Ugly Things magazine

(from issue #51)

When Shindig! magazine started a feature called “Story of A Song”, the Canadian rock scribe Fiona McQuarrie jumped at the chance to write about ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, Donovan’s portrait of London through the eyes of a scruffy young folkie. The song resonated with her childhood in Vancouver, where local folkie Tom Northcott released a regionally popular cover that altered her view of pop music as a young girl. McQuarrie, now a college professor, hadn’t written rock criticism in two decades, but discovered, while writing the Donovan piece, that she had a talent for this sort of affectionate archival work.

And the result is this book, filled with a wonderfully eclectic selection of 21 songs released during the musically eventful decade 1964-74. Some have been expanded from Shindig! columns (including the excellent Donovan chapter), but many more were written for this volume.

How can any Ugly Things reader not be charmed by a book that opens with Jackie DeShannon and closes with Brian Eno? In between those two divergent endpoints, McQuarrie makes stops at Stevie Wonder, Tim Hardin, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Petula Clark, Long John Baldry and others you would never expect.  Even if you are not particularly fond of a song or an artist selected (Cat Stevens, anyone?), you come away with an appreciation for the work, its context, covers, successes and failures.

Though all 21 chapters are solid and engaging, some stand out, including the opener on De Shannon and her song ‘When You Walk In The Room’, more than 60 cover versions of which have been recorded. The best known is arguably the hit single by the Searchers, but her own version is damn good. De Shannon had a fascinating career, co-writing songs with Van Morrison, Randy Newman and Jack Nitszche, writing a song for the Byrds’ first album (‘Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe’) and Marianne Faithfull’s hit ‘Come and Stay with Me’.  She also worked (and was romantically involved) with Jimmy Page and opened for the Beatles on their 1964 North American tour.

Another good piece is on Margo Guryan, whose jazz roots got rewired after she heard the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, leading to an album in 1968 and some great songs (‘Think of Rain’ is covered here). Speaking of the Beach Boys, McQuarrie includes a chapter on the strange saga of ‘Sail On Sailor’. There’s also a chapter on Carole King/Gerry Goffin, seen through the lens of their lesser-known song ‘Wasn’t It You’, which presaged the dissolution of their marriage (final straw: Goffin started taking LSD). The song was never a hit, but was covered multiple times, the best version arguably by Petula Clark.

In Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason to Believe’ chapter, McQuarrie offers a spot-on summation of Rod Stewart’s career: “Before Stewart’s career veered into disco, supermodels, and desecrations of the Great American Songbook, he was regarded as a discerning musical connoiseur with an unerringly accurate ear for good songs”. She doesn’t choose obvious songs, either, just the best ones. For example, for Randy Newman, she chose ‘Living Without You’ off his first album, and offers that his “minimalism perfectly suits the song’s despondency”. Indeed. (Little-known fact: Newman released a single of his own as early as 1962, ‘Golden Gridiron Boy’, co-produced by Pat Boone.)

McQuarrie’s book left me with only one question: When do we get Volume 2? In short, Song Book is a must-have for UT readers.  – Alan Bisbort