Showing posts with label Frank Sinatra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Sinatra. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elvis Returns

Fifty years ago tonight, on 12 May 1960 (a Thursday), ABC aired the Frank Sinatra television special, “Welcome Home Elvis,” Elvis’s first television appearance since returning from Germany in early March, where he been serving in the Army since late 1958. Actually the show was the fourth installment of The Frank Sinatra Timex Show, a series of mediocre television specials that Sinatra had made for Timex. Taped a few weeks earlier, on March 26, the show prominently featured other members of the so-called “rat pack,” including Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, but missing Dean Martin. For trivia buffs the show is significant because it features Elvis singing a verse of the opening production number, “It’s Nice to Go Traveling,” the recording of which is available on the DVD releases of the show, but no official recording exists on record. Given that the show was an hour long, if the 1959–60 network television schedule available here is correct, it may have replaced The Untouchables at the 9:30 p.m. Eastern slot. Of interest now only as a museum piece, Elvis reportedly was paid $125,000 for his appearance on the program, an amount, according to the inflation calculator, equivalent to $895, 432 in current dollars. If you by chance have a copy of the DVD, please join me in watching it tonight, although be forewarned that Elvis appears on the show for only roughly six minutes. Elvis's first movie after leaving the Army, G. I. Blues, would be released slightly over six months later.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

University of Nebraska at Kearney student Grant Campbell responded to an observation I made in my previous (April 9) blog entry, “Rock History and How It’s Made,” prompting me to expand on some comments I made in that post. In response to my previous entry, he made the following comment:

The technology aspect is most certainly a driving force behind the change in “style” of the era’s [the 1960s] music. However, wouldn't it be genealogical for a certain era’s musicians to find their own way of utilizing that technology? I know you aren't taking ALL the credit away from musicians and giving it to technology. But if technology is going to advance anyway, I still think that it is the artists who need to be primarily recognized for their creative genius.

I should add that he’s responding to an observation I made at the end of my post, that most histories of rock ‘n’ roll focus on influence understood rather narrowly as artistic influence, rather than on the influential role of technological innovation, an “invisible” factor driving popular musical change. While I was by no means trying to diminish the role of the musician, I should say that what is meant by “artistry” might well in fact mean, in part, how the musician exploits the potential of a new technology, meaning on that point I'm in agreement with Grant when he talks about a musician’s finding his “own way of utilizing” a specific technology. But I would add that technological changes continue to challenge and modify what we mean by "artist" in the first place.

Since I suspect there are many who share his thoughts (or rather, hesitations), perhaps I ought to provide some examples of what I meant by my earlier assertion about the role of technology in popular music in order to illustrate my general point (not an entirely original one, I might add):

--Frank Sinatra responded to the development of the LP (long-play) record by creating albums unified by a sense of mood or tone, e.g., In the Wee Small Hours (1955). With an entire side available consisting of roughly twenty minutes, he was no longer restricted by the limitations of one side of a 78, or roughly five minutes. The second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) exploits the length of a side of the LP in a similar way. Remember that the word “album” used to refer to a heavy cardboard portfolio that consisted of several 78s tucked inside separate sleeves, not a single 12" LP record.

--In the 1960s, rock musicians responded to the potential of the LP by “stretching out” or “jamming”—the “jam session,” which sometimes took up the entire side of an LP. While I certainly don’t wish to get into a simple “chicken-or-egg” dialectical argument, one wonders whether the storage capacity of one side of an LP didn’t in fact prompt musicians to stretch out or jam in the first place. A case in point is a band such as the Grateful Dead, a band that made records attempting to duplicate the ambiance of their live concerts, a practice in flat contradiction to that of most bands at the time, which tried to make their concerts sound like their records.

--The development of multitrack recording, among other engineering innovations, enabled the development of psychedelic music, the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic trip. As Jim DeRogatis observes:

Musicians couldn’t specifically reproduce any of these [hallucinogenic] sensations, but drug users also talked about a transfigured view of the everyday world and a sense that time was elastic. These feelings could be invoked—onstage [synaesthesia, the “psychedelic light show”] but even more effectively in the recording studio—with circular, mandala-like song structures; sustained or droning melodies; altered and effected instrumental sounds; reverb, echoes, and tape delays that created a sense of space, and layered mixes that rewarded repeated listening by revealing new and mysterious elements. (Turn On Your Mind, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003, p. 12)

The “altered and effected” instrumental sounds to which DeRogatis refers are technically known as “non-linear synthesis,” meaning that the sound that goes in to a particular electronic device is not the sound that comes out—think, for example, of the use of the Leslie (see my earlier entry) or the ring modulator. In this sense, I suppose, the use of technology to approximate a drug trip is an example of the banal insight that technology follows the path of ideology.

