Sarah Vaughan strikes a mood. Vaughan had a voice like silk and satin, and she made everything she touched sound refined. So, she could almost be singing about herself, for she was an icon of sophistication in her time. The refinement must always be tinged with melancholy, implying that it has been gained at great cost, for otherwise it wouldn’t be anything more than a pose.
In general, I don’t care for an overload of ‘natural’ sound effects. Because it’s corny and not at all natural. This one uses bird calls and a baby’s cry, for that double whammy effect. Honestly, the sound of a baby screeching sets my nerves on edge, so I really it when I have to hear that on record. But you know what, I’ll forgive these kind of production mistakes because it’s Donovan and he gets a pass to be corny with it. It’s a lovely song.
The Rolling Stones thought their Rock’n’Roll Circus had to be shelved because The Who blew them out of the water, but really, it started with Jethro Tull. Then only marginally known, their input of weirdness got the show going. It was supposed to get them famous as a psychedelic blues band, but it may have been a stroke of luck that the show never aired. They weren’t planning on staying a psychedelic blues band for very much longer, and what they became in their heyday doesn’t easily fit into neat boxes you can sell. (That didn’t stop them selling a lot of records, because there was a market back then for weird shit.)
Insofar as someone like Nico could be said to have hits, Chelsea Girl is loaded with them. Classic songs that have outlived whatever small notoriety the singer herself had in life. Nico’s ghostly later work hasn’t had the halflife that Chelsea Girls has. Unlike the material over which she had full creative control, these songs at least take a recognizable form, they can linked – in sound if not at all in spirit – to other 1960’s folk music sung by dewy blondes. Nothing enraged Nico more than being mistaken, because of her looks, for a wistful girl. She despised the production of her first album, with its strings and its romanticism, although it was her biggest success. However, it has become, against the singer’s self-conception, a musical shorthand for quirky romantic disaffection, songs for the dorm room angst of gifted students gacked out on antidepressants. As opposed to what Nico really wanted to convey: the despair of people with needles in their mainline.
Nick Cave and Gene Pitney hardly seem to occupy the same universe, but it appears that they have at least one thing in common: they both have an ear for a grand romantic love song. In Nick Cave’s world, of course, romance isn’t romance without blood, filth and tragedy. When he promises “Scarlet for me and scarlet for you” he’s not talking about a nice corsage. But when he picks an apparently sunshiny love song by a sunshiny pop singer like Gene Pitney, he does it without a trace of irony. You can make fun of Pitney and the edgeless pop music he recorded in the 60’s, when the boundaries between edgy and square were battlefields. A well made love song, when sung from the heart, rings true when a guy with not one hair out of place delivers it, and it rings equally true when delivered by a guy who looks like he crawled out of a dumpster.
I don’t usually have much appetite for the kind of string-laden sentimental ballads that Rodgers and Hammerstein used to pound out for Hollywood. This one is from The King and I, the apex – or nadir, if you prefer – of big budget, socially tone-deaf, bombastic Hollywood exotica. The original clip form the 1956 film is everything that made big Hollywood musicals go out of fashion: mawkish emotion, terrible acting, unwavering devotion to social roles, and of course, racist as fuck. Oh, so so so so racist. What a terrible fucking song, you might say, why are we listening to it? Well, when Nina Simone gets her hands on it, it becomes an entirely new entity. Simone was one of the best interpretive singers of all time, besides being a songwriter with a lot to say in her own right, and when she wasn’t using her music as a weapon in the battle for civil rights, she could take the corniest kernel of half-forgotten Hollywood dreck and turn it into a heartbreaking torch song. Yes, old Rodgers and Hammerstein were telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we should stand by our mans, stand by and support and love and take care of our mans, because, although our mans may be shitballs, as mans most often than not are, they may – they may, they may, they might – sometimes say or do something nice, and isn’t that what love is all about, after all. Gross. Those are the same words Nina Simone sings, but when she sings them, it makes you think about the transience of love and how fragile and precious the good moments are, and how the special times are so few and far apart and have to be stolen from the world. Finding something wonderful in someone – anyone – is so rare, it’s a journey and a hero’s quest and almost certainly doomed to failure, and when you find something wonderful to love, you hold on to it, not because a white lady dressed as a Thai courtesan told you to, but because it’s a flicker of light in an otherwise bleak world.
I love everything about this. It should have been a single. I can envision an alternate universe in which the Rolling Stones murdered their long-term career with one inexplicably successful vaudeville-inspired novelty hit song. They’re now eking out a living playing cornball versions of other people’s hits in dive bars in the north of England. (Brian Jones went on to become a successful record producer in this scenario. He lives in a castle.) Nobody ever envisioned the Rolling Stones being an oom-pah band, but they’re pretty close to it here, and maybe they would’ve been a good one. Ironically enough, for a song that sounds like something your granddad grew up drinking pints to, it’s about the wild new experience of LSD. Because everyone who took drugs for the first time had to write a song about it. The Stones, of course, had to do it differently. Not for them trying to recapture the cosmic magick of an acid trip with lots of mellotron and a sitar solo. They must’ve found the experience deeply comical and absurd more than grand and cosmic. They’re not wrong. The drug culture that sprang up in the 60’s was very often absurd, and could be seen as comical if people didn’t die so much. Anyway, the Stones were often amused by other people’s delusions of grandeur, and they were most likely having a laugh at the expense of other people’s pretentious LSD songs.