Monday, December 01, 2014

The story of the riff from "The Liquidator"

The Staple Singers made their best records between 1970 and 1972 for the Stax label.  They were produced by Stax President Al Bell, who was mainly about business; the additional spice was provided by the Muscle Shoals players, who were mainly about hooks.

In December 1971 Traffic were on hiatus because Steve Winwood was ill and so Jim Capaldi went to Muscle Shoals to make a solo record with the same musicians who had been playing on those brilliant records with the Staple Singers. Maybe he played them "The Liquidator" by The Harry J. All Stars, which had been a skinhead favourite in the UK in 1969-70. Maybe somebody else from the Island label passed it on. Maybe they heard it themselves. It goes like this:

It's a catchy tune, which started life on a Tony Scott record called "What Am I To Do", where it was played (and probably first invented) by the Barrett brothers and Alva Lewis, which went like this:

It was so catchy that it turns up, uncredited, on the Staple Singers "I'll Take You There", which is a huge hit and of course you know how that goes:

The following year Lee Perry, who works with the Barrett Brothers as The Upsetters, makes a satirical point at the beginning of "Cow Thief Skank" by The Upsetters by taking a whole section from The Staple Singers' "This Old Town" and putting it at the beginning of his own record. He didn't bother copying the song; he just pasted in their recording.

Both "The Liquidator" and "I'll Take You There" have turned out to have the pop music version of eternal life.

The Staples' record has the kind of inimitable catchiness that guarantees prefabricated sections of it will turn up in dance records from here until doomsday. Salt 'n' Pepa, Britney Spears, Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Price are just the most recent artists to have covered it. And "The Liquidator" plays every time Chelsea run out to play, even though football teams don't run out anymore.

As Joseph Shabalala used to say, "music is a thing you cannot hinder. It rises from here all the way to heaven." That's nice for us but not for people who either hold - or should hold - the copyright.


  1. West Brom have run out to The Liquidator for decades. It was always their theme song. Only recently have Chelsea co-opted the thing. Trivial point I know, but it makes me a little bit depressed that something so seemingly unique and quirky to The Baggies can be so easily ripped off, and is now associated with a completely different outfit.

  2. It also used to be played at West Brom and Wolves.

  3. Anonymous12:35 pm

    Fascinating insight into the development of a theme. There's a definite family resemblance between them all but to me I'll Take You There is different enough - there's an entire different section, with a delicious high bassline; the unison riff which starts the song is very slgihtly different (check the second note, a major seventh rather than a natural seventh, which I believe makes it chromatic rather than diatonic, although I'm no musicologist and sit quite prepared to be corrected on that); even the main bass riff has an initial rising three-note motif (the do-be-dee before the do-be-doo, if you like) that seems to be absent in What Am I To Do.

    Harry J and chums may have more of a case to answer, although even there I'd say the hook is the organ line, especially the choruses' falling four-note high lines, and they don't seem to be in evidence elsewhere.

    I have absolutely no doubt that these things didn't evolve in isolation and were half-(p)inched in order. Obviously I'd be more irked if it were my family being starved of royalties, but these things inevitably get into hair-splitting. Who owns the I-IV-V three-chord trick upon which the blues and much beyond is based?

    As for the terrace choirs, who sang You'll Never Walk Alone first - Liverpool or Celtic fans? Each will argue their case until everybody else has long gone, bored.

  4. The pieces have finally fallen into place - I've been sifting around the internet for three years trying to work out why The Staple Singers crash in at the beginning of Cow Thief...

    Did this story come from something you've read - I haven't seen it floating around the public domain before

  5. It was one of those things that just unfolded. I bought "Cow Thief Skank" on a single when it came out, mainly for the B-side, which I think was called "Seven And Three Quarters Skank". I too wondered about the group at the beginning. Only years later did I hear it on a Staple Singers record. The rest I deduced.

  6. There's a similar(ish) set of steps that lead from

    Alton Ellis - I'm Still In Love With You Girl.

    To Marcia Aitken & Trinity - I'm Still In Love / Three Piece Suit

    Later re-purposed as Uptown Top Ranking..