Some random facts about the songs we're singing for the upcoming concert:
"Shiny Happy People"
was going to be the theme song to the television show "Friends," back when it was called "Friends Like Us."
The title and chorus are based on a Chinese propaganda poster. The slogan "Shiny happy people holding hands" is used ironically - the song was released in 1991, 2 years after the Tiananmen Square uprising when the Chinese government clamped down on student demonstrators, killing hundreds of them.
"(Nothing But) Flowers"
From How Music Works (2012), David Byrne p. 168:
I remember coming up with the words for the song "(Nothing But) Flowers" while driving around suburban Minneapolis.... [T]he only gear I needed to write lyrics was a cassette player to play the tracks for inspiration, another small one to record my lyric ideas, and a pad of paper to write them down on....
It wasn't surprising that while driving around the suburbs, not all that far from the Mall of America, I began to imagine a scenario in which all the economy had changed and the malls and housing developments had all begun to crumble and devolve to a prior state. The twist was that this scenario allowed me to also frame the song as a nostalgic look at vanishing sprawl, a phenomena I hadn't thought that I was terribly sentimental about. It was obviously ironic in intent, but it also allowed me to express a love and affection for aspects of my culture that I had previously professed to loathe.
The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr played on this track: "When I got there they put down some bass and drum tracks. '(Nothing But) Flowers' sounded almost like a Reggae dub track. I wasn't trying to play in an African style - although some people pointed out that I sometimes sound like that anyway! I knew all about King Sunny Ade (performer of Nigerian juju music) and I love Fela Kuti (Nigerian multi-instrumentalist) but really I just played melodies that sounded good in a high range. The intro to 'Flowers' was me playing without knowing the tape machine was on - that's how little attention I paid to any kind of remit! I built that track from the ground up. I was impressed with what David (Byrne) did on it. He worked super quickly on it."
Kirsty MacColl contributed backing vocals to this song. Among her other credits are vocals on The Pogues "Fairytale Of New York"
"If I Had $1,000,000"
Recorded as as demo by the Barenaked Ladies, the independently released Yellow Tape that featured this song sold 500,000 copies! It was the first independent cassette to go platinum in their native Canada.
As one of the oldest songs in the BNL songbook, the band tends to play around with this song, messing with lyrics and incorporating other songs that are timely or local to their performance. For example from 1996 in Scotland:
And then in 2007 in Michigan (with accordion!):
In Boston, riffing on the Duck Boat tours, and then after the song, compiling a greatest hits medley from 2010:
"Road to Nowhere"
According to David Byrne, they had finished this song and it felt simplistic and monotonous and so they added the a capella choral introduction.
This video was directed by Stephen R. Johnson, who later used similar special effects for Peter Gabriel videos (like "Sledgehammer").
Sometimes you hear someone described as a "writer's writer" or a "musician's musician." The idea is that the subject might not be the most famous to the general public, but people who are in the industry have immense respect for him or her.
Well, Nick Lowe is a songwriter's songwriter. The people who love his songs -- and who perform his songs regularly -- include Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Daryl Hall.
And he says that "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" was the first proper song he wrote, for his band Brinsley Schwarz.
Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe's band since the late 1960s, playing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" in 1974.
From an interview with The AVClub:
I always think of that song as being the first original idea I had. I can remember writing it quite clearly. I remember actually being really kind of shocked by the title. I came up with the title, and I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it up myself. I’d never heard it before. It wasn’t something I’d heard off another record and changed the words slightly to suit me, which was how I’d written songs up until then, while I was sort of learning. And then one day this title popped into my head: “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” and I thought, “Great, great title, and I can’t believe you would come up with it.” [Laughs.] I always would ’fess up that there is one lick in the tune I did steal from Judee Sill. She had a song called “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” at about that time that I really thought was a super song. I haven’t heard that song for many years, but I always think I took a little lick in “Peace, Love, And Understanding” from Judy’s song. But apart from that, yes, that was my first original song.
Here's Judee Sill, "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" with the "oh-oh-oh" vocal hook (pay attention around 0:35).
