Scanning the list of 1000 UK Number One albums was surprising. Some extraordinary records made it to the top of the charts and some dyed in the wool classics never troubled the number one spot. Counting down the list I reckon I have around 100 of the chart-toppers. That’s way more than I was expecting but when this theme suggested itself there was only one record I was going to bring.
‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’ was Frank Sinatra’s tenth studio album, released in March 1956. When Record Mirror published the first ever Top 5 album sales charts on 28 July that year it was at number one. It’s a collection of classic songs by the likes of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin) given a expansive, swinging orchestration by band-leader Nelson Riddle. It’s pure pleasure.
I don’t know a huge amount about Sinatra, as a performer, as an innovator, as an singer of other people’s songs. This is the only album of his that I own. According to musicologists, Sinatra practically invented the phrasing of pop vocals. I can’t put that into perspective and it’s almost impossible, 50 plus years down the line, to hear the breakthrough directly, but it’s still easy to pick up on the delicious way he sways and curves his vocal delivery around the rhythm of the music, apparently allowing the beat to lead and follow as if he himself were the fixed point, the heart beating away at the centre of each song.
The accepted wisdom is that Sinatra was the master interpreter of other people’s songs. Again i’m not quite sure how to fit that into a useful context, but what comes through on ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’ is the ease and pure self-assurance with which he takes possession of the material. It’s as if the songs are names on his dance card and, one at a time, he picks them up and whirls them around the floor like no-one ever has before. He’s the coolest guy in the room and he knows it.
Post-Whitney we are asked to accept that the best vocalists are those with the biggest fireworks, the most serrated melisma, the most pneumatically powerful lungs. Sinatra stands directly against this anabolic orthodoxy. His voice is relaxed and unshowy with an underlying hint of hard confidence. Sure he was the biggest star of his time, at least until Elvis muscled in, but when he sings he vibes real life.
Listening to this record it’s easy to be lulled by its smooth embrace and begin to take Sinatra’s unembellished delivery for granted. At this point we must say a rare thank you to Robbie Williams (who, in a nice little coincidence, delivered the 1000th number one with an album of swing songs) for providing the perfect reminder of Sinatra’s skill.
Back in 2001 I reviewed Williams’ first swing revival album ’Swing When You’re Winning’ and it was listening to his version of ‘It Was A Very Good Year’, on which he dares to split the vocals with Sinatra, that brought home to me just how very good a singer Sinatra was. Williams takes the first two verses and spreads his vocals around like margarine, smearing his way across and around his lines, adding little curlicues and flourishes. Then Sinatra takes the microphone and it’s impossible not to feel the gaping difference in control, in depth, in richness. His first words are spine-tingling and his verses, about ageing, are absolutely masterful.
Listen for yourself, and then listen to ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’
Tom Listened: It’s time for a rant! Using the most tenuous of links (Sinatra to Williams to X Factor), I aim to go some way towards purging myself of the deeply unpleasant aftertaste of sitting through Saturday’s final. On the face of it, this has very little to do with Songs for Swinging Lovers…but bear with me!
My kids are at that age where watching X Factor seems like a good thing to do. Unfortunately, their Dad is at that age (and has been for..his whole life probably!) where it is a deeply disturbing and discombobulating experience. It’s not solely the inanity of the judges, the dreadfulness of the acts, the shallowness of the experience, those hollow platitudes (you know, the fact that everyone ‘loves’ everyone else), that the 10000 strong audience boos Gary Barlow (the only judge intelligent and/or brave enough to offer genuinely constructive criticism and, not only that, to do so in a polite and erudite way (and he gets booed for it!)). No, this is all deeply depressing admittedly, but the thing that gets me more than anything else is the acceptance that this is all just fine. My wife thinks it’s all just harmless fun. But I’m not so sure. X factor sets the agenda for a not insignificant proportion of the population and if those levels of insincerity and artifice are to become the norm….heaven help us!
Robbie, bless him, provides the bridge from the real to the X factor. One listen to It Was A Very Good Year and the origins of our current perilous state can be identified immediately. Not only does the man have the arrogance to think that he can sing alongside Sinatra and come out with at least a score draw, but his singing is so forced, so egotistical that it is a wonder that his followers didn’t decide there and then to spend the rest of their record money on the real deal instead of this reedy voiced egomaniac from Stoke. How could anyone prefer Williams to Sinatra? Alright, they sound a little different but who would want to trade the authenticity, the talent and THAT voice for it’s pale modern appropriation. But maybe that’s what is wanted these days. A modern take on those old classics that aims to sound like it really really means it, but ends up a soulless, hollow pile of crap. And then goes on to win X Factor!
Rant over. That’s better.
Graham Listened: Simply masterful. Something about listening to the vinyl added to the experience. I can safely say that as Nick was absent!