Tuesday, 23 December 2008
A Few Words in Defence of Randy Newman...
Performing the Traditional Festive Tidying up of the Hard Disc Recorder ahead of the forthcoming Christmas telly binge (that's right, I'm going to tape 30 or so hours of useless festive programming that will once again remain unwatched and clog up the hard disc recorder until next Christmas in order that I have a full library for *next* year's Traditional Festive Tidying up of the Hard Disc Recorder), I happened upon a previously unwatched BBC session featuring the wonderful Randy Newman performing with the LSO at St. Luke's in London.
I could happily have sat and watched him just talking for the whole hour. "This next song is the word of God", he says of 'God's Song'. "Why he chose me as his instrument and not McCartney or Simon or Dylan....or the Arctic Monkeys...." Or returning home from a particularly successful recording session, he's filled with a rare sense of pride, only to turn on MTV and watch part of a 'making of the classics' documentary on Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'. "There's Stevie, playing his synthesizer. Then they play back what he's just played and he overdubs another layer. It was like *Bach* playing. [Perfectly weighted pause...] I wanted to *shoot* myself...
Maybe I'm particularly dense, but I find that the full impact of his songs takes a while to sink in; it's so easy even when you've been listening to him for a while still to miss the wafer thin irony and take him at face value. The example above is a wonderful one. You're encouraged to go along hook line and sinker with his seemingly unapologetic pronouncement upon the inherent decency of the good old U.S. of A. But this is, it slowly begins to dawn on you, such feint praise, is it not? So the U.S. is not as bad as Hitler's Germany or Russia under Stalin?
There's usually a subtle demonstration of musical genius to match the peerless lyrical brilliance - the majestic strings and the rigid shouldered gospel piano chords on the chorus of 'Sail Away' or the little Brian Wilson pedal underpinning the "they got surfing too..." in 'Political Science' - the little filligree touches of the master of the self contained piano accompaniment. Here, it's those lovely baroque trills after the names of those evil dictators 'who need no introduction'. Someone should, if they haven't already, anthologise some of his early hack work. I say hack work in the same way that you'd call one of those finger-warmer-upper Bach piano inventions hack work. He wrote one of the best songs of the Sixties ('I've been wrong before') for a Cilla Black single and his 'I don't wanna hear it anymore' is a standout of Dusty Springfield's classic 'Dusty in Memphis' platter. You just can't imagine anyone emerging again capable of reworking the dominant tropes of the canon of American popular song with such wit and potency as Randy Newman does. Or an audience for them if they did.
Sadly, you tube doesn't seem to have any of the show I saw (I was hoping to share the spoken links with you all). But I hope you'll enjoy the clip I was able to find of one of his most recent (not to mention resonant and timely) songs.
L.U.V. on y'all,