When I first started blogging, I filled the empty spaces between compelling new releases with historical reviews primarily covering Oasis and the four bands I heard most while growing up: The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. With the first four names on that list, I just randomly picked an album based on mood or time of the month, but for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to do The Stones’ albums in chronological order. Because I was primarily interested in exploring the work of the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, I skipped the first two albums and began with Out of Our Heads. I liked learning how The Stones developed as the years progressed, following straight lines and detours along the way. I remember feeling pretty good after reviewing Sticky Fingers, one of their best, and I looked forward to Exile on Main Street, an album that was unfamiliar to me because it was curiously missing from my father’s collection.
I hated it. Still do. I think it’s a fucking mess of an album, a background-music-party-disc created in a heroin-induced haze.
“Why didn’t you warn me, you bastard?” I screamed at my father.
“I thought you’d figure it out when you didn’t see it in my stacks. What the hell did I send you to college for, anyway?”
Exile on Main Street turned me off to the Stones for a long, long time, and I had no intention of ever reviewing another Stones record as long as I could still sashay over our lumpy planet.
Then my gorgeous, voluptuous, damn-I’d-like-to-fuck-her-right-now partner put Some Girls on her list of Desert Island Disks. It reminded me how much I hated ending The Stones’ series on a down note, so I decided to see if I could pick up where I left off. I listened to Goat’s Head Soup, and came away with feeling that “Angie” is the second-most overrated song in history, right after “Stairway to Heaven.” I took one look at the cover of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and said “Fuck that.” Black and Blue didn’t grab me either.
I should have trusted my partner’s instincts. Some Girls turned out to be WAY better than I expected, though my initial reaction was utter confusion.
The confusion arose from the consensus opinion that Some Girls is The Stones’ “punk album.” I listened to it and sure as hell didn’t hear anything that sounded like The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not one song clocks in at under three minutes, not one song is played at hyper-speed, and if we’re talking punk in 1978, where the hell is the anarchist rage? Punk is also characterized by intense, hyper-active drumming, and one look at Charlie Watts would tell you he’d be the last drummer on earth to go manic on the kit.
If punk did have an influence on Some Girls, it encouraged The Stones to get back to the basics. Some Girls is successful because The Stones rediscovered their sweet spot: cheeky R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll marked by a healthy dose of humor, with a touch of country thrown into the mix. The songs on Some Girls could have appeared on any of their albums released during their peak period, from Aftermath to Sticky Fingers (except for the psychedelic detour in Their Satanic Majesties Request). The Stones somehow managed to go backward while moving forward at the same time, for unlike a trip down Nostalgia Lane, Some Girls feels fresh, alive and immediate. Part of the reinvigorated sound came from Ronnie Wood’s ascension to full-member status, but most of the credit for the album’s compelling combination of looseness and sass goes to Mick Jagger, who rediscovered his writing and singing chops just in time to save The Stones from bargain bin irrelevance.
Jagger clearly has his mojo working on “Miss You,” a song that should have been subtitled, “Goin’ Home Revisited.” While that lengthy tune from Aftermath about unfulfilled libido seems disconnected from both time and space, “Miss You” features an insistent, libido-tickling rhythm that I could grind to all fucking night. Trapped in the context of the times, many listeners described this as a disco song, ignoring the simple fact that if disco had never been invented, The Stones still would have come up with a song like this sooner or later due to their passion for American soul and R&B. Instead of the over-the-top orchestration we hear in too many disco numbers, the layers in “Miss You” are a combination of blues harp (courtesy of Sugar Blue) and cool sax (by way of Mel Collins). Collins’ solo helps urbanize the piece, reinforcing the New York feel of the album. Meanwhile, Sugar Blue spends most of the song repeating the melodic refrain until the very end, when he finally steps into the spotlight and delivers a deep-soul solo that expresses the theme of emotional longing more effectively than words ever could. With Jagger on fire and Bill Wyman delivering one of his most active bass parts, “Miss You” sends a clear message that The Stones are in the groove and feeling it.
The title “When The Whip Comes Down” initially excited this kinky girl, but alas, the song has nothing to do with the more refined erotic arts. What it does have to do with is being gay, and while you might think my bisexuality might give me some magical insight into the psyche of the gay male narrator, the life experience of a bisexual woman is as far apart from the experience of a gay male as I am from celibacy. While pure lesbians tend to view bisexual girls with feelings ranging from distrust to hostility, most heterosexual men I’ve met are okay with bisexual women because they think they’re going to get a threesome in the bargain (NOT!). Gay males, on the other hand, are much more likely to get the shit beaten out of them by the same guys who want to get into the sack with my partner and me. Since I grew up a few blocks from The Castro, gay men are a part of my definition of “normal,” which has sometimes blinded me to the shit they have to deal with—it’s unthinkable to me, so it takes a while to register.
