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Ruminations on the nature of the song-poem

by Phil Milstein

Reprinted from the liner notes to the song-poem compilation CD, The Makers Of Smooth Music (Carnage Press)

cover art by Wayno

So what the hell is a "song-poem," anyway? A song-poem is, um ... a song-poem is, uh ... that's a very good question! Frankly, your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect that a song-poem is sort of the literary equivalent of the array of colors found in polyester leisure suits: it can't really be defined and it doesn't occur anywhere in nature, but you sure do know it when you see it.

You may never have witnessed a genuine song-poem, but if you've ever scrutinized the classified ads on the back pages of supermarket tabloids or barbershop comic books, you have surely encountered at least the cryptic phrase itself. If you were to answer one of those ads you'd find that what they want is your words, in whatever form -- be it poem, song lyric, love letter, shopping list, what-have-you -- they may be written. The words you submit will be answered almost immediately with a sincere appraisal that they are of the highest professional caliber, and should be set to music as soon as possible. "Our composers, who have written hit songs for John Davidson, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Juice Newton, and Isaac Newton, are standing by to adapt your words to song form, and our musicians, who have played with Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Barry Gibb, Andy Gibb and Georgia Gibb, are standing by to cut that song onto wax." They can smell massive breakout hit, and all they need to start the ball rolling is a small sum of seed money. Then you can sit back and wait for your song to hit the airwaves and superstardom to show up at your door. You can practically see that yacht in the water and smell that salt air!

If you've guessed "con job," you've guessed correctly -- you're the one who has to come up with the seed money. But cons like this we could use more of, for song-poem songs are, by their very nature, bastardized ditties conceived in sin -- the anonymous rendezvous between the innocent tabloid and comic book readers and the assembly-line recording studio Lotharios -- and consequently (no pun intended), the music borne of this con rank among the most mutated sounds ever conceived.

Here we present to you the proof. As you will soon discover, song-poem music is a music unlike any other, existing in a hazy netherworld somewhere in the crawlspace between those sounds we can identify as rock, pop, R&B, country or lounge. Through the intrepid efforts of Tom Ardolino, tireless trapbeater for the great jazz combo NRBQ, and a few others who share his ear for the bizarre, Carnage Press has gathered on this one tiny slab 28 of history's finest extant examples of song-poem music. The Makers of Smooth Music begins with a generous sampling of one dozen songs that previously appeared on our premiere and vinyl-only offering, The Beat of the Traps (with the latter's remaining tunes -- withheld from this edition only for time/space considerations -- to be included on our next stellar collection, The Human Breakdown of Absurdity). To those we have added a full 40-plus minutes of new and remarkable song-poem discoveries culled from Ardolino's ceaseless foragings through the vast American musical terrain.

I'm starting to get a bit tired of using this unwieldy term "song-poem music." Here at Carnage Press we have adopted the catch-all moniker "MSR music" to refer to the genre. The phrase was coined in homage to the finest song-poem operation of them all, the now-defunct MSR Records of Hollywood, California, for it was under the corporate umbrella of MSR and its several affiliated labels that so many of the most exhilirating of song-poem recordings were made. As MSR's president, A-list singer, keyboardist, composer, and god-knows-what-all-else, Rod Rogers was the genre's most remarkable talent and remains its most exalted visionary. According to Ardolino's notes from Beat of the Traps (reprinted here for benefit of those pitiful vinyl-excluders in our audience), Rod was last seen "pushin' up daisies," but a mysterious letter penned in response to those notes indicates that he might still walk among us. I shall say no more, for no more is yet known ...

But to single out Rod alone would be to discredit by omission the many other fine voices heard in MSR music. It may be difficult to believe that such white-bread handles as Dick Kent, Ron Davis or Bobbi Blake appear on anyone's birth certificate, but they are all that we have to go by, and so by those names shall they be known. And while it is clear that the same singer in MSR music occasionally appears under more than one name, we should avoid the tempting conclusion that there are really only two or three vocalists who each appear under a litany of pseudonyms. What suggests this illusion is that all of these singers seem to have studied under the same vocal coach, as if there is an instructor out there who specializes in the MSR field. Their odd cadences, bizarre inflections and inscrutable deliveries resemble no one's style save each other's. Perhaps the MSR organization thought of itself as some sort of renegade Motown stable, putting its stars through the paces of dance classes, charm school and voice lessons!

When I listen to MSR music, my mind frequently goes wandering off in an attempt to bring its principals into clear focus as living, breathing human beings. I try to imagine what Rod Rogers and Bobbi Blake might look like, what their daily routines might be, what kinds of conversations they might have with their moms. I try to picture Gene Marshall on line at the deli counter, Dick Kent in an easy chair reading the newspaper, Bill Joy at his 15-year high school reunion. But I just can't do it -- there is something so alien in MSR music that I simply cannot see its functionaries as being participants in the real world. They almost come to life -- certainly, the songs are rife with direct references to the culture at large -- but these references are skewed from the norm just enough that the image can never quite take shape. To prove my point, just try to pin down the time frame in which any of these songs was written or recorded. With scant few exceptions, it just can't be done, for these makers of smooth music were not quite of this earth.

