The Five Satins - The Masquerade Is Over
tylus Magazine‘s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
If Zachary hadn’t extended those CD-Rs to me, setting them beside my Coke and noodle bowl a few weeks ago—well, I just don’t know. TV on the Radio. The Hold Steady. Clipse! All discs I’d had some mind to acquire in 2006. Actually, I’m fibbing about Clipse: the “Mr. Me Too” video gave me a rash. So of course I spent a week cueing up “Hello New World” in my car. The point is this: if Zach hadn’t tried to keep me current (dude: you still need someone to review thrift store vinyl for your website?), I’d still be playing the same fucking doo-wop tune again and again.
I speak rashly. The same fucking comeback doo-wop tune, recorded at the ash-end of the genre’s heyday. “The Masquerade Is Over” was a bit of a standard by the time the Satins cut it in 1962. Penned by Herb Magidson and Allie Wrubel in 1938, it found varying degrees of fame from artists and bandleaders like Dick Jurgens, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball Addersley, and the Harptones. Every last one of these acts got it wrong.
It’s not just that the Five Satins tear into the song with simultaneously more ferocity and more elegance than anyone else before them, but that’s a good starting point. “The Masquerade Is Over” has one of the lushest productions Fred Parris and company ever received: a pattering, almost martial snare converts to a timpani when necessary; the string section is agility itself, swooping between midrange and—during the bridge and final verse—rapturous, Technicolor highs. Not commenting upon so much as following lead singer Fred Parris like an expert dancer, the strings are by far the most sincere element of the song. Compare them to the opening bars, to that po’-faced “buhh BUM” (it could be a bass saxophone, or maybe a Satin holding down the vocal low-end) joined by the Satins’ cheery, collegiate nonsense: “chick chick, chicky boom bop.”
The sum effect is obnoxious. And it’s a remarkable stage for a remarkable lead. As might be obvious from the song’s title, this is a breakup tune, in the vein of “The Thrill Is Gone” or “It’s Only Make Believe.” And like most breakups, “Masquerade” was colored, in the hands of its earlier interpreters, with either bathos or wistfulness. For means of contrast, the 1954 arrangement cooked up for Ms. Vaughan is automatic elegance: adrift on snare brushes and flutes, Vaughan has little choice but to mutedly wallow in it. A couple of years later, the Harptones piled on the regret with their static, standard doo-wop arrangement. Both songs are fine period pieces—the type of thing one would play to conjure some phantom long-ago glamour—but their biggest mistake is this: they include the bridge.
See, Smokey Robinson gets credit for name-dropping Pagliacci in “Tears of a Clown,” but Herb Magidson had three decades on him. “I guess I’ll have to play Pagliacci / And get myself a clown’s disguise,” the bridge goes, “and learn to laugh like Pagliacci / With tears in my eyes.” The Satins dispense with this resignation. They decide that they’re just not feeling it anymore. And without the bridge and with Fred Parris, the song is just nasty. To the last verse!
You don’t look the sameThere isn’t a jot of meat in that verse, just sidetalk and smoke. And the whole time, Parris is pulling vowels and faces. The showiness in his enunciation of “don’t” (he packs in four extra syllables, including the word ‘no’) is worth a dozen drops of the needle. He wants out. He doesn’t care if you know. In fact, he wants you to know pretty bad. ‘Cause this whole time, he’s been cooing, swooping, beaming—milking every musty excuse for each last ironic nutrient. By the end of it, you’re paying to be insulted. You’re learning the steps.
You’re a lot, lot the same
But my heart, it says no, no, no, no—you’re not the same...
I’m in awe at the transformation of the source material, yeah. And it’s a gorgeous production (I’m slain during that pas de deux between strings and falsetto, wherein Parris pauses for reverie before slitting the thread). Greater than these, however, is the raw callousness of the Satins. This is a song for assholes, a Dear Jane letter shouted from the courthouse steps. Here’s Bradley—dripping, shaking, trying to pin his friends to the bed like butterflies, unfamiliar with the Better Way. Shelve Craig Finn’s crew for a spell. Slip on a Five Satins mask; doff it when you have the features to match.