NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m doin’ stuff!
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Have I got some trivia for ye this week? Of course I do. I’d like you to tell me what band unwittingly got its name from Nazi atrocities in World War II? Someone suggested the phrase to them, they thought it sounded cool and so far as I can tell, they didn’t realize until later on what the name actually referred to. I’ll tell you a little more about that, as we get to the end of the show.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is another one of those songs that, when you scratch the surface just a little bit, turns out to be another one of those tunes that you didn’t know was a cover. What’s more, it was recorded several times before Roberta Flack came along. But Flack’s version wasn’t a hit either, when it first came out.
Let’s go all the way back, to 1957, and a British singer/songwriter named Ewan MacColl. Now, MacColl was typically a political musician, but he had a romantic side. MacColl frequently performed in folk clubs around Britain with Peggy Singer. And if that last name sounds familiar, yes. She’s related to Pete Seeger; they’re half-siblings sharing a father in common. At any rate, at that time MacColl was married to a dancer named Jean Newlove. But being married to Joan didn’t mean that our boy didn’t fool around with Peggy. And given that he had twenty years on her, yes, there was some scandal involved.
[MACCOLL AND SEEGER]
Now, here’s where the origin story splits a little bit. According to MacColl, Seeger asked him to write the song for a play she was in, and he played it over the phone to her because she was in the United States, and he couldn’t follow her because it was the 1950s and he was a Communist twenty years earlier. Seeger’s version of the story is that he would send her tapes from time to time when they were apart, and this, song was on one of the tapes. Either way, MacColl wrote it for Seeger and they wound up playing it together when they performed on the folk club circuit.
…Now, while you may think that there’s something goofy with her performance, you should bear in mind that A) it’s a folk song at this point, and B) melodically, it’s got a Old English or Scottish feel to it, and in both instances there’s a little bit of unpredictability baked into the whole thing.
In 1963 the Kingston Trio got ahold of the song, and included it on their album New Frontier, meaning that while the song wasn’t a hit for the band, the album was, and so the song, by association, hit the mainstream. This album, therefore, was the gateway for most fans of the song, and many will argue that it’s the definitive version. But I’d argue that with many art forms, especially music, what we call “definitive” is usually the interpretation we were first exposed to. I’ll give you a quick example: most people are familiar with Edvard Munch’s painting called “The Scream,” which features a ghostly looking figure, maybe standing on a bridge with his hands over his ears and his mouth wide open. Clearly this guy is screaming because the sky is red and maybe the world is ending, so of course he’s going to scream. And that’s the way most people look at it. You see a painting called “The Scream,” so it becomes a picture of a person screaming. However, in addition to the color images he made—and there are four of them—there’s also a black-and-white lithograph that Munch made, and on that lithograph is an inscription which reads, “I felt the great scream throughout nature.” In other words, the guy on the bridge is covering his ears to block out the scream. He’s not the screamer.
Anywho. The Kingston Trio’s recording of the song turned it into a kind of folk staple, and it turned up on albums by other folk artists, including Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and this one from Gordon Lightfoot, on his 1966 debut album…
…and go figure, Ewan MacColl made no secret of the fact that he hated all of the covers of his song. His daughter-in-law, Justine Picardie, once said that MacColl had a special section in his record collection that he called “The Chamber of Horrors.” In fact, he thought the 1972 version by Elvis Presley was especially bad. And, to be fair, he wasn’t wrong in that respect:
…OK, that’ll be enough of that. It’s actually kind of hard to find this recording, but if you have the American Trilogy 45, it’s the B side. It wound up on a compilation album called Elvis Aron Presley in 1978, and on the CD reissue of the Elvis Now album. And now it’s your fault if you listen to the whole thing. I will say this, though: it’s pretty clear that Elvis was influenced by Roberta Flack’s version.
