No Offence
In search of the record that nobody hates

I found myself today trapped in a moment of profound banality. I was about to go out, but the washing machine was nearing the end of its cycle. If I left immediately, the washing would hang around in the machine, and wouldn't get transferred to the tumble-drier until I returned. If I hung around for a few minutes, I could shift it to the drier before I left, and return to a drum filled with dry, clean clothes.

So there I stood, with, I don't know, about eight minutes to kill. Enough to make a cup of peppermint tea, not enough to drink it as well. So I flipped on the first CD that fell under my gaze, and it happened to be Johnny Cash's latest, extraordinary tract of death, love, longing and apocalypse, American IV: The Man Comes Around. The inevitable happened - the washing cycle ended, but I just stood, transfixed, paralysed by the sheer, graveldashed sound of his voice, as he transforms tired standards like 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and 'In My Life' into secular prayers. 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' is a sweet love song, but in Cash's throat it becomes an adoring hymn to his wife, with the heart-rending implication that it might turn out to be a farewell before too long. I was blinking back tears as I eventually got round to loading the drier.

This afternoon, a similar wall of tedium confronted me, as I tried to talk to a drone from my building society. Having been lured dumbly into a queue of callers, I was soothed by a sax īn' synth version of - hey! - 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'. There are numerous theories as to how muzak, lift music, and other functional background sound is chosen, and how these sounds make people do what the providers want them to - usually a choice between buying stuff, or simply not suffering a frustration/boredom-induced cerebral haemorrhage. This, of course, falls down flat - millions find the stuff about as conducive to our vascular wellbeing as a salty lard sandwich. In fact, I started thinking as I suffered this ersatz Kenny G sodomising the memory of Ewan MacColl, why didn't those nice people at the Woolwich play the Johnny Cash version? In fact, it might have had an unexpected side effect - the raw sadness in John R.'s voice would put callers' complaints into perspective. By the time they get through, their underperforming endowments or miscalculated interest payments become downgraded to insignificant quibbles, as caller and drone are united in tearful worship of the Man In Black and his melancholy genius.

Well, I can dream. Many years ago, a friend and I spent a drunken evening attempting to compile a list of records that would displease as few people as possible. This wasn't a 'Nation's100 Favourites' scenario, inevitably including the Led Zep one about heaven, the Lennon one about no heaven and the Queen one about hell and interior decorating (probably). By their very ubiquity, those tracks, along with choice plums by Celine, Whitney, Bryan and their showbiz pals, surely annoy as many people as they delight. No, what we sought were the tracks that, if not on everyone's top 10, can bring at least a teaspoonful of happiness to everyone's hearts. At the very least, they were tracks that wouldn't drive anyone from the room, tracks that could enable you to unload the washing machine without tearing a sock to shreds, talk to your building society without threatening to eviscerate My-Name's-Stacey-How-Can-I-Help-Yew.

And we drew up a list of... one. That's right. Everything else we considered, from Beethoven's Ninth to the Buzzcocks, we reckoned would have something about it that pissed somebody off. We did hover for some while over 'Get Ready' by the Temptations, before we remembered those Northern Soul snobs who think Motown's a bit too handbaggy.

So, what was the meisterwerk, the slab of genius that would bring the world together in unanimous contentment (or, in the worst instance, toleration)? 'Mack The Knife', as performed by Ella Fitzgerald on her Live In Berlin album from 1960. For those that don't know the recording (on which she's accompanied by the Paul Smith Quartet), its distinguishing feature is Ella's attack of amnesia during the second verse. The lyrics go entirely out of her head. Instead of collapsing into a sheepish silence she decides to make up a whole new set of words as she goes, including a spontaneous nod to previous singers who've performed the song, and an extraordinary impersonation of her old sparring partner Louis Armstrong.

So, who would like this? Well, by definition any fan of jazz and/or easy listening will love it, because it's Ella. End of story. Classical devotees will at least appreciate it, because she's a technically brilliant singer, and, in any case, Kurt Weill has credibility with fans of 'proper music'. Anyone who likes rhythm-based dance genres will get off on the relentless swing that Fitzgerald and the musicians maintain in amongst the confusion. Her melismatic, gospel-influenced tones resonate with all forms of black music from country blues to urban R&B. And the improvisatory brilliance of her lyrical gymnastics could teach most rappers and toasters a thing or two.

But what sets this above all other recordings is that it's funny. After a few seconds of embarrassment when Ella realises she's screwed up, she starts to enjoy herself with the new challenge, and the audience responds to that. She becomes a jazz juggler, throwing ever more unpredictable objects into the air, catching and dispatching them with giddy delight. The sense of fun and danger is so acute, that even those poor fools who don't like music will love what's going on.

So, if there's anybody out there working in a call-centre, trash the tape of Richard Clayderman Plays The Hits Of Wet Wet Wet, and replace it with Ella. More fun, fewer death threats.

© 2003 2003 Tim Footman