Cole Porter in 1934: “The world has gone completely mad!”
The world in 2019: “Hold my beer…!”
Possibly second only to my all-time favourite lyricist, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter had a fine line in stylishly satirical takes on the high society of his time. He did it so cleverly, and so well, it was almost impossible to take offence…although his now-classic 1930 song “Love For Sale”, about the experiences of a prostitute, certainly pushed his luck a little…
However Cole Porter was on much safer ground with “Anything Goes”, which taps nicely into every generation’s exasperation with the antics of the generations which follow their own.
“Can’t you put your phone down for a moment??!!” is my generation’s equivalent of being told to “turn that music down!!” by our parents. Nobody tells their kids to turn their music down any more, as pretty much everyone wears earbuds nowadays, although I’m not sure that was quite the solution my parents had in mind…
Although popular back in the 1930s when “Anything Goes” first saw the light of day on Broadway as the anchor song for a stage musical of the same name, the song probably retains a special place in our hearts today thanks to the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald.
An undeniably popular song, plenty of artists had performed “Anything Goes” on the stage or on record since it hit the big time on the back of the stage show in the mid-1930s. But Ella Fitzgerald including the song on her “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book” album cemented its place in musical history.
This 1956 album was the first of Ella Fitzgerald’s eight “songbook” albums which elegantly captured for all time some of the finest work by the greatest songwriters of the early 20th century — in addition to Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald recorded “songbook” albums featuring, amongst others, the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. They all benefited from being showcased by one of the finest vocalists of all time.
With her series of Songbook albums, Ella Fitzgerald can, in no small way, be considered to have kicked off a trend which has culminated in modern day artists recording their versions of classic tunes from what’s become known as “The Great American Songbook”.
The difference with modern artists is they mainly shift to those old favourites at the later stages of their careers whereas Ella Fitzgerald recorded her eight Songbook albums at the very height of her vocal powers.
Ella Fitzgerald was a famous, well-known and much-admired singer even before her Cole Porter Songbook album. But that album, and the seven other Songbook albums which followed, is what made Ella Fitzgerald into a legend.
With the songs of Cole Porter, she had the best possible material to work with. In addition to writing slick and clever lyrics, Cole Porter could write delightfully engaging music too.
Ethel Merman, a big star in her day, had launched “Anything Goes” when the show of the same name first became a Broadway hit back in the 1930s. A measure of the greatness of that Broadway show, and indeed Cole Porter’s exceptional songwriting talent, is that the stage show “Anything Goes” also contained two other Cole Porter songs which have gone on to become fixtures of the Great American Songbook themselves — “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “You’re The Top”.
It’s probably fair to say that Ethel Merman’s rambunctious style on Broadway did a lot to make the song popular. Ethel Merman had a powerful voice, and an even more powerful personality. No microphone was required to hear her in full flow at the back of the theatre.
But Ella Fizgerald took a different tack — the measure of a great artist is wanting to bring a different perspective to a song closely identified with someone else. So she caressed the lyrics, rather than belting them out, and her sweet tone stylishly weaved its way around the great musicians she recorded with…Buddy Bregman’s orchestra in the case of the Cole Porter Songbook album…rather than competed for attention with them.
In fact, the sweetness of Ella Fitzgerald’s delivery somehow made the satire of Cole Porter’s lyrics even more delightfully subversive. With Ethel Merman’s blowsy stage persona, you knew she was playing it for laughs. With Ella Fitzgerald, you felt she was speaking the truth…
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Would be looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
Probably just as well Cole Porter never discovered Twitter…
Although he was no buttoned-up East Coast prude himself. During the First World War Cole Porter decamped to Paris where he claimed to have joined the French Foreign Legion, although there seems to be a much greater body of evidence that he spent most of his time in the company of a series of louche, avant-garde artistic types in a never-ending series of Left Bank parties.
It’s that knowledge of how Cole Porter lived his life which makes the lyrics of “Anything Goes” so delightful. He was slyly saying to his legions of Broadway fans “if you think this is bad, you don’t know the half of it”…as indeed, he did.
Good authors too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
I could listen to lyrics that well-written all day long, especially when they’re delivered by an artist of Ella Fitzgerald’s calibre.
I especially like the way Cole Porter wrote…
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today
And black’s white today
And day’s night today
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
It’s really hard to write lyrics which seem so simple, on the face of it, but express the writer’s point of view so well through a quick-fire series of contrasting statements.
There are no fancy words in here. Even if “gigolos” isn’t a word that’s used much nowadays, everyone in the 1930s and 1950s would have known exactly what it meant.
The tight lyrical structure, coming back to “today” at the end of each line is an especially hard technique to do well. And it’s a great way of building tension before it’s released in the final line…you can feel Ella Fitzgerald’s voice just floating away, taking all the tension with her at the end of that section, before changing gear for the next verse.
And that’s the point of Cole Porter’s masterful lyrical structure. He builds tension in the way that people who rant about “young people today” wind themselves up and get more and more annoyed the longer they espouse their views on the subject.
That build up of tension, and its eventual release, is the sign of a songwriting master at work. Cole Porter plays with our emotions in ways we don’t even realise he’s playing with us.
That’s what makes “Anything Goes” such a wonderful song on so many levels. The jaunty tune, accompanying a heavily satirical lyric, with great use of language and the way Cole Porter mimics the emotions of people getting exasperated with the way “young people today” behave all come together to make one of the best songs ever written.
And, although most of the modern recordings miss out the preamble, as you’ll hear on the video below, you can take the same sentiments that Cole Porter was writing about in 1930’s New York and run them pretty much as far back in time as you like.
This opening section is also a great counterpoint to the more jaunty and jocular part of “Anything Goes” which modern audiences are more familiar with. But its presence demonstrates Cole Porter was a true artist — not many songwriters would have bothered with a section which contrasts so starkly with the main body of his hook-laden song. Its presence is another reason I love “Anything Goes” as much as I do.
“Anything Goes” has been a staple of Great American Songbook records since before the Great American Songbook was even a thing. And even though “Anything Goes” has been recorded by just about every great singer of the last century or so at one time or another, I don’t think there’s ever been a better version of it than the one on Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook album.
Here’s the Queen of Jazz with “Anything Goes”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5s0NssI5AbFWewMfDxHhKy