Friday, June 28, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: Stan Freberg takes dead aim at the entire Top 40

Comic, actor, writer, singer, puppeteer and ad man: Stan Freberg has done it all.

The record: A Child's Garden of Freberg (Capitol Records, 1957 - T-777)

The artist: Stan Freberg

A Child's Garden of Freberg
History: The California-born son of a Baptist minister, Stan Freberg (1926-2015) is one of America's great satirists. Though I certainly don't agree with all his opinions, there are moments when I think he should be added to Mount Rushmore. He was a voice actor for Disney and Looney Tunes (the latter most prominently in 1957's Three Little Bops) and a regular on one of the first successful television series ever, the groundbreaking puppet show, Beany and Cecil (he was Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent). Beyond that, Stan more or less invented the "funny commercial" with a series of distinctive print, radio, and television ads that employed a humorous, "soft sell" approach. Freberg credits his success in the advertising game -- where he was employed for decades -- to his contempt for "real" commercials.

Stan also had the good and bad fortune to be, in his words, "the last of the network radio comedians" with a short-lived but influential series of his own, CBS's The Stan Freberg Show, which lasted all of 15 weeks in 1957. (America had long since moved on to television by then.) For about ten years in the middle of the last century, Stan Freberg was also a Capitol Records recording artist with a string of hit singles, often employing the talents of cartoon legends June Foray (aka Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Daws Butler (aka Yogi Bear) in elaborate sketches that lampooned popular culture, usually television or music. A Child's Garden of Freberg, whose title is a spoof of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, is Capitol's belated attempt to gather Freberg's hits (and a few B-sides) into a single compilation.

Four years later, still recording for Capitol, the comedian did reach the Top 40 with his unprecedented, massively-ambitious concept album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years. (Volume Two didn't come out until 1996.) Freberg headed back to Madison Avenue to pay the bills, but his records had a second life thanks to radio's The Dr. Demento Show, where a new generation of listeners, including "Weird Al" Yankovic, heard them.

All Music Guide says: Five stars. "A Child's Garden of Freberg remains an excellent overview of Freberg's early years and is well worth the purchase, if you can find it." - Sean Carruthers [link]

Was it a hit: The album doesn't seem to have been one, no, but most of the songs on it reached the charts. In fact, "St. George and the Dragonet" hit #1 in October 1953 and stayed there five weeks. "C'est si Bon" peaked at #13 in January 1954. "Try" topped out at #15 in April 1952. "Heartbreak Hotel" got as far as #79 in July 1956. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" rose to #16 in October 1955. "John and Marsha," Stan's first hit, climbed to #21 in February 1951. "That's My Boy" landed at #30 in August 1951. "Rock Island Line" missed the charts here but was a #36 hit in England in July 1956. "Sh-Boom" was a success in America and England, hitting #14 here and #15 there. All told, Stan had 16 chart hits over a nine-year period (1951-1960). Not a bad track record for a comedian.

Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Already an ace copywriter, Stan composed his own liner notes in the form of an essay called "To Those Persons Fingering This Album in the Record Shop and Wondering Whether to Buy Bach Fugues Instead." He makes wisecracks about the album ("Hey, you guys, here's a forty-minute wad of Freberg. Take it or leave it."), thanks his collaborators, pointing out that orchestra leader Billy May wears a "great, flapping Hawaiian shirt" when he conducts, and boasts a little about his record sales ("The good fairies must have come in the night and bought all those records.") and his international success. ("To my amazement, people of other countries, while at times comprehending only 50% of the real satire, laugh as loudly as  Americans," he says.) Most interestingly, he reaffirms his hatred of rock & roll ("a musical trend that I personally loathe") and gives a definition and a heartfelt defense of satire, quoting fiercely conservative Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp  ("a man who has influenced me a lot") in the process. "The fifth freedom," according to Capp, "is the freedom to laugh at ourselves."

An odd couple; Daws Butler and Stan Freberg.
The listening experience: Impressive, though I've heard most of these songs a hundred times at least. In fact, I already owned most of the tracks on A Child's Garden of Freberg, but I purchased it for the handful of rarities and the Freberg essay on the back cover. It's still a very entertaining and funny record. Unsurprisingly, it starts with Freberg's all-time biggest hit, "St. George and the Dragonet," one of only two spoken-word pieces on the LP. (The rest are songs.) "Sgt. George" is a Dragnet parody with Stan as a Joe Friday-type, humorless, monotone knight who arrests a dragon for "devouring maidens out of season" and interviews witnesses, including Butler (who imitates Jerry Lewis) and Foray, with Jack Webb's usual brand of dull, bureaucratic professionalism and barely-concealed contempt. Particularly corny jokes, a Freberg trademark, are punctuated with the famous four-note Dragnet theme.  ("How ya gonna catch him?" "I thought you'd never ask. With a dragon net." DUN DA DUN DUN!)

