BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – QUEEN
Released under controversial circumstances as the first single from Queen’s fourth album “A Night At The Opera”, Bohemian Rhapsody spent nine consecutive weeks at number on the UK charts at the end of 1975. However, the song faced stiff opposition from both Queen’s record companies , Elecktra in the UK and EMI in the USA, who both initially refused to release the song as single citing it’s length of 5 minutes and 55 seconds as being to long to garnish radio airplay.
The band decided to bypass this corporate decision by sending a copy of the song to Capitol Radio DJ Kenny Everett. He was impressed and played the full song on his radio show 14 times in two days. Hordes of fans attempted to buy the single the following Monday , only to be told that it hadn’t been released. This forced the hand of both Electra and EMI to release the full unedited single in October 1975. By Christmas 1975 “Bohemian Rhapsody” held the top position in the UK singles charts and number nine in the States.
Bohemian Rhapsody, written entirely by Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, became a more accessible take on the 1970’s “progressive rock” genre. The song itself consists of several sections without a chorus : an intro, a ballad section, an operatic passage, a hard rock part and a reflective finish.
The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which rock experts consider as ground-breaking. Rolling Stone magazine stated that ” it’s influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air”.
Bohemian Rhapsody reached number one again 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released following Mercury’s death in 1991, eventually becoming the UK’s third best selling single of all time.
BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY – THE VERVE
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is one of the definitive British singles of the 1990’s. A moody, existential anthem driven by a distinctive string motif. These four seconds of strings were sampled from an orchestral recording of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time”, but the rights were not fully cleared before the song was released.
Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein argued that the Verve had used a larger portion of the sample than agreed and following a lawsuit forced song writer Richard Ashcroft to relinguish the song’s royalties and create a new songwriting credit : Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft. Following the decision Ashcroft remarked sarcastically “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years”.
However, Jagger and Richards have finally ended one of the most acrimonious copyright disputes in the history of British pop music by granting Ashcroft all future royalties from his 1997 hit song. In a statement Ashcroft said: “This remarkable and life – affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith”. It would appear the feud is finally over.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” reached # 2 in the UK and # 12 in the USA, where it was also nominated for a Grammy for best rock song.
BORN IN THE U.S.A. – BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Released as the first single from Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” album (1984) the title track was one of seven singles released from the album that became a top ten hit on the American billboard charts. This feat was only equalled by Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller” album.
A superficial listener might think the song is a flag – waving praise to America however the song is actually a wry and somewhat caustic commentary on the hypocrisy of patriotism. Incumbent US president Ronald Reagan was one of those who was fooled (why aren’t I surprised ?) and approached Springsteen to use it as a theme for his 1984 election campaign against Walter Mondale. Springsteen, an ardent democrat, refused.
The song recognizes the plight of unfortunate foreign peoples suffering in a questionable war, while paying tribute to Vietnam veterans who served their country, some of whom were Springsteen’s friends, some of who did not return from the conflict. It also protests the hardships Vietnam veterans faced upon their return from the war.
Springsteen wrote “Born In The USA” about the working class man, who in Springsteen’s words was facing a “spiritual crisis” in which man is left lost. It’s like he as nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He is isolated from the government, from his job and isolated from his family to the point where nothing makes sense, Springsteen further explains.
“Born In The USA” peaked at # 9 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles in late 1984. It was also a # 5 hit on the UK singles chart and a # 2 hit on the Australian charts. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the 59th greatest rock song (out of 500) to come out of the twentieth century.
Alannis Morisette – You Oughta Know
Jagged Little Pill was the the third studio album by Canadian singer-songwriter Alannis Morisette. Released in 1995 it became the album that burst Morisette on to the world scene selling an incredible 33 million copies worldwide making it one of the biggest selling albums of all time. The album marked a shift from her first two albums which were more “bubble gum” pop to an alternative rock style. “You Oughta Know” was the first single released from the album. It had a rawer, heavier sound to it than her previous material, no doubt helped by the guest appearances of Dave Navarro and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who provided guitar and bass to the track respectively. The song itself represents the raw anger and pain Morisette experienced from the breakdown of a relationship. The song contains some frank portrayals of female sexuality including the lines “would she go down on you in a theatre’ and ‘I’m sure she’d make an excellent mother”. Morisette has never publicly identified any particular real-life individual as having been the subject of the song. However the press constantly speculated on who the mystery man may have been. Some celebrities rumoured to be the ex-lover in the song include Mike Peluso , hockey player for the New Jersey Devils, Mat Le Blanc, actor from Friends who appeared in the video for Morisette’s single “Walk Away” and Leslie Howe, a musician and the producer of Morisette’s fist two albums in the early 1990’s. However, actor-comedian Dave Coulier, most famous for the TV show Full House has gone on record as suggesting he is probably the subject of the song. In 1997, the Boston Herald reported that Coulier admitted that some lines in the song were very close to home, particularly “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner”. Coulier’s former TV co-star Bob Saget said in one interview he was having dinner with Coulier when the phone rang with Morisette on the end of the line.
