2020-03-25 19:03:54 UTC
When Columbia Records, the oldest, most venerated and most snobbish of the major record labels decided to test the waters with rock ‘n’ roll in 1949 it was with a decidedly random assortment of characters including two vocal/instrumental combos that had shown no previous inclination towards this music, along with the colorfully named Mr. Google Eyes, a teenager who had never claimed to be anything BUT a rocker.
Strange then that it would be the older groups who’d have better success, both commercially and aesthetically, than the kid… at least during this first run of releases which ends with this side.
The Days Didn’t Feel Like Years
As stated in his past reviews we’re not quite sure how Mr. Google Eyes ended up at Columbia to begin with, or if he even had anything to do with the company personally. It’s far more likely that Coleman Records, for whom he’d recorded his debut, the hit Young Boy, back in the summer of 1949, had simply sold his subsequent masters to the major label when they came sniffing around looking for available artists to give them a foot in the door of rock and its vast potential.
This was not an uncommon occurrence for small independent record labels forever in need of cash to keep ahead of their creditors and when a company with the financial clout of Columbia was interested in your only real asset it probably wasn’t a difficult choice to make for the Coleman Brothers, especially since it doesn’t appear that they sold his contract outright, as so many biographies of the artist born Joseph August have claimed.
The reason for this is that he record these sides while still at Coleman Records – along with some others that Columbia presumably rejected at first when buying the masters – and when his first two releases on the major label failed to draw too much interest it’d hardly qualify as a surprise when the company would decline their option to issue more. Or it’s possible they had only made an agreement to release four sides, two singles, of their choice after which rights reverted back to Coleman.
That latter route would be the smartest financial bet for the Colemans, letting Columbia’s superior marketing and distribution try and break August’s name even wider than it already was upon which the Coleman’s would reap the benefits when his next releases came out on their own label.
But all of that is speculation since we don’t have the contracts to study, only some vague and misleading reminiscences of Mr. Google Eyes himself and the best guesses of a handful of historians who don’t always dig deeper than the first available explanation, no matter how unlikely it appears.
Whatever the case, the downcast Life Can Be A Hard Road To Travel marks the end of this leg of the journey for August and Columbia, though their paths will cross again down the road.
Just Not Satisfied
It’s hard NOT to peak ahead at future releases when assessing Columbia’s decision to release this song as their final effort to break Mr. Google Eyes into the big time as they left more appropriate songs on the table (assuming the likely deal we mentioned was in fact the case) and try and see what it was they were thinking by choosing this one.
On the surface Life Can Be A Hard Road To Travel has obvious advantages considering what they paired it with. Now stop us if you’ve heard this before but it’s almost always a smart move to couple an uptempo song with a ballad, or an instrumental with a vocal for that matter… anything to show two sides of an artist’s abilities in other words, and considering that Love Me had fallen more or less into the upbeat mode then naturally it’d make sense to choose a ballad to back it with.
But if Columbia did indeed have their pick of all of the cuts Mr. Google Eyes had made a few months earlier it’s hard to understand why they wouldn’t have tossed out that particular rule of thumb and gone with a song that had more musical merit than this one, especially when the company was so sensitive to their perceived status as purveyors of a classy product.
No, no… hold on, it’s not that this is a racy record or anything if that’s what you think we mean, for it isn’t the content that’s objectionable here at all, it’s the lax production values that sink this before it ever gets off the ground, making it one song that demanded another take or else the one song that deserved to be kept in the vaults altogether.
This is rather surprising considering we just praised August for his tighter vocals on the flip side which suggested he was smoothing out his ragged edges and reining in his tendency to rush headlong into a song without mapping it out more carefully first. But this record is just full of mistakes that leave any objective appraisal of the rest of its attributes a moot point.
God Gave Adam Eve… But Not A Dictionary
I suppose we should start out with the negatives just to get hem out of the way, sort of like eating the broccoli casserole first so the rest of the meal can leave a better taste in your mouth.
