Feb 10

BEN E KING – “Stand By Me”

FT + Popular58 comments • 4,467 views

#585, 21st February 1987, video

If the Levi’s Jeans advertisers counted as a single artist they would have six Number Ones – more than Bowie or Britney, as many as Queen, Rod or Slade. Their biggest successes came as tastemakers picking new music hits in the mid-90s, but prior to that they’d helped push the late 80s soul revival out into the casual singles market, and Ben E King was the biggest beneficiary. In the US the Rob Reiner movie was the main driver of “Stand By Me”‘s revival, but in Britain the jeans ad was the deal-maker.

Music of the 50s and 60s appealed to advertisers looking to hit notes of authenticity, integrity, and timelessness – valuable coin in an era of self-conscious new wealth. But the conmercials erased the music’s historical context and development: for someone like me, only beginning to discover old music, they made soul seem hollow and predictable, pre-chewed by the admen. It was another decade before I really dug into soul music, and before I understood anything about its timelines and tensions and where these old songs fitted in.

Not that “Stand By Me” itself really needs a lot of context. The song is resolutely self-contained, a sealed bubble of togetherness, one built to withstand the end of everything if it has to. The unfussy strings, the zizz of the guiro, and King’s rich but measured voice come together as a monument to steadiness and trust, just as the song intends. And the swells of orchestration and the occasional breaks in King’s delivery are all that hint at the effort and strength that kind of steadiness requires.



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  1. 1
    punctum on 16 Feb 2010 #

    “Stand By Me” was a sprinter compared with “Reet Petite,” taking just under 26 years from its initial chart appearance to reach number one. Its revival was not occasioned by the Rob Reiner film, which wasn’t released in Britain until the summer of 1987, but by the Levi’s 501 TV ad campaign which commercially was one of the most successful ever. Beginning in late 1985 with an “authentic”-looking series of ’50s/pre-Beatles ’60s scenarios of vintage Americana (mostly filmed in Borehamwood), the soundtrack to Nick Kamen removing his clothing in the steamy launderette, or immersing his shrink-to-fit jeans in the bath, was similarly unimpeachable Authentic Soul Classics. The effects were immediate; in 1986 “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” returned to the top ten, swiftly followed by “Wonderful World,” a bigger British hit than Sam Cooke ever achieved in his lifetime.

    The next brace of commercials were launched in early 1987; for “Stand By Me” there was a queue for a club, admission gained only by the Authentic red tag on the protagonist’s 501s, while for Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” we had a “poignant” portrait of a departing GI and his lover at the bus terminal. The going-away present? Why, a pair of 501s.

    This all tied in with the still ridiculous residue of the 1982 Hard Times/ripped jeans non-craze, with Robert Elms on The Tube cheerfully deriding “Northern scum” (forgetting that the programme was being recorded in Newcastle) for not wearing limited edition super-expensive 501s with original red stitches. Once again, everything had to be Real and Gritty. But the campaign worked better than ever before; a month after the adverts premiered on British TV, “Stand By Me” and “When A Man Loves A Woman” occupied the top two slots in the singles chart, the latter thereby doubling its original 1966 performance.

    In view of the legion of cover versions and reissues prevalent in the lists of the time, it can hardly be viewed as a healthy situation where the two most popular records come from the previous generation, and there was a kneejerk anti-futurism at work here crying out for someone to come and blow it apart.

    None of this, of course, is the fault of Ben E King nor of Leiber and Stoller, who (with some help from Carole King and the singer himself) wrote “Stand By Me.” It is indisputably one of the great pop singles, and there may have been an anxiety to right wrongs, since in 1961 it only peaked at #27 in Britain, and in the interim had become better known in the form of Lennon’s Spector-produced 1975 cover. As a record it is practically bipolar in nature, for despite the hopeful sunrise strings and backing vocals, which appear over the tenements like a welcome dash of early morning spring, the song appears to be about imminent apocalypse with its imagery of “the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we’ll see” and its dread-laden visions of the sky tumbling and falling and the mountains crumbling into the sea. This is a gesture of indivisible faith – maybe not that far away from the fear-filled bunker of Neon Bible – a shield against lament and fear in a world which is swiftly turning into blood. U2 caught something of that feeling when they cited the song in “The Unforgettable Fire” – also the closest they ever got to an Associates tribute – and thus the original sits uneasily as a signifier of reproduction antique America in another land, increasingly unhappy with itself. 8 for the record, 2 for the whys and wherefores.

