Noel Coward, whilst sipping on a dry Martini probably, said that cheap music was potent like cheap perfume. He’d probably never heard the beginning to Spanish Eyes by Al Martino.
As it’s reverb-soaked leaden chords slump along for two bars, drummer puffing on a fag, Brooklyn’s Singing Bricklayer lays down his trowel, puts his chin into his chest and takes a bullet for pub singers everywhere.
Baalooooooooooooo. Spaaaanish Eyyyyyyyyyyyyyes.
Apparently, so my dad said, Al Martino was in the same year at the same Philadelphia High School as both Frankie Valli and Mario Lanza. Music lessons must have been interesting, though at least they had the full range: Frankie squealing away while Mario’s corrugated roof of a tenor chased him up the scales, and Al, probably dreaming of a new hod, boomed along at the bottom end while their teacher confiscated flick-knives.
By the time this song was a top 10 hit in 1973, Mario Lanza, Dad’s favourite, was long dead, though Frankie Valli was still lecturing young women on the correct emotional response to trauma. Incredibly, given that people my age now sell the 70’s as some wonderland of pop music excellence, it outsold David Bowie’s Life on Mars and nestled drowsily in a top 10 full of the Goons, The Carpenters, Peters and Lee, Barry Blue and Suzi Quatro, though none of these hit number 1.
The song itself, despite only having four lines, plods wearily on for almost three minutes, giving murderous ammunition for club crooners with its Pinteresque pauses, and plenty of time to draw breath or pull on a pint of Tetley Bitter. Every Saturday night in Crigglestone cricket club, Blind Crump the organist was ushered to his stool to accompany various jowly balladeers in their attempts to get the week off their chest. They’d probably have been better off with Sudafed, but no-one seemed to mind, particularly as you could set your watch by them.
Roger Whitaker’s The Last farewell sung by the second team wicket-keeper? Quarter past nine. Derek the scorer singing New York New York? Beat the rush for last orders.
Even though he was hounded out of the US by the mafia for ten years when he refused to pay 75 grand to “safeguard their investment,” Big Al’s exile meant he was a much bigger deal over here than in the USA’s Italian diaspora and meant that you couldn’t go in a working men’s club in the 70’s without hearing a scrubbed up collier belting out the last line in an emphysema-defying shout-at-the-devil howl.
PLEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAASE-AH. SAY SI SIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII
SAY YOU AND YOUR-AH SPAANISH EYES WON’T WAIT (gulp) foooorah MEEEEEEEE
Mind you, on disc, you’re still only halfway through and already the producer’s run out of ideas. Second verse? There isn’t one. Bridge? Al might be able to build one but not in this song. Guitar or trumpet solo? Not with four burly blokes in expensive suits examining their nails in the control room. So, nervously checking the fire cover on his insurance policy, the producer plumbs for the tried-and-tested whole tone modulation, up one note and let’s do that again, guys.
The drummer hits a cymbal and pulls on his fag while keeping the hi-hat going with his other hand and Big Al wearily leans in to the mike again, this time a bit higher.
A minute later, repeat-last-line-three times and finish, accept the kind offer of your “management’ for linguine at Salvo’s, check under the car for bombs and off you go.
Of course, once he’d got the royalties from appearing in The Godfather, he could pay off the heavies and sail into the sunset. Well, he’s still alive, at least, faring better than many of his contemporaries, lest we forget who topped the chart that week.
Gary Glitter. Asking us if we wanted to join his gang. Where’s the Mafia when you need ‘em, eh?