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Photo by David Heslop on Unsplash

There aren’t many blood-soaked movies about hit men with iconic folk-influenced songs on their soundtrack, but Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs” is one of them.

Tarantino was looking for a jolt to cinema-goers’ senses and something to serve as a counterpoint to a particularly notorious scene in “Reservoir Dogs”. His choice of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” would turn out to be a masterstroke, reviving a wonderful song from 20 years earlier and raising it to iconic status in the process.

Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan wrote “Stuck In The Middle With You” and originally recorded it with their band Stealers Wheel in 1972. …

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Photo by Liam Riby on Unsplash

Marc Almond has had an interesting musical journey. He started out as one half of pioneering synth-pop duo Soft Cell. Their biggest hit was the 1981 UK Number One “Tainted Love”, but they also racked up a series of commercial and critical successes before disbanding in the mid-1980s.

Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was a cover of Gloria Jones’s 1964 original with a synthesiser-based makeover. The original was never a hit in either the US or the UK so it was virtually unknown before Soft Cell’s cover. …

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Photo by Dan Gribbin on Unsplash

Whether you think “Without You” is a Nilsson song or a Mariah Carey song largely depends how old you are. But the correct answer is “neither”.

“Without You” was written in 1970 by two members of British group Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and was first recorded by Badfinger for their 1970 album “No Dice”.

Badfinger’s main claim to fame was that they were the first group signed to the Beatles’ Apple record label. Although modestly popular at the time, the group imploded in the early 1970s in the aftermath of series of lawsuits and contractual disputes.

Even Badfinger themselves didn’t think “Without You” was that great a song and never released their album track as a single. …

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Photo by Christian Holzinger on Unsplash

There probably hasn’t been a more important time for the world to come together and put aside the divisions of the past.

There’s been too much pain, too much violence, too much intolerance.

People we don’t agree with are “enemies”. People with different beliefs are the devil incarnate. People with a different skin colour are “less than human”.

Yet all this at a time when the world has never been richer (even if a greater proportion of that wealth is in the hands of fewer individuals than might be healthy). …

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Photo by Abdul Gani M on Unsplash

One of the finest albums of all time is “Stardust” by Willie Nelson, on which he explores what we’d now call the Great American Songbook.

Released in 1978, “Stardust” was what you’d have called a bold choice at the time. Punk was in full flow. Angry young men were shouting into microphones around the world. It was an odd time for an album of songs from the 1920s and 30s.

It was also a dramatic departure from Willie Nelson’s groove as one of the leading lights at the dawn of the “outlaw country” movement.

Prior to “Stardust”, his previous project…alongside outlaw country pioneers Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser…was “Wanted! …

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Photo by raymond revaldi on Unsplash

It’s rare for any song to have even one iconic version. Very occasionally, there are two. But three? Never…except for “Always On My Mind”.

The great thing about all three wonderfully iconic versions of “Always On My Mind” is they each bring something entirely different to the song. Much as we like great song lyrics around here, great performers bring an indefinable extra dimension to even the most exquisitely crafted lyrics, and there are few better examples of that phenomenon than “Always On My Mind”.

The writing of “Always On My Mind” is credited to Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James, although the original idea and much of the songwriting was from Carson. Of the three, Wayne Carson certainly has much the greater songwriting pedigree. Among his better-known songs is another great favourite of mine “The Letter” — a big hit for The Box Tops in 1967. …

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

I’m not sure there’s another song in music history which does so much with so little. “Cry Me A River” is just Julie London’s voice with a far-off guitar and bass. With this sort of performance, everything depends on the singer’s ability to create the atmosphere that draws you into her story— there’s nowhere else to hide.

Of course, Julie London knocks it out the park. “Cry Me A River” is one of the most exquisitely performed and produced songs of all time. A masterclass on how simplicity can often make a much greater impact that complexity. …

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

To say it was a surprise when Lena Martell had a UK Number One with “One Day At A Time” in 1979 is something of an understatement.

Unlike, say, the US Country charts, songs with religious themes tend not to sell well in the UK. And before you ask, no, “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols isn’t about what you think it’s about…

Lena Martell was from Glasgow, not far from where I grew up, and she was quite a force on the West of Scotland music scene back in the 1970s and 80s.

The reason her 1979 UK Number One was such a surprise was not only did “One Day At A Time” have an overtly religious theme, it was a country song — traditionally another big no-no in the upper reaches of the UK charts. …

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Photo by Simone Secci on Unsplash

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was released nearly 50 years ago during another time of political strife, but it could have been written yesterday.

Renaldo “Obie” Benson of The Four Tops started scoping out the idea for a song that would become “What’s Going On” after he witnessed a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War being violently broken up in Berkeley, California.

First, he took the idea to his fellow band-members. But The Four Tops, riding high in the charts at the time, were unwilling to take the commercial risk on a song with an overtly political message, and passed.

Undiscouraged, Obie Benson mentioned his idea to Motown songwriter Al Cleveland who had, among other things, written “I Second That Emotion” for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. …

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Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

We have all the time in the world…except we don’t.

And neither did Louis Armstrong when he stepped into the studio back in 1969 to record a song for the James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

With no little irony, Louis Armstrong’s recording session for “We Have All The Time In The World” would turn out to be his last.

And at the time it hardly made a ripple in the world of music. …


No Words, No Song

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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