Roy Orbison: Best of the Rest

December 6th marks the 34th anniversary of Roy Orbison’s death, at the tragically young age of fifty-two. The ‘Big O’ stood apart from other early rock ‘n’ rollers, with his sombre stage persona, his vulnerable, melancholy songs, and his semi-operatic voice.

After his hit-making days ended in the mid-to-late sixties, a decade in the wilderness beckoned. Personal tragedies also unfolded – the deaths of his wife and his two eldest sons in a car crash and house fire respectively. The eighties saw a rediscovery of his work, with hit covers of his songs by Don McClean and Van Halen, and the formation of The Traveling Wilburys supergroup in 1988, alongside Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty. On the cusp of a triumphant comeback, Orbison died from a heart attack on December 6th 1988.

I’ve already written about his three chart-toppers (‘Only the Lonely’, ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’) – classics the lot of them – and so to mark this day I’ll cover his five next-biggest UK hits…

‘In Dreams’ – #6 in 1963

A candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman, Tiptoes to my room every night… Only Roy Orbison could give a lyric so ridiculous-and-yet-terrifying the weight that it deserves. He dreams of his ex-lover then wakes, bathed in sweat, and alone. (Of course he’s alone – it’s a Roy Orbison song.) It’s got the same build-up as one of The Big ‘O’s very best songs, ‘Running Scared’, which barely scraped into the Top 10. ‘In Dreams’ is not quite as good, but builds to a fine crescendo. Roy, as was his way, hits a note that most humans are incapable of imagining, let along singing. ‘In Dreams’ was used to famous effect in David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, a move that initially shocked Orbison but one that he came to accept after seeing the film several times (and perhaps, if we’re being cynical, seeing the publicity it brought his music…)

‘Too Soon to Know’ – #3 in 1966

A country cover that, I must admit, I’d never heard before. And yet it’s one of his biggest UK hits. It must have sounded quite unfashionable in the swinging charts of 1966 and yet… When was Roy Orbison ever truly in fashion? Or out of fashion, for that matter? He ploughed his own, spectacular furrow. It’s sweet, but lacking the oomph of Roy’s biggest and best hits.

‘Blue Bayou’ – #3 in 1963

Another bit of country-pop, with a cool bassline. And with Orbison’s angelic tones in the chorus, this is no normal country tune. No matter what genre he turned his hand to – country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll – he couldn’t help doing it a bit different. As a kid, I had no idea what a bayou was, but always thought it sounded nice: where you sleep all day, and the catfish play… I’m still not one-hundred percent certain what a bayou is, but I’d definitely like to hang out there…

‘You Got It’ – #3 in 1989

The comeback hit that never was. Well, it was a hit – one of his biggest – but Roy wasn’t around to enjoy his return to the top end of the charts. And ‘You Got It’ is almost the perfect comeback – a slight updating of Orbison’s sound, with some help from Jeff Lynne, but still a record that could easily slip in amongst his classics from the early sixties. The video above was filmed just a few weeks before his untimely death. It feels churlish to wonder if it would have been such a big hit had he not died… Maybe it would, as it’s a great song.

‘Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)’ – #2 in 1962

Interesting that this rockabilly ditty is Roy Orbison’s biggest non-#1. It’s nice enough: a repetitive refrain that turns into a sort of mantra as the song progresses, and it builds to a crescendo as all the best Orbison songs do. But it’s not an all time classic. Not a ‘Crying’, a ‘Running Scared’ or a ‘Blue Angel’ (my personal favourite). The video above is worth a look if not for the song then for the spectacularly uninterested audience. What did he say just before launching into the song…?

Roy Orbison, then. One of the most original chart stars going, with one of the very best voices.

Roy Orbison, April 26th 1936 – December 6th 1988

Never Had a #1… Tina Turner

Part II of this look at huge chart stars who’ve never quite made it to the top. Yesterday we featured Bob Marley, whose five biggest UK hits were an eclectic mix. Today we feature a woman whose career spans eight decades… and whose five biggest hits are wall-to-wall classics. The Queen of Rock n Roll: Tina Turner.

‘The Best’ – #5 in 1989

I should actually do a full ‘Should Have been a Number One’ on what is probably Turner’s signature song, in Britain at least. It deserves the attention. Although released in the final year of the decade, ‘The Best’ sums everything great about the 1980s (a decade I may have been critical of, musically speaking, from time to time…) Throbbing synths, power chords, a belt-it-out-at-the-top-of-your-voice chorus, a galloping black stallion in the video, and one of the most outrageous uses of a saxophone ever heard in a pop song.

