Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Holiday Edition…Song #40/250: Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid

I was still in my teens when the news broke about a great famine in Ethiopia. I can clearly remember watching the CBC National News with my mother and being shocked by the reports from journalists such as Peter Kent and Brian Stewart that showed small children with distended bellies, black flies circling like vultures as they lay prone on the parched earth. Foreign aid workers described the indescribable as best they could. Like many who watched these reports around the world, my mother and I were profoundly moved by the plight of these African children starving in a world of plenty. We weren’t the only ones who felt that way. Across the pond in London, England, singer Bob Geldof and his wife, TV producer Paula Yates, were watching similar news reports that were airing on the BBC. Neither could shake the images from their mind. However, helplessness was not a feeling that Bob Geldof was used to having to deal with. He knew that he had to do something, anything, to help. The idea that he came up with was to create a charity song to help raise some funds to add to the coffers of humanitarian relief organizations that were working on the ground in Ethiopia. It just so happened that Paula Yates was set to film an interview with Midge Ure, lead singer of the UK band Ultravox. Geldof, the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, knew of Midge Ure and asked his wife to arrange for a phone call between the two whenever her interview was over. The two men discussed Geldof’s charity song idea and agreed to see what they could come up with. Time was of the essence because of the dire situation in Ethiopia, but also because the Christmas shopping season was fast approaching in England. If this new song was to have maximum impact, it needed to get finished and on store shelves as quickly as possible. In the days that followed, Geldof and Ure exchanged possible melodies and snippets of lyrics back and forth until the outline of a song began to emerge. Once that happened, they met in person and completed the song. Since it was to be sold during the Holiday season, the two men called the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”   

A photograph showing all of the performers who took part in the original Band Aid charity fundraising for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Once they had the song finished, Geldof launched into the second phase of the project which was to recruit an all-star choir to actually record the song. Not having any time to waste, Bob Geldof called up every singing star he could think of. Sting agreed to participate, as did the members of Duran Duran, U2, Wham, Kool and the Gang and Culture Club. Paul Weller agreed to lend a hand and so did Paul Young. David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Elton John all had prior commitments but agreed to send video messages of support. All participants agreed to appear for free. All studio time was donated for free. Bob Geldof’s record label agreed to produce the song for free as well. The only organization that refused to support the song by removing overhead costs was the British Government under Margaret Thatcher, who still taxed the single as if it was any other song. It was only under the most extreme public pressure that Thatcher relented and agreed to make a donation equal to the amount of tax raised. All in all, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” debuted at on the charts and stayed there throughout the Christmas season. It was played hourly on the BBC and ended up selling millions of copies worldwide. In total, the song raised tens of millions of dollars for humanitarian relief. The choir that sang the song was dubbed Band Aid. The success of this endeavour was so great that it immediately spawned similar efforts that gave the world Live Aid, Farm Aid, USA for Africa (with their song, “We Are The World”), Northern Lights from Canada (with their David Foster-led song “Tears Are Not Enough”) and many more. And just like that, famine was eradicated around the globe and no one ever had to go hungry again! Right? Well, not exactly.

As Bob Geldof himself has long since admitted, while his heart may have been in the right place, he ended up creating a monster too great for him to tame. In his rush to do something, anything, to help, Geldof and millions of people who donated to his charity ended up rushing into something that turned out to be a far more nuanced situation than they had imagined. In doing so, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has actually caused as much harm as it has good. As time has gone by, Geldof has ended up on the receiving end of much of the blame for the legacy of this song, but to be fair, while his share of the criticism is well earned, there are many other aspects to the story of what happened in Ethiopia in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the catastrophic famine that had nothing to do with him at all. When all is said and done, the story of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has turned out to be a cautionary tale for those of us living lives of privilege in the western world. It is always good to be helpful, but it is even more important to be respectful and knowledgeable about those whom we are trying to help. Here is the story of what happened as a result of the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

In stories such as this, the temptation exists to rush to judgment and assign blame and credit as if issues were simple and straightforward. That was not the case with the situation in Ethiopia. The first question that should have been asked before any fundraising was done was why the famine had happened in the first place. The news reports on the BBC and other national television networks around the world focused their coverage on the images of starving children being brought to humanitarian feeding centres. The stories implied that drought was to blame for the famine reaching the epidemic proportions that it had. So far, the news reports were not wrong. There was drought, and there were crop failures which contributed to a nationwide scarcity of food. That was all true. However, what wasn’t stated until many months or even years had gone by was that much of the food-related crisis in Ethiopia was the result of government corruption and ill-informed agricultural policies that did more to line the pockets of landowners loyal to the president than they did to actually help to grow the food for a hungry population. It was this same corrupt, authoritarian government that siphoned off much of the money that was raised by way of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” charity song. While some of the money donated by millions of well-meaning consumers around the world made it into the hands of relief agencies, most ended up padding the bank accounts of a dictator. A large part of the reason that this ended up happening was because those involved with the charity single were not prepared to deal with the large amount of money that appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden. As anyone who works in fundraising can tell you, there have to be organized systems in place for accepting donations and then, conversely, for sending that money out to those in need. There are international banking laws that have to be followed that require the involvement of trained professional financiers. While Geldof and his musical associates tried their best to be as organized as possible, the rushed nature of the entire enterprise contributed to instances of sloppy bookkeeping which, in the end, allowed the president of Ethiopia to acquire much of the funding directly. Those funds never made their way to relief agencies and ended up having no impact on those in need and helping no one except the president and his cronies.

But this is just the start of the issues raised by this song. I know that some people have grown tired of hearing/reading about white privilege and about colonialism, but I am sorry to tell you that they are very real things with very real social consequences for many. The song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a textbook example of this phenomenon in actual practice. Here is how white privilege and colonialism came into play in this instance. As mentioned earlier in this post, the entire process involved in creating this song out of nothing was rushed in order to have the song ready for the Holiday shopping season. That Geldof, Ure and their friends managed to write, record and release the song in jig time is a testament to their collective skills as songwriters and musicians. However, in the rush to create the lyrics for this song, not much time was spent actually researching the people, the places nor the circumstances that revolved around what the song was about. Instead, Geldof and Ure wrote poetically off of the tops of their heads based upon what they knew about Africa. As it turned out, the pair knew very little at all about Africa. Consequently, they created a song filled with lyrics that are actually quite ignorant with regards to the nature of the African continent and of the nature of Africans as distinct peoples. For example, let’s discuss the very title of this song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” When Geldof came up with the title, he had images of starving children in his head. His rationale for the title was that surely these dying children had other things on their minds than Christmas. In fact, in their desperate quest to survive, did they even know it was Christmas, as opposed to any other day of the year? Fair enough. But that’s not how the song’s sentiment is expressed when it is sung. The song gives the very clear impression that Africans, as a demographic group, are not aware of Christmas. The reality is that Africa is populated with a great diversity of people who live in all parts of the continent, just as there is a wide diversity of people living in Europe or in North America. As a result of this diversity, and as a direct result of colonization, large numbers of Africans in all parts of the continent are practicing Christians, and consequently, they do, in fact, know all about the biblical story of Christmas. While the song was well-meaning in concept, the fact that it joyfully sings about Africans as if they are a homogenized group of uncivilized people has caused great offense throughout much of Africa. Further to that, the lyrics to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” also question whether it snows in Africa…it does at times, whether rivers flow…they do, and whether anything ever grows there. If you have ever watched a National Geographic documentary about Africa, then you know for a fact that it is quite lush in most regions. That the song makes such fundamental errors which, in turn, are perpetuated again and again, year after year as this song is played ad nauseam during our Christmas time is tough for African citizens to tolerate. If it doesn’t bother you or you simply don’t care that much because it is “just a song”, then you, too, are displaying your privilege, just as Bob Geldof and Midge Ure inadvertently did in 1983. 

Photograph of a tweet from Twitter that shows two South African giraffes in the snow.

But there is still more. If you watch the video carefully, you will note that this song about Africa features not a single person of colour in a lead role. Singer Jody Watley and the band Kool and the Gang appear in the video, but only in the background as part of the whole group finale. The same is true of women. Although Watley and the members of Bananarama are present, they, too, are shunted into the background of the group finale. All of the main lyrics are delivered by smiling, handsome, wealthy white men. All of them. If you want to know how the world really works then watch this video. 

The last thing I would want anyone to take from this post is the idea that contributing to charitable causes is a bad idea. It is actually a beautiful idea. There are many wonderful people in our own communities and around the world who have dedicated their lives to helping others in need. To those people and the organizations they are associated with, charitable donations are their lifeblood. I wholeheartedly encourage people to give generously to organizations that they know do good work. Donating to local agencies is different from the performative act of buying a charity single organized by a bunch of guys who know nothing about finances nor about the cause that they are attempting to support.  As mentioned earlier, nowadays even Bob Geldof looks back upon the impulsive nature of this project and cringes. *(A link to an interview with him saying as much can be found here). It is also important to keep in mind that when looking at issues such as poverty, hunger, addiction, unemployment, etc., nothing really changes when we channel all of our funding and attention to the symptoms of these problems, instead of addressing the root causes that helped make these problems happen in the first place. Hold governments accountable for their policies. Hold land barons accountable for the high cost of rent and of home ownership, along with the loss of prime agricultural land and wetlands, too. Hold corporate CEOs accountable for the policies they enact that place profits ahead of people. Throwing charitable donations at the crises of homelessness or hunger or poverty are laudable decisions, but do so in tandem with organizations that hold those in positions of authority responsible for their decisions, too. Otherwise, donating to charities will only ever be a band-aid solution. 

The link to the video for the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid can be found here. ***The lyrics video is here.

The link to the official website for Band Aid Charity Trust can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes…Song #39/250: Whip It by Devo

As the Summer of Love drew to an end and the decade of the 1970s dawned, the United States found itself embroiled in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. Many young people, empowered as they were by all that they experienced in the 1960s, felt that the time was right to challenge the authority of those making these warmongering policies. There were numerous protest songs written and performed by singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and others. Not surprisingly, many of these young people opted to turn their feelings into action. There were school sit-ins; many letters were written to local newspapers, as well as to national magazines and most noticeably, there were protest marches and rallies. Many of these rallies occurred on college and university campuses. At these rallies, there would be fiery speeches delivered, folk songs sung and vows taken to effect change by whatever means necessary. Needless to say, the members of the political establishment didn’t take kindly to being criticized in such a public manner, and they responded in kind by trying to shut these protests down. On May 4, 1970, one such student-led protest rally took place on the grounds of Kent State University in Ohio. At this rally, students were carrying signs, shouting slogans and marching to attract enough public attention to force pressure on the federal government led by President Richard Nixon. As was becoming common, national guardsmen were called up to active duty in an effort to quell the protest and to ensure it didn’t turn violent. As the protest march moved along, emotions became heightened by proponents of both sides of the issue. Eventually, tensions boiled over and national guardsmen opened fire. Four Kent State student protesters were killed, and more than a dozen others were injured. In a time of war it isn’t easy for a local event to have shock value on a national level, but the shootings at Kent State University did just that. There are many who point to this moment as being the moment that the tide began turning away from supporting US involvement in the Vietnam War. Some even say that it turned trust away from the Nixon government and paved the way for the Watergate hearings to take place. Regardless of such historical speculation, this moment in history was one of the first times in which government-sanctioned killing of its own civilians happened in the golden age of television broadcasting. The Kent State killings galvanized the mood of a nation and changed the course of history. One of the lesser known consequences of this moment in time was that it spawned the creation of a band that became known as Devo.

A photo of National Guardsmen approaching student protestors at Kent State University in 1970.
Kent State University in 1970.

In the late 1960s, there were two friends named Gerald Casale and Mark Lewis. They attended Kent State University as art students. While there, they met a keyboardist named Mark Mothersbaugh and decided to channel some of their political energy into forming a band with a performance art foundation to it. They decided to call themselves Devo because of the term de-evolution. Up until the end of the 1960s, the prevalent view in society was that humans were continuing to evolve and grow and develop as a species in many important ways. However, with things like the Vietnam War going on, it seemed as though humanity was going backwards or “devolving”, as they put it. This state of mind was further entrenched with the shootings at their university campus. Mothersbaugh and Casale each knew two of the students who were killed. What happened that day wasn’t just another instance of the might of the system being used against ordinary people; this was actually something that affected them directly on a personal level. Thus, the band Devo was formed as a reaction to what had happened and was continuing to happen elsewhere to other people. The boys in the band decided that their weapon of choice in fighting against what they perceived as oppression from the government would be their creativity, their humour and their music. Consequently, Devo formed with the intention of challenging America through humour and weirdness.

As the 1970s reached their mid-way point, the band had begun to attract the attention of other theatrically minded artists such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It was because of their interest in the band that Devo landed its first record contract. Their debut album was entitled Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Although the album had no charting singles, it was well received by music critics who hailed its fresh, unorthodox approach to music. However, when their second album came and went without spawning any hit singles, Devo’s record label gave them an ultimatum to produce a hit song, or else they were going to be dropped. Devo’s third album was called Freedom of Choice. One of the tracks on this album was a song called “Whip It”. This song was never intended to be released as a single. In fact, the only reason that “Whip It” ever saw the light of day was because a radio DJ named Kal Rudman discovered it while listening to the album on his own time at home. He felt that the song was quirky and had that special something that hit songs seem to possess, so he started playing it on his radio show in the southern US. Listener reaction was positive. Sales of the album began to rise as a result. Before anyone knew it, “Whip It” had cracked the Top 40. The demand for concert tickets forced the band to relocate their shows to bigger venues. Soon they found themselves appearing on shows like Saturday Night Live. It all seemed unreal for the band. One of the reasons for this is because “Whip It” is a song that doesn’t have lyrics in the form of a traditional narrative. Instead, it is made up of motivational slogans from the government. The whole vibe of the song is as a motivational piece of music that derives its emotion from vague, meaningless sloganeering…”Get Straight! Move forward” all strung together in a row, all with the aim of convincing people to “whip” their troubles in life through endless optimism. To push this storyline even further, the band members decided to wear red pyramid style plastic hats because, at the time, there was widespread belief that pyramids, as a geometric shape, helped channel positive energy. The band did not actually believe this. It was part of the theatricality of their act. It was performance art on a national stage. Which brings us to the video for “Whip It”.

When the song first became popular, there were many people who thought that the song was about masturbation, or else that it was about kinky sex. The fact that the song is festooned with whip cracking noises added to the belief that this song was sexual in nature. As mentioned above, “Whip It” never had even the remotest thing to do with sex. But, since Americans seemed hell bent on maintaining that line of thought and because the media didn’t seem to be doing anything to dissuade anyone from this point of view, Devo decided to up the ante with their video. The video for “Whip It” is based upon a news article that Mothersbaugh had read about a cattle rancher who had married a stripper. Together, the rancher and the stripper combined their skills to create a burlesque-caliber act in which the rancher used a whip to remove his wife’s clothing, one piece at a time, while on stage. Therefore, in the video for the song, Mothersbaugh dons his pyramid hat, the rest of the band wears jumpsuits and appears in a cattle pen, all the while Mothersbaugh pretends to whip the clothes away from the body of a woman who is smoking a cigarette. If you watch the video carefully, it was constructed in a campy fashion on purpose. The whip never touches the model with the cigarette. Instead, her clothing is whipped away with a fishing line that is clearly visible on screen. Despite the ridiculousness of the entire setup, there were some accusations hurled against the band that they were engaging in misogynistic behaviour. The band members laughed off such charges because, as they stated many times, the entire song is a colossal joke meant to mock modern music and the intelligence of those who make up society’s establishment. But a funny thing happened to this merry band of pranksters. “Whip It”, joke song or not, became not only a big hit that sold millions of copies worldwide, it became one of the songs that acted as the soundtrack for an entire new genre of music in America called New Wave! “Whip It” helped to introduce synth-driven rock into the national spotlight. I will end this post with a tiny piece of trivia that you can throw around at parties if you like:  The main synthesizer riff that has come to be most closely associated with this song was actually lifted directly from the bassline of Roy Orbison’s song “Pretty Woman”. It is true. GIve the song a listen and you can hear Roy Orbison’s guitar work coming out of Mark Mothersbaugh’s keyboards.

“Whip It” was the only song that Devo recorded that ever became a chart success. For that reason, Devo is often lumped into that category known as being a one-hit wonder. The technical statistical facts of the matter support their placement in this category. However, to promote this view is to truly not understand Devo’s mission statement as performers. They formed together as a band to use humour as a way to start conversations about how American society was structured and how its norms are maintained by those making the decisions. Being able to satirize the power dynamic at play in their world was what Devo was all about. Any success that the band achieved was simply icing on their artistic cake. However, it has to be stated that the impact of Devo extends far beyond that one hit song of theirs. Bands that made it big a generation later such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam all pointed back to the subversive nature of what Devo did as helping to inspire them musically and politically, too. The members of Devo had always worked beyond the confines of the band. For example, Mark Mothersbaugh has dozens of film credits for scoring feature length films such as Thor: Ragnarok,  the Hotel Transylvania movies as well as that most recent movie that makes a mockery of real movies Cocaine Bear. The other band members have all also worked in film or music or theatre, too.

A photo of Pearl Jam's lead singer Eddie Vedder singing "Whip It" while wearing the traditional Devo jumpsuit and red pyramid hat.
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam covering “Whip It” while wearing Devo garb.

At the end of the day, the idea behind concepts such as Devo is that societal change can be made without having to resort to violence or war. If Devo ran the world, societal change would involve red plastic pyramid hats, plenty of synthesizers and lots of subtle humour that comes straight from the heart. The Arts matter. So do people. End of discussion.

The link to the video for the song “Whip It” by Devo can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for Devo can be found here.

The link to the official website for Kent State University can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #38/250: Who Let The Dogs Out By Baha Men

As the year 2000 rolled along, Bahamian singing group The Baha Men released a song entitled “Who Let The Dogs Out”. In an instant, “Who Let The Dogs Out” was everywhere all of the time, becoming one of the most recognizable songs in the world. The Baha Men won a Grammy Award that year for Best Dance Recording.The song made it as high as on the charts, selling over five million copies worldwide. Even though “Who Let The Dogs Out” had its moment and eventually faded into the background as people got tired of hearing it played so often, I am willing to bet all of the money in my wallet right now that if I were to walk into the middle of a crowded bar or restaurant and shout out, “Who Let The Dogs Out” at least some of the people there would respond by barking four times. Guaranteed! 

Ordinarily in these music posts of mine, I would proceed from here and tell you about the background of The Baha Men and perhaps why the song was written or maybe even some connective anecdote about how the song relates to my own life, but that is not how this is going to go today. The reason is that the story of “Who Let The Dogs Out” is one of the most unusual I have ever written about. For starters, “Who Let The Dogs Out” is not a Baha Men song, and in fact, it may not even be a song at all! It just gets weirder from there. Buckle up, my beauties! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride. The story of “Who Let The Dogs Out” spans several decades, takes place in almost a dozen different international locations, involves numerous lawsuits and, in the end, wrestles with the questions of when does a song become a song and is it possible to copyright words, phrases and melodies that are already in the public domain? It is a detective story for the ages.

A photograph of a parade filled with dancers. This parade is part of the Junkanoo Cultural Festival held at Nassau, Bahamas.

It all began in Nassau in the Bahamas because of an annual cultural festival called Junkanoo. During Junkanoo, there are many parades that are held. These parades consist of steel drum bands on floats that all compete against one another to see who has the best song, all the while scantily clad men and women dress in fancy costumes and dance in the streets. The whole Junkanoo Festival is a big party that attracts people from all over the world. One of those people who flew into Nassau every year was a hairdresser from England named Keith. This man, who turned out to be named Keith Wainwright, was not an ordinary cutter of hair. He worked at a salon called Smile, which was one of London’s trendiest salons, serving clients such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music (for which he was given a credit for helping to design their debut album cover) and many more. Because of the nature of his clientele, Keith Wainwright attracted the attention of many record executives who also came to get their hair styled all the while picking his brain for industry insider secrets. One of the things that helped to endear Wainwright, the hairdresser to these record execs, was that each year he would fly to Nassau to attend the Junkanoo Festival. He would return to London a week or so later armed with cassette tapes of all of the latest songs that were performed by bands during the parades. To the London record executives, these cassette tapes were akin to finding treasure. In 1998, when Keith returned from the Bahamas with his cassettes, he happened to be cutting the hair of an executive named Jonathan King. King eagerly accepted the cassette tapes and gave them a listen back at his office. One of the songs that he heard was a rendition of “Who Let The Dogs Out”. King immediately thought it had potential to be a hit, so he recorded his own version of “Who Let The Dogs Out” under the name Fat Jakk and his Pack of Pets. King peddled his own tape around but found no takers. Eventually, he thought of a man named Steve Greenberg. Greenberg was the manager of The Hanson Brothers (who you might remember from their bubble gum hit “Mmmbop!”). In any case, Steve Greenberg was also the manager of some Caribbean acts, including one group of singers who were known as The Baha Men. The Baha Men was a singing group that was well known in the Bahamas . They had a long track record of singing songs that had to do with Caribbean culture and history. So Jonathan King contacted Greenberg and presented him with the song “Who Let The Dogs Out” and asked for his opinion. Greenberg immediately thought of The Baha Men and brought the song to them. At the time, the lead singer of the group was a middle aged man named Isaiah Taylor. Immediately he declined to record the song (for reasons we will learn at the end of this post). However, Greenberg persisted. Eventually, Taylor was replaced by three new young singers and the track was recorded. The song was unleashed upon the world in July of 2000, and the rest should have been history. But in reality, the success that the song had is just the start of the story. It was that success that launched everything else that followed. 

A photograph of Trinidadian singer Anslem Douglas. He is wearing a sweater and sunglasses and appears with his armed folded across his chest.
Anslem Douglas.

Imagine that you are a professional singer in the Caribbean. You have a well-established career that includes many records of your own. You haven’t had any world wide smash hits, but you are doing ok and earning a good living from your music just the same. Then you begin to hear rumours that another Caribbean band has managed to score a breakout hit song. Initially you are excited for your brothers and their success. Then you hear their song on the radio, and it turns out to be one of your songs. That was what happened to a Trinidadian singer named Anslem Douglas. For years Douglas had been a popular entertainer who performed all throughout the Caribbean. One of the most popular songs that he performed during his shows was a song called “Doggie”. This song was a pro-feminist/anti-misogynist song that Douglas recorded in 1996 which possessed a chorus that chanted “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof!  Woof!  Woof!  Woof!”. Suddenly, that chorus which, if we are being honest, is the whole selling point of the song, was earning millions of dollars for another band. Neither The Baha Men nor their manager Steve Greenberg had ever reached out to Douglas to seek permission to cover his song. They just did it. Now they were all getting rich because of it, and Douglas wasn’t seeing a penny for his own efforts. Needless to say, Anslem Douglas launched a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement because, obviously, the song “Who Let The Dogs Out” originated with him. Or did it?

In 1995, a pair of Toronto-area DJs named Patrick Stephenson and Leroy Williams created a ten-fifteen second intro/outro-style piece of music that was to be used to bookend a sports show segment that was airing on a Buffalo radio station. The jingle they wrote was simply nine words repeated twice in a primal, grunt-like fashion:  “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof!  Woof!  Woof!  Woof!” Needless to say, when Stephenson and Williams heard The Baha Men’s rendition racing to the top of the charts they, too, wondered how such a thing could have happened because, after all, they were the ones who wrote the catchy chant. As one might expect under such circumstances, a lawsuit was launched on their behalf as well.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse. It soon became clear that the history of the song lyric “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” went way back in time. A female rapper named Gillette came forward showing that she was singing that line in 1994 in a song she called “Who Let Them Dogs Loose”, before Stephenson and Williams had written their jingle, before Anslem Douglas had recorded “Doggie” and well before The Baha Men had taken their star turn in 2000. But just as Gillette and her production company 20 Fingers spoke up, a pair of Miami-area rappers came forward with evidence that they had recorded “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof!  Woof!” back in 1992. They had done so by recording the song segments separately, much in the same way that Hip Hop artists were becoming proficient in using samples in their original songs. The rappers, known as Miami Boom Productions, had recorded the song segments on two floppy disks. These disks went a long way toward settling some of the legal issues raised by this series of copyright lawsuits. Using advanced technology, audio specialists were able to extract the original Miami Boom Productions recordings from the floppy disks and compare them, side by side, to those of Gillette, Stephenson/Williams, Anslem Douglas and The Baha Men. When shown together, all four versions were virtually identical in structure and timing. 

The final fly in the ointment of this case came from a small town in Michigan called Dowagiac. You may be aware that football is a very popular sport in the United States. It is played at high school, college/university and at professional levels. Highschool football happens on Friday nights. For smaller communities such as Dowagiac, Friday night football is the height of excitement for those who live there. In the 1980s, the Dowagiac High School football team won the state championship. It was the most extraordinary time in the history of the town. One of the things that unified the experience for everyone was the use of a chant that went “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof!  Woof!  Woof!  Woof!”.  The home football stadium became known as the Dog Pound. There were numerous televised news reports by reporters covering the championships that had recorded proof of the Dowagiac crowd and players all singing that chanted line at the tops of their lungs…in the 1980s!!!! A full two decades prior to The Baha Men version hitting the airwaves and becoming a music phenomenon. 

This brings us back to the resolution of the numerous lawsuits, the answer to the question of what constitutes an actual song and when does copyright apply and, finally, we learn why the original singer of The Baha Men, Isaiah Taylor, refused to sing the song in the first place. If you were to Google the song title “Who Let The Dogs Out”, you would find information that would state that the song was recorded by The Baha Men, but that it was written by Anslem Douglas. Douglas received sole songwriting credit and was entitled to retroactive royalty payment as well as receiving all future songwriting royalty payments. Someone else may have gained fame singing his song (verses and the famous chorus), but he got his due in the end and then some. Anslem Douglas is a millionaire today because of this settlement. All other plaintiffs were ruled as being ineligible for a variety of reasons, the most common being that the chanted chorus line of “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof!  Woof!” is technically not a song in the legal sense of what a song is viewed as being. Instead, that line was deemed to be a chant. A chant is something like a word or phrase that can be used in numerous situations by a variety of people, thus causing exact ownership to be difficult to ascertain and, for that reason, copyright does not apply. This brings us to Isaiah Taylor. Waaaay back when manager Steve Greenberg brought him the cassette tape that included the song “Who Let The Dogs Out”, Taylor immediately recognized it as being a chorus line chant that had been floating around the Caribbean for as long as he could remember. How could he claim ownership of a line in a song that was embedded into the history and culture of an entire region that he loved? He couldn’t. So, he refused to record it as lead singer and was replaced. Taylor remained a member of The Baha Men but was relegated to the chorus section. Nonetheless, he and his friends became rich from a chant that was steeped in the history of the Caribbean. The song remains one of those tunes that everyone in the world knows…at least they know the chorus anyway. Woof!  Woof! Woof!  Woof!

***There is an absolutely excellent documentary that was made about the complex history of this song. The documentary was made by a gentleman named Ben Sisto. Sisto first got involved in the detective story behind the song when it first came out. Interested in the background of how it came to be a hit, Sisto started his research on the song’s Wikipedia page. It was there that he noticed the entry for the English hairdresser known only as Keith. Sisto knew that having no last name given was not proper notation, so he decided to find out who that man was so he could correct/update the Wikipedia page and satisfy his curiosity. He wasn’t too far into that mystery when the whole complex saga revealed itself, and eight years later, Sisto was premiering a documentary about it all at the SXSW Festival. That documentary is available to view for free on TubiTv right now. It’s called…drum roll please…”Who Let The Dogs Out”. It is an hour long and highly informative and entertaining. Every person mentioned in today’s post appears in that documentary. In addition, Ben Sisto deserves a lot of credit for the information contained in today’s post.   

The link to the video for the song “Who Let The Dogs Out” by The Baha Men can be found here. ***The lyric version is here.

The link to the official website for The Baha Men can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the documentary called Who Let The Dogs Out by Ben Sisto can be found here. The link for TubiTv is here.

The link to the official website for the Junkanoo Cultural Festival in Nassau, Bahamas can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #37/250…In a Big Country by Big Country

This is a song that sounds great when the volume is fully cranked! 

“In a Big Country” was the best selling single by a Scottish band called Big Country. The song came from an album called The Crossing that was released in 1983. One of the things that helped make “In a Big Country” such a popular song was that it was released just as MTV was being launched. The hunger with which MTV sought new content caused the video for this song to get swept up and placed into high rotation. Just like that, a song about depression became one of the 1980s’ most recognizable songs! Wait! What?

The classic lineup for Big Country consisted of singer/songwriter Stuart Adamson, drummer Mark Brzezicki and guitarists Tony Butler and Bruce Watson. Adamson wrote most of the band’s music, which also included minor hits such as “Wonderland”, “Fields of Fire” and “Harvest Time”. But “In a Big Country” is easily the band’s most well known track. One of the stylistic choices the band made that helped to give the song such a distinctive sound was to funnel the sound of their guitars through a device known as an MXR guitar pedal which, in turn, made their guitars sound like bagpipes! This gave the band an added Scottish element to their sound and their image. The ironic thing about that was that although Big Country played out of Scotland, not a single one of its members was Scottish. Bruce Watson was from Canada and the other three were from England. 

Stuart Adamson in happier times.

