Friday, December 3, 2010

A Simple Question: Bruce Channel: "Hey! Baby"

In our slow approach to the great event of the 60s; or at least one of them - there are little signs of what is to come, signs that are not always obvious at first, upon first listen; after all, the subject matter here is as old as song itself - a man's simple attraction/curiosity to a girl he sees somewhere. Even by 1962 this is rather old hat for pop, but pop forever renews itself by doing something, anything, new. The simple introduction of the Delbert McClinton's harmonica as a lead instrument (as opposed to something cheerfully winking in the background) and the elongated "Heeeyyyyyyyyyyyyy" are enough to take this utterly simple song and make it something of a blueprint of what is to come, not least for four young men who have yet to step into a recording studio and all their Merseyside brethren.

But this song should not just be seen as a marker towards something greater; there is something to be said for a song sung by a man who sounds...normal. Regular. Just this guy who is thinking aloud in a song about a girl he sees on the street. I have no doubts that this song was a standard for all beginning singers and proof comes with this song, a song by another guy called Bruce that is perhaps more elaborate lyrically but says the same thing; and Channel is quoted directly at the end...some may argue that pop is forever eating its own tail, but that reassuring sameness is what makes it moving for so many people; it changes but does not change.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The One and Only: Roy Orbison: "Dream Baby"

The singer for once is happy. As happy as he will ever be? Perhaps. Once upon a time he wanted to give a song, to sell it, to Elvis, to the Everlys, but neither were in need of it, so he sang it himself; by the time this song was a hit, he was undoubtedly in his stride, a stride it took him a long time to find, just as sometimes the less showy but more beautiful flower will bloom after others have faded. If he has suffered before, if he will suffer again, he is exempt in this song; without sounding at all righteous or brave. He is dreaming night and day, you can see the clock's hands swing and become meaningless as he dreams; he sings as if he is enjoying dreaming about his beloved, his Other, as much as he undoubtedly loves her. At the same time, he knows she is dreaming too, maybe of him, maybe not, it doesn't matter (and what a relief, when at some times in his songs it seems as if the whole world rests on whether she will be his or no, right down to whether she even looks at him - there is nothing frivolous in Orbison's songs, they are practically Greek in their insistence on the essence of things). Still, how long must he dream? When will she make his dreams come true? His voice hangs between pure pleasure and the longing for the realization of that pleasure, and since Orbison is also earthy and direct (how many girls fell for him, glasses and all, just because of his voice?), his longing is getting to be overpowering, his dreams feverish in trying to keep up with them. The song grows more intense and crowded with other voices and instruments as it goes, echoing his need, and his knife-keen Tarzan call rises at the end, showing that perhaps his dreams will be fulfilled, that she will wake up and the dream will become a reality.

That Orbison was the last of the Sun label's boys to prosper makes sense, as he was the shyest and not given to much showbusiness action onstage; instead he found power in stillness, in writing songs to match the grain and grandeur of his voice, to literally give of himself in his singing without fanfare or references to others. (It's impossible to think of his doing a twist song, for instance.) Hearing him sing is like hearing a short story compacted even further, told from perfect memory with every feeling and nuance intact. With this song he might be looking at a girl, at a girl he knows or hopes to know; he gives us the power to enter into that world, to inhabit it, in an intimate way, not to mention an inspirational one. That he got a second chance to bring that vulnerable and noble voice to us is something of a miracle; the first being his faith in that voice and patience with it, over many years. Orbison died the same year my father did, and in some ways I see him as a father of rock to anyone who needs him, who needs to know someone else felt just this way, once.

