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FRIDAY SONG: Fred Astaire, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE (Irving Berlin, 1936)

Here is  a song that has been part of our lives for so long that it has become easy to forget how odd and unusual it is. That problem has been compounded by the countless woeful interpretations down the years - Frank Sinatra and Robbie Williams top a long list of singers who have robbed the song of its essential danger. It takes a moment like this, when there is menace and fear in the air, to remind us how perfectly and economically Irving Berlin's 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' captures the fragility of our world and we puny humans who inhabit it. Written in 1935 and published the following year when it was part of the score for the film Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it is widely thought to be a song which picked up on the sound of the distant drums of...

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FRIDAY SONG: Chas & Dave, AIN’T NO PLEASING YOU (Chas Hodges, 1982)

When, a few days ago, the BBC showed a music documentary, there was a sniffy online reaction from a  resident of Twittertown. 'What is it that bothers me about this? Am I a music snob, an art snob, a massive something else snob? Culture snob? Dunno. I just don't see this as a BBC Four kind of programme. I shall avoid it like a plague of flying pickets. Or crickets.' The documentary in question was about Chas & Dave. The obvious answer to her questions was 'Yes to all of the above', but none of her followers posed it. In fact several of them agreed with her.  Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock are not quite our class, darling. Culturally speaking, they're below stairs. Not for the first time, the duo had prompted  a peculiarly English form of snobbery. If they were traditional bluegrass players from Appalachian Mountains or a musette...

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FRIDAY SONG: Yves Montand, LES FEUILLES MORTES (Jacques Prévert and Joseph Kosma, 1946)

If you want to see the difference between a great lyric and a moderately good one,  here's a place to start  -  compare and contrast Jacques Prévert's 1946 song 'Les Feuilles Mortes'  to the later American version,by Johnny Mercer, released in 1950. One tells a story; the other expresses a general feeling. One feels original and heartfelt, the other is professionally written schmaltz. One feels like like a song, the other is life. They share the melody, or at least the melody of the chorus, written by Joseph Kosma, who took Prévert's poem  and adapted it for the film Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). Crucially, the poem and the French version of the song open with a verse which cuts across the sweetness of the chorus. Oh, je voudrais tant que tu souviens Les jours heureux où nous étions amis En ce temps-là la vie était plus belle Et...

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Adios, auf wiedersehen, Europa, Mein Amour – a song for Europe

A few months ago, I went to Maurizio Sarnicola's Goldmine studio two hours south of Naples and, with my German friend, the accordionist Hartmut Saam, and new Italian friends Fortunata Monzo (vocals), Giovanni Rago (guitar), Domenice de Marco (drums), Gianni Crescenzi (bass) and Mario Perazzi (engineer), we recorded this song. It was a happy international co-operation which somehow made the song even sadder. 'Europa, Mein Amour' is released this week and can be downloaded on CD Baby and Bandcamp. 'Some people claim I'm not quite the same Since I became European...' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfBAxGXALKc  

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Holidaying in a catastrophe: letter from Australia

Camping was off. That much was clear as we took our flight from Heathrow to Australia on the last day of 2019. Our first destination, a campsite at Cape Conran on the coast of Victoria, had declared that the risk of fire was too great. By the time we arrived in Melbourne, the risk had become a reality. That part of the state, near the border with New South Wales, was where the worst of the brutal bushfires were now burning, and were being spread fast by the wind. Soon the full horror which was to make headlines around the world became clear. Over a vast and spreading area of forest and farmland  - the equivalent of Lincoln down to the south coast and increasing every day  -  was devastated by fire. Human lives were lost, hundreds of houses and businesses destroyed, millions of animals have been killed. The world...

