Nick Bollinger discusses the latest instalment of the Randy Newman songbook.
“There have been great American artists who have worked beyond the public’s ability to understand them easily, but none who have condescended to the public”.
So wrote Greil Marcus, way back in 1975. It’s a measure you might use to weigh up the greatness of any number of artists, but Marcus happened to be talking about Randy Newman, who has a new album out next week; the third volume in his Songbook series, which was launched in 2003, and features recordings of him alone at the piano playing some of his best-known compositions. Coinciding with the arrival of Volume 3 is a four-disc vinyl box set that includes all three Songbooks, plus a lot of extra tracks.
In the years since Marcus wrote the words quoted above, Randy Newman has been both misunderstood and embraced by audiences both marginal and mainstream, without condescending to either one of them. And I wonder if there’s any other artist who can claim two such different audiences.
To the larger of those audiences, Randy Newman is the guy who wrote and sang the songs for the phenomenally successful Toy Story films. And they are good songs. ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ (which appears in the Songbook collection) recycles and revitalises both lyrical clichés – the title for starters - and musical ones – like that New Orleans piano shuffle – and, as ever, without condescension. Not that it is a song I imagine Newman would have written had he not been working on assignment. However the songs he makes for his other audience are something else. And it is only in a very distorted parallel universe that one could ever imagine Disney/Pixar commissioning him to write a song like ‘Davy The Fat Boy’.
Nearly 50 years after it was written, it still has to be one of the most unsettling things you could hear; a study of human cruelty, that keeps you hoping for a disclaimer or gag that will release you from the discomfort of listening; a gag that never really comes. It first appeared, in an almost Kurt Weill type orchestral arrangement on Newman’s 1968 debut album, but Newman revisits it here, alone at the piano, and it’s a discomfiting as ever.
There is certainly a gulf in subject matter and even, to some degree, musical ambition between ‘Davy’ and ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’. And yet I’d be loath to say one was superior to the other. These are both things that Randy Newman does, and part of what makes him the great artist he is.
So do those two audiences – the one that identifies his voice and piano with popular family movies and the much smaller one that appreciates his art-song examinations of the human psyche - ever meet? Well they have at least once.
More blatantly satirical than ‘Davy’ and every bit as catchy as ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’, ‘Short People’ remains Newman’s one and only bona fide pop hit; it got to number 2 on the American Top 40 in 1977. And its unique success suggests it didn’t make lifelong Newman fans of those who made it a hit. To most I guess it was a novelty tune. For some, the parody of American prejudice – which is perhaps Newman’s most pervasive theme – may not have even registered. Had they gone to his back catalogue, though, they would have found more complex explorations of the same subject in songs like ‘Rednecks’, originally on his 1974 album Good Old Boys.
There’s an audience that loves Newman for songs like these, and you sense that, in a way, they wouldn’t really want him to be a bigger star than he is. And yet Newman himself did try, for a long time, to make more hits. They just had to be on his terms, so it tended to be through the production rather than the songs themselves that he attempted to meet the needs of the marketplace. And one of the joys of the Songbooks is hearing a tune like this one – a bonus track on the vinyl set - stripped of the over-the-top 80s synclaviers and electronic drums that smothered the original recording.
Listening to Newman on his own also allows one to appreciate what a masterful composer and performer he is. Take away the arrangements on most singer-songwriter records and you’re left with a few strummed chords. With Randy, the orchestration is built into his piano parts. Those harmonies and counter-melodies that might, on the original records, be carried by horns or strings, are instead suggested by his right hand. What one thinks of as arrangement is, in Newman’s case, composition.
There are 56 songs on the four-disc vinyl box of The Randy Newman Songbook, and there’s the potential for further volumes. As a genuinely heartbreaking song like “Losing You’ from his most recent record Harps and Angels shows, he can still be as good as ever – and he’s reportedly got another album of new songs ready to go.
Where does it all come from? His family were originally Jewish immigrants from Russia, part of the same late 19th century wave that brought Irving Berlin, that great American songwriter. And the Newmans included several very well-known Hollywood composers.
Film music is a world he grew up in. Yet he’s also a product of rock’n’roll. For part of his childhood he lived in New Orleans, where the rolling shuffles of Fats Domino made a permanent imprint on both his vocal and piano style. But in the end, as Marcus says, great artists sometimes work beyond the public’s ability to understand them easily; and where Newman’s genius comes from might be one thing that can never be explained. But it can always be heard.
Songs featured: Sail Away, You’ve Got A Frind In Me, Davy The Fat Boy, Short People, Rednecks, Red Bandana, Louisiana 1927, Feels Like Home.
The Randy Newman Songbook is available on Nonesuch Records.