Friday, September 24, 2010

You Go, I Can't: Helen Shapiro: "Tell Me What He Said"

She is talking with her best friend, a confidante; the East London kitchen is warm and cozy, but she has been in grief over him - and now she has heard that he is going out with someone else. She sits on the edge of her seat when she asks, begs her friend to go to the party - there is no way she can go down to the party, not after what happened. She is down, in suspense, unable to eat or drink, longing to hear nothing but the report back the next day; today is the sabbat and she waits for the sun to go down, for the party to start, she longs to be at the party but cannot be there - she has a new dress, her hair is looking good, but it would come to nothing, she would just lock herself in the bathroom and cry if she went, or even worse, chicken out at the last moment and go all the way to Gospel Oak for nothing. So she sits in the kitchen as her friend leaves, the light slowly fading, playing this song over and over and wondering if she too is going to live or die, if HE will say what she wants him to, what she needs to hear, or whether he will be studiedly neutral. She knows it is silly to depend on just a few words, but she wants him back, wants some sign that he could even think about that. She gets some cold chicken out and makes a sandwich, sits and plays the song again. OH his voice; she knows it so well, and her confidante will hear it and not her. She is resolute; there is time, there is always time. She finishes her sandwich and looks out the window, to where he is, practically willing him to say something, to understand how she feels. She wants him back, she told her. She's sorry and needs to talk. Will you talk with her? She imagines his voice and his kind words, and this keeps her happy, for now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dance Craze Predicts Future: Chubby Checker: "Let's Twist Again"

There were, of course, those who didn't have much interest in jazz of either a death-defying or contemplative nature; which is to say, the angst of the early 60s was something easily avoided by a new dance craze: the Twist. Why think about possible nuclear war, the situation in South Africa, this new war in a place called Vietnam...when you could just move your body back and forth, with or without a partner? If there is any song that marks the definitive beginning of the 60s (at least in this blog's remit), here it is - sung by Checker as a long encore, as if it's the real beginning of a party that is maybe about to get way out of hand ("Is it a bird, is it a plane? It's a Twister!" he cries, as if sufficient twisting could make you fly) with no way down, no way out. And indeed at the time the dance spawned many others, but it mostly spread like a virus across all classes and nations, until it was pretty much the case that it was the new hip thing, for young and old, royalty and sweaty teenagers giving it their all despite parental disapproval. The twist was the first rock 'n' roll dance, a dance that came out of the famed Peppermint Lounge, which was a place to dance to records: a discotheque. Thus another craze was born on the side: going somewhere to dance to recorded music amongst any number of people, famous and infamous, to do the latest dances and hear the hot records. (Of course people danced to records before this; I always imagine kids going crazy around a jukebox, or even dancing in their car, should they be lucky enough to get a hold of one.)

The song itself is as basic as the dance, Checker is jolly and a little scary too (as if, if you don't dance, he will come over and make you dance); seeing as how there were at least two other twist songs in the chart at this time, I can imagine how some kids were probably wondering what on earth could be better than this; without giving much away I would argue that the very best twist song was the last big one, which acted as a springboard for a group we have yet to encounter. (Those of you who can't stand the suspense can click here.) Hello, 1960s, and hello, the future.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Quiet Storm: Mr. Acker Bilk and the Leon Young String Chorale: "Stranger on the Shore"

And so after the party, the quiet contemplative night ride home. It is in this case a walk by the seaside; the night's energies have yet to disappear, the sky is clear and starry, the air is warm, the salt tang in the air refreshing after the closeness of the jazz club. Ahead, just visible, is another figure, a person - no doubt also going home, returning in a thoughtful, soulful mood after a night of who knows what. There is no rush to get anywhere, the night is too good to hurry through on a bus or a tram. Peace is what is needed after such a raucous night.

But this is only one interpretation of this song; a song that was written by Mr. Bilk for his daughter and then used as the theme to a young people's tv show; it works equally well as a lullaby, a reassurance, that everything is well in the world, that eventually everything will indeed work out as it should; it is warm and cozy in the best possible way, which is odd - odd because when I think of the clarinet, warm and cozy are not the adjectives I would use to describe the sound it makes. But Mr. Bilk's playing is mellow and post-midnight reverie-ish, backed up by strings as silky as the moonlight itself.

That the song was such a success is what remains the real surprise - even with its tv exposure, "Stranger on the Shore" was and is a huge record, the highest selling instrumental to this day in the UK, and the first UK #1 on the Billboard chart; and Bilk became a household name overnight, spawned a rather odd book wherein he is dressed as famous men throughout history, and inspired (along with Kenny Ball) a whole bunch of young people to get into jazz, including Keith Tippett, a fellow southwest England native and jazz/free jazz legend and bandleader in his own right. That he didn't take up the clarinet (a rather more difficult instrument than you'd expect) wasn't the point; the point being the warm and inviting tone of Mr. Bilk's sound inspiring others to do something equally as powerful and memorable, in a period when rock seemed to be waning on the inspirational side domestically. That this would change soon wasn't evident...not yet, at any rate.

