Sunday 31 August 2008


(#2: 11 August 1956, 2 weeks; 1 September 1956, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Introduction/Main Title: The Carousel Waltz/You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan/When I Marry Mr Snow/If I Loved You/June Is Bustin' Out All Over/June Is Bustin' Out All Over Ballet/Soliloquy/Blow High, Blow Low/When The Children Are Asleep/A Real Nice Clambake/Stonecutters Cut It On Stone/What's The Use Of Wond'rin'/You'll Never Walk Alone/Ballet/If I Loved You (Reprise)/You'll Never Walk Alone (Finale)/Carousel Waltz (LP Version)

Stage and film musicals play such an important part in this story that it is immensely regrettable that the compilation/Various Artists rule has edged most of them out for the best part of twenty years (but for those of you considering whether I should institute a compilation-only supplement to this blog the answer is a firm and decisive NO).

In particular the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein tower with some imposition over the Blackpool of the British album chart, and true to unpredictable form I find myself commencing their story with the difficult one, the toughie. Carousel was their second collaboration (and their second musical to be made into a film) after Oklahoma! but its soundtrack got to the top first. In most ways the soundtrack was more popular than the film; Carousel the movie was not a great commercial success, doesn't get screened much on terrestrial TV and even its stars seem to have had little to say in its favour. I last watched it a few Christmases ago and as a film it is dull and stolid, as befitting its bizarre choice of director Henry King, a Virginian old-timer whose films seemed to define dullness and stolidity whenever Gregory Peck wasn't involved (Twelve O'Clock High, The Gunfighter). Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves kept their distance, whereas they had been fully involved in the film of Oklahoma!

As a soundtrack, however, it is an intriguing and disturbing, if not quite coherent, artifice, something that a decade-older Brian Wilson might have cooked up. I should note here that my assessment is based on the fully remastered and expanded true stereo edition of the soundtrack released by Angel Records in 2001, featuring many songs and sequences absent from the original LP issue; 18 tracks over 70 or so minutes. While this is not quite the album which topped our charts at the time, it contains everything that was on that album and is undoubtedly what would have been released had the technology been available in 1956.

And it makes for a more disquieting story. Carousel is by some distance the darkest and most elusive of the pair's collaborations; it was based on a Hungarian play called Liliom written by Ferenc Molnar in the early twenties, and its writer held out on approaches from Puccini and Gershwin some years before Richard and Oscar came calling (or his agent persuaded him to go and see Oklahoma!). The Budapest-set original is even bleaker; the titular anti-hero, after falling on his own knife after a botched robbery, learns no lessons, and when allowed back down to Earth for a day to set his family aright, finds that there is no common ground and he is unable to change or improve anyone or anything.

By definition, then, Carousel was an unusually introspective musical for its time, full of missed chances, fumbled love declarations and the stupid, stolid inability of any of its characters to drag themselves out of their respective traps. It was, inevitably, bowdlerised to a modest extent for the film; Billy Bigelow is accidentally shot while fleeing the robbery scene rather than an ignoble suicide, and while in the stage version his unlikely progress to Heaven is told chronologically, the film uses it as a framing device; he ponders whether to return, during which meditation the story is told in flashback.

Furthermore, the film did not end up as was originally intended. Frank Sinatra was the original choice to play Billy - and Nelson Riddle was among the orchestral arrangers - and even pre-recorded his big numbers in preparation for filming, but when on the first day of shooting he was told that he would have to shoot every scene twice - once for the then new Cinemascope technology, and again for the normal 35 mm stock film - he demurred and disappeared. Gordon MacRae appeared in his stead, and so the Oklahoma! pairing of MacRae and Shirley Jones (as his wife Julie Jordan) was repeated, albeit less successfully.

In fact I think MacRae captures Billy's bluff ignorance far more convincingly than Sinatra would have done; he is called upon to harvest reserves of vulnerability which Sinatra would never have allowed himself to see, let alone us (at least not until Gordon Jenkins drew them out of him on their later collaborations) and his lunkhead operatics perfectly reflect the inarticulacy which proves Billy's Achilles' heel.

The soundtrack does not begin as you would expect a musical to begin; a whistle, dissonant hand bells, distant organ drones and a liberal use of whole tones conjure up a meeting between Pharaoh Sanders and Scott Walker, while Billy paints his stars in Heaven and meditates on the notion of coming back down, though his foolish, fatal stubbornness suggests that any lessons have sailed past his bay; so much so that he wonders what's wrong with his boy, when in fact he has fathered a daughter.

Then the main waltz theme comes in, sinister and mechanical, played by organ and orchestra as though suppressing a sob or a scream. Brass, harp and percussion seem to combine to smash fugitives down from an undeserved afterlife; the final, dreadful chord sounds like a stage curtain being ripped down rather than opened.

