Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Strange Tale of Jody Reynold's 'Endless Sleep' and other Death Discs.

To mark the passing of Jody Reynolds earlier this month I've decided to dedicate this post to death discs.


Although murder, misfortune and mortality have always been popular themes in music, Reynolds 1958 hit Endless Sleep ushered in a golden era of largely teenage variations on the subject of death.

The craze reached its zenith in the 1960 when Ray Peterson's Tell Laura I Love Her (which prompted Marilyn Michaels to answer Tell Tommy I Miss Him), and Mark Dinning's Teen Angel both charted despite featuring fatalities.

In August that year Bob Luman's pleaded Let's Think About Living but it fell on deaf ears and the trend continued on into the sixties.

In the UK, Johnny Leyton, whose cover of Tell Laura I Love Her had lost out to Richie Valance's version the previous year, hit with Johnny Remember Me in 1961. Although it didn't explicitly say that the girl he'd 'lost'was dead the echoey chorus left little doubt that the gal was in the ground.

Produced by Joe Meek and written by Geoff Godard the track had apparently been blessed, from beyond by the grave, by Buddy Holly. The pair contacted the bespectacled plane crash victim via weegee board and on hearing their plans for Johnny Remember Me apparently commented "See you in the charts". (See Death Discs by Alan Clayson).

Jan and Dean, who "made surf, cars and simply being between the ages of thirteen and eighteen seem like a mid sixties version of God's grace" (The Dustbin Of History Greil Marcus ), hit in 1964 with Dead Mans Curve which dealt with a drag race fatality on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in LA.

Also that year Twinkle had a UK hit with Terry the tragic tale of her biker boyfriends untimely demise.

The following year another biker bit the dust in The Shangri La's delirious teen melodrama The Leader Of The Pack, which, with its kitchen sink and all production, surely represented the genres artistic high water mark.

What follows is a random, and by no means definitive, list of some of my favourite Death Discs:

Endless Sleep: Jody Reynolds

Growing up in Oklahoma Jody Reynolds first love was Western Swing.

As he told John Stafford:"I sure did listen to the radio. I loved western swing. Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold - I loved stuff like that."

Moving to Arizona in the early fifties Reynolds tastes changed when he heard Elvis Presley on the radio.

Although Reynolds didn't record Endless Sleep until 1958 he told the Phoenix New Times in 2001 that he wrote it in 1956, right after listening to Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel five times in a row on a jukebox.

In doomy echoey style the song told the tale of a boys desperate search for his girl, who he fears has drowned herself after they had had a fight. It was issued by Demon Records in March 1958.

"Demon was in Los Angeles. Herb Montei, who later became my manager had a publishing company in Hollywood. I'd been playing rockabilly or rock 'n' roll or whatever you want to call it for about three years, and I was playing a date in San Diego and a guy at this club said to me, "If you want to record, you should send some stuff to Herb Montei." I didn't have many songs, but I sent him a couple of things and he turned them down. Then I made a demo of Endless Sleep and he liked it a lot, so he found the guys at Demon Records for me."

Apparently the record executives in LA were unconvinced that suicide would sell and persuaded Reynolds to end the song with the boy running into the ocean and rescuing his girl. Ironic that a record that could claim to be the first of the teenage death disc's nobody actually died after all, though the gloomy mood of the record swamps its nominal happy ending.

The people at Demon also felt that although Reynolds was a more than capable guitarist the record people decided to draft in Al Casey:

"I played my own guitar all my life but on that session, for some reason, the record people just wanted me to stand there and sing and not play"
"The guitar riff came from my childhood memories of hearing the funeral bell in Oklahoma" Reynolds remembered. (quoted in Mojo April 2009)

Endless Sleep reached number 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. In the UK it provided Marty Wilde with his first hit entering the UK charts in June 1958 it reached number 4 and stayed in the charts for fourteen weeks.

Reynolds continued to record through out the fifties and early sixties. In 1963 Reynolds recorded Stormy written and produced by Lee Hazlewood.

