Five Star Songs: Five Star Songs: The Beginning and the End – Sugar Pie Honey Bunch & Dress Sexy For My Funeral

Well I am taking a break for a little while because after two albums, I certainly need it. I will be doing my last gig before a break on August 20 at The New Motor Room at the Boundary Hotel. It will give me a chance to do some more writing and here is the kind of thing I might do.

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In my work as a school teacher I occasionally overhear students talking about their crushes when they think I am just a statue in a room. A statue in the room that is walking past them, trying not to listen. I try to immersively think about something else because there are parts of their lives that I don’t want to intrude on. But in those brief moments I see the flush of excitable youth and the embarrassment of losing control, followed by the relief of telling someone about it. I sometimes smile and think “I remember” about that quickening of the heartbeat, the rise in temperature that comes with someone dancing in your head. That still happens.

“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops is the embarrassment and the thrill of first love encased in the exuberant gospel shout of Levi Stubbs and the rest of the Tops. “Sugar Pie” is almost the exact same chords of the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” also written/produced by Motown team Holland/Dozier/Holland. But hey, if you are going to plagiarise, it might as well be yourself you are plagiarising.

As beautifully melancholic as the Supremes’ song was, Levi Stubbs’ brings something else to the sad belle vocals of Supreme supremo Diana Ross’ version. Billy Bragg once sang about Levi Stubbs’ tears, they always hung around at the back of his throat. However, Stubbs’ singing is equal part exultation. He feels strung around by the lusty “you” of the song:  “When you snap your finger, or wink your eye/I come a-running to you… there’s nothing that I can do.” But that doesn’t stop him from getting swept up in the flush of love. A chemical reaction perhaps, but something he doesn’t feel he can control.

Along with the Four Tops harmonies “Sugar Pie” is also driven by a repetitive piano line doubled by bass guitar that begins the song. Motown knew you had to get the kids dancing, so the 4/4 pulse is insistent. The strings then echo that piano/bass riff before the signature Motown snare roll kicks in, followed by the familiar guitar chank and some lovely glockenspiel. I am often critical of strings in soul music, as I feel makes the songs overly saccharine. In Sugar Pie they are subtle, entering and leaving unobtrusively like a mother witnessing the furious poetry of the love-struck teenager but leaving the room for the piano/bass riff to be front and centre in her child’s joy/pain. The every-beat snare known to the Motown listener is there but that riff is what does it – it embraces Levi in his symphony of immature love. Just as that heartbeat raises when he or she walks past you, it is continual, pulsing and the vocals at once joyous and plaintive.

* * *

In contrast is Smog’s “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” which has less immediate impact but like Smogman Bill Callahan’s best songs, it is a complex, layered lyric that gradually unravels something quite beautiful.

Framed by simple band accompaniment, an indie-rock shuffle in the first part of the verses that springs to life part way through each, the tambourine adding joy in much the same way it works for Motown, and a repeated chiming acoustic lick before the return to the refrain. The only change to this basic formula are two B sections where he outlines the various places they made love and gave to charity and a beautiful outro with hushed falsetto harmonies and a droning keyboard over the tambourine, bass and guitar.

Simplicity in melody, production and repeated phrases is a Callahan trademark but this is pop for him. Major key, almost joyous and ecstatic harmonies and an unambiguous outpouring of love for a woman in which he doesn’t reflect on his mistakes. It just happens to dive more deeply into the intimacy of the relationship, and somehow walks a fine line between revealing the sexual nature of their lives in a playful way that neglects boastful or lewd description.

“Wink at the minister

Blow kisses to my grieving brothers”

And later:

“Tell them about the time we did it

On the beach with fireworks above us

It recognises other things not normally recognised in songs. His wife is still a sexual being, even when her husband is not there. How many songs would even consider this a possibility? He is saying to her “it is okay to let people know that we knew each other in ways they never did, never could and never will”. It suggests an intimacy and shared knowledge of each other that is normally impossible in the limited space of songs.

The love that comes at the beginning and that is there in the end are both important. One would not happen without the other. And if the fire of lust can begin something intimate and lasting that you can take to your death, well then you have truly loved and lived in a way that we all wish for. At least while listening to these two songs, I can imagine it happening.