OK, let me jump back to MacColl and Seeger for a minute, because you need to know this part in order to get what comes later. As I mentioned, MacColl wrote the song for Peggy Seeger in the late 50s. At the time he was married to someone else, but he was having an affair with her. So whatever the origin of the song—whether he wrote it for a show or it just kind of appeared on a demo tape—it’s clear that the lyrics basically reflect that rush you get from a new love. Your head explodes and everything is magnified. Of course the earth moves when you kiss. Of course the sun rises and sets on your lover. And each time you, as a couple, do something for the first time, it just confirms everything you suspected about them. So anyway, the relationships got weird for a bit because Seeger, who was an American, had visa issues, so she married another British guy so she could stay in the UK, then later on they got divorced and in the meantime MacColl got divorced, and so MacColl and Seeger got back together and they finally married in 1977. And they stayed married until he died in 1989, following heart surgery.
So let me jump now to Roberta Flack. Flack grew up in a musical family, but it was also clear early on that she was a prodigy at classical piano, enough that she was attended Howard University on a full scholarship when she was fifteen years old. Eventually she changed her major to voice from piano, and eventually graduated at the age of nineteen.
Flack became a music teacher in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and she also did gigs on the side accompanying opera singers, and sometimes during intermissions she would play in the back room, accompanying herself on jazz and blues tunes. But her voice teacher said that she could probably do well in pop music, so she gradually changed her repertoire. This ultimately led to a regular job in a DC nightclub, and she was able to quit teaching and concentrate on the music full-time.
It was while performing at one of these clubs in 1969 that she was discovered by musician Les McCann, who arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. The audition went well, and she cut her first album, called First Take, in about ten hours. It all went quickly because she’d been playing the songs so often and for so long in the clubs.
[JOE AND EDDIE]
And one of the songs she played on that first album was “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Now, Flack knew it from this 1963 recording, which is from a duo called Joe and Eddie. So you can see it’s slowed down a little bit from MacColl’s version, but it’s still got a lot of folk attitude attached to it.
Now, clearly she’s slowed it down even more, and given it more of a jazzy feel, with the strings, the acoustic guitar, very little audible piano except as fills, and what I would have sworn was a standup bass, but the only bass credited on the album is a bass guitar. But it’s not quite jazz, it isn’t really folk, it’s not really soul, it’s not quite gospel, and yet it has elements of all of the above. And the musicians were all jazz pros, so they recognized the need to just get out of the way and let her do her thing vocally.
So the album First Take came out, and not much happened. Then her second album came out, and still not much happened. Flack had a couple of singles, but none of them got any higher than the mid-70s on the Billboard chart. But in 1971 something happened. Flack got a call from an actor who was looking to break into directing. He’d heard the song and wanted to use it in his movie. That actor/director was Clint Eastwood, and the movie was called Play Misty For Me.
Now, for those of you who don’t remember, Play Misty For Me is a psychological thriller about a disc jockey who hooks up with a listener, and she turns out to be obsessively possessed with him. It’s kind of a common theme nowadays, but at the time it was pretty groundbreaking stuff. So Eastwood told Flack about the movie, and he promised her that the scene he had in mind for the song was in the only part of the movie that was about absolute love. She agreed, and asked if she could re-record the song for the movie, thinking that the song was a little too slow. He convinced her that it wasn’t, and that was pretty much that. Having mentioned that, there’s also a story she tells that when she first recorded the song for the First Take album, her producer Joel Dorn suggested that she speed it up a little bit and she was the one who resisted. According to her, Dorn asked, “OK, so you don’t care if the song is a hit or not?” and she said, “No sir,” conceding that he was right for a couple of years, until Clint Eastwood got his hands on it and the movie became a hit.
