Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘Pop’ Category

Marketing Lady Gaga as a musical brand


Lady Gaga at the Oscars 2015

LET’S start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Among other things at the Oscar Awards 2015, Lady Gaga’s rendition of’ The Sound of Music’ medley made headlines worldwide. Both the social media and conventional publications were abuzz with comments and articles on how the pop sensation could actually sing too. For many, it came as the biggest surprise on earth.

Lady Gaga is undoubtedly a very talented artiste, having started at the age of four and been a teenage sensation in theatrical musicals. However, she has largely been known for her antics than for her music. The world discussed her more for her outlandish ‘meat dress’, her egg-shaped costumes and ultra-weird hairdos. She’s also been the product of some extremely creative new age marketing strategies aimed at various categories which lapped things up instantly.

Her performance at the Oscars was not only an eye-opener, but also the smartest thing she’s probably done. Within a 10-minute span, she and the event organisers did nothing but sell pure nostalgia to the ideal target audience, comprising millions of television viewers across the globe, a large chunk of which had never taken Lady Gaga seriously before, and who after her show associated her instantly with emotions they had related to while they were growing up.

If one looks closely, it’s not that Lady Gaga is the only singer in the world who could have given this performance. Yes, she hit the right notes and created a stir, but that’s something that any talented singer would do, including Mumbai’s very own Vivienne Pocha, Samantha Edwards, Dominique Cerejo and Caralisa Monteiro. Most singers begin their lessons with ‘The Sound of Music’, and songs from the movie are ingrained not only among singers but among music lovers too.

An entire generation has grown up on and has mastered these songs, but when Lady Gaga performed them, everyone raved about her singing talents and how hard she worked on voice training. And the trick there clearly lay in how the whole episode was packaged. It wasn’t just an ordinary medley, but the epitome of marketing savvy.

First, extracts of songs from the original movie were shown, getting the audience into a nostalgic mood. This was followed by Lady Gaga’s performance, comprising songs not featured in the visual clip. Her trained voice, flowing gown, tattooed arms, uncharacteristically simple hairstyle and minimal physical movement, as well as the live violins, went perfectly with the ambience, and one didn’t really care if the classic ‘Edelweiss’ didn’t really fit in or match the original. Across the world, the ‘halls’ were alive to the sound of music.

The performance touched a chord, and the singer got a standing ovation. Even as people were clapping, in walked Julie Andrews, the star of the original film, and after a brief interaction, Lady Gaga just vanished. The applause continued, and what would have been an ordinary rendition turned out to be a memorable moment in recent Oscar history.

Within minutes, videos of Gaga’s act went viral on YouTube, and in the hours that followed, the world posted and shared more about her enormous singing talent than about best actor Eddie Redmayne or best film ‘Birdman’. Articles on her ‘surprise performance’ were posted everywhere, while some sections wondered what the hype was all about. This was showbiz at its very best. To pun on a Queen song, don’t be surprised if for a few days, all you hear is Lady-O Gaga.

EVER since she arrived on the scene in 2008 with her album ‘The Fame’, Lady Gaga has been one of the music industry’s most successful marketing stories. While much credit to her success would go to her former manager Troy Carter, with whom she split a couple of years ago, the singer has herself contributed with ideas that have revolutionised the way celebrity brands can be sold.

Initially, her focus was on the teenage and young segment – and she used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube remarkably to build her fan base and popularise songs like ‘Just dance’, ‘Poker face’ and ‘Bad romance’. But that was something many people were doing.

Before one could blink, she aimed at the other extreme of the audience, collaborating with veteran singer Tony Bennett, 60 years her senior, first on the song ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, and then on the album ‘Cheek to Cheek’, which has immortal classics like ‘Lush life’, ‘It don’t mean a thing’, ‘Sophisticated lady’ and ‘Nature boy’. The recoding won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, and her new manager Bobby Campbell became a celebrity too.

By doing this album, she targeted a much older generation, making many grandparents relive their younger days and also relating to their grandchildren’s fascination for Lady Gaga. More than any other pop singer, she charmed two extreme generations, using nothing but simple common sense, and bridged the gap in her own way.

The Lady Gaga success story till her third album ‘Born This Way’, released in 2013, has been covered in Anita Elberse’s thoroughly researched book ‘Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Bucks – are the Future of the Entertainment Business’. In fact, she is the only case which has been studied twice in the book, which also talks of brands like entertainment houses Warner Brothers, MGM and Marvel Entertainment, superstar Tom Cruise, record label Octone Records, musical acts Radiohead and Jay-Z, online video channels YouTube and Hulu, football club Real Madrid and tennis superstar Maria Sharapova, besides other names in book publishing, television and basketball.

The first case study on ‘Launching and Managing Blockbusters’, talks about Lady Gaga’s rise to fame, her initial album launches, how she targeted the young generation through the social media, her obsession for image-building through shock value and the way she used the live concert medium to build up her fan base.

The book says: “Gaga heavily relied on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread further word of mouth and strengthen her connection with her fans – or her “little monsters”, as she liked to call them. She turned out to be extraordinarily skilled at doing so: by 2011, Gaga was the most popular living person on Facebook and the most followed person on Twitter.

The second case study is used in a chapter on the ‘Future of Blockbuster Strategies’. Special mention is made on how, while releasing her album ‘Born This Way’, she partnered with brands like Beats high-end headphones, Amazon, Belvedere vodka, Best Buy, Guilte Group, Starbucks and Zygna. With most musicians relying on conventional marketing means by tying up with record labels, Gaga collaborated with an unusual mix of brands, to reach out to a wider set of audiences.

The Beats headphone tie-up helped her connect with sound-conscious audiences. While Amazon offered her album ‘Born this Way’ for 99 cents to promote its new cloud-based service, Belvedere promoted its vodka by holding a contest offering tickets to her concert in London. Best Buy bundled the album with the purchase of a phone, and Gulite Group created special Gaga-inspired merchandise including a dress similar to one worn by her. Starbucks promoted her album big-time in their stores, and Zygna, the social gaming giant, created a special game called ‘Gagaville’ based on its very popular ‘Farmville’.

Now, many musicians had done such collaborations in the past. But where Gaga scored was how she used a combination of various consumer segments to attract the larger sum of people who would directly listen to her music. And while she followed these new age marketing tactics, she also stuck to conventional philanthropic practices like contributing to various charities and relief efforts, besides launching the Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit organisation that focuses on youth empowerment and issues like self-confidence, well-being, mentoring, anti-bullying and career development.

Unlike Michael Jackson, Madonna or Whitney Houston, who relied primarily on individual image, record sales and live performances, Lady Gaga has been lucky to bloom at the right time in the digital age. She may not really reach the pure artistic status of the three names mentioned above, but as a brand, she has spearheaded a completely new approach. And to her credit, she hasn’t stuck to the same formula, but experimented fearlessly.

If many questioned her talent earlier, and insisted she like many of her contemporaries was more the creation of hype than substance, they slowly changed track after she released ‘Cheek to Cheek’ with their old favourite Tony Bennett. By singing ‘The Sound of Music’ songs at the hugely popular Oscar ceremony, she has seemingly laid all the criticism to rest. Equally important, this being the 50th year since ‘The Sound of Music’ was first released, she and Julie Andrews combined in a manner that would attract today’s youngsters to the legendary film.

The best thing was that she sang songs everyone knew and sang along, and yet made the world believe she was the only person in the universe who could manage it so well. It doesn’t matter whether most of her newfound admirers bother whether her real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Who cares, as long as ‘Lady’ portrays her older, mature side, and ‘Gaga’ her young, fun-loving one?


The Demis Roussos radio days


IN my last blog, I talked of how I was first exposed to American band Eagles through the radio. Yesterday, barely a week after its publication, we heard of the death of Greek singer Demis Roussos, who was incidentally another artiste whom many of us first experienced on the radio. In fact, the news came barely an hour after we learnt of the demise of India’s greatest cartoonist RK Laxman, who was an institution by himself. While Laxman was mourned across India and by its diaspora, Demis’ death came as a double blow for a small section of us who have admired him earlier on.

Unlike the Eagles, whom I continued to explore over the years, and do so even today, my following of Demis’s music by and large ended in the 1970s itself. Yes, a few songs are definitely part of my childhood memories, and I have occasionally heard them in recent years. These include ‘My only fascination’, ‘Goodbye my love goodbye’, ‘Lovely lady of Arcadia’, ‘Forever and ever’, ‘My friend the wind’ and his version of George Baker Selection’s ‘Una paloma blanca’. Some would have heard his progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, formed in the late 1960s with famed keyboardist Vangelis. And, of course, the hardcore Hindi film music fans would know that RD Burman’s ‘Mehbooba mehbooba’ was actually a direct lift of his ‘Say you love me’.

In the 1970s, in the absence of music television, one was acquainted with Demis only through his voice on the radio. He had a distinct timbre, which was deep and sensuous, and though it wasn’t necessarily so as a rule, just by listening to him, one might have suspected that he was a towering personality. Only after seeing his photos in magazines like ‘Sun’ and ‘JS’ could one confirm that his bulk and his extra-colourful kaftans matched his enormous voice.

The timbre is like a signature of the voice. Though a distinct timbre is no guarantee for greatness or success, it’s definitely an advantage for those who possess it. Accompanied by flawless expression and good compositions, it can do wonders. Among the male English singers, there have been quite a few with a completely unique texture. Besides Demis, examples would be Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison, bluesman John Lee Hooker, James Taylor, the nasal Bob Dylan, later-day Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard, Paul Anka, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and among the newer singers Richard Hawley and the National’s Matt Beringer.

The thing about such voices is that they stand out, even when the compositions or words aren’t great. Though the singer may be influenced by someone from the past, he uses his timbre to sound completely new and unique. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to copy the singer exactly the way he sounds, unless one is a master mimic. Whenever someone tries to ape these singers, one can easily detect that he is just a clone, and vastly different from the original.

Demis’ voice had all these qualities, but what made him even more different was that he possessed a thick Mediterranean Europe accent which one hadn’t heard much in English music. There was a mix of pop, gospel, old-school opera and modern theatricality in his rendition style, and some people even called him the ‘pop Pavarotti’. And by mixing all this with lush, balladsy tunes that pleased the ear, he had a concoction that stood apart by miles.

Though Demis has sold a whopping 60 million records in his lifetime, his success was restricted to the 1970s. He released successful songs like ‘Follow me’, ‘I need you’ and ‘Island of love’ in the 1980s, but he couldn’t penetrate the much-changed pop market which relied more on Michael Jackson’s dance-driven showmanship, Madonna’s stage presence or Prince’s flamboyance. Later efforts to re-release his greatest hits on cassette or CD met with a limited response, restricted to the hardcore fans. Though he continued to perform live shows, he remained largely unseen on video. Unless one had heard him on the radio during his hey day, one barely got exposed to his music.

