So I finished reading Cowboys and Indies and I still don’t understand how the recording industry works.
Some guy gets 50 percent of another guy’s 20 percent. At least three famous, powerful music biz “suits” were literally tone deaf. And don’t even get me started on all the different varieties of “rights.”
It was like reading a Swahili textbook on algebra.
What I did learn was that there’s no mystery as to why some talented performers wallow in obscurity while their inferiors succeed. Don’t believe people who tell you they’ve cracked the “hit record formula.”
The real reason? “Independent promoters,” a.k.a, payola, plays a big part.
So that’s depressing.
What follows are my picks for ten songs that should have been bigger than they were:
10. The Boomtown Rats: “Never in a Million Years” (1982)
This song contains the kernel of a hit: an insinuating chorus which, alas, sounds like it was tacked on to the vastly inferior verses of another, deservedly unfinished song the Rats found while cleaning out the tour bus.
I guess Geldof is trying to sound bereft, screaming on the edge of a cliff into the abyss, but he should’ve left that particular brand of wailing to Ashes to Ashes-era David Bowie.
Then there’s the video (above). I’m pretty sure The Boomtown Rats were semi-serious and/or stoned when they shot it.
“Never in a Million Years” was the first single from the Irish band’s fifth album (!) and – no surprise – it bombed. But the fact that it was selected out of all the other songs on that record means that at least one other person on this planet heard then what I still hear: the sound of almost-greatness.
So what accounts for my fond memory of this song?
The Rats’ unpretentious performance of “Never in a Million Years” on a February 1982 episode of SCTV.
(Not everyone shares my high opinion of this bit, which is fair enough since I’m working off a memory from my teens…)
Sadly, this rendition of “Never…” was cut when SCTV went into syndication. This means that if you’re an American, you’ve probably never seen it, and it is impossible to find on the web.
You’ll have to settle for this performance of “Elephant’s Graveyard” later in the show, which wraps up a parody of To Sir, With Love:
9. The Runaways: “Don’t Go Away” (1977)
One commenter at Amazon says approvingly, “If you never had the chance to go to CBGB’s in NYC back in its heyday, this track will take you there.”
That’s good, because I was too young (and later too chicken) to trek down to New York to visit that legendary venue. In contrast, The Runaways were never too young, or too chicken, to do anything.
I bought Waitin’ for the Night (note the very 1970s contraction…) a few years after it came out, probably picking it out of a remainder bin.
It was the band’s first effort post-Cherie Currie, with Joan Jett taking over lead vocals.
“Don’t Go Away” has always been my favorite track on the album, by far: the raw, relentless music, the “female caveman” type lyrics – Jett is practically yelling, “I’m Tarzan AND Jane! Let’s party (or I’ll kill you)!”
“Don’t Go Away” is about 15 seconds too long. Cut two choruses and you’ve got a great single.
8. Paul Cook and Steve Jones: “Silly Thing” (1979)
Steve Jones hung out at Malcolm McLaren’s “Sex” boutique trying to shoplift pricey proto-punk clothing. Undaunted, McLaren offered “Jonesy” a place in a “house band”/Situationist prank he was throwing together. (It didn’t hurt that Jones had just stolen some guitars and amps from a David Bowie gig…)
The story of The Sex Pistols has been told countless times before, but there’s no definitive narrative. Not even the band’s members can keep their stories straight. What happened after the band imploded is, understandably, of less interest to non-fans, and is mostly a series of stupid escapades anyhow.
“Silly Thing” survives as a product of one of those post-breakup adventures, a best-forgotten movie curio called The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Jones and Pistols drummer Paul Cook recorded different versions of their song, taking turns on vocals.
Only Cook’s version made the Swindle soundtrack, but bizarrely, Jones’ version was picked as a single. Maybe that’s because Jones was deemed the sexier and more dynamic of the two, all the better to sell the song on Top of the Pops or something:
However, “Cookie’s” rendition (at the top of this post) is a cut above, maybe because Jones treats the song (as he did everything in those days) as a piss-take. Also Cook’s alternative bridge is better.
Know-nothings might mistake Cook for the Pistol’s “Ringo,” but “Silly Thing” shows he could have played a greater role, had he wanted to and/or been given the chance. (Not that he’s had such a bad life, then or now.)
“Silly Thing” is close to perfect, clocking in at 2:47 without a wasted second. Alfred Hitchcock defined a successful film as “a series of good scenes connected by no bad ones.” This song is basically the musical embodiment of that.
But just to show you what I know, Cook’s single tanked around the world, but the Jones “side” reached #6 on the UK charts.