The lyrics perfectly enhance this vague sense of detachment. In fact, one of the wondrous mysteries of MSR music is how the backing tracks -- made by professionals, people who ostensibly know what they're doing -- in their very strangeness so perfectly dovetail with the words of rank amateurs from Peoria, from whom it might be expected. Listen, for example, to "Watch Johnny Carson," notice that the couple chattering away in the background is actually discussing a week's worth of vintage Tonight Show episodes, and try to figure out why the organist is throwing in riffs from "96 Tears." Did you catch that great line -- "Watch Johnny Carson on Tuesday / so you will know / all about labor pains from the CIO"? A brilliant play on words, but it doesn't make any sense -- when did Johnny Carson ever have on any labor leaders? And what is "Watch Johnny Carson on Friday / then count your loot" supposed to mean?! To divine the answers you'd have to ask lyricist Phil Carroll, but Ron Davis and the gang at MSR (that's almost certainly Rod on organ) act as if they know exactly what Phil is thinking, as if it is all so obvious.

Do you think, by this same token, that Bobbi Blake had a clue as to what point Thomas J. Guygax, Sr. is trying to make with these impenetrable lines from the "At The Time": "Along by our knowledge of the well-kept adage by the more of all help in with the all of coulds / towards being among our masters and the also by our intelligence while the passin' of time / besides our matters by the also collectively to be with the tense"? To you and me they are surely either a Gysin-like cut-up or the babel of a deranged madman, but Bobbi and her band, in their obliviousness to the song's most mystifying nature, appear to be on the very same wavelength as our Mr. Guygax -- these are, after all, nothing more than the words to a little C&W love song, right?

The pleasures of MSR music are abundant, but they don't all jump up and shout their name at you; they are subtler and more refined than that. We cannot expect the fans of bombastic breast-beaters like Billy Joel and Whitney Houston to ever notice the subliminal tape-loop effect underscoring selected portions of "That Martian Jubilee," nor to thrill to Rod Rogers' dexterous and fanciful keyboard solos that enrich songs throughout this collection. Part of the fun of MSR music is in listening again and again, as with each spin a few more of the many treasures that lie buried beneath their surfaces pop up like mushrooms after an April shower.

By their notable lack of the very ingredients that go into a genuine hit record -- protocols such as voluminous press releases, life-size point-of-purchase displays, clandestine palm-greasing, saturation airplay, and having more than a dozen copies of the record pressed up in the first place -- the original audience for the average MSR-type disc probably hovered somewhere below three digits -- somewhere way below. We at Carnage Press have made it our life's work to see to it that the gems of MSR music are henceforth reclaimed so that all who might care can know them.

Track list for The Makers Of Smooth Music

  1. Gary Roberts & The Satellites: Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood & Brush
  2. Rod Rogers And The Swinging Strings: Go Daddy Go
  3. Rodd, Teri And The M.S.R. Singers: Richard Nixon
  4. Rodd Keith: Atomic Wise
  5. Bob Lloyd: Our Hearts Were Meant To Beat As One
  6. Rodd, Teri And The M.S.R. Singers: Beat Of The Traps
  7. Gene Marshall: Jimmy Carter Says "Yes"
  8. Rod Rogers With The "Swinging Strings": Little Rug Bug
  9. Norm Burns & The Five Stars: John F. Kennedy Was Called Away
  10. The Music Magicians: Convertibles And Headbands
  11. Rodd Keith: Astronauts
  12. Bill Joy: How Long Are You Staying
  13. Rod Rogers and the Swinging Strings: The Watusi Whing Ding Girl
  14. Dick Kent: The Moon Is Out
  15. Ron Davis: Watch Johnny Carson
  16. Dick Kent: Maker Of Smooth Music
  17. Rod Rogers and the Swinging Strings: That Martian Jubilee
  18. Bobbi Blake: Disco Roller
  19. Rodd, Teri And The M.S.R. Singers: The Devil's Daughter
  20. Sonny Marshall: Twist Little Twister, Twist
  21. Ralph Lowe: I Wanna Party On Friday Night
  22. Bobbi Blake: Keep It In Time
  23. MSR Singers: At The Time
  24. Dick Kent: In Loving Is The Doing
  25. Fred Carson: There's A Hippy Girl In Town
  26. Bobbi Blake: Gimme That Candy
  27. Rodd, Teri And The M.S.R. Singers: The Resurrection
  28. Dick Kent: Bongo, King Of The Jungle
Tracks 1-12 also appear on the Carnage Press LP The Beat Of The Traps. That album also includes four songs not available on The Makers Of Smooth Music.

The Makers Of Smooth Music is out of print.

Other song-poem compilations you may enjoy:

Carnage Press
I'm Just The Other Woman || The Human Breakdown Of Absurdity || The Beat Of The Traps

Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four? || Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood And Brush

I Died Today

All design and uncredited content of this website ©2004 Phil Milstein