Saturday, 30 April 2011

Veni, audi, vici: blurred Bowie, Kool And The Jam — oh, and which one’s Pink?

Back in the late Nineties, there was a sketch on Dead Ringers, the BBC Radio 4 comedy impersonation show in which one of the impressionists — shamefully I don’t remember which one — as ‘John Lennon’ threatened, pitch-perfectly, upon ever meeting Liam Gallagher: “I’d punch him in the face and say, ‘stop rippin’ off my songs, yer great horrible Yeti!’”

Many people who dislike Oasis — me included — cite this blatant tendency to pinch more than is needed from The Beatles as central proof of their unoriginal and consequently uninspiring output. I appreciate it’s a little more complicated than that. Come on! They nicked from Slade and Neil Innes as well, you know! Rutles composer Innes, a modest yet gifted man, supremely well versed in the dissection and examination of what made the Four so musically Fab, to say nothing of the legal pitfalls that parody and pastiche can pursue, sued the Gallaghers over their single ‘Whatever.’ He held that it infringed the copyright of ‘The Idiot Song,’ a jaunty number he’d written for the Monty Python show back in the early Seventies. Innes won the case. Subsequent printings of ‘Whatever’ rejoice under the songwriting credit of ‘Innes/Gallagher’ — and quite right too. 
No seriously, I do appreciate that it really is not as simple as all that; after all, isn’t pop music on one level all about being inspired by — and taking a lead from — your musical heroes? If we’re going to lay charges of plagiarism anywhere, let’s not forget that The Beatles themselves cheerfully admitted snatching the odd riff here, the odd lick there from various Motown and Stax records as they were growing up in public, as much as anyone. Me, I’ve often come up with the basis of a workable tune by absentmindedly humming an existing melody so carelessly that over days the end product is far removed from its parent. It’s a kind of musical Chinese Whispers. There are no new ideas, so the expression goes, only improved ideas. Well, just so long as the ideas are indeed improved — and don’t sound like the old ones.
If you know the history of Pink Floyd — and let’s face it who doesn’t? — you can skip to the next paragraph right now. For the remaining three of you, I’ll keep this as brief as I can: Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick found Floyd in the Sixties. Syd is ousted after a few months and the other guys get in a new guy, Dave. Not long after, they make it mega. Sometime after that, Rick and then Dave have an argument with Roger and eventually Roger goes off to do his own solo thing while Dave, Rick and Nick continue to trade as Pink Floyd. Consider yourself up to speed!
Those of you will know me will know I’m partial to a bit of Floyd, but a friend, Mr Keeler by name, lives and breathes the band to the exclusion of almost anything else on occasion and has a neat and simple view of their output and lineage. “In the Sixties, there was Syd’s Floyd,” he says conspiratorially, “the last albums were Dave’s Floyd,“ he continues, “but the bit in the middle…is THE FLOYD!” 
Roger Waters and David Gilmour found themselves by 1987 legally embroiled in a rather public and acrimonious wrangle over their own personal definitions of THE FLOYD and the ownership thereof. I can’t claim to know the detailed ins-and-outs of the litigation, but essentially the Roger-less Floydies recorded an album, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, issued calmly under the PF monicker and graced with a cover by their long-term designer, Storm Thorgerson. What they lacked in Roger’s bite, so to speak, they made up for with sheer personnel, recruiting a second drummer, a seasoned session pro bassist, some brass sidemen and backing vocalists to add some instrumental muscle.
Waters maintained his public — and he used the term precisely, quote “my public, the Pink Floyd public” unquote — wouldn’t view an album brought out by the other three chaps as the genuine article. Roger’s case was sound, as co-founding member and the man who wrote the considerable bulk of the music and lyrics that propelled the group to commercial success, following the sad ousting of Syd Barrett, their original guiding light. Poor, bright, beautiful Syd. Now he’s a blog all to himself if ever anyone was. 
Sitting pretty in the other corner, Mr David Gilmour, guitarist, singer and additional writer — the man responsible for an incalculable portion of the beguiling Floyd sound, lending both an incisive guitar tone and honeyed vocals to match. I’m generalising their roles within the band immensely, to say nothing of downplaying the contribution of the other gentlemen in the group, but for the sake of argument, there’s the sides. The judge ruled in Gilmour’s favour and ‘Dave’s Floyd’ endured, meeting financial success and ecstatic audiences everywhere they played through most of the Nineties. 
“A pretty fair forgery” was Waters’ final assessment of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. I have to disagree entirely: it possesses neither the dour, sarcastic lyrical tone nor the often contrastingly warm, enveloping sound of earlier Floyd albums. Neither fair nor forgery, it sounds like much of what passed for ‘rock’ in 1987 - brilliantly arranged, efficiently executed, but overproduced and ultimately thin and nastily dated in a way the Seventies albums seem to have resisted. To be fair to Gilmour and co, it’s a moot point whether Waters’ solo tours, playing much of the same material, were any more ‘the real McCoy’ — and I suspect I’d have got more excited at securing a Floyd ticket sooner than a Rog one had it occurred to me to do so at the time. To my ears, like Lennon & McCartney before them, it sounded like neither chap had quite as much to offer as solo artists than their wondrous work within the Floyd gestalt. As someone once remarked more succinctly: Roger made you think and Dave made sure you enjoyed it. In this respect, Pink Floyd are the paracetamol-and-codeine of the rock world, the one leavening the other and both as effective. There are heroes on both sides, so another expression goes.

