Rat Packery in Pop
On a regional audition round for the South African version of Idols, a hopeful entrant introduced his chosen song as “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head by…Michael Bublé”. As one would expect, the contestant’s performance was thoroughly mediocre.
I have no particular beef with Michael Bublé — except that he personifies the banalisation of the rich legacy of what Rod Stewart (of late another offender) calls “The Great American Songbook”. Bublé compensates for his lack of personality with some talent. His swinging version of George Michael’s Kissing A Fool was quite excellent. But Bublé and singers of his ilk have created an impression that anybody can and should sing the standards.
His is not a solitary presence in that accusation, of course. Many more talented artists have travelled the retro route and some have even found their way. Natalie Cole, when not singing ghoulish duets with her father, is a wonderful interpreter of the standards. Even Phil Collins delivered a good performance with Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me on Quincy Jones’ Q’s Jook Joint album (he undid all the goodwill he might have merited for that by producing a thoroughly ghastly album of his songs in Big Band style).
But blame for the banalisation of the big band must be appointed. Frank Albert Sinatra (his birth certificate said Frank; Francis was a later affectation. It also erroneously called him Sinestro) has to shoulder some of it for allowing himself to be recorded duetting with a bunch of chancers, among a few genuinely talented artists. It communicated a most vile message: if Bono can sing poorly with the self-styled Chairman of the Board (and, my goodness, how embarrassing are his vocals in contrast to even a half-assed Sinatra), then so can any old joker. Like Robbie Williams.
Robbie Williams sees himself as a latter-day one-man Rat Pack, and so he did what comes naturally to latter-day one-man Rat Packs: record an album of songs that may evoke the Rat Pack (the Sinatra-led version, not Bogart’s original gang). So it is not a surprise when on the terrible version of Me And My Shadow — a Rat Pack anthem — the word “pally” is self-consciously used to describe a friend. And, of course, there is the obligatory duet with Sinatra-from-beyond-the-grave. In fairness, Williams did not do an entirely bad job on his Swing When You’re Winning album of 2001. But more than reflecting well on Williams, it really proved that with a good arrangement, any old karaoke singer can sound good. The song selection was astute, lacing the eye-bleedingly obvious with a few less remembered numbers. The cover art was good as well, a successful pastiche of a late ’50s Capitol record (even if much of the material post-dates that era).
The filmed concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall — incredibly not renamed the Francis Albert Hall for the occasion — is entertaining, because Robbie Williams certainly can entertain you, with a little help from his talented friends. Williams doesn’t take himself too seriously, he mugs with a bizarre combination of self-deprecation, modesty and smugness. All that. And yet: on what basis does Robbie Williams presume to measure himself against Sinatra, Sammy Davis or Nat King Cole? And if his intention is not to measure himself against the legends, what is he doing covering them (other than to make money)?
The most cringe-inducing portion of Williams’ show is also the most telling. The singer who so craves to shiver in reflected Rat Pack Cool tells the audience how much he loves his mummy. Which is nice; a good boy should love his mummy. It is a sweet moment, if one can stomach maudlin moments of sentimentality. But what would Sinatra do? Most likely he’d have said something like: “Ladies and gentleman, my mother. She’s one classy broad.” And then perhaps threaten Dino with violence for making eyes at his Ma before returning to racially abusing his close pally Sammy. In contrast, Robbie Williams is a real Harvey.
Williams’ success-in-a-tux set the scene for the advent of all manner of fake rat-packery. Canadian Bublé and the insufferable Jamie Cullum soon had the housewives lusting. Then Westlife, the blandest, most characterless pop band ever, got in on the act. Dressed like — and you would not guess it — a Rat Pack living it up at The Sands (the Scunthorpe version rather than the mafia palacio in Vegas, presumably), they issued a batch of standards selected not for their suitability but instant recognisability. And then they titled their karaoke collection, with putrid punnery, Allow Us To Be Frank. I wouldn’t allow you to be Daisy, never mind Frank. Did the world of music absolutely need Westlife’s interpretations?
At around the same time our old friend Michael Fucking Bolton (as his mother calls him) — having had his vicious way with soul and opera — molested the Sinatra canon and Rod Stewart began his American Songbook series. The first of these Songbook albums was quite good, as far as pastiche goes, if somewhat redundant (did we really need Rod singing standards?). But one album of that was quite enough. When the concept turned into a franchise, Stewart ended up performing songs that have no claim for inclusion in any great Songbook.
Here’s the rub with revival of ratpackery. You don’t go around impersonating Jesus just because you think the Gospel According Matthew is brilliant. You have to earn to earn it first, baby. Likewise, you don’t just decide to do Sinatra because your Mum had the Strangers In The Night single and you think you look great with brylcreemed hair. You have to earn it first. Which means you don’t just sing the ring-a-ding-ding showstoppers, but learn to do the quiet stuff. Don’t ask me to fly with you unless you first have mastered the lonely introspection brought on by being caught in the wee small hours of the morning. And, for fuck’s sake, know that Ain’t That A Kick In The Head is a Dean Martin song.
Here then, for the benefit of those who think that Straighten Up And Fly Right is a Robbie Williams original, are the songs he covered on the Swing While Your Winning in more glorious recordings, in the sequence of the Williams album — plus Anita O’Day’s fine version of It’s De-Lovely, which Williams covered (rather well) on the biopic about Cole Porter, De-Lovely.
1. Anita O’Day – It’s De-Lovely (1959)
2. Ella Fitzgerald – Mack The Knife (live, 1960)
3. Carson & Gaile – Something Stupid (1967)
4. Billie Holiday – Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me (1946)
5. Kingston Trio – It Was A Very Good Year (1961)
6. King Cole Trio – Straighten Up And Fly Right (1942)
7. Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra – Well Did You Evah (1956)
8. Nina Simone – Mr Bojangles (1971)
9. Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra – One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) (live, 1966)
10. Nancy Sinatra & Dean Martin – Things (1966)
11. Dean Martin – Ain’t That A Kick In The Head (1960)
12. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – They Can’t Take That Away From Me (1957)
13. Frank Sinatra – Have You Met Miss Jones (1961)
14. Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis Jr. – Me And My Shadow (1963)
15. Bobby Darin – Beyond The Sea (live, 1971)