Song of the Day: Travel in Music (Day Three). “Motorway Sun Comin’ Up With the Morning Light”.

2-4-6-8 Motorway was the first single released by the British punk rock / new wave group, Tom Robinson Band.  Released on the 7th October 1977, the single reached number five in the UK singles chart.  The band had only formed in January of the same year and was signed to EMI in the August.

Robinson had written 2-4-6-8 Motorway between leaving his previous band, Cafe Society, in 1976 and forming his new band.  At the beginning of the Tom Robinson Band, Robinson was playing gigs with whichever friends were available on the night, so the song was written in order that it could be learnt in a matter of minutes.

The music of 2-4-6-8 Motorway was conceived whilst Robinson was attempting to work out the chords for the Climax Blues Band song, Couldn’t Get It Right (Gold Plated, 1976).

He couldn’t remember the tune properly and this led to the song having just three chords repeated throughout the whole song.  The song has a suitably driving beat which helps to conjure up visions in the listener’s mind of the “ol’ ten-ton lorry” travelling down the motorway.

Lyrically, the song was inspired by Robinson’s memories of driving back to London through the night after gigs with Cafe Society.  He explained this in an interview with M Magazine in 2011:  “The verse lyric came from having done cheap gigs around the country with my previous band, Cafe Society, and driving back through the night from places like Scarborough and Rotherham.  By the time our van hit the last stretch of the M1 into London, the motorway sun really was coming up to the morning light”.

The song tells of the joys of driving a truck with lines such as “Drive my truck midway to the motorway station” and all the things the narrator encounters on his journey, such as “Fairlane cruiser coming on up on the left side”, “The little young Lady Stardust hitching a ride” and “Whizzkid sitting pretty on your two-wheel stallion”.  “The little young Lady Stardust” takes her name from the David Bowie song Lady Stardust, from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).  Given that Robinson is openly gay, something celebrated in the song Glad to Be Gay and that the Lady Stardust in Bowie’s song is actually male, it could be suggested that 2-4-6-8 Motorway is about a gay truck driver and even that the narrator picks up “Little young Lady Stardust” for a “ride” in the sense of sexual intercourse.

Elsewhere in the song, Robinson sings “Me and my radio truckin’ on thru the night”.  In this line, the “radio” could either refer to a radio in the stereo system sense or perhaps the CB radios used as a communication tool between truck drivers.  Other lines include “Headlight shining, driving rain on the window pane” and “… on the double white line”, which further evoke thoughts of travelling on the motorway.  Additionally, the narrator tells of how he doesn’t need anybody but his beloved truck and the simplicity of only having himself to answer to in lines such as “Ain’t no use setting up with a bad companion, Ain’t nobody get the better of you-know-who” and “Well there ain’t no route you could choose to lose the two of us, Ain’t nobody know when you’re acting right or wrong”.

The chorus of the song was adapted from a Gay Lib chant which went, “2-4-6-8, Gay is twice as good as straight … 3, 5, 7, 9, Lesbians are mighty fine”.  Although the origins of the chorus are not apparent to the casual listener, they could be seen as a precursor to later more politically driven songs such as the follow up single, Glad to Be Gay (1978).

On hearing the song, EMI turned it down, but following a period of touring in which the band became tighter and guitarist Danny Kustow expanded his riff repertoire, they relented and released the record.  The single was such an instant success that it saw the band performing it on Top of the Pops on the 27th of October and later on the 10th of November.

2-4-6-8 Motorway was not featured on the band’s debut album Power in the Darkness (1978).  Robinson had described the decision to not include the song as a “fatal mistake” on many occasions.  However, in the US, the song was included on a free 7” EP, together with Gad to Be Gay, which came with the album.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Six). “She Packed My Bags Last Night, Pre-flight. Zero Hour: 9am. And I’m Going to be High as a Kite by Then.”

Rocket Man, alternatively named Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), from the 1972 album Honky Chateau, is a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  The song was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the producer of David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough hit Space Oddity (David Bowie).  The song was inspired by Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant aeroplane and was inspired by the notion of being an astronaut no longer being a hero, instead being an everyday occupation.  This idea can be most seen most notably in the song’s opening lines, “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight.  Zero hour: 9am.  And I’m going to be high as a kite by then”.

The lyrics of the song, written as per usual by Taupin, were inspired by the short story, The Rocket Man by Ray Bradbury and featured in his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man.  The story tells of how astronauts are few in number, meaning that they work for high pay.  One such “Rocket Man” goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to Earth for three days to spend time with his wife and son, Doug.  Additionally, the song was also inspired by another song called Rocket Man by Tom Rapp, written for his band Pearls Before Swine and featured on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes.  The Rapp song Rocket Man was in turn also inspired by Bardbury’s short story.

Due to a number of similarities in Rocket Man, some presume that this song might also be an allusion to David Bowie’s character Major Tom in Space Oddity.  Bowie has even made the connection himself during various live performances of Space Oddity in which he called out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”

As with Space Oddity, Rocket Man has been said to use space as a metaphor for a drug high.  The line most associated with being a drug reference is “And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then” with ‘high as a kite’ being a common idiom in drug use.  There is nothing to suggest that Taupin intended the double entendre but the song was released at the peak of the ‘70s stoner culture.