You may know that the music magazine Q used to run a feature called Who The Hell Does insert name here Think (S)he Is? in which a difficult or wayward interviewee had their appointment with the journalist related in unflinching, disdainful detail. It’s certainly a good way to use up an article that may have been binned if it didn’t fulfil the initial editorial remit and I doubt if many, if any of the subjects were chosen to go into this article beforehand; rather they ended up there when a roundup of the month’s interviews yielded the most ornery, uncooperative or ridiculously self-aggrandising candidate. Ringo Starr’s one fell in the latter category (“Here is a genuine rock star standing before you!”), Rolf Harris’ in the former (“I do this weirdo bloody comedy”) and Oliver Reed’s was a little of all three.
Well, many years ago, Roger Waters got the WTHDinhTHI? treatment. Unintentional humour can sometimes be the richest comedy and in this respect Waters was hilarious. Presumably the idea was to procure some insights into the making of Waters’ then-latest album, Amused To Death, and the sort of juicy soundbites that constitute decent copy. Q certainly got the juice: when a rock star’s gambit is “Be honest — Amused To Death is fucking, fucking good, isn’t it?” and soars off on one from there, you know it’s going to be a harsh and confrontational ride. I can’t say for certain if Waters was on anything: I doubt he would bridle too much at the assertion that, like so many of his peers who had a ‘complicated Eighties,’ he may have indulged in whatever self-affirming substances were de rigeur in those times. Actually, I rather hope he had; it would explain and excuse the arrogant, bitter, one-note tenor of his invective as recorded faithfully in the article.
One moment in the interview gave me particular joy. The Q scribe quotes a line in one of Waters’ songs about Andrew Lloyd Webber, the interminability of Webber’s output and a desire for a piano lid to crash down on his fingers and end his drivelsome career; does Rog subscribe to this sentiment personally, Q asks? And has he noticed the similarity between the opening figure of The Phantom Of The Opera, then Webber’s latest infliction upon the West End stage and a recurring, descending guitar section in ‘Echoes’, the Pink Floyd song that occupies the entire second side of their 1971 album, Meddle? Roger, who has clearly come to this conclusion independently and no stranger to litigation, warms to this instantly:
“I think it’s actionable, I really think it is,” I quote Roger from memory, more-or-less, “but I think life’s too short to sue Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber — I think that might make me really angry.”
Roger Waters presents a much-chastened individual in interviews these days — or perhaps not so much chastened, more like someone who can let certain issues slide and make a mature statement without the kind of excessively cocksure verbiage that earns you that dreaded slot in Q. Happily his advanced years have not dented his confidence or brilliantly acute bullshit detection. Like most people who suffer no fools gladly for the right reasons, I’m very fond of him; a Waters interview is a slyly humorous, withering, but often self-deprecating and always entertaining read. Moreover, it’s quite amusing to note sidewards that he has grown into his looks — the long face and slightly exaggerated features of the young Waters was never going to compete with Gilmour’s Seventies hippie pinup image and yet as a vigorous sexagenarian we find Rog has the last laugh, with the same spare, rangy, bestubbled ‘Silver Fox’ countenance that gets women of a certain age so excited about Richard Gere. Good work, sir!
I’ll be off in a moment, until next time. Before I go, in related spirit, here are six examples of songs that have bits that sound like other songs. They’re not simply tunes that sample other records, or mashups — that’d be too easy. They are tunes that share compositional semblance, intended or otherwise. I am confident that at least one example hasn’t been remarked upon in any musical publications online or elsewhere, so I hope you find something new to read here. Some I think draw delightful patterns together in my head; others are tatty knockoffs of the laziest, most menacingly dull order. Either way, I have no wish to draw anyone to the similarities in the hope of ensuing legal action. That would be boring and unimaginative. Like dear Rog, I subscribe to the idea that life’s too short to be doing that. Enjoy spotting them merely for amusement’s sake.

