Sunday, 14 March 2010

Red Eyed Rats: The Soundscapes of Kenyon Hopkins

I've been wanting to write something about Kenyon Hopkins since I started blogging about music. What prompted me to finally get down to it was finding an album called Music of Mystery Mayhem and Murder in a shop in Sheen this week. The title is misleading; the album looks like just one more 007 cash-in from the James Bond craze of the sixties. Indeed the words James Bond are huge in comparison to the album's title. It was on the British budget Music For Pleasure (MFP) label and I almost passed it by because it looked so spectacularly tacky, and because the world isn't short of dodgy albums of James Bond cover versions. But something caught my eye. One of the tracks on the LP was Red Eyed Rats. There can't be too many pieces of music with that title, I thought. So I looked more closely and, sure enough, it was the Kenyon Hopkins composition from his amazing album Nightmare. And there were three more Hopkins tracks on the album. Evidently some bright spark had decided to eke out a fairly conventional James Bond cash-in with these amazing lost audio documents. Or maybe somebody simply saw a way of giving a new life to some terrific music, by recycling it with a few 007 tracks attached. I got the record home and it was a delight. The James Bond versions by Danny Davis were pretty interesting in themselves. And there were also some nice Mancini Peter Gunn covers by Ray Ellis, but it was the Kenyon Hopkins stuff that was pure gold. It was great to hear it again, and it encouraged me to pull out Nightmare, the original source of this material. And from there I began digging out all his albums and soon had a full blown Hopkins retrospective going on. So I'm grateful to this little gem (the sound quality of the MFP pressing is quite nice too, by the way). However, as the album's cover is pure kitsch I'll put it near the end of this piece, so it won't scare the horses, so to speak. Instead I'll put a Pete Turner photo at the top, since it will more accurately suggest the classiness and cool artistry of Kenyon Hopkins. (Buy Turner's book, The Color of Jazz, here. And you really should buy it. Once you get past the somewhat shocking cover, it's a book full of colour. And jazz.) This picture was used on the cover of the album The Sound of New York, produced by Creed Taylor. Taylor was a long time collaborator, and indeed some Hopkins albums appeared under the Creed Taylor name, because Hopkins was under exclusive contract to Capitol at the time. These pseudonymous classics include Lonelyville (another Pete Turner cover) which is attributed to the Creed Taylor Orchestra. Presenting a landscape of hip urban alienation and a nice cover with a cat (get the mono version, there's more cat on it), it features Dick Hyman on piano and includes, among other joys, a stonking version of St James Infirmary. The back cover of Lonelyville boasts "arrangements by Bob Kenyon", but of course it's pure Kenyon Hopkins. As are Shock and Panic, two other 'Creed Taylor Orchestra' excursions of the 1950s which are now scarce and sought after collectors items. Luckily the resourceful UK Righteous label is poised to reissue them on CD. Panic and Shock occupy the same oddball terrain as Nightmare, a 1962 MGM album finally under Hopkins' own name. These are spooky soundscapes incorporating sound effects as well as music, and were originally marketed around Halloween to teenagers in search of cheap thrills (in other words, all teenagers). Now, I know this makes them sound like camp curiosities whose only value today would be as kitsch diversions. But nothing could be less accurate. They're actually extraordinarily effective, highly musical, and possessed of their own peculiar integrity. Plus, they're fun. It's a bit like Les Baxter meets Alfred Hitchcock — uneasy listening, to coin a phrase. But I think there's considerably more depth and seriousness to Kenyon Hopkins. And also a thread of bluesy authenticity which constantly validates his work. Even a track as mad as Werewolf (on Nightmare), which depicts a lone cowboy huddled by his camptfire, apprehensively twanging his guitar, singing and whistling into the night, while being stalked by a rustling, and ultimately pouncing, lycanthrope. As nutty as it sounds, and I haven't even told you that the cowboy is singing Home On the Range, Werewolf exhibits some real authenticity and modest power. Maybe because it never comes across as phony, or silly, or throwaway. This is partly because these albums are done with real conviction and a real R&B rawness. It also doesn't hurt that the musicians playing on the sessions are of the calibre of Jerome Richardson and Phil Woods. By rights these records should just be bad jokes, forgettable and cheap. but instead there's something quite marvelous about them. They occupy a region somewhere between jazz and exotica. There's also an intriguing overlap with film music. In particular, the wild Red Eyed Rats features orgasmic female breathing and vocalese ("Why is she is responding to the rats like that?" wondered a generation of puzzled teens) in a way that very much anticipates the work of Edda Dell'Orso for Ennio Morricone. There is also a very groovy jazzy coda after the rats devour their victim. There's an excellent interview with Creed Taylor on Marc Myer's formidable JazzWax blog, where he discusses these recordings, and working with Kenyon Hopkins. I had intended to make this piece an overview of all of Hopkins' work but it's clear to me now that I've only begun to scratch the surface. I can't do justice to the range, or depth, of his music in one short (or indeed interminable) essay. So expect another piece discussing his jazz and soundtracks here soon. Just let me close by thanking the people who put me on to Kenyon Hopkins in the first place. Dusty Groove, in Chicago, are so much more than just a record store. They offer insightful capsule reviews of the albums they stock and it was their description of East Side, West Side that initially put me on the scent, and then Doug Payne's invaluable discography gave me the information I needed to begin the search in earnest. Thanks, guys.

1 comment:

  1. How are you my friend, great post on kenyon hopkins and the creed taylor i too am a huge fan of his work'' pleaseee if you have that record (creed taylor orchestra the sound of new york) pleasee post it or share some kind of download link for it. I have been searching ages for that one, big thanxx!!