Dr. Fringelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pop Charts and Write More Musical Theatre

There’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, we musical theatre types, and I think it’s a fallacy. It’s a pleasant fallacy, though, because it makes us feel sad and nostalgic. So we tell it to ourselves, until we feel good about feeling sad and nostalgic, and then we bond with one another over our sadstalgic feels.

The story is this:

Once, the sound of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley was the sound of the popular charts. It was the music of the people, and musical theatre sounded fresh and current.

Then rock ‘n’ roll came along, and took over the popular charts. Broadway shows didn’t really take to rock ‘n’ roll, so they soon stopped sounding fresh and current.

Now, hardly any musicals sound like the music of the people. Something valuable has been lost, and it would be nice to get it back.

Sigh. Crank vinyl OBC of ‘She Loves Me‘.

Lately, this Pleasant Fallacy has appeared whenever anything featuring rap/hip-hop lands on Broadway. If the show fails, as Holler If Ya Hear Me did, we ask “why can’t shows sound like the music people are actually listening to?” And if the show does well, as Hamilton is doing, we cry “At last! A show that sounds like the music people are actually listening to!” Then we speculate on which songs might appear on the charts.

Our motives are good. We want younger people to fall in love with the music of musicals, because then we old folks – some of us over forty – can die happy. If the music in musicals sounded more current, we reason, it might appeal to more younger people.

But look again at the Pleasant Fallacy above, and then look at all the misconceptions we have to accept for it to work:

By “Once”, we mean somewhere in the early twentieth century. We don’t look much further back than that.

By “popular charts”, we mean a problematic measure of a particular commodity’s sales, measured over very short periods.

By “the people”, we mean Americans.

By “something valuable”, we mean cultural prominence: songs from current Broadway shows on the radio, and performances from current Broadway shows on primetime television.

Bearing all these misconceptions in mind, I would like to propose two things:

  1. Popular music – really, truly popular music – actually sounds a lot like showtunes.
  2. They’re probably not the showtunes you’d expect.

I’ll begin with …

The most popular music of the 19th century

For the first half of the 19th century, publishers of sheet music didn’t distinguish between what we would now call “classical” and “popular” songs, and popular sheet music sales didn’t really take off until after the 1850s. Nevertheless, sheet music historians have some nifty ways of telling if a song was a hit:

Song sheets: not the full printed music, but just the lyrics, given to a theatre audience so they could sing along. It’s a fair bet the tune to any one of these was well known.

Inclusions in anthologies: in modern terms, if a song is on all the later compilation albums, chances are it did well first as a single.

Answer songs and parodies: if everyone’s supposed to get the references, the original must have been pretty familiar.

Here, then, are some songs you can include in your 1890s cabaret act, and expect your audience to know:

Silent Night, or Stille Nacht (1818) – Franz Xaver Gruber / Joseph Mohr
Home, Sweet Home (1823) – Bishop / Payne
Ave Maria (1825) – the Schubert setting
Jingle Bells (yes, pedants, it’s really called One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857) – James Lord Pierpont
The Lost Chord (1877) – Arthur Sullivan / Adelaide Anne Procter
After the Ball (1891) – Charles K Harris
On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897) – Paul Dresser

Those last two are publishing phenomena; written very late in the century, they sold a wagonload of sheet music. But even without them, you can see what sorts of songs did well in the century before the century before this one: occasional songs, devotional songs and, above all, sentimental ballads.

Furthermore, that sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, the song Nellie Melba used as a crowd-pleasing finale in her concerts, is a showtune. It appeared first in an opera (Clari, or the Maid of Milan), and was then quoted liberally by other composers in their own operas and instrumental works, before later being interpolated into practically everything.

When Clara Butt was about to tour Australia, Nellie Melba advised her “Sing ’em muck; that is all they will understand.” This is usually taken as a slight against us Aussies, but what Melba really said, according to a witness, was “Sing ’em muck. ‘The Lost Chord’ and that sort of stuff, the same as you have been singing tonight.” In other words, Aussies loved a weepy ballad back then, and they still do. But so did everyone back then, and so does everyone still.

If we look further back than the early twentieth century, I think we gain useful context for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley’s later heady era of chart success. The listeners of the nineteenth century didn’t have “charts” as we understand them today, but they had their favourite songs: a mix of the devotional, occasional, and sentimental. Some of it came from the stage.

