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Off the Beaten Tracks: Randy Newman, master craftsman (continued)

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NOT so long ago the great British musician Nick Lowe was asked at a public question-and-answer session who he thought were the top two songwriters in the business. ‘Bob Dylan, the greatest,’ he replied. ‘And Randy Newman is in there, but he’s not as prolific.’ That was something of an understatement. While His Bobness has released 70-odd albums over the years, Newman has managed a mere 11 studio efforts in half a century. I looked at his first four in a previous column, so here are the rest.

Following 1974’s classic Good Old Boys, it was 1977 before our Rand returned to the studio to record Little Criminals, best known for its first track Short People, which went to No 2 in the US singles chart. Adopting his oft-used persona as a knuckleheaded bigot, Newman intended the song as an attack on prejudice, ‘Short people got no reason to live’, but it was of course taken the wrong way by many who assumed it was his true belief.

Groups representing the vertically challenged demanded the song be banned, while Isaiah Dixon, a delegate from the State of Maryland, proposed a law to prevent it being played on the radio. The assistant Attorney General nixed that, ruling that it would be a violation of the First Amendment enshrining the right to free speech. Newman, who received several death threats, protested: ‘I had no idea that there was any sensitivity, I mean, that anyone could believe that anyone was as crazy as that character. To have that kind of animus against short people, and then to sing it and put it all in song and have a philosophy on it.’ Despite its success, he would later claim to hate the track, describing it as a ‘bad break’ and a ‘novelty record, like the Chipmunks’, adding: ‘It’s purely a joke. I like other ones on the album better but the audiences go for that one.’  

Among the songs he preferred to Short People are, I should think, the anti-police Jolly Coppers on Parade, the creepy In Germany Before The War, about a child murderer, and Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America, which speaks for itself. Then we have Newman posing as a cowboy on Rider in the Rain, backed by the Eagles. The one straightforward, non-ironic track on the album is the gentle I’ll Be Home, which was originally recorded by Harry Nilsson on his 1970 LP Nilsson sings Newman.

Randy had high hopes for his next album, 1979’s Born Again, whose cover photo portrays him as a businessman at his desk with face painted like a member of Kiss, mocking the commercialism of the music industry. It attracted rotten reviews, calling it ‘snide and nihilistic’ (heaven forfend), and even worse sales figures, which is a shame because I think it’s brilliant. The opening track, It’s Money That I Love, sets the tone while The Story of a Rock and Roll Band is a wickedly accurate parody of the Electric Light Orchestra.

Mr Sheep is a savage attack on boring office workers. I played it to a civil servant friend and he was mortally offended, taking it as referring to himself. Then again he could have been right. The Girls in My Life (Part One) concludes with the lines:

Now I’m married,
Have a very lovely wife.
Three cute little boys,
It’s so nice.
And that’s just half the story
Of the girls in my life.

Equally wicked is Half a Man, a deliberate provocation of the gay lobby, suggesting that homosexuality can be caught like a disease through contact. And finally, Pants, a dig at libidinous rock stars. As the man himself once said: ‘Most of my songs are about insensitivity of some kind.’

Four years would pass before the release of Trouble in Paradise, which starts in blistering fashion with the California anthem I Love LA, detailing the attractions of Newman’s home city including palm trees, beautiful women and homeless beggars. Despite its ironic theme, the song was enthusiastically embraced by Los Angeles sports teams including the Dodgers, Rams, Lakers and Galaxy, who all play it loudly when they win.

The album continues with Christmas in Capetownagain with the trademark nasty narratorfollowed by The Blues, featuring Paul Simon in self-deprecation mode. My Life Is Good includes a reference to Bruce Springsteen, who says to him: ‘Rand, I’m tired. How would you like to be the Boss for a while?’ Perhaps my favourite track is the short, sweet, jaunty I’m Different with its prim girlie backing vocals.

With writing music for films occupying an increasing amount of his time, there was a five-year gap between Trouble in Paradise and 1988’s Land of Dreams, during which time Newman separated from Roswitha, his German-born wife of 20 years. Land of Dreams is his most autobiographical album, with the first three tracks about his childhood – Dixie FlyerNew Orleans Wins the War and Four Eyes.The last three are great – the patriotic Follow the Flag, I Want You To Hurt Like I Do and It’s Money That Matters, featuring Mark Knopfler, whose stellar guitar ensured it would be a hit single. It’s a measure of the reverence in which Newman is held by his fellow musicians that stars such as Knopfler, Simon, Ry Cooder and many more are keen to contribute to his records.

