Monthly Archives: May 2017

Inspiration is fleeting

Inspiration is fleeting – it’s up to the songwriter to bottle that lightning as fast as they possibly can, before the phone rings and half of the golden chorus they’ve just imagined falls out of their heads forever. But some songs are so quick to write, their essence – whittling and polishing aside – was captured in only slightly more time than it takes to play them from start to finish.

Here are some of the most speedily captured flashes of inspiration in musical history.

Ray Charles – What’d I Say

The subtext with each of these songs is that while it may have taken just a few minutes to write the song, there’s a lifetime of preparation behind that moment of inspiration. No one exemplifies this better than Ray Charles. At a 1958 gig in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, he found himself 12 minutes short of material, and with an expectant audience waiting to dance. Turning to the Wurlitzer electric piano he brought with him (because he hated relying on venues to provide a decent piano to play), he pounded out an insistent four note riff, set to a rhumba beat, and began jamming boogie-woogie licks over the top of it.

His horn section joined in, playing stabs, then Ray improvised a couple of verses, before going into a call-and-response section with his backing singers, the Raelettes. Each element will have come from years of working the clubs, but never arranged with this fire and vitality before. As the band played, the room began to shake from the vigour of the dancers, and as soon as they finished, Ray was besieged with fans wanting to know where they could buy his latest creation.

Nicki Minaj – Super Bass

BBC News recently ran a report on the amount of professional songwriters used to create certain hits, with some being experts in beats and grooves, some working on melodies, and some bringing the key moment, the hookline, written by specialists known as top-liners. Ester Dean is a particularly hot top-liner of the moment, having written refrains for Rude Boy and S&M by Rihanna, and Turn Me On by David Guetta. She also wrote the “boom badoom boom / boom badoom boom” section of Nicki Minaj’s Superbass, and like all of her greatest creations, she claims never to have spent more than five minutes on any one song.

She told the the New Yorker: “I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here [touches her upper arm, just below the shoulder] and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’”

Showstopping moments from Series 50 of Later… with Jools Holland

Back in October 1992, a new music show crept on to the schedules. In contrast to the hectic, yoof-oriented pop TV of the day, its emphasis was on stripped-back performances that let the music do the talking. Twenty-five years and 50 series on, Later… with Jools Holland is still going strong and providing a much-needed fix of live music on TV.

There was some nice continuity in the seventh episode of the current run, which featured the return of Malian singer Oumou Sangaré – a guest on the first ever series. Naturally, Jools also welcomed back a number of old favourites, including Paul Weller and Goldfrapp. And there was also room for a host of exciting artists making their Later debuts, including three on our list of standout performances from the anniversary series.

1. Ed Sheeran – Shape of You

With Shape of You still riding high at the top of the singles charts, Ed Sheeranappeared on the second episode of the series and unveiled the song’s stripped-back live version. Using his famous loop pedal to create all the parts himself, the song’s remarkable simplicity is laid bare – but like a good magic trick, it doesn’t lose any of its wonder just because you know how it’s done.

2. Beth Ditto – Fire

It’s been a while since we heard from former Gossip singer Beth Ditto, so this was a very welcome return from one of the most arresting voices – and presences – in music. Having swapped minimalist disco-punk for a bigger, swampier rock ‘n’ soul sound, Beth roared the gospel clad in a shimmering gold robe.

3. Blondie – Call Me

Blondie’s new album Pollinator is a smart update of their classic pop-punk sound, written in cahoots with many of the artists they’ve influenced (including Sia, Charli XCX and Nick Valensi of The Strokes). For their third Later appearance, Debbie Harry & Co. thrilled the studio audience by pulling out this 1980 No.1, still sounding as fresh as the day it was born.

4. Dave – Picture Me

Nice touch, this – 18-year-old South London rapper Dave begins his song Picture Me, which is about where he sees himself in five years’ time, at the piano before grabbing the mic, walking away from the piano, then returning to it at the end of the track. The BBC Sound of 2017 nominee was making his Jools debut and the response to his performance was huge.

5. Lorde – Green Light

Ahead of performing at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde made her second appearance on Later…, playing comeback single Green Light, a track she’s described as “different, and kinda unexpected. Complex and funny and sad and joyous and it’ll make you DANCE.” It’s all those things and, oh boy, she nailed it – this is mesmerising.

6. Royal Blood – Lights Out

Also making a comeback in 2017 are noisy Brighton two-piece Royal Blood, who played Lights Out, the first single from their second album How Did We Get So Dark? It’s a big song that they’ll no doubt be making a centrepiece of their many festival appearances this summer, including on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.

Pop stars you didn’t know played golf

Pop music and golf make for strange bedfellows. Pop is all about freedom of expression whereas golf is a tightly-controlled world of immaculate greens, perfectly pressed slacks and ensuring the ball goes exactly where you want it to.

But there are exceptions. The most famous rock ’n’ roll golfer is Alice Cooper, who, when he’s not cavorting with snakes or staging his own execution, likes to play 36 holes every day. But he’s not the only pop star who’s handy with a five iron. As the Open Championship begins, read on to find out which other singers and rappers are on the fairway to heaven.

Justin Timberlake

As well as looking immaculate in plus fours and a tank top, JT is one of the best golfers on the pro-celeb circuit, playing off a handicap of just six. He even owned his own golf club near Memphis for eight years, spending an estimated $25m in rebuilding the course before selling it on in 2014. These days, he tends to play at the Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank, where fellow players include Jack Nicholson and Joe Pesci. You wouldn’t want to accidentally hit one of their balls.

