Sunday 26 October 2008

Tommy STEELE and The STEELMEN: The Tommy Steele Story

(#10: 20 July 1957, 3 weeks; 31 August 1957, 1 week)
Track listing: Take Me Back, Baby/Butterfingers/I Like/A Handful Of Songs/You Gotta Go/Water, Water/Cannibal Pot/Will It Be You/Two Eyes/Build Up/Time To Kill/Elevator Rock/Doomsday Rock/Teenage Party

(Special, sincere and profound thanks are due to Mark Grout, who very kindly found a copy of the album for me in its original 10-inch format and also provided the cover scan which accompanies this entry)

Finally we reach the first number one album by a British artist, and also – and indisputably – the first British rock album to top the chart. I accentuate that “indisputably” because, from the initial Six-Five Special express fade-in to “Take Me Back, Baby,” from which the 22-year-old Steele emerges like a suddenly drenched jack in the box to ask “What have I done to make you blue?” in his broad Bermondsey brogue and immediately takes off on an astonishing foray of “Oh-ho-ho” sobs and yodels, “whoo-hoo-hoo!” squeals, the occasional decisive statement (“WIDEN YOUR EYES!”) and moans (“Morrrrrrr-more-more-MORE!”) which can aptly be described as orgasmic, this feels to its bones like the first rock ‘n’ roll music played in Britain; the music is messy but not apologetically so and the seasoned jazz pros who made up the Steelmen have plenty of gusto to spare (note Roy Plummer’s upward, scampering slide on lead guitar after Steele’s “Never no more to run away” and its final ducking single note retreat after the climactic crash of drums – fittingly the drummer is Ronnie Verrell, later the man behind Animal in The Muppet Show) but can knit tighter than a Warminster Women’s Institute splinter group when needed. It pulses like the next, logical and younger move from skiffle, although Steele has always been careful to stress that he was not part of the skiffle movement; as a novice teenage guitarist and songwriter his primary love was country music and his main inspiration was Hank Williams.

This latter too is important; despite another performer's repeated claims to the contrary, Steele more than merits the title of Britain’s first true rock ‘n’ roll star, and this is borne out not only by his absolute and palpable attachment to the music, but also by his direct creative input; nearly all of the fourteen songs on The Tommy Steele Story were written or co-written by Steele himself. Of the film itself I can recall little; I remember seeing it at a very young age on Saturday morning television in the early seventies but can’t recall too much from it except for Steele’s usual cheery have-a-go persona. It more or less told things as they happened; his spells working the Cunard lines and as a merchant seaman, his discovery at the 2 I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, and so forth.

But the reason why the songs have lasted so well despite their undoubted air of primitivism, the physical process of creating something new and possibly unprecedented, must be attributed to Steele’s co-writers; two young wannabes named Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt. The latter was a particularly interesting character; though now remembered mainly as the “living” co-star of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and as the father of musician Guy Pratt – the literal missing link between Pink Floyd and The Orb – he was a key behind the scenes mover in the early days of British rock. In tandem with Bart’s already very evident technical expertise, they combined to concoct a rather sardonic and self-aware blend of lyrics and music with a uniquely British tinge, a heritage inherited more from music hall than the blues, though with enough zap pow pop artism to make it as current as young 1957 British music could hope to be.

At times the approach of Steele, Bart and Pratt verges on the postmodern; “I Like,” for instance, invents a disgraced seventies glam performer (from the musical point of view) fifteen years ahead of schedule with its echoing yelps of “I like, do you like?” alternating with comments from bass and guitar and mordantly knowing observations on the process of making the record, 21 years before Scritti Politti (“Hear them strings go plink-a-plunk/You’d never guess it was a pile of junk!”). Then the song briefly blasts off into the real future as Steele exhorts “Blow those old cobwebs away!” and “Now shake them dusty chandeliers!” before suddenly and inexplicably stopping in mid-flow.

As a ballad singer Steele clearly had the Sun Elvis in mind as well as Hank; “Will It Be You” is essentially a grounded tribute to Presley’s “Blue Moon” with prowling prairie acoustic guitar and bass but with a noticeably less grounded vocal; Steele’s voice aches with suppressed expectations of the carnal, as witness the virtual purple wax dart of his “theyeyeyeyeyey tell me why,” the music constantly shifting twixt diminuendo and crescendo, contrasted against the jarring Queen’s English precision of “why,” “try” and “die” and the sequence of “smile,” “my,” “I” (or “eye”?) and “deal.” “A Handful Of Songs” – a big hit in its own right as a single – adheres more to the Hank template, with careful emotional control on Steele’s part (even when faced with the languid sighs of “sleepy time baby lullabies” which do not suggest a cot) and a tinge of foredoomed regret (“Here’s a handful of songs…going cheap”) which the jaunty whistling doesn’t quite dispel. “Butterfingers,” though (another Top Ten single), takes Elvis back to SE1, with Steele’s serpentine hiss of “Butterfingerrrrrrsssssss,” his conversion of the “me” in “when you were with me” into a pained and not quite decipherable yelp, and skilful uses of pauses and silence, balanced out by Red Price’s oddly fitting Ben Webster-ish tenor lushness, though Plummer sketches a lemming jumping off a cliff on his guitar in response to Steele’s “I’m gonna hold you,” leading to the singer’s startled gasp of “AGAIN!” at the end. With the possible exception of Terry Dene, no one else under 25 in 1957 Britain was doing anything like this.

Throughout the album it’s clear from Steele’s high anxiety that he is dying to, shall we say, discard childish things; thus while “You Gotta Go” is ostensibly about his need to travel (“the travelling bug”) the way he phrases “something down below comes right up and tells you so” and his near epileptic howls of “when you gotta go you gotta go go GO!” suggest a different urge entirely. Even on the jolly homesick seaman cod-calypso of “Water, Water,” complete with suspect semi-Jamaican accent – and the first real recorded evidence that he was looking beyond rock ‘n’ roll on a long-term basis – Steele makes it abundantly clear that by “water water everywhere, not a drop to drink” he’s thinking more of the pin-ups by his bunk bed than being a “teetotal-ARRR!” or of roast beef or fish and chips in newspapERRR!

But none of this explains something like the still startling “Cannibal Rock” which depicts a scenario otherwise left unexplored in pop until “Timothy” by the Buoys. Beginning with Steele cackling “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” over improv pots and pans, we get a nearly indescribable ode to – well, the hook goes “din din, tum tum, chin chin? Yum yum!,” and the verses allude to such as Chinese Louie, “who went to pieces.” “Poor Louie,” states a deadpan Steele with perfect timing, “chop suey,” with a relish which might have made even Peter Wyngarde bridle. By the time we learn the fate of MacNamara – “do you like Irish stew?” – jaws are thoroughly agape.

“Two Eyes” is a clear reference to the coffee bar, of course, and Steele’s constant Tommy Two Times vocals – “closer, closer,” “kiss, kiss” – again quiver with as yet unsated desire and the band rocks out with such evident good humour that no one minds the missed cue after Plummer’s guitar solo.

“Build Up” goes yet further; Plummer’s introductory guitar flourish almost invents ska (compare and contrast with the intro to “The Liquidator” a dozen years hence) and is answered by echoes which settle just this side of dub, in which pool Steele’s ecstatic tones ring – “great! Feel great!” – before anxiety yet again explodes into raucous rock, complete with two-note sax/guitar unison, “Knock knock who’s there?” exchanges and an amazing “talking” guitar commentary at the end. The space-filled parallelogram of angularity between voice and instruments here also pre-empts the Police by a generation.

“Time To Kill” is about the build up, so to speak; again Steele’s sexual tension is pantingly evident; he’s got 24 hours to go before his date, and while coconut shells (hello, Jonathan Richman) and a klezmer air to Bart’s melody point forward towards Oliver!, Steele is wondering how he’s going to survive the intervening day without exploding (“Miss the cracks in every stone”). Eventually, time doubles back on itself; the song woozily speeds up and slows down again as Steele’s perceptions alter and eventually he is pushed to falsetto agony, finally settling for impatient patience as the song canters out of audibility.

“Elevator Rock” is wholly a Steele song; back from the sea, working in a department store “at the edge of the town” (subtext: grrr, I want to be in Soho !), he liberally oils the song with double entendres (“Going up sir? Oh you little cur!”) and knows that his three floors will compare unfavourably with Cochran’s twenty flights – but then this is fifties Britain – but he’s raring to go through the roof anyway (“You keep See You Later Alligator, I’ve got my elevator!”).

Then comes the astonishing “Doomsday Rock,” Steele’s second single which didn’t trouble the scorers in between “Rock With The Caveman” and “Singing The Blues,” and suddenly we are in tectonic Frankie Laine-Sings-The-Clash Armageddon territory with a portentous, rubato opening sequence in which Steele solemnly declaims the coming serial catastrophes of lightning, hail, earthquake (“so better forward your mail”), all answered by Plummer’s raised eyebrow of a guitar – before arriving at the darkness of the fourth day, underpinned by Johnny Hawksworth’s bowed bass; the music dims, Steele’s voice is left naked as he carefully pronounces: “the world’s…real…GONE!”

With that “GONE!” the music explodes into the afterlife as an unhinged Steele screams “Rock and roll you SINNERS! SING to save your SOUL (and he might even be singing “SIN to save your SOUL”)! Sing to be ALIVE!” before descending into a new word: “rockanrollrockanrollrockanrollrockanroll” easing into a determined mumble. At song’s end he winks: “No harp, just guitar!”

The invocation of the afterlife in “Doomsday Rock” may have had something to do with the presence of the 28-year-old Joe Meek as engineer (and virtual producer) of these sessions but throughout The Tommy Steele Story what is remarkable (as well as Meek’s manipulation of the echo chamber) is the skilled use of space and restraint by the musicians as well as force when required; drums, guitar and sax tend to retreat or hush as Steele comes forward for a highly satisfactory yin-yang balance, and while Steele is clearly tres jejeune in comparison with the UNZIP IT NOWness of a Presley or a Vincent his restrained, as in pent-up, anxiety works in his favour. In addition, close listening reveals the importance of the English folk tradition in setting up this music; there are complex melodic runs and uncommon guitar tunings at work here. But regardless of its antecedents, the album ends on a simple and jubilant celebration of a 1957 now; “Teenage Party” is elementary in construction but Steele’s delivery is devastatingly committed. The listener is left in no doubt that Steele means it, with his plea of “Really stay alive together!” and another subsequent rally of yodels, growls and shrieks; his “rave” on “we’re gonna have a teenage RAVE!” shakes like the earth’s core.” He leaves us with one final fuck the past cry-cum-yodel of “Really stay alive OHOHOH!!” and the instruments collide in one last pile-up, saxophone growling, drums hammering, another future invented.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Nat "King" COLE: Love Is The Thing

(#9: 8 June 1957, 1 week; tied with The King And I)

Track listing: When I Fall In Love/Stardust/Stay As Sweet As You Are/Where Can I Go Without You?/Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much/Love Letters/Ain’t Misbehavin’/I Thought About Marie/At Last/It’s All In The Game/When Sunny Gets Blue/Love Is The Thing

The first number one album by a named black artist (since we can hardly discount Harry Edison or Louis Armstrong’s key contributions to previous chart toppers) and the third beginning of time in this tale; Marvin Gaye, whose lifelong ambition was to make an album like Love Is The Thing, begins here, as do Jimmy Scott, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo and so many others. Although the idea for the concept of Love Is The Thing was inspired by the examples Sinatra had set, its own invention – that of a mood record consisting solely of seductively romantic ballads – has perhaps proved the most durable of all the Capitol concepts.

Like Sinatra, Cole on Capitol had been working more or less exclusively with Nelson Riddle, but by late 1956 he was looking to do something different and sent for Gordon Jenkins; on the spine of my 1986 reissue Jenkins and his orchestra are given full co-credit, and this is apt since the conversation which Jenkins’ strings and Cole’s voice have throughout Love Is The Thing is articulate, deft and touching. In addition, the record stands as a quietly surprising counterpart to the tortured soul, unable to douse his torch, typical of the Sinatra/Jenkins collaborations. There are no breakdowns or confessions here, no losing it altogether (as Sinatra audibly does on the last, wracked, parched “joy and gladness” of his 1960 “None But The Lonely Heart”); there are songs of lost or absent or rejected love, but Cole gives them all the same dignity as happiness, a dignity all more the dignified because we now know how hard won Cole’s was.

