Please don’t let me be misunderstood

I just watched the movie Layer Cake, a gritty blood bath in which every other word is “motherfucker” and every character is a con artist who gets shot to shit. The movie ends with Joe Cocker’s rendition of “I’m Just a Soul Whose Intentions Are Good” probably because the movie opens with the protagonist (Daniel Craig) telling us how he’s going to change his evil ways and get out of the drug trade. Poor guy just ends up getting in deeper and deeper until he becomes the frosting on the cake (a metaphor for killing your way to the top of a mob and not for getting some extra special reward).  

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One of the many dead bodies in Layer Cake

I don’t know what message viewers are supposed to take away from this movie other than drugs are bad and drug dealers are unreliable (really? whod’ve thunk?), but that song sent me running for a Google window. Does that ever happen to you? You hear a song and suddenly have to know everything about it. Who wrote it? Why? And then, of course, you have to blog about it because your followers have nothing better with their time than to read what you write about a song. I really do live a blogger’s fantasyland, don’t I? I need an intervention.

Anyway, if you’re still with me, over the years this song has hit the charts in a number of different genres – rap, soul, blues and, of course, rock and roll.  It’s also been featured in countless movies besides Layer Cake, most notably Kill Bill and The Birdman.

The story of the song’s inception is a sad but probably familiar one to anyone in the arts or entertainment world. A musician of only moderate repute named Horace Ott wrote the original chorus line and melody after a “falling out” with his girlfriend. She took his plea for leniency to her partners and from it they created a song, apparently with jazz singer Nina Simone in mind.That was back in the early sixties when record companies owned the artists and Ott, not being in the proper union, was not included on the original credits. That must have stung. Here’s Simone’s rendition:

Her spin on the song is how it was intended. A plea for leniency. Unfortunately the record did not “chart” as they say and the song went widely unknown until a certain British group virtually made it their own.  You know who, of course, unless you’re really, really young!

Eric Burden’s “soul with a bit of rock and roll” rendition hit Number 3 on the charts and the song was subsequently recorded by a gazillion others including: The Moody Blues, Elvis Costello, Cyndi Lauper, King Kong &D’Jungle Girls, Mike Batt, Trevor Rabin No Mercy, John Legend, Lou Rawls, New Buffalo and many more.  Don’t ask me who some of those folks are because I don’t know.  I did recognize this guy, who generally writes his own songs:

Cat Steven’s plea for leniency and understanding takes on a universal feeling, as if he’s asking the whole world not to be so quick to judge each other.  It’s a good message.

20 thoughts on “Please don’t let me be misunderstood

  1. Eric Burden made our girlish hearts melt. (Well, maybe not the goodie two-shoes girls, but… ). Don’t go for an intervention, Jan. You would be misunderstood.

    • I couldn’t understand what message we were supposed to take away from Layer Cake but the acting was okay. I definitely wouldn’t watch it again.

  2. I knew the Cat Stevens version, but I hadn’t known its history…. That really is unfortunate about its origins with Horace Ott. 😦 It’s really cool to see all the different versions, though.

    • Thanks Alex. That was back when the studios controlled everything. From what I’ve read a lot of artists got screwed back then.

  3. There are volumes to be written and movies to be made about the phenomenon of white American and UK artists making the charts on the musical achievements of the black community. [I think in this particular historical time period of (popular) culture, “white” and “black” are the best terms to be used since it was, in effect, the basic framework through which the people of the time operated.

    At the same, if the Animals didn’t record the song, would we know it to the extent that we do today? or could had it just slipped off into the realm of a few people aware of our past musical history, i.e. the dustbin of history?

    Seems history is just the story of one person (or group) trying to rip off another person (or group of people). Kind of like Layer Cake. Ripping people off, or even trying to, has consequences. Yet we keep trying.

    • I’m not sure if Horace Ott or his wife were white or black. I think the issue was the record studios controlling everything. Eric Burdon had a rough upbringing and so when they presented him that song I think he identified with it. He had a choice and he made a good one. Sometimes artists look beyond the commercial and make the right choice. Cat Stevens picked the song for a completely different reason – but it’s interesting how a simple plea can become a masterpiece coveted by so many artists. Takes me back to Fireflies.

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