As mentioned off of the top, “In a Big Country” is actually a song about living with depression. In fact, the underlying story of this band and, in particular, lead singer Stuart Adamson, is an instructive tale for anyone who believes that only certain people suffer from mental illness and that those suffering are easy to spot. Adamson began to demonstrate a love of music and an aptitude for playing guitar while still a child. As a teenager in 1977 he helped form a band called Skids, which actually managed to have a Top Ten hit in the UK with a song called “Into the Valley”. As the 1980s dawned, Adamson recruited the other members of what was to become Big Country. By all accounts,  Adamson had a lot going for him. He was young, handsome, talented and successful at a very early age. He became married to his high school sweetheart at age 22, and by the time he turned 27 he was the father of two. In the middle of fathering his two children, the song “In a Big Country” blew up and raced to the top of the charts while appearing on MTV multiple times a day. In a matter of a few years, Adamson went from being a teenager in a band called Skids to being a family man, as well as one of the music world’s brightest young stars. Unbeknownst to those of us watching from afar, Stuart Adamson was not holding up well under the spotlight’s glare. 

I once heard a Canadian singer speak on the topic of alcoholism. Sean McCann was one of the founding members of the Canadian band Great Big Sea. A few years ago McCann quit the band while GBS was at the height of its success. He says he had to quit in order to save his marriage and his life. You see, Sean McCann had become a raging alcoholic. He described how easy it was to make alcohol such a prominent part of his life. He spoke of touring and playing in small town after small town. Great Big Sea might play four or five nights out of each week while on tour. To those who came to see a Great Big Sea concert in their home town on a Tuesday night, that evening out became a big event in their lives. To McCann, as an entertainer, it may have been a Tuesday night in some small locale, but to the audience members, it might as well have been a Friday night. It was an occasion to get dressed up and party. This atmosphere made every night of the week seem like a Friday to the band. Every night was an occasion. Every show required the band members to be up and jovial, even if they were tired and not feeling their best. So after every show McCann and his bandmates poured themselves a drink or two or three or more to help them get through their show and the after parties that always followed. Before he knew what was happening, he was drinking full bottles of Jack Daniels or a dozen beer or more every night, all in the course of meeting, greeting and socializing with fans of the band and any local musicians they might meet along the way who wanted to spend a little time and play a few tunes with their heroes. To hear McCann describe it, becoming an alcoholic was an easy lifestyle to fall into. 

Stuart Adamson was also an alcoholic. Despite how he may have appeared in his music videos that played on MTV, Adamson was struggling to maintain his sense of equilibrium in a world where the demands being placed upon him were spinning out of control. It is not easy to be the next big thing and believe me, Big Country was certainly well positioned to be big stars. Adamson was a family man. He was one of the boys in a small-time band that suddenly became big. He was grounded and level headed, from all accounts. Then came fame and fortune and companies who wanted a piece of the action. Lots of them. Everyone wanted to be associated with the band. Everyone wanted to sign them to promotional deals. Everyone came with money-making ideas. The noise became too loud. By the time “In a Big Country” reached the top of the US charts, Stuart Adamson had long enjoyed a pint or two with the band. Now that the entourage had grown considerably, a pint or two turned into so much more in terms of temptation. The pressure also grew for the band to start churning out follow-up hits. The lifestyle all became too much for Adamson. His marriage broke down. His alcoholism grew in response, and soon Adamson lapsed into clinical depression. In what started becoming a pattern when his depression flared, one day Adamson left the band and simply disappeared. 

Over the course of the next few years, Stuart Adamson became an unreliable bandmate, father and friend. As quickly as Adamson would disappear, he would reappear. Sometimes he came back on his own. Sometimes his bandmates and friends would have to search for him. Adamson managed to continue writing songs and performing with the band, but he did so on an inconsistent basis. The band never had another song that charted after “In a Big Country”. They did release a few more albums and conducted a few more tours, but it was never the same. The band plateaued and soon fell off the public’s radar. This suited Adamson, who managed to find love with a new woman and became married for the second time in his life. He even traveled to the U.S., to Nashville in particular, where he started a new rockabilly band called The Raphaels. On the surface, his life appeared to be stabilizing. Perhaps Stuart Adamson was one of those people who was better suited for life on a smaller stage. But for those of you who know anything about mental illness and addiction, relapses are always a concern. 

Despite getting remarried, Adamson’s second marriage was collapsing under the strain of his behaviour. To add fuel to his personal fire, Adamson had also been charged with Driving Under the Influence and was set to appear in court. With his music career crumbling, his second marriage ending and now a DUI charge pending, that was all more than enough to send Adamson into a downward spiral. In November of 2001, Adamson disappeared again. This time, no one could find out where he had gone. Urgent bulletins were dispatched. Friends and associates were all contacted. But still, Adamson stayed missing. Finally, on November 26, 2001, he was discovered. He had committed suicide in a hotel room in Hawaii. Stuart Adamson was 43 years of age.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert

But I can live and breathe

And see the sun in wintertime.

  • Lyrics to “In a Big Country” by Big Country

Once you come to know of the personal struggles that made up Stuart Adamson’s life, it is impossible to listen to this song and hear anything other than a cry for help. And yet, at the time, I never thought anything about these lyrics at all. It was a rocking song with a big sound. I loved listening to it at high volume. Crank it, baby! “In a Big Country” sounded awesome! 

They say that as a writer you should write about what you know. Well, that is what Stuart Adamson did with “In a Big Country”, and nobody got the message he was trying to convey. We all just bopped along to a song by a Scottish band without any Scottish players, playing guitars that sounded like bagpipes, singing a song about struggling with mental illness that nobody really heard. And as a result, one day Stuart Adamson disappeared. Now he is gone. However, we are still here. As is his song. Let hearing it remind us all to pay better attention to ourselves and to the people in our lives. In the end, that is all that matters.

The link to the video for the song “In a Big Country” by Big Country can be found here. ***The lyric video can be found here.

The link to the official website for Big Country can be found here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or mental health issues, please seek help. A good place to start (at least in Canada) is your local mental health association. The official website for the Canadian Mental Health Association can be found here

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Readers Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #36/250…Sunshine on Leith by The Proclaimers

Chances are that if you know of The Proclaimers at all it is because of their hit song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. You know, the song that states that the singer is going to walk 500 miles to be with you and then walk 500 more. That one. For many people, that is the only view they have into the career of Scottish twins Craig and Charlie Reid. The bi-spectacled brothers often appear on North American lists of one-hit wonder bands. But truth be told, The Proclaimers, like many one-hit wonders, are actually way more interesting and impactful than the music industry may have led you to believe. For that reason, with today’s post I am taking the opportunity to delve into the splendid history of one such band so that, perhaps, we may come to view other such artists and bands with new eyes. Without further delay, here are The Proclaimers in all their glory. Enjoy.

Craig and Charlie Reid in their younger days.

Craig and Charlie Reid were born in 1963 in Leith, Scotland. Leith is a suburb of Edinburgh and sits on the Firth of Forth (which is an estuary where several rivers meet which, in turn, leads to the North Sea). Like many young men born in the 1960s, they came of age musically at a time when punk, alternative and new wave music was exploding all across England and the world. That their musical influences include The Jam, The Clash and Ian Drury and the Blockheads may come as a surprise to those who may have watched the video for “I’m Gonna Be (500 MIles)” and pre-judged them as lovable dorks based on their clean cut appearance. But we make such superficial judgments at our peril. The truth was that the Reid brothers were both invested in the political scene in Scotland and are fervent Scottish Nationalists. Northern Ireland is not the only place that harbours resentment toward the British. Many places in Scotland do as well. Charlie and Craig Reid grew up in that sort of atmosphere. From the very beginning they saw music as a means of helping them to have the greatest impact on life in their own northern town.

Initially, the brothers played acoustically and were considered more of a folk rock act in Scotland. But as they matured as people and as musicians, they began to broaden their sound by playing more instruments and doing so with more musicians than merely themselves. One of the biggest musical influences on The Proclaimers came from Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners fame. You may recall that band from their own one hit “Come On Eileen”. Dexy’s Midnight Runners was a sprawling band that was home to anywhere from 6-10 musicians at any one time. The big assist that Rowland gave to The Proclaimers was in how to create a larger, more Pop-oriented, fan-friendly sound. Rowland produced their second record which was called Sunshine on Leith. This album was the one that broke The Proclaimers across the planet. It contained their very biggest hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, along with the follow up song “I’m On My Way” which was a minor hit in North America as well. While “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” is their biggest selling single (selling almost ten million copies throughout the world), their most impactful and important song was one that didn’t chart at all. It was the title track from the album and was called “Sunshine on Leith”. 

On the whole, the songs on the album Sunshine on Leith fit together as part of a cohesive story of love, redemption, family and community. As songwriters, Craig and Charlie Reid aren’t usually of the mindset of creating perfect Pop singles. Instead, they are storytellers. They view their obligation as performers as being the telling of stories about their lives and the lives of those around them. A perfect example of this can be found in their very first charting song called “Letter From America”. This is a song that chronicles the history of Scottish emigration to Canada and the United States as told through the eyes of those making the journey to a new world and a new life. Consequently, when the time came to record their second album with Kevin Rowland, they entered the studio with a cohesive vision that told the story of the pride the boys felt at being Scottish and being from the Edinburgh area. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” combines the wanderlust that many young Scots embody, along with the fidelity that is shown in so many families in Leith and in towns and villages like it. “Sunshine on Leith” was written about the importance of unity and community during hard times. The song thanks God (who is referred to as “Chief”) for bringing “sunshine on Leith” (meaning, good fortune). When the song was first recorded and released, it was warmly received by those who bought the album. However, at the time, no one could have predicted how important and loved this song was to become. This post is really dedicated to telling that story. In these times we all find ourselves in, the story of how “Sunshine on Leith” became an anthem is one we all need to hear. While this story starts out being about sports, it has transcended that to be so much more. It is all so very heartwarming.

Craig and Charlie Reid are both big supporters of the Hibernian Football Club that plays out of Edinburgh. The team is simply known as Hibs to their fans. As you may know, football (soccer) is a huge sport in Scotland, just as it is in England and most of the rest of the world. So, not surprisingly, many of Edinburgh’s citizens are highly invested in the fortunes of their local teams. Today’s story starts a decade ago when Hibs fell on hard financial times. The team was perched precariously on the brink of insolvency. As dire as that was, the situation was made even worse by virtue of the fact that an offer of financial salvation was made by the owner of the rival Edinburgh football team, Hearts. *(To compare, that would be like the owner of the Montreal Canadians seeking to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs or vice versa. To fans of either side, that proposal would be utterly outrageous!) The owner of Hibernian FC tried several financial maneuvers to save the team such as listing it on the stock exchange. In 2011, in a desperate, last-ditch effort, the owner offered supporters of the team the chance to raise the money necessary to acquire a majority stock share. This is where The Proclaimers come in.

