June 13, 2007

Floyd Cramer – Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees

Filed under: instrumental,piano,pop — norm. @ 6:20 pm

Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees - FrontFor those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Floyd Cramer, firstly, don’t be disappointed; secondly, as an introduction to Mr. Cramer’s oeuvre, I submit for you this album: Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees. It seems representative of the Floyd Cramer solo recording philosophy: take songs that someone else already made popular, and play them on the piano. Floyd has a significant history; significant enough that he is actually a member of both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls of Fame. He was one of the most respected session pianists around, playing on records with people as famous as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and even Elvis. He is credited (along with one of the producers of this album, the legendary country guitarist Chet Atkins) with helping to create the “Nashville sound”. But when it came to his solo work, he pretty much stuck to pop covers. In addition to one-off albums like this one, he annually released an album of covers of the top pop hits. It makes sense; why write new material and see if it will catch the public’s interest? Other people have already done the work of writing music determining what songs people like; all you have to do is record yourself playing them on the piano, and you’ve got a seller, right?

The stand-out tracks on this record are pretty much what you would expect, because they were the stand-out songs for the Monkees: “I’m a Believer”, “(Theme from) The Monkees”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”. They stand out because they are the same pop ditties that everyone remembers; in fact, the recordings emulate the Monkees’ arrangements so closely it often sounds as if the lead vocal track has just been removed and replaced with Cramer’s piano. This doesn’t apply to the backup vocals, however—they still come in, somewhat confusingly, at the usual places; not on piano, but regular (if somewhat shakily tuned) human voices ooh-ing and aah-ing. Sometimes the backup vocal track is actually louder than the lead on piano, adding to the out-of-place vibe of people singing backup to a piano. And for some reason, the one significant change in the arrangement is the addition of a sometimes mariachi-esque horn section.

Clip: “I’m a Believer”

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Another oddity is the fact that Floyd’s arrangement of the lead seems to only use treble notes; this might make sense, given the fact that he’s effectively trying to emulate a pop singer, but it gives the impression of a pianist—the featured artist and only named player on the album—playing with only his right hand. He adds in two- and three-note harmonies with that one hand, so it doesn’t have the one-finger, Schroeder-playing-jingle-bells effect, but still, is this all we get from the guy whose name is on the cover? Does he have a beer in his left hand? Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees - Back Then again, from the picture on the back cover, one is left wondering if he only has one arm to play with; it could be that sharp hound’s-tooth jacket is hiding a stump. Perhaps he is the Rick Allen of pianists.

There aren’t many surprises here, and really, there aren’t supposed to be. This isn’t Floyd Cramer Reinvents The Monkees, or even Floyd Cramer Interprets The Monkees, this is Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees and that’s exactly what he does. He plays these songs inoffensively and just like you expect, which is the goal; this is 1967, the height of the Monkees’ popularity. Floyd’s not trying to do anything except make a few bucks by cashing in on the fad. Chet Atkins himself said the purpose of the “Nashville sound” is to sell records and make money. If the people want the Monkees, then by God, that’s what Chet and Floyd are gonna give ‘em. It’s appropriate, really; the Monkees were created to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles, so why shouldn’t someone cash in on them?

Sure, there are just enough changes to make you stop and think: “Wait, was that in the original Monkees’ recording?” But they’re so subtle in most cases that you find yourself assuming they must have been, or at least might as well have been. A few things made me sit up and take notice: for example, why is “(Theme from) The Monkees” the first song… on side two? Wouldn’t it have made a much better opener than the throwaway “I Wanna Be Free”? And I imagine the rhythm section in “Papa Gene’s Blues” was intended to sound like I was riding a horse down the trail, but instead it sounds like I’m riding Yoshi through Super Mario World.

