by carl wilson

A Few Words in Defence of Randy Newman


Every once in a while I get into an argument with someone in which I try to claim that Randy Newman was the most significant songwriter to follow after Bob Dylan. I do mean as a writer, not as a performer, in which regard he pales compared to dozens of others. But still I can never persuade anyone. There are other viable late-sixties and early-seventies candidates - Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Curtis Mayfield - but Newman did more than anyone to widen the pallett of techniques in 1970s pop songwriting, with his uses of irony, unreliable and/or actually despicable narrators, and pastiches of classic American pop forms (which was a minor sixties post-folk trend - see Lovin' Spoonful, various "jug bands," etc. - but never done so richly and competently as Newman did it). He arguably introduced serious Brechtian techniques to the pop tradition - a little-noticed influence on Dylan, actually, but one Newman used as more than an affectation, unlike what the glam crowd (including Bowie) tended to do. He's also one of the few people to have combined comedy with rock music and not come off like an idiot or vulgarian, but he's just as effective a tragedian. Besides immediate successors in the L.A. scene, such as Steely Dan and Tom Waits, I would put Elvis Costello at the head of the line of Newman's heirs, along with Morrissey, the Magnetic Fields, and dozens of other pop ironists. You could even add the likes of Kool Keith and Eminem, though I think their play with flipside identities comes out of strategies from the histories of black music, minstrelsy etc. - a legacy that Newman has always been keenly aware of, anticipating all the recent pop scholarship and discussion on the centrality of the minstrel tradition to American pop by decades.

Perhaps with the upcoming release of a Newman tribute album, which strangely seems to feature mainly country-rockers such as Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, more people will come around to my opinion. I'm also thrilled to learn that next year will bring the first album of new Newman songs since 1999's excellent Bad Love, which will include a contrarian, seemingly pro-American song - notable since Newman has mostly been a fierce critic of U.S. policy and culture throughout his career - titled A Few Words in Defence of My Country. (Which might end up being a backhanded critique, on the other hand - to say "we're not the worst country in the history of the world" might just be another way to say "we are pretty horrible," which is the kind of signature Newman move that he made on the last album's brilliant rumination on the death of Communism, The World Isn't Fair). In the above-linked interview he suggests that the new album might be called Fat and Angry.

(PS: I forgot to mention: Newman is scheduled to play a rare live date at Convocation Hall in Toronto on Oct. 14.)

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 14 at 12:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (28)



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Posted by Cameron on August 23, 2006 11:37 PM



What an intriguing discussion! I'm still reeling that anyone here has even HEARD of Fats Waller, let alone noted his influence on Newman. (Waller, incidentally, is the very best person to play if you get outta bed on the wrong side of the morning.)

As someone who has been involved in presenting Newman to Toronto audiences in the distant past, I've watched him live dozens of times; his sets rarely differ, they last exactly one hour, and by the time he's played his "hits" there's not much room for anything else. Again, the irony and sarcasm card is laid out for all to herar (and see); in the old days, we used to figure that we could only present him once every two or three years, because he'd always play the same set...

(He played his first gig in Toronto, for a week-long run, at a coffee house that used to exist at the foot of Jarvis Street called Grumbles; it was a double bill with the late Jim Croce, and he always recalls that during his Toronto concerts. Don't ask me when that was - old people remember stuff just fine, they just can't remember WHEN it was...)

Posted by Richard Flohil on August 21, 2006 09:46 AM



All very interesting. Not much to say about Newman himself, but I do think that it's tricky to make a pure songwriting case for Marvin Gaye (who, btw, is probably my single favorite musician) given the heavy collaborative role his arrangers played inthe songwriting process. Certainly, "Let's Get It On" is an incredibly, even epochally, influential album subject matter-wise, and that can be attributed to Marvin and Marvin alone.

Carl, not so sure I buy the distinction between "individuated kind of songwriting" and "pop songwriting" in the case of Holland/Dozier/Holland and Whitfield/Strong. I once saw Barrett Strong play solo acoustic show and his oeuvre seemed as quirky and "individuated" as any singer-songwriter's.

I do feel that Paul Simon (a great ironist and arguably unmatched melodist) is being left out of the discussion. Costello for one has acknowledged a heavy debt to Rhymin' Simon...