And so a clarinetist calmed a world that wasn't sure what was going to happen next, reassuring it that some things would not change, that newness was nothing to be afraid of, but something to embrace.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Life Vs. Death: Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen: "Midnight in Moscow"

And so we are in 1962; a year when the past infiltrates the present and thus, the future. This is, after all, a traditional song played in a relatively traditional way; but it would be a mistake to think this as some kind of throwback to an older, perhaps wiser time in the midst of show tunes, pop music and so on. The traditional music (known as trad, as opposed to modern, jazz) craze was tied quite specifically in the UK to the anti-nuclear movement, a movement which grew out of the late 50s dismay with the Cold War and in the UK's involvement in the production of nuclear weapons. Every rebellious movement needs music of some kind, and trad jazz - for reasons that will become apparent - was the choice of the campaigners and followers of the CND - Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The world in 1962 was on the brink; people sensed that the arms race was getting far worse and much closer to home than they would like, and everyone alive knew about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, not to mention the newly built Berlin Wall. Post-war peace was beginning to look more like the run-up to yet another war.

"Anyone who doesn't like jazz has no real feeling for music, or people." This was first heard onstage in 1956, and it pretty much sums up what many young people (not teenagers, but not thirtysomethings either) felt, particularly those who were restless, rebellious, tired of the old UK and all it stood for and represented. Jazz was a simple wordless refutation of it all, representing staying up late, getting buzzed this way or that, and above all not conforming to whatever the 'establishment' thought was proper. Trad jazz nights went on into the wee hours, people took drugs and danced, flirted and fell in love - all with that special intensity of people who want to have a good time in the face of what looks like eminent destruction, not to mention madness. An insistence of life over death, ultimately; and if the CND is still in existence now, it is due to the failure of successive governments to see how pointless nuclear weapons are, not the CND's quiet and persistent efforts to get Trident, for example, stopped.

So trad's rise to number two here shows that the public is starting to catch on, whether or not they knew (I think they must have known) the context of the song - the nuclear clock is poised minutes before midnight, and a guy is missing his gal.

"Stillness in the grove, not a rustling sound/Softly shines the moon, clear and bright/ Dear, if you could know/How I treasure so/This most beautiful Moscow night."

Is this a song of not just love but solidarity? Written by and treasured by Russians in the 50s (and loved ever after), covered by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen here, but I can well imagine a slightly older Jimmy Porter playing it to himself on a lonely night, to give himself some solace one cold Midlands evening. It is music that transcends and laughs in the face of danger and meaninglessness; it is the reason jazz meant so much to those born in the 30s. That it was such a hit everywhere shows that maybe things were going to be all right, after all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Of Sausages and Self Sacrifice: Jimmy Dean: "Big Bad John"

A man and his son look at the marble stand near the new mine, in silence; it is a quiet, nearly windless day somewhere in Tennessee, perhaps West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Mining country, a place of stoicism and endurance. They look at the inscription and the boy blinks and then the father begins to recount the story. Was he a bad man? Well, you wouldn't want to cross him, there were rumors...about New Orleans, but New Orleans is a place, a world away from the green grassy hills here. He came here to get away from all that. Maybe he did something so bad he needed to get away from the world, to literally go underground. The pitiless labor of the mine is not something you do on a whim. But he did it, and he did it well, and nobody bothered him much and everything was fine...until...that day. Like that one, dad? he asks. Yes, much like it. John just stood there and held that roof and everyone scrambled up to the sky for their lives. And he remained? Yes, and he remained. A slight pause. Was he a good man after all that? Yes, he was. Was he happy? A longer pause. I read a man once who talked about mining, in his way. The labor, endless labor of it. "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." He wasn't in the habit of quoting Camus out loud, but the Algerian knew what he was talking about. Was Big Bad John's life absurd? Not in the least. He didn't treat it that way. But yes, he died as happy as a man could be expected to, in such a short time. Self sacrifice, you know, is a tricky thing. To give your life for others is the most profound thing of all. They walked away slowly down the road.

