In 1941 legendary Jazz critic Toots Cavendish, writing about the Tommy Dorsey band, said “sure, this boy Sinatra can hold a tune… but he doesn’t even write his own material”… Bollocks. Of course he didn’t. Not least because I just made him up. But therein lies a large thorn in the Slender side.
Somewhere between the recording of “my Bonnie” in 1961 and “love me do” a year later, top scouse pop combo The Beatles reached the baffling conclusion that they may be better off writing their own songs. Meanwhile accross “the pond”, charming Minnesotan compulsive liar Bobby Zimmerman is beginning to exhaust the Woody Guthrie songbook and needs new material. A couple of years later Andrew Loog Oldham, bowing to the trend, tries to engineer greater royalties for his clients (successful rhythm and blues tribute band, the Rollin’ Stones) by (urban myth has it) locking Mick and Keith in a room and refusing to let them out until they have written a hit. At this point my dears, popular music shifts on its axis.
Whilst Elvis was still in the army the old order held sway – performers and songwriters were a whole different kettle of quavers and nobody rocked the boat. Or even tipped the boat over as the Hues Corporation were to articulately advise against some years later. Exceptions there were – Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley (by order of the rock’n’roll local constabulary, every Kid Slender post must contain at least one Bo Diddley reference. Learn to live with it) – but their ability to both pen a tune AND strum e minor was seen more as a novelty rather than a neccessity. But once rock got its feet under the table, writing your own material suddenly became obligatory. Not merely advisable mind you, but absolutely essential.
Fast forward just a few years to 1965 and the formation of the Monkees. Great tunes? Check. Faultless production? You betcha! Adorable image? Mmm, buy me one of those mum. Put it together and what have you got? Hysterical sneering derision from every corner of the rock’n’roll establishment. “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a bit” may originally have been coined for Fred Astaire, but this was the perceived wisdom on the mop-top street when it came to the Monkees. Why? Altogether now, they don’t even write their own material.
There’s a wonderful moment in the Dylan film “Don’t Look Back” where a (I think) Newcastle student sums up the common attitude to the new electric Bob by leering academically into the camera and announcing nasally, “we came to see Bob Dylan, not a… a… pop singer”. Sir, whoever you are, wherever you are, I salute you. You are the Devil at rock’s crossroads. Without you we might still be enjoying artists who could be admired as interpreters of the work of others. Without you rock could have turned down the same avenue as jazz with a catalogue of standards ready to be reworked and reimagined. Mind you, it should be said that thanks to you, we (who rarely listen to “Miles” and “‘Trane”) don’t have to suffer endless versions of “my favourite things”…
…during the early to mid 80’s I became enmired in a jazz phase. Luckily I managed to chance upon some great artists and anyone still unfamiliar with Jimmy Smith, Dakota Staton and Horace Parlan should rectify the matter immediately. However, what put me off more than anything was jazzers’ reliance on two songs. If the rock’n’roll cliche of a spotty youth sitting in his (it’s always a he) bedroom learning “smoke on the water” on the thick string, has an equivalent in jazz, it’s surely that of earnest musos belting out yet another version of “my favourite things” or “somewhere over the rainbow”. Jazz. Great tunes? Check. Groundbreaking musicianship? Orooni!. Baffling obsession with singing nuns? You can bet your kittens whiskers on it…
…But now, like the last remaining member of a discredited doomeday sect, I sit in my cave desperately looking for signs of cover version Rapture. And just once in a while they surface. Johnny Cash during his final years aroused a mild fever of expectation with every new album, not because we were so keen to hear him do “Delia’s gone” again but to find out what he was going to make of the Depeche Mode or Nick Cave songbook. Nick Cave himself reached a career high with “kicking against the pricks” but sadly thereafter chose to lazily rely on his own critically acclaimed compositions. In one of my favourite albums of recent years, swedish punk icon/iconoclast Freddie Wadling nailed his thesis on rock’s church doors by recording an album of James Bond themes. For string quartet and iphone. Trite you may say, but name anyone else who’s done it.
It is therefore in a spirit of sheer bloody mindedness that I put my prior attempts to co-author songs behind me. If my years served on the North London pub circuit taught me anything it’s that the vast majority of rock songs ought to have remained in the bedroom, even if it meant more time spent playing “smoke on the water”. So those of you lucky enough to have heard a performance of “Rick’s jumper theory” by Absolutely Harpsichord or “Righteously On” by the Longhairs will just have to clutch the memory close to your heaving bosom and content yourselves with the fact that you were privvy to an experience shared by few others. A bit like the Pistols at the 100 club. Ish. Me? I’ll be too busy rewriting rock’s back pages. With a pair of maraccas and a descant recorder.