Cole died on 15 February 1965, exactly three weeks after my first birthday, aged 47, and I think he was the first major singer who for me was exclusively in the past tense; I have never known a time when Cole was “here,” with us. As a child this was quite unnerving, but the more I found out about Cole and his struggle later – even as a star he was obliged to cope with attempted stage invasions by racists, cancellation of TV shows by scared sponsors, burning KKK crosses on his Hollywood lawn, and of course there was also his other tale, that of a significant figure in the history of jazz piano in the forties – the more my admiration for that dignity, that noble refusal to be brought down or reduced, strengthened, and this made it all the sadder that he was eventually brought down prematurely, not by racism, but by lung cancer caused by his heavy smoking habit.

With Love Is The Thing there is also the case for its being the first ambient number one album and certainly the first album of suspended animation mood music to top the chart; all but one of its dozen tracks are set in the same slow tempo, rubato meditations alternating with discreet guitar, bass and brushes accompaniment, cantering steadily like a patient donkey reluctant to leave Oklahoma. There is a uniformity and yet also an indelible variety about these songs which puts me in mind of Satie; the same object, or subject, viewed from twelve different angles.

And each of these songs offers a specific and different angle on the theme, or the being, of “love” – so The Lexicon Of Love may also begin here – with every conceivable aspect viewed and studied. The mood is so convincing that it’s easy to escape the fact that Cole sings most of the songs from the perspective of a man alone; he has love to offer, but he doesn’t often have a lover to reciprocate. Hence the opening “When I Fall In Love” stands as a sort of manifesto, a declaration of Nat’s principles. Even in the introduction Jenkins sets up the male/female duality, words from the male – the low ‘cello, slowly moving upwards – answered by words from the female – the high strings which slowly come down to meet him. Both converge in the middle, ready for Cole’s sumptuously deep foundation of a voice (with a discreet signature of harp) to complete the picture. He sings, in the lightest yet profoundest of all bass voices, of the importance of permanence (“in a rest-LESS world like this is”) and of his unwavering commitment to fall in love with the right person and not settle for anyone except the right person, however long it may take. The climactic “and the moment I can feel that you feel that way too” seems to be addressed to the listener as much as any would-be Other; but he cannot hide his striking awe at the prospect of this deepest of loves.

Cole’s “Stardust” has perhaps by default become the most famous version of this song, and there is instructive comparison to be made with Sinatra’s attitude to the song in particular; although Sinatra recorded the song several times in his career, he never did it for Capitol – in part because he believed Cole’s reading to be definitive and unimprovable – and notoriously, for the 1962 Reprise Sinatra & Strings album, he sang only the prelude verse, much to Hoagy Carmichael’s bafflement, but he explained that he felt the prelude underrated and wished to give it its proper due.

Jenkins’ orchestration of “Stardust” seems to fade in as though floating into orbit from an unknown galaxy, and we get the first hearing of the repeated two-note semitone motif which keeps recurring with some disquiet throughout the album (even in the midst of the relatively tranquil and content “Love Letters”). There is more than a hint of the Bernard Herrmann ominous here; much has been made of Jenkins’ debt to Mahler, but listen to Herrmann’s Vertigo soundtrack in particular, recorded and released in 1958 since there is considerable, though independent, correspondence with what Jenkins did with his strings.

Cole, however, is undeterred; he has lost someone who perhaps can never be brought back, but he will keep his countenance. He sings the prelude in full, and beautifully, with a tone that suggests deep but resigned regret that “You wandered down the lane and far away.” Jenkins gradually eases the volume down in order to allow the song to begin in earnest, Cole marooned on his asteroid belt, helplessly glancing down at the nightingales, the memories of arms and hearts and new, but the post-Bing triple loops on words like “long” (in the line “But that was long ago”) trigger a moderately florid string commentary as the memory floods back into his deprived present, words like “reverie” and “refrain,” all of which graciously travels on into a far from certain future, the final, not quite resolved major string chords recalling Vaughan Williams and Thomas Tallis. My favourite version of “Stardust” remains the composer’s own, recorded in 1960, relatively late in his life, and alone with just piano and the words spoken, rather than sung, Carmichael ’s delivery sounding astonishingly similar to that of Kerouac; but the completeness of Cole’s reading is unlikely ever to be bettered.

“Stay As Sweet” returns to the themes of depth and permanence; he is not alone in this song, but a distant fear of mortality is beginning to grip his soul, as can be heard in his subtly trembling “Don’t ever lose” – and Cole is always ready to balance that emotionally with the softly ecstatic contentedness of “The way you say yes.” Once more we note words subsequently abandoned by pop – disused adjectives such as “discreet” and “grand” – and how Jenkins’ strings seem to snuggle up to you in the instrumental interlude. But again towards the end there intrudes an impalpable darkness – “Night and day I pray” and “that you’ll always stay” are accompanied by a quietly terrifying four note bass line resembling a suddenly magnified heartbeat, or an unspeakable chill – although Cole and Jenkins are careful to leave a final, sweet aftertaste.

Then we return to lost love; “Where Can I Go Without You?” is a sort of anti-“Around The World” (which latter Sinatra would go on to sing richly and contentedly with Billy May’s arrangement on his 1958 Come Fly With Me album); Cole wanders the globe without redemption (“I went to London town to clear up my mind”) and finds no joy (Paris, Singapore, Vienna, “even in Switzerland” – there’s always something there to remind him). There is just the merest hint of emotional exhaustion in Cole’s “I’m tired of faces and quaint old places if you can’t be there with me” and a reading of the final “Back on the boat again” verse whose gravitas, contrasted by the glittering waves of strings, betrays the tiniest suggestion of a weary march towards a self-erected gallows. “I’ll trade the sights I’ve seen for one loving glance” he concludes as Jenkins provides a cinematic sunset of an ending, but in truth there’s never any real doubt that he will continue to sail and search, even if – as he should – he comes to the conclusion that he needs to search himself.

Unrequited or wasted love is treated in “Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much,” a seldom-revived Irving Berlin song – and as with Swingin’ Lovers, it’s a tribute to Cole’s enterprise that the selections here are far from obvious – in which Cole is clearly and deeply sorrowful, but more for the lady who is rejecting or laughing at him than for himself (he nearly puts too much into his axiomatic “too much”) than for himself. Bemused and not even pretending to understand, he resolves that “maybe with a love so great and a love so small/Maybe I’ll be left with no love at all” as a sudden run of pizzicato mimics the sand draining out of the hourglass. Jenkins eventually builds this up into an ending of genuinely Mahlerian tragedy.

And then we arrive at love at a distance. “Love Letters” appears here in its original form, complete with the prelude set aside by Ketty Lester and all those who followed her (although the harp arpeggio in this version isn’t that far removed from doo wop), and it’s a pleasure to be reminded of how good this prelude is: “The sky may be starless, the night may be moonless/But deep in my heart there’s a glow,” and Nat takes his time to allow the weight of his happiness to sink in: “You love me because”…then a pause the length of the universe…”you told me so.” “Love Letters” includes some of the best Jenkins/Cole conversations; Cole’s “I memorise every line” is answered by Jenkins’ scanning string section acting as his intent eyes, his “I kiss the name” by a resolving, deep major chord and his “that you sign” by Jenkins’ shivering, descending flourish of a signature.

Even “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is taken in the same, luxuriously patient way, with some markedly rhetorical strings from Jenkins; Cole is alone again, but naturally unshaken and still utterly convinced that he is right to wait (“I’m through with flirting”); he is perfectly happy to be “home about eight, just me and my radio” for however many years he’ll have to do it because he is saving his love for the right person and has both patience and unconquerable faith.

“I Thought About Marie,” composed by Jenkins himself, is a nicely soured-turned-to-humble account of the aftermath of a disastrous love; now Cole is having trouble getting to sleep and can’t get this affair out of his mind: “Our love affair had to struggle for existence/And many were the fights we had,” he observes stoically, but soon confesses that “it wasn’t too bad.” He can even work humour into his dignity, with the lines “Though she told me we would meet again when the rivers all run dry/And I told her I would see her when there was snow in mid-July,” but still he’s sad, and he resigns himself to reconciliation as an alternative to the unthinkable – “Still, your pride looks small at midnight/And I’m tired of being alone/So I thought of Marie/And reached for the ‘phone,” into which quatrain Cole manages to work double entendres, Shakespearean melancholy and rekindled hope and desire.

Fittingly, there then comes “At Last,” in which all the desires and pledges of the record finally come good and are answered and reciprocated. Cole sings it rather as Robert Wyatt sings Chic’s “At Last I Am Free,” and he can hardly see in front of him either; he reels in stunned disbelief at the blueness of the blue sky, can’t believe that “life is like a song,” and the song’s blues undertones slowly recede as a caravan of loneliness no longer to be maintained. “I found a dream that I could speak to,” Cole gasps,” I found a thrill to press my cheek to” – and Jenkins’ orchestra quivers like the brightest of planets on Cole’s “you smiled.” “And here we are in heaven” he sighs with satisfaction and fulfilment; Jenkins’ concluding smile of a major sixth the most heartwarming of happy endings.

Then Cole casts his glance out into the world, and upon others not yet quite convinced by love. “It’s All In The Game” is the only track to vary in tempo – it is taken as a courtly waltz – but Cole’s generosity and reassurance are as open as ever; yes there will be arguments, but it will all work in the end and nothing will be lost. Jenkins almost exceeds himself here with the mighty flourish of acappella, rubato strings midsong – and provides another final smile of reassurance. “When Sunny Gets Blue” is a song full of tricky harmonic and rhythmic contours and Jenkins’ strings are perhaps a little too prosaic here – descending cascades for “rain begins to fall” etc. – but Cole even brings a pregnant hint of Scott Walker to this troubled and dark song (“She breathes a sigh of sadness/Like the wind that stirs the trees,” not to mention “weird and haunting melodies”). Yet he climaxes the song with an outward prayer: “Hurry new love, hurry here” so that Sunny might be saved.

Finally it is left to the title song to sum up all of the album’s threads and Cole casts his knowing smile back towards us, with a song quite startlingly current in its intent: “What does it matter if we’re rich or we’re poor?/Fortune, fame, they never endure/Love is the thing” – and he emphasises that latter phrase twice, with infinite gentleness. “What good is money if your heart isn’t right?” he asks rhetorically. “Here in your arms I’m wealthy tonight.” Once again, the declaration of lasting and permanent values (“When youth’s had its fling…love is the thing”). In many senses this song – music by Victor Young, words by Ned Washington – also looks forward to 1967 (“While others fight for power/We can walk among the flowers/Knowing that the best thing in life is free…love for you and me”) as much as 2008: “And even though our castles crumble and fall/We have the right to laugh at them all” – although Cole is meticulously careful not to laugh, knowing that he, that they, are so much better than that “for love is still king.” Jenkins’ strings negotiate the loveliest of bridges leading to a key change, and he and Cole leave us with a solo violin reaching towards the heavens – and that same two-note semitone motif, now voiced by the harp, in a major key. One of the most beautiful and giving of all number one albums.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Frank SINATRA: This Is Sinatra!

(#8: 2 March 1957, 1 week; 16 March 1957, 1 week; 30 March 1957, 1 week; 27 April 1957, 1 week)

Track listing: I’ve Got The World On A String/Three Coins In The Fountain/Love And Marriage/From Here To Eternity/South Of The Border/Rain (Falling From The Skies)/The Gal That Got Away/Young-At-Heart/Learnin’ The Blues/My One And Only Love/(Love Is) The Tender Trap/Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me

The first compilation album to make number one, and a useful reminder that at the same time Sinatra was pioneering the concept of the long playing album he was still obliged to service the needs of the jukebox users and the singles buyers. Billed in the sleevenote as “a dozen of his recent and best hits,” This Is Sinatra! rounds up the pick of his 1953-6 singles and B-sides; it was part of a running Capitol promotional series (other This Is… albums featuring Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and so forth) but the only one to chart, and although it has since been superseded by dozens, if not hundreds, of Capitol Sinatra compilations it remains a fascinating listen in itself, even if in terms of tentative steps towards the mastery of aesthetic and delivery that Sinatra achieved in the album format.

It begins, as most Capitol Sinatra compilations do, with his fumblingly celebratory “I’ve Got The World On A String” from 1953, the song and performance which marked his permanent return from the coldness of semi-obscurity; a titanic fanfare from Nelson Riddle’s brass (Riddle arranges and conducts all of the selections except for “South Of The Border”) promises to herald a returning conqueror, but then Riddle quite unexpectedly turns the orchestra sotto voce, a brooding rubato sax section over which Sinatra sings the title line, slowly and slightly cautiously, as though still doubting whether he’s really earned his return, or dazzled with disbelief that he’s back in the spotlight. Swift reassurance is provided by a bright trumpet section exclamation mark and Sinatra quickly settles into the song’s easy swing – “What a world! What a life! I’m in love!,” a triple flush which announces the new Frank, the confident, suited, self-mocking but fundamentally right-minded middle-aged Frank, the man who has burst forth from the chrysalis of his previous gangly boyish self. “I can MAKE the rain go!” he exclaims, and there’s no doubt in his mind or in our ears that his Other will be more than prepared to get next to him. A hard snare accent takes the comeback to its crescendo as he proclaims, “Man, this is the life! Hey now…I’m so in LOVE!” and hangs on to that “LOVE” for a long, long sustain, just as he would do in “You’re Sensational” but in terms of achievement rather than hope.

“Three Coins” gave him his first UK number one single in 1954 but does indicate the drawbacks inherent in the short-play Sinatra model. Many of these singles were made for and taken from the movies, and Riddle had to arrange to order; thus Sinatra’s very tender delivery of the song – his unusual emphasis on the word “thrown” as though contemplating throwing himself off a tenth-storey balcony and on the “will” of “which one will the fountain bless?,” the whispered prayer of “Each heart longing for its home,” and the very rare (for Sinatra) use of the two-syllable upward elision in the “mine” of every third “Make it mine,” all of which point to his sublime development as a ballad interpreter – tends to be drowned out by Riddle’s over-florid cascades of strings and harps. Likewise, the very real hurt of “From Here To Eternity” – a heartbreaking “Dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyou” segue between the word “die” and the phrase “you gave your lips,” the boyish bafflement of “how could I know?” which was about as vulnerable as Sinatra allowed himself to get in this period, the dehydrated desperation of “this endless DESIRRRRRRRRE” – is obscured by bluff, hearty brass to signify the presence of a war.

In light comedy, too, Sinatra still couldn’t help being a morose and dark presence, like a reformed crook who can’t quite get used to going straight; thus he sounds somewhat ill at ease with the bland optimism (because there are no shadows) of “Young-At-Heart.” He did better with the Kurt Weill lite slapstick of “Love And Marriage” and while I note with some melancholy the absence of words like “disparage” from contemporary song, the song’s brash broadness ensures Sinatra has a good (if slightly laboured) deal of fun, rapidly switching from deadpan to vibrato while singing the title, tossing out the occasional “You can’t have none!” snarl, rolling his tongue on “othurrrrr” and zipping up his fly in time for the closing double bassoon parp. Meanwhile, “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” is amiable fluff (albeit clever fluff, with each chorus summing up the preceding verse, complete with internal rhymes) masquerading as a growl but is now best viewed as a training run for the unutterable confidence of Swingin’ Lovers – “and suddenly you’re sighing sighs” leading to the seamless sigh of “Muuuuuusic in the breeze,” his varying attitudes to the words “tingle” and “single,” his half-regretful, half-priapic “nice” and – again – the climactic sustenato payoff of “LOVE!”; the ingredients are all there but not quite yet solidified into a forward-thinking whole.

The most fun track on This Is Sinatra! is “South Of The Border,” done with Billy May’s band, and immediately we get May’s characteristic sliding saxes, blaring raspberries of trumpets, sceptical trombones and surprisingly adventurous harmonic voicings, but Sinatra takes his self-induced jilting with laughing grace and enjoys himself with May’s responses, for instance the muted trumpet nyah-nyah-underpants figure which comes after Sinatra’s “old Spanish lace,” amusing him enough to sing of a “smile A-pon her face” and with great insouciance shrug off the “down” from “down Mexico way.” Following a brief, broad exchange between saxophones and snare drum Sinatra sneaks back down south to find to his dismay his one night stand kneeling down to pray in the church; from his shoulder-shrugging tone it isn’t clear whether she’s getting married or become a nun, but Sinatra adopts a carefree what the hell stance, as confirmed by his throwaway “The mission bells told me – ding dong,” with that jaunty “ding dong” the ash of regret tapped off the cigarette of careless adventure; he does some “ay ay ay ay” trading of fours with the band and is still more than happy.

Another huge hit included here is 1955’s “Learnin’ The Blues” and it is a matter of extreme regret that this song - #2 as a single in Britain that year – has drifted into something approaching obscurity since it is clearly a transitional recording; the sleevenote refers to “the rhythmic and torchy lesson Frank taught willing millions via juke boxes, record stores and disc jockeys” and it’s an astute reflection since “Learnin’ The Blues” bridges the upbeat, confident Sinatra with the deeper and more shadowy slow motion Sinatra. Riddle’s arrangement is confident, brightly thrusting and on the beat – perhaps indicating a very early response to this nascent rock and roll thing – with textural variety provided by Harry Edison’s trumpet (he even quotes Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” in the intro) and Red Norvo’s restless vibes.

But the lyric goes the other way entirely. “You play the same love song/It’s the tenth time you’ve heard it,” and it’s clear that Sinatra is suffering (the second person singular/plural adopted for the song may well be a deflection from his own pain) since the phrase “your first lesson” is answered by a wagging teacher’s finger of alto saxes, and soon one realises that this is a world of unbearable, involuntary solitude: “The cigarettes you liked, one after another…/You’re only burning a torch you can’t lose,” and indeed we are in Trojan horse torch song territory here, Billie Holiday sentiments smuggled into a primary coloured hepcat bop. We feel the “taunt” the victim feels at home, and the “haunt” when he’s in the crowd; Norvo’s vibes irritably tickle Sinatra’s “sleepless nights,” and by the time he’s arrived at the tragedy of “But you can’t forget her/Soon you even stop trying” his performance is at discomfiting odds with the tune and arrangement, his rumbling “mmmmm the nights” leading into the final, hopeless key change – it is as if the landscape of Swingin’ Lovers is built but still empty; he has not yet learned how to reinhabit that place, or has been locked out of it and is watching the merriment from outside the barring gate.

And so it is that we must pass to the remaining four ballad performances, a matter of particular importance since the ballad Sinatra will not be intruding too directly on this tale; Where Are You?, the first of his beyond-extraordinary collaborations with Gordon Jenkins, was a top three album later in 1957, and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (with Riddle’s finest ballad writing, particularly on the devastating “What’s New?”) went top five in 1958; 1960’s devastating No One Cares (with Jenkins) was too strong and bitter a pill to chart at all. Perhaps the bravest of these four tracks is Sinatra’s take on “The Gal That Got Away,” a role reversal of the song which Garland had unquestionably and irrevocably made her own in A Star Is Born; Sinatra tries his hardest but can’t match Garland ’s natural hurt. Still, Riddle pulls most of his stops out here, the opening striptease trumpet quickly giving way to hushed saxes, strings and brushes, Sinatra staggering over barlines like an inconsolable drunk, or limping down the highway with a twenty-ton backpack weighing him down. However, Riddle can’t sustain the emotion; the alto sax as “girl” metaphor was running out of steam even then and again (and this time, I think, not by intent) the arrangement is at variance with Sinatra’s incrementally increasing despair (his apocalyptic “tomorrow she may turn up”), his fading cries of “please come back…won’t you come back…”

Each side of the album concludes with a far more satisfactory ballad interpretation; side one finishes with “Rain” which despite the needless sound effects at its beginning and end sees Sinatra and Riddle in rough concordance; the opening high strings/alto flute shimmers directly anticipate Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Again” (and everything that developed from the latter), Sinatra sounding as though he’s just scampered underneath a shop doorway for scant shelter, with a very direct rain/tears analogy (“Streeee-aming…down my face”) which soon turns into ardent prayer for deliverance (the “skyrain” segue which comes out of the first “praying that a new tomorrow will put the sun back in the sky”). Following an eerie, almost ahuman topline for high violins (predicting Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place”), Sinatra returns with intensified emotion; this time his “in the sky” is succeeded by a long, acappella and heart-rendering cry of “PLEEEEEEASE!” to lead into the final key change, Sinatra now begging – out of tempo, with just strings and one French horn to accompany him - for the rain to “wash away my tears” even as he’s crying them, clinging to the “SUN” like a disappointed God in “so when that SUN appears” and leading to “I’ll see my looooooooove again” with a final harp/celeste caress signifying that once he is able to wash those tears away, his love will be there, waiting for his soul to clear, patient and smiling and welcoming.

Side two’s closer, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” similarly points to Walker – and, of course, to Jerry Butler - since it is the direct ancestor of “Make It Easy On Yourself,” a selflessness so heartfelt it threatens to render its singer in half, as we already know from Sinatra’s first, unaccompanied “Don’t” and the funereal saxophones which enter thereafter. He knows it’s over, that she mustn’t cling on (“cling to some fading thing” perhaps a double bluff to his audience; go on then, I’m pushing forty but I can still live and love and be loved), and wants her to be happy but his performance indicates that he’s tearing himself apart while doing so – the Tosca sustenato of “I’ll,” the hopelessly hopeful upward “be-e” in “be happy my love” and sentiments such as “look out for yourself” and “don’t be a fool” – but Riddle’s fortissimo trumpet break betray the truth; the screaming horns echo his blazing, internally suppressed soul. Then, the last comedown and one of the most moving moments on any Sinatra record when he sings, hushed, “If you can’t forget,” and is answered by a saxophone section, head bowed, sadly shaking its head in response.

But I’m not going to leave This Is Sinatra! or indeed Sinatra like that; I want a happy ending, so it’s back to side two, track four, and one of the most sheerly beautiful performances he ever gave, “My One And Only Love,” where all the ingredients of his sadness are turned on their heads and sides and become a recipe for profound joy and happiness. Against, once more, strings and alto flute – or, I should say, now with them, rather than against them – Sinatra sings with the awe of a borderline believer whose prayer has unexpectedly been answered, “The very thought of you makes my heart sing” and does so in one unbroken, astonished, flying cry of a syllable of joy. Also the subject of a gorgeous interpretation on 1963’s John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman album, “My One And Only Love” is such an intrinsically lovely song that it’s almost impossible to ruin, and Sinatra builds a tender temple on its foundations (Robert Mellin, the unsung hero of inter-war popular song). The “mystic dreams” takes it virtually into the realm of Astral Weeks transcendence and Sinatra stunned and happy is a wonderful thing to hear; one trembles at his “hush of night while you’re in my arms,” TOUCHES the flesh of “I feel your lips so warm and tender,” ascends to the skies with the contented, if dazzled, sigh in the middle of “The touch of your hand is like heaven…a heaven I’ve never known,” the simple ecstasy of “the blush on your cheek whenever I speak”…we are virtually in his heart, sensing his breath as he bows down (in worship) to the wonder of love. The second middle eight sees his “touch of your hand” accompanied only by rubato trombones, the “heaven I’ve never known” just by violins, and then both together, with the addition of a harp and his “tells me that youuuuuare my own,” almost going beyond what language is able to articulate. His ardent “You fill my eager heart with such desire” is noble in the best of senses, the “SOUL” of “Every kiss you give sets my SOUL on fire” is aquatic and self-exceeding, his gladly tearful “I give myself in sweet surrender,” again out of tempo, unspeakably beautiful, the final modulations culminating in harp ripples of confirmatory consummation. This is Sinatra, but this is also life, and all that makes us want to keep on living it.

