He’d had so many hit songs and people could sit and listen to him all night. He didn’t have to do anything, he didn’t have to wiggle his legs, in fact he never even twitched, he was like marble. The only things that moved were his lips—even when he hit those high notes he never strained. He was quite a miracle, unique.
In the early 1960’s, there was Roy Orbison and Everybody Else.
Everybody Else loved formulas. Everyone Else believed in Henry Ford’s theories of interchangeable parts and standardization. Everybody Else applied those sciences to the manufacture and exploitation of teenage fads from surf music to car music to dance crazes. There was The Twist (plain and peppermint), The Mash (plain and monster), The Loco-motion, The Watusi. Novelty songs exploiting the same market also gained favor. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” sold over a million copies in only two months. R&B still showed signs of life, but rock and roll had lost its edge. All the great early rockers were either disgraced, dearly departed or had disappeared from the scene.
In the midst of this musical wasteland, a song of stunning originality appeared on the airwaves. Teenagers of the time heard the intro and probably thought that The Fleetwoods had come out with another of their soft harmonic hits . . . until they heard a voice like no other.
That voice belonged to Roy Orbison and the song was “Only the Lonely.” It is still one of the greatest male vocal performances in rock history and my personal favorite. I never play “Only the Lonely” in the background; that would be sacrilege. When the urge comes over me, I wrap my headphones around my ears, close my eyes and lose myself in the glorious flow of that heavenly voice with its incredible range.
“Only the Lonely” did nothing to improve the general quality of pop music of the era; its influence would have more impact on the upcoming wave of folk rockers and British invaders. The music gurus of the early 60’s were rather thick and unimaginative, their minds focused on duplication and replication rather than new directions. The problem they faced with Roy Orbison is that his music defied both convention and practicality. First, his songs didn’t follow the tried-and-true structure of hit pop songs. Second, finding singers with a four-octave range was a virtual impossibility. Generally, the moguls considered Roy Orbison’s success an outlier and went back to the manufacture of the tried-and-true.
The experience of The Beatles illustrates the Orbison challenge. Originally, “Please, Please Me” was written in the “Orbison style.” John Lennon specifically cited “Only the Lonely” as the primary source. When George Martin heard it, he told them to speed it up, and the rest is history. Had The Beatles been saddled with a producer with limited imagination and lousy ears, they might have released a pale imitation, a clunker instead of the sound of a new direction in pop music.
The moral of the story is: you can’t copy Roy Orbison, but you can learn from him.
The Playlist contribution to the ever-expanding list of Orbison compilations is an excellent starting point for those who want to begin to explore this fascinating artist. It contains most of his major hits and some minor hits that deserve more attention. The one complaint I have with this volume is that in a lame attempt to cater to people with no sense of history, the album opens with “You Got It” from the late 1980’s. Harrumph! This album should have opened with “Only the Lonely,” period. Some of the other songs are presented out of sequence as well. While this is a problem easily corrected by changing the track order on an iTunes playlist, I would condemn the people who made this decision to burn in the everlasting fires of hell if I believed in such a place. The progression of an artist’s development tells a story best told in a linear fashion; therefore, I’ve started my review with “Only the Lonely” and will now proceed to describe the evolution of Roy Orbison in its proper order.
“Running Scared”: Roy does Ravel! Using the rhythms of Bolero as a starting point, this song is also noteworthy for defying stereotypes and another superhuman vocal performance. First, when Everyone Else depicted males as macho guys who didn’t take any shit from sluts like Runaround Sue and whose primary goal was to tame the Wild One, Roy Orbison played himself: a shy, insecure young man terrified of not measuring up. In this case, he’s worried that his gal’s old flame will show up and steal her away, which only goes to show that the general perception of male-female relationships at the time was essentially Neanderthal: the girl would always choose the guy who could beat up the other guy (I could have said “the guy with the bigger club,” but I don’t think they had sex back then, so the metaphor would be inappropriate). Roy, with his thick glasses and weakling persona, lived in terror of getting sand kicked in his face by the buff beach stud, and that persona resonated with many boys and girls who probably struggled against the taboo forbidding men from showing vulnerability. The other thing that is remarkable is the vocal, best described in this passage from Roy’s Wikipedia article:
Orbison encountered difficulty when he found himself unable to hit the song’s highest note without his voice breaking. He was backed by an orchestra in the studio and Porter told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice. Fred Foster then put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks in an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, but in the third, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and sang the final high A naturally, so astonishing everyone present that the accompanying musicians stopped playing. On that third take, “Running Scared” was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”
“Love Hurts”: Well, the good kind hurts! Sadly, Roy was not an early proselytizer of BDSM, but he delivers another mesmerizing vocal anyway. This old Everly Brothers tune was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who, like Roy, loved to mess with the formula: verse/brief refrain/verse/brief refrain/bridge/half a verse/refrain. It may not be standard structure but it’s a great example of poetic economy creating a satisfying whole.
“Crying”: I’d rate this one #2 behind “Only the Lonely” and give him extra kudos for adding a post-chorus to the chorus. Roy was obviously not trained in proper composition, praise the lord, and his intuitive feel for the direction a song needs to take always evokes my deepest admiration. Though this vocal uses more falsetto than usual, and defies structural expectations, it still flows like long blonde hair in a soft breeze. Gorgeous.
