Sunday 28 September 2008

Elvis PRESLEY: Rock 'n' Roll

(#6: 10 November 1956, 1 week)

Track listing: Blue Suede Shoes/I Got A Sweetie (I Got A Woman)/I’m Counting On You/I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone/That’s All Right (Mama)/Money Honey/Mystery Train/I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over You/Tryin’ To Get To You/One-Sided Love Affair/Lawdy Miss Clawdy/Shake Rattle And Roll

Referred to by many as Rock ‘n’ Roll No 1, and although Bill Haley ensured that chronologically in this tale it was Rock ‘n’ Roll No 2 – to add to the confusion, the second UK Presley album release was entitled Rock ‘n’ Roll (No 2) and peaked at #3 in 1957 – I still think it one of the best album titles, as inspired as calling a single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2” in 1972 (whatever your feelings about the co-creator of the latter, it was undeniably the big middle finger that “American Pie” deserved).

The real curiosity with the original 10-inch HMV issue – apart from the stark contrast between the Sunday morning pipe tobacco typography and layout of the back cover and the pink-green-monochrome-Astounding Tales-via-Mondrian-and-Weegee franticity of the front cover – lies in its sleevenote. Written by Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker’s fifties equivalent of Simon Reynolds, it valiantly attempts to recast Presley as a “Jazz (with a capital J) phenomenon” and Dawbarn was clearly intent on not being Mr Grumpy It’s All Noise Jazz Journal Man. Still, he draws his well-meant lines – that Presley was “a little rhythm and blues, a little bit hillbilly” is, to be kind, one way of putting it – and is careful to paint him as a legitimate addition to the noble folk/blues tradition rather than as a trembling, adrenalined sex needle. Notoriously, he describes “Mystery Train” as the “kind of number popularised by British ‘skiffle’ singers,” presumably as a way of luring sceptical skiffle purists – even then oblivious of the oxymoron – into Elvis’ world; and it is a great personal regret that this tale won’t be addressing Lonnie Donegan’s Showcase album, a record whose influence on its generation of British musicians, as well as the following one, is incalculable; it sat at number two for six straight weeks over December 1956-January 1957, stuck behind the King And I behemoth.

While it shared a cover and chart-topping status with RCA’s Elvis Presley US album release, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s track listing is different, although it equally cherry picks from new tracks, mainly covers of recent rock and R&B hits, and selections from the Sun archive; as with Dawbarn’s notes, the idea was clearly to introduce Presley’s work to a wider and (it was presumed) less fickle audience in a way that wouldn’t put them off (i.e. by hinting at any notion of sexuality). We have to remember that for British audiences this would have been their first exposure to “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train”; proof that the icy alien of “Heartbreak Hotel” didn’t just spring from nowhere, that there was a history, and rawer than anyone here might have suspected. Still, the HMV release may be its own well-meant equivalent of Steve Allen sticking Presley in a bowtie and tuxedo.

Ideas of formality are of course immediately blown out of the quiescent water by the opening fanfare of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Already we can see that Haley was only revealing, or able to reveal, part of the story; “Blue Suede Shoes” has the same double-drum shuffle beat but Presley is now taking it places Haley could never have hoped to have gone – “Let’s go, cats!” he roars prior to Scotty Moore’s first sat-on-a-wasps’-nest guitar solo; “Oh, WALK the dog!” he cries jubilantly. DJ Fontana’s snare drums are like Jud Fry with a machine gun, shooting down the polite past. “ROCK IT!” “YEAH!!” A “GO GO GO!!!” in tandem with Bill Black’s bicycling bass. Presley is his own Nietzsche, thankfully without even knowing it: “Well you can burn my house, steal my car” – what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger – though his key warning carries more amused bemusement than menace; why exactly do you want to step on my blue suede shoes? But the carefree rat-a-tat demolition ball of the track renders even this question irrelevant; he’ll go on, stepped or unstepped on.

In the UK singles chart the Elvis and Carl Perkins recordings of “Blue Suede Shoes” fought an honourable draw (Elvis’ peaked at #9, Carl’s at #10) but as perfect as Perkins’ version is, Presley takes the song’s intent and breath somewhere beyond perfect. Crucially – and this album proves it over and over – Presley had the ability to turn this raw material into pop. Consider his take on Ray Charles’ purposely blasphemous beginning of soul time “I Got A Woman” (and no, I’ve no idea where the “Sweetie” came from either since Presley doesn’t sing the word once – maybe someone was trying to attract mourning Al Jolson fans). Ray’s original was and is electric, and literally shook the temple, but Presley’s opening basso profundo “Wellll…” indicates a total confidence that is slightly scary as much as it is elevatingly liberating. Fontana is careful to step on and off the drumming gas, always simmering the song up to a climax then falling back, holding back until the final and only climax. After a fierce trading fours duel between voice and drums, and in the midst of a Sargasso sea of echo, Elvis achieves climax; his “Well, she’s my baby” is followed by a dub whirlpool of vowels which eventually stammer into formation of an “I” to reveal that “I’m her loving man” succeeded by a lion’s double purr of “She’s alright” and a “whatcha gonna do about it” abrupt declaration of “IGOTAWOMAN!” This was taking the punctum under Sinatra’s skin so deep that it might recolour the arteries of pop blood.

“I’m Counting On You” mutates the hymnbook in a subtler manner; a doo wop prayer adapted to address his Other, cyclical piano alternating with Platters staccato, intoned by a man clearly uncertain of his own faith; observe the octave-leaping small-to-capital-E gulp of “in e-Every way” and the 9.5 on the Richter scale “dawn” in “From the dawn of each day. He makes the spiritual connection explicit by twice rendering the subject of “if…knew” not quite comprehensible; is he singing “if you knew” or “if He knew”? In both cases he conceals the subject with a falsetto hiccup before coming down gently, if shakily, to land on an emphatic tremble of the title.