Back to the interview:
AVC: Once you had the title, how long did it take you to write the rest?
NL: Oh, not very long at all. I think it really came very quickly. Because the original idea of it was that everything was changing. The old hippie thing was changing. I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink. Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, “Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’” And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good idea to make it into a joke. It was originally supposed to be a joke song, but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up. Just to keep it real simple, and don’t be too clever with it. Because I thought I was hot stuff back then, when I really, really wasn’t. I had a lot to learn. As I said, this was my first decent, proper, original idea I’d had, and something told me just to take it easy. And I’m glad I did, because otherwise that song would have died when Brinsley Schwarz died. Not the guy, the group. [Laughs.] Had it not been for Elvis Costello, who used to come and see us when he was a kid and really liked that song… well, he brought it to the world, so to speak. Because when he recorded it, he gave it that anthemic quality which everyone reacted really well to.
The song, as Lowe says, could have just died off when his band did. Luckily, he was working in the studio producing his friend Elvis Costello (Lowe was kind of the house producer for Stiff Records, Costello's UK label). Costello and the Attractions recorded the song and it was released in the UK as the b-side to a Nick Lowe single. When the song caught on, it was added to the end of the US pressing of Costello's album Armed Forces.
Costello still performs this song, even though he's got a pretty deep catalog of songs he's written himself. That says something about the respect he has for the song. Here's Elvis Costello on Letterman from 2003.
Not the best sound, but here's jazz musician and singer Curtis Stigers performing the song live.
Stigers had recorded a version of the song for a solo album and Stigers' recording was also included on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard -- an album that sold 44 million copies worldwide. Lowe has never been a superstar and always seems to be fairly modest, so this was a great boon for him as a songwriter. He told the Telegraph, “It was a tremendous piece of good fortune. I made an astonishing amount of money from that." Reportedly, he had no idea that the money was coming until the check arrived in the mail.
From Wikipedia: "According to Will Birch's book on pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island, the royalties from Curtis Stigers' version of the song, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding", made songwriter Nick Lowe independently wealthy."
I suppose a 5 cent royalty on each album would be 2.2 million dollars. This website suggests that a songwriting royalty might be as much as 8 cents a recording sold.
Lowe apparently spent the money paying a backing band for a tour. More recently, he's been performing solo, so that may not have worked out so well financially.
Here's a clip from a 2013 performance at MassMOCA as part of Solid Sound, the festival that Wilco curates. Wilco toured with Nick Lowe recently and frontman Jeff Tweedy expressed a lot of admiration for the elder songwriter. I think Tweedy's a pretty great songwriter himself, but again, his hat's off to ol' Nick.
Wilco's version is closer to the acoustic solo rendition Lowe has been giving more recently. For a 2011 appearance on the radio program Q in the CBC studios in Toronto, Lowe gives a beautiful performance, altering the melody slightly from recorded versions:
Okay, this doesn't have "Peace Love and Understanding" on it, but if you don't know about this web show, I need to introduce you to Live From Daryl's House (LFDH.com). Daryl is Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates and he has a beautiful house that seems to be on the west side of the Berkshires in upstate NY. He invites people to come over and they play some of his songs, and some of their songs and they eat a meal together. It's fun to watch; I especially appreciate watching great musicians figure out arrangements ("You want to take the second verse and I'll sing the harmony?") before they sing together.
So, in the 8th episode, LFDH makes a radical detour to film Daryl's visit to England where he sings with old friend Nick Lowe. There's such a great mutual respect between the two men, and the setlist leans heavily to the Lowe catalog. If you don't have time to see the whole show, I recommend "Shelley, My Love." The man can still sing.
Also, that third guy playing with them is T-Bone Wolk, a great musician and Daryl's best friend (sorry John Oates), who passed away a couple of years ago.
Lowe's catalog is deeper than "Peace Love" (and "Cruel To Be Kind"), of course. A recent live album, Untouched Takeaway, also plays like a greatest hits collection and is highly recommended.
