Sunday, 9 May 2010

They Turned Me On - Part Five: Russell Davies

There are a few more broadcasters I'd like to salute before bringing this occasional series to a conclusion. Gearing up to do my own podcasts (well, I've bought the microphone, anyway), I thought I'd attend a bit more carefully than normal to Russell Davies's regular BBC Radio 2 show this week (access it on the Radio 2 website here). Not that I don't enjoy it on a regular basis anyway, but as such a range of music and artists is included, I thought I'd pay a bit more attention to the links, to see just how he squeezes them all in and makes them seem of a piece in my personal quest for the secret of Broadcasting Man's Red Fire.

If you have read earlier entries in this series then you may remember that Ken Sykora got over the problem of selecting records by calling his 1970s show for Radio Clyde Serendipity with Sykora: provided some associative process, however tenuous, could be cited then just about anything went.

Which, following my own paperless trail, reminds me that Bob Holness of British TV quiz show Blockbusters fame actually hosted a programme of that title - I mean Anything Goes - on the BBC World Service. It enlivened many a late night/early morning for me when I was working as a security guard in the 1980s - though Holness's task was rather easier as the show was wall to wall listener requests, and even spoken word recordings, pastoral-tragical or whatever, were permitted.

Oddly, though, he chose Duke Ellington's Things Ain't What They Used to Be as the theme rather than the Cole Porter song suggested by the programme title, much as Hubert Gregg eschewed Thanks for the Memory and chose Nelson Riddle's arrangment of Time Was for his programme. Odd, that: is it about not being in thrall to one song, or prohibitive costs for regular use of particular songs? I think in Gregg's case it was about the title being foisted on him, and his shaping the programe, over time, to reflect his own particular enthusiasms (and how do I know that? Because I've now read his autobiography, which I'll discuss in the next entry).

What? No, that was a different Things ... And made different again when recorded by Max Bygraves. What? You haven't? Oh, but you must - at least once, anyway:

Incidentally, isn't fate cruel? Cameras aplenty to catch Gillian Duffy's reaction to Gordon Brown's post-interview comments but why was there no snapper on hand to capture Joe Brown's face when first presented with this other timeless Lionel Bart lyric below?
Jellied eels, jellied eels,
Wobblin' abaht like wonky wheels
A missed opportunity indeed - although this earlyish photograph, presumably intended to radiate mean, moody magnificence, seems also to carry a flavour of the thoughts which may have rushed through his head at that moment lost to history:

Ditto whoever was first exposed to that bannister/canister rhyme in the title song of Oliver: Bart is another candidate for arraignement in my Crimes Against Songwriting court.

Which leads to a further association: I read and greatly enjoyed Saul Chaplin's autobiography a few years ago, but the single piece of information which has lodged firmly in my mind ever since concerns the reason for his admiring Bing Crosby. It is simply this: that Crosby accepted without complaint or questioning a composition he was handed entitled Zing a Little Zong.

Anyway, back to the ostensible subject. Based on Russell Davies' links for the current show (transmitted on Sunday May 2nd at 9pm BST and available online until the next show is trasmitted), herewith my summary of his rationale for choosing each track.
Mel Tormé — One Morning In May
Because it's May.

Billie Holiday — That Old Devil Called Love
Because 2nd May is birthdate of lyricist Doris Fisher.

Spike Jones and His City Slickers — You Always Hurt The One You Love
Because this is another Doris Fisher lyric and Spike Jones died on the 1st of May.

Matt Dennis — Mountain Greenery
Because 2nd May is the birthdate of Lorenz Hart and anyway 1st May is mentioned in the lyric.

Ella Fitzgerald & Chick Webb — A Tisket A Tasket
Because 2nd May is the birthday of Van Alexnder, a white bandleader now in his nineties who sold arrangements to Chick Webb including the above, which was recorded on Alexander's 23rd birthday.

Dean Martin — At Sundown
Because this is an example of a later Van Alexander arrangement as an antidote to "Ella's juvenilia" (No additional May connection proffered on this occasion).

Matt Monro — Try To Remember
Because 2nd May 1960 was the night before the opening of The Fantasticks.

