Hurry back to your seat

It is 1957. You are sitting in a cinema in Melbourne, Australia, and it is Interval. Younger folk may never have experienced an “interval” in a cinema, but it used to be a thing, equivalent to half time at the football. As the house lights brighten and you rise, contemplating whether to buy an ice-cream, a fruity baritone voice floats over the PA.

This announcement was a custom acetate recording, a 78-rpm metal disc covered in black lacquer. These were used to record radio advertisements, theatre announcements and the like. In this case, the management want the punters not to hang around too long in the foyer, ruining the cinema’s screening times.

7133As you will have picked up, you were seeing The King and I, the 1956 film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. This is a much-loved production, still being performed around the world. Personally, I’m not sure why it has such an exalted place in the canon, but millions disagree with me and it has some good moments.

Maybe, in 1957, the magic would have been stronger, and I would have rushed the next day to buy this EP. I have chosen one of the less-famous numbers, a song of love and gentle melancholy. The singing credit is given to Deborah Kerr, but along with the other songs in the film it was actually sung by Marni Nixon.

Now, grab your ice cream and get back to your seat. The movie is about to start!

Recording 1

  • Artist: Unknown
  • A side: “Interval, King & I”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, acetate, mono
  • Label: Broadcast Exchange of Australia (BEA)
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: Unknown (probably 1957)

Recording 2

  • Artist: Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner
  • EP Title: The King and I
  • Track: A2 “Hello, Young Lovers”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EAP 1-740
  • Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

A homogeneous plastic mass

When I was growing up, there was a thing called “Kraft Cheddar Cheese”. This revolting, yellow foodstuff was nothing remotely like cheddar. In fact, it did not have much to do with cheese, either. As kids, we called it “plastic cheese”, and we were actually close to the mark. The origins of Kraft Cheddar lie with either sacrilege or ingenuity – depends on your point of view. During the First World War, James L. Kraft, a Chicago cheese seller, began shredding all the husks and rinds and discards from the cheddar he sold, mixed in sodium phosphate as a preservative and – voila! – gave the world the wonder that is “American process cheese”. This is the stuff which, to this day, limply sags in the fast-food take-away hamburger.

kraft-singles-cheese-646

When it was first being produced, the people who made actual cheese went to court demanding that Kraft not be able to call this new substance “cheese”. They were half-successful. What came to be known as “American cheese” was defined as “a stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents” which would form, in legal language “a homogeneous plastic mass”. (I am indebted to David Clark on Mental Floss for this background.)

All of which is completely irrelevant, except that when I first heard of the German experimental group Kraftwerk, I immediately thought of Kraft and plastic cheese. And in a strange way, the association is a good one. In the 1970s, Kraftwerk were pioneers in electronic music – pushing the new technologies of synthesised music into a deliberately machine-made minimalism. Their subject matter was, deliberately, the mundane products of modernity. Repetition, mechanical reproduction, the future: these were Kraftwerk’s themes.

And the amazing thing? It works! It takes a little getting into, but there is real art here, a jazz-like restraint amid minimalist self-parody. Kraftwerk takes “machine modern mundane”, takes Kraft singles (a plastic box of plastic cheese, each slice wrapped in plastic) and turns it into art.

No, I didn’t believe it could werk. But take the time to listen, more than once. This stuff is addictive, subtle, worth revisiting. Unlike Kraft Cheddar Cheese.

 

  • Artist: Kraftwerk
  • LP Title: The Man Machine
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Spacelab”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Catalogue: ST-11728
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1979

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

Sun filtering though curtains

She was a southern belle with big hair and a husky voice, and for a short time she was the biggest thing in country music. Born in Mississippi in 1944 to dirt-poor farmers, Roberta Lee Streeter managed to get to college, where she studied philosophy and music. She was good at both, and adopting the stage name Bobbie Gentry, she had a smash hit in 1967 with the swamp-gothic story song “Ode to Billie Joe”.

Bobbie_Gentry_1970

Bobbie Gentry. Picture: NBC  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Later she went more mainstream, recording covers albums and duets with Glenn Campbell, hosted some fairly bland television shows, then retired from performing. But in between, she recorded an album, The Delta Sweete which was, writes Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, “her second record and her masterpiece: a multi-faceted quasi-concept album about Gentry’s Mississippi delta roots”.

I discovered this astonishing work via one of the singles released from it. The A-side is a vivacious version of the Doug Kershaw song “Louisiana Man”: Gentry’s take leaps out at the listener, fresh as a kicking catfish. But it is the B-side, “Courtyard” which dazzles, even on the scratchy disc I found. A Scots folk ballad meets Astral Weeks in a graveyard on a sticky summer’s day: understated, lovely, chilling.

Lynskey again:

most of The Delta Sweete‘s innovative, sophisticated sound is down to Gentry herself, who played piano, guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Swampy southern grooves mingle with the latest Nashville trends, blue-eyed soul [and] whispered intimations of psychedelia … each track blurs, dream-like, into the next … the earlier tracks chime with her public image as a husky, sensual southern belle but [elsewhere] her voice enters … like sun filtering though curtains.

And he is right. The LP sank with little trace at the time. This single peaked at 100 on the US charts, and did not even register elsewhere. The Planet Vinyl manifesto declares:

We are archaeologists of sound, at a dig. We value the pot shards and door knobs and belt buckles, and we sometimes find riches unimagined.

Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete is one of those.

“Louisiana Man”

“Courtyard”

  • Artist: Bobbie Gentry
  • Single Title: Louisiana Man
  • Tracks: A “Louisiana Man”; B “Courtyard”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: CP-8325
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

Guitar man

To many musicians, the name Les Paul means “a Les Paul”, which is a line of electric guitars made by Gibson. Handsome things they are – that’s one below – and played by many of the greats. But first came the man Les Paul. He didn’t quite invent the electric guitar but was one of its most important pioneers, and he was also one of the finest players ever to break a string on any guitar, electric or not.

les-paul

His real name was Lester Polsfuss, and he was born in 1915 in Wisconson. Les Paul was a gifted multi-instrumentalist, but it was the guitar which became his instrument, inspired by the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt. Paul became a successful musician in country, jazz and many other styles during the 1930s and 1940s, and played with the cream of American popular music, including Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

Paul also loved tinkering. Along with making major improvements to the electric guitar, he was the inventor of the neck-worn harmonica holder, and also developed new techniques for recording, including multi-tracking. In the 1950s had a string of hits on which involved Paul played multiple guitar parts, and with his wife, vocalist Mary Ford, harmonised to her own vocals.

paul-a-inverted

There was nothing of the gimmick about this. The results are magic. Have a listen to this track, “Cimarron”. (The name refers to a river, a tributary of the Arkansas.) Released in 1955, this disc is a 78 rpm record, but made from the new vinyl rather than the usual shellac. It is a curious blend of tradition and new technology, appropriate to such an inventive man.

  • Artist: Les Paul and Mary Ford
  • Title: Cimarron (Roll On)
  • Format: 10” vinyl disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Capitol
  • Catalogue: 3444
  • Manufactured in: California
  • Year: 1955

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Stick with Spanish

It is up there with the shower scene in Psycho.

It is dawn. The sun is rising over an ornate mansion in Hollywood, the home of a famous film director. We see him sleeping in gold satin sheets. He wakes, and notices something … wet? He reaches under the covers, and withdraws his hand. It is covered in blood. He panics, pulling the sheets aside. More and more blood … what is this? Then he finds, at the foot of the bed, the head of a horse. Not just any horse, this is his prize race horse, the thing that this rich and vulgar man cares most about in the whole world. He screams, and screams. We see outside the mansion again. The sun is higher now. It is a beautiful, still morning, a cloudless blue sky unfolds over the swimming pool. And, fainter, echoing, the scream of pure horror goes on and on.

It is “the horse head in the bed” scene, early in Martin Scorsese’s epic film The Godfather. The event is so horrible that it is easy to forget what it was about. It was an argument over casting. The director has spurned a formerly-favoured Italian American actor and singer, Johnny Fontane for the lead role in a movie. Fontane asks his Mafia connections to persuade the director that he, Fontane, is perfect for the role. The horse head does the trick.

7057 Martino coverThe actor who played Fontane was Al Martino. An easy piece of casting, this one. Martino, too, was an Italian American actor and singer of humble origins, who knew a thing or two about dealing with the Mob. A one-time brick layer, he was encouraged to try a singing career by Mario Lanza, a childhood friend. His first big success was “Here in My Heart”, which topped the charts in both America and the UK in 1952, and sold more than a million copies. It was while flush with this success that Martino found himself owing large amounts of money to the Mafia, and found it sensible to spend a decade or so living in England.

Martino was pop crooner. He sang mostly uncomplicated songs of romance, with tremolo violins and the works, but his voice was a powerful operatic tenor. Even the triter lyrics are carried by the strong delivery.7028 Martino label

The track I have chosen from this EP, which came out in Australia in 1964, is a bit different. “Granada” is sung in Spanish, so the lyrics may woeful – I wouldn’t know. There is a version in English, which goes:

Granada, I’m falling under your spell,
And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell

So, let’s stick with the Spanish.

The arrangement is a tad overdone. Okay, a lot overdone: all castanets and bull-fighting brassiness. But go with it, enjoy it for what it is, just listen, and it is an exciting ride.

  • Artist: Al Martino
  • LP Title: Hits: Old and New
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Grenada”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Capitol EAP-1-20582
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1964

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs