Sunday, May 31, 2009

Don't Worry, Bobby's Happy

McFerrin’s debut album had been a bit of a dress rehearsal for his sophomore effort, 1984’s ‘The Voice’. For this album there was only need for enough microphones to capture McFerrin’s multi-dimensional vocal contortions, accompanied by his own rhythm section, read - rhythmically slapping and tapping his body and clapping his hands to simulate a full rhythm section accompaniment on several tracks. It must have kept the overheads down at least, in the sense of not having to hire session musicians. The title said it all really, with McFerrin now completely sans rhythm section accompaniment, and studio overdubbing - what you heard is what emanated from the voice, hands, and feet of Bobby McFerrin. On the sleeve credits, Bobby McFerrin’s is the only name listed, alongside the words vocals/percussion. The album (US#24-Jazz) made jazz history, by becoming the first ever solo vocal album, released on a major label. McFerrin glided smoothly across a myriad of music styles, with his now trademark vocal improvisations. Once more, McFerrin wrote about half the tracks, but ventured well beyond traditional jazz fare on tracks like the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, and James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’, as well as his own funky little composition, the appropriately titled ‘I’m My Own Walkman’. Whilst fellow vocal contortionist Michael Winslow was causing a storm in ‘Police Academy’, McFerrin proved equally arresting as a recording artist.

1985’s album, ‘Spontaneous Inventions’ (US#103 - Jazz#6), was yet another showcase of McFerrin’s free-form performance style, and was a mix of solo unaccompanied tracks, and several collaborations with other artists. McFerrin joined jazz pianist Herbie Hancock on ‘Turtle Shoes; vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer and Jon Hendricks on ‘Another Night In Tunisia’ (which earned McFerrin his first Grammy Awards, for ‘Best Arrangment For Voices’, and ‘Best Male Jazz Vocal Performance’); and his free-form, free-wheeling, eccentric comic equivalent, Robin Williams, on the track ‘Beverly Hills Blues’. In 1987, McFerrin’s vocal wizardry received a broader exposure to mainstream audiences, via his one-man performance of the new opening theme for the Emmy Award winning comedy ‘The Cosby Show’, the star vehicle for friend Bill Cosby. During the same period, McFerrin performed the theme for the film ‘Round Midnight’, and the jingle for the Levis 501 Blues television commercial. Though many people may still not have made the connection between his film/television work and the name Bobby McFerrin, that is until the release of McFerrin’s next album.

In June of 1988, Bobby McFerrin released the single ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, the song which would in many respects define McFerrin’s career, at least to the public at large. McFerrin had been tinkering with the tune for a number of years, based around the phrase “don’t worry be happy”. He performed it on occasion at club shows, but improvised different lyrics, and altered arrangements, each time. The initial plan for McFerrin’s next album, centred around him covering a number of 60s pop-rock classics, in his own inimitable style. Whilst working on another track, McFerrin found himself at a dead end for inspiration, and suddenly found himself playing the tune for ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ in an effort to clear the fog. His long term manager/ producer, Linda Goldstein, heard the potential in the tune, and suggested to McFerrin that he should work to finish the song. McFerrin finally came up with a set of upbeat, positive lyrics, and a solid song structure. When he recorded ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, McFerrin was conscious of performing the lead vocal track in a reggae-tinged style, which he thought added to the laid back, leave your worries behind you, kind of message. ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ debuted inside the U.S. Hot 100 during July of ‘88, and soon after received a further boost via its inclusion on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film ‘Cocktail’. The producers of the film were looking for a cruisy, Caribbean flavoured song, and ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ felt just right for their purpose. By September 1988, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ delivered Bobby McFerrin his first, and only, U.S. #1 hit. It also became the first a cappella style song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Billy Joel had reached #14 in early 1984 with his song ‘The Longest Time’, lifted from his ‘An Innocent Man’ album), backed by a quirky little promo video, featuring McFerrin, American actor/clown Bill Irwin, and old friend Robin Williams, performing madcap antics to camera. The ‘instrumental’ backing was provided as usual by Bobby McFerrin’s voice, though what differed from previous recordings, was the use of overdubbing (eight tracks in all). The ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ phrase apparently originated from Indian mystic Meher Baba, but Bobby McFerrin’s song popularised it to the point of becoming part of the Western popular culture vernacular. ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ brought a smile to the British at #2, and had Australian’s positively beaming with relaxed optimism, when it smiled at #1 for six weeks late in ‘88.

The song also attracted its share of controversy, when the Republican Party decided to ‘borrow’ the song for use in then Vice President George Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. McFerrin was a staunch Democrat supporter, and immediately requested his manager/producer Linda Goldstein to register his disapproval at the song’s misappropriation. Of particular distaste was the notion that the phrase ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ be aligned to the political philosophy of the Republican party. The song has gone on to be used, in a more appropriate context, in numerous popular television shows (Simpsons, Futurama, Fresh Prince), and films (Flushed Away, Wall-E), as well as television commercials. Speaking of which, McFerrin scored a second hit in the U.K. in early ‘89, with the song ‘Thinkin’ About Your Body’ (#46), the tune to which had been featured in a TV commercial campaign for Cadbury’s chocolate, with the amended lyric, “Thinkin’ about your chocolate”. That particular song had appeared in its original incarnation on McFerrin’s 1985 album ‘Spontaneous Inventions’. For his 1988 set, ‘Simple Pleasures’, McFerrin combined several original songs with a selection of 60s pop-rock classics, along the lines of his original intention. McFerrin reworked songs like Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, complete with vocal electric guitar (Clapton would be proud), the Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car’, and the Young Rascals’ 1966 #1 ‘Good Lovin’, which charted briefly for McFerrin on the Australian charts (#61). The album ‘Simple Pleasures’ (US#5/OZ#21/UK#92) may have used a bit of in-studio overdub trickery, but regardless, McFerrin’s brilliance as a performer shone through undeniably. McFerrin walked away smiling from the 1988 Grammy Awards, holding high the prizes for ‘Best Song of the Year’ and ‘Album of the Year’.