Songs That Influenced My Album: Post-Apocalyptic Listicle

I have just started doing things on Medium, but I have reprinted it below. If you want to check my Medium out, here is the link:

I intended on using Medium to largely make lists of songs and albums and so forth. A big old listicle list. Perhaps to stimulate discussion. I don’t know. But I am currently engaged in promo and the logistics of releasing an album — ensuring all photos are ready for the various web pages I have and organising rehearsals. And it is on my mind.

So I present the songs and albums that influenced me the most for my second LP — Post-Apocalyptic Love Songs (I have included a Spotify list but not all of these songs are on there):

Dress Sexy At My Funeral — Smog

Smog/Bill Callahan has long been a powerful influence on my songwriting. His minimalism and his tenderness… his frilly things, like a spreadeagled dolly. I like the way he deals with complex human emotions carefully, poking around the edges of things we normally dare not think about when songwriting, and in a poetic way. I wanted to do that but with soul and blues music as my medium. This song is a perfect example.

Jungle Blues — CW Stoneking/St James Infirmary — Louis Armstrong

New Orleans is such a diverse well of vibrant music, you could draw from it and it would never run dry. Constantly inspiring. But those minor key slow songs lend themselves to eerie murder tales, as they did for my “Mary’s Daughter” song. Originally intended as a twisted country banjo as per Tom Waits’ “Gun Street Girl” but I was easily convinced to switch to NOLA, especially with much of my musicians playing in 1920s style jazz bands.

Rain Dogs/Bone Machine albums — Tom Waits

These two albums are amongst my favourites anywhere in my listicles but Waits’ blend of blues, latin, country and weird helped to form my arrangements after the initial songwriting phase. Especially my song “You Must Not Try To Know”, which was written melodically and lyrically but rhythmically remained dormant until I hit upon making it Latin in the way some of Rain Dogs’ songs such as “Jockey Full Of Bourbon”. The lyrical morbidity of his Bone Machine songs smacked me around the head, and for that I am thankful.

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) — The Four Tops

So much joy and sadness in less than three minutes. I tried to bring that to “I Got What I Wanted (But I Lost What I Had)”, along with much tambourine that I love in Motown. The song itself was influenced by something Little Richard said and quoted in Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train novel.

Keep A Knockin’ — Little Richard

Speaking of Little Richard, this is a killer track, especially the alternate one that I found on a compilation of Itunes. It is almost punk. Yowsers. I think the below link is the one I heard:

Exile On Main Street/Sticky Fingers albums- Rolling Stones

They have four albums that will rarely be beaten for pure rock n roll, if you include Let It Bleed and Beggar’s Banquet, which I often do. But Exile/Sticky Fingers have been constantly on the turntable for the last 10 years (okay, the CD player to start with). Filthy, dirty, greasy, but oh so nice. We performedSticky Fingers live and then I found the sheet music for Exile for Kindle and thus my songwriting ideas doubled. Also, I thought if the Rolling Stones can go from country, to blues, to soul, to rock n roll in one album, why can’t I?

Rubber Soul album — The Beatles

I have never really made music like the Beatles but every time I listen to them I become inspired. There is so much going on in their songs and so much life about them. But while we were preparing to record, something wasn’t working rhythmically with “At Least It’s Better Than Home”. Eventually someone suggested something from the Beatles and their middle period in particular. Rubber Soul was the remedy.

Brother Claude Ely/Louis Jordan’s “Beans and Cornbread”

I wanted a gospel rave-up. My friend Glen played me Brother Claude Ely and his band (congregation) of crazy fundamentalists. And I remembered this Louis Jordan song. Boom.

In The Mississippi River — Mavis Staples

I loved You Are Not Alone. I played it over and over again. Then I heard the Ry Cooder-produced We’ll Never Turn Back and it was a revelation. Those beats, from down south, NOLA way yet rooted firmly in blues and gospel but with a tinge of the styles that influences hip hop. The rhythms, Mavis’ voice and the way she overcame sadness with her exultations and Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. That is the music I wanted to make and I thought it dragged blues into the modern world.

But for an almost full list, here it is: