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 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... 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.