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!”