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.


  1. Nothing witty or perceptive to add. Just that I love Randy Newman and Louisiana is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever put down down on tape. The fact more people aren't fans/haven't heard of him/rarely hear his tunes on the radio is perfect.

  2. And he's still got it. His new (free) track this year, 'I'm Dreaming', is as pointed and current as anything that he wrote on 'Good Old Boys'.

  3. He has that enviable power to make you laugh and weep during the same son. Perfectly apt description. Unique.

  4. I think maybe what marks Randy Newman out as unique is that although he has all the influences you've mentioned, I think the strongest is a 19th century central European musical sensibility - with a dash of Kurt Weil. Even his American influences seem as much pre jazz and blues as they are 20th century. So, when much of popular music is rooted primarily in black American music his choice of atypical musical vehicles is so much fresher. You could say the same for Rufus Wainwright - though the results are a lot different!

    Lyrically Randy Newman gives razor sharp expression to inarticulate characters. The Good Old Boys album is for me his best work. But his most arresting song is In Germany Before the War which illustrates his ability to paint a 3D picture with two or three single strokes of paint. Always leaves me with a chill.

    Randy gives good melancholy - so many of his songs are about the frustrated, the inadequate, and the bigoted. It would be easy to play for cheap laughs yet he often generates empathy instead.

    Just a quick mention of his exquisite use of irony in his musical arrangements - I've been Drinking is a good example. His uncles would be proud.

    I saw him at the Festival Hall a year ago - just a grey haired old geezer and a piano - but during I Think it's going to Rain Today I was brushing aside a manly tear. Unforgettable.

    Who are his successors? Frankly I think the rich seam of 70s singer song writers has been exhausted long ago and produced only a few weak modern progeny. They've gone the way of another endangered species - the virtuoso instrumentalist....but that's another blog

  5. I seen this pattern before. We'll be having Randy Newman headlining "A Word in your ear" at the Lexington before long!

  6. David, you will enjoy this if you haven't heard it already - on the iPlayer for a few more days:

  7. False modesty is unattractive. If you're clever enough to quote what Dostoevsky said about Dickens, you're clever enough to reference Schubert. Otherwise, spot on!

  8. All i know about Schubert is Randy Newman admires him. I'm not familiar enough with his music to be able to detect its influence. All I know about Dostoevsky is he claimed in a letter to have had a conversation with Dickens. Most scholars think it never took place. Doesn't change the point.

  9. hi there

    last week i listened in the classic music lessons to this song

    the first chords made me think a lot on "i think it's going to rain today"