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A Song Revisited: “Dreams” by Grace Slick

31 Jul
“Dreams”: a video very much of its time, but what a great song

Dreams: Grace Slick's 1980 album, with a title track that's come hurtling back into my life

What makes a song come hurtling back up from the depths of the memory? Just occasionally, something that defined a time in your life – a few hours, a week, a month – but that you haven’t given a second thought to for years, decades, rears up from the past with all its old power. The response, the feelings, the connection you made with that particular piece of music, with its potent combination of voice, lyric, melody – above all, the ‘sound’ it made in your life – clout you with all of their original force. It’s extraordinary, like travelling in time.

I don’t know what made me search for Grace Slick’s “Dreams” on YouTube the other day. It was a random, almost unthinking act. A bit of displacement therapy to postpone some mundane task. But the great thing is that I did it. And ever since, the song has been playing on a continuous loop in my head. I was astonished and touched by its familiarity, the words returning effortlessly to mind after three decades, those epic cadences just as thrilling, and Slick’s fascinating, textured, contralto resonating through an apocolyptic yet compelling vision of the terrors of the night.

“Dreams” was the title track of Slick’s 1980 solo album. I remember the first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1 – how much more adventurous its playlist was in those days! – and how completely enthralled I was by its symphonic qualities, and by Slick’s blistering vocal attack. At that stage – and for a long time afterwards – I knew nothing about her, that pedigree steeped in the legendary psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane in its various guises. I just knew that this was a voice that commanded attention, that was hypnotic in the way it charged on with something that sounded like controlled rage, almost fighting with the majestic beauty of the song’s arrangement. At least, looking back, I think that’s what I thought. Only probably less specifically. I was only 18, after all. I just knew what I liked, and there wasn’t a lot of it about in those days.

Fortunately, “Dreams” got a plenty of airplay, none of which helped to make the song a hit, although it meant I got to hear it a lot. I suppose that gives it cult status today, because it obviously has a lot of fans out there. Sean Delaney’s lyrics paint a wonderfully lurid picture of the sinister parade that storms, tantalises, disturbs and ravages sleep. I now understand, of course, that the album was at heart a concept project that explored the AA 12-step programmes, Slick having recently emerged from a prolonged stay in rehab.

“To be honest, doing solo albums scared the shit out of me; making music was no longer fun, it was nerve-wracking pressure,” she wrote in her absorbing 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? “For someone who couldn’t handle a quarter cup of coffee without wondering where the quaaludes were, working solo was just a couple of steps short of flinging myself off a 150-foot diving board.”

The really odd thing is that I’ve only heard the rest of the album in the last few days. The song “Dreams” was always enough in the completeness of the story, the vision it rolled out. But when I found the video on YouTube (a word about that: it’s very much of its time! Slick looks hard and big-haired, her eyes demonic in a Myra Hindley-ish way, but she is still riveting, a performance artist through and through. The Dolly Parton wig is a stroke of genius) and found myself transported back – not to an actual experience but to a sense of my teenaged self – I wanted to know more about the album. A search for MP3 downloads was fruitless. So it was off to Amazon.

In her book, Slick points out that her solo albums didn’t sell. That she didn’t tour on the back of them, which was a mistake. Well, Grace, thanks to a Japanese import and a rather silly amount of money, Dreams just notched up another royalty and I hope you get it. Because it’s a marvellous album, an explosion of musical references that’s surely overdue for a release. It’s gone straight onto my smartphone and I’m just letting the stories it tells play out on the commute, building a complex picture around a song that’s come back into my life like an old friend.

I know that there was much more to Slick’s music than this, and I’ve since discovered the wonders of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, and the unique contribution that arresting voice made to a seminal period in rock history. And even the commercial hits of Starship – Slick has since made no secret of her lack of interest in them –  have the ability to generate a nostalgia for the 1980s, powered by her unmistakable vocals.

Grace Slick at 70: a successful artist with the presence of a tribal elder

She stopped performing at 49, believing that rock stars over 50 should stop inflicting their ageing presence on an audience. That’s a shame because from the sound of it, she could still knock seven bells out of her iconic numbers – including “Dreams”. Today, she is a successful artist, renowned for her work in acrylic, particularly studies of her rock star contemporaries, many of whom didn’t have her resilience and instinct for self-preservation. In interviews she appears a wise elder of the global tribe: fiercely intelligent, plain-spoken, as uncompromising as ever, warm, compassionate and very funny, a mane of white hair pulled tightly back so that her interrogator gets the full benefit of that frank, experience-laden gaze. More power to her. And huge thanks for “Dreams”.

CD Review – Jude Cowan: Doodlebug Alley

15 Jun

Jude Cowan singing Doodlebug Alley, the title track from her new album

Doodlebug Alley: bringing back memories of a teenage record producer

When I was13, I was a producer for a day. Armed with my trusty Phillips cassette recorder (dodgy mic lead but it worked if you held it in a certain position), I persuaded my seven-year-old sister Isabel to make a record with me. We spent a busy hour extemporising. I know we reached far and wide for our cultural allusions but for some reason only the films of Joan Crawford (there was a Saturday afternoon season on television) and Clark Gable, and sexy underwear (always worth a childish giggle) linger in the memory after all this time.