It is absurd, in its way, to know that Jimmy Dean went on from this and other country hits to being a maker of sausages; but perhaps after positively existential hits like this one, the more tactile and solid world of food appealed to him. A quiet, shy drifter comes to town and saves many men (courtesy of Lee Hazelwood, of course - this is a soul record of sorts, by the way); an amiable Texan starts a food company to give literal nourishment to the U.S. Dean's voice is authoritative and yet admiring; and yet another bad-man-comes-good story is added to the many that America has already given the world. 1961 comes to a close, on a note of seriousness of purpose, as if something is about to happen. And in a way, it is.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lose Yourself: John Leyton: "Wild Wind"

The sound of high voices right out of some impassioned avant-garde classical piece indicate, within seconds that we are somewhere very special indeed; we are in a tiny space above a shop on the Holloway Road, a busy, bustling and somehow different place to any other in town. The man comes in singing with deep longing and urgency about wanting to be...

...elsewhere. I imagine a young man cooped up in his own room far away, perhaps new to his neighborhood, green and yet pained and miserable and maybe even (whisper it) slightly enjoying his intense misery, lifting his window open on a still cool morning and longing for the wind and rain to take his troubles away. To eventually, even, take his soul away, far beyond the earthly bounds it is currently stuck in, for better or for worse. The world is cramped in to much for him, he longs to escape, and these high female voices seem to follow him wherever he goes...

...and so he gives himself up to nature, ignores himself, dies, and is seen (along with her) by local children as ghosts, happy ghosts, happy at last. And how thrilling that loss can be, that ultimate giving up, giving in, to whatever is out there; to the universe, ultimately, with its heat, winds, weathers; to lose yourself in a way that is unifying, not isolating in the least.

Yes, we are in the Age of Meek here, facing up to his longing (or one of his longings) - to cast away his troubles, lose himself, to break into many, many particles that will feel no pain, to be liberated, to reach nirvana...but in the meantime it's another night on the Holloway Road, another space-capsule-compressed and very successful single that is leading to his most important one in a year's time.

(As sometimes happens, I thought of another song while listening to this one; not that the lyrics are much applicable, but "the nameless name of your condition" comes to mind with this song and Meek in general. If I had an iPod these would be right next to each other.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The One: Billy Fury: "Jealousy"

In the history of music there are a few figures here and there who are what I call Friendly Forebears - those who foreshadow, who inspire, who give hope - a possibility, a chance. Billy Fury is by definition one of these figures for New Pop (he was the original man in the gold lame suit, pace Martin Fry) and yet he also inspired his own peers as well - the Silver Beatles tried and failed to be his backup band on tour, a job the Tornados (yes, the "Telstar" band) got for a while instead.

It is singularly unfortunate, for the case of this blog, that the song here in question - his only number two (and inexplicably, he never got to number one) was not his best song (whole Oxford debates could be held on that topic), but as a performance it has all his hallmarks - his commitment to the song as a song, his believability - his charisma comes through loud and clear, despite all strings, backing singers and other 1961 necessities for 'all-round entertainment'. (These were the days, lest we forget, that 'rock 'n' roll was seen as a two-year 'event' in a performer's career - that difficult awkward stage - before they 'grew up' and 'matured' into actual respectable recording artists. This is just what Fury was doing at this time - proving he could make music for grown-ups, essentially.)

What Fury (rechristened by Larry Parnes - his real name was Ronald Wycherley) had at this time is what no other UK performer had - an ability to stun and amaze on record and in person, to appeal to girls (who wanted to be his baby and baby him - girls can tell when a man is vulnerable) and to guys as well - he didn't hold back in performance (indeed he had to tone his live act down; early on he would end up on the floor...just what he did to get there and what he did there, I don't know). In short he was everything Cliff Richard wasn't, and was the first signal here of impending Liverpool magic - that combination of shyness, dynamism and sheer ability (Fury wrote a lot of his songs, thus the added injustice of his only appearance in this blog being a cover of a Danish song from the 20s) that ease - not to mention what Smash Hits, had it existed at the time, would call his quiffstastic looks and general charm (in full effect here).