Posted by Jody on August 17, 2006 12:33 PM



Very interesting and well-argued.
One name that maybe hasn't been mentioned (i've skimmed, so apologies if it has) and could merit consideration is Ray Davies.
But my first, quick instinct to the question is Lou (And bringing it all back home to Dylan I always loved how at the tribute in NY you could have been fooled into thinking Foot of Pride was a Lou Reed song if you hadn't heard the original, which was seemingly uniquely latter-day Dylan)

Posted by Chris on August 17, 2006 12:22 PM



To quote myself: "As I say, this is an argument I always lose and probably rightly so."

Categorical statements are always lies of omission at least.

Posted by zoilus on August 16, 2006 04:00 PM



Just throwing it out there - Bob Marley? His name hasn't come up yet but he's got lyrics, studio/songcraft and several billion fans to support his case.

Posted by dacks on August 16, 2006 05:57 AM



it seems to me that the image of the songwriter the fantasy, rather - has shifted somewhat since the days of Dylan and Newman. do we consider george clinton to be a songwriter in this typical sense? surely, his name is all over the p-funk rekkids but to me he seems much more of an innovative producer ... probably the best of the 70s. this is not to slight clinton but his work usually defies expectations of dylan-esque songwriting - they go off in strange directions, are typically non-linear and the lyrics are certainly all over the place (though the insight that "move your ass and your mind will follow" is an insight untouched by anything newman has written). but is he more significant? well, yes and no. clinton's work has been (as noted above) sampled far more and has been reused, renivented and disseminated probably further than Newman (Disney vs. Rap - who has the biggest distro?). but newman's wrote all these corny soundtracks too. in the end, and this is a cop out i admit, the work is different, falling on separate continuums of pop music craftsmanship.

all that said, my initial gut reaction on "the most significant songwriter post-Dylan is Newman" was "yeah, that's not true." other candidates have been mentioned but surely lou reed (espeically considering his influence on "indie rock") or marvin gaye (acknowledged above by carl) outstrips Newman (and doesn't have the messy 3rd act either). smokey robinson too, if you'd count him as post-dylan. what about Dr. Dre though? he's like the george clinton producer taken to the next level ... his longevity (since the mid 80s) and artists that he's launched (nwa, snoop, himself, 2pac, eminem, 50 cent, game, et al.) would attest to his skills as a "songwriter."

what about michael jackson? no joke. the string of releases in the late 70s, early to mid 80s are, in a word, amazing.

Posted by Graham on August 15, 2006 07:33 PM



Now that YouTube's back up, you can survey the insanity for yourself:;=Search

Oh well, at least there's this (video + sound not in sync, but still fun:

Posted by DJA on August 15, 2006 04:29 PM



I should emend the last comment to say that Newman's *theme* from the movie "Ragtime" is beautiful. I don't remember the rest of the soundtrack.

Posted by john on August 15, 2006 03:52 PM



I appreciate the "well-made" song no end. Beats and riffs and timbres aren't songs, and, ideally, the words are as good as the music.

Ah, but now we're veering away from "most significant" and into "favoritest" and so on. I'll stick with Page & Plant (and Clinton and Sly Stone) in the "most sig" sweepstakes, and Carole King too, over Newman.

Clinton, words considered as well as music, is in my "favoritest" bag, even if his words haven't much been covered and don't qualify as "most sig."

I tried to listen to Newman's "Faust" album but couldn't dig it. His "Ragtime" soundtrack is beautiful.

Posted by john on August 15, 2006 03:05 PM



That's just the start of it... do a search for "Randy Newman" on YouTube, almost every hit is an embarrassingly bad parody along those lines. There's, like, at least a dozen clips based on that (not terribly funny in the first place) Family Guy Randy Newman segment. The only thing that's up there that's actually by Randy Newman is the "I Love L.A." video.

I kind of expected Randy's venomously angry live performances of "Louisiana 1927" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to change his public perception somewhat, but that never really happened. I guess the Aaron Neville's sanitized version seemed more palatable.

Of course, you're right that Randy doesn't seem to give much of a shit how he's perceived. But he'd have to be inhumanly self-assured to not occasionally think, "You know, it would be nice to have Elvis Costello's cred."