We came up with some basic tunes, beat the rhythms on a pile of books and, making it up as she went along, Isabel plucked her own lyrics out of thin air with a facility beyond her years. Before we ran out of steam, we had a whole C60 side of material – enough for a whole album – and armed with scissors, a couple of photographs and a black felt tip, I quickly rustled up a cover. I can still see it. Bella, it was called. And I know the words “Includes the hit single…” appeared somewhere, together with my all-important producer’s credit. It must still be around somewhere at the back of a cupboard.

What prompted this flood of reminiscence? A few spins of Jude Cowan’s new album, Doodlebug Alley. Not that I’m suggesting Cowan is stranded in early adolescence or that there is anything remotely childish about the production or concept, or her stridently poetic lyrics. But the overall effect is of a similarly chaotic, random clash of references and influences – and yes, more than a hint of the precocity that makes me wince slightly as I look back down the corridor of years.

Doodlebug Alley is nothing if not experimental and uncompromising. But it’s telling that the first time I grabbed the sleeve for more information was midway through “She Sits at the Window” – itself a nostalgic treat, as it conjured hours of listening to obscure Radio 4 afternoon dramatisations during the afternoon ‘rests’ of childhood – and discovered that the eerie beauty of the piano solo was down to composer Nicky Bendix rather than Cowan herself.

Easy listening, this is not, and Bendix’s interlude provides a welcome respite from Cowan’s acerbic and jagged adventure across a rich landscape of folklore, literature and, in the title track, popular history, in which she mainly accompanies herself on her disconcertingly cheerful ukelele.

The publicity blurb generated high expectations: John Gay meets Hogarth, say, they bump into Brecht and Brel, and the essence of their artistic collaboration is channelled by Cowan as a latter-day Agnes Bernelle. And occasionally, there is the real prospect of those expectations being met – particularly in the visceral bleakness of “Remember Sinners” (an homage to the French poet François Villon), with Tom Fawcett contributing a grim guest appearance, disturbingly bringing the first-hand gallows experience to life (and death). “Jolly Roger” takes a long, hard look at unwanted pregnancy, finding a rare dark humour in the depths of experience. There is some fine, topical, satire too in the vicious “Naughty Daddy”, a timely anti-capitalist swipe.

But the high points are undermined by moments of startling banality particularly in the title track, which is supposed to evoke the live-for-the-moment intensity of London during the Blitz. The awkward rhythmic shifts, a burst of finger-clicking, the rhyming of arse with St Pancreas, and a bzzzz more reminiscent of a dying bluebottle than the drone of an approaching V1, had me glaring at the speakers in disbelief and instead, brought my old Phillips days vividly to life.

I wanted to love Doodlebug Alley (note to PRs: Please stop comparing any hard-to-categorise female artists with Kate Bush. It’s a tired old cliché these days, and rarely flatters either party). But despite its sardonic darkness, it’s left me frustrated. Jude Cowan, a cultural historian, clearly has genuinely original talents to be reckoned with. I’d like to see them harnessed with more discipline and a clearer vision next time round.

Who are Your All-Time Top Ten Eurovision Female Singers?

27 May

55 years of Eurovision history: Oslo hosts the latest installment

The 55th Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s annual televised pop music extravaganza – takes place in Oslo on Saturday 29th May. Why do I still love this much mocked and derided event? I suspect it’s largely to do with nostalgia. I’ve seen every show since 1971 and if I’m perfectly honest, watching it is more a habit than an eagerly anticipated event these days.

The glory years of a live orchestra – for me, always an element that heightened the excitement – bringing the best (or worst) out of the artists, and occasionally conjuring an unexpected silk purse from a sow’s ear of a song, are long gone. So too are the days when singers were expected to use their native tongue, which was always as much a part of Eurovision’s unique, idiosyncratic appeal as the preposterous voting system.

The whole thing has become a victim of its surge in camp popularity during the last decade: a sporting event, held in vast arenas, which has shed its concert-focused origins. I haven’t attended Eurovision since Copenhagen in 2001, when the to-ing and fro-ing of the live audience throughout the evening completely ruined any sense of occasion. The singing is still live, but today it’s really all about the decibels of the backing tracks, the eccentricity of the costumes and the litheness of the dancers.

However, I will be watching on Saturday as usual. And as always, the big lady singers will command my particular attention. Female solo artists have dominated the contest throughout its history, winning many more times than their male counterparts or group entries. And the competition has attracted some pretty big names, whose reputation extends well beyond their own countries, in its time.

This is my personal top ten, in descending order. They weren’t all winners – my favourite entries rarely have come out on top! – but on the night, the combination of artist and song gelled to create a memory that still rises above all the ridicule. Do you agree? Why not share your top ten with us?

10 – Semiha Yanki: Seninle Bir Dakika, Turkey (1975)

This was Turkey’s first ever entry. Semiha Yanki was just 17 but sung this ambitious, elaborate and symphonic ballad with a conviction well beyond her years. She came last, with just three points – a result that still seems baffling 35 years later. Yanki has continued recording.

9 – Mariza Koch: Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou, Greece (1976)

Greek folk singer Mariza Koch presented this absorbing protest song (a reaction to Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus) complete with bazouki accompaniment. Her dignified stage presence and powerful voice really captured my imagination; remember, this was the year that Brotherhood of Man won for the UK! Compare and contrast… Koch still performs and records.

8 – Remedios Amaya: Quién Maneja Mi Barca, Spain (1983)

Flamenco singer Remedios Amaya stormed the 1983 event in Munich – and scored the dreaded nul points. Why? This torrid, authentic entry was an uncompromising masterpiece, and makes a mockery of the faux-ethnicity of songs like last year’s Norwegian winner. Elfish folksiness be gone. Give me Remedios and her hearfelt wail every time.

7 – Mia Martini: Rapsodia, Italy (1992)

Class, with a side order of razor blades. This was Mia Martini’s second attempt for Italy, a glorious, rambling ballad of pained love, presented with simplicity and all the assurance of an artist who knows that whoever tops the leader board, she has the only seriously good song in the competition. Martini died too young, but her marvellously ravaged voice lives on in the memory.

6-  Kathy Kirby: I Belong, United Kingdom (1965)

I know Sandie Shaw should be on the list, but everyone knows “Puppet on a String” and this performance epitomises the brittle, high-octane talent of a singer who really should have enjoyed a longer career. Kathy Kirby lives quietly in London these days but her music remains hugely popular with her loyal fan base.

5 – Alice (and Franco Battiato): I Treni di Tozeur (1984)

OK, not exactly a solo artist on the night but Alice’s moody glamour and resonant voice rose above songwriter Franco Battiato’s awkwardness so magnificently that I became an instant fan. The song is a classic: haunting, singular and atmospheric, complete with the surprise of an operatic chorus. Alice’s career went from strength to strength and she remains one of Italy’s most important and inventive musical artists.

4 – Paloma San Basilio: La Fiesta Terminó, Spain (1985)

Spain’s greatest musical theatre star (she played Evita) should have walked the contest with this stately torch song. But in the end, the performance was just a little underpowered and instead, Paloma San Basilio had to settle for a lowly 14th place. Eurovision juries really are a law unto themselves.

3 – Patricia Kaas: Et S’il Fallait le Faire, France (2009)

Another moment of class, this time from the modern age of Eurovision. I’ve been a fan of Patricia Kaas since hearing her 1990 hit “Les Mannequins d’Osier” and saw her live at Hammersmith back in 1994. Her participation in the 2009 contest was a welcome surprise, and she didn’t disappoint with this austere, slightly haughty performance of a top-quality chanson.

2 Anne-Marie David: Tu Te Reconnaîtras, Luxemburg (1973)

Anne-Marie David’s three-time ballad was polished and perfectly suited the attractive emotional timbre of her voice. She saw off the challenges of Spain’s equally strong entry from Mocedades, “Eres Tu” and Cliff Richard’s “Power to all our Friends” to gain Luxemburg’s second win in a row.

1 – Vicky Leandros: Après Toi, Luxemburg (1972)

The winner that does it for me, every time I hear it. Vicky Leandros swept to victory with this all-or-nothing declaration of love, an up tempo ballad with a loud, brassy refrain that I used to play at full volume. And this is why I still love Eurovision.

Review – Patty Griffin: Downtown Church

6 May
The Making of Downtown Church – how they did it
 
 

Downtown Church: Patty Griffin - Country without too much twang

My review of Patty Griffin’s new album, Downtown Church, is just up on the excellent Folkingcool web site. I’m usually on the fence about country music, but this album stole my heart with a minimum of twang.

Review – Tammy Weis: Where I Need to Be

26 Apr

Where I Need to Be: every word given its due

There must be something in Canada’s water. Diana Krall and Michael Bublé are just the cream of a crop of exceptional jazz singers from across the Atlantic who have led something of a global invasion over the last decade or so.

To be honest, I have always found something Krall’s style a bit laconic and chilly, while respecting her tremendous musicality and technique. And giving in to the temptation to categorise that I criticise so frequently elsewhere in the music industry, I must admit that I turned to Vancouver-born Tammy Weis expecting to hear something in a similar vein.

I was soon disabused. With the exception of a pensive reinvention of Lennon and McCartney’s “Help” – an unlikely candidate for a ballad, but it works wonderfully well here – Where I Need to Be (TW2010) finds Weis pouring her life-tales into a delicate patchwork of self-penned songs. Now living in London, she has produced a taking-stock album in which nostalgia and regret are evenly balanced by optimism and poignant musical snapshots.

Tammy Weis explains why she included “Help” on the album, and sings it

For several tracks, she joins forces with pianist/composer Tom Cawley, and their songs provide the album’s most intimate, emotional high points, book-ending it with two elegant, beautifully accompanied numbers, “I Kept Going” and “Heading Home”. There is texture along the way, most notably the Latin beat of “Everyone But Me”, with Weis’s lyrics a dry Martini short of self-pity, and the shimmering “I’ll Spend Forecer”. She swings too, throwing down the gauntlet with “Don’t Want to Fall in Love Again”, co-written with Terry Britten, an articulate account of teetering on the brink in the best traditions of the great American songbook.

“I love delving into my mind and imagination, which can be scary,” says Weis, suggesting that the writing might not be as easy as her fluid interpretations make it sound. “But the song at the end is my reward for expressing what’s inside.”

Weis’s voice is assured and true, just a hint of hardness cutting through when the lyric demands. She plays deftly with the melody without ever sacrificing clarity – every word is given its due. The band is impeccable – Al Cherry on guitar, Arnie Somogyi on bass and Seb de Krom on drums, with several guest players including steel guitarist B. J. Cole (particularly yearning on “Where Did the Time Go”, an end-of-the-affair ballad), and pianist Julian Joseph (“All Because of You”) whom Weis credits as her prime motivator for making an album of original songs.

Audition by television: the cruelty of Over the Rainbow

26 Apr

Auditions are brutal. Meat racks by another name, as even the greatest Broadway and West End stars will tell you. But at least in the real world, rejection is swift, delivered as if by an exquisitely sharp, stainless steel blade. The cut is clean. Scar tissue minimal, at least in the early years. Healing is quick, hope springs eternal and you’re soon off to the next one. Which is why there is something profoundly unpleasant about the prolonged agony of television-based audition shows. Forget stainless steel. They wield a rusty knife with a jagged edge that will leave gaping wounds in all but the toughest of egos.

Over The Rainbow, currently filling the BBC’s early evening prime time slot at the weekend, is the cruellest so far. For non-UK readers, this format has been used to find ‘stars’ to fill plum roles in various Andrew Lloyd Webber West End productions – to date, Maria in The Sound of Music, Joseph, and Nancy in Oliver! Now it’s the turn of The Wizard of Oz. Every week, a group of would-be Dorothys loses a member and we’re now down to the last eight. Which makes it sound more like an endurance sport, and that is basically what Over The Rainbow is.

Lloyd Webber is obviously a kind-hearted man, and his reluctance to inflict a killer criticism always makes his presence seem a tad disingenuous. The real grit is provided by the judging panel – one-time Mrs Lovett and current Mother Superior in Sister Act, Sheila Hancock (who has been given a Cruella de Ville look for the occasion), West End stalwart and Eastenders actor John Partridge, and former voice of an angel Charlotte Church – who give the participants nuggets of tough love after each performance. Hancock and Partridge at least have the benefit of years of stage experience. Church is less convincing as a tutor-cum-judge. She clearly rates her own diva credentials, seizing the chance to out-belt all the contestants in a group performance of the Streisand/Summer disco anthem “Enough is Enough (No More Tears)”. But her youthful success with operatic arias has left her with zero understanding of theatrical performance.

Between them, however, they epitomise the dilemma faced by any musical producer today. Not a single one of this week-end’s performances was in any way convincing from a theatrical point of view. It’s a familiar complaint from composers and directors that too many young performers bring a pop sensibility to musical numbers. They belt and they emote, they strain and they sob, but the songs – deeply embedded in the characters they have been written to represent – require a more complicated treatment, a more flexible, shaded voice, than the full-on style propagated by today’s pop stars. And here is ample justification for those criticisms.

Week by week on Over The Rainbow, these young women are being coached to sell pop songs as two-minute dramas – principally for the quick-fix demands of television. And with very few exceptions, the challenge is beyond them. They are told to focus on the emotion and the story – often a ridiculous demand if it’s a song of experience. Then they are hauled over the coals for failing to deliver truth and credibility. Witness this week-end’s “Cry Me A River” from Danielle Hope, delivered at maximum velocity to cheers from the audience, with absolutely zero concept of the many subtle layers of irony in Arthur Hamilton’s biting, classic torch song.

Missing the point: Cry Me A River on Over The Rainbow

The two who come bottom of the television vote are then exposed to the further cruelty of a sing-off for Lloyd-Webber – the knife being given an extra twist for the one told that she is the “audience’s least favourite”. Finally, when the composer has delivered his verdict and saved one of them for next week’s repeat ritual, the loser must participate in a ghastly sob-fest rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, bravely smiling through her tears and thanking everyone for taking her on a marvellous journey… to where, it remains to be seen.

My advice to all of them would be to sit down with a DVD of Sunday night’s South Bank Show Revisited (ITV), in which Melvyn Bragg returned to New York to interview Stephen Sondheim on the eve of his 80th birthday. The conversation was heavily weighted towards Sweeney Todd, the subject of a 1980 programme which provided plenty of archive footage – it was great to glimpse Hancock’s Mrs Lovett in the original London production at Drury Lane. There were also brief segments from the New York revival of A Little Night Music, revealing why Catherine Zeta Jones’s Desirée so divided the critics. Her “Send in the Clowns” is an acquired taste.

Catherine Zeta Jones sings “Send in the Clowns” and divides the critics

As an exploration of his canon, it hardly scratched the surface. But to hear the clarity and modesty with which Sondheim answered Bragg’s questions was a joy. And in just a couple of sentences, he encapsulated the difference between a technically proficient singer and a dramatically gifted singer interpreting his songs. This was a far more valuable observation on the art and skill of musical performance than anything uttered during those interminable hours of Over The Rainbow.

Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan

11 Apr

Helen Morgan: a strong legacy for today's torch singers

It’s been a fine week on BBC4 for lovers of old- and new-style torch singing. The channel’s celebration of the Great American Songbook was stuffed with profiles, documentaries and performances rich in the genre, from a biography of Ella Fitzgerald to a welcome repeat of Walk on By, a series on the history of popular song.

One of the highlights was a BBC4 Sessions concert featuring Gwyneth Herbert giving an exemplary take on the Ruth Etting classic, “Love Me or Leave Me”, Melody Gardot’s exquisitely underplayed “Over the Rainbow”, and a great “September in the Rain” from Sharleen Spiteri – all demonstrating that the torch song has never been in better hands.

But most poignant of all was the excellent Clint Eastwood-produced exploration of the life of lyricist Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me. One hundred minutes sped past in a succession of comments and performance snippets – Julie Andrews, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Maude Maggart (singing a wonderfully touching “Skylark”, accompanied by Jamie Cullum.)

During one of the numerous interview clips of Mercer talking about his craft he mentioned, in passing, Helen Morgan as an example of somebody you would write a particular type of song for. It struck a real chord. Morgan was briefly a huge Broadway star and created the role of Julie in Jerome Kern’s Showboat. But even by the time Mercer referred to her in the 1970s, she had been dead for more than 30 years, and today her name is scarcely heard.

Her style of singing in a light, throbbing soprano, is light years from modern popular taste. Yet Morgan was one of the first of the great torch singers. And a few weeks ago, I had no hesitation in drawing a comparison between Jessie Buckley’s intense, touching way with torch songs in her performance at Pizza on the Park, and Morgan’s way of luring the listener into her lamentations of love gone wrong.

When Helen Morgan’s picture flashed across the television screen, it reminded me of what sparked my interest in the torch idiom over two decades ago. So after focusing on some of the young singers who have piqued my curiosity in recent weeks, here’s a trip back to the roots of the genre.

Helen Morgan was a tragic figure – not in a hell-raising Amy Winehouse way, although she was equally profligate with her talent. When things got too troubled, she’d quietly have another brandy, eventually fulfilling a destiny that was pretty much prescribed in her first starring role as the doomed Julie. But it says much for her legacy that every now and then, a modern performance can still evoke her name and a nod back down the years to a great, if shooting, star.

Helen Morgan sings “Bill”

This is an article I wrote about her in the late 1980s, which hasn’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a bit stodgy and essay-ish in places – and naïve in its approach – but I’m posting it here because in many ways it sums up the elements of torch-singing that I continue to find so compelling – and because I can illustrate it with video, something that would have seemed impossible back then!

Why Was She Born? – The Legacy of Helen Morgan (1988)

Morgan's voice had a unique, pleading quality

Since its plaintive genesis in the early 1920s, the torch song has proved a consistent link between a galaxy of female singers who in other respects could hardly differ more greatly. As an idiom, it provides a historic, if unlikely bridge from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, from Judy Garland to Kiri te Kanawa, from Ruth Etting to Shirley Bassey and from Jane Froman to Dusty Springfield. None of these ladies has ever limited themselves to the genre of the torch song. But each at one time or another has sung from the point of view of the woman on the losing side in love.

If Fanny Brice lit the first torch with her rendering of the classic “My Man”, (“Mon Homme”), consider how Billie Holiday interpreted the same song as a blues number and made it in turn her own. And if Edith Piaf ran the gamut of emotions, she certainly included in her repertoire chansons of a very torchy sentiment. All of these singers at one time or another have reflected through the torch song the suffering of a woman at the hands of a man who does nothing but let her down, but whom she can’t help loving.

Just as the idiom has become more lush and plangent, more downright dramatic, so it has tended to obscure its quieter and more tremulous origins. Now that Dame Kiri has extended her range to include classic torch by George Gershwin, and with a revival of interest in Dusty Springfield’s fulsome entreaty, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, not to mention the interest that never went away in Garland bemoaning “The Man That Got Away”, it is high time to re-evaluate the contribution of the women who started it all with such sentiments as “Why Was I Born?”

With the release of a full-length, universally well-received recording of Showboat, it might be appropriate to focus on the woman who made its two classic torch songs, “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” her own. Her name was Helen Morgan and she might be even less remembered here had not Robyn Archer selected her as an example for her show A Star is Torn.

Helen Morgan made these two songs her own by stamping the torch style with her own delicate lilting soprano. At least two recordings of her renderings survive and are reasonably available. The later pressings can be heard on what amounts to the first cast recording of Showboat which is actually a record of the show’s 1932 revival.

They are remarkable not only for their clarity but for the freshness and immediacy of Morgan’s performances at a distance of over half a century. Her voice has little in common with modern popular tastes but through its unique pleading quality and her astute use of a natural huskiness on key lyrics, it is quite heart-rending in its subtlety.

“I See Two Lovers” – a quintessential Helen Morgan performance

Anybody seeking for an introduction to her lamentably brief recording career should start right here. The extraordinary effect she achieved owes much to her own talent and the light orchestra or band backing favoured by artistes of the day, and little to the dramatic and histrionic lamentations of her future sisters in song. Perhaps the closest we can get these days is to listen to Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies. This is at once a pastiche and wholly authentic.

Song of  Dreamer: great close-ups of a troubled torch singer

Although tracks by Morgan turn up from time to time on compilation albums (FLAPPERS, VAMPS AND SWEET YOUNG THINGS, Living Era 1982, AJA 5015), it is largely thanks to the Take Two label that a sizeable volume of her work has been gathered together. They have compiled a generous selection for the album HELEN MORGAN-Legacy of a Torch Singer, (1986, TT220) although it is rather biased in favour of her earlier material. Much of this is of interest more for its definitive period flavour than as classic torch singing.