Thereafter the story is difficult to grasp from the sequence of music alone; instead we are given a near-abstract procession of monologues and conferences from the various characters involved, lots of orchestrated talk which ceaselessly returns to the theme of whether this tragedy is worth talking about at all. Carrie Pipperidge (Barbara Ruick) tries to understand why her best friend and workmate Julie Jordan isn't saying much, wonders what she's trying to hide or doesn't want her to know, and in an effort to persuade her to explain talks about the supposedly wonderful things about to happen in her own life. Where Julie merely says something dissolute about liking to watch the ocean meeting the sea, Carrie talks about her impending marriage to Enoch Snow. Sounding throughout like a substitute for Doris Day, Ruick's voice seems always on the brink of crying; there's an essence of forced gaiety about her stance. She's marrying Mr Snow but doesn't really sound too ecstatic about it, as witness her suppressed distaste for the after-effects of his trade as fisherman; she hisses on the "fish" of "smell of fish" and sneers the word "flat" in a way which doesn't appear to refer to the type of fish he catches. Making do and mending seems to be the moral here, and the Snows (of Kilimanjaro? - another King/Peck collaboration) are used as a vaguely ironic counterpart to the troubled course steered by Billy and Julie, even though there's not much evidence to suggest they're going to be any happier; Ruick's "I'll be as meek as a lamb" seems an explicit parody of Doris; her "darling" is exaggeratingly sweet to the point of bitter.

Then, without warning, we cut to Jones and MacRae for their great setpiece "If I Loved You," perhaps the bleakest "love duet" ever seen in a Hollywood musical; they take turns to describe their paralysing reticence to commit (they are Jane Eyre and Rochester rendered inert by the stifling trade winds of late nineteenth century Maine, though it's worth bearing in mind that these events are contemporaneous in time with what was happening in Hardy's Wessex, and the President of the Immortals is never far away from the events in Carousel). Since on the soundtrack there has been no introductory meeting, and the film merely makes it clear that Julie fancies a bit of rough and ends up roughshod, we have two separate spirits here, completely unable to communicate what might or might not be love to each other; their "longing"s represent a fortissimo surge and their "afraid"s a pianissimo retreat. The song never goes over the edge and its ideations are a direct precursor to "I'm Not In Love." Billy's "afraid to be caught stealing the night" is deliberately prophetic and he breaks off midsong to consider the futility of saying anything: "What are we? Just a couple a' sparks a' nuthin'" (and the film version suffers here, since the pained "There's a hell of a lot of stars" with the accent firmly on "hell" is changed to "Why y'can't even count the stars..." Billy, as stubbornly and unjustifiably proud as ever, can only entertain the notion of changing himself with extreme difficulty; he sees himself married, "kind of scrawny and pale, pickin' at my dinner.../Dress like a dude in a dicky and a collar and a tie" with all the contempt reserved for the impotent "dicky." Again and again the song's waves surge, again and again they stop before breaking and flooding over - this is "This Guy's In Love With You" prematurely stripped of all hope.

"June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is introduced by a rather threatening chordality of strings - in the foreknowledge that winter will come again - intruded upon rather suddenly by slightly over-eager brass and voices. Ruick's midsong pause of "Fresh and alive and gay and young/June is a love song sweetly sung" is made to sound like an elegy for the tomb before the routine starts up again. For - as the extended ballet sequence demonstrates - the celebration is one of sexuality, its metaphors drawing in everything from sheep to ships, even though it doesn't quite get away from the idea that there is something to fear about sex; remember that Julie loses her job at the factory as a result of staying out late with Billy and missing her curfew - even though she is supposed to be in her twenties. But the urge to fuck is undoubtedly present; "You can feel it COME" over quickening beats and subsequent three-stage orgasm of "TURN AROUND!"