Posted by DJA on August 15, 2006 02:16 PM



I wonder, Darcy. One of the things I've always liked about Newman is that he genuinely doesn't seem to give a shit what people think, or respect anybody else's rules of cool. Now, that might be strategically unwise, but it's still a rare quality these days.

Those YouTube links you posted pissed me off no end, by the way.

Posted by zoilus on August 15, 2006 01:57 PM



"But god forbid the guy make an honest living making perfectly benign background music. How much better for his rep if he had become a crippled, crazy recluse."

I'll bet even Randy wishes that he'd adopted a pseudonym for his film projects.

Posted by DJA on August 15, 2006 01:24 PM



Interesting proposal, John - that one consider a song being sampled as the equivalent of a song being covered. On one hand, sure, it shows the power of what Clinton created, but its testimony is mainly confined to hooks and breaks and textures, rather than a complete piece. On the other hand, I'm not about to defend the conservative notion of "a complete piece" (is there any such thing?) just for the sake of pressing my Newman case.

As I say, this is an argument I always lose and probably rightly so. As Darcy (DJA) says on his blog, rather than the impossible game of "most significant," better that I should have said he's more significant (especially in the late sixties and early seventies) than is generally acknowledged, often overlooked and very dear to me. After the recent discussions surrounding the deaths of Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, for instance, I think Newman's cheesy movie work has prevented him from earning the same respect. It's obvious that eighty per cent of his movie writing is gun-for-hire stuff, and that his own albums, when they come every five or six years, retain the same sensibility he's always had. But god forbid the guy make an honest living making perfectly benign background music. How much better for his rep if he had become a crippled, crazy recluse.

Posted by zoilus on August 15, 2006 12:19 PM



"Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. . ."

Posted by Darwin on August 15, 2006 11:47 AM



My take, FWIW:

Posted by DJA on August 14, 2006 11:50 PM



Good comments, Carl. I wouldn't say that B Wilson's Smile-era pastiches are nostalgic, though, and that they are about history. Most of McCartney's pastiches do have that nostalgic glow.

And -- nobody's been more "reinterpreted" than Clinton, though not, true, in terms of his lyrics. But since you did include Newman's musical sense as part of his originality, it seemed fair to think about songs un-lyric-centrically. Without which distinction, obvs, I wouldn't have included Led Zep on my list of Huge Significant Influences. (And, btw, pdq, abcdefg -- "most significant" has nothing to do with personal likes or dislikes. I love Zep's sound but find their lyrics mostly "eh" or worse -- same, interestingly, with most of Prince.)

S Wonder and M Gaye and N Whitfield in the late '60s and onward all show Dylan influences.

I thought of Sondheim too, but he's not post-Dylan.

Posted by john on August 14, 2006 09:01 PM



PS - Another tenable counter would be to claim Newman stole everything from Van Dyke Parks and just made it more accessible.

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2006 07:25 PM



All interesting points, John. Newman does have times where his ironies are too predictable, I agree - but that's far from "always" to me. Fats Waller, like his fellow Fats, Mr. Domino, and Chuck Berry, are certainly influences. I'm not a fan of Plant/Page, and certainly not as writers. I am a fan of George Clinton, but not primarily as a songwriter, in the kind of songwriting vein I was talking about here, as in melody-and-changes-and-text that are capable of being reinterpreted etc. (which you're right is a problematic separation, but not a meaningless one, no?) Stevie Wonder's a harder call - when I say "following Dylan," I do mean in that line, because I'm not trying to compare either of them to the great Motown songwriters - that is, not so much pop-song writing as the more individuated kind of songwriting, another problematic separation. Wonder has a foot in each side, though - as does Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye, whom I should have mentioned.

So, okay, yeah, I give - any "most x" argument is going to be exclusive in ways that make us all get nitpicky; let's leave it at "one of the most significant" to be smarter.

I wasn't considering either the Beatles or the Beach Boys as post-Dylan writers, though in a sense one could. But also I'm not as fond of either of their forms of pastiche - for the most part they seemed to be about a youthful relationship to either nostalgia or mock-nostalgia, while Newman's seem to be about history, which you can consider studied and dull if you like, but it's the intellectualism of the move that I'm arguing is the originality of it. (By the way a good counterargument would be to say that Sondheim is similar but more important.)

