huge stars. When the group's first single, Overload, came out in early autumn 2000, that looked to be a question of when, not if. Follow-up Run for cover features some of the greatest harmony work from the digital age. Sadly, London Records were so incompetent that they managed to turn a loss on the first album, and let the group go in summer 2001. They split up, a tragic waste of talent.

So tragic that Mutya and Keisha promptly got back together again, and recruited blonde Liverpudlian Heidi into the group. Though good, she wasn't a patch on Siobhan. The group mixed Freak like me into Are "friends" electric?, made an eye-popping video, and catapulted themselves into the premier league of pop. The group have never really been pushed outside the UK and the near continent, which is a tremendous shame.

As is the Stalinistic reworking of the group's history. Mutya left the group early this year, and their fourth album, Taller In More Ways, was re-issued with her vocals replaced by those of new member Amelle. A similar phenomenon has taken place for the group's greatest hits album - Siobhan's take on the first two singles has been replaced with inferior work by Heidi.

Let's not carp too much; it's fair to say that the Sugababes have been the single greatest pop act of the twenty-first century; always stylish, always sophisticated, and they now possess a familiar sound that is entirely their own.

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posted 30 Dec 2006, 13.38 +0000

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