Raise standards to include 'Yesterday,' 'Stir It Up,' 'Wild Horses'
In Will Friedwald's new book, "Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs" (Pantheon, $27.50), the noted music writer examines the histories of a dozen tunes that became standards during the 20th century. Exhaustively researched and detailed, it's a compelling book that merits attention from any serious musician.
The 12 songs Friedwald features include Cole Porter's "Night and Day"; "Stormy Weather," penned by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler; and George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Each is examined thoroughly from inception to execution, and included are analyses of musical and lyrical contents.
There is a bias, however, to music from the first 40 years of the 1900s. Hoagy Carmichael's "The St. Louis Blues," released in 1914, is the earliest selection; "Lush Life," written by Billy Strayhorn and published in 1938, is the most recent composition. In his introduction, Friedwald states that "classic American pop (which is to say, the kind that flourished before and even during the coming of rock-and-roll, and which continues to survive in spite of it) is the story of singers, bandleaders, instrumentalists, jazz improvisers, Broadway shows, and Hollywood films."
Such prejudice and snobbery toward rock music is commonplace. It's not enough that "Body and Soul," "My Funny Valentine" and "Stormy Weather" are great songs that have endured and will be covered by musicians for ages to come. Elitists such as Friedwald still treat rock songs as inferior material — perhaps feeling threatened by the music's enduring popularity, perhaps because so much of rock 'n' roll, by its very nature, stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable in music.
It's important to remember that the popular music of any time or age is subject to such hypercritical judgments. Many of the greatest classical music compositions were panned or not appreciated when they debuted. Blues and jazz music both had what were perceived as unseemly origins and were linked to drug use, prostitution and other social ills.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, one definition of "standards" is "a practice or a product, that is widely recognized or employed, especially because of its excellence." Certainly, there are many songs that evolved from the rock 'n' roll canon that fit this description. And the proof lies in how such songs lend themselves to a variety of interpretations and styles.
What follows is a short list of songs that merit the "standard' label, with examples of artists who have covered each tune.
There are undoubtedly others I've missed. If you have any ideas, e-mail your suggestions , and we'll list as many as we can in this space next month.
"When I Was Cruel"
"When I Was Cruel" is being touted as Elvis Costello's return to rock 'n' roll, but that's too simplistic an analysis. Sure, there are rockers rimming with Costello's trademark bursts of venom and vitriol, notably "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "15 Petals," which is punctuated by a great chorus of angry horns.
Despite the often bilious associations, at best, Costello is a witty, engaging songwriter, and "When I Was Cruel" is a showcase for his considerable lyrical and compositional skills. "Tart," with its heavy-bottomed bass, is a small marvel as he savors the many flavors of a relationship using the word "tart" in a dozen different ways. "Spooky Girlfriend" is a strange, semi-erotic love song that features Costello at his most playful.
The songs that are most notable, however, seem to be progressions of Costello's collaboration with Burt Bacharach on 1998's "Painted From Memory." "When I Was Cruel No. 2" is a dark, moodily orchestrated piece that samples a vocal by Italian pop star Mina and uses a lyric from ABBA's "Dancing Queen." And "Alibi," despite the angry couplet "but you're stupid and lazy/Alibi, alibi" is at heart a love song. Who else could get away with singing "I love you just as much as I hate your guts"?
"I Get Wet"
(Island) Andrew W.K.
The song titles are dumb, and the lyrics are downright silly. But "I Get Wet" celebrates dumbness in the same way the Ramones and Beastie Boys celebrated their limitations. Frustrated or bored• Just "Party Til You Puke" or "Party Hard" or "It's Time to Party." It would be inane if Andrew (or is it Mr. W.K.?) didn't take such an over-the-top approach, with the music all revved up like AC/DC played at 78 rpm. Great music• Hardly. But mindlessness in a great way, especially in rock 'n' roll, also has its place.
"Welcome to Porter Hall Tennessee"
Porter Hall Tennessee
One of music's functions is to transport listeners to a different time and place. "Welcome to … " touches base with country's past, present and future, mixing rockabilly and traditional country themes while taking you to a place that's definitely outside Nashville's city limits. Gary Roadarmel is a more than a competent crooner on songs such as "Screwed Blue" and "Drunkard and the Angel," but it's co-lead Molly Conley who is the album's revelation angel. Her vocals on "Halfway There" and "Don't Bury Me" could melt the hardest of hearts, given the chance. The music shuffles and percolates and before you know it, the 11 songs have passed by like a ghost train bound for nowhere. This is what country music should aspire to, but so rarely attains.