Randy Newman: top 10 tracks by the greatest living songwriter

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Randy Newman

As Randy Newman releases the theme song for Toy Story 4, Getintothis’ Rick Leach looks back on a songwriter of unparalleled genius. 

Genius is a much over-used word when referring to musicians.

As is unique, innovative, challenging and all the rest of the epithets that get tossed around like cheap confetti. By and large they don’t count for a thing. Their very ubiquity has rendered them meaningless.

I should hold both my hands up at this point and admit I’m as guilty of doing it as much as anyone else, not only as a writer for Getintothis but as a music fan as well. It’s all too easy.

I’m fairly positive at some point, either on these pages or elsewhere, I’ve given Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Mark E. Smith all or some of those honorary titles. Miles Davis, Prince and Mahler will have had a look in as well. All well-deserved as far as I’m concerned although I concede not everyone would agree. All criticism is pretty much subjective anyway.

Yet there’s one omission from that star-studded list. One for whom I would not make any concessions. One who undoubtedly and definitively deserves to be there and to have every possible accolade placed upon them. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Randy Newman.

Randy Newman is someone who has resolutely ploughed his own creative furrow for over the past 50 years. With the imminent release of Disney’s Toy Story 4 and Newman’s songs underpinning the soundtrack for that sure-fire blockbuster, he shows no sign of slowing down or running out of ideas.

In fact with over double the amount of soundtrack albums to his name to date (23)  compared to studio albums (11), maybe he should primarily be considered as a film composer, especially when you take into account he’s only released two studio albums since the turn of the millennium, 2008’s Harps and Angels and 2017’s Dark Matter. As a comparison, in that same time span he’s been knocking off soundtrack albums for a laugh; a dozen if you include Toy Story 4.

And while many only really will know Newman for his soundtrack work- Toy Story’s You’ve Got a Friend In Me possibly being the prime example – we’ve decided to stick to his studio albums for our Top 10.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me certainly deserves to be in anyone’s Top 10 songs, I grant you that; and if anyone tries to argue the point that it’s a sugar-coated, saccharine-filled few minutes of rose-tinted sentimentality, tell them they’re wrong. They’ve got a rock for a heart and really, all they need is (ironically) a friend.

Furthermore, you can point them to this Top 10 to demonstrate that Randy Newman is more than that. Much, much more.

For on his studio albums Newman demonstrates a piercing wit and satirical edge like no other songwriter over the past half-century. He has no equal. You can forget Dylan, Neil Young and (God forbid, I’ll strike myself down for this, Mark E Smith), Newman leaves then all in his wake.

He can still turn out the tenderest and most heart-rending songs – some of which make this list – but what’s remarkable about his output is that the satire, gallows humour and political nature of what he has done runs like a constant ironic thread right through from his early days until the present. There’s no signs of any of that common late middle-aged conservatism creeping in with Newman. Dark Matter is as hard-hitting as any of his earlier works. No punches are pulled.

What is quite remarkable about Newman is that there’s no-one really to compare him with at any time in his recording career since 1968’s self-titled debut. He truly is a man out of time and maybe that’s really how we should measure the mark of a music genius.

For those names I mentioned before, well despite how much we admire them, you can see where some of their influences stem. Beefheart (Howling Wolf), Dylan (Woody Guthrie), Prince (James Brown).

Maybe Newman is a product of a different time and place. A different world. A different America.

Maybe his influences are simply more wide-ranging to be able to pin him down to one or two earlier artists.

Maybe it’s something to do with his upbringing; born in LA, growing up in New Orleans with a constant infusion of jazz and blues, three uncles who were noted Hollywood film composers, being brought up with a non-observant Jewish background.

Maybe it’s something to do with that. We can only speculate. Speculate and indeed, marvel.

Because we should be truly grateful for these songs which show the world in a different light. Songs that speak unvarnished truth to power. Songs that do not have their rough edges smoothed off in the name of artistic license. Songs that make you thing about things in a way no-one else can. Songs that make you smile and give you hope.

Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere: a career landmark of ragged glory

These are our Top 10 Randy Newman songs. A fairly arbitrary list but one we hope you enjoy.

10.Sail Away from Sail Away (1972)

Even with a limited palette of eleven albums to choose from over a half-century you’d think it would be an easy task.

Far from it.

In fact the hardest part is picking just 10 songs. Any ten Randy Newman songs from those albums could have made the list, but we’ve started with the title track from his 1972 album Sail Away.

Randy Newman’s Sail Away

In fact, this is such a great album we’ve selected four tracks from it. This is where the irony cuts deep. Just listen to the words of the Slavemaster recruiting Africans:

In America, you get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet
You just sing about Jesus, drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American …

Combine that with an arrangement that Van Dyke Parks would kill for (Newman’s arranging skills are something that can easily be overlooked) and you start a list with a perfect mix of poignancy and incisive commentary.

9 .Laugh and Be Happy from Hearts and Angels (2008)

Moving on somewhat we have Laugh and Be Happy off Hearts and Angels. A song which only lasts a little over a couple minutes but one which crams so much in. This is a tune which shows Newman’s New Orleans background to the fore. Flourishes of pre-war jazz smatter this ostensibly jolly tune is tempered by a lyrical undercurrent (still sadly there and even more pronounced in 2019) about US immigration.