And so to those problematic charts, which have become less problematic since the IFPI started compiling its reports in 2001. Their more recent reports include download and streaming data.

The top selling singles of each year since 2007

Girlfriend – Avril Lavigne
Lollipop – Lil Wayne feat Static Major
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Tik Tok – Ke$ha
Just the Way You Are – Bruno Mars
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke feat T.I. and Pharrell
Happy – Pharrell

Hmmmm, these songs sound like a lot of movies, because that’s where hit songs wind up nowadays, just as hit pop songs used to be interpolated into stage shows. They don’t sound like a lot of today’s Broadway. But then, Broadway scores don’t really behave like singles, do they? Singles burn quickly and brightly, but not for long. Broadway scores used to be like that, so much so that, when people say …

I wish the charts still sounded like Broadway

what they’re really saying is …

I wish shows still ran 200 performances and were forgotten in a year.

The miracle of those old shows is that some of their songs, meant to be nothing more than immediately accessible and popular, turned out to be deeper and more durable than anyone could have predicted.

But hit Broadway scores today behave more like hit albums: they burn steadily, and for a long time. So instead of singles, here are

The biggest selling albums of all time

Thriller – Michael Jackson
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
Back in Black – AC/DC
Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Come On Over – Shania Twain
Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf

Sceptical about any of these? Fair enough, and look here for why I share your healthy doubt. Nevertheless, two of these albums (Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard) sound like a couple of musicals, but that’s only because stage musicals have been made out of their parent films. One of these albums (Thriller) has a stage show based on its main creator’s life and music. Another (Bat Out of Hell) sounds like any musical by Jim Steinman, but that’s because all Jim Steinman sounds like Jim Steinman.

As far as younger listeners go, however, these albums are really old. The most recent is from 1997. So here are

The biggest selling albums of the last ten years

21 – Adele
X&Y – Coldplay
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
High School Musical – Original Soundtrack Cast
High School Musical 2 – Original Soundtrack Cast
I Dreamed a Dream – Susan Boyle
Midnight Memories – One Direction
Recovery – Eminem

Man, that’s a whitebread list. But you will notice that, once the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the singles chart is taken out of the matter, all those artists we’re convinced the kids have been listening to disappear. No Pharrell, no Ke$ha (or, these days, Kesha), and no Lady Gaga. Nobody feat. anybody else. The only rap artist in that list is Eminem.

Also, there are two bona fide screen musicals in that list, plus an album named after a showtune.

That album, Susan Boyle’s (twice as many copies sold as One Direction’s album, incidentally), contains the following sorts of songs:


Silent Night

Sentimental Ballads

I Dreamed a Dream – the showtune I mentioned.
Cry Me a River – originally written for a film set in a 1920s speakeasy.
Wild Horses – cover of the original, by The Rolling Stones
You’ll See – cover of the original, by Madonna
Daydream Believer – not a ballad when The Monkees did it, but this version is
Who I Was Born to Be – a Boyle original
Proud – from the TV show Britannia High
The End of the World – cover of the original by Skeeter Davis, slowed down


Up to the Mountain – cover of the original by Patty Griffin
How Great Thou Art
Amazing Grace

If you ask me, Susan Boyle’s album shows how little we’ve changed, because it’s straight out of the nineteenth century. Sing ’em muck indeed.

To summarise: we need to stop worrying about the charts, music theatre lovers, because they don’t tell us what we think they tell us, and success on them doesn’t mean what we think it means. If we look instead at music that sells steadily over years, rather than weeks, we’ll find that people are actually buying and listening to showtunes, albeit ones written for the screen. Sure, they’re not tunes from Sweeney Todd, or even Rent: the showtunes that are really selling sound like High School Musical. Also, Frozen isn’t on that best-seller list yet, but give it time.

And, as fond as we are of our sadness and nostalgia, I think we should rephrase our favourite fallacy:

Once invented, recorded music used what had come before it, then learned how to make its own kind of thing later. Cinema, radio, television, and video games have all walked a similar path.

Recorded music has always gone after disposable money. Its first marks were high-tech connoisseurs, and later, the middle class (this is the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway period). After World War Two, it chased youngsters, and now it’s after anyone with a smartphone.

There was a period when the pop charts and the sound of Broadway more or less aligned. It didn’t last, and it could conceivably happen again, because correlation is not causation: all it would require is for theatre audiences and pop music listeners to want the same thing from their music.

Meanwhile, if you really want your new musical to sound like the music of the people, you should have Coldplay write a lot of sentimental ballads for Adele. Get Eminem to play the villain.


More on The Beatles and Keys

I posted some time ago about Beatles songs in major and minor keys, and that post has become my most viewed, despite its almost total lack of usefulness.

There’s really, really good info on The Beatles’ choice of keys to be found here. Note the preponderance of guitar-friendly sharp keys throughout, especially at the beginning of their career, and the emergence of more piano keys as John and Paul start noodling on keyboards, and varispeed makes its appearance.

The Five Worst Album Covers I Found In My Father-In-Law’s Shed

The band is called Fire, and the album is “A Frame of Purple Roses”.  The year is 1986:


In this stunning re-imagining of the Promethean myth, our hero’s punishment is to be blindfolded and have an eagle fly threateningly towards his rude bits. Plastic covers the walls, for ease of cleaning.

There were a lot of cheesecake covers – mostly girls in just a T-shirt proclaiming the virtues of polka – but this was by far the worst:


It looks like the model is somehow causing the waterfall.


Here, on a similar theme, Joe has accidentally wandered into the girls’ lavatory, a minimalist affair with a single occupant, who is tired and emotional by the evening’s end.  Joe, ever the gentleman, turns his head.

The Addrisi Brothers had a long career, and gathered many followers (they wrote and performed the charming theme to The Nanny and Professor, for example).  And they found exactly the right look for the late ’70s. Here, Don (or is it Dick?) is asking his brother if he can borrow just one of his belts. Dick (or is it Don?) looks at the camera as if to say, “What do you think, fans? Can I really spare even one?”

And here is …

It’s not the make-up.  It’s not the goatee.  It’s not the soulful expression.  It’s not the year of 1983.

It’s the wonderful, wonderful combination of all four.

What I Found In My Father-In-Law’s Shed

It’s not strictly a shed.  It’s Campbells Building & Construction, Oura Road, Oura.  Apart from bathroom fittings, kitchen tiles, used furniture, a lot of timber off-cuts and the like, there is a room devoted to dusty paperbacks, and another that looks like this:

Turn around, and it looks like this:

Up close:


There was this, which I have read about, but never heard:

And there was this, an utter mystery to me:

This latter one, a little sleuthing reveals, is originally a Brit show from 1969, the second by Salvation Army writers Gowans and Larsson.  Their first, Take-Over Bid, played the Tivoli, and their second, Hosea, apparently yielded an Australian cast recording!

Yes, I am still reeling. It must be the dust.

Notes on an Australian Cast (Concept) Recording – Ned Kelly

Damn, but Google Books is an ugly place to visit. I swear, it was designed by someone who hates books.

But the occasional gem is hidden thereon, like this account of Ned Kelly‘s first season at the Adelaide Festival centre in 1977.

Reg Livermore has given his own clear-eyed account of the show (more properly, Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show), in his book Chapters and Chances, and here, on his website. Great pics there too.

The show began in pretty hip fashion for the 1970s, with an original 1974 concept recording, and then a stage adaptation, a la Jesus Christ Superstar and (later) Evita. After a contentious run in Adelaide, December 1977 (of the “is-public-money-wasted-on-this-sort-of-thing?” variety), it opened in February 1978 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (the theatre is now no more), and quietly disappeared until 2000, when the songs and lyrics were revised, and the stage rights became available to amateur and community groups.

There is no official cast recording of any stage production, but the original concept album can still be found (in my case, in a library), and has additional historical interest because most of the cast (Trevor White, Jon English, Arthur Dignam, John Paul Young, Livermore himself) had lately distinguished themselves in the Australian cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Dignam and Livermore, between concept album and stage version of Ned Kelly, starred as The Narrator and Frank-n-Furter in the Australian premiere of  The Rocky Horror Show. Oh, and Livermore managed, in all that spare time, to squeeze in the first productions of Betty Blokk Buster Follies and Wonder Woman.

This is in the space of four years, which is now the average length of time between a musical’s first reading and its lukewarmly received second workshop. Perhaps this is not always a bad thing, because the consensus on Ned Kelly is that the score had promise, but that it was probably unstageable, in the 1970s, in its 1970s form.

How’s the album holding up these days?

1. What Else Is New? – John (Paul) Young, Trevor White & Peter Chambers with Arthur Dignam

The opening bars sound like a proficient high school band, so things are off to an inauspicious start. Then, happily, everyone starts to rock out, and all the guys are obliged to hit high C sharps. Characterisations aren’t subtle: “once upon a time, there were these greedy squatters”; meanwhile, Dan, Steve, Joe and Edward “Bang Bang” Kelly are “fighting for your liberty”.

2. Put ’em Down – Dignam, Reg Livermore

The villains appear – cops and judges who they don’t rock like the Kelly boys. They are exceptionally daggy, and their beef with the common folk is both too self-knowing and vague, for the “unhygienic rabble” … “do exactly as they please”.

Incidentally, Flynn’s melody is not dissimilar to the one Benny and Bjorn would later write for “1956 – Budapest is Rising” in Chess. And nice countermelodies!

3. Lullaby – Janice Slater

Janice has a touch of Olivia Newton-John, especially when she hits the top notes. Or is it the other way around? This is a very, very loud lullaby, and the music is blithely that of the American southwest, with no attempt to sound Aussie, and not a hint of worry about it: “there’s a chahld … crahn to bee a may-uhn.”

4. Rob A Bank – J(P)Y, White, Chambers

A bluegrass patter number, with good, specific imagery from lyricist Livermore: “velvet suit” and “mad Uncle Harry”. At this stage the gang are still lovable ruffians.

5. Never Going Home – JPY, White, Chambers, Jon English & Tony Rose

And now they’re not. This is a big set-piece of a number, intelligently contrasted with  what went before. At Stringybark Creek the Kelly boys, in reverse historical order, graduate from bank robbers to killers. Flynn again proves adept at the big choral counterpoint stuff, alternating with solo passages. It builds and builds but it’s all a bit ponderous. Ned gets a chance to prove, once again, that heroes are heroes because their voices rock out.

6. Better Watch Yerself – White

Now that he’s crossed the threshold, Ned gets a short choral commentary, just as Judas did in Jesus Christ Superstar.

7. Dark Walk Home – White

A Kelly boy theatre-ballad at a moment of dilemma and, like many of them, too self-knowing: “I can walk two roads, one of them home. I can be two men, one man alone … gonna be a dark walk home tonight.” The chord progression wanders ambivalently through key centres, a nice touch.

8. Queen Victoria’s Fuzz – Livermore & Cast

The police are back, and they’re still jokes, led by a Queen Villain: “My blunderbuss bent, and a touch of waratah scent”. Livermore’s rhymes are true, and the images are specific, true to the period. There’s a kick-line finish, and the bad guys are given no more motivation than Iago was: ” … no grand parade, it’s just the way I’m made.”

9. If I Was A King – English

Ned in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Oh Lord, you’ve lost your touch”), with another balls-out vocal (high C sharps up to high Es!) over a minor key vamp in the middle.

10. Die Like A Kelly – Slater

This is the only song I knew prior to listening to this album, thanks to Geraldine Turner’s performance on ABC TV’s Once in a Blue Moon, back in 1994. That was a theatre ballad performance – this one is Renee Geyer at two in the morning. The caterwauling has the unintended effect of making Ellen Kelly’s grief all about herself, and not about her sons’ impending deaths.

11. Band Together – English, JPY, White, Chambers

“The people gonna come and band together … the people gonna have that family feeling”.  It’s not explained precisely who “the people” are, and if anyone (the fuzz?) is not included. The people are a bit like Hair‘s tribe: if you have to ask, you ain’t one of them. This singalong at the end, utterly without irony, feels icky.

12. Finale – Jon English

A whooshy, electronic ending for our hero. Also very Superstar – a choir, with a few sprinkles of Holst and Ligeti, sees him off.

It’s immediately apparent, all these years later, that the fate of Ned Kelly (the show, not the man) deprived us of two valuable musical theatre writers in Flynn and Livermore. Flynn (who also composed the score for Sunday Too Far Away) had real composing chops, and could write honest Ozrock – a combination rare in Aussie musicals, then and since. Flynn eventually moved abroad, conducting orchestras in both the UK and USA. He co-wrote three new songs for the revised Ned Kelly in 2000, and died in 2008.

