Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Top 20 Pop Hits Of The 1940s!

I need to be honest here. The list is purely a self-promotional exercise to publicize my other blog: my insane, and ultimately never-ending quest to write the story of the Australian charts from 1940 till now. It's called..... The Oz Hitztory Blog!

After nine months I have finally reached the end of the 1940s (by this rate I’ll probably make it to 2009 by 2014, and then I’ll still have five years to go, by which time it will be… clearly this will never end).

Equally clear is that this is an epic story that needs to be told, so that the kids today have a means of knowing that once, in 1948, there was a hit record called “I Don’t Want Her, You Can Have Her, She’s Too Fat For Me”, in parenthesis (Too Fat Polka), by the Too Fat Trio.

This song however does not come into my Top 20 Pop Hits Of The 1940s.

So get on your zoot suit, and lindy hop along to these hip happenings.

1. Glen Miller – In The Mood

Even if it were just for the opening action packed ten seconds, this tune would make its way into this list somewhere. This is how intros to songs should be. Attention grabbing, and having absolutely nothing to do with the remainder of the song, which instead is largely made up the same riff, run over and run again into the ground. Then it goes quiet. And quieter. And quieter. Then it comes back again! A simple trick. A simple song. But the most recognizable hit of the decade. That damn intro has made it’s way into cameos in Number One hits by both the Beatles and Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers! That has got to be some kind of record!

2. The Mills Brothers – Paper Doll

Listening to old songs makes you wonder sometimes. We are living in supposedly far less innocent times than our forefathers. We are used to songs called “Sexy Bitch” and if we come across a rap song that doesn’t include a line about eating pussy, then it is likely that the YouTube comments board will be filled with debates about the rappers sexuality.

This is the kind of world we are living in.

Back in the 1940s, we like to think that people were innocent. Naïve. And when they weren’t blowing up whole cities, nice kind, church going people. So why is it that one of the biggest hits of the decade, may or may not be about being infatuated by a girl in a girlie magazine?

The other issue being discussed here of course is that bitches are fickle, will break your heart and can’t be trusted.

3. Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan – Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Ella tries as hard as she can to be a good girl (admittedly this does require a certain suspension of belief, ‘cos Ella, lovely singer, but not the hottest girl in the world), and she makes a damn good effort, particularly given what she is up against – climatic factors, potential drink spikage and Louis’ cool tones. The way the lines pile up one after another, her excuses, his convincing reasons that sex might be a good thing for them to be doing, makes it sound as though they are already in an embrace, probably already half naked, and good god please get a room.

This is just way too cute.

4. Vaughn Monroe - Ghost Riders In The Sky

Prior to this, practically every country song was by singers who were so laid back they sounded as though they were half asleep, singing about how there was nothing better in the world than riding a horse in the desert. Clearly it takes all types, but if you are going to be out in the desert with nothing but a horse and some cows and maybe a coyote or two for company, you are going to go a little loopy. And that’s where this song comes in, exploring the rarely discussed dark side of the cowboy lifestyle, with a suitably spooky soundtrack. I mean, this song is about ghost cows. You need to be out in the desert for a long time before you start hallucinating ghost cows.

And although I can not say this for certain, but I think it’s a fair assumption that without this song, much of the career of Ennio Morricone would never have occurred.

5. Dinah Shore – Buttons & Bows

Interesting sociological fact: people from the country who move into the city are the most passionate city dwellers of them all. They move into the inner suburbs and begin to get nervous the moment they step over Bell Street (insert your own 8 Mile style geographical boundary here) incase they get trapped, and somebody kidnaps them and drags them back to a humdrum rural existence. This also works for kids escaping from the outer suburbs. Apparently kids who grow up in the inner suburbs dream about moving the outer suburbs, where there is more room, and they don’t get asked for money by a homeless beggar every time they walk to the shops). I think there’s something in that for everyone don’t you.

Dinah Shore understood this perfectly. She grew up in Tennessee but dreamt of moving to the Big Smoke to become a star. Making her the perfect gal to sing a song that celebrates “where the cement grows” whilst betraying her redneck past by using such expressions as “vamoose”. They just don’t use the word “vamoose” enough in pop any more.

Nothing else quite captured the zest that was Dinah Shore, except possibly for this:

6. Andrews Sisters – I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time

The Andrews Sisters ended up being something of a polka singing novelty act, their biggest hit being a catchy tune about mother and daughter prostitute teams servicing US soldiers in Third World countries (they say they didn’t realize but come on…).

But before this, when they were embarking on their best career move as the primary supporters of the American troops, they attempted to remind the boys of what they were fighting for. The girl back home (who hopefully looked a bit more like a “good sort” than the Andrews Sisters themselves) who would marry them, amongst apple blossoms, mmm apples…. apple pie… mmm … that makes a good Yankee boy hungry. I’d better shoot those Nazis and get back, quick smart.

7. Evelyn Knight – A Little Bird Told Me

Only a handful of songs ever written have ever been as cute as this. In fact it is so cute, that at least a couple of molecules of the DNA of both bubblegum pop and twee underground scene may be found here.

