Perfect Sound Forever

MACARTHUR PARK


A classic from the Kitsch List
by Paul Falconer


In flipping through my playlist the other day I revisited my 'So Crap They're Good' file - a kitsch list of those songs that could by any reasonable assessment be judged as pretty awful yet still having some measure of merit, whether it be a catchy riff, a nostalgic reminder of past times, unintentionally hilarious lyrics or simply an outrageous example of "fuck the consequences let's record this shite!" 'So Crap They're Good' covers all genres - it's not the style, it's the delivery. They have to be catchy and like '60's Japanese horror movies or a balding man's comb-over, they have to raise a condescending yet amused smile.

Near the top of my Shit Parade and in the face of some stiff competition from the likes of Plastique Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi" and "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" from Peter Sarstedt is "MacArthur Park." Made (in)famous by Richard Harris, its lovable dreadfulness comes from mawkish, obtuse lyrics delivered over a mournful malady (sorry, melody) but with an inspired change to an upbeat tempo five minutes into the song that vividly revives memories of the psychedelia of the time. And, melting clocks or melting cakes, there's also a touch of Salvador Dali surrealism.

Jimmy Webb, the song's creator, is no slouch when it comes to writing, honours and awards with hits such as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Galveston," "Where's the Playground Susie" and "Wichita Lineman," but it's "MacArthur Park" that generates the most controversy.

It is fair criticism to accuse "MacArthur Park" of gimmickry for having it rendered by a famous thespian with a demonstrably pedestrian singing technique. There are other actors who've taken to the mic with suspicious motivations- William Shatner with his concurrent 1968 release of the truly dreadful but surely tongue-in-cheek "Mr. Tambourine Man" and David Soul's egregious, self-indulgent "Don't Give Up On Us" as examples. But apparently, there was no artifice in Harris's involvement - he and Jimmy Webb got to know each other over beer and piano playing backstage at a Los Angeles anti-war pageant, with Harris being the motivator of the recording (Background details from Songfacts.com).

I love this song, I revel in its dreadfulness. It's a product of its time, which is one reason I like it. Those who harbour no fond memories of the '60's possibly won't be as forgiving, but my affection for its affectation is not just misplaced nostalgia. "MacArthur Park"'s dourness is paradoxically and likely unintentionally uplifting in places. A dirge with some dynamism thrown in, it builds to an exhilarating closing crescendo that off-sets the self-pity of the allegorical lyrics. You leave the Park with a bit of a smile on your dial. However, I will caution against its back-to-back playing with such tunes as Gilbert O-Sullivan's "Alone Again" (another 'So Crap It's Good' number) as the accumulation of angst could then be too much for the over-wrought. Instead try "Up, Up And Away," another Jimmy Webb creation but one that serves well as an antidote.

Better still, give the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder version of "MacArthur Park" a twirl. Not only can Ms. Summer belt out a song, this disco treatment shows perhaps how women would cope better with the disappointment of being discarded by a beau - get up and dance, don't moan into a beer.

In the hands of Donna Summer "MacArthur Park" became Jimmy Webb's only number 1 hit and earned Summer her first nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

What Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer did with "MacArthur Park" was to give disco some much-needed cred by showing its potential versatility. If disco can rehabilitate a turgid lament into a boppy, up-tempo dance hit, then maybe I've dissed disco too readily as no more than trite, loud muzak for look-at-me fashion tragics. But that's a whole other topic.

In 2011 Rolling Stone rated Richard Harris' rendition at number 3 on a readers' poll of the worst songs of the sixties, beaten for the top spot only by "Yummy Yummy Yummy" and the mawkish "Honey" from Bobby Goldsboro. The primary target for derision are the lyrics "Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don't think that I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again oh noooo, oooh noooo!" Apparently Jimmy Webb got a tad defensive about that citing "A Whiter Shade of Pale," "American Pie" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" (bestclassicbands.com) as being also lyrically vague. Well, not so much, Jimmy. "American Pie" has coherent if ambiguous lyrics, but who has green icing on a wedding cake? Matched with a yellow dress? And you didn't write the recipe down?

Typically no one takes the mickey better than Weird Al, who in this case, turned out "Jurassic Park," and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was surely being unkind with their cover but there's no spite in my sledging. I can bag it because I love it - whether by Richard Harris or by Donna Summer, it's one of my favourite horrors. Rolling Stone may have called it "interminable... a relic of some other time... that one hopes will soon be forgotten" but we should all celebrate 'So Crap They're Good' music without embarrassment. It's all good fun, it's like jumping into a puddle. You know you want to.



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