SAVOY 751; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

A couple years from now Bill Haley will begin a meteoric rise as he starts transitioning from being a failed country yodeler to a full-blooded rock superstar of the highest magnitude.

One of his smartest moves, although simultaneously one of the things that wound up severely limiting his appeal just a few years later, was how he and The Comets focused on the youthfulness of their budding audience by trying to come up with songs they could relate to.

At their best they picked up on some of the slang they heard at dances and crafted very good songs around those, but at their worst they wracked their brains for “children’s songs” they could “rock up” and wound up aiming far too young with nursery rhymes and songs about learning the alphabet.

But it turns out that Haley wasn’t the first to have that idea, even if he was the one to eventually beat it into the ground. Instead rock’s first sax star Paul Williams came up with a similar approach almost two years before Haley traded in his cowboy hat for a greased spit curl.
 

 

That’s The Way The Money Goes
It hardly qualifies as big news to report that while instrumentalists may have fewer components to come up with when writing songs, they also have fewer sources of inspiration.

Whereas a vocal artist can craft material around subject matter, thereby creating endless variations on a few simple themes (usually love, lust or servile yearning on one hand and hurt, anger and despair when those romantic themes crumble around their feet on the other), instrumental artists have only the musical side of the equation to work with.

Once you decide on whether to go with an uptempo raver or a sultry seduction the other choices are a little more tedious… things like melody, coming up with a unique bridge, deciding which other instruments to feature.

Without a vocal hook – indeed, without even a word to associate the song with – these compositions can all start to look and sound the same and for an artist who is counting on selling more than one single in their lifetime in order to sustain a career, that can definitely be a problem.

So we’ve seen plenty of artists look to familiar material to either simply cut an instrumental version of a vocal tune… or in the case of the creepily titled Weasel Swing those who cannibalize a song so familiar you never recall having NOT known it, and who then frame it in something else to make you do a double take when you hear it the first time.

Whether that means you’ll want to hear it a second time however, let alone a third, fourth and however many times it would take to establish a record in this era as a legitimate hit, remains to be seen.
 


 
 

Half A Pound Of Treacle
Let’s start off by saying that Paul Williams is easily the best part of this record… which is both reassuring and yet also a tip off that the rest of the song fails to live up to his higher standards.

Part of the fault lays in the aforementioned appropriation of the singalong nursery rhyme tune Pop Goes The Weasel, which is certainly familiar to anyone over the age of six months old but which is TOO familiar in that childish setting to be really effective as the centerpiece of a rock song.

Every time that refrain… umm… “pops up”, the song’s momentum noticeably grinds to a halt, almost as if you were hurtled back to infancy without warning and find yourself laying on the floor surrounded by wooden blocks, crayons and overturned applesauce.

It’s not that it’s played in a juvenile manner exactly, but it’s just that the melody itself sunk into your brain at that age and so it can’t help but come off as trifling to an adult, no matter the setting it’s been awkwardly crammed into. Maybe if it had been slipped in during the fade just for a laugh that would’ve been okay, but not as the most identifiable melodic hook of the main part of the song.

Luckily it’s not fatal for Weasel Swing which bolsters those occasional unwelcome regressions to kindergarten with actual sweaty rock playing by Williams who when he lets loose shows he’s in the right frame of mind when it comes to rhythmic assertiveness. More promising perhaps is the fact that because he’s confining himself to the baritone rather than double on alto for this session, he also has the requisite power to put this over.

You wish you could say the same however about his supporting cast which treats this more like a jazz session that got a little out of hand rather than a rock date where they were expected to provide a lot more oomph of their own rather than adhering to the gently swinging backing they offer up here.
 

No Patience To Wait ‘Til By And By
In spite of the compromised mindsets on the record there are moments where everything falls into place, most notably after the extended solo when Williams and one of the tenors, either Joe Alexander or Sam Miller, trade off in rapid fashion.

Then after another silly interlude of the source material they reach their high point as the full arsenal of instruments, including some thwacking drum work by future Motown anchor Benny Benjamin, brings everything to a boil in as good an example of controlled mayhem as you’ll hear. But as good as that sounds, each time you’re ready to give yourself over to the growing cacophony they quickly dial it back down with more of the hit parade for diaper-wearing set and your enthusiasm wanes.

All of which returns us to the unfortunate decision to use what was surely nothing more than idle inspiration as the key factor in the songwriting. Had they been just tossing around ideas when one of them came up with the kid’s tune they’d have been far better served to just use it as a starting point, maybe kick off the song with that melody done in an overly serious, almost mournful way, kind of like closing the door to childhood… then once that mood was established blow the lid off by ripping through a totally unrelated honking, snorting rocker before finally settling back down at the very end with the same familiar melody, except now being played like a lullaby.

Then were you to pervert it by naming it something as audacious as Weasel Swing you’d show how disrespectful the rock generation was when it came to cherished childhood memories and subsequently you’d have yourself a winner – something that is clever without being cloying, and rousing without being aimless.

Instead that infantile hook provided the only recognizable feature of the song, thereby convincing them to utilize it far too much. The rest of the song, even the parts that work, have no distinct identity by contrast. There’s no structure, no melody, no repetitive hook and so while it’s modestly effective as a loose knit jam, it’s less so as a coherent record.
 


 
 

Back To The Cobbler’s Bench
I don’t think we can quite lay the same criticism on Williams for aiming too low with his target audience as Haley was guilty of down the road. In this case it was almost certainly more of an act of digging around the musical garden of their collective memories looking for a seed that might grow into something nourishing.

This wasn’t quite it, primarily because – to keep that analogy going – they didn’t fertilize it enough, nor give the song enough sunlight. But if nothing else it’s at least good to see that Williams himself was up to playing with some grit and energy rather than following some of his cohorts in the band back towards a jazzier mindset.

The title Weasel Swing conjures up all sorts of gruesome possibilities and so to find it’s a rather average record in the end probably qualifies as a disappointment.

But another way to look at it is that if you knew beforehand where they got the idea for this song, then you’d probably wind up being relieved that it turned out as well as it did.

Perspective is everything… especially if you’re the poor weasel afraid someone might take the title literally.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Paul Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)