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ATLANTIC 880; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

Rock history tends to focus primarily on the ideas that worked best, the ones which revolutionized music and set into motion the chain of events which have led to the present landscape we seem to take for granted.

I suppose that’s only natural, but it raises an interesting question… what if one of those other ideas had caught on instead? Not an entirely alternate road necessarily, but just a slightly different wrinkle along the way? The overall course the music traveled might ultimately wind up being the same – after all, there have been plenty of short-lived fads that haven’t had long term repercussions – but there’d be another diversion to at least consider when looking back at things.

Today we get to study an idea that never caught on even though it was tried a few times by one artist who wound up with a notable spot in rock’s early days. But because he had more success when following the already dominant trail blazed by others nobody really went for this quirky diversion, which is just as well. Things turned out just fine as it was.

But in a never ending quest for completeness here is Frank Culley’s first attempt to inject a hep-cat attitude into the rock canon.
 

 
Hip Or Hep?
The stereotype of the beret-wearing cat in dark glasses sitting in the corner of a dark nightclub probably had more to do with artistic creative license than anything based in reality but it’s an enduring image of the mid-Twentieth Century if nothing else and has to have some relationship to reality for it to have been conceived in the first place.

The usual setting for such scenes ranges from the be-boppers of the late 1940’s to the beatniks of the late 1950’s and early 60’s – goatees, espressos and some potent weed. Who am I to argue their existence?

The slang they used which got commercialized over the ensuing decade or so included half the dialogue ever spouted by Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, but the prevailing concept of the language was that it was “hep”.

Or is that “hip”?

Hip is the more popular term, one which has taken on a different, broader meaning over the years, so we’ll stick with the “hep” designation which is a much more laid-back nonsensical sort of language designed to impart admiration without showing too much overt enthusiasm. The key is to be casually cool… so casual as to be almost comatose.

Again, the widespread usage of this type of hep talk has been exaggerated to the point of parody over the years but it DID originate somewhere and WAS used by someone in the music scene for it to be picked up on by the squares in society who first derided it, then laughed at it, then appropriated it and finally discarded it.

So where did it come from and who used it during that brief period when it still belonged to the intended community?

Was it the be-boppers themselves? The non-musical followers of that music? Or was it quite possibly guys who were on the periphery of that scene, musicians and record label owners who felt it was useful in conveying an allegiance to something perhaps just outside their grasp?

Guys like Frank “Floorshow” Culley and the Atlantic Records brain-trust?
 

Out Of The Dark
Mind you, this is no random question we’re asking here… not at all, because with this record and the one to follow, Frank Culley would delve into this weird world multiple times before finally coming up for air, looking around and seeing no takers for it, nor apparently any bond between himself and the jazz sax kings he was aiming to patronize with these attempts.

In the end Culley would come to the conclusion he wasn’t part of their world – if that world, at least as he envisioned it in its cartoonish image, even existed – and he’d discard the trappings of this hep-cat motif and return to what he did best, which is rock without any needless accouterments as he’d done on the top side of this very record, the self-promotional Floorshow.

Truthfully that’s what he should’ve stuck to all along, the first rule of thumb in any walk of life is to thine own self be true, but we can’t criticize him too much for wanting to be a part of something so alluring for someone in his shoes. So the only question we have is how well did this convergence of ideas sound and why didn’t it catch on?

The first of three efforts in this realm is The Snap, a side cut last winter before he’d had any major success as a rocker and thus didn’t know for sure what might be his best route to fame and fortune.

This wasn’t it.

But that’s not to say this is altogether awful. In fact most of the musical aspects of this side are pretty much what we expect to hear in rock sax instrumentals in general, and what we’ll come to rely on when it comes to Culley’s output over the years. It’s just that… well, to be honest, the other things he adds to this are rather… umm… what’s the phrase I’m looking for here?

Straight outta Kooksville!

So put on a turtleneck sweater, your black beret and sunglasses and see if you can make out what we’re saying while trying to read this in the dark.
 

Into The Light
There are two key attributes to this which distance it from the accepted rock instrumental and tries – rather awkwardly – to tie it into the aforementioned (possibly fictitious) hep-cat movement that was jazz-lite, or more accurately jazz-like for those who really had no real idea what this jazz scene was really all about.

The first of these quirky traits I’m sure you can guess from the title alone – The Snap. Except it’s not THE snap, as in done once to get someone’s attention, but rather incessant snapping like a twitchy nervous habit. It’s done in rhythm so it’s not altogether non-musical, but it’s more distracting that intriguing. Maybe if it had been done slower with less surrounding them it’d have sounded ominous. Faster and it’d have been humorous, like the band having a laugh at your expense before launching into the main part of the song. But this just comes across as gimmicky, which come to think of it is what it was, whether or not they wanted to admit it.

