Let’s Reboot Television!

A man from Virgin Media came yesterday and fitted me with a Tivo box.  Whilst looking through the instructions, I was told that if it froze or got stuck, it would need rebooting.  My feeling, wading through the TV schedules in the UK these days, is that it’s not the Tivo box that needs a reboot, but television itself.   Somehow, since virtually every home has gained (to some degree) a multitude of extra channels, the main ones seems to rely more and more on tried and tested programmes, and tried and tested formulas.

While I can understand to a certain degree that people gain pleasure from watching those two-hour police dramas that move at a slower pace than the Lord of the Rings films, just how long can and should they go on for before something new comes along to take their place?  I shall be brutally honest, I blame “Morse” for everything.  After all, he was the one who started the now endlessly-recycled idea of a miserable old git taking 120 minutes (and at least 50 advert breaks) to solve a remarkably dull murder-mystery littered with remarkably dull characters.  When Morse got killed off in the final episode, I gave something of a silent cheer…while my Mother mourned.

But the death of Morse wasn’t the death of Morse.  Lo and behold, ITV came up with the idea of “Lewis” to cheer us all up with more of the same, and then we were treated to “Endeavour” which “entralls” us with the early adventures of Morse.  I am awaiting the announcement of a new series in which Morse’s spirit helps solves mysteries that baffle any policeman with a cheerful disposition and a relatively normal family life.

And Morse simply opened the floodgates for likes of “Frost” and “Midsomer Murders” – the latter now having waded through some fifteen series.  Even “Foyle’s War” couldn’t be allowed to finish with the end of the war – instead it wanders on in repetitive fashion with people watching possibly more through habit than enjoyment.    Likewise, ITV have insisted on continuing with their awful “Marple” series long after they ran out of actual Marple stories to destroy with their ridiculous adaptations.  Now they transplant the old busybody in mysteries where she doesn’t belong at all.  Agatha Christie must be turning in her grave.

This rant is somewhat caused by the receipt of next week’s Radio Times, which tells me that the highlight of the week (aside from Dr Who, which the magazine is obsessed with) is a new episode of Jonathan Creek.   Jonathan Creek?  Surely that’s the only programme in the world with more final episodes than “Only Fools and Horses?”   It seems to have been farewell-ing for over a decade.  We are also told in RT that Have I Got News For You is back for a 45th series.   That’s more series than “Casualty”, and I really thought nothing had been around for longer than that (a mere 27 series, in case you were wondering).   And yes, I know that BBC4 is “thrilling” audiences with various new crime dramas from mainland Europe – but surely these are just Morse/Lewis/Foyle/Midsomer with added subtitles.

ITV2 and ITV3 are even worse.  ITV3 should be renamed the “Poirot and Lewis” channel, as they appear to show little else.  And this is something I fail to understand.  With thousands of programmes in the vaults, the same 100 or so 2-hour dramas are just recycled endlessly – and still manage to receive 1.5 million viewers on a regular basis.  Is television so awful – and are we so easily please –  that we watch murder mysteries we last saw a month ago?

Of course, it’s not just dour murder mysteries than are recycled.  Since the success of Bargain Hunt, our daytime schedules are littered with antiques programmes. And since the success of Pop Idol we have been treated to around 300 series of X Factor/Britain’s Got Talent/The Voice/Fame Academy/Popstar to Operastar.  These are all enjoyable in their way – but they get less and less enjoyable with each series.  At what point exactly will the entire TV viewing public shout at their TV set “ENOUGH!  I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE!”  There is, after all, less repetition when watching the BBC News channel, which shows us the same reports every hour.

What would I like in the place of these stalwarts?  I have no idea, and the problem seems to be that those in charge of the schedules don’t have much idea either.  Ideas and formats are always going to be recycled, but early evening viewing on BBC1 (centred around Casualty) seems to look the same now as it did 25 years ago, and eventually something has to give.  Surely a new schedule that avoids hospitals and police-dramas would be bliss?

