Thursday, November 10, 2011

A writer's pet peeve

WARNING: This is one of my cranky rants about nothing but I'm compelled to complain about anyway.  (Andy Rooney lives.)

It drives me nuts when I’m at a concert and in the middle of a song the performer breaks the mood to introduce somebody or do a joke. The songwriters worked hard to craft a song that had a certain story or evoked a certain emotion, and the singer destroys it by blurting out “my new CD is in the lobby!” or "on piano -- the King Kong of the Keyboards -- Mr. Lester Spork!"

A prime offender of this was Sinatra during the ring-a-ding Rat Pack era. No one was ever better at interpreting songs than Frank Sinatra.  Yet put him on stage with a drink in his hand and he suddenly became the Kingfish. He’d respectfully credit the songwriter then in the middle of “Eb Tide” break into an Amos & Andy voice and slander Sammy Davis.

Sure you should introduce your band and backup singers and fog machine operator but not in the middle of “Unchained Melody.”  Lyrics are not just words you sing between racial slurs. 

What if actors followed this practice during plays.


George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that's perfectly okay, that's all right.

Martha: You can stand it!

George: I cannot stand it!

Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it! Ladies and gentlemen, Buster Ignatz, our Art Director!


Hamlet: In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
How about these costumes? Ladies and gentlemen, Ruth Schmegegy and the gals from the shop!
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.

The television equivalent is Pop-Up videos. As an “experiment” they employed them one time during an episode of ABC’s SABRINA THE TEEN WITCH.

Sabrina: Aunt Hilda, I’ve done all I can do, period.

BLIP: Melissa Joan Hart’s first period came six days after her 13th birthday.

And it extends even beyond TV. This is a true story.  I was at a bachelor party for a member of CHEERS.

Two women strippers were engaging in some very fine girl-on-girl action when one turned to us and said, “So you guys write CHEERS? How does that work? Does one person write the whole script or do you each take characters…?”  Needless to say, all the flags were lowered to half-mast.

Anyway, you get the idea. Just sing the song. Or suckle her breasts. Again, it’s a matter of respect for the writers.  Thank you.


22 comments : said...

Similarly, lead singers in rock bands introducing a solo by saying "guitar!" Yeah, thanks, we know what it is.

Please Leave Name said...

Wonder how many people reading your post even get the Kingfish reference and know who he is?

Howard Hoffman said...

This goes hand-in-hand with the almost universal pet peeve...when the lead singer at a show tells the audience to sing.

Sure. Give me my ninety bucks back and I'll sing your song for you. Until then, YOU sing it. That's why we're here.

Blaze said...

That's generally why I'm the resistant stick-in-the-mud when my circle wants to go to live concerts. There are, I guess, two kinds of music lovers:. People who enjoy the music and are perfectly content with a high quality recording. People who are, at their core, hysterical teens screaming at the sight of the Beatles or Bieber. Being in the same (very large) room as a favourite performer tingles their toes, no matter what mess he/she/they are doing on stage.

RCP said...

Delightfully funny!

You know you're in for a time when you hear, "You know, as a singer, in all seriousness..."

emily said...

Lester Spork, Buster Ignatz and Ruth Schmegegy together again for the first time!

Nathan said...

I can't help picturing the last story, except the bachelor party is a bunch of doctors. One of the strippers backs up to give the groom a sexy lapdance and whispers, "As long as I'm here, I've got this nasty rash I can't get rid of."

RS Gray said...

I have to disagree somewhat. People attend theater and music concerts for very different reasons. The lure of theater is its ephemerality. The performance you see only exists in the moment you see it, and reading the play or seeing a tape of a performance does not bring the same connection to the play. A live performance of a play is the true expression of that playwrite's intent (some more closely than others, but that's a matter of degree) and most theater criticism is based on the fidelity of that expression.

Most people go to music concerts however, for the spontaneity of the event and a personal connection to the performer. Sinatra was Sinatra not because he sang the songs exactly as they had been written, but because of his ability to interpret them through his own charismatic and unique character. Some of that comes across in the recordings, but seeing Sinatra in person was the only true way to experience the force of his personality. As Dean Martin used to say, "You wanna hear me sing perfect, you go buy an ablum [sic]." Think about it - what's the worst charge leveled at performers nowadays? That they lip-synced their performance. Why? Because we paid to see that performer's personality, not a rote recitation of the same songs we already have on CD.

jbryant said...