First things first then… one of the most unforgivable sins when it comes to songs is when somebody screws up the lyrics, or writes lyrics that sound as if they’re screwed up.
You can call it a writer’s pet peeve if you want but we’re not saying that every line in every song has to make perfect grammatical sense, plenty of great songs have used incorrect grammar or even mispronounced words without harming the quality of the song. But when a singer clearly doesn’t know the MEANING of the words they’re singing then it becomes a problem when those words are wrong for what they’re trying to convey.
Mr. Google Eyes makes two mistakes right off the bat here, the first we could overlook and chalk it up to just a slightly flubbed line as he seems to overlook the “apostrophe r e” at the end of the word “you’re”, pronouncing it “you” as in ”Life can be a hard road to travel if you just not satisfied”.
Sloppy maybe, but still understandable and it’s even possible the microphone just didn’t catch the end of the word clearly, so we’d be inclined to give him a break on that. But that becomes much harder to do when it’s acting as a warning for the NEXT line when he states:
“You wouldn’t feel so much conceited
If you had somebody by your side
Well life can be a hard road to travel
If you just not satisfied”
Now you’ll note that once again he doesn’t use “you’re” in the last line, which sort of confirms he doesn’t know it needs to be subjugated, but the bigger problem is the first line there which not only doesn’t make grammatical sense by adding a superfluous “much” to it, but even more egregious is the fact that “conceited” is not just a word that doesn’t fit in that sense, it also doesn’t MAKE any sense thematically.
He wouldn’t feel conceited???? You mean, he wouldn’t feel smug, big-headed and self-important if he had a loving partner? Are you trying to tell me that he’s full of himself because he’s single and miserable as the rest of the song lays out?
Therein lies the problem. The central theme is rendered unworkable by that one erroneous line and everything that follows can’t help but contradict it. Had it been slipped in somewhere in the middle of the song maybe it’d be easier to ignore but the first stanza of a song is what sets up the entire premise and if you misstate that premise then you’re lost.
If you want to use the word “conceit” properly observe MY conceit as a writer for expecting other writers to know the English language well enough to write a sentence that makes sense. Not: right a sentence that makes cents!
In This Mean Old World All Alone
Further hurting August’s cause in all of this is the fact that as a slow drawn out lament there’s less room for the weaker lyrics to hide. There’s no galvanizing rhythm to draw your attention away from the lyrics, no cacophony of vibrant sounds to drown out his singing, no rousing musical performance to make you forget there even are words to be found within the song.
Instead the music is designed to highlight the despondent mood and that only draws more attention to everything Mr. Google Eyes sings, much of what follows is also sort of nonsensical but at least not so bad as to vie with his earlier problems.
The problems from here on in though are the musicians, Billy Ford’s Musical V-8’s who sound as if they’re using a four cylinder motor with a clogged carburetor because they add little to the proceedings. The horns do most of the work on Life Can Be A Hard Road Travel but with under-powered instruments playing weary tones it just comes across as more lethargic than sad. Even the few moments when the trumpet leads a quick burst of energy it’s the same big-band showpiece transition that was an awkward fit on the far better top side. Here it’s just completely out of place reminding you of what a train wreck this whole affair is.
The guitar is the one saving grace here, getting a solo that while hardly great is at least more appropriate for the ambiance they’re trying for. Yet even that isn’t much of a consolation when the rest of the instruments are clashing melodically with August as soon as the solo ends before it all falls into utter chaos as he falls woefully out of step with the band and stumbles to the finish line.
If you don’t bother paying close attention to the details of a record and just hear this as background music maybe the sounds will appeal to you more, but since it’s our job to go over every record with a fine-toothed comb this is lucky not to be receiving the absolute lowest grade for its sloppiness alone.
The fact that Columbia Records, the dignified self-important… dare I say “conceited”… major label saw fit to release this epic mess as the final side of their initial deal with Mr. Google Eyes practically suggests they were engaging in sabotage in an effort to discredit rock ‘n’ roll altogether.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 2/10
Clean the doody out of your ears, Samp.