Transcript 108: Books on Vinyl

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 briefly lost my identity today. That’s a little scary.

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.

Oh, and do I have a good trivia question for ye today!

There are two songs—only two—that was recorded by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, AND Elvis Presley. Those three didn’t have a lot of overlap between any two of them, but there are two songs that all three of them had in common. What song was that?

I’ll have that answer to that question near the end of the show.

This time around we’re looking at songs that were inspired by literary works, and this is another one of those shows that could easily turn into a whole series of programs, much like the shows about cover songs, so naturally I’m going to concentrate on just a few, and we’ll probably revisit this topic every now and again. OK? We good? Let’s go.

[DON’T FEAR THE REAPER]

Let’s start with the obvious thing: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult is NOT about suicide but rather about accepting the inevitability of death. But there is a verse that clearly makes a literary reference, specifically about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Now, in the play, Romeo swallows poison because he thinks Juliet is dead. Juliet sees his body and responds by stabbing herself with his dagger. This is what brought people to the conclusion that the song is about suicide, but songwriter Buck Dharma has said that it’s about two people who had faith that they would be together after they died.

[VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR]

The Buggles’ song “Video Killed the Radio Star” is known these days as the answer to the trivia question “What was the first song played on MTV?” but, while the song is generally about the state of the radio industry, comparing the 1960s to the late 1970s, but according to co-writer Trevor Horn, the original inspiration for this song was a science fiction story from 1960. The story is called “The Sound Sweep,” and it was written by British author J. G. Ballard for Science Fantasy magazine’s February 1960 issue. In the story, a mute boy is vacuuming up stray sounds in a world without music. Music has been rendered obsolete because of advances in a technology called “ultrasound music.” The boy meets and befriends a destitute opera singer who was living in an abandoned recording studio. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I have found a link to the story on the web and you can read it for yourself. And, for what it’s worth, the song was out for over a year when the video began appearing on MTV. By that time Trevor Horn was playing with the band Yes, and it took him awhile to figure out why young kids were recognizing him.

[THE INNER LIGHT clip]

“The Inner Light” was the last of the Beatles songs that George wrote which had a heavy Indian influence, and it’s his first song to appear on a single, as the B side to “Lady Madonna.”

George had originally recorded this during sessions for the Wonderwall soundtrack, and as a result none of the musicians on the track are Beatles. Instead, they’re all Indian session musicians hired for the album by EMI studios in Bombay—which is now called Mumbai. After that recording George brought the tapes back to London, where he laid down the vocal track, and got Paul and John to sing some backup harmonies. According to George’s autobiography I Me Mine, shortly before The Beatles went to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi, George met with a Sanskrit scholar from Cambridge University named Juan Mascaro, who followed up that meeting with a copy of his book, titled Lamps of Fire. Lamps of Fire was an anthology of religious writings, and Mascaro specifically suggested that a poem on a certain page would make for a good song. This poem comes from the Tao Te Ching, which goes back to the Fourth Century BCE and was written by Laozi, or Lao Tzu. George made a few minor changes to the translation to make the whole thing more inclusive, and to make the song a little bit longer.

And, if you’re a fan of Star Trek, you’ll remember that there’s a Next Generation episode from 1992 called “The Inner Light.” While the song doesn’t appear in the episode, show writer Morgan Gendel has acknowledged that the title is homage to George’s song. He was originally going to name all the Star Trek episodes he wrote after a Beatles song, but this was the only one out of four, whose title didn’t change from concept to screen.

[f/o or allow to end]

Ray Bradbury’s books and short stories have inspired a number of different songs, but one story in particular was the inspiration for two songs, and in that respect and one other they’re related to one another. Bradbury wrote a series of stories that didn’t quite have a common thread, so when he collected them into a single volume, he used a tattooed man as the framing device that tied them together. The Illustrated Man was a person with tattoos all over his body, and each tattoo animates itself into a different story.

Now, let me take you over to a little-remembered band by the name of Pearls Before Swine. Pearls Before Swine’s musical style is probably best described as “psychedelic folk”, and they were led by a guy named Tom Rapp, who grew up near Cape Canaveral in Florida, where he liked to go and watch the rockets taking off in the 1960s. On the day that Apollo 11 took off for the moon, Rapp was inspired both by the moon shot and by Ray Bradbury’s story that he wrote a song called “Rocket Man”…

[PBS]

…their album containing that song, The Use of Ashes, came out the following year. And that song, in turn, inspired Bernie Taupin to write his own “Rocket Man” song. Same title, same overall thrust, but the song’s storyline maybe hews a little closer to Bradbury’s short story, “Rocket Man.” You see, in Bradbury’s story, astronauts are kind of a rare bird, so they work when they want and they get a lot of pay for it. One of these Rocket Men tends to work in space for about three months at a time, then comes home to his wife and fourteen year old son, whose name is Doug. But he only stays home for about three days before he gets that itch to go back out into space. Doug also wants to be a Rocket Man, but he’s starting to pick up on the fact that it’s really putting a strain on his parents. The father has tried to quit the job several times but the lure of space is just too much. Finally he decides he’s making his last trip, but before he does he makes Doug promise not to become a Rocket Man. And again, I won’t spoil the ending but I’ll link to a version you can read. It’s got a few scanning errors but you should be OK. But Elton John’s version of the song has a little more of that longing for the spacefaring life, and it’s got what I consider to be one of the better opening lines of a pop song:

[ROCKET MAN Elton]

I don’t know why, but that couplet knocks me out. Anyway, Taupin was accused of ripping off David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for this song, but Taupin has always said that he got the idea from Tom Rapp.

