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.)