Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Escalator To Transcendence: Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel" pt. 2

With this list of number two UK singles, there are a few that I call ‘oppositional’ singles; which is to say, they stand far away – in opposition – to the number one song. The number one song for “Heartbreak Hotel” is “I’ll Be Home” by Pat Boone – a song that I’m sure has its merits (I haven’t heard it yet) – but there is no way it is anything like Elvis, either in style or performance. Indeed, looking at the chart, it’s clear that there is everyone else…and then there’s Elvis. (I am also aware that his first try in the charts, “Blue Suede Shoes,” only made it to #9 – Carl Perkins’ original version got to #10, making their friendly contest a draw, which is about right.) So clearly there were those who preferred the good-boy sentiments of Boone in the UK (in the US it only got to #6, tellingly), but there were those clearly caught up in Elvis, without the benefit of seeing him on tv – just by mere photos of him, and hearing the song. The UK’s…oppositional…attitude towards Elvis (as opposed to the US’ reaction, which was to have him at #1 for a very long time indeed) could be due to lack of tv exposure – it is, from this distance, hard to know, but I would guess his roughness (the guitar with a twine strap; the sense that he is enjoying himself and likes to dance) might have caused more than a few English girls to uncontrollably scream as well.

In any case, Elvis has arrived. He has, so to speak, entered the MSBWT building and will be here for a good long time, though there will be times when he seems to be absent. I say seems because, like it or not, Elvis was a prototype, not to mention an inspiration, to just about everyone who wanted something a little bit more raw than the polished and likable and grown-up perfomers we have met so far. Elvis was all of twenty-one when he recorded this (to give some perspective, performers who are twenty-one as of this writing include Joss Stone, Kate Nash and Hilary Duff – with Rihanna coming around the bend) and his youth and style brought an undoubted wave of freshness to the scene. (Not long after him, Gene Vincent comes back to the chart, and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Little Richard also begin to chart.)

But to the song!

It is stark and dirty. The hotel in question is dark, illuminated only by the barest of lightbulbs and staffed by the most miserable and indeed funereal of attendants. And yet the song is not a lament. He is miserable and lonely (so lonely he could die: hello, Burt Bacharach, hello Morrissey) and yet he is not alone – how could he be? – and if she – the Other – becomes heartbroken, well, she knows where to go. Where to find him. They can be together in their misery…

…which isn’t really too miserable, as it sounds more like pouting, sexy misery, like an audible James Dean. Elvis was a good boy, but he looked and sounded bad. As if he wasn’t always what society or The Man wanted him to be, that his rebellion was in that he was always himself, twisting and jerking and Buh-Bay-Being for fun. How dare a man shake and show passion? How dare a man inhabit the song as he does, taking his loneliness and throwing it in the listeners’ faces? (He sounds as if he enjoys being miserable, even as he is miserable; hello, David Gedge and hello emo, for that matter.) The piano tinkles and the stand-up bass thumps, the guitar solo is stark and hardcore and not at all interested in being pretty. Elvis’ voice is handsome, as handsome as he is; and I cannot leave out the fact that he is from the South, the poor-grew-up-in-a-shack South that is an exotic plus for any UK listeners. Put plainly, everything here is different and confusing and there are no choirs or string sections or messages of genial consolation. The world is a dark, lonely and unhappy place, Elvis says; but everything else implies that this can be overcome, even mined for its own kind of gold.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Escalator To Transcendence: Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel" pt. 1

“Walk with me.” – Levi Stubbs, “Still Waters”

If you want to, come with me down my street. It’s not a long walk; you can see the destination just by looking east: the HMV Superstore on Yonge St. in Toronto. The walk takes us past the charmingly named World’s Biggest Bookstore (it’s a big place, but not the biggest) and to Yonge St., where we have to walk north a little to cross the street at Gould. Having crossed, and walked past the fashionable clothes shop and a Belgian waffle nook, the warm smell of maple syrup pouring out – we walk into HMV, the doors automatically opening…

The ground floor is almost all devoted to dvds; there are cds, of course, but they are stashed here and there, the new ones up front at the heads of aisles, and the chart cds and a few more ‘obscure’ new releases on the left-hand wall. The inevitable 2/20 and 2/25 cds are here, but not much else…

So we go up the escalator (yes there is an elevator, but you have to know where it is, in the back) up to where the cds actually are. Again there are aisles; and at the heads of the aisles, various new releases are displayed in a vaguely thematic way. The Rock/Pop section is right here. To the right, if you walk only a few meters, and down a step or two, is the Urban section, which goes from Gospel to R&B, Electronica to Reggae and World Music, with an island, so to speak, of Hip Hop right there in front of you as you walk in…

…if you turn around and go back to the Rock/Pop section and hang a left, you’ll walk around to the Heavy Metal/Industrial/Goth/Punk area, not far away from the magazine section; and around the corner are rock/pop dvds, but we aren’t interested in them and so go up another escalator to…

Face the classical room – not of interest to us today – and so we go into the right-hand door to find Easy Listening, Movie/Broadway/TV soundtracks/compilations, Francophone (music from Quebec & France)…and going around the corner there’s Blues, Jazz, Folk and Country, taking us back to the other side, right by the exit/entrance where there’s a water cooler, where we can have a little pause before deciding what, if anything, to buy.

The regular guy/gal who comes into the store is no doubt aware of the layout, but (depending on how narrow his/her tastes are) they may never go to certain areas, or even certain floors. Each large section has its own music, which you only hear if you are in said area (there is some overlapping of course, but not much) – and you may as well know that this was my usual route to wandering around almost every time I went in, especially if I felt like buying something but had no idea what it was I was going to get (an exhausting process, at times, thus the very necessary water cooler stop).

I would like to think that if I was with a certain elderly gentleman – the subject I will write about more directly in my next posting – that he would happily tag along with me, if of course he was alive. Elvis was a musical omnivore; in as much as he grew up immersing himself in whatever he could either hear in person or on the radio. Nothing wasn’t of some interest, from Dean Martin to gospel, folk to blues, country to Sinatra. It was all of a piece to him – it was, quite simply, music. The idea of a ‘monoculture’ would not have made much sense to him, simply because ‘polyculture’ was where he was at. (As the woman in the 70s commercial used to say loudly – “Abundanza!”) He might even agree with me that even this Superstore didn’t have enough; as exhausting as it can be, you really cannot have enough music if you really love it. My childhood and Elvis’ were vastly different, to say the least, but I grew up in a household were music wasn’t just background but foreground – a profound, if invisible, expression of life itself.

