Archive for the ‘Five Star Favs’ Category
Yes folks, it’s time for another edition of Five Star Favs, the GMC Special Feature that has a pretty simple premise: it spotlights one of my tip-top, all time favorites. And a few of those might surprise you. For example, my infatuation with today’s featured song began about thirty years ago when I saw it on MTV, and it’s one that has had its share of controversy. (Although that has nothing to do with my fondness for it.)
With two teenagers in the house, it’s not surprising that our main TV set was often tuned to MTV in the 1980s. It also wouldn’t surprise you to hear that I was usually grumbling about those damned ‘no-talent’ rock and roll musicians, who seemed to me so inferior to those I remembered.
But one day I heard a MTV video starting that featured a pounding beat and a blazing guitar riff, a combination that’s always drawn my interest. What I saw intrigued me even more, because it featured computerized animation, something that was cutting-edge at the time. And finally — even though I’m not a lyrics guy and mostly get into the instrumental part of a song — I realized the blue-collar cartoon characters were poking fun at modern rock musicians. I was in.
When the British group Dire Straits generated “Money For Nothing” in 1985, it attracted a lot of attention for a number of reasons. Not only the song itself, but also that it was something new for the era, obviously designed for the MTV generation (MTV is even in the lyrics), and for its inventive use of computer graphics. It also didn’t hurt that Sting was involved and sang the introduction, but in any case it made a big splash and won a lot of awards, including a Grammy.
However, as time passed it also caused some controversy for its lyrics, which have been called racist, sexist, and homophobic. Defenders of the song point out that it was all in the spirit of satire, so I guess it’s up to the individual listener to make up their own mind. Below is the the full-length album version and below that the original MTV video.
Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing”
First a word of explanation to newer visitors (and a reminder to regulars). The Special Feature known as Five Star Favs is the one that spotlights a song that falls into a very unique category — it inhabits space in the top tier of my music collection, which means I have given it a five-star rating. It might be from any of several different genres, and I’m not sure that I can always explain why it’s special to me, but I don’t think that’s even necessary. A favorite is a favorite because you like it.
Today’s featured selection actually began life as a Mexican mambo instrumental. “Quién será?” was written by Pablo Beltran Ruiz and Luis Demetrio more than sixty years ago, and has since become a Latin standard. But it’s not exactly a Five-Star Fav for me in its original version. That distinction began to take form when Norman Gimbel added English lyrics and Dean Martin recorded it in 1954, under the name “Sway.” It became a hit record, and eventually one of my all-time favorites.
Although Dino’s version is my Five Star Fav, the song has been recorded by a lot of others in subsequent years. Among them are Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis for the ladies; while Bobby Rydell and Cliff Richard followed in Dino’s footsteps, as did the singer with the best-known version in the new millennium, Michael Bublé.
Just for contrast — and to have a little fun — I’ve included a video of the song as performed by the Pussycat Dolls. The group’s rendition appeared on the soundtrack of the 2004 film Shall We Dance?, which starred Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.
Dean Martin – “Sway”
It’s always a bit of a challenge to put together a new edition of the GMC Special Feature known as Five-Star Favs because it’s meant to spotlight a particular song by a specific artist, one that is – you know – a favorite of mine. The difficulty is that it goes against my normal posting practice, which is to show a video of one song and a link to a different one, or at least showcase the same song by two different artists. But one way around that is to follow the same method I’ve used before, by furnishing a link to the song itself while also showing a classic movie scene built around it. So you might say it’s the same song from two different perspectives.
If ever a performer was identified with a particular song, it’s Harry Belafonte and “Banana Boat Song (Day-o).” But even though that’s my choice today, it might surprise you to hear that his record was not the most popular version when it was issued in 1956. A slightly different rendition of the Jamaican mento folk song by a group known as the Tarriers actually charted higher. (Sounds like a good subject for another day.)
But there’s little doubt that Belefonte’s version had staying power, and had a lot to do with the subsequent popularity of Calypso music. It also generated a lot of different covers through the years, including several satirical versions, and sometimes it even appeared in movies. One of the best examples occurred in the 1988 film Beetlejuice, in which a group of smug dilettantes sat down for dinner in a so-called haunted house, and soon found that the spooks were in charge.
Harry Belefonte – “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)”
You might be a little surprised to find that this edition of Five-Star Favs features a disco song, but I’ve always said that I like a lot of different kinds of music. And in fact, today’s choice is one of the songs that helped create the disco craze back in the 1970s, but I don’t think I would have elevated “Staying Alive” to the top rung of my music collection if I hadn’t first heard it during the stunning opening scene of Saturday Night Fever.
I wasn’t the only one who thought John Travolta’s hypnotic strut to the music was a very special way to open up a movie. The late critic Gene Siskel (remember him from Siskel & Ebert?) called it his favorite film and said: ‘One minute into Saturday Night Fever you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it’s talking about.’
Of course, Siskel was a little overboard about the movie — he later bought Travolta’s iconic white suit at a charity auction — but it is considered a Hollywood classic, and was a smash success with fans and critics. It elevated Travolta to superstardom, and the Grammy-winning music solidified the stature of the Bee Gees in the music world. The soundtrack album became one of the biggest sellers of all time, but to me the highlight of the film’s music was linking “Staying Alive” with Travolta strutting down that Brooklyn street.
Bee Gees – “Staying Alive”
Our newest Special Feature — Five-Star Favs — is only up to the third edition but it’s already showing some diversity. After spotlighting classic rock in the first one and jazz in the second, today we’re taking a look at a song from 1967 that isn’t easy to classify.
At first glance, “Ode To Billie Joe” seems to be a sad story-song typical of country music, but it’s also been called delta blues, folk music, southern Gothic, and probably a few other things as well. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s iconic song is a tale that has many levels but is told in a straightforward manner, and it asks a tantalizing question. What did Billie Joe and his girl throw off the bridge shortly before he ended his own life?
The mystery intrigued listeners and might have helped the song become a huge hit, nominated for eight Grammys and winning four, three of them for Gentry. It also became an international sensation, one that led to several European versions of the song, not only in other languages but in some cases rewritten to make it more familiar for listeners. For example, the French version changed the chopping of cotton to the tending of vineyards, and in Sweden the tragic Billie Joe became Jon Andreas.
So what did they throw off the bridge? Fans have speculated for years, and guesses have ranged from simple and symbolic to tragic and a little gruesome. The only one who would know for sure is the songwriter, but Bobbie Gentry has always (wisely) been a little cagey about it, although she has hinted from time to time.
Bobbie Gentry – “Ode To Billie Joe”