Sunday, 28 December 2008

Elvis PRESLEY: Elvis Is Back!


(#19: 30 July 1960, 1 week)

Track listing: Make Me Know It/Fever/The Girl Of My Best Friend/I Will Be Home Again/Dirty, Dirty Feeling/Thrill Of Your Love/Soldier Boy/Such A Night/It Feels So Right/The Girl Next Door Went A'Walking/Like A Baby/Reconsider Baby

On the front he is looking, possibly smirking, possibly sneering, at someone or something to his left; on the back cover he is laughing in his army uniform, regulation Number One cut and cap, resembling Eminem's recidivist dad. In both cases the smiles are those of the newly liberated, and that feeling of purple wax dart release is palpable all through the album, which found Elvis at his most alive in four years.

The impact is immediate. "You say that you love me! And swear it to be true!" an outraged Presley protests at the beginning of "Make Me Know It" but the overall effect is one of jubilation as DJ Fontana's drums hammer their way into each new verse. Presley's quickening quivers of "Make me know you do" find his baritone rumble as bannable as it would have been in 1956, and - as is the surprising case throughout Elvis Is Back! - even the Jordanaires are tolerable; after two years' lay off they sound committed, refreshed, an integral component of the whole rather than a bulwark rammed against the whole.

But the first real sign of new vibrancy comes with Presley's "Fever"; his restrained reservoir of a voice is set against only Bill Black's bass, his own finger snaps and Fontana's astonishing, angular percussion. Complete with the words which Peggy Lee left out (including a quietly incendiary "Fever you have burnt forsooth"), Presley wisely lays back and lets Fontana's rattles do all the burning - his brushes really do "sizzle," the pause replacing the exclamation of "FEVER!" in every chorus inspired, and his rimshots resound around the minimalist flotation tank of the song, binding with Presley's low echoes to form a kind of blueprint for dub.

"The Girl Of My Best Friend" was a scrubbed Fabian-friendly trifle but Presley brings a wanton loneness to its dappled avenues of disturbed amiability and adds a vital hue of dark which none of the Young Philadelphians of 1960 could have summoned; his closing mantra of "Never end...will it ever end?...please let it end..." is as deserted as the lobby of "Heartbreak Hotel." Likewise, "I Will Be Home Again" and "Soldier Boy" (the latter not the Shirelles song) lend the necessary back-from-the-Army flecks of sentimentality, but even in these placid piano ballads there lurks the essence of disturbia; on the former, Elvis is double tracked with a view seemingly not to sound like himself and the extended "eyeeeeees" in "The promise in your eyes" is pained, a restlessness not helped by the guitar riff from "One Night" making an unlikely reappearance (despite its Ink Spots ascendant ending), while on the latter, Floyd Cramer's piano traces Presley's angst ("It's written in the book/That she was meant for only you" - was this Priscilla-inspired doubt?) with evenly descending traceries as though writing a letter home, or to himself. Meanwhile, he trembles on the "thrill" of the title line of "Thrill Of Your Love" before diving into what might serve as a pre-emptive confessional:

"I'd rather give everything that I own in this world
Than to be all alone and unloved."

Given that he presses down on the "give" ("GIIIIIIIIVE") like a demolition ball bearing down upon the frailer Doric arches, this could be retrospectively interpreted as a terrible revelation of the loneness to come, but Presley then proceeds to annihilate doubt comprehensively with the dirt that he now introduces into the proceedings. "Dirty, Dirty Feeling" introduces the pre-coital stuttering tenor sax of Boots Randolph as suddenly Presley slips and slides and grins all around the song's booming dodgems; the Jordanaires' contrabass commas are unexpected and anticipate Britney's "Gimme More"; and at song's climax Scotty Moore suddenly snaps free of his leash and runs amok through the song's slalom runs of cantering helter skelter block chords.

Then there is Presley's take on "Such A Night" which stands alongside Clyde McPhatter's and arguably cuts Johnnie Ray's in terms of unbounded fuck-me-nowness. "THENIGHTWASALIIIIIIGHT" he roars into the Aegean waters of desire, and pretty soon - aided by the band's Fontana-led charges into each chorus - he abandons recognisable language altogether: "Awwwww!!" he purrs. "Lipssssssssssssss" he hisses. "Kizzzzzznlive eyalwayzzzrememburr" he intones. Release comes when he plays table tennis with the Jordanaires as they exchange "ooh"s and Moore unleashes - no, he virtually ejaculates - a demonically high guitar solo before Fontana shatters the song to a chaotic end with his collapsing bed of free form drums.

Now there's no stopping Presley. "STEP! IN! THESE! ARMS!" he commands at the commencement of "It Feels So Right" as the country boy finally makes it to the city and the Chicago electric blues begin to sting. Moore's ambiguous double-stroked guitar line won't let the singer settle - indeed, it carries on regardless of the song's harmonic boundaries. The Jordanaires stutter fervent agreement, and by the time Elvis reaches the apex of his imperious "HOW CAN THIS BE WRONG?" we're cheering him on as though we elected him President. "The Girl Next Door" steps down a pitch or two but Presley is still singing dirty; his "Lay-ay-ate every ni-hight"s slowly convert from dry premonition to wettened reality, bolstered by what sounds like a very low series of chuckles and a placidly slavering refrain of "settle down for life" which he eventually crunches into "suttledanfaerlafe."

And then the released free man that briefly was Presley turns iridescent. "Like A Baby" is driven by Randolph's rude rattling and humming as Presley again explodes into red ("You're just a FLIRT!!!" he howls, still outraged); his four-step descent of "Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt" is one into Hades, and even the Jordanaires are driven to howling in his internal wind. "Ah'll thurgett," Presley moans, the Prometheus of remembrance ready to inhabit his body.

But his reshaping of Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby" is the album's masterpiece, and one of Presley's masterpieces full stop; he sings it like a dare, his lasciviously mocking elisions down the third line of every verse, like fingers probing their way down a fleshy blackboard, rumble and raspberry and tease and grease - he may be sneering, he may be smirking, but there is no doubt that he will triumph. Cramer's piano tantalises with odd upper register flurries, veers in and out of tonality and finally worries like Cecil Taylor. Presley's own close miked acoustic cuts through the drawer of its own knives. Randolph - whose tenor teases Presley throughout "Like A Baby," purring and provoking - plays one very dirty chorus but it's not quite enough; "One more time!" commands Presley, and Randolph is driven (vanguarded by Fontana's crucial snare roll) into proto-Ayler honks and screams before Presley STRIDES back in and RIGHT across Moore's economy size wasps' nest guitar squeals, closing it all down, owning the place and sending showbiz back to the coal cellar. It would not be until the opposing end of the decade that he would know how it would feel to feel that free again.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Freddy CANNON: The Explosive Freddy Cannon



(#18: 12 March 1960, 1 week)

Track listing: Boston (My Home Town)/Kansas City/Sweet Georgia Brown/Way Down Yonder In New Orleans/St Louis Blues/Indiana/Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy/Deep In The Heart Of Texas/California, Here I Come/Okefenokee/Carolina In The Morning/Tallahassee Lassie

When Freddy Cannon suddenly surfaces in the middle of 1974’s Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes Review album to sing the rather outrageous “Outrageous” it sounds entirely logical and he sounds, suddenly, entirely of his time, suggesting that at his peak he was some way ahead of his time. But of course one of the masterminds behind Disco Tex was Bob Crewe, the same man who signed up Freddy Cannon back in 1958 and, along with his splendidly named colleague of the time Frank C Slay Jr, produced his run of hits.

The Explosive Freddy Cannon now seems more and more like a mirage of a blast into the still relatively sedate atmosphere of the 1960 album chart. Rudely barging in to disrupt South Pacific’s seamless run at the top for just one week – although it should be noted that it was number one in the first Record Retailer chart, and maybe its compilers were determined to show some element of difference, even though South Pacific cruised back to number one the following week for a further five-month residence – everything about the record screams “different”; it was the only number one album for the Top Rank label, its red-fading-to-orange cover blown apart by luridly large lettering and a monochrome portrait of the artist seemingly cut and paste into the bottom left hand corner a complete contrast to the opulence of the South Pacific package. And it was the only hit album Cannon ever had in Britain, although its success can be ascribed to the fact that he was actually in Britain at the time, touring widely, turning up on TV and radio to promote both his “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” hit single and its parent album – and the tactic clearly worked.

Naturally, as can be evinced from the sleevenote, penned by Billboard’s Howard Cook, some bets were still being hedged: “The album may well revive nostalgic memories for adult buyers, and younger buyers will find the treatments of all the material exactly in line with their own contemporary tastes,” and Cook was careful to stress Cannon’s Al Jolson influences (“who always exuded a great deal of dynamic charm – even on his ballads,” not that there is anything remotely resembling a ballad to be found here) rather more than his Chuck Berry ones.

But despite Cook’s sterling attempts to lure in the mainstream album buyers (“It’s a perfect set for light listening and, of course, for dancing”), The Explosive Freddy Cannon comes on like a punk Come Fly With Me. His first hit, 1959’s “Tallahassee Lassie,” with its oozing bends of nascent sensuality (“She’s got a hi-fi chassis!” Cannon excitedly screeches, and he comes out of the song with wickedly winking sliding scales of pleas of “C’monnnnnn honey! Come ooooooonnnnnn BAY-bee!!”), was followed by “Okefenokee” and “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and, as you can discern from the track titles, Crewe and Slay worked out the album’s theme fairly straightforwardly.

Mostly the songs follow the grandiose rawness of the “Way Down Yonder” formula; a UK #3 hit single, its New Orleans is markedly less scrubbed than that of King Creole, and much of Cannon’s work does arise as a direct descendent of Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino (see the horn lines on Cannon’s “Kansas City” for definitive proof) but also works as a parallel to what producers like Allen Toussaint were doing with artists like Ernie K-Doe at the same time. With Cannon, the horn section is effectively dominant; with one startling exception on this album, guitars are virtually non-existent – and, as Dexy’s would do twenty years later, the horns become the “guitar.” This is supplemented by excitable, high register piano and regular rhetorical bass drum hammering whenever Cannon brings a song to the crossroads, and propelled forward by Cannon’s trademark growls and whoops. When set in contrast against his supposed peers – the sundry Bobbys of that timid, brushed whiteboy world – Cannon can come across as the antidote, and frequently he reminds me of someone else of significance yet to come.

“Way Down Yonder” continues to be a wonder; Cannon lunges at “HAH-in the Garden of Eeeee-DEN!” as though both apple and snake, piano cascades in downward ecstasy as he proclaims “Here is heaven right here on Earth!,” the horns trundling up hill and down dale like merry Christmas cable cars (somehow both recalling Domino and foretelling the Bonzos!). His “WHOO!”s seem to squeal freedom and release – given what Crewe went on to do later that decade, Cannon comes across as Frankie Valli’s duende double. Incidentally, the author of “Way Down Yonder,” one Turner Layton, who wrote the song in 1915, was tracked down at the time and found to be alive, well and enjoying his retirement in the unlikely surroundings of Maida Vale, though admitted that Cannon’s concept of the song was somewhat different to the one he had originally imagined (and Layton proved to be a remarkably durable fellow, living on until 1978).

