I Keep Forgettin’

I Keep Forgettin’ (Chuck Jackson, (prod. Leiber/Stoller) 1963).
I Keep Forgettin’ (The Artwoods, 1966).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Topmost, 1967).
I Keep Forgettin’ (The Checkmates with Sonny Charles (prod. Phil Spector), 1969).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Procol Harum, (prod. Leiber/Stoller), 1975).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Michael McDonald, 1982).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Bowie, 1984).

In 1963, Smokey Robinson warned Chuck Jackson that his new single, “I Keep Forgettin’,” was too ahead of its time to be a hit. Robinson was right: it only reached #55 in the pop charts. But “Keep Forgettin’ ” was a magnificent track, one of the great later compositions of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and one of their most radical productions. (It’s arguably one of Leiber and Stoller’s challenges to the rise of Burt Bacharach and Hal David).

It wasn’t just Leiber’s typically clever lyric (in the first verse, the subjects of the action are typically passive objects, like feet and fists, with the singer reduced to a set of motor functions) or Stoller’s unusual song structure, with its varying tempos and times (bars of 2/4 slamming into cut-time 4/4 bars) and its wrong-way round construction, with the chorus backing into the verses.* The entire production of the track seemed intended to put the listener on edge. Jackson sings the first half of the song almost entirely over percussive instruments (marimba, tambourine, shakers, toms, timpani, and piano and guitar here serve in percussive roles) with only a few touches of harmonic ones: brief horn responses, barely-heard strings, dashes of accordion. (It’s an ancestor to Amerie’s “1 Thing.”) It makes Jackson sound like he’s standing alone, trying to keep his balance. Sure, the backing singers give him temporary assistance, the horns take over a chorus to give him relief. But the overall feel is of a man unmoored, one at the mercy of random elements.

Leiber was so delighted by what he, Stoller and Jackson had done that he performed a wild dance after the session, with his knees almost coming up to his chin. (as per Ken Emerson’s Always Magic in the Air). But the Jackson version was so singular, so wild and out of its era, that it didn’t reach a mass audience. Essentially uncoverable, “Forgettin'” became a cult favorite among Sixties R&B fanatics.

Not that bands didn’t try to master it: the Artwoods (a rival to the Yardbirds, its lead singer later helped found Deep Purple) put an organ in place of the accordion, giving their version some majesty, while Topmost (from Finland!) seemed a bit flummoxed by the tempo. Phil Spector, who had started out as an apprentice with Leiber and Stoller, bungled his own attempt with a Sonny Charles record that sounds as though it had been waxed onto molasses. (Leiber and Stoller later domesticated their song, producing a Procol Harum cover in the Seventies that turns “Forgettin'” into a weary soul lament—-where Jackson was at war, Gary Brooker has conditionally surrendered).

Bowie had always wanted to cover “Forgettin’.” His memory of it possibly triggered by the then-recent Michael McDonald hit that had inadvertently ripped off the song (forcing McDonald to list Leiber/Stoller as co-composers), Bowie decided to cut a version on Tonight, as he had an adept rhythm crew assembled: Guy St. Onge on marimba, Sammy Figueroa on percussion, the typically solid Omar Hakim on drums and Carlos Alomar’s in-the-pocket rhythm guitar.

The result, though, was a tacky mess. It’s Bowie taking a modernist, even avant-garde song from 1963 and bloodily reducing it to an “oldie,” hoping to create some general nostalgic vibe, having his singers overact as usual and throwing in a guitar solo that sounds like it’s being played by an automaton at a Disneyland “Old Time Rock and Roll” exhibit. Pushing up the tempo from the start and so gutting any sense of anticipation and development, Bowie seems unable to let the song breathe: it’s a party song seemingly performed at gunpoint. And where the Leiber/Stoller production still sounds sharp and fresh (the stereo mix in particular), Bowie, Hugh Padgham and/or Derek Bramble’s version now sounds terribly dated, with the gated tom fills and the usual malice from the Borneo Horns.

Toxic album filler, “Forgettin'”‘s placement on Tonight (the second-to-last song on the B side) made it the last straw for listeners who had somehow endured the record to that point.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

*Addendum: Leiber and Stoller’s occasional collaborator Gilbert Garfield is also credited as a writer on “Keep Forgettin’.” Garfield was a singer, a member of the Cheers, and so may have been responsible for the vocal melody and other pieces of the song.

Top: Ted Barron, “Dog Man of the Lower East Side, First Avenue, New York, NY, 1984.” One nice thing about reaching the mid-Eighties in this survey is that I can begin showcasing the work of my friend Ted Barron. Ted has just co-produced a book with Drew Hubner called East of Bowery: it’s very much worth your while.

13 Responses to I Keep Forgettin’

  1. Jasper says:

    It was very interesting listening to all the different versions you have listed, I had only heard a couple of them before.
    Wile reading I agree with most of what you say, but when listening to the song I still really like it, thou listening right after all the other versions of song, the speed choice is not a good one, a variation of speed in the song or a super slow version would have been good.
    In general listening to the album very closely because of your postings have made the album grow for me.

  2. diamond dog says:

    Of all the tracks on Tonight this is really just a throw away space filler. Speeded up nostalgia which reaches an all time low for me. imagine the album without it and in a slightly different order opening with dancing with the big boys it would perhaps have been better remmebered. The pieces written have made it far more interesting , let’s face it its a body of very few originals it should never have been made but still I enjoy it more than blk tie white noise which is a dreadful album.

  3. Frankie says:

    Nice info on the original tune and great work on the guitar solo. I keep forgettin’ this was bleedin’ 1984, the very year Bowie so earnestly warned us about 10 years before! Little did we know he was actually warning us about some of his more forgettable future music….

  4. Jeremy says:

    Wow, the original sounds like it should have been covered by Dr John, not Bowie. Not bowie..no, no, no!

  5. Maj says:

    Okay…after finally listening to the original I get why this might be not the best of the covers. Still, what Bowie did to God Only Knows was, IMO, much worse.
    His cover of Keep Forgettin’ still kinda works but yes, the original is much more interesting. I’m actually surprised Jack White hasn’t covered it yet, would be quite interested in his version.
    Anyhoo…next! 🙂

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    While Bowie’s cover of I Keep Forgettin’ is not necessarily outright awful, it fails to capture that elusive edginess that made the Chuck Jackson original so special. (And thanks for posting all those cover versions. I hadn’t actually heard any of them before. Procol Harum’s version is actually the best because it goes for a somewhat different vibe.) Bowie’s version is little more than a karaoke oldie, and it’s ultimately the most disposable track on Tonight – which is quite the damnation when you consider how scatter-shot the album is as a whole… 😦

  7. Marion Brent says:

    Forgettin’ may be the most forgettable track on the album, but ‘s only because the title track and God Only Knows are so unforgettably wretched…

  8. Wendy says:

    As usual, interesting analysis, and I enjoyed hearing all the different versions.

    However, you keep on talking about “B Sides” of albums (LPs). Albums don’t have B sides. Singles have B sides, while albums have Side 1, Side 2, etc.

  9. Roman says:

    I discovered recently that Bowie had originally intended to cover this on the Let’s Dance album. There was an interview from Australian TV floating about – that I can’t find online any more – where he says this. The interview takes place on a balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour (perhaps his old apartment) and it’s late 1982 and he’d talking about going to New York to record his new album in a few weeks. He already had the blonde hair. In fact he was probably just finished shooting Merry Xmas Mr Lawrance.

  10. Okay, no one else seems wiling, so I’ll be the sacrificial lamb and defend this. Filler, yes. But catchy filler. Not forgettable to me at all, actually- I haven’t listened to this in years (even now I don’t intend to click on the link) but it still springs easily to mind. I think this is the only track on Tonight that the Borneo Horns added to.

  11. Phil Obbard says:

    I agree with Christopher Stansfield — it’s filler but catchy. Unlike a lot of Tonight, it’s easy to remember how this one sounds.

    But I want to make two other points here:

    1. Thank you for turning me on to the Chuck Jackson original. It’s magnificent! I can’t stop playing it for the last few days. I knew Jackson thanks to “Any Day Now”, but had never heard this before reading your post a few weeks ago.

    2. While Bowie’s cover is filler, one nice thing you can say is that out of all the rearrangements on this LP — “Don’t Look Down”, “Tonight”, “Neighborhood Threat”, “God Only Knows” — this is BY FAR the most tasteful. If you didn’t know the Chuck Jackson original, you’d think this was just a passable Lieber/Stoller cover – an offence to the original track, perhaps, but not to my ears, unlike those terrible other four covers. (Which reminds me: People spend a lot of time deservedly criticizing “God Only Knows”, but I’m convinced that’s in part because so few know the original “Don’t Look Down”, a masterpiece in the Iggy catalog on the order of the original “China Girl”).

    The Checkmates version isn’t bad either, if overstuffed; sadly does not appear to have made the leap to iTunes/Amazon or I’d be adding that to my collection right now, too.

  12. Brian says:

    Wow, what a great song! I’m surprised I never heard of this one, it sounds timeless. Chuck Jackson is definitely going on my list of musicians to check out.

    As for Bowie’s version… Las Vegas Bowie is back from Tumble and Twirl. Those two songs seem like they’re cut from the same cloth.

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