Wednesday, November 25, 2009

His Word May Be His Bond: Adam Faith: "Someone Else's Baby"

Although the 50s were many things, there was one thing they don't tend to be called that much - hip. There were hipsters back then, to be sure, but the 60s developed its own kind of hipness fairly quickly - one that was still at this point tethered to the 50s, but evolving out of it at a rapid rate.

We are still in the Age of Meek, to be sure, but now the Age of Barry has arrived, with all that implies. John Barry did the arrangements for this song and their pizzicato insouciance is miles away from the four-square hog-calling no-need-for-microphones from the previous decade. Faith sings this song with a grin in his voice and a very Buddy Holly "bayyyyehby" on his mind (not to mention his pronunciation). Lyrics like "I wonder who's in the loveseat/Who's got a heartbeat, like thunder" sounds as if Meatloaf is just around the corner; "If I acted bad/I could steal his fairy queen" on the other hand, is just so English as to be nearly a cliche. It's a song about wanting another guy's girl, stealing her practically from his arms - being a cad or a knave, at the least, but Faith makes it sound as if he just can't help himself and is going to be a love opportunist and have his tryst in his lovenest (or backseat) because he can't resist the idea of doing the act in the first place. Would Cliff ever be so bold? Faith was one of his rivals in the teen idol stakes, but unlike Cliff he left to get into acting, financial dealings and music production once the age of the guileless idol was over. Not bad for a kid from east London who was in a skiffle band called The Worried Men; hard to think of Faith as worried about anything at all here, save for (maybe) being caught.

(I feel it incumbent upon me to mention that the great inheritor of Faith's romantically helpless opportunist and general suave-guy-about-town demeanor would be taken up by one Bryan Ferry; just as Faith left the building, so to speak, Ferry stepped nonchalantly in. Also, the same man who renamed Cliff also renamed Adam.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

We Love You Cliff, Oh Yes We Do: Cliff Richard And The Shadows: "Fall In Love With You"

If there is one dynamic in popular culture that can always be relied upon, it is that of the teen idol. Young, shiny, handsome/pretty, unthreatening - a teen idol is by necessity accessible (yet slightly mysterious), humble and obliging, one of those obligations being that they take up only so much time and trouble in popular culture. Teen idols can grow up and continue to be successful in what they do, mainly because they change as their audience changes; or they can break up (if a band) or wander off into other things, such as politics, business or other arts. However I am guessing many teen idols either go on as they believe they can serve the industry or they are a little tired of being screamed at and retreat and are able to reinvent themselves.

Cliff Richard was a genuine teen idol in the UK in '60, singing directly to the girls in the audience here about how this was his first romance and how easily he could fall in love - though of course the song was objectively about young longings and hopes in general, especially on that crucial first date. I don't want to say that Richard was directly courting his audience here, but his coolness and silkiness - a kind of cat's eyes sound to his voice - certainly doesn't hurt.

My one question here is about teen idols in general - why did so many spring up at this time? Was it just because of sheer generational pressure - all the baby boomers hitting those crucial Tiger Beat times of lots of wall/locker space with so much room for posters? I suppose so - that mass media makes celebrities sounds like such an obvious answer that I am almost suspicious of it. Young people, girls in particular, have always had adolescent crushes of all kinds: royalty, movie stars, characters in books, portraits...all standing in for the real thing, helping them get to the stage where they are, in fact, ready for the real thing.

I guess my real question is: why Cliff? It comes down to the UK sensibility I suppose (at this time he was trying to break the US but didn't spend enough time there to really have an impact), the UK preferring their own nice boy to the rougher types, including one man I have yet to reach who was simply The Man when it came to rock 'n' roll at this time, a man so legendary that the Beatles (then called the Silver Beatles) tried and failed to be his backing band. Once you hear him, the original man in gold lame, the unfairness of Richard's success compared to his (at least on this blog) is inexplicable. But that is the teen idol business for you: the girls want who they want, and a pleasant vanilla milkshake was preferred over the crunchy tin roof sundae nearly every time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Faraway In Time: Percy Faith: "Theme From 'A Summer Place'"

