Sunday, 30 November 2008

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING: My Fair Lady


(#15: 10 May 1958, 19 weeks)

Track listing: Overture/Why Can’t The English?/Wouldn’t It Be Loverley/With A Little Bit Of Luck/I’m An Ordinary Man/Just You Wait/The Rain In Spain/I Could Have Danced All Night/Ascot Gavotte/On The Street Where You Live/You Did It/Show Me/Get Me To The Church On Time/A Hymn To Him/Without You/I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face/Finale

The cover shows a cartoon George Bernard Shaw pulling the strings of both Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, teacher and taught, hunter and prey, man and woman, Cupid and Psyche, Jane and Rochester…but who is which, and does Lerner and Loewe’s essential simplification and broadening out of Pygmalion bring us any closer to an answer? George B Dale’s admirably and stiffly thorough summary of the show in his sleevenote absolves me of the need to recap its plot in detail – as, I trust, does my presumption that most TPL readers will be thoroughly familiar with the show in any case, even if only via the less than satisfactory 1964 film version – and leaves me free to ponder the many whys scattered around the show and its construct like fleeing atoms of discarded Covent Garden birdseed.

If Pulp’s “Common People” presented a clever reverse portrait of Pygmalion – the glamorous and wealthy art student determined to slum it in tandem with her mildly contemptuous but still bedazzled working class boyfriend (and who, via “Paper Planes” and “Swagga Like Us,” can be argued to have ended up the winner of that undeclared bet) – then Lerner and Loewe’s (and, more pressingly, Rex Harrison’s) Henry Higgins as a slummer tilts just slightly more towards the masochistic than the sadistic; in “Why Can’t The English?” Harrison is revelling in his cheery, snobby demolition of the mores of what certain Times commentators still refer to as “plain people”: “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter!” Harrison hisses triumphantly as he marches onstage, going on to demand “By rights she should be taken out and hung!” His Higgins revels in kicking against all the pricks (which, by the definition of his world, includes everything and everybody within sight and sound). Eliza growls an “Ow!” as though being kicked or about to kick, Colonel Pickering (about to meet Higgins and become his co-conspirator) splutters in indignation as Harrison hurls himself against the inconvenient limitations of the planet; his “Goooone,” his “chickens cackling in a barn,” hardly redeemed by his subtly balancing “This verbal class distinction should now be antique.” Like many of the show’s songs, “Why Can’t The English?” is more or less a list song, an excuse for Higgins to rage (euphorically) against the deficiencies of everywhere else (“In America they haven’t used it [i.e. the English language] for years!”) before getting, surprisingly early, to the core of his pain: “Use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak.” Higgins’ fury is that of the thwarted righteous man, or at least someone who fervently believes himself righteous.

Then the young Julie Andrews, a voice which will gain in unexpected significance as this tale travels through the sixties, makes her first proper entrance as Eliza on “Loverley” – following a brief Greek/barbershop chorus of ordinary folk daydreaming of “Paree” and “Capree” – and the dilemma becomes immediately apparent with her crisp, Sunbury-on-Thames estuarial delivery of “All I want is a room somewhere” in a story which is supposed to get her to sing like that at the end. She quickly attempts to compensate with overemphasised, underswallowed vocal compounds to resemble the downtrodden flower girl she’s supposed to be but her “ordinary” Eliza is approximately as aurally convincing as Dick van Dyke’s chimney sweep and not helped by the positively regal, immaculately enunciated vowels of “Lots of chocolate for me to eat.” Still, the song steers a blameless course between brisk march (complete with a Seven Dwarfs-resembling unison whistling sequence) and some rather lovely Debussian harmonic pauses where Andrews chews over and considers the word “loverley” from five different perspectives.

“With A Little Bit Of Luck,” thankfully, benefits from some genuine salt of the earth input; for Broadway audiences this was their first major exposure to Stanley Holloway in person – despite being a major stage, screen and recording star in Britain since the early twenties he was mainly known in America for his film performances, notably as an Ealing Studios regular – and he seized the part of Alfred Doolittle with a gusto and cheek remarkable for someone already in his mid-sixties; as Dale puts it in his sleevenote, his “robust low comedy” balances out Harrison’s “crackling high comedy” as he gives “a lusty portrait of an undeserving member of the poor.” “With A Little Bit…” is a cheerful ode of self-glorification where he systematically undermines all of the instructions of “the Lord above” in favour of making up the rules as he goes, chasing after girls, drinking beer with the boys and getting away with doing as little work as he possibly can. His self-possession is a crafty counterpart to that of Higgins, the difference being that he learns better in the course of the story and Higgins appears not to have learned anything. There’s more than a trace of Ian Dury in Holloway’s bearing and delivery.

“I’m An Ordinary Man” returns us to Higgins and his reasons why the world should revolve around him, in a marathon exercise of Olympian self-denial. He alternates between calmly presenting himself as an average man, a patient man, a quiet man, systematically condemning all the characteristics which he ought to know are essential to him and mad rushes of anger against frantic Tom and Jerry races of music wherein he lists the disadvantages of “letting a woman in your life”; the latter eventually rises to a level of hysteria, with Harrison screaming and screeching in terrifying roars against a jumble of speeded up “female” voices – and yet he considers himself and his arguments perfectly reasonable, though when he drops his guard we begin to understand the Rochester within him; his unexpectedly melancholy “Confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so,” and his not entirely ignorant irony when he speaks of his pleasure at being “free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him” – not to mention the encroaching dread of “the silence of his room” which he compares to “the atmosphere of an undiscovered tomb.” And a room which he knows, unless he yields and lets someone into his life, he is likely to end up buried in, despite his barks to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Eliza has become equally exasperated by his over-exacting methods and in “Just You Wait” she ends up demanding his death by Royal decree, after cackling about the new life that she’ll have (with gasps of “OHHHH!!!!” of varying intensity and “Go to St James’s so often I’ll call it St Jim’s”), the pleasure she’ll have in watching him go broke, or get ill and die, or drown in the sea, or be shot by a firing squad. Despite the still vacillating vowels, Andrews does better in this number, crowning her rant with a most convincing screech, a febrility she would not recapture on screen until Victor/Victoria.

Despite all the conflict, however, the two parties are making mutual progress, and we now arrive at something approaching happiness – and which takes both Higgins and Doolittle by surprise. In “The Rain In Spain,” when she gets it, Harrison reacts as though he’s the one who’s finally “got it” – i.e. the point of life – and for the first time breaks loose of the forcefield he has carefully constructed around himself. “And where’s that BLASTED plain?” he excitedly exclaims as though blasting the shell of his sheltered life to blazes. Andrews, too, sounds liberated – not least because she can now revert to her actual “Julie Andrews” voice, but note also her carefully weighed “How kind of you to let me come.” After that come tangos, tambourines, shouts of liberation, dances, howls of “OlĂ©!” To his great astonishment, Higgins learns that he is happy.

It has of course also released something in Eliza; “Bed, bed, I couldn’t go to bed,” she pants at the start of “I Could Have Danced All Night” (an interesting follow-through from “Bewitched”) and “sleep, sleep, I couldn’t sleep tonight,” and despite the housekeeper’s plaintive pleas for her to lie down and get some sleep she continues to exult – and is clearly turned on – in what she has achieved, and not necessarily just for herself. The arrangement gets progressively quieter, as though methodically, gently drawing her towards pillow and counterpane, but she comes back for a final, victorious crescendo.

But then both Higgins and Doolittle have to put themselves about in the world – not necessarily a real one, as the deliberately wooden, stilted and square proceeds of “Ascot Gavotte” make clear – “Everyone who should be HEARE are HEARE,” pronounce the sniffy chorus, as they extol the virtues of the races in much the same way that George Banks would proclaim the brilliance and infallibility of The British Bank a few years later.

