“Anything Goes” — Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga / Ethel Merman
Cole Porter wrote “Anything Goes” in the mid-1930s, but he could easily have written it last week.
Of course, some of the references to the characters he’s gently lampooning would have to change, as so few people know who they are anymore. But I’m pretty sure that bemoaning the decline of society into foul-mouthed debauchery he highlighted in “Anything Goes” would work as well today as it did 90 years ago.
Only last week we had senior US politicians trading four-letter words, and the quality of discourse in the UK over Brexit isn’t much better.
However Cole Porter’s joke is on us. During his years living in Paris after the First World War, his lavish, bohemian parties were the stuff of legend and drunken debauchery no stranger to his well-appointed Parisian apartment.
It was a far cry from Cole Porter’s childhood in small-town Indiana where he grew up with the theatrical interests of his mother flowing through his veins and the cash from his wealthy, but disapproving, grandfather flowing through his bank account.
Nowadays it’s “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”…in the 1920s and 30s, Paris performed a similar function for wealthy young men with time on their hands.
Cole Porter was, however, no trust-fund dilettante. He was quite simply one of the finest songwriters of the 20th Century, and unusual for the time in that he wrote both the lyrics and music for his songs himself. Most of the biggest songs of his era had separate people in charge of each.
Classic Cole Porter songs include “Love For Sale”, a concept which was itself something of a scandal in 1930s New York, “I Get A Kick Out Of You” which Frank Sinatra made his own, and “Who Wants To Be A Millionare?” from the film ‘High Society’.
Cole Porter’s skills with both lyrics and music makes songs like “Anything Goes” even more impressive. Not only did he pull together a jaunty, dance-able melody to headline his 1934 Broadway show of the same name, Cole Porter also packed the lyrics with inside jokes and mischievous asides…
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
Yep, things are a little different today. It takes a lot more than that to shock us nowadays, although I, for one, rather wish people would stop trying. After you’ve been shocked too often for too long, shock value loses its lustre and people become relatively immune to something else trying to shock its way into their attention.
A better long-term strategy is to impress in other ways, such as the clever lyrics Cole Porter deploys in “Anything Goes”. Although the characters he refers to are no longer with us, Cole Porter’s lightness of touch means we can still admire the deftness with which he takes us through his stories about some key players in the high society of his day, even if we have to look up the specific references.
Change the names and exactly the same song could be sung today. Cole Porter’s talent for writing lyrics and telling stories has made “Anything Goes” last much longer than any song that merely provides shock value.
Just take a look at this bold lyrical structure…
If driving fast cars you like
If low bars you like
If old hymns you like
If bare limbs you like
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like
Why, nobody will oppose
I adore this because at the start of the verse you think Cole Porter is going to launch into a story, but instead he piques our interest and builds tension by half-telling a series of stories but never getting to the end of any of them.
The human brain is programmed to expect a sentence which starts with the word “If…” to be followed by “then…”. First the possibility, then the consequences. Cole Porter never takes us to the “then…”, choosing to leave our minds befuddled by a rapid-fire sequence of possibilities which seem to have no consequences attaching to them at all.
Not only is this lyrically bold, I’m sure theatre-goers on Broadway in the mid-1930s were reaching for the smelling salts in their droves when they switched on to “Anything Goes” free-spirited outlook on life.
But outside the world of Broadway theatres, not everything was going well with the world in the mid-1930s…
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today
And black’s white today
And day’s night today
And that gent today
You gave a cent today
Once owned several chateaux
In the Great Depression, fortunes were lost on the back of unwise investments and the downturn in the wider economy.
We’d like to think the world have moved on in the last 90 years, but when your luck’s against you, the world is still an unforgiving place. Metaphorically, at least, you can live in a chateau one moment, and be on the streets the next. One little slip or stumble can make all the difference. It’s so easy to go from hero to zero.
And in many ways, that’s what makes “Anything Goes” timeless…
It reminds us never to make the mistake of thinking we’re invincible, because even the best of us can get things catastrophically wrong sometimes…it gives us a gentle nudge to say that no matter how exalted our position in society might be, we will do things which will cause people to make fun of us, whether they do it to our faces or not…and “Anything Goes” encourages us to be a free spirit, whilst cautioning us not to take things too far.
All those elements…along with the brilliance of the music and the cleverness of the lyrics…makes “Anything Goes” one of the 20th Century’s finest songs.
And, let’s face it, you could replace the word “radio” with “Cable TV news” or “Social Media” and people would still understand the message of this song from nearly 90 years ago today…that’s what makes “Anything Goes” such a great, timeless song…
Just think of those shocks you’ve got
And those knocks you’ve got
And those blues you’ve got
From those news you’ve got
And those pains you’ve got
(If any brains you’ve got)
From those little radios
Originally written for the stage, many performances of “Anything Goes” don’t showcase the beauty of the song especially well. Although I love seeing musicals in the theatre, I’d be the first to admit that a theatre performance doesn’t always translate well to the small screen…you’ve got to be there, really.
That said, there is one video clip of historical interest that’s well worth watching and that’s one of Ethel Merman singing “Anything Goes” in her typically full-on style. There’s never been another singer like Ethel Merman…and it’s probably fair to say her distinctive approach wasn’t for everyone…but she starred in five Cole Porter musicals on Broadway and clearly had some instinctive connection with the great songs Cole Porter wrote.
It’s perhaps ironic that nowadays Ethel Merman is largely known for her much-parodied signature song “There’s No Business Like Show Business”as that was written by Irving Berlin, rather than Cole Porter.
But if you’re familiar with Ethel Merman’s performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, you’ll find something pretty similar in this video where she takes on…literally and figuratively…Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”… https://youtu.be/2jV_puhanl8
Away from the stage, Tony Bennett’s version of “Anything Goes”, recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, became popular after appearing on his “Strike Up The Band” album in 1959.
Many other great singers have recorded “Anything Goes” over the years, not least of which Frank Sinatra and the peerless Ella Fitzgerald. But, wonderful singers though they both are, there’s something about Tony Bennett’s treatment of “Anything Goes”, although I can’t quite put my finger on what, that just nudges his version to the top of the pile for me.
Given his early success with the song, it was perhaps inevitable that Tony Bennett would record it again on one of his recent duets albums and I’m delighted that he chose “Anything Goes” for his “Cheek To Cheek” album in the company of Lady Gaga.
I’ve loved every one of the Great American Songbook classics Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga have tackled together. Their voices mesh really well and the evident affection and respect Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga have for one another is very touching.
Their complementary skills are perfect for a fairly light-hearted song like “Anything Goes”, where Lady Gaga brings a sprinkle of lightness and sparkle, encapsulating something of the spirit with which Cole Porter wrote the song.
If Cole Porter could hear Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s version of “Anything Goes”, I know he would feel his song had been treated with the immense respect it deserves. I hope you feel the same way…
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3Cq4BUlxDg4ulj7XnN2COP
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