Monday 27 April 2009

The BEATLES: With The Beatles

(#35: 7 December 1963, 21 weeks)

Track listing: It Won’t Be Long/All I’ve Got To Do/All My Loving/Don’t Bother Me/Little Child/Till There Was You/Please Mister Postman/Roll Over Beethoven/Hold Me Tight/You Really Got A Hold On Me/I Wanna Be Your Man/Devil In Her Heart/Not A Second Time/Money

Where the Beatles were already looking down upon us on the front of Please Please Me, Robert Freeman’s cover photo for their second album appears to cast them in stone, or at least in oils; there is something almost ahuman about the four partially disembodied heads staring into space, somehow looking beyond us, or through us. Lennon resembles a sourly smiling statue, McCartney and Harrison look vaguely petrified; only Ringo, retaining his characteristic “bothered?” pose, gives us a link to touch. Otherwise they are already gods, if that was the intention.

The album itself is more utilitarian and far closer to earth. It finds the Beatles carefully working out the consequences and implications of everything they’d set in motion; we’ve got here, they’re saying, now let’s try different things out – different styles of music, different ways of putting a song together - and see what fits our plans best. Frequently fumbling in its hopeful experimentations with song forms and structures – I stress that this is no bad thing - With The Beatles has become far better known for its cover versions than its originals; of the latter, only “All My Loving” has passed into The Canon. Although Lennon’s remains the dominant voice throughout With The Beatles – with Harrison a somewhat surprising second - it’s McCartney who is doing most of the musical stretching out. “All My Loving” brilliantly takes its run of guitar triplets and feeling of unrooted ecstasy from “Da Doo Ron Ron” and marries these to an express train swing of rhythm and the nascent spices of sixties optimism to underline exactly why the resultant smiling hope caught on with everyone waiting for their decade to begin (im)properly; whereas in 1962 Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With A Kiss” treated the summer vacation and associated postal-only relationship like the melting sword of doom, here McCartney is all grins and winks and furry faith – he’ll be back (as he promised on “A Taste Of Honey”) and he’ll bring the future back with him.

Likewise, McCartney’s take on “Till There Was You” – originally sung in The Music Man but taking Peggy Lee’s 1958 samba-ish reading as its template – is a cunning opening out of capabilities; routinely used on occasions when they (and/or Epstein) felt they needed to placate the parents (in the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, for instance, to balance out “Twist And Shout” and its concomitant jewellery rattling), it reveals the first sighting of the placidly relaxed slacker which would become McCartney’s best known musical persona; he sits back in the song, like a comfy deckchair, and his carpet slipper grin (for example, on “They tell me!”) is happily palpable. Ringo has fun working out which way his bongos should be sitting, and George unfurls a much less nervous (though clearly still patiently and endlessly rehearsed) Spanish guitar solo. Note also that in The Music Man this song is sung by Marian the librarian – yet another example of the Beatles singing a song usually associated with women.

As, of course, is their assault on “Please Mister Postman”; indeed, the latter segues splendidly out of “Till There Was You”’s lotus-munching contentment and wakes us up with a collective scream of “But WAIT!!!” It seems to me that, as with nearly everything else in the book not concerned with historical facts or technical details (in which terms it is naturally indispensable in relation to this part of the tale), Ian MacDonald in Revolution In The Head is missing the point when he wearily refers to the group’s suffocating wall of sound here; this is not a meticulous recreation of the Marvelettes but the fierce response of a frustrated group of Scouse misfits to the song’s emotional undercurrents of impatience and accumulated tension. In other words, the Beatles make this song work, scratchily, loudly and crudely (in the best possible sense) to a 1963 audience who mostly had never heard of the Marvelettes but would hopefully be encouraged by the performance’s Dexedrine-fuelled energy to investigate both Marvelettes and Motown further.

Lennon’s vocal is especially anguished here, as it is on his reading of “You Really Got A Hold On Me”; again, his Strepsil rasp is most pointedly not how Smokey did it, but the confused desperation is intact in his increasingly anxious “hold me”s and especially his series of howls of “TIGHTER!” alternating with Ringo’s inspired rolls and fills. The Motown-style rallentando at the end is also inspired; though not on the Miracles’ original, it astutely points the way to other things in which the listener might be interested. It builds a bridge where none previously existed.

Certainly Smokey and the Miracles continued to be Lennon’s main songwriting inspiration over this period; “All I’ve Got To Do” is an urgent modification of their various elements though its abrupt fade suggests a song not quite brought through to a logical end (as does its emotionally vacillating lyric). “Not A Second Time” organises and redeploys Miracles modes rather more successfully since Lennon uses Smokey’s characteristic chord changes and modulations (the same ones which were hailed at the time – in The Times, no less – as “Aeolian cadences”) to extend his own songwriting language; the song is an audacious construct whose middle eight is noticeably longer and more emphatic than its verses with bar line conventions ignored or overrun to accommodate a more conversational lyrical structure, fitting for a group who felt the need to talk to its audience as directly as possible.

The album is full of life and elastic possibilities, even in its seemingly least promising corners. George’s very demure delivery of “Roll Over Beethoven” is hardly Chuck and the rhythm is noticeably squarer than that of the Chess house band but the lush rush of the new remains unavoidable; the old is done (“Rockin’ in two by two” as though fleeing to the Ark from the imminent flooding of restrictive history), the broom of now must sweep all behind it; they fumble the closing flurries behind Harrison’s “Dig to these rhythm and blues” but it just doesn’t matter - it fits with peerless imperfection. “Little Child” is practically thrash punk a generation ahead of SST, totally wiping out the rather creepy “little girl” fixation which had besotted not only their immediate Brylcreemed Britpop predecessors but also most of their peers (see for instance Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “She Needs Love,” recorded as late as 1965). Lennon’s harmonica and Ringo’s cymbals are locked in a race to drown each other out but Lennon’s arch “I’m so sad and lonely” pinpoints the group’s central appeal; here, finally, is empathy as opposed to self-pity or buried contempt and millions were only too happy (at one essential remove) to offer him their company.