Sunday 5 October 2008


(#7: 16 February 1957, 1 week – tied with The King And I)

Track listing: High Society Overture/High Society Calypso/Little One/Who Wants To Be A Millionaire/True Love/You’re Sensational/I Love You, Samantha/Now You Has Jazz/Well Did You Evah?/Mind If I Make Love To You

Compared with the Rodgers and Hammerstein epics, High Society appears insubstantial, yet by a now familiar paradox its nothingness does more to entertain and interest me than the substance of, say, The King And I. Or perhaps I should compare it to Oklahoma!, since if that tale can be boiled down (as Oscar Hammerstein readily admitted) to a girl who can’t make up her mind which boy to take to the barn dance, then High Society is pretty much the same tale bearing a carefree admission that, no, such a story doesn’t really matter. Not worth falling on your pitchfork for.

Nobody dies, or gets particularly hurt, in High Society, but then Cole Porter was always careful to screen emotions beneath a vaporisable curtain of high table manners, knowing that the high and the low needed and thrived off each other and that the high/low distinction was ridiculous to begin with. The strain of such a society maintaining such a seamless, spotless surface doesn’t really come to our notice during High Society, whereas the meaningfully meaningless franticity of its source film, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, stands as an unlikely Hollywood equivalent of La Règle du Jeu in its deceivingly amiable portrait of a stratum lightheartedly clinging onto a raft before a future about to engulf them, except, unlike Renoir’s film, there is no call for furtive shadows, bloodstained hunts or genuine tragedy. Nor is there any need; Hepburn, Grant and Stewart could suggest immense seismic faults of hidden rage, resentment and dread beneath their bucolically dismissive merriment - and Stewart’s jolly photographer will in time turn into the cheerfully paranoid voyeur of Rear Window, pondering over whether to fuck, adore or dispose of Grace Kelly.

High Society seems particularly unnecessary when you consider its casting, next to that of The Philadelphia Story; Kelly gives the Hepburn role the same beaming blankness that Hitchcock used and subverted so artfully, but without Hitchcock her elegance tends to dissolve into a void of direction-free glamour. Sinatra is rougher than the James Stewart of 1940 was prepared to consider, for better or worse. But 36-year-old Cary Grant is succeeded by 53-year-old Bing Crosby, old enough to be Kelly’s father, an idling Rhode Island sugar daddy.

Much was made of Bing and Frank, the former king and his usurper, coinciding in a film for the first time but the structural anti-dynamics of the picture ensure that they are pitched together in unsteady conspiracy, bosom pals who secretly detest each other for what he isn’t. Still, “Well Did You Evah?,” a number not added until very late in the making of the film when it occurred to the producer that no Bing/Frank for-the-first-time-ever duet had been included, is an exemplary demonstration of enmity drunkenly resolving into something of an apathetic truce set against the bothersome rest of the world. The song’s woozily chummy surface masks some fairly stark barbs; Sinatra remarking to Crosby that “you are called the forgotten man” or abruptly responding “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum” to one of Crosby ’s trademark “ba ba ba boom”s. Crosby , meanwhile, floats as serenely on the surface as a discarded pair of water wings dipped in leftover Chablis (“Please don’t eat that glass my friend”). Ass-trobars, being stoned, a quick King And I parody (a temporarily hectic waltz sequence with an exaggerated, extended “Wonderful,” topped off by sceptical piccolos and a comparison to old Camembert), avalanche victims…even the anticipated end of the world (“Next July we collide with Mars”) disturbs and shakes them not (unlike the suddenly jagged calypso which erupts from the orchestra near the song’s end, trying to delay the closing down of humanity, soon succeeded by a blast of “Le Marseillaise” to remind us of Renoir); like cockroaches, they’re equipped to survive any apocalypse.

Given the extended wordplay, the oceans of subtexts and the inventive (if sometimes dispassionate) inventions and inversions, there is a marginal case for considering High Society as the first New Pop number one; Porter sees the musical as the makeshift sham that it is but contrives to do as good and seemingly offhand a job as possible with his songs. Having dispensed with the “plot” by means of Louis Armstrong’s handy précis during “High Society Calypso,” he frees up the rest of the record to look at what can fairly be described as “the look of love.”

Both Bing and Frank bring their own brands of blankness to the film; we already know that Crosby is blissfully uninterested in anything or anybody, and his passive blankness is counterpointed by Sinatra’s active black hole; he grumbles, chuckles and generally gives the impression that all of this business is happily below him. Still, each exceeds their own preset personality in the course of the songs. Not all of it works – “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” is a pointedly poisoning double bluff of a song which makes it perfectly clear that its singers do want that yacht and ringside seats for Wagner at the Met, but the unlovely, not to say unfunny, hamming of Sinatra and Celeste Holm suggests one of those novelty Mitch Miller Columbia sides which helped drive Sinatra to desperation in the first place.

Yet Bing’s blankness finds perhaps its ideal home in the slacking backwaters of High Society. Note how he seems to lean into the start of “Little One” with his “Oh, let me see now” as though walking down a country lane and discovering a severed ear in the grass; vaguely amused and entirely unsurprised. Yet this song is a Rochester plea for salvation – Bing admits that he “felt that life sure wouldn’t do me,” and speaks of “controversy” and “downfall” before suggesting to his former wife that marriage take two might be a pleasant way to pass the time; and yet, after fretting that “fate might miscarry” he indulges in a bit of whistling, as though he were already bored by life but finally agrees to continue breathing. Even Armstrong’s don’t-be-getting-too-mellow trumpet obbligatos have little detouring effect; Crosby does some subtle call and response but his “I’m a good guy” (trumpet) “show me mercy!” (trumpet) seems to be a plea to Armstrong to back off.

On “I Love You, Samantha” he’s so casual that he doesn’t materialise within the body of the song until 1:41 when he again wanders in with his “la da dee”s and his quizzical turn to microphone – oh, you’re here again are you? Well I might as well do some confessing – as he negotiates the strange contours of this song, with its restless (and possibly rootless) whole tone modulations. Armstrong is once again on hand to ward off complacency (in this context, his strident commentary is the direct precedent to Lester Bowie’s amiable raspberries when interpreting popular song) but Crosby is again pleading with one shoulder and no eyebrows raised – “I’m a one-gal guy,” he promises, and seems genuinely hurt by the very existence of the prospect of “Get along, go away, goodbye,” extending the “bye” to connect with the “remember” of “remember Samantha,” and he at last stirs and does that “remember” a little more assertively at song’s end, just before the harp brings down the curtain…or Grace Kelly’s dress?

