Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Andy WILLIAMS: Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits

(#87: 5 December 1970, 1 week; 19 December 1970, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Born Free/Days Of Wine And Roses/Moon River/Dear Heart/The Hawaiian Wedding Song/More/Almost There/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Charade/Happy Heart/Can’t Get Used To Losing You/May Each Day

Although it was nearing the end of its nine-year run, The Andy Williams Show was probably at its peak of popularity in Britain during the 1970-1 season. Aired early evening on Mondays on BBC1, it was colourful and “wacky” without being remotely radical. It was comfortable and cosy but had one foot firmly planted in modernism, or at least 1970 households’ idea of Formica modernism. There was the Cookie Bear, there were the nascent Osmond Brothers, there was postmodern wholesomeness, and although I watched it every week and rather enjoyed it I can’t remember a single second of it now. Maybe the memory was sufficient – “making brand new melodies/into grand old memories…” as Williams puts it in his handwritten sleevenote to this compilation.

Although only five of the twelve tracks on Greatest Hits were actually hits of any stature in Britain, the compilation became Williams’ biggest seller here; it remained on our lists for well over two years, and its inherent patience was rewarded by the fact that it took eight months to climb to the top, in time for Christmas. As a listening experience it has the same bipolarity as the Ray Conniff collection, and is pretty steadfastly divided into its two sides. Unlike His Orchestra…, the striking qualitative difference between sides one and two cannot be ascribed to time alone; there are old and (comparatively) new Williams tracks on both. Their only unifying factor is that they were all recorded in the sixties, but this certainly would not be the seventies’ last glance back at an unreachable past.

Yet there is little to say, and much numbness to drift towards, when it comes to the sterile performances on side one. “Born Free” comes from 1967 – and it’s a pity that the closing track on side one of the Born Free album, Gaudio and Crewe’s Coke soundtrack “Music To Watch Girls By,” doesn’t appear here – and direly seems to predict Williams’ intention to turn questioning newness into stifling oldness. The John Barry tune is fatally simplified, harmonically, especially in its crucial middle eight; here we do not think of natural freedom in terms of lions in Africa – Barry’s subtle kwela tints are entirely absent - or a displaced Bond but The Parallax View, a neutered skating rink of Republican yea-saying, a pledge for Nixon to be re-elected. Its subsequent use as a Rush Limbaugh jingle was surely inevitable.

The same principle of Andy Williams the Singing Steam Iron, carefully straightening out any creases, complexities or pain from otherwise great songs, continues throughout “Days Of Wine And Roses” and “Moon River,” but perhaps that is to be expected, given the rather offensive neutrality of the songs’ parent films; Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick and Charles Bickford all give superb performances in the film of Days; if only director Blake Edwards had been able to see them as living people rather than ciphers, pre-emptive fodder for “Issue Of The Week” dysfunctional TV movie prototypes. The Mercer/Mancini tune – and the lyric consists of just two long sentences – is perhaps a little sentimental but knowledgeable of its own hurting limitations; the “golden smile that introduced me to…” is a sinister portent of the drug that will render all of the film’s main characters useless. Typically Williams’ reading ruins itself with the ghastly block chord choir, the tick-tock harp arpeggios and the singer’s extended final vowels which can’t quite seem to find the surface of the water (“introduced me tooooo…,” “Roooooo-ses,” “and-youuuuuu”). I sense no real grasp of pain or poignancy.

Equally, Danny Williams’ “Moon River,” a deserved UK number one single towards the end of 1961, is so easily superior a reading to Williams’; the dreams of the hopeful South African immigrant encapsulated in a vowel-hugging, hoarseness-containing vocal which uncannily resembles a young Horace Andy. This Andy, however, directs no emotional input into his performance – and again the song is over-simplified harmonically (it should bend with the word “bend,” but the subtlety of the blues chord which supplements the bend is lost). Robert Mersey’s overamplified choir should have been struck dumb and the song doesn’t so much end as totter to a premature, undecided fade. Again I expect Mark Twain would have guffawed at Mercer and Mancini’s perceived sentimentality but the song is strong and touching enough to overcome that boundary. Williams, however, sings it in the manner of a grinning bellboy, so perhaps it was a fitting complement to the grossly bland disservice that the film of Breakfast At Tiffany’s – directed by Blake Edwards; do you detect a pattern here? - does to Capote’s uglier, less easily resolvable source story (Audrey Hepburn, a natural introvert driven into portraying an extrovert, looks as puritanically lost here as she would go on to look in My Fair Lady).

The rest of side one disappears into mushy blandness. “Dear Heart” comes from a long-forgotten 1964 comedy of the same name starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page – every director’s last choices for comedy leads? – set at a postmasters’ convention (it was 1964). The celeste strikes up a melancholy waltz and we are indeed immersed in the world of audio valium. Williams speaks of loneliness (“A single room, a table for one”) without the listener ever feeling that the singer has understood the concept (Sinatra’s 1957 reading of Bernstein’s “It’s A Lonely Town” knocks it for twelve). Worse, his characteristic hiccup – an Iowa Alma Cogan? – already sounds contrived, as when he attempts to weep on the “dear” of the song’s title, not to mention its “heart” and a subsequent “kiss.” They will be reunited, of course, but in the time of Walker’s ‘Til The Band Comes In (where, unlike this side of music, the listener is never allowed to forget that there’s a war on) it sounds disingenuous and dated.

Williams’ “Hawaiian Wedding” goes off uneventfully on a cushion of 101 Strings cascades and while the arrangement begins in a gratifyingly sparse manner, the numbing choir quickly returns to drown out any intimacy. There is of course a wow of pedal steel at song’s end to remind us that Williams is not singing of Iceland. “More”’s arrangement is livelier, in a “Move Over Darling” way with ringing tympani and stern snare drums but Williams comes over as hysterical, in all the wrong ways (“Will be INNNNN your keeping!”) and the over-the-top ending justifies a title of the Velvet Steamroller. This is the real soundtrack for Mad Men, pretences at sophistication without real bite or genuine aspiration.

All of which makes the transformation which occurs on side two of Greatest Hits more astounding. “Almost There,” taken from another forgettable comedy, I’d Rather Be Rich, in which Williams himself co-starred with Sandra Dee, made number two in our charts in a time of serious upheaval (“Satisfaction,” “My Generation,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Eve Of Destruction” etc.) and its reassurance was clearly needed, as a respite if nothing else. Still, Williams treats Jerry Keller’s song with something like real commitment; his “warm caress” sounds onomatopoeic. Strings slide in and up (Mersey’s arrangement here is far more subtle than those on side one), and Williams’ pleading penultimate “close (your eyes)” is touching (and instantly answered by a French horn). He makes a graceful descent with his final “Al-all-mo-ost-there” and for once we feel that he means it.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” I have previously discussed in the context of his album Love, Andy, but here its most noticeable factor, as with all of the other tracks on side two, is that the backing singers (when there are any) are set well back in the mix, and the sonic picture makes far more structural and emotional sense (even if Williams’ politesse remains a white balance to Valli’s thundering gusto). With “Charade” he returns to the Mercer/Mancini movie theme forest; the film was an insubstantial Hitchcock pastiche through which Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant gamely keep their multiple countenances, but Williams’ performance is again humane and involved (despite Mersey’s absurd accordion). The chill of the first syllable of his “children posing” puts him but a heartbeat away from Scott Walker; indeed the entire performance would not have been out of place on either of Walker’s first two albums. There is a lovely, lone moment at the end of the song where Williams climbs to a bereaved high sustenato, and the orchestra works to join him at his peak, before the song sadly settles (after Williams’ voice has fallen away, as in off the edge of a cliff) for a Picardy third and a final guitar curlicue.

“Happy Heart,” the most recent track on the album, can’t help but be uplifting, with its Neighbours piano, its unexpected pedal steel bedspring erections, its emphatic tom-tom panoramas and, above all, Williams’ unalloyed, uncompromised joy, heightened by the fantastic stop-start climax of each chorus where the whole world finally seems to blossom to his beckoning; the song was written by James Last, with English lyrics by the Canadian entertainer Jackie Rae, and thoroughly sums up Last’s euphoric bierkeller hoedown philosophy as well as pointing the way towards Barry Manilow with its endless “la-la” choruses. Williams sounds so giddy at his new-found union that he has to take care not to teeter off the tightrope, but then again he finds he can fly.

Pomus and Shuman’s “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” made number two in the immediate pre-Beatle British charts of 1963 (the parent album, with perhaps the least appropriate cover of any album, was entitled Can’t Get Used To Losing You And Other Requests), and deservedly so, since it was quite unlike any of the other glum white American pop ballads of the period; the record works because of the unorthodox space of its arrangement, the chunky guitar and pizzicato string unisons carrying the song’s weight while simultaneously suggesting reggae (so no wonder that The Beat’s 1980 recording of the song, remixed in 1983 to become their biggest British hit single, represented so natural an evolution). The loneliness of the Brian Hyland kiss-sealing runner is immediately summoned – those ominous siren harmonies – but there is something more disturbing going on here; Williams’ vocal is double-tracked, as though talking to himself, since no one else will since his Other has gone away and he himself plainly cannot speak to anyone else – is he really ringing up the same girl every day and remaining speechless? His descending “dayyyyyyy” sounds weary, frustrated; the “crowded avenue” is a mournful over-the-shoulder glance at “Some Enchanted Evening”; the song is the record’s loneliest and emptiest.

Finally, the song with which Williams ended his TV show every week, “May Each Day,” and also the most moving performance on the album; the harp arpeggios are back from “Days Of Wine And Roses” but here are gentle and organic rather than tacked on. Like New Morning, the album ends with a benediction from above; like the White Album, it closes with a lullaby. But there is something extremely affecting about the utter lack of side in Williams’ performance of the song; he knows that happiness is impermanent – his rueful passages from weeks to months, the foreknowledge of tears, and therefore death – but is intensely intent on making happiness and love as permanent as is humanly possible. His climactic “LIFE” sounds like his soul being ripped apart; his closing “good night” a high, angelic plea for understanding, a blanket of real comfort – the song originally came out in 1965, when there was unavoidably a war going on (just as there was in the 1970 of “Ohio”), but seems to say: sleep well, America, sleep well, everywhere – we can all get through this, we’ll congratulate ourselves on yet another day, and what’s more it’ll be as lovely a day, every day, as the one you and I shared today; and I cannot argue with someone who unaccountably strikes so closely at the truth. Indeed, as this confused year of 1970 draws to a close, we do get the feeling with side two of Greatest Hits that this is, to all intents and purposes, home, the home for which the rest of 1970 has been pining; think of Fogerty on his porch, Dylan with his wife and kids – and don’t worry, people at large; this might have seemed a weird and disorientating year, but there is still Andy, there is still stability, and it is Christmas; settle down and hibernate, for you will not recognise spring when it reappears, and be all the more grateful for the startling new colours it unveils.