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042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)

Posted by jeff on Apr 11, 2018 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

 

lieber & stroller 01I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading “Hound Dog,” the autobiography of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They were the first great record makers of rock and roll, although they themselves said all they ever wanted to do was make good rhythm and blues. So our Song of The Week is naturally going to be one of my favorites of their many, many, many hits. I hope you’ll bear with me if a take a somewhat circuitous route in getting to it. Know what a shaggy dog story is? “An extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline.” Well, that’s me to a T. But maybe you’ll find some of those incidents surrounding Leiber and Stoller as interesting as I do. If not, I won’t be hurt. Just click on the links and enjoy their very fine music.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were both born in 1933.

Stoller grew up in a wealthy Jewish home in NY. His first exposure to black music was at an integrated sleep-away camp in 1941(!), where Paul Robeson was a guest artist singing spirituals and Hebrew folksongs. Stoller heard a black kid playing boogie-woogie in barn, which he says changed his life. Back home, he took piano lessons with James P. Johnson (1894-1955), king of the stride piano, composer of “The Charleston”, mentor of Fats Waller, compadre of Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Bessie Smith. In his early teens, Stoller fell under the spell of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the luminaries of bebop.

Leiber grew up in poor Baltimore, fought in street gangs, blacks and black music an integral part of the social landscape. He says that his musical revelation was as a kid washing dishes in an all-night diner, he watched the short-order cook leaning back with a joint hanging out of his mouth, listening to Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business“.

Leiber and Stoller met up in 1950 in LA, two 17-year old Jewish boys bubbling with enthusiasm for R&B. In 1951 they managed to get a few songs recorded for some ‘minor labels with major talents’, including even the young Ray Charles. In 1952 they wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield, which became a hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959, and was eventually recorded by some 300 artists including The Beatles.

One morning they got a call from guitarist/producer Johnny Otis. He was in his garage rehearsing with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. He needed a song for her. Our boys wrote it in minutes, and drove over to Otis’s garage. There they met Ms. Thornton attired in her combat boots and oversized overalls. Mike played the song on the piano, and she began to croon it.

“Big Mama,” Jerry suggested gently, “maybe if you’d attack it with a little more–”

“Come here, boy,” she said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. “I’ll tell you what you can attack. Attack this…” she added, pointing to her crotch.

Johnny Otis came to the rescue, saying “You sing it Jerry, you show Big Mama how it goes.” This is the result.

Leiber and Stoller were paid $1200 for the song, but the check bounced. Released in 1953, it did fairly well by R&B’s modest commercial standards, but within one month 5 more versions had been recorded.

In the mid-50s, white kids were beginning to become attracted to the dangerous sexuality of black rhythm and blues – but it was a bit too raw and threatening, so they greatly preferred to buy white versions of black music. The first commercially successful rock and roll songs were Bill Haley’s 1954 sanitized cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”, and “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955.

There were lots of clones and imitators of Bill Haley, including a long-forgotten Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were having a successful run in Las Vegas, and one of their popular numbers was a jokey, novelty version of Big Mama’s “Hound Dog”. Elvis Presley and his band were having an unsuccessful run in Vegas at the same time. They watched Freddy Bell nightly. Elvis liked the song, decided to try it himself. When he appeared with it on Milton Berle’s TV show, over 40,000,000 people saw the performance, and the network received thousands of letters of complaint about how ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ was promoting juvenile delinquency.

I guess that’s when life as we’ve known it in the second half of the twentieth century really started.

In 1956, Stoller was honeymooning in Paris. He and his bride were returning to New York on the luxury liner the S.S. Andrea Doria. It collided with another ship and 46 passengers died. Stoller and his wife made it into lifeboats.

Jerry ran up to me on the pier saying, “Mike, you’re okay!” before adding, “We have a smash hit.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Hound Dog.”

“Big Mama Thornton?”

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

Although Leiber and Stoller had great respect for Elvis as a performer, they never really liked what he did to the song. They eventually became the main source of music for his movies, writing dozens of songs which Elvis recorded, including “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” For a while they were becoming quite friendly with Elvis, but Colonel Parker didn’t like those Jewish boys hanging around his golden rooster and kept them away.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Leiber and Stoller had met up with Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertugun, sons of the Turkish ambassador to the US, great jazz and R&B fans, owners of Atlantic Records.  Leiber and Stoller started grinding out major hits for Atlantic for a group called The Robins, which soon morphed into The Coasters.

They used The Coasters to paint aural pictures, their own very wonderful version of comic-book blues.

These hits left an indelible mark on popular music for two reasons. First, because as L&S said, “We didn’t write songs; we wrote records.” They wrote not just the song, but also the arrangement, the style, the sound, the nuances of the vocal performances, the entire production. And in that, they were the first real creative artists in the popular idiom. In that, they predated the Brill Building songwriters, not to mention The Beatles and Dylan and the generations of music makers they inspired.

Oh, yeah, and secondly—well, just listen to how great these hits are: “Riot in Cell Block #9”, “Smokey Joe’s Café”, “Down in Mexico”, “Young Blood”, “Searchin'”, “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Along Came Jones”, “Poison Ivy”, “Little Egypt”.

Impossible a task it is, but house rules say I have to pick just one for our SoTW. Should it be the first, “Riot in Cell Block #9“, the manic genius anarchical jailhouse opera production? The paean to STD “Poison Ivy” with the greatest couplet in rock annals, “You’re gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion”? No, let’s just go with the greatest of the great, the anthem of all the sullen, acned, lethargic adolescents we all were–”Yakety Yak“. Written just for me and ‘all my hoodlum friends outside’.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Just finish cleanin’ up your room
Let’s see that dust fly with that broom
Get all that garbage out of sight
Or you don’t go out Friday night
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

You just put on your coat and hat

And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that

Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Don’t you give me no dirty looks
Your father’s hip; he knows what cooks
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside
You ain’t got time to take a ride
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Leiber and Stoller’s career didn’t end there. They hundreds and hundreds of memorable hits (‘On Broadway’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Chapel of Love’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Ruby Baby’, ‘She Cried’, ‘Only in America’, ‘Is That All There Is?’, 20 songs by Elvis, many if not most of The Beatles first recordings), and still write on occasion.

One reader told me that I was focusing too much on singers with morbid, sensationalist, Yellow Journalism sob story bios – Blind Willie Johnson, Eva Cassidy, Radke Toneff. Well, no one’s going to make an afternoon TV movie about Leiber and Stoller. But someone did make a very successful Broadway show.

In 1995, Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller opened on Broadway – forty songs by L&S, running for over five years, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

So there.

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170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 8, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro

Today we’re going to track the evolution of the first two measures of ‘Luckie’, the ebullient opening track on Laura Nyro’s masterpiece. “Eli & the 13th Confession”. I can’t promise that next week we’ll track the next two bars, although the entire album does deserve such reverential attention.

Once upon a time, there was a gospel singer named Curtis Mayfield, who snuck out the back door of his Chicago church and formed The Impressions (‘People Get Ready’, ‘It’s All Right’). Curtis wrote and arranged all the songs, a veritable one-man Motown. He had such a surplus of talent that he wrote and produced hits for his Impressions bandmate Jerry Butler, (‘For Your Precious Love’, ‘He Will Break Your Heart’) and for a two-hit wonder, Major Lance. ‘Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um’ (1964) was a charmer, but it was ‘The Monkey Time’ (1963) that made Major’s name and Curtis a pile of dough. I can’t think of a more infectious Top 40 song.

Curtis Mayfield

Here’s an instructional video about how to do The Monkey (as opposed to The Jerk), should you be so moved. (After locking the door) I just tried it together with Major Lance and the Shindig dancers, and it went pretty well. Maybe not as well as in this gambol of that other great Monkey hit, ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Chalk it up to my pigmental predilections. At least the Monkey’s off my back.

Listen again to the end of each verse of ‘The Monkey Time’: ‘…and then the music begins to play/You’re automatically on your way./Are you ready? (Are you ready?)/Well, you get yours, ‘cause I’ve got mine/It’s the Monkey Time!’Stop dancing for a minute, and bookmark that phrase!

