Wednesday 3 October 2012

Nat "King" COLE: 20 Golden Greats

(#198: 15 April 1978, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Sweet Lorraine/Straighten Up And Fly Right/Nature Boy/Dance Ballerina Dance/Mona Lisa/Too Young/Love Letters/Smile/Around The World/For All We Know/When I Fall In Love/On The Street Where You Live/Unforgettable/It’s All In The Game/Ramblin’ Rose/Portrait Of Jennie/Let There Be Love/Somewhere Along The Way/Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer

“This can’t be love,” calls out an unseen but unmistakable – even in 1941 – voice; one tends to forget that Nat Cole had an offscreen walk-on cameo in Citizen Kane, at that party in the Everglades – or RKO’s approximation of the Everglades – where Kane and Susan’s marriage is steadily falling apart. Citizen Kane; that desperately wandering story where appearances belie realities and whose moral, if moral there be, is that one word can most definitely not sum up a person’s life. At the time there was ambitious talk about the monochrome screen bursting into colour at the end with the burning of the sledge, and Bernard Herrmann’s music – it is one of the very few moments in the film where his score bursts into the major key – would tumble out of cinema speakers. This was economically unviable, but the idea was revived at the other end of the decade in the movie Portrait Of Jennie - which, like Kane, featured Joseph Cotten as a frustrated artist and lover – where, at the end of the original print, the portrait in question develops a green tinge, the music suddenly pours forth, and we are left with a study in Technicolor. Another picture about stupid obsession and flawed fantasy as an escape from an uncomfortable reality – Selznick envisaged Olivier and Leigh as the original leads, but presumably realised that this idea would have been as forlorn and needless as Hitchcock casting Leigh as Rebecca - Portrait Of Jennie has its moments, but no more than that; Jennifer Jones was, finally, always going to be Jennie – the name alone should have told us that – and neither film nor performances have the courage to go further into the fine boundaries between fixation and madness, between sensuality and fatal fantasy. For that to happen, it took Hitchcock, an amused observer of the proceedings, another decade to get to Vertigo.

The film’s theme song is not a great piece of music, and even Cole’s reading seems hushed, evasive (“But there isn’t any portrait of Jennie/Except in my heart”), punctured only by a gypsy violin obbligato and a ruminative piano solo. Yet fantasy appears to be what the work collected here is mostly about; he watches a ballerina on stage, fantasises about what got her there and what, or whom, she forsook to get there (is he the jilted lover, watching anonymously in the audience?), or he just looks at a painting and wonders what the woman in it was all about (“Mona Lisa”).

Equally, the record – it was the final album in EMI’s 20 Golden Greats series to make number one – succeeded because of a presumption of fantasy on the part of its intended audience. If you wonder why this was the second consecutive posthumous number one album, in an age of The Kick Inside, Real Life, This Year’s Model, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, City To City, The Modern Dance and The Image Has Cracked, then you need look no further than the television advertisement itself; with the creamy voice of the late Radio 2 broadcaster Alan Dell, the period train and costumes, the immediately loathsome Brideshead fop waiting for the girl in his car outside the railway station (don’t I know his face from somewhere?), and the inexplicable transition to sand dunes and sea, this was a record aimed at people – I suspect chiefly women – of a certain age, looking back to those lovely times a quarter of a century ago (or more; the commercial could be an outtake from Downton Abbey) before things went modern and therefore rotten (small or capital “R”; it’s your choice). A time when everyone knew their place and Nat Cole had to endure at least two decades of casual racism. Sit back with your clotted cream scones and cake stands and savour the smooth sounds, and maybe drift into a world of nocturnal nothingness. The cover itself, an illustration transposed from the commercial, is nearly empty; varying shades of blue, turquoise and purple, and a canoodling couple of uncertain origin. Nowhere is the face of Nat Cole to be seen, nor the questions that would have raised in cosy 1978 British suburbia. Can this be “love”?

I have written about Nat Cole here before; he was, if you recall, the first black artist to have a number one album in Britain, and his was one of the very first entries I wrote. No less than three tracks from Love Is The Thing turn up here, and there is no pressing need to re-examine any of them other than to note the warning police siren of minor modulation in the piano before the final refrain on “Love Letters” and to marvel at how “When I Fall In Love” helped inspire, among an eclectic cast, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pop Will Eat Itself, Stevie Wonder and the Divine Comedy. Otherwise, readers may be slightly surprised that his “Stardust” didn’t make the cut, but that reading had not yet passed into Radio 2 immortality. A few originals are here, although many of the songs are re-recordings done for 1961’s The Nat “King” Cole Story; for instance, this “Unforgettable” doesn’t quite have the raw joy of the 1951 original, as sampled by Nas and played at our wedding.