Here Jagger conjures up a gay dude who abandons L. A. for the Big Apple to become a “garbage collector,” a euphemism, not an occupation. While the move raised his status from “faggot” to “gay,” the attitudes of the populace are anything but an upgrade (“Wherever I go they treat me just the same”). While we all have to sacrifice something in order to make a living, our hero faces more workplace hazards than the average moke:
Yeah I’m going down Fifty-Third street
And they spit in my face
I’m learning the ropes
Yeah I’m learning a trade
The East River truckers
Are churning with trash
I’ve got so much money
That I spend so fast
Having been spat on by homophobes a couple of times while out with my girl, I’m befuddled by the hero’s willingness to turn the other cheek and write it off as part of the deal . . . but this was 1978, less than ten years after The Stonewall Riots and only five years removed from the change in the DSM that ended the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder. To make a living in such an environment, he is forced to work the streets, where the men who are “churning with trash” seek someone to relieve their secret burden:
Yeah, some called me garbage
When I was sweeping on the street
I never roll
Oh I never cheat
And I’m filling a need, yeah
I’m plugging a hole
My mama’s so glad
I ain’t on the dole
Both buyer and seller are part of the garbage cycle, and like the movement’s adoption of the formerly pejorative word “queer,” our hero wears his “garbage man” status like a badge. Economics student Mick Jagger even assigns him a sense of legitimacy by giving him credit for his sensitivity to the laws of supply and demand with the fabulous pun, “I’m plugging a hole.” But even with his stellar work ethic and commitment to quality customer service, he’s still a homosexual in a heterosexually-biased culture and the whip is always going to come down . . . again, again and again. A damned courageous song for its time, “When the Whip Comes Down” features a non-stop relentless attack with dual guitars and as much energy as Charlie Watts can muster. It’s still not punk, but hey, it’s The Stones rocking out, so who the fuck cares?
Next up is the cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination.” I approached this song with great trepidation, fearing another lame copycat attempt at the Motown sound as in “My Girl.” My trepidation vanished about four lines into the song when it hit me that the arrangement was pure garage, just a bunch of guys in the studio playing around with a song that caught their fancy. Stripping the song down to its essentials and playing it at a faster tempo actually allows the listener to better appreciate the melody and chord progression of the song, and while The Temptations version will always remain the gold standard, I have to give The Stones credit for revealing the fundamental structure that made “Just My Imagination” a great song in the first place.
Some Girls wouldn’t be a great Stones album unless they pissed somebody off, and with the title track they wound up pissing off both the usual suspects (feminists and Christians) as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his dual roles of civil rights activist and shepherd to the flock. Before we get into all that hoo-hah, I want to say I love the feel of this song. Most of it is a two-chord pattern with plenty of drone, a mesmerizing combination that allows the three guitarists (Jagger included) and Sugar Blue a lot of latitude with fills and responses. The original cut ran twenty-three minutes, largely because of its vast improvisational potential. That potential is what put The Stones in hot water with the Purity Police, as Jagger improvised the most offensive lines in the song.
We all know that Jagger and Richard were big league Johnny Appleseeds, offhandedly shooting their wads in various locales making up a large part of the planetary landmass. We also know that many women were desperate to fuck rock stars, and while some really thought they were in love with their idols, we can assume that the majority of the women plunked by The Stones were probably motivated by pecuniary considerations. Fucking groupies is often a mutual exploitation arrangement where both parties use the other to get what they want: sex, money, property, notoriety, whatever. The evidence from various interviews indicates that members of The Rolling Stones had indeed been engaged in sexual escapades with groupies, that they fucked available women wherever they could find them on multiple world tours, and had no discriminatory restrictions related to race or color. They were equal opportunity fuckers, and for all I know and with the flurry of scientific advances in the study of erectile performance, they may still be.
What The Stones do in “Some Girls” is simplify their experience by using stereotypes, always a dangerous practice, but not all that much different from what The Beach Boys did in “California Girls.” The first set of stereotypes in “Some Girls” are a catalog of the different manifestations of female greed in various cultures (French girls want Cartier, Italian girls want cars, American girls want everything in the world). These are pretty tame accusations; the first two are backhanded compliments (French and Italian girls are style-conscious, well, duh) and the third is a teeny dig at American materialism. We then learn that English girls are prissy (another stereotype that has the positive connotation of “selective”) and that white girls are funny and sometimes annoying (as are all girls). I can’t see any of these targeted groups calling for a Stones boycott based on such lightweight jabs.
Then they clearly cross a big red line:
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They’re really such a tease
You never know quite what they’re cookin’
Inside those silky sleeves
Whoa, dude! I’m hearing that you think black girls are primitive animals who still hear the jungle cry and can’t control their instincts . . . and that you’ve been watching too many movies depicting Asian women as “devious Orientals.” What? Say that again! “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.” Hold that thought . . . let me scan the lyrics for supporting evidence . . . no, I’m not seeing anything there. Sorry . . . I missed that, Mick—could you repeat that please? “If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad.” Getting a little touchy there, are we? Okay, let’s accept your argument that you were just trying to have fun and you didn’t think people would be stupid enough to believe you meant what you said. Then why did you later change the lyrics in live performances to eliminate those lines? And while I have you here, why did you change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for Ed Sullivan? You’re just going to stare at me, Mick? Why can’t you just admit that you blew it by not providing a stronger context and move on? Hey, I defended you over “Under My Thumb,” I stood up for you after “Stupid Girl” and I even went to bat for you on “Brown Sugar.” But Mick, this time . . . if satire was your intent, you really should have done a better job of establishing the narrator as a blind, insensitive jerk right from the start. Maybe if you’d moved that verse with the lines “Some girls give me children/I only made love to her once” we would have understood we were dealing with an irresponsible asshole and heard the lines through that perspective . . . if that’s really what you intended.
