Posts from 8th June 1999

8
Jun 99

Under My Skin: Stray Thoughts On Crooners And Roxy Music

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HEY BROTHER, POUR THE WINE

I wanted to write something about crooning and the figure of the crooner, the great crooners being the true dinosaurs of the rock era: old, cold-blooded, and powerful. Through one lens, the songs sung by Dino or Frankie or Sammy or Bing are more adult than the usurper pop that came after them, but I don’t hear (for instance) the reservoirs of emotion others detect in Sinatra’s voice. What I hear is an endless detachment, a clipped range of feeling which starts at amused mock-surprise and ends at resigned ruefulness. This isn’t a criticism: the seductive, wry professionalism Sinatra exudes throughout his note-perfect Riddle-arranged albums is what draws me back to them, and to ‘crooning’ in general. It’s the opposite of soul – a stiff-backed abjuration of passion, a denial which lures where the sweatily emotive bellowings of rock’n’soul sometimes repel despite themselves. The very blankness of the canvas gives more space for the listener to paint something of themselves into the song.

You could, I suppose, call it ‘cool’: that’s certainly the sign under which a whole generation of men’s magazine editors have revived the crooners. But what concerns them isn’t anything so mundane as the music – it’s the suits and cigars and the gaming tables and the connections, and if Sinatra hit a couple of dolls or ordered someone’s legs broken, well wouldn’t we all have if we were him? Like any music, crooning died as a style and was frozen into an image, a corrupted dream of sharpness, always deployed (but ironically, of course) as yet another signifier of Living: of that unpleasant, vicarious magazine-fuelled Real Living that’s invariably at someone elses expense (the poor, the unhip, the old, the lonely, the eccentric, the opposite sex).

The only genuine irony is that poverty, aging, loneliness, and most of all unfashionability are the other half of the crooner’s double-image. In the (very good) film Little Voice, Michael Caine’s embittered showbiz agent washout’s finest and final scene comes when he breaks into a splenetic version of Orbision’s It’s Over. This is the dark side of crooning: pelted off to the margins, reduced to petty acts of vaudeville tyranny in peeling Northern theatres, debasing yourself looking for the comeback that never comes. It’s a mood captured in The All Seeing I’s splendid one-off of a single, Walk Like A Panther, sung by Tony Christie with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker (himself a man who looks set to embrace the golden opportunity of charting a decline into semi-celebrity, year by gruesome year).

In the sniggering press interviews surrounding the single, The All Seeing I delighted in detailing Christie’s shock reactions to their looped and loopy backing track and studied student-techno zaniness: he was worried, apparently, about a loss of dignity. The best thing about the single is that pride, though – the chorus may be silly kitsch, but when Christie snarls in the opening couplet “A halfwit in a leotard stands on my stage”, it’s like Scott Walker with gritted teeth, and you begin to wonder who the joke’s really on.

It’s all a far cry from the golden years, as a quick listen to Dean Martin’s The Capitol Years best-of reminds you. Every Martin song is a shot of tipsy, sentimental bonhomie, dating from pop’s long innocence, before any of this stuff was ever taken seriously. Martin rarely got the very best arrangers and almost never the top songs: most of these tracks are from films, the titles of which tell their own story. “Artists And Models”, “Bells Are Ringing”, “All In A Night’s Work”, and most gloriously “Ten Thousand Bedrooms” – cheap soundtracks to cheap forgotten entertainment, but with an optimism and verve that it sometimes feels like we’ve forgotten. (The only recent equivalent is the way hair-metal bands would save their schlockiest and hookiest songs for blockbuster end-credits, otherwise it’s all overcooked Celine goop). Nobody could call “The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane” witty or sophisticated or adult, but while it’s playing there’s a rogueish lilt to it that makes the last fifty years of pop music seem mostly blustery and pretentious.

LOOKING FOR LOVE IN A LOOKING-GLASS WORLD

Back in the early 70s, of course, crooning was some distance beyond irrelevant in a post-revolutionary culture dominated by the much-rehearsed opposition between clever album rock and dumb stompy bubbleglam. So what could a poor boy do except ignore the whole wretched 60s mess and head straight back to the 50s, hell, back to the 30s in search of an edge? That Bryan Ferry myth is indeed a myth (Roxy’s albums are mostly very much of their time) but it’s one I like a lot: it sets Ferry up as the first star to use rock music as rock criticism, like Lester Bangs in reverse I suppose – Roxy and Ferry records, more than almost any contemporary ones, feel like arguments and positionings in some grand debate about What Pop Is.(In some ways it’s a surprise the Roxy myth has transmitted so well – as a crooner, Ferry makes a good rock star. His froggy croak tends to be an uneasy pastiche of the lounge singer’s smooth patina, a confused and halting reconstruction of those half-forgotten codes of singing which were shattered by rock’s arrival.)

Image first, naturally: my favourite Ferry image is the cover of The Bride Stripped Bare – Bryan in a raincoat in the dark, gloomy and haunted, a 1978 photograph anticipating the whole post-punk look and simultaneously sniffing out the tenderness hiding in its apparent austerity. My favourite Ferry song is Mother Of Pearl, Roxy’s romantic manifesto from 1973’s Stranded. After the kind of tight glam-thrash opening that the band could probably churn out comatose, the band hits a slow, small-hours groove, and Ferry comes in as an existential Casanova, weary but still questing for some elusive soulmate. As a pen-portrait of an ideal woman, the song’s charming and inspiring, but the impeccably narcissistic Ferry also understands the truth at the heart of crooning: that its love songs are only ever sung to the singer themselves. Love and romance seem to be at the centre of the crooner’s worldview, but with Sinatra as with Ferry the object of affection remains misty and evanescent, described airily enough to be projected onto any real or looked-for lover the listener requires.