The first stanza of Rocket Man was thought up by Bernie Taupin whilst he was on the motorway heading to his parents’ home.  Taupin had to repeat the line to himself over and over for two hours. Upon reaching his parents house, Taupin has said a number of times over the years that he rushed in to the house and ordered nobody to speak to him until he had written the lines down.  Additionally, the song is thought to be a comment on fame and touring, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” perhaps referring to the superficiality of stardom and stage persona.

Musically, the song is one of John’s most grandiose offerings, anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesiser, which was played on the recording by studio engineer Dave Hentschel and processed slide guitar.  Rocket Man is also notable for being the first of a number of John recording to feature the signature backing vocals of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olssen and Davey Johnstone.  The song was another resounding success for John, reaching number 2 on the UK singles chart and number 6 on the US Billboard Pop Singles Chart.  In 1998, John played Rocket Man at the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Rocket Man has been covered a number of times over the years, most famously in 1991 by Kate Bush as part of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms:  Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  Bush’s unique reggae-styled interpretation of the song was a great commercial success, reaching number 12 on the UK chart and number 2 on the Australian chart, where it was held off the top spot by Julian Lennon’s single, Saltwater (from the album Help Yourself, 1991).  Bush’s version of Rocket Man was voted as the Greatest Cover of All Time by readers of The Observer in 2007.

The B-side of Bush’s version of Rocket Man was a cover of another John and Taupin classic, Candle in the Wind.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Four). “Hats Off, Hats Off to Mars, Let’s Align Our Footsteps with the Stars”.

Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality.  Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles.  Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous.  Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success.  However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.

Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him.  He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.

Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate.  That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar.  Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972.  Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett.  The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar.  The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.

Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.

Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …

… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …

… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.

The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.

Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.

Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved.  Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album.  In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row.  In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star:  Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley.  Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Two). “I Always Flirt With Death, I Look Ill But I Don’t Care About It”.

As I talked about yesterday, in songs such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), whether space is a metaphor for the effects of heroin, or others drugs, is something that is often debated.  However, on other songs such as The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, their best known single and the second track on their debut album, The Only Ones (1978), the references, whilst still being the subject of debate, are much more blatant.  Though the song is often considered something of a rock standard and various publications have named the song the greatest rock single ever recorded, Another Girl, Another Planet was not a hit when first released.  In fact, the song’s highest chart position was number 44 on the New Zealand chart in July 1981.  The song was re-released in the UK in January 1992, backed with Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs to promote the compilation album, Sound of the Suburbs.  On this release, the song reached number 57 on the UK singles chart, its highest position to date.  Another Girl, Another Planet was placed at number 18 in John Peel’s all time Festive Fifty millennium edition and when playing it as part of 1980’s Festive Fifty, in which it reached number 28, he introduced it as an “artful little caprice”.

Although this song, with its soaring guitars, perfect three minute pop format and front-man Peter Perrett’s elliptical lyrics could simply be read as a song about the excitement and perils of space travel and having a girl on every planet the narrator passes, something which gives the song some of its huge appeal, dig deeper into the song and the heroin references are plain for all to see.

Another Girl, Another Planet starts with the killer opening lines, “I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it”.  To “flirt with death” is an expression normally used when talking about doing something dangerous and life-threatening for personal enjoyment.   Here, to “flirt with death” is about the dangers associated with injecting heroin. “I look ill, but I don’t don’t care about it” straightforwardly refers to the sick look which heroin users are prone to inheriting due to regular usage.  This look has in recent years, thanks to the fashion world, become known as ‘heroin chic’ and is characterised by pale skin, dark circles and angular bone structure due to weight loss.  Interestingly, in Blink 182’s cover version of Another Girl, Another Planet (Greatest Hits, 2005), they change the line to “I could kill, but I don’t care about it”, which could refer to the fact that in the process of ‘cooking’ a batch of black tar, bacterial spores can enter the drug solution.   Once the drug is injected, these spores can damage and even kill the body’s muscle, skin and organ tissues.  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, perhaps the singer is telling of how he would kill to receive the drug and its hit.

In the following lines, “I can face your threats, Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, the facing of “threats” may refer to side effects and risks associated with taking the drug.  The second of these lines, “Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, finds the singer defiant, telling of how he does not care who knows about his heroin use because of the euphoria he receives from the drug.

The chorus of the song, “I think I’m on another world with you, I’m on another planet with you” finds the singer metaphorically on another planet following the hit of the drug.  Heroin often leads people to hallucinate, so perhaps in this context, Perrett is speaking of how heroin takes him to places that he cannot reach when not under the influence and perhaps hallucinating about women.  It is said that this is a common hallucination when taking heroin.   Alternatively, the “girl” of which Perrett speaks could be a personification of the needle used to inject the drug, with the use of the word “another” being telling of Perrett’s repeated drug use.  Perrett was often compared to Lou Reed, so much so that when listening to an Only Ones recording, the NME’s Nick Kent once believed he was listening to a new Lou Reed recording.  If we were to see the “girl” as a personification of the needle, then we could compare this line to the line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967).

