NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today, we’re singing along with a Swan Song.
Hi there! I’m Claude Call. And before I do anything else, I think I need to say this. I generally record the show “as live,” which means that oftentimes I make small mistakes but I leave them in because…pobody’s nerfect, right? But once in awhile I make a truly egregious mistake, so I go back, re-record the bit and edit the show. In the last episode I made a huge mistake, but I made that mistake with the confidence level of a four-year-old wearing a Batman costume, so even on playback I didn’t realize it until after the episode dropped and I heard it in my car the couple of days later. Bottom line, when previewing this episode I meant to say Billy Swan but I crossed a wire somewhere and said Billy Paul. I do hope you’ll forgive this error.
Okay, onward and of course I have some trivia for ye. What band, which started out as a punk act in the late 70s but then became more of an alternative band in the 80s, got its name from a board game that came to the US from Sweden? There are a lot of weird little details in there that should help narrow it down for you there, but if you’re stumped, fear not: I’ll have the answer to that one at the end of the show.
So. Billy SWAN, is generally thought of as a one-hit wonder, but in fact he’s a crossover artist who had a string of hits on the Country charts. Swan was born in May of 1942 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a Mississippi River town about a hundred miles south of St. Louis. Swan was a talented kid who played drums, guitar and piano, and was already writing his own material as a teenager.
One of the songs that he published in 1960, called “Lover Please,” was based on a poem he’d written as a 16-year-old. It was recorded by a band called Mint Mirly and the Rhythm Steppers on the Louis label, and although that didn’t get a lot of attention from either a sales or an airplay standpoint, it did allow him to join Mirly’s band for about two years.
Then in 1962, the song landed in the hands of Clyde McPhatter, who recorded it and it went to Number Seven on the Billboard Pop Chart. That gave Swan the means to move to Memphis, where he was slated to write material for Bill Black, who was the owner of Louis Records. But circumstances and Black’s subsequent illness and death made writing for Black impossible, so he just kept plugging along in Tennessee, working in Memphis and then Nashville, over at Columbia Recording Studios. He spent most of his time cleaning up and moving microphones around, and when he finally left that job, his friend Kris Kristofferson took over. But while he was in Nashville, he was able to write hit songs for Mel Tillis, T Bone Burnett and Al Green, among others. He also got the opportunity to produce records, doing the first three albums for Tony Joe White. And then when Kris Kristofferson needed a backup band for his first tour, Swan joined him on the road, learning most of the songs over a three-day period. He played with Kristofferson for about a year and a half, and then toured with Kinky Friedman and Billy Joe Shaver before coming back to Nashville. But he was coming back to town as an artist rather than a side man. He signed a contract with Monument Records and began work on his first album, titled Rock on With Rhythm, which included his version of “Lover Please.” The album wasn’t a huge hit but the label stuck with him. Then in March of 1974 he began working on the song “I Can Help.”
[I CAN HELP]
According to an interview he did in 2007 with Sound on Sound Magazine, Swan did his composing in a music room that his wife Marlu converted from a closet in the duplex where they lived. The room had a Rhythm Master drum machine, plus an RMI electric organ and a Vox amplifier. Those last two pieces were a wedding gift for Swan from Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, who was Kristofferson’s wife at the time. He said that the Rhythm Master had a rock preset on it that played 16th and sounded like a sock cymbal, so he started playing chords on the RMI along with the Rhythm Master, and the song kind of came together very quickly.
By the time April rolled around, Swan was in Chip Young’s studio in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This studio was in a log cabin, which meant that all the walls and the ceiling were logs. The carpeting on the floor helped keep down the echoing, and they were able to record everything direct, with the exception of the drums, which were in a separate booth.
Now, popular legend has it that the keyboard sound on “I Can Help,” which is pretty distinctive, was played on that RMI organ, but I’m here to tell you that it was actually a portable Farfisa organ that belonged to session player Bobby Emmons. Emmons had been brought in to play on the record, but when Swan demonstrated the organ riff, which is somewhere between boogie and skating-rink music, Emmons suggested that Swan play it himself using the Farfisa. So, that’s what he wound up doing. Chip Young set up a vocal mic, Swan stood at the organ, and they got it down on the second take.
Now, the opening guitar riff, which was played by Reggie Young, was actually a warmup lick that he liked to play as a means of limbering up his fingers. Swan said that it would make a good intro to the song, and when Young protested that it was just a warmup, Swan said, “It’s still a great intro,” and that’s how that part made it onto the record. Later on, some handclaps and backing vocals were dubbed in, and finally Chip Young recorded a guitar line that you can barely—BARELY—hear throughout the song, plus that descending solo in the middle.
Now, the funny thing about that solo is that Swan hated it at first. Swan was out of town when it was first recorded, but when he returned and heard it, he suggested that Reggie Young should put a blues lick in there instead. Young spent an entire day playing stuff to make it work, but nothing would fit. Finally Swan told him to just use the original solo, which he still didn’t like. That kind of irritated Chip Young, who basically had to re-do that part of the song.
Something you might find interesting is that there are two different versions of the song: the single, and the one that got most of the radio airplay in the US, is a little bit shorter and ends with the guitar bit winding down and the band applauding while Swan is playing a rather long cadenza on the organ. But on the album, it starts up again with the instrumental ending repeating and another organ cadenza, and then another repeat of the ending finally fading out. So even though the single appears to have a full ending rather than a fade, it’s a false ending leading to a second false ending, leading to a fade out. It’s kind of a peculiar structure. But what makes it extra fun is that applause. You see, Chip Young’s German Shepherd puppy, named Bowser, was in the studio while they were recording. And the entire time that Swan was playing and singing, Bowser was at his feet, pulling on his pants leg. By all accounts it was going on throughout the recording session. And Swan is shaking his leg, trying to get the dog to let go without much success. So the applause that came from the band derived from Swan’s ability to just power through the recording while a small dog is tugging on his pants.
The record was released as a single in the summer of 1974, and when Monument saw it working its way up the charts, they realized they had to get Swan to put together an album. So, back into the studio he went to make the rest of the I Can Help LP.
The record went to Number One on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Country Chart, and it topped the chart all over Europe, except for the UK, where it peaked at Number Six, and in Italy it didn’t even crack the Top 40. It was also Number One in New Zealand but I don’t know whether that success crossed over to Australia. In Norway it was so popular that it remained in the Top Ten for 37 weeks, putting it among the top five performing singles of all time in that country.
As far as covers of the song go, there are in fact lots of them, ranging from Loretta Lynn to Tom Jones to Shakin’ Stevens. The Bellamy Brothers teamed up with Dennis Quaid in 2021 to do a cover that’s…not much more than karaoke. Elvis Presley covered the song in 1975 for his Today album. And on that recording, it’s Chip Young, recreating his guitar part for Elvis. And the story goes that Elvis nailed the song in a single take. As far as Billy Swan, he wrote a bunch of hits for other artists, but this was his biggest success as a performer, and perhaps as a writer as well.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the punk-turned-alternative band that got its name from a Swedish board game.
[MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL]
Well, cousins, that would be Husker Du, which is Swedish for “Do you remember?” Husker Du was a board game that was popular in the 50s when it first came over from Sweden, but it was still around a lot in the 70s. The board was essentially a box with a bunch of holes in it. And pictures could be seen through the holes. You covered up the holes and tried to match up the pictures by memory. When the game was over you could spin the picture card under the holes to change the pictures around, so there were many variations of the board in the one box. Husker Du chose the name because they wanted a name that was both timeless and ambiguous, and resisted the band being easily classified based on their name alone. Interestingly, although the band is from Minnesota, none of their songs charted in the US, reaching the charts only in the UK. In fact, the track you’re listening to now, called “Makes No Sense At All” from 1985, was their highest-charting track at #2 on the UK Indie chart.
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