Saturday, 19 February 2011

My America

Greetings fellow bad music-ophiles, and welcome to the latest instalment of The World’s Worst Records. Next week I’ll be bringing you, courtesy of fellow bad music-lover Ross Hamilton, a whole raft of murderous Beatles-inspired monstrosities, but for today I would like to introduce you to one William Howard Arpaia, and his song-poem/vanity hybrid label Vandalia.

William Howard Arpaia has a long and distinguished career outside of music, first as a US naval officer and later practicing law for four decades in Michigan and in New York. But here at WWR we love him for his singularly unique musical output, and for the many, many songs he composed in spite of having had no more than eight music lessons in his life.

The Flying Flag Forever, written and recorded to mark America’s bicentennial in 1976, is just one of the 30 45s and five or more albums issued by Vandalia, all in all more than 100 songs all written by William Howard Arpaia, which were put out between 1974 and 1980. Not bad going for a man who admitted to composing his first song ‘purely as a lark’ on his 61st birthday in October 1969, but a mere drop in the proverbial ocean compared to the 2,500 or so he claimed to have composed by the time he issues his first album. Most (but not all) of the 45s contained a vocal track on the a-side and an instrumental (invariably a polka or a march) on the B-side: the Vandalia albums which are known to exist are split 50/50, with vocal tracks on side one and instrumentals on side two. Vandalia was named after the town in Michigan where William and his family resided; he had previously had compositions released by another song-poem outfit, Windy-City, before establishing his own company.

It’s unusual, but not unheard of (as in Listen Mr Hat, which has appeared on a couple of song-poem compilations, including the essential American Song-Poem Anthology) to find William performing his own lyrics. Often he would enlist the help of one of the better-known song-poem outfits to bring his vision to life – which is why you’ll more likely see 45s on Vandalia credited to Sonny Marcell (aka Sammy Marshall), Rod Rivers (aka Rod Rogers, aka Rodd Keith, aka Cleveland Becker…), Lance Hill, Damita and so on than William himself. In fact The Flying Flag Forever and Listen Mr Hat are the only known vocal performances by the composer.

It’s clear to me, listening to this, that William’s vocal performance was recorded at a later date and in a different ‘studio’ to the rather jolly background music. That, and his rather peculiar delivery, adds to the otherworldliness of the recording.


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