Saturday 26 February 2011

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 All Time Greats Of The 50’s

(#116: 7 October 1972, 8 weeks; 23 December 1972, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Yellow Rose Of Texas (Mitch Miller with his Orchestra and Chorus)/I’ll Never Fall In Love Again (Johnnie Ray)/The Twelfth Of Never (Johnny Mathis)/A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation) (Marty Robbins)/Don’t Take Your Guns To Town (Johnny Cash)/Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (The Four Lads)/Mack The Knife (Louis Armstrong)/Arrivederci, Roma (Vic Damone)/High Noon (Frankie Laine)/Singing The Blues (Guy Mitchell)/Waterloo (Stonewall Jackson)/Wonderful, Wonderful (Johnny Mathis)/Cry (Johnnie Ray)/Young Warm And Wonderful (Tony Bennett)/Heartaches By The Number (Guy Mitchell)/Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) (Doris Day)/Jezebel (Frankie Laine)/Moments To Remember (The Four Lads)/Goodnight, Irene (Les Paul & Mary Ford)/Tennessee Waltz (Patti Page)

It has been a while, I know, but moving house also means – at least, in our case – moving a rather large record collection, packing the story, unpacking it and rearranging it into a new picture, and such things take time. Still, there are few more delightful and rewarding pleasures than loading the items out of their boxes; in one sense it is comparable to Christmas, in others to retrieving spirits long thought fled (if I have to encourage you to read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for one reason only, even though there are many reasons, then it is to read the section set in Cromer where Kathy finds the cassette that has been missing from her life for a decade, in a street full of charity shops; the mixture of dread, subtle disappointment and suppressed joy involved in such rediscoveries has never been better expressed in literature) – do we still have this? Whatever happened to him or them? What part did these things play in our former lives, and what new part can they still play in our present and future one?

So it took a little while to get back to 20 All Time Greats Of The ‘50s; this was the last entry to which we listened in our old home, and not much revision was required. And yet I continue to wonder (in the sense of “wondrous” rather than not knowing) at the type of person, or people, who would have bought this record with its utilitarian sleeve design and matter-of-fact track listings (for sanity’s sake I have relied on the listings printed on the labels rather than the frequently inaccurate and misspelt one on the album’s rear cover) and kept it at the top of the chart for almost all of the remainder of its year?

For this record means taking things back to the very beginning of the tale, and indeed some time before the tale began; it does make me pause to consider how far, if anywhere, we have come in the sixteen years which the story so far spans. Many preferred, evidently, to stay at the beginning. Ostensibly the record is an example of the logical school of marketing thought which K-Tel would have adopted; we’ve done so well with current or recent hits, why not go right back into the catalogue? A deal was done with CBS and the record appeared with characteristic saturation TV advertising coverage, reaching out once more to that forgotten constituency, people who don’t normally buy records, or stopped buying them regularly some time back, maybe even when Elvis began to come a little too close.

But, on listening, it doesn’t sound like a cynical exercise in repackaging, nor as random an exercise as the track listing might suggest. The record does begin with “Yellow Rose Of Texas,” which track and performer (or mastermind; Miller’s Satanic beard and grin persisted, like an over-luminous mayfly) might properly be said to represent everything the following decade-and-a-half set itself against. I have nothing to add to Lena’s splendid piece on the subject other than to note the steamroller irony of its use in the film Giant, as it plays on the jukebox during the climactic fight scene in the redneck diner where Rock Hudson’s magnate finally sees the error of his racist ways and stands up against the bullying owner; the scene plays as though the beliefs expressed or implied in the song are being swiftly demolished – Hudson loses the fight, but the bigger battle is on its way to being won.

The confident march of “Rose,” however, seems something of a red herring in light of what follows it, since the overall feeling engendered by the album is not one of cosy nostalgia but hard-fought remembrance; there are shadows of doubt, spirals of trouble, to go with the knickerbockering glories. Both Frankie Laine songs, as well as the Johnny Cash one, toy with, or bite, notions of violent death. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is quite different from anything else on the album; delivered slowly and hesitantly with choruses which appear to wander in limbo, time suspended to Promethean or Euclidian levels, as though its singer is willing, wanting, Billy Joe to stay on the farm – the fatality-foreshadowing tick of ride cymbal following the pause after “his mother cried as he walked out” is not immediately set upon, and drums do not enter the chick-a-chick picture until the third verse; Cash’s guitar scratches like an irritated skunk as Billy Joe’s ascent to manhood is immediately, and predictably, followed by instant death. Like Kafka, Cash preferred to play hide and seek with death, and when it finally came calling for him, he received it with a grace almost too searing and grand to qualify as noble.

