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.