Friday, 21 April 2017

Anti Maim

This week's blog was inspired by a suggestion from a reader. Thanks! (I think!)

Lucille Ball was an American institution: actress, model, television executive and slapstick star without whom - its arguable – we would never have had Star Trek. Although her iconic TV shows I Love Lucy, the Lucy Show and Here's Lucy were never huge hits here in the UK, back home she dominated the sitcom scene.

Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company, Desilu, the company she formed with her husband, the Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. After the pair divorced, Ball bought out Arnaz's share of the studio, and she proceeded to function as a very active studio head. She appeared in several hit movies, toured extensively, and was a favourite of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover – not a bad achievement for the former registered member of the Communist Party. She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for contributions to motion pictures, and one for television.

But one thing Lucy wasn’t was a singer. Although she had appeared in musicals including Dance Girl, Dance, Easy to Wed and DuBarry Was a Lady, and had a passable voice her range was limited and, when a big song was demanded then her vocals were overdubbed (on DuBarry Was a Lady by Martha Mears, for example). Lucille Ball was a heavy smoker her entire life and there’s a good chance that the heart problems that killed her were directly related to her cigarette intake: smoking also affected her already weak singing voice, so by the time that the 1974 musical Mame came about, what little instrument that had been there was completely ravaged. 

Mame was a disaster: the film bombed at the box office and Ball’s reviews were brutal. Time Magazine wrote that ‘the movie spans about 20 years, and seems that long in running time . . . Miss Ball has been moulded over the years into some sort of national monument, and she performs like one too. Her grace, her timing, her vigor have all vanished’. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker asked if ‘after forty years in movies and TV, did she discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?’ and other reviewers mocked her for being too old, with Ball filmed out of focus in a vain effort to make her look younger. Watch it: every close up looks as if a thin layer of Vaseline has been spread over the lens. In her defence Ball told one interviewer that ‘Mame stayed up all night and drank champagne! What did you expect her to sound like? Julie Andrews?’ Apparently it took two years to film… God only knows why. Maybe that had something to do with the 40 costume changes Lucille makes during the film, which came at a cost of $300,000. Certainly at one point Lucy had to take time off from filming as she had broken her leg.

Luckily Mame had Bea Arthur, who played Vera in the stage show and she steals the show by recreating that role here.

Mame really is the kind of film that helps explain why so many people hate musicals. In an interview to promote the movie Lucy admits that ‘you can’t really call it singing and you can’t really call it dancing, but I’m out there doing what they asked me to do. I love it [singing] but I can’t, I’m not good at it.’

Lucy is miscast, the musical numbers are overblown and old fashioned and the whole production suffers in comparison to the 1958 (thankfully non-musical) film Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, or the stage show that debuted in 1966 with Angela Lansbury in the title role. The film is entertaining, but only for the unintentionally funny moments in it. Still it was a musical, and musicals need a soundtrack album. Original Soundtrack From the Motion Picture Mame was issued by Warner Bros at the same time as the film hit cinemas; The original Broadway cast recording with Angela Lansbury had sold over a million copies, but both film and soundtrack failed to attract an audience. The album claims to be the original soundtrack, but it’s clear that the songs have been re-recorded. However there’s little improvement evident. If He Walked Into My Life is just terrible, as is the bog-awful cutesy Open a New Window. 

But why take my word for it? Have a listen here and decide for yourself.

Enjoy! 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Let's Lock!

It’s not unusual, as Tom Jones sang, for non-English speaking countries to jump aboard the current western pop bandwagon and launch their own indigenous version of the latest craze. Many countries had their own version of the Beatles, for example, and (naturally) a few years before the Fabs ruled the world, faux-Elvii could be found all over the place.

But none of the local Presley-alikes holds a candle to Masaaki Hirao, the Japanese Elvis. Masaaki Hirao Masaaki was one of the famed Rokabirii Sannin Otoko (three rockabillies), alongside singers Mickey Curtis and Keijiro Yamashita. Yamashita was better known for his ballads (with covers of Diana, Today’s Teardrops and others) and sounds more like the Nipponese Pat Boone or Paul Anka; Mickey Curtis was (well, still is) an actor who did a nice line in Neil Sedaka covers, but Masaaki Hirao was the Number One star of Nippon Rock ‘n Roll. The three men would record an album together, Rock n’ Roll Forever, in 1972.