“You Oughta Know” was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1996 winning the award for “Best Rock Song” and “Best Female Rock Vocal Performance”
Cyndi Lauper – She-Bop
When I first heard Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘She-Bop’ I didn’t really take much notice of the lyrics. It was a catchy tune , and, naively, I thought it was just a follow up to Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ ideology. I thought she was telling girls to keep on dancing, or bopping, in this case. I don’t think I realised what the song was really about until a friend suggested it was a song about female masturbation. I was a bit surprised because Lauper’s demographic audience was aimed at young teenage girls. When I looked closely at the lyrics there was no doubt what she was on about. The lyric “they say I better stop before I go blind” was a dead giveaway. It was something I heard about masturbation when I was a teenager – can’t remember who said it to me but it was a pretty well known ‘old wives tale’, for want of a better expression. Lauper goes on ” I can’t stop messing with the danger zone/I won’t worry and I won’t fret/ Ain’t no law against it yet”. Although the song was considered controversial , it was not banned and received massive airplay as Lauper never directly stated in the song what the true meaning was. In later years when Lauper reflected on the song she said she wanted little kids to think it was about dancing and to understand the real meaning as they got older. In an interview with well known American DJ Howard Stern she told him she recorded the lyrics naked in the studio whilst tickling herself which caused her to giggle which can be heard on the record. “She-Bop” peaked at number three on the American charts and was the third single to reach the top 10 from her debut album “She’s So Unusual” after “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and ‘Time After Time”.
Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple
‘Smoke On The Water’ is probably best known for it’s easily recognizable riff developed by guitarist Richie Blackmore. The catchy riff is reasonably simplistic to play and is popular among beginner guitarists. The lyrics, written by lead singer Ian Gillan tell a true story. In December 1971 Deep Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland, to record an album using a mobile recording studio which they had rented from The Rolling Stones. The mobile studio was to be set up at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as ‘the gambling house’ in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording sessions , a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was being held in the casino theatre. During one of the bands songs the the theatre suddenly caught fire when a patron fired a flare gun which hit the ceiling, as referred to in the lyric ‘some stupid with a flare gun, burned the place to the ground’. There were no major injuries but the resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex. The song title was derived by Gillan as he watched from his hotel window to see smoke billowing across Lake Geneva from the burning casino. Deep Purple were left with an expensive mobile recording unit and no place to record and scouted the town for another location to set up. After a week of searching , the band rented the empty Montreux Grand Hotel and converted it’s hallways and stairwells into a makeshift studio. It was here that Deep Purple laid down the tracks for their most commercially successful album “Machine Head” , released in March 1972, which included “Smoke On The Water”. The song itself was ranked 12th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 greatest hard rock songs and 4th in “Total Guitar” magazines “Top 20 greatest guitar riffs ever”.
Layla – Derek and The Dominoes
In the mid-sixties George Harrison struck up a close friendship with English guitar legend Eric Clapton. The two spent a lot of time together outside the studio when Harrison was not recording with The Beatles and Clapton was having time out from supergroup Cream. They wrote a few songs together only one of which was recorded. ‘Badge’ – credited to Harrison and Clapton appeared on Cream’s final album ‘Goodbye’ released in 1969. Released as a single the song went to number 18 on the UK charts. During this time Harrison and his wife Patti spent a few weeks living at Clapton’s country mansion while their new home was being renovated. It was in Clapton’s backyard one morning that Harrison wrote his classic song ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Harrison was also keen for Clapton to play lead guitar during the recording of his epic song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the Beatles so called ‘White Album’. Clapton was initially reluctant citing the fact that only the members of The Beatles played on their albums. Harrison’s reply was “fuck them, it’s my song”. Clapton eventually played on the track but was uncredited on the album sleeve. The more time the Harrisons spent with Clapton the more he became obsessed with Patti. In late 1969 Clapton confessed to Patti that he was in love her. Patti was flattered but turned Clapton’s request for her to leave Harrison down. A year later Clapton was still infatuated with Patti when he wrote the epic song ‘Layla’ which appeared on the album ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ released in November 1970 and credited to Clapton’s new band ‘Derek and The Dominoes’. The band was made up of a series of top session musicians and included Duane Allman playing slide guitar on the title track. The bulk of the song’s lyrics referenced unrequited love from ‘Layla’ to the singer. There was little doubt that the ‘Layla’ character in the song was Patti Harrison. Although the album as a whole was not received well initially , ‘Layla’ was a top ten hit in both the US and UK charts. The song was re-released as a single in 1993 taken from Clapton’s ‘Unplugged’ album and was awarded a Grammy in the same year. In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked the original version of Layla as the 27th greatest rock song from their list of 500 greatest rock songs of all time.
Footnote: George and Pattie Harrison separated in 1975, divorced in 1977 and in 1979 Patti and Eric Clapton married in 1979. Their marriage lasted 10 years.