BACK in the 1970s, English music radio in India was a completely different scene. Most of us heard songs on All India Radio or Radio Ceylon, and a few tuned in to Voice of America or BBC. On AIR, Mumbai had slots on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Growing up in Delhi, I regularly switched on to ‘Forces Requests’ on Monday, ‘A Date With You’ on Friday and the 25-minute Monday-to-Friday programme ‘In The Groove’, which also became well-known because guest RJ Geeta Chopra and her brother Sanjay were kidnapped and murdered while returning after recording an episode in 1978, in what turned out to be the Billa-Ranga case.

The airplay on the radio shows primarily consisted of pop, evergreens and country, with a bit of radio-friendly rock thrown in. The teenagers couldn’t afford too many vinyl records, and the recorded cassette fad was yet to begin. So the best option was to catch the best songs on radio.

Broadly, one may divide the popular radio artistes of those days into three categories. The first comprised those who one first heard on the radio, and continued to pursue by buying vinyl records or cassettes, and much later, CDs. These included the Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, Cliff Richard, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Cerrone, John Denver, the Carpenters, Bread, the Eagles, Uriah Heep, Santana, specific Pink Floyd songs like ‘Time’, ‘Money’ and ‘Another brick in the wall’, and songs from the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease’ soundtracks.

Secondly, there was a category of singers who were primarily recognised for one or two songs in India, though they weren’t necessarily one-hit wonders abroad. Examples were Carl Douglas for ‘Kung fu fighting’, George McRae for ‘Rock your baby’, Mary Hopkin for ‘Those were the days’, Johnny Wakelin for ‘In Zaire’ and ‘Black superman’, Tina Charles for ‘Dance little lady’, Baccara for ‘Yes sir, I can boogie’, Helen Reddy for ‘I am a woman’, Gloria Gaynor for ‘I will survive’, the Archies for ‘Sugar sugar’, Susan Raye for ‘LA International Airport’ and even the versatile country singer Glen Campbell, who we in India knew only for ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. There were also acts like Mungo Jerry and Terry Jacks, whose respective songs ‘In the summertime’ and ‘Seasons in the sun’ were revived through remixed versions in the 1990s.

Thirdly, there were these acts which were quite prolific on radio in the 1970s, but lost much of our attention in the following decade, though some of us still bought their greatest hits compilations many years later to refresh memories of days gone by. These included Paul Anka, Perry Como, Lobo, Diana Ross, Brotherhood of Man and George Baker Selection.

Needless to say, Demis Roussos belonged to this last category. Those who heard radio during the 1970s would have specific memories of his ‘Goodbye my love goodbye’, ‘Lovely lady of Arcadia’ or ‘My only fascination’, and the news of his death would have taken them down melody lane. Significantly enough, even four decades after he created these songs, one can’t think of any singer who sounds remotely similar to him. That was the uniqueness of his style.

A neat ABBA tribute


The original ABBA

A LARGE section of the audience may not have recognised the opening instrumental passage, which was the title theme from the ‘Arrival’ album. But the moment ‘Dancing queen’ came on, everyone was on their feet. For nearly two hours after that, they had a perfect party.

The concert by ABBA Gold, a tribute band, drew a packed crowd at the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana in Santa Cruz on Saturday night. It was a good mix of various age groups, and obviously a large chunk of them had grown up on the original Swedish pop supergroup.

Interestingly, this was the first of two ABBA tributes scheduled for this month. On November 8, a tribute band called ABBA Mania will play at the Bandra Gymkhana. Though the set list may be very similar to last week’s gig, this should be another treat for fans.

Back in the 1970s, ABBA had been a rage. Comprising Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, they had stormed charts and hearts with a string of hit albums. Many teenagers of that time had got into western music through ABBA, Boney M or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which had songs by the Bee Gees. And though the same people later called ABBA old-fashioned because their own tastes had drifted towards rock or jazz, they eventually came back to revisiting their songs.

ABBA was special in many ways. The compositions were filled with melody and the lyrics were simple enough to be appreciated and remembered. The arrangements were unique too, whether they did simple pop songs, ballads or the faster, disco-influenced stuff, Benny and Bjorn were considered among the world’s greatest songwriters.

Most important, the songs had a Scandinavian charm which made them unique. Agnetha and Anni-Frid, who sang most tunes, had a distinct Swedish accent and yet were so perfect with the technicalities, displaying pure voice structure and incredible range, besides excelling in the harmonies. Sadly, the members began to have differences, and though they never officially announced a split, they stopped performing together after December 1982.

During those days, most people would have possessed ABBA’s music on vinyl records or cassette. The band was regularly played on the radio, and that was where many teenagers got their regular dose. With original albums and various compilations like ‘Gold’, ‘More Gold’ and ‘Number Ones’ being released later on CD, the fans bought them once again, and the next generation of listeners was exposed too. Even today, their music is played in parties.

Not surprisingly, one could spot so many people humming along at Saturday’s gig. After Bashir Sheikh did an opening set that included covers of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Frank Sinatra, ABBA Gold came along. ‘Dancing queen’ was followed by ‘Super trouper’, ‘Angel eyes’ and ‘SOS’. ‘The winner takes it all’ was adapted to suit the singer’s voice, and one missed the high notes of the original. ‘Voulez vous’ had the audience on their feet and dancing.