Soon after the runaway success of ‘Simple Pleasures’, McFerrin formed a ten member a cappella group called Voicestra, and they supported McFerrin on his 1990 follow up album, ‘Medicine Music’ (US#146-Jazz#2). The album proved an obvious commercial disappointment, by way of comparison to ‘Simple Pleasures’, and lacked some of the inspired innovation of his earlier works. McFerrin distanced himself further from the mainstream scene on his next couple of album projects, though it was evident that he garnered an almost ubiquitous respect on the American music scene, across the entire stylistic spectrum. 1991’s ‘Hush’ was a collaboration with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and remained on the U.S. classical cross-over charts for over two years. The musical masters hit a high point with their rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’, a perfect vehicle for their combined virtuosity. McFerrin then returned to his jazz roots for the live album ‘Play’ (US-Jazz#3), in union with jazz pianist Chick Corea.

During the early 90s, McFerrin began working regularly with symphony orchestras across the U.S. including the New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony. The performances regularly combined McFerrin’s role as a conductor, with his own vocal interpretations and improvisations of classical music pieces. In 1994, McFerrin was appointed as creative chair with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and they provided backing for his next album, 1995’s ‘Paper Music’. Ever willing to embrace new challenges, the album witnessed McFerrin interpreted the works of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky. McFerrin then bounced back to jazz/R&B territory on 1996’s ‘Bang! Zoom’, this time around with the assistance of R&B/jazz group, the Yellowjackets. Further album releases followed over the ensuing few years, covering a gamut of musical styles, some in union with other performers, others featuring McFerrin focussing on solo improvised vocals.

Over the last decade, McFerrin has continued to collaborate with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Pea, and other music luminaries, on albums such as ‘Mouth Music’ (2001), and the acclaimed ‘Beyond Words’ (2002) . He has also maintained a strong involvement in ongoing music education programs, and is a regular guest lecturer at various educational institutions across the U.S., and continues to astound concert audiences the world over with his octave jumping antics, and unique performance style. Though his mainstream pop music success was fleeting, ten Grammy Awards, twenty million in record sales, and critical acclaim across classical and jazz genres, has given both McFerrin and his fans plenty of reasons to be happy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Evolution Of A Vocal Virtuoso

If you hadn’t heard it already, you would logically deduce that a song with the title, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, would be a cheerful, light hearted offering, and with the 1988 chart topper of that name, that’s exactly what was delivered. What was delivered in addition, was a virtuoso vocal performance from the extraordinarily talented Bobby McFerrin.

McFerrin arrived in the world during 1950, and grew up in a musical family. Both his parents were opera singers, and his father was an acclaimed baritone with the New York Metropolitan Opera. McFerrin senior also provided the singing voice, dubbed for Sidney Poitier’s character, in the 1959 film version of ‘Porgy and Bess’. Young Bobby opted initially to concentrate his formal studies on piano, rather than vocals. His earliest performance experience came in high school, where he formed the Bobby Mack Jazz Quartet, and then went on to undertake formal training at the famed Juilliard School, and later Sacramento State College. McFerrin then dropped out of college, and spent some time playing piano for dance workshops at the University of Utah, and tutoring the Osmonds. When ’Little Jimmy’ enrolled in his tutorial, McFerrin decided he’d be happier pursuing music as a fulltime profession, rather than covering the finer points of vocal cadence in ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’. NOTE FROM MANAGEMENT: Whilst it is true that Bobby McFerrin worked for a time at the University of Utah, his association with said Osmond brethren is unsubstantiated rumour and innuendo.

McFerrin may have had opera singing parents, but he grew up on a diet of almost straight jazz, with the legendary Miles Davis being of particular influence on McFerrin’s musical sensibilities. Davis’ seminal album ‘Bitches Brew’ was released in 1969, and would prove a major influence on many up and coming musicians at that time - nineteen year old Bobby McFerrin was no exception. He set about gaining some on the job experience, and initially toured with a stage production of the Ice Follies, with whom he played keyboards (though not whilst skating). McFerrin then spent the first half of the 70s performing with a string of cover bands, cabaret acts and dance troupes, occasionally providing some vocals, but most often at the piano, and all the while absorbing knowledge from a wide range of musical styles and talented musicians, and fine tuning his extraordinary interpretative skills. On a summer’s evening in July 1977, Bobby McFerrin was walking down a hill in Salt Lake City, when a voice inside his head (possibly his own) told him, epiphany style, to become a solo singer, and the very next night McFerrin performed his first solo gig in the piano bar of the Salt Lake City Hilton. It was time for the next stage of evolution in Bobby McFerrin’ career. He based himself for a time in New Orleans, where he provided vocals for a group called Astral Projection, prior to relocating to San Francisco in the late 70s. McFerrin was then recruited by legendary jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks, to perform with his then current project. Hendricks had been one third of the 50s era jazz vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who had also been a major influence on McFerrin.

Over the course of the 70s, Bobby McFerrin had worked on developing a vocal style, virtually unique in scope and nature. His vocal chords somehow managed to conceal a virtual one man band, and McFerrin had developed a virtuoso ability to faithfully reproduce all manner of sounds and tones, and replicate a seemingly limitless range of musical instruments, using only his voice. He could bend and shape his voice across several octaves, in a remarkable display of vocal gymnastics, jumping from falsetto to deep bass notes in an instant, and then back again. For anyone who closed their eyes, it would sound like several singers were performing in a seamless a cappella style, but it was all the work of just one man, with a distinctive set of vocal chords, and the depth of knowledge in musical technique required to effectively wield such a unique gift across a range of music styles - from jazz, through pop, to classical, and all stops in between. Humour also became a big part of his performance craft, and McFerrin regularly invited people on stage (including hecklers) to suggest voices and sounds for him to imitate - anything from a car, to jazz quartet, to Curtis Mayfield - McFerrin’s vocal repertoire seemed to know no bounds.

It was in 1979, whilst playing with Hendricks’ at a San Francisco club, that McFerrin came to the attention of comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Cosby was not only bowled over by McFerrin’s vocal virtuosity, but the singer’s innate sense of showmanship, and zany wit. Cosby arranged for McFerrin to appear at the prestigious Playboy Jazz Festival for 1980. Needless to say, McFerrin wowed the audience, and was soon in high demand to appear at other festivals. In 1981, he played an unaccompanied performance at the Kool Jazz Festival, to much acclaim, with audience and critics alike hailing the arrival of a jazz-vocal genius - one that had been more than a decade in the making. The Kool Jazz triumph led to a recording contract with the Elektra label, but McFerrin had no intention of recording as a straight up jazz vocalist. Instead, he wanted to carve out a unique niche as a stand alone vocal performer.

When he entered the recording studio to lay down tracks for his 1982 self titled debut album, McFerrin still utilised backing players for most of the instrumental tracks. Produced by Linda Goldstein, McFerrin was joined on several tracks by pianist Victor Feldman, and in a duet with drummer H.B. Bennett on the track ‘All Feets Can Dance’. Singer Phoebe Snow (see future post) also joined McFerrin on the duet ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, whilst Randy Jackson dropped by to play bass on several tracks. The ‘Bobby McFerrin’ album (US#41-Jazz) featured a diverse selection of song styles, including a version of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, though around half were written by McFerrin himself. McFerrin’s brilliant performance style was also a hit with European audiences, who attended his shows in droves during a 1982 tour. Upon returning home to the States, McFerrin dispensed with any kind of backing musicians, and embarked on a tour during 1983, on which he performed completely unaccompanied.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Escape To Club Wild Wild West

I’ll admit that I’m a bit partial to the occasional classic western - of the Hollywood variety, spaghetti variety, even omelette variety. Back in 1988, I found myself partial to a song called ‘Wild Wild West’, which though not of the country or western variety (we’ve got both kinds!), was at least inspired in part by the whole western motif. The track reworked the ‘wild west’ theme into a contemporary urban setting, and served it up in a funky little rock number, complete with six shooters!

The band behind this ‘urban western’ fusion, was The Escape Club. Now, I’ll put my flags in the air, march them up and down, drop my six shooters to the ground, and confess hand on heart, that I used to fully believe The Escape Club were an American group. Maybe it was the whole ‘wild west’ attitude, or the promo clip featuring lots of stars and stripes, but it wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that I’d been geographically askew in my thoughts on a band’s origin. Actually, The Escape Club were yet another one of those groups that, though British in origin, exuded more of an American image, and certainly enjoyed considerably more commercial success Stateside, than at home (think the likes of The Outfield, Foghat, When In Rome, Wang Chung, Cutting Crew, The Fixx and Breathe - see previous posts).

Though The Escape Club experienced substantial commercial success in the U.S. during the late 80s and early 90s, their origins were more humble, and harked back more than five years, to the London club scene of the early 80s. The Escape Club was built out of the rubble of two London based groups, the Espressos, and Mad Shadows. Both groups had established a solid following on the live circuit, but by 1983, both were experiencing ongoing instability within their ranks. Singer/guitarist Trevor Steel, and guitarist John Holliday, were both involved with Mad Shadows, and found themselves looking for a new drummer early in ‘83. Espressos’ drummer Milan Zekavica wanted to kick the caffeine habit, so he joined Steel and Holliday, and shortly after bassist Johnnie Christo joined the new Mad Shadows line-up. With a new roster, the quartet decided a name change was in order, and they adopted The Escape Club as their new moniker.

Later in ‘83, The Escape Club released their debut single, titled ‘Breathing’. Produced by Trevor Vallis, the single was released via the independent Bright Records label, but made little impact. The band continued to play the London club scene, and built up a strong following for their funked edged rock material. The Escape Club were invited to perform on Channel 4’s music television show, ‘The Tube’, which regularly showcased emerging artists on the U.K. scene. The appearance helped The Escape Club score a recording deal with EMI soon after. Over the course of ‘85/86, they released several singles, including ‘Rescue Me’, ‘I Will Be There’, and ‘The Hard Way’, and secured support slots on tour with China Crisis (see earlier post), and the Alarm. In 1987, The Escape Club’s debut album, ‘White Fields’, finally escaped the confines of the recording studio. Produced by Scott Litt (later worked extensively with R.E.M.), the album couldn’t harvest a hit for The Escape Club, despite also including the fine single ‘Where Angels Cry’. ‘White Fields’ (which wasn’t released at the time in the U.S.) was a conscious effort by The Escape Club to produce a straight up rock-based album, but as vocalist/guitarist Trevor Steele explained to Billboard magazine, the band member’s influences were wider than that. They all grew up liking glam rock, funk, and dance music, and so when it came time to plan for their sophomore album, The Escape Club reassessed their stylistic approach.

The Escape Club were packing out venues regularly, but made a conscious decision to put their live act on hold temporarily, and decided to focus their energies on writing and recording their next album. EMI introduced the band to producer Chris Kimsey, who had helmed albums by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, as well as JoBoxers and Psychedelic Furs (see previous posts). The Escape Club wanted to make a more commercially accessible album, but didn’t want to lose their rock edge, and Kimsey seemed a good choice to help them achieve that. One of the first tracks written for the album was ‘Wild Wild West’, which started out life as a simple drum pattern, and by day’s end the music was in place. Trevor Steel then wrote the accompanying lyrics, which weren’t actually about the 19th century American frontier, the concept usually conjured up by the words ‘Wild Wild West’. Steele had a more contemporary theme in mind, of living in the modern Western world, with aspects of modern (urban) society (and broader political structures) resembling the lawless ‘show down’ mentality of the old west. He took particular inspiration from former ‘wild west’ b-movie star Ronald Reagan, now being ‘sheriff’ of the biggest wild west town in the world - the U.S. - there was a tongue in cheek aspect to the song, underlying the more serious social comment.