Livermore remains better known for theatre roles and television presenting, despite all the writing entailed by his one-man shows, on both the large and Clarendon-scale. I wish, though, we all knew more of his lyrics: based on the evidence of this show, he had real craft, and he could do the modern Tim Riceish vernacular without resorting to cringey undergraduate jokes.

The Continuing Saga of Early Peter Allen Albums – Continental American (1975)


The front cover, with Allen looking pensively airbrushed and dear God, what is in that drink?

The back, showing the star attraction at Reno Sweeney’s in his native habitat.

1. Just a Gigolo (Schöner Gigolo) (Leonello Casucci-Irving Caesar)
The writing credits for this one, on the record itself, are to Leonello Casucci and Irving Caesar; and Caesar did adapt the original German lyric, by Julius Brammer, to the English version we all know.  But what if Brammer had used a German word for gigolo, rather than, well, “gigolo”?  Is there a German word for gigolo?  In any case, things would have turned out differently.  Allen opens here with the rarely heard verse, and Caesar’s lyric reveals that the eponymous gigolo is French.  So why doesn’t he describe himself with the French word for gigolo? And what is the French word for gigolo?

Sung in that fashion popular throughout the 1970s (and indeed into the present): small, world-weary opening; key change, expansive vocal repeat; extended ending, highest note reserved for the last.

2. Everything Old Is New Again (Peter Allen/Carole Bayer-Sager)
“When trumpets were mellow, and every gal only had one fellow” – pure nostalgia-land.  Trumpets were consistently less mellow in the ’20s and ’30s, and no research indicates that women were more inclined to monogomy.

The very, very slick and cheesy female backing vocals were arranged, not by Cissy Houston – who did the rest of the album – but by “Linda November”.  Who?  Who is this skilful servant of the Dark Arts?  And who are the uncredited singers?  Are they all Cissy Houston?  Are they Linda November?  The whole thing is artfully arranged; the band comes in gradually throughout the song, and the strings don’t arrive until the key change chorus at the end.

Bob Fosse chose, for All That Jazz, a much better and far less campy live version.  And oh my, Ann Reinking.  I need a lie-down.

3. The Natural Thing To Do (Peter Allen/Carole Bayer-Sager)
The Allen/Sager canon includes a great many songs that can be boiled down to this: I’m really selfish, baby, but that’s just how I am.  Hey, why are you leaving?

4. Pretty Pretty (Peter Allen – Hal Hackaday)
So far on these albums, every time Allen has teamed up with the lyricist Hal Hackady, the words have tightened up into something a little more crafted, with less free-association indulgence.  Which doesn’t mean the song isn’t dated and preachy; it’s a better-written, dated and preachy song:

Twinkle twinkle
weekend star
How you wonder who you are
Down below the world’s so high
Like a rhinestone in the sky
Oh my.

These songs only work when the singer reveals, at the end, that she is the “pretty pretty” girl. And even then they don’t always work.

Hal Hackady would have been, at this point in his career, working on his more-or-less-flop Broadway musical Goodtime Charley, with composer Larry Grossman.  In 1972 he wrote the lyrics for a bigger flop, Ambassador (yes, a Henry James musical) with composer Don Gohman, who later committed suicide.  It’s a pity Hackaday didn’t use his hard-won experience to talk Peter Allen out of mounting a crap musical.  Maybe he tried.

Oh, and the female lead in Goodtime Charley?  Ann Reinking.  Sweet, sweet Ann Reinking

5. Continental American (Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager)
Someone had too many Barcardis at the pressing plant, and Bayer Sager is here listed on the record label as “Bayer Sayer”.  She remains so for the rest of the album’s credits.  Is this the first recorded attempt at ’60s nostalgia?  Was anyone else finding the ’70s a little conservative, in the straitlaced year of 1974?  This is a better attempt at a longer song structure than the album’s later This Side Show’s Leaving Town.

Side 2

1. Just Ask Me I’ve Been There (Peter Allen)
First appeared three years earlier on the Tenterfield Saddler album, and in exactly the same spot.  This version has more backing, more singers, and it still refuses to take off.