And now, as is almost always the way, a Canadian enters the number two scene with the most guileless, carefree breezy ease - Percy Faith was a bandleader who personified easy listening and this song certainly sums up the easy listening flutes-and-strings aplenty approach, one which works quite well with the rather torrid storyline of the movie A Summer Place; coolly seductive and yet coy, floating above the hubbub of emotionally complex lives, this song - which sounds much like a boat being set into motion from its moorings down a placid stream - is not just sexy because it's the soundtrack to Troy Donoghue and Sandra Dee falling in love (and making love, for that matter). It is sexy because it brings a certain openness to itself; not since Dean Martin has a song been so...there and yet not there. Dare I say the song almost laughs, in its pink chiffon way, at the tribulations (the sensations) in the story? Well, this is still the time of relative innocence in this decade and a time for looking back, in the dead of winter, to the heat of summer and its simple joys. A boy and girl fall in love, they are the future; problems are eased and there is a happy ending, despite all indications. The world responded in kind to this and made it a kind of anthem of hope, if I can put it that way, for a whole new decade; slow dancing and swaying to the music, eyes closed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Be True To One Woman: Cliff Richard and The Shadows: "A Voice In The Wilderness"

And now, the 60s. Specifically January 1960, which happens to be when my parents got married, when Plath and Hughes were back in London, and when young Cliff Richard was busy being the number one pop star in the UK.

Every decade begins tentatively, with a kind of happy apprehension - things may get better, will definitely change, hope for all the best. And yet decades rarely 'end' right at their chronological end; it takes a while for any decade to really find itself, so to speak. (Though some might argue, and I'd agree with them, that the 30s and the 90s were pretty definite from the start - and of course with the change of the millennium, the 00s have been fairly separate as well.) Being caught between two sides is far more the usual in these '0' years, and 1960 is no exception, and this song, which I expected from its title to be fairly straightforward, fits right in.

"A Voice In The Wilderness": it comes from the Bible, to be sure. But it also comes from a movie called Expresso Bongo and already you can sense something's up. The song starts out in a descending and vaguely sultry way (I can't help but think of Hank Marvin in this manner, especially after seeing a certain cover of his), and then the heartaches begin - his heart is heavy, his arms are blue, he is all alone thinking of you - you the girl who has left him in what can only be called 'lover's quarrel' circumstances. Except this may be more than just a quarrel...

"Have faith in your darling, the voice seemed to say
Be true to her memory, she'll come back one day
And though there was no-one, nobody to see
A voice in the wilderness brought comfort to me"

How odd that someone who is missing someone isn't either looking for her or being consoled by an actual human being, or even a dog. This voice is, by the way, "the voice of true love" so at least he's not, well, crazy; but the phrase "her memory" made me think of how maybe in this quarrel he was more than just "unkind"; maybe this quarrel led to the poor girl's death. I see Cliff sitting in an empty room, desperate with loneliness, not unlike Heathcliff (who he would portray on stage in the 90s), blank with grief and arrogant with heavenly consolation. She will come back, she will; in a song I don't get to write about directly so I'll have to mention it here. Meanwhile the song's sultry despair and late-night aura carry on, and Cliff is happy to wait and be attended on by...somebody.

(I should also note at this time Cliff realized he could have a girlfriend or he could have lots of female fans. Being ever-industrious, he chose his fans, a choice he has yet to reverse.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Singin' Thistle: Lonnie Donegan: "The Battle of New Orleans"

It is with a little trepidation that I arrive at the end of the 50s; a simple, swell time was mostly had by all and while not everything was, shall we say, pleasant, it is without doubt the decade that has had the most nostalgia attached to it of the 20th century.

History has a longer memory than that, though, and it is weirdly fitting that the last song I write about for this decade looks back to the War of 1812, to its last great fight, the Battle of New Orleans. I say fitting as it was a war between the British and the Americans (with the not-quite-a-nation-just-yet Canada haplessly in the middle, though perhaps not so much as hapless as stuck) - the UK charts were beginning to look like a war between these same two foes, songs being covered here and there, homegrown stars such as Cliff and Marty and Adam (I will get to him, dear readers) doing battle with Yankee ne'er-do-wells, with what I can only call interesting results. (Indeed, the results of this war will only become apparent once a certain band emerges, but that's not for two long years yet.)

