Friday, 9 January 2015

and Venus was her name

A goddess on a mountain top
burning like a flame
summit of beauty and love
and Venus was her name

Bands that only ever have one major hit are called "One Hit Wonders" although often they may be bands that have been around for years and probably survived long after the one hit fans have lost interest. The early 1970s were a particular era for this kind of thing - Matthews Southern Comfort had a number one with Woodstock and Gordon Huntley's beautiful hovering pedal steel guitar still brings pleasure. Another band considered One Hit Wonders were the Dutch group Shocking Blue (actually The Shocking Blue). Maybe in our American/Anglo-centric way that as they were a European band they were simply instantly forgotten about. In truth they had been formed in 1967 and split for the first time in 1974. They had  many hits in Europe selling some 13.5 million discs by 1973. Their one and only hit was Venus which got to No 1 in the USA but not in the UK or the Netherlands. Looking at the list of singles and albums on Wikipedia shows that they were a hard working and established band. Whilst having reformed a few times since their heydays, they can't now as the lead singer Mariska Veres sadly died back in 2006.

The Shocking Blue were formed by guitarist/songwriter Robbie van Leeuwen who evidently also played sitar. I'm not sure if that's a real one or the wonderful electric sitar which is a totally different beast. Anyway, I'm no expert on the band but there's plenty of information out there in cyberspace for interested parties.

Venus was released towards the end of 1969 but as it stayed in the UK charts for some thirteen  weeks it is considered a 1970 hit. Seeing them on Top of the Pops must have raised a few temperatures and Miss Veres certainly fuelled my thirteen year old imagination. But it was the sound of the single that stays with me.

Opening with a B7 suspended 4th chord taken directly from the Who's Pinball Wizard the simple E minor to A major rhythm chugs away whilst Miss Veres tells us of a mountain goddess whose weapons are "her crystal eyes" who "makes every man mad". The opening words were written as "A goddness"evidently and she sang it like that as she didn't speak English at the time so learnt it phonetically. Most people don't notice it. In the video below van Leeuwen plays a telecaster but in the official one he plays a semi-electric double horned guitar that could be a Hagstrom. That would probably be the guitar used on the actual track as it has more of a semi-electric sound. Also, frustratingly, in the video during the guitar solo the camera focuses on the drummer which seems to have been typical in the seventies. The Old Grey Whistle Test seemed to have a habit of doing that. Maybe it was agreed so nobody could work out what the guitarists were doing. Bloody frustrating.

The backing is simply electric and bass guitars and drums with a few lead licks thrown in. There is also an organ in the mix which could be a Vox Continental but I don't really know much about keyboards. The organ was played by a guest musician, one Rick van der Linden who also died in 2006. The lyrics were fairly ridiculous and not just because van Leeuwen always wrote in his second language - most pop lyrics are ridiculous. Still, she's got, yeah baby, she's got it. I'm sure many young men - and their dads - weren't really too bothered what the lovely Mariska was singing to be honest.

The guitar solo is nice and economical and has a lovely sound - quite possibly played on a telecaster. It's got a rolling, slidey country feel to it. The band had been formed as a Dutch version of West Coast groups like Jefferson Airplane but the solo didn't meander at all. When I posted a link to the video on Twitter I wrote that it's a "perfect pop song and beautifully constructed" and that's exactly what it is. An unusual opening - familiar because it reminds us of the Who - followed by a verse and a chorus (well, refrain), memorable guitar solo, second verse and refrain, a Middle Eight of "Aahs" and a few more choruses and a repeat of the opening. It's also got a little single note riff that features a couple of times. The solo starts up again but is quickly faded out. It has memorable words and you can dance to it (probably back in the day everyone did the "Bat-dance" a la Adam West's Batman in the 60's tv show). That's what I call a perfectly crafted piece of pop.

I have recently been analysing some old singles and album tracks. I say 'analysing' as it seems the most suitable word. I've been looking back not necessarily for any nostalgic reason but because I'm planning to record some songs using my latest toy. The Electro-Harmonix B9 Organ Machine is a pedal that simulates various 60s and 70s classic organs such as a Hammond. It genuinely sounds like them. Now, I've never been able to play piano as I could never get my head around playing chords and learning to read music so this is a revelation to me. By playing a guitar through this wonderful device and using reverb, I'm suddenly Rick Wakeman*. Mrs Dave came into the back room the other day and said it sounds like we've actually got a Hammond organ in the house. The cathedral organ simulation is unbelievable! Anyway, because of this device I've started to look back at some classic songs and their construction. John Fogerty certainly constructed the early Creedence Clearwater Revival songs to the point that he drew diagrams of how he wanted them to sound. I won't be doing that but it's great to listen carefully especially on headphones to these mini masterpieces.

Okay, here's the video. Enjoy.

*Evidently in Japan he was announced in print as "Rock Wankman".

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