Certainly, you cannot forget that music is a business in a place so full of sales and specials and deluxe this-and-thats, but music has a freeing quality and any barriers you find in it (besides those of geography and time itself) are artificial and worth tearing down or ignoring altogether. Elvis’ casual disregard for these barriers wasn’t his alone – many other musicans had it before him, primarily in jazz – but in the static world of the UK charts of 1956, it was new.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It Came From The Basement: Lonnie Donegan: "Lost John/Stewball"

If the previous entry had a woman at its centre – sitting late at night by herself, listening to a record – then here we have a different venue and a different attitude. At momentous times like this, it’s good to look at the surroundings and see what is up.

The charts look like they are not just at a crossroads, but are at a place where two rivers meet. It is dangerous, I feel, to say that the one river is more ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ than the other; there is only so much credit I can give for ‘authenticity’ or ‘purist’ qualities, these being at the very heart of music which may well be good, but which lacks a vital something – you might call it punctum – once it exhausts whatever innate qualities it has.

That is why the transatlanticism (thank you, whoever coined that word) of 50s music matters so much. Already on this blog there have been many US as well as UK artists; any idea that Americans suddenly ‘invaded’ the UK charts with rock ‘n’ roll must be put aside. As an American myself, I find it strange to read the story of Lonnie Donegan reviving a fairly casual and homey music – skiffle – and being so successful; but it is often in the strange that something new can happen. Much has been made of Donegan’s being from the UK and making simple, direct and easily playable music as being a cornerstone of what is to come; but staying in the here and now (June 1956), a great deal is happening, and “Lost John/Stewball” (songs about a prisoner and a racehorse) has gone up the charts, amidst movie themes, instrumentals and a song improbably called “Rock and Roll Waltz” – a clear indicator that this new thing is at least worth a dance, even if said dance is all wrong. (Just as “Rock Around The Clock” is described as a ‘foxtrot’ to those unable to jive and swing.) Lonnie’s woebegone narratives, delivered with a voice like cheery 5th grade teacher who wants the whole class to join in (and thus, they do) are not aimed at those who know dances, or have aspirations to sing with full orchestras. It is fairly clear that the teenager (that now no-longer mythical creature, if s/he ever was) is starting to buy singles and hang out in clubs like The Two Is and others where skiffle is played. Acoustic guitars are bought; bands are formed; but this has yet to happen. Lonnie Donegan has his foot in the door and a young man – even younger than Lonnie – is about to rip the door down altogether.

(Let me now also pause and note that Donegan is from Glasgow, Brewer is American, and how nice it s to have them together, just as Marcello and I will soon be together in London.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Teardrop Explodes: Teresa Brewer: "A Tear Fell"

The scene is set: the young woman is still in her party dress (something with tulle and and a big skirt, in a color between drab and vibrant) and is sitting in a chair, slumped a little, looking into space. She has recently been unceremoniously dumped by a man she thought was ‘the one’ and has in fact been out to see who he was with at the dance, in a move somewhere between masochism and vain bravery. She stood there watching him, crying large teardrops, teardrops that fell on the floor and that he danced on, as he swirled with his new girl, fixated on her and oblivious to the woman he has left behind.

The room the young woman is sitting in is so vividly colorful and yet she is so grey and lost; but the melodrama she is in is real, hyperreal. Brewer sings in a way that sounds like a crane carefully walking along, placing one leg in front of the other just so; she has her dignity, even as she sings about what a fool she is, even as the huge tears explode from her eyes, for her ex-boyfriend to dance over…

…the young woman may as well be in a cartoon; or should I say, a collage – not unlike the one Richard Hamilton made in ’56 entitled Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (I will not go so far to say that Brewer makes Bryan Ferry possible…but Original Pop songs such as this are not that far from “Don’t Stop The Dance” – the wetness there being from ‘stormy weather’ and not crying. That said, the super-sexualized figures Hamilton shows are va-va-vooming all over the place, with the big bang, so to speak, just around the corner.)

The young woman in the chair may well believe that she has to snag the right man or else; but also probably believes that the man is always right, in the end. (In her 50s memoir Manhattan, when I was young, Mary Cantwell eventually marries a man because he gives her an ultimatium – get married or break up – and instead of seeing this as a forecast of what’s to come, she gives in.) Our heroine doesn’t fight her fate but is a sad witness, full of the ingrained stoicism the average listener, but who is the average listener? And do they all experience being dumped this way?

(I should note that “A Tear Fell” was written in 1956 and immediately covered by all kinds of singers, in the UK and the US. I doubt if anyone’s version sounds so noble and precise as Brewer’s, complete with a harp glissando every time her tear falls; the young woman in the party dress as sad angel.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mythical Moments: Lou Busch And His Orchestra: "Zambezi"

There are certain moments when you know; you just know and there is no refuting it by any resource of logic or reason. It happened to a Cambridge student, and it was about to happen to a whole nation.

So far I have been following the course of number two songs on the UK charts, but this is an important moment, for many reasons. The time: late February, 1956. The place: the women's union building at Cambridge. A party is being held to launch a literary magazine, made up mostly of Cambridge grads, and it is raucous. A jazz band is playing and student and grads alike are dancing, jiving, getting drunk on the heat in the room as well as liquor. It's a warm evening, so there is a sense of winter being over, the area around the door is muddy and maybe a window or two is smashed in stress-relieving haste or fun. The Fulbright student has an escort for the night who has already taken her to a pub so she is light-headed when she shows up. She is determined to meet the man who has written poems she has already memorized, earlier in the week; she recognizes hardly anyone at the party, but gets to know who is who soon enough. She sees him, he sees her, and that is that. The student is Sylvia Plath, the grad, Ted Hughes.

It is music just like this - loud, giddy, rock without being rock, evocative of African music while being utterly American - that was at number two when Plath and Hughes met. It is happy music that is also a little silly, a little drunk, the sort of music you hear that can fade into the background if something far more important is happening, even if you are in a good mood and want to dance (as Plath did, by the way).

This song also points to what is about to happen. So far most of the songs have been sedate, polite, sophisticated and presentable to one and all. Here, things start to change. "Zambezi" may be an instrumental (I don't count the name of the song as being lyrics, as such) but it is loud and dense and roller-rink/skating rink/ice cream truck simple and repetitive. There isn't much about it that is soothing or calming. It is the first twig, so to speak, that something very big is about to happen; the winter is thawing fast, spring cannot come soon enough.

