Beautiful Weird American Music... But the Title Is a Lie
Despite my disappointment with this CD, I cannot say that this is a bad collection of doo-wop music. It would be churlish, and incorrect, of me; and I am neither churlish nor incorrect. So I’ll talk about the good stuff first, and then the bad stuff later, so you can ignore it if you want.
Doo-wop music is the most beautiful music ever made in this country. It was highly avant-garde and highly populist at the same time: a street-corner vocal art made up of nonsense syllables, clichés that were very often flipped on their heads, and a full rowdy palette of rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and pop music.
Sadly, though, doo-wop has become a victim of its own success, especially during the first wave of 1950s nostalgia, which happened in the early 1970s with Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. These shows, which wanted to convince the country that it had in fact lost a simpler and more innocent time, sparked a whole revival of doo-wop music; many of these songs became used for commercials and overused in movies, and they became inescapable sepia-tinted photos of a time gone past, which was instant death for anyone not taken in by it all, and slower death for those of us who sincerely loved this music.
There is absolutely no excuse to not be familiar with at least half of the songs on this collection. More perfect songs are here than on any other CD that will be released this year, starting with the strangest-sounding American single of all, the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”, which was once correctly described as sounding like a transmission from space. In preparation for this review, I felt compelled to keep hitting repeat after this tune, just to hear the full-on explosion of harmony and the odd way the echoes seem to keep shifting and changing even when no one is singing. You should not do this, as I did, while driving, because tears are definitely an impediment to safety.
Does this collection have “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, a test for any important doo-wop collection? Yes, it does. Is “Duke of Earl” present? Yes, it is. A lot of the best things made up by humans are here: “Get a Job” and “Rama Lama Ding Dong” sound a lot better here, alongside their peers, than they do in artificial nostalgia weepers and floorwax ads. And Shout! Factory did a good thing by also including some more obscure but still crucial tracks: we get the propulsive “Speedoo”, by the Cadillacs, the amazing “Trickle, Trickle” by the Videos, and “My True Story” by the Jive Five, which might be the best song title/band name combo in all history.
It should go without saying that every American should have “16 Candles” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “In the Still of the Nite” and “Little Star” and “Blue Moon” available in their collection, but I know that this is no longer true. Therefore, it is probably a good thing that this collection exists. There are 37 tracks with only a couple of boring ones, and this will help introduce great American vocal music of the 1950s and early 1960s to a whole bunch of people who might otherwise think that rock music began with U2 or something.
So if that’s what you wanted to find out, you can stop reading. For anyone who wants to know why this didn’t get a 10 from me, continue on.
1. This is simply a retread of The Doo-Wop Box issued 11 years ago by Shout! Factory’s rich relations, Rhino Records. Rhino is now a pale shadow of its former glory, and would never compromise its Mammonist drive with a reissue of music this uncommercial, so Shout! Factory is picking up the pieces. But they didn’t change anything, really, even the cover art.
2. Neither disc here is longer than 48 minutes, which means that they could have included an entire hour more of music. Therefore, I get to bitch about what they left out. The Platters’ “Only You”, one of the most perfect examples of group dynamics ever committed to wax, is nowhere to be found. This should be at least a misdemeanor, and probably a felony; I don’t want to hear about “licensing issues” or “high fees” or anything like that, because they’ve said that this is the only collection we’ll ever need, so it should have “Only You” on it, end of story. This collection manages to whiff on the Monotones’ “Book of Love”, the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel”, and “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, not to mention undeservedly obscure stuff like “Babalu’s Wedding Day”, which Rhino got in there somewhere. There is no “Ten Commandments of Love”, for God’s sake. I have loved Shout! Factory for its great DVD packages of SCTV and Freaks and Geeks, but now I realize that they’re just another enemy.
3. The liner notes are pathetic. Billy Vera’s essay is reductive, patronizing, and incomplete, and if he’s going to talk about “It’s Too Soon to Know” as the genesis of doo-wop then the company should at least include the damn song on the damn album. There is no real info about any of the songs, not even when they were issued. Bleh.
4. The whole idea of this being “the only doo-wop collection you’ll ever need” is actually a slap in the face of the music the label claims to love so much. It’s a marketing tool, sure, I have nothing against marketing, but it implies that there is a finite number of worthwhile doo-wop songs, and that they’ve scoured the globe to present them to us poor benighted souls. Eff that.
5. It also kind of makes me mad that the songs here are so good that I can’t just give the package a really low ranking to teach anyone a lesson. It’s the reduction of expectations, and it’s worked again. DAMN IT.