I thought about Sympathy for the Devil and Midnight Rambler - and I would count the Stones as post-Dylan in their main songwriting period, just the way Dylan as a rock-record maker is post-Stones - but aren't those songs just theatrical elaborations of blues motifs, more than they are any real character studies on Jagger's part? It's the specificity of context and wholescale creation of these characters that I think mark Newman as different. The closest thing in the Stones to a Newman move is really Brown Sugar - and it depends how you read that song. Again, I think the Brits' weird idolizing relationship to the American forms is differently processed than Newman's. I think that what he did was new even with those precedents.

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2006 07:23 PM



"Most significant" would be a hard one to choose, but Newman wouldn't be it, for me.

George Clinton
Stevie Wonder
Plant & Page

I'm conflating "songwriting" with "record making," but it's awfully hard not to do that in a post-Dylan rock context.

Sly Stone

Choosing "significance" begs the question of "to whom." Awfully hard not to put Carole King on the list of '70s songwriting Deities of Influence, but of course, her historical influence also pre-dates Dylan.

The Beatles and Beach Boys anticipated Newman's pop pastiche, though less well-schooled-ly (and, to me, more interestingly); Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Midnight Rambler" gave us unreliable and even despicable non-autobiographical narrators before Newman's emerged.

He wrote some lovely songs (I love Nilsson Sings Newman and Dusty in Memphis's "I don't want to hear it anymore"), but Newman's ironies always feel too neat and tidy to me.

Curious to know what you would make of Bobby Darin's ironic readings of "Mack the Knife" and "Artificial Flowers" and, oddest of all, his angry, aggressive take on Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River." Darin feels like a much more complex ironist than Newman to me -- I love the wild-shot energy but don't know what it's supposed to *mean* -- it's almost pure rock and roll to me, just the excess whatever-it-is of life. Closer to Newman would be Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," his lovely tenor swooning through the lines, "I'm thirsty, I'm working too hard," making the horrible sound so sweet.

Fats Waller as possible ancestor to Newman? "I hate you 'cuz your feet's too big," leering through all those love songs, lustfully lying his way through "Ain't Misbehaving." All the meanwhile possessing an even lovelier melodic sense than Newman's very lovely one.

Posted by john on August 14, 2006 06:56 PM



All of which shouldn't give Newman a pass for the cloying self-parody he has become. Less Phil Collins, please. More Jandek.

Posted by Half on August 14, 2006 04:45 PM



Ah, thanks for the correction, Mark. Sugar Hill sends me stuff erratically, so perhaps I'll have to go pick it up in the store, for money, all old-fashioned like.

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2006 04:05 PM



the Newman tribute album came out a couple of months ago and is a pretty wonderful collection. I think you are correct in that it should bring anyone who hears it over to the Newman is amazing
side of the fence. it certainly prompted me to dig out a bunch of his cds for another listen !

Posted by mark Logan on August 14, 2006 04:02 PM



the Newman tribute album came out a couple of months ago and is a pretty wonderful collection. I think you are correct in that it should bring anyone who hears it over to the Newman is amazing
side of the fence. it certainly prompted me to dig out a bunch of his cds for another listen !

Posted by mark Logan on August 14, 2006 04:02 PM



I love Newman as a performer, too, Jon - just that I would not make the grandiose claims for him on that level that I do for his songwriting (and arranging).

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2006 03:58 PM




But if you can't get into Newman's voice (which I incidentally love and think serves his compositions best), then check Nilsson's lovely treatments on the gorgeous Nilsson Sings Newman.

And if you can't get into that, then you're lost to all of us.

Posted by Jon B on August 14, 2006 03:45 PM



Actually, I think you're pretty much right on the money on all this. I don't really have anything to add, I just wanted to raise my hand so my vote could be counted. I say: Yeah.

Posted by R. Walker on August 14, 2006 02:04 PM



Almost every Friday here at the office, I play Newman, along with other great late 70's stuff like Warren Zevon, Joe Walsh, the Doobies, etc., and it's a damn good time.

I think people tend to think of Randy as the thick necked, gray-haired, Disney-movie soundtracker these days, rather than remembering that he used to be this guy:

Posted by Ryan Catbird on August 14, 2006 01:11 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson