Friday, September 5, 2008

It took a while, but the rest of the world has finally caught up with me

One of the pleasures of getting older is having other people realise you were right all along.

In recent years I’ve smugly enjoyed the vindication of seeing singers and musicians I’ve admired for decades undergoing rehabilitation by capricious critics who were once happy to ignore and even mock them.

Take Brian Wilson. As a teenager I was convinced he was the closest pop music had come to producing a true genius, and I’ve never seen any reason to revise that belief. (If I had to nominate the most perfect pop song ever written, it would probably be God Only Knows.) But for decades after Wilson disengaged from the Beach Boys he became the butt of jokes –just another crazed casualty of the 60s, a drug-addled eccentric who composed his music in a sandpit. Which made his triumphant comeback with Smile – the album he started in the 60s but took four decades to finish – all the more satisfying.

Having said this, I have to guiltily confess that I went with some trepidation to Wilson’s concert in Wellington in 2005. We all have our dark moments of doubt, and there are few things worse than seeing a faded, washed-up pop idol shambling through the motions in a vain attempt to recapture his former glory. I needn’t have worried; it was such a rapturously joyous and musically impeccable performance that I thought seriously about booking a flight to Christchurch the next day so I could experience it all over again. The concert included a performance of the aforementioned Smile – the work that restored Wilson’s reputation and soon had the self-appointed arbiters of musical taste, the same people who once wrote Wilson off as some sort of grotesque relic, falling over themselves in their eagerness to acclaim his brilliance.

Then there’s the late Dusty Springfield. I was always a sucker for those wonderful girl singers of the 60s: Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, Cilla Black – heck, even the long forgotten Helen Shapiro. But Springfield stood out even in that illustrious pack.

She’s been belatedly rediscovered by the critics too, partly as a result of having been adopted as an icon of gay culture (she was lesbian). But people forget that Springfield lived a wretched life of poverty and loneliness for much of the 1970s and 80s, largely cast aside by the industry that had once feted her. She hadn’t magically lost her talent; her style of music had simply become unfashionable. It was the Pet Shop Boys – also gay favourites – who rediscovered her in the late 1980s and gave her a second shot at stardom. Now, of course, Dusty Springfield is considered the height of retro-chic; I see yet another compilation of her hits has just been released. A pity the record industry didn’t reward her talent when she most needed it.

In passing, I will also mention Abba. At the height of their success in the 1970s, cerebral (and I suspect tone-deaf) rock music writers treated them with scorn. Abba’s fatal flaw was that they had commercial appeal, and it didn’t help that they seemed clean and wholesome too. Never mind that they produced textbook pop music of a quality that matched the best output from New York’s famous Brill Building songwriters in earlier decades, highly sophisticated musically yet irresistibly catchy.

Well, the passage of time has conferred a sort of chic respectability on Abba too, and it’s no longer shameful to admit in sophisticated company that you own their Greatest Hits album. In time, I expect the Carpenters may undergo a similar re-appraisal.

(I’ll throw in a little statistic here and try to resist the urge to launch into a lecture. In the top 500 artists ranked by Billboard, based on singles sales, the Carpenters are at 60 and Abba at 132. Bob Dylan, whom influential rock critics have always lionised, is at 193. Yes, I know Dylan is primarily an albums artist, but it still says something.)

All of which brings me to Glen Campbell. Yes, I’ve always been a fan of Campbell too, and enjoyed meeting him on his last tour here. He’s a phenomenon in terms of his musical longevity, his greatly under-rated musicianship and the breadth of his accomplishments, which include stints with the Champs (of Tequila fame), the Beach Boys (Campbell played lead guitar on many of their records) and even the hippy-ish LA studio group Sagittarius, to say nothing of his vast body of work as an anonymous session musician.

His voice is remarkable for a 70-year-old and he’s still capable of peeling off guitar solos at blistering speed. But Arkansas-born Campbell has always laboured under the stigma of being a country boy, which is considered seriously uncool. The critics tend to overlook his sublime renderings of songs like By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, preferring to remind us of cheesier stuff like Rhinestone Cowboy and Country Boy. But I’m delighted to report that Campbell too has found redemption with his latest album, which is getting the sort of serious critical attention he has too often been denied in the past. Tom Cardy, in today’s Dom Post, gives it a glowing review. The cynic in me wonders whether Campbell has found critical acceptance only by breaking out of the mould and recording cover versions of songs by vogue-ish people like the Foo Fighters, U2 and Green Day, but what the heck … recognition is recognition.

The album is titled Meet Glen Campbell, an ironic touch given that he cut his first record in 1961. Maybe this is his way of gently rebuking the critics for not taking him seriously in the past and inviting them to assess him anew.

Footnote: While welcoming the Road-to-Damascus experiences of those who have finally cottoned on to people like Brian Wilson, Dusty Springfield and Glen Campbell, I have to admit I’ve had one or two musical epiphanies of my own – and none more dramatic than my sudden conversion to Dylanism several years ago, when I made a spur of the moment decision to see him perform in Wellington. I realised that night that what had irritated me for decades about Dylan was not the man himself, but all the fawning, pretentious and often impenetrable bullshit written about him.


Vaughan said...

If we are into righting the “record”, let’s not forget the New Zealand singers Sandy Edmonds and Dinah Lee. I saw Sandy live and she was so good. Dinah could really rock with Do the Blue Beat (1964).

And let us bow before the great NZ male singer of the 60s, Ray Columbus, with his brilliant treatment of that superb song, Till We Kissed. It is worth watching on Youtube. See the band, the Invaders, go crazy (inside).

Did you ever see Herma Keil and the Keil Isles live? They were good on the TV show C’mon, but live they were magnificent.

Moving to overseas artists, I agree about Glen Campbell, but I also pay tribute to the songwriter Jimmy Webb, who I saw perform live in Perth. He wrote the superb By the Time I get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman.

Another good singer and nice guy who I think should be rehabilitated and publicly remembered with affection at chic parties, is John Denver. The duet of Perhaps Love by Placido Domingo and John Denver is very moving.

Vaughan said...

My humble apologies for two major omissions in this important work of remembering and, in some cases, rehabilitating the greats.

So let us all now pause, bow, close our eyes, remember, unplug our ears and pay tribute to two NZ greats and call for statues to be erected in their honour.

1. Billy TK, the great guitarist of Aotearoa ..of The Human Instinct. Apparently he is still around and playing ....

2. The La De Das for their performance of Hey Baby.