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    Tom on 16 Feb 2010 #

    #1 a quick correction to yr fine summary Punctum – admission is gained by the DO YOU SEE method of wearing BLACK levis to a “NO BLUE JEANS” club. The look on the doorman’s face as he realises that not only is he Stupid, he’s Inauthentic, is priceless.

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    punctum on 16 Feb 2010 #

    *goes off and looks up ad on YouTube*

    Good grief, yes. That’s not Barry Out Of EastEnders as the doorman, is it?

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    Tom on 16 Feb 2010 #

    Meanwhile, I wasn’t able to find the advert I wanted to on YouTube – the one that sums up this era in advertising for me (and is a bridge to Hornbyism and the fetishisation of Loving Music) – the Nescafe ad with the guy buying an old record shop on a seafront, walking in, blowing the dust off a James Brown single and settling down to a coffee.

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    LondonLee on 16 Feb 2010 #

    I must admit I had a pair of vintage 501s with the red stitching.

    At the time I was suitably outraged at the use of these songs in adverts, selling them as lifestyle accessories to go with the black hi-fi and Next chinos for newly-minted yuppies who wanted to act grown up (a mate of mine bought an Al Green greatest hits CD to play at dinner parties and complained to me that all the songs sounded the same), now I just think Ben must have been happy for the royalty checks the way many lesser-known soul acts were probably grateful for the money they earned on the Northern Soul scene.

    I’m a big fan of this type of uptown New York soul and, along with ‘On Broadway’ this is probably the prime example of it. I love the spare beauty of the intro (just bass and percussion) but it is a struggle to listen to with fresh ears. Still have to give it a 10 though.

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    pink champale on 16 Feb 2010 #

    it might also be a good time to talk about 80s films named after songs, presumably for the same reasons of post big chill bought in authenticity. infamously, you’ve got ‘soul man’. but also, off the top of my head, ‘some kind of wonderful’, ‘can’t buy me love’, ‘coup de ville’, um, actually i’ve run out. er..’jumping jack flash’. patrick dempsey was often involved anyway.

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    thefatgit on 16 Feb 2010 #

    This song and the swathe of revivalist songs that came with it, summed up the rotten core of Thatcher’s Britain. It has often been a criticism levelled at the Nouveaux Riche, that they knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. The yuppie conspicuously consuming “authentic” branded goods as a form of aesthetic insulation, from the equal scorn and praise (dependant on whose viewpoint you listened to) heaped upon them by the media. You had to have your Le Corbusier as much as you had to have you Le Creuset! Much has been dicussed already in the JYB thread concerning “Rare Groove”. SBM was not rare, but considered by many soul afficionados as “classic”. A born in the ’60s lad like me will have been aware of Ben E King, more so than Jackie Wilson, from listening to their folks record collection or even the radio, where I recall it being played as a “standard”. The grainy, scratchy recording of SBM I heard belonged to a soulboy mate of mine, who got 1st dibs on a departed relative’s record collection. This was about 4 years before I had left school, and although I appreciated this cachet of soul for what it was. I was no more convinced to be as enthralled by Ben E King as he was, when he played it. I found it didn’t grab me as much as more rockier stuff from my folks’ record collection.

    Of course, much later when the Levi’s ad hit our screens I mentioned to the same friend “See what they’ve done to your old soul music now! They’re using it to flog Levi’s!”
    Naturally, he was horrified.

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    will on 16 Feb 2010 #

    The song itself is the very definition of a timeless classic. Stand By Me will sound as moving and graceful in 2061 as it did in 1961. In fact, its plea for solidarity in the face of imminent apocalypse will probably have even greater resonance as the 21st Century unfolds.

    But the fact that it was revived on the back of a bloody advert didn’t sit well with me at the time. And it seemed odd that it reached Number One in early 1987, the very peak of the yuppie era, a time when both dark clouds and socialism seemed to have been banished from the national consciousness.

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    Steve Mannion on 16 Feb 2010 #

    Levis shift from classic soul to modern dance didn’t occur until the early-mid 90s, and it’s interesting that this shift didn’t really affect their ability to generate massive hits (altho the success rate did drop). Of the post-soul revival crop my favourite is the unusual choice of Biosphere’s ‘Novelty Waves’. Unfortunately it’s ultra-dark techno throb failed to trouble the top 40.

    As for ‘Stand By Me’ fine song (love the string-led instrumental middle eight, no disrespect intended to King but I’m not so keen on his voice here) but I can’t help but associate it with the general retro obsession pervading pop culture at the expense of the likes of MALE STRIPPER.

