Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Town-Sinatra, Presley & Morrison

This Town Mix

Dennis Hopper in The American Friend

                                    Well I’ve never been to England
                                    But I kind of like the Beatles
                                    So I headed for Las Vegas
                                   Only made it out to Needles
                                  Never Been to Spain by Hoyt Axton

With the late 60’s came an increasing amount of self-consciousness in rock music, fed by the emerging opinion of both its performers and audience that it was “serious art” and no longer trashy, disposable fun for kids.   It can be argued whether this type of self consciousness is helpful to any art form, but it was particularly crippling for rock, usually at its best when both playful and unselfconscious, as it led to the wanton encouragement of some of its worst instincts: long boring jams, an over emphasis on instrumental prowess, the need for lyrical messages of import worthy of the appellation art (be they political, mystical, social or navel gazing personal) and the consequent shedding of good pop instincts such as brevity, excitement for its own sake, innocence (feigned or otherwise), hooks, and maximum-impact candy coated production. 

Along with these changes came an increased disdain for the showbiz roots of pop as exemplified by performers like Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and the recently transplanted to Las Vegas, Elvis Presley.  These performers and their world of old fashioned show business, with its sharp and clean dress style, and trappings of formal performance that attempts to both please and build a rapport with the audience, were considered overly mannered, square, and phony.  Now in retrospect this counter culture disregard for the graces/manners and artistry of these showbiz performers seems to reveal not so much a commitment to honesty or integrity, as contempt for the audience and any expectations they might have of being entertained at the expense of the artist’s fair share of self-expression.   

The new consciousness of rock as serious art found the ideal medium in the contemporaneous emergence of free form FM radio which could cater to and indulge all of these would be “artists” even further.  Meanwhile the AM dial was left to the post-Monkees boom of bubblegum pop and what could be loosely termed easy listening, cats like Sinatra, Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, and the Carpenters, as well as rock/pop people that didn’t quite cut it in the new heavy artist context; Johnny Rivers, Elvis Presley, Jackie De Shannon, Ricky Nelson, Scott Walker and Simon & Garfunkel, and cross-over sophisticated country pop artists like Roger Miller and Glenn Campbell.  While not all of these artists, Scott Walker in particular, were standard AM radio fare in the States, most were aesthetically in line with the sounds that dominated the AM dial in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and contained an equal mixture of pop/rock, easy listening and showbiz class.  And it’s this admittedly loosely defined genre, "this town" if you will, that I would like to explore and carve out in more depth. 

Back in 1964-67 AM radio featured an excitingly eclectic play list mixing up the new experimentation in folk and garage rock (both of which still kept an eye on good pop form), with all kinds of goodies like Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes, Henry Mancini, Roger Miller, Motown’s Sound of Young America, Stax R&B, and an assortment of regional hits.  You might hear Jack Jones followed by Sam the Sham, the Miracles, then a Henry Mancini movie theme, followed by Dionne Warwick, then the Standells and the Supremes.  And in 1966 the adult contemporary brigade got a big shot in the arm when Frank Sinatra came back strong with his Strangers in the Night album, which was one of his last collaborations with the great Nelson Riddle.  The album signaled yet another comeback for Sinatra along with an updating of his style to incorporate more current elements, such as the sound of the Hammond organ, which is used to best effect on the classic “Summer Wind.”  Strangers was one of the biggest hits of the year and provided new fuel for Sinatra’s career, giving the kids a taste of old style class and him a chance to stay relevant by incorporating some of the “kooky” stuff the kids dug.

But it was in 1967 that Frank really hit his stride with his beautiful and enduring Bossa Nova influenced album cut with Antonio Carlos Jobim.   That same year Sinatra also released The World We Knew album.  It’s uneven but contains several essentials including a swinging rendition of Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, the masterfully dramatic title cut and “This Town” written by Lee Hazelwood and featured in the film The Cool Ones.  It also contained his eyebrow raising duet with Nancy, “Something Stupid.” Nancy also figures prominently in the field we’re exploring, particularly her duets with Lee Hazelwood and solo numbers like “Sugar Town” and “Tony Rome.”  The later being the title song to her Dad’s hard boiled detective feature.  Sinatra made two Tony Rome films, and both are now available on DVD. 

