Sunday, July 4, 2010

1944: “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jones & His City Slickers

Exactly forty years before Frank Zappa posed the epic question, “Does humor belong in music?” Spike Jones was answering with a very loud YES.

And among the loudest was his version of “Cocktails for Two.” The song was intended to be part of an “Album of Musical Depreciation,” an outlet for his creative juices that had been stagnated by the war effort. “Priorities have me licked,” he explained. “I can’t get enough washboards, auto radiators, cowbells, and other such instruments to do the big, unsymphonic numbers I want in the album.”

Jones’ patience paid off. He recorded the song in late 1944 before embarking on a USO tour; by the time he returned stateside, the record was a surprise hit. In a recording career that spanned over three decades and countless recordings, “Cocktails for Two” may just be Jones’ finest moment – a rare example of where popular music and novelty overlap and are embraced by the record-buying public.

It is often said that in order to properly satirize something, you must first reach the level of the original. By the time he recorded “Cocktails for Two,” Jones already had countless hours of time clocked as a studio drummer, keeping the beat a virtual who’s who of late-’30s and early-’40s pop music: Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters, Fred Astaire, and Doris Day (not to mention his backing work for vaudeville veterans like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns on the radio). Thus, Jones already knew how a pop song is supposed to sound, and the first forty seconds or so of “Cocktails for Two” sounds about as wild and crazy as Doris Day’s “Buttons and Bows.” Tightly-harmonized women sing the opening lines over soft strings, met by a crooning male singer, who set the scene; for those opening moments, it sounds remarkably like any other record from that period – neat, polished, and insufferably boring.

These opening moments spoke to the song’s origin. “Cocktails for Two” was written in 1934 to celebrate the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment banning alcohol. The song seemed to imply that it was the availability of liquor that makes the world safe and calm, painting a quiet picture of lovebirds enjoying their cocktails. As originally intended, the song played like a sigh of relief.

Spike Jones doesn’t so much ridicule or destroy the song as he does turn it completely inside-out. In his hands, “Cocktails for Two” is a bizarro world in which everything happens backwards. It’s a fast, tight, and very precise record that manages to sound loose, funny, and carefree. There is a lot going on.

Picking up the tempo, the crooning man sings: “In some secluded rendezvous—” a whistle blows, a man screams, a gunshot fires, “That overlooks the avenue—” honking car horns in traffic, “With someone sharing a delightful chat—” nonsense babble is heard, “Of this and that and cocktails for two,” as everything stops for the light “clink-clink” toast of the cocktail classes. Even when things slow down a bit for the lyrics that are harder to illustrate sonically, the madness is back in full force for the musical break, turning on a dime from an orchestra of rude mouth noises and hiccups to a searing Dixieland jazz band.

No matter how many times I listen to this record, it still strikes me how busy and varied of a sound Jones is able to create – all of which was presumably recorded in the studio in one live take. Every honk, every whistle, every hiccup, and every clink is right where it should be, creating a sound that, while sonically silly, is musically flawless. In doing so, Jones proves that he is not the forefather of the wave of novelty records that would hit the airwaves in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but rather the silly-yet-flawless of Frank Zappa and his ever-changing Mothers of Invention.

With the manic sound, speed, and loudness of his records, some would go so far as to count Spike Jones among the early founders of rock and roll. I don’t know about that, but I do know that his spirit provided over all that was fun in the later music. One only has to listen to the rootsy joy of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” to find him: “Now me and my mate were back at the shack, we had Spike Jones on the box.”

Framed by the dirty joke and “hee-hee” response that comes before it and the yodeling that comes after, here was the most seriously Americana band (Band?) proving that yes, humor definitely did belong in American music.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

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