Sunday, October 18, 2015

The first 'Wizard of Oz' soundtrack album was neither a soundtrack nor an album. Discuss.

This artwork is from a later reissue of the 1940 Decca sides.

When MGM's The Wizard of Oz was first released in 1939, it did not actually get a proper soundtrack album for a darned good reason: such things were not technically possible at the time. The long-playing or LP record capable of holding several songs per side was not introduced until 1948 by Columbia. The crucial format change made the modern concept of the album possible, more or less. Before this innovation, a vinyl record only had enough storage space for about one song per side. If a label wanted to group a whole slew of songs together, it would package several individual 78 RPM discs together in a book-like binding. These collections were called "albums" because of their resemblance to photo albums. That's where the term originates. Decades later, in 1979, the innovative post-punk band Public Image Ltd. sort of revived this concept with its sophomore album, Metal Box, which was originally released in the form of three separate 12" discs packaged in metal film canisters.

Decca's Wizard of Oz cast album from 1940
When John Lydon and his cronies did this in the late 1970s, it was an attention-grabbing stunt. But back in the early 1940s, it was the industry standard for so-called "albums" to consist of several short-playing discs bundled together. Interestingly, such a marvelously clunky release counts as the first-ever attempt to compile an official Wizard of Oz soundtrack. Decca Records, the label that a few decades hence would infamously turn down The Beatles, released what it called an "Original Cast Album" for the lush MGM musical, though the only cast member of the film involved with the project was Judy Garland, who provided vocals for two tracks, "Over the Rainbow" and  "The Jitterbug," the latter of which was notoriously deleted from the film.

To add further authenticity to the Decca recordings, the vocal arrangements were done by Ken Darby, who also worked on the film, and Oz songwriter Harold Arlen portrayed the Scarecrow on at least one track. The orchestra, meanwhile, was led by Victor Young, a multi-talented, Chicago-born violinist, composer, and conductor who worked on such films as Shane, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Paleface, and many others. Decca's Oz album, which has been dubbed a "pre-soundtrack" even though it came out after the movie, contained eight tracks spread out over four discs, plus a six-page foldout brochure and stills and photos explaining the plot of the film. From the photos I've seen, it's a pretty deluxe package and a neat souvenir. For a mere $12,500, you can own Judy Garland's personal copy, if you so desire.

A reissue of the Decca material.
Now that the actual recordings used in the MGM film are commonplace and easily available, complete with outtakes, alternate versions, and Herbert Stothart's score, the 1940 Decca recordings have fallen out of favor and are no longer in print. The two tracks with vocals by Judy Garland are available as part of a compilation called Over the Rainbow: The Decca Singles,  while the other six songs are sadly neglected these days. 

But Decca's Oz material had a healthy afterlife for about four decades, being reissued time and time again by the label, sometimes paired with Decca's versions of the songs from the 1940 Walt Disney production, Pinocchio. A few of those Pinocchio tracks, incidentally, feature vocals by Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, who voiced Jiminy Cricket in the animated film. Apparently, Decca's strategy back then was: get at least one real person from the movie, preferably the one whose voice would be hardest to imitate. The most recent iteration of the Decca album came out in 1980. Since then, nothing. This material is not commercially available in 2015, except as a collectible on Ebay.

Happily, this little slice of Wizard of Oz history has not entirely vanished from the Internet. All eight tracks are available on YouTube to those who go looking. What's especially interesting about these recordings, apart from the participation of Garland, Darby, and Arlen, is that many of the tracks feature newly-composed introductions. Just as in the movie, the songwriting credit on the album only goes to Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Perhaps the original composers wrote these new sections themselves. It's certainly possible. Additionally, there are segments of "Muchkinland" on the album that are sung rather than spoken as they are in the film. In those cases, the melodies match those from the demo recordings made by Arlen and Harburg during preproduction on Oz. That suggests to me that perhaps the songwriting duo was more heavily involved in the Decca sessions and may well have written those new intros. In any event, it's a nice little footnote to movie and music history.