Sunday, 14 December 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: South Pacific


(#17: 8 November 1958, 70 weeks; 19 March 1960, 19 weeks; 6 August 1960, 5 weeks; 15 October 1960, 13 weeks; 4 March 1961, 1 week; 1 April 1961, 1 week; 1 July 1961, 4 weeks; 26 August 1961, 1 week; 9 September 1961, 1 week)

Track listing: South Pacific Overture/Dites-Moi/A Cockeyed Optimist/Twin Soliloquies/Some Enchanted Evening/Bloody Mary/My Girl Back Home/There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame/Bali Ha’i/I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair/A Wonderful Guy/Younger Than Springtime/Happy Talk/Honey Bun/Carefully Taught/This Nearly Was Mine/Finale

“Just as stage pantomime and ballet have developed ways of telling stories without words, so have record albums like this one created in recent years the newer art of telling a story to the ear without benefit of what the eye can see. When a medium of entertainment approaches us through only one of our senses, it automatically demands of us more attention, more contribution to our own imagination to compensate for the sense we are not permitted to use.”
(Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from their “Commentary” sleevenote to the soundtrack album of South Pacific)

As the decade drew to a close, the question here is one of: what were albums for? What made them different? In the period between Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and the end of the fifties, seventeen different albums made it to number one, compared with 47 number one singles in the same period (a sequence which, with quite divine logic, takes us from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to Emile Ford and the Checkmates). There is little doubt that throughout this time the singles lists were telling the real story; after the period of courtly stasis in the pre-rock era, rock sped everything up, including reaction, assimilation and moving on, and the ground war being waged between old and new was infinitely more palpable.

The album chart, however, was as impalpable in its infinitesimal movements as the South Pacific; the format was still in its infancy, still something of a minority pursuit, still largely devoted to highly specialised genres of music (of which the Broadway musical/film soundtrack and what would later be termed “easy listening” were necessarily the most commercially prominent, although the album was originally developed with classical music in mind) and so it was a given that albums tended to hang around in the lists for a matter of years rather than weeks or even months and if they hung around for long enough they’d stand a very decent chance of reaching number one.

Still, it is impossible to look at the statistics for the South Pacific soundtrack and not be staggered. The album spent a cumulative total of 115 weeks – over two years – at the top of the chart, the longest run at the top by any album and a total unlikely ever to be bettered, even by Abba Gold. It took out an effective three-year lease on the chart’s upper reaches (it was still notching up appearances on the chart as late as 1972). Its initial 70-week run – it stayed on top for every week of 1959 – is still the longest consecutive number one run of any album. In addition, it became the first album to sell a million copies in Britain. This was not unprecedented – after all, The King And I had been the number one album for most of 1957 – but the remarkable durability of South Pacific had to be attributed to other factors.

Among the most important factors is that the album’s first 70 weeks at the top also covered every Melody Maker chart used for this tale; the MM chart for 8 November 1958 was their first, and since it used a larger number of chart return shops and expanded in size from a top five to a top ten, it has become the “official” album chart for this period; on 12 March 1960 Record Retailer began its chart which historically has remained the official chart for Guinness and other purposes to date. So that long first run of South Pacific may demonstrate greater stability in the way the chart was compiled.

Before going further into understanding just why South Pacific held such enormous appeal, however, it is worth giving extended mention to the host of albums – it is not a terribly long list but is certainly a diverse one – which had to settle for second place behind South Pacific throughout its three years of dominance (and, for fullness of record, let history record that the previous list of #2 albums extended to only five entries - Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, Donegan’s Showcase, Sinatra’s Close To You, Elvis’ Christmas Album and Elvis’ Golden Records) since it does present an arguably more fascinating evolutionary story. The list is as follows:

Frank Sinatra – Come Fly With Me
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Gigi
Buddy Holly and The Crickets – The Buddy Holly Story
Frank Sinatra – Come Dance With Me
Cliff Richard – Cliff Sings
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – The Five Pennies
Duane Eddy – The Twang’s The Thang
Tony Hancock – This Is Hancock
Original Broadway Cast Recording – Flower Drum Song
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Can-Can
The Everly Brothers – It’s Everly Time
Cliff Richard and The Shadows – Me And My Shadows
Bob Newhart – The Button Down Mind Of Bob Newhart

Elvis was away, of course (and South Pacific’s first 70 weeks are also markedly coincidental with his spell in the Army), but already the album chart was forming shapes significantly different to those of the singles. Both Sinatra albums were done with Billy May, and Come Fly With Me is one of the two entries above which I really regret not being able to write about in fuller detail; one of Sinatra’s finest and most artful records – and with that TWA Pop Art pastiche cover, one of his most strikingly modernist-looking albums – with an inspired thematic conceit (one echoed, though in extremely different ways, in the next TPL entry) and even more inspired performances, including a richly rude “Mandalay” and a profound “Autumn In New York.” Best heard while travelling in a patient car along the Norfolk coast in the sparkling August sunshine – this is not merely a sentimental touch; the breeze of happiness which wafts through lines like “Weather wise, it’s such a lovely day” demands unusual congruence with a peculiarly intense blue in the air – the album is Kennedy optimistic, future embracing, nearly perfect. Come Dance With Me’s cover, in contrast, borders on the repulsive, and May’s brash dinging of rings does not quite provide for space or perspective; not one of my favourite Sinatra records (his “Just In Time” is inferior to Tony Bennett’s and he can’t grasp “I Could Have Danced All Night” at all), despite a surprisingly telling “The Song Is You” at album’s end.

Sinatra also turns up, alongside Shirley MacLaine, on the soundtrack to Can-Can, Walter Lang’s abominable insult to Cole Porter (the original musical’s plot is inverted to become Pal Joey in reverse); some good performances (notably Sinatra’s “I Love Paris”) but generally muddled. As far as the rest of the musicals are concerned, Gigi (the longest running of these number twos) was Lerner and Loewe again, and essentially My Fair Lady switched to France and stripped of Shavian subtext; some fine songs, including, in “I Remember It Well,” a brilliant dissertation of how reality and memory don’t quite become the same thing in love and history, but enjoyment may depend on your tolerance of Maurice Chevalier. The Five Pennies was Danny Kaye playing Red Nichols in a bleached out biopic which did at least give Louis Armstrong an excuse to stretch out again (no thought, of course, being given to a Hollywood Satchmo biopic). Flower Drum Song was a rather fumbling and unnecessary third part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Far East trilogy; well-intentioned with its all Asian-American cast but it has since fallen into some disrepute and “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was its only real hit song.

Of the rockers, The Buddy Holly Story was a posthumous hits compilation (and since at least one Holly/Crickets compilation will be entering the TPL story at a surprisingly late stage I will leave discussion of their work until then). It’s Everly Time was the duo’s first album for Warner Brothers, and contains a baffling mix of material, ranging from “Memories Are Made Of This” to rather harder stuff like Ray Charles’ “What Kind Of Girl Are You?” and Fats Domino’s “I Want You To Know.” The Twang’s The Thang, a hugely influential record in its time, benefits from Lee Hazlewood’s furiously compressed production despite its erratic mixture of good originals and strange assays at things like “St Louis Blues” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Both Cliff albums – they were, respectively, his second and third – already see him moving out into All Round Entertainerland, with less than convincing rock covers co-existing uncomfortably beside old standards such as “As Time Goes By,” and Cliff seeming immediately more comfortable with the latter.