It has already been noted by others how keen young Elvis was for his records always to have a happy ending. So what if you step on my blue suede shoes; heck, I’m gonna live longer than you (though this turned out to be a not terribly accurate prescience; still, the symbol remained). Likewise, in “I’m Left,” which is proto-Tennessee Three boom-chicka-boom trying to cross the border into rock as politely as possible, he hiccups all over the rhythm’s cunning lope. But he’s not bothered at all by her desertion – “But now (WHOOP!) I just don’t care,” and a “She’s gone, I know not where!” rendered in the manner of a camper Keats as the rhythm continues to unwind on its self-built spindle; and then he bumps gladly down the hill with his “I’ve-a-fa-ha-ha-ha-allen (HICCUP!) for you,” snarling a terrifying, don’t-give-a-shit “FOR” in “FORgive me now” en route. Scotty, meanwhile, is busy inventing ska in the middle eight, and his main solo is so clean you could eat your dinner off his plectrum.

Then we get “That’s All Right,” the happy accident that began an avalanche, the horse not in need of a nail, a pop which Crudup could not have accessed; given the innumerable accounts on the part of British pop and rock stars of how their world was immediately altered by first exposure to “Heartbreak Hotel,” one can only guess at the additional impact this must have made to virgin ears, even if in a Lonnie-didn’t-come-from-nowhere-either sense. So light, so sure of its own destiny; she’s gone, he shrugs his shoulders and will carry on down the road regardless (“de de dee da da de de”), but note Scotty’s vibrato shaking the last virtuous apple out of the tree on Presley’s “no good” and his virtual hard-on under “hangin’ round your door.”

Side one concludes with a reading of “Money Honey,” a 1953 R&B hit for the Clyde McPhatter version of the Drifters, and while it may cause problems for those who persist in seeing things in stark black and white, Elvis’ seems to me the “blacker” version; looser, more capricious, less hangdog. The intro’s high staccato piano cleverly mimics the irritated landlord ringing Presley’s front doorbell, and in his second greatest moment of explicit personal crisis on this album Presley writhes and wriggles in a baffled you-lookin’-at-me? manner, like a prematurely skewed skate. By song’s end he’s lost his woman and looks like he might lose his roof too – underlined by Scotty’s aggressive bitonal guitar solo - but he dismisses all of this with three “huh”s and another whoop; what the hell, I’ll set up shop elsewhere, and young buttoned up Britain listened and absorbed.

Side two commences with “Mystery Train” and I’ll return to that at the end, since with the two Sun-derived exceptions this side is markedly weaker than the first; “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down” is another ballad, but Presley’s reading seems less than committed. Moore ’s solo seems to disappear logically into his own tunnel, the drums are mixed too far back at the expense of greater voice emphasis. Into the voice itself some mannerisms (as opposed to nature) are already creeping in, and the pianist appears poised to play Monk’s “Misterioso” at fadeout.

“Tryin’ To Get To You” – the other Sun track on this side - wipes it out immediately. The rhythm is far more involved and propulsive and Presley’s pronounced nobility in travelling night and day, running all the way is a significant contrast to the cheerful running away in which he has been indulging elsewhere. A decade and one ahead of Alex Chilton, he gets her letter, and his preserved nobility immediately erupts into screams: “WHEN I READ YA LOVIN’ LETTAH!” burns the song up; he squashes the “THING-I” conjunction into a dozen scrambled syllables, echoed by Scotty’s snakes and ladders guitar strikes and Fontana’s deadpan clip clop drumming. When he reaches the carnal-to-spiritual apotheosis of “TRUE – LORD ABOVE” he moves from sob to yelp to ecstasy; he compresses all his painful wandering into that “TRUE” and shifts into an R&B Frankie Laine prayer in thanks for spiritual guidance; having strayed so merrily and so far, he’s now taking it all back to the church, even if it’s the Church of Him.

That would have made a dynamic ending to the album, which otherwise peters out somewhat anticlimactically; “One-Sided Love Affair” begins like Winifred Atwell with its jolly pub piano and Presley quickly turns it into slapstick with one of his most bizarre vocal performances, resembling a distressed doo wop baritone having just eaten his lunch atop a beehive. This “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” doesn’t compare with Lloyd Price’s 1952 original or Presley’s own startling revisit in his ’68 Special but does have some good guitar/tom tom interface in the first instrumental break, and Presley’s final “Down the road I go” is accompanied by fierce snare accents as though he is being bodily kicked down that road. Still, things do pick up again for the closing “Shake Rattle And Roll” – derived from Joe Turner rather than Haley and kicking the latter’s good-natured backside down the road to cabaret nostalgia for good measure, despite a miscued intro; Presley and the group play it like prototype garage rock (it actually does sound as though recorded in a garage), but Scotty’s wildly oscillating guitar solos blast it into intractable orbit. Elvis’ own vocal lacks a certain lustre but he cringes appositely in the “over the hill, way down underneath, you make me roll my eyes and then you make me grit my teeth” sequence which Haley was too damned polite to retain.

As a proclamation of who might be the real Rock ‘n’ Roll No 1 there is a certain logic to the album concluding thusly, but predictably I am drawn back to “Mystery Train”; an astonishing record whose music consists of almost nothing save echo (the song is its own ghost). But the source of its astonishment is Presley, and the qualities which made him, at his best, surest and least afraid, beyond perfect. The song opens just as the Junior Parker original did; the train’s taking his baby away, seemingly for good (he’s on the same train but one half is sealed off from the other). In his reading Parker mournfully accepts this as generations of bluesmen had done before him; shit happens, this is reality, people die, disappear, vanish, vaporise.