On the plus side, the last of the Poirot books are being filmed as we speak, and so David Suchet will have to give up his impersonation of the Belgian detective at that point, after 14 series.  Unless, of course, ITV decides to transplant the character into a set of stories where he doesn’t belong at all…

Bobby Darin: The Road to “Splish Splash”

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Bobby Darin was often called a “musical chameleon”, and had a career that covered rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, gospel, country, show tunes, folk, blues, protest material, and everything in between.  His first recording sessions were for Decca records in 1956 and the eight songs recorded saw Darin jumping from one genre to the next. This was something he would continue to do with ease for the rest of his career, but the Decca recordings are a somewhat different situation, with the singer seemingly unaware of whether he was a country singer, a ballad singer, a folk singer or something in the middle.  The eight songs for Decca (and the early recordings for Atco) find a singer in search of a voice.

His first recordings for the label took place in February 1956.  Darin was nineteen years old and had been writing songs for some time with his pal Don Kirshner.  He recorded four songs at the first session,including a take on Rock Island Line, which seems somewhat inspired by the types of recordings that Johnny Cash was making at the time at Sun Records (Cash would record his own version of the song in 1957).  The structure and instrumentation of Darin’s version is close to that used in Lonnie Donegan’s version which hit the US charts just a couple of weeks after Darin recorded his, but had been a hit in the UK earlier that year.   Despite the recording hardly being essential Bobby Darin, it is a remarkably confident debut, with no signs of nerves from the young teenager who is backed by just an acoustic guitar and drums.

The B-side of this first single finds Darin turning from a cross between folk and country to a full-on Frankie Laine impression.  Timber is a faux-work song co-written by Darin in the Laine mould and finds him accompanied by backing vocals and percussion-heavy instrumentation.  It is a much better performance than Rock Island Line, and the arrangement cleverly uses a fake-ending around thirty seconds before the actual end of the song.  It sees Darin for the first time approaching the type of material which would be the basis of his masterful Earthy LP six years later.

Also recorded was a song that saw Darin turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom.  Silly Willy was no Splish Splash, however.  The problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempos and rhythms that the song employs.  It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should.   The B-side of this release is Blue Eyed Mermaid.  If Timber saw the singer performing in the Frankie Laine style, then this number sees a move towards Guy Mitchell in a song that has a kind of fake sea shanty feel, although a line or two of the verses steals the melody of Ghost Riders in the Sky.  Darin takes this Guy Mitchell style even further in Hear Them Bells, recorded a few months later, which sees him accompanied by an orchestra and chorus with a sound that is very close to that used in Mitchell’s hits My Truly Truly Fair and Cloud Lucky Seven, despite the semi-gospel nature of the lyrics.  The Greatest Builder (the B-Side of Hear Them Bells) is the worst of all the Decca recordings.  Again, the song has religious lyrics but this time lacks the vibrant nature of Hear Them Bells, and finds Darin sounding so earnest that one ends up not believing that he is sincere at all.

The final Decca single again finds Darin changing styles.  Dealer In Dreams is a Darin-Kirshner song which would have worked quite well for Elvis Presley, being quite similar in style and structure to Don’t Leave Me Now, which Presley would record twice during 1957.  Bobby’s recording misses the mark because it is over-arranged; Darin is singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad with a Guy Mitchell arrangement.  The B-side, Help Me, is pleasant enough, but again sounds as if it was written for someone else.

In the end, Darin’s short tenure at Decca must have been as frustrating for Darin as it was for listeners.  He had recorded eight sides, none of which had attracted much attention, and was seemingly no closer to finding his own voice than when he stepped into the Decca recording studios a few months earlier.

Bobby Darin had failed to set the world on fire with his eight sides for Decca, but that didn’t mean he was about to give up on his dreams of singing stardom.   In May 1957 he recorded four sides and these helped to land him a contract with the recently-formed Atco label.  Atco purchased the four sides from Darin and released two of them as a single:  I Found A Million Dollar Baby backed with Talk To Me Something.  The first of these is most notable because it was Darin’s first attempt at an American standard in the recording studio.   He still hadn’t found his own voice, but he had at least found a genre to focus on:  rock ‘n’ roll.  I Found a Million Dollar Baby is pleasant enough, and rises above mediocrity due to Hank Garland’s guitar as much through the vocals.  Talk To Me Something was a Darin-Kirshner original and considerably better material than the originals he had recorded during him time at Decca.  The performance is hardly a masterpiece (and Darin can’t quite work out whether he was Elvis or Jim Reeves), but there are some nice moments, particularly during the swell in emotion and volume during the third line of each verse when Darin and the backing vocalists sing together.  Despite being a reasonable stab at hitting the charts with a contemporary sound, the single performed disappointedly.