She’s so happy that’s she lost for words - “Doop-de-doop-dip-de-doop-de-do.” – while the backing singers – who admittedly do sound a bit like schmucks but adorably so - cheer her along - “YEAH!” – as she sings about things that are just intrinsically quaint, such as dogs by the fireplace.

8. Frank Sinatra – Saturday Night Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week

In case you don’t know, Frank Sinatra began not as a middle aged and slightly grumpy member of the Mafia, but as a teen idol. Apparently he was the first guy that teenage girls screamed and fainted at (admittedly this was partially because his management planted professional “screamers and fainters” in the audience, and partially because the queues to his shows were so long, that by the time you got in you were already on the verge of fainting for lack of sustenance but the fact remains) begging the two closely related questions. Why? How?

I’m sure there were other factors, but mostly it was because he sung about being lonely. And about the fact that nobody loved him. Later it would work for The Cure and Death Cab For Cutie (although by then the screaming and the fainting was a little passé). It might not work for you. You could just look like a grumble bum.

9. Art Mooney – I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover

This is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. And there is a preparation process you need to go through to appreciate it properly. This process involves going to an Irish pub (a relatively authentic one if you can manage it) and buying a Guinness. Don’t bye one in a can though. That’s just going to ruin the effect. Instead make sure you buy one of those big bulky mugs with the handles. Practice a few swings, back and forth, to make sure you have the right feeling. Then drink the Guinness and buy another one.

If you’ve come to the bar with some friends, then that it is all fine. But if not, start a conversation with the old drunk at the end of the bar. Ask him about “the war” (World War II is preferable, but they are becoming increasingly hard to find, so any war will do).

This may seem like a lot of effort just to listen to one song, but trust me it’s worth it.

In the middle of the conversation, put this song on the jukebox, grab the old soak under one arm, your Guinness under the other, wave the beer around and be amazed by the power of a song with a banjo in it.

After which the bouncers shall kick you out and you should make your way home.

10. Al Jolson – The Anniversary Song

Al Jolson was the biggest singing superstar of the 1920s, back when singers were taking their first tentative steps away from opera and towards pop. On the way they stopped at vaudeville, and that essentially was where Al stepped in. Before he found himself in movies, he was on a stage, where he discovered the amazing art of overacting, both in facial expressions and in vocal mannerisms. And this is the secret to appreciating the genius of Jolson. Over-acting, and over-singing, has often been criticized as… well basically over-doing it. But as I always say, if something is worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.

Al Jolson is my bro.

11. Hoagy Carmichael – Ole Buttermilk Sky

As it happens, there has just been released what I am sure is a lovely compilation called “First Of The Singer Songwriters.” Before Hoagy singers sung songs, and song writers wrote them. After Hoagy… that’s pretty much how it remained (until the Beatles). Still Hoagy did come up with some of the all important pop rules for singer songwriters: If you write your own songs, you don’t actually have to sing them well. You are, for example, allowed to be somewhat nasal in your delivery. You are also permitted to be somewhat “funny lookin.”

12. Vera Lynn – Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square

2009 has been a big year for ole Vera. Not only has a greatest hits package (which for some reason does not feature this song) returned her to the top of the British charts (beating Dizzee Rascal in the process), and about half way up the Australian charts, and also got rather miffed that “They’ll Be Bluebirds Over (The White Cliffs Of Dover)” has been featured on a British Nationalist Party fund raising album. The BNP later announced that Churchill, if he was alive today, would have been a member, so clearly they have a WWII infatuation. And either have a great sense of irony, or none at all.

She’s also announced concern about the lack of pro-war songs in today’s charts. “It’s strange that there aren’t any special songs for Afghanistan,” she has told the Telegraph “I don’t know what songwriters are doing these days.”

The poor girl probably needs a lay down.

Back in the day, back in her youth, Vera sung songs like this. A song of romance, and posh pronunciations, and youth love, in a London where bombs are falling all around her. It’s quite beautiful really.

13. Frank Sinatra – Nancy With The Laughing Face

The father-daughter relationship between Frank and Nancy was apparently not the best. You would not know it based on this tune. Frank often sounded tender – when he wasn’t beating journalists up or singing about being lonely – but he rarely sounded tenderer than when singing this. No swagger. No macho. Just a lot of “gosh this is a nice girl.”

In fact, maybe the reason why they became so distant to each other can be traced back to this hit single, when later in his career he would get drunk and sing it at parties and Nancy would be all like “oh Dad stop it. You’re EMBARRASSING ME!!! You’re making me sound sexy. ‘I get a thrill each time I kiss her!!!!’ FFS I was only four!!!!”

Just a theory.

14. Bing Crosby – White Christmas

Which in his My Space page he describes as “number one for forty years untill that homo clamed to make a better one.” (note: probably not his real myspace page.) (also note: this is a reference to the fact that “White Christmas” was the BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE OF ALL TIME!!! Until Elton John’s post-Di dying version of “Candle In The Wind.” Which was totally cheating because it was for charity, and charity records should never count.)