It was the success of the movie that convinced Atlantic Records to go back and release the song as a single in March of 1972, about three months after the film’s release. Now, once again I have to explain something to the younger set. Back then, before the home video era, films tended to remain in theaters much longer, because there was no pressure to get it into any medium other than broadcast television, so the smaller films were given a chance to grow, and the bigger ones could stick around for months at a time before the TV rights were sold. Thus it was with Play Misty For Me, that it was still in the theaters three months after it was released, and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was still able to ride on its success. So in the spring of 1972, Roberta Flack had her first Number One hit on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the Easy Listening chart, where it spent six weeks. And it came from an album track cut a few years earlier. After that, her third album, and then her duet album with Donny Hathaway came out in quick succession, and she was suddenly all over the radio for awhile. The record didn’t see a lot of international action, though it was Number One in Canada and Number 14 in the UK. And, the song won the Grammy Awards for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year for 1973, beating out Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are lots and lots of covers of this song, and even though it was written for a woman’s voice from the standpoint of its original range, and the way that it escalates in each verse, but a quick glance at the artists who’ve covered it says to me that it’s a pretty even mix of men and women who have done covers. And at this point, most of them are pretty faithful to Roberta Flack’s version rather than Peggy Seeger’s, or even Joe and Eddie for that matter. So I’m not going to get into them all, but I do want to bring one of them to your attention, because there was some controversy surrounding it.
In the spring of 2012, the band Flaming Lips recorded their cover of the song with Erykah Badu singing lead. The band’s leader Wayne Coyne had a concept for the video that involved some scenes which had Badu in a bathtub, nude—because, bathtub—and covered in blood and glitter, and singing the song as she moves about in the tub. Badu balked at the whole concept, but agreed to shoot the video in a tub of regular water, and with some clothes on. But, being a sport about the art of it all, and Coyne’s vision, she suggested that they get her sister Nayrok to do the nudity and blood and glitter, and they could maybe come up with a version of the video where the two versions are cut together. Kind of like the Nirvana video I talked about in Episode 101. Nayrok was game, and they shot the video. The problem came when Coyne cut the video and gave the pop music site Pitchfork the go-ahead to post the video without letting either Erykah or Nayrok see the result first. Badu, of course, was remarkably angry and the video was taken down within a day. Now, the band accepted full responsibility for allowing Pitchfork to post the video prematurely and apologized to Pitchfork Erykah and Nayrok, any fans who might have been upset, and they emphasized that it was a Flaming Lips project and shouldn’t reflect badly on Erykah Badu or Nayrok. But the damage was done, and Badu tweeted out a long response basically spelling out all the ways in which Wayne Coyne was a jerk to her and her sister throughout the process. You may find the occasional still photo from the video, but as far as I know, it’s otherwise gone, though the recording of the song, which is over ten minutes long, is still available on their album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwiends. Now, what you hear right now is NOT the Erykah Badu version. Eventually they recorded another cover of the song with Amanda Palmer, and they shot another video with Palmer in a tub of clear water, interspersed with shots of individual band members striking objects in time with the big drumbeats. You CAN find the Amanda Palmer version on the Internet, but I’m telling you now, don’t go looking for it if you’re offended by female nudity.
Oh, and finally: given that Roberta Flack’s version of the song has made MacColl and his widow a big pile of money, between it being a hit for Flack and all the various cover versions, some of which have charted here and there, is it possible that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger like that version?
Nope. It’s part of the Chamber of Horrors collection.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I asked you about the band that, without knowing it, got its name from a phrase that related to Nazi atrocities. Here’s the backstory: the band in question began their career in high school in the late 1970s, calling themselves “Roots”, because their signature song was a composition by one of the members, titled “I’ve Got Roots.” When they lost their bass player and got another one, they changed their name to The Cut. After another change of bass player, they became The Makers. They changed bass players yet again and now they were called Gentry. And let me stress that we’re only up to 1978, but they still had one more change to make.
Over the next year, the overall sound of the band began to change from a power-pop sound to a more electronic sound, as most bands were doing at that point. They were playing at a club in Soho called Billy’s, when a journalist friend of theirs suggested they change the name of the band to something he’d seen written on a bathroom wall while he was on a trip to Berlin, Germany. What’s not 100 percent clear is whether this friend knew that the phrase he’d seen refers to the jerking movements made by Nazi war prisoners when they were being hanged at the Spandau Prison. And that’s how, on December 5, 1979, the band made its debut before an audience as Spandau Ballet.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we visit another song that has an organ in it, when we move from the face to A Whiter Shade of Pale.
I’m sorry, that was a weird joke.
Thanks for listening anyway, and I’ll talk to you next time.