He was in the midst of a comeback when he died in 1983, having lived to see his figurative children conquer the charts as he once did; and he still stands as the genuine, real article, a man who loved animals as much as he loved people, a gentleman whose example proved to an almost-there generation that there was far more to singing a song than just singing a song.

(Gratuitous extra version of "Jealousy" for those who like a certain Italian tv host/singer - there is a certain amount of cheese in this song inherently, I believe, and the only ways to deal with it are either to be noble and compassionate, or to just dive into the mozzarella and let it rock.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Next Best Thing: Ricky Nelson: "Hello Mary Lou/Travelin' Man"

If you ever wondered where the music video started, you would be wrong to think it was in the late 60s, though certainly by then the idea was gaining some ground; no, it is right here in the summer of '61 that the first music video appears, appropriately watched (though surreally) by the performer's own parents on the performer's show - the performer being one Ricky Nelson, and his parents Ozzie and Harriet. That Nelson was gifted musically was something not too much of a surprise - his father was as well - but young Ricky had a rebellious streak (though he & James Burton here all look as if they are the fathers of flannel-flying grunge, when in fact they are helping to create country rock, not to mention Chris Isaak) and made rock music when rock music was going through what could best be called a 'phase'; the major players all away for various reasons, someone young, familiar, distinctly good-looking without being overwhelmingly handsome - that is, a younger version of Elvis without the oomph - was inevitably going to appear, and that he came out of Hollywood makes perfect sense, since Hollywood is all about (amongst many things) making popular things even more popular. That Nelson turned out to be better than expected was a bonus, not doing anything other than what he wanted to do, and doing it well. (Being enormously rich and having his father's help in these matters was essential, of course, but talent wills out in all matters, no matter what the connections are.)

"Hello Mary Lou"'s b-side was the rather risque (if I do say so myself) "Travelin' Man", a song is as casual in its promiscuity as "Hello Mary Lou" is in its faithfulness; there is a kind of yin-yangness to this double a-side (yea and verily that is the definition of a good one) that is the answer to the teenage girl's question - "Yes, but what is he really like?" Is he able to give his heart to one girl, or does he just aimlessly wander around, like, y'know, guys do? Nelson lets the girls decide here, (though I should note that "Hello Mary Lou" was the hit in the UK , the other the hit in the US...hmmmm).

I should also note that "Hello Mary Lou" was written by one Gene Pitney (fear not, dear readers, I do get to him in time), thus the line about 'wild horses' was no doubt heard by, amongst many others, a couple of young men just south of London who were still teenagers themselves and who for all I know were fans of good-bad boy Nelson himself; indeed Nelson lived a life that was a bit rough and casual and yet somehow, his rather innocent bull-in-the-heather good looks could make you forgive him for all that; and as a product of The Man (Hollywood also tends to be just that, despite itself) he was far more successful than anyone had a right to expect*. He wasn't Elvis, but then he was far more Elvis than Frankie Avalon, and for that rock 'n' roll must say thanks.

*Just think of all the rather lamentable albums tv actors have recorded over the years, some of which I will, even more lamentably, have to write about.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You're Going My Way: Bobby Darin: "Lazy River"

And now, some glamour; some snazziness; some swingin' goodness. But since this is the 60s, there is a ticking clock in the background, one that in this case ticks rather loudly. Bobby Darin (as is known now, but wasn't known in '61) knew he didn't have the best health and was determined to make as much of his life as he could. This condition might drive some to despair, but Darin took it the opposite direction to a kind of rabid joy which must have been incandescent in person.

