2020-02-04 16:28:48 UTC
Any time two artists release the same song within a short period of time it’s inevitable that they be compared to see which does it better, not just commercially but aesthetically as well.
These de facto competitions often don’t mean much but when one of the versions hits on the charts – especially if it’s the original – that puts the onus on the cover artist to justify their rendition. Are they merely trying to cynically latch onto a budding hit or can they top it by pressing the action using a more well-crafted fight plan?
But the two contenders here were hardly equals in this case. In fact if this were a boxing match it likely wouldn’t even get sanctioned by any respectable boxing commission.
The Ravens have been the class of the rock ‘n’ roll heavyweight division since their arrival on the scene more than two years ago and they’re taking on The Shadows, a group of journeyman welterweights who are making their debut in the ring after a fairly undistinguished amateur career. The odds of this bout even going the distance are pretty slim, it’s a total mismatch on paper.
But as you know such confident proclamations usually means this fight is ripe for an upset.
And In This Corner…
If you’ve had a ringside seat for these prizefights, our past reviews I mean, you know how well The Shadows did with their version of I’ve Been A Fool and after the glowing praise we dished out to them you probably don’t need us to tell you that the reigning champs, The Ravens, were about fall.
But there are different types of losses and not every defeat is something to be ashamed of. If you’re simply outpointed by a hungry upstart contender who’s a little bit quicker and more focused on fight night that’s far different than being battered around the ring in the early rounds and floored by an onslaught of punches for which you have no defense.
Surely The Ravens with their battering ram of a lead singer in Jimmy Ricks will at least go down swinging… right?
Well, maybe they would if Ricks laced up his gloves, but instead it’s the fragile high tenor of Maithe Marshall, their designated sacrificial lamb when it came to courting pop acceptance, who comes out for the pre-fight instructions from the referee and right there and then if you have any sense you know the fight is over.
It’s not that Marshall can’t sing, he’s got a great technical voice, a light airy tenor almost bordering on soprano, but he’s nothing more than a sparring partner when it comes to rock performances thus far. Or in boxing terms, he’s the guy who’s is going to dance around the ring and hope to win on style alone. But his opponent today, The Shadows’ Scott King, could fight effectively either way – jab, stick and move, putting on a clinic of technical showmanship… or he could throw a few haymakers and knock you on your ass with surprising power.
Once Marshall enters the ring prepared to handle I’ve Been A Fool as if it were a borderline pop offering he’s in effect moving The Ravens down to the lightweight division and thus doesn’t stand much of a chance against a lean and well-conditioned welterweight like King.
Now that we’ve covered the tale of the tape let’s turn to the ringside observers who expect to see Marshall show plenty of fancy footwork while throwing light patting jabs to keep his opponent on the defensive as he’s counting on superior ring generalship to score with the judges. Granted it might not produce any thrilling action for the hardened fight fan hoping for a slug-fest but let’s be fair and at least see how effective Marshall is in trying to control the pace of this fight by doing… absolutely nothing?!
That’s right, he’s throwing in the towel as soon as the bell for the first round rings.
I’ve Been A Fool was never really a strong composition to begin with. It’s a downbeat song with a self-pitying perspective utilizing no great wordplay or deep psychological insight. The narrator is crying about being tossed aside by a girl he cared for, understandable I suppose if he were really in love with her, but one listen to how weepy he is tells you WHY she left him in the first place.
Scott King of course sang the exact same sentiments with The Shadows, word for word, yet his deepest emotions were at the forefront of his performance. Throughout that record he was battling his own doubts and insecurities, sometimes coming close to winning that struggle, other times losing and sinking back down, but he was always fully engaged with those emotions and trying his best to keep them in check. He sold the internal conflict for all it was worth, digging deep for his best shots and then easing back on the power with a deft touch, all of which elevated the mundane storyline far beyond the words on the lead sheet.
Marshall on the other hand seems to have no genuine emotions to offer. He’s an empty vessel, coming across as if he’s merely reading a script and shedding crocodile tears because he thinks that’s what is being called for.
