Significant Songs (158)

Fighter

Sometimes, the popular image of a young singer can make you forget just how good they are. In my case, this applied to Christina Aguilera. I didn’t take a lot of notice of her early hits. A pleasant pop song, a pretty American girl, that was about it. At least as far as I was concerned. She had been a child star, and like some others of her generation, her looks assured she got enough attention to keep her career going into her teens.

Then in 2002, still aged just 22, she released a new album, ‘Stripped’. As the singles were released from this, and I began to hear them played constantly on the radio, I had to completely reassess my opinion of her. The vocals were quite literally amazing. There was such power coming out, it was hard to marry the voice to that tiny frame. This was something special indeed, and with professional promotional videos taking the songs to a cinematic level too.

She continued her very successful career to this day. On the way, she managed (along with others) to do something rare. The cover of ‘Lady Marmalade’ with Pink. Li’l Kim, and Maya, took on a classic track, and equalled it. For some, it was better than the original, and the sexy, sassy video certainly made for great viewing. Here it is, as a bonus. Well done, Christina.

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Significant Songs (157)

Flowers

This is a strange one. In April 2000, I was 48 years old. It goes without saying that I was a long way off the target market for a pop single in the ‘UK Garage’ genre. But I heard this song on my car radio, and couldn’t get it out of my head.

The two girls performing the song were called Sweet Female Attitude, and I had never heard of them before, though I later discovered they had been around since 1996. I saw the video promoting the song on TV, and also the duo performing live, on a TV music show. I was suitably impressed by their enthusiasm, and I also liked the fact that they looked just like two ‘normal’ girls you could see on any street.

This was destined to be a one-hit wonder though, reaching number two in the charts, and receiving countless plays. Their follow-up single disappeared without trace, and so it seemed did the two girls.
Whenever I hear this song now, it always makes me feel happy. And despite the seventeen years that have passed, it feels as up to date as ever.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Racism and Bigotry

No idea why, but I woke up thinking about this today.

When I was young, I had never met a black person. I had seen them singing on TV, and by the age of 11, I owned many records recorded by black artists. Outside of some day trips to France, I had never been out of the UK, and my family circle did not include anyone who was not from a working-class, white English background. I took my lead from my parents, and believed what they told me, using the same terms they used, and holding the same opinions they did. I didn’t know any different. It was very common back then for black people to be called ‘Darkies’, though sometimes, the Yiddish/German name ‘Schwartzers’ would be used instead. Their well-dressed children would be admired, but referred to as ‘Piccaninnies’. There were few children of mixed race at the time, but those that were seen around the area would be known as ‘Half-Chats’. Until I was in my early teens, I had no idea that these terms were derogatory. In fact, I considered them to be affectionate, strange as that may seem now.

Then there were the people of Asian origin. Most Chinese people in London at the time seemed to only be involved in the restaurant trade, so unless we went for a Chinese meal, we never came into contact with them. They were always referred to as ‘Chinks’, sometimes as ‘Chinky-Chonks’. The Asiatic races were never separated by nation, either. There was no difference, as far as we were concerned, in someone from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country. They were all happily known as ‘Chinks’.

This wasn’t just about people of a different appearance and colour though. Irish people were also looked down upon, and often mistrusted too. They were called ‘Micks’ and ‘Paddies’, and everyone believed that they were all ignorant and uneducated. Of course, I had never heard of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, or many others at the time. People from the country districts far from London were called ‘carrot-crunchers’. They were also considered to be unintelligent, with indecipherable accents, and a bad taste in clothes. Scottish people were known as ‘Jocks’, and thought to be always drunk, and ready to fight anyone. Then there were the Welsh, known as ‘Taffs’, also considered to be little more than primitive sheep-herders or miners, with nothing in common with us at all.

Because of the area where we lived perhaps, there was no religious or racial bigotry towards Jewish people in my youth. They were admired for their business acumen, and the fact that they used to own many of the shops we used, especially for tailoring. They also lived in very clearly defined parts of the city, so you would rarely see a Jewish person unless you went to those districts. Despite our good relationship with those people, it was still considered to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them as ‘Yids’ though. Once again, I believed it to be an affectionate name, and would never have known it was insulting.

By the time I started secondary school at the age of 11, I had spent those formative years totally immersed in prejudice and bigotry. It was never violent or aggressive, and had no hatred attached. But it was no less tangible, and no less offensive to those on the receiving end. My attitude to other races and religions was already moulded, and my belief that I was somehow better than all of them was entrenched.

Luckily, I went to a mixed school. Not only mixed in terms of gender, but taking in a large catchment area around the boroughs immediately south of The Thames. Within days, I was mixing with children from Nigeria, The West Indies, and also India and Pakistan. Not that many of them mind you; they still stood out enough to be noticed, often pointed out, and sometimes ignored or avoided. There were kids from Irish backgrounds too, and one or two Chinese who came from Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. There were some from Cyprus, of Greek origin. We called them ‘Bubbles’, from the rhyming slang ‘Bubble and Squeak’. Also Turkish Cypriots, feared as the children of men we thought of as gangsters. They were called ‘Johnnies’, from the WW1 nickname for Turkish soldiers, ‘Johnny Turk’.

No longer in that white working-class isolation, I soon got to know many of these other children. Despite some cultural and religious differences, I quickly realised that they were just like me. They supported local football teams, watched the same programmes on the television, and liked the same film stars as I did. They bought the same pop records, and mostly ate the same food. Like me, they wanted to do well at school, and many had firm expectations of jobs or careers to follow their schooldays. In most cases, they worked harder than the rest of us. They handed in their homework on time, and often studied in their own time too, when we would be playing out on our bikes. As my teens arrived, it started to dawn on me that I was not ‘better’ than any of them. In fact, I could learn a great deal by following their example.

Once I became friendly with some of them, I also discovered that those supposedly affectionate terms and names were considered to be insulting. Those things categorised them unfairly, held them back in ways I couldn’t even imagine, and affected their well-being in ways I could never understand, coming from the dominant race and class in that area. I started to feel guilty, to challenge my parents and their uninformed perceptions of people. Perhaps they were too old to change by then, but I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. I discovered something else too. You can change. You do not have to be a prisoner of your upbringing, or the attitudes of others.

I lived the rest of my life as free of bigotry as I could. Because I chose to.

Significant Songs (156)

Jacky

When I was just 15, I heard a new song from Scott Walker. He had recently split from The Walker Brothers, and this was a single released from his first solo album. It was a strange song, very theatrical in feel, as if from a show. It had unusual lyrics, and you certainly couldn’t dance to it. However, Walker’s powerful vocals and the infectious chorus guaranteed that this song became stuck in my mind, so I bought the single soon after.

Much later, I discovered that it was a cover version, an English translation of the original French song, written and performed by the Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel. I sought out Brel’s version, and got it on an album of equally unusual songs, most of which appealed to me for their very different construction to the popular songs of the day.

Then in 1991, former Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond also recorded his version of ‘Jacky’, and I bought the album that came from. In almost a quarter of a century, the appeal of this song had never died for me, and I ended up owning three versions, including that original. I still love to hear them now.

Which one do you prefer?
Jacques.

Scott.

Marc.

Significant Songs (155)

Seven Days

Craig David is a British Soul and R&B singer. He is not only a very good singer/songwriter, but also a very nice guy, who comes across so well in interviews. I first encountered his talent when he was a guest vocalist with the band ‘Artful Dodger’ in 1999, and they featured his vocals on ‘Rewind’, from their amazing debut album, ‘It’s All About The Stragglers’. A year later, he went solo, releasing his own album ‘Born To Do It’.

The Southampton-based singer has since released many albums, and collaborated with artists like Sting, and Rita Ora. He continues to perform to this day, now aged just 36. This song is the second single release from his debut album, and hit the charts in 2000. So I have loved it for over seventeen years.

My musical time travels

I have never made a secret of my love for old ballads, and torch songs. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, with my Dad working in the music industry from 1959 to 1974, I was always aware of the songs that had come before, as well as the explosion in pop music that had arrived. Watching old musical films, listening to recordings of Broadway shows, I was immersed in the history of the love song, from a very young age.

When I was old enough to be able to afford to buy my own records, my first instinct was to go back in time, and to collect the records of the stars of the 1920s, up to the war years. I never tired of watching the films of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, or Astaire and Rogers, revelling in the memories of those classic soundtracks, and wonderful old songs. Research showed me that many of the songs were much older than I had imagined, and had been covered countless times. I soon discovered Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Al Bowlly, Helen Kane, and Ruby Keeler. Alongside my contemporary passion for Soul music, and Tamla Motown, I was regularly travelling back in time, enjoying the sounds of yesteryear too.

Here’s Helen Morgan, from the 1929 musical production, ‘Great Day’.

In 1968, Barbra Streisand had a huge hit with the film ‘Funny Girl’. She was playing the real-life Broadway star, Fanny Brice. Everyone loved the songs in the film, and relished Barbra’s performance too. The big torch song from the film was ‘My Man’. That had audiences shedding a tear at the end of the film. But I already had a 1921 recording of that song, by Fanny Brice herself.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were child stars, and made many films together. The films featured some classic songs, often beautifully rendered by the young Judy. ‘Babes In Arms’ was one of those films, released in 1939. It featured the emotional love song ‘Where Or When’, written for the 1937 stage version by Rogers and Hart. By the time I was 17 years old, I owned the cast recording on vinyl, sourced by my Dad from who knows where. This is the version from the film.

In 1955, Doris Day starred alongside James Cagney, in the film ‘Love Me or Leave Me’. This was a biopic about the life of Ruth Etting, who had been a huge star decades earlier. When I was a teenager, almost everyone had heard of Doris Day, but few could remember Ruth Etting. I did though, and owned two of her albums, including one with this song on it, from 1927.

Most of us of a certain age will recall the cartoon character, Betty Boop. With her dog Pudgy, this saucy jazz-age flapper got up to all sorts of adventures in the short films that featured her. She was inspired by the hugely popular singer, Helen Kane, and this song, from 1928. Before I was aware of the cartoon, I owned Helen’s records.

And here’s Betty, with her version.

Whenever I am in a certain mood, I love to travel back in time with great songs like these. I hope that you enjoyed coming back with me.

Significant Songs (154)

Cry Me A River

In 2002, I noticed a new version of the song ‘Cry Me A River’ was in the charts. It was performed by the American pop idol, Justin Timberlake. This 1953 song was one of my all-time favourites, especially the jazzy 1955 version, by Julie London. I was intrigued that a young man like Justin had recorded this vintage torch song, and keen to hear his take on it.

Not long after, I saw his promotional video for the song, and immediately realised that it was not a new version of the old classic, but a modern song with the same title, composed in part by Timberlake, and supposedly about his much-publicised break-up with Britney Spears. I was disapointed that I was not about to hear my much-loved old song, but stuck with it.

I surprised myself, by really liking it. The video was excellent, and the production first class. I was not the target market for that song at all, as I was 50 years old in 2002. But as I always say here, you can’t deny talent, and the song really got into my head, and under my skin.

It’s still there.