Friday, December 18, 2009

Simon Cowell Ain't No Dick Clark: Duane Eddy: "Because They're Young"

Lately I have been thinking about this odd transitional period a lot, and how those who were just infants at the time - I am thinking of one man in particular here - would love nothing more than to go back to it - in essence, to return to a time when the 60s weren't "the sixties, man." It was a time of sharp suits, of short haircuts, of business and commerce, an utter squareness that was at the same time vastly ambitious and, while willing to nod towards the idea of a generation gap, didn't think it was anything that couldn't be remedied through some careful grooming, etiquette lessons and practice, practice, practice. In short, this is showbiz - the hot spotlight, the gloved-and-pearled upper level seats, the big orchestra in the pit, the works. (The show Mad Men starts in this time, and its popularity alongside the X Factor and various Idols may or may not be a coincidence.)

You might think Duane Eddy is a long ways away from all this, and in his utterly committed way he makes showbiz look a little...flashy. (Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel speaks more of his country background and Arizona pal/producer Lee Hazelwood than his actual New York City roots.) Even if this, the theme song to the movie Because They're Young is relatively slick, it still has that pioneering what-the-hell rock 'n' roll vibe to it, Eddy's guitar as ever the sonic equivalent of that long, cool look - of interest? of provocation? - that made him so popular in the first place. Music for people who are getting down to do something, as opposed to music that is merely about presenting something in order to...present something. Who knows how many people listened to this and his other songs and were not just interested but compelled to find a guitar and learn how to play it? In the field of music, it is the artistry that lasts, far beyond anything else; it is the heart, for lack of a better word, that gives young people courage. Not the businessman's idle pleasure, as he plots an even bigger version of something that is, in itself, already exaggerated.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Someone Who'll Be There: Connie Francis: "Mama"/"Robot Man"

A double 'A' side is a strange thing to a North American (or, at least this one), but it is acceptably common in the UK; it is an odd thing to think of both sides of a piece of vinyl as being the 'main' one, but if this idea is strange then it also can lead to some pretty damn awesome works of art; and I propose that this one, the first one, is a good example of that.

"Mama"/"Robot Man" are the two quite different sides to a girl (Francis, nee Franconero, was all of 21 when they were recorded) who is just starting to feel the pulls between the past and the future, all while negotiating the sometimes turbulent now. "Mama" is a string-intensive ballad from the original Italian; it begins in English and then seamlessly goes into Italian (it is from her album Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites). It is a heart wrenching song about missing one's mother, a song any daughter who misses her mom can understand in either language; here is the main part in Italian:

"Quanto ti voglio bene
Queste parole d'amore
Che ti sospira il mio cuore
Forse non si usano piu
Ah Mamma
Ma la canzone mia piu bella sei tu
Sei tu la vita e per la vita non ti lascio mai piu..."

I am sure that this got the okay from Francis' rather overprotective father, who forbade her marrying Bobby Darin to the point of chasing him out of his own house with a gun. (Who could dislike Bobby Darin?) Whether he approved of the other song is something to ponder, as it is almost entirely the opposite song, in that she is looking for a, erase that, a robot for a partner. "Robot Man" is the unlikely but true origin for all other songs wherein a woman longs for a steady and utterly loyal companion, from "Automatic Lover" by Dee D. Jackson to "Robot Song" by Margaret Berger. (Hmm, come to think of it, maybe Connie's dad would have preferred a robot to a real guy; but let's concentrate on the song.) Here, instead of her usual 'sobbing' style (a style hers & hers alone; a style that is perhaps symbolic of the whole young woman trapped in the 50s and yearning to get to the 60s, if only because the 60s must mean something different) she sings in a rough style about how she wants a man who is so nice "He'd never dance with anyone but me/I'd just have to wind him with a robot key" because she "Don't want a real live boy, they give me grief/Always make me cry into my ha-andkerchief/So it's a robot man I'm dreamin' of/Because I can depend upon a robot love, yeah!" Even though this is a song that is in jest, it feels only half in jest; you get the idea that Connie has had enough of scoundrels & cads and really would settle for a electronic hunk of metal.

The greatness of having these two songs as, in essence, one song is that the extreme longing for the past and the longing for an improbable future are in the balance; missing her mother (who may or may not be dead; it's hard to tell) and wishing for a man who has a similar reliability sans emotions is about as full a statement on the human condition as we, dear reader, have encountered here so far. Not only that, but they foreshadow a similar double a side that will be, for many, the apex of the 60s; two songs that also deal with the past as it was and perhaps never was and never could be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lifting Me Higher: Guy Mitchell: "Cloud Lucky Seven"

Let us stop for a moment, dear reader, to look back to 1953. I say this not just because, having gotten our feet wet in the beginning of 1960 (we are currently just in June, about to jump straight into summer) things are starting to look...different around here, but apparently I missed a number two. (According to the big book at home I did, and I always go by it.) It is salutary, however, to pause here and see how far we have come.

And in the Christmas of '53 charts, who but Guy Mitchell is there, warm smiling Guy, extolling the various levels - dare I say chakras? - of love. The whole setting is one of joy (it's never just Guy, he always has a chorus) and a vivid sense of love being one exaltation after another, until cloud seven is reached, where you and your loved one are walking on air (after having passed through the other six (five and six is when "your heart bumps and kicks"; I am guessing that the heart leaps and bounds at seven, but he doesn't say). The communal joy of "When you're in love, when you're in love, when you're in love" is simple, even a bit homespun, but has (like the previous song) a certain unmistakable truth. At first you feel like singing, then you hear bells ringing (and yes, bells do ring when you are in love, and they keep ringing, trust me). The utter strangeness of love - and I mean how it can just happen - is introduced before any of these levels with the heartily sung "There's no way that you can detect it/It can happen when you least expect it." In fact I would argue that just about anything worth experiencing is, paradoxically, undetectable and unpredictable. There is no way of knowing, nod Guy and his pals, and before you know it you and your lad/lass will be near heaven as two people can be.

What a contrast to the growing...sophistication we are seeing already, and the other worldliness of, say, I Hear A New World by Joe Meek, out in May of 1960 as an EP, a work pretty much unthinkable in '53. More leaps and bounds of the heart and technology are to come, dear reader, but I think I have finally done with the 50s...for now...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rock Your Baby: Johnny Preston: "Cradle of Love"

When I saw that I had to write a post about the follow-up to, of all things, "Running Bear" by Johnny Preston, I was not exactly surprised nor thrilled; this is exactly the kind of song that is a big hit, then gets forgotten by and large and is later revived years later by people who remember it in the first place, mainly by rockabilly fans, who were called Teddy Boys in the UK.

Why does this song affect me so? It's not because it's all that sophisticated - the cradle of love is something, however, that is located at first in a tree, which reminds me more than forcibly of a dream I once had...

...a dream where I was in a tree and it was night, still and cool and black, springtime; and I was up in the tree in what seemed to be a bed. I was alone, but I knew I wasn't going to be alone for long, as under the moon (which gave off enough light, without being full) I could see someone determindedly coming towards me, walking along what seemed to be a rather twisting path at times. But mostly I remember being in this bed in the treetop, the very light breeze and sense of something about to happen...

Which means I have to go all Paglia here and say that while this nursery rhyme song seems all trite and cliche and obvious at first, it does hit on some truths that are fundamental, or at least are fundamental if you grow up knowing these rhymes. I may not appreciate the last verse wherein Jack pushes Jill into said cradle of love (but this is 1960, when women were women, men were men and so on) - but the rocking and rocking in the cradle is an essential thing for people their whole lives it seems, and while a cradle in a treetop might seem, well, dangerous, being in love is a huge leap as well, in some cases not just a figurative leap but a literal one. And it is always a leap worth making, as my subconscious mind more than told me in the spring of 2005.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

His Word May Be His Bond: Adam Faith: "Someone Else's Baby"

Although the 50s were many things, there was one thing they don't tend to be called that much - hip. There were hipsters back then, to be sure, but the 60s developed its own kind of hipness fairly quickly - one that was still at this point tethered to the 50s, but evolving out of it at a rapid rate.

We are still in the Age of Meek, to be sure, but now the Age of Barry has arrived, with all that implies. John Barry did the arrangements for this song and their pizzicato insouciance is miles away from the four-square hog-calling no-need-for-microphones from the previous decade. Faith sings this song with a grin in his voice and a very Buddy Holly "bayyyyehby" on his mind (not to mention his pronunciation). Lyrics like "I wonder who's in the loveseat/Who's got a heartbeat, like thunder" sounds as if Meatloaf is just around the corner; "If I acted bad/I could steal his fairy queen" on the other hand, is just so English as to be nearly a cliche. It's a song about wanting another guy's girl, stealing her practically from his arms - being a cad or a knave, at the least, but Faith makes it sound as if he just can't help himself and is going to be a love opportunist and have his tryst in his lovenest (or backseat) because he can't resist the idea of doing the act in the first place. Would Cliff ever be so bold? Faith was one of his rivals in the teen idol stakes, but unlike Cliff he left to get into acting, financial dealings and music production once the age of the guileless idol was over. Not bad for a kid from east London who was in a skiffle band called The Worried Men; hard to think of Faith as worried about anything at all here, save for (maybe) being caught.

(I feel it incumbent upon me to mention that the great inheritor of Faith's romantically helpless opportunist and general suave-guy-about-town demeanor would be taken up by one Bryan Ferry; just as Faith left the building, so to speak, Ferry stepped nonchalantly in. Also, the same man who renamed Cliff also renamed Adam.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

We Love You Cliff, Oh Yes We Do: Cliff Richard And The Shadows: "Fall In Love With You"

If there is one dynamic in popular culture that can always be relied upon, it is that of the teen idol. Young, shiny, handsome/pretty, unthreatening - a teen idol is by necessity accessible (yet slightly mysterious), humble and obliging, one of those obligations being that they take up only so much time and trouble in popular culture. Teen idols can grow up and continue to be successful in what they do, mainly because they change as their audience changes; or they can break up (if a band) or wander off into other things, such as politics, business or other arts. However I am guessing many teen idols either go on as they believe they can serve the industry or they are a little tired of being screamed at and retreat and are able to reinvent themselves.

Cliff Richard was a genuine teen idol in the UK in '60, singing directly to the girls in the audience here about how this was his first romance and how easily he could fall in love - though of course the song was objectively about young longings and hopes in general, especially on that crucial first date. I don't want to say that Richard was directly courting his audience here, but his coolness and silkiness - a kind of cat's eyes sound to his voice - certainly doesn't hurt.

My one question here is about teen idols in general - why did so many spring up at this time? Was it just because of sheer generational pressure - all the baby boomers hitting those crucial Tiger Beat times of lots of wall/locker space with so much room for posters? I suppose so - that mass media makes celebrities sounds like such an obvious answer that I am almost suspicious of it. Young people, girls in particular, have always had adolescent crushes of all kinds: royalty, movie stars, characters in books, portraits...all standing in for the real thing, helping them get to the stage where they are, in fact, ready for the real thing.

I guess my real question is: why Cliff? It comes down to the UK sensibility I suppose (at this time he was trying to break the US but didn't spend enough time there to really have an impact), the UK preferring their own nice boy to the rougher types, including one man I have yet to reach who was simply The Man when it came to rock 'n' roll at this time, a man so legendary that the Beatles (then called the Silver Beatles) tried and failed to be his backing band. Once you hear him, the original man in gold lame, the unfairness of Richard's success compared to his (at least on this blog) is inexplicable. But that is the teen idol business for you: the girls want who they want, and a pleasant vanilla milkshake was preferred over the crunchy tin roof sundae nearly every time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Faraway In Time: Percy Faith: "Theme From 'A Summer Place'"

And now, as is almost always the way, a Canadian enters the number two scene with the most guileless, carefree breezy ease - Percy Faith was a bandleader who personified easy listening and this song certainly sums up the easy listening flutes-and-strings aplenty approach, one which works quite well with the rather torrid storyline of the movie A Summer Place; coolly seductive and yet coy, floating above the hubbub of emotionally complex lives, this song - which sounds much like a boat being set into motion from its moorings down a placid stream - is not just sexy because it's the soundtrack to Troy Donoghue and Sandra Dee falling in love (and making love, for that matter). It is sexy because it brings a certain openness to itself; not since Dean Martin has a song been so...there and yet not there. Dare I say the song almost laughs, in its pink chiffon way, at the tribulations (the sensations) in the story? Well, this is still the time of relative innocence in this decade and a time for looking back, in the dead of winter, to the heat of summer and its simple joys. A boy and girl fall in love, they are the future; problems are eased and there is a happy ending, despite all indications. The world responded in kind to this and made it a kind of anthem of hope, if I can put it that way, for a whole new decade; slow dancing and swaying to the music, eyes closed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Be True To One Woman: Cliff Richard and The Shadows: "A Voice In The Wilderness"

And now, the 60s. Specifically January 1960, which happens to be when my parents got married, when Plath and Hughes were back in London, and when young Cliff Richard was busy being the number one pop star in the UK.

Every decade begins tentatively, with a kind of happy apprehension - things may get better, will definitely change, hope for all the best. And yet decades rarely 'end' right at their chronological end; it takes a while for any decade to really find itself, so to speak. (Though some might argue, and I'd agree with them, that the 30s and the 90s were pretty definite from the start - and of course with the change of the millennium, the 00s have been fairly separate as well.) Being caught between two sides is far more the usual in these '0' years, and 1960 is no exception, and this song, which I expected from its title to be fairly straightforward, fits right in.

"A Voice In The Wilderness": it comes from the Bible, to be sure. But it also comes from a movie called Expresso Bongo and already you can sense something's up. The song starts out in a descending and vaguely sultry way (I can't help but think of Hank Marvin in this manner, especially after seeing a certain cover of his), and then the heartaches begin - his heart is heavy, his arms are blue, he is all alone thinking of you - you the girl who has left him in what can only be called 'lover's quarrel' circumstances. Except this may be more than just a quarrel...

"Have faith in your darling, the voice seemed to say
Be true to her memory, she'll come back one day
And though there was no-one, nobody to see
A voice in the wilderness brought comfort to me"

How odd that someone who is missing someone isn't either looking for her or being consoled by an actual human being, or even a dog. This voice is, by the way, "the voice of true love" so at least he's not, well, crazy; but the phrase "her memory" made me think of how maybe in this quarrel he was more than just "unkind"; maybe this quarrel led to the poor girl's death. I see Cliff sitting in an empty room, desperate with loneliness, not unlike Heathcliff (who he would portray on stage in the 90s), blank with grief and arrogant with heavenly consolation. She will come back, she will; in a song I don't get to write about directly so I'll have to mention it here. Meanwhile the song's sultry despair and late-night aura carry on, and Cliff is happy to wait and be attended on by...somebody.

(I should also note at this time Cliff realized he could have a girlfriend or he could have lots of female fans. Being ever-industrious, he chose his fans, a choice he has yet to reverse.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Singin' Thistle: Lonnie Donegan: "The Battle of New Orleans"

It is with a little trepidation that I arrive at the end of the 50s; a simple, swell time was mostly had by all and while not everything was, shall we say, pleasant, it is without doubt the decade that has had the most nostalgia attached to it of the 20th century.

History has a longer memory than that, though, and it is weirdly fitting that the last song I write about for this decade looks back to the War of 1812, to its last great fight, the Battle of New Orleans. I say fitting as it was a war between the British and the Americans (with the not-quite-a-nation-just-yet Canada haplessly in the middle, though perhaps not so much as hapless as stuck) - the UK charts were beginning to look like a war between these same two foes, songs being covered here and there, homegrown stars such as Cliff and Marty and Adam (I will get to him, dear readers) doing battle with Yankee ne'er-do-wells, with what I can only call interesting results. (Indeed, the results of this war will only become apparent once a certain band emerges, but that's not for two long years yet.)

Stepping smartly into this field of battle was one Lonnie Donegan - yes, the skiffle fad was over but nothing could keep Lonnie from having hits (indeed I can imagine nothing could keep Lonnie from music, period). His "The Battle of New Orleans" has a certain...something to it though that is different from the original song by American Johnny Horton. Whereas Horton is ornery and military and almost makes you wish you were there, Donegan's version is...well this is his spoken intro in part:

"This is a song about a fit between Yankees and them there English which the British came off rather ignominiously...because they never done no good no how, ciao."

He then relates the tale of the "Bloomin' British" and how they were defeated by the Americans with what I can only call great relish. As a Scotsman he has every right to sing about the English defeat this way, and evidently enough British people in general seemed to think it only fair, more than tolerating his 'ha hiddle-dee-dee's and maybe being a little distracted by Joe Meek's production (yes, we are back to him again), which takes this stern march and makes it more into a dub reggae skank about wily natives showing up the supposedly better opposition. (Sadly I won't be getting back to Scotland for a while here, but when I do it will be with someone who surely knew Donegan's work by heart.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Friendly Forebear #1: Marty Wilde: "A Teenager In Love"

We are now in the summer of '59; the last summer of the 50s and a time when the charts were very slow...and also the time when the UK started to have its own idols battling for the hearts (and pocketbooks) of those new creatures, teenagers. They were powerful (so many of them!) and yet powerless; brave enough to fall in love, to cry, to sigh...and understandably myopic enough to have a song boldly empathize with their sometimes sorry plight. Being in love is hard work, Pomus and Shuman remind us, but the narrator in question is loyal and true, long-suffering and ultimately philosophical.

Why must he be in love? Is it to fight and make up, only to fight again? To learn to be more forgiving, perhaps? Love here is one big starry-eyed existentialist ordeal, and while Dion and the Belmonts* do a more than fine version of this song, Wilde's version is about as close to New Pop as the song could possibly get; his is the right proper way of saying all at once "this is a fine life alright, being a teenager, SIGH" and "you know this song is sort of meta, right?" His performance of this practically gives this away, his minimalism as striking as anything coming out of Swedish furniture design at the time. He makes Cliff look like the earnest worker bee that he was (and is). It should be no surprise, then, that Wilde is a literal father to New Pop (via his son Ricky and daughter Kim) as well as a friendly forebear of it here, looking like a cross between Edwyn Collins and Martin Fry, just barely moving and yet saying it all, just as teenagers always want to do.

*If anyone was wondering if I was able to fully appreciate the work of Phil Spector, well, I do! And not just for his work with girl groups, either. In 1975 he produced Dion's tremendously awesomesauce Born to Be With You, which deserves more praise and attention (such as it gets here).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Father Is The Child To The Man: The Teddy Bears: "To Know Him Is To Love Him"

To write about some people takes a certain amount of guts. To write about Phil Spector (this is the first entry where he appears; I'm sure it's one of several, in various ways) is to look right into the eyes of death, of violent death, from the beginning unto the end. I can't flinch, I can't not know where this story ends; the best I can do is start at the start, at his first hit record, which was #2 here and #1 in the U.S.

It is an eerie song; in some ways the scariest love song I have ever heard - inspired by the inscription on his father's gravestone, in fact. (Spector's father killed himself when young Harvey Philip was a child.) The Teddy Bears (the poignance of that name says a lot no matter how you look at it) were Phil Spector, Marshall Leib, Annette Kleinbard, with Sandy Nelson on the drums - all went to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, so this is a teenage record that is mournful and loving and nearly scary. (In the U.S. the previous #1 was "Tom Dooley," which is also a song about death...) Leib and Spector hum and harmonize in the background while Klienbard's sweet and sincere voice sings about her longing to be beside him, how his smile makes her life worthwhile, and then this line pierces through:

"Some day he will see that he that he was meant for me, oh"

and that see is a high note of such open pain and profound loss that you know she really is hung up on this boy; or that the near-man is taking his grief and changing it to be a pop song because that is the way forward for him. (The utter loyalty and dismay in this song are deep and I think only Elvis could have approached Kleinbard's ability to get them across.) I sometimes have wondered if this isn't also a plea from Spector to the world to love him, to respect him; that no matter how big a song can be, no matter how intense, it cannot in the end fill whatever hole was created. That the Teddy Bears had a transatlantic hit and yet saw almost no money from it compelled Spector to become much more ambitious and controlling than perhaps he would have been; so this is the head (or tail) of a snake that needs some pondering. It is a lovely song, but at what costs?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Past, Present and Future: Little Richard: "Baby Face"

It is a sad but common fact that there are periods of great ferment and excitement if not downright mania in music, and then there are times when things seem to...slow down. The charts seemingly get on a one-way ticket to dullsville and a restless public hies out for new musical territory, or retreats into the comfy old clothes of the past. It is a dismaying and frustrating experience to live through one of these times, as what was inexplicably and irreversibly slides into the past, a past that sometimes others don't share too much affection for, as they never much cared for it when it was the present.

In late January of '59 you might think everything in the world of rock 'n' roll was fine, which to a certain extent it was - Elvis was about to go #1 yet again, a young woman from Tiger Bay was getting more than a little attention, The Big Bopper had a hit with "Chantilly Lace" that was going up the chart and The Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis had new hits as well. But in just three days The Big Bopper would be gone, along with Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly (a day memorialized in a song that I will eventually get to - but for now I will stay in the present). I can only imagine the dismay and despair upon hearing the news - it was one thing to have Elvis in the army, Jerry Lee Lewis was blackballed from radio because of his marriage, and as for Little Richard...well, he had seen Sputnik fly by while in Australia and took it as a sign he should give up sinful rock for gospel. This he did in the fall of '57, which means, yes, this hit (his biggest in the UK chart-placement-wise) was a song dug out of the vaults.

"Baby Face" (a jazz song from the 20s) may not seem like something to make girls throw their undergarments and leap off of balconies, but the raspy, growly vibrato of Richard's (he reminds me a bit of Buffy Ste. Marie, of all people) - the way he just attacks a song and nearly makes it sound as if the fourth wall, as such, doesn't exist - is a huge wave of desire and surrender, a huge open door flung out to the whole world. (No doubt the reason this got to #2 was that his fans were beside themselves for something new, and this was a song everyone, young and old, knew already.) If Chuck Berry (yes I will get to him in time, dear reader) is rock 'n' roll as a foundation stone, Little Richard was the animating spirit who inspired just as many to yell and shriek and wear shiny clothing and just plain BE themselves. (Brian Johnson of AC/DC counts him as a main inspiration, for instance, as did Jimi Hendrix [who was in his band for a while] and Noddy Holder of Slade.) Little Richard broke down barriers in a way that repulsed some and overwhelmingly gratified others in the repressed and repressive 50s. This song appears here not in a time when rock is on the ascendant but when it is troubled and in need of new energy, new faces and new ideas. In almost no time whatsoever in this sluggish year, a new name would appear out of Los Angeles via The Bronx, one who would never throw a ring into an ocean to save his soul. Was rock dead? Nope, just growing in a different direction.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hello Metaphor Part One: The Everly Brothers: "Bird Dog"

There is a time and place, as Andrew Cash once sang (and for all I know, still does); in this case, it's Christmastime and songs bought by/for kids always do well then; you might not think an Everly Brothers song would qualify, but this "Bird Dog" does. Written by Boudleaux Bryant, it is pure country slyness, the song mainly a protest that Johnnie's a bird (a slang term of the time meaning joker, as the lyrics themselves explain right away) who is dogging his girl - singing to her, making nice with the teacher so he can sit next to her - real junior high stuff obviously, and the Everlys take it about as seriously as it merits. Still, those high keening voices in the chorus are bolstered by the good humor in the verses, such as these:

"Johnny sings a love song [like a bird]
He sings the sweetest love song [ya ever heard]
But when he sings to my gal [what a howl]
To me he’s just a wolf dog [on the prowl]"

That's undoubtedly Don making the spoken word comments at the end in his lower voice, dubious as the class clown in the back who probably doesn't have a girlfriend at all. Brisk and clean and ever-so-suggestive that maybe it's the singers who are more aware of how to really get a girl than wily Johnnie.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spumoni Ice Cream For All: Diane Decker: "Poppa Piccolino"/Futuro Sounds Today: Marino Marini: "Come Prima"

In times of crisis, when people are forced to leave their home country (whether that home is their native one or adopted), there is only so much they can take with them. Clothes and money are required, along with some toilette items and what could be best called worldly goods. Among these would be music and food, the great markers of a culture and in many ways still the main definitions of any given culture around the world. If someone is homesick, food and a song or two may be their only solace, and also the best ones.

If you were used to the Mediterranean life - either as a bohemian semi-slacker immigrant or an actual native - moving (back) to the UK in the late 40s/early 50s was something of a trial. Almost nothing fit. Clothing coupons couldn't help you much with your winter needs; the local grocery shops didn't have eggplant, basil or garlic, let alone mozzarella or olive oil. If you were Elizabeth David or Anna del Conte, you had to root around Soho or Tottenham Court Road to find what you needed and were used to, indeed addicted to - the simple, strong and immensely seductive flavors that were more than worth the trouble to track down. (The Camisa Deli on Old Compton Street, I imagine, was where these two ladies' paths crossed - whether they ever actually met I do not know.) Once rationing let up in the mid-50s these things began to be easier to find, though still not commonplace.

You might be wondering why all this writing about deprivation and rationing when talking about a song? If you were an Italian immigrant to the UK in the 50s you (quite unwittingly) helped David and del Conte out in their searches, simply due to the ancient laws of supply and demand. It is bitterly ironic that it took a war - a wretchedly long war - to bring Italian food to the UK table. David may have written her books but it was the immigrants who brought the great demand; immigrants who, like her, would not stint on ingredients and wanted the real thing. Once David's Italian Food was published in 1954, things really started to change, and the influx into London and Glasgow had already begun. The vogue for all things Italian had started and in some ways has not ended; witness Jamie Oliver's trip to a place he himself feels at home in some 40 years later.

At the beginning of the 50s the 'idea' of Italy could be described by this first song (which I forgot to write about at the time) - "Poppa Piccolino" by Diane Decker, who was herself a UK/US hybrid whose high bright voice was able to please or grate on listeners' nerves alike. In late 1953 she reached number two with what could well be described as a children's song; the sort of song that still goes with huge slabs of greasy pizza and Coke that family restaurants around the world present as Italian food, though even they would be pressed to say how authentic said pizza was. Judge for yourself the spoken word (yes, it has one!) section:

"Everybody loves Poppa Piccolino. He has the cutest little monkey to collect the lira. But one day Poppa Piccolino was very sad. He lost his concertina, and he couldn't find it anywhere, and there was no music, and everyone was very unhappy. But the little monkey found it for him and gave it back to Poppa Piccolino, and now everybody is happy again."

I am not exactly sure any of the black and white hardcore neorealist post-war Italian movies had concertina-playing monkey-assisted men in them; not even in Fellini would I suppose there to be one. It is hard to resent a song like this, but it is as about as representative of 50s Italy as a box of Dr. Oetker's pizza is (no offence to anyone who likes the good doctor's products intended). (N.B.: if you get the spinach pizza, add lots of pine nuts and chopped garlic and mozzarella and it will be quite good; but then a lot of things could be improved this way.)

Fast-forward a few years - five to be precise - and the musical sophistication of the UK has caught up with the gastronomical, and lo and behold a song in Italian from Italy reaches number two - and what a song! "Come Prima" by Marino Marini and his Quartet were singers in the Neapolitan style, fast and charming and funny, but this is a big smoochy ballad that could and did echo through the cafes and dancehalls in late 1958, sounding reassuringly romantic and tender...until...twannnngggg...

The guitar that dreamily but disconcertingly decorates the quiet portions of the song sounds quite unlike anything else encountered so far in this blog. What on earth is going on here? The answer is: an effects pedal played at the same time a chord is struck on the strings. Yes, that's right, a pedal - not the same one as used by oh, say, Lush over thirty years later, but not that far off either. (The guitar on "De-Luxe" in key and general sound isn't that far off "Come Prima" only there's just the one and it's like a harmonica and it's LOUD.) (Also, let me just say now nice it is to bring in only one of my favorite bands ever into this so early.)

Marino Marini was a man ahead of his time - not only did he have the guitar sound more like, oh, Derek Bailey than anything else, he also built his very own echo chamber and mixed sound onstage - he was a fan of postwar bebop jazz and essentially pushed his quartet way ahead of what anyone would have expected from a Neapolitan quartet. I had the privilege of listening to the album that "Come Prima" comes from and at one point the guitars sound not just like Lush but like Portishead - the future is in this song of love and devotion, sitting in a Trojan Horse of gelato and wafer sweetness, the taste of that future coming in when the listener least expects it. How many who heard it knew what this would portend? I am sure David and del Conte knew, even if they didn't.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay: Cliff Richard and the Drifters: "Move It"

In 1958, the UK was enjoying its second year of 'never had it so good' merriment; despite the riots in Notting Hill, things were indeed starting to look up after a long period of austerity. Elvis, safely in the Army and no threat to anyone's livelihood, left something of a vacuum in the music scene. The first keen student to come along and try his best to fill said vacuum was one Harry Webb, who was renamed Cliff Richard (by himself? by someone else?) - a skiffle-beat freak like anyone else in Cheshunt who played guitar in the mirror, mastered his lip curls and hip shakes and raditude, found a group of similar rock 'n' roll beatdowns and went on the road as Cliff Richard and the Drifters. The story could have ended right then, of course, as so many of these stories do; but Cliff wasn't just doing this for a laugh - he was (and is) mightily and determinedly ambitious to make it in the industry.