Does He Or Doesn't He?: Frank Sinatra: "(Love Is) The Tender Trap"

Here is the second song that defines what love is – and instead of the windswept romanticism of The Four Aces, we have the more worldly-wise Sinatra to sing the definition. It is a cheery, squawky and practically winking song about you-know-what – one minute you see her eyes and hear her sighs, the next you are cuddling underneath a tree and then it’s the shoes-and-rice routine before you even know it. What is love? Love is a trap – a tender one, to be sure, but a trap nevertheless. Of course, only someone who is wary of falling in love would call it a trap in the first place, and the movie where this song originates (The Tender Trap) is about a guy who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em falling for a girl who will not stand for any of his nonsense; a girl who doesn’t automatically fall at his feet, wanting to do his cleaning or cooking just to be near him. Maybe he is willing to be seduced by ‘growing up’ or is tired of playing the field (he being Sinatra of course, and the girl being Debbie Reynolds)…but in the movie, this is a song he sings to Reynolds. Ponder that for a moment. A man sings a song about how love leads to marriage and how love is a trap – boom there it is, so to speak – either as a way of defending himself against what is happening, or protesting what he thinks may happen (it would help, I know, if I saw the movie). (It's kind of like a man singing "Absolute" in '85 - or any other New Pop standard addressing the nature of love.)

At no point in the song does Sinatra sound anything more than ready for love but also knowing; without having to say so, he has seen what love can do (his best friend in the movie, David Wayne, is married, has kids and lives in Indianapolis and is therefore ‘normal’ – perhaps his friend convinces him that being settled down is worth sacrificing his freedom). Celeste Holm is the fourth major character in the movie, an ex of Sinatra’s who is thirty-three and feels she must marry now or never; Sinatra proposes to her, but whether she accepts or not remains a mystery (if anyone knows, the comments box is open). The not-so-subtle message: men can marry when they want, women have to get married when they can. (I will note that the young woman at Cambridge who is there studying on a Fulbright is now twenty-three, is determined to find a husband while in England and considers herself on the verge of being a old maid if she doesn’t.) It is all well and good to know about the trap that is love, but there is volunteering to step into it, disappearing in a dot on the map, and longing to be trapped with no one available. (Hello, foreshadowing…)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Man, The Myth, The Legend: Bill Hayes: "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"

To set things straight: his name wasn’t Davy, it was David. (The only Davy who accepts that name who could be called a living legend is one Davy Jones, who we will get to in the fullness of time.) David Crockett was from Tennessee – the greenest state if only because it was so sparsely populated. He didn’t kill a bear or a ‘bar’ when he was three, though he did demand to learn how to shoot a rifle when he was eight. He grew up in a wild part of the state where violence was the rule – skipping school and leaving home altogether to avoid being beaten – roaming as a pre-teen from town to town. He went all over his home state, learning to hunt and trap to feed himself and make money. He only returned home when he was 16, and was welcomed home by everyone, including his father. He didn’t suffer terrible Kanyesque heartbreak – though a fiancee dumped him, he eventually got married and had children, remarrying when widowed and having more. He served in the Tennessee Militia, then became a congressman, where he did nothing to seal the crack in the Liberty Bell; in fact it seems he was rather unpopular, eventually giving up, telling his constituency to go to hell, as he was going to Texas. (I can just imagine his constituents thinking, “same difference.”) Having ‘lit out’ for the west, he immediately got caught up in the Alamo, and died in still-controversial circumstances, defending a place under siege, doing what he could under probably difficult conditions.

Crockett had been all but forgotten but then a certain W. Disney decided it was time to “renew acquaintance with…cheerful, energetic and representative folk heroes” and before you knew it, there were tv shows and then the raccoon-skin caps were all the rage with kids; kids who wanted a hero and didn’t care much about accuracy. To them he really did kill a bear when he was three, he really did have his heart broken (the saddest part of the song; there is no mention of his death), and he really did seal the crack in the Liberty Bell. Crockettmania was contagious – thus its spreading to the UK, with multiple versions of the song in the charts and (for all I know) little Mancunian and London kids demanding their own caps and toy rifles.

Why such hunger for a simple and forthright figure? Was it due to his being so “robust” and uncomplicated? I don’t know. The song itself has a ridiculously memorable chorus and slower, more serious verses; Davy is a pal, Davy is loyal to his country, Davy is a citizen king. He is a folk hero who was really just a man, even in his own lifetime. Eventually we will also get to another ‘king of the wild frontier’ who also has his own mythos and real life difficulties, who is also energetic and robust; who would agree with Crockett’s own saying: “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead.”

When I'm Out In The Street I Just Feel All Right: Max Bygraves: "Meet Me On The Corner"

Courting: it’s not a word that gets used much these days, but in the 50s I can well imagine it was still the term used when a couple were getting to know each other, the one actively pursuing the other, forever needing and wanting some kind of special place and moment and above all, privacy. In a Britain that was still in utilitarian mode, where everyone (save for those who could move out and students living in residence) lived at home. (Come to think of it, even at Oxford or Cambridge there were strict rules about who could visit, and when.) Thus, the easy appeal of this song – the only way to have any real time to yourself with someone else is to – paradoxically – go out at night and meet the loved one under a lamp post, once the streets were quiet, perchance to go to the fish & chip shop, the cinema, the record store – or maybe just walk slowly down a street nearby, window-shopping and talking moonily about this and that. All the free or near-free pleasures of urban life are implied in this song, as well as freedom, at least for a short while, from home and work. Bygraves, in the break (where he sounds like a certain American we'll be hearing from soon), tries his best to sound like something else – some major smooching – might also be in store; his voice is a little too jovial to believe anything more is going to happen, and the tenor of the song implies that nothing else is expected of him, or her. Courtship is a delicate process of give and take, moments of gradual learning and compassion; none of those can really breathe unless there is a certain place and space to be yourself, free to walk and talk as you please. Not all had this freedom in ’55 (it could be the couple just meets at the corner and doesn’t go anywhere, after all), but you can sense even through the Bygraves' imperturable shield of happiness that a new generation is itching to get out and be free, in all ways.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Small Break To (Re)Introduce Some Basic Ideas

I am now going to take a wee break in the proceedings here to tidy up a few things – in short, to mention some things that have been rattling around in my mind.

One of them is to say very directly that the reason the songs on this blog don’t have marks – x number of stars, a grade, a mark out of ten – is that these songs have already been saddled (if I can put it that way) with a number. That is more than enough. When I was growing up, I read Creem magazine and I wish I’d copied out & memorized the late great Rick Johnson’s reasoning against giving out marks; he basically thought they were useless and that the writing should be the thing. I realize this goes against the numbers-obsessed world of music writing, and that grades are fun to argue about…but when I listen to a song, I am not a judge in an Olympic sense, let alone a dog show one or even one at a local fair, where pies and cakes are put into competition. Derek Bailey once was interviewed (in)famously for The Wire's Invisible Jukebox and his comments on how “recording’s fine if it wasn’t for fucking records” really hit home – his basic approval of all records on the list as okay, coupled with his greater interest in playing and messing around, put all records into perspective for me. I will be enthusiastic (none of the songs so far has really grabbed me, I’ll admit) and I will protest (I’ve done that already), but the main thing here is to look at these songs and give them some time and space in which to live, and giving them yet another number won’t help them do that.

