The Infinite Jukebox: Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

Before you read this, if you have never heard this song before, click on the link below, and listen to it, in silence, with your ears wide open.
Go on, play it, go off and listen, for this is more than a song of great beauty, of superb singing, from inside the depths of a man’s soul. It’s a landmark song, a song that, on the eve of change, looked into the heart of the need for that change, and back into what was and had been for far too long.
Sam Cooke came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the South: the South of segregation, repression, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan. He’d originally been a star of gospel music but crossed over into secular pop, scoring an American No. 1 with his debut single, the sweet, smooth, ‘You Send Me’.
Cooke wrote the song in response to hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, to hearing a white singer singing about racism. In part it was inspired by Cooke’s experiences in being refused accommodation at a whites-only motel, but the song, in both its words and its voice rises above a single incident to take into its hands a belief that it cannot be like this for much longer, that A Change Is Going To Come.
After recording the song, Cooke performed it once on TV, an impromptu broadcast at his manager’s urging: the tape wasn’t retained and Cooke, spooked by the music and the vision he’d laid, never sang the song again in his life. He was shot and killed in controversial circumstances ten months later.
In a way it’s as extraordinary as Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’: a very late piece of music that sees the singer in a reflective mode about his life as a black man in the turbulent, Civil Rights Sixties, a song unlike the music he would regularly perform. But whilst Redding looked within, Cooke looked without. For Change was, indeed, about to come, on the heels of Cooke’s death, with the faith and optimism that permeates this song.
But that was fifty years ago, and A Change Is Gonna Come is still not what it should be, which is history. Prophecy yes, for change has come, and we are a world away from the overt, licit racism of those times, but we have not come so far that we do not need to go further yet, and that is without the growing tendency these past years to want to slide back, to go back to those times and embrace them as somehow good, somehow better. That there were things in those times that were better than those we have now is true: but it was not the racism, the grinding of people into poverty and humiliation because their skin did not look like ours.
Back in the 2000s, there was a BBC2 series, Friday nights, on the History of Soul Music. We watched it together, as a family, five of us, three children. I will never forget the first episode, which went back to the turn of the Fifties into the Sixties, laying out in cold detail what it was like to be black in America and how that fed into their music. I will never forget the awed fascination of the children as they absorbed the, to them incomprehensible, reality that had existed even in their stepfather’s lifetime, and they listened to this song.
They will never slide back as others have.
Listening to this song fills me with awe. It read the air, it smelled the wind, it spoke of hope in that moment when hope seemed the last thing to have. It still rings with meaning today, and with regression in the world and racism making great strides back into the open, let’s take time to recall that.
And to hope that we too can say, with true hope in our hearts, that a Change is Gonna Come.


Peter Tork R.I.P.

Oh dear, this is happening again.

I didn’t get to watch The Monkees when I was a kid, so I saw the shows when they were being repeated years later, and I was in to more serious and worthy bands. I found the antics comic, up to a point, and some of the music attracted me, mainly Mike Nesmith’s stuff.

But I never lost my appreciation for the well-made, well-played pop song, and I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion any more, and about eighteen months ago I bought The Monkees’ contribution to the Original Album Series, the first five albums on unadorned CDs, but glory be they’re the extended versions, with demos and alternate arrangements.

Peter Tork was the dummy onscreen, the bass player and, according to a recent piece I read on the Monkees, was the best musician in the band, or at least a better guitarist than Nesmith. But he was the other one who pushed to be allowed to play on their own records, and to choose their own music.

It needed all four Monkees to be Monkees and it wouldn’t have been the same without any one of them. It isn’t going to be the same without this one now.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Buy for me the Rain’

