Wednesday, July 29, 2009

RIP, Gordon Waller of Peter and Gordon, 1945-2009

I was saddened to hear of the death of Gordon Waller, half of the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon, two weeks ago. Peter and Gordon have been one of my personal favorite British Invasion groups ever since I first heard them when I was about 13 or 14. I don't know exactly why I liked Peter and Gordon so much, but I know their sad songs spoke to me at that age. I still know every note of Rhino's "The Best of Peter & Gordon" CD. And I still enjoy their music. So, in this post, I'll reflect on some of my favorite Peter & Gordon songs. (In the picture above, Peter is on the left, and Gordon is on the right.)

Peter & Gordon started their career in about the luckiest way imaginable. In early 1964, just as Beatlemania was exploding around the planet, Paul McCartney was dating Peter's sister, Jane Asher, and Paul offered Peter & Gordon a song he had written for their first single. The Beatles never recorded it, and I don't remember if it was John or Paul himself who supposedly said it was "Too soft," meaning it wasn't rock and roll enough. But it fit Peter & Gordon's softer style perfectly, and "A World Without Love" was a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic in 1964. In the US, it was the first British Invasion number one by an artist other than the Beatles. Peter & Gordon sang close harmony, ala the Everly Brothers, and their sweet voices still make "A World Without Love" a great record. Peter & Gordon were able to use their connection to Paul for their next two singles, the McCartney-penned "Nobody I Know," and "I Don't Want To See You Again." Both songs were a little too folk and pop for the Beatles' image in 1964. I would love to have heard Paul's demos for these songs! (I'm assuming he would have demoed them for P&G.) "I Don't Want To See You Again" brought about something of a shift in style for P&G, as it was their first single to use strings.

But Peter & Gordon proved that they weren't just relying on Paul McCartney for their success with their next single, the gorgeous "I Go To Pieces," written by Del Shannon. The song starts out with a lovely riff played on 12-string guitar by Gordon. The song tells the tale of a man who goes to pieces every time he sees his ex-girlfriend, "When I see her comin' down the street/I get so shaky and I feel so weak/I tell my eyes look the other way/But they don't seem to hear a word I say/And I go to pieces and I wanna hide/Go to pieces and I almost die/Every time my baby passes by." With its stirring string parts and sad subject matter, the song is slightly reminiscent of Roy Orbison. The song became P&G's second Top Ten hit. Their next hit, a cover of Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways," was the first time that Gordon sang some of the song solo, as his was the better voice for lead vocals. It's still a great version of an under appreciated song, and it was a number two hit in England. (I heard it recently in the grocery store. Really.) The arrangement on "True Love Ways" was quite dramatic, which set the stage for their next hit, a cover of Phil Spector's "To Know You Is To Love You," which P&G did in the full Spector Wall-of-Sound style. It may sound a bit bombastic to our ears now, but at the time it was a pretty funny musical joke. And the style fit Gordon's dramatic voice very well.

In early 1966, P&G sang another Paul McCartney song, "Woman." (No relation to John Lennon's gorgeous 1980 solo hit, of course.) But Paul wanted to see if a song he wrote could be a hit without his name attached to it, so "Woman" was published under the pseudonym "Bernard Webb." "Woman" became a hit, and of course, it was eventually revealed that Paul wrote the song. Lyrically, it deals with a guy trying to get his girl back. Musically, it starts with a catchy string opening, and Gordon singing solo. I think it's a very catchy song, and again, I would love to hear Paul sing it. The song structure is a bit odd, as towards the end of the song, we get a section that isn't repeated anywhere else in the song, where P&G sing a sort-of round, with Peter starting his phrase on the last note of the phrase that Gordon is finishing. (It starts with "I've got plenty of time.") Then their voices come together on the words "do it" in the line, "I still think we can do it/And you know how much I love you." It's a great song, although apparently Paul sang a bit of it during the "Get Back" sessions and said something about how he didn't like the arrangement. (Maybe too many strings?) Peter & Gordon's inclinations towards middle-of-the-road pop and bombastic arrangements were starting to make themselves more known on album tracks and singles like, "There's No Living Without Your Loving." (Which was also sung by Gene Pitney, to give you some idea of what it sounds like.) "TNLWYL" is a decent enough record, and it made it to number 50, but it sounds like it's from 1962 rather than 1966, it wasn't contemporary.

Peter and Gordon would return to the Top Ten in 1966, courtesy of the goofy, but fun, novelty number "Lady Godiva." I don't think I've ever heard this song on oldies stations, oddly enough. It's silly, but enjoyable, and Gordon reigns in his theatrical vocal tendencies. The song tells the updated tale of Lady Godiva, who gets seduced by a Hollywood producer and goes off to make soft-core movies. Really! But more goofy "English" songs were to follow for P&G. These songs, and Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry the 8th, I Am" are kind of like the opposite of Ray Davies's "English" songs being written at the same time. Whereas Ray's songs were painting a satirical portrait of contemporary England, these songs were selling back quaint olde "Englishness" to the Americans. And people bought it. "Knight in Rusty Armour" was the follow-up to "Lady Godiva." It went to number 15 in early 1967. P&G's harmonies were still fantastic, but the lyrics are rather cheesy. After the knight wins his fair maiden, he can't get out of his armor, "And I can't guess/How they still got married and had twins/They came in tins." But that was poetry compared to P&G's last Top Forty hit, "Sunday For Tea." I'm still convinced that this is the song Spinal Tap is parodying with "Cups and Cakes." "Sunday for Tea" is quaintly British, of course. "Sunday for tea/I'll see you Sunday for tea/And though it's not far away/Each hour's a day to me." Okay, not too bad so far. And then it falls apart. "Lettuce and ham/Or maybe crumpets and jam/Oh, baby it'll be fun/Havin' a Sunday tea." It gets sillier, "And as you pass the sugar bowl to me/I'll see at last your heart and soul will be with me." I just hope that P&G had fun recording it! And even though I mock "Sunday for Tea," I know every word and I still enjoy hearing it. That's one of the great things about Peter & Gordon, they gave every song their all.

Peter & Gordon broke up in 1968, after 10 Top Forty US hits in four years. And even though their final hits are rather silly, they were still capable of making great records during that time. Their version of Phil Ochs's "The Flower Lady" is beautiful and haunting. It's always been one of my favorite P&G songs. And Peter & Gordon wrote some good songs, even if none of them were hits. Songs like "Morning's Calling," "Don't Pity Me," "Hurtin' is Lovin,'" "I Feel Like Going Out," and "You've Had Better Times" showed that they had real talent as songwriters. "You've Had Better Times," from 1968, is worth mentioning, as it sounds a lot like something Alan Price would have cut around that time. Which means that it's a great, bluesy song!

After their break-up, despite his talent, Gordon Waller did not go on to pop stardom. Peter Asher quit singing and turned to producing. While he was head of A&R at Apple Records, he discovered a young singer-songwriter named James Taylor, and became his manager and producer. Peter and Gordon may not have changed the world with their music, but they surely added some beauty to the world. Thanks for all those great songs.

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

Lovely post, Mark! You're so right, these guys were fabulous, much more than just flukes with Lennon-McCartney cast-off material. I finally got a chance to see them a few summers ago, when they reunited for a gig in New York to benefit Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five. (Sadly, Mike has since died as well.) Gordon's voice was still beautiful, all those years later. They seemed thrilled to be up there singing together again. Hearing of Gordon's death made me feel so wistfully happy that they got that opportunity.