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.