“I Wanna Be Your Man” was the one John and Paul polished off (very lightly and quickly) for the Stones and much has been made of the fact that they gave their own version to Ringo to sing; did they really think that little of it? Actually it’s a great performance, if scarcely the Stones – but then, why should it be? Its ferocious garage rock is highly entertaining, and Ringo (described as a “fierce-voiced drumming man” singing “a real raver” in Tony Barrow’s hilarious sleevenote, a period piece in itself, full of attempted alliteration [“Fourteen freshly recorded titles,” “these two remarkably talented tunesmiths”] and energetically trying expressions of inbuilt obsolescence [“gets away to a rip-roarin’ start,” “romantic balladeer,” “Much recorded by American blues merchants”]) keeps as straight and asexual a face as possible as the rest of the group yells and barks behind him. George sings “Devil In Her Heart,” a 1962 side by the impossibly obscure US girl group the Donays – one immediately visualises them thumbing through the latest R&B import 45s at the NEMS store of a Saturday lunchtime - with an admirable preservation of countenance given Lennon’s increasingly demented backing vocals (“SHE! JUST! DE! DE! VILL!” he ends up cackling in cod-Jamaican staccato tones; see also his similar slide into patois towards the end of “Please Mister Postman” with “DEE-liv-AH de let-TAH!”).

“Hold Me Tight” was seen even by its authors as (in McCartney’s term) a “work song,” a throwaway. A leftover from the Please Please Me sessions reluctantly polished up for the second album, the song actually provokes some of the Beatles’ most adventurous structural moves - it starts, not at the beginning, but in the middle of the middle eight as though the tape operator had been delayed in the tram; its chorus climaxes in a wholly unexpected minor key falsetto; the words of the chorus flood casually into the structure of the middle eight, which in itself is rather sinisterly set, as evinced by Ringo’s unusually concentrated tom-tom work; and the song ends in a bold decelerando. The performance is hastily enthusiastic, John and Paul tossing a frisbee of hoarse between their voices (“Hello Franz Ferdinand!” exclaimed Lena at one point) – and this was simply (!) their idea of an album filler.

Then there are the Lennon-led opening and closing tracks; first, the cleverly bouncy “It Won’t Be Long” with its elementary but extremely effective “be long”/”belong” wordplay and its less than elementary doo wop-derived major seventh ending, beaming a ray of hope so ripely radiant that its original inspiration – Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” – is barely apparent. Finally there is another “Twist And Shout”-style big finish/set closer with their rampage through “Money” where Motown gets violently jerked into early sixties Britain. George Martin’s (mostly electric) piano is throughout the album as discreet as ever (subtly indispensable on “You Really Got A Hold On Me” in particular) but his keyboards hold the chaos of “Money” together and indeed provide a strategic doorway as waterfalls of Lennon howls cascade into glittering piano glissandi. Ironic or not, this performance is an even more direct rejection/negation of The Past than “Twist And Shout”; here, messy and bleeding but unquestionably alive, is born The Sixties, Lennon on the make and taking every scream out of his exhausted tonsils – and in his hysterical responses, McCartney’s high register nearly outdoes him – to DEMAND a future, to STOP paying for the mistakes of others, to imbue cap-doffing Britain (and, eventually, JFK-mourning America – note the date when this album displaced its predecessor at number one) with the whitest of lights and the reddest of heats. As the band lunges from climax to climax Lennon takes Freddy Cannon one step closer towards Iggy with his ecstatic roars of “WOW YEAHHHH!!!! I WANNA BE FREE!!!,” McCartney squealing his delighted agreement behind, or alongside, him. We are the future but we are also in business.

Yet perhaps the record’s most piercing pointer towards the future lies in “Don’t Bother Me,” the first George Harrison song to appear on a Beatles record; though barely rated as a song by Harrison himself, it does provide several startling indicators of things to come, and not simply the ennui which would become the predominant marker of the other end of the sixties; McCartney’s bass is hauling itself out of bass drum compliance, and both vocal delivery and musical arrangement would have been very much in place in the early nineties alt/indie rock scene. In particular, within Harrison ’s prematurely exhausted “so go away, leave me alone” and “I’ve got no time for you right now,” it is even possible to hear the embryonic strainings of Kurt. And maybe it’s this anti-light of doubt – these are going to be fab and gear times, but don’t forget the grotty – which already set the Beatles on a plateau higher than anything to which the likes of the Searchers or the Swinging Blue Jeans might ever have aspired. This wasn’t merely a matter of a Merseyside takeover – though the British 1963 number one singles list tells a more comprehensive story – but a provocation for awe and worship. Why are we so big, these statues seem to ask – but then again, aren’t we now looking at you on the same level?

Monday 20 April 2009

The BEATLES: Please Please Me

(#34: 5 May 1963, 30 weeks)

Track listing: I Saw Her Standing There/Misery/Anna (Go To Him)/Chains/Boys/Ask Me Why/Please Please Me/Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You/Baby It’s You/Do You Want To Know A Secret/A Taste Of Honey/There’s A Place/Twist And Shout

“There’ll be no sad tomorrows, don’t you know!”