Before writing this, I had no idea that the original had been recorded by Bonnie Tyler a year earlier, or that it was written by the man behind so many ’70s glam rock classics, Mike Chapman. All that is interesting, and relevant, but also completely shunted to the background by Tina Turner’s performance in owning would could be, in different hands, a completely ridiculous song. The fact that I can even overlook ‘The Best’s decades-long association with Glasgow Rangers – they enter the pitch to it, and fans even had the song re-enter the chart at #9 in 2010 – is a testament to how good it is.

‘Nutbush City Limits’ – #4 in 1973 (with Ike Turner)

Before her reinvention as an eighties power-rock diva, Tina had a first wave of success with her then husband Ike in the sixties and seventies. And if ‘The Best’ has a rival for its position as Turner’s signature tune, then ‘Nutbush City Limits’ is it… (OK, and ‘Proud Mary’, which doesn’t feature here…) It’s a fabulously funky tale of a little ol’ town in Tennessee, that sounds as crispy as a piece of fried chicken. It’s a (hopefully) tounge-in-cheek ode to her hometown: no whisky for sale, you get caught – no bail, salt pork and molasses, is all you get in jail… Elevating the song further is the rumour that the track’s distinctive lead-guitar was recorded by none other than Marc Bolan…

River Deep – Mountain High’ – #3 in 1966 (with Ike Turner)

Belted out by a young Tina, and produced by Phil Spector using every Wall of Sound trick in the book (it even has Darlene Love on backing vocals), ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ gave Turner her first big hit. Ike was credited, but didn’t actually feature on this version (the couple would go on to re-record it in 1973). It was a big hit around Europe in 1966, but flopped in the US. Spector was so distraught by the song’s failure that he didn’t produce another one for two years, and set off on a very destructive path…

Advertisements

What’s Love Got to Do With It’ – #3 in 1984

Turner’s certified biggest hit, and her only solo #1 in the US. This was her big comeback after seperating, both musically and romantically, from Ike. While it doesn’t do it for me like ‘The Best’ and ‘Nutbush’ – it tends a little too much towards ‘icky eighties’, especially in the harmonica – I can accept its classic status. In fact, Turner’s outrageous hairdo in the video would be enough to seal this one’s place in the pantheon. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ went on quite the journey before being recorded by Tina: Cliff Richard turned it down, Donna Summer dithered over recording it, and Bucks Fizz recorded a (pretty decent) version that never saw the light of day until 2000.

We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)’ – #3 in 1985

Turner’s joint-biggest hit is this track from the soundtrack to ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’. She starred in the movie, alongside Mel Gibson. Again, I’m not a huge fan of this one: it’s standard mid-eighties power-balladry (though I do like the snarling guitar). I’d have taken ‘Private Dancer’ (a #26), or ‘Proud Mary’ (never released as a single in the UK!) over this.

Still, there you have Tina Turner’s biggest UK hits that never quite made it to #1. One more ‘Never Had a #1…’ up tomorrow. And it’s the 1980s biggest girl-group!

Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

The late sixties were one of the most eclectic periods for the UK charts, as the classic mid-sixties beat sound fractured, and a multitude of different genres filled the void.

‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O. C. Smith

#2 for 3 weeks, from 3rd-24th July 1968, behind ‘Baby Come Back’

Which means country/soul oddities like this were free to spend three weeks at #2, behind the Equals’ reggae-rock chart-toppers. I say ‘country/soul’ because, while the sound is pure rhythm and blues, with a brilliantly funky bass-line, the story it tells is one of pure country woe…

Oh the path was deep and wide, From footsteps leading to our cabin, Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp… Daddy’s a drunk who packed up and left, leaving the weeds high and the crops dry so, yes, mum’s turned to whoring to feed her fourteen children. And yet, it’s an overwhelmingly positive song. Yes, I’m the son of Hickory Holler’s tramp! announces O. C. Smith, unashamed of how his mother made ends meet.

The neighbours did nothing to help, but did plenty of talking, and judging. The children didn’t notice though – all we cared about was momma’s chicken dumplings... – and grew up loved and nurtured. Mum’s dead now, Smith sings, but every Sunday fourteen roses arrive at her graveside. By the end, as Smith declares once again just who he’s the son of… Well, if there isn’t a tear in your eye.

It’s a very progressive song – probably long before ‘progressive’ became a thing – and I wonder why such a big hit has been erased from the sixties canon? Maybe it’s because the subject matter is just a little too on the nose, a little too celebratory towards the world’s oldest profession? Either way, I’m glad the date-generator threw up this forgotten hit. Ocie Lee Smith had many chart entries on the Billboard chart in the sixties and seventies, but in Britain he is a bone-fide one-hit wonder. He died in 2001.