For years, decades even, the thought of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was of ‘House at Pooh Corner’ or ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’. Then, a decade or so back, on a Saturday morning in that lost land of Brian Matthew and Sound of the Sixties, our old mate played this song, and I fell hopelessly for it.
‘Buy for me the Rain’ was the Nitty Gritties’ first single, in 1967. Like all their other singles except ‘Mr Bojangles’, it wasn’t a hit, though it only missed out on a Top 40 placing by a few stops.
This is not what I expect to hear when I think of the Nitty Gritty Dirt band. It is a pop single, fully, and sweetly orchestrated and given a higher level of production than the work I knew. But as you ought to understand by now, to me, pop is not a dirty word. ‘Buy for me the Rain’ may be uncharacteristic of the band, may well have been forced upon them as the price of a recording deal, but it is an utter gem, graced with flawless playing and harmonies to die for. If all pop were this good, no-one would think the word disgusting.
There’s a jangly, picked out riff that sounds like a combination of acoustic guitar and banjo to open the song, which runs like a river through the whole track but the main musical motif is provided by the strings, which dance and play. The sound is buoyant in its airiness, and the lyrics complement the sense of wonder and magic.
The song’s title is its first line. There are four four-line verses, no chorus or middle eight. Buy for me the Rain, the singer asks his darling. The first three verses follow this simple yet magical request. He’ll ask her to buy him the sun, and each request is expanded upon in the second line, the crystal pools that fall upon the plain, the light that falls when day has just begun. Things that are impossible to buy, impossible to hold.
But these are not to be unreciprocated gifts. For each one the singer will buy a gift in return, something else fantastic and impossible to produce, but which is a glory equal or superior than that for which he asks: a rainbow and a million pots of gold, a shadow to protect you from the day.
The third verse descends, if it can be said to descend, to the realistic. Buy for me the robin, the wing, a sparrow, almost any flying thing, for which he will buy her a tree, where a robin’s nest may grow.
What marks this move to the manageable? It’s that this song, so clean, clear and happy, carries within it a shadow, and it’s that shadow of which Andrew Marvell spoke in To His Coy Mistress: But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near. The requests may be fanciful, but there’s a sense of urgency in the last line of each verse, emphasised by the echo, a single voice repeating the last few words after the band sing the line: Buy for me now, babe, before I am too old, Buy for me now, babe, before I go away, Buy for me now, babe, the years all hurry so.
Things are rushing on, to an end, time is the permanent enemy, the gifts lovers give to each other must be exchanged soon or not at all, when love is at its most powerful, or they may be exchanged never.
The rain, the sun, are magical things. As we fade, the things we want become smaller, more manageable. The power to give the ungiveable fades within us. And in its final verse, the song makes explicit what all leads to. The singer no longer asks for anything. Instead he is plain and honest at being unable to provide magic. I cannot buy you happiness, he tells her, I cannot buy you years. Time’s shadow is falling upon her and it’s growing dark. He cannot buy her happiness in place of all the tears.
But he can buy for her a gravestone, to lay behind her head, but that is only cold comfort and the song comes to its bleakest line, before the jangly guitars and the winding strings are all that is left, because gravestones cheer the living, dear. They’re no use to the dead.
In sixteen lines, surrounded by joyous music that uplifts the spirit, writers Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band create a tuneful, romantic pop song that holds all the darkness attendant upon love. You wouldn’t think it from the sound. If that was all you listened too, life would be a sideshow, a funhouse, a promise. But life isn’t like that. The song and the band know. In the midst of happiness, we are in tears.
Noonan went on to record the song himself, a slowed down, stripped down version, built upon acoustic guitars and minimal bass, with drums. The aim and the effect is melancholy, an exact fit to the ultimate end of the words. But that reduces the song to one feeling. It takes away the joy, the sense of wonder, the contrast that brings that final verse alive. The gravestone comes as no surprise, because even the giving of rain and sun and robins has been unhappy. Shadows in the midst of light stand out.
Buy for me the rain, my darling, buy for me the rain.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt band have never made much of a splash in the UK. Unless they featured on the old Sounds of the Seventies strand (which musically I was not able to comprehend until much later in the decade). But there were two singles, one from 1972 and the other from 1973, that got decent if not excessive airplay, enough to impress both upon me as favourites that should have had a better reception.
The second of these was ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’, a Mike Nesmith song (or was he Michael by then?) that appeared on the Nitty Gritties’ classic 1970 album ‘Uncle Charlie and his dog Teddy’ and a 1971 US single that decorated the bottom half of the Hot 100. These were the days when American singles were always delayed for UK release, most of the time by at least six months.
When it came to taping off the radio, the song had a long enough intro to enable me to catch it, and enjoy it many times over.
The Nitty Gritties used to use this song as an opener when they were a support band. Their position on the bill meant that they rarely got a soundcheck, and as the instruments enter individually on this track, it gave the sound engineer the chance to balance the instruments on stage.
Musically, the band are working with a more orthodox country rock sound. The instruments are given space to operate individually, unlike the blended sound of ‘House at Pooh Corner’, but once again the song is sung with vigour and clarity.
This time, though, the words look a little dodgier. Nesmith wrote the song in 1967 for Linda Ronstadt, and it’s very much of the times. It’s a break-up song, of the she-wants-to-break-up-and-he’s-having-none-of-it kind, and whilst the Sixties was full of songs complaining that the woman had no right to break up with the man because he treats her good, this one goes that little bit further.
Tell me, the singer demands, just one more time the reason why you must leave. They’ve obviously been talking about this a bit already. Tell me again, he insists, why you’re sure you don’t need me. And if we weren’t already clear on where this is coming from, the singer follows this up with a tell me again, but don’t think you’ll convince me.
Musically, we’re onto strong ground as the harmonica and drums kick in together, and the song gathers momentum. But where we’re at is not necessarily the best of places to be. What’s eating her is something serious, it’s not just a tiff or a whim, because what she’s saying is that she’s rather be dead than fall in love again! The singer’s prepared to acknowledge that when someone (not admitting anything here) breaks your heart you cry your eyes red. But in the same breath he’s denying she’s had any hard times to put up with.
He goes further. As far as he can see, she’s no reason to say goodbye. This is prime Sixties male songwriting stuff, a complete cliche. She has no agency, he knows better than the little woman. She’s just running scared, and he isn’t buying that. It would be more impressive if he could think his way through to the question of just who she might be scared of, and why, and in case he just thinks she’s scared of commitment, why the woman of the relationship is the one afraid of that.
And as if all this were not dodgy enough already, the next line is an outright declaration that You Lose. She has no agency, she has no free will, he will not let her go, explicitly, because that way only leads to more blues, which we realise means blues for him, for any she may already be experiencing are invalidated. We can almost hear the pat on the head as he tells her to settle down and stay with the boy that loves her.
There are hundreds of Sixties love songs, well-meant, heartfelt and even beautiful, that say much the same, but there are few that couch it is such patronising and dominant terms. How she feels, and why, is meaningless.
Yet this was, and is and will always remain a song of strength and vigour, a compulsive melody and a passionate piece of music that compels the voice to rise and join in with it. At least for me, who has had more than forty years of loving and listening to the song, and being sucked into it without thinking enough about the words. The buoyancy of the record, its underlying energy and the long instrumental outro are things of joy.
But I’m going to be a lot less eager to sing along to it now I’ve paid a lot more attention to the actual words.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jilted John’s ‘Jilted John’

