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RCA 20-3881; AUGUST 1950

 
 

 

Let’s start with an obvious admission: This is NOT a rock song and it’s being included here under duress.

I know this goes against the entire premise of the website which is to cover the history of rock ‘n’ roll and nothing BUT rock ‘n’ roll, but this group has been regular interlopers here since the start, straddling the pop/rock divide like few others.

When they’ve leaned towards rock in more explicit ways than this we’ve let them sit at the table – keeping our eye on them so they don’t pilfer any of the silverware – but they’ve generally had good table manners and have contributed a few nice side dishes along the way.

This one though is really pushing it and if not for a single element of the record we would’ve told them we have no room for them here. But since we did consent to let them in despite the song’s overall stylistic incompatibility we promise not to make you suffer too much for going along with us.
 

 

Maybe Some Day You’ll Be Sorry
With each passing month The Four Tunes place in the larger musical world becomes far more tenuous. The black pop vocal group style pioneered, or at least perfected by, The Ink Spots in the late 1930’s and ‘40’s has been growing ever less commercially potent and The Four Tunes have tried navigating this shifting terrain as best they can with mixed results.

Because they have legitimate success with more of a pop approach in the past and because they’re on a major label who puts music in just two main categories – pop and garbage – it stands to reason that they’d skew towards appeasing their bosses and appealing to the supper club crowd that still may like to hear sweetly sung harmony songs when they go out for a night on the town.

But that audience is decidedly smaller than it was even three or four years ago and the audience that is rapidly replacing it in terms of hit-making power is the rock fan-base, younger, forward looking and less tolerant of cultural compromise.

Or to put it more succinctly, the kind who were definitely not interested in songs like Say When.

We know The Four Tunes can sing great though no matter the material and in a wide array of styles so their dilemma has been which direction to pursue. If they focus entirely on one style and one market they’re making a very risky bet, for if that audience doesn’t respond consistently to those efforts they could easily be dropped by RCA and see their bookings dry up.

So instead they’ve been hedging their bets, releasing one record that aims high and another that aims low, catering to each consistently enough to stay on the radar for both markets, but not doing enough to build and hold that audience over time.

With this one they’re clearly thinking of the mainstream pop realm and in that realm this would actually be a halfway decent record, but in rock it’s decidedly subpar.

However it’s got one feature that will soon become a rock vocal group trademark which makes this record sparkle for just long enough to grant it some leeway.
 

Won’t You Tell Me When?
Luckily you don’t have to wait long to be inundated with their brief flash of brilliance, as the acapella opening envelops you with bounteous aural splendor.

It’s such a simple vocal arrangement, bass and group trading off in a way that I’m sure most people think they and some friends could pull off with a few minutes practice.

But it’s the sound of those voices that grab you, the light airy notes, their unhurried deliveries, their perfectly spaced parts, which leave such an impression that you desperately hope they’ll be able to keep it up.

They don’t of course, though what follows is fairly well sung as always, but it’s well sung for a different genre of music, one that rock has pushed further and further away from it as we’ve gotten deeper into the first year of the 1950’s and will continue to be expelled from the rock mindset even more as time goes on until it finds itself ostracized completely. But it’s not just the style that we in the rock kingdom find fault with here, it’s the content which shows just how far apart this music was from our sensibilities.

Say When is a breakup song, one that leaves no room for interpretation about that fact. The guy has been dumped and he’s known this was coming for awhile. But he’s not angry about it, not sad either, and though he sounds happy in the way he’s singing it he definitely wishes he hadn’t been tossed aside.

The problem is he’s so accepting of it!

I don’t mean that he should shifting the blame or vowing payback or even just calling her some choice names on his way out the door. There’s plenty to be said for handling a break-up with grace and dignity and that mindset we could applaud. But Danny Owens isn’t doing that here, not exactly, instead he’s cheerily informing the girl that he understands he’s not at all worthy of her and if at any time she reconsiders he’ll happily return to her even if that means he’ll be forced to curl up at her feet like an obedient puppy.

Aside from handing away all self-respect, the one attribute rock music usually tries clinging to at all costs, this excuse for a song is ignoring the fact that he’s GOT to have some actual feelings about this predicament that he’s intent on hiding just so as to keep the door open for a potential reconciliation. That’s where the real story lays, not the public face he’s putting on to manage the split, but the private turmoil he’s going through that makes him human.

Yet there’s absolutely no emotional conflict to be found here. His subservience is sickeningly phony, making him come across like a grade A stupe. You not only don’t have any sympathy for his plight, you actively want to add to it by belting him in the puss for being such a hapless loser.
 

If You’ve Had Your Fill Of My Charms
This was pop music’s main approach in Mid-Century America for the most part, at least in cases where the singer hadn’t developed a widely known identifiable personality to draw from and give their songs a hint of character.

The majority of the records that came out were interchangeable by nature featuring pleasant melodies, unobtrusive musical arrangements and steam cleaned vocals that didn’t betray a hint of intelligence or emotion. If these agreeable tunes were sung nicely it was considered reasonably effective… modestly appealing even… but most of all predictably safe.

That was the goal. To be bland enough not to offend. To be suitable for any ears, old or young, urban or rural, male or female, alive or dead.

Those choosing to be impressed by the majority of Say When were those who were nearly dead. Yes, Owens has a good voice and even at times is injecting as much soulfulness as he dares into the mix, but it’s constantly being downplayed and undercut by everything else.

The lightly strummed guitar to imply rhythm, the dainty piano to embellish the melody, the effete backing vocals which are designed to reassure listeners that there’s absolutely no angst that’s going to be revealed here and ruin your afternoon tea. When the others take the bridge they manage to expunge even the faint glimpse of a beating heart under the surface that Owens showed.

You sit there incredulous that somebody thought this was a composition worthy of being written in the first place, recorded in the second place, and sold in the third place. It’s so insulting to the genuine human experience of love and loss that it almost would be considered a form of torture if anybody was apt to take it seriously.

Instead you laugh at them – at The Four Tunes for going along with this tripe, RCA for thinking this was suitable for release and the public who, while not clamoring to buy this record specifically, had at least bought other similarly shallow ones in the past by a wide array of acts that allowed the industry to think this kind of thing could go on indefinitely.

It couldn’t of course and that was their blind spot that did them in.
 

You Don’t Need To Be Afraid
Rock music may have been just a minor annoyance in their peripheral vision now but it was rapidly setting into motion the changes that would upend the industry in a few years time by accentuating the very things that pop suppressed… rhythm, excitement and emotional honesty.

Yet embedded within this otherwise worthless piece of fluff is one of the vehicles that rock would use to power its way into the mainstream. That harmony structure that opens – and closes – the record, which is so disarmingly catchy that five years down the road it’d be a cornerstone of the very music which was starting to take over of the world.

As much as we hate to admit it maybe that’s even what allowed it easier access to the mainstream in the mid-50’s, or at least made it somewhat recognizable to the broader white teen audience who’d suffered through their parents listening to even more starched versions of this kind of pap during their formative years.

It’s doubtful any of those kids heard Say When in 1950 when they were eight years old, but then again maybe something like it filtered into their consciousness then that got reignited when they were entering their teens and heard the doo wop groups take this kind of opening and churn out entire songs that lived up to its promise.

I know, that alone hardly makes this kind of record worthy of any attention around here, for this was the very thing rock still needed to shove aside to make more headway, but if those fifteen seconds which bookend this could elevate something this putrid out of the red numbers it shows the latent power in such things just waiting to be unleashed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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