The following year Bobbie Gentry would make her debut recordings duetting with Reynolds on Stranger in The Mirror/ Requiem for Love.

Reynolds would never again repeat the sucess of his first recording and eventually quit the music business to work in real estate in Palm Springs.

He died on the 7th November this year aged 75.

Further reading here and here

Ode To Billie Joe: Bobbie Gentry

Musical prodigy, Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter and her early life was spent in rural hardship in Chicksaw County, Mississippi.

Gentry's grandmother traded a cow to provide the piano on which Gentry wrote her first song, My Dog Seargent is a Good Dog when she was just seven years old.

In 1955 14 year old black teenager Emmet Till was brutally beaten and then shot, a 75-pound cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire to weigh down the body, which was then dropped into the Tallahatchie River ,where it was subsequently found by fishermen. Those responsible were acquitted and later admited to the killing. At the insistence of Mamie Till, Emmet's mother, photographs of the boys beaten and disfigured body appeared in the press. This horrible event caused widespread outrage at the treatment of African Americans.
Bob Dylan articulated this disgust in the song The Death Of Emmet Till in 1962.

One wonders what impact it had on young Bobbie Gentry. Is it, perhaps,in some slight ghostly way, on Mama's mind in Ode To Billy Joe when she comments: "Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge"?

In 1957, when she was thirteen, Gentry moved to California to be with her mother , graduating from Palm Valley School in 1960 Gentry funded attendance UCLA (studying philosophy) and the Los Angeles Conservatory by working as a nightclub singer, under the name Bobby Gentry, and as a secretary.

As already mentioned she made her recorded debut in 1964 with Jody Reynolds.

Subsequentlty Gentry continued to perform and in early 1967 Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon heard a demo and signed her to Capitol.

Released later that year her debut single for Capitol was Mississippi Delta/Ode To Billy Joe. Despite the A Side being a scorching swampfunk classic it was the sparse, sineous, southern gothic of the B Side that the DJ's warmed to and which climbed to the top of the pop charts.

In the wake of Ode To Billy Joe' s success I believe all subsequent Gentry singles had the intended playside on the B- side.

In many respects Ode To Billy Joe is not typical of the death disc genre, in contrast to the teen histrionics of, say, Leader Of The Pack, Ode to Billy Joe deals with death, a suicide at that, with almost callous offhandness. The demise of Billy Joe MacCallister in the Tallahachie River treated as just another piece of county gossip. The family patriach best sums up the mood when he says: "Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"

Ode To Billy Joe won Gentry three Grammys (Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance Female, Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance) whilst the song itself won a further Grammy for arranger Jimmie Haskell.

The other big Grammy winner of 1967 was fellow Capitol records signing, Glen Campbell ,who picked up awards for both Gentle On My Mind and By The Time I Get To Phoenix.

Capitol paired Gentry and Campbell the following year. The sleeve notes of the resultant album gushed:

"They have the affinity, one for the other, that's unusually rare - striking to hear because of it's rightness and it's absolute simplicity.....singly they seem like the first of a new breed, these two, whose every effort runs true - writing, playing, singing - performing what they feel as they feel it, so that what emerges rings true. these talents stay with the taem too,losing nothing and gaining a new dimension."

In 1970 Gentry scored a hit with Fancy which tells the story of a young impoverished womans journey from poverty to wealth by being "nice to the gentlemen."

Recorded at Rick Hall's Fame studio's it featured Travis Wammack on guitar: " I played her little guitar on that. Rick asked her, he said 'Bobbie would you mind if Travis played your little bitty Martin? I'd like to try and duplicate the Ode To Billie Joe sound. She said 'sure'. it took me a while because it was a little bitty small scale double eighteen Martin guitar." (from Country Got Soul 2 sleevenotes)

The album brought Gentry another Grammy nomination.

Fancy was a hit again in 1991 when it was covered by Reba McEntire, but by that time Gentry had been in self imposed exile from show business for 13 years. Her last public appearance was as Johnny Carsons guest on the Tonight Show Christmas 1978, since then little has been heard from the Garbo of Chicksaw County.