The Escape Club recorded the track with Kimsey, complete with funky bass line, surging brass section, dubbed six shooter sound effects, and a Mexican style hip-hop break in the middle. The combination proved a little too much for the suits at EMI in England to appreciate, and they basically gave the track the thumbs down. In true frontier spirit, The Escape Club searched other lands for a backer for the song, and found one in the Atlantic Records posse, who promptly signed the band. ‘Wild Wild West’ was released in mid ‘88, backed by a promo video clip that soon received heavy rotation on MTV. The clip was later banned in Britain (no doubt the BBC had a hand) due to its alleged sexist and offensive imagery, and that no doubt hindered the song’s chances of making any impact at home for The Escape Club. The clip featured some funky mirroring special effects, where legs and arms appeared to be disembodied, and danced about in lingerie. The band themselves couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about, and as they told N.M.E. in November of ‘88, the video was actually designed to make fun of the more overtly sexist promo videos of the era. Regardless, ‘Wild Wild West’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 all guns blazing in August of ‘88. By November, it had smoked the opposition and stood alone at #1, as the biggest badass on the U.S. charts. Though the band had confidence in the song, its chart performance exceeded their wildest expectations. When it hit #1 in the States, the lads were still at home in London, but quickly hopped a wagon train for the U.S. to climb onboard the promotion express. None of the members of The Escape Club had even been to the U.S. before, let alone the ‘Wild Wild West’, and were suitably overawed by the tumultuous reception that awaited them upon their arrival. The same week The Escape Club sat atop the Hot 100 with ‘Wild Wild West’, they took over from another American institution, the Beach Boys (‘Kokomo’). Australia soon fell to the advance of ‘Wild Wild West’ (#7), but the U.K. remained unaffected.

The Escape Club followed up their #1 hit with the single ‘Shake For The Sheik’. Once more Trevor Steele’s lyrics offered a biting social comment on societies worship of the almighty dollar, and the inherent corruption associated. The song featured a grungier guitar feel, but still retained the funky dance beat of ‘Wild Wild West’. ‘Shake For The Sheik’ shook its way to #28 in the U.S. (OZ#99), and was also featured on The Escape Club’s album ‘Wild Wild West’ (US#27/OZ#63). The album served up a solid mix of catchy, hook laden songs, but only yielded one more minor hit, with ‘Walking Through Walls’ (US#81). During 1989, The Escape Club contributed the song ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ to the soundtrack album for ‘The Wonder Years’ television series. Apparently the band’s (now defunct) website credited the Doors’ Ray Manzarek as the track’s producer.

Just a year earlier, The Escape Club had found themselves celebrating “heading for the 90s, living in the 80s”, but with the turn of the decade, the challenge was now on to forge a new frontier in music, not of the ‘Wild Wild West’ variety. They spent the latter half of 1990 in the recording studio, and in early ‘91 the album ‘Dollars & Sex’ hit stores. Producer Peter Wolf (Wang Chung, Starship, Go West et al) helmed the project, but the lead out single, ‘Call It Poison’, stalled outside of the U.S. top forty (#44/OZ#69). The track featured a vocal sample of Ian Gillan, taken from the 1971 Deep Purple hit ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’. As the title might suggest, the ‘Dollars & Sex’ album (US#145) featured a prominent socio-political agenda in its lyrical content, most notably on tracks like ‘Freedom’, which featured the voice of actor Peter Weller, of the ‘Robocop’ variety, not to be confused with Paul Weller, of the Jam variety. Stylistically, the album didn’t venture too far from ‘Wild Wild West’ territory, with an agreeable mix of rock, funk, and even R&B influences. The Escape Club were in danger of being remembered for only one major hit, and though ‘Wild Wild West’ remains their best known track, the band did manage to revisit the U.S. top ten in mid ‘91 with the emotion charged song ‘I’ll Be There’. The track was a bit of a sleeper initially, but gained sufficient momentum from listener requests to peak at #8 (OZ#42).

Within a year, The Escape Club found themselves in a bit of quandary financially, and by 1992 had decided to close the club doors, and escape to other career endeavours. Bassist Johnnie Christo and drummer Milan Zekavica both maintained involvement on the performance side of music, though nothing of commercial note. Vocalist/guitarist Trevor Steele went on to write/produce for a string of hit makers throughout the 90s and 00s, including Atomic Kitten, Baha Men, Shaggy, Westlife, Boyzone and Billie Piper. By 2004, he had shifted to Australia, and was a judge on the 2004 series of ‘Popstars Live’. Steele co-wrote the winning song ‘Heartbreaker’, from Kayne Taylor. Guitarist John Holliday has worked with Steele extensively on his writing/production projects, based mostly out of the famed Air Studios.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Denim's Unofficial Anthem

Which came first? The advertising jingle that became a hit single, or the hit single used as an advertising jingle? I’ll own up straight away and admit that I don’t have an definitive answer to that question, and quite frankly don’t have the will to research one, assuming that there is one. But by way of meandering extrapolation, the origins of the advertising jingle can be traced back to the 1920s, when commercial radio first started airing product commercials, featuring a catchy musical accompaniment, written and recorded specifically for the product. The very nature of advertising was, is, and will always be, to seep surreptitiously into the consumers conscious (or subconscious) thinking (in lay person terms - of which I am one). Don’t expect me to expand on that concept with any authority, as I am but one of those humble consumers whose cognitive autonomy lies at the mercy of the ruthless advertising industry, with all their callous trickery and deception. I’m guessing at some point, possibly by the water cooler at around 3.45pm on a Friday, some bright spark of an advertising executive connected the dots on the idea that popular music has a way of achieving the same effect as an advertising jingle, that is, seeping into a person’s conscious, or subconscious mind. So as a result, one day you find yourself humming a Beach Boys song without thinking about it, and the next you’re horrified when you pick yourself up humming a jingle for a Mars Bars (I’m thinking the old ‘A Mars a day, work, rest & play’ tune), or worse. I know I’m rambling here, but over a lifetime of exposure to puerile commercials, my mind has been scrambled to the point of incoherency (and do I have any recourse? Of course not!).

