Monday 23 February 2009

Elvis PRESLEY: Blue Hawaii

(#26: 6 January 1962, 1 week; 24 February 1962, 17 weeks)

Track listing: Blue Hawaii/Almost Always True/Aloha-Oe/No More/Can’t Help Falling In Love/Rock-A-Hula Baby/Moonlight Swim/Ku-U-I-Po (Hawaiian Sweetheart)/Ito Eats/Slicin’ Sand/Hawaiian Sunset/Beach Boy Blues/Island Of Love/Hawaiian Wedding Song

Elvis Exotica is a concept only imaginable in extreme retrospect, and I’m sure that enterprising souls at RCA (or elsewhere) will shove something resembling a compilation together in due course. It’s a pity that no one thought to link Elvis up with Martin Denny or Esquivel at the time, rather than rely on the stolidly stalwart likes of Tepper and Bennett to come up with pale photocopies. Still, throughout the Blue Hawaii soundtrack there are tempting hints of what might have been; Presley’s worried surfer of a voice floating carefully over shallow but colourful conduits of steel guitar, marimba, maracas and sombre Jordanaire harmonies, somewhat baffled as to how he has washed up on this island. In the film he is Chadwick Gates (as one is), a newly-demobbed GI (spotted the link yet?) who opts for the life of the beach bum over that of a trainee fruit company executive, much to the chagrin of his parents – one of whom, Angela Lansbury, was less than ten years Presley’s senior – and so Blue Hawaii set the tone for eight years or so of cinematic beach bumming, an era wherein Presley worked hard at seeming not to work at all, and probably wished that he wasn’t. My father – who knew his cinema, and knew his opinions even more – thought Blue Hawaii absolutely the worst movie ever made but I’m not sure whether he saw the subsequent Paradise, Hawaiian Style, next to which Blue Hawaii plays like The Magnificent Ambersons.

Presley’s sixties films by and large strolled carelessly (in all the wrong ways) through a dentist’s waiting office of glossy magazine covers masquerading as plots and the Blue Hawaii songs more or less act as the blandest of travelogues. Hawaii had only recently (August 1959) been admitted to the Union and was reasonably hip, but already the tourist industry was manfully assembling its own clichés and most, if not all, can be found here; “Aloha-Oe” is the same tune to which Spike Jones’ narrator previously announced their boat to be sinking slowly in the West, and though not straightforwardly structured – an out-of-tempo cod-operatic Hawaiian tenor introduction, oddly punctuated by Boots Randolph’s hissing tenor sax, and a final wriggle of an acoustic guitar chord which seems to cling on forever in the hope of something better – tells us instantly that tour guide is not Elvis’ calling in this life.

The introduction to “Blue Hawaii” itself is moderately startling, almost out of Les Baxter with its subaquatic booms of voices and eddying strings. Yet the song is an old Bing Crosby standard – possibly payback for Bing standing up for Elvis when first he appeared – and Elvis seems, here and elsewhere, to be marooned in a thirties neverland with controlled crooning and overbearing Jordanaires backing vocals (on “Blue Hawaii” they are back to their old tricks – “THE NIGHT IS YOUNG” and “AND SO ARE WE SO ARE WE” being the most intrusive). “Moonlight Swim”’s mild suggestiveness (“I’ll keep you warm/So very warm from your head to your feet”) is flattened entirely by the Anita Bryant disciples who come in and scrape their vocal nails down Elvis’ blackboard, such that the final effect is one of Rudy Vallee trapped in a greying elevator. “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” which went on to become one of Presley’s most popular stage songs of the seventies, dates from 1926 and sounds it; the arrangement is so suffocatingly “epic” (“Soon bells will be ringing” answered by the Jordanaires’ “ring, ring, ring, ring,” the latter crying out for a “w” prefix and a “their necks” suffix) that Presley sounds, as Lena suggested, as though he wants to marry the state of Hawaii rather than His Girl. His final cry of “blue skies” is a desperate grasp for oxygen in the sea that is placidly drowning him. He does a little better with “Ku-U-I-Po” despite, or because of, its strangely phrased sentiments (“I love you less today than I will tomorrow”) but “ Island Of Love ” is strictly tourist board daytime ad country.