Investment in a local sporting team is never just about money. Fans invest their hearts and their hopes in the play of their sporting heroes. It is one of the surest ways to build unity through community. When the local team wins, the whole community feels it. When times are tough for the players, the whole community feels those tough times, too. With their team on the brink of bankruptcy, Hibs supporters rallied to the cause. There were fundraising drives and auctions. There were raffles and lotteries. There were autograph sessions held by team players, past and present, with all funds raised going toward the community investment fund. Being proud citizens of Leith themselves, Charlie and Craig Reid approached organizers of the investment drive and offered to personally finance their own benefit concert to help raise money for the cause. The Proclaimers had remained in the area all through their heyday of “I’m Gonna Be (500 MIles)” fame and were highly respected by the locals. The concert was played to a sellout crowd. The song that The Proclaimers sang as the finale was “Sunshine on Leith”. Originally, this was a song written about marriage. The song speaks of broken hearts and tears and redemption through unconditional love. As mentioned earlier, the song thanks God for the good fortune families receive when marriages are blessed and communities grow stronger as a result. When “Sunshine on Leith” was sung at the benefit concert by a band seeking to help their community, the music became anthemic. Those in the audience felt the song’s message of resiliency and strength through hardship as applying to them. The words resonated deeply in their hearts, and as a result, the whole of the audience sang along, the lyrics echoing throughout all of Edinburgh. In the end, the community managed to raise the necessary funds to rescue their team. When the shares were purchased and calamity averted, many reflected on the journey that it took to get there and stated that their efforts solidified into a unified cause once The Proclaimers led the audience in song with “Sunshine on Leith”. To add an additional element of emotion to this tale, in 2016 the Hibs managed to win the Scottish Premiership. At the conclusion of the championship-winning match, an entire stadium of Hibs supporters who had helped save the team all joined in song and sang “Sunshine on Leith” as one. It is a spine-tingling moment that I encourage you all to stop and experience now by clicking here.

But it doesn’t end there.

In 2013, the songs that made up the album Sunshine on Leith were taken and turned into a musical of the same name. That stage musical, in turn, was made into a movie. From my eye, the movie has that same sort of peppy, uplifting vibe that Mamma Mia! had when it used ABBA’s song catalogue as the basis of a rich, emotional family story.  Sunshine on Leith, the movie, is a joyful exploration of daily life in Scotland and is a must-see by anyone who likes their entertainment to come from the heart and to be about family and love and kinship and all good things like that.   

Like I said off of the top of this post, we label artists and bands as one-hit wonders at our peril. I realize that life is busy and there often isn’t time to dig more deeply into the real story of a band who has that one song that seems to always be on the radio. But the story of many so-called one-hit wonders often goes beyond being lottery lucky and capturing musical greatness one time only. Sometimes, there is much more to an artist’s legacy than what is presented by mainstream media for easy public consumption. So, if you find yourself listening to a song like “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and thinking that these nice young men seem like good guys, maybe you can take a moment or two and check out their website and/or some online articles about who they really are, how they came to create the music that you are drawn to and what other things they may be up to. Who knows? That short investment of time may yield richness and you may discover something that touches your heart and makes life seem better. For me, the story behind “Sunshine on Leith”, a song that I had never listened to before researching this post, brings a tear to my eye. This post was originally going to focus on “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. But that small investment of time I gave to this project was well worth it. Finding a song/story that combines the emotions I feel as a sports fan with the emotions I feel about my homeland of Cape Breton Island is like finding pure golden treasure. I have come away extremely impressed with The Proclaimers as a band and with Charlie and Craig Reid as human beings. I hope that this post will help you to arrive at a similar conclusion. 

The link to the official website for The Proclaimers can be found here.   

The link to the video for the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers can be found here. ***Lyrics video can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Sunshine on Leith” by The Proclaimers can be found here. ***Lyrics video can be found here. The violinist is a lady named Lucy J. Morgan who plays in the band Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie “Sunshine on Leith” can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written permission of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #35/250…Down to the River by Ben Caplan

I always enjoy having readers reach out to me with song or artist requests. Lately I have gotten a few such messages, which warms my heart completely. To those who have contacted me, I just want you all to know that I have added your requests to my Reader’s Choice list and will get to each and every one of your picks in due time. For today’s post, I am drawing upon a name that was forwarded to me in the most concise and succinct manner possible. My pal, Andrea Storm, e-mailed the following message: “Two words: Ben Caplan”. That was it. As it turned out, it was all that I needed to hear.  Ben Caplan is an amazing singer who draws upon a background in the theatre to help give him a stage presence like no other. He is one of those hidden gems who is working his way through the ranks of both the Indie and Folk music scenes in Canada. I am reasonably confident that you will find him to be as captivating as I do and as Andrea does as well. So without further delay, please allow me to introduce to you, Mr. Ben Caplan. Enjoy.

As far as being a performer goes, Ben Caplan has many things working in his favour. We will get to his booming voice momentarily. But first, let’s start with something that I usually regard as being superficial in nature, and that is his appearance. In the case of Ben Caplan, his appearance is one of the most visually striking things about him. Far from being something that distracts from his talent, Ben Caplan’s appearance is an integral component of his identity. And it is personal identity that helps inform his musical stylings, so it is prudent for us to begin any profile of this great singer by talking about that face and, in particular, that beard. Ben Caplan’s beard is truly one of the most impressive beards I have ever seen in my life. In fact, it is so full and flowing that even Santa Claus pales by comparison. However, the story of Ben Caplan’s beard is much more than simply a fashion choice. What his beard truly symbolizes is the history of his family and his people and his desire to keep alive a traditional form of music called Klezmer music. 

A century ago, this man named A.M. Kholodenko aka “Pedotser” was an accomplished Klezmer musician and singer. He had quite the beard, too.

Klezmer music is a traditional form of music and storytelling that features prominently in the history of Jewish peoples from Poland, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. If you know anything about history, then you will immediately understand that the Jewish peoples of Eastern Europe have had a long history of persecution, forced occupation and expulsion at the hands of a myriad of external foes. For these people, mere survival has often been the order of the day for their culture. One of the strategies that Eastern European Jews have employed to help maintain their heritage in the face of adversity is through the Arts. In particular, communal gatherings such as weddings, births and funerals have always featured the telling of stories, the singing of songs and the dancing of dances to music played by musicians who, as it turns out, look an awful lot like Ben Caplan does today. So, the very first thing to note about Ben Caplan is that he looks like a Klezmer singer. Now, let’s talk about whether he sounds like one or not.

He does.

Ben Caplan has a deep, rich voice that can be thunderous, at times. But being a theatre major has given Caplan the ability to use his voice for dramatic effect. Consequently, while his singing style can be accurately described as powerful and forceful, he is well versed in modulation and, as such, is just as skilled at dropping whole registers and whispering the most emotionally important moments of the songs that he is singing. One of the things about his voice that I like is that it is not completely smoothed and polished. There is a raspiness that occasionally leaves his lyrics roughly hewn. The variations in his voice between soft and loud, smooth and raspy, swift in cadence and dramatically silent, all combine to make him unique among modern singers performing today.

Taryn Kawaja and Ben Caplan.

Ben Caplan was born in Hamilton, Ontario. However, he traveled to Nova Scotia in his early twenties and fell in love with the city of Halifax and the surrounding area so much that he lives there now. He is a folk singer by trade, but he also works as an actor at The Neptune Theatre in Halifax and in productions that tour across the country. Caplan often plays solo acoustic music when he tours, but he also performs regularly with a band called The Casual Smokers, as well as with his partner, Taryn Kawaja.  In the videos I will share below, I will present one with Caplan singing as a solo artist, one with his band and one with his partner, Taryn Kawaja. In all three cases, his musical stylings are a sight to behold. His stage presence can be mesmerizing. In fact, Ben Caplan has been recognized for his talent in the form of winning multiple East Coast Music Awards over the course of the last decade. He has four albums to his credit now, In The Time of the Great Remembering, Birds With Broken Wings, Old Stock and Recollection. In fact, his album Old Stock contains songs that form the soundtrack to a dramatic play about immigrants. Halifax has a long history of being the place where immigrants coming from Europe first arrive in Canada by sea. There is a wonderful museum in Halifax that is dedicated to telling the story of these immigrants and their stories. It is called Pier 21, after the actual pier at which these immigrants would leave their ships and be processed for entry into their new homeland. Old Stock, the play, was inspired by the story of family members of Ben’s and Taryn’s who made this exact journey almost a century ago. The play was made in response to the line infamously uttered by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper about wanting a Canada filled with “old stock Canadians” and how intolerant a message that was to be sent to the rest of the world.

In any case, I will end this post with a shout-out to my friend Andrea Storm for nominating an underrated yet super talented singer such as Ben Caplan. In particular, I appreciate having my view of East Coast music broadened by this introduction. I grew up surrounded by music that was Celtic-inspired and so, as I grow older, whenever I think of music from back home, I hear fiddles and bagpipes in my mind. But listening to the indie-folk stylings of such a troubadour as Ben Caplan serves as a reminder that the world is a much broader and richer place than any of us realize at times. Even though Nova Scotia may be small in size, geographically-speaking, there is room for many voices around the table…Celtic, Indigenous, Folk, Rock, Country and Western, Gaelic and many more. To quote another Prime Minister, “Our diversity is our strength”.  Thanks again, Andrea. Ben Caplan is an amazing talent! For everyone else who is reading these words, please feel free to submit your own favourite artists and/or songs for me to profile on your behalf. Any artist. Any song. Any genre. Any era. All are welcome.

