Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Remembering Fun Boy Three's "Our Lips Are Sealed"

It's hard to believe that it was 35 years ago this  month (March of 1982), that the Fun Boy Three, comprised of three ex-members of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple), released their first self-titled album. It's fair to say that the album had a huge impact on me as a music fan and a musician.  The Fun Boy Three succeeded in taking me out of my comfort zone and also opened my mind to the ways that music could be fun, subversive and serious all at the same time.

While "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" had a strong Specials influence --  it was the uniquely strange and hypnotic "Way On Down" along with "Alibi" and the insanely catchy "The Telephone Always Ring" (which explores Hall's agoraphobia) that helped me to appreciate the darkly weird world view and talents of Terry Hall.  As a teen in the early 80's, I was drawn to the colorful haircuts and pop stylings of these songs (their partnership with Bananarama certainly didn't hurt!), but it was hard to grasp the level of sarcasm and black humor that he brought to these songs.  As an adult, I love and relate to them even more.

The first album quickly established Fun Boy Three as pop stars and household names across the U.K.  They quickly followed-up their first with 'Waiting' released in January 1983, which in my humble opinion may be one of the best albums released in the 80's.  Produced by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, it was a beautifully produced and sleek-sounding collection, filled with tales of life's trials and tribulations, covering subjects from child-abuse and drug smuggling to racism, divorce and infidelity. That said, I'm taking a closer look at the story behind of the most popular songs from the album -- 'Our Lips Are Sealed' -- which was named one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs of all time by Rolling Stone in 2000.

While many casual fans of the song are probably familiar with the 1981 version recorded by The Go-Go's for their 'Beauty and The Beat' LP, the song was actually co-written by the band's guitarist Jane Wiedlin with Terry Hall (which helps explain why two separate versions of the song were released within 2 years).  The Go-Go's version made the Top 20 in the U.S. while the Fun Boy Three version hit #7 in the U.K. According to an interview that Wiedlin did with the Songfacts website, "Our Lips Are Sealed' is actually the story of a secret romance based on a short 'tour affair' that Hall and Wiedlin had when their respective band's toured together:
'In 1980 we were playing at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to 'Our Lips Are Sealed' later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too - they did a really great version of it, also. It was like a lot gloomier than the Go-Go's' version.'
Wiedlin and Hall's versions offer insight into their personal take on the  affair (one upbeat, poppy and sunny and the other very dark and claustrophobic). Speaking about her relationship with Terry Hall, Wiedlin added:
"Like I said, he had a girlfriend in England, and they were talking about getting married and all this stuff. So I don't know how I got in the picture. And, you know, that's something that I did as a teenager, maybe I was 20. That's something I would never do now, knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who was with someone else. I mean, it was completely screwed on my part. Although I think when people do that, you really have to look at the person who's in the relationship, and they have to take the burden of the responsibility as well. Anyways, it was one of those things with the tragic letters, "I just can't do this." You know, "I'm betrothed to another." All that kind of stuff. And I think he ended up marrying that woman, and having kids, and of course now they're divorced, so… ."
The Go-Go's version:

A rare promo version by Fun Boy Three:

The Fun Boy Three also recorded an Urdu version of the song (yes Urdu, one of the main languages of Pakistan). There are two possible stories behind the recording of this rare b-side version. The first is that Ingrid Schroeder, a member of the Fun Boy Three backing band, read and recorded phonetic Urdu lyrics (which seems plausible given the rather flat sound of the vocal delivery). The other story (which I prefer!) is that the band brought an older Pakistani woman into the studio and had her translate and then record the lyrics. The band may have been prompted to record the Urdu version by the album's producer David Byrne, who  had recently recorded  'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' with Brian Eno which featured a lot of 'found' voices mixed with danceable beats. Have a listen below.

'Our Lips Are Sealed' continues to have legs nearly 30 years later. The song was re-worked by Nouvelle Vague and Terry Hall in 2009. The video features an old Louise Brooks movie.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Birthday Terry Hall!: Watch Rare Solo Gig Performance From 2014

Today is Terry Hall's 58th birthday!  While he is best known as the lead singer of The Specials, Hall has a large (and somewhat overlooked catalog) of non-ska music that is amazing in its depth and variety. Hall's musical journey includes fronting Fun Boy Three (a personal favorite of mine), The Colourfield, Terry, Blair and Anouchka, Vegas (with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics) and a solo career that included collaborations with Ian Broudie (lead singer of Lighting Seeds who produced Hall's album "Home") and Damon Albarn (of Blur). 