As the song’s second verse opens, we find the line, “You always get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”, possibly the clearest heroin reference in the whole song.  Usually, if somebody gets under your skin, they are annoying you.  However, here, Perrett states “I don’t find it irritating”, meaning that he enjoys literally having the needle beneath his skin because he knows that what will follow will be a pleasurable experience.  The following line, “You always play to win” refers to heroin playing to win, i.e. claiming lives and being a very difficult addiction to beat.  The following line, “I don’t need rehabilitating” implies that he does not wish to try to kick the habit and would rather “flirt with death” and allow the drug to win.

The song’s final verse starts with the lines, “Space travel’s in my blood, And there ain’t nothing I can do about it”, Perrett’s declaration that he can’t get clean from heroin and that he doesn’t want to try to.  In the following lines, “Long journeys wear me out, Oh God we won’t live without it”, the ‘long journey’ refers to being under the influence of heroin for an extended period of time.  After coming down from his high, he is worn out.  Note the pluralisation of ‘journey’, which is telling of the repetition of injecting the drug.  The line, “Oh God we won’t live without it” is further evidence of the singer’s defiant stance against stopping taking the drug.  In the song’s coda, the line “Another planet, forever holding you down” is, once again, testament to the grip that the drug has on him.  Additionally, heroin is a downer or depressant:  hence, the repetition of injecting the drug is forever holding the singer down.

When asked whether drugs were an aspiration for him in an interview with Classic Rock magazine in July 2014, Perret replied:

“No, it was just an accident.  I never, ever wanted to devote my life to drugs.  I’d starting smoking joints and they relaxed me.  Because I wanted the best hash, I started meeting people that had the best hash.  Gradually, over a couple of years, I met people, started doing it as a business.  I signed on at college and I used to go in at the beginning of each term, get my grant money and start up dealing, then I eventually met people, started importing it.  Then we went over to importing cocaine – it’s a fraction of the size, much easier to smuggle in, and you’re facing the same risks.  All of a sudden, I’m doing the cocaine that used to knock my head off.  That was about 1975, and after that I tried smack.  That was a big mistake because all of a sudden, that was the best feeling I’d ever felt in my life.  That’s why it’s so dangerous.  It’s silly telling people not to take it.  You’ve got to let them know that the reason it’s so dangerous is because it’s the best feeling you’ve had in your life, and it’s so hard not to want it all the time, and if you have it all the time, eventually it stops working and you need it just to be able to function”.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day One). “Ground Control to Major Tom …”

This week’s theme for Song of the Day is ‘Space’, so what better way to start than with David Bowie and his love of all things otherworldly.  The man who would later bring us the glam alien Ziggy Stardust, started writing about space way back in July 1969, with the release of Space Oddity, the first single from his second album David Bowie.  The success of the single on its release in 1969, led the album to be renamed Space Oddity when it was reissued in 1972.

To set the scene, the single was released just nine days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, leading some to dismiss the song as a cheap shot at cashing in on the impending moon landing.  These detractors included producer Tony Visconti, who despite liking the demo songs for the rest of the album, decided to delegate Space Oddity to Gus Dudgeon.  To realise his vision for his space tale, Bowie looked to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired the song’s title.  Additionally, the slow and barely audible instrumental build up of Space Oddity is similar to the deep bass tone used in Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, which is used predominantly in the film.

In a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Bowie said of Space Oddity:

“In England, it was always presume that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time.  But it actually wasn’t.  It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing.  I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me.  It got the song flowing.  It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself.  I’m sure that they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all (laughs).  It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing.  Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.  Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great’.  ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir’.  Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that”.

Space Oddity saw the first appearance of astronaut Major Tom, whom has since become one of Bowie’s most famous character creations.  There has been much speculation whether the space theme of Space Oddity was actually a metaphor for heroin use, with the countdown heard in the song being analogous to the drug’s passage down the needle prior to the euphoric hit.  Bowie spoke of a period of brief heroin before the release of Space Oddity in a 1975 interview with Playboy, saying:

“The only kinds of drugs I use are ones that keep me working for longer periods of time.  I haven’t gotten involved in anything heavy since ’68.  I had a silly flirtation with smack then, but it was only for the mystery and enigma of trying it.  I never really enjoyed it all.  I like fast drugs.  I’ve said that many times.  I hate falling out, where I can’t stand up and stuff.  It seems like such a waste of time.  I hate downs and slow drugs like grass.  I hate sleep.  I would much prefer staying up, just working, all the time.  It makes me so mad that we can’t do anything about sleep or the common cold”.

The idea of Space Oddity being at least partially related to heroin use was made even more likely with the arrival of the song’s first sequel, Ashes to Ashes, from the album Scary Monsters & Super Creeps, in 1980, which stated, “We know Major Tom’s a junkie, Strung out on heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low”.  Additionally, this lyric is also thought to be a play on the title of Bowie’s 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal inwards following his drug excesses in America a short space of time before.

