Tag Archives: Randy Newman

Background music


It was a long time ago when I first joined the large group of people who carried out all activities to the background of pop and rock music –  so maybe it is understandable that the habit has gradually lost its allure.

During the 1970s, a certain type of easy school or university homework was regularly done to the music of BBC Radio 1 or to whatever new record or cassette you had recently acquired. Partly so that you could do two things at one time. In later years, house-keeping activities like cleaning, cooking and ironing could be conveniently carried out to background music. Travelling in cars always needed the accompaniment of a radio or cassette.

By my late 20s in the early 1980s, I was still overwhelmingly a pop/rock music listener struggling to expand my listening into classical or jazz. Working in Toronto, Canada, during the winter of 1983-84, I had the Damascene experience of visiting a second-hand bookshop in the city and hearing an opera performance emanate gently from a local classical radio station. The music was obviously the preferred listening of the proprietor, but its particular blend of human voice and orchestral strings seemed the natural, appropriate sound to accompany the leisurely activity of moving around shelves and glancing through the pages of volumes which you had no real need of. I am pleased that similar classical music always seems to be playing in the background during my occasional visits to the multiple-spaced Bookshop in Wigtown.



College Street in Toronto in 2001. The Free Times Café was a popular haunt in 1984; happily it was still thriving in 2001 and now.


A striking and satisfying experience of background popular music was at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While we sat waiting in the former Gilded Balloon in the Cowgate for a comedy show to start (it was still dubbed “alternative” comedy in those days), some Aretha Franklin music came on the PA.  “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” etc… Here, too, as in the Toronto bookshop, it seemed like the absolutely correct aural backdrop: this time dark, smoky, sultry, sexy, edgy, of the past yet still modern. By coincidence, about 36 hours later and before another show at the Assembly Rooms in a totally different part of the city centre, Aretha Franklin was singing again. Many of the classic black artistes of the 1960s and 1970s were being accorded fresh attention around that time so perhaps that is the explanation of the mystery.  Aretha’s Greatest Hits was purchased soon afterwards and helped to fill a significant educational gap in my collection for several years.



Canongate in Edinburgh in 1994.


Nowadays restaurants of all sorts usually play a soundtrack of pop/rock music. Especially by the modern generation of artistes who are influenced by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack etc, and who encase those influences in the sweet comfortable audio blanket which modern technology allows and perhaps enforces. It was a happy surprise to have such a blanket individualised recently at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock by Randy Newman’s  “Dixie Flyer”: similarly relaxing, yes, but made fresher by his distinctive drawling vocals.

Just as the ordinary buyer can buy mood music compilations of classical, pop, rock and jazz, bars and restaurants can probably buy similar collections, perhaps sub-titled “mellow”, “funky”, “edgy”. It makes me yearn nostalgically for that vegetarian restaurant in York in 1998 which played classical music the whole evening, and especially the Beethoven symphony I had just become acquainted with….



York in 1998, possibly Bootham Bar?




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When an orchestra is more dramatic than an electric guitar


Orchestras have often been employed by pop and rock musicians either to give some old-world timbre and gravitas to the younger, lighter style, or to expand its structures into classical dimensions. The  results have frequently been unhappy or at least have not aged well. However, for me, there have been two musicians in the pop-rock genre  who have used orchestras exceptionally successfully.

The first is Randy Newman. I don’t think he is classically trained, but his uncles were film music composers so perhaps that is where his aptitude for orchestral arrangements comes from.  They certainly suited songs which were composed on piano and constructed in a story-telling style which seemed to belong to an earlier pre-rock era. Except for one feature : Newman’s lyrics, underlined by his rough-edged, low-pitch delivery, have an irreverence and irony, and often cynicism, which certainly belongs to the social and political shifts and doubts of the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years, Newman has become commercially successful by diversifying, in the family tradition, into film score composing, gaining Oscar nominations and awards. While gratified with this deserved fame, I do feel his more distinctive work came in his early albums.

A few examples from You Tube where the orchestration blends powerfully with song and voice :  “Sail Away”, where his uses his familiar lyrical device of the unreliable narrator, in this case  a slave trader encouraging Africans of the attractions of the New World;  “Louisiana 1927”, an account of the Mississipi river flood of that year, which seemed to gain a greater celebrity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and “In Germany Before the War” apparently based on a real-life serial killer.

The second maestro is almost totally forgotten. David Ackles recorded only four albums before he died in 1999.   My main acquaintance with him is through his third album American Gothic, which he actually recorded in the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra and which was produced by Bernie Taupin, whose career was zooming at the time as the regular lyricist of Elton John.

Part of my fondness for the album first time around derived from how it seemed to synthesise with other works with which I was becoming acquainted. The album sleeve included a homage to the famous painting by Grant Wood, and its subject matter evoked the poetry of Robert Frost and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

The album’s highlight is “Montana Song”: a story which combines both the personal and the epic,  with an air of the pre-1960s past which sounded even stranger when it was released in 1972 than it does now. 

Other favourites  are the bleak narrative of the title track and “The Ballad of the Ship of State”, a metaphor presumably about the Vietnam war. The Brecht and Weill influences of both these songs seem very strong to my ear now.

Although other samples of Ackles’ work on You Tube show blues and country influences more prominently, the Weill influence shows again, this time in a sparer form, on a track from the first album, “Laissez Faire” .


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Lehrer and some heirs


Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme to celebrate the 85th birthday of the now slightly forgotten American writer and performer of comic and satirical songs, Tom Lehrer.   I caught only the first part, but, happily, You Tube contains plenty of evidence of the wit and acerbity of Lehrer’s songs.

I was already familiar with “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, but a new acquaintance was “The Vatican Rag”, perhaps a reminder of the John F.Kennedy era when Catholicism was in the forefront of cultural life (although I know that Lehrer originally planned it as the Presbyterian Rag).

“Who’s Next” reminds you of Lehrer’s influence on the great Randy Newman, specifically Newman’s “Political Science” which the latter regularly used to introduce as “a song about American foreign policy”, while “National Brotherhood Week” recalls Newman’s “Rednecks”.

Lehrer’s piano-driven style certainly sounds to have been an influence on our own Victoria Wood in both songwriting and performance, even though her persona is much more amiable.

In my youth, 10CC – Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart – were famous for the verbosity of their song lyrics. For example, “Oh Effendi” covers Middle Eastern oil politics, The Dean and I” draws on  US 1950s high school iconography, while “Life is a Minestrone” is simply a collection of puns from food and geography.

However, listening again, I am reminded that their songs’ impact comes as much from musical invention, pulling sounds from earlier pop eras into their lush state-of-the-1970s-art multi-tracked arrangements, juxtaposing falsetto vocals and sweet harmonies  with chunky guitar riffs, often constructing mock-operatic epics.   You can hear now the lyrics lack the polish and precision which  Lehrer applied : Creme, Godley, Gouldman and Stewart seemed to be aware they were comfortably clearing a bar which few of their pop and rock contemporaries ever set very high.


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