And so he did - "Move It" made it to number two in the fall of '58, a sharp and mean tune that shows all that mirror practicing was more than worth it. Even though rock is a mere three years old, Cliff can and does sing this with disarming authority: "They say, it's gonna die: oh! honey bee let's face it;/They just don't know what's-a goin' to replace it." Ernie Shears plays a mean guitar and the other Drifters keep well out of Cliff's way, letting the teenager sing his song of getting down to the irreplaceable music of NOW. ("Move It" was apparently written on a bus by the regular guitarist for the Drifters, Ian Samwell; it was inspired by Chuck Berry but Cliff is all Elvis here.)

Indeed, Cliff Richard was marketed as the UK's equivalent to Elvis and Elvis' own neglect of the UK (meaning he never toured it, amazingly) must have helped some in this manner. In music there is almost always someone younger and hungrier coming along to grab someone else's success, but in Cliff's case this was more like an open frontier, the success of Elvis a huge shadow - ah, we'll get to them soon enough - in short, right from the beginning Cliff had an awful lot of catching up to do. Just having one hit single wasn't enough; eventually having a whole ton of hit singles would not be enough. From this entry on, he is there, always striving, always in the background of whatever fads, crazes and fashions the UK public has, sometimes embracing him, sometimes not. But he is always 'Our Cliff' against the Elvis of America, the homely boy from Hertfordshire (via British India) who considers himself at once normal and radical.

(For those who are curious, here is a performance of "Move It" done with Cliff and the Shadows, his next backing group.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Who Wants To Be King?: Elvis Presley: "King Creole"

With this entry a fascinating and (on one side at least) long-running competition is close at hand; a competition that is in some ways nearly pathetic, in other ways quite moving and cheering.

By 1958 it was more than clear that rock 'n' roll had one overwhelming figure - Elvis Presley. To be sure there were others who were as important and vital (and I will be getting to them soon enough) - but none were as utterly there as Elvis. When he verily spits out the lyrics of "King Creole" (backed by a totally awake & into it Jordanaires), he is almost saying - this is it, this is what rock 'n' roll is, punks, try me if you dare. "He's a guitar man/With a great big soul/He lays down a beat/Like a ton of coal" he intones, as a tougher version of "All Shook Up" leaps and bounds like a prizefighter. The whole song, in fact, is like a knock-out punch; "When the king starts to do it/It's as good as done/He holds his guitar/Like a tommy gun" pretty much shows that the King means business and isn't interested in prisoners. Hip-shaking, pork-and-beans and jelly roll singing King Creole is an unstoppable fearsome force (Elvis here sounds like hip hop virtually) that inspires others, indeed has been inspiring others for years, including an India-born young man called Harry Rodger Webb. This is where the competition begins, along with a long lesson (for them, not for us) on the definitions of success and happiness. The overture is done, now time for the show.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can't Live Without Them: Dean Martin: "Return To Me" and "Volare"

The accordions and girls are there, and Dean steps in, as into a comfortable pair of slippers, and sings. Or: he sounds a little more awake and lively, stopping all of a sudden to sing in his native tongue, to get his roots into the song and the song into its roots, words that blend and blur (to my ear) wonderfully, the way olive oil and garlic and parmesan and pasta do - words such as these:

"Penso che un sogno cosi non ritorni mai piu/Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu
/Poi d'improvviso venivo dal vento rapito/E incominciavo a volare nel cielo infinito"

The sky is blue and his heart has wings; his heart has wings because she has indeed come back to him. "Te amo" he sang in the first, and now his love is like a brave warm wind that can carry them both. As someone who has flown over an ocean to be with the one I love three times, I know (despite the dull practicalities of flight) how he feels - to fly, to get to what is real, to get away from the earthbound, to return to someone (though there was never any problems or quarrels, of course).

Of course, when Martin sings about getting away from disillusion, you have to wonder - in this time of existentialists and bohos and so on - how much "Volare" spoke to general post-war feelings that NOW was the only time, the past being a nightmare, the future all but unknowable. To live for the present is close - very close, in fact - to not actually existing in ye olde time-space continuum at all. To be and not to be; that is the Dean Martin $64,000 question, ultimately. And while the song is mainly about the blue in the air and blue paint making the narrator invisible, Domenico Modugno's Eurovision hit (my parents' song, by the way) is, I am guessing, a little bit more romantic - whereas Martin sings it with a nonchalant lightness that treads next to romance, yes, but you know that his ultimate wish to be off the earth, in the clouds and sky so blue is not just a lyric.

"Return To Me" is far more earthbound, Martin's warmth sounding like a man sitting on a chair on the street or perhaps standing underneath her window, longingly singing for her return - he is persuasive and there is no doubt she will return - it is as sweet as a Baci chocolate, complete with a message of love's durability inside. (It was co-written by Carmen Lombardo, so Canada once again sneaks in here, with no one noticing.)

I must note that these songs coincide with the height of what I guess might be called Italophilia in the UK; a mania happily shared by my husband's parents as well as my own. Even though I grew up as (and still am) a Francophile by nature, it is hard to resist anything Italian; not even Virgil himself could have written better lyrics here, and I am sure he would have taken more time to write them than their authors did. Rock, as previously mentioned, still rolled along, but the Vespa scooters, cappucino machines and pizza parlors would remain, along with the sense of blissful nothingness that just skirts something a little strange and unknown, but also warming as a June sky.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Can't Live With Them: Elvis Presley: "Hard Headed Woman"

I have been thinking lately about the construct/canonical idea of rock 'n' roll being 'born' and then 'dying' and then 'coming back' as of late; if you like, the death and resurrection of a kind of music that from the beginning has honored and defended itself vociferously against any and all comers. Rock 'n' roll is not music for those who are comfortable or satisfied (actually no good music is, but that is for another essay). So what happens when THE symbol of rock gets enlisted? Is that a kind of death?

I am sure for many it was a sort of ending when Elvis was enlisted and then joined the army in early '58; The Man wanted him and got him. The man himself was uneasy (not to mention his label) about the prospect of no more recording or concerts, and recorded a lot of songs before getting his uniform and haircut. Anyone who went to see King Creole ('58, with Walter Matthau as the heavy) only heard "Hard Headed Woman" at the very end of the movie, which is something of a cheat, since it is (for all I know) the meta-commentary on its plot; but even if you know nothing, it is still a great song, a good-natured protest that "A hard headed woman and a soft hearted man/Been the cause of trouble ever since the world began" and then running through Eve, Delilah and Jezebel like any good Christian boy would, as examples. It is a blues song speeded up (written by Claude Demetrius) and with the New Orleans setting it has the New Orleans horns as well as Elvis' usual Jordanaires backing - in this song it is as if rock is already getting back to the blues, or maybe showing that there is barely any difference besides speed and determination in the matter.

Elvis himself is having a ball - the army clock is ticking and he's going to give it his all before he goes - so much so that instead of just "Uh-huh!" he sings "Uh-hah-hoo!" through the song, digging the bad girls and sympathizing with the guys who haplessly give in to them or just hang around with them. He also looks the complete badass on the cover of the single, which doesn't hurt, either. If this is rock 'n' roll's swan song, then it is a good one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Big Men: The Four Preps: "Big Man"

When I arrived in London in the summer of '88, I was intrigued by two girls from my hometown - L.A. - who had moved, voluntarily and of their own accord, to London. They were Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland, and they led a band called Voice of the Beehive. Despite moving they still had that Californian sunshine and indefagitability in their voices, as well as a way with hooks and sudden pleasurable shifts, and their album Let It Bee was one of my top ones for that year. Little did I know that one day I would encounter their father's music right here in London, as part of a much bigger picture I could have hardly imagined...

Bruce Belland is the leader of The Four Preps (who are still going to this day, though not in their original lineup). When I hear "Big Man" - a song about the aftermath of a lover's spat (you can just hear the "You can't dump me I am dumping you first!" dialogue), I hear the sisters' good cheer even in the midst of doubt and loneness. "I was a big man yesterday, but boy, you oughta see me now" they sing as if they do and don't really want to be seen. Their voices are smooth and in regular harmony, but there is a definite alone-at-the-end-of-the-hallness to it, from the church basement rumbling piano to the admitting that "the only thing that made me big was YOUUUU!" that climaxes the song. He wants her back, he knows he's done wrong; his life is "so empty now that half my life's walked out" that you have to wonder how much headdesking will occur and maybe worse if she won't even look at him again. The song fades as if the narrator is indeed becoming invisible, leaving soundlessly through the back door at the end of the hall, not to sob but to just hang his head low at how stupid he can be. And his daughters will sing thirty years later: "It's just a city/ And on night like this I feel small in this world/It's just a city and I am just a girl."

But the story of the Four Preps doesn't just stop with this song. Bruce Belland's story is here, but what of Ed Cobb, who wrote "Tainted Love" and "Every Little Bit Hurts" not to mention "Dirty Water"? What of Glen Larson, who produced the The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman and Knightrider, whose theme he also wrote, later on sampled by Jay-Z? There was a lot of talent in these young men from Hollywood, talent that reaches towards science fiction, garage rock, New Pop and Northern Soul, not forgetting Motown. Not at all bad for a group I have only come to appreciate now - YAY L.A.!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Make Mine Cherry: The Mudlarks: "Lollipop"

What makes a song stick in your mind? I am sure there are scientists out there right now trying to figure this out (I have yet to read Daniel J. Levitin's The World In Six Songs) but this one (called falsely a 'novelty' song) must be used in any experiments. "Lollipop, lollipop, mm - lolli lolliop!" is the chorus and it is instantly hummable/sing-a-longable (always a good sign of a hit) and the dub-like moments and general sense of otherness come from the production of - well who else could it be? - Joe Meek. Clear, clean, this is a well-behaved crush on wheels, a lime/huckleberry quoting treat that skips down the street in a way somewhere poised between childhood and adulthood. I have no idea if it is the first song to equate a loved one with candy, but how guilelessly suggestive the choice of a lollipop is! (Of course, it could have been chosen as it's a fun word to sing and because of the 'pop' noise that naturally comes out of it, but still...hmm..."Lollipop" by Lil' Wayne didn't come out of nowhere.)

And so the number two spot is both squeaky clean and winking at us at the same time, the sparkling shine in part coming out of the fact that this is sung by two brothers and a sister who sang in their spare time and all worked at the Vauxhall factory in Luton; they recorded one first dud single and then were championed by David "Heello Therre" Jacobs and became stars overnight. The Mudlarks didn't write or even perform this song first (it was a US hit for The Chordettes), but the UK market was ripe for UK remakes and this marks the real beginning of that time - before the UK had much pop, it did what it could, including ever-so-slightly surreal versions of dippy, earworm joys like this song.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hardcore (Diamonds) Can Never Die: Elias and His Zigzag Jive Flutes: "Tom Hark"

Defiance is one of the many, many reasons to make music - defiance of relatives, of a musical culture, or of your entire surroundings, including political. Defiance can sound (and usually does) loud and angry and upsetting; but "Tom Hark" is seemingly anything but. Elias (a.k.a. Aaron Jack Lerole) and His Zigzag Flutes were a bunch of friends who, in order to protect themselves from gangs in the not-quite-always-that-friendly streets of the Alexandra Township near Johannesburg, carried tomahawks. Whether "Tom Hark" is a play on this or not is not known exactly, but the combination of sharp, sweet penny whistles and sharp, ever-ready tomahawks protected them - they were street musicians who got to record this song, which somehow became the theme song of the tv miniseries The Killing Stones. The unsuspecting UK populace had never heard kwela music before and once it was released as a single they promptly went out in droves and bought it, thinking it happy and maybe ignoring or not caring about the fact that The Killing Stones was all about the troublesome and deadly lure of diamonds (this was some time before the term 'blood diamonds' was invented, never mind the more diplomatic 'conflict diamonds'.)

The song itself is a simple up-and-down merry/tough thing, with Elias taking the lead and improvising and blowing with greater intensity as the song goes on; I think I can honestly say that this is the first song described here that was made just to be made, without much concern for commercial potential (and South Africa being how it was, no money was made by the group for this, which is a real shame). I can well imagine that certain young ears heard this hit and became aware for the first time of real African music ("Zambezi" being more exotica than genuine) - Peter Gabriel, perhaps. Certainly it was heard by the young men in The Blue Notes (later to become in part the Brotherhood of Breath), who would take the cheery defiance and freedom of kwela music and add it to their storming free jazz to make something utterly unique and marvellously relentless. Sometimes entryism - in this case, the beginnings of what would be called nearly three decades later as 'world music' - is defiant, guarding its streetcorner, and then haphazardly is launched into another world that likes it, but doesn't quite understand it. Is "Tom Hark" New Pop? Yes, but of the most oblique and nearly nonchalant kind.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I'll Be Blooming Happy When I'm Dead: Pat Boone: "A Wonderful Time Up There"

The history of music and the history of religion are pretty much hand in hand, as far as I can figure out; people have been singing & chanting for this and that to happen since anyone had the first idea, which I am guessing is a very long time ago. The songs were to strengthen the spirit, to be sure, but also they were supposed to be heard by the Big Guy/Gal Upstairs who was supposed to, the logic goes, hear it and be moved in someway by it. All good religious music has that element of gravity to it; the singer(s) are down here and want to manifest something - even if it's just a sense of calm and peace - in their souls down here. It has other ascending qualities as well, which only makes sense - not all songs are downbeat in the least.

But this song is nothing but a boppy, chirpy and ultimately annoying song that talks about the Book of Revelations as if it's a tourist guidebook and the ultimate raising of the dead therein is a big party by the pool. It doesn't have any gravity, it is all 'cheer up dead people who aren't dead yet, one day you won't be dead' and the narrator is spreading this news while tapping his figurative toes in the diner after having had his chocolate malt and hamburger. If you ever meet anyone who was alive in the late 50s they will likely shudder when you mention Pat Boone's name, and this song is one of the many, many reasons why. As for how it got to #2, I cannot figure that out except to say that after all these rather sexy ones as of late, a more Victorian song was bound to pop up. I'm most sorry to say it was this one, and we aren't done with Mr. Boone yet. (It will be a few years from now, with an unexpected happy ending.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coax Me: Elvis Presley: "Don't"

Unlike the riotous previous song, this one is so quiet that at times the singer can only just be heard. It is a lullaby of persuasion, the girl being cajoled out of saying "don't" when he wants to kiss her (clearly there is no making of eyes here). She resists and says (we don't hear her, but it's implied) that he's not serious - he replies very quietly that "I ain't playin'." He is hers, put bluntly, and always will be, and it's cold and he needs to embrace and kiss her. The music gently rises and falls, swerving this way and that just as arms can bend and hold another; the Jordanaires aid and abet their leader admirably (even singing the title in three/four part harmony at one point). This is a tender song with just the right amount of longing and urgency, the girl and boy are together (where? anywhere, really) and with such "awfully nice" talk you might wonder why the girl is resisting at all - it's not like this is Pat Boone singing "Don't Forbid Me" after all (we will get back to him soon enough). This is Elvis with that fine subtlety in his voice, as fine and sure as Cupid's arrow itself; "on a night like this" sounds like a simple phrase, but he makes it sound as if there could be no other night, that time itself has ground to a halt and won't continue until she lets him hold and kiss her. Maybe she's afraid of what might happen after that? But the lulling warmth of the song makes it clear that that is all the singer wants, warmth on a cold night - a cozy moment. What may or may not happen after that is up to both of them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Glad Eye: Johnny Otis and His Orchestra with Marie Adams: "Ma He's Making Eyes At Me"

When it comes to the senses in lyrics, the eyes have it: though hearing and touching are there too, the ability to see far outstrips them and for good reason; it is the first sense to register another person, the Other, and the one that can be responded to most directly. (That said, if you don't like how the Other smells on a regular basis, I would suggest you find another; chemistry has a lot to say about love via the nostrils.)

When a man looks at a woman in a song and falls for her instantly, that song (if it is good, that is) has a swooping, sweeping quality to it, the singer stunned and amazed and perhaps a bit in disbelief - but mainly there is a gratifying intensity to the whole thing, an OMG this is big and my whole life has changed and even if I try to deny it, it won't go away-ness that leads to...well, whatever comes next. Does the Other even know she is the object? Certainly by the end of the song she does, as his delirious love declaration cannot be ignored - not if he is sincere and eloquent enough. (Recent UK #1 "Number One" by Tinchy Stryder & N-Dubz is a fine example of this kind of song.)

But love isn't just words but gestures - and it starts with the eyes.

"Mama!" the singer cries out, "he's making EYES at me!!" This is responded to (yes) by a bunch of screaming girls - this is the first live #2, after all - and the singer (Marie Adams) goes on to sing such deathless lines as "Mercy! Let his conscience guide him!" and "Ma I'm meeting with resistance/I shall holler for assistance/Ma, he's kissing me!"

Now, no girl in the history of the universe ever actually says such things; they are thought. So what's here? Besides a riotous good time with your standard doo wop provided by the Johnny Otis, there's nothing less than the female interior becoming the near-screamed female experience, shared with lots of young women who are shrieking in recognition and response (though maybe some in the Orchestra are making eyes at them?) No wonder there's a call-and-response from the audience to Ms. Adams; no wonder a song that makes the implicit explicit got to #2 and stayed in the charts for a good while, only stopped by such luminaries as Harry Belafonte, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis from getting to the top spot. I can well imagine those who disapproved of the Everly Brothers' hit tut-tutting this as well; the freedom for a girl to scream in public with joy is rare indeed, and having what they feel being said aloud must have been liberating in a time when girls were not supposed to express themselves in such an explosive way. Screaming girls, I salute you - this song from 1921 has just been launched into the atomic age and thing are, as I said before, accelerating far faster than any censor could imagine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Waking To A New World: The Everly Brothers: "Wake Up Little Susie"

Well no kidding your reputation is shot. Again? Again? Last thing you knew you were celebrating finally finishing your exams after weeks of late-night studying and worry, sweating your brains out as the phrase goes, gritting your teeth against the clock - and now here it is, four in the morning and yes it's with him again, you really like him but on the other hand you wish you could be stronger and get away. But when, how? He is a bit of a goof and you'll be grounded and maybe he will too...perhaps this is a good thing in a way?

All this is being thought as she yawns in the now-paling darkness under a very late moon like a slice of cantaloupe. She's not going to make herself look better because there is no reason - it's Saturday morning and she just hopes no one is at home waiting up, though when she gets there sure enough Mom is sleeping in her chair in the kitchen, Dad's in bed. How can they explain themselves to anyone? Sure the milkshake and extra fries at the drive-in were maybe a mistake, but they were hungry at the time. And usually she likes movies like those - because her favorite actor is in them - but yes this one was boring and she needed sleep...and so did he, the lunk. In a year she will get out of state to that college where she can take courses and be...well something more than a waitress, which is what she is now. He will inherit his dad's sporting goods store for sure in a decade or so; he's not going anywhere.

