For those who are only familiar with the iconic film version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, this was the most genuinely menacing of the show’s half-a-dozen Villain Songs, which establishes the character of the dreaded Bill Sykes. It’s a harsh, brutal, terrifying piece of music that reminds one that Oliver! did not soften Dickens’ original material quite as much as some people like to think. That said, even though the film version made a habit of dropping some of the most interesting songs from the show (“That’s Your Funeral”, “I Shall Scream”), I understand why this one had to be cut. For one thing, Bill Sykes is played in the film by distinguished actor Oliver Reed, and, as anyone who’s seen the film version of Tommy knows, Reed is one of the most embarrassingly terrible singers ever to appear in any kind of musical. But beyond that basic necessity, Reed’s decision to play Sykes as though he were in a straight dramatization of Charles Dickens meant that the act of singing a song, even one this harsh and abrasive, would have been uncomfortably out of place for this interpretation of the character…and since Reed’s Sykes was one of the most terrifying performances ever given in any movie, that decision was probably a wise one, even if it cost the show one of its most interesting songs.
Archives for December 2015
This song occupies a space somewhere between the traditional Christmas hymns and the manufactured novelty crap that has dominated the genre for the last hundred years or so. It worked well enough in its original form as a booming, boisterous quasi-Drinking Song, but its banal melody is not well served by the American tendency to perform it as a sentimental ballad, and that combined with the inevitable overexposure any Christmas standard receives has made most American listeners cringe when they hear it.
Verdict: Decent in the German original, but straight-up bad in most American versions.
This is the only one of the major numbers in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece Carousel that has a large number of detractors even among the show’s fans. And while I can understand that the intensely old-fashioned, folky vibe of the song and the heavy Folk dialect the lyrics are written in (‘the vittles we et were good, you bet’) might be a bit too hokey for some people’s tolerance levels, you have to consider the song’s context in the show. The eye for detail in the description of this simple get-together does a lot to establish the cultural color that was a key component of all of R&H’s shows. And if you think about it, once you get past the comically old-fashioned idioms the characters express themselves in and listen to what they’re actually saying, there’s really something kind of beautiful about the folklike warmth and sense of community this song conveys. It’s also extremely telling and even quietly heartbreaking, when you think about it, that hero Billy Bigelow is not a part of this community celebration…note that virtually every other character, even his introverted and semi-ostracized wife Julie, joins in this number. Capturing the feel of a tight-knit community is key to the show’s main theme…after all, you can’t have outcasts without something they feel they’re outcast from. So if you look at this song as part of the show rather than a standalone hit tune, it actually has a great deal of merit…and let’s remember that Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all the hits they created, were always much more focused on the show as a whole than the prospect of individual hit songs, so that seems to be the correct way to look at nearly all of their work.
Twisted Sister have become a byword for everything wrong with the Hair Metal genre, but if you’re only familiar with their most famous work you might be confused about why. Their breakthrough record Stay Hungry managed to produce two hits, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock”, that are still staples of Rock radio today, and while neither is particularly good or interesting as Hair Metal goes, it was on their next two albums that they gained their reputation as the laughingstock of their genre. Their last two albums featured a garishly ugly sound that was apparently an attempted compromise between the relatively authentic Heavy Metal of their early albums and the poppy sound of Stay Hungry, but wound up with none of the redeeming qualities of either. This song, a bloated would-be showpiece with a huge lineup of big-name guest stars and a music video that was banned from MTV, is a pretty good illustration of their notorious second album’s style, painfully cheesy and borderline unlistenable, with a stupid joke title and a lyric that reads like an idiot’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. There’s a reason these guys are a walking punchline even among Hair Metal fans, and while they may be best known today for their two passably mediocre hit tunes, enough people remember this album and the one after it to keep the ridicule associated with these idiots alive.
