Dramatico’s small throng of staff kindly bought me two tickets to see Randy Newman’s only London performance on this tour, as a birthday present. My wife had seen him In Melbourne, with an orchestra. So she suggested I should take my son, Luke. We were surprised to see only a piano on stage, as we entered. This wasn’t going to be an orchestral experience – but magically, the intimacy of the event and the work of this great writer had us transfixed
The place didn’t seem any different since I went there as a lad of 13 and experienced my first full length symphony concert. Schubert’s 8th (Unfinished ) Symphony. He may have finished it since then, I suppose. Must check that. It was magical, back then, to be sitting in the second row, and to hear that fabulous violin section obligato opening up before the oboe entry –sorry, I digress. This time, there was no such fancy thing as an orchestra. There was a piano, and a bloke. The bloke, you will already have sussed from my headline, was Randy Newman.
One of the most fascinating writers of his (our/my) generation, he mixes sincerity with mockery in a way nobody else does. He shows us that you don’t have to write about what “they” (public, media) want you to write, you write about what you want. You say what you want. You say “I love you” and you say “Let’s blow the World up” – albeit as a mockery of that, latter idea. He plays roles. He writes from the point of view of a murderer “In Germany Before The War” with a creepy sincerity that gives it such reality that it could have actually been written by a deranged child-murdering loner. I s’pose it’s a great thing, – if someone takes umbrage, you can always say you were playing a role. I think with “Short People” he was having a devilish bit of fun at our expense. I speak as a short-arse. But he can PRETEND he was writing from a bigot’s point of view. Must try it some time.
There’s something about Randy’s chord structure and melodic tendency that is totally American. It couldn’t be written by a UK writer, other than as deliberate pastiche of the style. The way his hands fall across certain hymnal cords, it puts him in the same place as, let’s say Aaron Copland. You can hear a harmonium in an old wooden church, and people singing hymns. I noticed a British version of this in my own work, some years ago, – hope I’m not flattering myself too much, but I also notice it in the music of Elton John. We were both brought up at English schools, – where hymns which sounded British were sung, and chord structures and melodies of those hymns became embossed into our thinking. I don’t know whether Elton’s conscious of it, but I can see it in both his and my work.
Because I sometimes give concerts, make appearances – with or without an orchestra, it’s of great interest to me to see a performer of his stature, just with a piano. I’m always tempted to book a 65 piece line-up behind me, as we did with the Stuttgart Philharmonic, or at Cadogan Hall in London, where I first introduced the “Secret Symphony Orchestra”. I’m always happy to play just with a piano, but unless you are a ridiculously good piano classical piano player, it cuts out ambitious orchestral repertoire that (in my case) is part of me, and completes the picture of what I do. Because most of my my hit songs have been ballads, that’s the impression that comes across.
What makes Newman such a great experience is the part-playing, the crossing from lonely, loving, poetic moments (“Feels Like Home”) to bleak descriptions of a nothing-happening, fed-up urban day (“I think It’s Going To Rain Today”) to the sardonic “Let’s Drop The Big One Now” and the funny, mischievous “Tickle Me” and “Simon Smith”. Add to this his great, relaxed chat and you have a one man variety show.
Funny though. The first half of the concert was really spoiled by the voice being balanced a fraction too low. I wasn’t far from the sound desk, but it wasn’t appropriate for me to go and tell the guy. I was emboldened by overhearing others around me saying the same thing at the interval, so I did go up and suggest they raised the voice a fraction. The second half was way better, just for that single small thing. You’d have hoped that balancing a vocal and a piano wouldn’t have presented too much of a challenge, but seemingly it did!
Despite all that, the bloke done good. It was a great evening in the presence of a much admired hero.