What I Say – Or how to reuse lard


People steal ideas all the time.

Just look at Gotham By Gaslight. The idea for a Victorian Batman was mine, albeit one that occurred to me 21 years after it had already been realised. Nineteenth Century superhero geeks can thank me later, but you’re welcome.

That said, you can’t really own an idea, despite what copyright lawyers would have you believe. And if you can’t own something then ipso flippin’ facto it can’t be stolen. We could say people ‘borrow’ ideas but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Oscar Wilde. Let’s plump for the more egalitarian and open-source verb ‘use’.

People use ideas all the time.

This is never more evident than in music, where thieves, filchers and robbers abound, using ideas as though the Warner Brothers Copyright Concentration Camps are just some sort of myth, as opposed to the cold hellish reality we know them to be.

Luckily for every single human being who has ever lived and who will ever live, Music cares not a jot for the concepts of property or ownership. It jumps from hand to hand, user to user, spreading its seed about like a horny mongrel dog. Hurray!

Wiser heads than mine have penned far more articulate and interesting articles on the subject of the bankruptcy of copyright – the inquiring mind should seek them out. The believer should photocopy them and distribute them liberally in the street.

Meanwhile it seems evident to even the casual observer that, as this century kicks in, the thorny issue of intellectual property is being challenged and/or more rigorously defended than ever before. As has happened throughout modern history, from the printing press to the gramophone, the typewriter to the tape recorder, technology is once again assisting the assault on the supposed ownership of ideas and art.

Da Yoot of today barely recognise the legitimacy of paying for the artistic end product – a song or film – let alone paying proper dues for the idea that inspired it.

Here’s a relatively well-known example of music’s ability to pass on the burning idea-baton. I was reminded of it this morning when two songs ‘coincidentally’ sprang up on the radio in quick succession with no mention of their connection. Perhaps it was self-evident. For those who know it well, forgive me the indulgence of repeating this example of musical plagiarism and rest assured that I stole the idea.

In 1947 Dizzy Gillespie recorded Manteca, a cornerstone tune in the early evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz. First performed in Carnegie Hall, New Yoik, it was co-written by Gil fuller and Chano Pozo, the former being a Californian jazz arranger the latter a Havana born percussionist.

This little tune became one of Gillespie’s most famous and has been described by the Village Voice as “one of the most important records ever made in the United States”. Manteca (Spanish for lard or butter and also Cuban slang for marijuana) is based on the clave, a rhythmic pattern which originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions. It’s a total DANCE STOMPER baby!

Twelve years later, after running out of material at a live show in Pennsylvania, Ray Charles improvised a rollicking twelve bar piece to fill time – his backing band the Raelettes taking their cue from his gestures to create a gospel tinged call and response soul boogie. The song would become the classic, What I Say. Its now well-known opening riff was bashed out on a Wurlitzer electric piano, used by Charles in lieu of crappy out-of-tune concert hall pianos whilst on the road. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Gillespie’s Manteca, a number surely known to the jazz enthusiast Charles. It may not have been a deliberate theft, but the subconscious lift is evident and thank goodness he did so.

Following its subsequent recording and release, What I Say went on to become number one on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, number six on the Billboard Hot 100, Charles’ first gold record  and Atlantic Records’ best-selling song at the time.

More importantly for cool finger popping daddios like you and me, it became a major influence on young white British and American musicians, some of whom would go on to reshape popular music in the post rock ‘n’ roll West. The Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Spencer Davis Group, Van Morrison – you know the cats I’m referring to – they all dug this record.

The UK beat groups, evolving out of skiffle in the early years of the sixties, lapped up that dirty buzzing eleccy piano lick, rough-riding it for all it was worth and jiving to the latin-gospel-jazz-beat-boogie fusion. The early line up of The Beatles reportedly played the song at gigs for as long as they could possibly make it last, as they learned their craft in the cellars of Hamburg. McCartney cited it as an inspiration for him to make music in general; Harrison claimed it “was one of the best records I ever heard.” You do the freakin’ math baby!

Skip forward a few years to 1961 and R ‘n’ B guitarist Bobby Parker took the solid danceable latin rhythm of Gillespie, as processed via Charles, and injected it with 20CCs of pure guitar and trumpet ROCK N FREAKIN ROLL to forge his own number, Watch Your Step. The call and response gospel element of the Charles crossover hit remains intact, as Parker’s backing singers simultaneously chide the lover of the lyric to behave whilst encouraging the nightclub dancers to strut their stuff out on the floor. “Waaaatch your step!”