Mott The Hoople: All The Young Dudes/Oasis: Stand By Me.
‘…Dudes’, David Bowie’s anthem for Glam youth, given to Mott and made-over with their usual gritty, down-at-heel quality, is a truly iconic song. ‘Stand By Me’ is not, managing at best a bloated, sentimental lurch by comparison, lightened by tritely appealing lead guitar interjections from Noel Gallagher. The best bit of the song is the sudden chord-changing shift in double-time between the vocal lines in the chorus — sadly, a job it did already to much more impressive effect in the chorus of ‘All The Young Dudes’ where it belongs.

David Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging/Blur: M.O.R.
In which Bowie takes another musical mugging — although this one, like Neil Innes versus Oasis, saw successful legal intervention, ensuring that he gets future co-credit. It’s actually a story of three songs. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ dates from 1979 and Bowie’s Lodger album, the last in his so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of LPs preceded by “Heroes” in 1978 and Low in 1977 and all done with collaboration with Brian Eno. It is one of two songs — the other being ‘Fantastic Voyage‘ — on Lodger that share the same chord structure, with reason: a peculiar working practice of Brian Eno’s known as ‘Oblique Strategies.’ Eno had a pack of cards with instructions written on, much like ‘Chance’ cards in a game of Monopoly, that could be drawn from if inspiration flagged or something random was the order of the moment. The instructions ran something like ‘each band member plays someone else’s instrument’, ‘try writing a song based on an existing song, only backwards’ and specifically here, ‘use the chord changes of one song to write another one.’ Consequently, anyone playing along to ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on guitar will find the same chord shapes fit ‘Fantastic Voyage’ identically, albeit in a slower tempo and a gentler feel. That the Strategy yielded two such different-sounding songs is testament to Bowie’s skill in gamely rising to Eno’s challenge.
Sadly, this all went a bit out of the window when Blur got wind of this idea and decided to try it for themselves in 1997. Had they chose one of their own songs to work this Oblique Strategy upon, it would have been all right for all concerned. As it transpired, inspiration drought dictated that they try writing a song based on ‘Boys Keep Swinging,’ unwisely copping not only the chord changes, but a fair old chunk of the melody, structure and even the arrangement of the backing vocals, the whole then filtered through Blur’s trademark, infantilised, Toytown pop sound. That didn’t hide it well enough. Bowie came, Bowie heard, Bowie sued. The moral of the story: it’s David’s ball and you can’t play with it unless you ask nicely, as so you should. 
It’s not the first time Blur have touched the hem of Bowie’s Man Dress: there’s more than a nod to the warped disco-stomp of Bowie’s 1980 hit ‘Fashion’ on Blur’s ‘Girls & Boys’ from 1994, right down to the synth ‘whoops’ that punctuate the off-beats of the rhythm and Graham Coxon’s Fripp’d-up guitar skronks. It comes off more as affectionate textural homage to Bowie’s record rather than a cynical songwriting solution, though. Fair enough.