Intent is pretty clear in “Lies,” a dual-guitar ass-kicking ripper of a song where The Stones rock for no other purpose except to rock. Flipping over to Side Two, we get a nice change of pace with the hilarious, “Far Away Eyes,” a pure country number marked by Ronnie Wood’s outstanding pedal steel guitar and Mick Jagger’s approximation of a hicksville accent. Speaking of stereotypes, naïve people the world over believe that California is a place of sand, sun and liberal mores, but there’s a good-sized chunk of California where it feels like more like Oklahoma than Malibu. “Far Away Eyes” satirizes hick culture and its strange mixture of fervent Christianity and loose sexual morals, presented here as relatively harmless, but this was long before anyone realized that a group of stupid, superstitious people could coalesce to elect an equally stupid blatant racist to the most powerful job in the world:
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this
That I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find . . .
Of course such a loser wants a girl with “far away eyes,” because stupid is as stupid gets.
It’s back to kick-ass mode with “Respectable,” a song Jagger described as a “Punk meets Chuck Berry number.” We’ll ignore the attempt at relevance-oriented marketing and simply congratulate The Stones for giving us another number that hauls serious ass. It’s followed by the Keith Richards confessional, “Before They Make Me Run,” which deals with his legal and personal struggles with heroin addiction. Keith can’t sing worth shit, but the song has a certain vulnerability to it that makes it charming, and Ronnie Wood’s steel pedal guitar sounds even better in a rock context.
Some Girls features one of the strongest finishes of any Stones album, beginning with the semi-slow number, “Beast of Burden.” Keith Richards came to the studio with a shell of a song and relied on the rest of The Stones to flesh it out. The prerequisite for such an approach is the musicians have to be able to easily slip into the groove, and this is where the remarkable chemistry between Richards and Ronnie Wood pays off huge dividends. There is an instrumental-only take on YouTube that I absolutely adore and highly recommend. You’ll hear Keith on the right channel and Ronnie on the left, but what you may not notice (because the guitar work will immediately draw you in) is Charlie Watts playing the base rhythm with the clear punctuation the guitarists need as a foundation for their explorations. The musical dialogue between the two guitarists as they trade off lead and rhythm roles and integrate harmonic solos into the mix is a fascinating journey—you can hear them sensing each other out, one offering a possible direction and the other responding almost immediately to the new musical idea. In many ways, I prefer the instrumental version to the original, but I do think Jagger does a damn good job with the emotional content as he sings at the higher end of his range. The lyrics that pop out at me are those that define the “real man” paradigm—men are expected to be hard enough, rough enough and rich enough, and anything less than enough simply won’t do. Putting aside the double entendre of “hard enough” for a moment, I’ll point out that the paradigm is the source of all toxic masculinity. The men who commit acts of domestic violence don’t act out of a position of power but from feelings of inadequacy about those three qualities, and lacking any kind of self-awareness, blame the broad for all their troubles. In this song, the narrator is a gentler sort of fellow unlikely to resort to violence, but it’s still tragic that he has to live with perceived inadequacy because of a dated philosophy of what it means to be a man. I also hope that those who whine about The Stones’ allegedly unrelenting sexism will take note that Jagger placed the gent in the position of supplicant, begging for attention from a woman who holds all the cards. Power in relationships is not always dictated by gender or worn-out rules of behavior.
We end with my favorite song on Some Girls, the marvelously manic “Shattered.” We’ll get to the New York-in-the-70’s aspect of the song in a sec, but there’s one tiny passage I can’t restrain myself from singing at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, because it is the relentless message of my inner consciousness bursting through the layers of bullshit I wear as I go about the world trying to make a living:
Work and work for love and sex
Ain’t you hungry for success, success, success, success
Does it matter?
Yes, I work and work for love and sex and THAT matters. I have no hunger for success and that DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL. Work leaves me in tatters! Shattered! Let me the fuck out!
Back to the real story . . . Jagger says he wrote the lyrics in a New York taxi, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. The Stones had been spending more time in New York City during the 70’s, and the Big Apple of the 70’s was nothing like the sanitized and safe version of New York that exists today. The city was in deep financial doo-doo, the infrastructure was falling apart, crime was commonplace and tensions between the various ethnic groups and political factions were at their peak. I recommend the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mailer if you want to learn more. Note that Mailer’s story of New York’s decline is integrated with the ascension of the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, so if you’re not into baseball, forget about it, and by the way, I don’t want to know you.
Jagger’s sprechgesang commentary on the state of Gotham is expressed with sincerely-felt disbelief at the craziness of it all: how can a place with so much wealth and power seemingly self-destruct before one’s eyes?
Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street
And look at me, I’m in tatters, yeah
I’ve been battered, what does it matter . . .
. . . Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown
What a mess—this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
It should be noted that The Stones didn’t flee New York in response to the decaying environment. Even in its worst times, there is no place on earth as endlessly compelling as New York, whether you like it or not.
What makes the song so compelling is the combination of Jagger’s maniacal vocal, the simple but remarkably effective two-chord riff, and the haunting, almost random appearance of low-voice vocals in the background (shattered, shay-oobehy). The feeling of a song unstuck in time and space is intensified when Charlie Watts does a virtual disappearing act and limits his activities to the high-hat—when that happens, I feel like the lights have suddenly gone out and I’ve lost all connection to reality. Brilliantly arranged and expertly performed, “Shattered” is a remarkable expression of the modern just-beneath-the-surface madness we all feel as we make our way through the inexplicable worlds we have created.
While I’ve think they’ve taken the farewell tour thing way too far for way too long, Some Girls is a piece of The Stones at their best—rocking, rolling and riffing with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. It ain’t punk in terms of genre, but as my father will righteously claim with all his heart and soul, The Stones were the original punks, with a stellar record of defying the stricter social norms of the time.
And though Mick Jagger is now Sir Michael, had nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher and still supports the Tories, he still had his moments—and Some Girls contains some of his best.
Sometimes Wikipedia authors let their enthusiasm for a subject run wild . . .
The 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of music that continued to protest labor, race, and class issues. Protest songs continued to increase their profile over this period . . . (article, “Protest Songs in the United States”).
To support this swiss cheese theory of a “rise” in protest songs, the author cites Woody Guthrie, The Weavers and Josh White. Woody Guthrie made it to the Billboard Top 100 once in his lifetime, with “This Land Is Your Land” landing at #29 in 1940. The Weavers did indeed have the best-selling single of 1950—that stirring protest song, “Good Night, Irene.” And despite support from Eleanor Roosevelt, Josh White’s influence on music was pretty much limited to folk circles and Greenwich Village denizens during this period.
A naïve person could read that article and assume that protest songs had a significant influence on the American public during WWII and well into the Eisenhower era. The truth is that none of those artists received the recognition they deserved until the American Folk Revival peaked in the 1960’s. The market for protest songs in the 1940’s was largely an underground affair.
There were certainly plenty of opportunities to use music to protest injustice and violence in wartime America, from The Japanese Internment to segregation (at home and in the armed forces) to the failure of the government to respond to the systematic annihilation of Jews and other undesirables in the Third Reich. There was simply no audience for that kind of music. After spending their energies during the 30’s trying to survive the worst economic calamity in American history, the populace now had to deal with a two-front war and the deprivations associated with the rationing of meat, tires, gasoline and sugar. When the family huddled around their charmingly bulky radios after finishing off what passed for an evening meal, they wanted to relax and have a few laughs tuning into The Chase & Sanborn Program with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, the mildly humorous Fibber McGee and Molly (sponsored by Johnson’s Wax) or comedians like Jack Benny (The Jell-O Program) and Bob Hope (Pepsodent Program). And when it was time for a little music, well . . . here are the Billboard’s #1 songs during the war years of 1941-1945:
- 1941: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” Glenn Miller
- 1942: “Moonlight Cocktails,” Glenn Miller
- 1943: “Paper Doll,” The Mills Brothers
- 1944: “Swinging on a Star,” Bing Crosby
- 1945: “Rum and Coca-Cola,” The Andrews Sisters
Wow! Americans spent the war years jumping on trains just to eat their ham and eggs in Carolina, getting drunk, chasing skirts, carrying moonbeams home in a jar and getting drunk all over again! Sorry I missed it!
I’ve always found it weird that many of the songs during the Depression and World War II seemed unusually happy. Consider this 1944 juxtaposition: stream Saving Private Ryan, skip ahead to the part when the soldiers start jumping out of the landing craft and onto the D-Day beaches, then mute the soundtrack and play “Swinging on a Star” as you watch the Nazis rake all those poor young guys with blistering machine gun fire.
The blame for the era’s cognitive dissonance rests with one man: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest marketer in American history. He exuded boundless optimism in his speeches, in his smile and in his “jaunty” look with a cigarette holder clenched firmly between those smiling teeth. Depression? No! “Happy Days Are Here Again!” From a purely statistical perspective, his administration didn’t make much economic progress until the war, but just listening to FDR give one of his fireside chats could make you believe that you never had it better. He addressed the American people as “my friends,” played the “we’re all in this together” card to perfection and made morale on the home front a major priority. During the war, Americans had full access to lighthearted radio programs, sappy and patriotic movies and star-depleted major league baseball. These signs of normalcy helped Americans cope with the rationing and the persistent stream of war-related bulletins that occasionally interrupted Fibber and Molly. When Stan the Man is still belting the ball with authority and Abbott and Costello are still providing the laughs, well, hey, things ain’t so bad, are they?
After listening to a large sampling of the popular music of the era, I found that nearly all of it falls neatly into two categories: happy and sad. Rooseveltian philosophy stressed optimism, so that explains happy. But even the all-powerful FDR couldn’t stop people feeling sad about missing the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters shipped off to distant battlefields, so “sad” became a permissible way to let Johnny know that Jane was still waiting for him under the apple tree. In a backhanded way, “sad” boosted morale.
Anger, however, was strictly verboten. Any expression of the serious social problems that afflicted America during the war was off the table. This restriction allowed Americans to dance through those dark days in a happy state of cognitive dissonance as they fought a war against racism while still cherishing racism at home.
No one captured the ethos of American life during this era better than The Andrews Sisters.
Born to a Greek father with an anglicized last name and a Norwegian-American mother in the small town of Mound, Minnesota (twenty miles west of Minneapolis), the three girls (LaVerne, Maxene and Patty) began singing together when Patty (the youngest) reached the ripe old age of seven. They patterned their act after The Boswell Sisters, a superb and influential vocal group steeped in the music of New Orleans, who were very popular in the early 1930’s.
The Boswells’ classical training and experience working with jazz and blues legends gave them a decided edge in terms of understanding music theory; hence, their music is surprisingly sophisticated. As for the Andrews Sisters, only LaVerne had studied piano and knew how to read music, so she took on the task of teaching her younger siblings how to sing harmony. To to keep things simple, she focused on one particular feature you hear in a good chunk of the Boswells’ music: close harmony.
