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. Hello? <tap tap tap> Is this thing on? Or did I have another upload go wonky on me?
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So first of all, my apologies if you had difficulty with Episode 128. I’m still not sure what happened, but the file that wound up being uploaded had all the correct metadata attached to it, like the show’s time length and such, but it was also a zero kilobyte file that couldn’t be played. I’ve since fixed the upload, but I think in order to hear it you have to delete the “bad” file from your player so you can replace it with the good one. I still don’t know how it happened, but it did, and it’s on me for not noticing sooner, so my apologies.
Let’s get some trivia for ye, shall we? Most people know that the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band, more properly called Spirit of Troy, played on Fleetwood Mac’s song “Tusk,” from the album of the same name, thus earning themselves a platinum record. But Spirit of Troy is the only collegiate band to have TWO platinum records. What was the other album that Spirit of Troy played on that went platinum?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.
You may consider “Seasons in the Sun” to be sentimental mush, and you may be right about that. I’m certainly not going to talk you out of it. But I do have an alternate view of the song that I’m going to share with you later that may color your view of it the next time you hear it. Let’s see how that goes.
“Seasons in the Sun” started out as a different song with a similar theme; what’s more it started out as a song written and sung in French—I know, there’s the foreign language thing again—by a Belgian performer named Jacques Brel. That name’s not going to mean a lot to many people unless you’re a deep fan of international music and film, but he was HUGE in Europe. Brel was in a whorehouse in Tangiers when he wrote a song in 1961 called “Le Moribund”, about a man who is dying from a broken heart, and he addresses various people in his life.
The song has several verses, in which he talks to different people in his life. First it’s his childhood friend Andre, whom he says he’s always liked very well, and although he’s going to die, he knows that Andre will look out for his wife’s well-being. The next verse is a priest. And while he and the priest didn’t always see eye-to-eye, he liked him OK too. And because his wife always confided in him, he knows the priest will take care of her.
Next he addresses someone named Antoine. He comes right out and says he didn’t like Antoine. He’s angry that he’s about to die, and Antoine will go on living, and that Antoine will take care of his wife because, as it turns out, he was her lover. And now, he confronts his faithless wife and notes that he loves her, and that he recognizes that he’s going to die before her, but he’s already closed his eyes, metaphorically speaking, for a long time, and he trusts that she will take care of his soul. And the English translation of the chorus is:
I want all to laugh
I want all to dance
I want all to have fun like a bunch of crazy people
I want all to laugh, I want all to dance
When they put me in the hole.
So it’s pretty straightforward, and a little bit bitter, and maybe a little bit morbid, and every recording I’ve heard of Jacques Brel singing “Le Moribund” sounds much like this one, with the fast delivery and matter-of-fact attitude. This character is dying, and he doesn’t really care about hurting anyone’s feelings anymore.
The song wasn’t huge for a Jacques Brel song. And by that I mean it doesn’t appear on any “best of” or “Greatest Hits” collections, but it was popular enough.
Now, in the mid-1960s Brel picked up a little bit of a following in the United States, because poet Rod McKuen was translating some of his songs into English. And as it happens, the Kingston Trio picked up one of those translated songs and they recorded it for their 1963 album titled Time to Think.
Now, as you can hear, their version maintained the rather strident marching cadence, and it kept the theme of the faithless wife, but it eliminated the verse where the dying man addresses the friend directly, instead making a reference to him in the verse that he sings to his wife.
The song was never released as a single, possibly because the Kingston trio was largely out of favor by this time, unsold the song remained as an album track, and might have stayed that way. Until…
In the early 1970s, the Beach Boys picked up the song and started working on their version of it. The original idea was to have Carl Wilson singing lead on the song and then putting the Beach Boys’ harmonies behind it. They eventually abandoned the project, but their producer, a musician by the name of Terry Jacks, was kind of intrigued by it, and so he decided to record “Seasons in the Sun”. Terry Jacks was not necessarily well known on his own, but rather as part of the Poppy Family, whose big hit was the song “Which Way You Going, Billy?” sung by Susan.
Now, while Jacks liked the song overall, he still thought that it was just a little bit too dark, so he rewrote some of the lyrics. He was inspired by a friend of his who had died just a few months earlier from leukemia. So instead of a man who is dying from a broken heart, this version makes it very clear that the person singing the song is literally dying and is offering up some last words to the people around him. Jacks and Susan recorded the song in Vancouver, Canada, in 1973, and it was released on his own label, Goldfish Records. In just a few weeks the song had sold well over ¼ million copies in Canada and became the largest selling single in Canadian history. This caught the attention of a vice president at Bell Records named David Carrico, who flew to Vancouver and bought the American rights. Again, within just a few weeks, the song had sold a million copies, reaching Gold status on Valentine’s Day in 1974, and going all the way too number one on the billboard hot 100 chart or three weeks beginning the first week of march in 1974. Not only that, it remained in the top 40 almost until Memorial Day. It was also Number One or Top Five practically everywhere in the world, except for the Netherlands, where it still managed to make it into the Top Ten.
Eventually over three million copies of the song were sold in the United States alone, and worldwide sales broke six million. Nowadays, sales of the song are somewhere north of ten million copies. In addition to all the sales, Terry Jacks won the Juno award, which is the Canadian version of the Grammys, for Male Vocalist of The Year in 1974. The song also won awards for Contemporary Single of The Year, Pop Music Single of The Year, and Best-selling Single.
But for all that, I’d be curious to know what the Beach Boys version would have sounded like, because frankly I think Terry Jacks has rather a thin voice, and to a certain extent the song comes off a little bit like the guy is whining.
At any rate, because “seasons in the sun” was such a huge hit, it became pretty much the thing that defined Terry Jacks. So, he purchased a boat and began sailing up and down the west coast of Alaska and Canada, and along the way he had some Revelations. He left the music business and became an environmental activist, battling Canadian paper mills and making some films on the subject of the environment. And because the song was making plenty of money in royalties, he was able to maintain a modest lifestyle in Canada while still dealing with the fallout from the song being the thing that be fined his career. He once said in an interview that he eventually got to be known as an environmentalist and that that was the only thing that got rid of his being labeled “Mr. Seasons In The Sun Guy”.
As far as covers of the song, oh. Have I got a couple of surprises for you. Here’s the first one,
and as far as I can tell it was recorded around the same time the song was blowing up the charts in 1974…
This one is ALSO Terry Jacks. For whatever reason he recorded the song in German with slightly different lyrics provided by Gerd Muller-Schwanke and titled “In den Garten der Zeit”.
Also in 1974, Country artist Bobby Wright recorded the song, where it managed to make the Top 40 of the Hot Country Singles chart. But I’m not going to play any of that one here, because I’m too hot to play this next one for you.
This is one of those things which probably makes sense after I tell you what’s up. This is Nirvana, but the lineup is moved around, specifically you have Kurt Cobain playing drums, Dave Grohl on Bass and Krist Novoselic playing guitar, and it’s a deliberately sloppy cover that they recorded in 1993 with some parody lyrics thrown in. As it happens, Cobain said in his diaries that the song made him cry, and that it was the first record he ever bought. This recording was finally released in 2004 on the collection titled With the Lights Out.
[BLACK BOX RECORDER]
Let me share one more with you. This is an indie-pop band called Black Box Recorder, which did a truly lovely cover of the song in 1998, which appeared as a bonus track on their debut album England Made Me. This version skips the chorus until the very end of the song…
…Oh, I like that. OK, now remember how I told you that I had an alternate view of the song that might color your perception of it? This mostly works with the Terry Jacks version. Instead of thinking of it in terms of a dying man expressing his final thoughts to someone, look at it as though it’s the narration of a serial killer speaking to each of his victims before he does them in. See? And now you’ve got that in your head.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what the USC Spirit of Troy’s other platinum album was, the first one being Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
Well…it’s a little bit of a trick question. You see, they also performed on another platinum Fleetwood Mac album. In 1997 the band released a live album—in fact, the last album they’ve released with Christine McVie on it—called The Dance. Now, while Fleetwood Mac had released a live album in 1980, this one was different in that it was recorded in a single evening in a television studio as part of an MTV special. And among the songs that they recorded during that session were “Don’t Stop” and…”Tusk”, both of which involved the USC Spirit of Troy. And this album went five times platinum, making it one of the biggest-selling live albums ever. It’s still pretty far behind Clapton’s Unplugged, which is Number One in that respect, but five million units is nothing to sneeze at. Incidentally, Tusk only sold about one million copies but it’s considered double platinum because it’s a double album. You get credit for each LP in the package.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we take a look at The Twist.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.