Seven Overshadowed & Undercelebrated Songs by Randy Newman


1. Randy Newman, “The World Isn’t Fair”
From Bad Love, 1999

Essential Randy. It starts with an opening line that alerts you immediately that we’re not in a usual song:
“When Karl Marx was a boy, he took a hard look around, he saw people were starving all over the place, while others were painting the town.” It then shifts to sing directly to Marx this lament of the ongoing injustice of this world, symbolized by the wealthy “froggish men” like himself married to beautiful young princesses.

2. Cilla Black, “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” by Randy Newman
Produced & Arranged by George Martin, 1965.
“I’ve Been Wrong Before” is one of his most famous songs he never recorded himself. It has been covered by many singers, starting with Cilla Black in 1966, in this record produced by George Martin, as well as Dusty Springfield and more recently by Elvis Costello. It’s a great example of Randy’s brilliant lyrical economy; he declares his romantic devotion, which he then negates, with comic brilliance, by using the title line that ends each verse. Perfectly rhymed each time, it’s funny and elegant, and also simple and complex, at the same time.

I see your face
And feel your warm embrace
You’re all that I adore
But baby, I’ve been wrong before
And feel your warm embrace
You’re all that I adore
But baby, I’ve been wrong before

3. Randy Newman, “Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father,”
from Little Criminals, 1977
“Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father,” from Little Criminals, 1977 is one of several songs on this album which has a long descriptive title, more like a painting’s title than that of a song. This entire album is one of his most powerful song cycles, and shows he’s not only one of the most brilliant lyricists of our time or any time, he’s also one of our greatest melodists. He’s a master at writing beautiful, heartrending, tuneful tunes. The music is so powerfully poignant and richly rendered that it tells the story of the song as much, if not more, than the words. It’s the reason so many great filmmakers sought out this songwriter known to be a lyrical genius to score their films with pure music. It’s also why a song like this can succeed so beautifully telling this story with so few words. It has only two short verses of short lines that outline the scene without any extraneaous details. It’s the beauty and power of the melody that imbues each line with the gravity of human emotion, and the sorrow of saying goodbye forever to a piece of yourself.

Here I am alone on the plain
Sun’s going down
It’s starting to rain
Papa, we’ll go sailing

When I first interviewed Randy back in 1988, I asked him about this powerful use of haunting melody. A man both humble and humorous, he thanked me for the acknowledgment of his melodic prowess and said, “Linda Ronstadt used to always say I give the best melodies to the strings.”

4. Harry Nilsson, “Snow”
by Randy Newman, 1969.
“Snow” was one of many songs Randy wrote in the days before he became a recording artist of his own songs and was writing songs for other artists to record. Many of these are songs he never recorded himself, such as this one, the lovely “Snow.” It was one of those songs we’d heard about for years though never actually heard. Until Nilsson’s version emerged. It was first recorded in 1966 by The Johnny Mann Singers, and in 1967 by Harper’s Bizarre. Harry Nilsson recorded it for inclusion on his beautiful album all of songs by Randy, Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970. But it was left off of the LP because of room. Years later it was added to the CD version.

5. Randy Newman, “Lucinda”
From 12 Songs, 1970.

“Lucinda,” from his second album, 12 Songs. A very dark though funny blues, “Lucinda” is second only to Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” in terms of laughing at death. On his eponymous debut album, Randy chose to ignore rock & roll to present his songs in complex, orchestral settings (which he said later was a great mistake.) On this, his second album, he he distinguished it from his debut by building it on rootsy blues and rock & roll. He invited great musicians such as Ry Cooder to add their soulful, real-time resonance to his music, as he has on his albums ever since.

6. Randy Newman, “Old Man”
from Sail Away, 1972

“Old Man,” from Sail Away, 1972, is somehow both beautiful and mean-spirited. It’s the song of a man talking to his father who is almost at death’s door. Instead of the sweetly sentimentally weepy song one might expect, promising a hopeful heaven run by a loving God, it is the inverse. Decades before Larry David became famous for his comedy of brutal candor, this narrator informs his dying dad that there is no God in heaven for him. “You told me not to believe that lie,” he says, throwing this cruelty back in his father’s face, and ends by saying, “Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry. Everybody dies.” It’s another essential Randy song, wedding this cold, callous lyric to a beautifully sad melody.

Even his string parts on this are distinctively different and great. On the chorus, he eludes the conventional sustained block chords built on the normal major scale to ascend instead by half-steps. It still adds the sumptuous warmth of strings, but with a creepy vibe that suggests something’s wrong here.

Asked if the narrator in the song was him, Randy said only in regard to not believing in God. “But I would never be that cold to a parent,” he said.

Randy Newman, “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do”
From Land of Dreams, 1988

Another one of those which resounds like a classic Randy Newman song, merging a strong melody with a lyric of unapologetic yearning for others to suffer as much as you have. It’s similar to the son to father cruelty of “Old Man,” but this one is from father to son. It opens with a proud declaration of his history and intentions, before getting to the heart of the matter, his twisted yet earnest hope to pass his pain on to his son.

It’s like a “We Are The World” for dysfunctional dads and their boys:

“Everybody cried the night I left
Well almost everybody did
My little boy just hung his head
And I put my arm put my arm around his little shoulder
And this is what I said:
“Sonny I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
Honest I do honest I do, honest I do”

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