But then it's back to MacRae's solo feature, "Soliloquy"; having failed to persuade or touch Julie, he is finding it difficult to invent his own future. A crepuscular string motif predicates Scott Walker again (and indeed recurs on "Rosemary," from Scott 3) as Bigelow makes his dense effort to understand men and women and the universe as intently and misleadingly as Major Amberson before the glowing fire. Indeed this extended fantasia underlines one of Carousel's main themes; the alleged gulf between women (as life-giving form and symbol of endurance) and men (who get distracted by and drowned in their own dreams). Billy convinces himself so surely of the unshakeable virtues of the non-existent Bill - with the emphasis on "His mother...won't make a sissy out of him/not him/not my boy/not Bill!," each "not" expressed with mounting pain, his disinterest in whether he ends up a glue seller or President ("his mother would like that") and his fierce, piercing and terrifying yells against would-be bullies and bosses betraying his own dread of settling down and knuckling under, although his fiercest contempt is missed in the film, since the boss' daughter, unforgettably described on stage as a "skinny lipped virgin," becomes a "skinny lipped lady," though MacRae does his best to lick every iota of cream off that "lady" - that when he considers the possibility of a girl (while dwelling on how Bill will get along with, or more to the point get round, a girl) he is genuinely shocked: "Aw, Bill...Bill!" He ascribes the gender difference as being that between having fun and being a father, relishing the prospect of her coming home to him rather than one of her 2-3 boyfriends a little too avidly, before roaring that she will not be dragged up in a slum "with a lot of bums like me." His battle between ego and self-deprecation atomises, and he signs his death warrant: "I never knew how to get money but I'll try, I'll try, I'll try (in the original he sings "BY GOD" thrice).../I'll go out and make it or steal it or take it.../Or DIE!!"

After that we cut to his no-good buddy Jigger Craigin, played by Cameron Mitchell in an lustily enterprising amateur singer kind of way, and he doesn't give a blast; he's also looking out to sea but what he sees is a different picture from Julie's, with the boat as metaphor for both woman and baby's wet behind. Then it's back to the Snows with "When The Children Are Asleep," substantially simplified from its stage version but the traps are already and predictably in place; Enoch (Robert Rounseville) reveals himself to be a tedious and arrogant bore, more concerned with business than his marriage, as he visualises his boats, his children (never mind her) and even "our dear little house" all expanding, getting bigger (to which Ruick sardonically responds, "and so will my figure"). They move on to consider the kind of dreams they'll dream together at night (i.e. fucking) but there's something of the future pot-bellied, baggy-eyed bully about his sternly deflating "Dreams that won't be interrupted" and Ruick's "if I still love you" can easily be read as a veiled threat.

This world seems scarcely worth living in. "A Real Nice Clambake" attempts fireside cosiness with its accordion and slowly amplifying chorus but Mitchell splits it open in the middle with his "Then at last come the clams" which not only sounds like a death march but also like a forebear of Don Preston's Lion in Escalator Over The Hill, that magnificent ode to the art of anti-singing. The song doesn't quite recover from that intrusion, and it is during the clambake that Craigin and Bigelow break away to carry out the robbery.

Two more extended gender debates follow: "Stonecutters Cut It On Stone" views the futility of commitment or indeed love from both perspectives; for Jiggin it's a needless handicap to fun, fun, eternal fun, while the female chorus set up a surprisingly aggressive proto-feminist counterattack; "It's cook and it's scrub and it's sewin' all day and not much sleepin' at night (altered from the original "and God knows what in at night")." The conclusion is that "there's nothing so bad for a woman as a man who thinks he's good" (see "Soliloquy") except that the girls reckon bad OR good is equally destructive.

Julie, who has held her tongue for half an hour or so, then reappears, sadly asking, "What's the use of wondering if he's good or if he's bad?" Darker even than "Stand By Your Man," "What's The Use Of Wond'r'n?" sees unquestioning fealty as merely a slower march to the gallows, a pointless mothering (she sings of giving kisses "to the lad") and the song finally drives in on itself and sinks - "and all the rest is talk," "there's nothing more to say" - as a bell tolls and the Greek chorus see the unhappy ending on the horizon.

There has been nothing in the way of romance in this story as the soundtrack has perceived it, little even of sex or freedom as anything more than pallid signifiers. And into this graveyard comes that song. It is easy to see how audiences in 1945 would have been stopped in their tracks by its bleeding balm of comfort, and here it appears twice; in the first version, Jones seems to be attempting to sing it down a telephone line but she can't do it, her tears prevent her from singing the word "dark" as though such concepts were foreign to good old neighbourly Booth Bay Harbor, so Cousin Nettie (Claramae Thomas) takes the song over and gives it a sprinkling of nobility; the song whose subsequent life could hardly have been envisaged by its composers, a song which Gerry Marsden took to number one twice, in two different generations, two different Britains; one where everyone had everything to live for, and the second (and to me the more affecting) when everything seemed to have been lost (and what happened in Bradford and Heysel were merely manifestations of Thatcherism taken to their logical and bloody conclusion).

Then the ballet sequence, nearly ten minutes long and also serving as overture and precis, which steadily subverts and eats itself; it begins as a jaunty and nautical hornpipe but eventually gives way to tombstone trombones, strings and xylophones, all brought to a sudden stop by the Godlike gavel of the timpani, putting the reverie to an abrupt end and replacing it with nightmare; the return of the Carousel Waltz, played as though at a funeral (see also the use of the calliope on Escalator). Once again, brass and percussion take over, woodblocks and tambourines being wielded like sabres.