I know how my readers hate it when I delve into musical theory, but it’s a rather important point here. Close harmony means the notes used for harmony are as close as possible to each other on the scale, generally within the same octave. Open harmony takes a leap to another octave. If you have a guitar handy, form a C major chord (it was probably the first chord you learned). The close harmony would consist of simultaneously plucking the C, E and G notes on the fifth, fourth and third strings. You would create a simple open harmony by using your fingers to pluck C on the fifth string, the open G string and the open high E string all at the same time. If you don’t have a guitar, just listen to The Everly Brothers and early Beatles records—most of the harmonies you hear sit within the octave.
Nearly all of The Andrews Sisters’ work features the girls singing in close harmony: LaVerne singing the low note, Maxene taking the middle and Patty soaring on high (and also singing lead). The harmonies they created are uniformly marvelous and the timbres of their individual voices blended extraordinarily well together. Still, I doubt they could have become one of the most popular acts of the era by relying on harmony alone: barbershop quartets had been passé for years when The Andrews Sisters came along.
What made The Andrews Sisters special was the attention they paid to rhythm and dynamics. By listening to The Boswells, they developed a strong appreciation of the importance of rhythm in vocal music. Most importantly, they transferred that awareness to the musical context of the time—the big swing bands. Those big bands were driven by the horn section, and the sisters learned to mimic the tone, dynamics and sensibility of the horns, making the transitions between the vocal and instrumental segments of a song sound natural and seamless. The sisters also had to ramp up the energy to compete with the dynamics of the big bands, who provided more energetic accompaniment than the small combos who supported The Boswells—and if there’s one quality that defines The Andrews Sisters, it’s “infectious energy.”
Their cultural timing was also perfect. The Andrews Sisters reflected the never-say-die optimism of the period and saw it as their job to lift the spirits of Allied forces. They traveled to war zones and hospitals, made special recordings for Allied forces (V-Discs) and performed regularly at stateside canteens patronized by servicemen. The sisters also hawked war bonds to those on the homefront and regularly performed on Armed Forces Radio, reminding the boys on the battlefield that the good old USA with all its lonely, horny girls would still be around when they finished the job.
They filled their role as morale-builders naturally and enthusiastically, for The Andrews Sisters were anything but rebels. They were chaperoned by their parents on many of their stateside tours, even after passing legal age (Maxene’s marriage to their manager was kept a secret from mom and pop). They bought into the cultural norms of the time, hook, line and sinker. The only piece of theirs I could find that comes close to a protest song is “One Meat Ball,” an old folk tune that proved to be Josh White’s most popular song. The difference between The Andrews Sisters’ version and Josh White’s is galactic—the sisters are accompanied by a loud, brassy band and their vocal expresses zero empathy for the poor guy who can only afford a single meatball for dinner. Josh White’s versions are all quiet, haunting and empathetic—you feel the guy’s embarrassment as he is humiliated by the waiter and the mocking crowd.
The obliviousness The Andrews Sisters occasionally displayed generally tracked the obliviousness of American culture at the time. Some of their songs display a cheerful, patronizing racism, and none of their songs question the subordinate role of the female in American society. It’s hard to single them out for those retrospective sins, so when they sing something that gives me pause, I’ll point it out as an example of garden variety American insensitivity and move on.
So, yeah, let’s move on, because regardless of their lack of social consciousness, I love listening to these girls sing!
“Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” (1937): Their first big hit also had the distinction of becoming the first gold record for an all-female vocal group. Victory!
Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin had translated the song into English from the original Yiddish and persuaded The Andrews Sisters to give it a shot. Though they had been on the Vaudeville circuit for a while, serving as primary support for the family after their father’s restaurant failed during the Depression, the sisters were still relative unknowns waiting for the big break. With nothing to lose, they stepped into the recording studio and hit a home run on their first time at bat.
The original features a long, slow vocal preamble, a common feature in popular music of the era designed to establish the song’s basic premise. The arrangement used by The Andrews Sisters dispenses with the preamble, allowing Vic Schoen and His Orchestra to start swinging from the get-go. The use of a minor key grabs your attention immediately, setting the stage for Patty to deliver the opening lines in her appealing voice reflecting genuine feeling:
Of all the boys I’ve known, and I’ve known some
Until I first met you, I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me
You’re really swell, I have to admit you
Deserve expressions that really fit you
And so I’ve racked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me
The chorus follows, giving millions of radio listeners their first taste of the exquisite harmonies that would define The Andrews Sisters:
Bei mir bist du schoen, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schoen means you’re grand
I’ll tell you right now—if a guy walked up to me in a bar and said, “Baby, you’re grand,” I’d fuck him in a New York minute. It’s such a high-class compliment. On the flip side, “Baby, you’re really swell” would earn him hysterical laughter and the bum’s rush.
The pairing of The Andrews Sisters with Vic Schoen was a marriage made in heaven that would last throughout their most successful period. Vic directs the band to give it just enough gas to keep things jazzed but always eases up enough so the listener can delight in those gorgeous voices. The only quibble I have with the song is the shift to the major key in the closing line—it sounds forced, like the vows at a shotgun wedding.
