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COLUMBIA 30157; MARCH, 1949

 
 

 
I lied. Actually, I didn’t lie when I said we were going to finally get back to the chronological part of our chronological survey of rock history where we left off back in August with the releases of December 1949 after months of revisiting points along the way we missed, but the fact is when researching a release date FOR December 1949 it uncovered more that we missed.

Rather than let it continue to wallow in relative obscurity, you know us, we had to go back to resurrect it – and another to follow. But then, I promise, we’ll be back in December 1949.

Besides, you waited this long, you can wait another couple of days.

 
 

The widespread usage of the term “shock value” is a relatively modern development, simply because in the distant past folks generally seemed to be more considerate when it came to messing around with people’s feelings.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some inherent value in shocking someone in certain circumstances, springing something unexpected on people always had its place in life, but I don’t think intentionally doing something to shock people was seen as a perfectly suitable method to sell yourself or your ideas the way it is now when so many set out to draw attention through outrageous means.

But while I’m not quite sure when the term came into being I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the act itself originated with rock ‘n’ roll, a style which has always reveled in being shocking to those who were weaned on more proper standards of music.

While I’m sure some people might agree that rock music was somehow involved in the popularization of the concept itself I highly doubt that anyone would suggest that it was the unlikely former pop crooners The Five Scamps who provided maybe the first verified example of shock value on record.
 

 

Shock Treatment
It’s certainly possible that The Five Scamps themselves were not well-known enough for prospective listeners to have any preconceived notions which would then be upended by what they heard on both sides of this record, thereby perhaps removing one of the hallmarks of the “shock value” aesthetic… but the same couldn’t be said for Columbia Records for whom they now recorded, whose sterling reputation made anyone remotely familiar with popular music unprepared for the sounds emanating from this record as it started to play.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. First it’s important to re-set the scene, even though the top side of this release did a pretty fair job in that regard as we watched in startled wonderment as the formerly demure act known as The Scamps who seemed incapable of ruffling any feathers with their approach when we first heard them more than a year ago on Solitude, not only ruffled feathers as soon as they became The Five Scamps, but then plucked that bird bald on a fairly torrid version of Chicken Shack Boogie.

That in of itself was pretty shocking you have to admit. But one could argue that because it was a cover version of an instant rock classic by Amos Milburn that was burning up the charts, The Five Scamps hadn’t much choice in the matter. Sure, if it was their decision to record it in the first place then they’d get more blame… or credit depending on your perspective… to jump headlong into rock ‘n’ roll, but even so the prototype for the song had already been established by Milburn and they were sort of bound to follow it, otherwise why even bother covering it?

If it was Columbia’s decision to try and latch on to rock’s growing popularity by forcing the group to tackle Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie then The Five Scamps themselves might not have even been all that enthusiastic about the edict and just went along with it because they were in no position to buck the brass, especially with a company as powerful as Columbia.

Even audiences buying the record would likely feel that it was no more than an opportunistic grab at some sales with an otherwise expendable act who were too insignificant for the label to worry about ruining their career by having them associate with such deplorable music as rock ‘n’ roll.

But the same can’t be said about the flip side, which only adds to the shock value of the entire affair, for not only does Gone Home head in the exact same direction musically, confirming their newfound allegiance to rock, but for the few who were aware of the group’s reputation as singers, this had the added shock of presenting them as an instrumental band who could – believe it or not – stand with some of the best rock had to offer.
 

A Wild Style
Before you hastily check the writing credits to see who was responsible for this, thinking perhaps it was some send-up of the style conceived by a producer in the studio, the song was actually written by one of the Scamps themselves, Rudy Massingale, the group’s resident pianist and saxophonist.

At the time most pure vocal groups had a musical director who played with them in the studio – often co-writing their original material (like Howard Biggs with The Ravens) while also going on the road with them and acting as the go-between for musicians enlisted to play behind them for the night. He’d carry the group’s charts with them and lead the band through rehearsals to make sure the hired guns knew the act and what was expected out of them. Come showtime he’d sit in with them and make sure everything went smoothly.

But The Five Scamps were never ONLY a vocal group, though that was their bread and butter, these guys also played… all of them. That eliminated the need for the clubs to hire outside musicians and presumably boosted The Five Scamps pay since they carried out that task themselves. It also gave them a little more leeway in the studio to come up with arrangements that suited their singing rather than trying to adapt to the session musicians the label usually would hire to back their vocal groups.

It’s just that before these guys arrived at Columbia’s door nobody really expected they had it in them to play like THIS.

Before you get too worked up, Gone Home isn’t quite cutting edge from start to finish, there’s still a few hints of an older school approach, especially at the start when the horns play in unison with sort of a controlled excitement backed by the piano that doesn’t sound quite convincing, though it definitely is rousing.

But when Massingale starts to blow his saxophone things pick up considerably.

Actually I don’t know for sure if he was also playing piano on the start of this because when he picks up the sax there’s still a piano there playing a very basic boogie in the background, so my guess is someone else in the band, or maybe someone hanging around the studio, took on that task because it wasn’t going to be at the forefront (unless there was overdubbing, which is highly unlikely, but Les Paul was experimenting with it already so you never know).

