SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 45)

from wiki:-

“Is That All There Is?”, a song written by American songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during the 1960s, became a hit for American singer Peggy Lee and an award winner from her album of the same title in November 1969. The song was originally performed by Georgia Brown in May 1967 for a television special. It was first recorded by disc jockey Dan Daniel in March 1968, but this was an unauthorized recording that, while played on Daniels’ own radio show, went unissued at the songwriters’ request. The first authorized recording was by Leslie Uggams in August 1968. Then came the hit Peggy Lee version in August 1969, followed by Guy Lombardo in 1969 and Tony Bennett on 22 December 1969.

Peggy Lee’s version reached number 11 on the U.S. pop singles chart — becoming her first Top 40 pop hit since “Fever” eleven years earlier—and doing even better on the adult contemporary scene, topping that Billboard chart. It also reached number six in Canada. It won Lee the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and then later was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The lyrics of this song are written from the point of view of a person who is disillusioned with events in life that are supposedly unique experiences. The singer tells of witnessing her family’s house on fire when she was a little girl, seeing the circus, and falling in love for the first time. After each recital, she expresses her disappointment in the experience. She suggests that we “break out the booze and have a ball—if that’s all there is,” instead of worrying about life. She explains that she’ll never kill herself either because she knows that death will be a disappointment as well. The verses of the song are spoken, rather than sung. Only the refrain of the song is sung.

My personal introduction to this song came via a minimal, haunting cover, released in 1996 (but which I didn’t pick up until maybe three or four years later when the CD album was reduced in price in a sale):-

mp3: John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey – Is That All There Is?

I remember when I was a girl, our house caught on fire
And I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me in his arms
And raced through the burning building out on the pavement
And I stood there shivering
And watched the whole world go up in flames
And when it was all over I said to myself
Is that all there is to a fire?

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was twelve years old
My daddy took me to the circus, the greatest show on Earth
There were clowns, elephants, dancing bears
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads
And as I sat there watching
I had the feeling that something was missing
I don’t know what, but when it was over I said to myself
Is that all there is to the circus?

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And then I fell in love
With the most wonderful boy in the world
We’d take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes
We were so very much in love
And then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t
And when I didn’t I said to myself
Is that all there is to love?

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep…

I know what you must be saying to yourselves
If that’s the way she feels about it then why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no, not me, I’m not ready for that final disappointment
Cos I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I know what I’ll be saying to myself is that all there is.

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

It’s the tenth track out of twelve on Dance Hall At Louse Point, an album that confounded folk on its release, including your humble scribe. It was quite different from the previous year’s To Bring You My Love, the breakthrough album, in commercial terms, for PJ Harvey. Its sparse and blues-like arrangements, combined with an inconsistent LOUDquietLOUDquiet approach across the tracks, making it something of a difficult listen. Most fans shunned it on the back of some of the the reviews – I recall one magazine describing it as ‘avant-garde’ which was enough to put me off – although it does actually appear that many of the things written at the time were positive. PJ didn’t, however, do much in the way of promotion and so it was mostly sidebar reviews rather than splashes.

Interestingly, the next PJ Harvey album, Is This Desire? (1998) took a lot of inspiration from the work done on Dance Hall At Louse Point, but having got it all out of her system, there would be a return to the commercial stuff on Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea in 2000.

But that’s a posting for another day…

JC

 

6 thoughts on “SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 45)

  1. I mainly know this song from the discordant no wave/cabaret Cristina version from 1980 which gets creative with updated lyrics and is excellent because it swaggers along defiantly, in contrast to PJ’s tasteful but muted, woozy take.
    The song is possibly the blueprint for the entire Black Box Recorder schtick. Surprised they never covered it.

  2. I had no idea of this version until now. Of course, I remember the Peggy Lee hit version from my childhood, which was unlike no other song out there at the time. In 1985, it was memorably used in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant “After Hours” film, but the Cristina re-write is the one to take into the sunset. It positively thrills. So much so, that the writers slapped a cease and desist order on her unauthorized re-write! It wasn’t until recent years that I managed to hear it, in spite of holding Cristina in the highest esteem!

  3. I love Dance Hall At Louse Point – my favourite album by Polly Jean.
    The track was also used in the film Basquiat and is on the soundtrack album.
    Is That All There Is?

  4. Thanks folks for the heads up on the Cristina version.

    Totally new to me…..and it’s simply thrilling!!!!

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