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MERCURY 8078; APRIL, 1948

 
 

 

There is NO WAY this should work. There’s no earthly reason why an aspiring rock act should bother tackling this. There’s no point in even covering such a travesty of music and humor.

So of course that means we’re covering it.

But not to rip it to shreds as you might expect. No, in fact we’re going to be rather kind to The Trenier Twins in this case because we’re saving our slings and arrows for the pop music scene that gave us the original version of this song and laid the groundwork for the overthrow of that decrepit mindset which followed.

Therefore as strange as it seems to be focusing on something that began as a pop novelty record in a rock history blog it actually fits right in with the larger goal here which is to try and explain how all of this nonsense going on around them at the time helped lead to a musical revolution.
 

 

A Burying Ground
My apologies for starting off by paraphrasing Wikipedia of all things, but here goes: essentially revolutions are “a fundamental and relatively sudden change in power which occurs when the population revolts against rulers due to oppression or incompetence”.

Now obviously that’s referring more to political revolutions but the basic definition more than holds up when it comes to cultural revolutions as well, such as happens from time to time with music and more pointedly for our needs it describes things rather accurately when it comes to the sudden rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940’s.

The first aspect of that definition of course is oppression and we’ve laid out in great detail over the initial eight months of rock how the mainstream music industry essentially oppressed authentic black styles for both cultural and commercial reasons over the years.

Back when there were only four major record labels which controlled the overwhelming share of the market it was far easier to hold back something they had little regard for. It’s hardly a secret based on their public proclamations at the time that these companies thought of themselves as defenders of decency and as such sought to promote songs and artists that fit their homogeneous worldview. With little outside competition for the ears of the nation there was no reason to ever deviate from this approach.

But once the independent record boom hit in the mid-1940’s things began to change because those labels had little choice but to try and carve up the small remaining piece of the pie so they too could eat. That meant targeting marginalized communities, predominantly black listeners. All of a sudden there was some competition, although it was viewed as fairly insignificant at first within the industry, but as with anything that gives the oppressed a voice they hadn’t had before, that voice soon grows louder.

As for the revolt that followed, well, that came about when the younger generation of black artists arrived and launched rock ‘n’ roll, a style which didn’t adhere to any of the accepted norms the major labels promoted and which at times seemed to be actively trying to overthrow the standards of musical decorum, something made easier thanks to the second aspect of that earlier definition – incompetence. With pop music remaining stagnant for so long, resolutely sticking with a formula of big band sweetness, mellow crooners and insipid novelties, reflective of an idealistic simplicity which failed to take into account the changing outlook of a nation striving and struggling for a greater share of the American dream, they didn’t realize how vulnerable they’d become.

The major labels and their allies in the press felt this seemingly minor upheaval was nothing to worry about and that they’d be able to fend off the onrushing descent into sin and depravity by simply refusing to legitimize it by almost pretending it didn’t exist. What they hadn’t counted on though was the fact that the market they all had basically ignored or only gave cursory attention to for years to was about to prove it was far bigger and more economically viable than any of them had considered.

As rock music’s popularity in the generation of coming of age began to grow it meant that it was only a matter of time before the noisy musical and cultural revolution was going to arrive in some previously quiet towns all across the musical frontier.
 

Measure You For Size
The Trenier Twins were not carrying the banner yet for any revolution, musical or otherwise, in 1948. In fact they were fairly successful in the black music world that itself was also about to be overthrown. Veterans of Jimmie Lunceford’s acclaimed swing band they had pedigrees that made them acceptable to the mainstream and thus major labels, or in their case an aspiring major label in Mercury, who had started by recording predominantly black artists like a lot of independent labels, but soon switched to white pop while keeping their hand in black music by signing more respectable names such as Dinah Washington, who’d go on to be their most consistent star over the next few years.

