Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mendelssohn's Rock Bible: Lennon's Dream Date With Destiny

Half a century after the fact, the greatest pop vocal performance ever recorded remains Lorraine Ellison’s harrowing, desperate, anguished, heartbreaking Stay With Me. But some of the fellows have done some pretty terrific singing in their own right. 

I’m not so sure that there’s ever been a better rock singer than Little Richard. To listen to the  original version of Tutti Frutti and Elvis’s back to back is to feel embarrassed for Elvis, to realise that Richard was by far the better musician. It isn’t only his exuberance and energy that dwarf Elvis’s, but his musicality. Witness his multiple-note runs, of the sort that would become (entirely too) popular decades later. 

Fifteen years later, Al Green came along and the difference between him and Richard was probably greater than between Richard and Elvis. No pop singer has ever sung more inventively, more nimbly, with greater, well, suppleness. 

Ray Charles’s version of the Eddy Arnold country would break my heart if the schmaltzy arrangement didn’t keep intruding. Bobby Hatfield’s performance of Unchained Melody, credited to the Righteous Bros., is a proper jaw-dropper. Few have ever crooned more gorgeously than Scott Walker does in The Walker Bros.’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. His taking seven notes to get “baby” out before the coda makes one gasp in wonder. I may have loathed Journey. but loved Steve Perry’s glorious, soaring singing. Brad Delp’s vocal on Boston’s More Than a Feeling made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I don’t doubt a syllable Levi Stubbs sings in what I regard as the greatest of all Motown hits, The Four Tops’ Bernadette.  

All that said, I don’t think there’s ever been a vocal quite like Mr. Lennon’s on Twist and Shout.  At the end of the marathon session during which they recorded their first album, The Beatles had at the year-before Isley Bros. hit, which they’d been enjoying performing live the previous several months. George Martin had saved the song for last for fear of its leaving young the Lennon voice in tatters. As it was, he had little left in his vocal tank after having spent the day singing with a sore throat. Through sheer force of will, though, he absolutely sang the hell out of it, evoking the manic energy of Little Richard fully as vividly as young Mr. McCartney’s party-piece version of Long Tall Sally ever would, sounding like a young man on a dream date with destiny, sounding possessed. I fucking want this, his voice seems to say, and I’m fucking having it, son. His vocal eloquently refuted the idea that rock and roll had been a dead genre walking since Elvis’s conscription, Chuck Berry’s incarceration, Richard’s return to Jesus, and the fervent attempts of the likes of Dick Clark to replace it with insipid frankiebobby crooner pop. It ensured that no one listening to that first Beatles album — which the group had every reason to believe might also be their last — wouldn’t be open-mouthed at the end. 

In decades to come, one wouldn’t hear less and less like it. Sure, The Swinging Blue Jeans’ Hippy Hippy Shake, a virtual homage to Lennon, is also pretty thrilling, and a decade later Noddy Holder would sound comparably manic and ferocious on such Slade records as Cum On Feel the Noize, but as recording technology improved, one heard singers leaving it all on the field, to invoke a trope from sport, less and less often. Why retain a phrase in which the singer is clearly straining when it’s possible to “punch in” a more self-assured sounding take?

Of course, The Beatles’ T&S was pretty wonderful live too. Stage left you had the squinting Lennon singing magnificently, while stage right his backing singers were cheek-to-cheek at their microphone, shaking their girlishly long hair at each other while exulting, “Ooh!” fully a decade before David Bowie scandalised the nation by draping his arm collegially around Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops.

I can’t resist the temptation to name and shame three of my least favourite male rock singers. Steven Tyler seems never to have met a song he didn’t want to oversing. In that way he’s sort of the male Mariah Carey, without Carey’s remarkable range and chops. Maybe you recall the movie True Grit? What the unlistenably affected-sounding Jon Bon Jovi’s got is bogus grit. And the piglet-in-agony shrieking of such emulators of the young Robert Plant as Axl Rose and the guy from Motley Crue have always made me yearn for deafness.

Pay me the compliment of listening to my own music, credited to The Freudian Sluts, The Stonking Novels, and Isambard Jones, on Spotify, Amazon, GooglePlay, and elsewhere. And please do have a look at my ezine, For All In Tents and Porposes