June 25th, 2007
I’ve collected a lot of very useless information over the years. It’s not something I’ve ever gone out of my way to do, but I do seem to have a very retentive memory. Most of it is stored away somewhere in a rarely used part of the brain. Unlocking the information is usually fairly simple.
But there are always so many occasions when a trivial question is posed and an answer immediately comes to mind, but you’ve no idea where it came from. Then, the more you think about it, the more you go off the idea. It’s like when you’re watching Mastermind, or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, or playing Trivial Pursuit. The first answer you think of is nearly always the correct one, but it’s so easy to be swayed away from it.
I’ve often wondered how I’d fare on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I do well at home, but I imagine it’s a very different experience when you’re there in the chair, under the lights and under pressure. I just know I’d say something dumb and forever be known as the man who thinks that The Grapes Of Wrath is a family from the North coast of Scotland. So I’ve never applied to go on the programme.
The trouble with being a mine of useless trivia is that people don’t actually respect you for it. They just think you’re a bit of a know-it-all. There almost seems to be an element of resentment attached to it. Human nature I suppose. Someone else knowing a silly fact that you don’t, somehow produces a slight feeling of inferiority. And it is silly, because there are undoubtedly many silly facts which the other person knows, but which you don’t! But what are you going to do? Both write out a list of everything you know and see whose memory is the more retentive? What a pointless exercise that would be. What would it prove? Having a retentive memory has little to do with character, personality and intelligence, which are far more important attributes.
So where is this going? Not sure really! Something usually triggers me to start writing, and I often find that the scene I’ve set has very little to do with what I wanted to write about. And I’ve usually wasted half a page with stuff which has little or no relevance. It’s almost become a feature of some of these Letters! If you started reading from this point on, you probably wouldn’t miss anything that has gone before.
Anyway, the trigger in this instance was an overheard conversation in a bar about a week ago, which I was drawn into by the participants.
There were four people sitting at the next table. Three girls and a bloke, all in their early twenties, and just here on holiday. Their command of the English language weren’t all it could be, neither was their enunciation, but I realised a long time ago that in spite of the fact that it’s an international language, very few people actually speak English. Least of all, people from its home country.
There was a television screen in the bar showing pop videos. A dance track came on which featured a sample of a song called War, a hit for Edwin Starr in 1970. Sampling is quite an art form these days. I have no objection to it in principle if it’s done well. This wasn’t. But they seemed to like it. They were all singing along to it.
♫ “War! Huurrgh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” ♫
Or ’nuffink’ in their case. But a fine sentiment and a great song originally.
One of the girls asked the others where the sample came from. Who did it originally?
Someone thought that it was Marvin Gaye, but the bloke told her it couldn’t be him because he was dead.
True… Marvin Gaye is dead. You’ve won a hundred pounds! But he was very much alive when that song was recorded, as was Edwin Starr, who’s also dead now. So there was something not quite right with his logic there.
So one of the girl’s turned to me and said,
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt you, you sexy beast. I can see you’re just having a quiet drink and minding your own business, but my friends and I were musing over who was the original recording artist of a particular song called War, and as you look very clever and intelligent, and incredibly good looking by the way, I was just wondering if you might possibly know the answer? And can I have your babies?“
Well, that may not be entirely verbatim. I think what she actually said in her finest Essex accent was,
“ ‘Ere, mate, ‘oo dun War?“
As a stand-alone question, it doesn’t have much going for it. In the first place, it’s grammatically incorrect, and secondly it presupposes that I should know she’s referring to a song, and not the act of hostilities between two or more opposing forces.
I would have liked to have given her an elocution lesson, and an English lesson, but I guess that might have been a bit over the top for what was, after all, just a silly pub conversation. I also wasn’t sure whether I should be offended that she clearly had me pegged as an old git who would have been around when that song was a hit.
However, the answer to her question is that War was an anti-Vietnam protest song, originally recorded on the Tamla Motown label in 1969 by the Temptations and released as just an album track. The song immediately struck a chord with the American youth of that period, and pressure was put on Tamla Motown to release it as a single. They didn’t think that it would be the right image for the Temptations, so it was re-recorded using Edwin Starr, and released as a single in 1970. It shot to number one in the USA, and reached number three in the UK.
It remains an iconic song from the period, in spite of the fact that it was as far removed from anything that Tamla Motown were doing at the time as it could be. It’s a very angry song; a cacophony of electric guitars and brass section, with a thumping bass line and Edwin Starr screaming the totally unmelodic vocals. But there’s something about it. I think it’s a fantastic piece of music. I never tire of hearing it. And you won’t find many people from that era who don’t know the song well, and know all the lyrics.
It’s also a song that’s been covered by quite a few people over the years, most notably by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Bruce Springsteen, both in the 1980’s. So the question, “ ‘oo dun War?” has several possible answers.
But I couldn’t be bothered to cite all the ones I knew. Instead, I just plucked a name from the air. Someone who was the least likely person ever to have recorded such a song.
“Perry Como“, I said.
I suppose I should have given it more thought really. These young dipsticks wouldn’t have heard of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s crooner, Perry Como. And I was right.
They digested it for a moment and then one of the girls said,
“Wasn’t ‘ee that detective on the telly in a wheelchair?“
Wrong on just about every count! Amazing! You’ve just LOST fifteen thousand pounds! But I could see how she got there.
Raymond Burr played the defence lawyer Perry Mason on television before going on to do Ironside, an ex-judge turned private investigator, whose character was indeed in a wheelchair. Although I’m amazed that she’d even heard of any of them. Repeats, I suppose.
“Sorry“, I said, “That was a joke.” No-one was laughing! “War was originally done by Edwin Starr.“
Not entirely true, but it was the answer they were looking for.
“Nah! Won’im!“, said the bloke. “Never ‘erd of ‘im. It’s someone well known.“
And with that they finished with me and turned back to their conversation.
I’m sure that Edwin Starr would be delighted to hear that he’s not well known, were he still alive. The man had 20 or 30 hit singles over the span of four or five decades. Pretty much a household name.
I wasn’t entirely happy about being dismissed so readily either, after my knowledge on the subject had been sought and accurately delivered.
They’ll soon change their tune when they see me on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire…
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What about you George? You ever been on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?