The Laine catfight opera belters are necessarily less multilayered emotionally, but no less marvellous; “Jezebel”’s arrangement is acrobatic, the singer’s “If ever an angel fellllllll...” answered by a spiralling descent of strings which could have come out of Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, and the four-way perspectival twists generated by acoustic guitar, double bass, percussion and purposely melodramatic choir remain a three-dimensional delight. “High Noon” sees its singer approaching his possible doom with a resignation and openness comparable to Cash in “Hurt”; his own shit is scaring him inside but he will persist and prevail (the Homeric comparisons with Gary Cooper’s sheriff already being understood).

Then there is the tactic of disguising bottomless, wracked pain and grief as jaunty uptempo singalongs. Mitch Miller gave Al Cernik his brand name of “Guy Mitchell” and as a singer he rarely sounded down, although there are still flashes; his final “Whyyyyyyy...” in “Singing The Blues,” and the unsettling air in the superficially cheerful “Heartaches By The Number” that Mitchell is getting off on the pain his cheating Other is causing him, indeed cannot continue to thrive or even survive without it (see, from 2010 alone, Gary Allan’s Get Off On The Pain album, or, more intuitively and directly, Rihanna’s “S&M” and the hardly played “Love The Way You Lie, Part II,” the latter possibly 2010’s most unsettling piece of music).

Or if you were Johnnie Ray, you simply let it out and watched for the after-effects of the explosion. The man who swung the first widely visible hammer at the wall of post-swing era popular singing politesse is represented here by his first and last major hits. “Cry” is a wonder, wherein he lays down every good rule of pop for the next half-century, completely breaking out of the neutralising Horlicks choir and celeste wall (and yes there was doowop and R&B, but as I said, this was the first major gesture that the mainstream noticed, or chose to notice). Observe the cover of his Showcase collection; he is almost inventing 1981.

“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” – “It’s all over now” – tries for Victory At Sea pseudo-contentment but there are too many emotional holes in Ray’s delivery to make us feel comfortable; the disguised disgrace would eventually be dragged out by Portishead when they sampled and mutilated the song for “Biscuit,” the terrifying pre-coda of 1994’s Dummy with its barely gasped-out tales of mother’s sons leaving the singer sheer (“The shores I seek/Are crimson tastes divine,” “Got hurt a long time ago”). Of all artists, Portishead have the surest grip on the fatal inclination of reviving broken memories; records scraped down to their performers’ fingernails, Beth Gibbons occasionally letting the Janis Joplin buried within her erupt and rip the cut (the Roseland version of “Sour Times”), Geoff Barrow’s turntables creasing like Grandmaster Flymo. This record could have been compiled for them.

The not-so-vague undercurrent of androgyny in Ray’s performances, both onstage and on record, is brought out further by the indeterminate (asexual?) voice of Johnny Mathis, here appearing with two of his earliest hits. He takes “Twelfth Of Never” in a, for him, unusually low register (and I liked the whole tone choral figures at track’s end), whereas “Wonderful, Wonderful,” on the Billboard chart for ten months through 1958-9, suggests the first glimpse of a sunny utopia with its whistling/chorus unisons, but listen how hard Mathis has to struggle to achieve transcendence, how patient he is, steadily working his way up the register like John Surman or Henryk Gorecki, all to celebrate “the glow of your unspoken love.” Given that Mathis eventually came out as gay, this song may be more subversive than originally thought.

Some fit into the sunny chasms of CBS’ non-rock fifties better than others. Tony Bennett’s “Young Warm And Wonderful” has a nice alto flute coda but the singer never really settles into the song’s grain, if its icerink surface would imply any underlying grain (contrast with the unbending magnificence of his “Stranger In Paradise”). Marty Robbins has fun with “A White Sport Coat” (not “Sports” as the King Brothers subsequently covered it) but it’s hardly “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” or even “El Paso.” Satchmo slums his way (“Take it, Satch!” he says to himself, as though to stay awake) through Brecht and Weill a couple of years before Osie Johnson and Bobby Darin’s drastic reworkings; still, as Sidney Finkelstein said in his never-wiser words on Armstrong in Jazz: A People’s Music (originally published in very small numbers in 1948 and demanding immediate reissue), what else was the man to do – play “Gully Low Blues” for the rest of his life and starve, however good the musical results, rather than prove an example to his people?