Finally, Nick talks about writing "Peace Love and Understanding," about the many cover versions, the money that he made from it, and his feelings about the song now, starting around 10:15 in this public television interview:
His songs are undoubtedly great, but Nick Lowe just seems like such a decent fellow. Nothing funny about that.
We Got the Beat!
NFS Rocks the Talking Heads, R.E.M and Other Icons of the MTV Generation
Amid synthetic drums, parachute pants, Sony Walkmans, and aliens phoning home, the MTV Age produced some beautiful songs that stand the test of time. Now the Newton Family Singers will rock the house with music that Gen Xers (and those who love them) will remember well -- hits from The Talking Heads, The Go-Go's, Journey, R.E.M., Cyndi Lauper and more. With new choral arrangements by our music director, Chris Eastburn, NFS remakes the familiar for old and new fans alike
Sunday, November 17, 4pm
Newton Highlands Congregational Church at 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands
Online ticket sales are closed. We will have a limited number of tickets at the door, so get there early if you still need a ticket!
"If I Had a Boat" was the song I loved the most from Lyle Lovett's album Pontiac, and then the next album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band sealed the deal on my fandom. There's something about his weary plaintive voice, excellent musicianship and quirky humor that captured me. For me, the relevant question is not, "why did Julia Roberts marry Lyle Lovett?" but "why did she leave him?"
So, on to "If I Had a Boat." In a 2001 interview on NPR's Morning Edition,
"Lovett claims ["If I Had a Boat"] is a true story -- he really tried to ride a pony across a pond, and wished he had a boat."
In a 1998 interview with Performing Songwriter, he was asked:
How did you approach a song like “If I Had A Boat?”
"I don’t know, I think songs like that approach you. I remember being at home just playing the guitar that morning and I sort of played the chorus. But other songs are more crafted than that or take longer to work on."
Those are good stories, and possibly true, about riding a pony across a pond, or sitting down with a song mostly formed in your head.
However, in a 2012 interview with Acoustic Guitar, Lovett said this about songwriting:
“I think you have to have a reason to write something. In Nashville, which is still an extraordinary factory music town, there are so many wonderful songwriters and craftsmen who go to work everyday to write songs, and they are so skilled at doing that. That might be your objective, to write a song like that, which is fine. Any reason to write something, I think is a good one. But you have to have a reason, you have to have an objective. I guess I should say, I have to have an objective, I have to have a reason to write something, just so there’s a point to it, just so I can get from start to finish.”
So what was Lovett's objective, his reason to write this song? What's it about?
Well, it's all about leaving, and independence. The boat is a classic metaphor for getting away in America (see: Moby Dick) and the horse equally or more so in Lovett's native Texas.
The first verse is about not wanting to be tied down to a wife, referencing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the celebrity cowboy couple (as well as Roy's horse Trigger).
The second verse reveals that it's not just about being single, as the perspective shifts from the Lone Ranger to Tonto, and Tonto sticks it to the man. Basically, he sums up the song "Take This Job and Shove It" in the line, "Kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I'm going out to sea."
The third and final verse gets even more abstract in the pursuit of independence. Rather than be human ("I wouldn't need no sneakers"), the narrator would rather be a bolt of lightning that comes and goes wherever he pleases.
So, the chorus is about longing for escape and each verse specifies another step in his emancipation: from marriage, from work, from humanity. And he writes all this with imagery and childish logic that makes it all seem so innocent.
Dave Matthews has been known to do this one live. Here he is from 1999 with Tim Reynolds (decent audio, no tripod).
Ed Robertson of the band Barenaked Ladies likes the song, too. The band has performed the song live, but apparently without any decent microphones in the audience. But here’s audio of Ed playing the song in his bathroom (from The Bathroom Sessions bootleg):
Lovett doesn’t play “If I Had a Boat” in this short set but he performs in the intimate setting of an NPR Tiny Desk concert with singing fiddler (fiddling singer?) Luke Bulla.
I was surprised at how much he used the capo in that video (a capo is that movable clamp on the neck of the guitar that essentially retunes the guitar into a higher key). In the 2012 interview with Acoustic Guitar, he addresses this:
Similarly, from a 2004 interview with Acoustic Guitar:
Okay, it won’t embed on this site, but if you want to see Lovett’s original video for “If I Had a Boat” (with a full head of lush, dark, Eraserhead hair) interspersed with interviews of old guys, this is where you need to go.
