Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Last First

I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC4 yesterday on band leader, composer and king of so-called Easy Listening - James Last.

It’s very easy to be snobbish about music. I do it myself. I try to be humble and kind and conciliatory to my friends’ music choices, but every so often the Snob sneaks out of my upturned nostrils and has his say. It happened recently when the mysterious Me– my dear friend Debbie – announced that she had tickets for live performances by both Take That and McFly. Immediately and without any consideration for her taste and feelings I launched into what I thought was a humorous tirade of abuse. Plastic pop ... Formulaic ... MOR ... the words slipped from my tongue like acid. It was only later that I realised how unkind I had been. And how blisteringly, callously snobbish. What right have I to denigrate another person’s taste? Isn’t all taste valid? As Margaret Wolfe Hungerford said ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The sentiment may be older – possibly even originating in classical Greece - but Margaret was the first to coin the phrase in modern literature … and she hit the nail on the head.

I have become a snob. As a society, we’ve become snobbish. We all have opinions and we feel the need - indeed insist on our right - to express them. Football fans jeer from the terraces, expressing their views on the state of play. Demonstrators march upon Downing Street to express their opinions on aspects of the law or some perceived erosion of their civil rights. Phone-ins and chat shows appeal for people’s opinions. We’re all encouraged to ‘have our say’ and to complain about the service we receive. The tabloids, it seems to me, are nothing but opinion wrapped around a fulsome pair of baps. But, and here’s the rub, opinion by its very nature can only ever be a personal view of the world. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It just is.

Tell that to the critics; that curious breed of person whose opinions are apparently of more importance than others.

A few years ago – back in the early 1980s I guess – the late Ludovic Kennedy used to have a show on BBC2 called Did you see? in which he and guest reviewers looked back over the week’s television schedule. I distinctly remember them discussing the phenomenon of Aussie soap Neighbours. It was a pretty new show at the time and we hadn’t seen anything quite like it before in the UK. The reviewers savaged it for its crappy sets, poor acting and banal storylines. But then Ludovic played Devil’s Advocate: ‘Surely’, he said, ‘It can’t be that bad? Millions of people watch it.’ Robbie Coltrane then retorted (and you’ll pardon me if I don’t remember this verbatim after 25-odd years), ‘Aye but millions of people pick their nose and eat it. That doesn’t make it a good thing.’ Big Rab and the panel were expressing their opinions – just four or five people’s critical reviews – but those opinions carried weight because they were ‘on the telly’. The millions of people who love Neighbours were simply swatted aside.

All of which brings me to the much-maligned James Last. Was there ever an artist so scorned and derided? Elevator music. Supermarket music. Cheesy banality. Something to be played in the background rather than listened to with any degree of concentration. Well, if that's true, then there are an awful lot of people out there not listening. Music snobs like me who gush and faff and applaud groundbreaking artists like Bjork, Jim Moray, David Sylvian, Joanna Newsom and The Young Knives are in the minority … and by a long, long way.

James Last has sold over 100,000,000 albums.

Read that last (no pun intended) sentence again. One hundred million albums. That’s as many as David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac ever sold. As many as Luciano Pavarotti and U2 and Prince. That’s very nearly two albums for every single person currently living in England. That’s a staggering number of LPs shifted for a man who produces ‘elevator music’.

The BBC4 documentary was fascinating. I found myself drawn into James Last's world of music and gaining a whole new understanding of just what his brand of ‘easy-listening’ is all about. Its origins lie in national shame.

James Last was born Hans Last in Bremen, Germany in 1929. His family were not political to any degree but his older brothers were conscripted to fight in the war. One of them didn't come home. The young Hans meanwhile was enrolled at the Bückeburg Military Music School of the German Wehrmacht where he learned conducting skills and how to play piano and bass. In time, he became well-known as one of the finest jazz bass players in the country. Then, for a number of years, he became the chief in-house arranger of music for Polydor Records.

In 1965 he took the bold step of releasing an album of his own arrangements of popular tunes. The album Non-stop Dancing was groundbreaking at the time. While the rest of Europe and the world had been embracing the genesis of pop and rock music, a severely spanked and humbled Germany had turned in upon itself in harsh introspection. What the German people needed more than anything was to laugh again; to have fun. James Last provided that. Non-stop Dancing was non-stop fun. I say that the album was groundbreaking and that’s no exaggeration. Last took the big band sound of the 1940s and 50s, added layers of pop guitar, rock drums and jazz basslines and mixed them all up. Then he spliced several well-known songs into one extended track interspersed with recordings of happy people clapping and cheering and dancing. It was not so very different – in its day – to the Superstar DJ mixes we see today with song after song neatly and seamlessly segued into the next.

