Monday, 15 April 2013

First Songs/Recordings By AAA Stars (News, Views and Music Top Five 189)

Some Alan’s Album Archives musicians are born great, some become great and others have greatness thrust upon them. While an overwhelming amount of musicians have a big hit with their career first song (The Who’s Pete Townshend’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ and Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sultans Of Swing’ to name just two), other songwriters struggle for years to get their songs recognised (e.g. Ray Davies, whose first released song ‘You Still Want Me’ was a flop and Jerry Garcia, whose first song ‘Cream Puff War’ was relegated to a ‘filler’ on the first Grateful Dead album). Others, like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and the Stones’ Jagger and Richards partnership only began writing several years into their career out of circumstances (the loss of Syd Barrett in the former case; being locked into a room and ordered to ‘write together’; by manager Andrew Loog Oldham in the latter). A handful of AAA stars, though, had already been writing for quite a few years by the time they got their ‘big break’ and, luckily for us, these very first songs features in this week’s top five have all been released at some time somewhere, whether in original demo form, a retrospective re-recording or a live album. And here they are, in as strict a chronological order as we can manage (given how hazy some of the dates are) together with a brief insight into whether these ‘first’ songs show any sign of the writing style to come...

“I Lost My Little Girl” (Paul McCartney circa 1957 – original still unreleased; a version released on McCartney’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ 1992)

‘I woke up late this morning, head was in a whirl, only then I realised, I lost my little girl – ah ha, hah, uh-hah hah’. Not the greatest couplet in the McCartney canon, but pretty good for a fifteen year old deeply in love with Buddy Holly who wants to compete with his idols. Macca wrote his first song whilst ‘sagging off’ from school – a pattern that led to many of the finest songs in the early Beatles repertoire – but hadn’t yet met John Lennon who was, reportedly, shocked at how good the song was and who was kick-started into writing his own songs by way of competition. While the song wasn’t considered good enough to part of the Quarrymen/Beatles canon in its own right, Macca tinkered with the song a lot, adding a middle eight (‘Gather round people, let me tell you the story of the very first song I wrote!) sometime around the ‘Let It Be’ sessions (when one of the very first Lennon songs, ‘One After 909’, was dug out of the archives too). The others certainly knew the song well (Lennon offering his own unique ‘pastiche’ version during the same sessions!) and Macca recording a ‘proper’ demo on piano somewhere around 1972 and the ‘Wildlife’ sessions. However the only official recording to date was during the McCartney Band Line-Up #2’s first official appearance in 1992 for MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ series where it was played on guitar and sounded remarkably similar to everything else played that night, from Beatles classics down to the 50-year-old’s latest songs with its straightforward lyrics and a breezy melody that sounded as if it had been around for centuries. Paul revealed years later that he was actually thinking about his mother when he wrote the song, who’d died just a few months before (compare with Lennon’s first song, below!)

“Hey Schoolgirl” (Simon and Garfunkel circa 1957 – released as a single under the name ‘Tom and Jerry’)

The only song in this list that was a bona fide ‘hit’ on release, ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ was a remarkable achievement for two 15 year olds and one they spent the next five years of their life, together and apart, trying to replicate. With its daft ‘woochibalapaboop you’re mine’ chorus, it’s about as far away from ‘The Sound Of Silence’ as you can get, but shares a very similar guitar tuning and a definite emphasis on rhythm that shows that Simon’s love of ‘world music’ didn’t come entirely out of the blue with ‘Graceland’ in 1986. Interestingly, like all these early songs, the piece is credited to Simon and Garfunkel jointly (Art even releases a couple of his own songs under the name ‘Art Graph’ in this period). The harmonies, too, are already spot-on perfect, even though it’s clear that – so soon after puberty – the duo are still learning how to use their new, deeper vocal chords. This song has been collected on CD many times (along with dozens of other Tom and Jerry and Paul’s solo Jerry Landis songs on semi-legal CDs that make the most out of exploiting a meagre songwriting contract that means the songs can be re-released without the artist’s permission, or on its own as part of the Simon and Garfunkel box set ‘Old Friends’).