The Beatles: Back In The USSR/Blur: Charmless Man.
Oasis may have been nonpareil rip-off merchants in the Britpop days, but oi-oi, what’s all this here? Oh, not you lot again. Those Colcestrian copyists simply can’t help it. This time, Blur deliver the Fabs a swift kick in the collective knackers and make off with their spoils: the ascending turnaround in ‘Charmless Man’ that brings the chorus back round to the main melodic hook of the song. In other words, sing “you put it all together, it’s the model of a charmless man” and then compare the similar, stammering reversal that brings ‘Back In The USSR’ out of its middle eight: “and Georgia’s always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind!” Yeah? Or just me?
Kool And The Gang: Celebration/Depeche Mode: I Just Can’t Get Enough.
On the one hand, I feel a bit sorry for Mr Kool and his groovy Gang, as ‘Celebration’ must rank as one of the most overplayed songs at any gregarious gathering anywhere you’d care to mention. Like a tearful girl’s karaoke rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ or wasted lads chanting ‘New York, New York’ while pretending they’re gangsters, it’s all-too familiar — and we all know what familiarity breeds now, don’t we? On the other hand, brief contemplation of the royalties this song must have accrued worldwide ensure I’m not that sorry for Kool. Besides, heard in isolation, I will concede that it’s a slick production and a genuinely funky piece of music that can, given favourable conditions, exert an uplifting effect on the carousing collective. The cleverest part is the rising figure that brings the verse up to the chorus, being a rousing musical and lyrical invitation to get off one’s posterior and make with the jolly vertical shapes: “Ev’ry-one a-round the world COME ON!” Simple and direct, like the best lyrics. O come all ye faithful, soulful and triumphant. I must admit I fight the urge every time to substitute “FUCK OFF!” at the end instead, such is a deep-rooted childish whim I have. Perhaps this misanthropic compulsion could be averted were I to sing the line from Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ that brings that song similarly to its inevitable refrain: “It’s getting hotter, it’s a burning love and I just can’t seem to get enough — ah!” Someone out there needs to do a mashup of this now.
The Beatles: Taxman/The Jam: Start!
This one is straightforward and well-known: Paul Weller has breezily acknowledged the blatant influence on ‘Start!’ of George Harrison’s 1966 opener to The Beatles Revolver LP. It’s not just the riff though: check out Weller’s snarling, all-too brief guitar solo, practically a continuation of McCartney’s astonishing, Indian-tinged freak-out on ‘Taxman,’ but taking in brief splurges of Pete Townshend and Syd Barrett while remaining firmly Punk all the way.
Electric Light Orchestra: 10538 Overture/Paul Weller: The Changingman. 
The first time I heard Weller’s ‘The Changingman’ I assumed the song sampled the ELO tune from 1970, so accurately replicated was the descending guitar figure that props up both songs. I’m not so sure if Weller has ‘fessed up quite as readily to this one as he has with ‘Start!’. I bloody well hope he has. In his defence, ‘The Changingman’ takes the elegant, spidery quality of the ELO riff and adds a drumkit behind it that that has a purposeful punch and presence sadly lacking from Bev Bevan’s uncharacteristically insipid, unsyncopated work on ‘10538 Overture,’ hindered further by Roy Wood’s woefully swampy production. It’s worth mentioning how much ELO’s early work was regarded as a kind of ‘new Beatles‘ — the band themselves set out their mission statement to pick up where ‘I Am The Walrus’ had left off — and Lennon himself dubbed them ‘Seventies Beatles’ after hearing, oddly enough, their Marvin Gaye-like 1972 hit ‘Showdown,‘ which may say something subconsciously about the debt The Beatles themselves owed to Motown. We’ve come full circle.
While we’re here, Siouxie And The Banshee’s cover of ‘Dear Prudence’ also catches a whiff of ‘10538 Overture’s proto-Goth jingle-jangle, but since both songs rely on — ‘scuse me — chromatically descending arpeggiating chords, a guitar-picking technique honoured in songwriting since the first lute riffed its way out of the primordial slime, that’s all right, then. It’s more of the flavour of the sound than the sound itself, is what I’m really trying to say.

There you go. Hm, amidst all this, I seem to be unwittingly making a case for a musical metatextuality: does everything feed into and out of The Beatles? Discuss. I want 2,500 words on my desk by next Monday. Bring an Apple.
Currently listening to: 
H To He Who Am The Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (Peter Hammill, 1974) 
World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976)
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Van der Graaf, 1977)
Last (The Unthanks, 2011)

Currently reading:
Nothing this week.
Currently watching:
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Stephen Spielberg, 1981) The first and best of the Jones series, hitting all the right marks in plot, pacing, dialogue and supporting performances. 
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (Stephen Spielberg, 1984) An entertaining film, but lessened in stature when set alongside its mighty and near-perfect predecessor. Some mildly suspect racial stereotyping that has not worn well too.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Stephen Spielberg, 1989) Better than the previous one. Recaptures some of the essence of the original film’s sense of religious awe, and the Nazis, of course, plus a welcome dash of spot-on humour, especially from Sean Connery.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (Stephen Spielberg, 2007) Better than the lengthy hiatus between films would have had me believe, although the Macguffin and indeed the entire end of the film divides some people. It is what it is: a self-referencing Jones film put together by ageing Sixties hippies. Not a bad thing on the whole.

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