Other hits from the first half were ‘Name of the game’, ‘I do, I do, I do, I do, I do’, ‘Ring ring’ and ‘Money money money’. On some songs like ‘Angel eyes’ and ‘Ring ring’, one clearly missed the Swedish accents that made the originals so unique. But the more the group played, the more nostalgic the crowd became.

ABBA Gold began their second set with ‘Lay all your love on me’, and followed it with ‘Knowing me knowing you’ and ‘Honey honey’. ‘Does your mother know’ was repeated in the encore. ‘Gimme gimme gimme’ and ‘Take a chance on me’ attracted the hardcore fans, whereas ‘Chiquitita’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Thank you for the music’ and ‘Waterloo’ impressed with their soulfulness. On ‘Mamma mia’, the group invited everyone to dance, and played the song in a more uptempo manner. A highlight was the drum solo, which lent variety.

While the show was extremely enjoyable, one missed certain songs. ‘I have a dream’ was probably not done because the original has a children’s chorus. Other omissions included ‘Nina pretty ballerina’, ‘Hasta manana’, ‘Eagle’ and ‘As good as new’. Also, the attempts at humour between songs fell a bit flat.

But for all ABBA fans, this would have been a treat. The songs are ageless, and even today, they sound as charming as they did in the 1970s. Only a few people might have seen the original group abroad during their hey day, and this was the closest one could experience.

Over the years, Mumbai has had a good taste of tribute bands. In the mid-1990s, an Eagles tribute band thrilled the audience at the Sophia Bhabha Hall. The famous Bootleg Beatles, who sing and look like the Fab Four, had a fantastic show at what was then the Juhu Centaur hotel.

In 2009, the group After Midnight did the show ‘Classic Clapton’, with Mike Hall playing the role of Eric Clapton. The same year, at the Shanmukhananda Hall, the all-girl group Lez Zeppelin did songs of… you guessed it… Led Zeppelin. A group called Higher On Maiden had visited other cities like Bangalore and Imphal in the past.

As far as ABBA goes, this isn’t the first tribute band to have visited India. Some 10 years ago, a group called Bjorn Again had come for an event which featured other artistes too. ABBA Gold too were earlier scheduled to perform in May but didn’t get visas as the elections were taking place that time. But every thing comes at the right time, we guess. Those who got to see them were simply lucky. If you missed that, you can catch the other gig at Bandra Gym.

On the Michael Jackson beat


YESTERDAY, on June 25, it was five years since Michael Jackson left us. While fans worldwide would have remembered his hit songs and dance steps, many in Mumbai might have flashed back to the night of November 1, 1996, when the King of Pop gave his maiden concert in India. Clearly, it was one of the best shows India has ever witnessed, and it was discussed by those who attended it for weeks to come.

As the music journalist of Mid Day, Mumbai, I was assigned not only to cover the show at Andheri Sports Complex, but also the preparations and the aftermath. In other words, I was on the ‘Michael Jackson beat’. Here, I shall jot down a few memories of that experience.

The build-up

A FORTNIGHT before the King of Pop had arrived in Mumbai, at a time when hundreds of fans were eagerly looking forward to his visit, I was already getting tired of the words ‘Michael’ and ‘Jackson’. It had been a few weeks since I had been put on the MJ beat, with a clear brief that I had to file some exclusive story every day. My boss insisted that we just could not lag behind the competition, which comprised Bombay Times and Indian Express.

I liked Michael Jackson, but I wasn’t a diehard fan. There was a time, yes, in 1983 and 1984, when I would regularly listen to ‘Thriller’, but with my tastes inclining towards rock music, I began to hear less of his music. In 1995, I reviewed his two-part ‘HIStory’ album, where the first album contained his older hits and the second was filled with newer material. I had quite liked it, specially the songs ‘They don’t care about us’, ‘Scream’ and ‘You are not alone’. Thus, there was a brief MJ phase.

Yet, the thought of doing a daily story on him certainly didn’t seem thrilling. The Internet wave was yet to begin, and there was very limited reading material on the man. I naturally began by doing a few write-ups on his music, his hits songs, his dancing, his controversies and how his earlier tour had been cancelled. I tried a few trivia pieces too, but I couldn’t stretch the write-ups beyond a week. Moreover, the articles were general in nature, and lacked any local element.

Slowly, I had to build some ‘sources’ who would regularly feed me with info. I had my contacts at Wizcraft, which was organising the tour, and Clea PR, which was handling the publicity. Most of the time, I either got no information or irrelevant information, and I’m sure they were as sick of hearing my voice as I was of calling them.

The original plan was that MJ was to do two shows in India – one in Mumbai, and the other in either Delhi or Bangalore. It would be part of the HIStory World tour and India was sandwiched between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in his schedule, with an entire week’s time.
One afternoon, Sabbas Joseph of Wizcraft called me to give me the exclusive news that MJ would be doing only one show, and that too in Mumbai. We carried it under the headline ‘Just One Big Blast’, leaving a lot of readers confused about the word ‘blast’. Anyway, the competition didn’t have the story, and my job was safe.

By this time, Raj Thackeray and his Shiv Udyog Sena had become increasingly involved in the show. As the political reporters had better access to him, and could also speak Marathi fluently, they began chipping in with some stories, much to my relief. But closer to the event, the onus came back to me.

How many musicians would accompany MJ? How many bodyguards? Which room of the Oberoi would he stay in and what arrangements were being made? What kind of plane would he arrive in? Who all would be present at the airport? What kind of equipment was being flown in? What kind of food was being prepared? Were any parties being hosted for him? The works!