“I resisted/Although my arm was twisted”
(“Almost Always True”)

Many of the songs of Blue Hawaii seem to have been sourced by sticking a pin in different issues of Billboard. Generally Presley sounds more engaged with the uptempo rockers – generally substandard though they are – and while Randolph’s excitable tenor and Hank Garland’s brake screech guitar (in an unusually long intro) make “Almost Always True” initially exciting, not to mention Presley’s expert ducking and diving into two-timing and mock innocence (the steady, minimalist drip drip staccato sequences which he swiftly terminates with an anguished/contented downward growl of “Ohhhhhh!!!!”), it took Lena to point out that melodically this was a recasting of children’s favourite “Alouette.” The fact that Elvis should spring to life singing a modified song about plucking the feathers of a dead bird should prove ample ammunition for future allegorists. “No More” also sounds suspiciously familiar in its Dean Martin-goes-Latin-for-a-day amble until you realise that it’s a reshaped “Amor” (subsequently a hit for Julio Iglesias in its original form).

Elsewhere there is congestion and confusion. “Hawaiian Sunset” is described as “peeping from the sun” (despite its melodic and lyrical portents of Richard Hawley’s “Darling Wait For Me”) and goes downhill from there. “Slicin’ Sand” is a feeble rocker (“Got a lot of ocean if it gets too hot”) with the Jordanaires loudly booming the song out of existence and Garland contributing a bored-sounding guitar solo. “Beach Boy Blues” is a case of pouring too many mixes into too small a pot; the Jordanaires’ bulbous bellowing battles with George Field’s harmonica, the rhythm section (and Presley himself) uncertain whether to rock or to play the blues ( Garland ’s solo does its best to negotiate midway). When singing “Only 30 days and 90 years to go” Presley sounds wearier and more prematurely exhausted than ever he had done, and the writhing continues until DJ Fontana mercifully puts the song out of its misery by hammering it to pieces. Worst of all is perhaps “Ito Eats,” a calamitous misreading of Harry Belafonte – and how and when did Hawaii suddenly become Jamaica ? Here, Presley sounds positively embarrassed, and with lines such as “Ito eat like teeth are out of style” and “He even eat the shell from the coconut” (are we suddenly listening to the George Mitchell Minstrels again?), nobody could blame him, apart from the terminal crime of going along with it and allowing it to happen. “Eat-o little faster!” he pleads (“One pineapple straight to the head!” yelled Lena ). It also bears one of the most bizarre endings to any Elvis song, a solitary, agonised, atonal, groaning, croaking Jordanaire (are we suddenly listening to Daniel Johnston?).

And yet and yet and yet…as with every manufactured clipboard of tourist attractions, magic sometimes occurs. The “Can’t Help Falling In Love”/”Rock-A-Hula Baby” double header single was huge and undeniably instrumental in keeping the soundtrack at number one for much of the first half of 1962 (though the single mixes downplay the more obvious Hawaiian elements) and even more surprisingly works. For once, on “Rock-A-Hula Baby,” corn though it may be (well, it’s sweetcorn), Presley actually sounds as though he’s enjoying himself, bouncing off the pinball streaks of steel guitar (Bernie Lewis, the album’s unsung hero). Even the Jordanaires are having fun, unchained with their near maniacal screams of “RockMAN rockMAN rockMAN!” (are we suddenly listening to the KLF?) behind Garland ’s unhinged solo, and wailing orgasmically over Fontana ’s closing drum demolition derby.

And the moment of true magic, of real blue in real air, dates back to 1780. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was modelled on the song “Plaisir d’Amour” and with his reading Elvis stops the show altogether and starts other, newer things. There is no overarranging here – both marimba and steel guitar are positioned very subtly in the middleground – simply an ocean of celeste doo wop, weightless yet profound, Presley (relatively, emotionally) naked, offering his hand, his whole life too, kissing away the shadows of Rodgers and Hammerstein; as with its contemporary “Moon River” and its vague, slowly-to-the-sea metaphorical antecedent “Unchained Melody” its magic seems to shine a star upon the pop of its age. It utterly transcends the forced banality of its surroundings and reminds us of other important consequences which nobody could have foreseen from Blue Hawaii; not simply how deeply the record, as imagined experience, as sonographic environment, would have been absorbed and remembered by Brian Wilson (“Beach Boy Blues”) when he came to do SMiLE – and note how, in the final, reassembled SMiLE, his Worried Man’s adventures end – perhaps in the afterlife - in blue Hawaii, but also…well, throughout the album, quietly playing ukulele (and a little pedal steel guitar), barely noticeable but indispensable, appears Alvino Rey, grandfather of Arcade Fire’s Win and William Butler. If only Elvis had lived to sing “Wake Up” in an age when nobody would have been twisting his impossibly exotic arm.

