Tag Archives: blues

The Sweet versus Bowie: the riff in Blockbuster and Jean Genie – origins and influences

In January 1973 at the height of the glam rock craze, two singles with instantly memorable but remarkably similar riffs were both enjoying chart success: The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster!’ and David Bowie’s ‘The  Jean Genie’, each released by RCA records. Which came first? Were they both dreamt up independently? Did one copy off the other? Or did they both draw on influences from somewhere else?

In the folk world songs have always been adapted, evolved and passed on. In the rock world that sort of behaviour is more likely to get you involved in lengthy court cases and costly lawsuits. But in folk there has been over a century of legitimate and rigorous study looking into the often murky origins of traditional songs and tunes. A simple question therefore is: can the principles of studying folk in determining song origins also be applied to glam rock?

We start with the song ‘Blockbuster!’ written by The Sweet’s then songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, recorded on 1st November 1972 in London and released in January 1973. In Dave Thompson’s Sweet biography ‘Block Buster’, The Sweet’s Steve Priest recalls Chapman playing his idea for a new song on an acoustic guitar while they were backstage at the BBC waiting to go on Top Of The Pops to perform ‘Wig Wam Bam’ (most likely their appearance on 14th September 1972).

The riff was remarkably similar to David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ recorded on 6th October 1972, released in November 1972 and in the charts at the same time. “While en route to Tennessee, ‘The Jean Genie’ was developed from an impromptu tour bus jam,” in September 1972 recounts the Mick Ronson biography, ‘The Spider With The Platinum Hair’ by Weird & Gilly. This would have been just prior to the band’s gig in Memphis which is recorded as taking place on 24th September 1972, several days after Mike Chapman strummed the riff for Blockbuster to Steve Priest on the other side of the Atlantic.

Both sides have always denied copying one another and given both ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘The Jean Genie’ were recorded and released around the same time it seems unlikely that either would have had time to secretly copy the other, then get it recorded and released, all within the confines of the same record company, RCA.

What is far more likely is that they were both influenced by the Yardbirds’ 1965 hit ‘I’m a Man’.

Alwyn Turner’s website Glitter Suits & Platform Boots quotes The Sweet’s Andy Scott as follows: “And then, you wouldn’t believe this, before our release we were in the office of the guy who was our contact at RCA and he played us the new David Bowie record, he played us ‘Jean Genie’. And I went, ‘That’s the same guitar riff,’ and he went, ‘Is it?’ This is a record company guy and I’m saying, ‘Haven’t you noticed?’ And he went, ‘No.’ I was horrified, I was thinking: that’s coming out first, and we’re coming out a week behind it, on the same label, it’s got the same guitar riff. I said: well, we don’t stand a chance of being #1. That was my thought. And within three weeks we were #1 and he was #2. I’ve since spoken to Trevor Bolder, the bass-player, and he said, ‘Remember “I’m A Man”?”

Here is that Yardbirds’ version of ‘I’m A Man’.

Interestingly, Iggy Pop and The Stooges also recorded a version of ‘I’m A Man’ during the sessions for the Raw Power album in early 1972. Bowie was involved in remixing this album and although ‘I’m A Man’ doesn’t appear on the album, he would certainly have been familiar with the Stooges cover version. Could this have had an influence on Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ later that year?

We can hear Iggy & The Stooges version of ‘I’m A Man’ here.

Both recordings are, of course, cover versions of a 1955 original version of ‘I’m A Man’ by Bo Didley.

Bo Didley’s song is itself influenced by a song Willie Dixon wrote for Muddy Waters ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ recorded in 1954

The blues of Bo Didley, Muddy Waters et al can be traced back through the early electric blues of the 1940s to the acoustic blues of the 1920s, through the slave trade, plantations and back to African origins, where a number of the elements that would come to define key features of the blues could be traced back to.

But it’s worth specifically going back to that Bo Didley tune. The riff in ‘I’m a Man’ is significantly changed from that played by Muddy Waters in Dixon’s ‘I’m A Man’. Didley has adapted the tune as a simple repetitive four note riff repeated throughout the entire song, making it notably different.

So although it was influenced by an earlier blues song I think we can safely say that the riff that appears in ‘Blockbuster!’ and ‘Jean Genie’ first emerged in a Bo Didley song in 1955.

Book: The Sweet in the 1970s

If you enjoyed reading this my book ‘The Sweet In The 1970s’ is out on 30th July 2021.

Details here

Links and thanks:

Some great background info and quotes here http://www.alwynwturner.com/glitter/sweet.html

Thanks also to Michael Duthie for pointing me towards the Mickie Most video (below) and to Josh Beeson for pointing me to the Iggy & The Stooges version of ‘I’m A Man’.

