Prince and Victoria Wood

Jeez. Prince and Victoria Wood. Within a day of each other. One a global music superstar, the other a ‘national treasure’. Both of them turned out to be phenomenally talented at whatever they put their hands to. He could play any instrument; she could write drama, play piano, tell jokes, be charming, sing funny songs, and even do straight acting if she wanted to.
 
When I was a teenager in the 80s, I was passionate about music (well, still am) and I read the then-as-passionate-if-not-more-so music papers, the NME and Melody Maker, every fortnight, spending my lunch money on them instead of on my lunch. (Sorry, mom, I lived on Manhattan popcorn in those years.) I read about Prince’s genius, his brilliant synthesis of rock and funk and soul, his mastery of guitar, his sexiness, his devastating music. And in the evenings, with my family, I tuned into Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, which I never read anything about.
 
And I heard Prince’s music. And I didn’t get it, ever. It always sounded to me like crappy pop music.
 
And, watching Victoria Wood, I laughed my ass off, and was sometimes moved and disturbed by how far she was prepared to go to explore the lives of desperately cheerful people who went on being desperately cheerful even when they didn’t seem to have a hope in hell. (And sometimes, they didn’t; sometimes, they lost hope, or just lost.)
 
Now I’m in my 40s, and they are both dead, both enormous talents, both of them much too young. They could have gone on to do way more. I know much more about music now, and I can finally hear how original Prince was, and how he brought different kinds of music together, and I appreciate how he was in many ways colour- and gender-blind when it came to hiring musicians, and he boosted people who deserved boosting, and he fought for his right to deliver his music the way he wanted to.
 
I know it’s not a competition. As someone who writes about music, and as a guitar player, I have nothing but respect for Prince and his music and his legacy, which I can’t even begin to grasp. I know he affected way more people than I can imagine, far more deeply than he ever affected me.
 
But the one I’m actually going to miss is Victoria Wood, because she changed the way I thought and felt about the world.
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Prince and Victoria Wood

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Making a Murderer and other telly

Well, late to the party with this one, as usual.

It’s on its third season. I saw the first season advertised on Edinburgh buses and thought, well, whatever, a cop comedy, I donno, probably involving some sort of Saturday Night Live people, maybe, maybe not. And then we spent the next few months finally watching all of Breaking Bad, after which of course all shows are a bit of a let-down. (Seriously, Breaking Bad is indeed a wonderful show, but after all, it’s what it says on the tin: it’s about a guy who starts out basically decent and who, in the course of finding out what he’s capable of doing, discovers that he’s capable of enormous villainy. And it’s not about much else. This is not a criticism; it’s classical drama, it’s the steady revelation of character through action, I’m all for that. But there were times when we just wanted to watch something more…fun.)

None of the foregoing parenthesis explains why we subsequently hooked up with Making a Murderer. Seriously, in the history of documentary television, outside of The World At War and anything about serial killers, has there ever been a more loathsome figure than Manitowoc County District Attorney Ken Kratz? I cannot remember seeing anyone in a documentary who I hated more. Obviously the filmmakers picked and chose what they wanted from all their footage, but something about Kratz’s complete uninterest in the presumption of innocence, his sanctimonious lecturing about how evil the defendant was, and above all I think the vile, toxic stupidity that made him so unaware that it was perfectly obvious that even if Steven Avery had killed Theresa Halbach, he, Ken Kratz, had utterly failed to prove it – all these things made him come across like somebody who should never been allowed to participate in the justice system. There are a bunch of people in Making a Murderer who seem to have been at best negligent and at worst criminal, but most of them looked like they knew they were doing wrong. Kratz’s blithe, calm confidence in his own righteousness is what made him so despicable. His only rival was useless defence attorney Len Kochanski, who shared Kratz’s stupidity and utter inability to maintain the presumption of innocence but who lacked Kratz’s insufferable pomposity. Instead, Kochanski had the giggling, imperturbable self-regard of someone who believed that the entire murder trial was something that was happening to him, rather than to his client.

Okay, enough about Making a Murderer, except to say that the revelation that Kratz had been forced to resign after making sexually harassing text messages was sweet, and that if Steven Avery really is guilty, I don’t understand why he continues to slog away as if he isn’t. If he really did do it, but not the way he was convicted for doing it, he must know that the truth will eventually come out, and so he would have nothing to gain by tirelessly trying to get people to reopen the case. Instead, he tirelessly tries to get people to reopen the case. The only conclusion is that he’s either even more stupid than people think (which makes it hard to believe that he could have cleaned his own trailer so meticulously as to remove not only all traces of the victim’s DNA, but also all traces of the cleanup), or that he’s innocent.

