Saturday, February 2, 2013

Song for you: a comparative analysis of different versions, with reference to what is crap, anodyne and pointless (Whitney Houston, The Carpenters and Michael Buble) and two - Donny Hathaway and Herbie Hancock/Christine Aguilera - which at least do the song justice. Oh, and Russell's original (which I like best of all). And then just a little bit about gay marriage, to keep you buggers on your toes (bad joke not intended)

I can’t remember when, why or how I first got to like the music of Leon Russell, although I was familiar with his name as one of many names knocking around when I was in my salad days. In the late Sixties, early Seventies he was best known for organising the Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour of the U.S., but apart from hearing songs from the eponymous album when I was in someone else’s flat and it was played, I knew nothing about him. ‘Leon Russell’ was just one of those names, and to add to the confusion there was an English folk singer knocking about at the time who was also called ‘Leon Russell’. But for some reason I bought one of his LPs (as they were in those days) called Carney and he immediately, just on the strength of that, became one of my favourite singers.

I’m the first to admit that he doesn’t have a conventional good voice, but then nor do several of my other favourite singers, for example The Kinks’ Ray Davies and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, to say nothing about bloody Bob Dylan. Yet all four, in their own way can knock spots of the more vanilla types, your Michael Bubles (see below), that fuckwit from Simply Red (I really can’t bring myself to write his name, I loathe him so much. He reminds me of TCP) who is to soul music what KFC is to fine dining. Russell never really registered as a ‘star’ in his own right, but made his name as a session musician, playing piano, guitar and bass, and sought-after arranger in Los Angeles. Another of the singer/songwriters I like, JJ Cale, was in his band when they were both knocking around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and trying to make a name for themselves.

Russell also wrote some great songs, notably the one I am writing about here, Song For You, as well as This Masquerade, which was a big hit for jazz guitarist George Benson - a great version - and The bloody Carpenters - the usual soft-edged crap. You can tell I’m no big Carpenters fan (and, again, see below). Their version sounds like the kind of schmaltzy muzak you hear in lifts (US: elevators) from here to Dubai via New York and Rio, as does Helen Reddy’s and Kenny Rogers: great song, appalling interpretations.

Below are three cases in point. Song For You is a great love song. Play it to your girl, and she’ll forgive you anything for the next few days. But it does, it really does depend on interpretation. So here, apart from Leon Russell’s original, are five other versions, in reverse order. (Amy Winehouse also did a version, but I only found out after preparing the six below for upload to this blog, and I really can’t be arsed going through that again. And, anyway, although she sings it in her inimitable way, she doesn’t actually try to sing it as a love song, which as far as I am concerned rather misses the point.) The first three versions are an object lessons in how to kill something stone dead.

First off is Whitney Houston’s version. It starts of OK - well, OK if you like her middle-of-the road stuff which I don’t, but after one minute 30 seconds it completely loses the plot and is turned into ersatz middle-of-the road disco and becomes truly awful. In fact, I was obliged to fade it out as I can’t expect anyone reading this blog to be subjected to that kind of crap while enjoying my hospitality. But by all means listen for yourself just to reassure yourself that I’m not talking bullshit.

Next comes the version by The Carpenters, which if you are familiar with the kind of dross they used to turn out, will come as no surprise. I’m liberal enough to admit that some - deluded - people get their rocks off listening to The Carpenters (or what passes for their rocks) but I find them downright embarrassing. But give them at least a minute of your time at least and then, I trust, you’ll agree with me.

Next up is that arch tit Michael Buble, second cousin to The Carpenters and various other ersatz emotion merchants, who is another idiot who couldn’t resist taking a lovely song and turning it into accessible garbage. Let me speak my mind here: Michael Buble music is safe, white soul for safe white middle-class dinner parties given by the kind of fuckwits who think living life on the edge is leaving the house without their mobile phone (US ‘cell phone’). It, too, is - in my ever-so-humble opinion - quite awful. But give it a minute of your time, too, and then reflect on how not to do something. And if you listen to it all and tell yourself ‘what’s he talking about, it’s not that bad’, you are officially banned from reading this blog.