Likewise, the opening “Sweet Lorraine” – reputedly the first song Cole sang for a paying audience – is the 1956 reading from Cole’s small group At Midnight album but still worth your attention, for the immediately recognisable muted trumpet of Harry Edison, for Cole’s still hugely underrated piano improvising (here he places notes, chords and rhythms as dangerously as Art Tatum) and for the worldly joy which could now imbue his voice (his quietly ecstatic “Oh-woh-ooh-woah” after the second “lead her down the aisle”). “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” an old gospel allegory pressed into proto-rock ‘n’ roll service by Cole’s trio in 1943, is the original, with Oscar Moore co-harmonising and providing some punchy guitar, trading fours with Cole’s energetic piano.

But this seems to act as a prelude to the big career that was to follow; on “Nature Boy,” first a hit in 1948, we abruptly encounter a huge and melodramatic orchestra, with oboe, flute and probably superfluous Spanish guitar all making their flourishes (and the phrase “over land and sea” is immediately answered by a sea of strings, but it’s an interesting arrangement whose ramifications would eventually be worked out by John Carisi on his 1961 mood jazz piece “Moon Taj,” which appears on Gil Evans’ Into The Hot album). Initially sung out-of-tempo, it gradually resolves into a sort of film noir waltz. It is one of the very few songs to appear in this tale whose title does not appear in the actual lyric, and as a sort of proto-hippy Desiderata it still sounds…odd for its time, and yet its theme is in perfect keeping with the search for love (“and to be loved in return”) that Cole undertakes on most of the rest of the record; its drifting Californian author, Eben Abbez (yes I know, it should strictly be “eden abbez” but I’ll have none of that tweeness here), went on to record his own album, Eden’s Island, which in both sound and appearance appears to be the direct ancestor of Pacific Ocean Blue.

Like “Nature Boy,” Cole’s performances here often play tricks with time; in the midst of the record, one could be forgiven for thinking that time had been suspended. At other times he tries the Sinatra approach, but “Dance Ballerina Dance” is still too jarring for ring-a-ding-dingdom; his regret at the lonely star is rapidly superseded by a kind of supercilious jeering (“I guess that’s your concern/We live and learn”) and something approaching bitterness, along with a more melancholy yearning for the recent past (“Dance although your heart is breaking,” as a pastiche of “Smile,” and, of course, Abba’s “Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)” shares something of the song’s inherent sadness). At one startling point – where Cole enunciates the phrase “The backward glance” – vocal delivery and rhythm fuse into a blend surprisingly reminiscent of Mike Skinner/The Streets. “Mona Lisa” is presumably famous enough not to warrant any further comment from me, other than to note that the couplet “Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there…and they die there” is predicative of Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting For The Miracle,” in particular the line about standing with bugle and drum outside the singer’s window, and that obsession is slowly turning, via this song, into madness; from a painting he is now fantasising an outside life, constructing an alternate fiction.

The mystery of “love” continues and seems as remote as the “it” in “My Elusive Dreams.” “Too Young” is a mix of cocktail block piano and Western theme melodrama which nonetheless includes an observation on how “love” might be just a word that “we” have heard and that “we” don’t know its meaning. Chaplin’s “Smile” is here, of course – although it should be noted that this is not a comprehensive greatest hits album; his similarly-themed UK #2 hit “Pretend” is not included, nor is his only post-rock US million-seller “A Blossom Fell” among many other omissions – and apart from Lena’s observation that this was the song Plath heard in the Paris of 1956, forlornly waiting for her would-be lover Richard Sassoon to come over and join her before deciding the hell with it, I’m going to enjoy Paris whatever happens, I note the possible subtext in Cole’s reading (as with his “Pretend”), namely as an allegory on racism; this is a man, as I said, to whom many unpleasant things happened during the height of his fame as a direct result of the colour of his skin, and when he sings “Smile though your heart is breaking,” somehow you instantly understand what he means (I am not sure that Chaplin understood the full meaning of his own original; Modern Times seems as time goes by more of a grumpy-old-man reaction to the Evil Mechanical World; could Chaplin have grasped, on his fact-finding trips to the automobile plants in Detroit, that such a world might not only provide vital employment for many otherwise would-be “tramps” but would have led directly to Motown?).