Apart from Newman’s patchy 1995 musical Faust, in which he played Mephistopheles, and a 1998 four-disc retrospective, Guilty, it took him 11 years to come up with his next album proper, Bad Love. He felt it was ‘maybe my best record’. Not sure about that, but there are plenty of strong tracks. The opener, My Country, criticises America’s ever-growing obsession with television. Shame deals with a rich old man and his obsession with a younger lover. The female backing vocalist keeps interrupting with the words shame, shame, shame, shame until an exasperated Randy tells her to ‘shut up’. I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It bemoans his fading musical powers:

When will I end this bitter game?
When will I end this cruel charade?
Everything I write all sounds the same
Each record that I’m making
Is like a record that I’ve made
Just not as good.  

On a similar theme is the lovely Better Off Dead, while Big Hat, No Cattle is about liars and braggarts. Newman describes The World Isn’t Fair as ‘real good’ and adds: ‘I’m proud of that one.’ Best of all is I Miss You, addressed to his ex-wife. No jokes, no dumb narrators, just raw emotion.

I want to thank you for the good years
And apologise for the rough ones
You must be laughing yourself sick
Up there in Idaho
But I wanted to write you one
Before I quit
And this one’s it.

In a radio interview to promote the album, Newman was asked by Glenn Tilbrook of the British band Squeeze what his current missus thought about I Miss You. He replied that while he was usually sensitive to the feelings of ’Er Indoors, ‘I write what I write.’

With the release in 2003 of The Randy Newman Songbook Vol 1, solo piano retreads of past numbers, I feared the old fella’s creative powers were on the wane. I feared wrong. His tenth studio album, 2008’s Harps and Angels, is a beezer.

The title track describes a near-death experience when the narrator is struck down and paralysed. Although not a religious man, he issues a prayer ‘just in case’ and it is answered by a chorus of angels and a higher power who advises him that his life is being spared owing to ‘a clerical error by someone very dear to me’ but warns he had better clean up his act, otherwise ‘there won’t be no harps and angels coming for you, will be trombones, kettledrums, pitchforks and tambourines’.

This is followed by Losing You, a song explained in moving fashion by Newman here. 

The mood is lifted by Laugh and Be Happy, which could almost have been recorded in the 1930s or 40s, followed by an ironic history lesson in A Few Words in Defence of Our Country

A Piece of the Pie is about how the world is going down the pan ‘and no one gives a sh*t but Jackson Browne’. Of the provocative Korean Parents, about the competition between American and Asian children in the education system, Newman said he knew it would get him into trouble, admitting: ‘You can’t stereotype a people even if it’s a compliment.’

The penultimate track, Potholes, is described by Newman as ‘the most absolutely honest song I’ve ever written’ while the last one, Feels Like Home, is recycled from the Faust musical where it was sung by Bonnie Raitt.

Following two more editions of The Randy Newman Songbook, 2017 saw the release of Dark Matter, with our boy now aged 74 but still in good form. Several publications put it among their albums of the year. The opening track, The Great Debate, is at eight minutes probably his longest ever. It sets out to be an argument between science and faith, pitting ‘the most expensive scientists in the world’ against religious leaders on subjects such as evolution, climate change and dark matter, punctuated by a gospel choir singing: ‘I take Jesus every time.’

Putin pokes fun at the Russian leader, (Putin’s puttin’ his pants on) while Lost Without You and Wandering Boy are Newman at his saddest.

With so many great songs to his name, I find it a shame that Randy is best known, particularly to younger folk, for his film music. Having said that, it has made him a great deal of money over the years. He held the record for most Oscar nominations without winning, at 15, until he broke his duck in 2001 when If I Didn’t Have You, from Monsters Inc, was named Best Original Song. Receiving a standing ovation, he protested: ‘I don’t want your pity!’

Ten years later he triumphed again, with We Belong Together from Toy Story 3, but admitted that with two Oscars from 20 nominations ‘my percentages aren’t great’.

He told the audience that he had been advised not to ‘take a list out of your pocket and thank a lot of people’ because it did not make for good television, but added: ‘I just have to thank these people. I don’t want to. I want to be good television so badly.’

PS: To any adults who have avoided watching the Toy Story movie series because they think it’s just for kids, I would say think again. They are funny and moving, with plenty of witty references to entertain the grown-ups. Much like Randy Newman, who richly deserves his place beside Dylan and Mitchell on music’s Mount Olympus.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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