I was processing some of my digital collection and made it to Elton John. Of all the music Andrea and I have together, our biggest collection of CDs by any one artist or group would be a toss up between him and The Beatles. Which made me want to start reviewing his whole discography when I realized most of what we have is his stuff once he became more well-known. So I used my Apple Music subscription to go back to the beginning to his first album: Empty Sky.
The available version has nine songs from the original CD release (four on Side One, five on Side Two) and then four more added during a subsequent remastering in 1995/1996.
Songs That I Liked
Critics apparently think Skyline Pigeon is the best song from the ho-hum album and Elton John included it as one of the only songs from the album in subsequent concert tours. I wouldn’t say I love it, not even sure I like it that much, but better than the rest.
Songs That Were Filler
Pretty much the whole album except for one mentioned above that was okay and two more that are terrible.
Songs That I Didn’t Like
I have to say that any debut album that starts with an eight-minute opening better be amazing, and it really isn’t. If this was the first album I heard, I’d not only not buy it, I’d never buy anything else from the artist either. Apparently, Elton John loved the title track, but who knows what peacenik sound he was going for? I sure don’t. He apparently thought he sounded like Leonard Cohen, but to me it sounds more like CCR via the Troggs, without any pop bounce anywhere in there.
Also, don’t even ask me what Gulliver / It’s Hay-Chewed is…some sort of medley of the rest of the songs? Just plain weird.
So my last two posts about choices have been somewhat inter-related. I’m working on a project that I started some 17 years ago. I’m now calling it “A PolyWogg Guide to Music”, just cuz I like naming my projects. And I didn’t want to call it Dave.
The intent is that I will look at the Billboard top 100 list each year, as well as some other songs from the year that maybe didn’t make Billboard’s sales lists, and see what I think “endures” past the year. There are lots of songs I listen to from the 1980s or 90s and think, “How the heck did that chart?”. The song was mildly entertaining, maybe a bit of a riff that was catchy, but after one year, pffft, it was gone.
And back in about 2003, maybe even somewhat earlier, I started looking at the idea of doing every year. I originally thought, maybe I’d start with around 1980. And I did 1980’s list, made some playlists from it, burned some CDs, and I really liked the result. But the more I messed around with it, the more I started to see “missing” links to earlier music. 1980 was an interesting year to start with, as I saw some songs from the tail-end of the disco era, some others starting into the big hair phase, early sounds of what would become things like Miami Vice themes, etc.
At the time, I was just doing it to see if maybe there was a good way to do up killer playlists for myself. Then, as I started to see trends crossing years, the analyst side of me kicked in. Later, I was listening to a couple songs from about 1955, the early days of rock and roll, and a couple of songs were almost post-40s swing, a bit of R&B, and pre-rock.
It’s kind of a thing with me, casting my eyes backward on what came before. I would love to review all the Best Picture Oscar winners, so I started with 1927 and Wings. I want to review some award-winning mysteries, so I start with the first year of the Edgars. For a current project I am doing on astronomy, I’m starting with the first issues of Sky and Telescope from 1941.
For my review of music, the first year for which I have a reliable set of lists of top songs is really 1943. And while there are lists for R&B, soul, country, classical, jazz, etc., I am focusing on the pop and rock charts (often together). But that wasn’t what my “choice” was about today.
Today, I decided to fix a post. Over the last two days, I’ve made choices about ways to do the formatting and layout, or more pointedly, choices about how much time and effort I want to put into getting the formatting and layout right. I wrote the first post 3 or 4 years ago, and reviewed 1943. There were 117 songs in my working list, and I don’t remember how long it took me to go through them. The point isn’t to rush through them, maybe I’ll do 2 songs one day or 20 the next, it is just that I have a list to work from and I can take notes as I go, marking down ratings or even if the song has some sort of audio glitch in the middle and needs to be replaced.
Yet even if I get the formatting right (which I did) and finally decided on a working layout (which I did), the prose was NOT hanging together. The main pieces were fine, but there was something off with the flow. It had always seemed incomplete to me.
You should know something, I guess, about my editing style. I edit as I go. I am not a writer that plunges ahead, does a whole draft and then goes back and fixes things, nor do I write to an outline usually. If I am in THIS paragraph, and I start to take it in a slightly different direction than I was thinking 2 or 3 paragraphs back, I might finish the sentence here, and then go back and tweak that other paragraph before going on. I tend to think of it as my “edit” window is the last three paragraphs. They are constantly in pencil, so to speak, and as I go, I will indeed frequently edit something several rows back.
