Various Artists – That’s What I Call Sweet Music

For thirty-odd years now, underground comics legend R.Crumb has been preaching musical theory to a decidedly sceptical audience. Crumb was always faintly anachronistic in the hippie comix scene (and indeed his best work has all been done since, as his acid-inspired sense of belonging eroded in the cynical 70s and worse 80s, to be replaced with an oddly humane misanthropy) and his taste in music bolsters this impression. Crumb has never made any bones about his hatred for rock, and rock and roll, and indeed anything that wasn’t pressed on shellac by desperately obscure bluesmen and jazzers in the twenties and thirties. His reasons for loving this stuff were the usual ones – real instruments, real emotion, operations outside the mass media and the consumer society, a vigor and liveliness missing from mass culture – but until now he’s never had an opportunity to present his case in the only arena where it matters, on disc.

Background: some bloke working for EMI hit upon an idea, which ran like this. I like making compilation tapes, I like reading ‘cult books’, therefore I’d wanna hear my favourite cult book people’s compilations tapes. Cross-marketing genius, ladies and gentlemen, which has led to the Songbook Series, ten expensive but immaculately packaged CDs put together and annotated by ten writers and cartoonists.

It’s in the selection of these ten that things start getting really screwy. It should surprise nobody that Iain Banks and Hunter S Thomson were selected to burrow down into the vaults in search of compilation manna (and it should surprise even less people that their choices are respectively hackneyed middlebrow alt-rock and once-radical sixties consensus classix). But Ivor Cutler? Savage Pencil?? And even if everyone reading this should know who Peter Bagge is, I’ll wager plenty don’t. What it all amounts to is an act of lunatic generosity on EMI’s part that’s turned a potentially dreary idea into (occasional) music freak gold.

Gratifyingly, it’s the cartoonists’ choices which beat most in time with my pop heart. Savage Pencil picks various flaming psych oddities from the Sixties, Steadman goes mostly for doom-laden classical and holy minimalism. Gilbert Shelton picks goofy and bad-ass fifties rock, and Peter Bagge goes pop with an immaculately bubblegum selection (Spice Girls!) which looked on paper the best choice of the ten (and is needless to say exquisitely packaged).

And then there’s Crumb. Crumb’s inclusion in the choice of writers was immediately surprising, since while he’s a relatively famous man, anyone knowing who he is will also probably know what kind of music he likes. But nevertheless, here in front of me sits “That’s What I Call Sweet Music”, a collection of ‘American Dance Orchestras Of The 1920s’, packaged in a fashion that makes John Fahey’s Revenant label look like K-Tel. Is it good? It’s absolutely wonderful.

This is the motherlode of pop, among the earliest recorded music that was based on good tunes, good dancing and a good time. Crumb’s hand-lettered booklet draws you into the world of the touring Jazz Orchestras, groups of men heading from city to city to give packed dancehalls the “dissipation” they craved. “The biggest problem for musicians in the twenties was finding time to sleep!” writes Crumb. The music is instantly familiar even if most of the tunes are long forgotten – you know it from silent movie scores and cartoon incidental music: the jaunty, knockabout soundtrack to exuberant physicality. Needless to say, every tune here swings and then some.

What you might not be expecting are the vocals, the dynamics, the little touches of invention that really elevate the music from entertaining curio to first-rate pop. “Simple, unadorned, phony style” is how bandmember Eddie Condon is quoted in the sleevenotes on the subject of the singing, and he gets it pretty much right. Urbane, amused, certainly knowing but never ironic in the pinched modern pop sense, the voices throughout are a treat. Not to mention that these people could sing – Rudy Vallee’s breezy saunter through “The One That I Love Loves Me” is an absolute delight, crooned so softly it’s almost like he’s humming to himself, but with a master’s control of phrasing and a relish for the wittily sentimental lyrics. Frankie Marvin, on “Leven-Thirty Saturday Night”, on the other hand, is enthusiastic to the point of goofiness, grabbing the listener by the lapels to implore “Can’t you see, she accepted me-eee”

On that same track, Fess Williams And His Royal Flush Orchestra snap easily from brassy flares to soft rhythmic patter to mid-tempo danceability – on the evidence of this disc, the 20s bands had a grasp of the dynamics of volume which shows the quiet-loud-quiet bluster of most current rock up as relatively elephantine. And whether it’s the original recordings or a terrific remastering job (probably a bit of both!), the production is uniformly great – a surprising lack of crackle or hiss, with lead playing clearly upfront in the mix, but never at the expense of the delicate ensemble work. My one gripe is that most of the tracks stop rather suddenly, perhaps as a side-effect of whatever process took the static off the source 78s.

That’s What I Call Sweet Music is in short a tonic: a window on a forgotten pop world and a handy counterpoint to the current state of Americana excavation, with its emphases on murder ballads and primitive gospel. It’s not hard to detect a certain smugness in write-ups of what Greil Marcus called “The Old, Weird America” – I think I’d be safe in suggesting that it’s the ‘weird’ aspect rather than the ‘old’ aspect which is turning on jaded hipsters. I prefer Crumb’s version (which is there in Harry Smith’s Anthology anyway, just rarely dug out) – an old popular music similar in many ways to the new one: a music to be played whenever people come together to enjoy themselves and make one another’s lives better. Like all good pop, in fact, this stuff isn’t really ‘old’ at all.