Opening up your gate
1. Sanford Clark: “The Fool” Preview/Buy from iTunes
“The Fool” was one of the first songs Hazlewood ever produced, and it was certainly his first hit, but plenty of Hazlewood’s signature ideas are already there, fully formed. By the mid-50s, Hazlewood had already served in the military during the Korean War and worked for a time as a DJ, both during and after the war. Pretty soon after he started messing around with production, he wrote “The Fool” and hired Clark to sing it; the song started out as a regional hit in the southwest and eventually made its way into the Billboard top ten. “The Fool” is a rockabilly song, but it’s about as sad and reserved a rockabilly song as you can possibly imagine. The same chattering trebly guitar riff runs through the whole song on infinite repeat, but everything else comes drowned in waves of echo and reverb, a technique that Hazlewood would keep using for the next fifty years. Clark sounds like he’s singing underwater, and the simple humming bassline and clicking drums feel like pulsing fog. The fool of the title is Clark and, by extension, Hazlewood: “Drink to a fool, a crazy fool, who told his baby goodbye.” It’s a sad song, but it’s a sad song delivered with a sort of shrugging resignation, like Clark is watching all his tribulations from outside himself. It’s like he can feel all the pain that he’s going through but he also sees something kind of funny in it. And the production reinforces that sort of disconnect; it’s like Hazlewood is muffling the instruments’ screams with a pillow.
2. Duane Eddy: “Rebel-Rouser” Preview/Buy from iTunes
As weird as Hazlewood’s production might’ve been, “The Fool” was pretty much a straight-up pop song. “Rebel-Rouser,” by contrast, must’ve sounded like a transmission from an alien planet in 1958. It’s mostly an instrumental song; the only vocals are some gang-shout ba-da-bas buried in the mix. Instead, the focus is on Eddy’s gurgling baritone guitar, which somehow sounds more like a human voice than any of the actual human voices on the song. The title might imply anarchy, but “Rebel Rouser” is actually a really controlled composition: a simple riff that repeats itself in a few different variations over two and a half minutes, a dull throb rather than a ragged pummel. Even on iPod earbuds 49 years later, I can still feel the trembling bass on that guitar in my chest. “Rebel-Rouser” is a catchy song, but it’s still hard to believe it went top ten; it just sounds so weird. That’s the thing about Hazlewood, though: he might’ve eventually become an avant-garde outsider type, but he did his most important work as a part of the pop establishment, pushing its boundaries from within, the way quite a few producers would do later. In fact, some of the last half-century’s most visionary production ideas can be traced directly back to Hazlewood; Phil Spector used to visit him in the studio to pick up tips. Hazlewood’s relationship with Eddy was sometimes contentious, but the two of them kept working with each other intermittently for decades; Eddy even appeared on Hazlewood’s final album, and his guitar sounded as weird and evocative there as it did on his first collaborations with Hazlewood.
3. Dino, Desi and Billy: “I’m a Fool” Preview/Buy from iTunes
It wasn’t all stoned, depressive languor: “I’m a Fool” is a great fake-Beatles teenybopper raveup that Hazlewood produced in 1964. Dino, Desi, and Billy were a funny little prefab pop group; one member was Desi Arnaz’s son, and another was Dean Martin’s. And “I’m a Fool” is a lot busier and less distinctive than most of Hazlewood’s productions, but it’s a great example of his craftsmanship. The drums tumble all over each other, the guitar bubbles along excitably, and the three leads sing in the sort of tight harmony that was being used on pretty much every white-pop hit at the time. But the lyrics are Hazlewood’s usual self-deprecation; here, the narrator isn’t a fool because he told his baby goodbye; he’s a fool because he’s in love with a shitty girlfriend. The end result is sort of the same. I really love the anarchic guitar solo that doubles as the song’s third verse.
4. Dean Martin: “Houston” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Hazlewood might’ve been one of the great production geniuses of the 60s, but that doesn’t mean he was working with the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys or whoever. Instead, he did a lot of his best-known work with the previous generation’s musical icons, total establishment figures. Hazlewood was a funny guy, and it makes sense that he’d work with a born comedian like Martin, but that doesn’t make it any less weird to hear Martin’s sozzled hambone delivery over Hazlewood’s mythic cowboy swell. Hazlewood’s lyrics here are as epically self-deprecating as ever: “I got holes in both of my shoes / I’m a walking case of the blues / Saw a dollar yesterday / But the wind blew it away.” Martin treats all of those lyrics as punchlines, and maybe they’re punchlines to Hazlewood as well, but they’re something else besides. Either way, the screaming harmonica-solo here is not something you’d expect to find on a Dean Martin song.
5. Nancy Sinatra: “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This was the biggest hit that either Sinatra or Hazlewood ever had, and it’s an absolute pop masterpiece; I could listen to the horn-riff from the song’s outro on repeat for hours. Sinatra’s delivery is perfect: a saucy sneer every bit as world-weary as the craggy old-man baritone that Hazlewood was already using on his own solo records. And Hazlewood’s arrangement is an economical chug that flares to life every time a new detail emerges: the descending bassline that sounds like it’s making fun of you, the shrill little horn-stabs that pierce the reverie more violently than anything Sinatra does. The song was huge, of course, and it’s the main reason that people still cared about Hazlewood years later when he moved to Sweden to make amazing bizarro-country solo records.