It seems plausible, if not indisputably factual, to pinpoint the peak of the advertising jingle’s prevalence to sometime during the 1950s or 1960s, when radio, television, and cinema audiences were bombarded by jingles pushing everything from candy bars, to alcoholic beverages, to electronic products, and everything in between. One thing advertising jingles share in common, to an almost universal degree, is the ability to irritate more than they entertain - that’s where they differ in nature to pop songs (well most pop songs anyway). But even if a jingle gets stuck in your brain to the point of driving you mad, it’s still done its job - that is, unless you take a vow not to purchase that particular product as a point of personal protest. Whilst advertising agencies used to employ armies of song writers in jingle sweat shops, all charged with the task of coming up with the next irritatingly infectious tune, over the last couple of decades (actually probably from the mid 70s on) the balance seems to have shifted toward the employment of pre-existing pop songs, or tunes, adapted (read mangled) to a certain product’s marketing requirements (anyone recall ABBA re-recording their song ‘Fernando’ to plug National brand televisions?). Target demographics, budget bottom lines, and all of that advertising claptrap, seemed to get factored into these crimes against popular music, where classic rock and pop songs were bastardised, sometimes to the brink of being beyond recognition, by culturally devoid advertising agencies, and their mindless, worker bee drones. By the way, if you’re reading this, and you work for an advertising agency, it’s nothing personal, but please, please, get out while you still have a soul! Some of the more tragic examples (and there are countless) of classic songs being hijacked by advertising are; the Romantics’ ‘What I Like About You’ (Holden Barina cars), The Swingers’ ‘Counting The Beat’ (K-Mart), The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (Nissan), Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ (Sunkist), E.L.O.’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ (Volkswagen), the Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ (used by Microsoft to launch a new version of Windows), Katrina & The Waves’ ‘Walking On Sunshine’ (Fisher Price), and The Beatles ‘Revolution’ (used to sell Nike shoes) - and oh God I have to stop now! I’m not sure whether I feel a more intense sense of disgust, or anger, at having to recall those travesties. I suppose in some respects it can be a win-win for both advertiser and music artist - it’s free publicity on a massive scale, in addition to added song-writing and performance royalties for the artist - that is if it’s done in a legit fashion (cue the lawyers for copyright infringement action).

If you’re still reading this, and you’re thinking that it seems like I’m on a bit of a rant, then you’d be right. But please don’t be alarmed, I shan’t go on to make this blog a forum to vent my angst over issues (well rarely anyway), as I believe Retro Universe has been, and should remain, a sanctuary of nostalgic serenity. Though someone mentioned to me once that people do use blogs for that express purpose, that is to rant, and by way of chaotic introduction to today’s artist/song, I thought I’d give it a go. How did I do by the way? No, please don’t answer that. Oh, and as an afterthought to this tirade, could it be that custom made ring tones are the bastard offspring of the unholy union between advertising jingles and popular music? All of those out of work jingle writers had to go somewhere I suppose.

And now it’s back to your regularly scheduled program.

One of the rare examples of a popular advertising jingle being adapted into a hit pop song, came in 1976, with the worldwide hit single ‘Jeans On’ by David Dundas. Dundas - or to give him his full title with trimmings, Lord David Dundas, 3rd Marquess of Zetland - was born in Oxford, England in 1945. Dundas received all the associated privileges that come with being ‘connected’, and following his school days attending ‘Harrow’, went on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama. In his 20s, Dundas had attempted to establish an acting career. He appeared alongside David Niven in the 1968 production ‘Prudence and the Pill’, as well as numerous television roles and stage productions. Dundas had also begun developing his craft as a singer/songwriter, and following an appearance in the war film ’Mosquito Squadron’, he worked with composer Michael Feast to score music for the film ‘Private Road’, a line of work he would return to much later. But by the mid 70s the newly married with child version of Dundas needed a steady income (something not always on offer for struggling actors), and so he took a job as a jingle writer for an advertising agency, presumably to pay the bills. Dundas worked further with Michael Feast during this period, and one the first of his jingles to hit the airwaves arrived in the form of a station promo for Capital Radio.

During 1975, Dundas had penned a short jingle to accompany a television advertising campaign for Brutus Jeans. The Freedman brothers had established the Brutus Jeans brand back in 1966, and the clothing company had become quite popular with many in the skinhead and football crowd fraternity, though I doubt that was their original intention. Actually, it stands to reason that a motivating factor behind the proposed ‘Jeans On’ advertising campaign, was to appeal to a wider market. When the ‘Jeans On’ television commercial spots first started airing, they caused quite a stir in Britain, due in no small part to the catchy little ditty Dundas had penned. The original jingle lyrics ran - “I pull my Brutus jeans on”, and before long the general public were not only buying Brutus Jeans in huge numbers, but the advertising campaign won a swag of awards to boot. With such an enthusiastic response, and a demand for the jingle to be made available as a record, Dundas’ next move was an obvious one.