The greatness of Presley’s reading – apart from the fact that he tears up the book – is that he refuses to accept reality; this by some distance is the worst crisis he has to face on Rock ‘n’ Roll, but just as he has turned from disappointment, betrayal and poverty elsewhere on the record, here he turns reality around. He doesn’t like reality so is determined to change it: “It took my baby (drop to snarl) but it never will again – no, not AGAIN…” Bridged by a Scotty solo which takes the equivocal middleground – it’s unsure whether it should be mourning or celebrating – Elvis comes back, triumphant, barely concealing his grin: “Well it’s bringing my baby, ‘cos she’s mine, all mine” with the proudest of sighs on “baby.” He has made it end happily, he’s brought life back from the dead and ends the song by streaking into the distance with his darkly exultant “Who-HOOOO-WHOOOH!!” and a dismissive laugh; he’s stared the train down and mocks its now non-existent power. On its own it would be pop Lazarus on a scale equalled only by New Order’s “Everything’s Gone Green” a quarter of a century later (and I note that both fall exactly one year on either side of Ian Curtis’ lifespan); in this company, in the midst of this music which continues to excite, exhilarate and provoke hard-ons – the record is cartoon sexy but its cartoon most assuredly beats real life forced post-war monasticism – music which can still cause me to get up and dance more than half a century after it was recorded, it assuredly pulls down the old order and rearranges pop into a far more interesting and ALIVE new order. After Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, this tale’s second real milestone.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Bill HALEY and his COMETS: Rock 'n' Roll Stage Show

(#5: 27 October 1956, 1 week)

Track listing: Calling All Comets/Rockin’ Through The Rye/Rocking Little Tune/Hide And Seek/Hey Then, There Now/Goofin’ Around/Hook, Line And Sinker/Rudy’s Rock/Choo Choo Ch’Boogie/Blue Comet Blues/Hot Dog Buddy Buddy/Tonight’s The Night

Keen students of the Guinness chart books will know that Bill Haley’s British chart career appears to come to a sudden and abrupt halt in early 1957, after a year of near-total dominance. There are reasons for this; February 1957 was when the Comets came to tour Britain for the first time, and although Haley was mobbed by thousands at Waterloo Station and the requisite riots broke out at several high profile venues, people were looking at him close up and beginning to have their doubts. These doubts had nothing to do with what Haley was but everything to do with what, or who, he wasn’t; specifically, he wasn’t Elvis. He was not lean, he sweated quite a lot, he was in his mid-thirties, a decade or more on the insurgents who flooded the floodgates which he had opened, he was a little too approachable and not particularly sexy.

None of this was fair on Haley, of course, but I suspect that rock ‘n’ roll fans had already settled him as a John the Baptist figure in their minds and were prepared to bow respectfully but move on pretty quickly. Records and films were one thing, but at first hand the Comets did not appear to be capable of igniting long-lasting fires. In the meantime Elvis had broken through, and Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee and others would soon follow or had already followed; Haley had lit the fuse but the results of the explosion swiftly exceeded him.

“Rock Around The Clock” still seems the most difficult pop record about which to write meaningfully, especially if you weren’t there at the time to witness the slow-burning combustion that it started. Watch Blackboard Jungle now and it looks like the ultimate right wing denunciation of pesky kids, irksome feral youths who will not leave well-meaning pullovers and their Bix Beiderbecke 78s in peace. But most teenagers – if such a term could have been said to have existed in stultifying post-war Britain – who went to see the film at the time, and the subsequent titular cinematic musical cash-in, felt that the smashing was the important thing; to strip down the war-sustained deference, to stop the mourning, to cease making do and mending, to become creators themselves. Or at the very least better consumers, taking what was originally intended as a “novelty foxtrot” and turning it into the king of Trojan horses.

The after-effects of what Haley was seen to start have, I think, blinded most people to the extraordinary group that the Comets actually were. Formerly Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, they started out as a fairly rumbustious Western Swing combo – hence the accordion and steel guitar which survived into their rock incarnation – but when Haley astutely picked up on Jackie Brenston’s 1951 “Rocket 88” and covered it he simultaneously sharpened and muddled the group’s edges by bringing in tenor sax and electric guitars; thus a fusion which predated Elvis, Scotty and Bill by some three years.

Likewise, Rock ‘n’ Roll Stage Show pipped Elvis to become the first rock number one album; its better known predecessor, Rock Around The Clock, sat at number two for a fortnight in September behind Carousel and then Oklahoma! Just as the album ushered in a new beginning of time (as far as albums were concerned), so does it represent something of a sea change for the group. Confusingly, the album was not recorded live, and perhaps even more confusingly bore little audible evidence of Bill Haley; he appears on only four of the album’s 12 tracks – its big hit single “Rockin’ Through The Rye,” peaking at #3 and spending 23 weeks on the list, though its ungainly adaptation of traditional Scots mores (Haley can’t help but make “Campbells” sound like “camels”) already suggested that inspiration was running out; “Hook, Line And Sinker,” a slightly slower and looser 12-bar blues variant on the standard Comets formula; a respectful if unexciting revisit of Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (both versions having been produced by Milt Gabler) heightened by an interesting, if brief, roundelay of counterpart between sax and guitar; and, his best performance, “Hot Dog Buddy Buddy” where he finally sounds aroused and excited – “I got legs like a rooster, eyes like a frog,” “14 days, 14 fights, 14 lefts and 14 rights,” a giggling “Could stop now but I don’t think I oughta.”