The vitality here comes from Darin himself, of course, but also from the equally snazzy duo of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, who produced the song and no doubt gave Darin the freedom to start quietly and take this song (by Hoagy Carmichael) - grab it more, really - to the point where he can exclaim "From the halfway mark YEAH!" near the end and make it sound like the 50s are well over and done, that his lion's way of 'rrRROOORRing' his words (like a thick smear of jam on toast) is going to cast off any chains that are left over from the previous decade. This is a man who paid attention to James Brown and Ray Charles, and these influences show, as much as the Catskills swagger he learned when younger. This is young, fresh America, smiling and confident, taking pleasure when and wherever it can...but elsewhere...a young woman - she is still in her teens at this point - must have heard this and admired Darin's freedom to roam over a standard at will, anchored as she was to Mitch Miller's style of singing dutifully and moderately (a style which followed a bouncing ball, just as many tv viewers also did), dimming and shading any signs of ecstatic or erotic experience. She was still stuck, against her will, in the 50s, as so many were at this time, toiling away in jazz standards, having some success but not enough to satisfy her ambition. I mention her to show what Darin accomplished in such a short time was a yardstick for others, a sunny beacon to black and white singers alike.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One Lump or Two: The Allisons: "Are You Sure"

The Eurovision Song Contest is something that I, an American, still regard with some confusion and puzzlement - why does it exist? Why is it called Eurovision when it's about music? Nevertheless, the UK has entered many a song, some good and some...not so good, since the beginning. And here we are, just a year into the course of events with a song that was heard & seen* by many and indeed bought by many as well. But, I ponder, why?

There's a rather strange thing going on here - instead of getting, oh, Cliff Richard on the show (he would show up eventually), the UK contingent was made of two 'brothers' singing very politely about abandonment and possible heartbreak, as if they were asking the girl in question if she wouldn't rather like to stay and have another cup of tea. That they sound an awful lot like the Everly Brothers isn't a coincidence either, and must have helped; but instead of the marmalade sweet-sharpness of those actual brothers, these two chime like particularly pleasant tower clock bells, their very voices reassuring the listening public that nothing as bad as misery was ever really at stake. It is a terribly nice song, but something tells me that there are two other men from England who are elsewhere who have also studied the Everlys quite closely and who will add a certain something lacking here which could be called many things - energy, drive, punctum - that will make this black-suited politeness look as if it is from some other world altogether, let alone year. But this is 1961, a year of compromises and shifting powers, and those with their antennae up, so to speak, could tell something was happening, though just where they couldn't be sure. (There is a strong hint of what is to come in the chart where this appears - The Shirelles - but they are drowned out by clean-cut boys, for now.)

*Ah, now I get it - you see the songs being performed, as well as hear them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I've Come To See A Man About a Horse: Duane Eddy: "Pepe"

It is something of a puzzle that I am trying to unravel now: namely, when do the Sixties, as such, appear? The line between them is indeed fuzzy still, but a certain loosening of inhibitions and morals in general (for better or worse) seems to be happening here, in a song that sounds more or less like Eddy's usual sturdy hardy brevity being subverted (or perhaps just adjusted, in a way) by Lee Hazelwood's addition of roaring saxophone and what can best be called more-than-slightly drunken demented laughter, insouciant and indiscriminate. (I am aware that Russ Conway also had a version of this song in the chart at the time, but then again The Ventures' rather tamer also-as-well "Perfidia" was also present.) There are harbingers amidst the clean-cut crew of something wholly other about to spring up out of seemingly nowhere, in this case entering as the theme song to an all-but-forgotten movie set (of course) in Mexico. So much of what is to come arrives slowly this year, but steadily; the genuine warmth and good nature of most of it masks its essential radical quality. The Sixties may not start right here, but this is where the slippery slope begins.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

First Among Equals: The Drifters: "Save The Last Dance For Me"

There is something to be said for freedom and generosity - not just in political terms (when last I wrote here, did anyone expect the election to bring a sharing of power?), but of the heart as well. Popular music is popular in part because it expresses (like all arts) things that maybe are too extreme or hapless or abject to say in person. And since love is the main topic of songs period, a great deal of insecurity and nervousness and, yes, possessiveness comes into music, for better and also for worse.

This song is unique in that the man is utterly sure and happy and generous with his girl; she can be held tightly by someone else, she can stand in the pale moonlight, she can look a man who gives her the eye right back.