Back on The Road: Nancy Sinatra And Lee Hazlewood

The B side of Nancy and Lee's 1971 Reprise release Did You Ever? Back on The Road is a from- beyond- the- grave- twist- in - the- tale record.

It details, in the first person narrative, the life of two tramps who, in the final verse, wake up in a town were their feet and backs hurt no longer . Although it's never made explicit it becomes clear, to the listener but not the songs protagonists, that the town is heaven and our two hero's are dead!

I've written at lenght about Nancy and Lee elsewhere in this blog.

Seasons in The Sun: Terry Jacks

When Jacques Brel originally wrote Le Moribund it was as an acerbic tragi -comedy in which a dying man lets his wife and friends know that he has always known of her multiple infidelities. Brel claimed to have written it in a Tangiers whore house.

It first became Seasons In The Sun when it fell into the hands of Rod McKuen .

Before becoming the "most popular poet in the world" Rod McKuen had apparently worked in psychological warfare during the Korean War. He moved to San Franscisco in the sixties and began churning out poems and albums.

"My first experience with Brel", Mc Kuen recalled in the sleeve notes to Rod McKuen Sings Jacques Brel "consisted of doing an unauthorized adaptation of Le Moribund, which I called Seasons In The Sun."

In McKuen's adaptation the dying man apparently forgives his wifes infidelity though her lover was his friend , though a few lines later he does threaten to haunt his faithless spouse!

"I (McKuen) subsequently learned that Brel had received a my recording ..after returning from a long and tiring tour of France. he remarked that he had been so pleased by someone doing something for him without requesting or expecting anything that he immediately returned the compliment by adapting (McKuen's song) The Lovers into French." (quoted in the sleeve notes to Rod McKuen Sings Jacques Brel)

It marked the beginning of a professional relationship between the two men that was to last some ten years.

The Kingston Trio released the Brel/McKuen version in 1964, and one of those that heard it was Canadian Terry Jacks:

"I heard their version and I didn't like the translation. But there was still something about that song" he told DJ Barry Scott.

Jacks had first come to prominence as part of The Poppy Family who enjoyed a number two hit in 1970 with Which Way You Goin', Billy, originally intended as the B- Side to The Poppy Family's cover of Reynolds aforementioned Endless Sleep.

In 1972, in the wake of Brian Wilson's mental collapse, Jacks was approached to produce the Beach Boys. Jack's recalled Seasons In The Sun :

"With lines like 'But the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach,' I thought , here's a great song to produce for the Beach Boys. I had this idea for the song and I went down there and I worked really hard on it. we cut all the tracks, got the voices on and we were getting ready to do some sweetening, but it was too much for brian to have somebody from outside come in and produce. We never finished it. It was too bad. I came home , almost having a nervous breakdown." (from We Had Joy We had Fun by Barry Scott).

Shortly after returning to Canada Jacks learnt a friend of his was dying:

"I said it must be terrible to have to tell your best friend and your father - and he had a little girl - that you are going to die. It must be a terrible feeling. So I rewrote the words to Seasons In The Sun about a young person dying. They were telling their best friend,their father and their little girl that they're going to die."

Jacks recorded it with Link Wray and issued it in late 1973 on his own Goldfish label in Canada, where Jack's had recently enjoyed number 1 success with Concrete Sea.

It was an instant hit. Signed to Bell for US and European distribution Seasons In The Sun went to number 1 in America for three weeks and in the UK for four weeks. It was the first record a young Kurt Cobain purchased.

Despite changing the lyrics and sugaring the tune to within an inch of its life the writing credits featured only Brel and McKuen's names "It was an inventive treatment," the latter grudgingly admitted, "so I was glad he'd taken a song of mine, that hadn't been a hit, and made something of it" (from Jacques Brel The Biography by Alan Clayson)

Jacks returned to the Brel/Mckuen songbook for his follow up, that old chestnut If You Go Away, which failed to sell as well as Seasons In The Sun peaking at number 68 in the US in 1974.