The idea was clearly to spotlight the notion of the Comets as a group and show off the talents of its other members, and there is also evidence of stylistic diversification; two tracks, “Hey Then, There Now” and “Tonight’s The Night” are close harmony workouts (harmonised by steel guitarist Billy Williamson, guitarist Franny Beecher and bassist Al Rex) which take us right back to the Saddlemen days, and beyond to the time of the Inkspots and Andrews Sisters (“Hey Then, There Now” offers the modestly startling imagery of “I’ll give you the moon for a midnight snack”). “Goofin’ Around,” a intentionally dextrous feature for Beecher ’s lead guitar, verges on bebop as well as subtly demonstrating the Comets’ characteristic “double drums” effect with on the beat drumming counterpointed by slap bass.

In truth Rock ‘n’ Roll Stage Show is an enterprising and good humoured record which if it had been recorded six months ago by long-lost Tennessee musicians unearthed by Ry Cooder would have been heralded as a masterpiece. In 1956 Britain , however, its impact was briefly incendiary. Consider Rudy Pompilli, the album and the Comets’ real hero, and his upper register, one note Morse code reveille which commences the album and the instrumental “Calling All Comets” like a clarion call to revolution; soon the band kicks in and Pompilli’s tenor is slurring, blowing kisses, skiing on Bostic rhetoric above the waves of double rhythm. And Williamson’s steel guitar is doing pretty extraordinary things behind him, gulping like a recalcitrant rubber band, as the key changes for the climax and Pompilli ends with a deliberate “wrong” note, sticking his tongue through the reed and chuckling “fuck you, The Past.”

Even the comparatively minor Glencoe-via-Detroit romp of “Rye” is elevated by the band’s sudden forward/upward surge in the instrumental break; cymbals bashing like tidals against discarded Confederate Generals in Big Sur , the heat becoming more intense (see “Memories” by Public Image Ltd. for an interesting generational bookend), Williamson sliding into abstract patterns as Derek Bailey might have comped them and what sound like proto-synth bleeps (and note the emphatic triple gavel hammers of drums at song's end). Johnny Grande’s accordion feature “Rocking Little Tune” isn’t quite punk Cajun but has a good try, including three false endings. Meanwhile Beecher’s bending notes on the midtempo “Blue Comet Blues” invent Hank Marvin – it is impossible to underestimate the impact this would have had on millions, or at any rate thousands, of ambitious kids at the time, earnestly learning the riffs and solos or just miming to them in the mirror.

The two most forward-looking tracks on the album are “Rudy’s Rock” – also a Top 30 hit as an unscheduled single – in which Pompilli blasts off from a perfunctory (or possibly Rudi-mentary; yes, I know, my office at 9 am sharp etc.) theme statement into orbit; over an extended “Big Noise From Winnetka” dog pound of tom toms and handclaps he does everything, including askew post-Parker whole tone runs, curvaceous Coleman Hawkins swing and the obligatory Illinois Jacquet squeals and honks – and it’s still an arresting and amazing listen. Although maybe Billy Williamson is the record’s real secret hero; his vocal feature on “Hide And Seek” introduces a disquieting roughness and menace into the proceedings; it is grainy where all else is clearcut, virtually a snarl, even a roar; “I spy, kick you in the eye” seems to go against the grain of everything else on the record. Pompilli responds with a deadpan queasy vibrato, like Gene Sedric squaring up against a young Albert Ayler, to no avail – “You can’t hide beneath a four leaf clover,” hisses Williamson, and as the song reaches its call and response crescendo his “Man, I’m READY!” recalls no one so much as Iggy Pop.

But that grain of overthrow rustles like an impatient beetle throughout Rock ‘n’ Roll Stage Show, and as “Hot Dog Buddy Buddy” waves its gladly tattered flag above a meal of a maelstrom of handclaps, saxes and guitar loops the intent of Haley’s “Could stop now but I don’t think I oughta” becomes clearest; take it all down and build this new house in its place. Coming after the acutely and painfully meticulous designs and intertwines of three straight Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it comes over like a refreshing bucket, or waterfall, of newly flowing liquid meant to wake the world up from the war and learn to live again. Don’t knock Haley’s rock; it's lasted better than we all thought.

Sunday 14 September 2008


(#4: 13 October 1956, 2 weeks; 3 November 1956, 1 week; 17 November 1956, 15 weeks; 9 March 1957, 1 week; 23 March 1957, 1 week; 6 April 1957, 3 weeks; 4 May 1957, 6 weeks; 22 June 1957, 4 weeks; 10 August 1957, 3 weeks; 16 November 1957, 11 weeks; 22 March 1958, 1 week)

Track listing: Main Title/I Whistle A Happy Tune/My Lord And Master/The March Of The Siamese Children/Anna And The Royal Wives/Hello, Young Lovers/A Puzzlement/Getting To Know You/Garden Rendezvous/We Kiss In A Shadow/I Have Dreamed/Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?/Something Wonderful/Prayer To Buddha/Waltz Of Anna And Sir Edward/The Small House Of Uncle Thomas/Song Of The King/Shall We Dance?/The Letter/Something Wonderful (Finale)/Overture (LP Version
Here is why I am not composing separate entries for albums which have had more than one spell at the top; although with 21 tracks it would have been theoretically easier to do a Portishead-type track-by-track breakdown, I suspect readers would get bored very early in, and I am not convinced that the album warrants such close attention. However, The King And I soundtrack is the first real example in this list of the musical blockbusters; eleven separate runs at number one over 17 months with a cumulative total of 48 weeks, still the third longest run at the top of any album.