Cannon was a Bostonian, and so Crewe and Slay wrote “Boston (My Home Town)” as an album opener. Beginning with an acappella horn phrase that manages to predicate both ska and Michael Nyman, Cannon then roars into view: “Holy smokes, yeah, it’s the hub!” which might still be one of the best opening lines of any number one album. “Keen town, Bean Town , that’s the rub!” He grasps the song and flings it around with unalloyed glee like a luminous yo-yo. “Pretty girls everywhere USA !” he shrieks (hello Ramones?). He’s going to love her “all the way from Bunker to Beacon Hill” and even drops in a reference to we-know-what - “We’re gonna have a party, Boston tea/Overboard – yeah, in love, that’s me!” – before launching into a cheerleader chant of “M-A-Double S” etc.

The songs were randomly grabbed from American popular music’s history, and while some work more than others – “California, Here I Come” is chiefly notable for the pianist starting to go mildly freeform at fadeout, “Carolina In The Morning” borrows its horn line from Ray Martin’s “Blue Tango” – the overall effect is exhilarating. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is made to work by Cannon’s determined ebullience and a marvellously maximalist, inventive horn chart, and his “St Louis Blues” is as near to punk as anyone dared take the song, right from its staccato, dissonant horn intro through Cannon’s improbably chirpy “I hate to see that evening sun go down” – and then into his startling bored whine of “Yes I’m feeling tomorrow just like I feel today” which suddenly seems to sum up why so many revolutions that will happen have to happen. He sneers his octave-leaping “Or ELSE she WOULDN’T have GONE so FAR from ME!” as though hurdles do not exist, just before the band suddenly goes into a forlorn tango. His “ Indiana ” is a 102-second rave-up punctuated by steamship baritone sax honks.

His “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” functions as a midway point between the Andrews Sisters and Labelle (whom Crewe would also go on to produce and write for) with its remarkably prescient cries of “hippity-hoppity hoppity-hippity hip hop hop!” and Cannon’s exhortations to the horns, “Oh DO IT DO IT DO IT DOITDOIT!!!” as they blow the filthiest lines they can stir up. “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” foresees Duane Eddy’s 1962 reading with its echoing bass intro – though where did the Palm Court dance orchestra, which inexplicably (always the best way) turns up halfway through the song, come from?

But “Okefenokee” ties all the threads together and reminds me of whom Cannon reminds me of – here, guitars are snarlingly prominent, and then there are those slightly out-of-synch handclaps, those odd chants, Cannon’s intermittent eruptions (“It’s wilder than a ro-DAY-o!”), fearsomely close-miked bass drum, a genuinely brutal and explosive guitar solo (was this really recorded in 1959?), the backing singers’ demented “Whoo!”s…Cannon resorts to ad libbing to take the song out – “Let’s OUT of here, baby!” “Oh sugar! Pleeeeeease baby!,” and as the one-note high staccato piano note takes centre stage it all becomes abundantly clear; this is the father of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and Freddy Cannon’s screeches, moans, licking of lips, whoops and general overgrown teenage misfit petulance are inventing Iggy. And so the first number one album of the sixties forms a perfect bookend to the last.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: South Pacific


(#17: 8 November 1958, 70 weeks; 19 March 1960, 19 weeks; 6 August 1960, 5 weeks; 15 October 1960, 13 weeks; 4 March 1961, 1 week; 1 April 1961, 1 week; 1 July 1961, 4 weeks; 26 August 1961, 1 week; 9 September 1961, 1 week)

Track listing: South Pacific Overture/Dites-Moi/A Cockeyed Optimist/Twin Soliloquies/Some Enchanted Evening/Bloody Mary/My Girl Back Home/There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame/Bali Ha’i/I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair/A Wonderful Guy/Younger Than Springtime/Happy Talk/Honey Bun/Carefully Taught/This Nearly Was Mine/Finale

“Just as stage pantomime and ballet have developed ways of telling stories without words, so have record albums like this one created in recent years the newer art of telling a story to the ear without benefit of what the eye can see. When a medium of entertainment approaches us through only one of our senses, it automatically demands of us more attention, more contribution to our own imagination to compensate for the sense we are not permitted to use.”
(Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from their “Commentary” sleevenote to the soundtrack album of South Pacific)

As the decade drew to a close, the question here is one of: what were albums for? What made them different? In the period between Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and the end of the fifties, seventeen different albums made it to number one, compared with 47 number one singles in the same period (a sequence which, with quite divine logic, takes us from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to Emile Ford and the Checkmates). There is little doubt that throughout this time the singles lists were telling the real story; after the period of courtly stasis in the pre-rock era, rock sped everything up, including reaction, assimilation and moving on, and the ground war being waged between old and new was infinitely more palpable.

The album chart, however, was as impalpable in its infinitesimal movements as the South Pacific; the format was still in its infancy, still something of a minority pursuit, still largely devoted to highly specialised genres of music (of which the Broadway musical/film soundtrack and what would later be termed “easy listening” were necessarily the most commercially prominent, although the album was originally developed with classical music in mind) and so it was a given that albums tended to hang around in the lists for a matter of years rather than weeks or even months and if they hung around for long enough they’d stand a very decent chance of reaching number one.

Still, it is impossible to look at the statistics for the South Pacific soundtrack and not be staggered. The album spent a cumulative total of 115 weeks – over two years – at the top of the chart, the longest run at the top by any album and a total unlikely ever to be bettered, even by Abba Gold. It took out an effective three-year lease on the chart’s upper reaches (it was still notching up appearances on the chart as late as 1972). Its initial 70-week run – it stayed on top for every week of 1959 – is still the longest consecutive number one run of any album. In addition, it became the first album to sell a million copies in Britain. This was not unprecedented – after all, The King And I had been the number one album for most of 1957 – but the remarkable durability of South Pacific had to be attributed to other factors.

Among the most important factors is that the album’s first 70 weeks at the top also covered every Melody Maker chart used for this tale; the MM chart for 8 November 1958 was their first, and since it used a larger number of chart return shops and expanded in size from a top five to a top ten, it has become the “official” album chart for this period; on 12 March 1960 Record Retailer began its chart which historically has remained the official chart for Guinness and other purposes to date. So that long first run of South Pacific may demonstrate greater stability in the way the chart was compiled.

Before going further into understanding just why South Pacific held such enormous appeal, however, it is worth giving extended mention to the host of albums – it is not a terribly long list but is certainly a diverse one – which had to settle for second place behind South Pacific throughout its three years of dominance (and, for fullness of record, let history record that the previous list of #2 albums extended to only five entries - Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, Donegan’s Showcase, Sinatra’s Close To You, Elvis’ Christmas Album and Elvis’ Golden Records) since it does present an arguably more fascinating evolutionary story. The list is as follows:

Frank Sinatra – Come Fly With Me
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Gigi
Buddy Holly and The Crickets – The Buddy Holly Story
Frank Sinatra – Come Dance With Me
Cliff Richard – Cliff Sings
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – The Five Pennies
Duane Eddy – The Twang’s The Thang
Tony Hancock – This Is Hancock
Original Broadway Cast Recording – Flower Drum Song
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Can-Can
The Everly Brothers – It’s Everly Time
Cliff Richard and The Shadows – Me And My Shadows
Bob Newhart – The Button Down Mind Of Bob Newhart

Elvis was away, of course (and South Pacific’s first 70 weeks are also markedly coincidental with his spell in the Army), but already the album chart was forming shapes significantly different to those of the singles. Both Sinatra albums were done with Billy May, and Come Fly With Me is one of the two entries above which I really regret not being able to write about in fuller detail; one of Sinatra’s finest and most artful records – and with that TWA Pop Art pastiche cover, one of his most strikingly modernist-looking albums – with an inspired thematic conceit (one echoed, though in extremely different ways, in the next TPL entry) and even more inspired performances, including a richly rude “Mandalay” and a profound “Autumn In New York.” Best heard while travelling in a patient car along the Norfolk coast in the sparkling August sunshine – this is not merely a sentimental touch; the breeze of happiness which wafts through lines like “Weather wise, it’s such a lovely day” demands unusual congruence with a peculiarly intense blue in the air – the album is Kennedy optimistic, future embracing, nearly perfect. Come Dance With Me’s cover, in contrast, borders on the repulsive, and May’s brash dinging of rings does not quite provide for space or perspective; not one of my favourite Sinatra records (his “Just In Time” is inferior to Tony Bennett’s and he can’t grasp “I Could Have Danced All Night” at all), despite a surprisingly telling “The Song Is You” at album’s end.

Sinatra also turns up, alongside Shirley MacLaine, on the soundtrack to Can-Can, Walter Lang’s abominable insult to Cole Porter (the original musical’s plot is inverted to become Pal Joey in reverse); some good performances (notably Sinatra’s “I Love Paris”) but generally muddled. As far as the rest of the musicals are concerned, Gigi (the longest running of these number twos) was Lerner and Loewe again, and essentially My Fair Lady switched to France and stripped of Shavian subtext; some fine songs, including, in “I Remember It Well,” a brilliant dissertation of how reality and memory don’t quite become the same thing in love and history, but enjoyment may depend on your tolerance of Maurice Chevalier. The Five Pennies was Danny Kaye playing Red Nichols in a bleached out biopic which did at least give Louis Armstrong an excuse to stretch out again (no thought, of course, being given to a Hollywood Satchmo biopic). Flower Drum Song was a rather fumbling and unnecessary third part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Far East trilogy; well-intentioned with its all Asian-American cast but it has since fallen into some disrepute and “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was its only real hit song.

Of the rockers, The Buddy Holly Story was a posthumous hits compilation (and since at least one Holly/Crickets compilation will be entering the TPL story at a surprisingly late stage I will leave discussion of their work until then). It’s Everly Time was the duo’s first album for Warner Brothers, and contains a baffling mix of material, ranging from “Memories Are Made Of This” to rather harder stuff like Ray Charles’ “What Kind Of Girl Are You?” and Fats Domino’s “I Want You To Know.” The Twang’s The Thang, a hugely influential record in its time, benefits from Lee Hazlewood’s furiously compressed production despite its erratic mixture of good originals and strange assays at things like “St Louis Blues” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Both Cliff albums – they were, respectively, his second and third – already see him moving out into All Round Entertainerland, with less than convincing rock covers co-existing uncomfortably beside old standards such as “As Time Goes By,” and Cliff seeming immediately more comfortable with the latter.

And we mustn’t rule out the popularity of the comedy record in the nascent albums market; further down the album chart the likes of Peter Sellers, Tom Lehrer and Gerard Hoffnung can be spotted. The Bob Newhart album is the one with his driving instructor routine. But it would have been a joy to write about This Is Hancock in full on TPL; housed in a cover whose design and sleevenotes would not have disgraced ZTT a quarter of a century later, it consists of two episodes of his BBC radio series Hancock’s Half Hour, only slightly edited, and one of these, Galton and Simpson’s “Sunday Afternoon At Home,” is a masterpiece of fifties drama – or anti-drama, since not only does nothing happen, but “nothing” is made to happen - worthy to be placed alongside Beckett and Pinter. Anyone moaning about shops being open on a Sunday and The Modern World in general would do well to study this piece; if you want to feel and understand the Britain which the Beatles and Harold Wilson had to break apart you will find no better depiction. And when Kenneth Williams’ neighbour pops round to add to the nothingness, the piece also turns into early meta-comedy, dissecting and analysing itself as it proceeds – and, pace Burroughs and Gysin, time is eventually twisted into a trick of the mind.

But back now to South Pacific, a record whose span at number one also spans the time between the Quarrymen and Hamburg. If you are following this tale with a view to collecting or at least hearing these records then I have to insist that you get South Pacific, not in its dully prosaic CD form, but on vinyl in order to understand why as a package the album worked so dramatically well. Some younger readers may be baffled by its spectacular success; despite its array of classic songs – one of which proved durable enough to become a number one single just after the height of New Pop in 1982 – and fairly regular stage revivals, the film of South Pacific hardly ever appears on TV; it has not entered the realms of Singin’ In The Rain/Sound Of Music ubiquity, and there are good reasons for this. It was directed by Joshua Logan, the man who originally had the idea of turning James Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific into a musical, commissioned Rodgers and Hammerstein to write it (although Logan himself contributed significantly to the book) and directed the show on Broadway.

Unfortunately Logan had little or no idea about what did and didn’t work as cinema; the expensive, expansive location shoots are fatally compromised – and neutralised - by the absurd colour filters which invade every song. Worse, the big ensemble routines such as “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Dame” look cramped and utterly studio-bound; the famous 1977 TV recreation of this sequence by Morecambe and Wise and assorted BBC newsreaders and presenters, complete with cut and paste long shots of professional acrobats and tumblers doing all the difficult technical stuff, is arguably more convincing. In terms of basic cinematic grammar, very rarely are singers’ voices aligned to the correct singer, and Logan’s decision to dub the singing of virtually all of the leading players (only Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston got to sing their own parts) leads to visual and emotional discontinuity and a kind of perfervid constipation.

“If one has not seen the picture, then one can conjure up from his own fund of experiences and fancies and desires what he thinks the characters should look like, how he thinks they should be portraying their roles, and where he thinks should be the scenes to which the songs are sung.”
(Rodgers and Hammerstein, ibid.)

Since we are denied the unsatisfactory visuals of the film, the South Pacific soundtrack album is actually far more convincing an artefact. But then South Pacific was also among the first albums really to be packaged as a unique thing in itself, which is why it’s vital to find an original vinyl copy. Back at the beginning of this tale, I naively assumed that, if I weren’t able to find the original album as such, I could recreate it from assembling the individual tracks alone, but of course (and as I really should have anticipated) tracks alone do not make an album; it is essential to listen to Elvis’ Rock ‘N’ Roll as it was originally structured and packaged, just as the odd panoramas of hits compiled on all those K-Tel/Arcade/Ronco packages we’ll be getting to in the seventies have to be assessed in the context of an actual, luridly primary coloured ORIGINAL HITS AS SEEN ON TV album.

And so it is with South Pacific. The album was packaged much like the Disneyland and Italian soundtrack compilations I remembered from my youth; a lavish (for its time) gatefold sleeve opens up to encompass a 12-page, full-colour booklet with fine reproductions of stills from the movie (which also briefly lend you to believe that this is a film worth watching) and fence-sitting liner notes from the composers themselves. The rear sleeve is still startlingly modernist; Mitzi Gaynor, standing atop an elevated rock of pure white, grinning with mouth agape, arms stretched out Crucifixion-style, her right hand holding a hat, as though leading an exotic aerobics class on the beach with her ladies flanking her, both on sand and in sea. A luxurious souvenir of a luxuriously packaged film.

It is also necessary to understand that the movie of South Pacific was, in 1958, almost as big an event as Gone With The Wind. Cinematically film had jumped from the first and second Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to the fourth, and there were questions about whether the third could logistically transfer to the screen. It was regarded, not unreasonably, as their masterpiece and reports of great nights on the stage, astonishing shows, unrepeatable moments, from the time of its Broadway premiere in 1949, still echo now (even though, as with most unrepeatable theatrical experiences, you probably really had to be there). Furthermore, the crises faced by the main characters, to which the composers refer with diplomatic obliquity in their liner notes (“Found themselves in strange places, leading lives for which they had never been prepared…their current problems…the special situations Cable and Nellie face…”), were moderately radical by forties Broadway standards with its face-on confrontation of racism. The Ze Records aerobic rear cover shot comes from Gaynor’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” routine, just after she temporarily ditches Rossano Brazzi’s Emile de Becque when her Ensign Nellie Forbush (ahem) realises that the two Polynesian children are his, from his previous marriage. She rather smugly shakes him off her mind, but Rodgers and Hammerstein cleverly contain her wilful, gleeful ignorance within the context of the black spiritual (one line repeated thrice followed by a climactic fourth line, plus call and response, plus at one point “Yay, Sister!”), also throwing in a doo wop pastiche (in 1949!) and a big band rave-up. As I said, the making of the picture (“Get the picture?”) was a major event, ceaselessly covered in the photojournals and magazines of the time, and the film was also the first in Britain to be screened in the new Todd-AO widescreen format. So anticipation was high, and cinema box office records were duly broken (to the relief of cinemas, then facing rapid encroachment from television). The South Pacific soundtrack became the album to have.

I think it’s still worth having. There has been no Angel redux/remastered reissue of the soundtrack, but unlike those for Oklahoma!, The King And I and Carousel I don’t think that one is needed; the songs are so good and the emotions so skilfully handled and expressed that the story can easily be discerned, understood and felt. Furthermore, given the serious deficiencies of the film itself, its music alone provides a better, fuller, deeper picture in the mind’s eye.

No Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is free of threat – think of the subtexts of domestic violence in Carousel, slavery in The King And I and the fatal consequences of self-satisfied societal hivemind thinking in Oklahoma! – and the opening discordant voicing of the “Bali Ha’I” melody for fortissimo trumpets and timpani in the overture is still a shock, more fitting to a film noir stabbing; although the music then drifts into a reasonably sweet paradise, this reverie is bookended by the same harsh chords at the end. After all, it was the South Sea Islands , but it was also 1944, and there was a war on.

The show itself begins with the two Polynesian children singing a quiet, sweet little French song (“Dites-Moi”) which amiably and subtly spells out how life could be: “Pourquoi la vie est belle?...Chere Mademoiselle/Est-ce que/Parce que/Vous m’aimez?” From this we cut to Gaynor’s Nellie and her cockeyed optimism, determined to be happy in the South Sea Islands before they turn into nuclear testing sites (“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow that we’re done and we might as well be dead!”). Being “stuck like a dope with a thing called hope,” she will persist in not dying, even though the anginal murmur halfway through her climactic “heart” indicates that she is not entirely unaware of the permanence of impermanence in this apparent paradise.

Slowly, Nellie’s perky young optimist and Emile’s burned but still hopeful middle-aged widower’s universes begin to draw cautiously together. The Carousel dual monologue device was used again – but improved – for the “Twin Soliloquies” sequence; each has a progressively mounting feeling of what is happening (the metaphors of “hillside” and “climbing up my hill” are noticeable leitmotifs throughout the show). Each is sceptical about whether the other will really be attracted by them; Nellie muses “He’s a cultured Frenchman, I’m a little hick,” while Emile (voiced by the great operatic bass Giorgio Tozzi) wonders about the “officers and DOCTORS!” more likely to interest her. After Emile’s unresolved “Do I have a chance?” there comes a pregnant instrumental interlude which suddenly swells up into a trumpet crescendo as their hearts start to beat at the prospect of their coming together.

After a heartbeat of a pause we return to placid strings and, through a forest of whole tones, segue into “Some Enchanted Evening.” Tozzi pitches the song with great astuteness, not overplaying it, singing it in the way of a man who has perhaps forgotten how to sing and is slowly reminding himself what it sounds like. Once he lost everything but still he clings onto this hope, of that evening when, if he just puts himself about, if he can find it in himself to reapproach the world (even via a routine officers’ dining table), something will happen “across a crowded room” and the answer, the dream, will appear, materialise, and regardless of the crowd he will SEE her, and she might see him. He doesn’t try to rationalise (“Fools give you reasons, wise men never try”) but on his second “TRY” he suddenly increases in volume and intensity: “When you feel her call you, then fly to her side,” he urges, before finishing, quietly but intensely and truthfully: “Once you have found her, never…let…her…go” as his bass voice flies high enough to brush against the wings of his angel.

From there it’s a transition to sailors’ mess hi-iinks. “Bloody Mary” is a rather oafish blokey chant, ridiculing Juanita Hall’s hapless but kindly middle-aged Vietnamese US sailors/Bali Ha’i women go-between, which veers between Scots pibroch and Dixieland. “The Girl I Knew” was excised from the Broadway show but restored to the film, as Lt Cable (played by John Kerr and sung by Bill Lee) arrives and reminisces with Nellie about the world they’ve left behind and which they’re not entirely sure they’ll ever see again (“How far away, Philadelphia Pa.”). Then “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Dame” which works infinitely better aurally than cinematically, with skilful voice swapping and tempo varying, some good (deliberate) offkey rubato warbling, whistling which dissolves into bird calls and wolf yelps and the mass one-note ensemble singing subsequently to be popularised by everyone from the George Mitchell Minstrels to Girls Aloud.

Then comes the astonishing “Bali Ha’i” itself. I have no idea why Logan opted to dub Juanita Hall – who had both played and sung Bloody Mary on Broadway for some years – with the voice of Muriel Smith (whom some readers may remember from her 1953 #3 hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”) but despite her sometimes overdone cod-Polynesian accent Smith somehow manages to capture the emotional nub of South Pacific. Harmonically “Bali Ha’i” is almost entirely built on whole tones, thus its unearthly quality which, when coupled with the high strings and ghostly oases of soprano chorales, anticipates the avant-exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. There is no need to overstate the metaphor of “Most people live on a lonely island lost in the middle of a foggy sea,” but Smith methodically increases her passion as the song sails on, her invitations, turning to pleas, of “come away,” “come to me,” steadily becoming more intimate, more heartfely. “If you try” – there’s that “try” again – “you’ll find me where the sky meets the sea,” she assures us, and following a brief, bemusing sequence of clip clop rhythms straight from Oklahoma !, she endeavours to make herself as findable as anybody could: “You’ll hear me call you, singing into the sunshine,” before she sings to the world, or just to the person who needs to hear her, “Here am I, your special island, come to me!” she repeats patiently before a shattering cry of “IF YOU TRY, YOU’LL FIND ME!!” – how much louder and clearer does she have to make it? The ghosts of the Sirens sail troubled into the middle distance; the final chord, I note, is as unworldly as the final chord of Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me. ”

The self-satisfied cynicism of “Gonna Wash That Man” is briefly overthrown when Nellie runs into Emile again by accident and realises how she really feels about him; “A Wonderful Guy” begins almost as a 6/8 blues lament accompanied by Gaynor’s bitter “from a person in pants” before slowly mutating (via an emphatic “LOUDLY” and “FLATLY”) into a more conventional romantic waltz. One of Hammerstein’s best lyrics for the show – if you know another song whose lyric includes the adjective “bromitic” then drop a line to the usual address – the song finds Nellie “as corny as Kansas in August”; Gaynor’s pause to sigh halfway through the line “The world famous feeling…I feel” is enough to parcel up the universe.

Then we arrive at the show’s second big ballad, “Younger Than Springtime,” sung by Cable, having reached Bali Ha’i, who has fallen in love with Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat. Wonderfully sung by Lee, I think of the song as a sort of Jacques Brel before life and booze did things to him – think of the contrast between the “angel and lover, heaven and Earth” of this song and the similar imagery in Brel’s “My Death” – and Cable allows himself to be carried away by the singular wave of words (“and where your youth and joy invade my arms and fill my heart as now they do,” all sung in one breath). But then there’s a slow, almost funereal reprise of “Bali Ha’i” from the invisible choir of angels (now sung in French) which is almost unbearable in its foreboding poignancy as though he is already destined to sail away to his doom.

If Mary’s “Happy Talk” initially comes across as light relief thereafter, it’s not meant to be, since she is desperately trying to keep Cable and Liat together. There is a vibrant despondency in her overenthusiastic “Counting all the RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRripples on the sea!” and by the time of the final rubato verse it’s hard to tell whether she is laughing or crying, as though “You and me is lucky to be US!” is the glue that is keeping both alive. But it doesn’t happen; their racism seemingly too ingrained to be excised, both Nellie and Cable turn their backs on their respective Others – even if (as will happen with Cable) they will end up preferring to die rather than overcome their prejudice.

After the brief and extremely strange “Honey Bun” with its Yorkshire brass band/tack piano intro and general feel of dentist’s drill twenties send-up – it makes more sense when you know that it’s Nellie in concert party drag singing the praises of Walston’s Billis, also in drag – we arrive at the most electrifying moment of the album, where Cable, about to sail to his death, is manfully struggling, and failing, to kill the racist within him. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” he sings in a mixture of tears and rage in a slow 3/4 tempo set against a fast 4/4 orchestral backdrop, “…to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade…BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE” he suddenly growls. “…to HATE all the people your RELATIVES hate.” The number – “Carefully Taught” – is brief but as a dagger it pierces; Rodgers and Hammerstein were initially unsure about whether to keep it in the show but Logan rightly prevailed since it provides the story’s entire emotional base. And so it is left to Tozzi’s Emile, now abandoned again, to ponder on what might have been in the full knowledge that he could have done no more, and also that there was nothing he could do; the lyric of “This Nearly Was Mine” is relatively minimal but Tozzi puts everything of himself – or his Emile – into its pores, resigned to “still dreaming of paradise,” perhaps forever.

But then Cable dies in battle with the Japanese Army, and Emile is fortunate to survive the same mission; finally sense is seen and we return to the opening cycle of “Dites-Moi,” first sung by the children again, before Nellie and then Emile join in and take the song over. Then “Twin Soliloquies” is finally resolved (“Born on the opposite sides of the sea/…and yet you want to marry me?” “I do!”). They sing the closing reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” together and the lesson is learned; both have, to some extent, overcome themselves, opened themselves up to each other, and so they live again and they love forever. It is perhaps not as showy or propulsive a story as the singles chart was telling, and perhaps inalienably a product of its time, but its roots and truthfulness are, I believe, deep, and the soundtrack succeeds in moving both mind and soul where the film failed. It is the highest of callings for the album, and with South Pacific it was answered admirably. Little wonder, then, that its call was heeded and reciprocated for so long a time.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Elvis PRESLEY: King Creole



(#16: 20 September 1958, 7 weeks)

Track listing: King Creole/As Long As I Have You/Hard Headed Woman/Trouble/Dixieland Rock/Don’t Ask Me Why/Lover Doll/Crawfish/Young Dreams/Steadfast, Loyal And True/New Orleans

With a total running time of 21 minutes and 32 seconds, the original vinyl album nearly outdoes The Duke Wore Jeans in terms of brevity, and even with the addition of seven bonus tracks (mainly alternate takes/mixes plus a rather cluttered extra song “Danny” recorded for but not used in the movie) the CD edition does not break the 35 minute barrier. Nor is there very much to say about either the film or its soundtrack; while hailed at the time, and for some time afterwards, as one of Presley’s best movies, realistic and gritty, King Creole is in truth as much of a slice of misdreamed hokum as any of his subsequent sleepwalking Technicolor anti-adventures; a pre-fame Walter Matthau plays his then stock role of heavy, Carolyn Jones warms up for the sublime iciness of Morticia Addams, Vic Morrow thinks he’s still in Blackboard Jungle (and director Michael Curtiz, a decade or more past his Casablanca/Mildred Pierce peak, repeatedly reprimanded him for attempting to impersonate Brando), Presley keeps his head down and acts alternately tough and pleading.

The soundtrack album is as bad as any album Elvis ever made and not only shares the same problems that Loving You had but amplified them; the oppressive bloc that is the Jordanaires is still in situ, the anaemic ballads and flatfooted rockers largely the work of the various D list hacks employed by the Hill and Range publishing firm (of which Col Parker was a major stakeholder) persist, but since the film was set in New Orleans (the track “New Orleans” has nothing to do with the subsequent Gary “US” Bonds hit) we get the added obstacle of a Dixieland horn section which, like the Jordanaires, will simply not shut up.

It may have been a different story had, as was originally planned, Leiber and Stoller been given the whole project. Their songs for Jailhouse Rock (including the peerless “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” as well as the title track) still stand as Presley’s best and most alive movie music but inevitably they quarrelled with Parker over money and so only got three songs on King Creole, one of which was the dispensable acappella segment “Steadfast, Loyal And True” (“Farewell Royal High School,” “Dear Alma Mater” etc.).

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the Jailhouse Rock soundtrack hasn’t made an appearance in this tale, it’s because no album was released at the time; a five-track EP was issued and made the Top 20 of the singles chart in January 1958, while the single of the title track was at number one, the first single to debut at that position in the UK charts in its first week of release). The music was eventually released on album, as half of the Jailhouse Rock/Love In Las Vegas compilation which charted in 1983, and a full soundtrack CD, including some revelatory alternate takes, was finally issued in 1997)

Of the other two Leiber and Stoller songs, “Trouble” is a potentially vital performance ruined by an inept arrangement. Taking his cue from “Mannish Boy,” Presley suddenly allows a naked fire to corrode the picture, with one of his great pauses – “I was born standin’ up and……talkin’ back!” – before uttering some unearthly howls: “My mee-hee-dull-nyammme issss Mi’ery!” like a tsetse fly pleading not to be whacked with a Brillo pad. But whenever he tries to go anywhere with the implications of this pregnant rage and fear the damned Dixieland horns get in his way. Eventually the whole edifice of building tension is offhandedly demolished as the band decide to go into a sub-“Tiger Rag” stomp, though Presley will not let it go, biting down on the jollity with his bleeding teeth. “Well I’m evAAAALLLLL!!!” he roars, riding the Disneyland surf, “I’m EVIL EVIL EVIL!!!” he screams, only to be answered by the Jordanaires’ deliberately dead “La la la.” “EVIL! EVIL! I TELL YOU I’M EVIL!!” he bleeds and pleads, as the parade blandly moves on; don’t you believe this reality?

After some considerable protest the horns were removed from the title track, and “King Creole” the song benefits from the sharpened tension. The alternate takes of the song included on the CD demonstrate how right Presley was to go with the master; the one incorporating the horn section is ungainly and congested, though featuring some demonic drumming from DJ Fontana (hear in particular his shocking response to Presley’s “Tommy gun”) and apostolic guitar work by Scotty Moore, and Presley was also right to take his voice down an octave. On the master take Fontana’s percussion is all cymbals, shifty, untrustworthy, askew; Moore focuses like a ICBM on his one central note, so low as to be pitched at near-bass guitar level; and Presley is threatening and very sensuous, virtually tantric in his lowering build-ups (“He holds his git-tar like a Tommy gun,” “growin’ old-ah!,” “jelly roll-ah!”) and orgasmic releases (“He bends a string and that’s all she wrote!”). Moore takes two minimalist Morse code solos, both getting an immediate response from Fontana’s imperious snare, and issues a lovely whimper in reply to Presley’s “He don’t stop playin’ ‘til his guitar breaks!,” and even the Jordanaires are forced to raise their hand, with lots of audibly forced “Hey!”s, “Yep!”s and “Yeah!”s; only the artificial construct of the song itself, and its ridiculous, grafted-on ending, let the record down.

The rest is largely unrelenting drear. “As Long As I Have You” is a routine, uninvolving ballad (when he sings “Let’s think of the future, forget the past,” Presley sounds as though he’s considering his contract with Parker) until Elvis decides in the second verse to try and break through the banality: “You’re not my first love-UHH!” “Take-DA-LOVE that I bring.” “Asslongasihi” (the latter verging on a Dean Martin parody). He doesn’t really succeed, however, and decides to cut his losses with a fuck you deep descent into “have-uuuuuuuuueuuuuu.” “Don’t Ask Me Why” offers much the same story, though Presley is clearly suffering more, as though under torture; witness his despairing “Don’t know what else to do” and again his bold attempts to make the song remotely interesting – “You’re all I’m longing FUUUUHHHH,” “Ay need you more ANMORRRRE” – are holed by the Jordanaires’ elevator “do do do do” as though having to clean up the mess that the poodle made.

Of the other Dixieland pastiches, “Hard Headed Woman” has some epileptic outbursts from the singer (“Keep ya cotton pickin’ fingers out MAH CUHRLY HA-HAIR!”) but despite those and Elmer Schneider’s enterprising trombone asides is a glum misogynist pseudo-romp which, as with many of these tracks, could pass in the dark as a Stan Freberg send-up of Elvis. “Dixieland Rock” is a terrible “Jailhouse Rock” rewrite, although its unusually long one-note trombone/guitar/handclap intro makes one briefly think of Terry Riley.

“Lover Doll,” meanwhile, is an absurd twenties pastiche which not only implies that Parker was lining Presley up to star in The Rudy Vallee Story but may also have directly inspired “Living Doll” a year later (“I’m gonna tie a ribbon around you/Wrap you up and take you home”). Presley knows there is little he can do to alleviate this muck so sleepwalks through the Jordanaires’ incontinent, deep burping, though demonstrates virtual schizophrenia as he growls a malevolent “I’m gonna tie a ribbon around you” before immediately bouncing back into the bright pullover of “Wrap you up and take you home”; even in his sleep he’s still fighting back against the mediocrity.

Then we get to easily the album’s most startling track. “Crawfish” is virtually a fragment – hardly any of these songs exceed the two minute mark, and many come comfortably under – but it sounds startlingly modernistic with its snaking, elusive rhythm, Moore’s one cheese grater downward scraping chord, and its spaciousness; in fact it sounds like “Shore Leave” by Tom Waits a quarter of a century ahead of schedule. Presley’s controlled nakedness is well balanced by the extraordinary cries and yelps of co-vocalist Kitty White and the extended metaphor sizzles like a fork entering the tickle of a consuming flame – “Stripped and cleaned before your eyes,” “Sweet, ne-he-he-he-at look…fresh and ready to cook” – mysterious, sexual, slippery and consummative. And minimalist, and all the better for it; with Presley, less was always more.

Thereafter Presley attempts to settle back down to business, but doesn’t quite have the heart for it; “Young Dreams” is another pitched battle with the Jordanaires – “YOUNGDREAMSOFLOVE YOUNGDREAMSOFLOVE,” “DR-E-E-E-E-E-AMS,” “IHIHIHIHIHIN EYES.” Audibly exasperated, Presley and his musicians keep their countenance for as long as they can bear until, near the end, perhaps guided by Presley’s signal of “OHOHOHOH” and “LOOOOOVE,” Fontana suddenly decides that enough is enough, bears down on his cymbals and snare and actually succeeds in drowning the Jordanaires out; all they can muster at the end is a final “YEAH!” as though already swallowed by the whale.

Then, after the be good to your school pied piety of “Steadfast, Loyal And True,” the album ends with “New Orleans,” the phoniest of cod-Dixieland constructs. But Presley is determined not to be drowned by all this compromising pleasantry and roars, shrieks the song into some semblance of life. “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WHAT HEAVEN MEANS!” he snarls terrifyingly but liberated. “YouuuuNEVERSEENTHOSEKEWPIEDOLLQUEENSLIKETHEYGOTEM!!” as though they are all fucking him at the same time, “THEYLOVEYOULIKENOONECAN!!,” to which latter the Jordanaires can only respond with a delicious “ARGH!” as though having just been collectively speared with a harpoon. With that pleasing prospect in mind, Presley, knowing he’s winning, streaks down the final lap: “HEYIFYOUNEVERBEENTHERE,” he exclaims, “So help me HANNAH!” (whoever she suddenly is) and the you-couldn’t-make-it-up “Lose the oozyoozyannA!” as he tears the “song” to pieces and makes it count as sex and art: “Get the lead outa ya jeans and HOT IT DOWN HOTITDOWNTANEWORLEAAAAANSAH!!!” just before he leaves for the Army and Germany and reappears, newly liberated, on the other side of the next TPL entry.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING: My Fair Lady


(#15: 10 May 1958, 19 weeks)

Track listing: Overture/Why Can’t The English?/Wouldn’t It Be Loverley/With A Little Bit Of Luck/I’m An Ordinary Man/Just You Wait/The Rain In Spain/I Could Have Danced All Night/Ascot Gavotte/On The Street Where You Live/You Did It/Show Me/Get Me To The Church On Time/A Hymn To Him/Without You/I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face/Finale

The cover shows a cartoon George Bernard Shaw pulling the strings of both Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, teacher and taught, hunter and prey, man and woman, Cupid and Psyche, Jane and Rochester…but who is which, and does Lerner and Loewe’s essential simplification and broadening out of Pygmalion bring us any closer to an answer? George B Dale’s admirably and stiffly thorough summary of the show in his sleevenote absolves me of the need to recap its plot in detail – as, I trust, does my presumption that most TPL readers will be thoroughly familiar with the show in any case, even if only via the less than satisfactory 1964 film version – and leaves me free to ponder the many whys scattered around the show and its construct like fleeing atoms of discarded Covent Garden birdseed.

If Pulp’s “Common People” presented a clever reverse portrait of Pygmalion – the glamorous and wealthy art student determined to slum it in tandem with her mildly contemptuous but still bedazzled working class boyfriend (and who, via “Paper Planes” and “Swagga Like Us,” can be argued to have ended up the winner of that undeclared bet) – then Lerner and Loewe’s (and, more pressingly, Rex Harrison’s) Henry Higgins as a slummer tilts just slightly more towards the masochistic than the sadistic; in “Why Can’t The English?” Harrison is revelling in his cheery, snobby demolition of the mores of what certain Times commentators still refer to as “plain people”: “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter!” Harrison hisses triumphantly as he marches onstage, going on to demand “By rights she should be taken out and hung!” His Higgins revels in kicking against all the pricks (which, by the definition of his world, includes everything and everybody within sight and sound). Eliza growls an “Ow!” as though being kicked or about to kick, Colonel Pickering (about to meet Higgins and become his co-conspirator) splutters in indignation as Harrison hurls himself against the inconvenient limitations of the planet; his “Goooone,” his “chickens cackling in a barn,” hardly redeemed by his subtly balancing “This verbal class distinction should now be antique.” Like many of the show’s songs, “Why Can’t The English?” is more or less a list song, an excuse for Higgins to rage (euphorically) against the deficiencies of everywhere else (“In America they haven’t used it [i.e. the English language] for years!”) before getting, surprisingly early, to the core of his pain: “Use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak.” Higgins’ fury is that of the thwarted righteous man, or at least someone who fervently believes himself righteous.

Then the young Julie Andrews, a voice which will gain in unexpected significance as this tale travels through the sixties, makes her first proper entrance as Eliza on “Loverley” – following a brief Greek/barbershop chorus of ordinary folk daydreaming of “Paree” and “Capree” – and the dilemma becomes immediately apparent with her crisp, Sunbury-on-Thames estuarial delivery of “All I want is a room somewhere” in a story which is supposed to get her to sing like that at the end. She quickly attempts to compensate with overemphasised, underswallowed vocal compounds to resemble the downtrodden flower girl she’s supposed to be but her “ordinary” Eliza is approximately as aurally convincing as Dick van Dyke’s chimney sweep and not helped by the positively regal, immaculately enunciated vowels of “Lots of chocolate for me to eat.” Still, the song steers a blameless course between brisk march (complete with a Seven Dwarfs-resembling unison whistling sequence) and some rather lovely Debussian harmonic pauses where Andrews chews over and considers the word “loverley” from five different perspectives.

“With A Little Bit Of Luck,” thankfully, benefits from some genuine salt of the earth input; for Broadway audiences this was their first major exposure to Stanley Holloway in person – despite being a major stage, screen and recording star in Britain since the early twenties he was mainly known in America for his film performances, notably as an Ealing Studios regular – and he seized the part of Alfred Doolittle with a gusto and cheek remarkable for someone already in his mid-sixties; as Dale puts it in his sleevenote, his “robust low comedy” balances out Harrison’s “crackling high comedy” as he gives “a lusty portrait of an undeserving member of the poor.” “With A Little Bit…” is a cheerful ode of self-glorification where he systematically undermines all of the instructions of “the Lord above” in favour of making up the rules as he goes, chasing after girls, drinking beer with the boys and getting away with doing as little work as he possibly can. His self-possession is a crafty counterpart to that of Higgins, the difference being that he learns better in the course of the story and Higgins appears not to have learned anything. There’s more than a trace of Ian Dury in Holloway’s bearing and delivery.

“I’m An Ordinary Man” returns us to Higgins and his reasons why the world should revolve around him, in a marathon exercise of Olympian self-denial. He alternates between calmly presenting himself as an average man, a patient man, a quiet man, systematically condemning all the characteristics which he ought to know are essential to him and mad rushes of anger against frantic Tom and Jerry races of music wherein he lists the disadvantages of “letting a woman in your life”; the latter eventually rises to a level of hysteria, with Harrison screaming and screeching in terrifying roars against a jumble of speeded up “female” voices – and yet he considers himself and his arguments perfectly reasonable, though when he drops his guard we begin to understand the Rochester within him; his unexpectedly melancholy “Confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so,” and his not entirely ignorant irony when he speaks of his pleasure at being “free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him” – not to mention the encroaching dread of “the silence of his room” which he compares to “the atmosphere of an undiscovered tomb.” And a room which he knows, unless he yields and lets someone into his life, he is likely to end up buried in, despite his barks to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Eliza has become equally exasperated by his over-exacting methods and in “Just You Wait” she ends up demanding his death by Royal decree, after cackling about the new life that she’ll have (with gasps of “OHHHH!!!!” of varying intensity and “Go to St James’s so often I’ll call it St Jim’s”), the pleasure she’ll have in watching him go broke, or get ill and die, or drown in the sea, or be shot by a firing squad. Despite the still vacillating vowels, Andrews does better in this number, crowning her rant with a most convincing screech, a febrility she would not recapture on screen until Victor/Victoria.

Despite all the conflict, however, the two parties are making mutual progress, and we now arrive at something approaching happiness – and which takes both Higgins and Doolittle by surprise. In “The Rain In Spain,” when she gets it, Harrison reacts as though he’s the one who’s finally “got it” – i.e. the point of life – and for the first time breaks loose of the forcefield he has carefully constructed around himself. “And where’s that BLASTED plain?” he excitedly exclaims as though blasting the shell of his sheltered life to blazes. Andrews, too, sounds liberated – not least because she can now revert to her actual “Julie Andrews” voice, but note also her carefully weighed “How kind of you to let me come.” After that come tangos, tambourines, shouts of liberation, dances, howls of “OlĂ©!” To his great astonishment, Higgins learns that he is happy.

It has of course also released something in Eliza; “Bed, bed, I couldn’t go to bed,” she pants at the start of “I Could Have Danced All Night” (an interesting follow-through from “Bewitched”) and “sleep, sleep, I couldn’t sleep tonight,” and despite the housekeeper’s plaintive pleas for her to lie down and get some sleep she continues to exult – and is clearly turned on – in what she has achieved, and not necessarily just for herself. The arrangement gets progressively quieter, as though methodically, gently drawing her towards pillow and counterpane, but she comes back for a final, victorious crescendo.

But then both Higgins and Doolittle have to put themselves about in the world – not necessarily a real one, as the deliberately wooden, stilted and square proceeds of “Ascot Gavotte” make clear – “Everyone who should be HEARE are HEARE,” pronounce the sniffy chorus, as they extol the virtues of the races in much the same way that George Banks would proclaim the brilliance and infallibility of The British Bank a few years later.

