January 28, 2014

Why I Don’t Like Frank Sinatra

Many’s the time I’ve been sitting in my favourite haunt, The Hungry Dog in Haebangcheon in Seoul, nursing beers, doing crosswords, playing chess and chatting music to fellow customers and staff. One tidbit I picked up there was told to me by Will, boyfriend of the owner. He’d studied German, and was, moreso than me anyway, familiar with many aspects of German culture. He told me that the song ‘Mack the Knife’, a huge hit in the late 1950s for Bobby Darin, was originally a German song, written in the 1920s called "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" (The Ballad of Mack the Knife). You can read about it at the Wikipedia article here

This song was, originally, a sinister song, with a feel about it that would, if you like, scare children. It was dark and moody, slow and chilling, atmospheric, haunting. You can listen to it at this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QXJ3OXWaOY It is not in any way to be considered a cheerful number. It is not, nor was it intended to be, performed or received as a jaunty, peppy or upbeat song. It’s a song about a rapist, arsonist and murderer. A song of warning.

Now listen to the Bobby Darin version, the most famous and well known version around. It has been translated into English, but that’s not why it’s different – it’s different because now the Bobby Darin version has a jolly feel to it. You can almost hear him smiling throughout his performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEllHMWkXEU

I’ve always liked a bit of Fats Waller, the guy was a genius. You’ve probably heard his superlative version of ‘I’m Gonna Sit Write Down and Write Myself a Letter’, which was the first time the song was a hit. If you haven’t, you can check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62mMrDUXD6Q. Again, this is poignant, emotional song. The listener is not quite sure if the lover has left, died, is just absent, or even simply doesn’t like writing letters! Whichever it is, Fats is sad. Fats ain’t happy.  Now listen to Frank  Sinatra’s version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBvAL6zIst0 You can, again, hear the smile in his rendition, the jauntiness in the song, the happiness, the ‘swing’. Sorry Frank, you’re getting it totally wrong. Can you sing? Hell yes, you’re a great singer. Can you ‘sing’? No. It hurts my brain listening to ‘Letter’ by Frank. The disparate mismatch between delivered style, and the meaning of the song is enormously confusing.

I subscribe to quite a few podcasts from back home, one of which is called ‘Soul Music’ from BBC Radio 4. It’s a fairly pleasant show, and each show’s many guests are invited to explain what that week’s piece of music means to them personally. A few weeks ago the music was ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ which I was surprised to learn was originally a slightly melancholic song, with a meaning something like ‘this year isn’t/hasn’t been great, but maybe next year eh?’. Although it was changed slightly from its original by Judy Garland et al as they thought it ‘depressing’, it was when Frank Sinatra got a hold of it that any of its former meaning was lost. From the Wiki of the song “In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." He told Martin, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin's new line was "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

And there you go. That’s why I don’t like Frank Sinatra. He sucked the life, and original meaning, but most importantly the ‘feel’ of so many songs, he and many of his contemporaries. Songs are allowed to be sad. Songwriters are entitled to have their work remain unpoisoned. 

1 comment:

  1. And he was a horrible little thug who used his mobster connections to get his way. But your point is also valid.