Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Osmondmania: Little Jimmy: "Tweedle Dee," The Osmonds: "Let Me In," Marie: "Paper Roses," Donny and Marie: "I'm Leaving It (All) Up To You"

There are few phenomenons so closely linked to the 70s that have fallen quite solidly into The Void as the Osmondmania that gripped the globe in the first half of that nostalgic decade.  And in hearing all these songs, that is what strikes me most - we are technically in the '73-'74 period, but the Osmonds are going backwards. 

The group, as you know, were first discovered at Disneyland after having been rejected from the Lawrence Welk show; they worked for and with Disney for a while, and then were on the Andy Williams show for a few years.  Then Mike Curb came along and saw potential in them beyond mere harmony singing; he booked them in at Muscle Shoals in the fall of '70, where Rick Hall figured out how to make their sound a lot more contemporary.  It worked:  "One Bad Apple" was recorded there and went to #1 in the US, and Osmondmania was born.

Osmondmania spread around the globe, striking particularly hard in the UK; by this time, the spring of '73, it was a genuine mania, with seemingly any family member able to get a big hit...even Little Jimmy Osmond, who is about to turn ten and does stuff that is...well...cute.  I think the whole point of Little Jimmy was to be cute, although some might just think of him as bothersome or even a cause for minor despair.  The Osmonds were and are an industrious bunch and they all had to do something;  if growling and singing like a miniature Jimmy Durante (the song is from 1954) was going to charm the grannies in Arbroath, well, so be it.  (It wasn't a hit in the US, however; such rinky-dinkism was where the line was drawn, so to speak.)  It got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, as a follow up to his also rather unnecessary but popular "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool" got to #1, earlier this year. 

The smooth sound of the Osmonds - such a toothy and together family, four square and utterly undisturbing or threatening - was just what girls wanted; I was far too young to know about them at the time, so their appeal isn't really something I can understand, save for there will always be nice boys for good and not-so-good girls to go utterly crazy over, and the Osmonds were those boys at this time.  (They were rivals with the Partridge Family, specifically David Cassidy, about now, as we shall see.)  "Let Me In" is a song that the band wrote itself for their progressive rock album The Plan; by now they were ambitious enough to want to join the ranks of Yes, Pink Floyd etc. and while it may indeed be a head trip, this song sounds anything but far-out; it is a very typical love song, with Merrill doing the lead vocals and the rest coming in for a warm, gentle barbershop-ish harmony.  It screams "I'm a nice guy and you don't have to worry with me, oh please love me" that would of course have girls flocking to their local record emporium to buy the single, if not the album.  (The Plan was a hit of course, though it too has fallen into The Void; I doubt if Radio 2 will ever have a show featuring it as a 'classic' album.)  "Let Me In" was #2 behind...the older and more introspective David Cassidy, who did get a number one album as well (Dreams Are Nothin' More Than Wishes) and whose own fanatical fans would overwhelm him; the Osmonds had power and faith in numbers that got them through some utterly insane times.  (How insane?  Girls tried to mail themselves to the Osmonds.) 

In the midst of all this boyband hysteria came Marie Osmond; the second-youngest and still just thirteen when she recorded "Paper Roses" - a song of maturity and knowledge, a song of disappointment, that maybe other girls...understood?  I am always wary of songs of such world-weariness being sung by girls who probably haven't even had a boyfriend yet, but here we are, it's the 70s and a girl born in 1959 is singing a song from 1960, originally a hit for well-known-for-many-things Anita Bryant.  Seeing her do it, made up to look a lot older than her age, makes me wonder just who did buy this, beyond country fans, Osmond maniacs and...?

By now, it must have seemed to the UK public that the Osmonds would not go away, would never in fact stop having hits; and I am sure those ideas filled some with happiness and others with angst.  However, there is only one more #2 hit for the family to discuss here; and that is the even more confusing/disturbing "I'm Leaving It (All) Up To You" - a hit for Donny and Marie in '74.  It's disturbing because...are a brother and sister supposed to be singing a song like this to each other?  And to those who remember the song from 1963, when it was a #1 in the US...well, it was #1 just before the Kennedy assassination*.  There is something odd in bringing back these memories, though I imagine most of the girls buying this single had no idea about its first sorry fate. 

I think you can see, dear readers, that apart from their own works the songs here are all from the pre-Beatles era; effectively, before those awful 60s happened, when things were nice and serene and uncomplicated.  An awful lot of the early 70s is caught up, one way or another, with nostalgia for this time, a time before not just The Beatles but Dylan, hippies, miniskirts, and all kinds of other moral outrages that middle America (the Osmonds are from Utah, that state where Bill Bryson, in The Lost Continent, finds his utopian nice USA town, or comes closest to it) never had much time for**.  The Osmonds are miles away from any genderbending glam platform progress, and yet were just as popular during the Glam Slam era, causing hordes of female fans to scream so loud that they had to play louder than anybody outside of The Who to be heard.  But the screaming pretty much ended in '75 for The Osmonds; Donny and Marie had a variety tv show starting in '76 and the rest worked on the show with them, behind the scenes. 

That so many girls and guys loved the Osmonds and that they have effectively been written out of UK pop radio (save for chart countdown shows) is a shame; they were the well-scrubbed conservative face of US pop, to be sure, but they were just as much part of this time as anyone; and nowadays it is Glam that gets the respect and museum exhibitions, while the nice Osmonds, with their Mormon concept album and puppy-doggish charms are consigned to the "you had to be there" whitebread nostalgia corner, alongside the Patridge Family and so on.  But it's hard to feel too much nostalgia for songs that were themselves covers of songs from before things got messy.  I can sense the UK's lasting preference for Glam over the US family-style pop is due to Glam's being British and therefore tough and ridiculous and ironic - and in effect more masculine, as opposed to the sweet feminine "girly" US pop of the time.  And I can imagine girls waiting for the Osmonds to appear on TOTP, just as the guys were waiting for...well...you know...

Next up:  popcorn double feature.                 

*And it's not just these songs; think of Donny's solo hits, all of them from the early 60s/50s, from "Young Love" to "The Twelfth of Never."  I have no idea if these songs were picked for their nostalgia factor, or just because Donny could sing them.  The Osmonds were a kind of smiley-face-button of pop, albeit one that tugged heartstrings pretty mercilessly, particularly ones of young girls. 

**Dale and Grace were in Dallas that day, young and in love with a number one single, and a few moments after having waved to the President & First Lady everything changed; radio went silent for days, their single was obviously no longer popular, and they broke up a few months later, instantly outdated by the arrival of The Beatles.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Here Comes Everybody: T. Rex: "20th Century Boy"

Lately I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, and in it he discusses how girls respond differently than music in their fandom than boys; that girls, fickle as they can be, are hugely loyal to artists and bands they love – that love, even if slightly ironized by time, never really goes away.  (This kind of love can verge on the possessive; certainly in the 50s and 60s it did.)  Sheffield’s book concerns itself with the 80s, so I have no idea how loyal T. Rex’s female fans were, or even if they had many female fans – I am guessing they did, or how else would “Trextasy” happen?  If fandom is like an addiction - it needs new singles all the time to feed it and keep it going – then this was the last ecstatic song, one that was rock enough for the boys (more on them in a minute) and feline enough for the girls.  (Of course, many girls were caught up in this time in the David vs. Donny brouhaha, and I will be addressing the latter’s whole family in the next entry.) 

“I walk like a rat, crawl like a cat, sting like a bee*” he claims, and while I am not sure any girl would be interested in someone even remotely like a rat, but there is such swagger in the song that it doesn’t matter; the growling guitar announces itself immediately, and the band and backing singers (including a very audible Gloria Jones) make a wall of noise that could break down anyone’s resistance.  Is he trying too hard?  It can seem that way (to those who prefer the more laidback T.Rex of yore) but this is not a song that could be done with subtlety.  Who the friends are who are saying “it’s just like Robin Hood” are or just what is like Robin Hood is beyond me – and doesn’t it sound like he’s saying “rock ‘n’ roll” almost, instead?  This is about as pagan as Bolan gets here – after all, the song is about the 20th century, it’s about being a “toy”** - an object of fun and desire, created for mischief (maybe this is where Robin Hood fits in).  If he is screaming at the end, he ends it by drawling the lyrics, as if he is Elvis and for sure this time he’ll get to the top spot…only to be confounded by little girls who want a nice ballad on one hand, and boys who want to make noise on the other.  (This was an NME #2.)  But the older girls needed that pure adrenaline wave of a hit, and this song - which is like an essence of T. Rex - was more than enough, for now... 

But the boys who were his fans were loyal, perhaps more loyal than the girls; an amazing number of them went on to form bands, as if imprinted by Bolan at some important stage in their development.  What they went on to do varied from Goth (Peter Murphy) to Socialist Pop (Dr. Robert), from Stadium Rock (U2) to Indie Subversives (Mark E. Smith, Johnny Marr) to Punk itself (practically everyone).  Glam was a movement as such, but there always has to be a heart of a movement, someone who can appeal to girls and boys, who can epitomize what it’s all about – and this song for me is at the center of it all, of the whole Glam Slam. 

Serious, funny, sexy – this song has been covered all over the place, even by good ol’ 80s Canadian band Chalk Circle, a band who were usually quite serious but here they cut loose - well, as loose as they were ever going to get.  Even if you make fun of the whole rock ‘n’ roll concept (and Chalk Circle certainly know this is an Elvis song, through and through) it’s still an effortless song, with the kind of swagger that can be heard right down to Suede and Oasis. 
But for now this is one for the girls; even if they’re not screaming anymore, this song was theirs once too, and not just the dreamy boys who would go on to make a very different noise to come.

Next up:  just a normal family from Utah, that’s all.
*Or is it “Crawl like a rat, talk like a cat”?  That’s what I think he’s singing, but since he switches it around, I’m not sure. 
**I just realized what this song is leading to, but we won’t get to that song for some time.  That song was at the center of a whole other movement, which I will be discussing in a while over at Then Play Long.