Randy Newman, master craftsman


THIS week, a long-overdue salute to that most enduring of songwriters, Randy Newman. For more than half a century he has been making us smile and sob, sometimes simultaneously, with his sardonic little masterpieces. And while he concentrates mainly on film music these days, we still get the occasional album to remind us of his genius.

Randall Stuart Newman was born on November 28, 1943, in Los Angeles. His father Irving was a physician and mother Adele a secretary. The young Randy gained an early glimpse of anti-Semitism in action when a classmate asked him to be her date at a country club function. Her father subsequently phoned to rescind the invitation, explaining that Jews were not allowed at the club. Bigotry in all its forms would become one of Newman’s main themes throughout his career.

He studied music at UCLA, specialising in the piano, but having been successfully writing songs since the age of 17 decided not to bother completing his degree. His early work was recorded by, among others, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Jackie DeShannon.

The distinctive Newman style went down well in the UK. Cilla Black had a top-20 hit with his song I’ve Been Wrong Before in 1965, Gene Pitney hit the top 10 with Nobody Needs Your Love and Just One Smile in 1966, while the Alan Price Set’s version of Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear went to No 4 in 1967. Seven Newman songs were included on Price’s 1967 LP A Price on His Head. The Biggest Night of Her Life was a hit for the Nashville Teens and Harpers Bizarre.

In 1968 came Randy’s eponymous debut album, also known as Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun. It was notable partly for its unconventional orchestral arrangements, courtesy of the extraordinary Van Dyke Parks (more of him in the future) but mainly for the quality of the songs. While other artists were still discussing boy meets girl, our Rand was dealing with the Devil (I Think He’s Hiding), US politics (The Beehive State) and lonely misery (Living Without You and the classic I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.

The project was a hideous commercial failure – the record company Warner Reprise offered disappointed buyers the opportunity to swop it for any other title in its catalogue – but a critical success. Two years later Harry Nilsson recorded a whole LP of Randy’s songs – Nilsson sings Newman.

The next Newman solo album was 1970’s 12 Songs, with the orchestra replaced by Randy’s piano, Ry Cooder’s slide guitar and work from members of the Byrds. In just under half an hour it combined subjects including the erotic power of lighting fires (Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield), the terror of a straitlaced mother’s boy attending a drink and drugs party (Mama Told Me Not To Come, a hit for Three Dog Night) and the claustrophobia of American country life (Old Kentucky Home). These are all not so much songs as stories set to music and show astonishing maturity from a writer not yet 30 years old.

The following year saw the release of Randy Newman Live, just him and the piano, notable for versions of the unreleased (by him) comic songs Tickle Me and Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.

In 1972 came the Sail Away LP, another exploration of topics hitherto shunned by popular music. The cosy-sounding title track in fact describes a slave trader enticing an African to board his ship to America – ‘you’ll be happy as a monkey in a monkey tree’. Political Science is a biting commentary on the worldview of an American knucklehead who wants to drop the bomb willy-nilly.

Asia’s crowded
And Europe’s too old
Africa’s far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us.

We’ll save Australia
Don’t want to hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an all American amusement park there
They’ve got surfing, too.

Boom goes London
And boom Paris
More room for you
And more room for me.

Not to mention You Can Leave Your Hat On, which would provide a hit for Joe Cocker and feature on the soundtrack of the Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger movie 9½ Weeks. And Lonely At The Top, reportedly written for Frank Sinatra although he never recorded it.

Listen all you fools out there
Go on and love me – I don’t care
Oh, it’s lonely at the top.

My favourite song of all is Memo To My Son, a heartfelt message of love from a proud father to his infant child.

Maybe you don’t know how to walk baby
Maybe you can’t talk none either
Maybe you never will, baby
But I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you

The final track, God’s Song, is a mordant comment on religious faith.

I burn down your cities – how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind.

This album established Newman both as a master of the songwriting craft and as a merciless commentator on modern life.

For his 1974 tour de force Good Old Boys, he turned his gimlet eye on the American Deep South. As was his customary method, he mocked prejudice not by criticising the culprits but by assuming their character and letting them hang themselves. One of his greatest songs, Rednecks, begins: ‘Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show, with some smartass New York Jew. The Jew laughed at Lester Maddox and the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too. Well he may be a fool, but he’s our fool; if they think they’re better than him they’re wrong.’

Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia from 1967 to 1971 and a staunch segregationist. He appeared several times on the Dick Cavett Show, to widespread ridicule. Newman in his persona as a redneck supports Maddox’s cause then self-destructs with an exposition of complacent racist beliefs. There are songs about historical events, plus the slow classics Marie and Guilty, but my favourite track is the plaintive A Wedding in Cherokee County, about an under-endowed Native American bridegroom. ‘Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?’

This is a superb album; maybe Newman’s best. It was re-released in 2002 with an extra CD, a demo disc for Good Old Boys called Johnny Cutler’s Birthday with narration by Randy himself. Excellent stuff.

So that’s five of his LPs out of the way. The remaining seven original studio albums came out at long intervals between 1977 and 2017, and I hope to discuss them at a future date.


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