Many North Americans got their first exposure to the phenomenon known as Lana Del Rey when she became one of the few artists to perform on Saturday Night Live before her major label recording was even released. Her neo-retro torch-singer persona and her musical performance that evening conjured up a lot negative comments from music critics and music fans alike.
Many of the comments were variations of “that’s all been done better before,” “she’s just a show business invention, more fashion model than artist,” and “she can’t sing!” In spite of that, her debut album still made a decent run up the charts and eventually sold millions worldwide. She got so popular that she even signed on with a modelling agency — to do some work on the side, as it were.
Frankly, I was one of those people who watched her SNL gig and came away unimpressed. But when I heard that Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced her latest release Ultraviolence, I was intrigued by how the producer/artist combination might work out, since Del Rey and Auerbach each typically work in distinctly different musical styles.
The first song I heard off the album was a torch ballad called “Cruel World” — a long, slow, oozing, reverb drenched affair, which I guess is what I should have expected. It’s kind of cool, even with the regular f-bombs that show up in the chorus.
Still, there was something I just couldn’t pin down. I was sure I’d heard something similar to this before, and not from a traditional torch singer. The idea had to stew in the back of my mind for a couple of days and then, in a moment of clarity it struck me: “Porpoise Song” by the Monkees.
For those who might only remember the Monkees’ from reruns of their TV series or the inevitability of their hit “I’m a Believer” on classic rock radio (or the re-make on the Shrek soundtrack), here’s a quick history: In the mid-1960s, impressed by the power of Beatlemania, some TV producers in Los Angeles were inspired to put together a weekly show about four personable young men who would be America’s fictional prime time equivalent of the lads from Liverpool.
So they hired two musicians and two actors and basically signed them to a contract where the production team had most of the power. The Monkees eventually led a palace revolt (one of them even punched his fist through the wall to make a point) and consequently, they became more involved in controlling their own careers — particularly in the areas of image, marketing, performing and song writing.
Of course, this was the beginning of the end: record sales dropped, the viewership of their show dwindled, and the youth of America moved on. One of the last projects the band did before everything turned to complete mush was to star in a movie called Head, an unwieldy psychedelic cinematic monster of interest these days as a period piece and not much else.
But the opening number, a Goffin/King creation called “Porpoise Song” was quite interesting — a long, slow, oozing, reverb drenched affair. In other words, a not-so-distant relation to Lana Del Rey’s “Cruel World.” The lead singer, as he was on many Monkees’ tunes, was Micky Dolenz. He was one of the actors who became a musician after he joined the band. But in all fairness, he taught himself how to play the drums well enough, and he really was a good singer anyway.
So, in both cases we have artists who have taken perhaps unwarranted heat over their perceived lack of musical talent, and then attempted to take steps to prove otherwise. As much as I love the Monkees, I’m going to have to go with Lana Del Rey as the artist with the stronger response to critics and the public at large. Signing on Auerbach as producer was a stroke of genius on somebody’s part. I think this album had the potential to come out flat, in which case Del Rey’s musical career might have effectively stopped dead in its tracks.
The Monkees, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. They knew their journey to the top of pop charts was done, and the movie would have to have been a surprise box office success to change that. It was a shot in the dark, and even the accompanying soundtrack boasts only a cult following compared to their first two or three mega-selling releases.
Let’s just hope that when Lana Del Rey gets around to making her third album, she doesn’t have to punch her fist through a wall.