There is a Japanese word called “umami” which technically speaking signifies the fifth basic sense of taste and translates roughly into English as meaning “supreme deliciousness.” Although this taste is very specific – the nearest convenient approximate definition would be “savoury” – it arises out of a specific, but special, combination of different, seemingly incompatible elements and makes of its whole something considerably more than the sum of its parts.

That the most popular derivé of umami is monosodium glutamate is something which, for the time being, need not concern us. Nor am I wholly convinced that the other four basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty – apply with full effect to each of the four Beatles; Paul as sweet, John as sour and salty Ringo are fine, but bitter George? Well, later on, perhaps – come back to this tale circa 1971 – but here he tends to be the dutiful, slightly shy schoolboy, nervously intoning the enclosed melody of “Do You Want To Know A Secret,” picking out his prepared solo on “I Saw Her Standing There” with audible apprehension, as though performing it before the headmaster. Of the band members variously featured on “Love Me Do,” he’s the one you notice least, if at all.

The overall impression from the cover of Please Please Me inwards, however, is one of prematurely unalloyed optimism. Already on this cover they are smiling down upon us from an unspecified height, happily demonstrating how rapidly they have risen above the rest of us, but still in touch with a rawer reality than that to which the album chart, or British pop music in general, had hitherto been accustomed; the Escher stairs suggest a block of flats although in fact they are posing halfway up EMI’s headquarters in Manchester Square, W1. Thus the double bluff reveals its cleverness and ambition; they are the salt of the earth but already have designs on buying the company.

Not that that worried or was noticed by anyone in 1963. Tony Barrow does the requisite PR duties in his sleevenote, complete with charmingly anachronistic expressions such as “pop picking” and “discdom,” but still finds it impossible to contain his wonder, his approximation of awe. He makes great play of the rapidity of the Beatles’ rise to the top, as though they strolled right into the building and rearranged the furniture without any ceremony, and indeed that is pretty much what they did. Light Programme DJ Brian Matthew, whose Saturday Club show was one of the few oases of pop in an otherwise stultified (not to say stratified) BBC, is quoted as calling them “visually and musically the most exciting and accomplished group since The Shadows.” Barrow even gets in what may be interpreted as a none-too-subtle dig at annotators of previous chapters in this tale with his barbed comment: “The hit parade isn’t always dominated by the most worthy performances of the day so it is no good assuming that versatility counts for everything” – Minstrels, take note. He excitedly goes on to attest that Lennon and McCartney had “…already tucked away enough numbers to maintain a steady output of all-original singles from now until 1975!”

The latter, as we shall see, turned out to be far from the case. It is impossible to articulate fully just how comprehensively the Beatles wiped out everything and everyone that had preceded them in this tale. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the dominant joint force in British pop for the previous three years, do not reappear in this list until 1977. Elvis vanishes from the story until the sixties are practically over. With one significant exception, the Broadway/West End musical, whether filmed or staged, does not reappear at all in the sixties lists and indeed not in any form (the Beatles’ own film soundtracks notwithstanding) until well into the seventies. The genre which would go on to be known as Easy Listening will have to wait until the record buying market re-demographised itself as the sixties wound down to their close before we meet it again.

And yet elements of all of these, as well as everything else, went into making the Beatles, and in particular the Please Please Me album, what they were. However, what was important here was not the influences themselves but the multiple and surprisingly subtle ways in which the Beatles deployed them. Hence “A Taste Of Honey” appears on the record largely because Acker Bilk had recently enjoyed a hit with his version, and in the group’s quiescently if slightly stiffly harmonised McCartney-led performance we hear a clear descendent of the Shadows’ vocal folk ballad work (itself derived from the influence of the Kingston Trio). But here there is a connection with the young 1963 listener which doesn’t come across with the Shadows; the song may have been written for the Broadway production of Shelagh Delaney’s play but the roots of the play itself cut through the Beatles’ performance and we hear something approaching a genuine, contemporary folk music. Likewise, Lennon had “Somewhere” from West Side Story in mind when writing “There’s A Place” but the end product sounds nothing like Bernstein and everything like what Lena rightly refers to as the beginning of the long road (or circuitous road) that will eventually lead to “Strawberry Fields.” Their “Chains” borrows both harmonica and cantering rhythm from Ifield’s “I Remember You” but remains far closer to the spirit of the Cookies’ rather unsettling original.

Girl groups have thus far been given a raw deal in TPL but the progressive feminisation of pop which the Beatles set in motion – and not merely with their haircuts or Little Richard-meets-Darlene Love “whoo-ooo”s - is still underexplored. Apart from “Chains” Please Please Me also includes two covers of Shirelles songs, and McCartney had their “Soldier Boy” in mind when composing “P.S. I Love You.” Lennon’s lead vocal on “Baby It’s You” is one of many extraordinary performances he lends to the record and owes more than a little to fellow Liverpudlian Billy Fury – those descending “ohhhh”s, the drive-in Gielgud descents of “many, many, many, many nights” – though his pained “CAN’T HELP MYSELF!”s are not the only primal scream signposts here.

But Ringo’s essay on “Boys” is beyond Cliff or camp. One of the most pulsatile and audibly enjoyable tracks on the album as a performance, if also one of the messiest – the fadeout masks a missed ending – the drummer excitedly exclaims “I mean boys!” in such a way that one momentarily wonders if he’s yelling “I NEED boys!” and in any case to hear a boy band singing what is essentially a girl group song is as electrifying now as it must have been then. “All right, girls!” chuckles Ringo as they roar into the instrumental break – George having his most fun on the record with his Chet Atkins Play In A Day riffs – and his “Aaaaaahhhh!!” is as extreme as he ever got as a vocalist.

