The boy from Iowa

I used to work for a magazine whose editor was from Iowa. I had never met anyone from Iowa before, nor have never met one since. As Iowa is a mostly rural state with a small population – there are six-times more pigs there than humans – and on the other side of the world, this is unsurprising.

0029-williams-1970 But, a strange thing. For a small and obscure place, Iowa is mentioned with great frequency in the works of American authors. Often, and almost always in a derogatory way. New Yorkers are particularly prone.

Not that falling in love was at all unusual for me. All year I had fallen in love with everyone. I fell in love with an Irish poet who kept pigs on a farm in Iowa. (Erica Jong, Fear of Flying)

The cabdriver … stuck his head out of the window, leaning on the horn. “Hey buddy, where’d you learn to drive, huh? Iowa? (John Sandford, Silent Prey)

Because historically that’s where terrorist activity takes place. You hit the nerve centres, not the periphery. You don’t try to scare the folks in Keokuk, Iowa. You want to terrify the people in New York, Washington, L.A. (David Wiltse, Close to the Bone)

The hustling folks of New York seem to think of Iowa as the citizens of Sydney think of Dubbo: a place representative of all that is crude, naïve, unsophisticated, agricultural and dull. How wrong such cosmopolitan sneering is. So much magic and creativity can come from the provinces, where there is space and clean air and cheap rents.

My old editor, for example: a creative woman with a great sense of humour and an endearing affection for pigs. Yes, she had grown up on a pig farm.  We have lost touch, but I still think of her as a friend. (Hi Marty, if you are out there.)

John Wayne was a native of Iowa. And so was one of the most successful singers in the history of recorded music.

Howard Andrew Williams was born in the Iowa town of Wall Lake in 1928. Wall Lake is Iowa redux. In 1930, its population was 749. In 2015, the figure was 795. Heady growth. Howard began singing with his three brothers in the church choir, and the quartet became popular on local radio, then won a gig backing Bing Crosby.

Andy Williams, as he had become known, dubbed Lauren Bacall’s singing voice the movie To Have and to Have Not. That he could dub for a female singer suggest the crystalline purity of his voice. He began a solo career in 1952, and for the next 20 years had a string of hits, including 13 gold records. This single, which came out in 1970, was only modestly successful but Williams was still huge, especially – and here’s the thing – with mothers.

This was a time of marked generational conflict. For a musician to be popular with mothers was cyanide to hipster street-cred. Andy Williams became symbolic of all that was old, fuddy-duddy and hopelessly square. If The Beatles were New York, the crooner from Iowa was Iowa.

But Planet Vinyl doesn’t care about street cred. This is the B-side to a fairly unsuccessful single. The arrangement is not what I would have chosen: the strings are too prominent, and more could have been made of the nice steel guitar. But it is a good song, beautifully sung. Have a listen.

  • Artist: Andy Williams
  • Single Title: One Day of Your Life
  • Track: Side B “Long Time Blues”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: CBS
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: K-9294
  • Year: 1970

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

 

Hammond. Not the organ.

What do the following songs all have in common?

  • Leo Sayer: “When I Need You”
  • Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias: “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
  • Diana Ross: “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”
  • The Pipkins: “Gimme Dat Ting”
  • The Hollies: “The Air That I Breathe”

Along with dozens of other successful songs in all sorts of styles, from the late 1960s through to 2010 or so, they were all either written or co-written by a guy called Albert Hammond. No relation to the Hammond of Hammond Organ fame.

Like a lot of prolific songwriters, Hammond never quite broke through as a major recording artist. If you have heard the name, it would probably be for “It Never Rains in Southern California”, a top ten hit in 1972 which was really his only major personal success. I knew that song, but not the name. One thing I did know: lack of mainstream success and recognition does not mean lack of talent.0072 Hammond 1972 B

Hammond is an accomplished musician and singer, something which comes through even on this sad and battered single. There is second-hand vinyl which has been played and played and so has a lot of wear. Then there is second-hand vinyl which seems to have spent a few months on the floor on the passenger side of my car. This is one of those: it plays, but high fidelity it ain’t.

The A side, “Down by the River” was the sort of not-quite-hit which Hammond had a lot of. It is a nice track – an early environmental anthem, deploring the poisoning of the waterways. It is, as such songs tend to be, a little didactic, but it has a dollop of humour which helps, and it zings along with a rollicking banjo.

Unfortunately, on my copy it sounds like it has just been fished out of a polluted river, and anyway I want to share the B side.

In a way, it is just yet-another-love-song, but I feel there is something special about it. Hammond made his money out of “Gimme Dat Ting” and the like, but on this, the B side of a single which peaked at number 91 on the US charts, even through the scratch, crackle’n’pop, this is the work of a real singer expressing himself.

  • Artist: Albert Hammond
  • Single Title: Down by the River
  • Track: Side B “The Last One to Know”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: CBS BA 221915
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1972

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

 

 

Odd and proud of it

One of the better things to happen in Australian music back in the 1980s was a band called Mental As Anything. In the slang of the day, to say someone was “mental” was an insult. It implied eccentricity and stupidity rather than mental illness, but even so it was a bit unpleasant.

The Mentals, as they became known, took defiant ownership of the term. Singing quirky songs about life on the creative, dope-smoking fringes of suburban Australia, they were odd and out there and proud of it.0057 Plaza A

One of the band was Martin Plaza – not his real name, it’s a place in central Sydney – and he released a solo album in 1986. A single from it, a version of a 1960s Brit pop hit “Concrete and Clay”, made the top ten in Australia.

But Planet Vinyl is all about found sound, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and that is what lies on the B side. “New Suit” is a song about a man who has bought a second-hand suit, and thinks he looks pretty sharp in it.0057 Plaza B

My new suit, it looks so good
My new suit, it fits so well
My new suit, I think you will agree
My new suit, looks good on me

A silly, lightweight song which didn’t even get on the album – but it is just the sort of whimsical, fun celebration of the ordinary which the Mentals did so well. I love it.

  • Artist: Martin Plaza
  • Single Title: Concrete and Clay
  • Track: Side B “New Suit”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: CBS BA 3404
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986

Many of the records discussed on this blog are for sale via Discogs

Waking from a nightmare

I first heard this piece of music used on a talking book, a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It came in at the beginning and end of each chapter. The music is wonderfully suited to Mary’s tale of gothic horror, could almost have been written for it, though there is no direct connection.

“Night on Bald Mountain” was written by a Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in 1867. Bald Mountain is a real place, a hill near Kiev, associated with witchcraft and demonic activity in Ukrainian mythology. There is an aircraft navigation beacon on the top these days, which detracts a little from the spookiness of the place, but the story of Lysa Hora (the Ukrainian name) suits the music.

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Lysa Hora (Bald Mountain), Ukraine. Photo: Daniel Baránek (2009), via Wikimedia Commons

A fortress was built into the hill, and it was used as a prison and execution ground in the twentieth century, and was the site of battles during the Second World War, which makes you think that if there were not ghosts haunting the place when Mussorgsky wrote his piece, there probably are now.

The piece is quite long, just over ten minutes, but it is really worth closing your eyes, turning up the volume and just going with it. It begins with high drama, a black mass, as witches assemble in the stormy dark and summon the Devil, and demons appear and whirl through the dark, in a dance of madness. But then we hear a distant church bell. Dawn has arrived, and slowly the demons disperse, and the mood shifts, lightens, and the piece ends with tranquility, new hope.bern front cover

For me, “Night on Bald Mountain” captures the feeling of waking from a horrible nightmare, and lying safe in bed as the room gets brighter, just glad to be awake, glad that it is day.

This performance is by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, recorded in 1965.

 

  • Artist: New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
  • LP Title: Polovetsian Dances And Other Russian Favorites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 1 “Night on Bald Mountain”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: CBS M 31844
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1973 (original release 1965)