Most of the other songs on the album are parodies of popular songs of the era. Unlike Allan Sherman and "Weird Al" Yankovic, though, Freberg's method of parody is not to change the lyrics of the original song but to exaggerate and distort their most outstanding qualities. Generally, these parodies are little musical skits in which a singer is trying to record a hit record but keeps being interrupted by pesky background singers, disobedient musicians, and skeptical executives. The first of these on the album, a spoof of Eartha Kitt's "C'est si Bon," is a modest example of the form. With a breathy faux-French voice, Freberg himself plays Ms. Kitt, whose detached coolness is put to the test by a chorus who won't wait for the "cotton pickin' signal" to come in at the desired moment.

Elsewhere on Side One, Freberg plays a petulant, pouting Elvis Presley whose attempts to lay down "Heartbreak Hotel" are sabotaged by ripped jeans, an uncooperative guitar, and an out-of-control echo effect. On Side Two, Freberg laces into Mitch Miller's bombastic (and massively popular) version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Though Miller himself was a New Yorker, Freberg portrays him like a Civil War-era Kentucky colonel who struggles in vain to suppress a "smart-alecky Yankee snare drummer" who tries to hog the spotlight. Freberg also has some fun with the so-called "skiffle" craze (basically, British folk music) with his version of Lonnie Donnegan's "Rock Island Line." Poor Lonnie can barely get a word in edgewise due to the frequent interruptions of an impatient record business honcho (Peter Leeds) who objects to the nonsensical lyrics, the singer's imprecise diction, and what he sees as an unnecessarily long intro.

"Try," a reworking of "Cry" by Johnnie Ray, is one of the few Freberg songs that does change the lyrics of the original. Giving a wildly exaggerated, ridiculously emotional performance, Stan sends up Johnnie Ray's weepy, melodramatic style with a song that extols the virtues of misery. ("You, too, can be unhappy if you tuh-ryyyyyyyyyyy!")

The enemies: Elvis Presley as Marlon Bando.
Freberg's most vicious parodies are of the new teenage music that had taken the pop charts by storm. A lifelong fan of jazz, swing, and big band music, Stan Freberg utterly despised rock & roll, which he considered crude, repetitive, and moronic. Instead of just dismissing it as just another fad, though, Stan truly deconstructs the music and finds out what makes it tick. In doing so, he is the first true rock satirist, beating Frank Zappa to the punch by a decade.

Even though I adore the primitive, early rock of the 1950s and completely disagree with Freberg about the merits of the music, I still get a kick out of Stan's intricate and inventive parodies of the genre. In his version of the Platters' "The Great Pretender," a beatnik piano player (Freberg) resents having to play the same chords over and over throughout the whole song and keeps trying to turn the rock ballad into a jazz number, driving the frantic lead singer (also Freberg) to distraction. "You play that 'clink clink clink' jazz or you don't get paid!" he threatens. Instead of raising moral objections to rock & roll, like so many other cultural critics of the 1950s, Freberg raises musical objections and uses this record to state his case as plainly as possible.

The album's last song, "Sh-Boom," is a takeoff on an R&B number by the Chords (not the sanitized white version by the Crew Cuts). Here, Stan equates the rise of rock music to the concurrent rise of "method acting" that was then making its presence felt in Hollywood. The lead singer on this track is Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, as imitated by the comedian. The faux Brando insists on mumbling his way through the song, occasionally interrupted by a shrieking Stella. The song builds in intensity as "Stanley" works himself into a lather, and the background music morphs into a mash-up of "The Campbells Are Coming" and the Dragnet theme, bringing A Child's Garden of Freberg full circle.

Two more tracks on the album are pastiches of the rock style: an incoherent 12-bar blues song called "Widescreen Mama" and a moronic medley called "Rock Around Stephen Foster." On these songs, Freberg exaggerates the distorted guitar and saxophone sounds of the music he "personally loathes" and, in doing so, ironically creates two excellent rock records in the process. If he didn't hate the music so much, he could have made a fortune cranking it out. One special side effect of Freberg's rock parodies is that they are loaded with references to once familiar, now mostly forgotten public figures, including Carrie Jacobs-Bond, Nick Lukas, Hunter Hancock, Hugo Winterhalter, and Gayelord Hauser. In all, about half of this album is devoted to spoofing rock music -- more than half if you expand the definition to include Lonnie Donnegan and Johnnie Ray.

There are a couple of oddball tracks on A Child's Garden of Freberg that deserve mention, too. "John and Marsha" is a two-character soap opera with a pair of lovers (both played by Stan) saying each other's names over and over in various tones of voice while sappy "romantic" music plays in the background. This famous bit, simple but ingenious, was referenced by Bugs Bunny, imitated by John and Yoko, and even resurrected on Mad Men. The lushly-orchestrated "That's My Boy" is a song in which a proud papa boasts about his son, who sounds like a violent and destructive brat. "He'll talk to you in words just as plain," Freberg brags. "See how clear he says 'derail the train?'" This track is a reminder that the supposed innocence of children is merely a figment of adult imaginations. This was South Park half a century early.

Overall grade: (what else?) A*

*Don't worry. I'll eventually do some albums I hate in this series, too.