It is really in the sessions recorded in the thirties that the depth of Morgan’s voice had matured considerably from the tremulous high notes which mark songs such as “Just Like a Butterfly”. But there are some real gems on this album, most especially the hauntingly regretful “I See Two Lovers”, which also turns up on the album FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN – Classic Female Vocalists of the ‘30s (Conifer 1987, TQ 155). This recording demonstrates to perfection the wistful catch in Morgan’s voice, a sadness which she was able to convey through restraint rather than high drama.

For a more general introduction, Take Two dips into the careers of four singers including Helen Morgan on its album THE ORIGINAL TORCH SINGERS 91980 TT207). The others are Fanny Brice, Libby Holman and Ruth Etting. The latter was probably the most prolific female recording artist of the thirties and numerous collections of her material are widely available. She seems to have endured the test of time more readily than Helen Morgan, while Fanny Brice is better know as Funny Girl these days.

Helen Morgan was a performance chanteuse who, apart from her major stage roles, sang in nightclubs and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies. She might have been a great film actress but after an auspicious debut in Applause the right parts never came along. She might have been an even greater recording artist but performing was her forte and she did other things only as time permitted. Nevertheless diligent searching can result in the discovery of rare pressings, including previously unreleased radio broadcasts which are increasingly becoming a source for the nostalgia buff.

Perhaps the greatest torch song of all is Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. Yet Morgan never recorded the song commercially. It would be nice to think that an unpublished pressing or wireless performance lurks in a vault somewhere awaiting discovery. In its original working, as sung by Morgan, it would undoubtedly be a far cry from the lavish interpretations of more recent times.

As it is, we can still appreciate the difference in concept between then and now by listening to Helen Morgan’s soufflé-light rendering of “Why Was I Born?” which in accordance with more modern tastes is usually belted out over a rich orchestral backing. Suddenly, to hear how it was originally performed is to hear how it should be performed. The surprise is genuinely moving.

And Helen Morgan perhaps more than any other singer of her generation comes closest to crossing the line between torch and blues. Not that her voice bore any resemblance to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. But listen to her interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny” and hear how the divide between them is not so great after all.

There was clearly a brief revival of interest in Helen Morgan’s career after her sad life was given typical Hollywood treatment in a 1954 biopic (The Helen Morgan Story, with Ann Blyth’s singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant, herself a great torch singer of the 1950s). Collections of her rarer recordings including standards like “Body and Soul” and “More Than You Know” were issued, usually pairing her off with Fanny Brice. There is also a 1969 album issued by RCA Victor in its vintage series which boasts a very discering selection of her material.

These recordings are obviously harder to come by but well worth seeking out. In many ways the quality of these pre-digital mastering issues is clearer than more recent efforts, mainly because the sound is completely true to the original.

Helen Morgan in characteristic pose atop a grand piano

Despite the quality of her more obscure material, the greatest testimony to her rare talent as a torch singer is her legacy of the show-stopping standards which enraptured her audience wherever she was performing, usually characteristically perched atop a grand piano. That such a quality can still capture the imagination after so many years is surely a reason for restoring Helen Morgan to her rightful place in the gallery of all-time-great female performers.

Love Me or Leave Me – a feature I wrote for Gay Times on the classic torch singers, from December 1991 read

Handing on the Torch – a piece for The Wire magazine, tracing torch singing from its roots to modern smart pop read

Leddra Chapman – Review: Telling Tales

31 Mar

Leddra Chapman: flair and assurance

If musical influences were sweets, Leddra Chapman wouldn’t have wasted any time with her nose pressed up against the shop window. She’d have walked in, charmed the owner and been given free rein to create her own special selection. That’s the joyful impression left by her first album, Telling Tales.

At a time when young British female singer/songwriters are enjoying an unprecedented boom, hype is easily mistaken for genuine talent. Not in Chapman’s case. She rallies her musical instincts with flair and assurance. These songs are rounded stories, folk tales of love, fate and friendship for the 21st century, sung with crystal-clear diction and minimal embellishment, worthy of the all-important airplay they’ve been getting.

Those diverse musical influences lap at the edges without dominating or tipping into pretentiousness: a hint of Vaughan Williams here, Joni Mitchell there; the evocation of a brass band that momentarily transports you to a village green in summer (“Story”); a weakness for her toy piano on “Picking Oranges”.

Telling Tales: an auspicious debut

“Edie” is one of the highlights, a searing vignette of a short, tragic life. Another, “Wine Glass” cleverly distils the trivial gesture – toying with a drink – that becomes overwhelmingly significant for the one left behind in a long-distance relationship. And the poignant “Wrap Me Up”, with its melancholy piano intro, is a bittersweet account of two people wanting different things from their love affair.

On stage, Chapman has an engaging charm that belies the depth of her lyrics; her showcase at the BBC Club last November was a shaft of sunshine on a bitterly cold winter’s day. Telling Tales is a pleasing and auspicious debut.

www.myspace.com/leddrachapman 

Sarah Blasko – Review: As Day Follows Night

30 Mar

As Day Follows Night: Blasko set for UK breakthrough

Deceptive simplicity is the hallmark of Sarah Blasko’s new album, the optimistically titled As Day Follows Night (Dramatico). Her mordant lyrics emerge from an intriguing musical mist, delivered in a voice far less fragile and little-girl-lost than it sounds on a superficial first hearing.

Spare string and piano arrangements are based on an acoustic, percussive foundation that takes you on an absorbing journey from the bleakness of wrecked love to the painful but ultimately life-affirming recapturing of emotional equilibrium. The images are stark – “Is My Baby Yours?”, “Bird on a Wire”, “Lost and Defeated” – but the mood is pensive and eventually hopeful rather than relentlessly dark.

Australian Blasko was working on the score for a theatre production of Hamlet while writing the album, and the introspection in many of these songs is tinged with a kind of self-revelation that the Danish prince would recognise. “All I Want”, with its windswept, Morricone-style setting, perfectly defines her predicament.

All I Want: windswept, introspective… and great cheek bones

Swedish producer Björn Yttling has created a sense of space that allows Blasko’s alluring voice the freedom to explore some epic themes without ever tipping into clichéd anguish. “I never knew it would hurt like this, to let someone go against my wishes,” she sings, compassionate for the departing lover even as she nurses her raw wounds.

Bird on a Wire: mordant lyrics and epic themes

At 33, Blasko is already a seasoned recording artist, with a growing following in Europe. This is her third album and it’s a haunting piece of work that should mark her breakthrough moment in the UK, where she has based herself for the rest of 2010. She plays the Islington Academy on 15th April and tours with the Temper Trap from 27th April.

www.myspace.com/sarahblasko 

Happy 80th Birthday Stephen Sondheim – Your Leading Ladies Salute You

21 Mar

This piece draws on several interviews I’ve had during the last few years with Stephen Sondheim and many of the women (and Michael Ball!) who have sung his roles and songs so brilliantly on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s about just one aspect of his work, but I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man who has contributed so much to musical theatre – indeed, music itself – throughout the last half-century, as he celebrates a landmark birthday.

Barbara Cook: one of Sondheim's leading ladies

To say that Stephen Sondheim writes exceptionally well for female singers and actors is to deal in a partial truth. The inference is that his male characters are of secondary importance. And of course nobody playing Sweeney Todd, singing in the all-male ensemble of the much-neglected Pacific Overtures, starring as Company’s distressed Bobby or the equally troubled Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, or revelling in Giorgio’s glorious arias in Passion, has any need – or right – to feel short-changed. But the fact remains that his work has had a profound effect on the careers of many of the women who have been closely associated with his roles during the last 50 years.

Where would people like Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman – who cites him as the reason for her career choice, having been enraptured by the 1980 London production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane – be if their professional paths hadn’t encountered Sondheim’s trajectory at critical moments? Hugely successful, no doubt. Such wide-ranging talent will always out. But certainly missing the depth, the experience and the kudos of an indelible association with his work. Each in her way can testify to the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of his writing for the female performer, whether strictly in character or taking a particular song away from its theatrical context and turning it into a standalone, solitary gem that reveals yet more meaning beneath the lyrics and the intricate melodies.

And there is no getting away from the fact that in so many of his shows, the female characters often command the stage at critical moments. Follies, for all its multiple themes of nostalgia, the uneasy relationship between past and present, and coming to terms with the impact of time on youthful dreams, is also a celebration of the show girl in all her glory. Ben and Buddy have their show-stopping turns but much of the show’s bittersweet joy comes from the brilliant pastiche numbers and anthems that allow the women to relive their moments in the vaudeville spotlight: Sally’s torch-songs (“In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”), Phyllis’s acerbic, teasing burlesque number (“Ah, But Underneath,” which replaced the original and more complex “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” when the show finally reached London in 1987), Hattie’s poignant take on the rather grim realities of the hoofer’s life (“Broadway Baby”) and of course Carlotta’s show-business survival anthem, “I’m Still Here”.

Judi Dench: wracked masterpiece

Desirée Armfeldt is always the real focus of A Little Night Music while the relationship dramas unravel around her in three-time, culminating in the magnificent “Send in the Clowns” – Sondheim’s most popular and most abused hit – which marks her lowest ebb and the tragedy of bad timing. It’s become a calling card for every star who has played the role, from Glynis Johns and Jean Simmonds to Judi Dench. Sondheim told Dench, “It’s yours now,” when her wracked masterpiece of an interpretation was one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s 1995 revival. But Trevor Nunn’s recent production notably returned Desirée to young middle age with marvellous results. Hannah Waddingham gave a magnificently constrained performance in London, tears only falling in the final stanza to indicate the extent of her desolation. But here, too, is evidence of Sondheim’s ability to capture even a minor character in the moment: “The Miller’s Son”, sung by Petra the maid, is a perfect evocation of a young woman who knows exactly what her destiny is, and that however underwhelming the ultimate prospect of drooping bosoms and a matronly figure, that can wait a while. There are plenty of rosebuds to be gathered in the here and now.