The motif from "Soliloquy" now returns, played by a mournful viola (cf. Nancy Newton's introduction to the song "Escalator Over The Hill"); this gives way to a curiously Vaughan Williams-esque pastoral interlude for briefly flourishing strings and French horn which in turn leads to a reprise of the "If I Loved You" theme, fortissimo and as heartbreaking as the major key into which Bernard Herrmann moves his music as the sledge burns in Kane, topped by a dreamy whirlwind of woodwind (see also "Soul Of A Woman," the exacting coda to the Four Seasons' Genuine Imitation Life Gazette: "then you give yourself to him forever"). Following a brief return to the "Soliloquy" theme there is an abrupt intrusion by sneering schoolchildren, yelling "Shame on you!" over and over and then "SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!" over quickening and now threatening beats (at Louise, the daughter of a failed robber) until the music explodes and Louise screams "I HATE YOU! I HATE ALL OF YOU!" and the sequence is brought to an end with a terrifying Bartok-dissonant anti-fanfare of trombones, tympani and thunderclaps which might be closing the world down.

There is nothing now but for the ghosts to take their final bow; first Billy, who does effect positive change in the film but you wouldn't know it from here, reprising "If I Loved You" as "now I've lost you" - and I can't see how Sinatra would have been willing to risk that final falsetto "how I loved you" which more or less invents Roy Orbison. And then, perhaps most terrifyingly of all, Shirley Jones, with discreet chorus, singing the song of reassurance in the full knowledge that not everyone can be saved if they don't care about salvation, and even here the nightmare isn't absent; the threatening brass is present here too, and the final, emphatic thud of the timpani sounds like the last nail of the coffin being hammered in. It's a long way away from the "you are not alone" tenderness expressed by the ghost of The Baker's Wife at the end of Sondheim's Into The Woods, another cautionary tale about people who believe in dreams at the expense of reality, and in some ways is a cautious reversal of the final scenes of Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari (though since that latter film was made in 1953, I wonder how much it in turn was influenced by Carousel, or for that matter Liliom).

Not that anyone else will necessarily die; the bitonal/atonal Carousel Waltz continues to wend its unquiet way as we make our exit, in the hope that we might have cleared the cinema by the time it unleashes its terrible, multiple stabs of chords right at the end. The Snows will continue because they don't know how not to; they will thrive, have children, go conservative and stale. Shirley Jones, in contrast, will endure, as the mother of a fatherless family which will include, in David Cassidy, the last thing Billy Bigelow wanted Bill Jnr. to be. Or possibly the first.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Frank SINATRA: Songs For Swingin' Lovers!

 (#1: 28 July 1956, 2 weeks; 25 August 1956, 1 week)

Track listing: You Make Me Feel So Young/It Happened In Monterey/You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me/You Brought A New Kind Of Love/Too Marvelous For Words/Old Devil Moon/Pennies From Heaven/Love Is Here To Stay/I've Got You Under My Skin/I Thought About You/We'll Be Together Again/Makin' Whoopee/Swingin' Down The Lane/Anything Goes/How About You?

The song begins with a delicate celeste balanced against a gruffly amiable bass clarinet - she and he. He's been captured by her and he isn't quite sure what to do about it; he certainly betrays more evidence of wanting her than wanting to run away from her - his "so deep in my heart" is immediately answered by scarlet cushions of strings. Perhaps he's been hurt before - the missed chance in Monterey, the moon which keeps reminding him of mortality - and is reluctant to go back in, but the palpable nervousness in his voice suggests that he's been away from love for so long that it's going to take him some time to recognise its contours. He struggles with his "better" self on the surface - who "repeats, repeats in my ear" with all the nervous stress laid on the second "repeats" - but knows that rationalism ("Use your mentality") will be of little use to him now. The brass buttons which scream at him not to "STOP" indicate that he had better surrender and experience the renewed sensation of what might just be categorised as happiness.

We know from the instrumental interlude that he's going to dive in, like an Olympic hopeful poised on the board above the shimmering pool of strings. The pace picks up; an insistent bass trombone figure is subtly transferred to baritone sax, while the violins give three ascending harmonic steps. Silent, the man can't quite believe it's going to happen, but the inevitability of it all is pulse-quickening.

And then Conte Candoli's screaming lead trumpet ushers in Milt Bernhardt's solo trombone to break - indeed, smash - the song open as all doors seen to give way to ecstatic summers. Getting to grips with saying what the singer is yet too timid to say in words, Bernhardt embraces, fumbles with fortissimo relish - and there's no question where that phallic slide's going to end up. Taking the hint, the singer returns, mimics the trombone with a notation-defying ski lift of "IIIIIIIIIIIII..." to launch himself back into the song; now here is the confidence he'd been battling for; this time the "repeats" doesn't repeat itself but "YELLS" in his ear an orgasmic, extended "DOONNNNNN'T" - another moment which can't be adequately reproduced on score paper - before the song quietens down, dims the light in satisfaction and the singer's triumphant grin frames his ultimate "you" with a final string section question mark nestling up towards his neck; go on, just that one last crucial step...