  • The link to the video for the song “Down to the River” by Ben Caplan can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

In this video, Ben Caplan is performing on the boardwalk at a place called Alderney Landing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The water behind him is Halifax Harbour. If you follow the water all the way to the left of the screen you will see the Atlantic Ocean. The city across the harbour is Halifax, itself. In the Joel Plaskett song “Nowhere With You”, he sings of taking “The Dartmouth ferry into the town”.  Well, Alderney Landing is where you board the ferry that takes you across the harbour and into Halifax. I am actually surprised to not see the ferries shuttling back and forth in the background as Ben Caplan sings in this video.  

  • The link to the video for the song “40 Days and 40 Nights” by Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

***The woman standing just to Caplan’s right (as we view him) is his partner, Taryn Kawaja.

  • The link to the video for the song “Belly of the Worm” by Ben Caplan and Taryn Kawaja can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here. 

***This is a beautiful duet about a love between two people that extends beyond the bonds of earthly life, to the point where the two lovers reunite in the belly of the worm that digests them after death. Sounds morbid, but trust me, it is lovely. These two singers sure have an easy chemistry that is plain to see.

The link to the official website for Ben Caplan can be found here.

***One tiny piece of trivia before I go….Taryn Kawaja is recording music that will appear on her own debut album. She is recording that music at a studio in Montreal called Hotel2Tango. What is noteworthy about that is that Hotel2Tango is the studio that was bought and run by Godspeed You! Black Emperor so that they could better control the means of production for their own music. As this tale illustrates, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have broadened their reach and are working with other unique artists such as Taryn Kawaja, too. *(You can read the post about Godspeed You! Black Emperor here). If you are interested, the link to the website for Hotel2Tango is here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written permission of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #34/250…I Touch Myself by The Divinyls

Chrissy Amphlett and Mark McEntee of The Divinyls.

The Divinyls were an Australian band made up of singer Chrissy Amphlett and guitarist Mark McEntee, along with a revolving cast of bandmates who came and went over the years. The Divinyls were most popular in the 1980s and 90s and enjoyed their greatest successes at home in Australia. In conducting my research for this post, I was amazed/dismayed by the polarized viewpoints held by many toward this band and, in particular, singer Chrissy Amphlett. There are scores of fans who view Amphlett as some sort of feminist icon due to the confidence with which she presented herself to the world. Amphlett often wore “school girl attire” on stage and wrote songs about her own sexual desires and conquests. Not unlike Madonna, Amphlett was someone for whom personal pleasure and sexual happiness were something to be celebrated and embraced. The most important aspect of this was Amphlett’s ability to make sexual choices for herself on terms that worked for her. However, as many of you can imagine, we live in a world that is more prudish and judgemental about how women discuss and portray their bodies in public. To people who fall into this way of thinking, Amphlett was viewed as being dangerous and a myriad of other descriptive words that aren’t fit for me to print. Because Chrissy Amphlett and her bandmates were steadfast in their beliefs, the history of The Divinyls as a band is one littered with examples of intolerance and censorship. But, because the band stood their ground and never changed the core of who they were to satisfy the braying minority, The Divinyls have accrued an undying level of respect from their fans that can only be earned through endless battles to maintain what they view as the moral high ground. If you know nothing about The Divinyls other than what I am writing today, then please allow me to introduce you to their only song that charted in North America. That song is akin to a banner that flies over the band, announcing to the world who they are and what they stand for. That song is “I Touch Myself”. 

“I Touch Myself” is a song about masturbation. It is a song about self-pleasure that is sung with gusto by a woman. On the surface, singing about engaging in an activity that is bringing pleasure and happiness to oneself shouldn’t be a problem, especially when the act in question isn’t infringing on anyone else in any way. Self-pleasure is a private act and shouldn’t be anyone else’s business but that of the person engaged in the act. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to live in a world that can mind its own business when it comes to what goes on behind closed doors. This is especially true when it comes to women who advocate for themselves in this manner. “I Touch Myself” is a peppy Pop song. It is a catchy tune that many people enjoy singing, including my wife, who has been known to sing the chorus of this song aloud as she putters about the house. The song is a great tune, plain and simple, and yet it has caused an inordinate number of people to lose their collective minds over the years. The Divinyls have had the electricity to their microphones cut off mid-song while touring in the southern U.S. They, like Elvis before them, have been allowed to perform on TV shows, but only if the camera filmed Amphlett from the waist up. Not surprisingly, small groups of protesters would often show up wherever they played in North America. Many of their signs spoke of God and Jesus in ways that don’t correlate to my understanding of the Bible.  

Regardless of where you stand on the subject of a sexually-confident woman openly talking about matters of a sexual nature in public, the fact remains that male singers and male-dominated bands have made quite a comfortable living out of talking about sex in public for as long as Rock n’ Roll has existed. The proof of this is endless, but for the sake of this post, consider the cocksure strutting of Mick Jagger as he covers Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” or Billy Idol’s take on masturbation, “Dancing With Myself”. As I said, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of songs by men that focus on sex, sexual conquests, sexual desires and/or the sexualization of women. If the vitriol aimed at the Madonnas and the Amphletts of the world was really just about sex, then I would expect the likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, just to name a few, to be vilified, too. But that is not usually the case. It is different for women. Consequently, the utter refusal of Chrissy Amphlett to deny who she was as a woman because a certain segment of society demanded it, is what makes her such an important figure to so many people around the world. This is especially the case in her native Australia, where The Divinyls were far more successful than anywhere else in the world.

Unbeknownst to many of her fans, Chrissy Amphlett battled Multiple Sclerosis for the latter part of her adult life. This made it more difficult for her to be as flamboyant on stage as she once had been, but it did not stop her from performing. However, what eventually did stop her from performing was the discovery of a lump in her breast. The lump turned out to be cancerous. In 2013, at the young age of 53, Chrissy Amphlett passed away from the combined effects of MS and breast cancer. In passing, Amphlett left Australia and the world without a champion for the rights of women. The sudden silence became deafening for many. As often happens, we take our leaders and warriors for granted until the time comes when we are forced to go on without them. In the case of Chrissy Amphlett, her death touched many, just as her life had for years prior. When you stand for something as important as a woman’s right to dictate the terms of her own sexual pleasure and to be able to control what happens to her body, your legacy shines a bright light. In death, a great void was created. That void was felt by many other women. Not long after her passing, a number of Australian women from the world of the Arts stepped forward to honour Chrissy Amphlett’s life and her legacy. Led by folks like Olivia Newton John, a campaign was started called the I Touch Myself Project. This project was aimed at encouraging women to engage in frequent breast self-examinations in order to detect breast cancer in its earliest and, hopefully, most curable stages. Money raised from the I Touch Myself Project was aimed at funding breast cancer treatment and research but also at raising funds to help with the design of affordable bras for women undergoing breast cancer treatment, as well as special undergarments for women who have had mastectomies.  The original Aussie fundraising song can be viewed here. U.S. tennis star Serena Williams did her own version of the song for the project on her Instagram account. You can see that here. It is so powerful. I will link to the official website for this important project below.

For many musicians, the allure behind getting into the music business has a lot to do with the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll lifestyle. To those who are successful and are able to fully indulge their hedonistic desires, good for them. But there are other musicians and bands for whom the ability to command a stage in front of hundreds and maybe even thousands of people means that they have a platform from which to make a difference in the world. We sometimes tend to mock the idealism behind those who shout their politics into a microphone, backed by a pounding bassline. But think about where Australia’s aboriginal peoples would be today if not for a band like Midnight Oil rocking out to “The Dead Heart” or the Indigenous in Canada if not for Gord Downie and all that he has done so well on their behalf. As you rock out to the political messages of “Biko” by Peter Gabriel or Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” or even songs like “YMCA” by The Village People or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper….all great tunes that possessed an important message, think of a song like “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls as well. There are times when the boppiest of Pop songs contain the most important pearls of wisdom. So please feel free to dance and groove with this terrific song by The Divinyls. But as you do, heed the hidden call that exists within the lyrics of this song. “I Touch Myself” is a song that is about masturbation but, in reality, is about something far more fundamentally important and that is a woman’s right to control what happens to her body. In 2023, that right should not even need to be discussed, but as we all are becoming far too aware, in many parts of the world in which we live, including many parts of North America, women are having those rights stripped away by right-wing governments at the state and provincial levels. The battle for self-determination for women remains a fight that is ongoing. If anyone requires a battle cry, you would be well served by listening to Chrissy Amphlett and The Divinyls sing “I Touch Myself”. 

The link to the video for the song “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls can be found here. Lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Divinyls can be found here.

The link to the official website for the I Touch Myself Project can be found here.

It is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in Canada as I type these words. The link to the official website for the Canadian Cancer Society can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song #33/250…Love Is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar

The very first professional music concert I ever attended in my life was seeing Pat Benatar play at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1982. For someone who was barely five feet tall, the voice that roared out of her was unbelievable! Such power and range. At the time I was unaware of her personal background. There was no internet back then. All that I knew about her came from her first three albums and hit songs, such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, “Shadows of the Night”, “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and many more. But I came to learn that my favourite singer at the time possessed a singing voice known as a coloratura soprano and that she had been accepted for music at the Juilliard School. But that night in Toronto, all that I cared about was the music. For my first concert, it was unforgettable. She was, and still is, amazing!

Pat Benatar turns 70 years old this year and is still actively performing. She was recently inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside her husband of over forty years, guitarist Neil Giraldo. She is mother to two girls named Haley and Hana, who are both television actresses. Over the course of her career, Benatar has sold a whopping 35 million albums (including a half dozen or so to me), she has won four Grammy Awards in the Rock category, she released seven albums that went platinum or multi-platinum, along with having fifteen Top 40 hits and one hit song. Ironically enough, Pat Benatar refuses to perform her only hit song in public anymore. That song was “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. Originally, I was going to feature that song in this post. But then I read about how the fact that many listeners in the States paired her song with gun play on YouTube and/or in video games. She was so appalled when she learned that a song about determination and never giving up had been appropriated by those in league with the N.R.A. that she declared that hit song to be off limits during public performances. In her words, “How can I sing of ‘taking a shot’, even though it has nothing to do with guns, when there are so many lives being lost to gun violence?” If nothing else, such action is a testament to the quality of her character. As much as she is known for her pipes, Pat Benatar is also highly respected as a person. She takes great pride in being a positive role model for others, especially for young women who may wish to make a career for themselves in the music business. Not singing her greatest hit in public is just one example that proves she puts her principles before her profit.

