Monday, 1 July 2013

Comparatively obscure debut compositions from 10 future AAA stars (News, Views and Music 200)

This week’s album reviews has focussed on the first ever published songs by two leading AAA brethren: Stephen Stills and Neil Young, so for this week’s top ten we thought we’d look at ten other debut compositions by what we reckon to be ten of the most successful AAA writers. Now, some of these we’ve covered before (the ‘first’ songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, among others) and other ‘first’ recordings are quite well known in their own right, often as their band’s debut releases (The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ Safari’, Cat Stevens’ ‘I Love My Dog’, George Harrison’s ‘Don’t Bother Me’, Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’, The Small Faces “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?”, The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ and Syd Baratt’s ‘Arnold Layne’ among them). With some writers, who had to wait longer to find fame and fortune, we’re not actually sure what their very first song was (Noel Gallagher, Alan Hull, Graham Gouldmann and Mark Knopfler included). This list, though, is likely to contain the first fruits of ten songwriters/songwriting partnerships that will be about to go into hyperdrive but haven’t quite caught fire yet, with tips on where to hear this music and whether it’s any good! Here they are, then, in as close to chronological order as we can manage:

1) Paul Simon “Hey, Schoolgirl!” (written and released in 1956; since released on several compilations and box sets and by both Simon and Garfunkel and ‘Tom and Jerry’)

Garfunkel and Simon (as Tom and Jerry respectively) had their first hit, not in 1966 as fresh-faced 24-year-olds with ‘The Sound Of Silence’ but as even fresher-faced 14-year-olds with their debut single. While a local hit rather than a statistic-breaking chart topper, it was nevertheless a huge achievement for two kids still at school who’d never written a song before (Arty gets a co-credit for the first and almost last time). While you’d never rate it as one of Paul’s deepest or greatest songs, there is already a real sense of understanding about how songs work and the chorus-verse structure is already a lot neater and more flowing than almost all of Paul’s contemporaries. Only the lyrics don’t really fit well with later Paul Simon songs although even these (‘woop-bop-a-loo-chi-ba’) make a lot of sense in the context of Paul’s most recent work, which has gone right back to this doo-wop period in both ‘The Capeman’ and most recent album ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ where, when Paul fades away in the afterlife, this snatch of nonsense lyric is all that’s left of him. Tom and Jerry released several more records, only some of them up to this standard (and sadly, as ‘experiments’, they were often relegated to B-sides) while Paul’s work gets more interesting still when he hits 16 and forms Tico and the Triumphs and starts singing about teenage angst...

2) Graham Nash/Allan Clarke “Little Lover” (written circa 1963 and released on ‘Stay With The Hollies’ 1963)

Few bands around as early as 1963 got their own songs onto their first records and while The Hollies only managed one compared to the seven Lennon-McCartney got on ‘Please Please Me’ this is still an impressive achievement. ‘Little Lover’ was written while Tony Hicks was still very new to the band and not yet part of the Clarke-Hicks-Nash songwriting team, with school-friends Allan and Graham writing this one on a day off from school (much like the first Beatles originals). It’s not one of their best either, a little bit too much like the 1950s records both loved to sound ‘contemporary’ even by 1963 standards (it’s exactly what you’d expect The Everly Brothers tackling a Chuck Berry song to sound like) and the rhyming of ‘lover’ and ‘discover’ is not the best rhyme this partnership will ever make. For all that, though, the pair of budding songwriters already know how to harness the rhythmic power they have in the band, giving drummer Bobby Elliott a better chance to show his stuff than most Hollies covers of the period, and Eric Haydock shines on the song’s walking riff. Not a bad starting point, ‘Little Lover’ holding its own with a good half of the cover songs from the first Hollies LP.

3) Mick Jagger/Keith Richards “Tell Me” (written circa 1963 and released on “Rolling Stones’ 1964)

Listening to this few people would be able to tell that this is the first fruits from a writing partnership that, within 18 months, will be writing songs like ‘Satisfaction’. Perhaps considering writing blues and rock songs sacrosanct and impossible for two middle class white boys instead the Stones try to sound like a cross between The Beatles and The Supremes. ‘Tell Me’ doesn’t even have a proper rhyme in the chorus (‘Tell me you’re coming back to me!’) and an uncomfortable ragged riff that’s light years away from Keef’s exhilarating ideas to come. For all that, though, ‘Tell Me’ brought a lot of kudos at the time when bands didn’t often writer their own material and Brian Jones felt sufficiently upset by his colleagues writing together that he effectively begins a four year huff. An odd but fascinating song, quite unlike even the next batch of Jagger-Richards songs (most of which are ballads written with other people in mind) never mind the rock and roll epics to come.

