The Greatest Hits Of Nancy Sinatra (Nancy’s, 1996)
"But thee may take me by the hand, hold me and I'll call thee Sand..."
In the great pantheon of showbiz offspring, Nancy Sinatra is surely unique; attempts to ride to fame on her father's coat-tails got her virtually nowhere, and it wasn't until she carved out her own decidedly Vegas-unfriendly musical niche that the world took any real notice of her. She started off in the early 1960s, signed to daddy's own record label Reprise, and churning out uninspired production-line twee pop music typical of America in the pre-Beatles era (and let's face it, it has to be really uninspired to stand out as such in that particular field) to only sporadic and minor chart success. Presumably the public were either unimpressed with the music or suspicious of yet another example of celebrity progeny being given a leg-up, as for a while she was far better known as an actress, guesting in television shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Virginian and showing up in such 'hip' beach-fixated teen films as Get Yourself A College Girl and the brilliantly titled The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini.
Then in 1966, fed up of her image and on the verge of being dropped by her label, Nancy fell in with the composer of her one big hit to date, These Boots Are Made For Walkin'. Lee Hazlewood, a country & western singer and songwriter who by the sound of it had recently stumbled across a bucketload of 'certain substances', was experimenting with ambitious new compositions, and collaboratively they set about transforming her from a swimsuit-clad also-ran into some sort of spooky psychedelic cowgirl. All of a sudden the hit singles started clocking up, despite the relative uncommerciality of her new material; even an album made up entirely of heavily dippy duets between Nancy and Lee became an international best-seller and a favourite with US radio. Her acting career went off at a similar tangent, her next big-screen project being Roger Corman's notorious and heavily-banned (and heavily sampled by Primal Scream) biker movie The Wild Angels. Quite what Ol' Blue Eyes made of these strange new sounds is anyone's guess - although the recent mind-boggling revelation that around that time he had expressed an interest in covering some songs by Andrew Loog Oldham prodigy and friend of The Small Faces Billy Nicholls suggests he may not have been as averse as might be assumed - but they were popular enough with listeners and Nancy Sinatra remains one of the few acts to be as popular with the 'oldies'-fixated mainstream as she is with the more discerning cult audience.
Released in 1996, The Greatest Hits Of Nancy Sinatra is only one of a great many compilations to have been issued over the years, but is also one of the best. Not only does it span several of her musical phases, it also takes 'Greatest Hits' in its broadest possible sense, and includes a fair smattering of tracks that, while not actual literal 'hit singles' in themselves, have found popularity through other means.
Predictably, the album kicks off – pun not intended – with These Boots Are Made For Walkin’. A bit of a lightweight novelty number and one that’s been tainted by overfamiliarity at that, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that even aside from the amusingly camp vocals (which Hazlewood instructed her to sing as if she was a sixteen-year-old girl fending off a suitor old enough to be her father) there’s a lot of cleverness going on in the arrangement, particularly the dual bassline and the way the instrumentation slowly builds up verse-by-verse until the "Are you ready boots? Start walkin’!" climax. It’s a song that deserves rediscovery and rescuing from the world of unimaginative ‘Hits Of The Sixties’ compilations, not least on account of the fantastic technicolour promo film featuring Nancy and a troupe of dancers wearing knee-length boots, tight sweaters and very little else. It’s a sight that’s very hard to shake from the memory, but then again the sight of Julie Goodyear (aka Bet Lynch from Coronation Street) performing her own interpretation on a chat show in the 1980s is equally hard to shake, and for far less aesthetically pleasing reasons.
Similarly predictable is the inclusion of the similarly unnecessarily-apostrophed Somethin’ Stupid, the chart-topping duet between Nancy and Frank Sinatra. Hardly the most exciting song ever written or recorded and something of a fish out of water in this collection, it is at least impressively rendered by the two singing Sinatras, and indeed by whoever arranged the doubtless Arthur Lee-inspiring soaring orchestral middle section. It’s also faintly surreally amusing in that the co-sung nature of the lyrics suggest, in a dazzling display of logic-defying, that it’s both participants in the relationship who believe themselves to be spoiling it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love you’. Even this, though, is nothing next to the fact that it’s now impossible to hear the song without thinking of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons singing "…and then I go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like explode you".
Nancy also gets to duet with her father’s ‘Ratpack’ pal Dean Martin on the slight but entertaining Things, and a duet by proxy with the swingin' theme from Tony Rome, Sinatra Senior's light-hearted 1967 lothario detective flick (which is quite enjoyable in a last-thing-at-night-on-BBC1 kind of a way), but the real twin-vocalled attractions of this collection are the co-headlining stints with Lee Hazlewood. The most famous of these by some way is Some Velvet Morning, and if you've never heard the song then it's not exactly easy to describe. More complicated than a simple duet, it alternates between ominous verses sung by Lee describing some mysterious ethereal being called Phaedra, and twinkly nursery rhyme-like verses (there isn't anything resembling a chorus to speak of) sung by Nancy as 'Phaedra'. Both sections are entirely different in mood, instrumentation, tempo and time signature, and as the song progresses they alternate with ever greater frequency, finishing up interchanging on a line-by-line basis. The lyrics are equally weird, and their meaning is difficult to decipher; it appears to depict Phaedra, whoever she might be exactly, as both a seductive and a destructive force, childishly enchanted by "flowers growing on the hill, dragonflies and daffodils" but also capable of toying with mankind's destiny, although the male character also talks of being 'straight' in the morning, which suggests that it might all have been the result of a bad trip. It's amazing that this song, which although fantastic still sounds downright weird forty years on, was considered commercial enough not only to be performed on a primetime TV special, accompanied by sadly lacklustre footage of them looking moody and mysterious on a beach, but also released as a single (in fact, it's reported in various places that the original single version is somewhat different, with a longer running time and additional lyrics; anyone able to shed any light on this?). Let's see Girls Aloud match that.
