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.