He set to work expanding the thirty second jingle into a two and a half minute blues tinged pop song, and with the assistance of Roger Greenaway, did just that. The result was a slice of radio friendly 70s pop that was surely assured hit status. ‘Jeans On’ was released over the English summer of 1976, and debuted on the British charts during July. Dundas’ vocal style had more than a hint of Gilbert O’Sullivan (see future post) about it, the quirky ‘Ooh-Wakka-Doo Ooh Wakka-Day’ side of Gilbert O’Sullivan, that is. Produced at Air Records, and distributed via Chrysalis, ‘Jeans On’ slipped comfortably into the #3 position in Britain, a few weeks after its release, and Dundas found himself performing on Top Of The Pops. Reportedly, the single format of ‘Jeans On’ was originally only released in mono, with the stereo mix coming to light via later album compilations. Both Australia and the U.S. were soon eager to pull their own jeans on, and David Dundas’ former advertising ditty was soon sitting pretty at #17 in the U.S. and #3 in Australia. ‘Jeans On’ proved to be especially well wearing in Australia, where the track was worn for a mammoth 27 weeks on the charts, before Australia finally decided for a change of attire. It wasn’t the first (or last) time that the popular denim trouser apparel had cropped up in a hit song. Mark Wynter took his ‘Venus In Blue Jeans’ into the top five during 1962, and in subsequent years the likes of Neil Diamond’s ‘Forever In Blue Jeans’ (1979), and Dr. Hook’s ‘Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk’ (1982), provided further evidence as to the enduring place jeans have in popular culture. Most recently, the View wore the ‘Same Jeans’ all the way to #3 on the British charts (2007). I’ve always thought that the lyrics - “You and me, we’ll go motorbike riding in the sun, and the wind, and the rain. I’ve got money in my pocket, got a tiger in my tank, and I’m king of the road again” - would have lent themselves readily to a commercial for Yamaha or some other motorcycle manufacturer. In 2006 the car manufacturer Seat did in fact use Fatboy Slim’s track ‘Sho Nuff’ (which sampled ‘Jeans On’), in an advertising campaign for their new model Ibiza.

It was almost a year before Chrysalis issued an album in support of ‘Jeans On’, surprising really, given that both artist and label must have been confident they’d have a hit. Perhaps it took Dundas that long to pen enough full length songs to fill an album, because reportedly the album only took about six weeks to record. ‘David Dundas’, the album, was released in mid ‘77 (released as ‘Jeans On’ in Australia), but aside from a brief stint inside the Australian charts (#82), it didn’t do much business. A second single had preceded the album’s release, by about three months, and ‘Another Funny Honeymoon’ (UK#29/OZ#14) ensured that David Dundas would avoid the ‘one hit wonder’ tag in those countries at least. The follow up singles ‘Where Were You Today’ (which was used in a television commercial for C&A clothing stores), and ‘Fly Baby Fly’, didn’t fare so well. A second album, ‘Vertical Hold’, was released in 1978, but neither it, nor the singles ‘Guy The Gorilla’ or ‘When I Saw You Today’, took hold on the charts.

With his pop career seemingly ground to a halt, David Dundas initially returned fulltime to jingle writing, but by the early 80s had focussed his creative energies on composing for film and television. Over the ensuing twenty years, Dundas worked extensively with British television networks. In 1982, he composed the music for Channel 4’s ‘Fourscore’, for which he reportedly received £3.50 every time the music was broadcast over a ten year period. His music was also heard every morning on the 80s breakfast news program ‘Daybreak’, and the I.T.V. network frequently used Dundas’ work for station and program promos. By the late 80s, Dundas had turned his talents back toward film scoring, and in 1987 co-wrote (with Rick Wentworth) the score for the Bruce Robinson film ‘Withnail And I’. Robinson was so satisfied, that he invited Dundas to score his follow up, the quirky 1989 comedy ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’, once again starring Richard E. Grant. Dundas must have felt a keen sense of irony over his involvement with that project. Some sources cite Dundas as being involved in the scores for the films ‘Sometime Never’ and ‘Dark City’, though I’m not certain of his definite involvement with either. Apparently Dundas still turns his hand to penning the occasional advertising jingle, but information is scarce regards his Lordship’s activities in recent years. Perhaps he has retired to a comfortable country estate, pipe in hand, slippers on feet, and relaxing in a comfortable pair of jeans.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Da Da Da - This Song Makes No Sense

Popular music has thrown up its share of quirky, nonsensical, and just plain weird songs over the last fifty years. The practice of employing silly lyrics and/or titles, reached its highpoint in the late 50s through 60s, with the likes of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong’ and ‘Ooby Dooby’. But the Police showed the art of the absurd song title hadn’t been lost, with 1981’s ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’, and a year later, the German trio of Trio, followed suit with their worldwide hit ‘Da Da Da’, or to give it its full title, ‘Da Da Da I Don’t Love You You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha Aha’.

Trio were a minimalist synth-pop outfit, and it may come as a shock to you to learn that the group comprised, not one, not two, but three members. What?!? Three members? Well, that’s right, it seems that as outlandish as these people were prepared to be with their music, they weren’t willing to fly in the face of trio tradition. The three musicians concerned, hailed from the small German town of Großenkneten, somewhere in the Lower Saxony area of Germany, and a place that features, what appear to be, two blocks of wood and a captive collection of asparagus, on its coat of arms. In around 1979, local residents Stephan Remmler, Gert ‘Kralle’ Krawinkel, and Peter Behrens, decided that the German music scene needed cheering up, and so they came up with what they referred to as ‘Neue Deutsche Frohlichkeit’, or ‘New German Cheerfulness’, as an approach to musical expression. Actually, in practice it meant that they stuck to a basic premise of taking extremely simple song structures, to exceed three chords was a rarity, and produce a very clean, stripped down song. Influence, and inspiration, was drawn from the likes of German synth-pop pioneers like Faust, Nau and Kraftwerk, in addition to the stripped down, rawness of punk rock. Like a young British musician by the name of Daniel Miller (see recent post on The Normal), Trio achieved a starkly minimalist aural soundscape, with monotone vocals, syncopated rhythm tracks, and a robotic, industrial ambience, that proved oddly hypnotic in its cold blandness.