And thence comes Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sees Eliza at Ascot, is immediately besotted by her, and stalks her homeward. The big hit song from the show, and a number one single for Vic Damone in 1958, “On The Street” is here sung by John Michael King, son of the noted British expatriate stage actor Dennis King, and is possibly the noblest of all pursuant number one hits; he loves her so much that he almost wants to become the fabric of the pavement, of the incongruous lilac trees, the recipient of the enchantment wont to pour out of her door. The sudden lunges of “Oh! The towering feeling!” and “The overpowering feeling” complement the post-“I Only Have Eyes For You” fantasia (“People stop and stare, they don’t bother me,” “Let the time go by, I (and there’s an earth-stalling pause to go with that “I”) won’t care”…he is so happy in his own premature bliss that he hardly realises how disturbing a spectacle he presents to others.

Back home from Ascot, triumphant, Harrison’s Higgins and Robert Coote’s Pickering only have eyes for their own bet; and yet there’s something unnerving about Coote’s admiring, stunned cries of “You did it!” – almost the admiration of a devoted wife. Harrison is already shaking off the experiment (“easily win,” “deadly dull”), happier about getting the better of Hungarian bullshit detector Zoltan Caparthi (“That hairy hound from Budapest…/Never have I ever had a ruder pest!”), rhyming “foreign” with “aren’t” (“English people areign…”). Finally Coote proclaims “Every little credit belongs to you!” just to catch the wind of a devastated and now supposedly irrelevant Eliza.

She goes back to Freddy, and “Show Me” is the show’s undiscovered gem; King begins it with a dagger-sharp parody of the meaningful, wordy crooner as over slushy strings he intones “Speak and the world is full of singing” etc. before Andrews abruptly terminates his reverie with a furious blast: “Words, words, WORDS! I’m so SICK of words!.../ Is that all you blighters can do?” and launches into a furious tango whose procedural may be oddly familiar: “Don’t talk of stars burning above! If you’re in love – SHOW ME!” “Tell me no dreams filled with desire! If you’re on fire – SHOW ME!!” Remember that in “I’m An Ordinary Man” Higgins has already fulminated over women’s preferences for talking about love rather than talking about Keats or Milton and then cut back to Eliza’s “Here we are together in the middle of the night – don’t talk of spring, just hold me TIGHT!,” the necessity of replacing words with action while the moment lasts – and then remember that track one, side one, of The Lexicon Of Love – a record which concludes that showing love is more important than studying its look - is entitled “Show Me.” “Show me NOW!!” demands Andrews as the song storms to its end.

Holloway’s Alfred, meanwhile, has gone through a similar epiphany, decides to make it all legal after all these years of cheery duplicity, and is happy to go straight: “Get Me To The Church On Time” sees him merrily embarking on his second life (or on his stag night on the eve of it), with increasingly aggravated demands to stop and draw him away from all sources of temptation which would indicate the contrary – “Kick up a rumpus, but don’t lose the compass!” – finally calling for himself to be feathered and tarred and for the Army to be called out if necessary. Nothing is more important than the recommencement and renewal of his life, to which clearly that was not all there was.

Alfred Doolittle has learned but Higgins seems not to have gone beyond the first couple of pages of Lesson One. “A Hymn To Him” is the posthumous partner to his previous rant, and finds him equally at sea (“I cannot understand the wretch at all” he says, more baffled than hurt), though carries its own subtext; in the course of the song he addresses Col Pickering directly: “Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?” “Never!” and later, and more acidly (and, for 1958, startlingly), “WOULD YOU COMPLAIN IF I TOOK OUT ANOTHER FELLOW?” “NEVER!!” With his signoff to an unheard Mrs Pearce (“Would I run off and not tell me where I’m going?” – is this Sartre? – “Why can’t a woman be more like ME???!!!!??”), the number is tantamount to a gay confessional, though one can safely conclude, both from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, that Higgins is gay only in the sense that he understands, in that he loves himself.

Meanwhile Andrews offers her own counterpart to “Just You Wait” in “Without You” as she rejects his attempts at reconciliation; following a dreamy intro (“No, my reverberating friend” answered by harp) she launches into a list of everything and everyone that will continue to thrive and function without him, including the Earth, Windsor Castle and tea and crumpets. “You can go to Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire!” she exclaims as the second part of a rhyme which demands another, shorter word beginning with H, as her previous life flashes through in green sparks of fury (“If they can do without you, DUCKY, so can I!” “So get back in your shell, I can do BLOODY WELL without YOU!!”).

It may seem that here is another case of a would-be Jane and Rochester who finally recognise that they finally cannot connect. “I’ve Grown Accustomed” sees Harrison back in his chambers, alone, and after a punchbag of “DAMN DAMN DAMN DAMN!” he settles down, in sudden recognition of what he may have lost, or the life which he could have had but instead destroyed. As a self-reflex, he hoots and curses at the notion of Eliza marrying Freddy, laughing mirthlessly at the prospect of their “wretched little flat” (“HAH!!”) and Poor Eliza, betrayed and humiliated, running back to him (“How simply frightful! How humiliating!”…lip-licking pause…”How delightful!”). “Will I take her back or throw the baggage out?” he muses, before retreating into the deceptive hall of mirrors of “I’m An Ordinary Man” briefly (“I’m a most forgiving man”) and then roaring with renewed intensity “BUT I WILL NEVER TAKE HER BACK! I WILL SLAM THE DOOR AND LET THE HELLCAT FREEZE!!”

Then a global pause. Then the other self takes over: “But I’m so used to hearing her say good morning…second nature now, like breathing out and breathing in.” He makes one last effort at self-rebuttal – “Rather like a habit one can always BREAK!” – but it’s no use, and he knows it; the “trace of something in the air,” the life seemingly lost, the solo violin mournfully playing “I Could Have Danced All Night” to remind him of what he could have had, if only he’d allowed himself to open up, or be opened up.

Perhaps the greatest controversy in the show – though not represented on the record, it formed the ending on stage and also on screen – is the final scene, literally as the curtain is about to fall, where Higgins is sitting, alone and dead to the world, listening to the ghost of Eliza on record, and suddenly, gently, Eliza reappears in the background, just as Harrison’s no longer grumpy sailor returns at the end of The Ghost And Mrs Muir to escort the newly deceased Gene Tierney back to her proper world. She seems as much of a ghost as anything else; whether or not they will end up together is purposely left hanging in the air.

In a sense this was easier to digest in the film version, where producer Jack Warner, nervous about box office, insisted on Audrey Hepburn instead of Andrews for the role of Eliza (and the voice of the ubiquitous Marni Nixon to sing for her), only to find Andrews winning that year’s Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins; Hepburn, who once appeared as a bit player in Ealing comedies alongside Stanley Holloway, was by now used to being used as a sugar girl fantasy – Fred Astaire, more than thirty years her senior, reshaping her from shop assistant to glamour model in Funny Face, or George Peppard’s daydream in Tiffany’s – but was crucially less “nice” to a rather smug Harrison in the movie, more involving, more understood as someone with a palpable previous life ready to be forgotten. Whereas with Andrews – herself a recipient of unwanted attention from elders in her younger days - there is never any doubt that she will pass as a lady; the studied grace is already absorbed within her.

But the key point where My Fair Lady falls down in comparison to Pygmalion is the Freddy Eynsford-Hill problem. In both stage show and film he is presented as little more than a bland, well-meaning but dim and finally rather irritating Sloane. In Shaw’s original, though, Freddy is a rather more complex character with a filled-in history, including a lifetime of bullying from his own family for perceived inadequacies; he is Eliza’s precise counterpart. So why does he essentially vanish from My Fair Lady when it’s convenient for him to do so? In Pygmalion Eliza very decisively marries Freddy and Shaw was quite clear about why Eliza and Henry could not end up together.