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Derek Hewitson, MY MEATLESS DAY (RP Weston and Bert Lee, 1917)

This week's Friday Song is so obscure that posting the video which accompanies it feels like a bit of positive musical archaeology. As far as I can see, this version of 'My Meatless Day, a wonderful comic song from 1917, does not exist anywhere online. In fact, apart from the original version sung by Ernie Mayne  (warning - it contains a nasty racist term) and a few shaky a capella versions, it's pretty much a lost song. Even its authorship is not entirely clear. I know the song because I used to accompany the guitarist and singer Derek Hewitson in the days when, with Tracey Baldwin, we were the trio Something Happened. 'My Meatless Day' was part of the wonderful and often strange repertoire of songs that Derek has collected and played down the years. Researching 'My Meatless Day' now, I find one reference to it having been written by...

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Daoirí Farrell, A PINT OF PLAIN (Pat Goode and Flann O’Brien)

My plan for the next Friday Song was to celebrate an intense, passionate and slightly strange love song (of which more later). Then I thought again. It's Friday the 13th. The mood today is exceptionally grim. If ever there were a moment when we a need song to lift the spirits, and raise a defiant two fingers to the world,  this is it. Cue this week's Friday Song, 'A Pint of Plain (is Your Only Man)'. Or 'The Workman's Friend', as it was originally called. 'When things go wrong and will not come right, Though you do the best you can, When life looks black as the hour of night - A pint of plain is your only man.' In my ignorance, I had never read, or even heard of 'The Workman's Friend', which was a poem included in the first novel of the great comic Irish comic novelist Flann...

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Friday Song, Rudy Vallee, LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES (Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, 1931)

Here's an odd one. Until a few years ago, I thought I couldn't stand the song I have now chosen as my Friday Song. I found it schmaltzy, melodically uninteresting  - the worst kind of middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. I defy anyone to listen to  the Judy Garland version or the song, or Dean Martin and  Bing Crosby, without their mouse-finger involuntarily twitching for the next track. Then one day, listening to a compilation record, I heard an early version of it by Rudy Vallee. It was a revelation. Still a Tin Pan Alley song to its core, its tune was written by Ray Henderson, among whose credits is the amazing 'Bye-Bye Blackbird' , and its lyrics are by Lew Brown. Together they wrote 'Roll Out the Barrel' and one of my favourite 1920s songs 'I Want To Be Bad' . What makes the Vallee version different, apart from his great voice, ...

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Friday Song: Harry Nilsson, WITHOUT HER (1967)

When he died in 1994 at the age of 52, Harry Nilsson left behind several versions of himself. There was the almost spookily pure-voiced singer of 'Everybody's Talkin' (written by Fred Neil) for the film Midnight Cowboy; or the fringe figure who appears in documentaries about as the Beatles' favourite American band; or the misfit, swimming against every musical tide throughout his career; or the poster-boy for 1970s excess and self-destructiveness in the company of Keith Moon and John Lennon. None of that, so precious to pop historians, really matters. It is the songs that count. That's why Nilsson is re-discovered every five years or so as another director gives his or her film a lift by including one of his songs, and another generation of listeners ask themselves, 'Who is this and why isn't he a household name?' Even at the peak of his career, Harry Nilsson seemed destined...

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Friday Song: Andrew Bird, HOW YOU GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM? (Young, Lewis and Donaldson, 1918)

Something rather interesting happens when a good contemporary artist decides to cover a song from the distant past.  When James Taylor sang 'Oh! Susanna!', a Stephen Foster from the mid nineteenth century came out out like a modern(-ish) folk song. Jen Chapin's version of 'Over There' the stirring patriotic song from 1917 turns it into something weirdly unsettling and threatening. Mavis Staples' 'Hard Times, Come Again No More' gives the original a political edge. None of them is quite as strange as this week's Friday Song, a novelty knees-up number from a century ago given a weird, otherworldly treatment by Andrew Bird. 'How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm' was written in 1918 as the troops were coming home from battle.  For many of those men, nothing was going to be the same again - conflict and travel had opened their eyes. 'Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking Said...

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