Listen to that "IIIIIIIIIII..." or that "DONNNNNN'T" in Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" and you hear the hopefully beating heart of every smalltown barfly who ever fancied himself as a singer, every anxious club crooner, every seldom spotted teenager fantasising about launching themselves onto girls and the world, perhaps in that order - the desire and thwartable confidence of every pop singer who has ever dared to sing. In terms of how a child might grow up to be a man, of how to fashion what is inside them to present themselves to a world which might love them and ensure that other children and further humanity is possible - or simply in sheer terms of the ceaseless transformative capabilities of the voice in relation to popular song - Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" might be the first pop song I'd play to ears new to music, whether young or from outer space.

It was also one of the first pop songs to reach these ears. For this piece I am referencing the 1969 LP reissue of Songs For Swingin' Lovers!, in stalwart mono, bought by my father as an anniversary present for my mother and which has somehow ended up stuck in my collection since around 1981. Somehow it has always been there, a presence in my life. The sleeve depicts a fifties couple - who might as well have been my parents - joyfully embracing, with Sinatra grinning benignly down on them from top left like a Hoboken angel.

Everything about Lovers declares newness, a surprise when you consider the ancient pedigree of some of the songs. As an artful exercise in repackaging the old in new, hipper clothes, the album takes some beating; but it is very conscious of its heritage and how to avoid getting trapped in or by it. Take "Pennies From Heaven," for instance, a Depression era song of hope. In arranger Nelson Riddle's hands the song turns into a reminder of and farewell to that grievous past; the ominous introduction gives way, again, to that reassuring post-war celeste, Sinatra surfs on the additional "s" of "sunshine and flowers" and at the end the brass stick out a nyah-nyah tongue as though to say, you thought you could destroy us? Yet, on the closing, "How About You?," what on the surface sounds like a defence of the good things in life as defined against the rock 'n' roll thing whose waves were already lapping at this becalmed shore, Sinatra is astute enough not to make the song sound like a defensive gripe; he persuades us that Gershwin tunes and good books fortify a lived life but nicely undercuts his stance by referring with a wink to "James Durante's looks" which "give me a thrill" as well as the almost unnoticed "nu" he affixes at the front of "New York in June."

Of course, Sinatra was also making himself over anew. Following his career revival in 1953, his initial series of albums with Riddle at the helm were very clearly defined in terms of overall concept and song selection; they were all themed, to be considered as discrete units separate and distinct from the conventional business of 78 rpm singles. Lovers was very consciously designed by Sinatra and Riddle to be the polar opposite from its predecessor, 1955's In The Wee Small Hours - this album was to be about happiness, since it would have been hard to match the intensity of laments like "It Never Entered My Mind" or "This Love Of Mine."

Even more importantly, it was intended to sound modern, and it's a tribute to producer Voyle Gilmore in the Capitol Tower as much as Sinatra and Riddle that Lovers has not dated an iota in the 52 years since its original release. There is in its grooves nothing of the pre-war dance band quavers or apologetic politesse which still ruled much of British pre-rock pop; Lovers sounds hip, aware and possibly a good deal more so now than some of the music intended to supersede it.

Riddle's triumph lies in the fact that his arrangements and orchestra speak to and with Sinatra, answer him back, such that there is the feeling of an ongoing conversation - barroom or otherwise - seldom found in pop at the time. The opening "You Make Me Feel So Young" very properly sounds like a shiny, yellow herald of a new and better world; Harry "Sweets" Edison acts as Sinatra's unspoken conscience almost throughout, adding his muted trumpet comments to nearly every track, but look also at Riddle's subtle use of flutes, for instance; on "So Young" they flutter like autumn leaves in response to Sinatra's "old and grey" and at other times talk in the manner of the woman who is making him so happy. There is a beautiful inevitability about Riddle's build-up, especially when the cathartic bells materialise at the request of Sinatra's "bells to be rung" to say, away with the war, with the old, with paying back, with saying sorry; now and tomorrow are what count, the new marriage made in post-war heaven, a beauty so cherishable that you can easily excuse and understand Sinatra singing "you make me feel so spring has sprung" in the second verse.