The Everly Brothers took their time waiting for a song after "Bye Bye Love" and this was their choice - composed in a car by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (hmm) and probably learned on the spot, their marmalade-sharp voices cajole and seem bemused at their plight more than anything else; but there is still the knowledge that there will be consequences for their hapless snooze beyond what should be allowed. This is the 50s; reputation and appearances count for all, small-town American morality still being the norm, even in bigger cities (it was banned in Boston - ah, God love you, Boston). We are back in Appalachia here, probably not far from Johnny Duncan - there's that same fearless grin in their voices - but unlike Duncan we will be hearing from the brothers again, as they teach (inadvertently) many young men how to harmonize in a new way, not to mention get *that* into a song with good cheer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whoops, I've Fallen Into The Pool: Jim Dale: "Be My Girl"

And now we come to a bellwether, a notable moment, a stopping place: this is the first #2 of the rock 'n' roll/pop era by someone from the UK. And how...appropriate that it be almost a perfect template of its time (semi-yelping big-eyed-puppy longing) and a past-is-prologue to everything that is to come. The high-pitched tinkly piano comes from Winifred Atwell and is still alive with Lily Allen; the backing singers are a little too polished to be the Jordanaires and thus may as well be the Mike Sammes Singers, minus the girls. The whole thing has the air of being well-rehearsed and yet just casually put together in that adorable slackerly way most (not all!) UK musicians have. Dale was going to be a pop idol but then found out that "his entry into the UK singles chart came about more by accident than design, for his ability to fall over without sustaining injury far outweighed his vocal skills" - and so the first time I ever saw him (looking like Davy Jones' uncle) was in Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World and not in a record collection of any of my friends' moms. Music turning to comedy; comedy informing and enriching music; this is the unlikely yet inevitable precursor to just about everything to come, either directly or inadvertently. (That he is the straight, loyal guy to the butterfly-like girl in the song only underlines all this, in case you were wondering about the narrative details, as such.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shake N Bake: Elvis Presley: "Party"

While it's not really in fashion anymore, bibliomancy used to be the thing when you were stumped for an answer to a question - just pick up a sacred book, open it (eyes closed) and put your finger where you like and open your eyes and read your answer (and then decipher it, of course). If there was a book of Elvis lyrics (certainly would qualify as a sacred tome to some), what would you make of this?

"I've never kissed a bear
I've never kissed a goon
But I can shake a chicken
In the middle of the room"

Sung with utterly amazing oomph and conviction by Elvis and the Jordanaires, "Party" is eighty-six seconds of get-up-and-go IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII'M COMING UP SO LET'S GET THIS PARTY STARRRRTTED energy which makes having a party sound like the ideal way of living; and when you run out of something, you just go to the store and get some more. What philosopher could argue with these words?

"Some people like to rock
Some people like to roll
But movin' and a groovin'
Gonna satisfy my soul"

None, if they're smart about it. (If anything, those lyrics remind me of the immortal US tv ad for Almond Joy/Mounds candy bars - "Sometimes you feel like a nut/Sometimes, you don't.") As we round the corner ('57 is almost done) rock 'n' roll is most definitely here to stay, shaking chickens and grooving and maybe stopping to eat the hot bread and meat in the kitchen before too long. Satisfying indeed.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Love As Force of Nature: Debbie Reynolds: "Tammy"

The day was sunny and quiet; it was early afternoon. I was almost home after yet another trip to the library to report that the mail he had sent weeks ago still hadn't arrived. We were both anxious, as there was not just a letter involved, but mix tapes as well.

As I walked down the crescent, just before the turn of the curve, I saw a bird, a robin I think. He was sitting on a branch, calling out and very obviously listening to see if there were any responses. Birds do this a lot in the course of their lives, but I was almost at eye level with the robin and could see its singular concentration...I got home, saw an odd parcel was stuffed in the mailbox; I let out a happy cry that bounced and echoed into the still air. HERE!

Could the bird have understood my joy? I don't know; the gratifications of a bird's life don't include transatlantic mail, the internet or music. And yet birds travel long distances, sing (certainly robins have a lot of variations in their standard 'song') and they court too. The robin is the bird of spring and hope; there is something uniquely determined about them (not to mention, loud).

In "Tammy" the narrator is in nature; the whippoorwill and breezes alike somehow know she is in love and say to her "Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love." The cold rational mind will scoff at this of course, but anyone who has fallen in love will know what she means. Suddenly, everything becomes significant - trees, birds, the wind, all of nature seems to comprehend and understand. It is a self-centered thing to hear your name, of course; but it could well be thast the narrator's falling in love is the first really important thing she has ever experienced; and it could be (even) that it is not something she expected to experience. (She lives on a Mississippi houseboat and is seventeen; I rest my case.) Her own wonderment and dazed happiness are in part because she is in love and also because she is, well, different. That her Other seems to be the only person who doesn't know she's in love with him doesn't bother her (as it would bother, say, a girl group); the song isn't about them, it's about her. It is, for all its calling out to nature, ultimately about the experience of being in love and knowing you are in love - existing and observing yourself, in short. (It's far more A Lover's Discourse than The Art of Love, for instance.)

The movie this song is from is called Tammy and the Bachelor which pretty much guarantees that there will be obstacles and they will be overcome; a young Leslie Nielsen plays the bachelor in question - the first Canadian involved with this blog but certainly not the last (Nielsen's later efforts may make this movie seem even more...funny now; it is too bad he and Reynolds haven't got back together for a comedy).

There is another odd strand out of this song that I cannot ignore - coming out of the phrase 'easy listening.' This term was coined around the time of this song (I have a hunch about this). And of course it describes "Tammy" perfectly - easy listening means sweet-stringed songs of love with gentle balladic highs and lows, songs with stars in their eyes, romantic songs in short that have nothing to do with the brash, vulgar and overtly sexual world of rock 'n' roll. These two genres existed side-by-side all through the late 50s and 60s on the charts and then began to merge in all sorts of ways, the most common being the 'easy rock' radio station (there's one in Toronto called EZ-Rock) aka 'adult contemporary' format. It is exactly what you hear in dentists' offices and such the world over. If it's balladic or mid-tempo or briskly cheery, you will hear it; but at the outer edge of this sits a man who was a young protege of Debbie Reynolds' husband, Eddie Fisher. (Not too long after "Tammy" was a hit, Elizabeth Taylor and Fisher had an affair and got married; it was the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie story of the day.) The protege's name: Noel Scott Engel. Yes, that's right - the young Scott Walker lurks at the back of this song, then tentatively makes his way to Los Angeles and thence to London, singing covers at first and then writing his own songs and indeed hosting his own show, just as Fisher introduced young Mr. Engel on his own.

By now, Walker has turned 'easy listening' on its head and then some; I like to think that he picked something up from "Tammy" - its patience and slowness, its odd sense of the person in nature being seen and private, known and unknown. It is a song with more to it than first meets the ear, a dimension where the self and nature become one, just as the bird sits and sings and then flies away.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mysterious Hillbilly Ways: Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys: "Last Train to San Fernando"

1957 was the last year - the last official year, at any rate - of skiffle's popularity. It may sound a bit quaint now, what with being made by a bunch of guys with washboards and fiddles and acoustic guitars in basements and cellars, all singing about things they had never actually experienced (rural American culture). But it was fast, exciting, rude and raw - a deliberate reproof to 'good' singing and 'classy' arrangements by orchestras and such. It was the liberating and inspiring music in the UK before rock 'n' roll hit, and it continued for a good year to keep prodding and providing the youth with a way in - not a sexy way, always, but a way in nevertheless.

How appropriate, then, for this big skiffle hit to be sung by an actual American? Duncan was born in a coal mining camp in Tennessee and has the high, pleasant nasal whine of a man who has grown up hearing Appalachian music since his birth; he sings as clear as a bell. Musically, it's a song that speeds up, sounding just like a train - dum...dum-dum-dum...dum-dum-dum-dum until it's going full speed, sounding cheery and free, but the warning is constant: "If you miss - this one - they're never be another one ("bidi-bidi-bum-bum" comments Duncan) "to San Fernando."

Now, as usual, the train in question is both a real one and a metaphor for something present that won't be around for long - in this case, the chance of romance and marriage to a woman who (as far as I can tell; the lyrics are a bit odd) is having an affair with the narrator and "marries into high society" but is still willing to slip away with him if she gets bored. (The song was written in '57; for some reason I keep picturing the woman as Grace Kelly or maybe Ava Gardner.) There's a fine guitar solo in the middle and then after it's done the song slows down, the train comes to a halt and Duncan makes a sound like a last gentle blast of steam: "Pssshhhh...."

Anyone who knows me knows I love train songs; in fact I think there's no such thing as a bad train song (not very good ones, sure, but no truly awful ones). This skiffle song of cross-class love was a hit because it's so damn catchy, to be sure, but it has that same bold confidence (without the extraterrestrial shock) as Elvis' "Mystery Train." (Inexplicably, "Mystery Train" only reached #25 on the UK charts. Other totally awesome songs to reach this position include "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, "Cryin'" by Roy Orbison, "Showroom Dummies" by Kraftwerk, "Could It Be Magic" by Barry Manilow, "Diamonds and Pearls" by Prince and, um, "The Longest Time" by Billy Joel. Maybe I should do a blog?? Hmmmm....)

Skiffle was busy going down its own inevitable track by now, making way for other Americans to come in and sit a spell with their own William Carlos Williams-ish "pure products"; Duncan himself eventually ended up in Australia, as so many UK-based entertainers did, and yet he was back in the studio just months before his death in 2000. His genial strangeness (he looks just like he sounds - a bit like Lyle Lovett, in fact) liberated maybe just a few more kids to think - "hey, I don't have to look great or make perfect sense to be accepted." And bless him for that.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Love in Limbo: Pat Boone: "Love Letters In The Sand"

As the saying goes, there are two kinds of people - in this case, they are separate in the ways they look at the past. The first kind regards it with respect and affection, but they keep their distance from it, too. The past is valuable to them for what it can give them, the lessons and ideas and the whole treasure trove of curious and wondrous strange things 'they' did 'then'. The past here is connected to the present in a million ways, very much like a piece of fabric.

The other kind is much more sentimental and even nostalgic, to the point where the past is far more alive to them than the present and the idea of weaving the past into the future is nearly unimaginable. They may even try to do the impossible - to bring the past back and have things 'just as they were', as much as possible.

This song sits awkwardly between these two kinds of people; its very nonchalance - the first thing you hear is whistling, after all - points to a kind of casual 'keep calm and carry on' attitude that either betrays a rather cold-hearted figure who is unable or unwilling to commit (who writes letters in the sand? The very medium, if I can call it that, suggests impermanence, which goes against the "vow" made on the beach. I know very well that (young) lovers can and do find significance in the most ephemeral and trivial of things, but it's not like writing implements and paper didn't exist in 1957).

There is also the chance, of course, that Boone is in a kind of mindset wherein a broken vow doesn't really mean that much in the greater scheme of things - not so much a Buddhist acceptance of loss as more a Christian conviction that this girl obviously wasn't righteous enough for him, so there is no love lost. Boone sings so lightly and politely that it is hard to hear any heartbreak at all in the song; he sings like a wooden doorstop, all whistling near-indifference, the band behind him fruitlessly trying to inject some notion of what sensual walks by the surf have been lost. But Boone remains by the ocean, seemingly in a kind of limbo, somehow both nostalgic and cut off at the same time. (For those of you wondering, yes there is more Pat Boone to come, but not for a little while.)

(It is worth noting that this was a big transatlantic hit song; it is also worth noting that the two songs which leapfrogged it to number one were all about sexual urgency and intense hormonal longing - "All Shook Up" by Elvis and "Diana" by Paul Anka. Once again, the number two song is utterly in opposition to what is at the top.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Word 'Love': Russ Hamilton: "We Will Make Love"

It almost goes without saying - but I will say it anyway - that language is a soft, squishy and supremely malleable thing, particularly the English language. It is a ravenous, ever-changing beast which, in the words of a future subject of MSBWT, may well be a virus from outer space.

Music has been part of this viral experience, of course. "What did s/he just say/sing?!?" is a subject of debate, confusion and disbelief for some time now. (Even when lyrics can be deciphered, they still may not make any sense, of course; one of my favorite lyricists, Stephen Malkmus, has a way of making the commonplace...not so common, to say the least.)

Then there's of course the way you sing something. Russ Hamilton, at first glance, has got a pretty four-square ahem ahem title here. But the song - and particularly the way he sings it - is as fresh and pure as the first day of spring. You just know that when he and his girl (clearly they are young sweethearts) go to that secluded place they are going to do something, but not anything that will lead to a hasty trip down the aisle. Making love here sounds warm and cosy and reassuring, in part to the golden syrup-voiced Hamilton and in part to the gently swaying music, which is close to a waltz, if it isn't one already.

The drama in the song comes from the fact that the narrator has to go away - he asks his beloved to be faithful, with the promise that they will once again make love in a place far away from where they live, a place they have always dreamed about, "in the clouds up above." I still cannot figure out whether this means he is going away (for the regulation stay in the National Service, perhaps) or something a lot stranger. The music doesn't have any odd key changes or anything that would signify other worldliness, so I can only guess it means they're going to go on some exotic vacation once he returns. But he makes it sound so much like they will be in heaven that the mere act of making love sounds almost redundant. And yet that is what the song is about! Love is clearly not sex here, but some kind of aura that is almost impossible to describe, something so big it transcends the merely physical world and may even last beyond death itself, ultimately.

And so we have our first lesson in love from a Liverpudlian. There will be others, but none will be quite as quietly supernatural as this one.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Perfect Love Forever: Nat King Cole: "When I Fall In Love"

It is a late winter night, or should I say, evening, on a calm and pleasant street. The days are now perceptibly longer and warmer, the branches of trees and hedges all show hopeful buds for the spring. Very slowly they are opening, showing color -a pale green here, a bubblegum pink there. Venus burns steady near the horizon while the moon hangs in a crescent smile.

It feels like spring, but spring is not really here yet - not quite. In this time, there is eagerness for it, but sure enough the winds turn fierce and cold, the rain comes, and a gentle stroll down the street is out of the question.

So it is with weather; and so it can be with the heart. "When I Fall In Love" sounds at first like a romantic song - aah those strings! And it's Nat after all, his voice as warm and soothing as a good bowl of soup. It is a romantic song, but it is conditional - when and if stand like two fences between the narrator and whoever is on the other side. The ultimate - and to some people, frightening - phrase comes right at the beginning: "it will be forever, or I'll never fall in love."

The original version of this song is from a movie set in the Korean War called One Minute To Zero; it is sung by Doris Day, and gives voice to a widow (Ann Blyth) and her soul. She is a UN official who has lost her heroic husband in combat and now who should she run into but Robert Mitchum, who no doubt gives her that look, that smile. During any war, passionate bonds are made for life, bonds of all kinds, but she wonders, could it last? Because if it isn't for life, she's just not interested. (Without having seen it, I can't judge how much a settling-down type Mitchum portrays - my guess is, only a little.)

And so this dreamy song - musically at least - is rather tough, but it is a toughness that is as protective as it must be, given the circumstances. She knows full well what love is, and how she will be when and if it happens to her again. To tender young hearts who have only experienced crushes or infatuations or been boy/girl-crazy, this song may have been a 'romantic' song that they could aspire to, hopefully; for those more hardened to life, it is not so much 'romantic' as it is 'obvious.' Crucially, the 'you' in the song has to feel the same way or there is no falling, no removal of the 'when' and 'if.' (I can well imagine Erich Fromm liking this song, even if he was opposed to the phrase 'to fall in love' - for him you can stand in love, in his mind, falling is too passive.)

Ther have been dozens of covers of this song (one of which I will write about here in the fullness of time), but you may laugh when I tell you, dear readers, of how I first heard it.

It was a spring night (or was it? It felt like it was) and I had a new tape, an odd thing as it was more like an EP than an album. All the songs were done in the studio save for the last one which was recorded live somewhere in the UK before a very responsive audience. The song started up - the band's own song - with drums, bass, guitar and a violin I think, but only after the repeated question (from Shane) about shooting a man in the back. Then the singer comes in, sounding almost as if he is on fire. The song is introduced, then the chorus comes in - and then after the guitar break, all goes relatively quiet as the singer begins to sing other songs. First, James Brown's "Sex Machine" - the band suddenly becomes a post-punk JBs, which shows how good they are. Then The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" is flattened and sped up, the seemingly daft lyrics being dragged into commonsense. Then, a hush - the band are barely audible as the singer begins "When I Fall In Love" - a song whose sentiments fit neatly back into the band's own song, which they return to pronto, but not until the whole place goes quiet as the singer - yes, it is Ian McCulloch, this is Echo and the Bunnymen - croons as soft and sweet as Nat, giving his soul in a way that U2, their main rivals, have yet to learn. Then as "Do It Clean" roars back into life, Ian's voice goes up and up, to a climactic "Yooooooooouuuuuuuuu-hooo!" And thus the night ends, and the toughness and calm of this song are given a new life, a faithful deliverance.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Dawning World: Harry Belafonte: "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)"

It may seem ironic - at first - that it took a Manhattan-born, partially-raised-in-Jamaica-when-young aspiring actor to bring music from the Caribbean to the UK charts, but that is how things stood in the winter of '57. (This isn't to say that the recent immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, etc. weren't already playing live, recording and so on - they were, of course, but they hadn't crossed over yet to the UK charts.)

This song well precedes itself. Few songs are as memorable on first hearing as this one; from the proclamation "Day-O!" to the more than understandable refrain "Daylight come and me wan' go home" to the pleading/swaggerific "Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me bananas" - this is the song of a man who is proud of his work, as arduous and dangerous as it is (what other song mentions the "highly deadly black tarantula"? - none, I'm guessing). But he is at the end of his shift, he wants to get his pay and get some sleep after a long night on the docks, broken only by the odd swig of rum and dodging those darn spiders. "Day-O! Daaaaay-O! Day-is-a-day-is-day-is-a-daaaaay-ooooo" he sings, grateful for those rosy fingers of dawn; there is no sign here of the weary fatalism & murderousness of "Sixteen Tons." It could well be that the dockworker in question has relatives now living in England (I can see him now, reading his post in the early afternoon when he wakes up) and feels alternately happy and wistful, depending on their letters. Is hauling a six-foot or seven-foot bunch of bananas in the middle of the night better than living somewhere cold, rainy and, well, different? Perhaps it is, for him; but he might just go see for himself, and visit them too, one day. He knows he can't be a dockworker all his life, after all...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Add Water And Stir: Pat Boone: "Don't Forbid Me"

As soon as it was obvious that the youth of the US were interested in what was called "race music," and some profit could be made from it (if it was re-recorded in a properly sanitized for your protection fashion) up popped Pat Boone, a clean-cut reasonably cute lad, to do the job. He was instant mashed potatoes in comparison to anyone else (for this song, esp., Elvis but also Charles Singleton, who wrote it); again, for this song he tries as hard as he can (with his own sorta-kinda Jordanaires) to sound just like Elvis. Clearly this worked, as it was a success, but the idea of Pat kissing me (to keep my lips from freezing, you see) let alone holding me does not, so to speak, spin my propellers. That many girls did respond to his warm pleas is proof that there has always been, and always will be, a big segment of the record-buying population that likes the safe, secure and square guy over the daredevil dirt dude every time. And yet no matter how much you may enjoy instant mashed potatoes, they are soft mush compared to the real thing. I am far from done with Mr. Boone, but in the meantime I must note that the song which kept him from number one was "Young Love" by Tab Hunter - not even in the arena of cute American boys could Boone win out; and next time we meet him here, his competition won't even be American. It's 1957 now, and things are starting to accelerate.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Someone Somewhere Is Having A Good Time: Winifred Atwell: "Let's Have a Party" and Frankie Vaughan: "The Green Door"

And now, some more housekeeping. In the rush to get through 1953 I omitted an important number two, perhaps knowing somehow it would happily sip its figurative drink until I got to it years later.

We are now entering the Age of Meek; the boy from the Forest of Dean has been puzzling over recorded and transmitted sounds for 24 years now - and is an engineer, by occupation, though his energy is so strong that he is, in fact, a producer for both these songs. (This is certainly a good case for the number two songs being more representative of what was going on than the number ones.) Meek innovated, he obsessed, and with these records he did what he could to enchant and bend the ear of the listener.

Atwell's medley (side one: "If You Knew Suzie/The More We Are Together/That's My Weakness Now/Knees Up Mother Brown" side two: "Daisy Bell/Boomps a Daisy/She Was One of the Early Birds/Three O'Clock in the Morning") is a deliberate and giddy throwback to the saloons of old, her piano treated and thus altered as much as John Cage's were across the ocean. It sounds as if there is a drummer on the song but he just keeps time; the rest is Atwell's loose player-piano style, providing bass and guitar, in effect, if not voice. However a guitar does come in on the second side, sounding sor all the world not like a guitar at all but the bleeping bloops of a machine - a very primitive synth. If you ever wondered what the precedent was for the cantina scene in Star Wars, this is it. Atwell would have fit in fine there, just as she did in post-war UK.