Major Tom was resurrected once again for Hallo Spaceboy.  Whilst the album version from 1. Outside (1995) does not reference Major Tom, when the song was remixed by the Pet Shop Boys and released as the third single from the album, it added the lines, “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom … Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong … Planet Earth, is control wrong” sung by Neil Tennant in reference to Space Oddity.

On 12th May 2013, Space Oddity was covered by astronaut Chris Hadfield, shortly after handing over command of the International Space Station.  Hadfield, already famed as being the first Canadian to walk in space, released the video of him performing the song on YouTube, which has so far received over 25 million views.  Hadfield’s performance was the subject of a piece by Glenn Fleishmann in The Economist on the 22nd May 2013, which analysed the legal implications of publicity performing a copyrighted work of music whilst in earth orbit.  There was no need to worry as Bowie fully endorsed the cover, taking to Facebook to call it, “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created”.

Other versions of Space Oddity, and arguably the oddest of all, include Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola, released in November 1969, a special version of the song with Italian lyrics.  Two Italian bands, Equipe 84 and The Computers, had already recorded their own Italian versions of Space Oddity.  Feeling that these versions may threaten the chances of Bowie’s original in Italy, Bowie’s record company commissioned Mogol to write the new Italian lyrics.  Mogol came back with a song about a young couple who meet on top of a mountain, the title of which translates as “Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”.  Bowie was highly amused when he found out what the new lyrics meant, saying in an interview for the 1999 biography Strange Fascination by David Buckley:  “I’ve put in all that time singing some bloody love song about some tart in a blouse on a mountain!”

Starman and Nine Other Songs About Aliens. David Bowie Releases The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This Day in History, 06/05/1972.

1.  Julian Cope ‘I Come From Another Planet, Baby’

(from the album Interpreter, 1996).

2.  Brett Smiley ‘Space Ace’

(from the album Breathlessly Brett, 1974).

3.  Ash ‘Girl From Mars’

(from the album 1977, 1996).

4.  David Bowie ‘Starman’

(from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

5.  The Wedding Present ‘The Queen of Outer Space’

(from the album Hit Parade 2, 1993).

6.  Janelle Monae ‘Many Moons’

(from the album Suite I (The Chase), 2008).

7.  Radiohead ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’

(from the album OK Computer, 1997).

8.  Pixies ‘Motorway to Roswell’

(from the album Trompe Le Monde, 1991).

9.  Blondie ‘Rapture’

(from the album Autoamerican, 1980).

10. The Carpenters ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’

(from the album Passage, 1977).

Song of the Day: Music Inspired by Television Shows (Day Five). “Once A Time, They Nearly Might Have Been, Bones and Oogie on A Silver Screen”.

On Slip Away, from his 2002 album, Heathen, David Bowie paid homage to the New Jersey born ‘Uncle’ Floyd Vivino.  Vivino, born 1951, is a vaudeville-styled comic and pianist who hosted The Uncle Floyd Show on cable television between 1974 and 1998, when it was cancelled.  The Uncle Floyd Show started out life as a children’s show hosted by Vivino, along with a cast of puppets, who outnumbered the human cast members by at least three to one.  The puppets used by Vivano included Bones Boy and Oogie, both mentioned by Bowie in Slip Away.

Despite his intention for the show to appeal to children, it soon became apparent that its subtle adult humour wasn’t being understood by a young audience, so Vivino reworked the show so that it would appeal more to an older audience, as well as children. The show also featured appearances from musicians such as Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi, The Smithereens and The Ramones.  The Ramones also mentioned The Uncle Floyd Show in their 1981 song, It’s Not My Place (in the 9 -5 World), from the album Pleasant Dreams:  “Hanging out with Lester Bangs and all, Phil Spector has it all and all, Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV”.

The cast of The Uncle Floyd Show first became aware of Bowie’s interest when he attended a live appearance at New York’s The Bottom Line nightclub on the 29th January 1981.  Bowie met Vivino and told him how he had always had the show on whilst he was getting ready to perform in The Elephant Man, the Broadway play by Bernard Pomerance, in which he played the lead role of John Merrick.  Bowie had been introduced to The Uncle Floyd Show by another fan, John Lennon.

Two decades later, Bowie rang Vivino and informed him that the tribute song was to be featured on Heathen.  In an exclusive interview for davidbowie.com, Bowie said of the song:

“Both Slip Away and Afraid [also from Heathen] were recorded early last year and I liked these 2 so much, I just moved them forward to this album.  We completely re-recorded Slip Away over one of Matt’s [drummer Matt Chamberlain] great loop parts.  Back in the late 70’s, everyone I knew would rush home at a certain point in the afternoon to catch The Uncle Floyd Show.  He was on UHF Channel 68 and the show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.  All his pals were involved and it was a hoot.  It had that Soupy Sales kind of appeal and though ostensibly aimed at kids, I knew so many people of my age who just wouldn’t miss it.  We would be on the floor, it was so funny.  Two of the regulars on the show were Oogie and Bones Boy, ridiculous puppets made out of ping pong balls or some such.  They feature in the song.  I just loved that show”.