Yet Lovers is not unambiguously happy. True, songs of lost or missed love, such as "It Happened In Monterey," remain buoyant in arrangement and delivery ("Monterey" even sees Sinatra doing a Slim Gaillard-style slide from "hip" to "low") as though to shrug their shoulders and say, well, these are the breaks, and wasn't I a dork (see also "Swingin' Down The Lane" with its boisterous trombone riff subsequently borrowed by Matt Monro for "My Kind Of Girl" - and note the unhackneyed and never predictable selection of songs throughout). Even a melancholy song like "I Thought About You" with its moonlit views of little towns, 2-3 cars parked under the stars, depicts the temporary sadness of the husband who has to go away on business, or on tour, rather than permanent loss.

The latter is barred from the album, but its emotional centrepiece, "We'll Be Together Again," cannot be overlooked since it's the axis of experience around which the happiness of the rest of the record revolves. With lyrics written by that reassuring bear of a beacon of fifties pop, Frankie Laine, this song comes nearest to the rueful deserts depicted in Wee Small Hours; again, both song and singer make it abundantly clear that this separation might be long-term but ultimately only temporary - the Glenn Miller-style tenor and baritone sax unisons may suggest a remnant of wartime memories, and Riddle's rather brash brass-dominant fills seem very anxious to reassure the listener that this is not In The Wee Small Hours territory) - and yet the terror which momentarily flits across the first of Sinatra's "Don't let the blues make you bad" is the key to Lovers' ecstasy. From this song alone we know that the joy of "Skin" or "Young" has been hard won, battled for, and so it gives the album's theme of happiness the vital perspective (note also how Sinatra worries the word "dreams" in "You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me" as Riddle's orchestra seems to crouch down to hear him - and then glory in the liberation which comes when the song raises its blinds to welcome in the lushly yellow sunrise of the strings).

Elsewhere it's a case of exulting in Sinatra and Riddle's endless reservoirs of invention; the lovely and ingenious use of harp throughout, the mocking clarinet which quotes "Holiday For Strings" at the beginning of "Makin' Whoopee," the Johnny Hodges-like alto obbligato throughout "We'll Be Together Again," the running battle between ego and id in "Old Devil Moon" which finds Sinatra initially floating, out of tempo, over harp, muted trumpet and flutes, and never quite settling; his voice seems to fly free of Riddle's anchor but note the surprising if brief atonal brass figures responding to his "laugh like a loon" balanced out by the flying flutes behind "free as a dove" - yet this dove is clearly a perilous one since it is ultimately brought back down to earth by a lurking Elmer Fudd floor tom. The blossoming euphoria of "Too Marvelous For Words" - only Sinatra could make the word "dictionary" sound so liquidly sensual - is bolstered by its pair of brief bass solos (with foot stomping accompaniment) before Sinatra again stands (via two "to ever be"s) on top of the mountain, Tensing's last sly step onto the Everest summit.

And towards the end of the album there's even the birth of metapop; "Anything Goes" sounds so effortlessly hip that Sinatra is clearly happy for anything and everything to go, such that as he coasts over Riddle's triumphant trumpets at the end he adds, "May I say before this record spins to a close?" before diving back into the song's properly improper conclusion. The album as thing in itself, the happy advent of the new; Songs For Swingin' Lovers! continues to define the parameters, and its "Skin" is the key to the new, large kingdom set, if fortunate, to outlast the crumbling and tumbling Rockies and Gibraltar, if not quite the radio and the movies.

Friday 22 August 2008



You may look at the heading at the top of this page and wonder whether I truly have gone mad. Number one singles are one (or 1) thing (if not “1 Thing”) but reviewing every UK number one album is possibly verging on the self-annihilating. Then again, why not? Various attempts have been made to write at length about hit singles, not least my colleague Tom Ewing’s exhaustively patient survey of the UK number ones on Popular – five years in and not quite yet approaching the halfway mark – to which I have contributed my own comments. And, as this new blog recently started by my dear wife Lena will confirm, there is more to be written about the singles beyond simply the number ones.

To the best of my knowledge, however – i.e. I Googled, and I don’t recall anyone doing it in book form – no one seems to have attempted anything similar with the albums. Perhaps there are aesthetic as well as logistical reasons why this hasn’t been done; after all, aren’t singles supposed to be the lifeblood of pop, those two or three (or eight) minute transfusions of red cells to strengthen our arteries and clarify or, if we’re lucky, change our world?

Yet I think it’s clear that the number one singles tell only part of the story. Right from the beginning, albums have had their own concepts and constructs, their extended tales to be told. Surprisingly few of the early entries constitute a case of hit single plus eleven fillers, but then that may also be a reflection of the more specialised album-buying market in the early days of the long-playing album’s existence.

