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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2008/05/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Creating a Standard

In My Life
Its a generational thing. At one time or another, most every teenager has had to explain to their parents the rationale of listening to a certain type of popular music that seemed somewhat alien to the older generation. I remember trying to explain rock n roll to my folks many years ago. They listened politely but had difficulty understanding why Elvis gyrated so much, the Beatles seemed to be nice young men and it would have been unlikely that the Stones, music aside would have garnered an invite to dinner at our house. I found it somewhat frustrating trying to get them to understand my music. Their music was classified as standards. However a major part of the responsibility of being an adolescent is to introduce ones parents to the music of the times. I suspect that this same process is still going on today. I vividly remember predicting to my parents that those highly scrutinized tunes they had difficulty in accepting would someday become the standards of tomorrow. Too bad theyre not around today to check on the supposed wisdom of their then young son.
The concept of what constitutes a standard became more vivid to me this month when three disparate events took place in my life. First, by listening to NPR one morning, I learned that Arthur Sullivan was born in May of 1842 in London. He was the writing partner of W.S. Gilbert who as Gilbert & Sullivan together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Among the best known are the H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Their comic operas are still being performed today 130 years since they were first written. Moreover, these operas have been translated into virtually all languages and their comedic influence has been linked to many modern day humorists including the ever popular Monty Python series. Open any entertainment section of any newspaper anywhere in the world today and there will be at least one production of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera being performed in your town,. They certainly established a standard.
Secondly, I then thought about what constitutes a standard and remembered that Yesterday written and recorded by Paul McCartney is the most recorded song in musical history. Although the writing credit on the label is Lennon-McCartney it was solely written by Paul. The recording is a solo by Paul without the rest of the band with a string quartet as the only accompaniment. To date, over 3,000 versions of the song have been covered by other artists. Sounds like a standard to me.
The third event/revelation began innocuously enough with a discussion about cabaret music. My friend and fellow writer, Michael Miyazaki and I often discuss our diverse musical tastes. Michael has his own blog (http://cabaretdc.wordpress.com) where he delves into the world of cabaret music. He also writes for a publication called Cabaret Scenes. Our musical tastes are vastly different. While I speak about Clapton, he speaks about Feinstein. Our conversations involve mutual leaning.

Since I know virtually nothing about this genre except that I have seen the Broadway musical, Cabaret and that I have a few Bobby Short records in my musical collection, Michaels sharing of his knowledge has given me a good basic understanding of this music. Recently, he gave me an album to listen to by an artist named Barb Jungr.
On Ms. Jungrs album, she has interpreted a number of classic rock n roll tunes into a cabaret style which simply employs her voice accompanied by a piano. Ms. Jungrs interpretations certainly give a new perspective to the classic tunes she has chosen. It is a most enjoyable listening experience for a baby boomer rocker like me. I noticed that one of the tunes on the album is Waterloo Sunset an all-time favorite of mine. This song was written by Ray Davies, the acknowledged creative force behind the British group, The Kinks.
Waterloo Sunset written by Ray Davies first appeared in 1967 on the KinksSomething Else album. Although the album lists Shel Talmy as the producer, it is widely known that Ray did in fact write and produce the song on the album. The record reached number 2 on the British charts in mid 1967. On the album cover it states that Many of the songs on this album are the tales of those mini-people who keep rolling across his (Davies) yesterday-mind and so we find Terry and Julie in Waterloo Sunset The genius of Ray Davies was and still is his ability to write about everyday people and their everyday experiences in a unique narrative style. I believe that Waterloo Sunset was the beginning of the most creative phase of Rays writing career. The album is a classic whose influence spans to a current crop of artists.
Rob Sheffield writing in the March 6th issue of Rolling Stone calls Davies Waterloo Sunset his gorgeously chilly tale of a solitary man who finds paradise watching lovers from his window.
So how did these three occurrences help me to understand what constitutes a standard? Simple, a standard involves a song that has been covered by other artists with various and diverse interpretations that will live on over a period of time. Gilbert & Sullivan, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies have written timeless songs. Although Waterloo Sunset will never be recorded as often as Yesterday both songs qualify as standards.
We actually have the ability to see the establishment of standard songs in front of our eyes every week. Tuning into American Idol shows young performers interpreting songs that through their styling are, thus becoming modern day standards. According to the Wikipedia, a standard is a term in music used to denote the most popular and enduring songs from a particular genre or style.
Got it!

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