Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Richest Songs in the World (BBC 4 documentary)

If you're like me - a reasonable supposition if you've elected to read this blog - then this TV documentary probably didn't seem the most enticing of prospects. Another excuse for a musical countdown: cue overfamiliar info, annoying celeb soundbites and those frustrating, miniscule fragments of the songs themselves which make you wonder why you're wasting your time when you could be, I dunno, writing a play or something.

Still, always a bit of manufactured tension to be savoured after you've allowed yourself to get hooked and fall to wondering just what songs will feature higher up the list - though to extract maximum enjoyment it's generally wiser to record this kind of show, not watch it live: that way you've got a fighting chance of skipping to the good, or goodish, bits without being driven crazy in the meantime by the aforesaid celebs' unremarkable musings or, worse, the portentous tones of a certain ubiquitous, rent-an-authority commentator.

In the event, however, he didn't feature, and in fact this show proved to be something a great deal better than the norm, which is why I'm writing about it below, and recommending that you catch it on BBC iplayer here, where it will be available to view in the UK until the 1st of February 2016. [updated link]

The first telltale sign that it was something out of the ordinary came when it began to dawn on me about twenty minutes in that I hadn't used the fast forward at all, and that segments about individual songs so far seemed detailed and considered and even ... well, satisfying. But how the hell were they going to fit in the remaining songs?

The answer was that they weren't - at least, not within what I had presumed would be the usual kind of filler's sixty minute slot. The show actually ran for ninety minutes - sans advertising, as this was the Beeb, so a proper, mansized, hour and a half - giving ample time for a interesting mix of commentary and numbercrunching about each of the ten songs.

 We heard about the circumstances of the their creation, often from one or more of those directly involved (or their descendants, as above), as well being given a breakdown of the possible reasons why each piece had, over the years, become such a money-generating monster. Precise financial figures are apparently hard to come by, but the estimates provided were certainly mind-boggling. It all amounted to a fascinating mix of art and commerce: the public had spoken, had parted with their cash more readily over the decades for these songs than any others. And the sight of money being manufactured was a motif in the film.

But why those songs in particular? Was there some secret formula, unknown to all but a privileged few? Not really, although one recurring factor was the timing of a number's first release: there were ditties which first got a grip on our collective psyche by tapping into a general postwar mood of hope and optimism, for example, and the message of unity and support in 1961's Stand By Me was precisely right for the time of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

Whatever a song's initial success, however, its ability to maintain that hold down the decades is another matter: it needs to transcend its time, to be universal. And factors beyond simple airplay can help fix it in our consciousness.

As regular readers will know in the case of Stand By Me, inclusion in a film or an advert can catapult an oldie to greater commercial success than it first enjoyed. The sixties may have been a golden era for pop, but David Hepworth made the point that it was still a kind of specialist hobby until the eighties onwards, by which time everybody had a record or tape player or their later hi-tech equivalents.

Mike Stoller (suppose we'll have to get used to seeing him on his own now) is on hand to register his delighted shock at the sudden revival of Stand of Me after the 1986 film. Ben E King appears, too, singing the bassline which Stoller added to the song, and praising his collaborator's contribution:
Once you hear that [bass] line, and no other line is like that - other than My Girl by the Temptations: close but no cigar - the line of Stand By Me is right there.

As we're given details about the division of royalties for Stand By Me, what's particularly interesting, even for those already steeped in the history of the song, is the slant which Stoller gives to the situation:

Jerry said "Well, you should be a part of this," and I agreed [laughs] and so I have a 25 per cent interest as a writer, and Jerry 25, because in truth Benny did come with the initial idea both musically and lyrically, and, uh, it's worked well.
Two things to notice about that. One is that it appears to contradict the impression Ben E King has given elsewhere that, bassline apart, the song was more or less finished by the time he took it to Leiber and Stoller (something already touched on in an earlier post about the song here).

The second point is that if, as I assume, the "you" referred to is Benny, there's an underlying suggestion that less scrupulous songwriters might not perhaps have rewarded the song's originator at all. The snippet of Ben E King which follows is a little cryptic but appears to indicate agreement:

Most of us that create music anyhow we don't think money first. That's why most of us get hurt [laughs]. But we do feel that if it happens with a great song, or with some good people, we'll be financially fit. Yeah.
Lucky Benny, then, that he didn't take his song elsewhere? But anyway, everyone's happy, and part of King's earnings from the song go towards the Stand By Me Foundation, which funds music college scholarships.

The issue of who contributed what to a song's success also surfaces in the case of Every Breath You Take, the Sting song revived in new garb by the former Puff Daddy. Police guitarist Andy Summers (above) provided the guitar riff which, as in the case of Stand By Me, helped make the song, but was not credited as cowriter - though apparently now there is an amicable agreement about monies (though the creators' respective percentages were not revealed in this case). Summers seems keen to point out that when he first played the riff there was general applause in the studio - a tangible acknowledgement of his contribution.

