Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This Day in Pop Music History (Pointer Sisters Light Springsteen’s “Fire”)

March 10, 1979—He wrote it for Elvis Presley and saw it covered first by Robert Gordon, but it took the R&B trio the Pointer Sisters to convert Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” into a hit, as it reached No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart this day on its way to an eventual #2.

In a recent interview with Mojo Magazine (to which I alluded in a prior post), Todd Rundgren described how an album he produced, Bat Out of Hell, was meant to parody The Boss. But the over-the-top mini-operas Rundgren had in mind were from Born to Run and its predecessors.

By the time Meat Loaf was working on his album, Springsteen was already, at the urging of producer Jon Landau, crafting shorter, tighter tunes—a process that bore fruit in “Fire.”

If you want to see how much distance the pride of Asbury Park was putting between himself and his imitators, try this experiment: Play this anthem of thwarted lust in an automobile against Meat Loaf’s on the same subject, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Rundgren notwithstanding, they could not be more different.

Think of it this way: Can you imagine anyone else besides Springsteen singing “New York City Serenade” or “Jungleland”? But, if you try to forgot other recordings of “Fire” you may have heard (and we’ll get to these in a minute), it’s still easy to imagine someone else taking a crack at this tune.

The Boss, mired in a lawsuit with former manager-producer Mike Appel, had a lot of time to cool his heels after his Born to Run tour ended, and he used the time to his advantage. Like other rockers, he had long cherished The King, even scaling the walls of Graceland in 1976 to see if his hero was around. (Security told Springsteen that Elvis was at Lake Tahoe, then escorted him off the premises, perhaps unaware that their visitor had just made the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week.)

In May 1977, after having witnessed Elvis in one of his last, bloated performances—only a few months before his death—a disheartened Springsteen went home and, remembering his hero at his peak, wrote “Fire” for him. Elvis never had a chance to hear it, but Robert Gordon did and released his version in 1978.

One of the great might-have-beens of pop history is the possible spell Elvis could have created with Springsteen’s tune. It pulses with the sly sexual insinuation that was an Elvis trademark, from that hypnotic opening bass line to those lyrics that recall a Peggy Lee tune that The King covered, “Fever” (“Romeo and Juliet/Samson and Delilah…”)

Perhaps it was natural that this song, composed by an artist readjusting his music, would be embraced by a female group from Oakland, Calif., doing the same thing. Anita, Ruth and June Pointer had been unable to gain much commercial traction—attempts at country and R&B had floundered—until they hooked up with ‘70s superstar producer Richard Perry.

It was a shrewd move. Earlier that decade, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, and even Leo Sayer had reached the pinnacle of their solo careers with Perry in the studio. For the next decade, he performed even more dramatic wizardry with the three Pointer Sisters (Bonnie left the group just before they hit it big), as he sustained their commercial success with nine albums and major singles like “Automatic,” “He’s So Shy,” “Jump (for My Love),” and (my favorite) “I’m So Excited.”

But it all began in 1978, when Perry nudged them away from their R&B roots toward a more pop sensibility, latching onto Springsteen’s single as part of the effort in making the LP Energy.

Two questions come to mind as a result of the cover of “Fire”:

1) Of all Springsteen covers, which is your favorite? I still cherish Greg Kihn’s version of “Rendezvous,” and Patty Griffin's “Stolen Car” is as searing an interpretation as you can get of one of Springsteen’s less-noticed works. But—call me crazy—the cover for which I have special affection is a bluegrass version of “Prove It All Night” on a 1999 CD called Pickin’ on Springsteen. It’s not only an unusual interpretation, with that duel among mandolin, guitar and banjo, but also, as an instrumental, shows that the song survives just as intact without Springsteen’s distinctive lyrics.

2) Which version of “Fire” do you prefer? As Warner Wolf might say, let’s go to the videotape! The Pointer Sisters’ live version is very, very fine. Springsteen’s, performed at the height of his ‘80s commercial success, is, as you might expect—particularly if you’ve been lucky, as I have, to see him in concert—inspired. But for a truly incendiary interpretation, there really is only one choice. Listen and gentlemen, I give you the One and Only, Elmer Fudd, as channeled by Robin Williams.

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