Monday, 13 April 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 27 (Top Five): Best Pre-Beatles Songs

♫ And now the latest in our top fives – the five best pre-Beatles/Beach Boys rock and roll songs and which AAA artists covered them.

5) Well…Alright (originally by Buddy Holly; covered by – gasp – no one!) Why did no one cover this forgotten gem of a song, which shows the roots of Merseybeat era pop far more successfully than more famous Buddy Holly classics like ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day’? Amazingly the Hollies left it off their whole album of Holly covers both obvious and unusual (‘Hollies Sing Holly’, 1980) despite the factthat it would have fitted their style quite nicely. Stripping the crickets down to a trio, Buddy turns in a deeper and more serious vocal than usual, adding his menacing vocal to one of the first true rock and roll (as opposed to ‘skiffle’) songs recorded with acoustic rather than electric guitars. The addition of a cowbell every half beat in the bar makes the whole thing sound like the missing link between thye sounds of the 50s and 60s, a sound aped by several Buddy Holly fans including Lennon and McCartney, The Hollies and The Kinks. 

4) Louie Louie (originally by the Kingsmen; covered by The Beach Boys – ‘Shut Down Volume Two’ and The Kinks – ‘Kinksize Sessions EP’, available on CD as bonus track on ‘The Kinks’). This track used to be one of the most famous rock and roll records of all time, played by every band starting out in honour of its rebellious drawl and simple chugging chords. But where did all those people go? Nobody seems to remember this song anymore, possibly because – shamefully – of these two rather poor AAA cover versions  which are now far more famous than the real thing. The Beach Boys version features a promising arrangement caught adrift on a sea of tiredness (this was the period when the fivesome were making five albums a year – and it shows on ‘Shut Down’ more than most of their mid-60s LPs) and the curious idea that listeners might actually want to hear the words loud and clear. The Kinks go back to re-creating this song’s slightly-out-of-earshot leering mode, but do it courtesy of some of the worst attempts at double-tracking in recorded history (it took a good couple of years for Ray Davies to learn the knack of doubling his parts successfully). Neither version quite recaptures the menace of the Kingsmen’s original, whose sneer and insistent beat inspired everything from Merseybeat to punk (it was even banned for ‘suggestive lyrics’ in some states of America, even though a study of these same lyrics reveals it all to be just gibberish).

3) Fortune Teller (written by Benny Spellman; covered by The Rolling Stones – ‘Got Live! If You Want It’, The Hollies – ‘The Hollies’ and The Who – Live At Leeds’ (deluxe edition) ). History has forgotten who Benny Spellmen as the original version of this song has practically disappeared without trace, but it became a staple of many bands’ line-ups during the 60s. A comedy tale of a teenager looking for his perfect partner who in desperation goes to see a fortune teller – only to realise later that it’s the very fortune teller who makes hi heart a flutter, this is one of the first genuinely funny rock and roll songs (apart from those written by Chuck Berry, anyway). It’s not just the lyrics that make this song the enjoyable little escapade it is, however – the rhythmic see-sawing melody line and mixture of on and off beats made it one of those songs that bands could take in pretty much any direction. And they did. The Stones version – for some reason abandoned as their second single, left in a vault for two years and then overdubbed with crowd noises so it could appear ‘live’ – is one of the bands’ best early covers, menacing and ungrammatical in true Stones style (‘I’m not passion with the girls I know’; generally speaking they’re better at doing blues covers than rock and roll in their early days, although their Bo Diddley songs are an exception to that). The Hollies coat the song in blissful harmonies and take the song at a rattling pace while letting drummer Bobby Elliott work his way up and down his kit, exploring every avenue while looking for love. The Who go in quite a different way, slowing the song down to a crawl for the first half of the song before letting it erupt into a fire of self-pity and anger over the narrator’s love life. All three versions are superb, showing what a great and adaptable little song this is.   

2) Shakin’ All Over (originally by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates; covered by the Swinging Blue Jeans and The Who – ‘Live At Leeds’). One of the noisiest of all 19560s songs, this was the British song that broke the dichotomy of the American rock and rollers and showed that England wasn’t all clean-cut Cliff Richards and Tommy Steeles With pklenty of space for rhythm guitar riffing, electric guitar soloing, drum breaks and bubbling bass lines, this is another song that marked the way forward for bands of the early 60s. The Who turn in a typically energetic and fierce version on their superlative Live At Leeds album, but it’s the largely forgotten group the Swinging Blue Jeans who made perhaps the definitive 60s version of this track. Crystal-clear production, relentless drumming, classic vocals – this version has it all.   

1) Too Much Monkey Business (originally by Chuck Berry; covered by the Beatles – ‘At The BBC’, The Kinks – ‘The Kinks’ and The Hollies – studio version ‘The Hollies’/ live version ‘Long Road Home’ box set). ‘Same thing every day, get up go to school, no need for arguing my objections over-ruled, ahh!’ This is just one of six verses hollered at a break neck speed on perhaps the ultimate pre-Beatles rebel song, one of the best Chuck Berry records around. Hemmed in at school, at work, at home, in the army, life for the teenage rebel in the song is hard – but he finds a certain kind of satisfaction in being kicked out of every one in turn for monkeying around. The Hollies sweetened their version with stunning harmonies but made the rhythm section pounce even morer than on the original, while swapping lead vocals between their three singers Clarke, Hicks and Nash. (Check out the live version, not available until the 2003 box set, which demonstrates the universality of this song by suddenly leaping sideways into lots of other songs, including the Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’ and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream’). The Beatles choose to speed up the tempo, with Lennon delivering one of his best ever lead vocals on a version that remains one of the fab four’s most potent (and forgotten) rockers. Whichever way you do it, this song is a classic!

Well that’s nearly it for another week. Just one final word before we go, a though from Philosophy Phil – ‘the best cure for insomnia is…a good night’s sleep’. Yes, thankyou for that wonderful thought, we’ll see you next week! Keep rocking!

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