Incidentally, when P Diddy or his representatives asked permission to record it, a shrewd deal was struck by someone on the Sting side. He was allowed to adapt the lyrics but the song remains Sting's and all the royalties for this reworked version still go to him (of which some portion then makes its way from Sumner to Summers, presumably, unless he was foolish enough to settle for a lump sum).

I don't want to discuss too many more of the songs in this fiscal Top Ten, however, as part of the enjoyment of the programme is in trying to work which numbers have yet to feature - though I will tell you there is only one Beatles song.

 One review which I glimpsed complained about the limited number of talking heads and the prominence of the voluble David Hepworth (above) among their number, but because this programme had such a specific focus, it felt right that we should be hearing from representatives of ASCAP (songwriter Paul Williams) and related organisations, as well as those directly involved in the creation of the songs, and ... well, not too many others. Oh, and the music critic and writer Barney Hoskyns, who is always welcome, as far as I'm concerned. I just don't want to know what celebrities think about songs. Hearing Ben E King croon the bassline to Stand By Me, or hearing James Burton play the guitar riff for a certain song (oh alright, it's Pretty Woman) was a far better way of pointing out, or reminding you, why these records deserved to sell in copious amounts.

The presenter was Mark Radcliffe - a face for radio but, as with the programme on Love Me Do (reviewed here), a serviceable performance. And he has been a musician, if not a million-seller, exactly.

There was only one slightly wrong note, which reminded me of his tendency to facetiousness when presenting radio programmes about his comedy heroes. As I've already committed a spoilerish solecism by mentioning Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman, I may as well repeat the anecdote Radcliffe tells about its creation. Orbison and cowriter Bill Dees were working together when Roy's wife Claudette came in to ask for some money to go shopping and a jokey or gallant remark of Dees - "pretty woman don't need money" - suggested a song.

Radcliffe then says, humorously, that the day ended with Claudette being done for shoplifting, adding in the same breath "I made that up", but the fact that Claudette's ultimate fate is well known - and indeed mentioned shortly afterwards - makes this jar in a way that some facetious aside on Radio 4 about Jimmy Clitheroe might  not. Other than that, however, and the spectacle of his karaoke take on another of the high-earning songs (another instance, as far I was concerned, of heavy-handed humour) he is an agreeable frontman.

Comedy arises more naturally from a songwriting team's account of the contribution of a revered producer to another classic record. I don't want to spoil it by giving away too much this time, so let's just say that this Brill Building duo brought their song, which lacked a bridge and some other things, to the producer, who provided something for the end of the chorus which was both a) incredibly stupid - the couple still laugh as they recall it almost fifty years on - and b) indisputably right. And in the case of the one Beatles song featured, we hear audio of the famous dummy lyrics (which, for the kind of people who read this blog, will confirm the title of the song, but it isn't really rocket science in this instance).

 So that's it, really. I could say more but instead I'll urge you to seek out the programme's attendant moments of suspense (Why hasn't such-and-such a song turned up yet? Who'll be the all-time Number One?) for yourself. And suspense and surprise there is. I will only add that the musical smoke-and-mirrors of B*hemian Rh*psody (other opinions are available) does not figure, nor - despite that Sumner/Summers/Diddy ditty - do all that many recentish songs, mostly down to the fact that older anthems have got a bit of a headstart, and it remains to be seen which of them shall endure.

I appear to be listing, as it were, towards a conclusion. The programme was very well made, took pains to feature the right talking heads etc, but over and above all that was something which gave it a unique appeal. It was strangely satisfying to be watching a music show where the value of each outpouring of the soul could be assessed in a way which didn't allow for argument: at the end of each segment about an individual song there it was, proclaimed onscreen in cold hard cash (a feature which Radcliffe luckily managed to resist calling the money shot).

If only it could always be like this. Right from the days when I first started reading music papers in the early seventies, their letters pages were crammed with readers arguing the toss about favoured or despised groups - and critics and correspondents in the glossy retro music magazines I read now merely provide a more sophisticated version of that same engrossing but ultimately futile activity. So how nice to be presented, for once, with conclusive proof of a song's worth.

Well, in one sense, anyway. (Cue inevitable noisy resumption of warring, irreconcilable critical opinions, fade up Hancock end theme ...)

Postcript: Rereading the above I think it's more likely that Jerry Leiber meant that Mike Stoller thought that he, Jerry, ought to be in on Stand By Me: that makes more sense than the idea of Stoller condescendingly granting King a share in his own song. 

Related Posts:

Ben E King and Stand By Me 
(review of 2012 concert and detailed account of the song's origins)

 Don't Stand So Close By Me 
(What Junior Parker's song of the same title shares with Ben E King's Stand By Me)

Book about Brill Building Writers

Leiber and Stoller Concert DVD

Jerry Leiber

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