Despite the genre’s reputation as a punchline among certain Rock circles, most of the really gigantic Progressive Rock acts have actually aged quite well. The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Frank Zappa are still about as good as they were perceived to be in Prog Rock’s heyday, but of the first-rank giants of the genre, Yes come across as far more genuinely dated. They were brilliant instrumentalists and had a terrific lead singer, but they weren’t really particularly good songwriters—their songs don’t feature much in the way of memorable melodies, and their lyrics are usually complete gibberish. And unlike another band with much the same strengths and problems, Led Zeppelin, they don’t really have a one-of-a-kind sound, nor were they particularly groundbreaking in their own right. This is exacerbated by the fact that they were one of the most self-indulgent bands in a very self-indulgent genre. This song, the title track and centerpiece of their most acclaimed album, is pretty typical of their output…an interminably long Neoclassical-Jazz composition full of extended virtuoso showcases for their instrumentation…and without the songwriting to back it up, it gets a little tedious by the eighteenth minute. Granted, the songs of the higher-quality Jam Bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish can be just as long and self-indulgent, but those are Free Jazz-esque improvisational jams, and this kind of thing is easier to take that way than in this kind of very deliberate, polished studio composition. For the record, the band’s one actual Pop hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, is a lot more concise and digestible, but it was recorded well past their peak, so I thought I’d cover something more typical of their style in their heyday.
Verdict: Not terrible, but surprisingly dated and kind of hard to take by the end.
The Grateful Dead take a lot of crap, but I’d blame that more on their image than their music. They admittedly put out some awful albums late in their career (Go To Heaven, Steal Your Face, Dylan and the Dead), but in their heyday, they made fascinating music that was far more sophisticated than their detractors give them credit for. After all, their original bassist, Phil Lesh, was a jazz musician, and the extended improvisational jams they specialize in at their live shows are not really all that different from the work of the more complex Jazz acts like Miles Davis. Most of their really classic records are live albums, but they did produce two of the great Classic Rock studio albums of the Seventies, and this song, from the first of the two, reminds us that in addition to their improvisational skills, their frontman Jerry Garcia was one of the all-time great Rock songwriters. Their first two albums had been fairly standard Psychedelic ‘Acid-Rock’, but with this album they truly found their sound. It must have been an immense shock to listeners at the time (and was, from the accounts I’ve heard) to pick up an album by a standard-issue Acid-Rock band and hear this beautiful, gentle Folk song with its poetic lyrics and gorgeous vocal harmonies as the first track, but it’s a direction they would continue in for pretty much the rest of their career.
Verdict: One of the all-time great moments of the Classic Rock era from one of its all-time great bands.
This song was originally from the Stephen Schwartz-Bob Fosse musical Pippin, and was later recorded by Michael Jackson during his Motown days. Like most of the songs in Pippin, it was presented ironically in the context of the musical’s plot, but detached from the musical, it comes off as simply a soaring, upbeat pop anthem. And while it failed to do much on the charts, I suspect it forms the model for several later Jackson songs with very similar musical sounds and subject matter…namely, his famous series of so-called ‘Save the World songs’. This means “We Are the World”, “Man In the Mirror” and “Heal the World” all probably owe their existence to a show tune…a reminder that the various fields of music are more interconnected than their devotees often realize, and that you can’t completely separate Broadway’s influence even from Rock-era popular music.
The 1991 film version of George McDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is the quintessential mid-range, mediocre kids’ movie of the era. It’s not nearly as awful as most of Don Bluth’s Nineties efforts, but it doesn’t remotely compare to what Disney was accomplishing at the time, and the fact that it’s now forgotten except among a few devotees who grew up with it is not all that surprising. But like several much worse Nineties children’s films like Thumbelina or Quest For Camelot, the film’s one notable redeeming quality lay in its music. It only contains one song (although that song is reprised continuously throughout the film), but it is an extremely memorable one that is generally what those few remaining fans who grew up with the film remember most about it. In the original novel, MacDonald makes mention of the villainous Goblins being repelled by the hero Curdie’s singing; the movie jumped on the idea of music as a weapon against evil, introducing this stirring anthem in a thrilling scene where the hero drives off monsters with the power of music. It’s true that this song features a relatively unsophisticated musical idiom compared to the Disney award-bait ballads of the era, but its folksong-like simplicity gives it a certain primal power, and makes a nice contrast to the polished Pop of most Nineties animated movie themes. In any case, it sounds exactly the way the idea of music as a weapon against evil should sound, and as forgettable as the rest of the movie was, the scene where this song is introduced is one of the most memorable film musical numbers of the Nineties, animated or not.
Verdict: One of the best themes for an animated movie in the era, and fully able to hold its own with the Disney hits of the time.