Monday, December 14, 2009

Leo Sayer -- "One Man Band" (1974)

Looking back, it's really sad how most people will remember Leo Sayer for some plastic mindless pop hits like prom song wannabe "When I Need You" and the inane "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing." Before that turning point in Sayer's career, you'd be hard pressed to think this was the same artist, for he was doing rather simple, intensely personal songs during the first half of the 70's.

My friend John who lived a few blocks from me was very into Sayer's Just A Boy, but I only paid cursory attention. Sayer wrote the lyrics to David Courtney's music, which was influenced by British dancehall style, much like Paul McCartney and The Kinks. They made a distinct English counterpoint to Southern California singer/songwriters of the time like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. The production was sparse and the chord structure was folk-based, part of the great Adam Faith production factory.

Sayer's songs were being covered by Roger Daltrey on his first solo album ("Giving It All Away") and Three Dog Night (an overdramatic reading of "The Show Must Go On").

At this time, Sayer had taken the stage persona of a sad clown, with bright white makeup, a black skullcap, and simple big black buttons going up his white billowy outfit. As you'll see in the video below, it made a very striking visual appearance, probably similar to the reaction Peter Gabriel's costumes got when he was in Genesis.

Sayer's themes were often loneliness and going it alone. "One Man Band," with its happy-go-lucky ringing guitar and banjo, personified these concepts lyrically, singing and begging for money, starving in between gigs, and being ignored by passersby. The tune belonged in the great English pop tradition of pairing downer lyrics with snappy upbeat melodies (i.e. Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again Naturally").

Everybody knows down Ladbroke Grove
You have to leap across the street.
You can lose your life under a taxi cab
You gotta have eyes in your feet.
You find a nice soft corner and you sit right down
Take up your guitar and play.
Then the lawman comes and says move along
So you move along all day.

I’m a one man band
Nobody cares nor understands
Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand
To my one man band.

For three days now I haven’t eaten at all
My, my, I must be getting so thin.
Soon my cap won’t be large enough
To drop a half-a-crown in.
So hey there mister don’t you look so sad
Don’t look so ill at ease.
When I can play you any song you like
To cheer up the life you lead.

And oh, oh, oh, look at the rain falling
Oh, oh, oh look at it rain
Oh look at it rain.

Nobody sees the minstrel boy
As he sings his tale of woe.
Nobody sees him coming, nobody sees him go
So hey there mister don’t you look so sad.
Don’t look so ill at ease
When I can play you any song you like.
To cheer up the life you lead.

I’m a one man band
Nobody cares nor understands
Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand
To my one man band.

It's really what happened after Just A Boy when Sayer's career really took a twist. His follow-up album, Another Year, featured even more depressing lyrics, and was unable to produce an American hit out of it. His label, Warner Brothers, brought him to California to meet uber-pop producer Richard Perry, who laid the production on thick and heavy for Ringo Starr, Barbara Streisand, Nilsson, Johnny Mathis, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross. In other words, the antithesis of everything Sayer had been doing before.

It was not long before Sayer dropped all that introspective stuff for big pop productions, out came the Endless Flight album and the two megahits mentioned in the first paragraph. I reviewed the album for my college paper The Spectrum, just appalled at what happened to Sayer, tagging him a sellout. Hey, it sold plenty of records and I guess that's what Warner Brother wanted.

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