His voice at times sounds quite nice, the notes he holds shimmering with grace, but that’s not what this needs to be convincing. It needs him to be so self-absorbed in his struggle to get through this ordeal that he’s not even aware he’s being listened to. He needs to have a sob in his throat, pain in his voice, moments where he wants to free himself of the anguish he feels by any available means, whether shouting, moaning or biting his lip in frustration as he turns away from the microphone too distraught to go on.
Instead he gives us “mildly dismayed” at best and takes a knee, looking for the referee to start the count before deciding whether to carry on.
Thinking You Cared
If we want to let him off the hook ever so slightly we can point to the equally wimpy accompaniment with its supper club piano and airy harmonies behind him that further this impression of an amateur theater production of some sappy melodrama.
Whereas The Shadows grounded it with subtle touches like a creaking saxophone and slinking guitar that took the weight of carrying every aspect of the melody off King, allowing him to stretch out at times, The Ravens version relies almost entirely on that dainty piano whose left hand is apparently attached to an arm that’s no more than five inches long because it obviously can’t reach the bass keys to give any semblance of resolve.
It’s hard to overcome a completely unsympathetic arrangement… or in boxing terms a bad trainer in your corner.
But with The Ravens there’s always one thing, one not-so-secret weapon, that is going to have to be taken into account sooner or later and while not always able to turn the tide single-handedly on these poppier excursions it at least has the potential to score a flash knockdown by landing something that has the proper gravity…
Of course we’re talking about the loaded gloves of Jimmy Ricks.
Sure enough Ricky’s appearance here marks the one and only time The Ravens go on the offensive in I’ve Been A Fool, delivering the bridge with all of the resonance and feeling that Marshall was so woefully lacking. In his one line Ricks’ has us believing that it was HE, not Maithe, who was rejected by this girl and that he’s the one who is grappling with the emotional fallout.
Perhaps energized by this showing the other Ravens then step to the forefront with a few well-delivered group vocals in a more spry tempo which ends with Marshall soaring in his best stretch – although he doesn’t quite stick the landing, reverting back to the more polite and mannered phrasing as he closes his solo line out – but which overall reminds you of just how good these guys were when they put their minds to it.
But unfortunately their minds were elsewhere on this, namely the pop charts, and the results – especially in a rock setting such as this – are going to suffer greatly for that decision and it’s hardly surprising when they wind up hitting the canvas, a glassy eyed expression on their faces as the ref counts them out.
You Broke It, It’s A Sin
No longer can we grant the mighty Ravens the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sidestepping a complete remakes in an effort to either afford the originators some respect, or to put their own spin on things, because structurally this follows mostly the same course as The Shadows had last month.
But (Jimmy Ricks’ cameo aside), what doesn’t follow the same course is the quality of the lead vocals. Maithe Marshall still doesn’t seem to grasp that lyrics actually are supposed to mean something and those lyrics and the emotions they conjure up have to match one another in order for a song to have real impact. By stripping I’ve Been A Fool of any real investment on his part those trite vocals he employs instead don’t have the power to do any damage on the inside where such fights are won.
In the past we’d have been likely to say we’d love to see him let his hands go (to keep the boxing metaphors going to the very end) to find out what that voice was capable of when he wasn’t pulling his punches, but now I think it’s time to face facts and admit that he just doesn’t have the killer instinct that most rock singers need to win over a song by sheer force of will.
As a result the lopsided scorecard in this fight doesn’t even tell the whole story, because if this WERE a boxing match it would never have gone to the judges… in fact, it wouldn’t have gotten out of the first round. The Shadows win by a knockout and The Ravens have to consider themselves lucky that it was a non-title bout on the undercard in which their heavy hitter was back in the locker room preparing for tomorrow’s main event.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 2/10
Though they were one of the top rock acts of the genre’s first half dozen years The Ravens – or maybe more accurately their record label, National – routinely made the same mistakes time and again, a process which basically consisted of three steps.