The second aspect of this arrangement gives that part away – the gimmick that is – is when they start to talk.

I guess you can call it talking. More like murmuring in a daze. They don’t say much, just enough to realize it wasn’t a recording mistake where somebody in the control room was caught talking on a live mic, but it’s disconcerting because as soon as you hear it you’ll stop even trying to take this very seriously, as instead you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to start babbling incoherently.

They don’t do that thankfully, but they also don’t devote enough focus to the real matter at hand which is giving us a strong sax-led song to sink our teeth into. It’s almost as if they were using the gimmicks to cover the fact that they had a musical concept that wasn’t quite full enough on its own to hold our attention.
 

Snap Your Cap, Jack!
The primary problem here is the lack of anything truly memorable in what they play. Instrumentals need a hook, something that once you hear it you can’t shake free of it. There’s no need for it to be complicated – unless you ARE a be-bop saxman, then complexity is its own virtue – but you at least need to have something identifiable for us to want to hear again.

The Snap has none, even if what it does have would work well enough as the background to something more suitable for our needs. As it is the song is little more than a lurching rhythm in search of a melody to fall in behind. Culley’s tone is fine, his timing is good, he’s got a decent sense of structure to start with but he’s acting as if he’s the supporting horn to someone else, except there IS no someone else.

That’s not to say there aren’t any other instruments, the drummer is most prominent as its his job to echo the snapping which after awhile actually starts to sound like hand-clapping, so there may have been either more people in the studio snapping in time, or one guy starting off finger popping before he switches to clapping because it’s just easier to be heard. A piano is also somewhere in the room as it faintly makes its presence known as well, and it wouldn’t be a proper scene to dig if there wasn’t an acoustic bass off to the side somewhere, but they’re just here to provide a steady sound for Culley to improvise over.

Though we just got done saying that Culley is hardly behaving like the lead instrument during the elongated intro, once he leaves that rhythmic backdrop behind and starts to step out the song loses its one redeeming quality – the locked down core of the song. As he tries to find a melodic line to grasp he just wanders about aimlessly, his playing is technically okay but it has no point to it all. He has no idea where he’s headed because he has no clue where he’s been. Spin somebody around blindfolded and have them try and walk a straight line and you’ll get some idea of Culley’s approach to this. He may not fall down but he doesn’t actually get anyplace either, his lines having little sense of purpose, no hooks to latch onto, nor even any escalating excitement.

Oh, he tosses in a few honks, holds some notes, cuts short some others, blows harder and then eases back, giving us a pretty decent display of the basic tricks of the trade but none of it is that compelling. After awhile your attention starts to hone in on the drums which give us the one moment designed to break this up with a brief call and response pattern with Culley. It’d be hardly worth noting except it’s the one aspect that stands out just because it’s different… unless of course you actually want to count the return of the forced lingo at song’s end.

Nah, I didn’t think so.
 

That Cat Has Really Snapped His Cap!
The song was dedicated to a radio show on WHAT (yeah, those are the call letters… entirely appropriate for this song if you ask me) in Philly, another one of those attempts to court the favor of one station while alienating the other 34 stations nationwide that will now refuse to play it, but I doubt the “Snap Club” it was named for were even that enthused about this so-called tribute.

How could they be when the music itself is nondescript while the record is noteworthy only for the gimmicky attributes that immediately mark it as fraudulent in any style.

Had they done the sensible thing after hearing this finished take and asked for another take in which they tossed out the awkward spoken lines, replaced the snaps with actual hand-claps, like a gospel song, and then brought in another sax to play the undulating riff that opens it while holding Culley back to launch a brief, but far more explosive, mid-section, well… even then you’d just get an average rock ‘n’ roll sax instrumental for mid-1949, nothing more, nothing less.

Oh well. As it is you get a few usable parts but it’s kind of like going to the garage and taking a tire, a seat and power breaks and putting them on a hammock. They all might theoretically be in working order but they aren’t doing you much good swinging between the trees with a glass of lemonade in your hand while reading comic books one lazy summer afternoon.

The Snap was one of those instances, perfectly understandable, when the artist – and surely the label itself which was yet to be convinced of rock’s long term potential – decided to try something a bit unusual out, just to see how it worked. There’s no harm in that, artists are creative by nature and not all experiments pan out.

As the little heard B-side to a better, and far more appropriate, single, the difference between the two approaches should be obvious and next time around there should be no doubt as to which one to pursue.

Except somebody apparently wasn’t convinced this was a dead end because next time around we’ll get this off-kilter idea with both barrels before Culley and company finally come to their senses.

We’re not out of Kooksville yet, kids.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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