“Twist & Shout” by The Beatles
The monster success of Chubby Checker’s version of The Twist
inspired a cottage industry of imitators
. Sam Cooke offered Twistin’ The Night Away. Joey Dee & The Starlighters released The Peppermint Twist (a shrewd way of plugging the band’s gigs at The Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan). Even Frank Sinatra couldn’t resist joining in. He recorded a song called Ev’rybody’s Twistin’.
The Beatles were enormous fans of American music, particularly rhythm and blues. In 1962, the year that The Twist climbed its way back to the top of the hit parade, the Liverpudlian foursome started playing one of its many knock-offs in concert. John Lennon soon learned that it was a very difficult song to sing. In order to achieve the desired effect, he had to push his vocal chords as hard as he could. That meant that by the time the song was over, he was spent. There was no way he could do any more numbers, even in a softer tone. As a result, the band made an important decision. When they wanted to do the full three-minute version of Twist & Shout, they would save it for the end. But if, say, Paul McCartney wanted to belt out Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally for the finale, they would kick off a show with a brief one-minute version instead. That way, Lennon could continue on with other songs without worrying about hitting the notes.
When the band signed with Parlophone Records, the original plan for their debut album was to record live at their then-regular residency, The Cavern Club. When this proved impossible, it was then agreed that they would simply try to recapture their live show in Abbey Road Studios. Please Please Me featured a mix of Lennon/McCartney originals as well as selected covers. The whole album was completed in a single 13-hour session. Unsurprisingly, Twist & Shout was the last track to be laid down. Although two takes were recorded, the first attempt was deemed strong enough for release. In Britain, the song topped the charts. In America, it peaked at number two in 1964.
The track would have lasting appeal. In 1986, it was used in two hit comedies, Rodney Dangerfield’s Back To School and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (In the latter film, Matthew Broderick hijacks a parade float and lip syncs to Lennon’s screaming vocals, much to the delight of downtown Chicago.) As a result, The Beatles returned to Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart. In the years since, Twist & Shout has turned into a sports anthem. It’s mostly heard in between face-offs during hockey games.
All of this is pretty remarkable considering the fact that none of The Beatles wrote it. In fact, two other bands had a crack at the song before they made it their own.
Twist & Shout was written by Bert Berns and Phil Medley. The late Berns (he died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1967), later an important record label mogul (the founder of Bang Records, he helped launch the careers of Neil Diamond, Jimmy Page and Van Morrison), initially pitched the song to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records who liked it enough to give it to a group called The Top Notes, a new label signing. They recorded the first version in 1961. Co-produced by Wexler and Phil Spector, it came and went without making any impact. Then, in 1962, Berns offered it to The Isley Brothers, a trio of siblings from Cincinnati, Ohio who just happened to be looking for their first crossover hit. (At that point, they were best known for Shout, also covered in concert by The Beatles.)
Released that summer, it became the group’s first Top 20 hit. It is this version of the song that The Beatles followed closely for their own interpretation, most especially the one-at-a-time “ahhh” section. Speaking of which, David Bowie stole that for his 1983 hit, Let’s Dance, as did Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five for their anti-drug anthem, White Lines. (Duran Duran kept that intact for their 1995 cover.)
Over the years, Twist & Shout has become a rock standard. Tom Jones, The Mamas & The Papas, Salt N’ Pepa, The Who, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Ike & Tina Turner and even Chubby Checker himself have either played it live in concert and/or recorded their own studio versions. In 1993, the song became a hit all over again, thanks to Chaka Demus & Pliers, a reggae outfit out of Jamaica.
“Land Of 1000 Dances” by Wilson Pickett
The Twist wasn’t the only dance craze of the early ’60s. There was also The Watusi, The Mashed Potato and The Pony, among many others. One guy figured out a clever way to cash in on some of them in a single composition.
Using a religious number, Children Go Where I Send Thee, as his creative template, New Orleans singer/songwriter Chris Kenner went to work on his tribute. The finished track featured a spoken-word introduction: “I’m gonna take you, baby/I’m gonna take you to a place/The name of the place is the land of 1000 dances.” Recorded and released in 1962, Kenner’s new single failed to generate excitement. Undeterred and not exactly rolling in dough, he made a bad deal with Fats Domino (according to Behind The Hits, he agreed to share half the writing and publishing rights with the rock legend and also accepted a “small advance”) who covered the song in the same year. It also flopped.
Then, in 1963, Kenner’s original started getting airplay on a Chicago radio station. It still wasn’t a hit across the country (it peaked at #77 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart) but it attracted enough interest in the burgeoning American garage band scene that soon enough, a number of groups were adding it to their live repertoires and even recording their own versions. Rufus Thomas’ take on the song inspired an L.A. outfit called Cannibal And The Headhunters to put their own spin on it. Lead singer Frankie Garcia told authors Bob Shannon and John Javna that during a gig he forgot the lyrics. “So I started ad-libbing, ‘Na na na na na na na na na.’. After the show, the other musicians went, ‘What were you doing?’ and I said, “I don’t know.’. And they said, ‘Well do it again, it sounded real good. Could you do it again?’.”
