It's Not Marlene: Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon in 1958, styled to resemble Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel.
It was a nicely laidback Dr Sketchy at The Paradise this time. The featured burlesque performer was Bettie Bottomdollar (who did a Charlie Chaplin tribute act). The other model was Mam’ Zelle Celine, who more usually is our resident photographer. Clare Marie (the brains / promoter / stage manager behind London Dr Sketchy) hosted the proceedings herself and is becoming an ever more effortless and sparkling emcee.
Some rhetorical questions: Is it possible to play too many versions of “Fever” or “Mack the Knife” in a single night? (The answer: of course not, don't be silly). How did Kurt Weill’s 1920s Weimar Republic murder ballad about a serial killer become a finger-snapping cocktail lounge standard, anyway? I played The Bill Black Combo’s laid-back and swinging instrumental version and Eartha Kitt’s sublimely alluring and feline interpretation, which should be far better known. Maybe because she actually is German, one of the most authoritative versions of “Mack the Knife” you’ll ever hear, though, is by Dietrich-esque Teutonic diseuse Hildegard Knef. She sings it with a steely demeanour over pattering bongos. It's very dramatic, with a sense of building coiled tension. Check out Die Knef’s wonderfully guttural voice and piercing eyes here...
I also played a few tracks from The Party Ain’t Over, First Lady of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson’s “comeback” CD produced by White Stripe Jack White. She’d performed two songs from it as a tantalising teaser when I saw her at Viva Las Vegas in 2010 (Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates) and it was definitely intriguing. Promisingly, Jackson had been quoted as saying she wanted to be challenged by Jack White, for him to force her to make a real 21st century album and not rest on her laurels – how refreshing and inspiring to hear a 73- year old legend say that?
So I had high expectations for The Party Ain’t Over. I put the CD on pre-order on Amazon to ensure I got it as soon as it was available. And finally getting to hear it, it’s ... strange. One of the first things you notice is that for an album by the Queen of Rockabilly – there’s virtually no rockabilly songs. It’s perhaps to his credit that White takes such a provocative and unpredictable musical approach (he did a similar collaboration with Country and Western royalty Loretta Lynn on the 2004 CD Van Lear Rose, but don’t know enough about that CD to comment on it), but then you hear opening song “Shakin’ All Over”. The arrangement seems to be striving for a sleazy punk/soul/lounge revue vibe (think of Jackson’s ex-boyfriend Elvis Presley in his dissolute, baroque 1970s Vegas phase) but its shrill horns and weird stop-start tempo are jarring, and from there the album only occasionally seems to gel. Perversely, White’s production cranks up the abrasive irritation value, seemingly intended to deliberately annoy: the songs are submerged in noise and distortion (even Jackson’s still warm and powerful rasping, caterwauling voice is filtered for a weird echoed effect). In particular the overly-dominant and intrusive soul / funk horn section eventually starts to feel like nails on a blackboard and never meshes with Jackson’s voice.
The mature Jackson’s trademark hairstyle is a gravity-defying, teased bouffant which she keeps dyed jet black. Perhaps inspired by her coiffure, the accompanying artwork in the CD case feature some deliberately kitsch glamour shots of Jackson having her nails painted, and rocking a pair of diamante-studded cat’s eye sunglasses. When this camp aesthetic infects the music (i.e. a gimmick-y calypso novelty version of The Andrews’s Sisters “Rum and Coca Cola”) it’s disastrous. And strangely, even the few rockabilly songs (Little Richard’s “Rip It Up”, Eddie Cochrane’s “Nervous Breakdown”), which should be terra firma for Jackson, feel forced and inorganic.
