Rebellion can take many forms, for many it can involve inking your extremities, piercing your doo-dahs and getting a weird haircut. Picture my dilemma folks, the scion of broad-minded hippies I was raised on the Mothers of Invention and Beefheart, what was left for me to do; I knew all the words to ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ by the time I was 10. True story.
Picture the scene: teenage me blasting AC/DC Fly On The Wall, giving it some proper air guitar in the mirror. In walks mum and says if you like this you’ll probably really like Led Zeppelin. Teenage me: Yeah right! Whoever heard of them?!*
I remember her telling me she really didn’t like Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power, but at that point I didn’t either very much and so the kudos of finding something I could hang my rebellion on was fatally undercut by the fact I’d rather be listening to something far more soothing and less challenging myself. Damnit!
If I’d gone out and bought Frank Sinatra Songs For Swingin’ Lovers back then though, I may have found myself grounded or even thrown out of the house to make my own way in the world. I can hear the distant lamentations now, ‘What have we done? we gave him Unit 4+2 and Hendrix! Where did we go so wrong?’ My parents like most of the hipper elements of their generation loathed the man, his music and all he stood for – square, straight, anti-rock ‘n’ roll and pro-establishment all the way; too clean! I bought this way back in April 1997 when EMI reissued 100 records to mark their centenary, picking up Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs and this at the same time, Syd because I thought it would be brilliant and this because I thought it would be an amusing thing to own.
Here I am 17 years later and I really don’t rate the Syd LP whereas I smell real genius in the grooves of Songs For Swingin’ Lovers – 1956 beats 1970.
It is such a product of its time this record, okay so I know all LPs are whether they embrace the prevailing cultural tropes of the day, or reject them and rebel; but this just sounds to me like the very zenith of the 1950’s when manly men were clean-cut and wore hats and dames spent their time simpering and making house; before all that nasty rock and roll nonsense took root. Listening to the album today is really interesting the whole thing is a pursuit of perfection. We’re talking immaculate orchestration, Sinatra’s sublime phrasing and diction and beautifully crafted songs. The whole LP seems to be precision-tooled out of airbrushed aluminium. Apart from the gloriously sappy lyrics there is almost no human element here, today we like to see the grain in the wood, the imperfections and sweat marks that show the effort involved in our arts, in general we find perfection a bit creepy, a bit Stepford. Not so in ’56, the perfect was still something very much to be aspired to; Songs For Swingin’ Lovers became Britain’s first #1 LP.
All those bench marks we hold dear today for artists like authenticity and writing their own songs? take a powder chump! Sinatra takes 15 disparate songs here and with the help of the genius arrangements of Nelson Riddle not only makes them his own, but more than that, owns them so completely that they sound as though they were written for him solely and when you hear others singing them they just sound wrong after this – even if they sang them first. Interestingly, an unscientific survey by me, indicates that the bulk of these tunes were between 10 and 20 years old by the time Frank put the squeeze on them, a few were almost 30 years old.
But whilst you have to be awestruck by the craft of Riddle and Sinatra in forging a coherent whole for Songs For Swingin’ Lovers the real key here is the sheer quality of this set of songs. There are some real all-time greats here too I love Cole Porter and his brace here of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘Anything Goes’ are just sublime, the former’s opening just gets me every time,
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows, anything goes
All the songs here are fabulous, from the much lesser known (to me at least) ‘You Make Me Fell So Young’ and ‘Love Is Here To Stay’, through to the familiar in the form of ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and the wonderful, funny ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. I have a real, real favourite here amongst them all though – ‘It Happened In Monterey’ and, punk that I profess to be sometimes, it’s because it is just SO DAMN PERFECT! The orchestration is particularly swooshy on this one and Frank’s delivery is just (looks up synonyms for perfect in Thesaurus) spotless/matchless/unblemished/1537-like, every syllable counts and is modulated to within a micropascal of its’ life. More to the point though is the story the song tells, in just two repeated quatrains it is as complete and universal as a Hemmingway short story,
It happened in Monterey, a long time ago
I met her in Monterey, in old Mexico
Stars and steel guitars and luscious lips, as red as wine
Broke somebody’s heart and I’m afraid that it was mine
It happened in Monterey without thinking twice
I left her and threw away the key to paradise
My indiscreet heart longs for the sweetheart
That I left in old Monterey
I can listen and listen to this track, there’s enough of a yearning for that perfection in me. I don’t own any other Sinatra and despite almost buying In The Wee Small Hours twice, I don’t really think I need any, I’ll just keep on spinning Songs For Swingin’ Lovers when a certain jaunty mood takes me.
488 Down (Monterey)
*It was the first time I ever heard their name.