2. I Honestly Love You (Peter Allen – Jeff Barry)
The opening chords are identical to those that will later begin the title track of I Could Have Been a Sailor!  Really, they are.  Am I the first to notice?  Is it deliberate?  What could it mean?

This oft-pilloried song (oft by Allen) is better than people think:  the singer really, really wants someone, but they’re both with another person, so it’s not going to happen.  He grabs the moment anyway and tells his never-to-be lover that he loves them.  There are far worse songs.  Curiously, this is billed on the actual record label as “I Love You, I Honestly Love You”, which, as titles go, would have been a bit much.

3. This Side Show’s Leaving Town (Peter Allen – Carole Bayer Sager)
With the marching band opening and closing, fading in and fading out, this is trying to be a grand opus, the kind of extended pop song that mars many a Billy Joel album. “Take me seriously,” the seven-and-a-half-minute duration says.  “I have something to say,” it says.  But the song, sandwiched between the grand intro and outro, is pretty mild:

Goodbye to the kid down the hall
He sure was fun
Been just like a daughter to me
That little one.

‘Cos hustlin’ is something I just can’t abide
Before we drown, and while we still got pride
This side show’s leavin’ town

And I can’t help but wonder: if Allen and Bayer Sager couldn’t abide hustling, why did they do so much of it, and get so good at it?  I want this song to be meaner.  Much meaner.

4. Just a Gigolo (Schöner Gigolo) (Reprise)
Frances Faye makes a welcome, tinkling appearance on a second piano, and contributes a yelping vocal in the background.  Much more fun than the first version, but it draws attention to how underpopulated the whole album is – only nine songs, one’s a repeat, and another’s from a previous album.

The Continuing Saga of Early Peter Allen Albums – Taught By Experts (1976)

I have posted about Peter Allen’s early albums (which are surprisingly hard to find) here, here and here.


1. Puttin’ Out Roots (Allen)
Alright, Aussies, no sniggering. “Putting Out”. “Roots”. Hee hee hee. The sentiment about getting away from the city to a farm is probably pretty genuine here, although it’s worth noting that Allen’s actual “farm” was a house on the beach in Port Douglas and another in Leucadia, California.

2. She Loves to Hear the Music (Allen/Sager)
Is this the first rapprochement of Allen’s twin performing styles? Namely, the intimate ballad presented as a razzle-dazzle showstopper? It’s heard most often in Quiet Please There’s a Lady On Stage (later on this album): a poignant subject, begun as a tearjerker, then undercut by a funkier chorus, which builds and builds to the finish.

Pros: slightly less schmaltzy
Cons: the subject tends to be forgotten in the flash of the presentation. Which is, really, the essence of camp.

3. Back Doors Crying (Allen/Sager)
An I-write-when-I’m-miserable-but-you’ve-made-me-happy number. “I need sadness to finish my rhymes” – really, what kind of a compliment is this to pay a lover? Thanks for drying up the well? You pulled me out of my adolescent funk, and now I can’t create? Does anyone want to hear this sort of thing?

Incidentally, Dusty Springfield on backing vocals.

4. I Go to Rio (Allen/Anderson)
Spare a thought for Adrienne Anderson. Who? The co-writer of this song. Also, the album’s “key grip”, Gregory Connell, Allen’s long-term (and apparently pretty feisty) partner, is one of the backing vocalists.

I can’t listen to this song without thinking of the video clip. In a period when only the Brits had any idea what to do with a music video, when every American-made clip amounted to “hey, you perform the number onstage and we’ll film it”, Peter Allen knew enough to give a performance worth filming. He’s balding, he’s over thirty-five, but he cheekily unbuttons his shirt and fans himself. Brave, funny, clever.

And I know of no other song that has an inner rhyme of “jungle” with “bungalow”.

5. Planes (Landis/Meltzer)
Thank God the strings on this are real. A lovely, sugary arrangement that would have sounded ghastly on some Prophet or Oberheim. The song, co-written by Allen’s producer Richard Landis, sounds as though it wants to become a standard. It wants it a little too much, and I wonder – did anyone cover it?

6. Quiet Please There’s a Lady On Stage (Allen/Sager)
Is this the best of the Allen/Bayer Sager songs? Yes. The best lines:

Quiet please, there’s a person up there
And she’s been singing of the sins
That none of us could bear to hear for ourself
Give her your respect if nothing else

That’s as good a summary as any of a great cabaret performance.