Jones’ “Silly Thing” might’ve gone even higher if he’d “performed” it on TOTP. For whatever reason — he wasn’t asked, or declined because he refused to lip sync, or he was still (informally) banned from the BBC — the show was forced to do what it always did under such circumstances. It’s almost like punk never even happened:
7. Teenage Head: Pretty much any song on the Frantic City album (1980)
“Nice day for a party, isn’t it?”
There were two rival punk bands in my hometown:
The Forgotten Rebels and Teenage Head.
We (or, more accurately, the blonde, beautiful leader of our group) declared Teenage Head “poseurs,” which, in terms of the never-ending Talmudic debates about punk “authenticity,” is the moral equivalent of “blasphemer.” Lead singer Frankie Venom looked like he was trying too hard, she decided. And the rest of the band’s hair was too long.
But if you listened to local radio and watched Toronto Rocks and The New Music, the Head were ready-made (and legally mandatory) “Canadian content,” and so, they grew on me. I secretly bought their album Frantic City.
Today, Venom is dead but the band has risen, thanks to a new book by scenester turned journalist Geoff Pevere. Gods of the Hammer is giving lifelong Teenage Head fans a chance to say, “We told you so” after more than 30 years.
In the spirit of the documentary Anvil, Pevere tries to crack that elusive music industry theorem: why do some bands make it while others, just as talented if not more so, do not? The Head had so much going for them, and yet…
..if just that one last, special piece fell into place — if they were managed better, if an American record deal came sooner, if guitarist Gord Lewis hadn’t been laid up for half a year at their very peak by a back-breaking car accident — songs like “Picture My Face” and “Let’s Shake” would be played before face-offs and stocked in jukeboxes from St. John’s to San Francisco. The Head were always just a centimeter away from super-stardom. To a generation of hip music fans, they’re as classic as The Cars, but instead of ubiquity, their story is a distinctly Canadian Almost Famous.
So all that to say: I was a jerk.
Re-listening to Frantic City for the first time in many years, I could really hear future, far more successful Canadian bands in embryo, particularly The Tragically Hip.
And I caught an acute case of melancholy. Not out of self-centered nostalgia – there isn’t much I miss about my adolescence except my 20-inch waist – but because Teenage Head should’ve been the next Ramones and weren’t.
OK, so maybe one Ramones was more than enough and that’s the point. Still…
6. Sadina: “It Comes and Goes” (1965)
“Sadina” was really Priscilla Mitchell. Born in Georgia in 1941, she made her first record when she was only seventeen. Mitchell married fellow musician Jerry Reed two years later, and after giving birth to two daughters, she resumed her recording career as “Sadina.”
Bizarrely, she never recorded her own full-length solo album. In that same era, Lesley Gore was huge, and Sadina mined similar “slightly self-pitying teen girl” territory. Didn’t anyone think to sign the latter, even if only to slice off a piece of the former’s spectacular success?
For instance, I discovered “It Comes and Goes,” on the must-have 2-disc collection Grown’ Up Too Fast that contains – I’m not kidding – no bad songs. (It’s one of my “grab it if a fire breaks out” CDs.)
“It Comes and Goes” was written by Neil Diamond during his Brill Building days. You can tell a man wrote this song because it almost, but not quite, accurately conveys the thought-processes of a female adolescent.
The lyrics are perfect “Dear Diary” stuff until you get to the part where the boyfriend treats her worse when his friends aren’t around, instead of better. But you quickly forgive and forget that slip when Sadina fairly stomps her feet while singing the next line, “As though I were just some little girl he’d hardly known.” Right there, she leaps from Lulu to Judy Garland.
Anyhow, this guys calls “It Comes and Goes” “stately” and that’s very accurate. You could almost walk down the aisle to it – ironically.
5. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: “Get Down Moses” (Live at Acton Town Hall) (2002)
John Berger messes with readers’ minds in his classic 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Reproduced in black and white on page 27 is Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Wheatfield with Crows.” We’re asked to “look at it for a moment” before turning the page.
When we finally come to page 28, the same painting is again reproduced, but with the addition of a single handwritten line:
“This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.”
Likewise, 2003’s Streetcore by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros was completed after Strummer’s sudden, shocking death the previous December, of an undiagnosed heart defect. And since only pre-existing fans of the former Clash front man ever bought Mescaleros albums anyhow, Streetcore has arguably depressed more individuals, by volume, than Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, never mind Double Fantasy.