The other two songs from the same sessions, are quite similar in style.  Wear My Ring is another rock ‘n’ roll ballad, but the problem here is that there is nothing remotely original about either song or performance.  Just In Case You Change Your Mind is basically more of the same.  The song was eventually released the following year as a single A-side, but it found its real home as filler on Bobby Darin’s first album later in 1958.

A few months later, Darin was back in the studio with another quartet of songs.  Don’t Call My Name finds him giving him a much more confident performance, and the resulting recording was a good solid rock ‘n’ roll number, but this too failed to set the charts alight.  The B-side, Pretty Betty, is one of Darin’s worst attempts at a rock ‘n’ roll.  The song, arrangement and recording sounds awkward and forced.  An alternate take which appeared on a grey-market release features a slightly different rhythm underpinning the song.  It’s still hardly a classic, but the song holds together better in the alternate.   Rounding out the session were (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean.  These find an improvement over the previous rock ‘n’ roll ballads.  The recordings seem to be less forced, and the vocals are less affected, with the singer opting for a more gentle, intimate approach.

The next session took place five months later and finds Darin’s style improving dramatically.  Brand New House finds him at last with his own style and his own unique sound.  He somehow manages to merge elements of Ray Charles and Neil Sedaka here (although Sedaka had yet to have a hit).  The orchestration is really quite similar to that which he would later use on the Sings Ray Charles album a few years later.  Darin has added a far more aggressive vocal quality to his sound here as well, as he growls his way through the song.  The recording also betrays signs of the ill health that plagued Darin’s life.  On a number of occasions he runs out of breath at the end of a line, or attempts to snatch a breath without anyone noticing, but doesn’t quite succeed.  In many ways it didn’t matter, for this was a significant improvement over his previous work.

You Never Called is a slight step backwards, and recalls the ballads (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean. Darin probably thought the same, for the song didn’t appear on an album until For Teenagers Only a couple of years later – although this might have been due to the technical fault at the beginning of the track.  All The Way Home continues the rock ‘n’ roll style of Brand New House.  Bobby’s voice had never sounded stronger, and the song was deemed worthy enough to be included in the wonderful Rhino 4CD set of Darin’s best recordings As Long As I’m Singin’Actions Speak Louder Than Words finds him surrounded by echo in an atmospheric recording of a fine ballad that again is a foreshadowing of Darin’s full-length tribute to Ray Charles.

The April 10, 1958 sessions basically saved Darin’s career.  Despite the improvements he had made, there had still not been a hit record.  Splish Splash would turn out to be that hit.  As a piece of material, the song is certainly no better than some of the songs that he recorded a few months earlier at the previous session.  Darin employs the same vocal tones in the song as in Actions Speaker Louder Than Words and Brand New House, but perhaps the song benefits most from the searing saxophone solo during the instrumental break and the novelty of the water effect at the opening and closing of the track.  This may sound cynical, for it is a fine performance, and a song that has stood the test of time, but the only thing it has over the efforts of the previous sessions is novelty hook.  With the sax solo, novelty subject matter and sound effects it stood out from the crowd and made audiences take notice.  It was exactly what Darin was yearning for: to be noticed by the record-buying public.

He was on a roll.  At the same session he recorded another hit side:  Queen of the Hop.  Again the instrumentation was borrowed from Ray Charles, while the subject matter was the same as many other hit singles of the time.  The track is brilliantly recorded, making it sound considerably harder than it actually is.  With Darin set back in the mix, we get the effect that his singing is much rawer.  The driving beat is high in the mix and, together with another great sax solo, the effect was complete.  It’s hard to comprehend that something as bland as Judy Don’t Be Moody was even recorded at the same session and with the same band.

With Splish Splash, stardom and Bobby Darin would finally meet after two years of trying to find each other.  Darin’s career would have peaks and troughs as he wavered from a predictable career path to take in more genres than probably any other artist, and yet the consistency of performances from Splish Splash until the very end of his career was remarkably high.  Due to a variety of factors, Darin’s popularity has had a resurgence over the last decade but, despite this, the recordings made for Decca and Atco prior to his first hit remain largely neglected.  

