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GOTHAM 214; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

The advent of the full length record album had come about only recently – 1949 to be exact – when Columbia Records debuted their 33 1/3rd RPM technology which had been in the works for two decades but had gotten derailed thanks to pesky little world events like The Great Depression and World War Two.

But now that the post-war economy was booming and families had begun moving to the suburbs and away from the cities which housed nightclubs the album’s time had come. Now you could sit in your living room, smoking your pipe and drinking your gin and tonics while listening to one song after another on your hi-fi without the need to even get out of your chair to change the record after each song.

It was just like being in a club except there was no cover charge, no line for the bathroom and no need to dress up. The music came streaming out of the speakers uninterrupted by the verbal patter of the bandleader on stage and wasn’t drowned out by noisy patrons at the nearby tables.

There was just one slight downside to this new technology representing the much sought after “easy life” in middle-American homes… occasionally it meant you had to sit through something not so great in the middle of side two.

It was called “filler”.
 

 

Filling Your Coffers
Just so you don’t scratch your head and go racing around the website to see if we’ve changed the focus of our coverage from the history of rock ‘n’ roll singles to the history of albums, rest assured we haven’t. Besides, there were no rock albums being released as of 1950. We only brought it up as a way to ease the reader into the term “filler” while at the same time providing a very shallow history of the album near the start of its own rise to prominence that just happens to coincide with what we’re covering now.

Though the technology involved with how we listen to music has changed repeatedly over the years, certain terms remain fairly constant, even as their specific original meaning loses relevance with those changes.

Take the album itself for instance. Originally the album was just that, an “album” of singles, like a scrapbook, where they were housed in a loose-leafed bound book so you could keep all of your 78 RPM singles together in one neat easily accessible (and incredibly heavy) album. But when the 33 1/3rd playing speed allowed for more music to fit on one record, thereby allowing you to have far more than just one song on each side, these kept the name “album” – as did tapes, CD’s, mp3’s and streaming services – because they all were providing a unified collection of songs like those old bound albums had been.

The necessities of those albums – needing to come up with ten to twelve (or more) songs to package together – in whatever format they took, proved to be one of the bigger stumbling blocks for artists and their record companies who were seeking to thrive in this particular market, and brings us back to the main point of all of this… just how many really GOOD songs are needed to put on an album to sell it? Will eight out of twelve be enough? Will listeners stay away if it’s only seven or six… or even less than that?

Essentially it comes down to this: Is it really necessary to throw all of your best ideas onto a single album when just a handful of great songs on it might sell just as many copies? If not, what do you do to keep the total number of songs the same to justify the album’s price?

The answer was “filler”.
 

Fill’er Up
Although it is widely deemed to be a put-down this term really isn’t as big of an insult as it’s been taken to be over the years. Filler material can be perfectly decent music, widely acceptable to the masses, but they’re just not hit-quality songs by nature – generic and run-of-the-mill maybe, but hardly unlistenable.

Even if the artists decry the term and claim they don’t deal in filler, you as a listener certainly know it when you hear it. They’re songs that contain enough of what you like without featuring anything above and beyond that in terms of really great hooks, gripping storylines, dazzling playing or startlingly good production.

Songs like Satchel Shuffle if you want to be honest, though again this wasn’t album filler because it wasn’t on an album. In fact, it was the designated A-side of Panama Francis’s latest single and so Gotham Records certainly felt it had the best chance to connect with audiences, but record companies are often the least qualified to tell you what should connect because this song is the textbook definition of “filler”.
 

 
 
Yet in spite of that perception does it have what it needs to not seem out of place in a rock fan’s collection? To even draw some mild interest from those fans at first listen? Sure, I guess so, if you’re not too demanding that is. This one features lightly riffing horns, intermittent piano adding rhythmic accents after each refrain and steady bass and drums, lightly played though they may be, to keep it moving along at a steady pace, and so this isn’t something you’d object to when it came on.

Then again, it’s not something you’d be in a mad rush to PUT on and hear again either, which is pretty much what “filler” has come to mean.

The key to that term – and the way in which it has remained a fixture in music for well over a half-century – is found in its consistently modest level of satisfaction. Should the quality of filler material as a whole drop below that minimum standard, say a (4) using our system of determining a record’s quality, then it would cease to have much value because consumers would object to getting an album that had a third of its contents made up of barely listenable material.

So songs qualifying as filler have to contain just enough merits of their own to allow it to be tolerated. Another way to think of it is this: If you don’t really notice it but don’t object to it, then it’s filler.

In the singles realm, as Francis is trying to conquer here, filler material is not quite as valuable as it would be on an album where it’s merely designed to take up space. Singles have to be sought out in ways individual album tracks aren’t and so Satchel Shuffle is just going to wind up causing the release to be overlooked unless the other side is SO good that it makes this irrelevant.

Even with its fairly suitable tenor sax solo mid-way through that starts off a little sultry before increasing its urgency the results are nothing to get you out of your seat – or your Barcolounger if you’re smoking a gin and tonic and sipping a pipe… or something like that.

In other words, though it’s got everything that’s required to qualify as rock song and it’s played well enough to not cause you any distress listening to it, there’s absolutely nothing about it that’d make you want to hear this over dozens of other rock songs currently on the market.
 

Just Filling Space
But let’s bring this back around to the featured artist because once again you have to call into question Francis’s role here as even on the appreciably better top side, Pussy Cats At Midnight, his drumming barely rates mention in the arrangement. Does it really make much sense to issue records by a drummer when that drummer – as talented as he was – has mostly been an afterthought on his own records?

All of his releases thus far had little chance to become hits and worse yet they provided little chance for him to show off his skills and presumably make a name for himself in the process. Since this wasn’t even his own band backing him, but rather the Gotham studio musicians including Doc Bagby on piano and Harry Crafton on guitar, you wonder why they’d bother issuing this under Francis’s name, other than the fact he wrote it and was their contracted feature artist.

I guess the more relevant question though is why sign him up in the first place if you weren’t going to insist on him being the centerpiece of his output?

I can’t imagine Panama Francis thinking much of Satchel Shuffle and that’s the most damning criticism we can make in this case. As a result of their halfhearted effort to come up with something more memorable we have no cause to talk about what a great drummer he was and how he might be able to bring that instrument to the forefront of rock instrumentals, so instead we’re left to talk about albums and filler material, gin and tonics and other subjects just to fill out a review of an insignificant offering.

But I suppose we can be thankful in one way, because eventually some of these subjects need to be touched upon and if we can do so without detracting from a more thorough musical review of a really good record than we wind up killing two birds with one stone.

Maybe that’s the ideal way to close out a review on this topic too, a song that had all of the attributes of filler being used as filler for the website itself. Just like on an album hopefully the next song that comes up… err… the next review that is, will be the big hit which makes sitting through the filler worthwhile in the end.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Panama Francis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)