“Hold Tight (Want Some Sea Food)” (1938): I love the fuck out of this song! I’d give anything to perform it on New Year’s Eve at the annual family bash but the two broads closest to me both say, “Ixnay, baby.” Maman thinks the song is silly, and while my Spanish lover nails the trills, she gets hung up on the sheer speed of The Andrews Sisters’ delivery. But damn, it’s such a great song to sing! I mean, who wouldn’t want to step up to the mike when you’ve got a set of lyrics like these in your back pocket:
Choo choo to Broadway foo Cincinnati
Don’t get icky with the one two three
Life is just so fine on the solid side of the line, rip
Hold tight, hold tight, a-hold tight, hold tight
Want some sea food mama
Shrimps and rice they’re very nice
The “Fododo-de-yacka-saki” is a poor substitute for the trilled r’s the girls use . . . its more like foo-drrrrrrrr-yacka saki, sung in perfect harmony. So—not only is it fun to sing, but the frequent trills give the tongue a nice workout that can seriously enhance your oral sex skills!
Speaking of pussy, I was shocked to learn that Sidney Bechet’s original version had been attacked by unnamed “guardians of public morals” for its “suggestive lyrics.” I certainly didn’t see or hear any suggestiveness in The Andrews Sisters’ version, but I learned that their version had been “cleaned-up.” Aha! So I went back and dug out the original, listened to it a few times and felt even more puzzled: “Where’s the sex?” I confirmed its alleged presence in Christian Bethune’s biography of Bechet, where he mentions “paroles à double sens.” Double entendres, heh? How can a song about a passion for dining on fish . . .
Hey, wait a minute! It’s the old “pussy smells like fish” tale! Well, shit, anything can smell like fish if you don’t do something to stop the bacteria from biting! I’ve licked a lot of clits in my time, and have tasted everything from cinnamon to banana, but never mackerel! What the hell do you think a bidet is for—soaking your feet?
Oh, I forgot. Americans don’t have bidets (we did, because my mother wouldn’t put out until my father installed one, but we’re a weird family). I wonder what women used back in the day to “freshen up?”
Holy fuck! I found a Smithsonian article that claimed that women of the era not only used Lysol to flush their twats, but as a birth control method! Hundreds of women died from Lysol poisoning! On a doctor’s advice, no less! Didn’t the women of that era know that they had two other available orifices for receiving sperm deposits? I guess the moral guardians blocked proper sexual training as well.
While I try to clear my head of the image of a broad in a permanent wave shoving a turkey baster loaded with Lysol up her snatch, listen to this fabulous performance supported by a bright, snappy arrangement from Vic and the boys:
“Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” (1940): The warm-up number for the much more popular “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was recorded the same year by Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and the boogie-woogie experts of the time, Will Bradley and His Orchestra. Commander Cody revisited the song in the 70’s, but the best version of them all is Ella Fitzgerald’s take on Get Happy! from the late 50’s. The Andrews Sisters’ version comes up a bit short, largely because the tempo is a little too slow and their phrasing is too precise. The best part comes when Patty takes the solo, where she beautifully integrates bends and glides that add a little heat to the recording.
“I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time” (1941): What makes this sickly sweet, sappy, sentimental and sexist recording palatable are the limitations of the era’s recording technology that clearly identifies it as a 78. It was already an old song when The Andrews Sisters recorded it, and listening to it seventy-seven years after the fact gives you that peculiar, warm feeling you have when you’re browsing through an antique store—a feeling that combines charm, amazement and arrogant pity for people who didn’t know any better. Sung from the woman’s point of view, all I know is this was one dumb broad thoroughly indoctrinated in the romantic myths of the time:
I’ll be with you in apple blossom time,
I’ll be with you to change your name to mine.
One day in May
I’ll come and say:
“Happy the bride that the sun shines on today!”
What a wonderful wedding there will be,
What a wonderful day for you and me
Church bells will chime
You will be mine
In apple blossom time.
Once again, Patty adds a dash of spice in her solo; when she sings “I’ll come and say to you” she sounds eerily like Marilyn Monroe in tease mode. I think it’s nice that Patty hints of a future more earthy and satisfying than parading around in a ridiculously expensive dress designed to be worn by an alleged virgin only once, but I’m going to place this piece into the horror genre and move on . . . quickly.
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (1941):
Pearl Harbor was almost a year away, but isolationist sentiments had begun to crumble after Hitler’s tanks made mincemeat out of the French. FDR took advantage of the shift in public opinion to push a peacetime draft through Congress, and on October 29, 1940, Secretary of Navy Frank Knox was blindfolded so he could draw the first number in the military lottery without cheating.
Hey! That guy in the back looks like Joseph Goebbels! I imagine he felt pretty comfortable with all those Aryans in the room.
Meanwhile, Tin Pan Alley got to work churning out songs with a patriotic bent, keeping them light enough so as not to offend the people who still thought Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy. This particular song was first introduced in the also light-hearted Abbott & Costello flick Buck Privates, making it eligible for nomination as Best Song at the Academy Awards, where it lost out to “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
As a French citizen, I appreciate the sentiment, but really, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” should have won in a landslide.
Now that they had a few years of recording experience under their girdles, The Andrews Sisters really nailed this one. The slight awkwardness you hear in “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” has vanished completely as the girls put their hearts, souls and boundless energies into their performance. The high-speed harmonies are seamless and the rhythm in the phrasing is full of remarkable syncopation. Once again, Patty Andrews is absolutely amazing, dropping out of the flow to buzz like a bee and growl like a tenor sax. The dynamics are marvelous, with the sisters raising the energy a notch in the last verse and closing out the song in a glorious crescendo. Bette Midler did a nice job with her cover, but her intent was nostalgic and had no grounding in the reality of her times. The Andrews Sisters were there, caught up in the excitement of a country preparing for war and committing themselves to morale-building long before the first American shot was fired. Their version will always have a sincerity and immediacy that can never be matched.