Harry Belafonte & Odetta — The Hole In The Bucket
Because it's from a 2nd May 1960 Harry Belafonte concert at Carnegie Hall.

The Spirits of Rhythm — Nobody’s Sweetheart
Because scat singer Leo Watson died on May 2nd 1950. Thereafter we're told "So much for May 2nd, which if nothing else has been a good excuse for staving off thoughts of May the sixth and the ballot box" - ie the imminent UK general election.
Li’l Abner Original Cast — The Country’s In The Very Best Of Hands
Because despite appropriation by various political parties "songs go better in fantasy elections in Broadway musicals." And because lyricist Johnny Mercer's biographer Gene Lees died recently (actually in April).

Perry Como — One More Vote
Because this film song is "a stylised form of a hustings speech of the mid-forties." Thereafter we're assured us we won't return to this topic.

Frank Sinatra — Let’s Get Away From It All
Because this provides an opportunity to hear a lyric by Matt Dennis who sang Mountain Greenery earlier. Oh, and, er, the orchestra leader is Billy ... May.

Tina May — When In Rome
Because - in Mr Davies' final, impudent flourish - "Let's stay May-minded to the very last."
To lay bare the rationale for inclusion like this, shorn of almost all of Russell's comments, is, it must be admitted, grossly unfair: as with the other broadcasters mentioned in this series, his linking comments display a breadth of reference and an ability to make associative leaps which extend far beyond the chronological coincidences cited above, which are merely a mildly amusing extra.

Interesting, too, that like Ken Sykora, Benny Green, Hubert Gregg and Ian Whitcomb, he is also a musician, which may have helped foster the catholicity of taste on display; the programme's subtitle is "The art, craft and inspiration of the popular song" - which may not quite be Anything Goes, but just about.

The show appears to be scripted, but he has a real gift for succinct, accessible phrasemaking. It's different from Hubert Gregg's conscious stylisation, more like ordinary speech - but in a more compact, vivid form than the unscripted alternative, just as a current advert on British television for some kind of wonder yoghurt (or some such) boasts of its invigorating effects with the slogan: "You - but on a really good day."

Lorenz Hart, for example, is summed up as "Pint-sized genius of the lyric and tragical boozer" and we're told Spike Jones is "well known for taking the sweetest rose and crushing it till the petals fall - with a thunderous crash."

These brief quotes don't do justice to his links, where four or five interconnected ideas may whizz by in the transition from one record to another. So let's take the preamble to You Always Hurt ... After That Old Devil Called Love finishes playing, we are told, among other things, that Alison Moyet's pop revival is now twenty five years old; that Russell has been reading The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia, "one of those books that are there to be disagreed with," which omits that Doris Fisher song but includes You Always Hurt the One You Love, described in the book as a "fatalistic ballad" and recorded by the Mills Brothers and others including Brenda Lee, Al Martino and Ringo Starr, "which, " Russell says, "suggests a certain breadth of interest in this song." That is the authentic Davies note: waspish understatement in a slightly raised voice, inviting you into the joke. Leading into the Spike Jones remark already quoted, he then goes on to point out that there is no built-in protection for compositions against "uprincipled rogues" - such as Jones.

As I am revising this piece a few hours before this particular edition of the programme will no longer be accessible, I hope I won't be causing too much offence by including here, for purposes of study, a sendspace link for a clip from the programme lasting about a minute where you can hear the above linking material being delivered in a fashion which is musical in itself.

It is a performance - odd interview clips I've heard reveal someone more tentative - but as with Hubert Gregg, it's the right performance for the context, and in Russell Davies' case he fairly rattles along, a raised eyebrow here, the ghost of a wink there, as there is always so much to impart with what I can only describe as a kind of trademark measured zest.

And although the programme has been shunted from the 2pm slot which it had occupied since the days of Benny Green, in favour of something rather less interesting (to me, anyway), and although I'd rather it were back in that slot, maybe there is a sort of justification in having something so pleasing just at the hour when some of us may need diversion from thoughts of the working week.

Part One (Ian Whitcomb)
Part Two (Ken Sykora)
Part Three (Hubert Gregg)
Part Four (Benny Green & Robert Cushman)
Part Six: (Those Unheard  or There is a Balm in Islington)

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