27 June 2021

Cumbrae-Potter Karaoke or A Memory of Christmas Past



My one and only foray into karaoke (literally "empty glutton", unless I'm thinking of something else) occurred a few Christmases ago, on a Scottish island blessed with several pubs. My companion and I were visiting our friend, whom I'll call Ronaldo; he was working in one of those establishments, and on the first night of our stay we went there - not to sing but to do a recce. 

I have to admit that I had come to scoff - or at least, that's what I presumed would be the outcome of my visit. Blessed, or cursed, with a certain amount of knowledge about popular music, and being, furthermore, in possession of two elder brothers, the idea of what is and is not cool, musically speaking, is lodged firmly in the Pismotalitian brain, permitting of no deviation. 

Anyway, that first night we perched at the bar, stopping occasionally to listen to what was, in youthful parlance, "going down". Did I splutter into my beer at some of the punters' efforts assailing our ears? Did I then fall to the ground, clutching my stomach while crying out, again and again: "No more! Oh, in God's name, no more!"? Strange as it may seem, I did not.

I have always disliked the Eagles' Lyin' Eyes, above all for the line: "I guess every form of refuge has its price". It savours of the homiletic, and it stands out like a sore thumb in the otherwise banal story being unfolded: an attempt to imbue proceedings with a spurious weightiness.

Now, it may be that some or all of the above is true; all I can say is that after my experience in the pub I am no longer quite as sure. When a punter sitting near us begin to sing that generally revered number - and not, it has to be said, with anything approaching even semi-professional skill - it was somehow strangely moving. I mean, don't get me wrong, it certainly wasn't the aural equivalent of a trompe l'oeil (or eye-con): I was aware throughout that the sound was distinctly unpretty. 

Yet something beyond that made the experience distinctly different from hearing the record for the umpteenth time on a nostalgia station. If nothing else, the uncertain warbler had cojones, but it was more than that. He was making a statement: a declaration of love, loyalty, fidelity to this song - and we, the assembled crowd (it was a small space but fairly packed), were bearing witness. So what if it didn't sound too much like the Eagles? And so what, equally, if I never liked the Eagles much: what I was hearing was music criticism, or musical appreciation, in active form, and even if a lot of the crowd were regulars, inured to what may have been a weekly recitation, it still took some courage to do it. 

If you've read other pieces in this blog you will know that I've tried to explain my love for a great deal of music, doo wop and beyond, but I had never put myself on the line in quite the way I was witnessing at that moment. And stripped of the Eagles' classy production values - well, alright, there was a reasonably well executed backing track, but without that original lead voice the song was left pretty exposed, and as a result I began to listen to it as though it was something entirely fresh. No, I didn't suddenly see it as a masterpiece - but I did begin to appreciate that it was actually a story succinctly told, and one which had obviously stirred the heart of the man who trusted others not to laugh as he falteringly retraced its steps. And I suppose everyone gathered there - regardless of how seriously or otherwise they were outwardly taking proceedings - was making a statement, by the fact of their presence: they were saying that music was important, and something to be shared, not sneered at. My kinda people, in other words. And maybe, for all its cringeworthy associations, there could be said to be something pure about karaoke - maybe it's the closest pop music can get to the communal singalongs in folk clubs - or, in another era, music halls.

I didn't sing that night, despite these thoughts fizzing through my brain, but to my surprise I heard myself telling my friend that I would do so the next day, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Knowing the barman helped, I suppose, especially when I watched him tackle Rock Around the Clock with gusto the following evening. He wasn't standing at the bar but directly in front of the screen with the lyrics, facing a wall - an actual wall, I mean, because of the way the bar was set out, not a wall of people. I saw that you didn't have to be like the Lyin' Eyes punter:  you could be aware of an audience behind you, near you, but didn't have to sing into their faces and risk distraction from your higher purpose by reading dismay or delight into their expressions: a performance at once public and private. Such a position certainly seemed to be helping Ronaldo, who was, as they say, getting into it, and I determined to do the same: others could listen if they wanted, but you didn't have to cajole them, you could get lost in the moment, and it was up to them if they wanted to step into your dream.

Finally, the time came. I hadn't given too much thought about what I was going to do, but it occurred to me that Monster Mash had to be a good bet: it was spoken rhythmically, rather than sung, and even I could manage that. So I went for it, exulting in a Karloffian or Stanshallian - well, similarly mannered, anyway - voice, and it seemed to go okay. 

A little later, emboldened by this apparent success, I thought I'd play safe with another novelty song: Benny Hill's Ernie. This was a mistake. Not that I yield to anybody in my appreciation of Ernie: as recorded elsewhere on this blog, it's one of the rare examples of Hill actually constructing a coherent story rather than plugging narrative holes with reheated jokes from earlier compositions. And like the wicked or undead Mr Pickett he wasn't really singing as such, so how difficult could it be?

Sadly, the answer was: very, not helped by my companion being more or less insensible by this point. And that initial triumph had made me cocky: I foolishly thought I'd sing this one while seated at the table we had, by then, commandeered, only to realise midway through the second verse that this little number was a zombie of a different colour. Not only is Ernie a very well crafted comic song, it's also a very tricky one, delivered with deceptive ease by Hill, who manages to cram in any number of syllables while effortlessly retaining the sense of a tale  told by - well, a breathless yokel if not an actual idiot. And even without the benefit of the TV screen his impish face was made for you can sense his leer at the line: "As they lay there in their bed." Yes, make no doubt about it: Ernie is, as Willie Loman's neighbour would put it, "A piece of work" - a song demanding, if ever any did, full front-of-screen concentration.  And as this delightful/dreadful knowledge hit me I found myself halfway along a tightrope with no guarantee I'd reach the other side. 

I didn't topple downwards but it was close.

The next song I recall is my duet of Ready Teddy with Ronaldo, both of us sensibly opting to face the wall. We could  hear that this was less than rapturously received by those who were listening, but we did have an excuse: the backing track was in the style of Elvis Presley's version, whereas the arrangement in my head was the proper Little Richard one; Ronaldo being Presley-inclined, there was, sadly, no mystery about the ensuing trainwreck.

But a moment of redemption came at the end of the evening. Deaf to the cries of my lately revived companion, now eager to leave, I stayed on to sing another duet with Ronaldo, this time the immortal Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight, the ultimate doo wop sign-off. My interviews with Pookie Hudson's friend and bandmate Billy Shelton were fresh in my mind at the time, hearing from him about the genesis of this song - and I also had about forty-odd years in the memory bank of listening to, and loving, the Spaniels and many other doo wop groups, as evidenced by this blog. I had never shared any of these warm feelings in public before - vocally, I mean. The nearest I'd got to it was singing In the Still of the Night while walking along a safely deserted road in the 1980s, sending it out into the ether - to be picked up by alien life forms, perhaps, but a song that voices of the human variety never shared. 

Luckily, there was a bass voice baked into the karaoke backing track, so all Ronaldo and I had to do was to hang on for dear life and give it our best shot. I may not have sung well - no human or alien recording devices on hand to confirm one way or the other - but I thought of the late Pookie, and all his voice had meant to me, as I sang, and I knew Ronaldo was a big doo wop fan too - no risk of a Spaniels/McGuire Sisters collision. He had also been close to my friend late of North Berwick, mentioned in earlier posts, a not insignificant connection between us. And singing that last song felt, for us and I believe for some others, a fitting end to the evening, or our part in it, and so out we went in triumph into the darkness of the night - well, not all that dark, what with streetlamps and everything, despite the inky black swell of the sea on one side.

I can't remember too many of the other songs sung that evening by those assembled, though I did gradually become aware that certain numbers seemed to lend themselves to the karaoke treatment more than others. I suppose the word is "anthemic", though that isn't limited to the obvious songs which include a big singalong with multitudinous voices on the hit record.

You could also see the karaoke experience as a test of a song's quality, its durability. I recall a documentary about muzak in which one of the genre's defenders said that muzak didn't so much dilute songs as separate the sheep from the goats: if a song still sounds good in muzak-al form stripped of production values of the original hit recording and the original singer's charisma then you know the melody is one for the ages.