There had always been a give and take between pop and rock and the eclectic nature of AM radio did a lot to encourage this, but even in some of the best groups that could make it with the rock as art crowd you find elements of pop and even easy listening.  Particularly in two of my favorite LA bands of the 1960’s Love and the Doors, both in reality were very nontraditional rock groups. Love, especially in their Forever Changes period, owed much to such “square” influences as the horns of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, and the vocal style of Johnny Mathis, which Arthur Lee often utilized when not in his Jagger voice.  Bryan MacLean also brought a thoroughly easy listening vibe on songs like “Alone Again Or” and “Orange Skies. “  Coincidentally Shout Factory has recently started a reissue campaign of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Albums, most important for our purposes being 1968’s Beat of the Brass album, which contains his version of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.”  You can also find this song on the exceptional 3 disc Burt Bacharach box set, The Look of Love, along with a bunch of other David/Bacharach gems sung by artists crucial to the easy listening sound of this town; B.J. Thomas, The Carpenters, Jackie De Shannon and most often and importantly Dionne Warwick.  Warwick rules the roost as far as females in this genre go, and her string of classy AM hits like “Walk on By”, “Paper Mache”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”,  and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” still sound fresh and soulful. 

Let's move on to bravely embrace the Doors, still widely misunderstood and most definitely disliked by many to this very day.  In an early teen-mag questionaire Jim Morrison lists his two favorite singers as Sinatra and Presley, uncool choices at the time but clearly evident in his style throughout the Doors’ material (his favorite bands btw were listed as Love, the Kinks and The Beach Boys yet another testament to his good ear).  “Love Me Two Times” and “Touch Me” ARE Elvis right down to the razzmatazz showbiz opening of the later and playfully menacing sexuality of both.  And it’s also easy to hear how Sinatra might phrase the “I’m gonna love ya,  till the heaven’s stop the rain” section in “Touch Me”, elongating the first part, a little behind the beat and then shorter syncopations on the second.  And you could hear either Elvis or Sinatra, but particularly Sinatra really getting behind a world weary but resilient rendition of  “Riders on the Storm”.  Matter of fact the Door’s producer Paul Rothchild abdicated his position on their last album LA Woman in protest of the “cocktail jazz” nature of the song “Riders on the Storm.”  Lesser-known songs like “You’re Lost Little Girl”, “Queen of the Highway” and “Love Street” also exemplify this jazz/crooner influence on the Doors.

There are stories of Morrison having an almost religious reverence for Elvis’s voice encouraging others to be quiet and listen closely when he came on the radio and spending significant time trying to learn from Sinatra’s unique phrasing. The Doors, and Morrison in particular, have suffered much at the hands of their biographers who by and large have been clueless sycophants.  Sadly this often includes Morrison's own bandmates, who seem to repeatedly glorify the silliest aspects of their band while missing their best virtues: Morrison's humor, the band's dark vision of LA that incorporates surf and beat culture and the wild and unexpected influences of Brecht, Sinatra, Presley, modal jazz and film music by composers such as Nino Rota.  To get a real sense of what Morrison was like read his interviews, which were almost always thoughtful, down to earth and perceptive beyond the scope of the average pop/rock star.  Take for instance these two quotes from 1969 on what had happened to rock music and what its future might be.

The initial flash is over.  The thing they call rock, what used to be called rock n’ roll- it got decadent.  And then there was a rock revival sparked by the English.  That went very far.  It was articulate.  Then it became self-conscious, which I think is the death of any movement.  It became self-conscious, involuted and kind of incestuous.  The energy is gone.  There is no longer a belief.

I guess in 4 or 5 years, the new generation’s music will have a synthesis of those two elements (blues & country) and some third thing that will ……. it might rely heavily on electronics, tapes…..I can kind of envision maybe one person with a lot of machines, tapes and electronic set ups, singing or speaking and using machines.

In this loose genre I am attempting to detail Morrison forms part of a trinity at the head of which is Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.  

Presley’s career in the early and mid 60’s was on a downward spiral even though he still managed to craft great studio material throughout this period, he was out of touch with the changes that had accompanied the British Invasion and in retrospect was smart enough not to try and adapt too much, though the flourishes of fuzz guitar and organ sound awesome and well integrated when present.  In 1968 he came roaring back to fore with his now famous TV special which also happened to loosely coincide with a renewed interest in early rock and country by the bigger lights in Rock.  But Elvis, unlike say the Band, was by his very nature AMERICA.   And when Elvis first went to Las Vegas he was in incredible shape both mentally and physically.  The documentary film, That’s The Way It Is, magnificently captures this period of Elvis as he first conquered Vegas.  He seems rejuvenated by material by writers like Hoyt Axton, Neil Diamond, Mac Davis and others, he’s in great voice, laughing and joking with his back up vocalists and his hot shit band which included the redoubtable James Burton on guitar, who got his start with Ricky Nelson (more on him later).   The 70’s box sets Walk A Mile in My Shoes and Live in Las Vegas, are both solid testaments to the fact that Elvis remained a vital and intense performer to the tragic end of his life. 

And so between the showbiz crooning of Sinatra and Presley so heavily associated with Vegas and Morrison's adopted home in the world headquarters of POP in LA, we see California, particularly the City of Los Angeles and Las Vegas emerging as the two geographic centers of this genre I am attempting to map.  And why not?  LA was even acknowledged by Warhol as the true POP ART capitol of the world with its film industry, iconic movie stars, huge billboards, ad agencies, plasticness and flash everything.  Los Angeles birthed a huge pool of talent.  Including Johnny Rivers who had made his name entertaining stars like Steve McQueen at the Whiskey A Go Go, with rave up versions of Chuck Berry tunes.  Near the tail end of the 60’s Rivers also released some wonderfully sophisticated pop singles, most importantly for our purposes “Summer Rain” and “The Poor Side of Town”.

Meanwhile Ricky Nelson became Rick and beat everybody to country rock though he failed to make an impact on the charts until his 70’s tune “Garden Party.”  But it's his beautifully sincere and understated Dylan covers, “Love Minus Zero” and “She Belongs to Me”  that would have been perfectly at home on your AM dial in the late 60’s.  You also had Jimmy Webb expanding the melodic and lyrical boundaries of the pop song and farming out the results to Glenn Campbell, Richard Harris and others.   There’s even a place in this town for Northern California care of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who understood the impact of brevity and the magic of singles.  Anyone whose spent time playing music in bars can surely empathize with the lyrics of "Lodi" "If I only had a dollar, for every song I sung, every time I've had to play while people sat there drunk, you know I'd catch the next train back to where I live".

The most conspicuous case of a defector from the counter culture ranks over to the unhip middle of the road is Bob Dylan on his Self Portrait album released in 1970.   In reality he had been trying to get those hairy hippies and activists off his back for a good portion of the 1960's but finally got it right with this album, a quite enjoyable mix of originals and covers, including some old pop and traditional songs, all tastefully arranged and produced.  It's no surprise that Greil Marcus called it shit in the pages of Rolling Stone, a magazine which played a large role in developing and shaping the accepted canon of the Rock's counter culture to which this town I've been mapping is diametrically opposed.  Marcus's petty and innacurate description of Self Portrait has stuck and you will by and large find nothing but dismissive reviews of this record to this day.  But when listened to with ears unbiased by the accepted wisdom, Self Portrait sounds great. Throughout the double album Dylan is in excellent warm voice, the material is always, at the very least, interesting, and the fact that some of it is weird and different, like the almost instrumental "Wig Wam" and minimalist "All the Tired Horses" only makes it that much more charming and fun.  

All of the music I've discussed here existed as a wonderful parallel world to the counter culture of the late 60's and early 70's, in a few instances overlapping but rarely acknowledged as worthy of note. Historical perspective can now allow us to draw our own conclusions as to its worth based squarely on the wonderful pop sounds found here in this town.  And despite Frank's protests in the title track he never got out of this town.

1. This Town-Frank Sinatra
2. Wichita Lineman-Glenn Campbell
3. Thanks for Chicago Mr. James- Scott Walker
4. Summer Rain- Johnny Rivers
5. Never Been to Spain- Elvis Presley
6. Do You Know the Way to San Jose- Dionne Warwick
7. Early Mornin' Rain- Bob Dylan
8. Summer Wind- Frank Sinatra
9. Put a Little Love in Your Heart- Jackie DeShannon
10. Lodi- CCR
11. Keep the Customer Satisfied- Simon & Garfunkel
12. Tony Rome- Nancy Sinatra
13. Queen of the Highway- The Doors
14. I Concentrate on You- Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim
15. What Are Those Things- Roger Miller
16. I'll Never Fall in Love Again- Dionne Warwick
17. Love Minus Zero- Ricky Nelson
18. This Guy's In Love With You- Herb Alpert
19. Something Stupid- Frank and Nancy Sinatra
20. Games People Play- Mel Torme
21. Close to You- The Carpenters
22. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head- B.J. Thomas
23. Where Have All the Average People Gone- Roger Miller
24. Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues- Elvis Presley
25. Riders on the Storm- The Doors

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