In particular, however, when we move into the late sixties and early seventies – when conventional wisdom says that rock was expanding and pop contracting – the bias of the singles lists can become irritatingly one-sided; the 1968 single and album number ones, for instance, seem to tell two entirely different and only haphazardly connecting stories, but then so do the equivalent lists for crucial years such as 1982 or 1995. So this is an attempt to reconcile the two and provide a broader picture, a fuller story of what the British record-buying public liked. Vital balance is undoubtedly provided by doing the albums, not least because this list manages to include many important acts who never had a chart-topping single, from Bob Dylan to Radiohead.

Of course the obverse is that, due to the weekly quirks and exigencies of record buying habits, many important acts regrettably won’t get a look in on either side. Many number one albums will be surprising, and in some cases downright inexplicable, while many will no doubt carp at some of the most successful and largest selling of all albums which somehow never managed to muster enough sales in any given calendar week to top the chart. But in all instances, or at least wherever practicable, I will endeavour to mention the missing links whenever apt, since most acts affected in this way did go on to achieve number ones with other albums.


For the sake of preserving what is left of my own sanity I have adhered to the Guinness guidelines. The starting point is with the first album chart published in Record Mirror – a top five – in July 1956. At that time the now familiar format of the 12-inch album was still relatively new and had only just gone into mass production; many of the very early entries were released only in the more standard 10-inch format. Whatever their size, however, albums were a new phenomenon and Record Mirror started to tally their sales more or less at the time when they began to be taken seriously; the comparison would be, say, a CD chart in 1986. In Guinness there is some overlap since the NME singles charts used to cover the period 1952-60 had a tendency in the mid-fifties to list albums within the singles chart (although this served as a useful sales comparison point since the first number one album also managed to peak at #12 in the “singles” chart). The Record Mirror lists are used until November 1958, when Melody Maker began to publish an album chart; and the latter is used until March 1960, when Record Retailer (later Music Week) started compiling their chart, and this is the one which will continue to be used until the present day. Naturally I am duty bound to point out that there exist other album charts, and further/auxiliary information on those is duly welcomed.


The rule has varied over the decades but certainly in the early days of the album charts – and, as we shall see, for some considerable time thereafter - “Various Artists” are prominent in terms of film and stage soundtracks, in particular the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It isn’t until 1972 that the major influx of TV-advertised chart hit compilations, spearheaded by K-Tel and later annexed by Arcade and Ronco, begins. Some major record labels, most notably EMI, began to nudge in on this market towards the end of the seventies, and the Now That’s What I Call Music series begun in 1983 – as well as its sundry imitators – has proven one of the biggest and most reliable of cash cows over the last quarter century. However, so successful were these compilations that voices of protest were raised from within the industry – individual artists being denied number ones by compilations, unfair competition, etc. – and so in January 1989 a separate compilation chart was inaugurated and compilations were excluded from the main chart. It should therefore be borne in mind that many of the subsequent entries may not necessarily have been the biggest selling album of their particular week, and a fault in the system was revealed when the 1995 all star Bosnian relief charity album Help! was prevented from topping the main chart on the grounds of compilation rules even though it was clearly the main talking focus of that time (and the necessary pivot or anchor to Britpop). Nonetheless compilations continue to inhabit their own lists to this day, so the dozen or so Now albums included here will need to be weighed against the actual running total of seventy (at the time of writing).


As I write there have been, by my count, 848 different number one albums. And some readers may be surprised to learn that I don’t own all of them. To put things into perspective, I own the vast majority of them but there is a certain minority of albums which have never darkened or lightened my doorstep. In addition, in case you’re wondering why I don’t just go out and buy the missing albums, I have to remind you that we’re talking about over half a century of recorded music history and not all number one albums are currently available. Furthermore, I was born in 1964 and although my record collection “began” with the two albums my parents left for me to find inside my brand new Dansette record player as a Christmas present in 1969 – both of them, you’ll be pleased to hear, made number one, and I’ll point them out when I come to them – I didn’t start seriously collecting records until 1974, when I turned ten and was allowed pocket money. So there is a fairly broad swathe of music here which simply didn’t register on my radar.

Broadly – since we’re talking breadth – the missing albums fall into two distinct categories. The first is MoR, the kind of whitened, beyond bland (un)easy listening which was the primary feature of Radio 2 in my extreme youth, and certainly far too bland for my parents to invest in, let alone myself. And I do not use the term “whitened” lightly; there is one particularly controversial act who managed to rack up three number one albums in the very early sixties, and I do not relish the challenge of having to deal with these. The second is the aforementioned wave upon wave of As Seen On TV compilations. As with the Now series, these were not designed for long-term catalogue life, since the hits on them were only leased to the label for a fixed, short-term period. And since from 1974 I already had a standing order (my tenth birthday present!) for every single to make the Top 50 it seemed rather pointless investing in the same music – especially in view of K-Tel’s fiercely compressed sonics and the occasional unwelcome “edit” to make 20 tracks fit on two sides of thin long-playing record material – twice. Nonetheless I am aware that to make up the balance (and also on account of record company favours) some non-hits occasionally made their way onto these compilations so the record here is incomplete.