4) Ray Davies “You Still Want Me” (written circa 1963, released in 1964 as The Kinks’ second single)

Most people assume that ‘You Really Got Me’ was the first Kinks single, but actually it was the third – even if Ray Davies had written it long before ‘The Ravens’ (as they were back then) ever had a record contract. Timing is a little bit hazy, but most sources state that his first song properly finished was the A side of Kinks single number two, a bouncy hand-clapper in the ‘Beatles-do-Motown’ mould. Whilst more successful than their debut single (a rather limp version of the Little Richard classic, released because the Beatles were getting such attention from their cover of it), ‘You Still Want Me’ is a little bit tentative and raw, not possessing the flaw or the individuality of almost all Ray Davies songs to come. In actual fact its closer to the driving, relentless sound of the band’s 1980s work than the cat-and-mouse game perfected on ‘You Really Got Me’ and quite a few other Kinks A-sides to come. I prefer the B-side, a harmony-laden R and B foot-tapper ‘You Do Something To Me’ in which Ray and Dave mesh their harmonies to great effect and already sound recognisably like The Kinks. ‘You Still Want Me’, though, is the sound of a band in flux, not yet certain that their destiny lies in being not like everybody else.

5) Eric Stewart “Long Time Comin’” (written circa 1964 and released as the B-side of Mindbenders single “It’s Just A Little Bit Too Late” 1964)

Graham Gouldmann wrote so many songs covered by other artists that its hard to tell what his first song is; similarly Godley and Creme only really properly started writing songs for the ‘Hotlegs’ album of 1970 that’s the 10cc debut in all but name. Eric Stewart, though, first got his name on a songwriting credit on the back of the Mindbenders’ third hit, a song that features several Stewart trademarks to come (long held notes, a sweeping melody that goes from high to low and back again over a short sequence of notes; a general sense of optimism) along with a Merseybeat-ish rattling rhythm that 10cc never really used. Stewart shares lead vocals with the band’s lead singer Wayne Fontana for the first time, too, and the song clearly suits him much more than his ‘leader’ who treats this song as another R and B rocker instead of a more graceful Merseybeatish ballad. Not that distinguished yet perhaps (Eric will come into his own as a writer in 1966 when Fontana leaves the group and becomes the new de facto leader) but a good likeness for what’s to come.

6) David Crosby “The Airport Song” (written circa 1964 and released on The Byrds’ rarities compilation “Never Before” in 1988)

The biggest surprise of the various ‘early tapes’ of the Byrds around (collected first as ‘Preflyte’ in 1986, although this song only appeared on the second volume ‘Never Before’ a couple of years later) is not the band doing an acoustic ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ or Gene Clark revealing a rock and roll side that he’ll only ever use again on rare occasions. No, it’s David Crosby’s first composition which for some reason he and the other Byrds never returned to again, despite the fact that his next batch of songs (‘What’s Happening?!?!?’ and ‘Wait and See’) aren’t anything like this individual and ‘finished’. In fact it’s more like an early CSN song, cryptic in lyric but with a tension in the backing that seems to tug away at Crosby’s relaxed ‘smiling’ vocal’ in a way that Cros won’t re-learn for some years yet. The title, too, has nothing to do with the song (another harbringer for things to come) and the guitar tuning is best described as ‘eccentric’, whilst following an internal logic all of it’s own. If the middle eight sounds squarely borrowed from early Beatles that shouldn’t get in the way of what a surprisingly adventurous and pioneering song this is, one far too good than to have sat in the vaults for nearly 25 years.

7) Mike Nesmith “Different Drum” (written circa 1965, although Nez’s version won’t be released till the 1972)

