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.
If you’ve never heard the Beatles before, and you started with this song, you may frankly have a hard time understanding the mania. It’s an interesting glimpse, though, at what they might have ended up sounding like if they’d stayed the straightforward rock band they’d been before they got all gussied up in cute little suits. Although they conquered the world on a tsunami of teenage hysteria, it was an ill-kept secret that they’d have been more comfortable playing dingy music halls and causing havoc of a different kind. Well, if they’d listened to more blues and less Elvis they could’ve been the bad boys of rock and left it to middle-class economics student Mick Jagger to glad-hand the establishment.
The Rolling Stones vs. Otis Redding. Which one do you like better? On one hand The Stones’ version has that raw garage band oomph that made their earliest recordings the precursors of punk. On the other hand, they were really wet behind the ears and had no grasp of nuance, whereas Redding was a master vocalist working with Motown’s finest professionals. Redding’s emotional gravitas is clearly head and shoulders above anything Mick Jagger could muster. Redding could give the simplest song real pain and soul. What the Stones offered was their glamour, not so much artful music but an invitation to a whole new way of being. But why choose? A great song can serve many purposes depending on who plays it and how. A Rolling Stones record and an Otis Redding record exist to fill different needs, and the same song can become, essentially, two different songs.
I’ve been listening to a lot more Nina Simone lately. I can’t say that I’ve just discovered her; she is a legend who doesn’t need to be ‘discovered’. But I’ll say that I’m really feeling her music in a way I didn’t before. It’s all part of trying to slowly learn more about jazz. Simone established herself as one of the great jazz vocalists at a time when being a great jazz vocalist was becoming a less and less relevant position. Singing and composing jazz was a tenable way to become a star in the 50’s when Simone began her career. But while the cultural changes of the following decades made most jazz musicians fall out of popular regard, Nina Simone managed to become more important and prominent. This was thanks to her involvement in the civil rights movement, her outspokenness, her socially conscious and politically charged writing, her Afrocentric personal style, and her general reluctance to be made polished and nice (as so many black entertainers had been forced to do in order to enter into the public sphere). Though her more politically charged songs may be what she’s best known for today – and for good reason – they’re the tip of the iceberg. She wrote and sang with unprecedented honesty about the specific burdens of being a black woman, but she could just as easily elevate the most basic love song. There is no message in this particular song that isn’t found nearly verbatim in Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. The difference between ersatz sentiment and genuine soul lies in the delivery.
This is one of those rare songs that wasn’t just good, wasn’t just popular, but somehow managed to be a cultural catalyst for an entire generation. When Buddy Holly burst out with his stripped down rockabilly, young people all over the world pricked up their ears and took notice. And, just like the legend tells of the Velvet Underground a decade later, a lot of those young people went on to form bands of their own. One of those bands was the Rolling Stones, who made it their first American single. Besides inspiring the nearsighted to stop bumping into things, Buddy Holly inspired rock musicians to write their own material, a thing the previous generation’s pop idols were not expected to do. The young Stones lagged behind on writing their own songs too, but they made the most of the material they chose, and their Not Fade Away has become even better known than the original. Buddy Holly and his Crickets had borrowed the song’s beat from Bo Diddley, an innovator in his use of West African rhythms; the Rolling Stones re-Africanized it, with emphasis on maracas and blues harmonica. It came out an entirely new, more scandalous animal, and in its turn made a lot of young ears prick up.
This is a relic of another time. Sure, of course Chuck Berry’s DNA is in nearly every strand of popular music. That basically can’t be overstated. But this song belongs to its time, a time when pop music could encompass nothing deeper than the innocent, inherently adolescent and particularly American joys of cruising down the open road and cuddling with your sweetheart. This was in 1964, and Berry’s acolytes were already hard at work breaking those thematic limitations wide open. Soon rock music would become a respectable art form, and songs about riding around in cars would come to seem hopelessly inane. But to view it in context, there’s a reason so many of Berry’s songs appear lyrically shallow and confined to dumb topics like cars and dating. Chuck Berry was one of the most popular black artists of his time, and he achieved that by not sounding too black. He helped integrate the market with hit songs that charted outside the ‘race music’ demographic, and it was partly because on the radio, he sounded white. And it still holds true today that if a black artist wants real mainstream popularity, they have to scrub their work clean of any uncomfortable references to the true reality of their lives, leaving them with not much to sing about except cars and dating. While the censorship is less explicitly pronounced now, we still see that politically outspoken artists experience harsh backlash; witness the hordes who rushed in to call Beyonce the N-word on Twitter because she chose to perform a socially conscious song at the Superbowl instead of an inane one. So what we see in Chuck Berry’s performance isn’t really the lightheartedness of a more innocent time. We see an artist forced to work within very narrow confines of acceptability.
Brighten up your day with some ska! Bad Manners were probably the silliest, and therefore fun, groups of the early 80’s ska revival. Where many of their peers delved into social commentary and prided themselves on political awareness, Bad Manners just wanted to play fun music laced with raunchy humor. Millie Small’s original 1964 hit My Boy Lollipop was regarded as a novelty song, despite being one of the biggest selling ska songs to this day. The novelty lay partly in Small’s unusual voice, and in large part in the fairly unsubtle double-entendre of the title. Both of those things being just a perfect match for Bad Manners, with Buster Bloodvessel’s unusual voice and love of unsubtle entendres. Either way, it’s an irrepressibly fun song, and who doesn’t love a lollipop?