To celebrate Hall's birthday, I've posted a video from a one off, solo show he played back in January 2014, that was hosted by clothing giant Fred Perry on the closing night of London Men’s Fashion Week. For the show, Hall enlisted the musical talents of fellow Specials’ band mates, Horace Panter on bass and John ‘Brad’ Bradbury on drums as well as Lightning Seed’s front man Ian Broudie, with whom he had co-written a string of hits, keyboardist Angie Pollock, who worked with him on "Home," and Specials’ trombone player, Tim Smart.

The group performed a short set comprising some of Hall’s favorite songs and classics from his own back catalogue, including "Sense," a hit for both him and the Lightning Seeds, and the Fun Boy Three chart-smash, "Our Lips Are Sealed."

And finally, here is a rare and brilliant version of the Talking Heads classics "Psycho Killer"that Hall performed with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Story Behind 'Love Of The Common People': From Country Ballad To 70's Reggae To 80's New Wave Hit

The first time I heard 'Love Of The Common People' as sung by 80's blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young, I was struck by the lyrics to the song. In contrast to much of the other cheery new wave that dominated the airwaves at the time,  the lyrics tell a bleak story of poverty and joblessness. There is a mention of 'free food tickets,' a reference to government food stamp and welfare programs, and the mention of clothes and shoes with holes that is offset by family love and the power of dreams. Only later did I learn about the songs reggae and 2-Tone connections -- Young's version was based on a cover of a reggae version of the song popular in the U.K. in the 70's and the searing trombone solo in the middle eight of Young's version is played by the one and only Rico Rodrigues of The Specials!

"Love Of The Common People" has an amazing history and is the rare song that has been performed and covered in a verity of musical genres including punk, reggae and 80's pop. The song was written as a Woody Guthrie-like folk ballad by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins in the late 60's.  Though Hurley and Wilkins did not expressly convey it the lyrics, the song is a protest of what they saw as the failure of the American government to do more for the poor and unemployed than it already had. As we endure the first few months of the Trump Administration, I could not think of a more appropriate song to write about, as a Republican dominated Congress seeks to cut and limit more and more of the safety net of the Affordable Healthcare Act, unemployment insurance, and other benefits that the millions of Americans have used to support themselves.

The song was first released in January 1967 in the U.S. by The Four Preps but gained prominence when it was recorded by Country singer Waylon Jennings.   However, the most powerful versions of the song are the soul and reggae takes.  The first was recorded by Washington, D.C soul/funk band The Winstons in 1969. However the definitive version --in my humble opinion -- was recorded by reggae vocalist Nicky Thomas in 1970, reaching number 9 in the UK Singles Chart. It was Thomas's only major hit single, and became his signature song, coming to define the term 'pop reggae'.

The story of how Paul Young came to record the song is very interesting.  Young met Jake Burns of Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers at one of their concerts.  The band had added the song to their live set and Young asked Burns whether Stiff Little Fingers were planning to release the song as a single. When Burns told them they weren't, Young asked if they minded him releasing it as a single. They said he could, not thinking the single would do well. Burns later self-mockingly stated in an interview, 'Pfft! Go ahead. You'll never get anywhere with that, mate. Yeah, number 2, that'll teach me!'. The Stiff Little Finger's version has a great punky reggae feel.

Young initially released his interpretation of 'Love of the Common People as a single in 1982, but it failed to chart. It was only when Young had his first hit in 1983 with 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)' that his record company decided to release the song again. The single peaked at #2 in the UK, and reached the number one spot in Ireland and the Netherlands. The song features a wonderful trombone solo in the middle which was provided courtesy of the one and only Rico Rodriguez. The trombonist had just endured the break-up of The Specials and decided to branch out and was tapped by Young to join his band.  Rodriguez mentioned the song in an interview.
Q: And it was time to escape the English raining to some sunshine for a change.
A: Yes, and before me go to Jamaica me do one recording with Paul Young, a song from Nicky Thomas, 'Love Of The Common People', and I think Paul Young made a hit out of it.
Q: OK, pop stuff.
A: Yes, and I did the solo in that. And when I was in Jamaica I used to hear it on the radio in Jamaica, but since I'm in Jamaica here nobody don't even know is me who do the solo on that record. But it got regular play, it was regularly played on the radio.
Look for Rodrigues in the video of the song below.