Music: God is in the Details

The Independent's Guide to Pop's Fiddly Bits No 3: `The Great Pretender'
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The Independent Culture
COMPLETE SILENCES are rare in records aimed at radio air-play - DJs dread the spectre of dead air time - but dramatic pauses are to be treasured. And there's a priceless gap about two-and-a-half minutes into Stan Freberg's "The Great Pretender". This is a comedy record in which a melodramatic pop vocalist battles with an unco-operative hipster pianist on a session. "I got the same chord over and over," complains the latter, "my hand is falling off!" Though obliged to play a bland, repetitive piano vamp - the kind that accompanied scores of Fifties hits - the sideman attempts to sneak in his favourite cool jazz licks. At one point he gets away with the opening six-note phrase from George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland". The exasperation of the vocal artiste mounts until he threatens the disruptive musician with non-payment. "You play that cling-cling-cling jazz or you won't get paid tonight," he yelps. The entire studio (and record) goes silent.

The endless break that follows (only a second or two, in fact) marks a kind of epiphany for the musician. Before the record is out, he has embraced both the demands of the market-place and a new aesthetic, attacking the repetitive, minimalist triplet part with a manic intensity that would be equalled only several years later, by Steve Reich's "Oh Dem Watermelons". "Don't stop me now man," cries the piano man, "I've got to where I like it."

"The Great Pretender" may not be as musically expert (or even as funny) as Freberg's "The Banana Boat Song" or as good a pastiche as his "Heartbreak Hotel", in which an Elvis-soundalike becomes entangled in repeat echo. But this track, and in particular that exquisite pause, may have unwittingly captured a pivotal (almost tragic) moment in musical and cultural history: only a few twists and turns of the globe before the rock'n'roller mutates into all-round family entertainer and the jazzer shaves off his goatee to join Warhol's Factory - or at the very least becomes Philip Glass. Listen and weep.

Does humour belong in music? Frank Zappa asked the question much later without coming to a conclusion that anyone could take seriously. As far as Freberg is concerned, they're inseparable.

John L Walters