WHO IS RANDY NEWMAN?
The name of Randy Newman kept cropping up in the interviews I wrote for Beat Instrumental. First of all it was Keith Reid who claimed that he was the best lyricist around and then it was Marc Bolan who was raving about a performance he'd seen at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. I thought I'd already got a pretty extensive knowledge of Mr. Newman so I didn't really need to go to all the trouble of listening through his albums, I mean – I knew where he was at. Hadn't I, after all, listened to Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear? Didn't I know that he was the man behind the creation of Mama Told Me Not To Come. Oh yes, I knew all about Randy Newman.
It was when Randy Newman Live appeared for me to review that I began to sit up and realise just how much foresight Reid and Bolan had. Here was one guy with his piano who was captivating an audience and holding them there with the powers of communication usually restricted to the musical heavies. I suddenly found myself listening to the lyrics and getting involved with the simple piano tunes. From this experience I hastily tried to obtain a telephoned interview with the man.
This I did, and Randy phoned me one evening whilst touring the States, 'If you're gonna write words they should mean something,' Randy said when I questioned him about the lyrics of his songs. 'I think there should be something there. Lyrics seem to be the main thing today although it's not a situation I'm altogether happy with.'
Although it seems to be words which bring immediate attention to Randy's songs it was in music that he was formally educated at the University of California (Los Angeles). 'The overall sound is important to me,' he said, 'but I always like the lyrics to be interesting.' Even though Randy majored in music his tunes remain very simple. 'With the type of voice I have,' he said, 'I just can't sing anything fantastically complicated.'
The voice is one which Newsweek described as '... plain weird – black and blue. He sounds as if he's hoarse from swallowing cotton fibres and tired from picking it and weary of slavery in one form or another'. That's a pretty accurate description. For my money it has to be Newman who sings Newman because no-one could put just the right amount of feel into it. His voice quavers a little and if it's a sad song-like So Long Dad you almost feel like crying because of the way the words come out rather than because of| the meaning. It's that overall feeling again.
Ironically enough it's the cover versions of Randy's songs that have brought him into the public eye and ear, He began taking lessons at the age of seven and at 17 took some songs to a publisher who liked them. From that point until two years ago Randy was a songwriter and occasional maker of records. Cilla Black recorded I've Been Wrong Before and Alan Price put Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear into the charts but Randy Newman hadn't yet taken to performing.
However, two years ago things changed. 'I kinda figured that I might regret it if I didn't try,' he recalled. 'It's kinda nice to hear an audience appreciating what you do.' Since that time Three Dog Night had a smash with Mama Told Me Not To Come and Nilsson recorded an album of his songs,
'I used to get angry at the records,' said Randy, referring to the cover versions of his songs, 'but it's all right with me now. It's kind of an honour when someone else does your song.' He's even changed his mind about Three Dog Night's version of his song although he said at first he found it difficult to listen to after having heard it his way for so long.
'I ended up liking it a great deal,' he said, and went on to correct my opinion that Three Dog Night were a teeny bopper band in the States. 'They're a little more exalted than that,' he confirmed.
Another artist who was going to record an album of Randy's songs was Frank Sinatra. However, the plan was erased by Sinatra's retirement. 'It would have been really difficult,' confessed Randy who would have had to write all the songs specially for Sinatra. 'He couldn't have played many characters in his songs.'
Currently Randy is getting a little tired of his solo role behind his piano. He wants to expand the sound when he records by using an orchestra as he did on his first album. 'When you've got an orchestra you can expand on it', he said. 'You can then set your song so it becomes more of a visual thing.' As an example he quotes Fat David, which he considers could be enhanced by using a carnival sound at the beginning to give it an outdoor feel. The next album, which is to be recorded in the States shortly, will bear the evidence of this train of thought.
One of the reasons why Randy still performs his songs is because; 'It reminds me that they're better than I think'. When I asked him whether he had a low opinion of his work he replied that he did, although he was quick to add that he had a high opinion of them when he actually wrote them. 'I think they're terrific when I write them,' he said, 'but two weeks later I hate them.' He told me that he was more pleased with some recent songs that he'd written and which would be included on the forthcoming album.
He was extremely pleased when I told him that Keith Reid appreciated his work and he remarked that in return he was a fan of Procul [sic] Harum. He's not too happy with the state of rock at the moment but he does admire Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. When it comes to relaxing, it's to a book rather than the stereo headphones that he turns. 'Music is too much like work to me. I can never get off on music.' If he ever does turn on some music it's more likely to be classical than rock or pop. 'Music is the big thing to me,' he emphasised in case I should run away with the idea that he's an anti-music man, 'but if I'm gonna be relaxing – it isn't gonna be music!'.
A lot of his communication is through the humour he puts over in his songs. It's not that he's just out for a quick laugh, but he's realised that one of the most effective ways of educating is by making people enjoy being taught. One of the most effective ways of saying something positive is by showing the absurdity of the negative. 'I feel more comfortable with humour than coming straight out and saying 'Ban the bomb' or something,' he said. 'I like to laugh. When people laugh it's an immediate reaction.'
PROVING THE POINT
Randy's point about preferring humour to defiant condemnation was brought out well in his song Political Science, or Let's Drop The Big One. He sang it in San Francisco on the night of the big blast on Amchitka Island. No one likes us, I don't know why, / We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try. / And all around even our friends put us down. / Let's drop the big one and see what happens. We give them money, but are they grateful? No, they're spiteful and they're hateful, / They don't respect us, so let's surprise them, / We'll drop the big one and pulverise them.
This satirical theme is carried out through the six verses and proves Randy's point – concisively [sic]. There's a lot of talk today about lyrics and as Randy pointed out – a lot of emphasis upon them. However, it's rare that you go to a live performance and come out having retained any of the words you supposedly heard. The main reason for this being that most artists and groups drown out the all-important lyrics with the music. For most artists it's only on record that you can pick up on the words – and even then it's sometimes difficult.
Randy Newman is someone different. With him you can dig the sheer music of it if you happen to be busy with something else at the time, or you can sit and listen to the stories. The honkytonk piano will have you tapping your feet while the words will be spreading a grin or a frown across your face. That's one on the reasons people keep telling me about this Newman guy.
Although he's never toured over here he has been over to do television shows. On March 6th he'll be coming to do his first concert at the Festival hall. He's been there once to see Alan Price play, and he thinks it'll be a great place to perform. Following that he may have concerts arranged on the continent, but as yet he's not sure what will be finalized. I hope a lot of people make it to that concert in London. Between then and now I'm going to be another one of those guys who goes around dropping 30-second commercials for Randy Newman into any available conversation – being careful, of course, to explain that Mt Newman does a lot more than write hit songs for Three Dog Night.
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