Friday, 28 April 2017

Elvis Tribute: One of an Ongoing Series

Dissing Elvis tribute discs is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but this morning I have a taste for pollocks, and there’s something decidedly fishy about today’s terrible tribute. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the King's passing this year be prepared for more of these howlers.

Welcome Home Elvis was co-written, recorded and released in 1977 (the year of the King’s demise) by Billy Joe Burnette. Burnette was co-author of the mid-1970s country music smash hit Teddy Bear, featured on this very blog many moons ago. Named after the TV special hosted by Frank Sinatra in 1960 to re-introduce Elvis to the public after his stint in the army, Welcome Home Elvis was featured on the album of the same name, stuffed with other tribute songs, a re-recording of the Elvis hit Peace in the Valley (which also provides the basis for this song) and featuring Elvis’s drummer, D.J. Fontana, on the title track. According to the album’s sleeve notes, Fontana reckoned that ‘this is it! This is the tribute to Elvis that I want to hear in my heart.’ Sadly the rest of us had to listen with our ears, as Billy narrates the story of ‘El’, his dead brother and his dirt-poor family whilst affecting a poor Elvis impersonation.

Burnette was born (as Billy Barnette) in Richmond, North Carolina and given up for adoption. He learned to sing and play guitar, and co-wrote a song, Stomp, Shake and Twist, which managed to get some radio play. He came to national attention in 1961, when he recorded his song Marlene for Parkway Records. Dick Clark featured the disc on American Bandstand, and he headed for Hollywood, where he met up with rockabilly singers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who befriended him and gave him his stage name, Billy Joe Burnette. After recording a few soul-influenced sides for Gold Standard records, including the rather good Lust For Life, he established his own label, the B.J.B. Record Company of Hollywood, signing the singers Jody Vac, Jo Ann Martin and Donna Thomas, who released the 45 If You’d been Born a Woman.

By the mid 1970s, Burnette was in Nashville, leaving pop and soul behind in favour of country and in 1976 Red Sovine’s single Teddy Bear came out, a tearjerker about truckers, CB radios and a little paralyzed boy. Burnette received a BMI Award for songwriting and was nominated for a Grammy and a Country Music Association award. The following year, with Elvis barely cold in the ground, he released the dreadful Welcome Home Elvis. He also recorded the ‘comedy’ song Blow Smoke on a Kangaroo and scored a minor hit in 1990 with another spoken word disc, Three Flags.

Happily, the B-side to Welcome Home Elvis is almost as awful. I Haven’t Seen Mama in Years is the tale of a man imprisoned for something he did not do (of course) who cannot understand why his dear Mama has not bothered to come visit. It’s only when he gets out – and we get close to the end of the disc – that we discover the reason, and it’s a wonderfully sick twist to this tale of woe.

Sadly Billy Joe passed away in Florida on December 29 last year. The 76 year-old suffered a massive heart attack as he was putting items in his car for a move back to Nashville. The singer, songwriter and producer had planned to restart his career, had just sold his home near Daytona Beach, and was looking forward to getting back to work.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Anti Maim

This week's blog was inspired by a suggestion from a reader. Thanks! (I think!)

Lucille Ball was an American institution: actress, model, television executive and slapstick star without whom - its arguable – we would never have had Star Trek. Although her iconic TV shows I Love Lucy, the Lucy Show and Here's Lucy were never huge hits here in the UK, back home she dominated the sitcom scene.

Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company, Desilu, the company she formed with her husband, the Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. After the pair divorced, Ball bought out Arnaz's share of the studio, and she proceeded to function as a very active studio head. She appeared in several hit movies, toured extensively, and was a favourite of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover – not a bad achievement for the former registered member of the Communist Party. She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for contributions to motion pictures, and one for television.

But one thing Lucy wasn’t was a singer. Although she had appeared in musicals including Dance Girl, Dance, Easy to Wed and DuBarry Was a Lady, and had a passable voice her range was limited and, when a big song was demanded then her vocals were overdubbed (on DuBarry Was a Lady by Martha Mears, for example). Lucille Ball was a heavy smoker her entire life and there’s a good chance that the heart problems that killed her were directly related to her cigarette intake: smoking also affected her already weak singing voice, so by the time that the 1974 musical Mame came about, what little instrument that had been there was completely ravaged. 

Mame was a disaster: the film bombed at the box office and Ball’s reviews were brutal. Time Magazine wrote that ‘the movie spans about 20 years, and seems that long in running time . . . Miss Ball has been moulded over the years into some sort of national monument, and she performs like one too. Her grace, her timing, her vigor have all vanished’. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker asked if ‘after forty years in movies and TV, did she discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?’ and other reviewers mocked her for being too old, with Ball filmed out of focus in a vain effort to make her look younger. Watch it: every close up looks as if a thin layer of Vaseline has been spread over the lens. In her defence Ball told one interviewer that ‘Mame stayed up all night and drank champagne! What did you expect her to sound like? Julie Andrews?’ Apparently it took two years to film… God only knows why. Maybe that had something to do with the 40 costume changes Lucille makes during the film, which came at a cost of $300,000. Certainly at one point Lucy had to take time off from filming as she had broken her leg.

Luckily Mame had Bea Arthur, who played Vera in the stage show and she steals the show by recreating that role here.

Mame really is the kind of film that helps explain why so many people hate musicals. In an interview to promote the movie Lucy admits that ‘you can’t really call it singing and you can’t really call it dancing, but I’m out there doing what they asked me to do. I love it [singing] but I can’t, I’m not good at it.’