“Dream Baby”: A cover song written by a country gal named Cindy Walker, Roy spices it up with a touch of soul and a tiny bit of macho moxie. The slightly peppy tempo is a nice break for him. Sometimes the arrangement sounds a little too canned, but not intolerably so.
“In Dreams”: It is impossible to separate this song from the sociopathic disturbance of a film called “Blue Velvet.” Dean Stockwell gives a thoroughly slimy performance lip-syncing Roy for the seriously demented Dennis Hopper, eerily echoing Charles Manson’s gross misinterpretation of “Helter Skelter.” I hate the movie for its pointless violence and distortion of sadomasochism, and I hate it all the more for ruining a lovely song with tremendous build and a paradigm-smashing structure of seven non-repeated movements. Fuck you, David Lynch . . . but I’ll play the damned video anyway.
“Blue Bayou”: Talk about idealization! Hot, humid, thick with mosquitoes and all forms of slimy creepy crawlers, the Louisiana bayous are the last place on earth I’d want to spend my time. In that sense, the song speaks to the enduring pull and allure of one’s home, even if it is a muggy, fish-stinking shithole filled with people speaking distorted French. I think Roy’s version communicates more homesickness than Linda Ronstadt’s take, but hers does have greater power.
“Borne on the Wind”: Roy switches songwriting partners, dumping Joe Melson for Bill Dees. Let’s just say that the partnership hasn’t quite gelled yet. The song mingles Ravel with flamenco in a horrid arrangement of Ray Conniff-like strings and angelic vocals. It might have worked for Jay and the Americans, but here it almost sounds like a spoof of the great man. Where’s “Leah,” or “Mean Woman Blues,” or “Candy Man?” Bad choice, guys.
“It’s Over”: This made it to #1 in the UK and #9 in the states, but damned if I know why. While Roy projects much more energy than on “Borne on the Wind” and the dramatic aspect of the song is there, those sappy strings and angelic choruses reappear like a bad dream. Perhaps it connected with the audience because it has a similar feel to the earlier operatic performances, but It leaves me flat. Gee, I really think it’s time for Roy to shake things up a bit and maybe do something other than the self-fulfilling prophecies of the guy who always winds up going home alone.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”: Roy gets the girl! Roy gets the girl! Even more surprising—because it’s difficult to conjure up an image of Roy Orbison without a big fat guitar—this is the first song on the album that starts with a guitar riff (and a memorable one to boot). Once again, Roy stands out from the crowd (at that time the British Invasion bands who were filling the airwaves) and knocks it way, way out of the park. Bob Dylan described Orbison’s songwriting style as “songs within songs,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” is a classic example. The internal dialogue that forms the narrative describes a range of emotions, from attraction to hope to despair to confidence. The structure is typically complex, with a double bridge and a beautifully theatrical, slightly varied extension of the verse as the pretty woman seems to be departing into the night. Up until the very end, every Orbison fan of the time just knew he had no fucking chance whatsoever of landing the lady and would wind up going home for a late night session with his right hand and a copy of Playboy.
“But wait!” The band goes quiet and all we hear is the steady drum beat, like a throbbing heart. “What do I see?” Then the riff returns, and in this context its rising notes sound like a question, or a faint sign of hope. “Is she walking back to me?” YES! Go for it, Roy, go for it!
Postscript: I don’t think much of the tiger growl, but I love how he belts out “Mercy!” after seeing this paragon of female beauty. I read that this was his typical outburst when he missed a note, but in this context, it’s pure libido. I often react that way when I see a hot bitch, which brings up a feature of bisexual women that is often overlooked. Guys! When you’re with a bi-chick, you don’t have to pretend that you’re not checking out the babes. She’ll be checking them out, too! There’s no harm in looking when your girl is looking, too! Free yourself from guilt and find a switch-hitting sweetheart!
“Goodnight”: I guess it was impossible for Roy to see himself as a lady-killer for long, so he gives us this song about a girl who cheats on him. Well, he deserved it, calling her a “woman child.” What the fuck is that? Too many Orbisonian conventions on this song, so skip it.
“(Say) You’re My Girl”: A song that definitely shows that this first stage of Roy Orbison’s career has run its course. Driven by a terrible beat that calls up images of go-go dancers on Hullabaloo, this tune shows that Roy is now a follower, and not a very good follower at that.
“You Got It”: His reputation revitalized by the ghoulish Mr. Lynch, his confidence restored by the experience of The Traveling Wilburys, Roy finds himself back on top with his first hit in twenty-four years. Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty played on this tune, and though it is a tad overproduced, the energy in Roy’s voice is unmistakably joyful. Good for him!
“She’s a Mystery to Me”: Written by that dreary narcissist Bono, Roy delivers a passable performance with a song that really doesn’t flow very well and leaves Roy in the low register for too long. Instead of a smooth build to the higher register where he has more room to maneuver, the transition is a flying leap. Roy can handle it, but it’s typical of the faux drama of a U2 song rather than the dramatic build of an Orbisonian opus.
Roy Orbison would die shortly after these releases, and I’m grateful that he did get to experience a comeback before he left us. A true American original on so many levels, he did not deserve to be lumped with the other forgettable performers of his heyday. Because he failed to fit the mold in so many ways, from his geeky looks to his anti-formulaic approach to composition, I find his success extraordinarily inspiring.
Although you’d never know it by listening to the vast quantity of formulaic crap that comes out today, Roy Orbison is evidence that sometimes, talent and originality count for something.