Monday, February 22, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 61-65

By some great serendipity, here in the early 60s of my list comes a cluster of five mid-60s classics from the British Invasion. Major artists? Maybe not (I'd make an exception for Georgie Fame, but only the basis of his later jazz albums). But major British Invasion hits? Indeed they are.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

61. "To Sir With Love" / Lulu (1967)
I'll admit, my love for this song is inextricable from my love for the film it appeared in, an Inspiring Teacher drama starring Sidney Poitier, Suzy Kendall, and teenaged Lulu herself. I still cry whenever I see it; even this clip makes my eyes well up. While Lulu had been a star in the UK ever since she was 15, belting out a hit version of the Isley Brothers' "Shout," this was the song that really broke her into the U.S. market. In the movie, she sings it in the closing scene, when a pack of troubled urban secondary-schoolers gather to thank the teacher (Poitier, natch) who helped them turn their lives around. (Bonus points if you recognize the band playing in the first part of that clip as the Mindbenders.) For a natural diva like Lulu, there was plenty of drama to play with in those lyrics by Don Black (a movie-theme specialist, who also wrote "Born Free") -- "Those schoolgirl days / Of telling tales and biting nails are gone" or "If you wanted the sky I would / Write across the sky in letters / That would soar a thousand feet high." But perhaps more important was that emotive melody, written by Mark London, the husband of Lulu's longtime manager Marion Massey. London knew exactly how to showcase their girl's brassy, rich contralto -- octave leaps, swift swoops up and down the scale, long sustained notes packed with crescendo and vibrato, heartfelt warbles of melisma. And Lulu, god love her, made it all sound so easy, effortless, spontaneous. "But how can you thank someone / Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" THIS is how you do it.

62. "Georgy Girl" / The Seekers (1966)
Another movie theme song, from another brilliant 60s British movie -- slightly earlier, in arty black-and-white. (Have I ever mentioned that this is my #1 favorite era in cinema?) Another girl singer, too -- Judith Durham -- with a voice that nearly rivaled Dusty Springfield for clear hard power. Back then, when I played this 45 constantly on the fold-up stereo in our basement rec room, I never noticed that this song was in fact written by Dusty's brother Tom Springfield, her old partner from the folk trio the Springfields. Tom also wrote the Seekers' earlier hits, "I'll Never Find Another You" and "A World Of Our Own" (I'd love to know Dusty's reaction to having her brother feed hits to Judith Durham); for the lyrics on "Georgy Girl," he turned to musical comedy actor Jim Dale. With its perky whistling motif, "Georgy Girl" sounds more like cabaret, or at least folk music, than backbeat rock 7 roll. The Seekers weren't British but Australian -- the first Aussies, in fact, to score Top 5 hits in the US, UK, and Australia -- and like many people, I often confused them with the Searchers. In general I think the Searchers were a much better band, but this one single gets me more than anything the Searchers ever did. Maybe that's because I so loved the movie, with Lynn Redgrave playing an impulsive, cheerful, slightly overweight girl harboring a mad crush on the gorgeous boyfriend (Alan Bates) of her icy roommate (Charlotte Rampling). Now there was a movie I could identify with. Despite its plucky melody, we all knew this was a desperately sad song. "You're always window shopping / But never stopping to buy / So shed those dowdy feathers and fly! / A little bit" -- what an anthem to grow up with.

. "A Summer Song" / Chad & Jeremy (1964)
It really does blow my mind that in the course of one year -- 1964 -- I could have so many crushes on different British musicians. Oh, Chad, with your golden mop and black-framed glasses . . .

64. "Michelle" / David and Jonathan (1967)
Truly, this is not a shameless way to sneak yet another Paul McCartney song on here. I honestly did love David and Jonathan's cover of "Michelle," and besides, the Beatles didn't release this one as a single. In case your memory of this has been obliterated forever by the Beatles' album version (I know mine has), here's a video:

Okay, okay, OKAY, it's not better than the Beatles' recording. It clips along a little faster, and David and Jonathan's voices are smooth and banal compared to Paul's. They weren't really singers, after all; they weren't even named David and Jonathan (corny Bible reference), but songwriters Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, who also wrote "You've Got Your Troubles" for the Fortunes. Rog and Rog teamed up here with George Martin to help the Beatles extend their brand, maintaining their full frontal assault on the record charts. Martin added background oohs and a touch of strings, transposed Paul's acoustic finger-picking to what sounds like a harmonium, and had Rog and Rog harmonize the whole way through. It's just slightly slicker than the Beatles track -- but for a genius track like "Michelle," that slickness is no improvement. On the other hand, you'd never know that if you hadn't heard the Beatles' version yet, which I hadn't when this first hit the airwaves. And I have to say, it does feels more Parisian -- I could almost hear accordions in there, and visualize Apache dancers in a smoky Left Bank cafe. McCartney, always keen to score points for sophistication, was striving for that French bohemian sound, which is why he asked his pal Ivan Vaughn's wife Jan to supply a few French phrases -- "Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui font tres bien ensemble." Paul hadn't a clue what it meant. I'd just started studying French in grade school, though, and it was lovely to imagine that Paul was sending me secret messages in "our" second language. The fact that he'd had to employ David and Jonathan to slip that message to me made no difference at all.

65. "Yeh Yeh" / Georgie Fame (1965)
Sorry, Mr Lennie, but you do not know whereof you speak. It should be apparent by now that I have a sneaking affection for jazz-inflected rock, and here's the guy who led me to it.


Bob in CT said...

Jumping back to yesterday's comments for a moment, "Go Now" was originally recorded by Bessie Banks and was written by her husband. The Denny Laine - Moody Blues version was a cover, although very few people know that fact. I recently posted this link on my Facebook page so people could hear the original:

As far as today's choices go, I agree with having a lot of mid-60s representation - the mid 60s to the early 70s was an unmatched period for rock music.

I laughed when I saw the album cover for David & Jonathan. They physically look like The Righteous Brothers, although neither has Bill Medley's deep voice. And although the album title "Michelle" is a different color than their names, it all still blends together and makes it appear that the name of the group is David & Jonathan Michelle. I give you props, Holly, for including this cornball version on your list. If I did the same my High School buddies would reappear and beat me up.

"To Sir With Love" is a great choice. The song, the movie and the era all come together whenever I hear it.

"Yeh Yeh" is another cool one that's always fun to hear.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for that link, Bob. And don't worry, I won't tell any of your high-school buddies how much you like David & Jonathan's record.

Debs said...

We totally agree today, Holly..and as for Georgie Fame, all I an say is, 'Yeh, Yeh, that's what I say...'

hot stix said...

Speaking of Lynn Redgrave, has anyone seen 'Smashing Time'? She and Rita Tushingham rules. Two lassies from the up North checking out some swinging scenes in jolly features a bunch of goofy fun songs that Lynn and Rita sing as a sort of narration to the movie...and an AWESOME (and completely ridiculous) food fight scene. Good stuff.

And I'll chime in on Georgie him! Btw, They Might Be Giants did a very cool cover of Yeh Yeh!

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, yeah, I adore TMBG's Yeh Yeh cover. They really grooved on that.

Damn -- Netflix doesn't have Smashing Time. That sounds like such a must-see, though, I've just ordered a copy from Amazon. Thanks so much for that tip!

hot stix said...

No're gonna love it!

wwolfe said...

Have you heard Lulu's version of "Here Comes the Night"? Bert Berns, of "Hang On Sloopy" and "Twist and Shout" fame, wrote a song for (if I recall correctly) the Exciters called "Here He Comes," which has all the lyrics of "Night," sans the chorus. Played at a quick, jumpy pace - not unlike Them's eventual hit version, come to think of it - the single failed to chart. The song's narrative idea must have intrigued Berns, though, because when he took a long tour of the British Isles to scout for talent following the Beatles arrival on the Ed Sullivan Show, he added a chorus to "Here He Comes" and, voila, he had "Here Comes the Night" for his new discovery, Lulu. Her version is a slow, stately ballad, with a Spector-esque production, and Jimmy Page's guitar playing the famous instrumental hook. Sadly, Lulu's version failed to chart, as well, but the first time I heard it last year on a Lulu compilation, I played it again about five times, it was so great. Lastly, re: Chad and Jeremy on "The Patty Duke Show": I saw that episode! One of the boys had laryngitis, but was nonetheless able to perform at the duo's concert when the promoter pointed out that no one would hear them singing anyway over the screaming from all the teenage girls. It worked, natch. A classic TV moment.