She can do all these things because he knows (and she knows) that their love is safe and secure, that he is taking her home - indeed in Ben E. King's satisfied "hmmmms" you can tell that what they have is special and that their relationship is one of equals. I cannot ignore that we are still (only just) in 1960 and that true equality hasn't really arrived yet, but I don't get the sense that there is any patronizing or condescending attitude here - 'little girl you can do what you like' is one way of looking at this, but the confident cha-cha asserts there is more going on here than that. (And indeed, there was - Doc Pomus, who wrote the song with Mort Shuman, had polio and couldn't dance; the song was for his wife, who liked to go out and dance.) So this is a song of love and in part dependence, of longing and freedom and understanding. I can see him saying these things to her as she puts on her shoes and does her makeup, just as I can see her coming back, her feet a little tired and longing for him and his arms, where she ultimately belongs, after maybe not having such a great time. He rubs her feet and she sighs, happily.

Friday, January 29, 2010

No Matter What: Shirley Bassey: "As Long As He Needs Me"

Even though we are now in the fall of 1960 (Kennedy newly elected; Lady Chatterley's Lover is cleared of obscenity, and in a few weeks Coronation Street is about to begin), in my mind's eye this song is played out on a stage that starts in the Victorian period with Charles Dickens acting out the death of Nancy (for this is her song, from Oliver!) in 1868, an experience he puts so much of himself into that he has to stop doing his readings on doctor's orders. Nancy is of course a sacrificial character, and while I don't know enough about Dickens to know why he would put himself through this time after time, he did, and his early death was perhaps due to these readings (not to mention the general headlong way he went about treating, or mistreating, his body). In the song Nancy's need for Sikes is so great that she cannot contemplate being without him, she is loyal and yet dies because that loyalty is falsely suspected. It is something of a doormat song, but Nancy, after her death, is triumphant - Oliver is safe and Fagin's gang are found out.

Bassey's voice, sounding youngish here, nevertheless are those of a woman who is determined to do the right thing, even if she suffers; a kind of nobility creeps in, the nobility of someone who perhaps has her doubts and might reveal them if you ask her carefully - but will not, as the phrase goes, give face. It is a big voice and needs big sentiments. (The problem with having a big voice like hers is getting those songs, as well as ones that work skilfully against it, as Bassey's latest album shows.) One man who was a figurative Oliver to Bassey's Nancy was just a toddler when this song was a hit; some 25 years later he would work with her in Switzerland (too excited for words and almost shy, not his usual self) on a song of profound and deep emotions - not to mention a cool sensuality. The man was Billy Mackenzie. So "As Long As He Needs Me" leads me directly to Switzerland, a recording studio, an hour of magic and nerves; and I wonder if Nancy isn't half singing to Oliver himself, that Bassey might have some story to tell about Mr. Mackenzie and that glorious day, when his voice blended with hers.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blue Teardrops of Pride: Elvis Presley: "A Mess of Blues"

It is quite appropriate, on this day of days, to leisurely (I hope all readers had a fine holiday!) continue with...Elvis, who was born 75 years ago today, and is in some ways just as alive as ever. (For a fine book on his immediate afterlife, Dead Elvis by Greil Marcus is essential reading, though sadly I don't have a copy.) Hearing this song - which happens to be his last entry here for some time - makes me understand what makes him valuable and interesting, to say the least. "A Mess of Blues" is a song of sorrow - he can't eat, he can't sleep, he's missing his baby so much that "Every day is just blue Monday" (Elvis predicts New Order?!?!) and yet he will not be ashamed: "If you cry when you're in love/It sure ain't no disgrace" - Elvis the liberator again, this time telling men that yes, they can cry (years before Rosie Grier says the same in Free To Be You And Me.) "Whoops there goes a teardrop" he even sings in defiance, as if he knows damn well that this is going to end and not a minute too soon, but dammit he's a man and can do whatever the hell he wants - for a sorrowful song there's an awful of swagger in here, the Jordanaires even sound as if they are in it, 'wooo-wooo'ing like they really are his posse. In the end he catches a train (presumably to be with her, who sent him the letter of misery in the first place) and will kick his own troubles to the curb. He's in a mess, his room is blue blue electric blue, but he is getting out of there and into the world, and we will not be seeing him again, dear readers, for some time. Wish him well...