Polydor decided that the name Hans was just a bit too German and changed the album sleeves to read James – without consulting him first - but the album sales were huge and the die was cast. From now on, he would forever be James Last. And James Last was a sensation. Every album he released brought legions of new fans and shelves full of new accolades. He began to accrue gold discs like some people collect stamps. In the UK alone, he was second only to Elvis in sales during the period between 1967 and 1986.

But the intellectual snobbery that infected me and became oh-so-fashionable in the me-me-me 1980s has now turned this hugely successful and popular artist into something of a musical pariah. No one will admit to liking his music and critics sneer and snipe at his gentle form of non-aggressive orchestration. James Last is easy listening and an easy target. It’s easy (how many more 'easys' can I shoehorn into this paragraph?) to forget that he’s probably the progenitor of acts like The Lighthouse Family, Simply Red and Dido – all acts that in their time were huge but now seem to be under the same kind of attack as he is. What did they all suddenly do wrong? Nothing of course. It’s us. We’ve all caught a big dose of the Snobs.

But there is some light at the end of the trumpet. It’s now ‘cool’ and, doubtless, 'ironic' to like Easy Listening. Andy Williams and Tony Christie and their ilk have enjoyed a recent flowering of popularity. Young men are once again crooning like Frankie and Bing on the X Factor and American Idol. Ballroom Dancing is back with a bang and a cha-cha-cha. There is a new appreciation of bands like Abba, Bread and The Carpenters. And even James Last may be in for a revival – Quentin Tarantino used his The Lonely Shepherd with great success in the soundtrack for Kill Bill Volume 2 (2003).

None of which is of any concern to Hansi (as he’s known to his millions of fans) I suppose. The ‘Gentleman of Music’ must be immensely rich by now and he’s certainly got no worries in terms of popularity, success and awards.

Unknowingly, James Last has made me re-evaluate my position. From this point on, I will no longer be a music snob. I don’t own any James Last records and probably never will. I simply don’t get it (I have heard several albums) and it does nothing for me. But I will respect other people’s right to enjoy it. So even if Debbie tells me she’s bought tickets to see Gareth Gates - the very antichrist of my personal musical tastes - live in concert I will smile and say that I’m pleased for her and that I hope she enjoys the gig.

There. Wasn’t hard was it?


Me said...

My dear friend Stig would like us to believe he is a regular working class man. But oh no, despite his cockney rhyming slang and his gentle use of incorrect syntax it’s a façade. For under that greying ginger tipped beard is a wannabe middle class eco minded snob....
How can I tell?
Well he quotes obscure literature and not all of it from this decade! He drinks pongy tea - with such devotion to carry bags of it around the word in a little tupperware pouch to keep it fresh
He has a palate for finery - scallops, partridge, guinea fowl as a case in point.
And to crown it all his ' I like all music' is a myth.
Rock jazz, prog rock and Bjork. Freaking Bjork - which commoner likes Bjork?
So whilst I spend 8 hours on last number redial to secure Take That tickets (nectar) Stig listens to craplister tracks and sips his pongy tea worried that I have lost the plot.Now, Gareth Gates tickets.... hee hee!

Stevyn Colgan said...

You know me too well! I guess I do have some affectations that can make me look pompous and just a little bit sad. They're not intentional - I do like Earl Grey tea ('cos I drink it black and PG is just a bit too strong) and I grew up eating game because we we couldn't afford beef and pigeons and pheasants were all over the place.

But if I changed my odd little ways then I wouldn't be me, would I?

And how dare you besmirch the name of the gorgeous Icelandic pixie-queen! X

Me said...

Mad swan dressed thing I assume you mean!
I do know you well - and its not sad - its just the way you are!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Splutter ... gasp ... that dress was the star of the show! What right-minded young lady wouldn't want to be seen walking around Bluewater in one of those? Jealousy, that's what it is I reckon. Not just anyone can carry off wildfowl without looking silly ... er ...

Anonymous said...

Damn! This is good blogging. Glad I stumbled onto it. I didn't even know James Last was German.

Now I can confess my increasing fascination with the works of Herb Alpert without shame. A great burden has been lifted from my shoulders.

Think I'll put on a CD by... Joanna Newsom. OK, I can't kill my inner snob right away. But I'm getting there...

Thanks, Stig!

Stevyn Colgan said...

And thank you Norwonk. Always nice to get feedback! I hope to hear more from you ... and tell your friends to visit. All are welcome!

Me said...

Shameless advertising. Shameless! Dont exploit the 'wonk.