But with people this talented, things are bound to cohere occasionally and sometimes brilliantly. Jackson re-interpreting “You Know I’m No Good” shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The disconnection between the 70-something born again Christian gospel singer and debauched skank Winehouse seems insurmountable (they both have big hair, though), but both Jackson and White clearly (correctly) recognise the song is a modern torch song standard in waiting. Over the languid beats, Jackson treats Winehouse’s lyrics about infidelity and tough, hurt feelings like they’re a country & western lament; when she rues, “I cheated myself / like I knew I would” it packs a genuine ache, with Jackson emerging as a blue honky tonk angel. “Like A Baby” and “Teach Me Tonight” radiate with Jackson’s uncontrived charm, and on the closing “Blue Yodel #6” she finally gets the stripped-down, roots-y and sympathetic setting Jackson should have had all along.
Wanda Jackson and I when she performed in London in 2007. She couldn't have been sweeter
Present-day Wanda Jackson with Jack White
La Jackson in her raucous late 50s / early 60s rockabilly prime
Heart to Heart - Little Esther Everywhere I Go - Ted Taylor Jean and Dinah - Robert Mitchum Rum & Coca Cola - Wanda Jackson Go Calypso - Mamie van Doren Scorpion - The Carnations Love Potion # 9 - Nancy Sit Groovy - The Groovers Hush Your Mouth - Huey "Piano" Smith Sick and Tired - Lula Reed I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent - Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers Skull & Crossbones - Sparkle Moore A Cheat - The Earls of Suave Night Scene - The Rumblers Willow Weep for Me - The Whistling Artistry of Muzzy Marcellino I Ain't in the Mood - Helen Humes Don't Be Cruel - Bill Black's Combo I Was Born to Cry - Dion Nobody Taught Me - Eartha Kitt The Beast - Milt Buckner The Rat - The Ventures Like a Baby - Wanda Jackson Fever - Richard Marino & His Orchestra Go Slow - Julie London Shangri-La - Spikes Jonez & His New Band You're My Thrill - Dolores Gray Les Amours Perdues - Serge Gainsbourg I'm in Love for the Very First Time - Diana Dors Slowly - Ann-Margret Wondrous Place - Billy Fury The Stripper - John Barry (Beat Girl soundtrack) Give Me Love - Lena Horne Mack the Knife - Eartha Kitt Blues in My Heart - John Buzon Trio You Go to My Head - Marlene Dietrich Jungle Drums - Earl Bostick Drums-A-Go-Go - Hollywood Persuaders Esquerita & The Voola - Esquerita Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters Peter Gunn Locomotion - The Delmonas She Wants to Mambo - Johnny Thunders & Patti Paladin Deep Dark Secret - Lizabeth Scott Crazy Horse Swing - Serge Gainsbourg (Strip-tease soundtrack) C'est Si Bon - April Stevens That Ole Devil Moon - Chet Baker Black Coffee - Peggy Lee Fever - Timi Yuro Lunar Rhapsody - Les Baxter La Javanaise - Juliette Greco Mack the Knife - Hildegard Knef Mack the Knife - Bill Black's Combo Falling in Love Again - Billie Holiday Honey Rock - Barney Kessel Caterpillar Crawl - The Strangers Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley Coquette - Dinah Washington Dancing on the Ceiling - Chet Baker Work Song - Nina Simone Tall Cool One - The Wailers Pink Champagne - The Tyrones
Finally: two public figures close to my heart and who definitely helped shaped my twisted vision died recently. Rest in peace, ace film soundtrack composer John Barry and one of the screen's greatest bad girls / villainesses, Tura Satana.
Obviously Satana will be forever remembered for her vicious performance as homicidal go-go dancer Varla in Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). But here she is doing a nice striptease routine from the more obscure 1973 film The Doll Squad. If you can tear your eyes off Tura, check out the strange little lounge band combo (with standing female drummer) accompanying her.
I've blogged before about how much I love John Barry's soundtrack for the 1960 sexploitation / juvenile delinquent flick Beat Girl. Funnily enough, I had the DVD on loan from LOVEFiLM when I heard about his death -- watching it again felt like a nice tribute. And the film is every bit as lurid and kitsch as I remembered.