In the context of mid-fifties Britain it’s easy to see why such faux-exoticism should prove so attractive; the musical was a huge hit on both stage and screen and the catchiness of famous songs like “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” is unavoidable. Yet as an album The King And I hangs together far less securely than either Carousel or Oklahoma! (and neither of these is exactly secure structurally). The Angel expanded edition (on which, once again, this analysis is based) is not terrifically helpful, either; the musical is so entirely and unanswerably dominated by one man who on this record barely materialises. Yul Brynner made the role his own on Broadway from 1951 onwards and when it came to filming the show he proved himself as absolute and absurdist a dictator as his character; Deborah Kerr and others have attested that Brynner was more or less in charge of making the picture, with nominal director Walter Lang having to swallow his price, sit back and let Brynner get on with it. But on the soundtrack he appears on only four tracks and cannot really be said to be singing on any of them. His mounting befuddlement, mouldering into rage, on “A Puzzlement” is an unsettling blast after a quarter of an hour of Kerr-dominant niceness – I note both his genuine rage at the key line “Every day I try to live another day!” and the Scritti-anticipating “I very often find confusion in conclusion, I concluded long ago” – but it seems stripped of context. Similarly the comedy of “Prayer To Buddha,” which is where we get the “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” catchphrase, and dull misogyny of “Song Of The King” seem curiously beside the point – even though they are the deadly point – on either side of the demonic cataclysm that is “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas.”

The story is yet another cynical Hardy-esque view of two Cupids without the wit or resources to be Psyches. The difference here is that Brynner’s King is destructive for the sake of maintaining his shaky construction, as leader of a country which (as “A Puzzlement” demonstrates) he isn’t even sure is worth leading. It is his imposition to continue with the way things are done, including thoughtless concubines, unquestioned authority. It is difficult to listen to Lady Thiang’s verging on tearful plea for a behavioural pardon on his behalf, “Something Wonderful,” with its open-Rochester’s-eyes appeal (“This is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries,” “He has a thousand dreams that won’t come true/You know that he believes in them and that’s enough for you” – as with “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’?” the singer audibly struggles to convince herself) in light of what Rita Moreno’s Tuptim brings to the proceedings.

Originally Dorothy Dandridge was earmarked to play the key part of Tuptim, the girl who will cause the house of cards to collapse, but Moreno ended up in the film; while the thought of what Dandridge might have brought to “Uncle Thomas” in particular is fascinating, Moreno brings a shot of colour and writhing carnality to shame the muddle-along politesse on display elsewhere. Her “My Lord And Master” is “Something Wonderful”’s antithesis, a slowly mounting condemnation of this Rochester ’s wilful blindness (“So he thinks…just for him,” “The smile beneath my smile he’ll never see”; hello, Smokey Robinson), and it is her vitality whose eventual extinguishment will hasten the King’s own end. Irritatingly, on the extended fantasia of “Garden Rendezvous/We Kiss In A Shadow/I Have Dreamed” – it plays as one continuous piece – one Leona Gordon dubbed the singing track for Moreno for reasons unclear, such that she lends the petrified duet an unlikely and unfeasible touch of Judy Garland. The sequence itself is a kind of obverse of “People Will Say We’re In Love”; here is a love they can’t let anyone know about for fear of brutal death, and it isn’t simply the presence of Moreno that makes it a forebear of West Side Story; Carlos Rivas (dubbed by Reuben Fuentes) turns it into a Puerto Rican declaration of dangerous faith.

And Deborah Kerr’s Anna sees all of this and knows that even without her frowning moon of a mouth, her furtively turned on eyes, they are doomed; “Hello, Young Lovers” sees her as a grieving widow singing a lullaby to someone she knows is predestined to become another one; “a night when the earth smelled of summer” suggesting a sensuality which will not be rekindled in Siam until it is too late. “The same silent tear, the same blue sea”; the story is being played out again and she knows her Victorian pernickitiness and human grief will combine to prevent a happy ending here too.

“Hello, Young Lovers” is such a movingly constructed song that I would perhaps have preferred Kerr to attempt to semi-sing it than the professional job done by Marni Nixon. The latter makes her first notable (audio) appearance here as the voice of others in Hollywood musicals but unlike subsequent ventures Kerr was in the recording studio with her; they both learned from each other and both have a great deal of fun with the enclosed bitching of “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” (“Toads, toads, all of your people are toads!,” “bigamy” rhyming with “prig of me”) exchanging dialogues mid-line and sometimes mid-word; John Cale and Lou Reed did a similar trick on “Lady Godiva’s Operation” a dozen years later. However, I regret to report that Nixon’s remorselessly bright and pitch perfect tones set my teeth on edge; in something like “Hello, Young Lovers” where suppressed and horrific proto-mourning is the emotion that dare not speak its name, Nixon can’t really get beyond proto-Julie Andrews piercing wholesomeness, and her “you are precisely my cup of tea” in “Getting To Know You” (in the “preferred to sex” sense, even if she is singing in the company of the King’s children) provokes multiple cringes in this listener.

The problem with the soundtrack, though, as I said, is that it doesn’t hang together as a coherent story, even or especially with the generous (and, in one case, essential) additional material on the Angel edition; there are far too many of what technically are known as “underscores,” i.e. music soundtracking spoken dialogue, which in listening terms turns out to be acres of dreary MoR string sequences. Thus the attempted sexual charge of “Shall We Dance?” (subtext: “Shall We Fuck?”) peters out into orchestral flourishes and both the King and Anna vanish from the picture forever; nothing of the final betrayal, the reluctance which will cause the King’s heart to break and his life to end; merely the mildly baffling return of “Something Wonderful” sung by a Home Service choir – and then all of a sudden it’s The End. Other than a souvenir of songs from the show, which is clearly why so many people bought it and ensured that it spent 48 weeks at number one, the package is frustrating; as with opera, the whole story, including dialogue, needs to be told and preferably seen as well. We simply know that no one has been saved; the King is dead and his son will take over and Anna will stay there for the rest of her days, content in some ways but deserted in so many others; that Lun Tha and Tuptim will have no opportunity of being a Mr and Mrs Snow or even a Will and Ado Annie. And that Brynner too would never escape; he continued to resurrect the King in various guises – Broadway revivals, TV spinoffs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – until virtually the end of his life (stricken with cancer in 1985, he was still playing the King on stage, as health and strength allowed), that shaven head making him ageless and nearly immortal, if (as Westworld would subtly go on to point out) already something of a machine.