“Happy Birthday Four Freshman” (Brian Wilson circa 1960 – released on Beach Boys outtakes set ‘Hawthorne, CA” in 2000)

Not strictly a ‘new song’, this is, however, the first thing Brian Wilson recorded when he bought his first beloved cassette player and learnt to singalong to Four Freshman records before making up his own songs in overdubbed four part harmony. The 19 year old Brian is celebrating the fifth ‘anniversary’ of his favourite group by singing the ‘happy birthday’ song in delicate and very Four Freshman-inspired four part harmony and the result is quite lovely, showing what an angelic voice Brian had even without the other Beach Boys. It’s probably fair to say, though, that without the influences of his brothers (Dennis’ love of surfing and Carl’s love of rock and roll) Brian might have struggled to sell a whole album of this stuff as its already sounding a little dated once the 50s turn into the 60s (even without the Beatles or surf music really around yet). Still, everyone has to start somewhere and you can already hear the beginnings of that famous Beach Boy sound. This short recording isn’t p[art of the track listing but can be heard right at the very end of the Beach Boys ‘Hawthorne, CA’ rarities set where it appears as the very last thing on the second disc, a ghostly and poignant reminder of the band’s origins that might well be the most vital thing on the whole record.

“Hello Little Girl” (John Lennon circa 1958 – recorded by The Beatles in 1962 and released on The Beatles’ ‘Anthology One’ 1996)

The Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ sets the scene quite well: a joyous John is – finally – enjoying his life after a troubled upbringing passed around between his mother Julia, his dad Fred and his guardian and Aunt, Mimi. Reunited with his mother in secret, and loving the fact that she encourages his rebellious side unlike his friends, aunt and teachers at school, he’s inspired enough by her banjo playing and collection of rock and roll records to make up his own song. Lennon also probably felt more than a little competitive when McCartney – two whole year younger – nervously shows his friend the first song he’s written (see above). However the 16 year old’s Lennon’s future is shaped irreparably when his mother is run over by an off-duty drunken policeman mere weeks after he writes this song (its not quite as instantaneous as in the film, but it’s close enough). History doesn’t record what Julia Lennon thought of her son’s first song or if Lennon junior was ever brave enough to show it to her, but he should have done – it’s a fine song which even ended up being a medium hit for The Fourmost in 1964 when everybody went Beatles-mad. Like Paul’s song it shows a real Buddy Holly influence and is both cute and arch in equal measure (in fact it’s more like a ‘Paul’ song in both tone and phrasing, showing what a different songwriting career Lennon might have had had his life continued to be this ‘happy’ without the death of his mother). Like ‘Little Girl’, it’s thought by many scholars that John is literally writing to his mother here and saying ‘thank goodness I found you again’, although unlike Paul sadly Lennon didn’t live long enough to re-record or talk about this song much so we’ll probably never know. The only officially available Beatles version is a rather nervy arrangement recorded for the band’s ill-fated Decca audition on January 1st 1962 where it was interestingly Lennon’s only original song of the day (Paul sang another early song ‘Love Of The Loved’). With a bit of polish, though, and happier circumstances it’s probably the most hit-record sounding of the bunch of mainly covers the Beatles did that day and arguably the equal of ‘Love Me Do’ (if not what comes later) so it’s odd that the Beatles never return to it again.

“Ain’t It The Truth?” (Neil Young circa 1962 – original still unreleased; a live version from 1983 released on the compilation ‘Lucky 13’ 1992)

For years with his band ‘The Squires’ Neil Young was a guitarist who didn’t sing (the Squires were mainly a ‘Shadows’ cover act at the time.) Then, when one of the band members with the strongest voice left, Neil became one of the many singers, covering Beatles songs like ‘It Won’t Be Long’. Only later, at the age of 16 when ‘The Squires’ were in the process of becoming a ‘pro’ band not just a ‘school’ band, did he begin writing his own songs. This one, ‘Ain’t It The Truth?’ is a very simple song with daft lyrics (‘Your highness, your soulfulness, eat watermelon, eat peaches and cream!’) which clearly shows the Shadows influence although Neil has already learnt the knack of writing a memorable hook-laden melodyline. The only version available on record to date is a live version by the ‘Shocking Pinks’, Neil’s retro 1950s band who recorded all sorts of simple rock and roll tunes from the 50s. Sadly this early original never actually made the album (despite being better and certainly more interesting than most of the cover songs that did) but Neil did play it on tour quite often and it’s a live version that was included on the ‘Geffen best-of-with-rarities set ‘Lucky 13’ with a now 38-year-old Neil having a great time reliving his youth.

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