But this was more than that. I felt like I had no consistent flow, no real message, kind of like I was lacking a storyline or narrative. Which seems silly for a non-fiction piece, until I realized what I was really lacking was my normal voice. I had comments here and there, other facts I dropped in, but what was really missing was “me”.
So I stepped back and did what I used to do at work when reviewing speeches for Ministers when the flow seemed off. I basically wrote a reverse outline of what I wanted to say, and the problem was obvious. I had 2 or 3 pieces that were linked, but I had separated them by several paragraphs, so it was jumping around. An easy fix. But once in the weeds, I let my inner editor go crazy. Lots of places in the piece were expressed a little too casually, while others were more formal. I smoothed them out, made them more consistent, made them more “me”.
I spent way too much time on a few headings, trying them in regular text, then in a table format, as a large header, as a small header, as a header with multiple colours, and finally as medium headers with one colour and some italics for the song names. Then when I got to my final comments, I grouped them in order with a common structure and feel to them, so it makes a better sense of what I was trying to convey about my review methodology. All of which was helping “me be me” in the piece.
Why am I fussing? Because generally speaking, if I do this for every year from 1943 to 2020 and beyond, I want the structure right before I start, as well as the general approach to content. I hesitate to raise it to the level of saying that I want to do a “professional job” of it, not the right nuance, more just that I have pretty high standards and I feel like it finally meets them. Am I going to have any amazing insights into music that will revolutionize the industry? Hell no, I know less about music than most 11-year-old piano students. But I have views about what I think endures and adds to the cultural collective and what should probably remain a footnote.
I spent a LOT of time editing one single post. And while it IS 3500 words, my edit:writing ratio was pretty high for this one. I don’t know if it was really worth it, but I’m pretty happy with the result. A PolyWogg Guide to Music: 1943 – Pop is the first of many posts about music, I hope other people like them too.
Why am I writing “a PolyWogg guide” and why for 1943?
I have thought about a series of posts about music hits for a long time. At one point, I was envisioning the idea of “Billboard got it wrong” as the theme, the idea that listing by sales might be a good short-term measure of a hit in the year it is recorded, but ten, twenty, even fifty years later, is it still a song that holds up? Or is there some sort of historical “correction” that I could apply, albeit biased by personal subjectivity, that would be “my view of the musical hits for year x”. A PolyWogg Guide to Music, if you will.
As I started preparing for the project, a topic that interested me as far back as 17 years ago even, I was caught by the most basic question — what year would I start with? While Billboard really got going in the 50s, it had some lists as far back as ’46, and there were some other emerging lists even during the war years. I eventually decided to go with the first real list that I found with a credible methodology based on something resembling sales. That year was 1943.
Of course, one of the things that attracted me to 1943 too was the change that was happening in music. The dance music of the Roaring 20s had long faded but the sagas of the depressed 30s were still hanging on. The start of WWII, a scant 22 years after the “Great War to end all wars”, heavily influenced all aspects of life, including music.
In 1940, Winston Churchill promised to “fight them on the beaches”; Germany blitzed London; there were race riots in the U.S.; and Gone with the Wind debuted. The U.S. did its best to stay out of the war, the only time in history perhaps that it has emulated Switzerland. Yet the U.S. was arming, and the economy was booming, starting the reversal of the Great Depression. Benny Goodman and Count Basie ruled the hit parade with jazz.
In 1941, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon ruled both the cinemas and the newly created drive-in theatres, the war was front-page news, and the Japanese threat was increasing. Right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which changed the War, and perhaps the face of global politics, forever.
In 1942, the U.S. fully engaged in the war effort, but the feelings of optimism of a quick victory were eaten away as the year progressed. The tide in Europe started to turn although the UK was still being pummeled, and as the war in Asia heated up, 120K Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps under U.S. Executive Order 9066. Similar internments occurred in Canada and elsewhere. Women formed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and were celebrated by Douglas MacArthur as he said they worked hard, complained less, and were better disciplined than the men! Rationing kicked in, particularly for gas. Casablanca ruled the movie world, although Bambi and Road to Morocco held their own.
