Sunday, 25 February 2018

Helen's favourite songs - part one

I imagine that we've all been asked for our top five - or ten - favourite songs at one point or another. It's a fun, twisty little question that allows you to reveal something about yourself by degrees. It's also one that I associate with my younger days, simply because I haven't been asked that question for years. That is, until my friend Helen put it to me this week.

Although we have convergent tastes in the realm of rock 'n' roll and 1960s pop, Helen and I seemingly differ on a whole lot. So, in order to really dig into what tickles each other's vental tegmental areas we swapped our favourite five (soon expanded to ten) songs and agreed to listen to them critically. Now, we all know that ten 'favourite' songs is an impossibility, as environment, mindset and memory all come to bear on making one's choices. Nevertheless, a selection of ten or so well-regarded songs is, in my estimation, more than a glimpse through the window to a person's soul - so without further ado, here are the first five tracks Helen chose, and my commentary.

Smile - Nat King Cole

I was more familiar with this song's backstory - that the music was written by Charlie Chaplin, and it was one of Michael Jackson's favourites - than the tune itself. The first thing to say is that it is the perfect match for Nat King Cole's effortless crooning, his warm, sad voice perfectly matching the bittersweet lyrics. In that sense, 'Smile' is a triumph - the concept being matched exquisitely by its execution.

To modern ears the instrumentation might sound a bit slushy, but to me it evokes a golden age where it was commonplace for three-minute pop to be treated with the utmost care and respect. So strings swell, woodwinds trill and swoon and a drummer brushes away unobtrusively in the back, providing Cole with a lush backdrop for his inimitable baritone. Sumptuous.

You Don't Know Me - Ray Charles

On to the second song of Helen's selection, and there are similarities with 'Smile' inasmuch as it features yet more baroque orchestration, this time with the addition of a mixed-voice choir. An unhurried torch song, 'You Don't Know Me' is distinguished from Cole's song by the vocal delivery. Where Cole's voice, untutored as it was, nevertheless came from the jazz clubs, Charles' vocals went to church (NB: it's never that simple though, is it? Cole's father was a Baptist minister).

As with much of Charles' oeuvre, that standout element of 'You Don't Know Me' is the barely restrained passion in the delivery of the lyrics. Despite being written by outside writers, the way Charles is able to get inside the viscera of the song is a minor marvel in itself.

George On My Mind - Ray Charles

Wow - even better than the other Ray Charles song in this list. It's one of those tracks, like those cut by Brooke Benton, Glenn Campbell and latterly Tony Joe White, that feel so big and widescreen that you're surprised to find it's only three or four minutes long.

That easy roll of the piano, the way he switches moves between major and relative minor keys, the vocals cracking with emotion - let's just say this is how the big boys do it. The string arrangement in 'George On My Mind' is something else too, intricate without being fussy, blossoming in peaks of high emotion one moment, dying down to allow the piano to breathe in the next. Pop music has rarely sounded this sophisticated since.

Runaround Sue - Dion

If your hearing faculuties are fine and you don't like this crackerjack my suspicions are that you don't possess a pulse. It's got all the stuff I like - five fucking chords, saxophone squalling away in the background, backing vocals that take a cue from doo-wop and a guy that knows how to belt it out. Helen called this a 'slut-shaming classic' half-jokingly, and I imagine if it were released today there'd be an article on within five minutes decrying it as 'problematic'.

I don't care. Songs like 'Runaround Sue' form one of the main arterial routes away from the beating heart of rock 'n' roll; the smoother, citified version hustled away from its southron birthplace by a bunch of inner-city punk Italian kids. It's an absolute gas. The opening lines speak of a story "sad but true", but nothing sounds further from the truth, given the sheer, giddy ecstasy of its delivery. 'Runaround Sue' is scintillating. 

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - Neil Sedaka

Oh, I know this one! Yeah, this is cool. 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do' adheres to a template for a certain kind of song produced during this era - speed it up and there's 'The Night Has a Thousand Eyes' by Bobby Vee, slow it down and beef up the strings and there's Gene Pitney's 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart'. Like 'Runaround Sue', 'Breaking Up...' glories in a doo-wop schooled backing vocal that's every bit as irresistible as it is moronic. The handclaps that accentuate the rhythm are delicious, and herald the latter-day self-conscious bubblegum of a song like 'Sugar, Sugar' by the Archies.

For all the crushing heaviness of Electric Wizard or Sleep, I'm never not going to be a sucker for the unadulterated head-rush of 1960s pop music. I can see why 'Breaking Up...' would be on a list of favourites - it does nothing particularly brilliantly, and does it brilliantly. There's a strange kind of virtuosity in turning out a song so simple and yet so addictive. If this is the musical equivalent of junk food, I want to gorge until I get a coronary.

Well, that's the first five! I'll probably do another album review or two before I tackle the second half of Helen's selections. I've enjoyed this so far, and I look forward to - let me just get my phone out - New Found Glory and, er, McFly, amongst others! 

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