Three years later and another party is being held: one, I suspect, even more avant-garde or off-limits than Atwell's come-one come-all shindig. With "The Green Door" we have a party we are not allowed to join, one maddeningly interesting (to the point that our hapless and excited narrator can't sleep) but mysteriously forbidding. There's a "hot piano" behind the door, and laughter, but there is a sense that these are just the start of the intrigue, and not the point. That "Joe" sent him is met with derision (a nice coincidence there and yes, ironic as can be, too) points to the fact that our narrator may not be as pitiable as you might think. He seems to enjoy the whole frustrating ordeal (whenever he sings "door" it's as "doo-orr-AAAH!" as if some vital part of his anatomy was being, um, squeezed). The song is quiet and swinging at first, then big band brassy, then quiet again as he is once more sleepless (does he live nearby? The green door in question seems to become more and more figurative as the song goes on). Then it ends abruptly with the cry "Green door!" in longing and happy frustration. There are no proto-synth moments in the song, but Meek - a gay man in a resolutely straight world, which in 1956 meant that he was, in effect, illegal (or to be more accurate, he could be who he was as long as The Man was ignorant of the fact) gave this version of the song an extra dose of oomph that goes beyond the va-va-voom recording itself. I am not a Meekologist, but I cannot help but see this as the first in many songs produced by him that are full of longing and anger; joyous here, but increasingly darker and deeper, far from the aroused insomnia of Vaughan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Great I Art: Tony Martin: "Walk Hand In Hand"

It is rare, dear readers, that my opinion of a song is a negative one. I will always try to find some redeeming factor in the mess, some future salvation, even. But this song makes that task a hard one.

Why? Is it because of the horns, the large choir of "awe," the general sense that Martin took this song as no one else wanted it? Hmm, in part, but only in part. There is a reason the BBC banned this, and it has nada to do with standard 50s boilerplate singing or production. It is the lyrics.

"Walk hand in hand with me/Through all eternity/Have faith, believe in me, give me your hand."

"Love is a symphony/Of perfect harmony/When lovers such as we/Walk hand in hand."

"Be not afraid for I am with you all the while/So lift your head up high and look towards the sky."

"Walk hand in hand with me/God is our destiny/No greater love could be/Walk hand in hand, walk with me."

Unless you are a nun (in which case, hey! Welcome to MSBWT, and no offense to you, ma'am) this is an icky song, to say the least. There are certain topics - religion being one of them - that are best avoided in what could be called 'mixed' company; at large family gatherings, work, the bus stop, etc. Music most likely (as I understand it) came out of religious rites and languages, and the lyrics from before the Greeks up to the 50s usually were that of men and women singing in praise/fear/hope of their creator. (If I am wrong about this, I'd be very happy to hear about it.) No one but no one presumed to know what the creator would sing to them, let alone how to suggest his/her/its majesty and power.

But the 50s was a time when all kinds of lyrical boundaries were being stretched if not broken altogether, and the lyricist here thought he had a fine idea in somehow comparing a couple in love walking hand in hand to the creator's general attitude towards us mortal creatures. WRONG. Like I said, only a nun (who "marries" Jesus, in effect) could hear this and get all gooey-eyed. Does God really want to take us on a date? (Does God have a crush on me? as the teen girl magazine might ask, with a handy quiz to figure out the answer.) "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" says one song, and yet here this unfathomably large hand is holding yours - a rather awkward situation, at best. I'm sorry, but to paraphrase a play: Your Voice Too Short To Sing Like You're God.

(Alert readers may notice this was a number two single just before "Hound Dog"; I will soon be catching up with the story of the number twos in proper order, while at the same time introducing a profound and unpredictable man. Sorry for the delay in posting this but I am nearly settled in London!)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Whaddaya Got?: Elvis Presley: "Hound Dog"

At the heart of rock 'n' roll there's...well, there's a lot of things, of course, but rebellion is one of the main elements. (This rebelliousness has continued on, in various forms, including the act of staying awake - i.e. U2's "Bad" or the neat Arcade Fire summation - "Rebellion (Lies).") The first act of rebellion is to rebel, the second is harder - either to find someplace/person/thing more to your liking, or to somehow create it (if it can be created) yourself. Being a rebel is glamorous and hard, and comes either through personality or circumstance. Artists of all kinds are natural rebels, though just about anyone can be one, though some are more...convincing than others. (Simply misbehaving in school or getting into 'wacky hijinks' is never enough, unless the school is indeed corrupt or said hijinks are done with some forethought and have some kind of point. Even in rebellion, logic prevails.)

The fall of '56 was a time of disruption and disillusionment. The Suez crisis was a prime example of the UK in the post-war period, presuming to have the answer and then blowing it. The Soviet invasion of Hungary is also worth mentioning, as well as the re-election of Eisenhower in November.

Against this comes Elvis, his voice starting the song with an angry contempt towards "you." Is this "you" a man, a company, a country, a way of thinking? The exhilarating thing is, to all of those things and more, YES. DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore attack and damn while Presley spits out "high-classed" as if it is the least harmful thing he could say.

During the instrumental breaks, the Jordanaires - brought in by Colonel Parker and seemingly pointless here - hold on to their notes for dear life, as if they were tied together by ropes in the back of Elvis' truck and forced to sing at gunpoint. They are lame, dull, the very representation of the animal in question, their "aahs" as flat, unconvincing and frustrating as they ought to be. They're never going to catch a rabbit and they sure don't sound high-classed. The Jordanaires would remain on Elvis' records on & off for the rest of his life, barking or yelping or crying, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. (Then Play Long has already chronicled some of these battles, as most of you likely know, and will be doing so again soon.)

And so, Elvis has arrived - "Blue Suede Shoes," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" being the effective hook, line and sinker for the whole world, or at least the UK, to a state of Elvis fandom which I will faithfully describe as best I can in this blog.

(I should also note that the song which kept "Hound Dog" from number one - Frankie Laine's "A Woman in Love" - is lovably demented in its own right, but clearly feels like another era's music hanging on in the face of Elvis vs. The Man.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Green Fields Remembered: All-Star Hit Parade: Dickie Valentine, Joan Regan, Winifred Atwell, Dave King, Lita Roza and David Whitfield

First, let me explain my absence from this blog - I have, since writing the latest entry, moved from Toronto to London and have now acclimated myself, as best I can, to the city and the slightly different keyboards & ways of thinking I have encountered. I hope I can write with even more perceptiveness, if I have any, in the future.

To the single!

While out & about I have seen some boxes of Green & Black's chocolate - about six miniature bars all in a row, different but complete versions of chocolate. And that is what this unique - a word I am very deliberate about - single is like. A charity single on a 78 rpm disc, so as to fit six different songs. Yes, it's a charity single, the funds going to help create and preserve green spaces so that children have somewhere to play and run and have fun. A place where the sun shines and you can lay on your back to watch clouds...meanwhile, in a nearby apartment house, six people hear six different songs...

First up is the hitherto unknown to MSBWT Dickie Valentine with "Out of Town"; a song full of longing for the countryside, where the sun is a "yellow duster" and the trees are wearing "blossoms in their hair" - Mother Nature is shiny, yellow and something of a hippie, `though the music itself is jaunty and open as you'd expect it to be - I'll admit I wasn't sure about Mr. Valentine, but this is a warming and welcoming song... is "My September Love" by Joan Regan. Is it soppy? Yes. Does it reek of wistful women in tea shops having epiphanies or at least 'moments' when they look out the window and see someone who looks like 'him'? But of course. Months have passed, maybe years, but HE is forever hers for that month and now it is December, and she walks the streets full of shoppers in her own special world, or maybe just stays at home, gazing into the fire, perpetually remembering. This is a solid song and one that isn't too downbeat...maybe she will meet this man again?... door, a younger woman gets ready to party - looking sharp and fine, as gaily loud as...Winifred Atwell's "Theme From The Threepenny Opera." If you know Winifred you know just how Andrew W.K. she is about playing and pounding out this classic, though everyone, including me, has forgotten her number two from 1953, "Let's Have A Party" (well, I will soon rectify this, as soon as I can actually get hold of it, physically or digitally.) No medley of songs could be complete without Winifred, could it? No! And so side one ends...

...and side two begins with Dave King singing (to Joan Regan, perhaps?) "No Other Love." This is a song of surprising depth and sensuality (again) with the longing being not for green pastures but the Other, the One - will she return is avowals of loyalty? At night he paces his penthouse needing her...yet a few floors down...

...Is Lita Roza, yet another newcomer to the MSBWT world. "A Tear Fell" here isn't so much Pop Art as poor Lita almost sounds as if she is singing this song to herself, while in full ballgown and Aquanet glory, not quite reaching the melodramatic heights of Teresa Brewer. (In apartment terms, if I may, it's a 'model suite' version as opposed to Brewer's fully-furnished disdain and pain)...and now for the big finish, our old friend...

...Dave Whitfield! The king of enunciation is back! Well, who else could it be? It almost doesn't matter 'what' he is singing ("It's Almost Tomorrow" - yes David, if only you knew) as it sounds as if he needs no microphone, like he's all but in Dickie Valentine's green valley already, calling out to his love, passionately serenading her as she herds sheep or picks flowers....

As you can see, this is a group of performers who came together for a common cause and had the good sense to perform a medley instead of finding a song they could all contribute to ~ in their own way, not shoehorned in and cramped as the Hampstead tube elevator at rush hour. And it's fun - six moments of joy, anticipation, longing, regret and hope in just about as many minutes.

One more look at the receding past, before a certain other kind of longing and rude health begins to take over.

Big thanks to Mike Atkinson for finding this for me.