But while those were all important as undercurrents to the approaching year, the years’ biggest long-term contributions to music likely went unnoticed except by relevant family members:
John Lennon, Manfred Mann, Frankie Avalon, Gene Pitney, Smokey Robinson, and Ringo Starr were born in 1940;
Chubby Checker, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Pete Best, Paul Anka, Joan Baez, Mama Cass, Neil Diamond, Placido Domingo, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Percy Sledge were born in 1941; and,
Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Brian Jones, Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand, and Tammy Wynette round out the births for 1942.
The dawn of 1943
Not surprisingly, the big news for the year remained the War. Construction of the Pentagon building in Washington was completed, rationing was expanded, Eisenhower became the head of the Allied forces. The war in Italy turned significantly, and across the various fronts, the German forces started to see less success. More importantly for pop culture, the role of women changed rapidly. They worked in factories, contributed to the war effort in the home, in the office and in the stores. And, for those who like baseball, baseball returned with the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (immortalized in the movie A League of Their Own).
Hollywood was not to be left out though…they started the Golden Globes (although not awarded until January ’44), Lassie Came Home, and they made movies like For Whom the Bell Tolls and Heaven Can Wait. Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and the musical Oklahoma heated up the music scene.
And not that anyone else would notice for awhile, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin, John Denver, Charles Gibson, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and Jim Morrison came into the world.
Digging into the music
When you look at the various sources of “hit lists” for 1943, there isn’t a lot of credible information with rigorous methodology, no one list to rule them all. That isn’t to say there aren’t ANY lists — some lists tracked sales, some talked about hit parades, others simply listed big hits by Frank Sinatra or Glenn Miller. But I pulled together a combined list from multiple sources (Whitburn, Your Hit Parade, and TSort, plus some iTunes lists), and I started going through my master list, song by song.
Not unexpectedly, some songs reflect the mood of the times. Others the changing social conditions. Many others clung to the jazz sounds of the 1930s, simpler days in terms of politics if not the economy. And others were just about the war. Of the 117 songs in my list, very few would stand the test of time in terms of listening to them regularly now, unless you had a specific ear for jazz, or swing, or sultry crooning.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find ten that stood out.
#001. As Time Goes By by Dooley Wilson
This first song, and the only one that I rate at 3/5 for the year, is a bit of a gimmick for the list. I know that’s a terrible way to start, considering I’m trying to overcome old methodological problems to talk about songs with longevity. However, this version of the song is extracted from Casablanca, with original dialogue from the movie overlaying the song in places. Yet, given the song’s strong contribution to pop culture through the following years, it was almost impossible NOT to include it. When I added in the song’s ability to simply stand on its own, it had to be my first choice. Rudy Vallee, Jacques Renard, and Vera Lynn also did versions of the song during the year (a common practice for the era), and none of their versions hold up to Dooley’s version.
#002. Pistol Packin’ Mama by Bing Crosby
This song may seem like a bit of a stretch to come in at #2, but it is a pretty lively song. It isn’t jazz, it isn’t Big Band per se, it isn’t swing…it’s a bit of R&B mixed perhaps with some country twang, sung by a noted crooner. There is a new sound in there that starts to emerge about this time, not defined yet, and this is one of the earliest examples.
#003. Flash by Harry James and His Orchestra
Just as I chose the #2 song above as an example of a new sound, I chose this one as a Big Band / jazz hybrid. It’s a little up-tempo, slides back and forth between jazz and Big Band, and even manages to harken back a bit to the Roaring 20s sound. It’s not spectacular, it’s not ground-breaking, but you can listen to it easily even 70 years later.
#004. Sweet Slumber by Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra
This song is a slower one that goes in the opposite direction to Flash. It is reminiscent of Auld Lang Syne, with a jazz sound, performed by a full orchestra. Then out of nowhere, more than a minute into a 3-minute song that seems like a simple instrumental, a voice starts crooning crystal clear. It’s definitely not jazz at that point, or rather it isn’t sung in a jazz style. It is almost like the sound of a barbershop quartet and foreshadows the pop crooners of the 50s. There are a lot of songs that do this throughout the year — they start off instrumental, and then halfway through, the singer starts in. However, when Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra do the same songs, they move the lyrics to the start and spread them more evenly throughout the song. This too is a change…the old “orchestra” sound that is the foundation for many of the “hits” was starting to give way to more pure lyrics-led songs.