The first was The Ravens would cut pure rock-based material featuring bass vocalist Jimmy Ricks who was allowed full reign of his most compelling attributes, an earthy and slightly lecherous tone, something which not only gave the audience what they craved but which also set them apart from any other act in music since nobody had a voice with as much gravitas as Ricky.
The second step they’d take however would invariably send them in the opposite direction – a more pop-oriented style featuring the high tenor voice of Maithe Marshall, a good singer but one who most often used a thoroughly outdated delivery that refuted the carnal qualities of the group that Ricks had already laid bare.
When the commercial returns came in it was always the rock sides that the listeners sought out causing National Records’ high hopes for crossover appeal to the overlooked septuagenarian market to fall by the wayside prompting The Ravens to re-assess what they did best and cut some more rockers.
Then – instead of learning their lesson once and for all – they’d repeat steps 2 and 3 all over again until it made your head spin.
Why Should You Roam?
To be fair, when we criticize The Ravens for falling into the same quicksand we’re not talking about merely the difference between ballads and uptempo performances, even though it’s the more rhythmic stuff that we’ve given the higher marks to and which the listeners at the time chose with their wallets.
Giving audiences two different attributes on each side was in fact a sound theory, even if one was far more successful on a regular basis. You don’t want to wear out your best ideas by using the same tricks on each side, as The Ravens closest competitors – The Orioles – were always at risk for with their over-reliance on brokenhearted ballads on both the A and B-sides of their records.
No, what we’re talking about is HOW The Ravens approached those slower numbers as if it were 1942 and not 1950.
By sticking with pop-based mannerisms – open throated singing, over-enunciated vowels, light airy harmonies, tinkling piano, demure lyrics – they ran the risk of driving their biggest constituents away. Rock fans weren’t interested in that, if they had been then The Ink Spots would still be as big at the turn of the decade as they were at the turn of LAST decade!
As if to show how far astray they could get at times they’d taken The Shadows’ very good rock ballad from a month earlier and ruined it by accentuating the pop aspects of their version of I’ve Been A Fool on the top side of this single, rendering it all but impotent in the process.
But thankfully we don’t have to worry about that here, for I Don’t Have To Ride No More is unquestionably a rock song, supercharged and proud of it, and delivered in a way that only they were capable of doing justice to.
Everything You Want Is Here At Home
When reviewing the other side I said that within the first 15 seconds we were already let down, knowing it was going to be a bad record, but here it doesn’t even take that long to know this is going to be a great one.
Kicking off with a pounding piano and skittering drums before The Ravens jump in with tight fast harmonies telling us to pack our bags to hit the road with them, we’re on board from the very start. Wherever they’re going, we’ll follow and if they keep singing this way I’ll even pay for the gas.
Jimmy Ricks’s bass voice is prominent in the harmonies, something which is always nice to hear, but it’s even better is when he steps out front to lead the song which is where everything falls perfectly into place. On I Don’t Have To Ride No More he’s back in the saddle, revved up and raring to go – horny by the sounds of it, but the lyrics are kind of vague so we’ll leave the particulars aside for the moment and just focus on the sheer honeyed tones oozing from the speakers as he gets into gear.
This is what Ricky does so well, burning rubber off the line before downshifting into cruising speed, knowing just when to ease off coming into a turn and when to step on the gas coming out of it. It’s never been just his peerless voice that makes him arguably the best pure singer of his generation in rock, but the fact that he wields it with such unerring control. Fast or slow, happy or sad, he’s always the one you want behind the wheel. On this track in particular there’s such infectious joy in his voice that you can’t help but be caught up in it.
It’s not surprising to find that Ricks himself wrote this – maybe he was dreading another meandering stroll through the great American songbook – because all of the traits he specialized in are featured here, from the aforementioned pace changes to the stop-time bridge where he gets to relish driving each point home, to the Greek chorus chanting of the others behind him at times – Ri-ide! Riiii-ide! Ri-ide! – and the stabbing piano that emphasizes the urgency of it all.
