07 November 2006

That brownstone house where my baby lives...

At the risk of this becoming Oboe: The Blog, I must mention another oboe-enriched delight that leapt out at me from a Gene Pitney compilation at the weekend: that strange and unique 1963 hit Mecca.

As with my first post on the oboe, I was a bit tentative about identifying the instrument in Mecca as an oboe. True, that does seem to be a flute in the instrumental break but Ted Swedenburg, over at hawgblawg, is with me in also hearing an oboe. It appears first in the the introduction, then throughout the song, embellishing a smashing rhythmic arrangement.
[Listen to excerpts: intro; instro break.]

Ted played Mecca on his radio show on KXUA last year, and I recommend the appreciation and commentary he posted about this weird song (Ted's word):

It opens with a vaguely Eastern sounding oboe, playing a riff that sounds like what passed for snake charmer music in all the cartoons I saw growing up in the ‘50s.

Ted confirms what I suspected, that little seems to be known about the writers, Neval Nader and John Gluck Jr. As my friend Phil commented, Mecca proves that all songwriters have at least one great song in them.

There is something unusual about Mecca. It's hard to say whether the colloquial use of 'Mecca' stood out at the time, or whether it only does that in our time, when such religious references are used less lightly.

The lyrics go beyond the secular use of 'Mecca' as a metaphor, though, by including its religious origins, and that is unusual in a romantic pop song. There's a Romeo and Juliet thing going on here, East side of the street versus West side of the street (get it?), and the guy 'worships at her shrine':

Each morning I face her window,
And pray that our love can be,

'Cause that brownstone house where my baby lives

Is Mecca, Mecca to me

Ted points out the faux-Eastern elements of the arrangement, which do conjure up a caricature of the Middle East. To my ears, it's only a side-step away from the slapstick desert scenario of Ray Stephens' Ahab the Arab (1962).

It's not surprising that Gene Pitney's repertoire could accommodate such a quirky masterpiece as Mecca. His repertoire was wonderful and wide, so wide that his list of hits in one place won't always match his list of hits in another.

In Australia, for example, Billy You're My Friend (1968) charted in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane but not in Sydney; Hawaii (1964, the B-side of It Hurts To Be In Love) charted in its own right in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane but not in Melbourne. Neither of those songs was a Top 40 hit in the US or Britain (although Hawaii's A-side was).

Pitney told his Australian audiences that he started including Who Needs It (1964) in his Australian sets because he noticed Aussies calling out, 'Who needs it?' and realised they weren't heckling him but were asking him to sing his Australian hit, a B-side elsewhere, a song that he'd all but forgotten.

This is why a Gene Pitney Best Of... with 18 tracks is never going to please every fan in every town in the world.

Even Mecca, a #12 in the USA that was popular in Australia (#4 Adelaide #5 Brisbane #7 Sydney & Melbourne) didn't make the Top 40 in Britain.

The first of three times I saw Pitney in concert over the past fifteen years or so, it was in a licensed cabaret in our provincial Australian city. All night a drunk in the audience kept yelling out, 'Do Mecca, Gene!' and, 'Gene, when are ya gonna do Mecca?' but Gene (quite rightly) declined to notice him, and he never did do Mecca, not that night or on his two later visits to our town, when he performed in an old but newly refurbished concert theatre where he clearly felt more at home.

On the third occasion, Jamie came too, and you can read his tribute to Pitney over at his blog. Nothing I can add to that, really, except that we wish there could have been a fourth time.

Brownstone house image from www.BrownstonesDirect.com.

04 November 2006

Iva Davies, oboist

Dave Allen emailed about a notable Australian oboist I didn't mention, Iva Davies of Icehouse, who had studied oboe and composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before achieving fame with Icehouse and diverse projects over the years. Astute listeners will pick up Iva on oboe throughout his recordings.

Dave, who was flautist and saxophonist with Sydney band Flake, played with Iva Davies on a recording of film music written by Steve Gard. This was some time before Icehouse (initially Flowers) was formed, and it seems to have been Iva Davies' first recording.

Dave tells the story at his Burning Mountain Studio blog:
In 1972 Iva was a student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. (Steve and myself also went there at other times). Steve was involved with the New Theatre at the time, where he met Chris Noonan (these days a Hollywood director [Babe, etc]) and Chris asked Steve to score music for a movie called Garbo he was making. Steve wrote the theme music and we recorded it at ATA studios in Glebe. Iva played oboe and tuba, Steve played guitar and piano and I played flute.

01 November 2006

Media on demand, 19th Century: the Electrophone

Picture this: Marcel Proust, in 1911, is in his cork-filled room in Paris, writing À la recherche du temps perdu.

And he's listening to a live opera broadcast through a set of headphones.

That would've sounded impossible, some kind of sci-fi time warp, until I heard the story of the Electrophone on BBC Radio 4's Archive Hour last week.

The Electrophone was a British subscription radio service that used a telephone connection. It was available from 1895, a couple of decades before wireless broadcasting, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Proust was a subscriber to the earlier French version, known as the théatrophone.

Electrophone programs were live feeds from theatres and music halls, featuring the stars of the day. They even transmitted services from a London church that concealed some of the electronics inside a hollowed-out Bible, for decorum's sake.

Subscribers would contact the Electrophone company in Soho by ringing up their regular telephone switchboard, then request a program from whatever was being transmitted at that time.

At the receiving end, several listeners could hook up using headsets kept hanging on a purpose-made wooden stand, a listening-post (as we still call such a set-up in classrooms). The photo, from the British Museum's Connected Earth website, shows a 1905 model.

In France, le théatrophone was launched in 1890. Marcel Proust was a fan, and would listen to live feeds of Wagner or Debussy while writing. Proust was enthusing about the service around 1911: the image of a writer, working to music from a headset, is mundanely familiar to us now, but it's startling to find it so long ago.

Carolyn Marvin, in When Old Technologies Were New, writes about experiments as early as 1880, when visitors to the Paris Exposition Internationale d'Electricite listened to opera and theatre transmissions through a théatrophone hook-up.

In England in 1889 a novel experiment permitted 'numbers of people' at Hastings to hear The Yeoman of the Guard nightly. Two years later theatrophones were installed at the elegant Savoy Hotel in London, on the Paris coin-in-the-slot principle. For the International Electrical Exhibition of 1892, musical performances were transmitted from London to the Crystal Palace, and long-distance to Liverpool and Manchester. In the hotels and public places of London, it was said, anyone might listen
to five minutes of theatre or music for the equivalent of five or ten cents. One of these places was the Earl's Court Exhibition, where for a few pence 'scraps of play, music-hall ditty, or opera could be heard fairly well by the curious.
(Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988; paperback, 1990. Excerpts posted to Dead Media Working Notes)
The United States Early Radio History website has a marvellous photo from 1917 of an Electrophone being enjoyed by a group of convalescing soldiers in London, listening to 'the Latest Music Direct from the Theatres and Music Halls'.

The Electrophone service held out until 1925 when the wireless began to take hold, and the writing had been on the wall by 1923: see the news report at the United State Early Radio History website.

(Sadly, the Electrophone story from Archive Hour is no longer online: they don't seem to be into archiving past programs at the BBC as much as they are at our ABC.)