No wonder I kept waiting for the D-Day to come fast. Mercifully, it came.

The countdown

ON October 30, 1996, I reached the Sahar International Airport around noon. Though MJ’s private jet was expected only around 2 pm, one couldn’t take a risk, just in case he landed earlier. For a long time, one could barely see anyone, barring a few people who liked like they were from the Shiv Udyog Sena.

The moment word got around that MJ’s flight had landed, people came out of nowhere. Apparently, they were waiting in buses parked a little away from the airport, and they came with banners saying ‘Welcome Michael Jackson’ and ‘Mumbai Loves You Michael Jackson’. They definitely didn’t look like MJ fans.

A lot has been written about the airport reception, right from Raj Thackeray’s welcome and actress Sonali Bendre’s nine-yard saree and ‘nathni’ (nose ornament). There was also a lot of coverage of his visit to the residence of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, where another colleague Clara Sequeira had been stationed.

I left the airport with photographer Suresh KK, thinking I just had to file a short report on the airport arrival. So we took our own time, first having a bite and then going for some other assignment. When I reached office around 6 pm, it seems my boss had been frantically trying to get in touch with me. I didn’t have a mobile phone yet, and he had tried contacting my house.

We had suddenly received an invitation to attend MJ’s party at the Oberoi. The hitch was that guests were required to dress up in formals, and I was wearing blue jeans and some colourful pink and blue printed tee. Of course, my boss had sent an office boy all the way to my residence to get some of my formal clothes but when I reached office, there was no sign of him either.

So I borrowed the shirt of my colleague Anthony D’Costa aka Danto. To hide the jeans, I didn’t tuck in the shirt. And I made my way to the Oberoi, only to discover that nobody was really checking the dress code.

Mumbai’s entire hoity-toity crowd was present there, from film stars to industrialists to party regulars to models. All of them must have thought of spending a few minutes with the pop star, and getting their photos clicked. Alas, what MJ did was simple: he arrived around two hours late, surrounded by bodyguards. His manager announced that he wasn’t well, but he was really keen on meeting Mumbai’s people. So he stayed for exactly 90 seconds, said “I Love You Mumbai” twice and disappeared.

The next day’s papers were filled with stories on how people had shook hands with him or hugged him at the bash. They quoted him saying beautiful things to them, when the truth was that he hadn’t spoken to a soul. That much for the show-offs!

The concert was to take place on November 1, and we were informed that since MJ preferred to take complete rest a day before the show, nothing had been scheduled for October 31. Of course, the star did hang out in the Oberoi lobby to meet some fans, before attending a children’s event in the hotel. It would be, of course, only a few hours before Mumbai would witness the extravaganza.

The concert

THOUGH the show would start only after 6.30 pm, first with performances by Sharon Prabhakar and Bally Sagoo, people started walking in after 4 pm. It started as a trickle, but around 6 pm the crowds started swelling.

The costliest tickets, which had a seating arrangement, were for Rs 10,000, and those standing in the front had to shell out Rs 5,000. The side of the stadium and the standing portion at the back fetched lower ticket rates, with the lowest being Rs 1,500.

For Mid-Day, I was to write the main report on the concert, and Ruchi Sharma was to cover the glam element – the celebrities attending, what they said, what they wore etc. Uday Benegal, frontman of the rock band Indus Creed, was to write another piece, covering the show from a musician’s perspective.

Michael came in around 8 pm, and the image of the makeshift spaceship and his coming out of the door is etched in our memories. His show lasted two hours and 40 minutes without a break, and there were so many other memorable moments – the artificial tank, children waving flags, his famous moondance, the lead guitar on ‘Beat it’ and his act of pulling out a girl from the audience being some.

The set list consisted of all his greatest hits and newer songs. Prominent numbers were ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat it’, ‘Thriller’, ‘The way you make me feel’, ‘Wanna be starting something’, ‘Rock with you’, ‘Wanna be starting something’, ‘Off the wall’, ‘Dangerous’, ‘Stranger in Moscow’, ‘Scream’, ‘They don’t care about us’, ‘You are not alone’, ‘Earth song’ and ‘Black or white’.

The best things about the show were the scale and sheer entertainment value. There wasn’t a minute when one got bored, and there was a surprise every few minutes. India has witnessed a lot of great shows – Roger Waters, Rolling Stones, Yanni, Joe Zawinul and Angelique Kidjo being some of them – but this was something else.


The aftermath

WE waited for the crowd to ease before leaving the venue. By the time we reached the office it was almost 1 am. No worries. The space was reserved for the articles and we had ample time to file.

Nobody knew when Michael was leaving, but early next morning, we suddenly received the news that he had already left, leaving behind at the hotel a signed pillow on which he had written a message to India. Thankfully, I was asleep at that time.

The show was over. But it wasn’t the end of my plight. I had to keep up the momentum of the coverage for a few more days, till everyone else stopped talking about it. That took a couple of weeks. Then came some stories on the financing of the show and how the proceeds were being distributed, but that was done by the political reporters.

Soon, it was time for another big event – the first Channel [V] Music Awards on November 30. That’s another story.

Take Five: The Motown stars

Stevie Wonder Honored With ASCAP American Troubadour Awarddiana ross

Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music and early female blues legends, respectively. This month, we look at five artistes from the famous Motown label.

THOSE initiated into international music in the 1970s or early 1980s would have had some exposure to the Motown Sound. If not for anything else, this may be because even Michael Jackson had his roots with this style.

