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CONTINENTAL 5070; OCTOBER, 1948

RE-ISSUED AS LENOX 513; NOVEMBER, 1949

 

 

Well it didn’t take long for the newest aspiring tenor sax star on the rock ‘n’ roll block to learn one simple lesson when it came to making a name for yourself and that was to come up with a creatively entertaining title for a record.

It also helps that in another sense Culley had already made a name for himself – or had a name bestowed upon him – for his playing style, as he was billed as Frank “Floorshow” Culley, something designed to suggest that his music was going to be explosive in nature.

But just as you can’t always judge a book by its cover, you can’t determine whether or not a sax player is blowing anything worth your time and investment based on mere titles and colorfully descriptive appellations alone. For while those things can help to give wary consumers a nudge into checking their work out, if that work doesn’t live up to their expectations their name might as well be “mud”.

Which come to think of it is often where you can find pigs, so maybe it all ties together in the end.
 

 

Feeding Time At The Trough
In the ever more competitive realm of rock ‘n’ roll saxophone showmen there are plenty of problems for the aspiring honkers and their eager hopeful record labels to have to contend with when tossing records into the marketplace in the hopes of getting noticed.

Just because somebody can stir plenty of action wailing away on their horn in a club where most of the patrons are three drinks past the legal limit and have come to the show to lose their inhibitions thereby encouraging the musicians to be as wild and unhinged as possible doesn’t mean those same musicians will necessarily be able to replicate that pandemonium on wax.

Yet if they DO wind up creating as much mayhem as possible on a record there’s a damn good chance that they’ll lose control of the song in the process and without the communal atmosphere of a roomful of drunken revelers to mask the tune’s structural shortcomings it will just be a lot of aimless noise.

Now add to the fact this was the first session undertaken by Frank Culley who’d recently been drafted from the ranks of club musician to contracted recording artist to capitalize on the growing popularity of the tenor sax instrumental in rock, and you can start to figure out the vast number of ways this could wind up being unconvincing and underwhelming.

Yet thankfully it’s none of the above. While The Pig Is Diggin’ is hardly innovative, only sporadically combustible and just melodically serviceable, it’s also something that has a very clear goal in mind and enough discipline and sense of balance to ensure that it ultimately works fairly well.

Though “fairly well” aren’t words that will elevate Culley to a household name, they may be a more reliable measure for assessing his future chances at rising to that level with a little more experience. Furthermore since he’s cutting for a record label in Continental which has to then let another label, Lenox, distribute it for maximum market coverage you could even go so far as to say that it might actually be better for Culley’s long range career if he doesn’t “waste” his best ideas when he doesn’t yet have the apparatus behind him to vault him to stardom.

In other words, at this point he might be best to do just enough to draw interest and be competitive with the other sax impresarios in rock while biding his time to make a move to a larger platform. Whether or not that was his intent when entering the studios to lay these sides down, it was precisely what wound up happening in the coming months.
 

Oink, Oink!
When studying the other side of this record, Ready For Action, it was obvious that Culley had skills but not so obvious that he was fully aware of how to utilize those skills to his advantage. He fell a bit short as a songwriter in that case which rendered his playing ability secondary in the record’s assessment.

But here on The Pig Is Diggin’ Culley shores up some of those deficiencies even while taking on a few more unnecessary hindrances in the form of an outdated mindset lurking in his backing unit.

The very start of the record is played with a nice crisp pace, solid emphasis on the mid-range horns and with enough presence by the drummer, even if he IS guilty of riding the cymbal too much, to make you think this will be Culley’s coming out party.

But once your attention has been captured by that barrage of sounds it eases back, not so much in terms of exuberance but rather in playing style. The massed refrains which follow are jazzy by nature, a hip-sounding jazz perhaps, but unsuited for the dirtier environs of rock.

When Culley makes his first appearance he has no trouble embodying a rock act, blowing with a more assertive presence, but even that doesn’t last long before the others return to the forefront and lead you back to 1946… or, in case you haven’t been keeping tabs on the calendar, a year before rock’s arrival.

That duality in approach is omnipresent throughout this arrangement and while the two parties aren’t necessarily at war with one another, struggling for superiority, nor do they clash outright as we’ve seen happen too often in the past with this sort of tune, their shared load means that a prevailing mood is never fully established.