Later to provide the ‘inspiration’ for countless Belle & Sebastian songs, the dramatic Summer Wine casts Lee as a wandering cowboy, and Nancy as a local girl who plies him with the titular intoxicant, allegedly made from "strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring", before stealing his treasured silver spurs (and, slightly less impressively, "a dollar and a dime"). Continuing the theme of unrelated television programmes bespoiling songs of ostensibly serious intent with unintentional comic associations, concern for the spur-deprived cowboy is somewhat tempered by thoughts of Compo, Clegg and their assorted pension-drawing hooligan accomplices whenever the "woah, woah, summer wine" refrain crops up. The absolute highlight, though, is the sublime Sand. The narrative is simple enough; Lee plays a Clint Eastwood-style 'Man With No Name' figure going by the enigmatic handle 'Sand', who stops off in the desert where he meets Nancy, who allows him to sit by her campfire and keep warm for a while before departing in the morning, doubtless bound for some one-horse town and a lot of being asked 'where you from, stranger?'. Yet even in this familiar Western scene, much weirdness is afoot. While Lee croaks and drawls like an authentic karaoke bar impression of Lee Marvin doing Wan'drin Star (and sounds scarily like Graeme Garden on The Goodies' country & western sendup Workin' The Line), Nancy opts for cut-glass vocal sounds and also makes inexplicable use of words like 'thee' and 'thy', suggesting that she's not exactly supposed to be some Southern Belle with a liking for the great outdoors. More perplexing still is that it has a recognisable 'country' tinge despite being performed almost entirely on harpsichord, kettle drums and a mind-melting backwards guitar solo that sears across the track like the glare of the desert sun.
None of the other duets between the pair are anywhere near as good as these three outstanding efforts, but to be fair they're a hard act to follow. The yee-hah hoedown tale of feudin' lowlifes Jackson is amusing enough, while Did You Ever? is distinguished by sounding alarmingly like it’s about to turn into the theme from Terry & June at one point. The dramatic Lady Bird, which despite its oddness skirted the UK singles chart, begins by appearing to be a grim tale of an abusive relationship, but then turns into a song about two people teaching each other to fly. And that's not 'fly' in an emotional, allegorical or even hallucinogenic sense, but flying as the "eagle flies" ("rode his wings 'cross autumn skies"). Elusive Dreams suffers from being little more than a 'straight' travelogue and sorely misses the in-character exchanges. Continuing the odd preponderance of inadvertent links to The Simpsons on this collection, it also sounds very like that 'I brought my love a chicken, it had no bone' song that Homer sings in Marge Vs. The Monorail. Much the same is true of Storybook Children, in the sense of missing proper character definition rather than obliquely recalling episodes of an animated sitcom. Far more worthwhile is their haunting take on You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, which strips Phil Spector's original epic arrangement down to a sparse, airy 'alt country' sound, with the vocals delivered as largely tune-free spoken word drawls.
You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling isn't the only interesting cover version to be found here. A laid-back reading of Son Of A Preacher Man has a loose, lazy feel that gives the impression of her idly singling to herself while doing the housework, albeit with a full band and gospel choir in hot pursuit, and for that reason alone is – controversy alert – vastly superior to Dusty Springfield’s better-known Tarantino-endorsed rendition. This loose funky feel also flavours Highway Song, which borders on free-form in places, and a jazzy take on The Doors' Light My Fire that resembles Jose Feliciano jamming with Traffic. Being a peak period James Bond theme, You Only Live Twice is always going to be ace, and as Bond themes go it’s right up there with The Living Daylights, A View To A Kill, Live And Let Die and Goldfinger. There is of course the slight problem that its descending strings were nicked for Robbie Williams’ irritating protest song about nothing in particular Millennium, but as the original also features a nasty distorted electric guitar line that the ex-Take Thatter would never even have nightmares about using in his gallery-waving lighters-in-the-air slabs of boredom, it’s easy to overlook that. Less arresting but no less endearing is Sugar Town, a fluffy country-bubblegum number that wins extra points for sneaking Summer Wine into the US top ten as a double a-side.
A couple of tracks have a less cordial relationship with the 'skip' button; in common with most follow-up singles of the day, How Does That Grab You, Darlin'? is an unashamed rewrite of These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, but worth it for the bowdlerised ‘radio friendly’ insults hurled at the hapless object of feminist ire, and Friday's Child goes in for sub-Aretha Franklin soulful wailing to no great effect, mainly because the tune isn't much to write home about to begin with. There are also a couple of surprising omissions, notably her shuffling cover of The Rolling Stones' As Tears Go By and Northern Soul-favoured sprint through The Beatles' Day Tripper, which aside from being great tracks also underline both how much influence the decade's biggest 'pop rivals' had over their peers and how skilled Sinatra and Hazlewood were as interpreters of other artists' material. That's for the converted to quibble over, though - as an introduction to one of the most unusual and undervalued figures in rock history, this collection is hard to beat.
The Greatest Hits Of Nancy Sinatra is not currently available, although it does appear to be commanding a sizeable second-hand price; odd, given that there are other broadly similar compilations around, and that every track featured is now also available on straight reissues of her albums. Most of them can also be heard on Nancy Sinatra's official website - http://www.nancysinatra.com - which also reveals that she's still making off-the-wall music, still collaborating with Lee Hazlewood, and still, erm, posing for Playboy.