As for “Please Please Me” itself, its influences variously include Bing Crosby (the song’s title), the Everlys (the close-knit, symbiotic, self-multiplying harmonies), Buddy Holly (“i-hin my heart”) and Roy Orbison (the mounting bipolar tension of the “Come on!”s resolving in a sudden octave leap for the chorus) but its glory stands in the realisation that none of these is particularly noticeable since what counts is its now-unstemmed rush, a rash of scarlet noise and – yes – sex that rubs out all the preceding politesse without the need for rubbers. In common with most of these fourteen songs, Ringo seems the key structural figure; endlessly inventive, steadfastly refusing to lock in with McCartney’s bass, playing everywhere except the centre (his five triple climaxes at the peak of “Please Please Me” are what the rest of the song has been building up towards). In contrast, the album version of “Love Me Do” is the one with Andy White sitting in on drums and Ringo morosely banging his tambourine in the corner and does come across as slightly stilted in this company – even White’s busker cymbal crash signifying the end of the instrumental break doesn’t recapture that sod-you sour smile of Ringo’s on the 45 version. Still, its rudimentary structure – two chords, the most basic and Toxtethian of lyrics – was a speed of cold blood to most complacent 1962 pop heads. In contrast, White does better on “P.S.” since all he really has to do is add some echoing rimshots to Ringo’s patient maracas – and thereby, with the aid of George Martin, help pave the way for dub.

“P.S.” is, I feel, a crucial track since it illustrates that, far from intending to make a complete break with the past, there is a more-than-vague umbilical cord with the history of the popular song which McCartney in particular was keen to keep intact. As a cha-cha it utterly obliterates the Minstrels’ barking red, red robin; but in its unexpected punctum of a B flat chord in the chorus (or the third line of each refrain/verse which stands in for a chorus) of a song essentially set in D major it demonstrates very proficiently and eagerly how Lennon and McCartney were able to reach – no, imagine (ahem) – corners which the Teppers and Bennetts of their world never quite could. Cliff would have happily crooned it in D major all the way through, but McCartney is already reaching out further.

Similarly it is worth noting the extremely early and radical modifications of tropes based on Motown – and how fitting it was that of all the Motown artists and writers of the period the Beatles should focus on the essentially feminine/feminised Smokey Robinson. Both “Ask Me Why” and “There’s A Place” are based on Miracles memes but there’s hardly any audible evidence of them beyond the rhetorical vowel triplets, occasional dramatic pauses and Marv Tarplin-at-one-remove guitar top lines since Lennon is making something new of both – this at a time when Motown in Britain was still the preserve of a few avid import cratediggers. Lennon’s “Your happiness can make me cry” on “Ask Me Why” is pure Smokey but could have been sung by no one save Lennon.

In contrast, when Lennon tries to be a man, as he does in his interpretation of Arthur Alexander’s difficult song “Anna,” he doesn’t quite escape from still being a crying, confused adolescent (not helped by the weirdly echoing prairie backing vocals from the rest of the band) and yet the complete Lennon – never quite not being a child – is already evident; his astonishing scream of “All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl!,” his restless-verging-on-impatient repetitions of “What am I?” and his double triplicate “Oh-oh-oh” sobs all point pungently towards a future of disturbances.

But the overall impression remains one of freshness, of gleefully insolent youth, of souls too happy to worry overly about transience. “Misery” is as miserable as the Beatles get on this album, and it’s very far from anything resembling misery; at the prospect of never seeing his Other’s face again, Lennon snickeringly (if somewhat nasally and bunged up, since he had a heavy cold at the time of the recording session) drawls “What a draaaaaag!” and the song fades out with John and Paul mucking about with their backing vocals. Even on “A Taste Of Honey,” Paul’s earnest “I’ll be back!” is answered by a heavily sardonic Lennon-led retort of “HE’LL BE BACK!!”

Then there are the album’s bookends, and its keys to immortality. If Paul’s famous count-in/whoop to “I Saw Her Standing There” stands as a beginning of time, then it’s only partly an accident; the entire album was laid down “as live” in one 12-hour studio session and the group essentially went through their stage set, everything they knew in 1963 (and perhaps everything they might ever know). If I haven’t mentioned George Martin much yet it’s because he wisely decides to stand back for much of the record and let the band speak for itself. Apart from the occasional application of echo to Ringo’s floor kit or drop-in piano decoration, Martin is generally very unobtrusive, though clearly indispensable; compared to the processed cocoon world of other post-skiffle/pre-Merseybeat Britpop, he lends the Beatles a dry, immediate sound (though was still criticised in some quarters at the time by diehard fans for not recapturing their live sound adequately; this, however, was down to the relative inadequacies of the average British recording studio of the period, including Abbey Road, though both Martin and the Beatles would work hard to overcome these limitations and invent new horizons with each succeeding record).

However, a song and performance as strong as “Standing” needs only to be allowed to breathe in order to work. It overthrew every preceding British pop convention, both in terms of subject matter and execution; “Well, she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” immediately sets the bar higher (what about this then, All Round Entertainers?). The “’cross that boom”/”heart went boom” couplet carries the same emotional and febrile weight as the crowded room of “Some Enchanted Evening” but these musicians are younger and more impatient – they want it NOW! – and the extended, androgynous “mi-eeeeeeeeeeeee-ne!”s are unprecedented.

Although the Beatles were still called upon to some extent (notably by Epstein) throughout the first half of their career not to forsake the All Round Entertainment route, their music is already making it very clear that they are speaking to and for their own generation in the first instance. In time the Empire loyalists and war survivors will find their own grace in the Beatles’ work (again, largely via McCartney), but “Standing” and especially “Twist And Shout” – still one of the greatest closing tracks to any album, and in this context one of the most significant and decided – are speaking to The Kids, those who had hitherto not been allowed to speak, or speak only politely and humbly.

