Friday, October 3, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (III)

Knuckles O'Toole Goes South of the Border (Grand Award Records, undated, prob. 1950s)
What image pops into your mind when you hear the name Knuckles O'Toole? Almost certainly, I would wager, it is a boxer, and not a very reputable one at that; a scarred, bullet-headed, broken-nosed lump of a man, mumbling about how he "coulda been a contendah" while dreaming about that one last shot at the big time. Or it's a gangster in a Damon Runyon story: the description, "a big wide guy with two large hard hands and a great deal of very bad disposition" could follow the name as surely as nausea follows Abrakebabra. This is largely because, with the exception of pummelling the pudding out of other people, there are no careers available in which the knuckles play a central role. So why a pianist, even a honky-tonk pianist such as Mr. O'Toole, would take on such an appellation is a little perplexing. Obviously, without knuckles the pianist couldn't bend his fingers and would be reduced to pounding the keyboard like a seal using his flipper, but it is the fingers which are primarily responsible for the sweet, sweet music that entrances us (or, in the case of Phil Coulter, makes us vomit). After all, other parts of the hand and arm play a part in the performance of music, but one can't imagine any instrumentalist, even America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man (as the record jacket boldly proclaims), going by the name of, say, "Elbows" O'Toole. Perhaps he had a reputation for battering critics who questioned his skills? It will probably remain a mystery (unless I bother to do an internet search and find out anything about him, something I'm far too lazy to attempt).
Of course, I had reasons other than the performer's peculiar name for buying this particular LP (not, of course, that I would have needed more), related to the record's design. The first thing you'll notice about the jacket is that down each side is written 'Grand Award: World's Greatest Music'. This, of course, will instantly pique the curiosity of any connoisseur; those of a madly impulsive nature may, before they know it, find themselves outside the shop with the purchased LP in their hands, desperate to hear the aural magnificence which deserved said award. A more sober individual will, before purchasing, flip the record over and discover that Grand Award is not an honour, but the name of the record company which issued the LP (and a cynic might see in this the same principle which motivates a couple of guys in a trailer, with a single camera and no money, to call themselves the Stupendously Colossal Film Company). But it's on the back of the LP that the hard sell begins in earnest.
The headline at the top trumpets "Grand Award: Acclaimed by Music Critics! Approved by Music Educators! Treasured by Music Lovers!" (I added a few exclamation marks to get into the spirit of the pronouncement.) But it's not just the World's Greatest Music by America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man, according to the copious liner notes; we are also being treated to the World's Greatest Art! I can feel my aesthetic fuses beginning to reach overload as this surge of sensory pleasure assaults it, and I haven't even listened to the goddamn record yet. The 'Art' referred to is the cover painting, an illustration by a gentleman called David Stone (of whom I know nothing bar what the liner notes tell me, and which aren't worth the bother of transcribing). It's pleasant and inoffensive, I suppose - one can easily see it for sale in Tijuana gift shops as a poster - but it hardly fits with Grand Award's description, "an authentic reproduction of the world's most famous art masterpieces, originals of [which] are on exhibit in leading Art Museums throughout the world." Somehow, I don't think that Willem de Kooning or Jasper Johns were measuring their excellence by a yardstick set by David Stone ...
We have a lengthy description of what makes this record so wonderful, of course ("a most exciting blending of Latin American rhythms with the swinging, riotous style of the honky-tonk piano"), which I'm rather dubious about; after all, it's a truism that any record entitled [Insert Name Here] Goes To [Insert Exotic Destination Here] is more than likely to be a cheap, shoddy rip-off featuring a talented musician sleepwalking his way through watered-down versions of hits in a particular theme, designed for people who know nothing about music except what they hear on the radio, are terrified of anything even slightly unfamiliar, and buy about two records a year (a modern equivalent would be the Best [Insert Genre Here] Album in the World Ever). At no point do the notes explain how Knuckles got his name, the only thing that interests me about him. They also inform me that this music is performed by O'Toole and his orchestra, but only lists four guys. Personally, I think you need to break into double figures before your band becomes an orchestra, but that's just me. Hell, by that logic, Simon and Garfunkel are practically an orchestra ...
(Everything on the back of this record strongly suggests that a door-to-door salesman went tramping around the endless suburbs of middle America with these LPs, using the liner notes as his sales pitch to bored housewives: "It's "an important addition to both your music collection ... and your art collection, providing you and your family [with] the undeniable advantage of possessing an eminent selection of fine music and great art"! Would the good people at Grand Award even think of selling you a shoddy product? It's made "under the supervision of Grand Award Research"! They "inspected and passed" it. It'll increase the value of your house! Now, you look like a smart young lady ... " and so forth.)
Of course all of the above, read as I stood amidst the mountain of worthless junk which the car-boot salesman had left in heaps around his battered old vehicle, filled me with a frenzy of enthusiasm and so, after palming the gentleman's hand with a princely €1.50, the LP was mine. I tore home, donned my huge sombrero and poncho, dug out my enormous fake moustache, grabbed a bottle of tequila, arranged some Mehican delicacies on a plate, and prepared to be transported to a sultry and raucous world of Latino extravagance. I slid the vinyl out of the thin, surprisingly papery sleeve (the Grand Award company would scarcely condone the use of second-rate paper for their inner sleeves, would they?), put it on the turntable, and placed the needle on the record. What emerged, unfortunately, wasn't muy picante at all; in fact, it was decidedly Gallic. I pulled it off and discovered to my shock that, while the jacket said Knuckles was going South of the Border, the actual record was Knuckles Goes To Paris! ¡Dios mio! Let this be a lesson for all vinyl hunters: always make sure the jacket has the right bloody record inside!
Once I'd overcome my disappointment, changed into a beret and a stripey jumper, replaced my huge moustache with a pencil-thin one, and my tequila with red wine, I put on the LP again. And after all that, is it no surprise to say that it was entirely bland and uninteresting? The sound of the honky-tonk piano, tinny and slightly percussive, is the only distinguishing feature of a record so artistically empty that it makes John Cage's 4'33" (the silent piece) seem dramatic and full of incident. The problem is that it's impossible to match the (admittedly pleasant) easy-listening fluff that one hears to the almost lunatic hyperbole of the liner notes (and yes, I'm aware that the notes are referring to a different record, but I imagine the principle was probably carried across all the label's releases). That being said, it is a mildly soporific background noise, has a strange Parisian ambience in the same way that a plastic Eiffel Tower on the dashboard of a tractor does, and thus is more tolerable than, say, a similar record by James Last. And I'm cheered by the thought that somewhere out there is someone with the jacket of Knuckles Goes To Paris and the actual vinyl of South of the Border (and if he/she reads this, I'm willing to take it off your hands and return these long-separated LPs to their proper homes).
You can read more about Knuckles here. In fairness to him, he was an accomplished ragtime pianist, as is demonstrated here, which gives the impression that the above record may have had more to do with paying bills than musical expression:

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