But then we have to consider “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas,” nearly thirteen minutes long, now added to the soundtrack album and easily – and still – one of the most extreme pieces of music to appear in this reckoning. I am indebted to Lena for pointing out that the “Out Of My Dreams” ballet sequence in Oklahoma! is initiated by Laurey sniffing a strange, new perfume and that the sequence is to all intents and purposes the first example of a drug trip on a number one album. The East-via-West reshaping of Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, anticipates “A Day In The Life” in different, if equally radical, ways.

“Uncle Thomas” is Moreno ’s show and she grabs it; it is where all the resentment and rage felt by both her and Anna (and, in his own stupidly stubborn or imprisoned way, the King) swell up and reach resolution. Set as an after-dinner entertainment for the King and the visiting British dignitaries – he is keen to put on a show for people whom he probably rightly suspects see him as a laughable anachronism and ripe for toppling and perhaps even executing – Moreno ’s Tuptim slowly and steadily turns the analogous screws on his regime. Recorded in two separate studios facing each other on the same street, with conductor Alfred Newman and his orchestra of sixteen percussionists, playing everything from bass marimba to tuned radiator pipes, plus small string and woodwind contingents on one side, Moreno , the Siamese chorus and live dancers (!) on the other, and each communicating with the other via closed circuit TV, it was a remarkable feat of logistics in itself.

And the words and music are the most radical that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever dared. The sequence starts with soft grace and not a little humour (the deadpan mewing Siamese chorus with their “Ge-OOORRR-GE!”s) over patiently pattering marimbas and vibes, but as the slave Eliza sets to escape from the evil “King” Simon Legree the music abruptly darkens and amplifies; at the word “rainstorm” it suddenly and shockingly explodes into dissonance, huge battalions of atonal percussion hammering against contrasts of quiet but harmonically restless rhythms. The chorus’ “Run, Eliza, run!” is reminiscent of similar sequences in Britten’s Peter Grimes while their “Poor Eliza”s lose all sense of courtliness and degenerate or escalate into Penderecki-anticipating screams. Again one thinks of Scott Walker, but now it’s the Scott Walker of Tilt and specifically the very similarly constructed and themed “The Cockfighter.”

Certainly Walker comes to mind when Buddha appears with his miracle and the music’s sky suddenly clears and the tenor of the story subtly shifts; Tuptim is no longer telling the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but mutating it into the story of Moses and Exodus, with its frozen river, its drowned pursuers, the snow as “veil of lace.” She escapes, then, and a solitary guitar appears to pick out the melody of “Hello, Young Lovers” as George Crumb might orchestrate it (the thundering descents of xylophones and timpani earlier are worthy and anticipatory of Makrokosmos III), but now it is time for her to turn Exodus in turn into a direct protest and damnation; we have already seen how her “I beg”s have hardened up to become “I regret to put before Your Majesty,” and now she breaks free of pantomime altogether and alone roars “I too am glad for death of King, of any King who pursues a slave who is unhappy and tries to escape!,” Brynner’s handclap terminating her tirade like the whip he will ultimately be afraid and unwilling to use on her for real. And the story is not an unqualified happy ending; Little Eva is sacrificed, as Tuptim knows she must soon sacrifice herself, and the sequence ends with a slowly and terrifyingly building crescendo, culminating in an enormous, shattering detonation of massed, beyond tonal, free form percussion and bells ready to drag the world down to destruction and hell. “Beyond tonal”? Not quite, actually – the final chord is an E major and we’ll be coming across something rather similar in time. After that, back to Brynner being all Henry Higgins about women as though the apocalypse never happened. But catch the buried dread of Kerr’s “When the last little star has left the sky, will we still be together?” in “Shall We Dance?” knowing that a world, if not the world, has already ended, praying for a final explosion that will obliterate Victorian gentility as fully and mercilessly as the House of Siam. But then, was the Unabomber not Jud Fry’s final revenge?

Sunday 7 September 2008


(#3: 29 September 1956, 2 weeks; 15 June 1957, 1 week)

Track listing: Overture/Main Title/Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’/The Surrey With The Fringe On Top/Kansas City/Kansas City Ballet/I Cain’t Say No/Many A New Day/Many A New Day Ballet/People Will Say We’re In Love/Pore Jud Is Daid/Out Of My Dreams/Out Of My Dreams Ballet/Entr’acte/The Farmer And The Cowman/The Farmer And The Cowman Ballet/All Er Nuthin’/All Er Nuthin’ Ballet/People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise)/Oklahoma/Finale: Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’/Overture (LP Version)

For a medium like the long-playing record which was originally designed with classical music in mind, it’s fitting that musical soundtracks should have been so dominant in the early years of the album chart; after all, their cycles of songs linked by common plot and narrative lent themselves to the LP format as few other forms of music did at the time – a more easily digestible variety of opera.

There seems to have been no great precipitating factor in the return of the Oklahoma! soundtrack to number one nine months after its initial run; given that in September 1956 the album had already been available for over a year its success illustrates the extremely slow turnover, verging on stasis, of the early charts; in that first top five list with Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! at number one, both the Carousel and Oklahoma! soundtracks were also present and the list was completed by two live jazz albums, both recorded at the Crescendo Club in Los Angeles, by Mel Torme and Louis Armstrong respectively (Armstrong we’ll be returning to soon, and the Torme album was the record from which stemmed the top five hit single “Mountain Greenery”; as with all such affairs, I am wondering whether my father-in-law might have been in the audience for either). There wasn’t a great deal of competition, and there’s little doubt that had the chart started earlier, Oklahoma !’s run at the top would have been far more substantial.

As it is, the fact that the prequel reached number one after the sequel complicates linear storytelling somewhat. So much of what is stated and implied in Oklahoma! seems to me to come to clearer and fuller fruition in Carousel, but conversely Oklahoma!’s surface is far brighter; “People Will Say We’re In Love” is a considerably happier study of extended irony than “If I Loved You”; Will Parker and Ado Annie a goofier Mr and Mrs Snow. Then again, we are still dealing with surfaces here. “Out Of My Dreams,” for instance, is a more ambiguous and infinitely less cosy “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Although the musical is set a generation after Carousel, it still seems to precede it in all senses, even though its central thrust is about dealing with the future; the show is set at the point when Oklahoma is about to accede to the Union and become a proper, full-blown state, with all the relief and responsibility that will entail, not to mention all the dread. Of course it is hard to get a grasp on the musical in terms of its original revolutionary impact on the 1943 Broadway stage without actually having sat there, watching the jaws of the audience drop as, instead of the standard flurry of high-kicking, colourful girls, they got a dim dawn and somebody singing offstage, seemingly as quiet as possible, with rhythmic, rhetorical repeats drawn from the English folksong tradition: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” to introduce the cautious, breath not yet taken wonder of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” as though stepping out onto the first morning of the world, as though starting again. Showboat and Porgy And Bess were precedents, but Oklahoma! suggested things not attempted in musicals before (that is if Porgy is to be considered an opera, which many, its composers included, do or did), a slow, patient rise rather than instant gratification.

Then again, Oklahoma! could also be said to be very subtle in its futurism; Gordon MacRae’s Curly stares out at the prairie – “All the cattles are standing like statues” except for “a little brown marsupial” – which could refer to the dawn of the Earth, before God had opted to bring life to his creations, or to the statues of cattle to be viewed when entering the anti-future of such ventures to come as Milton Keynes, mass production as the subtextual goal of assimilation. Corn as high as an elephant’s eye, observed by someone who had in all probability never seen an elephant in his life.

The future in Oklahoma! is embraced with cautious enthusiasm; Gene Nelson’s rapidly blinking Will comes back from the “modren world” as represented by Kansas City, bulging with good-natured disbelief at the cars, skyscrapers (tall enough to shame any elephant) and “ri-di-ai-tor”s he’s seen there, but warning that “they’ve gone about as fir as they can go.” “The Farmer And The Cowman” constantly undermines its vaudevillian “territory folk should stick together” schtick with interestingly harmonised verses which foretell the capitalist confrontations to come (a quarter of a century after the film, Heaven’s Gate would attempt to make the war explicit), its turn-taking jibes inserted with the smiling precision of daggers or pitchforks loaded with gelignite. Still, by the time the title song rolls around, they turn towards hopelessly optimistic visions of the glories to come – “Soon be living in a brand new state!,” “Flowers on the prairie” (when they already know there will be skyscrapers and dams), “Plenty of space and plenty of room” – but note the subtle train rhythms which enter towards song’s end, the mechanisation that will simultaneously make and break them. There’s a lovely four-part harmony on one of the quiet “Oklahoma” chants which directly foresees (as so much of this work does) Brian Wilson and SMiLE, and the theme of “Cabinessence” in particular – Eastern immigrants helping to build the railways and connect America to itself – might also be usefully borne in mind when considering next week’s entry.

But bear in mind also that the musical opened just a few years after the book and film of The Grapes Of Wrath (hence the additional poignancy of the “You’re doing OK, Oklahoma” line) so we already know that this story is not bound for a happy ending, that Curly and Laurey are likely to become Ma and Pa Joad. Its jolly nature therefore conceals an abyss of doubt and fear, and the latter is best considered in light of the two ghosts which give this story its point.

Ghosts, because the character of Jud Fry, the real eye of the elephant in Oklahoma!’s sitting room, appears only momentarily but crucially in the context of the soundtrack, while we hear nothing from Eddie Albert’s snake oil salesman Ali Hakim. It is here that I must declare my own prejudice; in the summer of 1979 my school staged the musical, in considerably abridged and simplified form, as its annual “opera.” I wasn’t asked to present myself for audition, nor did I feel any great urge to do so. Jud is the only character I would have considered playing, but then it was perhaps better that I didn’t; at fifteen I had no profound insights into what makes a “bad” man bad and would have undoubtedly played the role for comedy, when, as life has subsequently taught me, the last thing you should do with someone like Jud Fry is laugh at him.

Although the film is as dull and eventlessly directed (by Fred Zinnemann) as the movie of Carousel was, Rod Steiger’s Jud is an extremely disquieting performance and seems to blow in from the wind of a different film altogether. Like Cotten’s Uncle Charlie or Hopper’s Frank Booth, his evil fullness is so evidently preferable to the “goodness” of those film’s other characters (though either could have drifted into being through the dreams of Teresa Wright or Kyle MacLachlan – “In Dreams,” lest we forget) that you root for him all the way through, even or especially when he’s being a morose and clumsy slimeball towards Shirley Jones’ Laurey; does his struggle to articulate himself make him less or more of a man than MacRae’s smilingly smug Curly, as he ejects Jud from the dance, or as he laughingly fantasises Jud’s death?

