Saturday, July 6, 2013

Name That Tune: Six more songs you didn't know you knew

Tom Kennedy hosted the 1970s version of Name That Tune.

One of the stated goals of this blog has been to give its readers exactly what they want, and I've noticed that among the most consistently popular articles in the blog's history is this piece about tough-to-identify songs. It seems to generate traffic every month, and since this happens to be a particular interest of mine, I am more than happy to bring you a sequel. I once thought about devoting this entire blog to the issue of "song identification," but instead I decided to limit it to these occasional updates. Hopefully, you'll find this one interesting and informative.

"But hey," as Marty DiBergi (aka Rob Reiner) once memorably declared, "enough of my yakkin'! Whaddaya say? Let's boogie!"

1. "Hearts and Flowers"

Bugs Bunny feigns death.
This maudlin melody (the famous part kicks in at 0:19), written in 1893 by Theodore Moses-Tobani and based on a melody from Hungarian composer Alphons Czibulka, has an extremely specific function in popular culture: mock sympathy. It is used, normally in cartoons (especially Looney Tunes, where it was used to underscore those "Ya got me, doc!" moments when Bugs Bunny pretended to be shot) but sometimes in live-action comedies (such as A Christmas Story, during the sequence when Ralphie imagines himself as a blind beggar) and even occasionally in real life, to belittle someone else's misfortune or imply that a person is overstating the nature of a supposed "tragedy." When people do that "world's smallest violin" joke by rubbing their thumb and index finger together, this is likely the melody they will hum in accompaniment. Modern listeners may have the mistaken impression that "Hearts and Flowers" was used frequently in silent films, but this does not seem to have been the case.

2. "Hernando's Hideaway"

Billy Crystal as "Fernando."
I said in the last article that if people knew just one piece of tango music, it's "La Cumparsita." If they know two, the second is likely "Hernando's Hideaway." (The part you know starts at 0:45.) Ironically, the latter is not an authentic South American tango at all, but rather a Broadway showtune written by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler for the 1954 musical The Pajama Game. "Hernando's Hideaway," which has words but is often performed as an instrumental, has been recorded by a whole host of artists from Ella Fitzgerald and Mantovani to Homer & Jethro and the Everly Brothers.

The version I like best is by a 1960s guitar-rock outfit called The Ventures, the group behind "Walk Don't Run" and other hits. And, yes, this song did provide the inspiration for "Fernando's Hideaway," a popular recurring skit on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s, featuring Billy Crystal as a silver-haired Latin talk show host modeled after Fernando Lamas. This sketch, which used "Hernando's Hideaway" as its theme, introduced Crystal's famous catchphrase, "You look marvelous!"

3. Minuet from String Quartet in E Major, Op. 11 No. 5

Krusty with typical snob.
This minuet, composed in 1771 by Luigi Boccherini, is another piece of music with a very particular cultural connotation. Specifically, it evokes the stuffy, old-fashioned gentility of the moneyed upper class. For whatever reason, this particular piece of music has become the anthem of the snobs in countless "slobs vs. snobs" comedies.

In movies, you'll hear it at fancy restaurants, exclusive country clubs, and refined cocktail parties. It doesn't represent sophistication so much as it represents a silly parody of sophistication. Very often when you hear this tune, an uncouth buffoon is about to show up and spoil the rich folks' tranquility with his crude language and gross behavior, causing a gray-haired matron to put her hand to her chest and declare, "Well, I never!"

Because of this music's sissified nature, furthermore, it is often used by comedians in a sarcastic or ironic way, i.e. the coda to "Heavy Duty" by Spinal Tap. Elsewhere, this music turns up in Family Guy, Date Movie, Animaniacs, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Witless Protection with Larry the Cable Guy, always used in pretty much the same way. Sorry, Luigi.

4. "Chicken Reel"

The sheet music.
You might not even think of "Chicken Reel" as being a song or guessed that it was ever written by anyone. It's so deeply ingrained in our culture as a signifier of rural life in general and farming in particular that we may not even notice it. But, yes, it was written by Joseph M. Daly in 1910 as a reel, i.e. a two-step folk dance which had originated in Scotland but had traversed the Atlantic and found favor in America and Canada. "Chicken Reel," then, was the 1910 equivalent of what we'd today call a club banger. This was a tune designed to get people out on the dance floor.

This particular reel, as you might guess from the title, was meant to imitate the sound of chickens clucking in a barnyard. It was given lyrics by Joseph Mittenthal in 1911 and has been covered and rearranged many times over the last century, including versions by Leroy Anderson and Les Paul. Its real legacy, though, lies in innumerable cartoons, movies, and commercials where its presence instantly suggests we are "down on the farm." You'll hear it in A Christmas Story in scenes involving the hound dogs owned by the Parkers' "hillbilly neighbors," the Bumpasses.

5. "Sleep Walk"

Santo and Johnny.
"Sleep Walk" was memorably used in the 1987 film La Bamba. So memorably used, in fact, that people mistakenly believe it was recorded by that film's subject, the late Ritchie Valens. It wasn't. "Sleep Walk" -- and, officially, the title is two separate words -- was instead the creation of an Italian-American brother act called Santo & Johnny, who took the dreamy, otherworldly tune to #1 in 1959. Originally called "Deep Sleep," it was the slowed-down simplification of a jazz standard called "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise." The brothers wrote a set of lyrics for the famous melody, which Besty Brye included in her cover, but their hit version was an instrumental. That's why the title of this tune is not as well known as it ought to be. I can't imagine how many people have bothered record store clerks over the years by singing or humming this song because they didn't know the name.

Santo, the innovator of the family, played the melodic line on the steel guitar, while brother Johnny accompanied him on a standard electric guitar. They made the Top 40 just once more with a similar-sounding follow-up called "Teardrop." Santo's retired now, but Johnny still tours with a new band. "Sleep Walk," meanwhile, has been covered by axemen ranging from Brian Setzer to Carlos Santana.

6. "Dance of the Knights" (or "Montagues and Capulets")

A smelly ad.
One of the most sinister, foreboding pieces of music I have ever heard, "Dance of the Knights" or "Montagues and Capulets" was written in 1935 by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for his popular ballet, Romeo and Juliet. But Sergei didn't write that famous fantasy overture about Shakespeare's doomed couple. That was Tchaikovsky about 65 years earlier. And he didn't write the couple's hit love theme either. That was Henry Mancini about 34 years later. Prokofiev's famous piece comes from Act I, Scene 2 of his ballet and was intended to create an ominous mood during a scene in which it serves as the somber accompaniment to a dance by Juliet's family. The creepy but catchy tune has been adapted by many rock bands, ranging from Iron Maiden to the Smiths, which is one hell of a range. In England, it's the theme music for The Apprentice, and it's been used to sell everything from Egoiste perfume to the movie Caligula. I'm sure that's not what Sergei would have intended or wanted for this particular piece, but that's the way the historical cookie crumbled, so to speak.

So there you have it! Six more musical mysteries solved. If you'd like to see more articles of this type, please let me know in the comments section below. Believe me, I have a bunch of 'em! And I'm open to requests, too.  Don't be shy! Speak right up!