Clip: “Papa Gene’s Blues”

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The bottom line of this album is that if you like the Monkees, you’ll probably enjoy listening to Floyd Cramer play them. And that’s clearly what Floyd had in mind. Still, it raises the question, why, if you are a Monkees fan, would you buy this record, if you could just buy (or presumably already did buy) the real Monkees records? The only explanation I can think of is that you are old. Perhaps you own a dentist’s office. You have a smart haircut and cans of shoe polish in both colors: black and brown. When it comes right down to it, the fact is that Floyd Cramer is essentially an elevator music performer. The songs are nice background music, with an upbeat, poppy flavor, and you can hum along because you know them already, but without the pesky annoyance of having to remember the words. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

The cover of this record shows the struggle between this album’s yin and yang. Is it a Floyd Cramer record? Is it a Monkees record? It’s both! Or maybe neither. Both Floyd’s name and the Monkees’ are about the same size; we want to get the attention of both fan bases (I wonder whose is bigger-wait, no I don’t). Floyd has set ego aside and chosen not to put his smiling mug on the front; he’s saved that for the back. Of course, we can’t put a picture of the actual Monkees, since they had nothing whatsoever to do with this record. The good folks at RCA have come up with the next best thing as a solution; four toy apes–thoroughness demands that I point out that not only are they not Monkees, they are not even technically monkeys; note the lack of tails–cavorting whimsically around a toy piano wearing silly hats. Just like those TV Monkees, they are monkey-ing around; one is on a skateboard, one is wearing roller skates, and one is apparently drunk under the piano (perhaps from tequila–notice the sombrero). Then, of course, there is the one playing the piano (notice only the right hand is touching the keyboard) while sitting on what appears to be an overturned and filthy shot glass (undoubtedly used by the drunk one).

The back of the record cover is where Floyd gets in his face time. There he sits, by his “popular piano”, possibly one-armed, with his collar casually open and his pen in his shirt pocket–handy for endorsing all the checks he will receive for this album. His smile seems to say, “I’d like to take on some rollicking good sounds.” Or, perhaps, “I’d like to be paid to take on some rollicking good sounds.”

The dust sleeve for this album is one of those great ones from back when record companies felt that they were free advertising space. Both sides have the requisite shilling of other artists on the label; sometimes these got pretty generic, and you’d have all kinds of disjointed records being advertised side by side. Here, RCA Victor has had the good sense to try and tailor their offerings to the audience, and from that, it’s clear they are shooting for the Floyd Cramer audience, not the Monkees fans. Not too many Perry Como fans in the Monkees demographic, I think.

Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees - Sleeve Side 2

In addition to advertising other albums, this was also a time when record companies were trying to market the concept of records themselves as a quality format, which I always love reading. Keep in mind that at this point in time, technology was beginning to change; Stereo was in but mono still had a foothold, and records were facing competition from reel-to-reel; 8-track and cassette tapes had just come on the market. A well-manufactured and cared for record still had better sound than any of the tape formats, but tapes had convenience, on their side. As such we get the great ad copy:

“What appears to the untrained eye as a simple plastic disc is actually an object of great complexity. Stereo record grooves, for example, must be mechanically reproduced with two separate ‘information’ tracks compressed within one thousandth of an inch.”

Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees - Sleeve Side 1

And yet on the other side of the sleeve, they have an advertisement for their new “8-Track Stereo Cartridge Tapes”. The convenience this time is played up instead of the quality; mobility is the focus. Even their logo incorporates silhouettes of a car, plane and boat (because didn’t everyone have an 8-track player in their plane and boat?) as well as a house. “…Adopted by All Major U.S. Auto Companies” it points out. And of course there’s that last bullet point: “Guaranteed for one year”. Wow, a whole year before it breaks? How durable!

And on both sides, for the low, low, price of twenty-five cents each, you can order catalogs of the entire RCA Victor offerings of 8-track and record albums. Can you imagine this today? If you could buy a catalog of every single in-print CD, from the RCA label (or better yet, all of Sony BMG which now owns RCA), as advertised in the booklet of your Christina Augilera CD? I would love to have one of those catalogs from back in ’67.

I’ll admit that the dust sleeve may be my favorite part of this record. And although I have never really been a Monkees fan, these are still catchy pop songs that stick in your head, and while Floyd Cramer playing them doesn’t make me want to listen any more, it also doesn’t make me want to listen any less. It’s background music, but it’s still music, and so it’s a good record for when you don’t want to bring anybody down.



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