That was the argument in the programme, anyway. Not entirely sure I agree with it, but applying the same principle to karaoke does seem to make a sort of sense - though in the case of karaoke I think it's the essential message of a song which is being put to the test, and any posturing is exposed. By my reckoning Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't cut the mustard as karaoke - not because of the trickiness of singing it but because of its sheer emptiness, lyrically: a triumph of production, maybe, but that's it. I didn't hear anyone attempt it during my time in that little pub, but I'd heard a choir essay it one Sunday lunchtime at the Barbican a few years earlier, and I remember feeling sorry for the singers and their conductor, flinging herself around as though to compensate for the dawning realisation that all that effort over the weeks or months had been poured into a tiny vessel which simply couldn't hold it.

Well, that's what I thought, anyway. All I know is I'd take Lyin' Eyes over Bo Rhap any day ... if, that is, those were the only options. If there were an infinite number of backing tracks on offer then I would choose - well, actually, I think I might well go with that final song Ronaldo and I tackled before it was time to go. No fancy-schmancy video to make that Vee Jay recording into a hit, just a song which had bubbled up out of a lovestruck teen's yearning in Gary, Indiana, a sweet sorrow still recognisable to any audience watching Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and "empty glutton"? That was the title which Dennis Potter, or a subeditor, gave to a coruscating review of a collection of pieces by Bernard Levin. I can't recall the name of the book - nor, indeed, whether I've read it - but as Potter was a man who knew about the power of music it seems right to end with him. Be patient, and I shall try to weld these two stories together into a single, harmonious whole.

I was present at what I think must have been the first public screening of one of Potter's final series, Cold Lazarus, at the National Film Theatre. Apologies were made at the beginning because colours had not yet been adjusted or something, though I think all the editing had been done.

Along with many other people I had read, and been inspired by, Potter's piece in the Observer some time earlier about mapping a way through his pain - rationing his medication - in order to finish writing that series and its companion work, Karaoke. It was a wonderful notion, and a momentary spur, at least, to those of us striving to be creative while less heavily burdened ... but as the episodes of Cold Lazarus unfolded on that Sunday afternoon on the South Bank it became clear to me - and, I think, others - that the promised magic was only fitfully seen onscreen. Oh, it wasn't terrible, and there were moments, longish sections even, when I - we? - felt a sense of gratitude and relief as the drama became tauter, Potter's intentions clearer.

And - a bit like the karaoke with a small "k" I'd briefly been part of - it would have been wrong to complain. Although the NFT event was open to the paying public, many actors and others from the production were present in the auditorium, and there seemed to be a collective warmth towards the late writer of those pieces, as though we were all silently willing what was onscreen to live up to the promise of that Observer article and the rest of his considerable body of work.

As I say, I only saw Cold Lazarus that day; I think Karaoke had been sold out. But there were tantalising snippets of that other work in Cold Lazarus, which made me look forward eagerly to its eventual TV screening.

Alas, that eventual broadcast proved not to be without its own disappointments, but like I said earlier it would have felt wrong to complain. Let me try to explain why.

All I retain of the letter of Potter's attack on the Bernard Levin book is the very end of the review, when he declares that he can think of an "old-fashioned word" by way of summation of Levin's efforts: "impudence". I don't know how fair or otherwise that conclusion might have been, but I think Potter's essential complaint was that Levin did not, in his view, mean what he wrote, or mean it enough.

Which I think takes us back to karaoke with a small "k". Potter's intentions were undoubtedly good, and there is much which can be forgiven about those final two projects. And that less-than-perfect singer who gave us his rendition of Lyin' Eyes was affecting because he clearly loved the song, whatever his ability to deliver it, and that came across. If it's not condescending to say so, we - those who were present in the bar that night a few days before Christmas - buoyed him up, just as Ronaldo and I were buoyed in turn, and just as the Dennis Potter actors and devotees made that screening seem better than it might, perhaps, have appeared to colder eyes watching its subsequent broadcast alone in a darkened room ... Which is as much yoking-together as you're going to get. Now go forth from this hostelry and sing your song unto the night sky.

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