Yet not entirely clear. Put the Pygmalion Freddy and Henry together and you find one life. Henry Higgins is a man who has withdrawn into himself for what seem justifiable reasons, although these are never explicitly expressed or explained. Let down by the world, he has retaliated by constructing an immaculate and perfect world of his own. So it can be argued that he does not truly lose Eliza at the end; taken in the context in which Shaw set him, Freddy is actually and recognisably the young Henry Higgins, the confused but still hopeful and optimistic boy before life and the world did irrevocable things to him, just as Jane Darnell’s birdwoman in the “Feed The Birds” sequence in Mary Poppins carries unusual emotional weight; not simply because once Darnell was Ma Joad, but also because Andrews’ character recognises her immediately as the person Eliza Doolittle might have ended up being had Higgins not cheerily stumbled on her and “saved” her (just as Mary Poppins, the film, is really to do with her Jane trying to save the life of George Banks’ Rochester – as with Jane Eyre, the looking-after-the-children part of the story becomes almost incidental as it progresses). By marrying the “Freddy” part of him, Eliza is in fact bringing Higgins back to life, and as the curtain falls on My Fair Lady that final scene only makes sense when we realise that she has returned to a reborn Higgins – despite his parting shot of “Where the devil are my slippers?” which she recognises as meaning “I love you.” After all, he’s just a boy, but she sees his potential to be a better man.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Tommy STEELE: The Duke Wore Jeans


(#14: 26 April 1958, 2 weeks)

Track listing: It’s All Happening/What Do You Do/Family Tree/Happy Guitar/Hair-Down Hoe-Down/Princess/Photograph/Thanks A Lot

(Once again, special thanks to Mark Grout for kindly finding this album for me within the environs of the town of Reading . This may well qualify as the shortest number one album; its eight tracks last for a combined total of 19 minutes and 19 seconds, which probably explains why it was one of the more elusive entries to track down since its length is not conducive to CD reissue, although I’m sure all the tracks will materialise on CD in some form or another in the fullness of time. In reality the Duke Wore Jeans soundtrack is a slightly extended 10-inch EP, but fifty years ago it qualified as an album, thus its appearance here)

The introduction to “It’s All Happening” is a useful shorthand for the rites of passage of British entertainers in the latter half of the fifties; it begins with an excitable, hiccupping Steele stuttering “Oh look it’s all happening!,” first alone, then with a double bass, then joined by his own acoustic guitar, but after that Light Programme trombones, strings and celeste – scored by Bruce Montgomery, Philip Larkin’s best mate at Oxford (and also a noted crime writer under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin) – set the real scene; Steele is on his jolly way to becoming that holiest of post-war British entertainment grails, An All-Round Entertainer. He certainly succeeded in that ambition; at the turn of the sixties he would cease to trouble the charts – and pop - and proceed to a hugely successful stage and screen career, though as a performer never really progressed beyond the uncomplicated, jolly and toothy mucker-in. He did appear in the Old Vic’s 1960-1 season as Tony Lampkin in She Stoops To Conquer but otherwise has seemed content to amble up and down the lanes of smiles uncomplicated by doubt or complexity. His Don Lockwood in the stage version of Singin’ In The Rain was, three decades after the event, still a teenage Tommy besotted by dreams of being Gene Kelly (rather than the rather nasty, solipsistic viper that Kelly’s Don Lockwood really was). Half A Sixpence was his great triumph, first in the West End, then on Broadway and finally on film – the latter directed by George Sidney, the same man who had directed the movie of Pal Joey – but how airbrushed, how flushed of trouble or side, is his notion of HG Wells, let alone that of Arthur Kipps?

In a lot of ways The Duke Wore Jeans set Steele up for Half A Sixpence, though since its songs were written by Lionel Bart, Mike Pratt and Steele himself (under the pseudonym of Jimmy Bennett), its barbs are subtler and sharper. The bountiful spring in Steele’s step throughout “It’s All Happening” mirrors not only post-Macmillan optimism – no more war apologies or repayments, on with the future (“I heard them say they’re giving it away for free!”) – but also the exultant Steele pictured on the record’s cover, in a colourful and sunny field somewhere near Elstree (and probably on the site of the present M25), knowing that somehow this land, this life, this future, is now all his. This isn’t quite the picture presented in the film itself, which was a zero budget black and white production shot by what was just about to become the Carry On team – producer Peter Rogers, director Gerald Thomas, writer Norman Hudis and the aforementioned Montgomery on non-song musical duties – and a picture which seems to hark back to the thirties of Novello and Formby more than it anticipates the sixties of Lester and Boorman; the plot is as threadbare as the net curtains in most British homes at the time, a variant on the old Prince And The Pauper/Prisoner Of Zenda tropes – there are two Tommy Steeles in the film, a posh one more interested in being a farmer than marrying for money or title, and the commoner, honest guv/salt of the earth/what a North and South Tommy who for no logical reason bumps into his posh doppelganger and gets persuaded to woo June Laverick’s Princess in his place. With scant attention to plot development or even elementary logic, the Old Kent Road Tommy gets the Princess at the end and leads everyone in a knees-up which could have come straight out of 1928.

Steele is pretty much compelled throughout to hold the film together by sheer force of character and natural good humour (plus an excess of hamming to camera surpassed only by Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace), and as for the songs, it’s fair to say that the writers’ wit stops them from falling into routine fare. The blindingly optimistic bounce of “It’s All Happening” works as a Home Counties precedent to Bobby Darin’s “Things” since despite the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” gaiety prevalent (“I’m in love with everything!” “It’s the kind of day where nothing’s in the way of joy”) the song is less than sneakily about sex, with its multiple animal metaphors and its climactic “millions of couples mating,” culminating in a final, hello-David-Essex wink of “If you don’t believe it, take a look at ME!”

“What Do You Do” sees Bart setting off on the road to Oliver! as both Steeles are featured, discussing the ways and mores of their respective classes and how best to exchange places, an interesting, if aslant, comment on the actual societal slumming/closet cohabiting which would emerge into the public domain post-Profumo. Both address the matter like a pair of surgeons discussing and analysing a particularly unusual case; Posh Tommy comes off the more baffled (“Fish and chips and jellied eels is I diet I don’t understand”) while Common Tommy comes off with most of the better lines - “Noses stick up” he sings with a real sense of hurt, “’cos you don’t know what knife to pick up!” (Posh Tommy suggests concealing the act with a well timed “hiccup”), rhyming “debutanties” with “aunties,” responding to “at the races” with “barber’s braces” and sounding dazzled with joy at the prospect of “eating a banana down the Strand .”

“Family Tree” is (Common) Tommy’s big setpiece in the film, a Danny Kaye-ish set-up wherein he explains his own ancestry to the royal court, and he handles it comfortably with immaculate timing (“therefore it’s best for me to skip the boring part”), romping through a shaggy dog story involving Bill the Conqueror (“If looks could kill!”), Robin Hood, Sir Francis Drake (rhyming “Armada” with “bowlin’ ‘arder”), Nell Gwynne (with a highly dubious reference to “oranges that quenched the family thirst”), a great great great great grandfather who’s quickly skipped over (“The less we say about him, the better”), another one who “ran off with the Duchess’ maid” and who was “as nutty as the fruitcake they had for Sunday tea.” Finally, his grandfather, whose portrait stares down at him with a “shocking frown…as if to say nothing shocking ever happened at all”; the convenient nullification of an inconvenient past integral to Victorian values. Still, Steele’s pride is palpable as he returns again and again to the payoff (regarding his family tree) “But nobody ever had the nerve to cut it down!,” topped by a defiant Dambusters/Dragnet orchestral finale.

The next two tracks are outtakes from the 1957 Steelmen sessions and aptly seem to have wandered in from another record altogether (namely The Tommy Steele Story); “Happy Guitar” carries a strange Spanish/flamenco tinge but again Steele interacts well with Roy Plummer’s lead guitar (“You take a pick/Find a string!/Take it QUICK!/Make it SWING!” shrieks Tommy as though impatient to unzip), making with the instrument/sex analogies (“When I’m blue, she makes me grin!”), howling out non sequiturs – “YESSS!!” “So-o-o-o-ONG!” “It’s comin’ from my feet O-O-O-OHHH!!!” Meanwhile, “Hair-Down Hoe-Down” vocally verges on the demented, Steele screeching “You gotta let your hair DOWN! A-gonna a-LET a-IT DOWNNNNN!!,” much to the chagrin of the rather scared sounding backing singers who are wisely mixed well to the back of the mix. “We’re all moving out of that rut,” exclaims Steele, “and into that well known groove!” before concluding the song with a deep, cavernous, echoing “hoe-DOWNNNNN” coming from the bottom of a fathomless well.

