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.
How Do You Sleep – John Lennon
This song which appeared on John Lennon’s “Imagine” album (released 1971) marked the lowest point in the disintegrating relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney which had begun to unravel in the final years of The Beatles. As early as the death of manager Brian Epstein (August 1967) tensions arose within the band as to who would take Epstein’s role. McCartney wanted future father-in-law Lee Eastman while the other three Beatles plumped for businessman Allan Klein. McCartney lost out and according to Lennon “sulked for two years” before ending the group by taking Harrison, Starr and Lennon to London’s High Court of Justice. According to Lennon the song was in response to a number to a number of slights he perceived against himself and wife Yoko Ono on McCartney’s album ‘Ram’. Lennon’s response was brutal. The lyrics on the song were a fairly blatant shot at how little Lennon regarded McCartney’s music (‘the only thing you done was yesterday’) and (‘the sound you make is muzak to my ears’) are two examples of this. George Harrison , still upset at McCartney himself, accepted Lennon’s offer to play slide guitar on the song. Ringo Starr turned up to the session as well but was reportedly upset at the viciousness of the song and told Lennon he’d gone too far. The rock press were generally disappointed with the attack on McCartney. Ben Gerson, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, commented that the song was “horrible and indefensible” and “lay waste to McCartney’s character, family and career”. However, Roy Hollingworth, writing in ‘Melody Maker’ stated the song was one of the best tracks on the album and applauded Lennon for his honesty. By the mid-seventies McCartney and Lennon had repaired their fractured relationship and Lennon admitted the song was probably ‘a bit harsh’. Many rock critics have surmised that McCartney finally responded to ‘How Do You Sleep’ with his track ‘Let Me Roll It’ off the ‘Band On The Run’ album although McCartney has never spoken about it.
Hey Jude – The Beatles
Although ‘Hey Jude’ is credited to Lennon-McCartney the song was written entirely by McCartney which he started while driving over to visit Lennon’s recently divorced first wife Cynthia and son Julian. As McCartney is quoted as saying ” I went over to see them because I wanted to let them know just because John was out of their life I wasn’t going to ignore them. After all, I’d been friends with Cyn for 10 years and had known Julian all his life”. Indeed it can be argued McCartney was sometimes more of a father figure to Julian than Lennon. McCartney knew how to play with children whereas Lennon was not a ‘natural’ parent – not at that stage anyhow. The song was intended to comfort Julian about his parents separation. Originally called ‘Hey Jules’, McCartney changed it to ‘Hey Jude’ because he thought it sounded better. When McCartney had nearly completed the song he nervously took it over to play for Lennon. He was worried Lennon would see it as a shot at Yoko Ono. Lennon loved the song but McCartney said he would change the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder” because he thought it didn’t make sense. Lennon’s reply was “you won’t change it, it’s the best line in it”. After a number of recordings the version The Beatles liked the best went for seven minutes. Producer George Martin, who wanted to release the song as a single protested under the grounds that radio stations wouldn’t play a song that long. Lennon replied “They will because it is us !”. Lennon was right and Hey Jude became The Beatles biggest selling single and held the number position on the UK charts for 12 weeks and the USA for 9 weeks. It also went number one in Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Canada and Japan. Rolling Stone magazine ranked Hey Jude the eight greatest song in the history of rock and roll music.
Tonight’s The Night – Neil Young
After Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young went their separate ways at the end of 1971 they all settled down to record solo albums with the intent on starting solo careers. All of them made solid albums but it was Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ that proved he was probably the most talented of the former super group. Released in 1972 ‘Harvest’ went to number 1 in the UK, USA and Australia. Based around mainly acoustic, melodic songs it catapulted Young to international stardom and positioned him as one of the world’s greatest singer – songwriters. His future looked set and fans looked eagerly towards Young’s next offering expecting more of the same. However, two significant events drastically changed Young’s mind-set, the deaths of his back up band Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten (November 1972) and long time friend and roadie Bruce Berry (June 1973) both from heroin overdoses. Young was greatly affected by the loss of his two friends and his music changed as a result. His 1974 follow up album to Harvest, “On The Beach” showed Young had lost some of his former wit and replaced it was angst but it was the 1975 offering “Tonight’s The Night” that saw Young descend into the culmination of his period of mourning for Whitten and Berry. It was a demanding, uncompromising album which documented the rock wastelands of the 70’s in a extremely harrowing style, and at no point did it make any concessions to commercial appeal. The tital track was particularly chilling as it name checked Berry and the events of his death (“Bruce Berry was a working man/he used to load that Econoline van/a sparkle was in his eyes/but his life was in his hands”) and later (“cause people let me tell you/it put a chill up and down my spine/when I picked up the telephone/and heard that he died out on the mainline”). The album was dedicated to Whitten and Berry. The album sleeve featured a picture of Crazy Horse with an empty space where Whitten should have been. The tour following the album was bizarre with “Tonight’s The Night” being played up to two or three times a night with each rendition even more chilling than the one before. Young’s commercial standing suffered through this period with Tonight’s The Night selling 50% less albums than Harvest. By the time 1977 arrived Young seemed much more a ease in his personal life and returned to commercial success with the “Comes A Time” album which saw him return to his more acoustic, gentler routes.