Another fascinating release from the 60s that could have played an influential role in the later 70s glam releases was Mickie Most’s 1964 version of ‘Money Honey’.

Unlike earlier versions of Money Honey by Elvis and previously The Drifters, the Mickie Most version utilises that same Bo Didley riff. Most would go on to be a towering figure in glam rock as mentor and producer for Suzi Quatro and as RAK Records boss, home to the likes of Quatro and Mud. He knew Mike Chapman very well and could have helped plant some of the creative seeds for that Blockbuster riff, further strengthening those glam rock links back to blues history.

Related posts:

‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ by Darren Johnson – published 30th July 2021

Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

From AC/DC to ABBA: five classic glam rock singles by non-glam bands

Slade, strikes and the three-day week: the story of the greatest Christmas record ever made

Lost In Space: interview with former Slade legend Jim Lea

Interview with Andy Scott ahead of Sweet’s 2019 UK winter tour

Death of a glam icon – Steve Priest: 1948-2020

Dom Pipkin at Kino-Teatre, St Leonards 8/7/16

My review originally appeared in the Hastings Independent 22/7/16

With its shopfront facade and trendy gallery-cum-foyer you could be forgiven for thinking there’s something nice but not particularly unique about St Leonards Kino Teatre; but step inside the main auditorium and you are immediately transported into a beautiful dome-ceilinged 1913 cinema that’s been given a pleasing shabby-chic makeover. Just for tonight, however, it’s transformed into a legendary New Orleans piano bar with Dom Pipkin (“piano from London, soul from New Orleans” as his website has it) giving a captivating solo performance of high-octane rhythm and blues piano.

After support from Chasing Shadows, a vocal-guitar duo with an engaging acoustic set of Americana-tinged covers and originals, Pipkin takes the stage and begins a whirlwind tour of New Orleans classics; name-checking the likes of Professor Longhair, Jellyroll Morton, Fats Domino and Dr John.

Playing blues and jazz from the age of 12 Dom Pipkin has now established himself as one of Europe’s top interpreters of New Orleans piano and has built up an impressive musical CV. Past collaborations include projects with Ray Davies, Palamo Faith and Talking Heads’ David Byrne. As well as solo shows, he also performs regularly with his own band Dom and the Ikos, but tonight it’s just Dom and his piano. He combines powerfully dexterous piano playing with a nicely empathetic vocal delivery that suits a range of styles and assists in making the songs his own, whether it’s pounding rhythm and blues, elaborate jazz or soulful gospel.

On top of the obvious well-known classics like Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That A Shame and Iko Iko together with some less well-known historical gems from the New Orleans jazz and blues scene, we also get some real surprises, too. Chas and Dave’s Ain’t No Pleasing You is transported from the east-end boozers and re-imagined as a stomping New Orleans boogie woogie. Cottonfields, which let’s be honest most of us only know via the Beach Boys, is taken right back to its glorious Lead Belly blues heritage. Pipkin is also happy to share his knowledge of the songs and their origins and I certainly came out knowing a lot more about the history of the New Orleans scene and its colourful characters than when I went in.

A talented, energetic performer with an obvious deep love of his subject matter and respect for its history, Dom Pipkin and his piano make for a hugely entertaining evening.

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Mick Bolton and Simon Shaw at Gecko, St. Leonards 10/4/16

One of the absolute joys about life in Hastings and St Leonard’s, and a key motivation for relocating here in the first place, is the proliferation of live music venues. There’s an extremely satisfying number of good-sized venues, like The White Rock Theatre, St Mary In The Castle, The Stables Theatre, The Kino Teatre and the nearby Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion. But it’s not just the larger theatre-style venues, live music in pubs and bars throughout the town appears to be as much part of pub life as pints of lager and bags of crisps. So my first actual gig as a bona fide, council-tax paying Hastings resident, as opposed to visiting music tourist, is to see Mick Bolton and Simon Shaw play an early Sunday evening set in the Gecko cafe bar around the corner from me on St Leonard’s seafront.

I’d seen keyboard player, Mick Bolton, who toured as part of Mott The Hoople in the early 70s, at a handful of Mott The Hoople-related events over the years but until tonight I’d never actually seen him perform live. He’s joined by Simon Shaw and Bolton’s pounding honky tonk style-piano and Shaw’s acoustic blues/Americana guitar make for a really nice combination. They give their own treatment to a number of well-known covers, including songs by Georgie Fame, The Beatles, The Band, Thunderclap Newman, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry. A good few of Bolton’s self-penned originals are thrown in, too, performed in a similar style (mainly) with a couple of slower numbers thrown in towards the end.

So for a couple of hours around thirty-odd of us are entertained for free in this pleasant little seafront cafe bar by two talented musicians who are clearly enjoying playing for us. My first gig as a Hastings local, but certainly not my last, and several more are lined up already.

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