After that extraordinary interlude we return to the business of the film. “Princess” is Steele’s big love ballad, though he sounds as small and scared as the Presley of “Don’t.” “Princesssss,” he seeps, “if you love me, I’m a Prince,” before wandering through the unlikely canyons of plot, still pinching himself with some defiance – “found you in the middle of a crowd,” his cliff leap of his downwardly descending “ties” in the line “Broke the ties that bound you,” his clenched “Stood my ground,” his final plea of “If you were poorer, I could be no surer you’re a Princess” and a whisper of “I’m your Prince” which barely rises into audibility.

“Photograph” sounds nothing less than a dry run for Bart’s “Living Doll” with the same dubious meme of sensuality at one remove, though Steele seems to have a good deal more sensuality about him than young Cliff did; “Photograph my baby,” he quivers, “Try to capture what she’s got,” before growling out a sensual “Bring out your camerassssssss” and trembling “Well, I want her picture close to me when I’m feeling amorous.” Unfortunately the tense, pregnant atmosphere is broken by the vocal intervention of June Laverick; from her photograph on the rear of the album sleeve it’s clear that she was made up as a kind of Shirley Jones clone – that irksome, deliberate anti-sexuality so redolent of the fifties – and her “singing” is barely singing, more or less offkey the whole way through and with that awful post-/sub-Alma Cogan non-technique of hiccupping misplaced emphasis (“I HA-WANT his picture CUL-OWSE to me!”). The bass clarinettist at song’s end is right to be sceptical.

After that it’s time for Steele to wrap everything up with the London Palladium-style finale of “Thanks A Lot” (“I’ve had a ball, and I’d like to thank you one and all”). After one sudden wrench of a scream (“I’ve had a BAAAAAAALL!!!!”) Montgomery leads the orchestra into an overemphatic “Knees Up Mother Brown” followed by a quick reprise of “Princess” – you can practically see the credits rolling – and that Dragnet/Dambusters timpani-dominant flourish again. The hills of Hertfordshire alive with the sound of ooer missus trumpets as Steele happily leaves Then Play Long and gets what he, and every other British entertainer of his time, wants; namely, a secure future.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: Pal Joey



(#13: 1 February 1958, 7 weeks; 29 March 1958, 4 weeks)

Main Title/That Terrific Rainbow/I Didn’t Know What Time It Was/Do It The Hard Way/Great Big Town/There’s A Small Hotel/Zip/I Could Write A Book/Bewitched (Hayworth version)/The Lady Is A Tramp/Plant You Now, Dig You Later/My Funny Valentine/You Mustn’t Kick It Around/Bewitched (Sinatra version)/Strip Number/Dream Sequence And Finale: What Do I Care For A Dame-Bewitched-I Could Write A Book

I’ve recently been reading Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. I’d been meaning to read it for some time but until this year’s Vintage Classics reissue programme O’Hara’s novels had been hard to find, the occasional reprint of Butterfield 8 notwithstanding. This looks to have been due to a diminution in reputation for which O’Hara himself, who died in 1970, must take some responsibility. Although he lived much longer than BS Johnson, and his heart rather than his nerve gave way in the end, there are striking character similarities; each clearly believed themselves keeper of their respective literary flames and by brute honesty, or keening self-destructiveness, managed to alienate nearly everyone sympathetic to them. O’Hara has yet to receive his Jonathan Coe-type sympathetic ear and documenter (though one notable cheerleader has been John Updike, the author of the Introduction to the 2003 American Vintage edition of Appointment which I own). He thought himself equal, if not superior, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and in light of his presumed sense of inferiority – he was unable to attend Yale for financial reasons (his father having died prematurely) and spent much of the succeeding half century not forgetting it – he went out of his way to make things difficult for himself, and not everyone was convinced that his prose justified the proselytising. He ended up, as a newspaper columnist, the precise right wing sourpuss his younger self would have trampled into the Gibbsville ground.

But Appointment In Samarra seems to offer little way out, or little in the way of solutions. His Gibbsville is far starker and sharper a prison than Joyce’s Dublin, all of its inhabitants compelled to act out the roles assigned to them. Essentially the book is the decaying story of Julian English, a socialite and moderately successful businessman who in the space of 48 hours sets about systematically destroying his life for no particularly tangible reason; it is telling that only one of the three key actions which destroy him is narrated in detail, or at all. Otherwise the book seems to be an extended would-be suicide’s reverie; there is no reason why he should end, but equally no reason why anyone touched by him should be affected by his ending. Gibbsville will tread on regardless of English, a Gatsby without greatness, a Diver without the vague redeeming qualities of a Dick.

The novel of Pal Joey (published in 1939) is differently structured – it tells its tale exclusively through letters – but connected, as the presence of a similarly initialled antihero, Joey Evans, and his principal love interest, Linda English, confirms. Joey is an ambitious shit who wants to run his own nightclub and is entirely willing to shit or be shat on by others to help further his ambitions. Linda is the poor novice whom he really loves, but Vera Simpson is older, more cynical and, crucially, richer; she can finance his club. So Joey more or less plays emotional table tennis with both, and in the wake of various plot twists, both Linda and Vera agree that he’s not worth the bother and walk away – as does Joey, with another woman whose identity is not the novel’s business.

O’Hara was called upon to write the book for the Rodgers and Hart musical a year later, and although the Broadway show’s director George Abbott made several key changes to the material, the antihero tone was retained; though the plot is simplified to some degree, Joey is once again abandoned by both women at the end. Interestingly the original Broadway lead was Gene Kelly; a good choice, given that calculating coldness which never quite vacated Kelly’s eyes on screen, the man who gleefully pulls the curtain up at the end of Singin’ In The Rain to humiliate two women simultaneously.

By the time the musical was filmed, however, in 1957, Sinatra was engaged to play Joey, and the plot, and indeed the point, was further simplified to a degree approaching absurdity. Several key characters are lost, and while Joey remains what the soundtrack album’s sleevenote describes as a “lovable heel,” the “lovable” takes precedence over the “heel” and he winds up with both the club and Kim Novak’s Linda at the end. Moreover, many of the show’s songs – those in the track listing with the less familiar or more obstinate looking titles – become merely orchestral interludes.

The key songs, however, are intact (though “There’s A Small Hotel” dates back to 1936 and originally appeared on Broadway as part of 1937’s On Your Toes); Nelson Riddle was on hand to do the arrangements although Morris Stoloff did the actual conducting. Pal Joey is the only Rodgers and Hart musical we’ll come across in this tale, which is something of a pity; the lightness and ingenuity of the songwriting here weighs tellingly against the rather heavy “depth” of Rodgers and Hammerstein – Hart’s death from alcoholism in 1943, two years short of fifty, hit Rodgers hard and it’s conceivable that he was subsequently less inclined towards “fun” with all the associated ponderousness that implies. Of the soundtrack’s eleven sung numbers, the “Sex-Tets” chorus girls get to do two (“That Terrific Rainbow” and “Great Big Town”), as does Hayworth (“Zip” and “Bewildered”). Novak’s one lead vocal I’ll return to later but Sinatra is given the remaining six.

His “The Lady Is A Tramp” is the same recording which appears on the CD of A Swingin’ Affair! (and thus the only track directly conducted by Riddle), and the song likewise saw previous Broadway action in the 1937 show Babes In Arms. It is the epitome of the ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra who prevails in Then Play Long, and it’s unclear whether Sinatra is satirising the song’s own innate sense of satire. He starts gently with only rhythm section backing, whispering the “girls” in the phrase “with the rest of the girls,” before Riddle’s arrangement compels him to step a little more forward. In his second reading “barons and earls” are replaced by “sharpies and frauds,” the whispered “girls” becomes a matter-of-fact “broads,” the non-U in Harlem earmines and pearls succeeded by “Lincolns and Fords,” though Sinatra is still careful to lean back and ride over the flute and strings of “free fresh wind” on both occasions (the second “fresh” sounding more yearning than burning) before strutting forth again for the big finish. His concluding, snarling “What Do I Care For A Dame,” which arises out of (and finally back into) an unsettling nightmare scenario of whole tone strings, acts as a hurtful bookend to “Tramp”’s deceptive throwaway nature (“I’ll make ‘em pay ‘til it hurts!” he roars terrifyingly at one stage before pulling himself together over a slow orchestral flourish and declaiming “I can see it plain” before exiting the picture.