I wish the audio was better on this last one, but here’s Lyle again, with John Hiatt adding a tasty lick or two:
Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" has sold, as of this writing (2013), more digital copies than any other song ever written by anyone on earth. To which I say, "What the what?!"
Okay, the Beatles catalog came to iTunes only in 2010 and iTunes is the biggest online retailer for music, so they have a lot of time to make up for.
But still. Journey?
First, here's the band in concert in Houston in 2005.
Although credited to singer Steve Perry and guitarist Neil Schon, the song was written with the other members of Journey through jams in the the band's rehearsal space. The structure of the song is odd with the actual "Don't Stop" section coming only at the very end of the song.
Perry told New York Magazine that the lyrics were written while looking out a hotel room window during a stay in Detroit. And of course, there is some Michiganer controversy over where "South Detroit" is (hint, the people there end their sentences with the interjection "eh?").
The song hit #9 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1981.
The band immediately realized the potential for marketing the song through other means. For instance, in the Journey Escape video game for the Atari home system (1982):
That was weird. (There was also a cabinet style arcade game.)
The big surge came once more people had MP3 players and the song was licensed for various movies and television shows.
For instance, it rode the 1980s nostalgia wagon in "The Wedding Singer" (1998) (bad quality on the link). But it's just an instrumental and frankly, I had no memory of the song in that movie.
It made more of a splash in 2003. At that point the song was two decades old and served as fantasy fodder in the dream sequence infused television comedy "Scrubs" in an episode called "My Journey" (Oct 2003). And yes, that's "Becky 2" (the second actress to play the character on Roseanne) on a train anticipating a meeting with Felicity's boyfriend swimming with a dolphin. It makes sense in context.
And then later that same year, in the movie where Charlize Theron looks ugly, "Monster" (released Dec 24, 2003):
The significance of "Monster" was that a) Steve Perry was asked for a song license by the director who had a small budget and he agreed, and even became a music consultant for the film and b) lots of people in Hollywood saw that film.
The funny thing is, the song is so earnest and emotional that whereas "Monster" used it unironically, "Don't Stop Believin'" was also ripe for the kind of winking irony that Family Guy wallows in. Here's Season 4, episode 4 "Don't Make Me Over" (June 2005)
(For the record, I love "Scrubs" and I think one reason the show worked so well for me is that it tread that line between irony and earnestness carefully. Was their use of the song a goof? Yeah. Was it also emotionally resonant and celebratory? Yeah.)
The Chicago White Sox started using the song the way the Red Sox use "Sweet Caroline" -- as a crowd pleaser in late innings. When the Chisox won the 2005 World Series, Steve Perry helped them celebrate.
The song was gaining momentum, and maybe hits its cultural peak with one of the most famous and talked about 5 minutes of television: "The Sopranos," final scene of the series finale (2007)
Mmm... onion rings. I never watched The Sopranos and I heard about that scene ad nauseum.
But wait! There's more! "Don't Stop Believin'" is the song that gave a big kick start to the television show "Glee." In the pilot (2009), when it seems like the Glee Club is not going to happen, the students get together and do this:
I have a distinct memory of walking down Beacon Street soon after that airing and hearing a pair of fourteen year old girls singing the song -- a song that was more than a decade old when they were born.
Each time the song is used, it just gets more popular and people feel a need to pay that $.99 to get it on their phone to listen to when they want it. I've only scratched the surface of the various television shows and movies that have used the song.
Okay, a couple of covers. Here's a performance from Sting's annual Rainforest Benefit from 2010 with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Deborah Harry, Shirley Bassey, Lady Gaga (her shoes!):
For this last bit, I want to point out that Journey has always been a conglomeration of musicians, beginning with fusion jazz artists, including a drummer trained a Berklee. Steve Perry was not their first lead singer and is no longer the lead singer. Randy Jackson of American Idol fame played bass on some Journey tracks. Yo, Dawg!
