A cheery song about nitro-glycerine

The Guns of Navarone was a movie which came out in 1961. It’s a stirring tale of derring-do, set in the Greek Islands during the Second World War. A small team of commandos blow up the eponymous guns, so that the Royal Navy can rescue stranded British troops. It is a great action adventure, and the film was a huge success. And it had a theme, which played while the final credits rolled.

GunsofNavaroneHere on Planet Vinyl, there is no such thing as bad music. There are, however, bad lyrics, and these are Herculean in their silliness. A literal-minded person armed with a rhyming dictionary basically summarises the plot. We learn that thousands of soldiers are trapped. So:

Now is the problem how to rescue them
From a crushing defeat
When high on the cliffs
The Guns Of Navarone blocks His Majesty’s Fleet

So in the face of odds impossible
Secret saboteurs in a fisherman’s skiff
Headed for the cliff.

After some extolling of the bravery of said saboteurs, we hear how:

Come from the sea with nitro glycerine,
Nitro glycerine and a ladder of rope
And a thing called hope.
Six flies climb the Nazi spider web,
Carefully set the charge and the fuse,
So little time to lose


But, here’s the thing. It’s a good tune. And in Jamaica, they know a good tune, mon. A Kingston ska band, The Skatalites, turned “The Guns of Navarone” into a wonderful dance number. The tune entered the reggae repertoire, and many other fine bands have recorded versions, including The Specials – a politically radical UK band which made it into a protest song, about as far removed from the Dunkirk Spirit patriotism of the original as it is possible to imagine.

Check out the ska versions linked above, but first, listen to what they were inspired by. The capacity of music to morph, and of the human spirit to rework and reinvent, never ceases to amaze.

  • Artist: Mitch Miller and The Gang
  • Single title: The Guns of Navarone
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, mono
  • Label: Coronet
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: KS-468
  • Year: 1961

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Subversive moments

Musical theatre was once one of the glories of western popular music. The best of the Broadway shows created imagined worlds which were self-contained and enduring: the Austria of the Trapp family, the Imperial Court of Siam, the class-ridden London of Eliza Doolittle. The imagined worlds were sentimentalised, true, but fine artistic creations for all that.

I have read many a scathing critique of Broadway musicals, and how they are patronising of other cultures, and how their romanticism masks an underlying patriarchal oppression. Guilty as charged. But the music was good and there were subversive moments, and these shows gave work to thousands of musicians and actors, and brought joy to millions of people.

Musicals are still around, but they are no longer a powerful form of popular culture. And what has filled their place? So called “reality” TV. Survivor. The Biggest Loser. Lord preserve us, The Bachelor. Sexist, patriarchal, patronising? Give me Liesel dancing in the Rotunda any day.

The thing about Broadway musicals: what mattered was the music. The tunes had to be catchy, the songs had to be singable. You wanted the audience to be humming on the way home. It is a measure of the quality of the music that even in 2016, so many of us know these hits of more than half-a-century ago, even if we have never seen a production of the musical itself.


Which brings me to “Ol’ Man River”. I knew the song, and vaguely expected it to come from a musical, but had no idea which one. I knew that it touched on prickly issues, especially race. I also knew there was a Broadway musical called Show Boat, but had assumed it was flim-flam, paid it no attention. But on Planet Vinyl we don’t assume, we just listen.

Paul Robeson was born in 1898, when slavery in the United States was living memory. His father, Reverend William Robeson, had been born into slavery but had escaped as a teenager. In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in many states, when the complex system of social, legal and economic oppression known as Jim Crow was at its peak, Paul Robeson was at college – one of a tiny number of black students. But he did not keep his head down, did not stay quiet: he was an athlete, a debater, an actor, a singer: handsome, articulate, intelligent, a beacon for his people.

Show Boat, which premiered in 1927, was a brave musical, the work of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, based on a brave novel of the same name, by Edna Ferber. The musical follows the lives of performers, stagehands and dockworkers on a Mississippi River show boat. It has a love story, as musicals must, but its themes include racial prejudice and miscegenation. And it gave a memorable song to a brave man. Show Boat appeared in 1928 in London, and in that production was Paul Robeson playing the (minor) part of Joe, a dock hand, who sings of his life and its misery and of the mighty Mississippi River, and the place in the whole scheme of things of race.

Many other singers have tackled “Ol’ Man River”, and many have had greater vocal range and technical skill. But no one had made the song as real, such a full and convincing howl of protest, as Paul Robeson.