The rokabirii buumu (rockabilly boom) was born in 1958. Rokabirii may resemble US rockabilly, but the Nipponese version is, as music historian Howard Williams notes (in the sleeve notes to the collection Nippon Rock'n'Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rokabirii), ‘a more varied dish’. Hirao and his oddly-named backing band the All Stars Wagon’s ‘covers of Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and Little Richard are not kitsch renditions, but raw, desperate rockers. Hear a Paul Anka makeover, but put through a rocking mangle; a smattering of jazz; a twist of New Orleans; and some Japanese folk songs with a greased-down quiff. American occupation a distant memory, these boys wanted to party’.

Other Japanese acts had covered western pop hits before: actress and singer Chiemi Eri released an English-language version of Rock Around the Clock as early as 1955. Yet although it’s easy to extract the Michael from these funny foreigners and their difficulty in pronouncing certain consonants, rokabirii posed a real problem in Japan, with the authorities fearing of a wave of delinquency not dissimilar to the cinema and theatre riots seen in the US and UK. The rokabirii buumu only lasted a couple of years, but for a nation of teenagers denied access to Western music (don’t forget, this all happened just over a decade after the end of the Second World War) it must have been incredibly exciting.

Still, when Hirao sings ‘let’s lock!’ on his version of Jailhouse Rock it does sound completely ridiculous.


Enjoy!

Thursday, 6 April 2017

It's Shaun's Show

Although I have not featured this artist (or this record) on the blog before, this somehow feels familiar… like revisiting old friends.

Born on September 27, 1958 in Los Angeles, Shaun Cassidy was still in High School when he was offered a recording contract by Mike Curb, the musician, arranger, producer and – sadly – politician who I first featured on this blog back way in 2009.

Riding on the coattails of half-brother David, Shaun was just 18 when he scored his first hit, a cover of the Tupper Saussy song Morning Girl. Saussy has also featured on this blog before; he was also responsible for the reprehensible The Prophet: Predictions by David Hoy 45 by psych-rock group The Wayward Bus. Instantly young Shaun’s face was all over the place, on magazine covers, on lunch boxes and on posters pinned to teenyboppers walls. For a brief time he was all-but ubiquitous.

Anyway, Shaun scored a few hits, in both the US (where his first two albums sold more than five million copies) and in Europe, but his career as a teen pin-up didn’t last; luckily TV stardom beckoned with a couple of series of The Hardy Boys Mysteries, but the pop hits had completely dried up by 1978. His last notable chart placing at home was yet another cover, this time of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe in Magic

Then he met Todd Rundgren.

Unsurprisingly I’ve also featured Todd before, of course. It was Todd who performed the diabolically awful version of the XTC classic Dear God on his album (re)Production and it was Todd who tried to turn the one-time teen idol Shaun Cassidy into a New Wave star. The results, predictably, are awful.

Wasp, the album Todd put together for Shaun, is just dreadful. Backed by the then-current Utopia line-up, the album is stacked with piss-poor cover versions of songs originally recorded by the Four Tops, Talking Heads, The Who, Ian Hunter, the Animals and David Bowie, alongside a few new songs written or co-written by Rundgren himself.

Wasp would be the last album that Shaun the pop star released. He has continued to act though (he also sang, in the US stage version of Blood Brothers with his older sibling David) but has proved much more successful off-screen, writing, producing and creating such shows as American Gothic, Invasion and Emerald City.

Anyway, here are a couple of tracks from Wasp, with Shaun (and Todd) attempting to destroy the careers of Talking Heads and David Bowie. Thankfully they didn’t succeed.

Enjoy!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Baby Deranged

Over the last few weeks – between a myriad of other assignments - I’ve been watching the deliciously camp confection that is Feud, the eight-part soap opera by the team behind American Horror Story. Depicting in delicious detail the animosity – nay, outright hatred – between legendary screen actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Feud is a delight, and I highly recommend it to you.