If I can’t use her only hit song in today’s post, then I will go with a song that made it all the way to on the charts…”Love Is a Battlefield”. This song is about the fact that some relationships require a lot of work in order for them to survive over time and that, at other times, the hardships are not worth it and it is better to walk away. This song is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, it was released in the early 1980s. When it came to the musical side of this song, “Love Is a Battlefield” was one of the first songs to use a drum machine that used real drum beats. Synthesizers were just coming into vogue then, and as they became more common, other music-making machines appeared on the scene. The first drum machines produced artificial beats that tended to sound weak and tinny. However, for “Love Is a Battlefield”, one of the very first machines that captured the richness and depth of actual drum beats was used, giving the song a rich bass beat. Secondly, the video for this song is the answer to a trivia question. Most people who follow music can tell you that the first video played on MTV was a song called “Video Killed the Radio Star” by a band called The Buggles. The second video played ever on MTV was “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar. In fact, Benatar really benefited because of the arrival of MTV on the music scene. Being one of the few female rockers at the time, her videos made her a unique and in-demand commodity on MTV. Consequently, all of her hit songs released during the early 1980s went into heavy rotation, which helped with record sales despite the fact that she only had the one radio chart hit. The third notable aspect of this song is that the video is actually a dramatic play. In this case, the video showed a young woman who runs away from home after her father objects to her lifestyle choices. As part of the video, there are several lines of spoken word dialogue between Benatar’s character and the man who plays her father. This was the first time that spoken word dialogue ever appeared in a music video. The final thing that makes the video for “Love Is a Battlefield” stand out is that it contains a choreographed dance scene. Although Benatar was not a trained dancer, she gave it the old college try. Some viewers snickered at the scene in which Benatar leads a group of dancers out on strike from a ruthless, uncaring boss. But the joke ended up being on them, because one of the people who watched this video was a fellow performer named Michael Jackson. When he saw Benatar’s dance scene, he immediately knew that he wanted to have one in his next video, too. That subsequent video turned out to be for a little song known as “Beat It”.

Neil Gerald and Pat Benatar: the couple who play together, stay together.

As careers go, Pat Benatar’s stands out. She is the very model of success. She has had a Hall of Fame career, she is recognized as possessing one of the most distinctive and powerful voices of any female singer, she is respected for the principles by which she lives her life, she is happily married and has been for over forty years, she is scandal free, addiction free and still singing beautifully even as she turns seventy years of age. Even though I no longer have her poster on my wall, as I did at the time of that first concert, Pat Benatar remains one of my Top 5 favourite female singers of all time. In the video links below, I am going to include a recent performance that she and her husband, Neil Giraldo, gave on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. They play three songs there and banter about in between songs. You really get a sense of the quality of their individual characters, the easy rapport they possess and the talent that pours forth seemingly with ease. Please enjoy. 

That is it for this edition of Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes. Please remember to submit your own song requests and I will happily, joyfully and accurately tell the story of your song and the band/musician who performed it. For now, “Love Is a Battlefield” was a Tom’s Top Tune selection. If you have any comments or memories about Pat Benatar that you would like to share, feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks for taking the time to read my post. Take care. Bye for now.

The link to the official website for Pat Benatar can be found here.

The link to the video for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert by Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo can be found here.

The link to the official video for “Love Is A Battlefield” can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes: Song 32/250: Play That Funky Music, White Boy by Wild Cherry.

NOTE: Starting today I am tweaking the Reader’s Choice series a little bit. In the past I have used this series to accept song requests from you, my dear readers. I am still willing and able to do that, so feel free to send in any song from any era in any musical genre and I will do my best to tell your story with grace and thoughtful consideration. However, I decided to allow myself some greater flexibility in how I use this series going forward. While I was on hiatus, helping my mother get settled in her nursing home in Nova Scotia, I had time to create a new list of songs to augment those I have received from my readers. These songs may or may not have been a hit in their day but all of them were noteworthy for one reason or another and all enjoyed their own “fifteen minutes of fame”. So, in that light, I introduce to you songs that I am simply calling Tom’s Top Tunes. I hope that you enjoy learning about how these popular songs came to be as much as you enjoy reading about your Reader’s Choice entries.  With that having been said, here is our very first Tom’s Top Tune….”Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry. Enjoy. 🙂

Wild Cherry was a rock band that played out of the Cleveland, Ohio area during the 1970s. The band played straight-ahead guitar driven rock music and were quite popular in the local area. While Wild Cherry didn’t have any chart topping original songs, they did do a variety of rock covers, and they had some of their own material that was sprinkled into their sets. They were a well-received bar band, and for a while, that was good enough for them to find consistent bookings. Getting paid to do something each band member liked seemed like incredibly good fortune. But then, through no fault of their own, the musical sands shifted beneath their feet and everything changed.

Cleveland, Ohio is not exactly an east coast town. But it does have east-west and northern connections to places such as Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York City. These connections exist primarily due to the transportation corridor that runs from the Great Lakes all the way to the Atlantic coastline. Because of the comings and goings of so many people and goods along this corridor, Cleveland has often ended up on the receiving end of many cultural trends that began in places like NYC and ended up moving westward across America. In the mid-1970s, one of the biggest cultural trends in music was Disco. 

Disco music, disco dancing and disco clubs spread like wildfire throughout the eastern part of the U.S. in the mid-1970s, with the epicentre being New York City. Clubs such as Studio 54 became the mecca of this new world. Everyone who was anyone vied to gain entry through Studio 54’s famous doors and into the decadent world that existed inside. Bands like Blondie had smash hits. Movies such as Saturday Night Fever became cultural touchstones that launched a fashion scene that swept the country. Even television shows like American Bandstand followed the Disco trends. And when Dick Clark put his stamp of approval on a scene, then that scene would start showing up everywhere. One of the places that the Disco subculture took root was along that east-west corridor in Cleveland, Ohio. Because people always wanted to feel as though they had their fingers on the pulse of what was new and hip, many of the folks who went to bars in the Cleveland area did so in the hopes of disco dancing the night away. This was how a band like Wild Cherry suddenly found themselves at odds with their own local music scene that had nurtured them for so long.

The story goes that in the late 1970s, Wild Cherry was playing in a bar. They were running through their typical set of guitar rock. Usually, these sets were welcomed by their audience, but on this night, the band found that the connection that usually existed between the band and the crowd just wasn’t there. On this night, the audience grew increasingly restless as the evening went on. Finally, one man finally took it upon himself to express the frustration everyone was feeling. He stood in front of the stage and shouted at the band and, in particular, at lead singer Rob Parissi and asked, “Are you gonna play some funky music, white boys?!”  Parissi and his bandmates knew that their brand of rock was out of fashion, but they had hoped that this fad would pass and that they would be able to weather the musical storm and just keep playing good old rock n’ roll. But once this challenge was publicly uttered, it seemed to demand a response from the band. So, Parissi paused the set. He and the band took a break to discuss their next move. During the break, a lot of the thoughts and feelings that Parissi had been feeling about the pressure to adapt and begin playing disco music (which he did not actually like) came bubbling to the surface. According to Parissi, the lyrics to a song about their exact situation formed immediately in his mind. He claims that he grabbed a sheet of order paper from a passing waitress and wrote out the lyrics on a piece of paper in approximately five minutes. Then he showed them to the band. The band members felt that they had nothing to lose, so a few minutes later, they went back out on stage and played the song live for their audience. The crowd responded positively to Wild Cherry’s efforts. The response was enthusiastic enough that the band decided to polish the song and record it. The song was released locally and became a hit in the Cleveland area. Word quickly spread up and down the east-west corridor, and soon Wild Cherry was appearing on American Bandstand and other nationally-televised shows. They called their song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”. The song went all the way to , selling over two million copies worldwide. It became Wild Cherry’s only Top 40 hit. But the success of the song allowed Parissi and his bandmates to enjoy a healthy living because of strong royalty returns in the years since.

As many of you know, the Disco era burned brightly while it existed, but soon enough, it faded away in part because of a backlash against it from many of those very same rock fans who originally watched Wild Cherry play back in the day. Wild Cherry did weather the musical storm in a sense. They never had another big hit to follow up “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” but that seemed ok with their local fans. The song, while inspired by Disco from New York, was still funky enough to survive the transition back into more standard rock fare in Cleveland. Almost forty-five years later, it remains a crowd pleaser whenever it is played at a bar, wedding reception or party. It was lightning in a bottle for Wild Cherry. Because of that one moment, Wild Cherry created a song that will always be remembered as marrying the fortunes of Disco and Rock together.

If you require proof that “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” has remained relevant decades later, that proof can be seen in how it was used in a television show called Big Bang Theory. If you know about the show at all, then you will be aware that two of the main characters were roommates named Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter. Both men were scientists. Both were on the nerdy side of the social spectrum, with Sheldon being the one who is far more unaware of social cues, as well as being fixated on rules and order and organization, etc. Part of the show’s foundation was built upon Leonard helping Sheldon to better understand and function in the world around him. One such example of this revolved around the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry. In the scene, Leonard takes Sheldon for a drive. While doing so he puts on some music. He explains to Sheldon that listening to music while driving makes the experience of getting from here to there more pleasurable. Sheldon ponders the accuracy of that statement and decides to give music a try to see if listening to music brings him pleasure, too. The song that is playing is “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”. At first, Sheldon bops along with the beat and is, indeed, enjoying himself. Then the song comes to the chorus. This causes Sheldon to start analyzing the lyrics. He pauses to seek clarification from Leonard by asking if this song is representative of a style called funky. Unsure of where he is going with this, Leonard warily responds with, “Sure”.  Immediately Sheldon turns to Leonard and announces that this song is a perfect example of something known as Russell’s Paradox.  When Leonard adopts a quizzical look, Sheldon explains that Russell’s Paradox is a scientific theorem that states that something scientific can be a subset of the factors that cause the original scientific theory to be true. Leonard remains confused. Then Sheldon attempts to simplify his explanation, as he often felt the need to do throughout the course of the series, by stating that if the song was already an example of something funky, then why was the singer being asked to play a song that he was already playing? Then Sheldon threw his hands up in disgust and claimed that “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” was ruined for him now. He ended by stating a line that Keri often says to me when I feel the need to explain the meaning of and/or the story behind every song…he said, “Shouldn’t music just be fun?!”  