Which brings us to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom about cops from among other people Michael Schur, who brought you Parks and Recreation. (I have not gone on and on about Parks and Recreation only because this blog is supposed to be about music.) Brooklyn Nine-Nine is part workplace comedy and part police procedural, and stars SNL alumnus Andy Samberg as a hotshot cop who dislikes playing by the rules, and Andre Braugher (Homicide) as the by-the-book new precinct captain who insists on reigning in Samberg’s character. The twist here is that Braugher’s character, Ray Holt, is gay, and this is his first command; having been an outstanding detective, he then came out and was immediately reassigned to public affairs work, because that’s what the police department thought a gay police officer ought to be doing. Now that he has his own precinct, he’s determined to prove that a gay captain can run as tight a ship as anyone else.

Well, it may not sound very promising, and it takes a few episodes to warm up, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a treat, with an outstanding ensemble cast and a nice blend of genuine police procedural stuff and daft humour. I am not an SNL-watcher and so Samberg is not someone I’m familiar with, but his character, Jay Peralta, is a true character: cocky, lazy, brilliant and annoying in equal measure. Melissa Fumero plays the precinct’s most dedicated detective, the very straitlaced Amy Santiago, and they’ve managed to avoid making her the eternal Straight Woman. Santiago is a helpless suck-up to Captain Holt, who is utterly uninterested in flattery, but she has a nice line in put-downs (when a sleazy detective says goodbye to her with ‘Stay foxy’, she smirks back ‘Die lonely’.) In a notable piece of diversity casting, the show has not one but two Latina characters: Stephanie Beatriz, who before this show was doing a lot of Shakespeare, plays the epically bad-tempered Rosa Diaz (she has an endearing blog on Latina.com in which she shares her experiences on the show and gives advice on skin care.) And there are a bunch of other very fine actors too, but we’ll just wheel back to Braugher’s performance as Ray Holt, which in some ways is a fascinating variation on another character from a show created by Michael Schur: Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson. The difference is that Holt is utterly, almost absurdly dedicated to his own job in a way that Ron is utterly, almost absurdly dedicated to subverting his own job. Holt is also wonderfully deadpan, uttering lines like ‘That is literally the funniest joke I have ever heard in my life’ in exactly the same stony monotone that he uses for almost every utterance. (This leads to a nice gag: in one episode, all the detectives are sharing stories of how hard it is to figure out what Holt really thinks, with flashbacks to all of them witnessing him saying different things in the same tone of voice. However, with one utterly rubbish detective, we see a flashback of Holt furiously bawling the guy out about how useless he is and flinging paperwork at him, and then we cut back to the guy in the present, still puzzling over the incident and wondering ‘It’s like, what is this guy thinking?’)

So, that’s our quality cop sitcom fix taken care of for the moment. Looking forward to seeing how things go over the next two seasons and a half.

 

 

 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Making a Murderer and other telly

Mozart in the Jungle

I’ve not been exactly binge-watching this show, but certainly watching the whole two seasons in the course of about the last fortnight or so, occasionally interrupted by our 20-month-old son having a shit-fit in his cot because he can’t locate one of the three dummies he has to have positioned in there in the event of him arising from deep sleep to semi-wakefulness. But enough personal detail.

So, in case you haven’t noticed, this show is a ‘dramedy’, which is the 21st century equivalent of what used to be called a ‘gentle comedy’ (meaning a basically comic take on  a subject which doesn’t quite have the balls to be full-blown comedy) about a fictional orchestra, the New York Symphony, which in episode 1 kisses goodbye to its incumbent chief conductor Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) and says hello to its new one, Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal).

