Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Drinking Songs (20)

Exhaustive histories of popular songs are a blog speciality of my friend JES, and I couldn't possibly hope to emulate the thoroughness of his superb What's In A Song? series. So, instead I'll just rely on Wikipedia, which tells us....

"Those Were the Days a song is credited to Gene Raskin, who put English lyrics to the Russian gypsy song Dorogoi dlinnoyu (Дорогой длинною, lit. By the long road) written by Boris Fomin (1900-1948) with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii [of whom, it would seem, nothing else is known - Froog]. . It deals with reminiscence upon youth and romantic idealism. The first known recording of the song was by Alexander Vertinsky in the 1920s. The song is best remembered for Mary Hopkin's 1968 recording, which was a top-ten hit in both the U.S. and the U.K."

(In fact, it made No. 1 in the UK, and on the 'Adult Contemporary' chart in the US, although it stuck at No. 2 on the 'Billboard Hot 100'.)

1968?! Christ - I was three years old! I think this is the first song I can remember hearing on the radio. It was a HUGE hit that summer (well, I fancy I remember it from the summer - the background to sunshiney south coast holidays with my German grandmother in Brixham). Hmm, it seems the single's official release date was 30th August, but I suppose it would have been getting extensive airplay for at least a week or two prior to that.

I don't have any conscious recollection of seeing the sweet-voiced and extremely pretty Mary Hopkin back then, but I imagine I probably must have done; pop music TV shows and primitive 'videos' (like the first one below) were just starting to become popular then. She might have been responsible for embedding in my psyche a deep-seated and unsuspected weakness for 'the Scandinavian look' (I am, in general, rather blonde-averse - but there are rare exceptions who disprove the rule quite powerfully!).

Here's the lovely Mary way back in 1968 (black & white, of course; and with karaoke subtitles, just in case you don't know the words):

There's another vintage version by her on YouTube here, with an extensive note on what's been happening in her career more recently. I hadn't realised that she was so young when she got her big break, only just turning 18. It'll be her 60th birthday in a couple of months, so I expect we can look forward to lots more nostalgic re-releases of her best-loved songs. And here's a live performance (no video) from Osaka in 1970. I've also just learned that she did a version in French (known as Le Temps des Fleurs) - which has a very different feel to it, sexy as hell. What is it about the French (language)??!! Gosh, she released versions in Italian, Spanish, and German as well. (So did Sandie Shaw, and Matt Monro. I'm beginning to think I might have to have a follow-up post just on the Spanish recordings of this.) Not that I'm any expert or anything, but to me her French and Spanish pronunciation sound pretty damned good - quite the polished linguist!

Of course, since Mary, this song has been covered by everyone and his dog. There is, for example, this quite nice instrumental version by Vietnamese(?) guitarist Sonphumai and a violinist friend (ah, the wonders of YouTube!). And then, according to your taste, you can take your pick from.... Dolly Parton (no video, stills only), Bonnie Tyler (live TV performance, very good... I sometimes used to wonder in the 70s, when Mary Hopkin disappeared, if the poor girl hadn't had some terrible problems with throat nodules and then reinvented herself as Bonnie Tyler: same age, same look, same Welshness), Sandie Shaw (her version came out shortly after Mary's and failed to take off), or Engelbert Humperdinck (who in fact first recorded this the year before Mary, but never released it as a single - a much fuller arrangement, with horns), or.... well, I could have sworn I'd heard a good rock version of this somewhere, but there's nothing on YouTube. (On further reflection, I think it was a band that opened for The Pogues at one of their Wembley Arena shows in the 80s, but I can't now remember their name.) Well, there is this somewhat anodyne version by Europop duo Bad Boys Blue (just to show that I try to cater for every taste); actually, this is one of those songs that's so good it's almost impossible to do a really bad version of it. Then there's this version by an unidentified Chinese hamonica quartet, and this by Greek bouzouki master Johnny Sporos. And finally, to prove that I really do cater for every taste, here's another very sweet instrumental... by a German ukulele enthusiast (no, really, check this out - very good).

But the pick of the crop is surely this, the Leningrad Cowboys ripping it up live (in Moscow, I assume; or maybe Helsinki - no details posted with the clip) backed by the whole vast wonderfulness of the Red Army Choir (well, more accurately The Alexandrov Ensemble - and yes, it is Helsinki, from a 1993 concert film by Aki Kaurismäki called Total Balalaika Show):

I think this is probably the greatest Drinking Song of them all. There's something about those lilting melodies of Eastern European folk music - on the surface rousingly jaunty, yet underpinned by a painful wistfulness. There's something about the balalaika too; that instrument works like a cheesegrater on the heart. There aren't many songs that can be either triumphantly happy or devastatingly melancholic, according to your mood. There are even fewer that can manage to be both at the same time. This is one of them. And the additional overlay of nostalgia for lost childhood - this is the first pop song I can remember - makes this an emotional frag-grenade for me. So what if it isn't Irish? I can't think of a better raucous, maudlin, misty-eyed singalong for St Patrick's Day.

So here, as a final offering, to get us all in the mood for the revelries later in the day, is a live performance by Liam Clancy (last survivor of the marvellous Clancy Brothers, who passed on just at the end of last year), who opens by reminiscing about his acquaintance with Gene Raskin, who wrote the new English lyrics for the song, and had been a regular drinking companion in Manhattan's famous White Horse Tavern in the early 1960s.

Have a great day, everyone. And remember: Drink Irresponsibly.

[There's a short clip of the original Russian folk song here. There's also this rendition by Belgian super-crooner Helmut Lotti. And if you hang out in Beijing's sleazy Russian quarter, you might recognise this - a breathy, Latino-pop version by the indecently sexy Dessy Dobreva (who is, it seems, Bulgarian, but enjoys a huge following across the whole of Eastern Europe - and Canada too).
Most of the Leningrad Cowboys' Total Balalaika! concert appears to be available on YouTube - check some of it out. However, Wikipedia informs me that the show featured a massed balalaika version of Stairway To Heaven which was not included on the CD or DVD - now there's a rarity I'd like to track down!
The most intriguing nugget of information in the rather spare Wikipedia bio of lyricist Gene Raskin is that he presented this 1960s short film in praise of New York's urban design, How To Live In A City (which definitely deserves a post all of its own).
I think this must surely set a new record for my most cross-linked post: well over 30 references and 3 embeds! Because of the crappiness of my Net connection, and the particularly slow and glitchy downloads I'm suffering from YouTube, and the fact that Internet Explorer inexplicably crashed on me 3 or 4 times while I was preparing this.... well, instead of an hour or so, it took me the best part of five hours! But I think it was well worth it. I hope you will too.
And it's not like I had anything else to do. It's been snowing like the clappers all day. (This post was 'pre-cooked' on Sunday 14th.)]


Gary said...

Whoa - too many links!

This is one of those songs that I don't 'know' it, but it sounds so familiar.

The Red Army clip is awesome.

Great post!

Froog said...

Did you really not know this song, Gary?

It's odd how it seems to have faded out of the popular consciousness a bit. My perception is that it continued to be a huge favourite on radio playlists well into the early 70s, but then disappeared without trace. Until I started researching this on YouTube, I probably hadn't heard Mary Hopkin's version in at least 25 or 30 years.

JES said...

Great song. Of course, my judgment may be clouded by nostalgia -- it came out during my last year before heading off to college, so the meaning's all bound up for me quite literally! (And yes, no matter what its official Billboard standing, it was inescapable.)

I had no idea, NONE, that it had a life (even as just a melody) before Mary Hopkin. But as soon as you mentioned Russian gypsies, I sort of clapped a metaphorical hand to my forehead: Of course!

Not checking on this, but I seem to recall being impressed that MH had signed with Apple; she was the first non-Beatles act that I knew of who'd done so. And until wading through YouTube just now, I had no idea what she even looked like. She'd always been this misty, folklore-shrouded figure; I pictured her as somewhat more willowy, not quite as, uh, round-faced... You remember in Nashville, the duo who were having domestic troubles? the girl who had a history with the Keith Carradine character? I pictured Mary Hopkin as looking something like her.

If you really do want a particular cover of it which is unavailable on YouTube, let me know. I Have (completely legitimate) Sources. Finding it just by name is a little complicated by virtue of there being more than one song by that name, e.g., the opening theme music to the All in the Family sitcom. But if you know an artist...

Recognized the Leningrad Cowboys from their film of some years back. Never imagined that THOSE guys would have covered this, especially with those backup singers. Yeow.

Very very nice work on the linkage. Especially given the technological battles!

Froog said...

Glad to learn you love this one too, JES. I hope you won't be deterred from giving this the What's In A Song? treatment yourself.

Yes, this was indeed an Apple release - the first non-Beatles one. Paul McCartney produced it. I've read that he had a bit of a crush on her; not sure if it went any further than that.

Ruby said...

Wow, this song makes me feel so YOUNG! From well before my time, but I do remember it from my Dad's road trip tapes. I don't remember which version he had, I'm assuming it would be Mary's given that they're around the same age.

Interestingly another little band released a song with the same name in the same year. Maybe you've heard of it?

Froog said...

Ah, I'd forgotten the Cream, Ruby. Thanks for reminding me.

You commented over on Froogville the other day, didn't you?

Are you a Beijing resident?

Tony said...

P.S And it's a great DRINKING song? You must have been to some very sad piss-ups.

Froog said...

Well, the best piss-ups are always a wee bit sad, aren't they, Tony?

Tony said...

Perhaps, Froog, me old mucker, but drinking songs are not supposed to contribute to the sadness. This is a rotten boring song and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to hear it more than once. You will remember that Tom Lehrer said that the reason why most folk songs are terrible is that they are written by THE PEOPLE.

And while I am disagreeing with your (and it seems, all your friends') taste I might as well add that in my view La Hopkins was a whey-faced chit without a trace of style or talent. And like all allegedly polyglot singers (e.g. the awful Baez) she sounded exactly the same in whatever language she imagined she was warbling.

Now, if you go for sweet and winsome purity (and which elderly gentleman doesn't?) then Judith Durham was in a different class; she could actually sing and was moderately sexy with it.

Froog said...

I can't believe you're serious, Mr B. I think you're just donning the curmudgeon hat for sport.

"Drinking songs are not supposed to contribute to the sadness"?! Then what else are they for? It would seem you have no Celtic (or Slavic) blood in you.

My experience of the '60s was limited by the fact that I was in nappies or short trousers throughout (well, the second half of them), so The Seekers rather passed me by. I don't see the magic in Ms Durham, but each to his own - perhaps you had to "be there".

Tony said...

Yes, well, we're both right really. There are two kinds of drinking song: the noisy ones which one belts out in unison and the maudlin ones which one 'armonises tearfully.

TWYDMF is neither, just a mechanical ditty without any distinction, and thus Hopkin was well suited to it.

Judith Durham was at the top throughout the sixties and for thirty years after, long after Hopkin had faded, so I don't see how she could have passed you by and yet you treasure the memory of the dreary Welsh bint.

Let's agree to differ, shall we?

Froog said...

I remain surprised by the trenchancy of your disparagement, Tony.

Certain songs vex us because of their associations - we heard them too much, or in the wrong circumstances. Ms Hopkin is not to your taste physically or in her voice, but I think it's wrong to try to found an objective judgement on the length of someone's career. Many talented people have not sustained their popularity, or chosen not to pursue it. I don't know why Ms Hopkin dropped out of the limelight in the 70s, but I don't believe this can be directly attributed to a shortage of talent or a lack of popular affection.

Your disparagement of the song itself seems also strangely overdone. 'Mechanical', really? You are completely impervious to the Ukrainian lilt? You find the lyrics unaffecting?

And you miss, or reject, my point in the post about this being one of the rare songs that you can "belt out... tearfully"?

Tony said...

Trenchancy of disparagement, eh? Gosh, I didn't realise I was guilty of that. Is it the same as quantum of solace?

I didn't base my judgement on the brevity of her career but merely adduce from it that people got bored with her. What's your explanation?

I'm fairly impervious to the Ukrainian lilt but you can't have it both ways: lilts are not to be "belted out", that's not what lilts are for.

Yes, I find the English lyrics banal, but accept that they may have been deeply moving in the original language.

As I said, let's agree to differ.

Gary said...

Wow, Tony is DOWN on this song! It must remind him of a bad love affair or something.

Is this Tony The Chairman?

Froog said...

I suspect you're right, Gary; such intensity of disdain must surely stem from some deep personal trauma.

No, it's not my Beijing drinking buddy, The Chairman, but a blog-friend from the UK.

Erm, the link above is, I think, to one of his numerous online aliases. His principal blog is Other Men's Flowers. Very, very amusing stuff.

Tony said...

Just for the record, Gary and Froog, I have never had a bad love affair or deep personal trauma involving any pasty-faced Welsh warbler.

Froog said...

I think the suggestion, Tony, was not that you had had an unhappy relationship with Ms Hopkin herself, but that perhaps there was some negative episode of that kind in your life at the time when the song was popular.

I suppose it must have been ubiquitous for some months at the latter end of 1968, and extremely common through 1969 and 1970. I have great affection for the song not only for itself but for the fact that it is entwined for me with so many memories of happy childhood holidays. I think Gary and I were speculating that perhaps its associations for you were rather darker. Or maybe you just heard far too much of it, and at an age where you could form better critical judgements - and more enduring resentments - than I could as a three-year-old.