I’ve always loved Bette Davis: Now Voyager is an all-time favourite and, of course, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the only film that Crawford and Davis made together (sadly Joan walked of the set of Hush Hush… Sweet Charlotte, which would have seen the two old broads battling each other again, to be replaced by the marvellous Olivia de Havilland) is an over-the-top gothic great. Yet as much as I love her acting, and have a fair old bit of respect for her as a person, I hadn’t really thought too much about her singing abilities… until now.

Bette, born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in April 1908, is probably better known for being name checked in other peoples’ records than for making her own (Bette Davis Eyes, by Kim Carnes for example, although she also gets mentioned in Dylan’s Desolation Row and Madonna’s Vogue), yet record she did.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Spawned the tie in single of the same title, which pitted Bette against singer Debbie Boone (who supplied the voice for the young Jane and sang I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy in the film). Bette only appears on the a-side, and her spoken word section is thoroughly monstrous. She would later perform the song solo on the Andy Williams TV show, a clip readily available on YouTube and re-enacted quite brilliantly by Susan Sarandon in Feud. Bette also appeared on a couple of Broadway cast albums and, in 1965 issued a further brace of singles, the aptly-titled Single (which she also performed on TV and that you can also find on YouTube) and Mother of the Bride. Neither sold.

Then, in 1976, whilst working in England, she recorded an album. Released by EMI, Miss Bette Davis is a horror of a record. Backed by the Mike Sammes Singers (who would also back Barbara Cartland on the atrocious Album of Love Songs) the album includes re-recordings of many of ‘songs’ associated with the great lady, including I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy and Hush Hush… Sweet Charlotte. It is ghastly, and you’re going to love it!


Enjoy!


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Clothing Optional

Easily one of the most peculiar albums issued is the 1962 release Strip Along With Us – ten tracks recorded by a nightclub quartet of music to take your clothes off to. Well, probably not your clothes, but the clothes worn by ‘the lovely Darlene’, ‘the lovely Devin Saint John’ or any other third rate burlesque artist you care to name.

Subtitled Authentic Strip Music for the Discriminating Stripper, the hoots, whoops and whistles from the studio audience were clearly added to give the album a 'sleazy joint' sound, yet the entire album was recorded not on location (the Club Sina, as the anonymous announcer claims) but at the Jaysina Sound Studios in Brooklyn, run by Morty Jay and Sandy Sina. Jay was an organist, arranger and conductor who had also worked with vocal quartet the Crew-Cuts; Sina (real name Santo Nessina) was an engineer who specialised in the Latin American market. Strip Along With Us was issued by Strand Records, who also issued Jay’s solo album Organ Favorites. Morty is probably best known for the tittyshaker/surf instrumental Saltwater Taffy, although both men were invloved in breaking JFK impersonator Larry Foster, co-writing and producing Foster's 1962 hit My Christmas Message to the World.

The sleeve notes are a hoot: ‘the concept of this album is authenticity’, they proclaim. ‘This “on location” treatment puts the emphasis where it belongs – on the bumps and grinds.’ The author attests that the mistakes made by the band are intentional, included to accentuate that ‘authenticity’, although I would argue with his claim that ‘it’s been every woman’s hidden desire to try a strip routine, and every man’s hidden desire to watch one.’ As the sleeve announces, ‘the cover photo was used with permission of one of the country's foremost performers, Miss Libby Jones, The Park Avenue Playgirl’. Libby (real name Adlyn Morris) does not actually appear on the record itself, although one track, My Heart Belongs to Daddy does feature a vocal from a fake stripping chanteuse going under the guise of ‘the lovely Arlene Bartell’.

The Strand label, which specialised in bargain bin dross, cheaper-than-cheap reissues and cash ins was only in existence for around six ears (1959-65); in 1960 they issued Sick Along With Us, an album of mental health-themed ‘humour’, and the rest of their output included recordings of hymns, easy listening jazz and exotica, a tribute to the late Clark Gable (Dear Mr. Gable, by Karen Chandler: the title song had originally been sung by Judy Garland) and, of course, the aforementioned Organ Favorites.

Anyway, here’s the whole album for you, split over two files (side one and side two). Make of it what you will! The track at the end of side one, which purports to be Night Train, is hysterical.

Enjoy!