6. Nancy and Frank Sinatra: “Somethin’ Stupid” Preview/Buy from iTunes
If it was weird hearing Martin over Hazlewood’s guitars, it’s even weirder hearing one of the iconic pop voices of the twentieth century. Hazlewood always had a sort of sleazy Serge Gainsbourg thing going for him, and this song plays toward that; it’s a sweet little love-song sung as a duet between a father and a daughter. It’s also the second number-one hit that Nancy Sinatra made with Hazlewood.
7. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: “Sand” Preview/Buy from iTunes
One of the really, really frustrating things about using the iTunes store to make a Lee Hazlewood tribute playlist is that most of Hazlewood’s solo albums aren’t available even though Smells Like Records reissued a gang of them pretty recently. (Steve Shelly, step your iTunes game up!) But Nancy & Lee, the first of three albums that Sinatra and Hazlewood made as duet partners, is there, and it’s a really weird piece of work. Parts of it are total goofy, dated novelty-pop; “Greenwich Village Folk-Song Salesman” could be Sonny and Cher (they pronounce Greenwhich as green-witch). But other parts of it are gorgeously laconic opium-den psychedelia. “Some Velvet Morning” is the album’s real iconic moment, and we’ll get to that. But “Sand” is the song I really love here: an stunningly gorgeous and completely opaque slab of blissed-out Americana. Hazlewood’s songs were basically cowboy songs, but by this point they had so many weird alien noises on them that they dovetailed nicely with the spaghetti-western soundtracks that Ennio Morricone was making around the same time. (Hazlewood also scored a few B-movies, and one of his Sinatra productions would basically become a spaghetti-western soundtrack decades later when Quentin Tarantino used “Bang Bang” on the opening credits of Kill Bill.) “Sand” has gluey sleigh-bells, ominous globs of reverb, thudding kick-drums, and a furious feedback-solo buried somewhere in there, and Hazlewood’s stomped-out growl contrasts beautifully with Sinatra’s icy vibrato.
8. Vanilla Fudge: “Some Velvet Morning” Preview/Buy from iTunes
“These Boots” is almost certainly the most-covered song that came out of Hazlewood’s long extended collaboration with Nancy Sinatra, and the sheer variety of artists who have recorded it is pretty staggering: Loretta Lynn! Megadeth! Operation Ivy! Jessica Simpson! But the really totemic Sinatra/Hazlewood collaboration has to be “Some Velvet Morning,” an elegantly stoned slice of nonsense that could mean nothing and could mean everything. Hazlewood’s greatest legacy is probably the unequaled sense of drugged-out float that found its way into even his fluffiest productions, and “Some Velvet Morning” might be the definitive example of that. If “These Boots” conjures a sort of feisty self-reliance, “Some Velvet Morning” reflects a elegant haze that has found its way into a whole lot of the drug-music that followed. Proto-metal headcases Vanilla Fudge’s seven-and-a-half-minute version is actually sort of terrible; it buries the melody under messy smears of guitar-fuzz and noodly organ and goes on way too long. But I’m including it here because the band recorded this version in 1969, just a year after Sinatra and Hazlewood released theirs; it’s as good an indication as any that “Some Velvet Morning” was pretty much an instant stoner classic.
9. Waylon Jennings: “Singer of Sad Songs” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Most of the Hazlewood eulogies I’ve read over the past couple of days loosely identify him as a country-music producer, which doesn’t strike me as being quite sufficient, though it’s not exactly wrong either. Hazlewood was a genre into itself, and his voice and production-style had a narcotically louche decadence to them that didn’t really have much to do with Nashville. But this song, which Hazlewood produced for Jennings while Jennings was still figuring out his outlaw-country identity, is pretty definitively country: honking harmonica, weepy slide-guitar, wailing gospel-choir backup singers. And Waylon’s voice had a barrel-chested swagger that was pretty far removed from Hazlewood’s depressive mutter. Still, the song still has Hazlewood’s brand of sly self-awareness. Waylon sings from the perspective of a professional sad-song singer, a guy who shows up whenever something bad happens and someone’s pain needs to be translated into music immediately. It’s a living.
10. Lee Hazlewood: “It’s Nothing to Me” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Hazlewood recorded Cake or Death, his final album, when he knew that he was dying of renal cancer, but the brand of sad resignation on that album isn’t much different than the brand of sad resignation that Hazlewood had been practicing for years. “It’s Nothing to Me” is a shrug of a song, and it reminds me of “The Fool.” Hazlewood’s character sees a girl at a bar, approaches her, and then gets killed by her jealous boyfriend: “Ah, well, that’s life.” It’s a haunting, graceful, pretty, and ultimately really funny song. Hazlewood finally died on Saturday. He saw it coming, and he didn’t seem to mind that much.