Had someone been more mercenary/on the ball after Strummer’s death, they might have squeezed some airplay out of his Streetcore cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” It’s not like there wasn’t a pseudo-precedent: think of how Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” became a cultural phenomenon the previous year. (In fact, Cash and Strummer recorded a duet of “Redemption Song” that came out on Cash’s 2003 box set Unearthed.)
The trouble with “Redemption Song” is that a) I hate Bob Marley and b) it sounds like one of Bobby Darin’s earnest but embarrassing late-career faux-folk “protest songs.”
(Which tells me all I need to know about Marley’s “genius.” If he’d been a white guy, Marley would be a joke, a cross between Tiny Tim and Tommy Chong.)
With its elegiac lyrics compounding all the accidental auditory poignancy, Strummer’s version (which is superior to Marley’s own – see above) became his post-mortem signature song.
“The concert, a benefit for striking firefighters, was originally recorded on 15 November 2002 (…) and features one of the final live performances by Strummer. (…) The performance features songs Strummer recorded with The Clash along with songs from Strummer’s albums for Hellcat Records including new written songs such as ‘Coma Girl’ and ‘Get Down Moses’ that eventually would appear on Strummer’s posthumous album, Streetcore. The highlight of the performance features a reunion with Strummer’s former band mate from The Clash, Mick Jonesm for the first time in almost twenty years.”
One of Strummer’s own compositions, “Get Down Moses,” is more rousing and upbeat than “Redemption Song,” as well as less pretentious. That makes it a more appropriate personal “mission statement” by and for one of rock’s most charismatic (and confounding) musicians.
4. The One Way Street: “We All Love Peanut Butter” (1966)
OK, this freaky song never had a chance in hell of getting on the radio, even though almost everyone who hears “We All Love Peanut Butter” either falls in love with it or, at the very least, can’t get the melody (such as it is) out of their brains for at least 48 hours.
I can’t possibly improve upon Michael H. Little’s lengthy, and absolutely delightful, appreciation of this mysterious record over at TheNylonDistrict.com:
The One Way Street was a quartet (actually a quintet, but one member couldn’t make the session) of Zanesville and Cambridge Ohio teens who showed up at Sunrise Studios in Hamilton, Ohio out of the blue and recorded a 45 (A-side “We All Love Peanut Butter,” which Kid Congo Powers turned me on to, and B-side “Jack The Ripper”) while the mother of guitarist/vocalist Sonny Dickens waited outside in her car. (…)
Contrary to popular belief, A-side “We All Love Peanut Butter” is not a LSD cautionary tale. More intriguingly, it’s a satiric tale (evidently based on a true story) about a “teen craze” involving shooting up peanut butter. As such, it makes a great companion piece to The Angry Samoans’ “Lights Out,” about a teen fad involving poking out your own eyes with a fork. (…)
Less a garage tune than a happy pop/punk sing-along, it doesn’t sound anything like the Stones/Beatles/Animals/Kinks rips most garage bands of the time were producing. It sounds utterly unique, and for a band on its first trip into a recording studio, that’s downright eerie. “We All Love Peanut Butter” is funnier, prettier, deeper, and downright goofier than almost anything else written during its time. The thought that it was recorded as a debut single by a bunch of Ohio teens is nothing less than flabbergasting.
3. The Who: “I Can’t Reach You” (1967)
This song really may be about acid — specifically, a famously bad trip that turned Pete Townshend off LSD.
(He called it “the most disturbing experience I’ve ever had,” and this is a guy who was sexually abused as a child, bullied by his loony grandma and has driven his cars into numerous ditches.)
At least, that’s John Dougan’s theory in his booklet devoted to the album The Who Sell Out (part of the Bloomsbury “33 1/3” series.)
I don’t know if I buy the LSD backstory. Either Dougan is too literal minded, or I am; I can’t square the longing lyrics and pastoral tune with stewardesses turning into laughing pigs on the flight back from Monterey Pop.
“I Can’t Reach You” is, I’ve decided, a shamefully neglected song about doomed, unrequited love.
Of course, everything The Who does is above reproach, so I had to shove one of their songs into this list.
2. Eddy Jones: “Say What?” (1959) and 1. Honeyboy Bryant: “Funny Looking Thing“ (1960)
Both of them are barely more than novelty songs constructed from the flimsiest of conceits. The two songs combined clock in less than the running time of the average single.
However, I don’t see why, say, Little Richard couldn’t have charted with “Funny Looking Thing.”
(Ah, yes, I forgot: bribery…)
What are your picks for the most unfairly forgotten (or never-were) songs that should have been hits? Add yours in the comments.