There are obvious casting gags going on here, notably in having Malcolm Mc-Bleeding-Dowell playing the supposed Old Fart character. McDowell was once one of the most terrifying actors out there, thanks to his spectacular work in A Clockwork Orange and If …, and in this show he’s definitely playing a Young Turk Grown Old. Thomas is said to have conducted his generation’s definitive performances of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which I guess identifies him with Carlos Kleiber, except that Thomas, unlike Kleiber, is gregarious, outgoing and still has this idea that he’s really a composer, which Kleiber didn’t seem to be too bothered about. Rodrigo himself is what TV Tropes would call a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the LA Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel, except that Rodrigo is Mexican and Dudamel is Venezuelan. (Also, while most famous musician cameos in the show have seen people playing themselves, Dudamel’s cameo was in a brief scene where Rodrigo was guest conductor for the LA Philharmonic; Dudamel played the LA Philharmonic’s stage manager, joking with Rodrigo about how their usual conductor wasn’t very good.)

On the whole I think it’s a greatly enjoyable show, except for the times when it stops trying, and resorts to being broadly satirical. Most of these moments involve the character of Anna Maria, Rodrigo’s Wacky Performance Artist wife. You feel bad for poor Nora Arzeneder, the French actress given this steaming-pile-of-horse-shit of a role: Anna Maria’s schtick is that she’s a superbly gifted violinist but in her performances she always subverts her own talent by playing something beautifully and then smashing her violin as part of a ludicrous rant about the ‘bourgeoisie’, or some such. Anna Maria behaves like a 13-year-old’s idea of a romantic artist; in one episode, Rodrigo persuades her to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in front of the NY Symphony, and she gets as far as the actual performance and plays the first couple of dozen bars beautifully, before stopping and insisting that she can’t go on and that it’s all bullshit and she can’t play for these ‘pigs’, going on to implore Rodrigo to leave this idiotic life and come away with her, etc. It was all very predictable, and I won’t spoil the rather predictable outcome. Nobody as chaotic and stupid as this would have risen in the arts to the kind of eminence that we are invited to believe Anna Maria has; in real life, she would never have agreed to play the thing in the first place, because it would have meant giving up all control as an artist about how she was presented, but they wanted to give Rodrigo a tempestuous private life, so that’s where they went.

Still, the show has great things about it. One of these is Lola Kirke’s performance in what’s actually the main role, Hailey Rutledge, a talented oboist who starts out playing in pit bands and teaching oboe to a rich kid more interested in her tits than in practising. Hailey’s dramatic arc in season 1 is about her desperately trying to find a place for herself in the orchestra, which already has a perfectly good oboist in the seriously badass Betty Cragdale, played with wonderful acidity by veteran Broadway actress Debra Monk. Lola Kirke is the sister of the better-known Jemima Kirke, star of Girls; as Hailey she nails the gloomy, obsessive quality of good classical musicians, utterly dedicated to practising because that’s the only way you get anywhere, but she also conveys Hailey’s lack of social skills and her general awkwardness by means of Hailey’s peculiar goofy laugh, a sort of feminine variation on Muttley from Wacky Races‘s ‘Huhhh-huhhh-huhhh!‘.

There are three other great women characters in the show. One is Cynthia Taylor, head of the cello section, played with immense calm and inner steel by Saffron Burrows. It’s established fairly early on that Cynthia is both a.) a good sort and b.) seriously up for it; when Hailey is trying out for the oboe section, Cynthia takes her out on the town, gives her a good time and good advice, and pairs her off with a sexy bartender who happens to be a talented dancer. Cynthia is also Thomas’s mistress, which is less interesting than you might think; her character comes into much better focus in the second season, when the orchestra runs into labour troubles and hires its own lawyer, Nina, played by Gretchen Mol. Nina-and-Cynthia becomes a story in itself, one that itself riffs off Saffron Burrows’s own visibility as a bisexual woman. But the coolest thing about Cynthia is not, in my view, her sexuality, although it’s nice to have a character who is attracted to whoever she’s attracted to and doesn’t worry about it. Cynthia’s true quality is that, unlike the nervous and would-be devious first violinist Warren Boyd, she’s the real leader of the orchestra.

The next is Gloria Windsor, head of the orchestra’s board of directors, played by Bernadette Peters. Peters’ screen career has been relatively limited — if you’re like me, you probably saw her in Steve Martin’s The Jerk and not a lot else, but that was in 1979. She has has a seriously distinguished career on Broadway, most famously in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and a lot of that feeds into Gloria, who besides being dedicated to the orchestra is also a born performer, which serves her well in fundraiser nights with sponsors. This part of her character culminates when she turns out to have long-abandoned ambitions as a lounge singer; in a season 2 episode, Gloria shows up at an open mic night in a NYC bar, and delivers a show-stopping performance of Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 hit ‘Come On-a My House’, very much modelled on Julie London’s version rather than Clooney’s, but, in context, eclipsing both.

