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Monday, December 10, 2012

Now's as good a time as any to realise that Randy Newman is unique

While the nation was watching The X Factor on Saturday night, Ian Penman, Danny Baker and I were each playing Randy Newman's Good Old Boys and marvelling about it via Twitter.

Every time I listen to Randy Newman I come away even more impressed by him. This time it struck me he's one of the few pop artists with no forerunners and no successors. Nobody came before and there's no sign of anybody coming after. You can detect the influences - Fats Domino, Ray Charles, the soundtrack music that his uncle Alfred wrote, probably even Schubert if you're cleverer than I am - but you can't draw a direct line from any of them.

As for successors, any songwriter who isn't influenced by Newman's own songs simply hasn't twigged how good he is. You can find traces of him in the songs of people like Neil Hannon, but that's probably because they both sit at the piano. But does anybody else strike the same notes? I don't think so.

Nobody else seems to have his remarkable ability to make the unloveable our friends. The father who wants his children to hurt like he did, the Southerner who gets fed up of seeing Lester Maddox being guyed by "some smart-ass New York Jew" and goes to the park "and takes some paper along", the drunk who confesses "it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I'm someone else", the impresario who prods Davy The Fat Boy into performing his agonisingly pretty fat-boy dance, the God who explains that he loves mankind only because we are so pathetic and needy, smiling down at the hands which are tracing out New Orleans-style piano: only Dickens has come up with a comparable range of characters.

Which reminds me of the account Dostoevsky gave of meeting Dickens. According to him, all Dickens' virtuous characters were what he wanted to be and all his evil characters were what he actually thought he was. I doubt that Randy Newman thinks like that. They're not evil characters but they do entertain unworthy thoughts. The fact that he's prepared to give those unworthy thoughts such wicked tunes is more than enough.

I've put eight Randy Newman tunes here.