Stepping smartly into this field of battle was one Lonnie Donegan - yes, the skiffle fad was over but nothing could keep Lonnie from having hits (indeed I can imagine nothing could keep Lonnie from music, period). His "The Battle of New Orleans" has a certain...something to it though that is different from the original song by American Johnny Horton. Whereas Horton is ornery and military and almost makes you wish you were there, Donegan's version is...well this is his spoken intro in part:

"This is a song about a fit between Yankees and them there English which the British came off rather ignominiously...because they never done no good no how, ciao."

He then relates the tale of the "Bloomin' British" and how they were defeated by the Americans with what I can only call great relish. As a Scotsman he has every right to sing about the English defeat this way, and evidently enough British people in general seemed to think it only fair, more than tolerating his 'ha hiddle-dee-dee's and maybe being a little distracted by Joe Meek's production (yes, we are back to him again), which takes this stern march and makes it more into a dub reggae skank about wily natives showing up the supposedly better opposition. (Sadly I won't be getting back to Scotland for a while here, but when I do it will be with someone who surely knew Donegan's work by heart.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Friendly Forebear #1: Marty Wilde: "A Teenager In Love"

We are now in the summer of '59; the last summer of the 50s and a time when the charts were very slow...and also the time when the UK started to have its own idols battling for the hearts (and pocketbooks) of those new creatures, teenagers. They were powerful (so many of them!) and yet powerless; brave enough to fall in love, to cry, to sigh...and understandably myopic enough to have a song boldly empathize with their sometimes sorry plight. Being in love is hard work, Pomus and Shuman remind us, but the narrator in question is loyal and true, long-suffering and ultimately philosophical.

Why must he be in love? Is it to fight and make up, only to fight again? To learn to be more forgiving, perhaps? Love here is one big starry-eyed existentialist ordeal, and while Dion and the Belmonts* do a more than fine version of this song, Wilde's version is about as close to New Pop as the song could possibly get; his is the right proper way of saying all at once "this is a fine life alright, being a teenager, SIGH" and "you know this song is sort of meta, right?" His performance of this practically gives this away, his minimalism as striking as anything coming out of Swedish furniture design at the time. He makes Cliff look like the earnest worker bee that he was (and is). It should be no surprise, then, that Wilde is a literal father to New Pop (via his son Ricky and daughter Kim) as well as a friendly forebear of it here, looking like a cross between Edwyn Collins and Martin Fry, just barely moving and yet saying it all, just as teenagers always want to do.

*If anyone was wondering if I was able to fully appreciate the work of Phil Spector, well, I do! And not just for his work with girl groups, either. In 1975 he produced Dion's tremendously awesomesauce Born to Be With You, which deserves more praise and attention (such as it gets here).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Father Is The Child To The Man: The Teddy Bears: "To Know Him Is To Love Him"

To write about some people takes a certain amount of guts. To write about Phil Spector (this is the first entry where he appears; I'm sure it's one of several, in various ways) is to look right into the eyes of death, of violent death, from the beginning unto the end. I can't flinch, I can't not know where this story ends; the best I can do is start at the start, at his first hit record, which was #2 here and #1 in the U.S.

It is an eerie song; in some ways the scariest love song I have ever heard - inspired by the inscription on his father's gravestone, in fact. (Spector's father killed himself when young Harvey Philip was a child.) The Teddy Bears (the poignance of that name says a lot no matter how you look at it) were Phil Spector, Marshall Leib, Annette Kleinbard, with Sandy Nelson on the drums - all went to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, so this is a teenage record that is mournful and loving and nearly scary. (In the U.S. the previous #1 was "Tom Dooley," which is also a song about death...) Leib and Spector hum and harmonize in the background while Klienbard's sweet and sincere voice sings about her longing to be beside him, how his smile makes her life worthwhile, and then this line pierces through:

"Some day he will see that he that he was meant for me, oh"

and that see is a high note of such open pain and profound loss that you know she really is hung up on this boy; or that the near-man is taking his grief and changing it to be a pop song because that is the way forward for him. (The utter loyalty and dismay in this song are deep and I think only Elvis could have approached Kleinbard's ability to get them across.) I sometimes have wondered if this isn't also a plea from Spector to the world to love him, to respect him; that no matter how big a song can be, no matter how intense, it cannot in the end fill whatever hole was created. That the Teddy Bears had a transatlantic hit and yet saw almost no money from it compelled Spector to become much more ambitious and controlling than perhaps he would have been; so this is the head (or tail) of a snake that needs some pondering. It is a lovely song, but at what costs?