Used to be that I’d find my summer songs on a jukebox (Queen, “Killer Queen,” 1974; Chicago, “Old Days,” 1975) or AM radio (Andrew Gold, “Lonely Boy,” 1977). But now I find them on whatever media happens to be in the car while I’m on vacation. This year the song that has me hitting the back button—repetition is key to drilling the summer song into your brain—as I drive my son to camp or to Cape League ball games is the Kinks “God’s Children” (1970). It’s a sort of prayer or hymn all too necessary in this grim season: gentle, defiant, joyful.
Close your eyes and you can imagine Vince Guaraldi banging this out—or, of course, Keith Jarrett. Even without the lyrics of one of their finest funny-sad dramatic monologues, even without the sax of Tom Scott, even if the song crossed the line from homage into infringement,* this remains a tuneful peak in the SD catalogue.
* Jarrett won the case and got/gets a share of the royalties. He had a written credit on the song for a while in the 1990s, but no more; wonder why. I bet Jarrett wishes he had Jeff Porcaro on drums for his session.
Saul Bass, best known for the film titles (and shower sequences) he designed for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, also designed a few—very few, as far as I can tell—LP covers, aside from the soundtracks to films he was involved with. This is the earliest and best I have found. It is so good, in fact, that it inspired an homage in the cover of the recent exhibition catalogue California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way.
The cover is, in fact, the one memorable thing about the album. One of Sinatra’s rare side projects while on Capitol—he also conducted albums for Peggy Lee and Dean Martin, to much more memorable effect—it featured compositions inspired by the awful poetry of one Norman Sickel (bad poetry seems to be a theme here recently) and written by names drawn from the Capitol arrangers stable and the Hollywood soundtrack pen.
The only really serious composer here is Alec Wilder. In addition to writing such classic songs as “I’ll Be Around” and “While We’re Young”—and the landmark book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1910–1950*—Wilder was known for his chamber music that blended jazz and classical sensibilities. (Sinatra had conducted an entire album of Wilder’s works for small orchestra in the 1940s, one of Sinatra’s earliest extracurricular projects and first flirtations with “high” culture.) “Gray, The Gaunt” is the sole work on the album that might work as a soundtrack to the California Design book; it’s easy to imagine it accompanying one of Ray and Charles Eames’s films.†
The California Design cover was not the first tribute to Bass’s LP masterwork. I doubt Sinatra himself was involved in the art for the Capitol album, but the art department at his label, Reprise, must have had it in mind in 1961 when X-15 and Other Sounds of Rockets, Missiles, and Jets was released.
The cover is printed on foil or metallic paper, which itself seems like an homage to the metallic gold and silver stripes on the cover of Tone Poems of Color—not common or inexpensive choices at the time: someone cared about these covers (especially at Reprise, which soon became known for its cheapo artwork).
I’ll spare you the sound clips, but you can read (and hear) more about X-15 here if you are so moved.
Alec Wilder, “Gray, The Gaunt”
from Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
* First published in 1972, this classic is out of print and will, alas, likely remain so. Given the huge number of musical examples given in the book, it was a miracle all rights were cleared for the initial edition. I doubt any publisher would take on the team of lawyers needed to produce another edition.
† In fact, one of the other Tone Poems of Color composers, soundtrack master Elmer Bernstein, did write—in a rather Wilderian vein—the music for the Eameses film “House.”
For Robert V. Sharp
This is what comes of having your own record label.
Best known as a poet and songwriter in the 1960s, McKuen was a trailblazer in the unaccountable fame hall of fame, paving the way for folks like Garth Brooks and Kenny G. While he never wrote another symphony, McKuen did write other “classical” works, including a concerto for four (count ’em) harpsichords and orchestra (something no Bach—JS or PDQ—ever attempted).
McKuen is just as easy a target now as he was when my fellow English majors and I did dramatic readings from Listen to the Warm back in college. Not that it wasn’t deserved: that subtitle, “All Men Love Something,” gives you some idea of the color and precision that marked Rod’s verse. So while his poetry may never be in the Norton Anthology, perhaps his career should be studied at the Harvard Business School. This is, after all, a poet who parlayed his meager gifts into a monster publishing and recording career. I mean, here’s a poet who had his own record label.
Fair play compels me to note that there are far less noble occupations than midwifing Jacques Brel songs into English, and the McKuen-penned A Man Alone is, against all odds, one of the more creditable of Frank Sinatra’s late 1960s platters. Certainly Don Costa’s harmonically sophisticated arrangements aid the songs on that concept album immeasurably. McKuen’s were neither the first nor worst lyrics from which Sinatra would wring Mahlerian depth.* But the Voice found something in those songs worth investing in, and that ain’t nothing.
Rod McKuen, Symphony No. 1 “All Men Love Something” (1970)
First movement: Gibraltar
Westminster Symphony Orchestra
* If you doubt Sinatra’s knack for turning the most dubious of concepts into art songs, check out the McKuen-Brel existential waltz (yes, really) “I’m Not Afraid.”
(Happy birthday, Davey)