Richard Harris – A Tramp Shining

While thinking about what albums I should write about today, for today was indeed an entire day of excellent listening experiences, my good friend Greg suggested that I do an album I hate. Well, there are quite a few of those, but  I asked him which particular album he would suggest I hate today, and another friend, Dave, recommended this gem:

That's him, officer, that's the guy!Now, a lot of you people may know this garbage from Dave Barry’s book, which to date is the go-to reference book of bad music, Dave Barry’s Book Of Bad Songs, in which this album’s sole single, “MacArthur Park” was voted by readers as the worst song of all time. Seriously, the song beat out Hannah Montana Sr.’s “Achy Breaky Heart” by 5 whole places.

I knew then and there that no daily-updated nonsense blog about music would be complete without a nod to the dearly departed Dumbledo… I mean Richard Harris.

Now, at the center of all this stuff is Richard Harris’ voice, in fact, in a fierce slash of irony, he gets the only musician credit. His voice is that most unfortunate combination of Irish Tenor and Not Being Able To Sing. So, despite having the kind of voice that, in the capable hands of an actual singer, could very well shake walls, make women weep, and cause children to grow mustaches (see: Frank Sinatra), instead he comes off more as a middle aged wimpy guy breathily singing laboriously into a microphone during a karaoke rendition of the 60’s Easy Listening Greatest Hits.

I think, in an effort to sound sincere, Harris chose to sort of overact his part, which is understandable. After all, as an actor, the guy famously played King Arthur and I understand that tends to give one delusions of grandieur, in fact, I am willing to believe that this overacting is what Graham Chapman was parodying so effectively in his role in Monty Python And The Search For The Holy Grail (yes I write out the entire title of that movie when people only have to read “Monty Python” to assume that’s the film I’m talking about).

Basically, ever note that this guy fails to hit fails so gloriously that I guess people can be fooled into thinking he’s a great singer. However, one listen to the album’s opening track, “Didn’t We”, where he sings the fake opening “Here I am, a tramp shining, a brand new clown…”, you can basically stop the album at that 25 second mark and throw the album away, because you’ve heard the whole thing. I’m not even kidding, the first 3 songs have fake-out beginnings where the music plays for about 20 seconds, ends for several seconds, making you wonder, “is that it?” (insert your favorite “that’s what a typical woman says after unsatisfactory lovemaking with an inexperienced man” line here), and then the actual song comes in, but by that time, in this MP3 age, hopefully you have skipped the song, or else you’re in for 4 minutes of a really bad time.

Of course, you may think “Well, the whole point of Easy Listening stuff like this, the point are the lyrics“, well I’m glad you made this point, person who may not exist, because the lyrics are also kind of bad. Take a few examples:

Bless the song that no one sings
Bless the bell that no one rings
Bless the birds that have no wings
Old broken toys, sad little boys who don’t know why,
And lovers, lovers such as I

From the fourth track, “Lovers Such As I”. I love songs like this because they’re so easy to write. Just take an idea (“Bless something”), add words you found in a rhyming dictionary, and then throw on some meaning at the end that brings it back to you. You’ll often find songs like this containing the popular cliché rhymes like “Desire/fire”, “Most/Ghost”, and many others. This particular song, by the way, turns tradition on its ear by putting the intro at the end of the song. Very clever.

Really though, nothing will quite beat “MacArthur Park”, the song has earned itself quite a reputation for sucking, and despite my best attempts to like it at least for its complexity, it just falls apart. The song, written by Jimmy Webb, who I swear has written some pretty good songs in his day (the version of Webb’s “Witchita Lineman” as sung by Johnny Cash is a favorite of mine) really goes for some cheeseball imagery in this song. Take the infamous chorus as an example:

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the rain
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
(Oh nooooooo)

By the way, “MacArthur’s Park” might seem like an awkward lyric, since the song is about a place called MacArthur Park and that is the song’s title, but apparently Richard Harris just wouldn’t have it any other way. Webb, who produced the album, kept trying to get Harris to sing the words correctly, but according to Wikipedia, “gave up when he simply could not (or would not) sing the correct words. (citation needed)”. I don’t need citation, that story is very probable and hilarious.

The song is split up into a whole bunch of different parts, only one of them good. The good part is this kind of weird instrumental that you could go-go dance to if you weren’t too busy trying to commit suicide, as that’s the only use I could imagine for willingly listening to this song. It’s also the part with no singing. Yeah, Richard really throws out all the stops for this song, not only does he not hit most of the notes, but his impassioned vocal stylings makes every line a golden vein of hilarity, and it doesn’t help that he’s singing words like this:

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages
And we’re pressed in love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants

The song is unlikable, of course, but I still love it, because it’s just so fun to make fun of. The best example of this is when Weird Al decided to parody this song with his classic “Jurassic Park”, which was a much more poignant tribute, only this time to a blockbuster film. The best part about “MacArthur Park”, however, is that it went no. 1. Now, I know that in this day and age, horrible songs go to no. 1 every single time, but this was 1968. The Beatles hadn’t even broken up yet! It was an era for some of the best music in history, and this tripe goes to the very top? Man, forget the kids, the adult contemporary crowd were the ones on drugs.

The rest of the album ends mercifully after this 7 minute escapade, which brings the entire album length to just about 32 minutes, which means roughly 1/4th of this album is “MacArthur Park”, which makes sense really, though it does take up far more than its fair share of suck.

Last, but not least, I notice that, if you take out the “All the sweet, green icing flowing down” line from the chorus, it’s constructed like a limerick! That’s awesome.

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9 Responses

  1. I think that MacArthur Park is one of the rare cases where the original is waaaay funnier than the parody. I mean, SOMEONE LEFT THE CAKE OUT IN THE RAIN! That’s the greatest horrible line ever.

    I think it got to #1 just because it was the best really bad song ever. Like how Wing has a career.

  2. Yeah I guess Weird Al’s song is technically more “clever” than hilarious (kind of like his Star Wars Episode 1 parody, more just fitting one idea into another than really doing a gag), though I must give Mr. Yankovic mad props for proving that, indeed, the tricky vocal melody of MacArthur Park CAN be sung effectively in the hands of an actual good singer.

    You are right though, the original song is hilarious, and really this whole album is too hilarious for me to hate completely, I was actually rather thrilled to be hearing it. I do enjoy failure on a scale that probably doesn’t translate well in written word.

    • I think it’s just be a matter if really awesome unintentional comedy is generally funnier than intentional comedy. Dinosaurs can never be as funny as over the top dead-serious singing about cake made out of metaphors.

  3. This review was worth reading just for “Hannah Montana Sr”.

  4. The chorus is not a modified limerick. The first line is “Mac Aurthur’s Park is melting in the dark”
    Harris, however, was born in Limerick.

  5. If you’re going to trash a song you should at least get the lyrics right. The singer and composer are guilty of over reaching, but the recording works so well because of the pretentious lyrics, the overwrought orchestration, and the absolutely sell your soul, struggling vocals of Harris. That is what makes the recording (not the song) a mastepiece of pop music.

    On the other hand, you are spot on regarding “Lovers Such As I”. Webb’s weakness as a songwriter are in his lyrics, and here he was just plain lazy.

  6. […] going to like,  but in this seedy world of practically anonymous journalism, sometimes one have to make sacrifices, and I am no […]

  7. It’s the best song from the 60’s.

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