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.