Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Frankie Valli and the 3:14 conundrum

I wish I could find a video with a better cover image than the Jersey Boys, a pale imitation of the original who seem nonetheless to be seducing the public all over the place (including in a soon-to-be-released feature film).  But them's the breaks: this is the version with the best sound, and that is what matters.

When I was a kid, the Four Seasons were just sort of "around". They had hit after hit, and I thought they were sort of annoying, this guy singing in a really high voice, but at the same time sort of tough, a greaser. Every time I turned around, there was another one. What bored or annoyed me then impresses the hell out of me now: Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Dawn, My Eyes Adored You, Let's Hang On, Ronnie, Sherry (those two being current favorites of mine, as I love it when Valli addresses a wayward or unattainable girl personally), Can't Take my Eyes Off of You, and the irresistible Working my Way Back to You Babe (with a burnin' love inside!). And that is not by any means a comprehensive list.

Today I re-listened to a couple of the "straight" songs Valli recorded (meaning, in normal tenor range rather than falsetto). Blow the dust of the years away, and you've got a great singer with impeccable phrasing, deep understanding of a lyric, and a tremendous knowledge of how to use his voice. These Jersey Boy impersonators are completely incapable of cat-leaping from lyric crooner range straight up into countertenor range without a break.

Yes, I thought Valli was a greaser back then (when I thought about him at all), but today I found a clip of him singing live on TV in 1975 that blew me away. I don't know how old he was then, but he was very good-looking, not tough-looking at all. Almost dreamy.  At one point he does what I call a "BAM" - very few people know how to do it - and makes eye contact with the audience in a way that is so seductive, it takes your breath away. I have no idea if this is true or not, but there's something about Valli's persona that suggests heartbreak, being bashed around, having to keep his fists up. How this can mesh with singing Walk Like a Man in high descant range is anybody's guess.

Anyway, today, mucking around in all this, and listening to the breathtaking arrangement of Under my Skin that blows Sinatra out of the water, I suddenly found myself sobbing. Just breaking into real tears, and I didn't know why. Being ten years old, or whatever I was then, and Caitlin being ten years old now, and all that I have not accomplished and never will, and my ever-expanding hunger for musical treasure that can be found in the strangest places, such as right under my nose - ? Or is it none of this? 

There's something completely outrageous about the setting for this dark jewel. Violins soar to the heavens, chimes ring, and percussion beats almost urgently - there's a lot of drive in this, for a romantic song. And several times, eerily, it comes to a full stop, before Valli's lullabye voice swoops back in to revive it. You don't do that to a song, make it die like that, then bring it back, but somehow it works.

One of the greatest mysteries of this recording is the "3:14" conundrum. In every version I have ever heard, at exactly 3:14, under all the lavish strings and powerful brasses and that incredible tight-crunched choir of male voices, somebody says something. Only a couple of words. Indecipherable, though it could very well be in Valli's voice. It sounds almost like German. Oh, God, I hope it isn't something backwards, though I guess that's a possibility. I suppose someone could have just dropped this in, for in the land of YouTube, anything is possible, no matter how illegal. Or it could be a code, or a message for a specific person. I don't know. The thing is, these songs were recorded for a.m. radio and for the 45 r. p. m. record with the little plastic thing in the centre. You wouldn't even hear nuances like this. I think that's why the best pop songs were those that soared above sound limitations: the artists knew on some level that they had to hit the sweet spot, above distortion and below static. They had to surmount that loose-wires sound, and hit exact frequencies that forced people to pay attention. 

It was said that Phil Spector's infamous Wall of Sound was just a way to make mono recordings sound more like stereo, to densify and fatten them out. Spector was (and is) a crazy sonic science fiction wizard with demonic tendencies, and what he did to sound was almost criminal: it may never recover. People are still trying to figure out what exactly he did, trying in vain to replicate it. Today I listened to some Ronettes and some Chiffons and some Crystals and some Shangri-Las, and some of it was good and some of it was great, but there was also a lot of dreck, stuff so bad I had to click it off. Not many people remember You Can't Take My Boy Friend's Woody by the Powder Puffs, Chicken Chicken Cranny Crow by the Jaynettes, Waddle Waddle by the Bracelets, or Frankie's Out on Parole by the La Dell Sisters (though I was very disappointed not to find that one on YouTube). 

The really wizard stuff sparkled on top of the water, evanescent. And when you re-listen to it now with completely different sensibilities (i. e. as a kid, I had no idea what "under my skin" could possibly mean, completely missing the sexual connotations of it), you still get it, the sparkle. It dazzles your eyes. It's a sort of auditory "BAM". 

But I'd still like to know what he says at 3:14.

(The last gif is a live performance in the most primitive setting, with ONE microphone, a tiny stage, and a camera distance that never varies: it's all in long-shot. And they KILL it. Frankie Valli sings Big Girls Don't Cry (my least favorite back then, or was it Walk Like a Man) in a snarly kick-ass voice that far exceeds the studio version. The poor guys have to stand close as sardines to be heard, however -  I mean, this wasn't 1930, so couldn't they set up more than one mike? But there it is. Too bad there's no sound to this - go look it up yourself.)

The boys in slo-mo, resplendent in after-dinner-mint colors.

"But why should I try to resist, when darling, I know so well. . . "

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