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So Nice They did it Thrice #1: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ (A Tale of Long-Lost Singer-Songwriters, Boy-Band Bowdlerizations, ‘These Tears that Words Are’, and a Bubblegum Classic With a Secret History).

January 6, 2014

So Nice They did it Thrice is (or will be, I hope), a recurring feature from the Overgrounder. It’s a music column wherein I explore the history and background of pop songs that were covered not once, not twice, but – you guessed it – thrice, and explain why I think they’re nice. In keeping with the Overgrounder’s mission statement, most of the songs I’ll be covering in this column will be from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and a lot of them I must admit, could be construed as cheesy. But I do hope that these columns will give you a new perspective on some old songs, and maybe change your opinion of them. Even more than that, I hope these columns will entertain you.

For my first So Nice They did it Thrice column, I’d like to explore ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter.’ This is a song that many people remember (if they remember it at all), as a pseudo-classic of bubblegum schlock from plaid-maddened ‘70’s boy band The Bay City Rollers. (It certainly wasn’t their biggest hit – that honor went to the vastly inferior ‘Saturday Night’ – and since it wasn’t a hit for anyone else, either, I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t jinxed.) However, if we (or at least, I) examine it closely, we (I) may find that it’s less schlocky than it may seem. For starters, the Rollers weren’t the first people who recorded it. The first person to record ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ was the man who wrote it: an American singer-songwriter named Tim Moore, for whom that weary journalistic cliché ‘unfairly neglected’ could have been invented.

Tim Moore was born in Philadelphia; he went to art schools, and got his start as a performer in the late 1960’s, playing his own songs in coffee houses. After this, Moore’s musical career seemed to consist of endless brushes with greatness that never blossomed into anything substantial, and successes that were never as large as they could be. During the late ‘60’s, he was almost – but not quite – signed to Frank Zappa’s infamous record label Bizarre. (Zappa brought Tim Moore to New York with the intention of producing Moore’s debut album, but was unable to do so because of complications in his own touring schedule. How disappointed Moore must have been by this, I can only imagine.) After this disappointment, Tim Moore moved back to Philadelphia; as the 1970’s oozed onto the horizon, he worked as a session musician and a songwriter-for-hire, working with titans of the Philly Soul sound, like Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff. All the while though, Tim Moore kept nursing his dream of becoming a successful performing artist in his own right. He moved to Woodstock, New York (Woodstock was a haven for musicians and singer-songwriters; Bob Dylan, the Band, and their infamous manager Albert Grossman all lived there), and struck a deal with ABC-Dunhill Records. Around about 1971, Tim Moore released his first single, the admittedly wan ‘A Fool Like You’. Singing backup on the song was Donald Fagen, who would, of course, go on to become part of that superbly cynical jazz-rock duo Steely Dan. Moore returned the favor, singing backup on Steely Dan’s near-forgotten debut single ‘Dallas’, but this was yet another example of Moore becoming peripherally involved with artists who were (or would go on to become) much more successful than he ever would be. Moore’s debut single ‘A Fool Like You’ was not a commercial success, but this did not deter him from continuing to make singles and albums. In 1975, Tim Moore released the album Behind These Eyes. This was the album that included the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter.’

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is the closest thing to a hit that Tim Moore ever had; it’s his best song, and of course, it’s what I’m writing this article about. Here’s where I feel I should examine the song in detail. Sometimes, I really don’t know why I like this song as much as I do, but I really do like it. I’d consider ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ to be a prime example of power pop. Power pop is an amorphous subgenre or pseudo-genre, a self-conscious melding of rock and pop. It existed throughout the 1970’s, and was defined by critic Robert Christgau in the March 1978 issue of his famous Consumer Guide as ‘…hard rock leavened by melody and a certain pop frivolity…[power pop] is a natural evolutionary direction for punk – in fact, much of the best punk (but not all of it) was there to begin with…’ The 1970’s bands most commonly thought of as power pop were The Raspberries (before lead singer Eric Carmen left them for a frighteningly successful solo career making frightfully inane soft-rock songs like ‘All by Myself’) and Big Star (pop genius Alex Chilton’s second band, his first band, of course, having been the Box Tops, who brought you ‘The Letter’) but ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ has nearly all the hallmarks of the subgenre, enough to make me think that Tim Moore should be considered as a power-popper, too. The guitar in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is crude and tough but engaging – I mean, it doesn’t try to bludgeon you to death. This guitar, and the equally crude/tough/engaging drums, is complimented by bright, thin piano chords and sweet, ‘oohooh’-ing female backup singers – the combination of tough and sweet being a power pop hallmark. But it’s the lyrics to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ that fascinate me. We might think, from the title, that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ would be just another silly love song – something about someone writing a love-letter to his girlfriend, most likely. But when we listen to the lyrics, we realize that it isn’t a love song at all. Rather, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a song about what it means to be an up-and-coming artist. (It is exactly the vision of the performing life that you’d expect a semi-successful singer-songwriter like Tim Moore would have.) Besides that, it’s a song about writing songs, and one that reveals Tim Moore to be a songwriter of more-than-average wit and perception. The narrator of the song dreams of being counted amongst the great poets, but confesses that his heart belongs to the rock ‘n’ roll, with all its lowbrow thrills. The opening verse hit me right where I live: ‘Hey sister poets, dear brother poets too,/These tears that words are make me want to be with you./But I need to spend my body, I’m a music-makin’ man/And no page can release it like this amplifier can…’ As we listen to the next verse, we notice that the ‘love’ in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is not romantic, or physical love at all, but rather something between the ancient Greek/Christian concept of agape (the third definition) and a general lust-for-life. When Moore sings ‘…God, I must be crazy to express myself this way,/But there ain’t much Romance livin’ in the U.S.A…’, we can suspect that he means ‘Romance’ with a capital R, the kind of Romance that the Romantic movement was about – untrammeled expression of feeling, rejection of all preconceived notions, passion for everything above all. By the time Moore, with his power-popper’s yawp, shouts out the final triumphant chorus – ‘…Gonna sign it gonna seal it gonna mail it away! /Send me back one someday!’ – we come to realize that Moore’s rock ‘n’ roll love letter is addressed to the whole wide world – it’s the cri de Coeur of an artist who will either make his mark on the world or die trying.