One last number two for you tomorrow, and it’s one we can all sing along to…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

Part II of this week’s runners-up feature, and the random date generator throws up one of the longest-running #2s in chart history…

‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

#2 for 6 weeks, from 9th-23rd Mar / 30th Mar–27th Apr 1961 (behind ‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Wooden Heart’)

Six weeks, over the course of two months, is a long and very unlucky amount of time to be marooned in second place, but it will happen if you’re up against two of pop music’s most famous acts.

This is a slice of early-sixties pop that probably sounded a little old-fashioned even when it hit the charts. The staccato strings and jaunty pace ape Adam Faith‘s hits, which in turn borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly’s posthumous chart-topper ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. The Allisons are also clearly going for an Everly Brothers vibe, but when you listen to the Brothers’ record that kept this off the top then there’s no contest. It’s pleasant enough, and over in a trice; but it’s a reminder of why The Beatles couldn’t come fast enough…

Goodbye, Farewell, I’m not sure what to do… Compare and contrast the well-mannered harmonising here with the Greek-stomping hit I featured yesterday, ‘Bend It!’. Only five and a half years separate these two songs, but they just so happen to have been the most fertile five years in pop music history.

The Allisons were, perhaps surprisingly, not actual brothers. Bob Day and John Alford were simply marketed that way. And this record has a particular claim to fame, perhaps even more important than its long run at number two… It was the first big British Eurovision hit single. The Allisons represented the UK at the 1961 contest, finishing in second place. It’s fairly middling as Eurovision singles go: not the best, but far from being the worst… Yet it was the duo’s only real hit, though they would continue performing for many years afterwards.

Next up, tomorrow, and we’re going even further back in time…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

I’m going to spend the next week in the company of some songs that almost featured on this blog in their own right. Instead, all these hits peaked in the most frustrating position of all… #2. As with this feature last year, they’ve been chosen at random – honest – and the date generator has thrown up some interesting choices. Two songs I’ve never heard of, a couple that I’m acquainted with, and one that nearly everyone on this planet knows word for word… Kicking us off, here’s one I’m acquainted with:

‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

#2 for 2 weeks, from 6th-20th October 1966 (behind ‘Distant Drums’, by Jim Reeves)

One of the kookiest bands of the decade – in a decade that wasn’t short on kooky bands – sat in second place for a fortnight with this Greek-sounding foot-stomper. Bend It! Bend It! they exhort… Just a little bit… It’s all about two people fitting together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s all a little suggestive – suggestive enough to get it banned and hastily re-recorded in the US.

Like many of DDDBM&T’s hits, ‘Bend It!’ doesn’t follow standard pop song conventions. Each verse works its way up to crashing, plate-smashing crescendo, before settling back down to a woozy stomp. Apparently it was inspired by ‘Zorba’s Dance’ – that tune you hear in every Greek restaurant. I’d say it was more than just ‘inspired by’ that earlier hit…

Still it’s a fun tune. Dave Dee and pals knew how to keep it interesting. A year or so after this they scored their only chart-topper, the epic ‘Legend of Xanadu’. That was another fun one, and fairly unique for the band in that the title wasn’t followed by an exclamation mark. They also scored Top 5 hits with the thumping ‘Hold Tight!’ (their breakthrough and my favourite), ‘Okay!’, and ‘Zabadak!’

The fact that this single featured on an album called ‘If Music Be the Food of Love… Then Prepare for Indigestion’ is both brilliant, and a fitting summary of the band’s approach to making pop music. Try everything once! It’s just a shame that they seem to have slipped from the official sixties pantheon.

Another #2 is up tomorrow…

Never Had a #1… Bob Dylan

For my next three posts, I’ll be returning to a feature I tried out last year… The biggest bands and artists – who’ve sold millions and are beloved by billions – but who’ve never made it all the way to the top of the UK singles chart.

First up. A Nobel prize winning songwriter who put the concerns of an entire generation into his early records, who has featured twice in my countdown as a songwriter (‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘The Mighty Quinn’), who celebrated his 80th birthday just yesterday, and whose singing style I once heard described as sounding ‘as if he were sitting on top of a washing machine going at full spin’…

Bob Dylan has never been much of a singles artists but, at least early in his career, he was a consistent presence in the charts. Here are his handful of Top 10 singles:

‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, both #9 in 1965

1965 was Dylan’s most prolific year on the singles chart with four Top 10 singles – including this pair. One is a rousing clarion call to the young, telling the old fogeys to get out of their way… The order is rapidly fading… It sounds a bit preachy now, and the acoustic guitar and harmonica combo grate on me after a while. File under: Of Cultural Significance.

The latter single is much more fun, and has a very famous attempt at a music video. As the name hints, it’s a short, sharp bluesy number and where ‘The Times…’ is looking forward, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is looking up from the gutter. It drips with sarcasm and cynicism. The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles… They certainly did. ‘What??’ the last card reads as Bob swaggers off, too cool for school.