Monday 16 February 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: Another Black And White Minstrel Show

(#25: 11 November 1961, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Meet The Minstrels (Ring Up The Curtain/Ring Ring Da Banjo/When The Saints Go Marching In/Chicago/You Made Me Love You/Mr Gallagher And Mr Shean/Put Your Arms Around Me Honey/Down Where The Swanee River Flows/When The Saints Go Marching In)/The Good Old Summertime (While Strolling Through The Park One Day/In The Good Old Summertime/Sweet Rosie O’Grady/I’ll Be Your Sweetheart/Little Annie Rooney/The Band Played On)/Alabamy Bound With Al Jolson (Alabamy Bound/Swanee/Is It True What They Say About Dixie?/Carolina/Toot Toot Tootsie)/The Old Ark’s A Moverin’/Western Style (Along The Navajo Trail/In Ole’ Oklahoma/Old Dan Tucker/Country Style/Skip To My Lou/Buffalo Gal)/Your Requests (Singin’ In The Rain/Together/No Two People/My Blue Heaven/Falling In Love With Love)/Ay Ay Ay! (Maria From Babia/I, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much)/When I Love I Love/The Bandit/Cielito Linda/Cuanta Le Gusta/I’ll Si Si Ya In Bahia)/More Stephen Foster Melodies (Hard Time Come Again No More/Gentle Annie/Way Down Upon The Swanee River)/Dry Bones/Goodbye-ee (Tell Me, Pretty Maiden/Put On Your Ta-Ta Little Girlie/Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend/I Was A Good Little Girl Until I Met You/In The Twi-Twi-Twi-Light/Two Little Girls In Blue/Goodbye-ee)
Of the thousands of viewers who blew the ITV switchboard in February 1968 after watching the final episode of The Prisoner, it is likely that few had seen or remembered Ibsen’s Brand, or McGoohan’s apparently epochal performance as the lead in that same tractacus-as-play on stage in London in 1959. If they had done, they would have sensed the Brand allusions – verging on parody – in the climactic court scene, with Kenneth Griffith’s judge (or “President” as the credits had it) pleading with McGoohan to “lead us – or go.” The original Brand fails as a preacher or a leader because he cannot compromise the one-way bridge he has erected between faith and reason (cf. Kierkegaard); he knows that, because of the original sundering between God and man, the world can never be perfect, yet is driven to make that same world perfect even if no one else is willing to follow him and the whole world, including himself, is destroyed as a result.

There was that same sense of destructive perfection in McGoohan, a man constantly bewildered by the failure of others to see the world and life as he saw and lived it. The Prisoner’s rationale (and spearhead of attack against “rationalism”) is based entirely on freedom, but in McGoohan’s case freedom might have appeared to some to mean freedom to be left alone, to stand apart, to be a pronounced, hugely magnified individual, visible and unmissable in his individuality.

I was born too late and in the wrong place to see that barnstorming Brand, just as I failed to be alive when McGoohan played Starbuck to Welles’ Ahab in Moby Dick: Rehearsed, but as with so many of these life-altering experiences the dream is perhaps more pursuant, more cherishable, than any first hand reality could have been. When we consider McGoohan’s singular role in making television an art – and it is fully arguable that he was instrumental in facilitating that conversion – we have to think of Welles; Number 6 was McGoohan’s Kane, and it didn’t just come back again and again, regardless of what McGoohan went on to do after The Prisoner – he subtly carried on the series’ internal dialogue in the many episodes of Columbo in which he acted and/or directed – but refracted back onto what he had done before; think, as one of many possible instances, of the despairing, growling beast he portrayed in the latter stages of 1958’s Hell Drivers, less a thug losing his grip, more a Lear eviscerating his kingdom, screaming: “I AM NUMBER ONE!”

Nor was Welles absent from the making of The Prisoner; in town to do his bit on Casino Royale, Welles drove over to Borehamwood to visit his old friend – upon his arrival at reception, McGoohan joyfully announced “It’s all right ladies, let him through, genius is in the house!” McGoohan was shooting the crucial “Once Upon A Time” episode at the time and Welles helped out with the direction and made other key suggestions; somewhere there still exist films of dialogue from the 1955 Moby production, long dialogues between Ahab and Starbuck, out to destroy each other but still in the most precious depths of friendship, some of which appeared in suitably altered form in McGoohan and McKern’s variation on Beckett’s Endgame. And there was no escaping – least of all in “Fall Out” – the influence of Welles’ The Trial. But few paid attention to The Third Policeman.