This new track peaked at a far from earth-shattering #59 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the disc clearly winged its way to England, like so many other rare unknown rhythm and blues discs had before it, landing some years later in the fertile mind and sharp ears of John Lennon.

Taking the guitar lick, itself a nod to Charles’ electric piano riff, he fashioned I Feel Fine, a slinky rumbling number in which Lennon boasts unconvincingly of his love (reusing the tired ‘diamond ring’ rhyme in the process). To be fair to the lad, he’s only claiming to feel ‘fine’, as opposed to feeling on top of the world, so his lackadaisical attitude to love is excusable. Great though it is, I Feel Fine is not the upbeat stomper of its predecessors.

Lennon’s 1964 track loses the gospel call and response and with it a little of the energy found in the Charles and Parker variations, replacing it with the by now trademark Beatle harmonies and strapping on a rousing middle 8 banging on about how glad everyone is. Lennon was so chuffed with his handiwork he produced a facsimile – minus the all important clave rhythm – two years later in the form of Day Tripper when under pressure to produce a Christmas single. “That’s mine. Including the lick, the guitar break and the whole bit,” he lied in 1980.

In Lennon’s defence, on another occasion he was more honest, elaborating, “Watch Your Step’ is one of my favorite records. The Beatles have used the lick in various forms. The Allman Brothers used the lick straight as it was.”

Never one to be left out, McCartney took a crack at yet another rewrite in the form of She’s A Woman before the ink had even dried on Lennon’s lyric. Paul’s take on our recurrent theme loses the melodic opening motif in exchange for chunky stabbing guitar chords.

Five years passed and, not content with the slowed down mid-sixties blues-rock Day-Tripperisation of this tune that won’t die, Jimmy Page finished the job of sedating the patient. Too lazy even to turn it into a real song, in Page’s hands it became the masturbatory drum-bashing instrumental rock staple Moby Dick, the name presumably being a reference to the cocaine fuelled onanism within and moreover a slow big fat white whale of wank. We will receive letters from furious fans, but if that’s Zep at their best you all know you’re being short changed.

As the late sixties rock behemoth lumbered blunderingly into the Les Paul wielding lank-haired stadium-filling shit trousered seventies, that pumping drilling guitar riff, now also shorn of its latin Cuban clave rhythm and subsequent beat-group harmonies, was dusted off and put to use by Deep Purple in 1973’s Rat Bat Blue, the least said about which the better.

Continuing in the rock vein, the 75% accurately named Allman Brothers (they are all men, but they weren’t all brothers) were playing a rocked up live version of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s One Way Out from 1971 onwards. Aside from its twelve bar format, the original version of this bouncy blues number (clearly superior to the Allman Bros version) doesn’t bear too much resemblance to Charles’s What I Say, which is ironic since both Williamson’s voice and harmonica playing sound very very Ray. The riff is a less powerful take on Parker’s guitar line of the same year – dubious log dates make it hard to tell which was released first, but it’s clear that there was some real cross fertilisation and recycling going on that year.

The Allman brothers take this Parker/Williamson version via Zepplin, but curiously keep the boogie jazz beat, at least on their 71 live recording.  By this point the tune is already becoming a little rock-sterile but there’s a glimmer of its original charm buried within the cock-rocking. Their ’95 live recording, by contrast, is soullessly super shit.

So where does this meandering leave us? Doubtless there are hundreds of other instances of these particularly similar rhythms, licks and riffs echoing through the last sixty years of popular music, perhaps even screamingly obvious ones Old Rope has omitted. Why not prove your smug sense of self satisfaction to the world by remonstrating this careless blog in the comments below.

Doubtless also this particular tune, a melody that may very well even predate Gillespie’s rendition, will wriggle and squiggle on into the vast space colony filled future, keeping us all amused for generations to come.

Each of the tracks above will have its supporters, fighting its respective corner. In my view, however, if we want one to play us out as we dance the night away it has to be Ray Charles every time. Since Old Rope is a generous sort, included here are all of the above songs in all their slinky rolling tom-tom afro-cuban riffy jiffy jazzy boogie rock ‘n’ freaking electric roll glory.

And as you listen to them and drink your morning coffee, ask yourself what idea are you going to use today?


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