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    Tom on 16 Feb 2010 #

    “Novelty Waves” is – I think – the only Levis ad single I bought until the very last bunny-embargoed one. [/elitism]

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    glue_factory on 16 Feb 2010 #

    #4, the other ad that utterly sums up this era (and is discussed, I think, by Simon Reynolds in Blissed Out) is the Red Stripe one where whizened old black guy teaches young white guy to play the sax. The reek of ‘soul’ and ‘authenticity’ is overpowering.

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    anto on 16 Feb 2010 #

    Two number ones in a row where the lyrics have much the same central theme and elemental imagery.
    Good strings arrangement – that’s the way to do it Papa Don’t Preach.

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    MikeMCSG on 16 Feb 2010 #

    #1 I acknowledge Punctim’s already touched on this but it’s worth looking at the entire Top 10 in this one’s final week at the top

    2. Percy Sledge “When A Man Loves A Woman”
    3. Mental As Anything “Live It Up” (my favourite here)
    4. Man 2 Man etc “Male Stripper”
    5. The Jets “Crush On You”
    6. Level 42 “Running In The Family”
    7. Bunnied cover version we’ll be discussing next
    8. Curiosity Killed The Cat “Down To Earth”
    9. Freddie Mercury “The Great Pretender”
    10. Jackie Wilson “I Get The Sweetest Feeling”

    So that’s three re-releases of 60s hits, two less than radical cover versions of big hits and two re-releases (3 and 4)of recent vintage which hadn’t charted big before. So the sounds of 1987 were a pisspoor 5 Star impersonation, a pisspoor Level 42 impersonation and the 42 themselves (actually a decent song despite Phil Gould’s usual clunky lyrics).

    I am a bit doubtful about a kneejerk antifuturism.I think it was more a perfect storm of a CD-led shift to albums – I recall a 30 year old new colleague being amazed I was still interested in singles, the computer games boom, the national radio station losing its grip and perhaps most of all a dearth of new British talent (1988 will be a bumper year for American no 1’s).

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    lonepilgrim on 16 Feb 2010 #

    wasn’t the song based on a gospel tune? Hence the literally apocalyptic imagery?

    I’m not too bothered about this achieving it’s success on the back of an ad. Pop has been used to sell stuff at least since the days of the medicine shows through “I’d like to teach the world to sing’ and onwards.
    Steve at #9 is right to say that this was part of a retro trend. It had it’s roots in The Face from a couple of years earlier which no doubt influenced the creative directors who put this campaign together. In 1987 Q magazine was probably holding the first of it’s 50 top albums/singles/polka tunes of all time lists as well. These years had seen the rise of the wine bar with their tasteful soundtracks where the saxophone was the key signifier of sophistication.
    I was not immune to this trend having bought the soundtrack in 1987 to ‘Round midnight’ with Dexter Gordon.

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    thefatgit on 16 Feb 2010 #

    #6 Pink Champale. Someone To Watch Over Me, Sea Of Love…er now I’m stuck.

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    swanstep on 16 Feb 2010 #

    Magnificent song/record. I wouldn’t bet against this or, say, ‘Grapevine’ getting to #1 again some time in the next 100 years. The best early 1987 songs, e.g., There is a light (whose strings I’ve always thought were a little influenced by SBM’s), Don’t dream it’s over, may, if they’re lucky, share the same fate – new generations won’t have heard them, and then there’s always a chance those spooky songs will somehow connect with a later cultural moment or strand, and bingo: fresh ears.

    Agreed that (1) those Levi’s ads drove everyone completely mad (and don’t forget stone-washed! F***ing jeans!), and (2) that they really do exemplify the excess consumption of pre-October-1987 stock-market crash, bubble period (By early 1987 a big chunk of society was making more, often much more out of speculative activities than from their actual jobs, and anyone who just had a normal job felt like a sucker. Cab-drivers would offer you get-rich-quick stock tips… and so on. You think we’d all learn from the experience of watching a whole economy distort itself to not collectively make exactly the same mistakes again ten, then 20 years later, but…. no).

    Anyhow, building on what others have said, retro-/tourism of the giants of the past *can* be done very well. It’s hard to have too many complaints about the Rob Reiner film after all, and Blue Velvet was the hip early 1987 film (its Bobby Vinton title-track and Orbsion’s ‘In Dreams’ were new to me and to most other people who fell under that film’s spell) and The Wonder Years continued the trend into weekly TV in 1988 and was basically pretty great (no matter how much you wanted to be irritated by it).