For “Poor Jud Is Daid” is maybe the blackest and most disturbing song Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The Overture betrays elements of Kurt Weill within its lusty Aaron Copland hoedowning – not to mention the sinister breeze in the air of the equally disquieting strings which never quite leaves the various thematic recapitulations – but this echt-elegy, sung by MacRae and echoed by Steiger, is a study worthy of Brecht. The song’s tonality is restless while MacRae deploys steamroller irony to ridicule the not yet daid Jud, dreaming of his hanging himself, pondering on the differing smell of the daffodils after he’s been buried (and there are elements on which the young Jacques Brel in particular must have picked up – see “Funeral Tango”), his barks of “WOOD!” and “GOOD!” to echo Steiger’s “coffin of wood” and “gone for good.” Finally, in a gesture which would still be audacious on the 2008 stage, MacRae declaims “It’s a shame that he won’t keep, but it’s summer and we’re runnin’ out of ice” as trombones blow a shocking raspberry finale; it’s almost in keeping with UK Grime in extremis (“them two dirty shirts he always wore,” “he treated the rats like equals”) but then there is the unexpectedly tender core of the song, as MacRae sweetly and sorrowfully notes “He loved everything and everybody in the world – only he never let on – so nobody ever noted.”

Jud’s preordained suicide – like Billy Bigelow, he accidentally falls on his own knife – is terrifying and far more disturbing than the one in Carousel because he is a Rochester without title or evident point who is never in hope of finding his Jane – Laurey, amiably dithering over whether to go with him or Curly to the barn dance, could never have been that saviour – so his tale is never told and he will have both lived and died in vain. But then perhaps I ought to pause at that “amiably dithering” since “Out Of My Dreams” finds Laurey as confused and fucked up as Jud or for that matter Billy. The song quickly evolves into a staggering 14-minute ballet sequence, peppered with whole tones, Curly’s reassuring strings fighting against Jud’s snarling, questioning brass and percussion. The various song motifs we’ve heard thus far are recycled and rejigged but we can’t quite get a handle on them; the increasing atonality of the intruding chords suggests Alban Berg trying to hijack the orchestra pit. Eventually the number, and the musical, crack and thunderstorms, gunshots and screams are herded in, as are the strings we will hear a generation later on “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow.” Winds howl, brass usher in a final, apocalyptic thundercrack…and it all dissolves into Steiger’s gruff “It’s time to get started on the party,” paralysing Laurey in her own terror.

As for Ali Hakim, or indeed as for Will and Ado Annie, their relationship appears already foredoomed; in “All Er Nuthin’” it’s heartbreaking to hear Gloria Grahame, the coffee scaldee (and eventual coffee scalder) of The Big Heat, whimpering about giving an imitation of a crawfish as she submits to Will’s stupid demands for slippers and pipe fealty (ditto her quivering, aw shucks guilt on “I Cain’t Say No”). Stupid because there can be no room for anything else in his preordained world – unlike the Snows, they are unlikely to do any dreaming while the children are asleep; indeed Will thunders that if they do have a child, “he’d better look a lot like me!” with the dumb obstinacy of the soon-to-be wifebeater, obsessed with a traveller who in this narrative has not even materialised; like Jud, he exists more as a dream or ideation than a reality.

Similarly, what is there for Laurey and Curly but more of the same, albeit with more grinning? Laurey struggles with her choice because instinctively she knows that Jud is likely to offer more excitement if she can make the effort to break him open; that, albeit seemingly inarticulate and permanently resentful, he’s able to give her more life, and certainly more sex, than the dully grinning Curly could ever hope to do – note her multiple ironic “many”s and “never”s scattered throughout “Many A New Day.” I wonder whether the ambiguity would have been stepped up if the producers hadn’t shown a young, pre-fame James Dean the door when he turned up to audition for the part of Curly; but then they may already have realised that ideally Dean would have had to be cast as both Curly and Jud.

For Jud also represents a dirty, seamy past of which image the pregnant new state is anxious to wash itself. Everyone has to stand shoulder to shoulder, make the correct faces, say the right things, now; we couldn’t have stayed there, how could you even think that we might have done? Thus “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is amiable clip clop, not devoid of sexuality (“one’s like snow,” MacRae licks his lips at one point, “the other’s more like miiiiiilk!,” and later, as Laurey falls asleep on his shoulder on the return journey, a repeated whisper: “don’t you wish you’d-a go on forever?” – not to mention the startled “ker-plop!,” the conspiratorial “don’t you hurry” and the descending, elongated quiver of “friiiiiiiinge” towards the end) but not really promising anything in the end except – a little more silk? “People Will Say We’re In Love” begins with Laurey unravelling “a practical list of don’ts for you” and despite the irony it’s believable that all the couple would ever want to do is the right thing, in public, care what the neighbours think (despite the “let people say we’re in love” arc at the end of the musical).

The performances here – again, we are dealing with the Angel expanded CD edition - are technically adequate and not a lot more; Jones misses quite a lot of key notes, Steiger and Nelson do not really need to “sing,” while MacRae carries on in his own merrily absurd Victor Mature of Broadway way as the hollow but grinning lunkhead, a far more neutral performance than the one he would give Bigelow. It’s likely that a Britain still broken by its own war a decade or more after it had ended would have loved colourful celebrations of communality, whatever their subtext or foreclosing forebodings, and so Oklahoma! thrived in its own “chin up!” way, even if the film, as David Thomson remarked, seemed to strip the musical of its exclamation mark.