And it cannot be underemphasised how much of a beginning the ending of “Twist And Shout” signified, and the circumstances in which it was recorded – they’d been in the studio half a day, Lennon’s voice was nearly gone, he was sweating so much that he’d stripped down to the waist, but both Martin and the rest of the Beatles espied a blueness in the corner of his air and set about painting and preserving it. Taken down several keys from Ronald Isley’s lead vocal on the original version, and yet still managing to be as intense as any lead vocal could hope to be, Lennon screeches, croaks, demands satisfaction, demolishes the buildings which previously stood in his way, and everyone else in the studio is right with him, urging him on, Ringo hammering his snare and floor tom in the song’s chaotic closing moments like a reborn Pharaoh wanting to get out of his pyramid. Lena was quick to note the date of the recording session – 11 February 1963 – and the fact that recording would have started almost exactly at the point when Plath’s life ended. Lennon’s scream certainly bears the elements of resurrection, as well as the consummate, entirely new and wholly satisfying taste which the elements in the Beatles combined to create from the history this tale has so far traced, as well as other, as yet unspoken histories. For many people, however, Please Please Me represented the first number one album which spoke directly to them, which (unlike Elvis) was local and accessible, which (unlike Cliff and to some extent Tommy) was not dependent upon a retinue of professional writers and did not require watering down via the All Round Entertainment filter, which (unlike trad and the Minstrels) offered a palpable here and now, which (unlike Sinatra and the musicals) didn’t belong to their parents. And so the sun rises on a wonderful land – but not the one some people thought might come about.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Cliff RICHARD and The SHADOWS: Summer Holiday

(#33: 2 February 1963, 14 weeks)

Track listing: Seven Days To A Holiday/Summer Holiday/Let Us Take You For A Ride/Les Girls/Round And Round/Foot Tapper/Stranger In Town/Orlando’s Mime/Bachelor Boy/A Swingin’ Affair/Really Waltzing/All At Once/Dancing Shoes/Yugoslav Wedding/The Next Time/Big News

“I stumbled out with my bundles. I smiled. Everybody smiled. The snow was a huge joke, and our predicament that of Alpine climbers marooned in a cartoon.”
(Plath, “Snow Blitz,” January 1963)

Setting both biography and hindsight aside – for now – “Snow Blitz” is a lively, exasperated portrait of a Britain starving for change, a Britain still marooned in the post-war cartoon of making do and mending, a Britain whose citizens muck on by as amiably and incompetently as they have ever done, their boots frozen to a lackadaisical lake of “can’t do.” A monochromatic Britain guiltily hungry for colour and life.

Set this next to the eager, Technicolor, world-embracing “Can Do!” of Cliff and his fellow jolly bus engineers and it’s easy to see how Summer Holiday, both the film and its music, enraptured and captured its willing audience; indeed, one can already see how Cliff’s idea of free enterprise made most of his audience keen for Thatcherism a generation down the line. The British winter of 1963 was an especially wretched one, and the new phenomenon of inexpensive foreign holiday travel – escape from winter, shiny, yellow refuge from all that we know - was hugely inviting. So it’s instructive to remember just how popular and even empathetic Summer Holiday was through these grimmest of times.

As in The Young Ones, Cliff is avid, up for it but always with a cocky eye set towards future balance sheets. His Indian background does, I feel, come into major play in this movie; the album cover, both in terms of typography and photography, suggests a strayed Bollywood picture, and I sense none-too-distant links with Slumdog Millionaire, although Cliff & Co.’s adventures are strictly for laughs, any underlying dirt as scrupulously scrubbed out as ever. He decides to customise an about-to-become-disused Number 9 London bus (remember that number as this tale approaches the other end of the sixties) and take it across Europe, not simply for the pleasure of it but to test whether the idea would work on a larger, profitable scale. Before he reaches the Acropolis he has to deal with gender bending, reluctant American child stars, scheming mothers and agents, petty crime framing, Ron Moody, and sundry mishaps in various stages of national dress – is this Lynch’s Wild At Heart I see far beyond me? – but all, inevitably and invariably, ends well; his future is mapped out and is clearly going to be a happy one.

“Summer Holiday” the song remains as daftly optimistic as anything to come out of early sixties Britain, a shimmering stroll through a future that everyone seemed to deserve, though its writers Bruce Welch and Brian Bennett are careful to retain some sense of ambiguity within its cheery hopefulness; the double bluff, for instance, of “We’ve seen it in the movies/Now let’s see if it’s true” (although we are in fact watching a movie) and the suggestion of long-term rain in the pizzicato string lines drizzling over Hank’s solo. Also, note the vaguely ominous vibes/piano figure which briefly jousts with Cliff’s carefree humming at fadeout before withering in amicable defeat.

The soundtrack as a whole sums up much of what this tale has told thus far, which is fitting as it does mark the literal end of an era; many of the songs remain tailored to the still viable notion of All Round Entertainment set up with The Duke Wore Jeans and follow the classic pattern of film musicals which has formed the dominant voice in this tale to date, whether Rodgers and Hammerstein or Presley and Richard. There is even a song entitled “A Swingin’ Affair,” a leisurely vibes/flute-pedalled affair in which Cliff – assisted by Grazina Frame, back to dub juvenile lead Lauri Peters’ singing voice - does his best to be Sinatra, though his “a ring-a-ding-ding” is unlikely to awaken or arouse any grandmothers and, as with the album in general, he does his best to avoid matters inconvenient or explicit: “We’ll enjoy the music,” he and Frame sing, “but we won’t fall in love.”

