Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Choice Is Yours: Del Shannon: "Swiss Maid"

As it sometimes happens, there are strange and lovely things to be found in the most unexpected places, places that seem almost innocuous, at first...

So here we are, after a couple of sweaty dances, bumping along in a thump-a-thump way through Switzerland. "One time, a long time ago" a young woman sits/stands atop a mountain and wonders and waits for someone to notice her - her father tells her one day she'll go down to the valley and meet someone; but instead she ups and dies unhappy, pining her heart out. A simple enough story, save for the ending...

And this is where the figurative floor of the swimming pool, if we are walking along it, slips; we are floating; we are still in water, still upright, but the floor of the song is gone...

And it's all because Del (covering a Roger Miller song here, btw), after causing us listeners to care about a fictional woman's death as only he can, sings...

"If she did or not I really don't know...I'd rather think she'd found her love, wouldn't you rather think she did find love, somewhere, someway..."

And thus the fourth wall is not just acknowledged but the regular way of telling a story in a song is casually and deliberately broken down. To say this is extraordinary is putting it mildly; suddenly to turn to his audience and ask them to think of this woman and her story and think of it differently, to in essence ask them to write their own ending - these are not exactly new in storytelling, but it nevertheless feels as if something new - postmodernism? - is in the air. Del's clear compassion for this lonely girl (oddly emphasized by all the girls yodelling behind him) makes us agree with him - it would be better if somehow she had met someone, gone to the valley and found her man.

When I first heard this song it just sounded strange; but this is the point - before I expected it - that a song can in effect double up against itself, that the imaginative power of the songwriter opens up to include his audience. It is practically an invitation for others to write their own songs, which is the big difference in the 60s. And it starts here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Free For All: Chris Montez: "Let's Dance"

It is usual that in crisis, there are two responses; flight or fight. But what to do after? Or, rather, what to do if there is no actual sane response? What if the problem is so big as to be out of your control? What if you're a kid, it's 1962 and the adults are all huffing and puffing about something that may well be a problem, but even you, as a kid, can see there is nothing concrete to be done? The only sane thing to do, then, is dance.

Dancing may seem absurd, at first*, but it's not too far-fetched to say that periodically there are songs that assert that the only thing to do is dance - or as Lady Gaga (one of the many direct descendants from this song) sings, "Just dance, gonna be okay." Dance is an assertion of the continuation of life in the face of chaos there - but Chris Montez, however, isn't even that worried; he wants to dance with a girl - he doesn't really care what it is they dance to, how they dance - it's just pure instinct. Other songs that take their cue include this one, which doesn't even mention dancing, as such, but it's the beat, it's the "Round and round and round - Whoooooooooo!" defiance that can be traced right back to the "Oh wail!" of Montez and his delightfully chirpy organ bopping along top the steady (dare I say...primal?) beat. (This garage classic is also a direct descendant, obviously; I could go on...)

The feeling that the world could very well end doesn't really apply to this song; but the general sense that it's the end of something...and the beginning of something else can be seen in the chart itself, where a certain quartet of young men sit unobtrusively, for now; and in a short while I will be visiting the NME chart to talk about a song so stunning that it opened the ears of anyone who heard it.

(I should also add that after this huge hit Montez - unlike Little Eva - was encouraged by his label to go and get a college education; having done so, he returned to music and has been making music ever since, in both English and his native Spanish; clearly some are more lucky than others in the music business, and in the early 60s the artistic side of music - of regarding pop as art - was not necessarily a view shared by all.)

*I have nothing to back this up, but I think dance and music grew up together and were the first arts, beyond cooking, of course.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

If You Get The Notion: Little Eva: "The Locomotion"

In the fall of 1962 the world was at a crisis point; it in just such circumstances that people either take music very, very seriously or throw themselves into one craze or another, if only to distract themselves for a few moments from what is actually taking place. Enter one young girl, a babysitter who could sing, who was fortunate enough to work for two young songwriters at the Brill Building; add also a new dance craze (so new it was actually created by the song, which somehow I think is a first) and lots of oohing and hand clapping and horns like trains in the back and here you have it - "The Locomotion". If only music was as simple as that! But the more I think about it, the more I find here - not just another song signifying the innocent US swinging and chugging towards (possible) oblivion - but the start of something big.