My mentioning of New Pop has prompted me to also give notice that since I want to write a book about it, I should give it time once in a while as well, in this case, the very beginnings of any musical idea – the grounds from which it sprang, figuratively and literally. When the charts began (can it be a coincidence? Hmm) the future movers and shakers of New Pop started to be born. However, a few were born beforehand – specifically, Robin Scott, Mike Chapman (both spring of ’47), not to mention fellow producers Martin Rushent (’48) Martin Hannett (’48), Trevor Horn (’49) and the ever-wiki-elusive Alan Tarney, who was born under a rock in Adelaide some time in the early 50s. As all Smash Hits fans know, both Adam Ant and Neil Tennant were born in ’54, and Green Gartside and Phil Oakey were born in ’55…New Pop is well and truly on its way, even though most of those concerned so far are babies or children who grew up in a world before rock, but would be well-versed in both pop and rock by the time they wrote their first song or produced their first single.

The Original Thing: The Four Aces: "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing"

Having successfully avoided being stomped to death by the seemingly-endless marching chorale of Mitch Miller, let’s go, dear readers, to a place far more desirable – a high, windy and misty hill. It’s the morning, and no one is around – it is blessedly quiet and beautiful, exactly the kind of place for a lovers’ rendevous. Is the world standing still? Is the man wearing a crown of gold? When the lovers kiss the world indeed does stand still, and when fingers touch, the heart learns to live and sing.

The word ‘splendor’ comes from the Latin word for ‘shine’ – thus, love creates things that are shiny, that reflect back to the world a richer, newer and yet fragile world that may well start on that high and windy hill but also may end there, if circumstances surrounding it – such as, in the case of this novel/movie, the girl’s family – don’t agree that he (a British reporter in the book, but in the movie since he’s played by William Holden, an American one) is an acceptable, desirable mate. Obstacles to love only increase it, however – and if the love has to come to a halt, that doesn’t mean it has to come to an end. Shiny ever-new love, rare and dogged, will continue, just as nature itself does.

This song marks a first here for the list – a song that attempts to define what love ‘is’. Never before, at least in this narrow channel, has love been talked about in any direct way – lovesickness, yes, joy and contentment, sure, but not love itself. (Well okay, but 'amore' is different and what is happening here isn't falling in love, so much as being in love, particularly of the doomed-but-dogged kind.) For those of you wondering when I am going to get to New Pop and then chastising yourself for being too early – well, you’re not. It is exactly this kind of song in particular that New Pop built itself on. (It could be called Original Pop.) Granted, the cliches of love are not a new thing in late ’55, but it is the putting them into a song part that counts. What is love? It is a many-splendored thing. It has many shiny parts (some most definitely yellow), it glows and twinkles and is a power unto itself. It is the same no matter if you are in the exotic world of Hong Kong or London or Pennsylvania, where the Four Aces were from. A high, windy, grassy hill; a clear proclamation to the world; a gentle melody full of soaring notes. The hills may be alive here, but it is the feeling of love, inside and out, that matters.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sing Along, Kids: Mitch Miller: "The Yellow Rose of Texas"

There can be no doubt, by now, that the apex of the 50s has happened – because Mitch Miller, demigod of all things utterly and completely square, has appeared (some might say finally, others not) here. By ‘apex’ please do not misunderstand my meaning. If there is any orchestrator/producer/tastemaker that typifies the 50s tendency towards fussiness, soppiness, jollity (forced or no) and utter and complete safety, it is, indeed, Mr. Miller. There are probably many reasons why this song was such a hit – its repetitiveness lends towards more washerwoman/policeman whistling, its martial tone is jaunty and odd for what is ostensibly a love song; marching bands all over Texas (and beyond) must have played this in their tooting horns and shrilling pipes glory, with the drummers, as ever, in nearly brutal uniformity. That is what the record sounds like: a marching band with a male chorus singing the praises of the ‘yellow’ rose, while the women join in on the chorus, the whole thing utterly hearty and yet somehow also heartless. Is this what so many wanted? Yes. Why? I am not at all sure. How many UK buyers of this single knew that ‘yellow’ was in reference to the ‘high yellow’ skin of the black woman who is being sung about, whose story is that she either was taken or went voluntarily over to the Mexicans, to act as a distraction so the Texans could attack and win over the army? (She was with the general, or so the story goes.) Probably very few. The martial drums hint at the war, but there is no mention of the story as such, and in fact the heroine sounds like someone walking by the river (the Rio Grande?) waiting for her man to come back from Mexico, as opposed to someone being awaited.

I usually don't have much to say about these songs personally, I know; my own experience of Texas, as such, was brief - on a cross-country trip our family went through the very top part, which I recall was flat and dusty. My father (a Nebraskan) didn't like Texas or Texans in general - he bore them no ill, exactly, but he didn't think they were very bright. (I am thinking he must have formed this opinion while in the Army.) Mitch Miller was not, to put it mildly, the music he or my mother enjoyed, and in any case I was born too late to see his "Sing Along With Mitch" series of follow-the-bouncing-ball proto-karaoke episodes of cheery Americana. I was also too young to know that he had turned down Buddy Holly (a Texan, need I add) in his role as a Columbia Records producer and instead promoted Johnny Mathis. I cannot look back and not call Mr. Miller "The Man" for all his efforts to keep American music on the straight and narrow, but he certainly knew that a lot of people did too like music that was jaunty, regular and yes, easy to sing along with, by yourself or en masse. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" evades the real story of Emily West, for a more general 'we men fight for our noble women' message that was more than palatable in the Cold War; America feels its oats and goes western-crazy and the UK, always open to the 'exotic' US, follows suit. (My father died twenty years ago, but his opinion of Texans would more than likely be the same, given the current administration.) This song is everything good and bad about the 50s; in fact I am going to stretch it and say it pretty much sums up the 20th century, for the most part. Dear readers, things can only get better from here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Rest Cure: Cyril Stapleton Orchestra with Julie Dawn: "Blue Star (The Medic Theme)"

