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Confessions Of A British Invader
He was in the vanguard of that wave of young Britons who, in the 1960s stormed our shores and gave us back our musical heritage
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
I took the old ragtime number that I’d been performing at the coffeehouse, “The Sporting Life Is Killin’ Me,” and gave it some British Invasion touches. I would make the old song sound like that recent hit by the Animals (from Newcastle): “The House of the Rising Sun,” another transmogrified American folksong. With jerky arpeggiated guitar chords and the gospel combination of piano and organ, as well as my own particular brand of English angst, our recording was eventually completed. At Christmas I flew over to Seattle with the tape of “This Sporting Life” and told Jerry Dennon there was absolutely no doubt we had a hit. He nodded and made an “O” sign with a finger and thumb.
The record was released on Jerden Records in Seattle in January 1965. Almost immediately it became “Pick of the Week” on the local powerhouse rocker station, KJR. Dick Clark was soon featuring it on “American Bandstand.” The college postman handed me a telegram: “Record released nationally by Tower Records, a subsidiary of Capitol. Record makes charts next week. Get Bluesville in accord as am arriving to make album soon. Regards, Jerry Dennon.” Capitol Records! Home of Tennessee Ernie Ford!
Get Bluesville in accord . Getting them in one place at one time would be work enough. More important, I had to rustle up some songs for the album. Some I wrote, others I found. The most promising seemed to be an antiwar number called “No Tears for Johnny,” a surefire follow-up to “This Sporting Life.” My pop would be taken seriously; my recordings would slot in with ease beside my Marxist studies. Life would be in rhythm, in a groove. … Jerry Dennon arrived in the middle of the Easter term, accompanied by his delightful wife and a briefcase full of business papers. I booked them into the only hotel in Dublin that offered ice water. Between lectures I conferred with Jerry about the forth-coming album, suggesting a cheap studio. He gave the “O” sign. Then he presented me with a pile of contracts: for recording, publishing, personal management. Me, the subject of long-winded contracts! I signed and signed.
The college postman handed me a telegram: “Record released nationally … makes charts next week. … am arriving to make album soon.”
Next evening Bluesville and I cut our album in a tiny studio near the famous post office where, in 1916, the Irish Republic had been declared. Most of the time was spent on the antiwar song; I felt sure I would be the next Joan Baez. With a few minutes left at the end of the session, we decided to record a version of a song with no name, a funny thing we’d been exciting the girls with at local beat clubs. It involved some orgasmic panting and no lyrics except the repetition of the phrase You turn me on , the words that the Seattle girl had murmured to me.
As the resulting recording was to become a monster hit—one that is now a golden oldie, is still played every day somewhere in the U.S.A., has been also recorded by Mae West, the Surfaris, Sandy Nelson, and Brazil’s top rocker, was featured ad nauseam in the movie Encino Man , was for a time an anthem of the gay liberation movement, inspired William Burroughs when he had a case of writer’s block, et cetera, et cetera—I intend to go into the creation of this classic in some detail. I’m still flummoxed by its sucess, I’m still trying to rid myself of this albatross. And yet … “You Turn Me On,” I think, is as good and honest a piece of rock ’n’ roll as you’ll ever hear.
Like the British Empire, this song was conceived in a fit of absence of mind. Nothing was planned. The tape rolled; Jerry paced the room, nodding; the band set off at a boogie shuffle pace on a bluesy gospel lick of ancient origin but recently popularized by Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Marvin Gaye, and countless others. During the instrumental opening chorus an ashtray, powered by the music, slid off my piano and thudded onto the floor. But the band chugged on, so I thought I might as well contribute a vocal for the heck of it since the take was already ruined. I sang in a high-pitched, whimpering voice, and I made up the full lyrics as I went along. Here is a transcript: