085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)

Posted by on Jan 4, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week |

Randy Newman has had a really sterling career–20 nominations for Academy Awards and 15 for Grammies. Over the last 20 years he’s focused on composing for films and performing live, but before that he was primarily a singer-songwriter, with a string of nine albums from 1968 to 1988, some of them merely fine, some of them greatgreatgreat. I imagine he makes an awful lot of money writing scores for movies such as all three Toy Stories (in 2007, he became a Disney Legend – I’m not sure what that is, but it probably impresses a lot of people), and I’m not really in a position to diss them because I’ve never seen them.

The Randy Newman I’m so fond of is someone wholly other than the guy in the tux up there on the stage. In fact, as his career has developed, his stature and success have consistently grown – as is befitting, because he’s a really talented guy, and he deserves it. I’m pretty sure that there’s almost no one else in the world who views his career like I do, in absolute inverse relation to his success. But I’d like to tell you about the Randy Newman I most admire.

1966, I’m working summers in a Pepsi Cola factory during college. Factory work, good pay for a kid. Got the paycheck on Friday (around $80, if I remember correctly), and drove out to some Kmart-type faceless chain warehouse which for some bizarre bureaucratic reason stocked all the new record releases. So I’d go through the copious racks as methodically as an archaeologist, as focused as a brain surgeon, every Friday, and come home with three or four new albums, $2.99 a shot.

One of them was Judi Collins’ album “In My Life”, in which a pretty unimaginative folk songstress covered some really exciting new music: Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donavan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, The Beatles ‘In My Life’ (a remarkably correct reading of the song which I discussed in SoTW 053, and especially ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ by someone named Randy Newman. It was the first time I’d heard his name, but the song knocked me out, and it was a name I watched out for. So when his first appeared in the netherstacks of Whatever-Mart, I was probably the first–maybe the only–person in the Midwest to buy it.

“Something New Under the Sun” Original Cover

Here’s the story I didn’t know at the time. Randy was born in 1943 and raised in LA, son of a local doctor and a mother from New Orleans (both locales would be formative in his musical landscape). Two of his uncles, Alfred and Lionel, were among the most successful Hollywood composers of the 1940s and 1950s. From the age of 17 he was writing pop songs recorded with a modicum of success by Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Jackie DeShannon, The O’Jays, Irma Thomas and especially Alan Price, formerly the organist of The Animals (yes, the guy who played on ‘House of the Rising Sun’). Price was an early (and fine) singer-songwriter, who recorded many Newman songs before anyone else, including Randy himself.

Randy’s boyhood friend Lenny Waronker got a job at Warner Brothers records as a producer. He brought in his friends pop/avant garde arranger/composer/pianist Van Dyke Parks, Leon Russell, and Newman. Randy was studying music at UCLA, but it seems that Waronker called and said: “Listen Rand, the record business is booming, the bigshots around here are going crazy looking for talent. They’ll throw a bundle at anyone with long hair and a guitar. Forget school, come over here, I’ll sign you to the Reprise subsidiary, we’ll make an album. Whatever you want. Van Dyke and I will produce it. Complete artistic freedom. No limits on budget! Spend whatever you want!! The best studio musicians in town, whoever you want. Bring in a whole goddam orchestra, for all I care.”

“Something New Under the Sun” Rerelease Cover

And that’s what they did. They made an album called either “Randy Newman” or “Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun.”

It was originally released in 1968 with a blue cover and sold numerous dozens of copies. It was such a flop that Warner Brothers announced that anyone who bought it could trade it in for a different album from their catalog. A couple of years later, after he developed a small following, they rereleased it with a brown cover. This time it actually sold several hundred copies. It was so far under the radar that even the critics missed it. The album was out of print for 15 years, when it was released as a CD in 1985. It remains almost unheard of even today, even among those who should know better.

Despite the fact that a number of the songs on “Randy Newman” have been covered by many major artists, and despite the fact that Randy continues to perform songs from it in concert, the album languishes in absolute obscurity.

I’ll tell you what I think of the album. I think it ranks with “The Band”, “Astral Weeks”, “John Wesley Harding”, “Rubber Soul”, “Pet Sounds”, “Eli & the 13th Confession” as one of the greatest works of art to arise from the ‘rock’ idiom.

It’s hard to think of it as having roots in rock, because there’s only one song that has anything like a rock backbeat. There’s a large, lush orchestra playing charts of such intelligence and beauty and complexity that it’s mindbending to think that this is the freshman work of a 25-year old. All his award-winning Hollywood scores down the road blanche in comparison.

But even more prominent here is his piano, and his voice, and his ‘songs’. They’re so much more than songs. They’re vignettes of the Newman world – irony, satire that cuts to the very bone, obscure Everymen living lives of quiet desperation; pain, grimaces, regret, angst, compassion, and more pain.

Take for example ‘Davy, The Fat Boy‘. Before they die, Davy’s parents entrust their freakishly fat son to the care of the narrator, ‘the only friend he ever will have’ – who promptly puts him on exhibit in a carnival freak show, to make a few quarters out of the deal.

The song is Art in its conception–melody, chord structure, scoring–George Gershwin being serious for once. The piano is somewhere between Fats Domino and Aaron Copland. The voice is Tom Waits from Beverly Hills.

Or his post-Nietzschean theology, ‘I Think He’s Hiding‘:

Come on, Big Boy, come and save us.
Come and look at what we’ve done with what You gave us.
Now I’ve heard it said that our Big Boy’s dead, but I think he’s hiding.

But you have to hear the Neapolitan guitars with the raunchy slo-mo sliding bass and the out-of-tune nightmarish honky-tonk piano to get The Picture.

Or ‘The Beehive State‘, a thoroughly convincing paean to lobbyists for the Department of Tourism of the great state of Utah. You don’t believe me? Go listen to it.

There’s nary a song among the eleven that isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s causing me palpable anguish to present just one, and that one out of context. In 10 of the 11 songs–indeed, for virtually the entirety of his singer-songwriter career– Randy is acerbic, oblique, ironic, and funny. He doesn’t pull your leg. He amputates it.

Only in this one song does he play it straight. No indirection known. No wicked twinkle in the eye. He looks at you straight-faced and naked, and paints the bleakest, grayest, most desolate aural landscape you’ve ever heard.

The song is of course ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today‘.

There are many live versions of Randy Newman performing the song. It’s been covered by Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, UB40, Joe Cocker, Norah Jones, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Cleo Laine, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gabriel, Natalie Cole, Cass Eliot, and Bette Midler. That’s one very impressive list of singers, isn’t it? But to tell you the truth, I can’t even be bothered to go listen to their versions. It’s inconceivable to me that there could be a treatment more honest, direct, intense, precise, exhaustive, more harrowing than the original.

Broken windows, empty hallways,

Pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.

 

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,

With frozen smiles to chase love away.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.

 

Lonely, lonely.

Tin can at my feet,

Think I’ll kick it down the street.

That’s the way to treat a friend.

 

Bright before me the signs implore me:

Help the needy and show them the way.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.

I hope to come back to this album someday, to introduce you to another masterpiece or two from it. In the meantime, I couldn’t recommend more highly that you listen to the entire album here, or even better, run out and buy as many copies as you can. Give them to your friends, to your enemies, put one under your pillow, one in your safety deposit box and one in a time capsule. This album really is, without hyperbole, something new under the sun.

A reader was kind enough to send me a knockout article by David Kamp in Vanity Fair. It covers much of the same ground, but much more extensively, with oodles of background tales. Mucho recommended.

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14 Comments

ze'ev
Feb 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm

I’m sure that Randy Newman is a musical genius. It pains me that I’m not at the level that I get it. Kol haKavod, though for not making the easy choices.


 
Hoshen
Feb 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Lovely written, though I lack a mention of Newman’s musical (or musicals, I have heard only of one) Faust, which is musically brilliant for my opinion.


 
Yakinton Sue
Feb 10, 2011 at 9:10 am

Thanks for spot-lighting this wonderful artist. This song has been one of my very favorites for many years. (I also have a soft spot for “Dayton, Ohio – 1903″… not hard to figure out why, being a native. I have always wondered what made him write that song, though…do you know, perhaps)?

Be well!


 
jeff
Feb 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm

“Dayton, Ohio, 1903” is a great song! I agree it’s enigmatic. On the one hand, it’s so pastoral, peaceful, a perfectly innocent. On the other hand, that’s not Randy. And on the third hand, that when and where something very unpastoral and peaceful happened–where the Wright Brothers invented the flying machine. And we all know where that led us… So I’m guessing there’s some very low-keyed ironic comment about the discrepancy between the seeming placidness in the scene and the technological monster lurking just over the hillside. How’s that?


 
Jackson Ahern
Nov 23, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I had no idea this was so unpopular! I loved it and it remains my favorite work by him. ….. Laughing Boy, “An unprincipled, and uncommitted clown can hardly be permitted to sit around and laugh at what the decent people try to do.” …. I also agree about Judy Collins. Her greatest contribution seems to have been the material she chose.


 
jeff
Nov 23, 2011 at 11:03 pm

It’s so rare to find someone who knows and appreciates this album!! Let’s call it non-popular, rather than unpopular, ok? 😉 Judy C’s album also inspired me to read ‘Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me’, which had a big influence on me back then.


 
walter
Dec 17, 2012 at 6:39 pm

As a footnote, some three months before Collins, this was on a MGM single by crooner Julius LaRosa.


 
jeff
Dec 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Walter, I’m really impressed. You’re 100% correct. I’m embarrassed to admit that I even know who Julius LaRosa is. Thanks for the pointer. http://www.secondhandsongs.com/work/1417


 
Recruiting Animal
Dec 23, 2012 at 1:17 am

I’m surprised you didn’t mention this – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1614260/ – Unfortunately no video seems to be online


 
Malcolm Pordes
Jan 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm

I have to disagree with your comment on Judy Collins as being unimaginative. She’s written some beautiful songs, some of the best being on Wildflowers: Since You Asked, Sky Fell and Albatross.


 
Malcolm Pordes
Jan 6, 2017 at 2:13 am

Harry Nilsson did a fine job, IMHO, of covering some of these songs in his 1970 album, Nilsson Sings Newman.


 
Avi Katz
Jan 6, 2017 at 9:52 am

Alas, the link to the entire album has been nipped by YouTube


 
maggie
Jan 8, 2017 at 2:37 am

This song is a beauty. I hear the same poignancy and humanity that can be found in the songs Newman wrote for “Toy Story.” The friendship between a little wooden cowboy and a plastic spaceman is largely told through the music, and I can’t imagine any other theme but “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” for the movies. In 1966 our go-to source for the latest LPs was Scotty’s Drugstore, Redondo Beach, CA.
We bought our first Beatles album there, “Something New,” $2.99.


 
Dave
Jan 10, 2017 at 9:58 pm

I first heard this song back in 1972 or thereabouts, on a Neil Diamond album. Never knew it was written by Randy Newman until just now…thanks for the great article.


 

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