Nolvety music is often fun to listen to for a short time then it becomes old quickly. So when I first heard Tom Waits, on MTV one night I initially took his rough growl of a voice as just that. I would learn that Waits was no novelty.
His career went back to the early ’70s, where he was a poet set to music. The song I heard that night “In the Neighborhood” revealed a fascinating voice now set to a new vaudeville meets rock hybrid. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
The album Swordfishtrombones was something of a creative breakthrough for Waits. It was his first crack at producing his own material and introduced a new signature sound on a new label. It would be a sound he would be associated with for the rest of his career.
Waits blend of pre modern musical styles was fitting for a man whose stage persona was bigger than life. In the ’70s he drew on the a Beat poet style featuring the gritty exploits of working class Joes. His music was formally defined by string arrangements with piano set to poetry, a kind of rough Billy Joel if you will.
Those elements persisted, but were now joined by ragtime, jazz carnival and a touch of voodoo culture. Think of the HBO shows Carnivale or Deadwood and you ‘d get a pretty accurate image of the world that Tom Waits creates in his releases from Swordfishtrombones on.
Waits music was certainly out of balance with what was going on in rock during the early ’80s, but was just as experimental as anything coming out of Manchester or New York. While everyone was either looking toward a future with synthesizers or trying to recapture old glory, Waits was looking back even further to an era of steam-powered devices a world where music came from unplugged devices accordions, african drums, and marimba. He even used the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor in the recording of Swordfishtrombones.
The old world exotic nature of the arrangements extended to Waits subject material, with references to castaways, freaks and rejects (see album cover). It was a perfect setting for the ragtime circus atmosphere he created with a character called Frank who encountered adventures in this strange but vaguely familiar world.
In “Frank’s Wild Years” Waits background as a stand up poet comes out with a beatnik like delivery. Most of the songs were middle tempo like the bluesy “Gin Soaked Boy”, there was the occasional upbeat track like “Down, Down, Down” that sounds like stomping’ olde time church music. It certainly was counter cultural but without the typical in your face impact of punk rock.
Waits is by no means a novelty act, although very few artist making music today have his signature vocal style. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had vocal style and subject matter similar to Waits, but was considerably more humours in his voodoo seasoned approach. The two would cross path on nnumerous projects. Hawkins would even cover “Heartattack and Vine” the title song from the album released before Swordfishtrombone.
Swordfishtrombones launched the modern persona of Tom Waits. A persona that has been seen and heard of plenty of films and TV shows due to his distinctive style. Swordfishtrombones is just one of any number of albums in Tom Waits catalog with cult status. As the first one to launch his current persona, it may be a fan favorite. It certainly is mine.