Because. Just… because.

But also because this spoof of a punk song, recorded by Graham Fellows for local Manchester indie label, Rabid Records, as the b-side to another Fellows track entitled ‘Going Steady’, in a run of 15,000 copies, all of which were bought up on the strength only of record shops playing the eponymous side, until EMI bought the rights to the single and re-issued it and the song’s novelty value took it to no. 4 in the charts, this spoof of a punk song is also a totally Mancunian, down-to-earth expression of what rather more break-ups than the regular songwriters admit are really like. It’s the 14 year old younger brother of The Distractions, in that sense: gawky, less intelligent and utterly naïve, and that makes it amazing.
And because…

The Infinite Jukebox: Omerta’s ‘Synchronise Your Smiles’

Stop me if I’ve told you this before.
I remember a Friday night after work, back end of 1979, going for a drink with a guy I’d gotten friendly with where I lived in Nottingham.
The conversation turned to music, and I explained one of the things that I saw as a glory of the Punk/New Wave scene. Punk had rejected the standard Seventies rock meme about paying your dues, namely the gigging night after night, small venues, on the road, honing your chops.
Instead, bands were forming out of nowhere, bringing sometimes no more than crude enthusiasm and energy, and minimal technique, and independent labels were putting their records out without that two years of grind.
And some of those records were brilliant. Two to three minutes in which everything the band had got was concentrated into a moment that was awesome. Maybe/probably the band could never do it again (I cited The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’, their only release at that point, as an example of a band who would probably never produce anything else worth listening to…) but so what? We had that three minutes of brilliance.
Why did it matter that we didn’t get the boring, predictable stuff? Some bands only have three minutes of brilliance in them.
I know virtually nothing about Omerta. They were a Manchester band who were around in the mid-2000s. Very popular live, expected to be big, released three singles and disappeared. ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ isn’t even an a-side, that was a song called ‘One Chance’. I never heard them, or heard of them, when they were live. It’s only because I’ve researched this that I’ve discovered they involved into the equally highly-respected and longer lasting Slow Readers Club.
I found out about ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ when it was used as background music to a short video on the FC United of Manchester web-site. I thought it was brilliant. Thankfully, someone before me had asked what the music was and it had been identified, which enabled me to rush to YouTube and hear the whole thing immediately.
‘Synchronise your Smiles’ is one of those songs that’s a marriage of rock and dance/electronica. It begins shyly, slyly, with some beeps and tweeps, an almost rhythm, to which a solo bass that grows in regularity, cymbals dancing quickly behind, over which the lead singer(s) croons the title and follows it with the purely Mancunian advice that ‘you look so dumb’.
The electronica pulses throughout the song, which gathers in tempo as guitars and drums cut in, and suddenly, from a standing start the song is flying along on a yearning melody that drags the listener in its wake. The song becomes a rush of sound, the vocals mixed down so that the lyrics can’t easily be distinguished, except in certain moments, such as the chorus. which feels as if the song is accelerating: meet me down the (something) of Justice, don’t stand in line and they’ll see through all your bullshit lies in time, where has it all gone wrong?
And whilst that seems to be the key line, the one that repeats, the one that ends the song as the music fades to leave only that electronic riff that has underpinned the entire song is the fantastically optimistic I will see you again. Loss, pain and hope, whether justified or denied, in a three minute sugar rush.
I’ve no idea and I can’t begin to guess. I only know that this is just short of three minutes of brilliance, that this is in that sense you can’t define in words but can only know from living here, completely Mancunian. This couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else and sound like this and be like this. I don’t know what brought Omerta together and what drove them apart. I just know that here was a band that had three minutes of brilliance in it and here it is.
Where has it all gone wrong?