Now let’s hop ahead to 1965 to Barbara Mason, a lass of 18 from Philadelphia: “I was a huge Curtis Mayfield fan, and I heard a record he had produced, Major Lance’s ‘The Monkey Time’ and he sings, ‘Are you ready?’ and I just thought, there’s my record. It only took me 10 minutes to write, and then we recorded it live in one take.”

Barbara Mason

Yes, I’m Ready’ was a giant hit, a harbinger of the Philly Soul sound which would achieve fruition in the 1970s. Her song was covered numerous times (Gladys Knight & the Pips, Carla Thomas), and became a hit again in 1979 for Teri DeSario & K.C. Interestingly, the only significant cover of ‘The Monkey Time’ was by Laura Nyro herself, backed by Labelle, on her knockout 1971 cover album, ‘Gonna Take a Miracle’. Here’s a live performance from the 1971 Carnegie Hall bootleg. I guess The Monkey beat was pretty daunting. But check out the opening cut, ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’. Here’s the original, by The Shirelles. 1:0 for the white girl!

That brings us up to March, 1968, the release of Laura Nyro’s “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Listen again to how ‘Luckie’ starts.

Bum-bum-bum, “Yes, I’m ready!!” Recognize that phrase?

Laura Nyro

Whoa, Laura! Not too much ambiguity there, is there folks? Ready for what? Well, mister, you just name it. You have to remember this was written in 1968. Girls didn’t talk like that in 1968. They certainly didn’t shout such things.

And that’s just the first two measures. In the rest of the song, she wrestled with the Devil and won. Jacob did that and got appointed a forefather! Here, let me show you.

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Laura Nyro Fighting the Devil

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

It’s a wrestling match, Good Vibrations vs Sympathy for the Devil. And this 21-year old banshee takes her grand piano and bashes old Lucifer on the noggin. You ain’t bringing me down, mister! It’s not luck, it’s an act of will. My friend MB from Back Then: “I took my first LSD trip alone in my parents’ house in the middle of the night, and was scared shitless. I put on “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Laura walked me through that night, and I’ve never let go of her hand since.” Laura got me through a missile attack with a similar act of no-holds-barred optimism. You gonna get in my face? Yes, I’m ready.

Laura Nyro Fan

I’m starting to feel like The Ancient Mariner – accosting unsuspecting revelers, grabbing them by the lapel, sticking my nose right up in their face, my feverish eyes gaping unblinking into theirs, to force upon them The Question: “Do you adequately appreciate Laura Nyro’s musical accomplishments?” I have no idea why, but I sometimes feel people shrinking back from this sort of engagement. With Laura, I mean. If she’s that good, why isn’t she famous?

One reason is that she effectively removed herself from the music business at 24. Others? She was quirky, personally and musically. She was seriously intense, intensely joyous. Demanding, over-the-top. She was divine, spiritual, fearless, unblinking in the face of any and every passion. An ancient mariner for our times.

I really am getting tired of quoting the litany of her praises, of quoting how Elton John and Elvis Costello and Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones and Susan Vega all recognize her as a major voice in the days when rock music was asserting itself as the torchbearer of popular culture. Even Joni Mitchell, a person known to be stingy in crediting her peers, said “Laura Nyro you can lump me in with, because Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her.”

Joni Mitchell (l), Laura Nyro

A revolution in women’s self-image began in the 1960s. Today it’s easy to relegate The Music to the status of soundtrack. Those of us who were there know it was the inspiration. With all due credit to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and even Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, there were two women who forged this new awareness – Laura and Joni. Carol King came along a few years later.

Laura Nyro

I grant that Joni is the more compleat artist. She had a long, variegated, accomplished career. She was a mistress of craft par excellence, a singularly soulful voice, musically courageous, a trailblazer of unparalleled achievement. It diminishes her not one whit to point out that where Joni was an artisan, Laura was wild. Joni was analytical, Laura was spontaneous. Joni was in control of her material, her voice, her compositions. Laura was an unfettered inspiration in all. Joni dismounted walls brick by brick. Laura detonated them. It was she who inspired rock musicians, male and female, to heed no boundaries of tempo, genre, or superego. She was the natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo, born for the loom’s desire. She still ornaments the earth. For me.