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Road Trip with the Swinging Strings

A song poem record today, originally posted by our good friend Bob Purse over at the no longer updated WFMU blog. I’m reposting this for a couple of reasons, firstly because you need to get a copy before the WFMU links stop working and secondly because I’m off on a road trip myself this weekend and the subject matter seemed apt.

This particular disc, Scotty Scott’s Chattanooga, Nashville, Battlecreek Trek backed with the amazingly awful Antique Hunter’s Craze was issued by the Film City label at some point in the (I would guess) mid to late 60s. Film City was formed by Sandy Stanton, the guitarist, bandleader and erstwhile record company mogul who had already founded one other company - Fable – and who would go on to launch several others, including J-Rad, Opossum and Wesley. Rodd Keith was Stanton’s first star performer, and when he moved on to Preview he replaced Rodd at the Chamberlin with Ron Solovay (a.k.a. Leigh Crizoe, read here) and then Frank Perry. The keyboard work on this particular disc is rather stilted, which makes me think it’s unlikely to be either Rodd or Frank, who were both more stylish and ‘bouncy’; it could be Ron Solovay, but it’s more likely to be Sandy Stanton himself.

Like all the best (or worst) song-poem records little attention has been paid to detail. The rhyming couplets are awful, the lyrics have been awkwardly shoehorned in to fit the music and no one, not even our Scotty, can be arsed. Heaven.

Antique Hunter’s Craze reminds me of Singin’ Jack Curran’s The Barber Shop, from song-poem/vanity record maven Dolly O Curran (featured almost exactly six years ago on this very blog and reposted below). Dolly O Stech-Curran began her song-poem career sending in lyrics to Preview: Suzie and Rodd, a.k.a. Rodd Keith and Suzie Smith recorded one of her songs, I’m the Wife.

Scotty Scott issued at least one other 45, A Friendly Smile backed with I’m Crying Again, which seems to have been the debut release from the tiny Chime Records of Hempstead, New York. Both sides of that single were written by Will Wheeler and one J. Gardener: the same pair of songsmiths composed several of the tracks issued by Chime, and Wheeler also produced many of the singles issued by the company, including Groovin’ is Easy by Paper Cup (CH 111) and Homer Briarhopper’s My Happy Clown (CH 107). Chime also issued the rather groovy garage classic Mr. Zeppelin Man by Nick D’Angelo’s Farmers. Guitarist, songwriter and singer Nick now goes by the name of Nirantara Däsa and devotes his life to spreading the teachings of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Enjoy!

Friday, 3 March 2017

Do You Want to Lick Me?

Paris-based Phil O’Kings, or Phill O’Kings or perhaps even Phil O’Kins (he was credited with a different spelling on each of his 45s) released a handful of Eurodisco singles in France in the mid 80s. He also appeared, as part of a conglomeration of 75 French stars, on the charity single Liban (Lebanon), issued in 1988.

From what I’ve been able to glean there were three singles, each issued on a different label: Good Time Break (released around 1984 and clearly influenced by the breakdancing craze), the 1989 release Chasseur du Charme, and the truly terrible Homo Gay issued in 1985, the 12” mix of which features almost six minutes of Monsieur O’Kings’ out of tune caterwauling.

The lyrics of Homo Gay make no sense in either language, but the first verse seems to be about our Phil’s obsession with a cute English boy with wavy blond hair and a penchant for wearing tweed. In verse two Phil sings about an androgynous-looking person with skin like black plastic. My assumption is that it’s this section that inspired the sleeve designer/photographer to take an image of Phil doing his best Grace Jones impersonation.  Luckily the chorus is pretty self-explanatory.

And how did I discover this nonsense, you ask? Well, for the last 10 months or so I have been writing about the history of LGBT music and musicians for a book, due to be issued this November, entitled David Bowie Made me Gay. Those of you who follow this blog via Facebook will probably know that I recently held a workshop on homophobia in music and it was through a discussion on what tracks to use that we found this gem. During my research I’ve uncovered some of the most peculiar records I’ve ever heard – some of which I’m going to share with you, you lucky people!

As each of Phil’s singles features just one song (all other tracks are either remix or instrumental versions of the title track) I’ve included both Good Time Break and Chasseur du Charme as well as the execrable Homo Gay.

Jouir!

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