In a year that saw the release of legendary albums; After the Gold Rush, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Bitches Brew, and Fun House, 1970 is considered by many as one of the best ever for recorded music. In April that year, Reprise Records released 12 Songs, the second studio album for Los Angeles songwriter Randy Newman. Produced by Lenny Waronker it contained subtle musical nuances, unique phrasing and Newman's "suburban blues" that took small digs at what was considered the middle-class American dream.
Like Newman's 1968 debut, the album received praise from fellow songwriters, musicians, and critics, but proved less than popular among the public. While Newman and his compositions remained popular among musicians with Blood Sweat & Tears, Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald, and Harry Nilsson (whose Nilsson Sings Newman album was released in February of that year), to most other he was considered an under-dog.
Since the 1980s, Newman has worked mostly as a film composer whose scores have included The Natural, Meet the Parents, and Disney-Pixar Toy Story animated franchise.
Sydney music writer Max Easton has written Barely Human; I Like Randy Newman, a 32-page zine that is an attempt to exorcise his obsession with the unfashionable musician. Easton describes the serial failures of Newman's career—where even his successes came against his personal wishes—posing Newman as not only one of music's fiercest satirists, but one of history's most resilient under-dogs.
Noisey: Like the characters in his songs Randy comes across as a lovable underdog. A musicians musician and a class songwriter who never really got the dues he deserved. Why do you like Randy and his music so much?
Max Easton: For the reasons you just outlined! There's an affable air to Randy that makes it seem as though he was relaxed, that whatever happened happened...but underneath he was quite ambitious. He would release a record, get annoyed by the fact no one bought it, try to change...get annoyed if it was successful for the wrong reasons, then parody his audience for their ignorance. I guess I was drawn to him because he was subversive, but I liked the fact that he tended to sabotage himself, because I do too.
When did you first become familiar with Randy and 12 Songs in particular?
I bought a CD copy from a closing down sale maybe five years back and I remember being shocked because it wasn't what I wanted at all. Playing blues and country standards, his voice forced into trying to sing nice; there was nothing about it that appealed to me. In the book I barely discuss it, I think of it as off canon - but it's important in his development I think.
1970 was a massive year for music It's almost like he picked the wrong year to release his seminal album. Ha. How do you think Randy sat in the musical climate at the time?
That's classic Randy! Not much went right for him, whether that was release schedules, the taste of the times, what people wanted, what they didn't - he didn't benefit from serendipity. I think at that time, he was respected but unloved. He had a series of now legendary recording artists covering his songs and singing his praises, but his own records did shit all. Bob Dylan once said Newman was his favourite songwriter, but even then it was conditional: he said that Newman won't impress you if you saw him play, but he'd write a better song than you any day of the week.
I love "Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues". What do you think Randy really thought of Dylan?
In my head, I see Randy playing a Bob Dylan record halfway through a bottle of scotch, and muttering "hmm, he could have done a bit more with that piano run." I think he would have liked Dylan once he knew Dylan liked him...that's a pretty human trait!
Did Randy hide behind satire and humor or do you think that's where his strength lies? He is an amazing lyricist.
When he wrote the satirical songs, he stopped hiding. He grew up with three composers in the family, he disliked the songwriters who he called 'hummers' (who didn't write their music by sheet), but then he also hated the way he played piano and sang, because it was a technical mess. So he had all these forced records early on where he tried to come across as a pure songwriter, but a joke or two would slip in by accident. "It's Lonely at the Top" was probably his first, but he wrote it for Frank Sinatra, who rejected it..."Short People" only made it to record because he thought the LP (Little Criminals) was too slow and needed an upper ...those accidents slipped through to the keeper, and eventually he found his way into being a humourist on purpose.
Do you have a favourite track or lyric from the album?
I don't care for 12 Songs much (my favourite of his is "My Life is Good" off Trouble in Paradise), but "Mama Told Me Not to Come", is a classic, and is one of the only tracks off that record with that stilted playing and unpredictable structure...that kind of New Orleans romp he'd go back to every now and then.
Was most of this written while you were living in Montreal? Did living in Canada have any bearing on how you approached the zine?
Most of it was scribbled into notebooks on buses and trains between Montreal, New York or Toronto...it was just a way to pass the time at first, I never planned on finishing it. In the end, writing and completing it was a way of dealing with the isolation of living alone in Montreal. I wouldn't have written it in Sydney, that time would be spent with friends at the pub or whatever. To write something this obtuse, something that absolutely no one wants or asked for? I think you kinda need to have gone off the deep end, which is where the "Barely Human" part comes in.
'Barely Human; I Like Randy Newman' is available now through Moodwar.