And we mustn’t rule out the popularity of the comedy record in the nascent albums market; further down the album chart the likes of Peter Sellers, Tom Lehrer and Gerard Hoffnung can be spotted. The Bob Newhart album is the one with his driving instructor routine. But it would have been a joy to write about This Is Hancock in full on TPL; housed in a cover whose design and sleevenotes would not have disgraced ZTT a quarter of a century later, it consists of two episodes of his BBC radio series Hancock’s Half Hour, only slightly edited, and one of these, Galton and Simpson’s “Sunday Afternoon At Home,” is a masterpiece of fifties drama – or anti-drama, since not only does nothing happen, but “nothing” is made to happen - worthy to be placed alongside Beckett and Pinter. Anyone moaning about shops being open on a Sunday and The Modern World in general would do well to study this piece; if you want to feel and understand the Britain which the Beatles and Harold Wilson had to break apart you will find no better depiction. And when Kenneth Williams’ neighbour pops round to add to the nothingness, the piece also turns into early meta-comedy, dissecting and analysing itself as it proceeds – and, pace Burroughs and Gysin, time is eventually twisted into a trick of the mind.

But back now to South Pacific, a record whose span at number one also spans the time between the Quarrymen and Hamburg. If you are following this tale with a view to collecting or at least hearing these records then I have to insist that you get South Pacific, not in its dully prosaic CD form, but on vinyl in order to understand why as a package the album worked so dramatically well. Some younger readers may be baffled by its spectacular success; despite its array of classic songs – one of which proved durable enough to become a number one single just after the height of New Pop in 1982 – and fairly regular stage revivals, the film of South Pacific hardly ever appears on TV; it has not entered the realms of Singin’ In The Rain/Sound Of Music ubiquity, and there are good reasons for this. It was directed by Joshua Logan, the man who originally had the idea of turning James Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific into a musical, commissioned Rodgers and Hammerstein to write it (although Logan himself contributed significantly to the book) and directed the show on Broadway.

Unfortunately Logan had little or no idea about what did and didn’t work as cinema; the expensive, expansive location shoots are fatally compromised – and neutralised - by the absurd colour filters which invade every song. Worse, the big ensemble routines such as “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Dame” look cramped and utterly studio-bound; the famous 1977 TV recreation of this sequence by Morecambe and Wise and assorted BBC newsreaders and presenters, complete with cut and paste long shots of professional acrobats and tumblers doing all the difficult technical stuff, is arguably more convincing. In terms of basic cinematic grammar, very rarely are singers’ voices aligned to the correct singer, and Logan’s decision to dub the singing of virtually all of the leading players (only Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston got to sing their own parts) leads to visual and emotional discontinuity and a kind of perfervid constipation.

“If one has not seen the picture, then one can conjure up from his own fund of experiences and fancies and desires what he thinks the characters should look like, how he thinks they should be portraying their roles, and where he thinks should be the scenes to which the songs are sung.”
(Rodgers and Hammerstein, ibid.)

Since we are denied the unsatisfactory visuals of the film, the South Pacific soundtrack album is actually far more convincing an artefact. But then South Pacific was also among the first albums really to be packaged as a unique thing in itself, which is why it’s vital to find an original vinyl copy. Back at the beginning of this tale, I naively assumed that, if I weren’t able to find the original album as such, I could recreate it from assembling the individual tracks alone, but of course (and as I really should have anticipated) tracks alone do not make an album; it is essential to listen to Elvis’ Rock ‘N’ Roll as it was originally structured and packaged, just as the odd panoramas of hits compiled on all those K-Tel/Arcade/Ronco packages we’ll be getting to in the seventies have to be assessed in the context of an actual, luridly primary coloured ORIGINAL HITS AS SEEN ON TV album.

And so it is with South Pacific. The album was packaged much like the Disneyland and Italian soundtrack compilations I remembered from my youth; a lavish (for its time) gatefold sleeve opens up to encompass a 12-page, full-colour booklet with fine reproductions of stills from the movie (which also briefly lend you to believe that this is a film worth watching) and fence-sitting liner notes from the composers themselves. The rear sleeve is still startlingly modernist; Mitzi Gaynor, standing atop an elevated rock of pure white, grinning with mouth agape, arms stretched out Crucifixion-style, her right hand holding a hat, as though leading an exotic aerobics class on the beach with her ladies flanking her, both on sand and in sea. A luxurious souvenir of a luxuriously packaged film.

It is also necessary to understand that the movie of South Pacific was, in 1958, almost as big an event as Gone With The Wind. Cinematically film had jumped from the first and second Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to the fourth, and there were questions about whether the third could logistically transfer to the screen. It was regarded, not unreasonably, as their masterpiece and reports of great nights on the stage, astonishing shows, unrepeatable moments, from the time of its Broadway premiere in 1949, still echo now (even though, as with most unrepeatable theatrical experiences, you probably really had to be there). Furthermore, the crises faced by the main characters, to which the composers refer with diplomatic obliquity in their liner notes (“Found themselves in strange places, leading lives for which they had never been prepared…their current problems…the special situations Cable and Nellie face…”), were moderately radical by forties Broadway standards with its face-on confrontation of racism. The Ze Records aerobic rear cover shot comes from Gaynor’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” routine, just after she temporarily ditches Rossano Brazzi’s Emile de Becque when her Ensign Nellie Forbush (ahem) realises that the two Polynesian children are his, from his previous marriage. She rather smugly shakes him off her mind, but Rodgers and Hammerstein cleverly contain her wilful, gleeful ignorance within the context of the black spiritual (one line repeated thrice followed by a climactic fourth line, plus call and response, plus at one point “Yay, Sister!”), also throwing in a doo wop pastiche (in 1949!) and a big band rave-up. As I said, the making of the picture (“Get the picture?”) was a major event, ceaselessly covered in the photojournals and magazines of the time, and the film was also the first in Britain to be screened in the new Todd-AO widescreen format. So anticipation was high, and cinema box office records were duly broken (to the relief of cinemas, then facing rapid encroachment from television). The South Pacific soundtrack became the album to have.

I think it’s still worth having. There has been no Angel redux/remastered reissue of the soundtrack, but unlike those for Oklahoma!, The King And I and Carousel I don’t think that one is needed; the songs are so good and the emotions so skilfully handled and expressed that the story can easily be discerned, understood and felt. Furthermore, given the serious deficiencies of the film itself, its music alone provides a better, fuller, deeper picture in the mind’s eye.

No Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is free of threat – think of the subtexts of domestic violence in Carousel, slavery in The King And I and the fatal consequences of self-satisfied societal hivemind thinking in Oklahoma! – and the opening discordant voicing of the “Bali Ha’I” melody for fortissimo trumpets and timpani in the overture is still a shock, more fitting to a film noir stabbing; although the music then drifts into a reasonably sweet paradise, this reverie is bookended by the same harsh chords at the end. After all, it was the South Sea Islands , but it was also 1944, and there was a war on.

The show itself begins with the two Polynesian children singing a quiet, sweet little French song (“Dites-Moi”) which amiably and subtly spells out how life could be: “Pourquoi la vie est belle?...Chere Mademoiselle/Est-ce que/Parce que/Vous m’aimez?” From this we cut to Gaynor’s Nellie and her cockeyed optimism, determined to be happy in the South Sea Islands before they turn into nuclear testing sites (“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow that we’re done and we might as well be dead!”). Being “stuck like a dope with a thing called hope,” she will persist in not dying, even though the anginal murmur halfway through her climactic “heart” indicates that she is not entirely unaware of the permanence of impermanence in this apparent paradise.

Slowly, Nellie’s perky young optimist and Emile’s burned but still hopeful middle-aged widower’s universes begin to draw cautiously together. The Carousel dual monologue device was used again – but improved – for the “Twin Soliloquies” sequence; each has a progressively mounting feeling of what is happening (the metaphors of “hillside” and “climbing up my hill” are noticeable leitmotifs throughout the show). Each is sceptical about whether the other will really be attracted by them; Nellie muses “He’s a cultured Frenchman, I’m a little hick,” while Emile (voiced by the great operatic bass Giorgio Tozzi) wonders about the “officers and DOCTORS!” more likely to interest her. After Emile’s unresolved “Do I have a chance?” there comes a pregnant instrumental interlude which suddenly swells up into a trumpet crescendo as their hearts start to beat at the prospect of their coming together.

After a heartbeat of a pause we return to placid strings and, through a forest of whole tones, segue into “Some Enchanted Evening.” Tozzi pitches the song with great astuteness, not overplaying it, singing it in the way of a man who has perhaps forgotten how to sing and is slowly reminding himself what it sounds like. Once he lost everything but still he clings onto this hope, of that evening when, if he just puts himself about, if he can find it in himself to reapproach the world (even via a routine officers’ dining table), something will happen “across a crowded room” and the answer, the dream, will appear, materialise, and regardless of the crowd he will SEE her, and she might see him. He doesn’t try to rationalise (“Fools give you reasons, wise men never try”) but on his second “TRY” he suddenly increases in volume and intensity: “When you feel her call you, then fly to her side,” he urges, before finishing, quietly but intensely and truthfully: “Once you have found her, never…let…her…go” as his bass voice flies high enough to brush against the wings of his angel.

From there it’s a transition to sailors’ mess hi-iinks. “Bloody Mary” is a rather oafish blokey chant, ridiculing Juanita Hall’s hapless but kindly middle-aged Vietnamese US sailors/Bali Ha’i women go-between, which veers between Scots pibroch and Dixieland. “The Girl I Knew” was excised from the Broadway show but restored to the film, as Lt Cable (played by John Kerr and sung by Bill Lee) arrives and reminisces with Nellie about the world they’ve left behind and which they’re not entirely sure they’ll ever see again (“How far away, Philadelphia Pa.”). Then “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Dame” which works infinitely better aurally than cinematically, with skilful voice swapping and tempo varying, some good (deliberate) offkey rubato warbling, whistling which dissolves into bird calls and wolf yelps and the mass one-note ensemble singing subsequently to be popularised by everyone from the George Mitchell Minstrels to Girls Aloud.

Then comes the astonishing “Bali Ha’i” itself. I have no idea why Logan opted to dub Juanita Hall – who had both played and sung Bloody Mary on Broadway for some years – with the voice of Muriel Smith (whom some readers may remember from her 1953 #3 hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”) but despite her sometimes overdone cod-Polynesian accent Smith somehow manages to capture the emotional nub of South Pacific. Harmonically “Bali Ha’i” is almost entirely built on whole tones, thus its unearthly quality which, when coupled with the high strings and ghostly oases of soprano chorales, anticipates the avant-exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. There is no need to overstate the metaphor of “Most people live on a lonely island lost in the middle of a foggy sea,” but Smith methodically increases her passion as the song sails on, her invitations, turning to pleas, of “come away,” “come to me,” steadily becoming more intimate, more heartfely. “If you try” – there’s that “try” again – “you’ll find me where the sky meets the sea,” she assures us, and following a brief, bemusing sequence of clip clop rhythms straight from Oklahoma !, she endeavours to make herself as findable as anybody could: “You’ll hear me call you, singing into the sunshine,” before she sings to the world, or just to the person who needs to hear her, “Here am I, your special island, come to me!” she repeats patiently before a shattering cry of “IF YOU TRY, YOU’LL FIND ME!!” – how much louder and clearer does she have to make it? The ghosts of the Sirens sail troubled into the middle distance; the final chord, I note, is as unworldly as the final chord of Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me. ”

The self-satisfied cynicism of “Gonna Wash That Man” is briefly overthrown when Nellie runs into Emile again by accident and realises how she really feels about him; “A Wonderful Guy” begins almost as a 6/8 blues lament accompanied by Gaynor’s bitter “from a person in pants” before slowly mutating (via an emphatic “LOUDLY” and “FLATLY”) into a more conventional romantic waltz. One of Hammerstein’s best lyrics for the show – if you know another song whose lyric includes the adjective “bromitic” then drop a line to the usual address – the song finds Nellie “as corny as Kansas in August”; Gaynor’s pause to sigh halfway through the line “The world famous feeling…I feel” is enough to parcel up the universe.

Then we arrive at the show’s second big ballad, “Younger Than Springtime,” sung by Cable, having reached Bali Ha’i, who has fallen in love with Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat. Wonderfully sung by Lee, I think of the song as a sort of Jacques Brel before life and booze did things to him – think of the contrast between the “angel and lover, heaven and Earth” of this song and the similar imagery in Brel’s “My Death” – and Cable allows himself to be carried away by the singular wave of words (“and where your youth and joy invade my arms and fill my heart as now they do,” all sung in one breath). But then there’s a slow, almost funereal reprise of “Bali Ha’i” from the invisible choir of angels (now sung in French) which is almost unbearable in its foreboding poignancy as though he is already destined to sail away to his doom.

If Mary’s “Happy Talk” initially comes across as light relief thereafter, it’s not meant to be, since she is desperately trying to keep Cable and Liat together. There is a vibrant despondency in her overenthusiastic “Counting all the RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRripples on the sea!” and by the time of the final rubato verse it’s hard to tell whether she is laughing or crying, as though “You and me is lucky to be US!” is the glue that is keeping both alive. But it doesn’t happen; their racism seemingly too ingrained to be excised, both Nellie and Cable turn their backs on their respective Others – even if (as will happen with Cable) they will end up preferring to die rather than overcome their prejudice.

After the brief and extremely strange “Honey Bun” with its Yorkshire brass band/tack piano intro and general feel of dentist’s drill twenties send-up – it makes more sense when you know that it’s Nellie in concert party drag singing the praises of Walston’s Billis, also in drag – we arrive at the most electrifying moment of the album, where Cable, about to sail to his death, is manfully struggling, and failing, to kill the racist within him. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” he sings in a mixture of tears and rage in a slow 3/4 tempo set against a fast 4/4 orchestral backdrop, “…to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade…BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE” he suddenly growls. “…to HATE all the people your RELATIVES hate.” The number – “Carefully Taught” – is brief but as a dagger it pierces; Rodgers and Hammerstein were initially unsure about whether to keep it in the show but Logan rightly prevailed since it provides the story’s entire emotional base. And so it is left to Tozzi’s Emile, now abandoned again, to ponder on what might have been in the full knowledge that he could have done no more, and also that there was nothing he could do; the lyric of “This Nearly Was Mine” is relatively minimal but Tozzi puts everything of himself – or his Emile – into its pores, resigned to “still dreaming of paradise,” perhaps forever.

But then Cable dies in battle with the Japanese Army, and Emile is fortunate to survive the same mission; finally sense is seen and we return to the opening cycle of “Dites-Moi,” first sung by the children again, before Nellie and then Emile join in and take the song over. Then “Twin Soliloquies” is finally resolved (“Born on the opposite sides of the sea/…and yet you want to marry me?” “I do!”). They sing the closing reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” together and the lesson is learned; both have, to some extent, overcome themselves, opened themselves up to each other, and so they live again and they love forever. It is perhaps not as showy or propulsive a story as the singles chart was telling, and perhaps inalienably a product of its time, but its roots and truthfulness are, I believe, deep, and the soundtrack succeeds in moving both mind and soul where the film failed. It is the highest of callings for the album, and with South Pacific it was answered admirably. Little wonder, then, that its call was heeded and reciprocated for so long a time.

1 comment:

Captain Sensible said...

When I was a toddler my Mum 'n Dad used to play this album to me.... to calm me down or whatever before bedtime.

I'm so glad they did as, when I was in the recording studio many years later and the producer asked if I had any ideas for a cover version to do I remembered South Pacific and chose 'Happy Talk' and we had a number 1 hit with it.

I've not done a days work since.... thank you Rodgers and Hammerstein!