In gushing so thoroughly, I don’t mean to suggest that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a perfect song. Tim Moore may be a good songwriter, but (despite what he may be thinking in the first lines of the song) he’s no poet, and the lyrics to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ are not without infelicities. The final verse of the song contains a ghastly confection of inanity, pointlessness and bad pseudo-pun: ‘…But I see an ancient rhythm in a man’s genetic code,/Gonna keep on rock ‘n’ rollin’ ‘till my genes explode…’ And some modern listeners may find the song in its entirety just too ’70’s; power pop isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I will never fail to be amazed by ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, by the power and passion in Tim Moore’s voice and by his portrayal of the struggling artist’s lot. I respond so intensely to this song because I’m an up-and-coming artist myself.  I am, ironically, just a writer, a page-poet with only words to play with, who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about the world of pop music. If I wrote a version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, (a prose version, or a music-less poem version) I’d have to begin it ‘Hey rock nrollers…’ Nonetheless, there have been times where I’ve felt exactly like the narrator of Tim Moore’s song, and I’ll always be grateful to him for writing it. Moore may never have found success commensurate with his ambitions – neither Behind These Eyes, nor any of the three albums he released in the years following 1975 made much impact on the charts, and he has since abandoned performing to become a digital/media strategist – but ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ deserves to go down in pop music history.

Now comes the part in So Nice They did it Thrice where I explain the person – or in this case, people, plural – who did the song for the second time. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ may not have been a hit for Tim Moore, but that doesn’t mean it went unrecognized by the world. Somehow, the song must have come to the attention of the Bay City Rollers’ manager, because in 1976, they recorded a version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, which became the title track of the album that they released that year. People might expect that they bowdlerized it (and they did drop a verse), but as we will see, they didn’t mess with the song as much as some readers might suspect. I won’t go into much detail about the Bay City Rollers. Suffice to say they were tartan-wrapped teen-pop sensations from Edinburgh who picked their band name by throwing a dart a map of the United States and watching it land on ‘Bay City’, Michigan, and that nearly everything everyone else says about them is true, except maybe this – everyone says they were awful, but however fluffy and silly their brand of bubblegum pop may have been, they really weren’t. Boring maybe (that’s why I won’t go into much detail about them) but not awful. Their version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is relatively faithful to Tim Moore’s original, but only relatively. The Rollers speed up the tempo and slick up the instrumentation (dropping the piano and including a much more polished guitar sound), they drop the important second verse and keep the final verse with those wretched lines about ‘…rock ‘n’ rollin’ ‘till my genes explode…’, which I think was a stupid decision, and lead singer Les McKeown doesn’t have half of Tim Moore’s yawp. But when you play Moore’s version next to the Bay City Rollers’, you realize that they’re fairly similar after all. So, the Rollers’ version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is still pretty good (though not as good a Moore’s, in my opinion, and why a band that was already monstrously successful should feel the need to cover a song about being a desperate, struggling artist, I have no idea. Also, I should probably mention here that the Rollers, and their audience, were probably the ones who mistook ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ for a silly love song based on its title alone, and I can’t help but wonder if they ever figured out that it wasn’t.) ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ wasn’t a major hit for the Bay City Rollers – the redoubtable Robert Christgau referred to it in passing as ‘…semistiff…’ But hit or not, I think ‘Rock ‘n ‘ Roll Love Letter’ is one of the few great songs the Rollers ever recorded – certainly the most interesting song they ever recorded – and I suspect that it’s a more interesting song than anything One Direction (the Rollers’ present-day equivalent) will ever record.