His “Small Hotel” too is a characteristic easy midtempo wink of a swing; “I wish we were theeeeeerrrrrre” his tongue surfs over immobile, hourglass strings, while the backing in the second middle eight alternates rapidly between brass and rhythm and trapdoor strings (“Who needs…people?” he inquires of himself, although once again he recovers for a final rally of “Ring-a-ding sleep well”). But the remaining trio of performances offer the considered ballad Sinatra. His “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” doesn’t top Jimmy Scott’s reading on Falling In Love Is Wonderful – although few vocal performances of any stripe do – but Sinatra handles it more than adequately, from the rubato piano introduction with his fainting “Ohhhhhhh what a lovely time it was,” his plaintive “then you held my hand” over still strings, his comforting “Warm like the month of May,” his proud clinging to “grand, GRAND!,” his softly ecstatic downhill ski of “to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone,” his self-startling triumph of “Say I’m alllllllllllll your own,” before the swing strikes up and his mood transfers from awestruck to smiling. Always he eases back at the right moment, like a carburettor drawing back into an unhurried first gear, and his grin at the line “I’m wise” declares radiant happiness.

Sinatra’s “I Could Write A Book” conveys a reclusive brand of gladness; the low string introduction indicates unwarranted gravity but is quickly alleviated by comforting flutes as Sinatra narrates his tale of how he wrote his book of love; his “whispers” is shadowed by a solo harp, his “so the world would never forget” securely heartfelt, the Billie Holiday bend and resurfacing of the long “my” in “as my book ends.” Impalpably motionless strings are counterpointed by Glenn Miller trombones as warm as July morning honey, setting the stage for Sinatra’s liquid descent of “I lovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvve youuuuuuu a lot.”

Before I talk about the remaining Sinatra performance I have to take Rita Hayworth’s two numbers into account; in many ways her Vera is the unspoken heroine of the film (and it’s little wonder that Sinatra allowed her top billing in what was in most senses her last notable film), cynical and perhaps as cold as Sinatra’s Joey feels her to be, but they speak the same language and her interpretation might be the more truthful. “Zip” was not written for Vera in the original show but as an erstwhile burlesque star (and as the character who sings the song onstage was excised from the movie altogether) she gets to do it in the film. In it she ponders, in a low, confidential turn on of a voice – actually the dubbed voice of one Jo Anne Greer, but it’ll more than do – about the conflicts between intellectual aspirations and the need to earn a living (“I had to earn a dollar!” she exclaims near the end of the song, the nearest she gets to anything approximating exasperation). Otherwise, the music seems to play games with her vocals and thoughts, the multiple percussion suggesting a low wattage, domesticated Yma Sumac; her Schopenhauer reference is answered by a rattle, her Freud by rattling timbales. Cowbells and even slide whistles also make their contributions as she wanders through an enclosed world which still manages to encompass Whistler’s Mother and Charley’s Aunt, rhyming Plato with Cato but still managing to sneak in a post-Hart jibe at Marilyn haters (“She not only acts, I hear she can think” she sneakily paraphrases).

Then, after Sinatra has written his book, comes “Bewitched” as Hayworth sees it; following an introduction of Vaughan Williams flute, oboe and strings comes her spoken voice, laughing at herself as much as, or more than, Joey: “He’s a fool and don’t I know it,” before throatily purring “like a babe in arms,” reviving that old Gilda sensuality, complete with elbow-length gloves. Although she refers to “this half pint imitation (of love),” and despite all that she knows, she’s a sucker for him, and she’s quietly enjoying it; “I’m wild again, beguiled again,” she giggles over candid celeste. “Couldn’t sleep…and wouldn’t sleep,” she smiles, careful to emphasise the “p”s. After acknowledging that “He’s a laugh, but I love it” she hums away to herself (“La dad a, daa da dee dum”) with the contented air of someone who doesn’t care who’s eavesdropping. “I guess the laugh’s on me,” she remarks, touched, before smiling through the stoned-sounding “I’ve tripped again” and the emphatic “unzipped again,” hovering between Jo Stafford stasis and Doris Day decorum, bringing out the sexuality inherent in both. Hers is not the more “profound” “Bewitched” but in its good humoured realness it is the more rationally truthful.

Sinatra’s “Bewitched,” however, emerges from the dark cobwebs of Where Are You? In his introduction, strings take precedence over flutes and he begins to sing immediately. “She’s a fool and don’t I know it,” he mourns, and his “don’t I show it, like a babe in arms?” bears the air of tragedy, the doors of doom closing. His prelude is longer than the Hayworth version; his “on the blink” is answered by a vertiginously descending staircase of strings (and we’re getting back to that crucial “vertiginously” in a moment). Like a firing squad target meeting his end in slow motion, Sinatra falls into the “I’mmmmmmm” which leads him into the song proper, his “wild again” sounding slightly scared (is he going to hurt Linda by saying yes to her? Will Vera pull his carpet away in that event?). His first “bewitched” is answered by a flurry of flute; magic dust the singer mistakes for falling leaves. While Hayworth resignedly sighs “Love’s the same old sad sensation,” Sinatra seems to be absorbing that sensation passively; her eager “and what would I do if I shouldn’t sleep?” is balanced out by Sinatra’s “Love came and told me – shouldn’t sleep.”

Then the orchestra falls away; Sinatra is left alone with closing time piano and knows he has to make a decision, and a life or death one at that; “Sheeeeee’s cold,” he shivers, like negotiating a frozen hump bridge in plus fours). “She might laugh, but I love it,” he ponders, “although the laugh’s on me,” but then the orchestra returns in descending whole tones, and the turnaround happens; somehow, somewhere – is it via magic? – the rest of the orchestra rises from behind the strings, and a new Sinatra, if not a new Joey Evans, rises with the sun, patiently but in fierce belief. “I’ll sing to her,” he declares, “Bring spring to her!” knowing that it is his last chance as the timpani roll, before making the astonishing ascent to “and long for the day that I’ll CLING to HER!,” going higher and higher, clinging to that extended CLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING as he’s never clung onto anything or anyone before in his life, to meet and bear the winds of the song’s thunderous crescendo. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Sinatra’s discography.

But, in the end, we have to return to Linda, and hence to Novak, and hence to that “vertiginous”; I doubt that Pal Joey would have had quite so much resonance without knowledge of the film Novak went on to make the following year. The clues are all over the place; the string tonalities in the closing dream sequence so redolent of Bernard Herrmann (and thus doubling the irony of the Latin-tinged instrumental “Bewitched” and the tacked on choral “Book” happy ending which follow it, and in turn are bookended by melancholy Chinatown trumpet and gradually enclosing strings. Or Novak’s brief cameos as part of the chorus line, in “That Terrific Rainbow” with the express duality between “red hot mama” and “heart of gold,” or at the end of “Great Big Town” where she enthusiastically sings the praises of San Francisco.

And then, the one voice that she is given wholly on this record; so absorbed is she in herself and also in not wanting to be seen when she performs this in the film that it scarcely matters that she has been given the voice of one Judy Erwin, but then…Judy and Madeleine…a guitar meeting mournful strings mid-sky (anticipating Gil Evans’ “Where Flamingos Fly”), a voice so tentative you wonder whether it even needs to be heard, lower than any radar could reach, and a Valentine which had also seen previous service in Babes In Arms and (crucially) with the androgynous contralto of Chet Baker (not to mention the even more ambiguous gender of Miles Davis’ reading). But few readings have ever sounded as complete a lament as Novak’s; she knows he will never change, that he might still prove the Julian English to her Caroline, but the highness of her “WALK” sees a bridge of gold where Joey still only sees potential scrap metal. And there is the hint of terror: “But don’t change your hair for me/Not if you care for me” sounds petrified in the foreknowledge of how Scotty Ferguson will turn that around, especially in the more anxious second reading where she sobs that “care.” She ends with an extended, don’t-let-me-jump “stay” and a quiescent, out of tempo “each day is Valentine’s Day,” dissolving like an aspirin pill in the pool of Poseidon like the thinking, rescuable Marilyn that many still consider Novak to be; a bashful woman still capable of turning around in the market square in Baghdad and staring Death all the way back to Samarra for keeps.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Frank SINATRA: A Swingin' Affair!


(#12: 21 September 1957, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Night And Day/I Wish I Were In Love Again/I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’/I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans/Nice Work If You Can Get It/Stars Fell On Alabama/No One Ever Tells You/I Won’t Dance/Lonesome Road/At Long Last Love/You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To/I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good/From This Moment On/If I Had You/Oh! Look At Me Now/The Lady Is A Tramp



Though consciously conceived by Riddle and Sinatra as the sequel to Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, A Swingin’ Affair! is a more prickly record, somewhat harder to grasp and embrace; there isn’t the elemental, logical swoop from hopeful second chance youthfulness (“You Make Me Feel So Young”) to relaxed, renewed maturity (“How About You?”). Its strands are harder to disentangle. In some ways the record is a brasher reflection of Nat’s Love Is The Thing, since titles such as “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “If I Had You” reflect the dreams of a man on his own. But again this mainly takes the form of a hopeful lonesomeness rather than the helpless loneliness which would characterise the next Sinatra album (Where Are You?); there is a subtler logic to the progression of songs on A Swingin’ Affair!, from the daydreams of “Night And Day” to the Joe The Crooner wowness/nowness of “Oh! Look At Me Now.” The road, however, is markedly rockier.

Riddle’s arrangements, too, started to become more inwardly adventurous. Most of these sixteen tracks are structured in the form of a harmonically ambiguous introduction by Riddle, often verging on bitonality, before settling into the song, which Sinatra sings twice. The first reading is generally solemn and somewhat stern with relatively small-scale accompaniment; but as Riddle’s musicians begin to turn up the heat Sinatra loosens up and delivers a far more emotional second reading, usually building up to the expected tumultuous brass climax and quixotic harp/flute/string/bass sign-off.

On the opening “Night And Day,” business initially appears as usual; knock knock timpani and confident brass giving way to a pause as Sinatra enters, stage right: “Night and day,” he sings, alone, before the band calmly bounce back in, complete with the bass clarinet figure from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” giving notice that this is Son Of Swingin’ Lovers. But it isn’t quite that straightforward; Sinatra enters a premature anteroom of gloom with his “in the silence of my lonely room,” his cliff-edge wavering “yearning” and “burning” and his grave circuit judge pronunciation of “Torment.”

Although this performance is nominally brighter than the one he gave Don Costa’s austere orchestration on 1962’s Sinatra And Strings, with its long, brooding, purply rubato intro, there are elements of concealed darkness here; and instead of Milt Bernhardt’s priapic trombone on “Skin” we are presented with a querulous valve trombone (played by the album’s secret hero, ex-Ellingtonian Juan Tizol) that is soon skied over by cross-cutting saxes and strings, escalating into outright atonality before settling for a not quite jubilant brassy swing. On his return, Sinatra’s surface of urbanity seems about to be gobbled up by his gradually unravelling craving; his “Wh-hy-y is it so?” is on the verge of melting and his roaring “in the ROARING traffic’s boom” pierces like a pneumatic drill of unminted desire. He omits the “yearning”; there is now only a consuming “burning” and his “tor-MENT won’t be through” before the exclamation falls back to a purr of “’til you let me spend life making love to you” – note, “spend life,” not “spend my life” as though he’s preparing to board the boat for Alcatraz. Screeching tyres of fugitive trumpets from Kenton’s City Of Glass bring his angst to the boil.

Sinatra keeps “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” an amiable amble despite the odd, greenish tint lent by the curious descending string figures in Riddle’s intro; Sinatra does well to keep his nothingness light (“I got no car, I got no mule, I got no misery”) and his breathy “What for?” suggests a sensual happiness safely beyond money’s reach, as do the satisfied sighs which he gives the holy trinity of “got my gal, got my Lord, got my song. Riddle does his best to unseat Sinatra’s saddle for traces of possible complacency – again the bitonal crisscrossing of bass trombone, then tenor saxes, then altos – but there are none, and the band blossoms into a breezy swing, trumpets firmly in the lead. Unsurprisingly, Sinatra stresses his “gal” as high strings fade into the pinkest of cocktails.

In “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans” Sinatra sets the “wronged man” tone for the album; as with Cole, he is regretful but still able to shrug betrayal and loneliness off. Thus the complacency-warning celeste in the intro is succeeded by Sinatra’s utterly bemused “another man” and baffled seesaw up and down the contours of “Before I knew where I was at.” It isn’t long before he’s able to laugh at, and laugh off, his own plight (“Why did I buy those blue pyjamas?” he muses in the aural equivalent of a slow motion Oliver Hardy head shake to camera), though by the time Riddle’s brass is blaring over Sinatra’s accentuated “I think I’ll crawl right back and into my shell/Dwelling in my personal hell,” one wonders at the level of the shield of self-denial being wielded here.

But he’s not for giving up. “Nice Work” is a sprightly jog at dusk (“Holding hands at midnight” answered by a cascading celeste stroke) with his expectant “sighin’ sigh after sigh,” like the rosiest of breezes about to blow his way from over the next mountaintop. “Just imagine someone waiting at the cottage door” he dreams, and the payoff (“and if you get it, won’t you tell me how?”) is as brisk and businesslike as his abrupt “Get it!”s. Then Riddle begins to add more players to his hitherto intimate pudding (“When two hearts become one”) and Sinatra’s confidence now begins to breeze to the foreground; his second “cottage door” is delivered with the audible smile of a Christmas postman, and by the time of his mountain-conquering “AND” in “AND then taking that vow,” he knows he can’t be stopped, even if he does sign off with a humble hiccup of “How?”

Then happiness happens. There is some slight trombone dissonance at the beginning of “Stars Fell On Alabama” but Sinatra quickly sweeps it aside with his golden broom of punctum. His “I never planned in my imagination” is a single-breath unfolding of a 1:1 scale map of the world on the planet Jupiter, though his Congressional “HAMMER!” and “DRAMA!” – he makes them rhyme – still suggest a bluffness hiding uncertainty. But not for long: “Stars FRACTURED ‘BAMA!” he exclaims, and now he is reeling in glorious disbelief that this world he wanted has now been created – “A fairyland where no one else could enter/And in the centre, just you and me!” has now become a cry of triumph, and Sinatra delivers it with an intensity which momentarily threatens to topple the balance of the track altogether.

“No One Ever Tells You” is an altogether gloomier affair, at least lyrically (“How to go on living? How to face another day?” and the singer’s suppressed, cusped cry on the word “dime”), edged along by a wearily trudging mule of a baritone sax, but Riddle’s players rally around Frank at the climax, especially drummer Alvin Stoller (also the “piercing” star of Freberg’s “Yellow Rose Of Texas”) who hammers his snare frantically and insistently, like someone trying to escape from a nailed-down coffin. Throughout, Riddle’s colours vary from considered melancholy (mid-range woodwind and strings) to self-pursuing high C trumpets.

Harry Edison, the co-star of Swingin’ Lovers!, is back for “I Won’t Dance,” his muted trumpet wriggling like a trapped thread of pant, as Sinatra commences his epic exercise in self-denial (“Heaven rest us…I am not asbestos!”). Initially he is firm and resolute, but as Riddle’s orchestra warms the place up he begins to bounce the lyric around, loosens up, both in terms of rhythm and enunciation; the courtly “You’re lovely” of the first reading mutating into “RING-A-DING-DING!” in the second. As he finds himself no longer able to fool himself, drums bring the number to a crescendo, a launch pad for Sinatra’s Everestian extended “ARMS!,” a force which the ironic kiss-off ending can’t begin to dispel.

The gospelly “Lonesome Road” is treated almost like a Gerry Mulligan mathematical exercise in rhythmic displacement with shakers, one-note deep piano runs, and Sinatra’s careful handling of a tune which veers between optimism and an unexpected ambush of plangent poignancy (the fourth bar of each refrain, over, or under, the two-syllable “ro-oad” of “lonesome road”). Sinatra and Riddle take their time to build up the intensity of the performance, so much so that one scarcely notices the incremental transitions in volume and expression which mark each bar line until, in retrospect, you look back at Sinatra’s initial “weary totin’” when set against his raging “I’M weary OF totin’!” towards the end (the whole thing could be a sequel to “One For My Baby”) before the volume cuts back to return us to the intro and a quiet end.

Cole Porter always tended to bring out the purple wax dart in Sinatra; we’ve already seen how he handles “Night And Day” and “At Long Last Love” is an admirably patient exegesis; once more, beginning quietly and unobtrusively (“Is it the good turtle soup or merely the muck?”) before the truth slowly reveals itself before the singer’s belatedly dazed eyes, the trumpets stride into the foreground and by the end Sinatra is celebrating; Granada or Asbury Park, the wild, the innocent and the E major shuffle, it’s all there and it’s all his.

With his refreshed stride Sinatra eases into the hopefully comforting slippers of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” cleverly pitching himself emotionally against Porter’s Klezmer-ish minor key refrain which almost demands sadness; he fortifies himself with unquenchable hope and soon Riddle’s orchestra have to fall in with him on the merriment side; super-exuberant brass echoes Sinatra’s squealed “…and LOVE!” Satisfied, he signs off with a spoken (or winked?) “Yummy!”

In Ellington and Webster’s “I’ve Got It Bad” Sinatra’s back in the blues (with Riddle’s strangely ominous string drone ushering us in) but demonstrates just how fine a jazz singer he was; his vowels blending in effortless melancholy with Tizol’s lugubrious trombone, his heavily regretful series of rolled “r”s on “and Monday rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrolls around,” his plaintive “sweet and gentle,” accompanied by strings alone, his gradual breaking up of the lyric (“I got it bad, I got it bad…and it’s no good”). In terms of phrasing and hidden emotional desolation this performance is almost a partner to “I’m A Fool To Want You” on Where Are You? – consider in particular the couplet “I’m glad I’m mad about her/I can’t live without her” in relation to the latter, not to mention the nearly-fervent and partly ambiguous prayer near the end (“Lord above, make me love me the way that she should” – and note how he twists that last “should” in his upper dentition to make it sound like “shouldn’t,” thereby introducing an entire new level of emotional intensity into the song). Finally he descends the cellar stairs back into his shell of hell, finishing on a sinisterly deep “no good” with the double bass locking the door behind him.

The fourth Porter song, “From This Moment On,” is one of Sinatra’s great ecstatic performances (again with Tizol providing a valvular obbligato), as moving in its hard-won way as “You Make Me Feel So Young.” At first he is, again, dazzled, slightly bewildered that it’s all happening, and to him (“Only two for tea, dear”). He even slips in a subtle lyrical reference to “Skin” to confirm that he is not dreaming. His “sweet lips” is reciprocated by an embrace of strings and harp, though at this stage musically it’s still a combo feeling.

Not for long, though. The clouds slowly and elegantly lift, Sinatra wakes up on his most brilliant day and life slowly flows back into him, and now all the baggage of the rest of the record has been shaken off; he is delivered, freed, spoken for, loved, and he is justifiably triumphant. One of the most moving moments on any Sinatra record comes when he reaches the second “No more blue songs,” and he suddenly puts the weight of the cosmos on that “songs” as though the pain of all the tormented Gordon Jenkins sides he’s going to cut has been cut free from his soul and he sounds as though he’s going to cry; he virtually screams the word “songs,” rapidly follows it up with “Only hoop-de-doo songs!” as if to howl “Don’t even think about trying it!” at the world. He will be happy, he is defiant about his happiness – it is an astonishing moment of punctum.

After that draining climax Sinatra settles back down for the jaunty “If I Had You” and can’t stop himself smiling at the second “burning desert” with the glee of someone who’s just burned his personal desert down. And, almost finally, he arrives at “Oh! Look At Me Now” which he wisely doesn’t oversell: “I’m a new man!” he exclaims, like the resuscitated Leo McKern at the end of The Prisoner. “Better than Casanova at his best!,” his good-natured boast answered by three sardonic blasts from Edison ’s horn. “DUSTIN’ my vest!” he exclaims. The man who once “laughed at those blue diamond rings” has washed away his blueness, or traded it in for a lighter, lovelier, airier blue.

I haven’t forgotten about “I Wish I Were In Love Again”; indeed have left it to nearly last in order to amplify its greatness, both as a song and as a Sinatra performance. I continue to be dazzled by the quantitative and emotional differences in Richard Rodgers’ music when Lorenz Hart, rather than Oscar Hammerstein, was writing his words, and there are two examples of their work here. “The Lady Is A Tramp” appears as a bonus track on the CD version of A Swingin’ Affair!; it was removed from the original album as Sinatra and Riddle planned to use the song again for another project, and as that other project is also the subject of next week’s Then Play Long entry I will leave more detailed discussion of the recording until then. “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” however, was the song Martin Fry sang on ABC’s Lexicon tour, with full big band, to illustrate and acknowledge at least one of his musical roots, and it’s still one of my favourites; witty and incisive to a level to which Xenomania will spend a lifetime attempting to aspire – the ambiguity of “I miss the kisses and I miss the bites,” lines and phrases such as “The conversation with the flying plates,” “cat and cur” and “The faint aroma of performing seals,” but perhaps most of all the New Pop-inventing “The self-deception that believes the lie.” There is something of the masochist about Sinatra’s bounding delivery of the song; his genuine sliding scale of regret on the phrase “No more pain/No more strain,” his rueful yet forceful “I would rather be PUNCH! DRUNK!!” But more than anything else there is his huge weep of remorse on the phrase “I don’t like quiet” and his slalom run of “loooooooooooooooovvvvvvve again” as Riddle eases back for a relatively placid ending, as though Sinatra always knew that the comfortable sofa would be awaiting him at the foot of the mountain.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Elvis PRESLEY: Loving You


(#11: 7 September 1957, 2 weeks; 9 November 1957, 1 week)

Track listing: Mean Woman Blues/(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear/Loving You/Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do/Lonesome Cowboy/Hot Dog/Party/Blueberry Hill/True Love/Don’t Leave Me Now/Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?/I Need You So

The moment I always remember from the film is towards the end; the local stuffed shirts are considering banning “Deke Rivers” from performing in their town but his agent/mentor – Lizabeth Scott, portraying a curious variant on Colonel Parker – is mounting a passionate argument in his defence, citing Prelude de l’Apres Midi d’une Faune and Le Sacre du Printemps amongst other precedents of cultural outrage. I am reminded of an episode of Bilko where the platoon is presented with a well meaning new entertainments officer who proposes lectures on Beethoven and Stravinsky and Silvers does his best to assuage the highly sceptical soldiers: “Stravinsky? That’s Minsky! He changed his name when he went into vaudeville!” And that's to say nothing of "Elvin Pelvin."

It was indubitably the case that Presley was still regarded in many quarters as Beelzebub with extended hip rotation even as late as 1957, hence director Hal Kanter’s insistence that the above speech be included in the film of Loving You. And the payoff – that Elvis’ “Deke Rivers” character does not exist, that he is an orphanage escapee who borrowed the name from a gravestone – is in retrospect as chilling as Cary Grant’s darkening acknowledgement of “Archie Leach” in His Girl Friday, and not just because of the unavoidable Jesse Garon analogy; given that he is supposed to be an orphan, what are we to make of the cameo appearance by both of Presley’s parents in the final reel, one of whom had less than a year to live?

The rest of the movie, however, turns away from all of that, and offers a decently sanitised version of The Elvis Presley Story, complete with all the stock ingredients; love interest, love rivalry, fist fights and plenty of songs. Well, seven songs, at any rate, all of which appear on side one of the soundtrack album; side two is taken up with five ballad performances of variable degrees of curious, three of which previously constituted the Just For You EP. Here was an early indication of RCA’s continuing slapdash approach to constructing Elvis “albums” and particularly his movie soundtracks, installing filler as and when required without thought for continuity or unity.

The songs themselves represent a considerable qualitative downturn from those collected on Rock ‘n’ Roll. On the opening “Mean Woman Blues” you can sense Presley – and Scotty Moore – doing their damnedest to make the song interesting and vibrant, with the opening handclaps, Elvis’ hiccup of “I-hi-I-got-a-woman,” and Scotty’s fire alarm-smashing guitar screams.

But then the fundamental problem becomes immediately apparent. The space Presley was afforded, both at Sun and in his ’56 RCA days, has vanished, been clogged up with unnecessary detail. Dudley Brooks’ piano is in the way of the beat and the production is compressed to the point of constipation, as though all the vital detail was being systematically bleached out. Nothing wrong with Elvis, as such – his rolling up of “Sometimes I think she’s almost as mean as me” crunched into one tidal wave of a word, his double “Ooooooooooh!”s – nor with Scotty, whose two solos rip everything else around them to scarlet ribbons.

The most audible problem here, as with most of the rest of the album, is the Jordanaires, whom I would happily have tied up in a bin liner and kicked off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Their nineteenth-century Disneyland barbershop harmonies block the path of everybody and everything else, reduce Presley’s sharpness to a blur. Fittingly, if pitifully, the song is faded out abruptly, as though Elvis’ caravan has itself careered downwards into the Canyon’s belly.

As “Hound Dog” proved, however, even the Jordanaires were bearable if the song were strong enough, and the songs here – largely commissioned by Parker from his Hill and Range school of off-the-peg hacks – are almost uniformly below par. “Teddy Bear” is embarrassing in the sense that Stalinist show trial confessionals were embarrassing. This soda pop pseudo-dominatrix fantasy seeks to reduce Presley from tiger/lion status to that of a neutered toy, as though he were fucking Paul Anka or somebody. One of Elvis’ central failings is that he never realised enough times that he was Elvis (just as one of his others was that he realised it only too well) though goodness knows he does his best here to subvert the tedious anti-message with his “Ba. By. Let. Me. Be”s and his swooping growls of “yourrrrr teady bear” as though he’d still be willing to tear the head off anyone who came too close to him.

“Loving You” itself, being written by Leiber and Stoller, is a far more interesting and complex song and performance, despite Brooks’ opening Sunday school piano and unnecessary block chords throughout; this is superficially structured as another “Love Me Tender”-style devotional ballad but both sentiments and delivery are more ambiguous; “Makes no difference where I go or what I-I may do,” intones Presley with something approaching a wink, succeeded by a stutter which may be nerves or contempt, “yyyyyyyou know that I’ll always be loving you.” Moreover, the song offers no real guarantee or pledge of fealty: “and-uh if I’m seen with someone new, don’t be blue…don’t ya be blue,” he sings, the latter four words almost as a rebuttal, or a scowl; his subsequent “TRUE TO YOU” is emphatically over-emphasised. Finally, any words disappear into a quiet maelstrom of vowels and breath: “You kno-ho-how who.” The effect is somewhere one stop past unsettling. Or maybe he’s already singing to a ghost.

“Got A Lot O’ Livin’” is the most “alive” performance on the record, but still falls short of convincing; it is nearly jubilant, almost ecstatic, but something is preventing it from crossing the line into transcendent, a failure of nerve, that damned fatal urge of Presley’s to please everyone. Again, he works hard – as does the star of the track, DJ Fontana with his raised eyebrow floor toms, and Scotty, who sneaks a deliberate “bum note” into the song’s fabric after Presley sings “you’ll never know what you’ve been missin’.” It’s entertaining and vibrant enough and without doubt anticipates the version of Elvis that Les Gray’s Mud would subsequently adopt and adapt, but the one-vowel compression of “And there’s no one whom I’d rather do it with than you” does not suggest unbounded sensuality as much as Dean Martin attempting to rock it up (which Dino wisely never attempted). Once again there is a sudden ending as though both song and musicians have been ejected down through a trapdoor which removes the necessary picture of naturalness.

“Lonesome Cowboy,” however, is the record’s most fascinating and disturbing track. Beginning with an extended rubato baritone lament – “I am just a lonesome cowboy” – which seems to do nothing so much as invent Billy Fury against melodramatic Spanish guitar and piano, the song briefly revisits the alien planet of Presley’s “Blue Moon” with detached whistling and Moore’s detuned guitar. However, the sound once again fills up with piano and those blasted Jordanaires, and Presley’s attempts at starsailing (“Saddle up and ride you lonesome cowboy”) are repeatedly defeated by their blundering, blustering “NeeeeAR”s, “FaaarRR”s and their positively disturbing “FOR A STAR FOR A STAR FOR A STAR” which momentarily threatens to drown the track altogether. Their bludgeoning continues – “Ride-a-ride-a-RIDE,” “Sing-a-sing-a-SING” – to such an extent that it feels as though Presley is being actively tortured by them (“Elll-lonesome cowboy” he whimpers at one point, before being submerged in the oncoming tsunami that is the Jordanaires’ triplicate “DREAM OF MINE”). Then we return to the rubato tone of the intro, and suddenly Presley is genuinely left alone. “If you don’t call me baby” he carefully enunciates, “then I’m never comin’ home,” answered by a suddenly low “home” harmony and funereal piano. The feeling is one of Elvis’ most fearsome battles between what he wanted himself to be and what others wanted him to be. This disturbance does not subside with “Hot Dog,” an otherwise fairly throwaway Leiber and Stoller slice of cod-skiffle which is constantly derailed by Moore ’s practically atonal to the point of actively dissonant guitar lines and by the now rather scary Jordanaires’ cries of “WAH WAH!”

Finally, however, we get back to Comfy Elvis with “Party,” his least convincing “rock” record with markedly under-enthused “Whoooh!”s, and despite his spirited “I can shake a chicken in the middle of the floor!” the George Shearing cocktail harmonies of the song’s structure ultimately defeat him, and the final five bangs followed by collapse are indicative of a massacre.

On side two we arrive, for the reasons detailed above, at a different record altogether. He was continuing to tackle recent hits but both “Blueberry Hill” and “True Love” rank among his least convincing and necessary interpretations. Presley’s “Blueberry” loses the subtly unstoppable minimalist momentum of Domino’s, where neither piano nor horns ever stop playing; here we have rather uninvolving call and response between vocals and piano which obviates both tension and purpose, the only interesting moment being Presley’s sorrowful “Love’s sweet me-HE-lody” in the second middle eight. “True Love” – the first song to appear on two separate number one albums – is meanwhile recast as a Vaughan Monroe moonlight on the prairie close harmony exercise and features the Jordanaires’ most convincing contribution to the album but is hardly necessary, although it does provide a nice link into the pained, acappella “Uh-don’t-a-leave-a-me NOW!” which opens the next track. Despite the workaday arrangement and production, Presley turns the commitment level up a notch here; “What-a-good-a-is DREAMIN’” he exclaims, followed by a grave “BY MYSELF?” before lamenting “My arms would just gather dust like a (acappella again) book on the shelf” and taking the song out on a nearly tormented “DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES TO MY PLEA.”

“Have I Told You” merely makes me regret that Elvis didn’t live to sing the similarly named Van Morrison song; the phased, antiphonal handclaps are a nice touch, and again Presley strains against banality – his growled “lately,” his epileptic rhetoric of “Uh-hav-uh-ah-uh-told-YEW?” – but again a pianist who thinks he’s Shearing, and the irritably grinning Jordanaire harmonies, combine to lower the tone.

Last of all comes a song in which Presley could believe – Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Need You Now” – a song of absolute dependence verging on paranoia, and here Elvis actively fights the banal environment, whatever it throws at him; even if his astonishing “I lie and wait to hear you knock-a-upo-hon the door” is answered by the Jordanaires’ wretchedly deadpan “Knock upon the door” – so hideous that you momentarily wonder whether you’re listening to a Stan Freberg parody - he refuses to give up; “To keeeeeep me happy” he wriggles, like a neurotic, inwardly-coiling snake charmer.” “Please please come back” he whispers. “When day is done I MISS YOU SO” he laments in Legoland. Fontana ’s hard snare brings down the curtain. The fire, the Other, was evidently still in him, but the extinguishers – the dampeners - were beginning to win out. Neither Beethoven nor Stravinsky would ever have been caught out that way, but then neither was in the business of “pleasing everybody.”