It's a weeknight, maybe Monday or Tuesday - the family has had dinner, and afterwards, the newfangled invention in the house - the television set - is turned on and warms up. The big show - or one of them, at any rate - is Medic, the first realistic show set in the world of medicine and hospitals, the forerunner of all shows to follow, from St. Elsewhere to Emergency!, ER to House. I've never seen Medic (it ran for only two seasons, 1954-56), but its general tone of calmness is something I can guess from the theme song, which sounds uncannily like the kind of pretty, restful and burbling brook of sound that a person recovering from an illness would like to hear. Led by the piano, a choir of the awed (like so many hospital well-wishers) aah-ahhs along, with the 50s-requisite string section in tow, like a Muzak Mantovani. The touch is light and caring, restful and easy. (Like ideal hospital food, it is nourishing and somewhat bland.) Then the singer comes in, singing words that are just shy of magnetic poetry, lyrics that show her complete lack of worry and loneliness, now that she has the blue star to gaze upon, a symbol as reassuring to her as other symbols are to other people. Things have been bad; they have perhaps been awful. Now that she sees the star, she can rest easy, knowing everything will be all right. A nation of exhausted people, adults all, who endured the war and the aftermath, watch as week after week, the troubled and ill are helped back to wholeness and happiness. The kids can go out to play; the adults stay in, resting and thankful that they have everything they really need – and a television set, too.

(Thanks to David Belbin for sending this to me.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Everyone's Got To Learn Sometime: Frank Sinatra: "Learning The Blues"

And here we have, at last you may (or may not) think, Sinatra. He too ran up against the implacable Slim Whitman with “Rose Marie” though whether he cared in particular, I don’t know. And also again, we have a kind of midway point – a standstill, if you will. At this time, married to Ava Gardner, Sinatra was either high or low – contemplative in his melancholy, or carefree and jolly as Zeus or perhaps a more swingin’ Santa Claus. He is in a more swingy mode here, but he is not asking his Other to fly away or go to a party or even promising his eternal & hip love. In this song, he observes, with sympathy, the misery of another person – a man who has been dumped, most likely – first he is in the diner/bar, playing the same love song (‘their’ song no doubt) over and over, getting drunk, and it’s no use; he is, according to Sinatra, learning ‘the blues’ – an odd thing to be cheery about, but it’s all sung in the sense of ‘I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, welcome to the club kid’ – as if the person who bought the record would have Frank’s own blessing to stay up nights and walk the floor, because that’s what heartbroken people do. On the other hand, it might annoy a recent dumpee to have him sing in such a cavalier way about something that is genuinely haunting and painful. The final break-up with Gardner was yet to come; I wonder what he thought of this record (or even if he could) once they were through. But in this song, he was a god looking down from his clouds at the mortal, frail man – he has learned what suffering is, and sees it and recognizes it, maybe even relishes it a little. Sadly, he will be suffering in much the same way, even worse, but that is for another time and song.

The Search For Something Real: Frankie Laine and the Mellomen: "Cool Water"

In the middle of any decade, there is always something of a lull. The first half has passed, the second half has yet to come, and the pause can either come from stagnation, culmination, nostalgia or some combination of all three. Of course, in music there is always someone, somewhere pushing things ahead, but it takes a while for that new idea or noise to make it out of the clubs or garage practices and on to a hit record. In the meantime, the chart meanders along, mini-trends pop up and disappear, while the new thing, whatever it may be, gathers forces and strength. The old, which was once exciting, is now normal, regular even, and maybe even a bit dull.

Thus, we have Frankie Laine out west once more, and this time his agony isn’t caused by The Man or a certain woman but by a simple element: water. (It is as if all his songs could be subtitled Man Vs. Something – in this case, Man Vs. Nature.) He and his mule/horse/beast of general burden Dan are out in the “barren waste” (no explanation as to why they are out there – maybe this is what happens when you don’t have a map or don’t plan ahead when you’re escaping the sheriff) looking for water to drink. There is none to be found. A mirage (something the devil causes, apparently) appears and Frankie tells Dan to ignore it, but I doubt if Dan does. (I’ve been out in the desert and mirages can appear even if you’re not thirsty; they’re a natural phenomenon.) He asks Dan if he can see the tree nearby some water, but Laine’s voice is so big and stentorian that it sounds as if he is making up said tree, or is perhaps hallucinating it – yet another mirage in the relentless dry weather. It is hard to say – the song sounds as if it has a happy ending, but with the Mellomen’s deep ‘water…water’ it sounds as if the search has almost driven the singer to desperation. Or maybe there is water, but the journey itself is far from over.

Laine sings with conviction and a real thirst in his voice; now was a time when country and western music was popular – this song didn’t get to number one because of Slim Whitman, and a few other country standards were kicking around the charts at the same time. I am not sure why this happened, though a clue could come from, of all things, post-war immigration – specifically, from Ireland to Liverpool and Manchester. The Irish have always loved their country music; add them to Scotland and you have a formidable number of people who can relate in some ways to the search for something real and satisfying, cool and clear. “Cool Water” is a song of hope above all, and determination to “carry on” despite any illusions. Things may well have been at a standstill in the UK (as opposed to the US), but something was happening underneath the country and folk that was about to emerge on record. It will take a few more entries to get to it, but it will make this song seem – well, duller than it really is.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One River Heading For The Sea: Al Hibbler: "Unchained Melody"

The room is dark. It is night. A man sits, unable to sleep, looking out the window, searching for the moon. He is alone; surrounded by so many men, he is indeed very alone.

I’ve never seen Unchained, but the movie is set in a prison in Chino, California – based on a book written by someone who worked there. The dilemma – does our main character stay in and serve his time and be guaranteed to see his wife and kids, or does he escape? At some point, perhaps as he gazes longingly out the window at night, this song plays – not this exact version, but this song. Unchained has faded into obscurity, but the song was recognized as an instant classic, nominated for an Oscar and being covered almost immediately – first as an instrumental, then by both Jimmy Young and Al Hibbler. By June of ’55, they battled for number one, Hibbler getting second place, but surviving ably as it is one of the best versions of the song (and there have been tons).

“Unchained Melody” is both named after the movie and also after the song’s structure itself – it feels a bit improvised, a bit loose, with lots of room for the singer to move and express him/herself. Certainly in the Righteous Brothers’ version there is a grandeur and longing that are practically operatic, for instance – but it is easy to take this song and simply belt it out as an expression of missing the Other and miss out on all the nuances. Those singers (such as, oh, Tom Jones for instance, and as another example, Robson & Jerome) forget that the lyrics are ‘sung’ by a man in prison. He needs his Other intensely and yet also worries that she doesn’t love him anymore or perhaps has found someone knew. He wants her to wait for him, but does she? He is beside himself to know how she feels, but he has no idea, no clue. Al Hibbler sings with some doubt but also some reassurance – as if this song is a lullaby he sings to himself to keep himself going. (Whether Hibbler's being blind from birth has anything to do with this understanding, I don't know - he sings the song with great sympathy, if I can put it that way). At the same time, it is formal enough - sweet strings, noble singing, nothing that would upset Lord Reith should he offhandedly hear it one morning. But Hibbler's "to....me" is humble and wishful, expanding the song into a prayer for anyone who has been away from anyone for too long, who is anxious to know that they are indeed loved.