Don’t look up, and don’t look down
Don’t dare make the white boss frown

This song is a wonder.

  • Artist: Paul Robeson
  •  EP Title: Ol’ Man River
  •  Track: A1 “Ol’ Man River”
  •  Format: 7” 45 rpm
  •  Label: Coronet, KEP 042
  •  Manufactured in: Australia
  •  Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Mention this code “MSD519” to receive a free 7” disc of your choice (up to the value of $5.00) with any purchase.


Poor old Johnny Ray

Poor old Johnny Ray …

This was a first line of “Come On Eileen”, which was a huge hit in the early 1980s for a UK band, Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I loved the song, but I was a teenager and had no idea who Johnny Ray was, so asked my Dad.

“Hmmph. He was a pop star. He was the first of the Screamers,” he said.

Ray 1956 aPuzzled, I asked what he meant. It emerged that it wasn’t Johnny Ray who screamed, but his young female fans. You know the hysterical screaming which made the Beatles pretty much inaudible when they played live? Apparently this meme started with Johnny Ray.

My Dad was a conservative soul. He loved music, but he believed it had reached perfection in the works of J.S. Bach, and been going downhill ever since, with the possible exception of Gilbert and Sullivan. So, he was never going to approve of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, or indeed Johnny Ray.

He had a point about the screaming, mind.

That was all I knew about Johnny Ray until I bought this 10” 78rpm disc. It is one of the “G.S.” collection, and came out in 1956. This was right at the end of shellac as a popular medium, and shows that “G.S.”, though fond of jazz and swing, liked the emerging pop of the fifties as well.Ray AM

The record stands as a monument of this transition. A jazz classic, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, is given a doo-wop treatment by a rising rock star. The B-side is altogether different: in “Walk Along with Kings”, Ray shows himself a strong singer of a straight gospel which even my Dad could not disapprove of.

But I would wager this record against a mint condition copy of the first release of “Love Me Do” that it was “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that G.S. bought it for.

  • Artist: Johnny Ray
  • Title: Ain’t Misbehavin’
  • Track: Side A “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Coronet KP-032
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1952

The trouble with opera

I spent many years being prejudiced against opera. It wasn’t really opera’s fault. What happened was that when I was a teenager, my parents divorced. I lived with my Mum and every couple of weeks traveled to stay with Dad.

Dad was a loving and kind man but, like many Australian men of his generation, not especially good at showing it. He was a better talker than listener, and tended to assume that he knew exactly what people needed in their lives. So, it was with the best intentions that he chose to bond with his 13-year-old son by discussing free-market economics and taking him to the opera.

6011 Puccini 1959 sleeve

Madame Butterfly was not an optimist

I am not being critical. He was doing his best. But in case there are any divorced parents with teenage children reading this, can I suggest that you ask what he or she would like to do before you buy tickets to the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Anyway, the result was that for many years I had an aversion to opera. Still not my favourite musical form, in truth. One thing about operas – they do go on for a very long time. Which makes the sort of record that has bobbed up today on Planet Vinyl a great way to get past prejudice and to enjoy opera for what it is: lovely music, beautifully sung. That the music is often draped around a melodramatic and slow-moving plot can be ignored.

Coronet was a budget reissue label owned by CBS, and one of their innovations was to issue records like this one: 7-inch discs which play at 33⅓ rpm. Each side plays for about eight minutes – enough time for a worthwhile-but-not-overwhelming serve of classical music.

6011 Puccini 1959 label

Coronet records had cool octagonal labels.

This particular disc includes four arias from the works of Giacomo Puccini. The singer is Bidu Sayao, a Brazilian soprano who enjoyed huge success in the United States. I have not been able to find out when these songs were recorded – from the quality of the sound I would guess earlier than 1950. There are two arias from La Boheme, one from Madame Butterfly, and one from … Gianni Schicchi?

No, I had never heard of that opera before either – even the liner notes describe it as “the lesser known short opera”. But here on Planet Vinyl, we lean towards the lesser-known, and also I have chosen it because it is called “O mio babbino caro”, oh my beloved father.

My Dad passed away two years ago, and I love him and miss him. And I am working on enjoying opera.

  • Artist: Bidau Sayao
  • Composer: Giacomo Puccini
  • EP Title: One Fine Day and Other Puccini Arias
  • Side 1, Track 2: “O mio babbino caro”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Coronet KCG 131
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1959