Sinatra lyricist Sammy Cahn was often asked, Which came first – the words or the lyrics? His answer: “The phone call”. As a listener, for me it’s always the melody, but Paul Hester once pointed out how that’s not so for everyone (particularly women). “There’s a reason lyricists get half the royalties.” With the passing of Hal David late last week, we farewell a certain style of lyricist whose smarts never elbowed out accessibility. The team of Bacharach and David was an anomaly in the so-called Swinging Sixties: Burt Bacharach may have looked ready for the Playboy mansion, while David dressed for the golf club. But on over 700 songs David’s skill with a lyric harked back to Johnny Mercer, yet touched millions unmoved by psychedelics but by pure human emotions. A testimony to David’s breadth is the number of different songs that obit headline writers have used. Every song has a surprise that makes them unforgettable: an everyday image, an unexpected metre or rhyme. ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ sees the female singer rushing to her day job, putting on her makeup, running for the bus; ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ rhymes pneumonia with phone yer. In ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’, a casual guy’s feet are too big for his bed; nothing seems to fit. Davis makes a clever segue from “cryin’s not for me” to the internal rhymes of “nothing’s gonna stop the rain by complainin’”, and “the blues he sends to meet me won’t defeat me”. In the middle eight of ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ David seems to take the baton from Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’ – “LA is a great big freeway / put a hundred down and buy a car” – and pass it to Guy Clark: “If I get off of this LA freeway / without getting killed or caught.” But ‘Jose’ also shows how teamwork was essential to their craft: where the emphasis falls in “and parking cars and pumping gas” is crucial to making simple imagery profound.
Jesus Christ was found last week in Taranaki, after more than 10 years in the wilderness. Jim Allen’s mahogany sculpture of Christ was the centrepiece of John Scott’s 1961 design of the Futuna Chapel in Wellington, which is regarded as one of New Zealand’s architectural masterpieces. A mention on RNZ’s Saturday Morning programme by architect David Mitchell led one listener to recall seeing it in someone’s lounge. This week the Wellington detective who discreetly explored the lead drove up to Taranaki to bring the statue back. In a perfect world, a film crew would follow him on the journey, Christ sitting up in the back of a convertible; the soundtrack playing is from Jim White’s doco Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
3. Show time
The much-missed Word magazine offered a weekly podcast in which the editors told anecdotes, reflected on music and modern life, and interviewed the occasional guest. It was a great way of connecting with their readers, far more genuine than some gimmick thought up by a marketing department. The Word didn’t have one of those, nor did it have enough paying advertisers. A podcast earlier this year was a gem: their guests were the authors Paul Charles and Stanley Booth. Charles has worked in the UK music business and written a series of mystery novels, but his new bookThe Last Dance (New Island) is different. It’s a novelised history of the 1960s’ Irish showband phenomenon, told as a fictional biography of an invented band, the Playboys of Castlemartin. These showbands are often spoken of with derision by the rock star children whose parents may have met at their dances: I have heard Bono and Bob Geldof almost bust blood vessels describing their naffness and their place in an earlier, oppressed Ireland. We invented hipness is the message, ignoring that without the Irish showbands, there would be no Van Morrison, who served his time in the Monarchs (where he learnt his chops arranging brass). What was intriguing about the podcast was the way Charles’s description suggested connections between the Irish and Maori showbands. Both were prominent simultaneously in the early 1960s, and both shared an eclectic approach to music that emphasised humour, dancing and musicianship over originality. The Last Dance is flawed: for a novel it desperately needs a fact checker, Charles too often places the important clause of a sentence right at the very end, and the plot often veers into soap opera. But in its own naive way it captures a lost world, and is great craic. Pictured are the Vikings from Dundalk.
4. Pop sociology
Pat Long’s History of the NME (Portico) sketches out the roller-coaster tale of what was once the world’s most influential pop paper. Long is no stylist, but his book is more interesting that the solipsistic recent memoir of the paper’s 1970s junkie star, Nick Kent (Apathy for the Devil). From its beginnings championing Vera Lynn through to the troubled post-Britpop digital era, the NME has had many periods of boom, and never quite succumbed to bust. But Long, a recent staff writer, captures well the era in which the paper lost its way: the early 1980s, when NME writers Ian Penman and Paul Morley made up for their ignorance about music, history, earlier rock journalism and satisfying readers by
“… attempting to write in a way that was alternately brave and baffling, employing punctuation like a weapon, conjuring images that were abstract and evocative and occasionally downright meaningless. It was gloriously provocative but at times very long-winded and egocentric writing, inspired by French philosophers Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida and the work of the Frankfurt School of dissident Marxist social theoreticians. Whether this approach had any place in a weekly music paper is a moot point, but suddenly the pages of NME assumed something of the atmosphere of the staff common room of the philosophy department of a small provincial university.”5. Warped
Part of the NME’s success - especially in the mid to late 1970s - was that it covered more than music. This undoubtedly influenced The Word, whose editor Mark Ellen and co-founder David Hepworth both worked the NME under the editorships of Nick Logan and Neil Spencer. Perhaps the only positive to come from the demise of The Word is that David Hepworth is finding more time to update his reflective blog, which covers not just music but sport, literature, history, media, publishing and parenting (from the perspective of someone who came of age in the era of Harold Wilson). Here are his Ten Laws of Record Collecting.