For years I’ve seen a pricey album up on the walls of collectors’ record shops that I’d always wanted to own, by none other than Mae West. I wanted to own it for the same reason most people bought it the first place: I’ll call it — for lack of a better word — audio rubbernecking. This is the kind of record you buy incredulously and, when it turns out to be worse than you ever possibly expected it to be, you say to yourself, in an almost dumbfounded manner, “of course it is awful, how could it not be?”
Yet we continue to rubberneck, year in, year out, as evidenced by the popularity of today’s Autotune wonders like the “Bedroom Intruder” song, cobbled together by some clever studio dudes using pathetic TV news broadcasts transformed into a viral video runaway hit.
I recently found an original copy of Mae West’s Way Out West at a very affordable price ($3!) so I had to buy it. And I still wonder what the producers were really thinking when they had the… erm… groovy idea of bringing Ms. West into a recording studio to record covers of rock hits of the day. The album was issued on the Tower Records subsidiary of Capitol Records. The choice of songs is inspired, including “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” “Shakin’ All Over,” “Boom Boom,” and many others. According to the Interwebs, the backing group was a teen garage combo called Somebody’s Chyldren, and they are pretty good, cranking out credible bluesy British Invasion-inspired mid ’60s rock and roll.
I finally got up the nerve to play the album, though, and was only able to make it through one side of the disc. It is, quite frankly, a train wreck. What were they thinking? This is right up there with Pat Boone recording a Heavy Metal album (which he did).
And as if finding an affordable copy of Way Out West wasn’t enough excitement for a record collector to endure, imagine the palpitations of heart and soul when I found out there were subsequent rock and roll albums by Mae West. After all, Way Out West had apparently become something of a hit, actually charting at #116 on the billboard charts (according to the Wiki). So when I found a copy of her 1972 opus, Great Balls of Fire, on the MGM label, I had to get this one too (also, thankfully, under $5). If that wasn’t enough, a week later I found a white label promo copy of the same LP in the bargain bins at Amoeba!
I guess the generation that might have been genuine Mae West fans have declined to the point that the albums have lost their appeal.
Or maybe people realized that the records are simply travesties of the highest order, which warrant only a once-in-ten-years listen (if that). At least Great Balls of Fire seems to have its tongue more firmly planted in cheek, the track listing mostly flirting with sexual innuendo: “Men,” “The Naked Ape,” “The Grizzly Bear,” and… um… “Rock Around the Clock.” Some of the tracks are genuine comedy shtick, so its cute fun. Terrible. But cute. Fun.
The most stunning train wreck comes on side two, where Mae conquers — yes, conquers, I tell you! — The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Especially when, at the end of the track, a fire truck siren blows and then a British-voiced fireman comes in and asks “Wheres the fire? Where’s the fire!?” To which Mae responds “In your eyes, big boy. In your eyes.”
Okay, so maybe the term should be trashes instead of conquers.
You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
Perhaps this is what Amy Winehouse might have sounded like this had she lived into her 70s, which was the approximate age Mae was when she cut these deep grooves.
One of my genuinely favorite bad records is The Piano Aristrty of Jonathan Edwards, a classic that, even though it was intended as a comedy record, wasn’t presented as such. The cover looks like any standard pop record of the times (in the 1950s) with compelling liner notes and such. The only hint of mischief was the two left hands on the piano on the cover picture. The only way you find out this is a comedy record – made by big band legend Paul Weston and his wife, singer Jo Stafford as a result of an act they used to do at parties parodying bad lounge singers and players with horribly bad singing and playing — was to play it.
It takes real talent to sing this off key intentionally:
I’m still looking for a copy of Sebastian Cabot reading the poetry of Bob Dylan. Really, it exists.
And then there is Mrs. Miller and Florence Foster Jenkins (I own one of these original self-pressed 78s she used to sell at her concerts, by the way), as well as William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s classics, but everyone knows those by now.
Let us know if you have any faves.
And on that note, we’ll leave you with David Hasselhof’s big Euro dance hit. The video is a jaw-dropping train wreck of epic proportions.