Céline Dion

Canadian balladeer Céline Dion is another pop star with her own golf course, Le Mirage near Montreal. The Titanic theme singer caught the golfing bug from her husband in the late-90s and went on to become a regular at pro-celebrity golf tournaments. Look closely at the picture above and she even seems to have her own personalised golf buggy. Well, you know that her cart will go on…

Scarface

In the 90s, Houston’s Scarface was a pioneering gangsta rapper, renowned for his unflinching descriptions of hood life on tracks such as Six Feet Deep (with his group Geto Boys) and Hand of the Dead Body. But these days you’re just as likely to find him on a golf course as in a recording studio. “I play golf every day if I can,” he told Billboard. “The game of golf slows the whole world down and gives you time to think.” His aim is to be good enough to play on the PGA Senior tour. “That idea that just because I’m from the street, I can’t play golf, that’s b*******.”

Niall Horan

You might have thought Slow Hands was a song about getting touchy-feely during a night of passion but it’s also One Direction star Niall Horan’s nickname at his local golf club, as a result of his unhurried swing. Okay, that might not be exactly true… but what we do know, courtesy of Golf Digest, is that self-declared “golf geek” Horan has been playing since the age of 12 and recently got his handicap down to single figures, thanks to the encouragement of his buddy Rory McIlroy. He’s also launched his own golf management agency.

Music pioneers who just missed out on the big time

The history of popular music is littered with examples of trailblazers who, for whatever reason – poor luck, bad deals, being ahead of their time – didn’t get the props they deserved. Sometimes, time catches up with them and at the heart of Arena’s excellent new documentary series American Epic are scores of songwriters whose influence on the course of music in the US and beyond is finally coming into focus.

This list looks at three featured in the series, alongside four others, and we’re just scratching the surface. Who do you think has been overlooked by music history? We’d love to hear your views on Twitter.

Will Shade

Part 1 of American Epic tells the story of how record companies travelled the American south in the 1920s recording the music of ordinary working people. “It was the first time America heard itself,” narrator Robert Redford says, before giving over the second half of the episode to Will Shade, driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.

Groups like the Memphis Jug Band were too poor to afford instruments, so they made do with what they could get their hands on, including jugs, washboards and kazoos. Shade’s group got a reputation performing on Beale Street in Memphis in the 20s and 30s, and became famous locally, playing to both black and white people. Their raw sound is credited as being proto-rhythm and blues, yet when that style of music, along with swing, took over in the 40s and 50s, the Memphis Jug Band faded from view.

In the above clip Nas makes a direct link between the group and rap music today, saying: “The Memphis Jug Band, it sounds like something today. These guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honour, chasing after someone who’s done them dirty… This is not high-society black folks they’re singing about; this is the down-under, street, wild black folks. And it’s the same as rap music today.”

Shade counted electric blues musician Charlie Musselwhite among his friends and admirers. In the episode, Musselwhite recalls that Shade would sing the song I’ll Get a Break Before Long later in life. He died in 1966 without anyone really knowing his music, but now, as Musselwhite says: “All these years later, right down on Beale Street by Handy Park there’s a brass note with Will’s name right on it.”

Grandmaster Caz

The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight is an iconic song in the history of American music – hip hop’s first hit. It begins with Wonder Mike’s legendary lyrics, “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / To the hip hip hop and you don’t stop / The rock it to the bang bang boogie,” before the second MC on the track, Big Bank Hank, comes in with his verse: “Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y / You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you why.”

And if you’ve always wondered why someone called Big Bank Hank introduced himself as Casanova Fly, it’s because he reportedly nicked his rhymes from Grandmaster Cazof the Cold Crush Brothers, previously known as Casanova Fly.

In 2014, Caz told the BBC World Service what happened (above, from four minutes): “Hank and I were friends and Hank got a job in a pizza shop in New Jersey, called Crispy Crust Pizza. One day, Sylvia Robinson [Sugar Hill Records co-founder and producer of Rapper’s Delight] walks in and hears him lip-synching to one of my tapes. She asked him, ‘Why don’t you come outside and do that for my songs – we’re auditioning people to become part of this group I’m putting together.”

Hank, who was also Caz’s manager, got the job and became a star. Caz never sued and never got a credit, unlike Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who threatened legal action over the use of their song Good Times in Rapper’s Delight.

“Chic’s Nile Rodgers wasn’t happy, but he now says Rapper’s Delight is one of his favourite tracks,” The Sugarhill Gang’s Master Gee recently told the Guardian. “It is one of his most lucrative – we gave him a credit. Then it turned out that Hank’s rhymes had been written by another MC, Grandmaster Caz. We’ve given him credit in public and done shows with him, and he’s cool about it. But I’m sure it bothers him every time he hears it.”

Laura Nyro

In a 2010 Guardian article, music journalist and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley credits Laura Nyro with being “the first non-folk female singer-songwriter”, adding: “She defied all categories in the late-60s, and Laura Nyro’s music makes more sense now, after four decades of her influence trickling down.”

Her style was to combine elements of doo-wop and soul into Brill Building-like songwriting – best exemplified on the albums Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) – and she might have become very famous indeed if she hadn’t asked filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker to not include her performance in his film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, convinced that she’d been booed while playing. However, a new profile of Nyro in Uncut magazine reveals that when Pennebaker reviewed his footage in 1997, he discovered that the audience were crying out, “Beautiful!” Nyro died from ovarian cancer, aged just 49, before she could take up Pennebaker’s offer to watch the footage again.

Nyro also turned down the chance to play Woodstock, but she was well-known and highly respected by other musicians at the time. Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand and The 5th Dimension all had hits with her songs in the late-60s and early-70s, and she would go on to influence countless other songwriters, including Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Tori Amos and Bette Midler, who presented a Radio 2 documentary about Nyro in 2005.