As we’ve said before The Treniers were always going to be an awkward fit in any pop circles, black or white, because they were natural cut-ups, jokesters, madcaps, call it what you will, but they didn’t take much seriously even though they were both really good singers. They felt their best bet was as a hip nightclub act, able to cut across cultural boundaries with humor and showmanship, a vision that Mercury seemed to share, intent on having them serve as their version of Louis Jordan, the dominant “race” star of the 1940’s whose music contained a healthy dose of comedic presentation backed by really good musical chops and some sly social commentary underneath the surface to give him authenticity with black listeners.

Mercury seemed fine with the first two aspects of that plan, but not so much the third, whether because it was too risky or simply because it was too difficult to get songs that had subversive themes without being too obvious about it so as not to offend those on the outside. Whatever the case The Trenier Twins had yet to find anything that was suited to their natural style while also being quality songs that would appeal to a generation that was now looking beyond what Jordan had done.

This record isn’t it. In fact, this is probably what they would’ve been stuck doing had rock ‘n’ roll not exploded over the next year or two and given them the platform they needed to find themselves – novelty songs that had nothing really offensive – and therefore nothing much interesting – about them.

But here’s the thing, of all of their sides on Mercury, It’s A Quiet Town In Crossbone County, as improbable as it seems, might just have been the one which gave some hint as to what they did best.
 


 
 

Settle Down
Time to circle back – briefly, I promise – to the source of this song. It was a pop song, as if you needed me to tell you that… a stupid, unfunny and juvenile pop song if you want the unvarnished truth, one with barely a modicum of musical merit besides. It was done by Danny Kaye and The Andrews Sisters, the same pairing that had scored big last winter with the racially offensive novelty Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo) that we talked about in our December 1947 Monthly Overview.

Now before we massacre them all once again let it be said that The Andrews Sisters were great singers who never should’ve had to stoop this low to score hits. They were arguably – and I don’t know who’d argue against it to tell the truth – the greatest pure pop female vocal group ever, and if you count all female groups from all styles they’re topped only by a rock vocal group in The Supremes.

The Andrews Sisters’ work earlier in the decade – Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy most famously, along with a version of Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree that showcased them trading off vocals which went from straight harmonizing to scat singing, and better still Shoo-Shoo Baby which even offered hints of future female rock vocal groups at times – was expertly sung and really innovative in their arrangements, all of which helped them to sell more records that decade than anyone not named Bing Crosby.

But as was common at the time there was also plenty of silly songs as well as far too much material that was guilty of cultural appropriation, such as their biggest hit Rum And Coca Cola in which they took a Trinidadian folk song and turned it into a mega-hit while mimicking Trinidadian accents. When you remember that LaVerne, Maxene and Patty were from Minnesota, about as far away geographically and culturally from the Caribbean as possible, the idea of it makes you queasy even though they pull it off with a fair amount of grace.

This type of thing was rampant back then and so nobody thought twice about it. America wasn’t about to accept other cultures as equals so they merely found white acts who could make it acceptable. But the more troubling underside of this was the fact that they were almost all done with the humor coming at the expense of the originals – because it was “different” of course.
That didn’t just apply to foreign based songs but also from the supposedly “non-cultivated” regions of America such as with white rural songs, which is what It’s A Quiet Town (In Crossbone County) is poking fun at in the Andrews Sisters’ version.

That record is an abomination that not even their vocal talent can save. In it Danny Kaye portrays the sleepy-eyed hayseed who takes to yelling at the musicians who play too loud (big band style) and later sings in a cracked voice and acts the fool while the girls sing the straight parts of the song – quite well as always – but the whole thing is more a comedy skit (that’s painfully unfunny) than an actual musical record.

Wait… did somebody say “comedy skit”? Excuse me a moment… Paging Cliff and Claude Trenier!!!
 

You Ain’t Just A Kick
If rock hadn’t come along to rescue them this is precisely what The Treniers would’ve been stuck doing their whole careers, which probably wouldn’t have lasted very long even though they actually improve on the original in almost every way imaginable.

