Monday, July 31, 2006

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 - - which also reveals that she's still making off-the-wall music, still collaborating with Lee Hazlewood, and still, erm, posing for Playboy.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Peter Cook & Dudley Moore - The LS Bumblebee/The Bee Side (Decca, 1967)

"Freak out baby - The Bee is coming!"

'Comedy is the new rock'n'roll!' was a popular journalistic cliche in the early 1990s, but Peter Cook
and Dudley Moore had done much to deserve such a tag almost three decades earlier. Although they came to prominence as part of the stage revue Beyond The Fringe along with the hardly degenerate Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, Cook and Moore were a lot more 'hip' than the vast majority of their peers; they hung out with pop stars and trendy actors, were able to parody youth culture and pop music in an incisive and unpatronising fashion, and even managed to score a couple of hit singles of their own.

First heard in the 1966 Christmas Special of their BBC TV sketch show Not Only... But Also..., and released as a single the following January, The LS Bumblebee was one of the few that missed the charts; ironic, as it was by far both their most effective pop parody and best single overall.

Written for an extended sketch lampooning the then-current fervour around the Carnaby Street-centred 'Swinging London' phenomenon, The LS Bumblebee was intended as a parody of the exciting new 'psychedelic' sounds that were drifting out of the capital's live music venues on a swirl of paisley-patterned mist. Unlike other attempts at celebrating the scene, most notoriously Roger Miller's England Swings (not only written and sung by an American, but also labouring under the misapprehension that the most noteworthy facet of this technicolour explosion of arts and culture - which, lest we forget, "swings like a pendulum do" - was a preponderance of policemen), Cook and Moore's spoof newsreel feature showed that they had enough of an understanding of what was going on to be simultaneously excited and irritated by the whirl of media attention, and were thereby able to mine some first-rate humour from it.

Lyrically, The LS Bumblebee is essentially a send-up of the decidedly unsubtle 'subtle' references to various non-prescription substances that were beginning to find their way into the lyrics of pop hits such as The Small Faces' My Mind's Eye. The psychedelic 'insect', it is claimed, allows its disciples to "hear with my knees, run with my nose, smell with my feet" and other amazing feats of altered perception, hilariously punctuated by the duo chiming in with gasps of astonishment in 'awestruck idiot' voices (particularly great in response to a mention of top far-out combo "Alf Herbert & His Marijuana Brass, with their hit waxing 'Spanish Bee'"). It's entirely possible that the chart failure of the single was down to nervous radio programmers feeling uncomfortable with its content - even without the words 'psychedelic' and 'druggy' showing up, it's pretty explicit stuff - and deciding that even despite its obvious comic intent it was a little strong to inflict on the average fan of Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers.

If anything, the musical accompaniment is even further 'out'. An odd rumour has grown up over the years that the music for The LS Bumblebee was written and recorded by The Beatles, and given to Cook and Moore to use as they saw fit. This seems to have no basis in truth whatsoever; apart from the fact that it doesn't even sound like The Beatles, but does sound not unlike The Dudley Moore Trio, Moore did discuss the recording session in a couple of interviews, revealing that Cook lost his voice halfway through and, more tellingly, that the song was always intended as a parody of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys rather than The Beatles. It's certainly possible to detect more than a hint of Brian Wilson's Psychedelic Barbershop Quartet about The LS Bumblebee, and given that the Beach Boys were then being hailed by the UK music press (unlike in the US, where Pet Sounds was largely ignored on release) and had a far greater influence on the paisley-shirted bandwagon-jumping hordes than any American adherents of overlong improvised blues jams ever did, it's probably better to take his word for it rather than that of the 'Beatlologists'.

The backing - which, as noted before, bears some strong similarities to other Dudley Moore Trio efforts (notably the tremendous Love Me from the Bedazzled soundtrack) - is performed in a straightforward 'beat group' style, but embellished with what would soon become recognised as psychedelic hallmarks; droning organ, tons of over-the-top sound effects (including seagulls, a crying baby and a car screeching to a halt), and what sounds like somebody scraping the strings inside a piano. It's also dominated by a downbeat and mysterious melody, reminiscent of The Zombies' She's Not There, Herman's Hermits' No Milk Today, and other similar songs that probably unintentionally predicted the psychedelic sound.

In fact, The LS Bumblebee did a fair amont of predicting itself. It's staggering to think how effectively they managed to nail the sound of British psychedelic pop, given that the song was written and recorded in the Autumn of 1966; before Traffic had even released Paper Sun, let alone the hallucinogenic free-for-all that followed the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While hardly indicating that Cook and Moore were psychedelic cheerleaders themselves - as has been well documented elsewhere, they shared an enthusiasm for more mundane forms of intoxication - it does at least suggest that they were hanging out at the right venues and lending a keen ear to various late-night pirate radio shows.

If there is a downside to The LS Bumblebee, it's that the visuals aren't anywhere near as exciting as the actual song. It's a fair bet that most viewers who weren't lucky enough to see Not Only... But Also... the first time around will have heard The LS Bumblebee long before they ever got to see the Swinging London-satirising sketch that it hailed from, and doubtless will have formed tantalising mental images of Cook and Moore waving their arms around in front of flashing lights and rotating shapes whilst a line of go-go dancing girls in swirly body paint writhed behind them. Instead, in something of an anti-climax, all we get is the two of them politely lip-synching in Nehru jackets whilst pretending to hand things to each other in a factory sequence.

The b-side, punningly entitled The Bee Side, is a four and a half minute Pete & Dud dialogue that sees them "take the opportunity of these few grooves at our disposal to give you a solemn warning against the dangers of the drug traffic - this peril that lurks in teenage haunts where beat music pulses out into the night, keeping vicars awake and old ladies jumping out of their beds continuously". This takes the form of a series of case studies of respectable members of society who fell victim to the illicit thrills of the hallucinogenic experience, including a scientist previously noted for his work in the field of pouring milk on mice, and a critical assessment of artists who have drawn influence from mind-bending substances. Probably largely improvised in the studio, it does lack the structure and wild escalation of the 'proper' dialogues, but as throwaway sketches go The Bee Side is a cracking effort, particularly the cautionary tale of a man left so ravaged by his experiences that he ended up believing himself to be a rake ("the only time he moves is when somebody treads on him, and he jumps up and bangs them in the eye"). It's only a pity that this was never extended into a full-blown Pete & Dud item, although how comfortable the BBC would have been with any such sketch is open to question.

Unfortunately, The LS Bumblebee/The Bee Side isn't very easy to get hold of nowadays. For some peculiar reason, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's considerable discography has been not so much shabbily treated as almost completely ignored by the reissue market, with the majority of album tracks and single sides unavailable in any format. The LS Bumblebee itself has seen reissue as part of Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers, a four-CD box set compilation of UK psychedelia put together by Mojo magazine, but if you already own the more obvious tracks on this admittedly well-thought out compilation and aren't that tempted by the other material - and that's assuming you're interested in the first place - it's a rather expensive way of getting hold of one rare track. Even the episode of Not Only... But Also... that it appears in is rarely glimpsed, on account of the boring legal nonsense surrounding John Lennon's guest appearance in a couple of sketches.

But if you still want to fly to the land where my hand can see and my eyes can walk and the mountain talks to me, and are happy to risk the dangers of keeping vicars awake and old ladies jumping out of their beds continuously, both tracks can be heard at the brilliant Peter Cook fan site The Establishment (