Laugh and Be Happy? As Randy sings: Laugh and be happy/ Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

8.Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear from Sail Away (1972)

A big hit in the UK for Alan Price, Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear pointed a way to the simple yet beautiful songs that Randy Newman would write for film soundtracks.

It’s a tune that’ll stick in your head, make you smile and have you whistling along to it all day. The last ten seconds, when Newman rounds it up with a sped-up flourish on the piano are particularly brilliant.

Just like You’ve Got A Friend in Me, if you don’t like Simon Smith then all hope is gone for you.

7.Political Science from Sail Away (1972)

In Political Science, Randy Newman writes from the perspective of a right-wing American demagogue who wants to pull up the drawbridge and bomb the rest of the world into oblivion. (Except Australia because ‘don’t want to hurt no kangaroos…and they’ve got surfin’ too’)

I’d like to think that Newman could play this at the White House and the penny would drop for Trump. However, even though the song is 45 years-old it still is as dangerously relevant as ever. Donald would probably take it literally.

6.God’s Song (That Why I Love Mankind) from Sail Away (1972)

Now you can hear as much death metal, anarcho-punk or whatever you prefer (Sleaford Mods, anyone?) but you won’t hear anything as coruscating as God’s Song.

A dark, dark song with a relentless funeral march heart, Randy Newman sees a God who at best, laughs at mankind and most of the time, considers humanity as worthless and one that means ‘less to him than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest yucca tree.’

He’s written more than a few songs about the sheer ridiculous nature of religion, but on God’s Song he completely nails it, once and for all.

5.Short People from Little Criminals (1977)

Possibly one of the best-known of Newman’s songs from his studio albums and one that was incredibly, banned because of the subject matter.

Randy Newman’s Little Criminals

Short People is one of those songs which Randy Newman is so adept at. Within a few minutes he can show contrasting viewpoints; that of a narrator with quite frankly, ridiculously prejudiced views and then turn it all on its head in a heartbeat.

‘Short People are just the same as you and I’. Exactly Randy. Exactly.

4.Jolly Coppers on Parade from Little Criminals (1977)

A gentle tune with the most un-gentle subject matter.

Newman, interviewed by NME in 1977 said: ‘Jolly Coppers on Parade isn’t an absolutely anti-police song. Maybe it’s even a fascist song. I didn’t notice at the time.’  We reckon that Randy was playing fast and loose with the interviewer and laying the irony on pretty damn thick.

Still, in 1977 at the height of punk and in the NME of all places, Randy Newman showed up the likes of The Clash and Sex Pistols with their warmed-up and stale pub-rock as the mere dilettantes that we really (at heart) knew they were.

3 Hearts and Angels from Hearts and Angels (2008)

Another title track but what a great song and what a great tale. This is one where Newman’s righteous and incredulous atheism shines brightly through.

Dark humour is the watchword for this ditty along with a shuffling New Orleans jazz riff. It’s all about having a heart attack (see, Newman tackles subjects few others do), heading up to the pearly gates and hearing a bluesy tune with heavenly angels, a gospely choir, smooth Hammond organ in the background.

Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels

He’s given a second chance though and sent back down to earth with clear instructions of how to live a better life and if he doesn’t take those on board then he’ll be straight back but the next time:

There won’t be no harps and angels comin’ for ya
There’ll be trombones, fiddles, drums, pitchforks and tambourines.

2.Baltimore from Little Criminals (1977)

Little Criminals is one of my favourite Newman albums.

If I had to recommend just one- or one to start with- then go for this. Better still to be honest, try to get hold of the career- spanning 4 CD box Guilty (the 4th CD on that set is comprised of soundtrack songs so you get the best of both worlds.) But Little Criminals is a great place to start.

And as for heart-tugging songs, you’re not going to get any better than Baltimore. Covered by the likes of Nina Simone, Nils Lofgren and Billy McKenzie among many others, it’s a masterpiece.

Especially if you’re a fan of The Wire. Why David Simon didn’t include it in his HBO TV series is beyond me.

Beat up little seagull on a marble stair, trying to find the ocean, looking everywhere.
Hard times in the city…ain’t nowhere to run to…Baltimore, man it’s hard just to live.

It would have fitted so well.

(By the way, if you want to hear the best cover of this go for the one by the Jamaican vocal group, The Tamlins. It’s stupendous.)

1.Rednecks from Good Old Boys (1974)

Now Short People may have turned prejudice on the head of a pin a few years later than Rednecks, but more than anything, Rednecks twists a narrative around so rapidly that it leaves you breathless.

Yes, we clearly know that ‘Rednecks don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground’ as Newman puts it so precisely but he makes us question whether we’re laughing at the rednecks who ‘drink too much and too dumb to make it in a Northern town’ or with the Jewish liberal on a New York TV show.

It’s uncomfortable listening in many ways. It’s disquieting and leaves a long-lasting impression. A song to make you question yourself and whether we really consider things in enough depth.

Above all, this is the song that demonstrates that Randy Newman was, and still is, much more than a simple piano-player or 1970’s singer-songwriter. Rednecks strips away any ambiguity and does something that very few songs can do. Bob Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize for literature but he never wrote a lyric as hard-hitting and as good as Rednecks.

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