Lucy is miscast, the musical numbers are overblown and old fashioned and the whole production suffers in comparison to the 1958 (thankfully non-musical) film Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, or the stage show that debuted in 1966 with Angela Lansbury in the title role. The film is entertaining, but only for the unintentionally funny moments in it. Still it was a musical, and musicals need a soundtrack album. Original Soundtrack From the Motion Picture Mame was issued by Warner Bros at the same time as the film hit cinemas; The original Broadway cast recording with Angela Lansbury had sold over a million copies, but both film and soundtrack failed to attract an audience. The album claims to be the original soundtrack, but it’s clear that the songs have been re-recorded. However there’s little improvement evident. If He Walked Into My Life is just terrible, as is the bog-awful cutesy Open a New Window. 

But why take my word for it? Have a listen here and decide for yourself.


Monday, 17 April 2017

Let's Lock!

It’s not unusual, as Tom Jones sang, for non-English speaking countries to jump aboard the current western pop bandwagon and launch their own indigenous version of the latest craze. Many countries had their own version of the Beatles, for example, and (naturally) a few years before the Fabs ruled the world, faux-Elvii could be found all over the place.

But none of the local Presley-alikes holds a candle to Masaaki Hirao, the Japanese Elvis. Masaaki Hirao Masaaki was one of the famed Rokabirii Sannin Otoko (three rockabillies), alongside singers Mickey Curtis and Keijiro Yamashita. Yamashita was better known for his ballads (with covers of Diana, Today’s Teardrops and others) and sounds more like the Nipponese Pat Boone or Paul Anka; Mickey Curtis was (well, still is) an actor who did a nice line in Neil Sedaka covers, but Masaaki Hirao was the Number One star of Nippon Rock ‘n Roll. The three men would record an album together, Rock n’ Roll Forever, in 1972.

The rokabirii buumu (rockabilly boom) was born in 1958. Rokabirii may resemble US rockabilly, but the Nipponese version is, as music historian Howard Williams notes (in the sleeve notes to the collection Nippon Rock'n'Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rokabirii), ‘a more varied dish’. Hirao and his oddly-named backing band the All Stars Wagon’s ‘covers of Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and Little Richard are not kitsch renditions, but raw, desperate rockers. Hear a Paul Anka makeover, but put through a rocking mangle; a smattering of jazz; a twist of New Orleans; and some Japanese folk songs with a greased-down quiff. American occupation a distant memory, these boys wanted to party’.

Other Japanese acts had covered western pop hits before: actress and singer Chiemi Eri released an English-language version of Rock Around the Clock as early as 1955. Yet although it’s easy to extract the Michael from these funny foreigners and their difficulty in pronouncing certain consonants, rokabirii posed a real problem in Japan, with the authorities fearing of a wave of delinquency not dissimilar to the cinema and theatre riots seen in the US and UK. The rokabirii buumu only lasted a couple of years, but for a nation of teenagers denied access to Western music (don’t forget, this all happened just over a decade after the end of the Second World War) it must have been incredibly exciting.

Still, when Hirao sings ‘let’s lock!’ on his version of Jailhouse Rock it does sound completely ridiculous.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

It's Shaun's Show

Although I have not featured this artist (or this record) on the blog before, this somehow feels familiar… like revisiting old friends.

Born on September 27, 1958 in Los Angeles, Shaun Cassidy was still in High School when he was offered a recording contract by Mike Curb, the musician, arranger, producer and – sadly – politician who I first featured on this blog back way in 2009.

Riding on the coattails of half-brother David, Shaun was just 18 when he scored his first hit, a cover of the Tupper Saussy song Morning Girl. Saussy has also featured on this blog before; he was also responsible for the reprehensible The Prophet: Predictions by David Hoy 45 by psych-rock group The Wayward Bus. Instantly young Shaun’s face was all over the place, on magazine covers, on lunch boxes and on posters pinned to teenyboppers walls. For a brief time he was all-but ubiquitous.

Anyway, Shaun scored a few hits, in both the US (where his first two albums sold more than five million copies) and in Europe, but his career as a teen pin-up didn’t last; luckily TV stardom beckoned with a couple of series of The Hardy Boys Mysteries, but the pop hits had completely dried up by 1978. His last notable chart placing at home was yet another cover, this time of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe in Magic

Then he met Todd Rundgren.

Unsurprisingly I’ve also featured Todd before, of course. It was Todd who performed the diabolically awful version of the XTC classic Dear God on his album (re)Production and it was Todd who tried to turn the one-time teen idol Shaun Cassidy into a New Wave star. The results, predictably, are awful.

Wasp, the album Todd put together for Shaun, is just dreadful. Backed by the then-current Utopia line-up, the album is stacked with piss-poor cover versions of songs originally recorded by the Four Tops, Talking Heads, The Who, Ian Hunter, the Animals and David Bowie, alongside a few new songs written or co-written by Rundgren himself.

Wasp would be the last album that Shaun the pop star released. He has continued to act though (he also sang, in the US stage version of Blood Brothers with his older sibling David) but has proved much more successful off-screen, writing, producing and creating such shows as American Gothic, Invasion and Emerald City.

Anyway, here are a couple of tracks from Wasp, with Shaun (and Todd) attempting to destroy the careers of Talking Heads and David Bowie. Thankfully they didn’t succeed.


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