If you know very well you're loved, The Goons' version is perfect, complete with a cry to "Make it fresh!" in the instrumental break. Clearly something rambunctious and impolite was heading towards the charts, as the smooth 50s gave way to something rougher and looser. But for now, Hibbler is a step forward to more open-throated singing (as opposed to Young's much more formal and British version) and the eventual appearance of r&b on the UK charts.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Sense of Fullness: David Whitfield: "Santo Natale"

It is now, amazingly, almost 1955. Much has happened; in the UK, rationing has ended and the new monarch is settling into her job. In the US, McCarthyism is on the way out and the 'fun' part of the Fifties is about to begin (in the Happy Days sense of 'fun'). The passion for all things Italian has not abated, and this song is proof - even if he didn't have to tell you it meant 'Merry Christmas', "Santo Natale" - with it bells at beginning and end, the choir of female singers who all sound as if they are wearing red velvet ball gowns and hovering around the singer like cherubs - is full of Italian passion and goodwill and is a bear hug of a song. Whitfield's tenor is high and English (as tenors go) but still dramatic and maybe even a little too rich; but then he sounds distinctly like the kind of singer who would have a career no matter what - there are women (and men) who like a good strong voice with heartfelt sentiments and a kind of vocal handsomeness, and he has those to spare. (He actually sounds as if he has to stand away from the microphone as he is so loud, but I could be wrong.) He sings not just as if he wants you personally to have as many blessings and as few troubles as possible, but as if he almost has the supernatural ability to make that happen. It also conjures up visions of a young swain singing in the street up to his beloved who is leaning out the window – the stereotypical scene of courtship from Europe – though more common in Italy, I’d imagine, than in Whitfield’s hometown of Hull. Like the previous song, this is exactly the kind of song that would be termed ‘square’ by the hipsters of the day, and I am guessing the next time a Christmas song appears here, it will be quite different.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sun Will Shine: Nat King Cole: "Smile"

And now we have the first confluence of two previous number two performers/writers - Nat King Cole and Charlie Chaplin. "Smile" was written for Modern Times and then seemingly forgotten about, and then made a hit in '54 by Cole and has been covered consistently ever since, by those you would expect (Michael Buble, Holly Cole) and those who undoubtedly took the song other places (Michael Jackson, Sun Ra).  It is the oldest song here so far, and the most-covered.

As a song it is a little sweet, but completely sympathetic, and Cole sings it with an understanding - a compassion - that makes it like an aural big hug. He knows you want to cry; he knows smiling is hard (as opposed to pretending, which is easy) and he asks you to just try to smile - even a little smile will do. If your heart is aching or breaking, if it's been cloudy for days, a smile can make everything worthwhile (cue The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, which is one of many distant relatives of this song). Cole knows, Cole has most definitely been there (again, there are ironies here of a black performer singing about smiling while your heart is broken) and Chaplin’s swoony tune gets a great deal of dignity from the gentle wisdom in Cole’s voice.

1954, of course, is the ‘official’ Last Year Before Rock in the United States (yes, I know the first ‘rock’ record was already old news, but I grew up with the constant bombardment that it all began in ’55) – and so “Smile” is also an example of a song that would go out of fashion in the US (the UK was a bit slower in this regard, due to cultural differences, not to mention the boom of a certain excitable music that is just getting started). Out of fashion because the ultimate point of rock was that if you wanted to cry, you should cry and only smile when you felt like it. (Rock as the ‘sensibility’ in Sense & Sensibility.) Young rebels in the next decade would rather be sneering, but there is a literal physical truth to what the man sings – smile and you do feel better. Ultimately, the smile you are giving to the world isn’t as important as the smile you give to yourself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Young Children Vs. The Snobs: Obernkirchen Children's Choir: "The Happy Wanderer"

I am sorry for the smallish (in the world of blogging) pause here, readers, but I am currently helping my mom redo her apartment and am busy packing up and re-packing my own things in preparation for my big move to London late this month. However this has not stopped me thinking about this song, and surprisingly there is a lot to consider, which I didn't expect.

"The Happy Wanderer" is a first in several ways for this particular parade of number twos - the first sung in another language, the first sung by children, the first one to inspire a movie, as opposed to coming out of one. It is easy to see this as a one-off, and in many ways it is, but those are all important precedents and I expect them to crop up again in various ways. The song itself is about the joys of taking a walk in nature - fresh air, blue skies, hills, pretty flowers and birds and so on. (The a-a-a-a-a part of the chorus I imagine as some hiker tiptoeing over/around something, or perhaps going down a slope he didn't expect a little faster than he would like.) It is as forthright and hearty and trailmix-crunching as you would expect a song about walking in the woods to be. The fact that it is being sung by a choir made up of German war orphans (whom Dylan Thomas called "pigtailed angels" - this being mentioned at the YouTube site) makes it a little more complex, to say the least. It's 1954, however, that odd year before so much began to be set in motion - and the world was busy renewing itself, rebuilding, repaying, and who better to act as a living bridge between once-mortal-rivals than a bunch of kids singing about the simple joys of nature?

Never mind the fact that the majority of listeners wouldn't know what they were singing about - the song itself is sung well, with passion, and the more than slight knowledge that those singing it are singing about something that they have heard about, but may or may not have experienced yet themselves. (The choir are from northern Germany; I am not sure how wild that area is, nor how much time these children got to spend in nature.) The song has become so famous (it is the backpacker's anthem) that you might think it was handed down from generation to generation of woodland-crazy Germans, but in fact it was written by the choir-leader's sister and eventually became a staple of primary schools in the UK and elsewhere in the post-war era (my husband had to sing it as a boy and did not enjoy doing so, which points to another inescapable thing - the song is fairly simple and repetitive and may well have annoyed as many people as who enjoyed it - I am willing to bet it is the first number two to hit that mark, as well).

That quality of annoying others oddly points to two examples - a little oblique, but I think they are worth mentioning. The first is an episode of The Sopranos entitled "The Happy Wanderer" wherein Tony complains to his psychotherapist about people he sees on the street who are happy, smiling, carefree - people who may have cares or worries but have genuine happiness nevertheless, unlike himself, a man who has nothing major to worry about and yet is depressed. (If I have this wrong, Sopranos fans, let me know.) I don't know what Dr. Melfi says to him, but I would say that it is folly to judge your happiness against that of others - to resent the happiness of others in particular is cruel and unforgiving. Also rather snobby, which is a word I would apply to one Madonna, who not too long ago tried to get people to stop hikers from crossing her land – land that presumably had well-worn paths crossing it already – as if those treading it cared whose estate was nearby, and were probably birdwatching, not Madonna-hunting.  In contrast to these two examples, the British public were warm and welcoming to this choir (who debuted at a festival in Wales) who were bringing their own happiness to the world.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Golf Meets Pizza: Dean Martin: "That's Amore"

And now, all of a sudden, we are out of 1953 and into 1954 and the second number two song that is from a movie - The Caddy, a Martin and Lewis golfing comedy that was (presumably) a hit, though that movie was set in the green country clubs of the US and not in 'old Napoli' where the heart of the song resides. By now it might seem a little cloying, clich├ęd, cheesy even - mandolins, a small chorus of men and women, and Martin himself gliding along the words like a bird riding a thermal, effortlessly cool and winking along.

At first I thought this was a traditional song, but in fact it was written for the movie and its references to 'pizza pie' and 'pastafazool' show several things - the food of Italy was known well enough in the US and the UK to be understood (perhaps more so in the US, but the flood of Italian immigrants to the UK in the 50s cannot be forgotten) and also considered hip and fashionable. As Italy recovered from the war, the world embraced its culture and that includes transport (Vespa scooters), food (pizza, cappuccino bars, the now-UK-ubiquitous spaghetti bolognaise) and above all cinema - from what I can tell, the movies came first, and then the rest followed.

So how appropriate, then, for this romantic near-waltz to be from a movie? And sung by an Italian-American (one who understands the absent-minded daze of amore – not that say, Sinatra couldn’t sing this, but there is a smile in Martin’s voice that is warming and understanding in a way that is just right for this song) as well? What more could be asked for! As someone in love I can well vouch for the clouds at the feet, the moon hitting my eye, the oddly drunken streets and glowing faces...so if this song seems like a relatively old-fashioned one, it still stands for a condition that existed long before it was written, and not just in Naples (still the home of the best pizza in the world), either. (I would like to note that my Italian mother-in law immigrated to Glasgow during this time and brought some vita bella with her and I bless her for it.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Shy Men Dance: Mantovani E Sua Orchestra: "Swedish Rhapsody"

If Ikea had been a multi-nation-occupying huge corporation in 1953, and you called them and were put on hold, this song is exactly what you would hear when waiting to discuss your problem. Jaunty, vivid, lively and everchanging, "Swedish Rhapsody" conjures up people dancing and eating salmon and potatoes and celebrating the wonders of good cheap home furnishings. It is almost oppressively happy, very hummable and makes for a perhaps misleading introduction to Swedish pop - but then, as far as I can gather, this is music to get drunk and dance to on midsummer's night, when the sun is out and stays out until late.

That said, let me turn to Mantovani for a moment. When I first saw that I had to write about him, I immediately thought of…someone non-musical, though also an Italian. A man who lived over a thousand years before the extremely successful and yet shy Venetian, who moved when he was a boy with his family to England. This non-musician was also shy, also a hard taskmaster (on himself) and was probably just as popular in his time…

…I am speaking, of course, of Virgil. He was born in Mantua, and therefore is also a ‘mantovanian’ (please correct me if I am wrong!) In Virgil’s writing there is elegance, feeling, and a certain bread-and-wine gusto that makes for a positively cinematic impact (if you get a good translation of The Aeneid). Mantovani strikes me as the same way – give him a good tune and he will make the most of it, giving it his full concentration (just as Virgil wrote only two or three lines per day, making sure they were just right). Virgil’s epic gave Rome a sense of history and purpose; Mantovani’s music helped people with their morale, gave them a picture of somewhere else (the exotic Sweden). There is nothing cold or forbidding here, with the woodwinds, strings and accordion – it is as hearty as feasts were in Virgil’s own time, feasts of ordinary people on special days, when they drank wine and danced around their own good and affordably-priced tables and chairs.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Man's Got To Do What A Man's Got To Do: Frankie Laine: "Where The Winds Blow" and "Blowing Wild"

Though these two are not chronologically exactly the next two in line, I felt it imperative to put them together as two songs that were both follow-ups to "I Believe" that show the other side of Frankie Laine - not one that is strong and confident, always, but still passionate and (somewhat) doomed.

"Where The Winds Blow" is an outlaw song, only we have no idea what the outlaw has done, just that the sherriff is after him and will 'bind him' to an oak and dangle him low - why? Did he kill someone? We have no idea, but if it's a hanging offence then no wonder he has to keep going through the rain and snow into the hills, he can't even see his gal as he has no time to lose, and he doesn't want her to go with him. He is seriously on the run and his fate is to keep wandering until he can get out of town, out of the county, maybe even out of the state. Will he run and run, or hide? Even he doesn't know. He has to be brave as he has no choice, and he doesn't want to be pushing up any daffodils anytime soon. The music is slow, the background singers give it a sense of gravity and awe - because it's Laine singing it, it's hard to believe he has done something wrong - surely someone so noble is innocent? Westerns often turn on the smallest of moments, but there are always clear good guys vs. bad guys. It's hard to think of Laine as being bad.

"Blowing Wild" is the name of a movie about oil and desperation (all movies about oil tend to also be about desperation, if not insanity). Marina is the name of the woman who has trapped our noble singer in a web and while he once escaped her, here she is again, and he wants to be free - free, as far as I can tell, from not just her but the black gold as well. If Laine sounded determined before, now he is nearly manic, cursed and pleading and the backing singers sound like they are trying to give a strong notion of the hero's slim grasp on sanity, going up and down vertiginously - as if the singer's life were at stake. 1953 was Laine's year; I am guessing both of these songs were successful in part due to coming in the wake of "I Believe" but they show how haunted and blunt he could be.

One more thing: rock and roll (which still doesn't exist) often likes to laud the lonely, the brave - in short, the outlaw. But here we have two songs full of angst and longing, by men who have no way out. They are proud, they have their dignity (just), but there is none of the rock arrogance about these men. They have done what they had to do, and will have the nerve and nobility to continue, no matter what, even if it means death. Such four-square solidity can only be admired, but not envied.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Young Woman Ascends: Frank Chacksfield: "Terry's Theme"

As I go through the fifties I must stress to you, my readers, that I wasn't around back then and what perspective I have on it is through one young American woman who has yet to arrive in England - there are definite eerie parallels going on here, but I will only comment on them when the time arrives.   In the meantime, I have not seen Limelight and so am at somewhat of a disadvantage here.  Romantic, slightly sad, feminine – all attributes ballerinas have, whether they are suicidal or not – is what Chaplin wrote for his movie, and Frank Chacksfield does a great job in giving the song the delicacy it needs, as it sounds like something lovely but near lifeless coming back to life, gaining strength – as much native strength as it can have.