Since Massingale wrote it though we know he’s playing sax because that’s the focal point of the record, an extended solo that starts off stuttering… almost impatiently waiting to fly off the handle… and as it goes along he pours on the fuel, never letting it become an all-out inferno maybe, but still scorching anyone who gets too close.

He’s got a good grasp on the melodic requirements which allows you to follow along reasonably well, yet he doesn’t skimp on the histrionics either, weaving in and out, up and down until you’re dizzy. He never lets loose with any offensive honks or squeals as you might expect in a rock instrumental, but they’re not really needed here. His playing is frantic, yet not directionless, he knows where he wants to take this, knows how to let it lead the charge without losing the rest of the band by getting too far ahead of them.

The others keep things locked in reasonably well, the rhythm holding steady and the pace never dropping, all sounding fully committed to the job at hand, not in any way showing they were uneasy with the style itself.

Then comes the unwelcome intrusion that lets you know that for all of the forward thinking inspiration they’ve shown on these first two Columbia sides there’s still just a little bit of yesterday still tugging at their sleeves.
 

Horns Aplenty… Or One Horn Too Many?
I’d give you three guesses as to who among them is stuck in the past but you wouldn’t need guesses number two or three once you learn they carry a trumpeter.

It’s hardly poor Ed Stafford’s fault that the instrument he learned as a kid would turn out to be one that was hardly needed anymore when he became an adult… or at least when he and the group ventured into this form of music that had yet to figure out what to do with such an invasive instrument. But he’s a member of the group and I suppose they figured he had a right to take part in their records, otherwise he’d be left to do nothing more than drive them from town to town and press their suits or something, so why not let him play.

Why not? Well, this is why not… because WHAT he plays undercuts what THEY played before he jumped in, that’s why.

When Stafford makes his entrance at the halfway point Gone Home was shaping up to be an above average rock record. By the time he’s done it might be a below average rock record. Such is the power of one instrument to make or break a record.

Some of what Stafford plays is tolerable early on even if the tone is grating on our nerves, but most of what he plays isn’t, even for the trumpet, as he seems to wander further away from the rhythm and melody the longer he goes and his final squealing notes will curl your hair… if not make it fall out altogether.

Luckily though that doesn’t last too long because Massingale, sensing he’s about to lose control of the record or perhaps thinking Stafford is choking to death on his gum, jumps back into the fray to rescue him, taking over the record once again and getting us back on the right track. Stafford doesn’t throw in the towel and storm out of the studio, but rather he reins himself in somewhat admirably and plays a counterpoint to Massingale’s increasingly wild lead. It’s not doing much more than adding to the cacophony but at this point that’s what’s needed – as much mayhem as possible just to overwhelm you so you’ll forget the trumpet interlude that almost derailed this altogether.

By the end you’ve managed to purge a lot of that distasteful passage from your mind and you’re focused on the way the whole band just lowers their heads and keep on pushing forward, their energy and enthusiasm not lagging for a second. Massingale manages to top his earlier work down the stretch and while it may not wind up vying with the best instrumentals rock has produced this winter thanks to that unfortunate decision to let Stafford have his moment in the spotlight, all things considered it can at least hold its own.
 

Shocking
So that brings us back to the question about shock value, but now with something of a twist.

Certainly the astute record buyer in the winter of 1949 would be shocked to hear a mild vocal group transforming into a sizzling instrumental act, and they’d be equally shocked to hear such an unrepentant rocker coming out on a staid and storied label such as Columbia… but what of the folks at Columbia itself?

Wouldn’t THEY be shocked by Gone Home as well?

I think the answer to that is unquestionably yes.

Sure, they brought The Five Scamps in ostensibly to do just this – give the company some credibility in the suddenly booming rock field. But do you really think that Columbia wanted them to be SO credible at their job?

Major labels at the time – and even well into the future – viewed rock ‘n’ roll with a mixture of disgust and trepidation. They were successful enough without rock to think they didn’t need it, that it would die out soon enough and they could avoid sullying themselves by getting involved with it, but there was still an obligation to try and garner as many sales as possible and by 1949 that meant they needed to at least make an effort to pull in some of the audience who were going wild for all this noise. But that didn’t mean they had to be altogether sincere in their efforts.

This is why they signed groups like The Five Scamps, who they hoped would be suitable compromise candidate – happy to have the opportunity and thus willing to toe the line when it came to content. But maybe they didn’t convey that message too clearly at first and so left to their own devices The Five Scamps treated this as a legitimate chance to be a viable rock act. Once the dust settled and the secretaries at Columbia crawled out from under their desks, somebody in a position of authority put the boys in their place.

Maybe this is why it took Columbia another dozen years or more to have a legitimate rock star on their label, it took them that long to get over the initial shock at the sounds they heard with the grand rock “experiment” and they wanted to make sure their life insurance premiums were paid up before bringing in more of these incorrigible madmen who clearly had no regard for musical decorum.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Five Scamps for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)