"Eb Tide" -- was that the theme from GREEN ACRES?

Re distractions: It's always fun when you're watching LAW & ORDER SVU on USA and some gruesome scene is interrupted by the guys from PSYCH popping up at the bottom of the screen doing some physical comedy shtick.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Isn't Saturday Night Live's opening act always based around that pet peeve?

You get people involved in some intriguing story, and all of a sudden they break character yelling: "It's Saturday Night!"

And it can be somewhat funny.

Anonymous said...

NewsRadio did a "Pop Up Video" episode once (it was an in-season rerun). It actually came off pretty well), but I agree with your point still.

Cindy G. String said...

I bet Norm wrote the character of Cliff.

Mary Stella said...

Great Big Radio Guy said:

This goes hand-in-hand with the almost universal pet peeve...when the lead singer at a show tells the audience to sing.

Sure. Give me my ninety bucks back and I'll sing your song for you. Until then, YOU sing it. That's why we're here.

Except in Springsteen concerts. There are certain songs where the audience knows to sing the lines and that has always created a really cool, connected moment -- at least for me.

wv= wingstru -- When a viewer asks Ken if any part of Wings was based on his life.

Jake Mabe said...

One thing I'll say about Sinatra, and you were good enough to mention part of this, is that he almost always mentioned the song's composer AND usually its arranger before or after singing the song. NOBODY does that and it's one of the classiest things I've ever seen a singer do.

Point taken about his interruptions, and he did do them from time to time, but the only time I remember hearing the Kingfish bit ("And when I told that to Sapphire, she said, 'You been goin' round with that bum again'") was during a monologue, not in the middle of an actual song, most famously during the Sands engagement with Count Basie, mid-'60s.

(And I think the song is actually called "Ebb Tide.")

Mike Barer said...

Steve And Eydie are notorious for that as are the Smother's Brothers.

selection7 said...

Funny post Ken. For me the issue has more often been when the performer makes a mistake. In that case you can't really teach how to know when to soldier on and when to use the moment to connect with or entertain your audience, it's a feel thing. I've seen it work and not work both ways.

I don't think most performers understand how little a mistake matters if you handle it well. As an audience member, it reminds me I'm watching something organic. An exception is tripping over your words during a punch-line. I'm in awe of comedians and comedic actors who never do.

selection7 said...

More generically, it depends on how and when you do it. But that's not profound. Any performance where spontaneity is part of the appeal needs to leave some trust in the performers hands.

In rock and roll, most of the time the performer IS the writer, and yet they still take things off the rails sometimes. That's because it's not about disrespecting themselves as songwriters.

JP said...

I take issue with the statement that no one was better at interpreting a song than Sinatra. Have you ever heard his rendition of "Mrs. Robinson"?

Kirk said...

I read somewhere that Frank Sinatra once introduced his rendition of "Old Man River" by saying "This song is about Sammy Davis Jr's people" I don't know if that's a slur exactly, but it is a severe case of racial stereotyping.

Hanging around the Rat Pack, Davis must have been used to that. There's an old black-and-white film of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Davis on stage together (actually, the still photo at the top of this post may be taken from that). Martin sneaks behind Davis, picks him up, and says, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for giving me this award." Davis laughed it off, but the whole thing is kind of weird.

How about singers comically changing lyrics in the middle of songs? Elvis Presley used to do that all the time in his Vegas years. I remember seeing a piece of film with him singing "Love Me Tender" where he slips in "and I can't stand you". He also once sang of a place at he end of Lonely Street called "Heartburn Hotel"

jbryant said...

JP: I think we can allow Sinatra the occasional clinker (among the hundreds of songs he recorded) without revoking his Great Interpreter title.

cadavra said...

Since the Smothers Brothers were primarily a comedy act, I think the interruptions were the point.

BTW, saw ANYTHING GOES again last night, and at one point, John McMartin's glasses fell off. Colin Donnell completely lost it, then the rest of the ensemble also broke up, and the audience was in stitches. You live for moments like that.

WV: nones--one less than ones.

Dan Tedson said...

I think it'd be funny if it went the other way and stand-up comics started imitating singers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this one's for a very special lady who's stood by me through the good times and the bad. She's kept me on the straight path with her love and kindness, forgiven me when I strayed. You're my heart, Jeannie. This one's for you.

A polock, a transvestite, and a Baldwin walk into a bar..."