Its follow up fared even worse and Jacks retired from the music business on the proceeds of his smash hit version of Seasons In The Sun.

Stan : Eminen

Hip Hop probably has the largest body count of any musical genre with murder a lyrical staple, Eminen, however, channelled the spirit of The Shangra La's in this masterstroke of storytelling.

Born in Kansas City Marshall Mathers aka Eminen aka Slim Shady moved to a predominantly black neighbourhood in East Detroit when he was eleven years old.

"When I came to Detroit hip hop was huge...Everybody loved rap and from there i just grew up on it. I think I was fourteen when I wrote my first rhyme and it was just like LL Cool J. as I started getting older I started learning how to put words together, I started to get good at it." (from The Hip Hop Years A History of Rap by Alex Ogg with David Upshal)

Eminen gained a reputation for his freestyle skills at local throwdowns.

Unlike some other white rappers like say, Vanilla Ice, hip hop was as natural to Eminen as the blues were to Elvis Presley or Jimmy Rodgers. Like these two before him he had absorbed a style more usually associated with another race and used it to tell his own story. As he says in his forthcoming book The Way I Am :" In real life rap is all that I really know how to do well."

Still when his first album, Infinite, emerged in 1996 Eminen found himself castigated for his colour:

"The album got stepped on and I got a lot of criticismfrom it: 'Your trying to sound like Nas! You're trying to sound like AZ! You're white, you shouldn't rap, you should go into rock 'n' roll'. Just a lot of criticism, just a lot of bullshit that I was hearing." (from The Hip Hop Years A History of Rap by Alex Ogg with David Upshal)

In 1997 Eminen was second placed in the Rap Olympics:

" I took second place to a hometown favourite or something. It was bullshit. Everybody knew I got robbed there." (from The Hip Hop Years A History of Rap by Alex Ogg with David Upshal).

The Rap Olympics did serve to bring Eminen to the attention of Dr Dre which resulted in 1999's The Slim Shady LP which entered the US album charts at number two and brought the rapper to mainstream attention whilst his work on Rawkus maintained his credibility in the underground.

" An underground following has to be there, you've got to start off there or you don't have nothing to fall back on" said Eminen (from The Hip Hop Years A History of Rap by Alex Ogg with David Upshal).

Stan was issued in 2000. Over a 45 King backing track it tells of fandom gone horribly wrong. In its first three verses Eminen reads the letters of a fan. Over a rhythm is provided by what sounds like a felt tip pen scribbling away on paper it becomes increasingly clear that this fan is one sick puppy:

"Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
It's like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me"

Increasingly irate that his idol won't reply to his letters the troubled Stan prepares one final letter to tell his idol that he is driving off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the boot:

"Well, gotta go, I'm almost at the bridge now
Oh shit, I forgot, how'm I supposed to send this shit out?"
says Stan admist the sound of car tyres squealing, crashing and splashing in a production that the sacred Shangra La's themselves would have been proud of.

In the songs final verse Eminen plays himself sitting down to reply to his disciple during the course of this verse Eminen assures Stan that he is valued as a fan and that maybe he should get some counselling: "I just don't want you to do some crazy shit".

Eminen then begins to describe a story he'd read of a man who drove his car off a bridge with his girlfriend in the boot..
"and in the car they found a tape, but they didn't say who it was to
Come to think about, his name was.. it was you
Damn!" ...concludes the song.

Stan was the third single taken from The Marshall Mathers LP . Two further albums followed before Eminen disappeared from public view in 2005.

In 2006 Eminens best friend DeShaun Holton from D12, a rap act that rode the coat tales of Eminens patronage to chart success of their own, was murdered.
"I have never felt so much pain in my life...It was a year before I could really do anything normally. I had days when I couldn't even walk, let alone write a rhyme."(from The Way I Am by Eminen)
Despite a hiatus of some three years Eminen was voted The Best Rapper Alive by readers of Vibe magazine this year.

It seems likely that a new Eminen album will be with us in the first partof 2009.

The picture accompanying this post is from Ingmar Bergmans The Seventh Seal.