27 Nov 2018

The Sampler: State of the Union

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 27 November 2018

Nick Bollinger discusses an album that looks at the state of American Dream, circa 1968.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra Photo: supplied

Who is that with the velvet voice, worrying about the conquest of space and fate of the earth while a big band funks out convincingly behind him?

Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby Photo: supplied

It’s none other than Bing Crosby in what I guess you’d say was his lesser-known funk-protest phase with ‘What Do We Do With the World?’, a song written for him by Henry Mancini and Bob Russell.

Russell had previously written ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ with Duke Ellington and would pen ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ for the Hollies, while Mancini composed more classics than you can count - the imperishable ‘Moon River’ for starters. So the track has pedigree, yet remains an oddity, and it’s one of two-dozen such curiosities on Ace’s recent compilation, State Of The Union.

State Of The Union

State Of The Union Photo: supplied

It’s theme? Well, that’s stated in the subtitle: The American Dream in Crisis 1967-1973. And what might that crisis be? If you had asked Neil Young it might have been ‘tin soldiers and Nixon’ and a sizable chunk of his contemporaries would have agreed. But this collection doesn’t really represent the views of boomers like Young. It’s purposely focussed on the generation that preceded him; people like Bing Crosby who by the late 60s were deeply out of fashion yet not quite ready to give up the mic.

And when you still have a voice like Frank Sinatra’s, why should you? ‘The Train’ appeared on Sinatra’s 1970 album Watertown – a ‘reflective song cycle about middle age and the disintegration of the nuclear family’, according to liner notes by the collection’s co-compiler Bob Stanley. Though the Bob Gaudio production was very reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s work which was huge at the time, it went down in history as Sinatra’s worst-selling album ever. It just wasn’t Frank’s moment, and the same might be said of Paul Anka, who in the same period delivered ‘This Crazy World’.

This isn’t what social commentary sounded like at the turn of the 60s, according to the historians and Hollywood soundtrack assemblers, who have always been more inclined to reach for Dylan or The Doors to illustrate their imprerssions of social decay. Nevertheless, these slightly out-of-style vocal stars were recording and, in the case of Anka, writing topical tunes of their own. Music journalist Bob Stanley appreciates them, and if you do too, there’s plenty more.

Stanley, who also played in the band St Etienne, is an unabashed fan of this kind of melodic orchestral pop and in some ways this revisionist set is his way of reclaiming the era from the guitar-wielding rockers who tend to dominate history.

But for every sublime piece of sophisto-pop he uncovers there’s another track that’s just wrong, like The Brothers Four, a good decade past their sell-by date, with their reassuring version of John Lennon’s ‘Revolution’. Just what sort of revolution they had in mind remains unclear. A revolution in V-necked sweaters, perhaps?

While a lot of these tracks are fairly obscure, there are a few bona fide hits scattered among them. Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin & John’ and Ray Stevens’ ‘Mr Businessman’ both had serious airplay in New Zealand in the late 60s. And I was happy to be reminded that even Elvis Presely had his social commentary moment. ‘Clean Up Your Own Backyard’ was his follow-up to ‘In The Ghetto’ and while it wasn’t nearly as big, it opens this album in swampy southern style.