[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #65]
“He can communicate complex human emotions with just a few perfectly chosen words.” That’s how record producer and music industry executive Lenny Waronker, Randy Newman’s friend since childhood, explains the brilliance of Newman’s songwriting. And there is no better demonstration of Newman’s evocative ability than his songs about romantic heartbreak – such as ‘Living Without You’, from his ’68 debut album.
Newman started Continue reading
(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #63)
Fred Neil’s ‘The Dolphins’ grabs the listener from its first notes, just because it sounds so very different. The echoing acoustic and electric guitars shimmer like light reflecting off rolling ocean waves, and Neil’s dynamic, resonant baritone voice ebbs and flows like the tide. ‘The Dolphins’ doesn’t sound like the other songs on the same album; it doesn’t even sound like what other artists were doing in the same era. More than one commentator has described ‘The Dolphins’ as a perfect song, or something very close to it.
With that level of critical esteem, it’s more than surprising that Neil’s music, so well-regarded in its time, is now not widely known. That might be because his recording career was relatively short. He made only five albums between ’65 and ‘71, and then essentially walked away from the music industry; he may be most familiar to contemporary audiences as the writer of Harry Nilsson’s ’69 hit ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Neil also kept a deliberately low profile during and after his musical career, right up until he passed away in 2001. He was generous, he was kind to his acquaintances, he was humble, but he was also very private. Ric O’Barry, his friend for nearly 40 years, says, “I probably knew him better than anybody, and he was still a mystery to me. I didn’t know much about him and he didn’t talk much.”
But those who had the privilege of being his friend agree that ‘The Dolphins’ may be the song that is Fred Neil. Peter Childs, who played guitar on the song, describes ‘The Dolphins’ as “one of the purest expressions of who he really was.” O’Barry says, “It’s a beautiful song, it’s from the heart, and if you really want to know who Fred was, you just have to listen to his songs.”
Neil’s life and musical career Continue reading
[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #60]
Great songs often come from both imagination and personal experience; the great songwriters are the alchemists that can combine those sources and create something unique. The element of imagination means that what’s going on in a song may not always be what’s going on in the songwriter’s life. But in the case of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it’s entirely possible that the tension in their personal relationship sparked their ’66 composition ‘Wasn’t It You’.
Goffin and King married in ’59, when he was 20 and she was 17. Starting with the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ in ‘60, they established themselves as a highly successful songwriting team. By the mid-‘60s Continue reading
[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #59]
‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ has been a hit for several artists in several countries over several decades, but’s it a challenging song to unravel. A deceptively simple ode to resignation and redemption, its composer Cat Stevens has said “The words of my songs speak for themselves”, and many of the artists who have covered the song don’t appear to have much to say about it either. But ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ has often marked a time of transition in its performers’ careers – which perhaps is fitting for a song about moving into a new relationship while dealing with the emotional baggage of a previous relationship. Continue reading
(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #58)
A listener in 2016 discovering Janis Ian’s ‘67 hit ‘Society’s Child’ might well hear it as the musical equivalent of a fly in amber: a well-preserved relic from a distant time when interracial relationships were shocking or even illegal. Some might argue that racial discrimination has diminished since then; after all, a black man is the president of the United States, and a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants is the Mayor of London. But the racial conflicts that have erupted in the US and elsewhere over the past five decades – the Watts riots, the Rodney King trial, the shootings that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement – show that the prejudice Ian portrayed in ’67 is still very much with us.
Ian was a 14-year-old high school student when she wrote ‘Society’s Child’. Because of the song’s first-person perspective, and because of her age, many assumed that ‘Society’s Child’ was based on events in her own life. But Ian explains Continue reading
(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #57)
When the Beach Boys recorded ‘Sail On Sailor’ in ’73, there could not have been a better metaphor than the sailor to characterize the band and its circumstances. The group was facing the possibility that some of its key members might no longer participate, and it had relocated to another continent in search of new artistic directions. In that context, ‘Sail On Sailor’ stands as a bold declaration of determination in the face of turbulence. And, like all great seafaring sagas, the story of ‘Sail On Sailor’ itself is full of improbable characters and unexpected occurrences. Continue reading
(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #55)
By the late ‘60s, Beatlemania and the Summer of Love had delivered a one-two punch to the careers of many artists who were stars earlier in the decade. As TV impresario Jack Good put it, “they were all-round entertainers with nobody left to entertain”. Some attempted to update themselves by donning paisley-print tunics, flashing the peace sign, and jumping on the psychedelic bandwagon – but, more often than not, the music that resulted was cringeworthy.
It would be easy to label Marty Wilde’s ’69 album Diversions as an example of that desperate opportunism, but that label would be wrong – because from the start of his career Wilde had demonstrated a chameleonic ability to adapt. Continue reading
[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #53]
Tim Hardin’s song ‘Reason To Believe’ has a remarkably simple structure, but within that simplicity is a universe of emotional complexity. The lyrics are steeped in the pain of betrayal by a lover, worsened by the inability to stop justifying the lover’s deception. Hardin gave very few interviews during his short lifetime, and apparently never spoke specifically about the origins of ‘Reason To Believe’ – but it is one of the Hardin songs that Charlie Gillett characterizes as “achieving the elusive balance between personal miseries and universal suffering”. Continue reading
(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #52)
At the start of 1968, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were described by their manager/producer Gerry Bron as “a cult band with a huge following, deservedly”. Their live shows were chaotic sets of sardonic original tunes mixed with obscure novelty songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, all performed amidst “horror masks, weird instruments, explosions, and a life-size rag doll named Alma”. Led by the eccentric charisma of frontman Viv Stanshall, the Bonzos were a popular live act everywhere from the Northern club circuit to premiere London venues such as UFO and The Marquee. The band had also acquired fans of all ages through regular appearances on the ITV children’s series Do Not Adjust Your Set.
But the Dadaist anarchy that made the Bonzos such entertaining performers did not translate into chart-friendly records. Their album sales were so poor that Liberty, their UK record company, only pressed 2000 copies of their LP Gorilla. According to singer/guitarist Neil Innes, “The record company was saying, ‘Well, what about a single? What about a single?’ And we couldn’t care less. We were just still being silly art students.”
As it happened, when the band went into the studio in autumn ’68, Innes brought along a catchy ditty he had titled ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’. Continue reading
[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #51]
‘Sunny Goodge Street’ first saw the light of day in 1965, on Donovan’s second album Fairytale. While other songs on the album, such as the Top 5 hit ‘Colours‘, initially drew more attention, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ is perhaps Fairytale’s most memorable song. The contrast between its gentle waltzing instrumentation and its hard-edged lyrical urban vignettes was intriguing to listeners – especially those who didn’t know there was an actual Goodge Street in London, and thus for whom Goodge Street could have been some mystical place in an imaginative Lewis Carroll story. Continue reading