If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Roxy Music

I can’t believe it’s Wednesday again and we’re almost in July! This would be the perfect time for a summer vacation, and a beautiful tropical island sounds like an attractive proposition. But wait, before I can leave on yet another imaginary trip to some remote island in the sun, once again, I have to pick one song to take with me.

In case you’re a first-time visitor, there are a few rules that limit my options, which make the exercise both challenging and interesting at the same time. My pick cannot be a tune by a music act I’ve frequently written about. Ideally, it should be a band or artist I haven’t covered yet. It can only be one track, not an entire album. And picks must be in alphabetical order.

This week I’m up to “r.” Bands and artists (last names) starting with that letter include Radiohead, Bonnie Raitt, Ramones, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Otis Redding, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt and Roxy Music, among others.

Based on the above criteria, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt were immediately excluded from further consideration. For some of the other artists, sadly, I had to search my own blog to refresh my memory to what extent I had covered them before. At the end, it came down to picking Radiohead or Roxy Music, and I decided to go with the latter and More Than This.

More Than This, written by Bryan Ferry, first appeared in April 1982 as the lead single of Roxy Music’s eighth and final studio album Avalon, released the following month. It’s just a gorgeous pop tune I’ve loved from the very first moment I heard the band playing it on the radio at the time it came out.

More Than This was popular, reaching no. 6 in each the UK and Australia, but it wasn’t the group’s biggest hit. The latter was their great cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, which they recorded and released as a non-album single in February 1981 to honor the ex-Beatle who had been senselessly killed by a deranged individual in New York in December 1980.

Art and pop rock group Roxy Music were founded by Ferry, the band’s lead vocalist and main songwriter, and bassist Graham Simpson in England in 1970. While they have been on and off ever since, their active recording period spanned 1972 to 1982. During these 10 years, Roxy Music released eight studio albums, three of which topped the UK charts: Stranded (1973), Flesh and Blood (1980) and the above-noted Avalon.

In 1982, at the height of their commercial success, Ferry who at that time was the only original member together with Andy Mackay (saxophone, oboe, keyboards, backing vocals), decided to dissolve Roxy Music and focus on his solo career, which he had launched in parallel to the group in 1973.

Roxy Music have since reunited several times for tours and are currently gearing up to be on the road again starting in September to celebrate their 50th anniversary. In addition to co-founders Ferry and Mackay, this includes Phil Manzanera  (guitar) and Paul Thompson (drums), who were all part of the group’s lineup that recorded Roxy Music’s 1972 eponymous debut album. The schedule of the five-week tour, which includes dates in Canada, the U.S. and the UK, is here.

Following are a few additional tidbits on More Than This from Songfacts:

Written by lead singer Bryan Ferry, this song is about a love affair that fell apart. Asked in 2014 by Entertainment Weekly why the song endures, Ferry replied, “For some reason, there’s something in the combination of the melody and the lyric that works for people.”

In America, this song got some traction when it featured in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation in a scene where Bill Murray sings it in a Tokyo karaoke bar. When the song was first released, however, it had little impact on the charts, bubbling under at just #102 on the Hot 100. Many college radio stations played the song, but commercial stations stayed away for the most part.

Roxy Music occupied just a small niche in America, where they hit the Top 40 just once (“Love Is the Drug” – #30 in 1975), but they were far more successful in the UK.

Ferry told The Mail on Sunday June 28, 2009 about the Avalon album: “I started writing the songs while on the west coast of Ireland, and I like to think that some of the dark melancholy of the album comes from that place.”

10,000 Maniacs covered this in 1997 on their album Love Among The Ruins. Mary Ramsey sang lead, as original Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant had just left the band to go solo.

Sources: Wikipedia; Roxy Music website; Songfacts; YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening to: Paul McCartney/Tug of War

As a huge fan of The Beatles and Paul McCartney, I was really excited when Tug of War was released in April 1982. Catching Take It Away on the radio yesterday prompted me to revisit McCartney’s third solo album, which I had not listened to for many years. It turned out I still dig it, though not for the primary reason that initially attracted me back then: Ebony and Ivory, a smash hit in Germany, as well as many other countries.

While McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder isn’t a bad tune, I think it’s fair to say both artists have written better songs. One also must remember the ’80s were a time period when high profile duets were very much en vogue. I still like the ballad’s message, as well as the idea to use the black and white keys on a keyboard as a metaphor for perfect harmony – sadly a state of affairs that nowadays seems to be more elusive than ever.

No matter how you feel about it, Ebony and Ivory was the big hit single from Tug of War, which came out about a month prior to the album. I have to say I wasn’t particular impressed with McCartney II and that record’s hit single Coming Up, even though both had impressive chart success as well. I thought Tug of War was a far superior album. I think I still do but like to caveat the statement by adding that I haven’t listened to McCartney II in a long time.

Tug of War was McCartney’s first album after the breakup of Wings. It also was his first record following the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, which not only impacted the record’s timing but also its content. Initially, McCartney’s plan was to make another album with Wings, but then things changed.

While apparently he had grown weary about continuing his band, McCartney started rehearsing songs with them in October 1980. He brought in George Martin as producer, but they both felt McCartney’s latest compositions weren’t a good fit for Wings and decided to pursue a record without the band.

The project was paused for two months after Lennon had been killed. In February 1981, work on the album resumed. Between February 3rd and March 2nd, recording sessions took place in the Caribbean at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which included Wonder, bassist Stanley Clarke, Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr.

During Tug of War recording sessions at AIR Studios in Montserrat: Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr and I believe Eric Stewart.

Additional sessions at Martin’s AIR Studios in London followed over the summer. They also yielded songs McCartney would use for Pipes of Peace, the follow on to Tug of War from October 1983. Apparently, McCartney and Martin weren’t in a huge hurry and used the remainder of 1981 to put the finishing touches on the record. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above noted Take It Away. Like all other tracks on the album except for one tune, it was written by McCartney. In June 1982, Take It Away also was released separately as Tug of War’s second single. While it charted in many countries, including the UK and the U.S. where it climbed to no. 15 and 10, respectively, the power pop tune didn’t match the success of Ebony and Ivory. It features Ringo Starr on drums, George Martin on piano and 10cc’s Eric Stewart on backing vocals. Take it away, boys!

In addition to Ebony and Ivory, Tug of War included a second duet with Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing. Apart from providing vocals, Wonder also co-wrote the funky tune with McCartney. In fact, to me it sounds more like a Stevie Wonder song. Stewart made another appearance on backing vocals.

Here Today is a moving tribute to John Lennon, which can still make me emotional. It may not be quite as compelling as Elton John’s Empty Garden, but I still find it beautiful. When I saw McCartney live last time in July 2016, he performed the tune solo with just his acoustic guitar – a quite powerful moment!

Next up: Ballroom Dancing, a nice pop rocker. Guests on this tune include Starr (drums), Stewart (backing vocals) and former Wings band mate Denny Laine (electric guitar).

The last track I’d like to call out is McCartney’s great duet with Carl Perkins, Get It. I love the tune’s rockabilly retro vibe and Perkins’s electric guitar work, which he provided in addition to vocals. You can also literally feel the fun they had when recording the track, and it’s not only because of Perkins’ laughter at the end.

The final words of this post shall belong to Paul McCartney. “I think, you know, with my songs, I have my own approach,” he told Andy Mackay in an in-depth interview about the album in August 1982, which is transcribed on fan website The Paul McCartney Project. “I’ll tell you the way I see it: the thing I like about my stuff, when I like it, is that the listener can take it the wrong way, it may apply to them, you know.”

Sources: Wikipedia; The Paul McCartney Project; YouTube