Culley himself falls prey to this with his next soloing spot as he gets far too carried away with the lighter, more pleasant bandstand techniques, played well for sure but played for somebody OTHER than those who came to this party expecting to get down and dirty.

Even when he delivers something with more flamboyance, more sensuality, more raunchiness a minute and a half in, something that is entirely welcome of course, you get the feeling he’s still keeping most of his arsenal under wraps.
 

The Squeal Ain’t Real
As such it’s a compromised record by design, even if its pacing and overall clamor will fool many into thinking it a much more authentic rocker than it is.

Culley does step things up down the stretch, gradually increasing his energy until just before the two minute mark when he starts to honk more and moan less. On cue the pace quickens some, there’s a back and forth refrain with the other horns to lend some needed tension all while the drummer, who never stopped thrashing the cymbal, keeps clattering away without relent.

I’m sure true jazz aficionados would be more disgusted by The Pig Is Diggin’ than anything, feeling it was far too barbaric and unseemly to be welcomed into that realm. They’re probably right too. This wasn’t jazz per say, but rather a way for jazz musicians to blow off steam at the end of a set after midnight.

But for a rock band this was a mere warm up act. A way to loosen up before the REAL floorshow started. This would be the song they’d think of as containing more hard evidence of their abilities, and thus more of a sign they could cut it in jazz, than the crass honking and squealing that was sure to follow in their regular set playing for a rock audience.

I suppose you can see then how it satisfies neither faction entirely. Played in isolation – removing it from both the jazz scene or the rock haunts – it probably does come off a little better. The arrangement itself, or at least the construction of the song, is slightly better than the flip side which took too long to come to any sense of direction. The horns themselves are not trying to play above their heads too much and there aren’t any wayward melodic inventions tossed in to prove their worth as “serious musicians”. Even their tone is suitable for rock.

So why then the half-hearted review? Because they are merely acting a part, the bulk of them that is, Culley aside. They’re doing what they’ve been called upon to do, but are carrying it out in a way that reveals their lack of qualifications for the job.

Rock horn sections don’t work best in tandem, as these guys do (and to be fair they DO play with solid precision). There’s too much mannered cohesiveness here to be taken seriously as rockers. As a result the enthusiasm is measured and forced. There’s no sense of any of them being under the influence of some exotic potion (otherwise known as booze), nor is there any indication that they feel the Devil himself grabbing at their ankles whereas the best rock acts always seem to be trying to keep just one step ahead of the hell-hounds barking at their heels.

The women gyrating in front of them on the dance floor they barely seem to notice, or at least that’s what their playing suggests, as there’s no wild interludes that threaten the natural order of things. While it doesn’t quite reflect completely sterile surroundings, there’s a suitable distance between them and the seedier clientele that a genuine rock setting would include.

Culley does his best at times to bridge that gap and convince you otherwise and he succeeds well enough to be applauded for his efforts, but he never completely wrests control of the song from the others and whip them into shape in the process. It’s not “the real thing” so much as it is a reasonably good imitation of the real thing… as long as you don’t compare it side by side with something that leaves no doubt as to its credibility.
 

For Swine, It’s Fine
But let’s not altogether eviscerate Culley or his motives here by suggesting this is a charlatan unworthy of being enjoyed on its own merits. Its flaws are somewhat manageable, overcome by consistent enthusiasm from all involved and there are no single elements that are so glaringly out of place that you can’t possibly overlook them.

The Pig Is Diggin’ has different faults than Ready For Action, which I suppose indicates that none of those faults are going to be fatal since they’ve proven they can shed them in different settings, but the end result is pretty much the same. Both songs do enough to be well received in the context of late 1948 rock ‘n’ roll without doing anything to stand out from the crowd.

If I had to choose one I might even go with this side, especially with Culley’s energetic closing, but I’d still argue that it was the title that had the most appeal and that I felt slightly let down as a result.

Of course it could also be that knowing what was to follow from Frank Culley there’s a bit of frustration that he couldn’t tap into his best instincts right away and leave the nods to the past behind him where they belong. But then again that might be like saying that if you knew you were going to get Swine Flu you’d have gotten a vaccination.

In the end this may still be less than what you want but more than enough to jump in the mud and splash around in the muck until you’re worn out and have a smile on your face.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)