It is at this point where I force this column to live up to its name, and explain the people who covered ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ for the third time. These people would be The Records. Unlike with the Bay City Rollers (who many people still remember, though perhaps not fondly), I might have to explain in some detail who The Records were. The Records were a British power pop band who had their biggest success with the single ‘Starry Eyes’, released in 1978 on a tiny independent record label that actually called itself Independent Records. (The Records also signed to the infamous Stiff label, and their appearance on the label’s Be Stiff tour in late 1978 garnered enough valuable exposure to win them a deal with Virgin Records, although this didn’t really help them much in the end). The Records’ lead singer and guitarist was John Wicks, and their drummer was Will Birch (who had previously fronted an obscure pub-rock band called the Kursaal Flyers). Rounding out the Records’ personnel were bassist Phil Brown and second guitarist Hugh Gower. They’d chosen their band-name because it sounded deliberately generic (something they had in common with The Smiths, interestingly enough). The Records had a lot in common with Tim Moore. Like Tim Moore, they were power-poppers (though, because they got their start in 1978 rather than 1971, they were sometimes considered to be ‘new wave’ as well as ‘power pop’), like Tim Moore they were never as successful as they deserved to be and understandably spent a lot of time fretting about the success that never seemed to come their way, and like Tim Moore they thought long and hard, with more detail then eloquence, about the purpose of art and the artist’s lot. In a 1979 interview with writer Jeffrey Morgan of CREEM magazine, Will Birch explained ‘…[the purpose of art is] not to instruct, certainly not…I think the function of art is to reflect what people feel but don’t recognize that they feel until it’s pointed out to them by art – and then to entertain as well. Also, to provide a basis of expression for the artist.’ After all that, it was only natural that The Records should cover ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, that cri de Coeur about art from an artist with which they had so much in common. Their version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ (which you can listen to here) is much more faithful to the original than the Bay City Rollers’ version. The Records retain the second verse of the song, that the Rollers dropped (though John Wicks sings ‘…there ain’t much Romance livin in the world today…’ rather than ‘…livin’ in the U.S.A…’, because they’re a British band, after all), and include piano (though the piano bits in their version are even more crude than the piano bits in Moore’s version). All they really do to differentiate their version from Moore’s is to speed the tempo slightly, rough up the guitar a bit (in contrast to the Rollers, who slicked their guitar up), and drop the oohoohs in the background. All things considered, The Records’ version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is just as good as Tim Moore’s version (and it should be, it’s so similar). Thusly, in terms of quality, Tim Moore’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ and The Records’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ are tied for first place, with the Bay City Rollers’ version a close second.

Here I will conclude my column. I hope it enlightened and entertained you. I urge readers to listen to all three versions in a row. They prove, if nothing else, that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a song that was…So Nice, They did it Thrice.

Postscript: I, your Overgrounder, feel I should explain a few things here that I didn’t have room to explain in the article above. First of all, for those unfamiliar with the term, I call myself a ‘page-poet’ to differentiate myself from a ‘slam-poet.’ While I have performed at poetry slams in the past, I write poetry designed primarily to be read on a page. This is in contrast to most slam poets, who compose poems designed primarily to be recited out loud and who often don’t write down their poetry at all, instead composing on the spot and off the top of their heads. Second of all, when I mentioned above that I had ‘…only words to play with…’ I was quoting a famous line from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The line ‘…Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with!…’  is spoken by Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, and even though Humbert Humbert is one of the slimiest villains in literature, I can never resist quoting him.  I think of that line every time I think about the fact that I’m not a musician.

Third of all, for those unfamiliar with CREEM magazine, which I also quoted from in the article above, it, was the sweetest and most delicious (for a rather grungy definition of sweet and delicious) rock magazines that ever existed, and I’m still sorry that it folded, even though it did so in 1989, before I was even born. Lester Bangs served as CREEM’s editor for a while – and if you don’t know who Lester Bangs is, go find out at once. Suffice to say, I consider Lester Bangs to be part of the holy trinity of rock critics (the other figures in the trinity being Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau). Speaking of Robert Christgau (and forth of all), the only reason I quote him so much is because I do consider him part of that holy trinity, despite the fact that I know many people who consider him (and Greil Marcus, and even Lester Bangs) to be an overrated pompous ass. Robert Christgau is, after all, the self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, and he’s been in the criticism business since 1967. He’s seen it all. As such, his opinions are always strong and mostly fairly sound. Also, I think he’s a genuinely great writer, and he’s one of my major literary influences.

In conclusion (the conclusion to the conclusion, ye gods), I want to ask everyone out there in Internetland: which version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ do you like best? Do you have any fond memories of the Bay City Rollers? Or The Records, or the Kursaal Flyers, or CREEM magazine, or poor old Tim Moore himself, for that matter? Do you think One Direction really are the Bay City Rollers’ present-day equivalents? Do you have any respect or admiration for Robert Christgau, or do you think he’s a pompous ass? Most of all, do you ever feel like writing a rock ‘n’ roll love letter to the world? Tell your Overgrounder in the Comments, because I’m dying to know.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mea permalink
    January 10, 2014 12:55 am

    I remember the bay city rollers, my brother would have beat me senseless if I bought there albums. I listened to all three versions of the song, they were all pretty good for different reasons.

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