The introduction to both versions is the weakest part, a spoken skit to set the rural scene and let you know that you’re supposed to laugh at it. You’re laughing alright… because it’s so putrid that you can’t imagine anyone thought this nonsense would be appealing.

But when the guffawing stops and the actual singing starts both records pick up, The Andrews Sisters harmonize beautifully on their version, while on the rock take on it The Treniers add a soulful bent to their vocals and though they downplay the humor in the two spoken interjections during this section it actually comes off as funnier because it’s not emphasized at all but rather thrown off casually.

The backing music though is the other key to setting this apart, particularly Don Hill on saxophone giving It’s A Quiet Town In Crossbone County a languid feel that is far removed from the country motif the other tried to incorporate into the jazzy Vic Schoen Orchestra accompaniment, which not surprisingly comes across like oil and water. By contrast Hill’s smoky lines on sax behind The Treniers makes this actually listenable as a musical exercise with Gene Gilbeaux’s piano adding the right amount of percussive rhythm before Hill takes over for a halfway decent solo, a little flighty at the start before it settles into something warm and inviting.

When the brothers return the comedy is ramped up but unlike the pop version where Kaye affected all sorts of jokey accents, yodeling and imitating banjos and jew’s harps, dominating the record for an extended stretch that made it all but unlistenable, Claude Trenier keeps singing perfectly straight throughout it, letting Cliff ad-lib the jokes in between lines, all while Claude never breaks stride. He sounds great, the spoken asides are not completely intrusive, and as a result it remains more of a song than a bad vaudeville number.

Now it’s still not all that funny, if you really crack a smile you’re an easier mark than me, but it’s at least fairly humorous rather than cringe worthy and their delivery of the jokes is helped in great measure by their comfort level with these types of antics they’d honed in their nightclub act.
 

Who’s Shootin’ At Me?
Is it a great record? Not on your life. Is it even a good record? Well, had they sung the intro straight maybe it’d sneak into the lower end of average but as it is… no, it’d be a stretch to call it “good”, certainly it’s not good for rock ‘n’ roll, but it IS far, far better than the original by Kaye and The Andrews Sisters.

Maybe what stands out about it most in retrospect and why it serves a purpose here to review in spite of its origins… or maybe BECAUSE of it’s origins, is because this helps to definitively show that pop music by 1948 was running low on good ideas. Styles hadn’t changed in so long – and since everybody sang everybody else’s songs there weren’t a lot of ways to carve out your own personal niche – and so after first plundering other parts of the world for material they were now resorting to trying to mock their own countrymen and make it appealing. You can just envision The Andrews Sisters rolling their eyes at this sort of thing in the studio but gamely going along with it because that was what was expected of them.

What makes The Treniers version of It’s A Quiet Town In Crossbone County work much better is that they are in effect sending up that pop version, mocking IT and the entire concept of this ill-conceived novelty rather than trying to mine the thin plot of the song for a few chuckles. In a sense they were doing to the pop originators of this song the very thing that so many pop acts had been doing to their foreign sources all of those years – lampooning it.

In that way The Treniers were representing you, the listener, finding the whole thing to be a joke. If you ARE laughing then you’re laughing with them rather than at them. But really what you’re also laughing at is the further evidence of the creative bankruptcy of pop music the original record represents.

Now obviously this kind of thing wasn’t going to be what turned The Trenier Twins into stars, nor even make them a valued part of the growing rock community, for how much mileage was there in any type of novelty act, but strangely enough it’s probably their best record of the 40’s rock era. Admittedly that’s not a very deep pool of songs of theirs to choose from, but in this we at least see a few signs that they had more to offer than they were being allowed to bring out in an era where the utterly inane pop rendition of this was still considered a good idea by an industry that didn’t realize that a revolution was underway that would render them and everything they stood for culturally irrelevant before long.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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