    One retro music item in 1987 did, however, blow up in the marketers faces – Nike’s use of the Beatles’ Revolution (go here for wiki’s page on it, and here for the lame-o ad itself). There were various angles to that controversy which you can read up about for yourselves… but I remember being a little creeped out by the suggestion that was definitely in the mix that the Beatles were supposed to be this holy-of-holies and beyond all marketing whereas Marvin Gaye and Motown, etc. were fair game, and product to be shipped.

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    wichita lineman on 17 Feb 2010 #

    Re 4: that ad, possibly with James Brown replaced by Nitro Deluxe or Dickie Valentine, represents my dream existence. Am I alone here? It isn’t exclusive to the Mojo/Hornby axis. An old record shop! By the sea! Probably in Ramsgate… Crab rolls for tea!

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    TomLane on 17 Feb 2010 #

    Reached #4 in 1961 in the U.S. and on re-release peaked at #9. Anything less than a 10? Not from me.

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    MBI on 17 Feb 2010 #

    I don’t hesitate to call “Stand By Me” a perfect song, and I don’t use that word lightly. I certainly hope Tom’s resistance to re-releases isn’t influencing his scores overly, but I can’t see how anyone could rate this song below a 9.

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    Tom on 17 Feb 2010 #

    Without the “80s Reissue Tax” of 1 point this would be an 8, which is a fair reflection of how I feel about the song: great, superbly performed, but I don’t often listen to it – bit too stately for me. Obviously I can see the case for it being a 9 or 10 tho.

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    Mark G on 17 Feb 2010 #

    Everyone here needs to hear the bootmix together of the vocal track of this with the music track of “Every breath you take”, it’s basically the exact same chords, pretty much…

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    Rory on 17 Feb 2010 #

    One of those occasions where I feel glad of a little distance from the UK experience. I associate “Stand By me” with Rob Reiner’s film, released only a month after this, and nothing about that could possibly put me off – quite the reverse. What does threaten it is the association with Lennon’s cover version: the most memorable moment on Rock and Roll, but a noisy and unnecessary beast all the same, and I say that as one who was at the height of his Beatles fandom in 1987-88.

    Listening to King’s version again, it feels like it ends too soon; another minute or two would make it even better. But I couldn’t honestly give it less than 9.

    I should dock it a point (and Percy Sledge) for keeping Mental as Anything off the top spot and denying me the opportunity to wax Australian, but I won’t. For one thing, “Live it Up” wasn’t my favourite Mentals song; that would be “Apocalypso (Wiping the Smile off Santa’s Face)”, their brilliant 1984 Christmas single with award-winning stop-motion video (pulled from YouTube, unfortunately).

    Lennon’s version peaked at number 61 in Australia in 1975, King’s at 45 in 1961 and 82 in 1987.

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    MikeMCSG on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #22 Rory my choice for best Mentals song would be the un-pc (yes I know it’s really about alcoholism) classic “The Nips Are Getting Bigger”. What position did that get to in Oz?

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    punctum on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #13 – Respect the Jets please; they were American and far better than the admittedly poor of piss Five Star. Also, no “Crush On You,” no blissful sample underlying Alan Braxe and Fred Falke’s “Intro.”

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    Rory on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #23 MikeMCSG: The Nips are Getting Bigger – entry 23-July-79, highest position 16, weeks in chart 26.

    I also liked their 1990s comeback (via Triple J) “Mr Natural”.

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    MikeMCSG on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #24 Though naturalised Americans they originally came from Tonga a country that’s never going to produce many pop stars so let’s not deny it its moment of glory. Perhaps they were better than Five Star but the latter were there first.

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    swanstep on 17 Feb 2010 #

    @21, Mark G. Many many songs use that exact chord sequence, often notated simply: I, VI, IV, V. Enola Gay was a big one from my youth. Whinier versions of the same thing (e.g., Chasing Cars), just drop the IV (because it can sound too ’50s). Lots of musicians in fact just refer to these as the ‘SBM changes’.

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    thefatgit on 17 Feb 2010 #

    Or A,F#m,D,E,A,F#m,D,E,A,F#m,D,E,A = money in the bank.

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    MikeMCSG on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #25 Thanks Rory. Six months in the chart but it only got to 16. Is that usual in Oz? Time lag between popularity in Sydney and Perth perhaps ?

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    Mutley on 17 Feb 2010 #

    #1 Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World has got to be the only song ever to mention the slide rule, as in

    “Don’t know much about algebra
    Don’t know what a slide rule is for..”

    Did anyone know what a slide rule was for by the time of the re-release in 1986, when pocket calculators already ruled the world?

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