 Given the major nature of this task that I have set myself, I am aware that finding some of the missing entries may prove an uphill job. Most of the K-Tel-type stuff is easily locatable with earnest searching of charity shops, etc., and I will venture onto ebay as and when indicated, but I may require and would be immensely grateful for the help of readers to locate some of the more problematic ones. If I’m having trouble finding an album I will flag it up and all advice, suggestions and offers will be publicly acknowledged and privately rewarded (when I finally get around to investing in a CD burner!). I’m already indebted to Mike Atkinson of Troubled Diva who very kindly found an especially elusive sixties entry for me. You can relevantly email me at marcellocarlin at yahoo dot co dot uk.  


All are welcome to comment with their views, reflections and corrections (as and when required, and I’m sure they will be). However I should emphasise here that the entries to follow will not be a definitive encyclopaedia; they will reflect the views of the author and the author only, based on assumptions, preferences and biases accumulated over four decades or so of listening to music, and both historically and factually are liable to be fallible, especially since the charts began eight years before I did. Perhaps I ought to have asked my mum to write the early entries since she would be able to give a direct, first hand account of how this music felt in the context of an Italian expatriate in fifties Glasgow, but wherever possible I will concentrate on the music and how it makes me feel at the time I come to listen to it for the purposes of writing about it here.


After much internal deliberation I have elected not to give the albums marks out of ten (cue huge sigh of disappointment) since I feel this a particularly self-defeating exercise in this particular context and trust that the discerning reader will clearly glean my views from the writing alone.  


It’s also important for me to point out that, as with BiA, all comments will be moderated and read by myself before being considered for publication; although this will tend to drag things down a bit, it is, sadly, necessary for the purpose of keeping out spammers and trolls as well as niggling nitpickers, pointless point scorers and other sundry sociopaths. If you want to slag me off, do it on your own blog! 


Singles, as I said at the beginning, are one thing. They may take some considerable time to assess and write about but basically you’re listening to one piece of music (or two if it’s a double A-side) several times in succession and the mechanics of doing that are fairly quick. But whereas, with some concentration and zero interference from the outside world, you could just about get away with writing about one single per day, albums are a different matter – and I speak as one who, in my Uncut days, regularly got through and wrote about a dozen albums in the space of one weekend. Twelve or more tracks – or, when you get to the seventies, perhaps three or four very long tracks, and occasionally just two, or even one – take time to assimilate and assess, and then you have to consider the music within the context of the album as a whole.

Now, since I don’t have a multimillionaire philanthropic backer who’s willing to pay me a living stipend to research and write about this full time – if that sounds like a hint then it’s meant to be – the pace of this blog will necessarily be slower than normal. I plan to do one post, one album, per week, at the weekend (I haven’t decided exactly when in the weekend as yet, but rest assured that it will probably be variable). In view of the 848 albums which need to be considered, I am fully aware that at this pace, not only will I be seeing my sixtieth birthday by the time I’ve written about all of them, but also that when I get there, there will have been an additional sixteen years’ worth of accumulated number one albums to take into consideration – that is, if the album as a saleable format survives that long. So I may need to be fairly flexible with this rate of production but I’m not going to rush to get it up to date.

Theoretically I suppose I could do an album a day but then that would leave me with no time or energy to listen to any other music, or indeed live a life of any meaning, for the best part of three-and-a-half years and the words “no can do” spring to mind, not to mention the words “cardiac tent.” Maybe this is the sort of enterprise I should have started twenty years ago (if only there had been a workable mass usage internet in the eighties) but I’m starting it now and that’s that. Bear in mind also that this weekly frequency may vary if I can’t find a copy of the next number one album. In all such cases I will simply hold off doing any posting until a copy is to hand, however long it takes me to find one. It would be indecent to skip, I think.


Very simple but cleverly so; I was thinking of Then Play On, the best album released by the Peter Green edition of Fleetwood Mac – although that unfortunately only peaked at #6 so won’t be written about – and the associated titular origin from Twelfth Night (i.e. “if music be the food of love…”). The nobilliards URL is also a Shakespearean reference, this time from Antony And Cleopatra when, in response, to the exhortation “The music, ho!,” Cleopatra blandly views the eunuch and comments “Let it alone; let’s to billiards.” The idea here is that you might find both the writing and the music under consideration interesting enough to defer the billiards for at least a couple more decades. At least I hope so.