‘Positively 4th Street’, #8 in 1965

Probably my favourite of this bunch. Any song that opens with a line like: You got a lot of nerve, To say you are my friend… is going to be fun. Bob has a bone to pick! With whom exactly has been the subject of much discussion, but the consensus is that he’s taking aim at the critics of his move away from the acoustic folk of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (4th Street runs through Greenwich Village, and the clubs where Dylan made his name).

‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’, #7 in 1966

Some people don’t like this song. Possibly because it sounds like Dylan and his band were having a lot of fun making it, and Bob Dylan’s music should at all times be taken SERIOUSLY! He’s a Nobel prize winner for God’s sake! Whatever. Apparently he insisted that everybody taking part in the recording of ‘Rainy Day Women’ be highly intoxicated, and it certainly has a boozy, woozy, last day of spring break feel to it. A ‘rainy day woman’, I have literally just learned, was 1950s slang for a doobie. Dylan claims that this isn’t a ‘drug song’. Except… Everybody must get stoned!… he shouts, as the band whoop and holler behind him. Radio stations at the time certainly had their suspicions, and many refused to play what turned out to be one of his biggest hits.

‘Lay Lady Lay’, #5 in 1969

His most recent Top 10 hit. Oftentimes Dylan’s lyrics are pretty oblique, but this one seems pretty clear. He wants his girl to stay, to lay across his big brass bed. That line, in the wrong hands, could sound ridiculous… But here it’s a sweet sentiment in a sweet song.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’, #4 in 1965

One of the foundation pillars of rock music. This tale of a spoiled rich girl whose life has fallen apart gave Dylan his biggest chart hit in the UK. It sounds a lot like ‘Positively 4th Street’, both in terms of the organ and the barely concealed sarcasm. And again, there has been a lot of debate over just who the song is about, but it has definitely not got anything to do with The Rolling Stones. At six minutes long, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, at the time, one of the longest singles ever released.

Another #1-less artist coming up tomorrow – one that can’t compete with Bob Dylan’s legacy and influence, but that certainly has a better voice…

Cover Versions of #1s – CCR & The Slits

Last night I did two cover versions of the same band; tonight it’s two cover versions of the same song! Onwards!

‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’, by Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1970 album track

(Originally a #1 in 1969, by Marvin Gaye)

Before we go any further, I don’t claim that any over version of ‘Grapevine’ is an improvement on one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. But these two gave it a right old go… First, Creedence, with an epic eleven minute take on it, from their ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ album. Does any song really need to be eleven minutes long? No, probably not. But the band sound so in-tune, firmly lodged in their groove, that we can indulge them. The first four minutes is the song, what remains is a jam session based around that timeless riff. It was eventually released as a single, in 1973, but couldn’t breach the US Top 40.

‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by The Slits – reached #60 in 1979

Shorter, though not exactly sweeter, post-punk band The Slits give us an oh so sarcastic rendition. When lead singer Ari Up sings I’m just about to lose my mind… you can’t tell if she’s walking away grinning, rolling her eyes, or preparing to launch herself at her dirty, rotten ex. Plus, the bass line here is really cool.

Two final covers up tomorrow!

Cover Versions of #1s – Fats Domino & Alma Cogan

Day three of cover versions week… and I got a couple of Fab Four facsimiles for you!

‘Lady Madonna’, by Fats Domino – 1968 album track

(Originally a #1 in March 1968, by The Beatles)

Paul McCartney was quite open about the debt that ‘Lady Madonna’ owed to Fats Domino, and so it was perhaps no surprise that Fats himself repaid the compliment less than a year after the original was released. It is probably the most faithful of all the cover versions I’ll post this week… Other than some extra piano flourishes it could easily be Fats singing over the original instrumental track. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock, however, and it took the rock ‘n’ roll legend to #100 in the US, just when it looked as if he might never have another chart hit.

‘I Feel Fine’, by Alma Cogan – 1967 album track

(Originally a #1 in December 1964, by The Beatles)

Towards the end of her career, and just before her much too early death aged just thirty-four, Alma Cogan had a go at covering some of The Beatles’ biggest hits. She put her own twist on ‘Help’, and ‘Ticket to Ride’, but I’ve gone for her very swinging-sixties take on ‘I Feel Fine’. (Actually, her best Beatles’ cover is her gorgeous ‘Eight Days a Week’, but that original was never released as a single in the UK…) Cogan had a close relationship with the Fab Four – especially, the rumours suggest, John Lennon – and I covered this in more depth in my post on her a few months ago. Sadly, none of her Beatles covers seemed to grabbed the public’s attention, all of them failing to chart.

Another two tomorrow, this time a couple of takes on the same well-known chart-topper…