And thence comes Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sees Eliza at Ascot, is immediately besotted by her, and stalks her homeward. The big hit song from the show, and a number one single for Vic Damone in 1958, “On The Street” is here sung by John Michael King, son of the noted British expatriate stage actor Dennis King, and is possibly the noblest of all pursuant number one hits; he loves her so much that he almost wants to become the fabric of the pavement, of the incongruous lilac trees, the recipient of the enchantment wont to pour out of her door. The sudden lunges of “Oh! The towering feeling!” and “The overpowering feeling” complement the post-“I Only Have Eyes For You” fantasia (“People stop and stare, they don’t bother me,” “Let the time go by, I (and there’s an earth-stalling pause to go with that “I”) won’t care”…he is so happy in his own premature bliss that he hardly realises how disturbing a spectacle he presents to others.

Back home from Ascot, triumphant, Harrison’s Higgins and Robert Coote’s Pickering only have eyes for their own bet; and yet there’s something unnerving about Coote’s admiring, stunned cries of “You did it!” – almost the admiration of a devoted wife. Harrison is already shaking off the experiment (“easily win,” “deadly dull”), happier about getting the better of Hungarian bullshit detector Zoltan Caparthi (“That hairy hound from Budapest…/Never have I ever had a ruder pest!”), rhyming “foreign” with “aren’t” (“English people areign…”). Finally Coote proclaims “Every little credit belongs to you!” just to catch the wind of a devastated and now supposedly irrelevant Eliza.

She goes back to Freddy, and “Show Me” is the show’s undiscovered gem; King begins it with a dagger-sharp parody of the meaningful, wordy crooner as over slushy strings he intones “Speak and the world is full of singing” etc. before Andrews abruptly terminates his reverie with a furious blast: “Words, words, WORDS! I’m so SICK of words!.../ Is that all you blighters can do?” and launches into a furious tango whose procedural may be oddly familiar: “Don’t talk of stars burning above! If you’re in love – SHOW ME!” “Tell me no dreams filled with desire! If you’re on fire – SHOW ME!!” Remember that in “I’m An Ordinary Man” Higgins has already fulminated over women’s preferences for talking about love rather than talking about Keats or Milton and then cut back to Eliza’s “Here we are together in the middle of the night – don’t talk of spring, just hold me TIGHT!,” the necessity of replacing words with action while the moment lasts – and then remember that track one, side one, of The Lexicon Of Love – a record which concludes that showing love is more important than studying its look - is entitled “Show Me.” “Show me NOW!!” demands Andrews as the song storms to its end.

Holloway’s Alfred, meanwhile, has gone through a similar epiphany, decides to make it all legal after all these years of cheery duplicity, and is happy to go straight: “Get Me To The Church On Time” sees him merrily embarking on his second life (or on his stag night on the eve of it), with increasingly aggravated demands to stop and draw him away from all sources of temptation which would indicate the contrary – “Kick up a rumpus, but don’t lose the compass!” – finally calling for himself to be feathered and tarred and for the Army to be called out if necessary. Nothing is more important than the recommencement and renewal of his life, to which clearly that was not all there was.

Alfred Doolittle has learned but Higgins seems not to have gone beyond the first couple of pages of Lesson One. “A Hymn To Him” is the posthumous partner to his previous rant, and finds him equally at sea (“I cannot understand the wretch at all” he says, more baffled than hurt), though carries its own subtext; in the course of the song he addresses Col Pickering directly: “Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?” “Never!” and later, and more acidly (and, for 1958, startlingly), “WOULD YOU COMPLAIN IF I TOOK OUT ANOTHER FELLOW?” “NEVER!!” With his signoff to an unheard Mrs Pearce (“Would I run off and not tell me where I’m going?” – is this Sartre? – “Why can’t a woman be more like ME???!!!!??”), the number is tantamount to a gay confessional, though one can safely conclude, both from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, that Higgins is gay only in the sense that he understands, in that he loves himself.

Meanwhile Andrews offers her own counterpart to “Just You Wait” in “Without You” as she rejects his attempts at reconciliation; following a dreamy intro (“No, my reverberating friend” answered by harp) she launches into a list of everything and everyone that will continue to thrive and function without him, including the Earth, Windsor Castle and tea and crumpets. “You can go to Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire!” she exclaims as the second part of a rhyme which demands another, shorter word beginning with H, as her previous life flashes through in green sparks of fury (“If they can do without you, DUCKY, so can I!” “So get back in your shell, I can do BLOODY WELL without YOU!!”).

It may seem that here is another case of a would-be Jane and Rochester who finally recognise that they finally cannot connect. “I’ve Grown Accustomed” sees Harrison back in his chambers, alone, and after a punchbag of “DAMN DAMN DAMN DAMN!” he settles down, in sudden recognition of what he may have lost, or the life which he could have had but instead destroyed. As a self-reflex, he hoots and curses at the notion of Eliza marrying Freddy, laughing mirthlessly at the prospect of their “wretched little flat” (“HAH!!”) and Poor Eliza, betrayed and humiliated, running back to him (“How simply frightful! How humiliating!”…lip-licking pause…”How delightful!”). “Will I take her back or throw the baggage out?” he muses, before retreating into the deceptive hall of mirrors of “I’m An Ordinary Man” briefly (“I’m a most forgiving man”) and then roaring with renewed intensity “BUT I WILL NEVER TAKE HER BACK! I WILL SLAM THE DOOR AND LET THE HELLCAT FREEZE!!”

Then a global pause. Then the other self takes over: “But I’m so used to hearing her say good morning…second nature now, like breathing out and breathing in.” He makes one last effort at self-rebuttal – “Rather like a habit one can always BREAK!” – but it’s no use, and he knows it; the “trace of something in the air,” the life seemingly lost, the solo violin mournfully playing “I Could Have Danced All Night” to remind him of what he could have had, if only he’d allowed himself to open up, or be opened up.

Perhaps the greatest controversy in the show – though not represented on the record, it formed the ending on stage and also on screen – is the final scene, literally as the curtain is about to fall, where Higgins is sitting, alone and dead to the world, listening to the ghost of Eliza on record, and suddenly, gently, Eliza reappears in the background, just as Harrison’s no longer grumpy sailor returns at the end of The Ghost And Mrs Muir to escort the newly deceased Gene Tierney back to her proper world. She seems as much of a ghost as anything else; whether or not they will end up together is purposely left hanging in the air.

In a sense this was easier to digest in the film version, where producer Jack Warner, nervous about box office, insisted on Audrey Hepburn instead of Andrews for the role of Eliza (and the voice of the ubiquitous Marni Nixon to sing for her), only to find Andrews winning that year’s Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins; Hepburn, who once appeared as a bit player in Ealing comedies alongside Stanley Holloway, was by now used to being used as a sugar girl fantasy – Fred Astaire, more than thirty years her senior, reshaping her from shop assistant to glamour model in Funny Face, or George Peppard’s daydream in Tiffany’s – but was crucially less “nice” to a rather smug Harrison in the movie, more involving, more understood as someone with a palpable previous life ready to be forgotten. Whereas with Andrews – herself a recipient of unwanted attention from elders in her younger days - there is never any doubt that she will pass as a lady; the studied grace is already absorbed within her.

But the key point where My Fair Lady falls down in comparison to Pygmalion is the Freddy Eynsford-Hill problem. In both stage show and film he is presented as little more than a bland, well-meaning but dim and finally rather irritating Sloane. In Shaw’s original, though, Freddy is a rather more complex character with a filled-in history, including a lifetime of bullying from his own family for perceived inadequacies; he is Eliza’s precise counterpart. So why does he essentially vanish from My Fair Lady when it’s convenient for him to do so? In Pygmalion Eliza very decisively marries Freddy and Shaw was quite clear about why Eliza and Henry could not end up together.

Yet not entirely clear. Put the Pygmalion Freddy and Henry together and you find one life. Henry Higgins is a man who has withdrawn into himself for what seem justifiable reasons, although these are never explicitly expressed or explained. Let down by the world, he has retaliated by constructing an immaculate and perfect world of his own. So it can be argued that he does not truly lose Eliza at the end; taken in the context in which Shaw set him, Freddy is actually and recognisably the young Henry Higgins, the confused but still hopeful and optimistic boy before life and the world did irrevocable things to him, just as Jane Darnell’s birdwoman in the “Feed The Birds” sequence in Mary Poppins carries unusual emotional weight; not simply because once Darnell was Ma Joad, but also because Andrews’ character recognises her immediately as the person Eliza Doolittle might have ended up being had Higgins not cheerily stumbled on her and “saved” her (just as Mary Poppins, the film, is really to do with her Jane trying to save the life of George Banks’ Rochester – as with Jane Eyre, the looking-after-the-children part of the story becomes almost incidental as it progresses). By marrying the “Freddy” part of him, Eliza is in fact bringing Higgins back to life, and as the curtain falls on My Fair Lady that final scene only makes sense when we realise that she has returned to a reborn Higgins – despite his parting shot of “Where the devil are my slippers?” which she recognises as meaning “I love you.” After all, he’s just a boy, but she sees his potential to be a better man.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Tommy STEELE: The Duke Wore Jeans


(#14: 26 April 1958, 2 weeks)

Track listing: It’s All Happening/What Do You Do/Family Tree/Happy Guitar/Hair-Down Hoe-Down/Princess/Photograph/Thanks A Lot

(Once again, special thanks to Mark Grout for kindly finding this album for me within the environs of the town of Reading . This may well qualify as the shortest number one album; its eight tracks last for a combined total of 19 minutes and 19 seconds, which probably explains why it was one of the more elusive entries to track down since its length is not conducive to CD reissue, although I’m sure all the tracks will materialise on CD in some form or another in the fullness of time. In reality the Duke Wore Jeans soundtrack is a slightly extended 10-inch EP, but fifty years ago it qualified as an album, thus its appearance here)

The introduction to “It’s All Happening” is a useful shorthand for the rites of passage of British entertainers in the latter half of the fifties; it begins with an excitable, hiccupping Steele stuttering “Oh look it’s all happening!,” first alone, then with a double bass, then joined by his own acoustic guitar, but after that Light Programme trombones, strings and celeste – scored by Bruce Montgomery, Philip Larkin’s best mate at Oxford (and also a noted crime writer under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin) – set the real scene; Steele is on his jolly way to becoming that holiest of post-war British entertainment grails, An All-Round Entertainer. He certainly succeeded in that ambition; at the turn of the sixties he would cease to trouble the charts – and pop - and proceed to a hugely successful stage and screen career, though as a performer never really progressed beyond the uncomplicated, jolly and toothy mucker-in. He did appear in the Old Vic’s 1960-1 season as Tony Lampkin in She Stoops To Conquer but otherwise has seemed content to amble up and down the lanes of smiles uncomplicated by doubt or complexity. His Don Lockwood in the stage version of Singin’ In The Rain was, three decades after the event, still a teenage Tommy besotted by dreams of being Gene Kelly (rather than the rather nasty, solipsistic viper that Kelly’s Don Lockwood really was). Half A Sixpence was his great triumph, first in the West End, then on Broadway and finally on film – the latter directed by George Sidney, the same man who had directed the movie of Pal Joey – but how airbrushed, how flushed of trouble or side, is his notion of HG Wells, let alone that of Arthur Kipps?