That’s the worst of them out of the way, and now for two versions which are half decent. I’m not too sure Donny Hathaway has all that much street cred (UPDATE: Actually, I’ve discovered he has quite a lot, but mainly among pensioners and baldy soul ‘buffs’ for whom ‘R&B’ is something entirely different, not that today’s R&B is all that bad. In fact, some of it is rather good. Trouble is I daren’t say so for fear of coming across as some kind of Medallion ‘Who, Me Old?’ Man. Sadly, Donny topped himself. He had mental issues and jumped out of a window). But at least he doesn’t make a pig’s ear of Leon Russell’s Song For You. You get the feeling, when he sings it, that he is at least singing of someone he loves or loved and isn’t just fulfilling a contractual obligation. The arrangement is, for me, just a bit iffy, the kind of arrangement you might hear in an advert selling life assurance or a mortgage. But though it’s by no means the best, it is firmly this side of the fence where bloody Whitney Houston, The Carpenters and Michael Buble are well and truly the other side. Donny makes it.

This version is, in my view, a good one: Christine Aguilera sings it and Herbie Hancock plays keyboards and, I should imagine, arranges. This works, not least because the jazz is so good. And until I heard this, I always thought - never have heard much by her except various tracks while working out in the gym - that Christine Aguilera was just another pop chick. She’s obviously a lot, lot more.

Now for the one which knocks all the rest into a cocked hat, what this whole blog entry is all about: the version by the guy who wrote the song and who most definitely had someone in mind when he did so. This one is for me the tops by one million miles, a complete different song to all the rest. I don’t really like admitting this because it makes me sound a bit of a tit, but listening to Leon Russell’s version - each time - sends a chill up my spine. And I feel deeply in love with I don’t know who. Sadly, not my wife. It just reminds me of the days when I still felt such strong emotion. (Sorry about that last bit, but it would be dishonest not to add it.)

If you have the time to spare, play Herbie Hancock/Christine Aguilera’s version then Leon Russell’s one after the other. Then you’ll realise just what a great song it is and why Whitney Houston, The Carpenters and Michael Buble should be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague and charged with crimes against humanity.

Oh, well, I suppose you deserve a photo of the man, so I have looked up two. Below is a very recent one - well, he is almost 71 -, and then below that as I like to remember him, not least because for a moment or two I can still persuade myself that I’m not yet an old fart. Not yet, but sadly, like the rest of you, slowly getting there.

PS: There’s got to be a PS to all this: looking up something related, I’ve come across the fact that a damn sight more people have recorded this song than I thought, including Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, The Wanker From Simply Red (surprise, bloody surprise), Neil Diamond, Celine Dion (oh dear), someone called ‘Leon Jackson’, someone called ‘Jim Brickman’ and Willie Nelson, who manages to ruin it in a totally unexpected way and ruins whatever good impression I might inadvertently have had of him. I think his major claim to fame is that he hasn’t yet died.

To hear these version (or not - I wouldn’t blame you) use Spotify. I haven’t heard the Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield versions and I would like to. The rest of them are equally as awful as Whitney, Michael and bloody Karen Carpenter.

. . .

This blog likes to stay up to date so let me add my two ha’porth on gay marriage. In Britain they are now allowed to enter into a ‘civil partnership’ which gives them the same legal rights as far as inheritance etc are concerned. And Amen to that. Why not? But I really, really can’t get my head around ‘gay marriage’. What more do they get that civil partnerships don’t give them? I did actually ask a gay acquaintance that very question and he gave me the very sensible answer that gays like to be treated equally. And I can’t disagree with that. Yet it still doesn’t answer my question: what do gays get which a civil partnership doesn’t give them?

It does, of course, come down to definitions. And definitions, like much else, not least our moral values, are not quite as set in stone as many like to believe. Yes, of course we can redefine ‘marriage’. For many it means the union of a man and a woman. So why not redefine it and make it ‘the union of two people who love each other, irrespective of sex, and want their union publicly sanctified’? That would surely do the trick. Yet I can’t get away from the feeling that we are chasing down some blind alley ever faster for no very good reason.