Motown, of course, was actually the name of a record label formed by the dynamic Berry Gordy Jr. It was based out of Detroit, the Motor Town, and thus got its name. Besides Motown Records, he also set up Tamla Records and Gordy Records, besides many subsidiary labels, to avoid making payments due when DJs played too much music from one label.

While Gordy was the brain and the brawn behind the label, the term Motown Sound was also associated with songwriters Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier who went by the name Holland-Dozier-Holland or HDH, and with the Funk Brothers, a group of musicians who played for most of the artistes.

As HDH wrote, produced and arranged many songs for the labels, they created a specific style which blended pop with soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues. After they split over royalty issues in 1968, Gordy continued to employ other songwriters, and kept the label going despite ups and downs. While focusing on soul and RnB, he also diversified into other genres like rock, jazz, country and hip-hop. Motown operations were taken over by MCA in 1988, and today, its music is managed by the Universal Music Group.

Motown has a very interesting story, which has been wonderfully captured in J Randy Taraborrelli’s biography of Diana Ross, which this blogger just read. It has a huge roster of celebrity artistes too, and shortlisting five wasn’t an easy task. We shall thus list the most prominent ones, and mention the rest at the end.

A note: Though Michael Jackson began with Motown as part of the Jackson 5 with his siblings, he achieved solo success after signing up with Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records. His is another story, and thus doesn’t figure in this list. The five that we choose are:

Diana Ross & The Supremes: Originally called the Primettes, the Supremes consisted of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Betty McGown. Betty quit early on and the others performed as a trio.

However, Gordy got increasingly involved with Diana Ross, and was to even father her first child. With problems caused by Florence’s drinking habit, he decided that Diana sing all the leads and renamed the group Diana Ross & The Supremes. Cindy Birdsong was to replace Florence. Eventually, Diana became a solo star, but differences with Gordy made her shift to the RCA label.

Five songs to check: Where Did Our Love Go?, Stop In The Name of Love, I Hear A Symphony, Love Child, You Keep Me Hangin’ On

Marvin Gaye: He was called the Prince of Motown and Prince of Soul. Besides a string of successful solo albums, he teamed up with other Motown artistes Tammi Tarell and Mary Wells.

Marvin started singing in church at age four, and was initially more keen on jazz standards. He never imagined himself to be an RnB singer. But with the Motown Sound slowly getting its own audience, and the fact that HDH wrote his songs, Gaye changed his style, and became one of the most sought after singers for the label. He eventually quit Motown, and died a tragic death at age 44, shot by his father following a dispute over misplaced business documents.

Five songs to check: I Heard It Through The Grapevine, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (with Tammi Terrell), Let’s Get It On, Sexual Healing (post-Motown song)

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: Besides being a singer-songwriter and frontman of the group The Miracles, Smokey was also known as a record producer in his own right. He had a long association with Motown, ever since he met Gordy in 1957 and had a say in selecting many artistes for the label.

Signed on to the Tamla label, Smokey also wrote many Motown songs, and after his marriage to Miracles singer Claudette Rogers, named his children Tamla and Berry. He pursued a solo career from the early 1970s, and was involved with the Motown group till it was sold in 1988, at which time he was its vice-president.

Five songs to check: Stop Around, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Baby Its Backatcha, Cruisin’, Being With You (first two with the Miracles, the other three solo)

Stevie Wonder: Blind since shortly after his birth, Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy who was signed on to Motown at the age of 11, and became one of the group’s biggest successes. He had his first hit ‘Fingertips Part 2’ at age 13 and has never since looked back.

Wonder became a huge commercial success in the 1970s and his 1980 Tamla album ‘Hotter Than July’ his first platinum seller. Many successful songs, his soundtrack for ‘The Woman In Red’, and collaborations with Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Julio Iglesias made him one of the most sought after stars in the 1980s. He continues to perform prolifically today.

Five songs to check: My Cherie Amour, Sir Duke, Ebony & Ivory (with Paul McCartney), I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover

Lionel Richie & The Commodores: The popular Lionel Richie started off as frontman of the Commodores in 1968. Initially, they were part of Atlantic Records before they moved to Motown as a support group for the Jackson 5. Lionel began concentrating on songwriting and soon moved to a solo career, even writing the Kenny Rogers hit ‘Lady’ in 1980.

Like Stevie Wonder, he peaked in the 1980s,following the success of his self-titled solo debut album, its follow-up ‘Can’t Slow Down’ and ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’. Today, he appears at numerous prestigious concerts, and performed ‘Jesus Is Love’ at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in July 2009.

Five songs to check: Three Times A Lady, Endless Love (with Diana Ross), Hello, All Night Long, Say You Say Me

Other Motown/ Tamla artistes: As we said, the Motown/ Tamla/ Gordy Records group had a list of many famous other artistes. The groups included the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Boyz II Men and Martha & The Vandellas. Solo artistes were Mary Wells, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Rick James and Teena Marie.

Subsidiary companies signed on Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Four Seasons and the Elgins. The group also had the rock subsidiary Rare Earth Records, which promoted the brilliant group Rare Earth, known best for its song ‘Get Ready’.

That’s some catalogue, really. Berry Gordy remains one of the biggest entrepreneurs in American music, having developed such an outstanding roster of artistes.

