Dancing on the wall

It was a year of miracles, 1989. The Iron Curtain which had divided Europe for 40 years, which seemed as permanent and indestructible as the pyramids, was swept aside. Communist regimes, ruthless police states all, collapsed like portable picnic tables hit by a car. And the most amazing thing? Scarcely a shot was fired. People were just fed up, and they gathered in town squares and demanded that the revolting, corrupt apparatchiks of the Communist government surrender power. And they did! People were dancing on top of the Berlin Wall! It was smoother in some places than others – there was real bloodshed in Romania. But it seemed a new dawn, a chance for the world to become a better place.

Oh, and there was Bros. A pair of pretty boys. In the classic English style, they had a hint of breaking both ways. They put out records, and were hugely successful.

I confess: it is a little hard for me to understand why. Having been around in the 1980s, I can take polished hi-gloss dance-orientated synth-pop, or I can leave it. To my ear, Bros is a kind of vanilla-flavoured Michael Jackson. But Planet Vinyl is a broad church. It is always a good thing that people make music, and Bros do what they do well. This is “Astrologically,” the B side of one of their many top ten singles. Profound it ain’t; danceable it is.

No idea if the people dancing on the Berlin Wall had Bros on the boombox, but it is perfectly possible. In a strange way, that is the point. People should be able to dance to whatever music they like – that is freedom.

  • Artist: Bros
  • A Side: Too Much
  • B Side: Astrologically
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: CBS
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 654647 7
  • Year: 1989

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Jealous rage in musical form

Arthur Fiedler was one of the great popularisers. He hated the notion that classical and orchestral music were seen as the preserve of a moneyed, snobbish elite. He wanted the music he loved made available to everyone, and as director the Boston Pops Orchestra, that is exactly what he did. He took charge of the orchestra in 1930, as America slid into the Great Depression, and under his guidance the orchestra toured all over, giving low cost and free concerts, with a mix of lighter classics and orchestrations of popular tunes.

bpo-aPurists frowned, because that is what purists do to show their purity, but Fiedler’s program gave work for hundreds of musicians, and brought orchestral music to many thousands of people who would otherwise never have heard it. Actually, make that millions of people, because Fiedler also pioneered orchestral recording, making the first recordings of many light classical and orchestrated popular works.

Among them was this, the first ever recording of the tango “Jalousie”, made in 1935. Dramatic, powerful, explosive – a jealous rage in musical form – the disc sold more than one million copies. That is a lot of records, even now. Back then, for an orchestra, an astonishing feat.

In America, the Boston Pops recorded for RCA Victor. This is a British release, on His Master’s Voice, and the name used is Boston Promenade Orchestra. Perhaps “pops” was thought lacking in dignity for an HMV release? Whatever: this is a recording which is (rare mix) both  historic and sublime. Put on a red dress, clutch a rose between your teeth, and hit play.

  • Artist: Boston Promenade Orchestra [Boston Pops Orchestra], conducted by Arthur Fiedler
  • Title: Jealousy / Entry of The Boyards
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Catalogue: C. 2861
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: c. 1935

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World turned upside down

“In the dark times,” asked Berthold Brecht,

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

3022He was right and wrong: right about the singing, but not about the subject matter.

Has the human race experienced a worse year than 1942? The world was at war: total war, vicious beyond all imagining, from the incineration of cities to industrial mass murder. It was a time when (Brecht again):

The earth no longer produces, it devours.
The sky hurls down no rain, only iron.

There was, in this dark time, plenty of singing. But for the most part the singing was in the vein of this sentimental, slow, delightful fox-trot from the British bandleader Sidney Lipton. It is pure escapism, slop about lovers strolling, superbly performed by Lipton’s famously skilled orchestra.

The only hint of trouble outside the concert hall is the line: “It doesn’t matter though the world is turning upside down”. And if it was 1942, and I was an air-raid warden, shivering in a stinking sandbagged trench, it is just what I would want to listen to.

  •    Artist: Sidney Lipton and His Orchestra, vocals Eddy Briant
  •    Title: “The Same Old Lovers’ Lane”
  •    Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  •    Label: Columbia, DO-2528
  •    Manufactured in: Australia
  •    Year: 1942

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A basket of fruit on its head

Sting’s real name is Gordon Sumner. Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson. Madonna’s real name is actually Madonna, but you see where I am going. Many is the artist who has adopted a stage name for a bit of mystique.

A little while ago, I discovered the faux (but enjoyable) Latin jazz of Chaquito, whose real name was John Gregory.

3052 label A

This Ricardo Santos release is part of the G.S. Collection.

Of Ricardo Santos, whose orchestra put out this release in about 1958, I know little. He was a band leader, and had a fair bit of success in the 1950s and 1960s playing smooth, hint-of-gypsy-hint-of-Latin dance music. His records came out on Polydor, a Dutch label, and were first released in Germany. I suspect that Santos was a German band leader from Dusseldorf whose real name was Reinhardt Schmidt. I could be wrong: if anyone knows more about Herr Santos, please let me know.3052 label B

And the music? It’s good. Cognoscente of tango might find it a bit sanitised, westernised and, to be blunt, fake. And they would have a point. But it can still be enjoyed for what it is: polished and skilful dance music, with a basket of fruit on its head.

  • Artist: Ricardo Santos And His Orchestra,
  • Title: La Cumparsita / Tango Desiree
  • Track: B side, “Tango Desiree”
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Polydor H 49286
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: c. 1958

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

The Iron Chef deception

There are crushing moments when illusions, fondly nurtured for years, are shattered.

  • Santa Claus isn’t real.
  • No Viking ever had horns on his helmet.
  • Chairman Kaga, the poncy Japanese playboy who used his personal fortune to create Kitchen Stadium and named his men the Iron Chefs, did not exist.

The man crunching the capsicum is an actor. Still in therapy over this.

Not quite as devastating, because I have only just discovered his music, but it was still disappointing to learn that Chaquito, Rey del Cha-Cha-Cha (Chaquito, King of Cha-Cha-Cha), the band leader who produced this stunning Latin-swing EP, was an Englishman by name of  John Gregory.

When Swinging Cha-Cha came out, in 1958, Gregory had already been an important musician for a decade, though rather behind the scenes. He was staff arranger for Philips, providing the backing arrangements for the labels stars, including Cleo Laine.

Given the opportunity to put out his own dance records, he adopted a stage name (one of several – he was also known as Nino Rico). You could forgive a bandleader who had done twenty years of backroom arranging for becoming cynical and weary. Instead, as Chaquito, Rey del Cha-Cha-Cha, Gregory draws on his experience performing and in the studio, and produces as lively a Latin dance sound as you could wish to hear.7058 invert

This track, “Midnight Cha-cha”, features a trumpet solo from “Stan Rodriguez”. I have not been able to find out any more about him, except that he played on lots of Chaquito recordings, but one would not be astonished if he had really been born in Blackpool, as Stanley Rodgers.

But none of that matters. Imagine: it is 1958, and someone cranks up the radiogram.

Inauthentic? Yup, but there is more to life than authenticity. Just ask Chairman Kaga.

  • Artist: Chaquito, Rey del Cha-Cha-Cha
  • EP Title: Swinging Cha-Cha
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Midnight Cha-Cha”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Fontana TFE 17045
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: 1958

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

For the feet, not the ears

I can’t dance, not properly. I have never learned to waltz, rhumba, cha-cha or tango. I do not know the fox trot or the Boston two-step or the Charleston. I wish I did, but I came of age when the ability to dance was no longer an essential social skill. The rock’n’roll dances – the jitterbug, the jive, the shimmy – were also mostly forgotten. We just went for  free-form jump-about-and-wave-your-arms dancing, and that was the best case. For a lot of boys of my age, dancing was for girls. Real men, the thinking went, stood against the back wall drinking beer. I am proud to say that I was one of the dancers, even if it wasn’t dancing in the traditional sense.

3038 Label BThere is a great loss in the fading of formal dancing as a universal activity. It was fun, good exercise, a core social activity. Of the men and women who fell in love and got married between about 1900 and the early 1960s, a large majority either met at a dance hall, or dancing was a big part of their courtship. These days the term “ballroom dancing” has a whiff of snobbery about it, but this is unfair – everyone danced, even if the décor at the Ritz was a cut above the Anglican church hall in Spud.

In the world of dancing, for decades, Victor Silvester was a superstar. The second son of a clergyman, just old enough to lie about his age and serve in the First World War, Silvester was a consummate dancer and band leader. He was on radio and then television, and sold something in the order of 75 million records.

Silvester was the great exponent of what is called ‘strict tempo’ music for dancing. If you play one of his later LPs, as a listener you tend to feel underwhelmed. The music is slick, smooth – but, a tad bland? The thing is that strict tempo music is played, not for the ear but for the feet. The variations in tempo, shifts and stops and starts, slow bits and fast bits – the tricks with timing which maks music expressive, absorbing to listen to – all these features make it hard for dancers. In strict tempo, there are variations, but they are predictable and consistent. The arrangements are designed to help the dancer dance, and dance beautifully. (I am indebted to dancer and blogger George Pytlik for helping me understand strict tempo.)

That said, it is possible to be both strict tempo and great to just listen to, and both sides of this 78 rpm shellac disc, which I guess dates from the 1940s, achieve this. The A side is gentle, a lovely waltz; the B side is up tempo, a quick step – exciting, full of fun and zip. There is a fair bit of surface noise, even for a 78 – this just tells us that the record was played a lot.

Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners ….

On the Street of Regret – Waltz

Miss You – Quick Step

  • Artist: Victor Silvester & His Ballroom Orchestra
  • Title: On the Street of Regret – Waltz / Miss You – Quick Step
  • Format: 10” 78 rpm
  • Label: Columbia DO-2523
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: Unknown

I have to catch everybody

It is easily 25 years since I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but I still remember the pivotal scene vividly. Holden Caulfield is speaking to his sister Phoebe, who is pretty much the only person he trusts.1013 label

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? … I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

It is an odd vision. Holden is a city boy, who probably doesn’t know much about rye fields, and as Pheobe points out, he has misheard the lyrics. There is no “catching” of bodies. But there is something in Holden’s strange image – and reading the passage alone can’t quite convey it, the whole book has been leading up to this – something which burns with the beauty and the sadness of the world.

The song “Coming Thro’ the Rye” is ancient. It is often attributed to the Scots poet Robert Burns, but he was merely the first person to write down (in 1782) a song that was already well known and already old. It is, as ancient songs often are, puzzling. It is about a girl, Jenny, who meets a boy coming across a wet rye field, and there is a sexual encounter but how loving and consensual it is – well, it’s hard to tell. A lot of questions are asked, and not answered.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Need a body cry? That means cry out for help. Maybe not, but maybe yes.1013 cover

It is beautiful, but dark and ambiguous. Much like Catcher in the Rye.

This version is just the tune, performed as a waltz by Jimmy Shand, a prolific Scots dance band leader whose accordion fired up a million dance parties in the 1950s. As a dance, it is a bit happier than that ballad is, or Holden Caulfield was, but a lovely tune still.

  • Artist: Jimmy Shand And His Band
  • LP Title: Comin’ Thro’ The Rye
  • Side 1, Track 1: “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye”
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Parlophone PMDO 1047
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1950