All songwriters and bands that have a hit song wear it like an anchor, a money-making and/or crowd-pleasing obligation. That is, you are required to sing it at each and every performance. Forever.
This applies universally, whether you are Barnsey, U2, Coldplay, Paul Kelly, Adele or a one-hit wonder band (in Australia) like Dexy’s Midnight Runners (who had two number one hit songs in the UK).
And what about those long hit songs, like Hotel California? Can you imagine how it must be for Don McLean singing his hit song American Pie, or Arlo Guthrie persevering through another rendition of Alice’s Restaurant thousands of times? On my experience, most famous musicians are more than happy to trot out the old faithfuls.
Some stick to the ‘sounds like the record’ version while others re-invent their hit song or develop ‘acoustic’ versions.
Even your relatively anonymous folksinger will be known by fans (however few in number), for one good and/or catchy tune.
A friend sent me a YouTube video of songwriter Al Stewart (hit song – Year of the Cat), performing at the 2017 UK folk awards. My friend knew I had all of the old vinyl records and the boxed CD sets.
It amazed me to watch this 71-year-old chap, who started off in London in the 1960s wearing an Afghan coat and flatting with Paul Simon, working his way through On the Border. After the 35-second guitar intro, surprise, the voice is just as it always was, taking me all the way back to 1969 and his debut album, Bedsitter Images.
People who have known me a long time sometimes call out for a song I wrote but rarely sing, a late 1970s anti-war song with a corny chorus – “Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon out of here”.
I won a May Day songwriting competition with that one in 1979 but have rarely sung it since. We moved towns, moved on, the Russians left Afghanistan and the references became dated. I’m now being urged to add an updated verse with the words Trump and Dump. But as songwriters know, it is hard to recapture the moment and make it relevant almost 40 years later.
Then in 1998, I wrote Courting the Net, a sardonic love ballad about a woman whose husband has been cheating on the Internet. Sometimes She Who Sings the Girl Bits will say, “Haven’t we done that one to death yet?” I usually say there are sure to be people in the audience who don’t know the song, so let’s do it anyway.
I recall going to hear Peggy Seeger a long time ago. Peggy, half-sister to Pete, wrote a feminist hit song in 1970, “I’m Gonna be an Engineer”. People at the gig started calling out for the song when it appeared she was getting to the end of her set and might not sing it at all. As I recall, she ended the set with this song, which has multiple points to make about gender inequality and sexual harassment.
“Well, I started as a typist but I studied on the sly
Working out the day and night so I could qualify
And every time the boss came in, he pinched me on the thigh
Said, “I’ve never had an engineer!”
The song was on the 1979 album Songs of History and Politics. The Youtube video with guitar played by her husband, the late Ewan MacColl, has had 40,409 views.
Peggy, now 81, has recorded more than 60 albums, either solo, with Ewan MacColl, her brother Mike, the Seeger family or singers like Frankie Armstrong. I had the good fortune to share dinner with Peggy and a few mutual friends at Woodford’s Spaghetti Junction when she was on her retirement tour a few years back. We sang her our favourite original song and felt quietly chuffed that it got the Seeger seal of approval.
While 40,000+ views is pretty damn good for a 47-year-old, 759-word, 4.33 minute feminist folk song, it is a trifle compared to Adele.
Her song Hello has had an astonishing 1.925 billion views on YouTube. A friend who knows more about these things than I do explains that this does not mean that 25% of the world’s population are Adele fans. It means that a vast number of fans, ranging from hard-core wannabes to occasional listeners and YouTube browsers have tuned in to this video, over and over.
Remember Adele? Her recent shows in Brisbane were the reasons why the women’s AFL had to be transferred to the Gold Coast and other big sports events shuffled around to other venues. The upside was you could ride trains for free on the day.
It’s hard to beat a great voice, great songs, longevity and massive marketing. Adele packed out Brisbane’s Gabba Cricket Ground over two successive nights, but the weather and 120,000 people attending over two days left the ground unsuitable for imminent sporting events.
Confession time: until Tapestry choir director Kim Kirkman handed out sheet music to Set Fire to the Rain I did not know Adele’s music, though people told me she sang the theme song for the James Bond movie Skyfall. It’s in the style of Thunderball (without Tom Jones’s head-splitting and sharp final note).
I’m being told by people under 40 that no-one in their social set is buying CDs anymore. They listen to and watch YouTube videos or subscribe to a streaming service like Spotify or Deezer. Just how anyone makes a living from being listened to in this way is not hard to figure out. The better you are as a live act and the more you tour, the more people will turn out to hear the music they already know. This is probably why Adele outsold the Guns n’ Roses tour, attracting 600,000 Australians to her concerts. Adele, who has mainstream, cross-generational appeal, is a graduate of the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology. She wrote Set Fire to the Rain in 2011. It has been viewed 376 million times (so far) on YouTube.
Jetse Bremer’s acapella arrangement of Set Fire to the Rain, written by Adele, with lyrics by her producer, Fraser T Smith, has been added to Tapestry’s expanding repertoire, with an airing scheduled at Lift Gallery on Sunday afternoon 4th June.
Meanwhile back in our little village, last night we sang Kath Tait’s song Strangers and Foreigners (2,712 views on YouTube) at an IDAHO community function at the local RSL. IDAHO is the International Day Against Homophobia, so Kath’s song about small town prejudice and the need for tolerance was quite on point. Some of Kath’s songs are about being different in places where differences make you a social outcast. Listen to the song here.
If you really like it, consider ordering a copy of her CD, Bastard! It’s a classic. She’s also the only person I know who can sing and play concertina and harmonica at the same time.
Last week: The sharp-eyed will have noticed I spelt Labor Day incorrectly. (And the usually sharp-eyed proof reader didn’t pick it up! Ed.). A reader sent me some information about Labour Day in Melbourne this Sunday (May 7th). There’s a march starting at Trades Hall at 1pm. You’d hope all those Fairfax journos who are striking for a week about the axing of 125 journalists’ jobs would show up.