I've noticed lately that elevator music, muzak, the background music of our lives has gotten better – or not. We are no longer subjected to bad instrumental versions of top 40 songs or Ennio Morricone scores while we stroll the mall, wait in a grocery line or sit in the doctor's office. I feel liberated – or not. I mean Bruce Springsteen is being piped in now along with The Stones, Beatles, Eagles, Billy Joel, and Elton John. And you don't have to put up with an annoying DJ. But while something has been gained, something has been lost. In a mall setting, the great rebel anthem Born to Run loses its edge. We're not "strapped to our suicide machines" in search of that "runaway American dream". Not hardly. We are tethered to our walkers in search of the nearest rest room. It's like the song has been completely emasculated. All the piss and vigor has been taken out as an old coach used to say. Its still Springsteen singing, but it's just not the same anymore. Seated in the doctor's office I hear the old Brownsville Station hit Smoking In The Boy's Room. How weird is that? What's next? KC and the Sunshine Band's Shake Your Booty. There are sick people here who shouldn't smoke and not in a position to shake their booties (me included). Perhaps a more apt song should be Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb.
Just when I'm resigned to listening to old Henry Mancini movie theme songs, I hear a song that's a breath of fresh air and takes me back to childhood. It's an old 1972 hit called Oh Babe, What Would You Say? I was enchanted by it when it first came out and I'm still enchanted by it all these many years later as an adult. It was such an unlikely hit. It was so different from everything else that was playing in 1972. Its big band intro is followed by a wailing saxophone before it settles into a waltz. The song has an old timey feel to it hearkening back to the days of Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville. And the voice was so different. It wasn't the voice of a polished singer. Gravelly and at times straining to hit the high notes just as in the song the singer is straining to woo the object of his affection. The song itself is about love in all of its cheery innocence. I would later gravitate toward singer/ songwriters who were hell-bent in turning their angst and personal demons into song material. But there are times when personal demons must be relegated to the basement of the soul and cynicism must take a backseat to cheery innocence. Oh babe, what would you say?
At 49, Norman "Hurricane" Smith was an unlikely pop star. While he had been in the recording industry for years, he was the one behind the console, not the microphone. He started his music career as a sound engineer. But not just any sound engineer. He worked for legendary Beatles producer George Martin turning knobs and tweaking the sound on those early Fab Four albums. John Lennon dubbed him "Norman Normal" for being the quintessential company man. Smith would later land a job as an A & R executive at EMI Capitol. It was there that he discovered and signed then underground London group Pink Floyd. He went on to produce their early albums. While making songwriting demos in the early 70's, a producer friend of Smith urged him to release the songs himself. Thus Oh Babe What Would You Say? landed on the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic and into my receptive ears. I would later buy the album and would discover there were other gems worth listening to as well. Songs such as the wonderful Take Suki Home, Theme from an Unmade Silent Movie, the Beatlesque Don't Let It Die (a song exploring ecological devastation), Back in the Country, and Who Was It (written by then up and coming singer/songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan). The 80's and 90's was a period of semi-retirement for Smith. He dabbled in a few recording projects by other artists and went into the horse breeding business. In 2003 at the ripe old age of 80, he returned with From Me To You. Produced by his son, the album contained many of the songs on the original record plus recollections of his work with the Beatles and Pink Floyd. In 2007, Smith's memoir John Lennon Called Me Normal was published. Sadly, Smith passed away in 2008 at the age of 85.
The late self destructive Texas songwriting great Townes Van Zandt once said that "there's only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah". And while I'll still immerse myself in the blues, a little bit of zippety doo-dah can't hurt. Oh Babe What Would You Say ? has made elevator music more tolerable and has made a dismal day a little brighter. Such is the transformative power of a song. It's almost as powerful a transformation that changed "Norman Normal" the company man into "Hurricane" Smith the dynamic performer.