Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.

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Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

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

 

 

 

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

Brother.

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

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

 

Hear the real Maria

Sound of Music tragics, of whom there are many, will tell you that there is a scene early on in the film in which Maria, played by Julie Andrews, passes through an archway, and you see an old lady in the background. That, so I have heard, is the real Maria von Trapp. A fellow blogger has gone to the trouble of capturing the frame – thank you!

real maria

In a strange way, The Sound of Music is a bit like Macbeth. A piece of theatre is based on real people. The show is a huge success, such that the real people fade, are forever seen through the lens of the fiction. You can forget there really was a king of Scotland called Macbeth, and he never said “Is this a dagger I see before me?”. You can forget that there really was a Trapp family, and that they became refugees who managed to make a living from their music.

The Trapp Family Choir sang and played complex interwoven harmonies, mostly arrangements of traditional German songs. Like in the musical? Not really. There is a hint of similarity, here and there. Rogers and Hammerstein clearly took some songs as starting ideas. “Wohlauf ihr lieben Gaste (Now Then, Dear Guests)”, is a party wind-up song, and identifiable as the distant ancestor of “So Long, Farewell”.

This track was one of a dozen the Trapp family recorded in December 1938, not long after they had left Austria. It is a traditional Christmas song, “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”, which means roughly “Mary Walked through a Thorny Wood”. The family must have felt they were in a thorny wood of their own. A rousing show tune it ain’t, but the singing is quite lovely. Forget what you know, and listen to the real Maria.

  • Artist: The Trapp Family Choir
  • LP Title: The Sound of Folk Music of Many Lands
  • Track: A2 “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”
  • Label: RCA Camden
  • Catalogue: CAS-904
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965 (song recorded 22 Dec 1938).

 

Listen without prejudice

Stage names are funny things. Sometimes a white sandwich loaf is re-labelled as a baguette, or pane de casa, or Tibetan mountain bread. And sometimes horiatiko psomi is re-labelled as … white sandwich loaf.

This is pretty much what happened to Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. Born in London of Greek heritage, he became known to the world as George Michael. He was, first off, part of a boyband with possibly the stupidest name in the long history of stupidly-named boybands.Wham!

There is a 1948 movie called Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, which stars Cary Grant as an advertising executive. It is a comedy, poking fun at American consumerism. A subplot deals with the Grant character’s struggle to come up with a slogan promoting a variety of tinned meat called Wham. It is obvious that Wham is actually Spam, and Spam is what you slice up and put in a white-bread sandwich.

blandings 2

Mr Blandings’ slogan. He basically pinches the idea from his black housekeeper, Gussie.

It is unlikely that whoever coined the band name Wham! was thinking about Mr Blandings. What they were thinking about is anybody’s guess. Anyway, George Michael has had to carry the burden of having been half of Wham! ever since.

“Faith” was the title track of his first solo album. I was intrigued to discover that while I have heard the song perhaps hundreds of times on radio, that the DJs don’t have to nerve to play the whole thing. There is an into, played on a church organ. Sounds like this:

But the Radio Rule (if you can hear it on commercial radio, you won’t find it on Planet Vinyl) dictates that we go for the B-side.

“Hand to Mouth” is lower-key, different. It is smooth synth-pop, but it is – well, it’s a protest song, about the gross inequality of American society. And it’s nicely done – the slick production draws you in, and the lyrics are sufficiently subtle that you only gradually realise that George is singing about violence, poverty and prostitution. It is, in musical form, the irony of American life, a polished Cadillac cruising past a crack house.0075 B label

One of George Michael’s albums was titled Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. I don’t think there was ever a volume two, but clearly it was partly a plea for people to stop judging him for the early-1980s blonde tips and just listen. Do that, and you might discover unexpected substance in the white bread.

  • Artist: George Michael
  • Single Title: Faith
  • Track: Side B “Hand to Mouth”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Epic 6511197
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1987

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

 

Going to movies alone

I saw the film An Angel at My Table at a difficult time in my life.

I was very young, and working as a journalist on a daily paper. It was a stressful and high pressure job with a boozy workplace culture. The killer was the shiftwork. You could be rostered to start work at any time from 5am to 6pm, and the two days off you got each week were usually not consecutive, and which days you got varied all the time. You couldn’t really do anything which required a regular commitment. Playing a sport, doing yoga, taking music lessons, even just seeing a group of friends regularly – all the things that bring stability and joy into life, they become almost impossible.

angel 2

An Angel at My Table, dir. Jane Campion, 1990

There are people who can cope with this; I am not one of them. I quickly got into a downward spiral: exhaustion, anxiety, depression. A bad time, but one of the better things I did trying to make this strange existence work was to go to the cinema during the day. It is a little strange going to a movie alone, but I came to enjoy it. I could go to anything, and if it turned out to be a turkey I didn’t feel responsible to another person.

Jane Campion is a New Zealander, now famous as a film director, especially for The Piano. But in 1990, she was only small-big, known among arty types for darkly humorous films with a touch of magic realism. An Angel at My Table was completely different, a long film about the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame. I have mentioned in another post how film soundtracks can open our minds to diverse music, and that was the case here. There is a lovely original score, but it is interspersed with other music, from Schubert lieder to early rock’n’roll, to this song.7020 sleeve

“Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)” is a farewell, in the Maori language, first sung in 1915 to farewell troops sailing off to the First World War. This version is not the one used in the film, but it is so similar that I had to check. It is the work of the choir of a Catholic school, St Joseph’s Maori Girls College, and comes from an EP they recorded in 1962.

It is only short, but it is a beautiful piece of harmony singing, and it lifted my heart on a grim day in 1990 and it still does now.

  • Artist: St Joseph’s Maori Girls College
  • EP Title: Maori Love Songs
  • Side 2, Track 3: “Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Viking VT62
  • Manufactured in: New Zealand
  • Year: 1962

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

 

 

A western, and sad

We did not have a television at home when I was a boy. This was the 1970s, when TVs had become pretty much universal in Australia, but my Mum and Dad did not approve of this trend. Although I didn’t like it at the time I am grateful for their non-conformity now. Much of my love of music and literature stems from reading, listening to the radio and to records.

Another good thing about not having a television was that when there was something on which we wanted to watch, we would go to someone’s house, and visit and have dinner and watch it together – it was a social experience, a bit of an event.

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Elvis. This was before he invented the deep-fried peanut butter sandwich

One of the first films I can remember seeing on a colour television (which, young ‘uns, only came to Australia in 1976) was an Elvis Presley film, a western called Flaming Star. There are a lot of seriously dreadful Elvis movies, but this was one of the good ones. I remember little about it except that it was a western and sad, and that it had a wonderful theme. My recollection is that the music crops up in fragmentary form repeatedly in the film, and then plays in full over the closing credits.

This track was originally released in 1960, soon after the movie. It was only a modest hit, and is more-or-less forgotten. I found it on a rather tacky compilation, Elvis in Hollywood. It is buried among much more famous numbers, like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Rock-a-Hula Baby”, and I suspect “Flaming Star” only got included because it fit the album’s concept. For mine, though, it is the standout. It is a sad, poignant song about mortality, a young man fearing he will die before his time. The sombre song is in tension with the up-tempo, almost jaunty arrangement, but somehow the mix works.

Elvis Presley is one of those artists whose myth is so gargantuan, so ridiculously overblown, that it obscures his art. Tracks like this help us understand what all the fuss was about.

  •    Artist: Elvis Presley
  •    LP Title: Elvis in Hollywood
  •    Side 2, Track 3: “Flaming Star”
  •    Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  •    Label: RCA ‎– VPL1 7130
  •    Manufactured in: Australia
  •    Year: 1976 (original release 1960)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Most are only a few dollars, and I am open to offers.

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