Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Phaedra Is My Name

The first time I ever heard the astonishing Lee Hazelwood penned song SOME VELVET MORNING was in my early teens. My love for Frank Sinatra had led me to his daughter's recordings from the Sixties and I found a scratced up copy of MOVIN WITH NANCY for under a Dollar at a local antique store. The album, a soundtrack to her 1967 Television special, was a real mind-blower and contained a number of her best songs. SOME VELVET MORNING stood out though with it's weird sexual imagery ("when I'm straight I'm gonna open up your gate"), hypnotic sound and finally very powerful overly ambiguous nature. It was probably quiet a lot for my 12 or 13 year old mind to handle but the song quickly became a favorite and I spent hours spinning that record and specifically that strange and mesmerizing track.

Years later I was well into my twenties and I heard Lydia Lunch's BALLAD OF LUCY JORDAN's album and was struck by a section that was lifted directly from Michel LeGrand's soundtrack to THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. After being called an idiot from a wanna be punk when I suggested that perhaps Lunch had loved LeGrand's album as a little girl, I discovered a rare ep she had recorded with Birthday Party founder Rowland S. Howard. I was surprised to see the A side was none other than that song that haunted me so much as a youth, namely SOME VELVET MORNING, and it became apparent that I hadn't been an idiot in my suggestion that there was a lot more to Lydia Lunch than her screaming Teenage Jesus persona.
Many more versions of the song have popped up, from vintage stabs by Vanilla Fudge to an early nineties recording by Creations' Slowdive but to me the two most essential are the original by Nancy and Lee, and the Lunch and Howard collaboration from the early eighties. .
The meanings of the song have always been debated and with Lee now gone, it seems doubtful that there will ever be any clear cut answers. It seems to me that the songs major preoccupation is sex, but it's sex on a more spiritual level with the mythic Phaedra sounding like she is speaking very much from beyond. Whether or not Hazelwood's Phaedra is indeed the mythic Greek character who committed suicide over Hippolytus is debatable, but what isn't up for debate is the brilliance of the song and how phenomenally strange it still sounds all these years later.
One thing that very much separates the song from most duets is that it doesn't feel like a sung dialogue and it is this separation between the man and woman that really marks the original recording as something special. Produced to sound like two very distinct songs colliding with each other until they both finally fall together at the end in one of the great psychedelic mind melts ever, the original SOME VELVET MORNING is sonically still a very brave and stirring experience (with much credit going to co-producer and arranger Billy Strange as well as the talented session men involved in the recording of it.)
The single version, which was slightly longer that the MOVIN version, reached the top thirty in 1968 but was not among the biggest Nancy Sinatra hits of the Sixties. The overblown Vanilla Fudge version appeared just a year later and by the time Lydia Lunch took her stab at it at least a handful other versions had been recorded of it, including Lee Hazelood's live version (in a medley) on his great STOCKHOLM KID album.

Lydia's version is a much less polished affair but her arresting vocal combined with the crazed and genius Howard made it among the most memorable post punk singles of the early eighties. It was also a great tribute to a team that had influenced many people who hadn't gotten the credit they deserved and the extraordinary B-Side I FELL IN LOVE WITH A GHOST is also a fitting tribute.

A lovely Kate Moss would help out Primal Scream on their solid version and there is even a band called Some Velvet Morning now that is based in England.
SOME VELVET MORNING remains a real highlight of the Sixties to me and its power has obviously affected a lot of different artists. The great Lee Hazelwood would write better songs in his life but there is something in that original recording with Nancy that really stands out. It is a great moment and a real creative high in one of the great and most important partnerships in rock history.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I loved this blog on "Some Velvet Morning." I have always enjoyed this song. My favorite one by Lee and Nancy has always been "Summer Wine," but I still dig this one. I actually have never heard Lydia Lunch's version. I do think she's got an incredible voice. I really loved her music alot back in my goth days. The version by Primal Scream and Kate Moss is really good. I like that.

Ed - The Music Man said...

Lee was one of the most under-rated songwriters we had. He will be sorely missed, I agree.

Jeremy Richey said...

Tanks to you both for your comments...

Ed...I agree with ou, he was one of the greats and will be missed.

Keith...I tried to find an online clip of Lydia doing the track but no luck...it is well worth searching out. I like the Primal Scream version as well...Moss was a good choice...thanks again

Anonymous said...

Hi - Love your site. So happy I found it. I heard "Some Velvet Morning" on the radio as bumper music for a talk show, about 10 years ago, and I knew I must have heard it as a child (My parents sure had a funky '50's & '60's record collection - for how average and reserved they always seemed). I heard this song again on the radio not too long ago and thought I NEED to Google the lyrics... I wasn't sure who sung/wrote it, and lo' and behold, your site came up and I found the answer: Nancy Sinatra! Now I really think my parents must have had that Nancy & Lee album.

Wish I still had access to those LP's. Wonder whatever became of that record collection. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!!!

- Keri