It may seem wearily predictable to retain emphasis on The Prisoner in a career which spanned a jazz-drumming Iago (in All Night Long, with Mingus, Brubeck, Attenborough, Tubby Hayes, the other Beckett – Harry – et al), Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago (the McGoohan-directed film of Jack Good’s musical Catch My Soul), Disney and Cronenberg. But the series – just seventeen episodes, ten more than McGoohan ideally desired – not only raised the bar for television but virtually created it, and Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett, the Pythons and Jim Henson were only the most prominent television innovators who followed his path, knowingly or otherwise (Alexis Kanner in “Fall Out” miming to “Dry Bones” by the Four Lads - Canada sings Canada if we’re talking about a broken social scene - eighteen years ahead of The Singing Detective; and what is Basil Fawlty at the end but an ageing Number 6 locked into a diminishing circular hell of a Village? And as for Number 6’s other unlikely alter ego, Reggie Perrin, the exhausted man who vanishes on a beach and reappears under a different title…well, it could and should go on forever).

And yet it was also a programme which seemed to eat the rest of television as it set up its shop, including itself; contrast the relatively glamorous location shoots and setpieces of the early episodes with the blank childishness of “Once Upon A Time” or the unwinding of the ITC biscuit cutter melodrama spool which occurs throughout “Fall Out,” a piece more or less improvised as it was being shot. It drew some remarkable performances from undervalued actors; Colin Gordon’s two stints as Number 2, for instance, make one regret how badly this fine actor was wasted for virtually all of his career. And there were startling turns by people such as Eric Portman, Mary Morris and Nadia Gray, actors who didn’t make a point of appearing on television. Morris’ Number 2 in “Dance Of The Dead,” with all her foretelling of Thatcher (and astonishingly a last-minute replacement for an unwell Trevor Howard), might still count as the most frightening villain ever to appear on the small screen. Cuddly Patrick Cargill rips “Hammer Into Anvil” apart with something in him that is genuinely terrifying (and which he seldom displayed elsewhere in his long and distinguished career). McKern was famously driven to a nervous breakdown and/or heart attack by the intensity of the “Once Upon A Time” shoots and took a lot of persuading (not to mention a shave and a haircut, two bits) to be resurrected for “Fall Out” a year later, and yet even in his starkest moments there is a bearable lightness which strives to preserve his being.

Number 6, that entirely logical alter ego of Eastwood’s Man With No Name – their eventual and inevitable meeting in Escape From Alcatraz merely underlined that particular hall of mirrors – wants merely to retire from a world of which he has grown tired and finds himself planted in a world which he cannot quite understand, a compulsory retirement stripped of meaningful work in which he is encouraged to settle for less, fit in, comply. He paces every world he inhabits with the fatal impatience of someone unfit to live in any world – or for whom no world is entirely, i.e. satisfactorily, fit. McKern’s bank manager looks forward to the transformation of the whole world into the Village; McGoohan dreams of being the first man to live on the moon. It is telling that one of the few moments of extended peace he finds is in the self-directed “Many Happy Returns,” the first half hour of which contains perhaps a couple of lines of dialogue, both rendered in unreachable foreign – or invented – languages, as well as some of the most sublime images of the British countryside ever portrayed on film, easily comparable with the work of Michael Reeves. The London into which he literally falls – off the back of a lorry, if you will – never quite transcends the nature of a dreamed fantasy; the curious widow who offers him a kindness he had nearly forgotten (McGoohan is very moving in this sequence, as he tries falteringly to thank her), fashion shoots in Hyde Park Corner, the reassuring tones of Donald Sinden, the slightly nightmarish glare of Patrick Cargill. And it all turns out to have been a dream; he is obligingly parachuted back into the Village, the generous widow is the black-badged Number 2, the reverie swims to its graceful end.

Broadly The Prisoner is a story of three halves; he begins by repeatedly attempting to escape before realising that this will get him nowhere; then he attempts to understand and subvert the mechanisms (and mechanics) which run the Village; then his mind evacuates the Village altogether and we are thrust into the dreamed land of Westerns, Danger Man/Avengers pastiches, Number 6 portrayed by a different actor before he ends up, no longer dreaming, in the underground detention centre in which he might have been held all along (however long that may have been – years? A week? Half an hour?). And then he falls out of the bottom of the system. Nothing works out logically; no one – but no one - can be trusted (the woman who wakes up in a replica of her own house and becomes a screaming, gibbering wreck when she finds out where she is turns out to be a candidate for Number 1 – “It was a good idea and you did your best – I’ll stress it in my report”); the Moebius strip is surfed bilaterally; Sisyphus’ stone will be mounted again and again. Democracy is by definition pocket (“Free For All”), information cannot be confused with education (“The General”), the right to dream is almost worth dying for (“A, B & C”).