Otherwise, it’s Mickey Rooney time again; “Seven Days To A Holiday” sees Cliff excitedly urging his co-workers to turn the bus into a fountain of red magic (“We will check everywhere/Though it’s hard to get there”; “Cor blimey, what a shower!”). The unlikely “Let Us Take You For A Ride” alternates between a slow, bass clarinet-driven crawl of a swing in which Cliff explains in painstaking technical detail (deconstruction!) to Una Stubbs’ girl group exactly why their car won’t start and an explosion of brisk cantering as Cliff pleads with them to board their bus. “There’s no need to look terrified,” he rather startlingly chuckles at one point.

There are also travel-oriented setpieces and ballads; “Really Waltzing” is an extraordinary piece of meta-Strauss self-commentary in which a baffled Cliff, seventeen years ahead of David Byrne, wonders exactly how he got here (“How did I get so square?”). “I know this kind of music makes me sick and you sick,” he remarks. “Still, I’m aware.” It’s a telling comment and one which could frequently be used against some of the things he went on to do (not least “Really Waltzing” itself, which ends up being hijacked by two Mike Sammes Singers bearing terrible German accents and rhyming “houses” with “cowses”). The waltz then speeds up and the original (unfilmed) ending of the “Dance Of The Dead” episode of The Prisoner comes instantly to mind.

The ballads tread a faintly treacherous path between schmaltz and truth. “Stranger In Town” wanders inoffensively (“Every girl is a beautiful girl when you’re a stranger in town” etc.) before veering off, via a segment of whistling backed by Deadwood Stage woodblocks, into a series of orchestral pastiches staggering from the Danube to Dixieland. Cliff’s good vocal on “All At Once” is offset, not to say drowned, by gruellingly dolorous 101 Strings lines and a melancholy muted trombone solo (probably Don Lusher). Set against this, “The Next Time” is a finely regretful, beautifully timed country-tinged performance fuelled by Hank’s chunky piano block chords – as always, Cliff seems far more himself when the Shadows are with him – and we’ll come back to the question of Cliff losing sleep in due course as this tale lengthens out. “Bachelor Boy” has since gained some notoriety, not least in part to its predicating, in tune, tempo and arrangement, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” but seems less of a closeted closet admission and more of the most reluctant pro-laddism song ever written (Cliff co-wrote it with Welch) since he’s happy to be a free and untethered youth until he finally settles down and has A Wife and A Child.

It is the Shadows-led rockers which point the brightest way over the bridge that this album forms, especially the trio of Shads instrumentals on side one. “Les Girls” bears a hardness to its swing and guitar cut-and-thrust which most readily anticipates Liverpool, complete with an exhilarating mid-section where Bennett’s drums explode, and a concluding series of trapdoors of successive key changes. “Round And Round” (which ends very abruptly) and “Foot Tapper” (a different version to the chart-topping 45, in a lower key and with a fadeout rather than an ending) maintain the momentum, and again Bennett’s drumming seems markedly predominant.

Finally Cliff and the Shads prepare to rock, though there are already signs of rebellion; the nursery rhyme-engineered “Dancing Shoes” is scarred by Hank’s repeated jagged dissonant snarls (and his raspberry of a tongue-sticking-out introduction). However, as the film ends and Cliff gets both marriage and business proposals, “Big News” slides like a happier variant on “His Latest Flame” (thanks, Lena). “I want to make a statement!” proclaims Cliff (his third co-composer credit on the album). “I’ve found a plan for living!” The tickertape parade fades out and closes this section of our tale, though both Stanley Black orchestral interludes deserve brief mention; in particular “Yugoslav Wedding”’s string and brass figures directly predict the Overture to The Lexicon Of Love, and the piece’s varispeed in-and-out-of-dissonance trundle must surely have been an influence on the younger AR Rahman. Just as Slumdog Millionaire concludes with an exultantly triumphant dance in a train station, so does Summer Holiday end with a modestly victorious bop around a bus. Life, meanwhile, will trundle on, providing its subjects with a lesser or different future than they might have expected. In January 1963 General de Gaulle vetoed Britain ’s entry into the Common Market; and as for idyllic travel, March 1963 saw Beeching’s marathon closing of less than profitable railway branch lines. And then there was Profumo. Britain ’s bus services would eventually become denationalised and opened out to competition to the detriment of all concerned except shareholders; this was Cliff’s idea made cold rationalist reality. And then there was the collapse, and a 2009 London as incapable of dealing with snowfalls as the 1963 London, and constrained Britons forsaking expensive holiday travel for more local comforts. The film's director Peter Yates would in time consider fast moving cars as a substitute for friendly-faced buses. In the context of this tale, a new chapter is about to begin, and Plath would not survive the winter to see it or live through it. But the cheer was as unquenchable as ever, and we were very careful not to burn any bridges, particularly those down which we might have to backtrack in any future.

“Oddly enough, no one really beefed…The cheer seemed universal. We were all mucking in together, as in the Blitz."
(Plath, ibid.)