Slip Away started out life as a song called Uncle Floyd, recorded for the officially unreleased Toy album, which Bowie had scheduled for release in 2001.  Bowie intended Toy to feature new versions of some of his earliest songs as well as three new songs.  However, the project morphed into creating the Heathen album instead.  In terms of overall composition, Uncle Floyd is fairly similar to Slip Away, with its most notable difference being the inclusion of a segment from The Uncle Floyd Show in the intro.  The Uncle Floyd Show intro was later used when Slip Away was played live on the Heathen Tour and the A Reality Tour to accompany Heathen’s follow up album Reality (2003).  The use of the segment from The Uncle Floyd Show on Uncle Floyd adds another dimension to the composition and is particularly effective in concert, because despite its humorous nature, the clip features Oogie posing the sadly prophetic question, “Did you ever stop and think:  If there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd Show, what everyone on the show would be doing?”  Given the nature of the lyrics, which seem to evoke the feeling of Uncle Floyd, Oogie and Bones Boy being lost and forgotten nearly-stars (“Once a time, They nearly might have been, Bones and Oogie on a silver screen” and “… Some of us will always stay behind, Down in space, it’s always 1982, The joke we always knew”), this intro segment works perfectly.

There is a wonderful quality of maudlin beauty to both Slip Away and Uncle Floyd.  Bowie uses his saddest sounding vocal tones to full effect and the gigantic, crashing, cinematic chorus, one of Bowie’s most underrated, seems to stretch further than the space that Uncle Floyd, Bones Boy and Oogie find themselves in.  Then there is Bowie’s use of the stylophone, the toy instrument first used in Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), which just serves to add to the beauty of this stunning track. If you are not shedding a tear whilst listening to this song about lost heroes who should have been huge stars, then you are potentially dead.  Just “don’t forget to keep your head warm”.

Footnote:  Sadly, I couldn’t find a clip from The Uncle Floyd Show anywhere on YouTube.

Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Seven). Carly Simon on ?: “You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Song is About You”.

Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, from her 1972 breakthrough album No Secrets has been the subject of much debate for decades.  Many of her ex-boyfriends have wondered whether they were the inspiration behind the singer’s cutting description and Simon has relished in it, throwing curveballs and adding to the mystery at every opportunity.  Other than You’re So Vain being a wonderful pop song with one of the most classic choruses in music history, together with an array of brilliant and sometimes witty lines, this mystery is the key to the song’s longevity.  So, let’s line up the vain suspects.

Prior to You’re So Vain becoming a hit, Simon told interviewers that the song was about “men” in general and not a specific “man”.  However, this didn’t stop potential subjects wondering whether the song was about them and Simon’s audience trying to unravel the clues in the lyrics.

Mick Jagger wondered whether the song was about him.  Jagger provided backing vocals for You’re So Vain and in Angie Bowie’s 1993 book Backstage Passes, she claimed that Jagger had been “obsessed” with Simon.

Additionally, Angie Bowie claimed to be the “wife of a close friend” mentioned in the final verse of the song.

When You’re So Vain was sampled for Janet Jackson’s 2001 single, Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song is About You), from the album All for You, Simon stated that “The apricot scarf was worn by Nick [Delblanco].  Nothing in the words referred to Mick”.  Simon started dating Delblanco in the early 1960s whilst he was studying at Harvard University and was being hotly tipped as the next big thing in literature.  She and Delblanco travelled to France together where Simon acted as her boyfriend’s helpmeet.  The couple broke up in 1964.

Could the song be about Kris Kristofferson, with whom Simon had a summer-long love affair with in 1971?  During their romance, Simon wrote the song Three Days, from the album Anticipation (1971), about Kristofferson.

In return, Kristofferson wrote I’ve Got to Have You, from the album Breakaway with Rita Coolidge (1974), about Simon.

As quoted in Sheila Weller’s 2008 book, Girls Like Us, Kristofferson said of the Simon:  “Looking back on the romance, I was pretty self-absorbed in those days.  Carly was funny and really smart – she had more brains than I did.  I have a hard time now believing she tolerated my company”.

In a 1989 interview, Simon said that the song is a little about Warren Beatty, whom she dated in the early 1970s, but is actually a composite of three men from her days in Los Angeles.  In a 1983 interview with The Washington Post, Simon said:  “It certainly sounds like it was about Warren Beatty.  He certainly thought it was about him – he called me and said thanks for the song.  At the time I met him, he was still relatively undiscovered as a Don Juan.  I felt I was one among thousands at that point – it hadn’t reached, you know, the populations of small countries”.

To keep her audience on their toes, Simon has divulged letter clues as to the mystery man over the years.  During an interview with CNN in 2004, she said, “Well, I guess for those who are interested in clues – the name of the person it was about had an ‘E’ in it … Maybe I could disclose another letter.  Ok, it also has an ‘A’ … Well listen, two vowels ain’t bad!”  Additionally, in an interview with Regis and Kelly in 2004, when asked by Regis Philbin who the mystery man was, Simon dropped another letter clue, this time saying, “If I tell it, it’s going to come out in dribs and drabs.  And I’ve given out two letters already, an ‘A’ and an ‘E’.  But I’m going to add one to it.  I’m going to add an ‘R’, in honour of you”.