 

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie

 Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Luckie inside of me, inside of my mind, inside of my mind

Don’t go falling for Naughty
Don’t go falling for Naughty
He’s a dragon with his double bite
Sure can do his shortchanging out of sight
An artist of a sort but a little bit short of luck, this lucky night

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Naughty, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever, a backseat man
To Luckie, hey, hey, hey
It’s a real good day to go get Luckie, go get Luckie

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’
202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’
233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’
270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

 
Songs of The Week: Joni Mitchell
Songs of The Week: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

 
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107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Hey, y’all, join me this week for a walk on the wha? side, a stroll along the tightrope between the sublime and the embarrassing, an exploration of the no-man’s land between refined taste and that which makes our blood bubble and our minds swoon. The confection of adolescence, The Pop Song.


I once took a paying job, helping a very untalented, Miss Piggy-clone wannabe pop diva (with wealthy, well-connected, criminally persistent parents) translate her lyrics into proper popper English. The music was so bad that—well, let’s just leave well enough alone, it was really bad. And after a week of working on it, I found the tunes sticking to my mind. Skipping through my synapses while I was shaving, ringtoning my brain while I was reading Rilke, subliminially muzaking beneath my consciousness while having a Meaningful Discussion with my Significant Other. And this was some terrible, terrible music. We’re talking stuff that makes Britney Spears sound like Baruch Spinoza.

So I said to my friend EG that perhaps they’re not such bad tunes if they stick to my brain like that. “Bubblegum,” he answered. “Your brain sat on a big pink pre-masticated wad of Bazooka. That don’t make it good. It makes it inextricable.”

Clearly, I think I learned something from that experience. Think back to the Top 40 songs of your Junior High School incarnation. I remember thinking – nay, feeling – that ‘Theme to a Summer Place’ was sublime, that ‘Enchanted Sea‘ was the pinnacle of exotica, that ‘Bernadine’ was about as sexy as a song could get.

Given, prepubescent imbecility, including my own, is an easy target. The strange part, what’s puzzling me now, is the obverse side of that swooning, the songs that I am not inclined to stand up on a soapbox and praise as unacknowledged masterpieces, but yet that I’m also not ready to dismiss as pop pablum. I’ve called certain songs masterpieces without blushing, such as Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ (SoTW 28) and Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ (SoTW 34). But what about The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr. Blue’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ or ‘It’s All in the Game’ by Tommy Edwards (SoTW 23)? I called the latter a “very beautiful, touching ballad that has been playing over and over in my head for almost half a century now”.  No gainsaying that these are pop fodder. But they’re also indelibly carved in our hearts and our musical minds, not mere wads of Bazooka.

Pat Boone in the film ‘Bernadine’

Fast forward to 1968, when the music, the world, and Jeff were all presumably more mature, sophisticated and discerning. “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.” A lot of very fine music. It seemed that every week, two or three albums were being released that demanded and justified repeated listening, some for weeks, frequently for months and years. Many for decades. Almost fifty years on, so much of the music of the late 1960s still speaks strongly and convincingly. Much of it is still inspiring and instructive. I listened this week to the first two albums by Love, who have a rabid following here in our little corner of the Middle East half a century on (found the first one weak but the second quite respectable), and to Moby Grape’s first (a 5-star album the day it was released, and still is today).

Um, Jeff, this is Song of The Week, right? Wanna get to the point?

Ok. The point is that the border between fine music and cheap pop is sometimes fuzzy, even to me, subjectively. So here comes a song. I’m not sure whether I should be shouting its praises or not speaking of it to anyone whose opinion I value.

The Association. They formed in 1965, one of the numerous California early rock groups with roots in the folk movement, bringing with them close harmonies and consciousness of the poetic potential of lyrics—The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, many others. The niche of The Association, a new term I just learned this minute, was ‘sunshine pop’, characterized by a cheerful attitude, close vocal harmonies and sophisticated production, the sound track of California escapism, including groups such as The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and other lesser lights such as The 5th Dimension, Harpers Bizarre and Spanky and Our Gang.