Or simply a portrait of a fatal purist determined to find out why everyone else is not like him – so 6 being 1 makes perfect sense; in fury, he is intent on creating a society of worshipful clones – or a far simpler portrait of a human being struggling to understand the world and relate to it. Consider how in “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” – one of the most dismissed episodes, but one of the most crucial - Nigel Stock as Number 6 suddenly, in his stout, fiftyish body, becomes everything McGoohan can’t be; he kisses his fiancée passionately (contrast with an eternally tensed up Number 6 who has an inbuilt difficulty dealing with women), his determination becomes focused, he is somehow adult in a way which 6 can never really grasp; thus the second childishness of the playroom and Number 48; the boychild running off with the little child-man, the better to begin a more colourful circle.

Or maybe McGoohan just caught The Black And White Minstrel Show on TV one evening and got irritated. Once again we have effusive (as in “effusion” in the knee) sleevenotes by Derek Johnson – it is beyond remarkable that this man was still the NME’s News Editor until well into the New Pop age – which in their somewhat forced ebullience betray the orders of the strapped down community. “…concentrating on the type of songs which are tailor-made for community or party singing,” “Always easy-on-the-ear, continually provoking memories” (of why they resigned?), “…keep feet a-tapping, to banish cares, and to create an atmosphere of bonhomie and carefree relaxation.” Questions evidently being a burden to others.

Moreover, Johnson is keen to paint a picture of the programme as the world’s greatest achievement: “Few will deny that the “Black and White Minstrel Show” is one of the most generally satisfying and consistently entertaining television presentations ever conceived in this country. Indeed, in one’s assessment of its merits, one could encompass the entire world…”

“The whole world…as the Village?”
“That is my hope. What’s yours?”
“I’d like to be the first man on the moon.”

What to say of the second Minstrels album itself? The musical focus seems to move away from placid accordion strolls towards energetic big band enemas but the concept is hardly less nullifying, if marginally more listenable. On the weakly positive side, Dai Francis seems to have done a bit more work on his Jolson impressions since last time, though by the time we reach his “Toot Toot Tootsie” Donald Duck has once again raised his beak and we get wordless elisions (“WAAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!”) reminiscent of Leslie Phillips slipping off a tea tray and landing in Joan Sims’ bath. Otherwise it largely remains a mystery how such difficult listening could ever have been categorised as easy listening. The Television Toppers girls appear to have attended refresher courses in estuary English with the expected dire consequences; witnessing them plod through the over-enunciated likes of “You Made Me Love You” or “I Was A Good Little Girl Until I Met You” (on the latter they are met by a sinister rising chorus of mass Jack-the-Rippers: “UNTIL YOU MET ME!”) is akin to listening to Margaret Thatcher auditioning for the Nolan Sisters. Their periodic squeals of “Hold me Ti-IGEEEEGHT!!” are unsettling in entirely the wrong way. Meanwhile, the boys chant “MY MY MY MY” or, much, much worse (on “The Band Played On”) “Oom-PAH-PAH oom-PAH-PAH!” and I have to be reminded that “His Latest Flame/Little Sister” and “Tower Of Strength” were riding atop the singles chart at the same time and that this was not the whole story, that the yearnings and intentions of early sixties youth could not be summarised by the verb “spooning” (as heard in the otiose “No Two People”), that “a cosy room” (in the second “My Blue Heaven” to arrive in as many weeks) does not have to be answered by a corny fragment of cod/sub-Shearing Swedish furniture “sophistication.”

When straining to expand their panorama, the Minstrels usually come a cropper; the Latin medley is intruded upon by incongruous Dixieland horns and if there were lovable, cheeky Southern black sharecroppers born within the sound of Bow Bells then the Cockney voicings of “Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend” seem determined to prove that this is not merely careless thinking. Still more nauseating are the occasional uprisings of patently false bonhomie with whoops and cheers reminiscent of an office party where one is clearly being forced to have “fun.” Their “Singin’ In The Rain” is steadily drained of all life, aspiration and water with nauseating dots of “pitter patter” harmonies. As for the concluding “girlie” medley with such items as “Put On Your Ta-Ta Little Girlie” and “Two Little Girls In Blue” – the bluest of veils is best drawn over such affairs.

And yet two songs from this interminable medley of medleys – “I, Yi. Yi, Yi” and “Dry Bones,” the latter of which gets a whole track to itself – play crucial roles in the final episode of The Prisoner (well, the latter does, anyway; the former serves as a nice audiovisual pun to accompany the meltdown of Rover) and I wonder whether McGoohan had the Minstrels at least partially in mind when trying to set so many things right (“Toot Toot Tootsie,” along with Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” was also on the shortlist for songs to be played while 6 walks down the corridor of jukeboxes before McGoohan plumped for “All You Need Is Love”). “Dry Bones,” of course, being about rebirth, not to mention resurrection, not to mention clean slate, the right to embark upon a fresh start without the past tagging you like a can tied to the hind leg of a frightened dog (and all due acknowledgement to Simon Barnes for that metaphor); and so 6/1, 2 and 48 jive around in their truck on the A2 (but weren’t they in North Wales? Forget The Man Who Was Thursday at your peril – “I never knew that we were so close to London ”), absolutely liberated even though they are still, strictly speaking, in a cage.

Then there are the times when the Minstrels break away from possum-eating knees-ups, stop pretending to be someone else and begin to sing music they actually feel. Once again the Stephen Foster medley works well because it is clearly heartfelt and no showbiz is involved; just simple but effective choral work and at least the possibility of there being a lump in the throat – the closing “Swanee River” is done slowly and patiently, with a sadness which may or may not mask defiance. Also surprisingly successful is the “Western Style” cowboy sequence of songs wherein the Minstrels, singing authentically white music, suddenly sound entirely at home and at ease. The opening “Along The Navajo Trail” is a fine ballad reading and even the typical wake-up jumpcut to hoedown is manageable; here there seems genuine gusto (even if still relatively clichéd; “hear that banjo” being duly answered by a banjo, etc., and quite what a Bunny Berigan-esque muted trumpet has to do with barn dances is beyond my ken) and at least a semblance of life. And buried deep in the busy scratch mix towards the end is “Buffalo Gal” and it is impossible not to see a fifteen-year-old Malcolm McLaren taking notes.

This is not the only unexpected trail laid by the record; the album concludes with the old World War I song “Goodbye-ee,” and I note that a not dissimilar version of the same song made the Top 40 towards the end of 1975 under the name 14-18, a pseudonym for the young Pete Waterman (in conjunction with the other Peter Shelley). Curiouser, however, is the album’s colourful inner sleeve, listing other HMV albums the listener might wish to buy; one side is devoted to classical music, whereas the “popular” side advertises, as well as songs from The White Heather Club and Joe Loss’ Come Dancing, records by Ella Fitzgerald, Lloyd Price, Ray Charles and, dominating the list at top left, An Evening With Paul Robeson. Did the success of the Minstrels – over Christmas 1961 they held down both first and second places in the album chart – subsidise the production of the real thing? When one considers that HMV at the time also had the UK rights to the Impulse! Catalogue – so that other 1961 releases would have included Coltrane's Africa/Brass – the mind starts spinning as busily as the inner workings of Number 1’s rocket (to destroy or recreate the world?). Still, the second Minstrels album plays like Village music to which not contributing to “community singing” would doubtless be deemed “unmutual.” When McGoohan becomes himself again, the Beatles start playing. We have, of course, several more steps to take before we reach that door marked “WELL COME,” and they do not all trace as you might expect.

Monday 9 February 2009

Cliff RICHARD: 21 Today

(#24: 4 November 1961, 1 week)

Track listing: Happy Birthday To You/Forty Days/Catch Me/How Wonderful To Know/Tough Enough/50 Tears For Every Kiss/The Night Is So Lonely/Poor Boy/Y’arriva/Outsider/Tea For Two/To Prove My Love For You/Without You/A Mighty Lonely Man/My Blue Heaven/Shame On You

“But don’t forget, there’s more than one of you” (“Poor Boy”)

Look at the size of those candles. In my two score plus five years I have never seen candles that big on any birthday cake, not even on dodgy corporate ones concealing strippers. More than anything, they remind me of altar candles, and in a very Cliff Richard way that might make perfect sense. The cake is real and the picture appears by all accounts to have been taken at a genuine party, and yet there is an unavoidable uneasy feeling about the whole scenario, as if something here isn’t quite right, that the picture’s constituent pieces do not seamlessly fit together.

But then Cliff is separate and distinct from most of what we recognise as British pop music even as he is simultaneously British pop music personified. 21 Today was his fifth album and his first to make the top (the first peaked at four and the next three in second place), and perhaps there were stern meetings where the Shadows were reprimanded for beating their mentor to number one. Or perhaps not, since the overriding impression from listening to the record is just how much fun he is having in the company of Hank and the boys, and how little he seems to be enjoying himself when compelled to do other things. The record begins with “Happy Birthday To You” – no, this is not the admittedly intriguing prospect of Cliff singing to himself, but a perky instrumental reading by the Shadows. This proceeds harmlessly for a minute or so before voices and clinking glasses are faded into the picture; we are eavesdropping at the man’s birthday party – and Derek Johnson’s sleevenote, which brings new meaning to the term “egregious,” is adamantly keen on emphasising that Cliff was now A Man – and we hear the lad himself calling for gin and orange while indulging in curiously Flann O’Brien-esque anecdotes (“Remember the time I landed on the shores?” “What shores?”), the scenario intruded upon by the occasional, startling hyena-like cackle.

