Saturday, August 27, 2011

Great Drinking Songs (30)

I developed my fascination with recorded music when, at the age of only about 4 or so, I became able to operate my parents' Pye Gramophone for myself. There wasn't anything particularly 'high fidelity' about the sound (compared to the audiophile nerdery I would cultivate in college!), but the wooden cabinet gave it quite a nice tone. And it had a rudimentary stack-and-play feature which allowed you to pile 7 or 8 singles on the spindle at once and have them drop down to play in sequence - an appalling, record-damaging indignity from an audiophile point of view, but irresistibly alluring for a young child getting his first addictive taste of constructing playlists.

Of course, it would be another decade or so before I began buying records for myself, so I was limited to my parents' music collection, which was very, very middle-of-the-road: almost exclusively inoffensive pop hits of the '50s and '60s (The Beatles were much too daring for them!), soundtracks from musicals, and easy listening instrumentals. But I was obsessed: I'd spend hour after hour playing this stuff. And much of that music still has a powerful hold on my subconscious, even if I haven't heard it now for years.

There are quite a few tunes I remember from that first dawning of love for music in my life, tunes I've long planned to add to my Great Songs strand on here at some point. Probably my very favourite of the lot - and one that seems particularly appropriate to me just at the moment, having recently ended some moderately extensive travels around China and found that it has only whetted my appetite for travelling more - is this, country singer Roger Miller's 1965 hit King of the Road.

I wonder now, did this song somehow strike a chord with something already in me - an enchanted wanderlust, a cheerfully defiant anti-materialism - or did it rather condition those attitudes in me through all those dozens or hundreds of times I raptly listened to it in my earliest childhood? At first, the lyrics were almost completely unfathomable to me: what were "old stogies" or a "four-bit room"? What, indeed, was "pushing broom" all about? It was probably the reference to a "pool", or the lack of one, that baffled me longest (presumably a swimming pool: quite often a feature - so I learned in my thirties - of even quite cheap motels in the more southerly American states, but not of the ultra-cheap lodging houses our hobo hero in the song was forced to frequent). Yet, as enlightenment slowly dawned (well before I was 10, I should think), I fell in love with this character and this attitude - relishing the freedom of the open road, embracing hardship with dignity, and finding constant consolation in humour. Who would ever aspire to become "a man of means" after growing up with this song? Not me!

[This is a rather odd video from - I'm guessing - an American TV show of the '70s. Roger's starting to look just a little past his prime, and the lurid backdrop is a strain on the eyes; but the sound quality's very good. This black & white '60s clip is quite fun to watch, but the sound is all over the place, and there's the constant background din of an over-excitable audience (I had never before imagined that the man aroused his own brand of 'Beatlemania' at the height of his fame!). The original recording can be heard here (without a video).]


JES said...

I've had a draft post about this song in the bin at my place for ages. Well, not strictly about this song -- about a cover of it, might be the best way to describe it.

I'm very happy that your Miller selection wasn't that catchy but patronizing "England swings like a pendulum do/Bobbies ride bicycles two by two" thing.

Froog said...

I think my folks had that on a Miller album, but I don't think I ever listened to it. 'King of the Road' was a 45rpm single. (I don't think I ever listened to the B-side. It was that one song I couldn't get enough of.)

I hope it isn't the notorious R.E.M. jam on the song that you were thinking of writing about. I gather Randy Travis released a version in the '90s, but I don't think I've ever heard that.

By the by, I note that Roger Miller's version was only a No 1 hit (if we exclude the specialist US charts) in one other country apart from the UK - Norway. Curious!

JES said...

No, I don't know of REM's or any other real versions of "King of the Road" besides Miller's. No worries on that account.

Not to be all evasive, it's a nostalgia-drenched post about my first fantasy girlfriends (yes, plural), when I was too young to have any true idea what that might mean.

B-sides: I can't remember that many of them myself, but I bet someone out there has a site which anthologizes (or simply fetishizes) them. (Of necessity, all oldies!)

Froog said...

Yes, I'm sure. But I'm trying to resist the temptation to go searching for such a site right now, JES.

Froog said...

Our backgrounds are uncannily similar, Mr F. My folks too were big fans of this song. I don't think I heard it as much as you did back when I was a kid, but I obviously heard it enough because whenever I come across it now I get shivers of nostalgia.

Froog said...

Posted on behalf of my friend Bryan, who only ever communicates via e-mail!