Remmler (keyboards/ vocals), Kralle (guitar), and Behrens (drums), strayed little from the use of their core instrumental palette, with bass rarely getting a look in on their early material. But these guys weren’t simply in-studio experimenters, and proved they could reproduce their sound live. Remmler did rely on some simple preprogrammed rhythms and melodies via his Casio VL-1 keyboard, though few pop/rock groups avoid using pre-recorded material that to some extent enhance their live shows. Though I doubt many drummers eat an apple, whilst standing up and playing one handed, which is reputedly the approach taken by Behrens. The band emerged with their self titled debut album in 1981, which initially only received a release in Germany. Most of the album’s vocals are performed, appropriately enough, in German, and stick mostly to a basic arrangement of vocals, guitar and drums, though ironically it was produced by a bassist, in the legendary form of Klaus Voorman (of Beatles/Lennon association). It was simple, bare bones synth-rock, and though Trio were lumped in with the Neue Deutsche Welle, or New German Wave, their music didn’t strictly fit into either punk or new wave categories, usually associated with that movement. The single ‘Stop Before I Go Crazy’ (or ‘Halt Mich Fest Ich Werd Verruckt’, had already been released to some notice, but the first single from the ‘Trio’ album (OZ#91), would garner considerably wider notice.

‘Da Da Da Ich Lieb Dich Nicht Du Liebst Mich Nicht Aha Aha Aha’, or its English language title equivalent ‘Da Da Da I Don’t Love You You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha Aha’, was first released in 1981, and started to make wa-wa-wa-waves across parts of Europe. Lyrically, the track was a quirky take on the whole concept of unrequited love, and bounced between German and English and ‘language unknown’ lyrics. Its relentlessly repetitive structure, and monotone vocals, made ‘Da Da Da’ one of those songs that you either love or hate, that is to say, it’s damn near impossible to be ambivalent about something that’s so pointedly unconventional. The Mobile Suit Corporation label (distributed through Mercury) saw the song’s hit potential, and as it turned out, this eccentric little German number proved loveable to enough British to reach #2 in mid 1982. Australia (#4) and Canada (#3) followed suit soon after, and the track even made some waves on the U.S. club scene (#33 Club Play chart). With over a million copies sold worldwide, ‘Da Da Da’ became one of the biggest selling German language singles in pop music history. In keeping with Trio’s minimalist approach to things, both album and single cover art featured variations on a handwritten ‘Trio’ with two scrawled heart symbols, one crossed out, one not, and may well have been designed by a five year old in their kindergarten art class (though some countries received cover art featuring the band).

During 1982, Trio released a cassette only live album, titled ‘Live Im Frühjahr ‘82’ (‘Live In Spring ‘82’), and several more singles were released, in both German and English language versions. An EP, also titled ‘Trio’, was released later in 1982, featuring the German hit ‘Broken Hearts For You And Me’. In the U.S., both ‘Trio’ the album, and ‘Trio’ the EP, were packaged under the single amalgamated title of ‘Trio & Error’.

In 1983, Trio once more teamed up with producer Klaus Voorman on their sophomore album proper, titled ‘Bye Bye’. The album spawned two more German hits, with ‘Anna - Lassmichrein Lassmichraus’ (‘Anna - Letmein Letmeout’), and ‘Hearts Are Trump’ (‘Herz Ist Trumpf’), but Trio couldn’t repeat their commercial success in English speaking territories. The title of the ‘Bye Bye’ album was mildly prophetic in terms of the limited future of Trio, at least as a trio. They had the bright idea of adapting their madcap musical persona to cinematic form, via the film ‘Drei Gegen Drei’, or ‘Three Against Three’. The basic plot involved the members of Trio playing three characters, who in a diabolical get rich quick scheme, murdered doubles of themselves. Sadly, Trio’s talents as musicians didn’t translate to the big screen. Back in the real world, drummer Peter Behrens had decided to leave Trio, apparently over a pay dispute of some kind, and consequently he wasn’t involved in the associated soundtrack to the film, which eventually saw release in 1985 under the title ‘What’s The Password’. The combination of the failed movie venture, and Behrens’ departure, led to Stephan Remmler and Gert Krawinkel calling an end to the Trio endeavour.

It wouldn’t be just to define Trio’s career on the basis of just one hit, but doubtless ‘Da Da Da’ is what they’re best known for. The song charted in over thirty countries worldwide, sold millions of copies, and remains one of the defining moments of synth-pop. Countless cover versions have been released over the years, in various languages, and the song’s use on television commercial campaigns has been commonplace. Perhaps the best known came in 1997 via the song’s use in an American advertising campaign for Volkswagen cars. The runaway popularity of the commercial led to a renewed interest in the song ‘Da Da Da’, and the group Trio. The album ‘Da Da Da’ was released in the U.S. to satisfy consumer appetites for the song, though I’m not sure how sales compared with the number of new Volkswagens shifted by dealerships.

The three members of Trio, have all gone on to productive solo careers, and have demonstrated that their individual musical talents extend well beyond the deliberately limited scope of expression offered via the Trio vehicle. Guitarist Gert ‘Kralle’ Krawinkel had already had expansive experience with bands prior to Trio, and subsequently he concentrated on running his own recording studio in his adopted home of Seville, Spain. He released a self titled album in 1993, but in recent years has withdrawn from music, and shifted focus to equine matters. Drummer Peter Behrens, was likewise a bit of a music journeyman prior to Trio, but following his departure from the group, he spent some time dedicated to social worker activities. He recorded some not so successful solo work, and tried his hand again at acting in the late 80s, but following some difficult times, Behrens has in recent years returned to the drum kit, with local German bands. Vocalist and occasional keyboardist, Stephan Remmler, maintained the strongest ties to music, and released several albums in the decade following the dissolution of Trio, with his work taking on an increasing rock music flavour over the years. Following a ten year hiatus, Remmler returned to music in 2006, with the release of his album ‘1,2,3,4’.