Cole’s “Around The World” isn’t a patch on Sinatra’s reading (as heard on Come Fly With Me), mostly because it is ruined by a horrendous, sub-Mitch Miller (and that’s pretty “sub”) choir, but again it is thematically consistent in terms of the unending search for love. Then the album moves into its borderline existential/metaphysical stage; “For All We Know” is for me associated with the actress Yootha Joyce, whom I saw performing the song as a duet with Max Bygraves on television in early 1980. It was a posthumous transmission, since she had died, essentially of alcoholism, only a few weeks earlier; and yet I can to this day recall the awful, forlorn look in her eyes when she sang the words “Tomorrow may never come…” and there was a dreadful pause. After the song, she thanked Max (“It was awfully good of you”) and wandered off the stage and eventually off the planet. Here, Cole sings it quietly, reverently, and once more there is a mid-fifties subtext, namely the Cold War; settling down under the blankets, like the protagonists in the Canadian film Last Night, quietly waiting for the end, for tomorrow not to come.

And yet, none of this may actually be happening. “For all we know,” he sings, “this may only be a dream.” Did the prospective nostalgia-seeking buyers know that this record would ease them into a world more in keeping with 1978 Scott Walker and 1984 David Sylvian than Radio 2 land? “When I Fall In Love,” as previously noted, meditates on the essence and manifestations of “love.” In “The Very Thought Of You” he sings “I’m living in a kind of daydream” and “I see your face in every flower” – and note how, on that last line, his voice goes into its higher range and, not for the first or last time, sounds remarkably like Marvin Gaye. Meanwhile, Gordon Jenkins’ contrapuntal strings alternately cushion the singer, prod him on and question him. His “On The Street Where You Live” would have been one of the last things he recorded, from 1964, with needless cha-cha rhythms, David Jacobs flute (complete with solo!) and a noticeably rough voice (“at any second”). The intrusion of big band into the middle eight is absurd and out of place, and yet its unrequited (as yet) cravings are still in keeping with the record’s general tenor, although Cole holds on to that final “live” for an eternity, as though struggling still to breathe. Finally, on “Unforgettable,” his idealisations are still, initially, a fantasy (“How the thought of you does things to me”), but the song also turns out to be a release, since it transpires that his love, for once, is real and reciprocated (“Darling, it’s INCREDIBLE!”).

The only remaining performance of this type here is “Somewhere Along The Way,” in its original version #3 in the first UK singles chart in November 1952. Here, he knows he has lost something perfect, and is now striving, searching, to retrieve it. There is the implication that he might spend the rest of his life looking; and, once more, when he sings “Part of me,” we hear Marvin Gaye. But, by the time we get to the George Shearing collaboration “Let There Be Love” (the sequencing could bear some fresh attention), he has transcended all this, and now sounds like the voice of God issuing His commandments. “Chilli con carne/And sparkling champagne” (we know how well these two go together), and a sublime stillness in Shearing’s piano and the song’s arrangement which suggests that all will be well with the world again.

The remaining two tracks to be considered are late period and quite uncharacteristic of the rest of the album; “Ramblin’ Rose” was a big Indian summer hit for Cole in the summer of 1962, perhaps cocking at least one eye towards Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (“One more time everybody!” Cole directs the chorus), and yet slower than I remember, and thematically Rose is still the ballerina, still a projected Cole, doomed to wander forever if somebody doesn’t love her (or him) soon; and hence it is the precursor to the Eagles’ “Desperado.” The album ends with 1963’s banjo singalong “Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer” (don’t forget Cole is also a strolling, banjo-plucking Greek chorus with Stubby Kaye on Cat Ballou). With so many of the preceding songs taking place at night, and/or in solitude, suddenly we are in the bright daytime, surrounded by crowds of Pajama Game people. Musically it is a little oppressive – is this the Village’s summer works outing? – but in his own way Cole has found the light, and the final line on the record – “You’ll wish that summer would always be here” – squares the 20 Golden Greats circle.

And Cole’s legacy? Bryan Ferry, for one; a very similar outlook where the singer talks about things, but are these realities or just good ideas? Like Glen Campbell, Cole ponders the nature of love while largely keeping his distance from it, or being physically and emotionally detached from it. However, we are finally left with an exercise in music as an altered state of reality; exposure to Cole’s ballads at length can be emotionally hypnotic, as mesmerising as trying to see into the inside of Charlie Kane’s head. Can “love” be this?