This is the first song in this blog both sung and (co-)written by a woman, and also therefore represents the tip of the rather large iceberg known as the Girl Groups, a phenomenon that sadly I hardly get to write about here, as much as I love it. (Can anyone vouch for the greatness of this box set? I intend to get it, now that we live somewhere big enough to store it.) After the big titan men of rock seemingly disappeared, it was in part these girls who kept it all going, Little Eva included. As unlikely as it seems, not is this song the historical first for women for this blog, but in its own way as a kind of...civil rights song. Not an anthem, maybe, but you don't call someone Little Eva and have her sing about (underground) railroad trains without some forethought - and there is something powerful in this song, a kind of "Let's make a chain NOW!" exuberance and vitality that doesn't just speak to the dance floor but to something in US/UK culture; a need to distract yourself by choo-chooing away, maybe, but also a sense that a release of energy is in itself energizing.

It is not just a commonplace to note that the 50s were a time of pent-up feelings and notions and that the 60s gradually saw a lot of the formality of the 50s evaporate - you can hear it happening here, a song heard 'round the world as tensions grew more and more. That it was a babysitter who sang this call to rise and march (as I interpret it, anyway) is amazing - having been a nanny myself once, I can only imagine the gulf between her old life and new one, not that she got to sing for so long. But as vital as this song is, Little Eva is immortal, a warm, encouraging voice in the impending nuclear darkness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Homage to the Killer: Cliff Richard and The Shadows: "It'll Be Me"

There is (by this time) something of a tradition building in the UK pop culture of UK artists covering songs by US artists who but for reasons of, oh, extreme notoriety the US artist can't tour the UK, and so hey presto, there's a UK hit from nowhere, seemingly, and thus I only get to mention the last man standing (as of mid-March 2011), aka Jerry Lee Lewis. Yes, nice clean-cut young men do well from a man who does, so to speak, not so well; this looks dubious at first but the song more than stands up as, amazingly, an engaging and warm thumbs-up tribute to the Killer himself. (Lewis had a hit in the charts at this time with the perhaps-not-too-well-thought-out "Sweet Little Sixteen.") Richard and the Shadows sound as if they are digging into a good square meal, Richard in particular getting extra satisfaction by doing his best Lewis impersonation/homage and the song itself is a joy, the man searching for the woman in her sugar bowl, on her fishing hook, on Mars - there is not a hint of desperation or stalkerishness about him, he is just a big friendly guy who wants a certain girl's attention. Considering the hapless passivity of Cliff's last appearance here, it is good to hear him up and happy again (as he almost always is with the Shadows) and giving Lewis his due when the man needed a few friends. (Though I am sure he would have preferred to have the hit himself - it was, however, the b-side to "Great Balls of Fire" so that wasn't to be.)

I should also note that it was - once again, fact fans - Elvis who kept Cliff and the Shadows from getting to number one; also that by the time I get back to Cliff, things in pop will be very different - the scene he plays a part in now, where singers sing and songwriters write and only here and there do they overlap (hello, Brill Building) will not be long for this world; the UK covers of US hits will alas continue, but as the Cuban Missile Crisis begins, another crisis also takes hold - one that crops up on a near solar spots-basis in pop - what happens when the charts get stale? What is the point where things change? They are about to change with the next entry, one that comes from the most unlikely of singers, and it goes on from there.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Cheery Quiet: Bobby Darin: "Things"

The last time we heard from Mr. Darin (and how long ago does that seem now?), he was inviting us all to join him up a lazy river; he pounced and trounced and played with the song like a lion cub. He still has that "he's got savoir-faire because he's debonair" about him here, but note the differences; he has written this song himself. And he sits by his window, watching other couples go by.* He sees them cuddle and laugh and then remembers what they did; walking, kissing, going out and just hanging out listening to the jukebox and - most importantly - remembering 'the night we cried.' The song ambles along in a pop-country way, girls in the back singing as if they themselves are just mere representatives of her, the one he lost, the one causing him such heartaches.

The whole song is like a jaunty walk and smile, the person saying they are fine when really deep down they aren't; it is also yet another song wherein introspection (all he has to talk to are his own heartaches and they are, presumably, quite vocal) is starting to creep into the story - notice how here he doesn't even have a picture of the woman in question. But what happened on that night when they cried? Was it something to do with their lovers' vow? I feel that with song that the intensity of the 60s has just increased by that much, the cheery optimist still only just winning out over the profound void of being by oneself in total quiet. (One of the most important songs of the 60s, I feel - at least in this vein - comes along about a year from now, released as a b-side in the U.S. only, and it takes all of pop to a different place; a place that I would say culminates in Manchester in the late 70s.) If you compare these two songs, you can see how swiftly the 60s evolve and how the pressure to be not just good but great was already building up; also how the Rat Pack/Mad Men era was starting to slowly change despite itself, how showbiz was turning slowly from one thing into something else altogether. Mr. Darin smiles, stares out the window and resists crying - for now.

*For those of you who know the number two list already, there is another one that starts with this same premise but takes it to a different and radical conclusion. That's not for a few years yet, though.