I think, perhaps, that that word ‘equality’ is in part to blame, given the explanation my gay friend gave me. We all seem to think we know what it means, but in fact it is a little vaguer than we might like. For ‘equal’ doesn’t mean ‘the same as’: it does depend on context. So when it comes to pay and conditions, I believe utterly that a man and a woman who do the same job should be treated ‘equally’: that they get the same pay and conditions. Full stop. But patently a man is not ‘the same as’ a women. Each is unique.

The issue here is that both should get ‘equal treatment’ when it matters (in itself far too vague a statement in the circumstances, though in my defence I should say that it’s almost 11pm).

I think much difficulty, and many difficulties, derive from the spurious equation of ‘equal’ with ‘the same as’. When we are talking of gays and heterosexuals, we should naturally point out that a gay couple is not able to produce offspring, whereas a heterosexual couple - in theory - can. (They might not fancy each other, hence the ‘in theory’). So in that sense a gay couple is not the same as a heterosexual couple. At this point you might, naturally, argue that ‘marriage need not necessarily imply the imperative to reproduce’. And to that I would be obliged to agree.

So it does come down to definitions. Unfortunately, the result of that is that morality is thus necessarily relative. And if that is the case, the various modern, current, Western moral imperatives - that racism is evil, that we should all be treated equally etc - are also relative, that is to say (at the end of the day) negotiable and might not necessarily be true always and forever. The trouble is that we don’t want them to be negotiable: the technical word for all this is ‘dilemma’.

But it is far too late to carry on now. All I can do is leave you with this one thought: once ‘God’ was the ‘fixed point’ which gave reference to everything else. Then in time we did away with ‘God’, although moral philosophers realised that without a ‘fixed point’ of some kind, some universally acknowledged imperative, all moral philosophies - i.e. ethical systems - fell apart. Today, rather dishonestly, we liberals ignore the philosophical incongruities of our reasoning and argue that our ‘liberal values’ are right and that is that! And if you don’t agree, you are a fascist, reactionary pig! And gays should be able to get married if they want to! And if you don’t agree, you are well beyond the pale! (And in the very same breath many of us liberals are apt to argue that all this talk of God is superstitious stuff and nonsense!)

But as I pointed out almost ten minutes ago, it is late and I am buggered if I can think as straight as I should to attempt to make the kind of points I am making. Although I will admit that having started this entry writing about a love song called Song For You, I am bound to admit, accept, acknowledge and all the rest that a man might feel the love it conveys for another man, and a woman for another woman just as much as a man can feel it for a woman or ... blah, blah, I’m sure you get my drift.

God bless you all. (Did I really say that? Well, wash my mouth with soap and water!)

. . .

PPS: I’m watching a BBC documentary on Mark Knopfler, and the thought just occurred to me that I would be more sanguine watching such programmes and such like if those being featured being interviewed didn’t all pretty much look like bloody retired geography teachers, retired social workers, retired and still revovering alcoholics and retired paedophiles.

. . .

PPPS (if that’s at all possible) Will the good Lord please save me from nostalgia. Please. Always. Nostalgia is The Beast we have all been warned of time and again.

. . .

I keep and eye on ‘the stats’ of this blog (should that be the ‘stats’ or ‘the’ stats? I don’t know. Suggestions please and all silly ones will be acted upon) and I am astounded to discover that one particular entry (this one) has been viewed more than twice as much as the next most popular entry — 4,031 times. At the time of writing this — March 2, 2013, at 10.06am, this blog as been views 38,128 times, so more than 10 per cent of those viewings are of that one entry. Why? Well, when I delve deeper into ‘the stats’ and look at ‘referring sites’, a great many of them are visited by people tracking down a well-known picture (left) of Mandy Rice-Davies (‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he’). So it has occurred to me to include that picture (and this preamble explaining what I’m doing) in every blog entry in an attempt to drum up visitors and encourage them to take a look at some other entries. It helps that when the picture was taken, she was a rather attractive woman.

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