Inspired by the November 17 birthdays of The Byrds’ Gene Clark, Jeff Buckley, Gordon Lightfoot, Foxygen’s Sam France, RuPaul, Ronnie DeVoe, The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson, Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding, and Martin Scorcese; and the November 16 birthdays of Odyssey’s Lillian Lopez, Chi Coltrane, Arrow, Color Me Badd’s Bryan Abrams and Count Five’s John Byrne.
In October of 1975, the band Queen played for their manager, John Reid, a song they recently finished recording that they wanted to release as their next single. Reid told them the track would not get any airplay. He played it for another artist he managed, Elton John, who reportedly said “Are you mad? You’ll never get that on the radio!”
Queen stayed firm, not relenting when their record company begged them to at least edit the song down from its nearly six-minute duration.
To promote the song, the band was invited to play on England’s hugely successful Top of the Pops television program. They were unable to appear due to tour commitments, so they did something that wasn’t very common in 1975 – they filmed a videoclip. Top of the Pops aired the clip. As the song rose up the charts, the video was shown repeatedly. Soon other artists in the UK made videos for their records, which is why when MTV launched in the United States in 1981, many of the clips they aired were of UK acts.
The single, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” went to #1 in England in December of that year, where it stayed for nine weeks. It got knocked from the top spot by a song whose title consisted of a phrase used in “Bohemian Rhapsody” – ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit #1 again there in December of 1991, a few weeks after the death of the band’s lead singer and the song’s composer, Freddie Mercury.
In the United States, the song didn’t go to #1, but it did hit the top ten in 1976 and 1992.
For this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour revisits 1976 (part I can be found here), kicking off with the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
History was not my strongest subject at school. Nor was Geography. I’ve always been good with things that incorporate logic. Memorizing facts? Not so much.
Music was the exception. Because music was my primary passion, stories and trivia about my favorite artists and songs tended to get lodged in my brain, never to escape.
Sometimes I came across songs that taught me facts and concepts more effectively than any teacher. Thanks to Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “NaCl,” I got an A in Chemistry. The song explains the ionization process, wherein atoms gain or lose electrons to become positively or negatively charged, by detailing a budding romance between Sodium (Na) and Chlorine (Cl). I can tell you when Louis XVI assumed the monarchy in France, thanks to Allan Sherman’s “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis.” Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” educated me on the sinking of that ship and, more importantly, gave me a way to recall the names of the five Great Lakes, thanks to a gratuitous verse that names all of them.
Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” helped me with crossword puzzle clues such as “River in England.” The song’s reference to “the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” gives me three options for that answer. The Oliver of the song’s title is Oliver Cromwell, an English military and parliamentary leader in the 17th century. I don’t remember learning about him in school but maybe I did.
Today is Elvis Costello’s 60th birthday. Kicking off our playlist is “Oliver’s Army,” a song that wasn’t destined to make Costello’s Armed Forces album until Steve Nieve, Elvis’ keyboard player, suggested adding a piano riff based on Abba’s “Dancing Queen” to the track. That brought the track to life, giving Costello his first UK top ten single, reaching #2 in 1979.
Click here to like Tunes du Jour on Facebook.
The earliest known song in recorded history was performed by Eve. Not the rapper-actress whose hits include “Let Me Blow Your Mind” and “Gotta Man,” but a different Eve with no last name, the one who called the Garden of Eden home. Her song was “The Only Girl in the World,” later a hit for Rihanna. The song was written by Barry Manilow, as were “Let Me Blow Your Mind” and “Gotta Man.”
In 1976 the scientific community was rocked when Barry Manilow, in his #1 hit “I Write the Songs,” sang “I’ve been alive forever and I wrote the very first song.” A glance at his album cover photos allays any doubt as to the first part of that claim. “But how did you write that first song?,” the skeptics asked. Manilow replied “I put the words and the melodies together,” which was enough evidence to silence any doubters. He then proclaims “I am music.” He presents his case that he, Barry Manilow, wrote every song that has ever been written. Songs that make the whole world sing. Songs of love and special things. Things like a duck that loves disco and a heart that’s both achy and breaky.
In the song’s bridge Manilow sings how his “music makes you dance,” and really, who doesn’t get down to “Mandy?” He also says he “wrote some rock-and-roll,” referring to his hit “Can’t Smile Without You,” which rocks harder than anything by The Carpenters or Air Supply.
Then we get the one-two punch of “Music fills the heart / Well, that’s a real fine place to start” followed by “It’s from me, it’s for you / It’s from you, it’s for me / It’s a worldwide symphony.” Granted, those aren’t the greatest lyrics, but the man wrote 623,524,325 songs, so cut him some slack!
Now is a good time to mention that Barry Manilow did not write “I Write the Songs.” As a matter of fact, Barry Manilow did not write any of his three number one singles, the other two being “Mandy” and “Looks Like We Made It.” Manilow did write a acne medication jingle, a toilet cleaner jingle, and “Copacabana.”
“I Write the Songs” was written by Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys. He recorded the tune into a cassette and submitted it to a Japanese music festival, who rejected it as being unsuitable.
Undeterred, Johnston played the tune for a couple of friends who worked with The Beach Boys, Daryl “The Captain” Dragon and Toni Tennille. The Captain & Tennille included the song on their 1975 debut album Love Will Keep Us Together.
That same year Johnston produced an album for David Cassidy entitled The Higher They Climb, on which Cassidy took a stab at the song. (I know – Barry Manilow, The Captain & Tennille and David Cassidy! This is a glorious Bad Music I Love trifecta!) Cassidy’s version hit #11 on the UK singles chart in August of ’75.
That summer, Clive Davis, the chief of Arista Records, Manilow’s label, was in London and heard the Cassidy record on the radio. He suggested the song to Manilow. Manilow liked the song but was reluctant to record it. As he wrote in his autobiography Sweet Life, “The problem with the song was that if you didn’t listen carefully to the lyric, you would think that the singer was singing about himself. It could be misinterpreted as a monumental ego trip.”
I listened to the lyrics very carefully and can tell you that based on my multiple listens (and an interview with Bruce Johnston I read), the “I” in “I Write the Songs” is God. See that? The song is someone claiming to speak for God. Nothing egotistical about that! God wrote all the songs that make the whole world sing. This leads to the profoundly earth-shattering realization that God wrote “My Humps.” Praise be Him!
“I Write the Songs” won Johnston the 1976 Grammy Award for Song of the Year over such worthwhile nominees as “Afternoon Delight,” “Breaking is Hard to Do” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Beach Boys never won a Grammy. The man who wrote most of the songs for The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, won his first Grammy in 2005 – Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” Was that his most award-worthy contribution to popular music? The “I” of “I Write the Songs” has the answer to that question, but He’s not telling. I guess God only knows.
Today the man(ilow) who claims to have been alive forever turns 71. Here are some of my favorites from his oeuvre.