Their first single, ‘Along Comes Mary’, was a charter member of the club of songs whose lyrics were reputed to obliquely refer to Devil Marijuana, such as ‘Eight Miles High’ (SoTW 226), ‘Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35’, ‘Mellow Yellow’ and even ‘Puff, The Magic Dragon’. ‘Along Comes Mary’ (live from the Monterey Festival) has Dylanesque long phrases, 60% More Words!! crammed inside a single breath. What happens if an infinite number of stoned teenagers spend an infinite number of hours trying to grab the words “Andwhenthemorningofthewarning’spassed, thegassedandflaccidkidsareflungacrossthestars, Thepsychodramasandthetraumasgonethesongsareleftunsungandhunguponthescars…” ‘Along Comes Mary’ was released in July 1966. “Sgt Pepper”, released a month earlier, was the first album to include lyrics. So stick your ear right up close to the speaker, kids, and write fast.

The Association’s material came from a number of sources, none of the band members providing a real auteur voice. Perhaps the strongest presence was producer Jerry Yester (brother of guitarist Jim), who went on to replace Zal Yanovsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful and contribute masterful arrangements to some of John Sebastian’s greatest compositions, such as ‘She’s Still a Mystery’ and ‘Six O’Clock’.

‘Mary’ hit #7, and was soon followed by three consecutive #1 hits: ‘Cherish’ (the beautifulest/shlockiest song ever recorded), ‘Windy’ (a sunnier version of New Yorker Paul Simon’s overcast ‘Cloudy’/’Feeling Groovy’) and ‘Never My Love’ (according to BMI, the second-most played song in the twentieth century!). In my ears today, they’re all respectable— memorable melodies, good harmonies, strong hooks, distinctive arrangements–but not songs I would put on my desert island playlist.

The song that’s been on my mind for the last couple of years is the last and commercially least in their string of hits, the runt of the litter, ‘Everything That Touches You‘. Written by vocalist/wind instrumentalist Terry Kirkman (also ‘Cherish’), the song is a rich pastiche of drums and bass and guitars and keyboards and chorus, an exuberant, loving melody, soaring harmonies, a hook-laden bass, a devotional love song, a hippie anthem.

I revisited and became preoccupied with this song a few years ago when I was doodling over a screenplay project imagining an almost unknown band from the late 1960s whose one minor hit achieved an unpredictable posthumous grassroots cult following many years later (inspired by the true story of Eva Cassidy—see SoTW 029). You can read those doodles here. I needed to write lyrics for their one hit, which I imagined as a ‘hippie anthem’. Looking for a model, my first thought was ‘Let’s Get Together’ by The Youngbloods and the pre-Grace Jefferson Airplane. Apocryphal description from Life’s coverage of Woodstock: “There was a small car that drove very slowly with the throngs of young people walking along the road. A hippie girl sitting on the roof of the car with a little, battery operated record player kept playing The Youngblood’s version of this song over and over and over again; supplying a solid contribution to the ‘peace and love’ vibe that permeated the whole magical weekend.” I don’t know if it’s literally true; but I was there, walking down that very road, and I can attest that that’s the most truthful image I can conjure of the entire festival, more than anything that took place onstage. But I wanted a more commercial model. ‘Everything That Touches You’ wheedled its way into my consciousness, where it’s stayed since.

I’ve been listening to the song regularly for a couple of years now. Is it sophisticated bubblegum music that my brain sat on? Is it an elegant, inspiring pop gem? I really can’t decide, and I’d be most grateful to y’all if you’d contribute your thoughts and comments right here in the Reply box below.

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103: Little Stevie Wonder, ‘Fingertips’

Posted by jeff on Oct 25, 2017 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Have you ever thought about the relative personal-ness of the various wind instruments? It’s a subject that occupies me at various moments of repose. How much harder it is to get a personal tone on, say a brass instrument (trumpet, valve trombone) than it is on a saxophone, for instance? Not that a brass player can’t express his personality on his ax; but it’s a whole lot harder to recognize a trumpeter from just a few notes than it is a saxophonist. A pianist is even harder. A glockenspielist may be even harder than that. A vocalist, obviously is the most individually expressive instrument, but God made that one, so it’s not really a fair competition. Anyway, it seems to me that running a close second to the human voice, and far ahead of the rest of the pack of wind instruments, is the harmonica.

Read more…

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