Top 10 Desert Isle Songs

My blogging friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently listed what he considered the ten best British rock bands.  For me, lists are like catnip to a feline. I’m an inveterate critic and love them.  “Best of” lists are great to create, and stimulate debate (rhyme intentional).

Taking Mike’s cue, I decided to formulate my own list, but instead advertise the ten songs I’d want if I become stranded on a desert isle—assuming my isle has electricity.

If stranded, I’d want lots of melody accompanying my surf and sun, and all of these songs are very melodic.  All except one were recorded in the 1960s.  Yes, I’m a product of my time!

So here goes…the soundtrack of my head and heart, listed in order of preference:

  1. “Light My Fire” by the Doors.  The lyrics are juvenile (“wallow in the mire,” “love become a funeral pyre”).  But Ray Manzarek’s gothic organ, Robbie Krieger’s acid-dripped flamenco guitar, John Densmore’s jazzy snare, and Jim Morrison’s other-worldly vocals still give me chills since hearing this song on AM radio in 1967.  A bossa nova version by Jose Feliciano also was popular, and I can actually play that one on acoustic guitar, minus the solo…and acid.
  2. “’Til I Die” by the Beach Boys.  Written by Brian Wilson (of course).  Even Beach Boys fans rarely mention this obscure jewel, featured on the Surf’s Up album released not long after Wilson’s masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Classic layered group vocals, an unusual calliope organ, simple but penetrating words, sad and haunting melody, and beautiful fadeout coda. It’s a heart-piercing song.
  3. “Yes it Is” by the Beatles.  A John Lennon composition, the B-side to the “Ticket to Ride” single, with perhaps my all-time favorite vocal harmonizing.  It’s one of only three studio songs by the group where John, Paul, and George sang live three-part harmony (the other two being “This Boy” and “Because”).  Lennon dismissed it as a failed attempt to redo “This Boy,” but I think it’s a better song, colored by George’s volume pedal guitar.
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Burt Bacharach, in a familiar pose
  1. “A House is Not a Home” by Burt Bacharach-Hal David, sung by Brook Benton.  Okay, I’m a romantic, a softy, and this oft-covered Bacharach-David classic always chokes me up.  A Dionne Warwick version was released the same time, and both are good, with a very tricky bridge vocal, but I prefer Benton’s deep, aching rendition (and being male, the lyric hits me so much harder).  Luther Vandross did yet another, more exaggerated R&B version in 1981, and it became a big hit, but Benton’s interpretation has much more integrity.
  1. “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb, sung by Glen Campbell. Webb was a master of melody. He also wrote “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” for Campbell, as well as “Up, Up, and Away” for the 5th Dimension.  In addition to the melancholy arrangement and velvety strings, I love Campbell’s twangy guitar break.
  2. “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces.  The British mod group’s only hit in America, reaching #16 in early 1968.  A lovely song for summer and a perfect example of “flower psychedelia.”  Ronnie Lane wrote most of it, but singer Steve Marriott contributed the memorable “It’s all too beautiful” section.  One of rock’s greatest bands, compatriots of the Who, but unfairly overlooked in the states.
  3. “Orange Skies” by Love.  Another luscious summer song by the first integrated rock band (along with Butterfield Blues Band).  Like Small Faces, a seriously overlooked group, from L.A., who directly inspired the Doors.  Singer Arthur Lee was the leader, but guitarist Bryan MacLean, a former roadie for the Byrds, wrote several memorable songs, including this ingenuous beauty about “orange skies, carnivals, and cotton candy.”
  4. “Penny Lane” by the Beatles.  I prefer mid-period Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night through Rubber Soul era), but a late-period Lennon-McCartney song is imperative, and this is my favorite, half of a double-A-side single and one of the two greatest singles ever released (the other being “Paperback Writer”/“Rain”).  Many people prefer the flip side, John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I like this Paul song for its buoyant melody and George Martin’s elegant orchestration.  (BTW, I rode a bus through the real Penny Lane a few years ago…on my way to Strawberry Fields.)
  5. “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder.  Do you have a song where you remember the exact place and time you first heard it?  I heard this in the waiting room of the allergist’s office on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in early 1969.  (I told my friends about it later that day, but they didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm.)  It was the first 45 rpm single I ever bought, and I still have it stashed somewhere. I think everyone loves Stevie Wonder.
  6. “Anyway,” music by Maggie and Suzzy Roche.  I discovered this minor miracle of a song by two of the three singing Roche sisters about 10 years ago.  I upload it to Facebook every Christmas.  The lyrics (author unknown) are a sort of non-denominational “prayer” about being honest, hardworking, forgiving, and maintaining faith.  The music consists of about seven or eight small, dissimilar arrangements that build in intensity, and end in a warm wash of mellotron.  Took me a couple listens, but now I’m hooked for life.

Like most lists, mine has many honorable mentions (in case a large wave pounds my Top 10 into the sand). Here are a few: “Don’t Go Away” by the Zombies; “You Baby” by the Turtles; “I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas and Papas; “Urge for Going” by Joni Mitchell (the Tom Rush version); “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake; “Running from Home” by Bert Jansch; “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank (the Jansch version); and easily a half-dozen more Beatles and Bacharach songs.

Hopefully some of these songs will strike a “chord,” or perhaps lead you to investigation. Now, it’s your turn.  Click on “Comments” and send me your own desert isle list.

The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

50 years

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Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall. (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits.”) Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

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Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak. (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry.)

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band. (The other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire.”) Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (He was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers.) “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism. (Think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park.”) The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

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Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks. (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat.) Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died tragically in a house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

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