It is moderately unsettling but does set the scene, although it’s a pity that the album didn’t run with the full concept (as per Beach Boys Party or Recorded Live At A Sloan Party) and keep coming back to the chatter. Here’s Cliff with his mates, celebrating, reminiscing, taking it easy and performing the odd song – and you would be hard pushed to find something odder than his reading of Chuck Berry’s “Forty Days.” When he storms abruptly from the pregnant intro into the furiously paced rocker that is the song proper, complete with surprisingly febrile growls, he does help to dismantle some kneejerk wisdom, namely that Cliff “lost it” or “sold out” after “Living Doll.” On the pronounced contrary, in the Shadows’ company he was still eager to rock in late 1961 – hear his “call of the gypsy woman” (and remember what he and Bruce Welch would do with that cry fifteen years later) or his throbbing “voodoo/do do” couplets, backed by requisite handclaps and whoops, and it’s evident that he’s trying, really and still trying, to cut into the throb of Elvis.

But then other hands who think they know better start interfering. In his sleevenote – as occurs with so many album sleevenotes of this era – Johnson inevitably speaks of Cliff’s gradual transformation into an All-Round (Family) Entertainer and in 1961 you couldn’t really blame Cliff, or anyone else, for going along with this; by then most of the original rockers had burned themselves out, died, got religion, been excommunicated or been neutered and the Beatles were still a bunch of Toxteth scruffs hustling for coins and nights of modest passion in Liverpool and Hamburg. But as soon as the deliberately and infuriatingly coy backing singers simper their way into “Catch Me” the effect is instantly deadening and you can hear Cliff’s interest reducing from top to second gear. Although Hank does his best to make the track interesting – his writhing, descending crescendos after “tumble” and “all over the place” for example – it’s a losing battle; when a song’s central lyrical conceit is “take my tipsy heart,” there is realistically little that anyone could do to improve it.

Yet “Catch Me” is the essence of vivid vitality when set next to “How Wonderful To Know,” the first of several identikit 6/8 ballads which finds Cliff backed by Norrie Paramor and his glutinous orchestra and chorus. Now it’s Cliff’s turn to attempt to turn this leaden dirge into something resembling gold (more fool him) with his idly descending “Share-this-love-with-you” incline and his Hertfordshire ski slope of “How-ow-ow-ooh woo-oooo-onderful” but again his endeavour fails; with ration book homilies such as “now and hereafter” to hand, it is what Lena describes as a starched white tablecloth of a song, something even Donny Osmond might have bridled at recording.

Worse is to come on “50 Tears For Every Kiss” where Paramor decorates/obscures Cliff’s remorse (“I bought so many kisses” – Lena terms this as “the accountant’s drinking song”) with that depressingly and eerily familiar 101 Strings anaesthesia of cascading streams of dog-pitched fluid. “To Prove My Love For You” is so deferentially mild that we might as well be listening to Dickie Valentine, and in 1951 rather than 1961; like one of those pink-topped cakes from Greggs The Bakers, it is wholly a case of icing without character obscuring the song’s taste. “Outsider” features a Cliff as glum as I’ve ever heard him, dutifully clocking in for another day of joyless labouring because it’s the right thing to do rather than something that he wants to do; as with many of these songs, we could be listening to bargain basement Elvis soundtrack rejects (and given that many of these songs were composed by Col Parker publishing contract hacks Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett it’s little surprise); Cliff sings disinterestedly about “our favourite melodies” (is this 1861?) and is regularly interrupted by a ghastly sub-Stargazers choir (“SO MUCH!”) so by the time he gloomily concludes “Outsider – that’s me” his misery is manifest. “A Mighty Lonely Man” does, as a song, give Cliff a little bit more to chew on (or into), but again, lines such as “a foolish, foolish fool” give limited scope for meaningful interpretation; to his credit, the singer does loosen up, stretching out his vowels, keeping the song within his seldom heard bass range, but once more the abominable Home Service backing stingers scupper any attempt at poignancy or depth; we are left with the impression (as Lena puts it) of a diet Elvis, a low sodium Billy Fury.