Canada’s Four Lads – whose 1962 version of “Dem Bones” was mimed to by Alexis Kanner in Fall Out (and don’t tell me that then Observer TV critic Dennis Potter wasn’t watching) – gee up merrily with “Istanbul,” later and fittingly covered by They Might Be Giants as light relief on their 1990 masterpiece Flood, and it’s a lively arrangement, with sustained high female voices balancing out the Lads’ chants, and hitherto invisible big band finish. Their second contribution to this album, however, is markedly different.

The bridge is provided by, of all people, Vic Damone. His “Arrivederci, Roma” is largely agreeable sentimental tourist tat, or would be if there weren’t signs of something deeper and darker; the arrangement floats on water, with repeated triple echo cries of “Roma” heard from the middle distance. A song sung by someone sounding unsure of whether he’ll ever see his beloved, or his beloved city, ever again – there is, remember, a war going on throughout all this – and for those displaced from the mess that was post-war Italy the song carried an easy cargo of emotional luggage.

Then there is “Que Sera, Sera,” and Doris Day. Sweet and singable, but Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much - from which the song gained its popularity – is neither. A dark and unsettled outing, made all the more dark by the film’s unnaturally light exteriors; largely filmed in and around Camden Town, Hitchcock makes the landscape seem as transient and dispersed as the San Francisco of Vertigo. And remember the context in which Day sings the song in the film; her son is being held hostage in the next room to her, and she knows he’s there, and sings the song as a code, barely concealing the tears, trying to deny the song’s easy conclusions and resolutions. I don’t know whether the story of Sly Stone unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Day to do a cameo on his own radical 1973 cover is at all true, but wouldn’t it have been a fitting bookend if it had happened?

But “Moments To Remember.” My friend Mark Sinker speaks of it as being “ambushed by unexpected emotion,” and the astonishing triple coda to this supposedly throwaway album certainly did that to us. As if the Billy MacKenzie falsetto intro weren’t enough, the Four Lads give us an extremely moving account of a world, a life, coming to an end; the song, I gather, was intended to represent a college end-of-term/post-graduation parting of student ways, a swearing-in of lifelong mutual allegiance. The memories come seeping out – “The ballroom prize we almost won,” “Then we tore the goalposts down” – and suddenly I think of the Beach Boys (the nascent pain within “We’ve been having fun all summer long”). Then these words appear, and appear to explain the entire album:

“Though summer turns to winter
And the present disappears
The laughter we were glad to share
Will echo through the years.

When other nights and other days
May find us gone our separate ways
We will have these moments to remember.”

The emotion – complete with spoken passage - is almost too much to bear, and it becomes clear why this record existed and who bought it. In large parts it was “our” parents, the WW2 generation who still survived and thrived in the seventies, wanting a reminder of how things were for them and their lives once; when life was, as they retrospectively saw it, fun, uncomplicated, straightforward, revelatory. Then the cycle of youth renewed itself and suddenly they didn’t understand what was coming; hence the retreat, but hence also the subtle generational feeding – I can well imagine Morrissey’s (and Marr’s) parents owning this record, and Boy George’s parents, and John Lydon’s parents (do you notice the Celtic trend here?) and goodness knows how many others (and I nearly forgot to mention the stompy banjo riff-driven “Tom Dooley” variation “Waterloo” with Jackson’s somewhat out-of-tune vocal – “He lost his pants,” “Now he swings where the little birdies sing” – again, a handclapping, rousing song about a violent death). Pleasant, unspoilt and dreaming, especially the latter...this is what the record’s consumers were seeking.

The album continues its walk towards sleep, but a reasonably blessed one; Les Paul and Mary Ford – these two still undersung artisans, also poised to help invent the second half of the twentieth century – essay Leadbelly (via the Weavers)’s “Goodnight Irene;” Ford’s voices perch like a colony of spent lemmings on the word “dream” and, once more, nothing is straightforward: “Sometimes I had a great notion/To jump in that river and drown” – or, to put it another way, where did you sleep last night (and we’ll be getting back to that question in due course)?

Finally, “Tennessee Waltz,” the first song that the young Leonard Cohen learned to play, and possibly (as with Laine’s “Jezebel”) a re-recording, but no less compelling for all that; Page (with yet more multitracked one-woman chorales) mourns that she’s lost everything worth caring for, and the song eventually hovers on the brink of nothing, crawling to a halt, her voice vanishing amidst the Sargasso sea of the strings, circling like angels. An emotionally exhausting experience, cumulatively, but not one which denies a future (even if it often acknowledges it with a great deal of rue). But the album as a whole sounds like the end of something. But something else would immediately begin, and we will examine the ramifications of that in the next entry.