Monday 6 April 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: On Stage With The George Mitchell Minstrels

(#32: 1 December 1962, 2 weeks)

Track listing: States Medley (North And South/You’re In Kentucky Sure As You’re Born/The Yellow Rose Of Texas/Georgia On My Mind/Stars Fell On Alabama/I’m Going Back To Old Nebraska/Dixieland/Carry Me Back To Old Virginny/North And South)/Happy Tramps Medley (The Lady Is A Tramp/In A Shanty In Old Shanty Town/Ain’t We Got Fun/I’m Sittin’ High On A Hill Top/Big Rock Candy Mountain/Side By Side)/Widdicombe Fair/Your Requests (Home On The Range/Back In Those Old Kentucky Days/I Went Down To Virginia/Sonny Boy/Mockin’ Bird Hill/Goin’ To The County Fair)/Cheep Cheep (Birdies) Medley (Dicky Bird Hop/Cuckoo Waltz/She Was One Of The Early Birds/When The Red Red Robin/Too-Whit! Too-Whoo!/Chee Chee Oo Chee/Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing)/”Down Memory Lane” (A Load Of Hay/One, Two, Button Your Shoe/You Are My Sunshine/Bei Mir Bist Du Schön/Memories Are Made Of This/Sing A Song Of Sunbeams/South Of The Border/Where Or When)/The Frog And The Mouse/Long Long Ago Medley (Long Long Ago/Roamin’ In The Gloamin’/Let Me Call You Sweetheart/Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland/Pack Up Your Troubles/Till We Meet Again/Roses Of Picardy/Long Long Ago)
“Beans” is a song, or perhaps a scrunched up partial photocopy of a song, composed by vaudevillians Chris Smith and Elmer Bowman in 1912 and recorded by singer/shouter James Albert (a.k.a. Beans Hambone) and DIY guitar thrasher El Morrow in May 1931. Through its dimpled hiccups can be heard the song’s medicine show origins, but the beneficent nutritional and spiritual qualities of regular bean intake do not seem to be paramount in either performer’s mind; after rumbling through a very cursory reading of the song’s overall tenor, Albert is already agonising at the prospect of a lifetime filled with nothing but beans, and before the first verse is even done both he and Morrow are off on their own tangent, freestyling morosely about the bean-laden road to the grave and even contemplating St Peter’s views on the inescapable nutrient. That it paves a direct path to Beefheart needs hardly be stated (“I run on BEANS! I run on LASER beans!!” he will make Rockette Morton say thirty-eight years later) but in all terms, and not merely 1931 or minstrel show ones, this remains one of the most extraordinary – and smallest-selling (385 copies) – of all singles. Is El Morrow even plucking a guitar or, as some commentators have suggested, a customised cigar box with strings stuck to it? Either way, he has a sense of tuning which is beyond individualistic, beyond even Harry Partch’s measured quarter tones; after a rambling intro which seems to join the dots between Charley Patton and Derek Bailey (well, someone had to), he doggedly continues to pluck something which isn’t quite the right key but is entirely in keeping with Albert’s hopeful misery; he keeps coming back to that tone-and-three-quarters-out middle note of his “riff” and it is possible to hear a new music fumbling its way into existence. It’s a cold shower keeping Albert’s dreams of red death in safe harness.

I speak of “Beans” here since it arose directly out of a tradition of minstrelsy which by the thirties was already a century old, and whose crosscurrents were considerably more complex than the simple dividing lines of facile history tend to make out; from black entertainers donning blackface to the young Lenny Henry touring with the Black and White Minstrels as their time drew, or was drawn, to a close, we cannot simply shrug the phenomenon off as a sternly stolid plantation whip of musical anti-development.

But I also speak of “Beans” here since it shows immensely more musical and other aesthetic imagination than anything to be found on the third George Mitchell Minstrels album; as with Astaire blacking up as Bojangles in Swing Time, “Beans” bears a startling beauty which transcends any imposed notions of thoughtlessness. I am also far from unaware that in only a few weeks’ time this tale will be dealing with other white Englishmen doing their best to emulate the sound and feel of black Americans from a differing era.

Still, when listening to On Stage – which was not a live recording but a representation of the kind of material you’d expect to hear in their stage show – one’s primary astonishment, as ever, is how the Minstrels managed to survive and indeed thrive in the mainstream of entertainment beyond 1962, let alone until virtually the eve of “Rappers’ Delight.” In the last album chart of 1962, despite all the varying revolutions discussed in this tale over recent weeks, three of the top five slots were occupied by Minstrels music. They were the first act to top the UK album chart with their first three albums. And yet twelve months later On Tour With The George Mitchell Minstrels struggled to reach number six.

There is certainly already an aura of foreboding about On Stage, and Derek Johnson’s effusion of a sleevenote takes on a decidedly more prickly and defensive character. “The keyword is entertainment,” he proclaims. “Pure, honest-to-goodness, straightforward entertainment…This, of course, is what the public wants in these frenzied, hectic days – sheer entertainment (note the rhetorical triplicate), without any pretentions. Would that this approach were adopted more often in show business circles!”

In other words: readers, the world you and I have known and loved is under threat, is about to be usurped. But don’t panic – “We invite you,” Johnson concludes, “now to settle back in your favourite chair, forget your worries and cares, clear your throat…Let’s go, shall we?” The spectre of the withering jackboot is not far from mind, as evinced by Johnson’s curiously creepy aside about this music’s capability to “act as a tonic to the most morose listener.”