Back, without much or any regret, to the Shadows-backed tracks; “Tough Enough” is lyrically terrible – night rhymes with moonlight, and marvel at “Hey good people, gonna make her my wife!” – but Cliff has great fun working with seven different varieties of “oooo-wee!” and palpably comes alive again. “The Night Is So Lonely” revisits the 6/8 ballad formula but the Shadows lend a naturally livelier approach than Paramor and at least sound more committed musically, even if they nullify the track with some dreadful echt-Jordanaires harmonies. A far more interesting track is “Poor Boy”; although broadly uptempo and acoustic (in the “Apache”/”Wonderful Land” sense), Cliff, echoing at an odd off-mike angle (and thus sounding like proto-dub), treats it as a study in blue melancholia in his then slightly strained upper register, and the cumulative effect is unsettling; rather than commiserating with the hapless victim of love, Cliff at times sounds as though he’s offering himself as an alternative.

Then, however, we reach the album’s nadir, “Y’arriva,” an active equivalent to the drawling, sated passivity of Sinatra’s “South Of The Border” – but that’s as far as I’m taking that particular comparison. From the opening “Way down in the land of sunny Mexico” we know we are set for a journey into light entertainment hell, and so it proves to be the case; here Cliff is the hapless tourist chatting up the local ladies and being railroaded out of town by stock local heavies and he has audible difficulty keeping a straight face; the chorus, as such, is drowned out by proto-Tremeloes yelps of “arriva” (rather than the actual “ariba”) and “andale,” and with a rhyming schemata which allows “In Spanish this means I’m hee-ya!” we are less in the land of Malcolm Lowry and more in the land of Peter Glaze on Crackerjack. The comparison Lena extemporised here was one of what Mexican food might have been like in the London of 1961 (if anyone is old enough to remember what it was like, then please add your comments at the bottom) – nice try but nowhere near (or, indeed, the tourist London of 2009 and specifically “Mexican” restaurants in Greenwich; who the hell thought that tortillas and pasta went together?).

Remember, however, that Cliff was now A Man, Old Enough To Vote, Put Away Those Childish Things Yes Mr Paramor Sir, and thus had to Broaden His Appeal. Thus the execrable novelty numbers; but also more interesting excursions like his lounge/cocktail reading of “Tea For Two” with a gently swinging Shadows (although they unaccountably swing into full blown cha-cha in the bridge, perhaps in misguided tribute to the “Tea For Two Cha-Cha” top three hit achieved by the posthumous Tommy Dorsey Orchestra three years earlier), although the active serenity is briefly broken up by a demented five-second Tony Meehan drum solo and marred by a missed dive by Cliff in the song’s first climax where he aims for a high final syllable on “telephone” but his subsequent “yeah” completely misses the key change. His vaguely sensual purr of “onnnn” in the song’s final furlong is quite something, however. His “My Blue Heaven” is similarly but even more minimally structured; apart from some discreet piano chords by Hank (and his rather bizarre piano introduction), a quickfire guitar solo midsong and the straight faced quick march middle eights, Cliff is largely accompanied by bass and drums alone and curiously sounds twice his age – in fact, there’s a sudden richness and bottoming out of his voice which sounds remarkably like the Cliff of 1982, but more about the latter when we get there (or thereabouts).

“Without You” is one of those rare things, a song with a Cliff composer credit (together with Marvin and Welch), and churns along as an agreeable rocker, albeit broken apart by a furiously echoed Marvin solo halfway through and ultimately ruined by the unsolicited return of that stupid backing choir (the Mike Sammes Singers?) at the end. Still, one has to wonder about Cliff’s world; he declares that without his Other, he does not wish to “go on a kissing spree.” Quite apart from having to find something to rhyme with “me,” this is surely unique (or as unique as makes no difference) in British or indeed any pop; a kissing “spree”? And whom would he be proposing to kiss if not his other half? Would he perchance venture out with a shopping list of potential targets (see also the King Brothers’ somewhat creepy “Standing On The Corner” from the spring of 1960)? It’s truly baffling.

Proceedings, and the party, are wound up, however, by “Shame On You,” another Shadows-penned rocker with another bemusing central refrain – “Oh, naughty girl” – with a bamboozling mass cascade of “WHYYYYY” and “WAAAAAAAH” following Cliff’s phrase “pretend to cry.” Still, the Cliff of 1961 sounds eminently happier, infinitely more relaxed and far more convincing when rocking with the Shadows than he does when being – well, told what to do, what is right and proper for a Man of His Age. On the rear of the album sleeve he is pictured in a dark suit and tie, proferring bilateral thumbs-up, but not quite smiling. And on his actual 21st birthday, he was dutifully boarding a ‘plane to embark upon his first tour of Australia . Notice that prominent “key to the door” (though Johnson seems to prefer “key of the door”) superimposed on the cover. What if the key led to another cell? Actually, it would lead to a renovated barn, and then to a number nine Routemaster bus (revolution?) but these are tales for other times. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to consider that cake, and the candles which are almost crushing it, in the light of the cake we’ll see at the other end of this decade.