“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (1942): What was it with Americans, apples and music? Didn’t they have other kinds of fruit trees? I know that certain fruits like oranges and bananas were hard to come by during the war, but why not sing about a pear tree or peach blossoms? Apples have long been considered mystical and forbidden fruits, so what were all those apples doing in supposedly Christian America? Were they really sitting under the apple tree, or doing something naughty and nice?
With war a reality and millions of men heading for Europe and the Pacific, it was a time for sad and sweet goodbyes, long kisses before the train pulled out of the station and endless promises to be true to one another. This piece, derived from a 19th Century English folk song, is all about those promises . . . to not sit under the apple tree, to not go walking down lovers’ lane, and especially not to show off all your charms in someone else’s arms. I can’t believe that women of the era were naïve enough to believe that such exhortations would keep Johnny’s prick in his pants during a war, and it’s heartening to know that some women who stayed home managed to get a little action themselves while waiting for Johnny to come marching home—action with both men and women. The book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold explored lesbianism during WWII, and the authors found that the shortage of male partners didn’t stop the girls from having a good time:
The narrators of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold felt that the important effect of the war was that it gave more independence to all women, thereby making lesbians more like other women and less easy to identify. Since all women were able to wear pants to work and to purchase them in stores off the rack, butches who only wore pants in the privacy of their home in the 1930s could now wear them on the streets . . . The changes associated with World War II for women in general and specifically for lesbians manifested themselves in the proliferation of lesbian bars and the extensive social life that developed around them. Many straight women even went out to the bars for an evening of fun; some of who became regulars and developed temporary lesbian relationships until their husbands returned from the war. (from outhistory.org).
The Andrews Sisters were confirmed heterosexuals, so their music is strictly G-rated and consistent with American myths about fidelity in relationships. But you know, I think it would have been nice for Johnny to come marching home, straight into a ménage à trois.
“God bless America!” cries Johnny, his pecker rigidly standing at attention.
“Shoo-Shoo Baby” (1943): This is a more interesting take on the goodbye song, with the sailor headed overseas gruffly dismissing his babe’s irrational feminine emotions, because, you know, boys don’t cry:
Seems kinda tough now
To say goodbye this way
But papa’s gotta be rough now
So that he can be sweet to you another day
Bye, bye, bye baby
Don’t cry baby
Shoo, shoo, shoo baby
Your papa’s off to the seven seas
It’s best to forget the lyrics normalizing female subservience and concentrate on the music. The preamble is notoriously sentimental, as Patty sets up the listener to expect yet another sad song about the boys going overseas. However, the intro proves to be a ruse, as the sisters open the song proper with blue note harmonies that transform sweet into sexy. What follows is an elaborate vocal arrangement cleverly mixing harmonies and vocalizations. The best part of the song is when the sisters use the shh sound to cue the band to lower the volume while simultaneously creating a syncopated high-hat effect to jazz up the rhythm. The softer passage ends with Patty shifting to trumpet mode, blaring the word “QUIET!” before launching into a near-scat vocal riff that dissolves into the chorus. “Shoo-Shoo Baby” shows The Andrews Sisters at their peak, playfully using vocals to enhance the rhythm while displaying complete command of the possibilities within the harmonic range.
“Rum and Coca-Cola” (1944): Hey! Remember Morey Amsterdam? You know, the guy who played Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show? Well, in addition to his talent with one-liners, he was also a practiced plagiarist! I’ve always thought it wise for entertainers and athletes to have an extra job on the side in case their dreams of superstardom don’t pan out.
Unfortunately for Buddy—er, Morey—his entrepreneurial efforts came up a cropper when the original author of “Rum and Coca-Cola” called him on his bullshit and sued for copyright infringement, depleting the Amsterdam checking account to the tune of $150,000. Not exactly chump change.
It gets worse. “Rum and Coca-Cola” was originally a . . . protest song! The true author, a Trinidadian gent who went by the ironic moniker of Lord Invader, wrote the song to protest the treatment of the islanders by American soldiers. Lord Invader accused the Yanks of using their comparatively ample stash of U. S. dollars to encourage women to make big bucks through prostitution, thereby destroying marriages and disrupting island culture.
Like Louis in Casablanca, I’m shocked—shocked!—that Americans could stoop so low in the pursuit of pussy.
Morey made things worse (and hung himself in the process) by eliminating all that unpleasant stuff about Yankee exploitation except for two lines at the end of the chorus: “Both mother and daughter/Working for the Yankee dollar.” The only possible explanation for keeping those lines is that Amsterdam’s pride in the power of the Almighty Dollar canceled out the microscopically small guilt he may have felt about men using power to exploit women . . . mothers and daughters.
It gets even worse. “Rum and Coca-Cola” was banned by several radio stations—not because of its celebration of female exploitation—but because a.) it mentioned an alcoholic beverage and b.) it gave Coca-Cola free advertising. This is called “multi-faceted hypocrisy,” or “layers of bullshit.” It didn’t matter—in spite of the partial ban (or because of it)—“Rum and Coca-Cola” was the best-selling song of 1945. Americans have always looked down at all those brown and black people who live south of the border, and I’m sure that the millions who bought and danced to this record found the song both humorous and validating.