Check out this chart for a band member timeline.
Okay, so this is a "cover" but it's Journey with new frontman Arnel Pineda, a Filipino whose Journey covers on YouTube were found by guitarist Neil Schon when looking for a new lead singer. A documentary about the new singer and first tour was called "Don't Stop Believin': An Everyman's Journey" and played film festivals in 2012, and on PBS this fall. The trailer:
There's a real backlash against Pineda; some of it is loyalty to Steve Perry (remember, Journey's 3rd lead singer, although the voice of their biggest successes) but there's also quite a bit of racism, which is a bit disturbing (Rolling Stone interview). So here's the Arnel fronted Journey playing a stadium in Manila:
I think I usually reference the fact that my go to source for information on songs is the wonderful songfacts.com, written by DJs and rock journalists and originally built as a database of facts for radio djs to throw out before or after a song. “You know, before Cyndi Lauper won a Tony, she wrote this little song with one of The Hooters…”
Anyway, the Songfacts entry on Time After Time is exhaustive about the composition and recording of the song and there’s nothing to add in that department. The rest of this post will assume you went to their site and read about the song.
Meanwhile, I want to consider the idea of this song becoming a standard, like “I Got Rhythm” or “All of Me.”
Cyndi Lauper’s video:
The trailer for the 1979 film “Time After Time” whose title inspired Lauper. H.G. Wells follows Jack the Ripper into the present (1979) and falls in love with Mary Steenburgen along the way. Yikes.
Hyman says that the chorus originally had an upbeat reggae feel. That changed when the lyrics of the verse suggested a more bittersweet tone. Still, if you want to know what a reggae version would sound like,
One definition of a musical standard is simply that everyone knows the song. A plethora of cover versions helps suggest ubiquity. (SAT vocabulary words bonus!) We’ll slowly work our way towards some jazz versions.
A pop-punk version with male lead vocal from Quietdrive, because that’s the name of a band. (As a reminder, I link to videos that I am ashamed to make you watch here. For this song, especially, there are a LOT of covers).
Cool dancing in the R&B version by INOJ but the song is simply faithful to the original, with a new drum track and some gospel echoes.
Canadian twins Tegan and Sara. That’s another weird accent. Does this song bring out odd accents that I never noticed before? That said, their commentary at the end — that the song can’t sound too happy and loyal, but has to have an undercurrent of tears — seems right.
This is just weird, but if it’s from a group called Science-Monkey and it’s from Japan and it’s under 2 minutes long, I need to embed it:
Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 solo acoustic. (And sometimes I embed just because it’s a car wreck that you can’t turn away from.) What’s with his odd enunciation? He sings like he’s simultaneously trying to get a glob of peanut butter unstuck from his teeth:
Okay sorry for that. Seriously, though, here’s a nice version by the amazing Eva Cassidy. Nice, simple accompaniment with a beautiful voice — I like the pause before the chorus but I think that kind of thing works only after the audience has internalized the song, as they would with a standard. We all know it, we’re waiting for something, and then the silence builds on our anticipation.
Similarly, when Cassidy plays around with the melody a bit, we know where the “real” melody is and this lets her be an echo or harmony to the tune in our head.
I have no idea who this kid is, but this is an amazing instrumental version on acoustic guitar:
Speaking of amazing guitarists, jazz player Tuck Andress and his wife Patti (aka Tuck and Patti) include the song in their repertoire. Tuck really hits the harmonics on his guitar solo, and Patti just goes off on a tangent around the world, before getting the audience to sing harmonies (the crowd could be a little more enthusiastic).
Jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation needs standards precisely for the reasons cited above regarding Eva Cassidy. Familiarity allows for a contained creativity that allows the audience to explore while still having structure.
Cyndi Lauper said that her favorite cover artist was Miles Davis. Well, why not? Aside from being one of the great jazz musicians and composers of the 20th century, his use of her song helps solidify its position as a pop standard (of course he also covered Scritti Politti but that’s another story).
Okay, here’s Cyndi from a recent 2005 performance with Sarah Mclachlan singing alongside.