As I hoist myself on my own petard, I will stop talking and wish you all a great rest of your day. 🙂

The link to the official website for Wild Cherry can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” scene from the TV show Big Bang Theory can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice: Song #31/250…Working Class Hero by John Lennon

As written in a previous post that you can read here, John Lennon’s view of the world around him became more cynical and jaded as his career and life unfolded. In the early days of The Beatles, it was all laughter and smiles, fun and games, light and airy Pop tunes. However, after the 1960s passed their midpoint, it all began to change for Lennon. Beatles manager Brian Epstein died, leaving the members of the band to manage their own affairs, which proved burdensome and divisive. John saw the birth of his son, Julian, his divorce from his first wife, Cynthia, and the start of his new relationship with Yoko Ono. As a band, The Beatles experienced their disastrous US tour (which included Lennon’s controversial comment about the band being bigger than Jesus). This caused The Beatles to give up touring and playing live for the remaining days as a band. It was also as The Beatles were trying to record the songs that ended up being on the albums Abbey Road and Let It Be that John started coming under the influence of nefarious characters such as manager Allan Klein and record producer Phil Spector. (You can read posts about Klein and Spector here, here and here).

While all of these changes were happening in Lennon’s musical world, the outside world around Lennon was changing, too. The sunny optimism of The Summer of Love had begun to give way to the anger and cynicism felt by many toward governments because of the Vietnam War and other assorted scandals and events. There were protests in many western countries. As often happens during times like these, citizens looked to artists and poets and writers and musicians to use their skills to shine a light on the way forward. While still in The Beatles, Lennon felt that pressure to say something about the events of the day. He responded with the song “Revolution”. As detailed in the previous post linked above, “Revolution” was met with a storm of criticism from the authorities for having said too much and from protestors who claimed Lennon hadn’t said enough. Stung by this negative response, Lennon’s next political move was to hold his famous/infamous Bed-in for Peace in Montreal. The track he recorded at this time, which was co-credited to him and to Yoko Ono, was called “Give Peace a Chance”. (You can read more about that song here). Again, John Lennon’s earnest intentions were met with criticisms that it was all just a publicity stunt by a man who had it all with The Beatles and was simply trying to maintain his place in the public eye.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon in NYC,

Around this time in the early 1970s, he and Yoko Ono officially moved to New York City and moved into the famous Dakota Apartments adjacent to Central Park on the Upper West Side of the city. In a final, last-ditch effort to make a political statement that would be respected and have the type of socially-positive impact that Lennon sought, he released an album of stridently political songs called Some Time in New York City. He followed up that album with the release of today’s song, “Working Class Hero”. This song completed a four-phase cycle of attempts by John Lennon to make his politics known to the world and effect some change in a world that seemed to be losing direction. “Working Class Hero” is a song that was inspired by a much older song known as “Nottamun Town”. Essentially, the theme of both songs is that of being a victim of class struggles and the toll that it takes on one’s soul. Lennon had hoped that his acoustic ballad about the struggles of the working class would be revolutionary in nature and would help form part of the soundtrack to a worker’s rebellion. As you may be aware, John Lennon came from working class roots. He never had much in the way of material possessions or opportunities growing up in Liverpool, England. He lived with a variety of relatives during his youth, and as you may recall, he waxed poetic about spending his teenage days sneaking into Strawberry Fields orphanage for tea and snacks. (You can read about that song here). However, living now, as he did, in one of New York City’s most famous and exclusive apartment buildings, complete with a Central Park view, was not the usual lot of a common working class bloke. Even though “Working Class Hero” was a song that was true to his family’s heritage and experiences, it rang hollow coming from a rich man’s mouth in the 1970s. Over time, “Working Class Hero” has gone on to become one of John Lennon’s most respected solo recordings. It has been covered by a roster of music stars (such as Ozzy Osbourne, Green Day, Marianne Faithful, as well as country singer Alan Jackson) who were drawn to its gritty lyrics and its respect for those who toil and labour to make ends meet.

John, Sean and Yoko relaxing away from it all in their NYC apartment.

It was around this time in John Lennon’s personal, as well as his professional life that he made a very sensible decision. He and Yoko Ono had a child together that they named Sean. With the birth of his son, John Lennon shifted his focus in life and decided to retire from active performing. He dedicated himself to being the best father he could be to Sean and became a stay-at-home dad. He recorded no new songs during the first five years of Sean’s life. He gave no public performances, either. Instead, he donned his cap, wound a scarf around his neck and pushed a stroller around Central Park, blending in with the thousands of other parents milling about each day in America’s biggest, busiest city. But fate was to intercede in a most unexpected way and draw Lennon back to the recording studio. In Athens, Georgia, a new band called The B52s was gaining attention for their music. In particular, they had a hit song on the radio called “Rock Lobster”. As part of the song’s musical structure, one of the female vocalists, Kate Pierson, makes sounds that mimic a dolphin. (You can read about this song here). As John and Yoko listened to this catchy song, they both noticed that Pierson’s dolphin squeals sounded a lot like the sort of experimental music that Yoko Ono was making with the Plastic Ono Band. The notion that this up-and-coming band would give such an obvious shout-out to John and Yoko sent a jolt of electricity coursing through John’s body and soul. Believing that, perhaps, he was still a relevant voice in the music scene, John Lennon began writing new material. The songs he was inspired to write became the music on an album called Double Fantasy. And just like that, John Lennon’s music was being played on the radio again. His songs about his love for Yoko Ono and his happiness about his family life stood in stark contrast to the unhappy political music that marked his transition from The Beatles to being a solo artist. He was back in the spotlight with a message that better reflected who he actually was at that time in his life. For the very first time in a long time, John Lennon was content.

The John Lennon memorial located in Central Park just across the street from where he lived and died at The Dakota Apartments.

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out that John Lennon had been killed. Like many, I was watching Monday Night Football and heard the news from sportscaster Howard Cosell that John Lennon had been shot five times (Cosell says it was twice) outside of his Dakota Apartment building and had been pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. (You can watch that clip here). It was a surreal experience to learn of Lennon’s death under those circumstances, because the fans in the football stadium were unaware. To them, the game was all that mattered, so they continued to cheer and roar accordingly. The ABC TV network, which was airing the game, stayed with the match instead of breaking away for live coverage, so the game commentary continued as if nothing had happened. And yet, everything had changed, and the game didn’t matter anymore to any of us who were watching on our televisions. The “Working Class Hero” who had finally found some happiness in his life was dead. He was shot a total of five times, four of which were in his back. He died on the sidewalk in front of an archway that led to an interior courtyard at the Dakota Apartments. From that sidewalk, it is just a short walk to his beloved Central Park. If you are ever in New York City, you can go to Central Park and discover a special place dedicated to his memory. It is a circular mosaic area with the word Imagine in the centre of it. The memorial is surrounded by shade trees and park benches. It is the perfect place to sit for a while and get away from the hustle and bustle of New York City life. Not surprisingly, this spot has been named Strawberry Fields.

Julian Lennon and Sean Ono Lennon today.

It has been over forty years since John Lennon was killed by an assassin’s bullets. In that time, Yoko Ono has continued to live and perform and to act as an advocate for peace and the environment and, of course, the Arts. Ono makes frequent guest appearances at B52 concerts and delights audiences with her own aquatic utterances. However, despite the passing of time, she remains a polarizing figure who has never fully escaped the criticism that she was the person most responsible for the break up of the best band the world had ever seen. As for Lennon’s sons, they both have lived their lives never fully being able to be their own person. They are always and forever referred to as John Lennon’s sons. The Lennon surname weighs on their shoulders like a colossus. Both dabble in music, but neither has had the career that their father had. Consequently, both Sean and Julian Lennon seem like disappointments, which is an entirely unfair label to put on either man. For now anyway, there will be no inspirational song from the Lennon siblings to lead us forward out of our latest collective malaise. Because of that, we turn our eyes back to John and to songs like “Working Class Hero”.

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small

By giving you no time instead of it all.

‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

A working class hero is something to be.

A working class hero is something to be.

A legacy can be a complicated thing. John Lennon is no different in that regard. He is viewed by many as being one of the most notable people of our modern times because of his role in popularizing Rock n’ Roll. As a public figure, John Lennon could be as charming as anyone, which has led all of us to continue to view him in a respected and honourable light. We readily overlook the role his shady financial dealings with the likes of Allan Klein contributed to the loss of The Beatles. We tend to view his work with The Beatles as being, in many ways, superior to his solo work, and yet he was a solo artist for longer than he was a Beatle. For me, I admire John Lennon because I view the trajectory of his life to be similar to that of many of us in the real world. He had a joyous and happy start to his adult life, only to discover that the world is not all sunshine and roses as he matured into his twenties and on to his thirties. Like me, John Lennon found his greatest source of happiness and contentment from being a husband and father. The saddest part of it all was that it was taken from him just as he seemed to be figuring out what truly mattered most in life. His family seem to be the ones left to bear the largest impact of Lennon’s legacy. I wish them all well. I bear them no grudge. If I were ever lucky enough to meet Yoko Ono, I would hope to be able to give her a hug. As for John Lennon, may you rest in peace. The next time I am in NYC, I will be sure to drop by to pay my respects. Until then, I will listen to great songs like “Working Class Hero” and I will remember you.

The link to the video for the song “Working Class Hero” by John Lennon can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for John Lennon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Yoko Ono can be found here.

The links to the official websites for Julian and Sean Lennon can be found here and here.

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