#005. I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Bing Crosby
I have to admit that I seriously thought of putting this song first. It is such a classic song that gets dug out every Christmas, it would be impossible to deny its longevity and contribution to pop culture. Sure, it came from a movie in ’42, not ’43, but that isn’t a reason to quibble (after all, Casablanca was from 1942 to as well). My reason for not putting it first though is that in ’43, it had a totally different mood to it than it does now. In ’43, it really was about people who would NOT be home for Christmas (except in their dreams). Yet many celebrants now don’t even realize the song means the opposite of what the title implies, the mood and sense doesn’t seem to match the words anymore. It was a truly sad song in ’43, and for some, it even meant those who would never return at all.
#006. Murder, He Says by Dinah Shore
I had never heard this song before I went through this review, and yet the song is pure 1943. So much so that it likely wouldn’t work in any other year because of its content. It is about a girl who has a boyfriend who constantly talks in the “hip” slang of the era and I was attracted to the song, partly as some people argue that the biggest indicator of change in a society is the degree of change in a language during the same era. In the song, every time they kiss, he says, “Murder” i.e., she’s an amazing kisser and it is almost like the kiss is killing him. Except he’s driving her nuts with his slang, and she’s thinking of (not really) killing him if he doesn’t start talking normally. The song has no longevity, but it is awesome as a “snapshot” of the year with lots of examples of phrases for the year. Murder.
#007. Ration Blues by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
This song, and the next three, are really here for a very specific reason — they capture specific aspects of the “wartime” mood. Ration Blues is lamenting the experience of rationing that has expanded throughout the U.S.
#008. Silver Wings in the Moonlight by Anne Shelton
While there wasn’t a lot of great news stories coming out of Northern Africa or Europe, the war in the Pacific had the glamour that always accompanies the crisp flyboys of the Air Force with their Silver Wings.
#009. When the Lights Go On Again by Vera Lynn
Lynn had lots of airplay during the time, lots of hits. But this one captures the mood of change perfectly — looking forward to when the lights go on again all over the world, i.e., when the war is over, and things return to normal. Not the naïve “victory in weeks” sentiment that was prevalent at the start of ’42, but the cold rational belief by ’43 that it while it would still be a gruelling slog, victory would be had eventually. Vaughn Monroe also produced a version, but it was more instrumental and without the wistful hope of Lynn’s version.
#010. Why Don’t You Fall In Love With Me? by Dinah Shore
The title of the song implies little more than a simple love song, but the lyrics are about temporary nature of the war…it says “as long as you’re not already in love with someone else, why don’t you fall in love with me?” While Casablanca belittled the small concerns of two crazy people in a mixed-up world, this one tries to say, “Hey, let’s make the most of today, unless you have someone back home.” Finding comfort where comfort could be found. Dinah Shore shows up here for two in the top ten, and again at #040. Comforting, indeed.
After those ten, there are a few groupings / tiers for the rest of the songs:
#011-018 were decent enough for me to consider them for the top 10, and I ranked them accordingly, but they were mostly “B” level choices after the top ten above. I consider them all tied for the 11th spot. Some cook (Five Guys Named Moe), some are amazing instrumentals (Mission to Moscow), and others are from popular movies (Yankee Doodle Boy);
#019-032 are all essentially tied for the 19th place, and I have listed them alphabetically by song title;
#033-052 are similar, and I would consider all 20 of them tied for the 33rd spot; and,
#053-117 aka the rest of the list is “filler” for the year, with nothing exceptional in there. They represent a long slow slide from “nostalgia” in the first 50 songs above to “meh” for the rest. I consider them all tied for the 53rd spot, so I have listed them alphabetically by song title.
However, even with a lot of sludge to go through, there are some other highlights:
Taking a Chance on Love steps in at #28 on my list, farther down than I might have expected but not because it’s not a great song, rather because the 1943 version isn’t earth-shattering…many have sung it better over the years;
They’re Either Too Young or Too Old is at #29, and I like the sentiment…it’s a little light-hearted song about the girl left behind who can’t find a man because they’re all off at war. As a result, for what’s left, they’re either “too young or too old”…there are some links to themes of gender emancipation here, but the song is more cute than revolutionary;
A Slip of the Lip makes my list at #41, as it looks and sounds like a War Department-sponsored song that uses the slogan of the day — a slip of the lip sinks ships, i.e., there are spies everywhere;
Oh, What A Beautiful Morning is at #93 with Bing Crosby and Trudy Erwin. It is a truly amazing song, but this version is not up to later standards; and,
Zing! Went the String of My Heart is at #117…again, a great song but NOT this version.