Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ellie Greenwich, songwriter RIP

Ellie Greenwich, who along with her ex-husband Jeff Barry, wrote many classic Phil Spector "girl group hits" died today of a heart attack at the age of 68. They were the classic Brill Building songwriting duo, much like Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

They co-wrote "Leader of the Pack," "Be My Baby," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and "Chapel of Love," all of them iconic songs of the era.

Here is Ike and Tina Turner performing one of Greenwich's most famous compositions, "River Deep, Mountain High" in 1971.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The hit songs from Hair

With the hype of the 40th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" behind us -- Woodstock nostalgia getting the lion's share of it -- and the revival of Hair a success, it's time to take a look at this groundbreaking musical.

Not that it was a very successful "hippie" musical that featured a bit of nudity and went on to win all kinds of awards. It was the last Broadway musical that spawned Top 40 single cover versions, in this case, four of them, all in one year. Talk about endless free built-in saturated AM radio marketing for your show.

Think back.. how many musicals produced big hit songs in the rock era? The Jackson Five had a minor ride with its cover of Pippin's "Corner of the Sky." Bar mitzvah DJ's love spinning "Seasons of Love" from Rent, but it's never made it onto the Billboard charts. After Hair, you'd have to go back to 1972 for the cast of Godspell and "Day by Day" (also written by Pippin's Stephen Schwartz). Since then... nothing.

It's a tribute to composers James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt McDermott that they not only created a musical that would still resonate after all these decades, but one that would be the blueprint for classic songs that truly represent the pop-making machinery of the era. The show went so well when it first appeared off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 1967, that by the time it reached Broadway two years later, these cover versions were primed to go right to the radio.


The quintessential big LA pop production, the 5th Dimension already had two big cover version hits behind them, Jimmy Webb's immortal "Up Up And Away" and Laura Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic" ("Can you picnic?"). Their producer Bones Howe came up with the ingenious idea of seamlessly splicing two Hair songs together, literally and figuratively, each in different keys and rhythms and turning it into one cohesive single. You can read more about how it call came together from this article in Mix magazine.


The Rhode Island-based bubblegum group which was the inspiration for the TV show "The Partridge Family" seemed awfully square to be swimming in the hippie pool. But they did it once in 1967 with "The Rain, The Park And Other Things" (which I wrote about here) and then again with this pretty faithful cover version.


The threesome who made an entire career of brilliantly picking the right songs written by soon-to-be famous composers and rearranging them took on this ballad as their followup to their debut hit, "One."


William Oliver Swafford took one of Hair's goofy touchy-feely tunes to the top with lots of jangling tambourines, sparkles and bangles. Who can forget lyrics like "glibby glub glooby/nibby nub nooby/la la la lo lo/sabba sibbi sabba/nooby ana nabba/lee lee loo loo/tooby ooby wala/nooby ooby wala/early morning singing song!"

Friday, August 7, 2009

The musical impact of filmmaker John Hughes

While there is no question the the late filmmaker John Hughes touched many lives with his stories of teenage angst (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful) and equally adult angst (National Lampoon's Vacation, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Mr. Mom, She's Having A Baby), you can't discuss Hughes legacy without talking about the music.

As great as the scripts, pop music was almost like another character in these films. For a guy who had already been in the ad industry and working his way through his 30's, Hughes had an amazing knack for touching what was on the minds of kids 15 years younger than him.

I remember that like author Stephen King, Hughes said he wrote his scripts accompanied by different popular bands at the time. He seemed particularly taken by the English punk and new wave bands, and their music was featured prominently on the soundtracks. A no more direct example of his obsession was Hughes naming his Molly Ringwald/Andrew McCarthy/Jon Cryer love triangle vehicle Pretty in Pink after the classic loud and charging Psychedelic Furs song that helped bust open English new wave into the US. As a matter of fact, Hughes helped break other English acts here on these shores, crossing over to Top 40 success.

The film's soundtrack albums were like guided tours to the best and sometimes obscure New Wave and post-punk bands of the 80's, with contributions from New Order, Pete Shelley, Suzanne Vega, INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Thompson Twins and The Smiths.

So here is a musical video trip to the excellent popular and influential songs, almost entirely handpicked by John Hughes for his films:

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983) -- Written by John Hughes

Lindsey Buckingham's 2-minute pop pleasure "Holiday Road."

THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985) -- Written and directed by John Hughes

Scottish band Simple Minds broke through the American market with "Don't You (Forget About Me)." The story goes that lead singer Jim Kerr was reluctant to record the song because the song was not written by the band, but was coaxed by his label A&M to do it. I'm sure he was glad he changed his mind -- it became the band's signature song and their biggest hit.

WEIRD SCIENCE (1985) -- Written and directed by John Hughes

The second A&M cult band to take the magic Hughes ride was Oingo Boingo, led by future soundtrack composer Danny Elfman. Their Devo-ish title song featured the band's trademark multi-layered percussion and mallets, off-kilter vocals with some early sampling ("She's alive! She's alive!" from Bride of Frankenstein) and a hyperactive beat that made the band a one-hit wonder. All that percussion lent itself to a ready-made 12" remix single at the time.

PRETTY IN PINK (1986) -- Written by John Hughes

You can't talk about this film first without acknowledging the fantastic title song, which actually came out five years before this movie debuted. One of the Psychedelic Furs' first singles, "Pretty In Pink" had that hard-hitting snare blast intro and then walls of roaring distorted guitar riffs, and the unmistakable slurry sneery voice of Richard Butler. Here's their 1986 Top of the Tops performance.

The film's biggest hit, however, was the breakthrough of synth poppers OMD (formerly Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) and their "If You Leave." Thankfully, the duo was just hitting its stride when this took them over the fence, and they didn't miss a beat with more excellent songs to follow, although none as big as this one.

Leave it to Hughes to dream up this memorable scene when Duckie (Jon Cryer) skids into the record store, doing an amazing lip synch to soul legend Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" to try and win Molly Ringwald's heart.

FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986) -- written and directed by John Hughes

In the ultimate hooky movie, Hughes dug up Swiss electronic group Yello's leering "Oh Yeah," which ended up on a million TV shows, films and commercials afterward until it wore itself out.

The movie's penultimate scene, of course, was Ferris (Matthew Broderick) crashing a mid-town Chicago parade and leading the marching band and dancers in a memorable version of "Twist and Shout."