In a lot of ways The Duke Wore Jeans set Steele up for Half A Sixpence, though since its songs were written by Lionel Bart, Mike Pratt and Steele himself (under the pseudonym of Jimmy Bennett), its barbs are subtler and sharper. The bountiful spring in Steele’s step throughout “It’s All Happening” mirrors not only post-Macmillan optimism – no more war apologies or repayments, on with the future (“I heard them say they’re giving it away for free!”) – but also the exultant Steele pictured on the record’s cover, in a colourful and sunny field somewhere near Elstree (and probably on the site of the present M25), knowing that somehow this land, this life, this future, is now all his. This isn’t quite the picture presented in the film itself, which was a zero budget black and white production shot by what was just about to become the Carry On team – producer Peter Rogers, director Gerald Thomas, writer Norman Hudis and the aforementioned Montgomery on non-song musical duties – and a picture which seems to hark back to the thirties of Novello and Formby more than it anticipates the sixties of Lester and Boorman; the plot is as threadbare as the net curtains in most British homes at the time, a variant on the old Prince And The Pauper/Prisoner Of Zenda tropes – there are two Tommy Steeles in the film, a posh one more interested in being a farmer than marrying for money or title, and the commoner, honest guv/salt of the earth/what a North and South Tommy who for no logical reason bumps into his posh doppelganger and gets persuaded to woo June Laverick’s Princess in his place. With scant attention to plot development or even elementary logic, the Old Kent Road Tommy gets the Princess at the end and leads everyone in a knees-up which could have come straight out of 1928.

Steele is pretty much compelled throughout to hold the film together by sheer force of character and natural good humour (plus an excess of hamming to camera surpassed only by Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace), and as for the songs, it’s fair to say that the writers’ wit stops them from falling into routine fare. The blindingly optimistic bounce of “It’s All Happening” works as a Home Counties precedent to Bobby Darin’s “Things” since despite the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” gaiety prevalent (“I’m in love with everything!” “It’s the kind of day where nothing’s in the way of joy”) the song is less than sneakily about sex, with its multiple animal metaphors and its climactic “millions of couples mating,” culminating in a final, hello-David-Essex wink of “If you don’t believe it, take a look at ME!”

“What Do You Do” sees Bart setting off on the road to Oliver! as both Steeles are featured, discussing the ways and mores of their respective classes and how best to exchange places, an interesting, if aslant, comment on the actual societal slumming/closet cohabiting which would emerge into the public domain post-Profumo. Both address the matter like a pair of surgeons discussing and analysing a particularly unusual case; Posh Tommy comes off the more baffled (“Fish and chips and jellied eels is I diet I don’t understand”) while Common Tommy comes off with most of the better lines - “Noses stick up” he sings with a real sense of hurt, “’cos you don’t know what knife to pick up!” (Posh Tommy suggests concealing the act with a well timed “hiccup”), rhyming “debutanties” with “aunties,” responding to “at the races” with “barber’s braces” and sounding dazzled with joy at the prospect of “eating a banana down the Strand .”

“Family Tree” is (Common) Tommy’s big setpiece in the film, a Danny Kaye-ish set-up wherein he explains his own ancestry to the royal court, and he handles it comfortably with immaculate timing (“therefore it’s best for me to skip the boring part”), romping through a shaggy dog story involving Bill the Conqueror (“If looks could kill!”), Robin Hood, Sir Francis Drake (rhyming “Armada” with “bowlin’ ‘arder”), Nell Gwynne (with a highly dubious reference to “oranges that quenched the family thirst”), a great great great great grandfather who’s quickly skipped over (“The less we say about him, the better”), another one who “ran off with the Duchess’ maid” and who was “as nutty as the fruitcake they had for Sunday tea.” Finally, his grandfather, whose portrait stares down at him with a “shocking frown…as if to say nothing shocking ever happened at all”; the convenient nullification of an inconvenient past integral to Victorian values. Still, Steele’s pride is palpable as he returns again and again to the payoff (regarding his family tree) “But nobody ever had the nerve to cut it down!,” topped by a defiant Dambusters/Dragnet orchestral finale.

The next two tracks are outtakes from the 1957 Steelmen sessions and aptly seem to have wandered in from another record altogether (namely The Tommy Steele Story); “Happy Guitar” carries a strange Spanish/flamenco tinge but again Steele interacts well with Roy Plummer’s lead guitar (“You take a pick/Find a string!/Take it QUICK!/Make it SWING!” shrieks Tommy as though impatient to unzip), making with the instrument/sex analogies (“When I’m blue, she makes me grin!”), howling out non sequiturs – “YESSS!!” “So-o-o-o-ONG!” “It’s comin’ from my feet O-O-O-OHHH!!!” Meanwhile, “Hair-Down Hoe-Down” vocally verges on the demented, Steele screeching “You gotta let your hair DOWN! A-gonna a-LET a-IT DOWNNNNN!!,” much to the chagrin of the rather scared sounding backing singers who are wisely mixed well to the back of the mix. “We’re all moving out of that rut,” exclaims Steele, “and into that well known groove!” before concluding the song with a deep, cavernous, echoing “hoe-DOWNNNNN” coming from the bottom of a fathomless well.

After that extraordinary interlude we return to the business of the film. “Princess” is Steele’s big love ballad, though he sounds as small and scared as the Presley of “Don’t.” “Princesssss,” he seeps, “if you love me, I’m a Prince,” before wandering through the unlikely canyons of plot, still pinching himself with some defiance – “found you in the middle of a crowd,” his cliff leap of his downwardly descending “ties” in the line “Broke the ties that bound you,” his clenched “Stood my ground,” his final plea of “If you were poorer, I could be no surer you’re a Princess” and a whisper of “I’m your Prince” which barely rises into audibility.

“Photograph” sounds nothing less than a dry run for Bart’s “Living Doll” with the same dubious meme of sensuality at one remove, though Steele seems to have a good deal more sensuality about him than young Cliff did; “Photograph my baby,” he quivers, “Try to capture what she’s got,” before growling out a sensual “Bring out your camerassssssss” and trembling “Well, I want her picture close to me when I’m feeling amorous.” Unfortunately the tense, pregnant atmosphere is broken by the vocal intervention of June Laverick; from her photograph on the rear of the album sleeve it’s clear that she was made up as a kind of Shirley Jones clone – that irksome, deliberate anti-sexuality so redolent of the fifties – and her “singing” is barely singing, more or less offkey the whole way through and with that awful post-/sub-Alma Cogan non-technique of hiccupping misplaced emphasis (“I HA-WANT his picture CUL-OWSE to me!”). The bass clarinettist at song’s end is right to be sceptical.

After that it’s time for Steele to wrap everything up with the London Palladium-style finale of “Thanks A Lot” (“I’ve had a ball, and I’d like to thank you one and all”). After one sudden wrench of a scream (“I’ve had a BAAAAAAALL!!!!”) Montgomery leads the orchestra into an overemphatic “Knees Up Mother Brown” followed by a quick reprise of “Princess” – you can practically see the credits rolling – and that Dragnet/Dambusters timpani-dominant flourish again. The hills of Hertfordshire alive with the sound of ooer missus trumpets as Steele happily leaves Then Play Long and gets what he, and every other British entertainer of his time, wants; namely, a secure future.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: Pal Joey



(#13: 1 February 1958, 7 weeks; 29 March 1958, 4 weeks)

Main Title/That Terrific Rainbow/I Didn’t Know What Time It Was/Do It The Hard Way/Great Big Town/There’s A Small Hotel/Zip/I Could Write A Book/Bewitched (Hayworth version)/The Lady Is A Tramp/Plant You Now, Dig You Later/My Funny Valentine/You Mustn’t Kick It Around/Bewitched (Sinatra version)/Strip Number/Dream Sequence And Finale: What Do I Care For A Dame-Bewitched-I Could Write A Book

I’ve recently been reading Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. I’d been meaning to read it for some time but until this year’s Vintage Classics reissue programme O’Hara’s novels had been hard to find, the occasional reprint of Butterfield 8 notwithstanding. This looks to have been due to a diminution in reputation for which O’Hara himself, who died in 1970, must take some responsibility. Although he lived much longer than BS Johnson, and his heart rather than his nerve gave way in the end, there are striking character similarities; each clearly believed themselves keeper of their respective literary flames and by brute honesty, or keening self-destructiveness, managed to alienate nearly everyone sympathetic to them. O’Hara has yet to receive his Jonathan Coe-type sympathetic ear and documenter (though one notable cheerleader has been John Updike, the author of the Introduction to the 2003 American Vintage edition of Appointment which I own). He thought himself equal, if not superior, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and in light of his presumed sense of inferiority – he was unable to attend Yale for financial reasons (his father having died prematurely) and spent much of the succeeding half century not forgetting it – he went out of his way to make things difficult for himself, and not everyone was convinced that his prose justified the proselytising. He ended up, as a newspaper columnist, the precise right wing sourpuss his younger self would have trampled into the Gibbsville ground.

But Appointment In Samarra seems to offer little way out, or little in the way of solutions. His Gibbsville is far starker and sharper a prison than Joyce’s Dublin, all of its inhabitants compelled to act out the roles assigned to them. Essentially the book is the decaying story of Julian English, a socialite and moderately successful businessman who in the space of 48 hours sets about systematically destroying his life for no particularly tangible reason; it is telling that only one of the three key actions which destroy him is narrated in detail, or at all. Otherwise the book seems to be an extended would-be suicide’s reverie; there is no reason why he should end, but equally no reason why anyone touched by him should be affected by his ending. Gibbsville will tread on regardless of English, a Gatsby without greatness, a Diver without the vague redeeming qualities of a Dick.

The novel of Pal Joey (published in 1939) is differently structured – it tells its tale exclusively through letters – but connected, as the presence of a similarly initialled antihero, Joey Evans, and his principal love interest, Linda English, confirms. Joey is an ambitious shit who wants to run his own nightclub and is entirely willing to shit or be shat on by others to help further his ambitions. Linda is the poor novice whom he really loves, but Vera Simpson is older, more cynical and, crucially, richer; she can finance his club. So Joey more or less plays emotional table tennis with both, and in the wake of various plot twists, both Linda and Vera agree that he’s not worth the bother and walk away – as does Joey, with another woman whose identity is not the novel’s business.

O’Hara was called upon to write the book for the Rodgers and Hart musical a year later, and although the Broadway show’s director George Abbott made several key changes to the material, the antihero tone was retained; though the plot is simplified to some degree, Joey is once again abandoned by both women at the end. Interestingly the original Broadway lead was Gene Kelly; a good choice, given that calculating coldness which never quite vacated Kelly’s eyes on screen, the man who gleefully pulls the curtain up at the end of Singin’ In The Rain to humiliate two women simultaneously.

