16 April 2008

The Second Hand Record Store Dip Part 5 - Jimmy Little - Royal Telephone


Who: Jimmy Little
What: Royal Telephone
Where: The Bazaar, Chapel Street, Melbourne
Label: Festival
Year: 1963

Next up, it’s a find in a bazaar in Melbourne which will doubtless cause numerous Australians (if indeed any are reading) to scratch their heads with confusion. Jimmy Little, after all, is a national hero, having been named as a “Living National Treasure” over there in 2004, almost at the exact point my greasy paws came across this single, in fact. Certainly, he’s one of the country’s few famous Aboriginals.

The simple fact remains that he’s never had any mainstream success in America or Britain, however, despite some attempts to launch himself into international consciousness with appearances in films. His numerous attempts at country pop, reggae, and middle-of-the-road ballads have usually barely been granted a release (if at all) outside of his native country. This is something of a pity, as his career has taken some particularly unexpected paths, culminating in cover versions of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Go-Betweens songs by the nineties.

His biggest hit single by far, the cover of the obscure 1919 hymn “Royal Telephone” is still odd in its own particular conservative way. Musically there’s nothing especially challenging about this and it could almost have been released in the late fifties by Harry Belafonte, but lyrically it almost borders on Jimmy Webb territory. He makes the continual assertion “You can talk to Jesus on this Royal Telephone” throughout, adding “I can feel the current moving on the line”. Hmm. From this I can only deduce that he is singing about the universal power of prayer, the ability all religious folk have to access God on a spiritual telecommunications wavelength. I do like to imagine that he’s maybe singing joyfully about a very complicated telephone of the future, though, or an especially good ouijaboard. Or perhaps, like Andy Warhol, he simply believed he could communicate with God via any ordinary phone. It’s strangely much more fun to give this song alternative readings than it is to accept it for what it is. For instance, I have a slightly psychedelic reading of this disc which I doubt very much was ever intended. It’s so straight it’s peculiar.

If ever you’re in a major city in Australia, odds-on you’ll find a copy of this in a second hand store or charity shop somewhere. It was the sort of huge, middle-of-the-road number one hit thousands of people discarded once they threw their turntable out on to the pavement for “hard rubbish” day collection and upgraded to CDs. Over here, it’s extremely scarce, and almost unheard of.

Also, as an aside, his eerie, atmospheric version of the Go-Betweens “Cattle And Cane” quite possibly trumps the original, and is available on iTunes in the UK at least. Also, by recording Nick Cave songs, he was possibly eventually rather more on the side of Satan than God the Father - but that's another story.


Paperback Tourist said...

Thanks for that. I can't believe I'd never heard of him. I checked out a few other things by him and was struck by the parallels with late Johnny Cash. I'd be intrigued to know what the relationship was there. They even covered a lot of the same material!

23 Daves said...

So far as I know, Jimmy Little's relationship with Johnny Cash didn't stretch much beyond admiration - I don't think the pair ever met. Little is apparently a massive country music buff, so it's also perfectly possible that they stumbled upon similar songs at the same time.

Australia's music industry is absurd in that they seem to have a lot of homegrown stars who have never had success in any other territories. I think their geographical isolation from the rest of the western world may play a part. Also, numerous Aussie bands in the sixties were stung by the double-blow of failing to crack new territories when they went to live there and promote themselves, and also being forgotten about by their home audience by the time they returned. But I'm speculating here...