In that way it’s almost like a roll call of their greatest hits, and in fact it definitely conjures up past glories in more than a few ways. But if that was the kind of performance you were looking for out of The Ravens after sitting through too many maudlin starched-shirt recitals, then even if it’s slightly derivative in structure and concept you’ll be giddy upon hearing this unfold.
A Place To Lay Your Head
With so much about it to celebrate it feels almost sacrilegious to chip away at those plaudits in the next breath, but as great as this sounds there’s always other aspects to consider beyond just the overall aural impression it leaves on your senses.
Though it wasn’t advertised as such, the similarities to two of their biggest hits, Write Me A Letter, and more pointedly its sequel, Send For Me If You Need Me, are unmistakable.
The basic plot and the phonetic similarities to those records will have you doing a double take at times and lead you to believe that I Don’t Have To Ride No More was in fact the third part of a trilogy. There are even moments when you may think the word that makes up the focal point of the title – “ride” – is actually “write” and by substituting that word it fits in even more with the evolving story of the earlier records.
If you remember in the first chapter of this saga he was asking his girl, whom he wasn’t seeing as much as he wanted, to write to him so he’d know she still cared. In the somewhat less imaginative follow-up he reports that she did in fact do so in the time since we last met them and now he was telling her he was ready for a bigger commitment and that should she request his presence he’d pack his bags and join her right away.
So if you WERE to assume that he was now singing “I don’t have to WRITE no more” it’d make perfect sense, especially because he then reports that she told him to basically live with her and ”put your shoes under mama’s bed”, implying a permanence that would be a fitting conclusion to the tale spread over three records.
I’ll even go so far as to suggest that’s what he originally wrote, whether actually put those lyrics on paper or just sang them off the top of his head, all in an effort to recapture that initial burst of creativity. But if he did so he may have soon realized that two and a half years was a long time to expect listeners to remember the first installments, or perhaps he didn’t want to merely repeat himself and so “ride” easily replaces “write” and with that it becomes an entirely different song and meaning.
But the problem is the meaning itself – which includes his girl hitting the numbers and collecting a substantial amount of bread thereby allowing him to live off of her winnings – are rather vague and a little unsettling. It also makes him saying I Don’t Have To Ride No More a little harder to figure out.
Does he mean he doesn’t have to ride to and form work? Or ride around the country like a traveling salesman, or for that matter like the star of a singing group who were always on the road?
We’re never really sure because the story here is secondary, giving a little more credence to the idea that it came about as a variation on an earlier song and was modified along the way to suit their musical needs more than their storytelling needs.
Just Hit The Numbers
But while all of that speculation into its creative concept is not completely irrelevant, it’s definitely secondary to the bigger story which is that the record itself sounds tremendous, a welcome return to what they do best.
This explodes with energy, taking full advantage of its faster pace to really ramp up the excitement so that you sort of overlook the confusion in the narrative. It also lets all of the Ravens share in the glories with their enthusiastic harmonies which at times have been in short supply as of late and to top it off Ricks’ performance gives just a hint of something naughty going on behind those doors he’s about to walk into so that it satisfies every need a fan of these guys has been asking for – but not always receiving – out of them since they’d become among the first icons of the rock era.
Though it may be something of a closing chapter in that initial era’s story I Don’t Have To Ride No More essentially serves as the perfect way to mark the transition from the Forties into the Fifties as it cracked the national charts in February and was “riding” on territorial charts all winter, proving beyond a doubt that the sound they pioneered was here to stay.
You’d think this would be enough to keep them headed in the same direction but as always with these guys – or their record label – it’s never quite that easy. But as long we get enough of these types of songs to keep us happy then I suppose they can go back on the road peddling cheap plastic trinkets in between stops.
Since the numbers his girl picked that proved to be the winner were “six ninety-four” let’s use that as the basis for our score, splitting the difference between a six and a “94”, or a nine and a half (which we don’t hand out, but you get the idea). That would come to 7.7, probably the exact score I would give it if we used decimal points, but since we’re so glad to hear them sounding this boisterous again we’ll be more than happy to round it up.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 8/10