Everything about On Stage suggests…indeed, seeps…the end of something. It’s hard to configure a setting where the fictive People Of All Ages would get together and roar out dismal pseudo-romps partially mis-echoing a culture which was clearly moribund, or at least in need of a radical spring clean. Tony Mercer croons “ Georgia ” as though Ray Charles had never happened. Readings of “Stars Fell On Alabama” and “Where Or When” when compared with Sinatra’s illustrate a difference between death and life. And everywhere there lurk these perfect Home Counties vowels, unchanging whether they be in “ Kentucky sure as you’re born” or on the “bonnie banks of Clyde ” (“Not forgetting “Eye-Oh-Way!”). Furthermore, whatever Louisiana plantation slaves would be doing in Scotland or going to Widdicombe Fair is not clearly explained. “Old Kentucky Days” is marred by a terrible, chirpy horn and woodwind arrangement which turns it into a Terry Scott sitcom pilot theme tune, even if the odd blasts of slide whistle and neighing trumpet on “Widdicombe Fair” itself invite the enticing prospect of Lester Bowie hijacking the entire proceedings (and the same song includes a moderately unsettling, sepulchral choral lament midway through). The romance of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” is surgically excised in favour of an unlovely mass bellow which is arguably worse than the Jordanaires at their worst (indeed, the whole enterprise makes me think of what a Jordanaires album without Elvis might have sounded like). Xylophones slide irritatingly up and down like Gestapo corrective tools.

Some songs – for instance, “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “You Are My Sunshine” - are more or less entirely obscured by unnecessary contrapuntal devices, but then show tunes appeared to be the only “recent” music with which the Minstrels seemed to be comfortable. It is virtually superfluous to say that their “Sunshine” perishes instantly when set next to the definitive George Russell/Sheila Jordan recasting of the same song recorded in the same year. But when the Minstrels strive to Go Modern the results are merely embarrassing; “Early Birds” reappears from their first album, but in a different arrangement, with the Television Toppers ashenfacedly going through some sub-Vernons Girls tropes (“Gimme gimme gimme… GOODBYE!”). Mercer struggles to maintain dignity and countenance as his reading of “Ain’t We Got Fun” is lent a Cliff Does The Twist setting. Yet another “South Of The Border” goes down the then fashionable cha-cha route but is almost inspired when set next to the embarrassed and embarrassing-sounding “Red Red Robin” who now apparently goes “cha-cha-cha-ing a-long.”

Added to this mantelpiece of what Lena rightly describes as “aural doilies” we get an unpleasant military bent to the proceedings. Thankfully Dai Francis’ Jolsonisms are kept to a relative minimum throughout the record, save for an interminable and overacted “Sonny Boy” (see instead Ken Dodd’s duff ventriloquist rendition of the same song, which remains definitive). But the ceaseless whistling and barking call the Hitler Youth rather too readily to mind. “The Lady Is A Tramp” is done as a, if you will, whistling waltz. The abominable “Birdie” medley begins with a stern whistling session and a command of “Get out of bed!” But “Where Or When” is interpreted as a Victory At Sea martial anthem, and the final lap of (mostly) World War I ditties suggest the Minstrels’ real core audience, and the thing of The War which Britain cannot ever bring itself to forget (and this tale will certainly be coming back to that very late on) – here we have full throated choral climaxes, orchestral thuds, timpanic tempests, everything short of a cannon being wheeled onstage.

Finally, however, it was all of little avail. Despite Johnson’s insistence on confidences being the core of the Minstrell’s businesses – “…a colourful and effective treatment of every song, simultaneously encouraging the amateur listener to join in the chorus, firmly convinced that his (sic) efforts are of equal merit!” – the record-buying demographic democracy elected to change their allegiances in 1963. The show continued both on TV and stage for a further fifteen or so years; even though the TV show’s final cancellation was ascribed to political pressure, the truth was that it had been losing ratings for some while and was proving prohibitively expensive to produce. But then it disappeared, wiped from the collective slate; it subsequently survived in sorely reduced form in whatever out-of-season coastal resorts and ageing audiences would have it. Of the main Minstrel stars, only John Boulter now survives, and I am not insensitive to Stan Stennett’s comment that the cancellation of the TV show was for Dai Francis the equivalent of having his oxygen supply cut off (“he lost his livelihood, his living and his will to live”) – particularly in view of the irony of a Jolson impersonator finding the going tough at a time when at least two of the leading protagonists in the seventies portion of this tale have repeatedly cited Jolson as their primary inspiration. I also note that Tony Mercer died young, of heart failure in 1973, barely into his fifties, and that after his passing a certain élan was lost from the Minstrels’ bonhomie. Both Francis and George Mitchell himself lived on until the early part of this decade but both were essentially broken and bewildered men, confused at a world which had changed and suggested subtexts of which they themselves would never have dreamt.

Indeed, this sense of displacement is one of the central secrets to the Minstrels’ wave of success; far from intentionally being racist, their mode was intended to be (even if aurally it didn’t resemble) one of a reassuring tonic to people who had lived lives in recognisable shapes and places and needed to be reminded of these constantly in a world which seemed to be doing its best to displace them from its surface forever. The Italian and Slavic émigrés who wept along to Jolson were weeping for their own, barely reachable pasts, not a forlorn foreclosure of a nineteenth-century plantation memory. Jolson’s message was “This is where we are” – whereas the most potent and dynamic of 20th century black music centres around the partly rhetorical question of “Where the hell are we?" (set, for example, On Stage alongside Mingus' Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, recorded at the same time as the Minstrels were dominating the lists). The landscape of this tale in 1963 is going to change rather violently; there is one more reassuring but vital bridge we have to cross, but not everyone was able to make that crossing, and it’s easier to damn the failed leapers than attempt to understand them. I make no claims whatsoever for artistic merit in terms of the George Mitchell Minstrels; I do not envisage playing any of these three albums again and certainly not with pleasure in mind. But this tale is in great part an attempt to educate myself about a certain strand of history as it has presented and re-presented itself over the last half century or so, an endeavour to avoid easy conclusions, uncover deeper truths and draw fuller and more satisfying pictures. We can’t get to the Beatles without understanding why the Beatles had to get to us. Otherwise the story of popular music really would be little other than an unending hill of beans.