Papa Nez might have been called a ‘young unknown’ in early publicity for The Monkees TV show, but he’d actually achieved a great deal already in his 24 years. As a performer he was an unknown: a series of single releases under the name ‘Michael Blessing’ and ‘John, Bill and Mike’ had gained good reviews but hadn’t really sold. As a songwriter though Nesmith had already scored a couple of top ten hits, with the Paul Butterfield Blue Bands’ heavy reading of his song ‘Mary, Mary’ (which The Monkees recorded on their second album with Micky Dolenz singing) and the first, ‘Different Drum’ (a song Nesmith won’t release himself until 1972, although it is heard briefly in the Monkees TV episode ‘Too Many Girls’ where Nesmith, playing a deliberately bad country performer, rushes through it at top speed). The song was covered by the Stone Ponys, a bit of a one-hit wonder act although lead singer Linda Ronstadt would go on to have a glittering career of her own (working with Neil Young on some of his best-selling albums as well as having hits herself). Unusual in being a) a ballad b) about love and c) featuring the title sung several times over (most Nesmith songs have titles that have nothing to do with the song), ‘Different Drum’ reveals a sweet and sensitive side that doesn’t appear in many other Nesmith songs. Notably Mike never released this song under his own name until much later on in his career, despite releasing almost a dozen ‘Michael Blessing’ singles, suggesting he deliberately wrote this song for someone else to sing.

8) Justin Hayward “London Is Behind Me” (released as debut solo single in 1965)

Justin’s first Moody Blues song ‘Fly Me High’ might have flopped but it changed the band’s sound forever: psychedelic, guitar-based, with its roots in folk rather than R and B, a sound the band build on for their next two singles, the more successful ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and ‘Nights In White Satin’. Really, though, its just a poppier version of Justin’s three flop solo singles recorded for the ‘London’ label in 1965 and 1966. ‘London Is Behind Me’ is the first song (truer than he knew, given how the Surrey-born Hayward is soon to end up in a Birmingham band) but in truth they all sound much the same, Hayward the folkie singing quiet protest songs with just his acoustic guitar to accompany him. While not that successful in and of themselves, you can already hear Hayward’s ‘innocence-gone-wrong’ persona and although more Earth-bound than most Moodies songs to come the hapless romantic sounds much the same, looking back on his life with guilt and regret. Sadly all of these Hayward solo songs are unavailable on CD as of the time of writing – though Justin is understandably reluctant to let the world hear his ‘baby pictures’ they’re really pretty darn good for the period and considering his lack of experience at the time.

9) Jerry Garcia “Cream Puff War” (written and recorded circa 1967 on ‘Grateful Dead’)

When the Dead released their debut record in the summer of love they were still largely thinking of themselves as an r and b covers band, albeit a bit more psychedelic than usual. There are 11 songs on this first album and only two of them are originals: ‘The Golden Road’ credited to the whole band (via the ridiculous pseudonym ‘McGallahan Skjellyfetti’) and Garcia’s ‘Cream Puff War’. Noisier and rockier than most Garcia songs to come, this is one of the few lyrics Jerry ever wrote himself before teaming up with his old college buddy Robert Hunter and its’, well, a little over done. (‘No, no you can’t take my mind and leave! It’s just another trick you’ve got up your sleeve!’) Even though ‘Cream Puff War’ sounds different, though, its heart is still very much in the same place, standing up to the Vietnam War when few other bands dared to try and setting out an argument as to why ‘straight’ society are more mad than a band like the Dead would ever be. In a sense this song is folk-based protest poetry a la one of Garcia’s big influences Dylan, but Bob would never have used such ‘hip’ terminology or turned in such a rocky arrangement.

10) Roger Waters “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” (written and recorded circa 1967 on ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ 1967)

Syd Barratt dominated the first Floyd LP – the only one he was an active participant in making (although a few leftover songs from the first record make it to the second). In 1967 the rest of Pink Floyd were still ‘the tail of Syd’s comet’, with keyboardist Rick Wright the star-in-waiting after his keyboard and harmony vocals did the next most to shape the record. Already, though, future band ‘leader’ Roger Waters has slipped his first song onto a record and proved he will be much more than just the ‘bass player’. ‘Stethoscope’, though, is a clumsy song, without the love of words or big themes that Waters will come to be known for, although this long list of grievances and seemingly random words whose only link with each other is that they rhyme (‘Moon, June, Greasy Spoon!’) do sound a little like the ‘list’ lyrics Roger so loves to write (just think of the ending of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ for the most famous example!) The song is also quite nasty, something that won’t really turn up again in Roger’s songs until as late as ‘Animals’ in 1977 and quite at odds with Syd’s more childish and innocent songs, even if it gives the rest of the band more of a chance to show off their power and range (Nick Mason never bangs his drums quite so hard again in his near-30 year career!) In truth, the leap from this to the next album’s ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’ songs are huge (almost all of which are written by Roger and almost all of which are other-worldly and epic) and Roger never ever sounds like this ever again.

Well, that’s it for another week, news and views lovers. See you next issue!

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