I don’t know if Limelight was a hit or if the audience somehow could sense themselves in Claire Bloom’s character – it is set in the distant-but-still-memorable past of 1914, the world about to haplessly enter a ‘war to end all wars’ (though whether the war itself is intimated in the movie, I don’t know). Chaplin is able to save her, and through doing so is able to save himself, enough to become a stage performer once more (paired up with his old partner, played by Buster Keaton) – so in the end it is a story of sustaining life and purpose, in perhaps finding meaning in a world that had none, continuing to dance and be grateful and take to the stage. For the British people, the comparison between the death of their monarch in 1952 and the ascension to the throne of a new one (the young Elizabeth II) just as this became a hit – – must have been inevitable. The old makes way for the new, the new gives love and respect to the old.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

It Can Be Yours: Nat King Cole: "Pretend"

There is a genial toughness to Nat King Cole; an elegance that is almost too good to be true, a beneficence, a gentle nudging that may sound sweet to our ears and more than a little escapist, but there are ironies as well as comforts to this song. “Pretend” is about how the world “can be yours” if you pretend – if you see the world as you wish it was, a fine and noble place where you have a girlfriend/wife, where you have all you want…as a ballad it is pretty, lilting back and forth like a gentle tide, but to see him perform it with his Buddha-like smile only is to miss some of the import of the song; here is a black man singing about the joys of pretending to be happy (“it isn’t hard to do”), pretending the world around him is far more gracious and accepting of who he is than it actually is. In the YouTube clip available from 1957, he calls the song one of his favorites, which makes me think he a) really did like the song and b) perhaps understood that merely pretending was beautiful and fine, but there were realities to be faced – perhaps by pretending, such realities could be dealt with in a more imaginative way. We will return to Cole soon enough, but it should be noted that this is the first black number two on the chart (the first black number one was going to be a little while in arriving).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In A Daze: Guy Mitchell: "Pretty Little Black Eyed Susie"

And now a pause: a near six-month pause has happened between these first two number two hits. Winter has come and gone, spring is here, and again Guy Mitchell has cause to rejoice. His joys are many - biscuits soaked in gravy, rainy walks in April, sweet potatoes...but none outdoes his girl, the girl so fine his rambling days (and Mitchell sings as if he most definitely had them, in a joyous, playful way, the way one's rambling days should be) are over - the girl he calls "Pretty Little Black Eyed Susie."

He loves everything, in an uncomplicated and downright humble way - but he is most proud and happy to haveher in his life. Thus the music is almost childlike in its tone - as giddy as lambs inspring, the sun shining and a warm sun gilding everything with a dazed light. This is definitely a song I can imagine cheery postmen and kindly washerwomen whistling as they worked; the lyrics are definitely Southern, but the music is English in its exacting and brisk manner.

It should be noted that this is the first of several number two hits which may or may not have (had things been different) gotten to number one. The utterly anthemic "I Believe" by Frankie Laine caused more than a few songs to stop at number two, as it was massively popular and remained so for months. (This will happen again, but never for so long.) "I Believe" is powerful, soulful and profound; the number twos in its wake will show (starting here) the many facets within it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's A Boy!: Guy Mitchell: "Feet Up"

The beginning of any enterprise is due to be somewhat mysterious and yet also a cause for joy.  Mysterious because the reasons for anything happening are ultimately hard to know; songs, as much as has been documented, sometimes just come out of nowhere.  Charts, for that matter, also seem to come out of nowhere.  In the fall of 1952 (why then?) it was decided that there should be a way of seeing what songs were popular, in what order, and whether said songs were going up, going down or staying put.  They would be ranked and counted down on the radio, once or perhaps twice a week.  The compelling story of what would succeed and what wouldn't apparently worked, as the charts continue to this day to enthrall and sometimes more than befuddle anyone who pays attention to them.

It's the fall of 1952.  In London, a year after the huge Come On Britain Chin Up of the 1951 Exhibition, killer fogs (the word 'smog' was coined to describe them) are the latest plague to hit London.  The war, though over for years, is still very much felt, as rationing continues and people slowly recover from their own private wounds, whether physical, psychic or emotional.  It's a time of reconstruction and renewal, but it is still a raw time, the decade still new, the Cold War freshly minted, and no sooner does The Chart begin as we have our first number two song:  Guy Mitchell's "Feet Up."

"Feet Up" is like a splash of cold water in the face of a bedraggled and tired nation.  A man sings, with pride, of his new son, his darling wife, his previous life of drunkenness and wanton women - all that is gone, as he goes out to tell the world of his handsome son who will be a 'ladykiller' like his dad.  The song's title literally comes from seeing his son being born, feet-first, patted on his po-po (his behind) and then hearing him cry, as babies do...the music is as unselfconsciously buoyant and square and confident as you might expect, very much the song of many fathers of the time who perhaps lived fast lives in the 40s but were now content to settle down with their own Rosie and have lots more kids, as the first one is so good-looking.  (Lest we forget the baby boom is in full swing by this time.)  

I should add here that in 1952, rock as such did not exist in the UK, nor did teenagers.  Thus, while this song might apply to your average 30-year-old today, having survived his wild twenties to finally mature and settle down, in 1952 this song could well apply to anyone over 20, since by then you had presumably lived a riotous life and were ready for the altar and the crib, in more or less that order.  Considering the relief and joy  in Guy's voice as he veritably strides down the candy-colored street of this song, it is no wonder so many children were born - especially in the US, where Guy Mitchell was from!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Who Are You? "I Am Number Two"

Before anyone out there gets any strange notions - this is most definitely not a blog about The Prisoner.  No.  This is a blog about the glorious, notorious and otherwise mundane world of the number two single - specifically, the number two singles as found on the UK singles chart, from the beginning up until...well, whenever this blog seems 'done'.  

You might be wondering why such an enterprise would be necessary.  Number two singles aren't regarded as being that important, they don't have much cachet, and no one ever brags about having one.  But this is in part why I felt the need to look at them.  They are in the shadow of their more famous/popular/best-selling superior, but sometimes very fine things lurk in the shadows; of course, sometimes it's just junk, but sometimes the most extraordinary things are there as well...

...at first I thought I was going to keep this blog more or less to myself, however because not much attention is given to these songs as a whole, that didn't seem right - so it is public, comments moderated by me but nevertheless, public.  I heartily invite any and all comments, esp. during the first few weeks as I will be discussing songs I barely know, from a time long before my own.