[KILLING AN ARAB]

OK, this one has a controversial history attached to it. The Cure’s first single was this one, titled “Killing an Arab”, and it’s from their album Boys Don’t Cry. It met with controversy when it first got airplay on the college radio stations, and in 1986 a student DJ on Princeton’s radio station did a huge racist chat before playing the song. But:

If you actually listen to the song, you realize that first: the whole song is about alienation and the emptiness of life, because second: Robert Smith wrote the song because he was trying to encapsulate a scene from Albert Camus’ book The Stranger, which involves the book’s narrator killing an Arab on a beach. Ultimately the character is condemned for being honest about the way he feels, and the way he feels is just…empty. There’s no guilt and no remorse. He can’t articulate any better reason for killing the man other than he was overwhelmed by the heat and the bright sunlight of the beach.

But after the big to-do in 1986, The Cure had to change the lyrics for some performances, singing instead “Kissing an Arab,” which makes a whole lot of sense—a-hem—or occasionally Robert Smith would have a conversation with people before the show who were opposed to the song being played at all. And sometimes he was able to talk them into understanding the meaning of the song, and be allowed to play it.

When The Cure released their first singles compilation Standing on the Beach and its video companion Staring at the Sea—two titles that ALSO come from The Stranger—rather than omitting the song from the collections, the band compromised by putting a sticker on the packaging advising against racist use of the song. In addition, Elektra Records requested that radio stations stop playing the song altogether. But of course discussion of the song reared its head again during the Gulf War of the early 1990s and again after 9/11.

OK, I think we need one more to cleanse our palates.

[GO ALL THE WAY]

Eric Carmen was one of the founding members of The Raspberries, and in “Go All The Way” he’s clearly trying to talk a girl into having sex with him. This song has a dual inspiration, as the stories go. The first was watching Mick Jagger sing “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show. As you might recall from my interview with Christopher McKittrick, when you watch the video of that performance, you can see that Mick Jagger had to change the song’s lyrics to “Let’s spend some time together,” and while he’s complying with the request, he’s also literally rolling his eyes so hard that he can probably see his own brains. Carmen wanted to write a song with a sexually explicit lyric that he couldn’t be pinned down for. Around that same time he came across a book called Going All the Way by Dan Wakefield, a book set in the mid-1950s which involves a couple of young Korean War veterans coming back to their hometown and basically trying to have sex with some girl…any girl. When Carmen saw that book title, he knew he had the lyrical hook for his song. Going All the Way was turned into a 1997 movie starring Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck, and it got mixed reviews at best. But the book! The book has always gotten lots of good press, so there’s that.

And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the two songs that were recorded by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, all three of them.

[THAT’S ALL RIGHT Elvis]

Well, the first one, I cheated on a little bit, and I’ll tell you why. Elvis recorded “That’s All Right Mama” in 1954, kind of on a lark, and it sold enough copies in the Memphis area to appear on the local charts, though it didn’t chart nationally.

[THAT’S ALL RIGHT Dylan]

Next up, would be Bob Dylan, who recorded the song for his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. However, the track was cut from the final release, supposedly because it wasn’t good enough, but I suspect that it was also because it wasn’t an original Dylan composition, as all the other tracks on the album were, with the exception of “Corrina Corrina”, which is in the public domain. But it did turn up on the 50th Anniversary Collection, which was released in Europe specifically to keep Dylan’s recordings from passing into the public domain.

[THAT’S ALL RIGHT Beatles]

And finally, there would be The Beatles, who performed the song in July 1963 for the BBC, for a show called Pop Goes The Beatles, which aired a couple of weeks later. The Fab Four had been performing the song since they were doing Skiffle music as The Quarrymen, and Paul is so clearly imitating Elvis that it’s hard to tell it’s NOT Elvis unless you listen hard…

Now, here’s the other song, and we’ll take the artists in reverse, order.

[YESTERDAY Beatles]

and it’s a little less cheat-y. The Beatles released “Yesterday” as a single in September of 1965, and it went to Number One here in the US and a few other nations, but it was NOT released in the UK as a single, because the other three Beatles vetoed its release there, since they didn’t appear on it. But of course, the song was already on the Help! album, and other artists began covering it almost immediately.

[YESTERDAY Dylan]

In 1970 Bob Dylan cut some tracks that collectively, are known as Almost Went to See Elvis, which was released in 1997, largely because there were so many bootleg versions out there. And one of the backup singers on this track…was George Harrison.

And around that same time, in February of 1970, Elvis recorded his shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada and released with the simple title, On Stage. The album cover is notable in that it has only the words On Stage and Elvis’ picture, but his name doesn’t appear in print anywhere. But here’s a bit of his version, which came out later that year…

[YESTERDAY Elvis]

…and by the way, we just talked about the song “Proud Mary” a couple of episodes ago. The very next track on this Elvis On Stage album? Is his cover of “Proud Mary.”

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we look at some songs that were inspired by books.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.