The Jack Nitzsche Story: Hearing Is Believing: 1962-1979
ost-millennial pop music has plenty to offer in the way of stylistic boundary-breaking and technological expansions, but if there’s one thing that we don’t get so much of anymore, it’s teetering majesty. Here, I’m talking the shameless vertigo of the overly romantic, tongue in or out of cheek—a feeling that probably started around Frankie and ended somewhere around Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Few visions were as important to this strain of pop as Phil Spector’s: swooning, irony, and sex-free music occupying a strange aesthetic space between the schmaltzy and the utterly dreamy. Jack Nitzsche, one of the most significant arrangers of the 1960’s and 70’s (not to mention a film composer, Rolling Stones sometime keyboardist, and producer/writer in his own right), got his start with Spector, earning a flat $50 to orchestrate songs like “Be My Baby” and “Da Do Ron Ron,” songs whose impact and import would be absurd to tackle beyond simple acknowledgement.
Hearing is Believing compiles a good chunk of Nitzsche’s lesser-known work as an arranger, which is to say it doesn’t have the wall of sound 60’s hits, the hilarious choral rapture of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” or Neil Young/Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly.” Instead, it’s populated by not-so-superstar pop acts from the 60’s and 70’s ranging from bubblegum to folk whose names are recognizable, but certainly not all-pervasive (Lesley Gore, Jackie De Shannon, Tim Buckley, the James Gang), a couple of stray gems from bigger stars, and some of Nitzsche’s own instrumental music, which magically pulls off being stately and boozy at the same time. While the compilation is good, but not perfect by either completist standards or pure quality, its reliance on lesser-known tracks actually draws attention to Nitzsche’s art rather than star-power (a happy coincidence of licensing failure, certainly).
Maurice Ravel, French composer and orchestrator (the effective analog to “arranger” in the pre-recorded era) once said, “I begin by considering an effect.” It’s no thesis, but it’s a workable method. The arranger takes melodies and doles them out; decides which line goes to which instrument, etc. The role has an effective analogy in the cinematographer—no amount of directorial imagination can be complete without someone to bring the images to life, making the position as creatively charged as it is technically reliant.
Part of the reason why Nitzsche’s legacy is so interesting is that his role in bringing figures to life through sound stands in contrast to how we usually think of pop music. The notion of this cinematic “effect” as a paramount concern sidesteps a historical hailstorm of a wop bop a loo bops or go shorty, it’s your birthdays; the pop hook becomes subservient to the mood of the track itself, a quality that puts Nitzsche’s particular approach to the form closer to electronic dance music, Loveless, or Enigma than say, Gwen Stefani’s inescapable playground colloquialisms.
Nitzsche turns the stoned-out cool of Link Wray’s tremolo guitar classic “Rumble” into a literal take on its title, with a climax that cracks open to a brass colossus tug-and-take between a murder of flailing trumpets and a deep march of trombones over a shuffle beat; the song becomes a boozy battering ram stumbling menacingly through a bar that everyone’s afraid to cross because they’d get their ass kicked if they did. Even when he gets saddled with utterly goofy crap like Gene McDaniels’ vaguely paternal perv-fantasy “Walk With A Winner” (“Walk with a winner, hey, come on girl and walk with a winner, yeah / Hey girl, come on and swing along with me, there’s so much to see, great big world for you and me”), Nitzsche makes good, sucking weight out of the chorus and leaving behind a gloriously anemic vibraphone/vocal line ascending feather-light over a rock-solid bass.
The set concludes with Nitzsche’s theme from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an uneasy tale of mental illness and its institutional handling. Nitzsche’s slow-moving folksy-Americana melody fits the film’s sweetness perfectly, but he represents the madness just as well: the figures play over odd numbers of bars and the strange sound of a singing saw peeks in and out of the mix. Towards the end, the filmic strings drop out and we’re left with an undulating gossamer of wine glasses resonating and the saw twirling away in a pasture. Nothing could better sum up the previous 70 minutes, a bridge between the most knowable of pop music and a dizzying fascination for the grandeur of sound, amounting in a body of work whose dramatic, baroque style helped color pop music for decades to come.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: AUGUST 8 – AUGUST 14, 2005