Paul Charman: Songs that deserve to rise again

Neil Young, mammoth or dinosaur? Photo / Richard Robinson
Neil Young, mammoth or dinosaur? Photo / Richard Robinson

Most old pop tunes are redundant dinosaurs but a few are potentially revivable mammoths.

It pays to know the difference, because - although every hit of yester-year is dead to the current generation - a few are worth the time, effort and expense of coaxing back to life.

Here's the thing: A Mammoth (revivable pop song) may have been buried for decades, but it still has artistic DNA worth extracting. Such songs have great tunes, superb lyrics and deal with timeless themes.

They'll register with people, in any era.

Though not necessarily profound, one of these Mammoths will always make you feel good. And even if we don't personally have the resources to make one the next No. 1 hit single, we can at least salute that potential.

"Mammoth pop songs" portray just what you would expect - strong men, beautiful women and their conflicted love stories.

The secret is that they just do it better.

Mixing the right combo of drama, pathos and humour, a Mammoth can carry-off themes and subject material less commonly referenced. Perhaps soaring adventure, loneliness too hard to bear, or an injustice so wicked (this) song is the only remedy. Main thing is Mammoths are good, so good, they can always live again.

But for that to happen, such a song will very likely need a killer new arrangement, skilful re-recording, use of latest technology and - above all - plenty of love, care and enthusiasm from today's talented musicians.

So that adds up to a lot of resource, but is it really worth it?

Well, can be.

As Neil Finn once pointed out in a radio interview, in which he gave qualified approval to the notion of serious artists doing covers of old stuff, "Today there are far more songs around than there are good ideas".

So following this line of thinking, for a contemporary artist it could be well worth disappearing into the wilderness with a shovel and spade, just to see what they find in the frozen tundra.

But how do you know it's really a Mammoth?

You may have enjoyed that old song when you were young and it still may impress with its towering height and skeletal ferocity, but being so closely adapted to a previous age, stand well clear.

For example, The Letter, by the Box Tops, was braw back in 1967 - one of the best songs of its decade. But letters have all but disappeared as a popular means of communication, taking all the "letter songs" in their wake. Come to think of it, with self-drive cars on the technological horizon, songs referencing automobiles could be next to go.

Dinosaurs belong to the mausoleum of memory, the bone yard of history and the classic hits radio station.

That's a hard for people like me, who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s. As a teen I enjoyed a whole Jurassic Park of pop, stuff which now makes me cringe, including glam rock performed by young men made up like their sisters (including the appropriately named T.Rex); awfully complex "progressive rock" from the likes of Yes, and okay, I admit it, "Love Will Keep us together". Ugh!

But we had revivable stuff too, even then. For example, Midnight Special, the Credence version from 1983, was actually a prison song dating from 1905. This song is so good it seems to have been reprised every decade or so since then.

Picking the next big pop song revival is a subjective choice, but here's a few I' believe have both trunks and woolly coats.

* Samson and Delilah

Who knows when it was written, but Blind Willy Johnson supposedly caused a riot when he performed it in 1927. Despite the Biblical theme, this song seems to be all impotent rage against the unsolvable situation, whatever it is, likening it to a building you'd gladly tear apart with your bare hands. The most famous rendition was by The Grateful Dead in 1976, but a version from the 1990s by Talbot/McGuire is recommended. This song is a Rangitoto, ready to explode once more, and when we least expect it.

Most famous line: "If I had my way I would tear this building down."

* Mighty Mighty Roly Poly

It may be from the sublime to the light and frothy, but I think this little pop song is a gem. All about school bullying and childhood obesity, it describes a fat kid tormented at school, whose fortunes change when somebody sticks up for him in the playground. Amazingly the entire story - plus a reference to Lennon's Working Class Hero - is all told in two short verses and a chorus. Mal, a Brit who became an Italian heartthrob, belted this one out perfectly in 1971. But if reprised, that flute just has to go.

Most famous line: "My Name is Mighty Mighty; I'm glad to meet you Mr Roly Poly".

* The River

A light hearted a one-hit-wonder from by King Trigger from 1982, in my view the best of the "boy's own adventure genre", which would included America's Horse With No Name and Elton John/Bernie Taupin's Rocket Man. All about drifting down the river in your dugout canoe. This song conjures up images of Bear Grylls-type adventure, but comes with plenty of humour attached. Every Walter Mitty's delight.

Most famous line: "The animals look hungry ... look out for the man-size bite."

* Island of Dreams

The very best of British pre-Beatles pop. It rose to the UK No. 5 at the beginning of 1963, and stayed in the charts there for six months. It may confuse modern audiences with a reference to "those gay crowded places". But new fans of this fabulous song will cope. This song has soaring grandeur and huge emotional impact. Finding another Dusty Springfields, or Judith Durham to sustain the demanding lead vocal would be a challenge. Few such singers seem to be in evidence today. Then again, you just never know.

Most famous line: "Far, far away from the mad rushing crowd. Please carry me with you."

* After the Gold Rush

Some discard Neil Young classic apocalyptic vision as drug-induced claptrap. Okay, even if they're right, as stoner songs goes, this one has to be on a par with Coleridge's Kubla Khan. And once you change that famous line, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s", to "on the run in the Twenty-first Century", (as Neil does in his concerts these days), you've still got a happening song. The basic premise, that of finding ourselves a new planet now that we've destroyed the old one, hasn't become any less relevant.

Most famous line: "They were flying Mother Nature's Silver seed to a new home in the sun."

* The Legend of Xanadu

Biggest hit of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, superbly melodramatic and thoroughly over-the-top pop. Okay, it may well be full of sound and fury and signify nothing, but sure sounds dark and evocative, like something written that could have been written by Edgar Allan Poe. Any re-recording should incorporate a cracking whip and Mexican-sounding trumpets. This song is ripe for a deadpan parody, and I predict the musicians who land the job will have a ball.

Most famous lines: "You'll hear my voice, on the wind, 'cross the sand. If you should return, to that black barren land that bears the name of Xanadu."

* Okay that's my choice for songs which deserve to live again, what are yours?

- NZ Herald

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