Monday, April 30, 2018

That's Just the Way the Story Goes

 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part II:
"Without You" (Pete Ham and Tom Evans, 1970)

"Without You" was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, who were the two primary songwriters in Badfinger, the Beatle-discovered pop band that recorded for Apple Records. Ham wrote the verse after leaving his girlfriend at home one evening to go work on a recording: "Well I can't forget tomorrow, when I think of all my sorrow, I had you there but then I let you go, and now it's only fair that I should let you know...." Evans wrote the chorus after leaving his German girlfriend in Berlin, then deciding he couldn't go on without her: "I can't live, if living is without you, I can't live, I can't give any more."

"Without You" made its debut on the second Badfinger album, No Dice, released in November 1970. The lead single from that record was "No Matter What," while "Without You" was considered just a strong album track. It was never released as a single, either in the U.S. or in Badfinger's native U.K.

At that point, the chorus of the song had a clipped feel to it:
I can't live [long pause]
If living is without you
I can't live [long pause]
I can't give any more

Shortly after the release of No Dice, Harry Nilsson happened to hear the song - not the Badfinger rednition, but someone else covering it. "I was at a friend's house in Laurel Canyon," he said many years later. "It was one of those Sixties sit-on-the-floor parties. [Ed. note: It was the Seventies, but whatever.] And I heard that song. I thought it was an obscure Beatles track.... it sounded Lennon-ish. I asked all my friends. But then I found it wasn't the Beatles, it was Badfinger."

Nilsson recorded the song some time in the first half of 1971, and on October 11, 1971, "Without You" became the lead single off Nilsson Schmilsson, which followed in November.  "You have to have hits, I don't care who you are," Nilsson said. "In the end, 'Without You' gave us that boost we needed. It was perfect." Nilsson's version of "Without You" reached Number One on the Billboard charts on February 13, 1972, and stayed there for four weeks. 

Of course, Nilsson changed the chorus of the song, such that it now went:
I can't li-i-i-ii-ii-i-ve
If living is without you

I can't li-i-i-ii-i-ve
I can't give anymore

My question is, did Nilsson decide to elongate those vowels, or was that the way he heard that anonymous singer do it in Laurel Canyon? I guess we'll never know, because Nilsson's dead now. Either way, that vocal choice changed the song from a nice Beatlesque tune to a classic. 

It's hard to imagine Mariah Carey wanting to cover the song without those blasts of melismatic goodness, but she recorded the Nilsson-ified version for her third album, Music Box, released in August of 1993. Harry Nilsson died on January 15, 1994, and nine days later, "Without You" became the third single off Mariah's latest album. Was that a coincidence? I find it hard to believe they would be able to gin up the release of a single in nine days, or that Columbia would make that kind of financial decision based on nostalgia for a largely forgotten singer, but who knows.

At any rate, "Without You" went to Number Three on the Billboard charts. That was actually a mildly disappointing performance for a Carey single; among her first ten single releases, she had already had eight Number Ones, and Number Two, and a Number Five hit. But it was huge in Europe, going to Number One in the U.K., Austria, Belgium and Iceland. 

And it's never gone away since then. There have been a reported 180 cover versions of "Without You" released, and at least that many people have done the song on the various talent shows that mob the airwaves. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wouldn't know about any of that; they each hanged themselves, Ham in 1975 and Evans in 1983.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

You're Mickey Mouse!

The Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part I:
"You're the Top" (Cole Porter, 1934)

Cole Porter wrote “You’re the Top” in 1934, for his new musical Anything Goes, and in some senses it’s just a list of the best things that were around in 1934. It’s a testament to Porter’s genius that things he credited with being paragons of greatness in 1934 remain, almost without exception, paragons of greatness today.

Many of those paragons were fairly new in their day: Mickey Mouse had made his first film merely six years earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi had been named Time's Man of the Year in 1930. Garbo and the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire had been making movies for less than ten years. I don’t understand what a Bendel bonnet is, but that’s about the only thing that Porter noticed in 1934 that has completely fallen out of favor by 2018. Unless you count Ovaltine, which I wouldn't.

If that dazzling list of exemplars were the only clever thing about this song, it would be delightful, but it’s more than a delight; it’s a classic. It would have been very easy for Porter to maintain the same rhythm for each member of his list of paragons, but he varies them in consistently refreshing ways:

You're sublime
You're a turkey dinner

You're the time
Of the Derby winner
How simple it would have been to make that last couplet something like “You’re ‘Swing Time’/You’re the Derby winner,” but how much more fun it is stretched out like that. The recharged rhythm keeps you paying attention. And it lends the comparison more texture for the person being celebrated to be analogized to time, rather than another corporeal entity.

What makes it even more fun is the chorus, where the singer returns to describe himself in withering terms: “a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop.” It’s not just a simple paean to one’s inamorata, but a gleeful blast of self-loathing that lends the emotion of the song far greater depth. The fact that the singer is a balloon about to pop makes the list of praises more understandable, or more psychologically tortured, or maybe both.

After the relaxed cadence of the verses, Porter raises the melody of the chorus ever higher, urging the singer to raise the volume ever higher as well. And by the time you get to the virtually one-note line “But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” it’s hard not to scream it out.

An early example of the list song, and probably the best one, Anything Goes audiences began demanding encores. Cole Porter began tossing off more verses to fill the encores for Ethel Merman, who introduced the song in the show,  to perform. At one point, Ethel had to wave her hands and tell the audience to stop asking her to go on. She screamed out, "There are no more lyrics!"