And in case you haven’t seen it yet, here is that touching moment when Bing met Bowie.

15. Evelyn Knight – Powder Your Face With Sunshine

Now putting two Evelyn Knight songs on a end of the decade list is kind of like it being the end of the 90s and choosing two Spice Girls songs. An unforgivable kowtowing to commercial pop music (although in both case entirely correct). And in the case of this song, almost literally, since this song sounds exactly like an old radio jingle. If it turns out that Sunshine was actually a brand of make-up in the 1940s then I would not be surprised in the slightest.

The song starts with a wolf whistle. And instead of slapping the fellas, she says “well, thank you fellas.” That’s the kind of world it was back then. They didn’t worry whether it was demeaning in anyway. They didn’t think of things like that. In fact this song is a song for people who barely think at all.

Thinking is over-rated.

16. Bing Crosby – Swinging On A Star

The story of this little tune goes a little something like this. Bing, who apparently was never that much of a father, decided one fine evening to give his son, who didn’t want to go to school the next, some fatherly advice. “If you don’t go to school, you’ll turn into a mule. You don’t want that to happen now do you?” He was chilling back with some song writing friends at the time, and they decided to turn this piece of fatherly career advice into a song.

Mind you, I’ve done two University Degrees, and I’m stuck working from my bedroom to make a living. Bing didn’t finish university and he became the biggest pop star of the first half of the twentieth century.

All I’m saying is that it was a good thing that he never became a career advisor.

17. Judy Garland – The Trolley Song

At about the half way point between being Dorothy and being a gay icon, was lost, as was her want (well maybe not “want” but she pretty much needed to get used to the situation because she was stuck with it).

The 40s you see, were not, in any way, a sexy decade. Pretty much everyone sounded like they were stuck in sexless marriages, and since they were mostly middle aged with kids, maybe they were. Judy however, sounds as though she’s had sex, at least once, and wouldn’t mind having it again. She even “start(s) to yen” and I have no idea what that means.

18. Glen Miller – I Got A Girl In Kalamazoo

One thing you may notice from this list (and from the pop charts in general during the 1940s) was the almost total monopoly achieved by the United States. There are several possible reasons for this dominance, some of them boring, economic and technical, some demographic (pop music has always tended to thrive where cross-cultural pollination is possible, and the United States, New York in particularly, was probably the worlds biggest cultural melting pot). One theory rarely put forward however is that this dominance was due to the undeniable fact that the United States has some of the world’s greatest place names.

Sure, other countries have good place names. A quick look at Google Maps shows that Australia has Berriwillock, Kooloonong, and Chinkapook, the UK has Gamdolbenmaen, and Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (for short) and Poland has Bydgoszcz and India has Thiruvananthapuram (which has a lovely café, I might add). But just you try and write a song about them.

Glen Miller clearly realized this, and not only did a version of this tune, but of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”.

And how do you write a song about Kalamazoo? (yes, the place does exist, and as it would happen, I once met a girl from there) By rhyming it with “pimperoo” of course!

19. Dick Haymes – It Might As Well Be Spring

“Gay” means something a lot different now, than what it used to. I’m sure you realize this. But it still comes across a rather, immaturely, funny when it pops up when it is unexpected. Like in Buddy Clarkes “It’s A Wide Wonderful World” where he’s informs you, that you are, in fact, “a gay Santa Claus.”

Dick Hayme’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” – all delicate atmosphere – has a similar unintentionally vaguely humorous moment, when he announces that he “feel(s) so gay… in a melancholy way.” Which shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise since he’d already admitted that he was both “as dizzy as a spider spinning daydreams” and “as giddy as a baby on a swing.” I’m pretty sure even the Scissor Sisters wouldn’t choose those lyrics now.

20. The Ink Spots – Whispering Grass

The Ink Spots were amazing, remembered for their achievement of having a zillion hits each of which sounded exactly the same, an achievement that despite people often saying “xxxx’s song’s all sound the same” was never actually bettered.

Every song began with the same plonky guitar intro.

This would be followed by the woe-est of me-est singers, Billy Kenny, usually singing about his girl problems of which he had a great many.

This would be followed by the best bit. A dude called Hoppy, would do a spoken monologue, essentially just repeating the verses, but slowly, patiently, and with great empathy.

If you need to hear one Ink Spots song in your life (and you do) it should be “Whispering Grass,” simply because of the concept of the tune. Which is that he done a bad thing and played around, and it looks like he’s been caught. And who does he blame? The grass! Here it gets a bit complicated…

“Now don’t you tell it to the trees
Cos she’ll run and tell it to the birds and bees
And EVERYONE will know, cos you done told the blabbering trees
Yes you did
You told em
Once before
That’s why it aint no secret anymore.

It's the "ugh" that makes it art.


Lestat said...

This is a fantastic list. very funny. I enjoyed a great many of these songs.

Anna Dulder said...

You forgot about Edith Piaf: La Vie En Rose 1946 hit, L'Hymne de L'Amour (1949), two smashing world hits