He does his best to be enthusiastic on “Now You Has Jazz” and might have done better with his “hats and cats” and “sharps and flats” twenty years earlier, since Billy Kyle’s piano intro suggests the parlour rather than the speakeasy. One’s rationality boggles at the thought of Bing’s Dexter being able to run any jazz festival, not least Newport in 1956, a year when jazz was visibly and audibly beginning its stylistic diaspora, and the performance of Armstrong’s All Stars group is more in keeping with the Cool School of the West Coast than turn of the century New Orleans, as the closely harmonised horn chart confirms. The presence of Armstrong in High Society is perhaps the most warily subversive stroke of all that this musical has on offer; as burningly eloquent a spokesman against the contemporaneous goings on at Little Rock as Mingus was, a man still fundamentally angry despite his air of happy scrappy bonhomie, his glee in “High Society Calypso” at having finally penetrated the colonies of his former oppressors is barely disguisable; “Square detail!” he giggles; he intones “high” very much in the other sense of that word; his throaty cough of a laugh is a double-edged dagger. “Can you dig old Satchmo swinging in the beautiful high society?” he exclaims at the end, with exceptional gladness that it’s not swinging in the “Strange Fruit” sense, as might once have been the case, but also with a “ha! Got you fuckers!” snort of satisfaction.

That having been said, he had pretty much settled for showbusiness by the fifties, and historical distortions and agendas have tended to present the standard picture of the young Hot Five/Seven radical being swiftly neutered. Aural evidence in fact proves that Armstrong’s invention and capacity as soloist, composer and bandleader thrived well into the forties and the future was not something he ever abandoned fully; in 1964 he was due to record an album as featured soloist with Gil Evans and his orchestra – which would have made a fascinating adjunct to the Miles trilogy - but at the last minute it fell through after finances couldn’t be agreed upon. Still, it has to be said that the All Stars who appear on “Now You Has Jazz” were by 1956 primarily rep reliables rather than stars as such – Trummy Young instead of Teagarden, “Mr Barrett Deems” rather than Cozy Cole – and their general reticence (though not, of course, on the part of their leader’s playing) doesn’t quite square with Bing’s endearing scoutmaster attempts to get hip (“Oho, hold the ‘phone!” he chuckles in response to a Trummy trombone raspberry; a roue’s murmur of “Le tout ensemble…oh, that’s positively the-ra-pEEEu-tic!” which may have helped invent Vivian Stanshall). Things perk up a little when he exchanges vocal fours with Satch, freestyling about Frenchmen, Siam (another sly dig at its King?) and makes a subtle comment about “everybody singing that rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll” in terms of reminding The Kids where it all (or at least in part) came from – “Jazz is the thing that folks dig most!” he proclaims at the climax, even if he knows that’s no longer really the case, if indeed it ever were. But “Better Git It In Your Soul” it is not.

And yet, amidst all this cheery blankness, a dream of a pop record; “True Love,” the film’s big hit song (#4 as a single in Britain in 1956, and on the chart for over six months). Here Bing finally finds his true home, within a ship in a glass, on a fake deck, dreaming, droning, caressing Grace with grace, accordion and harp, “suntanned, windblown” – and here he finally discloses something resembling emotion, in the shockingly fragile “par” in the line “feeling far above par”; the “par” is almost voiceless as though singing it audibly might shatter the glass. His voice floats and surfs on the music’s pliant, placid waves, if still forever wandering (he sings “guardian angel on high” as one incandescent word, as though swimming through the abandoned avenues of Atlantis). The words are minimal but effective in the haiku sense, and surely must have influenced Buddy Holly when he came to write the practically abstract “True Love Ways.” Finally, Grace Kelly, singing for the first and last time on this album, comes in on the second half of the final chorus, appearing as if in answer to Bing’s prayer; the song’s final heartbreaking chords enclose them forever, as perfectly as the Frankie Goes To Hollywood “Power Of Love.”

Yet perhaps the most striking performer on High Society turns out to be Sinatra. His “Mind If I Make Love To You,” which quietly closes the album (and afforded predictable BBC controversy at the time), anticipates with its high strings, slow motion alto flute and patient, proto-bossa nova rhythms his Jobim collaboration by more than a decade. “In the heavens, stars are dancing” he sings as gently as possible, before spinning out the word “moon” sufficiently to form a ladder by which he may climb to it.

But Sinatra’s “You’re Sensational” is transcendent. With Nelson Riddle as arranger, suddenly High Society turns into a Sinatra album, and his undemonstrative awe is in itself awe-inspiring. He’s not put off by what he’s heard – he hangs on “aloof” like a dog reluctant to surrender its last bone – and he doesn’t care if she’s called The Fair Miss Frigidaire, even if he sings as though he direly needs to come in out of the cold, but he is able to call up emotions which abruptly make Crosby sound ponderous and stuffy; his crescendo and “love” in the bridge’s “making love” seem to erupt and demolish the politesse of the rest of the musical – suddenly this is a striving for something and somebody real. He falls on the first half of “heart” in the first “fire your heart” – this was a familiar Sinatra trope, but the humility expressed here makes the grandstanding on “Millionaire” and elsewhere seem especially otiose, especially when he gently lands on “that’s all” (having summoned the courage to tell her she’s sensational, and that’s all he wants or needs to say to her), cushioned by Riddle’s hearth of a trombone section, followed by sweet strings, rising trumpets and intensifying cymbal accents as Sinatra again reaches for a slightly surer climax. He quivers movingly on the first syllable of the final “sensational” as the corner of a temple which he and only he can hold up and prevent from collapsing; stability confirmed, he settles on a final, verging on silence but satisfied and awestruck trilogy of “that’s all,” kissed by a celeste each time before the pages are closed by muted trumpets and flutes. High Society’s secret, radiant heart, and indeed its "All Of My Heart."