The third is Hailey’s roommate Lizzy, played by Hannah Dunne. In the earlier episodes, Lizzy is rather annoying, a sketch of a hipster, but to the show’s credit, they gave the character more background and Dunne’s commitment makes Lizzy into one of the show’s most appealing characters. Lizzy at her best injects energy into every scene she’s in, and when in one episode she delivers a seriously good impersonation of Billie Holiday, that too gives her character some needed depth.

So, why am I writing this? Just to give more boost to a show that’s already been given a Golden Globe, one of the less-respected awards on the circuit? Mozart in the Jungle has some genuinely sound things to say about the life of a classical musician, and the differences between being a professional musician and an amateur, and the power of music. It sometimes lurches into silly caricature, but not too often. With a bit of audience love, it could mature still further and be a genuinely great show. Right now it’s just very good.

I haven’t mentioned Gael Garcia Bernal because most of the interesting roles in this show are female, but he takes to TV like a natural, he’s a wonderful comic presence without ever losing the character’s basic dignity and intelligence, and his best scenes convince you that Rodrigo is a bit of a genius at finding ways to connect people with music. All this happens in spite of the fact that he never, ever conducts in a convincing manner. But he talks such a great game that you buy it anyway.

OK, that’s me done raving about this show. I neither expect, nor will be disappointed by the absence of, grace and favour from Amazon, whose show it is. You can read all my Amazon customer reviews here. No, I’m not bitter that I wrote all that for nothing.

 

 

 

Mozart in the Jungle

Brahms and being misquoted

For years, we had a toy for our daughter’s cot/bed: a chunky lump of yellow plastic shaped like a star which, when turned on, played a variety of lulling tunes and projected a moving image of cuddly cartoon bears onto the ceiling. We’d put it on and play it to help her get to sleep, and one of the tunes, well known to anyone who’s ever watched a vintage Looney Tunes cartoon in which a character has been rendered unconscious, is the melody from Brahms‘ Wiegenlied, a.k.a. ‘Brahms’ Lullaby’.

However, the plastic star thing used to play this tune in a way that used to make me annoyed ever time I heard it, because of what I regarded as the inept coding of whoever had programmed the melodies. Cartoons and TV have always taught us that the opening few bars of the melody go like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.19.13

Or, for those who can’t read music, da da dee, da da dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

The Tomy Lullaby Light Show, on the other hand, played it like this (taken from further on in the same document, hence the absence of 3/4 time signature:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.21.52

In syllabic terms, da da dee, da-daaa dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

That slight stutter in the second bar, the way the two quavers in the first bar weren’t just repeated but were turned into a quaver and crotchet the second time around, used to drive me nuts as a crass error in programming. I couldn’t believe it had survived the product testing process. It interrupted the rhythm and stopped it from sounding so immaculately lullaby-ish.

However, I was wrong, and the Tomy Lullaby Light Show was right: that’s what Brahms wrote. Cartoons and TV have been misquoting him for years. And not just them: google ‘Brahms Lullaby’ and you’ll find sheet music websites repeating the same error:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.26.45
http://makingmusicfun.net/htm/f_printit_free_printable_sheet_music/brahms-lullaby-piano-solo.htm

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.28.07
http://www.fretlessfingerguides.com/viola_songs.html

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.28.39http://www.zebrakeys.com/blog/2011/06/brahms-lullaby/

But here it is, scanned in from a copy of the 1868 edition of 5 Lieder Op 49:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.57.35

(Musicians among you will also note that this is in a different key, E flat major instead of F.)

What does this mean? That people are stupid and/or careless? Or is it that they automatically ‘correct’ complexities because they feel things ought to be simple? Brahms had a low tolerance for stupidity and, it could be argued, for people in general, but he knew what he was doing. More on Brahms later.

Brahms and being misquoted

The Muppets and cheap music

This is the second of these posts that hinges on an anecdote about putting my daughter to bed.