For a much more comprehensive history of Trio, particularly the years leading up to their formation, the following site is definitely worth closer inspection - it’s one of the more comprehensive fan sites out there (for any artist). Though the text is mostly German language, the band history is reproduced in English, for the linguistically challenged amongst us.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Marshall Hain Isn't A Solo Artist?

Throughout popular music history, there have been a number of artists whose monikers have initially caused a degree of uncertainty - are they a person, or a band? The likes of Jethro Tull, Harvey Danger, Edward Bear, Elliot Minor, Sebastian Hardie, Jesus Jones, Rose Royce, Pablo Cruise, all feature a nomenclatural ambiguity in respect of their categorisation as solo artist or group. Another to add to that list, is Marshall Hain, who beyond Britain, were largely known as a one hit wonder, for their sensual 1978 dance-pop hit ‘Dancing In The City’.

In fairness to the duo of Marshall Hain, their name actually combines the surnames of both members, Julian Marshall and Kit Hain, and that’s not so unusual for a duo (or trio) of musicians to do - but it’s not as common for the combination to still sound like an individual’s moniker (or exclude ‘and’ to link the names). All conjecture over artist tags aside, it’s worth exploring the story behind the group a little further.

British based Julian Marshall, and Kit Hain, had both been involved in music since their school days, during which both played in school bands (though not together). Marshall studied music formally at the Royal College of Music in London, whilst Hain took a diversion for a while into studying psychology, though she continued to write and perform music, mostly in the folk vein. Hain then balanced a career in teaching and music, before moving to London. She met up with Julian Marshall (who she had known from school days), and Marshall himself was at a bit of a crossroads, having ended an association with a jazz outfit, and by mid ‘76 the pair had begun writing and performing together, Marshall on keyboards/piano, Hain on vocals/guitar.

As the duo Marshall Hain, they burst onto the pop music scene over the northern summer of 1978, with the calypso flavoured ‘Dancing In The City’, and began to have fun on the charts almost immediately. Following its June chart debut, the song cruised on up to dock at #3 before summer’s end. Just as ‘Dancing In The City’ was proving a shining remedy for those British who were feeling dull and run down, the track lit up a dark and cold Australian winter. It was a slow burner, but eventually matched its British performance, and peaked at #3 during October. For me, one of the stand out features of the song was the brilliant drum track, which happened to be played by Peter Van Hook (later of Mike and the Mechanics fame). Having also notched up solid sales across Europe, Marshall Hain made their only foray into the U.S. charts (as a duo) late in ‘78, with ‘Dancing In The City’ peaking at #43. Marshall Hain released the album ‘Free Ride’ (OZ#56) on the Harvest label, produced by Christopher Neil, who later worked with the likes of Sheena Easton, The Other Ones, and Gerry Rafferty (see previous posts). The album (released in the U.S. as ‘Dancing In The City’) featured a mix of styles and influences, from soul, jazz, funk, and pop, but only spawned one more minor hit, with the slower tempo ‘Coming Home’ (UK#39). The third single was the lyrical antithesis of ‘Dancing In The City’. The laid back ballad ‘Back To The Green’ advocated a shift from the hustle and bustle of city life to the quiet life in the country, but city slickers (and country folk) obviously didn’t fall for its charm. For the duo of Marshall Hain, that was pretty much all she wrote, though as individuals, both Julian Marshall and Kit Hain would go on to be involved in other successful group/duo projects, in both a writing and performance capacity.

Julian Marshall explored a new pop vision with the duo Eye To Eye, in partnership with Seattle born vocalist and songwriter Deborah Berg. Eye To Eye released their debut single, ‘Am I Normal?’ in 1980, but despite being a somewhat intriguing offering ,the track remained largely unseen, or that should probably be unheard. The duo did enjoy a higher profile Stateside, where the single ‘Nice Girls’ (lifted from their self titled album) broke into the Hot 100 during May of ‘82, and peaked at #37 (OZ#89). A follow up single, ‘Lucky’, caught a glimpse of the U.S. Hot 100 (#88) late in ‘83. A couple of sources have referred to Julian Marshall having some involvement with the avant-garde synth-rock act the Flying Lizards, and I was initially a bit dubious about the accuracy of that association. However, on closer inspection of the credits for the Flying Lizards’ 1981 album, ‘Fourth Wall’, Julian Marshall is credited with contributing vocals/keyboards on three of the album’s tracks, so this must have been a side project for Marshall, in between working with Berg in Eye To Eye. He returned to play piano on several tracks with David Cunningham’s Flying Lizards, on their 1984 outing ‘Top Ten’. More recently Marshall joined up with percussionist Martin Ditcham to record the album ‘Selling Water By The River’ (2000), as Umbrella People, with the album reflecting Marshall’s long standing affection for jazz fusion.

Kit Hain released two solo albums, ‘Spirits Walking Out’ (1981), and ‘School For Spies’ (1983), but neither found a significant audience. Hain then moved to the U.S., and continued to work as a vocalist, contributing to work by Barbara Dickson, and Deborah Blando. In subsequent years her career took on more of a song writing focus, and Hain has penned songs recorded by the likes of Selena, Peter Cetera, Cyndi Lauper, Roger Daltrey, and Jonathan Butler. Recently, Kit Hain also had involvement as a vocalist with the Mike Thorne dance album projects, ‘Contessa’s Party’ and ‘Sprawl’ (which also featured Lene Lovich).