Sunday, 8 November 2009

What the Stones and the Andrews Sisters tell us about life

A few days ago I was killing the time on some long car journey or another by listening to a collection of songs by the Andrews Sisters. In this gloomy time of year, when it’s dark at five, listening to those bright, dynamic songs can act like a real tonic. This is particularly helpful when the night you’re peering through is yet again being lit up by a long string of brake lights coming on, as you reach another set of roadworks or another accident, leaving you wondering when you’re ever going to get home.

All the same, I always feel slightly embarrassed at admitting I like the Andrews Sisters. It’s a bit like admitting I like feel-good movies, which always gives me a sense of shame as though I were confessing to arrested intellectual development. On the other hand, no-one has ever succeeded in showing me what’s so satisfying about feeling bad.

The problem with liking the Andrews Sisters is that most people regard them as outmoded, as though they had a feel to them of woolly cardigans and carpet slippers. Which leads me to my favourite theme, the transience of things.

The Andrews Sisters enjoyed phenomenal, worldwide success. But only for about thirteen years. I suppose their best period was between Bei mir bist du schein in 1937 and I wanna be loved in 1950. They went on recording songs throughout the fifties but as rock and roll took over, they no longer scored the hits that they had in the past. And the sisters, alone or together, went on to enjoy long careers beyond that time, but in a much lower key.

By contrast, the Rolling Stones started their career in 1962 and they’re still going strong today, 47 years on. Patty Andrews, the youngest of the sisters and their lead singer, is still alive today. She saw the Rolling Stones rise to fame at a point when she was 44 and her own career was already past its peak; now at 91, she can see them still filling stadia.

Curious, isn’t it? I put it down to the war. It was a real watershed. It ushered in a profound revision of attitudes culminating in the sixties. In particular, the conflict between the generations testifies to the depth of transformation of values at that time. The generation born after the war wasn’t just separated from its predecessors by time, but by a gulf in experience that left its mark in attitudes and taste, even taste in music.

Of course, many musicians from the war years kept their careers going long after. Among French-language singers, Charles Aznavour just kept right on going, and amongst English-speakers Frank Sinatra had a pretty good crack of the whip (even though he did rather have to reinvent himself in the fifties). They, however, weren’t the mainstream of popular music which was dominated in the forties by bands that faded in the fifties, to replaced by groups that have stayed at the top ever since – just as long as they didn’t break up.

That’s why two or three generations on from the fifties and sixties, the same music – or at least the same groups – retain their popularity. Whereas the bands who were singing their songs a single generation earlier now feel hopelessly out of date.

The progress of mankind isn’t even. Sometimes it moves smoothly; sometimes it goes through sudden, rapid change. The Andrews Sisters were the victims of one of those moments of discontinuity; the Rolling Stones are enjoying the fruits of smoothness.

And of course this allows the Stones to generate one of the most wonderful sounds ever enjoyed by Man, and popular in all ages: that of a cash register ringing.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

I always enjoyed those Andrews Sisters CDs! I remember making my first ever 3D animation with them on in the background.

Though you're right - look at how popular the Beatles still are.