When he learned that a rival band, Little Willie & The Midnighters, were all set to record Land Of 1000 Dances themselves, Garcia and company rushed into the studio to get theirs completed and released first. In the end, Cannibal And The Headhunters had a Top 40 hit. But it would be Wilson Pickett, who would drop Chris Kenner’s intro but maintain Garcia’s memorable improvisation, who ultimately owned the song. In 1966, his version became a Top 10 smash. It was the biggest hit of his career. (He died in 2006.) In the years since, like Twist & Shout, it’s been used in a number of movies. If you watch the cast of the 1988 movie, The Great Outdoors, dancing during the closing credits, you’ll understand why it’s such a good cover. It can also be heard in Forrest Gump and The Full Monty. Also, just like the “ahh” portion of Twist & Shout, the “na na na na” bit was also stolen for use in a different song. Hip hopper Ini Kamoze incorporated it into his 1994 hit, Here Comes The Hotstepper.
As for Kenner, two years after Pickett’s triumph, he began a three-year sentence for having sex with a minor. An alcoholic who spent his remaining years in obscurity, he died of a heart attack in 1976. He was only 46.
“China Girl” by David Bowie
After taking a much needed reprieve from the recording studio after releasing over a dozen albums in eleven years, David Bowie returned with a bang in 1983 (Under Pressure, his blockbuster collaboration with Queen, notwithstanding). His Let’s Dance album was his biggest success since Young Americans when Fame, the monster single from that 1975 LP, hit number one in America.
One of the more notable songs from Let’s Dance was China Girl. Lyrically, it’s very twisted. It tells the tale of a would-be fascist whose only joy in life comes in the form of his Asian companion. Somehow, when she’s around, his irrational tendencies disappear. And when she’s not? He behaves like a desperate addict in need of sweet relief from his dark side. She’s literally the human equivalent of a sedative.
In the hands of Bowie and producer Nile Rodgers, China Girl became a Top 10 smash in America (it peaked at number 2 in Britain). It didn’t hurt that the video for the song was a little racy. (Bowie and an Asian model roll around naked on a beach while making out before they’re caught in the act at the end.) But believe it or not, this isn’t the original version.
Seven years earlier, Bowie and his buddy, Iggy Pop, left Los Angeles for Europe in an effort to kick their debilitating drug habits (Iggy’s vice was heroin, Bowie’s was cocaine) and to find some new creative inspiration. After initial sessions for Iggy’s first solo album took place in France, the duo relocated to Berlin, Germany to continue working.
In 1976, Bowie’s rather bizarre fascination with fascism became public. On April 27th, he wanted to enter Poland through the then-Soviet Union. Unfortunately, he happened to be in possession of materials you’d expect Adolph Hitler to have in his collection
which were discovered by suspicious border officials. Incredibly, Bowie later claimed that having a fascist government in Britain would be a jolly good idea. Furthermore, he expressed an interest in running such a government. If that weren’t bad enough, on May 7th, while arriving at a train station in London, England, a photo was taken of him possibly giving the Nazi salute.
One of the songs in contention for The Idiot, China Girl was originally entitled Borderline, which ultimately incorporated some of Bowie’s regrettable Nazi leanings in the lyrics. But the main inspiration, according to author Paul Trynka, was an unrequited love.
While working in France, Iggy met a woman named Kuelan Nguyen who, unfortunately, was taken. She was dating a French performer named Jacques Higelin
at the time. While Iggy and Bowie, along with some hired personnel, started assembling the tracks for The Idiot, Higelin worked on an album called Alertez Les Bebes. Iggy was smitten with Nguyen to the point where he actually confronted her one evening and confessed his feelings. Her response? “Shhhh…”
Iggy Pop’s version of China Girl was one of two singles released from The Idiot. Although it’s easily the best take on the song, dark and cinematic, it went under the radar in America.
Back to 1983. Iggy was labelless and broke. Bowie decided to re-record China Girl in order to give his old friend some much needed royalties. When the Let’s Dance album took off internationally, most especially in America and Britain, and when China Girl started climbing the singles charts, for the first time in his entire life, Iggy was able to settle down, take a break and re-group. In 1984, Bowie remade three songs originally heard on Lust For Life (Neighbourhood Threat, Tonight) and New Values (Don’t Look Down) for his platinum-selling Tonight album. And just for good measure, he covered Bang Bang (from Party), a minor hit for Iggy in 1981, for his 1987 offering, Don’t Let Me Down.
Both versions of China Girl are quite good but there are notable differences. Iggy’s version is a bit slower and moodier while Bowie’s is more energetic. The guitar solos are different. Iggy starts singing right from the start while in Bowie’s remake, after the distinctly Asiatic instrumental intro, you’ll hear “oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhhh/little china girl” twice before The Thin White Duke gets into the first verse. In the full album version on Let’s Dance, Bowie repeats the last verse. And finally, during its final section, Bowie replaces “Oh, Jimmy” (Iggy’s real first name) with the more generic “Oh baby”.
Regardless, were it not for this remarkable gesture on the part of Bowie, Iggy Pop’s life would be very different today.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, March 23, 2008