So what did The Andrews Sisters have to say about their participation in cultural denigration? Patty claimed they recorded the song in a rush without thinking much about it. Long after the fact, Maxine (she finally changed her first name to reflect the standard spelling) gave a more thoughtful response: “The rhythm was what attracted the Andrews Sisters to ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’. We never thought of the lyric. The lyric was there, it was cute, but we didn’t think of what it meant; but at that time, nobody else would think of it either, because we weren’t as morally open as we are today and so, a lot of stuff—really, no excuses—just went over our heads.”
At least the sisters were honest about their ignorance and realized the errors of their culturally-compliant ways. As for the exploiters in uniform . . . they didn’t learn a goddamn thing, and continued to act from an arrogant sense of entitlement . . . in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and even with their own sisters-in-arms.
In the interests of social justice, here’s the Lord Invader original:
“Near You” (1947): I’m not sure why the compilers messed with the timeline here, but we’re now in postwar America, where everyone is pissed off about a nationwide housing shortage and no one thinks Harry Truman can possibly get re-elected. The Andrews Sisters celebrated the return of massively horny GI’s with this cuddly little number about happy couples. The song lacks the pzazz of their wartime numbers but meets the primary requirement for a hit song during the postwar years: you can whistle it.
“I Wanna Be Loved” (1950): The postwar version of The Andrews Sisters featured more songs with Patty taking the lead, a development that led to some bitterness between the siblings. Patty dominates this track, with LaVerne and Maxine joining the party late in the game. What’s amazing about this performance is that you’ll rarely find a song in the pre-rock area where a female vocalist so clearly proclaims she’s a bitch in heat:
I feel like acting my age
I’m past the stage of merely turtle-doving
(Be careful, be careful what you do)
I’m in no mood to resist
And I insist the world owes me a loving
I wanna be thrilled to desperation
I wanna be thrilled starting tonight
(Love me, love me, love me)
With every kind of wonderful sensation
I wanna be loved
Come on, say it! I wanna be fucked and fucked again, dammit! The world owes me a big stiff one!
“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (with Bing Crosby) (1945): No less than three versions of this song hit the charts in early 1945: Johnny Mercer’s original, Artie Shaw’s instrumental version and this one featuring The Andrews Sisters with Der Bingle.
The Andrews Sisters’ version dispenses with the sermonic preamble of the original (Gather ’round me, everybody/Gather ’round me while I’m preaching’/Feel a sermon comin’ on me/The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m agin’ . . . blah, blah, blah). It’s really a lousy intro, so you’re not missing much, but it would have explained Bing Crosby’s pathetic attempt to adopt the accent of a black preacher, a choice that comes across as the aural equivalent of blackface. Patty Andrews also tries to “go black,” with equally pathetic results. The two analogies used in the song to justify optimism are taken from that fictional account known as The Holy Bible:
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
To illustrate his last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do
Just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said we better accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
I can visualize the movie clip with Bing in his clerical collar singing this story to Jake, the hardened convict from Brooklyn sitting on death row. Suddenly a beam of moonlight bursts through the bars of the cell’s tiny window, angelically illuminating Jake’s previously dour mug. Slowly, Jake breaks into an idiotic smile and says. “Noah and Jonah! Hey, dose mokes are alright by me! It’s time I stopped bein’ a killjoy and—what was dat again?—ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive—yeah, dat’s the trick—tanks, Fadda!” Cut to an outdoor shot of the prison. Close in on Bing walking out of the prison, whistling the song with a rosary in his hand. Suddenly, a power surge causes the prison lights to blink on and off. Jake is burnt toast. Cut back to Bing, who pauses to give the sign of the cross, then resumes his stroll, picking up the melody at the start of the chorus. Fade. Credits.
Maybe Admiral Nimitz had this song in mind when he announced, “Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight.” Perhaps if he had ac-cent-tchu-ated his reconnaissance, he could have avoided a good chunk of those 26,000 American casualties. Americans have always been suckers for false optimism; seven years after the war they’d make the book The Power of Positive Thinking by another huckster preacher named Norman Vincent Peale a best-seller. A few decades after that they’d buy into Reagan’s “Morning in America” crap. As a firm believer in seeing reality for what it is, accepting both the upsides and the downsides that accompany nearly every human endeavor, I find this song both silly and offensive.
Hmm. Maybe Trump will do us some good after all. I haven’t heard anyone in America ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive in a quite a while. If the experience of Trump teaches Americans to dispense with the bullshit optimism and the we’re-the-greatest-country-ever crap and actually start dealing with their very real and persistent problems, maybe . . .
Hold it! Now I’m ac-cent-tchu-ating the positive! Well, it is a damn catchy tune . . .
“I Can Dream, Can’t I?” (1949): This is another Patty-dominated longing-for-love song, but unlike “I Wanna Be Loved,” her intentions are pure Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. If you’re suffering from the common insomnia that afflicts many a road warrior, put this song on, reach for the Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand drawer, open it to any page and I guarantee you’ll be dreaming in no time.
The Andrews Sisters probably represent a quaint bit of nostalgia to most people today, an act suited for a period in distant history whose music no longer has any relevance. I think such a view is both tragic and astonishingly ignorant. This is a group that had more Top 10 hits than Elvis or The Beatles, whose harmonies influenced every vocal group who followed them and whose impact extended far beyond their music. They may have been conventionally-oriented women but they used the opportunity afforded them by their musical talents to give people trying to dodge bullets and bombs a break from the relentless trauma of the battlefield. They were the soundtrack of their times, a soundtrack that provided hope and belief in a better future.
I hope our times wind up producing a similar soundtrack.