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."