By the time the musical was filmed, however, in 1957, Sinatra was engaged to play Joey, and the plot, and indeed the point, was further simplified to a degree approaching absurdity. Several key characters are lost, and while Joey remains what the soundtrack album’s sleevenote describes as a “lovable heel,” the “lovable” takes precedence over the “heel” and he winds up with both the club and Kim Novak’s Linda at the end. Moreover, many of the show’s songs – those in the track listing with the less familiar or more obstinate looking titles – become merely orchestral interludes.

The key songs, however, are intact (though “There’s A Small Hotel” dates back to 1936 and originally appeared on Broadway as part of 1937’s On Your Toes); Nelson Riddle was on hand to do the arrangements although Morris Stoloff did the actual conducting. Pal Joey is the only Rodgers and Hart musical we’ll come across in this tale, which is something of a pity; the lightness and ingenuity of the songwriting here weighs tellingly against the rather heavy “depth” of Rodgers and Hammerstein – Hart’s death from alcoholism in 1943, two years short of fifty, hit Rodgers hard and it’s conceivable that he was subsequently less inclined towards “fun” with all the associated ponderousness that implies. Of the soundtrack’s eleven sung numbers, the “Sex-Tets” chorus girls get to do two (“That Terrific Rainbow” and “Great Big Town”), as does Hayworth (“Zip” and “Bewildered”). Novak’s one lead vocal I’ll return to later but Sinatra is given the remaining six.

His “The Lady Is A Tramp” is the same recording which appears on the CD of A Swingin’ Affair! (and thus the only track directly conducted by Riddle), and the song likewise saw previous Broadway action in the 1937 show Babes In Arms. It is the epitome of the ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra who prevails in Then Play Long, and it’s unclear whether Sinatra is satirising the song’s own innate sense of satire. He starts gently with only rhythm section backing, whispering the “girls” in the phrase “with the rest of the girls,” before Riddle’s arrangement compels him to step a little more forward. In his second reading “barons and earls” are replaced by “sharpies and frauds,” the whispered “girls” becomes a matter-of-fact “broads,” the non-U in Harlem earmines and pearls succeeded by “Lincolns and Fords,” though Sinatra is still careful to lean back and ride over the flute and strings of “free fresh wind” on both occasions (the second “fresh” sounding more yearning than burning) before strutting forth again for the big finish. His concluding, snarling “What Do I Care For A Dame,” which arises out of (and finally back into) an unsettling nightmare scenario of whole tone strings, acts as a hurtful bookend to “Tramp”’s deceptive throwaway nature (“I’ll make ‘em pay ‘til it hurts!” he roars terrifyingly at one stage before pulling himself together over a slow orchestral flourish and declaiming “I can see it plain” before exiting the picture.

His “Small Hotel” too is a characteristic easy midtempo wink of a swing; “I wish we were theeeeeerrrrrre” his tongue surfs over immobile, hourglass strings, while the backing in the second middle eight alternates rapidly between brass and rhythm and trapdoor strings (“Who needs…people?” he inquires of himself, although once again he recovers for a final rally of “Ring-a-ding sleep well”). But the remaining trio of performances offer the considered ballad Sinatra. His “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” doesn’t top Jimmy Scott’s reading on Falling In Love Is Wonderful – although few vocal performances of any stripe do – but Sinatra handles it more than adequately, from the rubato piano introduction with his fainting “Ohhhhhhh what a lovely time it was,” his plaintive “then you held my hand” over still strings, his comforting “Warm like the month of May,” his proud clinging to “grand, GRAND!,” his softly ecstatic downhill ski of “to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone,” his self-startling triumph of “Say I’m alllllllllllll your own,” before the swing strikes up and his mood transfers from awestruck to smiling. Always he eases back at the right moment, like a carburettor drawing back into an unhurried first gear, and his grin at the line “I’m wise” declares radiant happiness.

Sinatra’s “I Could Write A Book” conveys a reclusive brand of gladness; the low string introduction indicates unwarranted gravity but is quickly alleviated by comforting flutes as Sinatra narrates his tale of how he wrote his book of love; his “whispers” is shadowed by a solo harp, his “so the world would never forget” securely heartfelt, the Billie Holiday bend and resurfacing of the long “my” in “as my book ends.” Impalpably motionless strings are counterpointed by Glenn Miller trombones as warm as July morning honey, setting the stage for Sinatra’s liquid descent of “I lovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvve youuuuuuu a lot.”

Before I talk about the remaining Sinatra performance I have to take Rita Hayworth’s two numbers into account; in many ways her Vera is the unspoken heroine of the film (and it’s little wonder that Sinatra allowed her top billing in what was in most senses her last notable film), cynical and perhaps as cold as Sinatra’s Joey feels her to be, but they speak the same language and her interpretation might be the more truthful. “Zip” was not written for Vera in the original show but as an erstwhile burlesque star (and as the character who sings the song onstage was excised from the movie altogether) she gets to do it in the film. In it she ponders, in a low, confidential turn on of a voice – actually the dubbed voice of one Jo Anne Greer, but it’ll more than do – about the conflicts between intellectual aspirations and the need to earn a living (“I had to earn a dollar!” she exclaims near the end of the song, the nearest she gets to anything approximating exasperation). Otherwise, the music seems to play games with her vocals and thoughts, the multiple percussion suggesting a low wattage, domesticated Yma Sumac; her Schopenhauer reference is answered by a rattle, her Freud by rattling timbales. Cowbells and even slide whistles also make their contributions as she wanders through an enclosed world which still manages to encompass Whistler’s Mother and Charley’s Aunt, rhyming Plato with Cato but still managing to sneak in a post-Hart jibe at Marilyn haters (“She not only acts, I hear she can think” she sneakily paraphrases).

Then, after Sinatra has written his book, comes “Bewitched” as Hayworth sees it; following an introduction of Vaughan Williams flute, oboe and strings comes her spoken voice, laughing at herself as much as, or more than, Joey: “He’s a fool and don’t I know it,” before throatily purring “like a babe in arms,” reviving that old Gilda sensuality, complete with elbow-length gloves. Although she refers to “this half pint imitation (of love),” and despite all that she knows, she’s a sucker for him, and she’s quietly enjoying it; “I’m wild again, beguiled again,” she giggles over candid celeste. “Couldn’t sleep…and wouldn’t sleep,” she smiles, careful to emphasise the “p”s. After acknowledging that “He’s a laugh, but I love it” she hums away to herself (“La dad a, daa da dee dum”) with the contented air of someone who doesn’t care who’s eavesdropping. “I guess the laugh’s on me,” she remarks, touched, before smiling through the stoned-sounding “I’ve tripped again” and the emphatic “unzipped again,” hovering between Jo Stafford stasis and Doris Day decorum, bringing out the sexuality inherent in both. Hers is not the more “profound” “Bewitched” but in its good humoured realness it is the more rationally truthful.

Sinatra’s “Bewitched,” however, emerges from the dark cobwebs of Where Are You? In his introduction, strings take precedence over flutes and he begins to sing immediately. “She’s a fool and don’t I know it,” he mourns, and his “don’t I show it, like a babe in arms?” bears the air of tragedy, the doors of doom closing. His prelude is longer than the Hayworth version; his “on the blink” is answered by a vertiginously descending staircase of strings (and we’re getting back to that crucial “vertiginously” in a moment). Like a firing squad target meeting his end in slow motion, Sinatra falls into the “I’mmmmmmm” which leads him into the song proper, his “wild again” sounding slightly scared (is he going to hurt Linda by saying yes to her? Will Vera pull his carpet away in that event?). His first “bewitched” is answered by a flurry of flute; magic dust the singer mistakes for falling leaves. While Hayworth resignedly sighs “Love’s the same old sad sensation,” Sinatra seems to be absorbing that sensation passively; her eager “and what would I do if I shouldn’t sleep?” is balanced out by Sinatra’s “Love came and told me – shouldn’t sleep.”

Then the orchestra falls away; Sinatra is left alone with closing time piano and knows he has to make a decision, and a life or death one at that; “Sheeeeee’s cold,” he shivers, like negotiating a frozen hump bridge in plus fours). “She might laugh, but I love it,” he ponders, “although the laugh’s on me,” but then the orchestra returns in descending whole tones, and the turnaround happens; somehow, somewhere – is it via magic? – the rest of the orchestra rises from behind the strings, and a new Sinatra, if not a new Joey Evans, rises with the sun, patiently but in fierce belief. “I’ll sing to her,” he declares, “Bring spring to her!” knowing that it is his last chance as the timpani roll, before making the astonishing ascent to “and long for the day that I’ll CLING to HER!,” going higher and higher, clinging to that extended CLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING as he’s never clung onto anything or anyone before in his life, to meet and bear the winds of the song’s thunderous crescendo. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Sinatra’s discography.

But, in the end, we have to return to Linda, and hence to Novak, and hence to that “vertiginous”; I doubt that Pal Joey would have had quite so much resonance without knowledge of the film Novak went on to make the following year. The clues are all over the place; the string tonalities in the closing dream sequence so redolent of Bernard Herrmann (and thus doubling the irony of the Latin-tinged instrumental “Bewitched” and the tacked on choral “Book” happy ending which follow it, and in turn are bookended by melancholy Chinatown trumpet and gradually enclosing strings. Or Novak’s brief cameos as part of the chorus line, in “That Terrific Rainbow” with the express duality between “red hot mama” and “heart of gold,” or at the end of “Great Big Town” where she enthusiastically sings the praises of San Francisco.

And then, the one voice that she is given wholly on this record; so absorbed is she in herself and also in not wanting to be seen when she performs this in the film that it scarcely matters that she has been given the voice of one Judy Erwin, but then…Judy and Madeleine…a guitar meeting mournful strings mid-sky (anticipating Gil Evans’ “Where Flamingos Fly”), a voice so tentative you wonder whether it even needs to be heard, lower than any radar could reach, and a Valentine which had also seen previous service in Babes In Arms and (crucially) with the androgynous contralto of Chet Baker (not to mention the even more ambiguous gender of Miles Davis’ reading). But few readings have ever sounded as complete a lament as Novak’s; she knows he will never change, that he might still prove the Julian English to her Caroline, but the highness of her “WALK” sees a bridge of gold where Joey still only sees potential scrap metal. And there is the hint of terror: “But don’t change your hair for me/Not if you care for me” sounds petrified in the foreknowledge of how Scotty Ferguson will turn that around, especially in the more anxious second reading where she sobs that “care.” She ends with an extended, don’t-let-me-jump “stay” and a quiescent, out of tempo “each day is Valentine’s Day,” dissolving like an aspirin pill in the pool of Poseidon like the thinking, rescuable Marilyn that many still consider Novak to be; a bashful woman still capable of turning around in the market square in Baghdad and staring Death all the way back to Samarra for keeps.