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Monday, October 24, 2011

Bill Haley: Twistin' Knights At The Round Table


1) Lullaby Of Birdland Twist; 2) Twist Marie; 3) One-Two-Three Twist; 4) Down By The Riverside Twist; 5) Queen Of The Twisters; 6) Caravan Twist; 7) I Want A Little Girl; 8) Whistlin' And Walkin' Twist; 9) Florida Twist; 10) Eight More Miles To Louisville.

From around 1961 — upon Haley's departure from Warners — the Comets' discography becomes a nightmare. Although Bill honestly and faithfully recorded material throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the absolute majority of these albums have forever been out of print, and for understan­dable reasons: this absolute majority consists of innumerable re-recordings of older classics, oc­ca­sionally varied by attempts to place the Haley stamp on contemporary hits, of interest only because of the novelty value (who knew Haley actually covered CCR's 'Who'll Stop The Rain'? Certainly not me, until I started digging a bit. Was I intrigued? Probably. Did it make me happy? Not even unexpectedly so.).

Since I have no plans — and no easy opportunities, either — to become an obsessed vinyl collec­tor, I have little choice but to save myself the troubles of untangling the intricacies of Bill's late period discography, and merely run through a couple of the more easily available titles. First and foremost, it may be of use to know that, in the early Sixties, after all the setbacks, Bill and his band finally found themselves a profitable niche — reimagining themselves as «Kings of the Twist» and, since in the States that crown could not be contested from Chubby Checker, reloca­ting to Mexico, where Bill could freely and fluently sing in Spanish, well enough to earn the res­pect of all the local caballeros, and, who knows, maybe even a few señoritas (although one would be hard pressed to find someone less close to the stereotype of a Latin lover than Mr. Haley).

A bunch of twist-related albums were released on the Mexican Dimsa label in the process, none of them easily available, and most of them, I'm pretty sure, sounding like carbon copies of each other. However, the Comets' skill at twist-a-gaining can be conveniently appreciated through a rare enough twist session recorded in the States — a live album, recorded during a couple of nights in March 1962 at some NYC joint called «Round Table» (hence the oh-so-funny name). Among other places, all of these tracks have resurfaced on the 5-CD The Warner Brothers And More boxset — «more» apparently meaning «extra recordings made in some respectable places in the early 1960s, rather than in some shitty Mexican dump».

Anyway, if you care for twist at all — and there is no reason not to care about twist, unless, as it used to be in Soviet times, you were force-fed it instead of rock'n'roll, just as it happened with disco ten years later — The Comets actually managed to make a strong pro-twist argument here. This is still the «classic» version of the band: only Franny Beecher had left in the middle of their twistin' career, but for this particular live session he actually rejoined his old pals, so you do get to hear his take on the twist thing. As for Billy Williamson, Rudy Pompilli, and, of course, Bill himself — they honestly seem to enjoy what they're doing.

The band's biggest and catchiest hit in that vein ('Florida Twist') is played here, and it is all but im­possible to not get involved even if you detest the campy atmosphere. But every now and then they remember to throw in a snappy bite out of the past: as innocent as the title of 'Silbando Y Caminando' ('Whistling And Walking') is, the song is graced by a great pop-rock melody, with a thicker guitar tone, and also more improvisatory and chaotic playing from Beecher than was ever heard in the 1950s. The band also twistifies 'Caravan', which does not lose much from the rear­rangement, and, in fact, manages to sound heavier and gruffer than the original.

In short, the only two not-too-fun numbers on here are the slow ones: '1-2-3 Twist' is a theo­retically amusing, but not too exciting attempt at marrying twist with slow waltz, and the lounge balladry intermission with 'I Want A Little Girl' fails because it's a vocal-oriented number, the likes of which Haley could never pull off next to his idol Big Joe Turner. Everything else, twist or not, is happy fun rock-a-twist that actually deserves to be heard more these days, instead of being confined to Tarantino-style movie soundtracks. Come to think of it, the tastes of Mexican audi­ences weren't that bad in 1962. Minor thumbs up.

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