My wife and I take it in turns to do what we’ve by default called ‘the snuggle’, which is the rather embarrassing name for a fairly humdrum activity, in which whosever turn it is gets into bed with our seven-year-old daughter and lies there after goodnight for about 20 minutes, just chatting with her quietly about the day but basically doing nothing, the point being to help her wind down and ease into a good night’s sleep while the other parent goes off and prepares dinner/finds something to watch/attends to our newborn son. Tonight, for some reason, Lena made me activate our Kermit the Frog glove puppet. It’s a very typical Kermit puppet, in which you stick your hand inside and you can make Kermit’s mouth move. Lena has had tonsillitis lately and has been watching The Muppets on the sofa, so her love for Kermit is strong right now. I can do a passable imitation of Kermit’s voice, as created by Jim Henson and carried on by Steve Whitmire, so I’m the Kermit operator of choice.

Towards the end of tonight’s . . . damn, the word looks so icky when you type it . . . ‘snuggle’, Lena rolled onto one side, hugged the Kermit glove puppet (with my hand inside it) to herself, and quietly sang to it a few lines of the song “Rainbow Connection”, originally from 1979’s The Muppet Movie but heard by her in the 2011 film:

Some day we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and meeee . . .

I damn near burst out crying when I heard this.

My throat tightened, and I was filled with an immense sense of something or other which impressed me with the transience of this and the fragility of that.

The weird thing is that I was immediately aware of the mediated, second-hand nature of this experience. It was, essentially, a cliché, for a forty-something dad to be moved almost to tears by his daughter singing a silly song to a glove puppet. I mean, even a greeting card company copywriter might be tossing that particular notion into the bin. But I knew that, and as I lay there in the semi-darkened room — because it’s not actually dark at 8.30pm in Edinburgh in May — I tried to identify what exactly was so moving about hearing this.

It was only partly Lena’s voice. Nobody would say that she’s exactly a child prodigy of a singer. Her pitching is extremely erratic, but her rhythm is good. But it wasn’t that she sang it so well that that’s what moved me, the way I would have been moved by a great singer. Her voice has that blurry, unguarded quality that little kids have when they’re untrained singers. She pronounced the word ‘rainbow’ as ‘raimbo’.

It was only partly the song. It’s not a song I have any history with, and I don’t much like the work of Paul Williams, who wrote it (with Kenneth Ascher.)

After a hug and a last goodnight, I had to go out to the supermarket to get some essentials and I put on my coat and headed downstairs and out into the damp, grey Edinburgh twilight. In the supermarket, a song came on from a band that was once my favourite: “Near Wild Heaven”, by R.E.M. “Near Wild Heaven”, for all the sheen of its production and Mike Mills’ obvious sincerity and the guileless homage to the Beach Boys that it is, didn’t move me at all, whereas my daughter’s casual rendition of three lines of a cheesy song by a chronically MOR songwriter had only minutes earlier been one of the most profound musical experiences of my life.

The late Dennis Potter, in more than one interview, said that even the cheapest song has something of the same quality as a Psalm of David, and Potter knew what he was talking about; he became the greatest master of re-contextualising popular song that TV drama has ever known. My experience with Lena and “Rainbow Connection” sealed for me the notion that the context in which a song is presented can account for its impact to a degree which is embarrassing to those of us who take music seriously, and who have spent any time working hard at being good at performing it. Surely it’s only worth putting in all those hours of practice if our performances can transcend mere circumstance.

Ioanna had good old plain common sense on the topic: her view was that I found the song moving because Lena is my daughter. But that’s not an explanation that works for me. When other family members attempt to perform music around me, their familial proximity does not gain precedence over my critical ear, which is a bit shit for them, really, but there you go.

As ever, context is all. The immediate context is that Lena has a three-week-old little brother, Dexter, whose ability to make noises when he wants food or a clean nappy has already soured slightly her early delight in his presence, which is a nice way of putting it. We tell her that Dexter will start smiling soon and will go on to welcome her presence, but in the meantime, she is still waiting for him to respond to her, which being only three weeks old, he has not yet done. Perhaps this is the “rainbow connection”, for her. Or perhaps it’s just that she liked the sound of the song. When I was seven, I didn’t like sappy songs like “Rainbow Connection”. I liked stomping songs, like (to choose another one by Paul Williams) “So You Wanna Be a Boxer”, from Bugsy Malone. But that brings me into my whole notion of the links between music and aggression, of which more later.

The Muppets and cheap music

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream

spotify:user:1161554209:playlist:2M7LuL4OQYSZme9W9WqpgS

So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1