New York, New York (Soundtrack Sundays)

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New York New York

New York, New York is a big song. A Manhattan skyline big song. Everybody from eight to eighty knows it. No, scrap that cliche. Plenty of people over eighty know it too. And maybe quite a few under eight too.

It’s the ultimate song for drunks at the end of a party. What a singalong. Belting out those lyrics about waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep and how if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and pretending to be Francis Albert.

As Sinatra signature tunes go, this is right up there. Only My Way can rival it. It has become the unofficial anthem of the great city and New York’s very own Martin Scorsese even named one of his early movies after it.

No, scrap that too. When Martin Scorsese hit on the idea to make a spec script by a screenwriting newcomer Earl Mac Rauch into a dazzling, hyper-stylised tribute to the big band era and to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the song didn’t yet exist.

New York New York Happy Endings

To me, it sounds as if it was maybe composed when my grandfather was still a young man, or when my dad was a teenager in the 1950s, but it was written when I was fifteen, a time when The Sex Pistols were tabloid sensations, when David Bowie changed direction radically with Low, and John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever.

I could get into some old tittle-tattle about Scorsese and Liza Minelli but won’t. He cast the star as his female lead, an up and coming singer Francine Evans, and brought in two songwriters Kander and Ebb, who’d become strongly associated with her through musicals like Cabaret, to supply some tunes.

Their original theme for the film impressed the director and singer but co-star Robert De Niro, who was to play saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, was much less happy about it. He requested that they try writing another theme which I’m guessing must have rattled the award-winning team, who were happy with their effort.

Still, they agreed to give it another go, in order to please an actor who was learning to play saxophone at this point, albeit only so he could better mimic a sax player as his own parts were to be dubbed in the movie by George Auld. Auld who also played bandleader Frankie Harte claimed that when he first met De Niro, the actor ‘Didn’t know a tuba from a taxicab.’

So what did this guy know about a successful theme tune?

This time Kander and Ebb came up with something that he did approve of, as did Scorsese and Minelli too, and this showstopper – which in the film, Jimmy composes – became the highlight of New York, New York (which I could never remotely love the way I loved Mean Streets or Taxi Driver).

Released as a single by Minelli during the long hot summer of ’77, this is Theme From New York, New York:

Was it a hit?

Like the film,* it failed to live up to expectations. It’s easy to imagine that from the moment people hear that killer opening vamp, they would fall in love with the track, but Minnelli’s original only managed to reach #104 in America.

Liza Minelli - New York, New York.jpg

‘Really?’ you might say. ‘But I bet the track must have went on to win Best Song at the Oscars and took off from there?’

Nope. In fact, it didn’t even earn a nomination from the Academy.

When it was first suggested that Frank Sinatra cover the song, he was initially wary. Ol’ Blue Eyes liked Liza’s version and treated her almost like family, due to his old friendship with Liza’s mother Judy Garland. By the autumn of 1978, though, he was persuaded to sing it live at a charity event at Waldorf-Astoria.

In 1980, he released the song as a single.

That must have been a huge hit then, you might think.

Nope, not really. In America it peaked at #32, while in Britain it made it no higher than #59.


Both Frank and Liza continued to perform the song live and it continued to grow in popularity. A little research tells me that on these shores, Sinatra’s version was re-released early in 1986, and did finally go on to become a very sizeable success, joining the likes of The Damned, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Simple Minds in the official UK singles chart, where it eventually peaked at #4, although I have absolutely no recollection of this.

Here are Frank and Liza live at Madison Square Gardens with a very showbizzy take on the song that doesn’t really work for me. Sorry but there’s no real chemistry between the voices and Frank, it would have to be admitted, is clearly past his prime. See if you agree:

* George Lucas – whose wife Marcia worked as an editor on the film – believed that New York, New York could have added another ten million to its box-office takings if Scorsese had chosen to close the film with a happy ending. Scorsese decided to ignore the suggestion but stuck with what he saw as the truth of the relationship.


Mean Streets (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Mean Streets.jpg

If asked, I’ll say that The Ronettes’ Be My Baby is very likely the greatest pop song ever recorded. Not only that, its use on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is one of the finest uses of any track in the history of cinema.

I’m guessing you’ve already seen the film. Harvey Keitel as Charlie wakes up. He’s alone in a spartan looking room where a crucifix hangs on the wall. Outside a siren blares and an interior siren seems to blare in his head.

Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

Anxious, he rises, examines his face in a mirror and then goes back to bed. Scorsese gives us three rapid jump-cuts of Charlie’s face and as his head crashes back down on his pillow, Hal Blaine’s celebrated drum beat kicks in – three thuds of a deep bass drum, then another single hit on the snare, bolstered by some handclaps. Enter the startling vibrato of Ronnie Spector, cooing the opening lines: ‘The night we met, I knew I needed you so / And if I had the chance, I’d never let you go.’

As she sings, we see some handheld and grainy 8mm home movie footage of what we can only guess were happier times. A dapper Charlie at a baptism, hanging around with some buddies, and smiling while talking to a priest. All still soundtracked by The Ronettes.

Even in an age of Shirelles, Supremes and Shangi Las, Be My Baby stands out as something very special.

In his biography Good Vibrations, Beach Boy Mike Love wrote of the effect Be My Baby had on bandleader Brian Wilson: ‘When we’d go to Brian’s house, he would play that song over and over again, comparing it to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’

‘I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did,’ the man who wrote the music for California Girls, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and Caroline, No later admitted to the New York Times. ‘I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.’

He is likely right. There isn’t a single click of the castanets too few or too many. The record is perfection. I’d go as far to say that if you’re just embarking on a relationship and wondering whether to take things further, ask the person what they think about Be My Baby. If they don’t absolutely love it, forget them, make your excuses and say goodbye.

That’s the only relationship advice I’ll ever give on here.

Here’s some footage of The Ronettes, shot in 1964, in (very appropriately) Little Italy in NYC, the setting of Mean Streets – okay, much of the film was shot in L.A. doubling for the neighbourhood where the young Scorsese grew up.

On discovering that Hal Blaine had died last Monday, I immediately thought of Be My Baby and that iconic and much copied drumbeat, even though it’s estimated that over the course of his magnificent career he played on over 35,000 recordings, 40 of which made it to number one in America.

A version of Hal made an appearance in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – a far better film incidentally than Bohemian Rhapsody – where, during a break from recording, he tells the young Brian Wilson: ‘You name them, we’ve played with them. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Phil Spector, Sam Cooke. Everyone. And we all studied at goddam conservatories for Christ’s sake but you, you gotta know… you’re touched, kid. You’ve blown our minds.’

‘More than Phil Spector?’ Wilson asks sheepishly.

‘Phil Spector has got nothing on you,’ Blaine replies, smiling.

Brian’s ecstatic. Instantly buoyed for when he returns to work on the session.

Here’s some more Hal, although that’s not him on drums on this clip, but rather Dennis Wilson, who looks like he hasn’t fully recovered from too much partying the nightbefore. But it is Hal hitting those drumsticks. From Pet Sounds, this is God Only Knows:

On hearing of his death, Brian Wilson observed: ‘Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success – he was the greatest drummer ever.’

Ronnie Spector, who once said that she felt like she’d gone to heaven when she first heard Blaine’s drumbeat on Be My Baby, also paid tribute to the man, thanking him on her Facebook page for ‘the magic he put on all our Ronettes recordings… and so many others throughout his incredible career ‘.

Hal Blaine (born Harold Simon Belsky): 5 February 1929 – 11 March 2019.