Between 1972 and 1983, Simon was married to singer / songwriter James Taylor, who is often cited as a potential source of inspiration for the song.  However, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, she said, “No, it’s definitely not about James, although James suspected it might be about him because he’s very vain.  No, he isn’t, but he had the unfortunate experience of taking a jet up to Nova Scotia after I’d written the song.  He was saved by the fact it wasn’t a Lear”.

Cat Stevens has also been cited as a speculative candidate.  Simon opened for Stevens at The Troubadour for three nights in April 1971.  Following the sell out shows, Simon travelled back to New York with Stevens, where he asked her out and the pair became romantically involved.  Simon wrote her single 1971 Anticipation, from her second album, also called Anticipation, whilst waiting for Stevens to pick her up for a date.  She also dedicated the aforementioned album to him, using his real name, Steve (Steven Demitri Georgiou).

In return, Stevens wrote the song Sweet Scarlet, from his 1972 album Catch Bull at Four, about Simon.

For his 2006 book, Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?, Gavin Edwards interviewed Simon’s ex-husband James Hart, whom she was married to between 1987 and 2007, who said, “I’m sure that the song wasn’t about anybody famous”.  Hart was the subject of another of Simon’s songs, Coming Around Again, from the album Coming Around Again (1987).

On the 19th June 2008, disc jockey Howard Stern claimed on his show on Sirius Satellite Radio that Simon had privately revealed to him whom the song was written about following an interview.  Stern said of the revelation that, “There is an odd aspect to it … he’s not that vain”.  On the 17th March 2009, again on his radio show, Stern claimed that it was a “composite of three people”.  Most recently, Stern said on air on the 5th May 2014, “She takes me aside, pulls me close, whispers in my ear three names.  She goes, it wasn’t one person, it was three people”.  Stern also said that he thought one of the names could have been Warren Beatty and another might be American business magnate and Geffen Records boss, David Geffen, but said he “forgot”.

Another possible candidate may be musician Dan Armstrong, whom Simon had first known whilst performing in nightclubs in the mid 1960s.  Armstrong owned Armstrong’s Guitar Repair Shop and in 1968, the two met officially and started a relationship when Simon took her guitar to be fixed.  Their relationship lasted for two years.  In Sheila Weller’s 2008 book Girls Like Us, she states that “Although Simon described him as an arrogant, opinionated Neanderthal, she found him to be overwhelmingly handsome and very gifted musically”.  In his 2012 biography of Simon, More Room in a Broken Heart, Stephen Davis claims that Simon described herself as “naive” at the time.  Could Armstrong be at least the inspiration behind the lines “Oh, you had me several years ago, When I was still naive”?  After Simon broke her relationship with Armstrong off, he moved to Los Angeles to set up a new business.  Simon regretted her actions and tried to make it up to Armstrong but tono avail.  Her heartbreak over the end of the relationship inspired the song Dan, My Fling from her 1971 debut album, Carly Simon.  Armstrong’s full name of Daniel Kent Armstrong feature all three letters of Simon’s clue.

During an interview with WNYC’s Soundcheck on the 4th November 2009, Simon stated that she had hidden the identity of the vain man, whispered backwards, in a certain version of the song.  The next day, the show revealed that the name was “David”.  Simon, however, denied that the name was David, saying that she spoke “Ovid” both forwards and backwards and that it sounded like “David”.  In the February 2010 issue of Uncut magazine, Simon once again stated that the subject of the song was whispered backwards in a re-recording of You’re So Vain.

At this time, a representative for Simon confirmed that the name was indeed “David”.  Following this, various publications quickly reported that David Geffen was the subject of the song and that the song had been inspired by Simon’s jealousy over the attention that Geffen had paid to label-mate Joni Mitchell.

However, Simon’s publicist stated that the song was not about Geffen but there was indeed “a David who is connected to the song in some way, shape, or form”.  In an Email to Showbiz 411, quoted in the March 2010 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Simon said “What a riot!  Nothing to do with David Geffen!  What a funny mistake!  Someone got a clue mistaken for another mistake”.  Simon went on to say that she didn’t know Geffen when she wrote the song in 1971.  This would be true as the song was written prior to Simon’s label Elektra Records being merged with Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1972, when Geffen assuming control of the combined companies.  If the David in question is not David Geffen, then could it be David Bowie?  Taking Simon’s  ‘A’, ‘E’ and ‘R’ clues and using Bowie’s real name, David Robert Jones, then perhaps.  Additionally, and to add further confusion, the February 2010 issue of Vanity Fair noted that the names “David”, “Warren” and another unintelligible name are whispered during the recording.

That’s cleared that one up then.

Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Two): “New York is the Place Where …”

Right from the early days of The Velvet Underground, Brooklyn born Lou Reed had taken the location, people and elements of New York, usually the darker elements, and put them to a unique musical backdrop in order to tell a story.  Take for example, I’m Waiting for the Man from Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), a song about purchasing $26 worth of heroin in a Harlem brownstone near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, written from the perspective of the purchaser.

In the late 1960s, Reed (along with other members of The Velvet Underground:  John Cale, Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, together with Nico) was a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory.  In 1966, Warhol set his sights on the world of rock music, sponsoring The Velvet Underground.  From The Factory, Reed drew inspiration for many of the Velvet Underground’s songs, setting the ‘low life’ characters that were an integral part of the scene and the goings on inside The Factory to music.  Take for example, Heroin (from Velvet Underground and Nico) and later, Candy Says (from The Velvet Underground, 1968).

Candy Says is a precursor to the themes expressed on one of Reed’s best known songs, Walk on the Wild Side, from his 1972 David Bowie produced classic, Transformer.  Candy Says tells the story of Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol Superstar who starred in Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971).  Four years after Candy Says, Darling would also become one of Reed’s muses for Walk on the Wild Side.

Jayne County said of Reed’s transfixation with characters such as Candy Darling:

“Lou Reed was fascinated with trannies, transsexuals particularly.  He loved transvestites, he’s fascinated with transvestites.  But Lou, at one time actually had a girlfriend called Rachel and she was a transsexual.  It’s only natural that Lou would write a song where three of the characters are drag queens”.

Reed struggled with his own sexuality throughout most of his life.  When he was 16, his parents consented to Reed being given electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to cure his homosexual feelings.  Reed appeared to blame his father for what he had been put through and wrote about the incident in his 1974 song Kill Your Sons, from the album Sally Can’t Dance.

In an interview with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for the book Please Kill Me:  An Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), Reed said of the electroconvulsive therapy:

“They put this thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head.  That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings.  The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable.  You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again”.

For Walk on the Wild Side, Reed remembered the transsexuals and transvestites of Warhol’s Factory scene and painted a tale of how they had come to be in New York.  In the first verse of the song, we are introduced to Holly:  “Holly came from Miami, FLA”.  Holly refers to Holly Woodlawn, a transvestite born Haraldo Santiago Franeschi Rodriguez Danhakl, born in Puerto Rico, 1946 who “Hitched hiked her way across the USA, Plucked her eyebrows on the way, Shaved her legs and then he was a she”.  Holly is best remembered for starring in Warhol’s film Trash (1970) alongside Joe Dallesandro, whom I shall mention later.

In the second verse, we see Candy Darling return into Reed’s songwriting:  “Candy came from out on the Island”.  Transsexual Candy Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery on Long Island, New York in 1944.  Candy Darling died of cancer in 1974.

In the third verse, “Little Joe” who “never once gave it away” refers to Joe Dallesandro, born in Pensacols, Florida in 1948.  Dallesandro was the ‘straight’ butch Brooklyn street kid who had turned to gay hustling before his discovery by Warhol and director Paul Morrissey, hence the lines, “A hustle here and a hustle there, New York City is the place where …”  Warhol and Morrissey used Dallesandro’s universal sex appeal to their advantage in several full-length cinema projects, most notably Lonesome Cowboys (1968); Trash (1970) and Heat (1972).  Later Dallesandro crossed over into mainstream films, playing the part of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in The Cotton Club (1984) alongside Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins.  He is now considered to be an icon of underground cinema and of gay subculture.

“Sugar Plum Fairy” in verse four, refers to actor Joe Campbell and not to a drug dealer, as often mistakenly thought by listeners.  Campbell, who’s nickname was the “Sugar Plum Fairy” appeared in a few of Warhol’s films, including My Hustler (1965) and Nude Restaurant (1967).  Campbell was also known for being in a relationship with openly gay politician Harvey Milk.  Campbell passed away in 2005 following a lengthy battle with AIDS.

“Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day …” refers to drag queen Jackie Curtis.  Curtis was born John Holder Jr. In 1947 and performed both in and out of drag in films, most notably Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt, as well as onstage.  He was also a prolific writer.  Curtis has also been credited for, in some part, inspiring the glam rock movement of the 1970’s due to his use of lipstick, glitter, bright red hair and ripped dresses and stockings during drag performances.  Warhol once described Curtus as follows:  “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen.  Jackie is an artist.  A pioneer without a frontier”.  Curtis was also a heavy drug user, hence the aforementioned lines alluding to speed and its effects and the following lines, “Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.  Curtis succumbed to his addiction to heroin and various other drugs and died following an overdose in 1985.

Amazingly, for a song that concerns itself with such subject matter and contains phrases such as “giving head”, Walk on the Wild Side was never banned by the BBC or by most US radio stations because they simply did not understand the references.  Walk on the Wild Side did however see some edited versions at the time, but instead of taking out the reference to oral sex, various edits replace the line “And the coloured girls say” with “And the girls all say”.  This could simply just be because many radio stations in 1972 were limited to a time frame of 3 to 3 and a half minutes per song, which the full version of Walk on the Wild Side lasts 4 minutes and 12 seconds.  Speaking about Walk on the Wide Side in Victor Bokris’s biography Transformer:  The Lou Reed Story (1994), Reed said:  “I always thought it would be kind of fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”.

Reed continued to use the backdrop of New York and its people, often those caught on the outside of society, in his songs throughout his career.  The Transformer album notably features several songs written about the New York scene that he loved, including Andy’s Chest, a song with a Dadaist lyrical structure written for Andy Warhol following his failed assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

The album also notably includes New York Telephone Conversation, a rather sarcastic song about the spreading of tittle-tattle by telephone in “the city of shows”.

Later in his career, Reed would use the imagery of New York, still using inhabitants regarded as ‘low life’, to great effect on his 1989 album New York.  Whilst the New York album is highly regarded for the strength and force of its lyrics, it drew much criticism at the time for its apparent pedestrian “truck driver” musicianship.  However, the music of the New York album is purposely simplistic in order to not distract from the frankness of the lyrical content.  Throughout the fourteen songs featured on the album, the lyrics are profuse and carefully woven into a concept album.  In the liner notes for the album, Reed directs the listener to hear the album in one sitting “as though it were a book or a movie”.

On New York, an older Reed seemed more much more bitter towards his once beloved city.  Take for example, the lyrics in one of the album’s tales of life in a New York Slum, Dirty Blvd.  “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em, That’s what the statue of bigotry says, Your poor huddled masses, Let’s club ‘em to death, And get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard”, says Reed with more than a hint of sarcastic anger.  These lines are a play on the 1883 poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the second verse of which reads:

“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””

Elsewhere on the New York album, we find the song Romeo Had Juliette, a song about New York’s hopeless, hopeful, innocent, violent and greedy.  Romeo Had Juliette is a dark and bitter modern day take on Romeo and Juliet but also a poem to the beautiful but dirty and wrecked city that Reed adored, complete with the awe-inspiring opening lines, “Caught between the twisted stars, The plotted lines, the faulty map, That brought Columbus to New York”.  Elsewhere, Reed tells of how “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock, They wrote a book about it, They said it was like ancient Rome”, expressing Reed’s concerns that like Ancient Rome, New York had become too big for its own good.

Also on the album is the song Halloween Parade, about the annual gay celebration in Greenwich Village and to all intents and purposes, a dark sequel to Walk on the Wild Side.  Halloween Parade is a post-AIDS crisis tribute to those who had fallen.  “There ain’t no Harry, no Virgin Mary, You Won’t hear those voices again, And Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, You’ll never see those faces again” says Reed solemnly.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day Two: “Pablo Picasso Never Got Called An Asshole”.

The Modern Lovers released their debut album The Modern Lovers in 1976.  The album is notable for the fact that the recording process began a full four years prior to its eventual release with many of it’s songs dating back to at least 1970, mainly due to band line up changes, changes of producer (both John Cale and Kim Fowley were involved in the production at different times) and their record company, Warner Brothers, eventually withdrawing their support of the album.  The recording sessions for the album was also said to deeply affected by the death of Jonathan Richman’s friend Gram Parsons.  On the day before Gram Parson’s death, he and Richman had been playing miniature golf.  The Modern Lovers was eventually released to rave reviews and the influence of what has come to be known as one of the greatest art rock albums of all time, could immediately be seen in aspiring punk bands on both sides of the Atlantic.  Notably, the Sex Pistols covered The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, which can be heard on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980).  The Modern Lovers’ original recording of the song became a UK hit in 1977.

One of the most notorious tracks on the album is Pablo Picasso, a song about the charismatic 20th century artist and his ability, despite his diminutive stature, to attract women.  The song Pablo Picasso finds the artist re-imagined as a Cadillac Eldorado driving kerb crawler, who “never got called an asshole”, picking up women on the streets of New York.  In an interview with Boston Groupie News in 1980, Richman explained that the song was inspired by his own adolescent self-consciousness with women:

“I read about him when I was 18.  I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who thought were attractive.  I was afraid to approach them.  I didn’t have too high a self-image.  I was self-conscious and I thought, “Well, Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5’3” but he didn’t let things like that bother him”.  So I made up this song right after I saw those girls.  You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking, “Why am I so afraid to approach these girls?”  That was a song of courage for me”.

Such was the arduous nature of the album’s recording process that the first version of Pablo Picasso to actually be released, a full year before The Modern Lovers’ version was eventually released, was an intense rendering by album’s producer John Cale on his 1975 album, Helen of Troy, resplendent with slide guitar and a gutsier sound than the original.  Cale also plays the hammering piano part on the original Modern Lovers’ version.

Following his departure from The Modern Lovers, keyboardist Jerry Harrison played Pablo Picasso live in the early days of his next band Talking Heads, in which he played keyboards and guitar from 1976.

More recently, Pablo Picasso was given a rebirth after it was covered by David Bowie on his 2003 album Reality.  Bowie had originally planned to record Pablo Picasso on his never realised Pin Ups 2 project way back in the 70’s.  On the Reality version, Pablo Picasso was given a complete Bowie makeover with additional refrains and a newly imagined musical backdrop with neat Spanish guitar intro and outro and a big reverb laden sound.  With this, The Modern Lovers and Pablo Picasso had entered the arena of stadium rock.