The Infinite Jukebox – The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’

When Jim Morrison died, I barely knew who he was. If I’d heard ‘Light My Fire’ before then, it would have been the bloodless version by Jose Feliciano that this taste-free country took into the top 10. I think I’d heard ‘Love Her Madly’, and kinda liked it. So he really meant nothing to me, by an accident of time and interest.
But after he died, The Doors released ‘Riders on the Storm’ as a single. It came out in 1971, a year that seems to have had more interesting favourite flop singles than any other year in creation, at least so far as I’m concerned, as a study of my ‘Lost 70’s’ series will show. I’ve never added ‘Riders on the Storm’ to any of those discs, because it’s not Lost. It never has been. It may have failed to chart, peaking at no 35 in the old Top Thirty days, but it is and has been from the moment that first sound effect of the storm, the thunder rumbling in the distance, appeared out of my old transistor radio, gloriously glorious and revered.
The Doors was Jim Morrison above everything, but ‘Riders on the Storm’ was Ray Manzarek, and that cool, quiet, almost distant but forever rippling piano. From that first run down the keyboard, even as Robby Krieger’s bass begins the underlying pulse that John Densmore’s drums quickly follows, that keyboard sucks you in, combining with the sounds of the storm. Something’s going on here, and the overwhelming sense is of danger.
And Morrison joins in, intoning the title, twice. He’s cool and distant, projecting not force but presence. The Lizard King sings of danger whilst the band play music suggesting a country road, long, dark and empty, night-driving in the rain. Riders in the Storm. Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown. Strangers and aliens, not part of this society. Creatures of the night. The music lopes along, a rolling bass/drum pattern that doesn’t need to hurry because nothing can escape it. Whatever it pursues will be overtaken.
Though there’s a spiky guitar solo from Kreiger, this is Manzarek’s song instrumentally. He plays with the melody and the storm sounds drift in and out. It’s the most superbly integral use of sound effects on any record I’ve heard, the song relies upon in as much as it relies upon Morrison’s soft vocals, and Manzarek’s control of the melody.
There’s a killer on the road, Morrison sings, and immediately we look for his shadow. His brain is squirming like a toad. The threat is palpable and it makes the listener culpable. If you give this man a ride, it threatens, you in your car, out alone at night, travelling between unknown points so far separated that departure point and destination have dissolved and all that exists is the road, if you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.
And Manzarek doodles on his piano, teasing the rhythm, trickling cold slices of melody into your ears like rain down the back of your neck, and the storm crashes, and the rhythm keeps its slow, wearing down pace, that you can’t escape.
Girl, you gotta love your man, Morrison demands. A voice from another time, a much more macho time when macho was not a deliberate affectation. The world on you depends, our life will never end, he sings, immortality is the goal, the end, the promise. You gotta love your man.
There’s a long solo section from Manzarek, teasing melody out of the rhythm pattern built by Kreiger and Densmore. He toys and teases, hypnotising with the dream-like sounds of his piano, extending the night until it seems infinite and yet when he ceases and the song resumes its original motion, we are not ready. What seems infinite has not been infinite, and we feel as if we have been abandoned to the rain.
And the cycle returns to where it began. Riders on the Storm. The road will never end, the storm will never end, we are in a hell of sinuous music that traps us by its beauty and holds us by its strength. This world will never end, our life on your depends.
This was the last song The Doors recorded, the last song Jim Morrison recorded. It was played live only twice. It is the sound of night and being where you don’t want to be. Because the road has only one ending, and I may not believe in God and Hell but this song does and you are travelling with it. On the Storm.