Ghost Ship (1952)

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Multi-channel TV is frustrating, isn’t it?  Half the channels aren’t in listings magazines, and the ones that are seem to show the same thing day in and day out.  Then you go channel hopping and find something you want to watch on a channel you can’t normally find listings for – only you find out the programme or film is half finished and is the only thing on any channel that is not going to be repeated again!  But occasionally, you find something unexpected, and so it was when I happened upon the Horror Channel showing Ghost Ship – no, not the Val Lewton film from the 1940s, or the dire special-effects laden concoction from a few years ago, but a perky little British B-movie from 1952.

Outside of the well-known British films of the period, we rarely see on our TV screens these little B-movie gems that move along at such a quick pace that all plot holes and questionable acting is forgotten.  The film tells the story of a couple played by Dermot Walsh and Hazel Court who go to look at an old yacht with a view to buying it to use as a houseboat.  However, they are warned off from doing so because of the rumours that the boat is haunted after a mysterious accident a few years earlier.  Needless to say, they buy the yacht anyway, and start to carry out repairs, but before long various strange events start to occur.

The film is an oddity in many ways.   The acting in the film is unusual.  The two leads are played by relatively well by Walsh and Court (despite dodgy accents) and yet I had to look up on IMDB to see if most of the supporting actors were professionals or amateurs.  The film was written and directed by Vernon Sewell, whose perhaps best film was the Second World War drama The Silver Fleet from a decade earlier, and starring Ralph Richardson.  Sewell’s script is unusual for a B-movie potboiler in that it includes not one but two flashbacks, one of which takes place during a seance!  But it also moves at a relatively leisurely pace too – which is rather difficult in a film lasting only seventy minutes or so!  Five minutes is taken halfway through during a party scene for a painful-to-watch comedy sequence involving a drunk guest (Ian Carmichael), and in another section a psychic investigator also takes the time to carry out demonstrations using tuning forks!

So why am I writing about this rather mediocre effort?  Well, because, despite its flaws, it’s all rather fun and amusing – from the Marie Celeste-type mystery element, to the hokey seance sequence, to the twist at the end (that you may have to watch twice to actually understand!).  Like the best B-movies, it doesn’t take itself  seriously, and the viewer feels as if much of the time the whole thing is being played with a wink and a nudge.  The plot is simple but intriguing and the lead players attractive and sympathetic.  In other words, should you come across this while channel-hopping, there are worse ways to spend 75 minutes.

It has to be said that the print on the Horror Channel left a little bit to be desired, with some rather odd framing in places that resulted in people literally losing their heads – perhaps it added to the charm!  But the film is also (rather surprisingly)  available on DVD from Optimum whose reputation would suggest has no such issues.

Frank Sinatra: Some Nice Things I’ve Missed

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In 1973, Frank Sinatra ended his self-imposed retirement with the release of a new album, appropriately called “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back”.  Despite the slightly jokey title, the album contains nine relatively lengthy ballads ranging from the My Way-esque “Let Me Try Again” through to the beautifully-realised “There Used To Be A Ballpark” in which Sinatra plays an old man showing a child the haunts of his youth and wondering where the world went wrong.  The album is stately, mature, even arty in places.  It was miles away from the swinging Sinatra of the 1950s and early 1960s; the voice was more vulnerable and the tone more serious.  Sinatra clearly cared about the nine recently-composed songs that he had recorded and the result is one of the singer’s more under-rated albums.

Bearing this in mind, Sinatra fans must have had high hopes for the next release which appeared the following year – and many are probably still scratching their heads.  “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” is not only a wildly misjudged album, it also encapsulates everything I dislike about Sinatra in 1974.  With the comeback secured, Sinatra headed for the road (and the air).  Two concerts from the year stand out.  “The Main Event” was a TV special live from Madison Square Garden that found Sinatra at his most big-headed, brash and unlikeable.  While the singing was OK (but not great), he seemed to be in a generally bad mood, and is clearly distracted and annoyed by the various time restrictions placed on him by the TV network, snapping at the audience and admonishing them when it looks like their calling out is going to put him and the show behind schedule.  The so-called soundtrack album (actually taken from six different dates on that tour) fares better, but the playfulness of the 1966 live album is long gone.  Sinatra meant business, but not in a nice way.  The other infamous concert from that year was in Australia just a day or two after an outburst about the Australian press.  Sinatra joked that “Ol’ Big Mouth Was Back”.

“Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” is an album of ten songs which Sinatra is suggesting would have been perfect for him had he not been in retirement.   Considering the songs he chose include “Sweet Caroline” and “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Old Oak Tree”, one has to wonder quite what he was thinking.  The album starts off well enough, with “You Turned My World Around”, a slightly sappy ballad with a decent chorus that finds Sinatra in similar territory to “Let Me Try Again” from the previous album.  That “Let Me Try Again” was the most traditional pop song on “Ol’ Blue Eyes” is of slight concern, with the ambition of the other songs completely evaporating here.  Sinatra sings “You Turned My World Around” well enough, although the arrangement is overblown and the backing chorus are a bad idea.  Still, it’s pleasant enough.

And then comes the shock of Sinatra not only tackling “Sweet Caroline” but trying to turn it into a big band swing number.  Not only is this a bad idea, it is also shockingly executed with a by-the-numbers arrangement and Sinatra treating the song with such disdain you wonder why he bothered.  Starting with  “Ssssssssssweet Caroline”, he clearly either had no idea what to do with the song or hates it intensely – or both.  Sinatra sounds as if he believes the whole enterprise is beneath him.  Clearly he had no problem with Neil Diamond as a songwriter, recording a number of less well known songs by him during the “lost years” of the mid 1970s.

Sinatra treats “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” with similar contempt.  Over the years, the song has become a kind of jokey cheese-fest, and yet there are worse songs out there – and if there was proof needed that a silk purse can be made out of a sow’s ear, check out Harry Connick Jr’s Thelonious Monk-style rendition on his wonderful album “30”.  But a silk purse is not made here.  The arrangement is predictable, but serviceable.  Sinatra doesn’t sound like a man who just got out of prison, but a man who has just got out of a bar.  He seems remarkably devil-may-cure considering the lyrics of the song.  Sinatra built his career around his masterful reading of lyrics, and yet here and in “Sweet Caroline” he just sounds like he’s having a sing-along.  If the lyrics were not to his taste, then he shouldn’t have recorded them.  The whole thing gets worse as he growls his way through the final section and, to add insult to injury, on the line “the whole damn bus is cheering” an entire football stadium of cheers is overdubbed onto the recording.  It’s tacky, cheap, and Sinatra should have known better.

Nothing else on the album is quite that bad.  There is an infamous clip of a radio show in which two DJs are mocking Sinatra’s recording of “Satisfy Me One More Time” when the album came out.  They poke fun as he sings about being stripped naked, covered in kisses and having his ear nibbled.   While the thought of this happening to a sixty year old Sinatra is perhaps a little vomit-inducing, it’s not such a scary thought as if Sinatra was doing the ear nibbling himself, because the new pair of dentures he is sporting on the album cover could do some serious damage.  But this song, and “I’m Gonna Make It All The Way”, are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, and Sinatra clearly relished the “you can go to hell now” line at the end of  the “I’m Gonna Make It All The Way” which finds the singer heading into country territory (he seriously considered recording a country album a couple of years later).  “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” often comes in for criticism but, again, it’s a masterpiece compared to horrors elsewhere on the album.

The LP is rescued to some degree by three ballads, “The Summer Knows”, “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” and “If”.  These three worthy songs seem to be the only ones that Sinatra takes at all seriously on the album.  Rather oddly, the first two didn’t become part of Sinatra’s live repertoire, but “If” was still being performed by “Ol’ Blue Eyes” some fifteen years later.   “What Are You Doing” benefits from a beautiful arrangement, fine singing and the inclusion of the rarely-heard verse.  While these three songs are what Sinatra should have been recording, it is the crass, brassy material that “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” will always be remembered for (and those dentures, of course).

Over the next five years, Sinatra would record in fits and starts, with material ranging from the beautiful (“Just As Though You Were Here”, the piano-only “Send In The Clowns”) to the unforgivable (the disco arrangements of “Night and Day” and “All Or Nothing At All”), but would release no albums until the mammoth three-disc “Trilogy”.  “Trilogy” finds Sinatra in fine form, with one album dedicated to songs from the American songbook, one dedicated to songs of the rock era, and one containing a forty-five minute semi-classical choral work.  That final disc has its rocky moments, but the entire enterprise at least shows that Sinatra regained his self respect by the end of the decade, and even “Song Sung Blue” on the rock era disc is more palatable than “Sssssssssweet Caroline!”