The Dynamics - Misery
Hey Pete! There's some blokes from the USA
at the door saying you "borrowed" their song...
The chapter is entitled – Sampling/Schmampling or How a Generation of British Rockers Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Concept of Blatant Plagiarism... So...a couple of years back (before I entered the world of satellite radio) we were driving back from visiting my folks down Philly way, and had a small NJ college radio station (Trenton State I think) tuned in. As I was spinning the dial, I happened upon some smoking garage punk nugget or other and decided to bear with the somewhat weak signal in hopes that continued listening would yield more of the same (now that I think of it, it may even have been something as far out as ‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ by the Red Krayola, which would have been a real surprise...). But I digress.... So I continued listening, and the DJ was spinning a wide variety of 60’s sounds, garage, pop and soul, and I was digging it. Then, all of a sudden they slap on a record, that – now dig this – I had never heard before, yet strangely enough had definitely heard before. How’s that for a zen koan grasshopper??? The tune in question turned out to be ‘Misery’ by the Dynamics (that was the one I’d never heard). The one I heard (are you confused yet?) was ‘Zoot Suit’ by the High Numbers (aka The Who). Here’s how that whole convoluted scenario plays out. Back in 1963, a Detroit vocal group – the Dynamics – went into the studio and laid down ‘Misery’. The record is one of those great mixtures of R&B/rock/soul that was so prevalent in the early 60’s (and is so sorely forgotten today). Featuring a slightly menacing bass/drums/guitar backing, the lead vocal drops in as normal as can be - before suddenly changing to a falsetto and being joined by the other singers – at which point the drummer kicks things up a notch. After the second verse there’s a cool sax solo, and then the group comes back for more. The drumming on this track is outstanding. So....later that year (I’ll assume) after the Big Top label pressed up and released this treasure, some pimply kid in the UK gets his hands on a copy. He loves the song so much, he decides to write new lyrics and pass it off as his own. That kid....Pete Townshend. His band....the High Numbers (soon to become the Who). The “new” song....”Zoot Suit”. That’s what I meant when I said that I didn’t know the song, but did know it too. I’d heard ‘Zoot Suit’ plenty of times (some of my closest friends being card carrying, scooter coveting Mod types), but never in it’s raw, pre-stolen form, aka the original by the Dynamics. So, I’m riding along, minding my own beeswax, and I hear a VERY familiar tune, but in a whole new context. I was very excited by this discovery (my wife somewhat less so...). Naturally I set right out to find myself a copy of the Dynamics 45, discovering in the process that I was probably THE LAST person to figure this out. Adding insult to injury (or more injury...), the flip side of ‘Zoot Suit’ was a little ditty called ‘I’m The Face’, which just happened to be every bit as stolen as ‘Zoot Suit’, except this time the “source material” was “Got Love If You Want It” by the mighty Slim Harpo – proving once and for all that even if Pete was a thieving bastard, he had great taste in music. This combination of personality attributes seemed to be in some way inherent in the character of a certain age group in the UK, as the pattern of theft was continued on through the 60’s by countless groups, many of whom went on to fame and fortune. The modus operandi appears to have been, cop a tune from an obscure record by a (more often than not) black American artist, and “rework” it – reworking varying from rewriting the lyrics all the way to barely changing the song at all – collecting the copyright and all ensuing monies (be honest...how many of you used to think that Alan Price wrote ‘House of the Rising Sun”???). Now, as in all things, there are widely varying degrees of malfeasance. A group like the Beatles may have borrowed a riff here and there (see Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’) but they weren’t really stealing anything. There’s along standing tradition in music (popular and other) of carrying motifs from the past into a new era. The entire Bebop era is based on interpolations and quotes from “standards”. However.... There were people who, unsatisfied with a mere riff – lifted entire songs and “rewrote” them (i.e. crossing out the name of the original author and replacing it with ones own being a most liberal definition of “rewrote”). The worst offenders of the lot being (cough...cough...) Led Zeppelin, who thankfully were dragged into court by the mighty Willie Dixon and taken to task for their appropriation (though to be fair, Willie ought to have named the Small Faces as co-defendants*). Fortunately for the Who (and unfortunately for the Dynamics) the whole ‘Zoot Suit’ thing was a very early, pre-fame and fortune escapade and never resulted in legal action (that I know of...). Either way, dig the tune, send a hail fellow well met to the Dynamics and a Bronx cheer to the Who. * If you get the chance, check out the Small Faces tune ‘You Need Loving’ and witness the blueprint for Led Zeppelin laid before you. This tune was of course a “rewritten” version of Willie Dixon’s ‘You Need Love’ (made famous by Muddy Waters), which Robert “My Pants Is Too Tight” Plant and Jimmy “Uh...’zat You Satan” Page turned into ‘Whole Lotta Love’.