In Company, bilious, vodka-hardened Joanne has one of the standout numbers in “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a lascerating attack on herself and her own kind. Others have sung it to great effect but for many people the original, Elaine Stritch, still has copyright on the role. Just check out the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the making of the 1970 cast album, as she wrestles with the song to the point of exhaustion, missing her mark, extemporising to Sondheim’s obvious dismay. Take after take slip by until you can almost taste the acrid, used-up atmosphere of the studio. Then she comes in the next morning and nails it with the first take of the day.

Elaine Stritch: has earned her copyright

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is one of the toughest three-act plays I’ve ever done, you know what I mean?” she told me in a 2008 interview. She calls Sondheim a “romantic realist”. And she’s still singing the song in her one-woman show 40 years later, better than ever.

“In this song he’s sending up a class of dame, of which I am also a member – or have been in my time. I hasten to add, I don’t Martini-lunch any more. So that’s a big kick that I get out of it. When I sing the song, I am part of that whole bunch and I know about them. I am absolutely staggered, dazzled by his ability, his talent. Ability is what I really mean. It’s so believable and so unbelievable at the same time. Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me.”

Bernadette Peters: “Not a Day Goes By” is an emotional peak

For Bernadette Peters (Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George and The Witch in Into the Woods), Maria Friedman (Fosca in Passion and Dot/Marie), Julia McKenzie (The Witch, Sally and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd), the value of gift of a Sondheim role has been proved time and again. Each can, in many ways, define her career by the importance of his work in allowing them to demonstrate not only their talents as singers but as dramatic actors and comedians. And they have also proved adept at developing his songs away from their musical theatre roots. Peters’ signature tune, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) is invariably an emotional peak in her concerts, for example. Like Friedman, Barbara Cook and many others, her repertoire is enriched by the Sondheim canon.

Patti LuPone has taken Bobby’s last-act song of affirmation, “Being Alive” from Company, and turned it into a virtuoso powerhouse performance. Again, this is possible because of the truth in a lyric that finally resolves the character’s anguish at the end of the show. Given the wealth of female songs in the canon, this might smack of poaching. Michael Ball says, “I always have an argument with him [Sondheim]. I tell him he writes the most amazing shows – difficult bloody things, most of them – and then he always gives the eleventh hour number to the women! That’s why I insisted on doing “Broadway Baby”. But take these songs out of the shows and they’re universal.”

Patti LuPone: virtuoso powerhouse performance

Sondheim’s double-whammy skills as a lyricist and composer lie at the heart of this quality in his work. A few years back in an interview for Gramophone magazine, he told me that a song is written to reflect a character’s state of mind at that particular moment in the play. If a singer can find something beyond that, which gives the song an external life outside the play, all well and good – but that will always be incidental to the song’s primary meaning and intention. “But to have the songs interpreted in different ways helps to keep them alive,” he said.

Julia McKenzie: “He’s a dramatist and a poet. And to the performer, the rewards are tremendous because every song is like a one-act play or at least, a soliloquy. “Losing My Mind” is a soliloquy, even though in Sally’s mind it is the epitome of a torch song. You can see precisely how her day progresses.”

Maria Friedman: “For me, everything he writes about comes back to a very basic thing: love – the desperate need of a human being to love and be loved. As an actor and a singer – I can’t distinguish which one leads the other – both co-exist perfectly when you’re doing one of his pieces because the demands on you are always truthful, honest. If you can get to the core of it, you just have to serve it, not do anything, and it will do the rest for you. But that means quite often you’ve got to be thinking two or three things at once. It’s layered, you’ll be saying “I don’t love you” at the same time as thinking “I wish I could love you”, “I did love you,” all together. On the face of it, it could be quite cold but underneath it’s layered with warmth and hope and yearning. Plus he’s the most extraordinary lyricist, the rhymes are dazzling, so you’ll be working on that at the same time, making sure that they ring and you don’t miss the internal rhymes. And he writes as we speak, so you have to understand how that woman would have talked and the music falls into place.”

Patti LuPone: His songs are very dramatic pieces in their own right, so I don’t have to create another story to sing them out of context. You always want the piece to be universal if it’s going to live and his work is really brilliant in that universal way: there’s that whole concept of theatre, emotion, love. That’s what makes something like “Being Alive” [Merrily We Roll Along] or “Loving You” [Passion] so perfect.

Elaine Stritch: “Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fake and what’s real. And like Shakespeare, every time you do good work, something new comes out of it. The quality of the material absolutely matters. I love his humour. It’s real humour – real: they call that wit!”

Barbara Cook: I’d known Stephen socially, through the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t actually do much of his work until Follies. I’d occasionally put a song in my act but I always felt that unless I did a whole Sondheim section, they didn’t really abut against the others. I thought of them as ‘art songs’. But when I did Follies [in concert, 1985], I fell deeply in love with his work, and a lot of that was to do with the quality of his lyrics, which are so universal and moving. They are witty and clever, of course, but most of all very emotional. They almost always say something that I want to say. Take “No More” [Into the Woods], a song I’ve been doing a lot in the last year or so. It seems to have a lot more meaning with the world in this difficult state:

“Can’t we just pursue our lives

With our children and our wives?

Till that happy day arrives,

How do you ignore

All the witches…”

link: Sondheim profile for Amazon.com

link: Sondheim article for Gramophone magazine

The Stephen Sondheim Society www.sondheim.org