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When Nashville took on Mad Men

Ray Stevens 3It’s pretty strange that the man best known for “Ahab the Arab”, “Bridget the Midget” and “Everything is Beautiful” should have written and recorded one of the most striking protest songs of the 1960s. That, at least, is how I’ve always thought of Ray Stevens’ “Mr Businessman”.

Released in 1968, it deploys a great pop structure — a melody and a chord sequence that descend at different rates, and a brilliant kitchen-sink arrangement — to mount a blazing attack on the amorality of corporate America. Listen to the lyric today, and Stevens could be writing about the world of Donald Trump: “Spending counterfeit incentive / Wasting precious time and health / Placing value on the worthless / Disregarding priceless wealth / You can wheel and deal the best of them / And steal it from the rest of them / You know the score / Their ethics are a bore…”

Not exactly your standard Nashville confection. If we go back and look at the song from the perspective of its own time, it’s clear that he’s attacking the Mad Men culture: “Eighty-six proof anaesthetic crutches prop you to the top / Where the smiles are all synthetic and the ulcers never stop…” He finishes with a lacerating payoff worthy of Dylan at his most vituperative: “No one more lonely than / This rich important man / Let’s have your autograph / Endorse your epitaph…”

The weird thing is that in 1968 Stevens looked exactly like the people he skewered in this song: ready for an afternoon on the country-club golf course. Did he mean the words, or was he just coming up with something that suited the market? A year later he released “The Minority”, a strange little song which comes down on the side of the policeman earning $130 a week for risking his life and the man who takes his children to Sunday School, pays his bills and is faithful to his wife. The silent minority, in  fact: “But the majority rules / While a stampede of fools / Marches over them / Singing a pious hymn.”

It’s included in a new Ace Records anthology, called Face the Music, of the singles Stevens released on the Monument label between 1965 and 1970, also including “Mr Businessman” (and “Freddie Feelgood and his Funky Little Five Piece Band”, “Mary My Secretary” and the first recorded version of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”). The compiler, Tony Rounce, mentions in his sleeve notes that the singer, still active in the recording and television studios at 77 years of age, now supports the Tea Party, the far-right faction of the bunch that seems ready to nominate Trump for leader of the free world.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. o yes, it’s looking more every minute like the dondon will be
    President of the then very Unfortunate States of Amerkuh.

    March 7, 2016
  2. crocodilechuck #

    “The weird thing is that in 1968 Stevens looked exactly like the people he skewered in this song: ready for an afternoon on the country-club golf course”

    Nashville was so hide bound in the late ’60’s, even its consummate corporate man couldn’t stand it.

    Why Johnny Cash refused to live in it [his house was in Hendersonville].

    March 7, 2016
  3. Phil Shaw #

    I remember that there was a British cover version of Ray Stevens’ “Ahab the Arab” ,,, by Jimmy Saville, backed, if I’m not mistaken, by The Tremeloes. Like the records of Gary Glitter and Jonathan King, I don’t suppose we’ll ever hear it in public again. Thank goodness.

    March 7, 2016
  4. Unfortunately still making records:

    March 7, 2016
  5. Tom King #

    Hey, Richard, what’s this “free world” jazz? In cold war days we always thought of the “free world” as being the bits not controlled by either the Soviet Union, China, or the United States of America.

    March 7, 2016
    • It was a joke! I should have put it in inverted commas…

      March 8, 2016
      • Tom King #

        Ah! I feel better now but am aware of the old saying “he who laughs last has had to have the joke explained to him.”

        March 8, 2016
  6. Rick Hanley #

    In fairness, I would add that the sentiments of “Everything is Beautiful” are unlikely to be endorsed by the Tea Party crowd either. Continuing the theme of bizarre covers, I once heard a version on the radio in which the singer came out with:
    “We shouldn’t care about the colour of his hair or the length of his skin…”
    I don’t suppose anyone knows who the hapless singer was?

    March 8, 2016
  7. Always loved “Mr. Businessman” . It was the first record I ever heard by Stevens and, not realizing it was the exception to the rule as far as his output was concerned, have waited ever since for him to make anything halfway decent. It continues to be a long wait. Always placed it in my memory along with another turntable hit of that year Robert John’s “If You Don’t Want my Love” and at least he made one other decent record…

    March 8, 2016
  8. Peter Brown #

    Never heard it before. Just listened. Fantastic. I agree with every word. The Occupy movement should adopt it.

    March 8, 2016
  9. I’m a huge fan of Ray Stevens. I suppose some are only familiar with a couple of his songs and that’s it and apparently are dismissive of everything else. Unlike a previous comment earlier I’m GLAD that Ray’s still active and recording music.

    The video being linked to by Tim Millin, bemoaning Ray’s longevity in the music industry, is a link to a song called “Taylor Swift is Stalking Me”, is from Ray’s latest CD. Country humor, novelty songs, and political fare are his main targets. Just because his political points of view have changed in the last 50+ years it doesn’t make his material any less potent. Singing the praises of the political right nowadays is nothing different than singing the praises of the political left in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

    Basically it comes down to which side of the political fence one happens to be on. If you’re a liberal Democrat Ray’s “become a far right kook” and if you’re a conservative Republican Ray’s “changed his views as he’s gotten older”.

    March 20, 2016
  10. jmak2006 #

    I’m a huge fan of Ray Stevens. Unlike a previous comment I’m GLAD that Ray Stevens is still active, touring, and making records. He also emcees a television series called “Ray Stevens’ Nashville”. (Each Saturday night at 8:30pm on RFD-TV).

    The comment bemoaning Ray’s longevity (posted by Tim Millin) features a link to “Taylor Swift is Stalking Me”. That’s a song on Ray’s current CD.

    Another video single release on YouTube from his current CD is “You Didn’t Build That”.

    As a fan of Ray I love all that he does…some perhaps only know of him for a couple of songs or maybe only like a couple of his songs and more or less dismiss everything else he’s ever recorded but I’m more appreciative of his songs than some people.

    The thing that I think gets lost on so many people in the blogosphere is that Ray’s changed his points of view. People change. Experiences that people have shape their opinions. As people get older they lose a lot of their anti-authoritarian, rebellious nature. It’s been almost 50 years since the release of “Mr. Businessman” in 1968, for example.

    In interviews Ray’s often remarked that his records that carried a politically left message in the late ’60s and early ’70s are a reflection of his mood and his thoughts at that time in his life. Shifting nearly 50 years later his mood and outlook has changed. Just because the political nature of some of his songs are tied to the political right doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less potent or lack vigor.

    Singing the praises of the Tea Party, for example, is no different than a younger Ray Stevens singing the praises of an opposite point of view. It basically comes down to which side of the political fence somebody happens to be sitting on. Liberal Democrats that hear Ray sing the praises of conservative politics accuse him of “becoming a far-right kook” whereas Conservative Republicans that hear earlier songs from Ray that sound as if they’re official anthems for George McGovern suggest that he’s “matured as he’s gotten older”.

    I, on the other hand, have no political axe to grind…I love his left leaning and right leaning political songs. I love the comedy songs. I love the serious songs. I love his gospel songs. I’m a huge Ray Stevens fan! I think I started this long essay saying that very thing!?!

    March 20, 2016

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