In their own write: Of Hal David and other great lyricists

In English-language music, singer-songwriters have always carved a niche of their own. The moment one mentions the genre, one thinks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Don McLean… the list is endless. Even partnerships like Lennon-McCartney of the Beatles, Jagger-Richards of the Rolling Stones, Anderson-Ulvaeus of Abba, the Gibb brothers of the Bee Gees, Gilmour-Waters of Pink Floyd and Crosby-Still-Nash-Young come to mind.

In such a scenario, where does that leave the stand-alone lyricist? People who wrote the words of songs which were eventually composed, sung and popularised by others.

This question came to mind when one heard of the recent death of Hal David, one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century. In partnership with composer Burt Bacharach, he created a series of hits that included ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’, ‘I say a little prayer’, ‘(They long to be) Close to you’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Magic Moments’ and ‘Message to Michael’.

Bacharach-David were one of the most prolific songwriting teams (in the picture, David is on the right). While singer Dionne Warwick rendered many of their compositions, others to use their creations included the Carpenters, Perry Como, BJ Thomas, the 5th Dimension, Tom Jones, Herp Albert, Dusty Springfield and even newer acts like Alicia Keys, the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips.

After splitting from Bacharach, David wrote for composers Albert Hammond and Henry Mancini of Pink Panther fame. Surely, his death at age 91 marks the end of an era. He belonged to a minority set, comprising musicians who continued to write gem after gem, without singing them or composing their tunes commercially.

Minority set, did we say? Well come to think of it, one can think of very few stand-alone lyricists. While some like Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, George M Cohan and Irving Berlin were among the greatest lyricists in history, the truth is that they also composed their songs.

Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to classics like ‘Autumn leaves’, ‘Satin doll’, ‘Travelling light’ and ‘Something’s gotta give’, but he made an equal mark as a composer and singer. Blues biggie Willie Dixon and ‘Tulsa sound’ pioneer JJ Cale were also known for the quality of their lyrics, but in reality, they wrote entire songs, most of which were popularised by others like Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. Norman Gimbel wrote Roberta Flack’s hugely-successful ‘Killing me softly’, but as a lyricist, he was more famous for his translations of foreign language songs, including Portuguese tunes written by Vinicius de Moraes for Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

While talking of stand-alone lyricists who have made a huge contribution to English-language music, only a few names come to mind. The trendsetter was WS Gilbert of the famed duo Gilbert & Sullivan, which wrote many comic operas in the late 19th century, and was an inspiration for many others.

Here, we name the 12 other prolific writers, besides Gilbert and David, who made a major contribution in their fields:

Ira Gershwin: The writer of some of the best-known tunes of Broadway, Ira was best known for his partnership with his elder brother, the legendary composer George Gershwin. After George’s untimely death, Ira continued writing songs for composers like Kurt Weill and Jerome Kem. Best known for: The songs ‘Embraceable you’, ‘I got rhythm’, ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘The man I love’, ‘But not for me’. Contrary to general belief, he didn’t write George’s famous ‘Summertime’ — DuBose Heyward authored that song.

Oscar Hammerstein II: The writer of some 850 Broadway and Hollywood songs, Hammerstein was primarily known for his work with composer Richard Rodgers, though he worked with other musicians too. Best known for: ‘The Sound of Music’ soundtrack, and the standards ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’.

Lorenz Hart: Another partner of Richard Rodgers, Hart was extremely popular on the Broadway scene. Best known for: The songs ‘The lady is a tramp’, ‘My funny Valentine’, ‘Blue moon’, ‘Falling in love with love’.

Gus Kahn: German-born, US-settled Gus was one of the most prolific names of the early 20th century, more so for his work with Tin Pan Alley. Best known for: The songs ‘Dream a little dream of me’, ‘It had to be you’, ‘Side by side’.

Arthur Freed:  Another giant from the early 20th century, the American lyricist was mostly associated with composer Nacio Herb Brown. Best known for: The songs ‘Singing in the rain’, ‘The Broadway melody’ and ‘All I do is dream of you’.

Alan Jay Lerner: Worked with the famous composer Frederick Loewe, Lerner worked on numerous theatre works and their film adaptations. Best known for: The stage and film versions of ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Camelot’ and ‘Brigadoon’, and the film ‘The Little Prince’.

Yip Harburg: A close friend of Ira Gershwin, Harburg wrote some famous standards in the Great American Songbook. Best known for: The songs ‘April in Paris’, ‘It’s only a paper moon’, ‘Over the rainbow’, ‘Old devil moon’.

Dorothy Fields: Broadway and early Hollywood had many female lyricists, but Fields was the most prolific of them all. Best known for: The songs ‘The way you look tonight’, ‘On the sunny sides of the street’.

Carl Sigman: His early work included associations with jazz greats Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo, but later, he wrote huge hits for pop musicians of the 50s and 60s. Best known for: ‘My heart cries for you’ (Dinah Shore), ‘Ebb tide’ (the Righteous Brothers’) and ‘Where do I begin? (Andy Williams in the film ‘Love Story’).

Tim Rice: The perfect foil to the compositions of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rice also penned songs popularised by Elvis Presley, Elton John and Freddie Mercury: Best known for: The Webber musicals ‘Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Evita’, the film ‘The Lion King’ and the Elton John musical ‘Aida’.

Bernie Taupin: Elton John’s long-time collaborator, Taupin did selective but successful work with other musicians like Starship, Kid Rock and Courtney Love. He also wrote for the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Best known for: The song ‘We built this city’ by Starship, and most of Elton John hits, like ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Crocodile rock’, ‘Tiny dancer’, ‘Candle in the wind’, ‘Your song’, ‘Rocket man’, ‘Daniel’ and ‘Something in the way you look tonight’.

Diane Warren: A Grammy and Golden Globe winner, Warren is one of the most consistent among the newer lyricists, writing hits for Whitney Houston, Laura Branigan, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Toni Braxton, Gloria Estefan and many others. Best known for: The songs ‘Nothing’s gonna stop us now’ (by Starship), ‘Because you loved me’ (Celine Dion), ‘Unbreak my heart’ (Toni Braxton), ‘I don’t want to miss a thing’ (Aerosmith). ‘You haven’t seen the last of me’ (Cher).

As one notices, it’s a pretty short list. Among today’s generation, quite a few of those mentioned are totally unknown. Yet, each of them is legendary in his or her own way. Hal David was one of a kind, and his contribution to music deserves a huge round of applause. Goodbye, Hal.

The rise and stagnancy of Norah Jones

WHEN Geethali Shankar aka Norah Jones burst onto the scene with her 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, her sound was as fresh as morning dew. The voice was distinct, the writing simple and effective, and the tunes had a nice piano-backed easy listening feel and jazz flavour.

The world suddenly discovered that Norah was the daughter of Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and lauded her for making it big without his guidance or backing. The next year, she was the darling of the Grammys, bagging five awards, including the coveted Album of the Year. The numbers ‘Don’t Know Why’, ‘Feelin’ The Same Way’ and the title tune were played everywhere.

Last month, Norah released her fifth solo album ‘Little Broken Hearts’. Prior to the launch, there was a lot of hype around the fact that it was being produced and co-written by Danger Mouse, the extra-talented wiz who’s the brain behind the neo-soul act Gnarls Barkley, hip-hop venture Danger Doom and indie-rock outfit Broken Bells, and who has worked with the Black Keys, Gorillaz and Beck, and also created that masterpiece of an album ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ with Sparklehorse.

The collaboration with Mr Versatile Himself sounded exciting, and many of us expected Norah in a brand-new avatar. Her look had a makeover, all right, and she’s looking really gorgeous. But after a few listens, one arrived at the conclusion that both Norah and Danger Mouse could have done much, much more. Clearly, the Mouse wasn’t Dangerous enough.

Yes, the new 12-track set has some good songs (‘Say Goodbye’, ‘4 Broken Hearts’, ‘Happy Pills’) and is excellently-produced (‘After the Fall’, ‘All A Dream’). Nice to listen to, definitely, but overall, it offers nothing new — the same old style, probably pepped up like a different kind of pepper on a pepperoni pizza.

Has Norah Jones stagnated? Being a huge fan of her earlier efforts, one would say yes. And the reason perhaps is that she’s been over-over-prolific. While five studio albums in 10 years doesn’t sound like one hell of an output, the truth is that she’s been involved in so many side projects, either with her country band The Little Willies, or guesting with legends like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson and Herbie Hancock, or with contemporary biggies like Foo Fighters, Outkast and Ryan Adams.

Some of these interactions have been extraordinary — her rendition of the country standard ‘Here We Go Again’ with Ray Charles in 2004 was a highlight of the latter’s Grammy-winning album ‘Genius Loves Company’, and three of her duets with Willie Nelson (‘Wurlitzer Prize’, ‘Dreams Come True’ and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’) have been nominated for the Grammy. However, too much work at the same time could probably have affected her output as a solo singer, which she primarily is.

If one looks at her career progression, her second 2004 solo album ‘Feels Like Home’ was just the ideal follow-up, with beauties like ‘Sunrise’, ‘What Am I To You?’ and ‘In The Morning’. It sold really well too. So did the next album ‘Not Too Late’, with ‘Thinking About You’ and the title song dominating the airwaves. Reviews were, however, mixed, as Norah essentially stuck to the same formula.

The follow-up ‘The Fall’, featuring ‘Chasing Pirates’ and ‘Young Blood’, saw a little more experimentation in sound, but with her singing style not changing much, audiences felt she was getting repetitive. In fact, it was between Albums 3 and 4 that some critics named her ‘Snorah Jones’ — which was actually unfair.

This is where one thought her idea to team up with Danger Mouse was a masterstroke. But rather than concentrating on this album totally, Norah chose to be associated with the second Little Willies album ‘For The Good Times’, which was released just four months before this one.

Norah didn’t write on the Willies recording, and did some wonderful versions of Dolly Parton’s ‘Joulene’, ‘Willie Nelson’s ‘Permanently Lonely’, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Wipe Open Road’ and Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City’. But perhaps, the pressure of simultaneously working on two major projects made a difference.

A factor affecting Norah’s current output is her early overwhelming stardom. Like Alanis Morisette, Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Susan Boyle, her dream debut has forced most listeners to compare her newer work with the first hit. But think of it this way — if ‘The Fall’ or ‘Little Broken Hearts’ had been her debut, we may have reacted differently, instead of cribbing that these albums marked her ‘fall’ or left us a ‘little broken-hearted’.

Of course, it’s easy to criticise Norah Jones, simply by comparing everything she does now with what she did in ‘Come Away With Me’. The truth is that today, she is a household name, popular across age groups. While youngsters identify with her youth, looks and innocence, the elders are enamoured by her style of composing and singing —laidback, sensuous and intoxicating. She’s bridged the worlds of jazz and pop, and very few singers sound like her.

Maybe Norah should focus on one thing at a time. Maybe she should be a little more selective, doing whatever she does really well, instead of trying to please everybody by keeping up with all varieties of Joneses.

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