--After a live concert, the Velvet Underground--the band which I specifically mentioned in my last post--frequently left the stage leaving their plugged-in guitars behind, thus enabling a self-sustaining feedback effect (the amplifiers would generate sound waves that in turn would vibrate the guitars' strings, thus creating a loopiness, or self-sustaining feedback). Jimi Hendrix often did the same thing, exploiting electronic technology’s potential to operate independent of any conscious (human) control. Lou Reed's later Metal Machine Music (1975) is an entire album consisting of self-sustained feedback, pushing the point of technology's ability to operate autonomously of human control to the extreme--see below.

--In a further development since the 1960s, digital sampling enables one to make a record by combining fragments of songs compiled entirely from previous recordings—yet another challenge to what is traditionally meant by the word artist. Certainly the Velvet Underground was—in the traditional sense of the word—influenced by Andy Warhol’s notion of the pop artist, since he was at the time the VU formed using found photographs for the making of prints. Remember that Warhol referred to his studio as the Factory, suggesting the potential for “art” to be a mass-produced item just like any other, or perhaps, no different than any other. Think of Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal to which he applied the signature "R. Mutt" and placed in an art gallery.

The larger point, I think, is that the language we use to talk about popular music is itself problematic, for as the practice of digital sampling reveals, terms such as "artist" and "musician" no longer really function. The question we need to consider seriously is whether they were terms antiquated decades ago, when rapid changing technologies began to profoundly change popular music.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Thursday, January 28, 1960: Why Are There Lyrics, Anyway?

Four years earlier than the above date, in his first national television appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, broadcast January 28 1956, Elvis Presley chose to open with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” a song that Frank Sinatra, for one, would never have condescended to perform. Sinatra probably snorted in derision at Elvis’s second song that evening, too: “Flip, Flop & Fly.” Three months later, when Elvis again appeared on the Stage Show, he sang “Tutti Frutti.” Forget what young females thought about Elvis’s bad boy sneer, his gyrating hips, his wiggling and shimmying, his clamorous shouts and erotic moans—that’s legendary. The more important question is, why did Elvis choose to perform, on a national stage, such “nonsensical” songs?

One of the reasons Elvis was derided early on was that his choice of material seemed so ludicrous: “Flip Flop & Fly”? “Tutti Frutti”? Why not the deep yearning of classic ballads such as “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” or “When Your Lover Has Gone”? Why choose songs that are so devoid of substance—so apparently trivial? Why not perform the old standards instead? Frank Sinatra was so incensed by Elvis’s music that he wrote a magazine article condemning rock as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear.” He averred that rock ‘n’ roll is “sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact—dirty lyrics, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” (qtd. from Kitty Kelley, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, Bantam Books, p. 277).

However, according to Donald Clarke, by the time Elvis appeared on the historical scene, the music business wasn’t the same as it had been when Sinatra began his career slightly over a decade earlier. By the early 1950s, “good white songs were becoming scarce. The Berlins, Gershwins and the rest had died or retired, and the classic songs they had written could not be imitated.” Hence, Elvis never had access to the sort of material to which Sinatra had access (“standards”), and perhaps that made all the difference. (As a corollary, Elvis was never offered the sort of strong dramatic roles in movies that Sinatra was offered, either.) The composers of many of Elvis’s early songs were black, who were writing for the black music market, and who had a different sensibility than the Berlins and Gershwins. So, in answer to the question as to why Elvis chose to perform songs such as “Flip Flop & Fly” and “Tutti Frutti,” the reason is because Elvis chose songs that didn’t sound like anything else. But to Frank Sinatra, if songs weren’t standards, they were aberrations.

Simon Frith offers a way of understanding the difference between Sinatra and Elvis by referring to Dave Laing’s book, Buddy Holly (1972). Laing says that those interested in understanding rock music need to have the musical equivalent of film studies’ distinction between the auteur and the metteur en scene. According to Laing:

The musical equivalent of the metteur en scene is the performer who regards a song as an actor does his part—as something to be expressed, something to get across . . . . The vocal style of the singer is determined almost entirely by the emotional connotations of the words.

Frank Sinatra, then, was the musical equivalent of the metteur en scene. In contrast, says Laing, the rock auteur

is determined not by the unique features of the song but by his personal style, the ensemble of vocal effects that characterize the whole body his work.

Elvis, then, was the equivalent of an auteur: the meaning of the song is not simply organized around the words, but rather in the exceptional nature of his singing style. Sinatra condemned Elvis because he didn’t understand his music, nor could he, at the time, quite grasp the historic rupture in American popular music that Elvis represented. In film historical terms, Sinatra was the old, “classical” Hollywood, while Elvis anticipated the age—our age—of the independent film, the age of the auteur.