Side 2

1. This Time Around (Allen)
Again, this one sounds like it wants to be covered. It might have worked well on the soundtrack for The Goodbye Girl, but David Gates got that gig.

2. The More I See You (Gordon/Warren)
One of the effects of Allen’s literate, Bacharach and Broadway-inspired chord progressions is that he could cover a song 30 years old and have it sound like one of his originals, just as some of his originals (Everything Old Is New Again) sound like tunes from the 1940s. This one betrays its 32-bar roots by going on a bit too long, despite the key changes and the Herb Alpert trumpet solo.

3. Harbour (Allen)
Originally appeared on the album Tenterfield Saddler, and in exactly in the same spot. Here, the lyrics have been tweaked (“maybe we’re just growing older”). It’s still a nice, bittersweet break-up ballad, spoiled on this occasion by a showy accordion obliggato (calm down, Frank Marocco).

4. (I’ve Been) Taught By Experts (Allen/Hal Hackaday)
A disciplined lyric, except that it’s not clear what Lesson No.2 is. No.1 is to “make friends with pain” and No.3 is “better you get hurt than me”, but perhaps No.2 is hidden somewhere in the excellent bridge:

I lost my taste for tears
So many shoulders ago
I’m not sure I still know how to cry
But if you really want to learn, I try
to satisfy
Let’s begin with goodbye

5. Six-Thirty Sunday Morning/New York, I Didn’t Know About You (Allen)
Two songs on a Big Apple theme, sandwiched together. Very world-weary and dissipated, this sort of thing is hard to pull off when the singer has woken in a bed while staying near Central Park. Better to wake up in Central Park, face down, wet and shivering. Maybe near the zoo. With monkeys laughing at you. That’s what Tom Waits would have done.

Quiet Please would have made a much better – a killer – finish to the album.

The APRA Song of the Year H20: 20 Years Later

Only one bout of listening remains in this exercise, and that’s to listen to any 2009 releases by Oz artists who are considered amongst our best writers.  Ah, but who would they be?  Here are APRA’s winners thus far:

Powderfinger, Alex Lloyd, Kasey Chambers, The John Butler Trio, Missy Higgins, Ben Lee, Glenn Richards (Augie March), Daniel Johns, Chris Cheney (The Living End).

Throw in the winners of APRA’s Songwriter of the Year and you can add Savage Garden, Killing Heidi, Wolfmother and The Presets.

And it would be foolish to leave out such luminaries as Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Troy Cassar-Daley, Sarah Blasko, Archie Roach, Nick Cave, Colin Hay and anyone else you, the reader, might be kind enough to remind me about.

Of this lot, the ones who released albums in 2009 are:

Powderfinger – Golden Rule
Ben Lee – The Rebirth of Venus
Darren Hayes (ex-Savage Garden) – We Are Smug (collaboration with Robert Conley)
Wolfmother – Cosmic Egg
Sarah Blasko – As Day Follows Night
Troy Cassar-Daley – I Love This Place
Colin Hay – American Sunshine

And because I liked The Middle East and Washington, I’ll listen to The Recordings of the Middle East and How To Tame Lions.

I have until March 15, and that’s made me realise – not for the first time – that we’re going about this the wrong way.  I shouldn’t be seeking out great songwriting; it should be finding me.  That’s how great songs work: they come out, they make their way in the world, they falter, they triumph, and they find you, or they don’t.  The system is not a meritocracy, and bands like INXS are wildly overrated, but time allows great songs the space they need to provoke an emotional response.  I truly didn’t appreciate Cattle and Cane the first time I heard it.  I thought it was dull.  I was wrong.

So I propose that these awards be given out, if at all, twenty years after the release of a song.  Thus, we should decide this year on the best Australian song released in 1989.  Wouldn’t that be more fun?  More sensible?  And easier?  And the folkies and twangers might get a look-in!  Imagine: comparing the relative merits of Johnny Diesel’s Cry In Shame and 1927’s Compulsory Hero.  Or The Black Sorrows’s Chained To The Wheel.

We could also do the right thing by Jason Donovan, and pretend that his singing career never, ever happened.